27 November 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Less the Trains

I know I talk about travel a lot, but it’s consistently interesting.  I was going through withdrawal, not having left the KBC lately, and feeling claustrophobic trapped on dear Phoenix.  To both my delight and exhaustion, there was then a glut of travel.  It’s 3 am as I write this, and I just left one plane to get on another in a few hours.  When it rains, it pours!

Most often, I tool around Kabul in a ‘soft-side’ or non-tactical SUV.  I love driving around the city, I really do.  One sees the strangest things.  Case in point: there is a sever water shortage in Afghanistan, and has been for decades.  The desert conditions and utter lack of foliage result in a dust cloud that is so dense it actually can completely obscure the mountains surrounding Phoenix.  Honestly, you could be forgiven for assuming Kabul is a barren wasteland rather than a valley in the Hindu Kush.  To their credit, the municipal authorities are attempting to remedy this problem.  To do so, they’ve tasked the fire brigade with watering the trees in the median.  Who cares about house fires – there are saplings to save!
Street Statues in MeS
 In a parallel incongruity, Afghanistan’s identity as an overt Islamic state does not prevent a proliferation of human representation.  For one, there is a variety of statuary floating around (especially in MeS).   More surprisingly, though, are the gym advertisements chockablock with glistening, muscle-bound Afghans.  Honestly, these ads seem something one is more likely to find in a WWE billboard record or vintage SNL skit.  They amuse me every time I catch one out the corner of my eye, not least because I’ve also never ever seen an Afghan that buff.  This includes the commandos and our self-described ‘combat terps’ who are placed with (and frequently train with) the Special Forces. 
Out of focus, but I think it gets the point across
 The October elections saw their own road-side oddities.  I have worked on several US campaigns and I must say, Afghani campaign posters put the traditional American yard signs to shame.  Mazer-e-Sharif, where I passed the election, was cap-a-pie blanketed with appeals to the voters.  Admittedly, I don’t think they’re constrained by the same rules about permission and public property as campaigns in the States.  It appears that if you can affix your sign, you’re good to go.  The elections mirrored the general lack of regulation or even law, something we frequently bemoan while driving.  There are no traffic lights, no rights of way, the numerous military convoys invariably operate under their own set of rules, and the ANP only serves to confuse matters further.  And still, Corporate policy dictates that we must at all times obey the traffic laws.  If only they existed.
Campaign posters everywhere!
 From the bedlam of the streets, let’s turn our eyes to the sky and the perennial joy that is flying in Afghanistan.  I much prefer traveling by helicopter, but still take some pleasure in flying out of KAIA on fixed wing.  Rotary is often a smoother trip with a better view, but fixed wing offers some really delightful moments of not inconsiderable surrealism, including flairs fired as a part of the landing sequence (I think the pilots must have been bored) and the most interesting air port security experience of my life.  A soldier was asked to take the extra ammo out of his checked luggage and simply carry it on.  This certainly seemed a strange precaution.  I also had to question why there are metal detectors when fully 90% of the passengers were armed.  The culmination of a recent trip found me watching Polish MTV while sitting in the terminal at a German base after having flown in with the Swedish air force, waiting for a Fijian to come pick me up.

On my return, I got back into my familiar Chinook, although not in matter to which I have become accustomed.   Generally, Chinooks are loaded from the back, through the tail hatch.  This time, however, the cargo (a massive fuel tank – maybe they were nervous about all the combustibles, and their paranoia caused the crew to nix iPods?) was blocking that route rather decisively, and we had to side-load, wriggling in under the mounted gun.  I felt like the one-eyed pirate from Pirates of the Caribbean, shoving the cannon out of the way.  I slung my bags through the chest-high hatch and slithered in after with the extra 40-some-odd pounds of IBA weighing me down, all while the crew chief screamed at me to hurry up.  Hurry up?  You were the ones who were five hours late…

Once we were actually airborne, I was dismayed to discover how cold Chinooks are, especially when traveling at night.  I spent much of my late-night flight huddled in my body armour, wishing GO1 didn’t prohibit two Wacioodles in a blanket…  When we paused to refuel, and everyone had to clamor our of the helicopter, I was actually grateful.  I stood under the downdraft of the blades in order to warm up.  For the first time ever, were prohibited from listening to iPods.  Apparently they’re too bright for night flights and somehow made the helicopter more of a target.  I’m not sure if I bought that rationale, but it’s not my call to make.    

