This Week at War: Losing Faith

Will massacres like the one this week in Afghanistan be more frequent as the Pentagon's budget cuts make for a more stressed and strained military?

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Policymakers in Washington may be as tense as the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan as they await the reaction to a nighttime shooting rampage on March 11 in Panjwai, near Kandahar, that left 16 Afghan civilians dead. The alleged shooter, a 38-year-old U.S. Army staff sergeant with three previous tours of duty in Iraq, has been flown to Kuwait, presumably to await a court martial.

This shocking crime follows last month’s accidental burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, an incident that resulted in nearly two weeks of riots and the murder of six U.S. trainers at the hands of their Afghan students. That followed the release of a video showing a group of Marines urinating on Taliban corpses.

In 1999, Gen. Charles Krulak, then Marine Corps commandant, coined the term "strategic corporal." Krulak was referring to modern conflict in a media age, where much responsibility is heaped on young and relatively inexperienced troops, who make decisions with far-reaching strategic consequences. In a 2007 monograph, Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap catalogued controversies like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and civilian deaths in Haditha that plagued the U.S. counterinsurgency mission in Iraq. Dunlap asserted that such incidents are inevitable when U.S. ground forces are on prolonged expeditions, a contention that has similarly played out in Afghanistan.

U.S. policymakers will now assess whether the Panjwai rampage will have any impact on their long-established timetable to gradually shift responsibility for security to the Afghan government over the next two years. Pentagon officials will wonder whether the recent incidents are a leading indicator of wider morale and discipline problems within the Army. Finally, strategists will ponder whether the massacre is one more example of the kinds of unavoidable strategic disasters that are bound to occur doing prolonged stabilization campaigns, and that thus call into the question the very future of such missions.

The so-far subdued reaction to the murders by the Afghan population is a stark contrast from the prolonged rioting that occurred after last month’s Quran-burning incident. To the extent that this contrast is a surprise, it only illustrates the vast cultural divide between Afghanistan and the United States and may explain why the U.S. strategy to stabilize the country has been so troubled.

But even if most Afghans are showing a muted response, President Hamid Karzai apparently is not. In a meeting in Kabul on March 14 with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Karzai demanded that NATO troops immediately pull out of rural areas, leaving local Afghan forces to protect villages in the countryside. He also demanded that NATO turn over security responsibility to Afghan forces in 2013, a year earlier than currently planned.

Karzai used the Panjwai killings as an opportunity to make his demands to Panetta. But even without such a pretext, Karzai may have presented the same request. The Panjwai murders are just the latest in a long string of similar grievances Karzai has expressed to U.S. officials. For years, Karzai has complained about NATO’s use of air power, U.S. Special Operations nighttime raids against Taliban suspects, and U.S. efforts to build up local security forces that bypass Karzai’s central government in Kabul. In this sense, the Panjwai killings by themselves are of minor strategic importance. They are a marginal subtraction from the already poor relationship between the U.S. and Afghan governments.

Is the rampage a leading indicator of morale and discipline problems inside the Army? Retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a Vietnam combat veteran and a former commandant of the Army War College, argues in a Washington Post op-ed that U.S. ground forces have been understaffed and overused during the past decade. While not excusing the staff sergeant’s alleged rampage, Scales asserts that the last decade’s wars have fallen too heavily on the shoulders of a relatively few career infantrymen in the Army and Marine Corps, many of whom are now "emotionally exhausted and drained." If stress caused the staff sergeant to snap, Scales believes he can trace that stress back to a political decision to keep the Army smaller than it needs to be.

Michael Yon, a war correspondent and former Army Green Beret, believes the Army in Afghanistan faces a "discipline collapse," an unwelcome observation that last August prompted the Army to remove Yon from an embedded reporting assignment. According to Yon, many soldiers in Afghanistan have lost confidence in the military’s strategy. With Afghan soldiers occasionally turning their guns on their allies, Yon has predicted a violent lack of restraint from a few now-cynical U.S. troops.

Scales’s recommendation is to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps in order to increase the time infantrymen have between deployments. This notion goes exactly counter to the Obama administration’s latest defense budget, which will cut the Army and Marine Corps by about 82,000 troops over the next five years. The Obama administration’s answer to Scales is that it ended the war in Iraq and is pulling out of Afghanistan as fast as it prudently can. Returning the troops to their U.S. bases should be the best solution to combat stress.

Obama’s new defense guidance specifically states that "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations (italics in original)." That may be a relief to both Scales’s overstressed infantrymen and Yon’s soldier-cynics who have seemingly lost confidence in the counterinsurgency strategy passed down from their leaders.

However, as the ink dries on the defense budget, the situation in Syria continues to spiral out of control. In extremis, the need to secure Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical munitions may provide yet another stressful and prolonged mission for U.S. ground forces. Nathan Freier, a retired Army officer and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, warns that large-scale disorder, most often caused by state collapse, will continue to cause unavoidable challenges to U.S. interests that will require significant U.S. ground forces to fix. Obama’s defense policy specifically assumes away such scenarios.

The Obama administration and air power advocates may point to last year’s operation in Libya as an alternative and less risky approach to the potential problems Freier describes. The United States and its allies provided the air power while indigenous rebels, aided by special forces and clandestine service officers, provided the ground forces. This combination was apparently enough to secure Libya’s chemical weapons and man-portable surface-to-air missiles, while avoiding the "strategic corporal" risk that attaches itself to any large and prolonged U.S. ground force deployment.

Pentagon strategists must plan for cases — like Syria — that will be more difficult than Libya was. That will mean accepting the likelihood of another large-scale ground mission. And with such a mission comes the unwelcome probability of "strategic corporal" moments that could put the mission at risk. With incidents like Abu Ghraib, the Quran burnings, and Panjwai in mind, planners will look for ways to either avoid or minimize the odds. But as long as humans and weapons are mixed together, the odds will always be there.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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