A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Archive for March 2012

Please, Don’t Fret About Coffee

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I know many of you have been worried about the coffee situation here.

It’s okay. We’re going to be okay. A massive stepdown transformer magically appeared which is powering the Keurig we “found”, and the wonderful folks at Keurig are replacing my machine anyhow, which is awesome. My colleagues are now scrambling to order their own K-Cups as I’m not planning on supporting them forever. We’ll survive okay.

In addition to that triumph, I’m also incredibly happy with the memory foam/gel mattress cover thing I picked up at Costco for my UAB. It took a bit of a struggle to get the thing on to my top bunk, but I think it’s probably just about the best $100 I have ever spent. Good sleep is key to everything, after all.

Beyond that, life is moving along just fine. We’re figuring out how the transition process for the school I’m working at, which will determine how long we are actually here. There’s a bit of a luxury in not having an end date, because I’m not “counting down the days” until the end. Officially, our redeployment plan starts in October, but we’ll have more clarity when the overall plan for the school I’m working at emerges. I’m hoping we don’t get cut too short.

I’ve got a Word document that I’m slowly building an itinerary for leave for – it is a good way to take a break from work to start doing research on the various destinations. I’ve got another month or so before I can officially book everything, but I’m mainly trying to figure out what to do in each of the cities we are visiting. Berlin has some amazing walking tours (and a zoo) that we’re planning on. Budapest has a very highly recommended guide that I think we’ll hire for a day tour, and Prague – well, Prague I haven’t really gotten to researching yet. But I know the major sites to start working with. I also am trying to pin down a budget for the trip, because while I want to enjoy it, I don’t want to blow everything. I’m so far pretty happy with the fact that my HLTA allowance should cover all the major travel expenses (flights and rail passes), and I’ve found pretty good accommodations for fairly cheap rates, without staying in pits.

The only real variable is my wife’s vacation time. She booked off the time I was going to be off originally, but plans changed and now she’s having some issues with getting the time off. Hopefully it’ll resolve itself in time.

April looks to be a busy month, with several training events happening, and some travel for me lined up. We’re experiencing some of the challenges of transition already, getting movements of instructors approved, getting lesson plans and resources sorted out, and so on. There’s even challenges with getting our own movements sorted out – everyone has to be accounted for, and with small groups traveling everything needs coordination, but in the end it’s all coming together, and we’re getting things taken care of. It should be a good chance to see a little more of the country, and to meet more of my peers, interesting things indeed. It means my roommate will get the room to himself for a while (which is probably good for him, I snore like a bastard), as well.

I’m also starting slowly to think about post-tour things – like work and longer term career plans, most specifically more education. I don’t know how it will all fit together, but I’d really like to return to school, even if only part time, because I think having only an undergraduate degree isn’t enough for me – I’ve got so many different ideas about what I want to do next that none of them have completely gelled though, and that’s making things complicated in a way. I know that I while I’m likely going to stay in the same field, but I don’t think I want to return to the same job, necessarily. I have something of a luxury in working for a very large firm with almost limitless possibilities though, so as my goals and ideas become clearer, I’ll start engaging them about where to go next. I’ve got some ideas, already, but they’re just not quite clear.

Written by Nick

March 29, 2012 at 2:41 am

A Little Like Christmas

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As you may well recall, back in December I packed two MOB boxes full of all sorts of goodies and sent them off to come here. Last night, they arrived, delivered by a logistics convoy. It was late at night so some of our colleagues weren’t too amused in the shacks by people opening them up and rooting around. I didn’t really bother much except to find my Keurig machine and coffee, gleefully ready to bring it in to the office today and savour some really good coffee.

Alas, it was not to be.

I unpacked the machine and plugged it in and… nothing. I’m not an expert on electronics but learning fast. Part of the challenge we have here is an assortment of plugs, voltages, and amperage. I think despite my belief that I was using the right combination that something went wrong.

So we brought over another Keurig machine that was left behind and grabbed by my roommate, but it blew the fuse in the stepdown transformer at my desk, because it’s only rated for 500 amps, and the Keurig needs 1500. The shops here have a perfect transformer. For $100. We’re trying to find a solution. And hoping the good people at Keurig will replace my machine, because, well, supporting the troops is the right thing to do or something like that.

The other thing I’m incredibly excited about is the massive memory foam mattress topper I bought on whim at Costco during our Epic Shopping Trip. It was a fight to get it on a top bunk, but it’s all done now. I have a nice civilized set of sheets and all, but I seem to find sleeping in my ranger blanket more comfortable, so I’ll probably just keep doing that, but hopefully this will make it all a little more comfortable. The rest of the box contents were what we call “consumables” – soap, razor blades, shaving soap, and so on. I had a nice big score of a 50% off anything up to $250 at The Body Shop just before I sent the boxes off, so I got my favourite shaving soap there, and I think I’ll actually have some to take home when I’m done.

So other than the Keurig letdown, life’s brightening up a little, at least in terms of my little piece of the world. There’s lots going on beyond, though – more green-on-blue incidents, two yesterday. It’s a harsh reminder of having to retain vigilance. The nature of our work environment makes it a minor threat, but nevertheless, it’s probably the main thing to worry about. There was also a large bombing plot foiled at the Ministry of Defence downtown, which caught a lot of attention. It’s probably a good thing to remember that we’re not “in Kansas”, but it’s quite honestly easy to forget that from time to time.

