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.
The idea’s being kicked around… though probably not by anyone who is capable or motivated to make a change in the policy… but it has been heard by these ears plenty; and from plenty of people. Most of them have “been there, done that.” They have the little knickknacks on their apparel to show it. The idea itself is about the knickknacks; the badges.
“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”
Oh, yes, we do. We really really do.
We have a little phenomenon in the Army called, “Badge-hunting.” Although mid-grade officers, very senior NCO’s and fobbits are most often accused of it, everyone wants their “stinking badges.” It affects how those who haven’t yet “gotten some” go about their business. They are looking for the fight that will earn them their combat badge, either the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge) or CAB (Combat Action Badge). Medics are less likely to go way out of their way to get their CMB (Combat Medical Badge), but if they earn it, they want it.
You have a tendency to find what you are looking for. Sometimes, it gets extreme.
In late 2007, a Police Mentor Team assigned to train and mentor the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) were operating in Konduz for a brief period. Miles away from their accustomed stomping grounds, which to that point had been mostly in and around Kabul, and many kilometers from the nearest flagpole, the PMT were wrapping up their visit to Konduz and would soon return to Kabul. No one could predict where their next mission would take them, or when. They had spent months in the classrooms and training areas to that point. There had been no contact.
During a CONOP, there was a loud explosion near the convoy and a gunner opened fire with his M240 machine gun. Finally, there had been contact! Sworn statements were drawn up, and paperwork was submitted for the vaunted combat badges. Then the wheels came off the bus; an investigation ensued.
The attack, it was determined, had been faked. The gunner, an NCO, had thrown a hand grenade, announced that the convoy was under RPG attack, and opened fire with his turret weapon without a legitimate target.
Weeks later, the same team was sent to the Tagab Valley to replace the Tagab District ANP while they proceeded to Konduz for FDD (Focused District Development) training. The NCO who had thrown the grenade was not present. The ANCOP PMT was involved in several legitimate firefights with their ANCOP, all “qualifying” for the CIB/CAB. Irony.
While the above is an extreme case, it is an actual event. It is very likely not the only case of its type. A Soldier endangered lives, both military and civilian, in pursuit of a combat badge. While extreme cases are certainly rare, what about the less obvious badge hunts?
Do we really need Soldiers looking for their CIB or CAB? I submit that we need Soldiers who are attuned to their whole environment in the current fight… which often doesn’t require actual fighting as much as it does awareness of the other, more subtle signals of the environment… not Soldiers who are attuned more specifically to seeking the kinetic contact.
“Well,” one may say, “we do need Soldiers who are attuned enough to the actual fighting aspect so that they don’t leave themselves exposed to potential danger. We want aggressive Soldiers.”
Granted. However, once the Soldier knows that he has the badge qualifications, the Soldier has a tendency to do a couple of things. First, he realizes that getting shot at is not a picnic, and it’s not glorious. Many discover that, for instance, RPG’s suck. They become a bit more circumspect about seeking that fight. If their unit suffers losses, the bloom comes completely off the rose. Violent death and injuries are not adventure.
But a tremendous amount of damage can be done in that in-between time… the time between when unadorned Soldiers arrive in-country and the time that they are absolutely sure that they have qualified for their badge, the symbol that they, too, have “been there and done that.” If one were to accept that this can have a detrimental effect, the question becomes, “So what would alleviate that negative effect?”
Take a step back in time. In WW-II and Korea, for instance, an Infantryman (there was no such thing as a CAB at that time) had to be of a rank lower than Colonel and be an Infantryman in an Infantry unit in a combat line unit for thirty days… then they were all awarded their CIB. There was no requirement for sworn statements and determinations that the Soldier individually was exposed to a specific danger that would reasonably be expected to potentially cause him personal and immediate bodily harm or death. There were no awards boards considering CIB’s for each and every individual Soldier and officer. The rules have changed, and many of us who have seen what it does to a Soldier’s mind; or especially a leader’s mind, wonder if this is productive.
The recommendation is to go back to the old rules. If you are in a qualifying unit in a combat zone for the requisite period of time (or are wounded prior to that time) then you qualify. Take the pressure off. All you have to do is perform your job satisfactorily. When you are there, in a combat zone, you can be attacked at any time. Why is it a lottery? What is the purpose? Recognize that everyone risks it, and then take the pressure off of them to come up with a story to earn it with.
…When they’ve killed 13 people and wounded 42 more in a botched rocket attack?
“We didn’t do it.”
We were cordially invited to stay at FOB Kutschbach for a few extra days by the rotary wing folks, who bumped our return flight to a day earlier than scheduled. So, as we had some extra time on the ground, we did a foot patrol with the French, the PMT and the ANP through the Tagab bazaar a couple of days after the attack. Being that there were two of us, and we each had an interpreter, we were able to talk with the people we ran into at the bazaar. That is, when we weren’t being hurried along.
While asking people what village they were from, if their village and/or family had suffered any casualties, and how they felt about the attack, the story the Taliban was telling came out. First, they insisted that only one rocket was fired… so the other round must have come from either the Americans or the French on the FOB. Right there they shucked off half of the responsibility. Secondly, they insisted that the rocket was not fired by a Talib. They had, they insisted, “arrested” the man who had fired the “single” rocket, and they were investigating to discover who had paid him to fire the rocket into the crowded bazaar.
“Really?” I asked the man who conveyed this. “They are really saying this?”
“Yes. This is what they say,” he asserted.
“They really think that you are so stupid that you would believe something so ridiculous?”
Blank stare. The man searched for something… something that wasn’t coming.
“I’ve been talking with you for several minutes. You are going to go to college in Jalalabad to be a lawyer. I know that you are too smart to believe such a ridiculous lie.” Clearly, he wasn’t; but it was beginning to work on his brain.
He stammered a bit… the corners of his mouth began to curl upwards a little. He was stuck.
“If a man kills someone and you ask him if he’s done it, he comes up with a stupid story about how it wasn’t him, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, hesitantly.
“So that you won’t want to kill him,” I continued.
“Well…” he shifted uncomfortably.
“So then he thinks that if you believe him, then you are a fool. You would be foolish then, right?” I pressed.
“Yes, that would be foolish,” he agreed.
“But you are too smart to believe a foolish lie, aren’t you? You are smarter than that, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am smarter than that,” he agreed.
“The Taliban think you are very stupid people, but you are not so stupid, right?” I offered him a way out.
“Right. We are smarter than that.” The men gathered around began nodding their heads.
It’s not like I could undo the damage done after the Taliban IO (Information Operation) had time, unfettered, to respond to the catastrophe that they had caused among their neighbors. Their gaff was like a kid who throws rocks at a house and breaks a window and then runs away. If confronted by the homeowner later, he comes up with a creative story about someone else breaking the window. Except this rock-throwing nimrod was throwing rockets, and he had killed innocent people.
The French had found rocket fragments from two rockets. One was Chinese and the other of Russian manufacture. They did not get the word out immediately. In fact, the reaction of the French leadership was to cancel a mission that they had planned and “wait it out.” They did not hit the streets immediately, telling the story and showing the rocket fragments to everyone they could find. This gave the Taliban time to concoct a ludicrous lie that, in the absence of any information to the contrary, some people were believing.
The fact is that on the morning of the attack, we were informed that there was some intelligence to indicate that the Taliban were going to attack the District Center that day. The reason was that there was a French General who would be participating in a Shura with local elders and the Sub-governor of Tagab District. COL Z, the local ANP Chief who is much-hated by the Taliban, and the ANA commander would also be there. As with all intelligence, there are a lot of red herrings. The PMT joked about the odds of actually being attacked. But, at roughly 12:30, twin booms rang out from the nearby bazaar. The French quickly identified the site of the launch, a site that the Taliban frequently use to launch rockets at FOB Kutschbach… often missing. This time they missed their mark by a scant 200 meters… just enough to land them in the bazaar, crowded by shoppers stocking up for the Eid celebration on a market day.
The 107mm (4.2 inch) rocket is not a precision weapon system. When tube launched, it is an area weapon. You can get it into a general area, but you cannot ensure a precision hit. When launched Afghan-style… propped up on rocks… it is an order of magnitude less certain. To launch these weapons from four kilometers away at a site which is so close to the bazaar on a bazaar day is criminally negligent at best.
These weapons were fired with a total disregard for civilian lives. It was akin to firing high explosives into a mall during the Christmas shopping season.
The 107mm warhead packs a wallop, but it is notorious for its horrible fragmentation pattern. The warhead casing fragments unevenly, often throwing out very large fragments in a haphazard manner. This undoubtedly spared some while mutilating others. Civilians were torn asunder, some left in bloody heaps while others lost limbs instantly. Still others were injured by flying chunks of rock. One rocket impacted near the place where people shopped for livestock for their Eid feast, not unlike our Thanksgiving Dinner. Livestock and citizens alike were shredded by razor-sharp, white-hot fragments. The carnage was horrendous.
As the shocked survivors gathered themselves and the bazaar emptied in a frenzy, severely wounded shoppers dragged themselves away from the center of the disaster. Colonel Z sprinted out the gate of the District Center, four ANP running to keep pace as their Chief ran into the dust and smoke left on the wake of the high explosive warheads. The Colonel lifted injured people into vehicles and dispatched them to either the FOB or the District Center. Within minutes, casualties began to arrive for French and American medics to triage and treat. The Colonel helped retrieve six dead from the litter of blood and body parts. The families took their dead directly home. More would die later from their wounds. Few villages were left unscathed by the toll. Everyone I spoke with a couple of days later knew someone who had perished or been wounded.
