February 28, 2010

Things that please me: computer wargame edition

I commented in the past about how the hex-based cardboard-square wargames of my youth have largely been supplanted by computer analogues recently. In that vein, I just wanted to comment on the all-around excellence of Napoleon: Total War, released this week, which is by far the most historically accurate of the Total War series.

The sea battles are still more arcadey and less realistic "physics-wise" than Age of Sail 2's, but the land battles here are really quite compelling. Another thing is the tendency to put in unusual or nifty units (going right back to battlefield ninjas in the first in the series, Shogun) to keep the kids amused has been all but completely suppressed (limited in the initial release to ironclad steamboats and windbusche jagers, but I can live with that).

The span of command limitations also mean you need to get used to the miniatures rules of one 160-man unit standing in for 1-20 battalions in real life (a factor of 1:5 to 1:100) but that's inevitable. The 2,500 man army of toy soldiers necessary to redo Borodino even at 1:100 would have been staggeringly big in miniatures, so even there N:TW is an improvement over the more tactile experience. (A realistic-looking Leipzig, I'm sorry to say, with 600,000 soldiers engaged, is probably impossible in any technology.)

Anyway, if you're a closet re-enactor or Napoleonophile, buy it, play it, it's worth your time. The AI's probably the best yet in the series, but if you've got a friend you can play on a LAN with, it's even better. But even against the AI, non-historic tactics are not as well-rewarded as, for instance, its 18th-century predecessor Empire: Total War, which tended to be unhistorically preferential about the use of dragoons units as mounted infantry rather than shock cavalry. Try that in an N:TW campaign and you'll tend to get kicked around, as you would have in real life by about 1800.

Really, the only aspect of the board wargamer experience that hasn't been ported over to computers now is the giant, club-run, plywood-on-saw-horses-in-the-basement tactical game with yards of map and thousands of counters, like Terrible Swift Sword or one of the Historical ASL scenarios. (Not the similarly massive basement grand strategic games: Europa Universalis and its successors (Victoria, Cross of Iron) have supplanted those quite effectively). And frankly, let's be honest. We never finished any of those games anyway.

Also, since I note I've never mentioned it: if you never played Battle of Britain 2, still the best combined air strategy/hardcore flight sim ever made, you've missed out.

UPDATE: One of the things that is really well done about Napoleon: Total War is the terrain. (the predecessor in the series Empire started down this road, but had too many other problems). Once field artillery showed up on the battlefield, the first real tactical battlefield weapon with significant range and no real ability to arc its fire, Western armies had to pay new attention to all the subtleties of terrain that would only grow with the advent of rifled weapons. You see this in N:TW, where even a 5-foot contour can have huge effect and attention to your artillery sighting is key. You see, better than in any wargame I can remember, how the clever use by infantry units of dead ground and reverse slopes that you can't even see from way overhead (you really have to get down behind your cannon and look at what they can actually see) can save lives and win the day.

Posted by BruceR at 12:06 PM

Hm, so I guess we DO own the podium

Winter Olympics coverage in the Canadian newspapers has been a lovely example of the effects of regression to the mean defeating journalistic overanalysis of thin data. We're finishing too many people just out of the medals? Um, okay now we have more golds than anyone. Women are taking all the medals? Um, okay, not so much anymore. (Although Andrew Coyne, channelling Clara Hughes, does note the salient point here: that this is very much an offshoot of the Canadian policy of parity of funding and access for men's and women's amateur sport at all levels that has been quasi-policy in this country for the last 30 years -- I remember covering it as a journalist as it roiled college sport in Canada in the early 1990s -- but has not been so rigorously embraced in some other countries.)

When your data is as thin and unrepresentative as "competitions by high-performance athletes in a wide variety of unique events in the first x days of a competition," the chance of extrapolating anything useful in the way of an observation about Canadian sport, or Canada in general, is essentially nil. It would be nice if journalists would note this and caveat their work in other realms accordingly. But they won't. BruceR's Rule #5: "when dealing with thin data, regression to the mean and journalists noticing a trend tend to occur more or less simultaneously."

Oh, and by the way, my saying these Winter Olympics were pretty good before does not mean I don't think the family of that Georgian luger have a darn good negligence lawsuit against a whole bunch of people for what was clearly a huge lapse in officials' judgment. Coyne's right about that, too.

Posted by BruceR at 11:41 AM

February 25, 2010

We do all the Olympics failed

Now that all is right in Canada again and our long national nightmare is over, I just want to say that I think these Winter Olympics have been a pretty good experience, all and all. Also, that John Doyle is right about our curling team. I'm in awe of veteran second Carolyn Darbyshire's "Manitoba tuck" delivery: not only does it look much more uncomfortable than I'm sure it is, but it's certainly unusual in the women's game: a little like watching a knuckleballer in baseball or a left-handed fencer.

UPDATE: On hockey, Colby has the last word worth having. And that word is "ham".

Posted by BruceR at 09:12 AM

Working down the list

The CSM is reporting that Abdul Qayum Zakir, who I said here would likely take over Taliban military operational control in the south from the recently detained Baradar, has been picked up as well.

It's increasingly sounding like the Pakistanis, for whatever reason, have bought Canadian, ISAF and Afghan troops something of a breather here. For which I for one am happy to say, "thanks."

In other news, the Frontline documentary this week, "Behind Taliban Lines," was the funniest thing I've seen on TV in some time. The best part was the earnest recreation of the Joker hospital scene from "The Dark Knight" at the end of their failed ambush. ("The damn thing doesn't work! Here, I'll show you! *Boom*. The way the triggerman's shoulders visibly slump at that point was The Awesome). Of course the title's misleading, as these guys were actually Hekmatyar's fighters up in Baghlan, but it was a useful reminder that one's enemy is undoubtedly having problems of their own. (The overrun of the police station, so often seen in the Kandahar context, shows even these clowns could be dangerous, though... but a section of ISAF or even good ANA troops with a radio and all the support that could have brought them in situ could surely have intimidated or beaten these guys off... that's the tragedy of the ANP right there.)

Posted by BruceR at 08:23 AM

February 23, 2010

Our own private Afghans

An update on the Uruzgan strike. I was correct below that it was American SF rather than Dutch forces. Compare and contrast these statements, though:

"Yesterday a group of suspected insurgents, believed to be en route to attack a joint Afghan-ISAF unit, was engaged by an airborne weapons team resulting in a number of individuals killed and wounded," the American-led International Security Assistance Force, also known as ISAF, said in a statement released Monday...

Zemarai Bashary, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said... there were no Afghan forces known to be operating in the area where the airstrike took place.

I'm pretty sure that the Afghan spokesman is right in this case that there were no actual ANA elements in that area. (There's not enough of them in Uruzgan to loan them to the SF.) Which means that, as in so many places, the SF in FOB Cobra may have been arming a local militia to give them their door-kicker contingent.

I'm not saying these sorts of "arm the tribes"-type arrangements necessarily contribute in any way to tragedies like this air strike, although they potentially can if local rivalries are substituted for intelligence. But they can certainly increase everybody's deniability when no one can figure out whose Afghans they are, as the killing of Kandahar City's police chief also showed last year.

Another interesting contrast in the reports is the local ANA commander in western Uruzgan saying troops were hunting escapees from Marja headed north, presumably deeper into the Hazarajat, while the ISAF release says the "insurgents" were en route to attack the ISAF-Afghan base. I'm afraid all that shows is how little that ANA commander knows about the situation in the SF operating area, though (more evidence his troops aren't involved). Because it's pretty implausible that insurgent escapees from Marja would have passed 250 km as the crow flies all the way through the intervening Marine, British and Dutch areas of operation to seek refuge in a primarily pro-government Hazara province.

Posted by BruceR at 09:58 AM

Some nice army YouTube work

I really have enjoyed the ISAF public affairs "30 Days Through Afghanistan" project, which spent much of the last week video-logging Canadians. It's definitely worth some of your YouTube time.

One I particularly enjoyed was Day Nine, which is spent in the company of 1/205 ANA Brigade's brigade medical officer Jagran (Maj.) Majid, whom I remember well, and his Canadian OMLT mentor.

