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 20 Jan 2011 @ 12:08 PM 

From an email from a friend, MP, seeking input on understanding Afghanistan:

I’m missing a narrative for the war in Afghanistan. That certainly needs to start at the very top of the civilian leadership, be reinforced by military leadership, and be lived by all involved.

I mean, if you ask most people what it’s about they might be able to say something about denying the enemy (AQ, Taliban) a safe haven from which to operate and hurt us at home.

And I think many people who read milblogs might be able to tell you a story or two about individual courage and sacrifice amongst our warriors.

But what is totally absent is the whole middle part. In Iraq, the Army didn’t do a great job with that either, but they did put out some stuff that the milblogs were able to amplify with their coverage.

For example, where are the Travis Patriquins of the war in Afg? The COL MacFarlands? They brought Petraeus back but where is he? Where are the stories that Roggio used to cover so well, talking about the Anbar Awakening before it was called that? Or giving context to operations like those which severed the “ratlines” from Syria?

The military doesn’t even seem to bother with dopey stories about opening schools or helping farmers anymore. That’s pretty bad! Because if they did even that, perhaps some bloggers would publish them with commentary that could stimulate thinking and conversation.

What MP is actually looking for is that mid- to low-level narrative that describes what our Soldiers and Marines are doing on the ground. Of course, my response is to go on about statements of national strategy. But that’s where the narrative begins. I will tell you that the mid- to low-level narrative is stronger on the ground in Afghanistan… at least in some circles… than it is here. There is such a tremendous disconnect between the national conversation regarding Afghanistan here in the US and what is actually being done on the ground over there. That disconnect has left gaping holes in the narrative here, and those gaping holes leave broad spaces where there is no ability to connect with what our Soldiers and Marines are actually doing there on a day-to-day basis. This is where MP senses the lack of narrative; it is the narrative that MP looks for and wishes to connect with. And, sadly, it’s missing. From my perspective, that comes from the top.

The missing narrative starts with the civilian leadership and extends from there. The civilian leadership doesn’t know how to clearly articulate its goals in a simple and accurate message. Obama states some fairly nebulous goals that appear to be disconnected from our actions on the ground. I mean, for the average citizen, what does rendering al Qaeda harmless have to do with “nation-building” in Afghanistan? Isn’t al Qaeda mostly in Pakistan now? What about Yemen? The narrative is broken from the top down, from that first sentence. It’s a failure in leadership, leaving a vacuum that is filled with a sea of voices all shouting to be heard. People try to interpret the narrative from that sentence on down, and the lack of clarity in instilling a visualization of what it’s supposed to look like juxtaposed with actions that don’t seem to entirely suit the scant high-level narrative leaves a lot of room for that cacophony to grow. The individual voices in that sea are influenced by their own standpoints and goals. Most just repeat buzzwords and really can’t envision the problem they are trying to solve with any clarity themselves. It’s outside of their frame of reference, which often gets more rigid with age and not more flexible.

In warfare in general, but counterinsurgency in particular, there are always at least three narratives, but they respond to each other and bounce off of each other. There is the official narrative, the unofficial narrative (the media), and then there is the enemy narrative, which is compared to and contrasted against the official narrative. The unofficial or popular (media) narrative is critical of the official narrative; it questions it, explores it and hammers it when it is in any way deficient, false or inconsistent. The enemy narrative is often delivered unfiltered and without substantive critique.

No one here in the US has a clear grasp of what is going on there, but oh so many cry out to be heard. With the “official” narrative weaker than water, it’s easy to lose reality in the sea of voices who shout down each other in competition to become the main narrative. Again, it’s a question of leadership, and at the upper levels, our leadership’s message is weak. The mid and lower level messages will stem from the overarching narrative, but that overarching narrative doesn’t seem to describe what we are actually doing on the ground, and so there is a disconnect. It cannot begin with GEN Petraeus’ narrative. His narrative must support and inform the national discourse. Without the underpinnings of a clear statement that his narrative dovetails with, it is cast adrift and easily derided as being somehow unsupported and unsupportable. The last general who tried to command the narrative, unsupported by the civilian leadership, is now in unscheduled retirement.

Disconnects leave a vacuum, and politics (the narratives are all about politics), like nature, abhors a vacuum. Communications abhors a vacuum as well, and competing interests will always vie for influence over the narrative… especially when the narrative has no central theme. Afghanistan is more confusing than Iraq in many ways, and so the narrative is difficult to begin with, but our national narrative is so scattered that it almost seems not to exist. MP is not the only one who misses it and looks for it. Everyone does in one way or another, and so the dominant narrative here is a disjointed argument over bullshit.

For me, what is most troubling about this disconnect are the memes that arise from the cacophony and eventually become accepted as truths. Folks, a lot of our “talking heads” are talking out of the other end, but they sound so sage while doing it that when they further a meme, you wouldn’t know it. And they’re paid to know what they’re talking about, right? Yeah, in a perfect world. There are only a couple of journalists out there who know COIN from a hole in the ground. It’s like chewing broken glass to listen to them flail away at the concept. It’s stunning that some of most educated observers who do understand it cannot enunciate it clearly, and when they do they are shouted down by the mass of voices competing to gain control of the narrative left adrift, often for their own reasons. There is no room for a consistent mid- or low-level narrative to emerge from this. Military commentators like COL Gentile and politically-driven think-tankers like Michael Cohen wouldn’t be able to propagate their memes if the successes that do exist were properly documented and narrated. They would be forced to think harder and be more rigorous in their criticisms. Cohen and Gentile’s personal narratives haven’t progressed in over three years because they haven’t needed to. They, and others, can criticize a weakly stated strategy easily with broad and unsupported strokes and reduce the narrative to a squabble over tactics that could be put to bed readily with an accurate tactical narrative that didn’t look like a kaleidoscope.

What would our narrative look like? I don’t think that “feel good” type stories of the type that we saw in the early days would do it for me. Building schools always looks good, but it may not be the best thing for a given community at a given time. Stories that give the background of why a decision has been made, that show the details of really excellent stabilization activities would really grab me. I would love to see a narrative about the successes that Community Development Councils have achieved while our Soldiers and Marines helped to provide the requisite bubble of security, working hand in hand with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). A narrative that shows our young men and women, both civilian and military, engaging in reestablishing local capacity to manage their own affairs in a mode higher than basic survival mode would be awesome; because this is happening in discrete local areas in Afghanistan. A narrative that shows that the shift is happening from a centralized government focus to building the solid footing of local governance would be great. A strong narrative would show that these traditional local structures have in the past and can now be linked in an Afghan way to a central government, that this cross-pollination of legitimacy at the local and national levels is an Afghan phenomenon and that we are learning to foster this. A great narrative would put to rest the exotification of Afghans, showing them for the human beings that are more similar to our great grandparents than we are. A great narrative would show the progress that our Soldiers and Marines are risking life and limb to enable, and the hard work being done by smart people from USAID and State to assist. A great narrative would show the heroism not only of these best and brightest that America has to offer, but would also highlight the heroism of our Afghan allies (which I know is there, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes). Now that would be a narrative.

It would also be a narrative that would engender truly thoughtful and incisive criticism which would lead to sharpening the edge rather than being mere oppositional horseshit. A true dialog would be a lot more helpful than a bunch of shrieking voices all in opposition to each other, almost none of which really know what they’re talking about.

Information dominance starts with strongly and clearly stating your objectives and then ensuring that all of your actions are in support of that clearly stated goal. When everyone knows what right is supposed to look like, then they can recognize what wrong looks like and offer truly constructive criticism. A real narrative would look more like a steady stream of consciousness instead of a cacophony of geese staking out nesting sites.

Yeah, MP, we are all missing that narrative.

 05 Jan 2011 @ 12:38 PM 

There’s an interesting article posted over at Small Wars Journal that brings up some thoughts I have on the subject.

In my experience in Afghanistan as both an embedded adviser and with the COIN Center, I had many and various experiences from the military side of the house with civilians of many flavors. In 2007, there was a dearth of US civilians on the ground. In 2009-2010, I witnessed the “civilian surge” and its effects.

My overall impression of Afghan government officials is that they are, to a man, in over their heads. From Karzai on down to the district Sub-Governors, not a one has managed so much as a township-sized administration prior to be being thrown into their current position. Afghanistan had/has no “institutional memory.” If I were put in charge of my state’s Highway Department, although I am unskilled, there is enough institutional memory present to keep things from becoming a total disaster for at least a period of time. People raised within that system know how things are done, and things will get done to a greater or lesser extent. Over a longer period, my incompetence at running a highway department would eventually put a lot of drag on the organization. But in the short to medium term, things would run.

Afghanistan, and many other countries which we would seek to provide stability assistance to, has no institutional memory. Their administrators and managers have long since been run off or killed. COIN does not function as a self-standing strategy for resolving instability, it is a methodology for fighting against an active insurgency, but it does not resolve the causes and conditions that gave rise to the insurgency to begin with. Instability is an incubator for insurgency. The military role in the stability operations required to remove these underpinnings is the lesser of the three main lines of effort.

I have seen a lot of dedicated people doing really great things; things that never get trumpeted or even spoken about here stateside. But 350 is not nearly enough good people to really make the stability progress needed to remove the underpinnings of an insurgency. The Afghan National Army is one of the greater successes in Afghanistan to this point, and its successes have been due to mentoring; being present. Money is not the solution, although it costs money. But these Afghan civil servants with no prior experience and no institutional memory to support them truly need mentoring. Without it, they fall back on the types of behaviors that are spawned as survival mechanisms in “conflict ecosystems.” We use their incompetence as further proof that they do not deserve our “blood and treasure.”

I echo those first two commenters at SWJ who have seen greatly capable people disabled by archaic management. The military has struggled with the massive paradigm shift of COIN Operations with wildly varying degrees of success (and failures that are inappropriately rewarded because Afghanistan is not worth a single officer’s career unless it is an infraction of political correctness… and we can’t punish what we ourselves cannot define as failure, anyway). All the while, the military has dealt with infighting and malcontents who simply do not want to fight this kind of war and dicker endlessly about a doctrine that has never truly been applied across the spectrum. Any argument about FM 3-24 that includes reference to its having taken over the military culture is fatally flawed from the start. Noise and smoke do not a takeover make.

In short, no one is truly leading the way. Everyone is making excuses ranging from, “FM 3-24 simply doesn’t work, anyway,” to “It’s not critical to our national interests,” to the equivalent of, “Afghans are alien creatures incapable of governing themselves and undeserving of our best efforts.” The battle for modernity is not being fought in the villages of Afghanistan so much as it is within our own institutions, and those comments above illustrate this. It is our internal struggle to adapt to the changes that globalization have wrought upon our world. Old world views clash with the concepts that are inherent with the realization that the world has irrevocably changed. Apathy driven by the urge to endlessly examine one’s own navel in a poor economy, the lack of direct impact on the greatest mass of Americans and blaming foreign policy for poor responses to a changing world economy exacerbates this and makes for some strange political bedfellows.

The absence of an obviously existential threat means that no patriotism is required, right? We are all in this for the money and our careers and there is no need for discomfort and risk. Our own tactical commanders often illustrate the resulting risk aversion and zero-defect mentalities (see MAJ Jeremy Kotkin’s recent article at SWJ). If this view is prevalent in the military, then why should civil servants not follow suit? Where is the requirement to endanger oneself or even suffer discomfort; isn’t that what a professional military is for?

I’m not sure that a Civil Service draft is the answer, but this article is a strong statement about the fact that, in a three-pronged approach, we are not doing very well. IF we achieve some limited success in Afghanistan, it will be because there are a lot of smart, energetic people out there (including Afghans) who are doing the best they can, largely unsupported by cumbersome and archaic institutions, and getting some good things done. I do know that on the ground, “Afghan good” is good enough… but we struggle to get to even that standard.

 21 Dec 2010 @ 10:50 PM 

Blue,

Did you find that any of the countries/services/types of units took to your training more readily? Do we have a disconnect across the whole spectrum, or are there pockets of willingness to adapt? Were the Brits more accepting of your methods than the US Army, or the Marines? How about the SF and airborne units?

My experience with State employees in Anbar was very similar. Lots of overpaid PhD contractors and political appointees who were grossly unprepared for the challenges they faced. Most seemed more interested in the money and writing their next thesis. With a few exceptions, we gained better results from officers and SNCOs with limited knowledge of a subject but open minds and positive attitudes.

That’s a great way to start the rest of the story. Of course, there a hundred topics in the overview of it all that bear deeper discussion, but that would be overwhelming for a single blog post. Later on those.

Yes, there were those who were more receptive. Many more, although the impression was constant that there were those who agreed with the attack dogs of intransigence but simply could not bring themselves to vocalize it. It was usually those who perceived themselves as alpha dogs who spoke loudly and often. Most often, but not always, they were combat arms field grade officers or Sergeants Major. That did not mean that every Infantry Lieutenant Colonel was going to be oppositional. Not at all. But those who were oppositional were often combat arms field grades. Probably 8 of 10 combat arms Sergeants Major sat through the course looking as if they were being force-fed a bowl of freshly microwaved cat dookie.

