Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned from Afghans

Among advisors to Afghan units, one phrase often heard is “Afghan good enough,” usually as a disparaging comment.  It means, ”They’ll never be as good as Americans, but they’re good enough to get by in this country.”  It is true that the ANSF will never be able to project land-, sea-, and airpower anywhere in the world.  But, in the world the Afghans live in, they bring assets to the table that most American forces do not.  People wishing to sound insightful about Afghanistan’s history often remark on how its fighters have made it the “graveyard of empires.”  Forgotten is the fact that many of those fighters are on our side, and that there is much they can teach us.  While there are wide disparities in the quality and motivation of ANSF, the best are able to achieve more with fewer resources than any Western military could.  Applying that same level of resourcefulness and agility to a Western military that already has high quality equipment and training would create a remarkable force.

In 1988, Robert Fulghum wrote a book called “Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”  The simple, homespun wisdom borne of the basics we teach children was a publishing sensation at the time.  Its advice, such as “Play fair” and “Don’t hit people,” is as true at age 55 as it is at 5.  Of course, there are some things one needs to know that are not taught in kindergarten—driving and sex education come to mind.  The book’s point is that much of what we really need to know to be successful is really just the basics that we learn early on. Just as adults forget the simple lessons of childhood in favor of the complexities of adulthood, often to their detriment, so do militaries.  In our sole-superpower, globe-spanning dominance, we have lost much of our former speed, flexibility, and mental agility.  Just as adults can learn from children, so Americans can learn from Afghans.  Some of what makes Afghans effective are traits that Americans lost in the course of industrializing warfare. 

An Afghan commander once told my advisor team a story about two frogs.  He said that Afghans are like a frog at the bottom of a well.  That frog there does not know that there is anything in the world beyond the space from one side of the well to the other.  Then another frog falls into the well and tells the incredulous first frog about how big the world really is.  That second frog is an American.  The Afghan CO meant the story as a compliment to Americans and our broad-ranging experiences.  While that CO did not mention it, there is a caveat to the story in regards to the American frog. That frog brings a lot of knowledge to the table, but he does not know the inside of the well like the first frog, and if they are both going to succeed inside the well, they need to learn from each other. The Afghan already knows he has much to learn from the American. Americans are often too intellectually arrogant to admit they have several things that they can learn from Afghans.

1.  There is such a thing as too much planning.  Sometimes things really are as simple as they look.  Afghans with no formal education and only the most basic military training can execute vehicle checkpoints, airborne interdictions, HVI snatches, and most of the basics of counterinsurgency without a single PowerPoint slide.  If Afghans can successfully do these missions on a moment’s notice, why can’t Americans?  Americans frequently get sucked down rabbit holes planning to counter every contingency and mitigate every risk.  While we pride ourselves on detailed planning, COA development, wargaming, and so on, sometimes we forget that sometimes a simple mission is just that.  While there are missions that require lengthy and detailed planning, many do not.  Americans often plan operations for so long that the situation that necessitated an operation in the first place has long since passed by the time we are ready to act.  In our zeal to answer every question we often paralyze ourselves with inaction.

2.  Risk is part of war. Afghans are consistently willing to put themselves and their troops in danger when the mission requires it.  Among other things, they are encouraged to use field expedient methods in order to complete the mission in a timely fashion.  While clearly some specific Afghan techniques are unsound, Americans have overcorrected, eliminating risk to the point which the mission becomes secondary to adherence to rules established at higher echelons.  In many AORs, “Rules of the Road” and other guidance has been established to the point which small-unit leaders are not allowed to make judgment calls about the composition and conduct of patrols. Lives and equipment are valuable, and should not be spent lightly. However, at least at this point of the war in Afghanistan, it often seems as if our actions are guided by John Kerry’s words of 1971,”How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”  It may be someone else’s country, and we may be leaving it soon, but as long as we are in a fight, we need to act with a sense of commitment to fighting, not just to avoiding losses.  Running out the clock may work in athletic contests, but is not the way to victory in war. 

3.Speed and mobility can be force protection.  Afghan troops wear little body armor, and most of their vehicles are unarmored.  While body armor and armored vehicles may be necessary in high-kinetic environments, much of the time they cripple the mobility and agility of the forces using them.  On partnered operations, Afghans greatly outpace ISAF troops, both on foot and mounted.  Their vehicles can go where ISAF’s cannot and can travel at much greater speed. American MRAP vehicles do only one thing well—survive explosive blasts.  In every other regard, they are deficient.  They are lumbering, difficult to enter or exit, and the armored cocoon saps the situational awareness of the entire crew.  They are largely roadbound—even the MATV, designed for all-terrain use, loses most of its off-road capability when encumbered with a mineroller.  In most environments, IEDs are best countered by simply staying off roads and trails, which American vehicles are unable to do.  If engaged, the ability to displace rapidly can be more valuable than additional armored protection.  The same holds true for PPE. Regardless of the mission, conventional American troops are required to wear a minimum of 40 pounds of gear, even before accounting for sustainment. This makes them unable to move at any pace faster than a quick shuffle, rendering them immobile in terms of covering any significant distance or to maneuver against a threat. This immobility is often more dangerous than any lack of protection would be.

4.Minimize logistical requirements.  Afghans are well-known for having a poor logistics system.  While this has continued to hamper ANSF’s development into a more capable force, it has also fostered innovation and required commanders to get by with less.  As Americans, we have a tendency to bring everything but the kitchen sink with us, just in case we need it.  This cripples our ability to act quickly by increasing equipment requirements, which increases planning time and further decreases tactical mobility.  While Americans will never be able to live off the land as Afghans do, drinking from streams and resupplying from bazaars, emphasizing travelling light increases operational tempo.  We often find ourselves in an escalating spiral of requirements. We bring extra vehicles in case the primary vehicles fail, which necessitates more recovery assets, which requires more fuel, which requires vehicles to carry the fuel, which requires more vehicles to escort the fuel vehicles, and so forth.  The Afghan mindset is often closer to the expeditionary mindset we should be trying to achieve.  Keeping things as simple as possible and reducing logistical footprints can reduce risk.

