We are going to play a paint-by-numbers game. I’m going to lay out the lines with the facts that I know, and I’ll supply the paints. You just paint by the numbers, and we’ll see what picture presents itself by the time we are done. This article includes a basic description of the Human Terrain System and why it is important to the counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, and series of related events that may threaten the program at a critical stage in its development. This will show that Robert Pelton’s business partner approached HTS with a proposal to sell intelligence to the program, and failing that, Pelton sought an embed, marketed his own services directly to ISAF without the knowledge of those who had gotten him cleared to enter the country, and then wrote a scathing article about the program.
The Human Terrain System is a $132 million program that provides social science information to the United States Armed Forces to assist them in understanding the populations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They map out the social networks in areas of operation, provide context about the concerns of the local population, and assist the military staffs with understanding the human elements of the local environment providing valuable information to commanders on the ground. This assists the commanders in working with and around the populations. It helps the Army to stay population-centric in the solutions that it arrives at when selecting courses of action. This means more effective counterinsurgency strategies. The efficient operation of this program is in the best interest of the Army, and therefore the nation. It is an item of public interest.
Anthropology not being an Army branch, the social scientists have in most cases been civilian contractors. This has provided for the social scientists to be very well compensated, making it a bit more worthwhile to subject themselves to the rigors of combat zones.
The program is not without its critics, both within the Armed Forces and without. The American Association for Anthropology has a very vocal minority that cries out that the program is an unethical use of anthropological science. They claim that anthropologists are using the data to target individuals for death. Commanders who have actually used the output disagree. COL Schweitzer, Commander of the 82nd Airborne’s 4th Brigade Combat Team had this to say:
Schweitzer was unequivocal in his support for the HTT. He was conscious of how that might sound to his peers—“whacked,” was how he put it. But he assured me his enthusiasm was grounded in facts. Since February, his brigade had reduced kinetic operations by 60 percent in favor of “non-lethal forms and sets of maneuver,” which had reduced both American and Afghan casualties. More than one third of the districts in his area of operations pledged their support to the Afghan government for the first time. ~ Steven Featherstone, “Human quicksand for the U.S. Army, a crash course in cultural studies,” Harpers Magazine, September, 2008
HTS is in part comprised of Human Terrain Teams (HTT’s,) of which there are 20 in Iraq and 6 in Afghanistan. The Army has orders for 13 more teams in Afghanistan. Due to the new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in Iraq, civilian contractors will be subject to Iraqi law and under new regulations will not be covered for basic health care by military doctors at military installations. This has forced the HTS to convert the HTT personnel who are currently contractors to government employees. Many of the social scientists are finding themselves looking at pay cuts that in some cases work out to about 70% .
“It’s the only thing that we could do for the long term health of the program,” says a senior program official at the HTS. “I know it’s hard for individuals because it’s not as lucrative, but in the coming weeks we are going to see many programs affected by this making similar choices.”
The $132 million program, a significant enabler of COIN in-theater, is making its way through some rocky parts in its road, perhaps facing the greatest challenges since its inception. There is another challenge.
In the summer of 2008, Eason Jordan, former Chief News Executive at CNN and a partner in two intelligence ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, approached COL(R) Steven Fondacaro of the Human Terrain System (HTS) with a business proposal. He wanted to sell HTS-related intelligence provided through Praedict in Iraq and AfPax Insider in Afghanistan/Pakistan to HTS. Not having any way to verify information provided through such an outside contract, Fondacaro politely declined.
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Montgomery McFate co-author of FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, was approached by a journalist, Robert Young Pelton, at a social function. Pelton sought to do an embed with an HTT in Afghanistan. Through Dr. McFate, Pelton was then introduced to Steve Fondacaro. Fondacaro, who describes himself as, “the operational side of HTS,” and Dr. McFate as “the social scientist side of HTS,” agreed to embed Pelton with one of their teams.
“We had no idea at the time that Pelton was associated with Eason Jordan,” Fondacaro told me. Eason Jordan’s partners in IraqSlogger, Praedict, and AfPax Insider are Ted Turner, GEN(R) Wesley Clark and Robert Young Pelton.
