First, I’d like to announce a new blog, Afghan Blue III, which will be more about the experience than about COIN. Of course, the way that I perceive things is affected by what I know, like anyone. This blog will continue as what it has become.
I will be back in Afghanistan within the next day or so. On the way in, my perception is that Afghanistan is more complex and convoluted than ever. COIN is discredited in the United States. We are seeking the door, looking for a way to claim some sort of victory or wash our hands of responsibility for any potential insurgent success. Domestic politics drives our strategy, election timeliness hold sway over operational considerations. Our allies follow our lead, happy to be relieved of the burden. Our Afghan allies seek to firm up their personal retirement plans, seeking external refuge in greater numbers. The insurgents see light at the end of the tunnel, vindicated in their approach of waiting us out.
The French have cried uncle after a pair of green-on-blue incidents, giving insurgents the message that Afghans in uniform shooting Coalition soldiers will hasten the withdrawal of foreign forces, speeding the day when it is insurgent vs. lone government.
It’s not looking good, folks.
Secretary Panetta is in Brussels, outlining the shift from combat units to advisors, to be completed in 2013. This is a good thing. Major maneuver units have possibly done as much harm as good over the years. The titles, “battlespace owner,” and, “land owner,” have given some Coalition officers a sense of entitlement and stand-alone decision-making authority that have made assistance forces feel like occupation forces. This fight has always been an Afghan fight. The drivers of instability have always been Afghan drivers. Some of our well-meaning efforts have been productive; some have contributed to dysfunction.
Our military has never been of a single mind in its approach to this fight. Our government has been lopsided in its approach, heavily weighted towards military effort in a struggle which is primarily a contest for the right to govern. The most progress had been made by advisors, but these successes have mostly been with Afghan security forces. Most Afghans struggling with governance have had little or no mentoring or advising. Shifting back towards an advisory role with the security forces is appropriate. Unfortunately the governance piece will still lack manpower and emphasis.
Perhaps Afghan line ministry employees will magically develop professionally, but likely not. Inept governance creates a supply-and-demand system that stimulates corruption and decreases incentive to become more effective. Better to keep prices high and provide more limited service than to service everyone equally and accept only one’s base pay.
If governance does not improve, security will be impossible to maintain.
As we sit in Manas awaiting transportation to Afghanistan, those leaving Afghanistan share stories of their recent experiences in places I have served. Areas once fairly pacified have slid into hellish instability. The road from Methar Lam to Kalagush, once fairly secure, is now seeded densely with IED’s. Ceding Kunar to the insurgents gave the internal safe haven that brought greater violence to Laghman.
Soldiers express disgust with Afghan farmers who fail to warn them of IED’s. No doubt those farmers resent the renewed vigor of insurgents in their neighborhoods, feeling the decline in security to be the failure of the foreigners in their ever-larger armored vehicles.
Only the homeward-bound Marines express any sense of optimism that their sacrifices are bearing fruit. I have yet to find one Marine grateful to the urinating snipers for that recent contribution to the legacy of the Marines in Afghanistan, by the way. I did speak to one who knew those Marines in the video. He expressed surprise, saying no one in his unit would have believed it had they not seen the video. None of those Marines had bragged about the feat in-country. It seems that only those safely at home feel congratulatory towards the urinating Marines. Those who were painted by that brush in Afghanistan were less than thankful, at least among those I’ve spoken with. While a limited sampling, it was unanimous. None thought it funny.
While the Marines passing in the opposite direction are proud of their efforts, the Army Soldiers are obviously relieved to be out, but much less optimistic that what they have done makes a difference. They mostly express dislike for Afghans and frustration with them. They brag about the punishment their units suffered, about how many kills they have. They almost universally express disdain for Afghan forces. The Marines discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the ANA and ANP (now referred to as the AUP, or Afghan Uniformed Police), while Soldiers express loathing and little else.
I’m not alone in this perception. Taco, another member of my team, made the same observation. I have my opinions about the reasons for the difference in attitudes, but there is no doubt that there is a difference.
These are some of my thoughts as I await the flight that will carry me to my last tour of duty in Afghanistan.
The mighty (ahem) 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team has completed its rotation at the National Training Center at Ft Irwin, CA. Lost in the vastness of the Mojave Desert, the NTC is iconic. This was the ground that sharpened the spear during the Cold War and prepared the most awesome land force ever fielded for the brutally swift victory of Desert Storm. The elite Krasnovian (politically incorrect to actually call them, “Russians,” even at the height of the Cold War) motorized and tank units thundered across the desert, taking on all comers and humbling most. Commanders have been broken at the NTC. Commanders have lost their commands at the NTC. The NTC was known for a level of realism that could not be matched elsewhere.
In an earlier post, I feted the NTC as one of the winners in the training that is leading up to deployment. Following the rotation, I’d have to give it a mixed grade. Of course, we threw the NTC a curve ball on short notice. Our mission has changed from that of a full Brigade Combat Team to one whose primary job is supporting Security Force Assistance, or “SFA.” This is exactly what the Afghans need, but it is not what an IBCT is configured for. Even with that curve thrown in with short notice, my earlier excitement waned quickly.
The hybrid, quickly adapted scenario fielded by the NTC demonstrated that the Center is still focused on kinetics. The first part of the rotation was comprised of Situational Training Exercises, “STX’s” or “lanes” as they were called, every one of which ended in gunfire. One attempted KLE (Key Leader Engagement) developed into a gunfight literally within seconds after the group going through the lane made contact with their “Afghan” counterparts.
To their credit, many of the “Afghans” were actual Afghans. Some had been in the US for many years, some for a few years, and some had been raised in US, the children of Afghan immigrants. Speaking Dari again with native speakers was nice, and it was good training.
