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.
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.
Insurgencies do not usually end with a bang. They usually end in a whimper. Statistically, according to Rand, out of 73 concluded insurgencies, 47 ended with either a government win or what Rand calls a “mixed outcome.” Rand considers a mixed outcome to be a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Government victories and negotiated endings are almost always whimpers. Insurgent success is usually with a bang. Almost exactly two thirds of insurgencies end in whimpers.
Galula described this effect, and described the political win as rendering the insurgent “irrelevant.” Galula pointed out that the goal of the counterinsurgent is to make the insurgent irrelevant and then the “true believers” are reduced to the level of violent criminals. When this happens, it is eventually a “win” for the government. But, I would consider a negotiated settlement a win as well.
Why would a negotiated settlement be a win? Let’s narrow down the bang and whimper thing. Insurgencies end with either the reintegration into the (non-violent) political process of the greater part of the insurgency, they end with a total changeover of the government (insurgent win), or they end up with the annihilation of the insurgent. Annihilation of the movements themselves are rare. The most recent example is the defeat of the Tamil Tigers by the Sri Lankan government. But there are few similarities and significant differences between the Tamil Tigers and Afghan insurgencies.
From what we see, nearly two thirds of insurgencies that have been decided ended either with reintegration of enough of the insurgency into the process to make further insurgency irrelevant or the total destruction of the insurgent. Let’s look at the first case, since the second is much rarer. Reintegration sometimes happened by the government responding to the legitimate concerns of the people and reducing the level of dissatisfaction (grievances) while simultaneously protecting both its own employees and the people themselves from insurgent influence. It sometimes happened through negotiating to bring the insurgents back into the political process. Either is acceptable, so long as the core values of the government are not breached. A combination would also work. The point is, when the political violence ends or ceases to be a serious threat to the government, the issues and contenders exit the realm of warfare and enter the realm of domestic politics. That is success, because the insurgency is effectively over, and it has not completely unseated the legitimate government.
The particulars of whether it is by reformation, negotiation or any mixture of both are irrelevant. The end result was the inclusion or re-inclusion of the formerly violent opposition into a civil political process, ending their participation in hostilities. That, truly is the goal of the counterinsurgent. Any other outcome is either indecisive or a loss for the counterinsurgent. Indecisive is when the fighting continues.
When the government wins, it is often not even apparent for some time. Governments usually win by a combination of factors that include some type of political reform. Either the government gets better, or it will likely lose. In a competition to govern, one path to success is to actually win in the area of governance. The violent component of insurgency can interfere with this to a great extent, so security is a key feature of success as well.
The most ideologically-driven insurgents will often “fight on” for years, but eventually become a criminal problem rather than a real political threat. Nonetheless, the apparent continuation of hostilities will often give the illusion of continued insurgency, but there is a point, which is very hard to describe or pinpoint, that insurgency degrades into a condition that looks more like Timothy McVeigh and less like Mao. That is the true tipping point, but it is often not clearly seen except in retrospect. That is a challenge for the government under threat of an insurgency, but it is even more of a challenge for the public support of international counterinsurgents; the home front.
National will is tested severely in counterinsurgencies. The will of the nation beset by an insurgency is severely tested, and the lives of its citizenry are at risk and often made miserable by the contest. The national will of nations assisting a counterinsurgency are also seriously tested, as we see in our own country. The significant delay in perception of when momentum actually shifts in a counterinsurgency is not a positive when it comes to maintaining public support for a course of action that includes active counterinsurgency by an international force.
The insurgency itself is also tested, and continuously so. Insurgents have natural strengths, such as the ability to remain largely difficult to detect. But they also have weaknesses or challenges to overcome, including morale, funding, recruitment, losses and sometimes even the basics like food and shelter. Weapons are not free, and neither is ammunition. In Afghanistan, it is remarkable that in many areas the insurgent can only afford to engage once every few days. This provides pressure on the insurgents to keep supplies coming. When governance improves and security is improved, local public support becomes harder to come by and information regarding the insurgents will begin to trickle in.
If things continue to improve, many pressures are put on the part-timers to quit showing up for ambushes. Finally, the local die-hards don’t quite quit at that point and probably never will. These long-term local engagements with insurgents are the real chess games in Afghanistan. They are like that weird 3-D game of chess on Star Trek, because each instance of the game will have three main components; military/security, governance and economic development. This game of 3-D chess is normally played out between locally savvy elder insurgents, generally one or more local GIRoA officials, and a series of Captains and Lieutenant Colonels who are on the ground for a year at a time. In the past couple of years, it has increasingly included USAID and State Department personnel. The insurgent competes in the military/security and governance lines and sometimes in the development line, although the insurgency itself provides little in the way of economic development.
By exception, in Afghanistan, poppy provides a significant example of how insurgents can provide development to serve their purposes. Of course, it’s not what we would like to see in long-term, sustainable development, but I submit that it is an example of insurgents manipulating the economy and providing employment opportunities. Insurgents may also control the access of humanitarian organizations to create the impression of providing services or development. However, there is no strong evidence that not providing social services has ever led to the failure of an insurgency. There is also no strong evidence that the provision of social services will result in a government win. Providing effective and acceptable governance, on the other hand, unarguably does often result in government wins. The provision of social services is a feel-good action that is not synonymous with good governance.
Statistically, the longer an insurgency is dragged out, the incidents of counterinsurgent wins actually increase slightly. But the loss or unreliability of foreign support has been a significant factor in a number of insurgent wins. Foreign forces engaged in counterinsurgencies are successful a little less than 50 percent of the time; if “government wins” is the measure of success as used by Rand. However, if we consider a success to include negotiated solutions that bring an end to insurgency, then the success rate of foreign active interventions is 12 of 17 or 70%.
