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.
One of the comments on the last post, “RC South,” brought me to realize that the ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk needs some explanation. Here is the comment:
Not that it matters much, but your Brit Brigadier’s approach, the ASCOPE/PMESII matrix, is based on futures research methods. The model is called Cross-Impact Analysis or Event-Impact Matrix Analysis. It is used to figure out what programs one needs to get from an unfortunate present to a desired future. It does fit the nature of the task in your world, doesnt it?
One thing, though. PMESII is a terrifically flawed way to define the operating environment especially for civic aciton. PMESII is designed to be a targeting method for the environment (John Waldron of USAF fame invented the method.) That’s why PMESII is associated with EBO (another bozo idea.) A better subsitute for PMESII in your part of the world would be to lay out the environment according to Social, Technological, Economic, Political, Environmental and Military (STEP-EM) factors. This latter approach is used in many non-US military cross-impact efforts similar to what the Brits are doing.
Hope this isn’t TMI (too much information.) Stay safe as the mission allows!
The ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk is a combination of two sets of information that are found in the FM 3-24. The manual doesn’t link them per se, but alludes to the linkage. What the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan has done is create a crosswalk so that critical elements of information are not ignored when gathering information about the specific area of operations (AO). What this does is spur a commander to learn about the AO in-depth. The purpose is to get to know an area the way that the population… and the enemy… does. When teaching this to Afghans, they get the idea instantly when explained to them as, “You need to get to know your AO the way that you knew the village where you grew up.” For Coalition forces, the best way to explain is to compare it to the way that a beat cop gets to know the area where he operates. An Afghan growing up in a village develops this knowledge over the course of many years. A beat cop also takes years to develop this kind of knowledge. We, on the other hand, do not have this kind of time.
Another issue that we’ve had in Afghanistan is the “experiencing Afghanistan for the first time nine years in a row” effect. What having a detailed ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk completed for each area does to resolve this cannot be understated. What you are doing is creating a living, breathing document focused on the people, places and things that are important in the daily lives of the people who live in that area. Everything from the Social Structures (meaning things like mosques, schools and clinics, not the family tree) to the Information People (a lot of information is passed by word-of-mouth in Afghanistan). Being a living document, it changes as the people, places and things in an area change. People move, die, or become less relevant, for instance. Things change. For this reason, the document changes with them. But, as a snapshot in time, it can be handed over to the unit arriving on the ground, giving them the “brain dump” in a document and saving the precious time of the Relief in Place (RIP) for doing more important things… like handing over the relationships that drive so much in any human situation.
We like to say that “every Soldier is a sensor,” but we rarely tune our sensors. The result is that they pick up white noise or general atmospherics at best. When a commander is conscientiously focused on collecting relevant information for his ASCOPE/PMESII, he is reminded by the document itself of what he does not know. Therefore, he can generate Priority Information Requirements (PIR) and Information Requirements (IR). This then causes NCO’s to focus on the real discipline of war; focus on the mission. Instead of focusing on reflective belt wear, they become relentless about their Pre-Combat Checks (PCC’s) and Pre-Combat Inspections (PCI’s), ensuring that each Soldier can tell him exactly what the commander is looking for. Driven by the ASCOPE/PMESII, this is bound to be population-centric in focus. We no longer find our Soldiers conducting “Presence Patrols” (a term that does not exist in doctrine), but instead they are performing Reconnaissance (which is found in doctrine). We cease to violate our own principles, which we have and continue to violate due to not understanding what our roles should be. Instead of the oft-heard phrase, “We came to a war and garrison broke out,” now we are back to fighting a war which relies on information and ideas just as much as it does physical force.
The ASCOPE/PMESII also is the beginning of bigger and better things. From it, as we learn more about an area, we should begin to recognize the three prerequisites for insurgency as they emerge from the human mosaic that we are creating; a vulnerable population, a weak (or perceived to be weak) government, and leadership available for direction (insurgent leaders both military and political). If all politics is local, then insurgency is local and therefore counterinsurgency is local. There is no prescription that works in each area, and so each area must be examined in detail in order for these prerequisites to emerge. Oddly enough, these prerequisites are parallel to the factors of instability, where, for instance, the vulnerability of the population is the grievances they hold that keep them separate from their government. The information gathered in the ASCOPE/PMESII then becomes the basis for the Stability Framework (or District Stability Framework).
