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