Afghanistan: It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know

Gareth Porter argues at Antiwar.com that admitted ignorance of the ins and outs of Afghan life lead us to hit the wrong targets. Some details:

A Special Operations Forces raid on Feb. 12 on what was supposed to be the compound of a Taliban leader but that killed three women and two Afghan government officials demonstrated a fatal weakness of the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan: after eight years of operating there, the U.S. military still has no understanding of the personal, tribal, and other local sociopolitical conflicts.

In targeting the suspected Taliban in such raids, therefore, the U.S. military command has been forced to rely on informants of unknown reliability – and motives.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his chief of intelligence, Gen. Michael Flynn, have admitted the profound ignorance of the U.S. military about Afghan society...

In an interview with National Public Radio Aug. 13, Flynn admitted, "What we really have not done to the degree that we need to is really truly understand the population: the tribal dynamics, the tribal networks, the ethnicity…."

Such dynamics are different "from valley to valley," Flynn observed.

And in an unusual paper published by the Center for a New American Security last October, Flynn was even more frank, saying, "I don’t want to say we’re clueless, but we are. We’re no more than fingernail deep in our understanding the environment."

The article goes on to discuss instances when our ignorance allows U.S. troops to be used essentially as pawns in internal tribal fighting in Afghanistan. An example:

In the most widely known instance of mass civilian casualties from a U.S. attack, an air strike on the village of Azizabad in Heart province in August 2008, Afghan officials expressed certainty that U.S. commanders had been misled by a rival of clan leader Timor Shah, who had died some months before.

An investigation of the incident by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) revealed that a former business partner of Timor’s who still had personal enmity toward the family – and who had been involved in various criminal activities – had passed false information to Coalition Forces that there would be a big gathering of Taliban fighters in Azizabad.

The U.S. command carried out a devastating bombing of what turned out to have been a memorial ceremony for Timor Shah.

As many as 90 civilians, including 60 children, were killed by the bombing.

I wrote on Obama's eternal Afghan war last month.

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  • ||

    But we have to stay the course, or honor the fallen, or whatever bullshit line Obama would use to justify our continued military activity in Afghanistan if the media ever asked him about it.

  • Jorgen||

    I feel really sorry for the military people trying to manage this. They're in a totally impossible situation without the requisite skills, and they have to face the fact that the mistakes they make result in death after death after death. I don't know how they handle it.

  • affenkopf||

    I feel really sorry for the military people trying to manage this.

    I don't. Volunteer force, they knew what they signed uo for.

  • .||

    Volunteers don't control policy.

  • Naga Sadow||

    For fucks sake . . . why are we still in Afghanistan? Fuck that place. And Iraq. Why the fuck are we still in Iraq? Fuck that place too.

  • ||

    Wasn't that the whole point of Green Zone, except in Iraq?

  • ||

    "Gareth Porter argues at Antiwar.com that admitted ignorance of the ins and outs of Afghan life lead us to hit the wrong targets."

    Even when you understand the locals perfectly, you're gonna get a lot of that...

    It seems like Balko posts another story about law enforcement in the good ol' USA screwing up like that just about every day.

    And that's despite raid officers who speak the native language, had a judge review the warrant and where they know ahead of time that people who've been mistakenly targeted may have the opportunity to sue for damages.

    "...the U.S. military command has been forced to rely on informants of unknown reliability – and motives."

    Yeah, sounds like any one of a dozen Balko posts I've read over the past year. We're not calling in missile strikes on suspected drug dealers, but it's the same principle, isn't it?

  • Anon||

    +100

  • ||

    ""Yeah, sounds like any one of a dozen Balko posts I've read over the past year.""

    I have yet to read one Balko article about LEOs killing 90 people in one raid.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    I thought those Human Terrain Teams were supposed to resolve some of these issues. I guess that doctrine isn't working or being implemented well.

  • ||

    "I have yet to read one Balko article about LEOs killing 90 people in one raid."

    We're not calling in missile strikes on suspected drug dealers, but it's the same principle, isn't it?

  • ||

    ""We're not calling in missile strikes on suspected drug dealers, but it's the same principle, isn't it?""

    There's a huge difference between what's expected of LEOs and what's expected of combat troops. What principle are you referring to?

  • ||

    Nevermind, I think you answered below.

  • David Koresh||

    I have.

  • ||

    That comparison is incredibly insulting to the military. The police "mishaps" that Sir Balko reports on are almost always due to gross negligence and sloppy police work, not due to an incomplete knowledge of local culture.

  • ||

    That's my point.

    These sorts of problems arise even without the culture barrier.

    Intelligence will always be faulty. Here in the US, the cops make similar mistakes for similar reasons all the time, and that's with the same culture and all kinds of safeguards in place...

    ...which is why Balko, I think, is skeptical of No-knock warrants--no one can guarantee there won't be any honest mistakes.

    So color me skeptical that the issue is getting to the know the culture better--that doesn't seem to make much of a difference here at home.

  • ||

    Maybe that answers my question.

