March 26, 2010

Judging heroism

Globe and Mail:

Joyce Green, a political science professor who signed the letter, says she’s concerned that there was no discussion before the university decided to offer the scholarship, but says it needs to be debated.

“It conflates heroism with the death of individuals who are in the military service and we think that the death of individuals is always a tragic matter, but we think that heroism is something different,” Ms. Green said.

“When you attach heroism to the deaths of the military, it makes it very difficult, maybe impossible for us to talk about what’s going on, what the nature of our military engagement is. In other words, it shrinks the space for democratic discussion and criticism of military policy in Canada and in the university.”

This is an interesting discussion. Prof. Green here seems to say she would support educational support, if it had just been for the children of dead heroes, presumably from a wider range of professions; she just doesn't want that label attached to all military wartime fatalities, because of the implied value judgment we are making as a society about a particular military action.

I wouldn't or couldn't tell you which of the deaths on our rotation were more heroic than the other ones. It's an impossible judgment call; even medals for bravery and such are at best a very rough approximation. Every soldier knows the stories about the heroic acts that didn't get a medal, and the unheroic ones that did. Those sorts of controversies go right back to Billy Bishop's time, if not further, and that's when soldiers are judging other soldiers. It's certainly not a distinction that a university registrar's office could ever be expected to make on its own.

For that matter, I don't think policemen or firemen would want a scholarship where the recipient's parents' actions needed to be judged retrospectively on their bravery by laymen in order to qualify, any more than soldiers would. It's all, or none, in a sense.

So the real question here is whether military death taken as a whole is qualitatively different from other workplace death. The only question then would be whether police officers, subway workers and/or butchers might make the cut or not.

Ultimately, as Damian says, it may go back to whether you subscribe to the idea of "unlimited liability": specifically whether you believe that soldiers are the only people in our society who we as a nation, through the chain of command, can order to individually stand their ground to the point of death for the greater good, if necessary.

Now if you believe we can order policemen and firemen to give their lives in the same way, then yes, they should probably be included in any survivor provisions, but I don't know that that's the case. Does a policeman refusing to patrol a dangerous neighborhood, or a fireman refusing to attend a fire, face the same utter absence of pity that I would have received if I'd ever said I didn't want to drive down that same road where someone got blown up last week? In theory, they wouldn't, but in real life I don't know that I know the answer to that: I've never been a cop. But at the very least, the survivors of the dead in other professions presumably have access to a set of remedies mine would not if that death were seen as not entirely my own fault, starting with the court system. It's a well-established principle that soldiers' families can't sue the government, no matter what the government made them do: one shudders at the thought of how much in damages would be owing in the case of a Dieppe or a Hong Kong otherwise.

The other civilian-military distinction rests on the assumption that Canadian soldiers are representatives of Canada, in a way that other Canadian citizens are not. That is why they wear the flag at all times. This then becomes an added burden of responsibility and limitation on their freedom of action: for instance, non-soldiers are not in any sense obligated to obey the Geneva Conventions, even if not doing so entails greater risk to them. It simply doesn't apply to civilians as a restraint or as a rule set. Again, though, one may justifiably feel that other Canadian representatives bear similar burdens of responsibility to the nation in their daily activities. To take the obvious example, are not Mounties also recognizable as national representatives, whose negative actions risk putting us all in disrepute? Does not a Mountie's death while trying to live up to our expectations of them signify more to us than other deaths in that sense?

The other distinction might lie in the sheer frequency. Certainly if we're going to evaluate in terms of rates of fatality, 100-plus "deaths on the job" in a military organization of 60,000 or so in a four year period does seem somewhat higher than the rates of "workplace death" in most other professions police and fire included. (And if there was a private profession where the rate of death was anywhere comparable, I'd argue it should probably be nationalized.)

The tradeoff for accepting all these additional obligations and risk is an understanding that one's affairs and families are looked after by the state should the worst happen. This scholarship only seems to be an extension of that. Furthermore, as I understand the program it is the effort of a retired general to increase the opportunities for the children of our recent war-dead, which universities can choose to enter into. There is nothing in the proposal that would preclude the university extending similar benefits to the children of other forms of death... the only question again becomes where one draws the line.

The logical followup question I suppose, to those who advocate drawing the line somewhere else, would be whether a scholarship for the children of World War Two's dead would ever have been justified. One hopes they are not so hypocritical as to argue the choice of war should make a difference: the soldiers certainly had no choice in which war their country was fighting.

Ultimately, though, it's difficult to see how you could make an army run without those added risks and responsibilities above that don't attach to other trades. To reject them as no longer useful or valid distinctions, to argue as an example that soldiers today and police are functionally equivalent, and while they can sometimes have to take a higher measure of unexpected risks to do their job, neither tradesman's death can ever be expected by the state, neither has to accept more risk of death than the other without complaint, and neither has any greater obligation to represent Canada and its values in a way that can often threaten one's own life... I would respectfully have to suggest the logical extension of that position is the extension of civil rights to unionize and to sue their officers to all soldiers and their families, which those other trades enjoy, and which I suspect would result in the eventual degradation of any national expeditionary military capability whatsoever. If that's a belief that these professors subscribe to, it would benefit the debate to be clearer about that.

Posted by BruceR at 12:20 PM

Left on Afghanistan's plains

Disregarding some of the Kiplingesque undertones of the situation, and refraining utterly from commenting on the actions before the court themselves, a little context for those following the Semrau court-martial through the papers, which may be difficult to discern from the coverage.

The Afghan unit in play in this story was a battalion-minus, primarily drawn from 2nd Kandak (Dari for battalion), 1st Brigade, 205th ANA Corps. Rated CM1, the highest level, by military evaluators, it had fought in Kandahar Province and around about since 2006, and is still there today. It was the first Afghan unit from their new-model army to be deployed to Kandahar, and has worked extensively with Canadians, who arrived around the same time, since.

In October of 2008, the battalion was detached temporarily from 1st Brigade, which was responsible for Kandahar Province, to support the 3rd Brigade of the Corps and their operations in Helmand Province next door. Insurgents had claimed the area west of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, in force, and were using that vantage point to fire rockets and mortars into the city. A military operation was required to restore the situation, and 3rd Brigade needed the additional troops to do it.

The Kandak -- with some logistical personnel added, and some troops left behind to hold the area of Kandahar Province they were responsible for -- amounted to perhaps as many as 300 men. They were divided into multiple companies, or tolais, with 60 or more men each, driving themselves to Helmand in their ubiquitous Ford trucks.

Accompanying 2nd Kandak over to Helmand were 30 Canadian mentors from the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team unit based in Kandahar Province. This organization comprised a few teams of 4-8 Canadian personnel and an interpreter each, headed by a captain, each assigned to shadow an ANA company commander. Another team of similar size, led by the kandak senior mentor (Maj. Steven Nolan in this case) accompanied the ANA battalion commander.

The mentors, as Maj Nolan is accurately quoted as saying, did not exercise command, except over themselves: they shadowed the Afghans, but did not lead them. The Afghans in turn were only responsible to their own leadership, in this case 3rd Brigade and up to the corps. It was in essence two parallel organizations, mapped onto each other. The Canadian chain of command went from the company teams, up to the senior mentor colocated with the Afghan battalion commander, a lieutenant-colonel, with each country's senior officer keeping in contact with his own troops through parallel radio nets. The OMLT unit commander, LCol Joseph Shipley, and the rest of us, had remained in Kandahar Province with the ANA brigade headquarters, to observe and help with their actions at that level; that meant contact between our guys in Helmand, and through us with the rest of the Canadian task force was intermittent, at best. The other ANA brigade headquarters, in Helmand, which 2nd Kandak was effectively reporting to until the operation ended, was mentored by a British team. Any command relationship between the British brigade mentors and the Canadian battalion and company mentors would have been relatively ad hoc, one implied by the circumstances rather than formally defined. In short, there being no other Canadians within 100km, Maj Nolan and his men were very much on their own hook for a time in that sense.

The OMLT mentors to this point had been living with their ANA counterparts for about a month and a half, and had done at least one major operation in Kandahar Province together before this, so there was a clarity of expectation on both sides by this point. From our perspective, letting them be ordered away to Helmand for an indefinite period without Western support or liaison accompanying them would have been unthinkable, and possibly even dangerous, both to "our" Afghans and other Western troops (including British main force units and American police mentors) who would have no way of communicating with them if they were operating nearby. On the day in question, the value of that kind of support was made evident, when insurgents contesting the Afghans' advance south were engaged by an Apache helicopter called in through a Canadian-manned radio, armed with a 30mm cannon and heavier ordnance. (Aside: one can assess, hopefully without too much prompting, what effects that might have had on anyone it actually hit.)

The issue that always arises on these Afghan-led ops is what one must do when the cooperation threatens to break down. Both sides are somewhat dependent on the other to survive in battle, and that normally makes consensus pretty easy. But sometimes both sides aren't on the same page. This isn't a situation where the Western mentor is sitting back at base with a chalkboard and saying when they get back, "well, we observed you guys on the UAV and you probably should have done a left-flanking instead." Mentors out there taking an equivalent level of risk as the Afghans. And if it's unsafe, and you can't survive on your own out there, and if the Afghan half of your team were suddenly to not to play anymore and take a different course of action, for instance, that meant as mentors you could find yourselves in an awkward position. Some version of that scenario, with clearly conflicting aims, and priorities, and assessments of risk to resolve and maintain a consensus over, remains a regular and unavoidable occurrence when working jointly with any of the local forces in Afghanistan.

Posted by BruceR at 11:50 AM

March 24, 2010

Things that please me: bad 80s movie edition

In the vein of writing about something else besides Afghanistan, I thought I'd mention my favourite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, their dissection of Space Mutiny, which is online until the copyrighters (sic) find it at Google Video.

If you never got into the MyST thing back in the 90s this really is the one you should see, which has the crew in fine form taking apart what really could be one of the worst movies of the 1980s. Just do what everybody else does and FF through the interstitials; it's the movie with the voiceover commentary that everyone should probably be legislatively required to view. It really is our generation's Plan 9: heroically, determinedly awful.

Posted by BruceR at 08:35 AM

March 18, 2010

The Seventh quarterly report... and the other Six

anp.pngThe Seventh annual Canadian quarterly report on our Afghan mission is out, and others have already commented on the apparent lack of progress over three months ago on the ANSF side... something that has been mentioned here, oh, now and again.

Anyway, to take a better look on actual trends over the last 18 months of this reporting, I've charted the six objective ANSF benchmark measures on the flip side, so you can see the progress since they were established as part of the government's response to the Manley Commission in June 2008.

In all cases, the red line is the Canadian government's stated goal.

First up is the number of kandaks out of the five in 1/205 ANA Brigade plus brigade HQ rated at Capability Milestone 1. 5 Kandak, the logistics kandak joined 2 Kandak and the HQ at that level a few months ago. While one can quibble about what CM1 really means in terms of capability, this is what an on-track benchmark at the halfway point (between mid-2008 and mid-2011) should look like.

Effective strength of the ANA, on the other hand, is not being maintained at the Canadian government goal of 70% for all kandaks. To be fair, though, it was expected that 2009 would be a loss year for 1 Brigade as a lot of its original enlistments from when its units were first formed were coming to term this year. Insisting on more accurate and rigorous reporting from the ANA is probably another factor that has hurt this metric while actually helping the war effort.

The third measure, % of operations with an ANA lead or involvement in the Canadian sector has also dropped. It replaced an earlier metric, so there's only a year's worth of data. This has always been the most subjective of these measures (Do you count a resupply run? A traffic checkpoint? An IED sweep? Is a battalion operation worth the same as a patrol?), and the idea that 45% of the actual military activity in the area was led by the ANA, the reported number during my stay in the brigade HQ which was supposedly doing all that work, was always difficult to credit as anything more than someone somewhere playing with numbers. The reporting was simply too sketchy for us to totally rely on, too: if the ANA said they did a patrol, and no Canadians participated, did you take their word for it and counted it in the stats? That means the "executed" figure (light purple, the percent of all activities in which the ANA participated somehow) is probably the more useful of the two.

Our only ANP measure worth tracking, really, is % that have reached Capability Milestone 2, meaning they're largely self-sufficient. That steadfastly refuses to rise as fast as we'd like towards Canada's goal of 14 out of 17 districts. The other metrics in our reporting relate to the Canadian building of infrastructure, and the number of police who have taken FDD training, which is now somewhere above 100% of the total number of police in the province. The ludicrous attrition rate, however, means that the actual number of trained police is much lower than the total complement; no one's sure exactly how low. It's not much of a metric if the number can never go down, and none of the other police metrics can.

The optimism of early 2008 that the worst might be over is best reflected in the two public opinion metrics. I don't know why someone thought the ANA would need to retain an 85% public approval rating among Kandahar's key districts (I can't think of a single public institution in Canada that has an approval rating that high in peacetime), but that's what we've been tracking. It's hard to see how we could meet it until peace breaks out.

The answer to the "is security improving" poll question is, if anything, even more telling.

It's too simple to say we're bad at picking benchmarks. The real trouble here is all these are essentially second-order effects, which can really only go up rapidly once the insurgency wanes. They are not independent of insurgent inputs: in fact the insurgent input in all cases has the potential to dwarf any aggregate Canadian input. We're not measuring our own effectiveness in the battle, right now, in other words, but only confirming the insurgents' are refusing to go away.

Unit CM ratings, for instance, go up when a unit has time to be trained and equipped properly. In a time of heavy insurgent activity, when fighting is more important, ratings which are based on objective subcriteria like manning strength or percent of equipment that's operational will go down due to the wear and tear of war. So really, we're not rating our effect on the Afghan army's ability to fight by these statistics, but the degree to which it is well-run: orthogonal if not antithetical to battlefield success. Local public opinion and AWOL rates are similarly secondary (an army hip-deep fighting a vicious insurgency effectively is guaranteed not going to be able to keep 85% public approval or a 10% AWOL rate). And it goes without saying that the fastest way to get Canadians to step aside and let Afghans run military operations would have been if the insurgents went away for awhile.

We didn't really think through two years ago how we would measure counterinsurgency success in the absence of peace, because it was such a new field for us as a nation. The production of more sophisticated metrics, like Kilcullen wrote about, has lagged behind the war in that sense, and for now we're stuck with metrics that will only look good either if we start belling the numbers, or once peace breaks out. The risk here was always that benchmarks that can really only look good if the Afghans are fighting less (like police CM ratings) could be counterproductive if there's any kind of government pressure to see "progress". So the fact they are flat-lining actually is fairly positive: it shows our government, at least so far, hasn't feel the need to resort to that sort of thing.

Again, it's not that we're not one input; it's that we're just one input of several that affects these figures, so our success is not what's being measured. So in 2009 you had a dramatic shrinking of the area of Kandahar province that Canadian troops were primarily responsible for, and a radically different, pop-centric COIN-y approach adopted (the "key village" strategy). That, along with American reinforcement, means our military operations are on a much sounder footing right now than they were a year ago. But neither of those huge changes in the way Canadians are conducting this war was likely to be measurable in any of these stats, so long as the overwhelming influencer, the insurgents, were still active in large numbers.

The other good news is that this is only the halfway point, that there's another half-dozen quarterly reports like this one to go, and American military investment in Kandahar in that time period (another dependency these stats have that will tend to dwarf our own efforts in the security sector) is likely to lead to all of them trending up in the next few reports anyway. So expect all these metrics to rise somewhat through 2010-2011 as that greater U.S. input is felt. Again, it's not really measuring our own contributions to this fight, though.