Fondacaro and McFate approved Pelton to the Army PAO (Public Affairs Office,) which then completed the necessary steps to certify Pelton for the embed. Pelton was put through the process, including signing agreements to abide by the Army’s terms, including agreeing to comply with Army directives while embedded with American units, including a prohibition on gambling, pornography, extramarital sex and alcohol. These are the prohibitions of “General Order Number 1” which apply to all American forces in the theaters of combat. Finally, the embed was cleared.
“We planned to take Mr. Pelton on a planned official visit to Afghanistan with us,” Dr. McFate told me, “but then he called us and told us he had found his own way to Afghanistan. We didn’t think much of it.” Pelton arrived in Afghanistan days before the embed was to begin. He spent this time in Kabul, marketing his intelligence services to International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, commanded by GEN McKiernan.
On September 17th, 2008, Pelton called a member of a team at Bagram Air Field (BAF,) according to insiders. In notes on the conversation, it is noted that Pelton, “bragged about his intel/HT (Human Terrain) consulting contract with ISAF,” says a source who declines to be named, citing security concerns. The source goes on to say that the contract Pelton bragged about included, “cultural advisors, area specialists, polling, and other services.” Pelton, the source explains, “claimed he wanted to see how HTS was operating and that writing an article about us was the best way to get that information.”
When Pelton joined the team days later at Bagram, arrangements had been made for him to participate in a scheduled mission “outside the wire.” Pelton missed the movement and was left behind while the mission was performed. The team went to great lengths to arrange an ad hoc mission so that Pelton would get a chance to go on a mission. This was when the trouble began.
“I had to tell my interpreter not to interpret his questions to the locals,” a team member reports. “Every time I spoke with an Afghan civilian, he would inject himself into the conversation.” He goes on to say, “He kept asking where the Taliban were. We never ask that. It interferes with what we really need to know. During one engagement that was going well, he blurted out, ‘Ask him where the Taliban are!’ The elder we were speaking with clammed up after that and wouldn’t speak to anyone.”
Pelton was asked repeatedly to cease such activities by 1LT Jones, the military team leader for the mission. At the end of the mission, 1LT Jones complained to his leadership about the trouble that Pelton had given him out in the field. 1LT Jones would later pay the price for his professionalism.
Pelton wrote the article published in Men’s Journal trashing the team with which he was embedded and the HTS in general. He cast 1LT Jones as an idiot. In the final stab at the young First Lieutenant, Pelton claimed that Jones had shared some of the contraband whiskey that Pelton had smuggled into FOB Morales-Frazier. 1LT Jones is now undergoing an investigation into the allegation made by Pelton in his article. The Army had no choice but to investigate such a claim.
The article itself painted a bizarre picture of places, and of operations the types of which this writer is intimately familiar with. Pelton’s article just did not carry the ring of truth. Blogger Tim Lynch stated in his blog, Free Range International that Pelton appeared to be trying to capture the surreal character of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. His description of places and the behaviors of the Soldiers and Marines conducting operations in these places bore little resemblance to what my direct experience would lead me to find believable.
Pelton’s description of the HTT at Bagram was even less kind. Pelton nitpicks the team to pieces in a few sentences.
“What I find most disturbing,” Dr. McFate says, “is that he can take a man who has devoted twenty years of his life to studying Afghanistan and call him a Laotian DNA expert. I don’t understand why he would describe LTC Rotzoll as if he didn’t know what he was doing. LTC Rotzoll is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan, and he is very professional. The team that Mr. Pelton described in that article bore no resemblance to the team that I know.”
This writer took Pelton to task for his article, and in response received a barrage of emails from Pelton containing threats to sue for libel.
If you do even the slightest bit of research on my background you will understand why your unfounded insults will not go uncorrected. I can also tell you that without an earnest attempt on your behalf to correct your malicious actions, the appropriate corrective and punitive relief available to me will be fully enforced. If you choose to be unresponsive, I will take that as proof that you choose to ignore polite requests to mitigate the damage. I strongly encourage you to consult your lawyer and have him define the term “libel” and its potential impact. I will print out a pdf of your website and other comments at exactly 9pm tomorrow evening Pacific time. (from an email dated February 19th, 2009 to me from Robert Young Pelton)
Mr. Pelton bragged on his own site about the tactics of intimidation.
