September 30, 2009

Manley 2? Granatstein talking sense

Historian Jack Granatstein:

Now the clock is ticking toward the inevitable Canadian withdrawal. Can we not replicate the Manley commission to help us prepare the plan for the post-2011 years?...

A commission set up now could hear witnesses, including Canadian diplomats and aid officials, senior officers from the Canadian Forces, academics, representatives of non-governmental organizations and others. It could talk to foreign diplomats and politicians and visit Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The reality is that NATO and our friends, engaged in their own planning, need to know Canada's intentions no later than mid-2010. A new Manley commission would allow for a careful consideration of what should and can be done.

This seems entirely correct. The ongoing American review offers more than sufficient guidance over their plans. Canadians need to launch a parallel strategic review process, based on the successful Manley example.

Granatstein's right about the deadline, too. Given the departure date of mid-to-late 2011, decisions will inevitably start to be made by the second quarter of next year as to future manning, the disposal of resources, and procurement that will be either expensive or impossible to change should Canada shift course on what if anything military is to be part of the post-2011 commitment after that. We've got six-to-nine months to come up with any new plan, before inertial guidance starts to take over: still enough time for a Manley 2 process, but not much more than enough.

Posted by BruceR at 01:27 PM

On ANSF pederasty

The increasingly influential (and rightly so) Josh Foust takes on the Canadian mission for tolerating pederasty in the ANSF, basing his concerns largely on some after-the-fact allegations from 2006. Given what I did on tour, I suppose the concern requires a response.

It is no lie to say that homosexual behaviour is extensive and pervasive among members of the Afghan security forces. For a Western mentor it is literally an unavoidable part of life, found in all organizations and at all rank levels. And it should also be no surprise that Afghans' sexual preferences in this regard often incline towards youth and beauty. At times this approaches, and even descends into, outright pederasty. No question.

Pervasive, yes; rapacious, not necessarily. We're not talking in the main about police trucks kidnapping and driving off with young schoolboys here. THAT we'd know what to do about. It's the grayer shades of the issue that frustrate mentors. Local police are wealthy by community standards, when they're paid, at least; they have guns. They have power. Young men and teenagers gravitate to that, in any culture. We encourage the police to interact with their community, to cultivate friends and informants. Other young men work in their kitchen areas, and as cleaners. Others are constantly being recruited from the locals into the police organization itself. So young men and teenagers do hang around the police, constantly.

The question is how to discreetly determine when that's become inappropriate. You see a beardless boy you don't recognize spending a lot of time around the police station, or in a uniform two sizes too big for him. He's not unhappy or bearing any signs of abuse... no one's beating him, or treating him as obvious chattel. If you ask him how old he is, he likely couldn't tell you. So is he a sexual object for one of the officers, or does he have a legitimate right to be there? Or a little of both? And how do you investigate that fully in a combat environment without causing unnecessary offense to your comrades? Among mentors in Afghanistan, this constitutes a common dilemma... sometimes handled well, sometimes not well at all. But I've never seen the larger issue wilfully ignored, covered up or waved away.

Again, it's not the in flagrante cases. We know what to do should that sort of nonsense happen in front of us. But full investigation of every possible suspicion we might have in this regard is not always viable.

The issue hit the Canadian press largely thanks to Cpl. Travis Schouten. Removed early from his tour in 2006 due to stress and since diagnosed with PTSD, he has since made numerous allegations of various kinds in the press since about his treatment and his experience. These stories have been investigated by the military, and often found by in those investigations to be unsupported by other evidence. The specifics have sometimes seemed to change over time. It has reportedly proven difficult to tie them down to confirmable places or dates. Supporting evidence good enough for the media (army chaplains saying they had also been approached by other concerned yet anonymous soldiers) has been rejected as the hearsay it was. (One can't help but think, based on the litany of stories produced, that Schouten's condition may even have been exploited, possibly even rather ruthlessly, by reporters looking for yet another headline at his expense.)

Another media story, alleging that the Canadian Forces was more concerned about the media impact of the Schouten allegations than the actual allegations themselves, seems entirely based on the fact that a public affairs officer took the time to do up a "talking points" document on the issue. Um, that was his job, presumably. I have seen no Canadian officer quoted talking with anything other than genuine concern and occasionally perplexed confusion about what to do with a complex and sensitive issue that is universally recognized by everyone who has spent any time working with Afghans. There is no coverup here that I can see from the inside.

Having a plan in mind for how to deal with homosexuality and pederasty in the security forces is something every ISAF/OEF mentor should keep in back of mind. This isn't an issue that's going to go away. As a former mentor, I can condemn the practice, and say we were always prepared to move to stop it if it became readily apparent, but still feel the Canadian public has been particularly poorly served by its media in this instance due to the sensational and prurient nature of this issue.

(Full disclosure: during my time in Afghanistan I was attached to 1 RCR, the same battalion which Cpl. Schouten had belonged to during his tour two years previous.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:55 AM

September 29, 2009

Tomorrow's essential Afghan reading, today

Capt. Doug Beattie, MC, has a new book out on his time as a British ANA mentor in Helmand in mid-2008, his 14th operational tour in 27 years with the British army. The Daily Mail excerpts:

Slowly the ANA troops moved towards the compound. They used their grenades to clear it, with devastating results - at least for the six Taliban who were killed. We'd been successful. We'd killed a number of the enemy and recovered some of their equipment. Crucially, the ANA had - eventually - stepped up to the mark and done the job. We'd even taken a prisoner - though, as I looked round at him, I could see he was taking a bit of punishment from one of his captors.

'Oi! Don't be doing that,' I screamed. The soldier meting out the blows gave me a quizzical look and wandered off.

We started to pull out. The ANA soldiers were in front with Stevo, a Royal Irish colleague, and our prisoner. Suddenly a burst of gunfire stopped me in my tracks.

I grabbed my radio: 'Stevo, what the hell is going on?'

'They've shot the prisoner. The Afghans - they've bloody shot him.'

Posted by BruceR at 09:55 PM

Associated strategery musings

Okay, I'm tired of talking about T.E. Lawrence, but he does constitute a common frame of reference of sorts, so I'm going to do it one more time.

Lawrence, you'll recall, had three great insights worth remembering in the Afghan context. He advised both British and Arabs that the large Turk garrison in Medina, which was exerting no effect on anything, could be safely ignored; that the long rail line to Medina could be savagely interdicted, and that the port of Aqaba, if taken, could secure Arab logistics and their participation in the war. Hence, his early strategy of bypassing Medina, attriting the Turks along the railline, and seizing Aqaba.

Lawrence was, of course, an insurgent, not a counterinsurgent. In the Afghan context, one might ask, where is the insurgents' Medina? Where is their Aqaba? The rail line equivalent, one would argue, is fairly obvious: the long ring road Western and Afghan forces keep free of IEDs and ambushes at great cost every day. But where are they trying to tie us down, and where are they aiming to strike to expand their campaign to a new level of effectiveness?

The maps in the post below, showing the provincial breakdown of coalition fatalities, lend themselves to one interpretation.

That interpretation would be the increasingly compelling theory that the Taliban have little interest in controlling or even fighting in the country's major population centres any time soon, as that would highlight their deficiencies in governance and compromise urban sanctuaries where they can currently organize covertly so long as they remain unarmed and unthreatening (the best place to hide from UAVs being a city).

In this theory, what they really want to dominate militarily are the environs to those urban areas, the area within the sound of artillery fire (15-25km) in any populated direction from the city: close enough so the population feels threatened. Operating in and through these environs areas, through rapid, destructive attacks on security infrastructure, targetted assassinations both in and outside the city, and intimidation-type information ops at night (and the occasional spectacular attack, like the one on Sarpoza prison), they keep the city population cowed and lacking confidence in their own government and the coalition without ever having to physically enter it or intentionally target the populace. This has already succeeded to a great degree in the Kandahar City environs, and the rapid increase in activity this year in Wardak and to a lesser extent Kapisa could be indications they're now trying to replicate that success to the environs of Kabul.

This spiritual, not physical domination of the environs areas is coupled with two other secondary operational methods. The first is the interdiction of the national road infrastructure with IEDs and occasional ambushes, tying down large numbers of security forces in their sweeping and defense, at an extremely low cost to the insurgents, while increasing feelings of urban isolation and government impotence. It also tends to keep Westerners in their armoured vehicles more, and so not interacting with the population.

The second is to use populated but non-urban areas of provinces both inside and outside the environs, specifically those where the government has been unable to establish a strong police presence, as "security sponges" to soak up Western counter-strokes. The lack of indigenous security grants the insurgents freedom of movement for low-profile activities in these areas such as recruitment, fundraising, and creation of defensible enclaves, using IEDs and ambush positions placed to react to incursions and draw casualties, with any direct fire engagements conducted only under highly favourable terms (such as, only when the Westerners have had to dismount due to terrain).

Any well-placed, effective combat outposts in these sponge areas are beseiged as effectively as possible, to keep the forces in them hemmed in. These areas are not necessarily key terrain for the insurgents, however... one rural Pashtun village with high compound walls and narrow lanes being as good as any other for this purpose. The intent is any determined effort to enter these areas by the Coalition will hit only IEDs and air.

The upshot of this is that those somewhat-populated sponge areas within the environs are valuable to the enemy in proportion to how large the urban population they affect; and that sponge areas outside the environs areas (such as much of Helmand province) are not particularly valuable to them at all: they are our "Medina" in this analogy, while the urban environs of the next big city over (such as Kabul) are their "Aqaba", where they're looking to make inroads. And, with these tactics having proven largely successful up to this point, it seems unlikely the Taliban are going to be particularly interested in changing them in 2010, either.

UPDATE: One could argue the Soviets after years of trying different things, eventually concluded that the only things worth defending in Afghanistan were environs and roads, and with Afghan forces as much as possible. See also Steve Coll.

