The Paradox and Absurdities of Carbon-Fretting and Rewilding

Herschel Smith · 28 Jan 2024 · 4 Comments

The Bureau of Land Management is planning a truly boneheaded move, angering some conservationists over the affects to herd populations and migration routes.  From Field & Stream. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently released a draft plan outlining potential solar energy development in the West. The proposal is an update of the BLM’s 2012 Western Solar Plan. It adds five new states—Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming—to a list of 11 western states already earmarked…… [read more]

Generals Who Talk Tactics Rather Than Strategy

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

The inability of the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police to independently create the conditions for stability and security in Afghanistan at the present (or anytime in the near future) has been a recurrent theme here at The Captain’s Journal (see Here is your Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police category).  Yet the strategy being implemented (i.e., heavy use of trainers and less U.S. troops than needed to secure the population) implicitly relies on this very strategy.  The fact that so few are seriously calling into question the basic tenets of the plan makes it unnecessary to defend it.

But Steve Coll gives us yet another reason for concern over the strategy.

I can think of three cases during the last four decades in which programs to strengthen Afghan security forces to either serve the interests of an outside power or suppress an insurgency or both failed because of factionalism and disunity in Kabul.

During the nineteen-seventies, the Soviet Union tried to build communist cells within the Army in order to gradually gain influence. The cells, unfortunately, split into two irreconcilable groups, and their squabbling became so disabling that the Soviets ultimately decided they had no choice but to invade, in 1979, to put things in order.

Then, during the late nineteen-eighties, faced with a dilemma similar to that facing the United States, the Soviets tried to “Afghan-ize” their occupation, much as the U.S. proposes to do now. The built up Afghan forces, put them in the lead in combat, supplied them with sophisticated weapons, and, ultimately, decided to withdraw. This strategy actually worked reasonably well for a while, although the government only controlled the major cities, never the countryside. But the factional and tribal splits within the Army persisted, defections were chronic, and a civil war among the insurgents also played out within the Army, ensuring that when the Soviet Union fell apart, and supplies halted, the Army too would crack up and dissolve en masse. (I happened to be in Kabul when this happened, in 1992. On a single day, thousands and thousands of soldiers and policemen took off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and went home.)

Finally, during the mid-nineteen-nineties, a fragmented and internally feuding Kabul government, in which Karzai was a participant for a time, tried to build up national forces to hold off the Taliban, but splits within the Kabul coalitions caused important militias and sections of the security forces to defect to the Taliban. The Taliban took Kabul in 1996 as much by exploiting Kabul’s political disarray as by military conquest. The history of the Afghan Army since 1970 is one in which the Army has never actually been defeated in the field, but has literally dissolved for lack of political glue on several occasions.

None of these examples offers a perfect analogy for the present, but the current situation in Kabul does contain echoes of this inglorious history.

But if we won’t openly question the strategy, we will issue tactical directives changing the rules of engagement.  It’s questionable whether the Afghans really even want this counsel to be implemented, but that doesn’t stop our generals from issuing tactical orders to Lance Corporals and Sergeants in the field.

The counter-example is given to us by the enemy.  The Washington Post has a provocative article concerning safe haven for the Quetta Shura in Pakistan (a subject our readers know well), but one particular nugget can be gleaned from this article that is salient to the discussion.

Virtually all of the Afghan Taliban’s strategic decisions are made by the Quetta Shura, according to U.S. officials. Decisions flow from the group “to Taliban field commanders, who in turn make tactical decisions that support the shura’s strategic direction,” a counterterrorism official said.

It would be better if General Stanley McChrystal didn’t try to tell combat-seasoned veterans when they could and couldn’t use fires.  But Mullah Omar has better things to do.  He sets strategy rather than dictates tactics.  While we are immersed in a sea of micromanagement and details, the enemy and his organization is beating us at the fundamentals.

The troops are available for Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

Washington Post Associate Editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran penned an article entitled Go all-in or fold.  In it he touched on recurring themes here at The Captain’s Journal.  Excerpts are reproduced below.

There were two battalions to the north of Kandahar city. Another to the far south. Canadian forces were going to swing to the west. About 5,000 new U.S. troops in all.

“But there, there and there,” the officer said, pointing to towns just outside a belt where the Americans and Canadians were stationed, “and there,” putting his fist on the city, which with 800,000 residents is the country’s second-largest population center, “we don’t have anyone.”

If more forces are not forthcoming to mount counterinsurgency operations in those parts of the province, he concluded, the overall U.S. effort to stabilize Kandahar — and by extension, the rest of Afghanistan — will fail.