Our NCO Corps is miserably uneducated in COIN and, as such, is left out of a good portion of the fight except the actual fighting.

There were surprises, though. Civilians who wanted to focus on restrictive rules of engagement, combat arms officers (in many classes) who could discuss the finer points of COIN in detail (those who had educated themselves were not oppositional). There were trends, but no hard and fast rules as to who was going to be a challenge and who was going to bring the conversation in the classroom… or the field… to new heights. Some of the hardest to work with were actually those who were partially read, mostly articles and a few academic papers, and thought they had it all sussed.

Among the rest, there were those who found it complicated and frustrating, often those who liked empirical processes. They struggled and seemed concerned with failure at the practical exercises. Often those folks left with an appreciation for the processes designed to help with a highly creative effort. There were also those who had language difficulties and were challenged to keep up, much less engage as much as they would have liked.

By far, though, the greatest percentage of attendees had worked hard to get to the course and were eager to learn and open-minded about the material. They worked hard, focused well, brought their previous experience to bear and engaged in thoughtful conversation. In addition to particularly professional combat arms officers, non-combat arms branched officers and combat arms officers from branches like Artillery were eager to learn. They had fewer paradigms to break and more open minds. Many were being tossed into roles which did not precisely fit their branch or occupational specialties and therefore were just looking for education on how to handle the situation they were being thrown into.

The attitudes of partner nation military members was something of a mixed bag. There was often an underlying current of resentment as to why they were being taught American COIN doctrine. Sometimes the question was actually raised. The real answer was that the school is designed to be an Afghan school when all is said and done. It will be absorbed into the Afghan Defense University. There was an Afghan co-director. Success in bringing the Afghan staff along is another story, but we were teaching the doctrine that the Afghans had officially adopted. There is an Afghan version of FM 3-24, and it is based directly on FM 3-24, nearly word-for-word. Some of our partner countries still have no officially published doctrine for counterinsurgency. Others, like the French, have had COIN doctrine for quite awhile and perceive themselves to be more than adequate practitioners as it is. The British and Australians were particularly keen to learn the doctrine. The Brits in particular have taken to COIN with vigor, and having produced their own doctrine relatively recently, are eager to discuss principles.

A year ago, I would have said that the Marine Corps outstrips the Army in its overall grasp of COIN. As a service, this still may be true. But, there are still differences between units. The MEF that arrived in the summer of 2010 appeared to be much less interested in COIN than the unit that preceded it. One Battalion Gunner told me that his unit had received no COIN training to speak of, but did train the task of “Assault” to the battalion level prior to deployment. He immediately followed this information by proudly displaying the new hollowpoint ammunition that each Marine in his battalion had been issued six full magazines of. The Marines do have COIN trainers at Twenty Nine Palms, however.

Special Forces typically believe themselves to be natural counterinsurgents due to Special Forces training. We didn’t get a ton of them at the school house as students, but did find ourselves in contact with them frequently, especially concerning local defense-type initiatives, which they were becoming very active with. They are professionals and engage in COIN very pragmatically. Afghan Commandos, on the other hand, were frequent students and presenters at the CTC-A, I’m sure at the behest of their SF mentors and trainers. Afghan Commandos are well-trained and professional. They are thinking warriors who can explain complex concepts in detail. The Special Forces have obviously done a very good job of selecting and training them. Afghans in general pick up on COIN very readily because it makes perfect sense to them. It fits with what they know about their society and its needs much better than either the old Eastern Bloc tactics or the AirLand that Americans initially taught them. The Special Forces of Australia, New Zealand, Italy and France are also frequent students at the courses and all are among the “easy students” who are informed, engaged and communicative.

Civilians are a mixed bag. Generally well-educated, they come from many different backgrounds. Of course, the term, “civilian” is very broad and included journalists. It was always interesting to have journalists at the school. Some were doing stories on the school itself, while others were just trying to learn about the doctrine. Other journalists were invited but never attended. Michael Yon refused an invitation to attend because, “Time is money.”

The civilians were from many countries, but most were Americans. Many USAID employees and contractors attended, along with HTS (Human Terrain System), IGO (International Government Organizations), academics and various Afghan and partner nation government agencies. We began to recognize quickly that there were challenges. For instance, we talk about lethal and non-lethal targeting in program design for COIN, and many civilians took exception to this. When we focused on non-lethal targeting, they still found the term to be offensive. When a guy in a uniform says, “targeting,” we it obviously means putting steel on target. We have no problem being a “target audience” or being part of a “target market,” which are actually more akin to what we are talking about with non-lethal targeting. But, civilians still struggled with the term. Many were good sports, but many were truly uncomfortable with the uniformed personnel and our military comportment. This remained a challenge, and each class would hear its share of objections and expressions of offended sensibilities.

Military students, for their part, found the civilians to be an odd bunch. The prejudice was definitely a two-way street.

One oft-expressed sentiment was an expression of relief that Americans finally “got it.” This was most often expressed by Afghans, civilians and partner nation military. Many had witnessed our JDAM “COIN” just a year or two prior.

Attending the course and sharing close quarters and work actually seemed to help break down the barriers of nations and military vs civilians, along with another interesting phenomenon which repeated itself over and over again over the course of many CLC’s. The lights came on. Between day three and day four of the course, it all jelled. End of day reviews completed by students changed in tone and substance. Conversations exploded. Concepts began to be applied, and exercises began take on a whole new look. Often, those who had come in with oppositional attitudes became engaged and communicative. It was interesting to observe and the cycle repeated itself every CLC. The student who made it through the course with no change was actually a rare exception.

While this tendency was mildly encouraging, it was other developments that were to ultimately to bring a more buoyant spirit to the deployment.

 18 Dec 2010 @ 11:18 PM 

I have recently returned from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan working for the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan. I traveled extensively over the East and Southwest Regions, including a fair amount of time spent in Helmand Province. I found it to be expeditious not to blog during most of my tour, as it would have interfered with my full time job and prevented me from being able to accomplish some things that I am very proud to have been a part of. I am returning to the conversation regarding Afghanistan having witnessed and learned much.

COL Gentile has (nearly four months after the fact) commented on my last post. Here is what he had to say in comments:

Insurgencies may be local, but STRATEGY should determine if our response to it if any, should be local. By stating such things like “all” Coin must therefore be local too you commit us to an operational template of clear, hold, build in expeditionary form and along with Old Blue the promise of reenacting David Galula and his counter maoist template in the modern troubled spots of the world.

