Recently, an email came in from an officer who quoted an ANP chief in a district in which I did some work as a mentor. The ANP chief said that he was looking forward to winter so that the leaves on the trees could no longer the Taliban and he could kill them all. Fair’s fair, after all. They’ve repeatedly tried to kill him.
He’s been wounded twice since I’ve known him.
We were getting ready to do a conference for trainers from all over the Army and some of our Coalition allies, and it was brought up how great it would be to have the ANP chief, a Colonel, come and speak to these officers and senior NCO’s about his experiences. Since I knew him, I said that I could perhaps help. Through a series of communications, we were able to get through to the Colonel and schedule time for him to come and speak.
I met the Colonel just over two years ago. He had been handed a very challenging district and was struggling to turn it around. He was cheerful, soft-spoken and, I was to learn, fearless. Whenever word came of ANP troops involved in a fight, he gathered more ANP soldiers and ran towards the sound of the guns. He was wounded and nearly lost his hand in one fight. An American medic twice braved fire to run the length of the convoy to work on the wounded ANP officer. He was never recognized for his bravery, because the American officer in charge at that point put himself in for a Silver Star for the action. Recognizing the medic was not on the agenda. The ANP Colonel was medevac’ed to an American hospital and his hand was saved.
He was wounded again just over a year later, this time in the chest. Again he was flown to an American hospital and recovered. His driver was also wounded in the ambush which was set specifically for him. He hates the Taliban and they hate him back.
The Colonel has also made massive changes in his district. While certainly not entirely free of insurgency, the district is a far cry from the condition it was in during the spring and early summer of 2007. I’m going to go and revisit the district soon. The Colonel tells me that it is very different from when I last saw it. I hope so; it was viewed with considerable foreboding back then. The ANP have also improved.
In the early summer of 2007, the ANP would scarcely leave their district center for fear of attack by very strong insurgent forces. At least one officer was a Taliban spy, and two officers were running an arms trafficking ring along with a local baker. The district was a mess. The bazaar was an ugly smear running alongside the only major road. The Taliban and HiG held sway. An NDS officer was hanged in the village square and an order given not to cut him down. His body hung for three days as a warning to all not to aid or participate in the government. The town, and the district named for it, have changed.
Police checkpoints line the road and dot the valley. ANP move about at will, and there is a sense of hope. The road is paved now. Schools are functioning and the bazaar thrums with activity. The town has a new lease on life. Most of the ANP that were on the payroll in 2007 have been replaced. The Colonel has hired many from other areas, bypassing any tendency towards cronyism or local favoritism. He was not alone, and he thanks his American mentors and the Coalition soldiers who have assisted in the long, hard road to recovery for one district in Afghanistan.
The Colonel was delayed a full day in reaching us. He was ambushed at a spot I know well as he drove to be with us. All were okay, but he was delayed.
Although we had shared much conversation, time and a few missions, I wondered if the Colonel would recognize me. He did, and a hug was accompanied by greetings in Dari, which is much better than my atrophied Pashto. We exchanged typical Afghan greetings, inquiring into each other’s health, and the health of the family. He was curious what we wanted him to speak about. I told him, “Just share your experiences. Tell us how the district has changed. Tell us about the fight, and how it is going. Tell us about your experiences with mentors. Tell us about getting along with the ANA and the Coalition forces. Just be truthful.”
“I always tell the truth,” he said.
“Don’t spare our feelings,” I continued.
“I will tell them exactly how I feel,” he said, “we have nothing to fear from the truth.”
The Colonel is one of the most humble men I have ever met. Soft-spoken, I was concerned that he wouldn’t be an effective speaker. He spoke well, but didn’t overdo it. Always considerate, he left time at the end of the period he was allotted for questions, which he answered succinctly. Following a standing ovation, Major General Formica sought him out and presented him with his personal coin for excellence. Afterward, the Colonel stared at the coin in his hand, a distinctly U.S. Army bauble of military achievement, and discussed his experience of hearing speakers and speaking to all of the Coalition leadership he had addressed.
“This is very good, for everyone to learn from each other’s experiences,” he said, “and all of this needs to get out into the provinces, or it will do nothing.”
“And these officers must all realize that what works in Kabul is not right for the provinces and districts, because each one is different. If they only listen to the people in Kabul, but not in a district, they will not understand the district that they are in. They need to listen to the local people, who know what they need,” he continued.
“That’s why we asked you to come here,” I said. “I hope you will come back and speak again.”
“Whenever you call, then I will be here,” he said.
I think that he is the bravest man I have ever met.
Josh Foust over at Registan wrote recently about the attacks in Nuristan being part of a larger strategy, and also questioned the possibility that American presence increased violence there. I’m convinced that the latest attack in Nuristan is part of a larger operational strategy on the part of insurgents. Actually, I believe that it ties in to the persistent insurgent presence in the Tag Ab Valley of Kapisa. Numerous rat lines have existed through Kunar and Nuristan, many of them leading to Tag Ab, which ties them in to the ancient smuggling route that avoids the capital… or leads to it. There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in violence is tied to the increase in Coalition (and GIRoA) presence in Kunar and Nuristan. There was no reason for violence prior to the increased presence and control in Kunar and Nuristan, because they had free run of the area. The people were easily intimidated and there is significant appeal to residents because they are so isolated and fear outside (especially un-Islamic) presence. In this area, Arabs are preferable to Americans as far as the locals are concerned… and they bring money to pay for local men to participate.
Yes, Haqqani is more active in this area, but Haqqani has been pushing more to the southwest in seeking influence, whereas HiG has always been relatively strong along the rat lines from Pakistan and has always been stronger in Tag Ab than the Taliban. We did see Taliban and HiG cooperating in Tag Ab in 2007 and through to today. Haqqani is seeking, and having, more influence in Khost, for instance, but he is starting to run into QST and they are pushing back. Sirajudin Haqqani is more aggressive in this way than his father. During my service in Nuristan, it was well known that there were Arabic speakers in the local area, reputedly carrying large sums of money with which to pay part-time fighters, buy ammunition for them, etc. They would also transport 107mm rockets etc.
Remember, “Taliban” has become a catch-all word for the Coalition, whereas “Dushman” is the catch-all Afghan (cross-language) word. Various factions and even criminal elements can be lumped under or can attach themselves to the “Taliban” brand as it suits them. There is a significant criminal element in Nuristan, partially driven by the primary industry there, gem mining, which has been criminalized by the Afghan government because they do not have the capacity to manage and tax it. As the natural resources are considered the property of the government, they don’t want the gems mined until they can benefit from it, so they have criminalized gem mining. Whereas the opium crop is more prevalent in other provinces, here the driver is gems. Again, the “Taliban” blends with the criminal element to mutual benefit… but are they Taliban, Haqqani or HiG? All three names are heard locally. Haqqani’s faction is often just called, “Taliban” by the locals, so it’s hard to tell… at least that’s my take on it.
While all politics is local, it is tied to other local politics. The issues in Kunar and Nuristan are not disconnected from the problems in Tag Ab. It is part of a chain that leads back to Pakistan. In Tag Ab we didn’t get a lot of Arabic-speakers, but we did get significant Pakistani presence and also at one point a suspected Chechen cell was present, with a marked increase in the effects of small arms and RPG’s (after weeks of misses with RPG’s, there were 8 turret hits with RPG’s in a three week span and several head shots with aimed fire). This corresponded with information that one insurgent commander had agreed to accept “foreign” help, an action that caused actual firefights among sub-factions of insurgents in the Ala Say area in September of 2007. The brothers of two local commanders were killed in these clashes.
Also, the insurgents in Tag Ab have shown a remarkable ability to reinforce. Locals in the Ala Say area have been frustrated this year by the inability to clear the district of insurgents (again commonly referred to as Taliban but certainly including both Taliban and HiG elements).
