The mighty (ahem) 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team has completed its rotation at the National Training Center at Ft Irwin, CA. Lost in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, the NTC is iconic. This was the ground that sharpened the spear during the Cold War and prepared the most awesome land force ever fielded for the brutally swift victory of Desert Storm. The elite Krasnovian (politically incorrect to actually call them, “Russians,” even at the height of the Cold War) motorized and tank units thundered across the desert, taking on all comers and humbling most. Commanders have been broken at the NTC. Commanders have lost their commands at the NTC. The NTC was known for a level of realism that could not be matched elsewhere.
In an earlier post, I feted the NTC as one of the winners in the training that is leading up to deployment. Following the rotation, I’d have to give it a mixed grade. Of course, we threw the NTC a curve ball on short notice. Our mission has changed from that of a full Brigade Combat Team to one whose primary job is supporting Security Force Assistance, or “SFA.” This is exactly what the Afghans need, but it is not what an IBCT is configured for. Even with that curve thrown in with short notice, my earlier excitement waned quickly.
The hybrid, quickly adapted scenario fielded by the NTC demonstrated that the Center is still focused on kinetics. The first part of the rotation was comprised of Situational Training Exercises, “STX’s” or “lanes” as they were called, every one of which ended in gunfire. One attempted KLE (Key Leader Engagement) developed into a gunfight literally within seconds after the group going through the lane made contact with their “Afghan” counterparts.
To their credit, many of the “Afghans” were actual Afghans. Some had been in the US for many years, some for a few years, and some had been raised in US, the children of Afghan immigrants. Speaking Dari again with native speakers was nice, and it was good training.
The NTC built in many “inputs” into the scenarios that could have developed into more, shall we say, “well-rounded” COIN, but those inputs were largely undiscovered by the brigade and the battalions which comprise it. While a number of the OCT’s who were assigned to the Security Force Assistance Team advisors brought a lot to the table, somehow the overall feel of the rotation was still very kinetic, and even the “injects” (behavioral/informational scripted plot twists executed by the role players) were aimed at specific responses that the OCT’s wanted to see from the brigade and its elements. That is all fairly normal, but many of the injects regarded highly kinetic activities to an excessive degree.
The role players who played the Afghan staff which we worked with were capable of a great degree of realism, to the point that some of the exercises had the feel of what I did in Kapisa in 2007. This part of the training was very valuable. Overall, the realism of the local politics was absent. Of course, it’s really difficult to know, because much of the informational stimuli built into the overall scenario apparently went undiscovered.
The rotation was not a confidence-builder for the brigade. That is not the entirely the fault of the staff of the NTC, but the overall scenario was unbalanced. While some of the facilities were truly amazing, like the city in the desert with all of the facilities you would find in a city the size of perhaps Methar Lam, the actual life of that city was poorly developed. The slogging, detail-oriented work of COIN was not replicated, but the various kinetic drills were. Staff processes were stressed to the extreme, but the tedious management of politically and socioeconomically relevant information was not tested nearly to the extent that the kinetic reaction drills were. CIV/MIL (Civilian/Military) cooperation was not truly fostered, because the civilians who work for the other government agencies involved weren’t integrated into anything resembling stability working groups. Those things were available and possible, I think, but with the emphasis on kinetics built into the rotation, most any unit would find it challenging to the point of impossibility to actively pursue those functions.
Overall, it was disappointing. I must revoke the “hero” status previously conferred upon the NTC because of their part in the overall failure of the rotation to prepare this brigade for what they will… or will reasonably be expected to… perform in Afghanistan. And it didn’t put emphasis on the areas that the brigade has chosen to accept risk on. The brigade’s functions were strained to the breaking point without providing adaptions that patched the weaknesses. Those are just my observations, and it’s difficult to paint those without being too specific. This unit’s particulars aside, the NTC can do a lot better. Over ten years into the Afghan conflict, with so many brigades having done rotations to Afghanistan, one would expect it to be the paragon of counterinsurgency training instead of just coming up to speed. After all this time, one would not expect training beset with issues that do not enhance the readiness of units preparing to conduct operations in the locally-focused insurgency of Afghanistan.
There have been a couple of decent articles in the past week or so that are good conversation-starters regarding Afghanistan and the challenges facing both Afghans and Coalition forces on the local level. The first, a AP piece by Deb Reichmann of the Associated Press, paints what appears to be a gloomy picture of the challenges of working with local governance in, in this example, Logar Province. It’s a good piece to spark some discussion, and anyone who has worked on the local level in Afghanistan would recognize the dynamics at work.
The piece mentions what appears to be a dire prediction by Sec. Gates concerning what it will take to get Afghan governance up and running (decades). It also mentions a shift, which I saw beginning in 2009, towards focusing efforts on local governance. This does not mean that GIRoA is escaping notice, with its major challenges corruption, croneyism, nepotism and criminal/narco links. Not at all. But it does indicate that more effort is being focused on what actually matters to the Afghan who lives in the little valley… or about 80% of the population.
While Ms. Reichmann paints a picture of the obstacles, and of a day where things didn’t quite work out, read between the lines. Efforts are being made at the local level and, while many of the quotes came from government officials, there was some indication of local population preference for the success of the Afghan government. Reading it, I had to grin. I can feel for LTC Chlebowski, and he certainly has his work cut out for him, but I’ve been in similar situations. I will never forget asking a villager in a small village in the Tagab Valley who he supported. He answered, “You are here every week or so, the Taliban are here every other night. Who do I have to support?”
Another question that could be asked would be, “Who do you want to support?” Hearing about Afghans expressing that they want to support the government is a good thing. Giving them the security to do that is a difficult chore, no doubt, but there are two good things in this article; Afghans who want to support the government and a focus on local governance. One thing missing; mention of civilian stability partners other than Afghan government officials.
The article contains one phrase that I absolutely hate: “Hearts and minds.” It is the most misunderstood phrase in counterinsurgency, because to the average person… and a lot of military personnel… it conjurs up images of passing out stuffed animals and packets of flower seeds. Yech. Not at all what the original author intended. It does not necessarily mean soft power or cutting out paper dolls with the locals. I cannot override the fluffy bunny imagery of the phrase, so I just hate it whenever it is used.
The point is that Reichmann identifies local governance as being important, and that lagging gains in governance are pivotal to success in Logar (and, by extension, on each local level). That is what really made me grin. To have such a thing recognized by a mainstream journalist means that the realization is truly catching on.
In any case, Reichmann’s article could provide the start for an hour or so of lively discussion in an adequate forum.
The second, more recent article is from the NYT. Carlotta Gall hints that we may have reached the magical “tipping point” in Afghanistan. She may be right. If she is, it is by accident and not by design. Historically, the tipping point is very difficult to pinpoint, pretty much never recognized contemporaneously, and bickered over endlessly after the fact. Case in point; Iraq. The “surge” in Iraq is credited by many with having tipped the scales, but there is a strong (and noisy) camp that contends vociferously and endlessly that the “Sunni Awakening” was a spontaneous change of hearts at the grassroots level, was underway before the surge troops even arrived and would have had the same results with or without the “surge.”
Part of why it is so difficult to become even adequate practitioners of COIN is the ability to get nearly irretrievably lost in such arguments. For the detractors of COIN, it is an imperative to convince others of their version of the story. At a minimum, the undecided must be convinced that there is a reasonable possibility that they are buying into a total, well-orchestrated farce; that COIN is quite possibly snake oil. What happens to their arguments… and their priorities… if it turns out that counterinsurgency was effectively applied and… it worked?
Now is the time to note that not one major anti-COIN mouthpiece has admitted to even partial success of the surge. None of the louder voices have been swayed, and some have even reached back into history to challenge the reason for historical COIN successes such as Malaysia.
So those who buy into the “surge narrative” (or any similar narrative) are (and must be) derided as gullible fools or mindless chauvinists. For every successful counterinsurgency, there is always more than one explanation put forth for the success itself. Different sources will strive to put forth their own “tipping point” for each conflict. It is nearly impossible to actually recognize the tipping point while it is happening. Usually the fact that it has been reached in an insurgency is not apparent for months or even years afterwards.
