Nations are built one village at a time. Or so Colonel Bramble has come to believe. He is a thoughtful man, commanding a NATO provincial reconstruction team, one of 25 across the country, at a base in Qalat, between Kandahar and Kabul. His team is supposed to deliver the development and good governance that will marginalize the Taliban.
That’s the theory. The practice looks like this. Seven armored U.S. Humvees form a “perimeter” on the edge of the village and newly trained members of the Afghan police — the “Afghan face” on this mission — are dispatched to bring out village elders.
Looking apprehensive, the Afghans appear swathed in robes and headgear whose bold colors mock dreary U.S. Army camouflage. Staff Sgt. Marco Villalta, of San Mateo, Calif., steps forward: “We would like to ask you some questions about your village.”
The following is elicited: There are 300 families using 25 wells. Their irrigation ditches get washed away in winter. A small bridge keeps collapsing. They send their children to a school in nearby Shajoy, but it’s often closed because of Taliban threats to teachers.
Sergeant Villalta takes notes. “We’ll share this information with the governor and make sure that something is done.”
“No! No!,” says Sardar Mohammed. “We don’t trust the governor. If he gets food, he gives it to 10 families. He puts money in his pocket. We trust you more than him. Bring aid directly to us.”
Bramble’s view is that the governor is as good as officials get around here. The U.S. officer, like his country and NATO, is caught in the hall of mirrors of contested nation-building. The exchange at the village has traversed cultures, civilizations and centuries. For Western soldiers trained to kill, and now in the business of hoisting an Islamic country from nothing as fighting continues, that’s challenging.
“We’ve simply gotten heavier....We’ve become in many ways a second land army....These comments wouldn't raise an eyebrow amongst the broader COIN community. One of Charlie's favorite retired generals, LtGen Paul Van Riper, offered this by way of elaboration*:
We now have a generation of officers who has never stepped aboard a ship, and that concerns us with our naval flavor and ability to launch amphibious support,” he said.
It seems to me that General Conway is trying to restore some balance to what the Corps will be doing in the next few years. Like the Army who has armor captains that have never maneuvered as part of a battalion, let alone a brigade, the Corps has captains who have never participated in an amphibious operation. I'm not implying an amphibious assault, but simple ship to shore movement in support of non-combatant evacuation operations or a raid. This is one of many examples of skill sets that are atrophying. Marines have always taken pride in their ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations. I don't think our leadership is moving away from that. These leaders, however, do recognize a need to begin to develop other competencies in our young officers and Marines before they reach more senior ranks. At the same time, I'm sure there is a desire to regain the expeditionary mindset that has long typified Marines.Charlie is actually quite sympathetic to these concerns, particularly with regard to training and education. These skills are hard to maintain, quick to diminish, and unique to the Marine Corps. She assumes most readers of this blog would find it hard to disagree with the rationale presented here.
In dialogue with those folks, the point came out that you can have a major contingency operation kind of capability, and still do the lesser included things to include counterinsurgency. The reverse of that statement is probably not true. So we need to either make sure that we get that balance right, whatever that balance may in time need to be.With all due respect (and all evidence to the contrary), Charlie would like to call BS. It's comments like these that lead many to the sad conclusion that the current commandant doesn't "get it." (One wonders how differently Gen. Mattis would have phrased his thoughts on the subject.) It's pretty clear that our general purpose forces (not to mention significant elements of their leadership) have found COIN challenging to say the least.
At first, Charlie thought this shot across the bow was the most startling statement in this op-ed today. But then she saw:
Today marks five years since the authorization of military force in Iraq, setting Operation Iraqi Freedom in motion. Five years on, the Iraq war is as undermanned and under-resourced as it was from the start. And, five years on, Iraq is in shambles.
As Army captains who served in Baghdad and beyond, we've seen the corruption and the sectarian division. We understand what it's like to be stretched too thin. And we know when it's time to get out.
U.S. forces, responsible for too many objectives and too much "battle space," are vulnerable targets. The sad inevitability of a protracted draw-down is further escalation of attacks -- on U.S. troops, civilian leaders and advisory teams. They would also no doubt get caught in the crossfire of the imminent Iraqi civil war.So what they're saying is our exit strategy (such as it is) will only make things worse for Americans on the ground (to say nothing of that imminent civil war)? Why didn't they say anything while they were still in uniform?
This is Operation Iraqi Freedom and the reality we experienced. This is what we tried to communicate up the chain of command. This is either what did not get passed on to our civilian leadership or what our civilian leaders chose to ignore. While our generals pursue a strategy dependent on peace breaking out, the Iraqis prepare for their war -- and our servicemen and women, and their families, continue to suffer.Oh, snap! They did! (We'll leave for another day the question of if and how this information was willfully disregarded.) Well, are there any options left on the table?
To many this will seem simplistic. And it is. (Charlie, for one, is reluctant to fetishize the tactical observations of boots on the ground) . But that doesn't mean it's wrong. Fellow traveler Phil Carter has been beating the draft drum for some time. And Steve Biddle has highlighted similar problems with a Goldilocks-like desire to chart a middle course of advisors and phased draw-down. We can either fight a proper counter-insurgency campaign, or we can come home.
There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.
America, it has been five years. It's time to make a choice.