    Getting to know them better may prevent us from being suckered so easily. Cops distrust criminals because they have some understanding of them and their behavior. They kinda know criminals. When cops get intel from a criminal they can consider the source. It's hard to consider the source in Afghanistan if you don't in some way understand who's giving it to you.

    I might be making your point here, but I think they both suffer from the Fox Mulder syndrome, they just want to believe. So whatever intel they get, they will bias it toward what they want to do.

  • Old Mexican||

    In targeting the suspected Taliban in such raids, therefore, the U.S. military command has been forced to rely on informants of unknown reliability – and motives.

    Whenever you have a problem with your neighbor and his bitch of a wife, call the US Army and tell them they're Taliban. Same as in The Crucible . . . same shit.

  • rayban||

    I really love your website, it's so useful, i'm just baking a cake for my aunt!weicome to http://www.ray-bans.org

  • ev||

    Oooh, rayban is either meta-sentient or profoundly impaired.

    I enjoy the idea that helpfulness is related to charitably baking goods.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    Afghanistan? It's not who you know, it's who you kill. At least, that's Obama's policy. He certainly doesn't know anyone there. If he did, he might not kill so many of them. What's all this "hegemon" stuff about, anyway? I don't get that.

  • Xeones||

    For fucks sake . . . why are we still in Afghanistan? Fuck that place. And Iraq. Why the fuck are we still in Iraq? Fuck that place too.

    Dude, we're still in Germany, Japan, and Korea. We ain't ever leaving southwest Asia.

  • Cabeza de Vaca||

    We'll have to leave eventually. Sooner or later, our broke nation will no longer be able to base troops all over the world.

  • ||

    Probably not what you had in mind.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04.....st.html?hp

  • The Amityville Flies||

    GET OUT

  • Xeones||

    We'll have to leave eventually. Sooner or later, our broke nation will no longer be able to base troops all over the world.

    We can only hope.

  • ||

    With hope like that, who needs despair?

  • ||

    Michael Yon recently put up a post on night fighting in Afghanistan (fascinating, BTW - if you're not following Yon, you're not using one of the best sources of info on Iraq).

    At the end of the post, he notes that his embed was terminated, and speculates that is a sign that the military is increasingly concerned that the fight isn't going their way.

    Just sayin'.

  • The Art-P.O.G.||

    I can't believe you didn't put up a link.

  • ||

    Me neither.

    Go here.

  • creech||

    How does it honor the fallen to have the U.S. Military serving, essentially, as a hit squad to settle tribal and family disputes? We've turned some of the finest men and women in America into mercenaries and have corrupted all sense of defending American liberty. When Bush and Cheney did this, they were criminals.
    Now that Obama and Biden are doing it,
    it is "the right war."

  • ||

    Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his chief of intelligence, Gen. Michael Flynn, have admitted the profound ignorance of the U.S. military about Afghan society...

    Maybe the Hoopster-in-Chief could invite them over for a game of O-U-T in the White House driveway.

  • ||

    ""Maybe the Hoopster-in-Chief could invite them over for a game of O-U-T in the White House driveway.""

    And that would help how?

  • ||

    ""We've turned some of the finest men and women in America into mercenaries and have corrupted all sense of defending American liberty. ""

    We were never defending American liberty in Afghanistan. The purpose was to capture or kill OBL, and deny AQ a base for operations. But that has turned into a keep the taliban out of power struggle. How much is that worth?

  • ||

    This is over a year old. Still relevent.

    http://www.villagevoice.com/20.....-vacation/

  • ||

    Back in the heady days of 2008, supporting the war in Afghanistan was a useful way for Democrats to show they were not your father's wimpy liberal. It allowed them the opportunity to look tough while still beating up on Bush and the GOP with the Iraq stick. Of course, by that point the war in AFG was (a) not going well, and (b) pretty pointless in its own right, but as it wasn't producing as many flag-draped coffins it was a convenient thing to hitch one's wagon to.

    If Obama faced facts and pulled out, the GOP would hammer him. Even the Iraq war supporters among us who now question the AFG war know this would happen. He can't afford that, since he still has a lot of domestic policy accomplishments he wants to put in place. If a few Afghani civilian eggs have to be broken to make his progressive omelette, so be it.

  • AJs||

    So you are saying that the war has more to do with politics than it does with protecting the US from terrorists? Wait, are we talking about Bush or Obama, I've lost track...

  • ||

    Is there a difference?

  • ||

    Oooh, burned me good. Too bad I opposed Bush's war policies too!

  • ||

    The next 6 months will be critical...

  • Lakota||

    In an interview with National Public Radio Aug. 13, Flynn admitted, "What we really have not done to the degree that we need to is really truly understand the population: the tribal dynamics, the tribal networks, the ethnicity..."

    No problem, pale face, just round them up and shoot them.

  • Latin Dork||

    I know that this is probably unwelcome, but perhaps some editor will find it helpful:

    The title ought to be "It's not what you know, it's whom you know." The case of the relative pronoun is determined by its function. In this instance, it’s an object, and takes the objective case (cf. quem vs. qui).

  • Another Phil||

    You're right. It's unwelcome.

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