Archive for the 'Counterinsurgency' Category



True Confessions of British Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 8 months ago

General Sir David Richards recently discussed the British experience in the Helmand Province, and he gave an interesting perspective to the British public.

Serious intelligence failures meant British commanders were unprepared for the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan as soldiers “turned up a hornets’ nest”, three of the country’s most senior military officers have said.

General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, told MPs the British had got involved in a very serious situation, adding: “War is a bummer.”

A failure of intelligence, notably about tribal loyalties and aggressive US operations, and ill-thought out attempts to eradicate the opium poppy harvest, combined to exacerbate an already dangerous situation facing the 3,000 British troops sent to Helmand by the Blair government in 2006, the officers said.

[ … ]

Houghton, a widely respected general who, along with Richards, was interviewed by Cameron for the top military post, listed a number of problems that came together.

Britain’s military commitment to Iraq was higher than it was anticipated it would still be in 2006, and British troops arrived in May, “the natural start of the fighting season”.

The Taliban, at the time, encouraged the belief that foreign troops were out to eradicate the poppy harvest, a valuable source of income for local farmers. Some 200,000 labourers migrated from Pakistan to help with the poppy harvest, and some were happy to stay as “guns for hire”.

Houghton added that US troops had just engaged in “particularly kinetic” [aggressive] military operations at the time.

Moreover, at the behest of President Hamid Karzai, British troops were deployed to forward “platoon houses” in northern Helmand areas such as Sangin and Musa Qala. The soldiers turned out to be dangerously exposed and too few in number.

Assessing the list for a moment, the Brits did indeed deploy to hard area, the same areas that know a U.S. Marine presence right now.  There have not been enough troops, and the Brits certainly had a hard time of things in Helmand.  They didn’t have the necessary troops to cover the Province, and Taliban fighters had taken over Now Zad as an R&R area.  When the U.S. Marines arrived in Now Zad they brought two trauma physicians with them due to the severe injuries they sustained.  They routinely slept forward deployed in groups of two or three Marines in what they would later term as “Hobbit Holes” dug into the earth and other structures.  Now Zad was almost entirely outside the wire.

Yet the British Generals are hedging.  It wasn’t the lack of troops that lost Musa Qala.  It was the ill-conceived alliance with one Mullah Abdul Salaam.  But the most significant observation concerns U.S. operations, and the British regarded them as “particularly kinetic.”  A clearer statement is given to us by The Independent.

These included the Taliban’s portrayal of moves to eradicate opium plants as evidence that the UK forces wanted to destroy local farmers’ livelihoods, the appointment of a new provincial governor which destabilised the tribal balance, and previous intensive American military operations which “whipped up” the situation.

American military operations whipped up the situation.  This is an absolutely remarkable comment.  Just remarkable.  In Getting the Narrative Right on Southern Afghanistan I strongly criticized a strategic assessment conducted by Professor Theo Farrell of Kings College in London.  Being a classy fellow, Theo offered a clinical and unemotional response in the comments.

In my visits to Helmand, I have found differences of opinion – some expressed in strong terms – betw Brit and USMC officers. But I consider this entirely natural (indeed there are considerable differences of opinion w/in the Brit Army, as I expect they are w/in the US Army and USMC). So I don’t want to overplay these. The one general difference that I would draw out is over the pace of progress. Basically Marine commanders push the pace beyond that which the British consider sustainable and indeed desirable. Fast progress on the military line of ops is not sustainable in COIN if it outpaces too much the governance and development lines of ops.

I don’t think there is a ‘gov in a box’ theory of COIN. Basically, this term came from somewhere in ISAF command as part of a media spin which ultimately backfired. I believe that M4 was referring to the District Delivery Program, which was a GIRoA program to rapidly develop governance in 80 key terrain districts. 6 were selected for trial, 4 in Helmand. Nad-e-Ali was one of these, and it may be that Marjah was part of this package (as before Op MOSHTARAK, Marjah was actually part of Nad-e-Ali; it became a full fledged district afterwards). DDP has some promise. And the latest word I hear is that Marjah is looking pretty good. But the main point of my analysis, which I refer to in this interview, is that COIN takes time. The CLEAR can be done fairly quickly, as indeed the Marines demonstrated in Marjah. But the HOLD requires the slow building up, consolidation and/or improvement of governance, infrastructure and basic services. That stuff just can’t be rushed. You can’t fedex it in.

