The report discussed in the NYT is not new. I read the report about six weeks ago, and from personal experience it makes some sense. I would encourage leaders preparing to deploy to read it. This is why I’m disappointed that ISAF is refuting the report rather than learning from it. At least they appear to not be taking it seriously. If this is true, it is a mistake.
Granted, the sample was small and geographically limited. The sampling of US troops is even smaller than the sample of Afghans. So, yes, the report has limitations. It is less science than it is anecdotal… but as a combat advisor who has worked with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the report does carry the ring of truth. The NYT scarcely touches on the real point; the enemy is within… us. It turns out that most of the fratricidal murders that have occurred were not the work of insurgent infiltrators, but the work of very angry ANSF. It is easier to put more money into vetting ANSF recruits than it is to effectively deal with the real problem.
Our counterinsurgency manual lists a set of behaviors that are historically proven to be unsuccessful practices. One of those is a “low priority on quality advisors.” Army Special Forces have a selection process that is designed to weed out those who, among other things, are not suited to working with indigenous peoples. My own experience demonstrates what every other non-SF combat advisor knows; we were not selected based upon on any key criteria for what it takes to be a high quality advisor. We were warm bodies with the requisite military skill set and the requisite rank. Some didn’t even have those prerequisites; they simply had a pulse. There was no personality testing. There was no stress testing. There was no selection process. Individual team chiefs (those who actually had an opportunity and a pool to select from) sometimes made efforts to select a quality team… mostly based on records reviews and interviews, which are very limited in what they can tell a leader. It was a shot in the dark. Mostly, it has worked out. We are discussing what happens when it doesn’t.
Trends emerged. Guardsmen turned out to be particularly well-suited to advisor roles. This does not mean that Regular Army officers and NCO’s were never successful; there are lots of success stories. But, on the whole, the Guard is better suited to advisory roles. It is generally accepted that Guardsmen have more well-rounded experience based on their immersion in civilian culture. There is a lot there to be plumbed; another entire discussion could be had about what the reasons for this phenomenon are. At this point, suffice to say that it has been more than adequately demonstrated to those of us who have served in close relationships with ANSF that some people have absolutely no business being in proximity to Afghans. We have all seen them, Guard and Regular alike; they are a danger to themselves and others, and sometimes they have gotten people killed. The last several paragraphs address the advisor issue, but more and more American line troops, not trained as advisors, are coming into constant contact with ANSF.
These types of killings are not new, but there has been an increase. The article quotes the report’s author, Dr. Bordin, as stating that 16% of hostile Coalition deaths are attributable to these fratricidal murders. I don’t know if this is accurate, but any other problem, the resolution of which could result in 16% fewer casualties, would be attacked with vigor. Well, they are attacking… but they are attacking the statistically much less significant problem of preventing insurgent infiltrators. It appears that the problems that contribute to the majority of these events are being left to smolder, dismissed by officials. Those officials can smear the techniques, they can smear the language, but I’m here to tell you that the message makes sense to me and many other advisors, and it can be addressed just as the military addresses any other recognized source of injuries and deaths; command emphasis.
A few questions may come to mind. Why would a non-insurgent Afghan soldier or policeman decide to open fire on his own allies? The report indicates a number of reasons, key among them being issues related to respect. Profane language and behavior are cited.
Afghans do not use profanity in their language as a matter of course. In the American military, the use of profanity surpasses even the use of profanity in American culture in general (with the possible exception of gangsta rap). Use of the f-bomb is rampant in American movies. Profane name-calling is an art form. In Afghan culture, to insinuate even jokingly that a man has intimate relations with his mother is an offense so great that it may inspire lethal ire. Americans call each other “motherfuckers” all the time. I have witnessed American soldiers calling Afghans such things, or referring to an Afghan as such when discussing them with another Afghan. This then gets back to the Afghan so-referenced and a resentment is begun. This may seem a simple misunderstanding, but it has been known to have lethal consequences.
I’ve seen violence almost break out over cultural issues. I’ve heard Afghan soldiers make death threats against American soldiers because the American soldier made a statement about Afghan women. The American soldier who had been threatened saw hypocrisy in the anger. Afghans see American movies and the promiscuity depicted as a matter of course. They also see American porn. Afghan soldiers love American porn, and they view American women as loose. The American soldier had been listening to his Afghan counterparts talking about American women, became irritated and said that he wanted to see photos of naked Afghan women. That was all it took. It could have resulted in a killing, but the situation was diffused and the soldier was strongly admonished not to engage in such discussions with Afghans for any reason. He survived. Others have not.
Basically, the problem is akin to racism; ignorance and arrogance combine to form a sense of natural superiority that is difficult and sometimes impossible to overcome. Just as many do not suffer from such delusions, some do things that endanger themselves and others. We have a military culture that is not only fond of profanity, it is fond of judging one’s self in relation to others. Esprit d’ corps is often built upon inculcating the belief that the members of a given unit are somehow superior and more elite than members of another unit. Now, how is a young man who has been raised since he was at the tail end of his childhood to believe that this is how to judge others (especially those in uniform) supposed to suddenly suspend this value system because he is put into close daily contact with indigenous forces?
It is nigh on impossible. Some will have the personal characteristics to overcome it, but enough who cannot will make it into these close situations. Some leaders, even some commanders, will recognize the danger and take action. Enough do not, and there is no higher-level emphasis that this is a responsibility of leadership; to recognize and remove such threats from our own ranks. To do so leaves us even more short-handed than we appear to be on paper. To not do so leaves us open to up to 16% higher casualties.
Why has the rate of such incidents increased? What has changed? An emphasis on “partnering” with Afghan units and a move away from emphasizing advising/mentoring. The cited report indicates that ANSF had uniformly positive impressions of American advisors, such as ETT’s and PMT’s, and are less happy with American units more recently. American and Coalition regular units are being placed in close living and working situations with ANSF on a frequent basis. This is, overall, a good thing; even if the advising is being downplayed (generally, there is a mixture). However, since we have the immature and arrogant in our midst, there is a greater potential for dangerous situations to occur. They have, in fact.
Younger soldiers who have been in a strictly military environment since shortly after they graduated from high school have a greater tendency to be unable to adapt to the cultural differences between Afghans and Americans. They are more likely to blithely err in ways that are not intuitively dangerous to American youth. Add to this the small but significant enough number of officers and NCO’s who are unable to effectively work with ANSF and you have a recipe for isolated outbreaks of lethal violence among allies.
While cultural training has improved, it is spotty in its stress on language and gestures. Afghan cultural training often stresses not using the left hand to gesture and emphasizes never showing the soles of your feet. Well, Afghans will often wave with their left hand, especially if the right hand is busy… but they will never shake with it. They will offer the right forearm if the right hand is busy, wet or dirty. Afghans do not appreciate the carelessly rude or purposeful display of the sole of the foot, but they are not so sensitive that accidental or comfort-related moves that expose the sole are taken as an offense.
While making too much an issue of the left hand, offensive gestures and language are often overlooked. Afghans view profane language as very distasteful and ignorant (even if they are illiterate). Profane names are absolutely out and never acceptable. The thumbs-up used to be an offensive gesture, but because of its common American use, it is accepted. However, the American fist pump to the chest is the equivalent of flipping an Afghan the bird and is considered to be extremely offensive… but I’ve only seen one cultural trainer who actually explained this. It’s not just cultural training that can be improved, it’s also incorporating this knowledge into individual task training.
Recently, a National Guard unit was performing its pre-mobilization required individual task training. One of these tasks was “perform detainee operations.” The emphasis was on searching detainees. The trainers were well-rehearsed and professional, executing the task to the precise standards they were given; including how a male searches a female. Teaching male soldiers how to search females puts the idea in their heads that an American male soldier searching an Afghan female could under some bizarre circumstance be acceptable. It is never acceptable, ever (did I mention ever?). There are other ways to deal with the problem. Always. Our premobilization task training is not battle focused on the only battle these young men will serve in. We can adjust that. We can do better with tailoring our training to suit the combat environment, especially culturally.
Finally, a quote from an American officer emerges from the end of the article:
“In this culture, they shoot first, ask questions later,” said Lt. Col. David C. Simons, a spokesman for the training mission in Afghanistan. “Back in the States, if this happens a guy punches you and you walk away and hope you don’t get arrested. But here, you just hope you don’t get killed.”
Well, okay… but part of that is bullshit. Afghans do value human life, and it’s not “shoot first and ask questions later.” It’s a difference in what is worth taking life over. If you call an Afghan a “motherfucker” (just an example) and he actually understands you… as more and more of them do… you are taking your life and possibly those of your buddies into dangerous waters. Oh, and everyone has a weapon capable of ending life with the twitch of a finger. No, the questions do not need to be asked later. You have answered any question required to convince that man that you need to die based on every value he was raised with. In fact, his honor demands it. With all due respect to LTC Simons, he is a spokesman and does not appear to be an advisor. If it were shoot first and ask questions later, many more advisors would have died during the course of this war. I never walked around wondering if I was about to be shot by the Afghans I worked with. That’s a cowboy quote that is unhelpful in considering the problem. The view from Camp Eggers does not include the experience necessary to evaluate what is worth killing a man over in Afghanistan, but since he is actually in Afghanistan, it was a juicy quote that sounded ominous in the NYT. All I can say is, “Thank you, Sir.”
It’s stuff like that which makes young men go to Afghanistan fearing sudden death from any quarter. Being respectful when you are frightened is more difficult than having awareness of the cultural don’ts.
As noted, the report is not great science; but it still hits home. To ignore its findings is to continue to suffer unnecessary casualties. A recommendation to mitigate the risk is to encourage commanders and leaders in general to identify and remove from contact with Afghans any individuals who appear to lack the ability to adapt to working with ANSF. Just as each unit is mandated to have an Equal Opportunity (EO) officer or NCO to investigate and recommend action to mitigate issues of racism and sexism, a similar emphasis should be made to identify and remediate the risks of both soldiers and leaders who place their fellows at risk through imprudent language and behaviors. Education and training are helpful, but we have all seen that they are not enough. Some individuals simply will not adapt. Sometimes, in the immortal words of Offspring, “you gotta keep ‘em separated.”
If the end result is 16% fewer casualties, you tell me where the effort is a waste of time.
If your understanding of our mission in Afghanistan was that the entire operation was to capture or kill bin Laden, then it will seem as if the mission has been accomplished. All of our problems have been solved. Finis.
Not that the death of bin Laden isn’t a good thing. The monster is dead… or is it? I have often said that bin Laden was a poster child, a lightning rod for those who share his world view. Those people are still alive. All of the pieces that have been assembled over the years are still in place. I’m sure that morale is currently low and anger is correspondingly high. Bin Laden was, indeed, more than just a poster child. But he was obviously not exerting the same degree of command and control that he had at one time. Al Qaeda was still plugging away, doing the things that al Qaeda does.
What does this mean to Afghanistan? Well, I’m sure that morale is higher amongst the troops. My morale is higher… in a way. The question of whether or not this is a game-changer remains to be seen. Is this going to change what the local insurgent commander or shadow provincial governor in Afghanistan does? Probably not. This is waaay above his pay grade.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Afghans about bin Laden. First, they never viewed him as being their main problem. Sure, bin Laden supported the Taliban. Al Qaeda funded, recruited, equipped, trained and fielded a “brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance in the years prior to 9/11. That much we know. Al Qaeda and bin Laden were shielded from the rest of the world and provided for by the Taliban when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. In recent years, al Qaeda wound up with better relations with the Haqqani network than they did with the Quetta Shura Taliban. At least it appeared so. Admittedly, al Qaeda’s actual presence in Afghanistan was limited to a couple of hundred individuals. Afghans have more immediate problems with people who do intend to stay there and rule them, such as Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar.
I don’t think that the death of bin Laden is a game-changer in Afghanistan.
External support for the Taliban and/or their affiliates may suffer in some way, but I’m in no way convinced that this will be disabling to the Taliban, et al, in any meaningful way. It does not change the threat to Afghanistan from the Taliban, Haqqani and Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin (HiG). Nor does it defeat the criminal patronage networks. It does not magically improve the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The degradation of even al Qaeda remains to be seen.
The many Afghans I had the opportunity to speak with over the years I’ve spent in Afghanistan expressed concern that if we ever did catch up with bin Laden that it would be to the detriment of Afghanistan. Already, there are calls in Congress to abandon Afghanistan. While this is predictable, it is shallow and short-sighted. These calls have been coming from a not insignificant group for some time.
Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of. This opportunity to cut and run will not be wasted, and it will likely gain adherents rather than lose them.
It boils down to the struggle between two schools of thought. One contends that the world hates us (particularly Muslims), and that they have good reason to. This school believes that withdrawal and accommodation will assuage this hatred. This school of thought argues that instability does not impact other nations, and certainly is not a threat to the national security of more developed countries.
The other school of thought agrees that instability, in a globalized world that is only getting smaller, has the demonstrated ability to provide festering grounds for non nation-state actors who are now capable of exporting violence on a scale that was formerly the realm of nation-states. Japan used six aircraft carriers and over 400 planes to cause a similar number of American dead in the attacks on Pearl Harbor; this compared to four aircraft-cum-cruise missiles acquired for the price of a few airline tickets on 9/11. That was not the last attack, nor has Afghanistan been the only country to harbor such plotters. But we have seen what “leaving Afghanistan to its fate” has accomplished for us.
Predicting the future is impossible. Could the “Mission Accomplished” crowd be right? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t agree with them. So my answer is, “No.” What we have done in the past was not successful.
So what does the death of bin Laden mean?
It means that we have had some measure of revenge. We have had some resolution for part of our anger. We have cut the head off the snake, and whether that snake is a hydra or a cobra remains to be seen. Many insurgent leaders have been killed in Afghanistan, only to be replaced by less reticent commanders who were more brutal than the ones who we killed. Will that happen with al Qaeda? Only time will tell. We cannot predict that.
More damage may be done to al Qaeda by the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East than by the death of bin Laden. Al Qaeda has called for uprisings against the regimes in power for years. Al Qaeda wished to inspire general uprisings based upon Islamic rage, not upon the principles of personal liberty and government accountability. The uprisings of the past few weeks in the Middle East were not at all what al Qaeda and bin Laden wished to inspire. If regime changes in the Middle East replace repressive regimes with an opportunity for hope, the very hopeless rage that drives young men into the arms of al Qaeda will come unglued. The death of bin Laden is icing on that cake.
The final results of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East are far from clear. This could still all go horribly awry. The United States has an opportunity to support the development of enduring institutions, non-military institutions, in these countries. In our recent history, our first answer has been to provide military assistance. But the lack of responsive, accountable institutions has been a key factor driving the disaffected to seek solutions to their problems that often wound up being religiously driven. Who can save you from hopelessness? God. Whatever name to use to refer to God, when the world is too big and too hard, many seek explanations and solutions from religious leaders. Christians have had many such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. Muslims have had such leaders as well, and those who find themselves seeking solutions to the intractable problems of their world are drawn to them. Bin Laden counted on these people as his recruiting base.
What happens if this base suddenly gains hope from another source? What happens if they create and sustain institutions that provide accountability and responsiveness? What happens if the governments and economies of these countries begin to offer opportunities and hope? Bin Laden was already beginning to lose his appeal. Now that he is dead, his survivors in al Qaeda will have to deal with this lost traction.
Our struggle remains with competing visions of our role in the post-Cold War world. The death of bin Laden does not end that argument, but will add artificial lubricant to the side which espouses self-centered navel gazing above striving to find a productive way to add to stability in a shrinking world.
Did you find that any of the countries/services/types of units took to your training more readily? Do we have a disconnect across the whole spectrum, or are there pockets of willingness to adapt? Were the Brits more accepting of your methods than the US Army, or the Marines? How about the SF and airborne units?
My experience with State employees in Anbar was very similar. Lots of overpaid PhD contractors and political appointees who were grossly unprepared for the challenges they faced. Most seemed more interested in the money and writing their next thesis. With a few exceptions, we gained better results from officers and SNCOs with limited knowledge of a subject but open minds and positive attitudes.
That’s a great way to start the rest of the story. Of course, there a hundred topics in the overview of it all that bear deeper discussion, but that would be overwhelming for a single blog post. Later on those.
Yes, there were those who were more receptive. Many more, although the impression was constant that there were those who agreed with the attack dogs of intransigence but simply could not bring themselves to vocalize it. It was usually those who perceived themselves as alpha dogs who spoke loudly and often. Most often, but not always, they were combat arms field grade officers or Sergeants Major. That did not mean that every Infantry Lieutenant Colonel was going to be oppositional. Not at all. But those who were oppositional were often combat arms field grades. Probably 8 of 10 combat arms Sergeants Major sat through the course looking as if they were being force-fed a bowl of freshly microwaved cat dookie.
Our NCO Corps is miserably uneducated in COIN and, as such, is left out of a good portion of the fight except the actual fighting.
There were surprises, though. Civilians who wanted to focus on restrictive rules of engagement, combat arms officers (in many classes) who could discuss the finer points of COIN in detail (those who had educated themselves were not oppositional). There were trends, but no hard and fast rules as to who was going to be a challenge and who was going to bring the conversation in the classroom… or the field… to new heights. Some of the hardest to work with were actually those who were partially read, mostly articles and a few academic papers, and thought they had it all sussed.
Among the rest, there were those who found it complicated and frustrating, often those who liked empirical processes. They struggled and seemed concerned with failure at the practical exercises. Often those folks left with an appreciation for the processes designed to help with a highly creative effort. There were also those who had language difficulties and were challenged to keep up, much less engage as much as they would have liked.
By far, though, the greatest percentage of attendees had worked hard to get to the course and were eager to learn and open-minded about the material. They worked hard, focused well, brought their previous experience to bear and engaged in thoughtful conversation. In addition to particularly professional combat arms officers, non-combat arms branched officers and combat arms officers from branches like Artillery were eager to learn. They had fewer paradigms to break and more open minds. Many were being tossed into roles which did not precisely fit their branch or occupational specialties and therefore were just looking for education on how to handle the situation they were being thrown into.
The attitudes of partner nation military members was something of a mixed bag. There was often an underlying current of resentment as to why they were being taught American COIN doctrine. Sometimes the question was actually raised. The real answer was that the school is designed to be an Afghan school when all is said and done. It will be absorbed into the Afghan Defense University. There was an Afghan co-director. Success in bringing the Afghan staff along is another story, but we were teaching the doctrine that the Afghans had officially adopted. There is an Afghan version of FM 3-24, and it is based directly on FM 3-24, nearly word-for-word. Some of our partner countries still have no officially published doctrine for counterinsurgency. Others, like the French, have had COIN doctrine for quite awhile and perceive themselves to be more than adequate practitioners as it is. The British and Australians were particularly keen to learn the doctrine. The Brits in particular have taken to COIN with vigor, and having produced their own doctrine relatively recently, are eager to discuss principles.
A year ago, I would have said that the Marine Corps outstrips the Army in its overall grasp of COIN. As a service, this still may be true. But, there are still differences between units. The MEF that arrived in the summer of 2010 appeared to be much less interested in COIN than the unit that preceded it. One Battalion Gunner told me that his unit had received no COIN training to speak of, but did train the task of “Assault” to the battalion level prior to deployment. He immediately followed this information by proudly displaying the new hollowpoint ammunition that each Marine in his battalion had been issued six full magazines of. The Marines do have COIN trainers at Twenty Nine Palms, however.
Special Forces typically believe themselves to be natural counterinsurgents due to Special Forces training. We didn’t get a ton of them at the school house as students, but did find ourselves in contact with them frequently, especially concerning local defense-type initiatives, which they were becoming very active with. They are professionals and engage in COIN very pragmatically. Afghan Commandos, on the other hand, were frequent students and presenters at the CTC-A, I’m sure at the behest of their SF mentors and trainers. Afghan Commandos are well-trained and professional. They are thinking warriors who can explain complex concepts in detail. The Special Forces have obviously done a very good job of selecting and training them. Afghans in general pick up on COIN very readily because it makes perfect sense to them. It fits with what they know about their society and its needs much better than either the old Eastern Bloc tactics or the AirLand that Americans initially taught them. The Special Forces of Australia, New Zealand, Italy and France are also frequent students at the courses and all are among the “easy students” who are informed, engaged and communicative.
Civilians are a mixed bag. Generally well-educated, they come from many different backgrounds. Of course, the term, “civilian” is very broad and included journalists. It was always interesting to have journalists at the school. Some were doing stories on the school itself, while others were just trying to learn about the doctrine. Other journalists were invited but never attended. Michael Yon refused an invitation to attend because, “Time is money.”
The civilians were from many countries, but most were Americans. Many USAID employees and contractors attended, along with HTS (Human Terrain System), IGO (International Government Organizations), academics and various Afghan and partner nation government agencies. We began to recognize quickly that there were challenges. For instance, we talk about lethal and non-lethal targeting in program design for COIN, and many civilians took exception to this. When we focused on non-lethal targeting, they still found the term to be offensive. When a guy in a uniform says, “targeting,” we it obviously means putting steel on target. We have no problem being a “target audience” or being part of a “target market,” which are actually more akin to what we are talking about with non-lethal targeting. But, civilians still struggled with the term. Many were good sports, but many were truly uncomfortable with the uniformed personnel and our military comportment. This remained a challenge, and each class would hear its share of objections and expressions of offended sensibilities.
Military students, for their part, found the civilians to be an odd bunch. The prejudice was definitely a two-way street.
One oft-expressed sentiment was an expression of relief that Americans finally “got it.” This was most often expressed by Afghans, civilians and partner nation military. Many had witnessed our JDAM “COIN” just a year or two prior.
Attending the course and sharing close quarters and work actually seemed to help break down the barriers of nations and military vs civilians, along with another interesting phenomenon which repeated itself over and over again over the course of many CLC’s. The lights came on. Between day three and day four of the course, it all jelled. End of day reviews completed by students changed in tone and substance. Conversations exploded. Concepts began to be applied, and exercises began take on a whole new look. Often, those who had come in with oppositional attitudes became engaged and communicative. It was interesting to observe and the cycle repeated itself every CLC. The student who made it through the course with no change was actually a rare exception.
While this tendency was mildly encouraging, it was other developments that were to ultimately to bring a more buoyant spirit to the deployment.
This is SGT Jon Stiles’ second Memorial Day. There are many who have lost good friends, and many who have lost family members in this war. Jon was my friend. My good friend, and a good man. He died, and I am still here. He paid all, and I have paid so very little in comparison.
Memorial Day was always a little bit more abstract before Jon earned his share in ownership of the day. It had meaning, but never to this extent. So very many of us out there now have that personal knowledge of a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine who has given that last full measure of devotion. For many of us, it is no longer those men of history who are now joined daily in death by compatriots and contemporaries who lived on to complete full lives. Men like 1LT Bob Rice.
No, these are those who have gone far ahead of their comrades. Many will never know the joys of life, such as parenthood; their child’s prom, graduation or wedding. Meanwhile, the rest of us live on, likely, for years. It is very likely that Jon paid my dues. It is very likely that his widow is paying my childrens’ dues. Jon is taking the loss for me the way that he took the blast of a VBIED for his comrades that day in Jalalabad a year and a half ago.
My daughter graduates High School tomorrow and I have lived to see it by the grace of God and the sacrifice of men, better men, like Jon.
My daughter will never know Jon. By the time she is my age, the meaning of the day will have gathered dust again. But for me the tree of Liberty stands a bit fuller, its foliage more abundant for having been watered with the blood of patriots whom I’ve had the privilege to know.
I recently traveled to Germany to train part of the incoming International Joint Command (IJC) staff who will be taking over in Afghanistan this year. The group of British, French and Italian officers and senior NCO staff that I worked with were very good participants, with some very thoughtful discussion going on.
Because of the limited return flights, I had to spend a little over a day waiting before I traveled back to Kabul. I had contacted MaryAnn Phillips, President of Soldiers’ Angels Germany and told her I would be in Germany. I knew that she’d be disappointed with me if I went there and made no effort to say hello. I have too much respect for her to just breeze in and out and not say a word about it. MaryAnn found something for me to do with my bit of extra time; visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. When she mentioned it, I was torn. I have put the bodies of friends in bags. I had to go through their pockets for ID so that I could figure out who they were. I have helped MEDEVAC soldiers, some critically wounded. The dead suffered no more and needed only to be shown dignity and respect. The wounded suffered only for a brief time while I was near them and then they were gone. I am trained as a combat lifesaver, but I am an Infantryman and not a Medic. MaryAnn wanted me to go into the den of the great beast of what comes after the bird leaves. That’s what I saw in my head.
There’s a lot more to what I was in for. I got a little of that. I got a lot more than that, though. Like stocking shelves in the basement of barracks that house outpatients.
Landstuhl isn’t just for wounded. It’s where servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan go for medical treatment and evacuation for any number of reasons. Many are ill. Some have been diagnosed with serious diseases, such as cancer. It is also the waypoint for seriously and critically wounded warriors on their way to places like Walter Reed, the burn centers and the first big step on what may be a long road of recovery. Those people never see the outpatient barracks. They are stabilized and moved again. Some others are there for lengthier stays. For them, many of whom came in with little or nothing, a change of clothes can mean the world.
Enter Soldiers’ Angels and the force that defies gravity and fatigue; MaryAnn Phillips.
I can’t describe MaryAnn as unassuming, a word often associated with people who share her trait of recoiling physically whenever any kind word is directed at her (by anyone who is not a patient, the family of a patient or a medical professional). MaryAnn is a force of nature, possessing seemingly boundless energy and a benevolently powerful presence that melts barriers. She can appear to be tired, but while some would get a charge out of a Red Bull, all you have to do to give MaryAnn a charge of energy is tell her that a patient needs something. She is suddenly on the go, tracing the long halls of Landstuhl for the millionth time, seemingly tireless.
She starts by stocking shelves. Many probably never realize that she is there, but the staff at Landstuhl know her. She is accorded great respect and deference by the staff. She flows effortlessly between organizations and is greeted warmly by all as a partner, a member of the team. Her first stop is an administrator at the barracks, a woman who helps coordinate so that patients have a smoother stay. These two women belong to different organizations, but share a common purpose. The administrator smooths the path for the injured and sick, making sure that they have their paperwork straight, their vouchers available. MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels share something with her; they love the servicemembers who are in a strange place in difficult circumstances. The administrator shows this by her work. MaryAnn and the Angels fold clothing and stock shelves with sweats, t-shirts, underwear and blankets. Many of the sick and injured never really notice her comings and goings, but there are always blankets on the shelves, many made by volunteers and donated. Servicemembers who have been separated from their belongings find clothing and other materials that bring comfort made freely available.
It isn’t until later, usually, that she moves on to the hospital proper. She stops in at Movement Control, touching base and getting an idea of what the patient flow is like and when planes are arriving. She touches base with the LNO’s from various units, senior NCO’s who track and facilitate for evacuees from their parent units in the theater. As I follow MaryAnn like a puppy, lost in an unfamiliar place, I am stunned by the atmosphere of caring and professionalism that she flies through. These professionals deal with personal tragedies and sacrifice on a daily basis with a calm sense of purpose and a sense of humor. None of the laughs are at the expense of the patients, though. I sense only respect and purpose regarding them.
We stop to see a patient whose parents are relaying messages to via MaryAnn. She is in contact with them, reassuring them with news of their son’s personal reactions. She never shares medical information, leaving that task to doctors, sometimes cajoling a busy practitioner to make that call to fill in the parents or spouse on the medical details. MaryAnn shares only the human side, like the fact that their son is expressing a sense of humor, or that she saw him up and moving around. She tells the young man that his parents have told her that someone keeps getting on his bed at home.
“That’s my dog,” he says, his face brightening.
That’s something extra. That’s something special that the doctor or nurse, busy with medical details and other patients, doesn’t have to do. There is MaryAnn, flitting in and giving the young man a smile and a specially made blanket along with a Soldiers’ Angels coin. He is busy… he has finally been allowed to get to a laptop and all he can think of is getting on Facebook. MaryAnn laughs repeatedly throughout the rest of the day that this young man, high on pain meds and walking unsteadily for the first time since being injured, the first thing he wants to do is get on Facebook. He’s behaving normally and contacting his world. It’s a good sign. He won’t remember her, she asserts. She may be right… but she was there, and she bridged that gap of thousands of miles to bring news of his parents and his dog.
And then she moved on.
It seemed like an afterthought. The CCU. “I should show you the CCU.” I am seized with dread, yet interested. I can’t say no to MaryAnn. She introduces me to some of the staff. She inquires as to the status of their supply of blankets and coins for the patients. A man lies seriously injured in a nearby room. A moth to flame. Suddenly I am alone. MaryAnn is holding his hand, talking with him, joking with him, listening to him. She sends me to get a blanket for him, and she gives him a coin. He is fixated on her. It’s as if she’s the only person in the world. In that moment, for him, she was.
I bring the blanket and hand it to MaryAnn. She shows it to him, and immediately it is the answer to all of his problems. He tells her exactly how he wants the blanket placed. She feeds him crackers and water while he struggles with the effects of powerful painkillers. We are there for well over an hour, and all he can see is her. MaryAnn later tells me that he will not remember it. He may not remember Landstuhl at all. But in that moment, she was the only one in the world for him. The next morning, as he is readied, or “packaged” for transport, there are only two things he is concerned with; his iPod and that blanket.
It was an incredible act of love, but to MaryAnn, it is just what she does. She puts the same love into organizing the stock room or folding sweatshirts. She is not the only Angel. She is not the only one who cares.
A number of patients are being moved stateside. The aircraft is on the ground, readied. The ambulatory patients are loaded and waiting. The final touches are being put on “packaging” the patients from the CCU. Every bit of equipment they need is specially affixed to their stretchers, each a mini-CCU tailored to suit their requirements. The Air Force flight medical personnel are there, getting the hand-off. An Air Force Captain notices that one patient is not completely covered. He gets a Soldiers’ Angels blanket, made by a volunteer in the States. A card is pinned to it. He puts the blanket on the wounded man and reads him the card.
He actually took the time to read the card to the recipient of the blanket.
It was an incredible day and a half watching the behind-the-scenes work of the Angels in action. This is amazing work, often with large doses of what most would call, “drudgery.” It’s not exciting. It’s mostly work. Work done with love and persistence. Many, perhaps most, will not remember their encounters with MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels of Landstuhl, but they are there. They bring comfort, they bridge the gap that sometimes opens between professional medical care and people back home. They never share details, medical information or personal information. They are exposed to tragedy and yet they persevere. They do not tell tales of the wounded except in general terms. They see dignity in sacrifice. They care for the soldiers of Coalition nations just as they care for Americans. As awed by MaryAnn as the man in the CCU was, I think that she was just as awed. All of this is done with an overdose of humility. I’ve never seen anyone refuse a compliment as vehemently.
She may actually kill me for writing this.
Personally, I am awed. MaryAnn and the Angels of Landstuhl do things that I could never do on an ongoing basis. To me, they are legend. Truly amazing. Volunteers all. You do not need to embellish their amazing work. But recently a journalist credited MaryAnn with coordinating medical care for a wounded British soldier. While I’m sure it sounded like a great story, it’s not true. The story has been corrected, but in the meantime it made it look like the very professional organizations involved weren’t doing the best they could until they were coordinated by this volunteer. This simply isn’t so. Soldiers’ Angels are truly heroes to me without having to give them superhuman multinational medical powers. They do many wonderful things, but international medical coordination isn’t one of them. Soldiers’ Angels supports soldiers and their families.
I bet at least one of them did hold his hand.
Greyhawk tells the story really well here.
Just returned from another wretched trip to Pogadishu, once again challenging my moral endurance. One of the more blatant signs of disconnection from reality; several Soldiers complaining vociferously about Pizza Hut running out of beef while nearby a Soldier who was passing through Bagram to go on leave had come from a FOB where running out of water for days at a time was relatively common, and needed supplies were unable to be delivered due to a lack of airlift capacity. The ridiculousness of the concerns of the denizens of Pogadishu is highlighted in the presence of those who pass through their midst on their way to and from the real war.
The Soldiers who pass through are subjected to visions of high-rise (three story) conex condos while they are subjected to the horrors of the “transient tents.” These hovels house nearly two hundred men who share four shower stalls, two urinals and three toilets. Overflow capacity is provided by several porta-johns nearby. I haven’t been to the east side of Bagram in two years, but I hear that conditions over there are even more horrific. How that can be escapes me, but there must be another level of depravity on that side of the runway. In the north transient tents, one tent, which is not an Army tent but the type of enclosure that might hold diners at an outdoor wedding, holds double-deck bunk beds that house at least 175 men. It is nearly always filled to capacity, a scant foot to a foot and a half between bunks. Dimly lit, it is like a holding pen for a level of Hell that is filled to capacity. Bare plywood floors are perpetually dusty, and there is an air of resignation.
The other tent, of the same construction, has standard Army cots separated by the same intervals. This tent easily houses a hundred men. It seems more pleasant because of the ability to see from one end to the other. Not all of the occupants are transients. Many Soldiers and contractors are “housed” there for weeks at a time before getting more “permanent” housing, likely in one of the many B-huts which have small living areas separated by cubicle-like “walls” with lockable “doors.” The “walls” cannot go all the way to the ceiling because there are only two Chigo (heating and air conditioning) units, one at each end of the hut. Often a dozen men will be housed in one B-hut. B-hut living is tolerable. It is sheer luxury compared to the Spartan living in the transient tents.
In the transient tents, privacy is a matter of mind over matter. The iPod is a savior. If one puts in the iPod, one can almost forget the man snoring 18 inches from his left ear. As I lay there on my cot, the roar of two F-15’s taking off shattered the near-serenity of Pachelbel’s Canon. I restarted the tune, immersed in the quiet dignity of what is likely my favorite piece of classical music. A bit later, another pair of fighters took off, afterburners punctuating Steppenwolf’s invitation to a young woman to join them on a Magic Carpet Ride. Brilliant.
I think that the iPod saved my sanity.
But there is no saving one’s sanity from the utter fobbitry. NFL on Fox made the trip to Afghanistan, only to root themselves in the land of those who serve, forward deployed but not in any way, shape or form an actual participant in the hostilities. As we were conducting training for several days to one of the headquarters elements, we moved through what is to us is something out of Alice in Wonderland. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I were approached at Bagram by a huge, time management-challenged rabbit. So, eating in one of the dining facilities during lunchtime, we saw Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long as they exited. They had been seated in the large, cramped DFAC and had signed many autographs. Asked by a friend back home if I had said anything to them, I replied, “Nah, this place is full of fobbit jock-sniffers. I don’t want to be one of them.”
I was informed that coffee being shot through the nose is very uncomfortable and stains shirts.
I am reminded that Toby Keith heads out to FOBs and COPs where he has played for very small groups of Soldiers on an acoustic guitar. It was a nice gesture for NFL on Fox to head to Afghanistan, it really was. When I first came to Afghanistan, half of the people I knew weren’t even tracking on this country. It was the forgotten front of the “War on Terror.” Iraq was where all the money, troops and attention went. So for Fox to come to this land was a great gesture. But the kids at Bagram have everything.
Except beef on their pizza… at least for a few days.
There are Soldiers and Marines all over this country who get squat… even water… while Bagram has “Karaoke Nite” and “Salsa Nite.” Then the spoiled wonders there even have the temerity to rant out loud about not getting beef with their pepperoni for their Pizza Hut pizza (delivered, no less). Now, I can’t fault them for making their lives as comfortable as possible, but there is silly and then there is ridiculous. Salsa Nite is silly.
Housing the warriors who normally live in Spartan conditions that the fobbits at Bagram would riot over in those pathetic “transient tents” is ridiculous. You do not see field grade officers spending the night in those wretched holes called “transient tents.” If a full Colonel ever got stuck in there for a night, lots would be made of the event shortly thereafter. But it is perfectly fine to “house” a young Sergeant with two Purple Hearts, who has lived for days without clean water and who has no electricity on a regular basis, in the slums of Bagram while the full-time denizens of that massive disconnect from reality are housed in apartment complexes formed of stacked shipping containers with cable TV and internet service in their rooms.
The word is disparity.
“I can’t believe that they have the nerve to even open their mouths about not having beef on their pepperoni pizza,” the young Sergeant stated, “but it just reminds me that they are nothing.” He continued, “They come here and then they go home and talk about how they went to Afghanistan, but they aren’t even in this war. This is like an American town in the middle of Afghanistan. This isn’t Afghanistan, and these people ain’t shit. Hearing stuff like that pisses me off, but it reminds me that I’m an Infantryman, and I’m in it for real.”
Bagram really needs to do something about the shameful disease vectors that it calls “transient housing.” There should not be a soul living in pampered condos while the warfighters themselves pass through the scummy misery of those fetid tents. Tons of money is being spent there on construction, and yet a man who lives in crap out on a FOB has to share four shower stalls with over two hundred other men? Bagram is a hub for all who pass in and out of Afghanistan. The notoriously snarled air traffic leaves people hanging for days at a time… to suffer the indignity of an ill-run “transient housing” situation. It is unconscionable.
They didn’t show the celebrities the “transient tents.” Why? Why not show them where the real warriors get stuck when they pass through on leave or rush home in family emergencies? Because they are not idiots. If you chain your child in a closet, you know better than to show anyone. Certainly not anyone with a camera. Not only is Bagram disconnected from the war, but they treat anyone who actually is connected to it like some kind of animal. For anyone going on leave, Bagram is just part of the hellish journey that only becomes any semblance of normal when they reach Atlanta.
