US Ignorance of Afghan Society Led to Botched Raids
A Special Operations Forces raid on Feb. 12 on what was supposed to be
the compound of a Taliban leader but that killed three women and two
Afghan government officials demonstrated a fatal weakness of the U.S.
military engagement in Afghanistan: after eight years of operating
there, the U.S. military still has no understanding of the personal,
tribal and other local socio-political conflicts.
In targeting the suspected Taliban in such raids, therefore, the U.S.
military command has been forced to rely on informants of unknown
reliability - and motives.
As a provincial council member from
Gardez, near the scene of the botched raid, declared bitterly last week,
U.S. Special Forces "don't know who is the enemy and who isn't".
the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, Adm. William
McRaven, went to the site of the raid to apologise, the head of the
extended family which lost five people to the SOF unit, Hajji
Sharibuddin, demanded that the U.S. military turn over "the spy who gave
the false information to the Americans".
Gen. Stanley A.
McChrystal and his chief of intelligence, Gen. Michael Flynn, have
admitted the profound ignorance of the U.S. military about Afghan
society, while avoiding the implications of that ignorance for the issue
of false intelligence on the Taliban.
in his "initial assessment" last August that his command had to "acquire
a far better understanding of Afghanistan and its people".
interview with National Public Radio Aug. 13, Flynn admitted, "What we
really have not done to the degree that we need to is really truly
understand the population: the tribal dynamics, the tribal networks, the
Such dynamics are different "from valley to
valley", Flynn observed.
And in an unusual paper published by the
Centre for a New American Security last October, Flynn was even more
frank, saying, "I don't want to say we're clueless, but we are. We're no
more than fingernail deep in our understanding the environment."
avoided any suggestion that this profound ignorance of the society in
which U.S. troops are operating could affect targeting of suspected
Taliban. He asserted that the intelligence problem is not about the
Taliban but about the lack of knowledge about governance and development
But a foreign military force that is so fundamentally
ignorant of the socio-political forces at play inevitably allows local
sources which have access to it to act in their own self-interest.
often than not, the U.S. and NATO have depended heavily on ties with
Afghan tribal leaders and warlords. That has proven disastrous over and
Col. David Lamm, who was chief of staff for Gen.
David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005,
has said that it became clear to top officials in the command that it
should not make alliances with tribes to obtain information on the
It often turned out that a group which a tribal leader
said was the Taliban was actually a competing tribe, Lamm recalled in a
September 2008 interview with IPS.
Barno also ordered his
commanders to shun local police as intelligence sources on the Taliban.
"Local police were too close to the local elite," said Lamm.
such warnings, however, CIA and military intelligence operatives have
continued to rely on tribal patriarchs and local warlords as
intelligence sources on the Taliban. As recently as December 2008, U.S.
intelligence officials were telling Washington Post reporter Joby
Warrick that their operatives had been using gifts of Viagra, among
other inducements, to get warlords and tribal leaders to provide such
The U.S. military, including SOF units, have also
relied on local warlords to provide security for their bases and
logistics, as documented by a study by the Centre on International
Cooperation at New York University last September. Those ties translate
into channels for intelligence as well.
The most egregious
example is the CIA's use of intelligence from Ahmed Wali Karzai, the
brother of President Hamid Karzai, the chairman of the Kandahar province
council and the most powerful figure in the province.
Chandrasekaran reported in the Washington Post last September that U.S.
and Canadian diplomats had not pressed President Karzai to dismiss his
brother from his position, because he had provided "valuable
intelligence" to the U.S. military.
The inability of the U.S.
military to organise its own networks of reliable agents has also led to
a willingness to act with lethal force on the basis of tips from
In the most widely known instance of mass
civilian casualties from a U.S. attack, an airstrike on the village of
Azizabad in Heart province in August 2008, Afghan officials expressed
certainty that U.S. commanders had been misled by a rival of clan leader
Timor Shah, who had died some months before.
of the incident by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission
(AIHRC) revealed that a former business partner of Timor's who still had
personal enmity toward the family - and who had been involved in
various criminal activities - had passed false information to Coalition
Forces that there would be a big gathering of Taliban fighters in
The U.S. command carried out a devastating bombing of
what turned out to have been a memorial ceremony for Timor Shah.
many as 90 civilians, including 60 children, were killed by the
U.N. Rapporteur Philip Alston wrote in a May 2009 report
that "numerous government officials" had told him that "false tips" had
"often" caused night raids to result in the killing of innocent
civilians. He reported that one provincial governor had "stated that
there were people in his province who made a business acting as
intermediaries who would give false tips to the international forces in
return for payment from individuals holding grudges."
told by a village elder in Nuristan that a district government had fed
false information to "international forces" that led to a raid targeting
his local opponents. He also said a similar incident in Nangarhar's
Ghani Khel district was reported to him.
Alston reported that a
"senior official" who responded to his critical report did not deny that
"feuds" drive much of the identification of local Taliban officials.
Instead the official suggested that such "feuds" were simply "part and
parcel of the conflict between the Taliban and the Government".
of admitting that U.S. intelligence was fatally flawed, the U.S.
military command had simply adopted a justification that did not require
any real understanding of the society.
McChrystal, on the other
hand, has lamented that ignorance but continues to authorise raids that
are based on the faulty intelligence it generates.