Just so people know, the Major's ZZ Top beard was rather unusual even among ANA officers (who tend to have something more between an "Andrew Sullivan" and a "Jack Conte") but rank and position have their privileges in any army that way. He always struck me as an earnest fellow, open to advice, but obviously extremely constrained in what he could do to save his injured soldiers' lives compared to the world-class facilities western soldiers have (and which frequently treat seriously injured Afghan soldiers).

Note a couple things from his discussion that say a lot about how the ISAF-ANA partnership works.

First, it's notable that when asked what was the nicest thing a Canadian did for him recently, he says that his mentor provided him an accurate and timely account of injured Afghan troops in Western care that he could then give to his commander. The focus on the "report to the commander" may be significant in understanding Afghan military culture. A Western medical officer would have answered the same question by saying the timely information allowed him to tell the injured soldiers' buddies, or their families: some sort of practical upshot. Afghans don't normally emphasize that sort of second-order effect.

Also notice the role of the mentor here. The ANA brigade medical officer apparently couldn't just walk over to the Canadian medical facility and ask his own questions of his counterpart (security barriers), or be directly notified by the Canadian medical officers by phone that they had his patients (translation barriers), the way an Australian or French medical officer from another country could. (It goes without saying this info wasn't passed from one Tactical Operations Centre to the other the way it would be if it had been two Western armies, as well.)

What happened in these situations a year ago, and probably happened this time as well, was the Canadian mentor used his fairly easy access to the medical facility to gather the info, grabbed an SUV, drove off base to pick up an interpreter, and then drove it over to the Afghan base personally, with the interpreter translating his hand-written sitrep into a Pashto version in the back seat along the way. Without the mentor (and his trusty "terp"), information passage even on these sorts of critical issues can often run into almost insuperable communications barriers between what are still two very separate armies operating in the same contiguous space without much in the way of shared command facilities or common language.

It can be very frustrating. I remember my counterpart, the brigade G2, in one of the best displays of leadership I ever saw from him, calming down a particular soldier, from up north, whose brother had been injured, and was distraught and a little hysterical over it, because he had to tell their family something and no one could tell him anything or let him in to see his brother at KAF. After I tipped him off, the Canadian brigade medical mentor I worked with got that straightened out, of course. But that soldier was about to quit the army until the G2 (who due to Afghan senior officer leave, was the senior officer in the brigade that day) was able to sort him out. It was actually a masterful performance, and it was one of the few times I saw the old battle-hardened, leader-of-men commander identity re-emerge out of my friend's smoother, headquarters, brigade staff officer persona. He wasn't loud or angry, or dismissive, or soft. He didn't pull rank, either. He let the guy get it out of his system in his office for a while (longer than any Canadian officer would, but Afghans generally talk in these situations more than we do), and then spoke to him with the firm, reasoned voice of a leader. I learned more from him about being a leader of men than he did from me that day, for sure.

I couldn't tell you in the end if we saved the injured soldier's life, or the G2 saved the brother's career. But to me it served as just another reminder that our inability to get as close as we could to our Afghan allies had real-world consequences.

Posted by BruceR at 08:27 AM

February 22, 2010

Uruzgan, again

A fatal airstrike on civilians in Uruzgan province, this time.

The strike appears to have occurred near the border between Kijran (aka Gujran) District in Dai Kundi Province and Char Chino (formerly Shahidi Hassas) District in Uruzgan Province. That means the ISAF forces involved here were most likely American SF, operating out of Firebase Cobra, rather than Dutch or Australian.

Posted by BruceR at 04:34 PM

Weekend reading: the Aitken Congo piece

I found BGen Larry Aitken's piece on his experiences with the Chapter VII UN mission in the Congo to be highly interesting.

It's hard to predict the verdict of history, of course, but the Congo is increasingly becoming an interesting counter-example, opposed to Afghanistan, to how Western governments can provide military support to the legitimate government of a failing state fighting a counterinsurgency. Of course the circumstances of MONUC would have been impossible to replicate in Afghanistan in 2002-2005. One can't help but feel, however, if the West been less slightly less hysterical about enabling OEF to go on "hunting terrorists" in those years, and more focussed on a holistic approach preventing the conditions that spawned the Taliban from recurring in the first place, we might have ended up with something similar. Now of course, it's a barn door left open too long. But I thought this was interesting:

SRSG Swing and Lieutenant General Gaye were careful not to become embroiled in the process of solving problems for the government. Rather, they supported actions that were led by the national government. Military operations were initiated from a joint context, and, although the UN was required to provide additional logistical support for the FARDC, MONUC did not act independently of the FARDC in conducting operations against militia groups. When asked to intervene against General N’kunda in North Kivu, MONUC did not take independent action, as this would have placed UN personnel and NGOs at risk of attack by the rebel forces, and generated an escalation of military action when a political compromise was needed.

Also this:

Accordingly, MONUC worked to achieve the effect of holding the national government responsible by reporting human rights abuses to them while, at the same time, working through training and joint operations to stop these incidents from occurring. Security sector reform, although very much the ‘long pole in the tent,’ would take years to achieve, but could be started through joint actions between the UN forces and those of the DRC. A joint doctrine was developed that focused, not only on the issues of command and control, and logistical support of operations, but, more importantly, upon action to stop human rights abuses wherever they were reported or observed.

I expect there's going to be a lot more written on this. It's certainly very different from the Afghan model.

Also worthy of a read in the same issue is an outright slam on Gen. (retd.) Rick Hillier's popularization of Krulak's "three-block war" idea as a foundational theme for Canadian Forces transformation back in mid-decade. It's pretty devastating.

Posted by BruceR at 12:25 PM

Failure in Kunar


The acting commander and "all commissioned staff officers" failed to "monitor a rapidly degenerating tactical situation," the report said. That mistake "prevented timely supporting fires in the critical early phases of the operation and ensured that higher headquarters did not grasp the tactical situation."

Leaving the TOC in the middle of a firefight for 4 hours. No artillery support in 10 hours of fighting. A nearby air asset that refuses to leave its mission to come to their aid. Simply appalling. And note this was U.S. Army failing to support U.S. Marine mentors. The risks for ANSF mentors drawn from one NATO country trying to get the support of another country's battle group in a crisis should be self-evident.

Interesting that the piece says that restrictive ROE were not a factor, but also says the reasons artillery fire was denied included "proximity to a village." The conclusion presumably is that the ROE would not have been a factor if they had not been over-cautiously applied by TOC staff.

See also this piece, which ties the deadly ambush in Kunar to another deadly action a month later at COP Keating:

The area was so "expansive" that a quick reaction force that would have been dispatched to relieve the ambushed force in the Ganjgal Valley had been disbanded, the unidentified officer said in his sworn statement.

No QRF, either? Good lord. Those guys seem to have been screwed before they crossed the line of departure. The whole thing is increasingly (and unpleasantly) evocative of what happens to Willem Dafoe's guys in Clear and Present Danger... all you need now is Jack Ryan and an evil national security adviser. (One of the widows has added her choice thoughts to a Registan thread, I see.) I first wrote about it here.

Posted by BruceR at 08:05 AM

The 96-hour rule

Fox News:

NATO forces are also hampered by what's known as the "96 hour rule". Last summer NATO instituted a new detainee policy which says that if any NATO or International Security Assistance Force soldiers, including Americans, can't transfer captured terrorists or enemy combatants to the Afghan justice system within 96 hours, they have to be released. The problem is that in many cases there isn’t enough time or resources to move detainees, and they end up going free. Some in the military are calling it the "catch and release rule."

For the record, this is an improvement: a year ago it was a "72-hour rule". And all ANSF are bound by it, too. As far as their detainees were concerned, no one but the usual suspects seemed to stay detained for long while I was there. Catch and release was the de facto policy: we called it the 72-hour timeout. And the movement of detainees, although often problematic, wasn't the biggest issue: it was building any kind of a good case against them in that time meriting detention, given that the time to turn around written translations of the guy's pocket litter or declassify and translate our own evidence of malfeasance would often far exceed the time limit.

