The Internal Focus of ISAF
Earlier in the week I had one of those trips from hell which make being in Afghanistan such a drag. The drive between Jalalabad and Kabul takes less than 2 hours on a good day. Last Sunday the drive took over 12 hours – 9 of them spent sitting in a traffic jam just outside the the Poli Charki pass. The reason I was stuck with thousands and thousands of Afghans is that the French army had closed the road between Kabul and Jalalabad. They had (again second time in a week about the 50th time this year) rolled one of their armored vehicles and insisting that no traffic pass the accident scene until it had been recovered. The vehicle went over the side of the road into a ravine so the recovery required an industrial size crane which did not even arrive on scene until around five hours after the accident. That is five hours worth of traffic which should have been flowing freely but ISAF does not think that way. Whatever impact their actions have on the Afghans seems to be irrelevant to ISAF commanders – a mindset which is 180 degrees out from our recently upgraded, improved counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.
The French were having a very bad day. They lost a legionnaire in this single vehicle traffic accident, had lost another 12 hours earlier to a lightening strike and two more who were drowned in a flash flood. A violent storm had scoured the eastern region at around 0530 Sunday morning causing a series of dangerous flash floods. The French were reportedly out and about at that hour in “an operation designed to strike at a network of bomb-setters.”
Striking a “network of bomb-setters” normally requires extensive human intelligence, reconnaissance to verify the intelligence followed by a visit by the direct action door kickers. Unless the “bomb – setters” are operating off an ISAF FOB or are stupid enough to give up their location and intention over cell phones there is no way the French or anyone else will be able to accurately target them because the recon guys, the human intelligence collectors and the door kickers are all confined to FOB’s and when they venture out they do so in gigantic armored personnel carriers (which tend to roll over on the narrow, mountainous roads of Afghanistan) and are completely isolated from the Afghan people they are supposedly here to protect. But the French were out and about; off the FOB in the bush doing some sort of operation which is more than can be said for the majority of military units operating in Afghanistan.
The problem is that the focus of the French (and every other unit here except the US Marines) is completely internal. Closing the most important route in Afghanistan for an entire day is too stupid for words. When that happens all the traffic jams up every bit of lane and shoulder on either side of the accident scene. The Afghans trapped in this scrum cannot get food or water or turn around and leave. The woman cannot get out of their vehicles and enjoy a bit of fresh air – they are stuck packed (and I mean packed) into small cars or vans where they must sit and bake in the sun unless a male relative happens to be there and agrees to walk them off to a side ditch somewhere to go to the bathroom.
The reason it seems reasonable to the French Army to close the most important road in Afghanistan is the same reason the US Army continues to roll through downtown Jalalabad instead of using the brand new high speed truck by pass which is faster and safer for them. Their focus in exclusively internal. They plan all operations, movements, and interactions with the Afghans (when they manage to get off a FOB) based on what is easiest and safest for them with no consideration of the Afghan people. This is an “effects based” opinion based on what I see daily.
The only military unit I have been able to personally observe while planning future operations was the US Marine Corps 2nd MEB. The Marines were asking the Boss and I about cutting military roads so they could avoid adversely impacting the local people in the Helmand Green Zone. Their focus was exclusively external on what was convenient for the Afghans not what was easiest for them. This may explain why they have taken such a large chunk of the Helmand River Valley and dominated it with little to no post assault fighting while the British army is unable to walk 100 meters off their combat outposts in the same river valley without getting blown up or in a fire fight.
As the security situation in Afghanistan continues to degrade it is most frustrating to see that our military is completely unable to break away from its risk adverse, zero defects, careerist mentality. I never thought it would be easy for our attrition warfare oriented military to learn the decentralized and risky business of fighting a proper counterinsurgency but I did think we would figure it out given enough time and money. But we are not even close. General McChrystal knows what needs to be done – our very own counterinsurgency doctrine also spells out how to fight in the COIN environment but our military is hobbled by Colonels and Sergeants Major who are motivated exclusively by what is good for their careers and reputations. Careerist sycophants will never think outside the box or try something new least they fail. Failure is not possible when you do exactly what the man before you did regardless of what is happening outside the wire with the Afghan people. No way to measure that so it cannot count against you on your combat command officer fitness evaluation right? The US Marines seem to be breaking this mold but they are not here in enough strength to make much of an impact and thus are irrelevant in the big picture.
ISAF is here to bring security to the people of Afghanistan so they can re-build their economy and infrastructure. But ISAF can’t protect the people of Afghanistan – they cannot even protect themselves. The reality is that we have this backwards – it is the people of Afghanistan who are able to provide the protection and security us foreigners need to operate outside the wire. All we need do is demonstrate commitment to the people thus providing a reason for them to believe in us and support our mission.
That is why my son and I can travel around as freely as we do – the people protect us – they warn us if danger is about – they look after us when we walk around the bazaars. The reason the people protect us is because everyone in Jalalabad knows who we are and what we are doing and they appreciate it. In Gardez the Taliban came to several of our projects and asked what was going on. The local people told them in no uncertain terms that the rehabilitation of their karez’s and canals was the first good thing which has happened to them since the Americans came and that if the Taliban interfered the people would fight them. The Taliban did not interfere and I suspect many of them were working on our projects – 6 bucks a day is good pay for unskilled laborers in Afghanistan.
Our FOB’s are full of men and woman who would love to have the freedom to operate like we do so they too could make a difference. I recieve emails from them daily. But our military system will not let them off the FOB’s, out of the body armor, or out of the large stupid, dangerous MRAP’s. Instead we continue to bring “security” to the local people at the point of a gun. How stupid is that?