One thing we have tried very hard to do for years is disrupt the insurgents logistically far from any city, by finding and attacking their resupply lines, their money supply (at least the narcotic part), their C2 nodes, their "IED factories", their "ammo caches." It's become increasingly clear however, that their only vital ground, at least in the south, is in Quetta, out of our reach. The sponges themselves have very little in them in the way of targets suitable for large-scale kinetic operations. Their tactical C2 is a guy with both a cellphone and a satphone. Their tactical leadership is entirely replaceable. Their "factories" bear a strong resemblance to the Vietcong "factories" of 40 or 50 years ago. Their "caches" are little more in most cases than the 20th century equivalent of a settler's musket over the hearth, their medevac system is the back seat of a Hilux, a bunch of blankets and a clear highway to Pakistan. (They bring in rockets the same way on the return journey.) And now we're finding their money supply is equally unchokeable, and certainly not as drug dependent as we thought. They really don't need a lot of money in the first place, anyway. Current estimates suggest we're spending over $200 for every $1 of theirs.

Given that fact, the future, instead, may come to more broadly resemble a version of what Canadians and Americans are doing in Kandahar City now, ie, restoring the "inkspots": reinforcing Afghan security forces around the population centres, helping them put up a good fight for the city environs, and either hanging on until something changes as happened in Iraq, or gradually drawing down as Afghan security gets stronger. The fact that the Soviets did something somewhat similar (with initial success) before shouldn't by itself dissuade us.

PS: Yes, I do know how to spell "strategy." I'm good at speling.

Posted by BruceR at 03:24 PM

Afghanistats, 2009 version

We've run the stats on combat KIAs in Afghanistan here several times before. These are the updated versions.

coalition combat-related KIA per day

This graph shows the daily rate of coalition combat-related fatalities, on a 12-month moving average basis to exclude seasonal effects. The actual seasonal effect has been increasingly minor, as the recent McChrystal review concluded correctly, "there is no fighting season." What this appears to indicate is an insurgency really appearing in the summer of 2005, and increasing steadily in strength since then. Most recently, in the last 3 months there has been a rapid increase in coalition casualties to an entirely new level. This is largely due to increased-tempo U.S. and British operations in Helmand province, which have taken high casualties. But consistently, every summer has been worse than the last summer, every winter has been worse than the last winter, and we are now approaching 400 coalition combat KIAs per year, and still increasing.

What may be more revealing is when you break those stats out by province and year.

The following charts show combat KIAs per province, starting in 2006. It indicates where the truly heavy fighting is, and where insurgents are making inroads.

KIA per province 20062006. Fighting has just started in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in earnest. Fatalities are observed throughout the west and eastern regions, while the north is immune. Konar, Nuristan, Uruzgan and Kabul provinces (the little comma-shaped one) are the next highest.

KIA per province 20072007. The first coalition KIAs in the north, around Mazar and Kunduz. Helmand gets worse, while Kandahar and Uruzgan stay about the same. The fighting in the east worsens as well in Nangarhar, Paktia and Paktika provinces.

KIA per province 20082008. Again, Helmand worsens. Kandahar and Uruzgan and Zabul stay about the same. Coalition casualties increase in all regions over the year before, but particularly in Konar and Kabul provinces. Ghazni and Wardak provinces also see increases in fatalities as attacks on and around Highway 1 between Kandahar and Kabul trend up.

KIA per province 20092009 (to today). Partial results for the first three-quarters of this year show where the fighting continues to intensify. (Keep in mind that some of these provinces will get pinker still.) Notably Wardak and Kabul provinces have become significantly more dangerous to Coalition forces this year, as well as Kunduz in the north. Kandahar has also had more combat KIAs this year than last (49 vs 46) so by the end of the year it will likely end up redder than before, as well. But Helmand, which has seen 129 fatalities this year, up from 76 the year before, is still well ahead of all the rest.

Helmand's growth in KIAs (as well as Kandahar's and Zabul)'s are obviously somewhat due to increased Western resources being applied there (more targets) in successive years, but as the majority of these fatalities were due to IEDs, and thus insurgent-initiated, the difference in fatality figures between provinces is very much going to be a reflection of where insurgent strategic-level efforts are on the increase as well, rather than purely changes to coalition op tempo.

Kandahar Province KIACanadians may wonder at how Kandahar casualties can be on the increase, seeing as we've clearly not seen a significant increase in Canadian death notices in the paper. This final graph may explain that. As of this month, U.S. combat fatalities in Kandahar this year have surpassed Canada's. It is very much no longer our fight to fight alone in that province.

Casualty figures from Province locations of KIAs checked and corrected where necessary by the author.

UPDATE: Some inferences one might wish to see as supported by the provincial diagrams above, in no particular order:

**Many provinces, particularly in the Hazara-dominated center and the Uzbek-Tajik-dominated north, remain immune to significant Taliban influence. This is no surprise, given they are overwhelmingly a Pashtun insurgency. The exception is Kunduz.
**Uruzgan province, which has been managed by the Dutch and to a lesser extent the Australians, seems to have consistently resisted any increase in Taliban effectiveness, for whatever reason.
**The border areas around Jalalabad, east of Kabul, are seeing marginally less fighting on the whole than in the past. However, there does seem to be a concerted attempt to increase pressure on the environs of Kabul.

(Collected musings on insurgent strategery hived off to another post.)

Posted by BruceR at 02:02 PM

September 28, 2009

Reason #36 why Americans don't understand anything anymore: Ralph Peters

People are starting to notice Ralph Peters is an embarassment to the entire profession of arms, not to mention anyone who fancies themselves a military intelligence officer. I've been saying so for, oh, years.

If you let a moron be your guide to how the world works, you will make moronic decisions. Someone needs to put Peters out to pasture.

Posted by BruceR at 01:24 PM

September 23, 2009

Offsetting ANA illiteracy

I'm now taking requests, apparently: I have been asked for my thoughts on this article.

Look, literacy of the Afghan soldier is a bit of a lame excuse, sure. It would help the fight, certainly. But we shouldn't feel that it is our responsibility to make them literate by ourselves.

The Afghan army does make allowances for literacy classes, in fact. They're run by the Religious and Education officers and their staff, a fixture at battalion level and above. This is a unique military position, one we don't quite grok. We often call them "mullahs," but they're not mullahs... although they can be. What they are is the officers whose job it is to look after the troops, their piety, and their education. In most circumstances, they book and host the mullahs, not act as them themselves.

R&E officers are also key to ANA village outreach work. The R&E goes in with the commander's staff when the ANA enters a village, and does the direct liaison with the local religious authority, handles complaints about troops' behaviour, coordinate the distribution of humanitarian aid, etc. They perform much of what we would characterize as the PsyOps/InfoOps/Civil Affairs role.

The position is poorly understood by Western officers, who tend to treat them as chaplains. They're not. They're often quite good combat leaders and fighters. When I was there, multiple efforts were made to offer information operations classes to the ANA. Inevitably, the class was filled with soldiers the commanders sent because they had nothing better to do with: not exactly a quality audience, and unlikely to ever be in a position to put the lessons to use. What should have been done was embedding Info Ops mentors with the R&E staff, and focus our training on the people they wanted trained in that function, too.

R&E staffs in the better brigades also offer literacy classes (at least the Arabic alphabet, sufficient for map- and sign-reading). This could easily be reinforced by providing them better materials, even just paper and pens, for their classes. But we'd need to understand how these organizations actually work internally to get the most effect, and shape our mentoring team manning around them to a degree, rather than force the Afghan organizations into templates we understand. That's the real problem.

There are other ways we could offset or mitigate ANA illiteracy, of course:

*We could put more promising Afghan officers on courses back home.

*We could imbed Afghan officers we trust into Western headquarters roles in theatre, too -- something that's never been seen as possible, but maybe the new emphasis on partnering could change that.

*We could increase the amount of written translation support, possibly using reachback to translators back in Canada or the U.S.

*We could shower them with maps with coordinate systems Afghans could read.

*We could get all our officers to be familiar with Dari numbers and letters sufficient to read a Dari map, and particularly get them to master the intricacies of the Persian calendar, which otherwise tends to baffle them, before deployment.

All those things we could do ourselves, tomorrow, if we wanted to, bringing payoffs that would strongly offset any gap in ANA literacy, and let their own processes do the rest over time.

Posted by BruceR at 10:45 AM

On the Kagan estimate

The Kagan husband-and-wife team have put together an estimate on how many troops would be needed for successful COIN in Afghanistan.

It's certainly worth a read. Obviously some of its figures are a little questionable -- I'm not clear on how they came up with 2 Canadian battalions currently in Kandahar, but never mind that -- but as a maximalist upper estimate it's pretty good.

In summary, the estimate states that the U.S.-led coalition still needs the following troops, on top of what's there now:

*1.5 brigades in Helmand province;

*1 brigade minimum in Kandahar province;

*1 brigade in the Paktia area;

*An additional backfill brigade for the Canadians and Dutch when they leave.

An additional couple of brigades would also be needed for partnering with the ANA, to bring them up to speed.

The best part, though, is slide 39, describing how the worst-case would unfold:

There are no forces to be redeployed in RC(South)—all are fully committed in tasks that cannot be abandoned

• Without additional forces in RC(South), therefore, commanders will face the following options:

   –Continue an indecisive fight in Helmand while ceding Kandahar to the enemy

   –Abandon the fight in Helmand, accepting a major propaganda defeat and humiliating the British, cede the area to the enemy and allow the Taliban to extract vengeance on all those who co‐operated with us, and attempt to re‐take Kandahar

   –Reduce forces in Helmand, possibly tipping what is now approaching a stalemate into a slow‐lose scenario, and attempt to re‐take Kandahar with forces that are not adequate to the mission

• In all cases, commanders will likely be forced to continue to shift ISAF troops around in response to growing emergencies, vitiating any meaningful COIN approach

• Current force levels do not permit coalition troops to partner with Afghan forces outside of Helmand and Greater Paktia, a factor that will significantly delay the growth in quality of the ANSF

The slide also correctly notes that ANA troops do not/cannot rotate around the country, and those in the south are getting increasingly brittle. We commented on the reasons for this here.

I'd say this is an accurate assessment. Canadians should be under no illusions on this: when we leave, we will leave a hole.