5.Aggressiveness can make up for a lack of skill.  In initial military training, Americans are hammered with truisms about such things as “speed, surprise, and violence of action.” Later in careers, the importance of these in warfare receives only lip service. When one has only his rifle and his comrades to rely on, the only thing that keeps one going towards the sound of battle is his determination to close with and destroy the enemy. Every day, Afghans push through dangers that would stop American units in their tracks. Americans will not drive across an Afghan street without minerollers and ECM equipment. American units stop even administrative movements when air support is unavailable.  Afghan troops execute virtually all of their operations operating under what Americans would consider “no-go” criteria. While restraint and discretion certainly have their places in military operations, leaders should never emphasize them to the detriment of aggressiveness and a bias towards action.

6.Sometimes the appearance of being outgunned is an advantage.  Americans roll through the Afghan countryside armed to the teeth and armored like medieval knights, then wonder why the enemy never shows himself. Afghans have no choice but to go out, even when they do not have the advantage, and unsurprisingly, the enemy frequently shows up. One cannot fight the enemy one cannot find.  Letting the enemy think he has a chance can be a useful tactic in counterinsurgency. Unlike Afghans, Americans have airpower to bring down destruction upon the enemy once he presents himself. The enemy will never show if he believes himself to be outgunned from the start.

7.Don’t be afraid to leave a subordinate in charge.  While it is true that the Afghans lack a professional NCO corps, and this continues to be a huge weakness, in certain other regards they are more decentralized than some American units.  Many leaders in the American military are afraid to allow subordinates to make decisions in their absence.  Often, they insist on receiving updates on even routine matters while they are gone. On the other hand, Afghan unit leaders are often gone for days or even weeks at a time, leaving subordinates completely on their own.  This is in a land where communication technology is lacking, so subordinates are truly working without nets.  While this situation is partially due other systemic problems, the result is frequently the development of trusted subordinates who have the ability to run a unit on their own.  Few Americans are willing to delegate more than symbolic authority to subordinates, for fear that those subordinates will make mistakes.  In reality, while they may make some errors, the errors are rarely catastrophic, and the subordinates learn in the process.  Subordinates usually rise to the challenge and become better leaders themselves.

8.Uneducated does not mean stupid.  Americans value education greatly, and it is indeed very important, especially in a technologically advanced force. We tend to look down on those who do not have formal knowledge. The average Afghan spends his entire life living in conditions that most Americans would consider military-caliber survival training. He continuously has to improvise solutions to problems. Once one realizes the value of this type of learning, it prompts two revelations.  One, never underestimate the capability of a man who has grown up in such an environment. There is a reason that some Afghans, having never taken a chemistry class, can turn ingredients found in a typical hardware store into bombs capable of throwing 30,000lb vehicles into the air.  Two, it shows us that just because a procedure is nowhere in any manual does not make it invalid—Afghans devise effective solutions that are not found in manuals because they can’t read the manuals. Americans need to know when to use the manual, and when they need to pretend it doesn’t exist.

9.No better friend. No worse enemy.  Reward those who cooperate with you. In counterinsurgency, one’s friends have to know that there are advantages to cooperation. It is often better to live with a little evil if that allows one to defeat the bigger evil.  As long as one knows what the ultimate goal is, he can ignore smaller infractions as long as progress continues towards the larger goal. In Afghanistan, one can see this in the government-led eradication programs. While some areas are indeed so corrupt that major traffickers own the entire area, in other areas selective enforcement can be a viable tool. If the government can’t eradicate all the poppy harvest, then at least the farmers who don’t harbor the enemy should be left alone. If someone is not cooperating, make his life hard.  In the parts of Afghanistan where law enforcement is more effective, that means known bad actors get searched, get treated roughly, their poppies get destroyed, and their equipment gets confiscated. If enough fence-sitters see the upside of cooperation and the downside of opposing the government, an area can begin to turn.

10.Always make time for tea.  In the end, armed forces are bands of brothers who put their lives in one another’s hands. Afghans always greet every individual warmly and will take the time to sit down and discuss any issue, whether business or social. Personal interaction is what makes everything happen. Personal relationships are often an afterthought in American forces, especially in garrison.  Training is done via computer.  People e-mail instead of calling or walking down a hall. Whether it is over a cup of Afghan sheen chai, or over an American Budweiser, troops need to have the time and opportunity to form those bonds that let them trust one another when the chips are down. Beyond that, Americans neglect the value of face-to-face interaction. Giving an informal class can be more effective than death-by-PowerPoint. Stopping by someone’s office is usually more effective than sending an e-mail.

As individual military leaders progress through their careers, they pick and choose attributes from other leaders that they try to emulate.  The same should apply for militaries.  While there are certainly many qualities of ANSF not worth copying, there are certain things at which they excel, and Americans need to have the institutional humility to learn from them. The US military will not keep its premier status unless it has the moral courage to examine itself critically, to identify better ways of doing things, and to take risks in implementing those changes.

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Comments

The Future: (?)

Hire one or more groups within a subject country who are willing to work with and for us.

Give these individuals and groups certain ethical guidelines and requirements and pay them reasonably well (by their standards) but only if they show that they are capable of -- primarily via their own skills, attributes and resources:

a. Winning -- and keeping -- the local populations over to their/our side.

b. Operating within the ethical and moral guidelines that we have established for them and

c. Engaging and defeating the enemy forces.

Have certain of our guys go out with these individuals and groups, those who are working with and for us, and have them -- not advise -- but, rather, watch and learn.

