Archive for the 'Counterinsurgency' Category



The Difficulty of Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 1 month ago

C. J. Chivers gives us a rundown of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, and the money quotes follow.

Officially, Mr. Obama’s Afghan buildup shows signs of success, demonstrating both American military capabilities and the revival of a campaign that had been neglected for years. But in the rank and file, there has been little triumphalism as the administration’s plan has crested.

With the spring thaw approaching, officers and enlisted troops alike say they anticipate another bloody year. And as so-called surge units complete their tours, to be replaced by fresh battalions, many soldiers, now seasoned with Afghan experience, express doubts about the prospects of the larger campaign.

The United States military has the manpower and, thus far, the money to occupy the ground that its commanders order it to hold. But common questions in the field include these: Now what? How does the Pentagon translate presence into lasting success?

The answers reveal uncertainty. “You can keep trying all different kinds of tactics,” said one American colonel outside of this province. “We know how to do that. But if the strategic level isn’t working, you do end up wondering: How much does it matter? And how does this end?”

The strategic vision, roughly, is that American units are trying to diminish the Taliban’s sway over important areas while expanding and coaching Afghan government forces, to which these areas will be turned over in time.

But the colonel, a commander who asked that his name be withheld to protect him from retaliation, referred to “the great disconnect,” the gulf between the intense efforts of American small units at the tactical level and larger strategic trends.

The Taliban and the groups it collaborates with remain deeply rooted; the Afghan military and police remain lackluster and given to widespread drug use; the country’s borders remain porous; Kabul Bank, which processes government salaries, is wormy with fraud, and President Hamid Karzai’s government, by almost all accounts, remains weak, corrupt and erratically led.

And the Pakistani frontier remains a Taliban safe haven.

I agree with Chivers’ assessment that the U.S. has the troops to hold the ground that the commanders order it to hold.  But as Chivers points out earlier in the article:

In and near places like this village in Ghazni Province, American units have pushed their counterinsurgency doctrine and rules for waging war into freshly contested areas of rural Afghanistan  — even as their senior officers have decided to back out of other remote areas, like the Pech, Korangal and Nuristan valleys, once deemed priorities. In doing so, American infantry units have expanded a military footprint over lightly populated terrain from the Helmand and Arghandab River basins to the borders of the former Soviet Union, where the Taliban had been weak.

As readers will recall, abandoning the Pech Valley is problematic, and thus I have observed:

Here is a tip for future reading, study and, well, let’s be frank – wading through the misdirects that both the MSM and military PR sends your way.  When you hear the reflexive, tired, worn out mantra that we are having difficulty defeating the Taliban and those forces aligned with AQ because Pakistan simply won’t go into their safe havens and root them out, this is a nothing but a magic trick, a sleight of hand, a smoke screen, a ruse.  The issue is fake.  It’s a well-designed farce.

Oh, to be sure, the U.S. would indeed like for the Pakistanis to go kill all of the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban and AQ affiliated groups so that we don’t have to deal with them in Afghanistan.  But we have the ideal chance to address the problem head on in the Pech Valley and other areas near the AfPak border – that Durand line that exists only as a figment of our imaginations.  Essentially, much of the Hindu Kush is available for us to do the same thing we want Pakistan to do …

Note Chivers’ observation that the borders remain porous and that the Taliban still have safe haven.  Thus, while U.S. troops can clear areas and hold them, commanders note that the Taliban are beginning to return to Sangin.  The U.S. has enough troops to hold Sangin, but not enough to press the insurgency into their safe havens, find them and kill them.  We have intentionally and knowingly opted out of chasing them into their safe havens.  So the U.S. doesn’t have enough troops to do anything except play “whack-a-mole” counterinsurgency.

While U.S. troops maintain their tactical superiority over the insurgency, that’s not the same thing as a strategically cogent and compelling plan.  We are holding terrain, some terrain – some physical terrain and some human terrain – and relinquishing other terrain.  The insurgency is being squeezed from one place to another.

Recall that someone else discussed this as well?  Take a few minutes and listen again to this interview of Lt. Col. Allen West (Ret) as he discusses the various options and why holding terrain won’t work.  Tactical superiority and strategic malaise.  Same as it’s always been in Afghanistan.  And finally, our campaign is a model of the one conceived in Army Field Manual FM 3-24.  This is expensive, long term, protracted duration nation-building by-the-book in the most logistically unsustainable and overall worst place on earth.

Can it succeed?

Population-Centric Counterinsurgency: Abandoning the Pech Valley Part III

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 1 month ago

The ISAF has released a statement on “repositioning” troops from the Pech Valley:

Coalition forces are repositioning from the Pech Valley to locations along Highway 7 to block insurgent infiltration along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“Afghan forces will take the lead in the Pech Valley,” said German Army Gen. Josef Blotz, spokesman, International Security Assistance Force Headquarters, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, during a weekly update.

Repositioning forces is a normal task for military operations as new strategies and counter-strategies are enacted to win the war. The repositioning of coalition forces also shows an increase in the abilities of Afghan National Security Forces.

“Afghan Security Forces are able to take responsibility of Pech Valley,” Blotz continued. “This is testimony to our confidence.” Blotz highlighted that while the numbers of ANSF have increased, their skill and abilities have also improved.

C. J. Chivers also discusses this at The New York Times.

After years of fighting for control of a prominent valley in the rugged mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the United States military has begun to pull back most of its forces from ground it once insisted was central to the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The withdrawal from the Pech Valley, a remote region in Kunar Province, formally began on Feb. 15. The military projects that it will last about two months, part of a shift of Western forces to the province’s more populated areas. Afghan units will remain in the valley, a test of their military readiness.

While American officials say the withdrawal matches the latest counterinsurgency doctrine’s emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, Afghan officials worry that the shift of troops amounts to an abandonment of territory where multiple insurgent groups are well established, an area that Afghans fear they may not be ready to defend on their own.

And it is an emotional issue for American troops, who fear that their service and sacrifices could be squandered. At least 103 American soldiers have died in or near the valley’s maze of steep gullies and soaring peaks, according to a count by The New York Times, and many times more have been wounded, often severely.

Military officials say they are sensitive to those perceptions. “People say, ‘You are coming out of the Pech’; I prefer to look at it as realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people,” said Maj. Gen. John F. Campbell, the commander for eastern Afghanistan. “I don’t want the impression we’re abandoning the Pech.”

Abandoning the Pech?  Who said anything about abandoning the Pech?  This is just a “repositioning” of assets.  But wait.  The ANSF, despite the high praise from the ISAF, doubts their ability to hold the Pech.  They don’t appear too keen on the idea of going it alone in the Pech River Valley, and they shouldn’t be after watching the Taliban go after the outposts in Eastern Afghanistan such as at Wanat and Kamdesh.

They probably know that as soon as they are alone in the Pech, the Haqqani network will mass forces up to 200 or 300 fighters to go against the ANSF, and while the U.S. troops weren’t overrun at Wanat and Kamdesh, the ANSF will be in short order.  After all, we have seen what they do when left alone in large scale, high stakes, high profile operations.

And then there will be the investigations, maybe beginning something like this:

Flag officer A: So did we abandon the Pech Valley?

Flag Officer B: No sir, we repositioned to large population centers so that our operations comport with the doctrines of population-centric COIN.

Flag Officer A: So there isn’t any population in the Pech Valley?

Flag Officer B: Not nearly like in Kandahar, Jalalabad or Kabul.

Flag Officer A: So why did we leave the ANSF there if the population isn’t there?

Flag Officer B: Well, we thought it might be important to consider the fact that the insurgency would have safe haven in Pech and all along the Hindu Kush if we didn’t have troops there, and so we decided to …

Flag Officer A, interrupting: What do you mean insurgency and safe haven?  I thought you said the doctrines of population-centric counterinsurgency informed your judgment?  What difference does it make about the fighters if we protect the population?  Isn’t that our doctrine now?

Flag Officer B: Well, yes sir, but … um … you see, we thought that, um …

And I would love to be a fly on the wall for the rest of that conversation.  Can we put it on YouTube?

Prior:

Korengal Abandoned, Pech River Valley Still Problematic

Abandoning the Pech Valley

Abandoning the Pech Valley Part II

The Navy in Asadabad?

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 2 months ago

In Response to Afghanistan: We No Longer Give Pens and Stationary Away, DirtyMick responded as follows:

I was on the previous two PRTs in Kunar. They need to jettison the navy element and make it an army effort. Previous two Navy commanders (especially the one with the Nevada National guard in 2009/2010) focused too much on the soft aspect of coin, were in overall charge of the army manuever element at camp wright (like army running a ship), had a hard on for wanting to take non essential navy personnel (ie anybody not engineers) into places like the pech river valley and north of asadabad, and passing out badges and awards like candy on Halloween (so navy guys can be just as stacked as an 0311 marine cpl.). Torwards the end of this summer did my higher chain of command do things like cancel projects in the pech only after many months of us getting shot up in the pech. Why build a school for assholes when they’re shooting RPGs at us? I will never work on a PRT again.

And in response to Abandoning the Pech Valley Part II, Scarbelly79 said:

I was with DirtyMick in Asadabad during 2009-2010; I felt like our time was wasted in large part to satisfy the egos and experimentations of everyone who wanted to show how nuanced they were, and how we were going to make a lasting impact by NOT killing the enemy… An old vet told me once that “when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”.

It’s bad enough that Army and Marine Corps field grade officers are unwilling to risk their careers by granting air and indirect fire assets to troops in contact… We have Navy surface warfare officers and Air Force admin officers “leading” PRT’s; most of them without applicable experience or training – but trying desperately to pick up their O6 as they blame the Army and Marine Corps for screwing everything up.

The Pashtuns are not suicidal fanatics, they are brigands. We won’t win them to our side by bribing them with roads (when many of them don’t own cars), hospitals (without doctors to staff them), or electricity (when most of them don’t own televisions). We will win them to our side by effectively separating the militant Taliban from the general populace by hunting them down and killing them.

If you look back at the advent of Naval officers on PRTs in Afghanistan, it has pretty sad and naive theoretical framework.

The teams were founded in 2004 and are designed to be mobile goodwill ambassadors for coalition forces, using their transportation, logistics and communications capabilities to access the most remote Afghan villages.

Once there, the specialized personnel can hold medical, dental and veterinary clinics, and help build roads, wells, schools, irrigation systems and other facilities that will improve life for Afghans who have known only war and poverty for generations, Hartung said.

What about the infantry, you ask?  Why, they handle force protection for the team.  That’s right.  Force protection.  But DirtyMick and Scarbelly79 have given us reason to think that things are even worse now.  Naval officers are adorning themselves with medals at the expense of the fighting men, and then blaming the Army and Marines to boot.

