Small Wars Journal

Clearing the Final Hurdle

Clearing the Final Hurdle: Synthesizing Afghan, US Efforts on the Ground - Major Nate Springer, USA and USMC Counterinsurgency Center Blog.

I had a unique opportunity last month (MAR10) to attend the Counter-Insurgency Academy at Camp Julien, Kabul and later spent a few days at the Regional Command Headquarters -- South in Kandahar. This academy was supported by an unbelievable pool of talent from the International Security Assistance Headquarters (ISAF) ranging from General McChrystal to his primary staff. Although many significant topics were analyzed, none captured my attention more than the discussion of how our Soldiers will partner one-to-one with our Afghan Security Forces on the ground.

General Sher Mohammad Zazai, Commander, 205th Corps, Afghan National Army, spoke of the importance of partnering. He stated, "Full partnership between the Afghan Army and ISAF will create a force in Afghanistan that no one can beat. The American Soldier has the money, technology, and training; however, the Afghan Soldier has the eyes and ears that the American Soldier lacks. Americans are the left hand while Afghans are the right hand. Both hands are used to wash your face." I'm not sure I completely agree with this characterization of US brawn and Afghan wits, but I did understand the jist of his statement. We need to work in closer partnership, each side bringing its considerable strengths to the equation.

So which is the wisest way for our troops to partner with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)? The ISAF Headquarters and Staff stressed the intent is to achieve absolute partnership at every level and conduct combined missions, always. This effort is currently underway....

Read the entry post at the USA and USMC Counterinsurgency Center Blog.



Sat, 04/24/2010 - 10:16pm

How true indeed, Mike! You know, I first met American soldiers as a kid in the refugee camps post-WWII and always felt that though they never suffered through what we suffered they could make the booboo deep in your soul feel better than anyone in the world. I kind of still think that. For example, that horrid video of chopper pilot shooting Iraqi fish in a barrel had a shot of a GI running with a kid in his arms. That guy felt to me like a dad doin' what comes naturally. They train you Yanks to be bloody murderers, but your heart opens to the helpless like no one else's. I don't know exactly why; but I know what Afghans said: that Russians killed like a tiger-- on impulse-- but Americans should be judged by what they do AFTER they kill. Well, this greatly impacts on how people see you, leaving them with a choice: either you take them as they are or you pass them up for a cloudy tomorrow. No soldiers on earth would be considered for such a choice but Americans and so often the impression you guys make drive people to trust you. The point is that the American INDIVIDUAL is distinguished from the STUPID COMMAND because his soul shines through his flack-- oops-- armor jacket. And it's not just because you guys are ~5 years older than in Vietnam conscripts because I remember many Viets telling me then about the Marines-- IN I CORPS OF ALL PLACES!!-- that they really cared and that they really fought as CAP or whatever to protect the locals. In war civilians live by the here and now and no one is more reassuring NOW than Americans-- al least over my lifetime. But the issue is whether these people should follow local officers you invent and a "Gov in a box" you guys picked with your eyes shut. They trust your feelings but not your judgment. It was the opposite with the Russians. They knew the Russians made wise strategically long sighted decisions but that they had no feelings other that rattatatatatat. I remember a woman who said that she never felt that any of the Russians had a mother!

My point is that your selling point is what you had in WWII, Vietnam and even in Iraq/Afghanistan (except for the snipers" who like to shoot or the chopper guys who do too and forget that it isn't a rat scampering past the latrine hole). Living in many lands under stress I realize that non-linguistic communications are amazing, especially for illiterate people who go by mystical "sense of." The problem is that when you leave, the next guy starts with a neural heart. As much as I pis on McChrystal, I must say I admire his long term in place idea because-- IF you guys succeed-- it's only because regulations don't force you to keep your shirt buttoned to the top and a certain glow that's above language is sensed by many around you, especially the helpless; take it from a victim of circumstance when extremely helpless. Somewhere else I wrote about MAT/CAP guys and how they bonded with RUF/PUFs. I never met one who spoke Vietnamese, as opposed to CIA guys who always used to butcher such Asian languages of inference rather than explicitness. Yet people felt that if they get killed the American with them would too. This, VC told me, they never felt about Northerners. Same in Afghan setting. Maj. Gant's silly boyish "One Tribe at a Time" essay is the kind of advice that gets you driving off a cliff. Yet it is EXACTLY what makes you Americans so believable and endearing. You may be total inferiority complex ridden at home in a college setting, but over there you're all-heart heroes they helplessly bond to. Trouble is you don't realize it and don't realize that they feel it as proven by Gant's experience. It's not your manliness; it is your human manliness. The crossover point is when you prove that besides a lot of impressive toys strapped to your body or "call-in" you're also very reasonable. There's the rub though because you're between a rock and a hard place. You are representing a government half their relatives are fighting against because they know it is like shit in their beds. No matter what you do, you are that nice kid who-- too bad-- works to shove Karzai down their throats. I recall all those SF guys crying as ARVN was pushing around all the Montagnards they had gone native with and held off PAVN with for over a year. How do you explain to simple people who put their entire stock of chips on you that they can trust Karzai because you do?

