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.
Gian Gentile has not been silent in my absence, nor have his arguments progressed. In the July 2010 edition of Joint Force Quarterly, COL Gentile once again states his long-standing argument that COIN doctrine, now three and a half years old, was never properly vetted. He continues to compare it to Active Defense doctrine of the 1970’s, and he continues to compare his calls for reevaluation of the existing doctrine to the calls which eventually resulted in AirLand Battle doctrine (the doctrine of Desert Storm). There are subtle differences. Two years ago, COL Gentile asserted that FM 3-24 was designed to defeat Maoist insurgencies and that this made FM 3-24 woefully inadequate for the current usage. Then it became widely known that the Islamic insurgents are using Maoist doctrine adapted for Islamic insurgency in Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerrilla War. We no longer hear COL Gentile pressing that particular button.
From the viewpoint of someone who is on the ground and engaged in the counterinsurgency, and who has a fairly broad view of what is occurring, the current incarnation of the Gentile Argument remains short on a couple of points. COL Gentile asserts that the theories upon which the current COIN doctrine are based have not been successfully used elsewhere. Students of the doctrine can easily see where these principles are not new. Many were, in fact, drawn from successful practice by the British in Malaya. There are, on the other hand, no clear examples of where a different approach has been successful. Witness the Germans in the Balkans. The question then becomes, if not this, then what?
Andrew Bacevich claims that just leaving would be entirely acceptable. Of course, this ignores one of our chief impediments in Afghanistan; our own history. We are easily and believably depicted by our enemies as quitters. This is easily believed by significant segments of the population who, being wooed by both sides, must make a choice as to which direction their future lies. Pakistan, too, is being asked to make a choice based on who is going to be present and helpful over the long term. Our history, which Mr. Bacevich would now have us add to, says loudly that it will not be us.
COL Gentile, who finds himself lumped in with Mr. Bacevich in many examinations of the issue, announces the failure of the doctrine without first having empirical evidence that it has been even adequately applied. A good idea, implemented poorly, looks like a bad idea. COL Gentile himself states that his unit, 8-10 CAV, 4ID was doing COIN in Baghdad in 2006. He goes on to prove this by giving us a measure of performance rather than a measure of effectiveness in COIN.
This is a common error amongst military officers who are ineffectually attempting COIN operations. His offering of a measure of output rather than any indication of what effect it actually had leads one to believe that the Colonel doesn’t actually understand COIN well enough to argue effectively about whether it is effective or not. It certainly does not indicate a level of understanding sufficient to declare the doctrine useless or failed. Excellent COIN practitioners know that measures of effectiveness are not universal, but that they cannot be denoted by the number of patrols conducted, the amount of Humanitarian Assistance dispensed or the number of Medical Engagements conducted. One must seek the effect that this had on the population’s perception of their own government as a result of these actions. This is particularly true when the population knows that the presence of the United States is transitory at best. We still see units on the ground in Afghanistan where commanders are struggling to arrive at measures of effectiveness rather than output.
To be sure, one must be able to measure one’s activities, but those activities must be aimed at an effect that is oriented on establishing a relationship between the people and their own government. Granted, COL Gentile’s quote was taken somewhat out of context, but it is consistent with lines of information briefed by units here in Afghanistan. One unit, conducting what amounts to a PR campaign to salvage its reputation after having been removed from its original operational area after failing to conduct effective COIN operations, literally produced a slick document in which it provided “proof” of its excellent COIN operations. The preponderance of information, provided in easy-to-read pie chart and bar chart format, was on how much money they spent. To a counterinsurgent, that could just as much be a damage estimate as a measure of effectiveness. We can do a lot of damage with our money. How did they spend that money? Did it help bring he people closer to their government? Did it add to a perception of GIRoA effectiveness? We don’t know. I doubt that they do, either. IF it was what was important to them, they would have briefed that information. If COL Gentile had had measures of effectiveness to discuss in his articles, he would have used them.
The Colonel also describes COIN doctrine as “prescriptive.” Again, this shows a lack of grasp of the doctrine, which is based on principles and methodologies that commanders then use to arrive at their own conclusions about how to conduct operations in their discrete areas. All politics is local, therefore all insurgency is local, therefore all counterinsurgency must be local. FM 3-24 recognizes this. In fact, it states it. In Armor terms, each area requires a tank-discrete CCF (Computer Correction Factor).* There is no fleet CCF for COIN. Just like the Tank Gunnery manual (doctrine), where there is a methodology for determining a discrete CCF for each tank when required. This is what FM 3-24 and FM 3-07 do for commanders. This is not prescriptive, it is a thought process laid out for a commander to use to adequately appreciate the area in which he is operating.
COL Gentile’s latest article is a re-hash of his old argument. But, it is consistent. One of the greatest areas of consistency is that it fails to offer a viable alternative. The Colonel also has a tendency to insist that what was being done prior to the publication of FM 3-24 was basically working. He points to successes by officers such as COL (now BG) H.R. McMaster which preceded the surge. BG McMaster was using lessons he learned from reading works by such men as Galula and applying them in the absence of doctrine. We see the results of his COIN effects. We know that 8-10 CAV did 3,500 patrols. Do we know what that accomplished as far as COIN effect? No. Is that an indictment of 8-10 CAV’s Soldiers or leadership? No more than when one Soldier is awarded a Silver Star and another a Bronze Star w/ “V” device. Which one sucked? Neither. One did his job very well and one did it extraordinarily well. We need to be able to divorce learning from blaming. This is not something that we are doing well.
Finally, before anyone argues that COIN has taken over the Army, it should at least be a true statement. COIN is just now making its way into the NCOES. A former instructor from the COIN Training Center – Afghanistan went straight to the Captain’s Career Course and was confronted with truly terribly COIN training. The institution has not quite caught up with the training. It is moving that way, and there are a lot of people who are doing the best that they can. But it’s not there yet. This is the war that we are in, and this is the one that we need to learn to win. It is possible that not a single soul who is currently in a uniform will still be wearing it when the next major peer-to-peer or near peer-to-peer conflict happens. Crying out about losing our warfighting edge is a bit premature at this point. Particularly when the only alternative being offered is to lose this one in favor of winning the one that may or may not happen in the unforeseeable future. For a pretty frank discussion of that side of the COIN (so to speak) see this post at Travels with Shiloh
* In the ballistic computer of an M1 tank, there is for each type of ammunition a mathematical CCF. This is the fleet CCF (the CCF for the fleet of vehicles). This tells the computer that, for instance, when HEAT is selected, the round will have certain characteristics in flight. This enables the computer to adjust for such variables as range, barometric pressure, crosswind and the temperature of the propellant before it is burned to adjust the position of the tank gun’s barrel relative to the target. Each tank, when boresighted, fires a round of each type of ammunition at a target. For various reasons, every once in a while a tank cannot hit with a fleet CCF. There is a procedure detailed in the Tank Gunnery manual for determining a tank-discrete CCF for that type of ammunition, which is then recorded on the 2404-8 for use in the future with that same type of ammunition on that tank.
A couple of commenters on the post “Trending Positive” deserve answers. I’m going to take them in logical instead of chronological order. So the first question is, “Is this (COIN) what we our troops should be doing?”.
Yes. The why of it requires an answer that spans a number of subjects ranging from the purpose of having armed forces to the dangers of foreign national/regional instability in the era of globalization. We have, in part, created this very situation with our own might. By that I don’t mean that our various “nefarious plots” are coming home to roost. I mean that we are too strong for others to take on toe-to-toe with any reasonable assurance of possible success.
Insurgents are not insurgents because they always aspired to be insurgents. They are insurgents out of weakness in the face of vastly superior physical strength. They dare not mass and present targets for overmatching firepower. In 2007, Afghan insurgents dared on several occasions to mass up to company-plus strength and attempt maneuver warfare. This led to mass casualties for the insurgents. One of the strengths of the insurgent is his ability to control his loss rate by controllong how much of his force he exposes to the risk of loss. This, however, sacrifices the ability to inflict more losses on the counterinsurgent… nothing ventured, nothing gained. We know that this insurgency actually thinks in this manner, as they have openly referred to their operations in terms of classic Maoist insurgent doctrinal terms such as “strategic defensive,” the phase they have achieved in much of the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan.
All of that is enemy centric. Insurgency is a political problem with an armed and violent component, not a military problem with a political element. If you choose a method other than Counterinsurgency to fight an insurgency, such as counter-guerrilla warfare, you are doomed to fail; you are fighting a type of warfare other than that in which you are engaged. If you are not conducting Stability Operations, you are leaving in place the very problems that left room for an insurgency to gain traction. In analyzing the events in Afghanistan, it is chrystal clear that we are are engaged in countering an insurgency. Therefore, COIN and its parent, Stability Operations are the types of operations we must use to defeat it.
This is not impossible, nor is it an impenetrable mystery. It is less dangerous for the average American Soldier or Marine than nearly any other American conflict to date. It is not an unreasonable task to ask of the Armed Forces of the United States… unless we do not train them for or support them in the effort.
Yes, this what our forces should be doing. Now, it must be understood that the military/security aspect is only one leg of a three-legged stool that includes Governance and Reconstruction and Development as the other two legs. Military COIN Operations are useless without these concurrent efforts, and these efforts are not most effectively performed by military forces. They require such governmental organs as the State Department and USAID. That is part of supporting the troops in the field; not committing them to an effort that is half-baked from the start.
Appropriate delivery of Stabilization Operations can actually diffuse a latent insurgency and innoculate against the potential of having to engage in COIN Operations.
In order to buy in to the concept that our organs of foreign policy need to be engaged in Stability Operations in far-flung regions of the world, one must accept the events of 9/11, London, Madrid, and Mumbai as manifestations of the new reality of living in a globalized world. Non-state actors can now deliver violence on a scale that would previously have been available only to nation-states. The Soviet Union would have loved to have punched a hole in the Pentagon. The Third Reich would have have committed significant resources to knocking down the tallest buildings in New York if it had been feasible. Both would have found it delicious to do so without presenting a clear, easy target for retribution. Neither found it within their grasp to do so. Yet non-state groups, loosely confederated and working in a distributed manner, headquartered in a dark backwater of the world found the means to organize and execute such attacks employing effective methods, such as the largest cruise missiles ever launched, without presenting an obvious target for retaliation. The deterrent of our massive conventional capability and nuclear arsenal meant nothing. Welcome to the New World Order.
The second question had to do with the President’s “run away date.”. It’s not a run away date. It is a date that he hopes to start drawing down from the surge. This has caused some problems domestically, although the Democratic Party leadership is happy; it’s what they always demanded from President Bush. It has caused more problems in Afghanistan, because the message was misunderstood. Many, both here and abroad, heard, “run away date.” For Afghans, that could easily mean, “Time for me to figure out Plan B.” That is not what I need for my Afghan counterpart to be doing. We could really use a clarification from the President on what he really meant when he made the statement.
It was also a call to action for both the Coalition and the Afghans to show progress, the lack of which could spur abandonment of the mission. To be fair, the only ones who probably have a solid definition of the consequences for failing to show adequate progress are GEN McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry. The rest of us only have educate guesses at best.
That being said, GEN McChrystal has a more than solid grasp of both Stability and COIN Operations. His problem is not one of a lack of personal vision, but the challenge of getting a very diverse group of people of all levels of education to understand and to execute the intent that the vision generates. This challenge cannot be understated, but it is not insurmountable. GEN McChrystal has demonstrated not only a powerful vision, but the tactical patience to get the ship to begin turning despite counterforce and inertia. That is an achievement in its own right. I’m encouraged.
Those who disparage GEN McChrystal demonstrate a marked lack of knowledge of COIN and Stability Operations. When you don’t know what right looks like, there are many stones to be thrown. Unfortunately, some of those voices have developed the illusion of authority on the subject, but my observations lead me to sense a lack of any deep understanding other than a bunch of popular buzzwords. This is also indicated by praise for commanders who have been some of the worst practitioners of COIN ever to wear an American flag in Afghanistan while slamming the best commander that has yet served on the ground here.
None of these spurious calls for GEN McChrystal to be fired do anyone any favors. History will show these calls to be ill-advised. That’s a long time to wait. In the meantime, perhaps my current, firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan, fairly extensive travel within the country, and experience as a combat asdvisor in this theater, along with a strong enough knowledge of both COIN and Stability Operations to have taught them to the O-7 level, will suffice as my bona fides. Assuming that these qualifications are adequate, let me be clear that such wildly cast aspersions as to the abilities of COMISAF are not the works of an educated, well-considered opinion and are of no analytical value whatsoever. In fact, such unsupported yet vociferous noises are irresponsible and potentially dangerous. It would be, in my informed and considered opinion, wise to ignore such calls and understand that correspondents can be very skilled at description and capturing imagery while being dangerously ill-equipped for providing worthwhile analysis. To the reader at home it may be difficult to tell, so hopefully hearing it from a serving Soldier with a stromg enough knowledge of COIN to successfully teach it will be helpful in clarifying the issue.
There are lots of people who are tired of war. The young men and women on their third and fourth deployments are tired of war. Some say that the Afghans are tired of war, while others point out that if they were truly tired of war, they would perhaps cease fighting. Matthew Hoh is tired of war.
When you tire of war, the reason for fighting gets lost in the shuffle. The immediate emotion of it all fades and the real work begins. The young often picture war as an adventure. Some picture it as a righteous cause, with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wafting through the whole scene.
War is hard work.
War is not glamorous. War is dirty, it is occasionally exceedingly violent; but mostly it is tedious and boring. Especially this type of war. There are some areas of Afghanistan that see activity on a daily basis. Most do not. Helmand, Khost, Kunar and some other places in Afghanistan have relatively constant conflict, with active insurgencies that threaten the peace on a daily basis. Other places are relatively calm, with spates of violent outbursts that shatter the day-to-day routine of Afghan life with smoky, dusty, noisy destruction.
There is no truly national solution for all of Afghanistan. Each area has its own particular situation and broad generalizations simply do not work in this country. Afghanistan is largely rural, and all politics is local. Each place requires specific knowledge of the area, the drivers, the personalities and the issues of particular concern. Foreign knowledge wins nothing here. Experience elsewhere is no guarantee of success here. The lessons of Iraq are often counter-productive here, especially the hard-won TTP’s that assisted in survival in the urban violence. Here, they are often an over-reaction that only alienates those whose trust we are working so hard to gain.
When the zest for war has long-since drained, it takes a special kind of motivation to keep going day-by-day and still putting effort into it. I have seen those who have stacked arms after a few months, thereafter taking the easy way. I have seen those who once had a fire in their belly who have run out of wind, their endurance spent, they are no longer mentally capable of making their way through productively. They become, at times, worse than dead weight. There are those who just flat lose their minds. They lose their grasp of the why, and their disillusionment becomes worse than an anchor dragging their souls against the sandy bottom of the sea of time. It becomes a sail that catches the headwind and drives them backwards.
Perhaps that is what happened to Matt Hoh. I don’t live in his head, so I don’t really know. There has been much discussion in the past day or so about his letter of resignation. One of the young Captains expressed a type of admiration for his having the “courage of his convictions.” I’m not inclined to be so charitable. I think he’s a loser. I think he’s perhaps an example of how some of the young “whiz kids” are not what they seem to be; that a 36 year old may not have what it takes to be the senior civilian officer in charge of our government’s efforts in one of Afghanistan’s provinces. A Marine officer, one of the many Captains to have left the services without rising to Field Grade rank during this war… perhaps out of fatigue… he then joined the civilian ranks and worked in Iraq as a contractor. Visit his LinkedIn page and see that the longest period of time he’s listed as staying in one place is a year and half. Not exactly a stellar resume, in terms of what civilian employers would look for in a hiring decision. Look at the types of contacts he’s open to… new opportunities, consulting jobs, that type of thing.
He’s a job-hopper.
Matthew Hoh is not a shining example of American intellectual might carefully applied to the problem of Afghanistan. He was only in this country since April. Hell, he scarcely had time to learn anything other than, “This shit is really hard.”
It made his head hurt.
Why are we hiring people like Matt Hoh to do important work in troubled provinces in Afghanistan? That’s the question that we should be asking. One of the officers here met him while working in Zabul Province earlier this year. I asked him what he thought of Hoh.
“He was a dick.”
Short, succinct, to the point. This officer was an embedded combat advisor who knows more than the average bear about insurgency and counterinsurgency. He’s been an officer longer than Hoh has held any one position in his life… going by his own LinkedIn page, that is. The officer worked with real Afghans in real situations on the ground in Zabul Province for months. In my opinion, the officer’s opinion holds water.
As for the “courage of his convictions,” Matthew Hoh has now positioned himself, career-wise, better than he ever was as a contracted officer with the State Department with a one-year contract. He is, for today, the hero of the Huffington Post. However, he has thrown himself into the dustbin of history. He’s a quitter, and while some may say that he quit on principle, the most telling line of his own resignation is this one:
“…I have lost understanding of… ”
Yes, young Matthew, you have lost understanding. Judging from the other information, I’m not sure that you ever had any, really. I am not feeling very understanding towards Hoh, either. Hoh admitted that there was a timing issue in his resignation. He has now been doing interviews, playing the instant celebrity, and he’s been getting his share of pats on the back from the “my head hurts” crowd. In one for the Washington Post, he says,
I am happy for the attention to my issues and to the points I am raising, because I believe they have been absent in the public debate of the war.
Ah, so it’s a statement. This is not one man heeding his conscience. It is one man using his position, and his resignation from it, to influence policy through public opinion. That’s what he tells us. He believes… what he wants for us to see. He admits in his interview with the Post that he had doubts, and that he had studied Afghanistan, and then that his experience here confirmed what he thought… so he resigned. Because to him, that’s service.
In other words, he is so damned principled, and so damned intelligent, that he knows better than all the other people who have spent years and years on these issues, as well as the elected officers of our government. He knows so much, and so well, that his resignation… made public by himself and now on an interview tour… is so damned important that this minor ex-functionary with a PRT should influence public opinion?
He spent only a few short months on the ground here and then quits… to much publicity, which he undoubtedly generated by releasing the resignation letter. I sense purpose. Hmmm.
This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken’s invitation.
Yep… that makes sense. Joining Team Biden may be in the works then, eh? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Pretty consistent… he’ll fit right in.
Now, let’s take a look at the real importance of such a man, the most senior of three State Department officials in Zabul Province. That is a man who has risen in the ranks to oversee the efforts of two other civilian officials in the PRT in Zabul. Wow. Really important guy. Very effective. He admitted to achieving pretty much of nothing while he was there but felt that he had “represented” well.
I don’t think so. It’s easy to be impressive for short periods of time. It’s harder to actually do real things in this country that do make a difference over a long period of time. I find that Mr. Hoh is singularly unimpressive. He claims great expertise with only a few months experience in this country, and now demands that his words have great sway in a very important debate. He will have his fifteen minutes of fame, and then he will fade. In the larger picture, he’s nobody. Instead of doing what he can to make a real difference in a tough situation, he has cashed in his chips and run away from any responsibility. He was offered a seat at the table where he could perhaps fight the good fight and influence policy, but he chose not to. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, will take pleasure in his current behavior and hire him in. Hoh will not starve from lack of work. He may very well wind up working with the rest of the foreign policy rocket scientists on Team Biden. But, as in this case, he will disappoint and wind up with another sub-two-year job on his resume.
In the meantime, I think that the State Department needs to look at its hiring practices and determine why it is attracting such people and missing the indicators (a year and a half max in the past eight years or so) that may indicate an inability to make the long term contribution that is needed. They also need to take a look at the commitment level of those it is considering hiring. Hoh was not deeply committed when he arrived, and he conveys that clearly in his interview. How did the hiring authorities at State miss that? How did his supervisor not recognize the growing problem and do what supervisors are supposed to do? How did the PRT commander not recognize that Hoh needed counseling, that he had, in his own words, “lost his understanding?”
War is tiring. It’s really, really hard on those who have difficulty in keeping the same job for awhile. Perhaps now he sees himself as finally saving the drowning men. When Hoh’s fifteen minutes are up, I will not miss him. While Ambassador Eikenberry was overly civil to him, I am not. Hoh’s reppenhagen in my book. He has joined the ranks of the infamous.
An article by the Associated Press’ Robert Reid nicely sums up the two camps that have formed under the Obama Administration regarding the way forward in Afghanistan. This is the second time this year that the two camps have squared off. The first round was apparently won by the COINdinistas, with some wiggle room, of course. That is not what the title of the article specifically addresses, but in a way it has come to serve as a synopsis of the internal argument in the administration. One side says, “Mission Accomplished,” and the other side says, “If we do more or less what we did the last time, we will have commensurate results.”
We are having real problems learning from past experiences. If a boxer fights another boxer, and whenever he bobs to the left he catches a right cross from the opposing boxer, he learns quickly that he need not bob left against this particular opponent. September 11, 2001 was just such a right cross from our opponent. Many say that we did not pick this fight; many others say that we did. They say that we picked it by taking sides surreptitiously in the Soviet-Afghan War, and that we did it again by abandoning a devastated Afghanistan as they tried to reassemble themselves. We funded and trained bin Laden and many of his cronies, and now he has turned that organization, formed to accomplish ends that we wholeheartedly supported, against us.
Now a group led by Vice President Joe Biden wants to repeat that blunder. Some people in the administration are saying that al-Qaeda is down to 100 full-timers.
U.S. national security adviser James Jones said last weekend that the al-Qaida presence has diminished, and he does not “foresee the return of the Taliban” to power.
He said that according to the maximum estimate, al-Qaida has fewer than 100 fighters operating in Afghanistan without any bases or ability to launch attacks on the West.
“If the Taliban did return to power, I believe we are strong enough to deter them from attacking us again by strong and credible punishment and by containing them with regional allies like India, China and Russia,” said former State Department official Leslie Gelb.
Folks, that’s not what events on the ground here are telling us. Al-Qaeda has recognized that Iraq is a lost cause for them. Yes, there are still local troublemakers trying to regain their lost glory as insurgent leaders stretching out the process, but that is the way of insurgencies. Iraq will not settle completely down this year, but the al-Qaeda cadre has largely left that country and made their way to Pakistan. We have seen that in the level of financial and technical support in the Haqqani elements, the HiG and even the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST). The level of sophistication in the technology of IED’s, for instance, having remained relatively flat for years, has taken leaps. These guys want for us to believe that this is a coincidence. The average Joe on the ground here who has a frame of reference realizes that the Taliban/HiG/Haqqani in Afghanistan have not suddenly and magically reemerged as something radically more capable. Something has been added to the mix.
Coincidence? Uncle Joe, et al, would lead you to believe that. Al-Qaeda is not only not dead; it is only the poster child for a syndrome that is repeatable. We are living in a globalized world. The world has changed, and our thinking has to a great extent not kept up with it. Unstable failed or failing nations can spawn organizations that will wish to influence us and our policies by bringing violence to our shores not via aircraft carriers and intercontinental bombers, but via airliners, tramp steamers, small but far-ranging private aircraft; trains, planes and automobiles. Never before in the history of mankind have small groups had such capabilities. It is one thing for a group to VBIED a U.S. Embassy in a small African country. It is quite another to punch a hole in the Pentagon. Even Mother Russia, with her enormous destructive power, devious KGB and bellicose manners never managed to do that. It doesn’t matter if the name of that group was al-Qaeda or the Hindu Kush Symphony Orchestra. Leaving states like Afghanistan to the whims of radical and primitive organizations is not a recipe for national security.
“Containment.” We have seen what “containment” does. Worked wonders on Iraq, is doing great things for Iran, and has really kept North Korea at bay (missile launches from the last two notwithstanding, of course). So, they don’t see the Taliban taking power again… like anyone saw them coming the first time… but if they do, we can rely on Russia, China and India to contain them? That sounds like a recipe for success now, doesn’t it? We can count on what we are now calling “regional allies” in the entities of Russia and China to look out for our interests and those of our NATO allies? And Pakistan won’t see our reliance on India as a new threat from the east for them, of course. It’s not like they’ve been trying to keep Afghanistan unstable for years in order to provide for their own “strategic depth” in the event of an all-out Indo-Pakistani War.
There are many people who are adding their voices to the din at this point. Some point out that population-centric counterinsurgency, or pop-centric COIN, was ultimately successful in Iraq. Many will contend with that, choosing instead to attribute success to a myriad of factors all exclusive of changing our behaviors, including that the Iraqis were somehow suddenly sick and tired of killing each other. Those who were on the ground at that time, both military and civilian, will tell very different stories. Many of those civilians, and some of those military, have now joined us on the ground here with plans of using lessons learned (not necessarily specific TTP’s) to have similar effects in Afghanistan. Those who argue that the Iraqis somehow magically became more amenable regardless of any changes in our behavior do so, from my perspective, for their own reasons.
Some of the greatest proponents of this argument do so out of what appears to be the politics of personal injury. Some had their young hearts broken in Vietnam and later suffered further loss in this war. Nothing short of an immediate existential threat is a good enough reason for war to them. Some have found themselves left out of or even severely criticized by the narrative of the Iraq Surge. They have lashed out, personally injured and offended, and have wound up on the opposite end of the spectrum in positions now so entrenched as to be nearly a caricature of the overall argument. Some fear that a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will lock in military counterinsurgency as the cornerstone of national foreign policy for decades. These conversations are now becoming years old. Add to that a public that, while it ignored Afghanistan, somehow assumed it to be morally right and relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Low casualties and this assumption of moral and political simplicity led them to assume that it was not in the least bit as complicated, dangerous or confusing as Iraq.
Then came the divide and conquer tactic: Iraq bad; Afghanistan good. Obama was not weak on the subject of national defence. He only wanted out of the “bad” war so that he could actually devote the proper resources to the “good” war. His supporters parroted this call, as I saw repeatedly in online debates. It allayed the fears of millions that Obama would retreat in the face of adversity. Well, now that the American people have started paying attention to the “good” war, it turns out to be much less simple. As I’ve said, it makes their heads hurt with its complexity. The people, heads all sore, begin to waver. Joe Biden, who is at huge odds with Hamid Karzai (he once, as a Senator, stormed away from the dinner table during a meeting with him), has wanted from day one to make this a Special Forces/drone mission in Pakistan. The looming reelection of Karzai has not tempered that attitude, I am sure. So Team Biden wants to solve our problems by invading Pakistan with with Special Forces, drone strikes that Obama supporters railed against during the election, “credible punishment” like 63 cruise missiles, and containment by India, Russia and China.
One question… has Pakistan agreed to any of this, or is invading a sovereign country only a bad thing when a guy’s name starts with “B”? From everything I’ve heard, Pakistan has refused to let American troops try to chase down al-Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban on sovereign Pakistani soil. The standing Pakistani Army is larger than our own. They are a proud, sovereign country and while their ISI has been singularly unhelpful in Afghanistan, I don’t believe that just doing whatever we want in Pakistan without their approval would be the “right” thing to do. It would almost certainly destabilize Pakistan further. Our alignment with India as one of our strategic containment partners will surely help the Pakistanis feel somewhat more secure, but there is a small chance that they won’t like it at all. Maybe not so small, really. Okay; they would absolutely hate it and feel very threatened.
The Biden Plan reeks of simplistic Rambo thinking. It is also a return to the same types of behaviors that left us with this festering sore on the face of Central Asia and a smoking hole in New York City. It’s amazing that it’s even being considered… unless it is the administration’s straw man. It’s practically an idiot-check. What next; a gravel angel contest? If I were the President, I’d ask all of my advisers who bought this argument and fire everyone who raised their hands for incompetence.
The people who are saying that the answer is to not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past are the people, both military and civilian, who are and have been closely associated with the Afghan question. Those who are claiming that al-Qaeda is in effect finished are not now and never have been intimately familiar with Central Asia. It could be argued that they have a political viewpoint and not a strategic viewpoint. What could possibly be the political pull strong enough to get otherwise intelligent, educated men to forget the lessons of the 1990’s and the foreign policy assumptions of post WW-II anti-communist paranoia that have led to the birth of non-state actors with global destructive reach and goals?
This is the opportunity to reverse the ill effects of the outmoded superpower behaviors of the past. This is an opportunity to begin to practice the types of foreign policy behaviors that will prevent failed and failing nations from becoming such a personal threat to Americans. The true example of Afghanistan is not in our military involvement but in the “civilian surge.” It is in the capacity-building arms that we are developing within our State Department, USAID, and other organizations. It is moving from John Candy in “Volunteers” to the types of foreign policy behaviors that will support and uphold societies who have been broken at their cores to stand back up according to their own needs and values. It is learning the lessons of “The Ugly American”. That is what we are deciding to continue or abandon, because in this very dangerous country we have let it slide to the point that nothing less than a full effort will permit these development efforts to occur. It is, in effect, all or nothing, and that’s something that Americans seem to have lost the ability to comprehend. We complain about the Afghans sitting on the fence, but we need to look at ourselves for sitting on the couch. Now is when we decide to take the easy out or to do the hard right thing.
Now is when we decide whether dad finishes the job, or if his son is left with an even larger problem.
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.
Due to the recent trip to the provinces, we had to pass through the space/time portal known as Bagram, which has been dubbed by some of those who operate outside the wire but have frequent brushes with it, “Pogadishu.” As many others have noted, it is a world separated from the war by a million miles of cultural and tactical vacuum. A rocket attack on the base in the recent past brought home to the denizens of this burgeoning city of tens of thousands that there is a war on… but on a daily basis you couldn’t tell it from Disney Drive.
You can’t tell from the actions of those running the place, either.
Whether in business or in warfare, processes are developed. Processes are what are performed by bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are created to serve people, but they exist to serve processes. Once a process is developed, it becomes the goal, the purpose. The people and their needs, which the processes were developed to service most efficiently, become the pain in the system. The very need that spawned the beast becomes the fleas infesting its fur, driving the beast mad. Add some paranoia to it, and you have a beast that is not only ungainly and unproductive, but actually counterproductive and dangerous.
Pogadishu is the petri dish of fobbitry. At all times of the day you can find its denizens unconcernedly strolling the main road, Disney Drive, often in PT gear of whatever service sentenced them to their tour there. There are two PX’s, movie theaters, the famous clamshell where they have Karaoke Night and Country and Western Night, two Green Beans Coffee establishments, Burger King, Dairy Queen, shops, an expensive and inefficient private internet service with charges scaling from less than $50 to over $100 depending on the bandwidth purchased, and 24-hour shuttle buses. That’s just for starters. Sergeants Major and bored officers lurk like trap door spiders to pounce on the unwary who sport any semblance of field wear or who do not wear their reflective belt. For most, the workday is similar to that performed back home, if under more crude circumstances. Only 7% of them will ever leave the wire. Many arrive at Bagram, leave only to go on leave, and finish their tours without ever having left the wire save by air. There is no end to the fobbitry inherent to the streets of Pogadishu.
On a recent trip, one of our junior NCO’s was confronted by a Lieutenant Colonel who stopped in mid-jog to assail him for having turned the cuffs of his ACU jacket inward, a common alteration that allows more air to circulate around the arms, increasing the ability of the body to cool itself. However, this alteration, while I don’t believe it is specifically forbidden by the AR’s, is sometimes expressly forbidden by certain units, due to the fact that some Sergeant Major doesn’t feel that it’s a “good look” to be sporting. Also, should the street suddenly burst into flames, the Soldier so attired could suffer burns to parts of the arms that may have been retrieved less well-done than other parts of his corpse had the cuffs been tightly sealed against his wrists.
In any case, the LTC stopped in mid-stride to assail the young NCO, berating him for his wear of the uniform as well as his mustache. This young soldier, who leaves the wire every day, may wear his mustache slightly outside the bounds of AR’s, but it is tolerated operationally based on the commander’s evaluation of the cost/benefit analysis. The LTC demanded that the NCO remove his mustache, apparently on the spot. The Soldier was unable to comply and so the LTC demanded that the NCO present himself to some Sergeant Major at 1400. Having been sent on a mission by a full Colonel that included drawing certain equipment and returning forthwith on a convoy that left Pogadishu at 1300, the NCO regretfully left the wire without sating the bloodlust of the LTC.
The NCO duly informed the Colonel, upon his return, of the confrontation.
“Screw him,” the Colonel replied, “If he wants to call me, I’ll tell him the same thing to his face.”
Our Colonel is not a Pirate of Pogadishu. What matters to him is getting the job done, not looking like some hackneyed recruiting poster while you do it. That’s not to say that there is no discipline, but it’s not about sweating the small stuff that has no bearing on the mission. It’s about sweating everything that does.
Instead of stopping to chew out junior NCO’s over field modifications to uniforms and moustaches that are not in direct contravention of mission accomplishment, it might be a better idea to identify when four or five teams of people are trying to accomplish a similar goal within a single organization inside his battlespace and putting one person in charge of them all so that they actually work together to get it done. Then, after that’s accomplished, if the LTC still has time on his hands, perhaps chewing out random NCO’s over what is NCO business might be more productive behavior.
The LTC at one point screamed at the NCO that other Soldiers were going to die because they would burn up, howling in pain because they had seen this NCO and would emulate his jacket cuff style. This, ladies and gentlemen is a Pirate of Pogadishu.
Our trip would be a dozen times more challenging because of the Pirates of Pogadishu. Like many teams in this country, we are dependent upon our interpreters to accomplish our mission. They are members of our team. We travelled with two terps, both combat veterans with more than three years of service, to Pogadishu. Upon arrival we were greeted with, “Oh… them. You shouldn’t have brought them.”
“No?” we queried.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. You can’t bring terps in here like that.” Three heads shook in unison.
“But we need them to do our job,” we pled. A quick conference followed. Eye patches were donned. The Underpirates talked quickly amongst themselves, the uncovered eyes darting to and fro nervously.
“You must go and see the wizard,” came the decision from what appeared to be the Chief Underpirate for Domestic Placement.
“The Wizard?” we asked. “Who and where is this wizard?”
“The Wizard is the Chief Overpirate of Fobbit Tranquility, and may be found in the Directorate of Overpiracy, just down the way.”
“Uh……huh. Okay. And if they do not heed our cries?” we explored.
“Then your local nationals shall be banished to the vagaries of the outside world, that which is forbidden to be seen, from which you quite obviously plucked them at random just prior to your entry to Pogadishu.”
“And if the great Wizardly Overpirate deems them to be less than fatally harmful to our alien life processes?”
“Oh, well in that case, they can stay with you. But they cannot eat,” they stated in unison, which had a creepy echo effect.
“They can’t eat.” More a statement than a question at this point, all disbelief having been suspended over the course of the prior several minutes.
“No. They cannot eat. See their ID cards? They have no priveledges. They cannot eat. Not in Pogadishu, anyway.” Again with the stereo effect.
Well, we were off to see the wizard. After a brief ceremoney involving a hair from each of their heads, two ID cards, chicken bones, two separate drums and another set that were joined together, and a strange but very sweet-smelling metallic powder that burst into flame delightfully when the wizard cast it into a small fire, it was determined that if the Captain ever has children they will belong to the wizard and our terps could stay. Everyone was happpy save for our deeply insulted interpreters.
“It is like being in a prison, Sir,” they told me.
That’s not the best part.
The best part is that after having risked their lives, finding an IED, driving through an reported ambush which did not materialize and doing a fabulous job of interpreting, our two interpreters were removed from the manifest for the return flight (which turned out to be on the exact same Canadian C-130 we had flown up on,) escorted to the gates of Pogadishu and forced to ride back to Kabul in a taxi while still wearing American uniforms, thereby endangering their lives.
Without their luggage, which had already been palletized.
Our two team members were humiliated; which is one of the worst emotions in the world for an Afghan. “It is not your fault, Sir,” one of our terps told us. “It is our fault for working with you and putting ourselves in the position where someone can do this to us.”
The Pirates of Pogadishu had had their revenge.
I’ve got a number of things I’d like to write about, and I would ignore this tripe as being inane; but it is filled with the type of self-righteous drivel that is heard in America from time to time. It passes for “academic” thought, I suppose, but it shouldn’t. It is at least presented as if it were academic thought, because the author couches his blog with a term that refers to a social science, anthropology. The author claims academic credit. He teaches at a university, although that doesn’t speak well for the school. In fact, it speaks rather poorly for it. I’ve come to view the author with a very jaded eye. I lump him in with such charlatans as Robert Young Pelton. It’s amazing how charlatans tend to clump together into clots. Pelton is quoted in the posting to which I am referring today.
Maximillian Forte, the author of “Open Anthropology,” and an outspoken critic of the Human Terrain System, posted began his post today by framing further discussion on terms of rape, shoplifting and gangsterism. Having thus childishly explained his reasoning process he examines the Marine efforts in Helmand Province in the same light. While it is a bumbling literary trick, it does cast illumination on the thinking of the “anti-war” crowd. While Mr. Forte is a Canadian and teaches in Canada, a fact for which I do not blame the Canadians as a whole, he has managed to congeal in one gelatinous clot the arguments of many of the “anti-war” crowd. He has also captured the essence of a festering affinity for extremist propaganda that exists in North America, notably in some small but significant numbers in the United States. That is the only reason that I’m even giving his self-righteous polemic the dignity of a response; because it gives me the opportunity to address some truly egregious lies that exist in the open in America. Those who read this blog regularly don’t buy into such lies. This is for those who may stray across these words, that they may be offered a the choice to listen to one who has been on the ground over one who hasn’t.
Yes, it means that much to have walked the actual dust and stones of Afghanistan rather than sitting in an office at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
Forte asks a question that begs an answer about the Marines in Helmand.
It begins with this article posted prominently on Yahoo! by the Associated Press for this date, titled “Marine mission to protect Afghans slows progress.” It was to me, and hopefully to anyone with a memory capacity larger than a gnat’s, possibly the most outlandish headline to be seen in a long time. The Marines are protecting Afghans? The Marines? Protecting?
Yes, protecting. The Marines are there to clear the Taliban from the area, a group that is supported the a greater proportion of the population of Helmand than in most areas of the country, but still much less than the 51% that would be required in a developed, well-governed country like Canada, or the United States for that matter, for a particular group to hold sway. They hold sway there because they have weapons and they are not afraid to use them. They hold sway in part because they have, during their bloody reign, mostly destroyed the beneficial tribal and village leadership structures which used to provide a social framework that held together communities, filling the void with their own twisted brand of political leadership. As an anthropologist, Mr. Forte would do well to actually do some research on the destruction of these traditional structures, structures which the Taliban have found to be obstacles in the path of their dominance.
Mr. Forte then goes on to paint the Marines as bloodthirsty and wanton destroyers of villages.
The Marines, in not being allowed to raze a village and mow everyone in their path, are “protecting” civilians, clearly from the Marines themselves:
The British jet called in by the U.S. Marines had the Taliban position in sight, but the pilot refused to fire, a decision that frustrated Marines on the ground….
Forte clearly has no grip on the reality of Afghanistan. Marines don’t, nor have they ever, razed any villages in Afghanistan. They suffer from no compunction to “mow everything in their path.” The Marines are actually much better versed in counterinsurgency warfare than the Army is, on the whole. My Army cohorts may not like to hear that, but the ones in the know realize this and say it readily themselves. The Marines tend to “get it” more than the Army does. They are not there to “raze a village.”
No matter how much you “get it,” it is frustrating to get shot at and not be able to shoot back, or to have decisive firepower refused when you know where the enemy hides is frustrating. That frustration does not equate to a desire to raze a village. Now Forte becomes a Hague lawyer:
Since the Marines are frustrated that they cannot fire, they are “protecting” civilians, as if they should be praised for doing what is legally required of US/NATO occupation forces under the international legal conventions that they signed on to, and that acquired force as part of their domestic laws. Not being excessively aggressive, and committing war crimes, is reconstructed as benevolence, rather than a basic minimum. Not being an outright brute, is represented as moderation. It’s a very short and smooth road to sainthood for warriors forced to respect the mandates of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) (see also here). This is humanitarianism, as a default starting point.
Forte shows an amazing lack of knowledge of the laws of war to which he presumes to lecture. Belligerents are not required to refrain from applying firepower to their enemy. Not at all. They are merely required to avoid collateral (meaning unintended) damage to the greatest extent possible while in the course of defending themselves. They are also permitted to continue offensive operations, and any dwelling, church, mosque, hospital or other structure which the enemy is using as a firing or observation position is not afforded any special protection under the laws of war, having forfeited any such protection upon being used as a fighting position. No, Forte has no concept. I’ve got news for him; thousands of civilians have been killed since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001 and early 2002. Most of them have been killed by those selfsame Taliban that Mr. Forte so fawningly worships as “freedom fighters” and “Mujaheddin.”
While the casualties that have been caused by the coalition have been unintentional, those of the Taliban have not been. The deaths of innocents, and particularly of government supporters, are carefully orchestrated for effect. We have not left bombs in crowded civilian areas. We have not hung men for having currency in their pockets that we found disagreeable. We have not shot women in the head after dragging them from a car for working on a Taliban installation. We have at times been gullible. Each of those bombed wedding parties was bombed due to poor intelligence, usually provided by a person who had a grudge against the family, and sometimes because the Taliban wanted a family harmed and planted “intelligence” which gave them the double whammy of harming their opponent while giving them a visible sign of American or Coalition “disregard” for Afghan lives.
Forte also quotes a section of the Geneva Conventions that applies to occupying powers, which the United States and its NATO partners are not. Regardless of the rantings of Forte, the coalition members are here to assist the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. That is not an occupation. The United Nations passed a resolution and is here in force. The NATO forces in Afghanistan are engaged in assisting a lawfully elected and constituted government in establishing control over its territory and in the construction/reconstruction of a war-torn country besieged from within and without by an extremist insurgency which the people of Afghanistan overwhelmingly do not support.
Now, there are various and sundry other dynamics at work, the complexities of which Forte shows no grasp of whatsoever, which is interesting for an anthropologist. This demonstrates why, after many years in the field, he is an Associate professor of Anthropology, instead of a full professor. It be can surmised from his unwillingness and inability to plumb the depths of the troubles and challenges of Afghan society as being due to his propensity for grasping at low-hanging fruit and his propensity for emotional outbursts such as the one we are delving into now. This, tainted with the brush of his political ineptitude, demonstrated by his insistence on attempting to portray a band of criminals as being on the same par as the Mujaheddin who were part of a very popular resistance to the Soviet Union’s expedition into Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Afghans themselves would tell Forte that he’s way off base on that point. I’ve had countless Afghans explain to me precisely why the Taliban don’t rate the name, “Mujaheddin.” Their logic is impeccable. It is Muslim, and it is local. Forte wouldn’t have any idea what to do with indigenous opinions, being that he is the caliber of anthropologist that he is.
Just today in Twitter, I spotted this statement: “Rough time 4 soldiers fighting terrorists and building communities in Afghanistan.” Building communities — after massive aerial bombings over a period of eight years. Building communities — as if Afghanistan had no communities before Americans slammed into the country. “Fighting terrorists” as if those who fight soldiers, foreign invaders, can now be re-branded as “terrorists” in spite of common definitions premised on the idea that terrorism involves the deliberate, indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, a category that automatically excludes soldiers.
Mass bombings is a powerful term. It brings visions of Arclight B-52 bombings to mind. Now, granted there were B-52 sorties against entrenched Taliban positions in the early days of the rout of the Taliban from power by the US-assisted Northern Alliance, but ladies gents, I’m here to tell you that the bombings in Afghanistan that I have had personal knowledge of involved one or two weapons per event and they were precision weapons. Precision weapons don’t mean “no mistakes.” They mean that nobody was dropping ordnance willy-nilly with absolutely no regard for civilian deaths. So, Forte waxes theatrical again. So do any who parrot his dissemblings.
It does bring one to wonder what Forte and his ilk think of the always deliberate, sometimes indiscriminate and sometimes targeted killing of non-combatants by the Taliban, HiG and other anti-government elements in Afghanistan. It makes one wonder what Forte thinks of hanging a man and leaving his body in public for days under threat of death to anyone who would give the corpse the decency of a burial in accordance with Islamic rules. It also demonstrates the absolute ignorance of the fact that the Taliban have killed more Afghan civilians, by far, than they have NATO Soldiers. Yet Forte lauds these types of mean as “freedom fighters.” What a strange, sad little man to be so led by his hatred of Soldiers and Marines into praising men who would perform such acts; acts of barbarism which are not performed by NATO forces or the Afghan National Security Forces. Forte misguidedly quotes Reagan, a man whom he despises and attempts to use as some sort of boomerang against his foes, as being somehow supportive, in death, of the Taliban.
Let us not forget that many of these gallant, freedom loving, heroic mujahideen became what we know today as the Taliban.
While it is true that some Taliban fought as part of a couple of factions as Mujaheddin, the great majority of Mujaheddin are not Taliban. I’ve met many Mujaheddin who are now members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. One day in early August, 2007, I sat in the home of one of the key Mujaheddin leaders in Kapisa Province, who explained to me why he saw no reason to take up arms against the United States. He did not see the US as an occupation force. He saw that our intentions were good. He also reserved the right to decide at any point that his opinion had changed and that he would again pick up arms. He supported the Afghan Government, and while he saw huge challenges and was dismayed with the ineptitude and corruption, he preferred an elected government to a dictatorial theocracy.
Had Forte, or any who share his twisted concepts, ever bothered to get the dust of Afghanistan upon their loafers, they would know such things as naturally as they draw breath. Forte would be deeply disillusioned by what he would find in Afghanistan. He would find that he was totally, completely and irretrievably clueless. If he were half the scientist he claims to be on his CV, he would realize that speaking so with absolutely no real knowledge of his subject is, well, unscientific.
He would also know better than to quote Robert Young Pelton about Afghanistan. A scientist should have the knowledge to recognize a lying charlatan when he meets one. Instead this “scientist” quotes him, as if lies would carry buffoonery forward into becoming fact.
Finally, Forte reflexively cannot resist another reference to the Human Terrain System; the perpetual bug up his bum. He retells the tragic story of a female researcher, Paula Loyd, who was murdered by an angry Afghan man. No one knows for sure why Abdul Salam set her on fire. Don Ayala, a colleague, fatally shot Salam immediately after the murderous attack. Now Forte paints Ayala as a mercenary and Loyd as very much deserving of her fate. Forte displays a picture of Ayala and Loyd, claiming that, “few would be willing to bet their wages that there is a woman in that photo.” Why? Because she is wearing a helmet? She is very obviously a woman. This criticism is very strange coming from a man who apparently purposely created an avatar of himself on his website bearing a remarkable resemblance to Vladimir Lenin. Forte muses that because she didn’t look like a woman, and did resemble a soldier, she was a legitimate target of an Afghan civilian. He leaves us with this bizarre bit of nonsense:
Salam was a liberator. He liberated Loyd from a prolonged career of selling her services to militarism, and thus to terrorism. Never again would she be used as a human shield by the American terrorists. However, Salam did not kill everyone on her patrol: that’s because he was protecting them.
That is some of the most heinous and hateful speech I’ve ever seen directed against what should have been a colleague in Forte’s mind. His malevolent misogyny belies his portrayal of himself as the fair-minded arbiter of Taliban legitmacy as “freedom fighters” or Mujaheddin.
Some day, I would like to have a chat with the board of regents of Concordia University and ask them what in the bloody hell they were thinking about when they hired this so-called “scientist.” I’m even more amazed that they have tolerated his bizarre ramblings over the course of the time that I have been aware of Forte’s gymnastic buffoonery.
As I said when I started this deconstruction of the self-proclaimed “scientist,” it should have been left in the dustbin of obscurity; but there are others who mimic his line of dislogic. This is more to demonstrate the absolute buffoonery of those who even raise the term, “occupation,” those who would deign to call Taliban and HiG insurgents “freedom fighters” or “Mujaheddin.” They have no idea what they are talking about.
Afghanistan has deep challenges on many levels. Many are self-inflicted, and many are the result of a society literally eviscerated by 30 years of conflict, both externally and internally motivated. These problems will not be solved overnight. Forte and his ilk are politically motivated, but thank God that they are not as motivated as the men and women that I work with, who are willing to risk their lives in order to make our nations safer by securing this society, one of the poorest nations in the world. Afghans are a mix of many ethnic groups, and they struggle to find an “Afghan” identity, even in the middle of a siege brought upon them by those who would seize power and again govern by fear of physical abuse, torture, deprivation and death. An officer recently stood and spoke about how we should all be here just for Afghanistan. I told him, “No, I’m here to protect my children. It just so happens that in order for my children to be secure, the children of Afghanistan must be secure. That’s why I am willing to do this.”
The great thing is that Max Forte and his ilk are only willing to run their mouths. Words have great power, but words have considerably less power when there is no willingness to put one’s life on the line for them. Forte will not risk his life for his words.
I am for mine.
It is up to the reader to decide who to believe; the “scientist,” or the Soldier.
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.