Thursday, June 24, 2010

A question on Afghanistan

With the Rolling Stone article on Gen. McChrystal and the general lack of knowledge about the underpinnings of what is going on in Afghanistan one of the commenters at Hot Air asked a question in an early message that I felt needed a decent response.

Always dangerous, that.

This was before the General tendered his resignation and, indeed, before most of the details of the article were known.  That, however, didn't matter to the nature of Afghanistan and what a solution to it might be.  For anyone who has read my material this is nothing new.  All spelling, syntax, logic and other errors are kept intact for the amusement of the reader.


Unlike in Iraq, there is no nation to build. Never has been. Never will be.

Okay, so what’s the solution? Damned if I know.

SteveMG on June 21, 2010 at 9:36 PM

I will give this a shot, because there are historical precedents that need to be examined and much of 20th century mechanized warfare that is inapplicable to Afghanistan. This means I will be linking to some of my previous background pieces, and they don’t tend to be short. Like this one examining the unreal ‘realists’ in diplomacy as applied to Iraq.

First in understanding is that Afghanistan is not a Nation, but a region of tribes more or less defined by their affiliations with each other and often long-lasting resentment. The British Empire tried to solve the Pashtun problem by putting up a border through the Pashtun tribal regions and then try to work out a diplomatic and military way to find an acceptable solution. They failed and the 100 year ‘peace’ that was imposed was outwaited by the Pashtuns and the Empire expired in the area before the ‘peace’ did. Today that AF-PAK border is still an area of contention and the source of the Talibe, Mehsuds and other tribes run in the old way of tribes with personal fighting forces.

This is not unusual in the region, and Iraq can be seen as a few steps further down the road to a Nation State than Afghanistan is. Even better the Kurds are drawn from the same ethnic stock as Afghans, so that if we could get our act together in Iraq and get some Iraqi Expeditionary Forces derived from Kurdish background, we would have similar ethnic outlooks to draw upon as these people share a similar system of values and comprehension that we do not have in the modern West. We did have this in the modern West during the stand-up of Germany (the ‘German Question’), the Norman Conquest in England, and the formation of Italy out of multiple ethnic groups in the Peninsula. We have enforced forgetting what it takes to make a Nation, find common accord amongst multiple warring tribes and get a large scale act together. The Kurds remember this (and often despise the way Empires have divided them so as to keep their people separated) and yet understand they must live in this world of Nation States.

Afghanistan has this in nascient form in the Loya jirga, which is an all-tribe governing system (we call it a parliament, but it more closely aligns with an inter-tribal brokering system of power and resources). The ‘President’ of Afghanistan is a late-coming figure that was once relatively respected before the Soviet invasion, but the de-cohesion of society there devolved power strongly back to the tribal level. That is not an egg we can unbreak and we had best learn that. What is needed is to approach the Loya jirga and see if they can find a better way to get a general representative of them (a form of Nation-level executive) that they can hold accountable to all of them via unanimous vote. There are methods to do this that are direct (a form of Prime Minister with a ‘no confidence’ vote) and indirect (like the Doge of Venice and the system behind that). Thusly, understanding the tribal basis of governance in Afghanistan, our first approach is via the Loya jirga to the tribes, themselves.

As the US is derived from a multi-ethnic common law system (actually understood in Afghanistan!) and that we once understood the necessity of local defense of town and family, that becomes the basis for a local Militia run by locals and having a modicum of oversight from the Loya jirga on rules of operation. This is not a National military, but a local militia arrangement as enshrined in Amendment II, that upholds the right of each to go armed and of local government to defend itself when the National cannot do so (as seen in Art. I, Sec. 10, para.iii of the US Constitution). These need to be de-conflicted, yes, but they then serve as a counter-weight to an oppressive National system and gives a stout first line against other tribes and even Nations.

That covers the social and cultural aspect of Afghanistan: understand devolved power systems, work with them, bring in experts with knowledge from more advanced areas, help to institute a local and accountable militia system (it is now unaccountable and that cannot be done via 20th century Nation State concepts) and generally recognize the internal authority of the inter-tribal power brokerage system.

Secondly is geography and terrain. We cannot, indeed must not, fight a 20th century flatland war in Afghanistan, and yet we do so, by and large, with the bulk of NATO forces (not US or Canadian). The terrain is highland and mountainous, the style of warfare is Mountain Warfare. Every single male in every tribe understands Mountain Warfare: we don’t as a Nation and even our military system is not set up to utilize specialized (not special) forces in a big way. When you read the description of what is expected of MW fighting, you also characterize all sides in the current military conflict, save western troops: someone is out of step with what to do and it is us.

MW devolves power and responsiblity downward for a simple reason: survival. As this IS how the locals fight we should strip out a number of pages from the last successful western force to actually win in the region. That was led by yet another leader of hastily affiliated tribal groups with a more or less coherent ethnic background: Alexander. Alexander the Great. He won in the region using small, specialized, fast moving forces to assault areas that the locals thought impenetrable. By winning against the locals in the style the locals understood, he was able to cement some of the first ties in the region and he is still sung about, to this very day, by the bards throughout the region. The region hasn’t changed much in outlook, a bit in ethnicity due to the Mongols, and none at all due to geography.

