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.

Posted by BruceR at 09:08 PM

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.

Posted by BruceR at 02:55 PM

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...

Posted by BruceR at 02:18 PM

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.

True dat.

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.

Posted by BruceR at 01:58 PM

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.

Posted by BruceR at 10:33 AM