October 28, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

AWK on the CIA payroll... who knew?

I've never met AWK, and all I know about this one is what I read in the papers. But a year ago in Kandahar, there was at least one "police station" on a convenient secondary import/export route that had no apparent formal connection with the rest of the ANSF and no mentoring presence, and twice to my knowledge officers from ANA 205 Corps attempted to take action to seize armed men or weapons they had identified near the city and were told by higher authorities in their own chain of command to back off. In all 3 cases, the president's brother was cited as the dodgy guys' employer. The ANA more or less concluded that he was untouchable, at least as far as they were concerned. After the allegations of massive voter fraud and the gunning down of a guy who was by all accounts a really good city police chief without consequence, it's fair to say their concerns back then seem even more warranted. But there was always a lot going on in Kandahar Province besides the war, too. It's what being a "lawless place" literally means. No one should be too surprised.

Here's another story not to be surprised about. Junior-grade diplomat with PTSD pulls pin after 2 months. Check. The simple statistical fact is that PTSD sufferers are more likely to jump ship or otherwise be sent home from tours. And the two-month point of a tour is about the lowest you go, and the most bewildered you feel. The only notable thing about this seems to be the better-than-average quality of the departure letter.

Also today, Ann Marlowe and Cdr. David Adams in the WSJ (Marlowe tends to repeat what she's told quite effectively, so I'm going to assume it's mostly Cdr. Adams talking.) Notable for this quote:

"The ANA now stationed in Khost is mainly composed of northern, non-Pashtun Dari speakers, and it is regarded as a foreign body. Without local influence and tribal support, the ANA tends to stay on its bases.

Part of this is our fault. We built the ANA in our own Army's image. Its soldiers live on nice bases and see themselves as the protectors of Afghanistan from conventional attacks by Pakistan..."

This is exactly right. I never once heard an Afghan soldier admit or state in an enemy situation paragraph that they were fighting other Afghans. It was always the "foreign ISI-backed terrorists." The comments about refighting the war anew every year are apropos, as well.

Look, this is three facets of a core problem. We have been trying, with all the best of intentions, to work against the grain of an established society (of which both AWK and the Khostis who dislike the New Model ANA are a part), relying on the military's ability to build anew, or at least keep the roads open while Afghans do. But neither armies nor Afghans are known for building things very well. (Armies excise, break, smash quite effectively, no question.) The results have become evidently suboptimal, and smart people like the Zabul diplomat are getting discouraged. You could say "well, start working along the grain then." And that might have been an option as late as 2005. But the infrastructure, the investment, the sunk cost involved in the current society-renewal strategy in places like Helmand and Kandahar has become so massive, widespread and pervasive since, that I'm thinking you can't just wind it back down easily anymore. Societies have this in common with both subatomic particles and sensitive environments: the mere act of observing them, let alone trying to change them, distorts their progress. Our presence has taken parts of Afghanistan down a road they never would have gone down on their own. And that means we're inevitably going to be somewhat less able to restore them to something it once was, or allow them to choose their own way now, because of all that we have committed to preserving all that we've built so far.

All that to say I'd be skeptical about any "just arm the tribes" line of argument, whether by Cdr. Adams or elsewhere by Maj. Gant, at this point. It might work if you could draw a dotted line around the area where you want to try it and say "this is our approach in this area," and keep main-force ISAF and ANSF out. But if the areas of operation for conventional and unconventional strategies overlap, you risk coming back to the AWK thing again, with everyone seemingly working at cross-purposes in a semi-chaotic situation.

UPDATE: See also Gen. Flynn in the AWK article, a consistently intelligent intelligence officer, "the only way to clean up Chicago is to get rid of Capone." In the case of either Chicago in the 1920s, or Afghanistan now, that'd be more or less the exact opposite of a straight-out "work within existing tribal structures" policy.

That doesn't mean you can't, a la Sean Connery in that Untouchables movie, use unconventional TTPs to support a more conventional approach ("that's the Chicago way", etc.): you still have to avoid the use of knives at gunfights regardless, in other words. But, to stay in the same vernacular for just a sec, "work within existing structures" in that movie would mean working from the PoV of the old police chief, and NOT choosing to knock over the bootleggers across the street from police HQ. Two different approaches, that need to be at least separated geographically a little to be most effective.

Posted by BruceR at 08:36 AM

October 27, 2009

Some non-essential reading for a change

This post was disappointing. Leaving aside the sheer impossibility at this point of the U.S. demanding and getting the mass firing of "Karzai cronies", this part is just obtuse:

"We need to turn these villages into anti-insurgent strong points... We should approach the villagers and ask what they most need. It could be a well, an irrigation project, an access road or something else. The bottom line is that the project(s) should be a local call, not something that we assume that they need. The deal in providing the project should be that the village population will form a popular force unit to protect itself and the project(s). We can arm them and pay for the militiamen's time, but they need to do the defending themselves. If we use mobile air assault forces to back up these popular forces, we can deny the Taliban the quick, relatively bloodless victories that they have achieved so often in the past."

Look, we've been there a while now. It's safe to say we've tried that. Over and over again, all over the place. Now there are arguments why it hasn't often worked, sure: undermanning/underresourcing being an obvious one. But any insightful piece about Afghanistan needs to start by acknowledging that this approach has been tried many times before, and so far seems rarely successful.

Here's the most-likely enemy COA in 2008-09 in the above scenario.

One: make an offer to the local security force leader. "Give us your ammo and some of your weapons, or we kill you. Tell the Westerners you shot it off fighting us." If that works, you're done. Go back to the well every few months when you need to rearm.

Two: if it doesn't, overrun and kill everyone in the security post at night. Or gun down the leader in the bazaar; either's good. Regardless, it's safe to assume any air or ground assets deployed in reaction will not get there before you're long gone. Wait until the post's personnel or the leader are replaced, and go back to step one.

Three: in the rare cases where the Coalition (or sometimes the ANA) has a standing 24/7 presence in the village, wait until they do something inept that makes the pro-government Afghans look like Quislings. It's often only a matter of time: next rotation, what have you. Or they have to go away to another task and leave the locals in charge. Then go to step one.

Give us new ideas for how to beat that method, and you've got a post worth reading. COMISAFs "better troops and more of them" is at least an attempt in this regard.

Posted by BruceR at 01:59 PM

October 26, 2009

Ann Marlowe vs Bob Wright

Josh Foust has repeatedly criticized American writer Ann Marlowe for being in the tank with the military as regards Khost Province. I don't find her writing very compelling - although the approach her favourite soldier, Lieut. Col. Scott Custer, reportedly used in Khost in 2007-08 with the local U.S. maneuver force divided into platoon-sized teams living at district centres with the ANP rather than brigaded (and thus shut up) in a FOB, does seem worthy of further study and possible broader application as a COIN option for the Afghan countryside.

That said, I found her Bloggingheads appearance with Robert Wright deeply uncomfortable "turnaway TV", like watching the David Brent character an episode of the UK series of The Office. She may have a lot of time in country, but she simply doesn't seem very smart: Wright demolished pretty much every non-experiential point she made pretty easily (often with only a studious silence). Against Wright, who is if nothing else a reflective chap, she came across as entirely unable to contextualize all that she's seen and heard, or accept limitations on her own judgment; it makes the ensuing debate the intellectual equivalent of watching a grown man beat a puppy...

And if I were Cdr. Erika Sauer, the PRT commander and naval oceanographer who had the bad luck to come after the commander Marlowe liked, who she blames quite explicitly (without naming her) for security degrading in Khost over the last year, I'd be understandably annoyed. Sure, there's an honest question about whether a woman oceanographer is the best person to be running a PRT, but you have to offer more in the way of a causal chain if you're going to attribute a decline in security to one person's arrival in country. Saying only that "everybody, Afghans and Americans all disliked her" as your only point of explanation, as Marlowe does, is schoolyardish and inane.

UPDATE: Compare and contrast Marlowe's assertions that "roads are magical" (debatable) and PRTs are a huge Afghan success story with another undoubtedly smart (if occasionally a little wild-eyed) man, Michael Semple, concluding at the end of this interesting taped seminar that "Of many aspects of the intervention in Afghanistan that are waiting to be savaged and consigned to the dustbin of history, PRTs are pretty high up the list... inshallah, they will be barely a footnote in the history of Afghanistan when the next round of history is written. And if you're thinking of, if you're looking for a thesis or PhD topic, for god's sake don't write on PRTs: they're finished."

UPDATE #2: This Blogging Heads episode, by contrast, is actually worth watching.

Posted by BruceR at 05:43 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Paul McGeough on the chances of McChrystal succeeding:

"The Afghanistan insurgency's greatest strength is the combined, and for a long time, quite deliberate weakness of the Coalition and its treacherous allies in the Kabul government. The McChrystal blueprint might have worked in Year Two or even in Year Five of the conflict – and I stress 'might have' – but at this stage it's too little and it's too late."

McGeough offers snippets from Eastern Afghanistan that could have been Kandahar Province:

"Late last year when I embedded at Forward Operating Base Tilman, on the Pakistan border, U.S. Captain Dave Connor impressed me greatly with his soldiering skills, but in almost two weeks his men got beyond the wire just three times – every time hunkering in the MRAPs. On a single patrol he had three IEDs in the space of just a few hundred metres; he had a barrage of rockets into the base. And when he did venture out on a foot patrol, Taliban fighters were on the near ridgelines as his men were the first foreigners to visit some of the villages in two years."

Also this:

"On the contrary, McChrystal points out, a coalition fixation with violence has masked the insurgency's infiltration into the daily life of ordinary Afghans – setting up local shadow governments, arranging courts and levying taxes. They appoint their own officials and manipulate local grievances. Locals who stand in their way are gunned down or beheaded … that doesn't happen too often because, unlike Coalition or Kabul threats, a Taliban threat is taken seriously."

Also today from Tom Ricks, a classic bit of military understatement: "Those who did not see the Afghans as humans were generally a hindrance..."

The source document, an after-action summary from 101st Division in Eastern Afghanistan, adds, "We own the night in Iraq, we sometimes are able to borrow the night in Afghanistan." True, dat. Western abilities to control the countryside at night are perpetually overrated.

Posted by BruceR at 09:02 AM

October 20, 2009

On NATO collaboration

I see Gen. Hillier's in the news again for his comments on NATO. Anne Applebaum said it well yesterday:

"Only very rarely do the casualties of one country make it into the media, the political debates or the prime ministerial speeches of another country. There has been an international coalition operating in Afghanistan since 2001. NATO has been in charge of that coalition since 2003. Yet to read the British press, one would think the British are there almost alone, fighting a war in which they have no national interest. The same is true in France and in the Netherlands... There is almost no sense anywhere that the war in Afghanistan is an international operation, or that the stakes and goals are international, or that the soldiers on the ground represent anything other than their own national flags and national armed forces..."

True, but I'd take it one step farther. Deaths of Afghan National Army forces, even those incurred in direct support of a NATO country's operations, are almost never mentioned in the non-Afghan press, by any country. By extension, if the NATO alliance is dying, NATO's alliance with Afghanistan never seems to have been born, at all.

UPDATE: Just so it's mentioned somewhere, there have been six U.S. fatalities in Kandahar Province, all apparently in the once quiet Arghandab district, reported by DoD in the last 3 days. As per normal, this has not yet been mentioned in Canadian media.

Posted by BruceR at 01:38 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Steve Coll on the crucialness (is that a word?) of continued engagement in Afghanistan, with a focus on political reform. The conclusion:

"America's record of policy failure in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the last 30 years should humble all of us. It should bring humility to the way we define our goals and realism about the means required to achieve them. It should lead us to choose political approaches over kinetic military ones, urban population security over provocative rural patrolling, and Afghan and Pakistani solutions over American blueprints. But it should not lead us to defeatism or to acquiescence in a violent or forcible Taliban takeover of either country. We have the means to prevent that, and it is in our interest to do so.

For future mentor wannabes, K from Kunar again. I think the guy's got a book in him:

In retrospect, I should have remained consistent with the way I had been conducting things…only with more patience and with my expectations in check. Our team had a lot of different personalities, and they all did things different ways; the guys (including myself) who were dictatorial toward their ANA commanders and lost patience with them eventually were unable to accomplish anything at all...to the point where they hardly even worked together. The ETTs who were patient and encouraging with their ANA were able to slowly but surely get more and more out of their ANA.

The key, I found, was having an outlet for the private blowing off of steam. Mentoring is extremely frustrating, not just because of the Afghans, but because of your coalition partners as well. Whenever I came back to KAF from something like an op, I could always count on our assistant ops O to be in the CP, ready to offer me a patient sounding board. It became a ritual: I'd come back, say, "well, THAT was f***ed up," and then we'd go off for a Tim's. He helped keep me sane.

The other expression we'd use amongst ourselves in our weaker moments was a "Gong Show" motif*. One of us would come back in after a planning meeting at Camp Hero or TFK headquarters, and announce, as calmly as we could, "well, first off, we're going to need a bigger gong." It almost always got a smile. The alternative, remember, was to take out our frustrations on our Afghan and ISAF colleagues in their presence: better to have a few smiles, sighs and headshakes, and then we could start working on the solution in good spirits.

One time I was out in the sticks with a satphone as our only backlink and a minor coordination crisis ongoing. I asked for "Seagull Minor" (NATO-speak for the assistant ops o) to come to the phone on the KAF end. I then said "stores request, prepare to copy."
A/Ops O: "Send."
"Para Alpha: Require one times..."
"Um, roger."
I hope he got a laugh out of it.