The ability to mass forces for the assaults on both Wanat and Keating are very likely seasoned cadre brought in from Pakistan (both Afghan and foreign cadre), reinforced with locals who provide logistics support, shelter and fighters. A deal was struck in 2007 at Keating to stay out of the local villages in return for a lack of attacks. The villages were ceded to insurgent influence, but the Coalition and Afghan forces did not have the strength locally to quash the pressure (attacks) to acquiesce to the villages’ demands to keep out. They could not stop the attacks on Keating, so they agreed to the deal to cede the village. The deal struck pretty much guaranteed that insurgent influence would grow in the village over time. Keating has always been a thorn in the side of the insurgent rat lines, but never completely effective. Insurgent checkpoints have been well-known only a few kilometers north, still in the Kamdesh District. Insurgents operated relatively nearby as if they had impugnity for the past couple of years. Did Keating interfere with the rat lines? Yes. Were they capable of having a tremendous impact towards extending GIRoA control/legitimacy in Kamdesh District or Nuristan? No, not really.
There were different dynamics at work as far as proximal causes for the two attacks. Wanat was a case of quashing an outpost before it became a problem, whereas Keating was simply taking advantage of a planned withdrawal. The abandonment of COP Keating was due to happen, anyway. This attack did not change that. What it did do was make it appear, for IO purposes, to be an insurgent victory. Wanat involved complicity with the local ANP and almost certainly the Sub-Governor, whereas there is no evidence (at this point) of complicity of ANSF in or near Keating… although it is possible that some of the ANP, knowing that they are about to be abandoned to their fate, were currying favor with insurgent leaders in preparation for the abandonment. The root cause of the attacks were the same; clear the rat lines to improve communications along the lines that lead to Kapisa, bypassing Jalalabad and Kabul and allowing control of/access to the ancient smuggling route up the Tag Ab Valley. This provides the ability to either bypass or infiltrate Kabul, and potentially allows massing of forces within a few dozen kilometers of Kabul.
Many actors at play here, for various reasons ranging from political to military to criminal. International actors are at play as well, but thin out the farther from the Pakistani border that they get.
The current strategy is to leave areas alone until the Coalition/GIRoA has the strength to deal with them. Instead of spreading too thinly across a vast mountainous area, focus on the areas that can be controlled now and then push out over time. If the rest of the area is well-governed, the government can push into these areas and subdue them one by one. In the meantime, violence in those areas will decrease as the insurgents won’t have targets in that particular area. This may seem like giving up, but what it really is doing is putting a stop to unproductive behaviors, trying to influence or hang on to areas where there isn’t the ability to mass effects on the target population. This is consistent with current guidance, which is not to clear what we cannot hold and not to try to hold unless there is the capacity to build. The timing of the assault on Keating was unfortunate, but certainly no accident. A weakened outpost was attacked, certainly hoping to overrun it and claim a great victory to add to the illusion of inexorable victory for the insurgents. I would have to describe that effort as a success, even though they failed to annihiliate the garrison and overrun the entire COP. The end result; Americans abandoning the outpost within a short time afterward and the appearance of insurgents causation… as in Wanat… is the same.
I heard the blast.
And again, the Taliban take credit, and again, they were probably not the drivers for the attack. LeT, with probable involvement from the ISI, are the ones with the gripes and concerns about the Indians in Afghanistan. Why would the Taliban care about Indian involvement in Afghanistan?
Because Pakistan cares.
Why would the Taliban claim responsibility? Because it makes them look powerful. Perhaps they were involved… and if they were, then the ties between the Taliban and external groups, under question at the moment, are still vibrant. Those of us here in country really don’t doubt that. It’s others, for whom the argument that the Taliban are really a single-issue organization, who would benefit from wide acceptance of the idea that the Taliban really only exist because we are here, or because they are only interested in Afghanistan.
Try this on from the Summer of 2001:
Usama bin Ladin’s Role
The Taliban’s increasing internationalism is particularly exemplified by its grant of safe haven to Usama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin had been active in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation but left after the Red Army’s withdrawal. When he returned to the country in 1996, he first settled in an area neutral in the war between the United Front and the Taliban, though he and the Taliban quickly developed a mutual affinity, prompting bin Ladin to establish a new base for himself at the movement’s headquarters in Kandahar. The Taliban have claimed that they have prevented him from playing any role in terrorism. (Contrarily, the U.S. government holds him responsible for the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa and likely the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Yemen.)
Yet it is certain that bin Ladin himself has become increasingly radicalized while with the Taliban. He issued his most notorious anti-American fatwa (decree) in 1998, calling on his followers to kill any American—civilian or military, adults or children—anywhere in the world. Also in 1998, it became known through an intercept of bin Ladin’s satellite telephone calls, that he was linked to the embassy bombings in East Africa. The Taliban responded that they had taken away his communications equipment.
Apart from this, much has been rumored but little proven about bin Ladin’s activities inside Afghanistan and the exact nature of his relationship with the Taliban. Taliban leader Mullah ‘Umar may have married one of bin Ladin’s daughters. Pakistani papers at times have reported that bin Ladin visits Taliban troops on the front lines and the wounded in hospitals. He is also believed to have given money directly to the Taliban for their war and to have financed a so-called “bin Ladin brigade” of at least several hundred foreign fighters.25 He has also aided these fighters through the distribution of his “terrorist encyclopedia,” which has been found on some of the Taliban killed or captured by the United Front.26 United Front military leaders claim that bin Ladin has offered rewards for their assassination.27
Bin Ladin’s links also help the Taliban in other ways. For instance, it is conceivable that as Taliban leaders have become increasingly involved in the drug trade, bin Ladin’s international network may have helped them in distributing these narcotics. Numerous terrorist-affiliated websites are certainly active in soliciting funds for the Taliban.28 As a symbol of defiance toward the United States and of adherence toward the cause of militant Islam, bin Ladin is also valuable to the Taliban as a source of donations from abroad, particularly from the wealthy Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.
Where the Taliban end and bin Ladin’s Al-Qa‘ida organization begins is difficult to determine. Both the Taliban and Al-Qa‘ida are perhaps best viewed as links in the same chain of the international terrorist network. The Taliban have created an indispensable haven in Afghanistan, a base where extremists like bin Ladin and others can meet and plan future attacks in relative safety. The paramount importance of the Taliban’s connection with bin Ladin is best described by the bin Ladin-affiliated website Azzam.com, which argues in a Taliban fundraising appeal that “the fall of an Islamic Afghanistan … will be a calamity that will make other Muslim calamities look like nothing in comparison.”29
It’s amazing how a linkage that was only too clear to some prior to 9/11 is somehow now an absurdity. Has al Qaeda been disrupted? Clearly, yes. Have they been destroyed? Clearly, no. For linkage, just wondering here, if the Afghan in Colorado who has admitted to a terror plot inside the United States would be working completely alone and without any support, training, assistance, organizational or information support, or if there is some kind of distributed support network that he has some access to. Just wondering. Also wondering why this doesn’t bring home the concept that Afghanistan and those who it can harbor are and can be a threat to the internal security of the United States.
Could this guy just be a terrorist mastermind working alone and without a net? Could he be a Wallenda of terror? Yes, I suppose it is possible, but that’s not the greatest possibility now, is it?
So, while we have some who are assuring us that al Qaeda has been whittled down to perhaps… and this seems to be the consensus… about 100 people, we have two little items of note in the very recent past that bring that contention into a bit of doubt. What would be the purpose, I wonder? Who would benefit from the public somehow buying into the myth of al Qaeda irrelevance?
Earlier this year came the shocking revelation of an Air Force Chaplain at Bagram Air Field (BAF) who received a shipment of Bibles translated into Dari, and who gave a sermon that appeared to exhort troops to proselytize. This is a crime under Afghan law that is punishable by death. That Chaplain directly fed into the propaganda operation by the Taliban, who claim that we are here to destroy Islam. The aftereffects still ripple through Afghan society. His actions, both in receiving the Dari Bibles and in his speech, may actually have tipped the scales in the minds of some to begin supporting or actually participating in operations against the Taliban and the GIRoA. His actions could actually be lethal; but not to the enemy.
Today an article was published in The Times (UK) quoting two U.S. Army Chaplains as saying that American troops in their two battalions are losing heart. It is difficult to explain the power of the urge to find these men of the cloth and grasp them firmly by the neck while calling upon the very stones of the earth to turn against them.
