Non-Sequitur Watch

by Joshua Foust on 2/19/2010 · 14 comments

Despite the creeping skepticism is some New York Times writers’ voices, there remains a really curious lack of skepticism in their coverage. To whit:

WASHINGTON — Before 10,000 troops marched through central Helmand Province to wrest control of a small Afghan town from a few hundred entrenched Taliban fighters, American officials did something more typical of political than military campaigns: they took some polls.

The polling was aimed at understanding what local residents wanted; how they viewed local security; what they thought of the Americans, the Taliban and the foreign jihadis fighting for local control; and what might give them confidence in the central government in Kabul.

Whatever the limitations of this opinion sampling — what is the margin of error when there are whole neighborhoods where it is deadly to knock on doors? — what the commanders learned helped shape the entire campaign. Among other things, those living in the area still harbor some friendly feelings for the Americans, remembering how years ago they built dams in the region, and strongly favor an effort to oust the Taliban.

Just like the last post, this is asking the wrong questions. The military felt perfectly comfortable bragging about the Navy SEALs running through the town executing anyone they thought was a Taliban leader. They even bragged about how humane they were for giving the civilians inside weeks to run away (to where, no one knows), then they made a huge show of asking families to hide in their homes if they could read the pamphlets being dropped from helicopters. But they never once, not before today, bragged of conducting polls inside Marjeh itself.

As Steve Hynd noted on Twitter, before February 10th or so, Marjeh was commonly described as a no-go area, a place so rife with Taliban that even wandering near it was almost certain death for all but the most highly trained of special forces. So… who conducted these polls?

And here’s the biggest question the Times didn’t ask: if the polls really did indicate that Afghans harbored friendly feelings toward America, and McChrystal’s own assessment declared the Taliban were successful not through overwhelming force but through psychological operations and “perceptions management”… then why did we need such an enormous campaign in the first place?

“This is all a war of perceptions,” said General McChrystal. “This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”

Argh. Doctor, heal thyself.


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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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{ 14 comments }

Schmedlap February 19, 2010 at 10:40 pm

… then they made a huge show of asking families to hide in their homes if they could read the pamphlets being dropped from helicopters.

It’s common to print leaflets that have illustrations rather than words. If the population is illiterate, I would hope they knew better than to provide only written instruction.

Chris February 19, 2010 at 11:12 pm

The leaflets do have pictures. I’ve seen similar ones in my area. The other side of it is, while a large portion of the people are illiterate, I’ve personally seen 10 guys crowd around the one that could get through the Afghan version of “Dick and Jane” to hear the leaflet read. I’m still not a big fan of leaflets myself, but it seems to be the method of choice for PSYOP.

Joshua Foust February 20, 2010 at 9:33 am

It’s true, I’ve seen people gather to hear them read. But what was most common, at least in my area, was for the families to gather up the paper and use it to heat their homes.

When I was sitting in with a PSYOP shop in RC-East, they asked me to review a pictures-only leaflet they had created about how to report IEDs. I knew what they meant, but the pictures made no sense unless they were explained (one side had a bulldozer on a road and the other side had a charred mess with a phone number).

It may be the method of choice for PSYOP, but it’s really ineffective—in Alasay, residents at the mouth of the valley actually traveled to the district center to complain about all the air-dropped leaflets. They said it was getting in the way of their harvest, having to pick up all the paper littered through their fields. At best the leaflet method is a very imperfect one.

Schmedlap February 22, 2010 at 1:52 am

I can only speak to experience in Iraq, but every PSYOP guy I worked with hated leaflet drops. Just the notion of some western stormtrooper flying over your property and dumping a bunch of stuff on you – it’s not a good visual and doesn’t seem to make a good impression in any culture. It was usually a non-PSYOP guy pushing the idea for reasons that still mystify me.

Joshua Foust February 22, 2010 at 7:50 am

I think it goes back to what makes sense, and what the military actually wants to do. Dropping leaflets is one of the only measurable things PSYOP can do, so it becomes one of their only ways to establish how well they’re doing their job. Notice how, during Marjeh, ISAF said it had warned people because it had dropped leaflets, and not because it had any sense of whether the people of Marjeh actually knew what was going to happen or not.

Schmedlap February 24, 2010 at 1:57 am

You’re such a stickler for MOE!

Mirko Lomeo February 20, 2010 at 3:58 am

Although the question “who conducted these polls?” (if they ever really were conducted in the first place) remains a mystery for now, the polling was almost certainly conducted by someone perceived by the local community as being on the American side. Under such circumstance there are plenty of incentives for the location population to claim, when asked, to have “friendly feelings” towards the Americans, who are knocking on their door looking to kill the “unfriendly” lot. But, as a colleague of mine from Jalalabad always said, if a few American soldiers with big guns show up in a village, of course the local elders will offer them tea and treat them nicely–it’s a question of survival tactics… but that doesn’t say anything about their true feelings towards the Americans.

Joshua Foust February 20, 2010 at 9:33 am

Agreed. Bias issues effectively invalidate any poll in that country.

Toryalay Shirzay February 20, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Polls and pamphlets don’t work in Afghan villages maybe in big cities.Perception is vry important in Afstan as there are mostly mispercerptions.US/NATo have been very gentle in Afstan considering thr fact that it is an evil society and very oppressive.Once an area is secured from Taliban,all males over 12 should be made to work on fields everyday under supervision and whoever don’t belong there is to be dealt with sternly.

