January 18, 2011

Exum and Foust on Tactics in Afghanistan

Josh Foust and I, as we often do, were engaged in a lengthy Twitter conversation on how to properly evaluate counterinsurgency tactics in Afghanistan. Writing in 140-character increments was going to drive me crazy sooner rather than later, so I suggested we do a joint blog post on the subject. What follows is the question and answer session we had this afternoon. This is cross-posted on Josh's blog. Enjoy.

JF. Recently, Paula Broadwell recounted on Tom Ricks' blog some operations in the
Arghandab Valley, in Kandahar province. I found some of the events she
described, like razing entire villages to the ground, appalling. At least in terms of tone, you seemed to
agree: on Twitter, you referred to some passages as "cringe-inducing." I saw that as an example of
questionable tactics in service of a non-existent strategy. But it also
made me think back to a report you filed when you returned from a tour
of the Arghandab. "Counterinsurgency," you wrote, "as practiced at the tactical level, is the
best I have ever seen it practiced." Clearly, I'm missing something
between the two accounts of this valley. So, what are the indicators you
use to evaluate tactical counterinsurgency as the best you've ever

AE. Yeah, the main problem I had with Paula's post concerned the
inability to see how ISAF actions might -- while making perfect sense to
ISAF military officers (and a West Point graduate like Paula
predisposed to see things from the perspective of a military officer) --
be perceived from the Afghan perspective. One of the things you often
hear older military officers tell younger military officers is to "turn
the map around": how might the battlefield look to the enemy? I think
that in counterinsurgency operations, where the population might matter
more than in conventional, maneuver warfare, we have an obligation to
turn the map around and see how our actions might be perceived by the
local population.

Like Paula, though, I was impressed with a U.S. unit I visited in
the northern Arghandab River Valley (ARV) last month. I have not had the
chance to visit or observe the ARV over a long period of time and
cannot say whether or not improved tactics will have a strategic effect,
but I have observed U.S. military units struggle with the conflict in
Afghanistan since 2001. I myself served there as a young platoon leader
in 2002 and again as a Ranger platoon leader in 2004. I only mention
that because I often compare and contrast units and small-unit leaders
today with myself and the units I led in 2002 and 2004. I returned again
in 2009 after several years spent wandering around the Arabic-speaking

The way one evaluates the tactical performance of a unit in combat
depends a lot on how one perceives the conflict and what is important
for victory. When it comes to maneuver warfare, the U.S. military has
reached something approaching consensus on how we evaluate the tactical
performance of leaders. U.S. Army Field Manual 7-8, Infantry Rifle
Platoon and Squad
, for example, is a commonly accepted reference
used to teach small unit leaders how to fight maneuver warfare at the
tactical level in an infantry unit. It is based on both recent
historical experiences as well as practical lessons learned. It contains
loads of assumptions, most of which have been pretty rigorously tested.
(With often painful results for those testing them!)

U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, and  U.S.
Army Field Manual 3-24.2, Tactics in Counterinsurgency
offer similar
standards for how we can teach and then evaluate units in combat in
counterinsurgency operations. I should add, though, that I do not think
the U.S. military and the scholarly community has reached anything
approaching consensus with respect to counterinsurgency. I also do not
think we have as rigorously tested the assumptions in these manuals as
we should. (To give but one example, I question the degree to which our
provision of social services really matters for success.) That having
been said, when it comes down to it, I feel both of our
counterinsurgency field manuals get a lot right. The emphasis in 3-24.2
on leveraging and supporting host national security forces, for example,
is spot on. So too is the appendix on intelligence preparation of the
battlefield (IPB): you can't just know who you are fighting; you also
have to know about the environment in which you are fighting. And I
agree with the considerations for both offensive and defensive
operations. [Note: I welcome any scholars who would criticize the
manuals. My own thoughts on the things I think each manual gets right
have been influenced by a) historical studies, b) what I myself have
been able to learn by fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and c) spending a
lot of time studying the conflicts in southern Lebanon and Afghanistan
as a civilian scholar and researcher.]