Posted by BruceR at 10:41 PM

Yeah, I was there, it wasn't that bad

Had to look a while for the long version of Murray Brewster's piece reading Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command assessments from my roto. (The Star's abridged version is amusingly titled "Taliban Came Close to Retaking Kandahar". Yeah, no, they didn't. The piece is about how they came close to killing off the provincial council, which is nowhere near the same thing.) Finally found it at the Penticton Herald.

Hamidi, the mayor, was targeted by a roadside bomb the same month.

Yeah, that was an interesting day. Nice mushroom cloud/dust plume, that one. I do quibble with this, though:

That perception was something the Afghan government may have brought upon itself by the firing of Wessa’s predecessor, Rahmatullah Raufi, a popular general.

"Politically many Raufi supporters have called for his reinstatement, demonstrating general displeasure with amount of power held by a few individuals in the province," said the quarterly campaign assessment from Oct. 1 to Dec. 8, 2008.

"The removal of Governor Raufi and subsequent replacement with Governor Wessa lends itself to political instability. Violent acts of intimidation directed (censored) impacts governance progress and initiatives."

Within weeks of the firing, the Afghan government lost control of Ghorak district, in the extreme western part of the province.

Absolutely no connection. Ghorak is so isolated from the rest of the province it might as well be the other side of the moon. I doubt anyone in Ghorak could have told you who the governor was, let alone be disappointed by his departure. And Ghorak had been non-permissive to Afghans and ISAF long before the gubernatorial replacement. Just a reporter's coincidence taking the place of causation, there.

Posted by BruceR at 08:32 PM

Today's essential Afghan reading: Bing West, and Malevich

The inestimable Bing West on the Helmand offensive. He was embedded with an ANA kandak, which really is the only way to see one of these things:

"This sort of small task force, with a ratio was one US to ten Afghans, makes a lot of sense. It's a combat and advisory unit at the same time." (Bingo.)

It is clear that we must provide an air cap for the askars [Dari: "soldiers"] as our combat battalions withdraw. Yes, 60s and 81s have a role in mountains and in flat lands laced with ditches and defilade approaches. But we’re not training the askars in mortars.

Air is the default weapon of choice, and it requires US JTACs on the ground. Thus it would seem advisable to plan now, a year in advance, for the composition (and the motivation) of task forces to work with the kandaks, as Task Force Commando did in Marja. (Exactly.)

Nicholson's rule-of-thumb was eight askars and Americans per patrol on foot, with no requirement for overwatch by a vehicle. ODA loved the lack of restrictions in their sector. The result was 60 patrols a day per battalion. In other provinces, some battalions averaged 24 patrols a day.

That's remarkable. Even American per-battalion patrolling rates for what West continues poor units (24 a day) are significantly higher than Canadian rates in Kandahar Province were during my roto and since (one patrol per company per day in one report). It's hard to escape the conclusion we really hadn't been patrolling as much, compared to the U.S.

A grunt doing seven months can do with less and push harder than when he has to do twelve months. The argument that he makes less meaningful relations with Afghans is shallow. Most grunts don't form relationships because they don't live in the villages, and there is no evidence that twelve months yields better intelligence results. There is ample evidence that twelve months does yield fewer patrols per day.

Canadian rotos are six months (but we still patrol less than those American army units that do 12, apparently). It's a good point about the lack of Afghan relationships at the soldier level, meaning tours for them don't need to be any longer. Different, though for troops in a mentoring role, I would argue.

Rarely is a Talib body recovered after a firefight. Given the ranges of most engagements, it’s not clear how many are really killed versus those reported shot.

The statistics I collected during my tour suggested it was MUCH more dangerous for a young man to be an Afghan policeman than it was to be an insurgent. It's not just about the pay.

Even fewer are captured and sent to prison to do hard time. The police fall under the National Directorate of Security. Estimates are that for every ten actual Talibs detained at the substation level, only one will eventually stand trial, be convicted and sent away under the NDS system. There is leakage and corruption at every level. Afghanistan on a per capita basis has fewer criminals (including insurgents) in prison than does Sweden.

On the other hand, Talib recruitment is low. They haven’t attracted large numbers of followers, even when they have been in charge for years, as in Marja. But if you are not killing or capturing the enemy in significant numbers, it’s hard to win a war.

This is the Kandahar experience, as well, and the flip side of the ongoing detainee debate in Canada. One in ten would be consistent with my experience with Afghan detainees. It appears the repurposing of the Afghan civilian criminal justice system to govern the majority of ANSF detainee operations has not succeeded in any military sense. As Grossman ("On Killing") and Niall Ferguson ("The Pity of War") have both documented, historically, armies that don't take prisoners have to fight a lot harder to achieve the same effect on the enemy. Now, normally, that's because they're evil, unnecessarily cruel mofos. In the case of our ANA allies, it's the practical opposite, but it still makes it very difficult even today for an Afghan insurgent to surrender himself out of the war, which is certainly one of the reasons they've been able to stick around this long.

Also worth it today: a sharp piece from John Malevich on the trouble with the latest "arm the tribes" advocates (Gant, Pressfield, et al):

Jirga/Tribal structure makes planning too slow. It is easily infiltrated and the supporters are too easily identified and targeted with night letters and murder, and of course their plans can be communicated to the enemy quite easily.

...with special appearances in the comments by Malevich AND Gant, along with the usual suspects (Gunslinger, Schmedlap, etc.). My take: Gant and Malevich (and West) are all trying to operationalize a small number of Western soldiers enabling a larger number of armed Afghans in their own way. That is the winning concept. Always has been. Everything else on the military side of this fight is helpful, well-intended noise.

Posted by BruceR at 07:53 PM

March 15, 2010

One last thing

Sorry, but I can't quite leave this alone yet. One more thing needs to be said.

This is Sgt. Ian Gelig, aged 25, of the 782nd Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. On March 1, he died in Afghanistan. A California native, he is survived by his parents and two sisters. He had been in Afghanistan since early last fall; he had previously done 15 months in Iraq. He had just made sergeant.

Gelig, a driver by trade, was in a convoy headed north on Highway 4, one of the busiest highways in Afghanistan, connecting the entire south of the country with the Pakistani border. Around 7 am local time, while he was crossing the bridge over the Tarnak River, halfway between Kandahar Air Field and Kandahar City, a suicide bomber somehow got his car close to the rolling convoy and detonated, killing Gelig.

Whether the suicide bomber had intended it or not, the massive explosion also knocked the side out of the bridge, limiting civilian and military traffic on this crucial artery for an extended period, and undoubtedly damaging local commerce over a wide area of the south. (Several Afghan civilians were killed in the blast, as well.)

The attack occurred very close to an Afghan police checkpoint, one of several along this highway. It is not known whether the attacker had lain in wait for long, or had just arrived around the same time as the American convoy was passing. But suicide vehicles are a risk on busy streets throughout Afghanistan. Highway 4 is too busy with ISAF, ANSF, and civilian traffic (not to mention air traffic overhead) for insurgents to lay IEDs the way it's done elsewhere: so fatal attacks in this area on Afghan and Western personnel tend to be suicide vehicle-borne in nature.

The police in this area are reported to be mentored by a U.S. Police Mentoring Team (PMT) from the 97th Military Police Battalion. U.S. PMTs are often responsible for a broad area, moving between multiple locations. It isn't known how often they were able to observe ANP performance at the bridge, or whether any were present when the fatal early morning attack occurred. It must be noted that PMTs cannot order Afghan police to do anything. They are not their commanders. They can help Afghan police who want to be helped, and they can report on any problems they observe back to ISAF. It is not known what the PMT's opinion of this particular police checkpoint was, either.

In any case, this checkpoint was one of the highest-profile police posts in southern Afghanistan. ISAF senior officers drive over it every day to get into the city or back out. So do Afghan army generals and police commanders, along with thousands of regular Afghans. And Afghan commanders don't mind getting out of their cars if they see soldiers or police slacking off. ISAF and ANSF convoys are rolling past them every few minutes. Base defence soldiers from the British RAF Regiment, who patrol the surrounding area, undoubtedly had them under observation from time to time as well. So if this police checkpoint was significantly more poorly manned than most for any extended period, it likely would have been noticed and corrected.

