Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Finnish Fridays

You really don’t see journalism like this in the American press…Can you imagine a major news outlet describing an uncomfortable aspect of American history this way?

…the Continuation War of 1941-44 is like oral herpes, which stubbornly appears as cold sores on the lip, however much one smothers it with magical antiviral creams and ointments.

Or this article describing Finnish soldiers in Afghanistan:

One dead Finnish serviceman would lead to national mourning and calls for the withdrawal of our ISAF troops. If five were to die, there is a chance the calls would be heard.

This just seems a bit weird.

The armoured vehicle convoy sets off at 7 a.m. Slowly, very slowly.  After only a couple of hundred metres the vehicle comes to a halt. The soldiers step out and begin looking for roadside bombs.  None are found.  Back in the APC, another one hundred metres. Another stop. The men dismount again.

The rate of progress is approximately two kilometres an hour.

If you’re going to go that slow anyway, why not just walk?  It’s not like you’re going to be safer climbing in and out of an APC every couple of hundred meters.

Those Finns might be tough but they’ve gotta do something about getting the appropriate soundtrack to their patrols:

The vehicle’s stereo blasts out the theme tune from the ’80s American TV-series Knight Rider.  And then Stayin’ Alive by the BeeGees, from Saturday Night Fever.

I mean…W…T…F???


Kvick Tänkare

Harper’s has a really interesting interview with an author of a new book on neoconservatism.  I usually wouldn’t consider a book like this, expecting a typical MSNBC screed but it does appear to have some promise.  Unfortunately, the term ‘neo-con’ has sort of become a catch phrase and I don’t think people understand the deeper philosophical tenets that underpin it.  The interview does a pretty nice job of hitting some high points.

War–perpetual war–is the ultimate means by which the neocons can fight creeping nihilism and promote sacrifice and nationalistic patriotism. An aggressive, proactive foreign policy therefore serves a greater purpose–to raise ordinary Americans above their daily, selfish concerns.

Shirky’s perspective on the Wikileaks issue is worth reading:

If the long haul were all there was, Wikileaks would be an obviously bad thing. The practical history of politics, however, suggests that the periodic appearance of such unconstrained actors in the short haul is essential to increased democratization, not just of politics but of thought.

We celebrate the printers of 16th century Amsterdam for making it impossible for the Catholic Church to constrain the output of the printing press to Church-approved books a challenge that helped usher in, among other things, the decentralization of scientific inquiry and the spread of politically seditious writings advocating democracy.

I find the comparison to attempts by the Church to restrict information interesting (and don’t forget that religion was a much more serious affair for people than it is now.  You could get tortured and burned at the stake for trying to translate it into English.)

I’m glad to see ‘Get your War On’ is back and J. uses it to highlight the fact that a recent poll identified that 92% of men in Helmand or Kandahar don’t know that 9/11 is the reason for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.  I can’t speak to that.  I would say that in the area around Bagram in 2003/2004 those numbers would have been much, much lower.  Of course we had a lot more Tajiks in the area who had affiliations with or membership in the Northern Alliance and so 9/11 was a bit of a godsend to them since it meant American help was coming.

Tom Ricks posted an article by a Marine who’s pretty upset, doesn’t buy the idea that we’re really an all-volunteer force, thinks we’re dangerously setting up the military as a supra-elite portion of our society and would like to see a return of national service.  It’s a raw, emotional argument that I agree with in principle but not in degree.  I really recommend it for its comment section which is quite robust and, in my opinion, contains a better discussion than the original post.


Kandahar and the Taliban

New America Foundation just published a paper titled ‘The Battle for Afghanistan” that’s worth a read.  There’s not really anything earth-shattering here but it is a very nice summary of the evolution of the Taliban post 2001.  Of course, no history could be complete without a review of our screw ups.

Just as Kandahar was falling, fissures appeared in the Taliban movement. As most of the government was crumbling…some of Mullah Omar’s chief
lieutenants secretly gathered and decided to surrender to the forces of Hamid Karzai.

The main request of the Taliban officials in this group was to be given immunity from arrest in exchange for agreeing to abstain from political life.  At this juncture, these leading Taliban members (as well as the rank and file) did not appear to view the government and its foreign backers as necessitating a 1980s-type jihad. Some members even saw the new government as Islamic and legitimate.

