The Many Loose Ends of Tarok Kolache

by Joshua Foust on 2/1/2011 · 7 comments

Spencer Ackerman has a monster story out today, highlighting LTC Flynn’s version of what happened at Tarok Kolache. I’m not going to do anything more than mention the current version of events is not at all related to the first few times he and Paula told this story. What I’m going to do instead is highlight how this highlights major problems with U.S. operations I’ve been highlighting in a general way, using many other examples (see my previous post for how this has played out, to some degree, in Ghazni). It also highlights the incredibly short time horizon for planning, which was the topic of my last article for The Atlantic.

For example, let’s think about the long term consequences of leveling this and two other small settlements. The pomegranates they planted for the new villages they’re building won’t mature for at least five years. Until then this village has no income and no means to generate more (except through services—working in a nearby town for wages—or maybe drugs). USAID can try to make up the difference with cash-for-work programs or something, but because of our decision to destroy this area we have obligated ourselves to support Tarok Kolache at least through 2016. We are scheduled to end our major, nation-building presence in 2014. Will we ignore that to continue stationing troops in and providing funds to this small town for two years past that date? Or will we simply get up and leave, and assume or hope that they can keep things going on their own? This kind of decision-making is way above LTC Flynn’s pay grade, and mine as well. It is even above General Petraeus’, unless he plans on remaining COMISAF well past his two-year tenure. This is a decision that will be made at least two COMISAF’s from now, thanks to a desire to clear a tiny cluster of houses of IEDs right now.

As another example, let’s think about what it means for the U.S. to reorganize the social power relationships in this area. The soldiers are giving the local sub-governor a pot of money and the power to issue now-official land deeds. There is no way in hell people will be compensated appropriately for what they lost (which is required under Article 40 of the Afghan constitution). There will be winners and losers, and the U.S. is funding the picking of winners and losers—a dangerous situation, and one I frankly think is impossible to solve without massive corruption. This malik they’re working through has an agenda, but no one seems to be asking what it is. We do know he is happy to be in charge, to have the backing of the American Army, and, just as importantly, American money. These new arrangements are many things. They might even be good things. But we don’t know what they really are, and it bothers me to no end that no one there seems to have asked what they might be.

Flynn is home at Fort Campbell on R&R before finishing up his tour. He says he can already take “a degree of satisfaction” in rereading Grau and comparing his actions to the Russians.

“We’re not there to terrorize the population,” he says. “The people talk about the Russians bombing their villages and say the Russians never did anything for us. They say, ‘That’s the difference between you and the Russians.”

There is so much about this that summarizes how America is losing the war. In 2011, we don’t question why Afghans say nice things to the men with guns who just destroyed their village and threw around millions of dollars afterward. It’s just gullible. In 2011, we think it’s so intuitively obvious that we have good intentions that there’s no spark, no hint even, that our actions or intentions could be misinterpreted. It’s years past time people stop assuming this is the case, but there it is.

None of this is particularly LTC Flynn’s fault. He made the choices he did to best protect his men, and, frankly, he’ll never have to deal with the years of consequences that will result. In the realm of the military, he did everything right, including seeking local confirmation of where to hand out reconstruction money. But the realm of the military is wrong—it is structured wrong, and it provides the wrong incentives. So long as we continue to make plans in Afghanistan without an eye toward an end state (or even a sustainable five-year plan), this sort of thing will happen routinely. There is almost universal agreement in the auditing agencies—the GAO, committees in both houses of Congress, and most recently SIGAR—that we are terrible at following through on projects we begin in response to destruction. When that happens, we get blamed for it, because then it’s no longer the Taliban screwing things up, but us. We can do better, but we don’t, whether by choice or by institution is for you to decide. But what we should not do is celebrate what is happening. Even when good intentions try to make the best of it, that’s still not good enough.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dishonesty? February 1, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Interest thing,

In the Arghandab and elsewhere, the Top Guns measure progress in their area with a few salient and telling indicators, among them: the frequency and density of farmers returning to their fields, the increasing number of weapons caches exposed by villagers, and the number of Afghans applying for cash-for-work programs, the tips given to ISAF and ANA security regarding Taliban activity.Between 600 and 800 villagers now show up each week on the west side of the Arghandab to receive cash-for-work to improve their communities.

January 2010
We brought US and Canadian civilian partners into the district so that they could begin development and bring a better future for the people of Arghandab.As of January 11th, there have been 3,201 local Arghandab residents hired through the Afghanistan Voucher for Increased Production of Agriculture Plus (AVIPA Plus) Program.

And ALP&Special Forces,newsflash 2007,2933,249501,00.html

Joshua Foust February 1, 2011 at 3:42 pm

Amazing to ponder, that Afghans love getting handouts from wealthy foreigners without having to show much for it.

Those numbers are damning, though. Just like the numbers of IEDs turned in (going down), numbers of civilians killed (going up), and so on. Every metric we have is getting worse.

Dishonesty? February 1, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Khosrow Sofla,
Flynn says that never happened: Instead, he told them that if residents couldn’t tell him where exactly the bombs were, he would have no way of disposing of them without blowing up the buildings. Khosrow Sofla’s malek registered the only concern, Flynn says: He wanted the soldiers to use a bulldozer to get rid of the bombs, so the pomegranate trees wouldn’t be harmed.

But page21,

In late October, the challenge of residual IED s was severe enough that as villagers began to return to towns like Khosrawe, the commander of the 1-320, LTLTC David Flynn, gave locals an ultimatum to reveal IEDIEDIED locations or to have much of Khosrawe bulldozed.142 The villagers complied, and by the date of the ultimatum, large holes appeared around Khosrawe where villagers had dug out IED s.143

Notes 143 Author’s interview with LTLTC David Flynn, October 28, 2010

he probably forgot,

Joshua Foust February 1, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Damn. You have a lot more patience than I do for digging through this.

Insurecto de la Cruz February 2, 2011 at 2:55 am


Can you comment on “Raymond Davies” in Pakistan. It seems like they’ve captured themselves a live Predator drone trying to get away after the dirty deed was done but taken down by the people.

aboulian February 2, 2011 at 6:11 am

Intentions don’t matter.

carl February 4, 2011 at 12:04 am


I find your observations to be very valuable and agree with most everything you say regarding this matter. I don’t agree on the narrow question of demolishing Tarok Kolache so I am going to ask you a question and intentionally put you on the spot. If this question has been asked before please point me to your answer.

Knowing all that has been learned about this, if you had been in LTC Flynn’s shoes, what would you have done?

I am not trying to be a smart-aleck. I want to know.

Thank you.

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