I’m sensing a title trend here on Stubby Thumb. That trend is songs. Thank you Nirvana for sponsoring today’s post title.
You may have seen in the news recently that the ISAF Commander, U.S. Marine General John Allen, apologized to citizens in Logar Province, Afghanistan, for the recent air strike that killed 18 civilians along with the Taliban militants who used their home as a hiding place.
Today, the New York Times ran an article by Eric Schmitt entitled “Allies Restrict Airstrikes on Taliban in Civilian Homes.” Read the summary here.
The U.S. made a commitment under General Petraeus to protect Afghan civilians as part of the overall counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy. The problem with that commitment is that it requires the Afghans to do nothing at all to support tactical, operational, and strategic efforts. In fact, they can passively support the Taliban and still qualify for protection.
So what does this apology mean to Afghans? Nothing. For the record, the Afghan people believe two things: we are leaving, and the Taliban are returning. To them, each apology is further proof that we are the weaker side, and the Taliban is stronger. The Taliban never apologizes and never backs down. At least that’s the image they’ve successfully created for themselves among the locals. The reality is the Taliban backs down from nearly every single force-on-force engagement, knowing they can never win against superior firepower. They simply melt into either a complacent or complicit population in order to fight another day.
The U.S. on the other hand frequently apologizes for its actions, ratchets back its efforts, and attempts to negotiate. In Afghanistan, winners don’t negotiate. If you are strong, you have no need to talk. Talking is for the weaker party. It’s really the basis of their entire traditional system of justice.
I am wronged by a local strongman, but lack the ability to do anything about it myself, so I take it before the tribal shura who is able to act on my behalf in the interest of justice. Their decisions become binding, and I accept their answers, because I can do nothing of myself. The strongman accepts their justice, because the collective is stronger than he is alone. Depending on his relative strength, he may have influenced the outcome more in his favor. Either way, the decision stands, and the issue rests. If I were stronger, I would take him head on for a multi-generational feud that makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like a polite disagreement.
Our strategy states overconfidently and with great bravado, “Stand aside and let the real men work this out. We have everything under control.” Except we don’t.
Our “protect the civilians” policy makes it extremely difficult to effectively fight the Taliban. The Taliban know the lines we’re willing to cross, and they exploit it to their advantage. They know we value life. They know we offer civilians the benefit of the doubt. That is why they chose to hide among the unfortunate guests of a wedding party. It is why they fire into crowded bazaars. It is why they meet in mosques to stage attacks. It is why they attack from homes, schools, and fields. Our rules of engagement make it very difficult for us to respond kinetically and have any type of effect.
We play by the rules.
There was a time when common sense prevailed. If you fire upon me from a home, it ceases to be a home, and becomes a fighting position. Likewise for a hospital, a mosque, a clinic, or a school. Now, we just return a few volleys of fire and allow the Taliban to slink away, taking the confidence of the civilians we are sworn to protect with them. Our offer of protection is little more than a joke.
In the meantime, we make preparations to withdraw most of our combat forces, and leave the Special Operations Forces to clean up the mess with Village Stability Operations (VSO). A key part of the VSO construct is training civilians to take personal responsibility for ensuring the security of their village. But why should they? All along we’ve sent the message that they need not take any action and they will be protected. Where is the motivation to take action and endanger their own lives?
Somewhere along the line we mixed up inaction with innocence. Just because someone does not actively support the Taliban does not make them innocent. Passive support is just as dangerous. What was it Edmund Burke said? “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The Taliban only needs the people of Afghanistan to maintain the status quo. We didn’t allow German civilians during World War II the latitude of passive activity and call them innocent. Yet somehow we coddle Afghan civilians and dismiss their inaction, treating it as an acceptable course of action.
Afraid of Taliban retribution? No problem. Give them food and shelter for the evening, and we’ll turn a blind eye. We’ll just wait until they are standing in an open field, at least 500 meters from any hardened structure, openly carrying an RPG before we call in an airstrike. After all, the Taliban are our problem, not yours.
If we took a no apologies, no holds barred approach with Afghans, and made them responsible for the consequences of their actions, or inactions as the case frequently is, there would be a whole lot less fence-sitting and passive support. Eventually, whether they like it or not, they will be forced to live (or die) by those consequences. Because Afghans are right to believe the two things they believe: we are leaving, and the Taliban is coming back.