The Scene at one of the Houses (Reuters: Ahmad Nadeem)
The efforts of the United States in Afghanistan and chances of coming out with anything resembling a successful conclusion to the longest war in its history are being destroyed by unforced errors. Of course anyone who watches any kind of sporting event knows that there are many times that the team that should win self destructs by committing unforced errors that result in them losing a game. In football they might be penalties, fumbles or badly thrown balls that result in interceptions. In basketball the errant pass, the bad foul, the unforced turnover in baseball the error that costs a game. However in war unforced errors cost precious lives, harm the strategic goals of a nation and lead to greater suffering of the populations affected.
Today we learned that a US Army Staff Sergeant went on a rampage in the Afghan villages near his base in Kandahar killing 15 or 16 Afghan civilians including 9 children and 3 women. The killings were particularly brutal. We don’t know details except that some reports indicate that the sergeant had recently had a breakdown and had deployed at least one other time to Iraq or Afghanistan. I would guess that he had multiple deployments. The initial reports say that he was assigned to troops supporting a Special Forces team that was working with the local villagers. Some Afghans say that more than one soldier was involved although NATO says that the soldier acted alone.
The murders come after the accidental burning of a Koran sparked riots and attacks on US and NATO forces killing 6 NATO soldiers including 2 US officers working inside a secure area of the Afghan interior ministry. They also follow the video display of Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban and the trial and conviction of soldiers who had their own killing team. All the incidents were unrelated and none had the imprimatur of the American or NATO command. However like the My Lai massacre committed by the platoon led by Lieutenant William Calley during the Vietnam War the crimes have tarnished the honor of the US military and are undermining all efforts to bring about a successful conclusion to the war in Afghanistan.
Unforced errors do not help when the strategic goals are totally dependent on the cooperation and goodwill of the populace of the country that you are operating in and trying to secure. The whole tenant of Counterinsurgency Warfare is securing the population and by doing that bringing them to cooperate with you. If you do not have the massive numbers of troops to actually secure the country yourself it is doubly important. In fact by doctrine there should be 4 times more troops to conduct a successful counterinsurgency campaign. In places where the indigenous forces are larger and more capable some or even much of the burden can be born by them, however the Afghan National Army and National Police are able to shoulder the burden. Riddled with corruption, plagued by incompetent leaders, poor discipline, high desertion rates and awash in Taliban sympathizers. A growing number of American and NATO soldiers have lost their lives in attacks from the Afghan soldiers and police working alongside of them.
Of course there are other factors such as that the government of the country must inspire the confidence of its own people in order to turn back an insurgency. Afghanistan is “governed” if one can call it that by the regime of Mohammed Karzai. The government can most charitably be described as corrupt and incompetent. However the Karzai government has little power or authority outside of Kabul. It has little control over its own security forces or for that matter even regional governors who function in a near autonomous fashion as best benefits them personally or the tribe that they belong. A shadow government of the Taliban factions often hold as much real power over the people as the “legitimate” government. The biggest money maker is the Opium trade as Afghanistan is one of the top Opium producers in the world. The real truth is that for all practical matters Afghanistan is for all practical purposes a narco-State run by criminals and thugs of different factions.
Afghanistan also is a nation whose people believe that it is an offense against Islam foreigners to occupy the country. The Afghanis have shown their resolve against every invader and though successfully invaded they have never been long occupied nor cooperated well with their occupiers, even those that considered themselves liberators. As such the campaign to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and bring about some form of democracy has had little chance of success after forces were diverted to the invasion of Iraq.
The latest incident will cause more American and NATO soldiers to die and will likely erase any possibility that we can succeed in our goal of an orderly train up of Afghan security forces and transfer of the conduct of the war to them. It is very likely that the situation on the ground will get worse, perhaps markedly worse. The American military will do the right thing regarding the investigation and prosecution of this case but that investigation may prove to show how bad things have become.
Unforced errors. I don’t know how to overcome them.