Designed at USAID as the District Stability Framework, this is a logical process which drives program design at whatever level it is employed. It can be applied at the village, district and provincial levels. It is often confused with the Tactical Conflict Assessment and Planning Framework (TCAPF) which can be applied as part of the Stability Framework. TCAPF, however, has gotten something of a bad name, as a key part of it is the four questions that have proven problematic in implementation. That could be the subject of a post all its own. Whether the four questions are used or not, local perceptions must be discovered and used during the design process. The intent is to avoid the behavior which has gotten us to where we are after having spent billions of dollars, often without any positive impact on stability. There have been successes, true, but there have also been dismal failures; and they are legion. Our standard answer to any question of development has seemingly been, “build a road, build a school, build a clinic.” However, what if the people in a given area do not need a road, cannot staff a school and have no doctor for their clinic? What if the real dissatisfaction with the government in that area has nothing to do with anything that can be addressed by a road, school or clinic? Often enough, this has been the case. We have built schools only to have them burned. We have built roads that only inspired strife over whose property was damaged and the fact that local communities watched workers from other provinces or even other countries make money building them, while their own people suffered unemployment. We have built clinics only to have the doctors intimidated into leaving, or having no practitioners to staff them and few medical supplies. All the while, the real causes of violence and instability in that area may be, for instance, land disputes due to displaced persons returning to find their land occupied by squatters who now refuse to leave their crops. We find people who are disgusted with their inability to gain access to justice unless they can pay the bribes. Meanwhile, our understaffed clinic does nothing to heal the wounds of neighbors coming to blows over squabbles that need to be adjudicated.
The Taliban can offer governance; courts that cannot be bought, justice that is impartial if harsh.
When the enemy offers a competing “product” that is preferred over the government services, you’ve got a real problem. Insurgency is a competition to govern. All the violence stems from that. Destroy the insurgent’s ability to influence and you’ve rendered him irrelevant, regardless of whether or not you’ve rendered him inert. There will be violence. If you are successful, the insurgent will become enraged and desperate. Military tactics will have to find ways to prevent the insurgent access to the population in order to prevent widespread intimidation campaigns from succeeding. But all the while, any appeal that the insurgent may have, you are addressing. You have learned about the people, places and things that are important in that community. You have listened to the insurgent explain to you your weaknesses as he pleads his case to the people. You have listened to the people (not just the “leaders”) and then analyzed what the systemic cause, rather than the perceptive cause, of the problem is. You’ve developed a logical program to address these systemic problems along with not only measures of output (which we are good at), but measures of effectiveness (which are more difficult). You are measuring and adjusting as you go.
All of this starts with learning about the area in which you are assigned the responsibility to operate. You did this by utilizing a simple framework which established a common operational language with your partners (because they’re using this, too). This, in turn, helped you to establish a common operational picture, which promoted unity of effort. By using a common framework, all of that is achievable. It is doctrinally sound, based on the principles of FM 3-24. The Stability Framework (or District Stability Framework), developed and used by USAID, is doctrinally sound by FM 3-07 (Stability Operations). They used military doctrine to their own advantage and it works when it is utilized in a holistic, partnered environment. But the first step is actually doing the ASCOPE/PMESII.
Is the ASCOPE/PMESII framework perfect? Simply, no. Nothing is. It is a pretty good tool, though. Pretty good is good enough. We can drive ourselves crazy shopping for the perfect tool that doesn’t exist. One problem is the endless series of “X is better,” or “we started using X, and we don’t want to change.” Many units and organizations, prior to being exposed to the ASCOPE/PMESII crosswalk, recognize the tool gap and either search for a tool or create one themselves. Once there is intellectual ownership, particularly among academics, it is difficult to get them to migrate to a standard toolset. However, there is tremendous power in using standardized tools, as discussed above. COMISAF has realized this, and we are expecting a FRAGO to standardize the tools. The benefit of having specific tools to train with and then execute on the ground is that units can share data… on a common framework… prior to actually arriving on the ground. This is not modeling software or simulation stuff. This is real world data about the area in which a unit operates or will operate. This is situational awareness. Most of the big rocks are covered in this framework, and if there is something that overlaps data “fields,” then you put it in each area where it could have pertinence. Think outside the box, but write your answer in the box… where you can find it when you need it.
It has been said that Afghanistan is the graveyard not of empires, but of databases. There is so much information out there that has been gathered and then lost in the morass of isolated (unlinked) proprietary databases. You can never find what you need when you need it. We have created the crazy cat lady garage of data, and you can barely find anything amongst all the cat feces and rubbish. The ASCOPE/PMESII can be done in any format, but it is organized. You can use A through E binders with PMESII tabs, or you can use the nifty Excel spreadsheet that the British developed for their Human Terrain Packs. Either way, when you talk about your data elements, all your partners will know what you are talking about and why it’s relevant. And, when you want to do an economic project, you will know who the Economic People are and where to find them.
This is the tool that is going to be used. Tool shopping time is over. Now it’s time to learn how to use them and then actually apply these principles on the ground.
That’s the short answer to a detailed, well-timed comment.