Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

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Getting A Look At City Life

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A few days ago, I went with my boss out to visit another training facility, one which is looking to us for advice on how to improve on the quality of training they are delivering in the field we’re experts on. They have been delivering their own training, but are trying to standardize what they’re doing with what is becoming ANSF doctrine. The meeting was relatively quick and simple, with a view that we’re going to review their training package, see how we can improve it, and help them with some instructor development training if needed. The idea, after all, is to build the capacity of the ANA to not only operate, but to also train their own people. We don’t just want to teach them how to do things, or teach them doctrinal concepts. We want them to own those ideas and be able to continue teaching their people. That builds sustainability.

More interesting than the meeting itself was the trip, which gave me a chance to see a lot of Kabul city life. Being somewhat sheltered in a camp limits your ability to really understand what goes on in the country, I do interact with Afghans constantly, and I enjoy getting the chance to learn about their lives, but it’s not the same.

Winding down the roads I got a sense of the hustle and bustle of the city – roads were lined with little shops and kiosks featuring people of all descriptions out to earn a living. A lot of them were tradesmen: carpenters, metalworkers, and so on. There were mechanics shops working on the 150cc motorcycles that are everywhere. Taxis. Shops selling everything from gas canisters for cookstoves to door and window frames, and so on. And people everywhere. What was interesting was seeing lots of kids coming and going from schools. I asked one of the interpreters about that,because the times seemed odd, and he told me that schools are generally run in “shifts” so kids come and go throughout the day to maximize the use of the facilities.

The schools we passed seemed mostly to be girls’ schools – they were all over the place in their sharp blue uniforms and white headscarves. That, I suppose, is a sign of progress, although Kabul is different than the rural areas, probably what you might call more “progressive”. In my view, though, any amount of children going to school and getting whatever education they can is progress. And girls in particular, though one wonders how long they’ll be in school. Still, basic literacy will be a good start for them, rates of literacy here are tragically low.

There were also a lot of markets – large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables. Even bananas, which I thought would be a rarity, were on display. Bakeries, too. Naan/footbread is a staple food here, so there’s lots of bakeries, displaying loaves of various sizes in windows. The Afghans who work in our camp usually come to work with bags full of it, it’s their main meal during the day. Every now and then our interpreters bring some for us too, which is always a welcome treat. There’s nothing quite like it at home.

What did strike me, though, is the amount of garbage everywhere. In theory, we could probably revive the Afghan economy very quickly simply by paying people to pick up the tremendous amount of litter that’s on the streets and in the gutters. That does actually happen in some places, but not where I was. I don’t know how much there is in terms of municipal services in Kabul though, but perhaps someone entrepreneurial could come up with something. I saw an interesting documentary some months ago about Cairo, Egypt, where a whole economic system emerged to deal with waste management. Now, viewed through western optics, the idea of a class (or ethnic minority as it were) “relegated” to being trash collectors seems awful, but the fact is that this group did alright. They recycled huge amounts of Cairo’s refuse, including using organic waste to feed the pigs they used to support themselves. The system worked until Cairo started contracting out waste management (which residents apparently find doesn’t work as well) and the government culled their pigs during the swine flu paranoia. Incidentally, the Kabul Zoo was at that time home of the only pig in Afghanistan, which was quarantined.

Perhaps there is scope for some sort of system like that to emerge, who knows. It wouldn’t be pig based like the Zabbaleen in Cairo, but something might be possible.

It does make for a good argument for urban planning and sustainable growth, but Kabul doesn’t really have that, because people have streamed into the city over the last few years, and no one even really knows how many people live here. Housing is in short supply and extremely expensive, so what basically amount to shantytowns have emerged everywhere, and disputes over land ownership along with them, because as I understand it what records did exist didn’t survive the civil war.

Housing, thus, will be another challenge that Afghanistan will face. If economic activity continues to be concentrated here, as well, it will likely only get worse as people will migrate in from the rural areas.

Written by Nick

April 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Some Real Military Tourism – Well, Business Travel, More Like

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One of the more interesting facets of my job is getting to see a bit of the country supporting training activities. Recently, the ANA instructors at my school organized a course to be run outside of Kabul, and as mentors we traveled with them to observe the course. We were prepared to teach if need be, because one thing that can be a challenge is getting instructors to where the courses are happening. This course looked like it was going to have trouble running at first because some of the staffing requirements weren’t being met, however, it did come together alright in the end. So off I went to Camp Clark in Khost Province, located in eastern Afghanistan, with two ANA officer instructors and the rest of my mentor team.

