Military Analyst Joshua Foust on Village Razing in Afghanistan

Military Analyst Joshua Foust on Village Razing in Afghanistan

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project, a columnist for PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor to Current Intelligence, and he blogs about Central Asia at He’s the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from You can follow him on Twitter @JoshuaFoust.

John Little: Let’s talk about The Unforgivable Horror of Village Razing. In that post, which details the destruction of a booby-trapped Afghan village with 49,200 lbs. of ordnance and what you feel is the unsympathetic response to the resulting suffering, you drop some pretty heavy ordnance of your own:

Look, war is hell. I have no illusions about that. But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable. There were rumors of this policy of collective punishment in the Arghandab before (see this overwrought Daily Mail story that stops right before the village actually was destroyed for an idea of what is going on), and I’m really struggling to see how such behavior does not violate Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—that is, how this behavior is not a war crime, especially given the explicit admission that such behavior is merely for the convenience of the soldier and not any grander strategy or purpose.

This sort of abhorrent behavior is not limited to the Arghandab, either. Broadwell explicitly states that it has the Petraeus stamp of approval, and Pahjwok has reported U.S. Marines in Helmand province explicitly warning local villagers of collective punishment if insurgents hide out in their settlements. It is probably a safe assumption to say that this is a widespread phenomenon.

A lot of people would say “Look, this may have been clumsy, inefficient, and lazy on our part but a Taliban outpost was cleared, civilian and friendly causalities were avoided, and we’re going to help the civilian owners rebuild. Relax Mr. Foust. This is war, not a war crime.”

So, with a few days to reflect, do you still think this event might point to an illegal policy of collective punishment? Can you see any merit at all in arguments of those who support the military’s casualty minimization strategy?

Joshua Foust: With some further reflection, I think I was right to struggle with whether destroying villages like this is a war crime. Some friends helped me wrap my head around what actually constitutes a violation of the Fourth Convention, and I don’t think this qualifies as such. However, the reason I feel comfortable with that struggle is this is the sort of thing we should question.

In that link to the Daily Mail story about another village facing this same fate, the soldiers seem to be threatening the villagers with the destruction of their homes if the villagers don’t turn in more IEDs. There are two ways to interpret that story (and the one here, about the Arghandab). Either the soldiers are punitively destroying entire settlements in punishment for not resisting the Taliban, or they’re communicating—incompletely—that if they can’t remove the Taliban from these areas, they have no way of removing the bombs and IEDs left over except by detonation.

From everything I’ve read about these incidents, and from speaking with people close to one of them, it’s probably bad communication being compounded by a false sense of urgency and action bias. These are not large villages—maybe a few dozen houses at the most. There’s no compelling, strategic reason for the U.S. military to literally burn a hole through them once the Taliban have run off. If the Taliban are gone, then we can ponder defusing and decontamination at a deliberate pace (the village razing incident is written in a way that suggests the decision to burn the village was made quickly, for the sake of battle momentum). There’s no need to rush in with B-1s dropping tons of explosives on them.

So I didn’t intend, and I still don’t intend, to accuse anyone of malice. I stand by my charge of laziness, however. Look at the aftermath: this is rural Afghanistan. No one has land deeds or property records. The soldiers are giving the local sub-governor a pot of money and the power to issue now-official land deeds. There is no way in hell people will be compensated appropriately for what they lost (which is required under Article 40 of the Afghan constitution). There will be winners and losers, and the U.S. is funding the picking of winners and losers—a dangerous situation, and one I frankly think is impossible to solve without massive corruption. This is not a hopeful result, in other words. And the callousness with which both the soldiers and that researcher writing about them discuss it—up to sniffing that the Afghans should thank us for rebuilding, as if destroying a family’s possessions is perfectly okay so long as you replace it later—led me to assume the worst. I don’t see how this is a better, more humane option that will create fewer headaches in the long run than attempting to defuse and decontaminate mined villages.

