June 29, 2009

On the KC shooting

There are some conclusions one certainly shouldn't jump to when evaluating today's reports of the killing of the Kandahar Chief of Police in a gunfight.

One would be that there's anything unusual about this. Like Leonidas of Sparta would have said... "This. Is. Kandahar." As a policing environment, it has been for years and remains to this day highly volatile by our standards, often a home for rough, frontier justice: Deadwood with AKs. There's lots of armed men, lots of small arms, and lots of scores to settle. The insurgency bears the same relationship to this baseline that Indian raids did to the American Wild West: in that not all the social violence, perhaps not even most of it, is insurgent-driven. There's no reason at this time to believe the McGuffin at the centre of this tragic incident was anything more than someone "appropriating" somebody's car, or jailing somebody's brother for something minor even by Afghan standards. One shouldn't expect a sense of proportion in Kandahar City between the offense and the outcome in these things.

Another would be that any ISAF or OEF forces anywhere had the vaguest clue this was going to happen today, or were in any way complicit. It's simply highly unlikely that this was an attempt to "snatch" a high-value target or anything like that. Even if that sort of thing were going on, the last people Special Forces would use, or need to use, would be the kind of trigger-happy Afghans who would be likely to get into a gunfight with the Police Chief. If the U.S. special ops guys (or the NDS, or the ANA) really wanted somebody to disappear from formal custody, for whatever reason, friend or foe, there are other, quieter opportunities open to them for that sort of thing.

Another would be that because a lot of papers say "U.S. forces sealed off the area" after the event means that Canadians weren't involved, or possibly even the lead agency in the arrests of those responsible. Both Kandahari civilians and Western stringer reporters can tell Afghans from Westerners easily enough, but have extraordinary difficulty distinguishing Canadian soldiers from Americans, in my experience. In Kandahar City, there is little in the way of a uniformed U.S. presence, limited mostly to police mentors... odds are the Western forces responding were a mix of both nations' soldiers.

The only real question mark is who the shooters arrested will prove to have been employed by. They almost certainly weren't ANSF as the term is understood... even the Afghan Commandoes and other ANA soldiers working with Western Special Forces in the region are distinctive enough in uniform and bearing that they likely would have been identified by now by both spokesmen and eyewitnesses as Afghan army. (Note though, that the Globe, quoting a CF source, calls them an "Afghan special unit." I'd wait for some confirmation, though, before concluding that means these guys were directly on the Afghan government payroll.) Regardless, the shooters' visit to the police was almost certainly in no way connected to the effective prosecution of counter-insurgency, although many anti-war commentators may use the opportunity to suggest otherwise.

Rather more likely is this crew will turn out to have been involved in providing un-uniformed but armed base security for OEF at one of the Special Forces locations near Kandahar City (ISAF and the Canadians have already said they weren't employed at one of theirs.) The second-most likely possibility is they were from one of the large private companies providing ride-along security to civilian convoys in this region... So they are "private military contractors," sure, but not Blackwater, or anything sexy like that. Just another bunch of hired Afghan guns in a city that's full of them. I've stared at a few (of the road-guard variety) in ANA custody myself.

As such, they would have no standing to take possession of any prisoner from the police, obviously, or, depending on the exact nature of their day job, do anything more than search cars at a gate or stop traffic while the food trucks drive by. (And fire back at attackers in self-defence, which they do do a lot...) But there are a lot of them, they are (many of them) undisciplined, heavily armed, poorly documented, and obviously unmentored by us, and like most Afghan males, each of them is enmeshed in the Kandahar cobweb of tribal and family allegiances, any skein of which could have led to today's events. (And regrettably, there have been reports previously that the ones doing guard duty for the SOF guys sometimes tend to put on airs...)

By all accounts the Kandahar City police chief, Matiullah Qati, was a pretty good guy by local standards. Appointed last June (his predecessor having been fired after the great Kandahar Prison Break), he was nearly killed in a well-planned suicide attack on the city police HQ just as I arrived in Afghanistan last September. This is obviously going to be a pretty big setback for ANSF mentoring in the area, unfortunately.

UPDATE, 5 pm: The first coherent attempt at a narrative I've seen yet in commenter RYP's post at Ghosts of Alex. The AWK observations are worth noting. The president's brother's coterie is known to local authorities for being both well armed enough and cocky enough to end up in this sort of situation, and are not opposed to appealling to high places when they get in a jam. That these might have been AWK's men is not exclusive to the other hypotheses floated above, either.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 PM

June 23, 2009

I've been waiting to hear these words for eight long years

"I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not." --President Barack Obama

Posted by BruceR at 05:10 PM

June 22, 2009

Here we go again

Just a note that, true to form, after the opium-harvest lull the insurgency thing appears to have picked up again in Kandahar Province. Reading the foreign press, I've counted 12 IED fatalities in 4 incidents since Thursday, including 2 US soldiers, 3 ANA, 5 police, and 2 civilians. Not much in the Canadian news on it yet, though.

