A powerful story from Afghanistan, an illustration of our un-strategy at work

This article, based on examination of one small fragment of the war, reveals much.

  1. The article
  2. About intelligence in Afghanistan
  3. About roads, the magic bullet of COIN (in Spring 2008)

(1)  The article (headings added)

U.S. retreat from Afghan valley marks recognition of blunder“, Greg Jaffe, Washington Post, 15 April 2010 — Excerpt:

KORENGAL VALLEY, AFGHANISTAN — It was as if the 5 years of almost ceaseless firefights and ambushes had been a misunderstanding — a tragic, bloody misunderstanding. More than 40 U.S. troops have been killed, and scores more wounded, in helicopter crashes, machine-gun attacks and grenade blasts in the Korengal Valley, a jagged sliver just six miles long and a half-mile wide. The Afghan death toll has been far higher, making the Korengal some of the bloodiest ground in all of Afghanistan, according to American and Afghan officials.

In the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, the U.S. presence here came to an abrupt end.

… U.S. troops arrived here in 2005 to flush out al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They stayed on the theory that their presence drew insurgents away from areas where the U.S. role is more tolerated and there is a greater desire for development. The troops were, in essence, bullet magnets. In 2010, a new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.

The retreat carries risks. Insurgents could use the Korengal as a haven to plan attacks in other parts of Afghanistan. The withdrawal could offer proof to other Afghans that U.S. troops can be forced out.

The American hope is that pulling out of the Korengal rectifies a mistake and that Moretti’s troops can be put to better use stabilizing larger, less violent areas. “You can’t force the local populace to accept you in their valley,” Moretti said. “You can’t make them want to work with us.” …

The Unbuilt Road

Most of the Korengal’s 4,000 to 5,000 residents live in stone houses that cling to the valley’s steep walls. To survive, they grow wheat and log towering cedars in defiance of a government ban on timber exports. They speak their own language. For most of the past 5 years, U.S. troops have exercised loose control over the first 3 miles of the valley. Beyond that mark, the insurgents have had free rein.

When he arrived in the Korengal in June, Moretti sent his troops into villages where there had been no regular American presence for a year. His plan was to drive the enemy back and persuade the elders to support a U.S.-funded effort to pave the sole road into the valley, a project that had stalled in 2007. The road would connect the Korengal to the rest of eastern Afghanistan and, in theory, make it more governable. In September, as construction was set to begin, insurgents killed six guards hired by the contractor and took their weapons. The contractor quit.

Moretti’s predecessors had spent countless hours trying to persuade Zalwar Khan to rally the locals to support the road project. Three years of prodding had produced virtually no progress. Moretti sensed that the real power in the valley lay with the men leading the insurgency. He asked Khan to deliver a letter to a timber baron and insurgent leader known as Matin, who like many Afghans uses only one name. Long before Moretti’s arrival in the valley, U.S. troops had killed several of Matin’s family members in airstrikes, according to the Korengalis. In banning the timber trade, the Afghan government had deprived him of his sole means of income.

American diplomacy, not exactly teatime

“Haji Matin hates the Americans too much,” Khan told Moretti, using an honorific that signified Matin’s completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca. “He won’t respond.”

Instead he advised Moretti to write to Nasurallah, a colleague of Matin’s. “It is our belief that you are the rightful leader of the Korengalis,” the captain wrote. “You hold the power not only among the villagers but also among the fighters. If you want the valley to prosper all you have to do is talk with us and bring your fighters down from the mountains.” The letter offered Nasurallah two choices: development or death. “It is not our wish to kill your fellow Korengalis,” Moretti continued. “But we are good at it and will continue to do it as long as you fight us.”

Two days later, Moretti received a response. “If you surrender to the law of God then our war against you will end,” Nasurallah wrote. “If you keep fighting for man’s law then we will fight you until Doomsday.”

We’re in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, in order to eject al Qaeda

“I don’t believe there are any hard-core Taliban in the valley,” said Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, who oversees U.S. military operations in the Korengal and a half-dozen other valleys in eastern Afghanistan.

(2)  About intelligence in Afghanistan

A theme from the war’s beginning has been the search for knowledge about the people of Afghanistan.