Let me also emphasise that I’m not saying for a moment that the Brits have all the answers or that they are somehow better at COIN than the US Marines. British Army officers are the first to admit now that they’ve much to learn from their American brothers in arms. And indeed, 52 Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade have only praise for the MEU (I think it was the 24 MEU) which provided critical support to Task Force Helmand in 2007-08. I spent some time with the 2/8 Marines in Garmsir in late 2009. As I emphasise in my report on Op MOSHTARAK for British Land Warfare Command, armies aren’t good or bad at COIN, commanders and units are. Anyway, my report can be downloaded from here.

I appreciate the professor’s good natured comments.  But I still think we’re missing each other’s point.  If Theo cares to elaborate further I welcome the correction or clarification.  As to the issue of “government in a box,” I simply cannot account for General McChrystal’s remark that Marjah was a “bleeding ulcer” just months (or weeks) after arrival of the Marines.  Only someone with a childlike belief in magic could possibly believe that the Marines could waltz into Marjah with a governor and make things okay.  Michael Yon also tells me that to a man, the British officers believe in the “government in a box” view of counterinsurgency.

But more to the point, I am not implying, nor would I imply, that the U.S. Marines are better at counterinsurgency than the British.  The U.S. Marines claim that they the greatest at everything, and cheaper and faster than anyone else, but that’s just propaganda and they say it all the time about everything.  Tactics are just that, and any army can be trained for tactics as long as they have high quality NCOs, and the British and Americans do have high quality NCOs.  Additionally, I know first hand that the U.S. Marines (whom I know) have the utmost respect for the Royal Marines, more so in fact than they do for themselves.  But who is better at tactics is irrelevant.  The aggregation of tactics does not make a strategy.

Speaking of the U.S. Marine presence in Garmsir (24th MEU), they did more than support a British operations.  They killed some 400 Taliban fighters, and in spite of complaints over the heavy kinetics by the British, turned over an AO back to the British that was relatively stable and free of Taliban violence.  When the Marines took Garmsir, the local elders were even courting the Marines and told them “if you protect us, we will be able to protect you.”

But upon returning to Garmsir and taking over from the British, they met stiff Taliban resistance.  The locals told the Marines that they wanted them to follow and kill every single Taliban fighter, but the U.S. Marines and the British are still significantly at odds over their approach to counterinsurgency.  The Marines made a conscious choice to be more aggressive than the British in Sangin, and the British advisers continue to counsel the same approach that the British took in Helmand.  They want the U.S. to “de-escalate” the situation.

The point has never gone to tactics and the ability to implement them.  There is a school of counterinsurgency that believes that until heavy kinetics has the insurgency on the run and effectively defeated, legitimate governance cannot exist.  The opposite school sees a more symbiotic relationship between actors and root causes in counterinsurgency.

It isn’t my intent to argue this disagreement in this article.  My point is that while the British may be the best and most staunch allies of the U.S., the perspectives concerning counterinsurgency, stability operations and irregular warfare couldn’t be more dissimilar.  I say again, for General Sir David Richards to remark that U.S. kinetic operations “whipped up” the situation is truly remarkable itself.  Just remarkable.

Getting the Narrative Right on Southern Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 9 months ago

The Small Wars Journal has an interview of Professor Theo Farrell and MG Nick Carter in which the following summary statement is provided:

There were very high hopes for Marjah. General McChrystal was looking for a ‘strategic accelerator’, something dramatic that would restore momentum to the ISAF campaign. He was looking in Helmand to inflict a strategic defeat on the Taliban, and to demonstrate the virtue of his new approach to local and home audiences. This explains the ill-advised term that there would be “government in a box” for Marjah, implying that shortly after the Marines pushed in, you would have a government established almost immediately. The Marines were perfectly on board with the idea that they could achieve such quick progress.