As we’ve seen, about two thirds of insurgencies end with what could be termed success for the sitting government. While the outright collapse of insurgencies is included in that two thirds, more often it is by degrees and may include negotiated settlements. Quite often, it is months after the tipping point is reached before it is apparent that an insurgency is subsiding.
This describes how insurgencies have tended to work out, and a few examples of how these principles apply in Afghanistan. Obviously, we are trying to work this one into the two thirds of “successful” outcomes.
A success will sound more like a whimper than a bang. This doesn’t sit so well in a country that likes touchdowns, home runs and actually seeing someone win on “The Biggest Loser” or “American Idol.” Yet, that’s exactly what we are striving for. The next question is, “How do we fit Afghanistan into that successful, whimpering two thirds?”
There were some questions and comments left in comments on the last post, and they deserved response. I’d like to answer these questions and add some observations to the comments.
This would be appropriate to ask….is what’s happening in Egypt and what happened in Tunisia, insurgency?
I haven’t been tracking on Tunisia long enough to know if there was an insurgency there or not prior to the outbreak of popular demonstrations. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence and so they are not an insurgent group, although they have some of the hallmarks of being a nascent insurgency. One of these hallmarks is being outside of the normal political process; but Muslim Brotherhood candidates instead run as independents and hold seats in the Egyptian legislature, which makes them part of the political process.
Insurgency is where politics meets violence, but not all political violence is insurgency. For instance, Timothy McVeigh thought he was an insurgent, but he had no significant base of support and very little organized militant support. Instead of sparking a more widespread insurgency or, his dream response, a popular uprising, he was captured, charged, tried, convicted and executed as a criminal.
An organization like the Muslim Brotherhood could have developed into an insurgency quite easily, though. One of the reasons is because they have been banned by the Egyptian government on several occasions. This would push them towards not being able to participate legally in the political process. However, the members simply ran for Parliament as independents. The group still had political input and took part in the legitimate political process.
What appears to be happening in Tunisia and Egypt is every insurgent’s dream… sparking a spontaneous popular uprising. However, I see no evidence that either of these was sparked by insurgents. Opposition groups may have had a hand in their origins or propagation, but that is the difference between insurgency and popular uprising.
If the Egyptian uprising is quelled, especially by government violence against the people, without resolving the causes and conditions that sparked the unrest in the first place, an insurgency may (likely will) develop. If the government finds a way to address the grievances of the people and they return to their homes in a sign of acceding to the rule of the government, then change has been brought and the government survives. If the government does not succeed in assuaging the anger of the people, it may face either a popular revolt too powerful to quell or a launch into insurgency. This is a very delicate situation and could head in any of these directions based on the response of the government and particularly its choices regarding violence against the people.
Are insurgencies popular-led, or are they person-led?
Insurgency is that place on the political scale where one or more groups either fails to engage or is unable to engage in the “normal” political process and they become willing to kill in order to get their way. The willingness to kill is what separates it from just another opposition group.
Insurgencies must have leadership. The three things that exist to create an insurgency are grievances, leadership to direct that dissatisfaction into action, and a (real or perceived) weakness in governance. The weakness in government can be physical or ethical/ideological. Physical weakness is the inability to provide governance. Ethical/ideological weakness is the inability or unwillingness to govern in such a way that is acceptable to the people. This does not mean all of the people. It means that there must be a large enough portion of the people who are dissatisfied to support an insurgency. As we see in Afghanistan, that percentage can be quite small.
Most of the popular grievances will likely be based on ethical weakness, such as corruption or incompetence. However, the leadership of the various insurgencies are only taking advantage of these weaknesses in order to further their cause against the government, which is ideological. The higher up the insurgent strata we go, the more we will find ideological differences. Most people aren’t willing to kill over a bit of corruption in their local government. It can be brought to that point by leadership with either the promise of a new system that solves all of their problems (if those problems are severe enough) or a competing system that has the ability to dominate their lives on a relatively consistent basis. I believe that we see the latter in goodly areas of Afghanistan.
There are enough popular grievances against the existing government that some local residents are willing to throw in with the ideologically-based leadership. In Afghanistan, we find an ideological core that finds itself capable of competing for governance in many areas. This ability is often for lack of sufficient GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) presence to actually govern. In the lack of opposition or competition, the presence of that government may have been sufficient, but there is by definition competition to govern in these areas; they have designated “shadow governors” and administrations to varying degrees. Therefore, the weak government presence practically invites successful competition. Often the first organ of competitive government in Afghanistan can be found in the form of courts.
The leadership can be based upon one main leader and a lot of subordinate leaders, or it can be based on a disparate group of leaders who begin to cooperate. Local leadership is usually necessary, as otherwise the violence has no focus and becomes disconnected from the political goals. The thing that separates an insurgency from simple criminality is that the violence is performed in pursuit of a political goal, so that linkage has to be there. In any real insurgency, there will be leadership. That leadership will often be more ideologically driven than the part-time members or casual fighters.
Being ideologically driven, they will be students of insurgency, and so they will often study relevant materials (open-source warfare, anyone?). One of the things that Moa did extraordinarily well was to teach how to incorporate the real grievances of the people into the ideologically-based narrative of the insurgent. The number of “true believers” will be much smaller than the whole, but the rest of the whole needs to be mobilized. If you are an ideological insurgent leader, once you have mobilized more people, then you can work on their ideological “education.” They are already on your side at that point. But they are not overwhelmingly drawn to your cause initially by ideology; you mobilized them due to their personal issues and concerns.
One of the strengths of insurgents is to identify these issues and concerns, real or imagined, and play upon those themes. They make it part of their narrative and work to convince the people of either the rightness of their cause or the inevitability of their victory.
Is an insurgency necessarily armed or can it be an action against, without again necessarily looking at a foreign power/ occupier or incumbent presidency (who by extension are supported by foreign powers)?
