August 31, 2009
Making the country safe again for crappy orange goblin decorations
Agreed: time to go.
Today's essential Afghan reading, part 2
Busy day. From the Washington Post, a story from the Human Terrain types in Maiwand District of Kandahar Province, focussing on anthropologist Karl "Oil Spot Spock" Slaikeu.
You've got to admire a fellow like Slaikeu, who in fine publish-or-perish style authored his first journal article, with the somewhat immodest title "Winning the War in Afghanistan," in draft form on April 20, having arrived in country for the first time in February/March. I was still trying to figure out my morning coffee routine at the same point in my tour, and certainly hadn't figured out how to win the war by then. And I'm a little skeptical that his inkspot approach would ever manage to take off in Maiwand District, which is about as far from the country's population centres as you can go and still get there on the highway. Saying to avoid road travel outside the inkspot is fine, so long as you don't mind the 60-km of IED-interdictable road between you and anything else in any direction. But hey, if it works I'd be the last to complain, and to be fair I'm not a "conflict resolution specialist" in my day job, either.
UPDATE: A friend asked me last night if this post was meant to be so sarcastic. Evidently an insufficient application of emoticon smileys on my part.
Today's essential Afghan reading
FRI says everything that needs to be said about current deficiencies in the tactical approach. They brought the Afghans *tea*? Good lord.
"K" from the Konar ETT says farewell. I was struck throughout his reporting how interchangeable "his" Afghans and "my" Afghans seemed to be, offering reassurance that the challenges we experienced as military mentors were not confined to Regional Command South.
I agree the COMISAF COIN guidance says all the right words. Putting them into practice will be the challenge, of course.
More from Matthew Fisher, with my successors in the Canadian OMLT. My tremendous respect for Col. Burt, quoted, is tempered only slightly by one small historical nitpick: that being if we're talking the Arab Revolt now, would not the true "OMLT-eers" have been von Sanders or von Falkenhayn, rather than Lawrence?
Hey, Seven Pillars of Wisdom is one of my favourite books of all time, one that every OMLT/ETT staffer should absolutely take a crack at, and T.E. Lawrence is a superb role model for any soldier in issues like cultural accommodation, working around problems diplomatically (with Brits and Arabs both), and undaunted zest for his mission, but there's very little in Lawrence's military mentoring approach specifically that seems directly cross-applicable. We are, after all, the ones in Afghanistan losing lives keeping lines of transportation open, and the insurgents (thankfully, without a Lawrence figure that I'm aware of) who are blowing them up. No, Lawrence is rightfully IN, rather than CO-IN (even more reason why he should be studied, of course).
UPDATE: Okay, smartass, one would ask at this point, what did YOU learn from the Germans advising the Turks? It's true they're relatively inaccessible, at least compared to Lawrence (although von Sanders did write a memoir of his own). And the Turks did lose, so we're really talking cautionary examples for a lot of it. But I'd say the experience of von Sanders at Gallipoli, if nothing else shows that if you manage somehow to make a successful army (or even part of an army) in a failing state, don't be surprised if that army then starts to influence the state itself in all kinds of interesting and unpredictable ways. A study of Von Falkenhayn, specifically his efforts to ameliorate depredations on Palestinian Jews by the Turkish army, could provide an interesting perspective on how to operate within one's own value system as a mentor, as well.
August 26, 2009
Today's essential Afghan reading
Foreign Policy: Is Kabul Saigon?
I know the often-eerie parallels between the wars (a few of those they missed: "ghost soldiers," the enemy resupplying themselves by intimidating or overrunning police posts, palace-guard troops that never saw action) have always scared me, too.
August 24, 2009
Today's essential Afghan reading
Michael Yon's last dispatch with the British from Sangin, Helmand. No, I don't know specifically why he was kicked out either, but I have some ideas.*
Dexter Filkins on the Kandahar girl's school attack and its aftermath. I was in Kandahar City when that one happened, and I have no fault to find with Filkins' dogged coverage of the story.
Richard Koppel on how things are going for the Marines in Garmsir, Helmand. Answer: not well.
The Captain on how bases need to be built faster to ensure force protection. Sometimes yes, sometimes no... you take a risk that the landowner, when they eventually turn up, is not influential enough to get you to move, and it can also put you in the hole, local goodwill-wise, because you didn't ask before acting. It's certainly not the key to safety that the post makes it out to be.
*UPDATE: The Brits say Yon's still welcome.
Seven reasons why Afghan army building is a slow process
Yglesias asks, WRT training the ANA: why is it taking so long?
I don't have a complete answer to that question. There's a couple issues here, that I've tried to hint at in posts below going back to April when I got back. What I can say fairly certainly is this: at some point in this game, saying something takes a long time is going to be the equivalent of saying it's impossible. And raising an army in a country where security is this uncertain may well be impossible in a realistic timescale for us.
Now, you say, jeez, lots of countries have raised armies during wars, so what's the big deal? Here's what I would characterize as some of the major unresolved issues we're facing:
1. Building anew is harder than renovating.
2. Multinational coalitions are inherently less efficient at army building.
3. Force protection measures in a warzone limit mentoring.
4. We still have limited experience with the culture at our command levels.
5. Giving someone independence before you give them an army limits what you can do later.
6. Growing in size and in quality at the same time is hard.
7. Risk aversion: in some ways, we've taught them too well.
More below the fold.
1) Building anew is harder than renovating. In Afghanistan as in Iraq we really are doing our best to junk the old system, recognizing correctly that it was part of the problem in the first place. Building another Afghan army like all other previous Afghan armies, one that splits on ethnic lines, that oppresses the people it's supposed to protect, that can't fight its own insurgencies, would be entirely pointless. So our ambitions have to be rather large here. There are lots of old soldiers in the Afghan senior leadership. At least twice I have been present when one of them was talked out of what they saw as the correct response to insurgents in a village: that being to shell the village with howitzers. Principles of counterinsurgency and effects-based operations are things we're struggling with, having already figured out industrial total war... they don't have any secret knowledge that allows them to jump that progression in military capability.
2. Multinational coalitions are inherently less efficient at army building. I discussed this at greater depth in this post. But the simple fact is that at the moment you have a country where the southern and eastern halves are in the middle of a war, and the northern and western parts are in the middle of a mildly annoying and containable insurgency. There is no mechanism to move Afghan soldiers from one to the other, so they stay in the half they were originally assigned to. We have encouraged this, because we would have no way of swapping around our military mentor teams from either half if they did start to do stuff like that. That means you have one half of the army that has ample time for training, and no combat experience and no prospect of ever getting any, and the other half that is in constant fighting, but has never been able to get training time, and whose soldiers only escape from the prospect of death or wounds is quitting or deserting. After four years of continuous fighting since the insurgency came back in the south and east, those pressures have made the southern army collectively brittle and risk-averse. A unified military approach to the mentoring by one nation would have largely avoided this problem: one can see how isn't nearly so significant in Iraq.
