Tag Archives: Afghanistan

The Kuchi in Afghanistan

7102707-R1-049-23The Kuchi are a nomadic tribal people in Afghanistan.  Like nomads everywhere they tended to get the short end of the stick in Afghan politics.  With no land or settled areas, it’s hard to be a constituency.  After all, why would a politician (or warlord) expend capital (political, economic, etc.) on you if you’re only going to be around to support him part of the year.  And then for the rest of the year, some other guy gets the benefit of your largesse when the Kuchis are moving through his territory.

Much easier to exploit the nomads and divide their spoils among your full time constituents.

The Afghan Analysts Network has a piece of the current status of the Kuchi.  I can’t speak directly on where they are in 2014 but I did have the opportunity to interact with one tribe back in 2003.  The land surrounding Bagram airfield had large swaths of uninhabited and pretty barren terrain.  On one particularly large area the coalition forces marked off an area for shooting ranges for all sorts of ordinance.

There was concerns that ‘ACM’ (anti-coalition militias…the term used at the time to refer to anyone who would…well, attack coalition forces), might set up an attack or, more likely, set IEDs or booby traps for soldiers training.  In addition, there was (and is) a market for unexploded ordinance.  Shells that don’t explode can be broken down for their materials (specifically their explosives) and sold for all sorts of reasons.  When I was there, those explosives were used frequently for mining.  The local Kuchi tribe was hired to observe the area and keep out the riff raff when they were in the area.

It’s dangerous work but if you’re dirt poor you might be inclined to consider anything. As Coalition forces begin pulling out the money used to keep these ranges will dry up and the temptation to scavenge will increase.

As the US military and its allies shut down bases and ranges, the number of civilian casualties has risen sharply, according to Abigail Hartley, program manager for the independent United Nations Mine Action Service in Kabul. She says 33 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded on US or coalition ranges last year, up from 23 in 2012 and just one in 2011.

In fact, it sound like not much has changed at all:

That is not true of kuchis, some of whom live in ragged tents near the range, Afzal said. “You can’t find a healthy kuchi,” he said. “They are missing their arms or legs, their eyes. They know this place is dangerous, but they run out there after every firing to grab the shells.”

Gol, the kuchi who lost his leg, said 11 people in his village had been killed and 80 had been wounded over the years by ordnance and mines. Most kuchis migrate with the seasons, but Gol said his neighbors had lived in the nearby village of Barikaab off and on for years.

The Kuchi were in a rather odd predicament.  Even though they are ethnically Pashtun they didn’t seem to be particularly trusted by any community 1.  The (settled) Pashtuns didn’t trust their wandering ways (Who are they talking to when they aren’t around us?) and the other ethnic groups saw them essentially as Pashtun spies.  So everyone basically shit on them.

7102707-R1-045-21Things are changing for the Kuchi now…whether for good or ill remains to be seen:

On the one hand, the insecurity caused by decades of war, coupled with periods of drought, has led an increasing number of Kuchis to abandon their nomadic lifestyle. The lack of jobs and social services has meant that many now live in dejected conditions on the outskirts of major Afghan cities. On the other hand, simultaneously, the Kuchi community has experienced a high degree of political mobilisation, facilitated by the Karzai administration, which took several initiatives to enhance the Kuchis’ political profile including their recognition as a separate electoral constituency.

  1. I’m obviously talking in generalities here so caveat emptor

Wow…that hat’s cool. It’s pa-kool!

A long overdue history of the pakolA type of hat associated with the Tajik population.  I have one from my travels there.  In fact, it looks remarkably like this:

They’re kind of strange hats in that they seem to have little utility for Afghanistan.  They don’t keep the sun out of your eyes and don’t really even keep the sun off your ears or neck.  I suppose utility is in the eye of the beholder though and I’m looking at it from a different perspective.