Posted by BruceR at 04:25 PM

Meanwhile, on the home front

Suggested debate or essay topic for this week: There is no one, Taliban or otherwise, in Afghanistan or elsewhere in South Asia for that matter, who poses a greater threat to the Canadian way of life than our own human rights commissioner. Discuss.

Posted by BruceR at 04:12 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

From the Telegraph:

Maj Miller also castigated senior officers for the strategy of "Clear, Hold, Build", which he stated had become a "parody of itself".

He added: "We are really only clearing the immediate vicinity of the security force bases, we are only holding the major settlements, and we are not building.
"Self-protection has become the main tactic, reinforced by air strikes that can backfire and undermine the campaign.

"Even as the Army renders itself more and more immobile with heavier vehicles and infantrymen weighing as much as a medieval knight, still the fantasy of the "manoeuvrist approach is peddled in staff courses.

"There is nothing manoeuvrist about weeks of petty, attritional fire fights within a few kilometres radius of a Forward Operating Base. The reason for all this is clear – zero casualties has become the tacit assumption behind operations.

"The Taliban are not being "coerced", "deterred", or "destabilised". They simply disperse, knowing that the British cannot sustain pressure, and they return like the tide when the British troops withdraw, after a short period, back to their bases."

Cross-applicable, dat. Overly negative? Maybe. But anyone who thinks the Canadian and British approaches, or the respective criticisms of them, are going to be substantially different is probably mistaken.

Posted by BruceR at 12:31 PM

The pressures of deploying

I suppose it's incumbent upon me to at least acknowledge Christie Blatchford's piece on the untimely death of Maj. Michelle Mendes. A few points below the fold.

1. It's worth your time to read. While it is unusual for a newspaper to cover suicides, this story needed to be told. Regrettably, this death was too high-profile to be simply forgotten. Blatchford and the Globe seem to have taken all responsible steps to involve the grieving family, and Mendes' colleagues in its writing. If, as the piece suggests, there are institutional problems here in the armed forces that need to be discussed/addressed/redressed, it would not have been right for those issues to be masked purely out of concern for their grieving process.

2. I didn't know Maj. Mendes, although I believe we might have met once or twice and we did have a lot of colleagues in common. As far as I can tell from everything I've previously heard from those colleagues, the Globe piece is substantially correct on the facts of her life and death.

3. Okay, on to the nitpicking. Although it should be obvious, the piece certainly does not over-emphasize the overriding reason for suicides on military operations: the constant presence of an instrument of self-destruction nearby. Every Canadian soldier in Kandahar Air Field and outside the wire goes to bed with a firearm and ammunition close to hand, and no one is immune to morbid impulse. Self-destructive actions that would take greater forethought and planning in accomplishing in a civilian setting are REAL easy overseas. Given that, Canadians should continue to be impressed with what I would still say is a surprisingly low rate of suicide on overseas deployments.

4. The other aspect I feel Blatchford may have underemphasized here is the pressure on the military and its intelligence branch to fill billets right now. Regardless of whether Maj. Mendes was being favoured or groomed, or whatever, these jobs don't fill themselves. One of the beneficiaries of that pressure, frankly, was me: I also didn't have a perfect service record, and I sought after and got a high-profile, high-responsibility position on a rotation that a few years ago I simply would not have been in the running for, for want of competition.

Now a lot of the time, that's going to work out well for all concerned, as I hope it did in my case. In a few cases, it's not. But this risk certainly HAD to be taken by the Forces and all involved in this particular case: this has been a long mission, and as a military we are simply running out of "perfect candidates" for everything. That is, ultimately, how a still-junior captain who, according to the Globe had an unexplained collapse at the start of her first attempt at a tour, and who in the previous 12 months had first failed her major's course and then borderline-passed it -- having been medicated for anxiety along the way -- and having received only cursory pre-deployment training, got sent to Kandahar in an experienced major-ranked position. Whatever other factors contributed to the high esteem in which she was clearly held by superiors and colleagues could well have affected her jump to brevet rank and the nature of the actual position she got, but she was simply going to have to go in some capacity as soon as she told the army she was ready for another try. And if the military is, as Blatchford says, reserving the career "spoils" for soldiers who prove themselves deployable, there are obvious reasons for that. You can't run an expeditionary army any other way.

