The mighty (ahem) 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team has completed its rotation at the National Training Center at Ft Irwin, CA. Lost in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, the NTC is iconic. This was the ground that sharpened the spear during the Cold War and prepared the most awesome land force ever fielded for the brutally swift victory of Desert Storm. The elite Krasnovian (politically incorrect to actually call them, “Russians,” even at the height of the Cold War) motorized and tank units thundered across the desert, taking on all comers and humbling most. Commanders have been broken at the NTC. Commanders have lost their commands at the NTC. The NTC was known for a level of realism that could not be matched elsewhere.
In an earlier post, I feted the NTC as one of the winners in the training that is leading up to deployment. Following the rotation, I’d have to give it a mixed grade. Of course, we threw the NTC a curve ball on short notice. Our mission has changed from that of a full Brigade Combat Team to one whose primary job is supporting Security Force Assistance, or “SFA.” This is exactly what the Afghans need, but it is not what an IBCT is configured for. Even with that curve thrown in with short notice, my earlier excitement waned quickly.
The hybrid, quickly adapted scenario fielded by the NTC demonstrated that the Center is still focused on kinetics. The first part of the rotation was comprised of Situational Training Exercises, “STX’s” or “lanes” as they were called, every one of which ended in gunfire. One attempted KLE (Key Leader Engagement) developed into a gunfight literally within seconds after the group going through the lane made contact with their “Afghan” counterparts.
To their credit, many of the “Afghans” were actual Afghans. Some had been in the US for many years, some for a few years, and some had been raised in US, the children of Afghan immigrants. Speaking Dari again with native speakers was nice, and it was good training.
The NTC built in many “inputs” into the scenarios that could have developed into more, shall we say, “well-rounded” COIN, but those inputs were largely undiscovered by the brigade and the battalions which comprise it. While a number of the OCT’s who were assigned to the Security Force Assistance Team advisors brought a lot to the table, somehow the overall feel of the rotation was still very kinetic, and even the “injects” (behavioral/informational scripted plot twists executed by the role players) were aimed at specific responses that the OCT’s wanted to see from the brigade and its elements. That is all fairly normal, but many of the injects regarded highly kinetic activities to an excessive degree.
The role players who played the Afghan staff which we worked with were capable of a great degree of realism, to the point that some of the exercises had the feel of what I did in Kapisa in 2007. This part of the training was very valuable. Overall, the realism of the local politics was absent. Of course, it’s really difficult to know, because much of the informational stimuli built into the overall scenario apparently went undiscovered.
The rotation was not a confidence-builder for the brigade. That is not the entirely the fault of the staff of the NTC, but the overall scenario was unbalanced. While some of the facilities were truly amazing, like the city in the desert with all of the facilities you would find in a city the size of perhaps Methar Lam, the actual life of that city was poorly developed. The slogging, detail-oriented work of COIN was not replicated, but the various kinetic drills were. Staff processes were stressed to the extreme, but the tedious management of politically and socioeconomically relevant information was not tested nearly to the extent that the kinetic reaction drills were. CIV/MIL (Civilian/Military) cooperation was not truly fostered, because the civilians who work for the other government agencies involved weren’t integrated into anything resembling stability working groups. Those things were available and possible, I think, but with the emphasis on kinetics built into the rotation, most any unit would find it challenging to the point of impossibility to actively pursue those functions.
Overall, it was disappointing. I must revoke the “hero” status previously conferred upon the NTC because of their part in the overall failure of the rotation to prepare this brigade for what they will… or will reasonably be expected to… perform in Afghanistan. And it didn’t put emphasis on the areas that the brigade has chosen to accept risk on. The brigade’s functions were strained to the breaking point without providing adaptions that patched the weaknesses. Those are just my observations, and it’s difficult to paint those without being too specific. This unit’s particulars aside, the NTC can do a lot better. Over ten years into the Afghan conflict, with so many brigades having done rotations to Afghanistan, one would expect it to be the paragon of counterinsurgency training instead of just coming up to speed. After all this time, one would not expect training beset with issues that do not enhance the readiness of units preparing to conduct operations in the locally-focused insurgency of Afghanistan.
It’s been awhile, no doubt, and there are many reasons why I have eschewed posting on this site for some time. Not all of them bear exploration. However, there are a couple of cats to let out of the bag. First; I’m going back, yet again, to Afghanistan. Second; I started blogging as a way to keep my friends and family connected to what I was doing. Perhaps Facebook explains why so few new bloggers have entered the fray in the past couple of years. I’ve realized that there are two different readerships that have followed what I’ve written over the past couple of years, and so I’ve decided that I will open a separate blog for the experiential piece, since this blog has become more or less dedicated to COIN theory and practice.
Perhaps I will take up Facebook as well. I’ve found that social media sites take a lot of time. I’ve had lots of encouragement to do so, though.
I’ll announce the address of the new site as soon as I make the first post. But, if anyone’s still out there, please stay tuned and it will come soon enough.
One final thing is to acknowledge some things regarding the lack of writing about what I have seen and learned these past few months regarding COIN, the war in Afghanistan, and what I think about our evolving role in the world. I came back with the strength of my convictions about what I was seeing on the ground in Afghanistan. I came home to find, yet again, a disconnect between the ongoing conversation back here and what I knew that I was seeing in Afghanistan. Here, COIN is being widely shouted down… and anyone who claims to see it work is being shouted down as well. Those who have the bona fides to claim wisdom and analytical superiority are dismissive. There have also been those who made serious prognostications from Kabul about the state of affairs.
I got tired of it.
Much has transpired, and there have been many thoughts that have gone unwritten. It just felt like a waste of time and effort. Between that, the struggle with the general feeling of disconnection due to the amount of time I’ve spent overseas, and the general attitude that experience on the ground is trumped by the theoretical and long-distance analysis of the wise… well… it takes a lot of energy to continually try to rise above the din. It has just seemed a losing struggle. Inertia is carrying us towards what I observe to be a practically inevitable conclusion.
While I was at liberty to discuss the impending deployment, there were those in my life who I care about deeply… my children… whose summer I did not want to spoil. This has been in the works since shortly after I returned a little over a year ago. I was asked by a brigade commander to be his COIN advisor for the brigade’s upcoming tour. I agreed, because I saw that as a call to serve. I also wanted for the Buckeye Brigade to acquit itself well in its mission.
We have been at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, since August, except for a brief break of about a week between Title 32 and Title 10 active duty. What I’ve seen about the pre-deployment training of the National Guard by 1st Army would fill a small book and there are too many big rice bowls; it is well and truly broken and nothing I can do or say will ever fix it. I need to complete this tour and retire before I really detail that or I will surely wind up in very poor condition. No one wants to hear it, anyway; not those who can influence or change it.
Overall, the Army has done a much better job of training COIN. Some do better than others. The stars are the Combat Advisor trainers of the 162nd Brigade, the guys who train Combat Advisors at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the National Training Center. The quality of training provided by the 162nd, especially the training for advisors deploying to Afghanistan, is light years above the training my team and I received at Fort Riley in 2007. Unfortunately, the advisors attached to this brigade only received 10 days of specialized training from the 162nd here at Camp Shelby.
The National Training Center is the other winner. In early August the leadership of the brigade spent about a week at the NTC being brought up to speed on the expectations and learning about the big rocks they would have to lift there. The NTC provides the capstone exercise prior to deployment. I was thrilled when they briefed the brigade and battalion leaders that they would be expected to assemble a PMESII/ASCOPE analysis of their operational area. When the staff of the NTC laid out the expectation that the units would be expected to use the District Stability Framework during the conduct of the exercise, I almost lost my mind. Good stuff.
It is new to the NTC, but they are working to incorporate it into their insurgency/counterinsurgency exercises.
The secondary effect was that it convinced the brigade leadership that they needed to embrace the DSF, which I had been encouraging them to get trained in for months.
That is less than half the story… so torn about what has transpired in the meantime. This is my first time deploying with a National Guard unit, and it’s been enlightening.
There has also been much that has transpired in Central Asia over the past months. Pakistan has been very active in many ways, and the developments between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have been fascinating. So much to examine. Soon I will be back on the ground in Afghanistan, seeing things once more having passed through that portal into the reality of that land and events therein.
If anyone’s out there, please let me know. Whistling in the dark is difficult these days. I could use a little encouragement.
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.
What does legitimacy mean to any of us? The “birthers” here in the US claim that President Obama cannot be the legitimate President of the United States. But they have not picked up arms. Most of them still pay taxes. There have been isolated outbursts, including at least one military officer who refused to deploy based upon his belief that the commander in chief is illegitimate. Other than that, the legitimacy of the United States government is not in serious question.
For most of us, the legitimacy of our government starts when we leave the door of our house and head out into the public areas of our world. For most of us, the first line of contact with our government is the police… and the tax column of our pay stubs. Both are reinforcement of the legitimacy of our government; local, state and federal. But the police that we see on our streets are not federal police. They are local police. Local elections have a greater impact on our daily lives than who occupies the Oval Office in a distant city. The point is that if we never had any contact with our government, how would it be legitimate to us?
Our government is not monolithic. Our paychecks demonstrate that the federal government can reach into our pockets to pay for the national-level services, such as defense. But it’s the local police who influence our daily behavior. When we are speeding, and we see a cop parked next to the road, we check our speed and slow down. That guy with a badge and a gun had an immediate impact on our behavior. That is, at a very basic level, legitimacy in our (American) context. Our government has the ability, whether we like it or not, to enforce its will upon us. We consider that will to be the will of the people. Our elected representatives set the speed limit that we are compelled to observe by threat of that police officer.
We have a national government, but we also have state and local government. Even our state laws are most often enforced by local government officials such as county, city or township police. When there is a question or a conflict, we find ourselves most often in local courts. Our perceptions of the local courts are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to issues such as corruption. While we believe that money does buy justice, we believe that boils down to being able to afford a decent lawyer, rather than in paying off a judge. Very few of us believe that the criminal courts can be bought through bribery.
We know that the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is beset by corruption. A massive and pernicious problem, it threatens the perception of legitimacy amongst the people. But, like us, Afghans decide upon the legitimacy of the government based upon their interactions with it. They are not interacting with the government in Kabul. They are interacting with the ANP, the District and perhaps Provincial governments, and the courts. Afghan legitimacy starts at the local level. This does not mean that corruption in Kabul need not be addressed. It means that more Afghans will be influenced by addressing issues at multiple local levels than by making fewer corrections at the national level.
Many military personnel who have experienced the maze of local corruption will tell tales of frustration in dealing with a governor or sub-governor who stubbornly clung to his network of corruption. Many of us experienced a lack of support from other international actors at the local level. The State Department and USAID were not often in evidence in 2007, for instance. One or two DoS representatives per province… in the provinces where they were present… just wasn’t getting it. We had very few USAID workers available in the provinces. We were working the military/security line of operation as hard as we could, but the governance and development lines were being defaulted on. The “surge” in Afghanistan didn’t just include a military surge, but a civilian surge as well. More civilians are needed, but there was still a great increase, and it has made a difference.
We see movement in Afghanistan. I saw it when I was there. GEN Petraeus’ latest reports indicate progress. I know that the official reports are taken with a grain of salt, but there is corroboration. The actions of the insurgents indicate growing weakness. Their tactics this year are aimed at making themselves appear to be larger than they actually are, focusing on areas where they are not necessarily strong, but where they would like to appear to have influence. This is an indicator that they have lost ground not only militarily but also with their ability to influence the population. My observation is that this is due to a greater balance in the application of effort across the non-military lines of operation on a number of local levels. This is the result of refocusing of efforts to the local level, a greater number of civilians present to work on the local level and a greater ability to work in some level of synchrony across the main lines of operation.
The use of consistent tool sets is becoming more widespread. Using ASCOPE/PMESII as the information framework makes it easier for units to to knowledge transfer during the Relief In Place / Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA). This, combined with the growing use of the District Stability Framework (DSF), makes it easier for the military and civilian actors to synchronize actions across the lines of operation. Both tools are focused on the local level, and aimed at identifying, developing, increasing and protecting capacity at the local level. As indicated above, the local government makes the most difference in the lives of Americans, and it does the same in Afghanistan; only more so.
Afghanistan’s history is one of local governance loosely tied to a national government that is not very prone to micromanagement. The national government has not tended to be a strong influence in the daily lives of farmers and shop keepers in the little villages in the many valleys far from Kabul. This does not remove the pressure to fix what is wrong with the Karzai regime, often described as a kleptocracy. It does give some breathing room to the efforts to develop a national government that is capable of performing the basic functions required and as free of corruption as possible. With local governance improving incrementally, there is a cross-pollination of legitimacy that the national government benefits from. Coalition forces also benefit from progress on the local level, because they are then viewed as being supportive of a legitimate government, rather than tipping the scales in favor of one of two evils.