3. Force protection measures in a warzone limit our mentoring. Our own unwillingness to risk or lose soldiers works against us, setting at least three huge barriers in our path. It's very difficult within established force protection measures, for mentors in the South to spend continuous time with their Afghan counterparts. Our limited access to them means they're left to their own devices a lot. If you're not living and working with them at all times, that's when the corruption and incompetence will inevitably slip back in. And while we have trouble maintaining a persistent presence in their headquarters, for the same reason, they can't enter our inner sanctums, drastically limiting the sharing of intelligence and operational planning, let alone military culture. Even if we could bridge those issues, we run up across the final barrier: Afghan army formations do not have the really effective hammers you need if things get heavy (mechanized infantry, tanks, artillery, fast air, attack helos, UAVs, casevac, counter-IED technology) unless we loan them to them. And those assets are too valuable to risk to an Afghan officer's mistake or misuse: Afghan military operations of any size thus become "too important to fail," when, against a smart enemy, even the slightest misstep will cost us in lives. And it's hard for someone to learn anything in life if they know they're not ever going to be at risk of failure. Building an army in a country at peace would not have these issues, at least to the same degree.
4. We still have limited experience with the culture at command levels. This is somewhat of a universal with military advising, and there are many historical examples of overcoming it. But as I tried to point out here, the great army-builders we studied for lessons learned in the past all had years more influence with the cultures they were trying to reform than our current leadership does. That, too, limits our ability to effect change in very real ways. Short mentoring stints combined with a lack of standing force structures in the mounting armies also contributes to an ongoing institutional amnesia.
5. Giving someone independence before you give them an army limits what you can do later. I don't think it's been generally recognized how unique the approach we're taking has been in this respect. We're giving, or permitting, countries full independence, before offering them help to build an army. That means we have retained no control of any kind: financial, disciplinary, administrative, or operational; only whatever influence the relevant mentor's diplomatic skills provides. We've left it up to them, at every level. That means we can't accelerate the promotion of the talented, or the punishment of the criminals. We can't complain, effectively, when resources are stolen or squandered, or withhold them from the undeserving. We can't give them an operational task and expect it will be fulfilled. We cannot legally command their troops to do anything, in any context. We can't overrule or directly affect military policies that hurt our efforts, like the edict against ANA searching houses, or releasing detainees. If the corps commander wants to take a battalion off the line and out of the war because he's been ordered to man a military parade in Kabul and they need the marching practice (true story, btw), well, we just have to calmly encourage them to rethink that. If we had retained any of those levers, we'd be able to do more than we have... and it's going to be very difficult, even if our own leadership wants changes, to take those kind of authorities back now, without making the central government look even weaker.
6. Growing in size and in quality at the same time is hard. We've been trying to rapidly grow this military. We've also been trying to bring up its quality. That's hard. Assuming you have the same number of individuals with potential, you're only spreading them thinner and thinner. I would argue that the last three years all mentoring has achieved is to offset the drop in quality that those years' massive growth in ANA size would have produced. And we're still growing the thing, which suggests competence increases are going to be extremely difficult.
7. Risk-aversion: in some ways, we've taught them too well. Western soldiers themselves may not be casualty-averse individually, but we can sure look at it as a group sometimes. Afghan soldiers model us, in ALL respects. In particular, if they see them they will model our nightly retreats to well-defended localities, and any apparent discomfort we have with winning firefights with maneuver, as opposed to firepower. Every time one of our patrols pops smoke and disengages under contact, every time we pass on holding the ground we're fighting on rather than withdrawing, we risk teaching that lesson anew to any Afghans accompanying us. We never go anywhere without massive firepower, where we expect them to show up in Ford Rangers: we ask them to put out checkpoints for us, or walk a highway looking for IEDs with a portable mine detector, when we would rarely assign a section of our own soldiers unsupported at the same location with the same task. These may well be the right call by the commander in question, no doubt... but the collective effect appears to have been to dampen the kinds of hyper-aggressive instincts that we praised in Afghan soldiers only five or more years ago.
Add those seven together, and I suggest you pretty much have the problem definition part of this one done. Solutions to any and all of them have been proving hard to find, though: if any army with a piece of the Afghan puzzle has cracked the nut with their unique approach, I haven't heard it. If we ever do, the force of effort now being applied could rapidly gain traction, I have no doubt. But we're certainly not at a point that we have a solution and we're unable to implement it: I would suggest we simply don't have the whole solution yet.
UPDATE: Please note that in this analysis I am implicitly rejecting many of the common arguments why ANA mentoring has not been a fast process to date: both cultural (ie, Afghans are inscrutable or inherently corrupt) and motivational (their soldiers are poorly paid or have divided loyalties), based purely on my own limited experience working alongside them from last September to April. The Afghans I worked with didn't have an outsized number of either rogues or heroes in their ranks by my reckoning. Goodwill between us was consistently mutual and culture no barrier: every issue we came across as a team, we managed to find a solution for. Afghan soldiers are not poorly paid, compared to the average national wage right now, and all those I worked with were professional soldiers and officers, who keenly wanted the government side to win in the fight they were engaged in, even if they were as skeptical as I would eventually become about the prospects for success.
I'm also rejecting excuses of literacy and language barriers. Illiterate armies have been trained to fight before*, and the language barrier has not only also proven historically surmountable, but seems utterly solvable here with the proper application of our resources to the problem. No, the argument I'm making above is that the really difficult issues are structural, relating to the assumptions behind our entire counterinsurgency approach, and are not unique in any way to the Afghan milieu. The next time we go to apply our Counter-insurgency Manual to any part of the world, a manual which clearly states that victory only comes when you can hand the fight off to indigenous forces, these same problems are prone to recurrence.
*The same goes for most other technology-related excuses. Yes, the ANA could use more computers. But while the complexity of the task would be enabled by digitization, it does not require it. Armies have self-organized with much less.
August 21, 2009
An unrecognized talent
It seems people are growing increasingly nuts about the web-TV show The Guild, and for good reason. I just wanted to note that the obvious talents of Felicia Day and Amy Okuda tend to overshadow a brilliant little ongoing comic character study by the highly talented Jeff "Vork" Lewis. The rest of the supporting cast is quite good, too. (I'm looking forward to Wil "Wesley Crusher" Wheaton joining them for Season 3, too.)
August 20, 2009
Cordesman report on Iraq army
A couple quotes and observations below the fold.
According to Ambassador Bremer, "it was increasingly clear that the Pentagon's apparent preoccupation with the spring  troop rotation was creating unhealthy pressures to wish a competent Iraqi security force into being faster than possible." Lt. Gen. Sanchez echoed the point, noting that "at various times, the Department of Defense inflated the numbers of effective Iraqi forces," while ignoring the fact that "the enduring challenge was building capable and effective Iraqi forces rather than simply adding numbers."
