Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘counterinsurgency

Spreading The Message

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Day four of our course and things are going pretty well. I’m realizing – well, to be honest, I’ve always known that I love teaching. Especially when the topic is something that really interests me and that I can really dig deep into. That’s the kind of person I am, I’ll do loads of research and want to get as much insight into things as I can to convey it.

The course I’m teaching on as part of three-man Mobile Training Team has just shy of 100 students, the largest audience I’ve ever taught in front of by far. We are working in a nice theatre, three big projectors, and a ridiculous audio-visual suite. I’ve never taught with monitors before, so when I ask a question the cacophony coming back through the monitors makes it challenging.

The students are great. They range from junior NCOs to senior officers, from Canada, the USA, the UK, Estonia, Slovenia, Poland, Hungary, Belgium, and Spain.

I’ve been a little ambiguous about what I do in Afghanistan, but I think I can ease up on that. I work at the Counterinsurgency Training Center – Afghanistan as a COIN instructor, validation officer, and I’ll soon be taking on a staff mentor role as well. As we work on transitioning to ANA running the show, we are involved less and less in actual training. This is actually probably the last coalition training we will do, and we are basically here in Germany to train, validate, and certify counterinsurgency instructors who can then train their soldiers in preparation both to come to Afghanistan or to get involved in any sort or low intensity conflict or counterinsurgency operation. We are teaching some Afghan-specific stuff, but a lot of generic theory.

The other instructors I’m here with I haven’t taught with before but it’s working well, we have a pretty good rapport and our styles mesh well. We take lots of jabs at each other to keep the atmosphere light and encourage students to jump in – we want them to challenge us, debate us. We aren’t all-knowing experts, after all.

Being in Germany has an element of surrealism to it after being in Afghanistan three months. I rented a car and driving after three months of almost never doing it is a strange feeling indeed. I’ve not yet been out onto the Autobahn but that’s coming in a couple of days.

Being on a US base requires me to get a “ration card” to be able to shop at the PX or Commissary (supermarket) on base. It’s actually a stamp on my NATO Travel Order, which allows me to buy four cartons of cigarettes, four bottles of spirits, and 1.25 pounds of coffee (or 5 ounces of instant coffee). Quite an allowance for two weeks, none of which I have any use for. The rations restrictions are in place because these goods are tax exempt, but apparently controls on many goods exist because there’s a chance soldiers might get the idea to resell stuff into the black market – these are remnants of occupation rules really.

Last night we visited the “German Kantine” on post to mingle a bit, from the Germans I got travel advice for Berlin, from Canadians some good war stories, and there’s a British Captain who has a lot of background dealing with ANA and told some stories about defusing some of the problems we have dealing with religion – he’s a Muslim and didn’t let ten get away with shirking work to pray as I’ve seen happen. “Great, it’s prayer time. I’ll pray with you. We’ll do it tactically! Half provide security, half pray and switch.” “But we need water for wudu (ritual ablutions)!”. “No you don’t. Use dust, that’s allowed!”. This was a brilliant way to disarm them – something most of us can’t do.

As a demonstration of “Good COIN”, he offered to drive me back to my hotel in Regensburg so my colleagues could head back to the hotel early. Perfect.

We have some sightseeing planned on the little bit of downtime we have, and when that’s all done we head back. By coincidence a good friend of mine from home isn’t far away on another NATO tasking, I haven’t seen him in months, so it’ll be great to catch up when we get together on our off day.

Written by Nick

June 7, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Dealing With Bad Press And Perceptions

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I have to learn to stop reading comments to online news stories. And columnists who are armchair generals.

One thing I hoped keeping this blog would accomplish was educating people a bit about what Canadian soldiers, ISAF, NATO, all of us are actually doing in Afghanistan. I think it’s an important undertaking, because frankly, most average people on the street barely have any idea where Afghanistan is on a map, let alone understand what brought us here in the first place, what’s happening now, and what’s succeeding.

I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader giving the glossed-over story, but I’m sure most of you can understand why I have to be cautious about being too candid. The news, however, is generally pretty decent, without having to spin it.

One of the comments I’ve seen a lot goes something like this: “We’ve been there for ten years! How come we’re still needing to train these people?!” or something along that line. As one comment to a recent post mentioned, I might have been a little unclear about how long we’ve been training – efforts to build and train the Afghan National Army aren’t new – they’ve been going on since 2002 or so. That said, it’s not something that’s quick to accomplish.

