Our Confused Policy in Afghanistan

There are a lot of ways to parse this story about the alleged video of soldiers urinating on corpses in Afghanistan.  It seems ugly, but desecration of corpses has a long history in Afghan conflicts (often consisting of cutting off male-only body parts).  And it's bizarre to see people more upset about peeing on corpses than with corpsifying them in the first place.

But at the end of the day this is what I think is broken about the Afghan conflict.  You don't send warriors into a brutal guerrilla war with no rules and simultaneously expect them to be goodwill ambassadors as well.  Given that these are two activities whose Venn diagrams of skills and mindsets have so little overlap, the military does a pretty good job trying to do what its being asked, but over the long run it's a losing game  (somewhere in here there is an Ender's Game reference about trying to meld empathy with killer instincts).

By the way, exactly what is our goal in Afghanistan, will someone remind me?  We have been successful when __________________ ?


  1. Mike:

    It's worth reading Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell for the warrior's perspective on Afghanistan, and particularly on the idea of suits and journalists judging the behavior of soldiers beset with bizarre Rules of Engagement (ROE).

    I am fascinated by the stink over this one. Agreed, it was not a good idea and I have to question the wisdom of not only the participants but also (and perhaps particularly) the one filming. But to condemn without context those who are shot at regularly by combatants who are considerably more passionate than those who design and impose the ROE is incredibly duplicitous. The enemy thinks nothing of killing everyone in the way and parading their parts around. Yes, we're supposed to take the high road and we should, and clearly these snipers should be instructed to be less ignorant of consequences. But to counsel them to be more sensitive is absurd. I gather you feel something similar based upon your comments.

    As for when we're done, the intent was to eradicate the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which is likely equally absurd.

    Extra points for the Ender reference.

  2. me:

    We're in Afghanistan to distract everyone from the awful political problems remaining unsolved here in the US and ensure that enormous amounts of taxpayer moneys can find their way into the pockets of the friends of the ruling elite.

    I thought everyone knew that?

  3. Brian:

    "desecration of corpses has a long history in Afghan conflicts"

    I'm sure there's a lot of barbarism in the history of warfare that wouldn't be appropriate for modern soldiers to emulate.

    Our military are supposed to be professional killers. Desecrating corpses is not professional.

  4. Jens Fiederer:

    I think the reason for the outrage is that, while some argument can be made that there is a need to shoot and drop bombs on people, it is very hard to make a case for the necessity of urinating on corpses.

    While the actual damage involved with the former is far greater, the overall utility could be positive or negative depending on circumstances. The only way the urination scenario provides utility is on a "because it's fun" rationale, and that one is harder to sell to the public even though it might ultimately make as much sense.

  5. Max Lybbert:

    > By the way, exactly what is our goal in Afghanistan, will someone remind me? We have been
    > successful when __________________ ?

    My understanding has always been that "we will have been successful when the US troops can go home without Afghanistan turning back into a failed state" or "we will have been successful when the US troops can go home without needing to worry about future terrorist attacks being launched from Afghanistan."

  6. caseyboy:

    Afghanistan is a savage country, people and terrain. Alexander the Great could not subdue it. He had to marry a tribal chieftain's daughter to get enough stability that his supply lines were relatively secure. The British were militarily embarrassed in the mid-1800's in a conflict that came to be known as Auckland's Folly. Of course the Soviets didn't do much better and had to leave in disgrace.

    We cannot have military or political success in that wasteland.

  7. Bram:

    Max - By those standards, we will never leave.

    We won there in 2003/4 and should have gone home then.

    Jens - Yes the fucked up and an NCO should have kicked their asses (ans erased their camera). They don't deserve what is about to come down - career-ending, life ruining punishment.

  8. Ted Rado:

    Anyone reading about the history of Afghanistan comes to the realization that it is, and always has been, populated by thugs, thieves, killers, and chaos. The idea that somehow a wonderful peacefull democratic country will emerge from the current war is sheer fantasy. The only choices we seem to have in these backward middle east countries is a stable dictatorship or chaos. Pick one.

    This still leaves unanswered the question: What to we do if an anti-US, terrorist supporting, regime emerges in one of these places? So far, noone seems to have a reasonable answer. We can rail all we want against the current US interventions, but I have heard no reasonable alternative, other than bury our head in the sand and hope for the best.

  9. Anonymous Mike:

    Sebastian Junger's book "War" makes a good point about human and physical terrain, that counterinsurrgency war it's important to capture the human terrain and then the physical terrain will follow. I understand it's a more inter-dependent relationship but he quotes officers who point out that the Soviets held the physical terrain but lost the human terrain (the support of the population) which made their hold on the former untenable.

