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September 02, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Non-Violent Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Over at The New Republic, Michael Crowley has been on the Afghan/Pentagon beat as of late. And while I of course have enormous respect for any person who can write smartly on politics AND foreign policy I have to take issue with his post from yesterday.

Looking at the Soviet occupation in the 1980s to the current US military intervention in Afghanistan, Crowley contrasts the Soviets horrible infliction of casualties on the Afghan people to the current focus of US commanders on limiting civilian deaths.

But Crowley draws a far too overly broad conclusion:

If America succeeds where the Soviets failed, our determination to protect, not persecute, Afghan civilians will be a main reason why.

Simply because the Soviets targeted civilians and lost the war does not mean that the US protecting civilians will win the war.

Indeed, if there is one truism of successful counter-insurgencies in the 20th century it is that coercion and violence have almost always accompanied them. Even the "good ones" like Malaya involved the forceful resettlement of 500,000 ethnic Chinese. In Vietnam, the CORDS program was accompanied by Operation Phoenix, an assassination program that killed more than 30,000 Vietcong. Even in Iraq, the drop in civilian deaths of 2007-2008 was preceded by horrific ethnic fighting between Sunnis and Shias - and of course even though the US adopted more human COIN tactics it didn't stop nearly four times as many civilians from being killed by US airstrikes in 2007 as were killed in 2006.

If anything, the US focus on protecting civilians in Afghanistan - and the reticence to using coercion or violence - is the outlier here. If it works, it will provide a new model for how to fight a counter-insurgency. If the United States "wins" in Afghanistan (whatever that actually means) it will not be because we protected civilians - in fact, it's entirely possible that it will be a case of winning despite protecting civilians.

Now before someone accuses me of saying that we should loosen the constraints on the targeting of civilians, just stop right there. That is not my argument - at all. It's just that we shouldn't confuse protecting the population in Afghanistan with success. Doing the former does not ensure the latter.


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It's also ignorant of actual Soviet efforts, which followed the "step back so the government will step forward" method. The eventual proxy "government" in Kabul during the Soviet years actually was tied to specific ethnic enclaves, which weren't "persecuted" by the Red Army.

I'm always a bit flummoxed by how certain writers suggest that they know what they're talking about when it comes to the Soviet years in Kabul. They often don't.

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The question must also be asked -- it is, in fact, being asked within the American military now -- whether one aspect of protecting the civilian population in particular makes success any more likely or the population as a whole any more safe.

Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government gets convulsed with anger when American air strikes kill civilians. Most of the time, though, they also kill Taliban/al Qaeda types. Measures taken of late (since shortly before Gen. McKiernan's dismissal) make it less likely that civilian shields will die in American air attacks, and at the same time make the use of civilian shields a more effective tactic for the enemy. Now, it may be that had the new course been followed beginning in 2002 the dynamics within Afghanistan might be different. As it stands now, what we've done is to reduce a source of Afghan dissatisfaction at the cost of weakening our capacity to hurt the enemy.

For both waning superpowers, the high water mark in hegemonic violence isn't in Afghanistan, it was razing of Grozny and Fallujah, by the Russians in Chechnya and the Americans in Iraq, respectively.

And there's not much to choose between them, frankly.

Suggest you consult a dictionary and learn the meaning of the word reticence.

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