Judah Interviews Ex (Updated)

Good stuff at World Politics Review. Judah Grunstein interviews Andrew Exum concerning Ex's recent time in Afghanistan.

Andrew Exum is a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and author of the influential counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama. He just returned from a month in Afghanistan, where he took part in recently appointed U.S. and Coalition commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's 60-day review of strategy and operations. He graciously agreed to talk with WPR Managing Editor Judah Grunstein about his impressions from his trip...

The full audio file is available as a WPR podcast here.

... what makes you feel optimistic about the possibility of a successful outcome?

... the U.S. Army's officer corps has undergone a tremendously difficult but ultimately rewarding learning process over the past few years, and there is a keen understanding of the operating environment in Afghanistan. Whether or not we're going to be able to translate our operational prowess into strategic success is very much a question that is yet to be answered. But there was reason for being encouraged.

... what isolated snapshot would make you feel pessimistic about the outcome?

One word: Kandahar... Our intelligence and the way that we gather intelligence continues to be focused on the enemy....

Read the entire interview at World Politics Review.

Update:

Charlie Rose: A look at U.S. strategy in Afghanistan with Andrew Exum, former U.S. Army Ranger and Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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Comments

Greyhawk:

Thanks for the clarification. Wasn't sure; sometimes the synapses don't connect right.

I totally agree re: the MRAP and the HMMWV vs. quarter ton. My personal belief is that skill and agility are more effective lifesavers than armor, personal or wheeled.

My first vehicular experience in the Land of the Morning calm involved an M-26 -- that was some mountain agility. Later trips and 1/4 tons were more fun...

Sorry - didn't mean Brads and Abrams. I was talking about personal armor and vehicle armor, and thinking "heavy" in terms of loss of individual (or team) mobility/speed on foot or on wheels. Your bottom line was the point I was reaching for.

MRAPs are wonderful things, but whenever I saw one in Iraq I imagined trying to drive it up a hillside in Korea. I was there for the changeover from jeeps to Humvees, and had a few moments on some interesting hillsides where I gladly would have traded back to the smaller, open, but nimble option.

Ken,

I thought you were echoing Exum. Now that I understand what you were getting at, I agree with you and disagree with him.

If I may be so presumptuous as to attempt to spread democracy to the SWJ blog, I declare that we are right and he is wrong by a 2 to 1 vote.

You're picking on me because I'm old...

Greyhawk

"As we move further out into the mountains and off the paved roads the change in cost/benefit ratio of heavy armor/mobility is greater than the impression we give - depending on the mission of the day.'

That sounds good. Could I ask what it means?

While the Canadians and the Danes have some heavy armor in country, I don't believe we do and to my knowledge, the Strykers are as high as we're now planning.

Mountains and heavy vehicles are always fun; I'm trying to picture their use in that set of photos you linked.

I do like the METT-TC plug, always appreciated.

"How many look at this picture and wonder where are the shoulder pieces?"

Commanders can adjust armor load out based on missions. Maybe soon we'll get smart enough to drop it totally, mission dependent. Very different terrain, very different war...

jjcustis

"In the COIN/FID game, I'm beginning to wonder if the majority of our troubles come from commander's intent that is too loose, when it in fact needs to be very prescriptive."

This is my kneejerk reaction to the slightest hint of micromanagement -- what if our training and education system was clear on what words mean and did not constantly invent new meanings for well understood terms? I suggest that the Commanders intent needs to just be very clear. If you make it very prescriptive you will constrain most -- not all -- subordinates who will not go outside those guidelines even if there is a pressing need.

Schmedlap

"But the notion that we are showing fear by utilizing all assets available to us seems like more of a western notion - where fair fights, man-to-man, are deemed to be respectable. I am not so sure that this can be assumed of the Afghanis. I think that if someone there has a weapon, then they use it, no matter how lopsided or unfair it makes things. I suspect such behavior is seen as "smart" or "obvious" rather than "scared.""

'Scared' was Exum's word, not mine. I said a terrible signal. My unmentioned point was that troops in vehicles cannot interface with people and you're sending the message that you do not wish to do this. Vehicles are handy for moving from point to point but the less time spent in them, the more attuned to the people and the terrain the troops will be. That matters.

Folks in the ME will avoid a fight if they can and use overwhelming force if at all possible if they cannot. What they will also do if confronted is look around and see if they notice anyone they know. If not they will run, beg or offer you their Sister as the circumstances dictate. If they see anyone they know; they will try to bluster or bluff it out; if they see a relative, they will fight you. I'm sure many have seen that -- probably also seen that they will talk big about themselves and do their best to denigrate opponents in anyway possible.

The Afghan will do that to an extent but unlike Arabs, Afghans in general and the Pushtun in particular do put considerable stock in personal bravery and they are more likely to fight than not even with no relatives about to see that they do so. They are also less likely to be impressed by the 'power' of a bunch of vehicles and far more likely to be impressed by -- and be cautious around but not afraid of -- competent troops on foot. Thus the 'scared' issue will not resonate too much with Afghans but the bad guys will certainly try to hype that angle.

"...I suspect that as one moves further out into the mountains, the more prevalent this sentiment is."

