The report discussed in the NYT is not new. I read the report about six weeks ago, and from personal experience it makes some sense. I would encourage leaders preparing to deploy to read it. This is why I’m disappointed that ISAF is refuting the report rather than learning from it. At least they appear to not be taking it seriously. If this is true, it is a mistake.
Granted, the sample was small and geographically limited. The sampling of US troops is even smaller than the sample of Afghans. So, yes, the report has limitations. It is less science than it is anecdotal… but as a combat advisor who has worked with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the report does carry the ring of truth. The NYT scarcely touches on the real point; the enemy is within… us. It turns out that most of the fratricidal murders that have occurred were not the work of insurgent infiltrators, but the work of very angry ANSF. It is easier to put more money into vetting ANSF recruits than it is to effectively deal with the real problem.
Our counterinsurgency manual lists a set of behaviors that are historically proven to be unsuccessful practices. One of those is a “low priority on quality advisors.” Army Special Forces have a selection process that is designed to weed out those who, among other things, are not suited to working with indigenous peoples. My own experience demonstrates what every other non-SF combat advisor knows; we were not selected based upon on any key criteria for what it takes to be a high quality advisor. We were warm bodies with the requisite military skill set and the requisite rank. Some didn’t even have those prerequisites; they simply had a pulse. There was no personality testing. There was no stress testing. There was no selection process. Individual team chiefs (those who actually had an opportunity and a pool to select from) sometimes made efforts to select a quality team… mostly based on records reviews and interviews, which are very limited in what they can tell a leader. It was a shot in the dark. Mostly, it has worked out. We are discussing what happens when it doesn’t.
Trends emerged. Guardsmen turned out to be particularly well-suited to advisor roles. This does not mean that Regular Army officers and NCO’s were never successful; there are lots of success stories. But, on the whole, the Guard is better suited to advisory roles. It is generally accepted that Guardsmen have more well-rounded experience based on their immersion in civilian culture. There is a lot there to be plumbed; another entire discussion could be had about what the reasons for this phenomenon are. At this point, suffice to say that it has been more than adequately demonstrated to those of us who have served in close relationships with ANSF that some people have absolutely no business being in proximity to Afghans. We have all seen them, Guard and Regular alike; they are a danger to themselves and others, and sometimes they have gotten people killed. The last several paragraphs address the advisor issue, but more and more American line troops, not trained as advisors, are coming into constant contact with ANSF.
These types of killings are not new, but there has been an increase. The article quotes the report’s author, Dr. Bordin, as stating that 16% of hostile Coalition deaths are attributable to these fratricidal murders. I don’t know if this is accurate, but any other problem, the resolution of which could result in 16% fewer casualties, would be attacked with vigor. Well, they are attacking… but they are attacking the statistically much less significant problem of preventing insurgent infiltrators. It appears that the problems that contribute to the majority of these events are being left to smolder, dismissed by officials. Those officials can smear the techniques, they can smear the language, but I’m here to tell you that the message makes sense to me and many other advisors, and it can be addressed just as the military addresses any other recognized source of injuries and deaths; command emphasis.
A few questions may come to mind. Why would a non-insurgent Afghan soldier or policeman decide to open fire on his own allies? The report indicates a number of reasons, key among them being issues related to respect. Profane language and behavior are cited.
Afghans do not use profanity in their language as a matter of course. In the American military, the use of profanity surpasses even the use of profanity in American culture in general (with the possible exception of gangsta rap). Use of the f-bomb is rampant in American movies. Profane name-calling is an art form. In Afghan culture, to insinuate even jokingly that a man has intimate relations with his mother is an offense so great that it may inspire lethal ire. Americans call each other “motherfuckers” all the time. I have witnessed American soldiers calling Afghans such things, or referring to an Afghan as such when discussing them with another Afghan. This then gets back to the Afghan so-referenced and a resentment is begun. This may seem a simple misunderstanding, but it has been known to have lethal consequences.
I’ve seen violence almost break out over cultural issues. I’ve heard Afghan soldiers make death threats against American soldiers because the American soldier made a statement about Afghan women. The American soldier who had been threatened saw hypocrisy in the anger. Afghans see American movies and the promiscuity depicted as a matter of course. They also see American porn. Afghan soldiers love American porn, and they view American women as loose. The American soldier had been listening to his Afghan counterparts talking about American women, became irritated and said that he wanted to see photos of naked Afghan women. That was all it took. It could have resulted in a killing, but the situation was diffused and the soldier was strongly admonished not to engage in such discussions with Afghans for any reason. He survived. Others have not.
Basically, the problem is akin to racism; ignorance and arrogance combine to form a sense of natural superiority that is difficult and sometimes impossible to overcome. Just as many do not suffer from such delusions, some do things that endanger themselves and others. We have a military culture that is not only fond of profanity, it is fond of judging one’s self in relation to others. Esprit d’ corps is often built upon inculcating the belief that the members of a given unit are somehow superior and more elite than members of another unit. Now, how is a young man who has been raised since he was at the tail end of his childhood to believe that this is how to judge others (especially those in uniform) supposed to suddenly suspend this value system because he is put into close daily contact with indigenous forces?
It is nigh on impossible. Some will have the personal characteristics to overcome it, but enough who cannot will make it into these close situations. Some leaders, even some commanders, will recognize the danger and take action. Enough do not, and there is no higher-level emphasis that this is a responsibility of leadership; to recognize and remove such threats from our own ranks. To do so leaves us even more short-handed than we appear to be on paper. To not do so leaves us open to up to 16% higher casualties.
Why has the rate of such incidents increased? What has changed? An emphasis on “partnering” with Afghan units and a move away from emphasizing advising/mentoring. The cited report indicates that ANSF had uniformly positive impressions of American advisors, such as ETT’s and PMT’s, and are less happy with American units more recently. American and Coalition regular units are being placed in close living and working situations with ANSF on a frequent basis. This is, overall, a good thing; even if the advising is being downplayed (generally, there is a mixture). However, since we have the immature and arrogant in our midst, there is a greater potential for dangerous situations to occur. They have, in fact.
Younger soldiers who have been in a strictly military environment since shortly after they graduated from high school have a greater tendency to be unable to adapt to the cultural differences between Afghans and Americans. They are more likely to blithely err in ways that are not intuitively dangerous to American youth. Add to this the small but significant enough number of officers and NCO’s who are unable to effectively work with ANSF and you have a recipe for isolated outbreaks of lethal violence among allies.
While cultural training has improved, it is spotty in its stress on language and gestures. Afghan cultural training often stresses not using the left hand to gesture and emphasizes never showing the soles of your feet. Well, Afghans will often wave with their left hand, especially if the right hand is busy… but they will never shake with it. They will offer the right forearm if the right hand is busy, wet or dirty. Afghans do not appreciate the carelessly rude or purposeful display of the sole of the foot, but they are not so sensitive that accidental or comfort-related moves that expose the sole are taken as an offense.