Let’s make one thing clear.  We can discuss ineptitude all day, or organizational inadequacies, or lists of reasons that we are failing in Afghanistan.  We can treat that with clinical precision and a degree of detachment as a scientist.  But for a Naval officer on a PRT to complain and blame the fighting men is about as low as it gets.  I’m not sure what medals adorn the Naval officers on the PRTs, but unless they have been involved, engaged and active in kinetic operations and under fire, they don’t deserve and shouldn’t be awarded Combat Action Ribbons.  This would be a travesty.

Finally, here is the prerequisite for a Naval officer to complain about anything – ANYTHING – that is going on in Afghanistan.  Pick up a weapon, go on patrol, take fire, and kill the enemy.  Until you do, no one cares about your complaints, and playing the blame game with men under fire is immoral.  If you are a Naval officer who wants to complain, then lodge it right here, right now.  But show us your combat action ribbon first.  Tell us all about it.  We’re waiting.

Abandoning the Pech Valley Part II

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 2 months ago

In Abandoning the Pech Valley Operator Dan of This Ain’t Hell said:

Surrendering ground and outposts provides a propaganda victory for the Taliban. In conventional military terms, it provides them terrain from which they can rest, refit, and launch attacks. First it was the Korengal, now its the Pech, and next they will be knocking on the door of Abad and then Kunar is truly lost.

Remember, the Muj took control of the Eastern Provinces first and eventually used them to attack Kabul in the early 1990s’ against the Afghan Communists. A few of them (most of the Muj from then actually have aligned with us) have done this before.

And Dirty Mick, who has been there before, said:

I’m curious if 1/327 Battalion commander has a short memory. I was in Kunar when 2/12 infantry left the Korengal last April/May during the spring offensive when 1st and 2nd Battalion 327 took over Kunar. We got slammed all summer. The Taliban took it as a victory and scores of soldiers were killed and wounded during the summer. So what happens if we pull out of the Pech. Well I can gaurentee it will be another victory for the Taliban and every COP south of Asadabad will get attacked more frequently (fortress, joyce, penich, and badel already get attacked often) and it will eventually flow into nangahar province (where Jbad is).

By his rational if the insurgents in Sadr City, Mosul, Baghdad, Tal Afar, Ramadi, and Fallujah didn’t want us there then I guess we should have pulled out and left. By his way of thinking we should have never done the surge in Iraq in 2007. In order to Achieve Victory (yes I said it) we need to be aggressive and kill Taliban wherever they hide and lurk. It amazes me with these senior officers in the Army and Marine Corp it’s like they’re constantly reinventing the wheel or discovering fire for the first time. Disgraceful.

Just to pile disgrace on top of disgrace, reporter Harry Sanna who was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division, gives us this perspective based on his recent time there.

“Many parts of the east are still highly unstable. In the Pech Valley, it’s not uncommon for firefights between the U.S. soldiers and insurgent groups to break out five or six times a day. If they go ahead with their planned withdrawal from area, there are obvious ramifications that must be addressed. Namely, are the Afghan forces ready to take over security and, if not, who will step into the power vacuum created?

“I suppose what struck me the most from my time in Kunar was the widespread lack of knowledge as to what outcomes the withdrawal would create. Many Afghan soldiers expressed skepticism in their own army’s ability to hold the ground without international assistance. Many locals, including the scores of contractors hired from nearby villages that work on U.S. bases, did not know what to expect after foreigners left the valley. Anxiety is running fairly high, that much is obvious,” he said.

Well, Harry, here’s the deal.  We won’t have to wait until 2014 to find out what will happen to the Pech Valley when we withdraw.  In a tip of the hat to the doctrines of population-centric counterinsurgency, we intend to leave it well before then and head for the cities, just like the Russians did.

Here is a tip for future reading, study and, well, let’s be frank – wading through the misdirects that both the MSM and military PR sends your way.  When you hear the reflexive, tired, worn out mantra that we are having difficulty defeating the Taliban and those forces aligned with AQ because Pakistan simply won’t go into their safe havens and root them out, this is a nothing but a magic trick, a sleight of hand, a smoke screen, a ruse.  The issue is fake.  It’s a well-designed farce.

Oh, to be sure, the U.S. would indeed like for the Pakistanis to go kill all of the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban and AQ affiliated groups so that we don’t have to deal with them in Afghanistan.  But we have the ideal chance to address the problem head on in the Pech Valley and other areas near the AfPak border – that Durand line that exists only as a figment of our imaginations.  Essentially, much of the Hindu Kush is available for us to do the same thing we want Pakistan to do, and in fact, if we began actually doing this, Pakistan might be persuaded to allow readier access to Pakistani soil (once they see we are serious about the campaign).

Instead of going after them in their safe havens, we want to focus on the population centers, set up governance, and assume that the criminals and thugs we leave in charge will be a better choice to the people than aligning themselves with the Taliban.  How’s that plan going?

Short Term Thinking and Long Term Failure in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 2 months ago

The always scholarly and thoughtful Joshua Foust gives us a good and provoking piece in the Atlantic entitled How Short Term Thinking is Causing Long Term Failure in Afghanistan.  Some of it is reproduced below, but make sure to visit the article and read it all.

