Washington, DC – Paula Broadwell, whose affair with Gen. David Petraeus brought his career to a sudden end last week, had sought to help defend his decision in 2010 to allow village destruction in Afghanistan that not only violated his own previous guidance but the international laws of war.
But her efforts had the opposite effect.
The new Petraeus policy guidance allowed the destruction of villages in three districts of Kandahar province if the population did not tell U.S. forces where homemade bombs were hidden.
In early January 2010, Broadwell went to visit the Combined Task Force I-320th in Kandahar to write a story justifying the decision to destroy the village of Tarok Kaloche and much of three other villages in its area of operations.
Ironically, it was Broadwell who introduced the complete razing of the village of Tarok Kalache in in Kandahar’s Arghandab Valley in October 2010 to the blogosphere. Dramatic photographs of the village before and after it was razed, which she had obtained from U.S. military sources, were published with her article in the military blog Best Defense Jan. 13, 2011.
The pictures and her article brought a highly critical response from blogger Joshua Foust, who is a specialist on Afghanistan.
Tarok Kalache was only one of many villages destroyed or nearly destroyed in an October 2010 offensive by U.S. forces in three districts of Kandahar Province, because the heavy concentrations of IEDs had made clearing the village by conventional forces too costly.
In the late summer and early fall, commanders in those districts had been ordered to clear the villages of Taliban presence, but they had taken heavy casualties from IEDs planted in and around the villages.
As commander of Combined Task Force I-320th, Lt. Col. David Flynn was responsible for several villages in the Arghandab valley, including Tarok Kalache.
Flynn told Spencer Ackerman of the Danger Room blog in early February 2011 that, once he felt he had the necessary intelligence on IEDs in Tarok Kalache, he had adopted a plan to destroy the village, first with mine clearing charges, which destroyed everything within a swath 100 yards long and wide enough for a tank, then with aerial bombing.
U.S. forces completed the destruction Oct. 6, 2010, dropping 25 2,000-pound bombs on what remained of Tarok Kalache’s 36 compounds and gardens, according to Flynn’s account.
And in an interview with the Daily Mail nearly three weeks after Tarok Kalache had been flattened, Flynn revealed that he had just told residents of Khosrow Sofla that if they didn’t inform him of the location of the IEDs in their village within a few days, he would destroy the village.
Flynn later confirmed to Ackerman that he had told the residents, if they couldn’t tell him exactly where the bombs were located, he would have no way of disposing of them without blowing up the buildings.
The sequence of events clearly suggests that Flynn was using the destruction of Tarok Kalache to convince the residents of Khosrow Sofla that the same thing would happen to them if they didn’t provide the information about IEDs demanded by Flynn.
That tactic apparently succeeded. Carlotta Gall reported in The New York Times Mar. 11, 2011 that after seeing what had happened to Tarok Kalache, the residents of the still undestroyed homes in Khosrow Sofla had hired a former mujahedeen to defuse the IEDs.
In her fawning biography of Petraeus, Broadwell quotes Flynn’s response to being informed by the Khosrow Sofla village chief that the IEDs were all gone, which U.S. troops had verified: “No dozers. No mass punishment. They were already punished by the Taliban.”
The destruction of Tarok Kalache was thus a “collective punishment” of the residents of the village as well as “intimidation” of the residents of Khosrow Sofla – practices that were strictly forbidden by the 1949 Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons.
Article 33 of that agreement states, “Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”
The village destruction also contravened a central principle of the counterinsurgency guidance that had been promulgated by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal when he became the top commander in Afghanistan in 2009.
“Destroying a home or property jeopardises the livelihood of an entire family – and creates more insurgents,” said McChrystal’s guidance.
Petraeus had confirmed that prohibition in an August 2010 guidance, warning that killing civilians or damaging their property would “create more enemies than our operations eliminate”.
But Petraeus was under pressure from the Barack Obama administration to produce tangible evidence of “progress” that could be used to justify troop withdrawals. He needed to be able cite the clearing of those villages, regardless of the political fallout.
Petraeus himself clearly approved the general policy allowing the destruction of villages by Flynn and other commanders in Kandahar in late 2010. Flynn told Ackerman he had sent his plan up the chain of command and believed that International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters were informed.
Carlotta Gall reported Mar. 11, 2011 that revised guidelines “reissued” by Petraeus permitted the total destruction of a village such in Tarok Kalache, according to a NATO official.
Although the large-scale demolition of homes had been reported by the Times in November, it had not generated any significant reaction in the United States. But in Afghanistan, the home destruction created frictions between Afghans and Petraeus’s command over the loss of homes and livelihoods.
When Broadwell traveled to Flynn’s command post in early January 2011, Petraeus was anticipating a story in the New York Times on the growing friction over the home destruction.
Broadwell’s first article for Best Defense was published Jan. 13, 2011, the same day as the New York Times article reporting that the Afghan government estimate of property damage from the destruction of homes and fields was 71 times higher than the 1.4-million-dollar ISAF estimate.
Broadwell was introduced by Ricks as a “friend of the blog” and as “Best Defense Afghanistan Correspondent”.
Although a note following her article referred to her as the author of a forthcoming book on Petraeus, Broadwell was ostensibly writing as an independent journalist rather than as a constant companion of Petraeus.
The article portrayed Flynn as forced to choose between “suffering the tragic losses and the horrific daily amputees” to clear the four villages in question and destroying the IED-laden homes.
In a comment apparently reflecting Petraeus’s concern, she said the unit “could not afford to lose momentum”.
Broadwell claimed the residents had abandoned the village when the Taliban “conducted an intimidation campaign to chase the villagers out”.
After Afghanistan blogger Joshua Foust sharply criticised her lack of concern about the razing of Tarok Kolache, Broadwell wrote on her Facebook page, “I definitely have sympathy for the villagers who had been displaced, even though they made the judgment call to ‘sell’ the village to the Taliban….”
Both those explanations were untrue, however. Former residents told IPS reporter Shah Noori in February that they had begun leaving their homes only in August when the Taliban began gearing up for an assault by U.S. troops by laying IEDs.
They also said the Taliban had allowed residents to return to check on their houses, and to tend their gardens and orchards.
Broadwell repeated an ISAF claim that the compounds were booby-trapped, but residents insisted to Noori that only some compounds had explosives.
Finally Broadwell claimed that the villagers who had lost their homes and gardens had told Petraeus and other visitors that “Flynn was their hero and they wanted him to move into the village with them.”
Then she acknowledged that villagers were “pissed about the loss of their mud huts”, adding cheerfully, “but that’s why the BUILD story is important here.”
*Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan.