Ground View of What Security Means

by Joshua Foust on 11/24/2008 · 11 comments

One of my favorite new blogs, Afghanistan Shrugged, is written by an ETT stationed out of FOB Bermel in Paktika. Suffice it to say, this is not a pleasant neck of the woods. He just posted an excellent, insightful account of not only how hard his job is, but also the fundamental challenge the West faces. In short, he and his team hear there has been some activity at a nearby clinic, and try to ask the doctor what happened. He merely says there were ACM/Taliban nearby, and ends the conversation. Rather than getting frustrated at the doctor (though the situation is frustrating), there is this insight:

He’s right, the doctor has done more than 80% of the people would do, he told us [the ACM/Taliban] were here and left. We can’t protect his guy at night and they will cut his head off. He won’t even get the dubious honor of having it done on the internet, it’ll just be done in the dark of night and we’ll get a report about it after several days.

That’s the central issue here, how do you protect them? Those who defend everything, defend nothing. We aren’t here at night and the ACM are. When we roll in they roll out. It’s whack a mole on steroids! We try to build the ANA and ANP, the last two ANP chiefs were shot in the face in broad daylight by ACM

The doctor is indicative of a great number of the population. It’s not that they hate us they just don’t know if we’re going to win. We will, we just have to show them in tangibles. Promises are empty. Deeds not words. If the ANA says that they’ll protect them then they have to 100%.

It’s a battle of inches, slow, plodding, and deliberate. It’s low tech. We dig through the trash to find them. It’s happening here. Predator, Reaper and all of the other cool billion dollar weapons systems help very little. As T.F Farenbach wrote, “It is a battle of wills in the dirt”.

In other words, there are two fundamental problems: security, and the people to enforce it. That might mean paying Afghanistan more than its GDP in indigenous security personnel—a concession those arguing for the doubling of the ANSF have yet to really admit. But it will also mean sending out more embedded trainers and police mentors as well: they are among the most effective and insightful—and criminally underutilized—tools we have in our arsenal.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Helena Cobban November 25, 2008 at 8:40 am

Joshua, thanks for pinpointing this article, which certainly gives a good, ground-view picture of how this campaign is being waged. (Perhaps a stronger, or slightly different, view than the writer intended, however.)

Numerous things about the way it is written illustrate a lot about why the war is, in its present western-dominated configuration, unwinnable. Above all, there is the condescending racism, cultural insularity, and complete lack of self-awareness in what Vampire06 writes.

First, referring to other non-Afghans as inhabitants of a “sewer” is just plain racist. It would likely be very offensive to any interpreters or other Afghans who overhear such language. The people who come in along the wadi from Pakistan may or may not be non-Afghans (and I’m not sure I would trust V06’s ‘trash-picking’ methodology to get an accurate read on that). But for Afghans, they would anyway be fellow-Muslims. Which of course the US/NATO people overwhelmingly are not.

And then there’s that alleged “saying that the Afghans have…” I have heard versions of this kind of bad-mouthing in numerous other colonial situations… Yet more demeaning racist claptrap.

Yeah, V06 has some situational awareness– about the fact that there are not nearly enough US-supported forces to exert real control over this large of an area, that large chunks of it revert to insurgent control at night, etc. But he has almost zero self-awareness about how intrusive, coercive, and alien the presence of his own massively armed team must seem to most residents of the area.

One last note: Under the Geneva Conventions, medical facilities including those serving the fighting forces of all sides are entitled to special protection. Those provisions, and normal provisions regarding doctor-patient confidentiality, mean that the doc in question was under no obligation whatsoever to provide tactically useful info to the US team about any of his patients. Vampire06 makes no mention of those considerations. As if they didn’t even impinge on his consciousness at all. That indicates something very troubling about the way these US officers are trained (or not trained.)

