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