Paula Broadwell’s Dishonest Portrayal of Tarok Kolache

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by Joshua Foust on 2/19/2012 · 10 comments

Many readers will recall a writer named Paula Broadwell. Broadwell was responsible for a shocking act of propaganda about the razing of the village of Tarok Kolache, in which she wrote on Tom Ricks’s blog of a U.S. Army unit bombing a village to the ground then mocked upset villagers for insufficiently appreciating the Army’s offer to rebuild it afterward. She quickly walked back her writing on the incident, and the Army battalion commander responsible got in his own jabs as well.

Needless to say, the incident was horrible for a number of reasons, including how many of Broadwell’s arguments about the village later proved to be absolutely false or misleading. Broadwell wrote this propaganda while researching her book-length hagiography of General David Petraeus, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that she mentions this incident in an effort to paint him in the most favorable light possible.

Paula mentions Tarok Kolache in a long narrative about efforts to “clear” the South of Afghanistan. Aside from the very unsettling fact that her book’s narrative of the campaign differs sharply from her posts about it at Tom Ricks’ blog (in the book I couldn’t find any references to “Mohammad,” the Afghan villager Broadwell accused of displaying “a fit of theatrics” when he was angry that his village was destroyed), Broadwell mischaracterizes my own objections to and analysis of this incident—and even more bizarrely, despite being in occasional email contact with me in the months since (we’re on the same listserv and have corresponded), Paula presented followup comments from LTC Michael Flynn but never sought my comment on the matter.

To wit, on page 162 Broadwell mentions my criticism of the razing:

The Afghan report claiming $100 million in property damage also set off a brief eruption in the blogosphere. Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and a PBS columnist who previously worked in the intelligence community, revisited Flynn’s decision in October to level Tarok Kolache in a post called “The Unforgivable Horror of Village Razing.” He cited the inaccurate Daily Mail story quoting Flynn telling villagers in Khosrow Sofla that if they didn’t tell him where IEDs had been buried, he would wipe the village off the face of the earth. He argued that bombing villages in in Kandahar Province as a means of ridding them of IEDs and homemade explosives violated Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. Foust also questioned whether Flynn was circumventing oversight by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior by independently choosing members of the Afghan Local Police detachment in Charqolba Olya. He wondered whether Flynn and other U.S. commanders should have involved Afghan colonel Abdul Raziq in the clearing of Khosrow Sofla and other villages in early October.

There’s a bit more there but I’m limiting this to her portrayal of what I said. For starters, I never once argued that Flynn violated Article 33 of the Geneva Convention — I wondered at what point a policy of razing villages would violate Article 33. It is an important semantic distinction, as Broadwell’s version claims that I accused Flynn of committing a war crime. I never did such a thing.

Moving on, Broadwell declines, for reasons I don’t understand, to note that I originally wrote that first post not because of a Daily Mail article but because of what Broadwell herself had written. It was Broadwell’s boosterism of the razing policies, and not the Daily Mail’s reporting, which had first sparked my interest and then my ire. Considering the conflagration that followed, in which she participated, both on Ricks’ blog and on her own Facebook page, Broadwell cannot reasonably claim to be ignorant of what, exactly, I was responding to (especially when we consider that most of what she recounts in that paragraph is not actually in the Daily Mail story).

Further, the debate over Tarok Kolache became a series of competing posts both here and at Tom Ricks’ blog, and when actual reporters covered the story they were neither as complimentary as Broadwell nor as dismissive of local Afghans’ concerns.

Broadwell cannot claim to be ignorant of followup posts I wrote about Tarok Kolache, since in the original post there is no mention, not even in the comments, of the Afghan Local Police. That came in a succeeding post, where—once again—my concerns about the policy to build up the ALP come not from that single Daily Mail story, as Broadwell contends, but from Broadwell’s own writing. She is, once again, misconstruing the nature of the disagreement, and neglecting to mention her own role in pushing a version of events her book implicitly admits was just not accurate (at least judging by how much her version of events has evolved in the last year).

Broadwell is also leaving out huge pieces of analysis of how bad an idea this village razing was (you can see those summarized here), but I want to end this with one very important point: no matter what Broadwell writes about the necessity of dropping twenty-five tons of explosives on a collection of mud huts, no matter how often she quotes LTC Flynn denying he ever threatened villagers with the destruction of their homes if they didn’t try to remove IEDs, there are multiple examples from multiple media outlets of similar circumstances that dispute Broadwell’s account.

For example, Carlotta Gall reported on Khosrow Sofla:

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.

So there’s a village seeing the devastation of a nearby town, choosing to hire someone to clear it without bombing it smithereens. In nearby Helmand, too, the British Marines showed that such devastation was just not necessary:

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.

There is ample evidence, in other words, both that Flynn did in fact issue some sort of ultimatum to the villagers of the Arghandab, and that in other areas similarly booby-trapped villages were cleared without dropping 25 tons of explosives on them. This is important as one thinks about why Broadwell would twist the reality of Tarok Kolache into such an unrecognizable mess. Knowing, for example, that multiple Afghans told reporters that Flynn had threatened their villages with destruction is difficult to square with Broadwell’s insistences that Flynn did no such thing, unless we assume the motive that she is deliberately whitewashing the reality of the war to make the subject of her book, David Petraeus (and by extension his subordinates who carried out his orders), look better than he deserves. That an ISAF Major General went so far as to tell the AfPak Channel that this was part of a deliberate policy to “allows the district governor to connect with the population by leading the process of compensating the property owner for the rebuilding costs” highlights further just how dishonestly Broadwell is portraying events.