Joshua Foust November 25, 2008 at 8:51 am


I appreciate what you’re saying, but what he described was quite literally a sewer. He said they have to spend long periods of time subsumed in trash, digging through effluvia and hoping they don’t get sick from it. The man is a soldier, not a professional social scientist or journalist; expecting elevated and perfectly neutral language from him might be misplaced.

As for the “saying,” that has its origins at least in the 19th century — from Afghans. Josiah Harlan, for example, recounted hearing that from “Pathans” he had met in Peshawar, and that view informed his strong opposition to the first Anglo-Afghan War (along with his own frustrating at being stripped of his crown of Ghor).

It might be offensive, but it isn’t “colonial” in the sense that it was invented to demean Afghans. Neither can the U.S. occupation really be called colonial.

Also, idealism about what is permissable or not is great, but… that doctor is in constant danger — not from this soldier, but from the Taliban. He was at risk before the soldier came, and he will be at risk after he leaves. Blaming the soldier for violating the Geneva Conventions misses the point.

Eric November 25, 2008 at 12:03 pm

Thanks for the link Joshua, very good reading.

I would also like to disagree with Helena.
In reading Afghanistan Shrugged, as well as Excellent Afghan Adventure, I am relieved by the nuanced cultural understanding and open mindedness the authors display while risking their lives. It is important that our perception of the US military, too often framed exclusively by civilian air strike casualties and stories of abuse, expand to encompass the experiences of Vampire06 as well.

I for one did not detect the racism that Helena seems to have felt so acutely. Nor did I notice anything that implicated the Geneva convention in any way.
While I do not doubt that there is no lack of racism or IHL violations in Afghanistan, Vampier06’s hike to the clinic is evidence of neither.

Helena Cobban November 25, 2008 at 2:21 pm

Joshua, the Geneva Conventions are supremely pragmatist in that they protect the fighting personnel of all sides (as well as the wellbeing of civilian residents of areas in which military are operating.) I do appreciate that V06 made an important tactical observation about the horrendous quandary the doc was in. But I would have found his stance more admirable if he’d made even some small mention of the Geneva Conventions or even just the normal rules of patient-doctor confidentiality. Instead of which, he simply assumes it’s okay to go in with an armed team and ask the doc intrusive questions??

On colonial or not colonial, this judgment is one to be made overwhelmingly by the Afghans themselves. It’s a version of the question “liberator or occupier?” that the Iraqis have been dealing with amongst themselves for 5.5 years now. Opinions shift. Afghan opinion seems to have been shifting significantly against the US presence over the past 18 months.

Joshua Foust November 25, 2008 at 4:01 pm


The Geneva Conventions do not “protect” medical clinics from a visit by a patrolling soldier. Especially since they were responding to reports of insurgent activity — if appearances were correct and insurgents were hiding within the clinic (as implied by the many large-caliber bullet holes in the gate), then the clinic does not enjoy protection as a neutral structure.

I’m sorry your sensibilities were not soothed by an embedded soldier making small mentions of the Geneva Conventions or a western idea of medical privacy. But the real world — especially in Afghanistan — simply does not work that way.

Helena Cobban November 25, 2008 at 4:21 pm

He’s not just an “embedded soldier”. He’s an officer in an “embedded training team.” That is, a leader in a training capacity. So he’s teaching the ANA that taking an armed team to undertake an intrusive interrogation of a doc is quite okay?

This was not hot pursuit. He and his team launched the whole mission with the aim of looking for one or more wounded fighters in the medical facility where he guessed they might have gone– and with doing what if he’d found them there?

I repeat, though, that that blog post illustrated very vividly the impossibility of the western military project in Afghanistan– as V06 had some awareness of, himself.

Can anyone think he won “hearts and minds” through that little outing?If he won anything, it may have been a small measure of respect from the doc and his friends for the (relative) restraint he showed in not hauling doc in for even more interrogation (or worse.) It was a standoff marked by some possible mutual respect between the two of them. Sort of live and let live.

Which is good as far as it goes. But not good for anyone who still has the illusion, seven years in, that there’s any purely western-determined, purely “military” solution to the question of Afghanistan.

