Counterinsurgency and Water Polo

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 7 months ago

As a preface for discussing counterinsurgency and water polo, recall our observations of the Afghan National Army over the past months.

We have watched the ANA engage in drug abuse, smoke hashish before patrols, collude with Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops, themselves claim that they cannot hold Helmand without Marines and fear being killed if they even go out into the streets, be relatively ineffective against Taliban fighters, sleep on their watch, and claim to be on vacation in the Helmand Province.

This video is of immeasurable value.

C. J. Chivers updates us with a view to the ANA’s tactical capabilities (or even basic soldiering abilities).  They don’t aim their weapons.  They point them.  The ANA is not even capable enough to be considered the first line of defense against the insurgency.  Across Afghanistan, being in the Afghan National Police is considered to be more dangerous than being in the ANA.

Now to water polo.

Afghanistan may be landlocked, and pools may be scarce, but soldiers with the Afghan National Army aren’t letting these minor obstacles put a damper on their Olympic water polo dreams.

Under the Marine Corps’ tutelage, these soldiers are training at the ANA’s Camp Shorabak in Helmand province. The ultimate goal is to secure an Afghan team for the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro. For most, if not all, the training has been their first experience in a pool.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeremy Piasecki, a reservist with Marine Corps Forces Command, says leading Afghanistan’s water polo program is a unique way to further the counterinsurgency mission.

“The great things that the athletes will learn out of this program are hard work, dedication, leadership, camaraderie … ” Piasecki said. “In addition … it further builds bridges and trust between coalition forces and the Afghan people.”

Piasecki, a youth water polo coach in the U.S. since 2004, was tapped by the Afghanistan Olympic committee in 2008 around the time Afghanistan secured its first Olympic champion, Rohullah Nikpai, who won bronze in a taekwondo event in Beijing. With Afghanistan wanting more medal opportunities, water polo was named a national sport, Piasecki said, and he formed the country’s national water polo team in August 2008.

The Shorabak team, Helmand province’s first, only recently formed. The base, located minutes from the Corps’ Camp Leatherneck, was ideal because it actually had a pool.

Unfortunately, the water is untreated and nonpotable — one reason you may not see Marines in the pool.

Though his tour downrange is now done, Piasecki plans to continue coaching. He already operates a California-based nonprofit called “Afghanistan Water Polo” and has a website. He hopes to fund a trip for the Afghan athletes to train in the U.S.

Now to be sure, I am on one side of the counterinsurgency equation with Colonel Gian Gentile (holding that the population isn’t necessarily the center of gravity of a counterinsurgency campaign), and folks like Andrew Exum are on the other.  But this is a different order of magnitude entirely.

Has our cheese slid off of our cracker?  We now have U.S. Marine Corps NCOs extolling the virtues of water polo to the practice of counterinsurgency.  Do you think that maybe we have overdone it just a little?  Perhaps learning to fire a weapon and standing duty would be a better use of their time.

Or perhaps not, depending upon what these soldiers are like.  But why do we have U.S. Marine Corps NCOs busying themselves with this?    Where is the State Department or some other part of the U.S. government that can apply the soft side of COIN?  Or perhaps the State Department doesn’t believe in the mission.



  • MGGodde

    Captain,

    Though I am one to not disagree with your analysis since I first started reviewing your site I must make a point none the less regarding this story.

    Having played water polo for five years I can honestly say that the demands of the sport coupled with an element of bonding as young man was pivotal in how I saw the world and has shaped my view for my future.

    Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jeremy Piasecki, though a warfighter and steps above the level I played points out the basic underlying principle: “The great things that the athletes will learn out of this program are hard work, dedication, leadership, camaraderie … ” Piasecki said. “In addition … it further builds bridges and trust between coalition forces and the Afghan people.”

    Though his connection as a warfighter to the COIN operation and water polo is loose, I have to say why not? In a war that is mired in political BS, “hand holding,” and a lack of accountability on ALL levels (as you yourself have witnessed through your son and through your own personal actions), why not?
    What do we honestly loose by attempting? Its not like the leadership has a better solution yet.

    Moving on, it is my personal belief that the State Department has not heard of his endeavors. Granted, it is getting some media attention, but if the NCO’s work is blocked by his superiors, what is he to do? He may not have the authority to even sit with the State Dept rep to get his idea across.

    COIN Ops by any means is the most demanding type of combat our soldiers and Marines have recently picked up again (the commitment levels for training and logistics alone are staggering when your training another country’s forces) and so far from what I’ve seen the book was thrown out a long time ago.

    Though great minds have written to their hearts content about COIN strategies, how many have them worked? How many of those strategies worked when a country’s citizens have asked repeatedly for security, not food, shelter, and running water? Maybe, just maybe his work could teach them that security comes from within, through the qualities exhibited by players who hold the sport dear to their heart. Maybe just maybe, an NCO stumbled on a way of building national camaraderie and teaching that its the winners who step up and face their threats, and its the winners who bring home security… See you in 2016 for the Olympics!

    Best Regards,

    Matthew Godde

  • Bob Sykes

    Is this a winnable war?

    Considering the history of failed invasions going back to Alexander, the logistical problems, the lack of a real central government, the fact there never has been a central government and that there is no popular support for one, the lack of motivation of the Afghan army and police, the fanaticism of the Taliban, and our scheduled withdrawal, the answer is plainly no.

    This really is Vietnam. It is unconscionable to waste the lives and well-being of our troops in this foolish war.

  • Warbucks

    Well …… dang! If I were to read just this post only with no back ground of your earlier posts, I would swear this is an endorsement of Dr. Thomas Barnett’s manpower formulation for fighting wars and waging the peace:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_barnett_draws_a_new_map_for_peace.html

    “We field the first half team in a league the insists on keeping score to the end of the game.”

  • BruceR

    It’s not a perception that ANP service is more dangerous. It just statistically is. ANA soldiers have imbedded mentors with air support, ISR, casevac, artillery, and reaction forces on call. Most ANP do not. So they die. A lot.

    During my time in Kandahar, a back of the envelope estimate was the ANP:ANA fatality rate was about 8-to-1, with ANA (or 24-hour mentored ANP) suffering about as many fatalities as an equivalent number of Western troops.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Good grief. Thanks for the insight.

  • Pingback: The Captain's Journal » Update on Afghan National Army Water Polo


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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,State Department and was published April 26th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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