Obviously, the posts this tour have been few and far between. There are a number of reasons for that, including the massive amount of information and knowledge that I’m exposed to. It’s hard to take it all and present it in a way that makes sense short of writing big papers about it. There are lots of complexities, interactions and initiatives. It’s difficult to gel them into concise pieces. There is also the factor of priorities. My ability to contribute and to influence events, meager though that ability may be, is more important than writing about what I see. The trust of my leadership in my discernment is more important than demonstrating or sharing what I have been exposed to, which is considerable.
I have been back in Afghanistan for about ten months now, and my perceptions have run the gamut during that time. There have been times that I have been so frustrated that I could spit. I have seen things from time to time that have just flat disgusted me. That being said, the overall trend is very positive.
I know that there are those who decry the changes in the Rules of Engagement that are nearly a year old now. Michael Yon has recently begun spreading what I can only describe as a meme about Soldiers patrolling around some corner of Afghanistan and being prevented by their command from chambering a round in their weapons. This is not and has never been the intent of COMISAF. If this is indeed true, which I have never seen or heard any evidence of, concealing the identity of the commander who has generated this type of directive is in itself a dangerous and irresponsible act. Personally, you would have to prove to me that anyone is actually doing that.
What I do see is more and more Soldiers and Marines doing their level best to apply creative solutions to complex tactical situations, both kinetic and non-kinetic. I see Soldiers and Marines, who could easily kill, sparing lives and leveraging local relationships by allowing communities to take a positive role in correcting their local citizens. A favorite example of GEN McChrystal, which I have personally heard him use, is the example of observing an individual emplacing an IED. In GEN McChrystal’s example, there is a choice; you can kill the individual, or since you already know where the IED is, you can arrest the man, neutralize the IED, and take the man to the village elders and offer them the opportunity to sort him out. It’s all about empowering the local authorities to make decisions and encouraging them to control their own populace. It’s also about the second and third order effects of the perceptions of that populace about their security when gunshots and explosions ring out in their neighborhoods.
Like you, gunshots and explosions in the neighborhood doesn’t make them feel safe.
Now, some may say that the live capture scenario would never work. The fact is that it’s been used and it has worked. Or, you can do like one Marine unit in Helmand did recently and send a simple, one-line report.
Observed one individual emplacing IED. Engaged with Hellfire.
The Hellfire option does work to resolve the initial issue. It kills reliably. It is also the knuckledragger’s first answer to the question. (This is not about Marines. The Marines are doing some really fine work in Helmand. Some units get it more than others, as is the case with the Army. It is about the action and the thought process, not the flavor of American servicemen involved in the incident.) Every action has second and third order effects. The knuckledragger will opt for the easy, pyrotechnic answer (“Ooooooh, sparkly!”). It takes much more thought and effort to use the other method. Now, granted, there is not always the opportunity to sort the man out while he still has all his pieces rather than just sorting the pieces of the man out later. But more and more often, units on the ground are making the harder call. That’s just the beginning.
Last year, I wrote that there are many things in Afghanistan that are not best addressed by the Army or Marines. Stability Operations, and their subset, COIN Operations, require actions that are not typically military. As I pointed out before, Afghanistan has governance and economic development issues that the Army is not best suited to addressing. Other organizations, such as the State Department and USAID, had not been leveraged in Afghanistan. Just as we needed a military “surge,” we needed a “civilian surge” as well.
The “civilian surge” has had some successes. A lot of bright, talented people have come into the country. Many came in with stars in their eyes and hearts full of noble purpose. Afghanistan quickly beats starry eyes out of a person. They either come to see reality or they quit. There are some self-evident examples of those who do not have the resilience, intelligence and courage to continually push against the seemingly Sisyphean rock, witness Matthew Hoh. Many of these bright, energetic people have come into the country with purpose and have integrated their spirit with the reality with very positive results. We need more of them, but the ones who have showed up are having some very positive effects. Using the District Stability Framework, they are doing systematic, logical program design instead of just going for the default answers typical of our earlier efforts; build a school, build a road, build a clinic.
These civilians brought capabilities that have expanded the capacity-building efforts necessary to heal Afghan society, the economy and establish governmental ability to provide basic services. Efforts at providing conflict resolution mechanisms that leverage traditional Afghan methods and structures are slowly chipping away at the primary service that Taliban shadow government has offered successfully in many areas; courts.
