A couple of commenters on the post “Trending Positive” deserve answers. I’m going to take them in logical instead of chronological order. So the first question is, “Is this (COIN) what we our troops should be doing?”.
Yes. The why of it requires an answer that spans a number of subjects ranging from the purpose of having armed forces to the dangers of foreign national/regional instability in the era of globalization. We have, in part, created this very situation with our own might. By that I don’t mean that our various “nefarious plots” are coming home to roost. I mean that we are too strong for others to take on toe-to-toe with any reasonable assurance of possible success.
Insurgents are not insurgents because they always aspired to be insurgents. They are insurgents out of weakness in the face of vastly superior physical strength. They dare not mass and present targets for overmatching firepower. In 2007, Afghan insurgents dared on several occasions to mass up to company-plus strength and attempt maneuver warfare. This led to mass casualties for the insurgents. One of the strengths of the insurgent is his ability to control his loss rate by controllong how much of his force he exposes to the risk of loss. This, however, sacrifices the ability to inflict more losses on the counterinsurgent… nothing ventured, nothing gained. We know that this insurgency actually thinks in this manner, as they have openly referred to their operations in terms of classic Maoist insurgent doctrinal terms such as “strategic defensive,” the phase they have achieved in much of the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan.
All of that is enemy centric. Insurgency is a political problem with an armed and violent component, not a military problem with a political element. If you choose a method other than Counterinsurgency to fight an insurgency, such as counter-guerrilla warfare, you are doomed to fail; you are fighting a type of warfare other than that in which you are engaged. If you are not conducting Stability Operations, you are leaving in place the very problems that left room for an insurgency to gain traction. In analyzing the events in Afghanistan, it is chrystal clear that we are are engaged in countering an insurgency. Therefore, COIN and its parent, Stability Operations are the types of operations we must use to defeat it.
This is not impossible, nor is it an impenetrable mystery. It is less dangerous for the average American Soldier or Marine than nearly any other American conflict to date. It is not an unreasonable task to ask of the Armed Forces of the United States… unless we do not train them for or support them in the effort.
Yes, this what our forces should be doing. Now, it must be understood that the military/security aspect is only one leg of a three-legged stool that includes Governance and Reconstruction and Development as the other two legs. Military COIN Operations are useless without these concurrent efforts, and these efforts are not most effectively performed by military forces. They require such governmental organs as the State Department and USAID. That is part of supporting the troops in the field; not committing them to an effort that is half-baked from the start.
Appropriate delivery of Stabilization Operations can actually diffuse a latent insurgency and innoculate against the potential of having to engage in COIN Operations.
In order to buy in to the concept that our organs of foreign policy need to be engaged in Stability Operations in far-flung regions of the world, one must accept the events of 9/11, London, Madrid, and Mumbai as manifestations of the new reality of living in a globalized world. Non-state actors can now deliver violence on a scale that would previously have been available only to nation-states. The Soviet Union would have loved to have punched a hole in the Pentagon. The Third Reich would have have committed significant resources to knocking down the tallest buildings in New York if it had been feasible. Both would have found it delicious to do so without presenting a clear, easy target for retribution. Neither found it within their grasp to do so. Yet non-state groups, loosely confederated and working in a distributed manner, headquartered in a dark backwater of the world found the means to organize and execute such attacks employing effective methods, such as the largest cruise missiles ever launched, without presenting an obvious target for retaliation. The deterrent of our massive conventional capability and nuclear arsenal meant nothing. Welcome to the New World Order.
The second question had to do with the President’s “run away date.”. It’s not a run away date. It is a date that he hopes to start drawing down from the surge. This has caused some problems domestically, although the Democratic Party leadership is happy; it’s what they always demanded from President Bush. It has caused more problems in Afghanistan, because the message was misunderstood. Many, both here and abroad, heard, “run away date.” For Afghans, that could easily mean, “Time for me to figure out Plan B.” That is not what I need for my Afghan counterpart to be doing. We could really use a clarification from the President on what he really meant when he made the statement.
It was also a call to action for both the Coalition and the Afghans to show progress, the lack of which could spur abandonment of the mission. To be fair, the only ones who probably have a solid definition of the consequences for failing to show adequate progress are GEN McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The rest of us only have educate guesses at best.
That being said, GEN McChrystal has a more than solid grasp of both Stability and COIN Operations. His problem is not one of a lack of personal vision, but the challenge of getting a very diverse group of people of all levels of education to understand and to execute the intent that the vision generates. This challenge cannot be understated, but it is not insurmountable. GEN McChrystal has demonstrated not only a powerful vision, but the tactical patience to get the ship to begin turning despite counterforce and inertia. That is an achievement in its own right. I’m encouraged.
Those who disparage GEN McChrystal demonstrate a marked lack of knowledge of COIN and Stability Operations. When you don’t know what right looks like, there are many stones to be thrown. Unfortunately, some of those voices have developed the illusion of authority on the subject, but my observations lead me to sense a lack of any deep understanding other than a bunch of popular buzzwords. This is also indicated by praise for commanders who have been some of the worst practitioners of COIN ever to wear an American flag in Afghanistan while slamming the best commander that has yet served on the ground here.
None of these spurious calls for GEN McChrystal to be fired do anyone any favors. History will show these calls to be ill-advised. That’s a long time to wait. In the meantime, perhaps my current, firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan, fairly extensive travel within the country, and experience as a combat asdvisor in this theater, along with a strong enough knowledge of both COIN and Stability Operations to have taught them to the O-7 level, will suffice as my bona fides. Assuming that these qualifications are adequate, let me be clear that such wildly cast aspersions as to the abilities of COMISAF are not the works of an educated, well-considered opinion and are of no analytical value whatsoever. In fact, such unsupported yet vociferous noises are irresponsible and potentially dangerous. It would be, in my informed and considered opinion, wise to ignore such calls and understand that correspondents can be very skilled at description and capturing imagery while being dangerously ill-equipped for providing worthwhile analysis. To the reader at home it may be difficult to tell, so hopefully hearing it from a serving Soldier with a stromg enough knowledge of COIN to successfully teach it will be helpful in clarifying the issue.
I run around training, mostly the militaries of the various nations present, in counterinsurgency. There is a fair amount of traveling as well. So far it is rare to find a unit actually implementing the most basic of population-centric tools to get to know the people whom they operate amongst. We teach a framework called ASCOPE/PMESII (usually called ASCOPE for short… long “a”). It’s frustrating. ASCOPE is just a framework for gathering information. It helps a unit to organize information across much of the society and the main influencing factors as possible. Many leaders that I’ve met in my travels say, “Oh, yeah! I took the COIN course. Good stuff!” So I suggest that we look at their ASCOPE and see how they’re doing on it, where they are having problems identifying key players, etc.
“Oh. Well, we don’t have time for that.”
Really? No time for the steppingstone behavior to not only learning about the operational environment… but to actually passing it on to your successor? No time for that. Great. So, the thing that units have been complaining about for years… that they come in with no real understanding of the people and key systems in place in the local communities… will simply continue. Some of the other instructors say that they have run into units who are actually documenting their environments, but I personally have not.
The ASCOPE also a document where the prerequisites for insurgency should begin to disclose themselves; a vulnerable population, leadership available for direction, and lack (or perceived lack) of government control. It’s where, by grouping the information, the unit should begin to see patterns emerge. Still not interested.
I’m actually astounded by the massive proportion of American military officers who have never cracked open the manual, FM 3-24. We are averaging 3 out of every 25-30 who come through here who have actually read the doctrine, the methodology by which they are expected to work. There will sometimes be one who has read Galula. These are informal hand-raising polls, but the results are fairly consistent.
There has been an influx of civilians. I don’t know that I would call it a “surge,” but it has certainly been an influx. Lots of USAID, State Department and contractors that work for such entities and others. They are focused on governance and development issues. A USAID contractor developed a tool called “TCAPF” (Tactical Conflict Assessment Planning Framework) to measure popular opinion. It starts with four questions asked to random citizens in isolation (meaning not in the middle of a crowd, not hustled into a soundproof booth). From that, trends analysis, problem set identification and program design can be done… if the tool is used properly from front to back end. It is meant to help identify and set a methodology for addressing the root causes of instability. If the questioner leads the interviewee even a little it can horribly skew the output, so it is a sensitive tool, but it is showing promising results and a number of areas are using a lot of TCAPF data to good effect. It provides a way to include local input that doesn’t come strictly from leaders who may be biased in their own motives.