The rule, which did have the positive effect of limiting the abuse of prisoners, also made questioning in detention effectively impossible. So the intelligence value of any Afghan detentions to either us or the Afghans was extremely circumscribed. I discussed this in detail in "The Prisoner of Mushan."

Posted by BruceR at 07:37 AM

Gardez, again

Tim from Free Range International thinks the Americans in Gardez are clueless.

Posted by BruceR at 07:30 AM

February 21, 2010

Kunduz, again

Sigh. Were the NATO troops German again? It's their province.

Posted by BruceR at 09:10 PM

Marja: not going too well, 2: the ANA performance

The ANA in Helmand is not acquitting itself well in the eyes or Marines or accompanying reporters:

Statements from Kabul have said the Afghan military is planning the missions and leading both the fight and the effort to engage with Afghan civilians caught between the Taliban and the newly arrived troops.

But that assertion conflicts with what is visible in the field. In every engagement between the Taliban and one front-line American Marine unit, the operation has been led in almost every significant sense by American officers and troops. They organized the forces for battle, transported them in American vehicles and helicopters from Western-run bases into Taliban-held ground, and have been the primary fighting force each day.

The comparisons with the reporting of Sheehan and Halberstam in January 1963 Saigon should be obvious. We continue to see near Ap Bac levels of discrepancy between the people who call things as they see them, and official estimates of Afghan military capability.

The good news is, as the piece says, Afghan soldiers are "better than Iraqis" as soldiers. But their leadership at all levels is still nowhere what Western soldiers would consider acceptable. One can only restate this is largely because it was never allowed to emerge organically in a societally integrated fashion from the start, and cannot now due to the inability to disentangle ANA and ISAF operations into separate spheres of operating responsibility at any level. They have become our door-kickers. And for that they don't need their own leaders: in fact, stronger leadership on their part would now be an even greater inconvenience to us than the lack of it.

Star picture of ANA ops from Marja, taken last week. Note how there's no military utility here: if that door is booby trapped they're still all in the blast area, and no one's covering the door in case there's a bad guy behind it. It's purely so that it's an Afghan rather than an ISAF soldier is seen to be doing the property damage and/or entering the private dwelling.

Note how the story is about how a platoon of ANA joins a company of Marines and then is split up among its squads, not treated in any way as an extra, discrete platoon. So what exactly is that Captain commanding it, Amanullah, leading? Yes, he may be an unimpressive leader, but was he unimpressive before he was deprived of any real authority, or because of it? And how exactly now will he reclaim it in the eyes of his men as well as his own mind, short of passively resisting Marine authority until they are rotated somewhere else? His actions, the refusal to bring his men food and water, his slowing down the tempo of operations, his stealing a swig from a soldier's Red Bull, need to be seen in this context.

My point is not that Capt Amanullah is a competent officer. He probably isn't. But you have to interpret his actions as they're described here at least in part as a reaction to how he and his men are being treated by a company of fresh, gung-ho, no-excuses Marines.

Chivers and the Times portray this as an ANA failing: "officers and soldiers follow behind the Americans and do what they are told." But that is what we demanded they do. Why is it not an ISAF failing that they could not give this operation, or a significant part of it, to an Afghan battalion or higher level organization with imbedded enablers, working in their own box? Would they have done things differently? Certainly. Badly? Probably. Would they have been defeated like the ARVN at Ap Bac? Possibly. But the alternative described here, if that were all that was ever tried, is a proven dead end.

The way the ANA has been embedded (without dedicated Western mentors alongside) with this Marine company is something of a necessary evil. These Marines need their "Afghan face." But Company K's way is not in any way a step on the road to greater capability: it is its antithesis. (And the mentored ANA battalion the Canadians are embedded with in Marja are doing a bit better, I suspect. Not a lot. But a bit.)

UPDATE: Just to clarify, I don't think these Marines on the whole are doing anything wrong, or the piece is inaccurate. But note the piece does refer to more "competent Afghan contingents" out there than Capt. Amanullah and his platoon. And please try to consider that before you give someone the responsibilities of a senior officer (coordinating air support, arranging ones own logistics) you first need to give them the responsibilities of a junior officer. And this particular poor Afghan captain, whose men have been parcelled out a couple to a section while he walks along beside the Marine company commander and "learns command", and who feels he has to reassert his authority over his men by such petty acts as stealing a can of Red Bull or slowing up their resupply or their start times in the morning, has not been given that level of responsibility by Westerners yet. And so it has been all the way up the chain. They might have been better having a Marine platoon working with and for an Afghan company. But there's not enough ANA for that, and all the Western troops need their door kickers, and in an offensive against a highly competent enemy, that's a huge risk of mission failure you'd be assuming. This is the dilemma. The training and development of Capt Amanullah's platoon needs to take a hit here to support the Marja offensive, in order that the offensive itself can give enough security that the training and development of other ANSF can occur far away from that fight. At best the improvement to security capacity from Marja is a second-order effect.

Oh, and this is petty, but why couldn't the Marine have just GIVEN the soldier the can of Red Bull, instead of demanding his unit patch in return, in front of his officer? It surely would have been easier for him to get another drink than for the Afghan soldier to get his uniform back in order. (It's not like he has another one, or he could drop by the company quartermaster's to report the loss and pick a new one up, even if they were at the "largest Marine base in Helmand".) Yes, soldiers trade articles off their uniform all the time and claim them to have been "lost" later. I know. But we generally don't do it when the leadership is looking on. Yes, the officer should have just told the soldier he was shaming his unit for trading a badge of ANA and unit pride for a caffeine drink. But instead I expect he chose to teach him a lesson his own way. Because otherwise next week all his troops would be missing parts of their uniform, weapons, etc. that were traded away for little Western luxuries, like so much Indian beads. Or he could have just been a jerk. Or even a little of both.

Posted by BruceR at 08:57 PM

Marja: not going too well

The ISAF move into Marja, in Helmand province, which Canadian OMLT personnel are participating in, seems to be turning into more of the usual Afghan story. WashPost:

The civilian team's most important immediate task will be to assist the newly appointed district governor, Haji Zahir, who recently returned to Afghanistan after 15 years in Germany. Zahir plans to make his first trip to Marja in the coming days.

A key challenge for the stabilization team and Marine commanders will be transforming Zahir, who does not hail from Marja and knows few people there, into an influential local figure. Helmand provincial governor Gulab Mangal selected him for the post largely because he is a friend, but in meetings of tribal elders before the operation, he was primarily a backbencher.

The man with the most sway in Marja is Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief in Helmand. His officers in Marja were so corrupt and ruthless -- their trademark was summary executions -- that many residents welcomed the Taliban as a more humane alternative.

Although Jan, who has extensive ties to narcotics traffickers, was removed from his post in 2005 after pressure from the British government, which was then about to send forces to Helmand, he remains close to Karzai

Government in a box? More like government in a fedex package.

Posted by BruceR at 08:33 PM

February 16, 2010

These men of steel, men of power... they're losing control by the hour

Is it possible the captured shadow governor of Helmand, forced to flight by the Marjah offensive, is the one singing like a canary? Is it even remotely possible that that's part of the reason why his boss, Mullah Barader, who has more Canadian and Afghan blood on his hands than anyone, is now in custody? Cause that'd be a shame...

The biggest break came in early February, when Afghan intelligence agents, tipped off by a source, arrested the Taliban's so-called "shadow governor" of Marjah, who doubled as the insurgents' military chief, said coalition and Afghan officials.

He was grabbed in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan's biggest city, and was on his way to Pakistan, where the Taliban's top leadership had ordered him to take refuge, officials said. "They were worried. Taliban has lost so many mid and senior commanders, they are hurting right now; that's clear from a lot of intel," said a senior coalition commander in Kabul.

The captured shadow governor, whom officials refused to identify, gave allied officers what they said they believed was a fairly accurate accounting of the Taliban's defenses and plans for fighting off coalition forces. He has been a "chatty Cathy," said another senior coalition officer in Kabul.