Are there still problems and misfires? Of course. But there are more instances of getting a 75% solution than there were several years ago. Is a 75% solution workable? Yes. You don’t have to be a perfect counterinsurgent. You don’t have to be faster than the bear. You just have to be faster than the next slowest guy. The insurgent in Afghanistan is not faster than the bear. The bear, in this case, is the populace. The populace, on the whole, doesn’t like the insurgent, therefore the insurgent is inherently slow. You just have to be faster than a guy who has hobbled himself and continues to hobble himself. So, this bear prefers to eat the other guy, but will eat you if you insist on being slower.
There is still considerable corruption in the Afghan government. This is a big problem which must be addressed. Is it being effectively addressed? Time will tell. It slows efforts to fix what is wrong, and fixing these wrongs, addressing those grievances, removes any traction other than intimidation that the insurgency has. There are numerous stories of successes and failures at the grassroots level. While they resent high-level corruption, which seriously dilutes redevelopment efforts, the Afghan people are most affected by failures at the grassroots level. The corrupt sub-governor is more of a threat, because of his direct influence on the perceptions of people at the district level, than the ministry level official who is skimming from contracting efforts at a national level. Both need to be addressed, but the most direct impact is made on the people by sorting out the district level actors. That doesn’t mean that both cannot be addressed simultaneously. There are signs of effort. Again, time will tell.
While there are examples of commanders who absolutely don’t get it, (such as a brigade-sized element who used old counter-guerrilla doctrine as their basis for training and were subsequently kicked out of their assigned operational area due to their overly kinetic focus and the resultant backlash from the local populace and insurgents) there are more units who are making an honest effort at conducting effective COIN operations. This is a very positive sign. The multinational operational environment makes for some serious challenges, the British and French in particular are making progress with using doctrine consistent with COMISAF’s intent. These are very positive indicators. I have had personal experiences with both and have worked directly with officers of the British and French armies both at the theater level schoolhouse and on the ground. I have generally positive experiences with them.
The best indicator of effort at the institutional level, as far as I’m concerned, is education and training. This is where many of the changes that are under way are first evidenced. Our own forces are the weather vane, but other nations are key as well. Institutional changes are very slow in coming. The Marines, with their smaller structure, find their ship easier to turn. The Army, on the other hand, is like turning a train where the tracks run straight. Very recent events are hugely encouraging. The Secretary of Defense just published a memo that puts in place a change mechanism to change the training model for units deploying to Afghanistan. I look for this to have a huge impact on the readiness of units deploying to the theater to conduct effective COIN operations by pushing the education to a point earlier in the deployment train-up cycle.
The effect of pushing the education piece earlier in the cycle is to inform training. Training is less effective without context. Putting the subsequent training into a context, a mindset if you will, educated in the principles that are to drive the behaviors will make the conduct more consistent. That’s not the extent of it. The actual tasks are about to change, including the methods. Folks, we are seeing the development of task, conditions, standards-based training for COIN. This is the way that military forces know how to train.
In reality, it’s the way that industry trains effectively as well. Industrial training methods are based on lessons learned from military training. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. The military had to figure out long ago how to quickly and effectively train groups of people to do tasks consistently.
I’ve had a number of opportunities to see units in action on the ground from the organizational level to the dusty boots level. I’ve been in a position to hear directly the experiences of others just like me who have been elsewhere simultaneously. I have seen and heard the amazing successes and the abject failures. I am encouraged. I am disheartened to hear some reporters whose depictions are clouded by an apparent lack of counterinsurgent understanding and, in some casees what appears to be petulant anger. I am disheartened because the American people are searching for answers. Many thirst for understanding of what is happening on the ground. More than just individual stories of sacrifice, endurance and courage, the American people want to know; is this working? Are we making progress? What they have gotten is often not a coherent answer, and it is at odds with my perceptions.
I am encouraged. As an NCO, I have no right whatsoever to evaluate such an officer, but someone who knows has to say something out loud; there is no doubt in my mind that I am being led by the the right man for the job. There is no doubt in my mind that the General “gets it.” There is no doubt in my mind that I can trust him. (I’m sure he will feel so much better to get my lowly endorsement.) There are many challenges to functioning effectively in such a joint, multinational environment, but there is progress. We are having positive effects on a much more consistent basis. Our training is about to take a quantum leap. There is improvement in the Afghan contribution to all three lines of operation; military/security, governance and development. It’s not just an “Afghan face,” it’s increasingly Afghan solutions implemented with assistance… and sometimes without. It is hard. This summer will look, at times, desperate. That’s because our enemy is feeling the pressure. Don’t let the activity fool you. Look beyond it, and look beyond the desperate reporting as well.
We’re not “there” yet, but we’re making progress, and there is reason for optimism.