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 21 Dec 2010 @ 10:50 PM 

Blue,

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.

 20 Dec 2010 @ 2:29 PM 

I was very pessimistic after my tour as a PMT in 2007-2008. What I saw then was a near-complete disconnect between the military and civilian efforts. Two of the main lines of operation were largely absent, and so any security gains were followed by… nothing. The Army cleared and then left, turning hard-fought gains back over to the tender mercies of insurgents, criminals and ineffectual governance. Units fobbed-up and commuted to work, bound by vehicles and often interacting poorly or not at all with the local population. The influx of Iraq-trained troops who brought the driving tactics they had learned there began to irritate everyday Afghans with overt aggression. Units were often interested more in self-protection than in accomplishing anything. The answer to nearly every tactical situation was spelled, “J-D-A-M.” The doctrine of COIN was known only as a set of buzzwords which everyone immediately put into use… to describe actions that were most often decidedly un-COIN. The war was on a seemingly inexorable downward spiral.

I arrived back in Afghanistan in July of 2010 determined to make a difference by educating whoever I could on COIN. That I did, to varying effect. I trained and worked with troops and civilians from over 30 different countries over the course of the subsequent fifteen months. General McChrystal had just taken over the reigns in Afghanistan. A renewed emphasis on COIN had been settled upon, along with an increase in the numbers of troops and civilians on the ground, as the strategy that would be employed to stop the downward spiral.

Field grade military officers were often quite resistant to the concepts taught in the COIN course. Many had either no previous experience fighting an insurgency or had served only in Iraq pre-2007. Some of the questions posed to the instructors were quite oppositional, showing the mindsets that we were dealing with. Informal polling showed that, consistently, about 15% of incoming US Army field grade officers had read even so much as FM 3-24, much less any other texts regarding insurgencies or how to counter them. Senior NCO’s almost universally had not read the manual describing the doctrine. Ignorance of the available information, prejudices inculcated by years of conventional training and pop-culture influence and any number of internal resentments combined to provide many oppositional students. A great deal of patience was required. Angrily countering such arguments as were raised could “lose” a student permanently, yet it was necessary to understand how to counter each objection in an intelligent and persuasive way.

The COIN Leaders Course (CLC) conducted during the last week of every month, was the most comprehensive course offered. This five day course incorporated the normal curriculum with a fair number of guest speakers, many of them Afghan senior officials from the ministries, Army and National Police. Students from many participating nations attended the course, with a heavy attendance by civilians. As much time as possible was devoted to discussions involving the members of each small group, or “syndicates” as they were called (the Australian influence was clearly visible in this). The time available for discussions varied, but was never enough for the students. Practical exercises sparked discussions and raised issues in microcosm, such as working with Afghans through language barriers. Prejudices surfaced; military, political, national and ethnic. Some interfered, many were overcome.

The CLC was not the only course offered. There were other, shorter courses at the CTC-A during the month, and each regional team ventured forth into their respective region for several weeks each month. Units and organizations were trained in the field, sometimes in tents. Our interpreters got a full workout and were often subjected to poor treatment at the hands of American forces, such as our adventures at Bagram (truly horrible at times). Still, our interpreters hung in there and sometimes taught classes to Afghans practically unaided. They were that good.

As I traveled around the country, I was able to witness the behaviors of various units from various countries on the ground… and the effects they were achieving. It wasn’t looking all that great. I was teaching commanders and staffs about the virtues of learning the details of their Areas of Responsibility (AOR) regarding the people and what was important to them using a framework called ASCOPE/PMESII. “That’s great!” they all said as they completed the course. Weeks or months later I would see them out in the provinces, working their magic.

“So, how is your ASCOPE coming?”

“Yeah, uh… we don’t really have time for that,” they would reply.

I began to acquire a persistent shallow in my forehead from smacking the heel of my hand into it and making the Homer Simpson “Doh!” sound.