There is a significant risk right now of history repeating itself here in Afghanistan. As the report correctly notes, raising troop quality and quantity rapidly at the same time is extremely difficult. A rapid rise in the number of security forces will almost always seem to result in a short-term decline in their average capability, as the few competent individuals are thin-sliced across a larger force. (See also Kitchener's Army, 1915.) This is why recent statements by Western leaders that we need to rapidly create Afghan forces capable of fighting a counterinsurgency, AND rapidly increase the numbers of them at the same time, are at least partially contradictory.
Virtually all the brigades in the Iraqi Army can now be deployed throughout the country.
This is not not currently true in Afghanistan, where most ANA brigades cannot be effectively deployed far outside their home provinces. This is not their problem: it's a limitation of the multi-national ISAF mentorship approach, as explained in a previous post.
In practice, many units were manning at actual levels of 80 percent, or 65 percent if personnel absent or on leave were dropped from the total.
About the same for the ANA. An infantry kandak (battalion) is generally about 400 effectives out of an authorized strength of 600-plus.
The April 2008 SIGIR report found a significant shortfall in officers and suggested that it may take a decade to address this problem. Even DOD stated that "the shortage of leaders will take years to close."
This is really why Iraq and Afghanistan army creation efforts are so different from previous attempts in history. When the British created the Indian army, it was to enrol locals at junior ranks to fight in a British regimental structure. As the decades past, gradually Indians took over larger and larger roles in their own leadership, to the point where in 1947 the Indian and Pakistani armies had no major issues transitioning at independence. We're trying to help these countries build large armies from zero in the space of a few years, without exerting any authority over their finances, logistics, administration or operations. Successful examples of this in history are extremely rare, and failures common (ARVN, etc.). If Iraq is successful, it will pretty much be the first, and Afghanistan the second. Graduating private/corporals is easy. Building an army to modern, counterinsurgency-capable standards is hard, akin in some ways to building a national railway system system from scratch.
As with railways, another successful model for this sort of major societal change is for the local nation hires foreign soldiers itself to command its armies, sometimes on varying degrees of "loan" from their own armies, to perform leadership roles until their own people have sufficient experience. To date this has not been suggested as an option in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and likely won't be.
[Iraqi political leaders] do not understand that battalion readiness is not the same thing as brigade or divisional readiness. Nor do they understand the role that U.S. support still plays in terms of airpower, mobility, and IS&R capabilities, or the potential need for support from U.S. armor or artillery in an emergency... these problems are not unique to Iraqis.
Like a number of U.S. efforts in Iraq, the [police] aid effort now needs to focus on helping Iraqis improve how they do things their way instead of continuing to try to pressure them into doing things the U.S. way. The reality is that a HUMINT and confessions-based system of civil law has worked well in most of the Arab world... Iraqi policy and criminal justice can be improved through the use of "evidence-based" techniques, but it is far from clear that the United States should seek to replace most of the existing system... Legal efforts to eliminate all corruption and the black economy... will be equally pointless and impractical. The United STates needs to focus on essentials and not on trying to create a mirror image... in short, there seems to be too much U.S. emphasis on changing the entire culture and structure of the Iraqi legal system rather than in improving the existing system."
A valuable observation in the Afghanistan context, as well.
"Far too many Iraqis are recruited and promoted because they pay for the position, or on the basis of political, sectarian, ethnic and/or tribal favoritism. At the same time, competent officers can be denied promotion, forced out of service, or sidelined into meaningless positions or those without authority for the same reasons... this is a serious problem even at top command positions... Iraqi officers can often misuse or steal funds with relative safety... Iraqi security forces have problems at all levels in delegating authority and giving younger men independence and allowing them to take initiative. There is also a tendency for officers to avoid hands-on labor and getting "dirty," while treating other ranks as a de facto lower class..."
It goes on, but it gets too depressing to retype all of it. It's all true for Afghan troops as well. And remember, this is a successful army-building initiative, generally seen as a couple years ahead of the current Afghan effort.
"Unclassified MNF-I and Iraqi evaluations of readiness are misleading and often too high because they focus on assets and training... As a result, many of the ratings used to measure progress in the ISF, including those in this study, exaggerate the level of near-term progress... at the same time, they can underrate elements with proven combat performance."
A version of the same 4-point combat capability scale is used in Afghanistan. Our brigade HQ, as this press release correctly states was one of only a few rated at CM1, the highest rating possible. The same brigade HQ also deployed repeatedly during the same period on operations without any maps, or the plastic for waterproofing them, tents, chairs, or a working generator... even though in many cases we'd given a new issue of those items to them just before we left ourselves. Until you can keep those two facts in your head at the same time (and all those above, as well), you really haven't grasped the IA/ANA mentoring experience.
Today's essential Afghan viewing
Good UK Channel 4 clip on British soldiers and mentors in Helmand.
The Captain's Journal says this is evidence that Westerners need to be allowed to search Afghan homes again. I'd settle personally for the ANA being allowed to search Afghan homes again... during our tour there was a blanket prohibition on army house searches from MoD in Kabul. That was seen as an ANP duty. Oh, the army would do it sometimes, of course: everyone likes to find a weapons or ammo cache and they had less of an issue with the grape huts or unoccupied ruins where those kinds of things could often be found, but if it got too hot, or too dark, or the mentors too tiresome, they could always pull out the "we don't search houses" card, and that would basically be that.
The Afghan army officers of 2008-09 I worked closely with had internalized at a deep level (I'm not really sure how we managed it) that suppression of internal unrest was really an activity for the police, while the army existed to repel foreign aggressors. In that sense, they were really sort of the opposite of COIN-trained. If the enemy ever gathered in large numbers, of course, they'd probably have been more inclined to do something. But the insurgents we were actually facing they saw as really none of their business, because the IED-layers were locals, and not Pakistanis, making it a "police matter." As far as the day-to-day counterinsurgency fight went, these attitudes often proved problematic.
The ANA at the time would not detain people, for instance. They had been told that any Afghan resident was entitled to his day in "court" within 72 hours. They had no authority to do anything but turn people they found over to the ANP and the "justice system". Because they had assessed (accurately, I believe) that that meant rapid release in almost all cases, they generally didn't put too much effort into that activity, either.
It's obviously difficult to fight an insurgency if you and your indigenous forces can't/won't either detain people or enter occupied dwellings. That's why by the end of tour I was seeing larger payoffs per unit of effort spent in military mentoring of ANP units than the ANA. I suspect that the army attitudes I saw on my tour towards their role in fighting the insurgency are going to be too deep and hard-wired for them to be "overwritten" easily now, whoever is in charge of the Western effort in Afghanistan.
UPDATE: Another factor here is that, as the piece relates, this is a new bunch of Brit mentors in their first weeks with their ANA, from a battalion which will have been fighting and dying in Helmand now a very long time indeed (and are probably on their third or fourth mentor team). You're going to have a learning curve on both sides at this point, so one really shouldn't be too alarmed about any terseness in their dealings with each other (or the Brit sergeant with his Brit private) displayed in the clip. It's normal.
August 19, 2009
A maudlin moment
Just came across this press release from eight months back. Just filing the link so I can find it again.