Often, as in the case of examining the success of the “surge” in Iraq, a more blended approach which acknowledges all reasonable inputs would be most accurate. Of course, these would not be simple enough to be easily portrayed and less easily sold as a competing narrative. So the search for truth goes out the window in the interest of political expedience. In the dirty knife fight that is the struggle over COIN and stability operations in our military and in the civilian organs of foreign policy, the narratives do not blend. Each side is entrenched in its own fortifications, and any successes or failures will be vociferously contended, perhaps for years following the resolution of the main insurgency, such as in Iraq.
Even if Gall were correct in pinpointing the tipping point, it would never be broadly accepted. Politics is murky, war covered in fog; the two together are beyond enigma.
As in Reichmann’s article, Gall identifies the work being done on the local level, particularly along the governance line, as being pivotal. She mentions that people are beginning to trust their local government, even though they doubt the ability of GIRoA to continue the gains in the absence of foreign assistance. That is a reasonable fear, certainly, but it is possible for that to change as well as the local government. Remember, 15 months ago there was no local GIRoA government in Marjah. That line of operation lagged far behind the security effort for months and months. The disconnect between the delivery of local governance and the other lines of operation is what caused the fight for Marjah to be so much more drawn-out than the overly optimistic projections coming out of ISAF. Some trumpeted Marjah as the perfect example of the failure of COIN. That declaration is fading, even partially forgotten. Marjah is no longer the “bleeding ulcer” of ISAF.
In COIN, incremental success makes for a jumbled, ugly picture. No victorious flag-raising, no victor hoisting his sword to the heavens in triumph. The tipping point in a local situation isn’t even recognizable when it occurs.
ISAF’s latest report on the progress of the conflict retains the phrase, “fragile but reversible gains.” We all expect rhetoric from ISAF. But the fact that some of these things are being noted by mainstream reporters… whether they are COIN gurus or not… speaks volumes. To me, it speaks even louder that they are by no means experts in counterinsurgency. If they were, the filters they applied may muddy the information. These two articles are largely devoid of all but superficial analysis, and that makes them stronger indicators. If an MSM reporter can convey some of this, and if one of them even flirts with the concept of the “tipping point,” that is an interesting conversation-starter.
Bear in mind that the “tipping point” is not a new concept, not a newly added page to the book. No one was talking about tipping points two years ago, and it has come up several times only lately. This is why having the discussion is interesting.
One other interesting congruence in these two separate articles is the reference to the current insurgent tactics. A certain reliance on suicide bombings and assassinations is being recognized. The insurgents are working very hard to portray themselves as having influence greater than their actual grasp. Just because one can infiltrate a civilian city and detonate a concealed weapon does not denote the ability to influence the daily activities of those residents, other than to inspire a bit of fear (hence the term, “terrorism”). It actually indicates a certain weakening of the insurgent, a sense of desperation. Like a team that has fallen behind in a playoff game, “Hail Mary” passes and continued efforts to pull off a big play actually display a recognition of being disadvantaged. The Afghan insurgents may be displaying these signs.
Lastly, recent reports indicate that Afghan civilian casualty incidents (CIVCAS) are higher than ever… with pro-government forces being attributed with only 12% of the casualties. An increase in reliance on more indiscriminate weapons also indicates that the insurgents are less able to confront their foes directly. Force preservation is an insurgent imperative even in good times. They are insurgents precisely because they are overwhelmed by their opponents. Assymetry in warfare is not a choice made by the strong, it is a necessity for the weak. When insurgents are a bit more flush, politically and militarily, they can afford to be more direct and discriminating in their attacks. A rise in the use of “victim-initiated” devices, such as pressure plate IED’s, indicates an inability or unwillingness to use riskier and more time-consuming command detonation techniques. This may also be an indication of insurgent weakness and the acceptance, in the minds of the insurgents, that the unintended (or even intended) infliction of civilian casualties is more acceptable or even necessary.
Unchallenged or ineffectively challenged insurgents kill civilians sparingly and with discrimination. There is purpose to each killing, and wanton or indiscriminate killing is recognized as being harmful. One must be careful not to push the sheep into defending themselves en masse, and even a spate of phone calls can be devastating. Keeping each family hoping that the angel of death will pass them by if they only behave themselves is a key control measure. The purpose is to keep everyone in line. The sudden acceptance of wanton civilian casualties is an indication that keeping individuals in line is not the primary concern; this is in itself an indication that things are not going all that well for the insurgents. Just a concept to add to the discussion.
Note that there are exceptions, such as in Kunar and Nuristan in the east. Both have been the venues this year for a series of infantry battles, as the HiG and Taliban in these areas have been granted internal safe havens due to repositioning of Coalition forces. Recent reports indicate that Parun, the capitol of Nuristan, has been surrounded by insurgents. This only supports the above, as it is verification that when they feel safe enough, insurgents will evolve into a war of movement and openly battle their opposition. With this move, the reliance on safer activities, such as IED’s, wanes and maneuver warfare becomes the preferred method of engagement.
Losing. Or winning.
First, if an insurgent perceives himself to be “winning,” he will not negotiate unless it is to freeze the government in place while the insurgent prepares himself for the final push to topple the government. This has happened numerous times throughout history, with insurgents negotiating a change in military tactics or limiting the use of weapons. This then gives the insurgent time and space in which to solidify his gains and reach the tipping point on the verge of victory. In the case of foreign assistance to the host nation government, a key negotiating point for the insurgents will be the limiting or removal of foreign forces. A government teetering on collapse is more amenable to such negotiations. A foreign assistance force is more amenable to negotiate their own withdrawal in such cases as well. Either way, the objective of the ascendant insurgent is to cause the government to expose itself to easier military conquest. The idea is that if you break your word, but you win, you get to write the history. Oddly, numerous governments have fallen for the ploy over time.
What about “losing?” Either the insurgent has to be visibly losing or he has to perceive that he is losing. Does it have to be the threat of imminent defeat? Not necessarily. That depends on many factors.
A favorite (and effective) insurgent propaganda catchphrase in Afghanistan is, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Data shows that the longer an insurgency drags on, the likelihood of insurgent success actually decreases. So we have competing ideas. One is based on data, and it’s only an incremental change in counterinsurgent success. But it is real, based on “resolved” insurgencies. The other is a catchy phrase leveraged with our own popular history. We are seen, especially in the region, as being fickle friends. In a nation with a strong oral history and a love for analogy, shaping popular perceptions of our history through ready memes is fairly easy. Afghans often perceive that America lost interest in them at a critical time, ultimately resulting in the rise of the Taliban. HiG leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar hates the United States for failing to support his drive to take over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviets, having his own tale of American abandonment. Afghan insurgents have their own reasons for either beginning to seek a settlement or not, but if they begin to feel as if they are running out of time, the mental door to compromise begins to open.
Mullah Omar is said to be adamantly opposed to negotiations. While Omar would be a key figure to negotiate a cessation of hostilities and a return to civil life for the Quetta Shura Taliban, a failure on his part to participate would possibly cause fractures in the QST. Sub-commanders who view the situation differently may break with the Taliban to negotiate on their own. Some of this has apparently happened.
Most likely it is not due to one issue, but a combination of effects on the insurgency. Fatigue, and the fatigue of the population, may have something to do with the higher failure rate amongst insurgencies of longer duration. Real progress by the government on the issues upon which the insurgents rely for leverage may also play a role. Difficulty in mounting attacks due to improved security and lower recruitment will also play a role.
The HiG were actually a more violent spin-off of the Hizbi islami Kulis (HiK), a political party. Many “former” HiG participate in GIRoA. While coalition members view them with considerable caution, they are participating in the process. They often maintain contacts with their former comrades in arms. Gulbuddin will likely never participate himself, but is not beyond the realm of possibility. Again, fractures and defections may come into play and apparently already have. Given the ceding of areas of the RC East by the coalition in the past year and a half, the HiG are not likely feeling disadvantaged.
The Haqqani network, with the closest ties to al Qaeda, is another question.
Finally reconciliation programs that provide honorable reintegration for former insurgents, often combined with a higher mortality rate associated with participation in the insurgency, provide a powerful inducement to cease fighting. Mistreatment of insurgents by the host nation government does not provide a similar benefit.
