May 28, 2009

Abu Ghraib photos show sex assaults: Taguba

From the Telegraph today:

Maj.-Gen. Taguba, who retired in January, 2007, said he supported the President's decision, adding, "These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.

"I am not sure what purpose their release would serve other than a legal one and the consequence would be to imperil our troops, the only protectors of our foreign policy, when we most need them, and British troops who are trying to build security in Afghanistan.

"The mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it."

If you have never read Taguba's original report, you probably should.

UPDATE, May 30: Taguba says it's a total misquote. Nice work, Tely.

Posted by BruceR at 10:34 AM

Secrecy for a bus-killer: unacceptable

The Globe editorial has it exactly right. This is an outrage.

Posted by BruceR at 10:28 AM

Canadian military: run by sentient bacteria?

Our secret is out.

Course, an extensive program of super-mutant research *would* explain why we can't keep more than 15,000 soldiers on the line with a $19 billion budget. Hmm...

Posted by BruceR at 09:13 AM

May 25, 2009

The contractor's PoV

Christian recommends this blog, among others, in an Afghan blog roundup piece.

Of the other ones he mentions, the one I already respected which I have inexplicably never yet linked to is Free Range International. The insights of poster Babatim in particular into what's really going on in Afstan today makes it a must-read.

Take this post as an example, which in addition to encapsulating Babatim's PoV rather well, also has the side-effect of passing on some much deserved kudos to "Dan," one of the two civilians working alongside Afghans who I was really happy to say I also met, and hopefully was able to help a little. (The other there would be Sarah Chayes, who is as charming in real life as in her writing.) It's always been too easy for civilians and non-civilians alike to settle for simplistic stereotypes of the other groups working here: really, though, the problem isn't "soldiers," or "NGOs" or even "Afghans": there's good and bad, effective and ineffective, in every group and organization (and everyone has their better and worse days, too, for that matter).

Posted by BruceR at 03:08 PM

McKiernan revisionism

Exum and Foust both take exception in their own way to the recent downgrading of Gen. McKiernan's reputation.

I link-hinted previously the general's sudden relief seemed more political than anything else. Yes, the stalemate had continued or worsened during his shortened watch, and stimulating accountability through "pour encourager les autres" tactics is not an idea without merit. But it's also true that what little I heard of the previous Afghan commander, many steps removed obviously, during my tour, had been positive. Nor do I recall anyone ever even suggesting in KAF in 2008-09 that a big part of Afghanistan's problem was the U.S. commander. YMMV.

Posted by BruceR at 01:32 PM

Zey are just a bunch of pansies!*

(*Strangely, it was hard for me to get through a day in Afghanistan without finding some occasion to quote either Julian or the penguins from Madagascar.)

Note to Americans: this whole, "we can't put terrorists in an American jail because then obviously we'd have to release them and give them citizenship too, or what if they escape and knock over a Quik-e Mart, or what if they exercise their Jedi mind tricks on our local criminals and turn those guys, who are all really nice guys in comparison, into Muslims" thing is just making you look to those of us in the rest of the world like a bunch of giant scaredy-cats. The whole Guantanamo thing did in the first place, too, of course, but now, hey, wow.

Posted by BruceR at 10:07 AM

May 22, 2009

Ralph Peters: a danger to humanity and himself

The poser does us all a favour by pre-justifying his own obliteration at the hands of any anti-American government operatives who may happen to be reading:

Although it seems unthinkable now, future wars may require censorship, news blackouts and, ultimately, military attacks on the partisan media...

The point of all this is simple: Win. In warfare, nothing else matters. If you cannot win clean, win dirty. But win. Our victories are ultimately in humanity’s interests, while our failures nourish monsters.

I'm only seeing one "monster" here.

Posted by BruceR at 01:25 PM

Today's essential Afstan reading

David Kilcullen gives the most realistic timeline for victory I've seen yet:

As of mid-2008 only about one quarter of Afghanistan was under government control, half was disputed, and the remaining quarter was Taleban-controlled. Should everything go well this year, we will succeed — at best — in stopping the rot, stabilising the country and setting the conditions for progress from next year onwards.

Either way, we can expect at least another year or two of serious combat before we can begin handing over more fully to newly expanded Afghan police and military units; these will become available around 2011 as current schemes to increase their numbers come to fruition. This handover process could take another three to five years, and we may then be in a position, after (say) 2015, to drop back to a mentoring, partnering and overwatch role — a role we may need to maintain for several more years to come.

Don't like the sound of that? Doesn't fit with current Canadian government pledges? As an operations officer counterpart of mine in KAF liked to say, "Suck it up, stringbean."

Posted by BruceR at 09:52 AM

May 21, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

Gilles Dorronsoro (video and PDF are both worth your time), courtesy of Ghosts of Alex. Again, not a lot to disagree with in the analysis.

The Wall Street Journal on a surge-related mistake in Zabul, courtesy of Bill and Bob.

Posted by BruceR at 09:14 AM

May 20, 2009

"...On a scale that makes your eyeballs go dry"

Never liked the fellow, gotta say, but it's hard to wholly disagree with anything David Frum says, somewhat undiplomatically mind, about Afghanistan in this diavlog.