The wind up…the swing….

But Karzai and other government officials ignored the overtures—largely due to pressures from the United States and the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s erstwhile enemy.

Remember, this is about the same time period as the Battle of Tora Bora in which we lost our best chance in the past 10 years to catch bin Laden and allowed significant numbers of foreign fighters to escape to Pakistan.

And if you want an example as to why we needed COIN and what the consequences are of a heavy handed ‘let’s just stick more bayonets in more people’ approach to insurgencies, take a gander at this…

Not what you'd call population-centric

I just gave a briefing to 75 soldiers last night orienting them to the foundations of COIN and tactical guidance as part of their pre-mobilization process.  It’s amazing as you read this document how virtually every underlying principle of COIN was violated in ways big and small.  When I started reading through it I was planning on highlighting those but there are simply too many examples to quote.

It is disappointing to continue to hear that we can’t get our ‘unity of effort’ shit together.  You could see the idea of simultaneously playing up official security forces and local government (to build credibility among the population in the host nation government) AND working with militia forces and governing structures outside of the official political structure (to get stuff done because the local government wasn’t up to the task) was counterproductive way back at least in 2003.  Doing the same thing seven years later doesn’t make it any better.

I don’t think there’s anything inherent in COIN (or common sense) that would preclude us from supporting a central government OR some organic/indigenous/decentralized system but doing both really ain’t gettin’ us very far.  I’m certainly no expert in the field, know that that vast number of Afghans are opposed and have no idea how you’d actually do it but I’m still not sure why the decentralized road isn’t a viable alternative.  I’ve off offhandedly suggested before (with the casualness of an amateur) that you could even split up the country.  Maybe that’s too extreme (it certainly tears apart the idea of self-determination of the Afghans) but my point is (Yes?  We’re waiting.  eds.) we need to pick an option already.

Afghan Roundup

Last week was not a good week in Afghanistan…

First, the ‘high ranking’ Taliban member that had been negotiating with Karzai?  Yeah, not so much.

They now believe he was nothing more than a shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Let the ass covering begin!
American officials say they were skeptical from the start about the identity of the man who claimed to be Mullah Mansour — who by some accounts is the second-ranking official in the Taliban, behind only the founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Interesting to note how Fox news titled the story:  ‘Team Obama Duped by Taliban Impostor‘  Reading that blurb, I’m not sure you’d even know there were any U.S. military personnel involved.  Certainly not Gen. Petraeus.
Senior American officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, said the talks indicated that Taliban leaders, whose rank-and-file fighters are under extraordinary pressure from the American-led offensive, were at least willing to discuss an end to the war.
One wonders how they’d title a victory in Afghanistan (or anywhere else) without giving Obama credit.  Look guys, if you’re going to claim Pertaeus ‘saved’ Iraq then he’s got to take the hits too (No, they don’t.  eds.).  Really, how do these guys merit press credentials?
There was a bit of a dust up about the decision to send some tanks to Afghanistan.  There’s some back and forth about how we’ll finally be able to kick some ass or that it’s counterproductive to COIN but I think they aren’t that big a deal since there’s only going to be 16 of them.
It also assumes that Afghans see a significant difference between a tank and our other armored vehicles, which I doubt (and I mean from a messaging point of view here, not a firepower one).
I agree with Waltz:
To be clear, fault does not lie with the MRAP, MATV, or any other armored vehicle.  It lies with how commanders are using the vehicles due to their aversion to risk and their attempts to minimize coalition injuries at the expense of the broader counterinsurgency mission.
We’re buttoning up again.  Force protection is king and everything else is secondary.  So, instead of getting out into the villages, immersing with the population and sharing risks and rewards with our partners, we buzz through villages “we are trying to win over as we peer at them through 6 inches of plate glass and armor.”
Waltz again:
Ultimately, the IEDs prevent us from going where the insurgents do not want us to go. Many people fail to realize that causing casualties is only a side benefit of the IED. The true prize for the insurgent commander is separating the coalition and Afghan security forces from the populace. Every time we add another layer of armor in response to casualties, we are playing right into their hands.
It’s just another manifestation of the ‘tyranny of fires‘.
I find the timing interesting, therefore, that the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team has just released a report on the importance of partnering with local populations and security forces (even more interesting since the report was written in September and just released -or re-released this week).
I wonder if this reflects some sort of ideological battle within the DoD about how to proceed or just another example of the left and right hands not speaking to each other again.

