In the never-ending cycle of tragedy we see daily in the news, I find it difficult to react appropriately to one event before the next one leaves me numb. Ever since the news of the massacre at Kandahar, allegedly committed by Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, I have wanted to write something meaningful about this atrocity. But how can anything be said that meaningfully captures or comprehends the horror of the event? If, as it seems almost certain, that Sergeant Bales did indeed commit the murders with which he is charged, I will make no pretense at understanding his state of mind when he committed such heinous acts. Instead, my comments are directed toward U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
In a conversation about this tragedy, a wise friend remarked that events such as the massacre at Kandahar always occur in wars. And he noted that when they occur, our leaders invariably react the same. There is the official wringing of hands, the tortuous explanations about how the event was unforeseen, completely unanticipated, the product of combat fatigue, and lamentably, another tragic case of “collateral damage.” Investigations are launched. Congressional panels are convened. Generals are called on the carpet. Everyone in charge assures the nation, our allies, and the victims’ families that those responsible for these terrible acts will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Justice will be done. In short, everything possible will be done to make sure an event like this never happens again. But, of course, it does.
I recall that is how it was with regard to the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam, and more recently in the case at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the bombing of a wedding party in Iraq, as well as in several cases of murderous actions committed by U.S. troops in Iraq. The United states, of course, does not have a monopoly on atrocity. And my remarks should not be construed as a criticism of our national character. I am, however, critical of leaders whose naiveté leads them to buy into, and then sell, the policies that give rise to these atrocities. (A more cynical view is that the leaders are not at all naive, and it is the populous that is being duped.)
Our current policy of counter-insurgency is founded on fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of the enemy, human nature, and the nature of asymmetrical warfare. It is an outgrowth of the erroneous Bush doctrine that all terrorism is “state sponsored.” This is the argument that without state support, terrorists cannot operate. Therefore, if we can win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people and prevent a return to power of the Taliban, then Afghanistan will not be, as the New York Times puts it, a launchpad for terrorism. Even if this argument were correct, it must be remembered that the Taliban have never been the terrorists who threaten us. They played host to Al Quaeda prior to September 11, 2011. And while the Taliban are held at bay, Al Quaeda moves wherever they find convenient. The objections of the Pakistani leadership notwithstanding , Bin Laden found a safe-haven in Pakistan. Al Quaeda can move quickly and operate from many regions in the world, either from the territories of friendly regimes such as Yemen, or in the territories of regimes that cannot police their own populations, such as Pakistan. According to the National Terrorism Center, Al Quaeda operates in no fewer than 20 countries in the world. In addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan, these include Spain, Germany, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, and a number of others. This mobility is a feature of asymmetrical warfare.
Counter-insurgency also fails to appreciate the strength of culture as a determinant of outcomes. Presumably, our goal in Afghanistan is to establish a stable democratically elected government friendly to the United States and the West, and thus, prevent Al Quaeda from establishing a permanent foot-hold there. This approach depends upon winning the acceptance by the Afghan people of a governmental form that contradicts their cultural traditions. And the current policy unfairly places U.S. troops in the roles of armed social workers and community developers, roles for which they are not prepared. Our soldiers are not Peace Corps volunteers, and Afghanistan is a tribal society governed by warlords who have little interest in complying with democratic norms.
It goes without saying that atrocities, such as the one for which Robert Bales is accused, undo whatever good work has been achieved by the counter-insurgency approach. We cannot win hearts and minds by maliciously killing civilians. Counter-insurgency, in addition to its other failings, is a strategy for a long war. Now that Osama Bin Laden is dead, my guess is that most Americans see little need for a large and lasting military presence in Afghanistan. It’s time to bring our troops home.