DePetris February 20, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Shouldn’t the United States and their NATO allies already know what Afghans want? Heck, they have been in the country for close to nine long years. The direct mission of the polling campaign may have been designed for a legitimate purpose, like getting in touch with local civilians and asking them what their concerns and grievances are. But all that really came out of the polling process was the obvious; Afghans want, above all else, security, jobs, and a representative government.

In fact, the poll shows just how ignorant the U.S. and NATO is of Afghan culture. Why we waited nine years to ask the most basic questions is beyond me.

Joe Harlan February 21, 2010 at 4:37 pm

“… then why did we need such an enormous campaign in the first place?”

Massive overwhelming force has a distinct psychological effect? Ubiquitous presence changes perceptions? I’m grasping at straws here. It could also just be McChrystal was tired of walking and wanted to run a bit. Or maybe this is a test case, like the Canadians in Kandahar, to either be used as a model or never be repeated again, depending on the outcome.

Seriously, though, if the Taliban are able to rule through fear and mere presence, then one way of changing that is to run them out. My biggest beef with this op is that we overran the place with U.S. Marines and not ANSF. Criticism of various ANSF aside, half a division’s worth of them will be able to mop up a few hundred Taliban.

Also, the Government-in-a-Box is something that is nagging at me. I’m not sure where the idea came from. Like the whole operation, it’s either brilliance or a recipe for disaster. We’ll see, I guess.

anan February 21, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Joe Harlan 2/21/2010 at 4:37 pm

I have the opposite criticism. Operation Moshtarak is the largest ANA operation ever. The rest of the Afghanistan has been starved of ANA to resource Helmand . . . which as Josh frequently says . . . has limited national strategic importance and less than 3% of Afghanistan’s population.

If anything, I would rather use Marines in Helmand; since they seem less unpopular than ISAF troops are in Zabul, Kandahar, and many parts of the east. Conserve the ANA for operations in places ISAF are less popular.

I would build on success. The ANA only has one good quality Corps, 203 Corps in Loya Paktia. I would over strength it, and let the new recurits learn from the experienced cadres.

This means providing each of 203 ANA Corps’ three brigades with 4 combat battalions each; and providing each combat battalion with 4 combat companies. Plus increase the assigned/authorized ratio of existing unit structure in 203 ANA.

This means 203 ANA Corp needs one new combat battalion and 11 additional combat companies (1 for each of 203 ANA’s existing 11 combat bns.) I would let 203 ANA Corps lead the fight as it sees necessary in Khost and Paktia. [Paktika and Ghor still need more of BG Fuller’s forces.] Embed the ISAF PRTs inside 203 ANA Corps or the Provincial ANP.

RC East DCG BG Fuller appears to be trying to do something similar. He is the lead 203 ANA Corps HQ advisor and commands/coordinates all RC-East assets in 203 ANA’s battlespace.

Government in the box is a good concept. Why do you think the Marines, ANSF and Gov Mandal won’t be able to implement it in Helmand? Governor Mandal seems popular and enthusiastic enough. My problem with Government in the Box is why pour the whole enchilada of civilian reconstruction and governance into a province with less then 3% of Afghanistan’s population and limited strategic value?

M Shannon February 22, 2010 at 8:45 am

The aim of US operations in Helmand is to save the British. Without the USMC there would be no ISAF controlled areas in Helmand outside of a Brit base. The British Army would be humiliated ala Basra…erosion of support for the Afghan mission in the UK would accelerate, the competence (and worse the purpose) of the British military would begin to be questioned and it could expect to have even larger budget cuts than are coming.

If America’s staunchest ally quits the fight then everyone else will head for the exits so send in the Marines and since they are predisposed to offensive action we have the Battle of Marjah.

anan February 22, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Shannon, couldn’t agree more. This is about saving the Brits. So is flooding Helmand with scarce ANA and ANP at the expense of the rest of Afghanistan.

Why is 1-1-111 ANA bn in Helmand versus Wardak (Kabul, where 1-1-111 was previously based probably doesn’t need it; and its Turkish advisory team should probably focus on Kabul and Wardak, since the Turks already have responsibilities there)?

Why is 1-3-201 in Helmand versus Kapisha or Parwan (both parts of 3-201’s battlespace, anti Taliban, pro GIRoA/ANSF and under resourced)?

Why are so many new ANA rifle companies being sent to Helmand right out of regional training?

Why is so much of the “civilian surge” and governance assets being redirected to Helmand at the expense of the rest of Afghanistan.

To change the topic, Shannon, earlier you had indicated that you would prefer directing international grants to Afghanistan through NGOs (probably a combination of local Afghan and international NGOs.) You were also skeptical about the success of a civilian surge. I think this makes a lot of sense in secure anti Taliban provinces with limited ISAF presence. In other words, it makes sense in Jalalabad/Nangarhar, Kapisha, Parwan, Loghar.

However, it don’t think it make sense in areas with a strong Taliban presence and heavy violence against the ANSF . . . in other words provinces such as Kunar, Nuristan, Zabul, Kandahar, and Helmand.

My view is that a civilian surge would be valuable; especially if China, India and Indonesia could be persuaded to contribute. Indonesia indicated that they would send civilians to Afghanistan in the London conference press release; but not nearly enough.

I think that ISAF PRTs (and ISAF combat forces) should be embedded inside the ANA and eventually inside the Afghan Provincial Police.

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