Not having a lingua franca is a huge, unrecognized obstacle to promoting institution-building that simply wouldn't be an issue except in one of the few countries that had never been colonized by anybody (this would never be as big an issue in Africa, for instance). In Afghanistan right now, for approximately the same risk of life and limb at the hands of insurgents, a schoolteacher makes $60 a month, an ANA general officer officially makes $3-400 a month, and the worst interpreter you can find (I mean, really bad: someone who works in English at about the level I work in Urdu) makes more than $500. And there's still lots of unfilled demand for interpreters. So any Afghans with the education to teach (or manage an office or a business) aren't doing that, and any soldier or policeman who manages to pick up some English leaves the security forces almost immediately for better pastures.

Posted by BruceR at 02:03 PM

Today's Afstan pieces worth a read

Registan on ISAF information operations. Qatra qatra.

The Globe on using Canadian-hired contractors to teach an ANA junior officer course (story's wrong on the location, though: it's in Kabul, not Kandahar).*

Both more indications, I trust, we are coming to the end of the problem-definition challenge on this one. Let the problem-solving commence.

*I'm unclear whether this training would be at the National Military Academy of Afghanistan, which graduated its first 84 new officers in January, or (rather more likely) the main army training base, the Kabul Military Training Centre.
Posted by BruceR at 09:12 AM

May 19, 2009

On Nazis and the CJC

I for one find Ezra Levant's ongoing discussion of the Canadian Jewish Congress' support for the Canadian Nazi Party in the mid 1960s fascinating and hope he keeps it up. Back in the early 1990s I covered a few of the Heritage Front-AntiRacist Action street clashes in Toronto as a student journalist, and I confess if I'd known of the previous instance I might have been more likely to call shenanigans on that put-up job, too, as we all later found out we probably should have.

Posted by BruceR at 10:58 PM

Adventures in indigenous armies


Of 30 rifle magazines recently taken from insurgents’ corpses, at least 17 contained cartridges, or rounds, identical to ammunition the United States had provided to Afghan government forces...

(Personal note: as far as I could tell, there were 2 logical courses of action open for many of those more vulnerable unmentored Afghan police stations in the wilder parts of Kandahar Province: 1. Sell your ammo in exchange for not getting overrun at night. 2. Get overrun and lose the ammo anyway. The end result, at least as far as the ammo was concerned, would have been equivalent.)


Because Iraq's security forces are paid in cash that is passed down the chain of command, many commanders lie about how many soldiers they supervise so they can collect the wages of fictional soldiers...

Also worrisome, U.S. military officials say, is the Iraqi government's failure to spend money on maintenance and spare parts for the vast fleet of armored vehicles and other military equipment the United States has donated to Iraq's armed forces in recent years...

Some pretty obvious and uncomfortable parallels there with a previous indigenous army advisory experiment, should you ever feel like reading/rereading that sorry history.

Addendum: of the [insurgents'] rifles had been issued to an Afghan auxiliary police officer in 2007. How Taliban insurgents had acquired the rifle was not clear. The auxiliary police, which augmented the Afghan Interior Ministry, were riddled with corruption and incompetence. They were disbanded last year.

It would be more accurate to say the auxiliary police, or ANAP, were another one of those periodic attempts to bring the independent militias operated by local powerbrokers/warlords into the fold by giving them a stamp of government authority. Obviously, it didn't quite work out. But that experience is part of the reason why a lot of experienced people remain skeptical about the U.S. plans to rearm those same tribesmen now... yet again.

Posted by BruceR at 10:02 PM

The schools debate, continued

Mike Steinglass responds to an earlier response of mine to an earlier post of his, itself a response to something I said. I'm grooving this blogging thing.

For the record, I left Afghanistan in April. Otherwise, I tend to agree with everything he says. Kandahar Province needs teachers more than schools: having the security to allow teachers to make a living without, you know, dying, is the military's part of a larger reconstruction problem, in which it is coupled with the building of sustainable civilian institutions to recruit, train, and support those teachers. Not my piece of the pie, that: it's certainly not something you would normally see the military having any kind of involvement with. Which I guess speaks to the necessity for the kind of close civil-military cooperation on development that the Provincial Reconstruction Team concept was meant to institutionalize.

Posted by BruceR at 12:52 PM

Things I don't care about, at all

Added to a large and growing list:

Ruby Dhalla and her nannies: I don't find any side in this story remotely believable.

Don Rumsfeld's Christianized Power Points: I think the Draper GQ article is a must-read, and a damning one, for its depiction of Rumsfeld during the Katrina situation alone, but the allegations he put Gospel quotes in to liven up the President's slideshows leaves me wholly unmoved. I mean, man, whatever: you do enough of these, you'll find you do just about anything to break the monotony.

I once spent two weeks briefing my counterparts at a NATO agency and for no reason other than boredom, prefaced every presentation with a quote from Talledega Nights. Pointless non sequiturs go with the form, man.

Posted by BruceR at 12:41 PM

The new honesty?

A masterful example of excellent damage-control PR following up on equally strong public-interest journalism. Kudos, all around.

Speaking of forthrightness, I'd say this is pretty much on the money in terms of a time estimate:

The Afghan national army could lead operations in Afghanistan in two to four years, with the U.S. playing a support role, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during a May 8 interview, portions of which aired on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday.

