Marines Discover Nimroz Is Not Anbar

by Joshua Foust on 1/12/2009 · 8 comments

Via Jari, just think about how ludicrous it is that they have to learn this only when they get there:

In Iraq, American forces could win over remote farmlands by swaying urban centers. In Afghanistan, there’s little connection between the farmlands and the mudhut villages that pass for towns.

In Iraq, armored vehicles could travel on both the roads and the desert. Here, the paved roads are mostly for outsiders – travelers, truckers and foreign troops; to reach the populace, American forces must find unmapped caravan routes that run through treacherous terrain, routes not designed for their modern military vehicles.

In Iraq, a half-hour firefight was considered a long engagement; here, Marines have fought battles that have lasted as long as eight hours against an enemy whose attacking forces have grown from platoon-size to company-size.

Congratulations, USMC. In 2009 you’ve discovered (again!) that Afghanistan is not Western Iraq.

It makes for a great segue into my last article for the Columbia Journalism Review for a while, begging the ambulance-chasing pundits and journalists now descending on Afghanistan to please, for our sake, back off:

The current meme du jour is the idea of “arming the tribes” to fight the Taliban. One year ago, when British forces in the south propsed this, Major General Robert Cone, who was in charge of training the Afghan National Police, resoundingly rejected the idea. In 2006, Sher Mohammad Akhunzada, the former governor of Helmand province (where the British attempted their 2007 outreach) recruited several hundred tribesmen to provide security for the province. Within months, that tribal force, along with similar forces in Uruzgan, Kandahar, and Zabul, defected to the Taliban. Other attempts to raise tribal militias to fight the insurgency in Kunar and Kapisa have been failures (pdf) as well.

In other words, the previous attempt to begin a “Sons of Afghanistan” force (a play on the “Sons of Iraq” tribal militia movement) backfired in a major way—before the idea had even been tried in Iraq. This sort of context is missing from almost all coverage of the current policy debates over the future of America’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Fun, right?

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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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Myra MacDonald January 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Joshua, don’t you have to say what in your view is the right thing to do in Afghanistan, rather than merely saying what is wrong about the way people are viewing it?

Also I’ve asked you this before, but you have said the United States experience in Afghanistan should not be compared to the Soviet experience. I’m assuming this means that you think the United States does not have to meet the same fate there as the Soviets (and the British before them). But in that case, how do you see it working?


Joshua Foust January 12, 2009 at 3:11 pm


You’re right to ask for what my opinion is. Please see these links, where I discuss precisely that (note: some of them go back into early 2007; while I’d change a few minor things, my thoughts remain the same). In short, we need to break up our large bases and spread out as much as possible into the villages — the one lesson I think we SHOULD take from Iraq and implement in Afghanistan.

Much of the criticism I levy at both the U.S. government and the media/think tank/pundit industry is that these ideas are not new, or innovative in any way… to people who study the country. The key of COIN is having an intimate knowledge of the country you’re fighting in; that knowledge appears to be absent from the policy-making circles discussing Afghanistan.

As for the Soviets — well, I think we have a fundamental difference in legitimacy, both internationally and domestically (in both Afghan and American senses of the word). Similarly, despite the grave concerns I have about civilian casualties, they are nothing compared to what the Soviets inflicted. We are also helped by the fact that the U.S. is (still) displacing an unpopular government, as compared to a relatively liked or at least neutrally viewed government in 1978.

That’s the kind of thing I mean when I say the situations are fundamentally different. There are some lessons to be drawn — the follies of relying on airpower among them — but they have to be appropriate lessons. Just the fact that we happen to be in Afghanistan just like the Soviets were doesn’t really say much.

TCHe January 12, 2009 at 3:35 pm

While I generally agree with you, those Marines are innocent (err, you know what I mean). They were supposed to go to IRQ and trained accordingly, only to have their assignment changed at short notice.

The Military itself is a bureaucracy, though, and such are neither flexible nor fast learners.

Joshua Foust January 12, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Timo, you’re right to a certain extent, but the MCIA (Marine Corps Intelligence Activity) knows just as well as we do that Iraq is not Afghanistan and requires different methods. They publish unclassified briefings to this effect. Then, there are the OTHER Marines in-country who have publicly learned these lessons as well. A brief sample:

So I mean, yes they’re “innocent,” but there’s no excuse for not doing a little bit of homework, asking ISAF for some materials, talking to their fellow Marines, or even not being idiotic in realizing that Afghanistan and Iraq are different countries.

It’s harsh, I know, but in 2009 no serious person has the excuse of confusing the two.

Myra MacDonald January 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Ok, way too many links for me to read at one go but I’ll work through them. In the meantime, here are more questions, for which apologies in advance if you have already addressed them in your previous articles.

