September 23, 2009

Offsetting ANA illiteracy

I'm now taking requests, apparently: I have been asked for my thoughts on this article.

Look, literacy of the Afghan soldier is a bit of a lame excuse, sure. It would help the fight, certainly. But we shouldn't feel that it is our responsibility to make them literate by ourselves.

The Afghan army does make allowances for literacy classes, in fact. They're run by the Religious and Education officers and their staff, a fixture at battalion level and above. This is a unique military position, one we don't quite grok. We often call them "mullahs," but they're not mullahs... although they can be. What they are is the officers whose job it is to look after the troops, their piety, and their education. In most circumstances, they book and host the mullahs, not act as them themselves.

R&E officers are also key to ANA village outreach work. The R&E goes in with the commander's staff when the ANA enters a village, and does the direct liaison with the local religious authority, handles complaints about troops' behaviour, coordinate the distribution of humanitarian aid, etc. They perform much of what we would characterize as the PsyOps/InfoOps/Civil Affairs role.

The position is poorly understood by Western officers, who tend to treat them as chaplains. They're not. They're often quite good combat leaders and fighters. When I was there, multiple efforts were made to offer information operations classes to the ANA. Inevitably, the class was filled with soldiers the commanders sent because they had nothing better to do with: not exactly a quality audience, and unlikely to ever be in a position to put the lessons to use. What should have been done was embedding Info Ops mentors with the R&E staff, and focus our training on the people they wanted trained in that function, too.

R&E staffs in the better brigades also offer literacy classes (at least the Arabic alphabet, sufficient for map- and sign-reading). This could easily be reinforced by providing them better materials, even just paper and pens, for their classes. But we'd need to understand how these organizations actually work internally to get the most effect, and shape our mentoring team manning around them to a degree, rather than force the Afghan organizations into templates we understand. That's the real problem.

There are other ways we could offset or mitigate ANA illiteracy, of course:

*We could put more promising Afghan officers on courses back home.

*We could imbed Afghan officers we trust into Western headquarters roles in theatre, too -- something that's never been seen as possible, but maybe the new emphasis on partnering could change that.

*We could increase the amount of written translation support, possibly using reachback to translators back in Canada or the U.S.

*We could shower them with maps with coordinate systems Afghans could read.

*We could get all our officers to be familiar with Dari numbers and letters sufficient to read a Dari map, and particularly get them to master the intricacies of the Persian calendar, which otherwise tends to baffle them, before deployment.

All those things we could do ourselves, tomorrow, if we wanted to, bringing payoffs that would strongly offset any gap in ANA literacy, and let their own processes do the rest over time.

Posted by BruceR at 10:45 AM

On the Kagan estimate

The Kagan husband-and-wife team have put together an estimate on how many troops would be needed for successful COIN in Afghanistan.

It's certainly worth a read. Obviously some of its figures are a little questionable -- I'm not clear on how they came up with 2 Canadian battalions currently in Kandahar, but never mind that -- but as a maximalist upper estimate it's pretty good.

In summary, the estimate states that the U.S.-led coalition still needs the following troops, on top of what's there now:

*1.5 brigades in Helmand province;

*1 brigade minimum in Kandahar province;

*1 brigade in the Paktia area;

*An additional backfill brigade for the Canadians and Dutch when they leave.

An additional couple of brigades would also be needed for partnering with the ANA, to bring them up to speed.

The best part, though, is slide 39, describing how the worst-case would unfold:

There are no forces to be redeployed in RC(South)—all are fully committed in tasks that cannot be abandoned

• Without additional forces in RC(South), therefore, commanders will face the following options:

   –Continue an indecisive fight in Helmand while ceding Kandahar to the enemy

   –Abandon the fight in Helmand, accepting a major propaganda defeat and humiliating the British, cede the area to the enemy and allow the Taliban to extract vengeance on all those who co‐operated with us, and attempt to re‐take Kandahar

   –Reduce forces in Helmand, possibly tipping what is now approaching a stalemate into a slow‐lose scenario, and attempt to re‐take Kandahar with forces that are not adequate to the mission

• In all cases, commanders will likely be forced to continue to shift ISAF troops around in response to growing emergencies, vitiating any meaningful COIN approach

• Current force levels do not permit coalition troops to partner with Afghan forces outside of Helmand and Greater Paktia, a factor that will significantly delay the growth in quality of the ANSF

The slide also correctly notes that ANA troops do not/cannot rotate around the country, and those in the south are getting increasingly brittle. We commented on the reasons for this here.

