25 Tons of Bombs Wipe Afghan Town Off Map
(WIRED) An American-led military unit pulverized an Afghan village in Kandahar’s Arghandab River Valley in October, after it became overrun with Taliban insurgents. It’s hard to understand how turning an entire village into dust fits into America’s counterinsurgency strategy — which supposedly prizes the local people’s loyalty above all else.
But it’s the latest indication that Gen. David Petraeus, the counterinsurgency icon, is prosecuting a frustrating war with surprising levels of violence. Some observers already fear a backlash brewing in the area.
Paula Broadwell, a West Point graduate and Petraeus biographer, described the destruction of Tarok Kolache in a guest post for Tom Ricks’ Foreign Policy blog. Or, at least, she described its aftermath: Nothing remains of Tarok Kolache after Lt. Col. David Flynn, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 1-320th, made a fateful decision in October.
His men had come under relentless assault from homemade bombs emanating from the village, where a Taliban “intimidation campaign [chased] the villagers out” to create a staging ground for attacking the task force. With multiple U.S. amputations the result of the Taliban hold over Tarok Kolache, Flynn’s men were “terrified to go back into the pomegranate orchards to continue clearing [the area]; it seemed like certain death.”
After two failed attempts at clearing the village resulted in U.S and Afghan casualties, Flynn’s response was to take the village out. He ordered a mine-clearing line charge, using rocket-propelled explosives to create a path into the center of Tarok Kolache.
And that was for starters, Broadwell writes. Airstrikes from A-10s and B-1s combined with powerful ground-launched rockets on Oct. 6 to batter the village with “49,200 lbs. of ordnance” — which she writes, resulted in “NO CIVCAS,” meaning no civilians dead.
It seems difficult to understand how Broadwell or the 1-320th can be so confident they didn’t accidentally kill civilians after subjecting Tarok Kolache to nearly 25 tons worth of bombs and rockets. The rockets alone have a blast radius of about 50 meters [164 feet], so the potential for hitting bystanders is high with every strike.
As she clarified in a debate on her Facebook wall, “In the commander’s assessment, the deserted village was not worth clearing. If you lost several KIA and you might feel the same.” But without entering Tarok Kolache to clear it, how could U.S. or Afghan forces know it was completely devoid of civilians?
As Broadwell tells it, the villagers understood that the United States needed to destroy their homes — except when they don’t. One villager “in a fit of theatrics had accused Flynn of ruining his life after the demolition.”
An adviser to Hamid Karzai said that the 1-320th “caused unreasonable damage to homes and orchards and displaced a number of people.” Flynn has held “reconstruction shuras” with the villagers and begun compensating villagers for their property losses, but so far the reconstruction has barely begun, three months after the destruction.
“Sure they are pissed about the loss of their mud huts,” Broadwell wrote on Facebook, “but that is why the BUILD story is important here.”
Broadwell writes that the operation is ultimately a success, quoting Flynn as saying “As of today, more of the local population talks to us and the government than talk to the Taliban.” That appears to be good enough for higher command. Petraeus, having visited the village and allowing Flynn to personally approve reconstruction projects worth up to $1 million, told his commanders in the south to “take a similar approach to what 1-320th was doing on a grander scale as it applies to the districts north of Arghandab.”
We’ve reached out to Petraeus’ staff to get a fuller sense of what the commander of the war actually thinks about the destruction of Tarok Kolache, and will have a forthcoming post on precisely that. But Petraeus has waged a far more violent, intense fight than many expected.
Air strikes, curtailed under Gen. Stanley McChrystal, are at their highest levels since the invasion. Tankshave moved into Helmand Province, rockets batter Taliban positions in Kandahar, and throughout the east and the south Special Operations Forces conduct intense raiding operations. Petraeus rebuked Karzai when the Afghan leader urged an end to the raids.
According to Erica Gaston, an Afghanistan-based researcher with the Open Society Institute, the level of property destruction at Tarok Kolache is “extreme” compared to other operations, so it doesn’t appear as if wiping out villages is standard procedure. The area is a “virtual no-go by civilian means because of the security concerns,” limiting the ability of analysts, including Gaston, to independently assess what happened.
But from what she hears, destroying Tarok Kolache — in order, apparently, to rebuild it — has meant jeopardizing whatever buy-in local Afghans gave U.S. troops for fighting the Taliban in the Arghandab, which has been the scene of fierce fighting for months.
And that’s precisely because it’s not standard procedure for U.S.-led troops to destroy whole villages. “But for this, I think [NATO] would have started to get some credit for improved conduct,” Gaston e-mails. “Some Kandahar elders (and I stress ’some,’ not ‘all’ or even ‘most’) who had initially opposed the Kandahar operations — due largely to fears that it would become another Marjah — were in the last few months expressing more appreciation for ISAF conduct during these operations, saying they had driven out the Taliban and shown restraint in not harming civilians.”
Perhaps that popular goodwill would have dried up anyway, Gaston continues, but “I think this property destruction has likely reset the clock on any nascent positive impressions.”
It’s also not like the coalition has an overflow of goodwill in the Arghandab. Last year, Army researchers warned that the locals there trust the Taliban more than Karzai.
And it’s where the infamous rogue “Kill Team” from the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Divisionallegedly murdered at least three Afghans in late 2009 and early 2010. The commander of the 5th Strykers, unaware of what the “Kill Team” was doing, was none too keen on the restraint urged on him by McChrystal.
For reasons like that, Josh Foust writes, not every Afghan automatically believes the U.S. military has benign intentions.
And it’s worth remembering why counterinsurgency even took hold in Afghanistan among military theorists in the first place. Although counterinsurgency has always been a violent affair, the theory holds that popular sentiment will ultimately determine who wins in a guerrilla war, something that many in uniform thought was vindicated by the Iraq surge — which imposes restrictions on how to use force.
Popular Afghan dissatisfaction was the reason that McChrystal and his predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, rolled back the air strikes. McChrystal’s men ultimately thought his restraint went too far. But if Tarok Kolache is to become a new model for the military in Afghanistan, then it’s quite an irony for Petraeus, the military’s chief counterinsurgency theorist-practitioner, to swing the pendulum in the direction of decimating whole villages.
Update, 3:20 p.m., January 20: Good to see such a lively debate in comments. To add to it, check outmy follow-up post, in which Gen. David Petraeus’ spokesman sheds light on when the U.S.-led military effort will — and won’t — flatten bomb-saturated villages.
Photo: Paula Broadwell, via Tom Ricks’ blog