*As in, "This is a ******* ****ing Gong Show."

Posted by BruceR at 11:47 AM

October 19, 2009

Other stuff I've been doing

I've had a couple of interesting meetings recently. I would be remiss if I didn't mention my appearance before the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa, on Oct. 9. The topic of the talk was "Military Intelligence Mentorship in Kandahar Province: Limitations of the ‘Afghan Face’ Approach" and covered a lot of the same ground I yak on about here in greater illustrated detail. I'm not really comfortable posting them openly as is, but if anyone would like to peruse the speaking notes and slides converted into an illustrated draft article format, feel free to email and I'll send them along. The abstract/thesis:

...in the spring of 2009, mentoring efforts as conducted by the ISAF nations had plateaued with respect to the higher military functions, including intelligence. That while we continued to have some success in developing company-level light infantry leadership and basic soldier skills in all the ANA trades, further improvements in the ability of the Afghan army to coordinate battalion or higher-level activities had become increasingly incremental. This was in no small part due to deficiencies in the ISAF mentoring structure and approach. Only strong direction from the top to dramatically change the way we operated would have offered a reasonable prospect of producing the rapid, even revolutionary improvements in battalion-level and higher headquarters organizations needed by the Afghan army.

On the following weekend, I attended a paper presentation by Registan's Joshua Foust in Toronto, on Afghan narcotics trends, which said more of interest in 15 minutes than I managed in an hour, I think. If it ever appears in web form, I promise to link.

UPDATE: Well, so much for not putting my talk on the web. Sigh... (I am thinking of adding "unusually candid" to the site's masthead, though.)

UPDATE #2: And now I see I'm in Sitrep, too. Sigh. (Just as an aside, that piece was originally requested by the newsletter of the RCMI, the Toronto-area military club of which I was a member before my tour, even before I got back in April: I got around to it in mid-summer. I would love to say I planned brilliantly for all this simultaneous exposure, but I didn't.)

Posted by BruceR at 06:00 PM

Not a ghost of a chance


"Army officials said the approximately 28,000 Pakistani soldiers involved in the operation in South Waziristan were set to face about 10,000 militants, including 1,500 particularly tough Uzbek fighters.

The proportion of soldiers to militants did not appear to be very high, some military specialists said, noting that in the Swat Valley in May, the Pakistani Army fielded more than 30,000 soldiers against a similar number of less experienced militants."

A ratio of less than 3-to-1, in mountainous hostile terrain? Eep. It's hard to see what the Pakistani military thinks it can accomplish by this.

Posted by BruceR at 02:32 PM

On bribery and counterinsurgency

Like the Defence Minister I think it's manifestly obvious that we haven't been bribing the Taliban to not kill Canadians. Whether the Italians are or aren't, I couldn't tell you. Stupid if they were and didn't pass that tidbit onto the French, of course.

But make no mistake: "tribe-bribing" is part and parcel of effective counterinsurgency. It's a valid tactic to knock the other guy's pieces off the board, and if the McChrystal approach takes hold and starts showing success, we'll see more, not less of it. If it means less ramp ceremonies in the end, I'm personally good with it. As BabaTim says today:

"NATO has issued a strong denial that any of its members are paying off potential trouble makers. I don’t believe the NATO spokesman nor do I believe there is a direct correlation between payments to local centers of influence by the Italians and the attack on the French patrol in the Uzbin. If the French had known about such an arrangement and refused to honor it one suspects they would have been better prepared when they ran into their first ambush."

By the by, BabaTim, aka Tim Lynch, also notes something else that always bothered me: "If people had any idea how much money there is in waste removal trucks servicing the many different FOB’s and COP’s which dot the countryside we would have a Gold Rush of poop removal prospectors combing Central Asia for honey dipper trucks." (Note to deploying troops: keep a close idea on who's driving your poop wagon, please. And don't let the new guy in the gate. The easiest way to destroy a COP in Afghanistan involves a poop wagon, a ton of HME, a suicidal driver, and a few guys with AKs to "overrun" the wreckage that would be left.)

Tim's conclusion:

"Several trial balloons being floated out of the White House. The Pakistan First idea which is favored by VP Biden and maybe three other people; [second] the we are "prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s political future" idea... The third option (which I believe will be the one Obama goes with) is to declare status quo as victory and start to wind things down real slow like. The only problem with that last option is that the bad guys get a vote on your plan too and once they see the money train is leaving the station it is hard to predict just how poorly they will react. It is safe to say that regardless of the direction our current administration takes Afghanistan is going to continue to get more unstable and more violent. The Afghans I know don’t want this but they also understand just how little they can influence current events. Life is hard; harder when you are stupid and there seems to be an inordinate amount of stupid people on all sides trying to "manage" the fight in Afghanistan."

True, dat.

Posted by BruceR at 02:21 PM

You want to know what I think? I'll tell you what I think

Herschel Smith from Captain's Journal linked to a recent post here. His comments suggest he feels I'm guilty of a little ambiguity on my Afghanistan position, so maybe now's a good time to clear it up. My "Afghan position" and $1.50 will buy you a coffee at Tim's, of course, but it's fair to say my own thoughts have been crystallizing of late anyway. So here we go: the big "What Must Be Done?" post. Continue reading if you dare.

I think I have to start by reiterating the framework I come to the problem from. Back in mid 2007 I was told my Afghan tour would be as S2 for the Operational Mentoring and Liaison effort in Kandahar Province. I spent over a year reading everything ever written relevant to what the Americans called Foreign Internal Defense, and every personal memoir I could find of working with indigenous forces in both the insurgent and counterinsurgent role. Then for seven-and-a-half months* I worked embedded in an Afghan ANA Brigade HQ, at the time rated one of the best in Afghanistan, with daily contact with that brigade's intelligence staff and senior leadership. I figure I spent about 20% of my waking hours at Camp Hero, another 20% on operations in the city or the districts, and the rest inside the soul-destroying confines of KAF. At the end of my tour I got an extra half-a-medal because someone thought I'd done a better than average job in the role. As Afghan experience goes, I concede it's certainly not as long or as deep as some. So right off I'll admit I don't think I came back with anything that could be described as "expertise." More like "perspective."

Coming from that perspective, and recognizing that I'm open to accusations of committing the "hammer in a world of nails" fallacy, my interpretation of FM 3-24 and associated literature on counterinsurgency is this: that the definition of victory for the foreign assisting forces in a COIN situation is when the local security forces can handle the job on their own. That's not a strategy or a metric. More like an objective criterion for departure. When resident forces on their own or with only foreign financial assistance can limit the effects of violent resistance on the polity to a tolerable level, foreign forces are no longer needed. That's Victory Day.