The ANA 1 Brigade Headquarters controlled the battlespace and all the forces manoeuvring in it using their own deployed forward command post during Op Atal 47, a disruption and search operation, near Senjaray, in Zharey District.
It was a particularly well-laced command post, too, I'll have you know. Fine lacing work by all involved. Never blew over... okay, except for the one time... the memory is hazy, but I believe what I'm saying at that moment is "stop playing with the bloody camera and come over here and give me a bloody hand."
Anyway, happy Afghan Independence Day, everybody!
K on Afghan election
ETT member "K" gives a good run-down of what an election looks like from the security force's perspective in insecure areas of the country. It was very similar for us during the election registration period earlier this year, which also involved registration stations, admittedly for a minority of the population, that were in practical terms unsecureable by government forces:
We focus on the larger population centers, which are not surprisingly generally located in the larger valleys. Of the many small valleys branching off from the larger ones, we control the terrain at most a couple of kilometers in. Far down into some of these valleys, we haven’t had Americans go in years. This fact hasn’t stopped the unnamed, unseen planners on high from deciding to put election polling sites in some of these places. Exactly how we’re supposed to secure a place we don’t ever go, in addition to all the other sites in our normal area of operations, is a question which has occurred to many of us in recent weeks.
Thankfully, as the election creeps closer, reality is beginning to set in, and numerous planned polling stations are not going to be opened. We’ll consolidate some, and others will just not be available, necessitating the local people taking a longer trip to vote. It will be the courageous family that decides to take a trip down an unsecured road while bearing voter registration cards.
August 17, 2009
A couple posts on terps
I mean, I almost kinda get the Bagram story. Getting on-the-spot accreditation for base privileges for local Afghans is far more complex than it needs to be, certainly, but I can see any base having problems with two Afghans showing up unannounced and expecting unrestricted access right away. Yes, it sounds like it was more painful for Old Blue than it had to be, but there was always going to be some inconvenience involved there.
Josh's story about denying an Afghan-American with a security clearance access to a convoy brief before she departed on that same convoy, however, is just baffling. I can't imagine what those involved were thinking. Some soldiers and airmen are simply not cut out for service involving contact with other humans: sounds like the PRT in question was commanded by one for a while.
It's not the inconvenience to us, per se, either. In my experience, Afghans were rarely flummoxed by long waits or queues: snappy service is not something they're really used to at the moment. It's the loss of face involved in these sorts of encounters, something in retrospect we always discounted, as well.
Continuing on in their fine tradition
I can't imagine why Montreal's Concordia University would feel the need to tolerate as a faculty member an individual who gloats online at the violent, horrific, lingering death of an anthropologist in Afghanistan.
Oh. Right. Never mind, then.
Seriously, there are all sorts of obvious issues with the military's use of anthropologists and some valuable critiques have been written. Prof. Forte links to a particularly good one by Dr. Patricia Omidian, here. But when he puts into text his own needlessly angry and vituperatively cruel statements like "I imagine that few would be willing to bet their wages that there is a woman in that photo" he is going beyond the bounds of the civil discourse that he claims he wanted to have on the subject, to wit, to "criticize, rebuke and reject" military anthropology, and only succeeds in demeaning himself and his institution instead.
P.S: Calling the U.S. armed forces a "genocidal killing machine that is directly responsible for the murder of millions of innocent civilians since its inception" isn't a useful way to win arguments, either.
P.P.S.: For the record, I'm not a big advocate of the HTS approach. Given a choice, I suspect you could get more value and less ambiguity by using the same resources to cross-train more military personnel in the social sciences and local cultural knowledge, and improving reachback to academics in the States, than you could by drafting civilians onto military field teams that interact with the local population. The analogy I would use is doctors and medics. At FOBs you can have academically trained medical staff, and even some civilian medical personnel at places like KAF, but forward of that you use military medics exclusively. This seems sufficient to quell any lingering Hippocratic Oath concerns by all involved, and I would see anthropological ethical concerns with HTS fieldwork similarly. As this article argues, by taking good people out of Civil Affairs or Psyops or Intelligence to man the new system, you also risk beggaring the old ones of the talent they need. My disagreement with Prof. Forte here is that repeatedly calling anthropologists who happen to have been killed in military service "zombies" and the like is needlessly antagonistic and non-constructive for an academic.
Today's essential Afghan reading
FRI on the Kabul bombing, and other complaints. I agree the Anna Husarska article he links to is particularly stupid, for reasons besides those he dwells on. (The subhead is quite possibly the silliest and most tautological sentence I've seen written in English in some time.)
More importantly, her one citation of value, a USAID study, doesn't say what she thinks it says. It talks about conflicts between military and NGO reconstruction in *Panjshir*, far from the fighting. So it's not particularly relevant to, you know, the part of the country where the action is to start with, as the author tacitly admits. But that's not the real problem.
Husarska should probably have read all the way to at least page 14 of the same paper, where the author talks about how it was a pointless USAID reluctance to be even seen to be cooperating with the military that led to aid being stopped entirely in that province for a full year. There's idiocy in both cultures, to be sure, but as the author puts it in this case, it was solely risk-aversion at USAID that led to all the civilians involved losing credibility with Afghans, while the military continued to enjoy "a very productive and close relationship" with Panjshiris. (This in a province where the requirement for a military presence at all is questionable, and NGOs enjoy full freedom of movement, remember.) In her conclusions the author argues that aid organizations need to be more flexible in its approach, like the military.
In other words, Husarska cherry-picked the one remotely critical quote about the military PRT effort in a strong paper about the limitations of both organizations in a permissive Afghan setting. You know, one doesn't need to go all the way to Jalalabad to be a sloppy researcher and a hack journalist: Foreign Policy could probably have saved some travel expenses here.
As for the one quote Husarska liked, it refers to bringing in U.S. veterinarians rather than supporting the local Afghan vets. Which sounds stupid, true, but it's a version of the same problem that has basically stopped all VMO (village medical outreach)-type efforts, using military medical personnel to treat civilians, in much of the country. We're depriving the local doctors of their livelihoods, you see. Which may well be true, but the alternative seems only likely to breed more resentment towards us. Afghans know we have excellent doctors on our bases, and they know we're not helping with their ailments for some reason that would be meaningless to a father with a sick child. That's got to rankle, after a while. How would you feel, in their place? Saying the military should focus only on security must leave some room for resource-sharing or we will end up appearing the inhumane occupiers our enemies say we are.
August 13, 2009
The flip side of the OMLT
Matthew Fisher spends some time with the Canadian OMLT in Zhari District:
Ouellette and Poirier had high praise for the courage and skills of the Afghans who eat, sleep and fight alongside the Canadians.
"They can see the patterns of life better than us," Poirier said. "They know before we do that it is going to get ugly because they can pick the Taliban out. We can't. They can tell by their accents whether they are from Pakistan. They can tell by their hands if they are farmers."