In the end, if the insurgency feels that they are “winning,” they will not negotiate except for deceptive reasons. If they perceive themselves to be “losing,” they will begin to have difficulty with more than one factor of the overall insurgency and will become more likely to negotiate. The participation of the leadership is very helpful, but in the end the insurgency consists of many individuals who must decide for themselves when they are no longer willing to kill.
Pakistan has been featuring prominently in the news for quite some time now. Questions abound regarding why Pakistan seems to be a willing host to terrorists and insurgents. In the aftermath of the death of bin Laden on Pakistani soil the Pakistanis are expressing righteous indignation about their violated sovereignty and muted approval for the death of the poster child for international terrorism. Still, questions remain about the nexus of complicity and incompetence in the Pakistani security apparatus. “Why,” we ask, “do the Pakistanis harbor our enemies from Afghanistan and permit the most wanted man in the world to dwell right under their noses?”
Did the Pakistanis know that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad? The world may never know. Of course, it may… but that will undoubtedly take time. Eventually we will likely know the truth. In the meantime, why does the Pakistani government appear to be duplicitous in their relations with us? The Afghans don’t really wonder about it. Many, if not most, I’ve spoken with view Pakistan with a jaundiced eye. They have their own understanding of the history of Afghan relations with their populous and well-armed neighbor.
Everyone looks out for their perceived interests, we all know that. How is the Pakistani government likely to view their interests? Pakistan has only existed as a nation since 1947. A goodly chunk of what is now Pakistan was traditionally the land of the (then united) Pashtun. Roughly 60% of the Pashtun ethnicity currently reside in the under-governed areas of Pakistan’s northwest. The other (roughly) 40% of the Pashtun live in Afghanistan. They are separated by a border which was artificially and vengefully laid out by the British and named after its architect; the infamous Durand Line. Only one Afghan government… ever… has officially recognized the Durand Line as the rightful border of Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Taliban. Presumably this recognition was in return for the Pakistani patronage that sponsored the Taliban in their growth from local uprising to national power in the 1990′s.
Afghanistan has, historically, had good relations with India and Iran and poorer relations with Pakistan, including the severing of diplomatic relations in 1955. Pakistan claims to have repelled a major cross-border incursion by Afghanistan in Bajaur in 1961. While Pakistan may have made inroads in Afghan eyes due to their support for the Mujaheddin during the Soviet occupation, any good will was squandered with their seizing upon the Taliban as their opportunity to further their influence in post-Soviet Afghanistan. Average Afghans and government officials alike take a fairly dim view of Pakistan and particularly of the ISI, sometimes blaming them for more trouble than the ISI can actually cause. The ISI is the bogeyman of the Afghan man on the street.
Sometimes it was a chore to redirect the Afghans away from the problems they could not solve (Pakistani machinations) and back onto problems they could solve.
Pakistan does not likely view a strong and viable Afghanistan (with its own national interests) on its western border. Their paranoia is not unfounded, as I have heard otherwise reasonable Afghans, good friends, express optimism that one day Afghanistan will be strong enough to push out to what they view as the natural border; the Indus River.
That’s a big chunk of (currently Pakistani) real estate. Pakistan is not enamored of this idea, regardless of how viable the concept.
It’s not the threat of Pashtun reunification that realistically disturbs the Pakistanis, though. It’s not likely that they view an Afghan invasion to seize the NWFP as a real danger to their security. They are threatened by the concept of a stable Afghanistan, which will likely see good relations with India as being more beneficial than Pakistani goodwill. This idea irks the Pakistani security apparatus. So our desired end state is not necessarily how all Pakistanis see their best interests being upheld. But that’s only half of the equation.
Anyone who sees a foregone conclusion coming down the pike will get on the train and ride it. We view our commitment to Afghanistan as strong (well, sort of), but the Pakistanis do not see the commensurate commitment of what they would consider to be the resources necessary to make it a foregone conclusion. The Pakistanis have the sixth largest military in the world, with a couple of the largest land armies on the planet camped out on their borders; India (viewed with enmity), and China (viewed as a useful ally).
Yes, I know the People’s Liberation Army is not literally camped on the Pakistani border, but you get the idea. The Chinese are not viewed as a threat by Pakistan. Neither Pakistan nor China views Indian power as a joyful thing.
In any case, Pakistan has a large army and a not-insignificant air force. But they are not as adept as humanly possible. Being somewhat clumsy by our standards, the Pakistanis must dedicate several times as many troops-to-task as we normally would. They cannot fathom how we can expect to subdue a pernicious insurgency with such paltry numbers as we have committed (certainly in the early days… the first 8 years). To their minds, we cannot possibly be trying to achieve our stated goals. Add to this the Pakistani view that America is by its nature capricious and you have a deep conviction that the American presence in, and support for, Afghanistan is transitory. Pakistan must position itself for post-America (and Coalition) Afghanistan. Without Pakistani support and interference, there is a chance that GIRoA can succeed. With Pakistan hedging its bets, the issue remains in doubt and Pakistan has a shot at maintaining influence in post-GIRoA Afghanistan.
A couple of disclaimers are in order. First, the Pakistani government is not by any means monolithic. President Zardari, shortly after taking office, declared that the ISI would fall under civilian control. Shortly thereafter, the ISI announced that this was not the case… and that was the end of that. We have a military that is totally subservient to the civilian authorities in the United States. Pakistan has been ruled by it’s generals no less than three times since its inception… and that wasn’t that long ago. Pakistan’s short history has been rife with warfare, and on no less than three occasions, the Pakistanis have felt abandoned by what they perceive as a “sometime ally” in the United States. The US has imposed an arms embargo against both the Indians and the Pakistanis on these occasions of confrontation between Pakistan and India, but the Pakistanis were more reliant on US aid than the Indians.
The Pakistanis then turned to China, who is eager to stoke the coals of conflict between India and Pakistan. The Pakistanis build a license-built copy of the Chinese version of the T-72. The Pakistanis call their version the “Al Khalid.” They also build a licensed copy of a Chinese fighter-bomber that the Pakistanis call the JS-17. The Pakistani nuclear program had significant outside support as well, which did not come from the United States.
Then comes yesterday’s declaration by Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that China is Pakistan’s “best and most trusted friend.” While this is seen as a being a “dig” at the United States, it is really a clear statement of how Pakistan views their relationships and has throughout the past several decades. They view us as powerful, currently angry, and capable of considerable largesse; but capricious and untrustworthy. They view the Chinese as having goals and interests that are mostly aligned with their own and likely to remain that way in the future.
It is important to understand how Pakistan views the relationship between them and ourselves. It is important to understand why they see things the way that they do. Understanding does not mean agreeing with their viewpoint, but it does help in reviewing their behavior and the disconnects between what they sometimes say and do.
The above is the work of an amateur, so take it for what it’s worth. But it is taken from the experiences and conversations of an amateur who has spoken with Afghans and Pakistanis as well as having been briefed by intelligence officers who have worked with the Pakistanis. Nothing classified has been disclosed. Academics would no doubt find the synopsis above to be less than adequate. It is by no means complete, but it is my understanding, and the actions of the Pakistanis seem to agree with this depiction of their mindset and motivations. Also, I’m not seeing strong attempts being made to “break it down” for people who are asking why the Pakistanis and ourselves seem to be at such great odds when we should see each other as natural allies in the struggle against extremism.
Graphic images of violent death are not good for the soul. Whether in person, video or pictures, we do not need to see the images of a corpse torn asunder. Suffice to say that he is dead. The President says that we don’t need to “spike the football.” He’s right about that, but it’s more than that. You may be curious, but some things are best left a matter of unsatisfied curiosity. It’s not good for you. Our baser instincts are not always good to satisfy. Most of us have already seen enough; civilians included. Cries to the contrary are that baser instinct begging for satisfaction.
It’s best to acknowledge the thought and just… let it go.
It’s not about his dignity, it’s about ours. Yours. Mine. I’ve seen my share of death. Any share is more than enough. It’s not like the quiet violence of seeing a family member die of disease, nor of seeing them in made-up repose in a casket. As a young man, I held my father’s hand and looked into his eyes at the moment of death as the light of life left him. It was a remarkably spiritual experience, but balanced with a certain horror. The horror was in one of the earliest fears of a child coming true; I had lost a parent. But, there was no dehumanization. Our rituals surrounding death serve a purpose in letting go of a loved one while preserving their humanity. Seeing human beings reduced to remarkable similarity with road kill is just not good for the soul. Yes, we saw pictures of Zarkawi. We saw pictures of Uday and Qusay. We didn’t need to and, I strongly submit, we could all have lived the rest of our lives without having done so and been the better for it. It’s not about the sacredness of bin Laden’s life, it’s about the sanctity of human life and what seeing the results of extreme violence does to that sanctity in our own souls.