I’ve been watching, with interest, a number of discussions in various forums about the future of Afghanistan, and the effectiveness of efforts here. Though I tend to stay fairly positive about how things are working here, optimistic that things here have improved and will continue to improve. However, there’s been several discussions about how to “do” counterinsurgency here, how good the doctrine is and how well it’s been implemented. The reality is that it seems like that all important principle of “unity of effort” isn’t perfect, and I saw that seeing the disconnect between various civilian agencies and NGOs and the military. It’s not accurate to say it’s totally dysfunctional, but one has to wonder if we’ve managed to really achieve that unity of effort, and to really understand the environment, particularly harnessing the tribal structures and mechanisms of governance. That said, the fact that people can recognize that there’s challenges there is at least an indication that there’s an understanding of the issue. Suffice it to say, the discussions have added a lot to my reading list in terms of studying COIN and development and so on. It’s not easy to see the situation through the eyes of those living here, and the impression I’ve gotten is that there’s no single POV amongst Afghans – people from down south see things remarkably differently from people in Kabul. Hardly surprising, though.

It boils down to a fairly simple conclusion, though. We can give people tools and ideas and support, but it’s up to them to decide how to use them, and what the future here will look like. I’ve always said I’d love to come here as a tourist some day, so I hope it works out.

Written by Nick

March 27, 2012 at 6:19 am

An Interesting Week

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April is shaping up to be a rather busy month, actually.

It’s been almost frustratingly slow here at times. I don’t know how often I find myself feeling like I’m far too idle, but there’s nothing I can really do in downtime, save, perhaps, for one rather large project I’m considering, but it’s not necessarily likely to be of a tremendous amount of value in the context of the future of the school I work at – but it’s still something I’m considering discussing with higher. So I break up my day with workouts, checking out news sites, checking out social media, and trying to keep in touch with the world outside of the place I live. It’s funny, if you give it too much thought it’s a bit like living in one of those “minimum security prisons”. We can stroll the grounds, but we don’t really have much ability to go outside the walls at all. Even when we do, it’s a direct vehicle convoy move to another walled in convoy, basically.

In any case, April should be a little more interesting, we have some courses to deliver – or rather, our counterparts do. ANA instructors teach the courses, we mentor them on all aspects of delivering them, from the administration and planning, to validating the course content and helping develop their instructor capabilities. They have several planned, so all of the coalition staff will have their work cut out for them, and that’s a good thing. I would rather be busy than sitting around the office.

I did have some interesting times this week though. We were out to the range on a nice afternoon, though it briefly looked like it was about to pour on us. We were out to fire our pistols, including practicing some Quick Reaction Drill shooting (think “quick draw”). Definitely a skill worth having in an environment like this and one that bears a lot of practicing to build muscle memory.

Fact is, going to work here is mostly just like going to work at home. I have a schedule, I have routines. I just don’t carry a briefcase, instead I carry a pistol, but I don’t really even notice that anymore, it’s just part of the uniform in a way. We’re in a pretty secure environment all things considered so I don’t really give it a second thought. We are going to have to integrate more practice into our schedule, and I still have to take my rifle up to confirm my sight zero. I can only imagine how it may have been banged around in transit.

Our next big shock was discovering a huge box of Tim Hortons coffee – almost full! It’s the packages that stores use, and we have no idea where it came from. A friend of mine hypothesized it might have been leftovers from the store at Kandahar Airfield, which is possible – it has the name of our camp written on it in big black marker, but no mailing info to suggest it came from Canada in a care package. Whatever the source, we’re not complaining. A couple of pots were brewed today to the delight of the assembled masses.

A Big Ass Box Of Tim's

Hello, My Pretties...

Lastly, I had a trip out to visit one of the most fascinating (and perhaps most sad) places in Kabul – Tap-e Tajbeg, Tajbeg Palace, or the Queen’s Palace. Built in the 1920s by the rather visionary King Amanullah, it sits on a large hill in Darulaman, southwest of Kabul city. He built another palace, Darulaman Palace, which lies a little to the north. King Amanullah’s time in power was fairly short-lived, in part because of his progressive views and wanting to modernize his country. His wife, Queen Soraya, was photographed unveiled as a symbol of a change in the role of women in Afghan society, and this helped touch off a revolt that ended his reign just a few years after his palaces were completed. They survived him, and the Soviet invasion (which began at Tap-e Tajbeg when Soviet commandos stormed the palace to kill President Hafizullah Amin) as well. The palace actually served as the Soviet 40th Army Headquarters during the war.

Unfortunately, after the Soviets left, the palaces became strongholds of the various factions fighting the civil war, and both were severely damaged. Darulaman Palace is in far worse shape, but both are just ruins.

Tajbeg Palace

Tap-e Tajbeg - The "Queen's Palace"

Darulaman Palace As Seen From Tajbeg Palace

Darulaman Palace, from the entrance to Tajbeg Palace

Our visit included drinking tea with the Afghan National Army soldiers who maintain an OP on the palace grounds, and a walk through the ruins of the majestic three story palace. In places the original marble is still in place, though long covered by dust and rubble. The palace had an elevator in it, and features a large atrium around a grand staircase at the entryway. To the east of it is a swimming pool crumbling away. On the third floor, you can see where rockets, artillery, and mortars pounded the structure into its current state. Many rooms are scarred by fire. There are safes in a few places, one wonders what they may have contained.