The 97th MP Battalion is reported to be attached to Task Force Kandahar, the Canadian brigade-level headquarters in this area. (So for that matter is the battalion of the 4th BCT, 2nd/508th, that Sgt. Gelig's unit likely would have been driving in support of most of the time.) Its commander, BGen Menard, or his representative, was undoubtedly at the departure ceremony for Sgt. Gelig, just as he would have been if it was a Canadian soldier. IED attacks are not picky as to ISAF nationality, and one nation's mine-resistant vehicle looks pretty much like another when you're a suicide focussed on your last few seconds of life.

I'm sure the commander of the 97th Battalion, and the commander of Task Force Kandahar, and the commander of the local ANP for that matter, are all concerned in their own ways about the ability of the Afghan security forces to keep the highways free of suicide cars. All three of them drive that stretch of road regularly themselves, so I'm sure they and their staffs are doing all they can. But as others have observed before me, with suicide bombers, the defender has to be on the bounce all the time, and the attacker needs to only be right once. And that would be a hard burden for any country's security forces.

Sgt. Gelig's death was a tragedy, just like all the other fatal suicide car attacks in Afghanistan were. We want to blame someone, but all we have is some nameless "martyr" and his faceless, evil handlers. In the civilian world, it would be easy for us to turn our anger inward, and litigate and blame and attack. But soldiers aren't normally afforded that luxury. Soldiers do what they're told, and drive down the roads they're told to.

I counted: I've driven over that same stretch of road 16 times in all. Others have done it a lot more. If you told me there's a Canadian who'd been over it 500 times, I wouldn't be at all surprised. It was pure random chance that most of us are alive today, and Sgt. Gelig is not. But another soldier will have undoubtedly taken his place by now, and be driving where he would have driven, just as he would have, and continue obeying those orders, just as he would have, and when his tour is done that driver will also be replaced, and so this massive allied effort will continue until this war is over, and all the individual sacrifices can be weighed in the balance with the peace that they brought. That is the consolation, the pitifully small consolation.

We are a learning army: any lessons or corrections to make our enemy's job harder than it was in this case will undoubtedly be hoisted in in due time. But if we want to do this right we should be remembering Sgt. Gelig today as a good driver and a good soldier, who gave everything a soldier can give, and leaving our trivial little political concerns out of it. Were the situation reversed, I think that's what I would have wanted. I hope his family can find peace.

Other posts on this incident: 1 -- 2 -- 3 -- 4 -- 5 -- 6 -- 7

Posted by BruceR at 05:18 PM

March 14, 2010

This week's essential Afghan reading


The [police training] program, which will probably include sending thousands of officers abroad for training, is designed to rebuild a force of more than 90,000 Afghans who were dispatched to police stations with virtually no training and little supervision. After nearly nine years of war, senior U.S. and Afghan officials said they are essentially starting from scratch.

"We weren't doing it right," said Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, who oversees the NATO training effort in Afghanistan. "The most important thing is to recruit and then train police," he said, emphasizing the steps necessary before any deployment. "It is still beyond my comprehension that we weren't doing that."

Also from the Washpost, a piece on frustration with one ISAF contingent's troublesome caveats. Not European troops... Marines.

Posted by BruceR at 02:30 PM

Upon reflection...

My yammering on about Michael Yon's bridge stuff stops after this post, I promise. But the events have had the side-benefit of reorienting me a little, as well.

I don't challenge Yon's or anybody else's right to make a living as a journalist, and I do think soldiers need friends on the web or in the press. Sure, his reporting on this issue was inaccurate, but inaccuracy's a failing, not a sin. If you write something that's untrue, it only hurts you in the end, because people who know the truth will discount what you had to say, and no harm done. If Yon's Facebook posts and blog entry had only been inaccurate, I might have quibbled a little with the facts as I'm prone to do, but I wouldn't have gotten ANGRY.

No, what got me all mad was when Yon crossed the line into advocacy, however well-meaning: when rather than just make his observations and let us draw our own conclusions, he said things like "This Canadian general should be fired," "Canadians should not be commanding Americans in battle," etc. I would hope I'm objective enough still that that would have bothered me even if it hadn't been directed at Canadians.

The argument from authority was, last I looked, still a logical fallacy. And in condemning an entire brigade for laziness and a commander for incompetence, Yon was assuming a role of infallible judgmentalism, that no one had assigned to him.

The trouble is, that when I, after some time, identified what was really bugging me about Yon, I couldn't help but glance askance at some of the things I've written recently as well.

I try my best not to let it show in the writing, because I've always wanted my experiences and reasoned arguments to stand on their own objective merits, but I'm sure it's still obvious I remain privately passionate when it comes to the value of the Canadian Forces to our country and the cause of peace globally, and their still I-think-entirely-admirable actions in the context of the Afghan mission. (I'm also a little passionate about Afghan soldiers, now, too.) But where once I would just link to newspaper articles that I thought told their story well, or point out logical or factual errors in those that didn't, upon reflection I had to admit that in the last week or so I've let that passion drive my writing more than it should have, and in so doing I became a little more like Michael Yon than I'm comfortable with.

So, in order to keep the alternating Yon and non-Yon posts here from becoming too much of a pot-kettle experience, where I was saving everybody else the trouble by impeaching my own arguments on alternating days of the week, I've gone back to a few more recent posts where I now feel I crossed that line between explanation and advocacy and dialled those ones back. I apologize to anyone who might have enjoyed or linked to a now-missing paragraph, etc., but I can no longer support what I once wrote there. My hypocrisy, it seems, is not without its limits.

It's easier for me to do this, because I make no pretenses to being able to do as much damage as Yon. If you are reading this, you are one of approximately 100 people, according to Google Analytics, who do, lucky you. I have never promoted this site, or asked anyone to read this page; I have never sought nor accepted interviews with the press, only the occasional scholarly researcher. And I'm happy to remain the anti-Yon in that regard, as well.

Now, there are 2,300 individual posts on this website, accumulated over nearly 10 years. And I'm sure I could unwittingly in another fit of pique cross my own hard line on this subject again, some day in the future. So this just to say, if any of you Lucky Hundred ever think I've broken my own ground rules, above, and offered blind advocacy in place of the informed perspective I was aiming for, just email me. I promise I'll appreciate the corrective. Best, all.

Posted by BruceR at 12:39 PM

March 12, 2010

"Zero: 79-Alpha, No-Drug Now, Over." "No-Drug Now, out."

One of the things that Michael Yon's latest dispatch shows is that he really has no clear idea about current military operational doctrine. Now, that wouldn't be a failing in 99% of humanity, but his stock in trade is supposedly explaining wars to regular people, so you think he'd be better at it.

Case in point:

Colonel Tunnell said that TF-K Area of Operations is Kandahar, but the specific area around the bridge had been assigned to GDA (RAF), and that when units such as those from 5/2 conducting route clearance, or 82nd Airborne, drive over the bridge, they enter what’s called an “Ops Box.”

In this case, the Ops Box is a transit zone over the bridge. Transiting units radio up to RC-South “CJOC” saying they are entering the Ops Box, and call when they leave.

Yon accompanies this with a Google Earth image of the bridge with a 1km box around it, handily labelled "Ops Box."

Is it enough for me to say that this quote will show to any soldier reading it that Yon has no idea what the phrase "ops box" -- about the most important phrase there is in understanding how NATO and hence ISAF operations come together -- really means? Can I just tell you it's not a little tiny box around a bridge which you "call when you enter and leave?"