The NTC built in many “inputs” into the scenarios that could have developed into more, shall we say, “well-rounded” COIN, but those inputs were largely undiscovered by the brigade and the battalions which comprise it. While a number of the OCT’s who were assigned to the Security Force Assistance Team advisors brought a lot to the table, somehow the overall feel of the rotation was still very kinetic, and even the “injects” (behavioral/informational scripted plot twists executed by the role players) were aimed at specific responses that the OCT’s wanted to see from the brigade and its elements. That is all fairly normal, but many of the injects regarded highly kinetic activities to an excessive degree.
The role players who played the Afghan staff which we worked with were capable of a great degree of realism, to the point that some of the exercises had the feel of what I did in Kapisa in 2007. This part of the training was very valuable. Overall, the realism of the local politics was absent. Of course, it’s really difficult to know, because much of the informational stimuli built into the overall scenario apparently went undiscovered.
The rotation was not a confidence-builder for the brigade. That is not the entirely the fault of the staff of the NTC, but the overall scenario was unbalanced. While some of the facilities were truly amazing, like the city in the desert with all of the facilities you would find in a city the size of perhaps Methar Lam, the actual life of that city was poorly developed. The slogging, detail-oriented work of COIN was not replicated, but the various kinetic drills were. Staff processes were stressed to the extreme, but the tedious management of politically and socioeconomically relevant information was not tested nearly to the extent that the kinetic reaction drills were. CIV/MIL (Civilian/Military) cooperation was not truly fostered, because the civilians who work for the other government agencies involved weren’t integrated into anything resembling stability working groups. Those things were available and possible, I think, but with the emphasis on kinetics built into the rotation, most any unit would find it challenging to the point of impossibility to actively pursue those functions.
Overall, it was disappointing. I must revoke the “hero” status previously conferred upon the NTC because of their part in the overall failure of the rotation to prepare this brigade for what they will… or will reasonably be expected to… perform in Afghanistan. And it didn’t put emphasis on the areas that the brigade has chosen to accept risk on. The brigade’s functions were strained to the breaking point without providing adaptions that patched the weaknesses. Those are just my observations, and it’s difficult to paint those without being too specific. This unit’s particulars aside, the NTC can do a lot better. Over ten years into the Afghan conflict, with so many brigades having done rotations to Afghanistan, one would expect it to be the paragon of counterinsurgency training instead of just coming up to speed. After all this time, one would not expect training beset with issues that do not enhance the readiness of units preparing to conduct operations in the locally-focused insurgency of Afghanistan.
It’s been awhile, no doubt, and there are many reasons why I have eschewed posting on this site for some time. Not all of them bear exploration. However, there are a couple of cats to let out of the bag. First; I’m going back, yet again, to Afghanistan. Second; I started blogging as a way to keep my friends and family connected to what I was doing. Perhaps Facebook explains why so few new bloggers have entered the fray in the past couple of years. I’ve realized that there are two different readerships that have followed what I’ve written over the past couple of years, and so I’ve decided that I will open a separate blog for the experiential piece, since this blog has become more or less dedicated to COIN theory and practice.
Perhaps I will take up Facebook as well. I’ve found that social media sites take a lot of time. I’ve had lots of encouragement to do so, though.
I’ll announce the address of the new site as soon as I make the first post. But, if anyone’s still out there, please stay tuned and it will come soon enough.
One final thing is to acknowledge some things regarding the lack of writing about what I have seen and learned these past few months regarding COIN, the war in Afghanistan, and what I think about our evolving role in the world. I came back with the strength of my convictions about what I was seeing on the ground in Afghanistan. I came home to find, yet again, a disconnect between the ongoing conversation back here and what I knew that I was seeing in Afghanistan. Here, COIN is being widely shouted down… and anyone who claims to see it work is being shouted down as well. Those who have the bona fides to claim wisdom and analytical superiority are dismissive. There have also been those who made serious prognostications from Kabul about the state of affairs.
I got tired of it.
Much has transpired, and there have been many thoughts that have gone unwritten. It just felt like a waste of time and effort. Between that, the struggle with the general feeling of disconnection due to the amount of time I’ve spent overseas, and the general attitude that experience on the ground is trumped by the theoretical and long-distance analysis of the wise… well… it takes a lot of energy to continually try to rise above the din. It has just seemed a losing struggle. Inertia is carrying us towards what I observe to be a practically inevitable conclusion.
While I was at liberty to discuss the impending deployment, there were those in my life who I care about deeply… my children… whose summer I did not want to spoil. This has been in the works since shortly after I returned a little over a year ago. I was asked by a brigade commander to be his COIN advisor for the brigade’s upcoming tour. I agreed, because I saw that as a call to serve. I also wanted for the Buckeye Brigade to acquit itself well in its mission.
We have been at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, since August, except for a brief break of about a week between Title 32 and Title 10 active duty. What I’ve seen about the pre-deployment training of the National Guard by 1st Army would fill a small book and there are too many big rice bowls; it is well and truly broken and nothing I can do or say will ever fix it. I need to complete this tour and retire before I really detail that or I will surely wind up in very poor condition. No one wants to hear it, anyway; not those who can influence or change it.
Overall, the Army has done a much better job of training COIN. Some do better than others. The stars are the Combat Advisor trainers of the 162nd Brigade, the guys who train Combat Advisors at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and the National Training Center. The quality of training provided by the 162nd, especially the training for advisors deploying to Afghanistan, is light years above the training my team and I received at Fort Riley in 2007. Unfortunately, the advisors attached to this brigade only received 10 days of specialized training from the 162nd here at Camp Shelby.
