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