Also of interest is that reference (bolded above) to "partnering." This is very different from "mentoring" as Canadians have conducted it so far. Partnering means an integration of command and control of the two armies that during my rotation, a lot of people (not the mentors, mind, we pushed for it) would, frankly, have been uncomfortable with. What we're seeing is a grudging admission in a lot of quarters that "mentoring" as conducted by ETTs and OMLTs to date, simply hasn't had a payoff in terms of effectiveness proportionate with the investment, and that integrated headquarters are the way to go here.

And that again calls into question (discussed previously here) whether a continued Canadian commitment to army mentoring, as opposed to police mentoring, past 2011, would make any sense. Without having our own military units in theatre to achieve partnership with, we'd be in the position of trying to achieve a "hard seal" between Americans and Afghans under combat conditions: no matter how nice we are as a nation, we're never going to be as effective in that role as a team of American mentors would be, unless we were talking individuals thoroughly embedding within the American unit ourselves (including a shared pre-deployment, etc.)

UPDATE: So what is the practical difference between partnering, as Gen. McChrystal wants, and what we've been doing until now? One can probably best explain that by explaining how Canadians and Afghans had been officially interacting up to last spring (noting as always that I'm now five months out of it and hopefully some things will have changed since):

*At the time Afghanistan was not part of the Global Counter-terrorism Task Force (GCTF) coalition. (Pakistan is, which put us in the unique position of being able to share much more info with the ISI than with the ANA.) That meant no information remotely sensitive of any kind could be given to an Afghan. Period. That meant no operational data, even of the most basic kind (like friendly force fixed positions, or aerial pictures of the ANA's own outposts). Which meant we could never tell the ANA where our troops were, where they were going, or what we knew. We also couldn't ever let them see any UAV feeds, sub-meter imagery or other intelligence reporting. (Officially: enough said on that.)

*Even ANA senior officers (even general rank) were not regularly allowed onto Kandahar Air Field. They were not allowed to enter any of our headquarters buildings, operational or intelligence centres. This obviously made organizing joint operations in real time rather difficult.

*That lack of understanding of what we were trying to achieve or the resources we had at our disposal also made any other demands we made of the Afghans inscrutable to them. They tried their darnedest to set up their own command structures and headquarters that we would respect but it's like trying to describe an elephant to a blind man, if you've never seen what the inside of a modern military headquarters really looks like and what it can do in a crisis.

*There was no connectivity between Afghan and Coalition command posts at most levels of command. Not even a phone line. The only way to share information was via your interpreter's (unreliable, interceptable) cellphone, or to hold a face-to-face meeting and share it in person.

*Local national interpreters were also not allowed on KAF. (*cough* officially *cough*) That means that despite both armies furiously producing volumes of paper and briefings every day, there was no one in a position to translate any of it for the other side to read, even if it had been hand-carried.

*Afghan armies had almost no maps they could read. The coordinate systems on our maps baffle them. We were unable during my tour to provide them (*hack* while sticking to the official chain of command *cough*) with maps with coordinates in both languages so that we could share friendly force position and enemy contact data with each other.

This wasn't just our province. My understanding was it was pretty much the same everywhere. You want to hear my guess on why things like the Kunduz tanker bombing happen? Could it be because we have a whole lot of Westerners with all this information they need to sort out, and they're not allowed under any circumstances to interact with the Afghans who could interpret it for them? It's to cut through the red tape implicit in the above that Gen. McChrystal is now emphasizing "partnering" instead. It's about time.

Posted by BruceR at 09:13 AM

September 22, 2009

About Deh-e Bagh

The Star, today:

He may not have mentioned it, but McChrystal appears to have had Canada in mind when he spelled out his winning conditions. Just a few months into his job and in deep contemplation about the state of the war, McChrystal travelled in July to Deh-e-Bagh, a tiny village south of Kandahar city that the Canadian military has made the centre of its counter-insurgency effort.

There McChrystal saw a mini-surge of security forces, economic development, medical care and education. Foreign troops were supporting the local population and the locals were supporting the Afghan government.

"That is more powerful than any round we can shoot," McChrystal declared.

Look, if COMISAF's beliefs were reinforced by spending time with the Canadians, good on us. This kind of write-up does tend to put the cart before the horse on the whole Canadian "model village" approach, though.

I'm a fan of the concept, to be sure. It's ink-spotting in the Afghan context, and it's learning from a lot of our and other's past mistakes, true. But it is also only possible now because of the massive influx of American troops that began in the early part of this year, which has formed an outer ring of steel around Kandahar City, one that was never there before, ensconcing the Canadians and Afghan security forces within it.

Brig. Gen. Jon Vance and his staff's "model village" approach was a forward-leaning answer to the question, "okay, with all these new troops pouring in, what is the best way we can respond to this influx? With the Americans taking over much of the 'clear/hold' task in the outer districts, how could we best refocus the Canadian battle group and PRT specifically on the 'hold/build' closer to the city?" It is to Canadian planners' credit that they were thinking that far ahead, with the first model village in place even as the Americans were really starting to pour in, and not coping on the fly with changing circumstances after the fact.

We do need to be clear, though, that the model village approach would almost certainly never have worked with the troop densities in place at the start of this year in Kandahar Province. Canadian forces, even with the addition of an American battlegroup in late 2008, would never have had the spare capacity to implement it on their own in the long-term. It was only Pres. Obama's ratification of the 20,000 U.S. soldier increase that Gen. McChrystal's predecessor requested that has allowed it to go as well as it has.

Without that outer cordon, and the transfer of initiative in Kandahar Province that all those extra American forces probing their sanctuaries daily has produced, disrupting the model village approach would have an easy task for insurgents. As the Star article correctly states farther down, it is an approach whose assumptions include a high troop density, and the renewed ability of Canadians to focus resources to the task that that has created.

Everyone agrees Western troops in Afghanistan have been misallocated, true. But it's not as simple as "get off the FOBs", either. See also this article from the Washpost:

In early July, Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked senior U.S. officials to dispatch a company of about 100 U.S. soldiers to Barge Matal, a village in the northern half of the province that is home to fewer than 500 people. Taliban insurgents had overrun the community and Karzai was insistent that that U.S. and Afghan forces wrest it back from the enemy. "I don't think anyone in the U.S. military wanted to be up there," said a senior military official who oversees troops fighting in the village.

Senior military officials had hoped to be out of Barge Matal in about a week, but the deployment has stretched on for more than two months as U.S. and Afghan forces have battled Taliban insurgents. Some insurgents seemed to be moving into the area from neighboring Pakistan solely to fight the U.S. troops there, said military officials. At least one U.S. soldier has been killed and several have been wounded.

Although the U.S. finally pulled its troops out of the village this week, the extended deployment to the area has had ripple effects throughout eastern Afghanistan, forcing frustrated U.S. military officials to postpone plans made months earlier to abandon other remote bases...

U.S. and Afghan forces at Combat Outpost Keating, also in Nurestan, are even more constrained. The base is about one mile from the Taliban-controlled village of Kamdesh, but more than 100 U.S. and Afghan troops there haven't set foot in the village in more than three months. On rare occasions, the elders from the local shura, or council, will come and discuss reconstruction projects with troops at the outpost.

Those troops in COP Keating are combat-ineffective.* At best, they're the equivalent of goats tied to stakes by tiger-hunters. The fact that they're not on a FOB isn't helping anyone. The same could have been said, more or less accurately, about some of the outposts in Zhari-Panjwaii the Canadians have pulled out of, or even still occupy.

Look, a battalion-sized FOB in the middle of a well-populated, relatively secure area IS a waste. No question. Those troops should be getting out, like the Canadians are in Panjwaii, into small platoon houses, and fighting the insurgents for the control of the night. That is the best "hold/build" template anyone's come up with so far.

In the surrounding less-populated, or less-secure, or openly contested areas, the ideal template is probably a company-sized FOB, (less than 300 men total, Afghan and Western), with some surrounding smaller, more temporary outposts, similar to what Canadians had in Zhari district when I was there. In that environment, being able to assemble a sizable strike force on call is a requirement, and using all your force in defending too many small outposts means force protection replaces force projection, as the ANA experience around Kandahar and the American experience described above both prove.

In completely unpopulated or insecure (or unimportant) areas, you don't want anyone at all, if you can help it. Stories of plunking down combat power into unsustainable surroundings because the Afghan president supposedly demanded it are pervasive in every Afghan region and coalition contingent (ask any Canadian planner about Ghorak District, and watch them shudder visibly). Yes, war is politics by other means, but just because the Afghan military high command is unable or unwilling to inject some sanity into their own planning processes doesn't mean we need to fritter away either combat power and lives anyway.

All that to say protecting the population is the agreed goal here, but it will take different forms on different terrain, often in the form of concentric areas out from a major population centre. And saying simply we should "just get off the FOB" doesn't encompass some of the other adjustments to a still-fluid military situation that are also going to be required if the McChrystal plan is to succeed.

*UPDATE: A little over two weeks after this post, COP Keating was attacked, with heavy Coalition casualties, and subsequently abandoned.

Posted by BruceR at 12:47 PM

September 21, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading, part 3

Nick Clegg and Paddy Ashdown:

The crucial question on Afghanistan today is not whether this war is important. It is. It is not whether the consequences of failure are serious. They are. It is a much more brutal question: can we win? And the answer is no. Unless we change both our current policies and our present attitudes, failure is inevitable...

If, despite the cloud hanging over the election, President Karzai is returned to power, we have to ensure that Karzai II is very different from Karzai I. His government must not be made up of the unfragrant coalition of war lords and crime bosses he put together to get himself elected. It should be a genuine government of national unity, which will clean out corruption, and pursue an aggressive policy of integration of those Taliban who are willing to pursue their aims through the constitution, not the gun.

And they should all have their own ponies. With pretty pink manes...

If this is so, it's time to consider plan B. One option would be to concentrate our forces in the cities in future, so as to deepen the effect of the development process where it matters most, and then build out from there as force levels and resources allow.

Beyond that we may even have to consider plan C, a modern version of the old policy of Lord Curzon, but run from Kabul instead of Calcutta, which would use air power and special forces to prevent the Taliban ever again marching on Kabul or becoming a haven for al-Qaida, while we concentrate on the rest of the country outside the Pashtun belt.