This doesn't have to happen only through security sector reform (SSR), or foreign internal defense (FID), or whatever acronym you prefer here, of course. The "delta" between security force capability and the requirement can be closed from the other direction. Political change can produce a better government, or more local autonomy, or a negotiated settlement. Economic improvements can reduce the fuel that the resistance lives on, and the need for a stronger indigenous security force accordingly reduced.

However, it's also fair to say that these are realms where foreign military assistance is less useful. Political change in response to an insurgent threat largely occurs on an endogenously driven timetable, for endogenous reasons. Foreign interference in politics rarely seems to help, and often makes things worse, as simple patriotism gradually delegitimizes the pro-foreign elements in government. Economic support from developed countries can be delivered more effectively through NGOs (assuming the environment is relatively secure). So in terms of what's most economical, SSR tends to win out. But it's fair to say that every successful foreign support of a counterinsurgency effort has closed the security gap, through a variety of methods; every unsuccessful one has failed to.

That's theoretically. In practice, another way of attempting to "close the delta" almost always wins out in the resource fight, because armies are armies. That being to use foreign forces to defeat the insurgent threat militarily. That is not particularly economical (current estimates are that in early 2009 we were spending $200 for every $1 the insurgents were, and still losing ground), and generally only serves to buy time for other changes to take effect. If the insurgents have untouchable safe havens, as the Taliban do in Pakistan, buying time is likely all you can ever achieve this way. Even after the most devastating military victory on the field of battle, the "root causes" will remain, and the gap between the requirement for security and its delivery by local forces without our help will still be there. But fighting is, after all, what armies do best. Hence the tendency towards overcommitment of efforts to this line of operations.

In the Afghan context, it's fair to say that the SSR piece had been very badly mismanaged, at least up to this spring. From an army-building perspective, as of six months ago, we were more or less where we started. There were reasons for this. In the army's case, up until at least 2005, the ANA-building project was mainly an effort to divert the aggressive instincts of former Northern Alliance warlords, making colonels and generals out of those people who were likely to try to disrupt the new state, and jobs for their followers, however competent. And despite having some increasingly comic-opera tendencies, the force that resulted was largely successful in this. In 2006, however, it suddenly dawned on many that this army, now with all the wrong people in command positions, would now have to fight.

More accurately, the Westerners in country felt they would have to fight, and they'd need Afghan door-kickers if they wanted to avoid going into compounds themselves and detaining large number of Afghans themselves at Bagram and KAF. Which meant pressure for a massive growth in the size of the local security apparatus, out of all proportion to what was actually supportable with the funds or men then assigned. And even when that development seemed to be acquiring momentum in places, it proved easily divertable by the latest nutty idea to circulate back home, like "arming the tribes" or "drug eradication." To take another example, the repeated obsession with training the Afghan National Police in police methods by civilian police trainers, rather than in fighting skills to keep them alive by actual soldiers, has demonstrably led to their deaths by the score.

Obscuring this in 2008 and early 2009 was some truly dangerous self-deception on the part of ISAF's leadership. Mentors in the field were all saying the same thing: that the army could not be described as doing anything that an objective Western soldier would consider fighting at higher than company level (100 men or more), let alone conducting effective counter-insurgency, and that the surge in size was leading to an observable decline in quality, not an improvement. Nowhere in the country were Afghan forces being trusted to hold an area of operations on their own. But still units were continually being rated higher and higher on the Capability Milestone 4-point scale, with CM1 meaning they needed very little help from the West at all. So you ended up with a CM1 battalion in Eastern Afghanistan having a completely incompetent CO and being riddled with hash-smokers. Or you had my CM1 brigade in Southern Afghanistan, who while vicious chess players all, could not be relied upon absent us to remember their tents (or maps) when their headquarters moved.

Incredibly, by the middle of this year, half of what in the spring was to any objective eyes a manifestly incompetent army was rated at CM2 or higher. Only the change in ISAF commanders this summer has brought some reality back into higher command assessments of Afghan security force capability. The previous ISAF commander was not fired for reason of having a command culture that had been promoting a completely misleading view of the progress on this key deliverable, but to mind he could have and probably should have been, if only on the "buck stops here" principle.

The new commander, Gen. McChrystal, has said some encouraging things about what needs to change in that command structure. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but he's right that only radical change right now will get security sector improvements back on track and offer some reasonable prospect of victory here. He states quite clearly that in the absence of those changes, among others, it doesn't matter how many more Western troops are thrown at the problem. So that's encouraging, at least. And while I will likely continue to quibble with tactical-level decisions on this score, McChrystal's overall stated direction is to these eyes exactly what's needed.

I wouldn't presume to second-guess COMISAF's opinion of how many more troops are needed to support the radical changes he is demanding. On the other hand, I wouldn't second-guess the U.S. president's assessment of what is or is not sustainable politically, or strategically in terms of the Afghanistan commitment's importance compared to other national security priorities, either. They are the experts, and there is always going to be a to-and-fro there, between theatre and strategic levels. It's fair to say I don't see the need for any great rush on this, though. It is correct to say that Afghanistan is basically in a stalemate position right now, and nothing is going to rapidly change in a month or two if 40,000 more troops don't show up. So there's time to get this right.

And it was highly encouraging to see yesterday that the Obama administration is tying increased American efforts to limited Afghan political reforms. If one agrees time is available, using this opportunity to signal Western displeasure at the recent election fiasco seems a smart way to go.

Regrettably, it's possible we may be looking at the terminal decline of the current version of the central Afghan state, something that seems beyond our powers to change. Supporters of the contender Abdullah, concentrated in the non-Pashtun populations of the north and centre, have signalled clearly that a Karzai declaration of victory at this point is unacceptable to them. Moderate Pashtuns have been equally clear that putting Abdullah in as president is a non-starter. A runoff at this point, although preferable to Karzai taking the election on his own authority now, looks increasingly zero-sum. In the absence of a genuine national unity government effort, the likely result of any runoff (which Karzai will almost certainly win) is the north and other parts starting to seek increased Kurdish-style autonomy from the centre. It won't happen overnight, but once started the process of decentralization will be hard to stop. This will, obviously, have significant deleterious effects on the security forces and other government institutions, which are largely drawn from the north.

We may not be able to reverse that glidepath, but we can manage it, to maximize our interests and those of the Afghan people as a whole. Increasingly strident demands for autonomy from Kabul, should that Pandora's box be opened now, would not change anything as far as the importance of Afghanistan or its war as a whole to the rest of the world. The first decision point is getting the current president to accept any clear declaration by the UN-delegated authorities that the massive fraud will force a runoff, and then take concrete steps either to make it happen, or eliminate the need through a political reconciliation. Holding off increased military aid until Karzai does that may be the best way we have of influencing his choice.

This does not mean an indefinite prolongation of a stalemated war can ever be the plan, either: Smith is right on that score. ISAF must have a plan to win, and a timetable in which to do so. Again, COMISAF seems to have hoisted that in, though, and particularly the importance of security sector improvements in achieving it, so enough said on that score for now.

