September 07, 2010

Dialog with a reader

I always find that whenever I bring up John Paul Vann, I get the best emails afterwards. I thought this interchange I had with another Afghan vet, one who's forgotten more about the Spin Boldak area of Kandahar province than most of us will ever know, was worth reprinting, and thankfully he agreed. It starts at Vann, and ends with as candid an insider assessment of the problems with Canadian military mentoring in Afghanistan (through the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team) as I've ever read:

Reader: [Vann] may have advocated the knife for dealing with the VC-level political cadres, but he also earned his nickname of "Mr. B-52". Granted, this was at a time when the conflict had gone quite conventional, but given the ease and rapidity with which the North shifted through Mao's 3 phases of guerrilla warfare, I'm not sure [Vann] could have found a corresponding way to scale things back to the local level having plastered an area with 300 Arc Light strikes. I think by then he had spent too much time in Vietnam and had lost any kind of analytical detachment without gaining any deeper insight into Vietnamese political machinations. He may have thought he was working at the strategic level, but he was really just improvising at the operational level.

This ties in with your points about the perceived inappropriate use of weapons, challenges of poor red and white intelligence dissemination, and failed development of indigenous forces. They are symptoms of forces at the tactical and operational level floundering around, trying to make sense of a vague, disjointed set of talking points that is filling in for hard strategy.

At some point the USA is going to have to reject the following model of armed intervention:

1. Establish an acceptable-to-the-West political leader.
2. Build a local Army based on the US model. Don't bother training CS or CSS elements.
3. Support with lavish air power and logistics.
4. Let State/USAID participate in the fringes to keep them from whining.
5. Invite some allies to give the veneer of international consensus.

"Improvise, adapt and overcome" may suffice at the section level. It's a poor foundation for grand strategy.

Me: I think Vann's a fascinating, flawed figure... I'd love to see an alternate bio of the guy someday, to flesh out the one PoV we have from [Neil] Sheehan. You're right he was a brilliant improviser, but with these odd blind spots: specifically, refusing to accept the logic of his own conclusions whenever they clearly pointed to his idea being impossible. Hence his argument that the U.S. had to overturn South Vietnam with revolutionary agrarian reform as the only real counter to communist appeals. Surely the thought must have passed his mind that if the only possible way to beat the Communists would be for the Vietnamese to adopt their agenda wholesale, their victory in some form couldn't be far off... but he never publicly seems to have admitted that.

And I love Sheehan's story about how he seemed to honestly believe that he just needed to give that one good briefing to the Joint Chiefs to turn the whole thing around, and was turned away from it at the boardroom door.

I would actually argue that ARVN combat advisors in the early 1960s like Vann were more effective, in groups and singly, than their ANSF mentor counterparts are now, and that one of the upshots of loss in Vietnam was imbuing those more successful methods with an aura of defeat-based disdain. It will be interesting who our war's Vann-figure will be.

Reader: I'm not sure we will have a Vann-like figure. [Mentoring] may, on paper, be our main effort, but we pay lip service to the concept of a main effort, and the [Canadian] OMLT has always been a jerry-rigged organization with no corresponding professional reward. The Colonel who commands it, for example, does not get the credit of commanding a formation (as his Brigade-commander peers would get) at merit boards. There is thus no concerted effort to select 'streamers' for those positions. Battle Groups get first pick, and the OMLT and PRT make do with what's left over (for reg force) and whichever reservists happen to express an interest... not to mention scrambling for kit.

I'm not aware of any exchange of TTP [tactics, techniques, procedures] between the OMLT, the [Canadian] Sierra Leone training teams and CSOR's [Canadian Special Operations Regiment] training of the Jamaican Special Forces. No one has written the definitive (tongue in cheek or otherwise) comparative study of OMLT and RSS [Regular Force support of reservist units] tasks. The 'Centre of Excellence' (I hate that term) is a desk at LFDTS [Land Force Doctrine and Training System], rather than being part of any training centre.

I've heard tell the 1 Para, who were in Ireland while their sister battalions headed to the Falklands, had shirts made up reading "Yes I'm a Para. No I wasn't in the Falklands. Thank you for asking." I suspect that one of our Afghan legacies will be "Yes, I was in Afghanistan. No, I wasn't in the Battlegroup. Thank you for asking."

Final note from me: I agree with pretty much everything my correspondent has written, above. Part of the reason I'm still writing here over a year since I came back is the feeling I get that no one else is writing this down, and Canada's latest little experiment in military advising/mentoring is going to be forgotten like all the other ones were. Every time an OMLT team comes home, it scatters to the four winds, all lessons largely lost. There are no real out-briefs to the lessons learned centres, and there's little attempt made to send back people with mentoring experience on second or subsequent tours, or identify those who did well and get them training up the next team.

