I’m back after a month off to find things have changed very little on the Afghan street. Everyone I talk to thinks the international military effort is entering its final stage. I have been on the road for over a week and have talked with all sorts of folks from the military, USAID, and local Afghans. The lack of optimism regarding our effort was the common denominator in every conversation. We are not being beaten by the Taliban; we are beating ourselves.

There are military missions underway to be more proactive in making contact with and helping isolated tribal people. One such program is apparently classified but open sources point to series of “fly-away” teams, mostly military, who go into the deep hinterlands and stay in a village complex for weeks if not months at a time. Clearly that type of sustained contact is exactly what our COIN doctrine mandates and can do nothing but good. On the security front I saw a news report on TV about a flying column of Afghan and American Special Forces types who drop in on Blackhawks to stop and search traffic moving across the desert from Pakistan. Done correctly this type of security operation will be popular with the law abiding Afghan. But the ability to sustain any meaningful contact with the Afghan people still appears to be missing.

Traffic on the Jalalabad - Kabul road. Traffic has always flowed freely on this vital route despite periodic low level attacks aimed mainly at fuel tankers.
Traffic on the Jalalabad – Kabul road Christmas 2009. Traffic has always flowed freely on this vital route despite periodic low level attacks aimed mainly at fuel tankers.

What is important to note about the efforts described above is that both involve Special Forces. Those missions could easily be accomplished with line infantry (augmented with the same specialists the SF teams are using). But the SF guys have an advantage and that is they are experts in the next revolutionary doctrine in military affairs: counterbureaucracy.   A recent Belmont Club post tells the story best. Here is the money quote:

In other words, they wanted to give the troops a chance against the bureaucracy. In that fight, the troop’s main weapon was the habitual relationship, a word which apparently signifies the informal networks that soldiers actually use to get around the bureaucracy. If done by the book most everything might actually be impossible. Only by performing continuous expedients is anything accomplished at all.

As you read through the article you’ll note that even the SF teams operating off of main FOB’s cannot always navigate the bureaucracy fast enough to move on important Taliban leaders when they surface and are vulnerable. It appears somebody in the SF chain of command figured out how to launch open-ended continuous operations as one mission allowing some of the teams in the south to make meaningful contributions to the overall security picture.

ANA checkpoint just west of Surobi. The Afghan security forces are clearly more active and operating in a consistently professional manner in and around Kabul.
ANA checkpoint just west of Surobi, Christmas Day, 2009, Afghan security forces are getting more active  in and around Kabul.

As both of these programs are based in the South one has to conclude that SF teams in the east and north are still struggling to get off base. The SF team in Jalalabad with their Afghan Commando counterparts were dispatched in force into the Kunar Province mountains after the ambush at Gangigal last summer. They should still be out there living in different villages and protecting the frontier with aggressive patrolling. If they were allowed to operate in that manner that is exactly where they would be.   The troops I talk with at the pointed end of the spear know what needs to be done and want the freedom of action to go get on it but the bureaucracy above them will not accept the associated risks.

COIN is not that hard to do despite this recent article about a battalion commander operating in Logar Province who is being lauded for thinking “outside the box.” I am going to paste in comments from Mullah John who is smarter than most on things like this:

“COIN is the graduate level of war: complete nonsense. COIN is police work, a touch of CT with decent municipal services. To say that handing out welfare in Logar requires even the same level of military expertise as conducting Overlord or the Six Day War is utter rubbish.

It’s hubris designed to make Petreaus et al seem to be considerably more clever than they actually are and also serves to justify the continued existence of the US Army at its current size and holds out the hope however unlikely, that Zen Masters like the object of the article have the magical answer to Pashtoon objections to foreign armies being in their country: Poetry! Of course why didn’t we all see it and VON KRIEGE in the original German ! and Sun Tzu and captains being allowed to spend money EUREKA!

BTW thinking outside the box normally describes thought at odds with received wisdom and certainly with the entire chain of command.”

Neither Mullah John nor I are taking anything away from LtCol Thomas Gukeisen who is the subject of the article. He sounds like a sound tactician and we could unquestionably use more like him. Unit leaders like LtCOl Gukeisen operate in the COIN environment using what is known as “recognition primed” decision making which requires a solid understanding of current military capabilities, the history of warfare, and a bias for action. Operations such as Overlord (the World War II Allied invasion of Europe) require “concurrent option analysis” decision making by gigantic staffs which have to be fused together and synchronized by three or four star generals. Saying that the ability of a battalion commander to do basic COIN techniques is graduate level work is like saying the ability of a family doctor to diagnose a case of step throat by smell alone requires more skill than a surgeon performing intracranial neurosurgery…it is not only wrong it is weird.

A sign of commitment; bringing your kids over for a few months to enjoy the sights, sounds and people which make Afghanistan such a cool place to work in. My son Logan and daughter Kalie outside Little Barabad, Nangarhar Province, October 2009
A sign of commitment; bringing your kids over for a few months to enjoy the sights, sounds and people that make Afghanistan such a cool country to work in. My son Logan and daughter Kalie outside Little Barabad, Nangarhar Province, October 2009.   