I still find estimates in the Gates range (3 years, +/-1), for army building anyway, to be credible. I always valued my discussions with American, British and Australian officers who'd done a tour in Iraq before their current Afghan go. I found it comforting that so many did say the challenges they were facing in Afghanistan now seemed very similar to their challenges they had run into in their specific areas of expertise in that country a few years before, areas that in the Iraq context had since shown marked improvement.

We may not like it, but we simply have to accept that because of choices that were made (rightly or wrongly) at the level of higher strategy, the real start of the rebuilding of national institutions in Afghanistan was retarded, and probably should really be dated at the earliest from 2005, around the time of Karzai's election, not 2002: two full years after the start of similar American efforts in Iraq. And recall Iraq's real low point, its worst year (so far) was 2007. Which is, my now-somewhat-informed guess is saying, about where we are in Afghanistan today: the dark before the dawn. That's not to say it couldn't get still worse -- we could absolutely still mess this up -- for as Gates takes pains to say, the enemy has yet to cast his vote. But any expectations we should have been doing much better, specifically in security-force-building at this point, given the paucity of resources assigned to the problem in its earliest years, are simply unrealistic.

Posted by BruceR at 09:14 AM

May 15, 2009

Ralph Peters, poser

Foust says all worth saying about the latest typically content-free column from ex-officer and Tom Clancy wannabe Ralph Peters. But this quote from the old poser did make me laugh:

"We turned the blood tide during the hours of darkness, while journalists snored in their bunks."

Posted by BruceR at 12:33 PM

Remember, we're the main effort

One of the running gags with the mentoring teams I worked with was for someone to say, after hearing about some lack of key supplies or equipment, or some new manning shortfall, or some new piece of gear that had been issued to everyone in the battle group or the rear echelon that hadn't yet even been ordered for us, "remember, mentoring is the main effort now." We never got tired of that.

Which is why I wasn't at all surprised to read that an American ETT is a little concerned about the quality of their replacements.

Hey, I was lucky in both my co-workers and my successors. But no one from any army I worked with in the mentoring game thought they were either well-supported or even much respected by their own chains of command. This went far beyond usual soldier-griping. Consistently, our biggest obstacle to achieving our mission wasn't the Afghan army, or even the insurgency. Mentoring Afghan security forces, which we may claim is our main effort, is simply not being resourced proportionately to the requirement.

In the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," General Murray, the first British commander in Egypt, calls the Arab Revolt, in justifying his own under-resourcing, "a sideshow of a sideshow": the least important component of a secondary theatre of war. We may not have had much else in common with T.E. Lawrence, other than maybe in our daydreams, but until recently, with Iraq as the Americans' main event, mentoring indigenous security forces in the Afghan theatre has had something like a similar feel.

The real problem here is the ad hockery: throughout NATO, the main force battalions that go to Afghanistan are sent as formed bodies, but the advisor teams are cobbled together from augmentees, and are resourced accordingly (so for instance, during pre-deployment a battalion will have a nice big base complex to train and plan in: but the mentor team down the road will be working in temporary space borrowed from or shared with some other, "real" unit.) In the States, these problems are leading to increasing discussion about whether the Combat Advisor/Foreign Internal Defense task needs to be given a more formalized structure, with specific combat units (opinions differ which ones) assigned to it as a primary task. This discussion has not, at least to date, percolated north over the border yet that I've seen.

UPDATE, May 25: The ETT post referred to above has been removed by its author, no doubt out of an honest concern that bitching about your replacements on a blog would not exactly be "setting them up for success."

Posted by BruceR at 10:31 AM

I like schools, really

Blogger Matt Steinglass riffs on an earlier post of mine:

"Here’s a general rule that applies to basically every development program in every poor country in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan: want to do something nice and useful for these people? Don’t build them a school..."

Just to be clear, no one has the advantage over me in my respect for Greg "Three Cups of Tea" Mortenson and his solo school-building efforts. In many parts of Asia, I have no doubt, school building is a valid development strategy. And our own government thinks it valid right now in southern Afghanistan, as well. I don't dispute that, either, at least theoretically: although it all depends where in southern Afghanistan you go. And although seeing a vacant new school being used as a weapons cache may not endear NGOs to soldiers, when we think about it, we do have to concede that as late as 2004 Kandahar Province looked a lot more peaceful than it does now. Saying donors' efforts have been wasted is not to say that when those schools were being paid for those donors were somehow being obtuse.

What I was trying to say was that, in the part of the world I was in at any rate, school buildings are not a necessary condition for anything right now: the restoration of basic security is. And in much of the rural areas of Kandahar Province, there is no way that those extant buildings are going to be used as anything remotely resembling their original purpose under current conditions.

Steinglass is absolutely right, too, that teachers, not buildings, are the key. But the average teacher's wage in Kandahar right now is $60 a month, a quarter of what a private soldier and a tenth of what an interpreter makes, at a time when people with the education to be teachers are desperately needed in the civil service, in government, and a hundred other places. As well, local teachers still regularly turn up dead at insurgent hands, as they are often seen as having taken sides by virtue of their choice of profession. (And those are boys' school teachers. I'm not even going to talk about the schooling of girls.) The kind of round-the-clock armed protection an individual teacher would need in a place like Zhari right now is just not feasible, either. So we're not talking an environment that's set up to attract quality people.

