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.
It’s been awhile, no doubt, and there are many reasons why I have eschewed posting on this site for some time. Not all of them bear exploration. However, there are a couple of cats to let out of the bag. First; I’m going back, yet again, to Afghanistan. Second; I started blogging as a way to keep my friends and family connected to what I was doing. Perhaps Facebook explains why so few new bloggers have entered the fray in the past couple of years. I’ve realized that there are two different readerships that have followed what I’ve written over the past couple of years, and so I’ve decided that I will open a separate blog for the experiential piece, since this blog has become more or less dedicated to COIN theory and practice.
Perhaps I will take up Facebook as well. I’ve found that social media sites take a lot of time. I’ve had lots of encouragement to do so, though.
I’ll announce the address of the new site as soon as I make the first post. But, if anyone’s still out there, please stay tuned and it will come soon enough.
One final thing is to acknowledge some things regarding the lack of writing about what I have seen and learned these past few months regarding COIN, the war in Afghanistan, and what I think about our evolving role in the world. I came back with the strength of my convictions about what I was seeing on the ground in Afghanistan. I came home to find, yet again, a disconnect between the ongoing conversation back here and what I knew that I was seeing in Afghanistan. Here, COIN is being widely shouted down… and anyone who claims to see it work is being shouted down as well. Those who have the bona fides to claim wisdom and analytical superiority are dismissive. There have also been those who made serious prognostications from Kabul about the state of affairs.
I got tired of it.
Much has transpired, and there have been many thoughts that have gone unwritten. It just felt like a waste of time and effort. Between that, the struggle with the general feeling of disconnection due to the amount of time I’ve spent overseas, and the general attitude that experience on the ground is trumped by the theoretical and long-distance analysis of the wise… well… it takes a lot of energy to continually try to rise above the din. It has just seemed a losing struggle. Inertia is carrying us towards what I observe to be a practically inevitable conclusion.
While I was at liberty to discuss the impending deployment, there were those in my life who I care about deeply… my children… whose summer I did not want to spoil. This has been in the works since shortly after I returned a little over a year ago. I was asked by a brigade commander to be his COIN advisor for the brigade’s upcoming tour. I agreed, because I saw that as a call to serve. I also wanted for the Buckeye Brigade to acquit itself well in its mission.
We have been at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, since August, except for a brief break of about a week between Title 32 and Title 10 active duty. What I’ve seen about the pre-deployment training of the National Guard by 1st Army would fill a small book and there are too many big rice bowls; it is well and truly broken and nothing I can do or say will ever fix it. I need to complete this tour and retire before I really detail that or I will surely wind up in very poor condition. No one wants to hear it, anyway; not those who can influence or change it.
Overall, the Army has done a much better job of training COIN. Some do better than others. The stars are the Combat Advisor trainers of the 162nd Brigade, the guys who train Combat Advisors at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the National Training Center. The quality of training provided by the 162nd, especially the training for advisors deploying to Afghanistan, is light years above the training my team and I received at Fort Riley in 2007. Unfortunately, the advisors attached to this brigade only received 10 days of specialized training from the 162nd here at Camp Shelby.
The National Training Center is the other winner. In early August the leadership of the brigade spent about a week at the NTC being brought up to speed on the expectations and learning about the big rocks they would have to lift there. The NTC provides the capstone exercise prior to deployment. I was thrilled when they briefed the brigade and battalion leaders that they would be expected to assemble a PMESII/ASCOPE analysis of their operational area. When the staff of the NTC laid out the expectation that the units would be expected to use the District Stability Framework during the conduct of the exercise, I almost lost my mind. Good stuff.
It is new to the NTC, but they are working to incorporate it into their insurgency/counterinsurgency exercises.
The secondary effect was that it convinced the brigade leadership that they needed to embrace the DSF, which I had been encouraging them to get trained in for months.
That is less than half the story… so torn about what has transpired in the meantime. This is my first time deploying with a National Guard unit, and it’s been enlightening.