Another feature: the interior walls are heavily covered with graffiti – going back to the Soviet era, but all the way up to the present. One of our guides explained that there’s sort of a code about it – no one covers anyone else’s work. One of the more haunting pieces is this:

Russian Christmas Mural

A Reminder of Different Times

We found this on the second floor of the palace, painted over the last Christmas the Soviets would celebrate within the Palace.

There’s graffiti from the civil war, including some elaborate pencil sketches, various slogans, a lot of “so-and-so was here” markings, and so on. They stretch all the way up to the present day as a sort of public art project. There’s a few Canadian inscriptions. When Canada operated in Kabul from 2002-2005, their main base was Camp Julien, and the Palace was part of that complex, observation posts were maintained in the palace and on the grounds, as I understand it.

I’ve heard that there’s been some work to catalog all the markings – to what end, I don’t know. One of my friends who saw some of the pictures I put on Facebook commented, “Imagine if those walls could talk…” In a way, they can, so I wonder what will come of the efforts.

I asked my interpreter what he felt seeing the damage. “Anger at the people who did this.” I have to wonder, though there is some discussion of restoring the palaces for official use (at an immense cost, I’m sure), if they may well serve as a good reminder to the people – “never again”?

I rounded out the week with a trip to the tailors, to pick up a Regimental Camp Flag I commissioned. It cost me the princely sum of $50. It’s not a perfect replica (the badge is disproportionately small, but it’s pretty decent for the price, and I got it mainly as a wall hanger, since there’s several such flags up in the office. We (my roommate and I) also had a couple of cheeky morale patches made up (one alluding to cat herding, another a “Chairborne” badge), which we can’t actually wear except for the brief moment we wandered into the Canadian TOC with them and got some laughs. We wrapped the day up with a trip to the coffee bar here, watching the surreal sight of a young Afghan barista with a very modern espresso machine making us lattes while Guns N’ Roses blasted from his stereo. We sat on the patio, slightly amazed by where we were doing this.

Afghanistan is indeed a strange, interesting, beautiful land.

Written by Nick

March 25, 2012 at 2:07 pm

On Morale

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I can’t make any real complaints about how things are running over here. Morale is pretty good.

If you recall, I sent a Keurig machine and a lifetime supply of coffee over in my UAB which has yet to arrive, but we’ve been doing okay even without it. We have ourselves quite a nice little set up, actually, our own coffee bar.


Where there is no coffee, there is misery.

There’s a pretty staggering amount of stuff here, to the point that we’ve had to basically start getting rid of things. There’s been a ridiculous amount of “care packages” arrive here, which is awesome, but some really, really bizarre things show up in them too, apparently. We had a bunch of canned asparagus that has been here for so long no one can remember when it arrived. Canned asparagus. Really. I appreciate that people are amazing and want to support us, but I have to wonder who thinks “I bet those guys want them some canned asparagus…”

I actually keep getting offers of such packages, with “Tell me what you want/need, and I’ll send it over!”. I get constantly stumped when asked what people can send me, because in truth, I don’t really want for much of anything. I had a burning desire for PC Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookies the other day, but other than that, I can get basically anything I can normally think of wanting here, or I have it coming already. Most of what comes is junk food, and frankly, I’m trying to avoid that, because I want to get in better shape while I’m here, not be desk jockey gorging on junk food from various corners of the world sent by well meaning and awesome people.

Written by Nick

March 23, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Thirty Days

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Today is my thirtieth day in theatre. It’s a small milestone, a month here, but it’s still a great one – it feels as though I’ve been here longer in some ways, now that I’ve got routines established, social networks in place, and a pretty good idea of what it is I’m doing here. A lot of people who were here when we arrived have just ripped out, and we’ve got some new arrivals to get introduced to. What always amazes me with military people is that you become fast friends, and people I’ve known for only that month leave with just as much significance as people you’ve known longer.

In fact, one of the guys who left this morning to make his way back to his unit in Kuwait, and eventually back home to Minnesota, is planning an epic round the world type trip that includes plans to try to meet up with several of us that have just arrived when we go on our leaves. He’s collected all the dates to try to arrange an appropriate itinerary, and through the wonders of Facebook and so on it should actually have some degree of possibility.

I have been amusing myself in my spare time with planning out my leave in more detail, so that when the time comes that I can actually start having things booked I’ll have a solid idea of where to go, what to do, when to do it, and so on. If I don’t use up all my HLTA money on flights and railpasses, I think I’m going to rent myself a nice touring bike for a couple of days while I wait for my wife to arrive in Germany to meet me. Rentals are much cheaper in Germany than in Canada, and so I can get my mitts on a nice BMW tourer, or a Harley-Davidson, or something that will do the trick. I thought about trying to rent my proposed new bike, but nowhere in Frankfurt-am-Main seems to rent them.

I can’t wait to explore some new cities and some history with my wife – we’ve not had the chance to do all that much traveling together in the last few years, and so it’ll be a great experience to do it. The trick for her is to make sure she has the time off work, which has been something of an issue so far, but we’ll see how it works out. There are numerous ways to deal with such problems.

