When a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon is faced with making a major decision regarding an issue as complex as Afghanistan experienced observers know they will see one of two approaches. The first (and by far rarest) option is a radical departure from current operational methods representing a new way forward. The way soldiers from the SBS and Delta handled the fight in Tora Bora during the opening month of the war on terror sorry I guess it is now “overseas contingency operations” is a good example. Faced with a complex battlefield containing armed factions of dubious loyalty and motivation they improvised using small units to maneuver firepower in place of the manpower they did not have.
Their solutions or “lessons learned” according to the unit commander, Dalton Fury, were not recorded in the Army after action system and they have been forgotten probably because taking a truly decentralized approach when deploying American fighting forces is completely alien to senior Colonels and General Officers. The second and by far most common approach from the Pentagon is to do “more of the same but do it faster and better.” That is what the generals tried to sell President Bush back when he sold the surge idea to them. And it appears that is what the generals or most probably the national security team have sold President Obama. It will fail. Dismally.
There has been only one document I have seen in the last three months which shows a clear coherent understanding of the situation in Afghanistan. It was written by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and can be found here. Congressman Rohrabacher is “speaking truth to power” when he writes;
“America then put its emphasis on establishing a central government based in Kabul as the dominant authority in Afghanistan, something no one – foreign or Afghan – has been able to do for centuries.
…A genuine commitment to decentralizing power and authority in Afghanistan is only part of the solution, but a critical one. This is difficult for military leaders, schooled in chains of command and top-down structure, to comprehend.”
The performance of our General Officer Corps in both Iraq and Afghanistan seems to back the good Congressman. They were not comfortable with and had to be forced into the decentralized operations which worked so well during the Iraq surge. They have been unwilling to operate in a decentralized manner in Afghanistan with the notable exception of the U. S. Marine Corps Special Purpose Task Force Afghanistan. That unit has repeatedly fought two to three hundred man Taliban formations with reinforced rifle platoons and beat them like a drum. They are now enjoying unrestricted freedom of movement and bringing security to the remote areas of Farah and Helmand Provinces. But there are only so many Marines the US Army, which continues to favor large isolated bases from which they can commute to the war, is clearly not inclined to operate in a similar fashion and our other allies do not have the ability (even those who have the will) to conduct full spectrum combined arms counterinsurgency warfare.
There are many reasons why this is so but until our allies get comfortable with the idea of very junior lieutenants and sergeants making the battlefield calls, committing their forces when and how they feel while controlling all air and ground delivered ordinance they will not be able to duplicate Marine success. And it takes years of dedicated specialized training to produce a military organization which has a bias for action and the ability to train junior officers and non commissioned officers well enough to be true battle leaders. Battlefield geometry, keeping your cool when things go wrong (as they always do) maneuvering men while controlling air delivered ordinance danger close that is not an easy day and it takes the right men who have the right training to pull off with any degree a flare or Ã©lan. More importantly it takes senior leaders with the moral courage and intestinal fortitude to step back and let the men of the ground fight. We do not have many senior leaders like that. Not many at all.
Large military formations are not only a hindrance to progress they are completely unnecessary. They seem to be part of a new strategy, hinted at but not so far reviled, of controlling the population centers and the main roads while attempting to bring redevelopment aid to the rural population. That my friends was the Soviet plan a plan that worked good enough for them to bring in about 80 times the redevelopment aid in their first eight years when compared to our bloated, inefficient, risk adverse efforts. I hear this from Afghans all the time by the way and I mean all the time – “why can’t the most powerful country on earth do a little better than the godless Soviets?” What can one say? I don’t know but I do know that there are hundreds thousands of unemployed young men in this country and each of them has only one goal in life and that is to get together enough money to get married. This is a powerful motivator in societies which strictly ban contact between men and woman unless they are direct family or married. These guys will go where the money is and right now the various Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) around the country are paying much better wages to those who will plant an IED or take a few shots at the infidels.
Now here is something interesting reportedly Joe Biden and “Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, who argued in closed-door meetings for a minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan that one source described as a “lowest common denominator” approach.” According to the linked article (from Bill Gertz who is a complete and total stud in my book for the excellent books he has authored) “The Holbrooke-Petraeus-Clinton faction, according to the sources, prevailed. The result is expected to be a major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least developed nations to a relatively prosperous democratic state.”
