COIN symposium recap 4.5 and more Afghan news…

I wanted to expand on a couple of issues that were either touched upon in the comments thus far in the symposium summaries or were the results of some sparked memories.

First, regarding the concept of ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, many speakers kept reiterating that the bar for good governance, stability and security is pretty low there.  We shouldn’t get wrapped up in thinking Afghanistan needs to meet Western standards for the effort to be considered a success.

The idea was advanced that the center of gravity in COIN isn’t among the Afghan population but rather the American one.  If that’s the case, there’s some bad news in the most recent Economist polling.

Would you say the U.S. is winning the war in Afghanistan?
Yes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17%
No . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47%
Not sure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36%

The respondents seem to be of the same opinion as the attendees of the conference.  We’ll be in Afghanistan for awhile:

At the end of 2012, do you think the United States will have more or fewer troops in Afghanistan than it has now?
More troops in Afghanistan than it has now . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23%
About the same number of troops in Afghanistan as it has now . . . . . . . . . . . 50%
Fewer troops in Afghanistan than it has now . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28%

With a very pessimistic view of the outcome

What do you think will eventually happen in Afghanistan?
The United States will win the war in Afghanistan. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .31%
The United States will withdraw from Afghanistan without winning. . . . . . . . 69%

And the government has not done a good job of explaining the strategy (or, if you have a less charitable view, it’s done a very good job of demonstrating it doesn’t have a strategy):

Do you think Barack Obama has a clear plan for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan?
Yes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22%
No . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .53%
Not sure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25%

Wherever the center of gravity may be, this isn’t good news.

Last week I wrote about the attack on Bagram and spent a little time on the hundreds of day laborers who came on base to do a variety of tasks.  There certainly was always the risk that some of those laborers might conduct intelligence collection while there.  It is worth noting that there was also some strong motivators to encourage the opposite behavior.  (Again, my comments here reflect my observations in 2003/2004.  How things may or may not have changed in the interim I can’t say.)

Jobs on the base were generally handed out to local commanders or tribal leaders who would then hand them out to individuals.  On the few occasions when we had problems with local workers serious enough to get them fired (usually from locals getting argumentative with soldiers or trying to get overly friendly with female soldiers) this would reflect upon the local commander.  As commanders were also involved with contracting and providing jobs for other people in their communities they usually made it clear that they would not tolerate nonsense from their people.

Jobs were also highly sought after among locals.  Unskilled labor was paid about $5 a day which is slave labor in most of the world but for many actually was a significant increase in income.  I know a significantly higher salary might have had a disruptive influence in the area but there is something disconcerting about watching people work like dogs all day an know they’re getting paid the equivalent of a modest fast food meal.  Laborers rarely did anything to jeopardize their prospects of continued employment.  I heard about a few who attempted to smuggle trash out of the base (usually discarded porn from my understanding) but nothing serious.

I’d also not underestimate the goodwill that we had in those days.  In the area surrounding Bagram, my experience was there was a great deal of relief and hope that fighting was finally over.  I can remember one laborer, part of a group clearing out an area that a unit had recently departed, had found a stack of official documents (I can’t remember now if they were FOUO or something a bit sensitive but they weren’t something that should have been left around in any case).  He could have thrown them in the trash but instead he brought them to the soldier performing escort duty and eventually worked their way over to me.  By the time they made it that far the poor guy was afraid he was going to get fired.

(As an aside, I occasionally helped out in interviewing potential laborers on base.  We had to ask all sorts of ridiculous questions like ‘Do you know where bin Laden is?’ and ‘How did you feel about 9/11?’  At one interview I asked one guy ‘What’s your opinion about the constitution?’  He looked at me and said (through an interpreter) ‘Look, I’ll believe whatever you want.  If I don’t get this job I’ll have to decide between feeding my family this winter or buying fuel.  I won’t be able to make enough to do both.’    That kind of thing really helps you put your issues into perspective.)

We’ve gotten much better (even if we aren’t perfect) at treating our returning veterans.  Sweden still has some ways to go.  While their contributions to peacekeeping missions and the mission in Afghanistan are relatively small in terms of personnel, they do engage in many such missions and so you’d think they’d be have this sort of thing well in hand by now.

Four Swedish soldiers seriously injured in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan are facing a new battle on the home front: the Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) is refusing to pay them benefits for their first two weeks back in Sweden since they neglected to register as unemployed.

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One response to “COIN symposium recap 4.5 and more Afghan news…

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

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