The Strategic Consequences of Egregious, Avoidable Mistakes

Editor's Note: This article is very timely, considering the latest apparent misstep by U.S. forces in Afghanistan with allegations of a massacre in Kandahar Province.  As LtCol Bracknell observes, the importance of these actions is not reality, but perception.  We must constantly evaluate how to prevent such missteps and to mitigate their negative effects.

The recent hullabaloo in Afghanistan over inadvertent Koran burning is a snapshot of how the U.S. and its allies repeatedly sabotage our own chances for success. The incident cost innocent American and Afghan lives and resulted in the U.S. President issuing a humble apology to Afghan President Karzai and the Afghan people for this colossal error, in hopes of calming the ruckus and stemming unnecessary bloodshed. Those responsible for the burning should be held accountable for their apparent lack of situational and cultural awareness and failure to supervise, and with some luck, we will weather this latest storm.  The most basic lesson, however, goes back to leadership – the responsibility of leaders to be aware of their surroundings, their context, and the strategic environment in which they undertake tactical tasks.  Situational awareness, understanding, and constant self-assessment can help avoid the unintended third order effects of the actions of friendly, tactical-level bad actors – individuals who commit crimes or incompetently execute individual or small-unit level task performance.

Alissa Rubin’s March 2, 2012 New York Times article  notes several failed, missed, or ignored opportunities that U.S. military official and supervisors had to off-ramp this strategic disaster.  Rubin reports that “officers at the detention center in Parwan became worried that detainees were secretly communicating through notes scribbled in library books, possibly to plot an attack…[t]wo Afghan-American interpreters were assigned to sift through the library’s books and set aside those that had writing that might constitute a security risk.” These interpreters set aside over 1600 books that might contain coded messages.  The segregated books marked for destruction contained among the volumes Korans and religious texts. 

  • Mistake 1:  where was the intelligence or security professional assigned to partner with the interpreters to evaluate the substance of the coded messages?  The leadership abdicated this function to two interpreters whose principal function is to change statements from one language into another, not to evaluate information or assess threats.  Rather than risk making a mistake, they likely defaulted to an “if writing in book, then destroy” methodology; absent training or expertise in discerning harmless writings from potential coded communication, the logical answer is to remove every book containing writing in the margins.  Who supervised the decision to destroy all 1600 books, including Korans, without appreciating the risk inherent in the destruction of holy Islamic books inside the borders of an Islamic state? 
  • Mistake 2:  After repeated apparent (the importance here is not truth, but the perception and its results) displays of American and allied disregard for Islam in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, and Florida, it seems obvious that any supervisor, now matter how junior, should have recognized the issue of ensuring that the Korans were disposed of correctly, under the guidance of an Imam and in accordance with Islamic tradition, to guard against a possible firestorm of conspiracy theorism.  Instead, they were trucked off to an incinerator like empty lettuce boxes or outdated copies of Muscle and Fitness.  Where were the grownups when the decision was made to load up the trucks and motor off to the fire pit?
  • Mistake 3:  The U.S. has ready access to imams who could give authoritative advice on the proper way to dispose of the Koran.  According to some sources, burning is the least preferred of three methods of disposal (after burying the Koran properly or releasing it into a river), and burning must be conducted properly and with reverence.  For example, burning is permitted only after the name of Allah and the prophets are physically erased from the book.  Instead of avoiding controversy by following Islamic law in an Islamic republic, we fanned a strategic fire with tactical ignorance and insensitivity.  Where were the adults who should have brought in an expert to ensure the procedure was compliant with Islamic law and was executed with dignity and reverence?

But it was just a mistake…”  “Well, they repress women and are corrupt and primitive.”  “Who cares what a bunch of dirt farmers half a world away think about us?”  “And this justifies murder against Americans who are there to help them?”  We Westerners can think the Afghan reaction to this fiasco is silly.  We can think the Muslims are being duplicitous by killing people over a cultural slight.  We can think it is a breathless overreaction because this controversy sprung from an honest mistake.  But none of those positions deals with the reality that ours is a mostly Christian force whose motives are suspect, operating in an Islamic republic among a Muslim population that is culturally predisposed to believe the worst of American intentions.  We seem unable to appreciate that we are the visiting team playing with home field umpires, committing an endless series of errors on routine ground balls.