“You notice,” Colonel Z mentioned later, “that no one took their casualties to the Taliban for medical treatment. They brought them to the FOB, or to the District Center. They depended on the government or its allies for help when they needed it.”
This is true. That’s what the people did.
There is a “Radio-in-a-box” setup at FOB Kutschbach, broadcasting to the people of the Tagab Valley. The local commander offered the elders an opportunity to come and denounce the attack on the radio. Only one man, Colonel Z, came and denounced the Taliban for their cowardly act. All the other elders declined. So, as they sat watching, the enemy began their damage-control campaign.
“We didn’t do it. We caught the man who did, but he only fired one rocket. The Americans or the French fired the other one. We didn’t do it…”
Just as when untrained nimrods in the United States have money for weapons that they have no business possessing, the same is true in Afghanistan. The Afghan version of a drive-by is the 107mm rocket. Another wondrous Russian invention, it, along with the Kalashnikov and the RPG are the cheap, profligate weapons of the world. The 107 is relatively simple, and while not all that easily transportable, it can be moved significant distances by primitive means. They are often hauled by donkeys in Afghanistan.
I returned to Tagab (Tag Ab) a few days ago on a mission. FOB Kutschbach has really grown. Those who were here when the FOB was started would scarcely recognize the place. This morning, shortly after our arrival at the District Center where we were going to work with the ANP for the day, there was a report that insurgents were going to target the District Center with rockets. Such reports are often without merit, and we joked with the Police Mentor Team about the odds that it would actually happen. A Shura was in progress with the new French commander, his ANA and ANP counterparts, and local leaders. A little after 12:30, two explosions rocked the crowded bazaar just past the gates of the District Center. The insurgents had missed an area large enough to play several soccer games simultaneously and instead hit the bustling market about midday on bazaar day.
A CROW gunner in one of the MRAPS nearby announced that he had spotted a group on a nearby mountain that he thought may have been involved. Mortars at FOB Kutschbach launched a number of rounds at the probable POO (Point Of Origin) site. The local ANP Chief, a heroic individual who I’ve written about before, ran up into the bazaar with four ANP. Soon ANP trucks were summoned to assist with evacuating the casualties. The Chief later stated that at least six civilians had been killed and another 26 wounded. Four casualties were brought to the District Center, where French and American medics stabilized them before loading them into French vehicles and rushing to them to FOB Kutschbach for further treatment.
One man had a serious wound to his upper thigh. Bloody clothing lay against his skin over the pressure bandage the French had placed on him. He had clearly lost a good deal of blood, but he was conscious and able to talk. An apparently secondary bloody wound on his left temple awaited treatment while the medics started an IV. Fluids began to flow into the wounded man. A family member clutched his ankle, staying just out of the way as the medics worked to ensure that the man did not sink into deadly shock.
The ANP said that a small boy with a chest wound was being brought in. SFC Tobago, the PMT Medic, called for his bag. As I arrived with the medical bag the boy, on a stretcher, was placed on the ground. His shirt was open, a bandage on his chest. Terror showed through his pain-clouded eyes. Dried blood streaked his chest, his navel a pool of blood. One of my interpreters assisted in communicating with the boy, who was able to talk in spite of his great pain. He was very frightened, the fear clearly communicated in his small voice; but he did not cry. He bore his pain stoically.
The insurgents will claim a successful attack or, failing that, will claim that the civilians died or were seriously wounded because of the presence of coalition troops. “If the coalition were not here,” they will say, “we would have no reason to be shooting in the first place.” This is like a criminal blaming his victim for having had possessions in the first place. In May of 2007, Tagab was a home of terror. The Taliban and HiG were clearly in control of this area. An NDS agent was hung in the central circle of the bazaar, his murderers forbidding the removal of the body for three days, in violation of Islamic law. Two days after I first arrived in Afghanistan in April, 2007, the local insurgents pinned the ANP down for an entire day in what served at the time as a District Center, firing thousands of rounds in that same bazaar area. The coalition were nowhere near. If the Coalition weren’t here, the people would still be living under the sway of the types of people who hang their rivals in the square and forbid people from cutting down the body for a decent burial. The people of Tagab would still be living in a world where supposedly religious people violate religious principles in order to make their political statements. Civilians would still be dying… but there would be no one to blame. They would have no need to blame anyone. The answer at that point was simply, “We are in control, and you are not. If you don’t like it, and you complain, we may kill you; so shut up.”
If the Coalition weren’t here, there would be no reason to be insurgents. They could return to the civil war that tore Afghanistan to pieces after the Soviets left and also when the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance for years. Of course they are going to blame the coalition; because they cannot take responsibility for a couple of things.