My month ahead looks somewhat interesting. I’m headed out to one of the regions as part of a Mobile Training Team, and we have a course starting here as well that I’ll be involved in. I’ve just been involved in the course we give to new arrivals, as we have some guys in replacing people getting ready to go home, and I’m starting to get the impression that there’s really a point to my being here. There were moments I wasn’t totally sure about that. I just basically tried in those moments to learn as much as I could about what’s going on around me and figure out how to make myself relevant. It’s easy to look at tasks here as impossibly large, but when you realize that incrementally there are loads of small things that make differences, it’s easier to handle. I guess that’s something that military service is good at getting you to understand – when you face a daunting problem, break it into smaller ones and attack each individually.

Things have seemed a little unsettled for the simple reason that the school I work at is in the middle of transitioning, we’re working at shifting responsibilities from us to the ANA – and so what the people we replaced did doesn’t match up directly with what we’re doing, and that’s fine. It’s just an adjustment to define what exactly we need to do going forward to meet our goals, because the school’s plan is to hand off increasing amounts of responsibility to the ANA over the next few months. They have some things to develop their capabilities on, and some things they do well, we just need to help them along.

So how’d I spend day thirty? Well, Friday is our “weekend”, we don’t start work until 1pm. I got up at 10:30 after a nice sleep in. Last night I was out to trivia with the Brits (and we didn’t win, sadly!) and was in the office fairly late doing travel research, so it was nice to not have to get up early. This afternoon we were up to the range to do some Quick Reaction Drill shooting – basically, you’re sitting at your desk and someone decides to turn green-on-blue on you – how to react. Of course, the odds of that are rare, but there was an incident at Kabul International Airport where an Afghan Air Force Colonel, who was apparently about to be busted for using ANSF aircraft to smuggle drugs, shot eight people dead before killing himself. The victims were all armed and failed to react effectively. One of them, apparently, had a pistol but instead had a cellphone in their hand.

It was good just to get out, enjoy the weather, and get some shooting in. It looked like rain for a while but it turned out okay in the end. The best part: at ranges at home, after shooting you have to pick up all the brass (spent casing). Not so in Afghanistan. Within seconds of our completing our shoot, a bunch of ANA soldiers descended from the hills beside the range and furiously collected all the brass in no time flat. It was something of a sight to see. I guess it’s because they can sell it for scrap. Whatever the case, it doesn’t bother anyone, and saves us doing it.

Written by Nick

March 23, 2012 at 11:32 am

My Amusing (Maybe) Attempt At Recontextualizing Counterinsurgency

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A brief conversation about counterinsurgency in the context of parenting made me laugh the other day, and kind of inspired me to turn the doctrine in which I’ve been immersed into something that might amuse some people. What I’m going to do is rework the “counterinsurgency framework” we use into a parenting scenario, and hope that a) hilarity ensues and b) those who are interested in how this all works will find it interesting.

My disclaimer is that I’m not a parent. I don’t even have the slightest interest in ever becoming one either, but this seems superficially so simple that it really shouldn’t matter.

So, here we go. In simple terms, an insurgency is an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. Actually, that’s not simple terms, it’s doctrinal, but it’s also fairly simple. The creation of an insurgency generally requires three prerequisites. First, a vulnerable population, meaning a population with real or perceived grievances about their government. Second, leadership available for direction, meaning a leader who can be coerced, co-opted, or who naturally emerges to channel those grievances and allow an insurgency to take hold. Finally, there must be a lack of government control – a government unable to assert itself effectively over the population. This can be either from being too heavy-handed and thus resented or ignored (think Libya?), or being non-existent in the eyes of the population (kind of like over here, in a lot of ways).

Part of why I found this brief discussion so funny is that I perceive that something like the prerequisites exists in a lot of families, and when kids band together as they often do, I think that a situation can emerge that somewhat parallels insurgency. If you’re not picking up what I’m saying here, maybe I’ve become a curmudgeon (at 32!), but lots of people seem to have forgotten that it’s okay to discipline kids and put them in their place once in a while.

So, I can assert that a variation of the three prerequisites can occur there – kids with perceived grievances (usually perceived, anyhow!), leadership can emerge among them, and a lack of parental control. We’ll just reframe the whole armed conflict thing a bit, or we can remove it and just leave “subversion” in the definition, because that’s the stock-in-trade of kids. Smart ones, anyhow.

So, an insurgency in the real world appears when the prerequisites are met and generally then begins to try to form bonds with the population – the ultimate prize in this case. Doing so requires leadership in some form, an ideology (some ideal that binds them together) and an objective – what they want, why they want it, and how they’re going to get it. Behold the first three (of eight) Dynamics of Insurgencies! Now we just have to cover the other five. Next up is Knowledge Of The Environment. Operating close to home gives insurgents a solid understanding of how to gain and employ freedom of movement. In the case of Afghanistan, most insurgents are killed or captured within 30 miles of their home, suggesting they know the ground well and use that knowledge to good effect. In the case of kids – well, they’re also operating generally on home turf and finding ways to conspire.  They will also use their siblings to give them morale support and encouragement (Internal Support – number 5!), and develop networks which give them more to work with. This External Support (#6) can include other kids at school, the Children’s Aid Society, the Police, and anyone else they threaten to call in when they don’t get their way. In cases of divorced parents, step-parents can often be a form of external support (or a target), as can non-custodial parents. It’s very important they you study these dynamics in detail.

