Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Here's An Embed Who Got It - Steve Featherstone

Steven Featherstone’s article, “Human quicksand for the U.S. Army, a crash course in cultural studies,” in the September, 2008 issue of Harpers Magazine is a much more insightful piece of analysis than anything I’ve seen lately from journalists. Mr. Featherstone embedded with an HTT (Human Terrain Team) in Khost Province, Afghanistan in July, 2007 and came away with a valuable critique of our basic way of functioning in such an environment as Afghanistan.

Mr. Featherstone begins with a quip about what it’s like sitting around an airbase in Kuwait, waiting to fly into country. His depiction of the mental amusement that teams engage in when stuck in a holding pattern is a peek into the world of military teams in travel. You will find discussions and amusements like this in nearly any team (unless it is dysfunctional) in the Army as they transit into a combat zone.

He then launches into an examination of the foreign policy of President Bush and Condoleeza Rice to set the stage for why the U.S. Army is caught in the role of nation-builder.

This militarization of American foreign policy has not been some ad hoc response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. It began long before, and indeed it represents a fundamental realignment in how America deals with the rest of the world. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reveal how unprepared the military has been for its expanded mission, but the State Department has not reasserted itself in response: under Condoleeza Rice, the department has instead reoriented itself toward “transformational diplomacy,” a term she coined in a 2006 speech that outlined her vision of a department “that not only reports about the world as it is but seeks to change the world itself.” ~ Steve Featherstone

The HTT that originally deployed to Khost Province in February, 2007, briefed in Featherstone and the team he was with at FOB Salerno on the morning after Featherstone arrived there. Their in-brief included a detail that is quite significant; that team had originally been given a spce in the S-2 (Intelligence) section. This indicates how difficult it is to incorporate some key additions to counterinsurgency. I’m sure that no one really got buy-in from the brigade commander on whose staff this team found themselves. He put them where, at first blush, they seemed to fit. Wasn’t their job to feed him information on the “human terrain?”

Not really. It’s okay; he figured it out.

That June, the brigade conducted its first major combat maneuver, Operation Maiwand, in neighboring Ghazni province. The HTT went into the field for a month. Because they weren’t tied down by the exacting demands of combat, the team traveled in relative freedom to dozens of villages, holding impromptu shuras, or town meetings, with hundreds of Afghans in an effort to understand how the Taliban influenced the local population. What they discovered would be familiar to anyone who cares to read past the headlines. Taliban support stems from two endemic facts of Afghan life: extreme poverty and lack of security. The United States doesn’t have enough troops in Afghanistan to accomplish much beyond chasing Taliban and Al Qaeda militants from one hiding place to another, to say nothing of securing the country so that a functioning economy can take root.

One Afghan villager Rick spoke to put it more succinctly when asked why his village supported the Taliban. “‘How often do you come here?’” Rick said, paraphrasing the man. “‘Maybe once a year, twice a year? They’re here every other night. Who do I support? Who do I have to support?’” ~ Steve Featherstone

The quote above from the article is so much more important for the understanding of the mission in Afghanistan than most things found in popular journalism today. It is glossed over and forgotten in an article that now lies dormant in Harpers Magazine’s archive. It is not attracting attention, nor is it finding itself into the discussions of what is being cast more and more as a deep mystery that the western mind is incapable of cracking the code to.

Steve Featherstone has found the nut. He has found and articulated the basic block upon which a coherent strategy must be based. There is no doubt in my mind that GEN Petraeus has this figured out, as well as many high-ranking officers in the chain of command that reaches into Afghanistan. Mr. Featherstone has also pointed out the part that sets us up more for failure as much as any other factor; one horse is rigged to a two-horse cart. Great draft horse that it may be, the U.S. Army is not, should not, and may never be capable of comprehensive nation-building.

Mr. Featherstone then goes on to explain the basics of subornation in such an environment;

The team found no evidence of a blanket philosophy, either religious or cultural, that made Afghans sympathetic toward the Taliban. The Taliban bought their support from vulnerable populations, and the exchange took many forms. Young Afghan men earning $250 a year often had to go abroad to earn enough money—up to $10,000—to buy a wife; or they could take bribes from the Taliban to plant bombs. Poor families sent their sons to be educated in Taliban madrasas in Pakistan, and in return received a motorcycle or a cell phone. Orphaned boys were perhaps the cheapest Taliban recruits. An incensed Afghan official in one village presented Tracy with a boy who had wandered into the district governor’s compound a month earlier. The boy wore an explosive vest that the Taliban had told him would burst with flowers and candy, but he didn’t know how to make the vest work. ~ Steve Featherstone

Whoa. There is nothing there detailing generations of tribal rivalries, centuries of mountain redoubt militancy, or indefatigable Pashtun military supremacy. Oddly enough, with a little imagination (very little,) you could change a few words and illustrate the story of how a baby boy born into a poor neighborhood winds up as a lookout or a soldier for crack dealers. It’s not so difficult to understand people; but the first task is to see them as people, not as storybook characters in a Kipling tale.