Conventionally organized staffs, who had trained for months on staff processes geared more towards conventional operations than to support COIN information flows, simply could not implement an informational framework such as the ASCOPE/PMESII while simultaneously supporting ongoing operations on the ground. Reorganizing staff processes on the fly turned out to be as challenging as changing shoes while running without breaking stride.

Civilians were pouring into the country; USAID, State and contractors. Many had scant knowledge of Afghanistan and were full of prejudices about the country and what it needed. Many civilians attend the CTC-A or are taught the course out in the field as the instructors roam about the Regional Commands. They provided their own challenges. One civilian I trained, who was very disruptive in training, had been in the country for four months, had worked for State for five, and her previous work experience was working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign followed by, in her words and with quotation marks swiped at the air, “another campaign.” Political appointees with no prior experience were side by side with workers whose prior experience was in Africa. They had a tendency to believe that they had it all in hand and knew exactly what was needed both locally and nationally. Afghanistan would soon beat that out of them, however. Reality is an awesome mindset adjustment tool, and in reality these were smart people with good intentions.

Another problem they had was in working with the military. It was mutual. The military has a tendency to view civilians engaged in development work as flower-munching, Birkenstock-wearing tree-huggers. Civilians engaged in development work have a tendency to view military personnel as linear-thinking knuckle-draggers. Fun.

Meanwhile, USAID’s Dr. Jim Derleth had brought the District Stability Framework to Afghanistan and was out busily training units to perform it… in the absence of the deep understanding that thorough reconnaissance of the human terrain (ASCOPE, which is now built into the toolset) brings. Units, starting with the Brits, were beginning to recognize the pitfalls of having foreign military personnel conducting TCAPF (Tactical Conflict Assessment Planning Framework) questioning, the famous four questions, to gather local inputs necessary for the accurate completion of the Tactical Stability Matrix were proving more than problematic in that regard. Everything was disconnected. Efforts were scattered and much less effective than coordinated actions can be. USAID became frustrated with their ability to train people how to use the methodology in significant numbers.

I’m not sure how it came to be, but there were talks about training the COIN instructors at the COIN Training Center – Afghanistan (CTC-A) to teach the DSF. COL John Agoglia, the visionary director of the CTC-A during that time, recognized the value of the DSF. It was the missing link; a common operational framework that could be used by military, foreign civilians, Afghan civilian development workers and the local populations. In COIN and Stability Operations, unity of effort is key… and highly elusive. A common operational framework enabled the development of a common operational picture, a necessity to develop unity of effort. Even across languages, if you are talking about the same information organized in a framework that is commonly understood, you are speaking the same “language.” It was decided to train the instructors. This was followed by a couple of weeks of intensive work at the CTC-A and the assignment of an instructor as a subject matter expert to assist in adapting the DSF training to dovetail with the COIN training in partnership with USAID.

As the military “surge” gained momentum, the most common feedback we heard was, “We wish we had gotten this education six to nine months earlier… so we could practice it in training.” We were training leaders, most often at the battalion level and above. Soldiers and NCO’s got, at best, a few hours and were full of the same prejudices. As I was seeing in practice in the field, the lessons of COIN are not best taught after boots-on-ground. We were a band-aid on a gushing arterial bleed.

Things weren’t looking all that encouraging. One thing about COIN and Stability Ops is the perception delay. Just as poor performance is not manifested immediately, so positive inputs do not create immediate and undeniable positive effects. This is one of the reasons that appropriate metrics are so difficult to choose.

Six months into my tour I was feeling enormous frustration.

Tags Categories: Afghanistan, AfPak, COIN, doctrine, metrics Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 20 Dec 2010 @ 02 29 PM

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 18 Dec 2010 @ 11:18 PM 

I have recently returned from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan working for the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan. I traveled extensively over the East and Southwest Regions, including a fair amount of time spent in Helmand Province. I found it to be expeditious not to blog during most of my tour, as it would have interfered with my full time job and prevented me from being able to accomplish some things that I am very proud to have been a part of. I am returning to the conversation regarding Afghanistan having witnessed and learned much.