Note these are ANA soldiers from the 1st Brigade, 205th Corps, the same formation the Atlantic's Graeme Wood, like Fisher a veteran war reporter, was with, on practically the same day. Reading the two pieces together really gives you the full gamut of the current mentor experience with the ANA. Frustrating as hell at times. But completely essential, too.
The view from RC (East)
I've really appreciated the writings of "K", a currently deployed ETT mentor in Eastern Afghanistan. His Afghans and our Afghans seem interchangeable, which helps me believe my experience was more generalizable. From yesterday's entry:
So what is the ANA really? A jobs program. It’s a necessary jobs program, and a necessary part of the country, but at this point we’re not getting much return on our investment. We baby the ANA and don’t utilize them the way we should. Of course, on our level we can’t tell the ANA what operations to do or not do, but somewhere up on high those demands can be made…after all, we’re paying all the bills here. So long as we let them get away with it, the ANA are more than happy to sit back and watch the US forces do most of the work... Since the ANA leadership has little sense of duty or will to make their soldiers work, the result is an army that often does little more than occupy a base and turn food into excrement.
But they're getting better.
Washpost with ANA in Helmand
It's nice to see more and more accurate reporting about the ANSF in mainstream media. Again, about standard in terms of an ANA action:
"Bullets from Taliban fighters 400 yards away started hitting the compound's south wall. Some Afghan soldiers fired automatic rifles from the mud rooftop and blasted away with heavy machine guns mounted on armored vehicles below. Other Afghan soldiers pulled out their cellphones and started taking pictures; an unfazed few played a game of checkers in the courtyard.
Meanwhile, Marines and British soldiers -- some half-dressed and without helmets -- scrambled into position as the British commander sought to gain control of the fight. A shirtless British soldier shouldered a Javelin missile...
After about 40 minutes, a vehicle pulled up on the eastern fringe of the desert, picked up three men and drove off -- apparently providing a getaway for some of the Taliban fighters.
"We're brand new," said Capt. Henry Stow, commander of the British mentor team. "I've got no doubt this was a probing attack just to establish our defenses, our reaction speed."
Soon after the attack, Paz led a patrol to a nearby village to confront an elder, Mustafa, about Taliban presence in his area. The elder blamed the problem on an adjacent village. "It was not from us," Mustafa said. "The Taliban were over there."
The checkers-playing brings back memories. Experience-wise, I had a pretty dull tour, really: for instance, I only witnessed 2 SIED explosions, both with appreciable stand-off. The first IED I was actually caught shaving in an ANA CP. So there I was putting away my razor and bundling on my protective gear while trying to look calm and officer-like in front of the nearby Afghans. For their part, they never stopped their card game. The explosion had already happened, and they were clearly still alive, so really, why bother? One got the feeling they were a little more accustomed to random large explosions than I was...
Atlantic reporter hangs with the OMLT
Graeme Wood's been hanging with the guys who replaced my team in the Canadian OMLT this week. I greatly respected his last New Yorker article, which was in large part about our OMLT predecessors and their Afghans, and in retrospect was the most honest piece of journalism written about the war in Kandahar Province for several months in either direction. I don't know if I'm disappointed or relieved that he stayed away during my tour.
Assembled thoughts below the fold.
What happens to him [the detainee] next? Hardigree has an official answer and a candid one. Here the virtues of a Pashtun police force are less apparent, and the vices possibly fatal. Hardigree's official answer is that the pixie and the other detainees will be scanned biometrically, interrogated, and kept in prison if judged a threat. More frankly, he says, "they'll probably be kept around, and then someone will come around to buy them out." In effect, the insurgents pay a fine, and then go loose to plant more bombs.
True dat. You have to be really down on your luck to stay a detainee in Afghanistan for long.
Unfortunately for some of the policemen, I never saw some of them again, either. A police truck left Shergah, and--either out of haste or carelessness--drove along the short stretch of highway between Shergah and the police station. I was still in Shergah, eating grapes in the shade, my back pressed firmly to a mud wall, when I heard the explosion echo through the valley. It sounded distant, almost gentle, like a roll of spring thunder. The police truck carrying the chief of police and four other policemen hit a roadside bomb. It obliterated the front of the vehicle and shredded the passengers. A helicopter arrived soon after to take the wounded to Kandahar for surgery.
The operation was at best a bittersweet lesson, then, for the Afghans. After a week with NATO's support they knew they could go anywhere, at any time, and that they might even bag a master bomb-maker. But even with the support of armor, of helicopters, and of soldiers with the strength and training of the Canadian and US militaries, the day ended with a larger bang for the Taliban than for the Afghan police. Whether this means the operation left them with more or less confidence than they had before is a question none was ready to answer.
I would quibble whether this was in any way a "lesson" for the Afghans. This is undoubtedly what they expected would happen, despite our pushing to launch the operation anyway. Plotting IEDs on likely egress routes when ANSF move into an area is a standard insurgent TTP, and generally effective. End result: no fighting, no captured equipment, one detainee, soon to be released, and 5 dead or wounded ANP. About standard.
Numerous journalists in Afghanistan, in reports dating from long before the current unpleasantness, have remarked on Afghans' yak-like ability to scamper over mountains and leave foreign companions breathless behind them. A group of Pathans reduced me to a wheezing mess in 2001 on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and shouldered my backpack in hopes that I would quit lagging...
I am surprised, then, on this trip to be at least as spry and caprine as the Afghan soldiers... The Afghans sweat, just as I do, and they take regular breaks, lounging on mountainside rocks in full view of the village below, as well as any Taliban up the mountainside who might be watching. They take off boots and rub their feet, and they grouse a little when told to keep walking.
What is it about donning a uniform that turns Afghans from robust fighters to last-round picks in high-school gym class? I should be cautious about drawing conclusions: perhaps these soldiers are all lowlanders, or anemic. But it does cross my mind that their tiredness is yet another instance of initiative and discipline, killed off by inclusion in the government. It is ultimately a reflection of motivation.
True dat, too.
I am afraid the Afghans' performance today reveals strange and worrisome motivations indeed. Warrant Officer Guillaume Ouellet has led an advance team to the top of the mountain to secure the area before the main group closes in to sweep caves and houses. When my secondary group arrives (on the way up, we were passed by many gray-bearded farmers and their mules -- so much for surprise), Ouellet is already furious at the Afghan soldiers. Instead of securing the area, they have gone to the villages and liberated watermelons from the few residents present. Some soldiers have the bleary eyes and empty grins of addicts, and only a few of them, the ones Ouellet and Wilson trained in previous months, look competent to handle loaded weapons.
The breaking point comes when Ouellet sees the Afghans' officer sip water from Wilson's translator's CamelBak canteen. Ouellet swats away the officer's hand and tells the translator never to let someone else drink his water -- particularly not someone like the Afghan captain, who for some reason brought no water of his own for a projected five-hour hike in the Afghan summer. The captain is furious...