First, they cannot live within the social contract. They want so desperately to be in charge that they refuse to work within the political framework to try to include their ideas in the national dialogue. They don’t want a dialogue; they want to make all the rules. So they blame others for the result of their sociopathic behavior.
Secondly, they cannot take responsibility for their own horrible proficiency with weapons. Afghan insurgents are notoriously inaccurate, rarely actually hit what they are shooting at, and frequently kill civilians with their idiotic use of explosives, small arms and rockets. Monkeys from any zoo would be able to engage targets more effectively than the average Taliban. This idiotic “military” or “insurgent” behavior has resulted in many more civilian deaths than the Afghan Government and Coalition militaries combined.
To take responsibility for not only their lack of political acceptance and acceptability but also their total amateur status with weapons ranging from jugs of homemade explosives to rockets in excess of four inches in diameter would seriously alienate not only Afghan civilians but also the world community. No, that’s just not going to happen. Instead, it’s everyone’s fault but their own. Well, today I witnessed the horrendous results of insurgent unprofessionalism. There is no one to blame for that young, terrified boy with a hole in his chest but a bunch of thugs who cannot grow up and behave like reasonable men capable of living in a society where they are not guaranteed having everything their way.
Recently, an email came in from an officer who quoted an ANP chief in a district in which I did some work as a mentor. The ANP chief said that he was looking forward to winter so that the leaves on the trees could no longer the Taliban and he could kill them all. Fair’s fair, after all. They’ve repeatedly tried to kill him.
He’s been wounded twice since I’ve known him.
We were getting ready to do a conference for trainers from all over the Army and some of our Coalition allies, and it was brought up how great it would be to have the ANP chief, a Colonel, come and speak to these officers and senior NCO’s about his experiences. Since I knew him, I said that I could perhaps help. Through a series of communications, we were able to get through to the Colonel and schedule time for him to come and speak.
I met the Colonel just over two years ago. He had been handed a very challenging district and was struggling to turn it around. He was cheerful, soft-spoken and, I was to learn, fearless. Whenever word came of ANP troops involved in a fight, he gathered more ANP soldiers and ran towards the sound of the guns. He was wounded and nearly lost his hand in one fight. An American medic twice braved fire to run the length of the convoy to work on the wounded ANP officer. He was never recognized for his bravery, because the American officer in charge at that point put himself in for a Silver Star for the action. Recognizing the medic was not on the agenda. The ANP Colonel was medevac’ed to an American hospital and his hand was saved.
He was wounded again just over a year later, this time in the chest. Again he was flown to an American hospital and recovered. His driver was also wounded in the ambush which was set specifically for him. He hates the Taliban and they hate him back.
The Colonel has also made massive changes in his district. While certainly not entirely free of insurgency, the district is a far cry from the condition it was in during the spring and early summer of 2007. I’m going to go and revisit the district soon. The Colonel tells me that it is very different from when I last saw it. I hope so; it was viewed with considerable foreboding back then. The ANP have also improved.
In the early summer of 2007, the ANP would scarcely leave their district center for fear of attack by very strong insurgent forces. At least one officer was a Taliban spy, and two officers were running an arms trafficking ring along with a local baker. The district was a mess. The bazaar was an ugly smear running alongside the only major road. The Taliban and HiG held sway. An NDS officer was hanged in the village square and an order given not to cut him down. His body hung for three days as a warning to all not to aid or participate in the government. The town, and the district named for it, have changed.
Police checkpoints line the road and dot the valley. ANP move about at will, and there is a sense of hope. The road is paved now. Schools are functioning and the bazaar thrums with activity. The town has a new lease on life. Most of the ANP that were on the payroll in 2007 have been replaced. The Colonel has hired many from other areas, bypassing any tendency towards cronyism or local favoritism. He was not alone, and he thanks his American mentors and the Coalition soldiers who have assisted in the long, hard road to recovery for one district in Afghanistan.
The Colonel was delayed a full day in reaching us. He was ambushed at a spot I know well as he drove to be with us. All were okay, but he was delayed.
Although we had shared much conversation, time and a few missions, I wondered if the Colonel would recognize me. He did, and a hug was accompanied by greetings in Dari, which is much better than my atrophied Pashto. We exchanged typical Afghan greetings, inquiring into each other’s health, and the health of the family. He was curious what we wanted him to speak about. I told him, “Just share your experiences. Tell us how the district has changed. Tell us about the fight, and how it is going. Tell us about your experiences with mentors. Tell us about getting along with the ANA and the Coalition forces. Just be truthful.”
“I always tell the truth,” he said.
“Don’t spare our feelings,” I continued.
“I will tell them exactly how I feel,” he said, “we have nothing to fear from the truth.”
