Strategic patience v tactical bias for action –
March 26, 2016
“What do you want you want us to do? Sit around and do nothing?!” – Battalion Operations Officer, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2010
Out S-3 or “Ops O” (Operations Officer) had lost his shit at me. I had just given our Battalion Commander a run down of the numbers I had come up with: Total of Afghans detained our first 90 days, total released, total handed over to either the local Afghan police or Afghan security service, total sent to Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital, for potential prosecution or onward to for longterm detention.
The NYPD and “stop and frisk”, viewed by its critics, on its worst day, might have appeared saintly.
Our detention standards/policy was far too relaxed (reminiscent of post-invasion Iraq’s rounding up of all “military-aged males” (MAMs in military acronym-jargon)).
Already, the Provincial Governor, in my daily meetings with him, was lamenting the number of complaints he was receiving from the villagers – That the Americans were being too heavy handed. Wives and mothers were showing up at the gates wondering how to support their families, and when would their men be released?
And now I had run the numbers.
Certainly, out of every 100 Afghan “MAMs” (a term I despised for the very implication that being both male and of a certain age was basis for detention) we detained, 4 might have been criminals, and 1 a no-shit Taliban insurgent. But, more importantly, what if – of the 95 who weren’t, the experience and indignity of detention caused them to harbor resentment against NATO forces, their provincial government (that could not stop the NATO forces from executing seemingly arbitrary detentions) – caused even a third of those 95 to become sympathetic to the Taliban? Or a third of that third to decide to actively support the Taliban against NATO forces/the Afghan government? If so, by detaining 100 Afghans to capture 1 Taliban was a net negative by potentially creating 10 more Taliban/insurgents.
The Ops O had a supporter in our S-2, intelligence officer. I had mine in our S-4, logistics officer. The breakdown was unsurprising: The intel officer’s job is to identify the “bad guys” and either neutralize and/or exploit them (for human intelligence). The logistics officer, on the other hand, was weary of the drain on his resources in supporting the effort required to move, house, feed, care for the Afghans we were detaining – and, by his observation (supported by my 90-day number crunch) – his Marines, vehicles, etc were not being efficiently deployed. The requirement to support a “liberal” detention policy was, in his view, unnecessarily competing for the more essential tasks of delivering supplies to various outposts, procuring supplies from higher headquarters, etc.
The line companies themselves just wanted clear guidance – they weren’t the “policy” makers – they just wanted Battalion leadership to give them clear guidance so they knew what to do.
I argued to our Battalion commander for a bigger picture, above the individual S-2, S-3, S-4 functions. What was our broader mission? What did we want to leave behind when we re-deployed to Southern California in another four months?
Nick Talib: “We need to learn to think in second steps, chains of consequences, and side effects.”
*Naive intervention can be worse than doing nothing at all.
#Antifragile is actually very relevant to approaches to counter-terrorism.
Arguments have already been made by seasoned “counterterror”and intelligence experts that loud responses and heavy-handed reactions to terror attacks only fuels more terrorism in the long-run: the loud responses merely confirm to the terrorists that they have achieved their goal, and their methods are effective (because their true goal was never to kill people – the method – but to create fear); the heavy-handed reactions potentially recruit more to the terrorists’ cause than “defeating” them.
But those arguments have only been drowned out by the 24-hour news cycle, and the notion that “strong leadership” means decisive actions (building walls, carpetbombing) or that deliberate restraint is is trait that belongs to “feckless weakling[s].”
A war that never ends.
“I believe that we have to avoid being simplistic. I think we have to build #resilience and make sure that our political debates are grounded in reality. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the value of theater in political communications; it’s that the habits we—the media, politicians—have gotten into, and how we talk about these issues, are so detached so often from what we need to be doing that for me to satisfy the cable news hype-fest would lead to us making worse and worse decisions over time.” – BHO