“We might as well pack our bags and go home . . . and just keep a few Predators flying overhead to whack the al-Qaeda guys who return,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “There’s no point in doing half-measures here” …

McChrystal’s 66-page confidential assessment makes the case for a far more expansive counterinsurgency mission, one that would involve sending more troops and civilian reconstruction personnel to Kandahar and other key population centers to improve security, governance and economic opportunities for Afghans. Although the general never used the term in the assessment, his strategy amounts to a comprehensive nation-building endeavor.

He wants U.S. and NATO personnel to expand training programs for Afghan soldiers and policemen, reform the justice system, promote more effective local administration and ramp up reconstruction. If that occurs, he and other counterinsurgency experts contend, then Afghans who have sided with the Taliban out of fear or necessity will eventually switch sides and support the government. Building an effective state, in McChrystal’s view, is the only way to defeat the insurgency.

The opposite view, espoused for some time by Vice President Biden and a growing number of liberal Democrats, is that such an effort has a slim chance of success given Afghanistan’s size and complexities: the suspicion of outsiders, the harsh terrain, the lack of an educated civil service, the endemic corruption and the tribal rivalries. Instead, they argue, the United States should scale back its operations and focus directly on trying to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda, the core counterterrorism goals for Afghanistan that Obama endorsed this spring. Special Forces teams and combat aircraft would remain at the ready to target any terrorists with international ambitions who seek to set up shop in the country.

Such an approach, proponents say, would result in far fewer U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, and it would reduce the strain of repeated deployments on the American military.

Given the profound gulf between those options, and the political risks entailed by either, some in the Obama administration, as well as Democratic leaders in Congress, have begun to look for a way to split the difference, to do “counterinsurgency light” or “counterterrorism plus” …

The fold approach — to engage simply in counterterrorism operations — is riddled with its own drawbacks: The Taliban would effectively control the country’s south and east, and a civil war would probably resume among it and ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras for control of the west and the north. Counterterrorism missions would be hindered by a lack of on-the-ground intelligence. Pakistan could be further destabilized as the Taliban reverses its operations and starts using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks across the border.

The last paragraph is the most salient and clear-headed.  As we pointed out with Senator Kerry’s approach and many times before, the light footprint will end in danger for SOF troopers who cannot get logistics, supplies or reliable air support.

With a small footprint of only SOF located in Afghanistan, logistics would be the first to go, and our troops wouldn’t have supplies for more than a couple of months.  Every person who has ever driven a fuel supply truck for us will have been beheaded.  The Afghan National Police will be killed by the population within a few months as retribution for the corruption, and the Afghan National Army will last a little longer – maybe three months.  Rescues will be attempted as a means of egress for the American HK (hunter-killer) teams lest they die.

The proposal to conduct mini-COIN operations from offshore “assumes first that in using SF and SOF we have the actionable intelligence and logistics to support their interdictions, raids and HVT killings.  We will not have that with a small footprint.  Intelligence sources are killed in small footprint campaigns because their is no force projection on the ground.  Logistics would be nonexistent because every participant in trucking supplies into the FOBs or launch points for these operations would have been beheaded or shot.  Thinking that this can all be done from offshore platforms is not serious analysis.  It’s wishful and even mythical thinking.”

As one of the first to predict the Tehrik-i-Taliban focus on the Khyber pass and Torkham Crossing to interdict logistics, I have watched as NATO lethargically engaged Russia, refusing to engage the Caucasus in order to create new lines of logistics.  The Northern logistics route into Afghanistan is now beginning to suffer from security problems due to the lack of NATO force projection and troop presence.

But an important question comes up for Rajiv Chandrasekaran during an online chat about this very article.

Fort Dix, N.J.: Sir,

Does the U.S. Army even have 45,000 troops available to send to Afghanistan?


Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Good question. I’ve heard different things from different folks at the Pentagon. Some contend that we don’t have those forces at the ready. That’s true, but could some units being readied for Iraq, and others on training rotations, be quickly retooled to go to Afghanistan? Probably. A ramp-up in Afghanistan would also probably mean a modest acceleration in the withdrawal from Iraq.

It’s important to parse the arguments and objections.  The conversation becomes confused when too many objections are thrown out without the proper response – perhaps something at which the opponents of the campaign in Afghanistan are aiming.

I have addressed the issue of force availability before, but let’s do it again for good measure.  Not since before Operation Iraqi Freedom have so many Marines been aboard Camps Lejeune and Pendleton.  The Marines are essentially out of Anbar (except for a few remaining at places like al Asad air base).  The Marines have more than met their recruiting goals, and there are currently so many Marines at Camp Lejeune that many units cannot be garrisoned in the same barracks.  More barracks are being constructed, but not fast enough.  If Marines are not at Camps Lejeune or Pendleton, they (entire Battalions of Marine infantry) are aboard Amphibious Assault Docks as forces in readiness, awaiting orders that never come because of policy decisions that orient the U.S. away from using our forces in readiness.