So here’s a bigger question: when the one tiny bit of Broadwell’s story that I’m aware of is riddled with such half-truths, spin, and outright deception about what really happened, how can I possibly trust her and her co-author to tell the rest of David Petraeus’ career (and his vaunted leadership skills) honestly? She has demonstrated a decided lack of honesty in portraying what can only be called a minor sidenote in the war; on what basis can any of us trust that the bigger arguments she makes are even mostly honest?

When I contacted Broadwell, her response was cheery and non-committal. “I thought we portrayed all sides but will certainly go back and look! I don’t think anything was portrayed dishonestly at all and I am very sorry if it came across that way to you. I strive very hard to present all sides. What was written is from the blogs and can be verified.”

Indeed it can.

And no, I did not buy her book to research this. I looked through it at a Barnes & Noble, taking pictures of the relevant pages on my cellphone. I find her marketing scheme of donating some of her proceeds to the Wounded Warrior Project completely classless. Since I didn’t want to punish the WWP by not buying her book, I instead donated $100 to the project as an apology. And that’s way more than they would have gotten with a single extra book sale anyway.

IMAGE: Paula recently appeared on the Daily Show With John Stewart to promote her book. She challenged him to a pushup contest to donate money to Wounded Warriors.

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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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Andrew Gaboury February 20, 2012 at 2:09 pm

It’s fine to have issues with the content of someone’s research but the holier than thou attitude is a bit much. She’s giving to a very deserving charity and you somehow she this as fitting some nasty narrative that you are spinning. Be merciless with ideas but be humane to people. Get off the soapbox; this was easily the snarkiest thing I’ve read in a while. The delivery is destroying any credibility you may possess.

Joshua Foust February 20, 2012 at 4:27 pm

Holier than thou? Please. Donating to a charity does not give one an excuse for pedantry, spin, or mindless war boosterism. That’s why I also donated to that charity — I don’t hold them responsible for Broadwell’s poor research skills.

Steve February 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Mr. Foust,
It’s interesting that you are critical of Broadwell’s poor research skills. I didn’t have to look to far to find a pretty big gap in your research. You didn’t even get the charity that she’s donating to correct. It’s not Wounded the Warrior Project. It’s Team Red, White and Blue. Here is the link if you’d like to donate:

So here is the bigger question: if you didn’t even take 5 mintues to research the charity, how can we trust your other research?

Joshua Foust February 27, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Indeed you can’t! And I don’t ask you to. But before you go on thinking you can or should ape Tom Ricks’ blog by focusing on a trivial issue on this topic, I’d suggest you actually read the other 1500 words of this post and tell me you think I presented this unfairly. Unlike Paula, I’m at least trying to be as open about my sourcing, sources, and conclusions as I can be — even if I make a mistake and get called out on it.

Or you can complain I donated to the wrong wounded veterans’ charity and go back to your bosses at Accenture feeling comfortable at how clever you are.

Your choice!

Steve February 27, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Now who’s trying to be clever. 🙂

Joshua Foust February 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Quite! Anyway, the point stands about whose research you choose to accept as more transparent and reliable.

It’s okay — I’m not holding my breath 🙂

Kelley February 23, 2012 at 12:34 pm

Holier than thou? Please. You obviously hadn’t seen her on The Daily Show. Call me cynical, but the charity front got her primetime real estate on the most popular late night television show to hawk her book/hagiography, and furthermore, prevented Stewart from grilling her on her subject, Gen. David Petraeus. Not one tough or pointed question was issued about a man who rode in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan leaving nothing but carnage and disappointment, not to mention the broken legacy of COIN, behind him. She commandeered the interview, and then further emasculated her host by besting him at push ups in the name of ‘charity.’ She certainly knew what she was doing, and it worked. God forbid Joshua calls it for what it is.

Don Bacon February 21, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Ah, Paula Broadwell, West Point graduate, US Army reserve Major, Master of Arts, Master of Public Administration, long-time PhD student at King’s College London.
Taking her on, Joshua Foust’s reputation (to me) just rose yet another notch.
from the College:
“Paula is conducting a study in military innovation. Her work challenges existing theories which emphasize top-down transformations by examining the roles of bottom-up catalytsts and mid-level military mavericks in galvanizing institutional innovation, particularly in unconventional warfare and counterinsurgency operations.

“Her research examines the role of one individual who often receives credit for the U.S. defense innovation in the “new counterinsurgency era,” General David Petraeus. By exploring Petraeus’s “intellectual biography,” her research illustrates the origins of his beliefs in population-centric counterinsurgency warfare and American grand strategy.”

And we thought COIN was dead. Or Paula hasn’t heard about Libya and Syria where supporting insurgency is the new American grand strategy.

TJM February 23, 2012 at 11:53 am

I’m sick of of seeing celebrities trying to do pushups and even more sick of seeing Army Officers doing them incorrectly.

Paul February 28, 2012 at 9:27 am

Why is donating to wounded vets classless?

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