…of all the things on the planet that need to be written about and the last person on earth you would want to call out… Most bloggers can’t actually pay up but the cost of defending themselves (whether they are right or wrong) is enough to convince them that their economic model is going to get a whole lot costlier if they can’t back up their statements. … often its the only way people realize the gravity and cost of the mistake they have made.
The mistake he’s talking about is pointing out something potentially unflattering about Mr. Robert Young Pelton. He was pointing out that his deep pockets make him right, and he’s not afraid to use them.
These very aggressive emails sent to a relatively unknown blogger caught my interest. It wasn’t fear of a lawsuit as much as curiosity as to why such a vicious response would be directed over a criticism of an obviously flawed and at least partially fabricated story in a second rate men’s magazine. As curiosity took hold, bits of what Mr. Pelton’s disjointed and rambling emails said made more sense.
Pelton even tried to lead me to believe that Fondacaro and McFate had approached him, as if they were begging him to do the embed:
Despite this one embed to satisfy Steve and Mitzi’s request…
I talked to Fondacaro and McFate and discovered not only that Pelton had approached them, but also that his partner Eason Jordan had preceded him, a fact that came to light unbidden.
The discovery that he had bragged about marketing his services to ISAF made this passage from a separate email sent the same day as the one quoted above seem to make more sense:
You may not tell people that I work directly for the highest military command in Afghansitan and that my embed was set up at the highest level…but more importantly you need to respect that I busted my ass to see how this program work and it was a fucking disaster at every level. Jones, Rotzell, Fondacaro and McFate believe in this program passionately but are faced with almost insurmountable problems. This article clearly sends a message to the public, congress and the military that people like LT Jones (at 30K a year) do the heavy lifting while lazy anthros cost our government half a million dollars each and do fuck all.
A quick read of the article itself shows no evidence of attempting to show that 1LT Jones was even trying to do his own job. 1LT Jones’ behavior and professionalism was cast into such doubt by the fallacious article that his very career as an Army officer is subject to being ended. The end result of the type of investigation he is being subjected to as a result of Pelton’s writing is a Court Martial. While the assertions of holding 1LT Jones up as a shining example are obviously false, the email does seem to confirm that Pelton feels incredibly empowered and in control of the situation. It also begs more questions.
Assuming that every other person, or even most of them involved in this story may be truthful, Mr. Pelton’s story is slanted in general and at times flatly untrue. Is it possible that everyone else is lying and Pelton alone is telling the truth? If one is to doubt Mr. Pelton’s veracity in the article, which is a conclusion that is reasonably reached, then what is the purpose of, “This article clearly sends a message to the public, congress and the military…?” What message? Why sell this message so strongly in the public forum? What is the goal? Why defend it so viciously against question from even a blogger who is unknown to the general public? What is worth such a ferocious defense?
Would it make his own intelligence services more marketable if HTS and its management were discredited? Was this article written to assist in furthering his business objectives?
Dr. McFate says, “I don’t feel proprietary about this. I believe in the concept and I want the Army to be successful. If Mr. Pelton feels that he can do this properly, then he can try. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Asked about the disturbance caused to the HTS at a very delicate time it its young history, Dr. McFate says, “It’s upsetting if this is an attempt to damage the program. This is not in the public interest.”
I’m calling this one a duck. You can rest assured, based on his previous behavior, that Mr. Pelton will bluster and bully and call it an eagle. He will demand retractions and apologies and insist that I print an apology and call it an eagle. It looks like a duck, it walks like a duck, and it quacks just like a duck.
Once you’ve filled in the numbered areas with the paints provided, tell me what picture you come up with. I bet it’s a duck.
You can vote at the top left of this page.
The people that Andrew Basevich calls “The Crusaders” and COL Gentile calls “True Believers,” the people who are committed to the concept that this war requires consummate counterinsurgency, are the geeks of the Army. The Army is an organization that has embraced an athletic form of elitism that has in many ways helped the organization to transform from the troubled post-Viet Nam Army of Carter to the capable and professional force of today. My whole career has been served under this transformation, from the early days of the revolution that Reagan demanded to the present day problems of embracing the geekery of COIN.
