Things I Learned from People Who Tried to Kill Me

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 mujahedeen 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 mujahedeen 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.  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.  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 of our firebase or VSP as the norm.

Ultimately, our current strategy in Afghanistan will prove to be costly and unsustainable.  With rapidly decreasing troop numbers, a struggling economy, and an American public growing increasingly weary of spilling our nation’s blood on foreign soil, a new approach is needed that addresses these realities – an approach perhaps molded by the careful study of our enemy.

As the old mujahedeen 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 after 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.

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Comments

Reed,

Great work by you and your platoon in a very tough mission. I appreciate the bottom work you emphasized here. I think there are many lessons and take aways from your post, but the beginning and ending where you describe your credility with the village elder is important no matter what we do in Afghanistan.
I am going to hang your link on the Stability Institute for the other SOF guys to see.
Thanks
DOL
Scott Mann

A good read on many valid tactical "lessons not learned." These hamper our efforts tremendously and we refuse to learn them. But even if we did, it would be moot. Good tactics are better than bad tactics, but neither can overcome the travesty of the strategic construct that we seek to enforce.

"King making" has long been an effective technique employed by powerful nations seeking to secure their interests and exercise their will over some foreign land and populace. This was largely obsolete as a viable concept by 1900, yet this fact must be hammered home to foreign power after foreign power by affected populace after affected populace until we finally register this essential strategic reality. A foreign power cannot force a solution of governance onto another and make it legitimate in the eyes of the populace it affects.

Would we be any worse off today if we had simply conducted our UW enabled strategic raid of 2001 and then gone home leaving behind nothing but a clear warning that "we will come back if we need to"?

What about the similar conop for a UW approach to Iraq that was shot down in favor of the heavy conventional invasion and regime change that set us on the path for tactical quagmire there as well??

It is our perverse desire to control outcomes and our zealot-like belief that the imposition of our values, systems of governance, and manipulation to elevate leaders deemed most acceptable to us rather than to the populaces they will actually lead, all combine to lead our civil leaders to commit our military forces to these obsolete and futile adventures.

At a tactical level I have to restrain myself from banging my head on the table as I consider the C2 realities in Afghanistan, the simple suggestions offered by this LT, and then read General Dempsey's White Paper on "Mission Command." How does one possibly implement mission command in such a C2 environment as we impose upon our junior leaders in Afghanistan? Again, it is our inability to relenquish control at the top.

It is our pursuit of control that defeats us, not anything else.

The old mujahedeen said: "You are one of us now."

Our goal, of course, is just the opposite, to wit: To transform the state and society(ies) of Afghanistan more along modern western lines.

Accordingly, our goal is to have modern western business-persons, investors, entrepreneurs, workers/employees and government officials be able to honestly and accurately say -- to the Afghan villagers -- that: "You are one of us now."

If our soldiers were to operate more as the Taliban does, to wit: by clearly articulating our intent in a simple phrase, for example:

" Our goal is to have the Afghan people (1) abandon key aspects of their present way of life and way of governance and to have them (2) adopt key aspects of our way of life and our way of governance in their place." (Some specifics would obviously be needed here.)

Then would the Afghan villagers be able to (lacking a frame of reference?) understand what we were trying to tell them?

If, by our additional efforts, we were able to make these Afghan villagers understand what we were trying to do (to transform their state and society[ies] more along western lines), then would this knowledge of our intent tend to cause the Afghan villagers to:

a. Embrace our vision for their village, their country and, indeed, their region? Or,

b. Drive these people into the arms of the insurgents?

Something to consider?

Bill C,

You wrote,

""The old mujahedeen said: "You are one of us now."
Our goal, of course, is just the opposite, to wit: To transform the state and society(ies) of Afghanistan more along modern western lines."

The old mujahideen's main goal was to rid the country of the Soviet and Afghan forces who had turned much of the country into a free-fire zone wherein everything - not just everyone - could be indiscriminately killed. In the manner the Taliban have done recently at the lakeside Spozhmai Hotel. They insisted on dropping millions of plastic AP mines to deter anyone from returning for the next 50 years. In the manner of the Taliban's indiscriminate use of IEDs

The old mujahideen's secondary goal was to oppose the Saurist's who were determined to transform Afghanistan into an atheist State.

Your implication that the ISAF is somehow pursuing a similar Soviet/Saurist agenda - one that would be at opposites to an old mujahid's sentiments - is very odd to say the least.

RC

RandCorp:

Are you suggesting that the mujahideen's overall goal and objective -- and our own -- are similar or the same, to wit: to transform the state and society(ies) of Afghanistan -- and the region generally -- such that these might run more along modern western lines?

As you note in your comment above, the mujahideen would seem to (1) oppose the radical transformation of the Afghanistan state and society and (2) oppose those indigenous and foreign elements who seek to achieve such an objective (the wide-scale transformation of their way of life and way of governance).

Bill, the transformation of Afghanistan has NEVER been the goal of the US; rather it has been the WAYS that we have bought into that will somehow secure for us our GOAl (ENDS) of preventing future terrorist attacks from being able to originate in that region.

The US has interests and pursues those interests. The Muj, the Taliban, hell, everybody, has interests and pursues those interests. Most are more transparent about what they seek and pragmatic about how they seek them.

We, on the other hand, seek an unnecessary End, while applying unfeasible Ways through inappropriate Means (largely military). This is the strategic dysfunction I talk to above. But while I know this is somegthing you buy into strongly, the US does not go about the world seeking to "Modernize" (make more like us) others for that end, but rather only as a method to achieve the End of our own security.

RCJ:

I agree that the US does not go about the world seeking to modernize (make more like us) other states and societies without some further end in mind.