All this will be very uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as reinforcing failure with more lost lives. It is not yet lost in Afghanistan. Not quite. We are in the territory of the last chance. There will be no more.

Plan B: Inkspot out from the cities. Plan C: Inkspot out from the cities in the north. Check.

Hey, I'm not saying that they're wrong. Just unoriginal.

Posted by BruceR at 04:57 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading, part 2

William Maley (still easily the best working Afghanistan historian, IMHO) and colleagues on the recent elections:

The international community knew going into these elections that they were going to be problematic. We could and should have done better. There was evidence of fraud months beforehand, with over-registration of voters in the insecure southern parts of Afghanistan and voter registration cards for sale at markets in Kabul. Although we did not personally witness any significant electoral fraud on election day in Kabul, reports from our colleagues and contacts in other parts of Afghanistan provided evidence of significant, state-supported fraud...

A nightmare scenario is one in which the United States is expected to partner with a government delegitimized by the very process by which it has hung on to power. Ordinary Afghans, denied the opportunity to use peaceful, democratic means to clean up their government, would be more vulnerable than ever to the blandishments of the Taliban, and this would add monumentally to the problems facing U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and his colleagues. Our entire strategy for dealing with the Afghan insurgency could be at stake.

Posted by BruceR at 01:28 PM

On that Wente column

The Torch is an amazing resource, and a great Canadian milblog. But it can get a little defensive about the military at times (as indeed, can I). Case in point today, reacting to a Margaret Wente Globe and Mail column that was critical of the military last week:

"Ms Wente might wish to read this..."

Unfortunately, a careful read of the article linked, however, actually reinforces Wente's argument, that Canadian troops are not outside of the wire enough, engaging with the Afghans.

Wente's article was eminently attackable on one point, that the Canadians were mostly inside the wire back at Kandahar Air Field (KAF). That's not true, as many commentators have since pointed out. The majority of combat troops are forward of KAF, in suitably named Forward Operating Bases. KAF is a soul-destroying place: the food alone makes you weep for humanity. No one who has an excuse to get outside the wire doesn't jump at the chance. I was luckier in some respects in that regard. But Wente's larger, hidden point, that we're not having the effects we should have for all our outlay, is still valid despite her error in that regard. Goes the article:

"There's a thin line of defence between this area of the sparesly (sic) populated Panjwaii district and the wild, wild west where the Taliban are pretty much free to roam at will..."

The interview is with troops of the Canadian company at FOB Sperwan Ghar, a Masada-type fortress, a hell of a defensive location that dominates Central Panjwaii. A natural hill feature resembling a Vaubanesque fort, I'm sure it's been used by militaries passing through the area for millenia. Alexander probably camped there for a night. With military improvements, it is, for all intents and purposes, impregnable.

"Jordain and his men have been involved in 13 combat missions and gone on 125 patrols in recent months..."

Um, okay, here's where we get back to Wente. The company in Sperwan Ghar has been in position since probably mid-April. At least 125 days now, more like 150 actually. I have no doubt every one of those patrols was heartbreakingly hazardous. But what the Canadian company commander is saying there is that his company, one third of Canada's infantry strength in the country, has only been able to achieve a sustained rate of framework interactions with their surrounding environment and its population at a rate of less than once a day, undoubtedly in almost all cases for durations of less than 24 hours, with perhaps a platoon of soldiers (a third or less of the company's strength) each time.

Yes, they did operations, too. And yes, undoubtedly the ANA and mentored ANP interactions need to be added to that total. But pushing people outside the wire at that kind of rate is likely going to be insufficient to establish any kind of security presence in the surrounding area.

It's estimated the west contains only 10 to 15,000 residents while Kandahar city and its surrounding area have close to a half million.

It's only a matter of time before the footprint makes its way further west says the commander of Task Force Kandahar.

Not mentioned: that the "footprint", even six months ago, did extend farther west, about 20 km, to include those people. A year ago there were 3 ANA bases suppressing enemy activity in that area with its 15,000 residents. They have all been closed, largely because insurgent IEDs had made ground movement to and from them impossible. All the government's supporters among those 15,000 people can be assumed to be dead or gone or converted. (One of the villages now non-permissive to Canadians, Zangabad, was one of the villages from which massive electoral fraud was reported last month.) Strapped for resources as we were, over the last year and a half we have been conducting a tactical retrograde, and abandoning thousands of Afghans we once attempted to help; it's that retrograde that hopefully, as Gen. Vance indicates, will now be redressed by the arrival of the Americans in strength in the last month. One likes to believe that, like McArthur, we will return, and soon.

All that to say, look, yes, Wente's piece was somewhat over the top, but we shouldn't knee-jerk too far in the other direction. Above all, we shouldn't pretend that there's some secret asterisk implied, one that says, "psst, not you, Canadians" in Gen. McChrystal's report this week:

"McChrystal is equally critical of the command he has led since June 15. The key weakness of ISAF, he says, is that it is not aggressively defending the Afghan population. "Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us -- physically and psychologically -- from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves."

We're far from the worst offender in ISAF in this regard. But to a degree the Commander is talking about Canadians, too. The senior general in theatre is actually agreeing with Wente when he says he wants to see us, and the rest of our allies, taking even more risks with our soldiers than we are now. As a country, we need to hoist that in.

Posted by BruceR at 01:12 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading: part 1

Ann Jones, author of the excellent memoir Kabul in Winter, on where the 90,000 strong ANA really is:

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40% of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

American trainers have taken careful note of the fact that, when ANA soldiers were given leave after basic training to return home with their pay, they generally didn't come back. To foil paycheck scams and decrease soaring rates of desertion, they recently devised a money-transfer system that allows the soldiers to send pay home without ever leaving their base. That sounds like a good idea, but like many expensive American solutions to Afghan problems, it misses the point. It's not just the money the soldier wants to transfer home, it's himself as well.

There's certainly some truth to this (it's also not all the answer, though). And it's a problem that's only going to be exacerbated by further rapid growth. That's why the last Canadian quarterly report, which showed the number of ANA in Kandahar Province has actually been dropping rapidly in the last three months, should probably have gotten more attention, as well. While I suspect this is more reflective of bringing the book strength closer in line with the actual number of effectives (about 1,600 when I was there) than increased desertions, it should still be seen as troublesome. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, a reporter would have to take the time to compare the Benchmarks from three months ago with the current Benchmarks report to see the change. Which sort of defeats the whole point of the benchmarks.

I very much doubt there's many Afghan battalions with more than 400 effectives on the line at any one time right now. And there's about 100 battalions on paper. That makes 40,000. Afghan headquarters may be big, but they're not that big. That means there's a lot of book strength in the ANA that simply isn't there, and overall ANA numbers greater than 60,000 or so simply shouldn't be taken as any more than that: paper estimates. (Jones doesn't mention why the Afghan commanders would be complicit in this; a padded payroll is the obvious reason. In Vietnam, the expression was "ghost soldiers.")

Posted by BruceR at 09:03 AM

September 18, 2009

So how did it come to this?

(Another attempt at a longer explanation of why we're where we are in Afghanistan. Thoughts welcome.)

Military mentoring, as practiced both by NATO OMLTs or their American equivalents, the Embedded Transition Teams (ETTs) remains poorly understood states-side. The mentor experience also varies greatly depending on where in the country and military hierarchy your Afghans are.

At an embattled outpost in Zhari District, it could feel like a bond akin to brotherhood, formed under fire; at the brigade-level or higher, where the job consists of poking into every detail an Afghan headquarters, looking for inefficiencies, communications breakdowns, and opportunities for improvement, mentor teams in some ways more closely resemble a determined if friendly group of management consultants.

Like consultants, our ability to effect change was tightly circumscribed, and our ability to influence limited both by our own personal diplomatic skills, and our counterparts' willingness to change. Often times, we found it wasn't the Afghans who needed to change, either: our own countrymen and their NATO colleagues would often prove the more inflexible party... like when security force development was set aside to action some short-term objective or opportunity. Again and again, explaining the situation to the Afghans, gaining their consent, or leaving them to chase the opportunity in question themselves on their own, would be evaluated, considered, and rejected.

Sometimes operational security was cited as a reason, but it wasn't really: you don't have to spend much time with Afghan soldiers to have faith in their personal commitment to winning. One suspects the real reason all too often was that Afghan soldiers themselves really didn't add much to our own forces in the way of added capability. And to tell the truth, they really didn't, if all we're talking about is the kinetic fight: when hunting for an enemy that primarily uses IEDs to attack you, adding a few dozen more riflemen with dubious marksmanship skills and no reliable logistics of their own is hardly guaranteed to simplify your problems. And once you got ANA majors and lieutenant colonels into the mix around the planning table, any given operation had introduced into it a level of... uncertainty, to be polite about it, that any Western-trained military planners would be likely to have issues with. This is why, in Afghanistan right now, there are almost no districts outside of the capital that are recognized as having an Afghan lead in their security.

We've all seen those tidy military diagrams with boundaries between battalions, regiments and the like, from World War 2, or Vietnam. One of the most crucial things any officer wants to understand is where the boundary line is between his unit and the ones on his flanks. But one complication of the operating environment in Afghanistan right now, there are at least two such diagrams for any area of operations, with 100% overlap. We have two separate "overlays" or "traces", back in the days of physical maps: the Western military laydown, and the Afghan laydown, superimposed. An Afghan battalion (kandak) does not take up a position to the flank of a Western counterpart. Any given provincial district or group of districts will have both a Western company-sized element responsible for it, and an Afghan kandak responsible for it as well.

Drawing a line down the middle, and saying, "you be responsible for this half" has simply not been seen as possible. First, very few if any ANA kandaks have the organizational ability to take on that kind of independent responsibility, even with Western mentors, artillery support, etc. tacked on. Two, the Western half would be completely non-functional as well, because there would be no "Afghan face:" no compound searches, no vehicle searches, no realistic prospect of tactical intelligence. But it's chicken-and-egg: the lack of opportunity to develop any real independent security responsibility means that those Afghan leaders can never really improve, either.

