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.

20 Replies to “Counter-Bureaucracy”

  1. Tim,

    I don’t know how many times I have heard this sentiment: “We are not being beaten by the Taliban; we are beating ourselves.”

    We have no coherent strategy, nor do we have an end goal in sight for Afghanistan. In fact the only thing we do seem to have is an exit strategy. There is as you state no commitment to Afghanistan other than to hold out another year and see what happens.

    That is no way to fight a war you intend to win, and I do not think that the US Government intends to win any war. As it is with most government projects, it’s more about the process than the outcome and that is a travesty. Especially for those 800 American men and women that have given their lives in this endeavor.

  2. Great post as always, your kids look like they’re having a laugh which is always good.

    There is no coherent strategy and there isn’t even a coherent goal. It just drifts between “defeating terrorism” and “stablising Afghanistan” without achieving either.

  3. 1. You are making my case brilliantly.
    2. Have referred a couple to this article, with more referrals to follow.
    3. Differ on possibility/probability of outcomes.
    4. Particularly with the newly mandated time limits.
    5. The only hope I ever held out was a persistent slog over years and years.
    6. John Glubb (Glubb Pasha) in “War in the Desert” describes ten years of work to develop an intelligence network in Mesopotamia. At that point the British could administer the region.
    7. Knew nothing of COIN in VN. we were all about operations. By the time I got there, SF was doing operations -albeit on a more capable level than we ordinary riflemen.
    8. Based on personal experience, twenty year old PFC’s and LCPL’s make great riflemen and poor ambassadors.
    9. Once they see a companion get hurt, anyone outside the unit becomes the enemy. They lack much capability at insight or empathy.
    10. The special operations types are both smarter and older -much more suited to the COIN mission.
    11. Think officers and NCO’s need to be selected with care for this mission. Same reason.
    12. Military is constituted to combat a foe similar to itself. Take your eye off the ball, it goes back to what it knows and does best.
    13. Every time it looks like we’re making progress in combating non-state enemies, we either change procedures or it turns out other factors were at work.
    14. Case in point: stated in an earlier comment that standing up the Sons of Irag was probably the strongest leg of the surge in Iraq.
    15. Essentially, we out-bribed our opponents.
    16. Based on one of your earlier postings: you appeared to state that a significant portion of the taliban were amenable to bribery. Again that is playing to our strength.
    17. May not be a great long term solution. At this point I’d take whatever I could get.
    18. Best regards and wishes for a safe and productive 2010.
    V/R JWest

  4. So glad to see you back and writing again.

    Is it just a coincidence that the SF teams going off to remote areas to live among Afghans appears to be very similar to the Tribal Engagement Team strategy advocated by Major Jim Gant?

  5. The major difference between Viet Nam and Afghanistan is the lack of a major power supporting the enemy with arms. I suggest that if the Taliban has access to a steady supply of VLLSAM and MRATGW this campaign would be over very quickly.

    The first major similarity is the slow dawning on increasing numbers of the public that the war (even if “victory” were possible) is a threat to the security of the west and not protecting us.

    The second similarity is the recognition among national leadership that the war at present levels is a bad idea but being boxed in by largely domestic political considerations from limiting the damage.

  6. Battle in Afghanistan will be won. No doubt about that. It is matter of time to won it. War continue elsewhere…

  7. The concept of “winning” has to have cost effectiveness associated with it. What possible benefit is it to the US to reduce the level of international Jihadi inspired violence over the next decade in Afghanistan to even 2003 levels at the cost of several trillion dollars, the exhaustion of it’s ground forces and another thousand fatalities? Especially if the Jihadis will just shift their bases.

    Tactical victories without a sensible strategic plan will lead nowhere. Relative US economic power declined 25% over the last decade. Long term US strength will be harmed as much by a long victory as a long defeat.

  8. At the risk of stating the obvious…

    The biggest difference is Afghanistan’s lack of a coastline or major port. This also serves to limit the size of the American commitment in Afghanistan to something around a tenth the size of the American commitment in Vietnam.


    I would posit a long defeat as being far, far worse then an long and expensive victory. We can absorb the financial costs and replace the lost soldiers – We’ve absorbed far worse and replaced far more in the past.

    Of course, under the current administration we may not have a choice…

    WIN IT
    END IT,

  9. Just a short correction, when comparing Vietnam to Afghanistan. The Vietnamese were extremely literate with mandatory education and a system emplaced by the French for several hundred years. Even rice farmers were frequesntly High School graduates.
    I am not sure whether this was true everywhere, and there was significantly reduced literacy when dealing with minority populations, however, there is no comparison between the Afghan and Vietnamese populations in this reguard.

  10. Render: In the past the US wasn’t seeing it’s relative economic power going down, didn’t pay for it’s wars by borrowing from the Chinese and wasn’t running trillion dollar deficits.

    Ending it is “winning”. After another decade and three trillion down the drain it won’t even matter if the entire Taliban senior leadership surrendered in a formal ceremony. The US will have achieved nothing of value and will have weakened itself economically. Afghanistan, like Iraq, has become a self-inflicted wound- not mortal but certainly serious.

  11. What preceded WW2 in US history?

    The Talib are but one localized element of a global enemy.


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