December 14, 2010

Today's essential Afghan reading: FRI

Two more choice quotes from FRI:

A Marine LCol in Helmand: "Iím not lighting up an area where families we know and support are living in order to suppress a couple of idiots who were shooting a few long range, ineffective rounds." Bingo.

From Tim himself, on how to do COIN in the nearly unpopulated border province of Nimruz, presenting the problem, the solution, the problem with the solution, and the solution to that problem all in one tight three-inch group:

I ask one of my brother Marines what he would do were he given this problem to solve under the historical constraints normally faced by Marine commanders fighting a small war. He replied immediately ; Q-cars, fire force and pseudo operators [references to Rhodesian COIN TTPs --B.]. Which is exactly the same thing I would say as would all of my friends who are in the business. But the only way a regimental or battalion commander could even think of doing that now would be if we sent a vast majority of the troops deployed here (along with every colonel and general not in command of troops) home.

Yes, yes, YES.

The sheer untapped potential of ANSF platoon houses with embedded enablers (not Western companies with a few doorkickers) in the cleared areas, combined with modern ISR- and CAS-enabled Rhodesian style pseudo-operators and fireforces replacing large-scale sweep ops in the uncleared Pashtun areas, with the highways patrolled by mine-resistant vehicles in the IED zones and Q-Cars (a land derivative of the Q-Ship) in the ambush zones simply boggles the mind.

One should probably remember, though, that the best the Rhodesians could do (because of unassailable safe havens in neighboring countries and the inability of the government to be seen to serve the black majority's interests... hmm, where have we heard those before?) was hold their insurgents to a draw until they lost the fight for world public opinion and conceded in 1979. Sure, maybe our tactical COIN approach has been really unimaginative compared to the Rhodesian experience, but ultimately these things are won or lost on strategic considerations; at best good tactics only maximizes the value of one's strategic choices, and there's no reason to think Afghanistan would be any different in that regard.

Posted by BruceR at 10:39 PM

Additional Afghan reading: Junger

I still haven't seen Restrepo yet, but Sebastian Junger's War was brilliant, I thought, as a portrait of young men at war. His article here on the response he received is also very much worth reading:

I donít have a son or daughter over there, I donít have anything personal at stake in this miserable affair, so I feel completely unworthy to answer the question of whether the United States should keep fighting or pull out. As a journalist, the only thing I can do is try to guess the likely consequences of each choice and explain them to people who canít go over there to see for themselves. If NATO remains in Afghanistan, it can probably maintain the current level of stability and prevent Taliban and al Qaeda forces from reestablishing a base in that country. If NATO withdraws, those forces will almost certainly sweep into Kabul and precipitate another protracted civil war.

This is exactly right. I don't understand why anyone would assume that the Tajiks and Hazara and Kabuli Pashtuns who still hate the Taliban will not fight for their homes if we left. They're not going to be so easy to roll the second time, and the fact the ANA make poor doorkickers in our concept of ops does not mean they'd do just fine against similarly armed Pashtun insurgents, especially if we left a SOF/FID/CAS/Fires thumb on the pro-government side of the scales.

We shouldn't confuse a lack of Afghan army enthusiasm with being cannon fodder in the south with a lack of determination to fight for the north when the time comes; just like we shouldn't confuse the Karzai clan's determination to hold power as long as possible with their extensive and obvious preparations for a Plan B when Western support begins to dry up. Yes, some of them will just escape to those millions they socked away in Dubai, assuming it's still there, but the fight will continue without us.

If we were really focussed on our best interest, our strategic choice would be managing this to a stalemate situation, one favourable to us, over the decade it's going to take, using the minimal footprint possible. I don't mind the CNAS or Afghan Study Group reports that guide the transition of ISAF forces out, but to me they're still taking too short-term a view. We should be assuming we will leave a civil war in our wake, or one will crop up shortly thereafter, and that we will have to manage that, and configure our forces now and in future to do so.

But this is not Vietnam, where the U.S. withdrew its support and the other side did not. As mentioned below, this is now a self-licking ice cream cone kind of war... reducing the international presence reduces the resources available to both sides in Afghanistan, and the anti-Western hostility in equal measure, and no country is sitting by ready to give the Taliban tanks just to fight other Muslims in the same way they were for the Hanoi regime. And yes, it would be better for Afghans if we could keep it from falling back into that war somehow, but years of strategic mismanagement have all but ruled that out now.

But that doesn't mean the arguments of morality, justice, and utility are not still on our side. When I deployed, I remember looking at this pretty analytically. I had a contempt for the Taliban I no longer have quite so much, and the reports from the field were rosier than even my bullcrap filter could compensate for, so it's fair to say I was of a more optimistic cast than now. But when I could look at it coldly and logically, I basically saw what Junger saw... that, worst-case, fighting in the south bought time in the north, and ISAF's presence could give those people after 20 years of war an indeterminate number of years of relative peace while we were there. Worst case, we could give them a shot at normalcy. To me that was enough of a humanitarian argument to justify my serving in ISAF. Still is. I don't know how many years of Afghan peace is worth how many Canadian or American lives, but in terms of the personal sacrifice, as a tiny part of a huge military operation, and comparing that operation as a whole to the most likely alternative, I don't regret a thing, then or now. Yes, we could have fought smarter, better, more economically, with less loss... those sorts of realizations are often regrettable. And the cost to our nations' economies has been huge and unsustainable. But Junger is right. To not do what we did would have been to make things worse in the immediate now for the majority of Afghans. And while I happen to agree with Nir Rosen below that you cannot say the same thing about Iraq on the whole, I happened to serve in Afghanistan, not Iraq. And the same analytical reasoning that convinced me three years ago when I stepped up that ISAF, collectively, at least would not be making things any worse while I was with them, to my mind remains valid today.