Eric November 25, 2008 at 5:24 pm

I think we have a definitional problem and I would be interested in exploring it.
For me, establishing security, and the basics of an economy, while maintaining mutual respect between NATO/US forces, the ANA, and Afghans constitutes not only hearts and minds, but a viable path to “victory”.
I see mutual respect as completely adequate for “Hearts and minds” because I don’t see Bush-in-Albania style love as necessary or possible. If you see mutual respect as insufficient, what do you see as necessary?

And does anyone who has spent time with the COIN manual know how it would define “hearts and minds” (although I suspect it doesn’t use that term)?

Slightly related, I think an ANA or any NATO unit could do quite well with a consistent policy of respectful, non-coercive, not-making-people-say-so-much-they-lose-their-heads interrogation. That could actually be a basis for developing some trust in police structures if it provided security.

Lastly, and least related, were you suggesting that asking the doctor if there had been insurgents at the hospital violated medical confidentiality or entering with guns? I don’t believe US police asking a US doctor whether they had seen a patient would present any sort of confidentiality dilemma unless they also wanted to know the patients blood type…

fnord November 25, 2008 at 5:28 pm

A tangent on this: Does anyone know to what extent the west are providing proper healthcare? Are there any proper fieldhospitals in effect catering exclusively to Afghans incountry? How many? It was one of the issues that amazed me, and continues to amaze me, in Iraq: How much hearts and minds could have been won by simple grips, like going into the refugee camps and securing their watersituation, healthcare etc. What are we doing on this issue in Afghanistan?

Helena Cobban November 26, 2008 at 12:45 pm

Eric, I do think mutual respect– at all levels of the US-Afghan interaction– would be a sufficient condition for real progress, and I think that V06 showed some capacity for that in his actions (as described by himself.) But I do NOT see it happening at the broader level of the relationship, where for example Karzai repeatedly requests the US-led forces to desist from their extremely damaging air bombardments, to tragically little avail.

The air actions get ordered in ‘because’ (in some some strictly limited, technical-military sense) there are not nearly enough (sensitive, courageous, etc) ground forces boots on the ground. So Washington proposes sending in 30,000 more (pairs of) boots. Will this be enough, at this stage, to stem the rising tide of anti-westernism in Afghanistan? I doubt it.

Also, though I do think V06 betrays some keen tactical awareness and realism, I don’t see him, from reading through his posts since he’s been in theater, as having very much cultural self-awareness and sensitivity. I don’t doubt his courage for a moment.

Finally, I don’t think that busting into a doctor’s clinic fully armed and asking questions could be described as wholly non-coercive.

On the precise question re standard doc-patient confidentiality issues that you raise, you might be right. However, we do not know what questions V06 asked the doc.

Joshua Foust November 26, 2008 at 12:56 pm

“However, we do not know what questions V06 asked the doc.”

Exactly. Which is I think why I and Eric raised issues with the assumptions you placed on this interaction. You can’t simultaneously assume good and bad faith to someone when discussing their motives. (Well, maybe you COULD, but that isn’t very good faith either.)

Eli November 27, 2008 at 5:06 am

I’ve collaborated with ETTs quite a bit the last few months, and have been generally impressed by their insight and ability to work with Afghans. Their role is frequently misunderstood. They are trainers and advisors who support ANA units, which make their own plans and decisions about missions. The ETTs can make suggestions to the ANA officers making plans, they can make suggestions on tactics during missions, and they can refuse to accompany missions they disagree with; and that is about the extent of their authority. V06 is not very clear in his blog entry, but unless it was an unusual circumstance, it was not his team’s mission to the clinic but rather an ANA mission to the clinic that he and a handful of other ETTs accompanied. The role is hard to understand by some in the military, who don’t always understand subordinating oneself to somebody not in the chain of command, and by some outside the military, who have a hard time with the concept of a relationship between Americans and Afghans as anything less than colonial.

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