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