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