Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

with 5 comments

Today we got a crash course in Counterinsurgency (COIN). COIN is the nature of the kind of operation that is ongoing in Afghanistan, and based on history, it’s something that the Canadian Army will have to get better at over the next few years to be prepared for future operations. The reality is that since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, three quarters of military conflicts have been insurgencies or other low intensity conflicts. The massive global conflagrations that are what first spring to mind when one thinks of war are indeed very rare.

COIN is something that no one has really done well, in no small part, I think, because it’s hard for a conventional military to wrap its collective minds around how to deal with insurgencies. The British were probably the first to start understanding COIN during the Malaya Emergency, and it’s from that in part that we got the idea of “Hearts & Minds”.

Problem #1 is that a lot of people don’t understand, even at a fundamental level what it means.

“When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow…”

Well, there’s no easy way to get the balls of an insurgency that blends seamlessly into the population. There’s no battle front, there’s no Fulda Gap to stare across at your “most probable military opponent” (which is one term that the Soviet Army apparently used for Americans when teaching officers about tactics), there’s no way to actually accomplish this. And of course, it’s totally not the idea, but I’ll get back to that.

“Remember, hearts and minds, boys. Two in the chest, one in the head, that’s hearts and minds.”

Yep. I heard that on a close quarter combat range once. I can’t gloss over what we do, remember. We are trained in the art of using deadly force. We are trained to kill people. I’m in the infantry. That is our job. The Role Of The Infantry, which is taught to us and we’re constant reminded of throughout training, is bluntly this: “To close with and destroy the enemy, by day or by night, regardless of season, terrain or weather.” There’s no glossing over it. But remember that thing from ethics? I have no problem telling my mom what I do in the army. In addition to that blunt description, of course, we have the ability to harness our organizational and leadership skills to do all sorts of things. But our training necessarily revolves around that role.

So what’s the phrase actually mean? Well, the important thing in a counterinsurgency campaign is to understand how insurgencies work, what the prerequisites are, and how to counter them. Insurgencies happen because the insurgent organization is able to exploit a vacuum. When governments fail to address the needs or wants of a society, an insurgency can emerge. The Taliban, for example, rose to power by helping resolve what amounted to legal disputes, and providing law and order, which didn’t exist in most of the country. Rising in the Pashtun southern part of the country, they harnessed both religion and tribal customs and were able to become strong enough to take over the whole country. When they were routed in 2001, they resumed a highly effective insurgency.

It’s worth noting that they not only exploit the vacuum, they  essentially help create it by destabilizing the areas they still can influence. There’s a lot more complex forms of insurgency that can develop too, but I’ll be writing a university paper if I try to get into them all, and well, if I’m going to do that, I’ll write a book and sell it. Or something.

Thus, the idea of winning hearts and minds doesn’t mean winning a popularity contest. It means convincing the local national population that the Host Nation government can meet their needs. It doesn’t even need to meet them now – it just needs to gain the trust of the populace that it will be able to in the future. It means understanding the root causes beyond the surface grievances, getting to understand them, and empowering the Host Nation to address them. Winning hearts and minds means that we set conditions for both an emotional and logical conclusion that the Host Nation can address those problems. It’s not a simple matter of dumping some foreign aid on them, or fighting off insurgents when they attack. It’s about cutting the insurgency off from their base of support, making it such that the local population no longer needs or supports them, and no longer wants anything to do with them. That isolation ends their relevance.

What you’re probably coming to understand is that the military cannot do it all, but we’re definitely a significant part of the problem.

Modern COIN doctrine gives us four stages: Shape, Clear, Hold, Build. We’re basically embarking on the “Build” stage, to create the capabilities within the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) and the Afghan National Security Forces to operate effectively, to provide a state that meets the needs and wants of its people. That will cut the Taliban off from its support (mostly, there’s foreign interference of course, and that’s a whole other problem), and render them increasingly irrelevant. With that, hopefully, a generation of Afghan kids will grow up not knowing war, get educated, and be able to provide for themselves and their family without turning to fighting. That’s the goal at the highest level. If that doesn’t sell you on why I’m going, well, probably nothing will. I absolutely can proudly tell my mom that that’s what I’m doing for the next year or so.

