Obviously, the posts this tour have been few and far between. There are a number of reasons for that, including the massive amount of information and knowledge that I’m exposed to. It’s hard to take it all and present it in a way that makes sense short of writing big papers about it. There are lots of complexities, interactions and initiatives. It’s difficult to gel them into concise pieces. There is also the factor of priorities. My ability to contribute and to influence events, meager though that ability may be, is more important than writing about what I see. The trust of my leadership in my discernment is more important than demonstrating or sharing what I have been exposed to, which is considerable.
I have been back in Afghanistan for about ten months now, and my perceptions have run the gamut during that time. There have been times that I have been so frustrated that I could spit. I have seen things from time to time that have just flat disgusted me. That being said, the overall trend is very positive.
I know that there are those who decry the changes in the Rules of Engagement that are nearly a year old now. Michael Yon has recently begun spreading what I can only describe as a meme about Soldiers patrolling around some corner of Afghanistan and being prevented by their command from chambering a round in their weapons. This is not and has never been the intent of COMISAF. If this is indeed true, which I have never seen or heard any evidence of, concealing the identity of the commander who has generated this type of directive is in itself a dangerous and irresponsible act. Personally, you would have to prove to me that anyone is actually doing that.
What I do see is more and more Soldiers and Marines doing their level best to apply creative solutions to complex tactical situations, both kinetic and non-kinetic. I see Soldiers and Marines, who could easily kill, sparing lives and leveraging local relationships by allowing communities to take a positive role in correcting their local citizens. A favorite example of GEN McChrystal, which I have personally heard him use, is the example of observing an individual emplacing an IED. In GEN McChrystal’s example, there is a choice; you can kill the individual, or since you already know where the IED is, you can arrest the man, neutralize the IED, and take the man to the village elders and offer them the opportunity to sort him out. It’s all about empowering the local authorities to make decisions and encouraging them to control their own populace. It’s also about the second and third order effects of the perceptions of that populace about their security when gunshots and explosions ring out in their neighborhoods.
Like you, gunshots and explosions in the neighborhood doesn’t make them feel safe.
Now, some may say that the live capture scenario would never work. The fact is that it’s been used and it has worked. Or, you can do like one Marine unit in Helmand did recently and send a simple, one-line report.
Observed one individual emplacing IED. Engaged with Hellfire.
The Hellfire option does work to resolve the initial issue. It kills reliably. It is also the knuckledragger’s first answer to the question. (This is not about Marines. The Marines are doing some really fine work in Helmand. Some units get it more than others, as is the case with the Army. It is about the action and the thought process, not the flavor of American servicemen involved in the incident.) Every action has second and third order effects. The knuckledragger will opt for the easy, pyrotechnic answer (“Ooooooh, sparkly!”). It takes much more thought and effort to use the other method. Now, granted, there is not always the opportunity to sort the man out while he still has all his pieces rather than just sorting the pieces of the man out later. But more and more often, units on the ground are making the harder call. That’s just the beginning.
Last year, I wrote that there are many things in Afghanistan that are not best addressed by the Army or Marines. Stability Operations, and their subset, COIN Operations, require actions that are not typically military. As I pointed out before, Afghanistan has governance and economic development issues that the Army is not best suited to addressing. Other organizations, such as the State Department and USAID, had not been leveraged in Afghanistan. Just as we needed a military “surge,” we needed a “civilian surge” as well.
The “civilian surge” has had some successes. A lot of bright, talented people have come into the country. Many came in with stars in their eyes and hearts full of noble purpose. Afghanistan quickly beats starry eyes out of a person. They either come to see reality or they quit. There are some self-evident examples of those who do not have the resilience, intelligence and courage to continually push against the seemingly Sisyphean rock, witness Matthew Hoh. Many of these bright, energetic people have come into the country with purpose and have integrated their spirit with the reality with very positive results. We need more of them, but the ones who have showed up are having some very positive effects. Using the District Stability Framework, they are doing systematic, logical program design instead of just going for the default answers typical of our earlier efforts; build a school, build a road, build a clinic.
These civilians brought capabilities that have expanded the capacity-building efforts necessary to heal Afghan society, the economy and establish governmental ability to provide basic services. Efforts at providing conflict resolution mechanisms that leverage traditional Afghan methods and structures are slowly chipping away at the primary service that Taliban shadow government has offered successfully in many areas; courts.