There has also been much that has transpired in Central Asia over the past months. Pakistan has been very active in many ways, and the developments between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have been fascinating. So much to examine. Soon I will be back on the ground in Afghanistan, seeing things once more having passed through that portal into the reality of that land and events therein.
If anyone’s out there, please let me know. Whistling in the dark is difficult these days. I could use a little encouragement.
The report discussed in the NYT is not new. I read the report about six weeks ago, and from personal experience it makes some sense. I would encourage leaders preparing to deploy to read it. This is why I’m disappointed that ISAF is refuting the report rather than learning from it. At least they appear to not be taking it seriously. If this is true, it is a mistake.
Granted, the sample was small and geographically limited. The sampling of US troops is even smaller than the sample of Afghans. So, yes, the report has limitations. It is less science than it is anecdotal… but as a combat advisor who has worked with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the report does carry the ring of truth. The NYT scarcely touches on the real point; the enemy is within… us. It turns out that most of the fratricidal murders that have occurred were not the work of insurgent infiltrators, but the work of very angry ANSF. It is easier to put more money into vetting ANSF recruits than it is to effectively deal with the real problem.
Our counterinsurgency manual lists a set of behaviors that are historically proven to be unsuccessful practices. One of those is a “low priority on quality advisors.” Army Special Forces have a selection process that is designed to weed out those who, among other things, are not suited to working with indigenous peoples. My own experience demonstrates what every other non-SF combat advisor knows; we were not selected based upon on any key criteria for what it takes to be a high quality advisor. We were warm bodies with the requisite military skill set and the requisite rank. Some didn’t even have those prerequisites; they simply had a pulse. There was no personality testing. There was no stress testing. There was no selection process. Individual team chiefs (those who actually had an opportunity and a pool to select from) sometimes made efforts to select a quality team… mostly based on records reviews and interviews, which are very limited in what they can tell a leader. It was a shot in the dark. Mostly, it has worked out. We are discussing what happens when it doesn’t.
Trends emerged. Guardsmen turned out to be particularly well-suited to advisor roles. This does not mean that Regular Army officers and NCO’s were never successful; there are lots of success stories. But, on the whole, the Guard is better suited to advisory roles. It is generally accepted that Guardsmen have more well-rounded experience based on their immersion in civilian culture. There is a lot there to be plumbed; another entire discussion could be had about what the reasons for this phenomenon are. At this point, suffice to say that it has been more than adequately demonstrated to those of us who have served in close relationships with ANSF that some people have absolutely no business being in proximity to Afghans. We have all seen them, Guard and Regular alike; they are a danger to themselves and others, and sometimes they have gotten people killed. The last several paragraphs address the advisor issue, but more and more American line troops, not trained as advisors, are coming into constant contact with ANSF.
These types of killings are not new, but there has been an increase. The article quotes the report’s author, Dr. Bordin, as stating that 16% of hostile Coalition deaths are attributable to these fratricidal murders. I don’t know if this is accurate, but any other problem, the resolution of which could result in 16% fewer casualties, would be attacked with vigor. Well, they are attacking… but they are attacking the statistically much less significant problem of preventing insurgent infiltrators. It appears that the problems that contribute to the majority of these events are being left to smolder, dismissed by officials. Those officials can smear the techniques, they can smear the language, but I’m here to tell you that the message makes sense to me and many other advisors, and it can be addressed just as the military addresses any other recognized source of injuries and deaths; command emphasis.
A few questions may come to mind. Why would a non-insurgent Afghan soldier or policeman decide to open fire on his own allies? The report indicates a number of reasons, key among them being issues related to respect. Profane language and behavior are cited.
Afghans do not use profanity in their language as a matter of course. In the American military, the use of profanity surpasses even the use of profanity in American culture in general (with the possible exception of gangsta rap). Use of the f-bomb is rampant in American movies. Profane name-calling is an art form. In Afghan culture, to insinuate even jokingly that a man has intimate relations with his mother is an offense so great that it may inspire lethal ire. Americans call each other “motherfuckers” all the time. I have witnessed American soldiers calling Afghans such things, or referring to an Afghan as such when discussing them with another Afghan. This then gets back to the Afghan so-referenced and a resentment is begun. This may seem a simple misunderstanding, but it has been known to have lethal consequences.