Posted by BruceR at 10:08 AM

May 12, 2009

It's Iraq, too, apparently

Wash. Post:

"Iraqis enjoy some sense of civility with us here," Blauser said later. "It's time for the Iraqis to step up. If they don't, it'll be one hell of a mess when troops leave. Honestly, I don't see how the Iraqi army can gain credibility when they have petty thieves stealing from families of disabled children in their ranks."

At one time I might have been baffled why two-thirds of a shipment of custom tools only useful for the single purpose of adjusting a pediatric wheelchair might "disappear" in the course of a indigenous military's humanitarian aid mission. Now, not so much.

Posted by BruceR at 11:19 AM

The McKiernan replacement

On the sudden departure of the senior general in Afghanistan, Bill and Bob already said everything worth saying:

"I think it's more about the message than the man...

"I recently asked in the comments on Abu Muqawama if there had been a single maneuver force commander who had suffered any negative impact on his career due to the degradation of security in Afghanistan or Iraq. There had not been. Battalion and brigade commanders came back from the theaters of combat having visibly lost ground, or having failed to make progress, with medals and nice new assignments including promotions. Apparently, that has now changed."

See also Abu M.

Posted by BruceR at 09:42 AM

May 11, 2009

Let's go to the map

Okay, so I wanted to explain a few things maybe about the recent closure of strong point Mushan. That, of course, required a little more explanation about our current theatre of operations. Not a lot of good maps online for that right now. But the best way to understand the Kandahar dynamic is really to look at an aerial photo, and for that Google Earth does just fine. So instead of Mushan specifically, this has turned more into an illustrated talk on battlespace geometry.

The big thing you have to notice when looking at the Google Earth image of the Kandahar area is the green spaces. Because these are the only places with any life. The rest, all around, is inhospitable mountain and desert. Centuries of human intervention in the form of irrigation have carved a thin strip of arable land down the Arghandab valley (shown in blue). It is the green spaces, the Arghandab being by far the largest, where all economic activity goes on, and the 50% of Kandahar Province's 1-million population which does not live in the city itself resides. All else is waste land.

Colby Cosh says he likes these

The valley is joined by a second human creation, the Afghan Ring Road (red). The paved thruway for all major human commerce, it goes right through the congested centre of Kandahar City (yellow box). Keeping this road open is an essential security function for both the Afghans and the coalition.

Kandahar City, the key prize in all this, is defined by its proximity to these two major arteries. Controlling it gives you control of the economy and commerce of the entire south: the green spaces and the road. And vice versa.

For the last few years, most of the fighting in this area has been in the green spaces of Zhari (north of the river) and Panjwaii (south of the river) districts, with occasional forays into Arghandab district, northwest of the city, as well. The insurgents use the people and the lush terrain for cover, and have proven exceptionally difficult to remove by force. The Afghan army and its Canadian allies, whose main bases are centred around the old international airport to the southeast of the city (KAF) are largely, at this point in the game, ensconced in three large forward operating bases, or FOBs, (cyan squares) posing a barrier across the valley itself. To the west of this line within Zhari or Panjwaii is, basically, Indian country right now.*

Dotted around these larger bases, and not shown here, are a number of strongpoints and police substations, manned by Afghan security forces and, in almost all cases, a small number of Canadian military mentors. These are the places where we and they have been attempting to practice doctrinal counterinsurgency, in fine Bing West, The Village, style. It's had a mixed record of success, obviously. And it is possible to get spread too thin, as we have proven. Both sizes have their pluses and minuses. A 100-man base has to devote a significant portion of its effective strength to protecting the base itself, rather than patrolling the countryside, whereas a 300-man base can force project a reaction force, etc., more easily. But it is fair to say that it is in the smaller bases, operating in company strength or less, where the Afghan army really punched above their weight, during our rotation, at least. A Canadian section and an ANA company-minus operating independently, at their best, are mutually supporting, each able to offset the weaknesses of the other (this is also mostly true of mentored police stations in this area, as well). Through the mentor team the Afghans have access to fire support, casualty evacuation, and so on, while through the Afghans the Canadians have access, real access, to the population itself, while the added strength in numbers makes the presence of a small number of Canadians sustainable in that area, indefinitely. When it works, it works really well.

You can get some of the same synergy at the larger joint bases, as well, of course, but the effect is less efficient. Patrols in this region, for a variety of reasons, tend to be dismounted, and once you're limited to walking distances those bigger bases lose a lot of their potential impact. (Hence the need for the smaller strongpoints in the first place: to expand your footprint.) As well, the larger bases are pretty well optimally sited now, after some experimentation: they're as permanent a fixture on the landscape as you're going to get in these districts. The smaller strongpoints are designed to be collapsible as the tactical situation ebbs and flows.

