First, I’d like to announce a new blog, Afghan Blue III, which will be more about the experience than about COIN. Of course, the way that I perceive things is affected by what I know, like anyone. This blog will continue as what it has become.
I will be back in Afghanistan within the next day or so. On the way in, my perception is that Afghanistan is more complex and convoluted than ever. COIN is discredited in the United States. We are seeking the door, looking for a way to claim some sort of victory or wash our hands of responsibility for any potential insurgent success. Domestic politics drives our strategy, election timeliness hold sway over operational considerations. Our allies follow our lead, happy to be relieved of the burden. Our Afghan allies seek to firm up their personal retirement plans, seeking external refuge in greater numbers. The insurgents see light at the end of the tunnel, vindicated in their approach of waiting us out.
The French have cried uncle after a pair of green-on-blue incidents, giving insurgents the message that Afghans in uniform shooting Coalition soldiers will hasten the withdrawal of foreign forces, speeding the day when it is insurgent vs. lone government.
It’s not looking good, folks.
Secretary Panetta is in Brussels, outlining the shift from combat units to advisors, to be completed in 2013. This is a good thing. Major maneuver units have possibly done as much harm as good over the years. The titles, “battlespace owner,” and, “land owner,” have given some Coalition officers a sense of entitlement and stand-alone decision-making authority that have made assistance forces feel like occupation forces. This fight has always been an Afghan fight. The drivers of instability have always been Afghan drivers. Some of our well-meaning efforts have been productive; some have contributed to dysfunction.
Our military has never been of a single mind in its approach to this fight. Our government has been lopsided in its approach, heavily weighted towards military effort in a struggle which is primarily a contest for the right to govern. The most progress had been made by advisors, but these successes have mostly been with Afghan security forces. Most Afghans struggling with governance have had little or no mentoring or advising. Shifting back towards an advisory role with the security forces is appropriate. Unfortunately the governance piece will still lack manpower and emphasis.
Perhaps Afghan line ministry employees will magically develop professionally, but likely not. Inept governance creates a supply-and-demand system that stimulates corruption and decreases incentive to become more effective. Better to keep prices high and provide more limited service than to service everyone equally and accept only one’s base pay.
If governance does not improve, security will be impossible to maintain.
As we sit in Manas awaiting transportation to Afghanistan, those leaving Afghanistan share stories of their recent experiences in places I have served. Areas once fairly pacified have slid into hellish instability. The road from Methar Lam to Kalagush, once fairly secure, is now seeded densely with IED’s. Ceding Kunar to the insurgents gave the internal safe haven that brought greater violence to Laghman.
Soldiers express disgust with Afghan farmers who fail to warn them of IED’s. No doubt those farmers resent the renewed vigor of insurgents in their neighborhoods, feeling the decline in security to be the failure of the foreigners in their ever-larger armored vehicles.
Only the homeward-bound Marines express any sense of optimism that their sacrifices are bearing fruit. I have yet to find one Marine grateful to the urinating snipers for that recent contribution to the legacy of the Marines in Afghanistan, by the way. I did speak to one who knew those Marines in the video. He expressed surprise, saying no one in his unit would have believed it had they not seen the video. None of those Marines had bragged about the feat in-country. It seems that only those safely at home feel congratulatory towards the urinating Marines. Those who were painted by that brush in Afghanistan were less than thankful, at least among those I’ve spoken with. While a limited sampling, it was unanimous. None thought it funny.
While the Marines passing in the opposite direction are proud of their efforts, the Army Soldiers are obviously relieved to be out, but much less optimistic that what they have done makes a difference. They mostly express dislike for Afghans and frustration with them. They brag about the punishment their units suffered, about how many kills they have. They almost universally express disdain for Afghan forces. The Marines discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the ANA and ANP (now referred to as the AUP, or Afghan Uniformed Police), while Soldiers express loathing and little else.
I’m not alone in this perception. Taco, another member of my team, made the same observation. I have my opinions about the reasons for the difference in attitudes, but there is no doubt that there is a difference.
These are some of my thoughts as I await the flight that will carry me to my last tour of duty in Afghanistan.