Likewise, I agree that when the US goes about the world seeking to modernize (make more like us) other states and societies it does so because it believes such activity serves our interests.

Given, however, that attemping to modernize (make more like us) other states and societies may be more likely to CAUSE rather than PREVENT future terrorist attacks, should we consider that there are other ends -- other than the prevention of terrorism -- which better explain such US action; ends which accept that an increased risk of terrorism is simply the price that must be paid in order to achieve this broader, more-important and more-overarching goal?

Not other "Ends" (our security), but yes, definitely other "Ways" (seeking to make others more like us, "modernize" etc).

As often happens when one gets sucked into a long drawn out effort of attemtpting to make some inappropriate, infeasible course of conduct work, the "Ways" take on a life of their own and it becomes for to easy to forget why we are actually there in the first place.

Returning to the main article above and connecting with the word/concept of "security" as the overall goal/end/final objective of all concerned:

The little hand-out brochure that the Taliban uses seems to say that the "way" that the Taliban seek to achieve "security" -- for their country, their society, their region and the Islamic world as a whole (?) -- is by controlling Afghanistan through an Islamic state.

The little hand-out brochure that we might use could say that the "way" that we seek to achieve "security" -- for ourselves, our country, our society and the larger western world (?) -- is by transforming the Afghan state and society(ies) more along western lines.

Is one little hand-out brochure more likely than another to cause members of the population -- and the old "muj" -- to sign-up for a particular side?

Consider a hypothetical to answer that quesion.

If in a future America that has been invaded and occupied by a Chinese-led coalition dedicated to the security of the government they formed for us to secure their interests, which brochure would you trust the most:

1. The one handed to you by a Chinese soldier, or

2. The one handed to you by a fellow American resisting that foreign presence?

Re: Your hypothetical question above:

This is an interesting question and one must take a moment to consider it.

Certainly the immediate thought would be to say that one would "trust" and be most interested in the pamphlet being handed to you by a fellow American resisting the foreign presence.

But what if you knew that these fellow Americans -- who were resisting the foreign presence -- were somewhat radical, represented something of a radical organization and had something of a radical agenda and cause, for example: They wished to re-set the United States to cir. late 18th century and all that that implies (slavery to again be considered acceptable, necessary and legal and women to again be treated as "property" in the eyes of society and the law, etc., etc., etc.).

This might give you pause.

Likewise the Chinese soldier's pamphlet, also, might not be too appealing as it too would demand radical and significant change; requiring, in this case, that the state and society of the United States be totally re-made (its political, economic and social systems) such that these might flow more along contemporary Chinese lines.

Dear LT Kitchen,

I just read your article, "Things I Learned from People Who Tried to Kill Me" and I must say you really captured my attention. I am a Master Sergeant in the Army and I spent a year in Afghanistan and though I am extremy proud of serving in the military, I have not always agreed with what we do, “too much red tape." I am by no means as hooah as you are; however I come from a country that has seen its fair share during a long civil war; I am from El Salvador. Though I was very young when we left, I remember the war vividly. I had to grow up quick and learned many survival skills at a very young age. I remember how the “Soldiers” used to come to our village and destroyed everything in sight and treat us. It is so ironic that I am now a Soldier myself as I used to be terrified of Soldiers when I was younger.
I am not much of a reader when it comes to military stuff, but I started reading your article, I could not agree more with what you wrote. I deployed to Afghanistan from 2009-2010 as a Supply Platoon Sergeant. When I was in there, in one of our many resupply convoys, we went to a village to resupply one of our units. Yes, the conditions were not the best, but the Soldiers sustained themselves with what they had. As we made our rounds something that caught my attention and tore me in pieces was when I saw our own Soldiers taking over an area in the village to put up hesco barriers. They were ordered to put them up next to the villager’s huts. The hescos were so close to the huts that it looked as if they were on top of the huts. The men and children were gathered around as the Soldiers worked. They were angry and frustrated that I wonder if they were retaliate. I asked one of the Sergeants in charge why were they doing this so close and he said something like, "they are a whole bunch of bastards, hell with them.” Hearing this just confirmed to me that with this mentality we will never get far, no matter how much technology and equipment we have, (we travel so top heavy that I wonder how we move sometimes). As you mention in your article "They laughed at our heavy protective equipment saying we hid behind ceramic plates and camouflage". Yes, I understand that this is not an easy war/conflict; however we make it harder by all the red tape and politics involve.
I know this may not mean much, but it was a pleasure reading your article.

MSG Wendy R. Cooper

What is so frustrating about your paper is that while I agree with your observations and the underlying sentiment are you really telling us it has taken this long to work this stuff out - 2001? Further, shouldnt your approach be what is expected from most elements of the military and aid participants and not limited to SOF? Even in the development side of the COIN there are very few entities who engage in this way.

You talk of living in the village as if it were a privilege as an operator and at the same time a revelation. Yet isnt this fundamentally the core of what we should have been doing all along. Whether we like it or not a good deal of the Taliban leadership at the local level are far more in tune with the local population than any of the GiROA officials we have been propping up. In Ghazni 2009-2010 Usmani Usmani and Commander Ptang were hardly respected by the local population compared with a number of the Ghazni shadow government elements. And we all know one of the worst villages in Ghazni during that time was not 100kms from the FOB but merely 5ks away! What does that tell you about the approach.

The entity or leadership that is going to provide the most stability and not allow terrorists to set up shop to plan and train for attacks on our national interests is what I am more interested in at this stage than trying in vain to prop up governments that are images of our own system, especially at the village level.

Whether in the corporate sector, military, government we are attracted to complicated solutions and think the simple is stupid.

Sure there are many, many pieces to an environment like Afghanistan but for all the literature, handbooks, guides your paper is as if the basic lessons of life in Afghanistan are only being realised by rare individuals like yourself.