5. Finally, re the Major's attributed comments re her major's course ("First, ‘if I'm in charge of an assault on a river in rubber rafts, we're in real trouble. Second, I don't have to excel at this stuff. That's not what I do.") she would have been absolutely right to say that, and yet perhaps also a little off-base. No one wants me leading an assault river crossing, either, trust me, but I've never felt I was being held to an unfair standard by soldiers. In all my experience, career combat-arms soldiers are if anything overly tolerant of the specialist trades, like my own, and their difficulties with things like fieldcraft, weapons handling, and physical fitness. My experience is they don't want to see you excel, they just want to see you putting in the equivalent effort. So yes, excelling in the pointy end skills just in order to be promoted in a combat support trade should neither be required, nor expected, I would hope.

But here's where I regret I might have to raise a small eyebrow: one hopes there are, and will always be good jobs in civilian and government intelligence open to a brilliant analyst with a master's degree. But to do int for an army, whether you end up getting the respect of the pointy end guys or not, do you not still need an intimate understanding of what it is soldiers do? To start with, it is them you are sending on patrol when you need an int question answered, and if you don't understand at a deep level what that involves, do you not risk misusing them? (Are there not also certain insights about the fighter/warrior mindset, about living and fighting in austere conditions, that are denied to those who've never had to force themselves to dwell and thrive in that sort of headspace?) There seems little in this one tragic story, at least so far, to suggest the army's training aims, expectations, or methods are wildly out of line for its support trades: that's a personal opinion, though. There, I've said enough.

Posted by BruceR at 11:46 AM

June 16, 2009

Salary increase for teachers coming

This is excellent news. From Quqnoos:

According to the Afghan Education Ministry, the monthly salaries of Afghan teachers in the state-run schools will jump up to 20,000 Afs ($400 US), four times higher than the current wages rate.

$100 a month when a barely passable interpreter for an NGO could make $600 minimum was proving simply unsustainable. As I've said before, the country has lots of empty schools, and no teachers to teach in them. This could help.

For reference, at 165K teachers nationwide, Afghanistan currently has 1 teacher for every 83 children under 14. Canada's ratio, by comparison, is 1 per 8. But a better demographic comparison might be India, which is currently dealing with an acknowledged huge teacher shortage itself, but still is hanging on to a ratio of at least 1 teacher to 40 young people.

(The question is going to be how long can this new teacher salaries budget of at least $780 million per annum be sustained in a country with a nominal 2008 GDP of only $12 billion. As with police, army and other civil servants' pay, clearly to be sustainable this entire program will have to remain foreign-aid dependent for the foreseeable future.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:00 AM

Mentoring in Mazar

Good piece on German army efforts in Der Spiegel:

Now it's Major Dietmar M.'s turn. He is a senior mentor, meaning he trains soldiers in the Afghan national army. At Camp Mike Spann, his charges show the visitors what they have learned, which includes repairing cars in accordance with German standards, maintaining weapons and caring for the wounded. The major talks about how difficult it is to build trust.

It is a good sign, he says, when one of his Afghan partners begins taking hold of both hands in greeting, instead of simply shaking hands. It is an even better sign when he rubs his cheek against Major M.'s cheek. And when an Afghan soldier feels truly at ease with Major M., he could very well take his hand and stroll through the camp with him, holding hands. This is the custom in Afghanistan...

True dat.

One of the smart things I think I did in my job was I aggressively sought out my British and American counterparts in other ANA brigades and corps and constantly compared notes with them. I found it gave me real advantages, perspective- and idea-sharing wise. We simply haven't yet got near enough best-practice info flowing within the mentoring "community."

Posted by BruceR at 10:53 AM

Flypaper update

You know, if I was an Villa fan I might be of a mind to... oh, never mind. We'll fight them there so we don't have to, etc. From the Tely:

The unnamed Muslim insurgent lost his life following clashes with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces.

Details of forensic investigations on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters are normally top secret.

But a British military source said that the terrorist had an Aston Villa tattoo showing he could be from the West Midlands...

Later in the article:

[Official]: "The details of Aston Villa fans in the Taliban does not shock or surprise me...

To complete the quote, you can pick from:

a) "They haven't had a good season in years..."
b) "Just be glad it wasn't Pompey, those buggers are insane..."
c) "We are concerned, however, about the reports of Cardiff scarves we've been finding on dead bodies in Ishqabad, which would of course indicate a whole new Taliban-Welsh hooligan nexus."

