The Garrisons of Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 3/27/2009 · 5 comments

The great thing about spending days trapped in the curious purgatory of Kuwait is that you have time to think, and in my case, to write. There’s a lot I am still digesting from the last ten weeks I’ve spend in Afghanistan, but one significant problem to leap out at me is the contradictory goals we have there: protecting the men and women in uniform at almost any cost does not mesh well with the urgent need to place soldiers and forward-deployed civilians in harm’s way to actually build some sort of peaceful end to the conflict.

Reuters was kind enough to let me explore this some, in a retrospective piece for their Pakistan blog.

The United States operates an incomprehensibly sophisticated Army – its ability to see things from afar, monitor and decode transmissions, and snoop on anything electronic is unmatched, and quite daunting.

But without strong Human Intelligence, there is little chance to contextualize the many streams of data they receive each day: is that man digging near the road emplacing a bomb, or is he digging up rocks for his fence? When this man identifies the elder from across the valley as a Taliban commander, is he telling the truth or pursuing some decades-old rivalry? Is that firefight the result of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s foot soldiers, or are they villagers worried their timber harvest might be impounded?

There is obviously much more to it—comments, as always, are welcomed.

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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 March 27, 2009 at 2:24 pm

Joshua, that’s a great and wise report. You highlighted a really critical issue there, and spelled out your evidence compellingly.

Yeah, a boring place like Kuwait (or Jordan, or come to that Charlottesville, VA) can provide a good spot in which to sit down and do some focused writing.

And while I’m here can you please FIX whatever in the blog’s software is causing half of each line in this comment-submission box to disappear under a short column of Google ads? Thanks!

John L. Krueger March 27, 2009 at 11:52 pm

You are dead on. Great piece.

I’ve been here in Afghanistan for over 10 months. Risk-aversion is killing us. Counter-insurgency is high-risk for the individual soldier. There is no way around it.

I went through the same cycle trying to teach our guys in Iraq prior to General Petraeus taking over. I used to ask our guys if they ever felt any empathy for an Imperial Storm Trooper in “Star Wars” when they got whacked. Of course they replied, “no.” I then would tell them that they looked like Imperial Storm Troopers and would never gain any empathy from the Iraqi people that way.

Dan March 28, 2009 at 2:01 pm

There’s much talk on this website about risk aversion. I find that this concept of risk is poorly conceptualized. I believe risk acceptance sits on a continuum of necessity. In other words, we must distinguish between necessary and unnecessary risks. Mitigation strategies also rest on a continuum of effectiveness. The perfect way to mitigate risk, however, is to avoid doing what is necessary. I believe that this is the argument the author is trying to make. Unfortunately, it comes off as unnecessarily critical of those who try to protect lives.

I would welcome a more sophisticated look at the concept of risk, particularly under what conditions a given risk is necessary and where the balance of risk mitigation should be struck. I have not seen this intelligently discussed anywhere.

I have seen the argument several times that the relationship between risk and time in a restrategized counterinsurgency would be a short term increase with a long term payoff. I would like to see this argument better specified with attention paid to the types of variables which would affect this risk curve and particularly focusing on what could hamper this argument that can not be controlled for. Then, I believe you’d have a truly substantive argument regarding risk aversion-an argument that would go well beyond the type of analysis that I can find anywhere in the flavor-of-the-month world of cable news punditry on Afghanistan and military affairs. Until then, I remain only partially appreciative about the long term viability of any strategy in Afghanistan that will lead to any set of desired outcomes (as expressed by the U.S. and NATO allies, pundits, and posters on this site).

In short, the game of “dueling experts” can be done by most educated people. Deep analysis, however, is what I hope to find here. Josh’s Reuters piece comes closer than anything else I’ve seen to connecting strategy to the tactical level and incorporating the argument of risk aversion into this discussion. However, it is not quite there yet without the type of analysis on the risk concept that a blog format does not allow for.

sikander Hayat March 29, 2009 at 7:34 am

I think what Obama is doing by putting more forces on the ground is to escalate the war initially and put pressure on the insurgents and then bribe people away from Taliban. This is classic stick and carrot policy and how much it will succeed; only time will tell.