No? Okay. Without getting into extensive detail, an ops box is an area with specific rules of engagement, and where certain operational activities (patrols, engagements, shuras, convoys, you name it) are essentially "pre-approved": if you can confirm you're in the ops box, and that kind of operation has been permitted for that ops box, you don't need to reconfirm your authority to operate. It's a hugely important control measure: a geographic and time-dependent "hard left and right of arc" that precisely circumscribes any ISAF unit's currently approved freedom of action. It's not a line that you draw lightly, or without good reason, and is always extensively and thoroughly planned.

Ops boxes can vary widely in size, nature, and intent, but I'll guarantee you there isn't a little tiny one like Yon draws around the Tarnak River bridge. It's related to, but significantly different from, the related terms Area of Operations (AO: the area where your soldiers are likely to be found) and Area of Operational Responsibility (AOR: the area where you are on the hook if something bad happens.)

I suspect what Col Tunnell meant was that that section of Highway 4 between KAF and the city was OUTSIDE his formation's current ops box, which meant all traffic-control and positional awareness for his troops in transit was being performed by another KAF-based headquarters (Aside: Yon says the CJOC (Div HQ)? Really? Every 3-truck convoy is calling into a Div HQ, one responsible for all southern Afghanistan, as they drive down the highway? Hey, I'm not there, but I suspect he missed the point that was being explained to him there, too.), and American units heading up to Tunnell's brigade's area of operations had to make sure that particular HQ knew when they were passing through it and be on the right radio frequency* during their time on that stretch of road. But that has nothing to do with the bridge. Yon was just throwing terms around he didn't clearly understand in an effort to look smart. Didn't work.

From KAF into Kandahar City is a fast ride: an example of the radio communications any passing unit would likely emit as they passed over the bridge would be the voice procedure sample I used to title this post: just an indication that they'd passed a specific midway point, which happens to be near the bridge. The whole trip could take no more than 20 minutes between when you entered the city and when you entered KAF itself. (In my time, "Arches" and "MiG" respectively.)

So even though a full colonel and brigade commander "got out the markers" and took a full evening (which I'm sure he could have been using to fight the insurgency instead) to explain it to him, Yon still couldn't grasp the colonel's point. That's why I'm also a little skeptical when he says it was Col. Tunnell who blamed Canadian BGen Menard for his soldier's death: probably another nuance Yon missed there, as well, and normally full Colonels in any army are too much the diplomats to accuse another country's general officer of negligence in front of a reporter, at least in my experience.

Yon is not a war correspondent, possessed of deep writing or comprehension skills, like a Sheehan or a Halberstam: he doesn't have the chops. He's a jingo, a battlefield tourist, like the young Churchill at Omdurman (and that's a flattering comparison indeed). And like Churchill, his antics are tolerated because they bump up support for the U.S. military at home. But he's nothing more than that.

*As a complete aside, any soldier who drove that road will tell you, whoever answered the radio at the Kandahar PRT at night during Roto 6 (late 2008 to early 2009) had a lovely voice. No idea who she was, but she had me (and everyone else) at "Zero."

Posted by BruceR at 08:11 AM

March 11, 2010

The Yon "apology," in full

In apology to BG Menard, I should not have demanded that he be fired so early in the process, despite that (sic) my assertion that he was responsible has proven true. I should never have mentioned hockey, as that created room for a diversion from the central importance. (sic) Brigadier General Menard clearly was not the only responsible party for this strategic bridge that his soldiers depend upon. To single out BG Menard was a mistake, despite that (sic) he was ultimately responsible for the ANP...

Barely grammatical, I know, but I promised I'd print it when it came. Yon's argument now is that because the ANP guarding the bridge were mentored by American MPs, who are in turn, currently reporting to the Canadian task force commander, that makes the Canadians responsible for any attacks on that bridge. Pretty tenuous, but let's go with it. Someone has to take responsibility for the ANP at some point, after all.

But then, Yon also says earlier in the same piece, pretty much completely contradicting his own apology: "This controversy never would have occurred if Brigadier General Daniel Menard had secured the bridge several miles outside the gate from his office. He probably heard the explosion." Read that apology above carefully again: he's still saying Menard should be fired ("should not have said it so early in the process" is hardly an exoneration of the BGen), just that Yon shouldn't have said so so soon.

Note further that the RC (South) deputy commander's Gen Hodges' statement to Yon that "Henceforth, Strykers [the US 5/2 Brigade Combat Team] will 'own' the bridge" is also directly contradicted by Yon's endnote that "Task Force Kandahar, under BG Daniel Menard, will henceforth be tasked with the security for Tarnak River Bridge, and that Task Force Stryker and the RAF are not responsible for the bridge." Note how Yon doesn't make any comment on a U.S. general officer apparently providing him inaccurate info and thus further muddying the responsibility issue. That's okay, apparently, because Hodges was "courageous" for accepting personal responsibility.

(Look, any soldier will tell you, he's the deputy commander of a multinational div dealing with an incident that occurred right on a boundary line between his two brigades... of course it's a div HQ responsibility to sort those things out.)

Nor does Yon ever retroactively criticize his initial source, U.S. Col Tunnell (the commander of 5/2 BCT) which to be clear is a second brigade-level formation alongside the Canadian-led brigade within RC (South), for initially telling him unguardedly and without qualification that it was that other RC (South) brigade, those Canadians (who Yon can't resist reiterating here "increasingly shy from combat") that were responsible for this fatal incident, not any of Col Tunnell's own men.

To recap, before having any of the facts, other than the somewhat wild statement of a U.S. brigade commander who may have just lost a soldier to a bomb, Yon accused a Canadian brigade commander and his "combat-shy" soldiers of gross incompetence in the strongest possible terms. Those two commanders' American divisional-level superior then said no, he alone should take full responsibility, presumably for failing to deconflict between them, but then he also provided Yon confusing or inaccurate information about which of his two brigades would be responsible in future, indicating he still hadn't made any kind of a thorough appreciation of the situation. Yon considered this "courageous" conduct on that commander's part. And Yon is apologizing now only because of objections to his mention of the hockey game, and his call for someone's firing before he had any facts to support it. But he still feels the Canadian commander "was responsible," was "not the only responsible party," and was "ultimately responsible," all in the same paragraph. Glad he cleared that up.

So in short, after kicking up an unholy ruckus in a war zone, Yon... still hasn't quite figured out who's to blame here or why, but he knows it's not going to be an American, even if it's an American who's claimed full responsibility. Check.

UPDATE: Notice also Yon's description of the attack: "the suicide bomber apparently had waited in ambush and had pulled into the convoy as it crossed the bridge." So this wasn't an attack on the bridge at all (the span didn't drop; it was just damaged by the blast) but a rolling IED attack on a U.S. convoy, taking advantage of a momentary lapse in convoy security at a chokepoint. The same thing could have happened anywhere else on Highway 4 where traffic tended to pile up: the bridge in a sense, was almost irrelevant to the action. That wouldn't stop him in his Facebook posts from calling it "the bridge that was blown up" though as if this was an attack on a fixed installation, or blathering, "Yet, as the war progresses, many people understand that we need the bridges more than the enemy does" as if that has anything to do with a suicide car attack on a highway convoy.

The reason there being, if it's seen as a convoy security problem, then the only unit ever directly responsible would be the unit whose convoy it was and whose soldier was lost (5/2 BCT?). The ANP, or their U.S. mentors, or the mentors' Canadian boss, could only ever be held indirectly responsible in a military sense for letting suicide cars lurk in the general area too easily before the U.S. convoy passed by: a failing, yes, but not one that has ever required the firing of general officers in the past.

I also like this bit: "Media outlets chose to cite a source that ignored the fact that a strategic bridge was attacked, and instead focused on diversions, such as the timing of the Olympics, versus the damage to a strategic bridge under the very nose of a NATO general. This diversion might serve to illustrate the ratings-driven focus from “news” outlets seeking manufactured, inconsequential controversy." It was of course, Yon that manufactured any controversy here, being the first and only person to tie the car being able to worm into a convoy and explode to Canadians' watching of the Olympics earlier that night. But because regular reporters quoted someone saying Yon was wrong and that the hockey game was not a relevant factor, therefore they were the ones now "manufacturing controversy."

