The previous posts described a lot of concepts and activities. Granted, that information alone isn’t going to enable anyone to fully execute a District Stability Matrix and perform any kind of program or operational design. It’s an outline, provided in hopes of improving publicly available knowledge of what counterinsurgency and stability operations are. All too often, COIN and stability are described in the few terms that have caught on in pop culture. They are trendy to use in the media, but the reality is misrepresented or mythologized. Misunderstanding of COIN is practically viral. This breeds a separation of the American people, and more than a few academics and think-tankers, from the reality of what is actually being attemted on the ground. COIN and stability operations are grinding, difficult tasks carried out, in the case of Afghanistan, in a land and among a people that appear to be very alien at first glance. Misconceptions hinged on such misunderstood but trendy terms as, “hearts and minds,” makes the whole endeavor unfathomable without a deeper understanding. It’s a big subject, so it’s not easily described in one posting.
With all of the previous posts tied together, what does this look like in practice? When we arrive in, say, a district in Afghanistan, how do we begin? There are a lot of factors that will determine where we start, such as what has already been done by our predecessors. Not every place is like Marjah, where the entire operation started with little or no GIRoA presence or authority in that area. Most of us will land on a work in progress. We still have to start with as complete a grasp of the local environment as we can get.
These days, there is nearly always legacy documentation of what has been learned and done in most areas we could find ourselves in. Often it is not readily retrievable and may be a shotgun pattern of disconnected information. Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of databases.” So many different repositories have been established over the years that we have, collectively, forgotten what we have learned. Foreign assistance personnel are transitory. We work there for awhile and then we leave, replaced by others after a brief hand-off. That knowledge, that visualization, leaves with the outgoing person or organization. From experience, I know that some efforts become enduring and others end as soon as the personnel leave and are replaced. That is often not based on the merit of the action or program. Sometimes it is due to overlapping funding that has already been vetted and committed. Each rotation of personnel develops its own flavor, its own focus. Because of this, continuity of effort is sometimes lost.
Unity of effort is important, but continuity of effort is undervalued. It actually doesn’t appear on the doctrinal list of “COIN Imperatives.” It is recognized as a problem, though; particularly in the military/security line. The methodology and logistics of handing-off to a follow-on organization have been worked and re-worked for years in attempts to overcome the jerky nature of operations caused by these reliefs. State and USAID personnel change out less often, and being smaller, the hand-off is often more personal.
Many things affect handing over an area to a follow-on person or organization. Time is often a critical factor. There is a finite amount of overlap, sometimes none at all. Many organizations and personnel arriving in Afghanistan right now are getting information presented to them in a non-standard format that is essentially proprietary to the individual or organization on the way out. The rational decision-making processes that the outgoing personnel used may not be documented so that we can clearly understand the intended effects and why those effects were sought as part of an overall plan.
Is this a show-stopper? No, but it is a show-slower and a potential source of discontinuity. This has happened many times in many places, and makes Coalition and GIRoA efforts appear to be haphazard. Haphazard is ineffective in general, but it is definitely viewed as such by the majority of the population. Giving this impression is a great way to fail to gain support or even acquiescence. More and more often, we are seeing units arriving on information organized in a way that can be easily understood. When time is limited, quickly acquiring the situational awareness attained by the previous organization or individual is critical. Momentum, a key political concept, is lost. If the information is not organized in a way that we can anticipate, then we have to organize it so that the “next guy” gets what we didn’t. If we can anticipate how the information is organized, we can practice managing it and visualizing it (difficult tasks) in training. It’s all about visualizing the problems and solutions and maintaining steady and sustainable efforts to move things in a positive direction.
Wherever we find ourselves in the phases of operations, whether we are Shaping, Clearing, Holding or Building, we need to understand the history and thought processes that preceded ours. When deciding to modify or terminate an existing program or effort, we must first understand why that was being done in the first place. We need to understand how it is being measured in both outputs and effects so that any decision that we make is based on a logical approach and not gut feel or initial impressions. Sometimes the “Afghan way” is actually a good thing but looks very strange to a westerner at first glance. When we make decisions and choose courses of action, we document our decision making processes so that it is available and easier to visualize by our successors. We need to reach this level of understanding quickly, and so will they.
If we are lucky enough as a person or group to fall in on such information, organized in a way that we quickly understand, we will have a lot more continuity of effort. Our transition will be more seamless. If we are not so lucky, we have to resolve that our successors will have it easier. Once we have ascertained where we are, then we can apply the techniques appropriate to that phase to make progress. Some things, such as continuing to learn more about the people, places, conditions and events in an area never end. Reconnaissance, as we call it in the military, is constant. Continuous evaluation of our chosen activities and the effects they have on the local situation is also absolutely necessary. We cannot continue unchanged on a course of action that is producing negative consequences.
There is no canned formulaic solution that works in every situation. We strive to learn from the successes of others. We learn from the experiences of others, but we do not just automatically apply solutions because they worked elsewhere. We use our understanding of our discrete area to anticipate, as best we can, how such an action or program will impact the area that we work in. We understand the particulars, the personalities and the realities that will influence the enduring effects that our actions will have on the community. We recognize quickly when waves are made, including how the enemy responds, and we adjust our approach based on the success or failure of any endeavor. We choose metrics that reflect the actual effects of what we do, not just measuring our activity. We do not reinforce failure, and we don’t fail to recognize and redouble success.
We identify, protect and support resiliencies we find in the community and seek to identify and develop undiscovered resiliencies. We are imaginative, collaborative and receptive. We listen, and we interpret input based on knowledge, not impressions or a reliance on intuition. If we don’t know, we use all of our assets to find out. We listen to our enemy, and we separate the lies and half-truths from the truths. Elements of all of the three will be present. We learn to understand why and how his message appeals to the people. We are honest in accepting the truths and seeking to address them to resolve issues that truly do concern the population, such as corruption and injustice. Throughout all of this, we document all of what we learn, what we decided and what we based our decision on so that everyone from our supervisors to our replacements can visualize and understand, assist and continue on.
We have a consistent message, or conversation with the people, that is reinforced by every action we take and is based on enduring themes that have significance to the local population. It is a centerpiece, not an addendum, and is just as pervasive as reconnaissance in everything we do. We think very seriously before taking any action that is contrary to or dilutes our message.
Progress in counterinsurgency and stability is incremental and slow. It is frustrating and sometimes painful. It is difficult to continue in the face of systemic corruption and abuse of power. It is difficult to overcome the negative impression left by a unit that approached the problem as a counter-guerrilla operation. It sometimes seems hopeless where illiteracy is rampant and the people appear inscrutable at first glace. Counterinsurgency is also dangerous. Courage is required, but often that means the courage of conviction to keep trying in the face of adversity and danger coupled with frustration, the combination of which is a powerful demotivator. Keeping our eye on the ball and recognizing subtle shifts is how we cope. Even a little bit of change can make a big difference, and the chances are good that if we reach the tipping point, the Holy Grail of COIN, we will likely not realize it until later.