Another very important aspect is the increase in Afghan national army from 80000 to 134000. I believe that this is most important aspect of his speech as a strong central force will definitely have some impact on the overall situation. If the situation in Afghanistan stabilise to the extent that local army takes charge of the situation (even if the Taliban are not totally defeated) and foreign forces leave than situation in Pakistan will cool down as well.

By Sikander Hayat

vengeance 7 March 29, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Ok, I can understand the excitement and thoughts like “escalate the war initially and put pressure on the insurgents”. By the last statement I assume one is to think “engage and destroy”. I also note he made mention of the mission being to destroy Taliban and Al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He also mentioned “for the first time “ in reference to providing an advisor corps( I paraphrase because I cannot bear to read it again to quote exactly).
The whole “Finally…” part has enough political-ease in it to be explained many ways, I read it as “we get it, you have been doing it all wrong, we will get it right”.
I admire the courage I’ve seen on display here from the top down in their ability to courageously admit that mistakes were made in the past, obviously by their predecessors, but they have “got it right now’. During my “welcome” brief at phoenix I sat, listening to the 2 star admit “mistakes were made in the past but…….I get it. I know, medivac times are 4 hours, that’s unacceptable and we are working on that’. Thing is, he seemed genuinely sincere, I got the impression that he truly did care; he did feel the burden placed on those under his command. I felt for this guy and the realization set in, If the theater commander is frustrated, unable to bring things to bear, then…..WTF? I got a missive sent me by the incoming commander of the brigade commanding phoenix, same story” done wrong, we get it, we’ll do it right”. As my fellow team member, 3 tour senior NCO, 1 Iraq, 2d here, was beginning to read me President Obama’s speech I stopped him. I said “wait, let me recap. I was told about the new way at Phoenix, I was told about the new way from the 33d BCT 6, we just had our LTC down here telling us “outgoing left me nothing… is the new way we are doing it..’ then, same day the LTC is telling us about his new way, we get an e-mail, required reading with sign in sheet, from theater 6 laying out the focus, the way we need to operate here , I read it as new way. This new way was by no means new though, it contained “basics” that we’ve known since…the Philippines. I said” let me guess he’s got it, a new way right?”. Well…

The whole “for the first time…” statement enraged me so that I had to go get one of those little chocolate and toffee cakes that are prevalent here in theater. I mistook my lightheadedness as malnutrition. I understand politics; I understand giving the impression of “starting anew” but does anyone have something concrete they can give me? Anything more concrete than the kick in the nuts, delivered by my Commander in Chief, to everyone who has been doing this job for the past 8 years?
I’ll drill it down a bit. This war is being won or lost by the whole Bn Cmndr corps of the U.S Army. LTCs prosecute this as they choose yeh, get it. They have orders, they are also closest to the ground, it is their maneuver forces, it is their operations to plan and execute. Like a ghost I see something, more like a glimpse, movement in the peripherals and lost when given direct observation. I think “they” do get it, I see a civil war of sorts now in the Army chain, those who get it and those who think they get it. I see two forces squaring off , using the fire and maneuver (something lacking over here ) of political allies, doctrine and good old fashioned “Army way” to wrest control of how things are done on the ground. That my friends is not good.

I see our defacto SOP as moving from ambush to ambush. I have heard and said so many times myself that all units in any given area, race to the sound of the fight. In essence we charge into ambush already set on one of our coalition forces. I thought about this for a second, we have 2 battle drills, by the book, for how we react to ambush, depending on which of two types it is, I don’t recall any drill of running to the nearest ambush under way. This also seems extremely brave and heroic, nice, I like that, I understand going to a fellow troops aide. This still didn’t “get it’ for me , then I realized, this has become our recognized tactic. The only time( a bit of hyperbole but near enough the overwhelming facts) we have contact is by being ambushed, we know this, so….that is how we operate in attempt to do our basic tenant; find, close with and destroy the enemy. Nice.

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