When I finally arrived at my destination FOB, I was asked to sign a memorandum from the CO, decreeing that no-one was to walk unescorted after sundown.  Apparently, so many female soldiers have been assaulted by, as the specialist at base ops said, some fools and I don’t know what, that the powers that be decided they require a battle buddy at all times.  On a US base.  Nothing quite like restricting the victim!  To their credit, though, the military demands equality in all things.  Guys have to be escorted there, as well.  

All of this, and Corporate originally promised me I would never go past the wire.  Lying like rugs, they were.

24 November 2010

Afghanistan Gourmet: Bon Appetite!

Ferran Adria has announced that El Bulli is closing its doors in 2011 to become some kind of high-concept culinary academy.  Well, there’s one of my life’s ambitions shot all to hell; there’s no way I’m getting a reservation now.  Go ahead – take a moment to process or cry a bit; I had to and so totally understand.

Ready?  I know that this counts as a global tragedy, but it is a good reason to talk about food.  The culinary genius actually made unexpected cameos in my life thrice lately. 

I’m on the road right now, touring some of the more remote FOBs to the far east of Afghanistan, on the border of Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province.  There is a distressing lack of non-meat foods out here.  I think it might have something to do with the overall paucity of women.  This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it seems that 20-something Marines (and 40-something, judging by my site mangers) are perfectly content to chow down on popcorn shrimp, chocolate pudding, and chicken wings forever.  My first nod to Adria came as a means of coping.  Both of the last two sites I visited were without lettuce, so I haven’t been able to make a traditional salad.  That said there are almonds, shredded cheddar cheese, kidney beans, steamed broccoli and cauliflower, snow pea shoots, and grapes.  Admittedly, not all of these elements go together.  However, when you divide them across a segmented dish, you can combine them in various ways to create a series of deconstructed salads that vary widely in flavour and texture.  I think our vaunted chef would approve.   

But salads alone, however avant garde, are not always enough to keep a girl happy.  I also seriously needed a chocolate fix.  This is not an uncommon occurrence (and with chocolate apparently about to go the way of El Bulli and the dodo, I plan to take all I can get) and I went to the PX to satisfy it.  The only chocolate they had on hand was a slightly battered box of Whoppers.  Seriously.  That’s it.  Everything else was stuffed full of gelatin.  Sure, those treats keep better, but they are tragically not vegetarian-friendly.  More importantly, though, they are deficient in that cocoa goodness.  I went ahead with the Whoppers purchase, only to find that during their journey they had been exposed to something, possibly cosmic rays and, like the Fantastic Four, were forever altered.  For no particular reason, I’m blaming Pakistan.  The malted milk centre – that which defines the Whopper – was, for the most part, gone.  Left in its place where sticky, malt-flavoured hollow chocolate spheres.  Although not all together unpleasant and almost certainly how a malted milk ball would be served at El Bulli, it was not what I was looking for.  Not all of the specimens were so abstract; some were just chewy, while others had totally liquefied.  Those were kind of fun to eat – sort of a Whopper truffle.

My only other food adventure worth note actually occurred at Camp Phoenix.  Excitingly, the command just approved a clinic for local nationals working on base.  This is a fantastic development – the clinic we had been sending them to was very run-down and on the other side of Kabul.  The Phoenix clinic is staffed by US medics working alongside local physicians, and it’s fantastic to feel the synergy.  Never mind that they now have better health care than I do… 

Anyway, as our own Doc was instrumental in getting the clinic up and running, we were invited to the grand opening party.  Well, not invited so much as allowed to partake of the leftovers, but who’s quibbling?  I think I’ve mentioned before my love of Afghan food, and it is unchanged, even if I can’t eat most of the dishes.   My co-workers did at one point try to convince me a rice pilaf cooked with lamb was vegetarian.  When I pointed out the bits of lamb that were mixed in, they opined that they weren’t meat, but rather raisins.  The spinach, however, was delicious – both spicy and totally lamb-free.