The National Training Center is the other winner. In early August the leadership of the brigade spent about a week at the NTC being brought up to speed on the expectations and learning about the big rocks they would have to lift there. The NTC provides the capstone exercise prior to deployment. I was thrilled when they briefed the brigade and battalion leaders that they would be expected to assemble a PMESII/ASCOPE analysis of their operational area. When the staff of the NTC laid out the expectation that the units would be expected to use the District Stability Framework during the conduct of the exercise, I almost lost my mind. Good stuff.
It is new to the NTC, but they are working to incorporate it into their insurgency/counterinsurgency exercises.
The secondary effect was that it convinced the brigade leadership that they needed to embrace the DSF, which I had been encouraging them to get trained in for months.
That is less than half the story… so torn about what has transpired in the meantime. This is my first time deploying with a National Guard unit, and it’s been enlightening.
There has also been much that has transpired in Central Asia over the past months. Pakistan has been very active in many ways, and the developments between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have been fascinating. So much to examine. Soon I will be back on the ground in Afghanistan, seeing things once more having passed through that portal into the reality of that land and events therein.
If anyone’s out there, please let me know. Whistling in the dark is difficult these days. I could use a little encouragement.
This will be brief. Does anyone else find it ironic that the Pakistanis are now suffering insurgent incursions from Afghan territory and are actually complaining that the Afghans need to prevent these incursions? Yes, it’s ironic that the shoe would be on other foot. It’s even more ironic that the Pakistanis would feel the frustration of not being able to pursue cross-border insurgents back to their havens.
It’s almost like we ceded the Korengal, Nuristan and goodly parts of Kunar to demonstrate to Pakistan that the pendulum swings both ways. Of course, that is just too diabolical to even contemplate. But for someone who has felt the deep frustration of Afghans who have suffered the whims of the ISI for years, there is just a hint of perverse enjoyment. On most levels, there is nothing funny about this additional pressure on Pakistan’s already strained schizophrenic government, but the irony is… well… a little funny. I can imagine some of the Afghans I’ve met saying, “Yeah, welcome to my world, Ashfaq!”
Most external observers of Pakistan can easily see how the minions can turn on the master. Pakistan’s veritable refusal to actually govern their own territory, cutting deals with violent organizations so they don’t actually have to, and attempting to use organizations such as LeT to further their national aims with plausible deniability is enormously frustrating. Watching Pakistan’s internal violence ratchet up as groups such as the Pakistani Taliban become an internal security challenge is not really surprising to most of us. It’s like the story of the man and the talking viper who asked the man to carry him across the river… “You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.”
Pakistan is currently at that part in the story where the snake starts biting the silly man in the middle of the river.
Stability isn’t the only thing that can be spread like an oil spot. Instability in one area can be corrosive to stability in neighboring areas (especially when those areas are not stabilized to begin with). When you seed instability, it can come back to you. You reap what you sow.
What does legitimacy mean to any of us? The “birthers” here in the US claim that President Obama cannot be the legitimate President of the United States. But they have not picked up arms. Most of them still pay taxes. There have been isolated outbursts, including at least one military officer who refused to deploy based upon his belief that the commander in chief is illegitimate. Other than that, the legitimacy of the United States government is not in serious question.
For most of us, the legitimacy of our government starts when we leave the door of our house and head out into the public areas of our world. For most of us, the first line of contact with our government is the police… and the tax column of our pay stubs. Both are reinforcement of the legitimacy of our government; local, state and federal. But the police that we see on our streets are not federal police. They are local police. Local elections have a greater impact on our daily lives than who occupies the Oval Office in a distant city. The point is that if we never had any contact with our government, how would it be legitimate to us?
Our government is not monolithic. Our paychecks demonstrate that the federal government can reach into our pockets to pay for the national-level services, such as defense. But it’s the local police who influence our daily behavior. When we are speeding, and we see a cop parked next to the road, we check our speed and slow down. That guy with a badge and a gun had an immediate impact on our behavior. That is, at a very basic level, legitimacy in our (American) context. Our government has the ability, whether we like it or not, to enforce its will upon us. We consider that will to be the will of the people. Our elected representatives set the speed limit that we are compelled to observe by threat of that police officer.
We have a national government, but we also have state and local government. Even our state laws are most often enforced by local government officials such as county, city or township police. When there is a question or a conflict, we find ourselves most often in local courts. Our perceptions of the local courts are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to issues such as corruption. While we believe that money does buy justice, we believe that boils down to being able to afford a decent lawyer, rather than in paying off a judge. Very few of us believe that the criminal courts can be bought through bribery.
We know that the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is beset by corruption. A massive and pernicious problem, it threatens the perception of legitimacy amongst the people. But, like us, Afghans decide upon the legitimacy of the government based upon their interactions with it. They are not interacting with the government in Kabul. They are interacting with the ANP, the District and perhaps Provincial governments, and the courts. Afghan legitimacy starts at the local level. This does not mean that corruption in Kabul need not be addressed. It means that more Afghans will be influenced by addressing issues at multiple local levels than by making fewer corrections at the national level.
Many military personnel who have experienced the maze of local corruption will tell tales of frustration in dealing with a governor or sub-governor who stubbornly clung to his network of corruption. Many of us experienced a lack of support from other international actors at the local level. The State Department and USAID were not often in evidence in 2007, for instance. One or two DoS representatives per province… in the provinces where they were present… just wasn’t getting it. We had very few USAID workers available in the provinces. We were working the military/security line of operation as hard as we could, but the governance and development lines were being defaulted on. The “surge” in Afghanistan didn’t just include a military surge, but a civilian surge as well. More civilians are needed, but there was still a great increase, and it has made a difference.