In the end you've got to look, not like a counterINSURGENT, but like a counterREVOLUTIONARY offering them some revolution. There you're stuck because the people who run your whole war have their heads up their.....

Imagine if you built some NATO-run cities in the more secure Northwest that offer BOTH jobs and education to young people. You then tell locals: trust me, let your son and daughter go to "my" cities to work and be educated. Two weeks later the first remittance sent home comes in. That+ your beautiful caring American heart is all they need and they'll talk their Taliban cousins off the rocks and into the NATO cities. That's how insurgencies end...when you offer an alternative. I saw it in Vietnam as it went from 85% rural to 75% urban. All those people who survived were victims of our ordnance. But once in the cites, helped by CORDS, they became, per Radio Hanoi, "petites bourgeois" and developed urban lives. The guerrilla "fish" were left high and dry as the peasant "sea" went to town. After Hanois desperate Tet 1968 defeat, ARVN pushed back into the rural villages. Then, as a Viet project, Phoenix was quite a success.

Your problem is that you're trying to do the job of a cop. Someone assassinates some local who collaborates and you go after the perpetrator as if the kiling were done by an army throwing JDAMs at him-- one or two guys! But a local cop goes around and investigates. Finds the guys, arrests them, and tries them in open court. Sharia Courts is all the Taliban ever had to offer as a revolutionary alternative to warlords and they won in 1997. We come in, kiss the kids, shake hands with the elders and then introduce the warlord we're putting in charge...(#$%&*$$%!!!!!). And so that sweet heart of yours is doubly evil to the locals because not only, do they suddenly see it as NOT caring (shoving warlords down their throats) but they also trusted the feelings you caused them and that makes you VEEERRRRYYYY dangerous.

I know this doesn't sound like a lot of the Acronyms you guys memorize to impress each other with but I really believe that your heart is your best weapon-- maybe ESPECIALLY because since you don't realizes so it is 100% gold authentic, as I learned in the 1940s as a kid. But there's got to be a message there besides: "By the way let me introduce you to the warlord that's taking over when I go home."

In Paris we used to misdirect Americans on purpose. That was because they thought they knew everything and we kids felt we had to prove to them that they don't know everything-- at least not the way to Sacre Coeur! But if you act lost and tell them: look, I don't have the answers but I'm here putting my life on the line hoping I can do some good for you so I can go home and feel like I did something with probably the only highlight of my life, they'll know you mean it and will work with you however risky, no matter how short. THAT, I think, is what Maj. Gant did and even he may not have fully appreciated his gift of a golden American heart.

Soldiers kill and destroy things because they're enemy things trying to do it to them. The side most messed up loses. But in COIN it's always the guy that makes it worth it for civilians to share the INsecurity with him that wins. And it can be fast too!

I'd love to read what your experience makes you think of this. Thanks.

"But you are there for a fixed while-- and they know it-- Mike and then you're gone"

True, and the SF boys and Marines have done better with that than Big Army, but I would submit that its how you react to this truth. Ill use the analogy of when ones hide site gets compromised by an eight-year old. You have several choices to include,

1. Overreacting and killing the boy.
2. Retreating to the FOB and throwing a pity party of how impossible it is to do anything in this war.
3. Taking advantage of the situation and viewing it as an opportunity for you to seize. You send the boy back home to get his dad, and then you tell the dad that the only reason that the boy found you was because you wanted him to. You allowed yourself to be seen to remind the people of your great power and omnipotence. You just wanted to remind the people of your great power. After you leave, the rumors will fly, and your influence increased. As crazy as that sounds, it works.