Getting there was an experience.

It started with a flight to Bagram Airfield, the main US air hub in Afghanistan. We spent more time on the taxiway in the aircraft (on the hilariously named “Inshallah Airlines”, a civilian contracted airline with connects all sorts of places in Afghanistan, hubbed out of BAF) then we did in the air. Arriving at BAF we had a chance to visit Green Beans for a Spiced Chai Latte (arguably the greatest consumable item in the entire country), have something to eat, and catch the next flight out to an American FOB in Khost. FOB Salerno is a fairly large place, home currently to “Task Force Sparta” (unlike Canada, the Americans give their task forces awe-inspiring names, we just use numbers). Unfortunately we didn’t have a flight lined up from there onward, and couldn’t get out, so we spent the night there.

The flight was interesting, seeing the mountainous terrain, and the patches of green from irrigated fields along watercourses that probably carry runoff from snowcaps down from the hills. As we went more to the east more and more green became visible, striking against the generally brown rocky terrain which some people call “moonscape”. Afghan homes are walled compounds, and it was bizarre to see some of them sitting appearing totally isolated throughout the wildly varied landscape. Gradually the settlements became more dense as we got to our destination.

FOB Salerno has an interesting nickname – “Rocket City” from the rather large quantity of indirect fire it receives – or rather, received as things have quieted down, chiefly in the form of Chinese-made 107mm rockets. No, none landed while we were there – and realistically, such incidents are generally rare anyhow. I knew this before going though, so I did make a point of noting where the bunkers were around us just to be safe. There wasn’t exactly any shortage.

We had a stroll around the PX, picking up a couple of things that I can’t get easily where I am, and hit the gym and the basketball court, where I displayed a complete inability to play that particular sport (which, sadly, is the case for most sports), so I recused myself and just went and did some cardio instead in the biggest gym I’ve seen here yet. Dinner was a pretty tasty Afghan chicken curry. We visited Green Beans again, and sat out on the patio (in the dark, there aren’t any lights on at night for security reasons there), and talked about all sorts of things until we realized we were all absolutely bagged. After a long day traveling, I went to bed in not the most comfortable transient quarters.

The next morning, we were up early to catch a flight over to Camp Clark where we jumped straight into delivering the course.

Now, Camp Clark is something of a well-kept open secret among all the different posts and bases and so on. Not only is it set in rather picturesque surroundings (mind you, so is FOB Salerno, and it has trees!), but it is home to a guy by the name of George Piccardi, who is probably the greatest contributor to morale ever. George is a chef who’s been there for years, and he does a lot more than is normally expected of a civilian contractor to keep up morale. A more detailed explanation of his contribution is here. George oversees great meals, and events that keep morale high. We enjoyed amazing steaks, great ribs, enchiladas, and all sorts of other goodies during our stay there, and given that there are almost no other soldiers but Americans there, we stood out so he made sure we felt welcome.

We only wish we could persuade him to decamp to Kabul, specifically to our corner of it.

The actual manager of the DFAC there, it turns out, is Canadian, he spotted my uniform and came over, looking rather stunned that there was a Canuck where we aren’t normally to be found – he too gave us a sincere “if you need anything, we’ll hook you up…” He’s been here for about as long as George, eight years or so. I don’t know how they do it, but people like this are what really make a difference in the lives of people deployed. We did a lot of extra PT while we were there, but I think I probably gained some weight from indulging in the various wonderful creations on offer.

The course itself was a smashing success, the Afghan students were engaged and saw value in the course material, offered suggestions on how to improve it, and gave us some ideas to work with for the future. We got requests to have chai with almost everyone there, but only were able to take up the offer with the base fire chief who was keen to show off his garden and gazebo, talk about his life and so on. We were then treated to a rather cryptic “demonstration” afterward. It’s interesting that in that part of the country gardens seem to be popular and a source of great pride to people. My mother would be impressed I think. My little knowledge of Dari was mostly useless there, because Pashto is the more common language there, and I’m pretty much useless with it. We did alright though, with both the interpreter we traveled with, and one from out there who gave us a lot of really great information, and told his story of growing up in a camp in Pakistan, teaching himself English, and making quite a decent life for himself.