We see movement in Afghanistan. I saw it when I was there. GEN Petraeus’ latest reports indicate progress. I know that the official reports are taken with a grain of salt, but there is corroboration. The actions of the insurgents indicate growing weakness. Their tactics this year are aimed at making themselves appear to be larger than they actually are, focusing on areas where they are not necessarily strong, but where they would like to appear to have influence. This is an indicator that they have lost ground not only militarily but also with their ability to influence the population. My observation is that this is due to a greater balance in the application of effort across the non-military lines of operation on a number of local levels. This is the result of refocusing of efforts to the local level, a greater number of civilians present to work on the local level and a greater ability to work in some level of synchrony across the main lines of operation.
The use of consistent tool sets is becoming more widespread. Using ASCOPE/PMESII as the information framework makes it easier for units to to knowledge transfer during the Relief In Place / Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA). This, combined with the growing use of the District Stability Framework (DSF), makes it easier for the military and civilian actors to synchronize actions across the lines of operation. Both tools are focused on the local level, and aimed at identifying, developing, increasing and protecting capacity at the local level. As indicated above, the local government makes the most difference in the lives of Americans, and it does the same in Afghanistan; only more so.
Afghanistan’s history is one of local governance loosely tied to a national government that is not very prone to micromanagement. The national government has not tended to be a strong influence in the daily lives of farmers and shop keepers in the little villages in the many valleys far from Kabul. This does not remove the pressure to fix what is wrong with the Karzai regime, often described as a kleptocracy. It does give some breathing room to the efforts to develop a national government that is capable of performing the basic functions required and as free of corruption as possible. With local governance improving incrementally, there is a cross-pollination of legitimacy that the national government benefits from. Coalition forces also benefit from progress on the local level, because they are then viewed as being supportive of a legitimate government, rather than tipping the scales in favor of one of two evils.
This year will be very challenging in Afghanistan. As described above, the insurgents are doing their level best to give the impression of being more influential than they are. There is a faint whiff of desperation in the air. There are most certainly areas where the insurgent is actually in better shape than he was two years ago; take the Korengal, for example. Whether or not the tipping point is near or has been reached will not be clear for some time. It is clear that there have been some important steps taken towards improving local governance, security and development. It is clear that the insurgents are under considerable pressure, and not just militarily. Local governance has a greater impact on the daily lives of Afghans than the national government, even a short distance from Kabul. The perception of legitimacy in Afghanistan is more predicated upon local government than the Kabul government.
Losing. Or winning.
First, if an insurgent perceives himself to be “winning,” he will not negotiate unless it is to freeze the government in place while the insurgent prepares himself for the final push to topple the government. This has happened numerous times throughout history, with insurgents negotiating a change in military tactics or limiting the use of weapons. This then gives the insurgent time and space in which to solidify his gains and reach the tipping point on the verge of victory. In the case of foreign assistance to the host nation government, a key negotiating point for the insurgents will be the limiting or removal of foreign forces. A government teetering on collapse is more amenable to such negotiations. A foreign assistance force is more amenable to negotiate their own withdrawal in such cases as well. Either way, the objective of the ascendant insurgent is to cause the government to expose itself to easier military conquest. The idea is that if you break your word, but you win, you get to write the history. Oddly, numerous governments have fallen for the ploy over time.
What about “losing?” Either the insurgent has to be visibly losing or he has to perceive that he is losing. Does it have to be the threat of imminent defeat? Not necessarily. That depends on many factors.
A favorite (and effective) insurgent propaganda catchphrase in Afghanistan is, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.” Data shows that the longer an insurgency drags on, the likelihood of insurgent success actually decreases. So we have competing ideas. One is based on data, and it’s only an incremental change in counterinsurgent success. But it is real, based on “resolved” insurgencies. The other is a catchy phrase leveraged with our own popular history. We are seen, especially in the region, as being fickle friends. In a nation with a strong oral history and a love for analogy, shaping popular perceptions of our history through ready memes is fairly easy. Afghans often perceive that America lost interest in them at a critical time, ultimately resulting in the rise of the Taliban. HiG leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar hates the United States for failing to support his drive to take over Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the Soviets, having his own tale of American abandonment. Afghan insurgents have their own reasons for either beginning to seek a settlement or not, but if they begin to feel as if they are running out of time, the mental door to compromise begins to open.
Mullah Omar is said to be adamantly opposed to negotiations. While Omar would be a key figure to negotiate a cessation of hostilities and a return to civil life for the Quetta Shura Taliban, a failure on his part to participate would possibly cause fractures in the QST. Sub-commanders who view the situation differently may break with the Taliban to negotiate on their own. Some of this has apparently happened.
Most likely it is not due to one issue, but a combination of effects on the insurgency. Fatigue, and the fatigue of the population, may have something to do with the higher failure rate amongst insurgencies of longer duration. Real progress by the government on the issues upon which the insurgents rely for leverage may also play a role. Difficulty in mounting attacks due to improved security and lower recruitment will also play a role.
The HiG were actually a more violent spin-off of the Hizbi islami Kulis (HiK), a political party. Many “former” HiG participate in GIRoA. While coalition members view them with considerable caution, they are participating in the process. They often maintain contacts with their former comrades in arms. Gulbuddin will likely never participate himself, but is not beyond the realm of possibility. Again, fractures and defections may come into play and apparently already have. Given the ceding of areas of the RC East by the coalition in the past year and a half, the HiG are not likely feeling disadvantaged.
The Haqqani network, with the closest ties to al Qaeda, is another question.
Finally reconciliation programs that provide honorable reintegration for former insurgents, often combined with a higher mortality rate associated with participation in the insurgency, provide a powerful inducement to cease fighting. Mistreatment of insurgents by the host nation government does not provide a similar benefit.