As for the last two, number seven is “Phases & Timing”. We derive this from Mao’s Guerilla Warfare, that insurgencies can be in any of three phases and shift between then as appropriate to circumstances. If kids appear well behaved, even if they are obviously conspiring to subvert parental authority, we could describe them as being in the Latent & Incipient Phase. Eventually they may shift to Phase 2 – Guerrilla Warfare, pushing the boundaries of the rules and rules with some transgressions, but not an obviously well-coordinated resistance. If you’ve totally failed as a parent, you’ll soon see the phase shift to War Of Movement, where their shadow government structure will be fully in place, they will gain near complete freedom of movement and action, and you as a parent will have lost all ability to control them. Based on my observation, this is not as uncommon as it should be, and so I’m hoping that if I now introduce the COIN Principles, you might be able to sort things out if this situation applies to you. The last dynamic, incidentally, is organization. Kids are adept at learning what has worked for other kids, and will choose their forms of organization and strategy based on these exchanges.

I’m guessing that if you’re still reading this, it’s because you’re realizing that you don’t have children, you have a fermenting insurgency within your own home, and you’re starting to worry about it. Don’t worry. I’ll get to the how to fix things, but this is a military philosophical experiment, and you need to understand a lot more about the nature of the threat before we can start making bold prescriptions for how to address and neutralize it.

Before I get into COIN Principles, let’s review some of the more classic organizations and forms of insurgent strategy. The first is called the “Urban Strategy”. In the COIN Model we use, we treat the Host Nation Government and Host Nation Security Forces as two separate actors bonded together, and attacking that bond can be part of an insurgent’s strategy. In the Urban Strategy, insurgents will attack the government in the hopes of provoking an overreaction by it that motivates people to join the insurgent cause. So one child defies authority in the hopes that the overreaction (ideally punishing all the kids) will inspire their siblings to side with him. In the “Foco Strategy”, which was Che Guevara’s strategy, the attacks are targeted at soft targets to show the population the weakness of the government and inspire support. I’ll liken this to the “mommy-daddy” effect where children target the parent more likely to say yes, which then demonstrates a degree of freedom of movement. This allows them to inspire followers.

If your kids are very sophisticated they may manage to put a protracted political strategy into place, which involves setting up a well indoctrinated political faction – that’s the smart kid who tries to reason with mom and dad to allow for the freedoms that the guerrilla wing wants. They’ll use the various phases and rely heavily on external and internal support to effect a long-term struggle. This would be what Mao Zedong wrote about. If they’re really, really sharp, they’ll go subversive, where the rational (political) wing disavows and even publicly condemns the more mischievous faction, all while trying to win over a political solution. They’ll deny any affiliation, of course, but it is clear they’re working together for the same end. This would be Northern Ireland – Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army.

So, what to do? What are the COIN Principles that can defeat an insurgency by rooting it out within your AO/home?

The key lies in breaking the links between the insurgents and their supporters, and the shadow government structure they’re trying to create. In the theory, you need to connect the population to the government – meaning win over the kids who are either supporting the troublemaker or are ambivalent about him. You need to isolate the belligerents from society, and you need to make the environment inhospitable to them. When that happens, parental authority becomes more secure, and harmony is restored.

There are eight principles: first is to establish legitimacy. I don’t know why, but this seems to be a sort of Rubicon that many parents can’t cross. When I was a kid, parents had legitimate authority BECAUSE THEY WERE MY PARENTS. However, I think there’s been some kind of shift in that mentality. [editor’s note: told you I was  a curmudgeon] You have to make clear that parents are the legitimate authority over kids, and that they will dominate the AO. Now, in the real COIN world, this means kinetic operations (smashing the hell out of insurgents). It’s not politically correct to beat your kids anymore, but sometimes it’s worth consideration to show people who’s boss. That’s not your only means of solving the problem though, because you cannot simply beat your kids into submission and defeat their insurgency.

Next, we need Unity Of Effort, which means both parents must be on the same page about strategy (prevent the “divide and conquer” strategy by the insurgency), and you may well need to involve other external support of your own – coaches, teachers, the police, whatever you deem necessary to deal with the insurgency. Everyone has to be on the same page. In the COIN world, the key is to make sure that political actors, the international community, the security forces, and so on have to be working toward a common end with a coordinated plan.

It’s important, as I was saying, to understand that you can’t simply kill off an insurgency. Politics Is Primary is one of the COIN Principles. You must use that to win over the hearts and minds of the population, that is, to form an emotional and logical connection with them. You must seek to understand the environment to deny the insurgents the ability to move freely within it, and use intelligence to shape the battlefield. Get to know the support networks, and figure out where support is coming from, how it travels. Figure out who the kids are that are telling them about the wonders of threatening to call the Children’s Aid Society, and keep your kids away from them. Figure whose parents spoil their kids rotten, and stop sending your kids over to their house, and so on.

Now you should be well on your way to isolating the insurgents. Remember, these days grounding kids isn’t what it used to be and probably isn’t enough, especially if you’re leaving them with their cell phone, iPad, and internet. You need to make bold and decisive action against this a priority, because without cutting off these means, they’ll have support and sanctuary. In doing so, we’re looking to establish Security Through The Rule Of Law for all kids, because that will fill the vacuum of lack of authority your unruly, undisciplined kids are seeking to exploit.

