Sunday, February 18, 2007

Eyes Opening

Yesterday evening's briefings were some of the most interesting stuff I've seen since we got here. The commander of the battalion that we fall under for training purposes is a leading authority on counterinsurgency, a published author on the subject, who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan. His briefing was partly on the situation in Afghanistan. He has served in the Gulf War and in Iraq. This was his first trip to Afghanistan. What he said was eye opening. What he said to expect was enlightening.

Apparently, we can expect light infantry activity in mountainous terrain. Most of the training that we've had here has centered around mounted activity... riding in up-armored humvees. There, we will apparently be carrying our stuff with us as we wander about with the Afghan light infantry for a month to six weeks at a time... or at least that's possible.

In truth, we don't know what to expect. You can tell by the questions that we ask that it is a major concern to us. This week we finally got some word on where we can expect to be, at least intitially. I can't write about that now, though. OPSEC (OPerational SECurity.) What I can say is that we are pretty lucky for the start point.

Some of what we do know is this; in Afghanistan you are more likely to be shot than in Iraq. The upside is that you are less likely to be killed by an IED. I'd rather be shot at. I can shoot back really well. God help anyone who shoots at me who doesn't hit me quickly.

We know that the enemy is most likely to be small teams of committed insurgents, and that there is often a local connection.

Counterinsurgency is the type of warfare that we were engaged in in Viet Nam, and Americans have a bad taste in their mouths for counterinsurgency operations. It's not just the public that doesn't appreciate it, either. The Army had such a distaste for any reminders of Viet Nam that for years and years it did not have a doctrine, no manual for counterinsurgency. In December of 2006, five years into a counterinsurgent war, the Army finally published FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. It has been downloaded over 1.5 million times since then. Copies of it have been found in insurgent safe houses and training camps in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

They are studying our doctrine. They are not stupid. Insane? Yes. Stupid? No, clearly not.

It has been said that counterinsurgency is not just a thinking man's warfare, but PhD level warfare. The Army has been training for over 30 years to fight conventional uniformed adversaries, and for the past five years has been fighting against insurgency primarily. There was a brief conventional "nolo contendre" fight during the initial invasion of Iraq, but after that it became a counterinsurgency... a botched one at that.

This is a fight that has to be understood to be fought. No one is teaching the doctrine. No one is drilling on how to evaluate the situations we will find ourselves in. No one is defining how to map social networks to identify insurgents and understand the flow of political power in a local region run along family and tribal loyalties. We are left to educate ourselves. There is plenty of wisdom available. You have to find it and train yourself.

We are not stupid. We are ignorant.

Where we are going, ignorance kills. Ignorance loses. Ignorance makes my sons, and makes the sons and daughters of our generation responsible for securing their own peace. We will have failed to provide it for them.

The Lieutenant Colonel who has written excellent documents on counterinsurgency is what our Army needs to promote. This guy needs to be leading our Army into this effort which will last for at least the first quarter of this century. This is not a quick, cheap fight. We need to have lots and lots of teams like the one I'm part of. We cobble them together, like the one I'm part of, and we don't retain the experience and knowledge needed to continue the fight year after year.

Sometimes I think we're going to lose this out of ignorance. We need to be flexible, not stodgy, and we are a stodgy Army. Not what we need to be.

We will do the best we can with what we have, though. We are well-trained in our basic soldier tasks and will find our way through all of this. The guys I'm with are smart, for the most part motivated, and they bring a wealth of military experience to the fight.

A lot of the mistakes that have been made in both countries are largely due to the lack of training and awareness in counterinsurgency, though. Many of the tenets of counterinsurgency have been violated time and again in Iraq in particular. We are a fat Army, prone to occupy large FOB's (Forward Operating Bases,) which prevent us from being flexible. The safety we seek in large, well, protected bases makes us more prone to meeting violence outside of the bases. We shoot ourselves in the foot repeatedly. It all boils down to using conventional troops to do an unconventional job in a conventional manner. All of the lessons are there for us to learn from... and we learn slowly as an institution.

Somehow or other, we will get it to work. At least they have published doctrine now. That's a step in the right direction. Now all we need is to teach it, learn it, and practice it. We are not stupid, but we are ignorant and quite resistant to change.

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