In the end, if the insurgency feels that they are “winning,” they will not negotiate except for deceptive reasons. If they perceive themselves to be “losing,” they will begin to have difficulty with more than one factor of the overall insurgency and will become more likely to negotiate. The participation of the leadership is very helpful, but in the end the insurgency consists of many individuals who must decide for themselves when they are no longer willing to kill.
The United States has been meeting with the Taliban’s Tayyab Agha, who is either one of Mullah Omar’s best friends or he is on the outs with him… depending on who you listen to. While the news was pretty much under the radar as far as news coverage, there has been plenty of opinion expressed by many Americans about the concept of a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Much of it is reflexively negative.
Why shouldn’t we be negative towards reconciling the Taliban with Afghan society? The Taliban have a miserable record as a government and as an insurgency. They are every bit as brutal as most pernicious insurgencies have ever been. Terrorizing the population in order to control them is an ancient insurgent tactic. It causes deep divisions and grudges that last for decades, if not centuries.
It has been pointed out how past insurgencies have ended in one of three ways. Either the government wins, the insurgent wins, or there is a “mixed outcome.” A mixed outcome keeps the government largely in place while compromises are made to resolve the issues that drove portions of the population into the arms of the insurgency. Insurgents are allowed to take part in the political process in exchange for laying down arms and rejoining the process.
What is there to compromise about? What do the Taliban have that GIRoA needs? Well, other than the fact that they use violence that the government needs for them to eschew, they do have some things that the people actually want. The Taliban were a horror by any analysis of what a real government is. During the Taliban tenure, infrastructure, education and health care all went to hell in a hand basket. Nothing there. However, while they were undoubtedly ineffective by most measures of governance, they were not widely perceived to be corrupt.
While the average American Joe cannot relate a lot of deep knowledge about Afghanistan, they do know one word that goes along with any real discussion of GIRoA; corruption. GIRoA is rife with corruption, and the average Afghan citizen is affected by it deeply. The average Afghan pays hundreds of dollars a year in bribes, this out of an income that may be less than $2,000 a year. Nowhere is this more deeply felt than in court. Criminal prosecution and conflict resolution are key issues in nearly every Afghan community, and both are seriously hindered by corruption.
For the average Afghan, access to justice relies on being able to pay the bribes. Often, there is a race for corruption that begins with the police and offers opportunities to short-circuit the system all the way up the chain. An honest judge can be done in by higher courts. An honest policeman can become seriously disheartened by the knowledge that his best work can be undone by a corrupt prosecutor or judge.
Insurgency in the Afghan context is about a competition to govern, and that competition is most often leveraged by the insurgents in the area of justice. The Afghan legal system is so corrupt that it is all too easy to supplant GIRoA courts with shadow courts. In 2007, the story was that the Taliban would arrive with a traveling court and force the residents to bring their cases before the Taliban court. Something sounded fishy about that. How do you figure out who has a grievance that needs to be aired? Well, it turns out that this was wishful thinking. The populace didn’t need to be coerced to access Taliban justice.
They sought it out.
The only thing that the Taliban ever brought to Afghanistan, and the only thing that the people actually miss, was swift and incorruptible justice. That’s just one idea of what the Taliban possess that GIRoA doesn’t. Would it be a bad thing if the one strength of the Taliban was assimilated into a future Afghanistan?
What if the Taliban were allowed to be a political party? What if they ran for office? What if they won a few seats in parliament? Would it be the end of the modern world? No, clearly not. Our own revolution had to do with the inability to redress grievances. Taxation without representation; a lack of ability to participate in government. What would have happened to the American revolution if the king had made concessions that removed this issue?
Would the revolution have been forestalled or even completely avoided? We will never really know. But it is very possible, especially given the number of hardcore loyalists in the thirteen colonies, that the revolution would have lost steam. Another good example would be our own civil rights movement here in the United States. Had the various laws and executive orders not been put in place, is it possible that violence related to the civil rights struggle would have become widespread? Is it possible that greater access to participation, to redress of grievances, even as halting as it was, was enough to prevent more people from seeking to express these frustrations violently?
Is the American civil right movement a good example of a latent insurgency that was derailed by compromise?
History shows us that insurgencies often end with compromise. Afghanistan is not some imponderable morass of humanity where the eternal verities of man are suspended. Job number one is to stop the shooting. That requires a combination of security-related actions, improvements in governance and socio-economic development that remove the prerequisites of insurgency; the key drivers of instability. Then the serious work of developing the capacity to govern and grow begins. Part of the governance work may very well include some compromises that bring the now-distant factions close enough to stop shooting at each other.
If your understanding of our mission in Afghanistan was that the entire operation was to capture or kill bin Laden, then it will seem as if the mission has been accomplished. All of our problems have been solved. Finis.
Not that the death of bin Laden isn’t a good thing. The monster is dead… or is it? I have often said that bin Laden was a poster child, a lightning rod for those who share his world view. Those people are still alive. All of the pieces that have been assembled over the years are still in place. I’m sure that morale is currently low and anger is correspondingly high. Bin Laden was, indeed, more than just a poster child. But he was obviously not exerting the same degree of command and control that he had at one time. Al Qaeda was still plugging away, doing the things that al Qaeda does.