Insurgencies often do not start as armed movements. In Afghanistan, we have a previously armed group who were never dissolved. They melted away in the last days of the victory of the Northern Alliance, who were being assisted by American air power and combat forces, but they were never either annihilated or reintegrated in any way with the new government structure. Many did simply return to their homes or they never left them. Some, more recognizable to, for instance, American commanders had to flee. There a few FOBs built on land that is/was owned by absent Taliban leaders. One that I have visited several times, FOB Khogyani, was literally built around a Taliban commander’s house.
In any case, there was an armed cadre left over from the old regime. Some were “hiding in plain sight” and still intimidating their neighbors. Others fled to Pakistan, from whence some have returned and some find it more useful to remain safe. But they pre-existed the current government. After a period of latency, they reasserted themselves. The insurgency, like the counterinsurgency, has evolved.
But, by definition, insurgency opposes a government or other “ruling force,” like an occupation (which our forces in Afghanistan are not). The Afghan insurgencies oppose GIRoA and seek to overthrow it in favor of their own form(s) of governance. As opposed to an opposition group (which may grow into an insurgency), an insurgency has crossed the line into violence. Must they be armed? At a minimum, they must be armed with a fist. Upgrades are often necessary to compete with the government asserting its monopoly on violence, however. Our modern insurgents have graduated from fist to RPG, AK, PKM and IED.
Last, is popular-people-power the new future of war and how are governments prepared to settle these conflicts, if they are?
This is a little more of a higher-level question, but it goes to Stability, so let’s take a shot at it a little.
The short answer is yes; at least for the foreseeable future… but it isn’t really a new problem. It’s a problem as old as governments themselves, but with the added capabilities that globalization has provided to sub-national or trans-national organizations.
People will take a lot of crap in order to maintain the status quo, but they can only be pushed so far or kept down so long. When there is enough popular disapproval, or pain, they will potentially explode at the slightest spark; like what we have in Egypt right now. Popular-people-power is how we believe, as Americans, that government should be established. What we seem to forget sometimes is our commitment to “self-determination of peoples.” In other words, if popular-people-power rises up and takes down a government, and the majority of them want to install a king rather than elect a president, as long as the people consent to be governed in that fashion, isn’t it in our best interests for that government to actually govern?
In any case, popular-people-power has been the ascendant power for centuries. Stable governments are cautious of it and actively address the concerns of the people. At a minimum, they don’t make them miserable. Instability can occur where there are either ideological or ethical issues with the government. In areas where there are both, all hell can break loose. A sitting government can actively address the concerns of the people and potentially remain seated, but by the time there are revolts such as the one in Egypt, it may be too late. The key figure in that government may have become personally reprehensible to the people. Such situations are rarely successfully salvaged.
So, the “new future of war?” No, we see this throughout history, such as our own history, or say, the French Revolution. However, if we look at the future of war in the near term, do we see large peer-competitors looming in the immediate future who seem bent on taking actions such that we would have to oppose them with armed might? I submit that the only potential competitor of such a nature would be China, and there is no real evidence at this point that they will embark on a scheme of world domination by force of arms.
North Korea is another potential flash point for conventional war, but South Korea is much more capable than most give credit for, and I don’t believe that North Korea could successfully attack South Korea. I feel that this is unlikely to occur, though constant saber-rattling is to be expected.
We are currently faced by an ideological outbreak that is fueled in part by political, social and economic factors that drive people to look for answers. This is not an isolated instance of this. For some throughout history, the answer has been religion. For others, the answer was more secular; like Communism. Regardless, there are a bunch of people who are looking for answers as to why their situations suck; and what can be done about it. For this particular outbreak, the seekers are Muslim and for many, the answer found is in religion. For the hardcore ideologues, their interpretation of the religious basis for their solution includes a couple of ideas that make them remarkably poor world citizens… and a danger to the citizens of nations whom they deem to be a part of their problem; like us.
They are driven by an ideology that includes, as have some interpretations of Christianity that have been accepted down through the ages, the concept that God has commissioned them to conquer the world for Him. It is their duty. Does every Muslim subscribe to this theory? No, clearly not. But the ones who do are transnational ideologues who are not constrained by national identity. In fact, the weaker their host, the more they like it. Good examples of excellent host entities would be the Afghan government under the Taliban, the largely ungoverned spaces in western and northwestern Pakistan, Yemen and various African nations. Ungoverned or under-governed spaces are good havens for global insurgents.
You asked about the nature of warfare, but it’s not just a warfare challenge. It could also be considered a foreign policy challenge. We are learning in Afghanistan that these challenges are not always best dealt with militarily. Fully two thirds of the effort in Afghanistan is actually civilian in nature. Stability is not simply reliant upon security or the ability to project force effectively. It also depends upon governance and economic capacity.
Stability is a good thing for other nations, particularly well-developed nations, because we get blamed for the perception of “being in control.” That makes us a target, because we are seen as part of a system that keeps the governments in place that many consider to be oppressive, such as that in Egypt.
It appears that the future of conflict in the next couple of decades will be driven by non nation-state entities who have the ability to project violence on what was formerly a nation-state scale. But that doesn’t mean that it is just a military problem. As we are learning in Afghanistan, there are other tools of foreign policy that can be leveraged to avoid conflict altogether. Of course, cutting all funding for USAID, as proposed recently in Congress, is not going to make it any easier to deal with these issues through capacity building and raises the likelihood that the problems will progress to a scale where military intervention becomes more attractive.
The question is whether we choose to deal with potential safe havens for extremists via a shift in foreign policy oriented towards capacity building or whether we will depend on our intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security and eventually punitive or regime-changing military action. Our recent experiences with regime change demonstrates how difficult, expensive and dangerous that can be.