This bit is also choice: "the [Canadian] TF-K Goliath used Canwest for cover." He's basically saying there that Canadian correspondent Matthew Fisher and his colleagues in the Canadian press are all in the tank for the Canadian military, an allegation I'm sure would be seen as surprising by both soldiers and pressmen. (Sloppy imagery, btw: Goliath using cover? Seriously, guy needs an editor.)

All in all an unusually mealy-mouthed piece of work, even by this disreputable rake of a writer's standards.

Posted by BruceR at 08:12 AM

I ____ the spiders on the wall

Reading about detainees all the time can be a bit of a downer. So... Levity break! I confess I laughed at this.

Posted by BruceR at 08:08 AM

March 10, 2010

God help me these people are morons

I know no one writing or commenting publicly on the Afghan detainee issue these days reads this page, but they all seem so determined to crank up the stupid on this that I feel compelled to do what little I can to offset it.

Case in point today: the Star's Thomas Walkom.

Over the weekend, The Canadian Press reported that, in some cases, agents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service recommended which prisoners should be handed over to the Afghans for possible torture.

There is no way to sugar coat this. That is not what the CP story actually said happened. That sentence is pure fiction. There is nothing remotely defensible about it. Clear enough?

UPDATE: This post has been trimmed back a bit. (See explanation.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:37 PM

March 09, 2010

Not far to render

Canadian Press:

In some cases the spy agency would recommend which prisoners should be transferred to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service, which has a dismal human rights record.

"I'm speaking about rendition, yes," [NDP leader Jack] Layton said outside the Commons.

I'm not quite sure how one renders someone TO their country of residence, but never mind that.

The Afghans I worked with made no real distinction between the NDS and the police, any more than we would make a distinction between police detectives and beat cops. They were not seen as separate agencies that way; if the Afghan police took someone into custody that meant the NDS had access to them, and vice versa. "We turned them over to the NDS," and "We handed them over to the Afghan justice system" seemed to be effectively and functionally equivalent statements.

The NDS from the perspective of the ANA headquarters I worked at, like it or not, was the only investigative arm of the Afghan justice system involved with insurgency. Its personnel played a role in all insurgency-related arrest cases, and appeared to have full access to any detained and accused insurgents awaiting a court disposition. Their jurisdiction in this regard was unquestioned or universal: their assuming eventual custody of all insurgent-related detainees held by the army or police was simply standard procedure. To say that we should have kept our detainees away from the NDS is to say we should have kept them away from the Afghan justice system altogether.

Posted by BruceR at 11:00 PM

March 08, 2010

In case you were wondering...

Michael Yon still hasn't actually made that apology to Canadians he said he was going to make for his entirely false "you were all watching hockey instead of guarding the camp" allegations last week. Presumably it's because he's too busy beating up on... the Spanish. Sigh. Really, the Taliban couldn't get more value from this guy these days in terms of helping break up the Afghan coalition if they WERE paying him. Hey, maybe the Spanish deserved it (although the Canadian hockey experience should be at least cautionary) but it should be clear now that left unchecked it appears he's just going to continue to bounce around the AO sharing confidential U.S. soldiers' gripes with the world until nobody's talking to anybody else, or it's an all-U.S. mission. Which would suit his fanbase just fine, I suspect. Not a lot of liberal internationalists in those comments sections.

Posted by BruceR at 04:55 PM

Today's essential marksmanship reading

Tip to Herschel for finding this, which all rifle-toting Canadian personnel should probably read. The points about optimal M16 weapon lubrication, magazine testing, and 50-metre zeroing's superiority over 25m apply to our weapon as well, and are worth hoisting in.

Posted by BruceR at 07:23 AM

Miscellaneous updates

If it isn't obvious by now, the Pakistani crackdown on Taliban members seems to only extend to those members they catch outside Quetta and Baluchistan. Now, since the number of detained is too large by this point for defections or happenstance to account for it, you have to assume some deliberate intent on the Pak government's part, which leads to only one of two explanations: either Pakistan is signalling to the Afghan insurgents to stop any suggestion of raising hell in the rest of their country and stay where they are permitted to (ie, Quetta), or it's removing a targetted group of people that either it or another Taliban faction views as no longer useful, as this piece suggests. (Or both.)

Also, in the Globe today, a letter-writer gives Canada the credit for introducing Afghan soldiers to volleyball. Um, no. I don't know where their unholy passion for the game came from, but it certainly long predates our stay.

Posted by BruceR at 06:46 AM

March 07, 2010

Today's essential Afghan reading

I agree with the Torch. This is a great piece of writing. And this is an awesome quote:

Capt. O'Neill says he doesn't spend too much time worrying about endgames. “It is what it is. Taliban have been around here for, you know, decades, you know what I mean? They're not going anywhere. If we pulled out of Afghanistan today, it'd probably take a couple days before the Taliban took this place back over again,” he says. “That's just the reality of it.”

Bingo! Also this:

“For me, I have a hard time understanding. It's their [the ANA's] country. If they want it to get better, then you'd think they'd want to be out all the time doing whatever they can.”

As the article mentions, the ANA sergeant has been in the ANA for seven years, and has certainly spent at least the last 4 of them in Kandahar Province, and will probably spend another 4 there. Capt. O'Neill has a few months left out of his six months in situ. You just need to factor that in when putting the sergeant's priority of volleyball over patrolling into perspective. So long as the Canadians are here, let them do the risky stuff, he's likely thinking. O'Neill's assumption is that Afghan soldiers should be hoping for a better future for themselves out of this. My experience was that they don't, and so behaved accordingly. Hope doesn't come in a seacan.

On the upside, what the Canadian platoon is doing here is exactly what every counterinsurgent theorist has always said we should be doing given this kind of situation. Finally.

UPDATE: One terminology quibble: the article says the army calls the current Canadian embrace of "pop-centric" COIN the "Key Village Approach." This is a mangling of the actual term BGen Vance's planners invented, the "Key Villages on the Approaches strategy" (ie, the approaches to Kandahar City).

Posted by BruceR at 03:17 PM

Wrong-tree barking watch

This is an interesting story. Not sure why they're going with the CSIS involvement angle, though. The allegations about commanders putting orderly transfer to the Afghans ahead of intelligence-gathering would be more worth pursuing, I would have thought. Shows what I know.

And from the article, I'm not exactly clear what is is they're accusing CSIS of: all the witness appears to be saying is military police don't interrogate (they don't), and that Afghan government's procedural time limits would have prevented anything more than tactical questioning to establish identity in any case.

A couple points of clarification on the article. 1) In one quote of the transcript, it should say "trade" instead of "parade," meaning a military profession other than MP. 2) There is no such thing as a "military police intelligence officer;" you're one or the other. 3) It's not "tactical field questioning,"just "tactical questioning (TQ)", which has long been a recognized military career qualification, but is not the same as interrogation. (The TQer is documenting identity and circumstances of capture, basically, and determining intelligence value of a detainee; the "first interview" description would not be entirely wrong, if we were talking about police-type interviews.) 4) Also, the 96-hour rule's actually an improvement: when I was there it was 72.

Prof. Wark's concern that Canadians were "outsourcing interrogation to the Afghans" is not consistent with my experience. In order to "outsource" we would actually have had to get something in the way of return or output, presumably. And if there was ever an item of intelligence that came from an Afghan NDS interrogation of a detainee taken on one of our ops, neither I nor my ANA counterpart ever saw it. The NDS weren't big on the whole info-sharing thing to start with, with ISAF or the rest of the ANSF, and in my conversations with their officers at the time were generally bitter that the dysfunctional court system was springing most of their detainees free before THEY could do any effective questioning, either. (I wouldn't necessarily take that at face value, though.)