This year will be very challenging in Afghanistan. As described above, the insurgents are doing their level best to give the impression of being more influential than they are. There is a faint whiff of desperation in the air. There are most certainly areas where the insurgent is actually in better shape than he was two years ago; take the Korengal, for example. Whether or not the tipping point is near or has been reached will not be clear for some time. It is clear that there have been some important steps taken towards improving local governance, security and development. It is clear that the insurgents are under considerable pressure, and not just militarily. Local governance has a greater impact on the daily lives of Afghans than the national government, even a short distance from Kabul. The perception of legitimacy in Afghanistan is more predicated upon local government than the Kabul government.
Losing. Or winning.
First, if an insurgent perceives himself to be “winning,” he will not negotiate unless it is to freeze the government in place while the insurgent prepares himself for the final push to topple the government. This has happened numerous times throughout history, with insurgents negotiating a change in military tactics or limiting the use of weapons. This then gives the insurgent time and space in which to solidify his gains and reach the tipping point on the verge of victory. In the case of foreign assistance to the host nation government, a key negotiating point for the insurgents will be the limiting or removal of foreign forces. A government teetering on collapse is more amenable to such negotiations. A foreign assistance force is more amenable to negotiate their own withdrawal in such cases as well. Either way, the objective of the ascendant insurgent is to cause the government to expose itself to easier military conquest. The idea is that if you break your word, but you win, you get to write the history. Oddly, numerous governments have fallen for the ploy over time.
What about “losing?” Either the insurgent has to be visibly losing or he has to perceive that he is losing. Does it have to be the threat of imminent defeat? Not necessarily. That depends on many factors.
A favorite (and effective) insurgent propaganda catchphrase in Afghanistan is, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Data shows that the longer an insurgency drags on, the likelihood of insurgent success actually decreases. So we have competing ideas. One is based on data, and it’s only an incremental change in counterinsurgent success. But it is real, based on “resolved” insurgencies. The other is a catchy phrase leveraged with our own popular history. We are seen, especially in the region, as being fickle friends. In a nation with a strong oral history and a love for analogy, shaping popular perceptions of our history through ready memes is fairly easy. Afghans often perceive that America lost interest in them at a critical time, ultimately resulting in the rise of the Taliban. HiG leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar hates the United States for failing to support his drive to take over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviets, having his own tale of American abandonment. Afghan insurgents have their own reasons for either beginning to seek a settlement or not, but if they begin to feel as if they are running out of time, the mental door to compromise begins to open.
Mullah Omar is said to be adamantly opposed to negotiations. While Omar would be a key figure to negotiate a cessation of hostilities and a return to civil life for the Quetta Shura Taliban, a failure on his part to participate would possibly cause fractures in the QST. Sub-commanders who view the situation differently may break with the Taliban to negotiate on their own. Some of this has apparently happened.
Most likely it is not due to one issue, but a combination of effects on the insurgency. Fatigue, and the fatigue of the population, may have something to do with the higher failure rate amongst insurgencies of longer duration. Real progress by the government on the issues upon which the insurgents rely for leverage may also play a role. Difficulty in mounting attacks due to improved security and lower recruitment will also play a role.
The HiG were actually a more violent spin-off of the Hizbi islami Kulis (HiK), a political party. Many “former” HiG participate in GIRoA. While coalition members view them with considerable caution, they are participating in the process. They often maintain contacts with their former comrades in arms. Gulbuddin will likely never participate himself, but is not beyond the realm of possibility. Again, fractures and defections may come into play and apparently already have. Given the ceding of areas of the RC East by the coalition in the past year and a half, the HiG are not likely feeling disadvantaged.
The Haqqani network, with the closest ties to al Qaeda, is another question.
Finally reconciliation programs that provide honorable reintegration for former insurgents, often combined with a higher mortality rate associated with participation in the insurgency, provide a powerful inducement to cease fighting. Mistreatment of insurgents by the host nation government does not provide a similar benefit.
In the end, if the insurgency feels that they are “winning,” they will not negotiate except for deceptive reasons. If they perceive themselves to be “losing,” they will begin to have difficulty with more than one factor of the overall insurgency and will become more likely to negotiate. The participation of the leadership is very helpful, but in the end the insurgency consists of many individuals who must decide for themselves when they are no longer willing to kill.
The United States has been meeting with the Taliban’s Tayyab Agha, who is either one of Mullah Omar’s best friends or he is on the outs with him… depending on who you listen to. While the news was pretty much under the radar as far as news coverage, there has been plenty of opinion expressed by many Americans about the concept of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Much of it is reflexively negative.
Why shouldn’t we be negative towards reconciling the Taliban with Afghan society? The Taliban have a miserable record as a government and as an insurgency. They are every bit as brutal as most pernicious insurgencies have ever been. Terrorizing the population in order to control them is an ancient insurgent tactic. It causes deep divisions and grudges that last for decades, if not centuries.
It has been pointed out how past insurgencies have ended in one of three ways. Either the government wins, the insurgent wins, or there is a “mixed outcome.” A mixed outcome keeps the government largely in place while compromises are made to resolve the issues that drove portions of the population into the arms of the insurgency. Insurgents are allowed to take part in the political process in exchange for laying down arms and rejoining the process.
What is there to compromise about? What do the Taliban have that GIRoA needs? Well, other than the fact that they use violence that the government needs for them to eschew, they do have some things that the people actually want. The Taliban were a horror by any analysis of what a real government is. During the Taliban tenure, infrastructure, education and health care all went to hell in a hand basket. Nothing there. However, while they were undoubtedly ineffective by most measures of governance, they were not widely perceived to be corrupt.
While the average American Joe cannot relate a lot of deep knowledge about Afghanistan, they do know one word that goes along with any real discussion of GIRoA; corruption. GIRoA is rife with corruption, and the average Afghan citizen is affected by it deeply. The average Afghan pays hundreds of dollars a year in bribes, this out of an income that may be less than $2,000 a year. Nowhere is this more deeply felt than in court. Criminal prosecution and conflict resolution are key issues in nearly every Afghan community, and both are seriously hindered by corruption.
For the average Afghan, access to justice relies on being able to pay the bribes. Often, there is a race for corruption that begins with the police and offers opportunities to short-circuit the system all the way up the chain. An honest judge can be done in by higher courts. An honest policeman can become seriously disheartened by the knowledge that his best work can be undone by a corrupt prosecutor or judge.
Insurgency in the Afghan context is about a competition to govern, and that competition is most often leveraged by the insurgents in the area of justice. The Afghan legal system is so corrupt that it is all too easy to supplant GIRoA courts with shadow courts. In 2007, the story was that the Taliban would arrive with a traveling court and force the residents to bring their cases before the Taliban court. Something sounded fishy about that. How do you figure out who has a grievance that needs to be aired? Well, it turns out that this was wishful thinking. The populace didn’t need to be coerced to access Taliban justice.