You guys still dont get it; I am not talking the tactics of Coin, I am talking about the Strategy that should decide if and when and how it should ever be put into place.

Sure Blue, deploy the E card; but just remember Hans Delbruke had no military experience whatsoever yet provided one of the most cogent criticisms of the Prussian military of his time. Yet for you, in how you assert the fact that you have been to Afghanistan therefore know more than others, and the rest of us should just shut up and bow to your experience when we dont agree with you.

Come on my friend, get a clue.

gian

It’s as good an invitation back to the fray as can be found at this point. So here I go…

I agree that strategy determines whether or not to employ counterinsurgency as the approach for resolving an issue. However, if you are faced with an insurgency while working with a developing country, it’s a little hard to justify a different approach, even if your role is simply an advisory one. Just as when a partner country is attacked conventionally, as in the Gulf War, the response is then conventional.

That is, assuming that you choose to respond. We could have chosen to tolerate the fall of Kuwait to Iraq’s invasion and just shrug it off. We found this to be unacceptable and so the response was a forcible eviction of the Iraqi forces from Kuwait. COIN would not have been an effective approach to resolve this issue once the decision was made to evict the Iraqis. Just so, once the decision has been made to support the host nation in defeating an insurgency, COIN would be the methodology of choice. So, yes, strategy does determine the employment of COIN. Once that course has been selected, in COIN it is a short throw between strategy and tactics, as there is not a lot of operational art in COIN.

In maneuver warfare, brigade commanders tell battalions where to go and what to do. Battalion commanders tell companies where to go and what to do. Neither usually dictates exactly how to do what they are tasked with doing, but the subordinate elements have pretty precise direction about what they are to achieve as part of the larger plan. For years, we have worked to employ technologies that give higher commanders more and more ability to see and control to the minute level should they choose to. Blue Force Tracker, for instance, gives higher echelon commanders the ability to see to the individual vehicle level what is going on and, if desired, to direct the movements of individual elements. We have seen this in Afghanistan, such as when individual illumination missions have been overridden by a Colonel over 100 Km distant.

I stand by my assertion that insurgency is a political problem. It is the spot on the political scale where the social contract breaks and politics turns violent internally. This is as opposed to an open insurrection (the French word for insurgency is “insurrection,” but in English we do not use the words interchangeably), where there is a popular revolt. An insurgency is typically a smaller political element, the members of which refuse to submit to what we would describe as a legitimate government. We could devolve at this point into a discussion regarding legitimacy, but that would be a digression, so we will skip it. The point remains that insurgency is a political situation turned violent.

That being said, we all accept the statement that, “all politics is local.” If we accept that, then it is manifestly true that, since insurgency is a political problem, then all insurgency is local. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take it to completion; then all counterinsurgency is local.

While the Joint world does not accept, doctrinally, that COIN is a subset of Stability Operations, the Army and Marine Corps seem to understand that it is. In other words, you can do Stability Operations in the absence of an insurgency. I would submit that, applied properly and in a timely fashion, Stability Operations may forestall the progress of a nascent insurgency. By addressing the grievances of a population, fewer people will be willing to kill over them. It’s not what you are willing to die for; it’s what you are willing to kill for. Failing that, an insurgency develops. More people are willing to kill over their perceived grievances. Now all you need is leadership to direct that willingness and… voila… insurgency.

But each of these potential insurgents has his or her own motivations. Those motivations are personal and therefore local. They are political. So, we have a partner country that is beset by an insurgency and we choose not to abandon them to their fate… for whatever our reasons are. The strategy is pretty much chosen at that point. Either you are or are not going to do counterinsurgency. Now the choice is to what extent do you employ your own forces. Perhaps this is what the Colonel means by “strategy.” You can do an advisory and assistance role, or you can engage in COIN operations with your own forces in addition to or in place of the host nation forces. In the case of Afghanistan, a developing government and lack of governmental security apparatus led us into committing more forces in direct action against the insurgency. What we didn’t understand was how to perform Counterinsurgency Operations, much less Stability Operations. You cannot do COIN in a vacuum. It simply doesn’t work that way. You must do Stability Operations as well.

Why must you do Stability Operations when you are conducting COIN? Because COIN is, by definition, to counter the insurgency. It is focused on reducing the insurgency itself. In order to address the fundamental causes and conditions that produced or fuels the insurgency, the grievances of the people must be addressed. These are political in nature, but include development and economic opportunity. Just as Stability Operations conducted effectively and early enough may forestall a full-blown insurgency, diffusing the progression of anger to the level of lethality, so in recovering from an insurgency the effective conduct of Stability Operations take the recovery to the next level. What needs to be addressed? Well, that depends on the causes and conditions in each locality. It varies. There is no fixed solution. It is a process that must be arrived at through knowledge of each local area and discovering what the people there need in order to not be willing to take up arms in pursuit of whatever it is that they are riled up about. And, for those who are not and would not be insurgents, to commit to actively supporting the government and not supporting or tolerating the insurgents in their midst.

Okay, so we’ve arrived at our strategy. Now, there are particular problems of command in COIN. One is that all of these wonderful technologies for micromanagement of tactical resources are available. But there is little or no operational maneuver occurring. Units are typically given an Area of Responsibility (AOR). The lower the element, the more local the AOR. The most important work in COIN is done by lower echelon elements. Companies and platoons make all the difference. You are not slamming a battalion or brigade into a breach in a line. You are sending squads and platoons into an area where some of the residents are willing to kill in order to gain or maintain control over their fellow residents. What those squads and platoons do make a ton of difference. They make all the difference.

Who understands the discrete AOR? Can a battalion or brigade commander understand what is happening at the village level, in detail, in each discrete AOR in his command? Probably not. So, for a battalion or brigade commander to dictate the actions of companies and platoons is generally counterproductive. All of this wonderful technology that enables a field grade officer to manipulate units to the lowest level provides a capability that is rarely productive in COIN… and yet it is often exercised.

So if the role of a battalion or higher officer is not to control the precise actions of companies on the ground, then what do commanders do? Supervise and enable. Supervise means that a higher echelon officer needs to recognize garbage when he sees it and how to direct that it be set back on course. Enabling means providing that which the lower echelon units need but do not possess on their own; like analytical horsepower. Decision support, not decisions (followed by support for decisions).