(UPDATE: I have no experience with the handling of any Canadian detainees governed by the terms of the Canadian-Afghan agreement, other than noting they appeared to be very few in number. However, during my tour, I was present in the 1/205 Brigade ANA intelligence cell for the photographing, documenting the possessions and statements of, and/or transfer of somewhere over two dozen Afghan army or police detainees taken in the field on either Afghan or joint ANSF-ISAF operations, all of whom were delivered to the NDS. While that had the side effect of giving me more face time with the "typical" Afghan detainee than most other Canadian soldiers might have gotten, I can only speak of what I know here.)

Posted by BruceR at 02:57 PM

An XKCD reverie

I quite enjoy the webcomic XKCD. This one reminded me of one moment in my life I've often gone back to in my mind.

So I'm standing on parade at the end of a long exercise, and they're giving out the awards. It hadn't been a good ex by any measure, and I was in a less-than-my-usually happy mood at that moment. And as the speeches wore on, I reflected on how amazing military discipline and other forms of social control are, for I had the ability, standing where it was, to in at least 47 ways I dedicatedly catalogued in my head, completely disrupt the proceedings I was detesting (and as the comic said, entirely change my life in the process). And every soldier in serried ranks around me had the same power, and was choosing not to use it, either. That's remarkable if you think about it. Obedience to what is socially acceptable, even in a regimented subsociety like the military, is and always will be still at least something of a choice, at least somewhat freely entered into: out of fear for the consequences, perhaps, but still a choice that one can revoke at any time. And yet we never do.

So what did I do in the end, to register my unhappiness? Nothing of course. I was on parade.

Posted by BruceR at 02:07 PM

March 05, 2010

Yet another update

As an update to this story, AP reports that Abdul Qayum Zakir is not actually in Pakistani custody.

Posted by BruceR at 09:06 AM

Captain Underpants update

As first mentioned here, it wouldn't have taken down the plane even if it had high-ordered. Seatmate and bomber dead, that's likely all.

Posted by BruceR at 08:54 AM

Yon update

The continuing saga of Michael Yon continues as a saga. Apparently Yon had a meeting with the RC (South) Deputy Commander, who told him RC (South) was in fact responsible for the bridge in question, not the Canadians, as I had said below. Check. Yon has also said he will apologize to the Canadian Task Force Kandahar commander.

While I look forward to that, and will link to it if it ever actually happens, I wonder if he'll apologize for some of his other comments this week on that little Facebook page of his:

Importantly, no US forces should not be under command from Ottawa after Ottawa clearly has signaled that it has no stomach for this war. Ottawa is fine to fight in Afghanistan so long as it uses US soldiers? That's the signal.

Canadians still take casualties because we cannot leave base without taking casualties, but they are not involved in serious fighting.

and my favourite:

The only Canadian troops who get bad marks seemingly across the board (including by Brits) are French Canadian soldiers who have been widely seen as arrogant, ineffective, and in the way.

Hey, I'm not saying the dude hasn't got a point (about the interoperability stuff). He's clearly channelling what some U.S. soldiers are thinking and saying. And I think some degree we're affected by our training at the Major level and up, which always assumes a multinational framework with a strong American contingent, if only to make the tactical problems we put to our students more interesting. (Being a lieutenant-colonel means you need to know what a brigade commander does, and being a full colonel means you need to know what a division commander does, and Canada hasn't fielded a division anywhere since 1945). Inevitably that leads to the point in the simulation where our earnest young Canadian staff officers throw "wave after wave of Americans" at the problem. We see our units as completely interoperable, but for that to work in real life takes a measure of international diplomacy that we sometimes tend to abstract out of those equations. We should be careful we're not taking advantage of the American hospitality and their earnestness to keep us in this fight somehow, too. (U.S. troops have had historical issues with being commanded by other nations, too... maybe we should be using Brits in our scenarios, instead.)

But Task Force Kandahar as a brigade-level headquarters has always had span of command issues. In early 2008, it had a single battalion under command, and sometimes was accused of being redundant. In early 2009, it had two battalions, Canadian and U.S., and seemed to be working pretty much optimally with those two map pins to work with, but knowing what was coming maybe they should have looked at bringing more U.S. bodies in and making TFK less of an all-Canadian shop sooner. Now in early 2010 it has one Canadian and several U.S. battalions under it, and Yon's ability to stoke up those Americans around him to mouth off about the situation may be a sign those kinds of cracks are starting to show. Again, he's not making this stuff up: meaning there's a small internal communications patchup job between the Task Force Kandahar commander and his American juniors that may need doing here.

Posted by BruceR at 08:30 AM

March 03, 2010

Frontier justice

Bernard Finel is horrified that the Americans are teaching Afghans how to run a justice system.

The WashPost article he's riffing on is another one of those "missing the point" Afghan pieces. The real issue is that because there is no actual Afghan military detention apparatus (and no one wants to strong arm the Afghans into having one), the civilian criminal and prison systems are being used as the only method the Afghans and ISAF have for detaining their insurgents. And this isn't working (see the 96-hour rule, below), because it's the wrong tool for the job. You couldn't have run a POW system in any past war with "habeas corpus" as your primary value. Soldiers need to detain those they capture in arms on the battlefield first, and treat them humanely to make further surrenders more likely, but they need to continue to hold them in anything other than mistaken identity cases until the fighting is over. That is the reason for Geneva protections, so that military detainees are given basic rights even though they haven't been convicted of anything.

If judicial reform efforts in Afghanistan were focussed on improving how regular crime is handled, improving means of handling property disputes, and the like, the West could no doubt sort things out with a modicum of effort. But the system is now swamped beyond all reason by the demands of detaining, questioning, and trying hundreds of individual low-level insurgents taken in battlefield conditions around the country, each of whom needs to have a "case" built against him as if they were alleged pickpockets or robbers. Surging American investment into the civilian criminal system now so that there is at least some sort of national ability to keep insurgents off the battlefield, rather than helping the Afghans erect some sort of an alternative to handle that specific problem, has to be seen as the sub-optimal course of action.

Posted by BruceR at 01:08 PM

Yon bridge update

Yon's little temper tantrum seems to have made the papers, I see.

With all the respect that's due to him, he's missing the real issue here, which is the total deniability that always will exist when you don't clearly define areas of operation between ANSF and ISAF to rationalize any overlap or gaps, and have little in the way of shared command and control capabilities. In the end, this will likely come down, as LCol Fortin says, to the ANP on the bridge failing to stop an attack on it. But they will in turn say that ISAF failed (why were they out driving before the ANP had finished checking the road, they will ask). And further investigation will undoubtedly show that neither felt they had been able to do sufficient coordination with the other.

It's too simple to say, "we trusted the Afghans to do something and they screwed up." Careful management, whether civilian or military, is about trust AND verify. But verification of ANSF activities when you don't actually work side by side with them or at least are able to phone them once in a while (In our time there was a shared C2 facility in Kandahar City finally and slowly being stood up, but essentially no Afghans were allowed onto KAF, and no landlines or standby interpreters in any of the ISAF headquarters to enable phone conversation either; obviously email was a complete impossibility. This was the case throughout Afghanistan as of a year ago.) is extremely difficult.

These conditions also exist within the ISAF coalition between national contingents, which is the drum Yon's beating now, but to a much lesser extent. (Any UK-Canadian-US coord over this bridge, if Afghan security hadn't been also involved at the point end, would have been completely solvable using existing procedures.) The bigger problem that always is in the background in these sorts of situations is coordination in a battlespace with Westerners and Afghans co-located and dependent on each other for things like road security but without the ability or mandate to effectively collaborate to achieve them. This was, in a nutshell, the biggest problem in this fight a year ago, and while it's getting better, it's nowhere near solved yet. The bridge is only another symptom of that.

Posted by BruceR at 12:43 PM

Michael Yon's stuck in KAF update

Yon steps it up today (same link as below): "Our combat soldiers should not be commanded from a country that is quitting the fight. The bridge fiasco on Monday underlines that fact. With our next big offensive set for Kandahar, command should be with British and U.S. forces. Canada needs to step out of the way."

