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.