The locals, prior to the spendthrift Saudis getting into the act, had as their major firearm the Small Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle, and the ammo (pennies per round in the West) was expensive to the locals. While the younger generation went off on a shooting spree with FA AKs, the older fathers and grandfathers picked off dinner from a half-mile away with ancient bolt action rifles. If we had been anywhere near smart, we would have indicated to all tribes that we would support the SMLE with lots of training, ammo and spare parts (which we would buy from the UK). This would make the militias more effective and put a long-distance counterweight to FA weapons (which are typically short to medium range in the man carried versions). Thus the locals would have a well known, supported and reinvigorated historical weapons platform and the knowledge that we understood it and how they used it.

After that we fight mountain style: small, self-contained groups moving quickly with little to no supplies in mountainous terrain. The Canadian mountain warfare group did the local impossible in 2007-2008 by staging a Winter Campaign and ferreting out the Talibe/al Quaeda training centers in Pakistan’s NWFP and even further in. Some of that could not, ever, be garnered from overhead because the training facilities were used for general housing in winter and only sporadic training: if you weren’t there to see the training you wouldn’t figure out what was going on. The Canadians gained the deep respect of the locals for doing as Alexander did: fight the locally impossible.

What would that mean for the US? A second Mountain Division would be a great start, culled from volunteers who had already been in-theater and adding in new recruits to get lessons learned from the experienced hands… and then train them in mountainous terrain for two years. If this had been our focus from the start, we would now have two MD giving all year coverage to Afghanistan. As this would require local ROEs developed by local commanders in coordination with local Militias and coordinated between tribal areas by our command structure we would not have the blanket ROEs that encumber us now. Plus we would be able to train the National military in how to do this hard problem.

This isn’t a problem of ‘fight and stay’ which is classical COIN. Nor is it our obtuse way of ‘fight and leave’, that gains no trust. This is the local form of ‘fight and fight and fight’.

Thirdly is logistics. By deploying more specialized forces, changing the security arrangement to a localized one with centralized de-confliction, and requiring each and every single ally provide us with their mountain/alpine/highland forces, the entire logistics train is slimmed down. This is critical due to the lack of supply routes to a land locked region. We can only supply 10% of our cargo needs via air, the rest is via ship and overland (its cheaper). Lack of lift at altitude and treacherous winds due to mountain environment point to a lack of ability to get airlifted supplies to Afghanistan even if we paved every flat piece of the place over with airfields. Thus we must have a smaller logistical tail, harder and more independent fighting forces, and make ourselves less vulnerable to the Pashtun tribal areas our supplies have to go through.

Remember them, the Pashtuns? Outwaited a 100 year truce and the British Empire. The British learned that the distance of safety in the area was the length of accurate rifle fire from the road. Lovely place, no? It is still that way, today. They need to learn the lesson that we can outshoot them and use our capabilities (hard won in Iraq) to find and stop IEDs. And that nothing, ever, stops our supplies… and if Pakistan can’t help, then they do need to understand that rolling armor down those highways may not be what they want, but it is required for our safety of supply lines. No more payoffs to thieves and pirates.

Thus what is desperately needed is a real State Dept with capable hands to craft us a second supply route. This can be done without involving Russia, nor Iran, and they will both be PO’d simultaneously as we put in the land/water equivalent of a new Silk Road. That gives economic benefits to the region (a major plus) and allows us to pay off National governments to protect vital supply lines that they can also use. A triple win and more than Russia or Iran can do. Way more. With a firm and secondary supply chain source, we can then operate more freely in Afghanistan and let Pakistan know that they must, absolutely and positively must, stop supplying money to the Talibe, al Qaeda off-shoots, Hekmatyar’s organization, Mehsud clans… by gaining a second supply route we get freedom of activity and action to finally get the Pashtun mess on everyone’s plate and let them know that we do not want to be there, and that this little problem must be fixed once and for all amongst all parties there.

We should not have a fixed end-goal in that, but a fixed and understood process. So long as it gets the old conflicts out of the way, brings a modicum of stability to the region and ensures that terror funding is ended: then we can leave, tyvm.

That should have started… ohhhh… 2002? 2003?

It is much, much, much harder to do now.

But what we have done hasn’t worked.

We can still win, but that means changing the parameters of our expectations vis a vis Nation States and recognize that a good, self-checking localized system of federal accountability amongst tribes is actually way better than what is there now.

ajacksonian on June 22, 2010 at 7:15 AM


There are a few other articles I could link to, but this gives the best overview.

You adapt to what is there, don't try to force something that the natives don't like, and then you fight in a way that is lean, fierce and totally understood locally.

We aren't doing that and haven't done that since the opening days of the war.  This approach worked early on because it was lean, fast, and capable: perfect for the climate and peoples there.  What we have now is top-heavy and, generally, overburdened with staff and underburdened with fighters and trainers.  If we want to win, we must change our logistical set-up, our approach to the native population, stop 'Nation Building', start local militias, and get a damned second supply route to our troops so they aren't held hostage by the insurgents in Pakistan.

But that is just me.


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