August 24, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

Michael Yon's last dispatch with the British from Sangin, Helmand. No, I don't know specifically why he was kicked out either, but I have some ideas.*

Dexter Filkins on the Kandahar girl's school attack and its aftermath. I was in Kandahar City when that one happened, and I have no fault to find with Filkins' dogged coverage of the story.

Richard Koppel on how things are going for the Marines in Garmsir, Helmand. Answer: not well.

The Captain on how bases need to be built faster to ensure force protection. Sometimes yes, sometimes no... you take a risk that the landowner, when they eventually turn up, is not influential enough to get you to move, and it can also put you in the hole, local goodwill-wise, because you didn't ask before acting. It's certainly not the key to safety that the post makes it out to be.

*UPDATE: The Brits say Yon's still welcome.

Posted by BruceR at 03:07 PM

Seven reasons why Afghan army building is a slow process

Yglesias asks, WRT training the ANA: why is it taking so long?

I don't have a complete answer to that question. There's a couple issues here, that I've tried to hint at in posts below going back to April when I got back. What I can say fairly certainly is this: at some point in this game, saying something takes a long time is going to be the equivalent of saying it's impossible. And raising an army in a country where security is this uncertain may well be impossible in a realistic timescale for us.

Now, you say, jeez, lots of countries have raised armies during wars, so what's the big deal? Here's what I would characterize as some of the major unresolved issues we're facing:

1. Building anew is harder than renovating.
2. Multinational coalitions are inherently less efficient at army building.
3. Force protection measures in a warzone limit mentoring.
4. We still have limited experience with the culture at our command levels.
5. Giving someone independence before you give them an army limits what you can do later.
6. Growing in size and in quality at the same time is hard.
7. Risk aversion: in some ways, we've taught them too well.

More below the fold.

1) Building anew is harder than renovating. In Afghanistan as in Iraq we really are doing our best to junk the old system, recognizing correctly that it was part of the problem in the first place. Building another Afghan army like all other previous Afghan armies, one that splits on ethnic lines, that oppresses the people it's supposed to protect, that can't fight its own insurgencies, would be entirely pointless. So our ambitions have to be rather large here. There are lots of old soldiers in the Afghan senior leadership. At least twice I have been present when one of them was talked out of what they saw as the correct response to insurgents in a village: that being to shell the village with howitzers. Principles of counterinsurgency and effects-based operations are things we're struggling with, having already figured out industrial total war... they don't have any secret knowledge that allows them to jump that progression in military capability.

2. Multinational coalitions are inherently less efficient at army building. I discussed this at greater depth in this post. But the simple fact is that at the moment you have a country where the southern and eastern halves are in the middle of a war, and the northern and western parts are in the middle of a mildly annoying and containable insurgency. There is no mechanism to move Afghan soldiers from one to the other, so they stay in the half they were originally assigned to. We have encouraged this, because we would have no way of swapping around our military mentor teams from either half if they did start to do stuff like that. That means you have one half of the army that has ample time for training, and no combat experience and no prospect of ever getting any, and the other half that is in constant fighting, but has never been able to get training time, and whose soldiers only escape from the prospect of death or wounds is quitting or deserting. After four years of continuous fighting since the insurgency came back in the south and east, those pressures have made the southern army collectively brittle and risk-averse. A unified military approach to the mentoring by one nation would have largely avoided this problem: one can see how isn't nearly so significant in Iraq.

3. Force protection measures in a warzone limit our mentoring. Our own unwillingness to risk or lose soldiers works against us, setting at least three huge barriers in our path. It's very difficult within established force protection measures, for mentors in the South to spend continuous time with their Afghan counterparts. Our limited access to them means they're left to their own devices a lot. If you're not living and working with them at all times, that's when the corruption and incompetence will inevitably slip back in. And while we have trouble maintaining a persistent presence in their headquarters, for the same reason, they can't enter our inner sanctums, drastically limiting the sharing of intelligence and operational planning, let alone military culture. Even if we could bridge those issues, we run up across the final barrier: Afghan army formations do not have the really effective hammers you need if things get heavy (mechanized infantry, tanks, artillery, fast air, attack helos, UAVs, casevac, counter-IED technology) unless we loan them to them. And those assets are too valuable to risk to an Afghan officer's mistake or misuse: Afghan military operations of any size thus become "too important to fail," when, against a smart enemy, even the slightest misstep will cost us in lives. And it's hard for someone to learn anything in life if they know they're not ever going to be at risk of failure. Building an army in a country at peace would not have these issues, at least to the same degree.