Bill C.,

Nicely said as the extension of MAJ Forsling's insights into the future. As 'AFMOO' commented recently, these appear to be lessons learned from other places. That tends to reinforce the practical verity of the Major's findings, to which 350+ 'likes' lend credence. Your idea meshes well with that expressed at the end of the article, "As individual military leaders progress through their careers, they pick and choose attributes from other leaders that they try to emulate. The same should apply for militaries."

By having a small, select group of trustworthy host-nation counterparts as a nucleus to be mentored by us and then to go to do the same for others of their countrymen may succeed as a mentor-the-mentor program. Those second round people being mentored can be the agents of emulation within the local populations. The example set by mentoring and then extending that mentoring to others through those mentored hopefully will make the emulation of the best an organic part of the relationship for the better.

PLEASE GIVE ME A MOMENT TO UNTWIST MY TONGUE AFTER THAT ONE!

That collaboration would go both ways as you both suggest. An oil-blot of professionalism. Great ideas, Bill C. and MAJ Forsling. Thank you for creative insights on capacity transfer. Gentlemen, I hope I can remember all of this wisdom, if I return to the field or, like the original Fulghum book implied, in everyday life.

I read this article with great interest, and agree with the author's sentiments almost in their entirety. What interested me most, however, was the difference in perspective between those who have done FID or SFA, and those who have not. Regardless of the environment or partner nation, the unit being advised and assisted always has tricks to teach their teachers. Some of this comes from being local (understanding the physical and human terrain), and some comes from living in a state of poverty that most Americans do not understand. It appears that those who have not had the opportunity to work closely with partners in an environment like Afghanistan or Iraq cannot get past bad headlines and foreign culture of these "savages." If they had the opportunity, they would figure out that (just like everywhere else in the world) there are good and bad Afghans, and they all can teach us a thing or two.

Great article - I really appreciate the personal insights.

Parts of your article (particularly the discussion on heavily equipped and heavily armed forces) actually reminded me of a great paper I read a ways back that you'd likely find very interesting if you haven't read it already: "Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars" by Jason Lyall and Isaiah Wilson, explores what you've seemed to learn through experience in a more quantitative and historical manner. I'd highly recommend it for those who might be interested in this line of debate.

Double Post...

Move Forward,

I think you're arguing against points I never raised; i.e. fighting a straw man. There is a reason the article is not titled,"Masters of Modern Warfare: the ANSF and why Americans Should Model Themselves in Their Likeness." The article gives sufficient caveats that it advocates individual lessons, not blind mimicry. It also is a light primer on general concepts, not a detailed prescription. Robert Fulgham's book about kindergarten doesn't say,"Don't hit. However according to state laws, hitting may be permissable in the defense of one's person or that of others under certain circumstances. For details about individual state laws, refer to appendix C-1..."

The intent of this article was to raise individual practices that I observed as an ANSF advisor that military leaders can take and put in their toolboxes. If this article advocates anything at a tactical level, it is that body armor, vehicle choice, logistics support, etc. should be situationally dependent, not set by one-size-fits-all rules, regulations, and SOPs.

The larger point of the article is merely that because of our military successes, Americans are often intellectually arrogant and unreceptive to learning from those they judge to be inferior. Is ANSF a uniformly excellent military force? Absolutely not. Nevertheless, if one spends any extended period of time working alongside Afghans, one realizes there is much we can learn from them.

Carl Forsling

Don’t take the following the wrong way because you’ve been there and done that, while I’m just an old guy who never saw war, and cannot comprehend the multiple tours you guys have endured. Nevertheless, I’m not sure if it’s the Stockholm Syndrome, or your own competence in dealing with ANSF, or just an anecdotal example where everything worked right. Maybe we only read about the bad stuff. However, we read a lot of it, and wonder why you guys are forced to put up with it, while simultaneously having resources curtailed by home and Afghan politicians. Keep doing what you do because its impressive, however, I’m skeptical that many lessons are learnable from one of the poorest nations on earth that seems uninterested in improving their conditions without graft and violence.

The simple, homespun wisdom borne of the basics we teach children was a publishing sensation at the time. Its advice, such as “Play fair” and “Don’t hit people,” is as true at age 55 as it is at 5. Of course, there are some things one needs to know that are not taught in kindergarten—driving and sex education come to mind.

Problem is on the north side of 55, I don’t see lots of evidence of “playing fair” or “don’t hit people” from many Afghans. Do they play fair with women or perceived infidels or Jews? Do they think about the drugs they are producing that end up in Europe…while Europeans die trying to help them? Are they equitable in financial dealings with our “build” efforts. Are fake officers on payroll? Did they always pay their officers or take a cut at times? Bankers aren’t allowed to charge interest but seem perfectly OK with stealing/taking $10 grand multiple times out of Afghanistan outright.

Do ANP set up fake checkpoints to extort money from drivers? See today’s article about “Car Guantanamo” where cars are impounded if bribes or excessive registration fees are not paid. Do key border police leaders around Spin Boldak play fair? Were the border police in “Outlaw Platoon” upstanding citizens on both sides of the AfPak border?

The Taliban certainly did not play fair with the Hazaras. The HIG leader obviously forgot not to hit folks when he shelled Kabul during the 90s. Lopping off heads of Pakistani police, shooting Malala in the head, stoning accused adulterers to death, and cutting off hands of suspected thieves are other good examples of those who never learned much in kindergarden. Perhaps if more Afghans had sent their kids to kindergarden through high school, they would have learned more of those lessons. Is it playing fair with the lives of your children to keep kids ignorant? Damn right we are intellectually superior.