I used a similar approach when meeting elders in Iraq and interviewing drug and gang leaders in Salinas, CA. In Iraq, Id start with the honest truth. "Dude, I realize that Im probably the 8th Army captain that youve met, this is your home, and Im only here for a year." This admission got their attention. Then, Id go on to talk about Hammarabi, the gloried past of Arab history, and quote some lines from the Prophet Mohammed. This talk got me wasta and respect. Now, I brought the game changer. Id remark that "Ive seen a lot of Iraq, yall aint done shit in the last couple hundred of years, and now, youre cutting your neighbors heads off and stealing their land. Is that right? Is this the future that you want for your children? This isnt about me. This is about you. What are you going to do?" That made them think.

Its all about how you look at the problem.


Fri, 04/23/2010 - 9:25pm

But you are there for a fixed while-- and they know it-- Mike and then you're gone They are there forever and their rear is always naked (families exposed), as in 1993. They know very well what "budiness" is all qabout, that's the essence of their culture, except it's the guy below that tries it on the guy above. Can you assure them that we'll stay until they prove themselves to themselves?


Understood the clarification, and I think that I understood your intial title as well. I guess it's just frustrating that after eight years, we're finally started to do what the SF boys did intuitively back in 2001. We call ourselves a learning organization, but, sometimes, it feels like we're taking the short bus to school.

Here's one counter-point to consider. Instead of refering to these insights as tactical accomplishments for platoon, company, and battalion commanders, maybe it is simply horizontal communication towards unity of effort and command.

In all honestly, are the lessons learned by you and I any different than the ones mastered by GEN Patraeus, GEN Odierno, and Ryan Crocker in learning to work with Prime Minister Maliki or LTG McChrystal and President Karzai? Outside the broader scope and responsibility, I don't think so. It's just learning to work with people.


*Sorry for the double-posting on SWJ and CAC, but it will help with further dissemenation and discussion- this is not one of our back and forth emails. If we're really lucky, then others with more experience and better suggestions will pitch in.

MAJ Nathan Springer (not verified)

Fri, 04/23/2010 - 1:16pm

Mike - Let me clarify my point here. The title refers to ISAF's One-to-One Partnership initiative as being the final hurdle. Completely agree that getting to know your ANSF partners at the tactical level is step one, or one of the many hurdles in this process. Achieving one-to-one partnership in ISAF is a HUGE task...A final hurdle toward success.

Thanks for the comments!


Hi Nate,

Glad you got this published. In short, GREAT Article, Bad Title :). Personally, I think getting to know the dudes you're fighting with is Step One: The First Hurdle not the last. Even with US attachments, prior to OPORD, patrol, or big mission, I would strive to have at least a cup of coffee and smoke to try to get to know the dude (or dudette) before we might possibly be discussing airstrikes on fortified position, coordinating movement and maneuver during a firefight, or conducting a casevac. With the Aviators, I found this was a bit easier. I just had to pump up their egos a bit on the radio and let them know they were number one in my heart (Peace Out Starbucks).

Here's a couple of suggestions that I hope will add to your excellent article and continue the discussion.

1. Share Meals. Drink their tea and enjoy the lamb. Introduce them to Starbucks (coffee) and force them to eat an MRE (non-pork type). Give them your Marlboro Lights and smoke their tobacco. Laugh at each others reactions and bond. There is nothing like fellowship and bonding to develop trust.

2. Hang Out. Watch BlackHawk Down and We Were Soldiers together. Discuss the stories and guage the narratives. Talk about religion, politics, family, and life. Listen to their tales of the Soviet Invasion and Taliban Occupation. Dance when they sing. Mourn when they mourn.

3. Equalize Rank into One Voice. Their commander is given the same authority and respect that your men give you. He will be called sir by your troops, and if he speaks, they listen.

