There have been a couple of decent articles in the past week or so that are good conversation-starters regarding Afghanistan and the challenges facing both Afghans and Coalition forces on the local level. The first, a AP piece by Deb Reichmann of the Associated Press, paints what appears to be a gloomy picture of the challenges of working with local governance in, in this example, Logar Province. It’s a good piece to spark some discussion, and anyone who has worked on the local level in Afghanistan would recognize the dynamics at work.
The piece mentions what appears to be a dire prediction by Sec. Gates concerning what it will take to get Afghan governance up and running (decades). It also mentions a shift, which I saw beginning in 2009, towards focusing efforts on local governance. This does not mean that GIRoA is escaping notice, with its major challenges corruption, croneyism, nepotism and criminal/narco links. Not at all. But it does indicate that more effort is being focused on what actually matters to the Afghan who lives in the little valley… or about 80% of the population.
While Ms. Reichmann paints a picture of the obstacles, and of a day where things didn’t quite work out, read between the lines. Efforts are being made at the local level and, while many of the quotes came from government officials, there was some indication of local population preference for the success of the Afghan government. Reading it, I had to grin. I can feel for LTC Chlebowski, and he certainly has his work cut out for him, but I’ve been in similar situations. I will never forget asking a villager in a small village in the Tagab Valley who he supported. He answered, “You are here every week or so, the Taliban are here every other night. Who do I have to support?”
Another question that could be asked would be, “Who do you want to support?” Hearing about Afghans expressing that they want to support the government is a good thing. Giving them the security to do that is a difficult chore, no doubt, but there are two good things in this article; Afghans who want to support the government and a focus on local governance. One thing missing; mention of civilian stability partners other than Afghan government officials.
The article contains one phrase that I absolutely hate: “Hearts and minds.” It is the most misunderstood phrase in counterinsurgency, because to the average person… and a lot of military personnel… it conjurs up images of passing out stuffed animals and packets of flower seeds. Yech. Not at all what the original author intended. It does not necessarily mean soft power or cutting out paper dolls with the locals. I cannot override the fluffy bunny imagery of the phrase, so I just hate it whenever it is used.
The point is that Reichmann identifies local governance as being important, and that lagging gains in governance are pivotal to success in Logar (and, by extension, on each local level). That is what really made me grin. To have such a thing recognized by a mainstream journalist means that the realization is truly catching on.
In any case, Reichmann’s article could provide the start for an hour or so of lively discussion in an adequate forum.
The second, more recent article is from the NYT. Carlotta Gall hints that we may have reached the magical “tipping point” in Afghanistan. She may be right. If she is, it is by accident and not by design. Historically, the tipping point is very difficult to pinpoint, pretty much never recognized contemporaneously, and bickered over endlessly after the fact. Case in point; Iraq. The “surge” in Iraq is credited by many with having tipped the scales, but there is a strong (and noisy) camp that contends vociferously and endlessly that the “Sunni Awakening” was a spontaneous change of hearts at the grassroots level, was underway before the surge troops even arrived and would have had the same results with or without the “surge.”
Part of why it is so difficult to become even adequate practitioners of COIN is the ability to get nearly irretrievably lost in such arguments. For the detractors of COIN, it is an imperative to convince others of their version of the story. At a minimum, the undecided must be convinced that there is a reasonable possibility that they are buying into a total, well-orchestrated farce; that COIN is quite possibly snake oil. What happens to their arguments… and their priorities… if it turns out that counterinsurgency was effectively applied and… it worked?
Now is the time to note that not one major anti-COIN mouthpiece has admitted to even partial success of the surge. None of the louder voices have been swayed, and some have even reached back into history to challenge the reason for historical COIN successes such as Malaysia.
So those who buy into the “surge narrative” (or any similar narrative) are (and must be) derided as gullible fools or mindless chauvinists. For every successful counterinsurgency, there is always more than one explanation put forth for the success itself. Different sources will strive to put forth their own “tipping point” for each conflict. It is nearly impossible to actually recognize the tipping point while it is happening. Usually the fact that it has been reached in an insurgency is not apparent for months or even years afterwards.
Often, as in the case of examining the success of the “surge” in Iraq, a more blended approach which acknowledges all reasonable inputs would be most accurate. Of course, these would not be simple enough to be easily portrayed and less easily sold as a competing narrative. So the search for truth goes out the window in the interest of political expedience. In the dirty knife fight that is the struggle over COIN and stability operations in our military and in the civilian organs of foreign policy, the narratives do not blend. Each side is entrenched in its own fortifications, and any successes or failures will be vociferously contended, perhaps for years following the resolution of the main insurgency, such as in Iraq.
Even if Gall were correct in pinpointing the tipping point, it would never be broadly accepted. Politics is murky, war covered in fog; the two together are beyond enigma.
As in Reichmann’s article, Gall identifies the work being done on the local level, particularly along the governance line, as being pivotal. She mentions that people are beginning to trust their local government, even though they doubt the ability of GIRoA to continue the gains in the absence of foreign assistance. That is a reasonable fear, certainly, but it is possible for that to change as well as the local government. Remember, 15 months ago there was no local GIRoA government in Marjah. That line of operation lagged far behind the security effort for months and months. The disconnect between the delivery of local governance and the other lines of operation is what caused the fight for Marjah to be so much more drawn-out than the overly optimistic projections coming out of ISAF. Some trumpeted Marjah as the perfect example of the failure of COIN. That declaration is fading, even partially forgotten. Marjah is no longer the “bleeding ulcer” of ISAF.
In COIN, incremental success makes for a jumbled, ugly picture. No victorious flag-raising, no victor hoisting his sword to the heavens in triumph. The tipping point in a local situation isn’t even recognizable when it occurs.
ISAF’s latest report on the progress of the conflict retains the phrase, “fragile but reversible gains.” We all expect rhetoric from ISAF. But the fact that some of these things are being noted by mainstream reporters… whether they are COIN gurus or not… speaks volumes. To me, it speaks even louder that they are by no means experts in counterinsurgency. If they were, the filters they applied may muddy the information. These two articles are largely devoid of all but superficial analysis, and that makes them stronger indicators. If an MSM reporter can convey some of this, and if one of them even flirts with the concept of the “tipping point,” that is an interesting conversation-starter.
Bear in mind that the “tipping point” is not a new concept, not a newly added page to the book. No one was talking about tipping points two years ago, and it has come up several times only lately. This is why having the discussion is interesting.
One other interesting congruence in these two separate articles is the reference to the current insurgent tactics. A certain reliance on suicide bombings and assassinations is being recognized. The insurgents are working very hard to portray themselves as having influence greater than their actual grasp. Just because one can infiltrate a civilian city and detonate a concealed weapon does not denote the ability to influence the daily activities of those residents, other than to inspire a bit of fear (hence the term, “terrorism”). It actually indicates a certain weakening of the insurgent, a sense of desperation. Like a team that has fallen behind in a playoff game, “Hail Mary” passes and continued efforts to pull off a big play actually display a recognition of being disadvantaged. The Afghan insurgents may be displaying these signs.
Lastly, recent reports indicate that Afghan civilian casualty incidents (CIVCAS) are higher than ever… with pro-government forces being attributed with only 12% of the casualties. An increase in reliance on more indiscriminate weapons also indicates that the insurgents are less able to confront their foes directly. Force preservation is an insurgent imperative even in good times. They are insurgents precisely because they are overwhelmed by their opponents. Assymetry in warfare is not a choice made by the strong, it is a necessity for the weak. When insurgents are a bit more flush, politically and militarily, they can afford to be more direct and discriminating in their attacks. A rise in the use of “victim-initiated” devices, such as pressure plate IED’s, indicates an inability or unwillingness to use riskier and more time-consuming command detonation techniques. This may also be an indication of insurgent weakness and the acceptance, in the minds of the insurgents, that the unintended (or even intended) infliction of civilian casualties is more acceptable or even necessary.
Unchallenged or ineffectively challenged insurgents kill civilians sparingly and with discrimination. There is purpose to each killing, and wanton or indiscriminate killing is recognized as being harmful. One must be careful not to push the sheep into defending themselves en masse, and even a spate of phone calls can be devastating. Keeping each family hoping that the angel of death will pass them by if they only behave themselves is a key control measure. The purpose is to keep everyone in line. The sudden acceptance of wanton civilian casualties is an indication that keeping individuals in line is not the primary concern; this is in itself an indication that things are not going all that well for the insurgents. Just a concept to add to the discussion.
Note that there are exceptions, such as in Kunar and Nuristan in the east. Both have been the venues this year for a series of infantry battles, as the HiG and Taliban in these areas have been granted internal safe havens due to repositioning of Coalition forces. Recent reports indicate that Parun, the capitol of Nuristan, has been surrounded by insurgents. This only supports the above, as it is verification that when they feel safe enough, insurgents will evolve into a war of movement and openly battle their opposition. With this move, the reliance on safer activities, such as IED’s, wanes and maneuver warfare becomes the preferred method of engagement.
I have recently returned from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan working for the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan. I traveled extensively over the East and Southwest Regions, including a fair amount of time spent in Helmand Province. I found it to be expeditious not to blog during most of my tour, as it would have interfered with my full time job and prevented me from being able to accomplish some things that I am very proud to have been a part of. I am returning to the conversation regarding Afghanistan having witnessed and learned much.
COL Gentile has (nearly four months after the fact) commented on my last post. Here is what he had to say in comments:
Insurgencies may be local, but STRATEGY should determine if our response to it if any, should be local. By stating such things like “all” Coin must therefore be local too you commit us to an operational template of clear, hold, build in expeditionary form and along with Old Blue the promise of reenacting David Galula and his counter maoist template in the modern troubled spots of the world.
You guys still dont get it; I am not talking the tactics of Coin, I am talking about the Strategy that should decide if and when and how it should ever be put into place.
Sure Blue, deploy the E card; but just remember Hans Delbruke had no military experience whatsoever yet provided one of the most cogent criticisms of the Prussian military of his time. Yet for you, in how you assert the fact that you have been to Afghanistan therefore know more than others, and the rest of us should just shut up and bow to your experience when we dont agree with you.
Come on my friend, get a clue.
It’s as good an invitation back to the fray as can be found at this point. So here I go…
I agree that strategy determines whether or not to employ counterinsurgency as the approach for resolving an issue. However, if you are faced with an insurgency while working with a developing country, it’s a little hard to justify a different approach, even if your role is simply an advisory one. Just as when a partner country is attacked conventionally, as in the Gulf War, the response is then conventional.
That is, assuming that you choose to respond. We could have chosen to tolerate the fall of Kuwait to Iraq’s invasion and just shrug it off. We found this to be unacceptable and so the response was a forcible eviction of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. COIN would not have been an effective approach to resolve this issue once the decision was made to evict the Iraqis. Just so, once the decision has been made to support the host nation in defeating an insurgency, COIN would be the methodology of choice. So, yes, strategy does determine the employment of COIN. Once that course has been selected, in COIN it is a short throw between strategy and tactics, as there is not a lot of operational art in COIN.
In maneuver warfare, brigade commanders tell battalions where to go and what to do. Battalion commanders tell companies where to go and what to do. Neither usually dictates exactly how to do what they are tasked with doing, but the subordinate elements have pretty precise direction about what they are to achieve as part of the larger plan. For years, we have worked to employ technologies that give higher commanders more and more ability to see and control to the minute level should they choose to. Blue Force Tracker, for instance, gives higher echelon commanders the ability to see to the individual vehicle level what is going on and, if desired, to direct the movements of individual elements. We have seen this in Afghanistan, such as when individual illumination missions have been overridden by a Colonel over 100 Km distant.
I stand by my assertion that insurgency is a political problem. It is the spot on the political scale where the social contract breaks and politics turns violent internally. This is as opposed to an open insurrection (the French word for insurgency is “insurrection,” but in English we do not use the words interchangeably), where there is a popular revolt. An insurgency is typically a smaller political element, the members of which refuse to submit to what we would describe as a legitimate government. We could devolve at this point into a discussion regarding legitimacy, but that would be a digression, so we will skip it. The point remains that insurgency is a political situation turned violent.
That being said, we all accept the statement that, “all politics is local.” If we accept that, then it is manifestly true that, since insurgency is a political problem, then all insurgency is local. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take it to completion; then all counterinsurgency is local.
While the Joint world does not accept, doctrinally, that COIN is a subset of Stability Operations, the Army and Marine Corps seem to understand that it is. In other words, you can do Stability Operations in the absence of an insurgency. I would submit that, applied properly and in a timely fashion, Stability Operations may forestall the progress of a nascent insurgency. By addressing the grievances of a population, fewer people will be willing to kill over them. It’s not what you are willing to die for; it’s what you are willing to kill for. Failing that, an insurgency develops. More people are willing to kill over their perceived grievances. Now all you need is leadership to direct that willingness and… voila… insurgency.
But each of these potential insurgents has his or her own motivations. Those motivations are personal and therefore local. They are political. So, we have a partner country that is beset by an insurgency and we choose not to abandon them to their fate… for whatever our reasons are. The strategy is pretty much chosen at that point. Either you are or are not going to do counterinsurgency. Now the choice is to what extent do you employ your own forces. Perhaps this is what the Colonel means by “strategy.” You can do an advisory and assistance role, or you can engage in COIN operations with your own forces in addition to or in place of the host nation forces. In the case of Afghanistan, a developing government and lack of governmental security apparatus led us into committing more forces in direct action against the insurgency. What we didn’t understand was how to perform Counterinsurgency Operations, much less Stability Operations. You cannot do COIN in a vacuum. It simply doesn’t work that way. You must do Stability Operations as well.
Why must you do Stability Operations when you are conducting COIN? Because COIN is, by definition, to counter the insurgency. It is focused on reducing the insurgency itself. In order to address the fundamental causes and conditions that produced or fuels the insurgency, the grievances of the people must be addressed. These are political in nature, but include development and economic opportunity. Just as Stability Operations conducted effectively and early enough may forestall a full-blown insurgency, diffusing the progression of anger to the level of lethality, so in recovering from an insurgency the effective conduct of Stability Operations take the recovery to the next level. What needs to be addressed? Well, that depends on the causes and conditions in each locality. It varies. There is no fixed solution. It is a process that must be arrived at through knowledge of each local area and discovering what the people there need in order to not be willing to take up arms in pursuit of whatever it is that they are riled up about. And, for those who are not and would not be insurgents, to commit to actively supporting the government and not supporting or tolerating the insurgents in their midst.
Okay, so we’ve arrived at our strategy. Now, there are particular problems of command in COIN. One is that all of these wonderful technologies for micromanagement of tactical resources are available. But there is little or no operational maneuver occurring. Units are typically given an Area of Responsibility (AOR). The lower the element, the more local the AOR. The most important work in COIN is done by lower echelon elements. Companies and platoons make all the difference. You are not slamming a battalion or brigade into a breach in a line. You are sending squads and platoons into an area where some of the residents are willing to kill in order to gain or maintain control over their fellow residents. What those squads and platoons do make a ton of difference. They make all the difference.
Who understands the discrete AOR? Can a battalion or brigade commander understand what is happening at the village level, in detail, in each discrete AOR in his command? Probably not. So, for a battalion or brigade commander to dictate the actions of companies and platoons is generally counterproductive. All of this wonderful technology that enables a field grade officer to manipulate units to the lowest level provides a capability that is rarely productive in COIN… and yet it is often exercised.
So if the role of a battalion or higher officer is not to control the precise actions of companies on the ground, then what do commanders do? Supervise and enable. Supervise means that a higher echelon officer needs to recognize garbage when he sees it and how to direct that it be set back on course. Enabling means providing that which the lower echelon units need but do not possess on their own; like analytical horsepower. Decision support, not decisions (followed by support for decisions).
COIN is information intensive at the lowest level, and yet the lower down the chain we go, the less ability we have to organize and correlate large quantities of information. One of the most effective things I have seen was at Task Force 1 Lancs in Nad e Ali, Helmand Province. The 1 Lancs (1st Duke of Lancaster) Cultural Advisor (CULAD), a British Captain by the name of Ann Seton-Sykes, assembled large quantities of information and organized it into products that helped the company commanders to visualize aspects of their operational areas. She produced overlays that showed land ownership and the areas of influence of various elders, among other very useful information. This took raw data gathered by the type of constant, intensive reconnaissance that COIN necessitates and put it into a format that was most useful to the guys who were selecting and implementing operations on the ground. It helped the company commanders and platoon leaders to visualize the political realities on the ground upon which they operated every day.
The results that the Lancs were achieving were impressive. Perhaps I will do a post dedicated to what I saw achieved in that one area of Helmand. Regardless, they are a brilliant example of a higher headquarters enabling rather than controlling directly the actions of counterinsurgents on the ground. Perhaps that is what the good Colonel is referring to as strategy; command strategy. If so, he has raised an excellent point, and so I must thank him for the topic of a post.
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.
Michael Cohen is proving that he is still the guy who just can’t connect the dots. His interest regarding COIN doctrine is bordering on a fetish, and his desperation to discredit the doctrine is palpable. As I’ve said, this is self-defeating. Cohen’s primary advocacy dovetails very nicely with the capabilities that need to be developed in order to successfully shepherd Afghanistan and Pakistan through this very troubling and dangerous period of history in Central Asia. It boggles my mind that this man is so frightened that he literally loses his ability to reason, grasping at straws ranging from COL Gian Gentile’s writings to Celeste Ward’s article in the Washington Post cautioning an overcommitment to COIN.
Neither COL Gentile nor, from what I can gather, Ms. Ward really seem to agree with Mr. Cohen… he just gloms on to any argument that he finds remotely supportive. Desperation and fear are the mother of many inventions, most of them decidedly unhelpful, but the cowardly logic of Michael Cohen is reaching the point of ridiculousness. It seems to have become something of a mission for him to discredit the doctrine and its practitioners, which is peculiar given Mr. Cohen’s self-admitted lack of any specific military knowledge. The natural question that one would have is, “What value is Mr. Cohen’s opinion on the subject of military doctrine?”
The answer would be, “Absolutely none. Mr. Cohen has nothing of value to offer on the topic of military doctrine.”
Why, then, would a man with absolutely nothing to offer… and knows it… on a subject such as warfighting doctrine suddenly be chiming in with vigor against the only doctrine that has even been remotely credited with any success in the insurgencies that we find ourselves embroiled in currently?
He’s secretly a North Korean operative that has undergone plastic surgery and was implanted in a think tank in order to derail the United States by offering the worst possible advice imaginable.
I’m just kidding. But, on this issue Mr. Cohen is just about as helpful as a surgically altered North Korean in a Washington think tank. He is motivated not by any desire to see the current foreign policy objectives of the United States achieved, but in fact by a desire to see them fail. To that end, he advocates stridently against the propagation of COIN doctrine, even though he has absolutely no value as a military commenter. Why would he be afraid of success in Afghanistan?
Many seem to view COIN as the future of war and based on the “success” of COIN in Iraq, they seem to believe that the United States is uniquely positioned to do it . The question for many COIN-danistas seems to be not whether and when we should do counter-insurgency, but how the US can do it more effectively…
…The military needs to be making clear to the civilian leadership precisely how difficult counter-insurgency can be and why they should think twice about trying to implement such an approach….
…As I’ve written here many times the clearest and most unambiguous lesson that we should draw from the war in Iraq is that we should never get involved in such a war again – and that any benefit we accrue from invasion, occupation and nation-building will almost never be worth the cost.
*NOTE TO COHEN: It’s COINdinista… just like Sandinista, but with “COIN” instead of “Sand.” Let’s get our terminology right, okay?*
So let me get this right… COIN seems to be successful in Iraq (although Cohen will also, when convenient, side with those who say that it wasn’t in any way responsible for any success in Iraq,) Cohen is and always has been opposed to the war in Iraq or any similar action in the future… and so he feels that he should interfere with the military so that no counterinsurgency will ever be attempted again.
Of course, that was a few days ago. Here’s what he said last night:
While there are signs of political reconciliation occurring on the local level and across the country there is a real question as to whether Iraq will turn into a stable country or will it turn in a violent and more deadly direction. While those of us who vehemently opposed this war would like nothing more to be proven wrong – and see a prosperous and stable Iraq rise from the ashes – that possibility is seeming more and more uncertain these days.
No, Sir; I don’t believe that he would like to be proven wrong. I’ve shown Michael Cohen he was wrong before. He doesn’t like it. I’ll probably get another whiny personal email from him for posting this. No, I don’t think that he does want to be proven wrong… because here’s the very next paragraph he wrote…
So, the next time you hear a commentator talk about the success of the surge or the effectiveness of counter-insurgency tactics or what worked in Iraq can work in Afghanistan or that “the security situation is manageable” in Iraq be very dubious. What we are seeing today in Iraq is pretty compelling evidence that the institutionalized political reconciliation, which was supposed to accompany the US surge in 2007, is not occurring at a pace that inspires confidence.
As another matter of humor, Cohen quoted Juan Cole in that post. Talk about dubious. Oh, Cole is on target sometimes, I’m sure… but how can you tell? When an “academic” is as politically driven as Cole, it’s hit or miss. He wouldn’t admit that he was wrong if God were to explain it to him personally.
Here’s the biggest problem that I’ve got with Cohen, and Cole, for that matter; they claim to analyze, but their analysis is politically motivated. It has nothing to do with getting the analysis right. Sometimes they are close, sometimes on, sometimes waaaaay off. There is no consistency, because the answer drives the question. That is not intellectually honest nor is it in the best interests of the country. Cohen, and his ilk, want what they want… and they are willing to say anything to get it. It’s the old, “The end justifies the means,” argument in action.
The good news is that apparently the COINdinistas (would COINtras be better? Hmmmm…) are gaining a greater toe-hold on the DoD and in the Army specifically.
One note of interest in all of this is that the Marine Corps is “getting” COIN better than the Army. I’ve discussed this with a Marine Major at a joint center that takes a great interest in COIN regarding the assistance of foreign governments in the stabilization of their own countries. These guys, who operate in one of a few bubbles in a world filled with “green-suiters,” “blue-suiters” and so on, are referred to as “purple-suiters.” This is because none of the other sobriquets are apt. “Purple suiters” are “joint” types. Those who play well with others… from other services. This Major ascribed the ability of the Marine Corps to institutionally accept the new doctrine more quickly has to do with the Marine culture of agility, adaptability and the Marine tendency to devolve authority to the lowest practicable level.
And now you know what the military meaning of “purple” is. Made it worthwhile to get out of bed today, didn’t it? Anyway, purple is catching on and COINtras are gaining a toehold.
How could you not want to read what’s after the jump?
We’ll see how this works out, but the signs are somewhat encouraging. Meanwhile, there are some questions out there; one being a current sub-topic in the “national conversation” regarding policy vs strategy, tactics and doctrine. The other is a question posted by Dale Kuehl on the last post. One is silly, one is a pretty good question that begs a coherent response. Both are related like second cousins.
We’ll start with the silly, and it’s not Mr. Kuehl’s question. It’s the micro-debate that is largely over, but leaves a gap in the veneer showing an underlying “concern” with becoming good at COIN. The gist of it seems to be an objection, the narrative of which (Reader’s Digest condensed version) is that if we get really good at counterinsurgency, our civilian masters may deem it simple and more desirable to run about willy-nilly unseating governments that we deem offensive on a regular basis. The simple answer to that question was put forth that those who truly understand COIN see it as an entirely unpalatable exercise that should be avoided at all costs.
This, of course, begged the question from the opposition of why those selfsame individuals were such proponents of the doctrine. The natural assumption seemed to be that the COINdinista in question was a proponent for some reasons relating to personal enjoyment of the doctrine rather than any expediency related to the situation in which we find ourselves.
The deeper question was whether our civilian masters (whatever administration holds the keys at any given moment, presumably in the future) can be trusted with such capability… the temptation to use such incredible cosmic power being obviously nearly irresistible.
The real answer to this question is a sibling to the answer to Mr. Kuehl’s question, which is not silly at all.
Just curious. Why do you think the Army is confusing counter-insurgency and counter-guerrilla? From what I have seen the Army as a whole has embraced counter-insurgency while conducting counter-guerrilla operations. The big difference now from the 1986 Counterguerilla manual is the focus on the people vice an enemy centric approach. ~ Dale Kuehl, posted on “Not Now, Cato!”
