There have been several news items on Afghanistan that call for some optimism. Task and Purpose published this long piece by former Ranger and current journalist Marty Skovlund and it’s a great read. Marty also has done the War College Podcast and other media where he anticipates our continued involvement with the Afghans for decades to come.
Task Force Southwest is heading home after a successful deployment (they did not lose any Marines) and Vice News caught up with them before they left. You can get a good feel for what they’ve accomplished in the video below:
It is clear that the Marines in Helmand have stabilized the Afghan National Army in just as the Army has in Nangarhar province. Yet none of this has changed my opinion that it is not going to work and that we are wasting time, money and lives on a forlorn hope.
Last week former Marine Owen West was confirmed as assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. His nomination had been held up by democrats who objected to this eminently reasonable article he published, in conjunction with his father Bing West, concerning women in the infantry.
Owen was a talented infantry officer who also served in the reconnaissance community before leaving the Corps for Goldman Sachs where he became the most badass banker on Wall Street. Owen remained in the Marine Corps reserves and did two combat deployments to Iraq. He also became, like his father, a successful writer publishing two thrillers as well as an account of his time as an advisor to the Iraq Army. That last book is the biggest reason for hope I have seen to date concerning our efforts in Afghanistan
The Snake Eaters: Counterinsurgency Advisors in Combat is one the best accounts on the Iraq conflict I have come across. I’m not alone in that assessment; check out the review from his new boss:
“Stunning in its portrayal, this highly personal book conveys a tremendous sense of time and place, set in a wickedly complex war zone that our young men faced in a foreign land, coaching a foreign force, in a type of combat foreign to those who have forgotten that war is ultimately a human endeavor. Vivid and honest, it holds true the real lessons of counter-insurgent war and is essential reading for those who seek to understand what we demand from those we send to fight for us.” — General James Mattis.
What’s this have to do with Afghanistan? I’m not sure because I don’t know how much weight the assistant SecDef for Special Forces has in the big scheme of things. What I do know is that Owen West believes our current approach in Afghanistan is wrong. Check this out from the introduction of The Snake Eaters:
Only an advisor’s aggressive willingness to share risk—his performance under fire—with local troops gives him credibility with and influence over them. This gap in understanding is not limited to civilians. Our generals are uncomfortable prescribing advisors as a solution to these twenty-first-century wars. Advising a foreign military requires nontraditional training that takes years; soldiers need a wonk’s cultural awareness, the rudimentary language capability of a border cop, a survivalist’s skills, and the interpersonal savvy of a politician. Military hierarchy is built on control, so it feels unnatural for the leadership to dispatch these small bands of advisors, who on paper cannot give orders, to live among foreign, sometimes hostile soldiers in an effort to stabilize their countries.
Living with the troops and leading by example…..where have you heard that before? Not just in this blog; every legitimate resource on getting host nation armies from the third world into the fight says the same thing. We knew this a century ago when we were fighting in Banana Republic Wars. Now the belief that technology has changed the dynamic of counterinsurgency warfare has reduced our efforts to unsustainably expense parodies of an effective military solution.
The Snake Eaters details this without the rancor. It tells the story of a small group of untrained reservists controlled by a clueless higher headquarters who are thrust into the most deadly town in Iraq. Not every team member is a hero but the deadwood is replaced rapidly, those who see the mission through are classic representations of American fighting men. Some our career officers who step up and out of constricting formal roles associated with their rank and experience. Some are non conformists who learn the local language and advocate for the local people. All who remain display the two traits most important in the counterinsurgency battle; physical courage and placing the mission ahead of all other considerations.
The Iraqi’s they mentor run the gamut from cowardly sycophants to incredibly brave professionals. Ironically the Iraqi officer who holds the Americans in complete contempt is the favorite of the American advisors. When you are deep in the shit performance is all that matters but not enough American units have found themselves deep enough in the shit to have learned this basic rule of war.
Every institutional problem I have bitched about for over a decade on this blog is validated in the book. Placing force protection ahead of mission and the un-stabilizing effects of SF night rains that can destroy in a few hours trust that took months of blood, seat and tears to build are just two of those problems that are covered in detail. This is the first military book I’ve read that relates directly to the experiences I and my small group of Free Ranging friends had in Afghanistan. Take a couple of minutes to hear Owen explain the book to get a feel for why I’m raving about it.
The American military has some serious, fundamental issues that need to be sorted out. The Marine Corps aviation in on it’s knees and currently unable to generate the sortie hours required to maintain proficiency with its fixed wing fighters. The Navy cannot drive its boats but worse yet it can’t even recognize an impending collision soon enough to sound the appropriate alarms; the ones that would have forced men from their bunks so they don’t get crushed and drowned when their ships hit gigantic civilian tankers. The Air Force can’t retain pilots; the Army can’t retain talent yet in the face of these problems our politicians are forcing women on the infantry and transexuals into the force structure.
Countering these powerfully negative trends is the most qualified Secretary of Defense and the most powerful Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the history of our country. They are on record as opposing social engineering they know will weaken combat power yet seem unable to put a stake through the heart of PC centric change.
Add to that an Assistant Secretary of Defense who not only knows, but has proven the risk adverse, reliance on high tech, Kabuki theater of advise and assist while leading from behind will not work.
Will this make a difference? I don’t know but sure is interesting.