The Perils of Counterinsurgency Warfare, Part 2

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales (left) is accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians.

Three weeks ago in this blog we considered the implications, for the Afghanistan War, of the Koran burnings by U.S. soldiers and NATO airstrikes resulting in civilian casualties.  The main theme of that blog post was that Counterinsurgency (COIN) Warfare requires a very different strategy than conventional warfare, and that events which would not matter greatly in conventional war may become pivotal events in a COIN campaign.  Since COIN requires “winning hearts and minds” and convincing civilians to support the government rather than the insurgents, the government (and any external forces–such as NATO–seeking to prop it up) must avoid civilian casualties and heavy-handed tactics, must be seen to be on the side of the people–by providing services and security–and must carefully guard their reputation and public image.

These requirements explain why the massacre of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier last week–an event of minimal strategic importance (harsh as it may sound) in the context of conventional warfare–threatens to derail the entire U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. An article in yesterday’s New York Times makes these risks clear:

“The killings have severely undermined longstanding NATO efforts to win support from villages in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, and have shaken relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who this week told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, who was on a visit to Afghanistan, that he wanted American forces out of villages by next year.”

It is worth quoting again one of the paradoxes of COIN (as written by General David Petraeus in the U.S. Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual):

Paradox #9: “Many Important Decisions Are Not Made by Generals. Successful COIN operations require competence and judgment by Soldiers and Marines at all levels. Indeed, young leaders—so-called “strategic corporals”—often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing. Preparation for tactical-level leaders requires more than just mastering Service doctrine; they must also be trained and educated to adapt to their local situations, understand the legal and ethical implications of their actions, and exercise initiative and sound judgment in accordance with their senior commanders’ intent.”

It appears the soldier responsible for this massacre was not merely exhibiting poor judgment or training but may have been suffering from mental illness, perhaps triggered by the extreme stress of war and multiple deployments.  But that doesn’t matter in COIN warfare: perceptions become reality, and if this attack looks like an intentional, cold-blooded attack on the Afghan people by an overbearing foreign occupying power (an army of infidels, the Taliban would argue) then that is what it is, for all intents and purposes.  It is sobering to think of how much lies outside the control of the generals in COIN warfare, and how the actions of a single disturbed soldier can undermine the efforts of so many others.

After a decade of U.S. and allied blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan, is this how the war ends?  With an unceremonious NATO retreat, the collapse of the Karzai government, and the return of the Taliban?   Or can the U.S. and its allies still salvage this war?

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