I’ve seen violence almost break out over cultural issues. I’ve heard Afghan soldiers make death threats against American soldiers because the American soldier made a statement about Afghan women. The American soldier who had been threatened saw hypocrisy in the anger. Afghans see American movies and the promiscuity depicted as a matter of course. They also see American porn. Afghan soldiers love American porn, and they view American women as loose. The American soldier had been listening to his Afghan counterparts talking about American women, became irritated and said that he wanted to see photos of naked Afghan women. That was all it took. It could have resulted in a killing, but the situation was diffused and the soldier was strongly admonished not to engage in such discussions with Afghans for any reason. He survived. Others have not.
Basically, the problem is akin to racism; ignorance and arrogance combine to form a sense of natural superiority that is difficult and sometimes impossible to overcome. Just as many do not suffer from such delusions, some do things that endanger themselves and others. We have a military culture that is not only fond of profanity, it is fond of judging one’s self in relation to others. Esprit d’ corps is often built upon inculcating the belief that the members of a given unit are somehow superior and more elite than members of another unit. Now, how is a young man who has been raised since he was at the tail end of his childhood to believe that this is how to judge others (especially those in uniform) supposed to suddenly suspend this value system because he is put into close daily contact with indigenous forces?
It is nigh on impossible. Some will have the personal characteristics to overcome it, but enough who cannot will make it into these close situations. Some leaders, even some commanders, will recognize the danger and take action. Enough do not, and there is no higher-level emphasis that this is a responsibility of leadership; to recognize and remove such threats from our own ranks. To do so leaves us even more short-handed than we appear to be on paper. To not do so leaves us open to up to 16% higher casualties.
Why has the rate of such incidents increased? What has changed? An emphasis on “partnering” with Afghan units and a move away from emphasizing advising/mentoring. The cited report indicates that ANSF had uniformly positive impressions of American advisors, such as ETT’s and PMT’s, and are less happy with American units more recently. American and Coalition regular units are being placed in close living and working situations with ANSF on a frequent basis. This is, overall, a good thing; even if the advising is being downplayed (generally, there is a mixture). However, since we have the immature and arrogant in our midst, there is a greater potential for dangerous situations to occur. They have, in fact.
Younger soldiers who have been in a strictly military environment since shortly after they graduated from high school have a greater tendency to be unable to adapt to the cultural differences between Afghans and Americans. They are more likely to blithely err in ways that are not intuitively dangerous to American youth. Add to this the small but significant enough number of officers and NCO’s who are unable to effectively work with ANSF and you have a recipe for isolated outbreaks of lethal violence among allies.
While cultural training has improved, it is spotty in its stress on language and gestures. Afghan cultural training often stresses not using the left hand to gesture and emphasizes never showing the soles of your feet. Well, Afghans will often wave with their left hand, especially if the right hand is busy… but they will never shake with it. They will offer the right forearm if the right hand is busy, wet or dirty. Afghans do not appreciate the carelessly rude or purposeful display of the sole of the foot, but they are not so sensitive that accidental or comfort-related moves that expose the sole are taken as an offense.
While making too much an issue of the left hand, offensive gestures and language are often overlooked. Afghans view profane language as very distasteful and ignorant (even if they are illiterate). Profane names are absolutely out and never acceptable. The thumbs-up used to be an offensive gesture, but because of its common American use, it is accepted. However, the American fist pump to the chest is the equivalent of flipping an Afghan the bird and is considered to be extremely offensive… but I’ve only seen one cultural trainer who actually explained this. It’s not just cultural training that can be improved, it’s also incorporating this knowledge into individual task training.
Recently, a National Guard unit was performing its pre-mobilization required individual task training. One of these tasks was “perform detainee operations.” The emphasis was on searching detainees. The trainers were well-rehearsed and professional, executing the task to the precise standards they were given; including how a male searches a female. Teaching male soldiers how to search females puts the idea in their heads that an American male soldier searching an Afghan female could under some bizarre circumstance be acceptable. It is never acceptable, ever (did I mention ever?). There are other ways to deal with the problem. Always. Our premobilization task training is not battle focused on the only battle these young men will serve in. We can adjust that. We can do better with tailoring our training to suit the combat environment, especially culturally.