By Afghan intelligence, no less... Nice. I'd even be happy to bet that my old colleague in Kandahar, the ANA Brigade G2, knew about this particular grab, of the Helmand guy, before anyone in KAF did. This kind of high-value snatch stuff is one thing the NDS seems to do fairly well unbidden, I'll give them that...

This is the point people often miss about the effects of kinetic clearance ops like the current go into Marjah. 'Cause sometimes they're even worth it, if only because they can force the enemy's leadership to expose themselves, use unusual or slipshod communications, or basically, just make mistakes under pressure. Regular COIN in the "hold" areas can never be a total substitute for those kind of disrupt effects in areas still to be permanently cleared.

The other big point here, about the Barader snatch, is the obvious improvement in U.S.-Pakistani-Afghan intelligence coordination, which at the moment seems about the best it's been in at least three years. Yes, part of that is Bush lameduckery in the final year of his second term, but there's no doubt now that a downward trend has been reversed under the new American management.

(Sorry for the headline, been listening to a lot of Disturbed recently.)

Posted by BruceR at 05:58 PM

Kilcullen on metrics

Tom Ricks' series of posts by David Kilcullen on good counterinsurgency metrics are all worth a read, but the one on local security forces was particularly good, I thought. Others:

The enemy.
Local officials.
The population.
Stupid metrics.

Posted by BruceR at 08:40 AM

Collateral damage incident in Zhari (Title changed, see UPDATE #2)

Both regrettable and thankfully unusual (I can't recall another similar multi-casualty mistaken-identity situation involving Canadian troops), but if I'm going to criticize mistakes like the Kunduz tanker strike I figure I have to mention when we make those kinds of mistakes in Kandahar as well. (NOTE: See update #2). Every roto has its own story of mistaking night time background farming activity in a place like Zhari for IED laying: they really seem extremely difficult to tell apart.

UPDATE: It's largely Americans in Zhari now, struggling with the same problems Canadians did for 3 years there. The WSJ had a good writeup earlier this month. Excerpts follow:

American troops have dubbed Pashmul, a cluster of villages sprawling across the fertile belt of grape and poppy fields west of Kandahar city, "the heart of darkness."

Capt. Duke Reim, commander of the American unit responsible for Pashmul, estimates that about 95% of the locals are Taliban or aid the militants. District Gov. Niyaz Mohammad Serhadi agrees. "People here are on the side of the insurgency and have no trust in the government," he says. "Insurgents are in their villages 24 hours."

Among front-line troops, many of them used to more liberal rules of engagement in Iraq, frustration is boiling over. "It's like fighting with two hands behind your back," says Sgt. First Class Samuel Frantz, a platoon sergeant in Capt. Reim's unit, the Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion of the 12th Infantry Regiment. "We're so worried about not hurting the population's feelings that we're not doing our jobs."

Facing the outpost is an abandoned compound from which the soldiers often take fire. When Charlie fought in Iraq, such a compound would have been long obliterated. Here, the soldiers are still waiting for permission to destroy Afghan property.

Helicopters are indispensable in hunting down the squads that plant IEDs—the cause of the company's four fatalities and of most of its 14 serious injuries on this deployment. But, after Kiowa choppers fired rockets at two people spotted digging near road culverts at the end of last year, an angry delegation of Pash mul area elders descended on the battalion headquarters, demanding an end to overflights.

"Villagers were just livid with me," says the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Reik Andersen. "Because so much lethality was going on, they said that the kids are crying, the women are scared" whenever choppers appear in the sky.

Attempting to win local support, Col. Andersen says he promised to the elders that the helicopters would stay away unless called in for a specific incident. He also ordered that villagers spotted digging near culverts be scared away with smoke rather than killed.

"Could that guy be emplacing an IED? He could be. Is he? Unlikely," Col. Andersen says. "Killing 10 civilians to get one Taliban—that mentality is gone. We want to be darn sure that we're killing the right people."

Mr. Serhadi, the district governor, says the delegation of elders had gone to see Col. Andersen on the orders of the insurgents.

IED activity has continued unabated in the area since then. Two villagers died in recent weeks after stepping on buried home-made bombs near the Pash mul outpost, and an American contractor lost a leg.

Between patrols, soldiers openly speak of being betrayed. "It doesn't matter if we get killed—we're here to die," says Lt. Mark Morrison, 24 years old, the leader of the second platoon. "Our lives are not valuable enough to protect."

On a recent patrol, the troops came upon a crater from an earlier IED. Lt. Morrison ordered his men to knock down the upper part of a mud wall fringing the path, so that anyone burying explosives there could be seen from the outpost.

Soon afterward, an angry field owner, Ghulam Farooq, confronted the Americans. "Why are you destroying the wall? If there is no wall, the sheep and the goats will come into my field," he said.

"I'd rather cut down a few trees and break a few walls so that the bad guys stop coming here and placing the IEDs," Lt. Morrison answered.

Hearing the translation, Mr. Farooq broke out in sarcastic laughter. "What's so funny?" Lt. Morrison demanded. The villager snuffed out his laughter, but didn't respond.

Moments later, explosions rang out in the distance. The lieutenant's radio operator, Pfc. Justin Jun, shuddered. "Why does everything have to blow up in that country?" he asked, and vaulted himself over yet another mud wall.

The same piece could have been written any time in the last 3 years when it was Canadians in the AO. A Canadian officer I knew used to say Zhari District would be a nice place if it wasn't so "explosion-y." Plus ca change...

UPDATE #2: Sources at Kandahar Air Field say Canadian forces were not the NATO forces involved.

Posted by BruceR at 07:58 AM

Taliban #2 in custody

Hmm... guess he was in Pakistan after all. Go figure.

I know we've all made jokes about the lifespan of the #3 guy in Al Qaeda, and there are obviously a couple targets who would be bigger in a moral victory sense, but in terms of actual impact on insurgent command and control on the ground in the south of Afghanistan, it's hard to think of a target who would be more significant. This is the supreme military leader of the insurgents who killed Canadians on my watch and previous. It's certainly nice to see him taken off the chessboard: I hope his is a long and barely tolerable captivity.

This is big: Dadullah in 2007 was only a tactical commander, albeit a well-known one. Akhtar Osmani in 2006 was the Taliban treasurer, not a military leader. And both of them were killed, whereas this guy was captured, making him the richest potential target for Western interrogators... well, ever, really. (The closest World War Two comparison would be the capture of Rudolf Hess.) As far as the Afghan war goes, this guy knows more than anyone, full stop. Nice. (By the same token, though, he is as clear a target for Geneva POW protections as there is in this fight, too... or at least he would be if he was in U.S. custody, as opposed to Pakistani.) So will that Thiessen idiot shut up now? (Never mind, I know the answer to that one.)

(Ironically, Baradur's place will likely be inherited by Abdul Qayum Zakir, a Taliban fighter first captured back in Mazar in the very early days of 2001 and released from Guantanamo to Afghan custody in late 2007. Oh, that Afghan custody: it's a peach.)

UPDATE: Yeah, the Taliban's unhappy about this one. You can tell when their PR lead completely denies it.

"In reality there is nothing regarding Baradar’s arrest. He is safe and free and he is in Afghanistan."

As the Newsweek article linked above correctly reported, the man in question would never have been physically in Afghanistan: too dangerous. So that's a complete falsehood. And any leader (Taliban included) who's actually fought in the south will know it for what it is, too. So they're scrambling: their safe haven (at least the Karachi part of it) suddenly looks a lot less safe. Expect some blowback against Pakistani forces and institutions, though. This is the kind of thing that gets bombs set off in Rawalpindi and politicians assassinated.

(As an example of what the other shoe could look like, the last time a capture this big happened, when senior commander Obaidullah Akhund was captured in Quetta in March, 2007, the Taliban also completely denied that capture, as well. The Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan was then taken hostage by Pakistani Taliban working for the late unlamented Baitullah Mehsud (KIA-by-drone, 2009), now also generally acknowledged as the guy behind the Benazir Bhutto hit, in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to secure his release.)

