COIN Symposium recap part 8 (The final Chapter)

I’m going to combine two of the last speakers at the symposium because their central positions were so opposed.  The first was Maj. Jim Gant who has achieved a bit of fame through writing ‘One Tribe at a Time‘ which seemed to have been read by a much larger portion of the audience than read the counterinsurgency field manual and his passion for his subject was undeniable.

In short, he argued that our current COIN strategy was failing for four reasons:

  1. It focuses on building up a central government which is corrupt
  2. There are not enough security forces (foreign and Afghan) to properly do counterinsurgency
  3. The Afghan population traditionally distrusts the central government
  4. The U.S. military lacks cultural knowledge of the Pashtun people

I can’t remember if Gant explicitly made the point or not but he clearly felt that success in Afghanistan depended primarily on a focus on the Pashtuns.  I don’t recall him spending more than a breath on any other ethnic group in Afghanistan (and if I remember correctly, non-Pashtuns make up over 50% of all Afghans) or talk about the potential consequences of a ‘Pashtun focused’ approach.

Given the inevitable withdrawal of coalition forces there will be a conflict between the central government, Pashtuns and other ethnic minorities.

Tribal engagement is the only way to get al-Qaeda out of the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan and dry up support for the Taliban.

But…we’ve got to be careful which Pashtuns we listen to.  Many of our Afghan ‘advisers’ and expats are Pashtuns in name only (PINOs?).

War in Afghanistan is all about personal relationships.  Therefore, we need to deploy and embed more troops with the Pashtuns.  Closer cooperation is the key.

Resistance to tribal engagement focuses around where Afghan power should reside, with the central government or the tribes.  Gant clearly favored the tribes and, it seemed to me, held even the idea of supporting the central government with contempt.  I’m putting words in his mouth but his position seemed to be one of “I have no intention of encouraging the Pashtun tribes to work with the central government until they can demonstrate their legitimacy and competence at governance.’

Gant also was arguing that the Pashtuns work on a hierarchical tribal structure and seemed to imply that if you developed a good working relationship the the ‘main guy’ it would be possible to get a force of 500,000 armed Pashtuns to support our cause.  Allow me to say that Gant has forgotten more about Afghanistan and the Pashtuns than I’ll ever know but this just doesn’t jive with my extremely limited knowledge of the subject.  And even if he was right, do we really want representatives of the U.S. government (Gant, et. al.) explicitly telling these tribesmen to tell the central government to go pound sand when official U.S. policy is to develop the central government?

And all of that brings us to…

Col. Felter of the COIN Advisory and Assistance Team.  The team is charged with studying how COIN is ‘operationalized’ (is that a word?) and what’s being observed on the ground without going through filters of reporting chains.

Col. Felter was all about partnering with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) but cautioned that it was a method and not a mission by itself.  Unfortunately, we are falling short in many areas.  Right now, partnering mostly takes place among combat forces and then mostly in the execution phase of the operation.  We need to expand partnering operations into support functions since we’re looking to a day when we can hand the fight over to the Afghans and they need to know how to do support just as much as kenetic ops.  Also, we need to bring Afghan partners in during the planning and rehearsal parts of operations.  Someone brought up here that part of the problem is that some (Afghan) commanders don’t actually trust their soldiers and so don’t want them to know the details about upcoming operations until the last minute.  Not a good way to run a war.

Another commenter mentioned that it’s not clear if the upper levels of ISAF command are practicing what they preach.  Are senior leaders partnering with senior Afghan security forces?  The question seemed rhetorical with a big ‘No’ hanging in the air.

Partnering with ANSF provides both with enhanced capabilities.

Benefits to ISAF:

  • situational awareness
  • cultural awareness
  • information engagement

Benefits to ANSF:

  • Intelligence
  • Training
  • Targeting
  • Ethos
  • Strong NCO corps

Col. Felter was explicit in stating that success would come through supporting and helping the central government build strong institutions, capabilities and rule of law.  So, during question time I asked about this apparent contradiction between Grant’s ‘screw the central government’ approach and Felter’s ‘the central government is essential’ approach.  Doesn’t this undermine our whole ‘unity of effort’ talk we’d been hearing for the past three days?

‘No’ I was told.  ‘The two efforts are complementary.’  That did not compute at all with the two presentations I heard.  I didn’t see much room for coexistence or cooperation there.  I suspect I hit upon a sensitive subject though as three additional people jumped in to explain to me why it wasn’t a contradiction.  The argument focused on two points:

  1. People just freak out when they hear the word ‘tribe’ used and so the idea of ‘tribal engagement’ gets bad PR.
  2. We’re already working with tribes and it doesn’t inherently undermine the central government

To which I say, ‘That’s fine but that wasn’t my point.’  First, the word ‘tribe’ doesn’t freak me out.  I don’t care what you call them.  Second, I have no problem with an outreach to tribes in an attempt to win them over.  In that regard, people seemed to be defending a different concept than the one I heard proposed by Maj. Gant.  My concern was we had one portion of the ISAF effort openly hostile to the central government and claiming to encourage tribes to not cooperate with it (at least for the present) while another portion of ISAF was committed to building up the central government.

I got more ‘It’s complementary.’ chanting but no one could explain to me how those positions could work with each other.  I suspect there might have been some sort of subtext gong on there I wasn’t privy to because it seemed pretty obvious to me and these were really smart people.  I later heard that there is some controversy over this position in some circles and among the blogosphere but it may have just been bad form to push like that in this venue.  My apologies if I offended…

And that, ladies and gentlemen, concludes my summary of the 2010 Spring COIN Symposium.  I hope I’ve given you some good stuff to chew over.

Over the past two weeks, there have been a lot of newcomers here (thanks to Tom Ricks, Andrew Sullivan, Greg Grant and anyone else I might have missed for the links).  Hopefully you’ll find some other stuff worth your time and I’d recommend trolling through the archives (there’s gold in them thar hills!).  Comments, suggestions, and requests are always welcome.


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