While making too much an issue of the left hand, offensive gestures and language are often overlooked. Afghans view profane language as very distasteful and ignorant (even if they are illiterate). Profane names are absolutely out and never acceptable. The thumbs-up used to be an offensive gesture, but because of its common American use, it is accepted. However, the American fist pump to the chest is the equivalent of flipping an Afghan the bird and is considered to be extremely offensive… but I’ve only seen one cultural trainer who actually explained this. It’s not just cultural training that can be improved, it’s also incorporating this knowledge into individual task training.
Recently, a National Guard unit was performing its pre-mobilization required individual task training. One of these tasks was “perform detainee operations.” The emphasis was on searching detainees. The trainers were well-rehearsed and professional, executing the task to the precise standards they were given; including how a male searches a female. Teaching male soldiers how to search females puts the idea in their heads that an American male soldier searching an Afghan female could under some bizarre circumstance be acceptable. It is never acceptable, ever (did I mention ever?). There are other ways to deal with the problem. Always. Our premobilization task training is not battle focused on the only battle these young men will serve in. We can adjust that. We can do better with tailoring our training to suit the combat environment, especially culturally.
Finally, a quote from an American officer emerges from the end of the article:
“In this culture, they shoot first, ask questions later,” said Lt. Col. David C. Simons, a spokesman for the training mission in Afghanistan. “Back in the States, if this happens a guy punches you and you walk away and hope you don’t get arrested. But here, you just hope you don’t get killed.”
Well, okay… but part of that is bullshit. Afghans do value human life, and it’s not “shoot first and ask questions later.” It’s a difference in what is worth taking life over. If you call an Afghan a “motherfucker” (just an example) and he actually understands you… as more and more of them do… you are taking your life and possibly those of your buddies into dangerous waters. Oh, and everyone has a weapon capable of ending life with the twitch of a finger. No, the questions do not need to be asked later. You have answered any question required to convince that man that you need to die based on every value he was raised with. In fact, his honor demands it. With all due respect to LTC Simons, he is a spokesman and does not appear to be an advisor. If it were shoot first and ask questions later, many more advisors would have died during the course of this war. I never walked around wondering if I was about to be shot by the Afghans I worked with. That’s a cowboy quote that is unhelpful in considering the problem. The view from Camp Eggers does not include the experience necessary to evaluate what is worth killing a man over in Afghanistan, but since he is actually in Afghanistan, it was a juicy quote that sounded ominous in the NYT. All I can say is, “Thank you, Sir.”
It’s stuff like that which makes young men go to Afghanistan fearing sudden death from any quarter. Being respectful when you are frightened is more difficult than having awareness of the cultural don’ts.
As noted, the report is not great science; but it still hits home. To ignore its findings is to continue to suffer unnecessary casualties. A recommendation to mitigate the risk is to encourage commanders and leaders in general to identify and remove from contact with Afghans any individuals who appear to lack the ability to adapt to working with ANSF. Just as each unit is mandated to have an Equal Opportunity (EO) officer or NCO to investigate and recommend action to mitigate issues of racism and sexism, a similar emphasis should be made to identify and remediate the risks of both soldiers and leaders who place their fellows at risk through imprudent language and behaviors. Education and training are helpful, but we have all seen that they are not enough. Some individuals simply will not adapt. Sometimes, in the immortal words of Offspring, “you gotta keep ‘em separated.”
If the end result is 16% fewer casualties, you tell me where the effort is a waste of time.
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!”
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.
…When they’ve killed 13 people and wounded 42 more in a botched rocket attack?
“We didn’t do it.”
We were cordially invited to stay at FOB Kutschbach for a few extra days by the rotary wing folks, who bumped our return flight to a day earlier than scheduled. So, as we had some extra time on the ground, we did a foot patrol with the French, the PMT and the ANP through the Tagab bazaar a couple of days after the attack. Being that there were two of us, and we each had an interpreter, we were able to talk with the people we ran into at the bazaar. That is, when we weren’t being hurried along.
While asking people what village they were from, if their village and/or family had suffered any casualties, and how they felt about the attack, the story the Taliban was telling came out. First, they insisted that only one rocket was fired… so the other round must have come from either the Americans or the French on the FOB. Right there they shucked off half of the responsibility. Secondly, they insisted that the rocket was not fired by a Talib. They had, they insisted, “arrested” the man who had fired the “single” rocket, and they were investigating to discover who had paid him to fire the rocket into the crowded bazaar.
“Really?” I asked the man who conveyed this. “They are really saying this?”
“Yes. This is what they say,” he asserted.
“They really think that you are so stupid that you would believe something so ridiculous?”
Blank stare. The man searched for something… something that wasn’t coming.
“I’ve been talking with you for several minutes. You are going to go to college in Jalalabad to be a lawyer. I know that you are too smart to believe such a ridiculous lie.” Clearly, he wasn’t; but it was beginning to work on his brain.
He stammered a bit… the corners of his mouth began to curl upwards a little. He was stuck.
“If a man kills someone and you ask him if he’s done it, he comes up with a stupid story about how it wasn’t him, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, hesitantly.
“So that you won’t want to kill him,” I continued.
“Well…” he shifted uncomfortably.
“So then he thinks that if you believe him, then you are a fool. You would be foolish then, right?” I pressed.
“Yes, that would be foolish,” he agreed.
“But you are too smart to believe a foolish lie, aren’t you? You are smarter than that, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am smarter than that,” he agreed.
“The Taliban think you are very stupid people, but you are not so stupid, right?” I offered him a way out.
“Right. We are smarter than that.” The men gathered around began nodding their heads.
It’s not like I could undo the damage done after the Taliban IO (Information Operation) had time, unfettered, to respond to the catastrophe that they had caused among their neighbors. Their gaff was like a kid who throws rocks at a house and breaks a window and then runs away. If confronted by the homeowner later, he comes up with a creative story about someone else breaking the window. Except this rock-throwing nimrod was throwing rockets, and he had killed innocent people.
The French had found rocket fragments from two rockets. One was Chinese and the other of Russian manufacture. They did not get the word out immediately. In fact, the reaction of the French leadership was to cancel a mission that they had planned and “wait it out.” They did not hit the streets immediately, telling the story and showing the rocket fragments to everyone they could find. This gave the Taliban time to concoct a ludicrous lie that, in the absence of any information to the contrary, some people were believing.
The fact is that on the morning of the attack, we were informed that there was some intelligence to indicate that the Taliban were going to attack the District Center that day. The reason was that there was a French General who would be participating in a Shura with local elders and the Sub-governor of Tagab District. COL Z, the local ANP Chief who is much-hated by the Taliban, and the ANA commander would also be there. As with all intelligence, there are a lot of red herrings. The PMT joked about the odds of actually being attacked. But, at roughly 12:30, twin booms rang out from the nearby bazaar. The French quickly identified the site of the launch, a site that the Taliban frequently use to launch rockets at FOB Kutschbach… often missing. This time they missed their mark by a scant 200 meters… just enough to land them in the bazaar, crowded by shoppers stocking up for the Eid celebration on a market day.
The 107mm (4.2 inch) rocket is not a precision weapon system. When tube launched, it is an area weapon. You can get it into a general area, but you cannot ensure a precision hit. When launched Afghan-style… propped up on rocks… it is an order of magnitude less certain. To launch these weapons from four kilometers away at a site which is so close to the bazaar on a bazaar day is criminally negligent at best.
