Victims of a Night Raid

Time‘s Jason Motlagh has an excellent story about the aftermath of an Afghanistan night raid. Read the whole awful thing, but this stands out:

In Loyi Rud, the effects of the night raid appear to have alienated even the local law enforcement officials. Nimatullah, after all, had no prior criminal record, and was well known to neighbors and area police as a simple farmer who minded his own business. “The fact is that Nimatullah was just a farmer, not a Talib or a smuggler,” says district governor Haji Abdul Ghani.The job of rooting out suspected Taliban or criminals, he argues, is best left to Afghan forces who have a better knowledge of local people and their affiliations.

Remember the relationship between civilian casualties and new enemies. Remember what Faisal Shahzad said about the Afghanistan/Pakistan wars radicalizing him. The Taliban only poses a strategic threat to the U.S. insofar as it maintains its ties to al-Qaeda; Afghan civilians pose none at all. Provocations like these are the surest path to changing that. I remain unclear what overall utility the night raids have to the war, since it seems like the Taliban have no shortage of the “local leaders” or “facilitators” that ISAF’s press releases claim to take off the board.

Meanwhile, definitely check out Michael Cohen’s piece in the Nation about counterinsurgency theories unraveling in Afghanistan. I’m not really sure if it’s a piece about the untenability of the Afghanistan war or about Afghanistan being a particularly unsuitable environment for it. Mike, would the night raids count as “enemy-centric COIN” under your rubric, or are they too tactical for that — a highly kinetic enterprise in a broader population-centric strategy, if one that fits uncomfortably within it in practice? From my perspective, the strategy has in practice de-emphasized population-centricity over the last six months, which counts as an implicit recognition that the U.S. doesn’t have the time or the resources — and the interest, by further implication — in counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, unless we’re to define “counterinsurgency” down.

(And not to sound all “counterinsurgency can’t fail, it can only be failed” — that’s stupid and I don’t mean it this way — but as long as we’re having this academic debate, I wonder what implications are for the deemphasis of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan on COIN theory. There shouldn’t be any! The historic/strategic lessons of COIN are that you should only only only do it when all else fails. COIN makes the most sense as a mitigation strategy, or as a set of principles to temper or guide a broader strategic framework [“How To Uproot Terrorist Networks”]. It won’t be appropriate in all cases, and perhaps we’re now seeing senior leadership conceding that Afghanistan is one of them.)

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman