28 Oct 2009 @ 1:45 PM 

There are lots of people who are tired of war. The young men and women on their third and fourth deployments are tired of war. Some say that the Afghans are tired of war, while others point out that if they were truly tired of war, they would perhaps cease fighting. Matthew Hoh is tired of war.

When you tire of war, the reason for fighting gets lost in the shuffle. The immediate emotion of it all fades and the real work begins. The young often picture war as an adventure. Some picture it as a righteous cause, with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wafting through the whole scene.

War is hard work.

War is not glamorous. War is dirty, it is occasionally exceedingly violent; but mostly it is tedious and boring. Especially this type of war. There are some areas of Afghanistan that see activity on a daily basis. Most do not. Helmand, Khost, Kunar and some other places in Afghanistan have relatively constant conflict, with active insurgencies that threaten the peace on a daily basis. Other places are relatively calm, with spates of violent outbursts that shatter the day-to-day routine of Afghan life with smoky, dusty, noisy destruction.

There is no truly national solution for all of Afghanistan. Each area has its own particular situation and broad generalizations simply do not work in this country. Afghanistan is largely rural, and all politics is local. Each place requires specific knowledge of the area, the drivers, the personalities and the issues of particular concern. Foreign knowledge wins nothing here. Experience elsewhere is no guarantee of success here. The lessons of Iraq are often counter-productive here, especially the hard-won TTP’s that assisted in survival in the urban violence. Here, they are often an over-reaction that only alienates those whose trust we are working so hard to gain.

When the zest for war has long-since drained, it takes a special kind of motivation to keep going day-by-day and still putting effort into it. I have seen those who have stacked arms after a few months, thereafter taking the easy way. I have seen those who once had a fire in their belly who have run out of wind, their endurance spent, they are no longer mentally capable of making their way through productively. They become, at times, worse than dead weight. There are those who just flat lose their minds. They lose their grasp of the why, and their disillusionment becomes worse than an anchor dragging their souls against the sandy bottom of the sea of time. It becomes a sail that catches the headwind and drives them backwards.

Perhaps that is what happened to Matt Hoh. I don’t live in his head, so I don’t really know. There has been much discussion in the past day or so about his letter of resignation. One of the young Captains expressed a type of admiration for his having the “courage of his convictions.” I’m not inclined to be so charitable. I think he’s a loser. I think he’s perhaps an example of how some of the young “whiz kids” are not what they seem to be; that a 36 year old may not have what it takes to be the senior civilian officer in charge of our government’s efforts in one of Afghanistan’s provinces. A Marine officer, one of the many Captains to have left the services without rising to Field Grade rank during this war… perhaps out of fatigue… he then joined the civilian ranks and worked in Iraq as a contractor. Visit his LinkedIn page and see that the longest period of time he’s listed as staying in one place is a year and half. Not exactly a stellar resume, in terms of what civilian employers would look for in a hiring decision. Look at the types of contacts he’s open to… new opportunities, consulting jobs, that type of thing.

He’s a job-hopper.

Matthew Hoh is not a shining example of American intellectual might carefully applied to the problem of Afghanistan. He was only in this country since April. Hell, he scarcely had time to learn anything other than, “This shit is really hard.”

It made his head hurt.

Why are we hiring people like Matt Hoh to do important work in troubled provinces in Afghanistan? That’s the question that we should be asking. One of the officers here met him while working in Zabul Province earlier this year. I asked him what he thought of Hoh.

“He was a dick.”

Short, succinct, to the point. This officer was an embedded combat advisor who knows more than the average bear about insurgency and counterinsurgency. He’s been an officer longer than Hoh has held any one position in his life… going by his own LinkedIn page, that is. The officer worked with real Afghans in real situations on the ground in Zabul Province for months. In my opinion, the officer’s opinion holds water.

As for the “courage of his convictions,” Matthew Hoh has now positioned himself, career-wise, better than he ever was as a contracted officer with the State Department with a one-year contract. He is, for today, the hero of the Huffington Post. However, he has thrown himself into the dustbin of history. He’s a quitter, and while some may say that he quit on principle, the most telling line of his own resignation is this one:

“…I have lost understanding of… ”

Yes, young Matthew, you have lost understanding. Judging from the other information, I’m not sure that you ever had any, really. I am not feeling very understanding towards Hoh, either. Hoh admitted that there was a timing issue in his resignation. He has now been doing interviews, playing the instant celebrity, and he’s been getting his share of pats on the back from the “my head hurts” crowd. In one for the Washington Post, he says,

I am happy for the attention to my issues and to the points I am raising, because I believe they have been absent in the public debate of the war.

Ah, so it’s a statement. This is not one man heeding his conscience. It is one man using his position, and his resignation from it, to influence policy through public opinion. That’s what he tells us. He believes… what he wants for us to see. He admits in his interview with the Post that he had doubts, and that he had studied Afghanistan, and then that his experience here confirmed what he thought… so he resigned. Because to him, that’s service.


In other words, he is so damned principled, and so damned intelligent, that he knows better than all the other people who have spent years and years on these issues, as well as the elected officers of our government. He knows so much, and so well, that his resignation… made public by himself and now on an interview tour… is so damned important that this minor ex-functionary with a PRT should influence public opinion?

He spent only a few short months on the ground here and then quits… to much publicity, which he undoubtedly generated by releasing the resignation letter. I sense purpose. Hmmm.

This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken’s invitation.

Yep… that makes sense. Joining Team Biden may be in the works then, eh? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Pretty consistent… he’ll fit right in.

Now, let’s take a look at the real importance of such a man, the most senior of three State Department officials in Zabul Province. That is a man who has risen in the ranks to oversee the efforts of two other civilian officials in the PRT in Zabul. Wow. Really important guy. Very effective. He admitted to achieving pretty much of nothing while he was there but felt that he had “represented” well.

I don’t think so. It’s easy to be impressive for short periods of time. It’s harder to actually do real things in this country that do make a difference over a long period of time. I find that Mr. Hoh is singularly unimpressive. He claims great expertise with only a few months experience in this country, and now demands that his words have great sway in a very important debate. He will have his fifteen minutes of fame, and then he will fade. In the larger picture, he’s nobody. Instead of doing what he can to make a real difference in a tough situation, he has cashed in his chips and run away from any responsibility. He was offered a seat at the table where he could perhaps fight the good fight and influence policy, but he chose not to. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, will take pleasure in his current behavior and hire him in. Hoh will not starve from lack of work. He may very well wind up working with the rest of the foreign policy rocket scientists on Team Biden. But, as in this case, he will disappoint and wind up with another sub-two-year job on his resume.

In the meantime, I think that the State Department needs to look at its hiring practices and determine why it is attracting such people and missing the indicators (a year and a half max in the past eight years or so) that may indicate an inability to make the long term contribution that is needed. They also need to take a look at the commitment level of those it is considering hiring. Hoh was not deeply committed when he arrived, and he conveys that clearly in his interview. How did the hiring authorities at State miss that? How did his supervisor not recognize the growing problem and do what supervisors are supposed to do? How did the PRT commander not recognize that Hoh needed counseling, that he had, in his own words, “lost his understanding?”

War is tiring. It’s really, really hard on those who have difficulty in keeping the same job for awhile. Perhaps now he sees himself as finally saving the drowning men. When Hoh’s fifteen minutes are up, I will not miss him. While Ambassador Eikenberry was overly civil to him, I am not. Hoh’s reppenhagen in my book. He has joined the ranks of the infamous.

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Categories: Afghanistan, AfPak, analysis, COIN, COINiots
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 28 Oct 2009 @ 01 45 PM

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 19 Oct 2009 @ 11:41 AM 

Recently Captain Scaribay and I trained three Turkish OMLT’s (Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams) at the Turkish Camp Dogan. We had been told that all the Turks could speak and read English, so we sauntered on over to teach a nationality that we had never worked with totally unconcerned with the challenges of language.

Bad intel. About a third could speak a reasonable amount of English, another third understood a good bit of what was said but found it difficult to discuss it in English, and a good third of them couldn’t speak a lick of English. For us, who are used to working with and through interpreters, you would think that the situation would not be that difficult. But we had no interpreter. The team leaders, Lieutenant Colonels, had to interpret for their men. This was incredibly time consuming compared to using an experienced interpreter. The Turks themselves were very interested in in-depth discussions on nearly every point, which made for a great learning experience for them; it also made a one hour class drag into three hours.

Still, they did well.

I had not seen Camp Dogan since early May, 2007. Even then, I had only seen what I could from just inside the gate. I had a significant emotional experience there that I mentioned on a post, describing two young Afghan children who appeared to be about two playing with what I imagined were their only toys… made of mud. The field where I had seen them playing is now occupied by a new home. In fact, on the road next to Camp Dogan there has been a significant amount of construction. Kids still hang out at the ECP (Entry Control Point,) but the ECP itself has changed considerably and Camp Dogan itself has changed as well.

Being my first real experiences with Turks, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was amazed at the cleanliness and order of the Turkish headquarters. There was a soldier on duty whose job it was to mop up any footprints as soon as they were made. At least that’s how it seemed. We were shown in to the Commander’s office which was very nicely appointed and served beverages immediately upon arrival. Coffee (Turkish, strong) for me and chai (also Turkish and strong) for CPT Scaribay. When it comes to flavor, the Turks don’t play. We were to find the same to be true of Turkish food.

We had also been told that our accommodations were taken care of as well, but the Turkish Colonel seemed surprised that we were intending to stay with them during the course. He quickly issued a series of orders in Turkish and the aid went scurrying off. We were then shown to the classroom where we would conduct the training. It was, in the words of CPT Scaribay, “the safest classroom ever.” We were to teach in a bunker which had been equipped as an MWR by the Turks. There were several seating areas arranged with sofas and matching chairs, and a few tables. The Turks have a certain flair for decorating, and antique weapons hung on the walls while floral displays adorned brick niches. It had the air of a manly hunting lodge. A coffee and tea bar complete with bar stools graced one side of the room. The bunker/lounge would serve nicely. It was a break from conference rooms or tents.

The Navy Captain who was in charge of arranging for the in-country ISAF training for the OMLT’s left, and we were shown to another office to wait while our accommodations were arranged. Of course, there were more beverages. Turks don’t skimp on hospitality, either.

When our room was ready, the young aid came and led us to the quarters. They were brand new, not yet plumbed. Inside were two beds, a small table and two chairs. The beds were made. We dropped our rucks and helmets and were soon off to walk around and see the camp.

One thing I noticed was that the Turks are extremely well-disciplined. Whenever an officer or senior NCO neared them the soldiers stood at rigid attention, fingers straight as opposed to our curled-fingered position. The officer rank was fairly easy to read, but the NCO rank looked very similar to U.S. Air Force rank, upside down chevrons curling under a symbol comprised of a wreath topped with a crescent and star. The Turks also marched groups of soldiers as small as four. Physical training was often done at the squad and platoon level, with formations running around their 1K track that wound around the small camp. Of all the forces in Afghanistan, the Turks behave most like an army encamped.

We learned that the camp was occupied not only by Turkish soldiers and airmen but also by Albanians and Azerbaijanis. We marveled to see that ordinary soldiers occupied tents with no cots. A soccer game was in full swing on a small soccer field in what looked to have been a fenced-in tennis court… fully lined with astro-turf. Goals had been built into the ends. It was perfect. Nearby, on a volleyball court, the JV warmed up their soccer skills, apparently awaiting an opportunity to play.

We had been told that the Turkish chow was good. It was not. It was excellent. Amazing. The best food I’ve had in Afghanistan, edging out the turkmani palau at Bala Hissar. “Great,” I said to CPT Scaribay, “Now I’m going to have to find a good Turkish restaurant in Cincinnati. Do you know what the chances of that are? There may be one, and I may never find it!”

The Turkish mess hall had several fairly large LCD TV’s hung from the ceiling. Turkish TV is an eye-opener. It is surprisingly like American TV, with really good production values. The commercials were telling as to the economy and scenes of (like American TV, idealized) urban life in Turkey. You can tell a lot about a society from its commercials. While the production values of the commercials were excellent and the scenes and attire were quite western, most of the commercials were fairly serious in their intent, either selling hard or setting an ideal. I prefer humorous commercials, but the insight into Turkish society and the portrayal of the values was interesting.

A few minutes into the meal, the TV’s were muted and suddenly everyone rose. CPT Scaribay and I instinctively rose as well. A senior NCO loudly spoke a sentence, which was repeated by the assembled. He spoke another, which was also repeated. The Sergeant then indicated an individual, who spoke a short sentence which was answered with a one-word shouted response from the soldiers and officers. Then everyone sat and resumed their meal. This was to occur at every meal. CPT Scaribay and I likened it to the singing of the “Big Red One” song by the 1st Infantry Division at Ft Riley. All of the Combat Advisors-in-training there used to just mumble most of the words except the words, “Big Red One” whenever they came up in the song. On the second day we asked one of the senior Sergeants with whom we were eating about the ritual. It is apparently a prayer of thanks for the food.

After dinner we walked back to where we were billeted and observed the Turkish troops living normal garrison life in Afghanistan. As we stood near the prefab building our eyes caught movement. At first glance it was a cat; black and white.

“I don’t think that’s a cat,” said Scaribay.

“It looks like a…,” I began.

“Rabbit? That can’t be a rabbit,” returned Scaribay.

“I’ll be dipped. It’s a FOBrabbit. A frabbit,” I continued.

“That can’t be a wild rabbit,” he pondered.

“I’ve never seen anyone keep frabbits in Afghanistan,” I offered.

“You wouldn’t think of it, would you?” he asked.

“Nope. First time.”

The next morning I was to see that there was not one, but five fully grown frabbits and some wee frabbits as well… which is, after all, the way of frabbits.

<i/>Two of the legendary Frabbits of Dogan” title=”The Frabbits of Dogan” width=”640″ height=”478″ class=”size-full wp-image-400″ /><p class=Two of the legendary Frabbits of Dogan

Working with the Turks was another excellent experience. They were professional, worked hard to understand the concepts completely while fighting through a language barrier, and applied their existing knowledge to the situation. They certainly brought enthusiasm to the task as well.

On the second day, during a break, I noticed Turkish flags being hung in a decorative way with another flag, which was quickly determined to be the flag of Azerbaijan. We noticed troops marching in formation and music that we thought was coming from a building, but was in fact being broadcast over loudspeakers. I don’t know if it was the national anthem of Azerbaijan, but it was certainly a very patriotic song about Azerbaijan. We could tell because the booming male voice said, “Azerbaijan” a lot. It turned out to be Azerbaijan’s Independence Day. Soon, that song was stuck in my head.

Soon enough, we had to bid the Turkish Army, Air Force and Navy personnel good bye and head back to the ranch. The Turkish hospitality was excellent. They really went out of their way to make us feel welcome. The food was truly excellent, and even the beds were the best I’ve slept in on either tour. The mattresses were like futon mattresses. I almost offered to buy it from them. All of this is rare in a country where we are sometimes very lucky to get a cot in a tent with a gravel floor. None of this should be construed to mean that the Turks live in luxury; they clearly don’t. The camp was fairly austere, and the Turks are serious soldiers, but our hosts made sure that we were well taken care of. It was truly an interesting experience. It will probably be repeated before I leave this country again. New experiences, new people to meet and work with, new challenges in communicating ideas…

… and the legendary Frabbits of Dogan.

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Categories: Afghanistan, COIN, doctrine, Wild Afghanistan
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 19 Oct 2009 @ 11 41 AM

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 15 Oct 2009 @ 1:32 PM 



Recently, an email came in from an officer who quoted an ANP chief in a district in which I did some work as a mentor. The ANP chief said that he was looking forward to winter so that the leaves on the trees could no longer the Taliban and he could kill them all. Fair’s fair, after all. They’ve repeatedly tried to kill him.

He’s been wounded twice since I’ve known him.

We were getting ready to do a conference for trainers from all over the Army and some of our Coalition allies, and it was brought up how great it would be to have the ANP chief, a Colonel, come and speak to these officers and senior NCO’s about his experiences. Since I knew him, I said that I could perhaps help. Through a series of communications, we were able to get through to the Colonel and schedule time for him to come and speak.

I met the Colonel just over two years ago. He had been handed a very challenging district and was struggling to turn it around. He was cheerful, soft-spoken and, I was to learn, fearless. Whenever word came of ANP troops involved in a fight, he gathered more ANP soldiers and ran towards the sound of the guns. He was wounded and nearly lost his hand in one fight. An American medic twice braved fire to run the length of the convoy to work on the wounded ANP officer. He was never recognized for his bravery, because the American officer in charge at that point put himself in for a Silver Star for the action. Recognizing the medic was not on the agenda. The ANP Colonel was medevac’ed to an American hospital and his hand was saved.

He was wounded again just over a year later, this time in the chest. Again he was flown to an American hospital and recovered. His driver was also wounded in the ambush which was set specifically for him. He hates the Taliban and they hate him back.

The Colonel has also made massive changes in his district. While certainly not entirely free of insurgency, the district is a far cry from the condition it was in during the spring and early summer of 2007. I’m going to go and revisit the district soon. The Colonel tells me that it is very different from when I last saw it. I hope so; it was viewed with considerable foreboding back then. The ANP have also improved.

In the early summer of 2007, the ANP would scarcely leave their district center for fear of attack by very strong insurgent forces. At least one officer was a Taliban spy, and two officers were running an arms trafficking ring along with a local baker. The district was a mess. The bazaar was an ugly smear running alongside the only major road. The Taliban and HiG held sway. An NDS officer was hanged in the village square and an order given not to cut him down. His body hung for three days as a warning to all not to aid or participate in the government. The town, and the district named for it, have changed.

Police checkpoints line the road and dot the valley. ANP move about at will, and there is a sense of hope. The road is paved now. Schools are functioning and the bazaar thrums with activity. The town has a new lease on life. Most of the ANP that were on the payroll in 2007 have been replaced. The Colonel has hired many from other areas, bypassing any tendency towards cronyism or local favoritism. He was not alone, and he thanks his American mentors and the Coalition soldiers who have assisted in the long, hard road to recovery for one district in Afghanistan.

The Colonel was delayed a full day in reaching us. He was ambushed at a spot I know well as he drove to be with us. All were okay, but he was delayed.

Although we had shared much conversation, time and a few missions, I wondered if the Colonel would recognize me. He did, and a hug was accompanied by greetings in Dari, which is much better than my atrophied Pashto. We exchanged typical Afghan greetings, inquiring into each other’s health, and the health of the family. He was curious what we wanted him to speak about. I told him, “Just share your experiences. Tell us how the district has changed. Tell us about the fight, and how it is going. Tell us about your experiences with mentors. Tell us about getting along with the ANA and the Coalition forces. Just be truthful.”

“I always tell the truth,” he said.

“Don’t spare our feelings,” I continued.

“I will tell them exactly how I feel,” he said, “we have nothing to fear from the truth.”

The Colonel is one of the most humble men I have ever met. Soft-spoken, I was concerned that he wouldn’t be an effective speaker. He spoke well, but didn’t overdo it. Always considerate, he left time at the end of the period he was allotted for questions, which he answered succinctly. Following a standing ovation, Major General Formica sought him out and presented him with his personal coin for excellence. Afterward, the Colonel stared at the coin in his hand, a distinctly U.S. Army bauble of military achievement, and discussed his experience of hearing speakers and speaking to all of the Coalition leadership he had addressed.

“This is very good, for everyone to learn from each other’s experiences,” he said, “and all of this needs to get out into the provinces, or it will do nothing.”

“I know.”

“And these officers must all realize that what works in Kabul is not right for the provinces and districts, because each one is different. If they only listen to the people in Kabul, but not in a district, they will not understand the district that they are in. They need to listen to the local people, who know what they need,” he continued.

“That’s why we asked you to come here,” I said. “I hope you will come back and speak again.”

“Whenever you call, then I will be here,” he said.

I think that he is the bravest man I have ever met.

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Categories: Afghan National Police, Afghanistan, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 15 Oct 2009 @ 01 32 PM

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 12 Oct 2009 @ 11:42 AM 

Josh Foust over at Registan wrote recently about the attacks in Nuristan being part of a larger strategy, and also questioned the possibility that American presence increased violence there. I’m convinced that the latest attack in Nuristan is part of a larger operational strategy on the part of insurgents. Actually, I believe that it ties in to the persistent insurgent presence in the Tag Ab Valley of Kapisa. Numerous rat lines have existed through Kunar and Nuristan, many of them leading to Tag Ab, which ties them in to the ancient smuggling route that avoids the capital… or leads to it. There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in violence is tied to the increase in Coalition (and GIRoA) presence in Kunar and Nuristan. There was no reason for violence prior to the increased presence and control in Kunar and Nuristan, because they had free run of the area. The people were easily intimidated and there is significant appeal to residents because they are so isolated and fear outside (especially un-Islamic) presence. In this area, Arabs are preferable to Americans as far as the locals are concerned… and they bring money to pay for local men to participate.

Yes, Haqqani is more active in this area, but Haqqani has been pushing more to the southwest in seeking influence, whereas HiG has always been relatively strong along the rat lines from Pakistan and has always been stronger in Tag Ab than the Taliban. We did see Taliban and HiG cooperating in Tag Ab in 2007 and through to today. Haqqani is seeking, and having, more influence in Khost, for instance, but he is starting to run into QST and they are pushing back. Sirajudin Haqqani is more aggressive in this way than his father. During my service in Nuristan, it was well known that there were Arabic speakers in the local area, reputedly carrying large sums of money with which to pay part-time fighters, buy ammunition for them, etc. They would also transport 107mm rockets etc.

Remember, “Taliban” has become a catch-all word for the Coalition, whereas “Dushman” is the catch-all Afghan (cross-language) word. Various factions and even criminal elements can be lumped under or can attach themselves to the “Taliban” brand as it suits them. There is a significant criminal element in Nuristan, partially driven by the primary industry there, gem mining, which has been criminalized by the Afghan government because they do not have the capacity to manage and tax it. As the natural resources are considered the property of the government, they don’t want the gems mined until they can benefit from it, so they have criminalized gem mining. Whereas the opium crop is more prevalent in other provinces, here the driver is gems. Again, the “Taliban” blends with the criminal element to mutual benefit… but are they Taliban, Haqqani or HiG? All three names are heard locally. Haqqani’s faction is often just called, “Taliban” by the locals, so it’s hard to tell… at least that’s my take on it.

While all politics is local, it is tied to other local politics. The issues in Kunar and Nuristan are not disconnected from the problems in Tag Ab. It is part of a chain that leads back to Pakistan. In Tag Ab we didn’t get a lot of Arabic-speakers, but we did get significant Pakistani presence and also at one point a suspected Chechen cell was present, with a marked increase in the effects of small arms and RPG’s (after weeks of misses with RPG’s, there were 8 turret hits with RPG’s in a three week span and several head shots with aimed fire). This corresponded with information that one insurgent commander had agreed to accept “foreign” help, an action that caused actual firefights among sub-factions of insurgents in the Ala Say area in September of 2007. The brothers of two local commanders were killed in these clashes.

Also, the insurgents in Tag Ab have shown a remarkable ability to reinforce. Locals in the Ala Say area have been frustrated this year by the inability to clear the district of insurgents (again commonly referred to as Taliban but certainly including both Taliban and HiG elements).

The ability to mass forces for the assaults on both Wanat and Keating are very likely seasoned cadre brought in from Pakistan (both Afghan and foreign cadre), reinforced with locals who provide logistics support, shelter and fighters. A deal was struck in 2007 at Keating to stay out of the local villages in return for a lack of attacks. The villages were ceded to insurgent influence, but the Coalition and Afghan forces did not have the strength locally to quash the pressure (attacks) to acquiesce to the villages’ demands to keep out. They could not stop the attacks on Keating, so they agreed to the deal to cede the village. The deal struck pretty much guaranteed that insurgent influence would grow in the village over time. Keating has always been a thorn in the side of the insurgent rat lines, but never completely effective. Insurgent checkpoints have been well-known only a few kilometers north, still in the Kamdesh District. Insurgents operated relatively nearby as if they had impugnity for the past couple of years. Did Keating interfere with the rat lines? Yes. Were they capable of having a tremendous impact towards extending GIRoA control/legitimacy in Kamdesh District or Nuristan? No, not really.

There were different dynamics at work as far as proximal causes for the two attacks. Wanat was a case of quashing an outpost before it became a problem, whereas Keating was simply taking advantage of a planned withdrawal. The abandonment of COP Keating was due to happen, anyway. This attack did not change that. What it did do was make it appear, for IO purposes, to be an insurgent victory. Wanat involved complicity with the local ANP and almost certainly the Sub-Governor, whereas there is no evidence (at this point) of complicity of ANSF in or near Keating… although it is possible that some of the ANP, knowing that they are about to be abandoned to their fate, were currying favor with insurgent leaders in preparation for the abandonment. The root cause of the attacks were the same; clear the rat lines to improve communications along the lines that lead to Kapisa, bypassing Jalalabad and Kabul and allowing control of/access to the ancient smuggling route up the Tag Ab Valley. This provides the ability to either bypass or infiltrate Kabul, and potentially allows massing of forces within a few dozen kilometers of Kabul.

Many actors at play here, for various reasons ranging from political to military to criminal. International actors are at play as well, but thin out the farther from the Pakistani border that they get.

The current strategy is to leave areas alone until the Coalition/GIRoA has the strength to deal with them. Instead of spreading too thinly across a vast mountainous area, focus on the areas that can be controlled now and then push out over time. If the rest of the area is well-governed, the government can push into these areas and subdue them one by one. In the meantime, violence in those areas will decrease as the insurgents won’t have targets in that particular area. This may seem like giving up, but what it really is doing is putting a stop to unproductive behaviors, trying to influence or hang on to areas where there isn’t the ability to mass effects on the target population. This is consistent with current guidance, which is not to clear what we cannot hold and not to try to hold unless there is the capacity to build. The timing of the assault on Keating was unfortunate, but certainly no accident. A weakened outpost was attacked, certainly hoping to overrun it and claim a great victory to add to the illusion of inexorable victory for the insurgents. I would have to describe that effort as a success, even though they failed to annihiliate the garrison and overrun the entire COP. The end result; Americans abandoning the outpost within a short time afterward and the appearance of insurgents causation… as in Wanat… is the same.

Tags Tags: , , , , , ,
Categories: Afghan National Police, Afghanistan, AfPak, ANA, analysis, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 12 Oct 2009 @ 11 42 AM

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 09 Oct 2009 @ 8:35 AM 

I heard the blast.

And again, the Taliban take credit, and again, they were probably not the drivers for the attack. LeT, with probable involvement from the ISI, are the ones with the gripes and concerns about the Indians in Afghanistan. Why would the Taliban care about Indian involvement in Afghanistan?

Because Pakistan cares.

Why would the Taliban claim responsibility? Because it makes them look powerful. Perhaps they were involved… and if they were, then the ties between the Taliban and external groups, under question at the moment, are still vibrant. Those of us here in country really don’t doubt that. It’s others, for whom the argument that the Taliban are really a single-issue organization, who would benefit from wide acceptance of the idea that the Taliban really only exist because we are here, or because they are only interested in Afghanistan.

Try this on from the Summer of 2001:

Usama bin Ladin’s Role

The Taliban’s increasing internationalism is particularly exemplified by its grant of safe haven to Usama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin had been active in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation but left after the Red Army’s withdrawal. When he returned to the country in 1996, he first settled in an area neutral in the war between the United Front and the Taliban, though he and the Taliban quickly developed a mutual affinity, prompting bin Ladin to establish a new base for himself at the movement’s headquarters in Kandahar. The Taliban have claimed that they have prevented him from playing any role in terrorism. (Contrarily, the U.S. government holds him responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa and likely the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.)

Yet it is certain that bin Ladin himself has become increasingly radicalized while with the Taliban. He issued his most notorious anti-American fatwa (decree) in 1998, calling on his followers to kill any American—civilian or military, adults or children—anywhere in the world. Also in 1998, it became known through an intercept of bin Ladin’s satellite telephone calls, that he was linked to the embassy bombings in East Africa. The Taliban responded that they had taken away his communications equipment.

Apart from this, much has been rumored but little proven about bin Ladin’s activities inside Afghanistan and the exact nature of his relationship with the Taliban. Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar may have married one of bin Ladin’s daughters. Pakistani papers at times have reported that bin Ladin visits Taliban troops on the front lines and the wounded in hospitals. He is also believed to have given money directly to the Taliban for their war and to have financed a so-called “bin Ladin brigade” of at least several hundred foreign fighters.25 He has also aided these fighters through the distribution of his “terrorist encyclopedia,” which has been found on some of the Taliban killed or captured by the United Front.26 United Front military leaders claim that bin Ladin has offered rewards for their assassination.27

Bin Ladin’s links also help the Taliban in other ways. For instance, it is conceivable that as Taliban leaders have become increasingly involved in the drug trade, bin Ladin’s international network may have helped them in distributing these narcotics. Numerous terrorist-affiliated websites are certainly active in soliciting funds for the Taliban.28 As a symbol of defiance toward the United States and of adherence toward the cause of militant Islam, bin Ladin is also valuable to the Taliban as a source of donations from abroad, particularly from the wealthy Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

Where the Taliban end and bin Ladin’s Al-Qa‘ida organization begins is difficult to determine. Both the Taliban and Al-Qa‘ida are perhaps best viewed as links in the same chain of the international terrorist network. The Taliban have created an indispensable haven in Afghanistan, a base where extremists like bin Ladin and others can meet and plan future attacks in relative safety. The paramount importance of the Taliban’s connection with bin Ladin is best described by the bin Ladin-affiliated website Azzam.com, which argues in a Taliban fundraising appeal that “the fall of an Islamic Afghanistan … will be a calamity that will make other Muslim calamities look like nothing in comparison.”29

It’s amazing how a linkage that was only too clear to some prior to 9/11 is somehow now an absurdity. Has al Qaeda been disrupted? Clearly, yes. Have they been destroyed? Clearly, no. For linkage, just wondering here, if the Afghan in Colorado who has admitted to a terror plot inside the United States would be working completely alone and without any support, training, assistance, organizational or information support, or if there is some kind of distributed support network that he has some access to. Just wondering. Also wondering why this doesn’t bring home the concept that Afghanistan and those who it can harbor are and can be a threat to the internal security of the United States.

Could this guy just be a terrorist mastermind working alone and without a net? Could he be a Wallenda of terror? Yes, I suppose it is possible, but that’s not the greatest possibility now, is it?

So, while we have some who are assuring us that al Qaeda has been whittled down to perhaps… and this seems to be the consensus… about 100 people, we have two little items of note in the very recent past that bring that contention into a bit of doubt. What would be the purpose, I wonder? Who would benefit from the public somehow buying into the myth of al Qaeda irrelevance?

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Categories: Afghanistan, AfPak, analysis
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 09 Oct 2009 @ 08 35 AM

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 08 Oct 2009 @ 6:19 AM 

Earlier this year came the shocking revelation of an Air Force Chaplain at Bagram Air Field (BAF) who received a shipment of Bibles translated into Dari, and who gave a sermon that appeared to exhort troops to proselytize. This is a crime under Afghan law that is punishable by death. That Chaplain directly fed into the propaganda operation by the Taliban, who claim that we are here to destroy Islam. The aftereffects still ripple through Afghan society. His actions, both in receiving the Dari Bibles and in his speech, may actually have tipped the scales in the minds of some to begin supporting or actually participating in operations against the Taliban and the GIRoA. His actions could actually be lethal; but not to the enemy.

Today an article was published in The Times (UK) quoting two U.S. Army Chaplains as saying that American troops in their two battalions are losing heart. It is difficult to explain the power of the urge to find these men of the cloth and grasp them firmly by the neck while calling upon the very stones of the earth to turn against them.

When Soldiers struggle with their purpose, it is clear that they are untrained in what that purpose is. They are kinetically trained warriors put into a political/military struggle where a great percentage of activity is not directly targeting the enemy, all while functioning in an environment where the enemy may target you anonymously with weapons that permit him to hide while he tries to kill you. They have been failed by their training. Many senior leaders cannot adequately train or supervise Soldiers in a COIN environment because they have not studied it themselves. I have met precisely one Chaplain who has actually read FM 3-24. Our Army is still struggling with COIN doctrine, and many of our Chaplains are wandering around lost while they could be of great benefit. These men should keep one thing in mind: First, do no harm. What they did by speaking on the record to this reporter was harmful. Calling the overall morale of our troops into question in front of a foreign media outlet boggles the mind.

In a strongly religious society such as Afghanistan, where Islam is woven tightly into the fabric of life and into the nature of conflict, what can a Christian Chaplain do? Again; first, he/she should do no harm. Secondly, he/she should read the book about this type of conflict and understand what it is that the Soldiers are involved in. He (going forward meaning either gender) should be able to assist a Soldier in understanding the nature of risk and loss in this type of environment, where a peaceful moment can be shattered beyond all recognition and with it the bodies of friends and colleagues. He, above all, needs to find his place in this from the perspective of our Soldiers and their purpose, that he can be the crutch for the spiritually and emotionally wounded. There is no place on the battlefield for the weak, and in this battle the mentally and spiritually weak are a particular liability. We cannot bear broken crutches with us. The damage done by these two men, while not on the par of the Dari Bible Fiasco, is actually only moderately less severe.

Understanding the nature of this conflict and the society, especially the religious nature of the operating environment, is difficult for anyone. As the primary religious and spiritual advisor to the commander and Soldiers, is the Chaplain making contributions that increase the realistic cultural understanding of the commander and his Soldiers? Is he making it his business to be the go-to guy on issues of realistic understanding of cultural norms? Is he finding his counterpart in the ANA or other ANSF and empowering both understanding and the tremendous effects that can be brought to bear by the RCA (ANSF equivalent of a Chaplain)? Can the Chaplain explain that Afghans aren’t offended by the inadvertent showing of the sole of the foot, as long as it’s not purposely done to insult? Can the Chaplain explain that waving with the left hand, when the right hand is full, is not insulting? Can the Chaplain help a Specialist learn simple greetings in Dari and Pashto, so that Soldier can get along better with his counterparts or civilians he may meet? Can the Chaplain explain the basics of Muslim prayer to a Baptist kid from southern Georgia, so that he can understand what and why his Afghan counterpart is doing?

The positive potential of ANA RCA’s is, in many places, untapped. RCA’s are usually educated, literate, moderate mullahs who can fight the Taliban message that the ANA and ANP are apostatic puppets of the Coalition. They can bring moderate education to village mullahs who are often illiterate themselves. Given the power of mullahs in Afghanistan to spread messages and themes, this is powerful. It has been done, and it works amazingly well. Are our Chaplains assisting and empowering the ANA and ANP RCA’s to do this?

The answer to the questions above, with extremely rare exceptions, is, “No.”

There is being helpful, and there is being harmful. Every person here in a uniform is by definition a counterinsurgent. Each and every action either supports the work of counterinsurgency or it harms it. Even a wasted action is harmful. You are either providing thrust or you are adding drag. There is no middle ground. Today, The Times may as well have carried the words of insurgents themselves, for just about as much harm was done. When a man, by virtue of his particular office, is largely unsupervised, he must find a way to make a positive contribution to the mission.

But first, he must do no harm.

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Categories: Afghan National Police, Afghanistan, ANA, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 08 Oct 2009 @ 06 19 AM

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 07 Oct 2009 @ 12:46 PM 

An article by the Associated Press’ Robert Reid nicely sums up the two camps that have formed under the Obama Administration regarding the way forward in Afghanistan. This is the second time this year that the two camps have squared off. The first round was apparently won by the COINdinistas, with some wiggle room, of course. That is not what the title of the article specifically addresses, but in a way it has come to serve as a synopsis of the internal argument in the administration. One side says, “Mission Accomplished,” and the other side says, “If we do more or less what we did the last time, we will have commensurate results.”

We are having real problems learning from past experiences. If a boxer fights another boxer, and whenever he bobs to the left he catches a right cross from the opposing boxer, he learns quickly that he need not bob left against this particular opponent. September 11, 2001 was just such a right cross from our opponent. Many say that we did not pick this fight; many others say that we did. They say that we picked it by taking sides surreptitiously in the Soviet-Afghan War, and that we did it again by abandoning a devastated Afghanistan as they tried to reassemble themselves. We funded and trained bin Laden and many of his cronies, and now he has turned that organization, formed to accomplish ends that we wholeheartedly supported, against us.

Now a group led by Vice President Joe Biden wants to repeat that blunder. Some people in the administration are saying that al-Qaeda is down to 100 full-timers.

U.S. national security adviser James Jones said last weekend that the al-Qaida presence has diminished, and he does not “foresee the return of the Taliban” to power.

He said that according to the maximum estimate, al-Qaida has fewer than 100 fighters operating in Afghanistan without any bases or ability to launch attacks on the West.

“If the Taliban did return to power, I believe we are strong enough to deter them from attacking us again by strong and credible punishment and by containing them with regional allies like India, China and Russia,” said former State Department official Leslie Gelb.

Folks, that’s not what events on the ground here are telling us. Al-Qaeda has recognized that Iraq is a lost cause for them. Yes, there are still local troublemakers trying to regain their lost glory as insurgent leaders stretching out the process, but that is the way of insurgencies. Iraq will not settle completely down this year, but the al-Qaeda cadre has largely left that country and made their way to Pakistan. We have seen that in the level of financial and technical support in the Haqqani elements, the HiG and even the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST). The level of sophistication in the technology of IED’s, for instance, having remained relatively flat for years, has taken leaps. These guys want for us to believe that this is a coincidence. The average Joe on the ground here who has a frame of reference realizes that the Taliban/HiG/Haqqani in Afghanistan have not suddenly and magically reemerged as something radically more capable. Something has been added to the mix.

Coincidence? Uncle Joe, et al, would lead you to believe that. Al-Qaeda is not only not dead; it is only the poster child for a syndrome that is repeatable. We are living in a globalized world. The world has changed, and our thinking has to a great extent not kept up with it. Unstable failed or failing nations can spawn organizations that will wish to influence us and our policies by bringing violence to our shores not via aircraft carriers and intercontinental bombers, but via airliners, tramp steamers, small but far-ranging private aircraft; trains, planes and automobiles. Never before in the history of mankind have small groups had such capabilities. It is one thing for a group to VBIED a U.S. Embassy in a small African country. It is quite another to punch a hole in the Pentagon. Even Mother Russia, with her enormous destructive power, devious KGB and bellicose manners never managed to do that. It doesn’t matter if the name of that group was al-Qaeda or the Hindu Kush Symphony Orchestra. Leaving states like Afghanistan to the whims of radical and primitive organizations is not a recipe for national security.

“Containment.” We have seen what “containment” does. Worked wonders on Iraq, is doing great things for Iran, and has really kept North Korea at bay (missile launches from the last two notwithstanding, of course). So, they don’t see the Taliban taking power again… like anyone saw them coming the first time… but if they do, we can rely on Russia, China and India to contain them? That sounds like a recipe for success now, doesn’t it? We can count on what we are now calling “regional allies” in the entities of Russia and China to look out for our interests and those of our NATO allies? And Pakistan won’t see our reliance on India as a new threat from the east for them, of course. It’s not like they’ve been trying to keep Afghanistan unstable for years in order to provide for their own “strategic depth” in the event of an all-out Indo-Pakistani War.

There are many people who are adding their voices to the din at this point. Some point out that population-centric counterinsurgency, or pop-centric COIN, was ultimately successful in Iraq. Many will contend with that, choosing instead to attribute success to a myriad of factors all exclusive of changing our behaviors, including that the Iraqis were somehow suddenly sick and tired of killing each other. Those who were on the ground at that time, both military and civilian, will tell very different stories. Many of those civilians, and some of those military, have now joined us on the ground here with plans of using lessons learned (not necessarily specific TTP’s) to have similar effects in Afghanistan. Those who argue that the Iraqis somehow magically became more amenable regardless of any changes in our behavior do so, from my perspective, for their own reasons.

Some of the greatest proponents of this argument do so out of what appears to be the politics of personal injury. Some had their young hearts broken in Vietnam and later suffered further loss in this war. Nothing short of an immediate existential threat is a good enough reason for war to them. Some have found themselves left out of or even severely criticized by the narrative of the Iraq Surge. They have lashed out, personally injured and offended, and have wound up on the opposite end of the spectrum in positions now so entrenched as to be nearly a caricature of the overall argument. Some fear that a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will lock in military counterinsurgency as the cornerstone of national foreign policy for decades. These conversations are now becoming years old. Add to that a public that, while it ignored Afghanistan, somehow assumed it to be morally right and relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Low casualties and this assumption of moral and political simplicity led them to assume that it was not in the least bit as complicated, dangerous or confusing as Iraq.

Then came the divide and conquer tactic: Iraq bad; Afghanistan good. Obama was not weak on the subject of national defence. He only wanted out of the “bad” war so that he could actually devote the proper resources to the “good” war. His supporters parroted this call, as I saw repeatedly in online debates. It allayed the fears of millions that Obama would retreat in the face of adversity. Well, now that the American people have started paying attention to the “good” war, it turns out to be much less simple. As I’ve said, it makes their heads hurt with its complexity. The people, heads all sore, begin to waver. Joe Biden, who is at huge odds with Hamid Karzai (he once, as a Senator, stormed away from the dinner table during a meeting with him), has wanted from day one to make this a Special Forces/drone mission in Pakistan. The looming reelection of Karzai has not tempered that attitude, I am sure. So Team Biden wants to solve our problems by invading Pakistan with with Special Forces, drone strikes that Obama supporters railed against during the election, “credible punishment” like 63 cruise missiles, and containment by India, Russia and China.

One question… has Pakistan agreed to any of this, or is invading a sovereign country only a bad thing when a guy’s name starts with “B”? From everything I’ve heard, Pakistan has refused to let American troops try to chase down al-Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban on sovereign Pakistani soil. The standing Pakistani Army is larger than our own. They are a proud, sovereign country and while their ISI has been singularly unhelpful in Afghanistan, I don’t believe that just doing whatever we want in Pakistan without their approval would be the “right” thing to do. It would almost certainly destabilize Pakistan further. Our alignment with India as one of our strategic containment partners will surely help the Pakistanis feel somewhat more secure, but there is a small chance that they won’t like it at all. Maybe not so small, really. Okay; they would absolutely hate it and feel very threatened.