I admire Pakistani and Indian businessmen who come to the U.S. and turn around a 7/11, motel, or Dairy Queen through hard work. My Korean-American landlord for many years had my respect as he worked hard at menial labor, speaking broken English in a business he owned, yet he produced kids who were doctors, dentists, and bankers. Silicon valley has ample examples of foreign Muslim STEMers working hard and not feeling any need to kill U.S. Jews or Christians, or make their wives wear burqas, unable to drive or go out alone. If we want to emulate someone, let’s start with them.

Don't hit. However according to state laws, hitting may be permissable in the defense of one's person or that of others under certain circumstances.

So you should not defend yourself legally if assaulted? Isn’t Pashtunwali all about simultaneous hospitality, yet “revenge” if you cross them, with blood feuds lasting generations. Don’t Israelis have a right to an eye-for-an-eye philosophy given how outnumbered they are? Are we suggesting we or they should not strike back if hit by Taliban/al Qaeda/Hamas/Hezbollah/Sunnis/Shiites? How will Karzai’s ANSF survive outgunned if they can’t call in ISAF air support? Does he want the Taliban to win after we leave?

While there are certainly many qualities of ANSF not worth copying, there are certain things at which they excel, and Americans need to have the institutional humility to learn from them.

When you see this kind of statement, that and the article’s title imply that we should keep everything simple and basic. It appears code for rejecting technology, accepting casualties to be as macho as them, and embracing post-modernism. Surely you don’t believe all the world’s problems are solvable through Pashtunwali, or talking, apologizing, and admitting we are ugly Americans. You seem to be saying that innovation is OK if it’s “Afghan good enough” but unacceptable if STEM is involved and they don’t get it. That’s a puzzling philosophy coming from an Osprey driver.

However, thank-you for the extraordinary service of you and yours. Just suspect our military has more to learn from your aircraft and piloting skills than the collective COIN philosophy of clear as long as we don’t hurt anyone, hold as long as you don’t use airstrikes or artillery, and build someone else’s nation and personal bank account at inflated prices with little oversight.

MoveForward,

There is one thing you say with which I agree. Our soldiers have had enough with these multiple tours. Personally, I would like to see the country sit tight for five years and get through sequestration and the inevitable right-sizing of the military forces. Of course, we can not say that as a policy or these tired young men and women will be on the road again in five months to some other hell-hole.

As a fellow starving AARPist, I have to say I disagree with your sentiments. The author is simply extracting meaningful lessons from a wide collective of people with whom he has worked. Your use of of anecdotal citations to argue against lessons learned from a collection of hundreds of experiences, accumulated day-by-day and integrated into advice based on a body of knowledge, is not really constructive.

To some specific thoughts you discuss:
1.The Taliban et al. do not play fair.
Gee whiz, that is why we are there trying to train and, as important, mentor the security forces. Perhaps an example we set of playing fair will have a powerful effect with time.

2. Afghans have no problem taking bribes, extorting money, etc.
You and I both know that many forms of petty corruption are culturally accepted in poorer or tribal societies as necessary to bind relationships while the big scale corruption is rife but confined to relatively few people.

3. Those Afghans who sell the drugs to Europe are not playing fair.
Really, if there were no demand, there would be no supply. I am not sure what this observation has to do with the price of opium in China.

4. Afghans bully women, cut off hands, stone adulterers, etc.
You are right, education will help; undoing a brutal culture takes time, however, like two generations. Yet people like the author are showing an example of better, more civilized values and behavior. Cultures change through incentives and examples as well as, most perplexing of all, time.

5. The author is suggesting we be macho by going without armor and and that we reject technology.
Wrong again. For one, the reason why the mortars started firing on us is that the mini-MRAPs stuck out like sore thumbs. Had our German allies not been there...I would rather have been more free to find better, less conspicuous cover, and be more mobile with a fast, light and mobile vehicle. As for technology, the only chance for the moderate but timid majority eventually carry the day is through community policing to keep the thugs out of the villages; that is not high tech. Refusing to give a toddler the keys to the car is hardly rejecting modernity.

What I think the author deserves credit for in his essay is taking seriously the belief of President Lincoln that one can learn from anyone else not matter what the latter's station in life. Lastly, if we are to enjoy any success in a place like Afghanistan, it will have to come more on their terms than ours.

1.The Taliban et al. do not play fair.
Gee whiz (spoken sarcastically like someone who dishes it out but can’t take it elsewhere), that is why we are there trying to train and, as important, mentor the security forces. Perhaps an example we set of playing fair will have a powerful effect with time.

Of course forces attempt to mentor security forces but we both can cite numerous instances, far beyond anecdotal numbers, where small mentoring elements did not cause large ANSF forces to:

1) stand and fight under fire,
2) avoid going AWOL,
3) stop using drugs,
4) reject torture,
5) plan effectively,
6) maintain equipment,
7) arrange resupply without black-marketing ISAF-provided fuel,
8) resist bribery and corruption,
9) pay subordinates and avoid claiming phantom ones,
10) steal from villagers and drivers,
11) make deals with and provide intelligence and warnings to the Taliban,
12) employ sanitary practices, and the list goes on.

Not the kind of list our forces should emulate. Twelve years of playing fair with Afghans was insufficient to create a powerful example?

2. Afghans have no problem taking bribes, extorting money, etc.
You and I both know that many forms of petty corruption are culturally accepted in poorer or tribal societies as necessary to bind relationships while the big scale corruption is rife but confined to relatively few people.

So if someone requested a bribe or demanded checkpoint payment from you equaling one month’s pay that it is “petty corruption?” $160 to us is minimal but a budget-buster to poor Afghans…as we both know.

3. Those Afghans who sell the drugs to Europe are not playing fair.
Really (spoken condescendingly), if there were no demand, there would be no supply. I am not sure what this observation has to do with the price of opium in China.

Guess it’s OK to be a drug dealer since demand exists. It’s similarly hunky-dory to finance the Taliban through poppy, opium-related, and marijuana dealing?