Beyond Canada, military mentoring seems, bafflingly, to remain a near-afterthought in Afghanistan, as well. If Tim Lynch and others are right, there hasn't been nearly enough movement on the key shortcomings in this regard that were identified in McChrystal's strategic review. That should be extremely worrisome to anyone who still wants to see this through.

Posted by BruceR at 11:52 PM

They're surging too, you know

From the New York Times, a useful statistic:

NATO late last year estimated Taliban strength at 25,000 fighters, an increase of 25 percent over the previous year.

Posted by BruceR at 02:08 AM

Today's essential Afghan reading: people who know what they're talking about

Tim Lynch, at FRI, once again:

As the summer started I was optimistic regarding the chances that we would see some indications that we are gaining ground in Afghanistan but that has not happened. Incident rates are skyrocketing which in and of itself is not a negative thing if it is our side who are instigating the incidents but that is not the case. While ISAF is conducting more raids and presence patrols they do not seem to have learned anything when it comes to pulling these operations off while managing the perceptions and attitudes of the population we are supposed to be protecting.

Lynch goes on about the problems with ISAF night raids, which he describes in a measured tone as "unproductive." Some of the comments are pretty good, too. More key quotes about mentoring from the article and its comments, and another blog Afghan hands should be reading, below the fold.

Lynch on higher command paralysis:

Make no mistake we are still in a shooting war and in a shooting war a commander has three forms of currency he must spend; money, blood and time. The various insurgent groups are spending blood – we are spending tons of money and time. The problem is that the Taliban has a vast surplus of fighters while we are running out of both money and time. ISAF is hamstrung for two reasons; the first is risk aversion and lack of initiative. The bloated staffs which expand exponentially are completely focused on the unimportant. If powerpoint briefs could bring the Taliban to bay (and they could if we could inflict a few on them daily – they are worse than water torture) then we would be already be home. Anyone who has been anywhere near the ISAF HQ in Kabul speaks of a dysfunctional culture so bizarre that Hollywood could never do it justice.

The headquarters comments reminded me of another good reader comment I read from another site, from NoddyH at the end of this piece, on how the Human Terrain System seems to be getting deemphasized in Afghanistan:

Brigades don’t know shit most of the time.

But they think they do!

That’s because staff weenies – of whom we have far, far too many in theatre these days – need to justify their existence. You can’t learn shit about the real world if you’re locked away deep inside a fortress FOB reading off computer screens and paper all day. But they can’t admit that. So they need HTS [Human Terrain System] to give them briefs and papers that magically turn them into experts overnight. The last thing they are willing to consider is that in the COIN environment, brigades are supposed to be force multipliers for infantry companies, not vice versa.

Because Afghanistan is so spread out yet compartmentalized, the company level is where all the true COIN stuff happens. Companies hold the ground. They walk it, day in and day out. They need link diagrams and cultural guidance to understand the power structures, because they make most of the political decisions every single day. At present, many brigade staff and their assets (e.g. HTS) will visit company AOs, but then high tail it back to their fortress FOBs, yet still think that they know better than the lowly grunt who knows the local terrain like the back of his hand. You can’t affect the COIN fight as a combat tourist.

A good number of staffers and HTTers get this, but the odds are stacked against them because of a continuing top-down attitude.

And through reading all of this, you might have smugly thought “ah, but HTS are supposed to be the experts who go out and make up for this”. Well, that’s where they’re often deployed at the wrong level. I challenge even the smartest “I wouldn’t touch HTS with a ten-foot pole” anthropologist to understand the local environment when you operate as a combat tourist.

Send an HTT down to a company for six weeks or longer, make them focus on providing products for the company, and I guarantee you that they will finally become strong force multipliers. Many infantry companies operate semi-autonomously, and most barely have enough manpower to keep themselves safe and launch sporadic presence patrols. Company commanders will welcome with open arms... any individual or team that can assist them in understanding the locals in their AO. Far too often, they lack the manpower and expertise to take their COIN game to the next level. They need help.

At this stage, HTS seems like it’s often used as another fig leaf for brigades to pretend they don’t have to delegate most day-to-day COIN decisions to infantry companies and battalions.