I hate to say this but I am on Joe Biden’s side of the debate. The way forward is using small teams comprised of civilians and military living in fortified compounds an working with Afghan officials at the district, province and shura level. Using the classic inkblot approach we could set up multiple teams in districts where the shura’s have invited them to come and help. Pashtunwali cuts both ways and we could use that code to our advantage by getting the invite in and holding leaders accountable when bad things happen in their respective villages. Bad things will happen by the way and it is important that we demonstrate resolve and commitment when they do. The ability to operate, even in hostile areas, with small groups is something I have blogged about in the past here, here and here. We did it before in 2001 and need to do it again because it is effective and very cheap. Last time I checked the United States was pretty much broke so the cost thing should be important. But more importantly there is am imperative documented in our doctrine yet ignored by our senior military leaders and that is YOU CANNOT COMMUTE TO A COUNTERINSURGENCY.
That tactic exposes your forces to the IED threat costing you in men and material while you gain nothing, win nothing, bring nothing to the people we are supposed to be helping, in short you spend American blood for not tangible good reason at all and that my friends is a crime. Passive risk adverse tactics cost more blood than going aggressive just look at the Marines down south for validation but we are building more FOB’s and sending more “presence patrols” out to be ambushed and shot up by enemies they cannot see or understand because they are isolated from the people and don’t know a damn thing about anything outside their respective FOB’s.
The kind of approach I advocate could produce an acceptable endstate by its very design. Go into the districts, finish the irrigation, road and school work which has already been identified in Provincial plans, and go home. Continue with the effort to train the Afghan military and use the embedded trainers and their units as your localized react force and you have a plan which conforms to current counterinsurgency doctrine. Low footprint, effective, pennies on the dollar to what we currently spend to support all the people we have deployed here the vast majority of whom never leave the bases to which they are assigned.
But we are not doing that. We are bringing in more forces and placing them on FOB’s. There is an expected “surge” of civilian experts but civilians operating under Department of State or US Military security rules are isolated from the population and of little use they tend to hit the DFAC early and horde the pecan pie too which is completely unsat. I was shut out seven days in a row in Kabul on the pecan pie front and am bitter I don’t get to eat at DFAC’s much which is why I get a little carried away on this whole pie thing. It seems from reporting that we are bringing in experts to help the central government build its capacity to administer this fractious land. That’s a great goal but it is also more of the same. Supporting a central government which is clearly every bit as much of a problem for the average citizen of Afghanistan as the warlords/Taliban are is not going to work well for anyone except the companies who win the lucrative contracts to bring civilian “experts” over here. This “Civilian Surge” is supposed to include a ton of lawyers and judges. What the hell do American lawyers and judges know about Afghan legal practices? From the perspective of an American patriot I can state unequivocally that:
– The lawyers and judges will have zero impact on the Afghan legal system.
– There will never be enough Taliban car bombs, IED’s or direct fire attacks around Kabul to weed out these damn lawyers while they are in a combat zone and vulnerable. (I know lawyer jokes are easy but they are also hard to resist sometimes.)
So if they will make exactly the same contribution their peers have made in the last 8 years (that would no contribution at all) and there is no chance of enough of the lawyers getting killed over here to reduce their numbers and parasitic impact on the American people why send them at all?
Here is an original idea. Not that original actually I got the idea from Old Blue. We have many other nations joining us here under the flag of the International Security Forces Afghanistan (ISAF) flag. These allies include military formations from Muslim countries such as Turkey and the UAE. Why not break them down into Provincial level so that our Muslim allies can provide legal and governance guidance? Forget using American lawyers, or judges, or correctional officers who do not know a thing about this country or its people. Let some of our Muslim allies step up the plate and do some heavy lifting. But the Department of State already has programs to provide police, legal, and correctional training with mentorship to foreign nations. They do not required any original thinking or customization and can be implemented with little effort and supervision by our overworked State Department bureaucrats. That these programs have not produced one iota of positive change since they started several years ago is irrelevant (apparently) to our government.