Hence Mushan, shown, way out at the western tip of Panjwayi. It had been established at a time (early' 07) when it appeared the insurgency was, if not on the wane, at least fundamentally changing from the stand-up-and-fight insurgency we had been fighting up to that point. And it, like a number of strongpoints established at that time, eventually proved unsustainable due to that insurgent change of strategy in Kandahar Province to predominantly an IED offensive, which has made it effectively impossible to drive supplies, etc. to Mushan for some time. At the end of a long helicopter ride from anywhere, at a time when helicopter assets were very difficult for Canadians to obtain (ironically, this is changing now due to American arrivals, only after the strongpoint has closed) it was as tough a hardship post for Canadians as existed in this theatre. It also did a great deal of good, with one of the ANA's largest weapons seizures and much of their useful intelligence coming from their companies that rotated through this location during our time there. That speaks to the effectiveness of the Bing West-style counter-insurgency work that was going on at that location, and the degree of faith and trust those soldiers had built within the villages in close proximity to the strongpoint. So does the fact that despite those successes, it was actually one of the more peaceful strongpoints we had. (That's relatively speaking, of course: shortly after that arms seizure insurgents struck back by mortaring the place, and 2 ANA soldiers were killed.) But it wasn't threat of insurgent overrun or futility of effort that made us decide to depart now. Given adequate spare helicopter lift or a reliable ground route, we likely could have stayed there forever.

That said, the closing of Mushan should be seen as a disappointment, albeit perhaps an inevitable one, and not just because of the likely consequences for our friends in the local population there. At a time when the Afghan army is really just getting off its feet, its fair to say a lot of its talent, or at least its more impressionable future leadership, is concentrated at the junior officer level. There are Afghan captains and lieutenants who are surprisingly good, or at least surprisingly ready to try new things with mentor support. Operating in company detachments effectively puts some of those future leaders out of the reach of their own senior officers, many of whom, either because they are old retreads from three Afghan armies ago, or have been promoted too fast in the rapidly expanding new ANA, are relatively less effective or capable in their positions. Saying you're concentrating your Afghan soldiers in larger bases like KAF or the FOBs puts more of them more within the daily control of colonels and generals instead of captains. Regrettably, any efforts to consolidate larger Afghan forces closer to the city right now will likely increase their chances of being misused.

*UPDATE, 25 May: A blogger at has said the reference to "Indian country" above was insensitive. He may well be right. I apologize fully and without reservation to any real Indians who may be offended by the use of that phrase.

Posted by BruceR at 12:59 PM

May 08, 2009

A just ending to a horrible story

Seen at Registan:

"ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A former military contractor was sentenced Friday to probation for shooting and killing a handcuffed prisoner in Afghanistan.

"Don Ayala of New Orleans pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges that normally would carry up to eight years in prison. But U.S. District Senior Judge Claude Hilton decided probation was warranted under the circumstances. The man whom Ayala shot had set fire to one of Ayala’s colleagues minutes before the shooting.

"After the Nov. 4 attack on anthropologist Paula Loyd, Ayala helped subdue the man, Abdul Salam. When Ayala learned the extent of Loyd’s burns, he shot Salam at close range."

Paula L. was a lovely woman, so bright and friendly. I had coffee with her and Don in KAF shortly before they left for the field in October. I'm glad this tragic story did not end any the worse for Don.

Posted by BruceR at 04:11 PM

On COIN theory and practice

When I was in university, and pointed out to argumentative friends the problems with real-life Communist revolutions as opposed to what Marx argued for, the inevitable rejoinder was that Marx could not be judged, because the real Communism he espoused had never been tried. (This debating tactic also worked for anarchism, by the way.)

After my time in Afghanistan, I'm beginning to wonder if real counterinsurgency has ever been tried. This post from Registan seems about right on that score.

Posted by BruceR at 12:08 PM

Boy, I'm glad he's gone

From the WashPost, yet more evidence that the previous U.S. president's instincts were wrong on just about everything re Afghanistan.

"In late 2007, Bush’s National Security Council authorized aerial spraying of poppy fields because of concern that drug profits were financing the Taliban, according to that official and another senior Bush administration official. Bush was passionate about spraying. “I’m a spray man myself,” he declared, according to one of the officials.

"The plan, according to the officials, was to force the Karzai government to accede to spraying, and then use that acquiescence to overcome opposition from the U.S. military and the British government, whose troops were deployed in the areas of greatest poppy cultivation.

"But when Karzai objected during a videoconference, saying the sight of spray planes would “look like chemical warfare” to the Afghan people, Bush backed down.

Posted by BruceR at 11:05 AM

More on the current Afghan army reality

This Guardian clip is a good piece. Entirely consistent with my own experiences.

Look, there are some serious structural issues facing the ANA right now. First and foremost, as the Guardian piece refers to, is that the Afghan security force organizations are currently being forced to expand at a nearly unsustainable rate. As the Afghan Lieut.-Col. in the piece tries to explain, this means they can't afford to be as picky as they should be in recruitment or retention issues, can't effectively discipline their men, and often are fielding an end product that is increasingly not up to the job, combat-wise.

The other issue is partly one of our creation: the lack of any kind of troop rotation policy within the ANA. If you're an ANA soldier assigned to a northern brigade upon graduation from basic training, you stay in the north. If you're assigned to a southern province, you stay in that province. Forever. There's not much in the way of promotion, and nothing in the way of unit transfer: the Afghan battalions that were first assigned to the south 3 or more years ago are still right where they were first assigned.