We teach that TCAPF is to be used in conjunction with ASCOPE information to correlate to and to help identify what are referred to in Stability doctrine as factors of instability. To my mind, these factors are parallel to the prerequisites of insurgency. However, the evangelists of TCAPF have gotten some units using it before they even received any COIN training, and while that may not be disastrous it is certainly not optimal.
Civilians and military working together is proving challenging. There are preconceived notions on each side. You can imagine. Yes, the civilian preconception is that the military is full of knuckle-dragging linear thinkers who would prefer to drop JDAMs rather than figure out how to unscrew a corrupt sub-governor. Yes, the military preconception is that the civilians are granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing flower children wannabe’s with naive ideas about what they are in for.
Those preconceptions are being challenged every day. There are some really good relationships being formed out there. There are places where Fusion Cells are working extremely well.
There are challenging people on both sides. We do, apparently, have a knuckle-dragger or two. The civilians have people such as Hoh, the poster child for civilian idiots… even if he is/was a military officer. He was here functioning as a civilian and epitomizes the Ugly American in action. Fortunately, there are a lot of really good people who are doing the best that they can. Hoh and is ilk are anomalies. Granted, we cannot yet call them rarities. I’m aware of a few Hoh’s in the making, just as I’ve spotted a few knuckle-dragging gravel angel-makers. But, the good ones outnumber the poor ones by a goodly percentage. At least they are thinking right.
Civilians often don’t view themselves as counterinsurgents, but they can get along with the Stability idea. Okay… so let’s teach them Stability Ops and dovetail it in with the COIN the way that it should be. It seems to be working okay. Unless, of course, you put a group through training, but they somehow have the idea that it’s a working group to improve the training instead of actually taking the course where feedback is welcome. You can imagine the clash of paradigms. This is where I got a rather negative impression of a person who also blogs, whose writings I had appreciated before, but who I had no idea was at the course.
Poorly established expectation, that. It set up an adversarial dynamic which pretty much derailed the learning environment and upset everyone. We’re working to fix that. One of the comments taken from the class written reviews on the training was, “Don’t have a working group and try to instruct at the same time.” That tells you where their heads were right there. They actually thought it was a working group, not a class. No, it was a class. I don’t know who told them it was a working group and that they were a bunch of SME’s whose sole intent was to critique the new POI (which had been taught to a similar group several weeks ago without the same outcome). We won’t be making that mistake again.
Granted, the same instructional techniques used for teaching ANA officers and NCO’s can’t be used with a group full of people with advanced degrees, but when very few of them have read the Stability Operations manual, it’s difficult to teach the doctrine when they want to argue with points that we cannot change and which require submission of suggestions through the proponent agency. Even if they are good ideas. But the dynamic that arose diverted the normal instruction into a series of defenses of doctrine and trying to provide examples to demonstrate the behaviors that have been observed in theater. It became adversarial and unnecessarily so. Everyone walked away exhausted, and the students actually became resistant to being taught.
They didn’t think that’s what they were there for.
It seems that we have learned from the experience. One suggestion was that if students had suggestions for improvements, they write them down and submit them at the end of the day or the end of the course. That would allow students to assist in improving the training without being disruptive. Secondly, it became clear that expectations need to be clarified on the front end. Students at a course must not be led to believe that they are part of a peer review of the material, even though we want their honest feedback on how to make the Program of Instruction (POI) better.
While COIN and Stability Operations dovetail with each other, Stability Operations uses a more civilian-friendly approach and language. In COIN, we talk about “Targeting,” which means targeting all kinds of effects, not just kinetic (lethal) effects. Civilians have a hard time with that terminology, even though back home we are all parts of someone’s “target demographic.” Civilians “target” things. They have target markets, target goals, fund-raising targets and programs that target specific issues or problems… but when there are guys in green suits around, suddenly “Targeting” means dropping a JDAM or aiming a weapon.
Okay. So let’s call it something nice and do the same thing. The end result is that we have to target specific problems that groups of people have in an area. These are things that are causing them to either not care or actually oppose the government. They are very often valid issues, with their anger directed against the government or the coalition who is here to help them establish a decent government so that they can govern themselves without having to put up with a bunch of terrorists coming around. We need to identify what those issues are and help them address them in a non-violent way. If we (the government and the coalition) need to use a little violence to rid the neighborhood of a particularly noisome troublemaker or to defend ourselves or the people because said troublemaker decides to interfere with governance kinetically (bad guys shoot at us), then that’s part of it, too. But, let’s come up with a name everyone can live with.
“Problem set identification” seems to be catching on.
Most of the problems here that prove most troublesome are not problems that the military can solve. Once we accept that security is a key in each locality, but that issues such as good courts and non-corrupt administrators are the essential keys to ongoing development and legitimacy, then we see that lots of civilian help is needed. Using terminology that works for them, as well as a methodology (doctrine) that provides a more well-rounded approach is important. Stability goes beyond counterinsurgency.
An article by the Associated Press’ Robert Reid nicely sums up the two camps that have formed under the Obama Administration regarding the way forward in Afghanistan. This is the second time this year that the two camps have squared off. The first round was apparently won by the COINdinistas, with some wiggle room, of course. That is not what the title of the article specifically addresses, but in a way it has come to serve as a synopsis of the internal argument in the administration. One side says, “Mission Accomplished,” and the other side says, “If we do more or less what we did the last time, we will have commensurate results.”
We are having real problems learning from past experiences. If a boxer fights another boxer, and whenever he bobs to the left he catches a right cross from the opposing boxer, he learns quickly that he need not bob left against this particular opponent. September 11, 2001 was just such a right cross from our opponent. Many say that we did not pick this fight; many others say that we did. They say that we picked it by taking sides surreptitiously in the Soviet-Afghan War, and that we did it again by abandoning a devastated Afghanistan as they tried to reassemble themselves. We funded and trained bin Laden and many of his cronies, and now he has turned that organization, formed to accomplish ends that we wholeheartedly supported, against us.
Now a group led by Vice President Joe Biden wants to repeat that blunder. Some people in the administration are saying that al-Qaeda is down to 100 full-timers.
U.S. national security adviser James Jones said last weekend that the al-Qaida presence has diminished, and he does not “foresee the return of the Taliban” to power.
He said that according to the maximum estimate, al-Qaida has fewer than 100 fighters operating in Afghanistan without any bases or ability to launch attacks on the West.
“If the Taliban did return to power, I believe we are strong enough to deter them from attacking us again by strong and credible punishment and by containing them with regional allies like India, China and Russia,” said former State Department official Leslie Gelb.
Folks, that’s not what events on the ground here are telling us. Al-Qaeda has recognized that Iraq is a lost cause for them. Yes, there are still local troublemakers trying to regain their lost glory as insurgent leaders stretching out the process, but that is the way of insurgencies. Iraq will not settle completely down this year, but the al-Qaeda cadre has largely left that country and made their way to Pakistan. We have seen that in the level of financial and technical support in the Haqqani elements, the HiG and even the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST). The level of sophistication in the technology of IED’s, for instance, having remained relatively flat for years, has taken leaps. These guys want for us to believe that this is a coincidence. The average Joe on the ground here who has a frame of reference realizes that the Taliban/HiG/Haqqani in Afghanistan have not suddenly and magically reemerged as something radically more capable. Something has been added to the mix.
Coincidence? Uncle Joe, et al, would lead you to believe that. Al-Qaeda is not only not dead; it is only the poster child for a syndrome that is repeatable. We are living in a globalized world. The world has changed, and our thinking has to a great extent not kept up with it. Unstable failed or failing nations can spawn organizations that will wish to influence us and our policies by bringing violence to our shores not via aircraft carriers and intercontinental bombers, but via airliners, tramp steamers, small but far-ranging private aircraft; trains, planes and automobiles. Never before in the history of mankind have small groups had such capabilities. It is one thing for a group to VBIED a U.S. Embassy in a small African country. It is quite another to punch a hole in the Pentagon. Even Mother Russia, with her enormous destructive power, devious KGB and bellicose manners never managed to do that. It doesn’t matter if the name of that group was al-Qaeda or the Hindu Kush Symphony Orchestra. Leaving states like Afghanistan to the whims of radical and primitive organizations is not a recipe for national security.
