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.


Stephen M. Walt

Reporters, scholars, and patriots

To what extent should journalists (and perhaps scholars) allow their sense of patriotism to shape what they publish? And more broadly, how should those concerns shape their  interactions with government officials? Debate on this issue has been rekindled recently in the case of Raymond Davis, the CIA employee who is now under arrest in Pakistan after an incident where he shot and killed two Pakistani assailants.  

For competing perspectives on this incident, see Jack Goldsmith here and Glenn Greenwald here.  Both writers make useful points and I recommend the whole exchange, but one passage in Goldsmith's post leapt out at me:

For a book I am writing, I interviewed a dozen or so senior American national security journalists to get a sense of when and why they do or don't publish national security secrets.  They gave me different answers, but they all agreed that they tried to avoid publishing information that harms U.S. national security with no corresponding public benefit.  Some of them expressly ascribed this attitude to "patriotism" or "jingoism" or to being American citizens or working for American publications.  This sense of attachment to country is what leads the American press to worry about the implications for U.S. national security of publication, to seek the government's input, to weigh these implications in the balance, and sometimes to self-censor."

Nationalism and patriotism being what they are, I don't expect reporters and commentators (or academics, for that matter) to be able to completely disassociate their personal attachments from what they think or write. But when they do let those biases in -- and especially when they do so explicitly -- then the rest of us are entitled to question their judgment on those matters. More generally, here's what disturbs me about the idea that national security journalists consciously adjust what they say in response to their patriotic feelings.

First, it is a common error to equate "patriotism" or "love of country" with deference to or support for the policies of the government. In fact, the main justification for a free press in a democracy rests on the assumption that it will take a skeptical, even adversarial, attitude towards the government and its policies. Such skepticism is needed given the information advantages that government officials normally possess: they can classify embarrassing materials, leak secrets selectively, and curry favor with sympathetic journalists by offering them unusual levels of "access." The more you dilute the basic confrontational attitude between journalists and officials, the more the vaunted "Fourth Estate" starts to resemble a Xerox machine that just repackages facts, arguments and justifications offered by those in power.

As Greenwald and others have observed repeatedly, this problem is exacerbated by the increasingly intimate relationship between media figures and the people they are supposed to be scrutinizing. On national security matters, it can be compounded further by the practice of "embedding" journalists with combat troops, which is bound to encourage powerful feelings of solidarity in many (though not all) cases, and thereby create its own sources of bias. 

The second problem with the idea that journalists should let their "patriotism" guide their coverage is that it assumes reporters know ex ante what is really "good for the country."  I suspect Judith Miller and the other journalists who parroted the Bush administration's bogus case for war with Iraq thought they were serving the national interest by doing so.  In reality, however, they were helping pave the road to a national disaster.  When reporters allow a misguided sense of patriotism to interfere with their critical judgments, in short, it is more likely that the "national interest" will be subverted rather than served.

This same principle applies to other purveyors of knowledge -- including scholars -- and sometimes with tragic results. In a classic International Security article ("Clio Deceived: Patriotic Self-Censorship in Germany after the Great War"), historian Holger Herwig showed how government officials and historians in the Weimar Republic actively colluded to whitewash Germany's role in causing World War I. Their goal was to absolve Germany of blame for the war and thus to undermine the Versailles Treaty, and no doubt these Germans believed they were doing their patriotic duty. Alas, their efforts unwittingly reinforced Germany's unwarranted sense of victimization, smoothed Adolf Hitler's path to power, and undermined Western resolve in the face of Nazi revisionism.  What they thought was an act of patriotism was actually helping plunge their country--and the rest of Europe--into another terrible war.

Finally, when journalists indulge in "patriotic self-censorship," they by definition end up deceiving their fellow citizens in ways that can be deeply if unintentionally harmful.  If Americans are not fully informed about what their government is doing (i.e., because clandestine activities are concealed by the government or by sympathetic journalists), then citizens have no way of knowing how much a military campaign or other foreign policy initiative is really costing us.  If we don't know how much the country is doing, we have no way to gauge whether the results are consonant with the level of effort.  Equally important, when we don't know what our government is up to, we have no way of knowing why other societies are reacting as they are and we become more vulnerable to "blowback" (i.e., hostile backlashes whose true origins have been concealed).

There are undoubtedly some narrow circumstances when a patriotic journalist should decline to publish something they have learned, such as the details of an upcoming military operation or the location and timing of some secret diplomatic meeting.  But in general, we ought to discourage reporters and scholars from allowing national attachments to get in the way of dealing us what they know.  In a free society, both scholars and reporters have a similar responsibility: to probe, to question, to interrogate, and to speak truth to power.  That's the main justification for tenure at universities, and it's one of the main reasons freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Constitution.

Government agencies have well-funded communications operations whose job it is to spin a self-serving story; they don't need the Fourth Estate to make their job any easier.  And the vast majority of the time, I think we'd get better outcomes if media figures paid little or no attention to what government officials wanted, even when major issues of national security were involved.  In the long run that would be good for the country, which is of course what patriotism is really all about.