Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The battalion commander debates the blogger (II): Foust responds to Flynn

Tom: In all the commentary I’ve seen on this continuing exchange, the one that most struck me was, What would you do if you were Lt. Col. Flynn and knew there were bombs built into the mud walls of the village — that is, how many soldiers are you willing to lose if you don’t ...

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

Tom: In all the commentary I've seen on this continuing exchange, the one that most struck me was, What would you do if you were Lt. Col. Flynn and knew there were bombs built into the mud walls of the village -- that is, how many soldiers are you willing to lose if you don't knock down the walls?

Here is Josh's response to the colonel.

By Joshua Foust
Best Defense guest columnist

Tom: In all the commentary I’ve seen on this continuing exchange, the one that most struck me was, What would you do if you were Lt. Col. Flynn and knew there were bombs built into the mud walls of the village — that is, how many soldiers are you willing to lose if you don’t knock down the walls?

Here is Josh’s response to the colonel.

By Joshua Foust
Best Defense guest columnist

Many thanks to Tom for agreeing to host this discussion about tactics in Afghanistan. I, too, am impressed to see how quickly LTC Flynn responded to my admittedly heated criticisms of what happened in Tarok Kolache this past winter. However, there are some points I feel I should clear up:

To clarify: I am not an orator. I am a fellow at the American Security Project and a columnist for PBS, and before that I spent many years working on and in Afghanistan for the Intelligence Community. It is misguided to deride my expertise or experience in trying to evaluate what happened. Similarly, as the commander responsible for some of the decisions we’re discussing, we would all have to agree that he can not be objective.

I’m curious that both Tom and Paula linked to my post criticizing the decision to burn a village to the ground with nearly 50,000 pounds of explosives, yet all LTC Flynn felt the need to address was the decision to train an ALP cell. My criticism of what happened in Paula’s writing on it, is substantially more than the ALP. It involves questions of clearing policies, land redistribution, the inclusion of Colonel Raziq as a local partner, and, finally, the decision to build an ALP cell outside MOI monitoring. I’d be interesting to see LTC Flynn addressing either the decision to destroy that and other villages in the area. Or, for that matter, Paula’s portrayal of the event, which derided locals complaining about the property loss as "engaging in theatrics" and claimed 25 tons of explosives were dropped on a village but somehow didn’t leave a huge smoking crater in the ground.

As to the meat of LTC Flynn’s response, he does not address my original point about the ALP, which was that expediency inspired him to what Paula described as avoiding the MOI vetting process in building out a local militia. From interviews I’ve since conducted with soldiers active in Kandahar, it is my understanding that this is a common practice-detail he could have provided, were his real concern contextualizing what happened, as his opening paragraph suggested — but that doesn’t address the fundamental problem: at the end of the day, you are side-stepping the government of Afghanistan. And, much more importantly, the reason the MOI wants to be involved is so that local shuras don’t use ALP cells as their personal militias — a problem based in the vetting process LTC Flynn still has not addressed (such as how one, as a foreigner, performs a background check in an area that doesn’t have paper records of its inhabitants).

LTC Flynn did not address my concern about previous local militia efforts in Kandahar, which have all involved hired soldiers either defecting or abandoning their posts and eventually selling their weapons to the Taliban. I have heard good things about Nyaz Muhammad (again, with the context LTC Flynn wants), but that still does not address how you accountably manage a group you cannot vet and will have difficulty monitoring.

I’m grateful to see, at the end, LTC Flynn address concerns about risk. This is the crux of my argument, and it’s possible that appropriate measures have been taken to address them. These measures, however, have not come out in the reporting about the situation in Tarok Kolache. It cannot be unfair to react against the information available on hand, using experience from nearby areas to try, imperfectly, to fill in the knowledge gaps. Ground commanders do this routinely; it is not out of bounds for citizens to do so as well.   

I share LTC Flynn’s desire to see the Arghandab return to the relatively stable state it enjoyed under Mullah Naqib. But to do that requires a very sophisticated understanding of the politics, power relationships, and social networks of the area. And from what Paula has written of the area, I just don’t see any evidence of that understanding. And that, not the specific decision-making of LTC Flynn, is what I found so shocking.

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. Twitter: @tomricks1

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