In the last few posts I have reviewed a posting by “Afghanistan Shrugged” and the latest report on the ANP by the International Crisis Group. One notes how a higher commander can derail an honest effort by a subordinate in a dangerous situation, bringing failure to an operation on the verge of success, and the other details the current state of one of the two main pillars of Afghan security; the ANP (and with it the Ministry of Interior.) The second also touches on the Afghan Judiciary; the shadowy realm where criminal prosecution and corruption blend into a tie-dye of injustice that threatens the very viability of the Afghan government.
These are not just my perceptions, but a thread that runs through the actions and decisions of hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, especially leaders. These soldiers have an underlying sense of frustration that sometimes seethes to the surface. The feeling of struggling against the stream is at times intense. The author of “Afghanistan Shrugged” clearly brings this feeling forward in his post describing the events of a night when he was denied illumination and four Taliban rocketeers escaped to rocket another day.
We’re not talking about a JDAM on a village here, folks, we’re talking about mortar illumination rounds. The ANA Vampire 06 advises don’t have NODS, and it was apparently one of those nights in Afghanistan that was darker than Osama’s Soul.
I also reviewed Ghaith Abdul Ahad’s article in The Guardian containing interviews with Taliban leaders in Wardak and Khost. A large part of the value of the article lay in these Talibs explaining their insurgency plan. They explained how they use the general inefficiency of and distrust in the ANP to their advantage, as well as the lack of faith with which the people regard the judicial system of the IRoA government. The Talibs explained the simple truth that the field in which they sought to compete with the government… and therefore destabilize it through de-legitimizing it… was in the provision of essential services to the people. One of the major services that they offer is a sure justice system.
These posts tie together to paint a picture of reality in Afghanistan, one that is felt if not completely articulated in the minds of most who serve outside the wire; a couple of sides of the Rubik’s Cube that is the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. They also tie in to a story of intrigue that is still unfolding.
At at a FOB in Wardak, a small group of puzzlers whose job it was to move individual blocks around in the Rubik’s Cube found themselves ensnared in the Afghan Conundrum. A spy had been identified; a small group of them, actually. They were undoubtedly providing information that was directly used by Qomendan Hemmet in his tactical and probably strategic operations against Afghan and Coalition forces in Wardak. American and Afghan lives were at risk, and the root cause of that risk was identified and in custody. Now the clock started ticking. Afghan law sets a time limit for action to be taken. Local nationals cannot be held indefinitely.
There are two paths to justice in Afghanistan with these types, and one of them is to turn the suspects over to the local judiciary.
Now, with the information provided by several sources, including the International Crisis Group, we have seen that the Afghan Judiciary is most likely to have these guys out and on the run in short order. No justice there; and the individual lives to harm another day. What’s a young Company Commander to do? He may seek option number two; the American military-driven option. This interpreter-turned-spy deserved to spend some days at a nice detention center with American guards and daily interrogation, wouldn’t you think?
BTW, if you’re thinking of going all Abu Ghraib on me, I’ll advise you to not even go there. The detainees at the American facility are very bad people who are treated very humanely and are in much nicer accommodations than any Afghan facility would provide. No, the interrogations do not include torture.
This young American officer then appeals to his commander for option number two and is met with… silence. His boss is leaving him out to dry. His distrust (along with the rest of Wardak’s population) for the Afghan system complete, he takes action. Now he is facing Article 32 hearings (part of the Military Justice System’s path to potential incarceration for crimes) at Khost for his actions.
I do not mean to excuse the men who participated in the interrogations that day in Wardak, but when an American reads an article about this officer and his First Sergeant and the trouble that they find themselves in, they do not see all that is behind it. While this is an extreme example, it is one that many of us who have operated outside the wire could easily imagine. My interpreter in Afghanistan was a stellar young man. Nearly every interpreter I ever met there was. I have also written about how Sam the Combat Terp and his family were threatened on more than one occasion, to the point that he moved his family twice within a few months. The pressure on these young men is intense. I don’t know whether the interpreter in question was a plant or if he was pressured via threats or coercion to his life or his family’s safety, but finding that your terp is a spy is every soldier’s nightmare.
Only having a spy for a terp who is never discovered is a worse scenario.