Been along time since I was in the area, Then, you'd have been wrong and would've been judged by what you did. That may have changed and some who've been there recently can say far better than I. One thing I'm pretty sure has not changed; Afghans are not Arabs -- they in fact used to despise them as mostly cowards -- and they react quite differently in many things. Anyone who has been in Iraq and goes to Afghanistan is looking at a quite different culture and concept of personal conduct.

They are similar in that every report need to be reduced or expanded by the 80% fudge factor introduced to make the reporter look good...

As we move further out into the mountains and off the paved roads the change in cost/benefit ratio of heavy armor/mobility is greater than the impression we give - depending on the mission of the day.

How many look at this picture and wonder where are the shoulder pieces?

Piggybacking upon Ken's first comment...

I share the concern about the body armor / other armor reporting requirement, for one additional reason. It suggests that professional judgment can be reduced to a set of variables that fit into an equation. An underlying assumption is that if a leader permits a Soldier to spend some part of his deployment not wrapped in 7 layers of PPE then somehow that commander has something to answer for. He shouldn't. On the flip side, if there is genuinely poor judgment that causes a Soldier's death, but the chain of command checked the block by ensuring that the Soldier had multiple layers of armor, a reflective, and two sets of ear plugs, then what? No problem? This isn't data entry. This is a profession. As such, it cannot be simplified into a math equation.

Also, a comment on Ken's second comment - a meta-comment, if you will...

Anyone who's been in Afghanistan for more than a week should know that such cocooning sends a terrible signal to the Afghans and corroborates much of the Talib and AQ propaganda.

I wonder if that is the case. Granted, I have spent zero time in Afghanistan. But the notion that we are showing fear by utilizing all assets available to us seems like more of a western notion - where fair fights, man-to-man, are deemed to be respectable. I am not so sure that this can be assumed of the Afghanis. I think that if someone there has a weapon, then they use it, no matter how lopsided or unfair it makes things. I suspect such behavior is seen as "smart" or "obvious" rather than "scared." Speaking only to my experience in Iraq, there was - and probably still is - a fair amount of skepticism that we were not interested in just taking stuff from them. After all, we could, since we had the firepower. That we would not seemed odd to many people. I suspect that as one moves further out into the mountains, the more prevalent this sentiment is. But, again, that is just a hunch on my part. I have not partaken in the all-expenses paid trip to Afghanistan offered by my rich Uncle Sam.

Something jumped out to me with regard to the "Clear, Hold..." question. In the military, we strive to afford commanders the greatest degree of latitude in accomp;lishing their mission through the use of commander's intent. To often, however, two commanders could read that intent from their boss and derive almost diametrically opposed undertstanding of what it is they should be doing to meet that intent and endstate.

In the COIN/FID game, I'm beginning to wonder if the majority of our troubles come from commander's intent that is too loose, when it in fact needs to be very prescriptive.

Amen, Ken.

So apparently if I had died in my MRAP rollover, since I was wearing body armor everyone would have shrugged and said "We did the best we could do"? Nevermind the rollover would have never happened had we been in vehicles that were actually designed for narrow mountain roads...

Sigh, that's two, Bill -- failed to log in. Can't lambaste folks about reporting and risk avoidance anonymously. Not seemly..

Two items lept out at me and I quote Mr. Exum:

"Right now, if a U.S. soldier dies in Wardak province, for example, in the report home to the United States and to his parents, we have to list what that soldier was wearing, how much body armor he had on. And if that soldier did not have on body armor, or was not traveling in an MRAP, commanders are going to be held responsible. Now that is not a dynamic that we need to encourage in this type of environment."

I would like to hope that reporting requirement is not the idea of the Army or DoD but was imposed by Congress. Regardless, it is a terribly bad idea.

Not least because it will condition Mr. and Mrs. America (and many leaders in the Army...) to expect such detail and 'concern' for their sons and daughters as a matter of course. A course that is highly unlikely to be possible in a major conflict or fast moving war as opposed to a relatively slow and small FID operation.

The fact that it forces Commanders to rationalize that Armor and MRAP use are more important than the mission is even more disturbing.

That is an extremely bad precedent on many levels.

This is equally bad:

"...And when we drive around allegedly secure cities, whether they be Kabul or Mazar-i-Sharif, in armored vehicles and armored personnel carriers, we've got two problems. First off, we're sending a message that we're scared. And in a counterinsurgency, where you've got to create an environment where the population feels bold enough to invest in the institutions of its own government, that's a problem. We can't expect the Afghan people to be brave, to not be scared, if we ourselves are traveling around allegedly secure cities in armored vehicles. The second problem is that, how exactly are we supposed to gather any type of meaningful intelligence or information about the population when we're separated from them by eight inches of bullet-proof glass?"

I know that Congress imposed the MRAP on the Armed forces. They have saved lives and that is good. They have induced bad habits as the quote shows. That is bad -- and it is likely to have adverse future effects.

Anyone who's been in Afghanistan for more than a week should know that such cocooning sends a terrible signal to the Afghans and corroborates much of the Talib and AQ propaganda.

Commanders cannot use proven techniques because of 'excessive risk.' War IS risk.

The terrible thing about both those items to me is that Washington's intrusion into things way below their optimum level of concern has, on balance in both Afghanistan and Iraq, almost certainly done far more harm than good.

Not that I'd expect most in that City to acknowledge that...