The previous posts described a lot of concepts and activities. Granted, that information alone isn’t going to enable anyone to fully execute a District Stability Matrix and perform any kind of program or operational design. It’s an outline, provided in hopes of improving publicly available knowledge of what counterinsurgency and stability operations are. All too often, COIN and stability are described in the few terms that have caught on in pop culture. They are trendy to use in the media, but the reality is misrepresented or mythologized. Misunderstanding of COIN is practically viral. This breeds a separation of the American people, and more than a few academics and think-tankers, from the reality of what is actually being attemted on the ground. COIN and stability operations are grinding, difficult tasks carried out, in the case of Afghanistan, in a land and among a people that appear to be very alien at first glance. Misconceptions hinged on such misunderstood but trendy terms as, “hearts and minds,” makes the whole endeavor unfathomable without a deeper understanding. It’s a big subject, so it’s not easily described in one posting.
With all of the previous posts tied together, what does this look like in practice? When we arrive in, say, a district in Afghanistan, how do we begin? There are a lot of factors that will determine where we start, such as what has already been done by our predecessors. Not every place is like Marjah, where the entire operation started with little or no GIRoA presence or authority in that area. Most of us will land on a work in progress. We still have to start with as complete a grasp of the local environment as we can get.
These days, there is nearly always legacy documentation of what has been learned and done in most areas we could find ourselves in. Often it is not readily retrievable and may be a shotgun pattern of disconnected information. Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of databases.” So many different repositories have been established over the years that we have, collectively, forgotten what we have learned. Foreign assistance personnel are transitory. We work there for awhile and then we leave, replaced by others after a brief hand-off. That knowledge, that visualization, leaves with the outgoing person or organization. From experience, I know that some efforts become enduring and others end as soon as the personnel leave and are replaced. That is often not based on the merit of the action or program. Sometimes it is due to overlapping funding that has already been vetted and committed. Each rotation of personnel develops its own flavor, its own focus. Because of this, continuity of effort is sometimes lost.
Unity of effort is important, but continuity of effort is undervalued. It actually doesn’t appear on the doctrinal list of “COIN Imperatives.” It is recognized as a problem, though; particularly in the military/security line. The methodology and logistics of handing-off to a follow-on organization have been worked and re-worked for years in attempts to overcome the jerky nature of operations caused by these reliefs. State and USAID personnel change out less often, and being smaller, the hand-off is often more personal.
Many things affect handing over an area to a follow-on person or organization. Time is often a critical factor. There is a finite amount of overlap, sometimes none at all. Many organizations and personnel arriving in Afghanistan right now are getting information presented to them in a non-standard format that is essentially proprietary to the individual or organization on the way out. The rational decision-making processes that the outgoing personnel used may not be documented so that we can clearly understand the intended effects and why those effects were sought as part of an overall plan.
Is this a show-stopper? No, but it is a show-slower and a potential source of discontinuity. This has happened many times in many places, and makes Coalition and GIRoA efforts appear to be haphazard. Haphazard is ineffective in general, but it is definitely viewed as such by the majority of the population. Giving this impression is a great way to fail to gain support or even acquiescence. More and more often, we are seeing units arriving on information organized in a way that can be easily understood. When time is limited, quickly acquiring the situational awareness attained by the previous organization or individual is critical. Momentum, a key political concept, is lost. If the information is not organized in a way that we can anticipate, then we have to organize it so that the “next guy” gets what we didn’t. If we can anticipate how the information is organized, we can practice managing it and visualizing it (difficult tasks) in training. It’s all about visualizing the problems and solutions and maintaining steady and sustainable efforts to move things in a positive direction.
Wherever we find ourselves in the phases of operations, whether we are Shaping, Clearing, Holding or Building, we need to understand the history and thought processes that preceded ours. When deciding to modify or terminate an existing program or effort, we must first understand why that was being done in the first place. We need to understand how it is being measured in both outputs and effects so that any decision that we make is based on a logical approach and not gut feel or initial impressions. Sometimes the “Afghan way” is actually a good thing but looks very strange to a westerner at first glance. When we make decisions and choose courses of action, we document our decision making processes so that it is available and easier to visualize by our successors. We need to reach this level of understanding quickly, and so will they.
If we are lucky enough as a person or group to fall in on such information, organized in a way that we quickly understand, we will have a lot more continuity of effort. Our transition will be more seamless. If we are not so lucky, we have to resolve that our successors will have it easier. Once we have ascertained where we are, then we can apply the techniques appropriate to that phase to make progress. Some things, such as continuing to learn more about the people, places, conditions and events in an area never end. Reconnaissance, as we call it in the military, is constant. Continuous evaluation of our chosen activities and the effects they have on the local situation is also absolutely necessary. We cannot continue unchanged on a course of action that is producing negative consequences.
There is no canned formulaic solution that works in every situation. We strive to learn from the successes of others. We learn from the experiences of others, but we do not just automatically apply solutions because they worked elsewhere. We use our understanding of our discrete area to anticipate, as best we can, how such an action or program will impact the area that we work in. We understand the particulars, the personalities and the realities that will influence the enduring effects that our actions will have on the community. We recognize quickly when waves are made, including how the enemy responds, and we adjust our approach based on the success or failure of any endeavor. We choose metrics that reflect the actual effects of what we do, not just measuring our activity. We do not reinforce failure, and we don’t fail to recognize and redouble success.
We identify, protect and support resiliencies we find in the community and seek to identify and develop undiscovered resiliencies. We are imaginative, collaborative and receptive. We listen, and we interpret input based on knowledge, not impressions or a reliance on intuition. If we don’t know, we use all of our assets to find out. We listen to our enemy, and we separate the lies and half-truths from the truths. Elements of all of the three will be present. We learn to understand why and how his message appeals to the people. We are honest in accepting the truths and seeking to address them to resolve issues that truly do concern the population, such as corruption and injustice. Throughout all of this, we document all of what we learn, what we decided and what we based our decision on so that everyone from our supervisors to our replacements can visualize and understand, assist and continue on.
We have a consistent message, or conversation with the people, that is reinforced by every action we take and is based on enduring themes that have significance to the local population. It is a centerpiece, not an addendum, and is just as pervasive as reconnaissance in everything we do. We think very seriously before taking any action that is contrary to or dilutes our message.
Progress in counterinsurgency and stability is incremental and slow. It is frustrating and sometimes painful. It is difficult to continue in the face of systemic corruption and abuse of power. It is difficult to overcome the negative impression left by a unit that approached the problem as a counter-guerrilla operation. It sometimes seems hopeless where illiteracy is rampant and the people appear inscrutable at first glace. Counterinsurgency is also dangerous. Courage is required, but often that means the courage of conviction to keep trying in the face of adversity and danger coupled with frustration, the combination of which is a powerful demotivator. Keeping our eye on the ball and recognizing subtle shifts is how we cope. Even a little bit of change can make a big difference, and the chances are good that if we reach the tipping point, the Holy Grail of COIN, we will likely not realize it until later.
Note that part of information we collect and keep as part of the ASCOPE/PMESII is the enemy message; their Information Operations (IO). We track their narrative, or conversation with the people. It’s not that hard to gather. We just ask the locals what the insurgent is saying about whatever. They will usually tell us, and they will look for a reaction. We make sure that we get it straight by asking as many people as possible, right down to the casual encounter on the street. This is something that we can include our sensing of the effects that we are having. We can also gather a lot of information about the way that the people react to insurgent IO.
Is the insurgent message hitting home with the populace? Why? There will be a mixture of truths, half-truths and outright lies. Our job is to determine which is which and from there figure out why the insurgent message either appeals to the people or freezes them in place on the fence; unwilling or afraid to commit to supporting or even acquiescing to government rule.
An example of a lie that hit home is an experience in The Tagab Valley, Kapisa Province in August of 2007. At the appearance of Americans, the local Afghan women would turn away, squat and remain motionless, as if they were pretending to be a stone. Men would also behave strangely, but would still step forward to have contact. This was uncommon, and so the interpreter was engaged to figure it out. In the end, it was learned that part of the insurgent narrative in that area was that the ballistic eye wear of the Americans was purported to be able to see through clothing. This was apparently plausible in the minds of the locals, so they responded to the risk of being shamed by concealing their bodies as best they could.
The overall effect was to keep an artificial barrier between the Americans and the Afghans. Many did not believe the story, but enough had their doubts so that the “I will make myself a stone” behavior was widespread. This story was localized, but has been repeated often in a number of other areas. It is not believed by more educated Afghans, but among illiterate people who believe that Americans can do impossible things with technology, it is just plausible enough to warrant caution. Though the effect that it achieved was partial, it would have to be described as successful.
Countering the message involved removing the eye wear and at times addressing the situation directly. If an older Afghan man had heard the rumor, he was offered to try the glasses, and when he saw that the lenses offered no additional capabilities, he was then able to share this with others. Meanwhile, it was stumbled upon that Afghans appreciate the removal of sunglasses in conversation, anyway. This knowledge is now included in COMISAF’s guidance on the wear of ballistic eye protection.
This was a simple example, and by no means an exhaustive description of the complete insurgent narrative in that area. It was just one aspect of it.
Since we know that an insurgency is a political war, we know that the conversation we have with the people is necessary. Each agency or organization, down to the individual level, has a conversation with the local population. The insurgent does the same thing.
We see national-level conversation, such as the rules regulating the behavior of insurgents released by the Taliban. These narratives make international news. In each area, however, the narrative is tailored and refined to appeal to local perceptions, issues and sensibilities. These are the insurgent narratives you are unlikely to hear on the nightly news back home. These messages are also tailored to expand upon the failures of the counterinsurgents on the local level in the specific area. The ultimate goal is obviously to discredit the government, but there are generally messages specifically targeted towards each of the counterinsurgent agencies and often directed at specific individuals.
The insurgent chooses his overall themes and then breaks them down locally. His actions are taken in order to support or further these messages. Insurgent commanders have been fired for getting off message or taking actions that did not support the overall message. An example of this is the insurgent commander replaced after ordering the acid attack on Afghan school girls. The point is that the actions that insurgents take are in support of their narrative, not the other way around. A weakness of counterinsurgents is that they often reverse this equation and try to work their narrative as an adjunct to their efforts, instead of making it a main feature of their operations.
We are at the point where we are selecting actions. At this point, it is absolutely necessary to develop a dialog based on our local issues that rings true with the local populace. Otherwise, we are ceding control of the information war to the insurgents. The national narrative by the government, NATO and all the implementation partners is broad and very general. Simply mouthing the words of GEN Petraeus or the ambassador will not suffice. The local farmer does not hear anything specific in these messages that applies to him. A local narrative is demanded, tailored to the specifics of the local area.
In the end, the goal is to support local government legitimacy; but that doesn’t mean that our narrative lies about government effectiveness. If the government is struggling in a particular area, the best choice is probably to acknowledge that. It will likely be something that you are going to target for improvement, anyway. The local people may not be educated, but they are not stupid, and they already know what works and doesn’t work for them. The counterinsurgent/stability course or courses of action must identify and target these inadequacies in order to have a lasting effect locally. The insurgent narrative is probably quite harsh about these failings. Trying to gloss over things that the locals find objectionable will not improve matters, and only reinforces insurgent relevance.
Each main logical line of operation, Military/Security, Development and Governance, needs to support each other’s messaging. It should all dovetail into a seamless narrative aimed at competing for the ear of the farmer and shopkeeper against the insurgent narrative. Because it is backed by action consistent with the narrative, it is reinforced in the eyes of local observers. It’s a relationship, and as in any relationship, say what you mean and do what you say. Nobody cares about airy promises and trite sayings. They want to see action that supports what you say. This, more than any other thing, is what builds trust among the people.
So part of each working group’s agenda needs to be the conversation with the people, distilled from a thorough understanding of the local area and their issues, including what the insurgent is saying. Then, once the local message of each actor is established, it is consistently carried and not deviated from significantly. Commanders ensure that their narrative is carried by every soldier, and NCO’s enforce this standard.
Proposed actions are compared against the narrative and either the action is altered or the objective of that action is incorporated into the narrative. If a proposed action is contrary to the narrative, it is given great scrutiny to determine the appropriateness of that action. Rarely will we take an action that does not directly support our narrative. This is the key to effective information operations, which are the audible evidence of our conversation with the local populace.
I was very pessimistic after my tour as a PMT in 2007-2008. What I saw then was a near-complete disconnect between the military and civilian efforts. Two of the main lines of operation were largely absent, and so any security gains were followed by… nothing. The Army cleared and then left, turning hard-fought gains back over to the tender mercies of insurgents, criminals and ineffectual governance. Units fobbed-up and commuted to work, bound by vehicles and often interacting poorly or not at all with the local population. The influx of Iraq-trained troops who brought the driving tactics they had learned there began to irritate everyday Afghans with overt aggression. Units were often interested more in self-protection than in accomplishing anything. The answer to nearly every tactical situation was spelled, “J-D-A-M.” The doctrine of COIN was known only as a set of buzzwords which everyone immediately put into use… to describe actions that were most often decidedly un-COIN. The war was on a seemingly inexorable downward spiral.
I arrived back in Afghanistan in July of 2010 determined to make a difference by educating whoever I could on COIN. That I did, to varying effect. I trained and worked with troops and civilians from over 30 different countries over the course of the subsequent fifteen months. General McChrystal had just taken over the reigns in Afghanistan. A renewed emphasis on COIN had been settled upon, along with an increase in the numbers of troops and civilians on the ground, as the strategy that would be employed to stop the downward spiral.
Field grade military officers were often quite resistant to the concepts taught in the COIN course. Many had either no previous experience fighting an insurgency or had served only in Iraq pre-2007. Some of the questions posed to the instructors were quite oppositional, showing the mindsets that we were dealing with. Informal polling showed that, consistently, about 15% of incoming US Army field grade officers had read even so much as FM 3-24, much less any other texts regarding insurgencies or how to counter them. Senior NCO’s almost universally had not read the manual describing the doctrine. Ignorance of the available information, prejudices inculcated by years of conventional training and pop-culture influence and any number of internal resentments combined to provide many oppositional students. A great deal of patience was required. Angrily countering such arguments as were raised could “lose” a student permanently, yet it was necessary to understand how to counter each objection in an intelligent and persuasive way.
The COIN Leaders Course (CLC) conducted during the last week of every month, was the most comprehensive course offered. This five day course incorporated the normal curriculum with a fair number of guest speakers, many of them Afghan senior officials from the ministries, Army and National Police. Students from many participating nations attended the course, with a heavy attendance by civilians. As much time as possible was devoted to discussions involving the members of each small group, or “syndicates” as they were called (the Australian influence was clearly visible in this). The time available for discussions varied, but was never enough for the students. Practical exercises sparked discussions and raised issues in microcosm, such as working with Afghans through language barriers. Prejudices surfaced; military, political, national and ethnic. Some interfered, many were overcome.
The CLC was not the only course offered. There were other, shorter courses at the CTC-A during the month, and each regional team ventured forth into their respective region for several weeks each month. Units and organizations were trained in the field, sometimes in tents. Our interpreters got a full workout and were often subjected to poor treatment at the hands of American forces, such as our adventures at Bagram (truly horrible at times). Still, our interpreters hung in there and sometimes taught classes to Afghans practically unaided. They were that good.
As I traveled around the country, I was able to witness the behaviors of various units from various countries on the ground… and the effects they were achieving. It wasn’t looking all that great. I was teaching commanders and staffs about the virtues of learning the details of their Areas of Responsibility (AOR) regarding the people and what was important to them using a framework called ASCOPE/PMESII. “That’s great!” they all said as they completed the course. Weeks or months later I would see them out in the provinces, working their magic.
“So, how is your ASCOPE coming?”
“Yeah, uh… we don’t really have time for that,” they would reply.
I began to acquire a persistent shallow in my forehead from smacking the heel of my hand into it and making the Homer Simpson “Doh!” sound.
Conventionally organized staffs, who had trained for months on staff processes geared more towards conventional operations than to support COIN information flows, simply could not implement an informational framework such as the ASCOPE/PMESII while simultaneously supporting ongoing operations on the ground. Reorganizing staff processes on the fly turned out to be as challenging as changing shoes while running without breaking stride.
Civilians were pouring into the country; USAID, State and contractors. Many had scant knowledge of Afghanistan and were full of prejudices about the country and what it needed. Many civilians attend the CTC-A or are taught the course out in the field as the instructors roam about the Regional Commands. They provided their own challenges. One civilian I trained, who was very disruptive in training, had been in the country for four months, had worked for State for five, and her previous work experience was working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign followed by, in her words and with quotation marks swiped at the air, “another campaign.” Political appointees with no prior experience were side by side with workers whose prior experience was in Africa. They had a tendency to believe that they had it all in hand and knew exactly what was needed both locally and nationally. Afghanistan would soon beat that out of them, however. Reality is an awesome mindset adjustment tool, and in reality these were smart people with good intentions.
Another problem they had was in working with the military. It was mutual. The military has a tendency to view civilians engaged in development work as flower-munching, Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers. Civilians engaged in development work have a tendency to view military personnel as linear-thinking knuckle-draggers. Fun.
Meanwhile, USAID’s Dr. Jim Derleth had brought the District Stability Framework to Afghanistan and was out busily training units to perform it… in the absence of the deep understanding that thorough reconnaissance of the human terrain (ASCOPE, which is now built into the toolset) brings. Units, starting with the Brits, were beginning to recognize the pitfalls of having foreign military personnel conducting TCAPF (Tactical Conflict Assessment Planning Framework) questioning, the famous four questions, to gather local inputs necessary for the accurate completion of the Tactical Stability Matrix were proving more than problematic in that regard. Everything was disconnected. Efforts were scattered and much less effective than coordinated actions can be. USAID became frustrated with their ability to train people how to use the methodology in significant numbers.
I’m not sure how it came to be, but there were talks about training the COIN instructors at the COIN Training Center – Afghanistan (CTC-A) to teach the DSF. COL John Agoglia, the visionary director of the CTC-A during that time, recognized the value of the DSF. It was the missing link; a common operational framework that could be used by military, foreign civilians, Afghan civilian development workers and the local populations. In COIN and Stability Operations, unity of effort is key… and highly elusive. A common operational framework enabled the development of a common operational picture, a necessity to develop unity of effort. Even across languages, if you are talking about the same information organized in a framework that is commonly understood, you are speaking the same “language.” It was decided to train the instructors. This was followed by a couple of weeks of intensive work at the CTC-A and the assignment of an instructor as a subject matter expert to assist in adapting the DSF training to dovetail with the COIN training in partnership with USAID.
As the military “surge” gained momentum, the most common feedback we heard was, “We wish we had gotten this education six to nine months earlier… so we could practice it in training.” We were training leaders, most often at the battalion level and above. Soldiers and NCO’s got, at best, a few hours and were full of the same prejudices. As I was seeing in practice in the field, the lessons of COIN are not best taught after boots-on-ground. We were a band-aid on a gushing arterial bleed.
Things weren’t looking all that encouraging. One thing about COIN and Stability Ops is the perception delay. Just as poor performance is not manifested immediately, so positive inputs do not create immediate and undeniable positive effects. This is one of the reasons that appropriate metrics are so difficult to choose.
Six months into my tour I was feeling enormous frustration.
Tadd Sholtis at Quatto Zone raises an interesting COIN question. (Don’t worry, At Park Place, I haven’t forgotten that I owe you something.) He muses over what the Taliban are doing with their message about air strikes and CIVCAS (Civilian Casualties.) Everyone knows that GEN McChrystal has stated that our metrics will be centered around protecting civilians… including from us… and that he has moved a few things around the house. What the Taliban want is an intriguing question, though. Let’s take a peek into what that clever manjammie-wearing Mao-trained thug may be thinking.
Sholtis poses this question about the demands from the Taliban that the coalition end air strikes in certain areas in return for permitting PFC Bergdahl to continue to draw breath and make propaganda tapes for them:
Why do this unless air power represents a significant threat to the organization? And while it’s clear that the Taliban try to provoke strikes that will cause civilian casualties, it’s unclear whether this tactic is designed to whip up popular rage or encourage restrictive rules of engagement that will grant insurgents more breathing room. The answer is probably both.
Money. Right on the money. It is both. Remember a few things when looking at an insurgency;
You have to listen to the insurgent IO first. Not just truly listen, but listen from the viewpoint of the population. The population is what gives the insurgent his strength. The population is the water in which the fish (insurgent) swims. The population provides sustenance, information, shelter, concealment and recruits, as well as other aids. Without the population, the insurgent is irrelevant. What matters is not necessarily what is true, but what the population believes to be true. The insurgent IO (what is also called propaganda) is the conversation, the love call, of the insurgent. It is his attempt to either woo and seduce or to intimidate. The insurgent is a date-rapist. If the population buys his pickup lines and gives up the support willingly, so much the better; but if force is required, he’s prepared and willing for that, too.
The message about the air strikes is two things at once. First, it is in support of the message that the United States and her allies are forces of occupation attempting to dominate Afghanistan and all Afghans. His message is that we simply do not care about Afghan lives, especially Muslim Afghan lives. That would be just about… all of them. The implication is that the Taliban does care about Afghan lives; that they are the defenders of Islam, Afghan sovereignty and Afghan lives.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… the Afghan civilians killed by insurgents. That’s the other side of the coin (pardon the pun.) That supports a whole ‘nother message.
Secondly, it is an attempt to force us to quiver our most feared arrows. Air power is a decisive edge in any engagement. Their objective is to get us to shoot ourselves in the foot either way. If they can goad us into the indiscriminate use of air power, then they can portray us as completely unmindful of Afghan lives in the pursuit of our goal of world domination. This supports their messages locally, nationally and even internationally. Is it believable?
Do you ever read the bizarre-far lefty blogs? Hell, some of our own citizens willingly further this Taliban IO. Yep, it’s believable to enough people to keep repeating it.
Failing that, if they can reduce their own casualties and preserve their strength, they bring themselves closer to having the strength to enter the Strategic Counterattack Phase of insurgency. This is a Maoist insurgency doctrinal term that we have heard the enemy actually use in communications from commanders to subordinates in the field in Afghanistan.
Folks, while we are struggling to learn Counterinsurgency Doctrine, the enemy is well-versed in Insurgency Doctrine. These guys may not always be accurate as can be with their weapons, but they are plenty smart as insurgents.
Just because the Taliban portray themselves as the defenders of Afghan lives and property doesn’t mean it’s so; but that doesn’t matter. What matters is how the population sees it. If they see the Coalition as willing to bomb civilians in a heartbeat, slow to admit the truth and having been caught in several untruths (another word for, oh… I don’t know… maybe… “lies?”) then the insurgent wins. We can see that the Taliban are perfectly willing to shoot at us from occupied houses or villages. We can see that the Taliban will slip us information about a massing of forces and get us to bomb a wedding. We can see them endanger civilian lives with reckless abandon. It matters not what we can see.
It matters what the man on the street sees… through the lens of the insurgent message.
All too often we have obliged him. We are so eager to kill the enemy that we can usually be counted on to reflexively lash out with as much firepower as we can get on that target. If we made tactical nukes available and didn’t make it too complicated to use them, I guarantee that someone would have employed one in some valley in Afghanistan. We like to swat flies with bricks.
There is another side to this coin (ooops, did it again…) and that is that the insurgent tells you how to kick his ass. He tells you what is important. If it’s not a deception, which is possible, he may be telling you where he is planning something or where you have hurt him badly. Why did he specify districts? We really need to take a look at that. What can we determine about him from his message?
When we listen to the enemy, he tells us how he plans to beat us. He tells us what is wrong with the government that, if we fix that problem, will alleviate some conditions that cause people to support him… like the courts in Wardak and Khost. In this case, if we listen to his message and watch the popular response, we can see that killing civilians hurts us and helps him. If we become very careful about civilian lives, even at a bit greater risk to ourselves, we take this away from him. He will always attempt to use it if we make an error, but we can take that high ground from him. That doesn’t mean that we can never use air power, but it does mean that we must be exceedingly careful so as not to feed the fish. Then we can put a few things in the water that the fish will find irritating; such as the Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) being the ones who are concerned about Afghan lives while the Taliban kills innocent civilians in their terror operations or in offensive operations against the Coalition and ANSF. We can coopt his message.
We can salt the water of our fresh water fish. Go pour some salt in your goldfish bowl and see what happens.
Overall, any anti-Coalition message or attack is to hasten the departure of the Coalition members and leave the Afghan Government naked like Janet Leigh in the shower. Any attack on the ANSF is to discredit or weaken the Afghan Government and lessen its legitimacy in the eyes of the people. Any attack on the people is meant to show them that the government and Coalition cannot protect those who side with them. Any economic action is meant to make the people more dependent on the Taliban for support (poppy is a good example) or more willing to believe that the government will not or can not help improve their lot in life.
There are lots of ways that the enemy tells us how to beat him. He pretty much tells us exactly how to beat him. All we have to do is listen.
First, we have to stop feeding the fish.
The Center for A New American Security (CNAS) released a new document at the end of last week, and hopefully it will spark a discussion about measuring success or failure in Afghanistan. Even more hopefully, it will spark action following the discussion.
The discussion will hopefully refine the recommendations of some of the premier counterinsurgency theorists in the world today into actionable metrics for COIN, a subject that has been a sticking point in our execution of COIN, and potentially a shortcoming of FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. Military officers, like business leaders, are rated on their success or failure in any environment based upon measurements. The question has been, “What can we measure that will tell us if we are doing the right things?”
In business, successful behaviors are relatively easy to measure. How much money did the business unit make? How much of that money was spent on making/delivering the product or service? How much money was left for profit afterwards? There are a lot of measurable factors that go into those main factors, but in the end there are lots of pertinent things to measure success or failure of any business unit, making managers easy to reward or disincent. In counterinsurgency the military officer is confronted by a seemingly nebulous environment, and he/she will often fall back on traditional military measurables, which have been demonstrated not to correlate to success in counterinsurgency. Worse, in their search for quantifiable meaning, officers will be forced to come up with equally or more meaningless measurables that can trick them into continuing unsuccessful behaviors.
The funny thing is that, while they are untrained doctrinally, the average Joe on the ground often sees the futility of the measurables that the officers above him are depending on. The guy on the ground may not understand what the hell “hearts and minds” is supposed to be all about, but he recognizes wasted action when he sees it. He may not have a better answer… sometimes he does… but he does know when his time is being wasted on unproductive behaviors or that potentially positive behaviors are being quashed in favor of an unproductive metric. All we have to do is look at the words of junior leaders who are in the suck or who have returned from it. These words help to diagnose our unproductive behaviors and our failure to train our junior leaders in the doctrine that they are expected to execute. They also diagnose our failure to choose objective measurables that mean anything.
Leaders, whether military or civilian, will strive to affect the measurable factors that they are measured against. Military officers begin their rating process by completing an “OER Support Form,” or Officer Evaluation Report Support Form, in which they tell their boss what they are going to achieve during the rated period. The results of the OER affect their promotions… they mean money and career progression. Basically, they tell their boss what they will do and how they will measure their success or failure. They will choose metrics that are, first of all, measurable… usually easily measurable… and secondly, achievable. No one will set themselves up for failure. While we all agree that we are engaged in a fight against insurgents, we do not all agree on how to measure success or failure in such an environment.
We haven’t all bought off on the appropriateness of the doctrine to actually fight against the insurgents, hence the COINdinista vs COINtra struggle.
This blog has pointed numerous times to the necessity to hold commanders accountable for their effects on success or failure during the time they spend in theater. In all previous conflicts, officers who were unable or unwilling to achieve the necessary results on the battlefield were relieved and replaced. Careers were stymied and ended. Until very recently, with the relief of GEN McKiernan, no such message was being sent in the current conflict. Very few officers have been relieved, and most maneuver unit commanders have declared excellent performance regardless of the security situation in their particular areas of responsibility. Since they set the measurables, which their higher commander have agreed to, they can point to these measurables and declare that they had positive effects on those metrics. Based on these, the declarations of success are warranted… but do they mean anything? Only one commander has been held accountable for the loss of “ground” in Afghanistan; and I posit that he was relieved in such a manner as much as a statement as for any lack of success that was worse than his predecessors… as well as to make room for a commander that GEN Petraeus believes will be more successful.
Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal gave a hint during his confirmation hearings that the measurables are going to change. He said that we will not measure success by body counts, which we have been sliding towards, but by the percentage of the population shielded from violence. This is difficult to measure in its own right, and there are many things that will go into it. While, in a population-centric counterinsurgency, securing the population is job one, how do you measure something that hasn’t happened? How do you measure the activities… and thereby incent their application… that contribute to providing security? Since COIN is really a political struggle where perceptions are important, how do you measure those?
This has been a key piece missing from the puzzle. It has resulted in rewarding failure. It has resulted in the continuation of failed behaviors such as staying rooted on what Tim Lynch has labeled “Big Box FOBs.” This is a behavior which will never, as LTG McChrystal states is important, secure the population and prevent their being victimized and intimidated. You have to be there. Going home to the Big Box at the end of the day, only showing up to the village every once in awhile and demanding that they tell you where the Taliban are just doesn’t prevent intimidation.
Commanders will do what they are incented to do. When they set the metrics, based on what they feel that they can do, and based on concepts that have nothing to do with preventing intimidation of the population, they will. They will choose metrics like force protection or tons of Humanitarian Assistance distributed, or missions run vs number of casualties or, as has been a trend lately, on enemy body counts. The population will still be subject to the predations of the Taliban or Taliban-like or affiliated groups; and we still lose ground. The point is that commanders need to be given metrics that work to measure positive counterinsurgent indicators. They will measure something. We need to ensure that the metrics that they use mean something to the counterinsurgency.
That’s why metrics… good, meaningful metrics… are so important.