4. We still have limited experience with the culture at command levels. This is somewhat of a universal with military advising, and there are many historical examples of overcoming it. But as I tried to point out here, the great army-builders we studied for lessons learned in the past all had years more influence with the cultures they were trying to reform than our current leadership does. That, too, limits our ability to effect change in very real ways. Short mentoring stints combined with a lack of standing force structures in the mounting armies also contributes to an ongoing institutional amnesia.

5. Giving someone independence before you give them an army limits what you can do later. I don't think it's been generally recognized how unique the approach we're taking has been in this respect. We're giving, or permitting, countries full independence, before offering them help to build an army. That means we have retained no control of any kind: financial, disciplinary, administrative, or operational; only whatever influence the relevant mentor's diplomatic skills provides. We've left it up to them, at every level. That means we can't accelerate the promotion of the talented, or the punishment of the criminals. We can't complain, effectively, when resources are stolen or squandered, or withhold them from the undeserving. We can't give them an operational task and expect it will be fulfilled. We cannot legally command their troops to do anything, in any context. We can't overrule or directly affect military policies that hurt our efforts, like the edict against ANA searching houses, or releasing detainees. If the corps commander wants to take a battalion off the line and out of the war because he's been ordered to man a military parade in Kabul and they need the marching practice (true story, btw), well, we just have to calmly encourage them to rethink that. If we had retained any of those levers, we'd be able to do more than we have... and it's going to be very difficult, even if our own leadership wants changes, to take those kind of authorities back now, without making the central government look even weaker.

6. Growing in size and in quality at the same time is hard. We've been trying to rapidly grow this military. We've also been trying to bring up its quality. That's hard. Assuming you have the same number of individuals with potential, you're only spreading them thinner and thinner. I would argue that the last three years all mentoring has achieved is to offset the drop in quality that those years' massive growth in ANA size would have produced. And we're still growing the thing, which suggests competence increases are going to be extremely difficult.

7. Risk-aversion: in some ways, we've taught them too well. Western soldiers themselves may not be casualty-averse individually, but we can sure look at it as a group sometimes. Afghan soldiers model us, in ALL respects. In particular, if they see them they will model our nightly retreats to well-defended localities, and any apparent discomfort we have with winning firefights with maneuver, as opposed to firepower. Every time one of our patrols pops smoke and disengages under contact, every time we pass on holding the ground we're fighting on rather than withdrawing, we risk teaching that lesson anew to any Afghans accompanying us. We never go anywhere without massive firepower, where we expect them to show up in Ford Rangers: we ask them to put out checkpoints for us, or walk a highway looking for IEDs with a portable mine detector, when we would rarely assign a section of our own soldiers unsupported at the same location with the same task. These may well be the right call by the commander in question, no doubt... but the collective effect appears to have been to dampen the kinds of hyper-aggressive instincts that we praised in Afghan soldiers only five or more years ago.

Add those seven together, and I suggest you pretty much have the problem definition part of this one done. Solutions to any and all of them have been proving hard to find, though: if any army with a piece of the Afghan puzzle has cracked the nut with their unique approach, I haven't heard it. If we ever do, the force of effort now being applied could rapidly gain traction, I have no doubt. But we're certainly not at a point that we have a solution and we're unable to implement it: I would suggest we simply don't have the whole solution yet.

UPDATE: Please note that in this analysis I am implicitly rejecting many of the common arguments why ANA mentoring has not been a fast process to date: both cultural (ie, Afghans are inscrutable or inherently corrupt) and motivational (their soldiers are poorly paid or have divided loyalties), based purely on my own limited experience working alongside them from last September to April. The Afghans I worked with didn't have an outsized number of either rogues or heroes in their ranks by my reckoning. Goodwill between us was consistently mutual and culture no barrier: every issue we came across as a team, we managed to find a solution for. Afghan soldiers are not poorly paid, compared to the average national wage right now, and all those I worked with were professional soldiers and officers, who keenly wanted the government side to win in the fight they were engaged in, even if they were as skeptical as I would eventually become about the prospects for success.

I'm also rejecting excuses of literacy and language barriers. Illiterate armies have been trained to fight before*, and the language barrier has not only also proven historically surmountable, but seems utterly solvable here with the proper application of our resources to the problem. No, the argument I'm making above is that the really difficult issues are structural, relating to the assumptions behind our entire counterinsurgency approach, and are not unique in any way to the Afghan milieu. The next time we go to apply our Counter-insurgency Manual to any part of the world, a manual which clearly states that victory only comes when you can hand the fight off to indigenous forces, these same problems are prone to recurrence.

*The same goes for most other technology-related excuses. Yes, the ANA could use more computers. But while the complexity of the task would be enabled by digitization, it does not require it. Armies have self-organized with much less.

Posted by BruceR at 10:31 AM