September 30, 2011

The Times Afghan piece: case of a bad headline

I know what people like Ackerman and Cohen are trying to say about the controversial New York Times op-ed on Afghanistan by a US Special Forces major this week, but I really think it's about them not getting past the unfortunate headline, which has nothing to do with what Maj Lujan is actually saying.

Lujan's point, which largely mirrors my own take these last two and a half years of blogging, should not be something that makes one "bang my head against the wall" (Cohen) or is "just gibberish" (Ackerman). Let's look at the thesis statement again: "the Afghans [specifically the Afghan army] have the will to win, with or without us."

Well, duh. Look, this is simple COIN 101 stuff. We can go home. They can't. If they are endangered by the shape of the political order, they will keep fighting. That's why insurgencies tend to work better against colonial powers than in countries where the regime has nowhere to go. The same has always applied in Afghanistan.

No sensible military commentator I know thinks the war will end in the Taliban's favour the day the U.S. pulls out. People who say things like that, like the current U.S. ambassador, are using scare tactics for motivational purposes.

The default state in Afghanistan, what we were trying to avoid all this time, was a return to a civil war between the north and south, one which the south would tend to have an advantage in due to Pakistani military assistance. Whether the fighting stayed in the south, or Kabul was besieged again, or some neo-Taliban faction won out in the end were all unknowns, but it was certain from the start that if the West left, the security forces would tend to fracture on previously ethnic lines, and a Northern Alliance type force would attempt to resist southern encroachment.

That force would use very different methods than the current Afghan army, more suited to their changed situation, but the Taliban, which has optimized itself to fight Westerners, would have to change their game plan too, and start holding ground, etc. There's absolutely no guarantee they'd do that well at it, or that local warlordism could not restrain them for a very long time. In those question marks, there'd be all kinds of opportunities for western Special Forces, ISR, air power, etc., to keep a thumb on the scales for relatively low cost without endangering main-force Western troops.

That's really what Lujan's saying: that after we leave, the civil war will continue, and the faction we're backing now has a fair shot of protecting itself. Well, again, duh. Do Ackerman and Cohen know anyone credible who thinks differently?

Now of course, that's not the same as Western forces "winning," as Lujan clearly admits. In fact, given that that's likely what would have happened anyway, if we'd left entirely before this, it's fair to say that kind of end state is exactly what we were trying to avoid -- making it a "loss", true, if we really must be binary about it all. So Ackerman and Cohen aren't wrong, either: we really are defining winning down at this point, if we're thinking that all we're going to have achieved is postponing the inevitable.

What I'm saying is that you can accept BOTH that the bulk of Western military intervention in Afghanistan has been useless if not counterproductive, and ALSO that the Taliban don't seem likely to be able to immediately take over when you leave. Western withdrawal isn't going to be a helicopters-out-of-Saigon moment, and was never going to be. And if you accept those two statements, Lujan's point that we need to husband our resources now to maximize our chosen Afghan faction's chances after we declare victory and go home is the right strategy.

As far as whether our faction's forces can fight, Afghan forces are the way they are now because we wanted and designed them that way: to aid in the force protection of Western troops by putting a layer between the population and us. It's what a reconstruction-led approach gets you: first we put in Provincial Reconstruction Teams to achieve goals that ultimately reflected a desire to reshape Afghan society to our ends: a mammoth and thankless task. Then we put in infantry battalions to protect and enable the PRTs. Then we rapidly and unsustainably expanded the local Afghan forces (who up to that point we'd been setting up as a ceremonial organization to provide sinecures to demilitarized warlords) to be our door kickers and the route sweepers for our infantry battalions, operating with their own discipline/promotion and our tactical control -- the worst possible combination from an accountability perspective. For instance, in my day, walking down the highway every morning and detonate or hopefully find those IEDs themselves in advance of Western forces in mine-protected vehicles. Meanwhile, we bathed the country in money to the point that anyone who wasn't a thief of some kind was actually losing ground economically, and distanced ourselves from their soldiers in every way possible. And a lot of them reacted to this by acting like unmotivated junk. Well surprise, surprise.