The buffet also boasted this fascinating fruit.  It was bright orange and looked vaguely like a tomato.  When he proffered it, Doc also tried to convince me to take one that was terrifically discouloured and bruised.  I ended up selecting one that was in slightly better shape.  In hindsight, I maybe should have listened to the experts.  The fruit’s skin was thick, and could almost be peeled off.  Inside, it was extremely juicy, like an overripe tomato, even as it tasted more like papaya.  No joke, ‘twas a soft, juicy, tomaya.  Perhaps a papayto.  Simply put, it was pretty delicious!

At least, it was for the first few bites - then the aftertaste kicked in.  Unbeknownst to me, it appeared that this delicious fruit was in fact comprised entirely of papier-mâché.  Or so thought my tongue, which was promptly coated in a foul-tasting film.  I’m not sure even Ferran himself could save this monstrosity.  It took three bottles of water, a can of Coke lite, and the better part of an hour to kill that odious taste/texture combination.  I ditched the rest on the sly, and when my co-workers remarked that I must have enjoyed it as I ate it so quickly, I allowed that I’d never had anything like it.  They brought me a basketful the next day.  Politeness really is a bitch sometimes.

19 November 2010

Baby It's Cold Outside

I love winter.  It entails so many delightful things: snow, mittens, hot chocolate, cuddling.  It’s finally gotten cold enough here that I can legitimately bust out my winter hat and vintage ski sweater, making it feel even more like home.  Of course, in Colorado, I would have expected a few big snows by this time, and in DC endless days of icy, chilling rain. 

Here in Kabul though, it seems that fall is reluctant to go quietly into that good night and winter to take center stage.  The early mornings are deeply frigid; my father would describe them as brass monkey cold.  The days warm up nicely, enough even that I’m usually able to shed my jacket, before tapering off into crisp evenings, only to start the whole process over again.  I’m eagerly awaiting the first snowfall, though my enthusiasm for it is a bit dampened whenever I go past the wire and see some of the impoverished living conditions around me.  I have a difficult time believing the stone shanties carved into the mountain sides have great central heating.  They remind me of a haphazard and overbuilt pueblo; like a massively urbanized Sandia or Acoma, only more rundown and with fewer amenities.
Winter is not, however, all bad news for Afghans.  I’ve recently come into an all-new and sobering reason for liking winter : Afghans don’t work in the cold.  At first blush, this might seem an odd thing to celebrate.  Sure, it translates to a slower bazaar and my local co-workers coming in later.  More importantly, however, it means there are fewer insurgent attacks.  Fighting, like molasses it seems, slows in January (not to mention November).  More personally it means that I don’t have to worry quite as much about my friends, both the military guys on patrol and the Afghans that risk their lives and that of their families by coming to work on an American base every day.

Company-wide, winter sees fewer KIAs/WIAs among our linguists (killed and wounded in action, for those not familiar with the tersely unemotional abbreviation), yet another reason to love the cold.  The stories of these individuals are truly heart-wrenching.  In an appalling case late this summer, one linguist suffered severe burns and had his eyes badly damaged in IED blast.  His doctor urgently referred him to a specialist in India, a trip that required both insurance money and a passport.  Of course, most linguists carry their important paperwork with them, as they often have to present it at gates in order to get on to different bases even when traveling with their units.  In a given IED explosion, say one that impairs your vision and causes burns over much of your body, it’s a good bet that your passport was destroyed.  In order to get a new passport, as well as claim the work-related injury insurance, you need your national identification, or Tazkera (basically just a computer printout the really savvy persons laminate) and your military orders.  Guess where those were?  Probably the same pocket as the passport.  So the government declined to allow him to leave the country at the same time as the insurance wouldn’t pay up.  In the meantime, this man is going to be blinded for the rest of his life.  I hate bureaucracy. 

Of course, a creeping blindness isn’t the only outcome of experiencing an IED.  Not everyone is able to endure loss of faculty due to red-tape; some are lost completely.  I interviewed one linguist today who explained matter-of-factly that he came to work for the company last February after his older brother, also a linguist, was killed in action.  It now fell on him to support his family.  Naturally the job he would choose to take to do so would be the one that killed his brother.  Why not?  This story is better, I suppose, than the linguist who was killed when his plane crashed as he was returning from leave.  The insurance outright refused to pay the death benefit because he wasn’t killed on the job.