The forces are available to pacify Afghanistan.  Several more Marine Regimental Combat Teams and/or air-ground tack forces could be deployed to the Helmand Province, and even several more to Kandahar.  The two provinces that constitute the home of the insurgency could be pacified by the U.S. Marines with the right commitment of resources.

So if the objection is that the campaign will incur losses, then the national conversation should be preoccupied with that problem.  The rules of engagement are another issue entirely, and without changes it’s doubtful that even the Afghans will believe that will be protected from the Taliban.  But the national conversation should forthwith jettison the notion that America doesn’t have the forces.

McChrystal, Troop Levels and Rules of Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

60 Minutes did a report on General Stanley McChrystal in which the main theme was that General McChrystal is trying to deprogram eight years of bad habits in Afghanistan.  Killing civilians, running drivers off of the road, and generally being insensitive to the human terrain have kept us from winning the campaign.  It’s the ham handedness that is killing the effort – or so the report goes.  The exercise of air power has come to a virtual standstill in Afghanistan, and to contrast the current state of affairs with the previous, 60 minutes shows McChrystal visiting a town’s marketplace versus what I recognized to be a YouTube video of an A-10 run against a Taliban hideout.

The interviewer presses the issue of combat power.

“The hallmark of American military power was its overwhelming firepower. Now you’re describing a situation in which firepower is almost beside the point?” Martin asked.

“You know, the favorite saying of, ‘To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ We can’t operate that way. We can’t walk with only a hammer in our hands,” McChrystal replied.

Thus McChrystal has issued a tactical directive that has essentially redounded to revised rules of engagement.  But this narrative is not compelling to those who have followed the campaign.  True enough, there are too many troops at large megabases in Afghanistan who ought to be on FOBs.  True enough, the campaign has had to rely very heavily on air power.  The large megabases can be emptied, but the need for air power still exists due to the force size.

The Taliban now have a permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan due to lack of forces to counter their efforts and provide security.  While improvements can be made in the efficiency of the campaign, the narrative that bad habits have caused the diminution of the effort thus far is made-for-television theater, ending perfectly with a champion general who can repair the broken campaign and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

But it isn’t that simple, and McChrystal know it.  His request for more troops is meeting electoral politics head on, with political advisers being lined up to bolster a potential coming decision not to send more troops.  The never serious National Security Advisor Jim Jones has said of the deadline for deciding more troop levels “I don’t have a deadline in my mind. I think the most important thing is to do it right. But it is going to have a high priority in the administration to do this pretty relentlessly. We have a lot of other things on the table as well.”

Since no thinking American wants the National Security Advisor to worry about “other things on the table” as opposed to national security, the administration knows that it needs more firepower if it’s to deny McChrystal his troops.  Enter Colin Powell, who went on record saying “The question the president has to answer is, ‘What will more troops do?’ ” You have to not just add troops. You need a clear definition of your mission and then you can determine whether you need more troops or other resources.”

As if on cue, Jones warns that “it remains possible that, after a decision on strategy by the president, McChrystal might change his mind about the need for more troops. “We will ask General McChrystal, and say, ‘Okay, now that you’ve heard what our strategy is, does this affect your thinking in terms of your resources and, if so, how?’ ”

What would that strategy be?  As advocated by Senator Kerry, it’s likely to be a small footprint model, more oriented towards counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency, thus returning us to the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom and the main reason we have watched the slow demise of the campaign.

McChrystal wants to conduct counterinsurgency, but not just any kind of counterinsurgency.  He has made protecting the population the center of gravity, the be all and end all of our efforts.  This has led to the tactical directive concerning kinetics when civilians could possibly be present.  The McChrystal interview with 60 minutes focused on the issue of civilian deaths above every other aspect of the effort.

But in a report that got almost no attention in military blogs, the locals aren’t giving this message to McChrystal.  Concerning the recent targeting of a stolen fuel tanker by an F-15, McChrystal found unexpected support from the Afghans.

At midday Saturday, after visiting the hospital and flying over the bombing site in a helicopter, the team met with two local officials. The NATO officers were expecting anger and calls for compensation. What they received was a totally unanticipated sort of criticism.

“I don’t agree with the rumor that there were a lot of civilian casualties,” said one key local official, who said he did not want to be named because he fears Taliban retribution. “Who goes out at 2 in the morning for fuel? These were bad people, and this was a good operation.”

A few hours later, McChrystal arrived at the reconstruction team’s base in Kunduz. A group of leaders from the area, including the chairman of the provincial council and the police chief, were there to meet him. So, too, were members of an investigative team dispatched by President Hamid Karzai.

McChrystal began expressing sympathy “for anyone who has been hurt or killed.”