Do soldiers ‘get’ COIN?

Recently I was asked to give a block of instruction on COIN to soldiers preparing to mobilize and eventually go to Afghanistan.  It’s mandated that they get a 4 hour block going over the principles of FM 3-24.  I have a couple of observations about the experience.

I find it strange that while the Army provides resources to develop COIN training they don’t have a ‘standard’ brief or even required themes or messages for instructors to discuss.  That really leaves a wide degree of latitude of what might be taught.

My training was given in two 2-hour blocks over two nights (with that highly coveted 1900-2100 time slot – right after chow and before being released for the evening).  I broke it down this way:

Day 1

Day 2

  • 30 minutes:  Review
  • 90 minutes:  Tactical Decision Game (an improved version of this test run I did a while back)

Day 2 was a home run.  Whereas my first question on day 1 (even before I started the class) was ‘When are we getting out of here?’  On day 2, we not only went over our allotted time because of all the participation from the soldiers but we could have easily gone another 30-45 minutes.  There was simply tons of participation and engagement as soldiers were trying to work through some of the complexities of operating in an COIN environment.

Regarding the TDG, a couple of things worked really well.

  • The game called for two squad leaders and a platoon sergeant.  In all those cases I selected soldiers one or two grades below those who would normally fill those slots (specialist/PFCs for squad leaders and sergeants (E-5) for platoon sergeants (E-7).  I did that in order to emphasize the need for junior soldiers to take initiative AND so they could begin to see/understand the thinking process of their superiors.
  • I had the unit’s leadership at the training and they (both enlisted and officers) were able to provide their own guidance and intent as feedback immediately to the discussion.  For me, that was the big win as this allowed the most junior soldier (in a relatively stress free environment) to give his/her perspective on a situation and receive feedback from the First Sergeant, Sergeant Major or Commander.

I also think it identified areas for increased training.  We had long, productive discussions about rules of engagement, situational awareness, hostile intent, commanders intent and how all of those need to be taken into consideration when making decisions.

But I write about this because a recent post in Best Defense by Col. Gentile reminded me of when I saw him speak earlier this year and he argued that the Army ‘gets’ COIN and our lack of success is a result of the inherent flaws in the doctrine not our implementation of it.  While I think COIN doctrine can certainly stand more work I don’t think that’s the central problem.  While staff officers and commanders may understand and have fully assimilated COIN (a dicey proposition but I’ll go with it for the sake of argument) I don’t think you can say the same about enlisted folks.

That’s NOT to say they aren’t receptive to COIN theory.  I suspect that in many cases soldiers aren’t sure how they’re supposed to implement COIN.  Understanding the concept behind population centrism is all well and good but without context and an understanding of how COIN should integrate with their training execution (probably a bad choice of words there) is going to suffer.

That’s why running the scenario worked so well.  Soldiers had an opportunity to think about how their skills were supposed to mesh with the mission and commander’s intent within a COIN framework.

Finally, this was no kool-aid drinking session.  There was some significant push-back and I think there was a group of soldiers who left unconvinced and (perhaps) unwilling to do all this COIN stuff.  Likewise, I think there was a small group of soldiers who walked into class ready to sign up as the latest cohort of COINdinistas.  Just like in an insurgency, the battleground was for the uncommitted population.

2015 and beyond…

2011 is looking less and less like the date of any meaningful pullback from our Afghanistan commitment:

Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top civilian representative to Afghanistan, said earlier today that the security transition to Afghan control in parts of the country could go into “2015 and beyond,” commenting that 2014 is a “goal” which is “realistic but not guaranteed” (emphasis added)

And more:

Sedwill said the number of NATO troops — currently at around 130,000 — may not be heavily reduced by that date, but the mission will shift to focus on training and advising Afghan troops.

“This is the point about 2014, it’s not an end of mission. It’s not even a complete change of mission, but it is an inflection point where the balance of the mission would have shifted.”

It’s not clear what will happen when/if coalition partners start pulling out their forces.  Canada and the Netherlands have stated an intent to pull out combat forces but who knows…maybe that’ll go the way of 2011.