“Containment.” We have seen what “containment” does. Worked wonders on Iraq, is doing great things for Iran, and has really kept North Korea at bay (missile launches from the last two notwithstanding, of course). So, they don’t see the Taliban taking power again… like anyone saw them coming the first time… but if they do, we can rely on Russia, China and India to contain them? That sounds like a recipe for success now, doesn’t it? We can count on what we are now calling “regional allies” in the entities of Russia and China to look out for our interests and those of our NATO allies? And Pakistan won’t see our reliance on India as a new threat from the east for them, of course. It’s not like they’ve been trying to keep Afghanistan unstable for years in order to provide for their own “strategic depth” in the event of an all-out Indo-Pakistani War.
There are many people who are adding their voices to the din at this point. Some point out that population-centric counterinsurgency, or pop-centric COIN, was ultimately successful in Iraq. Many will contend with that, choosing instead to attribute success to a myriad of factors all exclusive of changing our behaviors, including that the Iraqis were somehow suddenly sick and tired of killing each other. Those who were on the ground at that time, both military and civilian, will tell very different stories. Many of those civilians, and some of those military, have now joined us on the ground here with plans of using lessons learned (not necessarily specific TTP’s) to have similar effects in Afghanistan. Those who argue that the Iraqis somehow magically became more amenable regardless of any changes in our behavior do so, from my perspective, for their own reasons.
Some of the greatest proponents of this argument do so out of what appears to be the politics of personal injury. Some had their young hearts broken in Vietnam and later suffered further loss in this war. Nothing short of an immediate existential threat is a good enough reason for war to them. Some have found themselves left out of or even severely criticized by the narrative of the Iraq Surge. They have lashed out, personally injured and offended, and have wound up on the opposite end of the spectrum in positions now so entrenched as to be nearly a caricature of the overall argument. Some fear that a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will lock in military counterinsurgency as the cornerstone of national foreign policy for decades. These conversations are now becoming years old. Add to that a public that, while it ignored Afghanistan, somehow assumed it to be morally right and relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Low casualties and this assumption of moral and political simplicity led them to assume that it was not in the least bit as complicated, dangerous or confusing as Iraq.
Then came the divide and conquer tactic: Iraq bad; Afghanistan good. Obama was not weak on the subject of national defence. He only wanted out of the “bad” war so that he could actually devote the proper resources to the “good” war. His supporters parroted this call, as I saw repeatedly in online debates. It allayed the fears of millions that Obama would retreat in the face of adversity. Well, now that the American people have started paying attention to the “good” war, it turns out to be much less simple. As I’ve said, it makes their heads hurt with its complexity. The people, heads all sore, begin to waver. Joe Biden, who is at huge odds with Hamid Karzai (he once, as a Senator, stormed away from the dinner table during a meeting with him), has wanted from day one to make this a Special Forces/drone mission in Pakistan. The looming reelection of Karzai has not tempered that attitude, I am sure. So Team Biden wants to solve our problems by invading Pakistan with with Special Forces, drone strikes that Obama supporters railed against during the election, “credible punishment” like 63 cruise missiles, and containment by India, Russia and China.
One question… has Pakistan agreed to any of this, or is invading a sovereign country only a bad thing when a guy’s name starts with “B”? From everything I’ve heard, Pakistan has refused to let American troops try to chase down al-Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban on sovereign Pakistani soil. The standing Pakistani Army is larger than our own. They are a proud, sovereign country and while their ISI has been singularly unhelpful in Afghanistan, I don’t believe that just doing whatever we want in Pakistan without their approval would be the “right” thing to do. It would almost certainly destabilize Pakistan further. Our alignment with India as one of our strategic containment partners will surely help the Pakistanis feel somewhat more secure, but there is a small chance that they won’t like it at all. Maybe not so small, really. Okay; they would absolutely hate it and feel very threatened.
The Biden Plan reeks of simplistic Rambo thinking. It is also a return to the same types of behaviors that left us with this festering sore on the face of Central Asia and a smoking hole in New York City. It’s amazing that it’s even being considered… unless it is the administration’s straw man. It’s practically an idiot-check. What next; a gravel angel contest? If I were the President, I’d ask all of my advisers who bought this argument and fire everyone who raised their hands for incompetence.
The people who are saying that the answer is to not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past are the people, both military and civilian, who are and have been closely associated with the Afghan question. Those who are claiming that al-Qaeda is in effect finished are not now and never have been intimately familiar with Central Asia. It could be argued that they have a political viewpoint and not a strategic viewpoint. What could possibly be the political pull strong enough to get otherwise intelligent, educated men to forget the lessons of the 1990’s and the foreign policy assumptions of post WW-II anti-communist paranoia that have led to the birth of non-state actors with global destructive reach and goals?
This is the opportunity to reverse the ill effects of the outmoded superpower behaviors of the past. This is an opportunity to begin to practice the types of foreign policy behaviors that will prevent failed and failing nations from becoming such a personal threat to Americans. The true example of Afghanistan is not in our military involvement but in the “civilian surge.” It is in the capacity-building arms that we are developing within our State Department, USAID, and other organizations. It is moving from John Candy in “Volunteers” to the types of foreign policy behaviors that will support and uphold societies who have been broken at their cores to stand back up according to their own needs and values. It is learning the lessons of “The Ugly American”. That is what we are deciding to continue or abandon, because in this very dangerous country we have let it slide to the point that nothing less than a full effort will permit these development efforts to occur. It is, in effect, all or nothing, and that’s something that Americans seem to have lost the ability to comprehend. We complain about the Afghans sitting on the fence, but we need to look at ourselves for sitting on the couch. Now is when we decide to take the easy out or to do the hard right thing.
Now is when we decide whether dad finishes the job, or if his son is left with an even larger problem.
We here on the ground are well aware of the debate going on back in the United States over the way forward in Afghanistan. It is pointed out frequently that the international effort in Afghanistan is in trouble, and that changes need to be made in the approach. Two main theories have emerged for consideration by the President. One theory brought forward, not for the first time, is that we should shrink our footprint in Afghanistan and concentrate on counter terrorism efforts in Pakistan; literally just go after al Qaida. The other is the recommendation of General McChrystal which involves a comprehensive and integrated approach to counterinsurgency to deny al Qaida a foothold (again) in a failing state.
It does not appear to ring true to some, rooted in an old world view, that failed or failing states can now be a threat to the national security of developed and successful states. Missed point number one. The thought that a failed or failing state can provide the incubator for international militant action on a scale heretofore unseen is a central concept in foreign policy going forward. Each successive administration that fails to recognize this places the security of the nation at risk through sheer willful disbelief of what has proven to be true. Those who argue archaic world views are less than helpful, having displayed the inability to understand the changing environment in which we live. Some cling to old notions because of fear that working to build governance capacity in failing states will necessarily involve military involvement. This is not entirely true. Military counterinsurgency can be avoided through the careful application of other pillars of national strength before an armed insurgency develops to the point of widespread violence. Building stability is the cornerstone of the new approach, not necessarily armed intervention.
Some argue that Afghanistan was not the birthplace of the non-state operation that brought two of the tallest buildings in the world crashing to the ground and punched a hole in the Pentagon over eight years ago. Yes, some of the conspiracy was performed in places such as Germany and the United States; but the concept, funding and coordination for the execution came through the headquarters in Afghanistan. It is simply willful negligence to fail to acquire the simple information that the Taliban were very active supporters of al Qaida, and that al Qaida reciprocated by recruiting, training, equipping and paying thousands to fight for the Taliban. There was an entire brigade of al Qaida funded, equipped and paid troops who fought alongside the Taliban in their offensives against the Northern Alliance. This brigade was to serve as basic combat training for each of them to take Takfiri revolution to their own countries. Remember those crazy Uighers who were released from Gitmo and are now sipping virgin daiquiris on some tropical island? They came from there. There is an article from June, 2001, quoting them as saying that this is why they were there, to take Islamic revolution back to China. (Of course, we don’t care about that, since really anything bad that happens to China only makes us giggle, anyway. So does the thought of Uighers sipping tropical drinks, though.) Training camps for al Qaida existed in Afghanistan, in areas that were well-controlled by Taliban. Those who wish to excuse the Taliban from any association with al Qaida are, again, willfully ignoring information that is readily available which indicates that the association was close and mutually beneficial.
Afghanistan was a critical component in al Qaida’s ability to further its aims. The failed state of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was a great threat to American security and this was proven on more than one occasion, finally resulting in the deaths of more Americans than died at Pearl Harbor… most of them civilians.