…the pakol is really one of the loftiest human achievements in the art of covering the head. It is warm, practical, pocketable; it doesn’t make you sweat and (supposedly) lends you a tough guerrilla look. You can even tuck flowers, pheasant feathers or porcupine quills found on the road in its fold, together with pre-rolled cigarettes and talkhan (dried mulberry powder) stored there for the journey to come. (Not least, the pakol can passably substitute for a frisbee at close-medium range – but only if properly rolled). Above all, with its earthy colors and practicality, it is particularly well-suited to the needs of guerrillas fighting in hilly terrain.

One finds it difficult to argue against its ability to stand the test of time.

Looking at Hellenistic coins, statues or frescoes found  from Italy to India, hats similar to pakols were a relatively common sight on the heads of Macedonians. Pictures of the ancient headgear called kausia bear in fact a striking resemblance to the modern pakol, most likely rendering the pakol a legacy of that crazy ride to the East that Alexander the Great undertook out of ambition or boredom in the 4th century BC.


Of course, the most famous pakol wearer (at least in the West) was Ahmed Shah Masood or the ‘Lion of the Panjshir.


Wrapping up Iraq and Afghanistan

It seems like the collective psyche is determined to suppress memories of Iraq and Afghanistan as our involvement of those two countries continues to diminish.   Everyone culpable for the horrendous mistakes are safely ensconced as professorsdistinguished fellowships, think tank hacks, etc. apparently none the worse the wear for managing the biggest American foreign policy disaster in generations (maybe ever).

The Obama administration decided long ago that ‘looking backwards’ wouldn’t be helpful so there will be no consequences for those who failed us.  But we are, at least, starting to see a fuller accounting of what exactly was done in our name.

Money was thrown away in vast quantities.  I guess we knew this but the Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction released a new report recently.  Waste, fraud, abuse.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

Over in Afghanistan, ISAF has decided not to report data about Taliban attacks any more.  It used to but a recent report included a data entry error which significantly changed the findings of the report.

That’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons.  First, assuming the data was worthwhile, an accident in reporting (even with the embarrassment of having to admit it) shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that the way to avoid future such incidents is simply to not make future reports public.

If the data isn’t worthwhile (and that’s ISAF’s official reasoning for not publishing future reports) then you shouldn’t continue collecting that data (which ISAF is doing – but why if they say it’s not accurate?) AND you should find metrics which do work.

And then there’s the word which must never be spoken:  torture.

Jane Mayer writes about the need for the Administration to share the findings of the still classified report about U.S. government torture.  There’s a 300 page summary report of the program that was apparently damning enough to convince the next head of the CIA to conclude that he was misled about the effectiveness of the program.  Others have gone further:

Colorado’s Senator Mark Udall stressed, “Inaccurate information on the management operation and effectiveness of the C.I.A.’s detention-interrogation program was provided by the C.I.A. to the White House, the D.O.J., Congress, and the public. Some of this information is regularly and publicly repeated today by former C.I.A. officials, either knowingly or unknowingly. And although we now know this information is incorrect, the accurate information remains classified, while inaccurate information has been declassified and regularly repeated.”

Since prosecutions are out of the question, the least the administration can do is release the report so we can all know what’s been done in our name.  It’s also another datapoint for why the CIA needs to have its operational arm stripped out of it.  No president needs (or should have) a private, unaccountable army.

Friday Fiction

Here is part of a story I’ve been toying around with for awhile.  Enjoy!

1 June 2011 – Twenty thousand feet somewhere above the border between the Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Two minutes!”

The Jump Master was attempting to look calm and composed as he walked up and down the center of the aircraft but Fredrick could tell he was nervous. He could almost see the pent up energy trying to burst out of his small frame. It wasn’t clear why he was so jumpy since in the half dozen times Fredrick had leapt out of a aircraft with this particular Jump Master the guy had never left the plane. He was always yelling and pushing everyone out and wouldn’t be seen again until everyone had made it back to base. What the hell did he have to be nervous about?