Either way, and whatever more details emerge as these people try to explain themselves, we should be up front in asking hard, probing questions about the deliberate erasure of entire communities. I’m frankly shocked at how many people reacted against that. Our conduct in Afghanistan should never be above question.

John Little: Paula Broadwell, the author of the piece that triggered all of this, has since offered some clarification. There’s nothing earth shattering there though. It is exactly along the lines of what one would expect:

The Taliban had laden the roads, compounds, everywhere with booby traps. In the commander’s assessment, the deserted village was not worth clearing. If you lost several KIA and you might feel the same… SOF had tried to clear the village and had several EKIA but also lost two guys. Afghan commandos had attempted to take the village and got hammered by the IEDs and HEMsas well…

[T]he villagers told all of these visitors {Petraeus, an ABC news crew] that Flynn was their hero and they wanted him to move into the village with them. They express great gratitude for helping them claim security in their river valley and push the Taliban out. Sure they are pissed about the loss of their mud huts (look at the picture again) but that is why the BUILD story is important here.

Your counter-argument, if I can attempt a summary, is that even if we accept the military’s version of the story it still seems to indicate poor execution of our counterinsurgency strategy. You point to a naivete that, if systemic, is quite troubling:

The gullibility of Americans is also something I thought we would have moved beyond in 2011, but it still remains. In civil wars, locals—that is, non-combattants—are always friendly to the guys with guns. In the passage above Paula expresses dismay, and toys with feeling little sympathy for, villagers who accepted money rather than violence to leave their village. That is worse than calloused, and it’s the kind of glib attitude that comes, depressingly commonly enough, from the zombies living in the military’s COIN bubble. I’ve seen elders in Afghanistan smile warmly at me, talk about how much they hate the Taliban, and so on… only to, mere days later, be caught passing information along to a local insurgent commander because they were scared witless by a night letter tacked to their door. Christian Bleuer explored this years ago—in Kapisa, of all places—and it really is a universal phenomenon. Displaced villagers will warmly greet armed groups… especially if those groups are handing out money as well. It means nothing beyond that, however. We should not be this gullible still. But we are, and that’s really sad to see.

Do you think that this is a broader issue? If so, can it be addressed with better training or do you think that inherent flaws in strategy are coming to light in stories like this?

Johsua Foust: I think it’s absolutely is the broader issue. The military still is, by and large, operating in total ignorance of not just local issues, but a basic acceptance of the humanity of Afghans. I shy away from complaining they misunderstand culture—and I say this having made my income for several years through coaching the Army on cultural issues in Afghanistan—because it doesn’t require specialized knowledge to see that poor people have bad housing, and that they are exceedingly vulnerable to displacement during conflict (to keep it confined to this one issue). So in this case, I’m baffled at the complete lack of empathy toward the villagers who were given a choice: resist the Taliban and suffer, or take some cash and flee.

As for addressing it, I lose my way a bit. I’ve seen what counts as “cultural training” within TRADOC, and at CGSC under General Caldwell. It’s a mixed bag, like most training is. You will always have good students and bad students, guys for whom this sort of mindset comes naturally and guys who either struggle with it or reject it outright. I am not knowledgeable enough about the Army’s training system to say how that can be remedied, or if it even can be.

But here’s part of the problem in discussing all of this: none of us were there. Frankly, Paula Broadwell wasn’t there when they burned this village to the ground. So already we’re working on filtered experiences, and that introduces a lot of bias that’s difficult to sift through when trying to figure out what happened. I’ve also never worn the uniform (at least, as a soldier), nor have I led men into combat—so I get really uncomfortable complaining about a bad decision made in defense of soldiers’ lives. And most people are—understandably, and appropriately, I think—hesitant to second-guess the decisions of a commander leading his men in combat.

However, there are some things that are worth questioning, even if it’s painful, and even if it ends up going nowhere. The decision to raze a town should be one of them. You don’t call in almost 50,000 pounds of bombs on a single target without a lot of signatures up the line of command. So this wasn’t a rogue decision, and it wasn’t done in the spur of the moment—this was a deliberate, considered, approved decision. And so far, from all the tiny amounts of data we have on it, it is an appalling decision. So in that sense, I think we really do need to keep pressing on the issue to try to figure out what really happened.