Make no mistake; the true COINdinistas are the major geeks of the Army and the supporting actors who operate with us. This is strange, because the Special Forces are the traditional home of the counterinsurgents in the Army. They are the ones who thrill to FID (Foreign Internal Defense… advising and mentoring) and those guys are never thought of as geeks. Snakeaters, voodoo practitioners, spooky types, perhaps; but not usually geeks. Those outside of the shadowy SF world who carry the sword and clown horn for COIN are geeks, though.
The geekiest of the geeks, the Nerd Mages, would have to be the Human Terrain Teams. “What,” you may ask, “are Human Terrain Teams?” You know, I’d explain it to you, but it’d probably make your eyes glaze over. “What,” you would ask, “do social scientists have to do with war?”
In the massive, conventional Desert Storm type warfare that our Army craves, not much. In a counterinsurgency on a complex human landscape like Afghanistan, they can help you plan your interactions and even missions and projects such as irrigation and electrical power. They help keep you from making the mistakes of the ugly American. They are civilians, very well educated, mostly all contractors. Most commanders see them as chicken bone readers and frequently ignore them. Many would rather consult a Ouji Board or an Eight Ball; but their information can be vital, and can save both blood and treasure. This is what is called an enabler. This information, shared down to the Soldier level, wields incredible power, becoming a combat multiplier.
That, of course, was an incredibly geeky thing to say.
Side note: have you ever read, The Ugly American? It makes a great impression… shows how smart people can screw up COIN from the get-go. It’s more from the USAID type perspective.
There is something horrible going on in Afghanistan. The Human Terrain Teams are being gutted by a massive change in the organization that is requiring many of these social scientists mapping out the complex social networks in local areas to take up to a 70% cut in pay, obviously as part of an economic stimulus package.
Or they can quit.
Many are quitting and going home. They can now find much safer work for more money and actually be appreciated.
Who was the mastermind behind this? Does GEN Petraeus know about this? Why is that mastermind someone not being suspended by the toenails, strung from rusty chains in a musty, dripping dungeon echoing with screams?
Why, just when we should be doing our best to embrace our inner geek or overcome our inner jock in order to master geekery in the name of duty, are we chasing away the Nerd Mages?
It’s almost like we are trying to screw this up.
Steven Featherstone’s article, advice “Human quicksand for the U.S. Army, patient a crash course in cultural studies,” in the September, 2008 issue of Harpers Magazine is a much more insightful piece of analysis than anything I’ve seen lately from journalists. Mr. Featherstone embedded with an HTT (Human Terrain Team) in Khost Province, Afghanistan in July, 2007 and came away with a valuable critique of our basic way of functioning in such an environment as Afghanistan.
Mr. Featherstone begins with a quip about what it’s like sitting around an airbase in Kuwait, waiting to fly into country. His depiction of the mental amusement that teams engage in when stuck in a holding pattern is a peek into the world of military teams in travel. You will find discussions and amusements like this in nearly any team (unless it is dysfunctional) in the Army as they transit into a combat zone.
He then launches into an examination of the foreign policy of President Bush and Condoleeza Rice to set the stage for why the U.S. Army is caught in the role of nation-builder.
This militarization of American foreign policy has not been some ad hoc response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. It began long before, and indeed it represents a fundamental realignment in how America deals with the rest of the world. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reveal how unprepared the military has been for its expanded mission, but the State Department has not reasserted itself in response: under Condoleeza Rice, the department has instead reoriented itself toward “transformational diplomacy,” a term she coined in a 2006 speech that outlined her vision of a department “that not only reports about the world as it is but seeks to change the world itself.” ~ Steve Featherstone
The HTT that originally deployed to Khost Province in February, 2007, briefed in Featherstone and the team he was with at FOB Salerno on the morning after Featherstone arrived there. Their in-brief included a detail that is quite significant; that team had originally been given a spce in the S-2 (Intelligence) section. This indicates how difficult it is to incorporate some key additions to counterinsurgency. I’m sure that no one really got buy-in from the brigade commander on whose staff this team found themselves. He put them where, at first blush, they seemed to fit. Wasn’t their job to feed him information on the “human terrain?”
Not really. It’s okay; he figured it out.
