Best Defense

Medium rare: Some thoughts from an Afghan war vet on the Quran burning riots

By "_B_" Best Defense frequent commenter I’d like to analyze the riots currently going on in Afghanistan by breaking down who did what and why. 1. Some ISAF guys (presumably detainee handler MPs) attempted to dispose via burning some Qurans that had been written in by detainees in an attempt to pass each other notes. ...

RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images
RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty Images

By "_B_"

Best Defense frequent commenter

I’d like to analyze the riots currently going on in Afghanistan by breaking down who did what and why.

1. Some ISAF guys (presumably detainee handler MPs) attempted to dispose via burning some Qurans that had been written in by detainees in an attempt to pass each other notes. Being idiots, they didn’t inquire about proper Quran disposal procedures. Being REAL idiots, they didn’t burn them thoroughly but just sort of scorched some of them.

2. Some Afghan garbage haulers working on the FOB found the half-burned Qurans. Being Muslim, they got riled up and snuck them off-base. (I presume the scorched Qurans seen in some photographs of demonstrations comes from Bagram and was not purposely burned by Afghans for propaganda purposes.)

3. The gate guards let them through without a proper search. You have to presume that all kinds of other paperwork is walking through the gate (and not being publicized).

4. Presumably, the trash haulers brought this material to someone who made the call to publicize it. Either local political or religious authorities, or the Taliban. After some kind of analysis, these guys decided to exploit the scorched Qurans in their hands as a PSYOP.

5. At this point, if the U.S. had a functional and integrated SIGINT, HUMINT and Counterintelligence providing coverage in the vicinity of Bagram, they would have been inside the enemy’s OODA loop and known what was going on. They apparently don’t have such an operation and were caught by surprise. It’s completely understandable — Bagram is only ISAF’s biggest base. Apparently, the talent and resources are pooled to support the pipe hitters who are snatching and killing Talib leadership, and there’s not enough left to let anyone know what’s going on outside the front gate. The fact that HUMINTers have been FOB-bound for at least the last half-decade due to retarded safety considerations which became a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn’t help much.

Had military leaders known what was going on, they would have theoretically been able to stop it by showing up to the key players’ houses and making them offers they could not refuse, e.g., "take this money, give me the burned Qurans and forget this ever happened, or we’ll kill you and your whole family," and/or come up with a PR plan to discredit these guys and make them look like liars (Hey, it’s a war — bad things happen.) Or they could have used a brute force approach and bribed the tribal leaders of the Afghans living around U.S. bases to have them keep their guys from protesting. In practice American PSYOPs mostly consist of printing up hackneyed agitprop and posting it on walls/dropping it from aircraft/reading it through loudspeakers at the local populace.

6. Upon having this information publicized and being invited by their local Taliban representatives to engage in rioting, thousands of Afghans did so. They did this even though every ISAF base has a well-defended perimeter and crowds, no matter how fervent, are notoriously bad at stopping 7.62 and even 5.56.

As a guy who’s once faced down an angry Afghan mob (small, about 120 guys,) I’d like to point out that contrary to common wisdom, they are not, in fact, irrational rage-monkeys. Afghans do not survive in a harsh, Malthusian environment by being bad at cost-benefit analysis. They knew that ISAF soldiers, driven by their fear of their commanders’ response, would try to avoid lighting them up. And they were right. The fact that some of the posters were in English during this first wave of protests makes me think that this was a fairly carefully planned Taliban PSYOP aimed at the American media. But from the standpoint of the average rioter, outrage and rioting are fun and potentially profitable — there’s good loot to be had from overrunning a U.S. base.

7. The ISAF commander, General Allen, apologized profusely to "to the president of Afghanistan, the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and most importantly, to the noble people of Afghanistan" and assured everyone that measures were being taken to ensure this would never happen again, ever. I personally suspect that GEN Allen, deep down inside, has not drank the COIN Kool-Aid and does not really care about the noble people of Afghanistan. Contrary to the tone of this message, he is not wrought with remorse and contrition and would, if he could, empirically prove the above thesis about how bad crowds are at stopping 7.62 and 5.56. At the very least, given free rein, he would follow the classic PR algorithm when confronted with embarrassing facts — lie, deny and make counteraccusations. But GEN Allen has learned the lesson presented by GEN McChrystal — give the U.S. media something juicy to dig into, and they’ll tell the president to fire you — and he will. Therefore, some public belly-crawling was in order, despite its predictable effects on the Afghan people’s behavior.

8. Emboldened by the commander of ISAF setting the tone for subsequent crowd control and public relations efforts, more Afghans joined the riots. A few of them finally got themselves shot by U.S. troops forced to decide whether to get overrun and lynched or risk their careers. Of course, had we firmly established right off the bat that as long as there’s a war on, any demonstrations in the vicinity of U.S. bases will get brutally crushed, none of this would have happened.

9. Also, some insurgent infiltrators of the GIROA and ANSF capped a few Americans. Nothing new there, it’s been going on for a while, and presumably without the Quran burning controversy these infiltrators would have done the exact same thing eventually, but it’s being used synergetically for maximum PSYOP impact. Not being constantly distracted by red-faced sergeant majors, reflective belts and hourly powerpoints, even the Taliban can figure this stuff out. Effective PSYOPs — so simple, even a caveman could do it!

The problem of unreliable Afghan troops is inherent in the relationship between ANSF and ISAF, where the latter "advise" the former instead of being integrated into a mixed colonialist structure. But such structure is politically impossible. Any senior officers publically advocating one will be set upon by the American media and academia, which will say mean things about them, compare them to King Leopold and other bad colonialist oppressors of the past, and get them fired by their civilian leadership. Therefore the sham of "independent" Afghan security forces continues. These forces vet their personnel about as well as they do everything else, with the result that they are full of guys with either mixed or treasonous loyalties. The advisors embedded in these security forces have no command authority or any real leverage over their advisees, and are reduced to publically praising the whole arrangement while waiting out their tour and praying they don’t get capped in the back of the head.

10. The president apologized to Afghans via a note sent to Hamid Karzai. Possible reasons for this action: 1) The president’s well-documented penchant for apologizing to the world for American actions. 2) Having been elected by the American media, the president is afraid that he might get unelected by it, and is propitiating its representatives by doing what they expect. 3) The president (or his advisors) plan to use the predictable result of demonstrating to the Afghan people that our weakness runs all the way to the top to incite them to keep rioting and attacking U.S. bases. This will be used to demonstrate to the U.S. press and think tanks that the war has failed and the only thing left to do is to pull out. Beginning a pullout of all or most conventional U.S. forces from Afghanistan around the spring or summer would give the president a popularity boost, assuming the Taliban could be bribed or induced to hold off on any mass offensives until after the election. While seemingly farfetched, this scenario would be well within the time-honored American political tradition where the Progressives and the guys killing American troops make an informal and unspoken alliance for mutual benefit (see: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.) I wouldn’t put something that wicked past our leadership, but it does seem a bit too complicated and well-planned.

11. Most likely outcome — a negative feedback loop, where an intensification of mob violence causes the sense of self-preservation of U.S. troops on the ground to override their fear of a career-ending incident and they start lighting the Afghan mobs up. The Afghans’ sense of self-preservation will in turn prevail over the great fun and potential for loot that are to be had in rioting, and they will calm down. A return to the status quo for the time being.

To "_B" is to do.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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