They sought it out.
The only thing that the Taliban ever brought to Afghanistan, and the only thing that the people actually miss, was swift and incorruptible justice. That’s just one idea of what the Taliban possess that GIRoA doesn’t. Would it be a bad thing if the one strength of the Taliban was assimilated into a future Afghanistan?
What if the Taliban were allowed to be a political party? What if they ran for office? What if they won a few seats in parliament? Would it be the end of the modern world? No, clearly not. Our own revolution had to do with the inability to redress grievances. Taxation without representation; a lack of ability to participate in government. What would have happened to the American revolution if the king had made concessions that removed this issue?
Would the revolution have been forestalled or even completely avoided? We will never really know. But it is very possible, especially given the number of hardcore loyalists in the thirteen colonies, that the revolution would have lost steam. Another good example would be our own civil rights movement here in the United States. Had the various laws and executive orders not been put in place, is it possible that violence related to the civil rights struggle would have become widespread? Is it possible that greater access to participation, to redress of grievances, even as halting as it was, was enough to prevent more people from seeking to express these frustrations violently?
Is the American civil right movement a good example of a latent insurgency that was derailed by compromise?
History shows us that insurgencies often end with compromise. Afghanistan is not some imponderable morass of humanity where the eternal verities of man are suspended. Job number one is to stop the shooting. That requires a combination of security-related actions, improvements in governance and socio-economic development that remove the prerequisites of insurgency; the key drivers of instability. Then the serious work of developing the capacity to govern and grow begins. Part of the governance work may very well include some compromises that bring the now-distant factions close enough to stop shooting at each other.
The previous posts described a lot of concepts and activities. Granted, that information alone isn’t going to enable anyone to fully execute a District Stability Matrix and perform any kind of program or operational design. It’s an outline, provided in hopes of improving publicly available knowledge of what counterinsurgency and stability operations are. All too often, COIN and stability are described in the few terms that have caught on in pop culture. They are trendy to use in the media, but the reality is misrepresented or mythologized. Misunderstanding of COIN is practically viral. This breeds a separation of the American people, and more than a few academics and think-tankers, from the reality of what is actually being attemted on the ground. COIN and stability operations are grinding, difficult tasks carried out, in the case of Afghanistan, in a land and among a people that appear to be very alien at first glance. Misconceptions hinged on such misunderstood but trendy terms as, “hearts and minds,” makes the whole endeavor unfathomable without a deeper understanding. It’s a big subject, so it’s not easily described in one posting.
With all of the previous posts tied together, what does this look like in practice? When we arrive in, say, a district in Afghanistan, how do we begin? There are a lot of factors that will determine where we start, such as what has already been done by our predecessors. Not every place is like Marjah, where the entire operation started with little or no GIRoA presence or authority in that area. Most of us will land on a work in progress. We still have to start with as complete a grasp of the local environment as we can get.
These days, there is nearly always legacy documentation of what has been learned and done in most areas we could find ourselves in. Often it is not readily retrievable and may be a shotgun pattern of disconnected information. Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of databases.” So many different repositories have been established over the years that we have, collectively, forgotten what we have learned. Foreign assistance personnel are transitory. We work there for awhile and then we leave, replaced by others after a brief hand-off. That knowledge, that visualization, leaves with the outgoing person or organization. From experience, I know that some efforts become enduring and others end as soon as the personnel leave and are replaced. That is often not based on the merit of the action or program. Sometimes it is due to overlapping funding that has already been vetted and committed. Each rotation of personnel develops its own flavor, its own focus. Because of this, continuity of effort is sometimes lost.
Unity of effort is important, but continuity of effort is undervalued. It actually doesn’t appear on the doctrinal list of “COIN Imperatives.” It is recognized as a problem, though; particularly in the military/security line. The methodology and logistics of handing-off to a follow-on organization have been worked and re-worked for years in attempts to overcome the jerky nature of operations caused by these reliefs. State and USAID personnel change out less often, and being smaller, the hand-off is often more personal.
Many things affect handing over an area to a follow-on person or organization. Time is often a critical factor. There is a finite amount of overlap, sometimes none at all. Many organizations and personnel arriving in Afghanistan right now are getting information presented to them in a non-standard format that is essentially proprietary to the individual or organization on the way out. The rational decision-making processes that the outgoing personnel used may not be documented so that we can clearly understand the intended effects and why those effects were sought as part of an overall plan.
Is this a show-stopper? No, but it is a show-slower and a potential source of discontinuity. This has happened many times in many places, and makes Coalition and GIRoA efforts appear to be haphazard. Haphazard is ineffective in general, but it is definitely viewed as such by the majority of the population. Giving this impression is a great way to fail to gain support or even acquiescence. More and more often, we are seeing units arriving on information organized in a way that can be easily understood. When time is limited, quickly acquiring the situational awareness attained by the previous organization or individual is critical. Momentum, a key political concept, is lost. If the information is not organized in a way that we can anticipate, then we have to organize it so that the “next guy” gets what we didn’t. If we can anticipate how the information is organized, we can practice managing it and visualizing it (difficult tasks) in training. It’s all about visualizing the problems and solutions and maintaining steady and sustainable efforts to move things in a positive direction.
Wherever we find ourselves in the phases of operations, whether we are Shaping, Clearing, Holding or Building, we need to understand the history and thought processes that preceded ours. When deciding to modify or terminate an existing program or effort, we must first understand why that was being done in the first place. We need to understand how it is being measured in both outputs and effects so that any decision that we make is based on a logical approach and not gut feel or initial impressions. Sometimes the “Afghan way” is actually a good thing but looks very strange to a westerner at first glance. When we make decisions and choose courses of action, we document our decision making processes so that it is available and easier to visualize by our successors. We need to reach this level of understanding quickly, and so will they.
If we are lucky enough as a person or group to fall in on such information, organized in a way that we quickly understand, we will have a lot more continuity of effort. Our transition will be more seamless. If we are not so lucky, we have to resolve that our successors will have it easier. Once we have ascertained where we are, then we can apply the techniques appropriate to that phase to make progress. Some things, such as continuing to learn more about the people, places, conditions and events in an area never end. Reconnaissance, as we call it in the military, is constant. Continuous evaluation of our chosen activities and the effects they have on the local situation is also absolutely necessary. We cannot continue unchanged on a course of action that is producing negative consequences.