These weapons were fired with a total disregard for civilian lives. It was akin to firing high explosives into a mall during the Christmas shopping season.
The 107mm warhead packs a wallop, but it is notorious for its horrible fragmentation pattern. The warhead casing fragments unevenly, often throwing out very large fragments in a haphazard manner. This undoubtedly spared some while mutilating others. Civilians were torn asunder, some left in bloody heaps while others lost limbs instantly. Still others were injured by flying chunks of rock. One rocket impacted near the place where people shopped for livestock for their Eid feast, not unlike our Thanksgiving Dinner. Livestock and citizens alike were shredded by razor-sharp, white-hot fragments. The carnage was horrendous.
As the shocked survivors gathered themselves and the bazaar emptied in a frenzy, severely wounded shoppers dragged themselves away from the center of the disaster. Colonel Z sprinted out the gate of the District Center, four ANP running to keep pace as their Chief ran into the dust and smoke left on the wake of the high explosive warheads. The Colonel lifted injured people into vehicles and dispatched them to either the FOB or the District Center. Within minutes, casualties began to arrive for French and American medics to triage and treat. The Colonel helped retrieve six dead from the litter of blood and body parts. The families took their dead directly home. More would die later from their wounds. Few villages were left unscathed by the toll. Everyone I spoke with a couple of days later knew someone who had perished or been wounded.
“You notice,” Colonel Z mentioned later, “that no one took their casualties to the Taliban for medical treatment. They brought them to the FOB, or to the District Center. They depended on the government or its allies for help when they needed it.”
This is true. That’s what the people did.
There is a “Radio-in-a-box” setup at FOB Kutschbach, broadcasting to the people of the Tagab Valley. The local commander offered the elders an opportunity to come and denounce the attack on the radio. Only one man, Colonel Z, came and denounced the Taliban for their cowardly act. All the other elders declined. So, as they sat watching, the enemy began their damage-control campaign.
“We didn’t do it. We caught the man who did, but he only fired one rocket. The Americans or the French fired the other one. We didn’t do it…”
Just as when untrained nimrods in the United States have money for weapons that they have no business possessing, the same is true in Afghanistan. The Afghan version of a drive-by is the 107mm rocket. Another wondrous Russian invention, it, along with the Kalashnikov and the RPG are the cheap, profligate weapons of the world. The 107 is relatively simple, and while not all that easily transportable, it can be moved significant distances by primitive means. They are often hauled by donkeys in Afghanistan.
I returned to Tagab (Tag Ab) a few days ago on a mission. FOB Kutschbach has really grown. Those who were here when the FOB was started would scarcely recognize the place. This morning, shortly after our arrival at the District Center where we were going to work with the ANP for the day, there was a report that insurgents were going to target the District Center with rockets. Such reports are often without merit, and we joked with the Police Mentor Team about the odds that it would actually happen. A Shura was in progress with the new French commander, his ANA and ANP counterparts, and local leaders. A little after 12:30, two explosions rocked the crowded bazaar just past the gates of the District Center. The insurgents had missed an area large enough to play several soccer games simultaneously and instead hit the bustling market about midday on bazaar day.
A CROW gunner in one of the MRAPS nearby announced that he had spotted a group on a nearby mountain that he thought may have been involved. Mortars at FOB Kutschbach launched a number of rounds at the probable POO (Point Of Origin) site. The local ANP Chief, a heroic individual who I’ve written about before, ran up into the bazaar with four ANP. Soon ANP trucks were summoned to assist with evacuating the casualties. The Chief later stated that at least six civilians had been killed and another 26 wounded. Four casualties were brought to the District Center, where French and American medics stabilized them before loading them into French vehicles and rushing to them to FOB Kutschbach for further treatment.
One man had a serious wound to his upper thigh. Bloody clothing lay against his skin over the pressure bandage the French had placed on him. He had clearly lost a good deal of blood, but he was conscious and able to talk. An apparently secondary bloody wound on his left temple awaited treatment while the medics started an IV. Fluids began to flow into the wounded man. A family member clutched his ankle, staying just out of the way as the medics worked to ensure that the man did not sink into deadly shock.
The ANP said that a small boy with a chest wound was being brought in. SFC Tobago, the PMT Medic, called for his bag. As I arrived with the medical bag the boy, on a stretcher, was placed on the ground. His shirt was open, a bandage on his chest. Terror showed through his pain-clouded eyes. Dried blood streaked his chest, his navel a pool of blood. One of my interpreters assisted in communicating with the boy, who was able to talk in spite of his great pain. He was very frightened, the fear clearly communicated in his small voice; but he did not cry. He bore his pain stoically.
The insurgents will claim a successful attack or, failing that, will claim that the civilians died or were seriously wounded because of the presence of coalition troops. “If the coalition were not here,” they will say, “we would have no reason to be shooting in the first place.” This is like a criminal blaming his victim for having had possessions in the first place. In May of 2007, Tagab was a home of terror. The Taliban and HiG were clearly in control of this area. An NDS agent was hung in the central circle of the bazaar, his murderers forbidding the removal of the body for three days, in violation of Islamic law. Two days after I first arrived in Afghanistan in April, 2007, the local insurgents pinned the ANP down for an entire day in what served at the time as a District Center, firing thousands of rounds in that same bazaar area. The coalition were nowhere near. If the Coalition weren’t here, the people would still be living under the sway of the types of people who hang their rivals in the square and forbid people from cutting down the body for a decent burial. The people of Tagab would still be living in a world where supposedly religious people violate religious principles in order to make their political statements. Civilians would still be dying… but there would be no one to blame. They would have no need to blame anyone. The answer at that point was simply, “We are in control, and you are not. If you don’t like it, and you complain, we may kill you; so shut up.”
If the Coalition weren’t here, there would be no reason to be insurgents. They could return to the civil war that tore Afghanistan to pieces after the Soviets left and also when the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance for years. Of course they are going to blame the coalition; because they cannot take responsibility for a couple of things.
First, they cannot live within the social contract. They want so desperately to be in charge that they refuse to work within the political framework to try to include their ideas in the national dialogue. They don’t want a dialogue; they want to make all the rules. So they blame others for the result of their sociopathic behavior.
Secondly, they cannot take responsibility for their own horrible proficiency with weapons. Afghan insurgents are notoriously inaccurate, rarely actually hit what they are shooting at, and frequently kill civilians with their idiotic use of explosives, small arms and rockets. Monkeys from any zoo would be able to engage targets more effectively than the average Taliban. This idiotic “military” or “insurgent” behavior has resulted in many more civilian deaths than the Afghan Government and Coalition militaries combined.
To take responsibility for not only their lack of political acceptance and acceptability but also their total amateur status with weapons ranging from jugs of homemade explosives to rockets in excess of four inches in diameter would seriously alienate not only Afghan civilians but also the world community. No, that’s just not going to happen. Instead, it’s everyone’s fault but their own. Well, today I witnessed the horrendous results of insurgent unprofessionalism. There is no one to blame for that young, terrified boy with a hole in his chest but a bunch of thugs who cannot grow up and behave like reasonable men capable of living in a society where they are not guaranteed having everything their way.
