Small Wars Journal

Hamkari Baraye Kandahar aka Deepwater Horizon

Hamkari Baraye Kandahar aka Deepwater Horizon

Containing both will be slow, but doable

by Jonathan Pan

The upcoming Kandahar operation "Hamkari Baraye Kandahar" reminds me of the Deepwater

Horizon oil spill. Concerning all the efforts that BP is exerting at containing

the oil spill, Chris Gidez, a former oil company public relations man,

has the following to say,

"At the end of the day, the best public relations and advertising in the world cannot

compete with that live video stream of that oil coming out of the bottom of the

sea." The similarity to Hamkari is that the combined political, economic, and military

might of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has not been able to

stop the Taliban's influence (the oil) from spreading to the population (the sea).

The reason for this failure begins with "strategic communications." ISAF should

worry about stopping the oil rather than talking about it; it needs to immediately

follow a "underpromise and overachieve" strategy rather than worrying about "strategic


For starters, "Hamkari Baraye Kandahar" means "Cooperation for Kandahar" in Dari.

Rahimullah Yusufzai writes,

"It is not the first time that a non-Pashto term is being used in the Pashtun-populated

southern Afghanistan." The previous major operation in Helmand was called Operation

"Moshtarak," or Together or Joint in Dari. What was also not learned from Moshtarak,

or the Marjah offensive, goes beyond semantics. While the Marjah offensive was touted

as a military success, it is viewed by many to be a governance failure. Of the 400

men from Marjah, Lashkar Gah, and Kandahar City that were


by the International Council on Security and Development, "61% of those interviewed

feel more negative about NATO forces than before the military offensive." Even Major

General Nick Carter, the commander of the volatile Regional Command South, conceded

that the three-month old Moshtarak


about three to four months away from success. By hyping up Moshtarak, the Afghan

people felt promised to a certain level of security and governance. While the security

aspect has mainly been achieved, the governance aspect has not been able to keep

up with the pace. Make no mistake- capacity building takes time in a country torn

by war for over 30 years while the best and brightest study and work abroad or work

for international organizations. However, the idea of successful and quick governance

did not just enter the minds of Marjah residents- there was a failure in the message.

The primary goal of Moshtarak was supposed to win the support of local residents.

That was why before Moshtarak even began,

ISAF "said publicly for weeks that an invasion of Marja was imminent." Aside

from possibly displacing some Taliban with the message, the message also created

expectations. ISAF is a conglomeration of the world's powers, led by the United

States. Many Afghans are frustrated by the fact that a world hegemon capable of

sending a man to the moon cannot fix governance in a few months. As the Kandahar

surge begins this fall, ISAF needs to worry more about actions than about the media.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommends "to worry

a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions

communicate." ("Strategic Communications: Getting Back to Basics." Joint Forces

Quarterly. Issue 55, 4th Quarter, 2009)

Even before the Marjah offensive finished,

anonymous US

officials were talking about Kandahar as a "future kinetic area."  With

the leak that a Kandahar "offensive" on the way, it took ISAF approximately eleven

weeks to start promoting the offensive not as a military operation but rather an

extension of local governance; President Karzai recently called it a "process."

The mismanagement of Kandahar operation on the media front has led to an artificially

created endgame scenario.

Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post writes "There is no Plan B." This

is grossly unfair and unwise as the incoming U.S. brigade combat teams have to deliver

near-impossible results with near-impossible timelines. All the while, casualties

are mounting. ISAF had 51 casualties in May, 24 more than last year. The months

from June through October 2009 had the most casualties. Furthermore, the Taliban

will seek to derail the upcoming elections, especially of the district councils,

to prevent governance from reaching down to the district levels where the Taliban's

shariat court reigns. If recent history can serve as an indicator, ISAF will have

a tough fight this summer.  

While the media portrayal of Hamkari has been negative, battles and skirmishes

in the governance war are being won every day by Kandahar government officials while

being coached by the recently relevant Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team.