When the ISAF pushed in Marjah, they discovered a very different picture. What they expected to find in Marjah was a relatively wealthy population of mostly land owners, many involved in drug trade, but confident people with pretty good economic resources. And as long as you got them on board by demonstrating the virtues of the Afghan governance, they would help keep the Taliban at bay. What ISAF discovered was that those working the land were not owners but down-trodden tenants. Also the local infrastructure was far worse than anticipated. Thus the problem was twofold: first, it was going to take some time to deliver governance and improve infrastructure; second, it was very easy for the Taliban to intimidate the locals. So whilst the Marines cleared Marjah quickly, the hold proved more troublesome.

This is just horrible analysis.  Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez did indeed believe in the “government in a box” theory, but the U.S. Marines came from Anbar, Iraq.  They know exactly what it takes to effect counterinsurgency.  But Michael Yon tells me that to a man the officer corps of the British Army believes in the government in a box theory of counterinsurgency, probably leading in no small part to the friction between the Marines and their British advisers (it still isn’t clear to me why the Marines have British advisers).

A somewhat clearer narrative is emerging.  Our friend Gian Gentile argues that what’s happening in Helmand is different, and points to a “story running today by Rajiv C in the Washington Post on “progress” in South Afghanistan. His article to be sure shows that progress has been made, but it has come about at the barrel of a gun through death and destruction, and not through the winning of the trust of the local population. If there was any success in Vietnam during the latter years of that war with pacification it was from the same thing; combat produced massed movements of people from rural hamlets and villages into government controlled areas. But again the point is that persuading the people to side with the government and against the communist enemy never happened.”

Gian is referring to this report on signs of progress in Southern Afghanistan at The Washington Post.

SANGIN, AFGHANISTAN — Signs of change have sprouted this spring amid the lush fields and mud-brick villages of southern Afghanistan.

In Sangin, a riverine area that has been the deadliest part of the country for coalition troops, a journey between two bases that used to take eight hours because of scores of roadside bombs can now be completed in 18 minutes.

In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from U.S.-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them.

And in Arghandab district, a fertile valley on Kandahar’s northern fringe where dozens of U.S. soldiers have been felled by homemade mines, three gray-bearded village elders made a poignant appearance at a memorial service last month for an Army staff sergeant killed by one of those devices.

Those indications of progress are among a mosaic of developments that point to a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign: For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.

“We start this year in a very different place from last year,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.

The security improvements have been the result of intense fighting and the use of high-impact weapons systems not normally associated with the protect-the-population counterinsurgency mission.

In Sangin, Zhari and Arghandab — the three most insurgent-ridden districts in the south — the cost in American lives and limbs since the summer has been far greater than in any other part of the country. More than 40 Marines have been killed in Sangin in the past nine months, and three dozen more have lost both legs. The Army brigade responsible for Zhari and part of Arghandab has lost 63 soldiers since July.

Read the entire report.  The Marines have been learning their way through Sangin and other parts of Afghanistan, but they have been in Helmand a long time, and already had a bloody history in Now Zad by the time Marjah rolled around.  No Marine seriously believed that he could bring Shangi La to Helmand by toting along a governor to adjudicate disputes and get largesse.  Answering for why McChrystal and Rodriguez believed in the government in a box view of counterinsurgency is the same thing as answering why the British believe it.   But don’t drag the Marines into this dispute.  It isn’t their debate.  They do things differently.

But Rajiv’s account weapons not normally used in counterinsurgency is odd and inexplicable.  Remember Marine combat action in Fallujah?

It’s important to get the narrative right so that we know what worked and what doesn’t.  Making excuses for McChrystal’s “ill advised term” and blaming the U.S. Marines or some other exigency for Marjah or Sangin or some other part of Helmand isn’t adding anything to the discussion.  And connecting the use of heavy weapons with something other than counterinsurgency is selling a “bill of goods” to the reader.

Must We Engage In Nation Building?

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 10 months ago

Paul Miller at Foreign Policy has an interesting take on counterinsurgency as nation-building.

General David Petraeus, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, told Congress this week “I am concerned that funding for our State Department and USAID partners will not sufficiently enable them to build on the hard-fought security achievements of our men and women in uniform.  Inadequate resourcing of our civilian partners could, in fact, jeopardize accomplishment of the overall mission.”

