February 21, 2011

Disputed Afghan Casualties Expose Petraeus's Counterinsurgency Flaws

One might expect Washington’s counterinsurgency “master” to know better than to detonate an already combustible situation. Systematic mismanagement of Afghanistan’s latest civilian casualties suggests otherwise.

Four days ago, according to NATO and Afghan sources, U.S. assault helicopters launched a raid in Ghaziabad district of Konar province. Either 36 Taliban militants or 50 civilians were killed, according to the same sources. ISAF initially denied civilian casualties through a series of press releases. It was only after local Afghan officials roused the international media that, “American commanders went into crisis mode Sunday, launching an investigation into the incident to find out what happened and prevent the episode from damaging relations with the Afghan government.”

"We take all those allegations seriously, and we'll get to the bottom of them as best we possibly can," said a senior U.S. military official said on Sunday.

Not by the look of Sunday’s national security meeting between General David Petraeus and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

According to multiple participants, Petraeus denied the allegations after hearing Karzai’s version and accused Afghans of orchestrating a nefarious plot. Despite assurances that NATO’s investigation is ongoing, U.S. Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith has categorically rejected NATO’s involvement in civilian deaths. Citing intercepted conversations, Smith said the Taliban discussed fabricating causalities to government officials in order to halt the swarm of Apaches helicopters. They also discussed their own casualties, "stating they lost 50 and needed help in getting out the wounded and quickly burying the dead."

"I have reviewed the footage and found no evidence women and children were among the fighters," said America’s chief military spokesman in Kabul. "Again, no civilian structures were anywhere near where these engagements took place. It was at night and in very rugged terrain."

Instead, Smith added, the U.S. military, "did have initial reports that the feet and hands of the children appeared to have been burned. We have observed increased reporting of children being disciplined by having their hands and feet dipped into boiling water. No one is claiming this is the case in this instance, but it may well be."

Nobody except for the U.S. military.

According to one Afghan official present at the meeting, Petraeus, “claimed that in the midst of the [operation] some pro-Taliban parents in contact with a government official decided to create a civilian casualty claim to pressure international forces to cease the [operation]. They burned hands and legs of some of their children and sent them to the hospital.”

"I was dizzy," said one participant about listening to Petraeus. "My head was spinning. This was shocking. Would any father do this to his children? This is really absurd."

America is in trouble if this is the best Petraeus can do.

How Washington’s account squares with over 50 deaths remains unsettled, but let’s assume for argumentative purposes that the U.S. version contains a higher degree of truth. An inherent problem in counterinsurgency is how easily “the truth” can be manipulated, distorted, and disbelieved depending on the source. Information often travels by mouth and the majority of Afghans are unlikely to view NATO’s surveillance videos. Especially in the remote mountains, where most villagers only see and hear about U.S.-induced death.

So to build a U.S.-styled legal case in Afghanistan disregards counterinsurgency's premium on communications.

That Afghans generally split the blame between Taliban and foreign forces punches additional holes into the U.S. script. Fazlullah Wahidi, the governor of Konar, said that NATO forces have pounded the area for months, a fact that NATO agrees with. Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the top commander in eastern Afghanistan, told the Washington Post earlier this month, "That's been our most kinetic area. We've dropped over 900 bombs since we've been here, and probably greater than 50 percent has been up there. We've fired over 30,000 artillery rounds, mortar rounds, and much of it has been up there."

In Ghaziabad’s particular case, "It's just the challenging situation that goes on with these type of incidents: an isolated area, a tough area, tough terrain." One U.S. official argued that casualties were unlikely because, "It's up in the mountains and it's not around villages."

This remoteness automatically disqualifies Afghan accounts in favor of the U.S. version.

However, to locals on the ground, the impression they receive overwhelmingly supports the Taliban version. Coupled with the intense air operations, Konar's historic position on the border has yielded no sympathy for outsiders. Brig. Gen. Stephen Townsend, a senior Army official in eastern Afghanistan, explained of residents, "They're in extreme isolation. They just don't want us there." Another senior U.S. military official in Konar added, "we haven't seen much evidence of many civilian casualties."

Words such as “much” and “many” suggest an unidentified number of casualties. Yet were Wahidi lying, Konar's COIN is still unrecognizable to Marjah’s “proof” that the U.S. mission is now succeeding.

Petraeus’s second major problem is a strained relationship with Karzai, who presumably chafes at Petraeus’s “bottom up” strategy to locally circumvent the national government. Reportedly displeased with Petraeus's promotion after building a relationship with Stanley McChrystal, Karzai has butted heads with Petraeus on private contractors, corruption probes, local militias, and Taliban negotiations. Thus it was only a matter of time before Karzai’s officials spun the meeting in their favor. This opportunity also provided Karzai with a stage to play his favorite tune, declaring that his government "will take any steps necessary to prevent and stop civilian casualties in his country."

"Killing 60 people, and then blaming the killing on those same people, rather than apologizing for any deaths? This is inhuman," one Afghan official said. "This is a really terrible situation."

The counterproductive results of Petraeus’s decision manifest themselves through this division. Why he pushed back so hard - with the truth or not - can be plausibly explained by setting a precedent. More importantly than exposing the Taliban’s long-used tactics, America can’t have every Afghan thinking they can manufacture a casualty claim after NATO sweeps through their area. Let one lie slip and spawn a hundred more.

Sensible as this logic is, Afghans already manufacture and exaggerate casualty claims. This means of sustenance doesn’t invalidate all casualty claims, but the practice wouldn’t suddenly appear if Petraeus took false ownership of Ghaziabad. A strong argument, then, can be made in favor of accepting the casualties, paying out trifling $2,000 sums, and getting the story out of the headlines.

Instead Petraeus has amplified and extended the story, trading 36 militants for his credibility in Afghanistan and relationship with Karzai. This cost is too high.

Making such a claim may sound foolish to some, but without fully invalidating Petraeus's understanding of COIN, he doesn't live up to Washington's hype. The conditions between Iraq and Afghanistan match at a superficial level, and his media savvy, while useful for extending the war on Capital Hill, has proven less charming in Kabul. Though Petraeus helped compose the U.S. Army’s COIN manual, this book offers little innovative thinking on asymmetric warfare. Those Marines now “winning” Helmand pore over a more illuminating tomb: the 80-year old Small Wars Manual.

But most striking of Petraeus’s strategy is how quickly and silently he’s narrowed his definition of counterinsurgency. Afghanistan used to be a political problem - now it’s dominated by military achievements. Political solutions have given way to political expediency. Death tolls once more reign as the supreme metric, necessary for separating Afghans from the Taliban. Despite continual conflicts of interests with Karzai - for instance the government’s deep involvement in the heroin trade - and Pakistan (North Waziristan went from critical to irrelevant), America’s war is suddenly looking bright.

It’s true that U.S. Marines have won some “hearts and minds” in Marjah and Sangin. Petraeus’s response to Ghaziabad demonstrates how rapidly he can lose them.

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