Are there still problems and misfires? Of course. But there are more instances of getting a 75% solution than there were several years ago. Is a 75% solution workable? Yes. You don’t have to be a perfect counterinsurgent. You don’t have to be faster than the bear. You just have to be faster than the next slowest guy. The insurgent in Afghanistan is not faster than the bear. The bear, in this case, is the populace. The populace, on the whole, doesn’t like the insurgent, therefore the insurgent is inherently slow. You just have to be faster than a guy who has hobbled himself and continues to hobble himself. So, this bear prefers to eat the other guy, but will eat you if you insist on being slower.
There is still considerable corruption in the Afghan government. This is a big problem which must be addressed. Is it being effectively addressed? Time will tell. It slows efforts to fix what is wrong, and fixing these wrongs, addressing those grievances, removes any traction other than intimidation that the insurgency has. There are numerous stories of successes and failures at the grassroots level. While they resent high-level corruption, which seriously dilutes redevelopment efforts, the Afghan people are most affected by failures at the grassroots level. The corrupt sub-governor is more of a threat, because of his direct influence on the perceptions of people at the district level, than the ministry level official who is skimming from contracting efforts at a national level. Both need to be addressed, but the most direct impact is made on the people by sorting out the district level actors. That doesn’t mean that both cannot be addressed simultaneously. There are signs of effort. Again, time will tell.
While there are examples of commanders who absolutely don’t get it, (such as a brigade-sized element who used old counter-guerrilla doctrine as their basis for training and were subsequently kicked out of their assigned operational area due to their overly kinetic focus and the resultant backlash from the local populace and insurgents) there are more units who are making an honest effort at conducting effective COIN operations. This is a very positive sign. The multinational operational environment makes for some serious challenges, the British and French in particular are making progress with using doctrine consistent with COMISAF’s intent. These are very positive indicators. I have had personal experiences with both and have worked directly with officers of the British and French armies both at the theater level schoolhouse and on the ground. I have generally positive experiences with them.
The best indicator of effort at the institutional level, as far as I’m concerned, is education and training. This is where many of the changes that are under way are first evidenced. Our own forces are the weather vane, but other nations are key as well. Institutional changes are very slow in coming. The Marines, with their smaller structure, find their ship easier to turn. The Army, on the other hand, is like turning a train where the tracks run straight. Very recent events are hugely encouraging. The Secretary of Defense just published a memo that puts in place a change mechanism to change the training model for units deploying to Afghanistan. I look for this to have a huge impact on the readiness of units deploying to the theater to conduct effective COIN operations by pushing the education to a point earlier in the deployment train-up cycle.
The effect of pushing the education piece earlier in the cycle is to inform training. Training is less effective without context. Putting the subsequent training into a context, a mindset if you will, educated in the principles that are to drive the behaviors will make the conduct more consistent. That’s not the extent of it. The actual tasks are about to change, including the methods. Folks, we are seeing the development of task, conditions, standards-based training for COIN. This is the way that military forces know how to train.
In reality, it’s the way that industry trains effectively as well. Industrial training methods are based on lessons learned from military training. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. The military had to figure out long ago how to quickly and effectively train groups of people to do tasks consistently.
I’ve had a number of opportunities to see units in action on the ground from the organizational level to the dusty boots level. I’ve been in a position to hear directly the experiences of others just like me who have been elsewhere simultaneously. I have seen and heard the amazing successes and the abject failures. I am encouraged. I am disheartened to hear some reporters whose depictions are clouded by an apparent lack of counterinsurgent understanding and, in some casees what appears to be petulant anger. I am disheartened because the American people are searching for answers. Many thirst for understanding of what is happening on the ground. More than just individual stories of sacrifice, endurance and courage, the American people want to know; is this working? Are we making progress? What they have gotten is often not a coherent answer, and it is at odds with my perceptions.
I am encouraged. As an NCO, I have no right whatsoever to evaluate such an officer, but someone who knows has to say something out loud; there is no doubt in my mind that I am being led by the the right man for the job. There is no doubt in my mind that the General “gets it.” There is no doubt in my mind that I can trust him. (I’m sure he will feel so much better to get my lowly endorsement.) There are many challenges to functioning effectively in such a joint, multinational environment, but there is progress. We are having positive effects on a much more consistent basis. Our training is about to take a quantum leap. There is improvement in the Afghan contribution to all three lines of operation; military/security, governance and development. It’s not just an “Afghan face,” it’s increasingly Afghan solutions implemented with assistance… and sometimes without. It is hard. This summer will look, at times, desperate. That’s because our enemy is feeling the pressure. Don’t let the activity fool you. Look beyond it, and look beyond the desperate reporting as well.
