Fighting Right: What is working and what is not in Afghanistan
By Greger Stellan
Afghanistan is also far more complex than Iraq in terms of the kaleidoscope of ethno-linguistic groups, tribal dynamics, and difficult terrain. It’s a guerrilla war where the enemy is now using primarily terrorist tactics to fight us. This requires a long-term approach that could take decades to get to the point where we are not needed there.
We are now over 11 years into this fight. Some would say that it’s taking too long and that the voters are tired of this war. Tell that to the many troops and civilians who have deployed there two, five or even 10 times. Despite what we may think we want, we are faced with a reality that isn’t going away anytime soon.
There are three things that need to be understood if one is going to be truly understand the situation in Afghanistan:
(1) It’s a guerrilla war. There may be all kinds of names and acronyms invented to describe what some think that we are doing, such as “counterinsurgency” (COIN) and calling the enemy “insurgents.” We are fighting guerrillas and they primarily use terrorist tactics and techniques to fight us.
(2) This type of warfare is not won in weeks or months, but in years or decades; it can’t be measured by phase lines and terrain objectives. They show every sign that they are willing to wait us out, as they believe that we will turn tail and run just like the others that they ejected. It could take several decades to get the security and economic situation in that country to the point where it’s somewhat self-sufficient and less likely to revert to being a terrorist safe haven again.
This is not a war that can be talked about in terms of exit strategies and withdrawal dates. By declaring that we are “leaving in 2014,” as one politician did in a debate this past fall, we are literally handing the enemy the public relations victory that they need to convince the uneducated, impressionable populace of Afghanistan that neither we nor their fledgling government are serious. We can be assured of one thing: Whether or not we have the perseverance, our enemies do.
(3) Make no mistake about it. If we don’t stay the course, if we were to leave Afghanistan completely and abandon ship, our enemies can and will use it again as a launch base. They picked it for good reason. It’s an ideal, remote place to conduct both training and planning. It’s one of a number of impoverished Muslim countries that serve as a ripe source of recruitment for their so-called cause. It has a formidable source of financing by way of the drug trade.
Though the coalition (specifically ISAF Joint Command (IJC)) does some great things, some powers that be attempt to paint a rosy picture via their press releases about this war in Afghanistan. Not everything goes as well as the so-called progress reports always depict. This is as much about winning over the population as it is about tactical victories and body counts. The enemy still feels that they can win and have many of the populace convinced to at least either stick with them or to remain neutral while the world waits to see if the coalition is really going to honor its post-2014 commitment. If having multiple occupiers over successive generations has taught them anything, it’s how to be a survivor and out last their enemies.
What doesn’t help our situation is that we entered the infamous “graveyard of empires” where others had failed. Back then, terrorist attacks were not being enabled from Afghanistan and Pakistan. We, of course, have a better reason for being there. Making matters worse, we have the misfortune to be fighting in a land that is quite possibly one of the most illiterate, impoverished and divided in the world.
Here is a big one: their number one money maker, their cash crop, is poppy; it’s what pays for the insurgency. There is very little else in that country that is even worthy of being exported. [This is simply not true. Afghanistan is very rich in mineral resources.] Any visitor to the border checkpoints can attest to this: empty trucks leaving Afghanistan, but trucks full of goods coming in. Unless there is an economy to replace this untaxed, hidden economy of illicit trafficking, we will face a well financed enemy until the end of time. It’s one thing to conduct eradication and counterdrug operations, but many people in this land have become dependent on the income from the drug trade. Something has to replace the poppy to get money into people’s pockets while breaking their dependence on the Taliban and other bad guys.
This is more widespread of a problem than the powers that be are willing to publically admit and unless we solve this, we won’t solve the Afghan problem.
Most don’t identify with a central government, due partly to the fractious ethnic, tribal and linguistic makeup of the country. A Pashtun elder once told me up on the PAK border that “President Karzai is only President of Kabul. We are on our own out here. No one here identifies with a country called Afghanistan.”
There are strategic reasons for staying in Central Asia in general. When is the last time that we had a major terrorist attack by anyone from Germany, Japan, or Korea? We have had what are essentially post-conflict occupation forces in these countries for decades. No serious threat to the US nor her allies has emanated from any of these countries. Having a forward presence, particularly with air power and logistics, gives us a strategic advantage in that region that we never had. Its absence, until we began widespread deployment there, could partly explain why we are in the mess that we are in now.
The first few months of this fight, led by special operations forces (SOF) and the intelligence community were an astounding success. Backed by air–ground operations from our first rate combat aviation, the model of counter-guerrilla, unconventional warfare worked and they made history in doing so. But since then there have been a number of serious problems with how we have executed this fight.
WHAT IS NOT WORKING
Conventional forces – too little, too late:
On the one-year anniversary of the war, we had about 20K US troops in Afghanistan. But, even when we had almost eight times that many total coalition forces in country, you could go for days without seeing any evidence of the coalition. Some units admit that they are only able to secure the ring road and major lines of communication (LOCs) and not much else. “Clear and hold” only appears to work until the men with the black turbans return to intimidate the locals. By comparison, we committed approximately 500K troops to Operation Desert Storm. Though it sounds like we have a lot of troops in Afghanistan, it never was nor never will be enough.
It’s obvious now that the commitment in Iraq prevented us from using the amount of force that was needed during this critical period, as the insurgents fled across the border into Pakistan in 2001–03, as well as began setting up shop in other parts of the world.
Unrealistic expectations and timelines.
This is a long term fight that does not fit conveniently into a four-year election cycle. Considering the importance of this location and what’s at stake if we fail, we need to “throw away our calendars,” as one analyst has said, and plan for the long haul. The conduct of guerrilla warfare is often frustrating, requires patience, gives little if any immediate gratification and provides none of the recognizable results of conventional warfare. Victories are not measured in body counts but in winning the populace, turning them against the enemy while getting them self-sufficient enough to where becoming a terrorist or guerrilla is found to be not just undesirable, but is not necessary to produce income.
Static war / entrenched garrison mentality.
There is a joke in country that “we declared war and garrison broke out.” We now have scores of large bases with shopping centers, restaurants, internet cafes, gyms and stores galore. There is an outdoor shopping mall / boardwalk with rubberized running track at Kandahar Air Field (KAF). As you might have heard, the shopping is quite good at our larger bases. It makes many of us wonder: Is the priority creature comforts and staying in garrison, or getting out there and hunting the bad guys? These large, static bases, combined with regularly scheduled, highly visible convoys, provide a juicy and predictable target for the enemy. This is in fact where most of our casualties have come from. The IED threat did not show up in force until we started deploying large numbers of conventional troops to Afghanistan and expanding the number and size of our bases. During the first months of the war, we had the enemy on the run. Now they have moved back within the populace, hide quite well, and often have freedom of movement. They can predict where and when we will be, as we have bases the size of US cities from which we exclusively operate.
Low numbers of actual operational, ground combat forces “outside the wire.”
The hot pursuit of the first year of the war has given way to a static, garrison mentality, where any eyewitness can affirm that we have a high percentage of personnel that spend their entire deployment “inside the wire.” We have to be honest and ask ourselves about this.
Too much PowerPoint, too little action.
Our military has become very good at depicting what the operational area and situation look like and how to tell what already happened. We should be far more focused on actionable intelligence versus the analysis paralysis that many of the units with their giant staffs seem to be caught in. Complaints abound of entire staffs and S2 sections spending entire days preparing the next day’s briefings versus actually planning decisive action. By the time that they decide what to do, the enemy has already moved. We face an enemy that adapts and overcomes faster to us than we can adapt to them. The time lag from intelligence collected to action taken is often unacceptably long. Restrictive rules of engagement and bureaucratic processes add to this problem. Countless times a lack of agility and a faster intelligence / targeting cycle resulted in lost opportunities to take out cell leaders and even entire networks. Bottom line – before PowerPoint and computers were invented, we fought and won wars.
Too much reliance on high technology and not enough on good old fashioned intelligence and guerrilla warfare. We have everything that we need to do the job, to include unmanned aerial vehicles. Despite the advances in technology, there has been an overreliance on push-button warfare. Plus, our enemies have been quick to figure out how it is that we find them, and they have adjusted accordingly. More decisions need to be made using making positive identification (PID) by visual means on the ground. This means paying more locals that are willing to help us do that. Not enough of this occurs at the tactical and unit level. We need more eyes and ears on the ground.
Add to this the various methods of attack used by our enemies tailored to give the perception that we are losing. They have moved away from conducting large attacks and troop movements to small, precise, high payoff terrorist tactics: IEDs, complex attacks, suicide bombers, assassinations, indirect fire, and insider threat attacks. They know how to manipulate public opinion to make the government in Kabul look unprepared and weak while causing just enough casualties among coalition personnel to lessen their resolve and turn public opinion in their home countries.
Not everyone wants to fight; the enemy has become adept at diminishing the will of some countries to commit to the fight. Though we have many good allies fighting alongside us, it’s a reality that not all of them want to engage in offensive ground combat. Many find that they are better suited to assisting with non-lethal endeavors. That leaves very few units to do the actual fighting that needs to be done. Additionally, these non-lethal efforts, such as the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), provide targets to the enemy, who realizes how important these are to giving the coalition credibility with the populace. The PRTs, government centers, and even US bases have been attacked many times in broad daylight by as few as three attackers. This has made the world news within 20 minutes nearly every single time. Perception is often reality, so who’s winning?
Pakistan – one way or another, we have to solve this part of the problem. The mostly mountainous border of AFPAK is “Pashtunistan,” not Afghanistan. In order to effectively deal with the enemy in the long term, the answer lies in part in dealing with their ability to have a safe haven in Pakistan that we can’t go into. The Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are home to much of their command and control, to include many of the top targets that we are looking for. It’s where a lot of the lethal aid comes from. Sending in the drones (UAVs) has only a limited effect, particularly when many key leaders of the various enemy groups are simply replaced by either members of their own network or by rivals. This fight began with a connection to Pakistan, and will end, if it does, with Pakistan.
Using the wrong tools for the job – Our troops have done a fantastic job and displayed dedication and gallantry in action in so many ways. The average troop in this war has deployed more times and for longer periods of time than for any war in our history. In addition to facing an enemy that hides among the populace in unknown numbers and is adept at exploiting our every vulnerability, that country is too large and too complex to be fought in by conventional forces. We are kidding ourselves if we think that this is the right way to do it.
Further, it has taken us 10 years to teach and retrain our conventional forces how to conduct COIN and counterterrorism. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen once stated that he would like to see the conventional forces deploying be more “SOF-like.” There are three problems with this: (1) Despite some noble efforts, not enough of this new doctrine is being applied by many of the conventional units; (2) conventional units are often just too blunt of an instrument in an operational environment that requires surgical precision and a lower profile approach to the populace; and (3) you can’t just mass produce SOF and not everyone can do their job. The COIN / counterguerrilla doctrine for ISAF has evolved quite a bit and in many ways is a remarkable piece of work. But often units will rotate in theater, spending a large part of the deployment trying to figure out their new area of operations (AO), the threat, and how to apply COIN. It’s not something that they were trained to do when they first joined the service. There is not enough continuity of action and not all problems can be solved in a given AO with one deployment. The enemy takes advantage of all of this.
So, the weapon of choice for guerrilla warfare and counterterrorism is those that have specialized in it from their inception – special operations forces. For over five decades (and whose lineage goes back three centuries), the Army Special Forces and its brother elements in the other services have studied and perfected unconventional warfare (UW) and guerrilla warfare from their crucible at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC. But this capability exists in small numbers and requires a longer term strategy. If the public does not have the patience for a long war of many deployments of conventional troops, then give the mission to SOF and the intelligence community and let them run it.
Smaller, low-signature, less-invasive, culturally attuned units.
Once we stop having large, predictable convoys of easily recognizable armored vehicles and trucks, then we take away the primary target that our enemy has rendered most of our casualties from. In fact, they call our MRAPs and other military vehicles tanks in Pashto. In their place should be personnel who are experts at dealing with the populace and that look less like an occupier and more like an ally. Policy makers should consider the possibility that no matter what are our best intentions and benevolent approach to the Afghan people, they simply don’t want an overtly occupying force in their land. What this means, specifically, is that they don’t want to see large convoys of large armored vehicles tearing through their villages by day and night. They don’t want to see groups of foreign troops with clean shaven faces pointing weapons at them and searching their homes. A situation still exists where the local nationals must choose between the foreign force that occasionally gets it wrong (collateral damage) or the “home team.” Failure to understand and master tribal dynamics has sent many a unit home more confused than when they came. We also need more personnel with native language proficiency.
Tribal and key leader engagement.
Engaging with tribal and village leaders is a key task, both an art and science, that few coalition leaders have truly mastered. The locals will do what their elders and leaders ask, and not what Kabul is telling them. We have to engage at the lowest level.
Attack and destroy networks, not just individual insurgents.
Many units have missed this point. Killing single IED cell leaders and facilitators one at a time will not win this type of war. IEDs and complex attacks don’t plan themselves and require far more than one perpetrator. It requires entire networks of guerrillas. The proper methodology, pioneered by SOF, is to first determine which combination of enemy personnel are the most important to eliminate (or turn), and then the next 1–2 layers down of replacements. Then, take the extra time to achieve a more lasting effect. If you take out only one at a time, they pull more off the bench and simply replace them. They are quite resilient and they will keep bouncing back unless we can truly dismantle them by networks and not individual actors. An exterminator doesn’t attempt to kill off one termite at a time; he goes after the whole colony and then anything that feeds it. We need to stop this piecemeal targeting. This has been going on for 11 years now and somehow we are facing a seemingly endless supply of targetable guerrillas.
We have to advise and assist the host nation forces in everything that they do, to include getting to the point where the people trust them and where they, not us, get the credit for providing security. We should remain in the background, mostly out of the public view. Hiring former SOF and law enforcement personnel as contractors to conduct much of this work is money well spent and frees up our uniformed personnel for other tasks while reducing the signature.
Whenever possible, use contractors.
There are many jobs that contractors can do, which free up uniformed troops to focus on lethal and non-lethal operations. This results in lower troop numbers, more experience, and lower long term cost.
Human intelligence (HUMINT) must take the lead in the effort to find/fix the enemy and gain situational awareness. This is an intelligence-driven war. Far too much effort is spent on high-tech approaches and not good-old fashioned HUMINT. We are to the point where the enemy has figured out how it is that we are finding them using other means, and they have been very good about spreading the word. This enemy is truly adaptable and good at hiding. HUMINT is the hardest type of intelligence to manage and master, but it’s the one that will tell us what the enemy is doing. The comment has been made that we can’t see them under a roof with a UAV, such as a Predator, and it’s true. But sending in a local national to verify that our target is home really does work. It is a major mistake that so many conventional units have chosen to rely on the ease of watching the war on a computer screen versus getting intelligence the old fashioned way, aka low-tech “spy work.” SOF units have mastered the art of combining the various technical and human intelligence methods into the find/fix/finish cycle of relentless targeting. We need to deploy a far larger number of HUMINT collectors on the ground, especially as we draw down our total troop numbers. It’s less expensive, more effective and will get better results. A large stay-behind force or civilian or contracted human intelligence collectors will give us the early warning and targeting intelligence needed to continue to strike at the enemy for decades.
This is quite possibly the most difficult and frustrating war that we will ever fight. If we are serious about eliminating the last of the insurgency while denying Afghanistan to our enemies as a terrorist safe haven and launch base, then this is the weapon of choice: Employ a reduced force led by SOF and intelligence community elements, supported by suitable air, medical, and support packages, and striking as needed with or without the host nation. This won’t give us the immediate gratification that makes watchers of the 6’oclock news happy, but it’s the way that this type of war is effectively fought. It is very probable that the way that we began this war, with SOF and the intelligence community in the lead, is how we will end it. Let’s finish what we started, but let’s do it right.
The author is a former Army Special Forces soldier and infantryman who has also served since 9-11 in intelligence collection, targeting, joint SOF, and other federal assignments as a contractor and government civilian.