The Colonel is one of the most humble men I have ever met. Soft-spoken, I was concerned that he wouldn’t be an effective speaker. He spoke well, but didn’t overdo it. Always considerate, he left time at the end of the period he was allotted for questions, which he answered succinctly. Following a standing ovation, Major General Formica sought him out and presented him with his personal coin for excellence. Afterward, the Colonel stared at the coin in his hand, a distinctly U.S. Army bauble of military achievement, and discussed his experience of hearing speakers and speaking to all of the Coalition leadership he had addressed.
“This is very good, for everyone to learn from each other’s experiences,” he said, “and all of this needs to get out into the provinces, or it will do nothing.”
“And these officers must all realize that what works in Kabul is not right for the provinces and districts, because each one is different. If they only listen to the people in Kabul, but not in a district, they will not understand the district that they are in. They need to listen to the local people, who know what they need,” he continued.
“That’s why we asked you to come here,” I said. “I hope you will come back and speak again.”
“Whenever you call, then I will be here,” he said.
I think that he is the bravest man I have ever met.
Josh Foust over at Registan wrote recently about the attacks in Nuristan being part of a larger strategy, and also questioned the possibility that American presence increased violence there. I’m convinced that the latest attack in Nuristan is part of a larger operational strategy on the part of insurgents. Actually, I believe that it ties in to the persistent insurgent presence in the Tag Ab Valley of Kapisa. Numerous rat lines have existed through Kunar and Nuristan, many of them leading to Tag Ab, which ties them in to the ancient smuggling route that avoids the capital… or leads to it. There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in violence is tied to the increase in Coalition (and GIRoA) presence in Kunar and Nuristan. There was no reason for violence prior to the increased presence and control in Kunar and Nuristan, because they had free run of the area. The people were easily intimidated and there is significant appeal to residents because they are so isolated and fear outside (especially un-Islamic) presence. In this area, Arabs are preferable to Americans as far as the locals are concerned… and they bring money to pay for local men to participate.
Yes, Haqqani is more active in this area, but Haqqani has been pushing more to the southwest in seeking influence, whereas HiG has always been relatively strong along the rat lines from Pakistan and has always been stronger in Tag Ab than the Taliban. We did see Taliban and HiG cooperating in Tag Ab in 2007 and through to today. Haqqani is seeking, and having, more influence in Khost, for instance, but he is starting to run into QST and they are pushing back. Sirajudin Haqqani is more aggressive in this way than his father. During my service in Nuristan, it was well known that there were Arabic speakers in the local area, reputedly carrying large sums of money with which to pay part-time fighters, buy ammunition for them, etc. They would also transport 107mm rockets etc.
Remember, “Taliban” has become a catch-all word for the Coalition, whereas “Dushman” is the catch-all Afghan (cross-language) word. Various factions and even criminal elements can be lumped under or can attach themselves to the “Taliban” brand as it suits them. There is a significant criminal element in Nuristan, partially driven by the primary industry there, gem mining, which has been criminalized by the Afghan government because they do not have the capacity to manage and tax it. As the natural resources are considered the property of the government, they don’t want the gems mined until they can benefit from it, so they have criminalized gem mining. Whereas the opium crop is more prevalent in other provinces, here the driver is gems. Again, the “Taliban” blends with the criminal element to mutual benefit… but are they Taliban, Haqqani or HiG? All three names are heard locally. Haqqani’s faction is often just called, “Taliban” by the locals, so it’s hard to tell… at least that’s my take on it.
While all politics is local, it is tied to other local politics. The issues in Kunar and Nuristan are not disconnected from the problems in Tag Ab. It is part of a chain that leads back to Pakistan. In Tag Ab we didn’t get a lot of Arabic-speakers, but we did get significant Pakistani presence and also at one point a suspected Chechen cell was present, with a marked increase in the effects of small arms and RPG’s (after weeks of misses with RPG’s, there were 8 turret hits with RPG’s in a three week span and several head shots with aimed fire). This corresponded with information that one insurgent commander had agreed to accept “foreign” help, an action that caused actual firefights among sub-factions of insurgents in the Ala Say area in September of 2007. The brothers of two local commanders were killed in these clashes.
Also, the insurgents in Tag Ab have shown a remarkable ability to reinforce. Locals in the Ala Say area have been frustrated this year by the inability to clear the district of insurgents (again commonly referred to as Taliban but certainly including both Taliban and HiG elements).
The ability to mass forces for the assaults on both Wanat and Keating are very likely seasoned cadre brought in from Pakistan (both Afghan and foreign cadre), reinforced with locals who provide logistics support, shelter and fighters. A deal was struck in 2007 at Keating to stay out of the local villages in return for a lack of attacks. The villages were ceded to insurgent influence, but the Coalition and Afghan forces did not have the strength locally to quash the pressure (attacks) to acquiesce to the villages’ demands to keep out. They could not stop the attacks on Keating, so they agreed to the deal to cede the village. The deal struck pretty much guaranteed that insurgent influence would grow in the village over time. Keating has always been a thorn in the side of the insurgent rat lines, but never completely effective. Insurgent checkpoints have been well-known only a few kilometers north, still in the Kamdesh District. Insurgents operated relatively nearby as if they had impugnity for the past couple of years. Did Keating interfere with the rat lines? Yes. Were they capable of having a tremendous impact towards extending GIRoA control/legitimacy in Kamdesh District or Nuristan? No, not really.