John Little: Based on your experience do you believe that there is willingness, at the command level, to look at events like this and identify opportunities to enhance the approach or is there just overwhelming pressure to execute, to maintain momentum?

Joshua Foust: I’m sure there is willingness somewhere in the chain of command. The problem is, General Petraeus knows this is going on—he hosted an ABC camera crew viewing the rubble—and we have no data to suggest he thinks the approach is flawed or could be improved. I do know there is pressure—implicit pressure, in a lot of ways, but pressure nevertheless—to “execute a counterinsurgency strategy” in the south. And that can easily lead to bizarre or inexplicable behavior getting sold as COIN.

John Little: Given the challenges (many of which originate in powerful neighboring states) do you think it’s possible that the current state of affairs is about as close to success as we’ll get? Is Afghanistan doomed to remain a problem to be managed rather than an emerging modern state that can be nurtured or incubated? Could it even be said that in the end our footprint there is less about Afghanistan and more about countering a long list of troublesome regional forces?

Joshua Foust: I think there can definitely be some improvement to the current state of affairs. I’d love to see us go back to cooperating with Iran in tracking down Taliban figures, as we were in 2001-2 (there are rumors the Iranians coordinate some counter-drug operations with the U.S., but no one wants to talk about that). I really do think that we can lessen the problem emanating from Pakistan by exploring a way to guarantee their interests in a post-America Afghanistan, and that one way we can do that is with beginning political reconciliation with the Taliban.

None of those developments means militancy will go away or the war will end. And in that sense, I don’t think management means “doom” in the sense of it being a negative thing. A reduced American footprint, combined with increased regional engagement, has the potential to be a net improvement for the country. It could also blow up in our face—which is the challenge with any course of action.

John Little: So is COIN only useful in the sense that it buys time until we negotiate a political solution with Pakistan and other regional players? If and when that agreement comes do you think that it will publicly acknowledge Pakistan as the guarantor of Afghanistan’s stability? Does it require that commitment and acknowledgment to succeed?

Joshua Foust: I don’t get the sense that COIN is a delaying tactic. A lot of people at the top—including General Petraeus and his fan club—genuinely believe COIN is the best thing, ever, for all things in Afghanistan. I obviously don’t share that assumption, but I do think they believe that honestly and aren’t playing a shell game. I also don’t have any indication that the top leadership has any real interest in political solutions with Pakistan and other regional players (which would, by design, have to include Iran, only Iran is excluded from NATO summits on the topic).

Now, I happen to think that we must publicly acknowledge and at least make a good-faith effort to secure Pakistan’s interests in post-America Afghanistan. I also am not aware of any push within the U.S. policy community to do that. Everything remains focused on “breaking” the Taliban, of severing Pakistan’s relationship to it, and so on. I’m not at all hopeful those counterproductive ideas will be reversed by the 2014 “withdrawal” date.

John Little: Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that something resembling a withdrawal occurs in 2014. We’ll also assume (and this is probably the safer assumption of the two) that the current military and diplomatic approaches will continue on their current tracks with little or no change. Where does that leave Afghanistan and where does that leave the region? What does 2015 look like?

Joshua Foust: I don’t see any evidence that we’re actually going to withdraw in 2014. Even Joe Biden, who had been consistently and vocally supporting “drop-dead” withdrawal dates, just told Hamid Karzai that we’ll be sticking around past 2014. So from where I sit, that leaves Afghanistan largely unchanged—there might be some withdrawal, but probably not to the extent that even people like CNAS advocate (which would be down to near-2005 levels, or around 25,000-30,000 troops). There will also be an increasingly shrill wing of the commentariat that will cry bloody murder at the thought of reducing our presence without catastrophic victory, regardless of ground conditions—which is exactly what’s happened with the July, 2011 date.

So, 2015? It will probably look much more like 2008 than anything else. And that ain’t good.