COL Gentile has (nearly four months after the fact) commented on my last post. Here is what he had to say in comments:

Insurgencies may be local, but STRATEGY should determine if our response to it if any, should be local. By stating such things like “all” Coin must therefore be local too you commit us to an operational template of clear, hold, build in expeditionary form and along with Old Blue the promise of reenacting David Galula and his counter maoist template in the modern troubled spots of the world.

You guys still dont get it; I am not talking the tactics of Coin, I am talking about the Strategy that should decide if and when and how it should ever be put into place.

Sure Blue, deploy the E card; but just remember Hans Delbruke had no military experience whatsoever yet provided one of the most cogent criticisms of the Prussian military of his time. Yet for you, in how you assert the fact that you have been to Afghanistan therefore know more than others, and the rest of us should just shut up and bow to your experience when we dont agree with you.

Come on my friend, get a clue.

gian

It’s as good an invitation back to the fray as can be found at this point. So here I go…

I agree that strategy determines whether or not to employ counterinsurgency as the approach for resolving an issue. However, if you are faced with an insurgency while working with a developing country, it’s a little hard to justify a different approach, even if your role is simply an advisory one. Just as when a partner country is attacked conventionally, as in the Gulf War, the response is then conventional.

That is, assuming that you choose to respond. We could have chosen to tolerate the fall of Kuwait to Iraq’s invasion and just shrug it off. We found this to be unacceptable and so the response was a forcible eviction of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. COIN would not have been an effective approach to resolve this issue once the decision was made to evict the Iraqis. Just so, once the decision has been made to support the host nation in defeating an insurgency, COIN would be the methodology of choice. So, yes, strategy does determine the employment of COIN. Once that course has been selected, in COIN it is a short throw between strategy and tactics, as there is not a lot of operational art in COIN.

In maneuver warfare, brigade commanders tell battalions where to go and what to do. Battalion commanders tell companies where to go and what to do. Neither usually dictates exactly how to do what they are tasked with doing, but the subordinate elements have pretty precise direction about what they are to achieve as part of the larger plan. For years, we have worked to employ technologies that give higher commanders more and more ability to see and control to the minute level should they choose to. Blue Force Tracker, for instance, gives higher echelon commanders the ability to see to the individual vehicle level what is going on and, if desired, to direct the movements of individual elements. We have seen this in Afghanistan, such as when individual illumination missions have been overridden by a Colonel over 100 Km distant.

I stand by my assertion that insurgency is a political problem. It is the spot on the political scale where the social contract breaks and politics turns violent internally. This is as opposed to an open insurrection (the French word for insurgency is “insurrection,” but in English we do not use the words interchangeably), where there is a popular revolt. An insurgency is typically a smaller political element, the members of which refuse to submit to what we would describe as a legitimate government. We could devolve at this point into a discussion regarding legitimacy, but that would be a digression, so we will skip it. The point remains that insurgency is a political situation turned violent.

That being said, we all accept the statement that, “all politics is local.” If we accept that, then it is manifestly true that, since insurgency is a political problem, then all insurgency is local. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take it to completion; then all counterinsurgency is local.

While the Joint world does not accept, doctrinally, that COIN is a subset of Stability Operations, the Army and Marine Corps seem to understand that it is. In other words, you can do Stability Operations in the absence of an insurgency. I would submit that, applied properly and in a timely fashion, Stability Operations may forestall the progress of a nascent insurgency. By addressing the grievances of a population, fewer people will be willing to kill over them. It’s not what you are willing to die for; it’s what you are willing to kill for. Failing that, an insurgency develops. More people are willing to kill over their perceived grievances. Now all you need is leadership to direct that willingness and… voila… insurgency.

