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.