In early September of 2007, I lost four Afghan National Police to an IED. It was tremendously violent. As the Special Forces medic understated it, they had sustained, “injuries incompatible with life.” I don’t have bad dreams about it, but I can see those moments in my mind’s eye, and I can smell the mixture of blood, bowel and… fresh death… as clearly as if those men were still in front of me. There is no dignity in that moment, other than in the dignity of men who died for what they believed in; and that is such an abstract concept at that moment that it does not overwhelm the purely visceral horror of human beings torn asunder by massive violence wrought by other men.
I had to go through their pockets, having that OJ Simpson moment of trying to work rubber-gloved hands into close fabric. I had to, because the amount of facial deformation and the transformation of death made it difficult to positively identify the bodies. I had to find the ID cards. Their body fluids on the blue gloves caused their own sensations of horror. In looking into the faces, trying to remember, trying to identify the dead, the lifeless eyes stared out. Horror. No light of life, the spirit gone and the eyes not just unseeing but violently decoupled. I lost a part of myself that day. It was not an exercise of mental muscles but the slow, painful and violent amputation of a bit of my soul.
The horrible expression of death will never leave me. I did what I had to do, and soon enough it was over… but is never over. My soul is not stronger for having had that experience, it is the poorer for it. Painted by a brush that leaves an indelible mark. Now, much of that is lost in a photograph; but you can and hopefully will live the rest of your life without having that baser need satisfied and that brush paint your soul more than it has been painted to this point.
And you will be the better for it.
I say this as only those who have given the last semblance of God-given innocence blithely away and lived to regret it can. Jealously guard what innocence you still hold, for it is wealth in your soul; not weakness, but strength. As the voices of the baser instincts of our national character cry out for satisfaction, I encourage you to simply acknowledge that in yourself and in the human character and… let it go.
If your understanding of our mission in Afghanistan was that the entire operation was to capture or kill bin Laden, then it will seem as if the mission has been accomplished. All of our problems have been solved. Finis.
Not that the death of bin Laden isn’t a good thing. The monster is dead… or is it? I have often said that bin Laden was a poster child, a lightning rod for those who share his world view. Those people are still alive. All of the pieces that have been assembled over the years are still in place. I’m sure that morale is currently low and anger is correspondingly high. Bin Laden was, indeed, more than just a poster child. But he was obviously not exerting the same degree of command and control that he had at one time. Al Qaeda was still plugging away, doing the things that al Qaeda does.
What does this mean to Afghanistan? Well, I’m sure that morale is higher amongst the troops. My morale is higher… in a way. The question of whether or not this is a game-changer remains to be seen. Is this going to change what the local insurgent commander or shadow provincial governor in Afghanistan does? Probably not. This is waaay above his pay grade.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Afghans about bin Laden. First, they never viewed him as being their main problem. Sure, bin Laden supported the Taliban. Al Qaeda funded, recruited, equipped, trained and fielded a “brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance in the years prior to 9/11. That much we know. Al Qaeda and bin Laden were shielded from the rest of the world and provided for by the Taliban when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. In recent years, al Qaeda wound up with better relations with the Haqqani network than they did with the Quetta Shura Taliban. At least it appeared so. Admittedly, al Qaeda’s actual presence in Afghanistan was limited to a couple of hundred individuals. Afghans have more immediate problems with people who do intend to stay there and rule them, such as Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar.
I don’t think that the death of bin Laden is a game-changer in Afghanistan.
External support for the Taliban and/or their affiliates may suffer in some way, but I’m in no way convinced that this will be disabling to the Taliban, et al, in any meaningful way. It does not change the threat to Afghanistan from the Taliban, Haqqani and Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin (HiG). Nor does it defeat the criminal patronage networks. It does not magically improve the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The degradation of even al Qaeda remains to be seen.
The many Afghans I had the opportunity to speak with over the years I’ve spent in Afghanistan expressed concern that if we ever did catch up with bin Laden that it would be to the detriment of Afghanistan. Already, there are calls in Congress to abandon Afghanistan. While this is predictable, it is shallow and short-sighted. These calls have been coming from a not insignificant group for some time.
Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of. This opportunity to cut and run will not be wasted, and it will likely gain adherents rather than lose them.
It boils down to the struggle between two schools of thought. One contends that the world hates us (particularly Muslims), and that they have good reason to. This school believes that withdrawal and accommodation will assuage this hatred. This school of thought argues that instability does not impact other nations, and certainly is not a threat to the national security of more developed countries.
The other school of thought agrees that instability, in a globalized world that is only getting smaller, has the demonstrated ability to provide festering grounds for non nation-state actors who are now capable of exporting violence on a scale that was formerly the realm of nation-states. Japan used six aircraft carriers and over 400 planes to cause a similar number of American dead in the attacks on Pearl Harbor; this compared to four aircraft-cum-cruise missiles acquired for the price of a few airline tickets on 9/11. That was not the last attack, nor has Afghanistan been the only country to harbor such plotters. But we have seen what “leaving Afghanistan to its fate” has accomplished for us.
Predicting the future is impossible. Could the “Mission Accomplished” crowd be right? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t agree with them. So my answer is, “No.” What we have done in the past was not successful.
So what does the death of bin Laden mean?
It means that we have had some measure of revenge. We have had some resolution for part of our anger. We have cut the head off the snake, and whether that snake is a hydra or a cobra remains to be seen. Many insurgent leaders have been killed in Afghanistan, only to be replaced by less reticent commanders who were more brutal than the ones who we killed. Will that happen with al Qaeda? Only time will tell. We cannot predict that.
More damage may be done to al Qaeda by the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East than by the death of bin Laden. Al Qaeda has called for uprisings against the regimes in power for years. Al Qaeda wished to inspire general uprisings based upon Islamic rage, not upon the principles of personal liberty and government accountability. The uprisings of the past few weeks in the Middle East were not at all what al Qaeda and bin Laden wished to inspire. If regime changes in the Middle East replace repressive regimes with an opportunity for hope, the very hopeless rage that drives young men into the arms of al Qaeda will come unglued. The death of bin Laden is icing on that cake.
The final results of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East are far from clear. This could still all go horribly awry. The United States has an opportunity to support the development of enduring institutions, non-military institutions, in these countries. In our recent history, our first answer has been to provide military assistance. But the lack of responsive, accountable institutions has been a key factor driving the disaffected to seek solutions to their problems that often wound up being religiously driven. Who can save you from hopelessness? God. Whatever name to use to refer to God, when the world is too big and too hard, many seek explanations and solutions from religious leaders. Christians have had many such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. Muslims have had such leaders as well, and those who find themselves seeking solutions to the intractable problems of their world are drawn to them. Bin Laden counted on these people as his recruiting base.
What happens if this base suddenly gains hope from another source? What happens if they create and sustain institutions that provide accountability and responsiveness? What happens if the governments and economies of these countries begin to offer opportunities and hope? Bin Laden was already beginning to lose his appeal. Now that he is dead, his survivors in al Qaeda will have to deal with this lost traction.
Our struggle remains with competing visions of our role in the post-Cold War world. The death of bin Laden does not end that argument, but will add artificial lubricant to the side which espouses self-centered navel gazing above striving to find a productive way to add to stability in a shrinking world.
The previous posts described a lot of concepts and activities. Granted, that information alone isn’t going to enable anyone to fully execute a District Stability Matrix and perform any kind of program or operational design. It’s an outline, provided in hopes of improving publicly available knowledge of what counterinsurgency and stability operations are. All too often, COIN and stability are described in the few terms that have caught on in pop culture. They are trendy to use in the media, but the reality is misrepresented or mythologized. Misunderstanding of COIN is practically viral. This breeds a separation of the American people, and more than a few academics and think-tankers, from the reality of what is actually being attemted on the ground. COIN and stability operations are grinding, difficult tasks carried out, in the case of Afghanistan, in a land and among a people that appear to be very alien at first glance. Misconceptions hinged on such misunderstood but trendy terms as, “hearts and minds,” makes the whole endeavor unfathomable without a deeper understanding. It’s a big subject, so it’s not easily described in one posting.