1) You say that the United States has greater legitimacy in Afghanistan than the Soviet Union had in 1979. But even if that were so in 2001, is it still the case in 2009, and does that legitimacy apply to the additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops that are supposed to be sent in?

2) On the Soviet invasion, here are a couple of links suggesting the Soviet Union may have been drawn in accidentally to Afghanistan. The first is a report about a book which has just come out;

The second is a report of an interview with Brzezinski in which he said CIA intervention in Afghanistan preceded the Soviet invasion and basically drew Moscow into a trap:

3) On the secret of COIN being intimate knowledge of the country. If you look at the British 19th century experience, they did not do too badly at making sense of India (if they had failed miserably they would not have survived there, although they were nearly thrown out in 1857). But they were hopeless when it came to understanding Afghanistan. I don’t think, but correct me if I am wrong, that any foreign power has ever made sense of Afghanistan so why should the United States be different?

4) And finally, on your point about breaking up the large bases and going out into the villages. That presumably raises the casualty risk enormously, doesn’t it? And is it one the U.S. Army is prepared to face after Iraq?

Joshua Foust January 12, 2009 at 3:56 pm


You got it. Those links don’t convey all my thinking—a lot of it is actually tied up with my job, and unfortunately I don’t blog about work so I’m kind of limited in that sense. But speaking off the cuff, I’ll try to answer those.

1) By any means we have of gauging it, we still do maintain a majority approval in Afghanistan, though year by year it is falling as we fail to secure and improve the country. I am of the opinion (since 2006) that more troops are great so long as they go toward a revamped strategy with better tactics. More troops inserted into the status quo will make things worse.

2) I’ve heard theorizing about whether or not the Soviets were baited. That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the contemporaneous questions of legitimacy—did the International community approve, were the Soviets largely viewed by the population of Afghanistan as doing a good thing, and so on. We know the answers to the first bit are opposites—the world disapproved of the Soviet invasion, while it largely approved of the American one. The second one might be easiest to look at in a general sense, away from all the problematic survey work: the Soviet Union inspired multiple, simultaneous, nation-wide revolts that ultimately united all Afghanistan’s ethnicities (in one sense of the term, at least) in opposition. The same thing can absolutely not be said of the American invasion.

3) The British never cared to understand Afghanistan. The literature of the time was full of orientalist and frankly racist generalizations about dirty savages in need of a good civilizin’. But the British did in fact know how to work with each society — unless we are to discount the writings of men like Robert Warburton. The command, however, chose to ignore them. Think of Sikunder Burnes begging McNaughten not to invade in 1839 because they could deal with Dost Mohammed diplomatically. The British were aggressive, imperialist, and really violent in their conquests — when they weren’t toiling under the strange auspices of “masterly inactivity.” This is probably a much larger discussion (the British experience of COIN in Afghanistan), but I would summarize it as “they didn’t want to get it.”

4) This is one of the things I’m glad people like Fick and Nagl are out saying: ” Paradox 2: Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be.

2-1. The U.S. military, designed to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate losses on the enemy, tends to equate victory with very few body bags. So does the American public. The new counterinsurgency doctrine upends this perceived immunity from casualties by demanding that manpower replace firepower. Soldiers in Afghanistan must get out among the people, building and staffing joint security stations with Afghan security forces. That is the only way to disconnect the enemy from the civilians. Persistent presence—living among the population in small groups, staying in villages overnight for months at a time—is dangerous, and it will mean more casualties, but it’s the only way to protect the population effectively. And it will make U.S. troops more secure in the long run. ”

Much as I complain about them, that is absolutely right.

TCHe January 12, 2009 at 4:54 pm

Joshua, that certain extent was all I wanted to emphasize 😉
I’m with you on the general picture. That problem concerns not only the Marines. Whenever a deployment ends a lot of knowledge is lost. In AFG as well as IRQ or anywhere else.

AFAIK there are various programs intended to alleviate that a bit and the fact that Ethnographic Intelligence is a buzz word these days means a lot. Still, there’s a lot to improve, with some things rather easy to implement.

From my perspective, though, I believe the US are better off than other countries. At least if I take my limited insights into the German armed forces into account and extrapolate them in a rather unscientific way …

Joshua Foust January 12, 2009 at 6:08 pm


I agree. I heard this NPR piece tonight that tells me we are slowly—ever so slowly, but definitely—starting to “get it.” At least, in the Army. The Marines still seem to learn the same lessons every time a new unit deploys. It gets back to the point I raised about Lessons Learned: plenty of people, including the Marines, did a lessons learned thing for Iraq. No one has done one for Afghanistan.

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