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You have just been alerted your unit will be sent to some far off distant place with a vague mission. After reading everything you can about counter-insurgency theory and the place you are going, you are still daunted. How am I actually going to make things happen in place where the culture is so foreign? Where so many other before have met with nothing but frustration? Here are some guidelines I wish I had known before going to Afghanistan. The lessons learned are mostly applicable to company and platoon-level leaders. However, higher-echelon leaders may find it worthwhile reading to reacquaint themselves with the effects of their actions on what actually happens on the ground. The conclusions drawn are exclusively from experience in Afghanistan. Most will apply to counter-insurgency in other areas since Afghanistan has many similar cultural attributes to other pre-modern cultures where the majority of insurgencies are fought. A special thanks and tribute goes to David Kilcullen whose 28 articles inspired me to write this.
Train your men for flexibility
The single best training you can do is squad-level situational training in which your squads get hit from multiple directions by direct fire mixed with IEDs or suicide bombers. After defeating the ambush, have a large group of civilians come up to them while they are evacuating their casualties. The transition between direct fire and dealing with non-combatants will be key. To add more realism to it, make it a force-on-force. Task one of your squads with conducting the ambush and one to reacting to it. Grade both squads at the same time.
Attitude is everything
If you build an organization with a strong inside and the right attitude, it will make a huge difference on the effects you achieve outside your organization. Establishing good synergy will make you better at patrolling, interacting with the locals, and reacting to whatever off-the-wall situations come your way. This is perhaps one of the most important things you will do. Start by talking to your men in a large group about the situation you are in and how to fix it. Sit down with them individually or in small groups. Ask them pointed questions to get their feedback. Explain to them what is happening and why you are asking them to do things the way you are. If there are still people that resist you, who won’t suck it up and do their jobs well after you have given this your best effort, get rid of them. Your logistics support people are always in need of more bodies to do random chores like hauling gasoline around the base to fill generators. You owe it to the rest of your team.
Ensure each grunt leader has the knowledge he needs to do his job
Each individual soldier needs to know when he should pull the trigger and that his chain of command will back it up. Give clear guidance on when they should and shouldn’t shoot since there will be a lot of unclear situations. For example, we marked off areas that had IEDs in the past, where there was no reason for farmers to be digging. When anyone started digging a hole in those marked areas, we could use lethal force since that constituted hostile intent in a historic IED area.
The problem is too complicated for you to solve on your own
Everyone has a certain bandwidth for the amount of issues they are able to deal with effectively. In the complicated situations you will encounter, you will not be able to handle all the issues that present themselves. Moreover, figuring out the bureaucratic intricacies of getting the resources you will need takes a huge amount of effort. There should at least be one person devoted to intelligence full time, and one person devoted to money and politics full time in every company. The intelligence person should focus on bringing together everything from the different sources available, long term trend analysis, and constantly figuring out new ways to protect the populace. The political person, who could be one of your American interpreters, should manage development funds, coordinate information operations, and deal with governance. In our area, the situations varied so much in individual villages that it became necessary to have two people in each platoon to track these things part time. Other possible positions you might need depending on your situation are a separate governance person, a local security forces trainer, and a local security forces resource finder.
Culture and mindset drives politics
We encountered many Afghans that had a level of ego development similar to people in the Godfather or the Wire. They are very emotional, have a strong sense of ego, and will die for their pride. However, Afghans been taught to suppress feelings from a young age and to always present a calm exterior. Once they get pushed over the top, it will all come out with tremendous force, often in the form of bullets from their weapon. We had an Afghan policeman with no strong Taliban sympathies confess he almost tried killing several of us after listening to some very emotional Taliban propaganda songs. Respect them, know how not to offend them or you might find them trying to kill you even if they have no Taliban loyalties. If you want to get anywhere with them, you have to accept them for who they are, rather than try to impose on them who you want them to be.
In addition, out of politeness, they will rarely be honest with you. For example, they might not tell you about how good the Taliban shadow courts happen to be, just out of politeness to you. They may not tell you why they dislike you simply out of politeness. A different platoon found out the day before we left our area that a village they had patrolled for ten months hated them because a unit had killed some civilians there four years prior after hitting an IED. If you kill an Afghan’s enemy, they may perceive you as having dishonored them as they did not dispose of the enemy. They will resist government initiatives if there is any chance it will harm their narrow short term interests. Even if they are pro-government they are very unlikely to rat out another villager helping the Taliban because of their strong group-unity tribal mentality that arises from the uncertainty of their life circumstances. As one of my soldiers with a rough upbringing put it so poetically, in inner cities “snitches get stitches and end up in ditches” and the same is true of Afghanistan. Often those that do rat people out do so with a hidden political agenda and it may serve their interests more than yours to act on their tips. The only way you are going to get an accurate picture of what is actually going on is to build solid relationships.
Your relationships give you power
Talk to people every chance you get. Building solid relationships with the right people is the key to everything else. It will enable you to change the political landscape and is the only way to get good honest answers. To start, you have to be as close to the people as you can. The closer you are to your higher headquarters, the more you will find your time taken up by their priorities. The closer you are to the people, the more you will find your time being taken up by their priorities such as security and governance.