With all of the previous posts tied together, what does this look like in practice? When we arrive in, say, a district in Afghanistan, how do we begin? There are a lot of factors that will determine where we start, such as what has already been done by our predecessors. Not every place is like Marjah, where the entire operation started with little or no GIRoA presence or authority in that area. Most of us will land on a work in progress. We still have to start with as complete a grasp of the local environment as we can get.
These days, there is nearly always legacy documentation of what has been learned and done in most areas we could find ourselves in. Often it is not readily retrievable and may be a shotgun pattern of disconnected information. Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of databases.” So many different repositories have been established over the years that we have, collectively, forgotten what we have learned. Foreign assistance personnel are transitory. We work there for awhile and then we leave, replaced by others after a brief hand-off. That knowledge, that visualization, leaves with the outgoing person or organization. From experience, I know that some efforts become enduring and others end as soon as the personnel leave and are replaced. That is often not based on the merit of the action or program. Sometimes it is due to overlapping funding that has already been vetted and committed. Each rotation of personnel develops its own flavor, its own focus. Because of this, continuity of effort is sometimes lost.
Unity of effort is important, but continuity of effort is undervalued. It actually doesn’t appear on the doctrinal list of “COIN Imperatives.” It is recognized as a problem, though; particularly in the military/security line. The methodology and logistics of handing-off to a follow-on organization have been worked and re-worked for years in attempts to overcome the jerky nature of operations caused by these reliefs. State and USAID personnel change out less often, and being smaller, the hand-off is often more personal.
Many things affect handing over an area to a follow-on person or organization. Time is often a critical factor. There is a finite amount of overlap, sometimes none at all. Many organizations and personnel arriving in Afghanistan right now are getting information presented to them in a non-standard format that is essentially proprietary to the individual or organization on the way out. The rational decision-making processes that the outgoing personnel used may not be documented so that we can clearly understand the intended effects and why those effects were sought as part of an overall plan.
Is this a show-stopper? No, but it is a show-slower and a potential source of discontinuity. This has happened many times in many places, and makes Coalition and GIRoA efforts appear to be haphazard. Haphazard is ineffective in general, but it is definitely viewed as such by the majority of the population. Giving this impression is a great way to fail to gain support or even acquiescence. More and more often, we are seeing units arriving on information organized in a way that can be easily understood. When time is limited, quickly acquiring the situational awareness attained by the previous organization or individual is critical. Momentum, a key political concept, is lost. If the information is not organized in a way that we can anticipate, then we have to organize it so that the “next guy” gets what we didn’t. If we can anticipate how the information is organized, we can practice managing it and visualizing it (difficult tasks) in training. It’s all about visualizing the problems and solutions and maintaining steady and sustainable efforts to move things in a positive direction.
Wherever we find ourselves in the phases of operations, whether we are Shaping, Clearing, Holding or Building, we need to understand the history and thought processes that preceded ours. When deciding to modify or terminate an existing program or effort, we must first understand why that was being done in the first place. We need to understand how it is being measured in both outputs and effects so that any decision that we make is based on a logical approach and not gut feel or initial impressions. Sometimes the “Afghan way” is actually a good thing but looks very strange to a westerner at first glance. When we make decisions and choose courses of action, we document our decision making processes so that it is available and easier to visualize by our successors. We need to reach this level of understanding quickly, and so will they.
If we are lucky enough as a person or group to fall in on such information, organized in a way that we quickly understand, we will have a lot more continuity of effort. Our transition will be more seamless. If we are not so lucky, we have to resolve that our successors will have it easier. Once we have ascertained where we are, then we can apply the techniques appropriate to that phase to make progress. Some things, such as continuing to learn more about the people, places, conditions and events in an area never end. Reconnaissance, as we call it in the military, is constant. Continuous evaluation of our chosen activities and the effects they have on the local situation is also absolutely necessary. We cannot continue unchanged on a course of action that is producing negative consequences.
There is no canned formulaic solution that works in every situation. We strive to learn from the successes of others. We learn from the experiences of others, but we do not just automatically apply solutions because they worked elsewhere. We use our understanding of our discrete area to anticipate, as best we can, how such an action or program will impact the area that we work in. We understand the particulars, the personalities and the realities that will influence the enduring effects that our actions will have on the community. We recognize quickly when waves are made, including how the enemy responds, and we adjust our approach based on the success or failure of any endeavor. We choose metrics that reflect the actual effects of what we do, not just measuring our activity. We do not reinforce failure, and we don’t fail to recognize and redouble success.
We identify, protect and support resiliencies we find in the community and seek to identify and develop undiscovered resiliencies. We are imaginative, collaborative and receptive. We listen, and we interpret input based on knowledge, not impressions or a reliance on intuition. If we don’t know, we use all of our assets to find out. We listen to our enemy, and we separate the lies and half-truths from the truths. Elements of all of the three will be present. We learn to understand why and how his message appeals to the people. We are honest in accepting the truths and seeking to address them to resolve issues that truly do concern the population, such as corruption and injustice. Throughout all of this, we document all of what we learn, what we decided and what we based our decision on so that everyone from our supervisors to our replacements can visualize and understand, assist and continue on.
We have a consistent message, or conversation with the people, that is reinforced by every action we take and is based on enduring themes that have significance to the local population. It is a centerpiece, not an addendum, and is just as pervasive as reconnaissance in everything we do. We think very seriously before taking any action that is contrary to or dilutes our message.
Progress in counterinsurgency and stability is incremental and slow. It is frustrating and sometimes painful. It is difficult to continue in the face of systemic corruption and abuse of power. It is difficult to overcome the negative impression left by a unit that approached the problem as a counter-guerrilla operation. It sometimes seems hopeless where illiteracy is rampant and the people appear inscrutable at first glace. Counterinsurgency is also dangerous. Courage is required, but often that means the courage of conviction to keep trying in the face of adversity and danger coupled with frustration, the combination of which is a powerful demotivator. Keeping our eye on the ball and recognizing subtle shifts is how we cope. Even a little bit of change can make a big difference, and the chances are good that if we reach the tipping point, the Holy Grail of COIN, we will likely not realize it until later.
Note that part of information we collect and keep as part of the ASCOPE/PMESII is the enemy message; their Information Operations (IO). We track their narrative, or conversation with the people. It’s not that hard to gather. We just ask the locals what the insurgent is saying about whatever. They will usually tell us, and they will look for a reaction. We make sure that we get it straight by asking as many people as possible, right down to the casual encounter on the street. This is something that we can include our sensing of the effects that we are having. We can also gather a lot of information about the way that the people react to insurgent IO.
Is the insurgent message hitting home with the populace? Why? There will be a mixture of truths, half-truths and outright lies. Our job is to determine which is which and from there figure out why the insurgent message either appeals to the people or freezes them in place on the fence; unwilling or afraid to commit to supporting or even acquiescing to government rule.
An example of a lie that hit home is an experience in The Tagab Valley, Kapisa Province in August of 2007. At the appearance of Americans, the local Afghan women would turn away, squat and remain motionless, as if they were pretending to be a stone. Men would also behave strangely, but would still step forward to have contact. This was uncommon, and so the interpreter was engaged to figure it out. In the end, it was learned that part of the insurgent narrative in that area was that the ballistic eye wear of the Americans was purported to be able to see through clothing. This was apparently plausible in the minds of the locals, so they responded to the risk of being shamed by concealing their bodies as best they could.
The overall effect was to keep an artificial barrier between the Americans and the Afghans. Many did not believe the story, but enough had their doubts so that the “I will make myself a stone” behavior was widespread. This story was localized, but has been repeated often in a number of other areas. It is not believed by more educated Afghans, but among illiterate people who believe that Americans can do impossible things with technology, it is just plausible enough to warrant caution. Though the effect that it achieved was partial, it would have to be described as successful.
Countering the message involved removing the eye wear and at times addressing the situation directly. If an older Afghan man had heard the rumor, he was offered to try the glasses, and when he saw that the lenses offered no additional capabilities, he was then able to share this with others. Meanwhile, it was stumbled upon that Afghans appreciate the removal of sunglasses in conversation, anyway. This knowledge is now included in COMISAF’s guidance on the wear of ballistic eye protection.