Posted by BruceR at 07:33 AM

February 15, 2010

Family Day reading: Engen's "Under Fire"

Finished Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War, by Robert Engen recently. I had a lukewarm feeling about this book, which is largely an attempt to counter S.L.A. Marshall's controversial "Men Under Fire" thesis (that the majority of Western troops in contact in World War Two did not fire back when under contact) through the examination of post-battle questionnaires delivered to company- and platoon-level officers by the British military.

The recovery to the historical record of the Canadian officers' questionnaires, most of which were returned to the Canadian government archives after the war and have lain there unnoticed since, and the collation of the information within them, is certainly a worthy piece of historical research, and credit is due to the author for the inspiration and the care with which he carried it through. The inclusion of this book or the questionnaires in any future major histories of the World War Two army should be assured. So kudos there.

As a stand-alone monograph, however, the work does not meet the criteria of an essential read, I'm afraid. Engen sets up the results of his research as a stronger refutation of Marshall's previous work than they really are. The explanation of why Marshall is his windmill to be tilted at takes up too much space for too little payoff.

A different and more rewarding tack would have been to compare the individual questionnaires to previous histories of the same battles to see how accounts add to what we know of them, and/or not to aim at the Marshall white whale alone. Trevor Dupuy's "fighting effectiveness" ratings might be at least as vulnerable in the face of contrary first-person accounts, but are barely mentioned here, for instance.

By the time the author finally leaves Marshall behind, and talks about how contemporary observers rated the tactics and weapons systems they used, the monograph is already running out of steam, even though this was by far the most interesting part. One could have imagined a very different volume with similar source material... a compendium of lessons learned from junior officer leadership in one of the worst wartime crucibles history has ever seen, almost. At the very least, a comprehensive evaluation of all of the different weapons systems they used (medium machine guns, for instance, are never mentioned at all, although I'm sure those interviewed must have had some thoughts on their employment) would have been more valuable than what ended up on the page.

Marshall is controversial because his work is now practically tautological. The primary arguments in his favour were always that very few "regular" soldiers at the time objected to his assessment (likely because few of the rapidly demobilized rank and file would have cared about his assessments one way or the other), and that those who did object were either not in a position to know (Marshall rated NCO recollections above those of officers), or readily admitted to not being able to get more from their men in public. A review of post-battle questionnaires filled out for one's own chain of command by Canadian captains and majors, no matter how well exploited by the researcher, is not the right tool to challenge that edifice. Marshall, in life, would have no trouble discounting it.

I know Engen was just trying to make his work relevant. He does this by rather tenuously explaining that the work of another controversial figure, David Grossman ("On Killing") hangs on Marshall's research, so therefore a refutation of Marshall would be relevant today. And maybe it would be, if this was a good one. There is a better way to make a book that sells out of this material, however: perhaps for his second work, Engen might think of comparing and contrasting the same archival material with observations of similar Canadian platoon-level fighting experiences in Afghanistan. It's not like there aren't a few veterans around, and being able to reinterpret the Second World War in the light of their living experiences could be a much deeper well for him to draw on.

Posted by BruceR at 01:34 PM

February 09, 2010

Observations on Williams case

A couple mundane observations about this one, which I'm really only posting about to acknowledge it:

*The fact that there are "fewer than 100" air force colonels, in an air force of maybe 18,000, could at first give pause: in Kandahar in 2008-09, there were maybe 3 full colonels in a contingent of 3,000. It could make one wonder what some of the rest of them are doing. That said, as one of the 14 wing commanders (13 in Canada, 1 in Kandahar; what the Brits would call a "group captain"), each comprising a few squadrons, Col. Williams was in a job appropriate for the rank. Since the earliest days of the First World War, a commander of multiple squadrons has been considered equivalent to an ground force commander of multiple battalions (full colonel), or the commander of a naval capital ship (captain): all "four-ringers," as Canadian military types say. And air forces, because the piloting role is traditionally an officer's function, has historically tended to have a higher proportion of officers to the other services.

*The Col.'s two medals, to save anyone looking them up, are the South-west Asia Service Medal, given for service in the Afghan fight outside of Afghanistan proper (which his command of the air force's Camp Mirage waystation would have granted him), and the Canadian Forces Decoration, for 12 years service (the Globe biography says he was on his 23rd). I still do appreciate the Canadian military practice of keeping the medals to a minimum. An American counterpart would likely be on his third row by this point in his career.

*Tweed's a lovely little village, the definition of picturesque. It's a shame this all had to happen there.

Umm, that's it on these means, other than to hope for the families' sake, that justice is swift.

Posted by BruceR at 07:18 AM

February 08, 2010

CSM: Zhari fight just beginning

Four years after Canadians first deployed to Zhari district, here is one writer's synopsis of all that we achieved:

"In many places, as in Zhari, the battle is just beginning."

Interesting that current American forces are currently held up 4 miles (7 km) east of "Mullah Omar's mosque", aka the village of Sangisar. In 2007 there was an ANA patrol base in Sangisar, which shows how much of a fighting retrograde our time there really was. Seven km east of Sangisar would mean the Americans of the 1-12 Infantry are still basically confined to the area within weapons range of the Bazaar-e-Panjwaii-Zhari district centre road, Zhari's primary north-south route (I won't use its NATO name here, but it started with an "S" and ended with a "t"), built by Canadians and the area where we were largely limited to in 2008-09 and where a couple big battles to get the initial lodging were first fought back in 2006.

As for the insurgent leaders mentioned, Kaka Abdul Khaliq and Jabar Agha, yeah, I know those names, too. You gotta give 'em credit for keeping alive this long with all the effort put into hunting them over the years. Slim customers, those two.

Posted by BruceR at 04:10 PM


Jonathan Kay has trouble connecting dots, apparently. Quote 1:

"The smug left-wing take on the Tea Party movement is that its members are nothing but shell-shocked racists....I saw no evidence of that sort of bigotry in Nashville."

Quote 2, same story:

"As the weekend progressed, it became clear that a speaker could hurl literally any slur he wanted against Mr. Obama, and people would scream enthusiastically and smack their hands together."

About says it all, really.

Posted by BruceR at 07:32 AM

On that global warming thing

I'm not normally a big fan of Bjorn Lomborg, but he's talking a lot of sense here:

"Carbon taxes could play an important supplementary role in funding research and development, but they are not the primary fix. Indeed, putting a high price on carbon first, then hoping that alternative technology will catch up, is not a sound policy. Until the technology is ready to compete on its merits, carbon taxes will simply bleed the economy, while providing no real benefit to the climate."

I don't place much stock in the various attempts out there, including those Lomborg has been associated with, to discredit the science. Scientists are human, and work in an milieu that always has in itself aspects of competition, exclusivity, and reticence, and generally always looks unimpressive under the kind of hyper-close examination climate science is under right now. Strangely, though, they still seem to come up with iteratively closer and closer approximations to reality in their theories, and I have little doubt that's the case here. Eventually the self-correcting tendencies will kick in on this issue, as well.

It's the politicians and particularly the people trying to make a buck for their country or themselves out of the various forms of wealth transfer to polluters to get them to stop polluting that I remain extremely skeptical about. Mark Schapiro's piece in the current Harper's on what's really happening with carbon credits lays out some of the problems with that idea already clearly in evidence. There seems no likely way you could ever pay people on a global scale not to pollute efficiently and equitably, and it really seems folly to continue to try.

That leaves taxes, and while obviously skepticism is warranted there too, I would have to agree with Lomborg that some role for carbon taxation, although moderate at first, now seems warranted. Revenue-neutral changes in manufacturers or commercial property taxes to be more reflective of carbon waste on company and land owners would seem only prudent at this stage: particularly if some additional funding for energy R&D could be derived. Conversion of some level of our sales taxes, and eventually home property taxation, to encourage less carbon use could also be worth investing time into right now.

Future international agreements, rather than focussing on large-scale transfers of wealth between hemispheres, unattainable targets, and cap-and-trade boondoggles, might gain more benefit faster from revitalizing international institutions that could help, such as the IAEA, or defining limitations that could be imposed on the otherwise noble goal of international free trade on those states that refuse to impose some level of carbon-based taxation on their own industries, and ultimately people as well.