Based on the doctrine, what I observed in the ARV was encouraging. I
saw a unit conducting aggressive offensive operations, fully
integrating special operations forces into their plans and operations,
and taking local security forces really seriously. I also saw a very
sophisticated IPB -- the best I had myself ever seen at the
company-grade level. The unit I spent an afternoon with, for example,
really knew their neighborhood. They knew everyone who lived there and
all the buildings in their area of operations. When something changed, I
got the sense this unit would notice. And that's really important. I
use The Wire a lot to explain everything from Lebanese politics
to counterinsurgency, and I would liken the U.S. Army to the character
Ellis Carver: when we meet him in Season One, all he wants to do is kick
ass and take names. By Season Five, though, he's become a much smarter
police officer. He's taken the time to get to know the people he's
trying to protect and can thus better separate the bad guys from all the
people just trying to get on with their lives.

Anyway, all of that led me to observe that U.S. counterinsurgency
operations at the tactical level were some of the best I had ever seen.
Caveat lector, I do not know whether or not these improved tactics will
yield a strategic effect. There are too many phenomena -- many of them
exogenous, as @ndubaz pointed out on Twitter -- that we cannot even
observe much less measure. And we still have a lot of known pains in our
asses (like Afghan governance and sanctuaries in Pakistan) that could
render tactical gains ephemeral.

As one final caveat lector, my observations were based on a limited
sample, and unit and leader performance should be assumed to be uneven
across the country. Still, I was encouraged.

JF. Okay, so I can summarize: the operations you saw last year in
the Arghandab matched with your interpretation of how one would enact
both tactical and counterinsurgency doctrine, yes? Aggressive
operations, integrating SF, and taking local security forces seriously,
all of which add up to good tactics? Is there any way to be more

For example, in this Broadwell episode, the local unit was most
certainly using aggressive operations, and they integrated SF, and they
even worked through the ABP to develop local knowledge. The thing is,
the aggression resulted in the destruction of an entire village
(something General McChrystal strongly urged against in the 2009 COIN guidance
for which you were a consultant), and the SF's use of the ABP -- Col.
Raziq is not from the Arghandab (the ABP has no jurisdiction in the
district) and his tribe has been in conflict with many communities in
this part of the Arghandab -- is, let us say, a bit questionable. How
can we tell the difference between an appropriate use of these three
aspects of good tactical activity, and inappropriate use of these three
aspects of good tactical activity? For example, what makes aggression
proper now, versus the restraint previous COIN strategies required?

AE. Those are great questions, some of which I am hesitant to
answer. I am reticent to pass judgment on operations I have not
personally observed. I am especially reticent to comment from
Washington, DC on operations in Afghanistan. My perch at 1301
Pennsylvania Avenue is a great place to think about strategy or policy,
sure, but not so much operations and tactics. The best (only?) place to
observe the latter is in Afghanistan itself. So instead of passing
judgment on the aforementioned operations, let me ask some questions
instead -- questions that may be useful for both commanders on the
ground as well as for analysts like Paula who have had the chance to
directly observe the operations themselves:

1. What are we trying to do here?
2. What effect will these
operations have on the enemy?
3. How will these operations affect or
be perceived by the local population?
4. What are the trade-offs for
using a character like Col. Raziq? (On the one hand, he is seen as being
effective, but on the other hand ... well, anyone who has not yet read
the 2009 Matthieu Aikins profile of Raziq for Harper's

5. What are the likely second- and third-order effects of our

The thing is, you can be, to quote one Stan
McChrystal, "tactically brilliant but strategically stupid." Are the
operations that Paula describes tactically sound? Maybe -- I don't know.
But I would hope that officers on the ground -- as well as Paula
herself -- are thinking through whether or not these operations will
have the strategic effect we hope they will have. Maybe they will. But I
would hope we're thinking through those five questions I listed above,
which have more to do with strategy than tactics.

As far as tactics are concerned, I would again refer readers to FM
3-24.2 for what the U.S. Army considers to be good counterinsurgency
tactics. I cannot myself reduce "good tactics" down to three or four
things: I just picked out three or four things that I believed helped to
illustrate why I left the ANV last month impressed.

JF. Okay, so you don't like to condemn events you didn't
personally witness. That's... fine, I guess. I wonder why, though, an
afternoon of briefings is sufficient to declare tactics good in one case
but a few thousand words describing tactics is insufficient to question
tactical decisions elsewhere. It's kind of the crux of what started
this whole discussion: at what point can we reasonably ask probing
questions about conduct? The outlines of this village razing incident in
the Arghandab, in my view, warrants probing questions precisely because
it is such a drastic measure.

So, at best I can tell this leaves me with two remaining questions.

If tactics are good and adhere to theory, but either undermine or don't
advance our overall strategy, what's the point of praising tactics?
Isn't that just wasted time, effort, money, and, most importantly,

2) I can accept your view that it's difficult to question too much
from the U.S. But if no one sitting in Washington, DC, can really
question the tactics we read about, in what way can we, in good faith,
question and strive to understand the war? This, too, is at the heart of
why I'm asking these questions. It's not as if everyone who is
interested in understanding the war can go embed with the troops (and
there is, unfortunately, greater difficulty for war skeptics to get
precious embed space, compared to non-skeptics). If personal accounts,
even (as I called Broadwell's latest) hagiographies, are not enough to
prompt serious questions about our conduct, how can we reasonably
evaluate what's happening?

AE. Okay, I'll address your points one at a time, but before I do,
let me just say that I have really enjoyed this. Compared with trying
to explain this over Twitter, conventional prose is a joy. And your
questions are good ones.

1. Oh, there is a lot of good in
praising good tactics. Let me name two. First, improved tactics
demonstrate a military organization that has learned -- which big
bureaucracies often have trouble doing! That's very positive. Second, it
is too early to tell whether or not the near-term security outlook for
the ANV has changed for the better. But if it does, we will want to note
the correlation between improved tactics and improved security for
rather obvious reasons.

2. This is a great and legitimate
question. I should be more careful and allow that we can, in fact, judge

operations from afar when the documentary evidence is solid. I'm not
trying to say I can't second-guess or judge William Calley, for example,
because I wasn't personally at My
Lai! But I would want a lot more documentation than Paula's single blog
post before weighing in on this particular example.

I think you
are somewhat incorrect to say that skeptics do not get to visit
Afghanistan. You write this because you're thinking of people like me
who travel there as part of our jobs as civilian researchers and have
been outspoken in support (to varying degrees) of the current strategy.
But plenty of other civilian researchers and journalists I know visit
Afghanistan as guests of the command and return to write critical
reports -- and then visit again (see Hastings, Michael). Other
journalists and civilian researchers write highly skeptical accounts
without ever embedding (see Dorronsoro, Gilles). I mentioned earlier the
journalist Matthieu Aikins, whose reporting I love. It's worth pointing
out that he has, in addition to observing the war as both an embedded and
unembedded journalist, also been an outspoken skeptic of the
current strategy and, together with fellow activist-journalists Nir
Rosen, Gareth Porter and Ahmed Rashid, offered
his own policy recommendations
. (Along with some guy named Foust
and a bunch of other non-journalists.) So if all we had to go on was a
blog post from my friend Paula, I would agree with your point. But I
linked to that great Aikins piece on Raziq from Harper's that is
required reading for many government analysts working on Afghanistan.
There is a lot more of that kind of critical reporting and analysis out
there -- you and I link to it every day. I'm just hesitant to judge
something after reading any one thing -- and I think you would agree
with me there.