Finally, a quote from an American officer emerges from the end of the article:
“In this culture, they shoot first, ask questions later,” said Lt. Col. David C. Simons, a spokesman for the training mission in Afghanistan. “Back in the States, if this happens a guy punches you and you walk away and hope you don’t get arrested. But here, you just hope you don’t get killed.”
Well, okay… but part of that is bullshit. Afghans do value human life, and it’s not “shoot first and ask questions later.” It’s a difference in what is worth taking life over. If you call an Afghan a “motherfucker” (just an example) and he actually understands you… as more and more of them do… you are taking your life and possibly those of your buddies into dangerous waters. Oh, and everyone has a weapon capable of ending life with the twitch of a finger. No, the questions do not need to be asked later. You have answered any question required to convince that man that you need to die based on every value he was raised with. In fact, his honor demands it. With all due respect to LTC Simons, he is a spokesman and does not appear to be an advisor. If it were shoot first and ask questions later, many more advisors would have died during the course of this war. I never walked around wondering if I was about to be shot by the Afghans I worked with. That’s a cowboy quote that is unhelpful in considering the problem. The view from Camp Eggers does not include the experience necessary to evaluate what is worth killing a man over in Afghanistan, but since he is actually in Afghanistan, it was a juicy quote that sounded ominous in the NYT. All I can say is, “Thank you, Sir.”
It’s stuff like that which makes young men go to Afghanistan fearing sudden death from any quarter. Being respectful when you are frightened is more difficult than having awareness of the cultural don’ts.
As noted, the report is not great science; but it still hits home. To ignore its findings is to continue to suffer unnecessary casualties. A recommendation to mitigate the risk is to encourage commanders and leaders in general to identify and remove from contact with Afghans any individuals who appear to lack the ability to adapt to working with ANSF. Just as each unit is mandated to have an Equal Opportunity (EO) officer or NCO to investigate and recommend action to mitigate issues of racism and sexism, a similar emphasis should be made to identify and remediate the risks of both soldiers and leaders who place their fellows at risk through imprudent language and behaviors. Education and training are helpful, but we have all seen that they are not enough. Some individuals simply will not adapt. Sometimes, in the immortal words of Offspring, “you gotta keep ‘em separated.”
If the end result is 16% fewer casualties, you tell me where the effort is a waste of time.
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.
What does legitimacy mean to any of us? The “birthers” here in the US claim that President Obama cannot be the legitimate President of the United States. But they have not picked up arms. Most of them still pay taxes. There have been isolated outbursts, including at least one military officer who refused to deploy based upon his belief that the commander in chief is illegitimate. Other than that, the legitimacy of the United States government is not in serious question.
For most of us, the legitimacy of our government starts when we leave the door of our house and head out into the public areas of our world. For most of us, the first line of contact with our government is the police… and the tax column of our pay stubs. Both are reinforcement of the legitimacy of our government; local, state and federal. But the police that we see on our streets are not federal police. They are local police. Local elections have a greater impact on our daily lives than who occupies the Oval Office in a distant city. The point is that if we never had any contact with our government, how would it be legitimate to us?
Our government is not monolithic. Our paychecks demonstrate that the federal government can reach into our pockets to pay for the national-level services, such as defense. But it’s the local police who influence our daily behavior. When we are speeding, and we see a cop parked next to the road, we check our speed and slow down. That guy with a badge and a gun had an immediate impact on our behavior. That is, at a very basic level, legitimacy in our (American) context. Our government has the ability, whether we like it or not, to enforce its will upon us. We consider that will to be the will of the people. Our elected representatives set the speed limit that we are compelled to observe by threat of that police officer.