On October 6, 2010, Lieutenant Colonel David Flynn, charged with clearing a tiny village in the Arghandab district of southeast Afghanistan, called in 49,200 pounds of rockets and aerial bombs, leveling it completely. According to Paula Broadwell, a former adviser to General David Petraeus, Flynn believed that the village of Tarok Kolache was empty of civilians and full of explosive traps. The Taliban, Broadwell recounted for ForeignPolicy.com, had “conducted an intimidation campaign” to chase away the villagers and promptly set up shop inside the village. In earlier attempts to clear it, Flynn’s unit had taken heavy losses, including multiple amputations from homemade explosives and several dead. He decided the only reasonable way to “clear” the mine-riddled village was to bomb it to the ground. When Tarok Kolache’s residents tried to return to the homes their families had maintained for generations, they found nothing but dust. Flynn offered them money for reconstruction and reimbursement, but getting it required jumping a long series of bureaucratic hoops, some of them controlled by notoriously corrupt local politicians. Flynn, and later Broadwell, who is also writing a biography of Petraeus, declared it a success.

Josh then goes on to lament the nature of pressure to show results that accompanies time lines for withdrawal.  It is a well known lament, a sad song I have sung many times concerning both Iraq and Afghanistan, the premature withdrawal from Iraq, the ridiculous Status of Forces Agreement under which our remaining troops operate, and so on.  This dirge is well rehearsed with my regular readers.  Josh continues.

Tarok Kolache is the kind of horror story that always accompanies war. “This is not the first time this has happened,” a platoon leader who served in Kandahar recounted to me. There, the destruction of mined villages is common. Last November, the New York Times reported that demolishing unoccupied homes and towns had become routine in several districts in Kandahar. Because the war has displaced an estimated 297,000 Afghans, many of whom will flee during extended violence and later return, homes are often empty. In October, the Daily Mail quoted this same Lt. Col. Flynn as threatening villagers with their town’s destruction if they did not report Taliban activity to his soldiers (the village in that story, Khosrow Sofia, was later burned to the ground much like Tarok Kolache). In neighboring Helmand province–even more violent than Kandahar–Marines have explicitly threatened villages with destruction if local civilians didn’t volunteer the locations of near IEDs.

Joshua, respectful of the job that the military is doing, does note that there is no ill intention even with hard tactics.

It’s worth repeating what should be obvious to anyone who has worked with the U.S. military in Afghanistan: this isn’t driven by malice. The recent and overwhelming emphasis on expediency, from both the military and its civilian leadership, has changed incentives. In his 2009 Counterinsurgency Guidance, General Stanley McChrystal told the troops in Afghanistan that “Destroying a home or property jeopardizes the livelihood of an entire family – and creates more insurgents. We sow the seeds of our demise.” Last year, General Petraeus repeated the advice to his troops. But the U.S.-led campaign in the south of Afghanistan is increasingly obsessed with “momentum,” or the need to make steady, ever-greater progress. It’s a word one hears often from the U.S.-led force in Afghanistan, whether in official press releases, network news interviews with Petraeus, or casual conversations with officers. When Broadwell wrote up Flynn’s decision to destroy Tarok Kalache, she approvingly cited the need to maintain “momentum.”

“In Afghanistan, second and third-order effects are largely overlooked,” Morgan Sheeran, a Sergeant First Class who teaches at the Counterinsurgency Training Center in Kabul, told me. The result, Sheeran said, is that decisions are often made in the moment without understanding their long-term consequences.

These statements by Sheeran seems to be particularly ungracious to me, and it ignores a large body of data that argues that rather than overlooking or not understanding second and third order effects, many times Marines and Soldiers in the field are making nuanced value judgments based on the situation, and with full knowledge of the second and third order effects.

I tend to doubt the Pajhwok Afghan News as a reliable and unbiased source, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Marines in Helmand had made it very difficult for the villagers if they harbored insurgents.  Having a son who did counterinsurgency in Fallujah in 2007 I know a little something about hard places with hard people, and I know something about the tactics used by the Marines.  Josh also laments the hard tactics used by the Afghan National Police, and I know something about the tactics used by the IPs in Fallujah; again, hard tactics for hard people where the insurgency had hung on longer than almost anywhere else.  Good governance and digging wells didn’t turn Fallujah in 2007.  I simply cannot divulge any more than this about Fallujah IP tactics, but I suspect that those tactics have somewhat abated.

I once asked a respected and notable theologian if he believed in “such-and-such” (the specific point of doctrine isn’t important, and it had nothing to do with the essentials).  His response to me is telling.  He responded, “yes, no and maybe.”  His nuanced reply set up categories, put in place stipulations, and laid caveats, so that a simple yes or no didn’t suffice.  It was a conversation rather than a sound bite.

Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but when asked: Is counterinsurgency razing towns to the ground, or is it providing funds for jobs programs?  Is it sitting and drinking Chai, or is it kicking in doors?  Is it taking off your Oakley wrap-arounds to befriend the elders, or is it projecting force and engendering fear?

I think that the answer is yes, no and maybe.  It is something that only the boots on the ground can know, changing with the times and epochs, evolving with stages of the campaign, and germane and applicable depending on the specific population and insurgents (and it’s not something that can be ascertained through high value target hits by operators living on FOBs and riding helicopters to the field).  With Josh, I lament the defeatist mentality that wants to talk with hard core Taliban and get out now.  I want to stick this out until we’re done, even though I wouldn’t engage in the degree of nation-building espoused by Josh.

When the Marines (24th MEU) first entered Garmsir in 2008, they killed 400+ Taliban, and literally leveled parts of Garmsir.  Yet the people are on record wanting and asking them to stay, themselves lamenting the departure of the Marines and advent of the British.  So I just don’t think that it’s as simple as seeing hard tactics as a function of a hurried campaign.