4. Afghans bully women, cut off hands, stone adulterers, etc.
You are right, education will help; undoing a brutal culture takes time, however, like two generations. Yet people like the author are showing an example of better, more civilized values and behavior. Cultures change through incentives and examples as well as, most perplexing of all, time.

How does positive example influence Taliban and foreign fighters who arrive from sanctuary where they are brainwashed into believing infidels send their sisters and mothers off to Guantanomo for repeated rape and torture? How does positive example preclude desire for martyrdom with a pretty interesting heavenly reward believed to be awaiting? How does our example of civilized behavior solve land and water disputes; eliminate ethnic, language, and tribal differences; and preclude Pashtunwali-required blood feuds.

I’m all for treating Afghans with respect and subscribing to the “don’t be a jerk” philosophy with urban and rural Afghans who want to change their lives and that of their children. However, COIN tenets and under-supervised “build” seem unlikely to change insurgent thinking, or render irrelevant night letters; shadow governments, assassination/kidnapping of collaborators, contractors, and officials; poisoned/killed/infiltrated ANSF, IEDs that kill us and civilians, sharia law, girls excluded from school (education will help?), or continued jihad-inspired fighting.

5. The author is suggesting we be macho by going without armor and that we reject technology.
Wrong again.(international banking apparently bestows military TTP expertise) For one, the reason why the mortars started firing on us is that the mini-MRAPs stuck out like sore thumbs. Had our German allies not been there...I would rather have been more free to find better, less conspicuous cover, and be more mobile with a fast, light and mobile vehicle. As for technology, the only chance for the moderate but timid majority eventually carry the day is through community policing to keep the thugs out of the villages; that is not high tech. Refusing to give a toddler the keys to the car is hardly rejecting modernity.

You overestimated danger of a mortar attack as you sat in a well-armored vehicle in a Northern Alliance dominated area. Apparently, you can’t identify M-ATVs or other military equipment and I’m wrong? If your awareness of relative contributions/risks of various ISAF partners was more informed, you would not be drawing errant conclusions or telling war stories. Keeping thugs out of villages may be a partial solution. Withstanding massed attacks in more critical areas is altogether another issue.

The VSO/ALP, if Karzai allows it, is unlikely to protect over 5-10% of the population and area and not even that once SF leave and payments stop. Even highly trained SF/SOF and light infantry units repeatedly have been in grave danger from massed insurgent attacks. They likely would have perished were it not for indirect fires, CAS, and attack helicopters...more powerful and better-aimed than any insurgent mortar or rocket.

The ANA are learning to employ more austere (although the Mi-17, C-27, and Super Tucano are pretty capable) aircraft and artillery…if allowed by leaders. Just as US airpower stopped North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter offensive, it similarly could assist imperiled ANSF…again if Afghan leadership allows it. Do you really believe any ISAF ground convoy, regardless of vehicle type, actually surprises the Taliban? Have you deployed to areas where off-roading and a deceptive, round-about route was not an option?

What I think the author deserves credit for in his essay is taking seriously the belief of President Lincoln that one can learn from anyone else no matter what the latter's station in life. Lastly, if we are to enjoy any success in a place like Afghanistan, it will have to come more on their terms than ours.

That has little to do with the theme that U.S. forces would be better off and more successful in Afghanistan and elsewhere, if only we behaved and fought more primitively like the ANSF. That is the notion I reject.

If President Lincoln can learn from the lowly, then surely a lowly contractor should be entitled to offer opinions without losing his job. It troubles me when so many errantly believe less (as in Marines and SF/SOF) is more. Yet big Army invariably must bail "less" out with logistics, MEDEVAC, heavy armor and artillery, and numerous helicopters/UAS. It also deploys longer and more often than other services because insufficient Soldiers support the required "more." Few voices here advocate for our Army beyond SF/SOF, who uniquely can live with less due to assured external support should massed threats occur. However, other worldwide threats are hardly setting the threat bar as low as the Taliban nor do potential allies elsewhere require a decade of training like the ANSF.

We don't see China hacking into Defense and State Department sites trying to learn more about COIN. The “build” aspect is less essential in many contingencies because infrastructure already exists. Rebuild is less necessary if less USAF infrastructure bombing occurs leading up to any invasion. If there is less to rebuild, less blood is spilled in subsequent stability operations. Host nation security force training and transfer can occur sooner when adequate force is deployed for wide area security and simultaneous training. Thankfully these wars have cost us considerably less blood than past conflicts. Yet the unfortunate cost in treasure due to a dozen years of drawn-out war in isolated locations trying to build nations from scratch has left leaders and Americans with a sour taste about landpower.

We ignore that civil leaders forced us into two wars, under-resourced OEF, wouldn’t partition ethnicities before elections, failed to surge upfront and plan stability operations, and now are eager to leave too soon leaving a future for Afghanistan largely as violent as that currently in Iraq. No wonder folks freely embrace the new myth of sterile, rapidly-fought AirSea Battle, thinking boots on the ground are unnecessary and targets freely present themselves…because we all know that has worked so many times in the past. If it requires anonymity to offer an informed peon’s opinion defending a “big” Army actually allowed to deploy BIG to culminate sooner, then you understand part of my advocacy and motivation.

Our Army can stabilize more area and train faster as a stronger tribe if it embraces more of the technologies prevalent and better resourced in other services. Even the Marines no longer are the Joint poor cousin what with F-35B, MV-22, CH-53K, and lots of pricey ships and landing craft desires, the latter of which can’t get close to today’s defended shores if you buy into the A2/AD exaggerations that attempt to justify other Navy and Air Force equipment.