There are a number of indicators that the Army has not fully grasped, nor fully committed itself to practicing COIN as if its life depended on it. As noted before on this blog, there is an active counterpoint being made against further promulgation of the doctrine within the Army, the assumption being that we are already masters of this domain. This is not because this assumption is in fact correct. A simple response to this assumption is that the “proof is in the pudding.” The pudding that we have produced to this point in Afghanistan is not pudding at all, but instead a weak slurry with lumps of pudding-like material that is being stirred madly by a group of people with a few straws and one plastic spork.
This may seem a bit disjointed, but the answer to the second question is intimately related to the answer to the first. Part of the reason that we are not “getting” COIN, the reason why our pudding is not thickening evenly, is that we are not performing COIN in anything resembling a coherent manner. We’ve left out significant ingredients. For those who are reading such writers as Tim Lynch at Free Range International and Vampire 6 of Afghanistan Shrugged can easily see some of the serious errors being made in the actual theater of operations. Vampire 6 addresses the mistakes being made in the application of military efforts to secure the population, while Mr. Lynch is a strong advocate of not only military but also civilian COIN-related behaviors.
Lynch, who operates outside of the traditional parameters (meaning he doesn’t stay within the Hesco-rimmed sanctuaries which harbor Green Beans Coffee shops and trailer park Burger Kings,) observes that we are making epic mistakes. Not only the Army but also USAID, the State Department and other governmental agencies who are responsible for and capable of making great differences in the security and development of one of the poorest nations on earth, whose security is linked directly to our own, are so busy protecting themselves that our efforts are being watered down to the point of ineffectiveness. Weak slurry… not pudding.
Dale, don’t listen to the words and exhortations; look at the results. Here’s another clue; we don’t know how to measure success. The Army rates its own performance constantly. It does this on an individual basis as well. Every leader gets evaluated on his or her performance. The Army has a couple of forms that are used for this; the OER (Officer Evaluation Report) and the NCOER (Non Commissioned Officer Evaluation Report.) The NCOER is a rigid format. The OER includes something called an OER Support Form. Officers basically tell their supervisors what they are going to do and thereby set the objectives by which they are measured. The support form is done in conjunction with input from the supervisor, but the rated officer himself has a considerable amount of input into what the parameters of his evaluation are to be.
The Army is big on measurables. Most businesses are, too. Here’s the beginning of the rub; how do you measure success in a counterinsurgency? In Vietnam we learned that enemy body counts are not a good measure. In fact, counting how many enemy you have killed is so counterproductive as to pretty much ensure that you are not going to be successful. What is most important to the military in a counterinsurgency? Securing the populace. How do you measure that? Do you go by the number of instances where civilians are harmed? Do you go by how many successful incidents of insurgents targeting civilians there are over a period of time? If so, does the loss of civilians to the actions of coalition forces count against a commander… or the whole series of commanders from the most local to the highest in that chain?
Leaders will put their efforts towards the measurables upon which their OER/NCOER is based. They will work for the reward; the good evaluation that sets them above their peers for promotion purposes. Witness these recommendations from the recently released Rand report:
•Introduce the creation, use, and employment of effect-based metrics into all echelons of leader and staff training. Training must include understanding the link between causality or correlation and outcomes, the importance of incorporating local conditions in metric development and assessment, and the use of qualitative and quantitative metrics to form compound metrics for aggregation and interpretation at higher levels of command.
•Conduct systematic reassessment and refinement of metrics at periodic intervals. Review metric baselines to ensure that they remain relevant.
•Establish a doctrinal metric framework that promotes objective definition from the top and identification of input measures from the bottom, with effects as the common link.
•Use a red-team approach to assist in metric development and evolution.
•Portray metrics by using simple, easy-to-understand tools that facilitate commander decisions.
~ Intelligence Operations and Metrics in Iraq and Afghanistan, Rand National Defense Research Institute, November, 2008
While these recommendations had to do with measuring effects (and therefore success) in counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, if OERs were based on such metrics, officers would be exceedingly interested in them, including how they are developed and how they are affected. They are not, currently. Here is one of the effects of the current setup:
That so many leaders at every level were less familiar with counterinsurgency than they should have been means that they failed to educate themselves. ~ ibid.
The Rand authors are not saying these things because they felt like spouting off; they are making recommendations based on the same things that I have seen.