There is no canned formulaic solution that works in every situation. We strive to learn from the successes of others. We learn from the experiences of others, but we do not just automatically apply solutions because they worked elsewhere. We use our understanding of our discrete area to anticipate, as best we can, how such an action or program will impact the area that we work in. We understand the particulars, the personalities and the realities that will influence the enduring effects that our actions will have on the community. We recognize quickly when waves are made, including how the enemy responds, and we adjust our approach based on the success or failure of any endeavor. We choose metrics that reflect the actual effects of what we do, not just measuring our activity. We do not reinforce failure, and we don’t fail to recognize and redouble success.
We identify, protect and support resiliencies we find in the community and seek to identify and develop undiscovered resiliencies. We are imaginative, collaborative and receptive. We listen, and we interpret input based on knowledge, not impressions or a reliance on intuition. If we don’t know, we use all of our assets to find out. We listen to our enemy, and we separate the lies and half-truths from the truths. Elements of all of the three will be present. We learn to understand why and how his message appeals to the people. We are honest in accepting the truths and seeking to address them to resolve issues that truly do concern the population, such as corruption and injustice. Throughout all of this, we document all of what we learn, what we decided and what we based our decision on so that everyone from our supervisors to our replacements can visualize and understand, assist and continue on.
We have a consistent message, or conversation with the people, that is reinforced by every action we take and is based on enduring themes that have significance to the local population. It is a centerpiece, not an addendum, and is just as pervasive as reconnaissance in everything we do. We think very seriously before taking any action that is contrary to or dilutes our message.
Progress in counterinsurgency and stability is incremental and slow. It is frustrating and sometimes painful. It is difficult to continue in the face of systemic corruption and abuse of power. It is difficult to overcome the negative impression left by a unit that approached the problem as a counter-guerrilla operation. It sometimes seems hopeless where illiteracy is rampant and the people appear inscrutable at first glace. Counterinsurgency is also dangerous. Courage is required, but often that means the courage of conviction to keep trying in the face of adversity and danger coupled with frustration, the combination of which is a powerful demotivator. Keeping our eye on the ball and recognizing subtle shifts is how we cope. Even a little bit of change can make a big difference, and the chances are good that if we reach the tipping point, the Holy Grail of COIN, we will likely not realize it until later.
Note that part of information we collect and keep as part of the ASCOPE/PMESII is the enemy message; their Information Operations (IO). We track their narrative, or conversation with the people. It’s not that hard to gather. We just ask the locals what the insurgent is saying about whatever. They will usually tell us, and they will look for a reaction. We make sure that we get it straight by asking as many people as possible, right down to the casual encounter on the street. This is something that we can include our sensing of the effects that we are having. We can also gather a lot of information about the way that the people react to insurgent IO.
Is the insurgent message hitting home with the populace? Why? There will be a mixture of truths, half-truths and outright lies. Our job is to determine which is which and from there figure out why the insurgent message either appeals to the people or freezes them in place on the fence; unwilling or afraid to commit to supporting or even acquiescing to government rule.
An example of a lie that hit home is an experience in The Tagab Valley, Kapisa Province in August of 2007. At the appearance of Americans, the local Afghan women would turn away, squat and remain motionless, as if they were pretending to be a stone. Men would also behave strangely, but would still step forward to have contact. This was uncommon, and so the interpreter was engaged to figure it out. In the end, it was learned that part of the insurgent narrative in that area was that the ballistic eye wear of the Americans was purported to be able to see through clothing. This was apparently plausible in the minds of the locals, so they responded to the risk of being shamed by concealing their bodies as best they could.
The overall effect was to keep an artificial barrier between the Americans and the Afghans. Many did not believe the story, but enough had their doubts so that the “I will make myself a stone” behavior was widespread. This story was localized, but has been repeated often in a number of other areas. It is not believed by more educated Afghans, but among illiterate people who believe that Americans can do impossible things with technology, it is just plausible enough to warrant caution. Though the effect that it achieved was partial, it would have to be described as successful.
Countering the message involved removing the eye wear and at times addressing the situation directly. If an older Afghan man had heard the rumor, he was offered to try the glasses, and when he saw that the lenses offered no additional capabilities, he was then able to share this with others. Meanwhile, it was stumbled upon that Afghans appreciate the removal of sunglasses in conversation, anyway. This knowledge is now included in COMISAF’s guidance on the wear of ballistic eye protection.
This was a simple example, and by no means an exhaustive description of the complete insurgent narrative in that area. It was just one aspect of it.
Since we know that an insurgency is a political war, we know that the conversation we have with the people is necessary. Each agency or organization, down to the individual level, has a conversation with the local population. The insurgent does the same thing.
We see national-level conversation, such as the rules regulating the behavior of insurgents released by the Taliban. These narratives make international news. In each area, however, the narrative is tailored and refined to appeal to local perceptions, issues and sensibilities. These are the insurgent narratives you are unlikely to hear on the nightly news back home. These messages are also tailored to expand upon the failures of the counterinsurgents on the local level in the specific area. The ultimate goal is obviously to discredit the government, but there are generally messages specifically targeted towards each of the counterinsurgent agencies and often directed at specific individuals.
The insurgent chooses his overall themes and then breaks them down locally. His actions are taken in order to support or further these messages. Insurgent commanders have been fired for getting off message or taking actions that did not support the overall message. An example of this is the insurgent commander replaced after ordering the acid attack on Afghan school girls. The point is that the actions that insurgents take are in support of their narrative, not the other way around. A weakness of counterinsurgents is that they often reverse this equation and try to work their narrative as an adjunct to their efforts, instead of making it a main feature of their operations.
We are at the point where we are selecting actions. At this point, it is absolutely necessary to develop a dialog based on our local issues that rings true with the local populace. Otherwise, we are ceding control of the information war to the insurgents. The national narrative by the government, NATO and all the implementation partners is broad and very general. Simply mouthing the words of GEN Petraeus or the ambassador will not suffice. The local farmer does not hear anything specific in these messages that applies to him. A local narrative is demanded, tailored to the specifics of the local area.
In the end, the goal is to support local government legitimacy; but that doesn’t mean that our narrative lies about government effectiveness. If the government is struggling in a particular area, the best choice is probably to acknowledge that. It will likely be something that you are going to target for improvement, anyway. The local people may not be educated, but they are not stupid, and they already know what works and doesn’t work for them. The counterinsurgent/stability course or courses of action must identify and target these inadequacies in order to have a lasting effect locally. The insurgent narrative is probably quite harsh about these failings. Trying to gloss over things that the locals find objectionable will not improve matters, and only reinforces insurgent relevance.
