November 30, 2007

Ad-hockery in Afghanistan

The Wall Street Jounal has a long and excellent article about the COIN Academy in Afghanistan. Establishing tactical schools in-country is a well known COIN best practice (the Jungle Warfare School in Malaya is perhaps the best known amongst COIN scholars). And, as part of our steep learning curve in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have put together such schools in both countries.

In fact, the TTP and lessons learned being taught in Kabul are certainly cause for celebration by Galula-lovers everywhere:

Academy instructors teach that counterinsurgents must "clear, hold and build" to insulate the public from insurgent tactics while demonstrating that the government has something better to offer. In the "clear" stage, Afghan and coalition troops physically force insurgents from villages and towns, separating them from the civilian populace. The military then fills the void with quick-impact aid such as emergency clinics, food distribution or free blankets and farm implements.

In the next phase, the government and its allies must maintain a constant presence to hold the villages, to reassure the public that the insurgents won't come back to punish those who collaborate with the authorities. They also should sweeten the pot by providing more substantial projects to demonstrate Kabul's competence, such as rebuilding a mosque or repairing irrigation ditches. "You lose credibility with the people if you don't hold," Marine First Lt. Jack Isaac, a 24-year-old instructor from Dallas, Pa., warned his class.

Instructors told students how in the Chalekor Valley in Zabur Province, an American-led force cleared five villages in May 2006 and inflicted terrible casualties on Taliban fighters who tried to overrun a joint U.S.-Afghan base. The allied forces provided medical services and other goodwill projects. But ultimately they didn't have enough troops to maintain a presence in the valley. When they pulled out, the Taliban returned.

The "build" phase requires long-term economic development so that "the enemy is no longer welcome and support for the government is strong," according to the academy's student handbook. That means bigger projects, such as paved roads linking isolated villages to market towns. Results ultimately will be apparent not in the number of dead Taliban, instructors say -- but in indicators such as school attendance, election turnouts, business growth and increasing tips about impending attacks.


Capt. Helmer says counterinsurgents face a paradox: "The more you protect the force, the less safe you are." When coalition troops hole up in big bases, surrounded by barbed wire and sand barriers, they risk turning the locals toward the insurgents. Small, vulnerable outposts set among the villages, such as ones the Army has erected along the Pech River Valley near Pakistan, bring troops and people closer together. When the insurgents attack the troops, they are attacking the people, too. But such exposed positions also increase the near-term risk of allied casualties.

But the Academy itself is a reflection of broader trends in our effort in Afghanistan: good, often great, innovation by leaders on the ground coupled with a sideshow budget and also-ran cast.

But as the academy students discovered, putting the theory into practice can feel like building a sand castle as the tide is coming in. There's only so much aid money to go around. There are only so many soldiers to clear and hold. There are local blood feuds to resolve. There are local power structures to decipher. There are civilians to charm. And there are insurgents trying to disrupt the whole venture.

One common complaint in Afghanistan is that the coalition makes big promises, but fails to deliver. "Afghans don't understand how, if the world's only superpower is involved in a fight, it can't get them a goddamn road after promising to do so in 2002," says Capt. Helmer.

This no knock on Capt. Dan Helmer--the 26 year old Army captain and Rhode Scholar tasked with setting up the Academy. (Your faithful bloggers have benefitted from many email exchanges with him, and they all share a common mentor in fellow West Point Rhodie, LTC John Nagl.)

But, as he'll tell you, he's a freaking Army captain. Charlie is quite certain that Capt. Helmer is among the best and the brightest, but he's not among those who can get @^*% done in the Army (or Afghanistan). If we were serious about such things, we might assign someone with a bit more institutional clout. Someone who could get paper copies of FM 3-24 for the Academy (it's cool, the Army posts them online. The students just wait 47 hours to download them over what passes for an internet connection in Kabul). Someone who could actually institutionalize the Academy within the Army instead of it being a Frankenstein science project dreamed up by folks who've read ATOM one too many times.

We can't win the war without places like the COIN Academy and officers like Capt. Helmer. But we also can't do it with them alone. If we're serious about COIN, about advising, about winning, we'll find a way to do this right. And to keep doing it, lest some new 26 year-old captain teach herself this all over again in 2027.