This could go on and on, but there is one more thing upon which I will rest at this point; we are not training our subordinates in COIN. I have been saying this for awhile, and the good people at Rand have seen the same thing. As long as we are not training our junior leadership in COIN, we are not taking it seriously. This despite the fact that most of our junior leaders will not be members of the Army by the time the next major conventional conflict arises. Here is a telling statement as to the importance of well-trained junior leadership and decentralization:
Decentralization, and therefore good junior leadership, is essential to urban-operation mission accomplishment. ~ ibid.
We’re not the Lone Ranger in this. The Dutch have apparently realized this and not they are training specifically.
Dutch leaders were concerned when some of their combat-unit soldiers demonstrated intolerance for Afghans in their AO. Recognizing the importance of maintaining positive relations with those able to provide critical intel, they introduced predeployment training that instills in their men and women the vital lesson of taking more than merely their own perspective. (he Royal Netherlands Army is now also considering in-theater reinforcement training in this regard.) ~ ibid.
Not being the only one in the boat doesn’t make it any more right to be in it, by the way. Now the Dutch are kicking our butts in mission preparation, by the sound of it, because we don’t do any of that. We train for stuff that doesn’t happen, like protests outside the FOB. My young SECFOR from New York were better prepared to time warp back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention than they were for Nuristan.
Okay, so how does this tie in to the silly question of why success in our current COIN ventures won’t bring us to the verge of empire? Because first, we’re not getting it right… yet. The Army does very difficult things, and it’s actually full of smart people, including a pretty large number of well-educated smart people. Not only are these people smart and fairly well-educated, but they are also well-trained. Any corporation would give their portion of the bailout to have people who were this well-trained and dedicated. When have you seen Chevrolet send tens of thousands of people overseas and pretty much every single one of them actually went? No, they can’t pull that off… because try as they might, they can’t get that kind of training and discipline instilled in their employees.
So they just send the jobs instead.
The point is that real, effective COIN is hard. It’s complicated and it’s hard. If it were less than really really difficult, we would have gotten it right probably sometimes after the first few years to attempting it. COIN? Nope. Never did get it right in Vietnam, and now we’re over seven years into it in Afghanistan and we’re losing ground. Now, some may say that’s because it can’t be done.
Slackers. They are like when my son insisted that his shoes were impossible to tie because he was struggling with learning how to tie them. He tried to sell me on the idea that, due to Velcro, shoelace tying was an archaic and dying art. It turned out with the proper training and education, he could indeed master the ancient art of shoelace tying.
There was one more thing that he needed: motivation. If the motivation to develop his new skill had been less than the motivation to assist the good people at 3M in the furtherance of their business growth objectives and their endless pursuit of the Italian shoe market, my son would still be wondering what in the hell rabbits running around trees had to do with footwear.
Those who insist that Afghanistan is too hard or not worth the effort required to actually do the job right are pretty much right along in that vein… except most of them are nearly four feet taller than my son was at that point in his life. The effect is the same. Now, if someone can just figure out how to motivate them to buckle down and learn how to tie this shoe… well, you get the idea.
Oops… there’s part of the equation that’s been left out.
Sometimes it seems we are the only people dealing with the beladiya [community government]. I have a MiTT [military transition team] with the battalion. There is a [MiTT] with the brigade. There is no equivalent on the civilian side.”
Huh? Civilian side? Yes, civilian side. You see, the biggest reason that we aren’t going to take this COIN thing global once (if) we get it right is because it’s going to require civilian governmental work, too. You see, one of the really cool things about these Rand guys is that they can see that it takes civilians to teach civilians how to run a government and how to start and run businesses.
Whoa… what a concept. You know what that means, right? Yep… hard work. Hard, tough work that isn’t the easiest thing in the world but will bring a deep sense of satisfaction from helping some folks pull themselves up by their bootstraps and grow into the 21st Century. You guessed it… totally against the principles of government employees.
That in itself will prevent future governmental types from getting any screwy ideas about conquering the world in the furtherance of apple pie, baseball and democracy.
There you go… once again Old Blue has saved the world from the Cato-strophic consequences of well-executed COIN to whirled peas.
Actually, Membrain answered the question much more succinctly, but I still had a good time. Thanks for reading.