I still cannot understand, even after seeing it firsthand in OIF, the ability of a small number of violent insurgents to cow whole villages into silence. It’s not like weapons are scarce in either Iraq of AFG, so why does it take so much for the people to fight back?
A good parallel to the situation in places like Afghanistan or Iraq is what happens in a neighborhood here in the United States when the neighborhood is beset by drug-related gang violence. As a matter of fact, police departments are studying COIN doctrine because there are so many parallels. The dynamics of insurgency are remarkably similar to the dynamics of organized criminality. The parallels even go to the point that strong drug-funded gangs sometimes actually compete for governance, becoming “the law” in discrete areas where even the police are intimidated, never mind the local population. Relatively small groups of armed individuals can cow entire communities with the threat of violence. Sometimes they can overwhelm local law enforcement with their capabilities.
The real difference between criminal drug gangs and true insurgents is that the gangs lack a truly political goal. This demonstrates the political nature of insurgency. But the dynamics are similar, and so we can see how a group of people can be cowed into submission by a much smaller group that is ready and willing to use violence as a tool.
Now add to that the conditioning that Afghan civilians have undergone in the past several decades. Survival strategies include avoidance of commitment. The average Afghan isn’t so different from the average American in a lot of ways, including a desire to just make it through the current troubles and emerge on the other side… whatever that may look like… still alive and with their family more or less intact. When the end result of taking a stand can include death, it may seem reckless to take that stand. Keeping those people on the fence is part of the insurgent strategy.
But none of that will work until you can clean out most of the corruption. Even clean cops won’t help if the lawyers and judges are dirty.
Great point, and very true. This is precisely the issue that causes the most heartbreak for GIRoA in many areas of Afghanistan. The Judicial system is a wreck, and you are right; clean cops who keep running into this wall of (in)justice get frustrated and often wind up taking part in this “race for corruption.” Every person who enters the system becomes a potential miniature gold mine. Those who can’t pay are eaten.
That is precisely one of the conditions that not only keeps the insurgency alive by convincing people, one family at a time, that the current government does not serve them. It is also that weak link that insurgents target to provide shadow government services, in this case courts. Courts that the people will willingly use because they are swift, enforceable and (relatively) incorrupt. Absolutely Maoist in strategy and behavior, the Afghan insurgency is finding that in this area they can easily out-govern the government.
Now ask me how that can be overcome.
From an email from a friend, MP, seeking input on understanding Afghanistan:
I’m missing a narrative for the war in Afghanistan. That certainly needs to start at the very top of the civilian leadership, be reinforced by military leadership, and be lived by all involved.
I mean, if you ask most people what it’s about they might be able to say something about denying the enemy (AQ, Taliban) a safe haven from which to operate and hurt us at home.
And I think many people who read milblogs might be able to tell you a story or two about individual courage and sacrifice amongst our warriors.
But what is totally absent is the whole middle part. In Iraq, the Army didn’t do a great job with that either, but they did put out some stuff that the milblogs were able to amplify with their coverage.
For example, where are the Travis Patriquins of the war in Afg? The COL MacFarlands? They brought Petraeus back but where is he? Where are the stories that Roggio used to cover so well, talking about the Anbar Awakening before it was called that? Or giving context to operations like those which severed the “ratlines” from Syria?
The military doesn’t even seem to bother with dopey stories about opening schools or helping farmers anymore. That’s pretty bad! Because if they did even that, perhaps some bloggers would publish them with commentary that could stimulate thinking and conversation.
What MP is actually looking for is that mid- to low-level narrative that describes what our Soldiers and Marines are doing on the ground. Of course, my response is to go on about statements of national strategy. But that’s where the narrative begins. I will tell you that the mid- to low-level narrative is stronger on the ground in Afghanistan… at least in some circles… than it is here. There is such a tremendous disconnect between the national conversation regarding Afghanistan here in the US and what is actually being done on the ground over there. That disconnect has left gaping holes in the narrative here, and those gaping holes leave broad spaces where there is no ability to connect with what our Soldiers and Marines are actually doing there on a day-to-day basis. This is where MP senses the lack of narrative; it is the narrative that MP looks for and wishes to connect with. And, sadly, it’s missing. From my perspective, that comes from the top.
The missing narrative starts with the civilian leadership and extends from there. The civilian leadership doesn’t know how to clearly articulate its goals in a simple and accurate message. Obama states some fairly nebulous goals that appear to be disconnected from our actions on the ground. I mean, for the average citizen, what does rendering al Qaeda harmless have to do with “nation-building” in Afghanistan? Isn’t al Qaeda mostly in Pakistan now? What about Yemen? The narrative is broken from the top down, from that first sentence. It’s a failure in leadership, leaving a vacuum that is filled with a sea of voices all shouting to be heard. People try to interpret the narrative from that sentence on down, and the lack of clarity in instilling a visualization of what it’s supposed to look like juxtaposed with actions that don’t seem to entirely suit the scant high-level narrative leaves a lot of room for that cacophony to grow. The individual voices in that sea are influenced by their own standpoints and goals. Most just repeat buzzwords and really can’t envision the problem they are trying to solve with any clarity themselves. It’s outside of their frame of reference, which often gets more rigid with age and not more flexible.
In warfare in general, but counterinsurgency in particular, there are always at least three narratives, but they respond to each other and bounce off of each other. There is the official narrative, the unofficial narrative (the media), and then there is the enemy narrative, which is compared to and contrasted against the official narrative. The unofficial or popular (media) narrative is critical of the official narrative; it questions it, explores it and hammers it when it is in any way deficient, false or inconsistent. The enemy narrative is often delivered unfiltered and without substantive critique.