I also got to present some of the all-important course certificates. Afghan graduations are something to see. The physical certificate is key – and we had some challenges getting them in time but managed by daring and guile to pull it off. The graduate, on being called, will march up (and Afghan drill is Russian in origin, sort of!), announce who he is and that he is ready to receive his certificate, which on being presented it is held high for all to say while he yells “To Better Serve Afghanistan”. It’s really something else.

Returning was more or less the same, though we lucked into a flight out of BAF just as we arrived (it was running late and we got Space-A), so endless waits were avoided. BAF is a massive place, huge amounts of air traffic – cargo aircraft of every description, including some more “obscure” types, like Antonov An-72 Coalers – a small STOL cargo aircraft with its engine nacelles on top of its wings, which give it a distinctive look. It’s done to improve its short field performance, and they can definitely stop on a dime, I noticed. I was craning my neck constantly, as something of an aviation buff, to see all the different aircraft, different liveries, and so on.

Arriving in Kabul, we visited an Italian-run restaurant for some expensive but very tasty pizza and had a stroll through the German PX where I almost parted with a good chunk of money on a couple of items, but I thought better of it and decided not to. I was a good decision – I found some of the stuff I was looking at cheaper elsewhere. We cruised back to camp through the city with remarkably little traffic, and I actually got a chance to see more of it in daylight than usual. It’s a strangely beautiful place in a lot of ways – especially if you don’t look too closely. There’s the city walls and ancient fortresses, the houses built up the sides of the mountains that look so precarious – and advertising for all the amenities of the modern world all smashed together. 3G cellular service has just come to Kabul, and ads everywhere let you know.

Now I’m back in the office getting organized for a busy month ahead. We’ve got a little more clarity on our own transition plans, and that’s great because it gives us something to work with in terms of planning. Works for me.

Written by Nick

April 9, 2012 at 6:56 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

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

A Little Human Interest Piece

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It’s not getting a lot of media attention, but Afghanistan is experiencing an abnormally cold winter, particularly Kabul. The impact has been significant on Afghans, in particular Internally Displaced Persons – essentially refugees who still are within Afghanistan. Many Afghans have fled the south where violence is still intense, particular Helmand and Kandahar provinces, for the relative stability of Kabul, but they live in atrocious conditions in camps in the city. Today a New York Times piece caught my eye – it was a follow on a story they did on a camp in Kabul where a large number of children have been killed by the cold – a tragedy compounding Afghanistan’s already having the highest rate of infant mortality in the world. Anyhow, the link is here, and you’ll see the Times also has links to some organizations involved in helping out.

 

Written by Nick

March 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm

The Food… The Food!

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Our regular meals are provided for us by the DFAC – the local term for what Canadians often call the BARFF or just the mess. Most here are 24/7, at my particular camp they’re only open on set hours, but there’s not a big problem with getting access. Each meal time is about 2 hours long.

Last night, however, we had a little ceremony to welcome new arrivals (myself included) and wish farewell to those headed home. For those of you who laugh at how many medals and ribbons Americans sport, you’d have found it priceless. Almost everyone got some bling, including a Bronze Star. Following that we headed to the Afghan Restaurant here for dinner. What a feed. I think I’ll be going there with some regularity.

Dinner started with Bolani, a sort of stuffed flatbread that is sometimes referred to as “Afghan Pizza”, as well as naan/footbread and a spicy chutney. My dinner was qabili palauw, a sort of rice pilaf with carrots and raisins, which was excellent. It came served with some grilled beef as well. Following that, out came the mandatory chai, and much conversation followed, getting to know everyone, discussing leave plans, what people leaving are doing when they get home, etc. It reinforced the sort of family atmosphere that is part of making things work here.

Needless to say, I staggered back to my shacks absolutely stuffed.

Written by Nick

February 29, 2012 at 8:18 am

Heading Downrange

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As best I can tell, everything is ready to go other than a couple of things to throw in the mail that I’ll probably take care of today. I’m basically set to go, so this will be the last post I’m going to put up before I take off.