When Soldiers struggle with their purpose, it is clear that they are untrained in what that purpose is. They are kinetically trained warriors put into a political/military struggle where a great percentage of activity is not directly targeting the enemy, all while functioning in an environment where the enemy may target you anonymously with weapons that permit him to hide while he tries to kill you. They have been failed by their training. Many senior leaders cannot adequately train or supervise Soldiers in a COIN environment because they have not studied it themselves. I have met precisely one Chaplain who has actually read FM 3-24. Our Army is still struggling with COIN doctrine, and many of our Chaplains are wandering around lost while they could be of great benefit. These men should keep one thing in mind: First, do no harm. What they did by speaking on the record to this reporter was harmful. Calling the overall morale of our troops into question in front of a foreign media outlet boggles the mind.
In a strongly religious society such as Afghanistan, where Islam is woven tightly into the fabric of life and into the nature of conflict, what can a Christian Chaplain do? Again; first, he/she should do no harm. Secondly, he/she should read the book about this type of conflict and understand what it is that the Soldiers are involved in. He (going forward meaning either gender) should be able to assist a Soldier in understanding the nature of risk and loss in this type of environment, where a peaceful moment can be shattered beyond all recognition and with it the bodies of friends and colleagues. He, above all, needs to find his place in this from the perspective of our Soldiers and their purpose, that he can be the crutch for the spiritually and emotionally wounded. There is no place on the battlefield for the weak, and in this battle the mentally and spiritually weak are a particular liability. We cannot bear broken crutches with us. The damage done by these two men, while not on the par of the Dari Bible Fiasco, is actually only moderately less severe.
Understanding the nature of this conflict and the society, especially the religious nature of the operating environment, is difficult for anyone. As the primary religious and spiritual advisor to the commander and Soldiers, is the Chaplain making contributions that increase the realistic cultural understanding of the commander and his Soldiers? Is he making it his business to be the go-to guy on issues of realistic understanding of cultural norms? Is he finding his counterpart in the ANA or other ANSF and empowering both understanding and the tremendous effects that can be brought to bear by the RCA (ANSF equivalent of a Chaplain)? Can the Chaplain explain that Afghans aren’t offended by the inadvertent showing of the sole of the foot, as long as it’s not purposely done to insult? Can the Chaplain explain that waving with the left hand, when the right hand is full, is not insulting? Can the Chaplain help a Specialist learn simple greetings in Dari and Pashto, so that Soldier can get along better with his counterparts or civilians he may meet? Can the Chaplain explain the basics of Muslim prayer to a Baptist kid from southern Georgia, so that he can understand what and why his Afghan counterpart is doing?
The positive potential of ANA RCA’s is, in many places, untapped. RCA’s are usually educated, literate, moderate mullahs who can fight the Taliban message that the ANA and ANP are apostatic puppets of the Coalition. They can bring moderate education to village mullahs who are often illiterate themselves. Given the power of mullahs in Afghanistan to spread messages and themes, this is powerful. It has been done, and it works amazingly well. Are our Chaplains assisting and empowering the ANA and ANP RCA’s to do this?
The answer to the questions above, with extremely rare exceptions, is, “No.”
There is being helpful, and there is being harmful. Every person here in a uniform is by definition a counterinsurgent. Each and every action either supports the work of counterinsurgency or it harms it. Even a wasted action is harmful. You are either providing thrust or you are adding drag. There is no middle ground. Today, The Times may as well have carried the words of insurgents themselves, for just about as much harm was done. When a man, by virtue of his particular office, is largely unsupervised, he must find a way to make a positive contribution to the mission.
But first, he must do no harm.
An article by the Associated Press’ Robert Reid nicely sums up the two camps that have formed under the Obama Administration regarding the way forward in Afghanistan. This is the second time this year that the two camps have squared off. The first round was apparently won by the COINdinistas, with some wiggle room, of course. That is not what the title of the article specifically addresses, but in a way it has come to serve as a synopsis of the internal argument in the administration. One side says, “Mission Accomplished,” and the other side says, “If we do more or less what we did the last time, we will have commensurate results.”
We are having real problems learning from past experiences. If a boxer fights another boxer, and whenever he bobs to the left he catches a right cross from the opposing boxer, he learns quickly that he need not bob left against this particular opponent. September 11, 2001 was just such a right cross from our opponent. Many say that we did not pick this fight; many others say that we did. They say that we picked it by taking sides surreptitiously in the Soviet-Afghan War, and that we did it again by abandoning a devastated Afghanistan as they tried to reassemble themselves. We funded and trained bin Laden and many of his cronies, and now he has turned that organization, formed to accomplish ends that we wholeheartedly supported, against us.
Now a group led by Vice President Joe Biden wants to repeat that blunder. Some people in the administration are saying that al-Qaeda is down to 100 full-timers.
U.S. national security adviser James Jones said last weekend that the al-Qaida presence has diminished, and he does not “foresee the return of the Taliban” to power.
He said that according to the maximum estimate, al-Qaida has fewer than 100 fighters operating in Afghanistan without any bases or ability to launch attacks on the West.
“If the Taliban did return to power, I believe we are strong enough to deter them from attacking us again by strong and credible punishment and by containing them with regional allies like India, China and Russia,” said former State Department official Leslie Gelb.
Folks, that’s not what events on the ground here are telling us. Al-Qaeda has recognized that Iraq is a lost cause for them. Yes, there are still local troublemakers trying to regain their lost glory as insurgent leaders stretching out the process, but that is the way of insurgencies. Iraq will not settle completely down this year, but the al-Qaeda cadre has largely left that country and made their way to Pakistan. We have seen that in the level of financial and technical support in the Haqqani elements, the HiG and even the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST). The level of sophistication in the technology of IED’s, for instance, having remained relatively flat for years, has taken leaps. These guys want for us to believe that this is a coincidence. The average Joe on the ground here who has a frame of reference realizes that the Taliban/HiG/Haqqani in Afghanistan have not suddenly and magically reemerged as something radically more capable. Something has been added to the mix.
Coincidence? Uncle Joe, et al, would lead you to believe that. Al-Qaeda is not only not dead; it is only the poster child for a syndrome that is repeatable. We are living in a globalized world. The world has changed, and our thinking has to a great extent not kept up with it. Unstable failed or failing nations can spawn organizations that will wish to influence us and our policies by bringing violence to our shores not via aircraft carriers and intercontinental bombers, but via airliners, tramp steamers, small but far-ranging private aircraft; trains, planes and automobiles. Never before in the history of mankind have small groups had such capabilities. It is one thing for a group to VBIED a U.S. Embassy in a small African country. It is quite another to punch a hole in the Pentagon. Even Mother Russia, with her enormous destructive power, devious KGB and bellicose manners never managed to do that. It doesn’t matter if the name of that group was al-Qaeda or the Hindu Kush Symphony Orchestra. Leaving states like Afghanistan to the whims of radical and primitive organizations is not a recipe for national security.
“Containment.” We have seen what “containment” does. Worked wonders on Iraq, is doing great things for Iran, and has really kept North Korea at bay (missile launches from the last two notwithstanding, of course). So, they don’t see the Taliban taking power again… like anyone saw them coming the first time… but if they do, we can rely on Russia, China and India to contain them? That sounds like a recipe for success now, doesn’t it? We can count on what we are now calling “regional allies” in the entities of Russia and China to look out for our interests and those of our NATO allies? And Pakistan won’t see our reliance on India as a new threat from the east for them, of course. It’s not like they’ve been trying to keep Afghanistan unstable for years in order to provide for their own “strategic depth” in the event of an all-out Indo-Pakistani War.
There are many people who are adding their voices to the din at this point. Some point out that population-centric counterinsurgency, or pop-centric COIN, was ultimately successful in Iraq. Many will contend with that, choosing instead to attribute success to a myriad of factors all exclusive of changing our behaviors, including that the Iraqis were somehow suddenly sick and tired of killing each other. Those who were on the ground at that time, both military and civilian, will tell very different stories. Many of those civilians, and some of those military, have now joined us on the ground here with plans of using lessons learned (not necessarily specific TTP’s) to have similar effects in Afghanistan. Those who argue that the Iraqis somehow magically became more amenable regardless of any changes in our behavior do so, from my perspective, for their own reasons.