From that moment onward, coordination between the two teams breaks down entirely, and Wilson wisely decides to return to the valley floor, having searched just a few caves and found no evidence of Taliban activity whatsoever. The Afghans hustle down the mountain with little regard to tactical movement or considerations of how not to leave parts of their team separated and vulnerable to attack...
As usual, there are up sides to the day's excursion: the Taliban knows that the mountain is a location to which the Afghan army will periodically deny them access, and the Canadians have eyes on a new place. But overall, today's operations looks like an acrimonious hike, with more drama about blisters and canteens than about the Taliban.
Not much of an "upside" there. Sounds about average for the ANA, though. The unwillingess of their officers to bring water (or maps, or anything else useful) regardless of circumstances, even when I knew they'd just been given some a few hours ago, always mystified me.
This operation is the Afghan equivalent of sending a space shuttle to resupply the International Space Station. Khakriz is distant, with no great strategic value, and its ANP force currently barely lacks the capacity to keep itself alive. Double its numbers and it might start to be able to leave its compound and patrol. But even then, the roadside bombs would winnow the ANP's numbers a few at a time, and eventually the force would grow timid. Morale is low, and so is trust: although Hajji Muhammad requested the back-up, the Canadians and Americans refused to let him know they were coming. The police simply cannot be trusted to keep the operation secret and not to tip off the Taliban (perhaps for a modest bribe) and tell them to sow the mountain pass with bombs.
Few jobs are more forlorn and pitiful than that of an Afghan police officer, and the special hell of Hajji Muhammad's force is appreciable as soon as we arrive, ten terrible stop-start hours after we started and after we finally see their compound. It is small, dirty, neglected, and strewn everywhere with trash -- mostly food wrappers from American rations, since the ANP have neither the ability to leave their compound safely nor the money to buy food if they did. Worse still, even when they stay in the compound, the Taliban have such a clear geographic advantage that they confidently taunt the police over the radio. The compound is right next to a mountain, and anyone who goes up to the mountain can snipe down at the police with a clear view. They call the compound "the Toilet," and indeed murdering ANP looks about as easy as shooting turds in the crapper.
About average for unmentored ANP. That station could have been wiped out easily any given night in the preceding four years and they knew it. One can reliably assess their likely motivation to fight the insurgency from that fact alone.
Today's essential Afghan reading: Lew MacKenzie edition
Lew MacKenzie has an excellent piece in the Globe today. I wouldn't disagree with it much, particularly this part:
Those who suggest that our departure from the primary combat role in 2011 would render the sacrifices of our dead and wounded “wasted” are respectfully (particularly to surviving family and friends) wrong.
Those sacrifices saved Kandahar city and, for the past four years, the entire province of Kandahar when NATO, at the political level, was incapable of generating anything close to the number of boots on the ground that should have been provided to assist our contingent. When the history of the current Afghan conflict is written, Canada will be credited with playing a major role in the country's survival in the most critical early stages of the war.
Thoughts in response below the fold.
Yesterday I said that the jury was still out in other ISAF countries on whether Canada was "fighting smart" in Kandahar Province. It is, largely. That is different entirely from saying the fight isn't worth it, or that we're not needed and wanted. We were, and are. No one I have ever talked to in any army has suggested Kandahar Province would be anything other than worse off if we hadn't committed troops there in 2005 and kept them there ever since, incurring heavy casualties along the way. As MacKenzie says, if nothing else, we bought the alliance time with those lives... time for the U.S. to extricate itself from Iraq and be able to devote proper attention to the problem. Just as in 1914-1917, or 1939-1942, we held the line until the Yanks got here. We bought time for the Afghans, too. There are thousands of Afghan children who are four years older now, in part because of us. There are millions of Afghans in other provinces who have had a break from war, in part because of us. We've made it to a second national election, in part because of us. We should have no regrets about that.
An army's value needs to be judged on at least four entirely separate, orthogonal axes:
--Did they fight bravely and with determination (taking casualties but keeping at it)?
--Did they fight smart (minimizing their own costs, maximizing the enemy's)?
--Did they fight nobly (with respect to the laws of war)?
--And, did they fight in a just cause?
Many armies have fought smart, and failed in one of these other respects. The German Wehrmacht in 1940 fought smart. The Conquistadores and Romans fought smart. But the fact that their smart fighting in each case led directly to the enslavement and/or death of millions means they were still contemptible organizations in history's eyes.
By contrast, the British and Canadians in 1940-42 fought bravely, they fought nobly, they fought in a just cause... and then there's Dunkirk. And Dieppe. And Hong Kong. Not smart, true. But still admirable.
We can be forgiven for not being widely credited as smart fighters, yet. Our last counterinsurgency campaign was in 1902. We've had to relearn a lot in the last four years. And I honestly don't believe, based on personal experience that is admittedly limited to one Afghan region, that any other Western nation would have done any better than we did where we were sent, and some might even have done worse. We've done good, at least so far.
Which brings us back to 2011. Lew MacKenzie has his own ideas about what an ideal Canadian residual force should be, as do I, as do lots of people. All with good reasons. Before cherry-picking organizations, though, it might help to first define the criteria we should be using to select one, now and in future cases. For to my mind, any Canadian component deployed to Afghanistan past 2011 needs to meet three basic tests:
--Is it sustainable for several more years? (Our current infantry commitment is, apparently, not.)
--Is it effective? (Relative to other nations, can we do as good at the job, or better?)
--Will it have domestic support for an ongoing, multi-year commitment? (Anything defined as "combat" likely will not.)
And again, to my mind, anything that clearly meets those 3 criteria should stay*. Period. We are part of an alliance in wartime, and what we can do to help that alliance that is within our public's wishes, and that is both effective and sustainable, should be done. That is the price of being a big nation.
So, considered purely as test cases without going into any detailed evaluation, Mackenzie is right that the Provincial Reconstruction Team and the medical facilities in Kandahar Air Field seem to meet all three criteria, without much question. Our PRT is at least as effective as its counterparts elsewhere, and the excellent KAF hospital, which relies partly on Canadian civilian medical personnel, hopefully can continue for a while yet. Transport helicopters and aircraft probably do too (the helicopters just got there last year, after all... they have more spare capacity than the army at this point).
Tougher cases are leaving our artillery and tanks behind when the infantry leave. They're probably sustainable, having been bought specifically for this war, and are undoubtedly as good as or better than anything that could replace them. That would be a tough sell with the public, though, as Mackenzie acknowledges.
Mentoring is where I might disagree slightly with MacKenzie. I've said I'm skeptical that a Canadian OMLT would be generally as effective in a U.S.-dominated battlespace as an American ETT could be, and there's a risk that the high combat tempo of OMLTs, and the casualties and investigations that can come with that could have outsized political side effects some day.
ANP mentoring through the P-OMLT, on the other hand, is an area where other nations would have been well advised to adopt our approach, one which has had very positive effects on police survivability and COIN effectiveness in our area of operations. On those grounds, any approach that put more resources into police mentoring and kept the army mentoring commitment the same size or smaller would also seem a strong candidate for continuation.