(a)  Science to the rescue

From the article that first introduced David Kilcullen to Americans:  “Knowing the Enemy“, George Packer, The New Yorker, 12 December 2006

The result of efforts like McFate’s is a new project with the quintessential Pentagon name Cultural Operations Research Human Terrain. It began in the form of a “ruggedized” laptop computer, loaded with data from social-science research conducted in Iraq—such as, McFate said, “an analysis of the eighty-eight tribes and subtribes in a particular province.”

From this delusional beginning came the Army’s Human Terrain Teams.  For an account of their development and effectiveness see the FM reference page Anthropologists go to war AND Revolt of the Anthropologists.  The hopes for this program were great; the results difficult as yet to assess.

(b)  Recent articles about the human terrain system in Afghanistan

  1. All Our Eggs in a Broken Basket: How the Human Terrain System is Undermining Sustainable Military Cultural Competence“, Ben Connable (Major, USMC), Military Review, March-April 2009
  2. The Press and Human Terrain Systems – Counterinsurgency’s Free Ride“, David Price (Assoc Prof Anthropology and Sociology at St. Martin’s U, in Lacey, WA), Counterpunch, 7 April 2009
  3. Rough Terrain“, Washington Post, 30 August 2009 — “Under an experimental program in Afghanistan, teams of anthropologists and social scientists are working alongside soldiers to help win the war by winning over the Afghan people. It may seem like a brilliant idea. But in this battle, nothing is as it seems.”
  4. Human Terrain Teams“, Christian Caryl, Foreign Policy, 8 September 2009 — “It sounded like a good idea: Swarms of social scientists would help U.S. troops better understand local customs and avoid cultural mishaps. But is the program creating more problems than it solves?”
  5. House Armed Services Committee Assessment Of The Human Terrain System“, Marc Tyrrell, Small Wars Journal, 30 September 2009
  6. After Setbacks, Human Terrain System Rebuilds“, David Axe (journalist), World Politics Revew, 25 November 2009
  7. Commission of the American Anthropological Association Releases Final Report on Army Human Terrain System, 8 December 2009
  8. Human Terrain Systems Dissenter Resigns, Tells Inside Story of Training’s Heart of Darkness“,  David Price (Assoc Prof Anthropology and Sociology at St. Martin’s U, in Lacey, WA), Counterpunch, 15 February 2010
  9. John Stanton’s critical articles, posted at Cryptome — He’s written a large body of widely read (if seldom mentioned in the mainstream media) articles about corruption and scandals in the HTS program.

My favorite:  “Afghanistan: COIN and the Human Terrain, Mike Costello (ex-Green Beret Weapons Sergeant;), Defense Magazine, 9 April 2010 — “{U}tilizing basic COIN practices is a very viable CIED strategy that is easy to learn and implement. In fact, the COIN strategies covered in this paper are measurable and can be taught in a 1-hour block of instruction together with a few squad or platoon size patrols into an Afghan village. It’s that simple.”  The author recently served as a Research Manager with HTT AF-04 embedded with the Canadian infantry in Kandahar province.

(c )   My posts about intelligence in the Af-Pak War

(d)  The dream of automated intelligence lives on

(3)  About roads

This is a look in the past, to early 2008.  We’re tried several more fads in Afghanistan since those days.  Now we’re surging and using tribes.

  1. Political Maneuver in Counterinsurgency“, David Kilcullen, Small Wars Council, 24 April 2008 — “Road-Building in Afghanistan, Part 1 of a Series on Political Maneuver in Counterinsurgency”
  2. The Strange Benefits of Paving Afghanistan“, Joshua Foust, Registan.net (“Central Asia news — All central Asia, all the time”), 25 April 2008 — A through review, with some interesting insights.
  3. Political Maneuver in Counterinsurgency“, David Betz, Kings of War (blog of War Studies Dept, King’s College London), 25 April 2008
  4. Country roads – For donkeys or for trucks?“, Péter Marton, State Failure Blog, 26 April 2008
  5. Afghanistan: Key Road Toward Pakistan To Improve Trade, Security“, Radio Free Europe. 29 April 2008

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