Prisons Do Not Work In Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 2 months ago

Continuing reports on the use of prisons in counterinsurgency.

A few months after insurgents launched a rocket attack on Kandahar’s air base, US soldiers kicked down Khan Mohammed’s door and whisked the stout, ruddy-faced 27-year-old — blindfolded and handcuffed — to an American prison near Kabul.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, US forces have detained thousands of suspected enemy combatants without trial in facilities such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, and Bagram in Afghanistan. US officials say the detentions prevent attacks, but critics charge that innocent people have been unfairly held for years.

Mohammed’s story illustrates what US officials say is a dramatic shift in policy aimed at treating suspected enemies better, and releasing them sooner.

“We changed everything,’’ said Vice Admiral Robert Harward, head of US detention operations in Afghanistan, who oversees a new, modern prison outside the boundaries of the Bagram Air Base, near Kabul, which officials say emphasizes rehabilitation and release.

Mohammed was taken to the new prison and was brought be fore a military judicial panel within weeks. But his case also reveals how, despite these improvements, the military’s opaque judicial process often seems arbitrary to the local populace and continues to leave some Afghans unappeased.

Sensitive evidence against Mohammed was never shared with him, nor explained to the public. Four months after he was seized, American soldiers issued him a gray coat, a white prayer cap, and a black bag containing a toothbrush, then set him free with little explanation.

His quick release bolstered the belief among some Afghans that he should never have been arrested. Some also say an evolving system of judicial trials for detainees is unfair.

“The perception is still that it is like a black hole,’’ said Hekmat Karzai, a cousin of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, an independent, nongovernmental organization in Kabul that offers legal defense to detainees.

Numbers released by American authorities tell a tale of speedier justice, however. In 2010, as US troops pushed deep into hostile territory, the US-led coalition arrested 6,223 Afghans, the largest number on record, Harward said. But about 5,000 were let go within days, often after tribal elders vowed to keep them out of trouble.

About 1,200 — who had the most damning evidence against them — were sent to the new $60 million US prison facility outside Bagram Air Base. A quarter of them were released within months without a trial.

“There are people who think this is all rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But you have got to hope they succeed,’’ said Eugene Fidell, a professor at Yale Law School and a specialist in the subject of military justice.

Rehabilitation and release.  The report goes on to say that this kinder, gentler, state-of-the-art facility was the brainchild of General McChrystal.  That sounds about right.  We can’t rehabilitate most of the criminals in our own U.S. prisons where we know the culture, know the language, know the people, and own the system.  We can’t manage to effect this rehabilitation because criminality is a moral problem, a problem of evil.  Prisons don’t change a man’s heart.  Much less, then, will we be able to use prisons in Afghanistan to effect rehabilitation.

When the U.S. is seen as short-timers in the campaign and when release is usually just days or weeks away, there is no reason to befriend U.S. troops.  There is no replacement for killing the enemy on the field of battle.  If the naysayer responds that “This violates the Geneva Conventions,” or “That violates our own rules of engagement,” very well.  There are other solutions.  Simply put, kill when we can, but refuse to take prisoners.  It simply does no good.  Or, we can redeploy home and end the campaign.  Either way, pretending that prisons work in counterinsurgency is foolish, and runs counter to the evidence from both Iraq and Afghanistan.  As I have said before, “simply put, prisons … do … not … work … in … counterinsurgency.”

Prior:

Hamid Kzrzai: Defeater of the High Value Target Program

The Ineffectiveness of Prisons in Counterinsurgency

Jirgas and the Release of Taliban Prisoners

Prisons in Afghanistan

Prisons in Counterinsurgency

Afghans Wary of Building Up Local Policing Forces

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 3 months ago

From NPR:

In Kabul this week, U.S. Vice President Biden said the surge in American troops has arrested the momentum of the Taliban insurgency, and he pledged that U.S. forces would draw down as Afghan troop numbers build up.

To that end, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for the rapid creation of local community police forces. But many Afghans are reluctant; they have reservations about creating yet another armed group in a fractured country.

About 100 miles south of Kabul, Ghazni province is a world away from the capital. On election day last year, Taliban threats kept voters away from the few polling stations in the mostly Pashtun province that were considered safe enough to open. In Andar district — with a population of 110,000 — exactly three people went out to cast a vote.

The soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry, travel everywhere outside their tiny fort in titanic mine-resistant trucks. For the four months they’ve been in Andar district, they’ve skirmished almost every day. Lt. Col. David Fivecoat speaks of the enemy in personal terms.

“After four months of tough fighting, we’ve attrited [reduced] his capabilities and control and have begun the slow process of every counterinsurgency, of turning the control back over to the government,” he says.

But it’s not the first time NATO troops have tried to take back Andar district from the Taliban, and it’s not the second. In 2006, the U.S. Army’s Operation Mountain Fury was supposed to clear Ghazni province. So were sporadic raids in 2007. U.S. soldiers from the 187th arrived there in September, replacing Polish NATO soldiers, but now the strategy is different.

On a recent day, chickens scatter in a yard as Capt. Aaron T. Schwengler and a platoon of B Company soldiers enter the farmyard of a village elder in a hamlet called Bangi. With soldiers on the roof keeping watch, Schwengler takes off his helmet and sits on the ground for tea.

“We appreciate the hospitality, having us here in Bangi,” he tells a group of elders. “It’s always nice to come here because we don’t get shot at and I appreciate that.”