There were different dynamics at work as far as proximal causes for the two attacks. Wanat was a case of quashing an outpost before it became a problem, whereas Keating was simply taking advantage of a planned withdrawal. The abandonment of COP Keating was due to happen, anyway. This attack did not change that. What it did do was make it appear, for IO purposes, to be an insurgent victory. Wanat involved complicity with the local ANP and almost certainly the Sub-Governor, whereas there is no evidence (at this point) of complicity of ANSF in or near Keating… although it is possible that some of the ANP, knowing that they are about to be abandoned to their fate, were currying favor with insurgent leaders in preparation for the abandonment. The root cause of the attacks were the same; clear the rat lines to improve communications along the lines that lead to Kapisa, bypassing Jalalabad and Kabul and allowing control of/access to the ancient smuggling route up the Tag Ab Valley. This provides the ability to either bypass or infiltrate Kabul, and potentially allows massing of forces within a few dozen kilometers of Kabul.
Many actors at play here, for various reasons ranging from political to military to criminal. International actors are at play as well, but thin out the farther from the Pakistani border that they get.
The current strategy is to leave areas alone until the Coalition/GIRoA has the strength to deal with them. Instead of spreading too thinly across a vast mountainous area, focus on the areas that can be controlled now and then push out over time. If the rest of the area is well-governed, the government can push into these areas and subdue them one by one. In the meantime, violence in those areas will decrease as the insurgents won’t have targets in that particular area. This may seem like giving up, but what it really is doing is putting a stop to unproductive behaviors, trying to influence or hang on to areas where there isn’t the ability to mass effects on the target population. This is consistent with current guidance, which is not to clear what we cannot hold and not to try to hold unless there is the capacity to build. The timing of the assault on Keating was unfortunate, but certainly no accident. A weakened outpost was attacked, certainly hoping to overrun it and claim a great victory to add to the illusion of inexorable victory for the insurgents. I would have to describe that effort as a success, even though they failed to annihiliate the garrison and overrun the entire COP. The end result; Americans abandoning the outpost within a short time afterward and the appearance of insurgents causation… as in Wanat… is the same.
Earlier this year came the shocking revelation of an Air Force Chaplain at Bagram Air Field (BAF) who received a shipment of Bibles translated into Dari, and who gave a sermon that appeared to exhort troops to proselytize. This is a crime under Afghan law that is punishable by death. That Chaplain directly fed into the propaganda operation by the Taliban, who claim that we are here to destroy Islam. The aftereffects still ripple through Afghan society. His actions, both in receiving the Dari Bibles and in his speech, may actually have tipped the scales in the minds of some to begin supporting or actually participating in operations against the Taliban and the GIRoA. His actions could actually be lethal; but not to the enemy.
Today an article was published in The Times (UK) quoting two U.S. Army Chaplains as saying that American troops in their two battalions are losing heart. It is difficult to explain the power of the urge to find these men of the cloth and grasp them firmly by the neck while calling upon the very stones of the earth to turn against them.
When Soldiers struggle with their purpose, it is clear that they are untrained in what that purpose is. They are kinetically trained warriors put into a political/military struggle where a great percentage of activity is not directly targeting the enemy, all while functioning in an environment where the enemy may target you anonymously with weapons that permit him to hide while he tries to kill you. They have been failed by their training. Many senior leaders cannot adequately train or supervise Soldiers in a COIN environment because they have not studied it themselves. I have met precisely one Chaplain who has actually read FM 3-24. Our Army is still struggling with COIN doctrine, and many of our Chaplains are wandering around lost while they could be of great benefit. These men should keep one thing in mind: First, do no harm. What they did by speaking on the record to this reporter was harmful. Calling the overall morale of our troops into question in front of a foreign media outlet boggles the mind.
In a strongly religious society such as Afghanistan, where Islam is woven tightly into the fabric of life and into the nature of conflict, what can a Christian Chaplain do? Again; first, he/she should do no harm. Secondly, he/she should read the book about this type of conflict and understand what it is that the Soldiers are involved in. He (going forward meaning either gender) should be able to assist a Soldier in understanding the nature of risk and loss in this type of environment, where a peaceful moment can be shattered beyond all recognition and with it the bodies of friends and colleagues. He, above all, needs to find his place in this from the perspective of our Soldiers and their purpose, that he can be the crutch for the spiritually and emotionally wounded. There is no place on the battlefield for the weak, and in this battle the mentally and spiritually weak are a particular liability. We cannot bear broken crutches with us. The damage done by these two men, while not on the par of the Dari Bible Fiasco, is actually only moderately less severe.