Thanks for the insights.

JT

Great paper- but, unfortunately I've heard these same suggestions since at least 2006. I think the better area of investigation is to figure out WHY there is no trust in our ODAs. My opinion is that the military's infrastructure- which SOCOM has copied- is risk-averse, career-minded, and overly-bureaucratic. If you as a field grade or higher commander take on that kind of risk and something bad happens- your career is over. I don't think we promote too many folks who are okay with that.

I also would like to question some of our strategic assumptions. For instance- I don't think we are in Afghanistan right now for any reason other than it would be too politically risky for the administration to withdraw too fast. I don't think too many outside of the military are overly concerned about what happens to Afghanistan once we leave. Yes- it might go bad- but in the big list of bad things we are facing right now- I think there are real arguments that there are other places we should be concentrating more on. I think that also goes a long way towards explaining our risk-aversion.

G Martin,

I think we're in agreement that many of his recommendations are unfeasible from a strategy standpoint, but putting that aside there is a very real issue of micro-management. Mircromanagement that increases over time, not decreases. I have seen it OIF and other locations around the world, initially we go in and have great success (admittedly a different mission focus), and then over time rule after rule after rule accumulates, and the tactical units are required to report more frequently, and it gets to the point that it feels the all the ODAs are pre-SCUBA doing a weight belt swim barely able to keep their head above water. More time is spent engaging higher HQs than focusing on the tactical problem at hand.

The enemy, especially on his turf, will always have asymmetric advantages, just we have our asymmetric advantages (mostly technology, air power, etc.), but I think we need to sit back and seriously ask ourselves if we are unnecessarily giving the enemy some advantages with our excessive micromanagement? How much management is really needed? I really tire of hearing we more C2, that is exactly what we don't need. We already have distributed C2, it is called the team leader.

One of the worst mistakes we can make is carry our current processes forward into the next conflict as a lesson learned, this is a lesson we need to unlearn rapidly. SWC is probably the place to start addressing this question, because the Groups won't easily give up their micromanagement w/o direction from higher. We have to stop rewardng bad behavior.

I would tend to agree that the Big Army and SOCOM to a lesser extent is risk-averse. It seems that the #1 Army value is selfish service, if this is the case then the organization will trend towards becoming morally bankrupt with the attendant side effects.

I also agree with it being politically risky to withdraw too quickly but I would ask what is the purpose of a military once committed to a war? Too many tend to make excuses for the failures of the Big Army and Marine Corps. 0 and 3 since the 60s is nothing to be proud of...nor should it be accepted.

I would say that the purpose of a military once committed to a war is whatever the politicians say is its purpose on any given day. I think it is dangerous to think that once committed, the military can disregard politics and just concentrate on "winning". That kind of thinking can lead to surprises later when the politicians have enough and pull the plug (Vietnam...?). If war is politics by another means- then we have to be constantly alert to shifts of policy. If we don't, we doom ourselves and our country.

So, for instance, if President Clinton decided to pull the plug on the hunt for Aideed, we should not have continued to launch efforts to hunt him down. "Winning"- in that instance- would have been to let the military keep hunting him down until he was caught. And what national interest would that have fulfilled? I think they realized it would have resulted in no net gain- for us or Somalia. In the end, though, it doesn't matter if some disagree with that- until the Constitution is changed- it is the reality.

I am not certain to whom you are applying responsibility when noting, “Too many tend to make excuses for the failures of the Big Army and Marine Corps. 0 and 3 since the 60s is nothing to be proud of nor should it be accepted,” or what you mean by the terms “risk adverse” and “selfish service.” Also, I presume the three conflicts reference Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the first of which I served in twice

First, in these three and in every war, i.e. conflict, where US military forces are committed on a large scale it is the civilian officials of the executive branch of government (President and SecDef) who set the strategic goals and whom establish the military policy US armed forces must observe when attempting to achieve the strategic / political goals that same executive branch established. In addition, during the Vietnam Conflict I know for a fact, due to the staff positions I held in that theater as a Navy Officer, that White House Staff made many tactical level decisions both selecting targets and specifically precluded some targets we could (should) have attacked.

As examples, from my personal experience, patrolling the coast of North Vietnam, Navy reconnaissance aircraft reported an NVA convoy moving South (near Vihn) along Route One. We moved Destroyers into position, but traffic moving along Route One—above the DMZ—could not be interdicted (shelled) without D.C. approval. Communicating the request, we received a positive response—12 hours later. Of course, the NVA did not cooperate and hang around.

We dropped countless bomb loads onto North Vietnamese soil—generally against strategically meaningless targets selected by the White House, approached those targets along the paths they selected, over and over again, and were not permitted to take out NVA SAM batteries paralleling those repeatedly flown routes because they had placed them among civilian housing. We were never permitted to bomb strategically beneficial targets.

Ground forces were not allowed to even raid into North Vietnam to stop the movement of their men and supplies into the South. However, we were permitted to aerially photograph military supplies entering North Vietnam, intended for either movement into South Vietnam or for defense of the North, when they were aboard civilian merchant ship traffic steaming into Haiphong Harbor, being transported on rail traffic moving south from China, and as they were transported by trucks east to the Ho Chi Minh trail. Bombing that transport at these stages was prohibited by White House directives.

When the supplies went down the trail, they could be bombed. Of course, given 1960’s technology they couldn’t be seen, the trail being an obvious target was heavily protected by SAM sites and other anti-aircraft weapons, and South Vietnam’s borders were too long and to jungle covered to be secured, absent moving forces into the North—which the “big Army” and “big Marine Corps” was not permitted to do.