Steve Featherstone captured that in a mainstream media publication. He analyzed the connection from the Presidential level all the way down to a kid with a suicide vest in Afghanistan, and managed to do it without calling forth Kiplingesque images of all-powerful Pashtun tribesmen slaughtering all who ventured forth.

He also managed to put his finger on the thorn in the side of the Army; my Army; kinetic vs non-kinetic operations in the warrior culture.

Before “culture” the military watchword was “transformation,” a term that was used to signify a leaner and more lethal fighting force—exactly the sort of force that is presently bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, Major General (retired) Robert Scales submitted a report on the Iraq War to the House Armed Services Committee titled “Army Transformation: Implications for the Future,” in which he argued that the U.S. military had ignored the war’s “‘cultural’ phase” that began in the spring of 2003. The signal to shift from combat to stability operations wasn’t subtle—Baghdad was being ransacked—but American soldiers and diplomats stood by while looters carted off Iraq’s cultural treasures, an event that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld defined as an “untidy” exercise in free will. Recent changes in the military’s top leadership also reflect a belated awareness that we are not fighting Desert Storm II.

Robert Gates, who replaced Rumsfeld as defense secretary in December 2006, acknowledged that after the Vietnam War, “the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine, and budget priorities,” leaving it “unprepared to deal with the operations that followed” in Afghanistan and Iraq. General David Petraeus was appointed the top commander in Iraq in 2007 based on the perceived success he had achieved with the 101st Airborne in stabilizing Mosul. In a Military Review article he wrote about that experience, Petraeus asserts that “knowledge of the cultural ‘terrain’ can be as important as, and sometimes even more important than, knowledge of the geographic terrain… people are, in many respects, the decisive terrain.” ~ Steve Featherstone

Okay. That makes sense, but it does sound a bit weird. Featherstone follows it up;

All of this attention the military is lavishing on culture, however, threatens to suck Petraeus’s assertion dry of meaning—or, worse, to misapprehend culture as a thing that might be recognized by the latest targeting systems. People are not terrain; they do not behave like landscapes; culture is not a stable environmental feature like a mountain or a river. A closer analogy might be quicksand. It looks solid but it is not. This understanding is proving to be a real challenge for an army that has shown great difficulty in dealing with anything it can’t drive over, blow up, or fit onto a PowerPoint slide in time for the battle-update briefing.

“We’re good at killing people and breaking things,” Fondacaro said when he and I first spoke about the concept of HTT. “That’s what we do best, and that’s what our military decision-making process focuses on.”

The excruciating literalness of the Human Terrain Team’s name is a product of the excruciating rigidity of the system it is designed to change. ~Steve Featherstone

There are a lot of good people out there (in A’stan and Iraq and either returned or on deck waiting to go) who are serious about building a couple of functioning nations. It is their cause, and it makes every bit the impact of the guy who walks the Korengal with an M-4 and the spirit of a tiger. Some may say more. It is not up to me to ascribe who makes more of an impact. What I can tell you is that Steve Featherstone’s article comes so much closer than PBS’s Frontline in actually depicting the challenges of what we are up against in Afghanistan.

There is more;

…But commanders didn’t need yet another piece of hardware, and they felt they were already drowning in information. What they needed, Fondacaro told me, were “expert culturally focused people who understand the operational relevance of cultural knowledge.” ~ Steve Featherstone

Drowning in information. I can tell you that is true. There is so much intel gathered that it is hard to glean that which is pertinent from that which is a distraction. The data stream is wide and deep. Featherstone details the impact that this can have on a commander’s decision-making process and how a different, people-centric view alters that process.

In his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, in 2002, Schweitzer said he had been “focused singularly and myopically on the enemy.” Pashtunwali, or anything else related to Afghan culture, didn’t figure in his battle plan. Even if an HTT had been available five years ago, he wouldn’t have known what to do with it. “I would’ve used it to have a better understanding of the population so I could eliminate them,” he said. “You can do that with the HTT, but that doesn’t win the fight. What wins the fight is not having to shoot folks, is not having to create any kinetic operation, but to win the people through non-kinetic, non-lethal effects. It’s a balance.”