The final COIN Principle is Long Term Commitment: you need to be prepared for a long campaign to succeed. It is interesting to me that apparently, the average length of time it takes to defeat an insurgency is 16 years. You’ll need to be committed all the way until adulthood, and you may never win, but at least you’ll be prepared to handle the challenge better.

To Recap:

Three Prerequisites Of Insurgency:

1. Vulnerable Population
2. Leadership Available For Direction
3. Lack Of Government Control

Insurgent Dynamics:

1. Leadership
2. Ideology
3. Objective
4. Environment
5. External Support
6. Internal Support
7. Phases
8. Organization

Approaches To Counterinsurgency

1. Separate Insurgents From Population
2. Connect Population To Government
3. Transform Environment To Be Inhospitable To Insurgents

COIN Principles

1. Legitimacy
2. Unity Of Effort
3. Political Is Primary
4. Understand The Environment
5. Intelligence
6. Isolate Insurgents
7. Security Under Rule Of Law
8. Long Term Commitment

Courses, Sandstorms, Leave Plans, And Motorcycles

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It’s been a busy couple of weeks here, mainly with coursework. I completed a couple of courses which were both incredibly interesting, and incredibly frustrating at the same time. The first course on counterinsurgency featured some long days, but generally interesting material. The second course was on the District Stability Framework, the “way forward” in taking care of the non-kinetic aspects of building a stable Afghanistan. In military speak, “kinetic” operations mean basically killing people (ideally incorrigible insurgents who deserve it), “non-kinetic” operations are those which do not involve the use of force. Ideally, we want to maximize non-kinetic operations, I guess you could say. The reality is that at this point, dealing with security is a responsibility we want to shift to the ANSF, while ISAF works more toward advising and capacity building and draws down toward 2014 when the majority of coalition forces leave and Afghanistan, we hope, can start to take its first steps on its own. There will be a lot of support required in those initial steps, but it’ll be more in the development aid area, vice military aid.

DSF was interesting but in a way frustrating, as I suggested above, because the civilians involved in the course have a very different point of view from the military, and in group practical exercises it was hard sometimes to overcome the biases we carry toward each other. It was also made difficult by the fact that all of the facilitators usually involved were not available, leaving the lion’s share of work to a friend of mine, a junior officer from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who is actually the guy I’m replacing. He did a brilliant job of fending off some difficult questions and challenges and managed to keep things mostly on track. Mostly.

I was supposed to miss the last day of the course, because I was all set and rather excited to accompany my institution’s director on a liaison visit to one of the regions where we support courses, out in eastern Afghanistan near Jalalabad. I had my bags all packed, threw on all my battle rattle, and came to the office ready to catch a ride to the HLS to board a helicopter, only to learn that I had a missed call on my phone from the Operations Officer calling to tell me that due to a dust storm (my first), helos weren’t flying for routine operations, and we weren’t going anywhere. I was disappointed, and I suspect my roommate was too, because he was going to get the place to himself for a few days, and I happen to know all too well that I snore like a bastard, so I’m sure it’d have been appreciated.

Fortunately, there’s another trip planned to another site in a couple weeks’ time, and hopefully that one won’t be impaired. However, I understand Kabul’s spring is sometimes called “120 Days of Winds”, and if they’re like today’s, well, who knows what will happen. We’ll just have to watch and shoot, as the saying goes.

I have to say, my first sand/dust storm was interesting. The way the sky looks, the way it feels, it’s like nothing I’ve experienced before, and stupidly I didn’t grab a camera. However, it’s supposed to continue for a while, so I’m sure I’ll have the chance. I’d like to add more pictures here, but uploading them is a nightmare as I work off a ridiculously slow connection and it’s painful at times.

My fallback plan to occupy my mind was starting to plan for my leave. I got word a few days ago that my dates had been changed. I had one of the last leave blocks, and they’ve apparently eliminated that block so I got moved earlier, to August instead of mid-September. That’s probably because I’ll likely be coming home a little earlier than originally planned, but that’s the nature of the beast. This causes a little problem because my wife had the time booked off and it’s not clear that she’ll be able to change it, but we’ll hope for the best with lots of time to work on resolutions.

I think I explained a bit about HLTA before – it’s basically a travel allowance for when we go on leave that’s based on the cost of traveling home to Canada, but it can be used to go to a “third location”, and to bring your next of kin to meet you there. What I’m looking at doing right now is flying to Frankfurt, Germany, and meeting my wife there (because she should in theory be able to get a direct flight from Halifax), spending a couple of weeks exploring Europe, and then I’m going to head back here with a short side trip to Jordan. I’ve wanted to see Petra for as long as I’ve known it existed, and conveniently, I work with a Jordanian Army officer here who’s not only stirred that by having the camp plastered with Jordanian tourist posters, but he’s also offered to help organize the trip for me. My wife might come, she might not. But I played around with flight schedules and managed to make it all work potentially, and without even spending all my allowance (yet, anyhow), so we’ll have some to use on rail passes or something like that. It’s a long way off, but starting to plan for it makes me have something to look forward to, and when I get back from leave, things will be winding down nicely here.