Military officers do not make political decisions. While I never believed we should have defended one party in a civil war over control of the former French colony of Indo China and knew many others, at least in the Navy, holding the same belief, one does as one is ordered. I had come to my conclusion the South would lose that civil war after spending a summer 1965 evening drinking with VNAF officers in the O Club at NAS Pensacola and listening to them express their disgust and disrespect for their political leaders and military high command (other than Nguyen Cao Ky) and the respect and admiration they expressed for “Giap,” whom they considered a successful and brilliant general. Leaving after a while we (US Navy Officers) all realized, as one of our group expressed, “This war is over for them, they have lost, but may not know it yet.”

I could point out that the Navy Board of Inquiry, reporting to CINCLANT himself, investigating the so called August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident (I later served under one of the Board members—an Academy graduate and rising star in the Navy) concluded that the Commanding Officer of the Destroyer Squadron in question was operating under classified Operations Orders, in his reported words “issued from a source higher than the Navy” and thus he would not / could not make them available to the Board of Inquiry—leaving that Board to conclude the President had manufactured the incident to create a reason for attacking North Vietnam. Sound familiar.

I could fill pages with examples of operational restrictions, tactical interferences, and so on placed on the “big military” in Vietnam that absolutely prevented us achieving victory over the North—presuming that was Johnson’s goal.

I would also point out as an example that after the Chief of Staff of the Army publicly noted that post-campaign military success in Iraq could not be achieved unless a multi 100,000 man occupation force followed the invasion force, he was fired by the Secretary of Defense

My question is how can “big military” conventional forces win conflicts when operationally restricted by our political leadership in a manner that insures tactical stalemate or at best temporary tactical wins providing no basis for strategic success.

Accordingly, I would contend that the Generals and Admirals, in fact all the officers, leading men (units) or otherwise participating in conflicts such as these are neither practicing “selfish service” or "risk adverse." If they were risk adverse, they would have retired rather than participate in what we all could see (perhaps other than a few) is “Mission Impossible,” to borrow from that long ago entertaining TV series. I would also contend that actions by the Joint Chiefs attempting to maintain the capabilities and viability of their branch of the military under these political conditions, knowing full well they were probably not going to succeed, was anything but selfish and instead demonstrates patriotism and dedication to the military and a great capacity to absorb undeserved frustration..

If the noted 0 out 3 trend is to be reversed it will require either political leadership at the executive level of a caliber this nation has lacked for too long or require that our Generals and Admirals resign / retire in mass rather than carry out the orders of the President—but the term for that can be considered mutiny. Military leadership does not become morally bankrupt for attempting to carry out the commands of the President and those appointed above them, as pledged in our oath upon commissioning, instead they become frustrated and struggle to maintain the strength of our military.

Good discussion, I think we do agree there is failure but I believe the reasons for failure that you expound upon are excuses. Further, I do not believe that a ground war is your area of expertise, but, don't worry it wasn't Westmoreland's either.

I believe after careful research I've come up with the ten reasons the conventional military has failed in Iraq/Afghanistan. Here they are:

1. They ran out of ice cream in the messhall...again. (DFAC for you new guys).
2. It’s almost always cloudy in Pakistan.
3. There are no traffic signals in Kabul.
4. GEN Allen (or Casey, Odierno, Austin etc. take your pick) said the phrase correctly but he failed to click his ruby slippers together three times.
5. The IA/IP/GOI/ANA/ANP/GIROA are corrupt, hmm...really?
6. How did I end up in Ramadi/Mosul/Tal Afar/Helmand/Khost/Lashkar Gah?
7. Hey, tell me again where the terrorists are?
8. Hey, sorry about bombing that building and killing all those women and children, we’re from the US and we’re here to help, let me shake your hand...hey what does Allahu Akhbar mean?
9. Hey, sorry about burning those Qurans, we’re Americans and we’re here to help. You should be reading the Bible anyways. Hey...really, what does Allahu Akhbar mean?
10. Hey, I’ve told you dumb SOBs time and time again, we’re here to help...BOOM!

I refer back to the Idiots of the Korengal (Kearney and Ostland-Restrepo). Mistake after ignorant mistake was made. Mistakes were made not because of some White House directive but simply b/c these Idiots didn't have a clue. They lacked self-discipline, leadership, motivation, and thought their conventional army training would see them through and figured that this type of war is simply a smaller version of conventional warfare. Wrong. Selfish service in my book.

In '07 I was out with a BN MiTT who had been in sector for approximately 9 months, I had been in sector for about 3. We went out to a local village within their IA BNs sector and got out of our vehicles. I began to speak to the locals and one of the MiTTs asked me what I was speaking. I told him I'm trying out my Iraqi Arabic but this village is Kurdish, although they do speak Arabic. He scratched his head and asked how I knew this was a Kurd village. I said did you notice the way they dress, did you notice the Kurdish flag over there, did you notice the berm around the village? How long have you been in sector? Again, in my book an example of selfish service, unable and unwilling to comprehend the OE within his sector. This was not an isolated incident.

From '07 to '11 I constantly asked if any of the conventional heroes would care to join me in a tour of the province to speak to some of the tribal sheiks who were willing to cooperate and had shown a tendency to smoke AQI/ISI elements who threatened their villages. My offer was we would take an unarmored civilian vehicle, M9s and M4s and plenty of mags, no IBA, and drive out to the villages (have you ever been off the FOB...you're telling me you have multiple tours in Iraq, look hero, when I say have you ever been off the FOB I don't mean have you ever traveled in an up-armored humvee or MRAP from one FOB to another, that's not being in Iraq, hero). Never got one taker on my offer despite all the 'progress and security gains' all the talk of 'we've got AQI/ISI on the run' 'SIGACTS are down so it must be secure'. All the conventional guys chose to stay behind the T-walls. Of course, everything looks secure behind T-walls.