Schwengler isn’t joking, and the elders don’t laugh. He can’t say that about many villages in the district. Bangi is close enough to B Company’s base that the Taliban shy away from it. Schwengler has promised money to rebuild the irrigation canals in the village, and he has asked about building a school, which Bangi hasn’t had since the 1970s. But he wants something in return.

Schwengler is hoping to recruit, pay and arm a squad of the new community watch program. The program has changed its name several times since summer, but it’s based on the one in Iraq that helped turn the tide against al-Qaida. The commander of U.S. forces here, Gen. David Petraeus, pushed the program through despite public doubts expressed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. B Company has been canvassing the local villages hoping to get elders to come to their base for a shura, or council, to start forming the village guards.

One village elder, Muhammad, says he agrees with everything that Schwengler and the local district governor want to do, and he promises to come to the shura to discuss it.

But two days later, the day of the shura, only the two elders from Bangi turn up at the base. Schwengler says the other villages are too scared to show.

“The Taliban [came] in after we did and told them not to support the shura and not to show up,” he says.

Even the elders from Bangi have reservations about the program.

“We tried that program during the Russian occupation,” says Muhammad, “and when we armed people they went and joined the insurgency.”

There are several ways to take this report, and each reader will perform his or her own analysis.  But I think it’s important not to turn this into yet another data point in the “local versus centralized government” debate.  My takeaway is different.

In not only Afghanistan but also Iraq, weapons turned up with the insurgents, construction projects lined the pockets of the enemy, and people walked both sides of the track.  That is, until it was made apparent in Iraq that alignment with the insurgency was dangerous.

People are aligning with the insurgency because they don’t see it as dangerous.  They see it as the winning side.  Until it’s the losing side, no amount of local policing, construction, schools, or community engagement will persuade people to forswear or repudiate the insurgency.  We need to get first things first.

Afghanistan: Large Footprint or Small?

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 3 months ago

Bruce Rolston continues to advocate for a small footprint in Afghanistan.

A Marine LCol in Helmand: “I’m not lighting up an area where families we know and support are living in order to suppress a couple of idiots who were shooting a few long range, ineffective rounds.” Bingo.

From Tim himself, on how to do COIN in the nearly unpopulated border province of Nimruz, presenting the problem, the solution, the problem with the solution, and the solution to that problem all in one tight three-inch group:

I ask one of my brother Marines what he would do were he given this problem to solve under the historical constraints normally faced by Marine commanders fighting a small war. He replied immediately ; Q-cars, fire force and pseudo operators [references to Rhodesian COIN TTPs --B.]. Which is exactly the same thing I would say as would all of my friends who are in the business. But the only way a regimental or battalion commander could even think of doing that now would be if we sent a vast majority of the troops deployed here (along with every colonel and general not in command of troops) home.

Yes, yes, YES.

The sheer untapped potential of ANSF platoon houses with embedded enablers (not Western companies with a few doorkickers) in the cleared areas, combined with modern ISR- and CAS-enabled Rhodesian style pseudo-operators and fireforces replacing large-scale sweep ops in the uncleared Pashtun areas, with the highways patrolled by mine-resistant vehicles in the IED zones and Q-Cars (a land derivative of the Q-Ship) in the ambush zones simply boggles the mind.

But Tim has also described the intense fire fights in Helmand (and Marine Corps small unit maneuver warfare), and the Marines have requested more men to secure Helmand.  In Sangin they note that “you don’t go south unless you have a lot of dudes.”

You see, the context in which Tim comments is the Nimruz Province, where most U.S. police departments could handle the problem.  The insurgency is coming from Helmand, Kandahar, Kunar, Nuristan and other such parts of the AfPak region.

Bruce conflates one thing with another (“replacing large-scale sweep ops in the uncleared Pashtun areas“), and Tim isn’t – as best as I can tell – advocating a small footprint in Helmand or Kandahar or Kunar or Nuristan.  And I continue to advocate a heavy footprint in those regions.

Afghanistan: We No Longer Give Pens and Stationary Away

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 4 months ago

We recently discussed one officer lamenting the tactic of wearing body armor and carrying grenades on patrol.  Presumably, he wants to jettison those tactical advantages when confronted by Taliban insurgents, though not even the mayor of Kandahar feels safe from insurgent violence.  Now comes the latest in fine thinking concerning the campaign.

MARAWARA DISTRICT, Afghanistan –  After nine years of reconstruction efforts that have cost billions of dollars, U.S. military and civilian experts are trying a different strategy in this remote corner of eastern Afghanistan: doing more by doing less.

“We’ve been like Santa Claus, going through money, whatever you need,” said Navy Cmdr. William B. Goss, who commands the 100-person reconstruction team at Forward Operating Base Wright, near the Kunar provincial capital of Asadabad.

The funding for U.S. projects wasn’t always steady, nor was the oversight, and the planning was often criticized. Now there’s a change of focus.

Goss and his contingent, who arrived here in late October, still oversee the construction of desperately needed infrastructure and promote the role of women in this deeply conservative region, but the focus is on tutoring local officials.

Development projects now are running on Afghan, rather than American, schedules, even if it takes longer to build a road or school. Fewer projects are started, and only those with the prospect of continuing after foreign troops leave.

This is a real makeover: U.S. troops here have even stopped handing out candy and pens to the young boys who gather whenever they leave the base.