Posted by BruceR at 09:42 AM


I'm beginning to have doubts about Prez Obama's senior AfPak diplomat's ability to deal with the locals. WashPost:

U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, red-faced and sweaty, sat on the dirt floor of a stifling tent as Aslam Khan, a 38-year-old laborer, spoke haltingly of his family's panicked flight from a Pakistani army offensive against Taliban forces in their mountain village, three hours north of here.

Holbrooke asked some questions about the Taliban but got few answers. "Are these all your children?" he asked with a smile. Yes, Khan said, he had nine.

"Your daughter is beautiful," Holbrooke continued, nodding toward a young woman who sat quietly at the edge of the family. Her head was covered in a royal-blue scarf that revealed only her stunningly dark eyes.

"That's not my daughter," Khan said abruptly. After an awkward silence, the woman explained that she was a Pakistani police officer. It was unclear whether she was there to protect Holbrooke from the refugees, or to monitor what they told him.

You know, if there is somewhere a list of things you don't use as conversational openers with Pashtun and other conservative Muslim males, I'm pretty sure "how fetching their daughter is" would be pretty high up there.

Posted by BruceR at 09:29 AM

Strangest. Caveat. Ever.

From the AFP:

The leaders will also discuss the possibility of sending Italian soldiers into action immediately at the request of those leading operations.

Currently, Italian troops require six hours notice and America has repeatedly asked for this to be changed...

Hey, man, you try and get through the mandatory Verdi opera before every operation in less than six hours and see how you make out. Just getting the costumes on takes forever, then there's the lighting, the props... could put the British successes in North Africa in a new light, though.

Posted by BruceR at 09:11 AM

June 15, 2009

"But perhaps they're only worried because of YOU"

Interviewing brilliance from CTV's Tom Clark.

Ezra Levant, in the same clip, makes reference to this disturbing section of the Canadian Human Rights Commission's latest report to Parliament:

Removing the truth defence

Under the Criminal Code, the offence of hate propaganda includes a defence of truth. Professor Moon recommends the removal of this defence on the basis that a hate message suggesting that a given race, sex or religion is devoid of any redeeming qualities as human beings can never be true and therefore the justice system should not give hate-mongers a platform to make this argument in a criminal trial...

As this issue has resurfaced since the original drafting of the legislation, Parliament may wish to include considerations about the defence of truth in its deliberations.

Posted by BruceR at 01:15 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Forces Board of Inquiry on Canadian detainee handling, here. I think the army comes off looking about as well as can be expected.

Posted by BruceR at 09:11 AM

June 10, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

Once again, Free Range International:

"You cannot counter good tactics with technology because your enemy will always find ways of beating the technology for around 1/1000 of the cost it took to develop the technology in the first place. You will hear from senior commanders over and over that the MRAP’s save lives. That is bullshit. The enemy will find a way to turn those beasts into iron coffins in time – what is saving lives is the fact that our enemies are more incompetent than we are."

True, dat.

Posted by BruceR at 09:04 AM

June 09, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

The NYT's CJ Chivers on mentor challenges in Eastern Afghanistan:

The next [police] commander, Major Heintz said, was “a professional criminal who brokered a détente with the local Taliban” and who showed up with 10 or 15 of his own bodyguards, fired the police and put his gang into police uniforms. They then set up roadblocks and shook down motorists, he said...

Other [ANA] equipment has disappeared in vast quantities, trainers in the field said, including sleeping bags and warm clothing required to operate much of the year, especially at night. The shortages were so acute in 2007 that units in the 82nd Airborne Division canceled overnight missions because Afghan soldiers could not participate...

One American officer said Afghan soldiers had been issued the gear, often two or three times. They had either sold it or given it to their families, he said.

Don't think for a minute that these are exclusively U.S. problems.

Posted by BruceR at 08:51 AM

June 08, 2009

Captured terrorist warns of pending plots, U.S. refuses to torture

Unfortunately for whomever the next attack injures or kills, Scott Roeder isn't a Muslim, so they can't go all "24" on him, apparently.

Posted by BruceR at 04:12 PM

"It couldn't have been too preventive if we're still at it eight years later"

Good piece from Eleanor Clift in Newsweek, worth the read, if only for this:

They had fun parsing [Obama's] words, especially when he talked about spreading democracy but not imposing it. How different is this from President Bush's pro-democracy agenda? "If I spread butter on my toast, I'm not imposing butter," suggested one participant.

Also, if you read anything on the issue this week you must read Andrew Exum's new AfPak report, Triage, written with the advice and support of Kilcullen, Nathaniel Fick, Registan's Josh Foust, Ghosts of Alex's Christian Bleuer, and Josh Schmidle, experts all of whom I have recommended/linked to at one point or another on this blog*. It's the new CW.