“You alright, bud?” Dave kneeled down in front of him and began checking his gear and tightening his straps. He didn’t think they could get any tighter but a good yank elicited a muffled ‘woof’ of air escaping his chest. He liked Dave. Training had been brutal and almost constant but whenever they could they’d spend a few minutes relaxing and playing catch behind the barracks. Kicking off your gear and running around without having to worry about orders or plans or timing was like a bit of heaven. He was pretty sure it’d be awhile before he even saw a ball again let alone had a chance to play.

Dave looked him in the eye. “This is the real deal. You’re heading into the shit. Be careful you sonofabitch.” There was the briefest of delays, most people would never have even noticed it, before Dave smiled. It looked more like a grimace, though, and Fredrick could tell it was an attempt, even if an incredibly poor one, to put a good face on. Fredrick moved to shake Dave’s hand which made the smile genuine and brought out a bit of a laugh. “Yeah, nice to meet you too.”

Fredrick looked up and down the aisle. The members of his small team were on either side of him getting their gear checked as well. Argos to his left and Shuck and Garm to his right. And Morris. He didn’t like Morris at all. None of them really did. He was added to the group rather late and just about everyone had tried to take a shot at him at one time or another. Sometimes the cadre had broken them up in time to prevent any serious damage but Garm had a nasty scar from one of their fights. Nobody would shed a tear if his chute didn’t open although the bastard would probably land on his feet and give everyone one of those crazy looks like it had been his plan all along.

Morris turned his head slowly down the aisle and met Fredick’s gaze. The guy looked bored and like he was ready to take a nap. Once their eyes met he broke out into one of those grins and licked his lips. ‘Great.’, thought Fredrick, ‘My first time leading a team and they give me a psycho to deal with. I really don’t need this.’ Unfortunately, command decided that Morris was needed. He was familiar with the country and had two missions under his collar. That alone made him valuable, never mind his other skills. Still, Fredrick wasn’t convinced Morris was on anyone’s side other than his own.

“Thirty seconds!”

The rear door to the aircraft began to open and the last rays of evening light crept through the cabin of the plane. The team began getting to their feet and shuffling into position with the help of their ‘handlers’. Fredrick always thought that was a strange and somewhat condescending term. The team had trained to operate independently and without outside assistance behind enemy lines for weeks or months and they needed ‘handlers’?

A light near the cargo door began flashing and everyone stiffened in anticipation. It wouldn’t be long. Argos took a quick look back at Fredrick and let loose one of his trademark howls. It was corny but effective as the rest of the team joined in, bolstering their courage for the next few seconds.

Almost immediately after they finished, the light went solid red and before the Jump Master even had a chance to say ‘Go!’ Argos ran out the back of the plane. He always did love that part. The rest of the team followed suit, gathering up as much momentum as they could under the weight of their gear and flinging themselves out of the aircraft.

Fredrick took his leap and felt the satisfactory tug of the static line and the opening of his parachute a moment later. He hated hanging from the chute as it was probably the most vulnerable he’d been since he was born. He also didn’t particularly care for the sensory experience either. Sure, the view was amazing but seeing a lot wasn’t as exciting as seeing well and he always preferred viewing things up close so he could scrutinize them. The lack of smells was also disconcerting. He wasn’t sure if it was the excitement of the jump or just that smells didn’t make it up that high but the lack of any scent just made the whole experience seem unnatural. He barked a laugh at that thought. As if hanging from a piece of cloth at 10,000 feet was natural.

To say the world they were jumping into looked uninviting was an understatement. The rocky, mountainous landscape was almost entirely barren and broken with only the occasional instance of pathetic scrub to indicate the countryside was totally devoid of life. A few miles away a ribbon of trees indicated a stream or small river as did the presence of farmland nearby. Fortunately, the evening sun had sunk over the horizon and the scant moonlight meant they were unlikely to be observed with their state of the art ‘stealth parachutes’. They were made from a material that absorbed and reflected light in such a way that people actually saw through them in light conditions like this.