The Biden Plan reeks of simplistic Rambo thinking. It is also a return to the same types of behaviors that left us with this festering sore on the face of Central Asia and a smoking hole in New York City. It’s amazing that it’s even being considered… unless it is the administration’s straw man. It’s practically an idiot-check. What next; a gravel angel contest? If I were the President, I’d ask all of my advisers who bought this argument and fire everyone who raised their hands for incompetence.

The people who are saying that the answer is to not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past are the people, both military and civilian, who are and have been closely associated with the Afghan question. Those who are claiming that al-Qaeda is in effect finished are not now and never have been intimately familiar with Central Asia. It could be argued that they have a political viewpoint and not a strategic viewpoint. What could possibly be the political pull strong enough to get otherwise intelligent, educated men to forget the lessons of the 1990’s and the foreign policy assumptions of post WW-II anti-communist paranoia that have led to the birth of non-state actors with global destructive reach and goals?

This is the opportunity to reverse the ill effects of the outmoded superpower behaviors of the past. This is an opportunity to begin to practice the types of foreign policy behaviors that will prevent failed and failing nations from becoming such a personal threat to Americans. The true example of Afghanistan is not in our military involvement but in the “civilian surge.” It is in the capacity-building arms that we are developing within our State Department, USAID, and other organizations. It is moving from John Candy in “Volunteers” to the types of foreign policy behaviors that will support and uphold societies who have been broken at their cores to stand back up according to their own needs and values. It is learning the lessons of “The Ugly American”. That is what we are deciding to continue or abandon, because in this very dangerous country we have let it slide to the point that nothing less than a full effort will permit these development efforts to occur. It is, in effect, all or nothing, and that’s something that Americans seem to have lost the ability to comprehend. We complain about the Afghans sitting on the fence, but we need to look at ourselves for sitting on the couch. Now is when we decide to take the easy out or to do the hard right thing.

Now is when we decide whether dad finishes the job, or if his son is left with an even larger problem.

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Categories: Afghanistan, analysis, COIN, COINdinistas, COINiots, development, doctrine
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 07 Oct 2009 @ 12 46 PM

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 07 Oct 2009 @ 5:50 AM 

It made all the papers back home; the story of an American who was shot by an ANP enraged over the Soldier drinking and smoking in plain sight during Ramadan. Many opined that our Soldiers need to be more culturally aware. I replied to email chains from friends, and sometimes angrily contended that when I was actively mentoring, the ANP would serve us chai and sweets during Ramadan, ever the gracious hosts.

After the failed mission to Kunar, I was instantly put to work with a group of PMT’s from Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team. A good lot, they have been working with the ANP for over four months now. One of the teams I was working with had been present that day. The Soldier who was shot in the leg by the ANP that day is doing well and is in good spirits, they informed me. They were irritated that the story had been turned into something that it was not.

Those who were there that day told me that the meme came from an ANP General who arrived well after the incident occurred. It was his attempt at explaining the behavior of the ANP who had opened fire. The now-wounded ANP had announced that he had done it, “for my prophet.” He was clearly unstable.

He had opened fire in what is referred to here as “spray and pray.” He fired not from a close distance, as most assumed, but from a range of 75 to 100 meters. The PMT who was hit was not hit by a bullet fired by an offended man from scant feet away, but by a man who had lost his mind and opened fire from some distance away, spraying the vehicles and wounding the Soldier more by chance than any carefully considered action.

The crazed ANP was shot by several people, including the wounded Soldier. The Soldier then calmly assisted the Combat LifeSaver in applying a tourniquet to his leg to staunch the flow of blood. Other American Combat LifeSavers treated the wounded ANP, who also survived the incident.

I have never seen any real psychiatric treatment in Afghanistan, yet mental illness clearly exists. There is no real mental screening for any position, much less the ANP. Had any reporter actually spoken to the men who were on the ground that day, the myth of the smoking, water-drinking offender would have been debunked. The Soldier who was wounded didn’t even smoke. Instead, some made-up fairy tale was sold the American people, leaving the Soldiers who were actually involved scratching their heads and feeling powerless to change that perception. They are not communicators. They don’t blog. They pretty much communicate with only their families and friends. To them, it was just another case of the press screwing Soldiers.

They consider that normal behavior for our media.

And now you know the rest of the story.

In memory of the late Paul Harvey, who would have loved to tell this story.

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Categories: Afghan National Police, Afghanistan
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 06 Oct 2009 @ 12 14 PM

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 06 Oct 2009 @ 11:48 AM 

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.

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Categories: Afghanistan, General Military
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 06 Oct 2009 @ 11 48 AM

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 04 Oct 2009 @ 8:46 AM 

We here on the ground are well aware of the debate going on back in the United States over the way forward in Afghanistan. It is pointed out frequently that the international effort in Afghanistan is in trouble, and that changes need to be made in the approach. Two main theories have emerged for consideration by the President. One theory brought forward, not for the first time, is that we should shrink our footprint in Afghanistan and concentrate on counter terrorism efforts in Pakistan; literally just go after al Qaida. The other is the recommendation of General McChrystal which involves a comprehensive and integrated approach to counterinsurgency to deny al Qaida a foothold (again) in a failing state.

It does not appear to ring true to some, rooted in an old world view, that failed or failing states can now be a threat to the national security of developed and successful states. Missed point number one. The thought that a failed or failing state can provide the incubator for international militant action on a scale heretofore unseen is a central concept in foreign policy going forward. Each successive administration that fails to recognize this places the security of the nation at risk through sheer willful disbelief of what has proven to be true. Those who argue archaic world views are less than helpful, having displayed the inability to understand the changing environment in which we live. Some cling to old notions because of fear that working to build governance capacity in failing states will necessarily involve military involvement. This is not entirely true. Military counterinsurgency can be avoided through the careful application of other pillars of national strength before an armed insurgency develops to the point of widespread violence. Building stability is the cornerstone of the new approach, not necessarily armed intervention.

Some argue that Afghanistan was not the birthplace of the non-state operation that brought two of the tallest buildings in the world crashing to the ground and punched a hole in the Pentagon over eight years ago. Yes, some of the conspiracy was performed in places such as Germany and the United States; but the concept, funding and coordination for the execution came through the headquarters in Afghanistan. It is simply willful negligence to fail to acquire the simple information that the Taliban were very active supporters of al Qaida, and that al Qaida reciprocated by recruiting, training, equipping and paying thousands to fight for the Taliban. There was an entire brigade of al Qaida funded, equipped and paid troops who fought alongside the Taliban in their offensives against the Northern Alliance. This brigade was to serve as basic combat training for each of them to take Takfiri revolution to their own countries. Remember those crazy Uighers who were released from Gitmo and are now sipping virgin daiquiris on some tropical island? They came from there. There is an article from June, 2001, quoting them as saying that this is why they were there, to take Islamic revolution back to China. (Of course, we don’t care about that, since really anything bad that happens to China only makes us giggle, anyway. So does the thought of Uighers sipping tropical drinks, though.) Training camps for al Qaida existed in Afghanistan, in areas that were well-controlled by Taliban. Those who wish to excuse the Taliban from any association with al Qaida are, again, willfully ignoring information that is readily available which indicates that the association was close and mutually beneficial.