No one here in the US has a clear grasp of what is going on there, but oh so many cry out to be heard. With the “official” narrative weaker than water, it’s easy to lose reality in the sea of voices who shout down each other in competition to become the main narrative. Again, it’s a question of leadership, and at the upper levels, our leadership’s message is weak. The mid and lower level messages will stem from the overarching narrative, but that overarching narrative doesn’t seem to describe what we are actually doing on the ground, and so there is a disconnect. It cannot begin with GEN Petraeus’ narrative. His narrative must support and inform the national discourse. Without the underpinnings of a clear statement that his narrative dovetails with, it is cast adrift and easily derided as being somehow unsupported and unsupportable. The last general who tried to command the narrative, unsupported by the civilian leadership, is now in unscheduled retirement.
Disconnects leave a vacuum, and politics (the narratives are all about politics), like nature, abhors a vacuum. Communications abhors a vacuum as well, and competing interests will always vie for influence over the narrative… especially when the narrative has no central theme. Afghanistan is more confusing than Iraq in many ways, and so the narrative is difficult to begin with, but our national narrative is so scattered that it almost seems not to exist. MP is not the only one who misses it and looks for it. Everyone does in one way or another, and so the dominant narrative here is a disjointed argument over bullshit.
For me, what is most troubling about this disconnect are the memes that arise from the cacophony and eventually become accepted as truths. Folks, a lot of our “talking heads” are talking out of the other end, but they sound so sage while doing it that when they further a meme, you wouldn’t know it. And they’re paid to know what they’re talking about, right? Yeah, in a perfect world. There are only a couple of journalists out there who know COIN from a hole in the ground. It’s like chewing broken glass to listen to them flail away at the concept. It’s stunning that some of most educated observers who do understand it cannot enunciate it clearly, and when they do they are shouted down by the mass of voices competing to gain control of the narrative left adrift, often for their own reasons. There is no room for a consistent mid- or low-level narrative to emerge from this. Military commentators like COL Gentile and politically-driven think-tankers like Michael Cohen wouldn’t be able to propagate their memes if the successes that do exist were properly documented and narrated. They would be forced to think harder and be more rigorous in their criticisms. Cohen and Gentile’s personal narratives haven’t progressed in over three years because they haven’t needed to. They, and others, can criticize a weakly stated strategy easily with broad and unsupported strokes and reduce the narrative to a squabble over tactics that could be put to bed readily with an accurate tactical narrative that didn’t look like a kaleidoscope.
What would our narrative look like? I don’t think that “feel good” type stories of the type that we saw in the early days would do it for me. Building schools always looks good, but it may not be the best thing for a given community at a given time. Stories that give the background of why a decision has been made, that show the details of really excellent stabilization activities would really grab me. I would love to see a narrative about the successes that Community Development Councils have achieved while our Soldiers and Marines helped to provide the requisite bubble of security, working hand in hand with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). A narrative that shows our young men and women, both civilian and military, engaging in reestablishing local capacity to manage their own affairs in a mode higher than basic survival mode would be awesome; because this is happening in discrete local areas in Afghanistan. A narrative that shows that the shift is happening from a centralized government focus to building the solid footing of local governance would be great. A strong narrative would show that these traditional local structures have in the past and can now be linked in an Afghan way to a central government, that this cross-pollination of legitimacy at the local and national levels is an Afghan phenomenon and that we are learning to foster this. A great narrative would put to rest the exotification of Afghans, showing them for the human beings that are more similar to our great grandparents than we are. A great narrative would show the progress that our Soldiers and Marines are risking life and limb to enable, and the hard work being done by smart people from USAID and State to assist. A great narrative would show the heroism not only of these best and brightest that America has to offer, but would also highlight the heroism of our Afghan allies (which I know is there, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes). Now that would be a narrative.
It would also be a narrative that would engender truly thoughtful and incisive criticism which would lead to sharpening the edge rather than being mere oppositional horseshit. A true dialog would be a lot more helpful than a bunch of shrieking voices all in opposition to each other, almost none of which really know what they’re talking about.
Information dominance starts with strongly and clearly stating your objectives and then ensuring that all of your actions are in support of that clearly stated goal. When everyone knows what right is supposed to look like, then they can recognize what wrong looks like and offer truly constructive criticism. A real narrative would look more like a steady stream of consciousness instead of a cacophony of geese staking out nesting sites.
Yeah, MP, we are all missing that narrative.
…When they’ve killed 13 people and wounded 42 more in a botched rocket attack?
“We didn’t do it.”
We were cordially invited to stay at FOB Kutschbach for a few extra days by the rotary wing folks, who bumped our return flight to a day earlier than scheduled. So, as we had some extra time on the ground, we did a foot patrol with the French, the PMT and the ANP through the Tagab bazaar a couple of days after the attack. Being that there were two of us, and we each had an interpreter, we were able to talk with the people we ran into at the bazaar. That is, when we weren’t being hurried along.
While asking people what village they were from, if their village and/or family had suffered any casualties, and how they felt about the attack, the story the Taliban was telling came out. First, they insisted that only one rocket was fired… so the other round must have come from either the Americans or the French on the FOB. Right there they shucked off half of the responsibility. Secondly, they insisted that the rocket was not fired by a Talib. They had, they insisted, “arrested” the man who had fired the “single” rocket, and they were investigating to discover who had paid him to fire the rocket into the crowded bazaar.
“Really?” I asked the man who conveyed this. “They are really saying this?”
“Yes. This is what they say,” he asserted.
“They really think that you are so stupid that you would believe something so ridiculous?”
Blank stare. The man searched for something… something that wasn’t coming.
“I’ve been talking with you for several minutes. You are going to go to college in Jalalabad to be a lawyer. I know that you are too smart to believe such a ridiculous lie.” Clearly, he wasn’t; but it was beginning to work on his brain.