The reason I say this is partly our problem is because NATO countries really have no obvious interest in trading the ANA units their individual teams have been mentoring with each other. We're happy to keep the ones we've trained, to our standards, in Kandahar Province, and the US, Brits, Dutch, Germans, etc., etc. are keeping theirs where they are, too. For 1/205 Bde (the Canadian mentored one) to switch with a brigade from, say, Herat or Mazar e-Sharif would be seen, for very good reason, as a huge disruption to their mentoring nations. So the Afghans assigned mentors from NATO countries that aren't seeing any combat aren't seeing any either, and those in Helmand and Kandahar are seeing far more than their share.

In practice, for the individual Afghan soldier in the south of the country, this means you are on the line, with occasional breaks for training or leave, until you quit, or get killed, or horribly injured. There is no other way out for you. This is going to have obvious impacts on morale: we think our soldiers start to lose their combat effectiveness after six months, but the ANA fighting in Helmand are the same units that have had troops in mortal danger seven days a week for three years. Conversely, many ANA units in the north and west of the country have never seen a shot fired, and so long as this practice continues, likely never will.

This is why Bing West's piece in the WSJ today has it kind of backwards. Leaving aside the thesis of whether the ANA deserves a larger role in the country's governance, West recommends the tying of Afghan units to terrain "for years". But in fact they are doing this now, and in places like Helmand or Kandahar there is a risk it could break them.

These realities are somewhat obscured to the general view by a few factors. One is the can-do attitude of Western military trainers and mentors. I worked with Brits, Americans, and Canadians; they were, to a man, dedicated guys, nowhere near ready to give up on the ANA just yet. Neither was I, for that matter. That meant, though, that our assessments in many cases needed to be evaluated as being laced with the "power of positive thinking" stuff that is just going to come naturally in such circumstances.

The second is the experience of previous rotations of soldiers now back home in positions of authority, that also may be colouring our judgment a little. The fact is that the pressures on the ANA of 2009 are going to be different from those it faced even in 2007, when it was still a smaller, newer, reasonably cohesive force with strong ties back to the Northern Alliance army that it largely evolved from. People with a tour experience from those days may not have seen the institutional effects of explosive growth or persistent combat fatigue that we're beginning to really see in the south now. And in some ways, the ANA they fought alongside may have been more capable man-for-man, albeit smaller and less experienced, than what is there today.

Now, if the rotation issues could be resolved -- or alternatively if the war in the south were to take a sustained turn for the better -- the growth issue would likely resolve itself given time. But that's certainly not going to happen before 2011, which is when 90% of Canadians apparently want us home.

Anyway, the Guardian's John D. McHugh. I recommend his entire series.

Posted by BruceR at 10:24 AM

May 07, 2009

Good for Via

Credit where due: Via Rail's been great recently with the Forces appreciation stuff.

Posted by BruceR at 11:01 AM

Afstan memories, 3

Last of these, I think. Don't want this place getting too maudlin...

Zhari District, December: Putting up the ANA's brigade command post. We expect the ANA along any time now...

Ashoqeh, December: there must be a coffee maker in this place somewhere...

The Brigade intelligence desk. Yes, that is all of it, why do you ask?

Annother cool December morning in the brigade command post

Posted by BruceR at 10:47 AM

May 06, 2009

Chait on torture

This piece by Jon Chait has the torture issue exactly right. People have said that to focus on utility arguments in the torture debate detracts from the moral issue, but it does not. Of course it's an overstatement to say that "torture has never worked;" I mean, who could ever say that? But it is entirely fair to say that "torture is not designed to elicit previously unknown facts." Should it ever occasionally do so, it is essentially as a matter of luck.

Megan McArdle has, for instance, said that the staking of one's hopes on the "torture never works" argument will only result in the argument ending in torture's favour should science advance torture to the point where it can be counted on working reliably, for instance by using it in conjunction with some hypothetical future reliable lie detection method. Well, maybe, but since we're talking hypotheticals now, the obvious counter is there's no inherent reason that any such sci-fi lie detection method we come up with would not likely also work as well, if not better, in the absence of torture, too.

Posted by BruceR at 02:58 PM

Afstan memories, 2

Couple more from the scrapbook...

OMLT Secfor: the best taxi service in the world

Oh goody, I get to ride in the Bison again

Kandahar City, November: And when peace breaks out, this corner here is where the first Tim Horton's will go

Posted by BruceR at 12:06 PM

Home cooking

From the Globe:

"While the war effort has worn down many Canadian troops, Forces foodies are undergoing somewhat of a renaissance. Their cooking – inside the ramshackle, propane-fuelled kitchen trailers that are set up to feed troops stationed at small military outposts dotting the hotbeds of southern Kandahar – provides salvation for soldiers."

Agreed. Whereas the free food at Kandahar Air Field, provided by contractors, remains truly horrible (you can always supplement it with the fast food, though, so it's not so bad), there's some real great meals awaiting if you if you get sent to one of the Canadian-manned locations away from the airfield. The promise of a break for better food in Zhari or the city has a lot to do with KAF rats always being happy to volunteer for another trip out. Of course, with the ANA naan bread was always readily available, too, which I've long loved, so I was pretty well set-up that way regardless.