Recently, an email came in from an officer who quoted an ANP chief in a district in which I did some work as a mentor. The ANP chief said that he was looking forward to winter so that the leaves on the trees could no longer the Taliban and he could kill them all. Fair’s fair, after all. They’ve repeatedly tried to kill him.
He’s been wounded twice since I’ve known him.
We were getting ready to do a conference for trainers from all over the Army and some of our Coalition allies, and it was brought up how great it would be to have the ANP chief, a Colonel, come and speak to these officers and senior NCO’s about his experiences. Since I knew him, I said that I could perhaps help. Through a series of communications, we were able to get through to the Colonel and schedule time for him to come and speak.
I met the Colonel just over two years ago. He had been handed a very challenging district and was struggling to turn it around. He was cheerful, soft-spoken and, I was to learn, fearless. Whenever word came of ANP troops involved in a fight, he gathered more ANP soldiers and ran towards the sound of the guns. He was wounded and nearly lost his hand in one fight. An American medic twice braved fire to run the length of the convoy to work on the wounded ANP officer. He was never recognized for his bravery, because the American officer in charge at that point put himself in for a Silver Star for the action. Recognizing the medic was not on the agenda. The ANP Colonel was medevac’ed to an American hospital and his hand was saved.
He was wounded again just over a year later, this time in the chest. Again he was flown to an American hospital and recovered. His driver was also wounded in the ambush which was set specifically for him. He hates the Taliban and they hate him back.
The Colonel has also made massive changes in his district. While certainly not entirely free of insurgency, the district is a far cry from the condition it was in during the spring and early summer of 2007. I’m going to go and revisit the district soon. The Colonel tells me that it is very different from when I last saw it. I hope so; it was viewed with considerable foreboding back then. The ANP have also improved.
In the early summer of 2007, the ANP would scarcely leave their district center for fear of attack by very strong insurgent forces. At least one officer was a Taliban spy, and two officers were running an arms trafficking ring along with a local baker. The district was a mess. The bazaar was an ugly smear running alongside the only major road. The Taliban and HiG held sway. An NDS officer was hanged in the village square and an order given not to cut him down. His body hung for three days as a warning to all not to aid or participate in the government. The town, and the district named for it, have changed.
Police checkpoints line the road and dot the valley. ANP move about at will, and there is a sense of hope. The road is paved now. Schools are functioning and the bazaar thrums with activity. The town has a new lease on life. Most of the ANP that were on the payroll in 2007 have been replaced. The Colonel has hired many from other areas, bypassing any tendency towards cronyism or local favoritism. He was not alone, and he thanks his American mentors and the Coalition soldiers who have assisted in the long, hard road to recovery for one district in Afghanistan.
The Colonel was delayed a full day in reaching us. He was ambushed at a spot I know well as he drove to be with us. All were okay, but he was delayed.
Although we had shared much conversation, time and a few missions, I wondered if the Colonel would recognize me. He did, and a hug was accompanied by greetings in Dari, which is much better than my atrophied Pashto. We exchanged typical Afghan greetings, inquiring into each other’s health, and the health of the family. He was curious what we wanted him to speak about. I told him, “Just share your experiences. Tell us how the district has changed. Tell us about the fight, and how it is going. Tell us about your experiences with mentors. Tell us about getting along with the ANA and the Coalition forces. Just be truthful.”
“I always tell the truth,” he said.
“Don’t spare our feelings,” I continued.
“I will tell them exactly how I feel,” he said, “we have nothing to fear from the truth.”
The Colonel is one of the most humble men I have ever met. Soft-spoken, I was concerned that he wouldn’t be an effective speaker. He spoke well, but didn’t overdo it. Always considerate, he left time at the end of the period he was allotted for questions, which he answered succinctly. Following a standing ovation, Major General Formica sought him out and presented him with his personal coin for excellence. Afterward, the Colonel stared at the coin in his hand, a distinctly U.S. Army bauble of military achievement, and discussed his experience of hearing speakers and speaking to all of the Coalition leadership he had addressed.
“This is very good, for everyone to learn from each other’s experiences,” he said, “and all of this needs to get out into the provinces, or it will do nothing.”
“And these officers must all realize that what works in Kabul is not right for the provinces and districts, because each one is different. If they only listen to the people in Kabul, but not in a district, they will not understand the district that they are in. They need to listen to the local people, who know what they need,” he continued.
“That’s why we asked you to come here,” I said. “I hope you will come back and speak again.”
“Whenever you call, then I will be here,” he said.
I think that he is the bravest man I have ever met.
It made all the papers back home; the story of an American who was shot by an ANP enraged over the Soldier drinking and smoking in plain sight during Ramadan. Many opined that our Soldiers need to be more culturally aware. I replied to email chains from friends, and sometimes angrily contended that when I was actively mentoring, the ANP would serve us chai and sweets during Ramadan, ever the gracious hosts.
After the failed mission to Kunar, I was instantly put to work with a group of PMT’s from Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team. A good lot, they have been working with the ANP for over four months now. One of the teams I was working with had been present that day. The Soldier who was shot in the leg by the ANP that day is doing well and is in good spirits, they informed me. They were irritated that the story had been turned into something that it was not.
Those who were there that day told me that the meme came from an ANP General who arrived well after the incident occurred. It was his attempt at explaining the behavior of the ANP who had opened fire. The now-wounded ANP had announced that he had done it, “for my prophet.” He was clearly unstable.
He had opened fire in what is referred to here as “spray and pray.” He fired not from a close distance, as most assumed, but from a range of 75 to 100 meters. The PMT who was hit was not hit by a bullet fired by an offended man from scant feet away, but by a man who had lost his mind and opened fire from some distance away, spraying the vehicles and wounding the Soldier more by chance than any carefully considered action.
The crazed ANP was shot by several people, including the wounded Soldier. The Soldier then calmly assisted the Combat LifeSaver in applying a tourniquet to his leg to staunch the flow of blood. Other American Combat LifeSavers treated the wounded ANP, who also survived the incident.
I have never seen any real psychiatric treatment in Afghanistan, yet mental illness clearly exists. There is no real mental screening for any position, much less the ANP. Had any reporter actually spoken to the men who were on the ground that day, the myth of the smoking, water-drinking offender would have been debunked. The Soldier who was wounded didn’t even smoke. Instead, some made-up fairy tale was sold the American people, leaving the Soldiers who were actually involved scratching their heads and feeling powerless to change that perception. They are not communicators. They don’t blog. They pretty much communicate with only their families and friends. To them, it was just another case of the press screwing Soldiers.
They consider that normal behavior for our media.
And now you know the rest of the story.
In memory of the late Paul Harvey, who would have loved to tell this story.
A blogger friend, military supporter whose husband has served in this war, asked what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It’s a good question, and one that I think is probably in more minds than just hers. So I’m going to take a whack at answering it.
