What was that about hearts and minds? - Macleans.ca
 

What was that about hearts and minds?

In Kandahar, NATO forces have been destroying homes ‘to make them safe.’ Sound familiar?


 
What was that about hearts and minds?

Erik de Castro/Reuters

At a summit in Lisbon last week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed an agreement with NATO and UN officials that would see international forces begin to hand over responsibility for control of the country to Afghan authorities in 2014. While observers are already wondering whether that timeline is realistic, the real question is whether by 2014 there will anything left of Afghanistan worth handing over.

Since the middle of 2009, the coalition’s strategy in Afghanistan has been based on the counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine that is credited with finally extricating the U.S. from Iraq. Unlike conventional warfare, where the goal is to defeat the army militarily, the idea behind COIN is that you protect the population, provide a bubble of stability and security in which governance and the rule of law can operate. This will win “hearts and minds” and prevent the insurgency from getting any sympathetic traction amongst the people.

When Barack Obama approved the surge of 30,000 additional troops in the country last December, the ambition was to get enough troops walking around in the villages protecting the population while quickly training the Afghan security forces. Obama extracted a promise from Gen. David Petraeus that the strategy would show clear progress within a year, so that they could begin bringing American soldiers home by the middle of 2011.

In recent weeks, we finally have a sense of what constitutes progress. At the end of October, one of Petraeus’s aides gave a briefing where he boasted of the very high tempo of operations in Afghanistan, and proceeded to enumerate just how much action was going on. In one 90-day period, he noted, there had been 1,543 “kinetic” operations (that’s military lingo for fighting), with 1,322 insurgents killed and another 2,461 captured.

Last week, the Pentagon announced that it would be sending a company of M1 Abrams tanks to the south of Afghanistan, bringing what one officer described as “awe, shock and firepower” into the fight. This echoes the way Canadian military officers talk about their own Leopard tanks, which they have had in Kandahar since 2006. Ask anyone over there what the use of tanks against insurgents carrying ancient rifles is, and you get a sly grin followed by gruff talk about the “intimidation factor.”

Finally, down in Kandahar, NATO forces have been busy destroying hundreds, even thousands of homes and farm buildings that have been booby-trapped with mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). One district governor actually told the New York Times, “We had to destroy them to make them safe,” while a senior American officer told the Washington Post (presumably with a straight face) that by making villagers travel to the local governor’s office to file a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you’re connecting the government to the people.”

Whatever this is, it isn’t counter-insurgency. When you put it all together—the escalation of firepower, the fetish for combat missions and body counts, the cross-border air raids into Pakistan, and the insane talk of destroying a village in order to save it—it sounds like the Vietnam-ification of a war that military officials have spent the past four years swearing is nothing like Vietnam. But perhaps the better analogy is more disturbing: the current American plan looks like a doubling down on the final Soviet strategy of simply pummelling the country into submission.

It isn’t clear whether the American commanders ever took counter-insurgency in Afghanistan seriously. It was certainly never going to work in the shortened time frame they were given, and even if it could, the Karzai government has none of the credibility the plan requires. And perhaps U.S. decision-makers were struck by a recent survey showing that 92 per cent of young men in Helmand and Kandahar had never heard of 9/11, and had no idea why Western soldiers were barging around their backyards. Regardless, it increasingly seems that all of the COIN language that was inserted into every document, briefing note and PowerPoint presentation last year, with its groovy, kumbaya talk of protecting civilians and winning hearts and minds, was merely designed to provide political cover while the military tried to figure out what to do.

What they seem to have settled on is the ancient strategy of killing as many enemies as possible until their leadership cries uncle and sues for peace. Is it working? Well, the coalition certainly is killing a lot of people. By one estimate, the average age of Taliban field commanders has dropped this year from 36 to 25; if they can keep this up, by 2014 NATO might find itself in the awkward position of negotiating a peace agreement with child soldiers.

The central thesis of the 2004 film Team America is that the United States is the well-meaning bull in the global china shop. As self-appointed global cop, America goes around inserting itself into the world’s trouble zones and hot spots. When things go awry—as they always do—it is not out of malicious intent but incompetence, and when U.S. forces eventually depart, they leave behind nothing more than destroyed homes, shattered lives and broken promises.