My other occasional diversion is motorcycle shopping. I basically consigned my bike (a 2003 Suzuki Intruder VS800) back to the dealer who hooked me up with it for a steal, and should have a good chunk in trade for when I get home. Most of what I save up from being here is going to deal with paying off debts and retirement savings and things like that (and to making the leave trip awesome), but my one “reward” for deploying is a new bike. I’m looking at a Suzuki VStrom for the simple reason that I want a touring bike, and frankly, that bike’s pretty incredible as a commuting bike, a long haul tourer, and so on. I thought I’d go for something more “classic”, but it really struck me when I first saw one at the dealer. I’m debating between the 650cc version and 1000cc version, but I think I’ll go with the 650. It’ll be cheaper to insure, and according to all the reviews I’ve seen, more than adequate for the long rides I like – including quite possibly a tear down to Arizona where my parents winter. I’m thinking ride down, leave the bike there for the winter, fly back in the spring and ride home (via a different route), but we’ll see. My wife may have different ideas about what I do right when I get home.

Well, I don’t have much else to report on for now – things are good. We sent off a few people who are headed home, and there’s something of a tradition of roasting departing team mates, which last night turned into a good ribbing of each other’s cultures, primarily done in the form of YouTube videos. My contribution was introducing our American and Coalition Friends to Rick Mercer’s Talking To Americans, and ribbing our Italian brother with the hilarious “Europe & Italy”, a crude but funny animation on cultural differences that I found to be 100% true in the week I spent there in 2005. Good laughs make the thought of someone leaving “for good” easier, but reality is that life-long friendships are made here, and military folks have an amazing and constantly expanding networks of people who will insist on offering hospitality whenever you’re in the neighbourhood.

And with that all said, I’m going to bed.

Things I’m Learning More About, Ways Forward, And So On…

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My visceral reaction to the terrible event in Panjwaii has been somewhat tempered, mainly because that sober thought that kicks in on learning of something so appalling has arrived, and while of course no one is excusing what happened, we are all left wondering what caused it to happen – what’s the story behind the shooter. There’s some rumblings here about him, and as is usually the case I’m sure there will be more to the story when all the facts come to light. Nevertheless, it is a tragic incident and one that every single person here I think I can fairly assume wishes hadn’t happened and is forced to redouble their efforts at relationship building with counterparts by it. I think that’s all I can say. We’re still committed to what we’re doing here, we’re still seeing that there’s progress and a point to being here, and the talk of just giving up isn’t well received by those of us in-country. That, however, is politics, and it’s not our bailiwick. And it’s certainly not something I’m going to get into. It’s not my place. We’re here until we’re not here, and it’s not us that will decide anything on that matter.

A while back I posted about counterinsurgency, the crash course I took over a weekend back in Gagetown specifically. My job has actually pushed me into much more depth on that topic, which has been very interesting. I’ve had a particular interest for quite a while in civil-military cooperation (CIMIC) for quite a while, and COIN in general as well, so it’s fitting that I’m been doing a lot more work related to it and that’s what the focus of my time here will be on. It will stand me in good stead for some of the things I’d like to do with my military career in the future, after I leave this place. The fact is that dealing with insurgencies is likely to be a major aim of western militaries in the future, and as NATO works to redefine itself (and other alliances emerge), it’ll be something that is of interest to more and more people.

An ideal quote that I’ve heard about it is “You cannot kill off an insurgency.” It’s true. Someone I was discussing the future of Afghanistan and specifically the US role in Afghanistan in light of things like the BAF Koran burning incident and the shooting in Panjwaii basically tried to say “we should just  keep killing them (i.e., the Taliban) in such numbers that they are forced to seek negotiations”. It doesn’t really work that way. At all. The analogy I like best is a weed – it’ll keep growing back if you don’t dig out the roots – if you don’t address the root problems. And no amount of kinetic actions (which is a polite, more scientific sounding term for killing people) does that. Undoubtedly, there are people in the insurgency here (which is composed of several groups) that need killing, and that’s fine. I’m not going to say otherwise. However, that alone will not fix anything, because there are legitimate, real problems and grievances in this country that have to be fixed, and doing so will make the insurgency irrelevant. It will, as the theory goes, separate the population from the insurgency, build bonds with government, and ideally make Afghanistan a functioning country.

Counterinsurgency theory makes one point clear: politics is primary. Unlike conventional military operations where seizing and holding ground is what matters, in COIN, what matters is the population, and to win them over is something that cannot be done by military force. Military force facilitates other parts of the effort, but it cannot win on its own. There are numerous things that are required to defeat an insurgency, and all the JDAMs and trigger-pullers in the world cannot do those things – the building of bonds between the government and the governed requires much more.

I risk oversimplifying things here, and I really should just post links to so many agencies and initiatives involved in the process of dealing with Afghanistan’s “root causes”, but they’re so many that I’d feel overwhelmed trying to do so. I think, however, if I highlight just a bit of the picture I’ve still done a service to the average reader because while the information is out there, it’s not being found by the average person.