First, I never really think in terms of “victory.” There will be no grand surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship in this conflict. Insurgencies don’t die in a horrendous bright flash of light and culminate in a giant sigh of acceptance of defeat. They dwindle and starve, become a criminal problem, and finally fade out largely from lack of interest. Twenty years from now, former insurgents will own shops and other businesses and live relatively obscure lives here in Afghanistan. Some may even be in government. No, I don’t use the word victory. The words that we use are important, and they are powerful. They evoke images. Americans love victory, even as they love the underdog, most Cincinnati Bengals fans who don’t even bother to show up to games by mid-season demonstrate that the underdog appeal fades in the face of repeated defeat.
I think in terms of success or failure. The previous Afghan government, if you could call it that, was not so much governing as ruling over a failed state. So let’s talk about what success looks like in Afghanistan. We can describe it simply, but then you have to drill down to what that actually means. For starters, success in Afghanistan includes a stable government devoid of dysfunctional or disabling corruption. What does that mean? Look at our own level of corruption in the United States… don’t act like we don’t have corruption… but it’s generally not disabling. Disabling means that whatever corruption is present interferes materially and consistently with the provision of basic governmental responsibilities; what we often call basic services. It means an Afghanistan with a rising economy, dropping unemployment, a growing standard of living, climbing literacy rates and ever higher standards of education. It means an Afghanistan where there is a basic rule of law and where the citizens feel relatively safe in their homes and neighborhoods and where nearly all feel that there is some access to justice. This means that one of the basic services is security; the ability of the populace to live without threat or intimidation.
Can we do that? I think that perhaps we can. Should we do that? Topic for another post, but I am here of my own volition. I don’t like to lose any more than the next guy, and this is not just Operation Enduring Paycheck for me; so you can guess that my answer is likely positive on that one, too.
There are a lot of encouraging signs. The vanguard of the civilian surge is coming aboard. There are hundreds more on the way, and while they don’t meet the typical State Department mold, the community organizers of the Obama Campaign are finding their way to Afghanistan. Just this week I met and worked with a State Department employee of five months standing, four of which were in Afghanistan. She had worked on the Obama campaign, before that on “another candidate’s campaign,” and prior to that was, “in business.” Very well-intentioned. I could write an entire post about that one, but give us the raw material and you might be surprised where we can take this. The point is that we are beginning to develop the civilian capacity-building arm of our foreign policy apparatus.
Just as encouraging is the participation that we are seeing from Afghans in the civilian government and the military. COIN doctrine is Afghan doctrine as well. Everything that is being taught to Americans and NATO/Coalition partners coming into Afghanistan is Afghan doctrine. It is also being taught to Afghans. Tons of Afghan officers, including the very senior ones, are active participants in the dissemination of the doctrine and in planning for the rapid growth necessary in Afghan forces. I can’t brief it, because it’s not for public release, but there are certain economies of force that are being strongly considered to leverage the existing forces as cadre for rapid expansion. Growth becomes easier when you have a professional core upon which to build, and that core exists in greater numbers every day. The growth within the leadership of the ANA, including the NCO Corps, has been a huge success story here.
Afghan government ministries, Afghan NGO’s and Afghan contractors are also participants. They are also being trained and enthusiastically receiving the training in how to work across organizational boundaries to target effects based on the input and needs of local people. One of the legacies of the Taliban days is that the Taliban destroyed traditional structures that used to regulate Afghan life. Those weakened tribal and village structures are now the target of efforts to strengthen them and by doing so, return a sense of normal life forces in Afghan society. There is a significant movement afoot to leverage traditional methods of local justice. This may, on the surface, appear to be contrary to what we are used to… but in the United States, Mayor’s Courts thrive and are still in widespread use. Think of it along those lines.
Host nation support is unprecedented and growing.
The plan to add resources to the ANP also cannot be described in detail, but it is possible that a plan to move significant resources in that direction, quickly, may be approved for implementation very soon. This will also build upon lessons learned from the successful but time-consuming Focused District Development (FDD) program, as well. The ANP have lacked large-scale mentoring efforts for quite some time, and it appears possible that some horsepower may be directly applied to this most important counterinsurgent force very soon. Another reason for optimism. While months and years will be required, this is not really a long time in context. Positive results may occur very quickly. Remember, you don’t have to be the faster than the bear; you just have to be faster than the next guy. The next guy, in this case, is very small and while agile, he is actually hobbled. The people don’t like him, and only need to feel safe to push back. There are approximately 30,000 active insurgents in Afghanistan to try to subdue approximately 30,000,000 people. Another thing to remember is that while the entire country needs governance and development, there is only a serious insurgent threat in portions of the country. Some threats are actually criminal in nature, sometimes under the guise of insurgency. Lots of weapons trafficking and drug trafficking-related violence is attributed to political violence, which it is not.
Overall, we are going to temporarily construct a national security apparatus that is actually economically unsustainable in the long term. Afghanistan will only need these large forces long enough for the insurgency to be beaten back. If the other factors are addressed during this process… and we are building that capacity now… then the insurgency will begin to fade. As it fades, so long as the positive changes continue, the Afghan people will themselves be less and less likely to feel drawn to any radical ideology. Young men will find fulfillment in licit work rather than finding identity with radical leadership, and the need for such massive security forces will wane. For those who fear that a massive army will need to be sustained in perpetuity, that is usually a red herring used as a bogeyman to frighten others. It’s just fallacious logic.
One of our Achilles heels is public opinion. During the elections, many gravitated towards the “good war” versus “bad war” line of thinking. Many of those folks were simply setting up a straw man. Another thing to take into consideration was that the overwhelming majority of the population knew little about Afghanistan. Our networks were flooded with Iraq doom and gloom. Now those same people who held up the “good” vs “bad” argument are openly questioning Afghanistan.
That’s because it makes their head hurt.
Afghanistan is a complicated environment. Major and minor ethnic groups abound. Tribal rivalries go back centuries. There are over three thousand distinct insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They are linked into confederations of varying degrees of cohesiveness. There are rifts and alliances and more rifts and alliances. These provide many opportunities to leverage cracks… and many opportunities for headaches. For many, who otherwise appear to be very intelligent people, it just makes their head hurt. Unable to comprehend, they prognosticate in the only direction they can. Lots of that from talking heads who know little about actuality in Afghanistan lately. These hurt-headed failures do influence, though. Sadly, some just can’t say that they are ignorant and don’t really need to be involved in the discussion. Sadder still is their inability to listen to or take seriously those who do see and do know, apparently because of some academic sense of superiority or well-developed ego. We’ve all known those types, and the foreign policy wonkworld certainly abounds with them. Their keyboards are aflame with addlepated hammerings this year.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Afghanistan is not Iraq. No question. But there is a similarity. COIN was not executed perfectly in Iraq. The surge didn’t do everything right down to the last detail. But what happened was amazing. Some will ascribe the changes in that country during the time surrounding the surge to be the result of nearly anything but the application of some very basic COIN principles, but that’s driven, often, by personal politics and disingenuous motives. What happened, at least in part, was that even imperfect application of population-centric tactics on a large scale led to disproportionate reactions within society. Positive reactions. We lost momentum in Afghanistan for a number of reasons, but the people here truly want to see us regain it and begin providing hope again. I think that it will take less to switch that momentum than the blithering heads would ever think. They will ascribe it, again, to nearly anything other than acceptably applied COIN, but that doesn’t matter. The proof is in the pudding.