'08 we conducted a clear, hold, build in Sheik Ibrahim. Unfortunately, a Regular Army MiTT and IA company were involved. Suggested to the MiTT to ensure that some basic population & resource control measures were instituted (like numbering the houses). For months, they told me that the houses had been numbered and every time I was in the village I couldn't locate a single house that had been painted with a number. I figured well maybe these dumb SOBs painted numbers on the roof, no I figured wrong. It kept perplexing me to no end, such a simple but useful measure to institute but no numbers in sight. Then I asked one of the MiTT to explain to me exactly where the numbers were painted. He then showed me an aerial photo with superimposed numbers for each house and stated this is how they numbered the houses. Amazing, that such a simple concept as painting a number on a house was beyond their comprehension. Although, the aerial photo was also a good tool to use it meant nothing without a physical number on each house for all to see. Again, very basic stuff but the US MiTT just could not understand it. Selfish service not to comprehend simple stuff like that in this type of war.

'09 we cleared Biaj, Iraq with another BN MiTT and they were probably the best MiTT that I came across in 4 years. The CDR and XO had recently graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School, majoring in COIN/UW. They understood for the most part Phase II and III but were a little sketchy on Phase I. Advised them that there would be no resistance when we cleared but that any future missions inside the city especially CA type of missions would be the most dangerous and most likely for an attack to occur if progress was being made (i.e. segments of the population were turning). On their 4th or 5th CA type of mission they suffered 1 KIA and several WIA. The shooter belonged to the IA BN they were advising. I received a call from the US BN in the sector asking where a particular village was as they figured he was fleeing towards home. I gave them the grid where the village was and told them that it was known by 2 different names. This was from a US BN that had operated in this sector 2 years before and had currently been in-country for approximately 6-7 months. Selfish service not understanding the OE of your own sector.

The official IA version of the reasons for the shooting was the shooter was crazy, had a bad marriage, had financial problems, had a father who beat him. When I was told this by the DIV MiTT G2 I asked him if he believed it, and if so, was he crazy or just plain ignorant. Turns out he was just plain ignorant. Fine conventional officer but zero understanding of shame and honor societies. I would call this selfish service not understanding the OE. I think I figured it out, there must be some secret White House directive ordering the Big Army and Marine Corps to remain clueless about how to successfully prosecute the type of war we are currently in. Now I've got it.

US BDEs continued to push the IA to conduct large-scale search and destroy missions down the TRV (Tigris River Valley) and in western Ninewa up until about early '11. I think since Vietnam the name has changed but I never saw a reason for the name change other than another useless large-scale mission advocated by amateurs. Anyways, I was sitting in the desert about 20Ks southeast of Biaj with an IA Brigadier and a MiTT observing the day's festivities of IA units reporting they found nothing and I suggested to the MiTT let's take a drive down to the village about 2KMs away and take a look-see. We drive down and myself and one MiTT exit the vehicle and soon enough we got a bunch a kids (average age around 10-12 years) around us. I start BSing with them asking all the culturally important stuff and I finally get around to asking about their father's and older brothers. Just so happens that all their older brothers (military-age males) and fathers went to Biaj to work that day. Amazing that such an isolated village has zero unemployment and even more amazing is that they commute 20Ks to work everyday. Heck, I should report this to the US BDE, there must be some metric they can fit this into to show progress and success or at the very least some COL could make it into a nice OER bullet. (Reminds me of the slogan the Big Army had for a short time in late '10 early '11 in Iraq - it was 'Success with Honor' ... when it came out it sounded to me a little bit too much like 'Peace with Honor' of course most of the younger guys didn't know about 'Peace with Honor'. Anyways, I guess the chuckle heads down at USF-I (U Suck at Fighting- Insurgencies) at the palace finally wised up to it and the slogan disappeared).

These types of missions continued to be advocated by the US conventional BDEs in sector into '11. 52 HVTs had been identified in western Ninewa by the last US BDE in sector (actually 95% of their intel they got was from the ODAs in sector) so they pushed the IA to conduct another search and find nothing mission I guess b/c it worked so well in Vietnam. I advised the US BDE that no one would be found but this was ballyhoed as counterproductive. Well, the 1st day none of the HVTs were rolled up and the 2nd day none of the HVTs had been rolled up. So the mission success criteria suddenly changed to a show of force (I then advised the knuckle heads in the US BDE that how is it a show of force if the IA show up in a village once every six months and a G or a couple of Gs are in the village 24/7, I never did figure out conventional army logic). The 3rd day and no HVTs to be found anywhere and the mission success criteria was again changed to 'this demonstrates the IAs ability to conduct C2 and large-scale operations to secure the population of Ninewa Province' or some crap like that. Oh, the mission wasn't a total failure, the IA did find about 300 cartons of cigarettes ready to be smuggled across the border. Maybe one of the HVTs was named Phillip Morris but I really don't recall. Advocating useless large-scale missions in this type of war indicates to me an amateur who doesn't understand the business, again selfish service.

Now the conventional BDEs did understand 'whack-a-mole' although of course they weren't the ones putting their butts on the line conducting the missions and they did understand CERP (whack-a-mole is a whole story by itself). Now spending $50 million in a year to fund projects is one thing (there are a number of things wrong with it) but to fund projects at 5-10 times the going rate is simply funding the insurgency. On more than one occasion I told the CA teams working with the idiots in the US BDE that a major finance cell operating in the province was none other than the CA team themselves. And if I had my way I'd call in an ODA to sweep their compound and kill 'em all, but I guess killing fellow Americans would've been frowned upon...even those who aided the insurgency. I always figured they must be members of the auxiliary or underground and considered any American to be a traitor if they aided the insurgency. But I guess this wouldn't work b/c most of the conventional guys I came across thru acts of omission (zero understanding of this type of war) and ignorance helped to fuel the insurgency (just ask Odierno). Maybe the White House was involved and issued directives to aid the insurgency, what do you think?

