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 ďLes Commandos Tigres Noir,Ē (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 arenít 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 thereís a real problem here, itís 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 isnít a huge problem. We donít need an ANA thatís an effective military according to some abstract standard, we just need an ANA thatís 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