August 31, 2010

Scumbags, redux

Letter writer Masud Sheikh, in the Globe today:

Our government has behaved as if there are different classes of citizens; Rick Hillier made his famous “scumbag” comments. Our mental models make us see such actions as being within the bounds of morally acceptable behaviour. If we are interested in a peaceful future, humanism will need to transcend other aspects of our identities... That is easier said than done, and those in leadership positions have to lead by example.

Recap: the occasion of Gen (retd.) Hillier's comments was the London subway bombings in July 2005. He was asked whether Canadian involvement in Afghanistan could lead to similar attacks in Canada.

"These [people behind the London attacks, and presumably other terrorist attacks in the West] are detestable murderers and scumbags. I'll tell you that right up front... It doesn't matter whether we are in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world. They want to break our society... They detest our freedoms. They detest our society. They detest our liberties."

Mr. Sheikh's argument is apparently that criticism of the terrorist murderers who had just killed 56 Londoners was "morally unacceptable," and that only when we can regard them as the same "class of citizen" as ourselves, will we have a peaceful future. Sounds like the peace of the grave to me, frankly. But hey: as the General pointed out at the time, it's a free country.

Posted by BruceR at 09:15 AM

August 30, 2010

Worst Afghan article of the month: laFortune in the NYT

I may start a new award. This is a really poorly argued piece. Christian has already dissected much of it. I'll just add my thoughts on what's left.

But allied attention has been focused on the easier fight of evicting the Taliban from the agrarian provinces of the south, not combating the more complex enemy in the east...

Maybe it's because I was deployed in the south but I have no idea what basis that statement has in reality. I don't think any Canadian vet would agree we have had "the easier fight."

There are many problems with the way we are managing this war. Far too often during my deployments... I watched as operations were conducted out of logistical convenience rather than necessity. We often had troops avoid Taliban-controlled districts to limit civilian and military casualties. Because of the threat of homemade bombs, soldiers had to dress like Robocop while trying to interact with, and win the trust of, local leaders. And the rules of engagement are now so restrictive that I’m amazed that any insurgents were killed in the last year.

Credit where credit's due: I have zero argument with any of Sgt. (retd.) laFortune's observations, above. Merits a great big "True Dat."

For years, the Western military’s main focus has been to disrupt the supply lines that provide the insurgents with improvised explosives. This emphasis protects our troops but does little for the Afghan population, specifically creating a secure environment that would allow for economic growth in key cities like Khost, Gardez and Kandahar.

Ignores that ISAF is not the only IED target: they are also a weapon of intimidation and a way of preventing that sort of normalcy in the cities from taking root. Both my personal stories of IED attacks involved improvised explosives detonated within Kandahar City, with pro-government Afghans as their actual target. I'm pretty sure the Afghan victims would have appreciated us interdicting those bombs, as much as I would have.

To counter the spin, we need to add the Taliban’s top propagandists to the high-value-target list and direct military operations at the insurgents’ media nerve centers.

Most of this Taliban propaganda stuff is produced in Quetta and Karachi. I never heard of a capture of a video studio or a printing press or anything like that in our AO. What is really being recommended here is more kinetic action within Pakistan's urban areas. But I'm not sure Western-led attacks within major Pakistani cities would have the information ops victory effects being forecast here.

Posted by BruceR at 11:10 PM

Fired colonel on the Afghan army

Fired anti-PowerPoint crusader Col. Lawrence Sellin:

Last autumn the US government announced that after 8 years and $27 billion, the Afghan Army training program was being declared a failure. Despite the fact that symptoms of failure were already appearing in the press years earlier, apparently no one in the chain of command spoke up*. I wondered how much American, coalition and Afghan blood was shed while the program was heading toward failure. I wonder how much blood will be shed before the Afghan Army is ready...