This whole military approach seems both dysfunctional and unsustainable. We start by spending our own money to the tune of some multiple of Afghanistan's entire Gross Domestic Product to fund an Afghan army (left on its own, Afghanistan couldn't support an army a tenth the planned size). We then spend another astronomical sum to put our own armies in the combat zone, incurring our own casualties, because the native army is manifestly unable of doing the job on its own. Meanwhile, the insurgency, spending a dollar for every $200 or so we are spending, continues to thrive and exact a steady toll in casualties, all the while keeping the population effectively cowed. How did it come to this?

Looking back (see graph, above), one can see now mid-2005 was the inflection point.

As the graph shows quite clearly, after three years of near-quiescence, the insurgency in Afghanistan returned in strength, following the successful Western-supervised election confirming the Karzai presidency. In NATO, there was growing concern, however, that their underresourced effort to support the relegimitized government ended in practice at the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, and was having little effect beyond it. At the same time, an American military conducting its own terror-suppression, economy-of-force efforts in the South and East of the country, was eager to have Kabul's writ, and that of the International Security Assistance Force that supported the Afghan government, extended, particularly to the south of the country. In part, this has to be seen as an effort to free up some of its own resources, then desperately needed in the war in Iraq, as well. But there was also strong Afghan and international pressure to push the sphere of development beyond the capital.

The then-novel tool used by both Americans and their ISAF allies to address this issue was the Provincial Reconstruction Team, a node of military expertise emplaced in a provincial capital, and intended to develop governance and security in their immediate area with support from civilian and non-governmental agencies. PRTs were drawn from multiple nations, and often had different approaches to the task at hand. But it became clear almost immediately that, particularly in the south, the PRT as an organization would be barely capable of defending itself without help, let alone extend any kind of security umbrella to anyone else. That meant that army battalions would need to be deployed to support that work, as well. And the Afghan battalions weren't ready yet. Which meant Western battalions started pushing out to help their own PRTs. So what you saw in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, still the insurgents' battlefield of choice, was a British or Canadian battalion AND a PRT pushing out to relieve a harried U.S. battalion and taking over lead security responsibility for that province.

There was little if any discussion at this point about the road that was NOT being followed, that being only pushing development as far out as the Afghan security forces themselves could defend the "ink spot" (which to be fair, at this point would not have been very far). There were a couple reasons for this: the first being that the Afghan government itself was entirely unwilling to see Kandahar City or the Helmand Valley fall overtly under insurgent sway, which was certainly the most likely consequence of relying on their own resources at this point. And the fight the Canadians and British subsequently found themselves in the south in the summer of 2006, faced with literally thousands of dedicated insurgents, showed without doubt that the insurgency, had Western battalions tried to withdraw completely from this area, easily would have overrun the country's second-largest city at that point. No, the alternative to Western forces in 2006 would have been outright insurgent control over a significant swath of the country: a full-on insurrection rather than an insurgency, in other words.

But that meant that, starting at the end of 2005 and the start of 2006, military mentoring of the Afghan army began playing a deadly game of catch-up, in the middle of what was already a medium-tempo war in much of the country: pushing the local troops out, regardless of readiness or capability, to be the "Afghan face," with the hope that "on-the-job" training and colocation with vastly more powerful and capable Western forces would enable them to correct their shortcomings. In practice, of course, it largely obscured, or exacerbated them.

Up to this point, the military advisory efforts had actually been something of a qualified success judged within their own lights, as opposed to, say, the efforts at rebuilding the police, now recognized as wholly disastrous. The army at the time was having little difficulty meeting its recruiting quotas, and the first Afghan soldiers deployed to actual battlefields, after being trained in the Kabul area, performed creditably enough. It needs to be recognized, also, that the military efforts up to this point had been quite successful in the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration) role: providing sinecures and stability to the military leadership of the Northern Alliance and other non-Taliban warrior types within a new model army had undoubtedly contributed to the previous three years of relative peace and governmental stability.

The onset of a robust and active anti-government resistance, however, meant that the terms of reference of all our efforts to help Afghans had profoundly changed, and it's fair to say everyone involved was slow in seeing how much. Hindsight shows that the Afghan army and nation were now in a fight for their literal lives: a lot of the "nice-to-haves" in Afghan development that had been tolerable before 2006 probably needed to be jettisoned at this point, but there was no one in a position to make that case. For instance, substantial efforts continued to be poured into training local police forces as a criminal investigatory arm, rather than what they now would have to become in a warzone, a supportive and flexible paramilitary, whose efforts and the Afghan army's would have to be closely interconnected: hundreds of poorly armed police in shoddily defended police stations have since paid the price for those distractions with their lives.

This was also true with the military advisory effort. It's not a complete oversimplification to suggest that up to 2005 our efforts were focussed on training the army how NOT to fight, in the sense of limiting their activities to what was requested of them by the central government. The goal at that point had been to restrain warlordism, and impose a system of restraints, using the army's structure, on all those in society who were adept at resolving their problems with violence. But having done that, we found ourselves with a recreated national armed force with a high sense of self-entitlement and institutional pride, but no clear idea at any level how to defeat the insurgents in Kandahar on its own. Suddenly we needed the old Northern Alliance army back, the one that had rolled across the country with the help of a few embedded Special Forces personnel with B-1 bombers at their disposal, but neither we nor the Afghans themselves had any idea how to recreate it.

Military advisory efforts are part and parcel of counterinsurgency, and will likely remain with us for some time. Our counterinsurgency manuals define victory as the point where the fight can be handed off to reliable indigenous forces; that implies a significant effort in their creation each time this kind of war is fought. But the experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq to date can hardly instill great confidence in anyone that the process is a simple or well-understood one.

Posted by BruceR at 12:14 PM

More on Afghan army literacy

Everything Tom Ricks says here about the Afghan army is right. It is also beside the point. Afghan privates don't need to be literate: agreed. But at some level if you're colocated on the same battlefield you need to be able to communicate with each other. That requires some commonality of language and training at the leadership level.

Historically, armies have done this with their auxiliary corps, like the British in India, or even the Americans in Korea, by embedding Western officers as the leaders of the auxiliary units. In recent history, that's been replaced with the idea of mentors, who ride along with the native leaders, but don't exercise any control. It is, whatever its other virtues, a less effective way of doing the same thing.

Do we, as Ricks says, "lack the imagination and historical knowledge to train him to be an Afghan, instead of an imitation American soldier?" No denying it: it's a valid criticism, sometimes even an accurate one.

But the best quote honours go to one of the commenters, talking about why we have yet to cede security responsibility of any part of the country to Afghans themselves: "Nor are we going to give the ANSF an ops box and say 'right - go commando and knock heads your way,' because culturally, western forces can't abide that kind of uncertainty in the plan. Not only do we not have any real Lawrences around today, we're pretty short on Allenbys too."

UPDATE: By the way, the reason Afghans can't read maps isn't illiteracy, primarily. It's because until very recently there have been no topo maps of Afghanistan in a language they can read, and ours are inscrutable to them. It's one of those things we forgot to do early on and we're playing catch-up on, now. The first NGA-produced maps started coming off the line in early 2007 and even five months ago almost none had made it through the Afghan logistics chain to their soldiers and officers.

UPDATE #2: Ricks' historical examples are, of course, ludicrous, btw. The 300 Spartiates at Thermopylae were the elite of their society: they could almost certainly read better than the average Greek of their time (and, it should go without saying, they *lost*). Actually, the real lesson from the Greek wars is probably the opposite, showing the dangers of not having interoperability: the Persians, who had a polyglot, multilingual army, were consistently less effective than the Greeks, who more or less all understood each other. And the Gurkhas, as noted in the same comment above, had British officers, and in their early decades, British NCOs. Makes kind of a difference in interoperability terms.

Posted by BruceR at 09:36 AM

Quote of the day

Ackerman comes closer than I have yet to articulating my personal current position, which I hope will be seen as the responsible one, on foreign interventions by Western powers:

The right move in Somalia and Yemen is not to get into Somalia or Yemen. The right move in Afghanistan is to create the conditions for responsible extrication from the security piece.

Here's how I'd have said it: neither "cut and run" nor "as long as it takes" are responsible international policy positions for the Afghan problem (with respectful apologies in the Canadian context to Sen. Kenny and Gen. (retd.) Mackenzie, respectively). What else have you got?

Posted by BruceR at 09:09 AM

September 16, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

The Globe story itself is rather negative and short on detail on the latest governmental no-progress progress report. Worth noting, though, are the comments of Prof. David Bercuson, another very prominent and longtime advocate for the Canadian military, joining Sen. Kenny last week. That cranking sound you here is the Canadian military-academic establishment reorienting itself to the (new?) reality:

The report notes that, rather than attempting to disrupt the Taliban in Kandahar province as a whole, Canada is shifting its focus to maintaining stability in the capital Kandahar city and its environs.

These scaled-back expectations make sense, said David Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, and Canada was foolish not to keep its ambitions more modest years ago when its Kandahar commitment began in earnest.

"We never had the troops to cover the entire province. I understand people believed we did, but that was clearly a miscalculation..."

Canadians, and their politicians, who question Canada's presence in Afghanistan need to be realistic about the tiny size of the mission and what it can accomplish, Dr. Bercuson said. If Canada leaves in 2011, he said, it will be able to point to keeping Kandahar city out of Taliban hands for several years with limited resources - but little else. (exactly right --B.)

"We were overly ambitious," he said. "Corruption, accountability. I think you've just got to be realistic about the part of the world that you're dealing with."

UPDATE: Re the report itself, there's nothing too surprising in it. Canadian non-security development goals have been pushed back due to the absence of security. Not sure why the June report is coming out in September, or why some but not all pages have a Dari translation, but hey. What's annoying is the way the government overwrites the benchmark page with each new quarterly report, so you really have no at-a-glance way of comparing what the government was saying about security reform with what it was saying three months ago about security reform, for instance: you have to go to the PDFs. Which is fine, but you risk missing the subtleties, for instance the change in the numbers of the ANA brigade in the province, which since the last report has gone from all units "over 70% effective strength" to "three of the five kandaks and the ANA brigade headquarters have an effective strength of 70% or higher." This could be due to problems with re-enlistment and attrition beyond Canada's control, or possibly better bookkeeping, and not necessarily worrisome, however.