Kunar is a test ground for Vice President Joe Biden’s declaration last month that it’s time for the United States “to start to take the training wheels off” in Afghanistan.

Whether the strategy succeeds in Kunar and elsewhere in Afghanistan will determine – along with combat operations – whether the United States leaves behind even a minimally stable country.

Biden’s philosophy was on display in November when Goss and his team visited the U.S.-funded Lahore Dag Middle School to inspect the moss green and white structure, which opened in late October to 206 students.

Headmaster Faiz Mohammed was happy with his clean, new 14-room school. The electricity and plumbing worked as promised. His students no longer would have to study in tents or outdoors under trees. But Mohammed was hoping for a little more American largesse.

“If it’s possible … to receive any stationery?” he asked. The answer was a polite “no.”

Whether jettisoning our body armor or withholding pens and stationary, there you have it.  The Captain’s Journal.  Keeping you apprised of the best that American strategic minds has to offer.  We’re in the very best of hands.

In Kandahar: “These people don’t give a damn about us”

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 4 months ago

From MSNBC (lengthy excerpt with important ending):

Over the last six months, U.S. troops have wrested the school away from insurgents. They’ve hired Afghan contractors to rebuild it, and lost blood defending it.

But the tiny school has yet to open, and nobody’s quite sure when it will.

American commanders have called the Pir Mohammed primary school “the premier development project” in Zhari district, a Taliban heartland in Kandahar province at the center of President Barack Obama’s 30,000-man surge.

The small brick and stone complex represents much of what American forces are trying to achieve in Afghanistan: winning over a war-weary population, tying a people to their estranged government, bolstering Afghan forces so American troops can go home. But the struggle to open Pir Mohammed three years after the Taliban closed it shows the obstacles U.S. forces face in a complex counterinsurgency fight — one whose success depends not on firepower, but on the support of a terrified people.

Similar battles are taking place across the country. In Marjah, for example, a former Taliban stronghold in neighboring Helmand province, several schools have opened since American-led troops overran the district in February. But many parents are still too afraid of violence and Taliban threats to let their children attend.

In Senjeray, too, “there are teachers … and we’ve found them and talked to them,” said Capt. Nick Stout, a company commander from the 101st Airborne Division’s 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment. “We say, ‘When the school’s built, do you want to come teach?’ And they say, ‘No, no, I don’t, not at all.’”

Perched amid majestic mountain crags at the base of a fertile river valley, the village of Senjeray resembles a walled fort, 10,000 people living in a labyrinth of steep, hardened mud walls.

Pir Mohammed sits at the southeastern edge of the village, a pair of modest, single-story buildings that once served hundreds, maybe thousands of children. A small plaque at the entrance engraved with black words on light gray marble indicates U.S. troops refurbished the school “in friendship with the People of Afghanistan” in November 2002 — one year after the American invasion.

Canadians finished the school and opened it in 2005. But in 2007, Taliban fighters attacked it, breaking windows and busting doors off hinges. They took away a dozen students, cut the fingers off some and killed the parents of others, said Bismallah Qari, a 30-year-old black-bearded mullah from Senjeray.

The Taliban opposes Western-style education, and apparently saw the school as a symbol of government authority. Qari said the Taliban also believed children would be forced to study Christianity there.

Since then, Senjeray’s children have had only one place to go: a handful of Islamic madrassas run by conservative mullahs like Qari that some American commanders say are radicalizing a new generation of Afghan youth, turning them away from President Hamid Karzai’s government and the NATO coalition.

Speaking through an interpreter as American troops searched a recently filled hole in his madrassa they suspected held a weapons cache, Qari said he wanted his kids to attend Pir Mohammed, too, but “we can’t do it.”

“The Taliban won’t allow us to go there,” he said. “They’ll kill us, they’ll kill our children.”

Pir Mohammed occupies ground highly valued by the insurgency — part of a corridor the Taliban use to traffic arms and guerrillas through villages along the Arghandab River and into Kandahar city.

In April, American troops seized the school in a military operation backed by Afghan troops. They found it in ruins, its rooms reduced to toilets littered with needles, apparently for drug use.

When Stout’s unit arrived in May, he deployed two platoons to protect the school round the clock. On their second day, a U.S. soldier was shot in the lung, but survived.

For weeks, firefights erupted almost daily.

U.S. engineers knocked down walls and trees nearby where insurgents hide. Afghan security forces set up checkpoints on surrounding roads. And armored American trucks stood guard to defend the school’s crumbling outer walls.

The school itself was turned into a de facto military base: Stout’s men stacked sandbags in the windows and installed machine gun nests on the rooftops. They filled rooms with metal boxes of ammunition and anti-tank rockets, and slept on cots inside it.

The American occupation drew the ire of village elders. In mid-July, more than 300 turbaned men from Senjeray urged the provincial governor to pressure the Americans to leave Pir Mohammed. Stout said that in meetings afterward, elders told him the Taliban had pressured them to do so. Nevertheless, they reiterated the plea — and made a crucial promise in return.

“They were saying, ‘Look, if you get out of the school, we’ll protect the school,’” Stout recalled. “They said, ‘We got it. We’ll keep attacks from happening. And people will go there.’”

Withdrawing, in fact, was exactly what Stout wanted. It fit with the wider strategy of letting Afghan forces take on security, and freed Stout’s troops to secure more ground elsewhere.

So the American platoons pulled out in mid-August, leaving their Afghan counterparts in charge.