One more key; the Afghans really need to know that we are here for the long haul with them. Our history in the past half century doesn’t bear this out, but it’s time to show the world that we can keep going even when our head hurts and helping ourselves means helping someone else first. There are a lot of Americans who resent spending a cup of urine to extinguish a flaming neighbor, bewailing whatever other purpose they may have had for that cup of urine. Think about how those people feel when it is tax dollars they could be using for some pet project. We’ve got lots of those types, too. They often have headaches and think themselves truly brilliant analysts, too. Don’t even get me started about how they pretend to give two shits about my life or my family, though. They don’t. That’s just political fodder for them. The Afghans need to know that we are not quitters any more; that our word actually means something. The meaning of a person’s word has lost something in our society, but not in theirs nor in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The partnering of units remains to be seen. There are concerns that the American Regular Army units will revert to the same old behaviors that they had in the past; abusing their Afghan “partners” as the equivalent of their own pissboys. These units have received some basic COIN training, but there will be another factor, and that would be the Mc-Rod Factor. McChrystal and Rodriguez are serious about enforcing the application of their plan… that Afghan forces are going to lead and the Americans are there as a multiplier. It will only take a few bell-ringers to correct the old ways. Neither impresses me as a man to spare a career in the presence of failure to execute his orders.
Lastly a reason for optimism is the total lack of traction of failed ideas such as strict reliance on “CT” or counter terrorist operations. Discussions which contain references with suggestions to abandoning population-centric concepts for a strictly CT approach are the equivalent of discussing the merits of a football bat. It’s like asking if someone thinks that roughing the passer should be called more strictly during the World Series. Just roll your eyes and know that you’ve just heard from someone who has as much credibility in the current fight as a gelding on a stud farm. No one here on the ground is able to open their mouths and make such ridiculously inane noises. I think it’s happening back home on a regular basis, but no worries; no traction whatsoever where COIN meets the real world.
Afghanistan won’t look like a Mini-Me version of the United States. It will look like a war torn country with hope, though. Success looks like Afghans making plans to access their sub-soil resources in partnership with companies who don’t just buy the rights to a seam of ore. It looks like a court system that functions in such a way that Afghans feel that if they have a dispute, no one can buy the decision. It takes a while to come from the 19th century to the 20th, much less the 21st. We have to understand that success in Afghanistan doesn’t look like perfection; it looks like positive momentum and a lack of interest in further insurgency. There will be die-hards, but the police will be tracking them down. Success looks like most people not having time to listen to radicals because they are either on their way to work or on their way home from school. There is a lot to do to get there, but with the buy-in we’re seeing from the Afghan Army, Police and civil Ministries, as well as the civilian and NGO surge, there’s a sense that the momentum can be regained.
Abbas Daiyar, a member of the Editorial Board at Daily Outlook Afghanistan has written a good piece about arming tribal militias in Afghanistan. I maintain that listening to the Afghans on this issue is very important. As Mr. Daiyar points out, what worked in Iraq is not necessarily the solution in Afghanistan.
The change of tactic vision was also under discussion among circles. Seeing the success story in Iraq, the US decided to try the Anbar Module in Afghanistan. Which in my previous articles, I have been articulating that it would result vice versa. Afghanistan is not Iraq therefore; similarities of insurgency should not be a justification for a similar military strategy. Iraqi society is merely divided on sectarian bases while Afghanistan’s is ethnic and clannish. Here tribalism plays vital. After political circles and media strongly opposed the idea of arming local militias against Taliban, the stakeholders in Afghanistan decided to launch the militia idea under another label maybe “pilot program”.
So it appears that even the Afghans realize that Afghanistan is not Iraq. Perhaps we should listen to them. There are some very good reasons not to rearm militias that have been so painfully disarmed in Afghanistan.
Here is another point from Mr. Daiyar that helps keep me from feeling alone:
Interior Minister, Hanif Atmar said this is a “Public Protection Police” which would a semi-paramilitary type force against insurgents. He said “in its first unit, youth from insurgent areas would be chosen by community elders.” How a Government police force is it that personnel are being chosen by community elders? Who are community elders to choose Police operating under Interior Ministry? Was there a real need of such a force when already our National Police is fighting Taliban?
Before arming tribal militias, we should do everything possible to work with and mentor the ANP. We have not done this with anywhere near the vigor required before giving up on them to arm locals. Anbar is a far cry from Wardak.
In the last few posts I have reviewed a posting by “Afghanistan Shrugged” and the latest report on the ANP by the International Crisis Group. One notes how a higher commander can derail an honest effort by a subordinate in a dangerous situation, bringing failure to an operation on the verge of success, and the other details the current state of one of the two main pillars of Afghan security; the ANP (and with it the Ministry of Interior.) The second also touches on the Afghan Judiciary; the shadowy realm where criminal prosecution and corruption blend into a tie-dye of injustice that threatens the very viability of the Afghan government.
These are not just my perceptions, but a thread that runs through the actions and decisions of hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, especially leaders. These soldiers have an underlying sense of frustration that sometimes seethes to the surface. The feeling of struggling against the stream is at times intense. The author of “Afghanistan Shrugged” clearly brings this feeling forward in his post describing the events of a night when he was denied illumination and four Taliban rocketeers escaped to rocket another day.
We’re not talking about a JDAM on a village here, folks, we’re talking about mortar illumination rounds. The ANA Vampire 06 advises don’t have NODS, and it was apparently one of those nights in Afghanistan that was darker than Osama’s Soul.
I also reviewed Ghaith Abdul Ahad’s article in The Guardian containing interviews with Taliban leaders in Wardak and Khost. A large part of the value of the article lay in these Talibs explaining their insurgency plan. They explained how they use the general inefficiency of and distrust in the ANP to their advantage, as well as the lack of faith with which the people regard the judicial system of the IRoA government. The Talibs explained the simple truth that the field in which they sought to compete with the government… and therefore destabilize it through de-legitimizing it… was in the provision of essential services to the people. One of the major services that they offer is a sure justice system.
These posts tie together to paint a picture of reality in Afghanistan, one that is felt if not completely articulated in the minds of most who serve outside the wire; a couple of sides of the Rubik’s Cube that is the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. They also tie in to a story of intrigue that is still unfolding.
At at a FOB in Wardak, a small group of puzzlers whose job it was to move individual blocks around in the Rubik’s Cube found themselves ensnared in the Afghan Conundrum. A spy had been identified; a small group of them, actually. They were undoubtedly providing information that was directly used by Qomendan Hemmet in his tactical and probably strategic operations against Afghan and Coalition forces in Wardak. American and Afghan lives were at risk, and the root cause of that risk was identified and in custody. Now the clock started ticking. Afghan law sets a time limit for action to be taken. Local nationals cannot be held indefinitely.
There are two paths to justice in Afghanistan with these types, and one of them is to turn the suspects over to the local judiciary.
Now, with the information provided by several sources, including the International Crisis Group, we have seen that the Afghan Judiciary is most likely to have these guys out and on the run in short order. No justice there; and the individual lives to harm another day. What’s a young Company Commander to do? He may seek option number two; the American military-driven option. This interpreter-turned-spy deserved to spend some days at a nice detention center with American guards and daily interrogation, wouldn’t you think?