The change in the primary army development benchmark from "#of districts with an ANSF security lead" to "% of operations with an ANSF lead" replaces a statistic that would likely have shown little upward change before 2011 with one that says less by comparison. Going forward, will a positive change in percentage indicate an increase in Afghan operational tempo, or a reduction in Canadian aggressiveness? Both would lead to the same percentage increase. Add in the lack of clarity about what counts as an "operation" (a patrol? a resupply run? a shura?) and it's largely reduced to a bookkeeping exercise. But there really aren't better options. Canada is running a much smaller part of Kandahar province now, and the day when Afghans take on lead security for the American-run parts of the province is no longer something we can pretend to influence, so rating ourselves on what proportion of the province Afghans are controlling independently would no longer be valid.

Posted by BruceR at 10:21 AM

September 15, 2009

Army building: what exactly have we created?

A couple links of interest first:

Col Malevich, "Where are the Afghan Inglorious Bastards (sic)?"

Where are the small bands of Government of Afghanistan fighters operating on foot in Taliban safe havens, mixing with the people, getting intelligence, denying the Taliban that safe haven, ambushing Taliban groups, (with coalition backup) giving them no respite, taking away their feeling of invulnerability and exacerbating mistrust between Taliban groups? Where is the Afghan version of the “Les Commandos Tigres Noir,” (The Black Tigers), a group of former Viet-minh who under the leadership of Sergeant-Major Roger Vanenberghe in 1952 Indo China dressed in black uniforms and brought the fight to the insurgents and captured one of their command-posts?... Where are the undercover Afghan Inglorious Bastards, who roll down the road in an old truck either armed to the teeth or armed with radios that talk to a trailing UAV or Attack Helicopter or follow-on truck full of undercover hard men? If a few of these check points were hit, the Taliban or local criminals might be less inclined to use them. This tactic was used quite effectively by Canadian troops in Somalia. Why aren’t we seeing it in Afghanistan?

Yglesias, "Illiteracy in the Afghan Army."

...The Afghan National Army is largely illiterate because Afghanistan is largely illiterate. So while there’s a real problem here, it’s also a problem that the Taliban and the Haqqani network and Hekmatyar and everyone else need to grapple with. So looked at one way, this isn’t a huge problem. We don’t need an ANA that’s an effective military according to some abstract standard, we just need an ANA that’s not likely to be overrun by its adversaries. But if we have the more ambitious goal of created an effectively administered centralized state, then the lack of literacy becomes a huge problem. And a problem without an obvious solution on a realistic time frame.

The fact is, it's not a problem that the enemy has to grapple with. Their plan works pretty well without literacy. Our plan, which depends on interoperability with Western forces for all the battle-winning things the Afghans need from us (intelligence, casevac, fires, quick reaction forces, etc.) requires Afghans who can tell us accurately, without imbedded Western soldiers, where they are on a map, what the enemy is doing, etc. That doesn't exist, and isn't likely to exist any time soon. To be interoperable, they must be able to function at close to our level. The Taliban doesn't need to be interoperable with anybody.

Which brings us back to that thought-provoking Malevich piece (leaving aside the fact that the movie he's citing is not exactly a realistic depiction of... well, anything, let alone how guerrilla warriors fight). I would suggest that we don't have Afghans doing the kinds of things he suggests, mostly because we ourselves have discouraged it. Because the Afghan army holds no ground by itself, because our troops are interspersed with theirs, we always need to know where they are. Which means we always need to be with them. Which means their forces have to operate to the same levels of force protection as ours, to protect those mentors or partnered troops. Which means all those kinds of tactics that good irregular troops can do, and which in other contexts Afghans can excel at, are not on the table.

Take the Malevich scenario. There's a common roadblock location in Zhari district near Mirvalian village. I know, I've seen the guy who stands there as "collector."* Okay, so let's say the Afghans want to covertly take that roadblock out. Let's say they procure some battered civvy car and stuff a bunch of their guys in it, armed to the teeth. They get there, they get into a firefight, a UAV overhead sees what's going on, sees them shooting, but can't figure out which are the insurgents... you know the rest. Okay, so they need someone with them with comms with aircraft in the area. Well, they're all illiterate so that's a Western mentor. Who isn't allowed to travel in their vehicles, or with less than a section of backup. So you've got a couple RG-31s with you. So you're no longer covert. And they will see you coming and put the IED out in your path before you've gotten half way there. Which means you'd need a mine clearance package. Etc. And we're back to basically the current approach.

If we left Afghanistan tomorrow, lock stock and barrel, two things would happen to the security forces. The first would be the ANA and ANP would completely evaporate as functioning institutions in much of the country, probably in a matter of days if not hours. They are still very much artificial constructs that we've imposed on the country, and wholly dependent on our technology for their survival so long as they continue to use the tactics we've taught them. The second would be that a revitalized Northern Alliance and other forces -- that the ANA supplanted and would now subsume the ANA in turn -- would resume doing exactly the kinds of nifty hit-and-run things, to protect their own enclaves, that Malevich is talking about. Because that IS actually how Afghans fight, when left to their own devices.

But to get the current Afghan army to do those things, you're talking basically starting over at this point... or taking a good chunk of the country and letting them run it with a bare minimum of Western troop support, operating almost covertly within their ranks. It would have to be a low-risk area of the country, because if you did that right now in the South the insurgents would eat them for lunch, but in another part of the country it might be possible.

Here's what we've trained the ANA to do, instead. They can in some circumstances involving the locals be useful interfaces for our forces. They can hold and defend fixed locations and the immediate environs. They can force-multiply small Western dets, which would be a lot more useful if there weren't more westerners in the south than ANA right now. They can do effective IED sweeps daily, and other such activities where the cumulative risk to Western troops would simply be too high. Umm, that's about it.

We've talked about T.E. Lawrence before. The Turks he fought had German mentors, too. And those mentors trained the Turks well enough that, against an incompetent British opponent (as in Gallipoli or Mesopotamia) they could hold their own in a defensive action, fighting the way the British fought, more or less, fully interoperable with their German advisor/leaders, German-flown aircraft, and so on. Lawrence, on the other hand, let his Arabs fight as Arabs, and augmented it through an acceptance of personal risk on the part of himself and his immediate team of Western mentors that is really quite remarkable. Small detachments of Egyptian and British troops, mortars, machine guns, aircraft, even armoured cars, in some cases, backing up the Arab fighters (which Lawrence himself co-led). But it was still very much an Arab way of war. As insurgents, they had it easier that way: you don't need to be able to read a train's schedule to blow it up, necessarily, but you do if your field artillery's ammunition is loaded on it.

What we've done in Afghanistan is trained an equivalent of the Turkish Army in that analogy, not the Arabs. We've taught them to fight the way we do. They're not as good at it as we are, of course, in part because of issues like illiteracy. We've suppressed any way of fighting we cannot support and participate in fully, because to do so could, frankly, end up with more dead Afghan soldiers due to friendly fire and deconfliction problems than dead enemy. And so here we are.

What wouldn't seem to be a profitable strategy right now, in that light, is accelerating the expansion of the ANA even further, which some are advocating. The quality of recruits certainly isn't going to go UP, after all. Yes, you'd get some more adjuncts to help the Western forces out. But in terms of troops that could operate independently and take over when we're gone, you likely would retard the process by diluting the available talent even further, which means you'd be effectively be pushing the date we could leave even further back.

Any troop-training strategy that focussed on creating Afghan "Bastards," (quality) and a strategy that focussed on creating adjuncts/auxiliaries (quantity), would almost need to be done by two separate organizations. Now, there ARE Afghan commando forces, but in practice they're even more dependent on Western technology than regular Afghan forces are... they're just really good adjuncts that are used, if they are at all, as door-kickers for the local SOF organizations (itself a highly technologically dependent way of doing things), and are unlikely to be used for much of anything else anytime soon. (The ANA commando story, short version: "heliborne troops without their own helicopters.")

A sounder approach might be to use the Afghan National Police as your auxiliary force, pouring resources into growing its size rapidly, while downplaying ANA growth in favour of ANA quality improvements. Now to do that, you'd need to get out of the mindset that the ANP are, in fact, serving as police, in any Western sense of the word, rather than paramilitaries. Civilian police mentors are, as valuable as their contributions have been, somewhat of a distraction in this regard.

Afghanistan does not need a national police force per se: there is no justice system that it could serve. It does need a large national paramilitary corps that can do the local defence cadre task and take over the western military auxiliary tasks as well. And it needs, second and separately, an army of its own that can take over for those same westerners some day. Which in order to survive our departure will need to be small, lethal, and able to fight in an Afghan-appropriate, technologically-light way. That's what we should have been trying to create these last eight years, and what I'm afraid we are still very far from achieving.

UPDATE: There's a couple quibbles I'd have with Col. Malevich's post. Note his exemplar for "Government of Afghanistan fighters" is the Tigres Noir, who were a lot of things, but were hardly a force subordinate to an independent Vietnamese government (for starters, they weren't just "former Vietminh," they were Vietminh prisoners let out of prison camp if they agreed to fight for the French, one of whom would assassinate Vanenberge and end the experiment in its first year). His other two examples are an imaginary movie, and a situation where Canadian troops, acting without any indigenous support, took aggressive action against local warlordism in Somalia in 1993: neither is a particularly useful model for either the ANA or their current mentors now.

*From above, remotely, obviously.

Posted by BruceR at 01:59 PM

Are they even paying attention?

Globe and Mail editorial, today:

If he works to secure a U.S. troop commitment, Mr. Harper can help give Mr. Obama a measure of political cover as they both grapple with the larger challenges in the region...

Jeez, people, pay attention. This was the editorial you should have written a year ago, when the first US battalion was just arriving in Kandahar Province. There are now, by at least one account, six or seven. We've had more U.S. troops allocated to that province now than the Manley commission even dreamed of. The troop commitment WAS given. The Globe editorial board apparently had no idea this has happened, and clearly has no idea what we should do now that that decision point has passed, either.

Posted by BruceR at 01:08 PM

Spokesman overreach

Watch and shoot* for the coming rollback on these remarks:

"Canada's position is clear," Soudas said. "The military component of the mission ends in 2011"... Soudas said post-2011 Canada will examine what other contributions it can make in reconstruction, aid or training."

