What Really Happened in the Tagab Valley?

by Joshua Foust on 9/25/2009 · 4 comments

As many readers here know, Kapisa province became kind of my thing when I was there earlier this year. It is an amazing place, unbelievably beautiful, and filled with so many different groups. It’s kind of like an Afghanistan in miniature, only much less so than, say, Nuristan. It’s also one of those places where I think the U.S. (and now, France) have failed to follow up on successes or learn from failures.

Which is why I was happy to see the Small Wars Journal run a piece by a soldier who had served in Kapisa. But here’s the weird thing: it didn’t make any sense. Point after point sounded like a different province than the one I knew. I asked some of my ex-colleagues from the Human Terrain System what they thought, and they too were puzzled. I even asked a NGO worked I know who is active in the area—he disagreed with most of the assertions in it as well. So, I sent Dave Dilegge a note about it, and he very kindly agreed to run a rebuttal.

I read with great interest the September 22 post on PSYOP in the Tagab Valley of Kapisa Province. As both the author of several articles on the province, including a study of counterinsurgency operations there, and considering that province was where I spent the majority of my deployment earlier this year, I was excited to hear a bit about how the area was doing.

What I found, however, caused me to scratch my head. 2LT Parker made several assertions that clashed with my experience and understanding of the area, and after asking several ex-colleagues and other contacts in the area, there are a few points that should be disputed.

What follows is a systematic take down of all the piece’s major arguments and assertions. Much of this is arguing over particulars most people couldn’t care about, but I find this kind of thing terribly important. Not only is it important to understand what we have done, including what we have done well, but we do ourselves a great disservice when exaggerating the important of some easy things while ignoring the importance of some hard things. In this case, there is almost no evidence to suggest PSYOP messaging is why things in the Tagab changed (if they even changed), but rather the much harder work of establishing presence, starting development projects, and building relationships with the locals. That, and not dumping leaflets on illiterate villagers, is how you fight a counterinsurgency.

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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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anan September 25, 2009 at 10:08 am

Joshua, I read your fine piece. Well written. I would say that the effect of these operations is uncertain rather than they didn’t help reduce violence. It is the principle of Ceteris Paribus, all else being equal. Perhaps the operations did help; without them the situation might have been worse. But how much they helped is uncertain.

“in early 2009, when I visited the province and met with the Tagab district sub-governor and NDS chief were both trying to get the chief of police fired because he was “too focused on fighting the Taliban.”” Why did they both think that the chief of police was too focused on the Taliban? Was he taking his eye off the ball of ordinary crime, organized crime, Hekmatyur? Was it some other reason?

I also heard your radio appearance. You defended the ANSF. In my view the five ANSF success stories are the NDS, ANCOP, 203rd Corps, provincial Khost ANP, and the Kabul ANP. What would your assessment be?

You mentioned letting the ANA fight like Afghans. To a large degree this is true; but to a large degree it isn’t true. Afghans should fight like Afghans + modern professionalism + modern teamwork/management/organization.

Do the professional Pakistani and Indian armies fight like Pakistanis and Indians? The code “letting the Afghans fight as Afghans” cannot be an excuse for the ANA to not delegate initiative and responsibility to platoons and squads (ANA companies fight as companies and do not delegate power to their capable 2nd Lieutenants, Lieutenants and NCOs.) To be successful, an army must encourage initiative and responsibility at the lower ranks and let people beg for forgiveness later. Sometimes modern (notice I don’t use the term Western) is better than what was.

Forcing soldiers in 10 week warrior training to carry 70 pound packs great distances is a good idea. It builds endurance and strength. However in the field, creative ways should be found to reduce the weight of these packs. Perhaps using donkeys and mules? I wouldn’t assume that just because people are tiny means that they can’t develop muscle mass, strength and endurance. I don’t think this is medically true.

To get back to Kapisa, it seems to me that there are sufficient anti Taliban locals to significantly increase the size of the ANP. (The ANP need to be paid more than one third what ANA are paid, but that is a separate issue.) I hope the French work with the provincial police chief to recruit more ANP. Then, importantly to train them (perhaps with 20 week cycles rather than 10 week cycles) and slightly educate them. Some ANP in Kapisa could then be contributed to the ANCOP on a needed basis in emergencies.

BruceR September 25, 2009 at 10:57 am

Jeez, Josh, what do you really think? :–)

David M September 25, 2009 at 11:01 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/25/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

IntelTrooper September 25, 2009 at 5:39 pm

My comment on SWJ got deleted, but it was half-joking. I was wondering aloud if the PSYOPs guy was running a PSYOP on us.

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