BTW, if you’re thinking of going all Abu Ghraib on me, I’ll advise you to not even go there. The detainees at the American facility are very bad people who are treated very humanely and are in much nicer accommodations than any Afghan facility would provide. No, the interrogations do not include torture.
This young American officer then appeals to his commander for option number two and is met with… silence. His boss is leaving him out to dry. His distrust (along with the rest of Wardak’s population) for the Afghan system complete, he takes action. Now he is facing Article 32 hearings (part of the Military Justice System’s path to potential incarceration for crimes) at Khost for his actions.
I do not mean to excuse the men who participated in the interrogations that day in Wardak, but when an American reads an article about this officer and his First Sergeant and the trouble that they find themselves in, they do not see all that is behind it. While this is an extreme example, it is one that many of us who have operated outside the wire could easily imagine. My interpreter in Afghanistan was a stellar young man. Nearly every interpreter I ever met there was. I have also written about how Sam the Combat Terp and his family were threatened on more than one occasion, to the point that he moved his family twice within a few months. The pressure on these young men is intense. I don’t know whether the interpreter in question was a plant or if he was pressured via threats or coercion to his life or his family’s safety, but finding that your terp is a spy is every soldier’s nightmare.
Only having a spy for a terp who is never discovered is a worse scenario.
I bring this situation into this thread of posts to illustrate that the situation in Afghanistan is indeed a Rubik’s Cube, and we have a serious need to make a huge difference in reforming not only the ANP but the Afghan Judiciary. We also need to stress that highly trained leaders on the ground need to be trusted when they call for support from the little places in Afghanistan. Here we have two scenarios where the counterinsurgency was foiled by Battalion Commanders who made calls that negated their subordinates’ positive actions (one had four rocket-firing insurgents trapped in the open and couldn’t see them in the dark, the other had a known spy in custody who he feared… and rightly so… that this spy would go free if left to Afghan civilian justice) because they failed to back those subordinates. There is something intrinsically wrong with both of these scenarios. That young Company Commander and his First Sergeant would not be facing the ends of their careers and possibly incarceration if they had been treated with the respect that they were due. Four insurgent rocketeers would be either dead or in custody and unable to fire more rockets if the officers who asked for mortar illumination rounds had been given the respect that their judgment was due on that night near the Pakistani border.
Their commanders replied with, “I don’t trust you to make a sound decision. I know that I will always know better than you what is best for your AO (Area of Operations.)”
I’ll wager that if you asked the officers who are at the slimy end of that stick, “We are going to put you out in a very difficult and dangerous position downrange. We do not trust you and when you most sincerely need it we will not support you. Do you accept this mission?” the answer would be, “No. I hereby submit my resignation.”
That Company Commander and his First Sergeant found themselves confronted by the nightmare scenario which was immediately followed by being left holding a bucket of steaming excrement. Judging their decisions from that point forward is not my job, but the job of the Article 32 Board. What I do know is that they should never have been left holding that bucket.
Yes, Afghanistan is a Rubik’s Cube. Many people have solved Rubik’s Cubes at some point in their lives; sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and we are spinning the individual blocks around in a seemingly disjointed and random pattern instead of in a coordinated series of movements that see the whole cube. I, like CPT Hill, 1SG Scott, and Vampire 06, was working at moving one or two of the little blocks that make up the larger cube, and every once in a while the Big Hand reaches in gives the cube a couple of quick twists that undo considerable effort or short-circuit a favorable turn in battlefield fortunes. We in the Army have a polysyllabic yet simple word for this effect, but I’ll give you a more generally acceptable and family-friendly word that starts with the same letter; counterproductive.
As the warnings of many experts and pundits ring, our window of opportunity in Afghanistan is growing smaller and smaller. It’s time to reconsider… read unscrew… ourselves in how we are approaching this war. A symptom of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Real insanity is the inability or unwillingness to perceive, understand, and abide in the truth. The truth is that what we are doing isn’t working. Putting more effort into what isn’t working isn’t going to work much better. It’s like trying to force a nut onto a bolt counterclockwise. Putting more umph into it isn’t going to make the bolt thread the other way, but possibly just get the nut stuck in a supremely untightened position.
We are trying to go lefty-tighty. It just doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t even sound right.
Of course, there are other sides to the cube. “Free Range International” has an incredibly insightful post on some of the rest of the cube in his most recent post. This guy needs to be listened to.
Read that, “People who make big decisions should be paying attention to what this guy is saying.”
It’s time to figure out the Rubik’s Cube, and it’s time to do it quickly rather than slowly. Our window is closing, and there are those out there who are trying to close it faster.
I realize that all of the things that I linked to are a lot to read, but if you read all of them, or if you have read all of them, it will really help to paint a picture of what it’s like in Afghanistan on a conceptual level on down to some of the dirt-level effects. This isn’t the rantings of some FOBBIT about interpersonal relationships on a deployment, so it’s a bit dry. There aren’t any bullets flying around in these pieces, so it’s not a mile-a-minute thriller; but if you want to get a feeling for some of the challenges and how it comes down to men on the ground making difficult decisions and having their very best efforts on behalf of this country sometimes come to naught, it will help with that. It’s the stuff that is in the back of their heads when they are deciding where to go that they might get shot at or blown up. It’s the stuff that underlies the next words they choose when they mentor their Afghan charges or brief the battlespace owner. It’s the stuff that rattles around inside one’s skull when trying to figure out just how much to trust an Afghan village elder who could seriously screw them over if he had such an inclination, which he will tell them himself is the farthest thing from his mind. It’s the stuff that makes a young Specialist shake his head in disbelief and wonder if it’s all worth it. Like a Rubik’s Cube, it’s all tied firmly together and when you move one piece the rest of it moves, too.
Here’s the best part; it’s Rubik’s Cube by committee, really… but that’s a bigger subject.
This is the second report from the International Crisis Group that I have read, and comparing it to last year’s, there are but a few changes in the overall picture. Some of those changes are due to recommendations that have been implemented (although those changes were not necessarily implemented due to the ICG report.) Numerous articles have been written in the mainstream media concerning the report, each with its own synopsis. Each synopsis seizes upon the conclusion drawn from the report, which is that the ANP are too busy fighting the Taliban to enforce the law and that the major military driver, the United States, views the ANP only as additional combat forces.
The substantive areas of the report are spot-on. The report points out that the ANP are rife with corruption and that public confidence in the professionalism of the ANP is extremely low. These assertions are, from my personal observations, correct. The report also leaves its lane a bit to delve into the Afghan Judiciary, which certainly needs some delving into and is appropriately addressed for its dysfunctional relationship with the ANP. The report points out that there is a battle for corruption that occurs when a suspect is detained, with each of the two branches (Executive and Judiciary) vying for their piece of the bribery pie.
The Judiciary is another subject all its own, but we certainly do not have anything resembling a grip on it and we truly need help from other (successful) Islamic countries with functioning judiciaries. This may provide opportunities for engagement; again, a totally new subject.