The influx of new U.S. brigades should immediately adopt a "underpromise and overachieve"

strategy. Are there any PowerPoint slides or Excel spreadsheets that can guide them

in this pursuit? Nope. Admiral Mullen sums it up quite nicely, "Americans simply

showed up and did the right thing because it was, well, the right thing to do" ((JFQ

Iss 55, Q4 '09). So what is the right thing to do? Enable the Afghan government

to build governance by providing Afghan officials with up-armored vehicles and armed

security groups, focusing on small projects below $10,000 that prevents commercial

warlords from trying to get a cut ($10,000 goes a long way in Kandahar), and have

a responsive Afghan government response after every "spectacular" attack by the


It's tough and dangerous job being an Afghan official these days. Is maintaining

a fleet of up-armored vehicles and private security sustainable in the long run?

Of course not -- but this isn't post-conflict reconstruction, this is war -- war requires

stabilization, not development. The focus on smaller projects prevents the common

complaint that most Afghans echo, "Where is the money going?" Well, at least $3

million is accounted for- it was spent by one Afghan contractor in Las Vegas.

As of June 5, 2010, there have been 736 projects totaling $41,125,838 spent in

Regional Command South with the U.S. military's Commander's Emergency Response Program

during Fiscal Year 2010. 19 of those projects constituted $22,964,967, or 55.8%

of the expenditures. The other 717 projects are all under $200,000, and accounted

for 44.2% ($18,160,870) of the total (Thank God that the Military loves Excel because

civilian spending is a black hole). I will argue that it is the 717 projects that

are really going to the Afghan people.

To that end, I question whether the Kandahar Electrification project, which costs

$569,914,757, is really going to help win the war. That project reflects more than


military-civilian tensions or the development versus stabilization argument

that the media loves to highlight. It exhibits the fact that the "better try than

not trying at all" strategy is deeply embedded within the American psyche.

Aaron David Miller thinks that "this is an appropriate slogan for a high school

football team; it's not a substitute for a well-thought-out strategy for the world's

greatest power." Capitalizing on the football analogy, it is time to stop quarterbacking

the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and give the Afghans the win.

Recently, the Deepwater Horizon has eclipsed Exxon Valdez as the worst oil spill

in U.S. history. Afghanistan has just exceeded Vietnam as the longest war. However,

both oil spills are slowly being contained. The new Deputy Provincial Governor of

Kandahar Province, Latif Ashna, has stepped up and became relevant, unlike his predecessor.

Arghandab is still going strong even after the assassination of the beloved Haji

Abdul Jabar. The incoming US brigades have a real shot at getting to the tipping

point if they immediately follow a "underpromise and overachieve" strategy focused

on letting the right actions deliver the message. ISAF must protect the few and

the brave who will serve in critical Afghan government positions with up-armored

vehicles and private security, focus on projects $10,000 and under to channel wealth

and stabilization to the people rather than the commercial warlords, and finally

have a responsive response for every "spectacular attack" by the Taliban, i.e. Governor

Wesa should have personally went to Nagahan after the wedding suicide attack in

June. If Hamkari follows this strategy and avoids the mistakes of Moshtarak, not

only will a "bleeding ulcer" be avoided but ISAF will have a chance of helping the

Afghan government deliver the elusive governance victory.

Captain Jonathan Pan is serving in Afghanistan. The views in this article

are solely of the author and not those of the Department of Defense.


Another Opinion in Afghanistan:

Actually, I wrote this two months ago and I came to the same conclusion that you did. However, as I redeployed back from Afghanistan I had a very interesting conversation with another person who seemed to me deliriously motivated while I saw the people who just wanted to go to the PX and chow halls instead of doing anything about it. The bottom line of our conversation was that neither of us had the authority to change the things out of our control - i.e. everything youve outlined, but we have to try to do something because if everybody adopted my defeatist attitude at the time, it is conceivable that units would just adopt a force protection posture and not do anything.

