The symposium kicked off with an overview of Afghanistan by Lester Grau, whose work I’ve always enjoyed. As this was generally stage setting lecture to provide attendees a baseline contextual reference on which to hang the following presentations. Here are my notes, with my thoughts in italics:
Pre-1979 Afghanistan was one of the most liberal Islamic nations and religious leaders did not have a tradition of weilding political power. Politically, the nation has usually been a confederation held together by a weak central government.
Low literacy rates among Afghans mean that information processing occurs different than in highly literate societies. Information is retained via the oral tradition and poetry. Very interesting point and one I’m kicking myself for not explicitly realizing earlier. How this may manifest and what specific implications this might have for information operations and messaging is unclear. Both Mr. Grau and a later speaker recounted stories about how some Afghans are able to talk about their wars against the British and even Alexander the Great (?!) as if they happened yesterday. When Mr. Grau was talking about this I couldn’t help thinking about the oral tradition in ancient socieites. Maybe, instead of leaflets, radio broadcasts and TV we need some wandering storytellers and poets in the tradition of Homer.
Good warriors do NOT equal good soldiers. The Afghans are the former but don’t have a tradition of being the latter. I mention this only because I have never cared for the trend in the U.S. Army today to refer to us are warriors. Warriors lack discipline and good order. They are the mob of Gauls while the the Romans who defeated them at Alesia and everywhere else were the soldiers.
Soviet force protection thoughts:
- 300 meters is about the maximum effective range of an AK-47 and RPG in the hands of insurgents. Therefore:
- disperse mines widely
- defoliate and bulldoze everything within 300 meters of road networks and bases (and given the poor infrastructure of Afghanistan, that means a lot of farms and villages – not really the best way to win the love of the locals)
The Soviets lacked the necessary number of people to succeed in Afghanistan and so made up for the shortfall with the generous use of landmines.
“Nothing is as mobile as a Soviet anti-personnel minefield in the Afghan mountains.” Best quote of the day. Weather and terrain means a minefield put in place in 1985 might be in a very different place in 2010.
What the Soviets did right in Afghanistan:
- Extensive mountain combat training for all troops
- Developed good ambush tactics
- Good use of agents and informants
- Very good withdrawal operations (the withdrawal from Afghanistan was professionally done and should be regarded as one of the 3 best operations of the war)
- Build a large support base among the Afghans by send large numbers to the USSR for professional training
What the Soviets did wrong in Afghanistan:
- Too reliant on airpower and technology
- Conscript NCO corps – officers had too much to do
- Bulk of force was focused on security operations instead of contesting control of villages/districts
- Sporadic ‘hearts and minds’ campaign
- Conducted Soviet appropriate training instead of Afghan appropriate training
KGB/GRU advisers had 2 years of language training and education on history, culture, customs, etc. We just haven’t had an effort like that until recently and then not down to the level that the KGB/GRU and not to the same extent in terms of numbers (and no, I’m not saying our forces are the same as the KGB/GRU but we haven’t invested a lot of time into the preparation of forces or invested in continuity of effort by trying to get people to stay in place longer than the standard tour in any numbers). The fact that we’re 9 years into this thing and still acting like we can wrap it up in a year or two is preventing us from adopting policies/strategies that may only have payoffs over an extended time horizon.
What needs to be done?
- A national census and ID system
- Deny internal sanctuaries – more mountain operations
- Curb close air support – We’re creating opposition thru airpower
- Give Afghan forces the lead in operations
- We need to work within the context of their culture – not ours
The Taliban isn’t our main problem – bad governance is.
He also made two points that were either little discussed or counter-intuitive:
- The loss rate of supplies coming through Pakistan is approximately 30%. I knew it was high and had read reports of occasional raids but I had no idea it was routinely this high. One third of supplies are being lost through destruction/theft? Maybe the insurgents don’t need to sell heroin if they can convert even a portion of that 30% into cash.
- We most definitely do NOT own the night. Just because we have night vision goggles doesn’t mean that much. We’re not generally active at night and initiative goes to those who move at night.