The observations of fact about the ANP are correct, and I found myself cheering the report on these issues. However, the shortcoming of the report lies in the commission’s complete and total lack of understanding (and rightfully so) of COIN. Why does this make a difference? Because the ANP are a linchpin in the COIN fight. Unfortunately, some senior officers do not see this, but a simple perusal of Galula will show that local authority and governance is necessary in the absence of military forces.
The ANA can only take care of so much battlespace. The insurgent tends to leak away from areas with robust military presences, unless that area is necessary to their survival, such as the border areas and the infiltration routes from Pakistan. In areas where there is no such necessity, the insurgent enemy will tend to vacate areas that are stepped on by the Army, the way that water vacates a puddle when a foot lands in it. As with the puddle, when the foot is removed, the water seeps back in; and so do the insurgents.
The Army cannot be everywhere at once, and so the local guarantors of security are the ANP. By this doctrine, the only doctrine that is relevant, the ANP have a key counterinsurgent role. This role does not absolve the ANP for their responsibility in general criminal law enforcement, but rather falls under it. Galula points out that insurgents need to be criminalized. Criminalization of the insurgent brings several beneficial effects, but in order to criminalize the insurgent, there must be a rule of law to begin with.
In the clear, hold and build strategy of counterinsurgency as practiced in Iraq, for instance, the Police can and should participate in all phases. Participation in the Clearing Phase is actually necessary, as the national law in Afghanistan forbids searching of private residences unless it is done by ANP. ANP must be present, at a minimum. This is something of a nod to our Posse Commitatus, in my opinion, designed to prevent abuses by the Army. While the presence of the Army is not necessarily mandated in the Hold and Building Phases (but may be required due to the local situation,) the ANP begin to take the primary role in providing local security. This includes normal law enforcement activity.
When civilians think of the ANP, they tend to think of civilized countries where the only job of the Police is to enforce civil law. This is not the case in Afghanistan, or in any country where there is an active insurgency. The ANP resemble the law enforcement arms in western countries very little in their tasks and armament. While lightly armed compared to the Army, the ANP are excessively armed by any other measure. ANP carry automatic weapons, belt-fed machine guns, and RPG’s, which function more as hip-pocket artillery than as the anti-tank weapons that they are designed to be.
The ANP are more like frontier deputy marshals in our own “wild west” days. They are often running into heavily armed criminals, whether they be insurgents or smugglers. When they make contact or are contacted, they are most often in small groups and usually outgunned. They are also often static, such as at checkpoints. This leads to the much higher death rate as compared to their Army counterparts. Make no mistake, though; they are killed by criminals. Even the Taliban are basically criminals.
Let’s put this into US terms. In the United States, if someone were to run about killing policemen, what would we call them? Criminals. If someone were to (as some drug gangs have done) establish themselves as a local governing body and impose their own rule of law, what would we call them? Criminals. If someone were to refuse to obey the lawfully elected government, declare it to be illegal, and attack governmental offices, officers, and institutions, what would we call it here? Criminal. It is no different there. These are criminal acts. What do we do with “insurgents” here? We label them as criminals and we lock them up for a very long time. It doesn’t matter to us whether their beef with the government is financial or political in nature here in the United States; here they are all just criminals and are treated as such. Timothy McVeigh thought he was an insurgent. He wasn’t. He was just a murderer; a criminal. He was treated as such by the people of the State of Oklahoma. He wasn’t captured by the Army, he was captured by law enforcement.
Insurgency is an internal problem, and therefore a criminal problem. The Taliban could each lay down their arms and take part in the process. They could vote. They could run for office. They could participate. What’s the difference between any of the Taliban and Tim McVeigh?
There are more of them.
Afghanistan is trying to move on in the post-Taliban era. No longer an authoritarian theocracy, this country has ratified a Constitution and has held successful elections. Now, burdened with the detritus of 30 years of warfare and the lack of any real institutional memory of how to govern, this nation struggles to survive. The ANP are, again, key to the development of a healthy country. Are they treated as such?
Uh, I’ll take “No” for a thousand, Alex.
The ANP are the bastard children of the Islamic Republic. Our own Army didn’t want the ANP training mission, again preferring the ANA mission; at least it had the word “Army” in it. The organization I belonged to fell under the ARSIC-East. I heard it said at an ETT team leader conference that even though General Cone said that the ANP were the main effort, he didn’t agree and the ARSIC-East’s main effort would remain with the ANA. If I had disobeyed my commander at that level it would have been my butt, but I suppose that at that level there were gentlemen’s agreements or something. The point is that the ANP are and have been lower on the priority list for training and mentoring, though we have seen what all of that can do for the ANA.
Six years ago the ANA were scarcely better than criminals in the eyes of the people. They often did things that the ANP are known for now; shaking down the populace for money, corruption on an incredibly grand scale, nepotism, clannish cronyism, thievery and misdirection of government assets… the ANA were champs of all of that behavior. Now the ANA are widely trusted and looked up to by the population. Their stock in the eyes of the people has risen immeasurably. My ANP were threatened by local village elders during an operation, “We like the ANA. We respect the ANA. When the ANA leave, you are through.”
I also saw the ANP Colonel that I was mentoring taking care of law enforcement calls while engaged in a major combat operation. Arrests were made, referrals to prosecutors made. I then witnessed the same erratic behavior from the Provincial law enforcement system that the ICG report details. On the first day of the operation, one of my cohort’s team captured the Taliban S-2 (Intelligence Officer) for the Tag Ab Valley. Major find, eh? Yep, what a coup; right up to the point where he got to the provincial prosecutor.
The Provincial Governor (brand spanking new one, too) had him released. By the next day, he was leading 60 Taliban all over the Tag Ab Valley trying to kill us. I cannot express my admiration for the Afghan Judiciary and the current Provincial governance structure. During the same period, I was personally asked to intervene by an Afghan mother. Her son had been declared innocent by the court in Kabul, but she couldn’t get the Provincial Government to release him, although she had copies of the decision in her hands.
They wanted a bribe to release him, and she couldn’t afford the bribe.
This is why the Taliban, the criminals, are making headway; because it doesn’t take much to out-govern such a government. All of these problems are fixable, though. If you had seen the ANA six years ago, you would have thrown in the towel. However, it’s going to take a renewed effort, some re-delegation of responsibilities on the part of some of our non-combatant or sub-combatant allies (those countries with national caveats on use of force or employment of armed forces) into roles that don’t require combat except in self-defense but can seriously impact governance, and potentially some help that is not currently being sought or used, such as to rework the Afghan Judiciary into something resembling a fair and honest system.
The ICG report hits the nail on the head with its depiction of the institutional flaws of the ANP, but misses the mark with its stress on removing the ANP from the counterinsurgent role. This is an honest mistake, though, made from the viewpoint of an organization that doesn’t understand that criminalizing insurgents is part of the only strategy that will secure success in Afghanistan, and the fact that where the Army isn’t, the ANP are static and are the government’s first line of contact with the people and their rightful guarantors of security, just like they are here in the States. The report’s recommendations for reforms and accountability are excellent. Overall, it’s a good document and well worth a read.
Parking tickets are a long way off for these folks. Think 1870’s in our own West.