Adapt, Decentralize, and Harden.

The string of failures starting with the Jihadi attack on Fort Hood by an American Army Major, followed by the fiasco of incompetence demonstrated by multiple agencies in the Christmas Day undie bomber attempt, followed by the CIA FOB Chapman attack were huge strikes.   Three strikes, but nobody is out because that is the nature of bureaucracies.   The only time large bureaucracies hold individuals accountable for major failures is when they can pin the blame squarely on a junior member – that is the way it is.

Major General Michael T. Flynn, USA has followed up his blunt criticism of the intelligence portion of our Afghan operations with a solid paper, co authored by Captain Matt Pottinger, USMC, and Paul Batchelor of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), on making   intelligence relevant in Afghanistan.   These men are at the forefront of the counterbureaucracy battle fighting against the tide of mediocrity that has defined our military efforts to date.   I am compelled to point out that the picture on the cover of an Army general officer who is engaging some key elders while wearing body armor, helmet, SUNGLASSES, and with a rifle strapped to his chest is illustrative of exactly how not to conduct COIN.   I don’t know if that was done  on purpose or not, but the last thing a general officer should be doing is showing up in his Ivanhoe armor and a rifle strapped to his chest to talk with local leaders.   No body armor, no helmet, no  rifle, and certainly no sunglasses is how a senior leader demonstrates calm, trust in his men, and physical courage in this environment.   My kids who have spent months at a time here could tell you that.

Adapt.  Riding around in large armored SUV's is not adapting.  People who dwell behind the wire think bullet proof vehicles are safer but in a country where the villians plant IED's large enought to flip an LAV and open ambushed with a volley of RPG's these vehicles are nothing but targets and vulnerable ones at that.  Adapting means low profile so that you blend in with the ground clutter making it difficult to be recognized or targeted.
Adapt: Riding around in large armored SUV's is not adapting. Bullet proof vehicles seem safer, but in a country where the villains plant IED's large enough to flip a LAV or open ambushes with RPG's these vehicles are targets. Adapting means low profile so that you blend in with the ground clutter making it difficult to be recognized or targeted.

The Flynn paper defines the problems plaguing our efforts with insight and clarity.   The authors describe the efforts of several battalions who have gotten it right.   They focus on the 1st Battalion 5th Marines, who after clearing   Nawa of Taliban focused on identifying local centers of gravity which they could influence to improve the security situation on the ground for the local Afghans.   This is an important distinction – they focused on making the environment safe for the people, not for them, which in the context of Afghanistan military operations is not the norm.   ISAF forces focus their effort on “red” incidents not “white” information.   Red incidents mean IED strikes, which is to say the entire effort of most units is to find and kill IED syndicates, so they can drive around in their MRAPS without losing people.   White information is all about the human terrain on the ground, i.e. who is in charge of what, what are the major concerns of the people, what factors are degrading security for the average Afghan etc…     White information can only be gained by sustained contact with the local population which is exactly what 1/5 did when they settled into Nawa after clearing out the Taliban.

Decentralize - Afghans operate commericaly that way nation wide.  In secure areas where there is a sustained ISAF prescence the markets thrive.  This is not a point which is lost on many Afghans.
Decentralize - Afghans operate commercially that way nation wide. In secure areas where there is a sustained ISAF presence the markets thrive. This is not a point which is lost on many Afghans.

Faced with rifle companies spread thinly on the ground and without access to buildings, computers, internet, or even reliable electricity, the Marines adapted by spreading their intelligence thinly and tasking the rifle companies to provide the atmospherics needed to gain an understanding of exactly what was impacting the local population so they could deliver security customized to the needs of the Afghan villagers.   In a summer which saw a dramatic increase in casualties from IED’s countrywide, the Marines of 1/5 drove down the IED incident rate to zero.   The local people actually chased off Taliban IED teams themselves.   That is nothing less than astounding.   There were similar successes posted by American Army battalions which are highlighted in the paper too.   But I have to add that kind of success cannot last forever in an active insurgency – there were loses in Nawa this week to IED’s.

Harden.  Living outside the wire in the south forces one to adapt to the situation as it is.  Adding three feet to the exterior walls and topping them with concertina is not pratical for outfits like ours because it costs money we do not have and draws too much attention which we do not need need nor want.  So we harden and this is just phase one - when we are done anyone coming over the walls will face a nightmare of razor wire, tangle foot and aggresive dogs.  Then they will face us and we know how to fight.  Repelling borders is in the DNA of the Brits, Canadians and Americans working out of this compound which is deep inside the Indian Country of Helmand Province.
Harden: Living outside the wire in the south forces one to adapt to the situation as it is. Adding three feet to the exterior walls and topping them with concertina is not practical for outfits like ours because it costs money we do not have and draws too much attention. So we harden and this is just phase one - when we are done anyone coming over the walls will face a nightmare of razor wire, tangle foot and aggressive dogs.