Congressional testimony is usually bland and does not often contain any real news.  Petraeus’ remarks mostly wrote themselves:  he started by announcing that the Taliban’s momentum “has been arrested,” but progress is “fragile and reversible.”  You might as well say “Progress Made, Challenges Remain.”  Nothing new here.

But then Petraeus came out with that bombshell about funding for civilians near the end of his testimony.  He could not have been more stark.  We will lose the war in Afghanistan unless we pony up more money for our civilian efforts-which is to say, for nation building.

Nation building, as I’ve argued earlier, is not international charity.  It is not a superfluous and dispensable exercise in appeasing western guilt, an expensive tribute to humanitarianism, or an act of unvarnished selflessness and goodwill.  Nation building is a response to the threat of failed states that threaten regional stability.  It is a pragmatic exercise of hard power to protect vital national interests.  In the context of Afghanistan, nation building is the civilian side of counterinsurgency, the primary objective of which is to “foster the development of effective governance by a legitimate government,” according to the Counterinsurgency Field Manual Petraeus wrote.

Afghanistan’s weakness threatens America’s security.  State failure, chaos, or Taliban rule in Afghanistan will provide a safe haven for al-Qaida, destabilize western Pakistan and endanger its nuclear weapons, become a worldwide headquarters for narcotics traffickers, discredit NATO, invite Iranian and Russian adventurism, and sully self-government and civil liberties in the Muslim world.  We must rebuild Afghanistan to prevent these catastrophic outcomes.

Miller makes a good case for the campaign in Afghanistan, one I have made here many times before.  Furthermore, I have advocated against seeing this or any other campaign as merely out to spread benevolence, good cheer and harmony.  This includes democracy programs.  The U.S. doesn’t have the necessary wealth to take on every possible democracy project on earth.  There must be an inherent self interest for the campaign to be worthy, and in Afghanistan, there is inherent self interest.

I’m with Miller until the last sentence.  Actually, I might take issue with the notion of a legitimate government if it is seen as a central government.  The republic envisioned by John and Abigail Adams cannot be installed in Afghanistan.  It doesn’t have the cultural and religions foundation for such a republic.  But I’ll leave the stylistic issues to Christian Bleuer and Joshua Foust.  They know more about that than me.

Now to the last sentence of Miller’s advocacy for nation building.  The value is in the nuance.  Notice that Miller has said that in order to “prevent” these catastrophic outcomes we must nation-build.  Must we prevent these outcomes, or simply respond to them?

In Fallujah 2007, the Marines had a very high bar for performance of the Iraqi Police, and they left such a strong force to protect Fallujah that I claimed to Tom Ricks that al Qaeda would never return.  The only reasons that I tired of Operation Iraqi Freedom were the ridiculous Status of Forces Agreement and the lies to the Sons of Iraq told by the weasel Nouri al-Maliki.  Or maybe I just tired of Nouri al-Maliki.

Marines with whom I talked after three years in Anbar were all of the same opinion.  The Marines were finished in Anbar.  They (the Anbaris) had been given a start.  If they screwed it up and Anbar became a safe haven again for Islamic globalists, the Marines could do the job again in five years, or ten years, or twenty years.

The difference is profound.  The difference envelopes cost in American lives, cost in American wealth, the quantity and quality of American support for the mission, the training, purpose and organizational framework for the U.S. armed forces, and whether a specific people, religion, culture and locale can support a self-sustaining constitutional republic.  The American experiment cannot be exactly duplicated anywhere on earth.  It’s wasteful of lives and wealth to pretend otherwise.

But that doesn’t mean that we should retreat to within the boundaries of the U.S. and wait for the insurgency to cross our own borders.  It just means that we have to maintain a modest appraisal of the possible outcomes of our international involvement, and if necessary, do it again, and again, and again.

