COIN Symposium recap part 7

When I first joined the military I (very) briefly considered the Marine Corps.  I quickly realized that those guys would eat me for lunch however and decided to go with the relatively more laid back Army.  I have to admit I felt a pang of regret while listening to LTC Cabaniss.  This guy was impressive and I wouldn’t mind serving under him at all.  Still, he didn’t fool me.  The marines are still nuts and my comments are still in italics.  His slides are here.

Before I get into the substance of his presentation, allow me to recap his summary of the differences between the Army and the Marines.

The Marines:  Ready, FIRE, aim!

The Army:  Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim….(maybe) FIRE!

Ok, enough jocularly.

General comments:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of myth in our (American) society
  • We are a results oriented society

This was to establish some ground rules and implicitly propose that we are bound by our culture in our options.

Notes for future commanders:

  • Don’t expect much from your intelligence section early
  • UAVs are great but have serious limitations.  Yes, you might see a guy with an AK-47 but the best optics in the world aren’t going to be able to tell your what’s going on between his ears.  Great point.  The recent story about the video of a journalist being killed by attack helicopters because they interpreted what was coming across their screens as the actions of insurgents is a case in point.  The context with which you view information may predispose you to an interpretation of that data which has no bearing upon reality.  Don’t get seduced by the shiny new toy, no matter what the vendor says it can do.
  • Commander’s intent needs to be established early and the commander must take that message down to the most junior levels.  If the first time you’re talking to the troops about COIN is when you’re walking off the C-130, it’s way too late.
  • COIN must be integrated throughout all aspects of soldier training instead of the current method of tacking on a seperate class.  Our current amount of training just isn’t sufficient.
  • Prepare your unit for casualties.
  • Foster critical decision making skills in your junior leaders.
  • Cross train and build depth in personnel.
  • “Don’t let fighting get in the way of winning.” (My nominee for best quote of the week.)

Observations from Garmsir district in Helmand Province during Summer/Fall of 2009

  • You could definitely tell when trained fighters moved into the area.  The capabilities of insurgents improved markedly (radio communications, tactics, execution of ops, etc).  Local insurgents were of much lower quality.
  • The critical enabler of the tour was the ability to build and hold relationships.  If your aren’t going to Afghanistan to partner with Afghans, don’t bother going.  If you can’t build relationships, don’t go.
  • ‘This is a 3mph war.’  In other words, this is a war that needs to be fought on foot and not exclusively from heavily armored vehicles. If your troops are walking they’ll see every IED out there in plenty of time.  Just because you have a vehicle doesn’t mean you should use it.  This line of reasoning is very complementary to Maj. Jones who was also a combatant commander.  Pick what resources you want to use on every operation rather than throwing every resource you have at every mission.
  • Heavy weapons in rough terrain. If your men have them, they’ll use them.  If for no other reason than they don’t want to have to lug the damn things all over the countryside just to bring them back to base.  “Rockets only go one way.”
  • Daily interactions with Afghans set conditions for success
  • The population uses your reaction to the operational environment as a gauge of what’s going on
  • ‘Everything you do is messaging.’  If you tell everyone you’ve secured an area and then only enter that area in uparmored vehicles, and dismount in full, intimidating form (sun glasses, body armor, weapons at the ready, etc.) what message are they getting?
  • U.S. forces have a pattern of continuously upgrading the quality of life for soldiers past their real requirements.  He was quite clear about this.  Having the ability to email family members does NOT do anything to help them accomplish their mission.  I’m a bit torn about this.  The instant communication can be very nice but it also can be very distracting.  When I was in Germany in the late ’80s family members had to handle whatever came up when soldiers went out on field exercises (usually no more than 2 or 3 hours away by car) as they were unreachable for the 2-6 weeks they’d be in the field.  In Afghanistan I saw soldiers trying to negotiate their way through child care, home improvement and other domestic problems from half a world away because of instantaneous communications.  That can’t be anything but highly distracting.

P.S. The Counterinsurgency Center has their official summary and wrap up the conference.  Pretty nice opportunity to examine my personal biases by seeing what I emphasized or left out.


2 responses to “COIN Symposium recap part 7

  1. The USMC brief was interesting, but I’d like to know if he addressed (or might address in the future) the inability of the Afghani govt/security forces to hold Helmund after USMC/USA troops leave the area. It doesn’t sound good for Marja and I’m not holding out hope for Khandahar. So what good is all this “lessons learned” at the tactical level if it doesn’t hold at the operational level?

    • Those were my thoughts exactly in light of news this past week. I do however think Afghanistan is different than Iraq and calls for the Afghans to ‘do more’ miss the fact that there isn’t really much of a center to build upon. Iraq had much more of a state (and tradition of central authority) to work with and so pushing Afghans to do more might be premature.

      I suspect an answer to your question might be (and I’m totally guessing here) ‘Hey, we’ve never claimed this could be done quickly. There are inherent contradictions with saying on the one hand ‘We want a population centric COIN strategy AND we want to get out of there in 18 months.’ One of those two things will have to give. If building a stable Afghanistan is in the national interest than be prepared for a long struggle, if not, let’s drop the pretense and get out.’ My guess is that the U.S. is going to have difficulty ignoring the sunk costs of Afghanistan and stay beyond 2012.

      I just don’t see a politician being able to survive in 2012 on a policy too easily mischaracterized as ‘cowardice’ or ‘cutting and running’. If someone is going to run on that platform, they need to start laying the groundwork for that NOW and I don’t see that happening either.

      We got suckered in by our own rhetoric way back in 2002 and keep thinking with just a bit more effort we can ‘win’ this thing and get out. Like you said earlier…We haven’t fought a nine year war, we’ve fought nine one-year wars. Both this administration and the last should (again, assuming they decided that we need a stable, friendly Afghanistan) have stepped up and said: ‘Look. Put away your calendars and start thinking of this being a generational effort (or multi-generational).’

      Unfortunately, we keep getting sold ‘something for nothing’.

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