He stammered a bit… the corners of his mouth began to curl upwards a little. He was stuck.
“If a man kills someone and you ask him if he’s done it, he comes up with a stupid story about how it wasn’t him, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, hesitantly.
“So that you won’t want to kill him,” I continued.
“Well…” he shifted uncomfortably.
“So then he thinks that if you believe him, then you are a fool. You would be foolish then, right?” I pressed.
“Yes, that would be foolish,” he agreed.
“But you are too smart to believe a foolish lie, aren’t you? You are smarter than that, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am smarter than that,” he agreed.
“The Taliban think you are very stupid people, but you are not so stupid, right?” I offered him a way out.
“Right. We are smarter than that.” The men gathered around began nodding their heads.
It’s not like I could undo the damage done after the Taliban IO (Information Operation) had time, unfettered, to respond to the catastrophe that they had caused among their neighbors. Their gaff was like a kid who throws rocks at a house and breaks a window and then runs away. If confronted by the homeowner later, he comes up with a creative story about someone else breaking the window. Except this rock-throwing nimrod was throwing rockets, and he had killed innocent people.
The French had found rocket fragments from two rockets. One was Chinese and the other of Russian manufacture. They did not get the word out immediately. In fact, the reaction of the French leadership was to cancel a mission that they had planned and “wait it out.” They did not hit the streets immediately, telling the story and showing the rocket fragments to everyone they could find. This gave the Taliban time to concoct a ludicrous lie that, in the absence of any information to the contrary, some people were believing.
The fact is that on the morning of the attack, we were informed that there was some intelligence to indicate that the Taliban were going to attack the District Center that day. The reason was that there was a French General who would be participating in a Shura with local elders and the Sub-governor of Tagab District. COL Z, the local ANP Chief who is much-hated by the Taliban, and the ANA commander would also be there. As with all intelligence, there are a lot of red herrings. The PMT joked about the odds of actually being attacked. But, at roughly 12:30, twin booms rang out from the nearby bazaar. The French quickly identified the site of the launch, a site that the Taliban frequently use to launch rockets at FOB Kutschbach… often missing. This time they missed their mark by a scant 200 meters… just enough to land them in the bazaar, crowded by shoppers stocking up for the Eid celebration on a market day.
The 107mm (4.2 inch) rocket is not a precision weapon system. When tube launched, it is an area weapon. You can get it into a general area, but you cannot ensure a precision hit. When launched Afghan-style… propped up on rocks… it is an order of magnitude less certain. To launch these weapons from four kilometers away at a site which is so close to the bazaar on a bazaar day is criminally negligent at best.
These weapons were fired with a total disregard for civilian lives. It was akin to firing high explosives into a mall during the Christmas shopping season.
The 107mm warhead packs a wallop, but it is notorious for its horrible fragmentation pattern. The warhead casing fragments unevenly, often throwing out very large fragments in a haphazard manner. This undoubtedly spared some while mutilating others. Civilians were torn asunder, some left in bloody heaps while others lost limbs instantly. Still others were injured by flying chunks of rock. One rocket impacted near the place where people shopped for livestock for their Eid feast, not unlike our Thanksgiving Dinner. Livestock and citizens alike were shredded by razor-sharp, white-hot fragments. The carnage was horrendous.
As the shocked survivors gathered themselves and the bazaar emptied in a frenzy, severely wounded shoppers dragged themselves away from the center of the disaster. Colonel Z sprinted out the gate of the District Center, four ANP running to keep pace as their Chief ran into the dust and smoke left on the wake of the high explosive warheads. The Colonel lifted injured people into vehicles and dispatched them to either the FOB or the District Center. Within minutes, casualties began to arrive for French and American medics to triage and treat. The Colonel helped retrieve six dead from the litter of blood and body parts. The families took their dead directly home. More would die later from their wounds. Few villages were left unscathed by the toll. Everyone I spoke with a couple of days later knew someone who had perished or been wounded.
“You notice,” Colonel Z mentioned later, “that no one took their casualties to the Taliban for medical treatment. They brought them to the FOB, or to the District Center. They depended on the government or its allies for help when they needed it.”
This is true. That’s what the people did.
There is a “Radio-in-a-box” setup at FOB Kutschbach, broadcasting to the people of the Tagab Valley. The local commander offered the elders an opportunity to come and denounce the attack on the radio. Only one man, Colonel Z, came and denounced the Taliban for their cowardly act. All the other elders declined. So, as they sat watching, the enemy began their damage-control campaign.
“We didn’t do it. We caught the man who did, but he only fired one rocket. The Americans or the French fired the other one. We didn’t do it…”
Just as when untrained nimrods in the United States have money for weapons that they have no business possessing, the same is true in Afghanistan. The Afghan version of a drive-by is the 107mm rocket. Another wondrous Russian invention, it, along with the Kalashnikov and the RPG are the cheap, profligate weapons of the world. The 107 is relatively simple, and while not all that easily transportable, it can be moved significant distances by primitive means. They are often hauled by donkeys in Afghanistan.
I returned to Tagab (Tag Ab) a few days ago on a mission. FOB Kutschbach has really grown. Those who were here when the FOB was started would scarcely recognize the place. This morning, shortly after our arrival at the District Center where we were going to work with the ANP for the day, there was a report that insurgents were going to target the District Center with rockets. Such reports are often without merit, and we joked with the Police Mentor Team about the odds that it would actually happen. A Shura was in progress with the new French commander, his ANA and ANP counterparts, and local leaders. A little after 12:30, two explosions rocked the crowded bazaar just past the gates of the District Center. The insurgents had missed an area large enough to play several soccer games simultaneously and instead hit the bustling market about midday on bazaar day.