That June, the brigade conducted its first major combat maneuver, Operation Maiwand, in neighboring Ghazni province. The HTT went into the field for a month. Because they weren’t tied down by the exacting demands of combat, the team traveled in relative freedom to dozens of villages, holding impromptu shuras, or town meetings, with hundreds of Afghans in an effort to understand how the Taliban influenced the local population. What they discovered would be familiar to anyone who cares to read past the headlines. Taliban support stems from two endemic facts of Afghan life: extreme poverty and lack of security. The United States doesn’t have enough troops in Afghanistan to accomplish much beyond chasing Taliban and Al Qaeda militants from one hiding place to another, to say nothing of securing the country so that a functioning economy can take root.
One Afghan villager Rick spoke to put it more succinctly when asked why his village supported the Taliban. “‘How often do you come here?’” Rick said, paraphrasing the man. “‘Maybe once a year, twice a year? They’re here every other night. Who do I support? Who do I have to support?’” ~ Steve Featherstone
The quote above from the article is so much more important for the understanding of the mission in Afghanistan than most things found in popular journalism today. It is glossed over and forgotten in an article that now lies dormant in Harpers Magazine’s archive. It is not attracting attention, nor is it finding itself into the discussions of what is being cast more and more as a deep mystery that the western mind is incapable of cracking the code to.
Steve Featherstone has found the nut. He has found and articulated the basic block upon which a coherent strategy must be based. There is no doubt in my mind that GEN Petraeus has this figured out, as well as many high-ranking officers in the chain of command that reaches into Afghanistan. Mr. Featherstone has also pointed out the part that sets us up more for failure as much as any other factor; one horse is rigged to a two-horse cart. Great draft horse that it may be, the U.S. Army is not, should not, and may never be capable of comprehensive nation-building.
Mr. Featherstone then goes on to explain the basics of subornation in such an environment;
The team found no evidence of a blanket philosophy, either religious or cultural, that made Afghans sympathetic toward the Taliban. The Taliban bought their support from vulnerable populations, and the exchange took many forms. Young Afghan men earning $250 a year often had to go abroad to earn enough money—up to $10,000—to buy a wife; or they could take bribes from the Taliban to plant bombs. Poor families sent their sons to be educated in Taliban madrasas in Pakistan, and in return received a motorcycle or a cell phone. Orphaned boys were perhaps the cheapest Taliban recruits. An incensed Afghan official in one village presented Tracy with a boy who had wandered into the district governor’s compound a month earlier. The boy wore an explosive vest that the Taliban had told him would burst with flowers and candy, but he didn’t know how to make the vest work. ~ Steve Featherstone
Whoa. There is nothing there detailing generations of tribal rivalries, centuries of mountain redoubt militancy, or indefatigable Pashtun military supremacy. Oddly enough, with a little imagination (very little,) you could change a few words and illustrate the story of how a baby boy born into a poor neighborhood winds up as a lookout or a soldier for crack dealers. It’s not so difficult to understand people; but the first task is to see them as people, not as storybook characters in a Kipling tale.
Steve Featherstone captured that in a mainstream media publication. He analyzed the connection from the Presidential level all the way down to a kid with a suicide vest in Afghanistan, and managed to do it without calling forth Kiplingesque images of all-powerful Pashtun tribesmen slaughtering all who ventured forth.
He also managed to put his finger on the thorn in the side of the Army; my Army; kinetic vs non-kinetic operations in the warrior culture.
Before “culture” the military watchword was “transformation,” a term that was used to signify a leaner and more lethal fighting force—exactly the sort of force that is presently bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, Major General (retired) Robert Scales submitted a report on the Iraq War to the House Armed Services Committee titled “Army Transformation: Implications for the Future,” in which he argued that the U.S. military had ignored the war’s “‘cultural’ phase” that began in the spring of 2003. The signal to shift from combat to stability operations wasn’t subtle—Baghdad was being ransacked—but American soldiers and diplomats stood by while looters carted off Iraq’s cultural treasures, an event that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defined as an “untidy” exercise in free will. Recent changes in the military’s top leadership also reflect a belated awareness that we are not fighting Desert Storm II.