The Army has started changing up their operations by embedding the Afghan Army inside there combat brigades. They take care of the logistics. commodities and personal administration but the price is that all patrols are joint and done under US force protection rules. The effective administration of things like pay and leave may help reduce ANA attrition. But if you mandate that every squad which goes out has with it a four MRAP, 16 man American equivalent and that the patrol only go where the MRAP’s can go and that the patrol be cleared with multiple correctly formatted PowerPoint briefs then your tempo of operations plummets. It has to when you work inside the bureaucracy – that is the nature of bureaucracy.

The thing about talking “COIN” is that you are talking tactics not strategy. Tactics devoid of strategy are ultimately meaningless because they accomplish nothing of value. We have been very successful at killing Taliban commanders for eight years and have caused (relatively) little collateral damage. Yet killing guys doesn’t matter because there are dozens more ready and wiling to replace them. But you also can’t not kill them – you can’t let guys who attack your forces walk. The Taliban have tried several times to over-run and American position but have failed to inflict double digit KIA’s in any attempt while being shot to pieces as they try to withdraw behind the Pakistan border.

We seem to be going down the same road as the Soviets did by restricting ourselves to the main roads and cities while clearing out the “Green Zone” of southern Afghanistan. We are rapidly building up troop strength and focusing almost all of our effort on the “Pashtun Belt” along the Afghan/Pakistan border. Our efforts are predicated on the getting the Afghan government capable of functioning independently. But that is not going to happen and everyone knows it. We do things under the  “COIN” brand like building modern roads into the Kunar valley which, believe it or not, have produced a positive effect on the local population. There are now extensive rice paddies in the Kuz Kunar district of Nangarhar province which, thanks to the hard work of a four-man JICA team, produce enough rice per hectare to provide a better return in investment than poppy. The only reason the water is flowing and the rice growing is the modern paved road which the US Army paid to have built going into and through Kunar Province. The Kuz Kunar district can now be classified as self sustaining and therefore passified. Well, if we had a strategy with associated metrics it could be called passified….what it is called now remains unknown to those of us outside the military.

Kuz Kunar Province on the Jalalabad - Assadabad raod
Kuz Kunar district of Nangarhar Province   on the Jalalabad – Assadabad road

Building roads as “the mission” isn’t “COIN” despite our efforts positive impact on some formally unstable districts is not enough if your goal is to leave Afghanistan a secure, functional country. That would be a strategic goal but like the Russians before us we do not have a strategy, just tactics.   Afghanistan will not be functional country anytime soon because the source of legitimacy for Afghan rulers has never been through an elected government. GoIRA as the military calls the Kabul government is and will always be perceived as illegitimate by a majority of the population. In that respect we face a similar situation to both the Russians and our checkered past in Vietnam. Check out this quote comparing Afghanistan and Vietnam from a recent article in Military Review:

Both insurgencies were and are rurally based.   In both cases, 80 percent of the population was and is rural, with national literacy hovering around 10 percent.   Both insurgencies were and are ethnically cohesive and exclusive.   In both cases, insurgents enjoyed safe sanctuary behind a long, rugged and uncloseable border, which conventional U.S. forces could not and cannot cross, where the enemy had and has uncontested political power.

The article can be found embedded in this post at the American Thinker blog. The Vietnam analogy is one I have resisted in the past but I am rapidly becoming convinced that it is becoming a valid comparison. Look at this recent article about the Army Stryker Brigade operating down south in Kandahar Province. The Army Brigade Commander sounds exactly like one of his Vietnam era counterparts – check out this quote from him:

…He outlined how he intended his approach to work. [W]hen it comes to the enemy, you have leadership, supply chains and formations. And you’ve really got to tackle all three of those, Tunnell said. I was wounded as a battalion commander and they had a perfectly capable battalion commander in to replace me very quickly; our supply lines were interdicted with ambushes and they never stopped us from getting any resources, but when you degrade a formation substantially, that will stop operations. And then if you degrade formations, supply chains and leadership near simultaneously, you’ll cause the enemy in the area to collapse, and that is what we’re trying to do here.

Hate to point out the obvious but that quote is bullshit. General McChrystal can talk about counterinsurgency all he wants but it seems that commanders at the Brigade level pretty much do what they want based on what they know and what they know is how to kill people.   COIN is a tactic – we need a strategy but have none because the National Command Authority continues to vote present. Without a strategy it is impossible to tell how well we are doing or predict when we will be done.

We are asking men and women from over 40 countries to fight so Afghanistan can join the core group of functional nations. Somebody needs to be leading this effort by creating a strategy with which we can define an endstate allowing us to estimate how we are doing and when we can leave. That would be the job of our current Commander in Chief – inshallah someday soon he will figure that out.