So I changed this piece to add a few things that might help in my opinion. It is evident that there have been failures at every level of war - I just have to go with my gut feeling that there are some people at each level trying to do the right thing.

On my flight back from Afghanistan, I spoke to a lot of Staff Sergeants and below and basically they all knew the deal and there was no way for anyone to spin it for them. They have been handcuffed and have seen their buddies die because of that. Vehicles have blown past their Snap TCPs because they cannot fire warning shots or be subjected to UCMJ. They dont understand the mission. They are basically surviving. At the time I couldnt think of any response - but it is the US Armys job to provide the response to them.

While it is a stretch that my conclusion is that "we can win it" I think it is the right thing to do and the right thing to think because if we do not have that attitude, no matter how farfetched it seems, some units will adopt a force protection posture instead of being mission-oriented - which will harm the Army in the years to come, beyond casualties, striking at its core.


Thu, 07/15/2010 - 2:32am

Jpan- You label me as a whiner and a complainer. That is fine. I am here doing my job to the best of my ability, so I am doing "something about it" beyond whining and complaining. The problem with the cheerleaders is that when someone stands up and says that the strategic or operational clock is broke, they're labeled whiners and complainers, while your op-ed here comes to the valiant conclusion that, of course, we can fix it. I didn't realize that you were just writing for company grade officers. I apologize. If that is the case, then why aren't you talking about TTPs on Company Command?

Regarding shining a turd, the point is that whether you "get back to basics" with strategic communications by trying to show actions, or if you do a bunch of IO, either way, they know we're leaving before the Taliban and they know all the areas that the TB control. That is a turd that rushed, short-term actions cannot shine, no matter how good they are.

So, my solution. I wouldn't say that I have a solution. I have ideas and opinions and no idea or opinion regarding a valid way forward could be condensed to this forum. But, if I were a national decision-maker, I'd recognize that the people I have working for me are delusional and will tell me that they can make anything happen, even if they can't. Then, I'd find someone with a solid understanding of strategic and operational reality who isn't wedded to counterinsurgency doctrine (i.e. believes in it in the right forum, but doesn't see it as a cure-all theory to be proven here). And I'd ask him what the investment would truly be to leave Afghanistan as a clear "win" with a stable government in place. (How you get a stable government with Karzai in control would have to be explained to me as well. Reminds me of J.P. Vann's and Victor Krulak's later arguments about Vietnam.) I would then consider the potential strategic gains of such an investment, balanced against the strategic costs. I would also consider the strategic opportunity costs for all the other issues we are neglecting due to this involvement. I would then ask for guidance on a different way forward, one that allows us to interdict the terrorist threat that we came here for in the first place, without having to try to make a state out of a feudal wasteland. I would then weigh the risks, benefits, and costs of the two ways ahead (not in some media circus that comes up with a report that says nothing, but in a series of small, focused, and off the record discussions). And I would choose one way, not the middle way. If I was going to try to "win" in Astan, I would give my hand-chosen, strategically and operationally savvy leader the resources he believed he needed. And if that didn't make sense (which honestly I don't think it would), I would equally attack the minimalist plan with vigor. Right now, we have a middle way, fueled by people who have failed to give valid counsel, staffed by people who won't honestly assess their progress due to career considerations, killing soldiers who have zero say in any of it, for very little possible gain.

Of course, this is all fantasy. A way has been chosen and it is failing by all accounts. Leaders have a responsibility to stand up and call a spade a spade, and propose a new way forward. We are wasting lives and money here for dubious strategic gain.

Another Opinion in Afghanistan:

Re your first point: "you can't shine a turd"

That's is what my op-ed was about - we need to stop focusing on shining the turd and dealing with it

Re your second point: "surge timeline is broken and most people do not care"

Both are true but has nothing to do with my op-ed. Company grade officers cannot do anything about national level policies such as timelines.