Let's see in '11 the big push by the Big Army was the Warrior Training Centers and training the IA on sqd/plt fire and maneuver. When the US BDE G3 briefed the Ninewa OPs Center G5(quasi-Corps level command but although on paper you had a IA 3 star in charge of 2 IA DIVs he really could only recommend and not order, after all one DIV was always a counter-coup DIV) the IA G5 asked 'what significance is this training to the fight we are currently in?' No answer from the US BDE G3, just following orders (I think I recall a couple of guys on the other side said the same thing at the end of WWII). Of course, this is the same US BDE G3 with multiple tours in Iraq who stated that the IA knew this stuff (COIN). After being involved in several discussions with this clown it was apparent to me he had difficulty spelling COIN, damn fine conventional officer though. I would classify him as another selfish service guy that didn't know the business.

Myself and the SF ODAs (independent of each other and without prior knowledge) advised the same US BDE that during the first IA BN rotation thru the Warrior Training Center the likelihood of a shooting was probable and that appropriate force protection measures should be instituted. This was discounted as we obviously didn't know what we were talking about. Two weeks into the first rotation there were 2 US KIA.

The official version was that fire was immediately returned and the IA shooter was killed on the scene. The unofficial version was that when the shooting started the US soldiers ran to their humvee to retrieve mags and IBA and then returned fire killing the IA soldier. The reason the US soldiers did not wear IBA or have at a minimum a amber weapon status was b/c the BDE wanted to build rapport and trust (there are other ways to do that while maintaining an appropriate level of force protection). Of course, after the event we were required to wear IBA and maintain an amber weapons status whenever we went out to the Training Center, previously it had not been a requirement. Yeah, must of been orders from above concerning the slack force protection level. Well, when you have idiots in charge, folks get smoked.

'11 the 2IA stumbled upon the AQI/ISI Province Wali and killed him. A week later ten 3IA soldiers were ambushed and killed by a lone gunman 50m from a 3IA checkpoint. The official IA version stated the checkpoint simply thought that it was shooting from a bunch of civilians. When the US BDE was advised that there had been an accommodation agreement b/t the units of the 3IA and AQI/ISI for at least 2 years and that AQI/ISI believed the 3IA had a hand in the killing of the Province Wali they were unable to comprehend it. Not understanding simple stuff like accommodation agreements, force ratio, over/under the threshold etc. indicates to me selfish service 10 years into a war. Perhaps to you it indicates business as usual and is totally acceptable.

I guess every failure can be explained away as a 'Mission Impossible'. Yes, it is a 'Mission Impossible' if you don't know what you're doing. My observations and recommendation to the Big Army and Marine Corps is that they've been flat on their a## for 10 years and it's time to get off their a## and contribute or go back to the parade ground were they excel.

My observations are nothing compared with the results. Further, I believe LT Kitchen's observations are on the right track.

OK, after reading this comment, I have to respond. I don't think this tone much helps any discussion of how to better prepare the ground forces, specifically GPF, for future conflicts of any type, much less COIN. I will not defend the actions of the soldiers that you ran into. But I won't attack them either. I have no idea of what guidance they had gotten from above or what the context was that may have influenced their actions or lack thereof. You seem to distrust those who serve in GPF and believe them to be incapable -- "...go back to the parade ground where you excel," you tell them. Perhaps you ran into a very bad lot of apples, because I know many GPF leaders who take the COIN job very seriously and have a deep understanding of what needs to be done, an understanding that seems to be consistent with what you urge them to do.

This point goes back to leadership. A desire to do the right thing does not automatically translate into an ability to do it. In my own experience, different layers of command put many types of restrictions on how we could operate in our AO. It comes down to many senior commanders being risk averse. But I would not characterize the incidents you discuss as being "selfish serving." Stupid, perhaps. Shortsighted, definitely. But maybe not the fault of those you interacted with. However, even if it was their fault, I don't think its fair to indict all GPF as unable to understand the OE. I have worked with many GPF leaders who made great efforts to understand the OE, including societal and cultural norms of the area, and put that understanding in practice.

Listen, many GPF soldiers do not think that they are miscast in this type of mission. I am sure some blow it off. At the same time, there are many SOF types who see there job as kicking down doors at night (even some in SF) and think the touchy feely crap is not what they signed up for. But in my experience, most in both SOF and GPF take this mission seriously and make every effort to do it right.

However, GPF is at a disadvantage when it comes to operating in this type of environment. This disadvantage stems from the culture of GPF. Conventional forces in the U.S. military operate in large formations that bring together different types of units to operate as a large team. In order for such a large team to work towards a single goal, such formations have traditionally been very hierarchical in structure and culture.

I don't believe that SOF has had this disability to the same degree as they operate typically in smaller units more or less independently. Certainly, there is a C2 structure, but they are not dependent to the same degree as GPF units on the kind of support and other interdependent units that a large formation requires. Therefore, SOF units are much less likely to be burdened with the kind of operational restrictions that GPF units are, mostly because commanders are used to allowing teams to operate more or less independently anyway.

So, getting back to the discussion, the criticism that there is too much micromanagement is right on. But it is not fair to say that GPF is incapable of operating in this type of environment when there are many examples of GPF units doing great work.

Are GPF forces the best choice for this type of work? Maybe not. Can they do the job? I think they can, but to be better at it, the culture of these forces needs to change. That culture needs to change throughout the military. Junior leaders need to be trusted to make decisions because the decisions made at lower levels are the most important one, even in big conflicts, I would argue.