This white paper is full of good things but all good things must come to an end and at the end of this paper there are no good things which I can detect.   As the new Obama surge comes into the theater it  will bring with it massive new headquarters – a MEF forward for the Marines and an airborne divisional headquarters for the Army.   Of the 30,000 additional troops thrown into this fight, at least 5,000 of them will be found in these two headquarters units alone.   Adding layers of additional bureaucracy to the already bloated, essentially useless staffs here now will render the immanently reasonable suggestions contained in Gen Flynn’s paper moot.   Which brings us back to the consistent pattern of failure which defines the Central Intelligence Agency, The Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Council.   Eric Raymond at the Armed and Dangerous blog defines the problem succinctly:

“When I look at the pattern of failures, I am reminded of something I learned from software engineering: planning fails when the complexity of the problem exceeds the capacity of the planners to reason about it. And the complexity of real-world planning problems almost never rises linearly; it tends to go up at least quadratically in the number of independent variables or problem elements.

I think the complexifying financial and political environment of the last few decades has simply outstripped the capacity of our educated classes, our cognitive elite, to cope with it. The wizards in our financial system couldn’t reason effectively about derivatives risk and oversimplified their way into meltdown; regulators failed to foresee the consequences of requiring a quota of mortgage loans to insolvent minority customers; and politico-military strategists weaned on the relative simplicity of confronting nation-state adversaries thrashed pitifully when required to game against fuzzy coalitions of state and non-state actors.”

There are few things in the world more complex than the  web of Islamic extremist organizations currently at war with the governments and peoples of the west.   One of those things  that is more complex is the situation we now face in Afghanistan.   We are supporting Afghan government officials who may or may not be more of a problem then the Taliban, we are trying to engage the population based on tribal affiliations which are not always clear or relevant, and we are identifying, targeting and killing “commanders” who have proven to be easily replaced.   William McCallister, in an interview by Stephen Pressfield does the best job of defining the complexities of the Afghan human terrain:

“Tribal identities exist in Afghanistan, but local communities and interest groups may not necessarily organize themselves based on these identities. Individuals tend to define themselves in terms of a group identity. A qawm, or solidarity group, is a collection of people that act as a single unit, which  is organized on the basis of some shared identity, system of values, beliefs and or interests. It can describe a family group or reflect a geographical area. It can specify a group of people united by a common political or military goal under one jang salar or martial leader. Members of a village; the inhabitants of a valley; a warlord and his retainers; a strongman and his followers; a bandit and his forty thieves, or the local chapter of the Taliban are all aqwam (plural).”

Lash the protector dog; fast, smart, mean as a snake and like most Afghan dogs friendly only to us foriegners.  He is pretty big now but still less then a year old and already the king of the compound.
More Harden : Lash the protector dog: fast, smart, mean as a snake, and like most Afghan dogs, friendly only to foreigners. He is less then a year old, and already the king of the compound. We have decentralized an important part of the compound defense plan - the running fast as a horse and biting the shit out of you part - to Lash

Afghanistan is a complex place where the situation on the ground can range from actively hostile to completely benign depending on the district, valley, town our isolated village.   An intelligence system designed to collect against a peer level threat with its associated defense, intelligence and political structures is not the optimal organization to employ in the counterinsurgency environment.   Add to that system layers and layers of additional bureaucracy and the results are a system designed to fail.   This comment from FRI regular E2 paints a bleak picture for the intelligence specialists assigned to the FOB’s.