But each of these potential insurgents has his or her own motivations. Those motivations are personal and therefore local. They are political. So, we have a partner country that is beset by an insurgency and we choose not to abandon them to their fate… for whatever our reasons are. The strategy is pretty much chosen at that point. Either you are or are not going to do counterinsurgency. Now the choice is to what extent do you employ your own forces. Perhaps this is what the Colonel means by “strategy.” You can do an advisory and assistance role, or you can engage in COIN operations with your own forces in addition to or in place of the host nation forces. In the case of Afghanistan, a developing government and lack of governmental security apparatus led us into committing more forces in direct action against the insurgency. What we didn’t understand was how to perform Counterinsurgency Operations, much less Stability Operations. You cannot do COIN in a vacuum. It simply doesn’t work that way. You must do Stability Operations as well.

Why must you do Stability Operations when you are conducting COIN? Because COIN is, by definition, to counter the insurgency. It is focused on reducing the insurgency itself. In order to address the fundamental causes and conditions that produced or fuels the insurgency, the grievances of the people must be addressed. These are political in nature, but include development and economic opportunity. Just as Stability Operations conducted effectively and early enough may forestall a full-blown insurgency, diffusing the progression of anger to the level of lethality, so in recovering from an insurgency the effective conduct of Stability Operations take the recovery to the next level. What needs to be addressed? Well, that depends on the causes and conditions in each locality. It varies. There is no fixed solution. It is a process that must be arrived at through knowledge of each local area and discovering what the people there need in order to not be willing to take up arms in pursuit of whatever it is that they are riled up about. And, for those who are not and would not be insurgents, to commit to actively supporting the government and not supporting or tolerating the insurgents in their midst.

Okay, so we’ve arrived at our strategy. Now, there are particular problems of command in COIN. One is that all of these wonderful technologies for micromanagement of tactical resources are available. But there is little or no operational maneuver occurring. Units are typically given an Area of Responsibility (AOR). The lower the element, the more local the AOR. The most important work in COIN is done by lower echelon elements. Companies and platoons make all the difference. You are not slamming a battalion or brigade into a breach in a line. You are sending squads and platoons into an area where some of the residents are willing to kill in order to gain or maintain control over their fellow residents. What those squads and platoons do make a ton of difference. They make all the difference.

Who understands the discrete AOR? Can a battalion or brigade commander understand what is happening at the village level, in detail, in each discrete AOR in his command? Probably not. So, for a battalion or brigade commander to dictate the actions of companies and platoons is generally counterproductive. All of this wonderful technology that enables a field grade officer to manipulate units to the lowest level provides a capability that is rarely productive in COIN… and yet it is often exercised.

So if the role of a battalion or higher officer is not to control the precise actions of companies on the ground, then what do commanders do? Supervise and enable. Supervise means that a higher echelon officer needs to recognize garbage when he sees it and how to direct that it be set back on course. Enabling means providing that which the lower echelon units need but do not possess on their own; like analytical horsepower. Decision support, not decisions (followed by support for decisions).

COIN is information intensive at the lowest level, and yet the lower down the chain we go, the less ability we have to organize and correlate large quantities of information. One of the most effective things I have seen was at Task Force 1 Lancs in Nad e Ali, Helmand Province. The 1 Lancs (1st Duke of Lancaster) Cultural Advisor (CULAD), a British Captain by the name of Ann Seton-Sykes, assembled large quantities of information and organized it into products that helped the company commanders to visualize aspects of their operational areas. She produced overlays that showed land ownership and the areas of influence of various elders, among other very useful information. This took raw data gathered by the type of constant, intensive reconnaissance that COIN necessitates and put it into a format that was most useful to the guys who were selecting and implementing operations on the ground. It helped the company commanders and platoon leaders to visualize the political realities on the ground upon which they operated every day.

The results that the Lancs were achieving were impressive. Perhaps I will do a post dedicated to what I saw achieved in that one area of Helmand. Regardless, they are a brilliant example of a higher headquarters enabling rather than controlling directly the actions of counterinsurgents on the ground. Perhaps that is what the good Colonel is referring to as strategy; command strategy. If so, he has raised an excellent point, and so I must thank him for the topic of a post.

Tags Tags: , , , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, COIN, COINdinistas, COINtras
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 18 Dec 2010 @ 11 18 PM

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