We’re not “there” yet, but we’re making progress, and there is reason for optimism.
Steven Featherstone’s article, “Human quicksand for the U.S. Army, 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.
The past week has been full of excitement in the Milblog community. There has been amazing closing of the ranks in the Afghanistan community and beyond. Nick Meo has attracted as much attention as a marauding bear in a hive of bees.
I have to admit that I feel quite small in this community. I’m certainly not the best known of the bloggers, and as my Sitemeter will testify, I have not been visited by nearly as many people as the more established blogs. However, after this week, it will never feel the same to me. I don’t feel nearly as isolated, and has been an awesome demonstration of the power of little guys.
It’s not the little blogger who really has the power. You do. You who are reading this right now have more power than you think. Many of you have written to the Telegraph and Nick Meo and have let them know of your displeasure at Meo’s self-centered, lying, and insulting bit of “journalism.”
Your voice has been, and is being heard. Keep it up, please. As General Nathan Bedford Forrest once said, “Put the skeer on ‘em, and then keep up the skeer!” I’ll put the email addresses at the end of this post again. Please go ahead and cut and paste them into an email to both Nick Meo and the Telegraph and send them another note; keep up the skeer.
It’s working. Nick Meo is crying to fellow journalists in Afghanistan, explaining and justifying himself in his best Meoist manner. The Telegraph is trying to find a way to diffuse the situation. Don’t let them just make it go away. Demand that they change their ways by never printing another report by Meo from a war zone. Send that “journalist” home and let him piss off the local dog show judges. Our men and women in harm’s way don’t need that type of distraction. Seriously.
The mainstream media has dropped the ball in many ways in this conflict. As GEN McKiernan points out, the media takes a slant and runs with it. Nick Meo’s brand of reporting is only an extreme version of this, but there have to be some boundaries, some responsibility.
Realize this; you are, by virtue of visiting this lonely blog, not like the vast majority of consumers of news. The vast majority get their news from mainstream outlets and do not even question it. If they do question, it is only vaguely, for they don’t take the time to look under the rocks like you do. You have turned over this rock, for instance. There are others; more informative, more anthological, more informed, even more opinionated. There is a wealth of information out here on the web for those who seek it. You are a seeker.
Most are not.
That is why the MSM actually has a responsibility. They, whether they admit to it or not, shape opinion at the grassroots level. For the vast majority, they are the information superhighway. They are the educators and the informers; and they are screwing us over in their depiction of the world in which we live.
People like to blame others for the way that we are perceived in the world, just like they like to blame others for having too much personal debt. The world calls us ignorant because, by and large, we are. Why?
Garbage in, garbage out.
We are ignorant because we are ill-informed or misinformed. Canadians have been more up to speed on Afghanistan for the past seven years than we have. Why? Because they have been informed about it. It’s been all over their news. They’ve got skin in the game. Why did Afghanistan become the “forgotten war?” Because our MSM couldn’t be bothered to report effectively on two campaigns at once; and because they couldn’t get enough of the doom and gloom and what seemed to be American embarrassment in Iraq. Now that Iraq seems to be headed in a positive direction, attention has shifted to Afghanistan. Lo and behold; gloom and doom.
Hell, Afghanistan was there all along; it didn’t just magically reappear. Ask any soldier who was there when it was “forgotten.” People like Bouhammer were warning that the Taliban were regrouping a couple of years ago. The MSM? Not so much. Trust me, Iraq is still there. It still has its problems, too.
Demanding better from our MSM starts with demanding better from the reporters who are there. Nick Meo is a great example of someone who needs to be chastened (read “sent home,”) but as GEN McKiernan pointed out, we are not getting an accurate depiction of the situation on the ground over there. Why are the best reporters in theater independents?
Why are the Yons and Kestersons anomalies?
Because we allow it. We don’t hold our outlets accountable. We don’t make the effort to force them to quit feeding us garbage. Your answer is to find your own fresh brain food. Good answer. It doesn’t help the vast majority out there to actually know what is going on beyond the number of my brothers and sisters who risked all and had their bet taken. Casualty numbers are horrifying when there is no apparent gain from it; no reason to give.