There was another way, even if we passed that decision point over five years ago: limit our reconstruction ambitions, focus on providing small groups of enabler staff for Afghan formations, gradually extending their ring of Afghan-led security out from Kabul, at their pace, fighting their way, accepting much higher force protection risk, accepting defeat, accepting a much smaller Afghan military, supporting a strong national government in principle but accepting that in the absence of a national army, warlordism in the hinterland was going to continue, but could still be shaped. Avoid the "antibodies" that large Western troop concentrations guaranteed... accepting that Afghan main force operations have always ended with a withdrawal back to secure environs*, and so limit them to situations backed with solid intelligence and well-defined targets... might have worked, would have been cheaper, couldn't have done any worse.

The only good thing to say about withdrawal is it gives us an opportunity to go back to some of that. What Lujan is trying to do in his piece is influence the NATO training mission and others to start thinking about re-optimizing the Afghan army now so it can continue the fight as effectively as possible when we're gone. It's only what smarter people than I have been saying all along.

If you don't like the picture of a future Afghanistan that presents, or don't feel that's enough to justify the sunk cost, or to start throwing around words like "victory" now, well, that's nice for you, but it really makes no difference in the most likely outcome here was, and never has.

*The old debate between sweep or raiding operations and "clear-hold-build" COIN-y stuff was always a false distinction. The sweep has a long and noble history, especially in Central Asia. Alexander the Great did sweeps. The British army in India did sweeps. The sweep/raid works, if it has a clear target, the sweepers actually get that target, and they move in fast and pull out fast, and convey an overall sense of overwhelming power, that they could come back tomorrow if they felt like it. The trouble with most sweeps in Afghanistan in this decade is that they hit air, and lost more casualties than they took, often because there was nothing much in place to begin with (the failed British sweep that led to Lexington and Concord in 1775 was much more successful in this regard than most of ours: at least it reclaimed a few seige guns from rebel hands). The right approach to the southern Afghanistan theatre was always aggressive, saturative patrolling and surveillance to help identify and suppress the local enemy in your safe areas, with battalion-level ops a very, very rare alternative to disrupt significant enemy concentrations in the outlying contested zones, if any appeared. But the whole point of the safe zones and the patrolling to manage them is always about keeping the freedom of action of the battalion in that safe zone as high as possible, so it could kick out on call and give a militarily significant target a thumping... in other words, a sweep. (Another way to put it is, the problem with "inkblot" strategies is the hidden assumption that an inkblot, or hold/build area, needs to expand to be sustainable, which isn't actually true. If the armed force at the centre of the inkblot is secure in its zone, and can and does go anywhere outside the inkblot on call whenever a serious challenge to its authority should arise, you have achieved basic security, or at least sovereignty, without ever expanding the inkblot. Clear-hold-build may play into a local government's fantasies of increasing its population control, but it's not actually a military requirement.)

Posted by BruceR at 11:39 AM

September 28, 2011

That Jack English article on the Cdn. army reserve

Worth a read if you've got an interest, specifically in Canadian army reserve issues. The gist:

With most Canadians having never served in the military, Militia troop time, if more actively encouraged, would go a long way toward redressing a pronounced lack of public knowledge about Canada’s armed forces. To cut the Militia, which at present is shockingly no larger than NDHQ, would therefore be a tragic mistake.

English argues that national militaries need to be prepared for all kinds of possible service, both foreign and domestic, and so reinvestment in a larger number of reservists rather than the smaller number of regular force personnel you could get with the same pay and benefits expenditure makes sense. Here's the simple reason this never works out, and it has to deal with two figures that English both quotes and accepts. The standard rule of thumb is you need 5 Class A (part-time) reservists to sustain one deployable soldier (p. 21). But for the same cost it takes to fund one regular soldier, $133,000 a year, you can only fund 4 reservists (p. 28). Now you could quibble all day about both numbers, find economies, etc., but if you accept them as stated by English himself, regular soldiers are actual better value for the money under current circumstances.