Posted by BruceR at 07:09 AM

February 07, 2010

On the Palin flag thing

I was initially impressed with ex-Gov. Palin's ability to ride a populist movement to her own profit. By the figures in this story, the Tea Party convention made $500K at the gate, of which she nabbed a cheque worth 20%. Nice work if you can get it.

I am baffled, though, why she would then think it was proper, let alone a good idea, to wear a flag of Israel on her lapel for the event. Not that I object to Israel in any way myself, but for the hyperpatriotic puppet figure at an ultrapatriotic convention, the move only makes sense as a "dog-whistle" to the "Left Behind" end-times crowd. Which it probably was.

I mean, as far as political stupidity goes, she really is the story that keeps on giving, but come on.

(This will be undoubtedly be written off by Palinites as analogous to politicians born abroad honoring the country of their heritage with a lapel pin of their own. Leaving aside that Palin has no Israeli ancestry I'm aware of, I'll only say that such behaviour, if it occurred, would be not only deeply antithetical to the American self-image of leaving your ethnicity behind before leaving Ellis Island, but that it is impossible to consider, say, a Kennedy, wearing an Irish flag while making a key political speech aimed at all Americans. It just. Wasn't. Done. And so the weird slow-motion train wreck the rest of the world watches with horror from afar called "American politics" continues.)

UPDATE: TNR reports the dinner also began with the following invocation: "If we do not defend the United States, who will defend Israel?" [Laurie Cardoza-Moore] asked, as if about to cry. "I would like to think that the Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is watching here tonight. And I want Bibi Netanyahu to know that Tea Party Nation is going to stand strong for Israel."

"Despite what our leader says, we are a Judeo-Christian nation," she continued, before closing with an injunction to God. "Be with Sarah Palin. Protect her, Lord."

Speaking as a person of Judeo-Christian descent (a PoJuC?) myself, even I'd have to say that's a little over the top.

UPDATE #2: Palin also wore the same Israel-U.S. flag pin on her contemporaneous Fox News interview, where she argued that Obama needed to go to war with Iran to protect Israel to have a chance at a second term.

Posted by BruceR at 03:12 PM

A class act, you gotta admit

Credit where credit's due: no matter how you feel about the guy on the issues, if you were ever a public figure who had to reveal on TV your struggle with a potentially fatal disease, you could take lessons from Jack Layton. My best wishes to him.

Posted by BruceR at 12:57 PM

Well, so much for that idea

Taliban says no to negotiations.

My prediction, made several times here before, is that so long as the Afghan army is still seen by the insurgents as a joke, this will be their position. That's not just a matter of PR, either. There really needs to be some indication of permanent local governmental strength after the West's future drawdown for the situation to change.

UPDATE: Milnews.ca reads the tea leaves slightly more hopefully.

Posted by BruceR at 12:54 PM

Dorronsoro mislink?

There's an article by Afghan commentator Gilles Dorronsoro on the current situation in Afghanistan on the website of Foreign Policy that is not up to his usual standards. He doesn't have a lot new to say, really, and the argument's marred by an odd mislink, where he defends his position that Afghan army building is going to go nowhere by linking to a 10-month old Christian Science Monitor piece about the failure of tribal militias.

"The security of a growing number of provinces will also come under the responsibility of the Afghan army after 2011. It all sounds nice on paper, but these policies are not remotely realistic, and as Anand Gopal reported in the Christian Science Monitor in April 2009, they have all been tried and found wanting already."

Gopal's piece doesn't actually talk about the Afghan army or police, but why other approaches to security ("arming the tribes") don't work in Afghanistan. So it's actually on the opposite tack to Dorronsoro's argument. Oops.

Look, if you want pieces that are skeptical about the Afghan army's future, there's plenty out there. I think I've linked to most of them. I've even written a couple myself. And people who've taken time to think about the issue deeply generally seem to come to the conclusion that only giving Afghans an actual area of operation of their own, and lead security responsibility, as opposed to remaining ISAF ridealongs and door-kickers, is going to rescue their military from its current culture of dependence and offer a way out of the current morass. The London conference's reassertion that this has to happen sooner rather than later was a positive step.

That entirely sensible position has nothing to do with arming the tribes or arbakais. Either Dorronsoro doesn't understand the current ANSF development situation, which I would have previously thought unlikely, or he was just being too lazy on this article to articulate his thoughts clearly (or his editor on the piece did a bad job, that's option 3; you pick).

Much better is Col. Chris Kolenda's piece in the current Joint Force Quarterly:

"Building ANSF is not a matter of simply cranking out more recruits. Building combat effectiveness and self-reliance will require a partnership in which our forces live together on the same outposts, train, plan, and execute operations together, and share information and capabilities. There is no better trainer for an Afghan battalion commander and his staff than an ISAF battalion commander and his staff."

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. But if you don't grasp that up until the current COMISAF's arrival in mid-2009 ISAF was not doing this anywhere in Afghanistan, that we were denying Afghans access to all our information and ourselves to theirs, leading in many cases to unnecessary collateral damage and missed opportunities, that ISAF battalion commanders and their staffs would go through their tours never having more than a couple cups of tea with their Afghan counterparts responsible for the same districts, that for mentors trying to explain to Afghans how things should work every day was another elephant-and-blind-man scenario, then you don't get the scope of the problem, and the futility of all our efforts, in the pre-McChrystal era. It's still been less than a year that we've had even a chance of success in Afghanistan, because voices like Col. Kolenda's, who has been banging this particular drum for awhile, were not getting heard.

Posted by BruceR at 12:18 PM

February 03, 2010

The Flynn briefing

Lang has a link to the unclas brief by Gen. Flynn, the senior U.S. intelligence officer in Afghanistan, on the state of the insurgency there. It's quite good, both as a current model of the craft and for its content.

Posted by BruceR at 07:04 AM

February 02, 2010

Other stuff I have been up to

I see my piece in the Conference of Defence Associations Institute periodical On Track is live (page 35 of PDF). It's a highly abridged version of some remarks I gave to that CDAI meeting back in the fall in Ottawa, but I think it still holds together. My appreciation to Col. (retd.) Pellerin and his staff for the opportunity.

Posted by BruceR at 08:31 AM

On kites and intelligence

C.J. Chivers, on the fight in Helmand:

Mixing modern weapons with ancient signaling techniques, the Taliban have developed the habits and tactics to evade capture and to disrupt American and Afghan operations, all while containing risks to their ranks.

Seven months after the Marines began flowing forces into Helmand Province, clearing territory and trying to establish local Afghan government, such tactics have helped the Taliban transform themselves from the primary provincial power to a canny but mostly unseen force.

The good news then is that the fight in Helmand in 2010 has begun to closely resemble the fight in Kandahar Province in 2007, basically the default state for insurgents facing overwhelming firepower, nothing but IEDs and small arms harassment. Hey, I didn't say "great news." The bad news is that as Kandahar shows it's possible to keep that fight going a long, long time.

The only quibble I have is with some of of the low-tech "signals" Chivers offers. One of the photo captions refers to shepherd's whistles, and the article refers to kites. This is probably an indication either Chivers or someone he interviewed has been paying too much attention to the fever-dreams of fobbits.*

Kite flying is ubiquitous in Afghanistan, but it would be a lousy choice of signal of an enemy presence, relying for success in a pinch on two fairly unreliable things: wind, and boys (not to mention daylight). Even if it worked, presumably you'd have to do something special, like fly a different kite, to distinguish it from all the other kites. Its use as a signal of the presence of troops seems to be another one of those Afghan "urban legends," a classic example of false correlation in intelligence reporting. Kite flying is fairly unusual to Westerners, so patrol reports can often mention it just as an observation. (It could also potentially indicate the presence of children in a village, so it would still be worth noting when you're trying to figure out where the local families are actually living.) Analysed in bulk away from the action, though, it's easy for someone to note a correlation between kite flying and patrols being hit when they visit a given village every couple weeks or months. Because we only observe the behaviour when we're around, it can be natural to assume it has something to do with our presence. But the baseline assumption that kites were likely also flown on all those intermediate days when there wasn't a patrol around and therefore nothing to hit can be hard to reintroduce into one's analysis. The competing or null hypothesis in this case ("Afghan kids fly really kites a lot, don't they?") is rarely rigorously compared.

