Small Wars Journal

Things I Learned from People Who Tried to Kill Me

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Things I Learned from People Who Tried to Kill Me

 

Reed Kitchen

 

He clasped my rosary beads in one hand as he rummaged through his olive drab field jacket with the other.  As we huddled over a small diesel heater for warmth, he delicately handed me the only photograph ever taken of him – a reminder of his days as a mujahideen fighter.  In the faded print, he held his polished AK-47 more like a farmer than a soldier and wore the very same field jacket, although in much finer condition.  We laughed about his long hair and full set of teeth and traded stories about combat only warriors could appreciate.  In an unexpected moment of friendship, I began to understand.

 

In the spring of 2011, I deployed to eastern Afghanistan for ten months as a Village Stability Operations (VSO) detachment commander where my team faced a determined enemy whom the United States had been fighting for over a decade.  Our mission was to connect the villagers of a highly contested, Taliban controlled area to their district government by embedding in a rural village, nurturing local security forces and governmental processes at their grassroots.  Closely studying our enemy, I saw an insurgency that was operating in a way that we could only dream of.  I was almost envious of their singularity of purpose and ability to thrive in places we could not.  This paper is a summary of my observations.

 

Conducting VSO was a unique experience.  My detachment had unparalleled access to the population surrounding the village where we had established an embed site, or Village Stability Platform (VSP), which was nothing more than a dilapidated Afghan qalat surrounded by farmland and distant mountain ranges.  Living in the village afforded us constant and direct access to the pulse of the populace as well as timely information on the Taliban fighters who lived in the area and launched regular attacks against us and other coalition forces.  What we saw was fascinating.

 

The insurgents operated in small teams across the countryside with relative impunity.  Sleeping in the mountains or as house guests at night, the Taliban spent the entirety of their days in the villages – not maintaining and defending outposts where they could enjoy the comforts of western civilization.  They were unimpeded by burdensome equipment and had relatively infrequent contact with their commanders, at least compared with our daily reports and operational approvals.  The Taliban leadership had an inherently decentralized command structure, managing fighters and shadow government officials spread over hundreds of square kilometers and countless villages.  However, the regional commander and shadow governors were remarkably in tune with the district’s populace and made earnest efforts at gaining their support through regular interaction – not “drive by shuras” after flying in from Kabul or the provincial capital.  Likewise, the Taliban had an omnipresence that was felt by coalition forces and villagers alike.  They possessed an uncanny ability to act as puppet masters over the populace, issuing decrees and administering justice based on persistent verification – not sporadic visits like absentee Afghan officials or “day tripping” coalition forces who neither spoke the language nor had spent enough time in the villages to understand the complex social dynamics.

 

Indeed, some villagers preferred the Taliban’s predictability to even the most well-intentioned soldier behind the ballistic glass of an armored vehicle.  They laughed at our heavy protective equipment saying we hid behind ceramic plates and camouflage, almost as if they admired the Taliban as underdogs – the classic image of a mujahideen fighter with an AK-47 slung across his back comes to mind.  The Taliban senior leadership clearly communicated their intent of controlling Afghanistan through an Islamic state, a narrative that was well understood down to rank and file fighters and villagers.  There is likely not a single Taliban who does not know what he is fighting for whereas, surely, there are American forces in Afghanistan who cannot articulate the end state of our involvement.  Finally, they adhered to a code of conduct in the form of the La’iha that was strictly enforced at all levels – sub-commanders were swiftly relieved if their actions trended towards a decrease in popular support for the insurgency.[1]  Yet, with all of our technology and oversight, we struggled to compete with their rapid adaptability and freedom of maneuver.

 

To counter this, our strategy might reflect what we have learned from our enemy.  Let’s clearly articulate our intent in a simple phrase – nothing fancy, just the same thing we learned going through basic training.  That, printed on the opening page of a thin handbook of operational and tactical guidance to be distributed to the troops, would do the trick.  Let’s do more with less by handing over operational control of key rural districts to small, light, and fast Special Operations Forces advisory teams – free of red tape, parallel chains of command, and impossibly complex coordination between countless military and civilian entities – who will implement a comprehensive game plan by training local security forces and mentoring government processes.  Let’s trade staff approvals and emails for trust in detachment commanders and field reports.  Let’s rewrite our metrics of success to reflect our effect on the population, with measures such as economic activity at bazaars, unsolicited enemy reporting from villagers, and longevity of local officials; as opposed to the input metrics of enemy killed, dollars spent, and Afghan troops trained.[2]  Let’s dedicate more rotary wing aircraft and armed unmanned aerial systems to transport and overwatch these small advisory teams, as well as customizable resupply platforms to lighten the load of our ground troops.  Finally, let’s encourage persistent engagement with Afghan officials, partnered security forces, and the population by adopting tactics and operational processes that support time outside firebases and VSPs as the norm.

 

As the old mujahideen and I talked quietly over the flickering flame of the small furnace, I remembered the villagers’ disapproving looks when we first patrolled through the fields like so many before us.  But now things were different - we had earned the trust of the elders through months of commitment to this small yet highly contended district.  Then, burying my rosary beads back into the pocket of his field jacket, he said, “You are one of us now,” and walked out into the cold Afghan night.

 

End Notes

 

[1] Seth Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010), 415.

[2] David Kilcullen, Counterinsurgency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 41.

 

About the Author(s)

Reed Kitchen was a Lieutenant in the US Navy when he originally published this article in 2012.

Comments

From our article above, which was, as noted, originally published in 2012:

"The Taliban senior leadership clearly communicated their intent of controlling Afghanistan through an Islamic state, a narrative that was well understood down to rank and file fighters and villagers.  There is likely not a single Taliban who does not know what he is fighting for whereas, surely, there are American forces in Afghanistan who cannot articulate the end state of our involvement."

From an International Committee of the Red Cross Report -- originally published in 2011:

"On asking an anti-government tribal leader – whom he first met in the mountains of Afghanistan in 1987 – whether the ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross) could travel safely in the area under his control, a senior ICRC delegate received the following reply:

'Today, like 20 years ago a government and its international allies are trying to impose a model of society, with all the modernization, reconstruction, development and Western values that go with it. Today, like 20 years ago, I disagree and we all shed blood.  Today, like 20 years ago, you come here to try and make sure prisoners are well treated, wounded taken care of, our families not bombed, or starved, or humiliated. We respect that. Now, be warned: just as we do not expect you to support our religious, social, political views and actions, so we expect you not to support – in any way – our enemies’. Know when so-called humanitarian action becomes a sword, or a poison – and stop there.' "  ...

(Item in parenthesis above is mine.)

https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/review/2011/irrc-881-terry.pdf

Thus, from the information provided here, one can clearly understand why:

a.  While the Taliban senior leadership could "clearly communicate their intent" -- and produce "a narrative that was well understood down to rank and file fighters and villagers,"   

b.  Our detachment commander, for his part, might have serious difficulty in doing this.  Why?

Because our detachment commander, obviously, could not tell the villagers that his job in (a) embedding with them and helping connect the villagers to their district government; this such job was actually being undertaken, in truth, to (b) facilitate the imposition of an -- alien and profane -- new "model of society" on the state and societies of Afghanistan?  (This, much as the Soviets/the communists had attempted to do in the 1980s?)