Overreliance on inapplicable historical lessons and under-reliance on redrawing boundaries (as war victors of yesteryear did) explains in large part why our finest troops have a) taken so long, and b) sacrificed so much, to c) accomplish relatively little over a decade of war. The same underlying ethnic and religious motivations for conflict remain. We should learn from and adapt based on recent historical examples of the Balkans and Sudan that show simple division of land and ethnicities works far faster than COIN precepts that take too long and don’t apply to extremists. Shouldn’t we stop trying to cram past ideological square pegs into current religious and ethnic conflict round holes.

Finally Ned, it was an honest compliment about your service in Mexico while simultaneously trying to hint at danger in using your real identity here that could be read there. But obviously you know the real risks in Mexico better…just as others better understand the military, OEF and Afghanistan as a whole, and the realities of running a small Afghan business in a small market with little spending power that is inapplicable to Silicon Valley world markets or technology venture capital.

I’m lucky to have a job related to a passion to understand how military technology applies to current world events and how it can help troops fight and stabilize better. This passion extends beyond work hours and into weekends often involving research that can involve lots of reading. There is no personal vendetta when posting a link to a newspaper article.

Big Army stability operations and wide area security can protect populations and help clear and hold terrain. I’m just not sure we should share your lofty, but rather utopian goals that COIN, USAID and State Dept employees in small numbers, and nothing but SF/SOF and airpower can have us all singing kumbaya with Mali, Libya, Syrian, Iranian, and North Korean extremists and rogue nations turning WMD and terror swords into venture capital plowshares.

Peace out (through strength),
MF

Move Forward,
Thank you for your analysis on my earlier response to you from a fortnight ago. You make some interesting points (e.g., about the responsibility of civilian leadership for these protracted interventions) with which I agree. My thinking is better summarized in another note I just wrote. So I will piggy-back this response onto that one. Best regards,
Ned McD.

Move Forward,
I overlooked one point you made that I would like to answer directly. My intention was not to tell a war story. I was sitting inside an SUV on steroids with little direct view through a dirty window the size of a shoe-box. The soldier above me, in the turret, mentioned that mortar rounds were being fired and that the rounds were getting closer. Other soldiers in the patrol agreed that the weapon used had been a mortar, deployed sometime after the shooting started. I defer to their experience and judgement.
Very truly yours,
Ned McDonnell.

Good article. There’s lots of common sense in many cases but regional anecdotal examples elsewhere. For instance, many times the ANSF ran or barely contributed in COP attacks around Kunar province. The first time we turned over Pech Valley COPs to ANSF, they stripped them down, sold what they could, and abandoned them to the Taliban. Suspect that too much diversity exists between Afghans and ANSF to draw uniform lessons.

Nor do realities of the American military and its diplomatic counterparts align much with Afghan examples. If the Afghans could choose between and afford their way of war or ours, which would they prefer? Likewise, the fact that Afghans choose to remain uneducated, often reject modernization, live with fiefdoms, and abuse women and children is not indicative of a culture we should mimic…particularly the more radical aspects exemplified by the Taliban and those who embrace sharia law. As for the specifically cited examples:

There is too much planning. Perhaps the opposite is true for many U.S. battles and diplomacy attempts. Even if you don’t buy all COIN aspects (build?), some measure of stability operations wide area security must be planned in future conflicts to avoid the Rick’s Fiasco and OEF under-resourcing. In addition, some realpolitik advance plan to impose a Machiavellian division of states would assist stability operations by separating ethnicities likely to fight into their own smaller sub-states before holding elections.

If that means coming up with some sort of land swaps to reposition ethnic families or divide cities/states ala Berlin(Baghdad?)/East Germany(North Korea?)/Sudan/ Yugoslavia (Syria? Mali?), so be it. Otherwise ethnic cleansing and fleeing refugees will accomplish the same effect with far more suffering and death. The New York Times reported at the end of 2012 that “Afghan officials say that Afghan forces now plan and lead 80 percent of combat operations across the country.” If that is true, then the over 1,000 deaths attributed to ANSF planning stand in contrast to the 400 that ISAF experienced. Were some of those 400 due to inadequate ANSF planning?

Risk is part of war. Prudent risk, yes. However, in non-existential wars such as these two, with far less than 1% of our population at risk in the military, you cannot ask Soldiers/Marines or their families to unduly risk life and limb. Can anyone imagine Vietnam or even Soviet Afghan casualty levels today?

Some excesses of wars fought by past generations involved too much willingness to accept casualties. In many cases, military readiness lapses and procurement holidays following other wars led to those high initial casualties, as did reluctance to get involved until matters turned worse and bad guys had dug in. Afghanistan is important, but hardly worth even the 2000+ dead Americans and 1000+ coalition forces that lost their lives trying to help an often corrupt, and poorly led/opportunistic nation at both the central and local level.

Speed and mobility can be force protection. In OIF 1 and early offensive action that certainly is true. However, for the long haul and stability ops, more static operations are inevitable. Originating from a COP or FOB, limited routes exist that static surveillance (sensors on towers, aerostats, UAS, future unattended and UGV sensors) can clear of IEDs and ambushes. Also, terrain in flatter Helmand province differs from other more mountainous Afghan areas where routes are limited, canalized, and ambush/IED locations are ample. Soldiers at COP Keating were killed by snipers while urinating into tubes without body armor. Even at Wanat, they put scarce HESCO around the latrine.

In books I’ve read recently, multiple Soldiers nearly have bled out from wounds on legs, arms, and necks and took shots to helmets. Imagine if more shots had hit unprotected heads (SSG Fritsche) and torsos. Without our armored vehicles, body armor, helmets, unit medics, and aerial MEDEVAC these war casualties would have been far higher. At COP Keating, several troops were killed by snipers even as they ran. Dismounted running and vehicle or landing aircraft speed offers only so much protection and even less from indirect fire and RPGs. Several of those killed at COP Keating held up too long in up-armored HMMWVs but even they likely would have lived had the enemy not briefly been overrunning the COP (due to valley location, massed Taliban, and running ANSF).

