Everything seemed ready for the shura (meeting). The cammie net was set up to provide shade, checkpoints were established on the main dirt road, and tea had been prepared. Even with the preparations, however, attendance would probably be low. Despite millions of dollars in infrastructure projects, this area of Sangin, Afghanistan, typically had only a dozen locals show up to the bimonthly shuras where they could meet with representatives of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and one member of the nascent district council. Even bringing the district governor had not increased attendance, and that was disturbing—could he not influence tribesmen 2 kilometers away from his own compound? At every shura, the locals complained that U.S. overnight patrols were offensive to their customs and religion. Once, over 100 locals attended to denounce the practice. The human exploitation team later reported that the Taliban had organized their own shura beforehand to instruct people to make that complaint at ours.
This particular shura of ours, however, bucked the trend. A new member of the Afghan interim district council came and showed genuine enthusiasm for his work, controlling the discussion and talking about practical things the government could do for the people, such as registering land, getting identification cards, and settling minor legal disputes. These services resounded with the locals in a way that spending American dollars hadn’t. Was this the beginning of effective local governance in this Wild West? Not in American eyes. Walking away from the meeting, a Marine officer commented, “Well, that was boring. Another shura down, though.”
“Counterinsurgency” or Cargo Cult?
Just as GEN David Petraeus and Field Manual 3–24, Counterinsurgency (Department of the Army, Washington, DC, 2006) directed, Marine battalions had been conducting shuras in Sangin since they had moved into the district in 2010.1 But, if shuras were being executed as doctrine directed, why was Sangin still littered with improvised explosive devices (IEDs)? Why were the inhabitants wary, and the Taliban still in control of the population?
Counterinsurgency is a concept that, to paraphrase Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, “deludes the earnest and imposes on the simple.” Despite long experience with counterinsurgency, the Marine Corps is still focused on conventional operations, and its application of counterinsurgency doctrine resembles a contemporary “cargo cult.” Cargo cults arose in New Guinea in the wake of World War II after tribesmen watched American GIs talk into radios, and then marveled that trucks, airplanes, and supplies arrived as if by magic. Years after the Americans had departed, optimistic tribesmen would talk into long disconnected microphones and build runways hoping that the bounty of the past would reappear. If they ran through the process just right, they thought, good results would follow.
Our application of counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan is similar. We go through the motions of counterinsurgency without focusing on what really matters. This leads to a focus on process metrics instead of outcome—shuras held versus local goodwill, number of partnered operations rather than real relationships built outside the wire, dollars spent versus actual popular commitment, IEDs found versus demonstrated local security forces’ readiness. The result is an outlook that is ill-suited to deal with the nuances of fighting small wars which depend more on understanding local culture and character than on executing time-tested battle drills.
This focus on process manifests itself in many ways. We count and report dismounted patrols no matter whether they have any effect or not, and we count numbers of partnered patrols instead of actually training—and realistically evaluating—the readiness of the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF). We count and report dollars we spend on infrastructure projects instead of looking at what they achieve. Examples of how problems of this nature are preventing us from achieving the outcome we desire in Afghanistan will occur to any observant Marine. Here are some observations from my own experiences.
It’s another evening in Sangin and that means another overnighter. The Marines patrol to a randomly selected family compound with an interpreter and a small contingent of ANSF. As expected, the Afghan household head is angry and escorts his women to a neighboring compound. In a society where even the slightest insinuation of sexual impropriety can result in death, it’s a reasonable precaution. None of the overnight patrols in this area have encountered an IED emplacement (much less actual Taliban fighters), so why do the Marines continue to perform these intrusive patrols? That the population is the battlefield in a counterinsurgency is repeated endlessly in all the literature. And so the company order reads that the platoons will “conduct 24-hour operations in order to secure the local population.” But it is a lot easier to measure the durations of patrols than the effect they have on the population. The consistently negative response displayed by the locals gives a good hint as to the latter, if anyone wished to see. No matter. We patrol in order to be able to report hours spent patrolling.
The same fixation on the metrics of patrolling bedevils our attempts to improve the readiness of the ANSF. A major part of this effort consists of “partnered patrols,” in which Afghan soldiers are supposed to accompany U.S. forces to learn our methods and, it is hoped, to be inspired to emulate our professionalism. But there is no attempt to judge what, or how much, the ANSF learn. What is judged, meaning, reported to superiors and Marine officers evaluated for, is the simple number of such partnered patrols. Commanders, rationally working the metric, try to conduct as many such patrols as they can regardless of the quality of ANSF participation. An Afghan fire team will accompany a Marine squad, or even a single Afghan policeman will be dragged along, chosen because he was the least high on hashish that day. The daily tragicomedy of partnered patrols as they often work in reality is familiar to every Afghanistan Marine, and has even made its way into the newspapers.2
Positive interactions are possible. In a different area of the Sangin district, the Marines patrol to a local’s compound in the daytime and find themselves playing the board game Chaka Chaka Punj with the inhabitants. While the Marines have never played the game before, its similarities to Sorry soon become apparent. An officer shares his discovery with the Afghans that, while Christians believe that Isaac was almost sacrificed by Abraham, the Afghans believe it was Ishmael. The Afghans are surprised not at the difference, but at the similarities. A discussion ensues about their attitudes toward IED strikes on locals—a discussion, rather than a lecture, by the Americans. A few days later, the locals give the Americans a puppy for their base.
Money as Metric
Of the $900,000 worth of projects being run in the Sangin area, the civil affairs officer was particularly proud of the school. And why shouldn’t he be? The next two largest projects were roads between American patrol bases for American military use. While the Afghans were quite happy with winding dirt roads, the U.S. maneuver commanders wanted straighter lines of communications (regardless of the occupied Afghan compounds between them). The concrete structure of the school will certainly stick out amongst the mud brick houses of the Pashtuns, although not for its size, as it will only have four small classrooms in it. But after 4 months of work, the provincial education official tells the Americans that they must spend another $100,000 to install electricity in the school or else the Afghans won’t provide a teacher.
Insha’Allah (God willing), no other “requirements” would be discovered before the project was completed. Nevertheless, the project is deemed a great success because success is defined in terms of dollars spent. As Bing West points out repeatedly in The Wrong War, however, unfocused development funds do not buy security. “How we spend is often more important than how much we spend.”3
The disconnect between American dollars and Third World reaction is hardly new. Indeed, the theme of William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s 1958 classic novel The Ugly American (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., NY, 1958) was that American development efforts in Southeast Asia were grandiose, but useless to the locals. In the book, Americans who truly make a difference were those who focused on small, incremental improvements in the everyday life of the natives, such as introducing bicycle-powered water pumps and dairy livestock.
There is rich literature about what makes development effective—that being a focus on recipient needs instead of donor wishes. The Marine Corps appears to ignore this. For example, in some areas of Helmand Province, small landowners are reluctant to grow wheat because, in order to get it threshed and milled, they have to pay as much as a quarter of their harvest to rich landowners to use their mills, which cost around 200,000 Afghani (USD$4,550). It was proposed to buy a few of these machines and put them at the government center for the people to use free or at a much reduced price. Such a service would also bind farmers to the government. A $15,000 bill for three of them would have been a pittance in this context of Marine development expenditure. The project, however, was stillborn because it was not spectacular enough in dollar amount to grab attention.
The Way Forward?
Our current approach to many problems in Afghanistan focuses on form rather than substance, processes rather than results, and penalizes efforts that focus on substance and results. Any Marine can give you examples, and here’s mine. 1stLt Smith is a highly motivated leader of a training team. He focuses on developing close ties with his ANSF partners, and they respond by beginning to conduct independent patrols of the area, becoming steadily more proficient and disciplined soldiers. Due to manpower constraints, however, he has a corpsman drive a vehicle in order to visit his far-flung posts. 1stLt Jones, on the other hand, believes that working with the Afghans is a waste of time and that all that “nonkinetic stuff” should be dealt with by someone else. He does, however, report a large number of partnered patrols by dragging a handful of resentful ANSF along with each of his Marine patrols. You know how these stories end. At the end of 7 months, Jones leaves his area of operations completely unchanged, but has put up impressive numbers and receives an excellent fitness report. Smith was quietly relieved of duty when higher headquarters find out about his violation of the rules concerning the use of corpsmen. Is it surprising that we are breeding a force that values gaming the metrics over accomplishment of the mission?
But how do you reorient a whole military culture to substance and results? The first step is to recognize that rule-based management of counterinsurgency can be counterproductive. LtCol Douglas MacIntyre wrote an excellent article calling attention to the problem of making good metrics, and had several suggestions that, while abstract, are based on good principles: bottom-up assessment, tactical learning, and orientation on the desired endstate.4
Instead of blindly pursuing metrics that look good for the “commander’s update brief” while secretly hoping that we get to pulverize some Talibs, we need to understand the underlying dynamics of counterinsurgency. Few officers have read Field Manual 3–24, much less David Galula, David Kilcullen, histories of Afghanistan, or accounts of Afghan culture. How then can they be expected to win an unconventional fight? Units need to integrate education on counterinsurgency into their predeployment training to fill this void. Once maneuver commanders are more aware of local conditions and the lessons learned about other counterinsurgency efforts—lessons that have been written in blood—they will adapt themselves to the demands of the fight and make better decisions, leading to greater success. Mindlessly tallying up partnered patrols and the dollars we spend, then expecting success in counterinsurgency, is the equivalent of building bamboo air control towers and looking hopefully up at the sky.
1. Petraeus, GEN David H., USA, COMISAF COIN Guidance, Headquarters, ISAF-Afghanistan, August 2010.
2. Millham, Matthew, “Afghans Show Little Progress as Security Hand off Draws near,” Stars and Stripes, 8 August 2011.
3. West, Francis J. “Bing,” The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan, Random House, New York, 2011, p. 273.
4. MacIntyre, LtCol Douglas J., “Operational Assessment: Replacing Black Magic with Learning by Design,” Marine Corps Gazette, June 2011, pp. 17–22.