Pop-Centric COIN Revisited

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 10 months ago

In Marines do not bleed I stated my opposition to the doctrines of population-centric counterinsurgency (as discussed in FM 3-24).  Not that I oppose engagement of the population, or reconstruction efforts, or jirgas with elders.  In fact, you won’t find any more robust advocacy for speaking the indigenous language and the necessity for pre-deployment and even long term language training than from me.  The conversation is more nuanced and complicated that simply buying into FM 3-24 or not.  The nuance can be seen in my opposition to withdrawal from the Pech Valley because of leaving safe haven for the insurgents.

But it occurs to me that it’s always good to remind the readers of prose that’s just so plain, clear and straightforward that it leaves you nodding whether you agree with it or not (and I happen to agree with what I am about to quote).  The best thing about the quote is that it doesn’t come from me, but from an Army field grade 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.

And that’s what I advocate for Afghanistan.

Marines do not bleed!

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 10 months ago

From DVIDS:

HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — “Marines do not bleed. They do not eat, they do not sleep. They are not human.”

Afghan citizens voiced these words in December after watching Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion 3, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward) conduct a route repair operation for three consecutive days near Durzay, a rural community in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Until recently, certain communities throughout southwestern Afghanistan have not witnessed coalition operations.

This perception of Marines as heartless, impersonal figures stems from their meticulous work ethic and discipline, said Sgt. Kyle Ekblom, combat engineer, Engineer Company, CLB-3, 2nd MLG (Fwd). Though Marines pride themselves on their warrior persona, the perception of the Marine Corps as an inhuman, militaristic force will hinder their ability to succeed in Afghanistan.

While conducting military operations in Afghanistan, coalition forces instruct their personnel to maintain a personable and professional relationship with the Afghan community. Since beginning operations in Afghanistan nearly 10 years ago, coalition personnel established themselves as a security force determined to eradicate the Taliban and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure.

“We’re trying to break that perception,” said Ekblom, a native of Brandon, Fla. “Communication limitations in this country make [the Afghan citizens’] knowledge based solely upon what they see. We’re not trying to impose our culture or beliefs upon the Afghan people. We’re just trying to provide them with a country, which isn’t governed, oppressed or threatened by the Taliban. We’re here to help these people live their lives in the manner they see fit. By developing a rapport with the Afghan community, we can earn their trust and accomplish our mission.”

According to Khliq Daad, a 57-year-old resident of Haji Hanif Khan, Afghanistan, Marines must continue to develop strong relationships with Afghan citizens if they want to distance themselves from the perception as an invading force, such as the former Soviet Union. Though younger generations of Afghans may not recall the Soviet occupation, they could easily view any foreign military in the same negative manner. However, in the time since coalition forces began their operations, Afghanistan and its citizens have experienced many positive changes.

“Once the Marines showed up, Taliban activity in my village ceased,” said Daad, through an interpreter. “The Taliban here were preventing construction and rehabilitation of this area. When the Marines first showed up, they were only fighting to bring us peace. But now I see them conducting many projects and my village is much more secure. I want this knowledge to spread throughout Afghanistan – the knowledge of the good things Marines are doing for this country. Without this knowledge, those who are not educated will continue to make bad choices.”

Daad believes coalition forces will continue to find success in his country if they continue to influence those who may perceive them as inhuman – a perception as damaging as it is insulting. Stripping Marines of their humanity denies the sacrifices they’ve made.

Forgive me if I don’t share in the happy thoughts of the good things that the Marines are doing for Afghanistan.  Neither will I cover, comment on or press for international “humanitarian” missions for the U.S. Marine Corps.  The Marine Corps is for shock troops, for rapid deployment, for distributed operations, for quickly-devolving security situations across the globe where there is an inherent U.S.-self interest.

I continue to oppose the doctrines of population-centric counterinsurgency, as I have done before.  If we want the local population to entrust to us their security by divulging Taliban identities and whereabouts, why wouldn’t we want at least to allow the myth to exist that the Marines don’t bleed, eat or sleep?  Why on earth would anyone want to destroy this notion with the people?  In fact, I know of similar ones believed by the people and IPs in Fallujah.  The myth was left alone to exist in the minds of the locals because the Marines there didn’t believe in population-centric COIN.  And … they won Fallujah.

The Difficulty of Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
10 years, 10 months 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
10 years, 10 months 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
10 years, 11 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
10 years, 11 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
10 years, 11 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.


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