Afghanistan was a critical component in al Qaida’s ability to further its aims. The failed state of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was a great threat to American security and this was proven on more than one occasion, finally resulting in the deaths of more Americans than died at Pearl Harbor… most of them civilians.

That being said, a favorite concept of those appealing for the virtual abandonment of a robust counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is one that actually holds some water. This argument states that we have attempted to institute a western-style democracy in a Central Asian country that is not ready for it. This is true; somewhat. It is a simplistic view of the root cause of the apparent inability of the government of The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to provide security and stability for the people of Afghanistan. We look at the government, struggling with issues of corruption and inefficiency, and throw our hands up proclaiming the Afghans somehow governmentally retarded, incapable of forming a legitimate government, incapable of being governed, even. We point to their tribalism with dismay, announcing that the uneducated masses have no concept of representative forms of social regulation. Many begin to swoon with the enormity of the job. It’s much like a ten year old confronted with the prospect of cleaning his room after being largely unsupervised for months; in the face of such an enormous task, he wishes to do nothing. Yet mom or dad could easily point out that the job starts with picking up the first sock or pair of wrinkled pants and continues with putting away one toy or book at a time. Building new shelves, however, does little to solve the problems on the floor unless that sock is picked up.

Sometimes enormous truth can be found in a single sentence. In this case it’s, “All politics is local.”

Afghanistan is not one enormous job; it’s hundreds of smaller ones. Each requires a mindset that we are working to build not only in Soldiers and Marines but in our civilian capacity-building organs as well. What is broken with Afghanistan is not the top; it’s the bottom. If you look into McChrystal’s plan, you will see it there. He recognizes it, and while he stresses the need to get to work on it now… which is the only thing that most people hear… he points out pretty clearly how he intends to pick up the socks.

For centuries, Afghan society has had as its pillars of local stability organizations at the village and, for lack of a better word, district level based on basically republican if not democratic forms of representation. At the village level, the most basic organizational unit consisted of a combination of elders and mullahs. There was a balance of the religious and secular influence. It was based on a combination of Islamic and Pashtunwali laws which governed individual behavior. This is the system that has been degraded and severely damaged by over thirty years of constant warfare in Afghanistan. This is the foundation for Afghan society, and it is finally being recognized that these traditional structures need to be nurtured and supported. Our efforts during much of the past eight years have been to either ignore or supplant traditional government with what we recognize, sometimes even feeling threatened by traditional social structures. The new plans recognize this failure (could we actually learn from mistakes?) and seek to reinforce and legitimize non-radical traditional systems that will support Afghan society from the foundation. In return, along with efforts at creating a more user-friendly government, the legitimization goes both ways. This has, in fact, worked in Afghanistan before.

While many Americans use the tribalism of Afghanistan as a magical reason why Afghans are incapable of managing their own affairs, it is precisely these systems that provide the best hope for the rebuilding of a society that can withstand the buffeting of extremism. It is the extremism that threatens our security, not whether it takes fifteen or twenty years to reach a literacy rate which meets or exceeds the literacy rates of its neighbors. There is time to work on that, although every literate Afghan is an asset to a stable world. It will flow from the efforts that will be brought to bear on the problems of a society whose traditional leadership has been decimated; alternative, hostile and predatory systems having filled the vacuum at the local level.

Many have asked, “If the majority of Afghans don’t support the Taliban, how can the Taliban appear to have so much success? If the people don’t want warlords, how can they exist?” This is how. The glue of Afghan society has been severely weakened. It’s like a social immune system, and it’s compromised. Young men, who sixty years ago would have strong leadership to look up to at the local level, have found that leadership supplanted. We see some of the same symptoms in America with the pressures against families. It creates a vacuum that is easily filled by other role models. The Taliban actually had to run-off, kill or otherwise suborn strong secular leaders. The mullahs of sixty years ago have been replaced by younger, less educated and in many cases illiterate mullahs who have been influenced by a radicalized form of Islam. Xenophobia, the byproduct of being the speed bump of history, adds to the easy answer. An economy laid in shambles by thirty years of warfare provides young men who are willing to fight for money, easy pickings for an insurgency with foreign and drug money to spend on these employable young men who are constantly hearing a message that it’s okay to kill… hey, it’s for Islam.

It is not an intractable problem. It is a problem, though. Those who claim that Afghanistan cannot work, ever, are too small for the job. They should focus instead on what the difference in price is between two products that are sold by different weight, whether they really can save hundreds of dollars on car insurance by switching to GEICO, and how those geniuses can make it really look like a baby in a high chair can earn enough on investments to hire a clown by using a PDA.

Others are learning that the greater problem of Afghanistan can only be solved at the local level. We have wannabe insurgents in the United States. Look at all those irrelevant neo-Nazis hanging out in their compounds in remote places. They would love to cause as much trouble as the Taliban. Don’t think that if our society were as damaged that they wouldn’t hold more appeal. This can be the end result for radicals in a country such as Afghanistan. Working on the ground floor is what is needed. This is a lot easier than fixing nebulous centralized government, because it is a bunch of smaller projects. (The central government still needs a lot of work, though.) Security is only part of the answer; it always has been.

As for building the security forces up to an enormous level that is unsustainable, just how long to you think that Afghanistan will need such a force? Is it possible that it will only need it as long as there is a significant insurgency in the country? Is it possible that it will not require a quarter of a million active duty soldiers for eternity? I think that the answer to the last two questions is, “Yes, it is possible… even likely.” So let’s put down that tired old meme.

Let’s work on what’s broken. You cannot build a house on shifting sands, but don’t let the nebulous appearance fool you; Afghanistan had these structures which nurtured life and led tribes to live in relative peace. There is a reason why the Hazara have not been wiped out by the Pashtuns, for instance (although the Taliban tried.) The traditional structures worked. General McChrystal has this built into his plan, and the “civilian surge” is appearing (I see them, new ones, all the time.) The other plan is based on silliness and antiquated thinking. It’s a built-in excuse for failure. It’s really what we have been doing for nearly eight years, anyway. Calling it something new won’t change that, and it won’t fix anything… it’ll only make it worse. Let’s not be that small, especially in our heads. Everyone’s got a silly old uncle… on Petticoat Junction they called theirs “Joe”… but that doesn’t mean that his ideas had to go any further than some silly talk at the dinner table.

Here’s a question: In the early 1970’s, Afghanistan led the world in the export of two commodities. Can anyone guess one of them? Bonus points if you can get both.

AfghanQuest bonus points can be redeemed at any Starbucks Coffee, where that and about three bucks will get you a cup of the good stuff. Still… I think you’ll be surprised to know that Afghanistan led the world in these exports, showing that there is potential, even without mining all that iron ore in Bamyan and using their coal to make steel.

Tags Tags: , , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, analysis, COIN, development
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 04 Oct 2009 @ 08 46 AM

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