I'd say this is an accurate assessment. Canadians should be under no illusions on this: when we leave, we will leave a hole.

Also of interest is that reference (bolded above) to "partnering." This is very different from "mentoring" as Canadians have conducted it so far. Partnering means an integration of command and control of the two armies that during my rotation, a lot of people (not the mentors, mind, we pushed for it) would, frankly, have been uncomfortable with. What we're seeing is a grudging admission in a lot of quarters that "mentoring" as conducted by ETTs and OMLTs to date, simply hasn't had a payoff in terms of effectiveness proportionate with the investment, and that integrated headquarters are the way to go here.

And that again calls into question (discussed previously here) whether a continued Canadian commitment to army mentoring, as opposed to police mentoring, past 2011, would make any sense. Without having our own military units in theatre to achieve partnership with, we'd be in the position of trying to achieve a "hard seal" between Americans and Afghans under combat conditions: no matter how nice we are as a nation, we're never going to be as effective in that role as a team of American mentors would be, unless we were talking individuals thoroughly embedding within the American unit ourselves (including a shared pre-deployment, etc.)

UPDATE: So what is the practical difference between partnering, as Gen. McChrystal wants, and what we've been doing until now? One can probably best explain that by explaining how Canadians and Afghans had been officially interacting up to last spring (noting as always that I'm now five months out of it and hopefully some things will have changed since):

*At the time Afghanistan was not part of the Global Counter-terrorism Task Force (GCTF) coalition. (Pakistan is, which put us in the unique position of being able to share much more info with the ISI than with the ANA.) That meant no information remotely sensitive of any kind could be given to an Afghan. Period. That meant no operational data, even of the most basic kind (like friendly force fixed positions, or aerial pictures of the ANA's own outposts). Which meant we could never tell the ANA where our troops were, where they were going, or what we knew. We also couldn't ever let them see any UAV feeds, sub-meter imagery or other intelligence reporting. (Officially: enough said on that.)

*Even ANA senior officers (even general rank) were not regularly allowed onto Kandahar Air Field. They were not allowed to enter any of our headquarters buildings, operational or intelligence centres. This obviously made organizing joint operations in real time rather difficult.

*That lack of understanding of what we were trying to achieve or the resources we had at our disposal also made any other demands we made of the Afghans inscrutable to them. They tried their darnedest to set up their own command structures and headquarters that we would respect but it's like trying to describe an elephant to a blind man, if you've never seen what the inside of a modern military headquarters really looks like and what it can do in a crisis.

*There was no connectivity between Afghan and Coalition command posts at most levels of command. Not even a phone line. The only way to share information was via your interpreter's (unreliable, interceptable) cellphone, or to hold a face-to-face meeting and share it in person.

*Local national interpreters were also not allowed on KAF. (*cough* officially *cough*) That means that despite both armies furiously producing volumes of paper and briefings every day, there was no one in a position to translate any of it for the other side to read, even if it had been hand-carried.

*Afghan armies had almost no maps they could read. The coordinate systems on our maps baffle them. We were unable during my tour to provide them (*hack* while sticking to the official chain of command *cough*) with maps with coordinates in both languages so that we could share friendly force position and enemy contact data with each other.

This wasn't just our province. My understanding was it was pretty much the same everywhere. You want to hear my guess on why things like the Kunduz tanker bombing happen? Could it be because we have a whole lot of Westerners with all this information they need to sort out, and they're not allowed under any circumstances to interact with the Afghans who could interpret it for them? It's to cut through the red tape implicit in the above that Gen. McChrystal is now emphasizing "partnering" instead. It's about time.

Posted by BruceR at 09:13 AM