    Keeping all of that in light... it's not good idea for videos of this going around. However the more far-reaching effect isn't so much the damage it has caused as the exposure of the damage already caused by our signalling that we are getting out come hell or high water. That may or may not be the best strategy but these latest incident must be placed within the context that people there are already planning for the post-US future in Afgahnistan.

  10. Goober:

    Prior to engaging in hostilities, a test must be applied to see if the hostile action is justifiable (this only applies if your goal is not conquest of a new territory or empire building, which I think is safe to say America is not interested in). Ask yourself the following questions:

    1.) Have all diplomatic paths to resolution been exhausted? Are you prepared to discontinue all diplomatic relations with the country in question and simply engage in warfare with them? Can you separate the warfare from politics and diplomacy so that the war is total, unfettered, and unblocked by political concerns?

    2.) Have you a set goal in mind in regards to your military efforts? Is there a clear objective, which, upon being obtained, is the trigger for a declaration of victory and cessation of hostilities? Do you have a plan in place that involves massive, violent, and decisive action with the single-minded purpose of acheiving your objective as quickly and inexpensively (both American lives and treasure) as possible? Are you prepared to cease hostility and leave once your objective has been accomplished?

    3.) Have you disabused yourself of any notion that you can force the conquered populace of your enemy to accept the government that you install for them? Have you accepted the fact that if your hostile action's objective is to remove a power broker of some sort, that you have no say in what power broker takes his place without having forces in place to enforce your puppet government in perpetuity, in violation of rule #2?

    4.) Is the objective for which you are undertaking hostile actions a good and just enough objective that you would honestly and willingly give up your own life, or even better, that of your son, to obtain it? Do you realize that you are asking men to do exactly this when you undertake hostility, and can you keep in mind the immorality of ordering men to die for a cause for which you would not?

    If the answer to any of the above questions is "no" then you don't go to war. When applied to the Afghanistan campaign, it is my belief that we only passed muster on these questions for the first year or so of the war. Beyond that, we started to fail on these points, and in my opinion, if you fail on any single one of them, then you need to leave immediately because you are not prepared to properly execute a hostile action. The fact that we stayed in A-stan after 2004 is an unforgivable violation of what I consider to be the good rules of waging war.

    I do not think the war in Iraq ever passed muster.

  11. blokeinfrance:

    Conquest, traditionally, is not complete until you have not only beaten your enemy but humiliated his warriors.
    In that light could this be a bit of unauthorised P.R.? Not pretty, and probably not effective. A certain country, it was said, used to roll the bodies of suicide bombers in pig fat and bury them in unmarked graves facing away from Mecca. Did the number of volunteer bombers decrease?

  12. LTMG:

    Through the years, for both Iraq and Iran, I have read news accounts about events demonstrating illegal acts by US soldiers. Illegal according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Laws of War, and contrary to standing orders by unit commanders. I have also read of acts showing very poor judgment, though not illegal. Typically, the soldiers involved are at the squad leader level and lower. I have to wonder where the platoon sergeants and young lieutenant platoon leaders are when these events take place. I never read about them or their company commanders in the news reports. Having been a platoon leader and detachment commander, I'm aware of their accountabilities and responsibilities. I'm also aware that platoon sergants and platoon leaders can't be everywhere at once.

  13. Don:

    Put simply, there's only one reasonable option: withdraw and nuke 'em from orbit!

  14. Benjamin Cole:

    Let's see, Iraqistan cost $4 trillion. We established not two secular governments, but two Islamic governments. In Afghanistan they execute people who convert to Christianity, and grow opium like kingpins. Iraq may become best buddies with Iran.

    But then we are the ones who resurrected the Islamic Monarchy of Kuwait.

    This tim just underscores the fruitless nature and vast waste of money of our overseas adventures. Hopefully even the right-wing will come to its senses about this hyped-up military we have, one that allows our Presidents to get us into endless messes.

    Remember--the private sector does more with less every year, but federal agencies do less with more every year, including the Defense Department.

  15. a_random_guy:

    "We established not two secular governments, but two Islamic governments. In Afghanistan they execute people who convert to Christianity, and grow opium like kingpins. Iraq may become best buddies with Iran."

    Yes, that about sums it up.

    “we will have been successful when the US troops can go home without Afghanistan turning back into a failed state” or “we will have been successful when the US troops can go home without needing to worry about future terrorist attacks being launched from Afghanistan.”

