I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around what this whole Tarok Kolache thing means. After catching up on sleep this weekend, and lowering my blood pressure a bit, some things became clearer. For one, and this is my mistake for not emphasizing this enough, I do not blame LTC Flynn for this. I don’t think he or his men are in any way malicious or bloodthirsty, and I should have done a better job of stating that up front.
However, that doesn’t mean razing Tarok Kolache was a good decision. Not to say it was an easy one—I am not in a position to judge whether losing men to clear a mined village, or hoping to mitigate the risks of leaving it alone for a while are better choices—but the way this was handled will have serious long-term consequences. That is what I was reacting against: the inability (or, as I encountered elsewhere in Afghanistan as a tactical cultural adviser for the Army, a refusal) to identify and manage the medium- and long-term consequences of disruptive decisions.
After further thought, I realized that what Tarok Kolache represents is a symptom of how screwed up and backward our strategy, not our tactics or officers, are. We don’t have an overall strategy—”preventing al Qaeda from returning” is not, in fact, even a preferable outcome masquerading as a strategy—and that causes all decisions to focus on the tactical and operational levels. But a lack of a strategy seems to constrain those tactical decisions into artificial time frames, often the length of a deployment but sometimes in reaction to policy reviews or “drop dead dates” like the now-bogus July 2011 date. When I was with HTS, I lost track of how many clear-eyed Colonels would arrive in-theater and announce their intentions (or, more properly, their orders) to “clear the AO” in the next six-to-nine months. This is not their fault. They are given these directives, and these expectations, from above. And it is there that I should have focused the anger and frustration. Not at the operational level.
I try to explain this further in an article for The Atlantic:
The pressure to achieve “progress” on an artificially short time frame has guided the U.S. military to make regrettable choices across much of Afghanistan. The destruction and reconstruction of Tarok Kolache is only one example, if an especially sharp one. That pressure comes in part from the same political forces that led to the July 2011 drawdown date, and now the 2014 one. It also comes from officers’ desire to show progress over a year-long tour of duty. You can hardly blame individual officers and politicians for the high-pressure environment driving their decision-making. In fact, some of these pressures, especially the desire to exceed expectations and accomplish great things, can be very beneficial. But each affects command decisions in unexpected ways, and when combined often undermine the ultimate strategic goals of the war.
If I had the space to write a longer article, or additional articles, I could catalog probably a half-dozen cases, in different parts of the country, where the exact same situation artificially and severely constrained the tactical choices a commander had available to him, and led to decisions being made that worked at odds to any sort of long-term success. A lot, but not all, involve the rush to hire local militias to give the appearance of Afghan buy-in; a lot, but not all, involve throwing incomprehensible amounts of money at poor, rural communities and declaring the villagers’ greedy reaction “progress.” But all represent the fundamental rot at the core of the Afghan mission: we have no idea what we’re working toward, so we end up working toward nothing.
I just read Paula’s latest, still full of the starry-eyed naivete we’ve been complaining about this whole time, along with the now-standard digs at anyone living or working in DC being incapable of understanding the war… on a blog written from an office in DC. Unless substantially new information comes out, like maybe Paula giving not just the soldiers but also the Afghans names and agency in their own affairs, I’m done writing about this.