English also points out, correctly, that DND civilian employees in NDHQ cost about as much as regular soldiers. But as he quite accurately states, the majority of reservists "join up not to push paper in offices, but to practice the profession of arms." So there's no direct substitution effect to be had here. He says the area for savings is reducing the size of headquarters. Which is all perfectly true, but that's almost a separate argument from what is the best way for the Forces to reinvest those savings from restructuring (into more regulars or reservists, or planes or tanks, for that matter) assuming they could ever be found.

You need to combine that fact with Slaughter, below, saying the kinds of foreign interventions we need to do are not the kind that need large armies, along with the limited role reservists actually needed to play in recent domestic operations (specifically Olympics and G8/G20 security) and you're left with serious questions about the concept of operations at this point that you can't just handwave over by saying, "we may need to mobilize the country again, some day." Well, yes, we may, but not any time inside the current funding forecasts of the federal government, it's fairly certain. Historically, western countries have used reservists when their governments saw the coming need for rapid mobilization of large numbers of troops as a realistic contingency to plan for. There's no reason to believe Canadian military expenditures on reservists wouldn't increase rapidly if it was thought there would be a realistic use-case for that capability in the decades to come. In the meantime, you still have to explain why reservists are more valuable today than their funding weight in regular soldiers would be, and English simply hasn't done that here. Not saying he's wrong, just that he hasn't made his case on the printed page.

Posted by BruceR at 02:49 PM

Briefing our way to victory

There's a lot of depression going around this week. See also Anne-Marie Slaughter, commenting on a piece by Rory Stewart:

The interventions that I count as successes – albeit highly qualified ones – are East Timor, Kosovo, and now Libya. All were launched in the face of crimes against humanity on a scale sufficient to shock the global conscience. All were relatively short. And all were marked by a relatively light military footprint on the part of the interveners – only air power in the cases of Kosovo and Libya, limited Australian troops on the ground in the case of East Timor – aimed primarily at stopping the superior force and creating a safe space for a process of national self-determination to take place (albeit under close international supervision). Foreign combat forces deployed over years rather than months tend to generate their own antibodies... protecting a population from a murderous government is not the same thing as occupying a territory militarily and building a new government to protect them, even if the line is likely to prove hard to draw. The best policy and politics in the world cannot overcome impossible practice.

Yes, yes, yes. Returning to what I know, it's increasingly evident that it is not just that the McChrystal plan for Afghan security force creation isn't working, but that the plan for that as it was stated in 2009 wasn't even followed in any real sense: in practice it has become mostly just more of the same failed efforts I and others had been documenting at the time. It was all just nice words on paper, which I think is really both Stewart and Slaughter's point here: that the invariable western approach to nation-building has been to come up with the solution that is seductively simple, elegant, and wrong, and then when it's proven to not be working even against one's own stated performance measures, a) deny that; and b) re-brand it and brief it again. There has never been (and likely can never be) a "nature cannot be fooled" moment when it comes to Afghan-related PowerPoints.

UPDATE: Just a thought: if the Afghan intervention had somehow frozen in time at the point of or shortly thereafter the first Karzai election in late 2004, when there was still no Afghan insurgency to speak of and hadn't been for nearly three years, would it still be in Slaughter's "losses" column? Because I would argue up to that point we were doing Stewart's light footprint thing, and it was going acceptably well. As I've argued here, among other places, that really was the inflection point for both our strategy and its success, for reasons I've never seen satisfactorily explained.