    These goals are not, and never have been achievable. Afghanistan has been a failed state for many decades, and there's frankly nothing that a military campaign can do to fix that. Similarly, there's no way that a military campaign can do anything about future behavior, except to sufficiently piss the local population off so that they will continue to support terrorist.

    It's not the military's fault that the politicians have handed the military impossible goals. That said, if the JCS had any balls, they would have refused the deployment orders as illegal, since the President has no authority to attack another country without a declaration of war from Congress. The same goes for Iraq, where the justifications and goals were even more idiotic. The debate necessary to garner explicit Congressional support might have resulting in more useful goals and a more limited deployment.

    As a last note: The USA represents 43% of the worldwide military expenditures. What are we getting for our money? Perhaps it would be better to stop playing in other people's backyards, pull our troops home, and mind our own business? You know, in the sense of "we are the friends of liberty everywhere, the guardians only of our own.". It sure would save a heck of a lot of money.

  16. Xmas:

    We are winning each time we take out non-Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. We are engaging those people who would be terrorists anywhere in the world at a time and place of our choosing. We are making them waste their money and resources, we are forcing them to expose their networks, we are tracking down their leadership.

    "If you are far from the enemy, make him believe you are near." - Sun Tzu

    By this criteria, we'll never be done in Afghanistan, keeping it a permanent war zone. Personally, I think we'll be in an all-out shooting war with Pakistan if we don't leave Afghanistan soon, since we somehow keep blowing up Pakistani ISI agents and "undercover" soldiers.

  17. Dale:

    I don't usually respond to blogs, but this one's been on my mind. First, there have been a lot of thoughtful responses. I most agree with Mike. Context is essential and still lacking here. It is difficult to defend what these guys did. It would have been easier to condemn if they were taking "trophies" or physically desecrating the bodies. Yes, there should have been an NCO who handled the situation. There are many ifs and shoulds. From my experience (12+ years Marine infantry), those whose job it is to focus on grand strategy, nationbuilding, and the like have no understanding of and are loathe to associate with the grunts on the ground, living for days in the mud, often with poor food and little water, tired,hot/cold and occasionally shot at. They have no concept, in that environment, of what it means to survive when you thought you were about to die, or the emotional release that follows. In a nice, neat convenient war, these guys do their job, go home quietly, and noone has to focus, however briefly, on what a horrible, nasty mess war actually is.

    I'm not making excuses. We still don't have the context. They shouldn't have done it. Their actions will make things more difficult for those who follow. Unfortunately, they've drawn too much attention and what should have been handled that day by a Lieutenant (or NCO)will now be investigated by a Lieutenant General and they will be likely sacrificed in the name of politics. Unfortunately, this happens. Thank God it wasn't My Lai. The 24 hour news cycle should remove it from the spotlight soon.

    In my experience, the average Marine infantryman is an outstanding example of the best that America has to offer. I have witnessed more pure acts of unselfishness and even nobility in my brief time in the field with them than I have, or hope to, since. Our politicians don't deserve them!

    As to the objective of the war in the first place, I come back to my old Military History professor. He made us focus, always, on Grand Strategy. I can find some, in a broader context in the Iraq conflict, but little in Afghanistan. Grand Strategy relates to the furtherance of vital national interest. In that context, historically, removing Saddam will be a footnote as will the WMD issue. The key issue is that the US forcibly injected (temporary) stability in a very unstable region. Briefly, Saudi money, Iranian, Syrian, and Iraqi interests were disrupted and contained on our terms. No major Israeli conflicts, no oil shocks, etc.

    As a separate issue, does anyone else find it utterly amazing that our political leaders are only now getting tough, at least in the media, with Iran after a major troop withdrawal from the region. What a signal. Seems it would have been much more effective sometime in the last 3 years. Political grandstanding in an election year? No wonder Iran is saber rattling.

    The Afghani conflict is another story. The only defensible rationale I can see was to pursue and destroy Al Qaeda post 9/11. One can argue that that has been done, or not. The strategy now seems to be to buid up the Afghani forces sufficiently to let them fail on the next guy's watch after we've gone. Cynical, I know.

    Sorry to ramble. As I said, this has been on my mind.

  18. andre:

    What should have been done in Afghanistan (and yes I did say it then, but who listens to me?), is we should have supported the USSR back in the 70's. It was of very little value to us strategically, a fact borne out by the unseen takeover by the Taliban in later years. Having the USSR take over that country would have been a win-win for us. Either that country would have sapped even more of the military and economic resources out of the USSR, or the USSR would have built up some infrastructure (substandard by our measurements, but infinitely better than what is in the country outside of Kabul, and maybe better than there, too). And most important, they would have brought in their form of secularism desparately needed in that part of the world.

