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January 18, 2011

On Village Razing . . . and Counter-Insurgency
Posted by Michael Cohen

There's been a lot of back and forth between Paula Broadwell and Josh Foust about the issue of village razing in Afghanistan. Those who need to catch up can follow the debate here, here and here.

I won't bother to summarize the entire discussion, but it began with what I think can be charitably described as Paula's less than empathetic response to an Afghan village being destroyed. What I find most striking about this is not the rather bloodless manner in which Broadwell describes the incident (although that is notable) but rather the fascinating, and unintentional, insight into how dramatically the war in Afghanistan has shifted in opposition to the population-centric policies being espoused a year ago.

A lot of COIN advocates will tell you that kinetic action is integral to war-fighting and that even though airstrikes are up 300% and targeted killings are on the rise and more homes are being destroyed since General David Petraeus took over command . . . it's still just counter-insurgency.

But for those with long memories the operational approach of ISAF forces in Afghanistan under General McChrystal was to avoid civilian casualties and even property destruction at all costs, even at the risk of putting US troops in harm's way. (Some even argued that protecting civilians was actually more important than killing insurgents).

Indeed as Foust points out, when ISAF troops went into Marjah last February they appeared to be far more concerned about village destruction then what you are seeing in the Arghandab Valley today - and at the time went to far greater lengths to avoid bringing harm to both person and property there.

But look if you don't want to believe me; how about believing the guidance issued by General Stanley McChrystal to his troops:

Conventional military action against insurgents consumes considerable resources with little real return and is likely to alienate the people we are trying to secure. Large scale operations to kill or capture militants carry a significant risk of causing civilian casualties and collateral damage. If civilians die in a firefight, it does not matter who shot him - we still failed to protect them from harm. Destroying a home or property jeopardizes the livelihood of an entire family - and creates more insurgents. We sow the seeds of our demise.

I find myself in violent agreement with Stanley McChrystal even if I think trying to fight a war on these terms is nearly impossible. But what McChrystal says here is also in violent disagreement from what Broadwell is describing happened in the Arghandab Valley. Indeed, it's hard for me to imagine that had this occurred in Marjah or elsewhere in Afghanistan when he was commander McChrystal would have been supportive of such actions. They appear to run directly counter to his guidance to troops - and yet I haven't seen anyone from ISAF publicly criticize the methods that are being employed in the Arghandab Valley.

Indeed, look at what Broadwell says about the clearing operation that razed a village to the ground: "Clearing operations are a necessary evil to weed out the Taliban, and they often leave devastating destruction in the wake. But what Aziz [President Karzai's advisor, Mohammad Sadiq Aziz] failed to note is the tremendous effort some units, like 1-320th, have made to rebuild his country." Does anyone really believe that because the US threw some money at the villagers this just washed away the sense of anger and frustration these individuals felt toward Americans?

You don't get a mulligan because you rebuilt the town you leveled.

But it's a far cry from what COIN advocates were saying a year ago. Then US/ISAF destruction of property was a bad thing because it "creates more insurgents." Today, destroying property, not such a bad thing because we helped the people whose homes were destroyed to rebuild them i.e. building trust.

It's perhaps another example that COIN advocates tend to define COIN by whatever definition furthers their arguments at that exact moment.

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But it's a far cry from what COIN advocates were saying a year ago. Then US/ISAF destruction of property was a bad thing because it "creates more insurgents." Today, destroying property, not such a bad thing because we helped the people whose homes were destroyed to rebuild them i.e. building trust.
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Today, destroying property, not such a bad thing because we helped the people whose homes were destroyed to rebuild them i.e. building trust.

You don't get a mulligan because you rebuilt the town you leveled.

But it's a far cry from what COIN advocates were saying a year ago. Then US/ISAF destruction of property was a bad thing because it "creates more insurgents." Today, destroying prope

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