From the start, the razing of Tarok Kolache was sold to us as a last ditch effort, something that had to be done in only one way possible. In short, an Army unit assigned to clear an area of the Arghandab lost a lot of soldiers, found a lot of IEDs in a village, and decided the only way to deal with it was to burn down the village and rebuild it later.
There were many problems I saw with this idea (catalogued here, here, here, here, here, and here). Summarized very briefly, they amount to what seemed to be a decision based on an unreasonably short time horizon (e.g. “clear this area by this date”), a lack of consideration for the consequences of planning on this time horizon (e.g. handing over responsibility for lands and reconstruction to an outsider serving as district administrator), an unrealization of the dependencies such decisions would create (e.g. promising to rebuild orchards that will take five-plus years to recover to full economic production), and a general callousness of the situation in general (e.g. Paula Broadwell’s demand that Afghans express gratitude, equivalent to knocking a drink out of someone’s hand at a bar, then demanding they thank you when you offer to buy them a replacement, only worse).
To put it charitably, the story of Tarok Kolache did not really improve with more retellings. The Lieutenant Colonel responsible for the situation had to walk back initial reports of what happened, trying to make it appear less haphazard and calloused, even as reporters who weren’t isolated in the PAO spin-machine reported deep resentment and anger that, nearly five months on, they were still living in tents and unable to make money off their own land. Now, Carlotta Gall has filed a curiously-titled dispatch from this same area, discussing the difficulties of promising to rebuild areas we seem intent on destroying. . And in it, there is a curious aside:
Some of the damage has been extensive, such as in the village of Taroko Kalacha, in Arghandab district, which was so heavily mined by the Taliban that American forces resorted to aerial bombardment and leveled the whole village of 36 homes. The guidelines reissued by the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, General David H. Petraeus, permitted such a step, one NATO official said.
The neighboring village of Khosrow fared better. About 10 compounds and orchards were damaged, but after villagers saw the destruction of Taroko Kalacha, they hired a former mujahedeen fighter to defuse the Taliban mines and so saved their houses from destruction, said one of the village elders, Hajji Abdul Qayum.
This matches with other accounts of villagers reporting that American troops had threatened their villages with destruction if they did not assist in clearing mines—something that is a horror, and is not acceptable no matter the circumstances. What I find so remarkable about this aside—and really, Gall’s reporting of the deep resentment these Afghans understandably feel at the wanton destruction of their homes and livelihoods merits close reading—is that the destruction of Tarok Kolache does not, in fact, seem to be necessary. That is, the Army officers involved in the decision to burn it to the ground—and their hapless PR agents assuming the guise of journalism to promote on it—seem to have pretty obviously oversold the actual difficulty in clearing the settlement of explosives.
As one case in point, here is a PR story of a unit of British counter-IED troops working on a similarly-mined village in Helmand:
As the insurgents suffered repeated losses at the hands of the British and Afghan forces, they retaliated by taking retribution on the local population, forcing people from their homes and laying IEDs in places where local civilians would be likely to trigger them, such as in the alleyways leading into compounds…
Ambitious plans were rapidly drawn up to clear the village of IEDs and then secure it until local residents had returned to their homes. An exhaustive process of consultation determined that dozens of families, scattered across central Helmand, were prepared to return home to Char Coucha if the bombs were cleared.
Despite high demand for counter-IED specialists across Helmand, a clearance force of 80 was deployed to Char Coucha to undertake the risky first stage of the operation – a painstaking fingertip search of an entire village and all its complex terrain, including partially-destroyed compounds with overgrown vegetation up to 6ft high.
Within just eight days the IED clearance was complete with nine IEDs defused, nine ordnance caches found and removed, and 75 compounds plus miles of tracks and alleyways searched and cleared.
This shows that mine-clearing booby-trapped settlements is expensive and time consuming, and dangerous—but that it actually generates substantial goodwill from the locals who were forced out by the fighting. It is, in other words, how you demonstrate good faith, good intentions, and a desire to delegitimize the Taliban (as opposed to merely destroying whomever you can identify). And you can see the process the Brits went through—evaluation, consultation, study, survey, and only then decision point and action—which is not at all in evidence with Tarok Kolache.
Now, it is entirely possible that Tarok Kolache was so heavily mined that even the British effort—which was a substantial diversion of resources—was not practical. But that doesn’t mean Tarok Kolache had to be burned to the ground. It could easily be isolated, quarantined, and locals could then arrange for “former mujahideen” fighters to clear it out at their own pace, as with Khosrow. Indeed in all of this I’ve still not seen a reason why Tarok Kolache had to be cleared right now, at once, with no options beyond dropping bombs on it, even as the officers involved insisted that was the case (at first to “preserve momentum,” and only later, after the outcry, to save U.S. lives).
It is difficult to look at Tarok Kolache in a comparative context and not conclude that destroying it was not only not necessary, but actively counterproductive. And seeing how the military then tried to spin it, and in some ways lie about it, is just insulting—most importantly to the people of Tarok Kolache, but also to the public back at home, trying to make sense of a nonsensical war.