Each main logical line of operation, Military/Security, Development and Governance, needs to support each other’s messaging. It should all dovetail into a seamless narrative aimed at competing for the ear of the farmer and shopkeeper against the insurgent narrative. Because it is backed by action consistent with the narrative, it is reinforced in the eyes of local observers. It’s a relationship, and as in any relationship, say what you mean and do what you say. Nobody cares about airy promises and trite sayings. They want to see action that supports what you say. This, more than any other thing, is what builds trust among the people.
So part of each working group’s agenda needs to be the conversation with the people, distilled from a thorough understanding of the local area and their issues, including what the insurgent is saying. Then, once the local message of each actor is established, it is consistently carried and not deviated from significantly. Commanders ensure that their narrative is carried by every soldier, and NCO’s enforce this standard.
Proposed actions are compared against the narrative and either the action is altered or the objective of that action is incorporated into the narrative. If a proposed action is contrary to the narrative, it is given great scrutiny to determine the appropriateness of that action. Rarely will we take an action that does not directly support our narrative. This is the key to effective information operations, which are the audible evidence of our conversation with the local populace.
Now the counterinsurgents are gaining a pretty thorough understanding of the local area, with so much information that it’s hard to manage it, much less remember it. We have to form a picture out of it. The concept is getting to know the area the way that a beat cop knows the neighborhood that he works in every day for years.
Except that we don’t have years to get to know the villages in the valleys and the people that inhabit them. Simplistic viewpoints such as a belief that, “It’s the tribes!” is the answer to every question about Afghan society won’t help us get to know them any quicker.
We must use what we have available to discover this information as efficiently as possible and use your resources to manage it. Also, keep in mind that very little of what we will learn from this is actually intelligence. We are learning what the local population already knows, so it is information. Intelligence officers and others must be careful not to over-classify information and mistakenly call it intelligence. Over-classification of what should be simple information is counter to the first requirement of creating unity of effort; communication. Communication starts with the sharing of basic information. This is how counterinsurgents partner to develop a common operating picture; seeing what each other sees and filling in the gaps in each other’s vision.
A good example of how this common vision was short-circuited is the way that Human Terrain System information was forced to be transmitted over the military’s secure information network, classifying the information by default. While it was an effective way of transporting information, it was not an effective way to disseminate it, and is a great failure to achieve a common operating picture using shared information. Again, very little, if any, of the information gathered by Human Terrain Teams needs to be classified, because information about how a society works is already known by its members.
The insurgents use “open-source” warfare because of necessity and adaptability. For us, it is actually a requirement; but we can do much better in so many ways.
If Google could search Afghan society, all that information would be there, and not because of Wikileaks. It’s practically open source; except there are no search engines that will tell you who the Malik of this or that town is, no listing of mosques or schools with their grid locations, no listings of teachers and where they live. You can’t Google who owns what land, who is involved in a land dispute and what families gravitate to which side in that dispute. You have to find that information out, document it, make the information retrievable and share it with all of the other actors involved so that they are aware of it. Blunders are avoided in such a way; the types of blunders that can spoil relationships.
Many act as if it is some kind of revelation that Afghan society works through relationships, but that’s nothing new, even in the age of internet social networking. In fact, the rise of tech-driven social networking is proof that American society works through relationships. The most successful people are great networkers. They remember details about their friends, relatives and business associates. Golf courses would struggle to survive if it weren’t for the business of business that takes executives to the courses to form and strengthen the relationships that keep businesses intertwined.
American society is as networked as the qawms of Afghanistan. The weave is different, but the fabric is very similar. The end result is a need to understand the various threads and how they are interwoven. It is as important for the development and governmental capacity builders to understand these intertwined relationships as those involved in security and military operations.
From the picture that begins to emerge from all of the various elements of information that we have gathered, we start to see three things emerge. We will find that there is some kind of grievance/unmet need, unfulfilled expectation or vacuum in authority that affects the people in their daily lives. Secondly, we will find that there is local leadership that is available to channel this into a willingness to commit violence, at least among a few locals. Finally, we will find that there is a weakness in the government, or a perception of weakness, instability or corruption. These are the causes and conditions that will exist in the presence of an insurgency. Sometimes they will seem to be glaringly apparent, but a methodical approach will help in identifying what the most pressing issues that demand action are. There is a methodology to help keep this analysis organized, but we know that the answers for each area are unique to that area. This is why we don’t just apply a methodology and ignore local information. Quite the contrary.
Note that as we gather information to create our mosaic picture of the local conditions, we do not ignore the terrain, nor do we ignore the enemy. We don’t include intelligence in our sharing unless that member is cleared to possess the intelligence. But a lot of information about the enemy will be “open-source” information, because the enemy often lives among the population. Even if a key figure is not native to the local area, the people know who he is and often where he hangs out and how many fighters he can gather. They know who the shadow sub-governor is, what he has said and who transmits his messages. So all of this is included in our operational picture. The point is that this picture is holistic.
Through this development of a common operating picture, all of the counterinsurgents and stability actors can begin to have a dialog that can synchronize efforts towards a set of common, sometimes very incremental goals. Each logical line of operation supports the other. If these lines of effort intertwine, they are as strong as rope. If they don’t, they are three relatively easily broken strands that may rub against each other and weaken each other.
Assume that most of the other individuals and groups are acting in good faith, trying to do the best that they can. Understand that each will approach the problem set that begins to emerge from their own background and experience, with a view towards whatever “lane” they fall in. Each should share the common picture, but each is oriented towards one of the main three lines or a piece that falls under one of them. Some will be very specific, such as rule of law or agricultural development specialists. Each brings something to the table. A locality may not be ready for all of the good things that the some members of the effort will wish to do. And, gains made in one area that are not supported by gains in other lines of operation will be temporary at best, eventually ceding ground due to a lack of follow-through. Each agency or individual will take some sort of action in an attempt to achieve the effects they desire; to accomplish their jobs. Dozens of people moving separately with good intentions is still along the line of the thousand monkeys with typewriters probability of success; eventually, somewhere, Shakespeare will emerge. Unity of effort is key.
How does a group of counterinsurgent/stability actors get synchronized and stay on course? Efforts must be “linked and synched” at each level of operation. ISAF, USAID, the State Department and the UN maybe linked at the national level and completely de-linked at the provincial level. In fact, this has been the case fairly often. Military commanders will have no realistic idea from day to day where the various and sundry individuals working for good are in the operational area he is supposed to be providing security for. However, there is no “requirement” for everyone to check in with or “be cleared” by the military commander. In the past, American units working separately with the ANP and ANA were often oblivious to each other’s presence only a short distance from each other. Working groups, sharing as much information as possible without compromising security, are necessary. This should be done to the lowest level possible. This may mean an Army platoon, an ANA company, and solitary representatives from various agencies such as USAID, the PRT, the district ANP chief, the district sub-governor and various elders working together to synchronize efforts.