Talking about Afghanistan over some tea

Allow me to recommend Adagio teas (No – this isn’t a paid endorsement – wait for a sec and the link to Afghanistan will become clear).   I’m a big tea drinker and they’ve not only got a nice selection of teas but you can actually fashion your own blends.

And so, (here’s the connection to Afghanistan you’ve been waiting so patiently for) I made my own that I’m calling ‘Parwan Blend‘.  I attempted to capture my ten months there in a cup of tea and after tasting it last night think I did a pretty good job.

I describe it thusly:

A mix of lapsang souchong (to recreate the smokey taste and smells of open cooking areas), almond (a nod to the ever present candied almonds that were present at most meetings with local elders and officials) and peppermint (to balance the other two and capture the essence of the ‘lightness’ of the Afghan tea I frequently drank) teas.

The smokey lapsang hits you first but dissipates pretty quickly followed by a long almond finish with the mint subtly underlying the whole endeavor.  I’ve only had it straight so can’t tell you what it’d be like iced, with sweetner or milk but if it’s from TwShiloh, it’s GOT to be good!

Best to think of this as a tea ‘inspired’ by Afghanistan rather than trying to replicate the taste of the tea that I actually had there.  In the same way some movies are ‘inspired’ by true events…

For $10 you can get 3oz. of the stuff which is a sizable amount.  For full disclosure I think if a bunch of people buy the stuff I get some free tea or something but really, I just dig tea and thought the ability to blend your own stash was pretty cool.

Now, buckle up and brew some tea because I’ve got some Afghan posts in the hopper.

Machiavelli in Afghanistan

A commenter asked a pretty good question in one of my earlier posts about Machiavelli and Afghanistan and I wanted to bring it and my response up to full blog post level (plus, I’m a Gen X slacker and I never pass up on an opportunity for easy blog post content).

Sam asked:  Hi, not sure if you’ll ever get this but I have a question about your response. I don’t really understand why Machiavelli would be hesitant on removing our troops within 2, 5, or 10 years. perhaps you can talk briefly in your own words on this subject? I appreciate your help.

To which I replied:

Sure…although with two provisos: 1) I’m not a Machiavelli expert (as much as I enjoy his work) and 2) see #1.

But, my thinking is that if we asked Machiavelli for his advice about how to best ‘conquer’ Afghanistan (a separate question from the wisdom of such a decision) he’d conclude that since the country doesn’t have governors or satraps who derive their power from a central government they’re unlikely to easily switch their allegiance to an invader like the Persians did for Alexander.

He does present three options for those who conquer a nation (chap 5 of the Prince): ruin the country, demand tribute or reside there in person. I think most people would agree that Afghanistan is pretty much ‘ruined’ already. Demanding tribute really wouldn’t accomplish our security goals and is out which only leaves residing in the nation. Since our political leadership won’t do that sort of thing (could you imagine the U.S. government temporarily relocating to Kabul as a demonstration of their resolve to see this thing through to the end?) we’d have to substitute a military presence. In Chapter 3 of the Prince he argues that you can hold that territory by establishing colonies of veterans or “keep there a great number of cavalry and infantry” in the country. I suspect it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be handing out land grants to veterans (although that would be an interesting idea) so we’re really only left with an extended military presence.

I think he would argue that a military presence would have to be extended (much more than 2 or 5 years) because the only way to ‘hold’ a conquered nation used to living under their own laws is to get them used (at a very fundamental level) to living under someone else’s.

I’m pretty sure he’d caution that history wouldn’t be on the side of the conqueror in this regard but if we were determined to try we wouldn’t have many other options than a lot of troops there for a lot of time.

Afghanistan roundup

I think (and have for some time) there’s an inherent contradiction to our current Afghanistan policy.  We have as our official doctrine, COIN, which has as one of its foundational principles the idea that in order to be successful the counter-insurgents need to have a very long time horizon.  At the same time, we’ve got this policy that we’re going to start drawing down forces in 2011 with a complete pull out around 2014.  I would argue that it is extremely unlikely both of those things can occur (it’s not impossible, just highly unlikely).