What does this mean to Afghanistan? Well, I’m sure that morale is higher amongst the troops. My morale is higher… in a way. The question of whether or not this is a game-changer remains to be seen. Is this going to change what the local insurgent commander or shadow provincial governor in Afghanistan does? Probably not. This is waaay above his pay grade.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a lot of Afghans about bin Laden. First, they never viewed him as being their main problem. Sure, bin Laden supported the Taliban. Al Qaeda funded, recruited, equipped, trained and fielded a “brigade” that fought against the Northern Alliance in the years prior to 9/11. That much we know. Al Qaeda and bin Laden were shielded from the rest of the world and provided for by the Taliban when the Taliban controlled most of Afghanistan. In recent years, al Qaeda wound up with better relations with the Haqqani network than they did with the Quetta Shura Taliban. At least it appeared so. Admittedly, al Qaeda’s actual presence in Afghanistan was limited to a couple of hundred individuals. Afghans have more immediate problems with people who do intend to stay there and rule them, such as Gulbuddin and Mullah Omar.
I don’t think that the death of bin Laden is a game-changer in Afghanistan.
External support for the Taliban and/or their affiliates may suffer in some way, but I’m in no way convinced that this will be disabling to the Taliban, et al, in any meaningful way. It does not change the threat to Afghanistan from the Taliban, Haqqani and Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin (HiG). Nor does it defeat the criminal patronage networks. It does not magically improve the capability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA). The degradation of even al Qaeda remains to be seen.
The many Afghans I had the opportunity to speak with over the years I’ve spent in Afghanistan expressed concern that if we ever did catch up with bin Laden that it would be to the detriment of Afghanistan. Already, there are calls in Congress to abandon Afghanistan. While this is predictable, it is shallow and short-sighted. These calls have been coming from a not insignificant group for some time.
Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of. This opportunity to cut and run will not be wasted, and it will likely gain adherents rather than lose them.
It boils down to the struggle between two schools of thought. One contends that the world hates us (particularly Muslims), and that they have good reason to. This school believes that withdrawal and accommodation will assuage this hatred. This school of thought argues that instability does not impact other nations, and certainly is not a threat to the national security of more developed countries.
The other school of thought agrees that instability, in a globalized world that is only getting smaller, has the demonstrated ability to provide festering grounds for non nation-state actors who are now capable of exporting violence on a scale that was formerly the realm of nation-states. Japan used six aircraft carriers and over 400 planes to cause a similar number of American dead in the attacks on Pearl Harbor; this compared to four aircraft-cum-cruise missiles acquired for the price of a few airline tickets on 9/11. That was not the last attack, nor has Afghanistan been the only country to harbor such plotters. But we have seen what “leaving Afghanistan to its fate” has accomplished for us.
Predicting the future is impossible. Could the “Mission Accomplished” crowd be right? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t agree with them. So my answer is, “No.” What we have done in the past was not successful.
So what does the death of bin Laden mean?
It means that we have had some measure of revenge. We have had some resolution for part of our anger. We have cut the head off the snake, and whether that snake is a hydra or a cobra remains to be seen. Many insurgent leaders have been killed in Afghanistan, only to be replaced by less reticent commanders who were more brutal than the ones who we killed. Will that happen with al Qaeda? Only time will tell. We cannot predict that.
More damage may be done to al Qaeda by the “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East than by the death of bin Laden. Al Qaeda has called for uprisings against the regimes in power for years. Al Qaeda wished to inspire general uprisings based upon Islamic rage, not upon the principles of personal liberty and government accountability. The uprisings of the past few weeks in the Middle East were not at all what al Qaeda and bin Laden wished to inspire. If regime changes in the Middle East replace repressive regimes with an opportunity for hope, the very hopeless rage that drives young men into the arms of al Qaeda will come unglued. The death of bin Laden is icing on that cake.
The final results of the Arab uprisings in the Middle East are far from clear. This could still all go horribly awry. The United States has an opportunity to support the development of enduring institutions, non-military institutions, in these countries. In our recent history, our first answer has been to provide military assistance. But the lack of responsive, accountable institutions has been a key factor driving the disaffected to seek solutions to their problems that often wound up being religiously driven. Who can save you from hopelessness? God. Whatever name to use to refer to God, when the world is too big and too hard, many seek explanations and solutions from religious leaders. Christians have had many such as Jim Jones and David Koresh. Muslims have had such leaders as well, and those who find themselves seeking solutions to the intractable problems of their world are drawn to them. Bin Laden counted on these people as his recruiting base.
What happens if this base suddenly gains hope from another source? What happens if they create and sustain institutions that provide accountability and responsiveness? What happens if the governments and economies of these countries begin to offer opportunities and hope? Bin Laden was already beginning to lose his appeal. Now that he is dead, his survivors in al Qaeda will have to deal with this lost traction.
Our struggle remains with competing visions of our role in the post-Cold War world. The death of bin Laden does not end that argument, but will add artificial lubricant to the side which espouses self-centered navel gazing above striving to find a productive way to add to stability in a shrinking world.
The previous posts described a lot of concepts and activities. Granted, that information alone isn’t going to enable anyone to fully execute a District Stability Matrix and perform any kind of program or operational design. It’s an outline, provided in hopes of improving publicly available knowledge of what counterinsurgency and stability operations are. All too often, COIN and stability are described in the few terms that have caught on in pop culture. They are trendy to use in the media, but the reality is misrepresented or mythologized. Misunderstanding of COIN is practically viral. This breeds a separation of the American people, and more than a few academics and think-tankers, from the reality of what is actually being attemted on the ground. COIN and stability operations are grinding, difficult tasks carried out, in the case of Afghanistan, in a land and among a people that appear to be very alien at first glance. Misconceptions hinged on such misunderstood but trendy terms as, “hearts and minds,” makes the whole endeavor unfathomable without a deeper understanding. It’s a big subject, so it’s not easily described in one posting.
With all of the previous posts tied together, what does this look like in practice? When we arrive in, say, a district in Afghanistan, how do we begin? There are a lot of factors that will determine where we start, such as what has already been done by our predecessors. Not every place is like Marjah, where the entire operation started with little or no GIRoA presence or authority in that area. Most of us will land on a work in progress. We still have to start with as complete a grasp of the local environment as we can get.
These days, there is nearly always legacy documentation of what has been learned and done in most areas we could find ourselves in. Often it is not readily retrievable and may be a shotgun pattern of disconnected information. Afghanistan has been called the “graveyard of databases.” So many different repositories have been established over the years that we have, collectively, forgotten what we have learned. Foreign assistance personnel are transitory. We work there for awhile and then we leave, replaced by others after a brief hand-off. That knowledge, that visualization, leaves with the outgoing person or organization. From experience, I know that some efforts become enduring and others end as soon as the personnel leave and are replaced. That is often not based on the merit of the action or program. Sometimes it is due to overlapping funding that has already been vetted and committed. Each rotation of personnel develops its own flavor, its own focus. Because of this, continuity of effort is sometimes lost.
Unity of effort is important, but continuity of effort is undervalued. It actually doesn’t appear on the doctrinal list of “COIN Imperatives.” It is recognized as a problem, though; particularly in the military/security line. The methodology and logistics of handing-off to a follow-on organization have been worked and re-worked for years in attempts to overcome the jerky nature of operations caused by these reliefs. State and USAID personnel change out less often, and being smaller, the hand-off is often more personal.
Many things affect handing over an area to a follow-on person or organization. Time is often a critical factor. There is a finite amount of overlap, sometimes none at all. Many organizations and personnel arriving in Afghanistan right now are getting information presented to them in a non-standard format that is essentially proprietary to the individual or organization on the way out. The rational decision-making processes that the outgoing personnel used may not be documented so that we can clearly understand the intended effects and why those effects were sought as part of an overall plan.
Is this a show-stopper? No, but it is a show-slower and a potential source of discontinuity. This has happened many times in many places, and makes Coalition and GIRoA efforts appear to be haphazard. Haphazard is ineffective in general, but it is definitely viewed as such by the majority of the population. Giving this impression is a great way to fail to gain support or even acquiescence. More and more often, we are seeing units arriving on information organized in a way that can be easily understood. When time is limited, quickly acquiring the situational awareness attained by the previous organization or individual is critical. Momentum, a key political concept, is lost. If the information is not organized in a way that we can anticipate, then we have to organize it so that the “next guy” gets what we didn’t. If we can anticipate how the information is organized, we can practice managing it and visualizing it (difficult tasks) in training. It’s all about visualizing the problems and solutions and maintaining steady and sustainable efforts to move things in a positive direction.
Wherever we find ourselves in the phases of operations, whether we are Shaping, Clearing, Holding or Building, we need to understand the history and thought processes that preceded ours. When deciding to modify or terminate an existing program or effort, we must first understand why that was being done in the first place. We need to understand how it is being measured in both outputs and effects so that any decision that we make is based on a logical approach and not gut feel or initial impressions. Sometimes the “Afghan way” is actually a good thing but looks very strange to a westerner at first glance. When we make decisions and choose courses of action, we document our decision making processes so that it is available and easier to visualize by our successors. We need to reach this level of understanding quickly, and so will they.
If we are lucky enough as a person or group to fall in on such information, organized in a way that we quickly understand, we will have a lot more continuity of effort. Our transition will be more seamless. If we are not so lucky, we have to resolve that our successors will have it easier. Once we have ascertained where we are, then we can apply the techniques appropriate to that phase to make progress. Some things, such as continuing to learn more about the people, places, conditions and events in an area never end. Reconnaissance, as we call it in the military, is constant. Continuous evaluation of our chosen activities and the effects they have on the local situation is also absolutely necessary. We cannot continue unchanged on a course of action that is producing negative consequences.
There is no canned formulaic solution that works in every situation. We strive to learn from the successes of others. We learn from the experiences of others, but we do not just automatically apply solutions because they worked elsewhere. We use our understanding of our discrete area to anticipate, as best we can, how such an action or program will impact the area that we work in. We understand the particulars, the personalities and the realities that will influence the enduring effects that our actions will have on the community. We recognize quickly when waves are made, including how the enemy responds, and we adjust our approach based on the success or failure of any endeavor. We choose metrics that reflect the actual effects of what we do, not just measuring our activity. We do not reinforce failure, and we don’t fail to recognize and redouble success.
We identify, protect and support resiliencies we find in the community and seek to identify and develop undiscovered resiliencies. We are imaginative, collaborative and receptive. We listen, and we interpret input based on knowledge, not impressions or a reliance on intuition. If we don’t know, we use all of our assets to find out. We listen to our enemy, and we separate the lies and half-truths from the truths. Elements of all of the three will be present. We learn to understand why and how his message appeals to the people. We are honest in accepting the truths and seeking to address them to resolve issues that truly do concern the population, such as corruption and injustice. Throughout all of this, we document all of what we learn, what we decided and what we based our decision on so that everyone from our supervisors to our replacements can visualize and understand, assist and continue on.
We have a consistent message, or conversation with the people, that is reinforced by every action we take and is based on enduring themes that have significance to the local population. It is a centerpiece, not an addendum, and is just as pervasive as reconnaissance in everything we do. We think very seriously before taking any action that is contrary to or dilutes our message.
Progress in counterinsurgency and stability is incremental and slow. It is frustrating and sometimes painful. It is difficult to continue in the face of systemic corruption and abuse of power. It is difficult to overcome the negative impression left by a unit that approached the problem as a counter-guerrilla operation. It sometimes seems hopeless where illiteracy is rampant and the people appear inscrutable at first glace. Counterinsurgency is also dangerous. Courage is required, but often that means the courage of conviction to keep trying in the face of adversity and danger coupled with frustration, the combination of which is a powerful demotivator. Keeping our eye on the ball and recognizing subtle shifts is how we cope. Even a little bit of change can make a big difference, and the chances are good that if we reach the tipping point, the Holy Grail of COIN, we will likely not realize it until later.