It will be undoubtedly clarified in due course that Soudas meant the "combat component". Right now, however, a lot of officers in Ottawa planning for the 2011 military deployments (PRT, mentoring support, etc.) are undoubtedly having their own private WTF? moments, as are some of our allies, as well.

*Military term. I have to use one every now and again.

Posted by BruceR at 12:45 PM

On drinking water and Ramadan

CBS, from the weekend:

In Kabul, the capital, an American service member and an Afghan police officer got into an argument because the American was drinking water in front of the Afghan police, who are not eating or drinking during the day because of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, said the district chief, Abdul Baqi Zemari.

The police officer shot the American and seriously wounded him, while other American troops responded and seriously wounded the police officer, Zemari said.

Working with Afghan soldiers or police (or terps) during Ramadan is difficult, especially when it comes in the summer months. Although I observed a sympathy fast last year, I was unable to get through 30 hot, cloud-free days without occasionally sneaking a sip of water... I don't *think* I was ever spotted.

Productivity goes way down, and some Afghans are frankly a little heat-stressed by the end of the day. After 30 days of it, even the senior officers back in HQ are a little baked. The incident in Kabul is not surprising, to me, at all. Drinking openly in front of Afghan soldiers during the holy month carries a strong risk of diminishing their respect for you, even if they don't shoot you.

The real problem, of course, is that the insurgents are on a jihad, so by their own, what for a lack of a better word I will call "reasoning", they don't have to observe the fast at all, while Afghan security forces still do. So they're still 100% effective, while the Afghan soldiers and police who need to fight them are basically done by noon for that month.

That this would escalate to an argument, let alone a shooting, is horrible, and will be officially condemned by all Afghans, as it should be. But there will be some, if not many, who hearing of the incident will also chalk it up to American insensitivity and amend their opinions of us accordingly.

Posted by BruceR at 09:07 AM

September 14, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

Chandrasekharan on Kandahar. Notable:

Shortly after he took over as the overall U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, McChrystal asked his subordinates why more than half of the 21,000 troops deployed this spring were sent to neighboring Helmand province instead of Kandahar. The implication was clear, according to a person familiar with the discussion: Kandahar requires more forces.

By then, however, it was too late to move the Marines from Helmand...

UPDATE: Just to be clear: McChrystal's appointment was announced on May 12. The Marines started to arrive in Helmand on July 1. Despite the fact they'd be using the same logistics hub regardless (KAF), Western forces were unable to redeploy one province over in strength given six weeks notice... even though the General didn't want them there anymore, and there were going to be no ANSF available to help them accomplish their mission.

During my rotation, Afghan troops deployed in the hundreds from Kandahar to Helmand twice. Once on 11 hours notice. Yes, it sucked for all involved, but that's the Afghan way of war. (It was also Patton's way of war too, one might add.)

Posted by BruceR at 09:13 AM

September 11, 2009

Visits, and Sen. Kenny pulls pin

2 visits to KAF I can get behind*:

The (other) Bruce

The CinC

On the home front, however, one of the strongest politician-defenders of the Canadian military ever has said enough's enough. That's significant. So as of today it's official: there's no one left in Canadian politics who thinks this is likely to end well.**

* (Still cranky I missed Kid Rock, btw)

**Large numbers of us are still in the "possible to end well" camp, however. (Text corrected to say what I really meant to say, above.)

Posted by BruceR at 12:48 PM

September 09, 2009

Afghan election update

New York Times:

“This was fraud en masse,” the Western diplomat said.

Most of the fraud perpetrated on behalf of Mr. Karzai, officials said, took place in the Pashtun-dominated areas of the east and south where officials said that turnout on Aug. 20 was exceptionally low. That included Mr. Karzai’s home province, Kandahar, where preliminary results indicate that more than 350,000 ballots have been turned in to be counted. But Western officials estimated that only about 25,000 people actually voted there.

But it was still peaceful, right?

As soon as I heard about the 24,000 votes at 45 polling stations in the almost completely abandoned district of Shorabak, I guess I knew this was coming, but still... wow.

Hajji Abdul Majid, 75, the chief of the tribal elders council in Argestan District, in Kandahar Province, said that despite the fact that security forces opened the town’s polling place, no one voted, so any result from his district would be false.

“The people know that the government just took control of the district center for that day of the elections,” he said. “People are very frustrated. They don’t believe in the government.”

He added: “If Karzai is re-elected, people will leave the country or join the Taliban.”

BruceR: During my time in Kandahar Province, no ANSF or Western forces ever transited or operated in Arghestan District. Too dangerous. The area has had no government presence to speak of, other than, apparently on election day.

More evidence of fraud has emerged in the past few days. In Zangabad, about 20 miles west of Kandahar, local residents say no voting took place on Aug. 20. The village’s single polling site, the Sulaiman Mako School, is used by Taliban guerrillas as their headquarters, the residents said. The area around Zangabad is one of the most contested in Afghanistan. Despite the nonexistent turnout, Afghan election records show that nearly 2,000 ballots were collected from the Sulaiman Mako School and sent to Kabul to be counted by election officials.

BruceR: Zangabad village was also non-permissive to government and coalition forces most of the time I was there. A report of 2,000 people peaceably lining up to vote at Sulaiman Mako School, almost all for Karzai, while guarded by the ANP, simply wouldn't have been plausible to us at the time.

The allegations in Zangabad are being echoed throughout the Panjwai District. Official Afghan election records show that 16 polling centers were supposed to be open on Election Day. But according to at least one local leader, only a fraction of that number actually existed.

Haji Agha Lalai is a senior member of the provincial council in Kandahar, where Panjwai is located. As a candidate for re-election, he sent election observers across the area, including to Panjwai. In an interview, Mr. Lalai said that only “five or six” polling centers were open in Panjwai District that day — far fewer than the 16 claimed by the Afghan government.

So far, the Independent Election Commission has released results from seven of Panjwai District’s polling centers. The tally so far: 5,213 votes for Mr. Karzai, 328 for Mr. Abdullah.

BruceR: Sounds like someone in the Karzai camp got a little greedy, or cocky, or both. So... now what?

Posted by BruceR at 02:25 PM

Well, that was predictable

That said, the apparent inability to put eyes on a riverbed 4 km south of the Kunduz Airport base and 6 km south of the Kunduz PRT in any kind of timely fashion has to be a cause for concern. Not only did it contribute to the failure to discriminate civilians from insurgents in this instance, it doesn't bode well should, say, a large number of insurgents ever *really* gather in that vicinity, either. (For all the Germans know, they're there right now...)

--This website, Sept. 7

Just then, people started shouting, “The Taliban are coming!” Across the river, the driver said he saw a group of about 10 militants with Kalashnikovs and machine guns running toward them.

--N.Y. Times, describing the Sept. 5 capture of a Times reporter at the same location.

Posted by BruceR at 09:19 AM

September 08, 2009

This wasn't supposed to happen

Every ANSF mentor's worst nightmare came true in Konar today:

"U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren't near the village.

"'We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We've lost today,' Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, 37, said through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter's repeated demands for helicopters."

That translator was among the KIA, along with 4 Americans and 8 ANSF. God rest them all.

UPDATE: "K" from Konar's Marine ETT team recently RIP'd home, so this was probably either the tail end or the start of a new rotation for the Marines under fire.

Posted by BruceR at 09:37 PM

On the liquid bombers

I recall spending a good part of August, 2006 trying to figure out the story of the liquid airline bombers, convicted to a second set of lengthy prison terms yesterday. Lewis Page, an ex-EOD guy who actually knows what he's talking about, had the best writeup I've seen on what the actual plan was, a year ago.

In short, the group had a workable plan to create and smuggle explosives and fox security, possessed the necessary skills to carry it out, believed it had sufficient willing suicide recruits, and had assembled the right precursor chemicals. It had not done the (admittedly final) steps of chemical mixing, bomb assembly or ticket purchase, and in the process of getting that far had picked up police surveillance, which is certainly to the credit of British law enforcement.

I think what I said at the time still stands up. The plan would not involve the mixing of chemicals on a plane: the only thing an airport bathroom would be used for would be to attach the detonator, power source and/or main charge together. The use of a liquid main charge (which had been done in the past) would help them bypass security, but more importantly allow for the kind of easy assembly which any suicidal, distracted terrorist could be expected to accomplish on his own in his last seconds of life (unscrew the cap, pop in the det and you're done).

Clever, yes. Whether it would have worked is an open question: as the second round of Brit train bombers (aka, the "Goo Bombers") found, concentrating peroxide for your main charge is not without its challenges. Without any time or effort spent on testing, it's possible that some or all of the final airline bombs would have fizzled similarly to those failures. Not something you would ever count on, though.

The other thing I said at the time was that the initial blanket ban on all liquids, gels and pastes of any size was an overreaction (hence tempered sensibly at least somewhat; I can live with the 100ml-or-less rule on my travel toothpaste), and much of the reaction both by security officials and the press (seizure of 400 computers, banning of the carrying of fresh fish in your carry-on) largely mass-hysterical in nature. I think that assessment stands up, too. (What I actually wrote below the jump, if you don't feel like scrolling through a month of meandering):

What I actually wrote:

"Let's try and be absolutely clear, before this gets completely out of hand. Doing final assembly of a bomb in flight (meaning connecting the igniter/timer to the substance to be detonated) is certainly plausible, and has been done. Sneaking a prepared explosive in liquid form (such as nitroglycerine) onto a plane is, as well: it's been done before. But any "expert" or journalist who surmises that this plot involved *creating* a chemical explosive from the reaction of two or more components *in flight* (ie, making an ad hoc chem lab out of the rest room) is engaging in unsubstantiated surmise, as will be undoubtedly borne out when more facts on this particular plot become known..." (Aug. 11)

"The simple fact is this escapade has so far been a total victory for anti-Western terror: massive dislocation of Western society out of all proportion to the effort expended. In achieving its victory, terror has relied on the three things -- superstition, mass hysteria, and scientific ignorance -- of which it seems we have an almost inexhaustible human supply." (Aug. 29)

Posted by BruceR at 09:19 AM

More on helplessness and powerlessness

Just an addendum to the post below: the lack of any Afghan involvement in kinetic strikes such as the Kunduz bombing doesn't just leave the Afghan soldier out of the loop, but the country's political leadership as well. Assuming civilians do turn out to have perished there by mistake, what exactly can the President or his Defence Minister be seen to do at this point to redress that mistake? They can't fire anyone... no one fireable was involved.