COIN is information intensive at the lowest level, and yet the lower down the chain we go, the less ability we have to organize and correlate large quantities of information. One of the most effective things I have seen was at Task Force 1 Lancs in Nad e Ali, Helmand Province. The 1 Lancs (1st Duke of Lancaster) Cultural Advisor (CULAD), a British Captain by the name of Ann Seton-Sykes, assembled large quantities of information and organized it into products that helped the company commanders to visualize aspects of their operational areas. She produced overlays that showed land ownership and the areas of influence of various elders, among other very useful information. This took raw data gathered by the type of constant, intensive reconnaissance that COIN necessitates and put it into a format that was most useful to the guys who were selecting and implementing operations on the ground. It helped the company commanders and platoon leaders to visualize the political realities on the ground upon which they operated every day.

The results that the Lancs were achieving were impressive. Perhaps I will do a post dedicated to what I saw achieved in that one area of Helmand. Regardless, they are a brilliant example of a higher headquarters enabling rather than controlling directly the actions of counterinsurgents on the ground. Perhaps that is what the good Colonel is referring to as strategy; command strategy. If so, he has raised an excellent point, and so I must thank him for the topic of a post.

Tags Tags: , , , ,
Categories: Afghanistan, COIN, COINdinistas, COINtras
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 18 Dec 2010 @ 11 18 PM

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 03 Jul 2010 @ 5:15 AM 

Gian Gentile has not been silent in my absence, nor have his arguments progressed. In the July 2010 edition of Joint Force Quarterly, COL Gentile once again states his long-standing argument that COIN doctrine, now three and a half years old, was never properly vetted. He continues to compare it to Active Defense doctrine of the 1970’s, and he continues to compare his calls for reevaluation of the existing doctrine to the calls which eventually resulted in AirLand Battle doctrine (the doctrine of Desert Storm). There are subtle differences. Two years ago, COL Gentile asserted that FM 3-24 was designed to defeat Maoist insurgencies and that this made FM 3-24 woefully inadequate for the current usage. Then it became widely known that the Islamic insurgents are using Maoist doctrine adapted for Islamic insurgency in Abd Al-‘Aziz Al-Muqrin’s A Practical Course for Guerrilla War. We no longer hear COL Gentile pressing that particular button.

From the viewpoint of someone who is on the ground and engaged in the counterinsurgency, and who has a fairly broad view of what is occurring, the current incarnation of the Gentile Argument remains short on a couple of points. COL Gentile asserts that the theories upon which the current COIN doctrine are based have not been successfully used elsewhere. Students of the doctrine can easily see where these principles are not new. Many were, in fact, drawn from successful practice by the British in Malaya. There are, on the other hand, no clear examples of where a different approach has been successful. Witness the Germans in the Balkans. The question then becomes, if not this, then what?

Andrew Bacevich claims that just leaving would be entirely acceptable. Of course, this ignores one of our chief impediments in Afghanistan; our own history. We are easily and believably depicted by our enemies as quitters. This is easily believed by significant segments of the population who, being wooed by both sides, must make a choice as to which direction their future lies. Pakistan, too, is being asked to make a choice based on who is going to be present and helpful over the long term. Our history, which Mr. Bacevich would now have us add to, says loudly that it will not be us.

COL Gentile, who finds himself lumped in with Mr. Bacevich in many examinations of the issue, announces the failure of the doctrine without first having empirical evidence that it has been even adequately applied. A good idea, implemented poorly, looks like a bad idea. COL Gentile himself states that his unit, 8-10 CAV, 4ID was doing COIN in Baghdad in 2006. He goes on to prove this by giving us a measure of performance rather than a measure of effectiveness in COIN.

My squadron, 8-10 Cavalry, Fourth Infantry Division, conducted close to 3,500 combat patrols and operations during our year in west Baghdad.

This is a common error amongst military officers who are ineffectually attempting COIN operations. His offering of a measure of output rather than any indication of what effect it actually had leads one to believe that the Colonel doesn’t actually understand COIN well enough to argue effectively about whether it is effective or not. It certainly does not indicate a level of understanding sufficient to declare the doctrine useless or failed. Excellent COIN practitioners know that measures of effectiveness are not universal, but that they cannot be denoted by the number of patrols conducted, the amount of Humanitarian Assistance dispensed or the number of Medical Engagements conducted. One must seek the effect that this had on the population’s perception of their own government as a result of these actions. This is particularly true when the population knows that the presence of the United States is transitory at best. We still see units on the ground in Afghanistan where commanders are struggling to arrive at measures of effectiveness rather than output.

To be sure, one must be able to measure one’s activities, but those activities must be aimed at an effect that is oriented on establishing a relationship between the people and their own government. Granted, COL Gentile’s quote was taken somewhat out of context, but it is consistent with lines of information briefed by units here in Afghanistan. One unit, conducting what amounts to a PR campaign to salvage its reputation after having been removed from its original operational area after failing to conduct effective COIN operations, literally produced a slick document in which it provided “proof” of its excellent COIN operations. The preponderance of information, provided in easy-to-read pie chart and bar chart format, was on how much money they spent. To a counterinsurgent, that could just as much be a damage estimate as a measure of effectiveness. We can do a lot of damage with our money. How did they spend that money? Did it help bring he people closer to their government? Did it add to a perception of GIRoA effectiveness? We don’t know. I doubt that they do, either. IF it was what was important to them, they would have briefed that information. If COL Gentile had had measures of effectiveness to discuss in his articles, he would have used them.

The Colonel also describes COIN doctrine as “prescriptive.” Again, this shows a lack of grasp of the doctrine, which is based on principles and methodologies that commanders then use to arrive at their own conclusions about how to conduct operations in their discrete areas. All politics is local, therefore all insurgency is local, therefore all counterinsurgency must be local. FM 3-24 recognizes this. In fact, it states it. In Armor terms, each area requires a tank-discrete CCF (Computer Correction Factor).* There is no fleet CCF for COIN. Just like the Tank Gunnery manual (doctrine), where there is a methodology for determining a discrete CCF for each tank when required. This is what FM 3-24 and FM 3-07 do for commanders. This is not prescriptive, it is a thought process laid out for a commander to use to adequately appreciate the area in which he is operating.

