Afghanistan-A-Go-Go

A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Posts Tagged ‘development

Spem Reduxit

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Hope restored – that’s actually the motto of the Royal New Brunswick Regiment, which I don’t actually have anything to do with, but it seemed a fitting title for today’s post. Things are looking up, actually. After the meeting we had the other day I wrote about, which went all sorts of wrong, we started working with various levels to try to figure out a way forward and to understand what happened and why, and it was productive. Various advisors conferred with various ANA personnel to discuss the situation and it appears to be somewhat resolved. We actually got what one advisor called “the closest thing to an apology you’re likely to get here, the closest he’s ever seen” for the way our meeting went. It turns out that there was some “lost in translation” and cultural disconnects in play. What the General who came was getting at was that in his view there was a long way to go before transition, and he wanted to make sure that we knew that he expected a lot from the ANA staff and from us to help make that happen. Or something like that.

So we’re going to just carry on as before. Mostly. We’ve also embarked on a good project to keep us going for a while, to review all the “final” course material to make sure it is good to go for transition. Part of the frustration that the Canadian team has found is that the Americans don’t do lesson plans like we do. Canadian military lesson plans are very detailed, to the point that theoretically someone who’s not even that well versed in a subject can read the plan over and be in a position to teach the material reasonably well. That, personally, annoys me because it does happen – people are pegged to teach stuff they don’t really know much about – but it’s worse when you get a “lesson plan” that consists of what the material to be taught is, and a PowerPoint slide deck that has some notes. That’s it, that’s all. It’s not something that you can easily pick up and study and be set to teach.

What we’re embarking on is a task to take all the “finalized” lessons and flesh out the speakers notes into much more detail to make it so instructors have a little more to go on. Afghans, we’re told, generally will get a lesson and master it by memorizing the material (including having people read it all to them repeatedly if they’re illiterate, which happens), but won’t always go the extra step to get the depth we’d like. Again, to be fair, we do this too sometimes! The point, however, is to make it so there’s a lot more knowledge built into the material they’re using so that they’ll have more to work with, which I think is good.

That gives me a bit of a renewed sense of purpose, because at times I was getting to wonder how I was going to keep busy with everything that happened last week.

Written by Nick

June 27, 2012 at 5:14 am

Looking Ahead

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It’s commonly written that combat tours are hours of boredom and seconds of insense rushes of energy. Working as an advisor isn’t really like that – frankly, we do get bored a lot of the time, because there’s only so much you can accomplish in a day, and while most of us have what one senior officer described as that distinctly Canadian type-A drive to do stuff, to make things happen, to fix problems, we’re forced to try not to do so, because the whole idea is to create conditions where the Afghans have to deal with their own problems rather than us doing everything for them.

In the last few days we’ve gotten some visits from some high-priced help to talk about the high level view of NTM-A’s mission, how things are working out, an the way forward. The whole point of the mission is a transition plan to hand all responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to ANSF, and doing so has three planned phases in terms of reductions: the first one is to pull about 50% of support out, the idea being to stress the systems as much as possible so that we can see how things will work with lots of time left before 2014. Then 30%. Then the final 20% will leave, and the ANSF will have sole responsibility for national security.

The key message to us – and it didn’t surprise me – is to manage our expectations, and to realize that we won’t turn the ANSF into modern, Western-style military and police organizations. It’s simply not a realistic expectation. There are too many problems to overcome to do that – and it simply wouldn’t be a cultural fit. Instead, what we want to do is at least give them some ideas to work with on developing Afghan Right institutions. What we need to do wherever possible is demonstrate good ways to do things and hope that our partners glean some ideas out of seeing our actions.

It’s happening at all levels, which is good – one of the main efforts is to develop the NCO course – I posted before about how integral good NCOs are to western armies, and so even at the highest levels of NTM-A, Generals go to meeting bringing their Sergeants Major, and expect that their ANA counterparts have theirs with them. If they don’t, then the meetings are cancelled. I think that’s absolutely brilliant, because it shows how important the message is about effective command teams – and that’s the way we frame them now – as a team of an officer and an NCO – each has specific responsibilities and roles, but the two together are integral to any team’s success. Showing our partners how that works is important, because they don’t really get the value of NCOs yet.

It was a good opportunity for us to ask questions, voice concerns, and so on. I have to say, I have an almost infinite amount of respect for a senior leader who tells you to say what you mean, and then says “If you’re not man enough (it was an all-male crowd) to ask me tough questions or say what’s on your mind, then frankly, I don’t really care about your point of view, but if it is something I can influence, good or bad, then say it.” And people did. And his answers were frank as well, which was excellent. There were candid statements about how things were done wrong with training the ANSF, how focuses were put in wrong places, and so on, but there’s effort being made to right those wrongs, and that’s productive.

I’m on the front end of one of those transitions. My organization has already seen its manning cut dramatically, and when my tour ends, this organization will be done – completely handed to the ANA to run with. So we’re working to make sure it has the best possible chance of succeeding, which includes decentralizing as much training as possible, training and developing ANA instructors as much as possible, and helping them put in place the structures they’ll need to make things work without us here. We know – I know – that they will abandon a lot of things when we go – that’s been seen in places like Iraq, where a lot of the systems the US military put in place for the new Iraqi Army were discarded as soon as the Americans left in favour of time-tested ways of doing things. The Afghans will do that here too. So all we really can hope to do is give them more tools and ideas to work with.

I will say, candidly, that if we’ve had unrealistic expectations of the end result of developing the ANSF, some of their officers have also had unrealistic expectations. A conversation with Afghan military personnel about stability and the future rarely gets far without a mention of Pakistan. It’s hard at times to avoid the impression that Afghans think of Pakistan as being responsible for all the evil in the world, despite the fact, as my interpreter put it, that “Afghans sold off their country for a few more rupees” and have some responsibility too. There are ANA officers I’ve met who think they should be equipped and trained as an expeditionary force to go to war with Pakistan to resolve the interference. This is of course a ludicrous idea for many reasons. Efficacy aside, since the West is paying the bills, we’re not interested in paying for that. What we want the ANSF to do is be able to defend the country, deal with insurgent threats, and allow the government to exercise sovereign control over the whole of Afghanistan, so that effective governance can take hold, and the country can essentially get back on its feet.

A lot of criticism gets leveled at ISAF for trying to paint the rosiest picture possible of transition progress, and I can’t blame them for doing that. That’s what Public Affairs folks are for – to handle messaging. That said, there’s been a lot of successes in terms of ANSF ability to plan and execute operations and that bodes well for the future. Even when there have been big attacks on Kabul, for example, what they’ve demonstrated is an ability to respond fairly well, with fairly minimal support – and that capability grows constantly. It’s all too easy to criticize what has been done and what capability exists because we haven’t managed to turn Afghanistan into a western-style liberal democracy with a thriving mixed economy. But there’s no reasonable prospect of doing that – there never was.

I think the best summation of realistic expectations runs something like this – paraphrased from a senior officer: “Afghanistan will be a horrible place to live for a very long time.” That’s probably fairly true – but even for that it will get better over time, and that gives us something to work at.

Written by Nick

May 8, 2012 at 9:03 am

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.

Eight Weeks (And Then Some)

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Friday mornings are my “weekend”. We knock off work early Thursday and don’t have to be in the office until 1pm on Friday, giving me a morning to sleep in, and generally, we all meet for pancakes at the Afghan restaurant for brunch. It’s a nice little routine.

It’s now been eight weeks I’ve been here (actually a little more – I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Kabul International Airport on February 23) and I’m pretty well settled in. We’ve got a pattern of life mostly established, I work with a pretty awesome team of people, and we not only get our work done, we have a fair bit of fun doing it. There’s really no one in the cell I work in that I don’t get along with. Of course, we have extra incentive to get along, it’s not that easy to just move along.

Just like at home, we have training to get done, and we’ve now worked out a schedule to keep up on it. Things like ethics training are normal components of military life, and as one of the Canadian Unit Ethics Coordinators on the ground, I have a chore to run an hour refresher on a regular basis. We have first aid refreshers, ROE training refreshers, and of course range training.

Yesterday was a pretty rainy day in Kabul, and just as you might expect, it was also the day appointed for us to go to the range. There’s only a small contingent of Canadians where I work, but we’re close to another bunch, so we pool some of our training activities, so off we drove to the 100m range. It’s a rather unusual setting, more austere than a range at home, but that’s not shocking. The plan was to do some rifle zero confirmation (that is, making sure what you see through our optical sight matches where the bullets are hitting) for those who needed it, and then do some transition shooting. That means switching between rifle/carbine and pistol, which you might need to do if for some reason your rifle fails to fire and you need to get rounds down range.

Arriving at the range, which was a good test of the four wheel drive in the beat up Toyota Land Cruiser we had for the day, we discovered the rain had created a vast sea of sucking, heavy mud. Trudging around in it wasn’t much fun, and I found myself rather glad that I had jumped at a chance to do my zeroing already, because to do it right, you have to shoot from the prone, and laying in a mud pit wasn’t my idea of a good time. Transitions, on the other hand, weren’t so bad – but it went quickly, and I honestly can’t complain, because the wind, the rain, and the wet was just unpleasant, and I was happy to get back to camp and go to the gym to warm up. The range we went to faces into a mountain, but has lots of pasture land around, and several herds of goats and sheep could be seen, their tenders paying little attention to us.

On ranges in Canada, at the end of the day’s shooting, you have to pick up brass – all the spent casings. On courses, it’s common for staff to threaten some punishment for missing any – usually 10 pushups per casing. Here, before we could even imagine picking up any brass, the ANA tend to race down to take care of it. Brass is valuable, after all. The speed with which they work makes me think that they’re the closest thing to the mythical “brass magnet” that we suggest recruits should have brought with them.

One of the training/professional development events coming up will be a rather amusing fusion of my two careers – recently, a change to the retirement benefits Canadian soldiers get was announced. It’s similar to what was done for civilian defence employees last year, which kept me busy at my day job, so I’m going to run a little seminar for my colleagues who are impacted so I can help them understand what’s changing and the financial implications. Kind of funny to see my two professions collide, but I got enough requests that it only made sense.

Things are going well. Kabul is back to normal after last week’s attack, and I traveled through the city including past the site of one of the incidents shortly after and there was no real sign of anything having happened. Life has returned to normal, I think.

A bit about Kabul. I’ll try to get some pictures at some point, but it’s a bit of a crazy city. I’ve never seen traffic anything like it. Most intersections are traffic circles with police trying to direct traffic, but the reality is that they are trying to shoehorn chaos and it barely works. Add to this pandemonium seemingly aimless pedestrians everywhere, and you have a recipe for disaster, though it doesn’t seem like there’s that many real accidents. Most vehicles are Toyota Corollas imported from everywhere. Canadian ones are particularly prized apparently, and often have Canadian flag stickers on them. Where I used to live, in Oshawa, Ontario, an Afghan-Canadian who owned a pizza shop had a side business of buying used Corollas and sending them over – there were always several parked in front of his shop. There’s also a wide assortment of buses (often old German ones) and trucks (again, commonly German, with their original marking intact), and Toyota HiAce minivans, into which you can pack about 45 Afghans.. Often an Afghan license plate is simply put on top of the original German/European one. The other popular means of conveyance are motorcycles – generally Japanese or Chinese bikes, normally 150cc or so. They’re often adorned with all sorts of personalization – flags, stickers, tassels, and carpets on the seats. They make me miss bikes, but I’ve picked out my new one for when I get home.

Signs are everywhere advertising the latest technology – 3G phones are now available here, with Roshan and Etisalat rolling out their networks. Cell phone adds are most common, but you’ll see advertising for banks, insurance companies, and so on. Business is brisk, often in little shops, but new office/commercial buildings are everywhere as well, and there’s lots under construction (though it’s from buildings under construction that the most serious attacks have been launched). In addition to internet cafes and schools, you’ll see bakeries with footbread hanging on display (they generally sport fluorescent orange and yellow awnings, I’ve noticed), and butcher shops with meat just hanging out in the open – a little bit bizarre. Apparently, some of our guys saw a cow being slaughtered in the street in the city, locals didn’t seem to think anything of it. Not exactly what you’d expect at home.

What is most astounding is the sprawl, though. Kabul’s surrounded by steep mountains, and settlements are built all up them – little goat track-like roads lead up almost impossibly steep slopes to shanty towns which make me think of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. They’re a sign of the real problem – Kabul was a city of about 500,000 until just a few years ago, now estimates place its population anywhere from 2-5 million – and the city doesn’t have adequate housing or services for them. That’s an issue they’ll have to tackle over time – but how, I’m not sure.

Written by Nick

April 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm

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

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.