Robert Gates, who replaced Rumsfeld as defense secretary in December 2006, acknowledged that after the Vietnam War, “the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine, and budget priorities,” leaving it “unprepared to deal with the operations that followed” in Afghanistan and Iraq. General David Petraeus was appointed the top commander in Iraq in 2007 based on the perceived success he had achieved with the 101st Airborne in stabilizing Mosul. In a Military Review article he wrote about that experience, Petraeus asserts that “knowledge of the cultural ‘terrain’ can be as important as, and sometimes even more important than, knowledge of the geographic terrain… people are, in many respects, the decisive terrain.” ~ Steve Featherstone
Okay. That makes sense, but it does sound a bit weird. Featherstone follows it up;
All of this attention the military is lavishing on culture, however, threatens to suck Petraeus’s assertion dry of meaning—or, worse, to misapprehend culture as a thing that might be recognized by the latest targeting systems. People are not terrain; they do not behave like landscapes; culture is not a stable environmental feature like a mountain or a river. A closer analogy might be quicksand. It looks solid but it is not. This understanding is proving to be a real challenge for an army that has shown great difficulty in dealing with anything it can’t drive over, blow up, or fit onto a PowerPoint slide in time for the battle-update briefing.
“We’re good at killing people and breaking things,” Fondacaro said when he and I first spoke about the concept of HTT. “That’s what we do best, and that’s what our military decision-making process focuses on.”
The excruciating literalness of the Human Terrain Team’s name is a product of the excruciating rigidity of the system it is designed to change. ~Steve Featherstone
There are a lot of good people out there (in A’stan and Iraq and either returned or on deck waiting to go) who are serious about building a couple of functioning nations. It is their cause, and it makes every bit the impact of the guy who walks the Korengal with an M-4 and the spirit of a tiger. Some may say more. It is not up to me to ascribe who makes more of an impact. What I can tell you is that Steve Featherstone’s article comes so much closer than PBS’s Frontline in actually depicting the challenges of what we are up against in Afghanistan.
There is more;
…But commanders didn’t need yet another piece of hardware, and they felt they were already drowning in information. What they needed, Fondacaro told me, were “expert culturally focused people who understand the operational relevance of cultural knowledge.” ~ Steve Featherstone
Drowning in information. I can tell you that is true. There is so much intel gathered that it is hard to glean that which is pertinent from that which is a distraction. The data stream is wide and deep. Featherstone details the impact that this can have on a commander’s decision-making process and how a different, people-centric view alters that process.
In his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, in 2002, Schweitzer said he had been “focused singularly and myopically on the enemy.” Pashtunwali, or anything else related to Afghan culture, didn’t figure in his battle plan. Even if an HTT had been available five years ago, he wouldn’t have known what to do with it. “I would’ve used it to have a better understanding of the population so I could eliminate them,” he said. “You can do that with the HTT, but that doesn’t win the fight. What wins the fight is not having to shoot folks, is not having to create any kinetic operation, but to win the people through non-kinetic, non-lethal effects. It’s a balance.”
Schweitzer was unequivocal in his support for the HTT. He was conscious of how that might sound to his peers—“whacked,” was how he put it. But he assured me his enthusiasm was grounded in facts. Since February, his brigade had reduced kinetic operations by 60 percent in favor of “non-lethal forms and sets of maneuver,” which had reduced both American and Afghan casualties. ~ Steve Featherstone
“Whacked,” he says. Here is a guy who “gets it” who knows that his peers would see him as “whacked.” That says a lot.
Featherstone goes on to write about a MEDCAP (now called a “Medical Engagement,” in a small unfriendly village in the province. There is no shooting, there are no casualties. This is where the day-to-day work is often done. This is warfighting, too. Unfortunately, it is rare for such visits because of the strength of the forces on the ground. When civilians hear the call for more forces, this is the part that they don’t think of, but it’s this type of operation that has tremendous capability to make an impact on Afghan citizens and it’s not sexy. It doesn’t bleed; so it goes into the archive of the magazine with no fanfare and no snappy production values like the Frontline piece.
Featherstone does a fabulous job not only of getting out there as an embed, but also at actually digesting the information provided to him and presenting it coherently. This is the type of journalist who I wouldn’t mind having to “babysit” while he rides in the back seat of my humvee rolling through the Afghan villages. He would listen and observe and actually have a chance of understanding, rather than focusing on how goofy an ANP may look with sandals or gym shoes on with his ANP gray uniform.