Minimize logistical requirements. With road resupply limited by dangerous roads and small LZs that no Osprey ever could land in size-wise let alone safe from fire, supplies at COP Keating ran dangerously low in the final year. In one instance, due to attacks and contractor fear, 23 fuel truck that started out from Jalabad were reduced to just one by the time they reached FOB Bostick in the north Kunar valley.

Something like K-MAX UAS could have precluded that and used far less fuel than a CH-47 or MV-22 and the latter’s $10,000 per flight hour cost and low payload at high altitude. Lack of water and supplies hampered force protection and patrolling efforts at Wanat and COP Keating while command emphasis on ROE may have curtailed other lethal effects on surrounding mountainsides. SF and other small infantry teams at Ganjgal, Shok valley, and Sperwan Ghar ran out of ammunition rapidly when forced to engage larger elements even with air support. Imagine ANSF elements in the same situations without aerial resupply.

Aggressiveness can make up for a lack of skill.

Every day, Afghans push through dangers that would stop American units in their tracks. Americans will not drive across an Afghan street without minerollers and ECM equipment.

See ANSF pick-up truck and dismounted casualties in 2012 compared to those of ISAF. Again, with the exception perhaps of Operation Strong Eagle, few examples of ANSF aggressiveness exist in the Kunar river valley vicinity. Why not use minerollers, other detection equipment, dogs, and ECM if we can afford them. Weren’t IEDs accounting for half of all casualties before we got serious about them?

Sometimes the appearance of being outgunned is an advantage. When the US leaves, there will be ample instances of that appearance given less airpower and more massed attacks that will cause the ANA to run or die. Fortunately, ANSF training has improved because the US finally resourced OEF in the later years at levels they could have earlier if not for two wars…one largely unnecessary.

Don’t be afraid to leave a subordinate in charge At COP Keating the commander was gone because his helicopter got hit and it was too hot at LZs to land in another helicopter until later. A platoon leader and SSG had to take charge and did so effectively. Can we cite similar examples for the ANSF under massed attack?

Uneducated does not mean stupid College degrees do not bestow improvisation skills or leadership. High school level perhaps does far more than kindergarden. The IED example cited is largely due to foreign fighter assistance in building IEDs and access to fertilizer in more advanced Pakistan. Soldiers must be able to read TMs to keep equipment running. They require some math background to understand artillery and plan aviation employment, and all logistics. Obviously, there is a level of complexity in MV-22s the author flies that few Afghans would ever comprehend without being educated.

No better friend. No worse enemy In “The Outpost,” Jake Tapper mentions that one commander had a plan to spend over $3 billion on Nangarhar province alone. Imagine how much of that would have been wasted by greedy contractors and Afghan leaders had that actually occurred. Even the great efforts of one leader and his Hundred-Man shura resulted in little “build” progress. Multiple contracts eventually were cancelled by later deploying units because initial payments largely went into someone’s pockets with little to show for it.

At COP Keating, there also was an inconsistent unit approach to being “no worse enemy” with some aggressively patrolling and using indirect fires, and others more likely to hold up in the COP and avoid firing into the mountains due to ROE. How do we assure a more consistent approach across the board in hundreds of COPs and valleys, particularly when we rotate senior commanders setting the tone as often as maneuver battalions who may not agree within the same brigade?

Always make time for tea.

The US military will not keep its premier status unless it has the moral courage to examine itself critically, to identify better ways of doing things, and to take risks in implementing those changes.

Are we sure we can or should train junior Soldiers to be diplomats, particularly in a culture that makes elders their leaders? Perhaps drinking tea with the ANSF and the “don’t be a jerk” school of thought certainly have their place. Are we picking the right side to befriend? Can we ever befriend an Afghan whose income relies on poppy, timber, and gem smuggling that the central government or ISAF has banned? Could we drink tea with all ethnicities more effectively if they all get a chunk of the “build” and rule pie by having the UN/coalition divide up the conquered nation?

As for the future, can we possibly train every leader for every culture where we might fight? In Afghanistan, that would have meant training for multiple languages, ethnicities, and even tribal nuances…and we never may have fought there. Not every culture is illiterate and plenty of laptops can translate the written word. Also, unsure the military can or should monitor “build” projects. However, there is little indication that USAID and State Department civilians are willing to live outside the wire and away from Kabul or the Baghdad green zone. Our civilian diplomatic and USAID attempts to drink tea with cultures we invade are likely to result in lots of waste/graft from unmonitored projects with few hearts and minds actually won.

These are lessons learned in Vietnam and Malaysia, but seem to have forgotten.

I'm Carl's buddy, but I like the way you intelligently engaged his points. The truth is probably somewhere inbetween I think... but what do I know I'm just a guy who builds computers for the Navy and have never been neck deep in it like you guys.

Although I agree with this article, I can't help but wonder how many more times we need to read something that many have commented on, is in our doctrine, and is pretty much common sense. Why, after almost 12 years are we still writing things like, "minimize logistics requirements"? Why, after all this time, are we having to recommend that "speed and mobility can be force protection"?

There has to be very deep structural obstacles in our institution to doing what is common sense and what is recommended - if not in our doctrine- at least is in our Counterinsurgency Centers. If all of the articles which have come out before this one decrying the ludicrous nature of some of our actions and policies doesn't get the attention of our leaders- then what are they focused on and why?

I have some theories- mainly revolving around our personnel system, our philosophical groundings, and emergent phenomena that have bureaucratized most of our organizations- but, regardless of the source, these seemingly ludicrous practices weren't a secret to the mid-grade officers in Afghanistan. What was- was WHY. For some reason we seem to be unwilling to investigate this- but, I guess like most issues- first you have to be willing to admit you have a problem. Without any negative consequences no matter what happens- one wonders if there is an incentive to be brutally honest and admit we have a problem...

