I’ve traveled to the south (Helmand Province) several times now. Much of my time has been spent with the Brits at Camp Bastion, Nad e Ali, and now Lashkar Gah. From a COIN standpoint, while there is work to do, the Brits are doing better. The current Brigadier has taken a quantum step forward with a directive to execute a standardize tool pack that includes an ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk for each operational area.
This directive will pay tremendous dividends in each locality. It’s also a change. Using a standard toolset may sound like common sense, but it’s not a forgone conclusion by any means. Because of training, which has been mostly kinetic in focus, units have arrived on the ground in Afghanistan for years knowing lttle about counterinsurgency. The British are by no means alone in this at all, and they are actively addressing the issue.
Americans, for instance, have focused largely on kinetic tasks and we have scared the crap out of our Soldiers in training. Young Soldiers are convinced that danger lurks everywhere. Implicit is the idea that aggressiveness and estreme suspicion are what is required to survive. Also implied that only the unwary are killed. Many young Soldiers, NCOs and officers come over here determined to be too smart and aggressive to die here. We have failed to truly prepare our Soldiers, and especially the leaders, for what is required of them in a COIN environment.
Along with this has come an ignorance of the doctrine available. Of American field grade officers and senior NCOs who arrive at the CTC-A, the consistent answer in informal (“raise your hand if…”) polls is that 15% have read FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. Still, the number of units on the ground who are willing to attempt COIN rather than counter-guerrilla type operations has markedly improved. The British currently on the ground are among these. This is part of my growing optimism.
It’s true that there are enough examples still, even among the British, that a “sharpshooter” could tear holes in my observations. I could point them out myself. What I’m talking about is a trend. The Marines have also had some successes, but I was depressed to hear a battalion-level Marine Warrant Officer explaining how his unit had arrived without any COIN training whatsoever… but that they had killed 8 or 9 bad guys since arriving a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to scream. My compatriots told me that I showed enormous gentleness in my questions. I don’t blame him. Really, it’s not about blame.
Obviously, there is still a lot of hit-and-miss COIN going on. It’s the training back in the national training bases that sets the tone. One Army unit, somewhat lionized by a previously acclaimed independent journalist who recently left after a lengthy embed, trained not on COIN, but from the old Counter-Guerrilla Operations manual. Their actions showed this as well. They managed to rack up the highest casualty rate of all Army units currently in theater and were subsequently removed from their operational area and given a different mission. The journalist, who would have had you believe that he was with a unit doing great things, unfortunately doesn’t know what good COIN looks like. He was offered a seat during the COIN Leader’s Course last August, but he begged off citing, “Time is money.” Had he come, he may have had the knowledge to better report on what he saw. Sadly, the untrained observer will do things like that. Education is a key.
The current training requirements are not driven by what GEN McChrystal wants to see executed on the ground. That, however, is about to undergo a massive change, driven by a memo by no less than the Secretary of Defense himself.
Watch for more on that.
The point here is not to indict anyone. The point is that we ARE learning. Granted, it could have come sooner, but this has been a learning process. The changes do not bear fruit immediately. Set your expectations for a tough summer, but expect progress. Indicators such as the British in the areas aroung Lashkar Gah and their forward-thinking Brigadier are keys to the developing trends. Much more work is going on behind the scenes, even in the States, that will change the trajectory of units that will deploy in the months ahead. McChrystal’s strategy, and the support being generated from the SECDEF on down, will begin to alter the outcomes as units employ these techniques because they were trained in them prior to arrival in-country.