The troops in the field every day figure this out quickly enough, of course. I once made the rare mistake of passing on an RFI on local kite-flying patterns along these lines from a higher headquarters to our guys uncritically. I was rapidly slapped down by one of the guys in Tacnet email for passing on a junk request, something along the lines of "the kids are flying kites around me now. They were flying them yesterday. If I walk to the next village they'll be flying there. They'll be flying them tomorrow if there's any wind... tell them to factor that into their analysis and get back to me when they have something useful to ask me."

This is not to say, mind you, that no Taliban has, ever, ever used a kite as an early warning apparatus in the history of Afghanistan. I'm sure it's been tried. But the number of those instances, compared to the number of innocuous kites in the sky on a given day, would be so rare as to only be detectable through extremely detailed observation by someone surveilling a place 24/7. You're not going to pick it up that level of subtle changes from the baseline on a standard foot patrol. Until another source of intelligence, like Humint ("that kid's dad is in the Taliban and he gets him to fly a kite when you're around.") or Imint ("our UAV noticed a bearded man with an AK flying a kite on that hill.") allows you to focus in a little, you won't be able to distinguish the unusual from the baseline, and focussing on it inordinately could lead you to miss something else or make a mistake in your tactical assessment of a situation. (Now, the guy driving down the road ahead of you honking, yeah, now him I'd stop and question.)

The real sadness here is that kite-flying, once banned by the Taliban, and which should be seen as a ubiquitous symbol of the liberation we brought, is now being interpreted by some (fortunately as I said, mostly those farther from regular contact with Afghans) as something to be regarded with suspicion... when really it's only an indicator of one's own unfamiliarity with the ways of Afghans.

*For the record, I figure I spent 40% of the waking hours of my tour outside KAF's gates and most of that was in other, very safe surroundings by Afghan standards. So I was at least three-fifths fobbit.

Posted by BruceR at 07:15 AM

February 01, 2010

Jenio firing: yep, it was a slide

It's confirmed: as first reported by this site a week ago, an American LTC responsible for a critical Kandahar district and one of the key leaders working for Canada's top commander there, and his most senior NCO, were sacked for an offensive PowerPoint joke, one of those "demotivational posters." Sigh. You can't make this war up. Gulliver has more.

Posted by BruceR at 10:11 PM

Afghan army training stories: CBS and WashPost

Okay, Lara whatshername with Special Forces mentors on 60 Minutes... is there anything to say that Josh and Tim have not?

The lack of displayed language facility by these Green Berets was disturbing. There are lots of good Pashto words for "f--ktard." Urdu ones can even do in a pinch, I found. And the frustrated, hectoring behaviour of American military trainers with the commandos in garrison is hardly unusual, or surprising. The real trouble there is the power dynamic because of the involvement of interpreters, when you don't even have a basic "yes/no/stop/go" language ability.

Interpreter drills like they teach you in peacekeeping centres are great for one-on-one conversation, and useful in small group settings. Drill squares and rifle ranges are different, especially when you want to get shouty. Instead of the desired effect, what the Afghan sees is the cranky American man who has no actual authority over them yelling incoherently, and a local interpreter who they will quickly learn to despise calling them bad names they DO understand. The general response is some form of work-to-rule, generally involving acting stupid, or not showing up the next day, or whatever. Or shooting themselves or others "accidentally," it must be added.

It also completely undermines their own chain of command, too whenever the foreigner lets loose. What you ideally want on the parade ground is you making quiet observations and their own leaders yelling. Hard to achieve in practice, though, and especially around loaded weapons and other dangerous things. Still, I've seen it done better.

Special Forces training for ANA commando units was overrated, at least when I was there. The ANA Commando battalion for Regional Command (South) never left their base that I saw, while the ANA line troops around them continued to take steady casualties. When Helmand desperately needed extra forces, they came not from the commandos, the ostensible regional reserve, but from line units in Kandahar, limiting other ANA (and by extension, Canadian) anti-insurgent ops in that province for weeks at a time. And even though there was that commando battalion sitting around, other passing SOF units continually tried to get yet another platoon or a company of their own Afghans permanently detached from us to play with.

The real reason for this (and likely why the ODA featured in this piece, "when they're not fighting... [is focussed on] transforming foreign soldiers into a formidible fighting force") was that the ISAF and Afghan government rules at the time (and now) practically require some ANSF involvement in any kinetic operation for it to be approved. So even if you're the slickest SOF operators in town, you've got to take along a few, and unless they're yours to "train" permanently the risk is they're never going to be cut over to you by the main force units in a timely fashion when you find it's go-time. The Afghans themselves we saw lent over were meant as door-kickers at best: often their chain of command had no more idea where they're going, or why, than their lowest soldier did (OPSEC, you see), which is to say, no idea at all. Sure, you have to put up with some of this sort of thing if you're going to have SOF working in theatre at all, but no one should pretend it was an effective way to build actual local military capabilities, and consequently no one should presume that Commando battalion's actual fighting ability was anywhere near as good as the best ANA line battalions, let alone better, by virtue of their Special Forces trainers. This piece only bears that out.

As for the rest of it, yes, "warning shots" fired directly at a moving vehicle with a silenced weapon is stupid, and the piece's ending understandably tragic, I grant you (But I would have loved to see the responsible PAO's face when they told him his soldier had just mistakenly shot two Afghan kids on CBS). As to the beards thing, it's not a "sign of respect"... look at how few of the Afghan soldiers are wearing one. Grey hair and well groomed facial hair may be a help getting your ideas heard in an Afghan meeting, sure, but the real value of beards was always for those westerners who had to be able to pass for an Afghan at a distance, often because they had to be prepared to move in Afghan clothes or civilian vehicles. If all you're doing is staying behind the hesco and occasionally descending from a helicopter in full battle-rattle, into some place you've never been before and will never go to again, it's an affectation.*

But next to the language**, what bugged me the most was the complete absence of any sense of Afghan-American cameraderie or any indication of that unique kind of educated worldliness that ODAs used to bring to a fight. It may still have been there, but from the documentary Special Forces work seems to be mostly about bench pressing now. Compare that to the ODA at the heart of Schacochis' Immaculate Invasion, and you can see the changes that perpetual war has brought to the Green Berets. Not all bad, mind you, but certainly not all good in this viewing, either. But again, that's a 15-minute TV piece, too.

The second ANA training piece of note today was the Washington Post again:

"The Afghan army is about 43 percent Pashtun, 32 percent Tajik, 12 percent Hazara and 10 percent Uzbek, with the rest made up of smaller ethnic groups, according to the U.S. military and an independent analysis by the International Crisis Group. That's roughly the same as the ethnic makeup of the population...

The main problem, officials said, is geographic, not ethnic. The Pashtuns joining the army generally do not come from the heavily Pashtun areas of the south, such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the Taliban insurgency is most concentrated."

Very true. Having said as much in the past, it's nice to see it reflected in the reporting. There's lots of Kabuli Pashtuns, Jalalabadis, etc.; it's the Kandahari Pashtuns that are hard to find.

Also, the senior officer corps is still weighted toward Tajiks, many of them former commanders of the Northern Alliance militia that battled the Taliban in the late 1990s.

No argument. Your other option for extended military experience is the ex-Soviet era ANA. There are no ex-Taliban at the command level.

More important than the numbers may be the fact that in the Afghan army, members of different ethnic groups are forced to interact with one another. Several American military officers pointed out the similarities to the United States, where the desegregation of U.S. Army units in the 1950s preceded -- and in many ways paved the way for -- the breakdown of segregation in society.

"It builds trust," Breazile said. "These guys realize once they get together in a unit and train together, they're brothers in arms. . . . That's changing the culture, to become more accepting of each other."

"The change, if slight, may also be generational. A small group of young Afghan recruits interviewed together at the training camp said they felt more allegiance to the country and the army than to their ethnic group, and they blamed ethnic divisions for much of the country's strife over the previous three decades.