We must stop treating the Afghans like children. They are not. It is their country and for better or worse, they should start taking responsibility for it. There is little reason not to begin turning over responsibility now. Regional Command West is possible because it is the most peaceful part of the country. That could be followed by Regional Command North. Between now and next July, the coalition can concentrate on Regional Commands East, South and Southwest.

Dude's got a point.

*Not quite true, this. Many serving officers have given honest, public assessments. To pick just a few I've cited on these pages, you have Capt. Carl Thompson, the anonymous K from Konar, Canadian BGen Jon Vance, Capt Doug Beattie, MC, and USN Cdr. David Adams. If we're talking delusional thinking before, say, mid-2008, well, I can't speak to that, I wasn't there, but if people wanted to hear the truth about Afghan security force competence in the last 2 years or so from credible military voices it hasn't been hard to find. (On the "probably somewhat less credible voice" front, I recently reviewed some my own reports on the subject to higher authorities made while in theatre: I think they stand up pretty well, too.)

Posted by BruceR at 09:45 PM

August 26, 2010

Theirs not to reason why?

From Ackerman, in Danger Room:

What [soldiers] wanted to hear was a sure path — any path — to winning it. Or even just a clear definition of success. If the goal is stabilizing Afghanistan, what does that have to do with defeating al-Qaeda? If this is a war against al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda is in the untouchable areas of tribal Pakistan, where the troops can’t go, why not just draw down to a few bases in the east in order to drop bombs and launch missiles? Even if we can’t just do that, what will Afghans consider “stable,” anyway? Is all of this vagueness just a cover so we can decide at a certain point that we can withdraw in a face-saving way, declaring victory as it suits us to cover up a no-win situation? If so, why not just do that now?

Soldiers are, all and all, reasonable people, and in such a complicated situation, are as prone to looking to their leaders for evidence of rational behaviour as much as anyone else. Further thoughts on what the rational person's reaction to being in a losing fight was in another era, below the fold.

Possibly related: I've been thinking about the Roman Republic a lot lately. Expert Adrian Goldsworthy, in In the Name of Rome:

The Romans accepted that they would sometimes suffer defeats, but refused to concede that these could ever be final. All citizens, and especially the high-born, were expected to fight bravely, but, as long as they had done so, there was no shame in having been defeated. A leader faced with defeat and disaster was not expected to die fighting, unless there was no way out, nor to commit suicide. Instead he was to begin to rebuild his army's strength, salvaging as many men as possible from the chaos of a lost battle, and preparing for the next encounter with the enemy. For there would always be a next time, and eventually Rome would win.

Or, as Commander Riker put it once more simply in one of the better TNG episodes: "Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you."

I'm not exactly what you'd call a Stoic, and I'm no Scipio, either, but that's always been my idea of the sanest personal outlook on these things. Participating on a tour roto that made no discernible headway against determined insurgent opposition only confirmed it, as I'm sure it will for a lot of other tour vets, as well, including the ones Ackerman spoke with. Long wars require longer perspectives.

Posted by BruceR at 10:33 AM

August 23, 2010

Today's essential Afghan reading: Tim Lynch, once again

FRI, on the new Afghan anti-contractor law:

Ignoring that there are not enough Afghan security forces to go around as it is and also that their proficiency in preforming these tasks is suspect (to put it politely) what about the money? We already pay for the ANP and ANA – if they are going to provide mobile and static security then I guess the millions of dollars being paid to private companies will no longer be needed right? Right. The problem is one can predict with 100% certainty what will happen if President Karzai goes through with this crazy scheme. The logistics pipeline will start to rapidly dry up , internationals will be unable to move without their (mandated by contract) expat security teams and their projects will ground to a halt. Military operations will have to be suspended because there will not be enough Afghan Security Forces to both fight and provide theater wide static and mobile security support. And of course there are yet more millions of dollars to add another chapter in the long saga of wasted OPM (other peoples money) by our respective governments.

I cannot for the life of me imagine how this law is going to work out. There are (in my opinion) more international PSD teams then needed – why do EuPol police officers need PSD teams to drive them around Kabul? They have guns and armored vehicles already and should be capable of taking care of themselves. Why do the contract police trainers needs a whole section of dedicated PSD specialists? It is a crazy waste of money to have armed international PSD teams guarding armed ISAF personnel but it is also currently a contractual requirement. For companies working outside the wire in the reconstruction sector the absence of international PSD teams will also have a huge impact on the ability to get insurance for their internationals at reasonable rates. At exactly the time that internationals operating outside the wire need to be armed the laws are changing to make it illegal for internationals who are not ISAF military members to be armed. How are we supposed to operate now?

I'm really surprised this has gotten as little coverage as it has so far. It really seems quite unwise. One can only assume this is an attempt to:

**First, satisfy Afghan public opinion by reducing the number of non-uniformed Westerners with guns driving around the cities (not in and of itself, necessarily a bad thing, particularly in the EuPol case Tim cites, above);
**Second, formally deputize the much larger numbers of Afghan security companies and militias, many of which are being bribed to support Karzai already, imbedding them more deeply in the security structure;
**Third, thereby conduit the money that is going directly from Western agencies to them now in many cases through the Ministry of the Interior so that everyone can get a bigger cut.

Tim gets at the big potential problem at this, that giving an ANP or ANA escort to every convoy currently would essentially shut down ANSF operations, and by extension (because you need that Afghan door-kicker) ISAF's, as well. That is, of course, why it's not going to happen, and why the Afghan highway and FOB security companies can be counted on to continue to operate pretty much as before, albeit somewhat more extensively and possibly even in a slightly more coordinated way with their local ANSF. The withdrawal of the undeputizable Western operatives (using the term Western broadly; most of the best PSC guards are Nepalese) will, as Tim says, fall hardest on the development sector, who may find their options limited to relying more on those same Afghan militias for their gunslingers, meaning more money for less value for them.

That the Afghan president doesn't seem to mind those niceties getting in the way of his ongoing power consolidation is a known fact, but it's hard to see how ISAF or the West can stand for it in the long-term without pushing back, even if that risks delegitimizing him. The whole issue really does underscore the fact that there isn't a lot of unity of purpose between the Afghan national government and either ISAF or even the ANSF at this stage in the war.

Posted by BruceR at 11:11 AM

August 19, 2010

Today's essential Afghan Vimeo

One of the better uses of the Wikileaks data to date, here. For those who still haven't figured out that this has been a war of the Afghan south and east, and much less so the north and west, hopefully this could be illuminating.

PS: Happy Afghan Independence Day!

Posted by BruceR at 03:58 PM

August 18, 2010

That's just the kind of contract you've got to keep

I wouldn't agree that The Magnificent Seven is a perfect allegory for Afghanistan, but there's no doubt my own beliefs on just this kind of issue were shaped by watching it and other movies like it. (In the scene highlighted in the first half of the YouTube clip at the link, I think I have at one time or other been in the frame of mind of each of the Seven debating the right course around the table, in the Afghan context.)

It's also fair to say if the West had viewed the actual Taliban we're fighting in the South with a mental model something like Calveras' bandidos in mind, as opposed to seeing them as foot soldiers in SPECTRE/KAOS/whatever-International-Terror-Conspiracy-you-care-to-name (a model that is arguably less close to the truth, but makes them seem much more threatening to us personally) we might have approached this whole situation differently much earlier.

UPDATE: Just to complicate things, I was in Tombstone, AZ, recently, and it reminded me of another old favourite movie, of the same name. If I had to pick the closest Western analogue, I'd say my own mental model for the Taliban was probably closer to the villainous "Cowboys" in that movie, rather than either option above. To be clear, I'm not saying the Taliban are really very comparable to any of these things, just trying to give a recognizable shape to my own (and maybe others') preconceptions about them. Some really great teachers banged it into my head once that the only hope we have of cancelling out our biases is to accept that we're all of us biased in the first place. And mass media does bias us, in all the ways we view the real world. (Nothing really wrong with that, either: just as we wouldn't be human if we didn't draw inspiration from hero-stories, we're naturally going to equate bad real-life people with the villains our fictional heroes defeated, too. The trick is always how to get beyond that kind of first-approximation thinking.)

Posted by BruceR at 03:22 PM

August 17, 2010

I'm actually beginning to think he means it

The President of Afghanistan has been known for discomfiting off-the-cuff remarks in the past, but he hasn't always taken it to the presidential decree stage. That said, a simple decree has proven insufficient to change realities in Afghanistan before, too.

I recognize when most people think private military contractors in Afghanistan, they think scraggly-bearded Westerners. But the vast majority are actually Afghans, and many of them are employed by some of the President's closest political allies. It will be interested to see how he finesses this so the friends don't have to give up their guns, particularly those firms currently providing convoy security: will he deputize them into a new highway police? Or will the decree be narrowly construed to only impact foreigners? Anyway, this one is worth watching, particularly because ISAF itself has to finesse at least a partial presidential rollback if it wants to continue to operate, without making it appear like they rolled over Karzai, and "undermined the legitimate government" once again. Tough hair to split, that.

Posted by BruceR at 03:07 PM

August 13, 2010

Not quite Ap Bac, but still bad

An Afghan battalion was ambushed with heavy casualties this week. See the BBC here, and the NY Times.

Bernard Finel is asking why Gen. Petraeus would "sign off" on an ANA operation right now, and hints they were set up for failure in order to make the case for a further extension of the war.

Doubt there's a connection, frankly. First off, one needs to be clear that the ANA doesn't wait for ISAF permission to do stuff they want to do. At the best you can hope for fairly loose coordination. But they don't have to get our "signoff" for anything and likely didn't in this case.

More to the point, the timing tells you the reason. In Ramadan, especially a summer Ramadan, Afghan units, unable to eat or drink during the day rapidly degrade in combat effectiveness... by the second half of the month they can't do much at all. Then comes the big feast of Eid at the end (Sept. 10 this year) which renders them combat-ineffective for all purposes for roughly another week, due to holiday leave of key personnel, and post-party exhaustion for the rest.

And of course right after that ends, this year we have the parliamentary elections (Sept. 18). So this was almost certainly a last attempt on the ANA's part to "shape" the terrain for those elections by disrupting insurgent activities.

It goes without saying that a disrupt op a month before the time you're hoping the bad guys stay disrupted, in a remote unpopulated valley, is wildly unlikely to have any effects against the kind of anti-election actions the insurgents might have realistically been planning. But the thinking will have been it's better this than nothing, in the same way that Western soldiers tend to feel the pressure to get in "one more op" just before being rotated out.

Of course, it wasn't better than nothing and now a whack of ANA are dead.

I wouldn't put too much credit into the claim by an anonymous official that operational security was violated. Afghans always claim that when things don't go well (as do we). And as we know, there hasn't been an operation launched, Western or Afghan, in the last four years where the insurgents didn't know we were coming. COIN warfare basically demands it. All you can really do is vary the manner of your approach, which is what they were probably trying to do with the helicopters.

The interesting question will be where the Western advisor/mentors were, a handful of which should have been with each Afghan company, including the one that was cut up. If they weren't there, it would mean they were denied permission to go along, probably for safety reasons or national caveats. Given that there are no Afghans currently trained to call in artillery or air support, or casevac for that matter, that basically would leave the Afghans with nothing but small arms and the ammo on their back, nothing more really than what the insurgents themselves would have had, when they were hit.

Updates: The unit affected, 1/201 Bde of 201 Corps, was the senior brigade in the regular Afghan army, with one battalion headquartered at the Presidential Palace, according to Wikipedia. It was French-mentored at one time, although I suspect that's not the case at the moment. Presumably they had a CM1 designation, ie, "capable of independent operations."

Posted by BruceR at 01:59 PM