As the ground rushed up to meet them, the team began looking at their landing spot. They had virtually no control over their parachutes or where they would land but it was always helpful to see what sort of trouble one was about to find oneself in. Fredrick saw Argos going down a short distance away from his landing spot but wasn’t able to see him hit ground as he had to focus on his own touchdown. He hit the ground harder than he had practiced and rolled, almost getting caught up in the lines of his chute. Upon contact, the automatic releases freed him from the parachute harness and he got to his feet quickly. He looked to see where the rest of his team was landing, listened for Argos to come towards him and sniffed the air for trouble.

Shuck and Garm came down about a couple of hundred meters to Fredrick’s left but Morris landed directly in front of him. While everyone swore those parachutes were impossible to maneuver, Morris appeared not only to land exactly where he wanted it to but he made it look like he floated to earth like a feather. Morris stared at Fredrick without saying a word but managing to emit both contempt and boredom at the same time.

‘I’m not going to let him bait me…I’m not going to let him bait me.’ Fredrick kept thinking to himself wondering where the rest of the team were. Unable to contain himself, Fredrick met Morris’ gaze.

“Ok…I give up. What?”

“Well,” Morris began “let’s just say I’m not exactly filled with confidence based on what I’ve seen so far.” The team had finally begun to assemble, everyone appearing to have made the jump without sustaining any injuries. “And while I appreciate you all are the ‘rah, rah, do or die’ types make no mistake that I have no intention of turning this into a suicide mission. So, make stupid mistakes at your own risk and don’t expect me to save you.”

“Now, I’m going to check out the area and see if I can find anyone in this country who didn’t hear your crash landings. Try to be useful and find something for us to eat.” Morris said over his shoulder while he padded off into the darkness.

Shuck walked over to a scraggly shrub and sniffed. “I’ve said it a hundred times now. I hate…fucking…cats.” With that he lifted his leg and urinated at the bush.

“Well, then, stop sniffing around the litter box.” Garm replied with a panting laugh as he came over and sniffed the shrub. “Ugh…dude, I thought you stopped drinking out of the toilet bowls at base. What are you, a stray?”

“Enough!” Fredrick snapped. He was always aware that given he was the smallest of the group he had to work hard to maintain his alpha status. “Morris is part of the Pisho Palang unit and the only one of us who’s ever been here in Afghanistan. He might not be as disciplined as us but the bosses decided to transfer him to our unit so let’s just deal with it.” Fredrick jumped up on a nearby rock. As a Jack Russel Terrier the move just brought him to eye level with Argos, a huge Mastiff and Garm, an Akita. “Now, Garm you go and recon the area. Argos, get the food from our jump packs. There’s no need to try to hunt tonight.”

“Got it.” The Akita said as she slid off into the night.

“What about me?” Shuck said. The black labrador looked at Fredrick.

“Why don’t you go with Garm.” Then he thought of Morris again. They said that this mountain lion breed was ‘domesticated and trainable’ but Fredrick couldn’t help feeling like lunch every time the cat looked at him. Even with his Kevlar armor Fredrick wouldn’t last two seconds against the cat. Morris wouldn’t really eat him, would he? He remembered a line from a movie he and Dave would watch after training sometimes. What did that actor say?

‘Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?’

Fredrick most definitely did not.

“On second thought. What don’t you hang around here with me.” We’ve got to come up with a plan to find our target. Those jihadi monkeys have their base around here somewhere and they aren’t going to find themselves.

“Yeah, monkeys.” Murmured Shuck as he sniffed around at a rock that appeared perfect for marking. “Just so long as we don’t have to deal with any more cats. I hate fucking cats.”

Countdown to 2014

Everyone is in full wind down mode with regards to Afghanistan and we seem to be entering a period of neglect for just about everyone who isn’t actually there.  By the end of 2014, it looks like we’ll still have a military presence in the country but it’ll be small enough that we can all pretend that it’s not a real military mission.


