Officials who support escalating our troop presence in Afghanistan love to talk about counterinsurgency. One of the most persistent arguments in favor of escalating our troop presence is that doing so will allow us to field enough troops to fight a true counterinsurgency campaign and thereby reduce reliance on airstrikes, a form of attack that accounts for most of the civilians killed by our forces. (This is despite the fact that prior to launching this little endeavor, propagandists for the military and for the ironmongers convinced Christian ethicists that the Afghanistan war could be “just” by touting airstrikes as the civilian-friendly way to fight wars.) For example:
The increase in ground troops could allow for the use of fewer airstrikes, [General] McKiernan [, top U.S. commander in Afghanistan,] said. The relatively heavy use of bombings and other air power in Afghanistan has caused an increasing number of civilian casualties.
Today’s Wall Street Journal, though, proves that this rationale for more troops is asinine.
President Barack Obama is hoping to boost the flagging war effort in Afghanistan by sending 17,000 reinforcements. Most of them will be deployed to small, remote bases such as Seray, a walled compound of trenches and fortified buildings near the Pakistan border. Many of these new outposts will be in eastern and southern Afghanistan, the most violent parts of the country.
To understand why it’s asinine to argue that this strategy for more troops will reduce civilian-shredding airstrikes, consider the following report from Human Rights Watch:
High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units-normally small numbers of lightly armed personnel-came under insurgent attack…
The basic argument for escalation goes like this: we have too few troops on the ground. When a small armed unit of American soldiers comes under attack, they have to call in airstrikes to avoid being overwhelmed. But those airstrikes, because they are “on the fly” reactive operations and not carefully planned hits based on reputable intelligence, kill civilians at an alarming rate. These civilian deaths help drive the popular outrage fueling the insurgency. More troops would then, presumably, provide reinforcements on the ground to reduce the need for air support. More troops would also supposedly allow troops to “hold” geographic areas, build relationships with local populations, protect those populations, and gain better intelligence to reduce civilian casualties caused by hitting the wrong targets.
This counterinsurgency doctrine is naive enough on its own about the psychological dynamics of war, but that’s not the point. The point is that the strategy for the new troops is the exact opposite of the rationale given for their deployment. Instead of deploying them to population centers like Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, the U.S. military scatters them in remote, small outposts in hostile terrain and among the most hostile populations. So, rather than field large numbers of troops in the main population centers, as one might expect from a counterinsurgency strategy, the military actually just multiplies the number of small, isolated units under fire.
You might think, “Hey, wait…won’t that cause increased demand for airstrikes from those small numbers of troops under fire? And aren’t those the kind of airstrikes that tend to kill civilians?”
That’s what’s happening right now. The WSJ article describes this exact dynamic:
Hurriedly throwing on body armor and helmets, a trio of soldiers ran to the base’s mortar pit and began firing artillery shells at a nearby mountain they call Knuckle 1. When the Apaches arrived from a nearby base, the helicopters strafed the mountain with their machine guns and fired rockets at the ridgeline. The percussive sound of each explosion echoed across Seray like a thunder clap.
According to the troops at the base, this is a regular pattern:
“Day comes, day goes,” said Spc. Trey Dart, taking shelter under a makeshift roof of green sandbags. “Firefights are just another part of the routine.”
The Obama Administration should reverse its escalation policy right now if it wants to avoid a very, very ugly turn in the Afghanistan war. This strategy is predicated on a troop deployment pattern that will increase the number of airstrikes and related civilian deaths. And, to make matters worse, this deployment scheme is likely to cause a massive increase in the incidence of PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries:
In late December, the military dispatched psychiatric counselor Maurice Sheehan to visit outposts including Seray. He interviewed the base’s soldiers for signs of suicidal tendencies or other psychological problems.
“This place is a pressure cooker,” says Mr. Sheehan, a Navy captain who now works for the U.S. Public Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The fighting, the isolation, it all adds up.”
Private First Class Rodney Hufford lost most of his pinky when he was shot in the hand in September. Months later, he still has trouble sleeping.
“It’s the nightmares, mostly,” he said.
Listen folks, if you care about anyone involved in this–Afghans, U.S. troops, anyone at all–it’s time to start speaking out against your government’s policies in Afghanistan. A very ugly mix of high civilian casualties and degenerating mental health among U.S. forces is on the horizon. I don’t want another Vietnam on my conscience, and I’m betting you don’t either.
One of the most–if not the most–radical features of Jesus’ message was the way in which he identified the enemy of God’s people not in some foreign “other” but in the violence in the hearts of both the Roman occupiers and the violent nationalist resistance movements of his day. The result of this policy in Afghanistan, if we don’t put a stop to it, will be a case study in violent mimesis as our escalating response to our opponents’ violence calls forth even more violence from them. More civilians will die, more outrage will swell the ranks of the Taliban, and we’ll add more and more troops to the mix. Our national wealth will be spent, and the troops used in this strategy, even if they escape major physical injuries, will bear the scars of this experience forever.
The real enemy isn’t the Taliban. The enemy is the war.