For years, we have tried to say that initiative is valued. It should be, but I am not always sure that it is.

What motivated me to write this comment is that you have taken a very arrogant tone, which I don't think is warranted. I have witnessed a great number of boneheaded mistakes made by SOF, too -- a whole lot of shoot first, think later kinds of mistakes. I believe that those mistakes were made because of arrogance, the same kind that seems to be on display in your post. While GPF often does not understand the SOF mission and often dismisses it, the exact same can be said of SOF's understanding of the GPF mission. The truth is that both sides need to discuss how they can work together. SOF and GPF have different missions and are structures accordingly. Those different missions and structures create different cultures. Both sides need to work together, and that requires some understanding of the nature of the respective force.

Your post does nothing to help with that, it can only undermine any attempt to work together.

Incompetence appears to be tolerated when talking about results where GPFs are concerned. You may be able to accept it but I am not. Incompetence has become the standard, make excuses and drive on.

My point is that no part of the military -- or any large organization, for that matter -- is immune to incompetence. Arrogance can and does foster incompetence. I am not defending incompetence nor will I make excuses for it, but lets not pretend that SOF poop doesn't also stink.

Your dismissal of all things GPF does not foster any kind of conversation about how the military writ large can improve. All it does is make your ideas, however valid, less likely to be heard, much less be taken seriously.

Your poop stinks, too.

Absolutely, I think when SOF is linked with GPF they tend to be overused in the whack a mole business because of the incompetence of 99% of conventional commanders. There are a number of reasons and multiple excuses for GPFs not knowing the business. If you and others accept poor performance, substandard results, place blame on COIN (it doesn't work - I say look first at the operator and if it's a conventional guy most likely he doesn't know a thing about COIN although he'll tell you all day long he does) then simply declare victory, declare the ANSF fully capable and return to the parade ground. There is much more to this business than conducting conventional ops and calling it COIN. Time for the conventional forces to man up and contribute.

ceg1000,

I read somewhere that some colonel got knocked out by a kitchen sink in Kunar that came in over the wall - that was you wasn't it?! LOL.

RC

No, but if that wasn't worth a purple heart and bronze star I don't what is.

Americans have a notion of war that involves helicopter gunships, fighting vehicles, thousands of rounds, lot of noise and a desert littered with bits and pieces of the opponant. That's the image americans have come to know and love. This cup-of-tea war won't sit well with gung-ho american butcher boys. You're taking all the fun out of it. WTF

This is an interesting piece for several reasons, one being the insight into the effectiveness of the Taliban and should serve as a harbinger of things to come once the US (NATO) forces withdraw from Afghanistan and turn the country over to military and police units heavily staffed by Tajik, Uzbek, and other Northern Alliance men —who will have to fight against the Pashtun Taliban for control of the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. ANF units, who along with American and other NATO forces, are currently fighting to “to control Afghanistan through a strong(er) central government and through democratic and capitalist mechanisms (or, stated another way, by transforming the Afghan state and society along western lines),” as probably accurately noted in another comment. This clearly appears to be the US strategic objective in Afghanistan, despite protestations otherwise, in order to affect the US strategic goal of precluding the Taliban from returning to power and once again providing Al Qaeda a (supposedly) safe haven in Afghanistan.

The problem is that far too few military officers’ address whether the strategic goal underlying our commitment of forces to a combat environment, especially a long term one such as in Afghanistan, provide strategic value to the US. Instead we concentrate on the tactics seemingly needed to achieve the defined strategic objectives meant to further the end goal. The problem is that all the tactical analysis, proficiencies, and battlefield victories cannot bring strategic success when the underlying goal is fatally flawed—which is the case for America’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan just as it was in Vietnam.

Although his view is probably not the same as mine, Lt. Kitchen perceptively noted:

“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[,]” and:

“Ultimately, our current strategy in Afghanistan will prove to be costly and unsustainable,” i.e. in my words—a failure, because in the end the Taliban will emerge victorious at least in the Pashtun areas. As the author notes, our military effort in Afghanistan will be “unsustainable” due to what will be “rapidly decreasing troop numbers” resulting from our “struggling economy and an American public growing increasingly weary of spilling our nation’s blood on foreign soil.”

Lt. Kitchen then notes, “ a new approach is needed that addresses these realities – an approach perhaps molded by the careful study of our enemy,” and he suggests as a solution:

“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. Let’s dedicate more rotary wing aircraft and armed unmanned aerial systems to transport and over watch 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 of our firebase or VSP as the norm.”

Perhaps “tactically” perceptive, but as a former Navy Surface Warfare Officer I admit lacking any understanding about Special Forces and infantry operations. The problem, however, is that ten years into a costly military effort without success in view, as Lt. Kitchen clearly implies, the first thing that should be done is to review the viability of the strategic goals meant to be achieved by the US military effort in Afghanistan, determine if that goal was the proper one, and then assess the strategic objectives needed to either obtain the original goal, or this instance (showing my bias) determine the strategic objectives needed to achieve revised strategic goals.

This country’s initial strategic goal in Afghanistan appeared to be to kill Al Qaeda operatives and deprive them of their safe haven in Afghanistan and to punish the Taliban by driving them from power, i.e. to defeat their military forces, in return for their providing Al Qaeda safe haven. Clearly, we were not going to be able to kill or capture all Al Qaeda and many were going to flee across the border into Pakistan as were the retreating Taliban forces.

Killing Al Qaeda operatives, eliminating their bases of operations, and punishing the Taliban using a small number of US Special Forces troops combined with B-52 and tactical aircraft bomb payloads demonstrated the military power of this country and impressed (frightened) other nations by showing them the US military had the capacity and technology to deliver and sustain massive and effective firepower far from our nearest bases.