So you have this situation where, when it comes to the issue that most excises Afghans right now (accidental bombings of civilians) the government we are trying to empower has exactly zero it can do or say about it, in the eyes of its own people.

Not hard to make the Karzai government look powerless, of course, no matter what the outcome is of any coalition action. If there is no action, and the Taliban do gather and pull off another significant attack, the government looks powerless. If the action hurts the Taliban entirely successfully, the Coalition can look great... the government looks dependent on the coalition to keep them in power, hence powerless. And if the strike has ambiguous or negative results, such as Kunduz... hey, ho, we're powerless! Some days I wonder how the Afghan president gets out of bed.

Posted by BruceR at 08:40 AM

September 07, 2009

On the dying Marine photo

Ricks and Old Blue are suitably irate.

I'll only add my own disappointment, almost purely hinging on the breach of trust issue. In a war zone you need to be able to trust those you're with. By violating the letter and entire spirit of her embedding agreement, the AP photographer in question showed herself, and by extension, other journalists of unworthy of soldiers' trust.

Journalists like to tell themselves that it is their rugged truth-telling, and bringing the truth of lost wars, etc. to the public through such devices as disturbing photos, that lets the public know what's really going on, and leads to bad wars becoming unpopular and ending. I wonder if that doesn't confuse correlation with causation, though. There will be no consequences in this case for Associated Press and other journalists, partly because, with the war trending down, soldiers need the journalists more than ever and have to put up with more of their liberties. Maybe it's the unpopularity of the war that leads to the graphic imagery, not the other way around.

Posted by BruceR at 10:52 PM

About Kunduz

Not much to say here about Kunduz that hasn't already been said. Obviously, the ISAF commander's room to criticize German actions or lack thereof is extremely circumscribed. In the middle of an election campaign, any open criticism could increase the likelihood of Germany withdrawing even further from the war than they already have. And in this case the "better than nothing" rule definitely applies.

You don't want to armchair quarterback this too much, either. As the official German press briefing makes clear*, there was other, non-public information that contributed to the decision to strike. The German local leadership were undoubtedly operating in a firm belief Taliban were on scene. And I have no reason to doubt some probably were. COMISAF's guidelines on rules of engagement apply to all nations: no one can opt out just because they're feeling threatened, or out of sorts; it follows they must have felt they had met those guidelines when they pulled the trigger.

We should be mindful, too, that many strikes that undoubtedly caused only insurgent casualties have been broadcast as hits on civilians. The Taliban are very adept at getting out their story very fast at the local level, in many cases generating street protests the next day, even in absolutely cut-and-dried situations. Numbers are also often exaggerated in the Afghan context. So people need to keep their skepticism filters on high here, pending a fuller investigation.

That said, the apparent inability to put eyes on a riverbed 4 km south of the Kunduz Airport base and 6 km south of the Kunduz PRT in any kind of timely fashion has to be a cause for concern. Not only did it contribute to the failure to discriminate civilians from insurgents in this instance, it doesn't bode well should, say, a large number of insurgents ever *really* gather in that vicinity, either. (For all the Germans know, they're there right now...)

There's a significant risk of "learned helplessness" when you're FOB-bound... one gets the feeling that, at least in German minds, the siege of Kunduz has begun, and is ongoing (note the reference to a mortar attack in the presser as justification for Gen. McChrystal not to be allowed to visit the site).

The other thing the presser refers to, a statement by the local Afghan leadership that all 54 individuals they claim were killed in the attack were, in fact, insurgents, needn't be ascribed too much weight. The ANSF don't have access to any intelligence methods the Coalition does not, and there's no indication either ANA or ANP ever had their own eyes-on, either. Pretty much everything they got to base their conclusions on, they will have gotten from the Germans or the Afghan media on this one.

The hidden issue here is the example it gives of the endemic lack of security force coordination, which is a problem throughout Afghanistan. If Kunduz is like most other provinces, the Coalition can't just call up the nearest Police Station or Afghan army base and ask them what they're seeing, or get them to send out a patrol... there's no real communications method to do so, other than cellphone-and-terp, no Afghan operations centre of any real significance to call, and no compunction on the Afghans' part to do anything just because you (or more accurately, your interpreter) would like them to. One suspects there wasn't even any real effort to involve the ANSF in this one, which could have been a problem if police or soldiers had been in the area anyway, given the apparent lack of Coalition eyes-on. The famous Afghan reluctance to go out at night doesn't *always* apply. It would be interesting to know what, if any, efforts at friendly force deconfliction were made here.

Deconfliction aside, that lack of coordination's not normally a limiter on our actions: there is rarely any requirement in our rules of engagement to get the approval of a local authority for kinetic strikes, be it the governor, the local army rep, or what have you. So the Germans wouldn't have done anything wrong, per se, by leaving the ANSF out. And because Afghans haven't generally been allowed into our operations centres or to see our aerial feeds, all the decisions in this case will have necessarily been 100% coalition. (Note how no one in any of the coverage so far bothers to explain how ANSF agencies would have been involved in the deliberation to strike, or suggests that they should have been.)

The Afghan soldier or police officer's perspective towards our actions in this respect is actually pretty similar to an Afghan civilian's: hearing a large explosion at night can mean the Taliban blowing something up, or the Coalition. To the average cop or soldier, t's all very random and unexplained. Even your superiors are unlikely to ever really get the whole truth of it and next morning you'll hear the two competing stories on the news along with everybody else. This leads, one imagines, to a learned helplessness of a different kind.

*No, I don't read German. Babel Fish gives you most of the key facts, though.

UPDATE: More here.

Posted by BruceR at 07:02 PM

September 04, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

Good article in the Atlantic on the ANP:

Bringing the Afghan National Police up to a level where they can defend not only themselves but the areas under their jurisdiction is as yet little more than a distant hope. Someone like Abdullah will only fight loyally with the police so long as he can support his family—and be able to buy batteries for his radio. America and its allies have grandiose expectations, but by placing so much of the burden on an under-trained, inadequately equipped police force, they seem to be setting themselves up for failure.

The only ANP organizations I knew of in Afghanistan that were remotely effective were the ANP with embedded Canadian mentors (the so-called P-OMLT, made up of a mix of line infantry and military police) living with them around the clock. Canada was the only country that did this during my tour: the U.S. PMTs, undoubtedly gung ho and absolutely invaluable to ISAF operations in their own way, would still stay at fortified FOBs and drive out to visit, rather than living-in 24/7. It sounds from the article like the Brit police mentors still do the same in Helmand. As the article intimates, the nearly-inevitable result is corruption, casualties, and demoralization among the police.

Posted by BruceR at 12:21 PM

September 03, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

Stephen Grey, "Cracking on in Helmand," in the Prospect:

As seen from London or Washington, the story of Helmand was more often of commanders who pushed soldiers into harm’s way, sent back endlessly optimistic reports, and extended the conflict beyond the resources and political will available back home. Their complaint has merit...

See also Foust.

Also, FRI on the assassination of the NDS deputy. Not a good day: this is going to have a paralysing effect on a lot of pro-Government Afghans. If you can get this guy, you can get anybody. Further musings follow:

There are no easy answers in Afghanistan. Gen McChrystal is coming out with an assessment which says he doesn’t need a lot of troops he needs troops who can live off the FOB’s, eat kabob’s and rice and live with the Afghans. Modern western armies are not organized to provide these kinds of people and modern western democracies won’t support that kind of nonsense anyway... So what to do? I have not a clue but I’ll say this; I would not want to be anywhere else – this place is about to get very interesting.

I know how he feels. You can leave Afghanistan, but it's hard for Afghanistan to leave you.

Posted by BruceR at 09:24 AM

September 02, 2009

Election fraud... in Shorabak?

Odd story yesterday from the usually reliable Dexter Filkins about election fraud in Kandahar Province.

The central premise, which Yglesias and others have commented on, is undoubtedly true. Karzai's brother is undoubtedly a powerful man, perhaps the most powerful man, in the south. And election fraud in the country has undoubtedly been rampant. But some of the details of this story don't scan.

The synopsis is that the Bariz tribe of Shorabak district says all 23,000 of its votes, which they had intended to cast as a bloc for Abdullah, have been converted by Karzai's brother into votes for the sitting president. Check.

Trouble is, Shorabak is something of a desert wasteland, almost completely uninhabited, part of the Reg desert south and west of Spin Boldak. It's doubtful it has more than 10,000 actual residents, most of them nomadic. During election registration when I was there, it had exactly 1 registration station open in the entire district. So I'm not clear on how it would suddenly have 23,000 adult residents of the same tribe, or why the district would suddenly have 45 polling locations. That simply doesn't make sense. There aren't 45 hamlets with over 10 adults in them in the entire district. (45 would be a credible number for the polling stations in all of Kandahar Province, perhaps.)

That, combined with other little details (I'm having trouble finding any reference to the Bariz tribe of Shorabak dated before Filkins' article, the tribal head is called the "governor" of Shorabak, rather than the district leader, which would be his proper title; only provinces, not districts, have governors) suggests some significant measure of detail has been lost in translation or obfuscated here.

To be fair, whether you *wanted* to engage in massive election fraud, *or* make an unproveable allegation of massive fraud, Shorabak would be the place to do it. But on the surface, it seems one attempt to deliver a large and quite possibly fraudulent bloc of votes to Abdullah (What, you think those 23,900 Bariz members, assuming they even exist, could in any meaningful way be said to have participated in a democratic process? With the men casting ballots for all the women in their households, and the tribal elder dictating which way all the men would vote? We're not talking about 23,000 people lining up to cast ballots at election booths, regardless.) was intercepted and circumvented by AWK.

Posted by BruceR at 09:11 AM