Understanding the nature of this conflict and the society, especially the religious nature of the operating environment, is difficult for anyone. As the primary religious and spiritual advisor to the commander and Soldiers, is the Chaplain making contributions that increase the realistic cultural understanding of the commander and his Soldiers? Is he making it his business to be the go-to guy on issues of realistic understanding of cultural norms? Is he finding his counterpart in the ANA or other ANSF and empowering both understanding and the tremendous effects that can be brought to bear by the RCA (ANSF equivalent of a Chaplain)? Can the Chaplain explain that Afghans aren’t offended by the inadvertent showing of the sole of the foot, as long as it’s not purposely done to insult? Can the Chaplain explain that waving with the left hand, when the right hand is full, is not insulting? Can the Chaplain help a Specialist learn simple greetings in Dari and Pashto, so that Soldier can get along better with his counterparts or civilians he may meet? Can the Chaplain explain the basics of Muslim prayer to a Baptist kid from southern Georgia, so that he can understand what and why his Afghan counterpart is doing?
The positive potential of ANA RCA’s is, in many places, untapped. RCA’s are usually educated, literate, moderate mullahs who can fight the Taliban message that the ANA and ANP are apostatic puppets of the Coalition. They can bring moderate education to village mullahs who are often illiterate themselves. Given the power of mullahs in Afghanistan to spread messages and themes, this is powerful. It has been done, and it works amazingly well. Are our Chaplains assisting and empowering the ANA and ANP RCA’s to do this?
The answer to the questions above, with extremely rare exceptions, is, “No.”
There is being helpful, and there is being harmful. Every person here in a uniform is by definition a counterinsurgent. Each and every action either supports the work of counterinsurgency or it harms it. Even a wasted action is harmful. You are either providing thrust or you are adding drag. There is no middle ground. Today, The Times may as well have carried the words of insurgents themselves, for just about as much harm was done. When a man, by virtue of his particular office, is largely unsupervised, he must find a way to make a positive contribution to the mission.
But first, he must do no harm.
It made all the papers back home; the story of an American who was shot by an ANP enraged over the Soldier drinking and smoking in plain sight during Ramadan. Many opined that our Soldiers need to be more culturally aware. I replied to email chains from friends, and sometimes angrily contended that when I was actively mentoring, the ANP would serve us chai and sweets during Ramadan, ever the gracious hosts.
After the failed mission to Kunar, I was instantly put to work with a group of PMT’s from Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team. A good lot, they have been working with the ANP for over four months now. One of the teams I was working with had been present that day. The Soldier who was shot in the leg by the ANP that day is doing well and is in good spirits, they informed me. They were irritated that the story had been turned into something that it was not.
Those who were there that day told me that the meme came from an ANP General who arrived well after the incident occurred. It was his attempt at explaining the behavior of the ANP who had opened fire. The now-wounded ANP had announced that he had done it, “for my prophet.” He was clearly unstable.
He had opened fire in what is referred to here as “spray and pray.” He fired not from a close distance, as most assumed, but from a range of 75 to 100 meters. The PMT who was hit was not hit by a bullet fired by an offended man from scant feet away, but by a man who had lost his mind and opened fire from some distance away, spraying the vehicles and wounding the Soldier more by chance than any carefully considered action.
The crazed ANP was shot by several people, including the wounded Soldier. The Soldier then calmly assisted the Combat LifeSaver in applying a tourniquet to his leg to staunch the flow of blood. Other American Combat LifeSavers treated the wounded ANP, who also survived the incident.
I have never seen any real psychiatric treatment in Afghanistan, yet mental illness clearly exists. There is no real mental screening for any position, much less the ANP. Had any reporter actually spoken to the men who were on the ground that day, the myth of the smoking, water-drinking offender would have been debunked. The Soldier who was wounded didn’t even smoke. Instead, some made-up fairy tale was sold the American people, leaving the Soldiers who were actually involved scratching their heads and feeling powerless to change that perception. They are not communicators. They don’t blog. They pretty much communicate with only their families and friends. To them, it was just another case of the press screwing Soldiers.
They consider that normal behavior for our media.
And now you know the rest of the story.
In memory of the late Paul Harvey, who would have loved to tell this story.
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.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds in Kapisa, and stay at FOB Morales-Frazier, the scene of many adventures in Kapisa. It was surprising, pleasant, poignant, encouraging and disappointing all rolled up into one big ball. First, the FOB, which was still called a Firebase when I left, a step down from a FOB in the hierarchy of combat structures, has exploded. FOB Morales-Frazier, or M-F to the local military speakers, has now become home to hundreds. When SFC O, SSG Maniac and I arrived there in late May of 2007, this large area was occupied by a Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) and a light company of ANA and their ETT’s; a few dozen people. The entire compound, an area of approximately 400 x 600 meters, is full of tents, structures and vehicles. It is a small town of its own.