We have a national government, but we also have state and local government. Even our state laws are most often enforced by local government officials such as county, city or township police. When there is a question or a conflict, we find ourselves most often in local courts. Our perceptions of the local courts are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to issues such as corruption. While we believe that money does buy justice, we believe that boils down to being able to afford a decent lawyer, rather than in paying off a judge. Very few of us believe that the criminal courts can be bought through bribery.
We know that the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is beset by corruption. A massive and pernicious problem, it threatens the perception of legitimacy amongst the people. But, like us, Afghans decide upon the legitimacy of the government based upon their interactions with it. They are not interacting with the government in Kabul. They are interacting with the ANP, the District and perhaps Provincial governments, and the courts. Afghan legitimacy starts at the local level. This does not mean that corruption in Kabul need not be addressed. It means that more Afghans will be influenced by addressing issues at multiple local levels than by making fewer corrections at the national level.
Many military personnel who have experienced the maze of local corruption will tell tales of frustration in dealing with a governor or sub-governor who stubbornly clung to his network of corruption. Many of us experienced a lack of support from other international actors at the local level. The State Department and USAID were not often in evidence in 2007, for instance. One or two DoS representatives per province… in the provinces where they were present… just wasn’t getting it. We had very few USAID workers available in the provinces. We were working the military/security line of operation as hard as we could, but the governance and development lines were being defaulted on. The “surge” in Afghanistan didn’t just include a military surge, but a civilian surge as well. More civilians are needed, but there was still a great increase, and it has made a difference.
We see movement in Afghanistan. I saw it when I was there. GEN Petraeus’ latest reports indicate progress. I know that the official reports are taken with a grain of salt, but there is corroboration. The actions of the insurgents indicate growing weakness. Their tactics this year are aimed at making themselves appear to be larger than they actually are, focusing on areas where they are not necessarily strong, but where they would like to appear to have influence. This is an indicator that they have lost ground not only militarily but also with their ability to influence the population. My observation is that this is due to a greater balance in the application of effort across the non-military lines of operation on a number of local levels. This is the result of refocusing of efforts to the local level, a greater number of civilians present to work on the local level and a greater ability to work in some level of synchrony across the main lines of operation.
The use of consistent tool sets is becoming more widespread. Using ASCOPE/PMESII as the information framework makes it easier for units to to knowledge transfer during the Relief In Place / Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA). This, combined with the growing use of the District Stability Framework (DSF), makes it easier for the military and civilian actors to synchronize actions across the lines of operation. Both tools are focused on the local level, and aimed at identifying, developing, increasing and protecting capacity at the local level. As indicated above, the local government makes the most difference in the lives of Americans, and it does the same in Afghanistan; only more so.
Afghanistan’s history is one of local governance loosely tied to a national government that is not very prone to micromanagement. The national government has not tended to be a strong influence in the daily lives of farmers and shop keepers in the little villages in the many valleys far from Kabul. This does not remove the pressure to fix what is wrong with the Karzai regime, often described as a kleptocracy. It does give some breathing room to the efforts to develop a national government that is capable of performing the basic functions required and as free of corruption as possible. With local governance improving incrementally, there is a cross-pollination of legitimacy that the national government benefits from. Coalition forces also benefit from progress on the local level, because they are then viewed as being supportive of a legitimate government, rather than tipping the scales in favor of one of two evils.
This year will be very challenging in Afghanistan. As described above, the insurgents are doing their level best to give the impression of being more influential than they are. There is a faint whiff of desperation in the air. There are most certainly areas where the insurgent is actually in better shape than he was two years ago; take the Korengal, for example. Whether or not the tipping point is near or has been reached will not be clear for some time. It is clear that there have been some important steps taken towards improving local governance, security and development. It is clear that the insurgents are under considerable pressure, and not just militarily. Local governance has a greater impact on the daily lives of Afghans than the national government, even a short distance from Kabul. The perception of legitimacy in Afghanistan is more predicated upon local government than the Kabul government.
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.
The United States has been meeting with the Taliban’s Tayyab Agha, who is either one of Mullah Omar’s best friends or he is on the outs with him… depending on who you listen to. While the news was pretty much under the radar as far as news coverage, there has been plenty of opinion expressed by many Americans about the concept of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Much of it is reflexively negative.