Start off all your engagements by complementing them on something you think is important to them. Afghans define themselves by things like the size of their family, the abundance of the garden in their compounds, and the land they own. Make small talk on the things Afghans like to discuss. They will generally not have seen the latest episode of How I Met Your Mother, but they would love to talk to you about the great things their male relatives are doing, their crops, how their goats are doing, the weather, and their favorite decorations on their jingle truck. From there, know what you want to get out of the conversation and be careful what you say. Sometimes, Afghans will assume you promised something even if you just talk about it. If you can’t deliver, you will lose a lot of respect and credibility from them. Know the bureaucracy will support you on something before you even discuss it.
Remember, relationships are perhaps more important than anything else except having a strong organization. Getting tasks done will not get you very far if doing them to American standards and in an American timeframe hurts your relationships. Always be polite unless you are disciplining them. For example, I once offended the district leader because I was in a hurry to get a task done within the time standard I was given and I left a meeting with him without shaking his hand. However, a box of Girl Scout cookies repaired the rift.
Impose on your enemy and he will stay off your back
The enemy will be very creative in how he attacks you. His institution has very little bureaucracy and was born out of the specific socio-political circumstances that led to the insurgency. Yours was born out of circumstances stretching all the way back to the Marian reforms of the Roman Legions. Do not underestimate them. In one instance, they disguised a semi truck to look like it had been hijacked to lure a convoy into a canalized spot with an IED waiting for them. They might use harassing fire to lure you into flanking them along the easiest route and have a trap waiting for you when you do.
But, you can generally find creative ways to defeat their tactics. We were the only platoon in the squadron not to hit a vehicle or anti-personnel IED because we anticipated their locations very well. Any route that an observation post could not see, any routes you typically used coupled with a good route for him to sneak up to the spot, were ideal for an IED. For example, they managed to plant one in a field 400 meters from our base by crawling through irrigation ditches and placing them where our tracks intersected the ditch. They love planting IEDs where roads intersected wadis (dried up stream beds in the desert) since they could use the cover afforded by the wadi to move up to the point. The ones who aren’t smart enough to do this end up attracting the attention of large caliber US Air Force munitions sooner or later.
When it comes to direct fire, you have a couple of options. Do not just flank clumsily along the most predictable route. During one air assault, we kept getting hit at one of our blocking positions with harassing fire. Initially, we tried flanking clumsily along a predictable route which just resulted in the flanking element getting hit by harassing fire. After that failed, we withdrew most of the blocking element but left a small team behind to ambush them when they pursued us, resulting in our first fight of the day on our terms. Another good option is a bold, wide, unpredictable maneuver (forwards or backwards) to advantageous terrain with good fields of fire. This worked very well for a friend of mine.
Suicide bombers, of which we had four in our company AO in one year, just suck. Don’t wait for the first random car or person to blow up in your face. Keep people away from you unless they have been searched. Never put doubt in your soldier’s heads about pulling the trigger on someone coming at you too hard. Instead, change your routes to avoid areas where accidentally confusing someone with a suicide bomber is likely and make sure they have all the non-lethal equipment they need.
Your partners are your key to long term success
Afghan security forces will not perform well with poor leadership or if you control their elements for them. One of your first tasks is to get good people in the key positions, a very difficult task in the face of ineffective government. Right before we left, they sent us a new district chief of police who I learned from some of my friends down the road in Zhari was a terrible person. He was known for abusing his own men, abusing civilians, being corrupt and incompetent. Despite all this he got promoted to the post. Getting rid of people like this is crucial. Once you have a good partner, get to know your partners’ names, eat meals with them as much as possible even if you are just sitting in awkward silence, and try to bestow as much honor on them as possible by praising them in front of their commander or yours. Offer frank criticism only in private. Train them and give them confidence. Once they are confident, put them up front. It is much less humiliating for an Afghan elder to deal with or receive money for a project (with you watching of course) from another Afghan than from you.
Perception governs political realities
Counter-insurgency is 80% politics. If they have the perception that the government is stronger, better, and is working for their interests you will “win.” Politics is all about perception. Anytime anything significant happens, be there and then immediately engage people about it. For example, we got hit by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle, wounding four of my men. He had bullets in the motorcycle gas can that started going off after the blast. One of these hit a small child whom we treated and then evacuated by helicopter, saving his life. However, we did not go back into that village for several days and when we did all the children were crying and running away from us. We soon found out that everyone thought we had been the ones to shoot the kid, even though it was the motorcycle that had wounded him. If we had gone to the village immediately afterwards and talked to the people or just called them on the phone that event would not have set us back several months.
At the company level, the political officer should also develop a coherent set of talking points that are disseminated through all available means to shape the political climate and manage perception. Everything stems from your narrative, your explanation of why you are there doing what you are doing. Whenever anything happens immediately figure out what to tell people in order convince them your narrative is the stronger one.