Some of the greatest proponents of this argument do so out of what appears to be the politics of personal injury. Some had their young hearts broken in Vietnam and later suffered further loss in this war. Nothing short of an immediate existential threat is a good enough reason for war to them. Some have found themselves left out of or even severely criticized by the narrative of the Iraq Surge. They have lashed out, personally injured and offended, and have wound up on the opposite end of the spectrum in positions now so entrenched as to be nearly a caricature of the overall argument. Some fear that a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will lock in military counterinsurgency as the cornerstone of national foreign policy for decades. These conversations are now becoming years old. Add to that a public that, while it ignored Afghanistan, somehow assumed it to be morally right and relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Low casualties and this assumption of moral and political simplicity led them to assume that it was not in the least bit as complicated, dangerous or confusing as Iraq.
Then came the divide and conquer tactic: Iraq bad; Afghanistan good. Obama was not weak on the subject of national defence. He only wanted out of the “bad” war so that he could actually devote the proper resources to the “good” war. His supporters parroted this call, as I saw repeatedly in online debates. It allayed the fears of millions that Obama would retreat in the face of adversity. Well, now that the American people have started paying attention to the “good” war, it turns out to be much less simple. As I’ve said, it makes their heads hurt with its complexity. The people, heads all sore, begin to waver. Joe Biden, who is at huge odds with Hamid Karzai (he once, as a Senator, stormed away from the dinner table during a meeting with him), has wanted from day one to make this a Special Forces/drone mission in Pakistan. The looming reelection of Karzai has not tempered that attitude, I am sure. So Team Biden wants to solve our problems by invading Pakistan with with Special Forces, drone strikes that Obama supporters railed against during the election, “credible punishment” like 63 cruise missiles, and containment by India, Russia and China.
One question… has Pakistan agreed to any of this, or is invading a sovereign country only a bad thing when a guy’s name starts with “B”? From everything I’ve heard, Pakistan has refused to let American troops try to chase down al-Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban on sovereign Pakistani soil. The standing Pakistani Army is larger than our own. They are a proud, sovereign country and while their ISI has been singularly unhelpful in Afghanistan, I don’t believe that just doing whatever we want in Pakistan without their approval would be the “right” thing to do. It would almost certainly destabilize Pakistan further. Our alignment with India as one of our strategic containment partners will surely help the Pakistanis feel somewhat more secure, but there is a small chance that they won’t like it at all. Maybe not so small, really. Okay; they would absolutely hate it and feel very threatened.
The Biden Plan reeks of simplistic Rambo thinking. It is also a return to the same types of behaviors that left us with this festering sore on the face of Central Asia and a smoking hole in New York City. It’s amazing that it’s even being considered… unless it is the administration’s straw man. It’s practically an idiot-check. What next; a gravel angel contest? If I were the President, I’d ask all of my advisers who bought this argument and fire everyone who raised their hands for incompetence.
The people who are saying that the answer is to not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past are the people, both military and civilian, who are and have been closely associated with the Afghan question. Those who are claiming that al-Qaeda is in effect finished are not now and never have been intimately familiar with Central Asia. It could be argued that they have a political viewpoint and not a strategic viewpoint. What could possibly be the political pull strong enough to get otherwise intelligent, educated men to forget the lessons of the 1990’s and the foreign policy assumptions of post WW-II anti-communist paranoia that have led to the birth of non-state actors with global destructive reach and goals?
This is the opportunity to reverse the ill effects of the outmoded superpower behaviors of the past. This is an opportunity to begin to practice the types of foreign policy behaviors that will prevent failed and failing nations from becoming such a personal threat to Americans. The true example of Afghanistan is not in our military involvement but in the “civilian surge.” It is in the capacity-building arms that we are developing within our State Department, USAID, and other organizations. It is moving from John Candy in “Volunteers” to the types of foreign policy behaviors that will support and uphold societies who have been broken at their cores to stand back up according to their own needs and values. It is learning the lessons of “The Ugly American”. That is what we are deciding to continue or abandon, because in this very dangerous country we have let it slide to the point that nothing less than a full effort will permit these development efforts to occur. It is, in effect, all or nothing, and that’s something that Americans seem to have lost the ability to comprehend. We complain about the Afghans sitting on the fence, but we need to look at ourselves for sitting on the couch. Now is when we decide to take the easy out or to do the hard right thing.
Now is when we decide whether dad finishes the job, or if his son is left with an even larger problem.
A blogger friend, military supporter whose husband has served in this war, asked what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It’s a good question, and one that I think is probably in more minds than just hers. So I’m going to take a whack at answering it.
First, I never really think in terms of “victory.” There will be no grand surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship in this conflict. Insurgencies don’t die in a horrendous bright flash of light and culminate in a giant sigh of acceptance of defeat. They dwindle and starve, become a criminal problem, and finally fade out largely from lack of interest. Twenty years from now, former insurgents will own shops and other businesses and live relatively obscure lives here in Afghanistan. Some may even be in government. No, I don’t use the word victory. The words that we use are important, and they are powerful. They evoke images. Americans love victory, even as they love the underdog, most Cincinnati Bengals fans who don’t even bother to show up to games by mid-season demonstrate that the underdog appeal fades in the face of repeated defeat.
I think in terms of success or failure. The previous Afghan government, if you could call it that, was not so much governing as ruling over a failed state. So let’s talk about what success looks like in Afghanistan. We can describe it simply, but then you have to drill down to what that actually means. For starters, success in Afghanistan includes a stable government devoid of dysfunctional or disabling corruption. What does that mean? Look at our own level of corruption in the United States… don’t act like we don’t have corruption… but it’s generally not disabling. Disabling means that whatever corruption is present interferes materially and consistently with the provision of basic governmental responsibilities; what we often call basic services. It means an Afghanistan with a rising economy, dropping unemployment, a growing standard of living, climbing literacy rates and ever higher standards of education. It means an Afghanistan where there is a basic rule of law and where the citizens feel relatively safe in their homes and neighborhoods and where nearly all feel that there is some access to justice. This means that one of the basic services is security; the ability of the populace to live without threat or intimidation.
Can we do that? I think that perhaps we can. Should we do that? Topic for another post, but I am here of my own volition. I don’t like to lose any more than the next guy, and this is not just Operation Enduring Paycheck for me; so you can guess that my answer is likely positive on that one, too.
There are a lot of encouraging signs. The vanguard of the civilian surge is coming aboard. There are hundreds more on the way, and while they don’t meet the typical State Department mold, the community organizers of the Obama Campaign are finding their way to Afghanistan. Just this week I met and worked with a State Department employee of five months standing, four of which were in Afghanistan. She had worked on the Obama campaign, before that on “another candidate’s campaign,” and prior to that was, “in business.” Very well-intentioned. I could write an entire post about that one, but give us the raw material and you might be surprised where we can take this. The point is that we are beginning to develop the civilian capacity-building arm of our foreign policy apparatus.
Just as encouraging is the participation that we are seeing from Afghans in the civilian government and the military. COIN doctrine is Afghan doctrine as well. Everything that is being taught to Americans and NATO/Coalition partners coming into Afghanistan is Afghan doctrine. It is also being taught to Afghans. Tons of Afghan officers, including the very senior ones, are active participants in the dissemination of the doctrine and in planning for the rapid growth necessary in Afghan forces. I can’t brief it, because it’s not for public release, but there are certain economies of force that are being strongly considered to leverage the existing forces as cadre for rapid expansion. Growth becomes easier when you have a professional core upon which to build, and that core exists in greater numbers every day. The growth within the leadership of the ANA, including the NCO Corps, has been a huge success story here.
Afghan government ministries, Afghan NGO’s and Afghan contractors are also participants. They are also being trained and enthusiastically receiving the training in how to work across organizational boundaries to target effects based on the input and needs of local people. One of the legacies of the Taliban days is that the Taliban destroyed traditional structures that used to regulate Afghan life. Those weakened tribal and village structures are now the target of efforts to strengthen them and by doing so, return a sense of normal life forces in Afghan society. There is a significant movement afoot to leverage traditional methods of local justice. This may, on the surface, appear to be contrary to what we are used to… but in the United States, Mayor’s Courts thrive and are still in widespread use. Think of it along those lines.