Afghanistan, first of all, can be argued to be not a real nation-state. I think that’s a big of a brash statement, and I’m not saying I fully agree, but it is an interesting argument. It’s in part the product of lines drawn on a map during The Great Game (specifically, the Durand Line, the border created with British India/modern Pakistan, is a problem) which didn’t reflect tribal boundaries. Most of that border is unmarked, most of it is essentially ignored by the people who live in the area. It’s uncontrolled.  While there’s something of an emerging national identity as “Afghans”, people still identify by their ethnic group, and it’s worth noting that essentially Afghanistan is a country of minorities – the largest being the Pashtuns who are estimated to make up 42% of the population, followed by Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Balochis, Nurestanis, Turkmen, and other smaller groups. There are two national languages, Pashto and Dari. Both the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam are represented here – Sunni being the most common, Shia being the religion of the Hazara. There’s never been a strong, unified national government really. Most rural areas are governed by traditional structures, which in the case of Pashtun regions are based on tribal structures primarily (the Tajiks, depending on who you ask, either long ago abandoned their tribal structure, or never had one to begin with). Those are largely influenced by ancient codes of conduct like Pashtunwali, which establishes a need to maintain honour, to offer sanctuary and hospitality to those who request it, and so on.

So, with this incredibly cursory explanation of the context in which Afghanistan exists, I hope you, the reader, get an idea of the dynamics which lead to the rise of the Taliban here, and why Al Qaeda found sanctuary here, and so on. Out of the chaos that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent civil war, the Taliban showed up and provided swift justice and governance that lacked, and in some way security. Rooting them out will take providing those sorts of things, addressing economic concerns, and conveying a strong message that GIRoA (the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) can meet their needs and offer them a better life. Doesn’t that sound easy?

There’s been neat progress. A little town in Uruzgan Province, which is in the south, got sick of being a transit point for Taliban fighters heading to Kandahar and Helmand (two of the most restive provinces), so they basically raised their own militia and told them enough was enough. That was part of the impetus for the creation of the Afghan Local Police – forces selected by village elders to defend their own communities, trained with ISAF support, given uniforms and equipment, and built into the security strategy. They’re now active throughout the country, and address a void that ANSF forces haven’t gotten to yet. I say part of the impetus, because while this story is touted as being an ALP major success, I’m not sure it’s where it started. Related to that is a framework of improving governance in districts throughout the country – to make government relevant, to channel development projects better, and make sure that there’s reporting on how they’re doing.

There’s a program now running to reintegrate fighters who want to quit into society. It gives them a degree of amnesty (though there’s no codified amnesty, which allows the door to be open to prosecute people for things beyond the normal, expected things they’d do during insurgency), a little bit of financial support to transition, and helps reintegrate them into their communities, with rewards coming to the communities themselves. It’s a way out of the fighting with honour, and with a way to bring people back into their own village/tribal communities. It seems to work in many places, and recidivism is extremely low. The financial rewards aren’t significant, but instead it succeeds on the fact that many people are tired of fighting and there’s an enticement to help address those root causes in the communities.

The thing that has to be understood about the place is that those tribal structures where they exist in rural areas cannot be replaced by government. That won’t work. Similarly, the systems for justice that exist in those areas aren’t likely to be replaced by some system imposed from the national government – because for the most part, the processes in place meet community needs for resolving disputes. They’re able to address them quickly, in a manner relevant to the context of the area, in a way that’s accepted by the populace. Reconciling that with Afghanistan’s relatively modern, progressive constitution isn’t really easy, but there has to be some way to do so, because that represents the “Afghan good” we’re looking for – solutions that work even if they’re not what we see as ideal. As I understand it, the goal is that GIRoA will built its legitimacy amongst the people by harnessing those structures and those ways of doing things, and fusing them into their own structure for governance. So “we” – the various people contributing to stability, development, and defeating insurgency here – work to help the people of Afghanistan fit solutions to their problems in a context that works for them. We can help create that national identity of “Afghans” but it will need to be done in a context that respects all those other dynamics. But the work of really making it work and last must be done by Afghans – and more importantly – IS being done by Afghans.

When you take it to the simple level that I think you can argue that Afghans are like humans anywhere in their basic wants – to live in peace, without fear, with some measure of security (economic security included), and with a reasonable expectation that their children will grow up to live better lives than them, it seems that we can expect progress.

I will try – I really will – to come up with some expansion on these efforts. There’s lots of information out there, though it’s not all totally clear and easy to find, but I think with a little effort I’ll find time for I can try to create some order to it for those interested. There are so many agencies involved – so many moving parts – that they all have little tidbits to contribute to the story. I’m sure there are many sources out there which can present so much of this in a more academic way, and in truth, I could too – but it’s a bit more than I’m capable of at the moment, and I hope this overview is more effective at catching attention of a broader audience who will go and dig deeper if they see value in it.

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A good gritty account of what fighting down south is like. This matches the stories of my friends who spent time in Kandahar Province.

Written by Nick

March 12, 2012 at 4:17 am

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Sickened, Saddened, Disturbed…

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Today’s events in Panjwaii, Kandahar Province have me a bit down. One savage act has the potential to undo so much progress, damage so many relationships, distract so much attention from anything positive. And every update sounds worse and worse as the whole story comes out. There have been tragic incidents in the past that strain relationships, but this one strikes me as particularly horrific.

I can only hope that swift, firm, publicized  justice finds the individual who committed such heinous murders. He is a stain on our profession, and everything we’re supposed to stand for. This isn’t why we’re here, and it doesn’t help anyone.


Written by Nick

March 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm