How Can We Understand a Complex Operation?

by Joshua Foust on 2/15/2011 · 13 comments

I have a new article up at PBS Need to Know, discussing how we can really know what’s going on in Marjah, Helmand:

ISAF, however, doesn’t see things that way. By May of last year, three months after the start of the campaign to “win” Marjah, General McChrystal had declared the Marjah area a “bleeding ulcer” that was distracting him from his goal of winning Kandahar. Even months after new leadership took over the war (when General McChrystal was suddenly replaced by General Petraeus), Marjah was described only in terms of constant combat. “The Taliban are still here in force,” said an AP reporter in October, “waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.” By December, however, ISAF declared Operation Moshtarak “over,” an example of their success in routing the insurgency.

In a way, this was to be expected — as with the Afghanistan War Review, General Petraeus has been up front in his desire to proclaim only good news about the war, regardless of what the intelligence community believes. But it also leaves nothing but questions about how one could evaluate the current situation in Marjah. Since October there have been very few (if any) reporters to visit Marjah — and even then, they’re not reporting on Marjah so much as peripheral issues like cross-dressing interpreters. While senior officials talk of “progress,” and “shifting momentum,” there aren’t any means by which one could actually say these things are happening.

That’s really the gist of it. In brief, public data say one thing, while officials say another. How do you de-conflict them? I don’t have a meaningful answer to that just yet. But what we do need is a consensus about what deserves measurement, what the changes in those measurements mean, and what our reactions to those changes will be. That has never taken place in Afghanistan, and I suspect that is why our policy remains the same regardless of what specific bits of news emerge from the war.

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– 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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J.R. February 16, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Just pointing out an ancedotal report from Marjah by Tim Lynch: Healing Ulcer.

Don Anderson February 17, 2011 at 11:19 am

For those of us here in Afghanistan…Tim’s blog has changed quite a bit since he went down to the Marines sector to be with his old friends and comrades.

What was once a pretty open minded blog has become basically a
“recruiting command” special. Here See and Say No Evil has become the watchword for the CADG Helmand version of the blog.

Rather than confront the insanity of Sangin and “the step by step inch by inch”, Tim is more worried about promoting the Marines than helping them get through this disaster mission. The casualty total should be enough to draw protest alone, but we are not getting that from Free Range anymore.

The propaganda piece on Marjah one year after is a good example of soft balls lobbed while Marines are still dying for what is a dramatically unimportant objective in the war. Tim seems to miss the big picture now and prefers to be an unofficial Marine spokesman. Sangin and Marjah seem like a modern WWI redux but no one down there seems to notice.

Like Stalingrad, Marjah and Sangin take on importance because We make them important while forgetting the main job is to push back the enemy, not give him advantages via IED and get ready for a handover that is coming too too soon.

Occupying meaningless villages for years at a time, while walking step by step, and meter by meter checking for today’s new mines is not getting anything of importance done.

The Enemy is expanding. No time anymore for patting ourselves on the back while brave young men are getting injured and killed for meaningless terrain in an unimportant village of a much bigger and more complex war.

The Marines and Free Range just don’t get it. Time for them to rotate out and save the lives of the Marines they are putting into danger in what has been a meaningless operation for most of a year.

Dishonesty? February 16, 2011 at 6:03 pm

DOD News Briefing with Maj. Gen. Mills

December 07, 2010

Since the last time we spoke, much has taken place within the province. We’ve seen steady and unwavering progress in improving the security situation within the area. We’ve seen a steady withdrawal of the insurgents from key locations within the province. And although the levels of violence remain too high, we have seen a shift in the enemy tactics. Today they fight with nearly a total reliance on implanting IEDs and simple shoot-and-scoot direct-fire incidents. We see this vice his prior tactic of facing us in unit-size engagements.
GEN. MILLS: Sure. Let me start off and discuss Marja. As I said to you earlier, the Marja fight is just about over. The enemy has been pushed to the very outskirts of the district, and around — and the city center itself, the district center, if you will, has been cleared of insurgent activity for some weeks.
The coalition forces for the most part now are active on the outskirts, along the perimeter, near the deserts, where the insurgent remains. He still comes out of his hole every once in a while from the desert, comes into town and takes the odd shot at us, but in effect, he has lost the ability to impact much on the people of Marja. His last technique was to try a strategy of murder and intimidation.
Marjah continues to benefit from education advances

“This place also had 40 girls attending school which is unheard of,” D’Amato said. “Last year there were 200 students, none of which were girls. Now we have close to – and this is phenomenal – 1,100 students attending school in Marjah, 40 of which are girls. It was great to see the little girls and their smiles and them wanting to learn and wanting to understand what things are.”

Marjah population 70 000,perhaps 1/3 children

Royal Engineers working along with US Army engineers have replaced a bridge on a key route in Helmand province which was recently destroyed by an insurgent bomb.
The bomb, which partially destroyed the Singhazi bridge on Highway 1, also injured some ISAF troop

This is a link

RScott February 17, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Relative to para 3, we must keep in mind that most of the insurgents that attack in Marja, live there. There is no place in that flat, featureless desert to live…or eat or hide or anything else. I think we may have a misunderstanding of who the insurgents are in Marja…Sanguine…Nad-i-Ali…Nawa or anywhere else in the province. They dont “blend in” with the people when they want to disappear. They are of the people as numerous interviews in the media have pointed out.

Dishonesty? February 16, 2011 at 6:04 pm
Don Anderson February 17, 2011 at 4:22 am

The mere discussion of Marjah one year after the “lightning” push into the area is beyond questionable.

This was supposed to be the first of many pushes to show the enemy that ISAF was going to retake foot by foot of the country in a very rapid fashion.

The Blitzkrieg failed, and with it the surge.

Failure to secure Marjah after one month meant the mission was a failure. When we are still going through IEDs after one year means the enemy has indeed gone to ground, and persists. Keeping our force on the site and tied to it is their first and only objective.

We do not have time for one Marjah after another. The hold the ground one step at a time and watch the ground strategy is a failure. At one time, there was one ISAF soldier for every three Afghans in the area. There is still one BN plus assigned to sit on the area.

We cannot put FOBs in every village in Afghanistan. We no longer have time.

The challenge now with the remaining time we have left is to adopt a mobile counter insurgent strategy, do away with the Petreaus legacy, and hope hope hope that the ANSF has the fighting spirit to take on what we have failed to properly analyze and defeat.

Marjah, the mention of the name, the place and the ringing failure of our operation there will go down with Sangin as examples of tragically not what to do in an insurgency. This has been no victory, the enemy bought time by making us watch for IEDs step after step, meter after meter. The Marines obliged by stepping into their trap. There is no victory here to announce, other than the beginning of the drawdown which is now being planned in Kabul.

RScott February 17, 2011 at 7:19 pm

For some balance relating to Marja, I would recommend looking at the most recent from: Matthew Hoh
Director, Afghanistan Study Group
Posted: February 16, 2011 10:46 AM
“Memorials to Purposelessness”
in The Huffington Post

Boris Sizemore February 18, 2011 at 9:36 am

Back with the Mathew Hoh?
I was in Gardez last week with a few of the Afghan Government officials. We all had a good laugh about Hoh, who basically couldn’t handle the daily stress of being with Afghans and quit after having his mental breakdown and started “understanding the war and Afghans” after a few months in country. When I told them that Hoh was now a Senior Something or Other on Afghanistan one of the officials said in Pashtun, “if that snot nose son of a donkey ever comes back here, he is will not be welcome.”

So much for Hoh. But at least I can feel his pain after ten years under the Afghan stars, some guys just can’t make it here for a long time, and need to run home to mama. To each his own..

RScott February 18, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Sometimes this kind or rejection gives the critic credibility. Did you read the referenced piece? What part of his analysis do you disagree with? Content? February 19, 2011 at 12:43 am

Yes, I did endure the referenced piece. After six months in country under the facade of an expert the moaning plea to stop the evil war because later there will be a memorial did not excite me toward a “Day of Rage against the War.”

Actually my daughter’s recent college essay on “The Heart of Darkness” was more emotionally rousing.

Basically my problem remains, he knows nothing about the country he so fervently deems capable of saving. If you cannot understand the war, you do not know any better than the dimwits at ISAF on what to change.

When I hear Afghans spitting out his name in vain that is enough to know that this genius is not welcome there. If you cannot work with Afghans, then do not claim to be the saviour, because in the end it will be an Afghan solution we seek. Only the few with long term relationships in the country will be able to ever gain the confidence of the Afghan leaders in the country.

I agree we need to drawdown, but I do not agree with a mindless “just let the Pakistanis do it” which is what Hoh advocates in essence as well as splitting up the country, which really upsets Afghans.

I agree clearly the Surge and Marjah were extreme cases of needless slaughter on both sides. But I believe the war needs to be retooled completely not given up and left in the hands of “bogus experts” like Hoh, Clemmons and the Way Forward gang.

Dishonesty? February 18, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Great example building a road for development: completed road improvements in Marjah

Improvements included widening the road and applying several tons of gravel to enhance the road’s stability. The engineers repaired more than three miles of road leading to Patrol Base Beatley and Patrol Base Dakota.

Before the repairs, vehicles no larger than a small car or van were able to traverse the road, making it difficult for Marines and sailors at the FOBs to receive necessary supplies.

Not only was it important to get the supplies to the troops, but the improved road also allowed the local Afghan to transport their crops to market more easily.

A Road to Market or MRAPway?
What is it MRAPway? for example

The preparation work required for the construction of 20 kilometres of road eight metres wide, with 25 metres of disengagement zone on each side, puts a heavy burden on the local farmers, especially considering that they have made do for 400 years with a road only three metres wide

And afghan’s view

Homira February 19, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Boris is right about Hoh. Count one more Afghan who sees Hoh as an opportunist without an inkling of of the truth on the ground.

john wendle February 20, 2011 at 4:44 am

“A year ago it was the Taliban capital of Helmand province, a completely controlled Taliban area,” he said. “That has changed 180 degrees in the past year, and it’s now a small farm town that is vibrant with five bazaars (markets) with a great number of customers and business on every day of the week. It’s a great success story by the government of Afghanistan and what they have done to stand up a secure environment,”
 said Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills in an ISAF statement today.

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