It’s a shame.
I’ve caught yet another upper respiratory infection in the transient hell of Bagram. If you ever really just have a burning desire to get sick, go to the transient housing office at Bagram and tell them you need a place to stay.
What part of, “Allahu akhbar!” do they not understand?
For the second time in this war, we have had fratricide performed in the military ranks by a “Muslim convert.” Neither of the perpetrators have been combat veterans. Neither of them suffered from PTSD.
So why are CNN and MSNBC going on and on and on and on about PTSD? We’ve got an issue to discuss, and I don’t have the solution; but that issue is not PTSD.
Not in this case.
Let’s talk about what happened, not about diversionary babble that has nothing to do with why twelve Soldiers are dead; murdered by “one of their own.” Let’s address whatever issues we find and not pussyfoot around.
That’s not the American way, though.
Instead we will make it about handguns or PTSD or some other crap. We won’t really look at the hard questions because someone might get offended.
There is a war on, folks. It is a war unlike any war we as Americans have ever experienced. First, we have to quit kidding ourselves about this and what it is. We want to be sensitive and understanding and all-accepting, but things are what they are.
I don’t have the answers. But I can tell you that the question is not PTSD.
We had scheduled to do some training in Kunar, and so we set out on the arduous aerial tour that would take us to the remote outpost which was our destination. My team, consisting of myself, CPT Jean-Luc and two interpreters flew into Bagram planning to catch another helicopter to Jalalabad and yet another out to the outpost in Kunar. At Bagram we discovered that the flight to Kunar was originating from where we stood, but we would wait overnight to catch it. It sounded like it was worth the additional pain of a night in Pogadishu. The terps groaned; they hate Pogadishu, because it makes them feel like sub-humans in their own country. But, they were good sports and took one for the team.
We arrived a half an hour before “show time,” the time when they call the roll for the flight, and immediately noticed the red band on the display. “Canceled.” Whoa. Not good. Sure enough, the Specialist at the window indicated that the flight indeed was canceled, and would not be rescheduled. The next flight to our chosen destination would be the next scheduled flight, now days away.
“That puts us outside our mission window,” I said, obviously irritated.
“I’m sorry, I don’t control the flight schedule,” the young Specialist offered.
“I know. You’re fine. I’m still pissed, because my mission is screwed; but you’re fine. I know it’s not your fault.” I’m sure that made him feel much better. Strain showed on his face.
I called the shop and after pondering our situation, they beckoned us to scrub the whole thing and return. I started looking for air again… headed the other way. The fixed wing pax (personnel) terminal, about a mile away, said that they had a flight leaving with a show time only about an hour and a half distant. They don’t take Space A (space available) listings by phone, so we had to get ourselves, our weapons, armor and gear down to the terminal. No big deal… we were getting used to dragging our gear back and forth all over Bagram. As we grabbed our gear, an Air Force Captain awaiting a different flight recognized my obvious irritation and asked where we had been headed. “Ah, Kunar,” he said, “Couple of places out there having a really bad day. They needed helicopters.” This didn’t sound good. Not a lot of information, but enough to know that some of our guys were having a rough time out there.
Maybe my day wasn’t so bad after all.
We wound up catching a shuttle, and soon were on the tail end of a 200 person list to fly to Kabul. Going by the numbers, that didn’t sound promising. However, there were very few people in the pax terminal who seemed to want to go to Kabul. I have no idea where all the people on the list were, but they weren’t where we were. Sure enough, we got seats. We palletized our gear and waited to be called to board the bus that would drive us out to the C-130. In the meantime Tamin, one of our experienced interpreters, noticed someone from our unit who was due back from leave. “I saw Pickling, Sir.”
“He was over there. I dunno… he might be in the bathroom.”
I didn’t see Specialist Pickling anywhere. I got up to look around. There were Soldiers everywhere. A flight had come in from Kuwait with at least 150 Soldiers, Marines and Airmen returning from leaves. I soon spotted Pickling and quickly had a reservation for him on our flight as well. He was relieved not to have to spend the night in the purgatory that is Pogadishu. Something had gone right.
Messages began to come in on my phone. Something was going on. There was word from a friend in the states that a base in Kunar had been overrun. I sent back a message that I had already heard that a base was having a bad day, but nothing at all about anyone anywhere being overrun. Still no solid information.
The picture began to gel as time passed. So did the flu I was coming down with, a gift from the Frenchman. It wasn’t until the next morning, after finally flying back to KAIA and grabbing just under three hours of sleep in the transient tent there (the nicest I’ve slept in in Afghanistan) and a European breakfast (where do they call that sausage?), that reports of 8 KIA at Camp Keating began to filter through. They were part of the same Task Force I was going to work with.
My mission was a scrub; but maybe, in comparison, my day wasn’t so bad after all.
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.
Back when I was a youngin, the idea of being directly overflown by a Hind D (big, evil-looking Russian attack helicopter) was a horrifying prospect. Today I was overflown at an altitude of about 100 feet on several occasions by Afghan National Army Hind D’s.
It was vaguely uncomfortable. I knew, on a conscious level, that they were “friendlies,” but all the old aircraft ID classes built in a negative reaction. Something inside me said, “Shoot it! Shooooooot it!”
A 5.56mm rifle will not bring down a Hind D, barring divine intervention.
Sometimes thoughts are just thoughts. Vaguely uncomfortable, but just thoughts.