*This line of argument assumes, as does MacKenzie's piece, that our allies are themselves staying on past 2011 at current strength levels and with the same set of overarching goals in Afghanistan as now, of course. I'm not totally confident that's going to be the case, but purely for the purposes of this particular argument I'm taking it as written.
August 12, 2009
Military intelligence reading list
Good post by Tom Ricks here, on military intelligence books one should read. Take this as an evocative second vote for one of the books mentioned, the hard-to-find Front-line Intelligence by Robb and Chandler. If you're a battalion-level or mentor S2 it has a lot to tell you.
Where does one sign up for this "sideshow"?
Look, I wouldn't worry so much that somebody considers your part of the Afghan operation a sideshow. Odds are you'll get less micromanaging that way and might actually get something done.
By contrast, in my experience if someone starts telling you you're the "main effort" (for instance, Afghan security force building) that practically guarantees everyone's going to trip over each other with their pet ideas for you and you'll end up getting no useful support of any kind.
Today's essential Afghan reading: to-and-fro edition
There's a good to-and-fro on Kandahar Province and the Afghan south specifically here. A couple quotes:
Gilles Dorronsoro: "The failure in Helmand (yes, the offensive has already failed) means it is impossible to control the countryside. Even 50,000 reinforcements will not change that. More troops in Kandahar are useless."
Austin Long: "I am not holding Canadian operations from 2005-2008 up as a model. Many of the Canadians I have talked to explicitly acknowledge that all they did for most of that period was play Taliban whack-a-mole. I am talking about current operations in Dand (and possibly elsewhere soon). Even there, as I noted, it is not clear if it will work, so it may not be a model. But they are trying something different... I should be clear that it was the Canadian military that made the choice to focus on Kandahar City and environs. The Canadian government is still sticking to "signature projects" like Dahla Dam."
Alex Strick van Lindschoten: "As for the Canadian work in Dand at the moment, it's quite nice on paper, but it isn't a strategic-level shift and it certainly isn't going to fundamentally turn the course of the war down south."
Canadians should be clear that, while our military has gained respect for the disproportionate casualties it has incurred since 2005, we haven't necessarily impressed anyone with that military's actual prowess in its counterinsurgency operations, at least to date. Being respected for one's toughness and for one's ingenuity are two different, and sometimes almost unrelated, things. To take a more extreme example, the British army on the Somme is respected rightly for taking heavy casualties and staying in the fight, but condemned for the pointless tactical approach that produced those same casualties.
The problem is that, in leaving in 2011 (which will be seen by many, regardless of the reasons, as an unwillingness to incur further casualties), we risk significantly undercutting our new rep for toughness, while still leaving the historical question open as to our smartness.
(Not that that's disastrous, mind. In that sense, we would be in a somewhat parallel position to the Australians in Vietnam. We may think we had some better ideas than the Americans, but after we leave early, or in a losing effort, it can't be said in retrospect that they received the full historical test. As an army, though, that kind of non-decision does not have to be crippling, as the Australians have since showed.)
Canada's greatest living actor. And a mountain.
Face it, anyone can make fun of Sarah Palin: it's practically the American national pastime now. You don't need Canada's master thespian for that. But this, on the other hand, was pure gold.
Past 2011, is mentoring an option?
It's always difficult to read tea leaves, and parse what the government really means when it says Canada will no longer have a "combat role" after 2011 in Kandahar. I'm not sure they know what they really mean. It is, however, a position that now enjoys overwhelming popular and political support. The question is, if we were respondent to American or NATO pressure to continue on in some capacity anyway, what options now remain open with that? Would a continued presence of a Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team still be open for debate? (Probably.) Would the use of helicopters in transport roles be? (Possibly.)
How about continuing ANSF mentoring? Maybe not so much.
It's not just that mentors, with their ANSF partners, are in combat as much as, if not more than the regular battalion troops in the same province, making their "non-combat" designation pretty much a joke. Nor is it that they have to follow the same Western-level force protection standards in their defended locations and vehicles. When you're a 4-man team working a platoon house with 30 dependable ANA or ANP, there's no margin for error there. And it's not just that they'd necessarily have to sponge off the nearest main force battalion for all kinds of things (a logistical train, to start with).
No, it's also that, assuming the Canadian battle group in Kandahar does leave, it will be replaced by another nationality. Almost certainly, in this case, an American battalion. Well, the whole point of Canadian mentors most days is not to teach cute little lectures, it's to achieve synchronization of effects through liaison. Which means explaining the Canadian military to Afghans and the Afghan military to Canadians, and working out all the differences that come with that.
Hey, we're as close to Americans as you can get, I guess, without being American, but it's an open question whether an American battle group commander is really going to achieve maximal value by having soldiers of a third nation, any third nation, as his interface between him and the local ANSF, rather than an American ETT or PMT. A Canadian OMLT might be somewhat better that way than a Romanian one, I suppose, but it isn't the best possible solution for getting that hard seal on the intent side that, if I were a U.S. battalion commander, I would want to have. No, once you remove the Canadian battle group you're there to interface with (and that the Afghans and you are depending on to stay alive) the need for corresponding mentoring teams from the same nationality definitely diminishes.
This is even more strongly the case if you're talking the brigade level, where I worked. I may know something now about Canadian and ANA brigade-level staff procedures, but my knowledge of American brigade-level procedures, in practice, is fairly limited. So why exactly would I be the right person to explain them to Afghans? (Never mind that before Afghanistan, Canada hadn't had a brigade deployed in combat since the Korean War, so maybe we're not the best people to explain brigade procedures to anyone.)
Now, we have a lot of mentoring experience with the ANA as an army, and if you'd like to take advantage of that, possibly with a reduced mentor component (say 30-60 soldiers with previous tour experience) imbedded in a mixed-force structure under overall U.S. leadership (as augmentees, for instance), well, that makes a lot more sense. But having the only way Afghans can talk to Americans being through both an interpreter AND a Canadian in either direction would not seem optimal, and keeping a couple hundred Canadian soldiers in an ANA mentoring role in Kandahar Province past 2011 might not be the best application of our limited resources, sorry to say.
UPDATE: Just an update to this: I'm not saying mentorship roles in a follow-on force structure should be avoided entirely, just rethought. There are ways we could still help ANSF development, if we're smart and selective about it. For instance, one of the unsung success stories of our tours to date has been our police mentoring. We as a nation demonstrably have done a better job at this than American PMTs, as good as they are themselves. Our police mentors have saved lives and discomfited the insurgency to a degree disproportionate to their numbers. And in such a role, integration with landowner battlegroup staff procedures and so on is somewhat less important than it is with ANA mentoring (you're not going to have an American combat subunit attached to or firing in support for an operation to an ANP headquarters, for instance, the way you could with the Afghan army as they grow). So if, for instance, the PRT were to continue on after 2011, and wanted to expand its police mentoring component from the current 2 attached platoons to a full company, that could be an excellent use of national resources.
