The Many Lies of Tarok Kolache

by Joshua Foust on 3/13/2011 · 5 comments

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.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. 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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{ 5 comments }

carl March 14, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Joshua:

That was a very good, well argued post. I was one who defended the decision made by the military, but this post makes me wonder. It saddens me that one of the underlying factors that causes your current argument to make me wonder, it the habit of our official military spokesmen to lie. “Why can’t they see the value of telling the truth?” I says to myself, “Why can’t they.”

Citizen Sparta March 18, 2011 at 8:59 pm

My son served in this area with the 2-508 PIR before the 1-320 FA relived them and I can tell you the entire are should have been leveled months sooner. The ARV was/is infested with Taliban and both units endured heavy KIA/WIA as a result.

Numerous times they caught people red handed with IED materials only to be released by the local authorities. They flat out lie about to our soldiers’ faces when confronted. There are not many “innocents” in that area. No sir, I salute the 1-320 BC…I wish the BC of the 2-508 had shown the same resolve.

This is where my son received his purple heart. Hit twice by IEDs. I make no apologies for saying flatten the area if we are going to keep our soldiers there. That’s war.

That being said, I don’t think we should be there. We cannot change a culture that does not want to be changed. It is not worth one more soldier’s life let alone the monetary cost. Bring our soldiers home, let the Afghan’s help themselves.

CS

Citizen Sparta March 18, 2011 at 10:42 pm

I think this statement really sums it up and perhaps shows the value of the action carried out

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.

paratrooper March 21, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I have operated in Turak Kalache for a period of over 12 months. As well as surrounding villages such as Khosrow Sofla, Don Kalache, Babur, and Tabin. Now, until you’ve been there you have absolutely no idea what the heck your talking about. Even Spec Ops elements with agree that this is probably the most sophisticated IED cell they have ever seen. Take it from me. 10 out of every 10 military age males is an enemy combatant. They lived 200 meters outside our base. They recieve reinforcements from Jelewar as well as supplies. Because of the thick jungle like vegitation that surrounds the CF outposts you cant identify the IED belt that surrounds you. The Taliban surround CF outposts in 4-5 man groups and wait for CF to step on IEDs. once they hit one they surround you on all sides. PKM, AK-47, and RPG fire make it impossible to manuever. When you try to Manuever…BOOM! just lost another one. This is an everyday occurence. No one lied about Turok. No one is making this us. The ARV is not a COIN fight, and it wont be until we level every village in the immediate area!

paratrooper March 23, 2011 at 9:53 am

nothing else to say joshua…your post is major BS!

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