I'd also say that my limited experience leaves me highly skeptical of solutions that see a reduction in the number of Western troops at this point. To say our efforts have been misapplied is not to say that we were of no value. It would be hard to see anything of commensurate value coming out of a total Western pullout in the next 1-2 years, for instance (the "Go Home" approach). And Smith is right that the various lighter footprint approaches ("Go Deep," "Biden camp," etc.) seem to share a certain... unrealism. Retreating to a couple big bases and foregoing security sector reform, which seem to be common themes, would rapidly make those bases unsustainable logistically, as pointed out elsewhere. And if the game is actually primarily about direct support to Pakistan's efforts to fight its own insurgents, as has been suggested, I'm unconvinced that an Afghan presence really helps all that much, there. You can fly drones from a lot of places in the region, and having soldiers along the border or human intelligence sources in Kandahar doesn't hurt insurgents hiding out in Waziristan as much as you might think. It's significant that the Pakistanis aren't particularly concerned, to put it mildly, about Karzai remaining in power; if they don't think chaos in Afghanistan would hurt them, it's hard to see why we would.

The political struggle with hardcore Islam for the hearts and minds of Pakistan's Punjabi population, and the risk to regional stability should our side lose, will not be won or lost by Western troops based in Afghanistan. What we spend on the fight for Afghanistan's future needs to justify itself on the effects it will have on that country, and what effects Afghanistan's trajectory, for better or for worse will have on others. If the country falls into shadow again, that will be a victory for the wrong side in a larger ideological struggle for the Muslim world. It will condemn many of those who tried to work with us to exile or death. It will create a nation that will, in one way or the other, export violence to its neighbours sooner or later. That is the worst-case here, if we cannot close that security gap. Bad enough, but not disastrous. But claims that the Taliban now threatens to rapidly reconquer the entire country and further destabilize Pakistan soon after, should we mess this up now, seem to be at the end of a very long chain of uncertain causality.

So, in short, the American response in this point should include a radical change in the way Afghan security sector reform is being conducted, to get that back on track. The troop level for now should probably stay steady or increase, depending on the best balance between theatre and strategic requirements. And a delay of weeks or months to any reinforcement in an effort to secure local government commitment to political reforms is justified, and is unlikely to carry any huge military risks.

As far as the Canadian commitment goes, one hopes there might still be an argument to be made for a sustainable extension of the mission, with "sustainable" defined on the basis of the three principles I tried to outline here. I understand why we ended up with a 2011 end date, politically: recall that was the middle ground between the previous deadline of 2009, and an indefinite extension of Canadians' patience; the first disastrous, the second impossible. The Harper government intelligently gained a two-year extension on what was already a very unpopular war, for acceptable domestic political cost, by promising the Canadian people they wouldn't go back to the well again. The extra time that was bought with that commitment has probably been to both Canada's and Afghans' benefit on the whole (although not without concomitant loss, either).

Anyway, Herschel, I hope the preceding clarifies where my mind is at, at least as things stand in October of 2009.

*Canadian tours in outside the wire positions are generally six months and change, including three weeks leave. Ours was extended.

Posted by BruceR at 01:13 PM

October 16, 2009

Choose your own headline

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan have acquired a little monkey mascot named Lucy. Any tour vets reading, please choose your favourite zinger, or email me yours:

a) Now BruceR, that's no way to refer to the new J5 Plans;
b) I guess it was either that or offer the CFTPO slot to the air force again;
c) The lemurs no-filled, apparently;
d) I hear they've got her writing the TFK Banana Eradication Strategy;
e) I'm told they lured her to KAF with a shiny object. Kinda like with me and the GCS.

Posted by BruceR at 05:00 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

I worry sometimes about Globe reporter Gloria Galloway. Sometimes there seems to be insufficient skepticism present. A case in point being the piece she wrote interviewing a senior Afghan general in Kabul, who said that Afghans could be responsible for their own security in 2013, "maybe... one year forward or one year backward."

(Look, Galloway is an attractive woman. I never met an Afghan senior officer who would not descend into false bravado when being interviewed by an attractive Western woman. He likely would have told her they'd have a space program by 2013 if he thought it would keep her in his office a few more minutes.)

That's why I was very impressed with her fine story today on Deh-e Bagh, the Canadian model village in Dand District of Kandahar, on the outskirts of the city. Everyone should read it (this is the essential Afghan reading column, after all) but a couple takeaways:

**One thing one shouldn't be too upset to read is the perennial Afghan pessimism about the Taliban coming back when the Canadians leave. Afghans have a lot to be pessimistic about. "It's nice now, but it's all going to hell tomorrow" isn't pessimistic for an Afghan under the age of 30, just rational.

**What one should note instead is who is being seen, at least in this telling, as the responsible agency here. The benefits to the town are seen as Canadian largesse, not anything the Afghan government brought.

**That said, it should be clear once again that, at least to rural Pashtun males, any Muslim, even the worst police officer, is still preferable as a security presence to even the best soldier the West has to offer.

**The ongoing and substantive Western presence in Deh-e Bagh may actually be inhibiting daily life, by forcing women to stay inside compounds. Doesn't sound like a lot of girls are going to school, either.

**Solar power for ALL the houses? Wow. Can they do my street next?

Also, today, AfghanQuest on an Afghan hero he knows. Hey, look, there are still a lot of brave, smart fighters on the government's side, both police and army, no question. If you didn't get the opportunity to meet a couple and be able to personally attest to their courage while you were in Afghanistan, you weren't getting out much. For every one of those there's another one who makes you want to tear your hair out, and another two complete mediocrities whose name you can no longer remember, true: but the Afghan military and paramilitary system will likely never be said to wholly lacking in warrior ethos. The question has always been how do we help them create a system for themselves where the warriors rise to the top, over the survivors, the sycophants, and the politicians in their ranks.

And the hash addicts, for that matter.

Posted by BruceR at 09:09 AM

October 14, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

A.J. Rossmiller on where things really stand in Afghanistan right now:

First, the insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government; and, second, U.S. forces do not have the ability to vanquish the insurgency. It’s true that the Taliban has gained ground in recent months, but, absent a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it cannot retake sovereign control. This is not to say that Afghanistan isn’t unstable; it clearly is. That has been the case for eight years, however, and, in the absence of some shocking, unforeseen development, it could be true for another eight or 18 or 80 years. An increase of tens of thousands of troops will not change that fact, nor will subtle tactical changes. Rather than teetering on the edge of some imagined precipice, the situation in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate.

Rossmiller's argument is that Pres. Obama doesn't need to rush the decision-making on this, and that if a surge can't show a clear path out of the stalemate, it needs to be rethought, perhaps by reintroducing the prospect of negotiations.

Kyle Flynn makes a cogent argument why negotiation and reconciliation are not realistic, however.

