Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

In Afghanistan, Behavior is Occupation

Thesis: Some argue that Afghans object to our behavior, not our occupation.  I argue that behavior and occupation are the same.

One of the arguments about counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is that it is not the occupation itself that angers Afghans, it is our behavior within the occupation that drives anger.  It seems plausible on the surface–kill teams, civilian casualties, and culturally insensitive soldiers would piss anyone off.   This perspective opens the possibility that behavior modification can make our occupation more palatable to average Afghans.

I don’t, however, think behavior is separate from occupation for three reasons: Force Protection; Firepower; and Cultural Understanding.  In short, our behavior is a logical and necessary extension of the American style of occupation.

Force protection isn’t so much an idea within the military as it is a religion.  And it makes sense.  Getting a soldier home safely is a pretty important goal.  Force protection, however, manifests itself in a way that looks a lot like occupation.  Soldiers wear heavy body armor and travel in groups.  They carry heavy weapons and live together in bases with high walls, Hesco barriers, and constantina wire.  They drive heavily armored vehicles, which slows traffic and blocks roads.  In fact, almost every interaction an Afghan may have with an American is one of anxiety, as soldiers are trained to be suspicious of everyone.

The thing is though, it has to be this way.   The alternative is less force protection, or, put differently, higher casualties.  The American public is not keen on casualties (the military knows this), but more importantly, denying soldiers force protection is sentencing many of them to death.  Why purposely deny soldiers safety?  It doesn’t make sense to not be obsessed with force protection.  In fact, it is only human to focus on it.  Soldiers spend years training together, building camaraderie, and teamwork, and when they deploy, they fight as much for each other as they do the higher goals of the mission.  A good deployment is one in which no one gets hurt.  To deny force protection is to deny both the practical (force protection procedures) and the human (a soldier’s desire to not see their fellow soldiers be injured or killed) .

The second thing that makes behavior inseparable from occupation is firepower.  The US Military is built on the idea of being able to put firepower on target at any time.  It is why we have artillery, air support, quick reaction forces, and various other weapons platforms.  We’ve spent decades developing an advantage in firepower over our enemies.  Even drones are just one more tool able to put ordnance on target (of course, also used as intel collectors).  The problem with firepower, though, is that it kills a lot of people. Worse, it ends up killing a lot of civilians, and killing civilians is a good way to piss off a lot of them.

The alternative, less utilization of firepower, is to deny soldiers their biggest tactical advantage.  It is to deny them the tools they need to not only protect themselves, but also kill the enemy.  During his short stint as ISAF commander, Stanley McChrystal attempted to limit the use firepower, but all he got from the effort is a bunch of pissed off soldiers and no noticeable drop in civilian casualties.  I’m almost certain that the John Nagl’s of the world would point to this as a place where the US Military needs to learn and adapt, but that advice rings hollow.  First, how do you “learn” your way out of 50+ years of tradition? Second, what does it mean to have a military focused not on killing the enemy, but something else? (Protection civilians? Building societies?)

Lastly, the cultural boundaries/norms around Afghan and US civil society are quite different.  Since the Magna Carta in 1215, the United States is part of a nearly 800 year tradition of some type of representative government.  In contrast, according to Thomas Barfield, since 1901, no Afghan political leader has escaped exile or assassination.  Factor in language and religion, it is pretty clear that Afghans and Americans understand the world in two different ways.

Notwithstanding this guy, the cultural knowledge and empathy required to bridge the gap in understanding is far beyond the average American soldier.  (And it is the American soldier on the front line, not the State department)  10 years into the war, we still lack language expertise, cultural understanding, and the empathy necessary to see things from an Afghan perspective.  As a result, when our soldiers work to create solutions, from the Afghan perspective it looks less like collaboration than it does a dictate.

The intersection of these three factors–force protection, firepower, and cultural understanding–make it impossible to separate occupation from behavior.


Written by keithboyea

August 15, 2011 at 11:51 am

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  1. Interesting take. There’s also the whole issue of pride/resentment of the idea of occupation–no matter how benign it is. And more specifically Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerilla thesis in which occupation itself creates insurgency. It’s too complex to nail down but I think your points are worth considering especially in light of McChyrstal’s guidance a few years ago.

    Abe Medoff

    August 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm

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