When it comes to Afghanistan, that film is looking less like a satire than a prophecy.


 

What was that about hearts and minds?

  1. Your thesis about the folly of destroyed homes only makes sense to me if coalition forces booby-trapped them. I will assume until presented contrary evidence that it was indeed not NATO forces who laced private dwellings with explosives. A decision to level a booby-trapped home leaves zero dead civilians and no possibility of a missed explosive killing or maiming in the future.

    So, yes, as silly as it may sound at first blush, destroying a home to make it safe may be the right option. Where is my thinking failing me here?

  2. Your thesis about the folly of destroyed homes only makes sense to me if coalition forces booby-trapped them. I will assume until presented contrary evidence that it was indeed not NATO forces who laced private dwellings with explosives. A decision to level a booby-trapped home leaves zero dead civilians and no possibility of a missed explosive killing or maiming in the future.

    So, yes, as silly as it may sound at first blush, destroying a home to make it safe may be the right option. Where is my thinking failing me here?

    • I agree. The only other course of action would be the far more risky attempt to disarm the IED. I certainly don't want to lose a NATO soldier because he is trying to save a shed worth about fifteen bucks.

    • your thinking is not failing you anywhere. potter has once again imposed his narrative on a phenomenon that makes perfect sense to anyone coming from an objective starting point.

      the more i read of potter's work, the more i wonder why macleans hired him. he is honestly one of the least intelligent writers i've seen at any news site.

  3. I heard a report this morning on CBC that NATO soldiers are frustrated by their Afghani charges smoking hashish while on duty –often first thing in the morning and in plain view of their instructors. I guess Afghani students are more like North American students than I realized.

  4. I heard a report this morning on CBC that NATO soldiers are frustrated by their Afghani charges smoking hashish while on duty –often first thing in the morning and in plain view of their instructors. I guess Afghani students are more like North American students than I realized.

  5. I agree. The only other course of action would be the far more risky attempt to disarm the IED. I certainly don't want to lose a NATO soldier because he is trying to save a shed worth about fifteen bucks.

  6. 'America goes around inserting itself into the world's trouble zones and hot spots. When things go awry—as they always do—it is not out of malicious intent but incompetence, and when U.S. forces eventually depart, they leave behind nothing more than destroyed homes, shattered lives and broken promises'

    Incompetence or a form of innocense?

    'Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.'
    Greene

  7. 'America goes around inserting itself into the world's trouble zones and hot spots. When things go awry—as they always do—it is not out of malicious intent but incompetence, and when U.S. forces eventually depart, they leave behind nothing more than destroyed homes, shattered lives and broken promises'

    Incompetence or a form of innocense?

    'Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.'
    Greene

  8. I see the "criticism" here without "constructive" part. What exactly should they be doing differently, Mr.Andrew Potter? Not killing or intimidating the insurgents? Not destroying the IEDs? You portray the NATO forces as bungling a simple job, when I believe they are doing their best to accomplish an extremely complicated and messy job.

  9. 'Journalism' takes another hit with this column, appealing to juveniles has been media strategy for decades now, they teach it at places like Ryerson. But media consumers are getting tired of having to read between the lines for information, which is one reason why the internet is so popular. Writing for the high school newspaper was righteous and fun, everyone understands that, but if journos expect us to spend time reading then they have to get beyond that.

  10. 'Journalism' takes another hit with this column, appealing to juveniles has been media strategy for decades now, they teach it at places like Ryerson. But media consumers are getting tired of having to read between the lines for information, which is one reason why the internet is so popular. Writing for the high school newspaper was righteous and fun, everyone understands that, but if journos expect us to spend time reading then they have to get beyond that.

    • Good article…especially powerful is the linkage of the war's costs and present and future US debt woes – tea partiers should be demanding a pull-out – in a sane world.

      • I am pretty sure the most libertarian of the tea partiers never wanted the US there in the first place.

        • yes and most conservatives i know think Afghanistan is a mess and a total waste of time.