In the comments, he also claims "it's looking more like a cover-up by the hour,", apparently because Canadian PR has been referring his questions to the British base defence organization (it was a squadron from the RAF Regiment when I was there) whose AO it apparently still is.

There were issues with KAF base defence a year ago, too. The RAF troops (despite their air rank structure, they're ground-pounder infantry, and quite good at their job) reported up to Regional Command (South), not Task Force Kandahar. They had a large AO around the airbase to roam in hunting for the sporadic rocket launch attempts that never did much damage, and were separate from the Eastern European troop contingents who had the actual entry control point duties on the inner perimeter (ANSF forces had the outer checkpoints; the whole thing was in theory quite effectively layered). Although I always found them to be switched on and amenable, there were always challenges because RC (South) isn't a tactical-level headquarters and had difficulty pretending it was, and had an even more tenuous comms link than the Canadians did with local Afghan forces to coordinate these sorts of efforts. I'm sure the rapid growth of the base has only complicated matters.

Quick story: UAV goes down at dawn on recovery approach close to base. No biggie, it happens. (Leading to the now classic chat exchange that all of us on watch that day killed ourselves over: Sitrep: "UAV has crashlanded." Duty officer's first response: "Was it manned?" But I digress...) I stagger in at my usual time and find the map rack in the process of being turned upside down. The UAV, it appears, had gone down in a marked mine area, and TFK, the Canadian headquarters, was reaching down to us in the OMLT S2 shop for any better maps to give more definition.

Which was flattering, I suppose (I was very proud of our map rack), but I didn't have any better than they did at that point. I told them the mine trace in question was held by RC (South)'s C-IED crew, which meant they would need to RFI up to a regional command (on the same base, of course) to find out more about their immediate vicinity, which was kind of weird. In any case, I told them the person they really needed to talk to was the RAF Regiment S2 (either the superb Hannah or Sandy the Scot at that time, can't remember: they were both top-notch S2s) who in my experience knew everything there was to know in a 20 km radius from the airbase. Later that morning I did the same rounds, and picked up some better maps just in case we ever did get a piece of the minefield recovery gig someday. I didn't write it up in an RFI format and send it up on the Secret network, through TFK, to RC (South), and then down to the RAF Regiment and Div Engineers: I just walked over and talked to people and brought back a roll of maps and the straight dope. I did it a lot, and I tended to respect others who did likewise, which is why I knew who would have the best map in the first place when others didn't.

Sometimes people suggested I shouldn't be playing havoc with institutional processes this way. But I saw it as just part of the S2's job: in the lingo, my "area of interest" had to be much larger than my "area of operations" at all times, and that meant talking to anyone who'd talk to me if I plied them with coffee. This is actually a common issue I find with professional militaries. Civilian organizations, even the big ones, are flatter, less hierarchical. It's not a career-destroying move as a civvy manager to talk to someone or send an email two levels above you, or two levels up and one over as in this case. But for regular force officers in a peacetime context, it is frowned upon: "follow the chain of command," etc. Everyone agrees these rules can be relaxed when they interfere with the mission, but professional military officers still tend to be overcautious on this score. Me, I didn't really care about my professional military future at the time, which allowed me to ignore rules if they got in the way while I was in KAF without much in the way of self-doubt, or backlash so long as there was a payoff from time to time. Call it the technet, or whatever, but breaking down these sorts of barriers through unannounced drop-ins and small favours is a big part of an S2's job, too.

In any case, with this sort of park and blow suicide car attack, it's not clear what any of these forces could have done. Again, Yon's just looking for ammo to condemn the non-US elements of the mission, because he feels they've screwed his travel plans.

Posted by BruceR at 08:50 AM

March 02, 2010

Michael... Yawn

Battlespace provocateur Michael Yon is calling for the head of Canada's commander in Afghanistan on his Facebook page, after a suicide vehicle took out a bridge between KAF and Kandahar City, along Highway 4, killing one American.

Now, I'm not saying Yon doesn't have a point when he says it's hard to realize there's a war on in KAF. It is a very very bad place that way. But he's still a little erm, offbase on this one.

Yon says the Canadians on KAF were distracted by The Big Hockey Game. Now, that's hardly a crazy idea: the game would have started around 0030 Kandahar time and the explosion went off at 0730, and the insurgents do watch the base closely for these sorts of opportunities. The trouble is of course that suicide vehicles meant to go off as stationary bombs on the roadside can be very fast to emplace (park and boom), so it's not clear what any Canadians could have done to prevent something during the time of the game itself or in those remaining hours before dawn: odds are the vehicle wasn't there longer than half an hour.

I doubt it was their Area of Operations in any case. When I was there that part of Highway 4 was the domain of the ANP, supported by British base defence troops, and the Afghans were actually pretty good at looking at culverts and such on this stretch. I imagine that's still close to the case. In daytime it's a high-traffic civilian road, closely watched by local police, making emplaced IED attacks relatively rare as well. (You normally either left KAF in hours of darkness, or waited for the ANP sweep to complete in the morning to avoid this sort of thing: an 0730 departure from KAF would have been considered higher-risk for us.) So most of the relatively few attacks in this area tended to be of the suicide vehicle variety as a result, and this attack seems no different (other than the damage to the chokepoint).

Afghan insurgents also tend to avoid hitting this highway, due to the high probability of collateral damage (which happened this time as well), and interference with their own easy covert movement between Kandahar and Quetta; it's questionable whether they meant to seriously damage this bridge, as it will be some inconvenience to them as well. It's also likely the attack a few hours later on Kandahar City police HQ by another suicide car a few hours later was meant as a second part of a coordinated plan to cause some mayhem in the city that day.

So in conclusion: are there a lot of people wasting their time on KAF? Yes. Does it suck to be stuck anywhere in Afghanistan without a lift because an insurgent blew up the road you were going to use? Absolutely. Is Yon's bad case of KAF-itis resulting in his thinly disguised distaste for soldiers from countries other than the U.S. showing through once again? Oh, yeah.

Posted by BruceR at 05:52 PM

March 01, 2010

Travers again: sigh

I don't have a lot of respect for Jim Travers' coverage of military affairs, as noted previously. I just wanted to note this odd little fillip he's put onto his recent detainee reporting that seems unsupported by the documentary record to date.

Here's what Richard Colvin actually said:

"[Canadian officials in Kandahar] established that four detainees had been transferred from the NDS in Kandahar to the NDS in Kabul... As of early October, 2007, when I left Afghanistan, we had not been able to locate the remaining three detainees."

Jim Travers, Thursday:

"In the winter of 2007, three insurgents captured by Canada's top-secret Joint Task Force Two disappeared into the notorious Afghan prison system."

What's Travers' evidence for JTF2 involvement with these detainees? I've never read any.

Travers, today:

"Most peculiar is how [Gen.] Hillier could have been in the dark about three high-value enemy targets who vanished after being transferred to Afghans by Canadian commandos."

Now they're "high-value enemy targets", too? Putative insurgent leaders? Who says? Colvin sure didn't. So either Travers is making stuff up, or he has access to documentation the public does not. I'd kind of like to know which.

By 2007, plenty of detainees had been taken by Canadian and Afghan forces of all kinds and handed over to local Afghan authorities in Kandahar. While it's certainly plausible, there is no reason to accept Travers' allegations on their face that the 3 missing detainees noted previously by Colvin were either JTF 2 captures or HVTs. If he wants to condemn Gen. (retd.) Hillier for something I hope he has something more factual than his penchant for sensationalism suggests here.

PS: In the first piece noted above, Travers refers to one of the 3 detainees as "Isa Mohammed." I have no idea where that name came from (again, not Colvin.) There was a 2007 press report about an Isa Mohammed captured by the Afghan police (not Canadians) and tortured in Kandahar, but that doesn't appear connected with Colvin's allegation. For one thing, that Isa Mohammed isn't missing.

Posted by BruceR at 11:34 AM