I also believe that we sometimes forget that the Quetta Shura Taliban, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin, and the Haqqani networks are comprised primarily of Afghan nationals. From my experience and to our own detriment, I believe that we often overlook the local nature of this conflict. At what point do we finally admit that we are fighting an enemy that will never align its interest to those of Coalition forces and our host-nation allies? Clearly then, to defeat the insurgency we have to eliminate the insurgents. The notion that we can today somehow align ourselves with a moderate Taliban that tomorrow will not realign itself with the same fanatics with whom it's been fighting all these years is ridiculous.

Flynn also argues that an even larger ANA is the wrong tool to promote national unity, due to its primarily non-Pashtun composition:

The very idea of a developing a 200,000 strong Afghan army which can operate freely and effectively throughout the heart of the insurgency is a non-starter. While we should be focused on developing localized defense forces to combat and defeat an internal insurgency, we are instead creating an army better positioned to combat external threats. Again, we seem to have a knack for confusing the bottom-up and top-down approaches to strategic success in Afghanistan.

Some may argue however that a non-Pashtun army will be more willing to engage a Pashtun insurgency and more importantly not succumb so easily to Taliban infiltration. While I agree to some extent with both assumptions, I would also argue that only localized security forces have the ability to collect the intelligence necessary to defeat this type of insurgency. Thus, the risk of Taliban infiltration of localized security forces is unavoidable because without the collection of localized intelligence, the war is all but lost. So if the local population has no intention of assisting an Afghan army battalion comprised of different ethnicities, then in my opinion the battalion's tactical value is close to zero.

True dat. Meanwhile the Times looks in on how ANA training is going, as training goals are cut back in order to achieve more boots on the ground, faster:

Another official, who declined to be named, said: “You could argue that the recruits are being made cannon fodder. Every time we lower the bar it’s the minimum we can get away with until someone says we need to lower it more to speed things up.”

It's true that quantitative increases in this environment will inevitably lead to a drop in quality. And it's not the Afghans that want a larger army, faster: its Western troops who need those Afghan faces and door-kickers for their kinetic ops.

So what's the alternative? Austin Long takes a crack:

I am firmly convinced that a shift to a "small footprint" counter-terrorism mission is not only possible but will best serve U.S. national security. To use a military term of art, the bottom line up front is that the United States could successfully transition to an effective small footprint counterterrorism mission over the course of the next three years, ending up with a force of about 13,000 military personnel (or less) in Afghanistan.

It's a sound proposal for the pure CT side of the fight. Long specifically avoids listing the additional commitments required to bolster the Afghan government, or explaining how we untangle ourselves from the current overextended situation, saving those ideas for future posts, so more to follow on this one.

Finally Michael Innes obliquely makes a suggestion about what a NATO role could be if the US were to go with such a pure CT approach (which implies abandoning large parts of the south and east to the insurgents) in his post, "The Safe Haven Myth:"

At the same time, the forces in Afghanistan could create "safety zones" for civilians as outlined in international humanitarian law. The French did so during Operation Turquoise during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The United Nations established safe cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina during its 1992-1995 war and a no-fly zone over Kurdistan in Iraq in the late 1990s. These aren't perfect examples, but they show that the United States might be able to make a "model district archipelago" to help make the country more stable and safe.

My concern there would be that we'd be going back to the past a little, with split military commands and split mandates (CT and population protection). Unless you could somehow clearly demarcate the borders of the two missions, that wouldn't work, as the last eight years have shown. And if you didn't you'd continue to enjoy the current extreme confusion over what we're doing in the country, exactly, which merging the military missions (OEF and ISAF) at the command level has only just begun to mitigate.

In any case, it's nice to see Foreign Policy has more under the hood than that schteaming pile of poo Michael Scheuer dropped on us yesterday.

UPDATE: Finally, if you are an avid reader of all things Afghanistan, you won't get much out of last night's Frontline documentary you haven't heard before. I thought it a stark, almost devastating argument against a COIN approach: Gen. McChrystal is positively Quixotic (Cyranoic?) in his insistence it's the right thing to do regardless of the cost, but the example from Helmand is not encouraging to look at in any way, the COIN advocates (Exum and Nagl) are sublimely unconvincing ("even if we do everything right we could still lose", "we'll never have enough soldiers to meet the normal requirements of COIN"), the Pakistani allies come across as extremely feckless, the Afghans are largely mute (not a single Afghan advocate for us staying is featured) and the ISAF ChOps' statement at the end is all we can hope for for all the years of effort to come will be "an Afghan solution to an Afghan problem"... that's right up there with "put an Afghan face on the operation" as far as useless, meaningless buzzwords go. Still, I would recommend it to those less engaged in the debate thus far as a good primer.

Posted by BruceR at 10:33 AM

October 13, 2009

A useful corrective

A while ago I posted about drinking water in front of ANSF during Ramadan, after an unfortunate incident that was reported relating to that little faux pas. AfghanQuest (aka Bill&Bob) provides the other side of that story. Regardless of how causal it was in this case, it's still not very polite, but I still value the corrective.

Posted by BruceR at 02:59 PM

The schad decline of Michael Scheuer

One can forgive the headline- and subhead-writer at Foreign Policy for being baffled when trying to title Michael Scheuer's latest stream of consciousness rant. I'm quite sure Scheuer couldn't if he tried.

Starting off by calling it "America's lost war in Afghanistan," Scheuer still stays in the realm of sanity for the first couple paragraphs, accurately stating, "a four-star U.S. general [McChrystal] does not ask for a near doubling of his force to smooth out minor problems." The enemy, he writes, is "has evolved into an Islamist-nationalist freedom struggle not unlike that which beat the Red Army." Debatable, but okay, let's go with it.

It's when he starts discussing what to do next that Scheuer gets a little odd. Stating that the McChrystal request is "far short of what is needed to "win" in Afghanistan", he then argues that Obama must still "quickly" reinforce the losing effort.

You see, "we must either destroy it [the Taliban] root and branch or leave. This issue merits debate, but that must wait until McChrystal gets the troops needed to delay defeat."

And if the "more troops" side were then to win that debate? "Military victory would require 400,000 to 500,000 additional troops, the wide use of land mines... and the killing of the enemy and its civilian supporters in the numbers needed to make them admit the game is not worth the candle. This clearly is not a viable option."

So, to be clear. The U.S. should send a lot of troops now without further debate. The reason being that this will allow the time for a fuller debate. This fuller debate will be entirely pointless, however, because pulling the troops out is now the only real option open anyway. Check.

Apparently in the unique universe Scheuer lives in now the main reason you would send troops some place is so that you can assess their sacrifices there are pointless as quickly and efficiently as possible.

"Overall, then, we are well along the road to self-imposed defeat in Afghanistan, and about the best we can do is give McChrystal the troops he needs to slow defeat. After doing that, we can figure out how to get out of Afghanistan in an orderly manner, while preparing to absorb more al Qaeda attacks in North America."