So, for several months now I think I’ve seen some preliminary groundwork being laid for the undermining and ultimate abandonment of the time line.  There certainly remains wiggle room to stick with those dates should things get untenable but my prediction is that between 2011 and 2014 some set of policies will occur which will justify continued involvement in Afghanistan on a fairly large scale. In fact, I believe the 2014 date is really just an attempt to kick the can down the road and should not be interpreted to actually mean anything in terms of actual withdrawal of forces.  (apparently this is the same read Kevin Drum has)

I suspect this has to happen because, while tarnished with the resignation of Gen. McChrystal earlier this year, COIN remains an immovable object, particularly under the aegis of Gen. Petraeus (or ‘He who may not be criticized’).  Therefore, the irresistible force of a timetable for withdrawal ends up being not so irresistible after all.

McClatchy’s does a nice job of laying out the pressures on the timetable.  Notably:

  • U.S. military forces claim that Afghan forces will be unable to assume security responsibility by July 2011
  • the 2011 date is interpreted as a ‘walk away’ date by the Pakistanis and was hindering attempts to get them to confront insurgents
  • Republican victories in the mid-terms will lessen legislative pressure for a withdrawal

Paula Broadwell has an interesting and optimistic piece about the development of Afghan security forces.  There are a lot of numbers in there and I’m not sure what they really mean when everything is said and done.  I’m just not sure, for example, what this really means:

Total ANSF growth, starting from November 2009 to present increased from 191,969 to 255,506, an increase of 63,537 (33 percent). The Afghan army has grown from 97,011 to 136,164, an increase of 39,153 (40 percent) and the national police from 94,958 to 117,342, an increase of 22,384 (24 percent).

I’d probably feel a lot better if I knew there was some quality to go along with that quantity.  There may be but increasing the size of your security forces by a third in one year is a pretty big expansion…during wartime…with a notoriously uneducated population.  In the army we generally call that an ‘opportunity to excel’.

One indicator that gives me pause in the piece is the way she describes the attrition (read:  AWOL/desertion) rate.

In the last but not least of the challenges, arresting ANSF attrition is also a serious constraint, averaging 5.39 percent per month over the past 12 months.

While she goes on to say this rate applies only to areas engaged in heavy fighting it’s still a pretty high rate which really hit me only when a commenter discussed it in a slightly different way:

Sixty-five percent annual attrition, worse when they actually get close to combat?

Saideman seems to be indicating that Canada might be walking back it’s withdrawal commitment as well?

The Harper government seems to be reversing months and months of denials of any further military effort in Afghanistan and getting ready to agree to send one thousand soldiers (700 trainers and 300 support folks), and this is causing conniptions in Ottawa.

I haven’t read Asia Foundation’s survey of Afghan public opinion (and, to be honest probably won’t even with a long weekend in front of me as I’ve got a few other reports I want to get to first) but there are some interesting charts I skimmed.  First, it is worth noting that confidence does seem to be improving.

As a side note, allow me to point out the crash in public confidence after 2004 – the year I left the country!  Clearly, I imbued the whole danged country with a sense of optimism and confidence (Gen Petraeus…call me!).

Finally, Wired points out that we’re in the middle of another spike of air strikes.  The official position is that the increased operations tempo means, naturally, that we have an increased number of air missions.  Be on the lookout for a similar spike in assertions by the Air Force that they have a primary role to play in COIN and absolutely need a new 5th generation dogfighter to defeat insurgents with AK-47s.

You heard it here first…

I have a longer post on this coming out tomorrow but just allow me to take a moment to enjoy this minor ‘coup’ (and trust me, I know this is very bad form).  From today’s NYTimes:

The Obama administration is increasingly emphasizing the idea that the United States will have forces in Afghanistan until at least the end of 2014…

And last May in this little corner of the interwebs:

…my impression was that all of the speakers (British, Canadian and U.S.) were operating under the assumption that forces would be in place well beyond 2011.  I heard no discussion about how to conduct any sort of hand off to the Afghans within 18 months, alterations to COIN theory or doctrine or trains of thought about alternate ways militaries could support/conduct COIN without significant numbers of forces on the ground.  I would interpret that to mean that the military has been given the word (explicitly or implicitly) that that 2011 deadline is NOT set in stone.  I would, in fact, go further and predict that barring some unforeseen change in the operating environment we will almost definitely have a significant presence in Afghanistan for some time.

I think the idea of a 2011 end date died almost as soon as the words were uttered and there was plenty of evidence for that for some time now.