U.S. Afghan strategy : destroying a village to save it

January 28, 2011


A U.S. military operation in Afghanistan’s Arghandab valley in which a village overrun by the Taliban was destroyed and is now being rebuilt has set off a firestorm of criticism  from experts and Afghans who say this is a surefire way of losing the population to the insurgents.  Surely you can’t win over hearts and minds by levelling homes and farms and then offering to resettle residents back there,  even if the new dwellings turn out to be better, stronger than the original.

It goes back to the  old debate that has dogged the U.S. mission in Afghanistan .  Is defending the local population and its interests  at the heart of the counter insurgency strategy or is this now a mission focused on a single-minded pursuit of al Qaeda (not many left there in any case) and the Taliban to the last man standing ?

Nearly 49,000  pounds of ammunition was dropped on the village of Tarok Kalache nestled in the fertile Arghandab valley  last October after repeated attempts to flush out the Taliban failed. The insurgents were using  the village as a staging post, one of the many in Kandahar province  to stop a rolling U.S. offensive.  They had conducted an intimidation campaign to force residents out of the area, rigged the place up with explosives from top to bottom and were carrying out raids on U.S. army outposts, the military said. 

Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for the U.S. military, said in an article last month the destruction of the village was necessary to clear the Taliban from the lush farmland. And its reconstruction was just as necessary to stop them coming back, it said citing the military.

U.S army Lt. Col. David Flynn who led the operation said in a rebuttal on  Foreign Policy’s Best Defense blog  the military didn’t just decide to move on  the village at the first contact with Taliban. It came after a great deal of planning and after about 100 days of fighting with the insurgents during which the military took multiple casualties -soldiers killed or wounded in action, mostly from the IEDs that dotted the area around the village.  It wasn’t just the foreign forces ; all summer civilians were  getting killed or maimed because of the extensive network of mines.  Until there wasn’t any civilian left in the village, he said.  Most had taken refuge with relatives in other parts of the village and all that remained in the village were Taliban fighers. It was only after ascertaining  from multiple sources and conducting “pattern-of-life analysis” that there were no civilians left in  the village that the operation was launched, Flynn said. And rebuilding the village was part of the operation so that people could return to it.  

Did I want to destroy the entire Taliban sanctuary and leave no structures for the people to return to? No. The choice, based upon my previous experience, was to lose or maim more of my soldiers or raze the structures and rebuild later.

Indeed as the bombs fell on Tarok Kalache  he knew that the rest of his deployment was going to be spent on reconstructing the village, he told a blogger writing for Best Defense.

No civilian was killed in the strikes, he said, citing observation by aircraft and reports provided by local leaders.  There wasn’t left of the village, though, under the weight of the bombardment by B-1 aircraft, the A-10 Thunderbolt also known as the warthog, and rocket launchers. 

Was it really necessary ?.   Some people say there are no easy answers . Wiredblog quotes Erica Gaston, an Afghanistan-based researcher for the Open Society Institute as saying that the destruction of property on this scale was horrifying but if the homes had been booby-trapped by the Taliban, perhaps there was little choice but to bring them down.  You could fefuse the explosives, some of them said to be wired into walls, by other means, but would not be feasible immediately and carry a high level of risk.

But who is to say for sure that there were no civilian casualties in an assault as ferocious as the one unleashed on Tarok Kalache,  the same Wired blogpost asks. The U.S. army didn’t clear the village  ahead of the bombardment, so how can it be 100 percent sure it didn’t kill any civilians. Joshua Foust in a piece on the Registanblog challenged the military logic of raining down bombs on the village to clear it of explosives.  Dropping thousands of pounds of ammunition isn’t necessarily going to destroy all the IEDs and home-made explosives. In fact you run the risk of leaving unexploded ordnance as often happens in bombardment on this scale which can be a bigger problem since it  would end up buried deep under the rubble making it dificult to remove.  The operation just didn’t make sense either in the short term or over a longer period.

This only makes sense if your primary concern is the safety of your men—not the mission, not the Afghans, not the long-term consequences of wiping out villages when the Taliban occupy them. I just don’t understand it.

And this is the face of the American military that is increasingly visible in southern Afghanistan.   It wasn’t just Tarok Kalache, although it may be the most extreme case. .  There was a steady stream of reports that in the bloody fight for Kandahar, the U.S. military had  began destroying homes it believed to be riddled with Taliban bombs.  The New York Times reported in November that  in the village of Khosrow every one of the 40 homes was flattened by missiles.

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