The point about this being a company-level fight is spot-on, and largely unrecognized, I find. I always saw contractor programs like the HTS as expedients for a lack of social science-trained soldiers in the military intelligence branches of Western armies. We don't have the anthropologists, sociologists, etc. in the ranks, so we have to contract out. Fine: the problem is that those assets aren't going to be tactically nimble enough in many cases to get out on the trace where they're needed, and stay out. Not saying they're not brave people, it's just that in a combat outpost with 100 men or less, every gun can count sometimes. Now some of this could be helped by having junior mil-int staff at the company level, trained and with the time to coordinate at least some of the HTS intelligence requirements for high-risk areas. But if we don't take pains to keep the civvy anthropologists and the intelligence-trained soldiers reading off the same page at every level, I don't see how the system could ever be expected to perform as was hoped for.

Going back to the first piece, Lynch offers his useful advice in the comments on what's going wrong with ANSF mentoring:

You know guys the problem with dumping on the ANA and ANP at this stage of the game is that if they are all not worth a shit then we are responsible for that. As early as 2005 there were stories about the DS INL police training program being a multi million dollar disaster yet to this day that program still runs and still turns out a questionable product. We provide no mentoring or supervision of police in the field which I find unbelievable given that we know it is the only way to increase performance. With the Kabul bank going tits up and all the problems with the central government we are going to be forced to start working at the regional level. If we mimic the Marines who established a local training academy and are doing the administration and pay too – duplicate that and my bet is the security forces would improve dramatically. But of course the problem is we are out of time and money …. probably going to need that bigger boat...

The lack of live-in police mentors was identified as a crippling problem years ago, but remains unaddressed in many areas. Also:

If my [mentor] friends had their way there would be no separate FOB and no tenant commands using that FOB – they would live with the ANA conducting missions generated by the ANA chain of command. They don’t do that – they must submit a separate CONOPs when they leave base to a parallel chain of command which is slow, cumbersome, and focused exclusively on risk aversion for the troops assigned to mentor ANA. The ANA has good units and bad ones too like any military. Their “good units” are not that good compared to the American military baseline and there are many reasons for that. The biggest reason is that we have not conducted the mentoring part of the job in the way we did successfully in past because our “mentors” do not live and work with their charges. Ask some Marines who have recently been here about the ANA. They seem to be working very well with them in Helmand and that is due to the Marines taking in their ANA charges and treating them like members of the same team.

This is as hugely important a point as it was two years ago. My big hopes on the McChrystal strategy review last summer were that this would be recognized and promptly addressed: the language of the review documents certainly seemed to indicate it would be. But it's fair to say at this point it has not been addressed anywhere nearly aggressively enough.

Finally, if you haven't been reading Kandahar Diary, you should be. It's another Private Security Contractor, in charge of getting fuel down Highway 1 to Helmand, who knows what he's talking about. Talking about local Kandahar area militias like the KAU masquerading as road security paramilitaries and "security contractors":

These, and other warlords, regularly extort ‘special payments’ or ‘security payments’ (call them what you will) from HNT contractors to ensure convoys move through their areas safely and largely unhindered. It is widely known that the protection racket also extends to the Taliban who use the warlords as their ‘collectors’ – adding to the already massive sum the insurgents rake in every year from its links to opium production and drug running. It is no coincidence that those HNT contractors who refuse to pay the protection money suffer the greatest number of incidents along the route – these incidents being, according to a large body of evidence, initiated by the warlords’ own people or by the insurgents at the warlord’s behest.

Why are my company’s convoys being contacted and ambushed almost every day? Why are we losing guards to ‘enemy’ fire at a KIA rate per head of force higher than that of ISAF? Because we and our client don’t pay the baksheesh.

As to the deleterious effect PSCs are having on ISAF’s COIN strategy, it doesn’t take a policy wonk from some Washington-based think tank to work out the reason. When the central plank to any successful COIN strategy is winning the confidence, trust and loyalty of the local populace, it is hardly going to be a ‘good thing’ when armed thugs known to be escorting convoys for the security forces (and, vicariously, the government), smacked out on hash and heroin, fire indiscriminately into villages as they pass, pull over civilians and the very tanker drivers they are charged to protect and extort cash and generally act in all sorts of illegal and unsavoury ways with apparent impunity. The very existence of these local PSCs, and the warlords who have established a parallel security apparatus to that of the legitimate government, is counter-intuitive to what ISAF are trying to achieve here.

In his most recent entry, he describes how one of his convoys escaped an ambush in Kandahar City, only to be shot up by an ANA unit. It's interesting to hear a contractor's point of view on the area around Howz-e Madad, which seems to have turned into even more of an ambush alley this summer.

Posted by BruceR at 01:54 AM

More on killer UAVs

There's been a couple good pieces on the ethics of using UAVs recently, better than that Ron Rosenbaum failure I wrote about earlier. Dominic Tierney's is the one that most merits additional comment.

The reliance on robots can make the United States appear both overbearing and vulnerable--just the combination to inspire resistance. Goliath bullies David with advanced technology. But Goliath's strength belies a fatal weakness--his craven fear of death.

He goes on to quote Rami Khouri on how the very impersonality of Israeli weapons was a rallying cry for Lebanese. And I have no doubt this is so.

I do think it's worth pointing out, however, that this is in no way an indictment of UAVs like the Predator alone. We work hard to strike our enemies before they can strike us; long-distance death is the forte of every Western military; but the fact there's sometimes a UAV in the loop is really irrelevant, and probably undetectable to the recipient.

Generally, insurgents and the civilians around them don't know what hit them. The actions of a Predator firing a Hellfire missile or an Apache helicopter gunship firing the same missile from beyond human visual range, or at night, are not just indistinguishable to the target: ordnance delivered by fighters or bombers, or artillery from the FOB down the road, or an AC-130 gunship are all pretty much the same. Loud explosions, out of nowhere. I read Afghan reports in theatre of air strikes that I knew were actually artillery shells. Even insurgent IEDs, if they detonated accidentally, or weren't clearly directed at a likely insurgent target, were filed away by the locals as more air strikes. For that matter, I recall a Canadian tank killing some people at well over a mile with a 120mm main gun round. I'm sure they never saw their killers or knew anything about the specific type of weapon.

The point here being is that the indictment that long-range attacks are unseemly in a counterinsurgent fight doesn't just apply to UAVs, but to every single other alternative we have to UAVs as well, pretty much. In this respect, UAVs are neither better nor worse than the other options.

It's a minor point, but this also extends to the "Predator porn" that so excised Rosenbaum. The visual imagery format that he feels so dehumanizes us is common to all kinds of long-distance attacks. If you weren't briefed beforehand on the contents, or were a visual telemetry expert, could you really tell the difference between this and this? But one was by a UAV with the pilot watching a view screen in Nevada, and the other by a pilot watching a view screen in his cockpit several kilometres at least from the target. Is that not a distinction without a difference?

No UAVs were involved in the making of this well-known footage, from an AC-130 gunship a nice safe distance from its target at night, either. Does that mean some set of eyes (Western or local) would really regard those events as differently placed on a moral plane somehow?

What people are really doing here is assigning our distaste and doubt concerning effectiveness about our whole long-distance, technologically superior military methods to one specific technology. And that's a little misleading. I too am disturbed by the thought there will some day be autonomous warbots, although I'm sure they're not as far off as we'd like to think... as soon as some enemy starts shooting them down regularly, UAVs will undoubtedly become much more nimble and independent in their responses. And I too have concerns as a citizen about keeping a clear, bright, legal line between military "targetting" and CIA "assassination", especially when the same drone could be helping Canadians keep a road clear of IED-layers one night and be hunting a Pakistani or even American citizen in Waziristan the next. I too am open to the argument that the widespread use of UAVs in Pakistan without coordination with Pakistan's own government could be self-defeating in the long run.

But I really see this long-distance, war-by-TV thing as really an issue that is best decoupled from UAVs proper, as it's been around a lot longer than UAVs, and will continue even if we got rid of them tomorrow. To pick on Rosenbaum, he really needed to explain, as a diehard hater of the Nazis, why UAV "drone porn" is evil, and Hawker Typhoon "guncamera porn" like this, of Typhoons taking apart the Germans in Normandy in 1944 is not. Both are, on the surface, aerial platforms killing pretty much with impunity, aren't they?

I'm not saying there isn't a valid concern, here, but it seems a concern really grounded more in utility than morality, and also one that has been long acknowledged by counterinsurgent theorists everywhere: that methods of long-distance killing developed to give an edge in high-intensity warfare against a comparably technologically advanced opponent can seem cruel and disproportionate in a COIN environment. Western awareness of this problem goes back to Dyer's intent to use automatic weapons at Amritsar*, if not farther back. But John Paul Vann said it best back in the mid-1960s, I think:

This is a political war and it calls for discrimination in killing. The best weapon for killing would be a knife, but I'm afraid we can't do it that way. The worst is an airplane. The next worst is artillery. Barring a knife, the best is a rifle — you know who you're killing.

*For the record, Dyer only used rifles in the infamous 1919 massacre, but said, to much condemnation at the time, that he would have used his car-mounted machine guns if he could have gotten them into the Jallianwallah Bagh.

Posted by BruceR at 01:22 AM