Kandahar gains came with 'brutal' tactics
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The Barack Obama administration's claim of "progress" in its war
strategy is based on the military seizure of three rural districts outside
Kandahar City in October.
But those tactical gains came at the price of further exacerbating the basic US
strategic weakness in Afghanistan - antagonism toward the foreign presence
shared throughout the Pashtun south.
The military offensive in Kandahar, which had been opposed clearly and vocally
by the local leadership in the province, was accompanied by an array of
military tactics marked by increased brutality. The most prominent of those
tactics was a large-scale demolition of homes that has left widespread
bitterness among the civilians who had remained in their villages when the
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offensive was launched, as well as those
who had fled before the offensive.
The unprecedented home demolition policy and other harsh tactics used in the
offensive suggest that General David Petraeus, the NATO commander in
Afghanistan, has abandoned the notion that he will ever win over the population
in those Taliban strongholds.
The New York Times first reported the large-scale demolition of houses in a
November 16 story that said US troops in Arghandab, Zhari and Panjwaii
districts had been using armored bulldozers, high explosives, missiles and
airstrikes in "routinely destroying almost every unoccupied home or unused farm
building in areas where they are operating".
Neither US nor Afghan officials have offered any estimate of the actual number
of homes destroyed, but a spokesman for the provincial governor told the Times
that the number of houses demolished was "huge".
Confirming the widespread demolition policy, Colonel Hans Bush, a spokesman for
Petraeus, suggested that it was necessary to provide security, because so many
houses were "booby-trapped" with explosives.
But Bush also acknowledged that US troops were using a wide array of "tools" to
eliminate tree lines in which insurgents could hide. And the demolition policy
was clearly driven primarily by International Security Assistance Force's
concerns about the improvised explosive device (IED) war that the Taliban has
been winning in 2010.
The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran revealed in a November 19 article
that, in one operation in Zhari district, the military had used more than a
dozen mine-clearing charges, each of which destroyed everything - houses,
trees, and crops - in a 100-yard-long (91-meters-long) path wide enough for a
The district governor in Arghandab, Shah Muhammed Ahmadi, acknowledged that
entire villages had been destroyed - a policy he defended by claiming that
there were no people left in them. "[I]n some villages, like Khosrow," he said,
"that we've found completely empty and full of IEDs, we destroy them without
agreement, because it was hard to find the people, and not just Khosrow but
many villages we had to destroy to make them safe."
But Colonel David Flynn, the battalion commander of a unit of the 101st
Airborne Division responsible for a section of the district, contradicted the
claim that demolition was only carried out if the people who owned the houses
could not be found.
Flynn told reporters of London's Daily Mail he had issued an ultimatum to
residents of Khosrow Sofia: provide full information on the location of IEDs
the Taliban had planted there or face destruction of the village, according to
the account published on October 26.
Flynn told the reporters that one of his platoons had a casualty rate of 50% in
Flynn later claimed that the residents had responded to his threat by clearing
out all the IEDs themselves, according to Carl Forsberg of the Institute for
the Study of War. Researcher and author Alex Strick Van Linschoten, one of the
only two Westerners to have lived independently in Kandahar City in recent
years, said a friend had been told the same thing.
However, Linschoten told Inter Press Service (IPS) that he understands from an
eyewitness that at least two other villages in Flynn's area of responsibility,
including the nearby Khosrow Ulya, were leveled and one was reduced to "a dust
District chief Ahmad referred to "Khosrow" as one of the villages he said the
Americans "had to destroy to make them safe".
The threat to destroy a village if its residents did not come forward with
information would be a "collective penalty" against the civilian population,
which is strictly forbidden by the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the
Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
It is unclear how widely the threat to demolish homes was used in Zhari and
Panjwaii and how many of the villages were destroyed in retribution for
refusing to do so.
According to data provided by the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization
(JIEDDO), however, only 13 IEDs were turned in by the population in the entire
country in October. That suggests that the residents of the newly occupied
villages in the three districts did not provide any information about IEDs.
The house demolition policy and the increased use of collective punishment were
part of a broader strategy of increasing the pressure against the Pashtun
population in the south. The level of targeted raids by US Special Operations
Forces against suspected Taliban was tripled before Petraeus took over command
from General Stanley McChrystal in June, even though McChrystal acknowledged
publicly that those raids generated intense anger across the country against
Although those targeted raids killed and captured a large number of Taliban
commanders, they also subjected thousands of part-time guerrillas and
supporters to arrest and detention. The effort to weaken the Taliban insurgency
through such violent tactics is bound to continue the cycle of more Pashtuns
vowing revenge against foreign troops and rejecting the Afghan government.
Journalist Anand Gopal, a Pashtun-speaking specialist on Afghanistan,
discovered another form of collective punishment practiced during the
offensive. Gopal told IPS that people in Zhari district reported two cases in
which US and Afghan forces rounded up and detained virtually everyone in a
village after receiving small arms fire from it.
The house demolitions in Kandahar have apparently affected many thousands of
people. The demolitions "have made a whole lot of people very angry, because
they will be cold and hungry in the coming months", said a US source who asked
not to be identified.
But the US-NATO command is evidently unconcerned about that anger.
Chandrasekaran quoted a "senior official" as asserting that, by forcing people
to go to the district governor's office to submit their claims for damaged
property, "in effect you're connecting the government to the people."
Now Brigadier General Nick Carter, commander of US-NATO troops in southern
Afghanistan, has openly embraced that justification of the house demolition
policy. In an interview with the AfPak Channel published last week, he
suggested that the demolition of houses "allows the district governor to
connect with the population".
But that connection is certain to be marked by bitterness. A tribal elder in
Panjawaii was quoted by the Post's Chandrasekaran as dismissing the offer of
compensation for houses destroyed as "just kicking dirt in our eyes".
The new level of brutality used in the Kandahar operation indicates that
Petraeus has consciously jettisoned the central assumption of his
counter-insurgency theory, which is that harsh military measures undermine the
main objective of winning over the population.
But there are tell-tale signs that higher-level commanders in Kandahar know
that those tactics will not defeat the Taliban either. Flynn, the US commander
in a section of Arghandab, told the Daily Mail, "At the end of the day, you
cannot kill your way to victory here. It will have to be a political solution."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.