The council chairman, Ahmadullah Wardak, cut him off. He wanted to talk about the deteriorating security situation in Kunduz, where Taliban activity has increased significantly in recent months. NATO forces in the area, he told the fact-finding team before McChrystal arrived, need to be acting “more strongly” in the area.

His concern is shared by some officials at the NATO mission headquarters, who contend that German troops in Kunduz have not been confronting the rise in Taliban activity with enough ground patrols and comprehensive counterinsurgency tactics.

“If we do three more operations like was done the other night, stability will come to Kunduz,” Wardak told McChrystal. “If people do not want to live in peace and harmony, that’s not our fault.”

McChrystal seemed to be caught off guard.

“We’ve been too nice to the thugs,” Wardak continued.

As McChrystal drove to the bombing site — defying German suggestions that the area was too dangerous — one senior NATO official noted that the lack of opposition from local officials, despite relatively clear evidence that some civilians were killed, could help to de-escalate tensions.

“We got real lucky here,” the official said.

But McChrystal still had a message to deliver. Even if the Afghan officials were not angry, he certainly did not seem pleased.

After fording the muddy river to see the bombing site — getting his pants wet up to his knees — he addressed a small group of journalists at the reconstruction team headquarters and said it was “clear there were some civilians harmed at that site.” He said NATO would fully investigate the incident.

“It’s a serious event that’s going to be a test of whether we are willing to be transparent and whether we are willing to show that we are going to protect the Afghan people,” he said.

McChrystal was caught off guard because what he heard from the Afghans doesn’t match the doctrine.  McChrystal knows doctrine, and the Afghans know unintended consequences.  They know that Taliban theft of fuel tankers meets with doom to the people around the tanker (unless McChrystal has his way).  They know that if the rules say that no fires can be directed towards domiciles that could potentially have noncombatants, even in self defense, the Taliban will surround themselves with noncombatants, in the end making it more dangerous for everyone.

To run the campaign as McChrystal wants – with diminished air support, with no fires towards areas where noncombatants could be located, with extensive dismounted patrols, and with no artillery support – means that he probably needs even more troops than he has requested.  It may not matter if the Obama administration has its way.

Insufficient Numbers of Marines

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

Greyhawk (in a smart read that addresses the slow fall of Kandahar to the Taliban) comments on Why are we in the Helmand Province (where I was nonplussed by Nagl’s comparison of Fallujah 2004 to Kandahar 2009 and lobbied for seeing Helmand as a necessary element of the campaign) that Kandahar isn’t as bad as Fallujah was, nor should we allow it to get to that point.

Granted.  But the argument focused on the concept of center of gravity, and I still see the campaign as needing multiple lines of effort.  That brings me to the main point since more Marines would be required to address the campaign in this manner.  Greyhawk also comments:

Mr Smith has never noted a problem whose cause couldn’t be traced to insufficient numbers of Marines – and fixed by more. That last part has a kernel of truth, but there are other considerations.

Greyhawk understands me well … but perhaps a clarification is needed.  There are always other considerations, and so it would be more accurate to say that “Mr. Smith has never noted a problem in which a contributing cause couldn’t be traced to insufficient numbers of Marines – and fixed by more.”

The Marines can’t fix every problem, but lack of them in counterinsurgency dooms even the possibility of other lines of effort to be successful because of lack of force projection.

Update on Bank of America and Flag Controversy

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

In Bank of America Removes American Flags Honoring Dead Marine and More on Bank of America Dishonoring the U.S. Marine Corps we covered a Bank of America branch in Gaffney, S.C. whose manager apparently followed corporate policy and removed American flags honoring a funeral procession for fallen Marine Lance Cpl. Chris Fowlkes.

This issue went viral and not only was this topic covered at many web sites and in many discussion forums, but one thing is clear beyond mere lack of patriotism.  Bank of America got caught in a lie.  They have said that there was a miscommunication in corporate policy that caused a branch worker to remove the flags, but that explanation doesn’t pass muster.  It might have been plausible if the branch wasn’t able to explain the reasoning behind it, but the justification for the action was that some of their customers “might be offended.”  The corporate communication also equivocates concerning the action itself.  It wasn’t merely a branch worker who said that the flags violated corporate policy.  It was the branch manager.

Furthermore, The Captain’s Journal had some hard questions for Bank of America in our original article, and after publication of this article, Bank of America network domains from across the country visited this page.  We demanded that a full account be given and no company executive has weighed in and given one.  They have had the chance to provide more than the lame excuse that they originally gave and have refused.  In separate but related news, the Cherokee County Council voted to close their Bank of America accounts.