Amazed, I climbed the tower in what used to be the ODA compound and looked over the scene. I could easily see the original structures and the original Hesco boundaries of previous fiefdoms; the Special Forces, the compound that the SF referred to as the “overflow” compound, which those of us who suffered its privations called “GITFO” for “Git The Freak Out,” and what the few American Soldiers there now call “The Alamo;” the scene of O, the Maniac and my first good shelling.
The American Provincial Police Mentor Team (PMT-P) for Kapisa occupies structures that my group had built. What was built for us to use as a kitchen/chow hall has now been divided in half and is used for offices for the PMT-P and the PRT. The Hesco compound boundary has had a hole knocked out of it, allowing a pass-through to the French area beyond where French Soldiers and Marines live, for the most part, in tents. Many tents.
The erstwhile Special Forces compound has been partially opened up as well, and at one point I walked through the old front gate, now vestigial. This was the site where, for several weeks during our time there as the Bastard Children, O, Maniac and I had to wait for the precise time of chow in order to be permitted entrance to ODA 744’s compound so that we might share in their victuals… after most of them had eaten, of course. If we arrived a minute too early, the ODA’s hired Afghan guards would hold us in place until the appointed hour. We used to joke that we were like dogs waiting to be fed. I could still see the adhesive marks on the remnants of the gate where the ODA had posted their sign decreeing that we could have access only at those times.
I passed the place where O and I put my four ANP KIA in body bags on my worst day of the first tour. I thought about them for a moment. I can still see their torn bodies when I do think of them. I can still smell the scent of fresh death and torn bowels. I can still see the lifeless eyes, the shroud of death having emptied them of light, and the rendered parts. I remember my surgical-gloved hand resisting against the cloth of their clothing as I searched for identification. I remember the heartbreak of recognizing the young radio operator who had always been near me for over a month as we operated in The Valley from the picture on his ANP identification card. Suddenly I could see the resemblance to the grinning youth in the mask of death, eyes akimbo, missing the top of the skull. I remember seeing deeply into the young man’s head, brokenhearted and at the same time detached; a portion of my brain noting surprise at the small amount of brain matter remaining after what appeared to be a nearly surgical removal of the top rear of his skull. I found this stray, detached thought mildly shocking in its own right. How can one be so emotionally shredded and yet almost clinically detached at the same moment? I still find this dichotomy notable. The events, sensations, and even thoughts of those short hours remain embedded in my memory like few others in my life. They will never go away; and I do not wish them to.
Those men, and that place, are part of me now.
Kapisa is a part of me, and I am a tiny part of it. I am still there, the light of recognition in the eyes of ANP officers and soldiers who recognized me revealing that my time there is still a part of the individual histories of these men’s lives. They greeted me with enthusiasm, there being no doubt that the sign of deep friendship, the handshake followed by the hug with cheeks pressed, was to be exchanged. As others who did not know me looked on curiously, the ANP would explain that I had been in many fights with them. I recognized Dari words in the rapid explanations, “jang” (fight), “Afghanya,” “Tag Ab,” “Ala Say,” “bisyar khoobas” (very good.) I knew the general drift before our interpreter told me in English what the full interpretation was. I felt a deep sense of pride in having reached that level with the Afghan soldiers who I had mentored and operated with. I recall wondering if I would earn such respect from such men; men for whom the stripes on my uniform and the patch on my sleeve matter less than my actions on the dusty ground in the obscure valleys where Afghan life and death are to be found. They judge me on actions that few, if any, Americans were there to witness. Many asked also about others who had impacted them deeply; SFC O, LTC Cold, and SFC Pulvier. Absent were other names. It seems that Afghans have very little time for those who had no real regard for them. Certain things can’t be faked, regardless of the fairy tales told on forms. Some names are left for dead in the dusty past.
There were many such reunions, but none so deeply satisfying as seeing once more the constant thread in Kapisa since the time of LTC SFowski. Sam, the combat terp, dismounted from the MRAP when the team arrived at Bagram to retrieve us from that circus of fobbitry. (I will have an entire post about Bagram soon.) Seeing Sam again was like a bowl of ice cream on an Afghan summer day; so cool I couldn’t believe it. We inquired as to each other’s health, family and after old friends. Again, names were raised from what seems the long ago past, less than two years ago.
Our business at Kapisa was slightly less successful, mostly due to the changing of some leadership and the reluctance of the new leadership to really extend an effort regarding any new training. Excusing his lack of coordination with explanations about the elections and difficulties having to do with that, we were not provided access to the district and provincial leadership who could really drive new ways of organizing information. However, after seeing what we have to offer, I think that upon our return sometime in the future, we will find more cooperation.