In Marine Corps officer schools “The Yellow” is the school solution for tactical problems normally handed out in the form of an operation order or an annex to an operation order on yellow paper. Having written at great length about the problems we see with both the military and reconstruction efforts I’d now like to take a shot at proposing a solution which has merit. We are currently failing, and failing miserably, at bringing a secure environment to the people of Afghanistan which is the first and most important step in any counterinsurgency conflict. There are two reasons for our current performance; the first is that the government of Afghanistan is so dysfunctional and corrupt that it is more a problem than a solution. The second factor is our insistence of operating from large forward operating bases (FOB’s) and commuting to the fight instead of living amongst the people to whom we are supposed to be delivering security.
The new Pentagon directive on Irregular Warfare mentions civ-mil teams but does not define them which one suspects will involve experimenting before a solid table of organization is written. There is a model, arrived at through a marriage of convenience, which is capable of delivering enough boots on the ground to bring security and rapid infrastructure development to the Afghan population. That model was a Un Ops sub contractor / SF A-Team operation which informally cooperated with each other in Shinkay back in 2006.
This was one of the most volatile areas of Afghanistan back in 2006 and remains so to this day. Yet the small SF A-team and the equally small numbers of ANZAC and Canadian engineers were able to work effectively in that environment without taking casualties. By cooperating with each other their sum was greater than the parts of their respective groups. They showed what can be done by small groups of men living amongst the people and are a good model to emulate countrywide.
There is much speculation in the press about bringing in more combat troops as well as trying to arm tribal fighters (Lashgar’s) in hopes that they will assist ISAF and the Afghan government in their fight against Armed Opposition Groups (AOG.) One thing that can be predicted with absolute certainty is that without internationals in the field mentoring these Lashgars they will be of little use or effectiveness. The same holds true with the Afghan police. All the multimillion dollar training centers in the world will not deliver an effective Afghan police force the only way is to mentor them. Direct, daily mentoring by international military personnel is the reason why the Afghan Army is doing so well and perceived by the people as the only functional, effective government force in the country. There are also many stories in the press on the growing problem of poverty. One of the major factors affecting this poverty is unemployment. There is not a district in Afghanistan which does not have an on the shelf plan to fix its irrigation systems. Irrigation, bridge and road work is a labor intensive process here due to the lack of modern machinery or training.
A Civ-mil team built around an infantry rifle squad, augmented with armed contractors housed in a local compound could be a catalyst for stability and growth. The military team would focus on bringing security to the district by training and mentoring both Lashkar’s and local police. The civilian half of the team would focus on simple infrastructure projects like roads, irrigation, micro hydro power plants and bridges. They would need to be able to both approve and fund those projects at their level using cash in order to get these projects rapidly off the ground and ensure they are done correctly. These teams would be working with the local tribal elders and district administrators who are often one and the same. They can bring two key elements into the equation for winning over the population and that is a permanent long term presence in the districts which would act as a visible sign of commitment to the Afghan people. Long term presence on the ground coupled with visible signs that we are committed to bringing security to the people is the very foundation of the counterinsurgency battle. Anything less is just muddling through which is what we have been doing for the past seven years.
There are two reasons why armed contractors should form a bulk of the civ-mil teams in Afghanistan. The first is longevity. Contractors who are working a good paying gig with a decent rotation system can stay on a contract for years at a time. Having a group of former military men who have worked the same districts for year after year brings huge advantages to the military commander who employs them. Most contractors pick up enough language skill to operate without a dedicated interpreter. In the course of their duties they interact with village and district leaders daily thus getting an accurate feeling for the local “ground truth.” The other reason to use contractors is cost. You can outfit contractors with the best weapons, best commercial communications gear, and the best armored vehicles and they are still costing the American taxpayer pennies on the dollar of what it costs for an American serviceman.
It sounds counter intuitive to recommend the employment of ground troops in small units when the security situation has deteriorated significantly during the past year. In that respect it is interesting to compare the results of two Taliban ambushes last year. Both involved ambushing forces of around 250 Taliban fighters. In the first a reinforced rifle company of French paratroopers fought for an entire day to break contact and recover their casualties. In the second a platoon (minus) of 30 U.S. Marines broke the ambush decisively beating the Taliban, killing scores and sending the rest running from the field of battle. The terrain, vegetation and disposition of enemy forces were different in both battles I am not trying to imply that 30 Marines would have been able to perform the same immediate action drill in the Uzbin valley ambush. The relevant point to be made here is that aggressive tactics result in fewer casualties among the good guys and lots of causalities among the bad guys which is a good thing in all situations. Another relevant point is that small units of infantry are much more decisive when they are operating in terrain they know populated by people they know. By operating in the same district filled with people they know our front line troops will be much safer than they are commuting into the districts from large FOB’s in cumbersome armored patrols.
As I write this post yet another round of recriminations is flying about concerning civilian casualties. The latest incident occurred up the road from us in Laghman Province at the village of Masamut. A known Taliban leader, Gul Pacha, was in his compound entertaining another Taliban commander when an American direct action team flew in and the joint. Hard. The military claims to have killed 39 Taliban. The villagers say they killed many Taliban but also 13 villagers. There are wounded villagers in the provincial hospital who are telling reporters that they grabbed their rifles and rushed outside their homes when they heard neighbors screaming and were shot as they left their compounds. That makes all the sense in the world to me it is expected that Pashtun males will arm themselves and try to defend their neighbor when he is attacked. Under the code of Pashtunwali they have no choice but to act. It is also expected that any armed male within view of the cordon force will be shot. In the report linked above one of the villagers observes that they should have surrounded the suspect’s house and given the surrounding families a chance to leave before attacking which again makes perfect sense to me. The SF community will tell you that doing this ruins the element of surprise. But look at the price we are paying to generate “surprise” we do not need. If we already had a civ-mil team working that district of Laghman they could have grabbed their Lashkar and ANA protÃ©gÃ©es, surrounded the compound and had the village elders get the Taliban commanders to come out. If they refused our SF direct action boys could still assault them at their leisure – they control the when, where and how in their deliberate assault. Or they can use standoff munitions controlled by FAC’s at the scene.
It often seems to those of us on the outside looking in that we use the high speed direct action mission because we have a lot of guys here who are highly trained to do high speed direct action missions. The units who do these missions are our varsity team highly trained, highly capable and very lethal. Guys like that should be out in the countryside living amongst the people like we do. They would be better tasked if they traveled around the districts augmenting the training dispensed by resident civ-mil teams. It will not take long for problem districts to emerge and that is where we should send our door kickers because we cannot continue to whack a dozen innocent Afghans just to take out a low level “commander” who can be easily and instantly replaced.
I am certain that my friends who remain on active duty view photos of New Zealand civilians crewing 120mm mortars with a degree of alarm. As a former infantry officer I can’t say that I would be any different. Crewing mortars in shorts and tee shirts is not the way we learned how to do these sorts of things. Yet we are in a long war that is going to tax our collective will and stamina. It is time to start experimenting with formations that can make a difference, quickly and cheaply, in the populated areas of Afghanistan. Allowing small units to be scattered about in areas where there is little mutual support is not a technique senior officers are comfortable with. It goes against everything they have learned about employing their men in battle and it is these men who must answer to the families of the soldiers and Marines who will be lost in this fight. But we have to try something new, micro management from on high is plaguing our operations and continuing to cause unacceptable levels of civilian casualties. It is time to turn the sergeants and Lieutenants lose to use their judgment and to develop their area of operations. Not all will measure up to the task but most will. We have never had better, more experienced junior leadership in our military it is time to place our trust and confidence in them they have earned it.