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Scorched-Earth Strategy for Afghanistan–Really?

Various pundits on the Right—Byron York, Ralph Peters, and Diana West—are having conniptions over the Rules of Engagement that Gen. McChrystal has promulgated in Afghanistan, which stress the need for restraint in calling in fire support. They are incensed by a recent report that American casualties have increased while Afghan civilian casualties have decreased. They blame McChrystal and his counterinsurgency strategy for this trend.

This is a bit of a leap, since most of our casualties are being caused by improvised explosive devices. No one has explained how firing more weapons will prevent those mines from being planted. In fact, dropping more bombs and firing more missiles and artillery shells is likely to alienate civilians and make them less likely to alert American troops to the emplacement of IEDs. It is also the case that there are more American troops fighting the Taliban and that the Taliban has responded to our surge with a surge of their own, so more casualties would be expected regardless of the rules of engagement. That hasn’t stopped the critics from castigating our military leaders in harsh terms.

Ralph writes: “In Afghanistan, our leaders are complicit in the death of each soldier, Marine or Navy corpsman who falls because politically correct rules of engagement shield our enemies.” Diana calls for Gen. McChrystal to be fired.

This no doubt goes down well in certain right-wing precincts, but those who advocate a blood-and-guts approach to the war in Afghanistan—kill them all and let God sort them out—should pause a minute to ask whether that’s a strategy likely to succeed. The Russians tried a scorched-earth approach in Afghanistan; they were far more heedless of civilian casualties than the American armed forces could ever be. Remember how well that worked out? The U.S. has also tried firepower-intensive conventional strategies to fight insurgents in Iraq and Vietnam. How well did that work out? The situation in Iraq only turned around in 2007, when General Petraeus applied a population-centric counterinsurgency approach that focused on getting troops among the population and protecting them from the insurgents rather than simply trying to kill bad guys—precisely the plan that McChrystal is now implementing, with some modifications, in Afghanistan. The Carthaginian strategy—destroy the enemy and salt the earth afterward—can work but only if you are prepared to commit genocide or close to it. It worked, for example, for the Nazis in putting down the Warsaw Uprising, although even the Nazis failed to put down the Yugoslav partisans. Does anyone think that American public opinion would support the use of Nazi-like tactics in Afghanistan?

Luckily we don’t have to use utter brutality to prevail. In fact, history suggests that a “hearts and minds” approach is more likely to be successful. Two political scientists have just released a study of 66 insurgencies in the 20th century where foreign powers committed considerable resources to put down the rebels. Their conclusion? That a hearts-and-minds strategy has worked 75 percent of the time. That’s a higher rate of success than that of more brutal approaches, such as the Russians in Afghanistan or the French in Algeria.

Those who advocate population-centric counterinsurgency—most prominently, General McChrystal and General Petraeus—are not soft-headed, politically correct humanitarians. They are smart generals who have learned the lessons of history and have chosen the strategy that has the best chance of success. Conservatives would be well-advised to unite in support of their efforts rather than joining the liberal sniper squad working to make victory impossible.


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