May 08, 2009

A just ending to a horrible story

Seen at Registan:

"ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A former military contractor was sentenced Friday to probation for shooting and killing a handcuffed prisoner in Afghanistan.

"Don Ayala of New Orleans pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges that normally would carry up to eight years in prison. But U.S. District Senior Judge Claude Hilton decided probation was warranted under the circumstances. The man whom Ayala shot had set fire to one of Ayala’s colleagues minutes before the shooting.

"After the Nov. 4 attack on anthropologist Paula Loyd, Ayala helped subdue the man, Abdul Salam. When Ayala learned the extent of Loyd’s burns, he shot Salam at close range."

Paula L. was a lovely woman, so bright and friendly. I had coffee with her and Don in KAF shortly before they left for the field in October. I'm glad this tragic story did not end any the worse for Don.

Posted by BruceR at 04:11 PM

On COIN theory and practice

When I was in university, and pointed out to argumentative friends the problems with real-life Communist revolutions as opposed to what Marx argued for, the inevitable rejoinder was that Marx could not be judged, because the real Communism he espoused had never been tried. (This debating tactic also worked for anarchism, by the way.)

After my time in Afghanistan, I'm beginning to wonder if real counterinsurgency has ever been tried. This post from Registan seems about right on that score.

Posted by BruceR at 12:08 PM

Boy, I'm glad he's gone

From the WashPost, yet more evidence that the previous U.S. president's instincts were wrong on just about everything re Afghanistan.

"In late 2007, Bush’s National Security Council authorized aerial spraying of poppy fields because of concern that drug profits were financing the Taliban, according to that official and another senior Bush administration official. Bush was passionate about spraying. “I’m a spray man myself,” he declared, according to one of the officials.

"The plan, according to the officials, was to force the Karzai government to accede to spraying, and then use that acquiescence to overcome opposition from the U.S. military and the British government, whose troops were deployed in the areas of greatest poppy cultivation.

"But when Karzai objected during a videoconference, saying the sight of spray planes would “look like chemical warfare” to the Afghan people, Bush backed down.

Posted by BruceR at 11:05 AM

More on the current Afghan army reality

This Guardian clip is a good piece. Entirely consistent with my own experiences.

Look, there are some serious structural issues facing the ANA right now. First and foremost, as the Guardian piece refers to, is that the Afghan security force organizations are currently being forced to expand at a nearly unsustainable rate. As the Afghan Lieut.-Col. in the piece tries to explain, this means they can't afford to be as picky as they should be in recruitment or retention issues, can't effectively discipline their men, and often are fielding an end product that is increasingly not up to the job, combat-wise.

The other issue is partly one of our creation: the lack of any kind of troop rotation policy within the ANA. If you're an ANA soldier assigned to a northern brigade upon graduation from basic training, you stay in the north. If you're assigned to a southern province, you stay in that province. Forever. There's not much in the way of promotion, and nothing in the way of unit transfer: the Afghan battalions that were first assigned to the south 3 or more years ago are still right where they were first assigned.

The reason I say this is partly our problem is because NATO countries really have no obvious interest in trading the ANA units their individual teams have been mentoring with each other. We're happy to keep the ones we've trained, to our standards, in Kandahar Province, and the US, Brits, Dutch, Germans, etc., etc. are keeping theirs where they are, too. For 1/205 Bde (the Canadian mentored one) to switch with a brigade from, say, Herat or Mazar e-Sharif would be seen, for very good reason, as a huge disruption to their mentoring nations. So the Afghans assigned mentors from NATO countries that aren't seeing any combat aren't seeing any either, and those in Helmand and Kandahar are seeing far more than their share.

In practice, for the individual Afghan soldier in the south of the country, this means you are on the line, with occasional breaks for training or leave, until you quit, or get killed, or horribly injured. There is no other way out for you. This is going to have obvious impacts on morale: we think our soldiers start to lose their combat effectiveness after six months, but the ANA fighting in Helmand are the same units that have had troops in mortal danger seven days a week for three years. Conversely, many ANA units in the north and west of the country have never seen a shot fired, and so long as this practice continues, likely never will.

This is why Bing West's piece in the WSJ today has it kind of backwards. Leaving aside the thesis of whether the ANA deserves a larger role in the country's governance, West recommends the tying of Afghan units to terrain "for years". But in fact they are doing this now, and in places like Helmand or Kandahar there is a risk it could break them.

These realities are somewhat obscured to the general view by a few factors. One is the can-do attitude of Western military trainers and mentors. I worked with Brits, Americans, and Canadians; they were, to a man, dedicated guys, nowhere near ready to give up on the ANA just yet. Neither was I, for that matter. That meant, though, that our assessments in many cases needed to be evaluated as being laced with the "power of positive thinking" stuff that is just going to come naturally in such circumstances.

The second is the experience of previous rotations of soldiers now back home in positions of authority, that also may be colouring our judgment a little. The fact is that the pressures on the ANA of 2009 are going to be different from those it faced even in 2007, when it was still a smaller, newer, reasonably cohesive force with strong ties back to the Northern Alliance army that it largely evolved from. People with a tour experience from those days may not have seen the institutional effects of explosive growth or persistent combat fatigue that we're beginning to really see in the south now. And in some ways, the ANA they fought alongside may have been more capable man-for-man, albeit smaller and less experienced, than what is there today.

Now, if the rotation issues could be resolved -- or alternatively if the war in the south were to take a sustained turn for the better -- the growth issue would likely resolve itself given time. But that's certainly not going to happen before 2011, which is when 90% of Canadians apparently want us home.

Anyway, the Guardian's John D. McHugh. I recommend his entire series.

Posted by BruceR at 10:24 AM