At some level, everyone needs to be engaged if possible. There may be a higher-level working group that involves key actors and makes decisions and coordination, but each agency or individual needs to be involved in the larger group. You can never have too much collaboration, but care must be taken not to let the sea of voices degenerate into cacophony.
In the past and continuing into today, projects have been selected (often pre-selected) for various areas. The first answers that come to mind in relation to development, for instance, are, “Build a road, build a school, build a clinic.” These seemingly default answers may or may not be what is needed first. Based on our understanding of the picture we’ve developed, the counterinsurgents must determine what is needed first. Just as we have applied a methodology to gather and manage the information that has built a picture for us to understand the area, we now apply a decision-support framework to solve the issues we have begun to identify.
We need to understand where we are starting. We talk in terms of, “Clear, Hold and Build.” In Afghanistan it has become, “Shape, Clear, Hold and Build.” These are a way of phasing operations, like setting checkpoints along a route. They also describe the overall effect that is desired for that phase. The concept of, “Shape, Clear, Hold and Build,” is a military concept based upon who published COIN guidance referencing these phases of operations (COMISAF). You will find plenty of civilians speaking in these terms, but some civilian organizations don’t really buy off on it. That does not mean that they cannot be synchronized into a plan, but it may provide communications challenges. Each logical line of operation has a contribution and tasks that they need to accomplish in order for these operations not to degrade into a cycle of periodic clearing with scant or failed efforts to hold and build which always melt away into worsening security; a pattern which many of us have witnessed repeatedly in Afghanistan.
Each actor must agree realistically to what they are to accomplish and when. There must be accountability each to the other, and through solid relationships, each can respond to needed support or adjustments due to setbacks. It is still a war, and then enemy still gets a vote. There will be delays and disruptions. Each must adjust and work around these; as long as it does not prevent progress.
In order for all of this to occur, there needs to be a plan. There is commonly no one person “in charge” of the efforts. Of the three main logical lines of operation, Military/Security, Governance and Economic Development, none of three “food chains” culminate in the same person in the country of Afghanistan. The principle of “Unity of Command” is broken; if you think of it as a strictly military effort. But it isn’t. Unity of command is a military principle and there for one reason; to attain unity of effort. Unity of effort can be attained without unity of command, but it requires tact, patience, understanding and good will on the parts of the several actors involved.
In the end, the correct answer would be for the Afghan official involved to be in charge. That is the goal, anyway. But, in practice that takes time and a lot of mentoring (often not provided) to attain. So we have to operate by some sort of mutual understanding. Personal prejudices come into play and must be overcome. Military viewpoints on civilian aid workers will lead to assumptions being made (flower-munching, Birkenstock-wearing tree huggers). The reverse is also often true (linear-thinking knuckle-draggers who say, “Clausewitz!” if you sneeze near them). These are human failings that professionals must recognize in themselves and work through, because they are completely counterproductive. Professionals override these knee-jerk reactions and work through it.
There are a number of frameworks that have been proposed and used for decision support in Afghanistan. USAID has developed one that has been accepted by the Army and approved by officials ranging from COMISAF to the Secretary of Defense; the District Stability Framework. Through seeing a common operational picture, we attained a degree of unity of vision. Now we begin to speak a common operational language by organizing and speaking of information and decisions using a common operational framework.
We know that we want to move the internal struggles inside a country away from violence (warfare) and into (or back into) the political realm. We’ve had a general look at what insurgencies consist of, why they start and what fuels them. We know that the existence of sanctuaries don’t ensure insurgent success, but are practically necessary for insurgents to have any hope of success. We know that the military/security line of operation is only one of three main lines of operation. We know that a well-developed insurgency is, at its roots, a competition to govern. So how do we resolve the insurgency without the collapse of the government and the complete take-over by insurgents?
Counterinsurgents cannot stand still and wait it out. They cannot simply continue upon their course without continuous movement and adjustment to conditions on the ground and in the population. They must choose actions and take them. Every counterinsurgent chooses actions and takes them, but a significant number of them (3 or 4 out of 10) are unsuccessful. Is there a pattern of behavior that counterinsurgents establish that is successful versus those that aren’t?
First, the counterinsurgent must understand the roots of the conflict. Usually, insurgencies don’t carry a head of steam where there is effective governance and plenty of it. The counterinsurgent must take a really good look at what the weaknesses are of the system he or she is trying to support. Sun Tzu pointed out that a combatant must understand not only his enemy, but also himself. A counterinsurgent must understand what his strengths and weaknesses are and he must be honest about it. The counterinsurgent must also understand the environment, both physical and societal, in which he operates. Finally, understanding insurgencies in general, he must understand the insurgency he faces.
While there are commonalities in insurgencies, every insurgency is obviously different. A counterinsurgent must understand the particulars of the conflict. In Afghanistan, for instance, we created a vacuum in government followed by the construction and installation of a government from, more or less, scratch. This was done in a nation where the society had been existing amidst conflict for decades. The previous “government” was scarcely a government at all. There was ongoing warfare from 1979 to the present. The only thing the previous government maintained was law and order, administering swift, often brutal justice for any offense. The economy was a shambles. Infrastructure that had once existed had largely crumbled. Electricity was scarce. Education was minimal for boys, nonexistent for girls. Communications were horrible. Local warlords still held sway in parts of the country. Remnants of the old regime still held out in isolated areas.
While Afghan society had enough coherence to hold its basic fabric together, it was often at the most basic levels of that fabric; the family. Traditional resiliencies, the influences that kept Afghan society flourishing, were severely damaged at each local level. At the national level, there was very little coherence. The fledgling government took years to push influence out into areas that had been, at least nominally, cleared in 2002 of the influence of the previous regime. In the meantime, those influences seeped back in or never completely left.
Being a politically-motivated internal war, the goal is political, and all politics is local. Therefore, insurgency is local. Counterinsurgency needs to be localized, and cannot be adequately performed at a national level in the absence of acceptable local governance. That is why we have so many problems measuring nation-wide progress. In order to measure things, we need to choose and analyze metrics.
National metrics are exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to choose and measure. Metrics indicating success in one discrete area may or may not indicate measurable progress or loss in another discrete area. Afghanistan is a patchwork of valleys and villages. This insurgency is more localized than most, not less. Leadership at the national level needs to look at each area and measure it by the metrics that are meaningful for that particular area. It is difficult to put the pieces together at the national level to create a mosaic that makes sense. There are various and sundry depictions of the conflict, many varying wildly from others. These are constructed by utilizing whatever metrics support the argument of the individual making the argument. It’s difficult to impossible to know which depictions to trust.