Some of those who ride with Featherstone on that MEDCAP aren’t all the way there, but they are trying. The doctor isn’t all that interested in the Ensign’s picture of his son while he tried to explain the village’s situation, but it did no harm. The same man then goes on to attempt to distribute televisions in a village beset by Taliban who are persecuting villagers for watching television.
These are the small struggles of this war. Featherstone has portrayed the bulk of this war so much more accurately than an entire staff at Frontline, and he does it without being condescending or pointing fingers. He conveyed the situation and an American officer doing his best to make a difference without the benefit of a military establishment that is geared to train him to do so. He is thrown out there to either “get it” or not.
Many do. Many don’t. All are under-resourced, operating in small teams out in the middle of nowhere with little to offer. Televisions are nice, but I can tell you that the doctor was more concerned with security for his clinic and where his medicines would come from next than he was in watching TV. Still, the Ensign is not allowed to bring the doctor medicine. That is supposed to come through his government’s channels; it often doesn’t make it to his level. This is where the war is being lost.
As an aside, I can tell you that the doctor’s thanks, detailing all that the Americans were sacrificing, was heard pretty frequently in Afghanistan. Many Afghans thanked me with the same litany of what I was sacrificing for them; they believed it was for them. It was, in part, but there is so much more to it than that.
Featherstone shows the combination of kinetic and non-kinetic only a few words later;
No amount of cultural analysis was going to help the doctor. Fondacaro agreed. Security was a fundamental need, he said, like food and shelter. Without it, people like the doctor had been forced to make compromises, and all of our American platitudes and encouragement “didn’t mean shit.” Fondacaro leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. But we could look at the doctor’s predicament as an opportunity, he said. Everybody in the village knew the guy was getting night letters. If we “nailed” the Taliban one night, that would send a clear message.
“Who’s the audience? The people. If I demonstrate success in protecting this guy’s life against a known threat, and I win . . . ” Fondacaro paused and looked over his shoulder at the empty room. “Audience, what do you think? Everybody’s holding up nines: 9.5, 9.8. It’s simply a decision that’s got to be made.” ~ Steve Featherstone
Featherstone’s article could have been written in the Tag Ab Valley or in Nurguram. Everywhere I went, I saw the same little dramas. That’s what tells me that what he captured was a more accurate “Presidential briefing” than anything done on Frontline or in any other analysis by a journalist.
I’ve pointed out a number of times before that it seems odd to me that the Armed Forces are tasked with attempting to rebuild a society, to include its economy, when that is not what we are good at (read nearly incapable of.) Is America incapable?
America is more than capable. America wants the Army to do it. America doesn’t care enough to think outside the military box and send in those who can do those things. We have them in great numbers, but many of them do not work for the government. I wrote about American businessmen once and told them to take the little flag off of their desks. Perhaps I was too hard on them. The State Department could recruit them, but the businessmen who consider themselves to be patriots could also push from their side; but they are not heeding the call.
Perhaps that is because they don’t hear a call.
Perhaps no one is calling.
Featherstone points up the lack of other hands involved in his closing paragraphs. As opposed to Meo’s drama-filled last paragraphs in his recent ‘analysis,’ Featherstone brings it into focus with no hellishly dramatic cry.
Many have criticized the HTT’s and those who engendered them. To me, the failure in training our Army for the realities of counterinsurgency at ground level are a problem that I, as a soldier, would like to see addressed. The “Strategic Corporal” and the “Strategic Captain” must be trained to be strategic, not just people trained to break things and kill people sent to build, break, and when necessary kill, but to kill appropriately. That is so much harder to do than it sounds.
GEN Petraeus “gets it.” The generals who report to him will either get it or they will wind up doing other things, I’m sure. The question is; do the guys going into the villages get it? Are we training them to get it, or they left up to their own devices? Are we incapable, as an institution, of providing that level of training?
Are we really trying?
These are the issues raised by Featherstone’s reporting. They are incredibly germane. It’s amazing that anything so germane was actually published in a mainstream publication. What isn’t surprising is what little note America took of it. The real truth was right under its nose, but America doesn’t know what to look for and instead lauds Frontline for a dramatic piece of fluff that fails to portray the reality of Afghanistan.
Good job, Steve. I’d have you embed with my team any time.