August 07, 2009
Cyprus is really quite nice
The Star today is droning on about a report it uncovered of problems with the Forces third-location decompression problem in Cyprus, with a minority of soldiers getting drunk and spending too much money and an even smaller fraction getting into fights, etc.
I would actually say based on my own experience that the return journey from Afghanistan is about the slickest and most efficient thing the Forces does, period. No fuss, no muss. Clear guidelines on how to behave. Good seminars on post-deployment issues. Lots of relaxation with colleagues. Minimum inconvenience to family and friends back home.
Yes, a small fraction of soldiers still choose to be idiots. Generally, they suffer for it (Canadian military law still applies to soldiers in Cyprus, along with Cypriot law, which the local police prosecute aggressively). It's not like thye Paphos area is unused to rowdy soldiers: the British have had a large base there for decades, and the locals have got handling problems down to an art.
And yes, as one guy quoted in the article correctly states, there's no way you can spend so much on drink in Cyprus to make a serious dent in your take home pay in four nights. Even if you're buying. (And if your problem is you're drinking that much after six months off the sauce, likely better to reintroduce yourself to alcohol with buds far from kids and spouses.) The real problem as far as soldiers spending their tour pay is those who avail themselves of local prostitution rings, which the Forces in situ does everything humanly possible to suppress (no guests allowed in rooms, two men to a room, no-go bars, extensive briefings on arrival on what you can catch, what will happen to you if you're caught, horror stories about the last guy, etc.).
Yes, some people are still idiots. You're rotating through with a couple hundred stressed-out soldiers every couple days. On my TLD I saw two incidents I would describe as overly rowdy (no damage done, just alcohol-inspired "ananotherthing..." type rudeness), and one really bad local tour guide (he wasn't a rip-off, just boring). Another guy I know went on a fishing expedition and didn't catch anything. At breakfast some mornings the figs were a little sub-par. The rest, as with the entire return-home experience, was quite relaxing and pleasant.
Ananotherthing. One wishes the Star would take advantage of the internet to post more of these documents it uncovers with FOI requests and the like. There's no mention in the article of the occurrence rate of real problems (assaults, injuries, criminal or military charges, etc.), just one or two anecdotal examples. (A comparison with British soldiers, many of whom also decompress in Cyprus, would have been nice.) Without a link to the source documents, or a quote of whatever incidence estimate it might contain it's impossible to say, but I can't believe based on my own experience it's higher than 1 in 100, out of the 6,000 people per year are going through the experience. That's pretty darn good. It's a well-run program that the Forces should take pride in.
August 05, 2009
Why isn't army-building working (pt. 2)?
Lack of advisor continuity could be one reason that army mentoring in Afghanistan and possibly Iraq is not succeeding as we might have expected. I was the third mentor in my particular position that Afghan army staffers could remember; I was succeeded by a fourth, and he'll be coming home himself in a couple months to be succeeded again. Even if we were all of the same mind with all our successors and predecessors what needed to be done (and that's difficult due to the near-complete absence of official doctrine or advice to draw on), and we were fully committed to the task, the overall message we were sending by this sort of perpetual turnover is not one of commitment to the host nation. The effect on the Afghans must be similar to a Canadian workplace besieged by a perpetual stream of management consultants.
The success stories of indigenous army-building we all know and use as exemplars tended to have far fewer continuity breaks, and an almost unapproachable depth of experience in the principal leadership:
--T.E. Lawrence had been a Middle East archeologist who had practically lived in the Ottoman Empire for five years prior to his commissioning in 1914;
--Orde Wingate was also fluent in Oxford Arabic and had been a major in the Sudan Defence Force for five years interwar, before he formed the successful Sudanese-Ethiopian Gideon Force in 1941;
--John Paul Vann's first failed attempt to be an ARVN military advisor in 1962-3 preceded his relative success organizing South Vietnamese resistance as a civilian advisor from 1965 to 1972; Joe Stilwell had served in China through most of the 1930s before becoming senior advisor to the Kuomintang in 1942.
--In Canadian history, Matthew Elliott, who helped bring the Indians into the War of 1812, had lived on and off with them from 1774 on; his stint as Superintendant of Indian Affairs (his second) had begun four years earlier. His predecessor in that essential Indian liaison role, William Johnson, had already been named an honorary sachem by the Mohawk in 1742, which undoubtedly helped him lead them to support the British in the Seven Years War and Pontiac's War after that, over a decade later.
--For that matter, the British officers who founded the Canadian army and led it to its first victories also had extensive local experience before they started throwing their weight about. Garnet Wolseley, who led them to their first real success in the Red River expedition in 1870, had been in a command position with that force from 1861 on. His mentor and colleague Patrick MacDougall had served in Canada for 10 years before being sent there to create the first real Canadian militia force in 1865.
It's fair to say that no one I have met or served with in an military advisory capacity, despite their many other excellent qualities, has had anything like that kind of level of experience with the Afghans. That has to be a factor in how much impact we're having. By comparison, we're all short-timers.
That's not to say that there isn't lots of room for short-timers in mentoring, particularly in low ranks or technical areas. Lawrence's NCO assistants, "Stokes" and "Vickers", who trained the Arabs in their respective weapons and fought alongside them, had none of Lawrence's prior experience. Like the others in Lawrence's small party, it would have been enough that they were effective military instructors and soldiers: nothing more was asked of them. Where the cutoff line on that, though, is hard to say outright.
A related issue is the continuity on the home side. Part of the challenge is that, although there's now lots of us with relevant experience, there is no standing mentoring force in most armies, no centre of excellence where lessons can easily be archived and recalled. The Canadian battlegroup in Kandahar Province is, more or less, based on a standing infantry battalion, shipped over and back in a block. This gives it advantages I've mentioned before in pre-deployment, as its training and administrative facilities are not all stitched-together ad hockery. To a degree this is necessary: in Canada the battalion is the basic building block of any task force; and any deployed force aimed at mentoring is going to have a significantly different orbat. The result, though, is that when a battalion ships out to be a battlegroup, the building it occupied in Canada basically closes up for six months, after which they all come back and store all their lessons learned etc., in preparation for the next go; but an OMLT has no home base to launch from or return to, and no place to put all that information. The upshot is each new OMLT is essentially a one-shot organization, stood up for the one rotation only, with little in the way of formal links between itself and its predecessors or successors, as strong or as weak in relevant issues like cultural understanding as the strengths and weaknesses of its senior members. Who, as mentioned above, are not particularly experienced by comparison to any previously successful examples found in the history books. That has to seen as imposing some limitations.
UPDATE: I was glad to see the current Canadian commander in Kandahar has no illusions about the current state of affairs, thankfully:
"Il n'y a aucune manière d'arriver au point où les forces afghanes pourraient s'occuper de la sécurité à Kandahar en 2011. C'est absolument impossible."
"endearingly macho" -- Mark Steyn
"wonderfully detailed analysis" -- John Allemang, Globe and Mail
"unusually candid" -- Tom Ricks, Foreignpolicy.com
Bill & Bob
Ghosts of Alex