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COIN: A Smashing Success?

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By some accounts the U.S. military's offensive in the south of Afghanistan, the Kandahar Campaign, has made progress. The body count of insurgents is up. The U.S. and Afghan government forces hold more territory now than before the offensive, in this Taliban stronghold. But, as my former journalism student Ben Gilbert reports from Forward Operating Base Wilson, where he has been embedded with troops of the 101st Airborne Division, the gains have come at a huge price for Afghans who happen to live in the path of the coalition juggernaut.

"The U.S. military has destroyed hundreds of Afghan civilian homes, farmhouses, walls, trees, and plowed through fields and buildings using explosives and bulldozers...", Gilbert writes for GlobalPost, noting that these tactics have "begun to anger Afghan villagers." I should think so.

And in a "we-had-to-destroy-the-village-to-save-it" mentality (yet another echo of Vietnam) the military commanders say the destruction is actually a good thing, because it forces people to turn to the government for compensation! Now that will surely win the hearts and minds of the Afghans, and will no doubt instill in those hearts many warm and fuzzy feelings toward the Kabul regime. As Colombo used to say, scratching his head, dead cigar in hand, "Lemme get this straight." The government destroys my house so that I'll have to come to that same government for help? That's a government I can really relate to and bond with.

Let's say you move into a new neighborhood where you don't know anyone, and you'd like to make some friends. You say, "How am I going to make a positive impression on my new neighbors?" And then you think, "Aha! I've got it! I'll blow up their homes! Then they'll have to come to my house for dinner. They'll love me for that."

While all that bulldozing and blowing-up stuff is going on, another recipe for success from the pages of the David Petraeus Counter-Insurgency Cookbook is raising howls of protest from Afghanistan's semi-sovereign President Hamid Karzai. This is the tactic in which teams of commandos storm an Afghan house or compound in the dead of night, demanding that all occupants come out at once or face violence, as helicopter gunships hover menacingly overhead. According to a New York Times report, U.S. and Afghan forces have averaged 17 of these assaults each night over the past three months. Hundreds of suspected insurgents have been killed or captured, but there have also been numerous civilian deaths, not to mention the utter humiliation experienced by Afghans when the sanctity of their homes and families are violated by foreign soldiers. President Karzai is complaining loudly and insisting the raids must stop. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the raids are conducted in "full partnership" with the Afghan government. In other words, the raids will not stop.

Of course Karzai is posturing for the Afghan people when he rails against the Western powers that occupy his country, but he also happens to be right. The combination of bulldozers, bombs and brutality may catch or kill large numbers of what the military calls "bad guys," but isn't COIN supposed to be about winning support for the Kabul government? Every civilian killed is a blot on Karzai's escutcheon; every Afghan citizen terrorized by masked commandos tonight is tomorrow's insurgent.

Concurrently, the coalition forces are buying great blocks of stock in the training programs for Afghan soldiers and police. But let's imagine that the training succeeds in bringing those forces up to somewhere near mediocrity, to the point where the Afghan National Army can actually defend the country. That will not end the war, it will simply be a guarantee that the war will go on and on and on, Afghans will go on dying nonstop for years, and the reconstruction of Afghanistan will be postponed indefinitely. But we'll be home, snug in our beds, while visions of "Mission Accomplished" dance in our heads.

We should have realized by now that we cannot impose democracy on a country at the point of a gun (see: Iraq), and that ultimately the Afghans will have to solve the problems of their own governance and rebuilding. Our mission should be aimed at empowering the Afghans, not overpowering them. And that doesn't mean simply empowering the Afghan military -- it's the civilian population that needs the most help but gets the least respect and attention.