All that changes nothing as far as the most-likely prognosis for Afghanistan now, though. And I could be wrong; I have been quite clear why it is still too early to tell; but the evidence has been mounting that we are approaching the finite limits of how much impact military force alone can have on this particular insurgency, and continued commitment of resources at the current level is going to be firmly in diminishing returns territory. But again, I still think we're still about six months too early to tell for sure. If the violence starts ramping up again in the summer of 2011, as it has every year higher than the year before, than we really need to start digging the fallback positions and figuring out what ANSF with ISAF enablers can realistically hold onto in the years to come. Because the only alternative will be an indefinite, fruitless Western commitment.

Posted by BruceR at 12:30 AM

December 13, 2010

Additional Afghan reading: Rosen

Not entirely about Afghanistan, but this Nir Rosen interview is choice, if you just skip the Glenn Greenwald bits: the observations about the humiliation of occupation and the belief that the enemy must be mercenaries because otherwise we'd feel like the British in Braveheart is spot-on; also reporters never talking to locals. The following basically sums up the fundamental tactical problem of Western soldiers throughout Afghanistan:

Likewise today the Americans may control the population centers, the Taliban control the countryside, and once you leave the cities, the few capitals of the provinces, you are in Taliban territory, and you have thousands and thousands of villages with no roads, impossible to even physically control these areas. The Americans ended up living with the people in Iraq, able to base themselves in communities. You cannot in Afghanistan do that.

So even from an American counter-insurgency point of view, it's just much too challenging. They are living in bases remote from the population, they go out, they rumble along a road slowly for a couple of hours, shake hands with an elder in a village, drink tea with him, they feel like they're Lawrence of Arabia or something, and then they rumble back to their military bases a couple of hours away in time for the chow hole to be opened to get a burger before going to play video games in their rooms.

Meanwhile, that night, the Taliban can knock on the door of the elder whose hand we shook, and remind him who his neighbor is, and who is watching him, and undermine any deal you're going to strike with that guy.

Another difference: Iraq, the conflict was fundamentally about controlling the state, because the main resource in Iraq is oil. Whoever controls the state controls the oil, and is rich. Afghanistan has not resources to speak of. In theory they have lithium, but they're never going to it. The main resource in Afghanistan is American dollars. We, our presence, is fueling a conflict economy. It's this corrosive presence, and everybody wants a piece of our money. The warlords in Afghanistan, even the Taliban, are getting our money.

In Iraq, our convoys were protected by private security companies like Blackwater. In Afghanistan, these convoys are protected by Afghan warlords. So it's our money which is fueling warlordism and corruption in Afghanistan. And the warlords pay off the Taliban, it's the Taliban that's more effective and will allow them to operate in Taliban areas. So Taliban is getting American money as well. It's a perfect storm of this conflict economy driven by American money which is flooding into a place that has no capacity to actually absorb it.

It is this last bit that is key. The big difference between Vietnam and Afghanistan is this. In Vietnam the Soviets and Chinese were funding and arming the north, and the U.S. was funding the south. In Afghanistan, the west is effectively funding both sides, by flooding the country with so much money in support of our own troops that it just sloshes about, raising all boats.

Around Kandahar, same as in the American desert (which I also know well), you have these flash floods on the dozen or so days of rain a year, because a microburst cloud dumps more water on a small area than the ground can ever absorb. That is the best analogy I can find for the Western military effort in Afghanistan. It wasn't intentional, but corrupting a village in order to save it isn't any more successful than the Vietnam alternative. We've created a country where a plurality if not a majority of the population is dependent on the war continuing and the Western military and development money flowing for their livelihoods, directly or indirectly. Our footprint, particularly in the south and east, is way, way too big. We're the microburst. It's not sustainable in our own economies and it's not helping them.

Posted by BruceR at 11:42 PM

Sentences I never thought would appear in print, #673

"The worst [thing about the Spiderman musical] is the bizarre, out-of-place chorus tune where Arachne and her spider-girls sing about shoes. They put on shoes and show off their shoes and talk about how they all have shoes." --Topless Robot. Wow. It really is the "Springtime for Hitler" of our time.

Posted by BruceR at 10:41 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

There's so much at the moment, but I suspect the latest update about the Pir Mohammed school in Senjaray gives a truer picture of the reality than most accounts.

Canadian OMLT personnel were the first to occupy the "hilltop outpost" in Senjaray referred to, in early 2009, kicking out the ineffectual and completely compromised "police" detachment there. At the time six Canadians had been killed within shouting distance of the post in the space of two weeks, so we were less concerned about compromising local nation effectiveness. There's been an American company there for a year now, but nothing much else seems to have changed since in Senjaray.

Note the dogged US Captain, Nick Stout, has replaced the previous dogged Captain, Jeremiah Ellis, who started the drive to restore the Senjaray school a year ago this month. Note also the seasonality of the fighting. Ellis faced "just the occasional boom" in the winter; Stout faced "firefights almost daily" in the summer. I remember our operation there in January 2009 also meeting no direct resistance of any kind (other than a suicide bomber blowing up the next ANP post down the road and a well-planned enemy operation overrunning another in the next district while we were busy conducting the clear op). All the fighters, minus a few layback elements, winter up elsewhere this time of year. It is undoubtedly quiet there again now. As I said some time ago, the only way to know if all the kinetic effort around Kandahar this year has had any effect will be what Senjaray and places like it are like next summer.

Posted by BruceR at 10:08 PM