It’s a big job to force the MSM to be responsible in their reporting. Maybe it’s too big. But here we draw a line; slandering our troops who have proven themselves for over six months in what is arguably Afghanistan’s most dangerous province and dishonoring their dead will not be tolerated. We may not be able to force the MSM to tell us more than that the number of attacks are up; like telling us how the government of Afhganistan actually has some patriots on its side. We may not be able to force them to tell the story of hard fought tiny successes that should show us that there are some there who “get it” and are accomplishing something for the people of Afghanistan. We may not be able to force the MSM to help us correlate how happy villagers in a little valley in Afghanistan translate into security for our children when they go to the mall or when we take them to a major sporting event; to tell us why we should care. Maybe we can’t do that.
By God, we can hold them responsible for lying about our soldiers to make themselves look like little heroes. We can tell them that their hurt feelings are no justification for trying to paint men who go in harm’s way in tiny numbers, and pay for it, to look like boobs.
It’s working, but don’t stop now. Send an email if you haven’t. If you have, send another. Keep up the skeer.
Keep an eye on Susan Katz Keating’s blog. In the very near future she will be putting out some new developments in what she has named, “l’affaire Meo.”
In the meantime, here are the email addesses again. Take General Forrest’s advice.
Notice that I put them there so you can just grab them both and put them on the same address line. Let’s be upfront and show them that we are lambasting them with equanimity. Oh, and try to keep it civil but uncompromising. No need to threaten; just let them know that we find them, for lack of a better word, reprehensible; but they can solve that by sending Meo home to report on dog shows.
This is having an impact. It’s actually a significant event; making a difference.
It’s not the power of the blog; it’s the power of the blog reader.
Many factors go into the new focus on Afghanistan, including the perception that the end of our deep involvement in Iraq is in sight, the increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and the focus brought upon the mission by statements and policy projections made during the presidential campaign. Afghanistan has been seen as “the good war,” even as it ground on as “the forgotten war.” The new focus has brought, and is bringing, changes.
While both candidates seem to agree that a renewed effort is required in Afghanistan, any increase in troop strength brings more than just capability on the ground. Afghanistan is resurfacing in the minds of average Americans, where it had lain dormant in their perceptions. In my own experience; when I informed my co-workers of my upcoming deployment, one of them actually asked me, “Is there still a war in Afghanistan?” Iraq was the subject of discussion, media and perception, but not Afghanistan.
Many of us who served there felt as if we were engaged in an unnoticed task. We felt that pointing out any opportunities for improvement, any discussion of where the mission was at risk, any indication that more was needed; all were wasted exercises. No one was paying attention.
Now America’s consciousness has become aware of Afghanistan anew, as if awakening from a daydream. Discussion of Afghanistan begins with the new attention being paid by the media, who are latching on to statements made by public officials from various countries, including our own. Headlines quoting our own Chairman of the Joint Chiefs saying that we are not winning (leaving off the part where he said that we can,) seemingly compete with statements by British Generals and French diplomats. The theme is all gloomy.
America awakens to the gloomy news, wiping the sand of Iraq out of its eyes to find something new to become depressed about; and a mysterious new enemy that everyone already thought had been destroyed. The Taliban’s “miraculous” resurgence came as a big surprise to everyone except those who had been intimately involved in Afghanistan before America’s trance like fixation on Iraq was broken.
The truth is that the Taliban were never destroyed; they escaped. A budding new government needed to exert itself over a land that had not had a unified government since the days of its last king. Even the vaunted Taliban had not controlled the entire country, nor did they enjoy the support of the majority of the population.
Without going through the entire history of the mission to assist in the establishment of a functioning government in Afghanistan and to rebuild some semblance of a working state, there is one point to be made; the Afghan mission has been run on a shoelace. Every commander in Afghanistan has stated that more is needed.
In each case, more was not to be had. We were fixated on Iraq and the need to be proven right in the face of vocal opposition. It was the political hot spot, the proverbial squeaky wheel. Iraq was the focus of government and media; and therefore the consciousness of America.
The consciousness of a nation is no different than the consciousness of a single person. We all depend on our senses to determine what is around us, to perceive the world in which we exist. For the public, our senses are limited. The information available boils down to what we are presented with easily and that which is not as easily available but can be found through other means, such as the internet.
Like this blog and others like it.