Why shouldn’t we be negative towards reconciling the Taliban with Afghan society? The Taliban have a miserable record as a government and as an insurgency. They are every bit as brutal as most pernicious insurgencies have ever been. Terrorizing the population in order to control them is an ancient insurgent tactic. It causes deep divisions and grudges that last for decades, if not centuries.
It has been pointed out how past insurgencies have ended in one of three ways. Either the government wins, the insurgent wins, or there is a “mixed outcome.” A mixed outcome keeps the government largely in place while compromises are made to resolve the issues that drove portions of the population into the arms of the insurgency. Insurgents are allowed to take part in the political process in exchange for laying down arms and rejoining the process.
What is there to compromise about? What do the Taliban have that GIRoA needs? Well, other than the fact that they use violence that the government needs for them to eschew, they do have some things that the people actually want. The Taliban were a horror by any analysis of what a real government is. During the Taliban tenure, infrastructure, education and health care all went to hell in a hand basket. Nothing there. However, while they were undoubtedly ineffective by most measures of governance, they were not widely perceived to be corrupt.
While the average American Joe cannot relate a lot of deep knowledge about Afghanistan, they do know one word that goes along with any real discussion of GIRoA; corruption. GIRoA is rife with corruption, and the average Afghan citizen is affected by it deeply. The average Afghan pays hundreds of dollars a year in bribes, this out of an income that may be less than $2,000 a year. Nowhere is this more deeply felt than in court. Criminal prosecution and conflict resolution are key issues in nearly every Afghan community, and both are seriously hindered by corruption.
For the average Afghan, access to justice relies on being able to pay the bribes. Often, there is a race for corruption that begins with the police and offers opportunities to short-circuit the system all the way up the chain. An honest judge can be done in by higher courts. An honest policeman can become seriously disheartened by the knowledge that his best work can be undone by a corrupt prosecutor or judge.
Insurgency in the Afghan context is about a competition to govern, and that competition is most often leveraged by the insurgents in the area of justice. The Afghan legal system is so corrupt that it is all too easy to supplant GIRoA courts with shadow courts. In 2007, the story was that the Taliban would arrive with a traveling court and force the residents to bring their cases before the Taliban court. Something sounded fishy about that. How do you figure out who has a grievance that needs to be aired? Well, it turns out that this was wishful thinking. The populace didn’t need to be coerced to access Taliban justice.
They sought it out.
The only thing that the Taliban ever brought to Afghanistan, and the only thing that the people actually miss, was swift and incorruptible justice. That’s just one idea of what the Taliban possess that GIRoA doesn’t. Would it be a bad thing if the one strength of the Taliban was assimilated into a future Afghanistan?
What if the Taliban were allowed to be a political party? What if they ran for office? What if they won a few seats in parliament? Would it be the end of the modern world? No, clearly not. Our own revolution had to do with the inability to redress grievances. Taxation without representation; a lack of ability to participate in government. What would have happened to the American revolution if the king had made concessions that removed this issue?
Would the revolution have been forestalled or even completely avoided? We will never really know. But it is very possible, especially given the number of hardcore loyalists in the thirteen colonies, that the revolution would have lost steam. Another good example would be our own civil rights movement here in the United States. Had the various laws and executive orders not been put in place, is it possible that violence related to the civil rights struggle would have become widespread? Is it possible that greater access to participation, to redress of grievances, even as halting as it was, was enough to prevent more people from seeking to express these frustrations violently?
Is the American civil right movement a good example of a latent insurgency that was derailed by compromise?
History shows us that insurgencies often end with compromise. Afghanistan is not some imponderable morass of humanity where the eternal verities of man are suspended. Job number one is to stop the shooting. That requires a combination of security-related actions, improvements in governance and socio-economic development that remove the prerequisites of insurgency; the key drivers of instability. Then the serious work of developing the capacity to govern and grow begins. Part of the governance work may very well include some compromises that bring the now-distant factions close enough to stop shooting at each other.
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.