Posted by BruceR at 08:55 AM

May 05, 2009

Afstan memories, 1

Nothing special, but I thought I'd put a couple pics of me up over the next week or so. I have fond memories attached to each of them.

Kandahar City, November: steps to putting up a Bison command post in austere conditions: #1: set up a six-foot table. #2: put coffee maker on table... um, that's about as far as I ever got on my own.

KC: Just me, my cot, and I... any minute now the Afghans will show up and an intense chess game is going to break out behind me.

KC: The ANA brigade's first attempt at deploying an operations centre. Yes, that is all of it, why do you ask?

Posted by BruceR at 11:46 AM

Excellent summary of the real Afghan experience

By US Capt Carl Thompson, here (click on the PDF link). So good I wished I'd written it.

A couple highlights:

"Many ambitious people in Afghanistan look at Americans and the American military as a large Automatic Teller Machine (ATM)."

True dat. One thing we found out early on was that each Afghan we worked with had a List. He would ask all Westerners he met for the first thing, and only the first thing, on that list (cell phone, headache pills, multitool, memory stick, new furniture). If you said no outright, he wouldn't ask you for anything for some considerable period and work the other Westerners instead. If you said anything other than a flat-no (ie, if you were remotely polite about it) he would keep asking you for that thing at every possible opportunity until you gave in and gave it to him. Then, he would switch to item #2 and so work his way down. Generally in the same conversation. (You could give him something as a gift that wasn't the next item on his List, but you didn't expect much of an acknowledgement: he had already told you what he really wanted/needed, after all.) Each Afghan's List was different, but the procedure sometimes seemed a universal.

One time in Kandahar City I got momentarily frustrated with this, and said in half-exasperation, "you just think we [Canadians] are a bunch of giant talking vending machines, don't you?" My interpreter just looked at me, baffled: "How do I translate that?" But to understand a little of how they see us, you really need to imagine if Canada was invaded by a race of giant sentient alien slot machines that most of the time paid out nothing, but sometimes for no obvious reason handed you a Ferrari.

"Quite often, we patrol through a village once every 3-4 weeks or maybe 2-3 times each year. If anyone wants to talk to us, they have to come out to
our location and that is not good for their safety. The person will be seen going back and forth and will be targeted to be killed."

It is a fact that there are now large parts of the populated part of Zhari District, where Canadians have been working since our deployment to Kandahar, that haven't seen a Canadian or Afghan soldier in over a year. In the Canadian backyard, we have not yet succeeded in having our soldiers (as opposed to, say, the sound of distant artillery fire) become part of the daily reality of the Afghan villages where the insurgents hide within and draw strength from. Hence the attitude of that population towards us.

"Trying to make the ANA more like us separates them from the villages and mountain tops and pulls them into a firebase with the Americans. This strategy has consistently yielded poor results and lost us ground. We should stop and adjust to something that will allow us to win."

This, along with most of the other tactical observations in the piece, could apply just as well in the Canadian AO. One possible example? (More on Mushan another time. I would need to Photoshop up a map, first.)

"Putting in projects randomly without a strategic purpose or pattern will have an effect -- the question is will it help you, your allies or the enemy."

Also evidenced in the Canadian AO. Well-meaning people have built a whole ton of schools in Kandahar Province over the last few years. As far as I could tell when I was there, none out in the rural areas were actually being used as schools during our tour. One was being used for army housing, another a police checkpoint, at least three were well-known insurgent rally points, and several were being used to store a really amazing quantity of weed. A complete waste of some donor's money, largely because the aid planning that went into those schools was apparently entirely decoupled from the security plan for the population they were meant to serve. This is why soldiers think NGOs are ineffective in war zones.

"We were doing better in 2002-2005 when soldiers were unobtrusively running around Afghanistan in ordinary pickup trucks and no body armor. Now we have large HMMVs that limit us to certain roads and are required to wear large amounts of body armor which prevent us from moving."

Similarly, current ISAF plans to equip the entire ANA with HMMVs to replace their Ford Rangers currently poses a significant risk of eroding their otherwise excellent operational mobility unless it's fully thought-out. Other than the highways, there aren't a lot of roads in our AO that can take a HMMV. The problems in the mountains are well known: in agricultural areas it's the tight corners between high walls. Plus, they're a lot slower. Yes, you can't fight from a Ranger. But the ANA right now relies on speed and surprise to avoid casualties, and that's what we're asking them to trade away. An "Afghan solution to an Afghan problem," it is not.

Count that it was, however, #1 on some ANA general's List.

UPDATE: Bill and Bob are also fans.

Posted by BruceR at 09:37 AM

May 04, 2009

What T.E. Lawrence, Afghanistan, and girl's basketball have in common

Interesting think-piece from the reliable Malcolm Gladwell here.

One thing I was struck by in Afghanistan was how much we were all expected to be familiar with T.E. Lawrence's work (valuable, true) and yet how much the actual warfare in Kandahar Province had come to resemble the Turkish experience of fighting Lawrence, all the same. Tremendous resources are spent every day to keep the primary highways, such as Ring Road South, open and free of IEDs and ambushes.