I would submit that the vast majority of people do not seek further information other than what is made easily available; MainStream Media. Other than a few veterans who have returned to Afghanistan at this point in a series of pivotal moments in the Afghan mission, many in the media are new to Afghanistan and the insurgency there. Afghanistan’s insurgency is greatly different from the one in Iraq. Of course the terrain is entirely different, but so are the human and political terrains.
Now the pundits turn their attention to Afghanistan and, being largely unfamiliar, they do their quick study job and come forth with Kiplingesque pronouncements about Afghanistan, Afghans, the tribes, Pashtuns, and the Taliban. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert.
Their nods to Rudyard Kipling, the British Army of the 1800’s, and the Soviets of the 1980’s are gripping tales. They set the Afghan upon a pedestal as some mysterious, unbeaten, somehow invincible foe. Gloomy pronouncements are seized upon by the other voice that had previously used Afghanistan to their purpose in opposing Iraq; the war protester voice. Iraq having lost the limelight for the present, they turn their gaze to Afghanistan as well. Now, it is to bring their ire to bear on this campaign; for there really is no good campaign to them.
“So Afghanistan now is the good war. He (Obama) needs to prove, as a Democrat, that he too can kill brown people.” – Nir Rosen
Being the obscure campaign was good for Afghanistan in that regard. Being the “good war” to juxtaposition against the “bad war” in Iraq was good for Afghanistan. No one was publicly questioning, no one was spreading defeatist propaganda to sway public opinion against the NATO mission in Afghanistan; not in the United States.
That has all changed.
Between those whose interest lies in discrediting anything that has US stenciled on it and those who write “informed” opinions educated by a quick jaunt through the garden of the internet and perhaps a couple of books on Afghanistan, this conflict is being painted as another venture into a mysteriously powerful man-eating machine, like the jungles of Viet Nam and the indefatigable “Charlie.”
Bullshit. I’ve thrown the flag.
Afghanistan is no land of deep and abiding imponderable mystery. Most assuredly, they are a proud people with a long history. The landscape of Afghanistan is dramatic, and the society of Afghanistan is an ancient lifestyle emerging into the 21st Century on crutches. Crippled by ancient practices that are not complicated, the only thing that is difficult to make sense of quickly is the tangled web of relationships in a seemingly undefined mass. Most are boggled by the intermingling of interests and allegiances and just walk away shaking their heads and spouting mysticism.
That’s the easy answer; the intellectually lazy answer. Look, Afghans do not have some secret superiority. They are simply survivors. No one has conquered Afghanistan for Afghanistan. Many have conquered Afghanistan; but they were on their way to somewhere else, or they were there to interfere with or foil someone other than the Afghans. The most notable exception to this was the Russians, and they were doomed to failure by two things; the atheistic nature of communism and the brutality of their methods.
The Afghans are tough; no doubt about it. They have to be tough to survive, and they are above all survivors. They are smart, even though most of them can’t read. Here’s the best part; many of them are on the side of the IRoA. Remember, 60% of all Afghans are not Pashtuns, and not all Pashtuns are Taliban. Many of the Mujaheddin from the Soviet days are sitting this one out or working with the government because they believe that the coalition is not there as an occupation force, but as an assistance force to help the infant IRoA survive the birthing pains of coming to being under the pressure of the Taliban, who will not go quietly into that good night of history.
Here’s what I can tell you about Afghans; they are people. They have a culture that is different from ours in many respects, but it is not rocket science to learn their culture and be respectful of it even if we disagree or don’t understand it. Afghans hate arrogance. You can show an Afghan a good way to do something and they will adopt it, if it works better, because they are supremely utilitarian. If you try to force them to do it your way, you are in for a struggle.
Afghans are not some strange otherworldly creatures, although many would be happy for you to believe that they are. They are neither Predator nor Alien. They are people who can and do learn. Most are good, some are bad, and most just want to be safe, have some hope of justice, and be left alone. The ones who can provide them with that will gain their support and who wins that struggle wins the war. Everything should be done with that in mind.
Our leaders need to avoid the intellectual laziness of the legion of MSM pundits, who have never spent a night in an Afghan village, who have never sat in a shura and who have never been served chai and opinions from a real Afghan on a rug laid over dirt. Spouting geopolitical pablum while ignorant of the concerns of the Afghan villager is to completely miss the point.