COL Gentile’s latest article is a re-hash of his old argument. But, it is consistent. One of the greatest areas of consistency is that it fails to offer a viable alternative. The Colonel also has a tendency to insist that what was being done prior to the publication of FM 3-24 was basically working. He points to successes by officers such as COL (now BG) H.R. McMaster which preceded the surge. BG McMaster was using lessons he learned from reading works by such men as Galula and applying them in the absence of doctrine. We see the results of his COIN effects. We know that 8-10 CAV did 3,500 patrols. Do we know what that accomplished as far as COIN effect? No. Is that an indictment of 8-10 CAV’s Soldiers or leadership? No more than when one Soldier is awarded a Silver Star and another a Bronze Star w/ “V” device. Which one sucked? Neither. One did his job very well and one did it extraordinarily well. We need to be able to divorce learning from blaming. This is not something that we are doing well.

Finally, before anyone argues that COIN has taken over the Army, it should at least be a true statement. COIN is just now making its way into the NCOES. A former instructor from the COIN Training Center – Afghanistan went straight to the Captain’s Career Course and was confronted with truly terribly COIN training. The institution has not quite caught up with the training. It is moving that way, and there are a lot of people who are doing the best that they can. But it’s not there yet. This is the war that we are in, and this is the one that we need to learn to win. It is possible that not a single soul who is currently in a uniform will still be wearing it when the next major peer-to-peer or near peer-to-peer conflict happens. Crying out about losing our warfighting edge is a bit premature at this point. Particularly when the only alternative being offered is to lose this one in favor of winning the one that may or may not happen in the unforeseeable future. For a pretty frank discussion of that side of the COIN (so to speak) see this post at Travels with Shiloh

* In the ballistic computer of an M1 tank, there is for each type of ammunition a mathematical CCF. This is the fleet CCF (the CCF for the fleet of vehicles). This tells the computer that, for instance, when HEAT is selected, the round will have certain characteristics in flight. This enables the computer to adjust for such variables as range, barometric pressure, crosswind and the temperature of the propellant before it is burned to adjust the position of the tank gun’s barrel relative to the target. Each tank, when boresighted, fires a round of each type of ammunition at a target. For various reasons, every once in a while a tank cannot hit with a fleet CCF. There is a procedure detailed in the Tank Gunnery manual for determining a tank-discrete CCF for that type of ammunition, which is then recorded on the 2404-8 for use in the future with that same type of ammunition on that tank.

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Categories: Afghanistan, analysis, COIN, COINdinistas, COINiots, doctrine
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 03 Jul 2010 @ 05 15 AM

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 19 Jun 2010 @ 9:04 AM 

One of the comments on the last post, “RC South,” brought me to realize that the ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk needs some explanation. Here is the comment:

Not that it matters much, but your Brit Brigadier’s approach, the ASCOPE/PMESII matrix, is based on futures research methods. The model is called Cross-Impact Analysis or Event-Impact Matrix Analysis. It is used to figure out what programs one needs to get from an unfortunate present to a desired future. It does fit the nature of the task in your world, doesnt it?

One thing, though. PMESII is a terrifically flawed way to define the operating environment especially for civic aciton. PMESII is designed to be a targeting method for the environment (John Waldron of USAF fame invented the method.) That’s why PMESII is associated with EBO (another bozo idea.) A better subsitute for PMESII in your part of the world would be to lay out the environment according to Social, Technological, Economic, Political, Environmental and Military (STEP-EM) factors. This latter approach is used in many non-US military cross-impact efforts similar to what the Brits are doing.

Hope this isn’t TMI (too much information.) Stay safe as the mission allows!

The ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk is a combination of two sets of information that are found in the FM 3-24. The manual doesn’t link them per se, but alludes to the linkage. What the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan has done is create a crosswalk so that critical elements of information are not ignored when gathering information about the specific area of operations (AO). What this does is spur a commander to learn about the AO in-depth. The purpose is to get to know an area the way that the population… and the enemy… does. When teaching this to Afghans, they get the idea instantly when explained to them as, “You need to get to know your AO the way that you knew the village where you grew up.” For Coalition forces, the best way to explain is to compare it to the way that a beat cop gets to know the area where he operates. An Afghan growing up in a village develops this knowledge over the course of many years. A beat cop also takes years to develop this kind of knowledge. We, on the other hand, do not have this kind of time.
ASCOPE/PMESII Crosswalk.  This .BMP can be downloaded for easier reading

Another issue that we’ve had in Afghanistan is the “experiencing Afghanistan for the first time nine years in a row” effect. What having a detailed ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk completed for each area does to resolve this cannot be understated. What you are doing is creating a living, breathing document focused on the people, places and things that are important in the daily lives of the people who live in that area. Everything from the Social Structures (meaning things like mosques, schools and clinics, not the family tree) to the Information People (a lot of information is passed by word-of-mouth in Afghanistan). Being a living document, it changes as the people, places and things in an area change. People move, die, or become less relevant, for instance. Things change. For this reason, the document changes with them. But, as a snapshot in time, it can be handed over to the unit arriving on the ground, giving them the “brain dump” in a document and saving the precious time of the Relief in Place (RIP) for doing more important things… like handing over the relationships that drive so much in any human situation.

We like to say that “every Soldier is a sensor,” but we rarely tune our sensors. The result is that they pick up white noise or general atmospherics at best. When a commander is conscientiously focused on collecting relevant information for his ASCOPE/PMESII, he is reminded by the document itself of what he does not know. Therefore, he can generate Priority Information Requirements (PIR) and Information Requirements (IR). This then causes NCO’s to focus on the real discipline of war; focus on the mission. Instead of focusing on reflective belt wear, they become relentless about their Pre-Combat Checks (PCC’s) and Pre-Combat Inspections (PCI’s), ensuring that each Soldier can tell him exactly what the commander is looking for. Driven by the ASCOPE/PMESII, this is bound to be population-centric in focus. We no longer find our Soldiers conducting “Presence Patrols” (a term that does not exist in doctrine), but instead they are performing Reconnaissance (which is found in doctrine). We cease to violate our own principles, which we have and continue to violate due to not understanding what our roles should be. Instead of the oft-heard phrase, “We came to a war and garrison broke out,” now we are back to fighting a war which relies on information and ideas just as much as it does physical force.

The ASCOPE/PMESII also is the beginning of bigger and better things. From it, as we learn more about an area, we should begin to recognize the three prerequisites for insurgency as they emerge from the human mosaic that we are creating; a vulnerable population, a weak (or perceived to be weak) government, and leadership available for direction (insurgent leaders both military and political). If all politics is local, then insurgency is local and therefore counterinsurgency is local. There is no prescription that works in each area, and so each area must be examined in detail in order for these prerequisites to emerge. Oddly enough, these prerequisites are parallel to the factors of instability, where, for instance, the vulnerability of the population is the grievances they hold that keep them separate from their government. The information gathered in the ASCOPE/PMESII then becomes the basis for the Stability Framework (or District Stability Framework).