Like the Turks with their trains that Lawrence could blow up so reliably, the need to keep that single land supply line running through daily sweeps, air overwatch, etc., consumes so much of our efforts. In Kandahar Province, a third of the Afghan army brigade and their Canadian partners, and a significant portion of the local police, do nothing but IED sweeps. This is one thing the deployment of American ground forces actually isn't going to help with as much as you'd think, either (as they'll be largely deployed on the ends of those roads, making it even more of a necessary activity.)

Throughout our tour, we saw the insurgents responding to more resources being put toward route clearance by just expanding their "attack surface"... starting to place IEDs a little further down the road, forcing the extension of the sweep. Even if we're entirely successful, it's tremendously uneconomical: with ISAF spending millions to offset the insurgents' spending of thousands, with comparable loss of life on either side. Which is, of course, why the insurgents are now fighting that way.

Posted by BruceR at 03:40 PM

May 02, 2009

Dude forgot to duck, that's all

Like just about any sensible Canadian, I'm failing to see the problem here:

"The 15-year-old was suspended for four weeks from Keswick High School over a fight that he says began when another student racially abused him and punched him in the mouth. The boy, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, fought back with a single punch that broke his antagonist's nose."

But of course, because Canada apparently has a wildly disproportionate number of non-sensible people in its school boards and police departments, this:

"He was initially the only person investigated, and police charged him with assault causing bodily harm... Earlier this week, the boy's father received a couriered letter from the York Region District School Board. It said the school's principal, Catherine McGinley, was recommending the discipline committee mete out the harshest possible punishment when it meets on May 13."

Let's be clear here. It was the 15 year-old vizmin Canadian kid who was acting in the finest, peacekeeper, Maintiens le Droit, D-Day, "peace, order and good government" tradition of this country. As a fellow Canadian, I'm proud of him.

The collected authority figures of Keswick, Ontario, on the other hand, are acting in the pathetic tradition of some other, probably imaginary, deeply f--ked up country, and it would probably benefit us all tremendously if they went back there, wherever that is. Outer space, under the ocean, I don't really give a crap. So long as I could believe they would have nothing more to do with the education and discipline of our young people, I would be ecstatic.

Posted by BruceR at 12:06 PM

May 01, 2009

Indigenous forces as fire-breaks

I agree with Abu M: this is an important article.

One thing I think we're just beginning to realize in the Afghanistan context is that lightly-armed or developing indigenous forces are comparatively ineffective in areas where insurgents are already well-established. They bring nothing to the fight that well-trained, well-equipped Western-type forces do not, and provide their own logistical burdens that hamper their heavier counterparts far more than they help.

Indigenous forces can potentially be much more valuable in the areas where insurgents are looking to expand, but have not yet gotten a firm foothold. By moving in to those areas in an intelligent way, they become the firebreak that prevents further insurgent operational success. Western forces can then focus on operating to disrupt in the "red zones" outside the inkblot more effectively.

You can lean too far the other way, too. The other failing that I've now experienced with indigenous forces is their unwise application of the otherwise theoretically sound "the people are the key terrain" concept resulting in them opting to over-garrison city cores and key buildings, rather than focussing their weaponry and training advantages on that on-the-fence population in the built-up areas on the approaches. Indigenous forces built on an army model, like the ANA can do little of value to stabilize a city that is worthy of the costs of basing them there: I would suggest that once you reach a certain level of urbanization, police acting in support of a judicial system, no matter how ineffective, are going to be a much better investment of effort than actual army units, at least in terms of a permanent stabilization solution.

In the Pakistan context, and talking purely theoretically for a moment, I would suggest this means bolstering the Punjab police in the geographical space that still remains between the big urban centres and occupied territories like Swat, with army quick reaction capabilities and defensibility improvements, to make them a tougher nut to crack. This far, and no further, etc.

Posted by BruceR at 01:24 PM

Nir Rosen on Iraq: it's over

"It would be naive to say that Iraq’s future is certain, or even likely, to be a peaceful one, but the war between Sunnis and Shiites is now over."

A worthwhile read from the consistently most essential of the Iraq reporters.

Posted by BruceR at 12:46 PM

Great news for Phil Carter

Very happy to hear this:

"The Obama administration has chosen a lawyer and Iraq War veteran who has denounced U.S. detention policy to direct detainee affairs at the Department of Defense.

"Until starting at the Pentagon this week, Phillip E. Carter, 33, was an associate at New York's Park Avenue law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge. He specialized in government contracting and national security regulation.

"A former Army captain, he also blogged on national security issues at a Washington Post website, Intel Dump.

"In 2005-06, he served in Iraq with the Army's 101st Airborne Division as an advisor to the Iraqi police."

Posted by BruceR at 12:34 PM

I don't think that word means what you think it means

Longer Byron York:

"I wrote that citing Obama's "sky-high ratings among African-Americans make some of his positions appear a bit more popular overall than they actually are." I thought the word "overall" conveyed the idea that there was a difference between the total job-approval number and the complexities of opinion of Obama on various issues. Maybe "across-the-board" would have been better than "overall," but I doubt that would have kept a left-wing activist..." yadda yadda yadda.

Shorter Byron York:

The word "overall" apparently doesn't mean what I thought it did. I blame other, smarter people.

Update: Similar sketchiness, here.

Posted by BruceR at 11:54 AM