That being said, a favorite concept of those appealing for the virtual abandonment of a robust counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is one that actually holds some water. This argument states that we have attempted to institute a western-style democracy in a Central Asian country that is not ready for it. This is true; somewhat. It is a simplistic view of the root cause of the apparent inability of the government of The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to provide security and stability for the people of Afghanistan. We look at the government, struggling with issues of corruption and inefficiency, and throw our hands up proclaiming the Afghans somehow governmentally retarded, incapable of forming a legitimate government, incapable of being governed, even. We point to their tribalism with dismay, announcing that the uneducated masses have no concept of representative forms of social regulation. Many begin to swoon with the enormity of the job. It’s much like a ten year old confronted with the prospect of cleaning his room after being largely unsupervised for months; in the face of such an enormous task, he wishes to do nothing. Yet mom or dad could easily point out that the job starts with picking up the first sock or pair of wrinkled pants and continues with putting away one toy or book at a time. Building new shelves, however, does little to solve the problems on the floor unless that sock is picked up.
Sometimes enormous truth can be found in a single sentence. In this case it’s, “All politics is local.”
Afghanistan is not one enormous job; it’s hundreds of smaller ones. Each requires a mindset that we are working to build not only in Soldiers and Marines but in our civilian capacity-building organs as well. What is broken with Afghanistan is not the top; it’s the bottom. If you look into McChrystal’s plan, you will see it there. He recognizes it, and while he stresses the need to get to work on it now… which is the only thing that most people hear… he points out pretty clearly how he intends to pick up the socks.
For centuries, Afghan society has had as its pillars of local stability organizations at the village and, for lack of a better word, district level based on basically republican if not democratic forms of representation. At the village level, the most basic organizational unit consisted of a combination of elders and mullahs. There was a balance of the religious and secular influence. It was based on a combination of Islamic and Pashtunwali laws which governed individual behavior. This is the system that has been degraded and severely damaged by over thirty years of constant warfare in Afghanistan. This is the foundation for Afghan society, and it is finally being recognized that these traditional structures need to be nurtured and supported. Our efforts during much of the past eight years have been to either ignore or supplant traditional government with what we recognize, sometimes even feeling threatened by traditional social structures. The new plans recognize this failure (could we actually learn from mistakes?) and seek to reinforce and legitimize non-radical traditional systems that will support Afghan society from the foundation. In return, along with efforts at creating a more user-friendly government, the legitimization goes both ways. This has, in fact, worked in Afghanistan before.
While many Americans use the tribalism of Afghanistan as a magical reason why Afghans are incapable of managing their own affairs, it is precisely these systems that provide the best hope for the rebuilding of a society that can withstand the buffeting of extremism. It is the extremism that threatens our security, not whether it takes fifteen or twenty years to reach a literacy rate which meets or exceeds the literacy rates of its neighbors. There is time to work on that, although every literate Afghan is an asset to a stable world. It will flow from the efforts that will be brought to bear on the problems of a society whose traditional leadership has been decimated; alternative, hostile and predatory systems having filled the vacuum at the local level.
Many have asked, “If the majority of Afghans don’t support the Taliban, how can the Taliban appear to have so much success? If the people don’t want warlords, how can they exist?” This is how. The glue of Afghan society has been severely weakened. It’s like a social immune system, and it’s compromised. Young men, who sixty years ago would have strong leadership to look up to at the local level, have found that leadership supplanted. We see some of the same symptoms in America with the pressures against families. It creates a vacuum that is easily filled by other role models. The Taliban actually had to run-off, kill or otherwise suborn strong secular leaders. The mullahs of sixty years ago have been replaced by younger, less educated and in many cases illiterate mullahs who have been influenced by a radicalized form of Islam. Xenophobia, the byproduct of being the speed bump of history, adds to the easy answer. An economy laid in shambles by thirty years of warfare provides young men who are willing to fight for money, easy pickings for an insurgency with foreign and drug money to spend on these employable young men who are constantly hearing a message that it’s okay to kill… hey, it’s for Islam.
It is not an intractable problem. It is a problem, though. Those who claim that Afghanistan cannot work, ever, are too small for the job. They should focus instead on what the difference in price is between two products that are sold by different weight, whether they really can save hundreds of dollars on car insurance by switching to GEICO, and how those geniuses can make it really look like a baby in a high chair can earn enough on investments to hire a clown by using a PDA.
Others are learning that the greater problem of Afghanistan can only be solved at the local level. We have wannabe insurgents in the United States. Look at all those irrelevant neo-Nazis hanging out in their compounds in remote places. They would love to cause as much trouble as the Taliban. Don’t think that if our society were as damaged that they wouldn’t hold more appeal. This can be the end result for radicals in a country such as Afghanistan. Working on the ground floor is what is needed. This is a lot easier than fixing nebulous centralized government, because it is a bunch of smaller projects. (The central government still needs a lot of work, though.) Security is only part of the answer; it always has been.
As for building the security forces up to an enormous level that is unsustainable, just how long to you think that Afghanistan will need such a force? Is it possible that it will only need it as long as there is a significant insurgency in the country? Is it possible that it will not require a quarter of a million active duty soldiers for eternity? I think that the answer to the last two questions is, “Yes, it is possible… even likely.” So let’s put down that tired old meme.
Let’s work on what’s broken. You cannot build a house on shifting sands, but don’t let the nebulous appearance fool you; Afghanistan had these structures which nurtured life and led tribes to live in relative peace. There is a reason why the Hazara have not been wiped out by the Pashtuns, for instance (although the Taliban tried.) The traditional structures worked. General McChrystal has this built into his plan, and the “civilian surge” is appearing (I see them, new ones, all the time.) The other plan is based on silliness and antiquated thinking. It’s a built-in excuse for failure. It’s really what we have been doing for nearly eight years, anyway. Calling it something new won’t change that, and it won’t fix anything… it’ll only make it worse. Let’s not be that small, especially in our heads. Everyone’s got a silly old uncle… on Petticoat Junction they called theirs “Joe”… but that doesn’t mean that his ideas had to go any further than some silly talk at the dinner table.
Here’s a question: In the early 1970’s, Afghanistan led the world in the export of two commodities. Can anyone guess one of them? Bonus points if you can get both.
AfghanQuest bonus points can be redeemed at any Starbucks Coffee, where that and about three bucks will get you a cup of the good stuff. Still… I think you’ll be surprised to know that Afghanistan led the world in these exports, showing that there is potential, even without mining all that iron ore in Bamyan and using their coal to make steel.
GEN McChrystal’s assessment has now been “leaked.” Now what? For some time now, it has seemed that the tide of public opinion has been turning against the “Good War.” Why do you think that is?
Because suddenly everyone has realized that Afghanistan is a complex, dynamic situation. It is what analysts call a “wicked problem.” Everyone thought that Iraq was complicated and that Afghanistan was more simple. Now that people have really taken a look at Afghanistan, they realize that it is not so simple. In many ways, it is more complex than Iraq. It makes people’s heads hurt.
Not being able to make sense of the problem, they figure that nobody can, and that’s when the pessimism of the public takes hold.
A few words of caution: First, the American public has nothing of the real story of Afghanistan presented to them. The only brave reporters in the country are busying themselves with covering combat. The rest remain in Kabul, running stringers of dubious quality and unknown affiliations. For the first time, today, I was asked by a civilian, “Why is none of the good stuff that we are doing getting told back home? Why is the press ignoring the real stories here?”
I cannot answer that question in a way that sounds even vaguely like I feel that the mainstream media has a clue. Media people are allowed to attend the Counterinsurgency Training Center. Damned few take up the offer. How can a press corps even pretend to know what they are talking about when they don’t do their best to understand the reasoning, the doctrine, the strategy behind what they are seeing? Most of them, a select few exempted, have no idea what they are looking at when they watch the military do anything beyond brushing their teeth. Not only that, but they don’t try.
What does this have to do with GEN McChrystal’s assessment? Well, the General points out a few things that are being glossed over back home. First, the Afghans want us here. He quotes General Wardak in his report as saying just that. Wardak also notes that the time is ripe for success. The raw material for a comprehensive and integrated approach to the counterinsurgency is building in Afghanistan, and for the first time, we are hearing that the American public is now tilting against this theater. Amazing. What timing. Americans, like my beloved but hapless Bengals, have a particular talent ever since the early seventies for snatching defeat from the jaws of success. It is quite possible for us to succeed in Afghanistan. The situation is far from ideal. It is serious, and that is our fault. No doubt. But it is not hopeless.
I am still digesting the report; but having seen the followup briefings, where the story unfolds further, the assessment is no surprise. I cannot discuss the briefings on where, specifically, the General plans to take this, but I can tell you that he is not tolerating among our leadership here the kind of pessimism that runs rampant in our homeland. We cannot afford to let it make our heads hurt. It is our job to handle the wicked problem. There are some very determined people involved here. Now we are seeing determined, hopeful people who don’t wear uniforms bringing their talents to bear where they should have been years ago. It is not too late, and the General states this clearly. Now is the time; not to double down just to be doubling down, but to learn, adapt and take our performance of real counterinsurgency to the next level.
President Obama has, somehow or other, wound up with the “Dream Team” on the issue of Afghanistan. Just as Al Qaeda has shifted resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, so have we. Many of the people who sharpened their claws in Iraq have been shifted over to Afghanistan, and the good war has taken on a primacy of effort that was lacking when I first arrived in April of 2007. While still sparsely resourced, people who know how to do stability and counterinsurgency operations have begun to come into the country, and they are having an impact. GEN McChrystal has got some wicked smart people working for him on projects large and small that will make a positive impact on this country.
Now the President, swayed by the possibility of an unpopular decision, begins to waffle. This is not the right time to waffle. This is the time to be decisive.
I was recently thanked by a foreign officer for something I said to a group of American officers. I told the American officers that the rest of the world views us as the big fat rich kid on the world playground. We want everyone to like us, and are heartbroken to discover that a few don’t. We are easily aroused and like to throw our weight around. We think that what we think is going to be the most important thing on everyone’s agenda. We are not afraid to fight, and we have heavy hands. God help you if we catch you with a punch; few can withstand a beating from us. But, we are clumsy. We can be hurt, and we have no stamina; no real will. If we can be made to bleed a little, and if we can be run in circles for more than a little while, we tire easily. We have the propensity, when things get tough and we get a little winded, to take our ball and go home. We are prone to quitting. We have quit before, and we are more than likely to quit again. The Taliban know that, and the Afghan people know that. It is part of the insurgent song to the people, a message designed to keep them on the fence, unsure of which way best suits their interests. If they commit to the government being helped the by the fat kid, and the fat kid runs away to mope, they can die. Many dare not commit. Many who have committed in the last eight years have paid the price with their lives as we have moved into an area, cleared it out and announced that the bad times were over. As the good-intentioned patriots emerged to help heal their communities, we have left their damaged communities with nothing to guarantee security. Our focus was on developing the Army, after all. The Police? Nobody wanted to work with them, to improve them. Yet we left those communities in their untrained, ill-led hands and scampered off in search of more Taliban to chase. The Taliban returned to those communities and killed those who had stood up in their absence. It is a phenomenon we call “mowing the grass.”
We have mowed a lot of grass. Many would-be patriots have died as a result of our inability to grasp the importance of a comprehensive, integrated approach to assisting in the rebuilding of a society damaged to its core by over thirty years of warfare and upheaval, suffering from a chronic insurgency. We are world famous for abandoning those who we had told, “We will not abandon you.”
The foreign officer thanked me for saying what all of the Coalition and Afghan partners were thinking. They were afraid to raise the point, though; because we can be an ill-tempered lot when our assumptions about ourselves are challenged. To those men, it just isn’t worth it to hold up their mirror for us to look at. It’s like when someone who really doesn’t care about you lets you walk around with spinach in your teeth.
The fat kid is wheezing now. We are faltering, cocooning, withdrawing within ourselves and our head hurts from the complexity of it all. We want to quit. We want to take our ball and go home. We will cede this area to instability and leave, like we are leaving our debt, the mortal threat for our children to handle. It’s all just too much for us to bear.
Who would have thought, four years ago, that of the two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, that the one where we would tire out and be losers would be Afghanistan? When Obama made Afghanistan the “good war,” and when he called Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” you would have expected firm, decisive movement. Initially, that is what was shown. He went along with firing McKiernan and replacing him with McChrystal, whose vision and leadership has shaken the “same old, same old” sensibilities of the Afghanistan mission. GEN McChrystal promises, through his actions and initiatives, to do things that have never been done in Afghanistan. Now, the President is poised to force the resignation of this leader, which will be the political death of his administration. But he will leave the General no recourse if he fails to resource the mission properly.
In the meantime, back home, ill-informed people who knew nothing about Afghanistan at this time last year other than it wasn’t Iraq and it was where Osama was when the World Trade Center crashed to the ground, have had the chance to learn a little more about this ancient land. What they learned was that it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t so easy. It made their heads hurt. It is a wicked, dynamic problem, and it makes heads hurt. They stare and stare at the picture, but they just can’t see the damned dolphin. So, their answer is to quit. They begin to waver. President Obama, the most politically sensitive president I’ve ever seen… a veritable political weather vane, senses the wind shift… and dissembles accordingly.
The news today is that the President is considering a plan brought forth in the spring by another great military leader and strategic genius. It is certainly cheaper, and is likely to prove enormously popular with the waffles back home. It actually involves fewer troops in Afghanistan, a great reliance on drone strikes and Special Operations raids in Pakistan (boy, I bet that makes the Pakistanis happy!) That sounds as effective as lobbing 63 cruise missiles at a few mud huts. Not like that’s ever been done before.
Meanwhile, cheerleaders all over Washington and parts of the press are laying it on thick in a bid to win their agendas. They are the part of the fat kid’s mind that tells him that he is afraid, that he is tired, that nothing is worth it. I’ve watched the voices become strident. “This is a long, steep hill,” the voice in his head tells the fat kid, “you can quit any time you want. Let’s go have some ice cream. You know it’s hard, and you’re sweaty, and you’re tired. Your head hurts. This wasn’t all easy like you thought. It’s too hard. Ice cream sounds good. Let’s go get some ice cream and watch American Idol.”
We are the big, rich, fat kid. We talk a big story, but our word isn’t worth a plugged nickel. That’s what Omar means when he says, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” He knows us well enough to know that we are quitters.
For those of you who are tracking, remember that you are not even getting half of the story of what is actually happening over here. As for how to deal with the, “My Head Hurts” crowd, just tell your fellow citizens to take some Advil and stand by. The next move is Obama’s, and it will determine the immediate future of my mission in Afghanistan, my son’s future, and how long we will stay the fat, rich kid who talks big and runs away when the other kid hits back.
The Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan is growing, and its role in propagating the doctrine of counterinsurgency, or COIN, across many organizations is growing. Students of counterinsurgency from every branch of the United States Military, all of our NATO and Coalition allies, and most importantly Afghans from government, the Afghan Military, Afghan National Police and even non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) are being trained in counterinsurgency every week. Some of this training is conducted on site at the CTC-A, while other training is carried directly to the units and organizations in the field.
The curriculum is reviewed each month in a constant process of refining the presentation of materials to keep the training relevant to the current conditions in the theater. New tools are reviewed carefully for applicability. Pathways to better integration with civilian and military organizations and capabilities are sought, examined carefully, and advice is given on implementation. Partners are discovered, encouraged, educated and assisted. Relationships are cemented and expanded to include new organizations and capabilities. Lastly, through discussion and interface during training including diverse groups, personal contacts are forged that continue to drive productive partnership development.
Innovative doctrinally-based approaches to counterinsurgency training and implementation are being developed and fielded in conjunction with other organizations. Methods for operationalizing doctrinal frameworks and concepts are being sought, developed, tested and fielded. The CTC-A is a center for COIN thought that does not depend on solutions being pushed forward by offices in the United States, with solutions tuned to the specific environment of Afghanistan. The staff at the CTC-A are constantly learning, acquiring as much knowledge as possible to drive insights into such developments.
In that spirit of continuous education and professional development, an Honorary Library has been established at the CTC-A. Donations of books are sought which will be available to students and staff alike to spur further learning about counterinsurgency, history (especially Afghan and Central Asian history) and related topics. It is very easy to donate and become a part of this learning. Simply follow this link and the name of the wish list is “COIN Library – Kabul.” Donations of used books from the wish list can be mailed to:
c/o Scott Kesterson
APO AE 09320
Your contributions will help to keep the minds of the counterinsurgent trainers and students bright as they work together to resolve a very complex insurgency. This is a way that you can support forwarding counterinsurgency doctrine, training and implementation in Afghanistan and have a direct impact on the success of the mission here. Please consider making a contribution to the fight and arming counterinsurgents with knowledge. Sometimes, a counterinsurgent’s best weapons do not shoot.
A blogger friend, military supporter whose husband has served in this war, asked what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It’s a good question, and one that I think is probably in more minds than just hers. So I’m going to take a whack at answering it.
First, I never really think in terms of “victory.” There will be no grand surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship in this conflict. Insurgencies don’t die in a horrendous bright flash of light and culminate in a giant sigh of acceptance of defeat. They dwindle and starve, become a criminal problem, and finally fade out largely from lack of interest. Twenty years from now, former insurgents will own shops and other businesses and live relatively obscure lives here in Afghanistan. Some may even be in government. No, I don’t use the word victory. The words that we use are important, and they are powerful. They evoke images. Americans love victory, even as they love the underdog, most Cincinnati Bengals fans who don’t even bother to show up to games by mid-season demonstrate that the underdog appeal fades in the face of repeated defeat.
I think in terms of success or failure. The previous Afghan government, if you could call it that, was not so much governing as ruling over a failed state. So let’s talk about what success looks like in Afghanistan. We can describe it simply, but then you have to drill down to what that actually means. For starters, success in Afghanistan includes a stable government devoid of dysfunctional or disabling corruption. What does that mean? Look at our own level of corruption in the United States… don’t act like we don’t have corruption… but it’s generally not disabling. Disabling means that whatever corruption is present interferes materially and consistently with the provision of basic governmental responsibilities; what we often call basic services. It means an Afghanistan with a rising economy, dropping unemployment, a growing standard of living, climbing literacy rates and ever higher standards of education. It means an Afghanistan where there is a basic rule of law and where the citizens feel relatively safe in their homes and neighborhoods and where nearly all feel that there is some access to justice. This means that one of the basic services is security; the ability of the populace to live without threat or intimidation.
Can we do that? I think that perhaps we can. Should we do that? Topic for another post, but I am here of my own volition. I don’t like to lose any more than the next guy, and this is not just Operation Enduring Paycheck for me; so you can guess that my answer is likely positive on that one, too.
There are a lot of encouraging signs. The vanguard of the civilian surge is coming aboard. There are hundreds more on the way, and while they don’t meet the typical State Department mold, the community organizers of the Obama Campaign are finding their way to Afghanistan. Just this week I met and worked with a State Department employee of five months standing, four of which were in Afghanistan. She had worked on the Obama campaign, before that on “another candidate’s campaign,” and prior to that was, “in business.” Very well-intentioned. I could write an entire post about that one, but give us the raw material and you might be surprised where we can take this. The point is that we are beginning to develop the civilian capacity-building arm of our foreign policy apparatus.
Just as encouraging is the participation that we are seeing from Afghans in the civilian government and the military. COIN doctrine is Afghan doctrine as well. Everything that is being taught to Americans and NATO/Coalition partners coming into Afghanistan is Afghan doctrine. It is also being taught to Afghans. Tons of Afghan officers, including the very senior ones, are active participants in the dissemination of the doctrine and in planning for the rapid growth necessary in Afghan forces. I can’t brief it, because it’s not for public release, but there are certain economies of force that are being strongly considered to leverage the existing forces as cadre for rapid expansion. Growth becomes easier when you have a professional core upon which to build, and that core exists in greater numbers every day. The growth within the leadership of the ANA, including the NCO Corps, has been a huge success story here.
Afghan government ministries, Afghan NGO’s and Afghan contractors are also participants. They are also being trained and enthusiastically receiving the training in how to work across organizational boundaries to target effects based on the input and needs of local people. One of the legacies of the Taliban days is that the Taliban destroyed traditional structures that used to regulate Afghan life. Those weakened tribal and village structures are now the target of efforts to strengthen them and by doing so, return a sense of normal life forces in Afghan society. There is a significant movement afoot to leverage traditional methods of local justice. This may, on the surface, appear to be contrary to what we are used to… but in the United States, Mayor’s Courts thrive and are still in widespread use. Think of it along those lines.
Host nation support is unprecedented and growing.
The plan to add resources to the ANP also cannot be described in detail, but it is possible that a plan to move significant resources in that direction, quickly, may be approved for implementation very soon. This will also build upon lessons learned from the successful but time-consuming Focused District Development (FDD) program, as well. The ANP have lacked large-scale mentoring efforts for quite some time, and it appears possible that some horsepower may be directly applied to this most important counterinsurgent force very soon. Another reason for optimism. While months and years will be required, this is not really a long time in context. Positive results may occur very quickly. Remember, you don’t have to be the faster than the bear; you just have to be faster than the next guy. The next guy, in this case, is very small and while agile, he is actually hobbled. The people don’t like him, and only need to feel safe to push back. There are approximately 30,000 active insurgents in Afghanistan to try to subdue approximately 30,000,000 people. Another thing to remember is that while the entire country needs governance and development, there is only a serious insurgent threat in portions of the country. Some threats are actually criminal in nature, sometimes under the guise of insurgency. Lots of weapons trafficking and drug trafficking-related violence is attributed to political violence, which it is not.
Overall, we are going to temporarily construct a national security apparatus that is actually economically unsustainable in the long term. Afghanistan will only need these large forces long enough for the insurgency to be beaten back. If the other factors are addressed during this process… and we are building that capacity now… then the insurgency will begin to fade. As it fades, so long as the positive changes continue, the Afghan people will themselves be less and less likely to feel drawn to any radical ideology. Young men will find fulfillment in licit work rather than finding identity with radical leadership, and the need for such massive security forces will wane. For those who fear that a massive army will need to be sustained in perpetuity, that is usually a red herring used as a bogeyman to frighten others. It’s just fallacious logic.
One of our Achilles heels is public opinion. During the elections, many gravitated towards the “good war” versus “bad war” line of thinking. Many of those folks were simply setting up a straw man. Another thing to take into consideration was that the overwhelming majority of the population knew little about Afghanistan. Our networks were flooded with Iraq doom and gloom. Now those same people who held up the “good” vs “bad” argument are openly questioning Afghanistan.
That’s because it makes their head hurt.
Afghanistan is a complicated environment. Major and minor ethnic groups abound. Tribal rivalries go back centuries. There are over three thousand distinct insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They are linked into confederations of varying degrees of cohesiveness. There are rifts and alliances and more rifts and alliances. These provide many opportunities to leverage cracks… and many opportunities for headaches. For many, who otherwise appear to be very intelligent people, it just makes their head hurt. Unable to comprehend, they prognosticate in the only direction they can. Lots of that from talking heads who know little about actuality in Afghanistan lately. These hurt-headed failures do influence, though. Sadly, some just can’t say that they are ignorant and don’t really need to be involved in the discussion. Sadder still is their inability to listen to or take seriously those who do see and do know, apparently because of some academic sense of superiority or well-developed ego. We’ve all known those types, and the foreign policy wonkworld certainly abounds with them. Their keyboards are aflame with addlepated hammerings this year.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Afghanistan is not Iraq. No question. But there is a similarity. COIN was not executed perfectly in Iraq. The surge didn’t do everything right down to the last detail. But what happened was amazing. Some will ascribe the changes in that country during the time surrounding the surge to be the result of nearly anything but the application of some very basic COIN principles, but that’s driven, often, by personal politics and disingenuous motives. What happened, at least in part, was that even imperfect application of population-centric tactics on a large scale led to disproportionate reactions within society. Positive reactions. We lost momentum in Afghanistan for a number of reasons, but the people here truly want to see us regain it and begin providing hope again. I think that it will take less to switch that momentum than the blithering heads would ever think. They will ascribe it, again, to nearly anything other than acceptably applied COIN, but that doesn’t matter. The proof is in the pudding.
One more key; the Afghans really need to know that we are here for the long haul with them. Our history in the past half century doesn’t bear this out, but it’s time to show the world that we can keep going even when our head hurts and helping ourselves means helping someone else first. There are a lot of Americans who resent spending a cup of urine to extinguish a flaming neighbor, bewailing whatever other purpose they may have had for that cup of urine. Think about how those people feel when it is tax dollars they could be using for some pet project. We’ve got lots of those types, too. They often have headaches and think themselves truly brilliant analysts, too. Don’t even get me started about how they pretend to give two shits about my life or my family, though. They don’t. That’s just political fodder for them. The Afghans need to know that we are not quitters any more; that our word actually means something. The meaning of a person’s word has lost something in our society, but not in theirs nor in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The partnering of units remains to be seen. There are concerns that the American Regular Army units will revert to the same old behaviors that they had in the past; abusing their Afghan “partners” as the equivalent of their own pissboys. These units have received some basic COIN training, but there will be another factor, and that would be the Mc-Rod Factor. McChrystal and Rodriguez are serious about enforcing the application of their plan… that Afghan forces are going to lead and the Americans are there as a multiplier. It will only take a few bell-ringers to correct the old ways. Neither impresses me as a man to spare a career in the presence of failure to execute his orders.
Lastly a reason for optimism is the total lack of traction of failed ideas such as strict reliance on “CT” or counter terrorist operations. Discussions which contain references with suggestions to abandoning population-centric concepts for a strictly CT approach are the equivalent of discussing the merits of a football bat. It’s like asking if someone thinks that roughing the passer should be called more strictly during the World Series. Just roll your eyes and know that you’ve just heard from someone who has as much credibility in the current fight as a gelding on a stud farm. No one here on the ground is able to open their mouths and make such ridiculously inane noises. I think it’s happening back home on a regular basis, but no worries; no traction whatsoever where COIN meets the real world.
Afghanistan won’t look like a Mini-Me version of the United States. It will look like a war torn country with hope, though. Success looks like Afghans making plans to access their sub-soil resources in partnership with companies who don’t just buy the rights to a seam of ore. It looks like a court system that functions in such a way that Afghans feel that if they have a dispute, no one can buy the decision. It takes a while to come from the 19th century to the 20th, much less the 21st. We have to understand that success in Afghanistan doesn’t look like perfection; it looks like positive momentum and a lack of interest in further insurgency. There will be die-hards, but the police will be tracking them down. Success looks like most people not having time to listen to radicals because they are either on their way to work or on their way home from school. There is a lot to do to get there, but with the buy-in we’re seeing from the Afghan Army, Police and civil Ministries, as well as the civilian and NGO surge, there’s a sense that the momentum can be regained.
When George H. W. Bush declared a “New World Order, recipe ” many felt that his pronouncement was arrogant, healing domineering and a bit frightening in an Orwellian way. His words have been mocked, cheap twisted, and held up as an indicator to support conspiracy theories and in the rhetoric of those who oppose American foreign policy. The President may have been correct in his determination that there had been a change, but there was no change in behavior strategically that went along with such a sea change in global politics. The United States simply behaved as if it were the unchallenged superpower, declaring itself the world leader and chief proponent of “freedom.” America announced to the world that the world had changed, but America did not significantly change the way it dealt with this changed world. As globalization changed the world’s markets and political possibilities, the United States remained rooted in foreign policy practices that in many cases exacerbated the very problems that they were intended to ameliorate. Things got worse.
The more American foreign policy sought to “contain” extremism, the more extreme the threats that presented themselves. Numerous turning points were reached, and no turns were made. American success in supporting Afghanistan’s Mujaheddin against the Soviet invasion was widely heralded as a triumph of foreign policy. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal the United States took no major steps to build capacity of any sort in Afghanistan. No leadership was exerted, and the little influence exerted was spent on warlords who were perceived to be pliable. Afghanistan slid first into civil war and finally into the grip of a group of backwards religious zealots who had no ability to govern and whose actions conflicted more and more with national mores and objectives. No progress was made, either, in persuading Iraq that compliance with any New World Order was unavoidable. Actions meant to bring Iraq to heel only hardened the resolve of Saddam Hussein and tightened his grip on his populace. The carrot and the stick were not working.
America was not leading in the development of human capacities. America was playing power games; games of manipulation that had unintended consequences in their second and third order effects that actually damaged American national interests and security. International terrorism, an outgrowth of Arab frustrations with their inability to defeat Israel on the conventional battlefield, and blamed also on the United States, came to the fore with the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Hijackings became relatively common. The pace of international terrorism waxed and waned, and the methodology evolved, but a widening gap opened between America and the Arab and Persian worlds.
The response of the United States to terrorism was often forceful retaliation. America sought to strengthen security agreements and arrangements with friendly, and not so friendly, countries. The political side brought pressure based on the threat of force, money and sanctions. These were considered the tools of foreign policy. Decades of foreign policy sought to erode Communism rather than trust that it would die a natural death of its own weight. It was a policy born of a lack of faith in our own system; a fear that the other could actually win somehow. While this is understandable in light of the unthinkable tragedy of WW-II, it helped spawn another, asymmetric threat. International extremism was growing, not in the least bit slowed by our old techniques. We had sponsored it in Asia in order to gall the Soviets. Now it became firmly entrenched in Middle Eastern societies.
After the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan, America determined that it had achieved a strategic victory in backing the Mujaheddin. Although there were cries for help in many areas from Afghans, funding for aid to Afghanistan was drastically cut. The Afghans were on their own. Factions fought to a near standstill over control of the country. Former allies fought viciously to control Afghanistan. Local warlords controlled areas of Afghanistan, and depredations were widespread. Kabul lay in ruins as the various factions fought for control of the symbol of power in Afghanistan. The Taliban began as a tiny group rebelling against a local warlord. The ISI began their long association with the Taliban. U.S. foreign policy, confused as ever, backed and then turned against the Taliban. Afghanistan failed as a state. Chaos reigned, concealment and incubation for exportable extremism.
Failed states affect other states. In the era of globalization, they can affect states halfway around the globe. After plenty of actions taken against American citizens and property overseas, we finally got an extreme display on our own soil on 9/11. The disaffected of Afghanistan had a hand in that. The disaffected of the Middle East participated directly. Failed or failing states threaten all.
The root causes of insurgency lie in a combination of factors. We break them into three general areas; a vulnerable population, leadership who are available to direct disaffection and weak government. U.S. foreign policy from WW-II forward often served to exacerbate insurgencies, because very often the actions taken by the American foreign policy organs were to utilize the three main tools of policy (money, sanctions and military power) to either benefit a relatively small slice of society or to punish all. The American carrot and stick were actually making things worse, just as surely as doing nothing but hunt the enemy is not weakening him in modern day Afghanistan. With a very large percentage of people under the age of 25 in Afghanistan, the recruiting pool for disaffected and angry youth is nearly endless. This is the basis for the statement that you cannot kill your way out of an insurgency.
You have to address the root causes. The military can help to secure the physical vulnerability of the population, but the population is not just physically vulnerable. They are also economically, educationally, socially and governmentally vulnerable. The military can help address the leadership issue… but then what? If we kinetically solve the problem of one leader, another will grow in his place. Government may be physically weak, unable to deliver on its mandate… or it can be morally weak in the eyes of the people, rendering it susceptible to attack both physically and rhetorically. The military cannot protect a government from rhetorical attack or the disregard that citizens will show for a morally weak government.
We Americans view ourselves as “good guys.” We are the characters who ride into town wearing white hats, sure of the effectiveness and fairness of the “American way.” We see ourselves as the champion of justice. To significant portions of the populations of poorer nations, that is not the way that we are seen. A conventionally-minded military is not the most effective counterinsurgent force. The military is not the answer to insurgency by itself, only a part of the national ability to project real power. We need to change the way that we conduct policy. This begins here in Afghanistan. If the civilian organs of American foreign policy become strong in the ways that they need to in order to assist the Afghan people forward, we stand a chance of developing significant capabilities to transform our foreign policy behavior in ways that will provide greater security than we have known in over 30 years. This is not to say that we should become wimpy. It is to say that we will become a more secure nation by assisting people who are not Americans to be more secure.
It is hard to argue with some assertions made by those in the United States who claim that we are in this position due to our own faults. These folks tend to be in opposition to American foreign policy in general, and their greatest weakness is that they offer no real alternative, only cries of exasperation or excessively isolationist recommendations that no one views as realistic. They are able to diagnose the disconnect between what we say we want and our effects on the other people on this planet. We have indeed contributed greatly to our own problems by propping up strongmen who opposed regimes that we opposed, manipulating the internal politics of nations via intrigue, arming groups and sponsoring regime change.
We helped create failed and failing states. We did nothing to help developing nations to develop the capacity to govern properly and provide essential services that a government needs to provide in order to be legitimate. We failed to assist with mentoring and guidance and examples for developing nations to develop the capacity to begin to serve their populations.
We failed in the good will and good faith departments.
The backward slide ends somewhere. Either that or the relevance of the United States in the world will continually erode. The change in our behavior needs to start in Afghanistan. If the new initiatives are successful, those who participate here are the “seed corn” for a whole new breed in foreign relations, particularly in second and third-world countries. Several Presidents have talked about American “leadership.” The best leaders are also great mentors. They assist others in their development.