          • Well, golly gee, that leaves who ?

            Maybe Bamy should declare victory and leave just so we could see who
            starts squealing first ?

          • I don't mind saying that over the last decade I have been all over the map on Afghanistan. I am settling into a position of being thoroughly outraged that we sent good people over there to win a war without having the foggiest of ideas what "winning the war" would even look like. And STILL I don't want to just have everyone up and leave because the joint would fall apart even worse.

            So, actually, I am not even sure where that leaves me. And I get the sense I am not alone in this twisted ambivalence.

          • me too…ambivalent that is.

          • As someone close to many within the tea party in the US, I would say other than a concern for deployed friends and loved ones, their interest in Afghanistan goes only as far as their ability to assign blame for tactical or strategic set-backs on Barack Obama.

            When it comes to foreign policy, with the exception of the anti-Semites, the Tea Party (or right wing fringe of the Republican Party) is primarily interested in increasing tensions with Russia, unconditional support for Israel and a military conflict with Iran. But truthfully Obama is enemy number one.

  11. Good article…especially powerful is the linkage of the war's costs and present and future US debt woes – tea partiers should be demanding a pull-out – in a sane world.

  12. I am pretty sure the most libertarian of the tea partiers never wanted the US there in the first place.

  13. yes and most conservatives i know think Afghanistan is a mess and a total waste of time.

  14. Well, golly gee, that leaves who ?

    Maybe Bamy should declare victory and leave just so we could see who
    starts squealing first ?

  15. I don't mind saying that over the last decade I have been all over the map on Afghanistan. I am settling into a position of being thoroughly outraged that we sent good people over there to win a war without having the foggiest of ideas what "winning the war" would even look like. And STILL I don't want to just have everyone up and leave because the joint would fall apart even worse.

    So, actually, I am not even sure where that leaves me. And I get the sense I am not alone in this twisted ambivalence.

  16. me too…ambivalent that is.

  17. your thinking is not failing you anywhere. potter has once again imposed his narrative on a phenomenon that makes perfect sense to anyone coming from an objective starting point.

    the more i read of potter's work, the more i wonder why macleans hired him. he is honestly one of the least intelligent writers i've seen at any news site.

  18. one sure sign of an article that is mostly hogwash is the use of unnamed officials, whose quotes neatly dovetail with the author's position. I think Mr. DeCastro made most of this up.

  19. one sure sign of an article that is mostly hogwash is the use of unnamed officials, whose quotes neatly dovetail with the author's position. I think Mr. DeCastro made most of this up.

  20. Afghanistan is only one battlefield in a larger theater. The main goal being to stabilize governments in the area to prevent islamo fascist terrorists from siezing the assers of a natinal government. Unforunately this sounds like the domino theory argued in Vietnam about the Communiists; however, unlike Vietnam, the countries in the theater have nuclear weapons (i.e Pakistan). If islamo fascist terrorists get possession of Pakistan's nukes the heavy armour used by NATO to size the nuke sites will be historicaly noteworthy. The holding of the siites post-blitz will be the next mega diplomatic/military/political crisis to defuse.

  21. Afghanistan is only one battlefield in a larger theater. The main goal being to stabilize governments in the area to prevent islamo fascist terrorists from siezing the assers of a natinal government. Unforunately this sounds like the domino theory argued in Vietnam about the Communiists; however, unlike Vietnam, the countries in the theater have nuclear weapons (i.e Pakistan). If islamo fascist terrorists get possession of Pakistan's nukes the heavy armour used by NATO to size the nuke sites will be historicaly noteworthy. The holding of the siites post-blitz will be the next mega diplomatic/military/political crisis to defuse.

  22. As someone close to many within the tea party in the US, I would say other than a concern for deployed friends and loved ones, their interest in Afghanistan goes only as far as their ability to assign blame for tactical or strategic set-backs on Barack Obama.

    When it comes to foreign policy, with the exception of the anti-Semites, the Tea Party (or right wing fringe of the Republican Party) is primarily interested in increasing tensions with Russia, unconditional support for Israel and a military conflict with Iran. But truthfully Obama is enemy number one.