    And it's not like it was not known at that time who the USSR was up against, and who we were assisting. I read a rather thoroughly researched article in Playboy that went to great lengths to underscore the political and religious positions of the various groups in Afghanistan and their goals. That writer in no uncertain terms stated that the end result will be a Muslim fundamentalist government that will see the west as a mortal enemy to be destroyed.

    That said, at this point we will never see anyone really rule the whole country. The most we can hope for Karzai is that he will be a successful mayor of Kabul. What really needs to go into that blank will not happen for at least a century. More likely, it will never happen period. We need to leave, and let them know that if there is a rise in terrorist camps, or a takeover of the gov't by the Taliban or some such, we will do whatever is necessary to protect ourselves and the civilized world, and it won't include any notion of nation-building.

  19. Bart Hall (Kansas, USA):

    We will have been successful when _______

    a) Zawahiri is dead, meaning we've killed or caught the entire top ten of AQ leadership and vastly reduced the threat of another '01-type attack.

    b) Afghanistan is no longer needed as a base for operations against AQ in northern Pakistan. Zawahiri's elimination is necessary, but not sufficient for this end.

  20. Anonymous Mike:


    As far as the paradox of getting tough with Iran right after withdrawing from Iraq, I have read material last year that suggested that having large numbers of troops in Iraq places them at risk of an Iranian retalitaory strike if their nuclear facilities are hit. In effect, the argument goes, the forces in Iraq are hostages for our good behavior for Iran.

    Now it might seem strange that of all people soldiers are hostage, and US personnel of all people, and so I have problems with it. However the US has been awfully passive toward Iranian aggression, both in terms of its nuke program and its activities in Iraq which have cost many American lives, so there is some unexplained rationale for essentially ignoring Iranian provocations.

    In short there is something going on with regard to Iran and Iraq that the American people have been kept in the dark about. Could the Iranian ability to retaliate against American troops in Iraq had really been that great? I cannot believe it but we are left alot of room to speculate

    Anyway the prior "hostage" argument would have the evacuation of Iraq as a prelude to a big move against Iran, therefore the saber rattling. However the argument against that is that Iraq is disintegrating by the day, any move against Iran would have to be very soon. Occam's Razor would probably lead to domestic politics as opposed to a clearing the decks against Iran.

    For what it's worth I remembering reading some reports 4 or 5 years ago that to really clear out the nuke facilities that you couldn't rely on air strikes alone but that you would have to hold the ground for a period. Now it is that much harder to do because the facilities have been more effectively buried. We have the technology to take out deep-buried sites, ever since the Pershing 2, but we have to believe that our intelligence is poor that to have any degree of confidence that we need to have a degree of persistence.

    You know the real WMD wasn't anything Saddam or the Ayatolah's have - it's themselves which are the problems. So perhaps a few JDAMs in dowtown Tehran as well as outside Qom. After all if you're going to take Vienna....

  21. I Got Bupkis, Fomenter of "small-l" libertarianism:

    We have been successful when __________________ ?

    1) "George Bush acknowledges it was all his fault"

    2) "When The Great Big 0 needs to look butch for the Teleprompter"

    3) "When America shows the world that Mao was correct about the USA, just a few decades early"

    Or you could go with the obvious -- when Afghanistan has at least a chance at retaining a stable, non-totalitarian, secular government.

  22. I Got Bupkis, Not to be confused with Caspar Milquetoast:

    >>> The 24 hour news cycle should remove it from the spotlight soon.

    Yeah, the media will let go of it just a little bit slower than they did Abu Ghirab. Say, 48 hours, tops, right?

    This is something that makes the USA look "bad". Ignore that "the other side" beheads living people. We dare to pee on their dead bodies!!! We are just complete, unmitigated BASTARDS!!!

    Geez. The reason why this is significant is that the MSM is going to harp on it day and night for the next two months and make it sound significant.

    In terms of "war atrocities" this is right up there with serving cookies and milk. "Can we have JUST A LITTLE perspective?" should be the response, not shame or concern. They should not have done it, just from a general policy perspective. Their hands should be slapped, HARD, but that's all. Any lame-ass "oh, boo hoo we're sooooo sorry!!" response just makes us look like weak-need milquetoast, and encourages the opposition.

    Freaking A. Did the intelligent, rational, and common-sense voices in this nation learn NOTHING from the won-but-media-lost status of Vietnam? I am so freaking tired of namby-pamby wimpy jackass responses to crap like this.

    Tell 'em to go F*** a pig. That's the response such whines and complaints merit.