Keep this in mind; we are not trying to conquer Afghanistan. We are attempting to help Afghanistan conquer itself. I’ve been there, I know what my efforts were directed towards and what I was directed to do, and it was all in that vein. No matter what conspiracy theories you hear or what Taliban or HiG propaganda says; I was never there to conquer, I was never there to occupy anything other than my own personal space. I was there to help Afghans conquer their own country, and there were plenty of them who were grateful for that help.
The MSM has a responsibility to this nation, to be part of our senses, and to portray what is going on without waxing Kipling on us. Come on, guys, knock it off and actually learn about what you are talking about without spinning it to please your own sensibilities. Do your job. I’ll know you get it when you start sounding like some of the independent journalist types who are there now. When you start sounding like Kesterson or Yon, then I will know that you get it.
I won’t hold my breath. The only thing that would accomplish is to make me pass out.
What does “victory” look like in Afghanistan? That’s another story, perhaps next.
The latest post, below and made only early this morning, is significant news. It is news from a small valley in Afghanistan which is both a microcosm of the Global War on Terror and a crucial battle in establishing a secure, democratic, and independent Afghanistan.
The Tag Ab Valley is relatively close to Kabul. It follows a generally north-south axis starting near the town of Surobi (sometimes spelled “Sarobi,”) and runs north to Nijrab. The districts of Kapisa Province north of the Nijrab District are peaceful and contrast strongly with the southern districts of Nijrab, Tag Ab, and Ala Say (sometimes spelled “Ala Sai” or Alah Say.”)
In the spring of 2007, the Tag Ab Valley was an area that experienced occasional encroachments by American Special Forces and Afghan National Army troops. The major operations that had been conducted in the valley to that point had been clearing operations followed by an absence of any stay-behind forces, save for a Special Forces camp at what was known at the time as Firebase Nijrab. An ANA force in approximately company strength could also be found at Firebase Nijrab, now known as Firebase Morales-Frazier.
The Taliban and HiG controlled the southern half of the Nijrab District, nearly all of Tag Ab District and all of Ala Say District. The only island of IRoA (Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) control in Tag Ag was a tiny area around the District Center. The Taliban would occasionally surround the District Center and besiege the local ANP for an entire day, just to show them who was boss. In May of 2007, the Taliban publicly hung an Afghan official in the town square. He was an official in the Afghan intelligence agency.
The Tag Ab Valley, with its large HiG (larger, in fact, than the Taliban) presence, was full of opium. It is an historic smuggling route, circumventing passage through Kabul by bypassing to the north at Surobi.
Surobi is a lovely little town on the Naghlu Reservoir. Nestled into the rising terrain south of the reservoir and straddling the strategic J-bad Highway which connects Kabul and Jalalabad, Surobi seems almost Mediterranean in its charm. It is also the site of last month’s ambush on French forces that left 10 dead and 21 wounded.
It’s a beautiful, strategic, dangerous little town anchoring the southern end of this historic smuggling route.
Surobi is also a key link in another kind of smuggling; the smuggling of suicide bombers into Kabul.
Suicide bombers, either wearing explosive vests or driving VBIED’s (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices,) are the biggest threat to security in Kabul. Tag Ab has been a traditional staging area for such attacks. It has been a place where attacks on Kabul can be planned, organized, and the forces marshaled.
Tag Ab is a key valley. It is the closest hardcore Taliban stronghold to Kabul, and the terminus for the infiltration of weapons, explosives, foreign fighters and money.
It is not the only key valley in Afghanistan, but it one with which I am personally intimate. To me, right now, it is the symbol of how woefully ignorant our own press is; and by extension, the American people, of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
Confirmation was released by CJTF 101 just a couple of days ago that one of the key Taliban commanders in Tag Ab was killed on August 5th near the town of Tag Ab in this strategic valley. Qari Nejat was a key thorn in our side for the entire time I was in Afghanistan. He was the most effective and active Taliban commander in the valley.
We didn’t even know what he looked like. This guy was like Pancho Villa, Geronimo, and Osama bin Ladin all wrapped up into one. He was ethereal; a vicious ghost who glided through the valley and was always a step ahead of us. Evidence of his actions against the coalition, IRoA forces (both ANA and ANP,) and the local populace was as consistent as the tides; from ambushes to burning Police checkpoints to summary beheadings, Qari Nejat was credited with a lot of violence.