Also, this encouraging news:

[Afghanistan's] Agriculture Minister Asif Rahimi said that he was expecting the best wheat harvest for 32 years.

Electioneering? Maybe. Still promising, though.

*With the unwarranted exception of Fick, so far. Generation Kill was a really good series, though. (/tongueincheek)

Posted by BruceR at 10:03 AM

June 05, 2009

Wanker watch: Paul Koring

Exhibit A:

"But Afghan civilian deaths, mainly caused by allied warplanes dropping bombs at the behest of beleaguered ground troops, also reached record levels and fomented bitter resentment among ordinary Afghans against foreign troops."

As has already been pointed out in the Globe's letters pages and elsewhere, this isn't close to a true statement (ie, 20% does not equal "mainly"). The impression from his frequent missteps such as this is that Koring has a clear bias against the Afghan mission, and possibly the Canadian military generally, which he seems to regard as primarily a waste of public funds that might be better used on hair products for elderly men, or something.

For the record: I was in Kandahar Province 7.5 months. While I was there I heard of exactly one incident in the province of the death of a group of civilians by aerial attack. It was reported on at the time (Credit to the press where it's due: I have yet to hear of an incident involving the death of a civilian due to some Westerner's action that was not). The incident did not involve Canadian forces, but because it happened in our province it did make our jobs more difficult.

In the same period I knew of well over 100 violent deaths of Afghan civilians in Kandahar Province due to insurgents, singly and in groups. Those deaths came in assassinations, kidnappings, ambushes and IED strikes. Most of those were not reported in the Western media.

Posted by BruceR at 01:33 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Free Range International on what we're doing wrong:

"One aspect of the current thinking on Afghanistan which seems to me to be missing is the fact that current financial expenditures cannot be sustained indefinitely. We are pouring more soldiers into the country but only a very few will have any impact on our ability to bring security and reconstruction to the people. We have too large of a tail to tooth ratio; when you send troops in country you have to feed and house them and right now every gram of food consumed by our respective militaries is flown into the country from a far. We are trying to tell the Afghans to stop growing poppy and instead grow fruits and vegetables for export but we won’t even buy the stuff they grow to feed our troops. This ungodly expensive logistical tail – which is tenuous at best as it most of it runs through Pakistan - can be trimmed fast by moving the combat troops off post and allowing them to be housed and fed on the local economy. While at it a good idea would be to send most of the 40 something additional members of the ISAF collation home. They can’t fight, they cannot support themselves, they stay mostly behind the wire, and they are not the right kind of troops to have roaming around the country side in a counter insurgency."

Herschel Smith on what we're doing wrong:

"But the gargantuan bases are an obstacle to success in Afghanistan. Empty them. Send the Army on dismounted patrols, open vehicle patrol bases, smaller FOBs, and combat outposts. Get amongst the people. Only then will they sense that you are committed and give you intelligence - leading ultimately to killing Taliban, which will then further contribute to their security, and so on the process goes."

David Bercuson on what we're doing wrong:

"Repeating the same old thing - the same patrols, the same tactics, operating from the same bases, using the same size units, deployed in the same way - means failure."

True dat, all of it.

My take: the best rural deployment concept I saw (and I had the opportunity to get my colleagues' direct observations on a few besides our own) was a combat team of Westerners, with armoured protection, engineers, etc., (and with integral indirect fire support and close air/UAV/casevac overwatch based in KAF, Bagram, etc.,) all-in-all significantly less than 300 personnel, paired with a colocated ANA Kandak (battalion: about 300 effectives), centred on a company FOB (300 beds of all kinds max) but with significantly over half of the total Western+ANA personnel living outside, occupying a cloud of smaller mentored-ANA outposts on commanding ground within that base's artillery range (so a 20 km radius, plus or minus).

The company/kandak FOB provides the command and control, the quick reaction force, the aid station, etc. The smaller outposts (c.50 men, mostly ANA, each), plus any local mentored ANP outposts do most of the interaction with the locals, including, eventually, the enemy.

The way we do it now could certainly leave a lot to improve upon (and some of the ideas floated in the excerpts above could point to new ways forward there) but I just don't see how you're even in this COIN game at all in Afghanistan unless you're starting with that as your theoretical baseline for any deployment in a hostile region.

Posted by BruceR at 11:37 AM

June 03, 2009

Fake Stars: yes, they're wrong

Author Max Boot has some curious notions about many things. Military honour, for instance, viz the Tillman cover-up. So why does it take civvies like Josh Foust or Tom Ricks to point this out?

Note to Boot: in my experience soldiers don't generally appreciate fake medals. They'd probably appreciate even less giving out medals for the giving of fake medals.

Posted by BruceR at 09:07 AM