Small Afghan village circa 2003(Photo credit: me)

And what will Afghanistan (and Pakistan) look like?  Well, it looks like the safe money is some sort of frustrating stalemate where we provide enough support for the current regime to maintain control in the cities and along major lines of communication while the hinterland falls under the control of the Taliban and various insurgent groups.

I read this article over the weekend which gives a great feel for what this dissolution looks like at the micro level.  As I read it, I couldn’t help feeling that a very similar article could be written in the Western Roman Empire in the mid to late 5th century.  Borders are shrinking, increasingly conflicts are resolved (even if only temporarily) through co-option rather than forcing submission as overwhelming force is no longer as available as it once was.  This leads to a dilution of distinction between the competing sides as both have to take on attributes of the other.

And that’s yet another problem we’ve had thinking about this conflict.  Despite the numerous warnings we’ve continually measured the Afghans against our own standards.  It’s little wonder we’ve been disappointed:

Afghan soldiers do have difficulty making appointments on time, it’s true. They also don’t like to stand in straight lines or dress according to regulation or march in step or do so many of the things intrinsic to a Western notion of professional soldiering. When a lieutenant calls a formation of Afghan privates to attention, they will inevitably resemble, as my drill sergeant used to say, “a soup sandwich.”

This would be like Roman legionnaires looking at the Parthians with disdain because they couldn’t form a testudo to save their lives.   Of course, that road can lead to ruin.

And as this proceeds…Al Qaeda continues to fade from significance and Afghanistan returns to chronic disorder it gets harder for those serving there to understand why they’re actually there.

There might have been a time early in the war when most American soldiers and Marines genuinely believed that they were fighting to protect their homeland, their watan. But those days are over now; they have been for a while. You can feel it just as surely as you can feel that for soldiers like Karim they will never end.

How else does dissolution manifest?  Well, the U.S. embassy in Kabul is reported to be less than secure.  The fetish with privatizing everything (‘The market is efficient!’) leads to security being handed off to contractors whose primary goal is maximizing profits.  The result?

One of the biggest problems, guards say, is that their team has been stretched dangerously thin by long hours for days on end and too few people to do the job. Guards have worked 14- and 15-hour workdays, for six or even seven days a week, with limited days off or leave time, sources said. That, in turn, has led to high job turnover, low morale, and other problems, they said.

Remember home economics 101:  You get what you pay for.

For a more macro view I can recommend ‘Little America‘ which describes the lead up to and execution of the Afghan ‘surge’ of 2009-2011.  If you’ve been following Afghanistan here you hear anything shockingly new (you’re probably too calloused and cynical for that) but the book does a nice job of painting a more complete picture than you’ve had before.  And lest you fear that our actions in Afghanistan reflect some new level of bumbling or incompetence, worry not!  We’ve been screwing up there for half a century!


Kvick Tänkare

Mike Bennett has put his vampire audio novel ‘Underwood and Flinch’ up on You Tube.  This is totally worth you time.  Mike does great stuff.

We’re coming up on Halloween so here’s a cool, creepy vid for you (h/t i09)

We’ll stick with the animal world with this brilliant infographic on cheetahs.  I include it here not only for its intrinsic value but as an inspiration into thinking about how other types of data (yes, I’m looking at you intelligence analysts) could be presented in different and (dare I say it) more effective ways.  Click on the image to see the thing in it’s big, animated glory.

huh…seem to be on an anatomy kick today.  Check out these amazing pics of animal skulls from the NYTimes.  Lesson learned today:  Do NOT screw with the Chinese water deer.

Estragon42 has  put up a bit of fiction asking the questions ‘What if Hemingway deployed to Afghanistan?‘ Check it out.

Finally, courtesy of Discover magazine, is this piece summarizing research that seems to indicate that people that sign their documents on the top of documents (before they’ve entered data or made a statement) their information is more accurate than if they sign at the bottom of the document (after they’ve already done the work).