Note that part of information we collect and keep as part of the ASCOPE/PMESII is the enemy message; their Information Operations (IO). We track their narrative, or conversation with the people. It’s not that hard to gather. We just ask the locals what the insurgent is saying about whatever. They will usually tell us, and they will look for a reaction. We make sure that we get it straight by asking as many people as possible, right down to the casual encounter on the street. This is something that we can include our sensing of the effects that we are having. We can also gather a lot of information about the way that the people react to insurgent IO.
Is the insurgent message hitting home with the populace? Why? There will be a mixture of truths, half-truths and outright lies. Our job is to determine which is which and from there figure out why the insurgent message either appeals to the people or freezes them in place on the fence; unwilling or afraid to commit to supporting or even acquiescing to government rule.
An example of a lie that hit home is an experience in The Tagab Valley, Kapisa Province in August of 2007. At the appearance of Americans, the local Afghan women would turn away, squat and remain motionless, as if they were pretending to be a stone. Men would also behave strangely, but would still step forward to have contact. This was uncommon, and so the interpreter was engaged to figure it out. In the end, it was learned that part of the insurgent narrative in that area was that the ballistic eye wear of the Americans was purported to be able to see through clothing. This was apparently plausible in the minds of the locals, so they responded to the risk of being shamed by concealing their bodies as best they could.
The overall effect was to keep an artificial barrier between the Americans and the Afghans. Many did not believe the story, but enough had their doubts so that the “I will make myself a stone” behavior was widespread. This story was localized, but has been repeated often in a number of other areas. It is not believed by more educated Afghans, but among illiterate people who believe that Americans can do impossible things with technology, it is just plausible enough to warrant caution. Though the effect that it achieved was partial, it would have to be described as successful.
Countering the message involved removing the eye wear and at times addressing the situation directly. If an older Afghan man had heard the rumor, he was offered to try the glasses, and when he saw that the lenses offered no additional capabilities, he was then able to share this with others. Meanwhile, it was stumbled upon that Afghans appreciate the removal of sunglasses in conversation, anyway. This knowledge is now included in COMISAF’s guidance on the wear of ballistic eye protection.
This was a simple example, and by no means an exhaustive description of the complete insurgent narrative in that area. It was just one aspect of it.
Since we know that an insurgency is a political war, we know that the conversation we have with the people is necessary. Each agency or organization, down to the individual level, has a conversation with the local population. The insurgent does the same thing.
We see national-level conversation, such as the rules regulating the behavior of insurgents released by the Taliban. These narratives make international news. In each area, however, the narrative is tailored and refined to appeal to local perceptions, issues and sensibilities. These are the insurgent narratives you are unlikely to hear on the nightly news back home. These messages are also tailored to expand upon the failures of the counterinsurgents on the local level in the specific area. The ultimate goal is obviously to discredit the government, but there are generally messages specifically targeted towards each of the counterinsurgent agencies and often directed at specific individuals.
The insurgent chooses his overall themes and then breaks them down locally. His actions are taken in order to support or further these messages. Insurgent commanders have been fired for getting off message or taking actions that did not support the overall message. An example of this is the insurgent commander replaced after ordering the acid attack on Afghan school girls. The point is that the actions that insurgents take are in support of their narrative, not the other way around. A weakness of counterinsurgents is that they often reverse this equation and try to work their narrative as an adjunct to their efforts, instead of making it a main feature of their operations.
We are at the point where we are selecting actions. At this point, it is absolutely necessary to develop a dialog based on our local issues that rings true with the local populace. Otherwise, we are ceding control of the information war to the insurgents. The national narrative by the government, NATO and all the implementation partners is broad and very general. Simply mouthing the words of GEN Petraeus or the ambassador will not suffice. The local farmer does not hear anything specific in these messages that applies to him. A local narrative is demanded, tailored to the specifics of the local area.
In the end, the goal is to support local government legitimacy; but that doesn’t mean that our narrative lies about government effectiveness. If the government is struggling in a particular area, the best choice is probably to acknowledge that. It will likely be something that you are going to target for improvement, anyway. The local people may not be educated, but they are not stupid, and they already know what works and doesn’t work for them. The counterinsurgent/stability course or courses of action must identify and target these inadequacies in order to have a lasting effect locally. The insurgent narrative is probably quite harsh about these failings. Trying to gloss over things that the locals find objectionable will not improve matters, and only reinforces insurgent relevance.
Each main logical line of operation, Military/Security, Development and Governance, needs to support each other’s messaging. It should all dovetail into a seamless narrative aimed at competing for the ear of the farmer and shopkeeper against the insurgent narrative. Because it is backed by action consistent with the narrative, it is reinforced in the eyes of local observers. It’s a relationship, and as in any relationship, say what you mean and do what you say. Nobody cares about airy promises and trite sayings. They want to see action that supports what you say. This, more than any other thing, is what builds trust among the people.
So part of each working group’s agenda needs to be the conversation with the people, distilled from a thorough understanding of the local area and their issues, including what the insurgent is saying. Then, once the local message of each actor is established, it is consistently carried and not deviated from significantly. Commanders ensure that their narrative is carried by every soldier, and NCO’s enforce this standard.
Proposed actions are compared against the narrative and either the action is altered or the objective of that action is incorporated into the narrative. If a proposed action is contrary to the narrative, it is given great scrutiny to determine the appropriateness of that action. Rarely will we take an action that does not directly support our narrative. This is the key to effective information operations, which are the audible evidence of our conversation with the local populace.