When we elected to prevent the Taliban from returning to Afghanistan by committing tens of thousands of our ground forces to act as glorified policemen and city managers to pacify the Pashtun areas (win the hearts and minds of the people) and to establish a democratic and centralized government over that area, we set for ourselves the impossible goal of nation building. A goal that would not only produce nothing of strategic value for this country, but one that literally would require a million man presence in that area. By taking our approach and defining our national goal in this manner, we allowed the enemy (the Taliban insurgents) to define the battlefield and took from our armed forces the benefits of the weapons systems that make us powerful and successful. We ridiculously elected to fight on a “rifle to rifle” basis with an opposing force that only has rifles (and machine guns) in its arsenal. A military strategy that demonstrated to neighboring Pakistan that we could be duped into allowing our military to apply the lowest common denominator of warfare systems, doing so after we drove the Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants into their country presenting them with numerous problems combined with our struggling to confine those groups on Pakistani soil.

Our sole objective in the War on Terror[ists] should be to destroy their effectiveness by killing and capturing them. Punishing those who (temporarily) support them only has the value of delivering a message—do not support our enemies. It made no sense to thereafter add the Taliban and other non-terrorist groups to our enemies list, so long as they do not again interfere with our campaign against Al Qaeda. From a strategic viewpoint we should not care how they treat the local Afghan population--that is their business, not ours.

We should have established a few small bases in the Northern Alliance area, located Special Forces, Ranger battalions, SOG Units, drones and tactical aircraft there and let the Taliban know we would defend the Northern Alliance areas against Taliban or Pashtun attacks, told the Taliban and the Pakistanis, after the Special Forces and B-52’s defeated the Taliban, that we cared not who ruled Pashtun land, but operating out of the Northern Alliance areas we (the US) would strike Al Qaeda wherever we located them and severely punish any locals who willingly harbored them.

Al Qaeda operatives are going to attempt to locate themselves somewhere. All we care is that we can locate them and kill them. If they had elected to return to Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas, so what! We could have turned that area into a killing ground and not incurred the costs or concerns of occupying the area and worrying about the people's hearts and minds. Limited objectives, limited costs, maximum leverage of our technological advantages and use of fire power as we define it, and limited political concerns as opposed to the operational and political quicksand we find ourselves currently slogging through.

A strategic approach that would have cost far less in casualties and dollars and achieved the same or better results, versus large scale COIN / pacification / nation building efforts--that never succeed. This nation’s political leadership and some of its military senior officers learned, in my opinion, nothing of strategic value from Vietnam.

I think your strategic hindsight is spot on.

No amount of effort of any sort - CT, COIN or anything else, can easily make up for serious startegic error.

Everyone no matter how poor or 'primitive' understands the concept of life getting better - of less corruption, more food on the table, more security, more schools, more jobs.

Its when you promise it all and fail to deliver that your messaging gets completely lost. Taliban STRATCOM is superior because it delivers on its promises. They promise local justice - and they show up to provide it for example. Their way of course, but some justice is better than empty words.

Reed,

Much appreciate your article, this is a topic area I have been dwelling on for years. We must adapt and then improve upon many of the tactics (to include the command and control you pointed to) our adversaries use. You captured it well, so I won't belabor it. I'm not sure I agree with all your recommendations, but want to dwell on them a little longer before comment, but I definitely agree with the general tone of what your recommending.

Regardless of what we adapt we'll continue to be at an asymmetrical disadvantage to the shadow governments that are tune with the local population, and over coming the reality (not just perception) we're foreigners in a land where occupiers are not welcome. Still there is no legitimate reason (once we have a strategy that actually makes sense) we can't power down the decision making to the ODAs and SEAL PLTs/Sqds on point, so they can adapt/evolve as quick or more quickly than the enemy. Once upon time before we were burdened with the asymmetrical disadvantage of micromanaging technology we did operate this way. Maybe a good start is going back to reports every three days instead of daily, report more frequently by exception only. Once comfort levels are established, go back to weekly SITREPs. We report daily because we can, not because we should, and now there are multiple levels of staffs demanding info so they can produce their PowerPoint to brief commanders removed from the fight so he is enabled to tell you what to do. It is freaking insane.

"The Taliban senior leadership clearly communicated their intent of controlling Afghanistan through an Islamic state, a narrative that was understood down to the rank and file fighters and villagers."

If we were to clearly communicate our intent, for example, to control Afghanistan through a strong(er) central government and through democratic and capitalist mechanisms (or, stated another way, by transforming the Afghan state and society along western lines), then would this narrative be something that the rank and file fighters and villagers could, as easily, (1) understand and (2) sign up for?

If not, then does it really make any sense for us to be as honest and as straight-foward in announcing and telegraphing our true intent as the Taliban does?

Everyone no matter how poor or 'primitive' understands the concept of life getting better - of less corruption, more food on the table, more security, more schools, more jobs.

Its when you promise it all and fail to deliver that your messaging gets completely lost. Taliban STRATCOM is superior because it delivers on its promises. They promise local justice - and they show up to provide it for example. Their way of course, but some justice is better than empty words.

Reed,

Thank you for sharing your experience. It seems like you are joining the ranks of many that have gone before you thrown into remote villages across the globe.

In the coming years, many will ask what would have happened if we took on this strategy in 2002?

To expand on your thesis, decentralization follows this mantra- in order to regain control, sometimes you have to give up control. It seems that you learned that well.

However, in your closing paragraph, you noted that the old mujahedeen stated, “You are one of us now.”

I would ask you to consider, is this the ends that we desire from our military folks?