Schorter Scheuer: We're all schcrewed.

Posted by BruceR at 12:10 PM

Today's essential Afghan slide

From Michael Yon, a snap of a Gen. Petraeus briefing slide from a speech in Holland:

Also worth reading today: Anthony Lloyd with British forces in Helmand

Posted by BruceR at 11:06 AM

October 12, 2009

Finally, some post-2011 clarity

This was the clearest statement we have yet seen from our government in terms of a residual military role in Afghanistan after 2011:

Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for the Prime Minister's Office, told CBC News there will be Canadian troops in Afghanistan after 2011, though "exponentially fewer."

"I would caution you against saying dozens or hundreds or a thousand, there will be exponentially fewer," Soudas said. "Whether there's 20 or 60 or 80 or 100, they will not be conducting combat operations."

Soudas said the government will shift its focus from combat operations and in-the-field training of Afghan police and soldiers to a development and reconstruction mission.

The military's training mission will continue in protected facilities, he added. Canadian troops' combat-mentoring role would end.

"You can do training in training facilities," Soudas said. "And when I say training, I mean Canadian soldiers will not be doing combat training of Afghan soldiers in harm's way."

Speaking in Welland, Ont., on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters the government would not seek to extend the mission authorized by Parliament in 2008.

"Well, let me be very clear …" Harper said, "Canada's military mission in Afghanistan will end in 2011."

That certainly seems "very clear" to me.

Posted by BruceR at 01:31 AM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Hands down, Tom Ricks' description of the battle of COP Keating.

It was tempting at first to write this off as the latest in what looked like an annual attempt to overrun an American outpost in Konar-Nuristan (Ranch House, 2007, Wanat, 2008, now this*), but this one is actually more troubling than those others.

Ranch House was by all reports a hell of a fight, but fatalities were relatively light and the Afghans never got inside the post itself. As the recent Cubbison report, linked here, describes in detail, Wanat was costly, but it was an attack on a new combat outpost literally at its most vulnerable time, within a couple days of its being established and before it was anywhere near fully fortified: tragic, but excusable.

COP Keating, however, shows major improvements in insurgent effectiveness. As the piece above relates, this was an attack on an established base housing two full platoons of Americans plus ANSF, a significantly larger force than those other attacks. The base that the attack helos supporting the COP were refuelling from some distance away was shelled through the day, showing a coordinated attack in two locations. And as at Wanat before, the initial attack/fire knocked out most of the COP's heavy weapons and mobility, electrical power and communications in the first minute.

The complete rout of the ANSF in location reported in this piece would be unfortunate, but not unexpected. We need to be absolutely clear: there is nothing, nothing we have created or will likely be able to field in any corner of the Afghan army in the next two years, or even longer, that could have withstood an attack as determined as this on its own. Only resolute and highly trained infantry backed up with nearly unlimited precision-capable artillery and air assets, could have confidently remained in this position as long as they did.

The only hope for Afghan military leadership if a foe of this quality were to remain undiminished at the end of our time in country (assuming that were any time soon) would be to adopt tactics and operational doctrine significantly different from what we've been using and teaching them to hold the eastern mountains, because these tactics will demonstrably lead to their deaths in large numbers; and/or to hope that in the absence of Western troops, the enemy wouldn't be quite as determined as this crowd clearly was to seek their adversary's annihilation.

We should also be realistic given an enemy that's this good in terrain this favourable for them about what we hope the Pakistani army could possibly achieve in the way of lasting effects against them on the eastern side of the same mountains, with their supposedly coming offensive in Waziristan. It should give us some idea why the Pakistanis clearly loathe to establish any permanent positions to control that area: they would not have fared even as well as Keating did, one suspects. And given that they seem to have had some difficulty retaking their own army headquarters from militants this weekend, one couldn't already help but feel Pakistani military abilities may be somewhat lower than we'd liked to have hoped, as well.

UPDATE: In case you missed them the first time, there's been some great war reportage on American forces in the Korengal area as the situation in this region deteriorated: Sebastian Junger from January 2008, and again from last October, and Elizabeth Rubin from February of last year.

*Also the overrun of COP Bari Alai, held by a US-Latvian OMLT company mentor team and their ANA charges, on 1 May of this year.

Posted by BruceR at 01:18 AM

October 06, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

US ANA mentor "K", back from Konar, still blogging:

Sounds like the plan is to remove the post in Kamdesh and other similar ones. I can tell you once an outpost like that is gone, then the area it occupied is no longer going to be visited by the Coalition, and the territory is essentially Taliban-territory at that point, although it sounds like it already was given the number of fighters they had gathered, and the fact that the US Army unit in the area didn't even patrol in the local village. They say the plan is to push those troops into the larger population centers, which sounds all well and good, but I always thought the idea behind those mountain posts was to fight the enemy in the mountains and more sparsely-populated areas rather than fight them in the larger cities and villages.

The fact is, the whole strategy in north-eastern Afghanistan is extremely predictable and reactive. Basically, the US Army and ANA tactics are to build a firebase somewhere and then wait for it to get attacked. Patrols last a couple of hours and stay within sight of the base. If an "operation" is conducted it never lasts more than a couple of days.

This is pretty much an exact description of the war in Kandahar Province in 2008-09, with just the place names changed. "Mountains" or "North-eastern" ain't got nothing to do with it.

Posted by BruceR at 10:16 AM

October 05, 2009

On ANA pay

Some people objected to Ann Jones' statement, which I referenced here, saying ANA soldiers were deserting and re-enlisting, bumping up their numbers. I see the current Canadian OMLT commander's saying the same thing:

[Col.] Burt, who is wrapping up his tour to Afghanistan, said he started looking into the matter a couple of months ago when he noticed many of the Afghan soldiers were either not renewing their military contracts or choosing instead to go AWOL -- absent without leave.

Or so he thought at first.

"They've gone AWOL from here, but they're signing up in the north and getting in again, and are getting the same (pay)," said an exasperated Burt.

"Or, there are guys finishing the three-year contract who go up to the north and get back in."

Many departing soldiers don't even turn in their uniforms, because they plan on wearing them up north, he added.

Posted by BruceR at 09:15 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading

Peter Galbraith on why he was fired by the UN.

In July, I learned that at least 1,500 polling centers (out of 7,000) were to be located in places so insecure that no one from the IEC, the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police had ever visited them. Clearly, these polling centers would not open on Election Day. At a minimum, their existence on the books would create large-scale confusion, but I was more concerned about the risk of fraud.

Which leaves only one question in my mind. That being... July? Seriously? What country were you living in before that? Dude, the IEC supervised the election registration process the previous December and it had all the same problems. Imaginary registration stations that were unlocatable on any map, or deep in enemy-controlled areas... this was all reported by my colleagues up the chain at the time. If the UN's chief officials only learned of this prospect in July, they really weren't paying attention. Galbraith's complaints might be strengthened if he would, as Andrew Exum says, "sack up" and admit his own negligence there.