Another important point these civ mil teams should have females attached. The reason for this is that women in Afghanistan wield significant power inside the family compound walls. They may not be able to go to the bazaar without a male relative but inside their home it is a different story. They will rat out the men folk in a heartbeat if they think they (the men) are doing stupid things. Now imagine this you’re a man sitting in your home and you tell your wife “Mohammad and I are going to go out tonight and set in some IED’s for cash.” How many of you men out there could say that and just screw off with your mates for the night? Think things are different here? Think again guys wives are wives and your average Afghan will pull this kind of stuff at his own peril. Because the wives will exact their revenge not directly mind you but indirectly. Last summer when Amy Sun and her MIT crew were here was the first time I realized how powerful women are in Afghan society. Now the San Diego Sister Cites program had brought over another young woman who has never been in a post conflict zone and you can find her blog here. I do not know her well and have no idea what she will do and experience during her visit but I know Afghanistan and she is in for a treat follow her blog she writes well and see for yourself. And remember she is demonstrating how freedom of action and the ability to interact with the local population in an unrestricted manner can bring rapid improvement and understanding with that population. We have doctrine which stresses this point but do not have commanders willing or able to execute that doctrine.
Here is an extract from this recent report about our new strategy in Afghanistan:
Most of the American reinforcements are being deployed to the south of the country, a Taliban stronghold that is one of the largest opium-producing regions in the world. U.S. and NATO officials believe that the drug trade provides the Taliban with billions of dollars each year.
The Obama administration hopes to undercut the Taliban by launching a new counter-narcotics offensive in the Helmand River Valley and other parts of southern Afghanistan. The mission will be the primary focus of the U.S. reinforcements.
Under one facet of the plan, U.S. or Afghan troops will first offer Afghan farmers free wheat seed to replace their crops that produce opium. If the farmers refuse, U.S. or Afghan personnel will burn their fields, and then again offer them free replacement seeds. A senior U.S. military official described the approach as a “carrot, stick, carrot” effort.
I assume this bit a strategic wisdom has been blessed by the new ambassador our first active duty general to become an ambassador who was here as the guy in charge years ago. Back when General Eikenberry assumed command in Afghanistan we could drive down to Kandahar with no problem. By the time he left that was a guaranteed fire fight unless you were embedded in a military convoy and many of them were getting attacked too. It is impossible to generate “change you can believe in” using the same people who have yet to demonstrate any original thinking on this complex problem. Carrot, stick, carrot my ass. That is stick, stick and more stick at the end of which the poor farmer sells his 9 y/o daughter for 500 bucks to give the rest of your family a chance to make it through the winter. Wheat seed who thinks up this kind of madness?
Here is another tip for the military that is going to have to implement this new “mo better” plan. An Afghan farmer with a poppy crop in the ground has gone into considerable debt to get that crop started. Destroying his fields will leave him with nothing. He will be forced to sell his children to get out from under his debt to the drug lords. The fields belonging to the rich and powerful have never been touched to date by the poppy eradication teams and they won’t under this new strategy because the Afghan government will not allow them to be touched. I know that the media says drugs are fueling the insurgency and they are certainly contributing but the real winners in the drug trade are the landowners who rent the lots, seed and fertilizer to share croppers. Those land owners can be found in Kabul and Dubai as well as Quetta and Peshawar. Our government knows this heck even the main stream media is getting around to figuring this out too. The large majority of Taliban make their money on the transport and security portions of the pipeline which is chump change compared to the big bucks being made by the land owners.
So as the new surge rolls out the mandarins of Kabul are most pleased they will make millions providing (or leaning on the providers) secure isolated giant FOB’s. They will be able to skim millions from the completely ridiculous and ineffective police and legal “mentoring programs” which has already deployed thousands of European and American police officers to Kabul where they toil daily in a secure purpose built facility churning out paperwork and having absolutely no impact at all on the ability of the Afghan police to do their jobs. They will make tons of money knowing full well the programs they are skimming millions from will not produce anything for the average Afghan which will allow them to retain power. Change you can believe in? Right.