The only thing I’m really not looking forward to is the trip itself – it’s going to be a long, long couple of days to get from here to there, I think my best hope is to find some sort of sleep aid, knock myself out, and ideally wake up just enough to do what I have to do at the stops along the way. I’ll figure it out. I’m looking forward to getting there, not least because an old friend from my old unit is planning to meet me on arrival, and one of the people I’m taking over for is a coursemate from a few years ago as well, it’ll be good to catch up a bit before they head home.

This week, as is my custom, I’ve been doing a huge amount of reading. I figure I may as well put some miles on my Kindle before I leave. Customarily I prefer non-fiction stuff – history, science, that sort of thing. I’ve read all the major works of history on Afghanistan worth reading, so I finally decided to read Khaled Hosseini’s books, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I understand the popularity at last. You can read a lot of different sources on Afghan history. I’ll in particular recommend Sir Martin Ewan’s Afghanistan: A Short History Of Its People & Politics and Stephen Tanner’s Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander The Great To The War Against The Taliban as good starts. However, neither of these books can quite capture the human experience in the way Hosseini’s books do. I can’t, of course, vouch for the veracity/authenticity of the tales, but paired with the historical context of Afghanistan, they seem like they’d be a reasonable accounting.

If you’re particularly interested in the Soviet War in Afghanistan, I’d suggest Lester Grau’s two books: The Bear Went Over The Mountain and Other Side of the Mountain (which talks more about the mujahideen experience). They’re not easy to find, but worth it. I tracked the former down in a Toronto library, the latter I’ve only been able to see extracts of, but it’s very, very interesting.

Fiction, well written fiction, captures the human dimension that history texts don’t really want to reach. I’ve never really read books that do it so well, perhaps it’s a function of wanting to try to understand the people I’m going to interact with better. Imagine: the younger men who we’ll meet as ANA soldiers and officers will likely have grown up without ever having known real peace or modern society. Afghanistan plunged into civil war in 1978, after all. Prior to that, well, prior to the bloodless coup of 1973, it was a relatively modern country, at least in the cities. The population was educated, the sort of fundamentalist tyranny that would come later when the Taliban emerged was unheard of. You get the impression from A Thousand Splendid Suns that the Taliban, on appearing on the Afghan scene in 1992, were welcomed not so much because people thought they were great, but because there was for once, some semblance of stability. The older folks we’ll meet – the ANA’s senior officers, for example, will have had the experience of Afghanistan under Daoud Khan, and King Zahir Shah, when it was very different. I hope it might just be possible to learn about their history from them over many cups of tea.

It’s that stability that needs to be created again, but in a way that also brings some chance for economic prosperity and for everyone to participate. That will take away the incentive for anyone to become “Part Time Taliban” because they need the money. The solution to Afghanistan’s problems, as it were, has little to do with military force. It’s going to be built upon allowing a generation to grow up in relative peace, with education, and with an ability to take good jobs and provide for families. Security, however, is a precondition for that, and that’s the part we’re contributing to. It’s vital, but it isn’t the answer.

On top of all that, I’ve been working on Dari as hard as is reasonable. It’s not an easy language to learn, because it bears so little resemblance to  any language I’m familiar with. I speak pretty decent Spanish, passable French, and some German – but all three of those languages have some linguistic commonality with English, through the influence of Greek and Latin. Dari, a dialect of Farsi, has no such connection. I’m finding the verbs to be the most complicated, because they use so many different forms and I can’t figure a way out to make sense of them. I’ve put more of a focus on speaking and listening than reading and writing because it’ll be more practical. I will, of course, have a terp to help with my day-to-day interaction, but I’d like to be able to make some conversation and have a basis to learn more. The program I’m using is giving me some good basis to do that. I even now know how to refuse offers, something that is the way things are done there. Apparently, when Afghans offer hospitality, whether a meal or a cup of chai, the custom is to refuse politely at least once, ideally twice, before acquiescing. It sounds a little like Italians – and apparently, with meals it’s the same thing. Saying you don’t want anymore guarantees another full serving of whatever is on offer. Saying “just a little more” brings just that, enough to leave as a sign of being done.

Lots to learn, indeed. I’m also learning numbers which might just come in happy in my quest to acquire carpets, though I’m rather scared to have them out where our cats can get at them. We’ll see, I guess.

Anyhow, this will be it for a little while, until I actually get downrange, and even at that, I’ll warn you in advance that it may take a while before I get settled in and manage to get on with the story.

Written by Nick

February 17, 2012 at 1:00 pm