Host nation support is unprecedented and growing.
The plan to add resources to the ANP also cannot be described in detail, but it is possible that a plan to move significant resources in that direction, quickly, may be approved for implementation very soon. This will also build upon lessons learned from the successful but time-consuming Focused District Development (FDD) program, as well. The ANP have lacked large-scale mentoring efforts for quite some time, and it appears possible that some horsepower may be directly applied to this most important counterinsurgent force very soon. Another reason for optimism. While months and years will be required, this is not really a long time in context. Positive results may occur very quickly. Remember, you don’t have to be the faster than the bear; you just have to be faster than the next guy. The next guy, in this case, is very small and while agile, he is actually hobbled. The people don’t like him, and only need to feel safe to push back. There are approximately 30,000 active insurgents in Afghanistan to try to subdue approximately 30,000,000 people. Another thing to remember is that while the entire country needs governance and development, there is only a serious insurgent threat in portions of the country. Some threats are actually criminal in nature, sometimes under the guise of insurgency. Lots of weapons trafficking and drug trafficking-related violence is attributed to political violence, which it is not.
Overall, we are going to temporarily construct a national security apparatus that is actually economically unsustainable in the long term. Afghanistan will only need these large forces long enough for the insurgency to be beaten back. If the other factors are addressed during this process… and we are building that capacity now… then the insurgency will begin to fade. As it fades, so long as the positive changes continue, the Afghan people will themselves be less and less likely to feel drawn to any radical ideology. Young men will find fulfillment in licit work rather than finding identity with radical leadership, and the need for such massive security forces will wane. For those who fear that a massive army will need to be sustained in perpetuity, that is usually a red herring used as a bogeyman to frighten others. It’s just fallacious logic.
One of our Achilles heels is public opinion. During the elections, many gravitated towards the “good war” versus “bad war” line of thinking. Many of those folks were simply setting up a straw man. Another thing to take into consideration was that the overwhelming majority of the population knew little about Afghanistan. Our networks were flooded with Iraq doom and gloom. Now those same people who held up the “good” vs “bad” argument are openly questioning Afghanistan.
That’s because it makes their head hurt.
Afghanistan is a complicated environment. Major and minor ethnic groups abound. Tribal rivalries go back centuries. There are over three thousand distinct insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They are linked into confederations of varying degrees of cohesiveness. There are rifts and alliances and more rifts and alliances. These provide many opportunities to leverage cracks… and many opportunities for headaches. For many, who otherwise appear to be very intelligent people, it just makes their head hurt. Unable to comprehend, they prognosticate in the only direction they can. Lots of that from talking heads who know little about actuality in Afghanistan lately. These hurt-headed failures do influence, though. Sadly, some just can’t say that they are ignorant and don’t really need to be involved in the discussion. Sadder still is their inability to listen to or take seriously those who do see and do know, apparently because of some academic sense of superiority or well-developed ego. We’ve all known those types, and the foreign policy wonkworld certainly abounds with them. Their keyboards are aflame with addlepated hammerings this year.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Afghanistan is not Iraq. No question. But there is a similarity. COIN was not executed perfectly in Iraq. The surge didn’t do everything right down to the last detail. But what happened was amazing. Some will ascribe the changes in that country during the time surrounding the surge to be the result of nearly anything but the application of some very basic COIN principles, but that’s driven, often, by personal politics and disingenuous motives. What happened, at least in part, was that even imperfect application of population-centric tactics on a large scale led to disproportionate reactions within society. Positive reactions. We lost momentum in Afghanistan for a number of reasons, but the people here truly want to see us regain it and begin providing hope again. I think that it will take less to switch that momentum than the blithering heads would ever think. They will ascribe it, again, to nearly anything other than acceptably applied COIN, but that doesn’t matter. The proof is in the pudding.
One more key; the Afghans really need to know that we are here for the long haul with them. Our history in the past half century doesn’t bear this out, but it’s time to show the world that we can keep going even when our head hurts and helping ourselves means helping someone else first. There are a lot of Americans who resent spending a cup of urine to extinguish a flaming neighbor, bewailing whatever other purpose they may have had for that cup of urine. Think about how those people feel when it is tax dollars they could be using for some pet project. We’ve got lots of those types, too. They often have headaches and think themselves truly brilliant analysts, too. Don’t even get me started about how they pretend to give two shits about my life or my family, though. They don’t. That’s just political fodder for them. The Afghans need to know that we are not quitters any more; that our word actually means something. The meaning of a person’s word has lost something in our society, but not in theirs nor in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The partnering of units remains to be seen. There are concerns that the American Regular Army units will revert to the same old behaviors that they had in the past; abusing their Afghan “partners” as the equivalent of their own pissboys. These units have received some basic COIN training, but there will be another factor, and that would be the Mc-Rod Factor. McChrystal and Rodriguez are serious about enforcing the application of their plan… that Afghan forces are going to lead and the Americans are there as a multiplier. It will only take a few bell-ringers to correct the old ways. Neither impresses me as a man to spare a career in the presence of failure to execute his orders.
Lastly a reason for optimism is the total lack of traction of failed ideas such as strict reliance on “CT” or counter terrorist operations. Discussions which contain references with suggestions to abandoning population-centric concepts for a strictly CT approach are the equivalent of discussing the merits of a football bat. It’s like asking if someone thinks that roughing the passer should be called more strictly during the World Series. Just roll your eyes and know that you’ve just heard from someone who has as much credibility in the current fight as a gelding on a stud farm. No one here on the ground is able to open their mouths and make such ridiculously inane noises. I think it’s happening back home on a regular basis, but no worries; no traction whatsoever where COIN meets the real world.
Afghanistan won’t look like a Mini-Me version of the United States. It will look like a war torn country with hope, though. Success looks like Afghans making plans to access their sub-soil resources in partnership with companies who don’t just buy the rights to a seam of ore. It looks like a court system that functions in such a way that Afghans feel that if they have a dispute, no one can buy the decision. It takes a while to come from the 19th century to the 20th, much less the 21st. We have to understand that success in Afghanistan doesn’t look like perfection; it looks like positive momentum and a lack of interest in further insurgency. There will be die-hards, but the police will be tracking them down. Success looks like most people not having time to listen to radicals because they are either on their way to work or on their way home from school. There is a lot to do to get there, but with the buy-in we’re seeing from the Afghan Army, Police and civil Ministries, as well as the civilian and NGO surge, there’s a sense that the momentum can be regained.
This week, Abu Muqawama is asking if, in 600 words or less, involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is in America’s (and her partners’) strategic interests. Well, that depends on whether you believe in World 2.0 or not. By that I mean not some bizarre New World Order. By that I mean that the world is no longer a place that is compartmentalized and insulated. 9/11 was a symptom, not the disease. The disease is that failed or failing states can, will and do have a profound impact on the rest of the world.
If you live in a neighborhood and your next door neighbor, only a few yards away, has major problems with drugs and unruly children, how will that affect you? He has a violent brother-in-law living in a Winnebago in the driveway. Their house and yard will likely be unsightly, which will affect your property values. You will occasionally have trash blown into your yard. Eventually, when they get rats in their garage, you will get them, too. You will be affected, though they do not have the keys to your house.
What if you live a block away? Perhaps your yard will not be messy due to the neighbor a block away. Will your children be affected by their interactions with the unruly children? What about when the rats breed really well… is there a possibility that some may find their way into your house? The violent brother-in-law keeps a guest in his Winnebago who has taken a strong dislike to you and has attacked you, breaking your nose and destroying your mailbox by smashing a car into it. He vows to burn down your house. You and your friends go over to confront him, but he has left a note saying, “I’m gonna get you, sucka,” and fled. You suspect he is still hiding in the neighborhood. He and his friends still leave you threatening voice mails.
Whoops… now their neighbor is partying with them, too. Taking the same drugs. He owns weapons and explosives. Explosives that can knock down the house of his other neighbor, with whom he does not get along. They constantly bicker about which one of them owns a large tree they both covet. It’s not in your interest for these neighbors to get some help though, is it? When the one blows up the other, will that not affect your house as well? In World 2.0, the world is a neighborhood. No longer are we separated by economies that are completely unaffected by the failed
families states of the world. No longer do the disaffected and violent of Asia remain only a Central Asian problem. We cannot hide from the world any more than our auto manufacturers can wish Honda, Toyota and Hyundai away.
I know it’s a simplistic analogy. Sure, it’s flawed. If you do not buy into the fact that the world is getting smaller, that we are more a global ecosystem and society than just some global warming debate, then the chances are that you will not see any strategic interest here. If you do believe that we live in a global society, then what affects some strongly affects all to some extent. Can we ever really have security in our own home if our neighbor is unstable, violent, drug-addicted and generally out of control? Can we sleep easily when that neighbor blames us for all or some of his problems?
Now, if there is nothing to my analogy, and you don’t buy into it at all, then the answer is likely, “No, it’s not entirely in our strategic interest.” You will likely subscribe to Bacevich’s “Blood and Treasure” equation. But, even with a flawed analogy, what if there is something to what I’m saying? What if the events in little valleys in Afghanistan can send ripples around the entire planet?
Is that not what happened on 9/11?
I’ve got a number of things I’d like to write about, and I would ignore this tripe as being inane; but it is filled with the type of self-righteous drivel that is heard in America from time to time. It passes for “academic” thought, I suppose, but it shouldn’t. It is at least presented as if it were academic thought, because the author couches his blog with a term that refers to a social science, anthropology. The author claims academic credit. He teaches at a university, although that doesn’t speak well for the school. In fact, it speaks rather poorly for it. I’ve come to view the author with a very jaded eye. I lump him in with such charlatans as Robert Young Pelton. It’s amazing how charlatans tend to clump together into clots. Pelton is quoted in the posting to which I am referring today.
Maximillian Forte, the author of “Open Anthropology,” and an outspoken critic of the Human Terrain System, posted began his post today by framing further discussion on terms of rape, shoplifting and gangsterism. Having thus childishly explained his reasoning process he examines the Marine efforts in Helmand Province in the same light. While it is a bumbling literary trick, it does cast illumination on the thinking of the “anti-war” crowd. While Mr. Forte is a Canadian and teaches in Canada, a fact for which I do not blame the Canadians as a whole, he has managed to congeal in one gelatinous clot the arguments of many of the “anti-war” crowd. He has also captured the essence of a festering affinity for extremist propaganda that exists in North America, notably in some small but significant numbers in the United States. That is the only reason that I’m even giving his self-righteous polemic the dignity of a response; because it gives me the opportunity to address some truly egregious lies that exist in the open in America. Those who read this blog regularly don’t buy into such lies. This is for those who may stray across these words, that they may be offered a the choice to listen to one who has been on the ground over one who hasn’t.
Yes, it means that much to have walked the actual dust and stones of Afghanistan rather than sitting in an office at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
Forte asks a question that begs an answer about the Marines in Helmand.
It begins with this article posted prominently on Yahoo! by the Associated Press for this date, titled “Marine mission to protect Afghans slows progress.” It was to me, and hopefully to anyone with a memory capacity larger than a gnat’s, possibly the most outlandish headline to be seen in a long time. The Marines are protecting Afghans? The Marines? Protecting?
Yes, protecting. The Marines are there to clear the Taliban from the area, a group that is supported the a greater proportion of the population of Helmand than in most areas of the country, but still much less than the 51% that would be required in a developed, well-governed country like Canada, or the United States for that matter, for a particular group to hold sway. They hold sway there because they have weapons and they are not afraid to use them. They hold sway in part because they have, during their bloody reign, mostly destroyed the beneficial tribal and village leadership structures which used to provide a social framework that held together communities, filling the void with their own twisted brand of political leadership. As an anthropologist, Mr. Forte would do well to actually do some research on the destruction of these traditional structures, structures which the Taliban have found to be obstacles in the path of their dominance.
Mr. Forte then goes on to paint the Marines as bloodthirsty and wanton destroyers of villages.
The Marines, in not being allowed to raze a village and mow everyone in their path, are “protecting” civilians, clearly from the Marines themselves:
The British jet called in by the U.S. Marines had the Taliban position in sight, but the pilot refused to fire, a decision that frustrated Marines on the ground….
Forte clearly has no grip on the reality of Afghanistan. Marines don’t, nor have they ever, razed any villages in Afghanistan. They suffer from no compunction to “mow everything in their path.” The Marines are actually much better versed in counterinsurgency warfare than the Army is, on the whole. My Army cohorts may not like to hear that, but the ones in the know realize this and say it readily themselves. The Marines tend to “get it” more than the Army does. They are not there to “raze a village.”
No matter how much you “get it,” it is frustrating to get shot at and not be able to shoot back, or to have decisive firepower refused when you know where the enemy hides is frustrating. That frustration does not equate to a desire to raze a village. Now Forte becomes a Hague lawyer:
Since the Marines are frustrated that they cannot fire, they are “protecting” civilians, as if they should be praised for doing what is legally required of US/NATO occupation forces under the international legal conventions that they signed on to, and that acquired force as part of their domestic laws. Not being excessively aggressive, and committing war crimes, is reconstructed as benevolence, rather than a basic minimum. Not being an outright brute, is represented as moderation. It’s a very short and smooth road to sainthood for warriors forced to respect the mandates of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949) (see also here). This is humanitarianism, as a default starting point.
Forte shows an amazing lack of knowledge of the laws of war to which he presumes to lecture. Belligerents are not required to refrain from applying firepower to their enemy. Not at all. They are merely required to avoid collateral (meaning unintended) damage to the greatest extent possible while in the course of defending themselves. They are also permitted to continue offensive operations, and any dwelling, church, mosque, hospital or other structure which the enemy is using as a firing or observation position is not afforded any special protection under the laws of war, having forfeited any such protection upon being used as a fighting position. No, Forte has no concept. I’ve got news for him; thousands of civilians have been killed since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001 and early 2002. Most of them have been killed by those selfsame Taliban that Mr. Forte so fawningly worships as “freedom fighters” and “Mujaheddin.”
While the casualties that have been caused by the coalition have been unintentional, those of the Taliban have not been. The deaths of innocents, and particularly of government supporters, are carefully orchestrated for effect. We have not left bombs in crowded civilian areas. We have not hung men for having currency in their pockets that we found disagreeable. We have not shot women in the head after dragging them from a car for working on a Taliban installation. We have at times been gullible. Each of those bombed wedding parties was bombed due to poor intelligence, usually provided by a person who had a grudge against the family, and sometimes because the Taliban wanted a family harmed and planted “intelligence” which gave them the double whammy of harming their opponent while giving them a visible sign of American or Coalition “disregard” for Afghan lives.
Forte also quotes a section of the Geneva Conventions that applies to occupying powers, which the United States and its NATO partners are not. Regardless of the rantings of Forte, the coalition members are here to assist the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. That is not an occupation. The United Nations passed a resolution and is here in force. The NATO forces in Afghanistan are engaged in assisting a lawfully elected and constituted government in establishing control over its territory and in the construction/reconstruction of a war-torn country besieged from within and without by an extremist insurgency which the people of Afghanistan overwhelmingly do not support.
Now, there are various and sundry other dynamics at work, the complexities of which Forte shows no grasp of whatsoever, which is interesting for an anthropologist. This demonstrates why, after many years in the field, he is an Associate professor of Anthropology, instead of a full professor. It be can surmised from his unwillingness and inability to plumb the depths of the troubles and challenges of Afghan society as being due to his propensity for grasping at low-hanging fruit and his propensity for emotional outbursts such as the one we are delving into now. This, tainted with the brush of his political ineptitude, demonstrated by his insistence on attempting to portray a band of criminals as being on the same par as the Mujaheddin who were part of a very popular resistance to the Soviet Union’s expedition into Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Afghans themselves would tell Forte that he’s way off base on that point. I’ve had countless Afghans explain to me precisely why the Taliban don’t rate the name, “Mujaheddin.” Their logic is impeccable. It is Muslim, and it is local. Forte wouldn’t have any idea what to do with indigenous opinions, being that he is the caliber of anthropologist that he is.
Just today in Twitter, I spotted this statement: “Rough time 4 soldiers fighting terrorists and building communities in Afghanistan.” Building communities — after massive aerial bombings over a period of eight years. Building communities — as if Afghanistan had no communities before Americans slammed into the country. “Fighting terrorists” as if those who fight soldiers, foreign invaders, can now be re-branded as “terrorists” in spite of common definitions premised on the idea that terrorism involves the deliberate, indiscriminate killing of non-combatants, a category that automatically excludes soldiers.
Mass bombings is a powerful term. It brings visions of Arclight B-52 bombings to mind. Now, granted there were B-52 sorties against entrenched Taliban positions in the early days of the rout of the Taliban from power by the US-assisted Northern Alliance, but ladies gents, I’m here to tell you that the bombings in Afghanistan that I have had personal knowledge of involved one or two weapons per event and they were precision weapons. Precision weapons don’t mean “no mistakes.” They mean that nobody was dropping ordnance willy-nilly with absolutely no regard for civilian deaths. So, Forte waxes theatrical again. So do any who parrot his dissemblings.
It does bring one to wonder what Forte and his ilk think of the always deliberate, sometimes indiscriminate and sometimes targeted killing of non-combatants by the Taliban, HiG and other anti-government elements in Afghanistan. It makes one wonder what Forte thinks of hanging a man and leaving his body in public for days under threat of death to anyone who would give the corpse the decency of a burial in accordance with Islamic rules. It also demonstrates the absolute ignorance of the fact that the Taliban have killed more Afghan civilians, by far, than they have NATO Soldiers. Yet Forte lauds these types of mean as “freedom fighters.” What a strange, sad little man to be so led by his hatred of Soldiers and Marines into praising men who would perform such acts; acts of barbarism which are not performed by NATO forces or the Afghan National Security Forces. Forte misguidedly quotes Reagan, a man whom he despises and attempts to use as some sort of boomerang against his foes, as being somehow supportive, in death, of the Taliban.
Let us not forget that many of these gallant, freedom loving, heroic mujahideen became what we know today as the Taliban.
While it is true that some Taliban fought as part of a couple of factions as Mujaheddin, the great majority of Mujaheddin are not Taliban. I’ve met many Mujaheddin who are now members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. One day in early August, 2007, I sat in the home of one of the key Mujaheddin leaders in Kapisa Province, who explained to me why he saw no reason to take up arms against the United States. He did not see the US as an occupation force. He saw that our intentions were good. He also reserved the right to decide at any point that his opinion had changed and that he would again pick up arms. He supported the Afghan Government, and while he saw huge challenges and was dismayed with the ineptitude and corruption, he preferred an elected government to a dictatorial theocracy.
Had Forte, or any who share his twisted concepts, ever bothered to get the dust of Afghanistan upon their loafers, they would know such things as naturally as they draw breath. Forte would be deeply disillusioned by what he would find in Afghanistan. He would find that he was totally, completely and irretrievably clueless. If he were half the scientist he claims to be on his CV, he would realize that speaking so with absolutely no real knowledge of his subject is, well, unscientific.
He would also know better than to quote Robert Young Pelton about Afghanistan. A scientist should have the knowledge to recognize a lying charlatan when he meets one. Instead this “scientist” quotes him, as if lies would carry buffoonery forward into becoming fact.
Finally, Forte reflexively cannot resist another reference to the Human Terrain System; the perpetual bug up his bum. He retells the tragic story of a female researcher, Paula Loyd, who was murdered by an angry Afghan man. No one knows for sure why Abdul Salam set her on fire. Don Ayala, a colleague, fatally shot Salam immediately after the murderous attack. Now Forte paints Ayala as a mercenary and Loyd as very much deserving of her fate. Forte displays a picture of Ayala and Loyd, claiming that, “few would be willing to bet their wages that there is a woman in that photo.” Why? Because she is wearing a helmet? She is very obviously a woman. This criticism is very strange coming from a man who apparently purposely created an avatar of himself on his website bearing a remarkable resemblance to Vladimir Lenin. Forte muses that because she didn’t look like a woman, and did resemble a soldier, she was a legitimate target of an Afghan civilian. He leaves us with this bizarre bit of nonsense:
Salam was a liberator. He liberated Loyd from a prolonged career of selling her services to militarism, and thus to terrorism. Never again would she be used as a human shield by the American terrorists. However, Salam did not kill everyone on her patrol: that’s because he was protecting them.
That is some of the most heinous and hateful speech I’ve ever seen directed against what should have been a colleague in Forte’s mind. His malevolent misogyny belies his portrayal of himself as the fair-minded arbiter of Taliban legitmacy as “freedom fighters” or Mujaheddin.
Some day, I would like to have a chat with the board of regents of Concordia University and ask them what in the bloody hell they were thinking about when they hired this so-called “scientist.” I’m even more amazed that they have tolerated his bizarre ramblings over the course of the time that I have been aware of Forte’s gymnastic buffoonery.
As I said when I started this deconstruction of the self-proclaimed “scientist,” it should have been left in the dustbin of obscurity; but there are others who mimic his line of dislogic. This is more to demonstrate the absolute buffoonery of those who even raise the term, “occupation,” those who would deign to call Taliban and HiG insurgents “freedom fighters” or “Mujaheddin.” They have no idea what they are talking about.
Afghanistan has deep challenges on many levels. Many are self-inflicted, and many are the result of a society literally eviscerated by 30 years of conflict, both externally and internally motivated. These problems will not be solved overnight. Forte and his ilk are politically motivated, but thank God that they are not as motivated as the men and women that I work with, who are willing to risk their lives in order to make our nations safer by securing this society, one of the poorest nations in the world. Afghans are a mix of many ethnic groups, and they struggle to find an “Afghan” identity, even in the middle of a siege brought upon them by those who would seize power and again govern by fear of physical abuse, torture, deprivation and death. An officer recently stood and spoke about how we should all be here just for Afghanistan. I told him, “No, I’m here to protect my children. It just so happens that in order for my children to be secure, the children of Afghanistan must be secure. That’s why I am willing to do this.”
The great thing is that Max Forte and his ilk are only willing to run their mouths. Words have great power, but words have considerably less power when there is no willingness to put one’s life on the line for them. Forte will not risk his life for his words.
I am for mine.
It is up to the reader to decide who to believe; the “scientist,” or the Soldier.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds in Kapisa, and stay at FOB Morales-Frazier, the scene of many adventures in Kapisa. It was surprising, pleasant, poignant, encouraging and disappointing all rolled up into one big ball. First, the FOB, which was still called a Firebase when I left, a step down from a FOB in the hierarchy of combat structures, has exploded. FOB Morales-Frazier, or M-F to the local military speakers, has now become home to hundreds. When SFC O, SSG Maniac and I arrived there in late May of 2007, this large area was occupied by a Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) and a light company of ANA and their ETT’s; a few dozen people. The entire compound, an area of approximately 400 x 600 meters, is full of tents, structures and vehicles. It is a small town of its own.
Amazed, I climbed the tower in what used to be the ODA compound and looked over the scene. I could easily see the original structures and the original Hesco boundaries of previous fiefdoms; the Special Forces, the compound that the SF referred to as the “overflow” compound, which those of us who suffered its privations called “GITFO” for “Git The Freak Out,” and what the few American Soldiers there now call “The Alamo;” the scene of O, the Maniac and my first good shelling.
The American Provincial Police Mentor Team (PMT-P) for Kapisa occupies structures that my group had built. What was built for us to use as a kitchen/chow hall has now been divided in half and is used for offices for the PMT-P and the PRT. The Hesco compound boundary has had a hole knocked out of it, allowing a pass-through to the French area beyond where French Soldiers and Marines live, for the most part, in tents. Many tents.
The erstwhile Special Forces compound has been partially opened up as well, and at one point I walked through the old front gate, now vestigial. This was the site where, for several weeks during our time there as the Bastard Children, O, Maniac and I had to wait for the precise time of chow in order to be permitted entrance to ODA 744’s compound so that we might share in their victuals… after most of them had eaten, of course. If we arrived a minute too early, the ODA’s hired Afghan guards would hold us in place until the appointed hour. We used to joke that we were like dogs waiting to be fed. I could still see the adhesive marks on the remnants of the gate where the ODA had posted their sign decreeing that we could have access only at those times.
I passed the place where O and I put my four ANP KIA in body bags on my worst day of the first tour. I thought about them for a moment. I can still see their torn bodies when I do think of them. I can still smell the scent of fresh death and torn bowels. I can still see the lifeless eyes, the shroud of death having emptied them of light, and the rendered parts. I remember my surgical-gloved hand resisting against the cloth of their clothing as I searched for identification. I remember the heartbreak of recognizing the young radio operator who had always been near me for over a month as we operated in The Valley from the picture on his ANP identification card. Suddenly I could see the resemblance to the grinning youth in the mask of death, eyes akimbo, missing the top of the skull. I remember seeing deeply into the young man’s head, brokenhearted and at the same time detached; a portion of my brain noting surprise at the small amount of brain matter remaining after what appeared to be a nearly surgical removal of the top rear of his skull. I found this stray, detached thought mildly shocking in its own right. How can one be so emotionally shredded and yet almost clinically detached at the same moment? I still find this dichotomy notable. The events, sensations, and even thoughts of those short hours remain embedded in my memory like few others in my life. They will never go away; and I do not wish them to.
Those men, and that place, are part of me now.
Kapisa is a part of me, and I am a tiny part of it. I am still there, the light of recognition in the eyes of ANP officers and soldiers who recognized me revealing that my time there is still a part of the individual histories of these men’s lives. They greeted me with enthusiasm, there being no doubt that the sign of deep friendship, the handshake followed by the hug with cheeks pressed, was to be exchanged. As others who did not know me looked on curiously, the ANP would explain that I had been in many fights with them. I recognized Dari words in the rapid explanations, “jang” (fight), “Afghanya,” “Tag Ab,” “Ala Say,” “bisyar khoobas” (very good.) I knew the general drift before our interpreter told me in English what the full interpretation was. I felt a deep sense of pride in having reached that level with the Afghan soldiers who I had mentored and operated with. I recall wondering if I would earn such respect from such men; men for whom the stripes on my uniform and the patch on my sleeve matter less than my actions on the dusty ground in the obscure valleys where Afghan life and death are to be found. They judge me on actions that few, if any, Americans were there to witness. Many asked also about others who had impacted them deeply; SFC O, LTC Cold, and SFC Pulvier. Absent were other names. It seems that Afghans have very little time for those who had no real regard for them. Certain things can’t be faked, regardless of the fairy tales told on forms. Some names are left for dead in the dusty past.
There were many such reunions, but none so deeply satisfying as seeing once more the constant thread in Kapisa since the time of LTC SFowski. Sam, the combat terp, dismounted from the MRAP when the team arrived at Bagram to retrieve us from that circus of fobbitry. (I will have an entire post about Bagram soon.) Seeing Sam again was like a bowl of ice cream on an Afghan summer day; so cool I couldn’t believe it. We inquired as to each other’s health, family and after old friends. Again, names were raised from what seems the long ago past, less than two years ago.
Our business at Kapisa was slightly less successful, mostly due to the changing of some leadership and the reluctance of the new leadership to really extend an effort regarding any new training. Excusing his lack of coordination with explanations about the elections and difficulties having to do with that, we were not provided access to the district and provincial leadership who could really drive new ways of organizing information. However, after seeing what we have to offer, I think that upon our return sometime in the future, we will find more cooperation.
What a week it’s been. In order to become a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Academy of Bellicose Numismatists you have to study hard, know the curriculum and class materials, and you have to complete the 5 day course as a student. It’s a rite of passage. Well, it’s a little more than that, but I’m simplifying it.
So that was fun.
After a day to change gears and get prepped, a couple of other instructors and I trundled off early each morning to teach a more focused, shorter course at a branch school for Afghan officers. This was an advanced course. These officers had already completed their basic course. They also had combat experience and knew a fair amount about enemy behavior. We have been teaching the Afghans classic AirLand Battle doctrine for nearly 7 years now. Here we come all of a sudden with a new plan for them; COIN. One of them did ask the obvious question; “Why did you wait until now to come up with this?”
I didn’t want to tell them that the book was published two and a half years ago and we just got around to reading it. Uh… that would be some of us. We still get field grade officers in the course here who have not read the book. A significant portion of company grade officers have not read it.
Most of them are taking to it like a duck takes to water. There are a couple of die-hards, but most of them see the truth in what we have told them. The strange thing is that in the Afghan National Army you have a mixture of Mujaheddin and leftovers from the Najibullah regime; the Communists who the Soviets invaded to “assist.” Many of these officers were insurgents. But that was a different insurgency. Question that all you will, but I can tell you, and so can they, that it was another matter altogether.
Part of the training is, “Be the insurgent,” a take on the Caddyshack golfing philosophy of, “Be the ball.” One ANA officer briefed a plan that had an ANA Colonel wondering if he needed to run a background check on the officer. It was that good. When you can think like an insurgent, you can get inside his loop and get in between him and the cookie that he strives to possess… the acquiescence, if not active participation, of the populace.
If you don’t like the term, “cookie,” then insert your word of choice for something that someone wants to possess and strives for by hook or by crook. I think of the kid and the cookie jar, or in some cases the schoolkid who gets a cookie of he/she behaves. But, suit yourself by all means.
Most of the ANA officers nod their heads knowingly at the way that information is now interrelated. It makes sense to them. They understand the challenges of appealing to the people intrinsically… they are the people. They know who in the village they looked up to as children. It was usually not the Provincial Governor. No, it was an elder, a mullah, a big brother, a father, an uncle. These are the men who shape the minds and opinions in Afghanistan. The Afghans understand that some men are fighting for money, some for other grievances, and some to take over their own corner of the world.
They know that they will likely have to kill the would-be warlords. They can live without killing the part-time insurgent, the aggrieved, the threatened or the misled. They can live without killing “The Accidental Guerrilla” of Kilcullen’s writings.
There are many problems to be solved. There are more ethnic tensions in Afghanistan than when Cleavon Little wore a hood in Blazing Saddles. These guys need a Cleavon Kabuli to break the tension a little. The problem is that the direct material correlation would be a burqa, and a comic actor in a burqa just isn’t going to cut it here. No way. The ethnic tension isn’t impossible to break; but it’s like racism in the States… it’s going to take a generation of intolerance to it before it really begins to melt. Many feel that it can never be broken, but I don’t believe that. The world is getting smaller, and Afghans will eventually be forced to bond with the folks in the other valley to deal with the pressures of the outside world.
There are other problems, like illiteracy. This is more of a problem than on the surface, because while ignorance is the devil’s playground, it has to be realized that there is an element of religious manipulation involved that is not possible among the literate. Religiosity is built into daily lives to a much greater extent here than is generally realized. It is part of greetings. It is part of institutions. Every briefing starts with, “In the name of Almighty Allah…” Islam is woven so tightly into the normal events of daily life that the religious authority has as much, if not more, sway than the local political apparatus. So, with an illiterate, religious mass it’s possible for an unscrupulous mullah (naaaaaaah, there aren’t any of those…) to mislead people into directions that aren’t in line with the real meaning of spiritual Islam. It’s as if some evangelist in the United States were to tell an illiterate audience that the Bible says it’s okay to abuse a group of people because God doesn’t like them. Not that such a thing would ever happen, of course. We’re much too advanced for anyone to, say, picket funerals of fallen Soldiers because of some misbegotten religious zealotry.
Lawyers are supposed to be able to read, aren’t they?
Anyway, I’m trying to draw a parallel here. The funny thing is that when I draw such parallels, I see that the Afghans really aren’t much different from us. In fact, when I look at them, I see what our great-grandparents were going through in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Just add some technologies like wireless and there you have it. This country is a mix of Biblical times and the Wild West with a hint of Mad Max.