COIN Symposium recap part 2

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Grau’s slides are available here.  h/t Armchair Generalist.

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9 responses to “COIN Symposium recap part 2

  1. “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.”

    Isn’t there some saying about how we didn’t fight a 12-year war in Vietnam, we fought 12 one-year wars? Cue “those who fail to remember the past…” etc etc. Oh except for all those arguments that Afghanistan isn’t the modern Vietnam. I grow less confident of that claim every year.

    • Jason,

      First of all, Vietnam was lost by the politicians, not by the US military, so I implore with you to get your facts straight. Secondly, for much of the “9 years”, allied troops in Afghanistan were predominately peace keeping forces than an actual counter-insergency war-fighting machine that’s only been a recent development. If segments of the Afghan population have shifted allegiance to the Taliban, it has more to do with the reigning chaos on the land than any ideological empathy with the Pakistani sponsored movement, which was created to dominate Afghanistan by way of proxy.

      With all due respect, each time I see someone irresponsible overtures for a desired withdrawl of allied troops, I see nothing more than a shameless advocacy for the imminent genocide of the Afghan people. I’m not in a position to discuss military strategy, but I will say this…any strategy MUST escalate the training of Afghan armed forces to a level whereby they pose a potential threat to their regional enemies, not anything to the contrary. Moreover, the army MUST reflect Afghanistan’s plural society, but especially so the Pashtun populations who rightfully view themselves as the traditional vanguards of the land. The Pakistanis realized this by ditching their old Islamist Afghan proxies like Ahmed Shah Massoud and Rabbani, by backing instead their own favourite Pashtuns, hence the successes that followed. The allies must look to better empower the Pashtuns in the military, albeit not without reasonable balance with the other groups.

      Be that as it may, Afghanistan needs a long-term commitment from her allies to defend hersef against her meddling neighbors.

  2. Dr. Mason Michael Norman

    Please tell us how this is suppose to end?
    I am also waiting for hell to freeze over, so take your time in answering.

    When do we learn to turn this into a non-war and confront the realities of the region?

    You make interesting points in your blog and I will definitely follow your thinking from the next few months to years.

    • Dr Mason,

      I am surprised you can convince yourself that a final chapter can be written first, with all the preceding pages conveniently directed towards it as willfully planned. If we were writing a fable, then your point would be well taken, but we’re not. For the adults among us, the war in Afghanistan is a work in progress, as the situation falls in the realm of the non-fiction. Given that the good intellectuals of the United States largely ignored Afghanistan and the region therein for years, with the only respite afforded from the thin workings of Barnette Rubin and the like, the factual information we need to complete the non-fiction rests with the breave men on the ground. They’ll need to usnerstand Afghanistan first – without your impatient proddings – and THEY’LL work out how to bring the war to it’s effective conclusion.

      With all due respect, you sound like the poster-boy from the age of cable-TV, when everything has to end fast, just like in the movies!

      • Dr. Michael Mason Norman

        Afghanistan is not the sole, isolated situation for America to engage today. Unfortunately, most Americans cannot show you where Afghanistan is located on a map. Nevertheless, your comments shed much about your understanding in to the depth and breadth of American thinking. Yours truly and many others do not watch tv, especially the likes of cable-tv. I prefer to read history, science, political, etc., books and articles from around the world.

        My early education was nurtured by facts played out before my eyes, as I grew up during Viet Nam and lost several friends over there and later, who didn’t jump at the chance to die for their country. Personally, I don’t see present day Afghanistan as a game on the order in which former empires moved people and borders–U.S., Britain, France, Russia and others enjoyed that folly of supersized egos. It is truly important to remember that the current setting for conflict impacts more than Afghans. Consequently, the present situation is part of continuing process, which may never find a conclusion in our lifetimes. Some parts of the world will never know uninhibited peace. What becomes of our role in Afghanistan remains to be realized.

        In another space, I have talked with many U.S. Marines and Army soldiers upon their return from “over there.” Their stories are quite real, factual and first hand. I pay very close attention to the words, thoughts and impressions of people dodging bullets and IED’s. Policy and conference papers too often skip over the far more descriptive details of war.

        We now own Afghanistan, whether we like it or not. The only buyers are the Afghan people themselves.

        As for my own educational process, I have studied a lot about China over the course of the past 50 years, including a very instructive trip. China along with India are growing players in the world, which we cannot afford to ignore, as they will not let us ignore their claim of our attention. Thank you for your reply. Shiloh makes a great follow-up to Charlie.

  3. Pingback: Fighting on the float – Rethink Afghanistan War Blog

  4. Ralph Hitchens

    Barekzai, no serious military historian believes that the politicians “lost” the Vietnam War. The military had fairly broad latitude (especially under Nixon) and achieved a favorable standoff by late 1972, with the repulse of the Easter Offensive. Soon afterward public and Congressional support evaporated thanks to Watergate.

    Lester Grau’s presentation looks very good, and in particular I second his comments about the smooth handling of the withdrawal. I would say, however, that the Soviets’ “hearts and minds” campaign did not even rise to the “sporadic” level, and their extensive mining thoroughly disrupted rural life all over Afghanistan.

  5. You’ve done it once more! Incredible article!

  6. Pingback: Things I’m reading ed. 100531 « The Hermitage 3.0 (Beta)

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