A CROW gunner in one of the MRAPS nearby announced that he had spotted a group on a nearby mountain that he thought may have been involved. Mortars at FOB Kutschbach launched a number of rounds at the probable POO (Point Of Origin) site. The local ANP Chief, a heroic individual who I’ve written about before, ran up into the bazaar with four ANP. Soon ANP trucks were summoned to assist with evacuating the casualties. The Chief later stated that at least six civilians had been killed and another 26 wounded. Four casualties were brought to the District Center, where French and American medics stabilized them before loading them into French vehicles and rushing to them to FOB Kutschbach for further treatment.
One man had a serious wound to his upper thigh. Bloody clothing lay against his skin over the pressure bandage the French had placed on him. He had clearly lost a good deal of blood, but he was conscious and able to talk. An apparently secondary bloody wound on his left temple awaited treatment while the medics started an IV. Fluids began to flow into the wounded man. A family member clutched his ankle, staying just out of the way as the medics worked to ensure that the man did not sink into deadly shock.
The ANP said that a small boy with a chest wound was being brought in. SFC Tobago, the PMT Medic, called for his bag. As I arrived with the medical bag the boy, on a stretcher, was placed on the ground. His shirt was open, a bandage on his chest. Terror showed through his pain-clouded eyes. Dried blood streaked his chest, his navel a pool of blood. One of my interpreters assisted in communicating with the boy, who was able to talk in spite of his great pain. He was very frightened, the fear clearly communicated in his small voice; but he did not cry. He bore his pain stoically.
The insurgents will claim a successful attack or, failing that, will claim that the civilians died or were seriously wounded because of the presence of coalition troops. “If the coalition were not here,” they will say, “we would have no reason to be shooting in the first place.” This is like a criminal blaming his victim for having had possessions in the first place. In May of 2007, Tagab was a home of terror. The Taliban and HiG were clearly in control of this area. An NDS agent was hung in the central circle of the bazaar, his murderers forbidding the removal of the body for three days, in violation of Islamic law. Two days after I first arrived in Afghanistan in April, 2007, the local insurgents pinned the ANP down for an entire day in what served at the time as a District Center, firing thousands of rounds in that same bazaar area. The coalition were nowhere near. If the Coalition weren’t here, the people would still be living under the sway of the types of people who hang their rivals in the square and forbid people from cutting down the body for a decent burial. The people of Tagab would still be living in a world where supposedly religious people violate religious principles in order to make their political statements. Civilians would still be dying… but there would be no one to blame. They would have no need to blame anyone. The answer at that point was simply, “We are in control, and you are not. If you don’t like it, and you complain, we may kill you; so shut up.”
If the Coalition weren’t here, there would be no reason to be insurgents. They could return to the civil war that tore Afghanistan to pieces after the Soviets left and also when the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance for years. Of course they are going to blame the coalition; because they cannot take responsibility for a couple of things.
First, they cannot live within the social contract. They want so desperately to be in charge that they refuse to work within the political framework to try to include their ideas in the national dialogue. They don’t want a dialogue; they want to make all the rules. So they blame others for the result of their sociopathic behavior.
Secondly, they cannot take responsibility for their own horrible proficiency with weapons. Afghan insurgents are notoriously inaccurate, rarely actually hit what they are shooting at, and frequently kill civilians with their idiotic use of explosives, small arms and rockets. Monkeys from any zoo would be able to engage targets more effectively than the average Taliban. This idiotic “military” or “insurgent” behavior has resulted in many more civilian deaths than the Afghan Government and Coalition militaries combined.
To take responsibility for not only their lack of political acceptance and acceptability but also their total amateur status with weapons ranging from jugs of homemade explosives to rockets in excess of four inches in diameter would seriously alienate not only Afghan civilians but also the world community. No, that’s just not going to happen. Instead, it’s everyone’s fault but their own. Well, today I witnessed the horrendous results of insurgent unprofessionalism. There is no one to blame for that young, terrified boy with a hole in his chest but a bunch of thugs who cannot grow up and behave like reasonable men capable of living in a society where they are not guaranteed having everything their way.
There are lots of people who are tired of war. The young men and women on their third and fourth deployments are tired of war. Some say that the Afghans are tired of war, while others point out that if they were truly tired of war, they would perhaps cease fighting. Matthew Hoh is tired of war.
When you tire of war, the reason for fighting gets lost in the shuffle. The immediate emotion of it all fades and the real work begins. The young often picture war as an adventure. Some picture it as a righteous cause, with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” wafting through the whole scene.
War is hard work.
War is not glamorous. War is dirty, it is occasionally exceedingly violent; but mostly it is tedious and boring. Especially this type of war. There are some areas of Afghanistan that see activity on a daily basis. Most do not. Helmand, Khost, Kunar and some other places in Afghanistan have relatively constant conflict, with active insurgencies that threaten the peace on a daily basis. Other places are relatively calm, with spates of violent outbursts that shatter the day-to-day routine of Afghan life with smoky, dusty, noisy destruction.
There is no truly national solution for all of Afghanistan. Each area has its own particular situation and broad generalizations simply do not work in this country. Afghanistan is largely rural, and all politics is local. Each place requires specific knowledge of the area, the drivers, the personalities and the issues of particular concern. Foreign knowledge wins nothing here. Experience elsewhere is no guarantee of success here. The lessons of Iraq are often counter-productive here, especially the hard-won TTP’s that assisted in survival in the urban violence. Here, they are often an over-reaction that only alienates those whose trust we are working so hard to gain.
When the zest for war has long-since drained, it takes a special kind of motivation to keep going day-by-day and still putting effort into it. I have seen those who have stacked arms after a few months, thereafter taking the easy way. I have seen those who once had a fire in their belly who have run out of wind, their endurance spent, they are no longer mentally capable of making their way through productively. They become, at times, worse than dead weight. There are those who just flat lose their minds. They lose their grasp of the why, and their disillusionment becomes worse than an anchor dragging their souls against the sandy bottom of the sea of time. It becomes a sail that catches the headwind and drives them backwards.
