Tag Archives: counterinsurgency

McChrystal Meets Petraeus in their super lair

Just a bit of COIN humor.  Oh god…did I just write that?  (Yes. Yes you did.  And I’m pretty sure we can use it at your commitment hearing.  eds.)

(h/t Joshua Foust)

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.

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.

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.

COIN and law enforcement (again)

A couple of weeks ago Sven wrote a piece about how experience in our ‘small wars’ could enable Western governments to exert an unreasonable amount of control over their domestic population.

Many techniques, laws and tools of the so-called “Global war on terror” could be mis-used for the suppression of domestic opposition.

Specifically, he mentions the dangers of migrating COIN to the domestic sphere.  I think his argument is off but that he hits upon another truth.  I strongly believe (and have written here numerous times) that the central tenets of COIN are completely compatible with some areas of domestic law enforcement.  In fact, I’ll  go even further and say that ideas such as Intelligence Led Policing are civilian manifestations of COIN.

The things Sven talks about as being particularly dangerous are ones I would agree are not compatible with an open, free society (overbearing surveillance, data collection and storage of citizens without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, use of the military) but I don’t think any of those are inherent in COIN doctrine.  This is where I think he accidentally (?) stumbles upon a hidden truth.  Many who advocate the use of such tactics do so under the guise of COIN either because they don’t completely understand the doctrine or are using it as a useful gimmick to get these sorts of measures accepted.

This misunderstanding of what’s going on in the military sphere isn’t that unusual within the law enforcement community where one needn’t look very hard to find military terms and concepts misused, either unintentionally or in order to overlay a veneer of credibility on a dodgy idea.

For example, right now, in a mid-sized city in the Northeast U.S., a law enforcement agency recently instituted a ‘surge’ (yes, that is the exact term the operation was given) in the hopes to bring down sky high violent crime rates.  Rather than being part of a larger effort to address root causes, ‘teh surge’ is a characterture of what critics said of the Iraq surge.  It’s only component is swarming areas with police officers on a temporary bases.  And metrics of success?  Heh…how about comparing crime during the ‘surge’ (when all the cops are out) with a period when they weren’t there?  Can you guess the results?  Shockingly, criminals don’t like to commit crimes in front of law enforcement officers!  Crime levels are down.  We must have success! (Don’t ask inconvenient questions about what’s going to happen after the ‘surge’ ends.)

(This video was supposed to be a joke.  Unfortunately, it too frequently looks like documentary footage.)

Now, there’s no plan to take advantage of a reduction in violence by building/strengthening local institutions or even measuring the effects of the operation over time.  In short, it’s a total waste of time and money BUT they get to call it a ‘surge’ and indulge their childish dreams that they’re kicking insurgent ass.

I bring this up because I’m coincidentally working on a presentation about COIN and came across a list of its principles.  I’d recommend reading these (replacing the term ‘criminal networks’ for ‘insurgents’) and try to argue what we wouldn’t want these to guide our actions in areas that suffer from endemic crime and the government lacks legitimacy:

  • Emphasize intelligence.
  • Focus on population, its needs and security.
  • Establish and expand secure areas.
  • Isolate insurgents from the population.
  • Conduct effective, pervasive and continuous information operations.
  • Provide amnesty and rehabilitation for those willing to support the new government.
  • Place host-nation police in the lead with military support as soon as the security situation permits.

You can do all of those things without violating people’s civil rights or having the government becoming an overbearing ogre.  What a civilianized version of COIN should allow you to do is coordinate operations among a wide range of agencies (law enforcement, policy, social services, private sector, community, etc) to address endemic crime issues on a long term basis rather than the ineffective, uncoordinated, ‘fire and forget’ methods that are what normally pass for crime control.

Download my COIN presentation

Submitted for your approval…my COIN presentation from 14 October.

My slides and the chat log are available for download.  I’m not sure if audio will be released but if it is I’ll link to it here.

Thanks to those who attended and stuck through the whole thing as well as the positive comments afterwards.

Afghan Roundup

Ok…this is total confirmation bias here but after such a long period of bad news about Afghanistan how can’t one link to a story with a headline that says:

Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region

‘Rout’ has a nice ring to it.  Now we just have to hope it’s true.  I’m not sure entirely why, but this statement makes me a bit nervous:

Some of the gains seem to have come from a new mobile rocket that has pinpoint accuracy — like a small cruise missile — and has been used against the hideouts of insurgent commanders around Kandahar.

Really?  So the answer is rooted in better military hardware?  Hmmmm…Is this how the NYTimes is making ends meet in these tough economic times?  Product placement ads to arms manufacturers?

Two paragraphs below that we see the sort of thing we would hope to hear in a COIN environment:

Unlike the Marja operation, they say, the one in Kandahar is a comprehensive civil and military effort that is changing the public mood as well as improving security.

Good news/bad news:  Recommending talking to insurgents is no longer automatically grounds from hysterical charges of treason but the much ballyhooed talks with the Taliban aren’t much to get excited about at this point.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, an expert on the Taliban and co-editor of a recent autobiography of a top Taliban official, Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, is skeptical about all the hype. He calls it a “blunt force PR campaign” released by the U.S. military and certain government officials, hoping to prop up flagging enthusiasm at home for what more and more Americans see as a losing battle.