People are often dishonest in little ways on forms, rounding numbers in a beneficial direction or failing to mention a relatively small item as part of a larger list. If they sign a form once they’ve done all that, they don’t go back and correct it; instead, they’ve already woven a story to themselves—consciously or not—about why what they did was perfectly fine.

It’s worth noting that most intelligence products do not have the author(s) names attached.  Now, there’s usually a very good reason for that.  Namely, that the analysis done is supposed to represent the agency’s position and not the individuals.  Additionally, there’s a security issue as well.  Knowing that analyst ‘A’ is the one who writes all the stuff about security issues in Outer Mongolia opens that analyst up to targeting and influence.

That being said, I’ve heard analysts say things like ‘I don’t care, my name’s not on this.’   There’s got to be a way to address both problems.

A moment for the Kiwis

New Zealand recently had three of its soldiers killed in action from a roadside bomb in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan.  Among the dead was the first female of the New Zealand armed forces to die in combat.

It is worth keeping in mind that for nations with small armies and smaller deployed contingents 1, injuries and deaths have a greater impact than in larger ones.  The chances that you’ll know, or served with, the affected soldier(s) is higher and so it things can get personal quickly.

Three items worthy of note around the whole thing.

First, check out part of the funeral procession for the soldiers after they returned home.

YouTube Preview Image

I’m a believer in the role of ritual to help soldiers deal with trauma and watching the Kiwis perform their Haka seems to not only be an act of respect for the fallen but a way to work through emotions of loss and pain.  Our military funerals, by contrast are all about suppressing emotion.  Now, having gone through it several times, I recognize that the military precision and stoicism is also about conveying respect but there’s no outlet for soldiers collectively and formally express their grief.

The New Zealanders seem to hit the perfect mix of doing both in their ceremony.  That doesn’t mean I advocate us learning the Haka as that’s not our culture but certainly in our great melting pot there some cultural traditions we can draw upon other than those incredibly repressed puritans.

Many of the veterans interviewed described their tribes’ purification rituals for returning soldiers, including sweat lodge ceremonies, talking circles, and the Hopi practice of giving their returning soldiers new names. Those who had undergone the rituals said these ceremonies helped minimize the effects of PTSD.

Second, after the deaths an activist/filmmaker named Sumner Burstyn 2 wrote an ignorant post on her blog to the effect of ‘That’s what you get for joining the army and killing innocent people.’

I won’t go into the whole controversy here (although Simon does a good job of covering it from a closer perspective) but this does demonstrate an unfortunate tendency of some on the left side of the political spectrum to divide the world into black and white, good guys and bad guys, and simultaneously demonstrate intolerance in the name of sympathy.  In this case (and similar that I’ve seen first or second hand) it comes from insulating oneself from anything to do with the military.  This, I’m convinced, leads to distrust and ultimately dislike of the military, both as an institution as in terms of individuals.  Like any prejudice, it becomes easy to label people when you don’t have to go through the hard work of actually getting to know any of them as individuals.

I’ve often remarked that for those concerned about abuses of the military (perceived or real) would do their cause the most benefit by joining it.  It both provides a valuable opportunity to learn the culture and system and (perhaps more important) can give you the chance to influence individuals and the culture.  Walling oneself off from the military just cedes the field to your opponents risking the creation of a self fulfilling prophesy.  Think the military is filled with crazy hate mongering killers?  Well, the best way to ensure that it does look like that is refusing to actually serve yourself.  And maybe you’ll find out that there’s more diversity, thoughtfulness and integrity than you imagined.

Finally, in the wake of all this, the Kiwis announced they’ll be pulling out their contingent early…April of 2013.  This is a difficult time for the coalition.  If you know you’re going to be pulling out of a conflict and are not confident that the Afghan government is legitimate or going to last very long, it’s hard to muster the commitment to stay to the end of the 9th inning.

I don’t really have a good way to wrap up this post and perhaps that’s the best…a bit ambiguous and unsatisfying.