Posted by BruceR at 09:26 AM

September 27, 2011

Today's essential host nation forces partnership reading

Tom Ricks points to an unusually candid interview with an American police mentor from Iraq, from around the same time when I was in Afghanistan. I could draw a lot of experience parallels here, but the comments on Ricks' blog are telling enough. The one observation I would add is the insidiousness of force protection rules for mentors, whether you hide behind them like this guy apparently did, or not. He couldn't go to see the Iraqis he was partnered with, because of the IED-laden road, or live with them due to the lack of medevac. Check. And the Iraqis were wildly underwhelmed with him, not just because he had no money to spend on them, and didn't speak their language, but because that meant he was left demanding that they come to him, down that same dangerous road, to hear his thoughts on stuff. Yeah, Afghans wouldn't come much in that situation, either.

But even if they had come one day, I know without asking that FOB security rules would also likely have prevented them from sitting down with the U.S. officer's fancy home theatre setup he'd made for himself and enjoy a football game with his Afghan colleagues, too. For the Afghan, it would have been chai in the visitor's tent and then back on the road to get blown up again. So often what we write off as "Oriental" laziness and turpitude in these situations is actually quite logical behaviour, when you get into their shoes for a sec.

It's all distancing behaviour, and distancing due to forcepro concerns, more than anything else, has doomed the vast majority of military advising/mentoring efforts in these theatres in the last decade.

UPDATE: See also FRI's Tim Lynch, who has begun blogging again: The ability of modern western armies to train and mentor Afghan security forces is almost zero. The western militaries insist that their troops have a certain amount of protection and access to unlimited quantities of high quality western food flown into the country at God only knows what cost. In order to achieve this base line goal the western military has based itself on FOB’s and are physically separated from the forces they are "mentoring" which adds to the psychological separation that all westerners have to deal with when they choose to reside in countries like Afghanistan. Yup. Lynch then goes on to talk about the Marines in Afghanistan, who seem to have been a little exceptional in this regard. Not that there weren't other exceptional mentor/advisory teams over the years (some previous colleagues included), but it's fair to say the institutionalization of successful force partnering methods has not lived up to the expectations set out by McChrystal in his 2009 review, among others, if Lynch is still writing despatches from Afghanistan like this one.

UPDATE #2: It's telling that in Lynch's account of the Kabul attack, Western special forces did all the fighting, isn't it? In the centre of Kabul, yet. Afghan security forces don't have "security responsibility" for anything, so far, it seems, despite numerous press releases to the contrary.

Posted by BruceR at 04:25 PM

September 26, 2011

A life memory

This last beautiful weekend led me, through various machinations, to be doing a little orienteering in the vermilion-and-saffron woods near Ottawa on Saturday. GPS is fun, but I still love going back to the map and compass stuff... anyway, at one point, having missed our checkpoint in heavy brush and doubled back on a new bearing (long story), we flushed a full-grown pileated woodpecker, huge red crest, as big as a crow, and looking at us with could only be described as an unstartled bemusement. I've never seen one that close before, but he was breathtaking.

Pileateds are famous for their reticence: stumbling across one is basically a guarantee you really are in the middle of nowhere at that moment. In retrospect, I can only assume the look was one of pity. I think I may have even see his head shake: "Man, are you guys lost..."

UPDATE: A friend asks why I didn't take a picture. Could have, I guess... but... no. It's not just that no picture I ever took on a cellphone was ever going to do justice, or that I didn't feel like sharing; it's just, well, some things in life are too exquisite to be preserved with a memento, or shared in any real way with people who weren't there with you at the time. It was better to just stay still, and let my soul revel in the moment, knowing its like was never going to come again. I had a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a rare and perfect beauty: that's enough for now, and probably more than an occasional woodsman like me deserved... or it wouldn't have had to rely on sheer luck to have our paths cross for a spell. I'll never need a picture to see what I saw, because it wasn't just a place or a tableau. It was a moment, and you can't photograph time.

Posted by BruceR at 09:21 AM

September 20, 2011

Rabbani killed

Former Afghan president and head of the reconciliation commission Burhanuddin Rabbani has been killed by the Taliban, apparently. The signs on the wall for anyone expecting to obtain some power in Afghanistan and not debark for Dubai as soon as reasonably possible thereafter would seem clear.

There's no question the Taliban's improvement in their pursuit of "high value targets" this year has mirrored, if not exceeded the coalition's. I was in Kandahar two years ago to witness failed assassinations of Karzai's brother and the city's mayor; both of them got the little X's through their portraits on the Taliban's link analysis charts earlier this year.

UPDATE: The smartness of this one is hard to deny. As the guy in charge of reconciliation, Rabbani had to be prepared to receive just about anyone, without excessive security attaching (hence how a turban bomber, which has proven quite effective in Kandahar this year, was able to get in). Now further attempts at reconciliation initiated by Taliban members are now likely to be treated with extreme and distancing security measures.

Posted by BruceR at 11:33 AM

Things that please me: docudrama edition

I would be remiss in not noting the quality of last night's John A. Macdonald biopic on CBC: John A.: Birth of a Country. Excellent acting by Shawn Doyle as John A. and David La Haye as (a bearded? huh?) Cartier. Michelle Nolden also did well as George Brown's wife, Anne. Doyle in particular was at least as good as William Hutt's 1974 portrayal in bringing forth the qualities of a man best described as the Trudeau (or maybe Caesar) of nineteenth-century Canada, ambitious, far-seeing, ruthless, and utterly charismatic.

The only thing missing here (other than D'Arcy McGee: come on, guys, you've simply got to put him in these things), really was the network's ambition, of the kind it had back in Hutt's day: I was disappointed that there is, apparently, no sequel in the pipe as of yet to last night's 2-hour drama, which really only goes up to the founding of the Brown-Macdonald Great Coalition in 1864. As I said, nothing wrong with the actors here: but with just a little more money this could have been our country's John Adams.

I also really appreciated the weekend's rerun of Cinema Verite this week... excellent retelling of the trials of the Loud family, featured in the first ever reality TV series, PBS's An American Family, back in 1973. Both Tim Robbins and Diane Lane do an impressive job of adopting the mannerisms and characteristics of the real-life Loud father and mother, without descending into easy caricature. I'd love to see the PBS "Family" recap that aired last April as a follow-up, but of course most PBS online stuff is inaccessible to Canadian computers now. Remind me why they think they can fundraise up here, again?

Posted by BruceR at 08:49 AM

September 18, 2011

Transformation report: how to hide a story

There's probably very little I could say about the Canadian military's Leslie transformation report that wouldn't be either apparently self-serving or potentially self-destructive, but I will say as a long-time PR professional (in a previous life) I was still impressed with the way the CF Public Affairs team has released it in a way that meets its minimal transparency obligations while still minimizing its public impact.

It's clear from the main body of the report (here) that most of the heavy lifting, and all the parts anyone in the Canadian Forces would find controversial, are in the annexes and appendices to the main body, such as Annex M, with Gen. Leslie's schematic diagram for a transformed military. I note that, in addition to still relying on the worst search engine on the web today, the DND website has, I'm sure entirely coincidentally, only posted the main report document so far, annexes-free. The fact that this leaves reporters and DND personnel wrestling only with what is essentially a large quantity of diplomatically phrased generalities and unsubstantiated recommendations is almost guaranteed to minimize any impact the report could have. PR genius, that.

Posted by BruceR at 01:53 PM

September 13, 2011

Things I (sort of) approve of: Combat Hospital

I just wanted to mention that after seeing my second episode, I have a grudging respect for what is, as far as I know, the first recent television drama about the Afghan conflict (or about the Canadian military, for that matter), Canada's Global Network's Combat Hospital.

Now it's no Generation Kill, to be sure. But for a drama filmed in Toronto, it does an okay job, I thought, of catching the ambiance of Kandahar Air Field, given the budget they probably had.