“I read MG Flynn’s paper as well, and while he makes some excellent points, he failed to mention that part of the reason our intelligence sucks is that all our collectors are mostly stuck on the FOB.   That’s why we’ve become so hooked on technical intelligence. The kind of relevant intelligence that Flynn yearns for comes from meaningful interaction with the populace, period.   In my experience with Afghans, especially Pashtuns, if you suddenly roll up into their village with your MRAPs, Star Ship Trooper suits, and “foreign” interpreters (even if your terp is from Afghanistan, if he’s not from the neighborhood, he’s “foreign”), they will tell you two things: jack and sh*t.   We are reminded constantly that Afghanistan is a country broken by decades of war; no one trusts one another.   But trust is only obtained by building meaningful relationships with people, and our current force protection policies make the process of building rapport impossible.   As I sit here at my desk, on an unnamed FOB in Regional Command East, I would dearly love to grab a few of my soldiers and head out to the local market to see what’s going on in town today.   Perhaps I could report back to my leadership that local farmers are concerned about a drought next year because of the light snowfall this winter, or that the mullah down the street is preaching anti-coalition/government propaganda.   I’d get this information from shop keepers and kids that I’ve built a relationship with over the past few months.   But I cannot just walk off the FOB because that would be the end of my career. Instead, I’m going to check out, call a couple guys I know like Tim, and continue to be disgruntled that I have NO idea what’s going on outside my FOB.”

Now here is the thing – as poor an effort as we seem to be making there are more then a few places where district level governance is developing into an effective effort.   I am almost certain that back in late 1986 the Soviets had won the Afghan War.   They were already committed to pulling out by then and nobody was really assessing the situation on the ground with an eye towards staying.   But as often happens in a counterinsurgency war, they had won, but did not know it.   I mention that only because it is impossible to say with certainty just how good or how bad we are doing in Helmand or Kunar or Paktia.   The only meaningful measurements are found at the district level which means sustained engagement.   If we can get off the FOB’s and do that….who knows?   I bet that when the tipping point comes we will not see it.   If ISAF can adapt by decentralizing their forces off the FOB’s and hardening in every district center it will change the trajectory of this war.

5 Replies to “Adapt, Decentralize, and Harden.”

  1. Hi Tim, very interesting post this week, how is life mate? all ok I hope. Are you back in J/Bad?

  2. No body armor, no helmet, no rifle, and certainly no sunglasses is how a senior leader demonstrates calm, trust in his men, and physical courage in this environment.

    Now how are the Force Protection people going to enforce all their rules if the General acts like that?

    What is the General going to tell John Kerry at the Senate hearing about the casualties his troops took?

    Will COMISAF stick up for him. CENTCOM?

    The troops in Afghanistan do not have the political backing at home to shed their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle suits or drive out the gate in unarmored vehicles. Somebody might get hurt!

  3. A couple of points. Can COIN be just as simple as saying “what would I need, if I was this person living in this village?”. Or “How would I view persons coming to my village, whom I had never met before, if they showed up looking like we do?” Because there are small towns in the U.S. who would probably have the same reaction that many of the villages have, when we go to pay them a visit and make promises.

    The other thing that is interesting is that the guys who are unfortunately trapped on the FOBs, because of some politically fueled reasoning, are going to contractors like Tim for ‘the info'(Dr. Evil voice) Tim is the guy who is better suited at swimming through the sea of Afghanistan’s population. One of those evil contractors that everyone and their mother hates, is the one guy that the military is having to turn to. Why? Because Tim can pretty much do whatever he wants to accomplish his goal–and that is to give good customer service to whomever requires his services. Better yet, if Tim sucks at what he does, then he does not make the money necessary to stay afloat in Afghanistan.

    So in this case, private industry is way more nimble and way more adaptive to the environment in Afghanistan, than the military. And because Tim is a small business owner, he is even able to trump the bigger contracting companies in terms of being able to adapt. Plus, Tim’s company has no where near the negative reputation of let’s say a Blackwater, and thus clients are more apt to use his services. Small businessmen/security contractors, offer an advantage in this environment.

    Although I am sure it is not easy, and Tim can probably talk about the other side. But really, when Generals and officers are having to contact Tim about what is going on, or really smart folks from MIT are using Tim’s services to get around in Afghanistan, there needs to be some recognition about how flippen cool and functional that really is.

    Finally, I want to talk about dogs. I have done the same thing in Iraq with dogs and camps. You raise some local dog from puppy to adult, and keep the thing in your camp the whole time, then you have basically raised a four legged alarm system. True that they bark at cats, but they also bark at humans, and most dogs freak out if there is a human that is on the facility that they do not recognize. Plus dogs help to relieve stress on the compound and help make the days go by. For that reason, I think RAND or some think tanker should study how to turn local dogs into effective camp dogs that could help in the security of a facility. Good stuff Tim.

  4. We’re sending over some really solid individuals who can offer the services they want –medical, dental, education, agriculture, and I think these guys should be in the villages living amongst the locals.
    And then we’re locking them up on the FOB’s. How much of this is really going to change before 2011?

  5. I believe you, It looks like! May it become possible that will have yuor web blog translated in Chinese? English is actually my own 2nd language.

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