That the burning was unintentional is mostly irrelevant:  some symbols are so sacred that the degree of intent is immaterial to the harm perceived by those who feel slighted.  If a soldier on patrol in an Afghan village marketplace trips over a wheelbarrow and falls into an Afghan woman, accidentally ripping her abaya in an immodest way, no amount of discussion about the soldier’s intent will repair the damage to honor in that culture.  In America, everyone would grin sheepishly, the lady might try to laugh it off, and the fact that the mistake was unintentional would likely assuage the embarrassment or irritation.  In Afghanistan, cultural norms dictate that such an accident might justify an extreme reaction to defend the woman’s honor.  It is simply part of the operational environment, and we must plan to avoid such situations – for example, keeping distance and avoiding direct contact with Afghan women, and taking immediate responsibility and making amends for mistakes.  Moreover, explanations about intent fall on deaf Afghan ears when we squander our credibility by urinating on corpses and, sometimes, failing to exercise tactical patience which results in civilian casualties. In such an environment, the prudent leader takes extraordinary measures to avoid situations that could spiral out of control.  As leaders, we do not have to like it, and it does not have to make sense to Western minds.  To quote William Safire quoting someone else, it is what it is. Or, better said, Albert Einstein noted, “A man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.” Afghanistan is what it is.  We can wish it was something else by assaulting the perceptions of the Afghan people, but that does not change the strategic reality that we frequently confirm their worst suspicions through unsupervised individual actions which take on a strategic life of their own.

Leaders in the hyperconnected, networked world where information, accurate or flawed, moves at the speed of electrons, have to constantly evaluate whether they are supervising strategic knuckleheads, or whether they are acting as strategic knuckleheads themselves.  It is not enough to avoid intentional affronts in a place like Afghanistan; leaders must act with extra care to ensure they avoid accidental ones, as well.  It is impossible to measure the strategic damage occasioned by this Koran burning in terms of the overall success of the campaign, but this much is certain:  the damage is palpable and has one metric that is readily apparent – body bags.  The damage in this case was avoidable through the application of user-level judgment, sensitivity, and foresight.  The leader’s challenge, from squad to division, is to field the ground balls without turning them into game-changing plays.

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Comments

Yep. Lots of talk about the strategic corporal, but can we name one circumstance where he or she changed the game strategically in the positive? I can think of a bunch of them in the negative.

The negative tends to have greater strategic impact than the positive, at least in the short-term. Not all bad acts are restricted to the strategic corporal, unless you consider COLs strategic corporals, so we need not fall into the trap of lumping people into categories based on the rank they wear. Their rank is their rank, who they are as people has little to do that. The people that commited these mistakes and in some cases intentional acts are individuals that don't represent the service or their rank as a whole.

I still believe in the strategic corporal, because I have seen them and their impact. I know the young enlisted and junior officers have several amongst them that think and act strategically on a regular basis, but it is largely invisible because it isn't news worthy (because its normal).

We have our bad apples that shouldn't be in the ranks to begin with, especially for this type of war, and we have people who make honest, but serious mistakes. This is why real leadership is decisive (not leadership by policy). Failure to provide it creates environments where these incidents are more likely to happen, but even in the best led units crap still happens, and the culmination of positive effects are all too easily washed away when we have these serious negative incidents.

We're wearing our welcome thin in Afghanistan, and the reasons for that in my view are numerous, and why I suggest a much smaller presence in country with mostly special operations forces. These types of conflicts may require a surge of general purpose forces, but a surge is a surge (a few weeks at most) to suppress the enemy. A surge is temporary, an occupation appears permanent and it is normally unwelcome.

Your last paragraph raises an important point. If a large enough number of people (especially armed young men) are implanted for a long enough time and under intense enough pressure and scrutiny in an utterly foreign and not infrequently hostile society, mistakes will be made. That tendency is going to be exacerbated when neither the implanted outsiders nor their often reluctant hosts have any clear idea of why the implanted outsiders are there.

Any given egregious mistake might be considered avoidable, especially in retrospect. What is not avoidable is the reality that mistakes will be made under these circumstances. Human nature and human imperfection make that inevitable. The question is not only how we can assure that these mistakes never occur, but how we can avoid situations that make such mistakes inevitable.