I first saw the seventh episode when it originally aired which centred on an overofficious investigation of a U.S. helicopter pilot who crashed his bird after being denied amphetamines actually raised some interesting issues about multinational operations, and subtly evoked the 2002 incident involving the killing of four Canadians by a U.S. pilot where amphetamine used played a tangential role. Last night I caught a rerun of the second episode, which had a lot more problems, but it's such a treat to see something made about the Canadian military experience it seems almost churlish to point some of the problems out.

Now the drama as a whole, which takes place in the once largely Canadian Role 3 medical facility at KAF, does suffer a little from the "everybody's beautiful" syndrome... ordinary Afghans looking radiant and well-dentured, every soldier with their shmawg perfectly in place in a way I was never able to achieve... but that's to be expected. There's also a lot more sex than I recall from my tour, but hey.

And a lot of the technical advice seems to have been quite good (lots of talk of 9-liners, and MISTs, and helicopters that look Canadian), too. All that said, the second plot's episode was not strong, realism-wise. One subplot involves the female lead sneaking an Afghan civilian into KAF for life-saving minor surgery (um, okay)... yeah, wouldn't happen. Oh I'm sure Canadian officers break rules all the time when they feel they have to (*cough cough*), it's just that in real life there's a perfectly good Afghan military hospital, complete with Western medical mentors, right next door at the ANA base which would have obviated the need for any sneakery in the scenario presented (and, indeed, was used for similar such purposes during my time there).

But regular viewers won't know those subtle complexities, of course, and it's all good fun, when the angry looking Afghan father secretly follows her daughter bursts into the hospital to... give the doctor a hug. Okay, that couldn't happen, either. He'd never have gotten past the ECP. But really, you couldn't do a friendly family medical drama in a facility operating with the real ground rules of KAF vis a vis the Afghan population, c. 2008. A Catch-22 remake, maybe.

Anyway, I can't really speak to realism in the interior hospital shots or procedures, so I won't. I never had reason to go to our Role 3 (although I did spend some time at the Afghan hospital). And the episode's stubborn quintessentially Canadian insistence on its theme that Afghans are people just like us was commendable. The fact that it's just not a lesson you could realistically use the KAF of my experience to demonstrate was not the writers' fault.

I will say one thing really bugged me, though. Maybe I only saw the only two episodes where this applies but... no French Canadian soldiers? At all? Are you kidding me? It's a real shame they couldn't have put one francophone in the mix: it's the one thing about this first attempt in my lifetime to put Canadian soldiers on the tube that rings horribly wrong. It's simply not our army, even if you're on an anglo rotation, if there isn't a little French being spoken around you at any given moment. And I'm not saying there's not obvious reasons why this is the case, but of their five Canadian military characters they have an African-Canadian male nurse, an East Asian Canadian woman, a white anglo Canadian woman, and two white anglo Canadian males as the colonel and chief warrant officer. Ours would be an interesting military indeed if that was truly a representative sample. Come on, guys, throw a franco in there for the second season.

Posted by BruceR at 10:39 PM

September 11, 2011

Things that changed

Things that would undoubtedly be entirely different for me now, it it weren't for Sept. 11:

*My military tour record;
*My occupation;
*My city of residence;
*This blog.

We get trite about things being "life-changing" experiences, but I guess that qualifies, doesn't it?

Posted by BruceR at 09:48 PM

September 10, 2011

Words to live by

Everyone in my line of work surely has their favourite line in the Death Star procurement article by now. This was mine:

Let me assure you, if your project’s success depends on hiring someone whose first name is Darth, you’ve got a problem. Not just because Sith Lords are make-believe, but also because they’re evil.

Posted by BruceR at 08:14 PM

September 08, 2011

The silver lining in all this is.. least none of the Republican candidates felt inclined to challenge the current theory of heliocentrism. So that's a starting point. The first step is accepting your church hasn't always been right about everything, right? It's good to know no matter how bad the Republican resurgence gets, there's no chance we'll retrograde any farther in our understanding of the world around us than around 1600 C.E. or so.

Posted by BruceR at 12:27 PM