This difficulty in producing a coherent picture does not lend itself to centralized command and control. That is why COIN doctrine talks about something called, “Mission Command.” Mission Command means that the local commander, at the lowest level possible, has command over the decisions made at the local level. He is most likely to understand how the pieces of the puzzle are arrayed locally. He is most likely to understand the complex, three dimensional chess game being played against the influences of the insurgent.
We know that the local commander, given Mission Command, must come to understand himself (including his allies), the insurgency and the local dynamics (terrain and society) that set the situation he must deal with. This is a tremendous amount of information. In Afghanistan, we have seen a number of initiatives designed to help the commanders gather and analyze this information. The Human Terrain System, for instance, is an effort to bring the science of anthropology to bear on understanding the intricacies of local society. But a military commander has the largest number of information gathering assets of any of the counterinsurgents in the area; foreign counterinsurgents, anyway. Local Afghans will already possess most of the information that the rest of the counterinsurgents will find helpful, but they usually do not know what to do with it or don’t have the resources.
So, using every source of information available, the commander, at the lowest level possible, must develop a “picture” of the environment in which he operates. He gathers information, but there is so much of it that it is hard to separate out meaningful information from the white noise of the information flow. It’s like trying to paint a picture of the rocks under a waterfall just by the way the water is falling. That’s why the commander needs to take a methodical approach to not only gathering, but also in organizing and correlating the information he can gather to put together a comprehensive picture of the operational environment and its challenges. It’s a job never ends, because while the terrain will change little or not at all, the society will constantly change. People will gain and lose influence. People will die and others will take their places. With the societal aspect in constant flux, the commander must track the changes and adjust as necessary.
Keep in mind that this commander is only on the ground for about a year. When he leaves, his successor needs to have the same information. Military commanders are used to organizing tactical information in certain ways. For instance, tactical graphics on a map are consistent. If one walks up to a tactical map in nearly any area, he can understand the tactical information on that map because he knows what those map symbols mean. There is an entire book on Operational Graphics. When it comes to depicting the things that affect societies, there are no standard map symbols. Commanders have organized this information as they have seen fit, but that doesn’t mean that it is easily understandable to those who follow them. A standard method of organizing and correlating the information is necessary. This not only makes the information easier to understand, but a relatively standardized format means that the incoming unit will be able to easily understand it as well. It will be what they are expecting to see.
Our doctrine lays out specific elements of information that are recommended for counterinsurgents to understand in order to obtain this grasp on the local situation. The COIN Training Center – Afghanistan has taken the two recommended sets of information and cross-referenced them. This system has now been signed off on by COMISAF, COMCENTCOM and the SECDEF. This system takes the analysis of ASCOPE (Areas, Structures, Capabilities, People and Events) and crosses it with PMESII (Political, Military/Security, Economic, Social, Infrastructure and Information).
Each column is referenced against the other. So, when we are looking at Areas, for instance, we look at Political Areas, Military/Security Areas, Economic Areas, Social Areas, Infrastructure Areas and Information Areas. What does an Information Area mean? In Afghanistan, it may mean an area of radio station coverage. It also means areas of cell phone coverage. Those are just examples. The end result is that people have a consistent way of painting the picture that is consistently read by others who see it.
How does the commander collect this mass of information? He uses all of his assets. If he has HTS available, for example, he discovers what they are best at and tries to use the information that they can give him. However, he does not necessarily control the HTS or any of the other actors. He does control his own troops, and so he generates PIR’s (Priority Information Requirements), IR’s (Information Requirements), and FFIR’s (Friendly Forces Information Requirements) based on where he sees information gaps and then he relentlessly pushes those out and gathers the results. This focuses troops on actually being sensors. If the commander explains why he needs the information, the troops have a deeper sense of purpose and a more realistic sense of what they are actually trying to accomplish. Plus, understanding the commander’s intent gives young leaders the chance to find ways to contribute. They can act more appropriately in the absence of orders as well.
Noncommissioned officers can then reinforce the things that are important to counterinsurgents. Discipline has one purpose; to ensure discipline on the battlefield. In a counterinsurgency, the battlefield doesn’t always include combat, but every action or inaction is combat. Drill and ceremonies, that visual example of military discipline, was initially developed to use directly on the battlefield. It was training. Now it is an outward symbol of discipline, but marching formations are not used in combat. Uniformity and other regulations are made to instill the discipline that can be put to use in combat, the only place where it really, really matters. It is how soldiers can do unnatural things in stressful, dangerous situations. We usually think of this in relation to kinetic combat, but it also has meaning in non-kinetic counterinsurgency operations. NCO’s enforce standards, and when the commander is generating standards based on his needs in counterinsurgent combat, the NCO’s can understand and enforce those standards. The sidewalk discipline of garrison life must then morph into the battlefield discipline needed to be successful on the ground. The appearance of uniforms means nothing in the face of failure in the valleys and villages of Afghanistan. Commanders and senior NCO’s who understand and focus military discipline in Afghanistan gather and organize tons of information.
Masses of information need to be analyzed. The commander and NCO’s discussed above are at company level and below. The higher up the “food chain” you go, the more separated from the nitty gritty reality of the “eaches” you are. This is not how battalion and brigade commanders are trained to function. In maneuver warfare, the more information the higher level commanders possess, the better they can maneuver and influence the battlefield. We have developed magnificent tools for commanders to see exactly what is going on at the individual vehicle level. He can see where it is and he can check on what it is doing. He can control it if he wants to. In counterinsurgency, a battalion commander interjecting himself directly at the tactical level can be disastrous. At best, you have the least informed person in the chain making the tactical decision. The principle of Mission Command is critical. Violating this principle can have debilitating effects.
So what are higher headquarters good for in counterinsurgency? Platoons have nearly zero analytical horsepower. Companies have very little. Company level intelligence support teams (of various acronyms) were developed to help solve this problem. Battalions have more information crunching assets, and brigades have significant analytical capabilities. Lower echelons are awash in information, but creating a useful picture out of it is difficult at the lower level due to the lack of analytical capability. Higher echelons support lower echelons by providing the ability to analyze information and convert it to useful products for the lower echelons to make use of according to Mission Command. They help the lower level commander to visualize his operational area. The battalion and brigade commander need to be able to recognize poor counterinsurgency behavior when they see it and provide adjustments as necessary, but they should not be dictating the actions of subordinates in the same manner as they would in a maneuver fight.
Once a thorough understanding of the operational area is obtained, the counterinsurgent mission commander begins to decide upon his actions.