For example, we tracked down a Taliban leader and arrested him. In Afghan culture, it’s the duty of the elders to complain to you and say he is innocent even if they know he was not because of their strong group unity mentality. Of course, we could not explain how we tracked the Taliban leader down, so we told them that another Taliban leader sold him out. This story had a lot of credibility since we were well aware of rifts within the local Taliban leadership that had recently broken out into small scale clashes.
Leverage local power bases to empower your side
The Afghan constitution developed by a major conference of the country’s leaders in December 2001 is one of the most unitary constitutions ever developed. All the power rests with the president. However, the core of Afghan politics—as with any pre modern culture—is at the district level. The president is the only person with budgetary authority, which he then allocates to the head of the ministries. From there, they disburse money to the line ministers in the provinces who disburse it down to the line ministry representatives at the district level. The end result is that at the district level, leaders have no power. Our district leader did not actually have formal authority over the line ministry representatives. If they did not show up to work for 30 days the District Leader could recommend they be removed but this rarely happened since Afghans are always so polite. The only money he controlled was a measly hundred dollars a month for office expenses. The line ministry representatives for the most part did not show up to work since most lived in Kandahar city. When they did show up, they were generally ineffectual since they were not people that locals respected.
In our area, the powerful people in town were the ones who controlled drug smuggling. Poppy accounted for probably 90% of the economy in Maiwand District and generated all the money. GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) could never challenge their political power because of the amount of money they had at their disposal they could spend with no bureaucratic red tape. Thus, it is up to you to figure out how to empower good people so they can actually gain influence and have something to offer. We started using our development funds so that it appeared the Afghan government was making the decisions on where it went. In reality, we kept a close eye to prevent corruption and ensure it only went to projects as allowed, but people got the perception the government actually had money. Rather than waiting on for judge who never arrived, we reached out to the informal justice system led by Islamic religious authorities called maulawis and respected village leaders to tie it to the government. As David Kilcullen puts it so well in Counter-insurgency, the basis of governance is a consistent set of enforceable rules that bring stability, security and order to people’s lives. People will kill for it and Afghan leaders will need your help if they are going to achieve it. The Taliban does an excellent job of this, and will provide it if you don’t.
In many instances, co-opting the key political players or encouraging pro-government informal strong men may be the only way to establish basic law and order if GIRoA has no capabilities. Conditions in Afghanistan have been so chaotic for a long time that they are willing to put a lot of trust and faith in strong, charismatic leaders. An informal strong man tied to the government will actually be able to provide that strong leadership that Afghans crave and establish basic rule of law. Men tied to him will fight much better and he will be able to wield political influence much more effectively than you if he has money at his disposal.
Work in subtle ways
There may be people you know are bad who it might be counter-productive to detain. For example, if you have an important drug smuggler in your area who probably housed a suicide bomber for a couple days whose smuggling indirectly benefits the enemy, you have to be careful. A lot of those guys can be a sort of local hero since they do a lot for the community. If you detain him it might have significant negative fallout. Many elders may stop dealing with you out of legitimate fear for their safety. It may also weaken traditional power structures, especially if you detain him when the village malik has brought him to a shura, thus inadvertently undermining the village malik and the shura. They will probably be released several months later anyways despite admitting to extensive drug smuggling thanks to high connections.
More subtle techniques tended to work better. If we identified someone whose links to the Taliban were very tenuous, we would spread rumors about them, helping us to discredit them in the Taliban’s eyes. We also did projects with them and made sure the right people knew they had done projects with us. We managed to drive the pro-Taliban elder who told everyone we shot the kid after the suicide bombing out of town this way. For others we used intermediaries, people with whom we had a certain amount of mutual trust, to reach out to and bring them over to the government.
If we took a detainee we had not caught in the act, shipping him off to Kandahar airfield was always counter-productive because it would infuriate the elders and he would always end up getting released as the burden of proof was very high in the Afghan justice system. Instead we started to do sham trials. We brought them to a shura and all the elders would come to complain about us detaining him even if they knew he was guilty. The district leader, who was weak and had Taliban ties himself, would always say he was innocent. At this point, we would use the opportunity to discuss detainees and the importance of mutual understanding and empathy. We would then release him on the promise that the elders would ensure he did no more bad things. We would usually follow up with a threat in private about what we would do if we caught him again. Your strong Afghan partners will also have good ways of backing up that threat. This was far more productive than sending him to Kandahar to be interrogated since it strengthened the shura, the District Leader, and the Elders.
When you have done these things, and set conditions where you have the political legitimacy, good relations, good security, and good intelligence, then you can use dramatic actions. For example, if there is one village in an area that is still resisting and supporting the Taliban when most other have shifted to your side, firm action will send a strong message. Arresting all the leaders in the village will send a clear message and help turn the situation quickly.
In sum, get in the right mindset, learn the culture, learn the people, and master the game. Politics is about culture and culture is about people. Learn all of these to be an effective player. You owe it to your men to ensure they are risking their lives for good reason.