Schweitzer was unequivocal in his support for the HTT. He was conscious of how that might sound to his peers—“whacked,” was how he put it. But he assured me his enthusiasm was grounded in facts. Since February, his brigade had reduced kinetic operations by 60 percent in favor of “non-lethal forms and sets of maneuver,” which had reduced both American and Afghan casualties. ~ Steve Featherstone

“Whacked,” he says. Here is a guy who “gets it” who knows that his peers would see him as “whacked.” That says a lot.

Featherstone goes on to write about a MEDCAP (now called a “Medical Engagement,” in a small unfriendly village in the province. There is no shooting, there are no casualties. This is where the day-to-day work is often done. This is warfighting, too. Unfortunately, it is rare for such visits because of the strength of the forces on the ground. When civilians hear the call for more forces, this is the part that they don’t think of, but it’s this type of operation that has tremendous capability to make an impact on Afghan citizens and it’s not sexy. It doesn’t bleed; so it goes into the archive of the magazine with no fanfare and no snappy production values like the Frontline piece.

Featherstone does a fabulous job not only of getting out there as an embed, but also at actually digesting the information provided to him and presenting it coherently. This is the type of journalist who I wouldn’t mind having to “babysit” while he rides in the back seat of my humvee rolling through the Afghan villages. He would listen and observe and actually have a chance of understanding, rather than focusing on how goofy an ANP may look with sandals or gym shoes on with his ANP gray uniform.

Some of those who ride with Featherstone on that MEDCAP aren’t all the way there, but they are trying. The doctor isn’t all that interested in the Ensign’s picture of his son while he tried to explain the village’s situation, but it did no harm. The same man then goes on to attempt to distribute televisions in a village beset by Taliban who are persecuting villagers for watching television.

These are the small struggles of this war. Featherstone has portrayed the bulk of this war so much more accurately than an entire staff at Frontline, and he does it without being condescending or pointing fingers. He conveyed the situation and an American officer doing his best to make a difference without the benefit of a military establishment that is geared to train him to do so. He is thrown out there to either “get it” or not.

Many do. Many don’t. All are under-resourced, operating in small teams out in the middle of nowhere with little to offer. Televisions are nice, but I can tell you that the doctor was more concerned with security for his clinic and where his medicines would come from next than he was in watching TV. Still, the Ensign is not allowed to bring the doctor medicine. That is supposed to come through his government’s channels; it often doesn’t make it to his level. This is where the war is being lost.

As an aside, I can tell you that the doctor’s thanks, detailing all that the Americans were sacrificing, was heard pretty frequently in Afghanistan. Many Afghans thanked me with the same litany of what I was sacrificing for them; they believed it was for them. It was, in part, but there is so much more to it than that.

Featherstone shows the combination of kinetic and non-kinetic only a few words later;

No amount of cultural analysis was going to help the doctor. Fondacaro agreed. Security was a fundamental need, he said, like food and shelter. Without it, people like the doctor had been forced to make compromises, and all of our American platitudes and encouragement “didn’t mean shit.” Fondacaro leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. But we could look at the doctor’s predicament as an opportunity, he said. Everybody in the village knew the guy was getting night letters. If we “nailed” the Taliban one night, that would send a clear message.

“Who’s the audience? The people. If I demonstrate success in protecting this guy’s life against a known threat, and I win . . . ” Fondacaro paused and looked over his shoulder at the empty room. “Audience, what do you think? Everybody’s holding up nines: 9.5, 9.8. It’s simply a decision that’s got to be made.” ~ Steve Featherstone

Featherstone’s article could have been written in the Tag Ab Valley or in Nurguram. Everywhere I went, I saw the same little dramas. That’s what tells me that what he captured was a more accurate “Presidential briefing” than anything done on Frontline or in any other analysis by a journalist.

I’ve pointed out a number of times before that it seems odd to me that the Armed Forces are tasked with attempting to rebuild a society, to include its economy, when that is not what we are good at (read nearly incapable of.) Is America incapable?


America is more than capable. America wants the Army to do it. America doesn’t care enough to think outside the military box and send in those who can do those things. We have them in great numbers, but many of them do not work for the government. I wrote about American businessmen once and told them to take the little flag off of their desks. Perhaps I was too hard on them. The State Department could recruit them, but the businessmen who consider themselves to be patriots could also push from their side; but they are not heeding the call.
Perhaps that is because they don’t hear a call.

Perhaps no one is calling.

Featherstone points up the lack of other hands involved in his closing paragraphs. As opposed to Meo’s drama-filled last paragraphs in his recent ‘analysis,’ Featherstone brings it into focus with no hellishly dramatic cry.

Many have criticized the HTT’s and those who engendered them. To me, the failure in training our Army for the realities of counterinsurgency at ground level are a problem that I, as a soldier, would like to see addressed. The “Strategic Corporal” and the “Strategic Captain” must be trained to be strategic, not just people trained to break things and kill people sent to build, break, and when necessary kill, but to kill appropriately. That is so much harder to do than it sounds.

GEN Petraeus “gets it.” The generals who report to him will either get it or they will wind up doing other things, I’m sure. The question is; do the guys going into the villages get it? Are we training them to get it, or they left up to their own devices? Are we incapable, as an institution, of providing that level of training?

Are we really trying?

These are the issues raised by Featherstone’s reporting. They are incredibly germane. It’s amazing that anything so germane was actually published in a mainstream publication. What isn’t surprising is what little note America took of it. The real truth was right under its nose, but America doesn’t know what to look for and instead lauds Frontline for a dramatic piece of fluff that fails to portray the reality of Afghanistan.

Good job, Steve. I’d have you embed with my team any time.


  1. Please excuse the hit & run link dropping, but I wanted to share this with you:

    Report Alleges Police Aided Taliban in Attack that Killed Nine

  2. Hey Blue -- Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I take it as high praise coming from a soldier with your experience and intelligence.

    Thanks to you, I think Harper's might pry open their archives and put the article online for free. If and when they do, I'll let you and your readers know.

    I'd be glad to ride in your humvee, anytime. As long as my com works. Seems like every other truck I rode in, the com didn't work. Or maybe the sergeant just turned mine off so they didn't have to hear me ask stupid questions!

    Steve Featherstone

  3. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/06/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  4. "The question is; do the guys going into the villages get it? Are we training them to get it, or they left up to their own devices?"

    Those of us who followed your expoloits in Afghanistan know from your experience with Smoky Jackalacker, that the answers to both of those questions, at that point in time at least, was "probably not".

    Can the Army train them to get it? Yes I believe they can. Will the Army get the chance under the new Commander in Chief? Time will tell.

    The fact that COIN is so counterintuitive seperates people into those that can get it and hit the ground running and those who can't and will resist with all their will.

    J.D. Johannes made a very good documentary: "Outside the Wire: 2007" while he was embedded with the Americans in Iraq during the surge. The part of the doc that is called "The Baghdad Surge" features CPT Brian Ducote, of Battle Company, in his small sector of Iraq.

    I've watched this countless times and each time I do, I marvel at CPT Ducote's instictive comprehension of COIN. Watching him manouever on the fly has left me thinking that this video should be part of regular Army COIN training. (It'll never happen.)

    CPT Ducote is a marvel to watch. He exemplifies all that is good about the ingenuity of the American Soldier.

    Of course you have these attributes yourself Blue as you've so consistantly demonstrated.

    I thank you for bringing Steve Featherstone's writing to our attention. As a journalist Steve has demonstrated that he too gets it.

    Thanks for your excellent work on Nick Meo. Much needed.

    P.S. If you or your readers would like to see CPT Brian Ducote in action watch the trailer at:

    He's a marvel.

  5. Great piece and the kind of work that needs to be in the msm every single day. I can't speak to the military aspect, of course, BUT the comment about the Taleban being at the door every other night, and the troops maybe twice a year, makes perfect sense to me. I may be wrong, (and feel free to correct but as I recall, when the US troops in Iraq started living in among the neighbourhoods, the people SAW and knew the investment the troops were making. On a daily basis that commitment made a far louder statement to the Iraqis than any number of shock and awe shoot em ups.

    From what little I know, the Iraqis and the SAfghans want what we all want - to riase their children, feed their families without fear from the thugs.

    Oversimplification? Maybe, but as this piece so rightly says, I believe that it is only by paying attention to the "micro" (like the doctor needing medicines etc) that the "macro" will evolve and settle. I don't know how we solve these issues but I appreciate all that YOU do.

    And yes, can I come ride along too? As those who know me, know, I would be there in a heartbeat. ;) ..My thanks and respect to Steve Featherstone.


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