I bring this situation into this thread of posts to illustrate that the situation in Afghanistan is indeed a Rubik’s Cube, and we have a serious need to make a huge difference in reforming not only the ANP but the Afghan Judiciary. We also need to stress that highly trained leaders on the ground need to be trusted when they call for support from the little places in Afghanistan. Here we have two scenarios where the counterinsurgency was foiled by Battalion Commanders who made calls that negated their subordinates’ positive actions (one had four rocket-firing insurgents trapped in the open and couldn’t see them in the dark, the other had a known spy in custody who he feared… and rightly so… that this spy would go free if left to Afghan civilian justice) because they failed to back those subordinates. There is something intrinsically wrong with both of these scenarios. That young Company Commander and his First Sergeant would not be facing the ends of their careers and possibly incarceration if they had been treated with the respect that they were due. Four insurgent rocketeers would be either dead or in custody and unable to fire more rockets if the officers who asked for mortar illumination rounds had been given the respect that their judgment was due on that night near the Pakistani border.
Their commanders replied with, “I don’t trust you to make a sound decision. I know that I will always know better than you what is best for your AO (Area of Operations.)”
I’ll wager that if you asked the officers who are at the slimy end of that stick, “We are going to put you out in a very difficult and dangerous position downrange. We do not trust you and when you most sincerely need it we will not support you. Do you accept this mission?” the answer would be, “No. I hereby submit my resignation.”
That Company Commander and his First Sergeant found themselves confronted by the nightmare scenario which was immediately followed by being left holding a bucket of steaming excrement. Judging their decisions from that point forward is not my job, but the job of the Article 32 Board. What I do know is that they should never have been left holding that bucket.
Yes, Afghanistan is a Rubik’s Cube. Many people have solved Rubik’s Cubes at some point in their lives; sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and we are spinning the individual blocks around in a seemingly disjointed and random pattern instead of in a coordinated series of movements that see the whole cube. I, like CPT Hill, 1SG Scott, and Vampire 06, was working at moving one or two of the little blocks that make up the larger cube, and every once in a while the Big Hand reaches in gives the cube a couple of quick twists that undo considerable effort or short-circuit a favorable turn in battlefield fortunes. We in the Army have a polysyllabic yet simple word for this effect, but I’ll give you a more generally acceptable and family-friendly word that starts with the same letter; counterproductive.
As the warnings of many experts and pundits ring, our window of opportunity in Afghanistan is growing smaller and smaller. It’s time to reconsider… read unscrew… ourselves in how we are approaching this war. A symptom of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Real insanity is the inability or unwillingness to perceive, understand, and abide in the truth. The truth is that what we are doing isn’t working. Putting more effort into what isn’t working isn’t going to work much better. It’s like trying to force a nut onto a bolt counterclockwise. Putting more umph into it isn’t going to make the bolt thread the other way, but possibly just get the nut stuck in a supremely untightened position.
We are trying to go lefty-tighty. It just doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t even sound right.
Of course, there are other sides to the cube. “Free Range International” has an incredibly insightful post on some of the rest of the cube in his most recent post. This guy needs to be listened to.
Read that, “People who make big decisions should be paying attention to what this guy is saying.”
It’s time to figure out the Rubik’s Cube, and it’s time to do it quickly rather than slowly. Our window is closing, and there are those out there who are trying to close it faster.
I realize that all of the things that I linked to are a lot to read, but if you read all of them, or if you have read all of them, it will really help to paint a picture of what it’s like in Afghanistan on a conceptual level on down to some of the dirt-level effects. This isn’t the rantings of some FOBBIT about interpersonal relationships on a deployment, so it’s a bit dry. There aren’t any bullets flying around in these pieces, so it’s not a mile-a-minute thriller; but if you want to get a feeling for some of the challenges and how it comes down to men on the ground making difficult decisions and having their very best efforts on behalf of this country sometimes come to naught, it will help with that. It’s the stuff that is in the back of their heads when they are deciding where to go that they might get shot at or blown up. It’s the stuff that underlies the next words they choose when they mentor their Afghan charges or brief the battlespace owner. It’s the stuff that rattles around inside one’s skull when trying to figure out just how much to trust an Afghan village elder who could seriously screw them over if he had such an inclination, which he will tell them himself is the farthest thing from his mind. It’s the stuff that makes a young Specialist shake his head in disbelief and wonder if it’s all worth it. Like a Rubik’s Cube, it’s all tied firmly together and when you move one piece the rest of it moves, too.
Here’s the best part; it’s Rubik’s Cube by committee, really… but that’s a bigger subject.