Re your third point: "that this mess is a foregone conclusion"

Perhaps it is - but once again, I'd rather do something about it then complain about it

Re the fourth section which is basically a rant - I already spoke out against the Kandahar Offensive in April here:

And believe me, I've taken flak for that as well as other attempts at "speaking out"

But at least I'm putting my name on the line and doing something about it - not whine and hide in anonymity

What is your solution, if any?


Wed, 07/14/2010 - 12:45pm

Oleg, the military does not have a choice about the mission in Afghanistan, but military leaders could and should have given honest council to the political leadership. They are steeped in a "can-do" culture and, as careerists socialized to tell people what they want to hear, are almost physically incapable of speaking truth to power. So, we get the muddle through, "we can do it no matter what resources we are given" sort of mess that you find today. The military doesn't need "less eager men," but it needs pragmatic and truthful people who will tell their superiors when a job is impossible. It needs young leaders to stand up and say, "I refuse to pass rosy analysis up the chain just because you tell me that my viewpoint isn't happy enough." It needs more people who write about the need for an actual strategy (there is no strategy guiding our operations, its all tactics and operational level though at best), rather than writing about how the media, "strategic communications", and the back-stabbers in Washington are losing the war. We are losing the war while able bodied soldiers sit around licking ice cream on main bases, mid-level careerists tell generals whatever they want to hear, and generals mouth platitudes about end states that they know can't happen on the current timeline. This is all because generals were too cowardly to say, "Mr. President, this can't be done on timeline x with y amount of resources. On that timeline and resources, I can accomplish z at best." The old TACTICS, not strategies, did not work. And they wasted 9 years and soured the Afghan people on us and made them not trust our promises. The new tactics are at best a slightly dolled up version of the old tactics, the people now do not trust us, and they know that we're going to leave before the Taliban do. So, yes, I think all is lost. Strategically, this campaign is a waste and a lie, because even if we created a flowering bed of stability here, AQ and all the other threats will find some other failed state to attack us from. Like Mexico. Or Venezuela. Or Paraguay. Read today's WaPo.

The military and non-military cheerleaders are applauding a status quo that is weakening us as a nation. I'm not saying that we should pull out with our tail between our legs and go home never to depart again. I am saying that we need to recognize a losing situation and either get serious about winning (the broad "we" is not serious about anything here from what I can see, although narrower groups of "we" are busting their asses and getting mangled left and right to make progress) or get serious about finding a STRATEGIC solution we can live with.

Oleg (not verified)

Wed, 07/14/2010 - 12:05pm

Another opinion in afghanistan, ok I will talk about your message. You are talking about the military as if it has the choice of accepting or denying the afghan mission. The role of a military is to do what the politicians decide and not to pick and choose what mission they want to do or not. Even if it seems like a hard or even impossible mission, they still have to execute it as best as they can with the resources they got. Given that the last 9 years haven't been the best in Afghanistan, not all is lost as you seem to decry.

It takes time to implement new strategies, and if they don't work then new ones have to be tried. All you say is " well the old strategies didn't work so we should give up now." What's even worse is that you imply that the military needs less eager men and more of soldiers to actually question their orders. I find that comment very absurd because if soldiers started doing that, nothing would ever get done.

Oleg (not verified)

Wed, 07/14/2010 - 12:05pm

Another opinion in afghanistan, ok I will talk about your message. You are talking about the military as if it has the choice of accepting or denying the afghan mission. The role of a military is to do what the politicians decide and not to pick and choose what mission they want to do or not. Even if it seems like a hard or even impossible mission, they still have to execute it as best as they can with the resources they got. Given that the last 9 years haven't been the best in Afghanistan, not all is lost as you seem to decry.

It takes time to implement new strategies, and if they don't work then new ones have to be tried. All you say is " well the old strategies didn't work so we should give up now." What's even worse is that you imply that the military needs less eager men and more of soldiers to actually question their orders. I find that comment very absurd because if soldiers started doing that, nothing would ever get done.