UPDATE: For the record, I think Galbraith did the right thing in objecting to electoral fraud, by all accounts. But there's a lot of blame to go around here. And sure, the UN organizations bear some of it. But remember also, the elections, and the election-registration, were ANSF-led operations. Senior ANA officers (not just ANSF; ANA specifically) in every insurgent-contested province would have known there were election stations on the IEC's books that didn't exist, couldn't be found, or they weren't expected to guard. We know now it was these "ghost stations" where much of the fraud originated. Despite all the claims that have been made for the ANA, there was apparently no way for the ANA high command, in supervising the security for the key counterinsurgency activity for several years in either direction, to look the Karzai-appointees on the IEC straight in the eye and say, "hey, what exactly are you trying to pull?" Or Karzai for that matter. Or if that didn't work, to blow the whistle to senior Western officials on what was happening. Despite meeting with their mentors, etc., every single working day.

None of that happened. I think we can all assess for ourselves why it wouldn't.

Mentors bear some of the blame here, too. I think all of us, military men by definition, faced with another series of grandiose, apparently-out-of-touch claims of their own capability from our Afghan colleagues responsible for election security (one among many) just said, "go ahead, fill your boots." I don't think we really correctly assessed the harm of a list of polling stations that no one could find on a map, or that wouldn't open because they couldn't provide security for it. We were much more worried about polling stations opening under questionable security circumstances, and dead Afghans. We were focussed on the insurgent threat, not the "Karzai camp stealing the election" threat, in other words. It was the stations that DID have police or ANA outside them that we were focussed on: the Taliban couldn't shoot up non-existent polling booths after all. Greater interaction with concerned Western election monitors like Galbraith nine months ago or so might have put the deeper problem on our radar. (I absolutely include myself and my colleagues in this: I knew of imaginary or security-compromised stations during the registration phase, but I never connected the dots and briefed "massive electoral fraud" to anyone as a "most dangerous course of action" from that, nor ever heard it briefed that way by others.)

But ultimately, the IEC executed a plan that allowed if not encouraged massive electoral fraud. The ANA providing their security didn't see it as part of their mandate to object, or even to point that out. And ISAF was too busy fighting the Taliban war to focus. Galbraith and the UN's documenting fraud after the fact was a case of barn door and horse.

UPDATE, Oct. 12: I'm informed by one of Galbraith's colleagues that Galbraith himself didn't arrive in country until June. Which sort of nullifies the way I started off this post somewhat, I suppose. I'm appreciative of the info.

Posted by BruceR at 09:56 AM

Oh. Em. Gee.

No recent post has brought back quite as many mentoring memories as K's "A Few Memorable Words:"

"Ok, two phone cards, a cow, and we’ll find you a new wife. Plus I’ll throw in a summer house in Nuristan."

The ANA at stand-to exchange is another classic. Take those two together and add in chai and you basically had my morning routine.

Posted by BruceR at 09:37 AM

October 02, 2009

Deciding or dithering

I tend to agree that one should know what was going to do with extra troops before one sends them. I therefore don't have a problem in theory with the Obama administration taking its time on a troop-increase decision at this point.

(Aside: It doesn't bother me, much, either, that McChrystal doesn't talk much one-on-one with Obama. That's the way it should be... as a sub-theatre commander, it's the equivalent of Bradley expecting to talk much with FDR, or in the Canadian context, Simonds with Mackenzie King. Not necessary if the chain of command is functioning as it should.)

That said, it's not always that simple. It's all well and good to say take time for the "new tactics a chance to work ", as Marc Lynch does in the first link above, but as Tim Lynch (no relation, one presumes) documents from the field, that's not happening, or likely to happen any time soon.

There is no doubt that drastic changes are needed. I still think the current American commander and his civilian leadership have a lot of the right ideas about those changes. I guess the question that keeps me puzzled is, is it more likely those changes will occur now in the context of a troop increase, or something more like a troop freeze? Would having more give the military leadership more freedom to execute a sounder plan, or knowing we have less (and conceding in that that controlling the whole country is out of our reach) force us to embrace innovation?

Finally, I don't think there can be any doubt that Bernard Finel gets the better of this exchange (the disturbing corollary being that Spencer Ackerman, of all people, is in the tank for the military leadership); there is clearly an ongoing attempt by senior American military leaders abroad to influence the political debate back home. As Michael Cohen and Pat Lang have rightly observed, the standard is for military commanders to present their bosses with a choice of courses of action, even if some of them are "throwaway COAs", but on Afghanistan the Obama administration has, in public at least, been presented with only the one. In the United States there has been a quiet but clear attempt to circumscribe the national debate, to define only one acceptable outcome. (In Canada, by contrast, there has been a quiet but clear attempt, and not by the military, to avoid any debate whatsoever.) There may still be quite a gap between Sir Rupert Smith's need to prosecute (and advocate) "war amongst the people," and Gen. Ripper's "war is too important to leave to the politicians," but the current American military leadership is not adhering to historical norms on the issue... unless MacArthur or McClellan are your norms, which I suppose in the American context they kind of are.

UPDATE: The big problem with the "ISAF troop freeze, more ANSF" line of attack on this is that we haven't up to this point really done much to create an Afghan army that could stand on its own. Instead, we've created an indigenous adjunct force organized to help out a large in-place western force, but without any real capability in their absence. Saying we now wanted to have a large, effective ANA and limit ourselves to enabler support, training and mentoring... well it's like the old guy offering directions to the lost honeymooners on the backcountry road, "first off, I wouldn't start from here." (Or as Gen. McChrystal put it yesterday, "you have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be.") As I showed a couple days ago, right now the casualty trend for Western forces is rising precipitously. You've still got to turn that trend around before you can do any serious Afghan army restructure/retraining, I suspect, and it's going to be hard to do that without more troops. Again, there is no "fighting season" we can take for granted anymore... if we want a strategic pause to sort ourselves out in Afghanistan, we'd first have to win one on the battlefield. Which I guess, means I too am worried that the American strategic decision process, however admirable, could be taking too long. See also Michael Yon.

Posted by BruceR at 01:35 PM

October 01, 2009

They're listening...

Dick Destiny's interesting personal research on which bombing ring was looking at his website for peroxide bomb recipes, here.

Sadly, I checked my own logs, and there seems to have been no interest at all, zero in fact, in reading this site by the putative Aurora, Colorado bombers (despite being linked from one of Destiny's pages that were read). Which just goes to prove what I've been saying all along: Google hates me. Also, putting "peroxide bomb" in your page title is probably always going to get you a certain amount of unwelcome attention. Not as much as ""antonia zerbisias moron" perhaps (one of my current leading search string results), but still some attention just the same.

Posted by BruceR at 01:00 PM