May 15, 2009

Ralph Peters, poser

Foust says all worth saying about the latest typically content-free column from ex-officer and Tom Clancy wannabe Ralph Peters. But this quote from the old poser did make me laugh:

"We turned the blood tide during the hours of darkness, while journalists snored in their bunks."

Posted by BruceR at 12:33 PM

Remember, we're the main effort

One of the running gags with the mentoring teams I worked with was for someone to say, after hearing about some lack of key supplies or equipment, or some new manning shortfall, or some new piece of gear that had been issued to everyone in the battle group or the rear echelon that hadn't yet even been ordered for us, "remember, mentoring is the main effort now." We never got tired of that.

Which is why I wasn't at all surprised to read that an American ETT is a little concerned about the quality of their replacements.

Hey, I was lucky in both my co-workers and my successors. But no one from any army I worked with in the mentoring game thought they were either well-supported or even much respected by their own chains of command. This went far beyond usual soldier-griping. Consistently, our biggest obstacle to achieving our mission wasn't the Afghan army, or even the insurgency. Mentoring Afghan security forces, which we may claim is our main effort, is simply not being resourced proportionately to the requirement.

In the movie "Lawrence of Arabia," General Murray, the first British commander in Egypt, calls the Arab Revolt, in justifying his own under-resourcing, "a sideshow of a sideshow": the least important component of a secondary theatre of war. We may not have had much else in common with T.E. Lawrence, other than maybe in our daydreams, but until recently, with Iraq as the Americans' main event, mentoring indigenous security forces in the Afghan theatre has had something like a similar feel.

The real problem here is the ad hockery: throughout NATO, the main force battalions that go to Afghanistan are sent as formed bodies, but the advisor teams are cobbled together from augmentees, and are resourced accordingly (so for instance, during pre-deployment a battalion will have a nice big base complex to train and plan in: but the mentor team down the road will be working in temporary space borrowed from or shared with some other, "real" unit.) In the States, these problems are leading to increasing discussion about whether the Combat Advisor/Foreign Internal Defense task needs to be given a more formalized structure, with specific combat units (opinions differ which ones) assigned to it as a primary task. This discussion has not, at least to date, percolated north over the border yet that I've seen.

UPDATE, May 25: The ETT post referred to above has been removed by its author, no doubt out of an honest concern that bitching about your replacements on a blog would not exactly be "setting them up for success."

Posted by BruceR at 10:31 AM

I like schools, really

Blogger Matt Steinglass riffs on an earlier post of mine:

"Hereís a general rule that applies to basically every development program in every poor country in the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan: want to do something nice and useful for these people? Donít build them a school..."

Just to be clear, no one has the advantage over me in my respect for Greg "Three Cups of Tea" Mortenson and his solo school-building efforts. In many parts of Asia, I have no doubt, school building is a valid development strategy. And our own government thinks it valid right now in southern Afghanistan, as well. I don't dispute that, either, at least theoretically: although it all depends where in southern Afghanistan you go. And although seeing a vacant new school being used as a weapons cache may not endear NGOs to soldiers, when we think about it, we do have to concede that as late as 2004 Kandahar Province looked a lot more peaceful than it does now. Saying donors' efforts have been wasted is not to say that when those schools were being paid for those donors were somehow being obtuse.

What I was trying to say was that, in the part of the world I was in at any rate, school buildings are not a necessary condition for anything right now: the restoration of basic security is. And in much of the rural areas of Kandahar Province, there is no way that those extant buildings are going to be used as anything remotely resembling their original purpose under current conditions.

Steinglass is absolutely right, too, that teachers, not buildings, are the key. But the average teacher's wage in Kandahar right now is $60 a month, a quarter of what a private soldier and a tenth of what an interpreter makes, at a time when people with the education to be teachers are desperately needed in the civil service, in government, and a hundred other places. As well, local teachers still regularly turn up dead at insurgent hands, as they are often seen as having taken sides by virtue of their choice of profession. (And those are boys' school teachers. I'm not even going to talk about the schooling of girls.) The kind of round-the-clock armed protection an individual teacher would need in a place like Zhari right now is just not feasible, either. So we're not talking an environment that's set up to attract quality people.

Posted by BruceR at 10:08 AM