He was a key player in a key battle in a key valley; and the only Americans who ever heard his name were either there or read this blog. That is patently ridiculous. I’m sure that this isn’t the only instance of this. Beyond sure, I am absolutely positive. This is part of what I wrote about in my post called “Information Operations.”
Since my return home, I’ve been stunned by the lack of knowledge, concern, and investment that many, the greatest perecentage actually, of my fellow citizens have towards the war. Because of its nature, and because the privations of the war are only acutely felt by service members, it is easy for the average Joe and Jane to continue their daily lives as if we weren’t in any kind of serious struggle. The delusion of incontrovertible safety, apparently cracked but not shattered by 9/11, has once again settled on the Land of the Free.
The war has become a bother, and it has finally caused pain for the average American, who several years in the past howled for vengeance for 9/11, demanded that the government fulfill its mandate to provide for the common defense, and cried out in near unison for the blood of not just Osama but of Saddam Hussein as well. Revise your personal history if you will, but I lived those days here in the States, surrounded by my fellow citizens, and I heard the cries and received the emails full of belligerent jokes and vitriolic cartoons. I watched in slow motion as the nation whipped itself into a frenzy and the UN agreed that Saddam had a deadline to completely submit or face action.
Now it has hurt the economy. Now it has driven (among such factors as a surging Chinese middle class with a new found ability to operate vehicles with internal combustion engines) the price of oil up. Now it has reversed the trend and piled up a significant debt.
Wars are expensive. The war became tedious on television news and the sensationalization of the American death toll became a daily litany that constantly reminded the American public that we were decisively engaged in a protracted effort. The initial love affair between the press and the military, expressed through embedded reporting, was brief. The reporting, of dubious quality in many cases, trickled off; and there were altercations. Reporters don’t like OPSEC.
What was supposed to be, in the minds of the public whose minds had been informed by their press, a brief and surgical beheading of the government of Iraq followed by a joyous resurgence of democratic principles became an insurgency. Roadside bombings fed with the artillery shells we had left laying around in our blitz to Baghdad became daily fair in the news as the soldiers struggled to stay on top of the new gun/armor spiral.
Concurrently, in Afghanistan, we began to train a new Afghan National Army. Afghanistan held their first elections and successfully negotiated the forming of a new Constitution. The Taliban and their ilk, still reeling from the loss, were still making a game of it.
The American press retired to the Green Zone and to Kabul. They hired local stringers and reported only on death and destruction. Of particular interest were the wrongs that inevitably become part of the landscape of war. Abu Ghraib, dead civilians, the overreactions of young soldiers and Marines in stressful situations all grabbed headlines.
If it bleeds, it leads. If it stinks, it’s ink.
Americans were hungry to understand what was occurring. As the most clearly articulated reason for the invasion, WMD’s, were not discovered America sat shocked and felt lied to. The hugest failure of the American government was in not backing up their reasoning with the stated policy that governments who sponsored terror were subject to being held accountable to the point of regime change; but that policy was not cited until well afterwards and weakly at that.
The efforts in Afghanistan languished in near-obscurity while the national interest was drawn to the spectacle in Iraq, and news of both amounted primarily to journalists citing stringers and editorializing on what was being presented to them.
There were rare instances of journalists who actually did their jobs. Many, like Michael Yon and Scott Kesterson were independents. Some, like Michael, had military backgrounds and reported what they saw fairly and through the glasses of understanding the military from the inside. While not sugar-coating the war or those who were fighting it, neither did he sensationalize the image of a brutal occupation of some “peace-loving country” by a bunch of jack-booted thugs or paint our soldiers as pitiful victims of imperialist desires gone horribly awry.
Michael Yon and Scott Kesterson were not published widely in mainstream outlets.
Our media has not done their job in this war. They have not been the “go-to” source for information on what has been happening, on what has been done. While they have learned to spell the word “insurgency,” and later to spell “counterinsurgency,” they have not educated themselves to any degree in what these actually are. They couldn’t recognize a decent counterinsurgent if they sat on his lap. They have had no grip on the flow of fighting nor have they had, on other than a very simplistic level, an idea of what was and was not strategically important.
All the while, they’ve been informing the average American. It would be more accurate to say that they have been misinforming, disinforming, and uninforming the average American, who has a tendency to trust powerhouses like the major networks, CNN, and the major print outlets to actually do their jobs.