By providing the mentoring and leadership to assist developing countries in their capacity building, not just governmental, but also in basic economic development (encouraging investment and partnering,) the United States can help prevent state failure. The true power of the United States is not self-contained in the military. It is also in the economic power, the technical expertise, the ease with which our services are delivered and the competence of our public employees. In return we will assist in preventing state failure and insurgencies from ever really developing by addressing their root causes before they have a chance to develop. We will create markets and opportunity. Security will be secured and enhanced.
In order to be successful in Afghanistan, we will need to develop these competencies in our foreign policy organs. A new breed can be birthed in Afghanistan that will change the way that we deal with the world around us and by being more beneficial reap rewards for our own people at home.
One thing that I’m being reminded of is how differently Afghans view their national issues from the way that Westerners view them. Americans are often the furthest from the Afghan view. If you toss individuals from Afghanistan and, say, seven other nations in a room and have them all come up a viewpoint from an Afghan perspective, the Americans will often miss by the widest margin. It’s in the mindset. That’s not to say that Americans are bad, or that our intentions are less than pure. It just means that we have to ask the right questions in order to reach solutions that are appropriate for the environment and people here.
There have been numerous examples of the phenomenon this week. The coursework here involves a number of Practical Exercises. In one group, a mixed bag of Americans, a Canadian, a Norwegian, and two Afghans were working together. All of the Coalition troops were officers. The two young Afghans, Sergeants in a special Anti-terrorism unit that did yeoman’s work during the orchestrated attacks in Kabul recently, were a little intimidated and had to be coaxed out of their shells. Sometimes their input really surprised the group.
Like 180 degrees out.
Each class gets to take a trip to Darulaman, the Queen’s Palace. I almost didn’t accompany them, since I’ve seen it. It’s still impressive. I took a few pictures, of course. Roaming around the palace evokes a hint of glory past, ethereal as the ghosts of past regimes seen through the lens of destruction and sorrow of war. The senselessness of failing to arrive at a political solution to human differences becomes profoundly obvious in such a place. Much blood was spilled in and around the grounds of the once-grand edifice.
I view it through American eyes. These eyes, a shade of blue almost never seen in native Afghans, are every bit as different in their perception as in their hue. Although I feel that my eyes were forever changed by my first tour, which is what adds value to my second, still do not see Afghanistan as Afghans do. I was about to be reminded of this.
As I roamed the shell of the palace, wandering through what was once a grand hall on the third floor, my eyes were drawn to an Afghan civilian who stood deeply considering the graffiti on the wall. I assumed that he was feeling the great sorrow of such a place, representative of the hope that Afghanistan had once held and the destruction of that same. I greeted him in Dari, asking how he was. We exchanged the traditional pleasantries. He told me his name was Mirwaz. (No he didn’t… but that’s what I’ll call him here, just to protect him.) Then I asked him why he appeared to be so deep in thought.
“I am reading what has been written on the walls,” he said.
“What does it say?” I asked.
“Taliban. From Pakistan. There is a lot of that in this place,” he offered.
“Yes. See here; this one says, ‘Fazel Achmad,’ and here is where is from… ‘Pakistan,’ above the name,” he pointed out.
I took a picture, for this space, and asked him how Darulaman made him feel.
He thought for a moment, fingers on his chin. “Proud.”
“Proud?” I asked, incredulous.
“Now, I am proud; and I’m thinking, ‘Do something in your life unique like this,'” he told me, “I pray to God to give me energy like this, to kick all of these insurgents out of here and I will tell them, ‘Hey, 80 or 100 years ago, they made this place. Why you made this place like this?'”
“It doesn’t make you sad?” I quizzed him further, intrigued at his outlook.
“No. I feel this sorrow, but I cannot change these things that happened. But, this man, Amanullah, did a unique thing. I can do a unique thing too, inshallah.”
I was struck by his ability to let go of the past and live in today. The powerful simplicity of the release freed him to look to the future.
“When I am President, this will be the Ministry of Culture,” he said, his smile becoming a chuckle, “and that,” he indicated the King’s Palace in the distance, “that will be where the Loya Jirga sits.”
A Canadian officer passed by and took note of Mirwaz’s pronouncement. “Now that would take some doing. It’s pretty damaged. I heard it was unstable.”
“I will be President,” Mirwaz grinned, “it will be a small thing.” With a wave of his hand, he had solved that problem. He knew it wasn’t that simple, or a small thing, but he saw that destruction and loss doesn’t have to be forever.
“Amanullah did this unique thing, and it calls us to think of him,” he explained to me. “Many men have done the unique thing.” Mirwaz rattled off a list of names, some of whom Americans would question as being admirable, but they were Afghans who had made dramatic changes in their country in their attempts to fulfill their visions for Afghanistan. I could see him talking about such men in the same way that we might speak of Lincoln, Roosevelt or Wilson.
Mirwaz and I talked as we walked through the building, then the road down the hill that Darulaman dwarfs with her mass. He works for what is probably the single most influential ministry for the coming years, the MRRD, or Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development. This ministry, more than any other, brings Afghan problems together with locally accountable Afghan solutions to problems that face communities. Largely directing foreign funding, MRRD utilizes elected boards in each locality to select and manage projects which MRRD oversees.
He explained to me how he had been a refugee in Pakistan during the Russian and Taliban years, and how he had earned a Bachelors degree in economics in Pakistan. He returned overjoyed after Taliban were forced to flee. “I was happy,” he said, “but also disappointed by what had happened to my country.”
“Every family is like this place,” he said, sweeping his hand around the palace gutted by war, robbed of it’s finery and scored by weapons. “Every Afghan family is the same as this.”
This is what happens when you go downrange as an individual; you are forced to meet new people. You can’t predict what these brand spanking new relationships will look like a year from now. It forces one to live in the moment and to really try to do your best.
And hope that it’s good enough.
It’s a new test, a new challenge. It’s also a bit unnerving. It’s strange how you can spend years and years proving over and over that you can meet new people, be put into a team with them, and thrive. There are those, like SFC (soon to be 1SG) O, Jacques Pulvier, LTC Stone Cold and some others from my last tour that I will keep up with for the rest of my natural life. There are others that I don’t care if I ever see again. That’s the way of it. It’s not the ones that I don’t care to see again that matter. It’s the ones that I have bonded with so strongly that we will keep in touch over the course of years. Some with regularity, some with irregularity… that doesn’t matter, either. It matters that you do reconnect.
The chances are good that I will have some of that here, too. It doesn’t always happen. Usually that is a bonding that is driven by stress and shared danger. There is no telling if there will be that level of bonding gel applied to these newly developing relationships. Who knows?
That’s the point; nobody does. It is just time to let go, live in the present, and let these things go which way they may. Arriving alone on a new team has a familiar feel to it. One difference is that the team existed before I got here. I am the FNG. They are a good bunch, though, and I feel absolutely welcome.
Many things here are familiar, if a little more worn. The ghosts of the last deployment hover over old landmarks and haunt new developments. There are changes in Kabul, and in the camps my friends and I knew then. The new mosque that was under construction is finished and beautiful. The lot in front of the building with the big body builder sign on it is empty of the trash pile that choked it. Phoenix is a crowded ghetto. There is new construction here and there in the city. A gleaming new office building is nearly complete. It would fit right into any city in America… at least by looks if not by amenities. There has been some visible progress here.
Out in the provinces may be a completely different story. Kabul is to Afghanistan as New York City is to America; a whole different reality, detached and different and self-absorbed. Unrepresentative of the reality of the rest of the country, like New York it is convinced that it somehow represents the country symbolically. Kabul does not reflect the reality of Khost or Helmand any more than New York City reflects the reality of Cincinnati or Iowa. It’s good to see some progress in this age-old city, but it does not reflect the state of the nation. Some of the news from the provinces is deeply disconcerting. The increase in manning levels and the mandated change in behaviors will take time to manifest themselves.
Tactical patience is required.
There is one thing that I may share with rest of the world. For those of you who know him, Rambo is still at the front gate of Phoenix. To him, I am just another American Soldier passing through that portal; but to me, he is an icon and a symbol of how dedicated an Afghan can be. Seeing him there forced a smile from me. So, if any of you wondered, Rambo is present and accounted for.
The average American doesn’t know about Rambo. If anyone has a Rambo story or two, please share it either in comments or email it to me. The guy is truly incredible.