I don't know how generational it is. I saw lots of cameraderie across ethnic boundaries at senior officer levels too. About what one would have expected from professional soldiers who have fought together, and at times against each other, in multiethnic armies, over decades. Comparing it to the desegregation of blacks, even if it is the spin you'd expect Americans to put on such things, is a little over the top. This is more like the meeting of equals in a common army after a civil war (for which there are comparisons in American history too, of course) not the uplifting of a race. Still, it's good to see the younger soldiers' thinking mirroring that of their better ANA elders and leaders.

"Capt. William E. Spurlock, a U.S. spokesman at the base, said the feeling of camaraderie among recruits is new. He said he had worked with an Afghan army company as an embedded military trainer in Zabul province in 2005 and that when he instructed the company to form two platoons, they split along ethnic lines. He didn't realize it until someone complained that the Pashtuns were "getting all the good missions," he recalled. After that, Spurlock said, he ordered that the units be integrated. He received a citation from the U.S. Army for helping foster diversity."

Props to Capt. Spurlock, of course. It was probably language more than ethnicity that led to the split in the first place, though. Afghans are remarkably Dari-Pashto bilingual, but it's never perfect, and people in any bilingual country will self-segregate on the basis of language without it being due to racism. And undoubtedly there was some loss of some forms of military effectiveness due to the blending of the two languages in one platoon. It's a trade-off. Which is just to say, once again, that there are no simple solutions in this one; in Afghanistan, it seems every good idea has its downside.

UPDATE: One last thought on that 60 Minutes piece. As one commenter at FRI notes, keep in mind this is the good footage, the footage that was screened by public affairs officers. This -- the shouting, the shooting people, the obsession with weight lifting -- is what the American military agreed you could see, from 10 weeks of filming. And yet there's strangely little that's unambiguously admirable here. That alone could be reason for pause.

UPDATE #2: The more I think about it the more I love that 60 Minutes story. Play it with a less in-the-tank correspondent than Lara Logan and add some hillbilly chase music and you've practically got a M*A*S*H*-style screwball comedy ready to show. "We're the quiet professionals... oops, I shot myself! We're better than Rambo... Oops, the Afghan shot me! I'm very serious about my craft: oops, I shot a couple kids! The Afghans are who we are here to help... bunch of f--ktards..." Or imagine the same footage narrated by oh, any other not totally pro-war commentator you can think of. Gwynne Dyer, for instance. The 60 Minutes editors must have had a hell of a time wrestling with the tone. But the more you think about it the more hilarious it is. If the intent was a deadpan hidden critique, people saw through it: the CBS website comments are uniformly critical about what the internet denizens see as a stealth attack on "our troops"... If it was meant as an homage, however, which I still suspect it was... hoo boy, was that a bad piece of TV.

*Yes, I know, says the guy with the "tour moustache." Hey, I was envious of my mentor colleagues whose bosses let them go the full bearded route: when you're working with Afghans every day, you want to limit any impediment to understanding that you can, within reason. But what they had figured out, though, and what these SF guys evidently missed in the lecture, is what impresses Afghans the most is well-groomed facial hair, not that scraggly crap they've got. It's almost as much an indicator of affluence and culture as it is of masculinity that way.

**Yes, I realize these guys would have been from 7th Special Forces, and so would have been training state-side to a Spanish-language facility. That's an insufficient excuse.

Posted by BruceR at 08:21 PM

A point of clarification

In case anyone was wondering, yes, I was Capt. Rob Semrau's S2 in Afghanistan*. I regret I don't know him well personally, and I was a long way away and out of comms when the action over which his court martial is centred occurred. So I'd have very little useful info to add in any case, even if I wasn't being mindful of the prohibition on Forces members commenting publicly on matters under investigation or before the courts.

One point that does bear clarification, though: Peter Worthington's column on the issue is the latest press piece to call Semrau's military action the result of an "ambush" on a "patrol." This couldn't be further from the truth.

The battle on the day in the question, which was primarily fought by 200 soldiers of 2nd Kandak, 1st Brigade, 205 Corps of the Afghan army, with Canadian advisors imbedded, was a north-to-south clearance operation, as straight-up a "cross the start line, two companies up" type deliberate offensive maneuver as one is ever likely to see in Afghanistan. It was what we used to call a battalion-level "advance to contact", one part of a larger brigade-level deliberate operation that day. The actions in question I understand occurred during what we would have called back in officer training as "consolidating on the objective." There was no "patrol", and no "ambush". The Afghans were attempting and succeeding, to seize and hold key terrain held in strength by a prepared enemy, terrain which was being used to launch a series of fairly indiscriminate indirect fire attacks into the city of Lashkar Gah, across the Helmand River to the east. Save the big difference of the closer tactical air support, a Canadian survivor of any of the major textbook Canadian battles of either of the two great wars, or Worthington's time in Korea, would likely have been right at home on the day.

The Helmand fight, which our Afghan brigade sent troops to twice during my tour, sometimes seemed as different from Kandahar's for them as night and day. At least in 2008-09, there were actual setpiece battles, and pins-on-the-map tactical maneuver, in a way the ANA in Kandahar Province rarely saw. I don't believe that in any way influences the material facts of this trial, but it would be nice if the press could report it accurately without all the misleading terminology.

*And of any of the other Canadians who may have witnessed or reported the alleged incident, for that matter.

Posted by BruceR at 08:59 AM

Spin Boldak: it's kinda like Deadwood, but with AKs

Worth a read: the Washington Post on corruption in Kandahar Province. Good piece.

Americans are just getting their first introductions to these characters, who Canadian war-followers have long known about. There was a good piece in Harper's recently, as well.

Posted by BruceR at 08:37 AM

On reconciliation

Another good take by Sonia Verma on the weekend on the prospects of Taliban reconciliation.

We always need to be seen, if only to satisfy ourselves, to be holding out the olive branch of peace. But really, given that the Taliban demands have not changed, and that their Dubai meetings with the UN and the Saudis appear to have achieved exactly squat, it would be fairly straightforward to assume that there has been no change to the conditions that made reconciliation unthinkable three years ago. The bad guys still think they can win this thing outright.

Ahmed Rashid has a different view. He says there's a window for negotiation because the Taliban's at high tide now, because they must know they can never take the cities. With respect to Rashid, I think that's mistaken: if I were an insurgent, I would only conclude that the waiting game can't work in the end when I saw capable, competent local security forces. If the cities will probably fall when the West leaves, why not wait?

It doesn't matter how good we Westerners are, because everyone knows we're going to leave sooner or later. The only thing I can see that brings the insurgency to the negotiating table for good is an Afghan army (possibly one supported by foreign advisors and airpower) that can demonstrably knock them for six if they try to repeat the early 1990s again. Is that achievable? That's the question this space has been trying to answer for the last nine months.

Posted by BruceR at 08:29 AM

Wanna lift?

God bless the American armed forces. From FRI in Jalalabad:

The military is even worse – everyday several times a day they fly people between the Jalalabad PRT and the army base at the Jalalabad airport. That is a trip of no more than 400 meters. You could walk it in 15 minutes – you could run shuttle buses between the camps all day every day for maybe 50 dollars a day. Do you know how much it costs for one flight hour in a military helicopter? Does the military honestly believe that the 200 meters of route one separating their bases is so dangerous that it warrants flying helicopters between them? Of course not – but flying in helicopters is easier than running four vehicle MRAP convoys and every time a soldier drives outside the front gate of a base he has to be in a four vehicle convoy with at least 16 riflemen.

Remember the good old days, when the Canadians held down Kandahar Province for two years without a single helicopter of their own? That's really what's changed in the last 1-2 years: the sheer quantity of Western material is an order of magnitude greater than what was there before.

Also note his comments about suicide bomber reporting shutting down NGO efforts. By my measurement at the time the ratio of reports of suicide bombers "getting ready to strike" in ANSF intelligence reporting to actual attacks was about 20 to 1. Afghan channels are comparatively obsessed with the suicide threat, while lacking many of the internal informational techniques we have for merging their own parallel and limiting their circular reporting. The result is that the signal-to-noise ratio on this particular indicator can become completely unmanageable.

Posted by BruceR at 08:19 AM