It’s been pretty hit or miss. I would contend, and I will cite the example of Tag Ab, that it’s been more miss than hit. I would also contend that Americans do not understand the truth about the investment that they have been making in national security, and that perhaps if they had a feeling of sacrifice for something they could understand, the massive resentment that is currently felt would be somewhat ameliorated.
It’s not that the information isn’t available. It is. The truest picture of what’s going on in the two theaters of this war is not available on the US MSM, though. It’s not likely to be the person who reads this post who is woefully ill-informed as a citizen of the United States; it’s the millions who don’t even know it exists.
As much as I celebrate those who surf the blogosphere in search of enlightenment, I don’t blame Joe Sixpack for not doing so. Joe’s got a life, a job, a family, and concerns. He may only have time for his nightly shot of news on the MSM outlet of his choice.
I shouldn’t be a source of news. I should be where some interesting stories are told; some additional information shared. The added touch.
As near as I can tell, there are only four “outlets” in the United States who have reported on the (above detailed as significant) death of Qari Nejat. One is me and the others are The Long War Journal, Battlefield Tourist, and The Thunder Run. Four blogs.
And that, my friends, is ridiculous.
A reporter should know what is significant in the country in which he is stationed; period. For the MSM reporters in Afghanistan to not understand the significance of Tag Ab, and for them to therefore be ignorant of the significance of the death of one such as Nejat is inexcusable. It shouldn’t have necessarily been front-page news, but it should have been newsworthy.
It’s in a near-vacuum of real information that our nation’s citizens are asked to sacrifice economically to follow this effort through to completion. We view ourselves as being an information-driven nation, but Joe is being treated like a mushroom.
He’s being kept in the dark and fed shit.
Is it any surprise that the number one concern of Americans is to bring home the troops within one year? Joe doesn’t even really know what has been going on over there. What’s worse is that he thinks he does. It’s not like it doesn’t get mention; but that mention paints nothing of the real picture. Tag Ab is a perfect example.
Guess what? The French media may actually be doing their jobs. Dig this:
US-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan have killed five Taliban subcommanders in recent weeks, including a bomb-maker and two behind the August 18 attack that left 10 French soldiers dead, they said.
“Coalition forces have positively identified five Taliban subcommanders killed during operations over the past month in Kapisa province,” the Coalition said in a statement from Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, and released in Washington.
Among the five were Ahmad Shah and Mullah Rohoullah, killed with six others by airstrikes in Nijrab district on August 30 after coalition forces ran into armed resistance while searching a compound.
Both were heavily involved in helping move weapons and foreign fighters into Afghanistan, the statement said, as well as facilitating Taliban operations, including the August 18 ambush on the French patrol.
Ten French soldiers were killed and another 21 injured in the attack by about 100 Taliban in Sarobi, 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Kabul.
It was the deadliest ground battle for international soldiers in the country since they toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
Coalition forces said that on August 23 they killed subcommanders Khairullah Nezami and Qari Ezmarai in Tag Ab district.
Nezami, they said, helped to arrange the making and planting of bombs and coordinated the movement of suicide bombers in the Taliban network.
A fifth subcommander, Qari Nejat, was killed together with four additional insurgents in an operation in Nijrab district on August 5.
The Coalition linked Nejat with the July 21 suicide bombing in the Tag Ab bazaar that injured six Afghans, the July 16 kidnapping of three Afghan policemen in Jalokhel, and the torture and beheading of an Afghan on June 30.
It’s not just about killing Taliban. There is so much more being done than killing. There is a deeper story behind the killing of Nejat that speaks volumes to the efficacy of what we’re doing in Afghanistan and by extension in Iraq. I’ll address this soon, as it’s a topic in its own right.
The worst thing that could possibly happen to the people of Afghanistan would be if we killed Osama bin Laden tomorrow. Joe Sixpack, thinking that this whole effort has been simply to hunt down Osama, will suddenly start wondering what the hell we’re doing in Afghanistan and in the information vacuum that is our MSM will come to the conclusion that its not much. He in his millions will demand the immediate cessation of all efforts and return to within our borders.
And the fledgling dream that is Afghanistan will surely die.
On August 5th, 2008, the people of the very strategic Tag Ab Valley in Kapisa Province got a present; their own little Osama personified in Qari Nejat went to meet his maker. On September 4th, the news of positive identification was released to all media by CJTF 101, and on September 5th it was widely reported in the French media and even the Chinese media; and by four blogs in the United States.