A Little Positive News

Michael Yon was kind enough to give the blog a plug in his latest post on the National Reviews blog the corner. The problems currently being experienced by the expat community renewing visa’s our obtaining work permits are irksome and expensive but in the big scheme of things minor. The government in Kabul is not working which is not news. My confidence in the ability of all the Afghans, ISAF and the UN to get a runoff election planned and executed in two weeks remains low; but it could happen.

It is hard to see what difference the result of this election will make on the continued problems afflicting central government control exercised from on high in Kabul. Michael posted another interesting piece the other day about adopting the Afghan Army. In that piece was a link to this Dexter Filkins article on General Stanley McChrystal which made for good reading.   The biggest problem with General Stanley McChrystal is that he’s an American. There is no Afghan equivalent of which I am aware and a warrior leader in the McChrystal mold is exactly the kind of man who stands a chance of exercising effective control from Kabul. Unfortunately there is not anyone of that stature or competence in the Afghan Security Forces. It is difficult to see what difference a runoff election will make in the big scheme of things but that is no reason for excessive pessimism.

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For most Afghan families hauling fresh drinking water takes up a considerable amount of their daily routine.  

Towards the end of the Filkins article General McChrystal hears something interesting when he asks the local governor what he could be doing better.

Abdullah Jan said “You need to live in buildings not tents.”

Sounds like a comment one would find on the FRI blog which I find personally gratifying. There is no question that the American military has a handle on the more immediate problems confronting them in Afghanistan and an idea how to fix it. The question is do they have moral courage to do what needs to be done?   Physical courage is easy to find in humans but moral courage in a trait much more rare in the species. It will take a lot of moral courage from on high to get the American military off the FOB’s, out of those stupid MRAP’s, out of the body armor and helmets which make them easier to hit when they are working in the 110 degree heat or climbing steep mountain passes. It was interesting to read that the first thing Gen McChrystal did when he arrived in Garmser was to take off the body armor and helmet.

The leading edge of an Afghan population boom is rapidly coming of age. Their current prospects for meaningful employment are grim. The consequences of a large pool of unemployed young men hanging about are easily predictable
The leading edge of an Afghan population boom is rapidly coming of age. Their current prospects for meaningful employment are grim. The consequences of a large pool of unemployed young men hanging about are easily predictable

Thomas Ricks has an interesting post in the Foreign Policy blog which illustrates the need for radical change in military performance. The post contains extracts from a blunt report Canadian intelligence officer along with his commentary such as the gems below:

  • In one remote village, strong Afghan commanders worked hard to deny the area to the Taliban, and also gained a remarkable amount of intelligence. But then the outpost “was closed just after the end of our tour due to its sustainment difficulties, in all likelihood dooming many of the locals who had collaborated with us there.” This is the opposite of protecting the population — it is endangering them.
  • He also takes a small whack at the Americans, saying that the safest police stations in southern Afghanistan were those where Canadian mentors lived and slept. “The American PMT approach, which involved teams driving out in the morning to visit, regrettably was far less effective in this regard.”
  • After years of training and advising, “we were still very much at year zero. And that’s a big problem because the whole definition of victory in a counter-insurgency, as defined in FM 3-24 and elsewhere, is getting the battle to the point where indigenous forces can take over, and you can leave. … All [the enemy] has to do is deny you that indigenous force development, by making things so kinetic that you can’t focus on mentoring.”
  • Under the way we currently operate, he says, most allied units think that dealing with Afghans is someone else’s job. “Mentors in effect become the excuse for Western soldiers to avoid contact with Afghan soldiers.”
  • That last issue, the failure of mentoring, leads to his strong endorsement of Gen. McChrystal’s recommendations for a radical new approach to the war. The most significant aspect of the general’s plan, he says, is to have Americans and other foreign troops co-located with Afghan forces, living, eating and sleeping alongside them. He advocates giving up mentoring and going instead to this flat-out partnering.
Children from a refugee camp outside of Jalalabad heading out to scavage for animal forage
Children from a refugee camp outside of Jalalabad heading out to scavenge for animal forage

Getting off the FOB’s and stopping the “commute to the job” mentality is something I have been railing about since day one. It is good to see us heading in this direction but I have to tell you it is not that easy as it sounds. It is physically easy to set up safe houses in Afghan towns and embed with the locals (where invited to do so) but it requires a complete change in the perceptions of risk by the military bureaucracy. I drive around Jalalabad by myself in an unarmored vehicle with nothing more than a concealed pistol for protection as a matter of routine as do many other internationals. When working in contested areas we wear local clothes, often have rifles and extra local guys with us but we still stay out of the armored vehicles because they draw too much attention allowing for easier targeting by the bad guys. Many of the American military mentors I know would love to do the same thing because it would allow them more freedom of movement and make them more effective. But getting buy-in to deploy your military forces in such a manner from on high? Not a chance. If you have not lived like we do or had the experiences that our military mentor teams have had living with the people then chances are you think the risks we take daily are insane. They are not but it is not easy to convince people who have had multiple FOB tours here of that fact.


As we muddle through a new approach to the Afghan Campaign there is one fact of ground truth which remains very positive. In most places of this country what the local people want is for us to move in and stay. America and her allies are viewed very positively by a majority of the population. As I have written in the past the most potent weapon the foreigners arsenal is a big smile and the ability to say a local greeting. Afghans are a very friendly and polite people – they love it when they meet friendly, polite foreigners.   Inshallah soon we will see civ/mil teams moving into the local districts and living on the economy like we do. That is the only way you can rapidly spread not only security but projects like this. That is how you start to reach the key demographic in Afghanistan which is the young people who are rapidly coming of age. The link above about a computer lab in Gardez is more good news – but you could do more faster with Fab Labs and it would costs pennies on the dollar when compared to the way we currently field similar projects.

3 Replies to “A Little Positive News”

  1. Yes, I noticed he mentioned you in the article. Also, Greyhawk mentioned your blog on the Hugh Hewitt Show last weekend.

    What you say is correct, and we both know that changing mindsets or conventions is easier said than done. On the other the alternative of keeping the same POV isn’t appealing, and comes with deeper complications. The question in my mind is how much longer is Obama-rama going to stay undecided and awkward? As one liberal ivy league professor wrote: “We should be holding his feet to the fire.”
    He’s right, and though the professor and I disagree on what should be done, we both agree that society in general seems to be in a Facebook/Twitter related haze. No one is paying attention except for the milbloggers, and the pundits –most of whom get their info from one another.

    As I have written in the past the most potent weapon the foreigners arsenal is a big smile and the ability to say a local greeting.

  2. Interesting. In the book Influencers, it talks about the best ways of changing someone’s mind on something. The key ideas are to express the new idea in the form of a well told story, or show the idea with a field trip. The field trip is the best, because it engages all the senses of your targeted audience. So if I was trying to reform a group into doing something in a new way, I would hire really kick ass speakers to sell the troops on the idea, and then take them on a field trip. Then it is a matter of finding those units that are doing it the right way, and physically show those who that have doubts, what that unit is doing. You could probably get away with just sending officers, NCO’s and opinion leaders of a particular unit on that field trip, and then they can take that new way of doing things back to their units. Good stuff Tim. S/F -matt

  3. As I read your blog one burning question keeps popping into my head.

    Are you hiring?

    I wouldn’t mind going back to Afghanistan at all to do a job that actually helps the afghan people a bit more than my previous one did.

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