“Certainly, what’s going on is nowhere near as exciting or progress-filled as the media are making it out to be,” he said. “If you dig down deep into the sourcing on a lot of these stories, it’s all still rumors and shadow-play.”

The inherent contradiction and confusion inherent in publicly supporting a COIN campaign and talking about withdrawal in a relatively short time frame leads to statements like this from insurgents:

“Now many people are travelling to Afghanistan because they hope that the Western troops will soon pull out of our country and a new future will start.”

Intelligence analysis in COIN wrap up

Well, that went reasonably well.  I had a technical glitch on my end which prevented me from hearing anything but I could speak perfectly well (Mrs. TwShiloh really would prefer the reverse situation around the house.  eds) and a bit of an attack of nerves (Wait?  Me?  Talk about what?  What’s an insurgency?  What analysis?).  Audio of the presentation and copies of my slides will be available here or here.

The best part of these things are the questions and the ones raised here were quite good.  I wasn’t able to get to one of them at the time and asked him to email me it.  I figured I’d put it up here as well.

I wondered what your thoughts are on the following question against the context of both President Obama (Jul 11) & Prime Minister Cameron’s (2014) combat forces drawdown statements:  As we shift to the transition phase of the campaign and look to shape the exit strategy through partnering and advising, what are your thoughts on the use of indigenous collection and fusion resources to maintain momentum against the INS rather than the current reliance on coalition capacity?  With Afghan literacy levels, how do you think this may be best achieved?

My response:  The statements by US and UK governments indicating their intentions for withdrawal do introduce some complexities into the application of COIN in Afghanistan.  I think (in Obama’s case at least) he gave himself wiggle room to allow quite sizable numbers of troops to remain in Afghanistan while not technically undermining his previous statements.  How this all plays out remains to be seen.  For better or for worse, most people look at Afghanistan and start the timeline from 2001.  I don’t think that’s particularly helpful since we essentially didn’t do much until 2007/2008.  From a COIN perspective, therefore, I’d say we’re only 2 or 3 years into this process and leaving aside political considerations, could reasonable expect an insurgency to carry on for upwards of another decade even if we end up being successful.  I’m not sure anyone’s political system can handle the thought of another 8 years in Afghanistan so it’s unclear how COIN might get modified and/or abandoned to get crammed into a political schedule.

I think relying on indigenous forces is a critical goal of a successful COIN operation but I’m not convinced that it’s a starting point generally or that we’re ready to rely on it in Afghanistan specifically.  Because of our lack of understanding of the operating environment reliance on local forces necessarily requires a massive amount of trust in those forces.  While I can’t speak to events going on there currently, I certainly was able to see how local ‘friendly’ forces used our ignorance against us (and, to be fair, we would do the same thing if the circumstances were reversed).  If they didn’t like a particular arrangement or decision by our forces they could wait several months for a new unit to rotate in and try again for a more favorable outcome.  Likewise, my experience was that local forces clearly understood the power inherent in playing the role of explaining current events and placing them in context and exerted a great deal of effort in trying to win that role for themselves.

So, most important in terms of relying on indigenous forces for your contextual/local information is trust that they’re going to tell you something reasonably close to the truth.  I think things like reduced literacy levels would be a relatively easy obstacle to overcome if you could be reasonably sure the information/analysis you were getting was reliable and credible.   My argument in the presentation is that we’ll probably need to develop some sort of collection/verification process internally anyway to establish that level of trust in Afghanistan as well as any further insurgencies we find ourselves involved in…so we might as well start building it now.

In terms of ‘fusing’ resources, this is one area where I think there remains a lot of low hanging fruit to exploit.  We still don’t partner as well as we should with all of our coalition partners let alone the various other groups that could provide us with information.  Some of this is institutional and some is just plain old inertia.  There’s no reason most of the analysis I’m talking about couldn’t be unclassified (if we draw the parallel with civilian law enforcement it most certainly is in almost all cases) which would allow you to bring in many more people as both collectors and analyzers (NGOs, coalition partners, community groups, etc).  You’d still need that analytical ‘gatekeeper’ to keep facts in and ‘spin’ out but if a project like Wikipedia can do it fairly well on a voluntary basis there’s no reason we couldn’t do it on a more formal one.  Even when we are talking about classified information, usually that’s due to the sources and it’s usually not difficult in the majority of cases to come up with a reasonable ‘unclassified’ version that still has value.

I’ve written about fusion centers from a (U.S.) civilian perspective and I’ve generally been underwhelmed by them although, to be fair, I suspect that’s generally because they seem to be put together and run by people with little to no background in intelligence (and if I’m feeling particularly cynical I’ll use that word in its broadest possible sense).

If you’ve got some free time today…

I’ll be giving a virtual presentation for the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center today.  It’s unclassified and open to anyone but you might want to try to log in a bit early since it uses Adobe Connect and you’ll probably want to make sure your system has everything loaded on it to get the complete experience.

Here are the details. Questions will be welcome. 

Time:  10:00 CST, (1100 EST), (16:00 ZULU)

Those interested in attending may view the meeting on-line at
https://connect.dco.dod.mil/coinweb and participate via Defense
Connect Online (DCO) as a guest. Remote attendees will be able to ask
questions and view the slides through the software.