Tuesday, August 4, 2009

More great long-form reporting from Chivers in Afghanistan

I've already made known my feelings about C.J. Chivers' badassness, both here and elsewhere. But that's not going to stop me from saying it again: C.J. Chivers is a badass.

Here's his most recent work from Afghanistan. It's excellent. Read it. I'll have more on this later, but for right now I wanted to share a passage from early in the piece as food for thought. It's perhaps the most concise and yet comprehensive explanation of U.S. efforts in OEF that you'll find.

What is the United States military doing in Afghanistan?

The question, when not framed as a pejorative, has many answers. Depending on the soldier and the unit, at any given moment the military is likely doing one of four things.

It is hunting for, and hoping to capture or kill, the top-tier Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and their coteries.

...

Simultaneously, the United States military is working with foreign governments, nongovernment organizations, and American agencies to build a nation where ten years ago a nation existed principally in name.

...

And as this reordered nation is assuming a shape that remains tentative and wormy with corruption, the United States is pursuing a third primary mission, which is to create foundations for indigenous security. This includes a national police force and an army with enough skilled soldiers to integrate fire support and operate an air corps and stand up to an insurgency in battle anywhere. It also includes an intelligence service that can penetrate and understand myriad groups — local, regional, and transnational — that make up that insurgency, as well as the drug networks that control the shadow economy, which fuels much of the war.

Last, or perhaps first, the United States military is doing what many people imagine it to be doing most: It is fighting that war.

26 comments:

  1. Gulliver, thanks for posting this. I wanted to but you beat me to it (what else is new). Anyway, I need to actually do more than skim it.

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  2. One thing that has been interesting to me in the last 6 months as Afghanistan moves back into the foreground of American news is that there has far more attention devoted to discussing how our goals in Afghanistan have changed over 8 years in a way that there just never was in Iraq. I dont know if this is just a consequence of there being less decent when we went in in the first place, but I think its making statements as graceful as this one difficult to come by.

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  3. If Chivers delivered his copy in limericks it would soooooo much cooler.

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  4. I'd be very curious to hear what Chivers has to say about the significance of the fight in Korengal to the rest of the war - his embedded reporting from there has been amazing, but he must have learned something about where it fits in at the brigade and RC(E) level. There have been hints that McChrystal wants to remove forces from some places like that, but nothing to suggest it in terms of actual troop movements yet.

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  5. Very good article.

    So we are fighting a bunch of lumbermen up in the mountains, for what?

    JohnBoy Walton and his family owned a sawmill up in the mountains too. If the Virginia Natl Guard invaded Walton's Mountain and killed little bro Jim Bob, burned down Granpa's sawmill, and eyeballed Mary Ellen's big jugs, I would bet that JohnBoy, his dad and the rest of their kinfolk would take up arms against the invader.

    It sounds like operations in the Korengal are a waste of time. Our men are fighting locals in the Valley, not trans-national terrorists. And those trans-nationial terrorists have a safe haven (if you discount the pesky drones and missiles) a few miles away to hatch plans to attack America.

    It sounds like a big waste of men, time, and money.

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  6. Anyone found a copy of the Taliban's CO-COIN manual yet ? (namelink to story)

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  7. I just checked out this blog for the first time today and I wanted to say that I really like it and will be returning. Keep up the good work.

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  8. Tintin -- I'd be very curious to hear what Chivers has to say about the significance of the fight in Korengal to the rest of the war - his embedded reporting from there has been amazing, but he must have learned something about where it fits in at the brigade and RC(E) level. There have been hints that McChrystal wants to remove forces from some places like that, but nothing to suggest it in terms of actual troop movements yet.

    I think many people would perhaps suggest that Korengal is largely strategically irrelevant. I've heard arguments that it's important as a transit point or safe haven for other vital regions, but I don't know enough about the specific geography to speak to that.

    One of the interesting things for me about Chivers reporting in Korengal is that, as he says, the valley isn't particularly representative of the rest of Afghanistan, nor is the insurgency there, nor is the fighting there. Of course, there are generalized takeaways, too, and this one is the nuts:

    They were a highly lethal force, scores of organized and armed men, in armor, with night-vision devices and precision navigation equipment, watched over by a Predator drone and connected by radios to a mortar section, to an artillery battery, to a pair of helicopter gunships, and to fixed-wing attack aircraft on call, minutes away. This was small-unit maneuver and firepower all but perfected. Company B was at this very moment a new American standard, the archetype of a forward deployed unit backed by intricate layers of firepower and material and medical support, as sophisticated and deadly a conventional infantry company as the world had ever known. It was also a wandering dot in a foreign wilderness. The soldiers could clear the area around them and beat back any force they could reasonably expect to encounter up here, high on Sawtalo Sar. But unless the insurgents presented themselves for a sustained head-to-head battle — in effect, a mass suicide by attack, the sort of video-game fantasy of gunfighting that most soldiers never see — Company B could expect to have little lasting influence on this territory or the Afghans within it a moment after it moved on. And inevitably it would move on. In hours.

    Operation Khajar is supposed to be the first step in changing that method of operation, but then, does anyone imagine that such a thing can be done country-wide with 60K troops?

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  9. Scott -- Thanks for the props. Hope we'll live up to expectations.

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  10. Kilo -- Anyone found a copy of the Taliban's CO-COIN manual yet ? (namelink to story)

    Had not seen that -- thanks for the heads up. Maybe the boys at Jihadica have gotten/will get their hands on it?

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  11. Actually, isnt the release of such a manual a good sign? It indicates to me that the enemy has been forced to answer the initiative of the Allies, and so is in a position of reacting, not acting. Momentum, and all that.

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  12. Actually, isnt the release of such a manual a good sign? It indicates to me that the enemy has been forced to answer the initiative of the Allies, and so is in a position of reacting, not acting. Momentum, and all that.