Designed at USAID as the District Stability Framework, this is a logical process which drives program design at whatever level it is employed. It can be applied at the village, district and provincial levels. It is often confused with the Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework (TCAPF) which can be applied as part of the Stability Framework. TCAPF, however, has gotten something of a bad name, as a key part of it is the four questions that have proven problematic in implementation. That could be the subject of a post all its own. Whether the four questions are used or not, local perceptions must be discovered and used during the design process. The intent is to avoid the behavior which has gotten us to where we are after having spent billions of dollars, often without any positive impact on stability. There have been successes, true, but there have also been dismal failures; and they are legion. Our standard answer to any question of development has seemingly been, “build a road, build a school, build a clinic.” However, what if the people in a given area do not need a road, cannot staff a school and have no doctor for their clinic? What if the real dissatisfaction with the government in that area has nothing to do with anything that can be addressed by a road, school or clinic? Often enough, this has been the case. We have built schools only to have them burned. We have built roads that only inspired strife over whose property was damaged and the fact that local communities watched workers from other provinces or even other countries make money building them, while their own people suffered unemployment. We have built clinics only to have the doctors intimidated into leaving, or having no practitioners to staff them and few medical supplies. All the while, the real causes of violence and instability in that area may be, for instance, land disputes due to displaced persons returning to find their land occupied by squatters who now refuse to leave their crops. We find people who are disgusted with their inability to gain access to justice unless they can pay the bribes. Meanwhile, our understaffed clinic does nothing to heal the wounds of neighbors coming to blows over squabbles that need to be adjudicated.

The Taliban can offer governance; courts that cannot be bought, justice that is impartial if harsh.
When the enemy offers a competing “product” that is preferred over the government services, you’ve got a real problem. Insurgency is a competition to govern. All the violence stems from that. Destroy the insurgent’s ability to influence and you’ve rendered him irrelevant, regardless of whether or not you’ve rendered him inert. There will be violence. If you are successful, the insurgent will become enraged and desperate. Military tactics will have to find ways to prevent the insurgent access to the population in order to prevent widespread intimidation campaigns from succeeding. But all the while, any appeal that the insurgent may have, you are addressing. You have learned about the people, places and things that are important in that community. You have listened to the insurgent explain to you your weaknesses as he pleads his case to the people. You have listened to the people (not just the “leaders”) and then analyzed what the systemic cause, rather than the perceptive cause, of the problem is. You’ve developed a logical program to address these systemic problems along with not only measures of output (which we are good at), but measures of effectiveness (which are more difficult). You are measuring and adjusting as you go.

This works.

All of this starts with learning about the area in which you are assigned the responsibility to operate. You did this by utilizing a simple framework which established a common operational language with your partners (because they’re using this, too). This, in turn, helped you to establish a common operational picture, which promoted unity of effort. By using a common framework, all of that is achievable. It is doctrinally sound, based on the principles of FM 3-24. The Stability Framework (or District Stability Framework), developed and used by USAID, is doctrinally sound by FM 3-07 (Stability Operations). They used military doctrine to their own advantage and it works when it is utilized in a holistic, partnered environment. But the first step is actually doing the ASCOPE/PMESII.

Is the ASCOPE/PMESII framework perfect? Simply, no. Nothing is. It is a pretty good tool, though. Pretty good is good enough. We can drive ourselves crazy shopping for the perfect tool that doesn’t exist. One problem is the endless series of “X is better,” or “we started using X, and we don’t want to change.” Many units and organizations, prior to being exposed to the ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk, recognize the tool gap and either search for a tool or create one themselves. Once there is intellectual ownership, particularly among academics, it is difficult to get them to migrate to a standard toolset. However, there is tremendous power in using standardized tools, as discussed above. COMISAF has realized this, and we are expecting a FRAGO to standardize the tools. The benefit of having specific tools to train with and then execute on the ground is that units can share data… on a common framework… prior to actually arriving on the ground. This is not modeling software or simulation stuff. This is real world data about the area in which a unit operates or will operate. This is situational awareness. Most of the big rocks are covered in this framework, and if there is something that overlaps data “fields,” then you put it in each area where it could have pertinence. Think outside the box, but write your answer in the box… where you can find it when you need it.

It has been said that Afghanistan is the graveyard not of empires, but of databases. There is so much information out there that has been gathered and then lost in the morass of isolated (unlinked) proprietary databases. You can never find what you need when you need it. We have created the crazy cat lady garage of data, and you can barely find anything amongst all the cat feces and rubbish. The ASCOPE/PMESII can be done in any format, but it is organized. You can use A through E binders with PMESII tabs, or you can use the nifty Excel spreadsheet that the British developed for their Human Terrain Packs. Either way, when you talk about your data elements, all your partners will know what you are talking about and why it’s relevant. And, when you want to do an economic project, you will know who the Economic People are and where to find them.

This is the tool that is going to be used. Tool shopping time is over. Now it’s time to learn how to use them and then actually apply these principles on the ground.

That’s the short answer to a detailed, well-timed comment.

 28 May 2010 @ 12:33 PM 

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.

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Categories: Afghanistan, analysis, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 28 May 2010 @ 12 40 PM

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 10 Feb 2010 @ 6:38 AM 

Okay, so perhaps it’s a little weird for me to advertise for anyone’s Facebook page when I’m not using it myself. I’m considering it, but since I can’t seem to keep up a simple blog, it’s almost ridiculous for me to start yet another project that I won’t be able to keep up with. That being said…

Some of the interpreters here at the schoolhouse have started a Facebook page. The interpreters are very important to our mission, adding the ability to communicate with and teach Afghans of all types. The Afghan National Security Forces are obviously key partners, and they need to be able to apply the principles of COIN in their own country. It is, after all, their fight as well. They are the ones who are going to have to live here in the future. There are other key stakeholders in this fight, too; we teach and partner with various non-military Afghan government entities as well as non-governmental organizations (NGO’s). Without our interpreters, those interactions would wind up being pantomime sessions of extremely limited value. Several of our interpreters can teach any of the classes in our Program of Instruction (POI) by themselves. They are invaluable.

Our interpreters are patriots. Almost all of our interpreters have several years or more of experience as interpreters, and they are some of the best interpreters in the country. By experience, I mean operational, combat experience. They have put their lives on the line for Afghanistan and their American counterparts. One was even an ANA Commando until a wound ended his military career… but he’s still contributing to the success of the fledgling Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Being an interpreter can be a dangerous business. They must be careful whom they disclose their employment to. Some do not burden their families with the knowledge. One of our interpreters suffered a home invasion a few months ago. The reason? Because he is an interpreter. Like I said, these men are patriots.