  1. These three deaths reflected (roughly) 3% of the entire New Zealand contingent in Afghanistan.  It’s a bit of an apples to oranges comparison but keep in mind that 3% of American forces right now would be around 2,500 soldiers
  2. Who I never heard of before and can’t really be that influential or important as she doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page…I mean, I don’t have a Wikipedia page either so there.

Slow down and see the light

From a reader…

A Dari version of the famous KCCO poster (using the national seal instead of the crown).  One native speaker told me this is correct (though another translated it as “slow down and see the light”…but hey, that works, too).

Kvick Tänkare

Really interesting views of ‘animal overpasses‘ or “structures that have been built over roads to allow wildlife to cross safely to the other side of the road.”

Interesting description of a medical research labs final days in the chimp testing business.  There’s a lot here to motivate you if you’re an animal rights activist and demonstrates the effectiveness of joint action by activists across the spectrum of legality.

I’m not an obituary reader but this one deserves a read, it’s brilliant (h/t to BoingBoing)

I AM the guy who stole the safe from the Motor View Drive Inn back in June, 1971. I could have left that unsaid, but I wanted to get it off my chest. Also, I really am NOT a PhD. What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the U of U, the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn’t even graduate, I only had about 3 years of college credit….Now to that really mean Park Ranger; after all, it was me that rolled those rocks into your geyser and ruined it. I did notice a few years later that you did get Old Faithful working again. To Disneyland – you can now throw away that “Banned for Life” file you have on me, I’m not a problem anymore – and SeaWorld San Diego, too, if you read this.

Well, Shiloh is no longer with us but this picture would surely have driven him to apoplexy. This dog is about to have his membership in the canine race revoked. A deer AND a cat mere feet away and he’s laying about? That dog should be in full chase mode. Outrageous.

My poor Parwan…Well, it’s not really ‘mine’ of course but it was where I was stationed and I find it hard to reconcile this with the (relatively) peaceful province of 2003. The Taliban in Parwan…how much ground we’ve lost…

Reflections on counterinsurgency (audio edition)

So, a bit belated but the Kings College War Studies podcast had two great episodes recently that focused on Counterinsurgency and I highly recommend them.

The first is an interview with Lt. General Jonathan Riley and Professor Theo Farrell. The General is from the UK who has lots and lots of experience in combat zones all over the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the deputy commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2007 which makes his candor in this interview all the more interesting.

Here are some of the highlights I thought were particularly interesting:

Campaigns in Iraq vs. Afghanistan: ‘A lot of people went to Afghanistan thinking it was Iraq with mountains.’


0989436-R1-013-5 (Photo credit: iago18335)

Obviously, it’s not but it’s interesting that even around the 2006-2008 time frame (which appears to be when he was talking about) there must have been many senior people who were that clueless about Afghanistan. Not surprising…just interesting. He further remarks that Afghanistan is much more like Africa than Iraq in terms of looking for mental models of how to conceive of the operating environment. I don’t think I’ve heard of that before or the idea that operations in Africa might provide better insight into Afghanistan than lessons learned from Iraq but it makes sense. I suspect the Iraq/Afghanistan equivelance issue was due to the following in some mixture:

  • the were occurring concurrently
  • there were lots of US troops in both
  • we had lumped them under one catagory (war on terror) and so assumed they must have operational similarities

British deployment into Helmand in 2006 was a jumble of misunderstandings that hampered any real progress. Those misunderstandings include ones that seem a bit out of place for a modern army:

  • size of the operating area (bigger than many planners thought)
  • the size and number of populated areas within the province
  • the scope of narcotics trafficking across the border

The first two, at least, appear fairly straightforward and should be within the capabilities of the coalition to acquire and absorb. Yet, apparently that didn’t happen.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams don’t work. They don’t report to ISAF but instead report back to their individual national command structures which essentially precludes any sort of unity of effort.