Finally, we appreciate the attention and links that this article got, including but not limited to:

Mudville Gazette

Oklahoma Shooters discussion forum

FFCobra discussion forum

SCHotline Mobile

Patriot Guard Riders

Jenny Marie’s Blog

Glock Talk

The Gill Report (archived)

Michael Brown Today

The Guns Network

Frisco Online

AR15 Armory

Let them fight

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

Friend of The Captain’s Journal retired First Sergeant John Bernard sends this touching commentary on his son, Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard.  He has also started his own blog entitled Let Them Fight.  Take a few minutes and read the tribute to his son and his own blog.  It’s well worth the time.

The Horrible Afghan National Police

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

We have covered the Afghan National Police in their own separate category, and the links and prose are there to be studied.  I have the best readers on the web, and yet another sad example comes to us via reader amarriott, an incident in which more than 70 Afghan National Police voluntarily surrendered their weapons and body armor to 10 Taliban.  It happened in the Baghlan Province.  See 3:30 into the video.

Folks, this isn’t an “I told you so moment.”  It’s not a time to preen or posture.  This is sad – very sad and depressing.  Training the ANSF is seen as the ticket out of Afghanistan for some nations who do not yet understand what General Petraeus said, i.e., that of the long war, the campaign for Afghanistan would be the longest.

See also Here is your Afghan National Army

Counterinsurgency Versus Counterterrorism

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

John Nagl recently testified on Capital Hill.  Here are a few of the highlights.

At the hearing, when Kerry asked John Nagl to explain the difference between a counterinsurgency campaign and a counter-terror campaign, Nagl said that the “latter is component of former. Counter-terrorism ‘focuses on the enemy,’ while a counterinsurgency focuses on people who, in turn, provide intelligence about where the enemy is hiding and fighting from. The reason that a counterinsurgency campaign is so much more comprehensive than a counter-terror campaign is that it involves a civilian component to stabilize the government, institutions, and necessities of the populace.”

According to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, most Afghanis want a more involved approach. “When you speak to Afghans on the ground, their fear is not more engagement,” he said, “their fear is less engagement . . . fear of abandonment.” The problem is that although Afghans support the U.S. troop presence far more than they support the Taliban, the Taliban simply gives the people more services than their own government does. “It’s a commonly accepted principle of counterinsurgency theory that if you’re losing, you are not being outfought, you are being out-governed,” Nagl said.

Nagl thinks that effectively completing this counterinsurgency strategy would take five years and “we should expect to spend over those five years what we spent in last eight years.” But Kerry believes that more troops have not improved the situation and that the current light-footprint has been relatively successful: “The goal of the president is to prevent al Qaeda from attacking from Afghanistan and from destabilizing Pakistan. We are doing better in Pakistan and there is no al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he said. “Does that tell us something about lighter footprint success?” When Nagl explained that you can conduct counter-terror, but not counterinsurgency, with a light footprint, Kerry responded, “exactly the point I’m trying to get at . . . you can do counter-terror with a light footprint.”

As for Kerry’s notion of doing counterterrorism with a light footprint, let me be clear.  No we can’t.  Or to be more clear in case you missed it, NO WE CAN’T.  Or one more time a little differently …

NO … WE … CAN’T!

Joe Biden is apparently trafficking in the same rubbish as Kerry.  Who knows.  Maybe Obama is listening to this rubbish because it feels good to think about winning with a small commitment – like a little whiskey and a good after-dinner cigar.  Uncle Jimbo lampoons Biden’s position.

We have been laughing on our back channel about the Biden plan to have our secret squirrels locate al Qaeda and then let our magic ninjas swoop in and take them out. The idea is ludicrous for many reasons, but mostly because we don’t have the will to do the dirty trickery necessary to pull it off.

Ever since we eviscerated the CIA in the Carter era and destroyed any ability to do human intelligence we have relied on electronic intercepts and satellite imagery for our weak and generally wrong “intelligence”. While those tools can be useful, absent a humint capability, they are woefully inadequate. So the idea that we could rely on them is a joke I ‘m surprised they have the stones to make. Targeted strikes by UAVs in Pakistan have been successful, but expanding that into a theater-wide, pipehitter free fire zone is not gonna happen.

If I thought for a minute that they were serious about actually resourcing this and providing the networks of spies, warlords, assassins, and shady characters with satchels of cash it would take to make it work, I might could get behind it. But does anyone see the Obama administration, which right now is thinking about prosecuting the CIA for being mean to terrorists, doing any of that? All right, get up off the floor.

True, Carter (and Clinton who UJ doesn’t mention) destroyed the CIA humint capabilities, and the Obama administration has continued the war with the CIA.  But just to be clear, it isn’t all about surreptitious cloak and dagger raids by SOF any more than it’s about satchels of cash.  I have been clear about my disdain for the use of SOF to perform ONLY raids while infantry performs ONLY policing and foot patrols.  This division has hurt the readiness and capabilities of the U.S. Army.  The Marines have no such division of labor.  But aside from this objection, the idea that we can garrison small units of SOF in Afghanistan while the ANSF protects the countryside and ensures logistics is worse than mythical.  It’s dangerous and likely to be deadly for our SOF troopers.

