As if the latest public relations pitch by U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus to escalate heavy bombing and night raids in Afghanistan was not disconcerting enough, the November 19 Washington Post article “U.S. deploying heavily armored battle tanks for first time in Afghan war” provides perhaps the most cynical and absurd justification for destroying civilian lives and property ever uttered by a U.S. senior officer.
[Many residents near Kandahar] have lodged repeated complaints about the scope of the destruction with U.S. and Afghan officials. In one October operation near the city, U.S. aircraft dropped about two dozen 2,000-pound bombs.
In another recent operation in the Zhari district, U.S. soldiers fired more than a dozen mine-clearing line charges in a day. Each one creates a clear path that is 100 yards long and wide enough for a truck. Anything that is in the way—trees, crops, huts—is demolished.
“Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?” a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.
Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor’s office to submit a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you’re connecting the government to the people,” the senior officer said.
The notion that destructive use of firepower will somehow encourage Afghans to connect with their government during the process of filing claims for destroyed property and dead relatives is beyond cynical and appalling. The use of tanks or other heavy weapons to target insurgents who might be hiding among the civilian population should be considered an indiscriminate use of weapons—a war crime last time I checked. The very utterance is cruel and insensitive and a policy unlikely to win many Afghan hearts and minds.
Such absurdity recalls the mantra that came to symbolize the sheer folly of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency: “we must destroy the village to save the village.” Today, the concept has morphed into “we must destroy the villages to save the Karzai government.” That any senior military officer could believe such a rationale and be allowed to express it in the Washington Post, however, seems to reflect a profound disconnect from reality. This statement begs the question whether our current military strategy is capable of accomplishing anything beneficial in this complex and unforgiving environment.
It’s no coincidence that this “modest proposal” was trotted out just in advance of the Lisbon NATO summit and in the midst of a U.S. Afghan policy review. Yet, instead of signaling a muscular boost in the trajectory of U.S. intervention, this bizarre justification for more “shock and awe” tactics may in fact represent a “jump the shark” moment—the historic juncture demarcating the public’s acceptance that the U.S. war in Afghanistan was doomed to fail.
The term “jump the shark” was coined following an episode of the hit 1970s TV show Happy Days, in which the Fonz dons water skis and jumps over a pool of sharks. Subsequently, this metaphor has referred to any incongruous gimmick employed to keep shows popular, but instead makes it painfully evident that producers have run out of creative plot lines and it is destined for cancellation.
To extend this metaphor to the U.S. military campaign, one could ask whether the “Afghanistan show,” with its bizarre new rationale for escalated destruction, has essentially jumped a pool of sharks to gin up support for an unwinnable conflict.
Unfortunately for Afghan civilians affected by escalating destruction, there is no way to change the channel or switch off the TV—even if they had electricity or TVs.
After 10 years of mounting futility, it is painful to imagine that U.S. troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2014 without a basic understanding of local conditions or a coherent strategy. While I do not suggest the U.S. military can or should withdraw immediately from Afghanistan, one hopes U.S. civilian and military leaders will take steps to alter this profoundly counterproductive and disconnected mindset.