Instead of the peace the elders promised, attacks actually increased, Stout said. Within days, the school suffered two grenade assaults and a pair of shoulder-fired rocket strikes, one of which killed a seven-year-old boy playing outside.

At meetings that week with mullahs and elders, Stout’s team displayed a poster-sized photo of the wounded boy just after the explosion, his face bloodied with shrapnel.

“We said, ‘Look, how does this sit in your stomach? Does this bother you?’” Stout recalled. “We told them: ‘These people clearly don’t care about you, your family, or your livelihood.’”

The elders agreed, and Stout made a proposition: “Come bleed with us and defeat the bigger problem, help drive the insurgents out.”

At that, the elders drew back.

Some said they didn’t know who had carried out the attack. Others said there were no insurgents in Senjeray. Most said they were mere farmers, and if they cooperated with the Americans, the Taliban would cut their heads off.

Stout rebutted with a grim warning: “As long as you guys tolerate this, as long as you turn your backs, your children are going to continue to suffer.”

The elders nodded. They promised to escort American troops through Senjeray, where attackers hidden on rooftops tossed grenades at U.S. patrols nearly every time they passed by.

But in the weeks that followed, nobody ever turned up.

Qari, the local mullah, said Senjeray’s residents were caught in the middle and could not control the insurgency.

“We told the Taliban we don’t want your support, and we don’t want the support of the U.S. Army,” he said. “We told them: ‘We can ensure our own security, just leave us alone.’”

Part of the difficulty of winning over people in Afghanistan is that NATO-led forces are trying to do it in full body armor.

American troops live in fortified bubbles surrounded by blast walls and dirt-filled barriers. Their window onto the country is often an alien landscape that’s hard to see through inches-thick bulletproof glass covered in dust.

On the ground, American strategy often rests on fragile agreements between two groups worlds apart: young muscle-bound troops with crew cuts and tattoos and conservative white-bearded elders in turbans.

There may be no place tougher to win hearts and minds than Zhari. Here is where the Taliban movement was founded 16 years ago. A few miles to the west is Singesar, where Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar once ran an Islamic school.

“Obviously there’s a lot of Taliban sympathy out there,” Stout said. “These people don’t give a damn about us … and quite frankly, why would they? We’re strangers, we’ve been here for a few months, we walk around the town with guns, 40 pounds of body army and (a lot of) grenades.”

Afghan troops, too, acknowledge the cold reception in Senjeray, where they are seen as foreigners trying to finish off an old war. Much of the Afghan army’s rank and file here is drawn from the north — Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara — who fought the overwhelmingly Pashtun Taliban in the 1990s.

“The people in this town hate us,” said Lt. Said Abdul Ghafar, an ethnic Tajik soldier based at Pir Mohammed. “The Taliban tell them we’re not real Muslims, that we’re infidels. So the children throw rocks at us and won’t even say hello.”

Analysis & Commentary

This report is remarkably depressing.  The irony is that there is not a single problem discussed above with the U.S. campaign in Kandahar that couldn’t have also been said of the U.S. campaign in Fallujah or Baghdad in 2007.  We weren’t loved in the least.

But note what the focus of the discussion is not.  It isn’t about wasting time, resources and blood defending an inanimate object that can neither hurt you nor love you (i.e., the school).  It isn’t about the need to chase the insurgents and kill them.  It isn’t about force projection of U.S. troops.

Note now what the discussion is about.  The problem, says Stout, is that our boys are wearing 40 pounds of body armor and carry grenades.  The problem is that they don’t “give a damn about us.”  Stout’s focus is not on the legitimacy of U.S. troop actions, but of the ANA.

Is this the depth of strategic thinking among our officer corps?  We are failing in Kandahar because we are wearing 40 pounds of body armor and carrying grenades?

In Fallujah in 2007, the IPs are the ones who didn’t give a damn about what the population thought of them.  The fact that they knew they had the backing of the U.S. Marines made all the difference, and force brought legitimacy for the IPs.  The notion that body armor separates the Soldiers from the people is patently absurd.  What are we supposed to think about this?  That the solution to winning their hearts and minds is to jettison the body armor and grenades?  How many unnecessary deaths would that cause and how laughable would the U.S. Army appear to the population?  How does it say “we’re here to win” if we get rid of our weapons and allow ourselves to be shot?

In Fallujah and Baghdad in 2007, there was no focus on holding terrain or even attempting to stand up a legitimate government until the insurgency had been dealt a significant blow.  Recalling what we did in Iraq (from an Army officer):

One thing that I think many people forget about Iraq (or maybe it wasn’t reported?) is that in 2007 and 2008 we were killing and capturing lots of people on a nightly basis. Protecting the populace was A priority. When speaking to the folks back home, in order to sell the war, perhaps we said that it was the priority. But on the ground, I do not recall a single Commander’s Update Brief spending any time at all discussing what we had done to protect anyone. We were focused on punching al-Qaeda in the nuts at every opportunity and dismantling their networks. The reconcilables got the message loud and clear that they could take money and jobs in return for cooperation, or they would die a swift death when we came knocking down their doors in the middle of the night. The rest of the populace made it clear to them that they should take the offer. The only protection that the population got from us was good fire discipline so that we did not kill non-combatants. We made it clear that the government intended to win this thing and we did not send that message by delivering governance or digging wells. We shot motherf******s in the face.  Pop-COIN blasphemers, your scripture is false teaching.

This wasn’t just SOF.  This was everyone.  This posture is what I don’t currently see in our campaign for Afghanistan.


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