From our partners at The Agonist
Read the whole of this excerpt from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book about how force protection and bureaucracy partnered with apathy and incompetence in the US “civilan surge” in Afghanistan.
Once she started her job, she began to understand why her colleagues had no great love for their work. Meetings consumed much of the day. Her boss expected her to be at her desk until 10 at night to draft memos, cables, and talking points for senior officials to read at meetings with Afghans. Nobody wanted her to go out and talk to her Afghan contacts or to soak up the country. They simply wanted responses to their emails right away. Much of what she was asked to do could have been accomplished back in Washington — at far less cost to American taxpayers. But then she wouldn’t have been counted as part of the State Department’s “civilian surge,” which was intended to dramatically increase the ranks of diplomats and USAID personnel in Afghanistan in tandem with the military’s troop surge.
Most of Coish’s colleagues also spent all day in their cubicles, hunched over computers. Embassy rules prevented Americans from leaving the compound unless they had official business — a meeting with an Afghan government official, dinner with a European diplomat, a visit to a U.S.-funded development project — and even then they had to obtain permission from the security office, which allotted the armored cars in the motor pool. Restaurants and offices had to be on a list of approved locations. Staffers had to identify the people with whom they were meeting and then submit reports upon their return to the embassy compound detailing the substance of their discussions with any citizens of countries listed on the State Department’s Security Environment Threat List, which, of course, included Afghanistan.
…Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent. The embassy health clinic doled out increasing quantities of antidepressant pills, and when a State Department psychiatrist arrived in February 2010 for a month-long visit, there was a rush to make appointments.
The most common salve, however, was booze.
It’s not as if the civilians are the only ones to blame though. Many have argued that the US problem with counter-insurgency is “We’re not that good at it” as Larry Korb succinctly put it. The force protection paradigm that hamstrung the civilian effort in Afghanistan has also hamstrung the military one. As Nir Rosen wrote in 2009:
COIN is not going in for a few hours, calling a shura—a sit-down—with some elders, and heading back to base before the chow hall closes. COIN is dangerous, and the military is risk-averse. American casualties peaked in Iraq when the military got serious about protecting the people. COIN advocates have changed the language used by the top brass, but the bureaucracy is still dominated by old-school army thinking. All they can do is try to take COIN and graft it onto conventional doctrine.
The military has been talking for a long time about being good at complex operations, simultaneously fighting and providing aid. But they still make it up as they go. Each unit takes its knowledge back home with it, leaving its successor to relearn everything. Relationships formed with Afghans—still viewed derisively in the military as “Hajis”—are lost.
The troubles with COIN are institutional. The American military and policy establishments are incapable of doing COIN. They lack the curiosity to understand other cultures and the empathy to understand what motivates people.
The negative pressure of the force protection paradigm on the ground will always outweigh any fine words on paper about “hearts and minds”. A deep-seated paradigm of force protection, aka Fobbitmania, means: airstrikes based on bad, bought intel; contracted mercs running over civilians with whole convoys; relying for an appearance of success on bribing already corrupt warlords; relying on security forces manned by criminals who are already in the pockets of warlords; corruption and bribe-taking within the military (Petraeus’ aide Lt. Col Lavonda Selph et al); acceptable “collateral damage” ratios of 50-1 or worse (e.g. drones in Pakistan); freefire orgies on civilians after attacks – and a whole lot more, none of it condusive to long-term COIN success.
When the connection between theory and real-world outcome requires America to do some things that are unlikely or impossible, you should know your strategy and it’s theoretical foundations are in trouble.