Early in my time in Afghanistan, there was a blackly funny moment when there was a mix up during the delivery of several remains of KIAs.  Four bodies came up from Kandahar, two to Phoenix, and two to Bagram.  When the linguists’ fathers and brothers arrived to claim their loved ones, it was discovered that one of the Phoenix remains needed to be swapped for one from BAF, while another never should have left Kandahar to begin with.  To top it all off, at least three of them were named Mohammad.  What followed was possibly the world’s fastest and grisliest shell game ever, as we scampered around to make sure the remains mix-up was sorted out in time to bury everyone in accordance with Muslim tradition.

Occasionally, because Corporate cannot be bothered to do it for everyone, we hold a nauseatingly pathetic memorial service for family members of the KIAs.  The theatre director usually makes it down from Bagram to thank them for their sacrifice, and certificates of appreciation and Corporate medals are awarded post-mortem.  The service is held in the same classroom where new linguists are trained, lending it the ambiance of parent-teacher night in elementary school.  I hate these services, and am upset as much by the chintzy setting as the obvious pain of the survivors.  Even as tears prick my eyes, I know they won’t spill.  These pageantries come with little more than the veneer of grief and appreciation.  Real emotion is out of place. 

Each time I attend one, I reflectively compare them to the memorial wall for fallen soldiers in the dining hall.  At Phoenix, as with most bases, there is a prominent case with photos of those killed, as well as a table always set in memorial.  We have no such mechanism for honoring our dead, whether local or US hire.  It should be noted, however, that recognition for service persons is also found lacking.  Several of my Guard friends were furious at base command for taking several months to post the images of their comrade who was killed in action.

I am very much hoping that the (American/Christian) holiday season sees fewer of these events, for linguists and Coalition forces alike.  Even with the chill, though, incidents do happen.  A recent VBIED attack occurred on the south side of Kabul (no Coalition casualties – just the driver of the VBIED), along the bus route of one of my favourite local national co-workers.  Rather serendipitously, it happened on his day off; otherwise we might have lost him.  The winter does not guarantee safety.  Nevertheless, blow, blow, thou winter wind.  I’m looking forward to the green holly and cocoa.  And suspect that the tooth of spring will be much more keen, its breath ruder.

10 November 2010

COIN Toss, Pt. 2: Tails I Lose

If the army isn’t an appropriate tool for development, and COIN is largely development-esque, is reasonable to wonder why they’re not tasked with a more kinetic activity.  That is to say, why not let them do what they’re trained to, and shoot at bad people?  Seemingly, General Petraeus is beginning to wonder the same thing, as he is placing renewed emphasis on capture and kill methods.  An expansion of the successful and COIN-oriented FET (female engagement team) programme is complimented (contrasted?  difficult to say) with additional drone bombings.  In addition to allowing the ‘war fighter’ to fill a more apt role, this approach has the added benefit of acting like COIN on speed. 

Theoretically, it creates a space in which Afghans can begin to govern, rather than rule.  However, my more belligerent Guardsman translated the Petraeus doctrine into cutting off the head to kill the snake.  This technique has something of a spotty track record at best, raising the question of whether it has any potential here.

@laurenist recently presented a look at the decapitation school might be a successful answer to finally defeating Uganda’s LRA.  For all that movement’s extreme violence and destructive power, over the years it has distilled into a small, tightly knit cult of personality.  Moreover, even after capturing or killing Joseph Kony, it would require a massive effort in terms of both time and treasure to successfully pass his rag-tag band of child killers through DDR and return them to society as highly functioning individuals.  The Taliban (which is to say the Quetta Shira Taliban) is not the LRA.  Nor is HIG or the Haqqani network.  Each movement possesses a few charismatic centers such as Mullah Omar or Mawlaqi Jalaluddin Haqqani, but these personalities are hardly running the day-to-day operations.  What is colloquially referred to as the ‘Taliban’ is actually a diffuse collection of local operative and cells; it is loosely organized in what might be called a starfish scheme.  These autonomous cells have scattered leadership, and even their broadly similar goals vary widely in the particulars, allowing them to survive independent of any central authority.  It’s the Tea Party of insurgencies. 