This was a simple example, and by no means an exhaustive description of the complete insurgent narrative in that area. It was just one aspect of it.
Since we know that an insurgency is a political war, we know that the conversation we have with the people is necessary. Each agency or organization, down to the individual level, has a conversation with the local population. The insurgent does the same thing.
We see national-level conversation, such as the rules regulating the behavior of insurgents released by the Taliban. These narratives make international news. In each area, however, the narrative is tailored and refined to appeal to local perceptions, issues and sensibilities. These are the insurgent narratives you are unlikely to hear on the nightly news back home. These messages are also tailored to expand upon the failures of the counterinsurgents on the local level in the specific area. The ultimate goal is obviously to discredit the government, but there are generally messages specifically targeted towards each of the counterinsurgent agencies and often directed at specific individuals.
The insurgent chooses his overall themes and then breaks them down locally. His actions are taken in order to support or further these messages. Insurgent commanders have been fired for getting off message or taking actions that did not support the overall message. An example of this is the insurgent commander replaced after ordering the acid attack on Afghan school girls. The point is that the actions that insurgents take are in support of their narrative, not the other way around. A weakness of counterinsurgents is that they often reverse this equation and try to work their narrative as an adjunct to their efforts, instead of making it a main feature of their operations.
We are at the point where we are selecting actions. At this point, it is absolutely necessary to develop a dialog based on our local issues that rings true with the local populace. Otherwise, we are ceding control of the information war to the insurgents. The national narrative by the government, NATO and all the implementation partners is broad and very general. Simply mouthing the words of GEN Petraeus or the ambassador will not suffice. The local farmer does not hear anything specific in these messages that applies to him. A local narrative is demanded, tailored to the specifics of the local area.
In the end, the goal is to support local government legitimacy; but that doesn’t mean that our narrative lies about government effectiveness. If the government is struggling in a particular area, the best choice is probably to acknowledge that. It will likely be something that you are going to target for improvement, anyway. The local people may not be educated, but they are not stupid, and they already know what works and doesn’t work for them. The counterinsurgent/stability course or courses of action must identify and target these inadequacies in order to have a lasting effect locally. The insurgent narrative is probably quite harsh about these failings. Trying to gloss over things that the locals find objectionable will not improve matters, and only reinforces insurgent relevance.
Each main logical line of operation, Military/Security, Development and Governance, needs to support each other’s messaging. It should all dovetail into a seamless narrative aimed at competing for the ear of the farmer and shopkeeper against the insurgent narrative. Because it is backed by action consistent with the narrative, it is reinforced in the eyes of local observers. It’s a relationship, and as in any relationship, say what you mean and do what you say. Nobody cares about airy promises and trite sayings. They want to see action that supports what you say. This, more than any other thing, is what builds trust among the people.
So part of each working group’s agenda needs to be the conversation with the people, distilled from a thorough understanding of the local area and their issues, including what the insurgent is saying. Then, once the local message of each actor is established, it is consistently carried and not deviated from significantly. Commanders ensure that their narrative is carried by every soldier, and NCO’s enforce this standard.
Proposed actions are compared against the narrative and either the action is altered or the objective of that action is incorporated into the narrative. If a proposed action is contrary to the narrative, it is given great scrutiny to determine the appropriateness of that action. Rarely will we take an action that does not directly support our narrative. This is the key to effective information operations, which are the audible evidence of our conversation with the local populace.
It seems as if there is a lot to do just to get to the point of deciding on actions to take in support of counterinsurgency objectives. As we’ve seen, there is a lot to consider, a lot of information to be gathered, and a lot of disparate actors who need to be brought into the fold as much as possible. We know that we have limited time and resources, so we know that we have to work on the most pressing issues. We know that we are looking to identify the root, or systemic, causes of instability and the prerequisites for insurgency. But how does one look at all the information we’ve now become aware of and determine what is a systemic cause and what is not? How do we ensure that we are not wasting our precious resources on something that will make no real difference?
We can rely on human intuition, but our human intuition may fail us. What each of us would find unacceptable personally may not be the primary issue on the part of the local population. We need to understand their point of view. Unless we can magically put ourselves on their rung of Maslow’s hierarchy and in the same environment with the same experiences, how can we determine not just what they want, but what they need first? We need local input.
The approaches we have taken in the past have taken a number of forms. What we think they need, what we think they want, what they say they want, what they say they need. Who were “they?” Usually elders, district sub-governors, provincial governors, and shuras. Okay, the shura sounds pretty representative, but there are a couple of sticking points there. We are talking about securing or re-securing an area, along with stabilizing or re-stabilizing an area that is in the third poorest country in the world. Just to be clear, an area may be, by all measures, stable under insurgent control. We may destabilize an area in order to restabilize it under government control. Keep in mind that those residents who are successful, or relatively successful, in the existing order of things will seek to maintain their control over resources throughout whatever we do. They will possibly seek to gain in stature or influence through our efforts. We need to look past the evident and look for the systemic reason behind the perception of pain.
Just as a problem in your back can cause pain elsewhere, such as the leg, so can underlying conditions in a district in Afghanistan cause a perception that is slightly removed from the root. For example; in one valley, the drinking water wells began to run dry. Asked what they needed, the locals responded that they needed deeper wells dug. A hydrologist was brought in, and discovered that the there was a series of check dams in poor repair. So poor was their condition that the dams were not doing their job of slowing runoff water long enough for it to seep into the water table.
A combination of local labor and materials purchased with CERP (Commander’s Emergency Response Program) funds refurbished the check dams, and the water table rose. The wells began to produce again. The locals thought their problem was that their wells weren’t deep enough, but the real source of their pain lay elsewhere. The solution addressed the systemic cause of the condition, is sustainable by the local population and it had the lasting effect that was desired.
That example was an infrastructure issue, but each issue needs to be approached in a similar way as far as the process of determining what the root cause of the condition is. The approach utilizes local input, but the systemic cause is sought to target for solutions. This may not be targeting the perceptive source of the condition based simply on the complaint itself. The lasting effect is what is important, and we must be able to monitor not only what and how much we are doing, but also the effects that those actions are having on the issue. We try to anticipate the second- and third-order effects, but sometimes the local response to our actions may not be what we anticipated, so we must constantly reevaluate what we are seeing and doing. We adjust. Sometimes, that means that we stop doing things that are having second- and third-order effects that are negative and that we cannot mitigate. In order to adjust to unwanted effects, we must find a way to measure or otherwise monitor them. We must sense the object in our path in order to avoid or overcome it.
Left to our own devices, each of us would come up with a slightly different methodology to approach these problems. In military organizations, it is usually the Executive Officer (XO) who is tasked with being the good idea fairy who provides a methodology. Google is his friend, and several tools do exist. Some XO’s have developed their own tools. This is time consuming and unnecessary. It is not only an unnecessary usage of time and bandwidth, but it is actually harmful in the long run. The willy-nilly choice of tools interferes with coherence.
Unity of effort relies on a common operational picture, but that’s not the only aid to unity of effort. A common operational framework helps in developing a common operational language. These three things will do more to establish unity of effort, even in the absence of unity of command, than anything. And, those three things will improve and strengthen existing relationships.
USAID developed a decision-support framework called the District Stability Framework, or DSF. This framework not only includes the things that have been described above, but for our military friends, it is doctrinally sound according to FM 3.07 Stability Operations. It doesn’t provide an answer; it provides a logical route to reach our own conclusions, measure our outputs and the effects they are having locally, and adjust course. It seeks the root causes of the grievances or sources of instability (like the prerequisites for insurgency) in a discrete area, and seeks to act directly upon them.
The DSF is a four-step, iterative process. The four steps are; Situational Awareness, Analysis (hello, brigade staff extra analytical muscle), Design and Monitoring and Evaluation. It is repeatable, and used as a common framework, can provide continuity of effort. Just as any military commander can walk into any operations center and read the military symbols on a map, having a common framework means that it can be readily passed on, like a sector sketch to a relieving unit. It works the same way for civilians as well. It, like the ASCOPE/PMESII, becomes a continuity document. It saves time later, and avoids perpetually “reinventing the wheel.” It also shows follow-on units or organizations what we were thinking about when we chose the path we left them on.