Perhaps that is what happened to Matt Hoh. I don’t live in his head, so I don’t really know. There has been much discussion in the past day or so about his letter of resignation. One of the young Captains expressed a type of admiration for his having the “courage of his convictions.” I’m not inclined to be so charitable. I think he’s a loser. I think he’s perhaps an example of how some of the young “whiz kids” are not what they seem to be; that a 36 year old may not have what it takes to be the senior civilian officer in charge of our government’s efforts in one of Afghanistan’s provinces. A Marine officer, one of the many Captains to have left the services without rising to Field Grade rank during this war… perhaps out of fatigue… he then joined the civilian ranks and worked in Iraq as a contractor. Visit his LinkedIn page and see that the longest period of time he’s listed as staying in one place is a year and half. Not exactly a stellar resume, in terms of what civilian employers would look for in a hiring decision. Look at the types of contacts he’s open to… new opportunities, consulting jobs, that type of thing.
He’s a job-hopper.
Matthew Hoh is not a shining example of American intellectual might carefully applied to the problem of Afghanistan. He was only in this country since April. Hell, he scarcely had time to learn anything other than, “This shit is really hard.”
It made his head hurt.
Why are we hiring people like Matt Hoh to do important work in troubled provinces in Afghanistan? That’s the question that we should be asking. One of the officers here met him while working in Zabul Province earlier this year. I asked him what he thought of Hoh.
“He was a dick.”
Short, succinct, to the point. This officer was an embedded combat advisor who knows more than the average bear about insurgency and counterinsurgency. He’s been an officer longer than Hoh has held any one position in his life… going by his own LinkedIn page, that is. The officer worked with real Afghans in real situations on the ground in Zabul Province for months. In my opinion, the officer’s opinion holds water.
As for the “courage of his convictions,” Matthew Hoh has now positioned himself, career-wise, better than he ever was as a contracted officer with the State Department with a one-year contract. He is, for today, the hero of the Huffington Post. However, he has thrown himself into the dustbin of history. He’s a quitter, and while some may say that he quit on principle, the most telling line of his own resignation is this one:
“…I have lost understanding of… ”
Yes, young Matthew, you have lost understanding. Judging from the other information, I’m not sure that you ever had any, really. I am not feeling very understanding towards Hoh, either. Hoh admitted that there was a timing issue in his resignation. He has now been doing interviews, playing the instant celebrity, and he’s been getting his share of pats on the back from the “my head hurts” crowd. In one for the Washington Post, he says,
I am happy for the attention to my issues and to the points I am raising, because I believe they have been absent in the public debate of the war.
Ah, so it’s a statement. This is not one man heeding his conscience. It is one man using his position, and his resignation from it, to influence policy through public opinion. That’s what he tells us. He believes… what he wants for us to see. He admits in his interview with the Post that he had doubts, and that he had studied Afghanistan, and then that his experience here confirmed what he thought… so he resigned. Because to him, that’s service.
In other words, he is so damned principled, and so damned intelligent, that he knows better than all the other people who have spent years and years on these issues, as well as the elected officers of our government. He knows so much, and so well, that his resignation… made public by himself and now on an interview tour… is so damned important that this minor ex-functionary with a PRT should influence public opinion?
He spent only a few short months on the ground here and then quits… to much publicity, which he undoubtedly generated by releasing the resignation letter. I sense purpose. Hmmm.
This week, Hoh is scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, at Blinken’s invitation.
Yep… that makes sense. Joining Team Biden may be in the works then, eh? I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Pretty consistent… he’ll fit right in.
Now, let’s take a look at the real importance of such a man, the most senior of three State Department officials in Zabul Province. That is a man who has risen in the ranks to oversee the efforts of two other civilian officials in the PRT in Zabul. Wow. Really important guy. Very effective. He admitted to achieving pretty much of nothing while he was there but felt that he had “represented” well.
I don’t think so. It’s easy to be impressive for short periods of time. It’s harder to actually do real things in this country that do make a difference over a long period of time. I find that Mr. Hoh is singularly unimpressive. He claims great expertise with only a few months experience in this country, and now demands that his words have great sway in a very important debate. He will have his fifteen minutes of fame, and then he will fade. In the larger picture, he’s nobody. Instead of doing what he can to make a real difference in a tough situation, he has cashed in his chips and run away from any responsibility. He was offered a seat at the table where he could perhaps fight the good fight and influence policy, but he chose not to. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, will take pleasure in his current behavior and hire him in. Hoh will not starve from lack of work. He may very well wind up working with the rest of the foreign policy rocket scientists on Team Biden. But, as in this case, he will disappoint and wind up with another sub-two-year job on his resume.
In the meantime, I think that the State Department needs to look at its hiring practices and determine why it is attracting such people and missing the indicators (a year and a half max in the past eight years or so) that may indicate an inability to make the long term contribution that is needed. They also need to take a look at the commitment level of those it is considering hiring. Hoh was not deeply committed when he arrived, and he conveys that clearly in his interview. How did the hiring authorities at State miss that? How did his supervisor not recognize the growing problem and do what supervisors are supposed to do? How did the PRT commander not recognize that Hoh needed counseling, that he had, in his own words, “lost his understanding?”
War is tiring. It’s really, really hard on those who have difficulty in keeping the same job for awhile. Perhaps now he sees himself as finally saving the drowning men. When Hoh’s fifteen minutes are up, I will not miss him. While Ambassador Eikenberry was overly civil to him, I am not. Hoh’s reppenhagen in my book. He has joined the ranks of the infamous.