The second podcast addresses the issue of counterinsurgency more broadly. In particular they talk about the concept of counterinsurgency and how COIN chic has evolved and where it might be headed. There isn’t anything specific I’d like to pick out here but it’s a nice primer on COIN, the debates surrounding the concept and how COIN theory might evolve post Iraq and Afghanistan.

From the broad back down to the specific, the New Yorker has an interview with Dexter Filkins and Steve Coll about Afghanistan and what it will likely look like after 2014. Let’s face it, there aren’t many ways to paint Afghanistan in a good light today and these guys don’t try. It’s a mess and as Steve Coll says, what we leave behind isn’t going to be pretty and might not be any better than when we found it.

They have a brief discussion about ‘when did things go wrong’ in Afghanistan and I have to agree with Coll that to answer that question we really need to look at the very beginning. The rot began way back in ’01-’02 which is why I think the sense of being adrift was (at least to me) firmly established by the time I got there in 2003. Coll points to specific decisions that were counterproductive:

  • the question of whether to go in ‘light’ (which we did) or ‘heavy’. The idea was that we could primarily fight this war through proxies. Tora Bora was the first big, red flag that wouldn’t work but it took years before anyone actually did anything about it. That’s because…
  • the focus on Iraq. Planning for Iraq clearly began early and even if no ‘official’ decisions were made, the US was keeping its powder dry and wanted to be able to pivot quickly to Iraq.
  • Whether to engage in ‘nation-building’. There was a general reluctance to help build governing institutions or coordinate aid programs. That was either seen as somebody else’s job or…who knows…a bunch of liberal do gooderism?
  • Underestimating the Taliban and equating them with al-Qaida. This esentially eliminated the opportunity for any negotiations and encouraged the insurgency to rebuild their strengths and capabilities. This also led, in some parts of the country, into the Taliban beginning to morph into a national liberation movement.
  • Failure to account for Pakistan. Both the overt support of elements of the Pakistani government but also the pourus border. Obviously, pretending the problem didn’t exist was not a winning strategy.
  • The Afghan government we established (or, as Dexter called it, a ‘Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise’). Just a mess from top to bottom. Our weak attempts to claim early on that Afghanistan was soverign and therefore the U.S. didn’t want to meddle too much in internal affairs wasn’t effective because everyone knew that we were the only thing keeping the Afghan government going, both with military and financial support. Who believes we’d give all that money and then not demand some sort of accountability? In the end, they have a corrupt, inefficient government and it looks like we’re the puppet masters.

The ‘surge’ of 2009 didn’t do much other than check the Taliban’s momentum from 2007-2008 leaving us in a stalemate. We therefore failed to break the Taliban’s back which we thought would establish our own momentum for nation building and drive them to the negotiating table. The unfortunate thing about these hail mary pass type moves is that if they fail your opponent can now be confident that they’ve taken your best shot and they can now wait you out.

In 2014, expect news stories from Afghanistan (if anyone will be writing such things) to be all about the new civil war and the wisdom of the pundits will be ‘well, that place is just naturally ungovernable…nobody could build a state there.’ It’ll make everyone feel better but it won’t be true.

Coll makes the interesting observation that ‘nation building’ was easier in the 19th century than today. I wonder if that’s just because it was easier to use brutal methods then, if there was some cultural component (from the point of the occupiers, the occupied or both) or something else.

The depth of goodwill most Afghans had upon our entry into the country is hard to overstate. Even by 2003/2004, you could feel it among the population. We had it for years and refused to capitalize on it and by 2009 had to build a population-centric strategy in order to win the population over. For me, that’s one of the key missteps of the war that demonstrated an inability to see the critical components of this war.

Dexter thinks a ‘best case’ scenario (in terms of trying to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into chaos and civil war) will involve a commitment of approximately 15,000 troops for 20-25 years. That might work, provided casualties stay low but if insurgents can pull off a Kobar Towers-like incident I imagine the patience for continuing that mission would be pretty limited (which will play in well with the pundit narrative I mentioned above).