The idea is to avoid chasing phantom pains with money, time and lives. It’s the old blood and treasure thing; but this is not some academic or politician crying out about the concept of it. It is where if/when we spill blood, it is on the ground right there in front of us. It’s where treasure translates into concrete and actions. So you have to make it count.
We’ve developed all kinds of situational and cultural awareness through our continuing ASCOPE/PMESII information gathering. Now we will need to plan for gathering local input about what they think their most pressing problems are. USAID fielded the DSF with a survey based on four now famous questions. It was called TCAPF, or the Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework. The survey was never as simple as four questions, because it delved deeper. A useful tool in concept and in certain practices, TCAPF has acquired a bad name. Initially TCAPF was attempted by troops, and the results were not what was expected. The Brits were the first to sour on TCAPF, and for many British officers it poisoned the whole concept of the DSF. Stand on TCAPF with a British officer even casually versed in the British Army’s experiences with it in Helmand and you have lost that officer’s confidence. It turns out that soldiers really aren’t the best to be asking TCAPF questions. It skews the results and they have the tendency to re-canvass the same people over and over again. They also missed 50% of the population right off the bat; the women. No input from 50% of the population is a problem, as is a skewed and narrowed data stream.
Afghans are the best to do TCAPF questioning. There is a national student organization that actually trains and fields TCAPF canvassers. They can be contracted, and the results are remarkably different when Afghans are polled by native Afghans rather than by armed foreigners. We also avoid an unintended follow-on effect; when foreign troops, who are viewed as very powerful by the average Afghan, ask an Afghan what his problem is, it is viewed as a promise to solve that problem. It has something to do with the psychology of extreme poverty. Regardless, disappointed expectations become grievances in their own right and prove difficult to resolve.
TCAPF data is useful, if the data stream isn’t skewed by, say, armed foreigners. It can provide the ability to do problem set analysis and also trend analysis. The idea is to gather information slowly, over time, and watch the trends. They will indicate whether the local perceptions are being changed by actions taken. Trend analysis is enormously helpful and in reality necessary for what we need to do.
TCAPF is only one tool, and while it was fielded with the DSF, the DSF will not break if another effective tool is used. There are other ways to gather local perceptions. One thing that should be considered; a strength of TCAPF is that it doesn’t rely upon elders, shuras or government officials. In fact, those people need not be surveyed, because it’s all too easy to get their opinions. The idea is to discover what the shop keeper and the farmer think. Whatever tool or method we choose, this is a feature that we want to have. We want to understand what the little guy thinks. The powerful guy may have reasons for the solution he is seeking from us.
Some areas have used “radio in a box” and call-in shows hosted by Afghan DJ’s. For instance, the Afghan DJ has a AF500 phone card available to a caller who wins the contest. As part of this, the callers are casually and informally polled about specific conditions in their local area. This is checked against other information and used to contribute to the understanding of the perceptions of the locals. Just an example of another method that may confirm or deny information gathered otherwise, be it TCAPF or some other method.
Whatever tool is ultimately used, gathering and measuring local perceptions about the issues that affect them directly is absolutely necessary. As mentioned early on, there has to be a conversation between the counterinsurgent and the populace, just as the insurgent carries on his narrative. What is being described here makes that conversation a two-way conversation. Again, the results of all perception gathering is shared with every partner. Each one needs to understand the perceptions of the local community. It is our way of compensating for our weakness (insurgent strength); knowledge of the issues that affect the local population and what they think of it. The insurgent seeks to exacerbate these issues and replace the government as a solution. We seek to resolve the issues and remove that traction from the insurgent.
Once we understand the local perceptions, we look for the systemic cause of those perceptions. “The wells are drying up, and now I have to walk a mile to get my water.” Ouch. Well, the first answer would be to deepen the wells. That would work for awhile, until the water table was drained further. Then what? By discovering the systemic cause for the falling water table… the dilapidated check dams… the root cause was targeted. That’s just an example. There may be several systemic causes that contribute to a single perception. We seek to identify these.
We choose courses of action that we believe will attack these root causes directly. (We work to repair the check dams.) The actions of one line of operation will support the other lines of operation as much as possible. For instance, for any governmental or economic action, there must be security provided. As security improves, governance must improve or the security gain will prove temporary. Economic development supports both actions, as economic prosperity (or even progress) has an enormous calming effect.
In one village in Nad e Ali, Helmand Province, an alternate truck route was sought using an existing road with a bridge over the main canal. The usual main route required a bypass due to needed repairs on its bridge over the canal. However, the town immediately adjacent the canal on the desired alternate route was rife with Taliban. The town saw the economic growth occurring just a few kilometer away in the villages where the hold and build phases of operations were already in progress, and they wanted that type of economic opportunity. Once the decision had been made by the local leaders, the Taliban were ousted within 24 hours. Trucks began to pass through the town, and the increased traffic brought more customers to the shops in the town. Government began to reach out to the town, and the local elders reached back. That is a dramatic example, but it is real and indicates how actions along one line of operation create opportunities along other lines of operation and must be supported by follow-on effects from these other lines.
The final question that must be asked is whether or not the issues identified are actually systemic contributors to instability. We subject each issue to three questions. First, we ask if the issue decreases support for the government. Second, we ask if it increases support for the insurgents. Last, we ask if the issue disrupts the normal functioning of society. If the answer to each of these questions is, “No,” then it is likely to be a development issue which can be addressed later.
The issue of the wells above is an example of something that may not be a systemic cause of instability. It is a good example of a problem-solving approach, though. It is also possible that it can be a source of instability if one of the effects of the dry wells is to give some form of artificial power to a malign actor, or if it causes the local population to feel as if the government isn’t interested in actually solving their problems; a disruption to normal function. It may cause conflict. It would require more information than that provided above to determine the relevance to stability, but it may be there.
Another key that we look for is not weaknesses, but strengths; forces for good. Almost every community has key people who are effective and who can be reinforced to good ends. These are called resiliencies. We seek to identify, mentor, and reinforce these resiliencies. We look for people and organizations who can have a stabilizing effect. We look for existing traditional frameworks that can be strengthened or reestablished which support local sufficiency. Working around local resiliencies while failing to engage them is potentially disastrous. We may also seek to assist in creating new resiliencies, such as Community Development Councils.
We begin to construct a matrix of the information and analytical outcomes. In the DSF, it is called a Tactical Stability Matrix. It is a chart of the information and decisions, allowing everyone to understand how we are arriving at our conclusions. It shows the logic flow of our decisions and guides us to use this logical flow. Each partner has a part in this process. It is not done in a vacuum.
This is an imprecise process, as much art as it is science. Mistakes will be made. That is why we work to anticipate the effects that our actions will create. We also need to constantly monitor not only our outputs (are we doing what we said we were going to do?), but we also measure the effects themselves. If we chose actions (we thought) would work to lessen police corruption, but the systemic causes don’t respond or actually get worse, then perhaps we chose poorly or missed something. We need to readjust.
So, just as we choose actions to take (which we will, of course, use a metric of activity on our part), we anticipate the affect that our actions will have on the systemic cause of instability we are seeking to resolve. We leverage and reinforce local resiliencies. We find ways to measure those effects. This always includes some measure of public opinion. We want to know if the perception that led us to what we believe is a systemic cause is actually impacted by what we do. What we are seeking in the end is the desired third-order effect; the lasting impression left in the minds of the people.
As we chart our course, it includes the counterinsurgent narrative that it will support.
Now the counterinsurgents are gaining a pretty thorough understanding of the local area, with so much information that it’s hard to manage it, much less remember it. We have to form a picture out of it. The concept is getting to know the area the way that a beat cop knows the neighborhood that he works in every day for years.
Except that we don’t have years to get to know the villages in the valleys and the people that inhabit them. Simplistic viewpoints such as a belief that, “It’s the tribes!” is the answer to every question about Afghan society won’t help us get to know them any quicker.
We must use what we have available to discover this information as efficiently as possible and use your resources to manage it. Also, keep in mind that very little of what we will learn from this is actually intelligence. We are learning what the local population already knows, so it is information. Intelligence officers and others must be careful not to over-classify information and mistakenly call it intelligence. Over-classification of what should be simple information is counter to the first requirement of creating unity of effort; communication. Communication starts with the sharing of basic information. This is how counterinsurgents partner to develop a common operating picture; seeing what each other sees and filling in the gaps in each other’s vision.
