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