The guidance we have seems almost comically simple. Drink lots of chai (Afghan tea, which is served over conversation). Treat every soldier as a sensor gathering information on the environment and the variety of factors that contribute to the nature and persistence of insurgency. And the one I love: get out of your vehicles, take off your sunglasses – sit and look counterparts in the eye and have a good discussion, find out what will work to move forward. Oakleys are a barrier to building the trust that Afghans want with us, according to the Big Boss. Makes sense to me, actually. It really does. We need to build lasting relationships so that the people we advise see a value in working with us.

COIN requires a willingness to keep up the “clear” task. A well-executed COIN campaign, which is what ISAF is working to set up, will be able to reintegrate most of the insurgents into society, to get them to see the value of working with rather than against the Host Nation government, in this case GIRoA. Some, however, will be incorrigible. They will never be able to let go, and so, we – or more specifically, the ANSF must be prepared to go out and kill them. It’s that simple. The goal is to get them to think like we do – that we can either be a solid partner, comrade, friend – or will spare no effort to root you out. We’ve got a lot to learn still, and I think COIN will be an ongoing Professional Development study topic while we’re away. But we’re getting the idea, and learning how to present ourselves to the challenge.

I am a Canadian soldier. In me you will know no better friend, and no worse enemy. That was one of the quips in the presentation we had today, and it sort of resonated.

5 Responses

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  1. Excellent work, Nick. Your most interesting article yet (my opinion).
    We’ll discuss the merits of the theories of modern, politically-driven warfare when you get home and we can talk between ourselves. Until then, “keep those cards and letters coming” and get home safe as soon as you can.

    All our best,
    Bruce & Joy

    Bruce Cowan

    January 29, 2012 at 10:44 pm

    • Discuss away here if you like – all the better to see more people contribute quite possibly.

      Nick

      January 29, 2012 at 10:52 pm

      • One of the barriers to successful COIN operations is the all too frequent rotation of personnel on the mission. This is especially true of those in positions that have the opportunity to build one on one relations with their Afghan counterparts. Then six or seven months later we rotate home and a new person is trying to build a relationship with the same Afghan.

        I believe that the Malaysian operations worked for the Brits because they were willing as a society to stay for decades despite the costs. Great work has been accomplished in Afghanistan, but it is far from being complete. Most social change is generational. As a country we should not be so focused on the end date of our support to the Afghan people.

        So while I’ll echo well wishes that you stay safe, this is so that you can continue to do well the role that you have volunteered to do. I know that as a young Captain that you’ll come home when you’re sent home but focus on doing your job well rather than falling prey to the seemingly ubiquitous computer programs that remind you that you only have X # of days until you’re home.

        Ross

        January 30, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      • There’s an interesting dynamic that will help with relationship building – two of the people on the team I’m replacing are good friends of mine from courses past, we’ve been keeping in touch since I knew I was going and I’m getting a lot of good info well in advance of who I’ll be working with there, and they’re going to help have the rapport well started, introducing me not as just some random replacement, but someone they know well and can vouch for. That, I hope, will make it easier to get stuck into the job.

        The end date focus is worrisome to me too – because we should be solely paying attention to accomplishing the goals – not how long they take. It’s already going to be a challenge seeing how budgets impact things, the funding going to ANA from abroad is dropping dramatically this year, and no one really knows how it’ll work out. We’re already seeing that people are eager to downsize. Roto 2 will have, if all goes right, only 2/3s as many people on it as Roto 1.

        I’m going to stay away from counting days as best I can, though that’s easy to say now.

        Nick

        January 30, 2012 at 9:51 pm

  2. […] while back I posted about counterinsurgency, the crash course I took over a weekend back in Gagetown specifically. My job has actually pushed […]


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