So far we've escaped Iraq without it being painted as a "loss" similar to Vietnam. If Afghanistan escapes that perception as well- then why would we question what we did there?

I'm not going to say that any of these recommendations are great revelations, nevertheless they are things that the American military is not doing. The point of the article is that these are basics that any military should be doing, but that we are neglecting. A Soldier's Load and Message to Garcia have been on professional reading lists for all of living memory, yet their lessons are neglected.

Taking operational risks is something few commanders are willing to do. The payoffs of going lighter, for example, are largely intangible. The one time a Marine gets shot where he could've had SAPI plates will overshadow all the times he was able to catch the enemy by manuever. The one time a convoy gets stuck in the field for lack of recovery vehicles will overshadow all the times it was able to traverse challenging terrain by virtue of being MATV-pure.

Until we start evaluating unit leaders by who succeeds more, vice who avoids losses, this problem will persist.

are things that the American military is not doing

Until we start evaluating unit leaders by who succeeds more, vice who avoids losses, this problem will persist.

Exactly- but why??? Why are we not doing these things and why can't we eval leaders who succeed? That's what I'm interested in. Lots of mid-grade folks- especially NCOs- know the system is messed up and there've been lots of articles explaining "the what". I don't see many addressing "the why". Or, perhaps more importantly- what we should do about it since that seems to be what our reality is going to be...

Very truthful and spot on. Having spent 13 months with the ANA several years ago, this article highlights many of the frustrations I had as an advisor, such as when I was told to trade in my stealthy Ford Ranger Pickup for the heavily armored HMMWV. At that point the Americans in the Afghan convoy were easy to spot and easily targeted. My 2nd tour a few years later we graduated to the MRAP and all situational awareness of the battlefield was gone while I rode around in my safe metal bubble. Plus, unless you were on an improved road, mobility was compromised. As long as insurgents kept a safe stand off distance from the MRAP, they were good to go. And we wonder why we haven't made better gains on the ground.

Good article with many truths that are uncomfortable to most in our ranks. I found your quote below especially true and agonizing because it represents what we have become, and this syndrome radiates far beyond the quote.

"In initial military training, Americans are hammered with truisms about such things as “speed, surprise, and violence of action.” Later in careers, the importance of these in warfare receives only lip service."

Your headline caught my eye for reasons nothing better than my wretched little ego. When the book itself came out, I must have received five copies as gifts. With this trendiness in Upper East Side New York, I could not resist being yet again the bad boy of Unitarianism by saying at parties that I was writing my masterpiece, "Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Reform School". Chuckling over a past life aside, the content of your essay was pure gold.

As a civilian interested in counter-insurgency, I cannot – and ought not try to – speak toward insights on field tactics and adaptations. Your essay reminds me of another book, one that unfortunately is not quite so trendy. That book is "The Ugly American", now fifty-four years young. To me at least, your essay argues for a return of some common sense to the battle-field. It is a call that comes after years of convergent experiences encountered in the field, like yours.

Unfortunately, available technology, and the financial incentives that make it compelling to stake-holders away from the battlefield, does not always conform to common sense in tactics. Consequently, important principles of tactical adroitness in the field are blurred into lip-service in the midst of competing interests and ideas alienated from it. Such decisions may also have their roots in a gap of perspective between staff officers and planners as opposed to those troops in the villages and in the field.

Your thinking strikes a personal note as well. In Afghanistan, the convoy in which I was seated needed to assist in the rescue of an injured SOF soldier. We quickly found ourselves in the midst of a fire fight. As I sat there in an MRAP, feeding ammunition to my new best friend and watching mortar rounds land closer and closer, I was thinking about a couple of things. First, I had long decided that being dead was not a biggie; but dying frightens me to no end.

Second, I wondered if the perverse benefit to me of that MRAP protection would be that I would burn to death more slowly; that made me a silently simpering cissy. My younger brothers in uniform did not flinch and kept fighting not only to protect themselves and me but to give the wounded SOF soldier a chance to survive. Eventually, after the soldier was rescued, a Bundeswehr strike vehicle – assigned to escort the German military ambulance – fired a missile at the hornet’s nest to take out the protective wall behind which the Taliban had been firing on us. That was that.

Happily, the fallen soldier survived whole and I received ample evidence why I am one civilian grateful for the caliber of a large majority of our field soldiers. As a quick aside, what was interesting that day is how the Taliban knew the difference between German and U.S. armoured vehicles, like those that had escorted the German ambulance, in and out, to extract the injured American soldier. As the Germans approached and evacuated the soldier, not a shot was fired by the Afghan insurgents; not a moment passed after the exit of our NATO allies when all Hell broke loose, again.

That sparked a third thought. How much easier that afternoon might have unfolded had we had the option of going in with a lighter, quicker (four-wheel drive) Land Rover, going around that hornet’s nest, off-road over flat fields, to clear out the wounded soldier. By the way, that soldier, a friendly acquaintance of mine at the time, owes his life also to those German soldiers who basically broke with their chain of command to come to our aid.

While I was out running, it occurred to me that I had made two mistakes in the telling of my story. Perhaps I should edit my passage but have decided to admit the error as a reproof to me of how euphoric recall makes fools of those who indulge in it.

First, I was in a mini-MRAP, something of a hybrid between a HUMMVV (sp?) and the big bubble, as referred above. More seriously, I got my sequence wrong, the soldier was removed before the Germans fired the missile.

The good news is that the German strike vehicle had stayed behind after the rescue and later intervened on our behalf, when the mortar fire started, contrary to (what I believe were) the Bundeswehr's rules of engagement.

The ambulance crew may have done the same in passing directly between the contesting lines of fire. I want to salute those NATO allies; they were soldiers coming to the aid of soldiers.

My apologies,
Ned McD.