In a notorious night raid near Gardez in Afghanistan in February 2010, a US Special Ops team apparently hit the wrong suspect’s house, resulting in the deaths of innocents to include pregnant women. It was further alleged that US troops dug bullets out of the bodies of these women. Jeremy Scahill’s recent article at The Intercept reviews the US military’s investigation into these allegations, an investigation that cleared the troops involved of any wrongdoing. Scahill’s article is here and warrants careful reading.
I want to focus on a piece of evidence that Scahill obtained: the U.S. military’s evaluation of the Afghan province and its after-action report about the failure of its IO (information operations) “battle.” Here is the document in question:
First, I want to focus on the BLUF at the bottom right. In the Army, it stands for bottom line up front. Most senior commanders will read this first; in some cases, the BLUF will be all they read (and remember). What does the BLUF conclude?
It says the US military “lost the IO battle in our silence,” and that it’s only getting worse as the military remains silent. It sounds vaguely reassuring: at least the military realizes it bungled the “information operations” job. But it’s a bureaucratic message in bureaucratic language. It reduces the objective to winning the “information” war, which the military says it’s not winning because of poor coordination with Afghan and other forces, lack of responsiveness, and so on.
How about some honesty? Here’s my BLUF: The US military is losing because it often misidentifies the enemy and misunderstands the culture, leading to the deaths of innocents and the estrangement of even those Afghans who are initially open to American influence. And no matter how hard you try to spin those facts, you can’t hide that cold truth from the Afghan people. (You can hide it from the American people, but that’s another story.)
As General Stanley McChrystal himself said about Afghanistan in 2010: “We have shot an amazing number of [Afghan] people [often at checkpoints], but to my knowledge, none has ever proven to be a threat.”
Tell me again how you win “information operations” by shooting “an amazing number” of innocent people?
I want to focus on a second aspect of the US military’s document from Scahill’s article: the illusion of data substituting for real knowledge. Here’s the document again:
Look at the left column. It has “atmospherics” for the province, to include percentages for literacy, support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda (as if those are fixed in place), access to radio and telephone, and so on. Is this knowledge? Or a masquerade for it?
Interestingly, a quarter of the people are viewed as hostile to the USA. One assumes this percentage went up significantly after the raid in question.
My point is these maps and charts and slides give an illusion of data-driven competence, but when you read Scahill’s article, you realize American forces were totally ignorant of basic Afghan customs, such as rituals to prepare bodies for burial. That ignorance seems to have driven the initial confused and inaccurate account of honor killings of females, an account that was repeated widely (and wrongly) in the Western media.
Another minor yet telling point: An unnamed Ph.D. describes some of the Afghan peoples of the region as “great robbers” and “utter savages.” Think about how that description would color the attitudes of US troops assigned to the region. “Here we go, men. Time to kill us some robbers and savages.”
Scahill’s article and the document he provides is a microcosm of the wider failure of US operations in Afghanistan. The war, already in its 15th year, promises to be never-ending unless and until the US finally withdraws. In a profile not of courage but of pusillanimity, Obama has punted the decision to the next president, which doubtless means another 2-4 years of war, mistakes and misunderstandings and more deaths of innocents included.
When will the madness end?