Within a few months of withdrawal of forces, the Taliban (who are now said to have a permanent presence in 80% of Afghanistan) will have beheaded the Afghans who cooperated with the U.S.  The line of logistics will have been completely shut down, and there will be no CAS because there will be no airfields.  The idea that we can do this from offshore is preposterous.  It will require SOF operations in order to extricate the SOF from Afghanistan once the Taliban have killed the ANP and routed the ANA.

Kerry is living in a dreamland, a mythical world where the right words read from a teleprompter makes everything alright.  But this world doesn’t obtain.  We must re-enter the real world, and in the real world we need more troops in Afghanistan.

What to do about Afghanistan?

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

Tim Lynch has a recent post questioning what to do about Afghanistan.  I usually agree with Tim, always learn from him, and always consider his prose more than worth the effort and time to read.  But in this case I must disagree on three accounts.  Among other things, Tim says:

I am on record as saying that Afghanistan would never allow Al Qadea back inside its borders no matter who was ruling and the truth is Al Qaeda has spent eight years reconstituting in the Northwest Frontier and doesn’t need Afghanistan – they are fine where they are. In fact the ties with their hosts are stronger and their overall security much better than it was when they operated out of Eastern Afghanistan …

We had a chance to finish Bin Laden and blew it at Tora Bora.  In hindsight it would seem we should have thrown everything we had into the fight to finish him off but we did not do that.   The first hand account provided by Dalton Fury indicates that Colonels back in Bagram Airbase put the breaks on the American Special Forces troops who could have flooded the mountain in an all out effort to Kill Bin Laden. According to this account the Colonel in charge was a Mogadishu vet and did not want to see his men chewed up because they lacked proper fire support.  I would like to think that were I in that Colonels place I would have fragged as many birds as I could, rounded up as many troops as I could and flew into Tora Bora to make an all out assault on Bin Laden.  Nothing was more important than killing that shitbird and if it cost a lot of American lives so be it.  As long as I was there sharing the risk and hardships that is – you can’t be frantically flinging troops into a meat grinder while in remaining in the rear – that is a huge Bushido Code violation …

Western Armies are not good at counterinsurgency warfare.  They do not have the people or formations who can embed in the local community. Western Armies can no longer deploy formations overseas for years at a time.  They are not willing to use the tactics required to win which involve not only high risk but lots of killing.

Tim goes on to say that he doesn’t like the trajectory of the current campaign (neither do I).  I look forward to Tim’s followup post regarding his recommendations.

Now to my disagreements.  I won’t rehearse my problems with the use of SOF again like I have so many times, but throwing SOF at the problem of UBL along with half-committed warlords in Afghanistan is what allowed him to escape.  The Hindu Kush should have been flooded not with SOF and SF, but several Regiments of Marine infantry and elements of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

But killing UBL wouldn’t have ended anything.  Let’s go back and do this again.  Killing … UBL … wouldn’t … have … ended … anything.  Ayman al Zawahiri was doing this in Egypt when UBL was a pup, and the problem is a transnational insurgency, not a man.  The man is a figurehead, and nothing more.  Killing UBL would have made him a martyr and put Zawahiri in charge as both the operations manager and figurehead.

As for whether Afghanistan would allow AQ back in, there are fighters from Uzbekistan and Chechnya right now in Afghanistan.  I am not certain what Tim means.  Either he means that if we left the ANSF would be able to keep control of Afghanistan, at least in the main, such that the Taliban wouldn’t return to power.  I disagree with this.  Or, Tim may mean that if the Taliban were back in power they wouldn’t allow AQ to return, and I disagree with this in the superlative.  The intimidation by the Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar is strong enough at the moment to allow anyone in that the Taliban want.  And the main shura is still located in Quetta.  If U.S. forces pull out, Mullah Omar would be heralded as a hero as he marched down the streets of Kandahar within three months of our final departure.  Everyone who cooperated with the U.S. would be beheaded within days.  The return to power would be complete.

Finally, as to whether Western armies can do COIN well, let me be clear.  Western armies do it better than any military force on earth.  Haltingly at time, and the large FOBs should be evacuated.  But when the right leadership is brought in, American boys adjust, adapt and overcome.  It’s just the way it is.

I am partial to U.S. Marines, but let’s also be clear about the fact that the soldiers in the Korengal Valley and elsewhere are doing yeoman’s work.  As for the Marines, I know a little something about the campaign for Anbar.  My son not only earned the combat action ribbon – and could have many times over given the amount of kinetics in Fallujah in 2007 – but reminds me all of the time that proper COIN isn’t all about kinetics.  Also, proper COIN isn’t only about protecting the population either.  Did you hear that last statement?