A good example of how this common vision was short-circuited is the way that Human Terrain System information was forced to be transmitted over the military’s secure information network, classifying the information by default. While it was an effective way of transporting information, it was not an effective way to disseminate it, and is a great failure to achieve a common operating picture using shared information. Again, very little, if any, of the information gathered by Human Terrain Teams needs to be classified, because information about how a society works is already known by its members.
The insurgents use “open-source” warfare because of necessity and adaptability. For us, it is actually a requirement; but we can do much better in so many ways.
If Google could search Afghan society, all that information would be there, and not because of Wikileaks. It’s practically open source; except there are no search engines that will tell you who the Malik of this or that town is, no listing of mosques or schools with their grid locations, no listings of teachers and where they live. You can’t Google who owns what land, who is involved in a land dispute and what families gravitate to which side in that dispute. You have to find that information out, document it, make the information retrievable and share it with all of the other actors involved so that they are aware of it. Blunders are avoided in such a way; the types of blunders that can spoil relationships.
Many act as if it is some kind of revelation that Afghan society works through relationships, but that’s nothing new, even in the age of internet social networking. In fact, the rise of tech-driven social networking is proof that American society works through relationships. The most successful people are great networkers. They remember details about their friends, relatives and business associates. Golf courses would struggle to survive if it weren’t for the business of business that takes executives to the courses to form and strengthen the relationships that keep businesses intertwined.
American society is as networked as the qawms of Afghanistan. The weave is different, but the fabric is very similar. The end result is a need to understand the various threads and how they are interwoven. It is as important for the development and governmental capacity builders to understand these intertwined relationships as those involved in security and military operations.
From the picture that begins to emerge from all of the various elements of information that we have gathered, we start to see three things emerge. We will find that there is some kind of grievance/unmet need, unfulfilled expectation or vacuum in authority that affects the people in their daily lives. Secondly, we will find that there is local leadership that is available to channel this into a willingness to commit violence, at least among a few locals. Finally, we will find that there is a weakness in the government, or a perception of weakness, instability or corruption. These are the causes and conditions that will exist in the presence of an insurgency. Sometimes they will seem to be glaringly apparent, but a methodical approach will help in identifying what the most pressing issues that demand action are. There is a methodology to help keep this analysis organized, but we know that the answers for each area are unique to that area. This is why we don’t just apply a methodology and ignore local information. Quite the contrary.
Note that as we gather information to create our mosaic picture of the local conditions, we do not ignore the terrain, nor do we ignore the enemy. We don’t include intelligence in our sharing unless that member is cleared to possess the intelligence. But a lot of information about the enemy will be “open-source” information, because the enemy often lives among the population. Even if a key figure is not native to the local area, the people know who he is and often where he hangs out and how many fighters he can gather. They know who the shadow sub-governor is, what he has said and who transmits his messages. So all of this is included in our operational picture. The point is that this picture is holistic.
Through this development of a common operating picture, all of the counterinsurgents and stability actors can begin to have a dialog that can synchronize efforts towards a set of common, sometimes very incremental goals. Each logical line of operation supports the other. If these lines of effort intertwine, they are as strong as rope. If they don’t, they are three relatively easily broken strands that may rub against each other and weaken each other.
Assume that most of the other individuals and groups are acting in good faith, trying to do the best that they can. Understand that each will approach the problem set that begins to emerge from their own background and experience, with a view towards whatever “lane” they fall in. Each should share the common picture, but each is oriented towards one of the main three lines or a piece that falls under one of them. Some will be very specific, such as rule of law or agricultural development specialists. Each brings something to the table. A locality may not be ready for all of the good things that the some members of the effort will wish to do. And, gains made in one area that are not supported by gains in other lines of operation will be temporary at best, eventually ceding ground due to a lack of follow-through. Each agency or individual will take some sort of action in an attempt to achieve the effects they desire; to accomplish their jobs. Dozens of people moving separately with good intentions is still along the line of the thousand monkeys with typewriters probability of success; eventually, somewhere, Shakespeare will emerge. Unity of effort is key.
How does a group of counterinsurgent/stability actors get synchronized and stay on course? Efforts must be “linked and synched” at each level of operation. ISAF, USAID, the State Department and the UN maybe linked at the national level and completely de-linked at the provincial level. In fact, this has been the case fairly often. Military commanders will have no realistic idea from day to day where the various and sundry individuals working for good are in the operational area he is supposed to be providing security for. However, there is no “requirement” for everyone to check in with or “be cleared” by the military commander. In the past, American units working separately with the ANP and ANA were often oblivious to each other’s presence only a short distance from each other. Working groups, sharing as much information as possible without compromising security, are necessary. This should be done to the lowest level possible. This may mean an Army platoon, an ANA company, and solitary representatives from various agencies such as USAID, the PRT, the district ANP chief, the district sub-governor and various elders working together to synchronize efforts.
At some level, everyone needs to be engaged if possible. There may be a higher-level working group that involves key actors and makes decisions and coordination, but each agency or individual needs to be involved in the larger group. You can never have too much collaboration, but care must be taken not to let the sea of voices degenerate into cacophony.
In the past and continuing into today, projects have been selected (often pre-selected) for various areas. The first answers that come to mind in relation to development, for instance, are, “Build a road, build a school, build a clinic.” These seemingly default answers may or may not be what is needed first. Based on our understanding of the picture we’ve developed, the counterinsurgents must determine what is needed first. Just as we have applied a methodology to gather and manage the information that has built a picture for us to understand the area, we now apply a decision-support framework to solve the issues we have begun to identify.
We need to understand where we are starting. We talk in terms of, “Clear, Hold and Build.” In Afghanistan it has become, “Shape, Clear, Hold and Build.” These are a way of phasing operations, like setting checkpoints along a route. They also describe the overall effect that is desired for that phase. The concept of, “Shape, Clear, Hold and Build,” is a military concept based upon who published COIN guidance referencing these phases of operations (COMISAF). You will find plenty of civilians speaking in these terms, but some civilian organizations don’t really buy off on it. That does not mean that they cannot be synchronized into a plan, but it may provide communications challenges. Each logical line of operation has a contribution and tasks that they need to accomplish in order for these operations not to degrade into a cycle of periodic clearing with scant or failed efforts to hold and build which always melt away into worsening security; a pattern which many of us have witnessed repeatedly in Afghanistan.
Each actor must agree realistically to what they are to accomplish and when. There must be accountability each to the other, and through solid relationships, each can respond to needed support or adjustments due to setbacks. It is still a war, and then enemy still gets a vote. There will be delays and disruptions. Each must adjust and work around these; as long as it does not prevent progress.
In order for all of this to occur, there needs to be a plan. There is commonly no one person “in charge” of the efforts. Of the three main logical lines of operation, Military/Security, Governance and Economic Development, none of three “food chains” culminate in the same person in the country of Afghanistan. The principle of “Unity of Command” is broken; if you think of it as a strictly military effort. But it isn’t. Unity of command is a military principle and there for one reason; to attain unity of effort. Unity of effort can be attained without unity of command, but it requires tact, patience, understanding and good will on the parts of the several actors involved.
In the end, the correct answer would be for the Afghan official involved to be in charge. That is the goal, anyway. But, in practice that takes time and a lot of mentoring (often not provided) to attain. So we have to operate by some sort of mutual understanding. Personal prejudices come into play and must be overcome. Military viewpoints on civilian aid workers will lead to assumptions being made (flower-munching, Birkenstock-wearing tree huggers). The reverse is also often true (linear-thinking knuckle-draggers who say, “Clausewitz!” if you sneeze near them). These are human failings that professionals must recognize in themselves and work through, because they are completely counterproductive. Professionals override these knee-jerk reactions and work through it.
There are a number of frameworks that have been proposed and used for decision support in Afghanistan. USAID has developed one that has been accepted by the Army and approved by officials ranging from COMISAF to the Secretary of Defense; the District Stability Framework. Through seeing a common operational picture, we attained a degree of unity of vision. Now we begin to speak a common operational language by organizing and speaking of information and decisions using a common operational framework.