They are also very open about sharing their language and their culture with their allies. They actively encourage American and NATO personnel to ask honest questions and truly enjoy it when someone expresses a genuine interest in Afghanistan, its language and its culture. Having the opportunity to engage Afghan patriots is a rare privilege for the average American. I encourage you to visit their page and engage them in discussion. Get the Afghan point of view on the issues that face Afghanistan and the Coalition. These men are speaking only for themselves, but what an opportunity to get rare insight from patriotic young Afghans.

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Categories: Afghanistan, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 10 Feb 2010 @ 06 38 AM

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 30 Jan 2010 @ 4:27 PM 

The idea’s being kicked around… though probably not by anyone who is capable or motivated to make a change in the policy… but it has been heard by these ears plenty; and from plenty of people. Most of them have “been there, done that.” They have the little knickknacks on their apparel to show it. The idea itself is about the knickknacks; the badges.

“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”
~John Belushi

Oh, yes, we do. We really really do.

We have a little phenomenon in the Army called, “Badge-hunting.” Although mid-grade officers, very senior NCO’s and fobbits are most often accused of it, everyone wants their “stinking badges.” It affects how those who haven’t yet “gotten some” go about their business. They are looking for the fight that will earn them their combat badge, either the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge) or CAB (Combat Action Badge). Medics are less likely to go way out of their way to get their CMB (Combat Medical Badge), but if they earn it, they want it.

You have a tendency to find what you are looking for. Sometimes, it gets extreme.

In late 2007, a Police Mentor Team assigned to train and mentor the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) were operating in Konduz for a brief period. Miles away from their accustomed stomping grounds, which to that point had been mostly in and around Kabul, and many kilometers from the nearest flagpole, the PMT were wrapping up their visit to Konduz and would soon return to Kabul. No one could predict where their next mission would take them, or when. They had spent months in the classrooms and training areas to that point. There had been no contact.

During a CONOP, there was a loud explosion near the convoy and a gunner opened fire with his M240 machine gun. Finally, there had been contact! Sworn statements were drawn up, and paperwork was submitted for the vaunted combat badges. Then the wheels came off the bus; an investigation ensued.

The attack, it was determined, had been faked. The gunner, an NCO, had thrown a hand grenade, announced that the convoy was under RPG attack, and opened fire with his turret weapon without a legitimate target.

Weeks later, the same team was sent to the Tagab Valley to replace the Tagab District ANP while they proceeded to Konduz for FDD (Focused District Development) training. The NCO who had thrown the grenade was not present. The ANCOP PMT was involved in several legitimate firefights with their ANCOP, all “qualifying” for the CIB/CAB. Irony.

While the above is an extreme case, it is an actual event. It is very likely not the only case of its type. A Soldier endangered lives, both military and civilian, in pursuit of a combat badge. While extreme cases are certainly rare, what about the less obvious badge hunts?

Do we really need Soldiers looking for their CIB or CAB? I submit that we need Soldiers who are attuned to their whole environment in the current fight… which often doesn’t require actual fighting as much as it does awareness of the other, more subtle signals of the environment… not Soldiers who are attuned more specifically to seeking the kinetic contact.

“Well,” one may say, “we do need Soldiers who are attuned enough to the actual fighting aspect so that they don’t leave themselves exposed to potential danger. We want aggressive Soldiers.”

Granted. However, once the Soldier knows that he has the badge qualifications, the Soldier has a tendency to do a couple of things. First, he realizes that getting shot at is not a picnic, and it’s not glorious. Many discover that, for instance, RPG’s suck. They become a bit more circumspect about seeking that fight. If their unit suffers losses, the bloom comes completely off the rose. Violent death and injuries are not adventure.

But a tremendous amount of damage can be done in that in-between time… the time between when unadorned Soldiers arrive in-country and the time that they are absolutely sure that they have qualified for their badge, the symbol that they, too, have “been there and done that.” If one were to accept that this can have a detrimental effect, the question becomes, “So what would alleviate that negative effect?”

Take a step back in time. In WW-II and Korea, for instance, an Infantryman (there was no such thing as a CAB at that time) had to be of a rank lower than Colonel and be an Infantryman in an Infantry unit in a combat line unit for thirty days… then they were all awarded their CIB. There was no requirement for sworn statements and determinations that the Soldier individually was exposed to a specific danger that would reasonably be expected to potentially cause him personal and immediate bodily harm or death. There were no awards boards considering CIB’s for each and every individual Soldier and officer. The rules have changed, and many of us who have seen what it does to a Soldier’s mind; or especially a leader’s mind, wonder if this is productive.

The recommendation is to go back to the old rules. If you are in a qualifying unit in a combat zone for the requisite period of time (or are wounded prior to that time) then you qualify. Take the pressure off. All you have to do is perform your job satisfactorily. When you are there, in a combat zone, you can be attacked at any time. Why is it a lottery? What is the purpose? Recognize that everyone risks it, and then take the pressure off of them to come up with a story to earn it with.

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Categories: Afghan National Police, COIN
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 30 Jan 2010 @ 04 30 PM

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 30 Jan 2010 @ 11:58 AM 

Just to update, and in response to inquiries and well-wishes, I am fine. I’m wrapping up my leave, sitting in the USO in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport and feeling grateful for the support of such fine people. The process of arriving and checking in has changed a bit since 2007, but the USO volunteers can’t get their arms around a Soldier quickly enough. They guide the Soldier quickly, walking with him, to where he needs to be; and then they promise to be there if he needs anything else.

You can read he as she, Soldier as Sailor, Airman or Marine… the constant is the USO volunteer.

Leave is too short. The children are awesome. Each is a gift alone; together a treasure beyond all imagining. They are what give me the humanity to see the child in the world. Some may not need to be brought by children to see such verities, but for me they are that lens.

As for the absence, I’d prefer not to make excuses. I have seen and learned so much on this tour… and it’s only half over. I’ve learned a lot more about counterinsurgency. I’ve gotten snapshots of a lot of behaviors in the field. I’ve seen a lot of great developments that I’ve not been sure of being clear to write about.

There have also been frustrations.

I needed leave.

Well, now that leave is over, where does the quest lead? We shall see soon enough… but back to the keyboard would be a good start.

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Categories: Afghanistan
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 30 Jan 2010 @ 11 58 AM

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