  23. W smith:

    Daniel Pearlman, World Trade Towers, peeing on corpses...place in appropriate order of degree of atrocity.

    This week we have the First Lady giving her support to veterans returning home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and at the same time the Secretary of State demanding clear and cogent behavior from men who have just survived an immediate fire fight with the enemy.

    These Marines deserve a rotation home and rest...not imprisonment or disgrace.

  24. beautox:

    Someone said that soldiers tend to dehumanize their foes to make their job more bearable. This seems to be an example.

  25. Frederick:

    There are a few fundamental things no one has mentioned here that relate to the action that those Marines took. Not a combat vet but I was a part time reservist (State Guard (Army), not Marine). So I have no actual experience but am close enough to perhaps provide a perspective a bit closer to the Marines world-view then those who have never gone through military training or spent some extended time on a military base.

    First off these men are young; most likely most of them have not hit their 21st birthday. They left home at 17, 18 or 19 years of age. They entered a system that in IET seeks to completely replace the civilian ethos. The new ethos is: honor, duty, courage, obedience to authority, willingness to sacrifice oneself for that authority and comradeship. Now independent thinking is not exactly encouraged for these young service men, regardless of what you have read in little blurbs on how great our modern military is. The purpose of IET is to eliminate the natural reticence men have to kill, and to make men who see themselves as part of a “unit” (read gang), an entity they will kill for on command. At its essence that what you are sending your sons to learn when you send them off to become an 11Bravo, they are joining a gang every bit as badass as any urban gang, just under a better control mechanism.

    Now young men under such circumstances form very deep friendships, those that have seen hardship/combat together for an extended period of time often times form friendships that last a life time. Numerous studies have shown that the combat effectiveness of units is very closely related to the degree the unit cohesion (i.e. trust and sense of comradeship) is maintained. Since Vietnam at least every attempt is made to foster these friendships.

    So you end up sending young men to a bush war like the ones we find ourselves in. You are sending young men who have had the basic civilian reticence to do harm to others who are not part of “the group” removed and a deep sense of comradeship with their fellow soldiers or Marines. How do you think they react when someone tries to kill them or they see their buddies hurt? We are not talking about 45 year old men who have had the benefit of many years of life and some times to form higher ethical codes, but kids who in some cases barely shave. They will not admit it, all of them are quite terrified of being mauled, losing limbs or being crippled, and most would rather die before returning home in such a shape. When you combine all that along with a faceless enemy that does not obey any of the European soldier ethical codes, how do you think they react when they finally get into combat? Ponder that for a moment.

    The fact that after a battle they pissed on some enemy bodies is not at all unexpected. The fact no one in the unit saw any problem with their act is because ………….. Why is it a problem? If it is O.K to kill the proclaimed enemy of my people, if I have just been in a situation where I might have been killed and wasn’t, if the team I was on just killed the enemy, why not take a piss on them? They lost, we won. Piss on them and the camel they rode in on. Hey lets take a tape of this, we kicked ass…..

    Now the American public back home that never sees “stumpy” the result of a roadside IED that didn’t quite kill the fellow but did remove his hands, legs, manhood and left a 22 year old but the ruined shell of a man. Chaps like those “hajji” they pissed on did that (at least that is how the Marines most likely look at it and there are terms much harsher used to describe the afghan fighters). Hillary, Panetta and the good American taxpayers are apparently shocked, shocked I tell you that our brave men and women would do such a thing…….. Why………..why ……..it is not polite, it might even be considered rude! After our American taxpayer’s Marines kill someone we should treat the sand monkeys bodies with respect we would of any honorable foe. We should expect that a 19 year old lance-corporal who hasn’t had a bath in 10 days to show better sense then to take a video of the bodies. Yeah right….. In your dreams.

    The problem is our political leaders are trying to hide reality from the American public. Being older and having never faced the elephant, some of the attitudes shown by returning troops who have seen such may be very harsh but that is reality. It is better that the reality be seen by the American public then that our face be turned away, that little display was pretty mild. If these Marines are hung out to dry it is a pretty sad comment about our leaders, it says nothing about the troops at all. Remember if the local unit needed some good publicity, with the correct write up each of the Marines could have been decorated for bravery, perhaps a bronze star, they are given out pretty readily for similar acts and in the army for being injured and captured if you are a women. So if they are prosecuted for pissing on a dead body, an act that followed killing that body, at the command of their leaders, it shows cowardly behavior on the part of the entire change of command, but not on the part of those Marines.

  26. Frederick:

    make the last sentence chain, not change

  27. Mark:

    @Jens "Hard to make the case for urinating on people"

    Hey, when you got to go, you got to go!