Wed, 07/14/2010 - 2:49am

Oleg- Note: Another Opinion IN Afghanistan... not ON Afghanistan. Where are you cheerleading from? And its not my first time in the arena. In any case, that is a weak comeback. Attack the message or give it up.

Grumpy6 (not verified)

Tue, 07/13/2010 - 3:05pm

Another Opinion on Afghanistan is right - the best we can expect is a temporary draw. Let's face it, we initially went into Afghanistan with revenge in mind. The process of pursuing UBL caused us to destroy the Taliban regime...and then we felt compelled to "rebuild" an Afghan government. Now we are executing a counterinsurgency campaign that would probably work in more developed societies, but won't work in a country where the tribes don't trust the central government (the big tribe from Kabul). We can't claim a counterinsurgency "strategy" because we are not actively dealing with the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan, both of which provide support and sanctuary to our enemies. We have made no efforts to control the borders of Afghanistan, conduct hot pursuit operations, or conduct punitive Direct Action, or support belligerent groups (Jundallah) to counter Iranian interference. We could deploy the entire Army and Marine Corps in Afghanistan and still not be able to secure enough of the population to defeat Taliban terror. A lot of good men and women have worked hard, sacrificed a lot, and died for our cause, but its time to reassess our goals and the costs of achieving those goals. It is now time to face the reality that Afghan (and Pakistani) tribes do not see enough advantages in opposing the more radical elements in their areas. We gave it a good shot and now it is time to go home and get ready for the next challenge.


Tue, 07/13/2010 - 12:19pm

Oleg, Another Opinion in Afghanistan may be hard to read, but he's right.

And IMHO, TR is a poorly choice to quote. The US has spoken loudly--not softly--and carried a rather small stick for the last 9 years. The failed tactics of half-measures and platitudes and 365-day rotations has brought nothing even close to victory.

Oleg (not verified)

Tue, 07/13/2010 - 11:55am

Here's something for Another Opinion in Afghanistan to consider.

By Theodore Roosevelt:

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat. "


Tue, 07/13/2010 - 7:21am

Captain, you're delusional. First, all of your reading of Army propaganda on the buzzword "strategic communications" (JFQ, Mil Review) needs to be leavened by common sense: you can't shine a turd. Second, a military that takes this long to get its "surge" forces in place when a timeline has been created is broken and decadent. Most of the people getting here now are more interested in finding the PX and the dessert line than winning a war anyway. Third, no matter how hard they try, you have outlined why this mess is almost a foregone conclusion anyway. After 9 years of half-hearted nonsense, the Afghan people have given up on us. They've seen too many promises followed by slit throats of "collaborators" when we pull out. Even when the "surge" is fully in place we still don't have enough manpower to cover all the places where the mercury squirts at night. And the Taliban is out governing our allies in most areas. You can point the finger at politicians, the media, contractors, whoever you want, but our military leadership has accepted an impossible task based on a complete lack of any strategic thought and has shown little sense of urgency in actually trying to get all the cats and dogs here to focus on what matters. People complain about the artificial timeline, but no one is interested in another 9 years of war here after we have pissed the first nine away. The timeline isn't artificial. It is built on the American people's impatience with their military leaders' abject failure to conduct the Afghan campaign in a strategically sound manner. The counsel given to the national decision-makers is based on tactical or operational (at best) level thought, leavened with a few simplistically elegant theories by arrogant men who think they make anything happen with willpower, informed by a hierarchy of liars and a**-kissers who pass only good news up the chain of command. History will judge them harshly. You should open your eyes and think for yourself. The military needs less of the "put me in coach, of course I can do it" mentality and more pragmatism and honesty if we are going to negotiate future challenges without catastrophe. The military leadership would have done well to have greatly circumscribed our mission here when they realized their time and resources would be limited. They didn't. They wasted lives. And that is a criminal lack of foresight.