Small Wars Journal

Getting the Basics Right in Afghanistan

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Getting the Basics Right

A Discussion on Tactical Actions for Strategic Impact in Afghanistan

by Lieutenant Colonel Trent Scott and Colonel John Agoglia, Small Wars Journal

Getting the Basics Right (Full PDF Article)

This paper has been prepared by the Counterinsurgency Training Center -- Afghanistan. The purpose of the paper is generate discussion and analysis on whether we are not only doing things right here in Afghanistan, but indeed whether we are doing the right things. This analysis and requisite change is essential if we are to employ additional incoming ISAF units in the most effective manner. Comments/objections/counter-arguments can be sent to or

Events in Afghanistan are not going according to plan. There is a growing perception among local Afghans and within the international community that the insurgency in Afghanistan is growing stronger and more influential by the day. A spate of recent Western media reporting decrying the killing of innocent Afghans and Pakistanis as a result of the alleged over-judicious use of ISAF/OEF-controlled air power, the very public death of nine US soldiers in eastern Afghanistan followed almost immediately by the killing of just under a dozen French soldiers in central Afghanistan, and the widespread public belief that the central Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) under Hamid Karzai is institutionally corrupt, have contributed to the groundswell of local and international voices calling for a radical change to the way things are currently done in Afghanistan. Change is required, it must begin at the tactical level, and it needs to be led by ISAF. This is our war just as much as it is the Afghan's war.

Although there is much to do at the strategic level in Afghanistan, such as developing a comprehensive border strategy, eliminating corruption, developing an effective and functioning government, defining the role of the Afghan National Police (ANP) -- the list goes on -- it is at the tactical level, at Regional Commands (RC), Task Forces (TF), Battlegroups, Companies and Coalition mentoring teams that the most immediate and tangible change for good can be made. Tactical actions resonate throughout the local communities ISAF troops are supposed to protect and influence audiences across the world. And, because insurgency is a violent political competition, tactical actions can have significant political impact. Conducting comprehensive, best practice operations designed to defeat the insurgency from the grass roots up is imperative if ISAF is to halt the consolidation of the insurgent's influence in rural Afghanistan, establish the legitimate rule of law, and contribute to the development of a stable Afghanistan. Cumulative success at the tactical level will provide time and space -- literally and figuratively -- for the key stakeholders at the strategic level to make the necessary institutional changes required to ensure long term stability.

Getting the Basics Right (Full PDF Article)

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Rob Thornton

Tue, 11/11/2008 - 12:02pm

I, and Im sure others in the communities of practice and interest, greatly appreciate the thinking that COL Agoglia and Lt Col Scott put into this paper to help us better understand the environment and the problems we face in Afghanistan. Such efforts are paying off by informing the broader communities and establishing relevance to a contemporary, real world issue. They are both helping to shape our choices now, and inform us on important related issues as they apply to possible future strategic and institutional concerns.

One of the things that I think the paper does very well is establish the linkage between strategic and institutional guidance and values with the tactical actions on the ground. In reference to the institutions which generate capabilities to meet the requirements incurred by policy objective(s) and environmental conditions, cogent pieces such as this present uniformed and civilian leaders with the consequences of institutional rigidity and/or institutional lurches as they relate to strategic, operational, tactical and institutional risk both in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In reference to the generation of policy and strategy in a complex, interactive environment such as Afghanistan I thought the observation in the paper that:

"A suitable political environment must be created to allow the formal and informal/traditional governing structures to coexist and complement each other. ISAF needs to understand this, and facilitate this outcome."

reflects a much better understanding of a USG endstate that is feasible, and with the will of an Afghan government sustainable. This type of understanding results in what Secretary Gates recently qualified as a "Positive Outcome", one that may be initially tolerable to the participants and stakeholders, and which can be built upon over time. This is not to say that this should be the outcome we expect at the conclusion of the campaign as we know it in Afghanistan, but that this is an objective that the USG should consider as a long term goal that will transcend our immediate involvement and ultimately be carried forward by US Country Teams yet to come (with continued Title 10 support.) It also qualifies the immediate role of all the USG and Multi-National partners of getting that objective to a point where it can transition to a point where it can be carried forward by different means.

The article further articulates that in order to increase effectiveness, and by extension I think long term efficiencies, and in order to decrease the risk to the over-arching policy objective to which means have been committed, our implementation efforts must be comprehensive and integrated. This generates a requirement for shared understanding of the environment that is reflected in the planning and execution of all our actions. This takes us back to the institutions which generate capabilities, the leaders who make policy and strategy, and the civil legislation which governs the creation, sustainment and increase/decrease of means.

The linkage is through and through, and we have to understand that what can happen on the ground is to a great degree made possible by how we understand those requirements at the tactical and operational levels, and respond to them from the NCR (meaning the USG writ large) with an eye toward communicating our efforts to the domestic and international audiences. Listening (not just hearing) and thinking about what COL Agoglia and Lt Col Scott are saying is paramount to being able to make good decisions. I would encourage all to take the time to read their article and to think about today - consider it a Veterans Day obligation.

Best Regards, Rob