Charles de Gaulle (I wasn’t kidding about the French) knew that a purely military approach would never work, grumbling that if you “kick them out through the door they will come back through the window.”  Both in broad terms and specific to Afghanistan, insurgents have a great flexibility; living up to Ho Chi Minh’s fish in sea metaphor is often their most critical survival technique.  Unfortunately, as the argument among the Guardsmen took a turn for the physical and they wrestled in the hall, my counter-insurgents remind me less fish in water than…sumo wrestlers.  Possibly a cruise liner.  The US military is huge, ungainly, and operates mostly on the surface.  Even if it can swim well enough, it is totally out of place.  In this instance, all those superior means and numbers just make them Fezzek versus the Man in Black.  They are not used to fighting such a small enemy after having trained to fight the a force comparable to themselves.

Forgive me – I went macro on you.  Returning to local tactics for the Guard unit, the decapitation technique becomes a bit more feasible.  And on small stage, cutting the head off the snake might actually have some efficacy.  Remember the hypothetical request for a kill shot?  It would essentially take out the insurgency’s middle management (the true heads being of course, in Pakistan).  Such bureaucratic erosion creates fissures in command the structure, engendering positive trends like younger, less trained insurgents, confusion in the ranks, and limited co-operation between groups as bonds of familiarity are destroyed.  All of which amounts to tactical progress.  Of course, these developments are like to be mirrored by an increase in child soldiers and encourage the targeting of civilians as ideals are lost and the war becomes progressively asymmetric.  Maybe Afghan insurgents have more in common with the LRA than I thought.  It, too, has become an almost totally de-legitimized movement, sooo…strategic progress?  Maybe? 

Overall, I think the French would support the more gung-ho Guardsmen and newly aggressive Petraeus doctrine.  The capture/kill option, per traditional COIN, should never really have been overlooked.  It simply has to be exercised with judiciousness and restraint.  You have to pick your targets. 

Moreover, it is tempting to operate on an accelerated time table when one’s partner is an uncertain and unreliable government whose corruption and incompetence undercut the COIN effort.  Oddly enough, both the linguists with whom I work and the Guardsmen with whom I socialize grouse that the government is the single biggest factor preventing COIN successes.  There is something of a devil’s bargain in the making: if you want the government to work, you should deal with corrupt officials already in place; if, however, you want a government you can trust, you have to purge the old and run the risk of another Hamas being elected.  It threatens to open up the Pandora ’s Box of peace or justice, which is perhaps better discussed at a later juncture.

Returning to the problem at hand, it is not really in doubt that the military is much better at kinetic than soft COIN.  Indeed, the purge of insurgent middle management is proceeding much more smoothly than is the winning of hearts and minds with the general population.  Unfortunately one cannot take precedence over the other.  Successful COIN requires a unity of strategy and tactics or, to put it another way, of development and security.  Building local government (strategy) happens by successfully training cops (tactic).  Winning hearts and minds (development) leads to better intelligence and fewer local attacks (security).  This neighborhood connection is even more important in Afghanistan, given the extent of the corruption and a long-held mistrust of central government.  The army can create all the space for governance it wants, but even the best offensive line in the world can’t cover for a Hamid Hasselbeck (did you think I’d forgotten about the football puns?  Never!)

If the history of COIN teaches us anything, it’s that insurgency are defeated through trial and error and patience.  Of course, solving problems with tolerance and serenity has never been our strong suit.  Certainly my Guardsmen fall in the Alexander the Great school when confronted with the Gordian Knot.  They’re running the Option, and our defensive tackle is antsy, going for the dive back every time.  Development, and COIN, for that matter, is subtle and loooong term.  Even with an all volunteer force, the American populace is short on patience and eager to avoid further land wars in Asia.  This is sometime the Afghans are acutely aware of.  As one of the linguists explained to me through a popular Pashto proverb, “you have all the watches, but we have the time”.   

Functionally, there are many things American soldiers don’t get about Afghans, making it harder to connect on a COIN level.  For example, most elders see no tension in bringing the Americans to tea one day and the local Taliban the next.  Even on a national level, Afghans can talk and fight at the same time, and the Afghan ability to disassociate frustrates NATO.  Moreover, the soldiers often view the reticent and paranoid population as apathetic.  Far from indifferent, my local co-workers often talk about the deep-seeded suspicion that the US and Coalition will eventually abandon Afghanistan, leaving them to deal with the unchecked insurgents themselves.  Would it be better, therefore, to should risk retribution now or in four years?  Even for the guys who work on base, it becomes an issue of survival; they are willing to take our money and supplies, but will do so with a level of detachment that almost suggests theft, but is more akin to squirrels gathering nuts. 

At the very least, most the soldiers do enjoy teas with their Afghan hosts.  It’s the one part of the culture for which they almost all seem to have an appreciation.  Even the most Afghan-loathing speaks highly of the village elders’ urgings to, in their words, sit, have some tea and candy and chill the eff down until you figure out how it really works around here. 

Throughout the Great COIN Debate, the majority of the Guardsmen either totally ignored the discussion or only contributed reluctantly when forced by their comrades.  Perhaps they just didn’t want to analyze their role here, or a drunken analysis of theory and tactics was the wrong format.  The side analysis of the football game and their relative betting successes seemed both normal (as they have similar conversations all the time) and a bit forced.  They were uncomfortable.  And who wouldn’t be, what with your team lead and security chief arguing about who on the team they would be willing to let die in order to save a potential Taliban member?

09 November 2010

COIN Toss, Pt. 1: Heads you win

Sorry about the long delay, but work has been ridiculous.  Meltdowns at Corporate, snooping IG representatives in theatre…a mess.  All of which will be blogged about in due course, I’m sure.  In the meantime, however, here is the post I’ve been trying to get up for over a week.

I’ve been spending Sunday nights in the company of a National Guard unit lately, watching football into the wee hours of the morning.  These evenings usually include a mélange of welcome distraction, raunchy humor, and abiding shame (really Broncos?  2 and 6?!  Thank God it was a by week).  Last Sunday, however, was particularly engaging, as it devolved into a fierce discussion about the merits and shortcomings of the Army’s counterinsurgency doctrine.  I suppose the gridiron made as good a backdrop as any for a heated debate about whether job or mission should define the battlefield.  After all, TBI is rampant on both. 

The debate was kicked off (this post will be lousy with poor football puns – don’t say I didn’t warn you!) by the recounting of an event from a patrol earlier in the week.  Apparently, the fellas thought they saw a RPG team, prompting two Guardsmen (sniper and spotter) to try and track them.  They were making jokes about the incident, including speculating about the grisly possibly that the field they were running through was mined.  Though dark, the scenario they created was powerfully slapstick: running full throttle through a goat field, weapons drawn, blood pumping, enemy in sight, only to explode like Wile E. Coyote in a glorious hale of dust, livestock, and onomonopia.  In the midst of the raucous laughter at their own mortality, one of my fellow sports fans – the sniper, actually – casually remarked to another – his unit’s commander and professed bleeding heart – that he wasn’t sure the sergeant had what it would take to call for the kill shot.  What followed was one of the more urgent, if uninformed and slightly less than sober, dissections of counterinsurgency I’ve ever heard.

To give you a little background, traditional counterinsurgency, or COIN, theory applies both to governance and actual military tactics.  Broadly, it asserts that: (1) political action should take priority over purely military action, in an effort to prevent the insurgents gaining popular support; (2) there must be complete civil-military co-operation; (3) co-ordination of intelligence is paramount; (4) insurgents must be separated from the general population through the all-important winning of hearts and minds; (5) military force should be limited to support pacification; and (6) lasting political reform is necessary to prevent the recurrence of insurgency. 

The French set the historical bar for COIN theory and operations, with a little help from the Brits – snicker all you want at the wacky antics of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Google, but those colonialist buggers wrote down everything.  The French recipe for COIN can be reduced to overwhelming force seasoned with unwavering determination.  Clichéd as it now sounds, the best defense against insurgency is a good offense; COIN operators have to be as determined as the rebels, prepared to endure all consequences, and possess the necessary military and political means to fight.  The central COIN objective is to reveal that insurgency is not a reasonable recourse for political grievance, but rather it is futile while its ends can be achieved through peaceful means.  If either the will or way is lacking, is becomes a weakness for insurgents to exploit.

General Petraeus tweaked the definition of COIN somewhat for the modern American soldier.  In the field counterinsurgency manual, he explains COIN primarily as the pursuit to establish a legitimate and effectual host-nation government.  Swell.  Unfortunately, the inherent subtleties of this point are lost among some soldiers; one point that came up time and again between my Guardsmen was whether or not a devoutly Muslim society could embrace democracy.  Not to nitpick as we watched the most popular sport in the US, but there is no reason Afghanistan has to be a representative democracy in the American sense of the term, socio-religious arguments aside (don’t we have enough on our plates at this point?).  Obviously, some forms of government wouldn’t be acceptable (or so I had thought…negotiations with the Taliban? I remain as appalled at this prospect as the Taliban do). 

Still and all, the Petraeus school of COIN is fairly traditional.   It just strongly emphasizes the separation of insurgent actors from mainstream population and facilitation of political reform, subjugating all other aspects to these central tenants.  In some respects, it brought the ‘softer side’ of COIN into vogue in the armed forces.

Most of the Guardsmen were familiar with the principles of COIN, and some of them even seemed to care about it.  The others either don’t care or understand the futility of it.  Functionally, the way the Afghan government is currently run, failure seems inevitable.  Also, the whole bit about civil military co-opeartion is only met superficially.  In this particular COIN effort, the civil and military elements are, for all intents and purposes, totally independent of one another.  NATO is the brawn (and too often the brains), where Karzai is…something.  Seriously, the Afghan government is at least ostensibly the civil component and does not play nicely with its supposed allies.  It seems as much to want to keep each the Coalition in check as the insurgents.  The enemy of my enemy might not be my enemy, but in this instance he’s apparently not my friend.

This lack of agreement on strategic level is a problem, speaking to an absence of clarity of mission and consensus what constitutes victory.  That said, for the most part the Guardsmen are more concerned with tactics.  They’re direct, action-oriented individuals, and they want a game plan.  At one point, their argument devolved a bit into far-fetched and morally overwrought hypotheticals.  One snapped at the strongest COIN proponent that, if he were to die in order to prevent the killing of one Afghan, it would have no substantive impact on hearts and minds and be a waste.  Indeed, he complained it seemed almost selfish for the other to thusly martyr himself.  Such a straight up and unambiguous exchange of one soldier’s life for one Afghan’s seems rather like a Hail Mary pass – highly unlikely to come to fruition.  His ire raised, the COIN warrior retorted that he would make the call to save his guys, but wouldn’t want them to put themselves in danger simply to save him – a decision he claimed as a sacrifice bunt.  Wait – wrong metaphor.  It’s just that the baseball season never seemed to end…

Back on topic: some of General Petraeus’ tactical suggestions are so obvious one wonders that they had to be written.  “Fight hard and with discipline” or “confront the culture of impunity” come to mind.  Of course, when the most, say, aggressive of the Guardsmen talks about chasing children with shot guns, maybe they do need to be written.  And said.  And maybe illustrated with stick figures.  Again and again and again. 

But other directives make COIN amount to the military’s answer to development.  Like most national-building theory, COIN calls for the protection of the population, provision of basic services, and promotion good governance.  The onus for COIN theoretically rests with the Afghans, with assistance from the US and NATO.  Moreover, in addition to saving every Afghan life at all costs, according to the COIN Guardsman, at least, the Petraeus doctrine also involves providing Afghans will all the goods and provisions they require.  The parallels to development practices are unmistakable and this cannot but help the war effort.  Case in point, another friend (not present for the football game) likes to recall how, after his unit assisted in the building of a well, an incredulous village elder asked what kind of invading army was this?  A different kind, he answered proudly. 

Devotees, however, have a tendency to take ‘soft’ COIN too far.  A member of the COIN-cult Afghan Hands project once tried to convince me that an Olympic training center should be built in Kabul, as a stirring sports story would help cement a national identity.  This is decidedly not Remember the Titans, and an Olympic medal will not be the glue that holds this country together.  Among my Guardsmen, the COIN optimism usually took the form of too much generosity.  The bleeding heart sergeant went so far as to speculate that his team should give every child they see candy, and they already bring several gallons of fuel to their ANP mentees whenever they work together. 

How could I possibly object to such noble intentions?  Partly because I’m hard-hearted, yes, but while this might be a great local COIN initiative, it’s a horrible long-term development strategy.  This charming, earnest soldier is helping to foster a dependent society: giving fish, where he should be teaching how.  The army is not USAID, it is never going to be, and it was never intended to be.