November 18, 2009

Couple places I've shown up other than here

I was quoted as part of the University's Remembrance Day coverage, here. I think the pic on p. 4 is one of my favourites from the roto.

My speech before the CDAI last month also appears to be playing a small evidentiary role in Tony Cordesman's CSIS group's latest study on the ANA (draft PDF).

Posted by BruceR at 08:28 PM

Yet more essential stuff

Judah Grunstein efficiently dissects the current Gant/Pressfield "arm the Afghan tribes" meme. Every future OMLT-eer should write this bit on his field message pad cover:

Anyone who has worked in a helping role -- whether in social work, aid and development, and apparently population-centric counterinsurgency -- has witnessed (or lived) the phenomenon of a line worker identifying with the target population, especially when the line worker is subject to extended immersion within the social structure of the targeted population. Inevitably, it leads to a confusion of loyalties and friction with the broader institutional goals. There's a very delicate balance between listening to and empathizing with the people you're trying to help, and maintaining defined boundaries -- to identify their needs, without identifying with them. But it's an essential balance to strike, because the helping relationship is by its very nature vulnerable to manipulation and abuse, on both sides.

The thing that bugged me in reading Maj. Gant, other than the huge difficulties in operationalizing his "arm the tribes" proposal, was that bit about how he fit in so well that the Afghan headman's wife met with him unveiled on several occasions. I'm just not sure that's the sort of thing one puts in a generally distributed academically-inclined paper simply to make a point in one's argument.

Posted by BruceR at 02:25 PM

Today's essential Afghan PowerPoint

From the CounterInsurgency Center blog, essential info for troops heading to Afghanistan. The presentation at the first link, a pictorial summary of Marine lessons learned, is exactly the kind of thing any predeploying soldier should be thirsting for.

(The second PowerPoint, for the basic COIN education of ANA 205 Corps soldiers, was clearly done by the corps' Western mentors. Anyone who has seen an actual Afghan government PowerPoint will know what I mean. Still, it's great that it's being done, at all.)

Posted by BruceR at 10:20 AM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Gilles Dorronsoro.

Dorronsoro and, singing in a slightly different register, David Kilcullen are shaping the new Conventional Wisdom on Afghanistan virtually as I write. What's out, in this new CW? PRTs, NATO-style OMLTs, and clear-hold-build, at least as a generally applicable model for Afghanistan.

The growing consensus of Dorronsoro and others seems to be that 2009, despite all the new resources thrown at it by Pres. Obama, was still another year of stepping backwards, primarily due to: a) an overfocus on Helmand, where whatever payoff it has had on the ground has to be balanced with the spike in casualties that came with it starkly eroding U.S. will and nearly driving the U.K. out of the war; and b) the election fiasco. Dorronsoro defines the problem:

A common misperception is that the insurgents are terrorizing the Afghan people and that the insurgents’ level of support among the people is marginal. This has led to the objective of “separating the Taliban from the population” or “protecting the population” from the Taliban. Yet at this stage of the war, and specifically in the Pashtun belt, there is no practical way to separate the insurgency from the population in the villages, and furthermore there is no Afghan state structure to replace the Coalition forces once the Taliban have been removed. In fact, this approach reflects a misunderstanding about just who the Taliban are. Even if it is possible to find examples where the Taliban are not local and oppressive to villagers, the situation in the Pashtun belt is much more complex. The Taliban have successfully exploited local grievances against corrupt officials and the behavior of the foreign forces, framing them as a jihad. Moreover, the Taliban are generally careful not to antagonize the population. They are much more tolerant of music and of beardless men than before 2001, and Mullah Omar has repeatedly made clear that the behavior of the fighters should be respectful (for example, paying for the food they take). Most of the insurgents are local and, especially in case of heavy fighting, the local solidarities tend to work in favor of the Taliban and against foreigners in a mix of religious and nationalist feelings.

How does the Coalition control the supposedly cleared areas? Trust between Coalition forces and the Afghan people (especially the Pashtuns) simply does not exist, and, after eight years in the country, the battle for hearts and minds has been lost. The Coalition forces still have not worked out how to be accepted locally—that it is counterproductive to patrol villages with soldiers who are ill-equipped to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and whose average stay is six months. This miscalculation has been compounded by the past poor behavior of some Coalition forces— the beating of prisoners, arbitrary imprisonment, aggressive behavior on the road—and the unwitting bombing of civilians.

The absence of a state structure in the Pashtun belt means that military operations, other than a token Afghan army presence, are predominantly foreign in composition. Because the police are corrupt or inefficient, there is no one left to secure the area after the “clear” phase. And because the progovernment groups are locally based, they can go outside their area only with great difficulty. The so-called ink spot strategy—subduing a large hostile region with a relatively small military force by establishing a number of small safe areas and then pushing out from each one and extending control until only a few pockets of resistance remain—is not working because of the social and ethnic fragmentation: Stability in one district does not necessarily benefit neighboring ones, since groups and villages are often antagonists and compete for the spoils of a war economy. In this context, securing an area means staying there indefinitely, under constant threat from the insurgency.

Finally, given the complexity of the strategy—one that requires a deep understanding of Pashtun society—one must ask whether the Coalition has the bureaucratic agility and competence to implement it and outsmart the Taliban, who are obviously quite good at playing local politics. There is no reason for confidence in this regard, so the Coalition should pursue a simpler strategy in Afghanistan.

On Helmand:

The policy of clearing is plainly not working. The insurgents are woven into the population, and there is no way to distinguish them from ordinary villagers. As a consequence, the area targeted by the Coalition forces remains unsafe, and because the Afghan National Army is too weak to substitute, the troops can’t withdraw without allowing the Taliban to regain control...

So, Coalition forces have failed to clear a significant portion of the province of Taliban fighters. The border with Pakistan remains wide open; it cannot be controlled with only U.S. troops. Predictably, the Pakistanis are not helping, allowing Taliban groups sanctuary when they need it. Only one district—Nad Ali—has been secured by a heavy U.S. military presence, and even then, not totally because IEDs are deployed there. There is no guarantee that the Taliban—in the North and South of the province—will not return.

Posted by BruceR at 08:23 AM