4. Co-locate but don't Co-habitate. Remember, you're working with a young Army that is not as professionalized as ours and Joe will be Joe. He will steal your shit. We solved this issue with two corrections- 1. we lived seperately, 2. we empowered their NCO's. My favorite Iraqi CSM would shave the head of any jundi caught stealing from my jundis.

5. Fight for them. This is one essential element that a commander must be willing to fall on his sword for. If you want to build confidence and total trust, then you must force higher to provide the same amount of CAS, indirect fires, and CASEVAC to your partnered unit that they would give an Infantry platoon under fire. In this realm, a TIC is a TIC.

6. Don't go Native. By this, I'm taking Prof Anna Simons's definition. It's not about uniform or appearance, but it is about not sacrificing the US mission for the Host Nation mission. The heart dillema not the mind. If you're partnered unit goes rogue, then you cannot follow. In one case, when an IA commander that I liked started his own jihad against our neighboring Sunnis, I assisted with getting him fired and placed in jail.




Thu, 04/22/2010 - 11:16pm

I recall going on operations with ARVN. As the PAVN lines seemed to be embracing and our air cover got close and hot, ARVN units would get disordered and you always knew that the confusion was prolog for breaking and dispersing, each man for himself. Compare that to RUF/PUFs. They were meeting with lines of PAVN regulars; but as they broke their own lines it was as if each man knew where the other was going. After all, it all had been territory they spent their lives walking and the invaders from the North were unfamiliar with that which they invaded. MAT advisers were there to call in support and to keep it from confusing our "gooks" with Hanois as, from the air some claimed, they all looked alike. Here a balance between native of the soil and foreigners on the ground guiding those technical machines above spoke non-linguistically for they had come to understand each other. Vann's old saw about security never seemed to be the issue. Security, after all, was a luxury they had left behind uniting in a trust of commitment when they went after the Northerners who had mortared the village marketplace at 10AM when most crowded with peasants. The issue now was mutual reliance and familiarity with the "big eyes" of the MAT team. It's funny how those little bastards that were supposed to always cut and run had formed up and went off to chase those PAVN war masters in retaliation for their losses. No McChrystal "security" priority existed in that COIN for the realm, just irreversible commitment. The issue was the realm and the villagers were now all risking security preventively so even if they die their peasant families would know a little more confidence the next morning at 10AM when in the village market. Americans were shouting no orders. They supported the local chosen Vietnamese leaders and NEVER feared the fear one felt in a big unit of ARVN when it made contact. In the latter case the issue was leadership. ARVN officers only learned from the French arrogance and insolence toward those they were supposed to lead. But RUF/PUFs were different; against bad odds everything was at stake for the little that they dared call all theirs. The tables were turned on the war experts from the North as we were supporting the locals while the Northerners were trying to exterminate them to establish their rule.

One can only wonder if the Afghan Army will turn out to be like the ARVN we trained or the RUF/PUFs we supported. An American Little Napoleon who can only gesture in frustration without feeling himself a part of the families he's supposed to be protecting cannot impart his knowledge and leadership without the non-verbal bonds between the MAT guys and the RUF/PUFs I saw in action. As a migrant in many countries since childhood I learned that communication is often not verbal; it is gestural as in animals, signaling an understanding that comes with a bond developed through survival in a shared INsecurity, not security. That partnering was often there in Vietnam and could easily be identified in expression of good-bys by those departing from the "vil" to return home; that moment was more traumatic that two or three advisory tours, they often claimed.

It may be that today's soldiers are told how great they--after all they're all volunteers-- a bit too much... ..that impacting on their attitude toward Afghans... ..thinking that they're talent is wasted on these people who cant even speak English. This is clearly telegraphed, even when videoed by a correspondent and shown later to a TV audience back home. One might then assume that it was not missed by the Afghans at who projected. But these people know the land, terrain, vegetable and animal like family. The Taliban fighters surely may be blood relatives. Thus maybe the role of the American is not to impose tactics so as to meet some operational demands set from above, but rather: how can I help you to create security from insecurity for you and yours? Struggling to say that and struggling to understand the answer miraculously become effortless over time. It is then that one is partnering with Afghan in a common struggle against Insecurity. No made in USA security can ever replace that from what Ive seen. Do you, sir, agree?