Hearts, minds, and gunships: What are we really doing in Afghanistan?

Hearts, minds, and gunships: What are we really doing in Afghanistan?

It goes without saying that the accidental killing of nine Afghan boys by an American helicopter gunship was yet another public relations setback for the U.S. war effort. But more than that, I think it may also tell us a lot about how we are really waging that war, which is somewhat at odds with the rhetorical emphasis that it tends to get back home. The incident also underscores the inherent contradictions in U.S. strategy and does not augur well for our long-term prospects.

Ever since the publication of Field Manual 3-24, much of the rhetorical emphasis in U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine has been on "population protection," along with the necessity of building local institutions. As noted at the very beginning of FM 3-24: "A successful COIN operation meets the contested population’s needs to the extent needed to win popular support while protecting the population from the insurgents." To win "hearts and minds," in short, a counterinsurgency force is supposed to provide security for the local population so that the enemy cannot win local support via intimidation or by exploiting local rivalries. Protecting the population is also supposed to earn their gratitude and convince them that the central government and its NATO allies are winning, so that local populations will tilt in our direction and provide us with additional intelligence, thereby allowing us to go after insurgents effectively.

This approach sounds great on paper, and it helps make the war more palatable to Americans back home. We all like to think that our armed forces are performing noble deeds, and protecting Afghan civilians from the likes of the Taliban certainly qualifies on that score. The problem, however, is that this is a misleading picture of what our forces are actually doing in Afghanistan. (It’s also an oversimplification of what the Field Manual actually says because it also devotes plenty of space to the military operations that are also part of any serious counterinsurgency effort.)

The deaths of these nine Afghan boys remind us that this is a real war and that we’re actually devoting a lot (most?) of our effort not to population protection but to killing suspected insurgents. U.S. reliance on airpower has increased dramatically, and USAF airstrikes are reportedly up by some 172 percent since General David Petraeus replaced Stanley McChrystal last year. The approach is also consistent with greater U.S. reliance on drone strikes in Pakistan and should be seen as part of an intensifying effort to kill as many insurgents as possible and especially to target key insurgent leaders.

Furthermore, "population protection" itself is not always a purely benign or politically neutral act. Protecting a local population often requires interfering with their daily lives in sometimes onerous and bothersome ways, whether through the construction of massive concrete barriers (as in Baghdad), or "strategic hamlets" (as in Vietnam), or through intrusive search missions in local villages. Even when we are in fact improving the security of the local population, that may not be how the people we are supposedly protecting perceive it. In the Pech Valley, at least, the local population mostly wanted us to get out and leave them alone.

Put all these elements together, and the central conundrum of our position becomes clearer. Heavier reliance on airpower and more aggressive military operations on the ground are bound to lead to more accidental civilian deaths, because military force is a crude weapon, humans are imperfect, and errors are bound to happen no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Yet the more we emphasize that our objective is "hearts and minds" and protecting the population, the more damage the inevitable mistakes do in the eyes of Afghans, the world at large, and to popular support here at home.

Ironically, Section E-6 of FM 3-24 makes this same point quite clearly (my emphasis):

The proper and well-executed use of aerial attack can conserve resources, increase effectiveness, and reduce risk to U.S. forces. Given timely, accurate intelligence, precisely delivered weapons with a demonstrated low failure rate, appropriate yield, and proper fuse can achieve desired effects while mitigating adverse effects. However, inappropriate or indiscriminate use of air strikes can erode popular support and fuel insurgent propaganda. For these reasons, commanders should consider the use of air strikes carefully during COIN operations, neither disregarding them outright nor employing them excessively."

But in their zeal to find some way to turn the war around (or to at least appear to have done so), have our commanders forgotten their own advice? And given all the internal contradictions in U.S. strategy, doesn’t it suggest that the war simply isn’t winnable (in any meaningful sense), at anything like a reasonable cost?

For more on these important issues, see BCSIA fellow Jacqueline Hazelton’s paper, "Compellence in Counterinsurgency Warfare," and Amy Goodman’s interview with journalist Rick Rowley here.