C’mon, Abu

by Joshua Foust on 3/4/2009 · 7 comments

I really enjoy Abu Muqawama. Andrew Exum is a smart fellow, smart enough for CNAS to snatch him up and give him healthcare. But what the hell is this?

That said, I like to imagine that in two years running this blog I have learned a thing or two about population-centric counterinsurgency, and it occurs to me that if you are going to do population-centric counterinsurgency, then do population-centric counterinsurgency…

Afghanistan is a really big country — bigger than Iraq — and we are trying to protect more terrain with fewer troops. The old maxim that he who defends everything defends nothing seems to apply here. Are we, by putting troops in little far-flung outposts, setting them up for more Wanats? Should we instead be camped out in the big cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah as Kilcullen suggests? Should not our first priority be to secure the Afghan people in order to reduce violence in the country and facilitate the upcoming national elections?

Umm, should not. The last people to assume that “the people” reside in the cities, and so there their operations should focus, were the Soviets. The Taliban run circles around the U.S. and ISAF precisely they control most of the countryside and not the cities. The problem isn’t Kabul, but the Tagab. The problem isn’t Kandahar but the hills above it. The problem isn’t Lashkar Gah, but Garmser. The problem isn’t Khowst, but Spera. The problem isn’t Herat, but Shindand. The problem… well, you get my point (and that list wasn’t meant to be comprehensive, merely illustrative, in case that weren’t obvious). If you want to do a population-centric COIN in Afghanistan, you do it in the countryside.

Why would Exum think that securing the cities was the one thing we needed to do?

I am relucant to say much about the environment in Afghanistan. I have fought there twice, it’s true, but in neither shortened tour did I really get a feel for the people or the culture. Also, unlike with Iraq, I don’t speak any of the relevant languages.

Oh right. Kilcullen suffers from the same weakness (though Kilcullen has made an effort to learn, it’s been limited mostly to DC experts and guided Army tours).

Where we should focus the counterinsurgency: places like the Tagab Valley (taken 02/29/09, click to enlarge).

But this kind of flabbergastery is perfectly emblematic of why knowing buzzwords like “population-centric counterinsurgency” is really worthless without that other COIN buzzword, “intimate knowledge.” You can’t make a strategy population-centric if you don’t know the population, COINdinistas.

Update: I should add that the reason Exum’s blog is so essential on stuff like Lebanon is precisely because he knows both counterinsurgency and the region. He has specialized in both (frankly, it is much harder, I think, to know a region), and thus offers tremendous insight that way. I’m afraid I don’t know of anyone who has similar knowledge for Afghanistan—there are plenty of COIN guys who aren’t too deep on Afghanistan (if I hear another hour-long conference call about tribes I will shoot myself), and there are plenty of country specialists who are simply awful in talking military stuff. Surely there are people with a similar depth of experience in both areas?

Update 2: Herschel Smith adds his own excellent thoughts to the discussion.

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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 Registan.net. 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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zenpundit March 4, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Retired CIA guys – and not many.

The number of American graduates who specialized in Pustun and Urdu in the last twenty years is probably less than fifty given that Fed money for obscure foreign languages dried up in the 1990’s. How many of these were DLI ppl I do not know.

Joshua Foust March 4, 2009 at 3:09 pm

That’s one source. Though… it was actually with one of those retired CIA guys that I had to listen to how all we need to do to win in Afghanistan was arm the tribes. I’ve found the CIA to be some hit but mostly miss. As one example, I wish Christian hadn’t deleted the blog entry in which he mocked the ludicrous claims in Gary Schroen’s book… and Schroen has been active in Afghanistan for decades.

Also, who needs Pashto or Urdu? Most of the people in Afghanistan speak Dari, which is perfectly serviceable by Farsi speakers — I work with several. Plus, Dari is a literary language, while Pashto is not (the vast majority of things written in Pashto are translated).

Also, DLI is a VERY good language school (again, I work with people who went there)… but you don’t need to be there to be military/COIN-literate and have area knowledge. IU, as one example, offers free language classes each summer, often in Pashto. Very few attend because they can’t take the time off.

I agree it’s a major problem that strategic language instruction is pathetic… but I don’t know more than a couple of phrases in Dari or Pashto. I can only sort of sound out words when I see them. And I have benefitted from the tens of thousands of pages of studies written in English about Afghanistan. The main challenge I see is filtering out the noise. As Schroen’s book demonstrates, there is a lot of stuff out there that seems authoritative but is really misleading and actually kind of dangerous.

MK March 4, 2009 at 3:51 pm

You point out the importance of rural areas, so let me ask you this: the Canadians, in conjunction with the ANA, ANP, and more recently US forces have been battling back forth in the Panjwayi for years now, making little progress as far as I’m aware. No one, however, has provided more than one-line explanations for why the Eshaqzai and Noorzai tribes*, in particular, are so vehemently anti-government, and therefore how we might go about winning them over. Since this seems like a fairly important axis (connecting Kandahar and Helmand via Route 1), any insights on how to stop the cycle of taking and losing ground?


* I use the term ‘tribe’ with some hesitancy given your treatise on the significance of qawms. What I mean to say are groups belonging to or living in the regions attributed to those tribes.

Abu Muqawama March 4, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Surely there are a few COINdinistas who know Afghanistan. Christian Bleuer is an Afghanistan specialist who has learned a lot about COIN, and LTG (Ret.) David Barno is a COIN specialist who knows a lot about Afghanistan.

I think the best expertise on COIN and Afghanistan, though, is to be found still inside the services. These men and women who have worked as Pol-Ads, for example, are still fighting the fight. So they’re out there — just not blogging….

Joshua Foust March 4, 2009 at 10:26 pm

MK, I think the Ishaqzai/Noorzai thing isn’t really anti-government per se. Going back into the 1980s, the Noorzai seem primarily concerned over who gets to control Spin Boldak — they didn’t under the Soviets and Mujahideen thanks to the Achakzai mujahidin commander Ismat Mulsim, did under the Taliban, and then once the U.S. invaded in 2001 control passed back to the Achakzai, who imposed illegal tolls all long the road and border crossing. In that specific case, it appears to be almost entirely an economic thing, not a political thing.

As for the Ishaqzai (who are NOT to be confused with the Achakzai), it is more complicated: they actually clashed with the Taliban in Kandahar and Quetta in 1994-5, though they eventually sided with the Taliban and displaced the Alizai in Helmand. As with the Noorzai, this again appears to revolve mostly around economic arrangements and access to power, and not necessarily being “anti-government.”

Don’t worry about “tribe” here — in a lot of conflicts in the south, that IS the qawm 🙂

Abu, I agree Christian is one of those people, though he doesn’t write about operations as often as I want him to (seriously, call the whambulance). I have serious reservations about Barno — for one, his Rumsfeldian “good news only” policy led to the abhorrent cover up of Pat Tillman’s death. Doesn’t mean he isn’t appropriate, just that his rule of this country six years ago wasn’t the best. But people evolve, though, and I am still trying to read his work at NDU.

Christian March 4, 2009 at 10:39 pm

I would write about operations, but there is almost never enough primary sources on them to do much in the way of constructive criticisms. It usually comes down to journalistic-style critiques rather than a full spectrum organizational, cultural, political, tactical, strategic discussion, or anything coming even close.

A brief flurry from a PAO, the hollering of an angry local who didn’t actually witness anything and the musings of a Kabul-bound journo. The whambulance needs more primary sources!

Jon March 5, 2009 at 6:45 am

We have military types, academics, journalists, NGO types, diplomats, etc. but are there Afghans versed in COIN and region worth reading?

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