He reminds me that the Marines in Fallujah in 2007 did policing work – like policing on steroids.  Yes, they protected the population, drank Chai, watched TV and ate meals in homes, befriended the heads of households, and so on.  They also pushed very hard on known problem-makers.  Robust raids, intense pressure, door kicking, working through the details of life with many Fallujans and other things I cannot discuss.

Tim is a smart guy and in theater at the moment.  I am quite jealous of this last point.  But the notion that Western armies aren’t good at COIN just won’t fly.

Here is your Afghan National Army

BY Herschel Smith
14 years, 9 months ago

General McChrystal’s report to Secretary Gates lays the groundwork for a request for 40,000+ more U.S. troops.  The actual need for troops will be higher than that.  McChrystal’s report relies heavily on Afghan National Security Forces (Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police), closely following the strategy laid out by CNAS to ramp up the readiness of ANA.  But the left side of the isle doesn’t have the sole claim for plans to rely heavily on ANA.  Kimberly and Frederick Kagan also recommend a similar reliance on a rapid increase in the size of the ANA to provide the necessary troops for population security.

But recall the problems that we have documented concerning the ANA.

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.

There has been robust debate concerning whether these examples are typical of regular behavior, but the reports of ANA problems keep being filed.  One particularly troubling one comes from David Pugliese the Ottawa Citizen.

Army staff and National Defence headquarters officials were told in 2007 that young boys had allegedly been sexually abused by Afghan security forces at a Canadian base in Afghanistan, but the concern at the time was that the incident might be reported in the news media, according to military records obtained by the Citizen.

In addition, last year Brig.-Gen. J.C. Collin, commander of Land Force Central Area, passed on to the senior army leadership the concerns raised by military police who said they had been told by their commanders not to interfere in incidents in which Afghan forces were having sex with children.

The newly released records raise questions about a military investigation that earlier this year concluded that allegations about sexual abuse of Afghan children by members of the Afghan army and police were unfounded. The Canadian Forces National Investigation Service also stated that its thorough investigation concluded allegations of such incidents were never reported to Canadian military commanders.

The allegations first surfaced publicly in June 2008 after concerns about the incidents, originally raised by soldiers and military chaplains, were reported in the news media.

Former Cpl. Travis Schouten told military officials he had witnessed an Afghan boy being sodomized by two Afghan security personnel at Canada’s Forward Operating Base Wilson in Afghanistan in 2006. Another soldier also came forward to a Toronto newspaper to report a similar occurrence at the same base in 2006. A military chaplain talked about the abuse in a report sent up the chain of command at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa. Two other chaplains have also come forward to state that soldiers came to them upset about such abuses.

The issue is sensitive for the Canadian Forces and the federal government as the Afghanistan mission has been promoted to the public as being about protecting Afghan civilians. The Afghan National Army and police are seen as key to Canada’s military withdrawal from that country in 2011.

It is the position of the Canadian Forces that its troops have no jurisdiction over the activities of Afghan military and police personnel, even those operating on Canadian bases.

The military records obtained by the Citizen through the Access to Information law note that a 90-minute meeting was held between an army public affairs staff member and a member of army commander Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie’s executive staff in the summer/fall of 2007. According to the June 2008 e-mail written by Lt.-Col. Stephane Grenier, an adviser on operational stress injuries, the meeting focused on various controversies that might be brought out in the news media, including, “ANP/ANA members having anal sex with young boys.”

ANP stands for Afghan National Police while ANA refers to Afghan National Army.

A second meeting about Afghan police and soldiers having sex with children was held later that week at National Defence headquarters involving senior members of the Defence Department’s civilian and military public affairs staff, according to the e-mail.

In addition, on June 18, 2008, Brig.-Gen. J.C. Collin, commander of Land Force Central Area, passed on to Leslie’s staff and Brig.-Gen. Ian Poulter the concerns raised by several military police officers. Collin called the e-mail from the military police commander, “rather disconcerting.”

Included were details from military police who noted it was well known among Canadian troops that ANA and ANP personnel had sex with kids. Another was upset that military police were told not to intervene in such matters, according to the e-mail.

Also queued up is a recent report by Ann Jones for the Asia Times.

In the heat of this summer, I went out to the training fields near Kabul where Afghan army recruits are put through their paces, and it was quickly evident just what’s getting lost in translation. Our trainers, soldiers from the Illinois National Guard, were masterful. Professional and highly skilled, they were dedicated to carrying out their mission – and doing the job well. They were also big, strong, camouflaged, combat-booted, supersized American men, their bodies swollen by flack jackets and lashed with knives, handguns, and god only knows what else. Any American could be proud of their commitment to tough duty.