Consider what we’re starting with. Afghanistan by 2001 had endured 23 years of almost ceaseless war – both the Soviet invasion, and the civil war that followed. Even from 1996 onward, there was still fighting against the Taliban. And prior to the Soviet invasion, starting with the Saur Revolution in 1973, there was fighting to various degrees throughout the country. As a result of that, a vast swath of the county’s population, especially its youth, are woefully undereducated, and illiteracy remains a massive problem throughout Afghanistan. In recent years, literally millions of children are now getting educated and learning basic literacy.

Militaries are composed of a few different groups of people. In most modern militaries, there’s three main groups – the Officers, the Non-Commissioned Officers and the Other Ranks. In Canada we call them NCM’s – Non-Commissioned Members. You can also see it commonly broken down into Officers and Enlisted Men. Training Officers isn’t particularly difficult, you want reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-educated people who can make sound plans and have leadership qualities. Training NCMs – your private soldiers, as it were, is also not particularly hard. In both cases, you need to have training institutions, actual course material and structures to train them with, and competent instructors to do that training. Now, where do you find those? In NCOs, generally. In the Canadian Army, both NCMs and Officer candidates receive the bulk of their training from NCOs – how to dress, how to do drill, how to read maps, use compasses, live and work in the field, and so on. Officers learn tactics from other officers, and tactics are their responsibility, but NCOs make Western militaries run. They handle what we often call “beans, bullets, benzene” – food, ammo, fuel, and so on. They are the backbone of our militaries because they can get all the administration done to make things work. A good NCO is priceless to an officer. From him (or her, of course), the officer will get counsel based on long experience, and will be freed of many of the menial tasks he might otherwise need to do so that he can focus on his job. As a platoon commander, my 2IC at times cooked meals for me, made sure I had coffee, and even a few times physically put me to ground (ie, to sleep) so that I’d have enough rest to be effective. They are priceless.

And they take a long time to train and develop. In days of old, the Soviet Union, and armies it developed/advised dispensed with a proper, professional NCO Corps, opting to pick recruits (often conscripts) who appeared a little fitter or smarter than others, and immediately promote them. They were largely ineffective because they didn’t have any real experience, and even if they did, it was assumed they didn’t, even the most mundane tasks still required the involvement of officers. Contrast that to the experience of many Western junior officers who will have the experience of being “steered away” from a lot of things by their NCOs, with a gentle admonishment that things are well in hand.

Afghanistan was built on that model. Even though the training system is aiming to develop a proper, professional NCO Corps, it’s hard to get buy in when you are still dealing with a lot of officers from the Soviet Era – what my interpreter refers to as the “Communist Army”. (He jokingly refers to the new ANA as the “Infidel Army”).

Developing those NCOs takes time. A Sergeant in the Canadian Army will normally have about eight years of experience under his belt in the Regular Force – a little less in the Reserves, but still quite a bit of experience, not only being trained to lead, but also training other soldiers. You cannot accelerate that development process here in Afghanistan. Or anywhere, for that matter. It’s something that even newer members of NATO (ex-Warsaw Pact countries) have difficulty with, as I understand it. Building that culture of solid, profession, empowered NCOs who are trusted by officers to do their jobs takes time. We do what we can, overall, to teach by example, to let our ANSF peers see how NCOs and Officers should work together, but getting the idea of delegation and division of tasks to make sense to them is not easy.

We are at the point now where those things are starting to work, but it’s slow going. Training structures like branch schools exist, instructor development programs and qualification training for instructors exists as well, so that competent NCO instructors can be actively involved in recruit training, for example. However, from what I’ve seen and heard in discussions with other mentors, things are not at the point where NCOs are being effectively used, and that’s probably a cultural issue that will take a long time to overcome – possibly, some muse, until all those “Communist Army” officers retire.

Delegation of authority is another complexity – because authority is conspicuous power, and while from my perspective coming from a Western professional army, delegation of authority to make decisions to the lowest possible level is makes everything work better, that concept doesn’t yet fully make sense in the ANSF. If you read any of the myriad of journal articles on OMLT experiences with Afghan units, you’ll see that good planning and rehearsals for operations is impeded by the failure to delegate. In the CF, we’re taught a process called Battle Procedure. BP can literally be used to accomplish anything – it’s actually something most people do subconsciously in their daily lives when planning to do anything. One of the keys to it is time management. On getting a task from a superior, one of the first steps is a quick time estimate – how long do I have to get it done – what timings to I have – and ideally, how do I give 2/3s of that time to my subordinates so they can get to work on their part of things. What a lot of the reports and articles I read suggested is that this doesn’t happen, meaning operations are hastily planned without effective use of time, or any of the processes we use to make sure that all the leaders involved are well-coordinated, which we do through extensive rehearsals and war-gaming wherever possible – and we always make it possible in some way.

The other common refrain I hear is “these guys know all about fighting, why are we training them”. Well, some do know how to operate a rifle, but military organizations require a lot more than that. You need clerks, cooks, medics, storemen, combat engineers, artillerymen, military police, and all sorts of other trades to make a force actually function. When you try to mesh that with that problem I mentioned above – illiteracy and innumeracy – it’s complicated. For example, training artillery units is difficult when you have a lot of soldiers who cannot read maps or do math required to effectively employ the guns. While the ANA has some pretty capable field artillery guns, they’re hobbled by the fact that their units cannot employ them to provide indirect fire effectively. Similarly, administration of a large force is a challenge with that illiteracy. Managing pay and leave in a country with a primitive banking system and rudimentary transportation infrastructure is hard. But progress is happening.

I won’t into the potential impact of corruption too much, but you can imagine what could be problems. Hoarding or theft of equipment and stores (fuel in particular as I understand it) could be a major problem. We joke in our army about how supply techs won’t give us stuff (“but if I give you this new rucksack, I won’t have one on my shelf!”), but here the power implicit in holding equipment is huge – even broken/non-serviceable stuff apparently, even when there’s a system in place to get rid of it or exchange it. I don’t know if this is a broad problem – it’s just something that is common in anecdotes about Warsaw Pact legacy armies. There are advisors heavily focused on developing the supply system, and on the surface it seems it’s generally working.

Lest I sound like I’m painting a bleak picture, though, let me be clear – things are working. I met an advisor from the Consolidated Fielding Center where newly-formed ANA Kandaks roll out the gate constantly to deploy to their garrisons, and what he told us is that he’d watch their prep and be staggered by how ridiculous it often seemed – BUT – they got out the door. I’ll remind you of that descriptor, Afghan Good, or Afghan Good Enough.

As transition moves forward and the supports of the advisory teams get withdrawn from the ANSF, they’ll find ways to deal with these challenges. They will have to. Remember how a lot of kids are taught to swim, being thrown abruptly into the water? We’re not quite going to see that happen, but what will happen is the ANSF will be forced through the transition process to find their own way – to solve their own problems. They will use some of the tools we’re giving them, and they’ll create and improvise their own ways of doing things. The final product won’t look like a modern Western professional military necessarily, just as in the broader sense there was never any illusions about turning Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy. It doesn’t fit the historical context – instead, Afghans will find the solutions they need to move forward, ideally – and we’ll have helped keep the wolves at bay long enough for their sheepdogs to get ready.

They proved that they can do that last week during the attacks on Kabul – they had some support from ISAF – some air support and some Special Forces support – but they did a lot of the work themselves, in a way that minimized collateral damage and repelled the assault, and life in Kabul got back to normal pretty quickly by most accounts. That’s the progress that needs to happen. But media doesn’t tell the story that way. Instead, they talk about things like the Tet Offensive, compare transition here to the largely ineffective “Vietnamization” process during that war. But it takes a lot of shoehorning and exaggeration to map Vietnam’s history (and mistakes) onto Afghanistan. It sells newspapers, though – and slow progress doesn’t.

So, the key message I have? Things are working here. It’s slow because there’s a lot of factors you won’t likely read about in most critiques, or understand if you don’t have a military background, so what I’m trying to do here is provide some of that context to complete the picture a bit. I won’t give you the rosy, all-singing, all-dancing soundbite, but a more broad perspective ideally. I hope it helps you understand why we are here and why it’s taking time to get it right.

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

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.

Settling In

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I’m getting settled into routines now that I’m here and have been a little while. After a couple of days at our reception centre, we headed out to our camps to meet the people we are replacing and get more permanently settled. In my case, things were a little complicated because of the change in position I found out about when I arrived to catch the plane, but the decision was to send me to where I was going originally as it was close to my new job, and then they’d figure it out.

One of the people who met us was an old friend of mine from the Infantry School (who has a familial connection to a former unit I was in as well) so we had a chat and got caught up. Most amusing was meeting the guys I trained up with who were sounding like grizzled vets based on their extra week or so on the ground. We sat down for some coffee and discussed plans, got rooms sorted out, a tour of the camp, and so on. I spent one night there in the transient room (which featured the same totally uncomfortable mattresses that our first stop had) before moving to my current home, where I was pleased to discover much more comfortable lodgings. My current home is still a transient room, but it’s got a much more comfortable mattress. Picture a big hall full of bunk beds. If you’ve seen Full Metal Jacket, you’ve got the idea, but subtract R. Lee Ermey screaming, and there’s only about six of us living there. It’ll do until we get permanent rooms which will happen as our counterparts head back to Canada. I have another week living there.

The other nice feature of my lodgings in contrast to my first to stops is that the showers/bathrooms are in the same building rather than a separate one, which is nice given the amount of snow and ice on the ground currently. The cold we’re experiencing is pretty unusual, so it’s got people off guard, and things like weatherstripping aren’t a major concern here, so there’s a lot of draft, the bathroom itself seems unheated, but it’s not like we spend much time there. My bedspace itself is just fine, I can sleep comfortably in my ranger blanket without anything else.

Also we’re away from the smog of the city, and even though I’m feeling the altitude, it’s not uncomfortable at all – the air seems a lot more pleasant than it did downtown. And the view… the view – the snow capped mountains, etc etc. I’ll get some pictures sent up at some point. I think I’ll just upload them to flickr, we’ll see.

Right now, I’m not really doing anything, waiting to start some courses I need to do to learn the basics of my job here. Until that happens I feel a little useless, but I’m getting acquainted with my colleagues, who come from a pretty broad base of backgrounds.

We’ve got a bit of entertainment learning all the different uniforms of ISAF countries, there’s so many different people here, and the grooming standards are a bit of a source of entertainment. The best I’ve seen so far was a couple of Slovakian officers sporting beards and long hair, and they weren’t even SOF types – just regular air force captains, apparently. Also loved the Bulgarian Army PT uniform that looks like the kids from the bad dojo in Karate Kid’s travel kit.

My shop is composed of Australians, Britons, Americans, and a smattering of others. I’m going to have to learn to speak Australian before long, in addition to Dari, which I’m working on as best I can. Our interpreters are only too happy to help with that, though, so I’m picking up a little here and there and mostly building confidence in what I do now. I’m going to make a point of using it as much as possible with them – though their concern is that they’re mainly doing written/reading work and need to “exercise” their spoken English, too.

I’ve been down to visit the Afghan shops – they proudly proclaim that they can get you just about anything in 24 hours – for a price. I’ve only picked up a SIM card for my phone and a power bar/converter so I can charge all my stuff. I have, however, been checking out more interesting souvenirs – carpets, pashminas, lapis lazuli, and stuff like that for gifts. I’m also kind of interested in getting a jezail as a wallhanger for a mancave in some future home. A jezail is an Afghan long-barreled musket. During the Anglo-Afghan Wars, they were a key advantage to the Afghans, greatly outranging the British muskets, wielded by horse-riding marksmen. A guy at one shop had some nice ones (adorned with carving and inlays as is traditional) that has a date stamp on the flintlock of 1785. That, of course, is probably nonsense, it was likely a reproduction made in the famous Khyber Pass gunshops. He wanted $250USD. Not a chance, but I’ll keep an eye out for others. I’m not planning on buying mountains of swag, but a few interesting things to remember the place I’ll definitely go for.

I do feel vindicated for buying all my consumables in Canada before coming, even if my UAB hasn’t been delivered to me yet. It’s in-country, but the deliveries aren’t going to start until all the Relief in Place is done, apparently. The shops here have all sorts of things, but I’m happier with stuff I know. We did get told, after all, that if you’re particularly finicky about brands for personal care type products (not that I am) to make sure you had a good stash, and a plan to get more sent. While the bigger camps have US PXs that sell everything, there were two American female MPs in the shops today, one looking very grim about being unable to get tampons here (and presumably with an immediate need!). Fortunately, one of our colleagues sorted her out for now. I don’t think she wanted to explain to the shopkeep what she wanted, even if their 24 hour promise was possible.

We did get one piece of bad news. Our departing colleagues apparently were a little overzealous using the US APO system to do a lot of shopping (including ordering all sorts of things to send home), and as a result of the burden placed on their delivery system, they’ve cut off foreigners from using it. Given that we’re hearing that Canadian mail takes a whole lot longer, it’s disappointing, but one of my American peers is going to let me use his address if needed. So I’m alright, I guess – and most Canadians will probably be able to do the same, which I suppose means that the problem won’t really be fixed anyhow!

So far so good, I feel I’m rambling again, so that’s enough for now.

Written by Nick

February 28, 2012 at 3:01 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

No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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