Recently, while discussing the war in Afghanistan with a conflict studies program in the mid-west, I had a rather odd debate with a leftist professor who was devil’s advocating what he claimed was a “neo-conservative” position (based on some of his recent interaction with naval officers and RAND researchers).

His main argument revived the “stabbed in the back” hypothesis from the Vietnam era. The argument essentially posits that counter-insurgency is a cumulative body of knowledge first pioneered by the Britons. According to this position, Americans have been remarkably successful at applying and refining this knowledge to defeat insurgencies from Vietnam to Colombia. The main problem (again according this narrative) is that squeamish liberals have too often helped to undercut support for the US military just as it was on the verge of “winning” or defeating the insurgency.

Specifically in regard to Afghanistan, he argued that the US is not making repeated mistakes when it botches night raids, shoots civilians at checkpoints, or strafes a bus load of civilians on the highway. He reasoned that the real purpose of US counter insurgency was to terrorize the Afghan population.

Honestly, I was not quite sure what to make of the argument since I am not a military strategist or an expert on the history of counter-insurgency, particularly as that strategy was applied in Southeast Asia or Latin America. So I simply asked what the purpose of terrorizing the population would be. Initially, he evaded the question by describing the effects of a brutal occuption (e.g. widespread panic and fear in civilians). I continued to repeat the same question several times. Finally, he stated that the use terror was obviously to pacify the civilian population.

(It should be noted that the argument therefore defines the purpose of counter-insurgency as restoring order rather than facilitating a political solution to a violent conflict. In many cases, this would seem to change the yardstick for defining a successful operation.)

While I have no doubt that brutality can occasionally pacify a civilian population, I expressed my sincere doubts that this was the actual policy of the US/ISAF in Afghanistan. If terrorizing civilians is the intentional underlying goal of the counter-insurgency strategy, then the US/ISAF would probably be guilty of perpetrating war crimes. As a professional set of military institutions, ISAF is highly unlikely to endorse such a Machiavellian strategy.

Moreover, I argued that even if this were the actual policy of the US/ISAF in Afghanistan, it is not working. There have been repeated protests, some of which have been violent, against US/ISAF. In other words, the killing of innocent civilians in agitating, not pacifying the population.

Although I found the argument absurd, racially tinged (i.e this is a version of the “they only understand brute force” argument) and reliant on deference to military authority, I began to wonder how a rational person might come to believe such an argument. I assume that proponents are simply unaware that the Afghan population has not been “pacified” because they have limited access to news reports. In other words, the perception of non-events in response to the killing of civilians is thought to support the hypothesis that terrorizing civilians leads to pacification.

In case there are individuals who believe that terrorizing the Afghan people is pacifying the population, here is a basic summary of public protest demonstrations in just the last two years which may have been missed by those who are not following the news carefully. This list is not comprehensive, but I think this adequately makes the point. I should note that most of these accounts are covered in the UK press, but only infrequently in the US press, for reasons that are not entirely clear to me…:

13 April 2010 – Approximately two hundred protest after NATO convoy opened fire on a bus load of civilians killing four and injuring eighteen. Protesters chanted “Death to America.”

12 April 2010 – Hundreds protest in Kandahar blocking the highway to Herat after four civilians were killed by foreign forces.

29 January 2010 – Brief protests in Kabul after a local Imam was shot by a military convoy which had (apparently) mistaken the imam for a suicide bomber. Brig. General Tremblay of NATO apologized for the incident.

12 January 2010 – Six to ten protesters (varied accounts) were killed and approximately 25 wounded when Afghan forces opened fire on a large demonstration of several thousand people. Protesters were angry about the killing of three civilians by foreign forces during a night time operation in Helmand Province. There were also wild rumors (perhaps instigated by Taliban representatives) that American forces had abused a woman and desecrated a copy of the Quran during a night raid.

9 January 2010 – Approximately five thousand individuals protested the 7 January incident (see below) in Nangarhar along the Kabul – Jalalabad highway. Protesters chanted “Death to Obama” and burned him in effigy.

7 January 2010 – An IED exploded while American troops were handing out candy to children in Nangarhar province. Five Afghans were killed (including two school children) and nine US servicemen were wounded in the explosion. The deaths sparked angry protests, as crowds accused the Americans of deliberately setting off the explosion.

31 December 2009 – Protests in Kabul and Jalalabad over the killing of civilians in Kunar province on 24 December. Protesters chanted “Obama, take your troops out!” General McChrystal meets with President Karzai in response to growing protests. ISAF denies the claims that those killed were civilians, the UN supports the Afghan account that

30 December 2009 – Students and faculty in Nangarhar province protest the killing of civilians in Kunar province.

28 December 2009 – MPs representing Kunar province staged a walkout in protest of the killing of four to ten civilians (allegedly mostly young students) by coalition forces four days earlier.

9 December 2009 – Another mass demonstration in Laghman to protest the killing of protesters by Afghan soldiers the day before.

8 December 2009 – Afghan soldiers opened fire on protesters in Laghman province. The protesters had denounced President Karzai and foreign troops. Protests had been sparked by news of the killing of between six to thirteen civilians (including women and children) by coalition forces. One or two protester(s) were killed – accounts varied.

25 October 2009 – Small student protest in Kabul against the killing of four civilians in Kandahar and the alleged burning of a Quran. The students called for an end to foreign occupation. Demonstrators were beaten by the police and one student was wounded as protests turned violent.

12 July 2009 – Anti-US demonstrations took place in Kunar province after coalition troops killed and injured several members of a family during a firefight with insurgents.

10 May 2009 – Students in Kabul protested near Kabul University against the apparent killing of over 100 civilians in Farah province by foreign forces a couple days earlier.

8 May 2009 – Hundreds protest in Farah province after coalition air strikes kill over 100 civilians. Protests turned violent and four protesters were wounded. Protesters shouted “Death to America” and “Death to the Government.”

10 April 2009 – The Khost, Laghman, Logar, and Zabol provincial councils close in protest for one month after five civilians (including three women and one newborn) are killed by coalition forces. Two days later, a number of Afghan senators also staged a walk out in protest of the same incident.

22 March 2009 – Hundreds protest the killing of the Mayor’s staff and security guards by coalition forces in the Imam Saheb district of Kunduz province.

17 March 2009 – More than one hundred protesters paraded three of the five bodies of civilians purportedly killed by US forces near Kandahar.

14 March 2009 – Hundreds stage a demonstration in Loghar province after five civilians are killed in air strikes. Protesters attempted to break into the district headquarters. Two protesters were wounded by police attempting to disperse the crowd.

8 March 2009 – Protesters in Khost block a US military convoy and throw rocks at it after an overnight raid kills four Afghans.

27 February 2009 – Thousands protest in Ghazni at the alleged desecration of a mosque by a US soldier who reportedly opened fire in a mosque. There were also rumors that copies of the Koran were desecrated. Afghan security forces fired bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd.

24 February 2009 – Villagers chant “Death to Canada” and parade the bodies of two children apparently killed by Canadian shelling in Kandahar.

21 February 2009 – Two thousand demonstrators (some armed) staged a “massive protest” (which closed the highway for six hours) in Loghar province against foreign forces after one villager is killed and five others arrested in a night raid. Protesters threw rocks at the local police.

26 January 2009 – Thousands protest the killing of 16 civilians.

9 January 2009 – Protest in Laghman province after 17 to 23 civilians are killed in an airstrike.

27 December 2008 – Protesters block Kandahar to Herat highway after 8 militants and 4 civilians are killed in a raid by coalition troops.

17 October 2008 – Protestors bring the bodies of 25 to 30 civilians (including a 6 month old baby) killed in a NATO airstrike in Lashkar Gah to the provincial governor’s compound.

5 September 2008 – National day of mourning called for the civilians killed in Herat on 25 August.

1 September 2008 – Small protest in Kabul at the killing of four men by coalition and Afghan forces. The bodies of the killed were brought to the protest.

25 August 2008 – Massive protests occur. Local protestors set fire to vehicles and chant “Death to America” in response the killing of 90 civilians (including 60 children) in a village near Herat by US forces.

20 July 2008 – Protests in Badakhshan province against the slaughter of civilians over the previous two weeks.

24 June 2008 – Hundreds took to the streets in Jalalabad to protest the alleged killing of a father and son by coalition troops.

15 June 2008 – Hundreds protested NATO airstrikes in Paktia province which killed 20 civilians. Afghan security forces opened fire on the protestors, 2 were killed and 13 wounded.

22 May 2008 – Approximately one to two thousand Afghan protesters attacked a NATO base run by Lithuanians in Ghor province after reports surfaced that an American soldier in Iraq had used the Koran for target practice. Protesters were chanting anti-American slogans. Two civilians and one Lithuanian soldier were killed during the protest. The Afghan Parliament also walked out in protest of the actions by the American soldier in Iraq.

11 May 2008 – Protests were staged against the killing of three civilians by coalition forces in Nangarhar Province. Police opened fire on the protesters, killing one and wounding three. ISAF rejected the allegation that civilians were killed but local police confirmed that three members of the same family were killed.

To conclude, if a goal of counter-insurgency is to use Machiavellian tactics to subdue a civilian population, then by Machiavelli’s own standards the current counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan is failing as violence is being applied repeatedly and only enraging the civilian population.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]