The Afghans were puny by comparison: hundreds of little Davids to the overstuffed American Goliaths training them. Keep in mind: Afghan recruits come from a world of desperate poverty. They are almost uniformly malnourished and underweight. Many are no bigger than I am (1.6 meters and thin) – and some probably not much stronger. Like me, many sag under the weight of a standard-issue flack jacket.

Their American trainers spoke of “upper body strength deficiency” and prescribed pushups because their trainees buckle under the backpacks filled with 50 pounds (110 kilograms) of equipment and ammo they are expected to carry. All this material must seem absurd to men whose fathers and brothers, wearing only the old cotton shirts and baggy pants of everyday life and carrying battered Russian Kalashnikov rifles, defeated the Red Army two decades ago. American trainers marvel that, freed from heavy equipment and uniforms, Afghan soldiers can run through the mountains all day – as the Taliban guerrillas in fact do with great effect – but the US military is determined to train them for another style of war.

Still, the new recruits turn out for training in the blistering heat in this stony desert landscape wearing, beneath their heavy uniforms, the smart red, green, and black warm-up outfits intended to encourage them to engage in off-duty exercise. American trainers recognize that recruits regularly wear all their gear at once for fear somebody will steal anything left behind in the barracks, but they take this overdressing as a sign of how much Afghans love the military.

My own reading, based on my observations of Afghan life during the years I’ve spent in that country, is this: It’s a sign of how little they trust one another, or the Americans who gave them the snazzy suits. I think it also indicates the obvious: that these impoverished men in a country without work have joined the Afghan National Army for what they can get out of it (and keep or sell) – and that doesn’t include democracy or glory.

In the current policy debate about the Afghan War in Washington, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin wants the Afghans to defend their country. Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the committee, agrees but says they need even more help from even more Americans. The common ground – the sacred territory Obama gropes for – is that, whatever else happens, the US must speed up the training of “the Afghan security forces”.

American military planners and policymakers already proceed as if, with sufficient training, Afghans can be transformed into scale-model, wind-up American Marines. That is not going to happen. Not now. Not ever. No matter how many of our leaders concur that it must happen – and ever faster …

The current projected “end strength” for the ANA, to be reached in December 2011, is 134,000 men; but Afghan officers told me they’re planning for a force of 200,000, while the Western press often cites 240,000 as the final figure.

The number 400,000 is often mentioned as the supposed end-strength quota for the combined security forces – an army of 240,000 soldiers and a police force with 160,000 men. Yet Afghan National Police officials also speak of a far more inflated figure, 250,000, and they claim that 149,000 men have already been trained. Police training has always proven problematic, however, in part because, from the start, the European allies fundamentally disagreed with the Bush administration about what the role of the Afghan police should be.

Ann goes on to document the poor training of the ANP and the disagreement within both the ISAF and Afghanistan concerning exactly what the capabilities of the ANP should be.  In either case, the ANP are widely known as corrupt and criminal people who don’t have the best interests of the Afghans at heart.  The ANP is horrible, and more horrible still.  Whether it’s the ANP who require bribes or the ANA who pluck the chickens of the locals when they enter their homes, the Afghan National Security Forces are not yet fully trusted by their own people, much less the ISAF, and for very good reason.

There is big trouble looming for those who believe that the ANSF is our strategy for a rapid exit.  This doesn’t mean that the campaign is not winnable.  It does mean, however, that there will be no rapid exit if we are to succeed.  Western armies are the greatest on earth, no only with the requisite moral and social underpinnings of the institutions but also an NCO corps that makes them unique compared to Middle Eastern armies.  Standing up an Afghanistan army will be very difficult, especially one that is large enough to assist in the campaign but also small enough to be supported by the GNP of the country.  Whatever final size obtains, it will almost certainly be too large to be supported by Afghanistan alone.

The need of the hour is ANSF that is somewhat smaller, but much more reliable, more well trained and disciplined, and more respected by the Afghans.  The need is not numbers.  The need is an ANSF that actually contributes to the campaign.  Also needed are more U.S. troops to perform counterinsurgency operations in the mean time, including killing the enemy and protecting the population from the same.  More troops to train the ANSF is a romantic idea, but the notion that we can quickly rely on them is pure myth.


From the Daily Times of Pakistan.

… much of the recruitment that has brought the strength of the Afghan army to some 89,000 has come from Tajik areas, perhaps because Pashtuns have been intimidated into not joining, or perhaps because of the policies adopted by the largely Tajik-dominated bureaucracy of the Afghan defence ministry. The increase already approved to 134,000 will also come in current conditions from the Tajiks or other minority ethnic groups.

The further increase to 240,000 which has or will be proposed by Gen McChrystal will further compound the problem, of having a national army in which the largest ethnic group is underrepresented, and may give added reason for the Pashtuns to identify with the Taliban.

An internal Afghan problem, but affecting our efforts nonetheless.

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