    Maybe this is kind of simplistic, but I think anything that reflects a shift by the enemy in the direction of offering real governance solutions is something of a good sign, at least in the sense that he feels compelled to engage in the governing competition with Kabul and the coalition.

    Of course, it means that the insurgency is more attractive to the population, too, and probably makes the fight longer and harder than it would be against a force that defines itself in purely military terms. Which is to say, I guess, NEWS FLASH: this is a counterinsurgency.

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  13. "Maybe this is kind of simplistic, but I think anything that reflects a shift by the enemy in the direction of offering real governance solutions is something of a good sign"

    Uhhhh, the Taliban onced offered a real governance solution by, well, governing Afghanistan.

    SNLII

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  14. Uhhhh, the Taliban onced offered a real governance solution by, well, governing Afghanistan.

    Uhhh, yeah, they did. But we weren't fighting a counterinsurgency against them at the time, were we? So what's your point?

    The Taliban of today and the Taliban of 1998 don't have a tremendous amount in common, as I'm sure you'll acknowledge.

    As an insurgent group in the here and now, the Taliban's inclination to offer state-like services and moderate its own militant behavior in some small ways represents a victory for the counterinsurgent forces if only because it shows that we're forcing reactive behavior from the enemy.

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  15. I'm looking forward to hearing what the folks at Jihadica have to say as well, but in the meantime.

    I'm not sure the existence of a manual necessarily implies success. It could have been around for a long time or it could be a new version of an old manual. Just because we haven't seen it before doesn't mean it is remarkable that the Taliban has a manual.

    That being said, if it is true that they are standardizing some operational concepts and laying out a vision of governance, that is very interesting indeed.

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  16. It's nice to see SNLII hasn't abandoned blog commentary entirely, but merely changed up his usual "haunts". . .

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  17. I won't acknowledge that because many of the leaders of the Taliban a decade ago are still in the organization(s) today.

    You're perspective on the moderation of the Taliban is displaced. What some would suggest is that we're seeing to greater articulation of the natural arc of Foco insurgency from cadre to shadow government, perhaps a bit different in the case of the twin Taliban movements because they once governed part of Afghanistan and continue to rule in NW Pakistan.

    What one might suggest is that the latest iteration of a "COIN manual" (it's not exactly a FM) by the Taliban is really a compilation of best practices, one that is sent to a larger audience that's often cut off from the twin-headed monster in Pakistan.

    The fact that it's compiling this isn't to show that they're reactive, but rather quite the opposite, that they retain that bureaucratic shadow (and in NW Pakistan, actual) government, compiling best practices and circulating them therefore showcasing a prosaic state-like function.

    Initiative in the war in south Asia is still held by the Taliban. If anything, WE have been reactive in operations, doctrine and strategy.

    SNLII

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  18. You, not you're...

    SNLII

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  19. YOUR, grrrr...

    SNLII

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  20. Initiative in the war in south Asia is still held by the Taliban. If anything, WE have been reactive in operations, doctrine and strategy.

    You're not going to find me disagreeing with this. And I've read Mao, so I get the "natural arc" bit. I guess my point is that when both sides of an insurgency war are actually engaging in the governance competition, that situation is probably somewhat closer to solution than when the counterinsurgent is simply waging an anti-guerilla effort. From here the enemy either continues to crystallize, eventually forming into a more conventional force (and thus more susceptible to the force of American arms), or it regresses and the coalition regains momentum by default.

    That's probably an overly optimistic reading of the situation. One could argue that procession along the arc is a definite bad thing for the counterinsurgent/government, as it shows the insurgency is getting more formidable and confident. Is it beyond the realm of possibility, though, that we'd be better off fighting a pseudo-state than a non-accountable, fluid, nationwide raiding party?

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  21. No, that's not beyond the realm of possibility. A more stable target is a target that's easier to hit. That being said, a more stable target in that way will require even more cleanup/reconstruction afterwards. Which gets back to the question of strategy. . .

    I think SNLII is correct about initiative here as well.

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  22. Kilo: i havent seen a piece that has a more of the Taliban COIN manual translated than aje, but this piece has some interesting (and slightly different analysis http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jul/30/a-kinder-gentler-taliban/ including:

    The booklet was issued in May and is the first of its kind in the history of the Taliban, according to a State Department report on counterterrorism... "The report, which was made available to The Washington Times, said the emphasis is on "improving their image and winning over civilians."... The manual also aims to transform the group into a more disciplined and organized political force by centralizing decision-making and discouraging formation of unauthorized factions."

    Gulliver/SNLII: I thought the existence of a Taliban shadow government wasn't anything new in the south and east, and that there had been a relatively consistent attempt to appeal to villages on the strength of anti-corruption record dating from when they were still in power. if this is true (and if not I'd love to see the argument for it as i cant point to a solid sourcing for my impression) then it seems like this manual may actually be intended not only as a PR move, but as a means of establishing quality control on fighters and administers acting without supervision while high command in on the Pakistan side of the boarder. Having a written, distributed code of conduct means that if fighters behave outside of those restrictions, the Taliban can disavow the individual.

    Frankly, the fact that the Taliban is interested in governance doesn't surprise me, given that social service provision and good governance are frequent areas of concern for Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood from whom the original Mujahideen adopted core ideological and organizational principles. The fact that the interest has remained through different iterations of organization and leadership is interesting, but it also shows that we shouldn't use the manual to try to predict the current form of the organization.

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  23. I feel like I'm at something of an advantage because I've already read the "Taliban COIN manual," as it is being (unfortunately and erroneously) tagged.

    It's actually a very different sort of document. While toward the end there is advice meant as a reminder to cadres in the field, much of it is the sort of broadly propagandistic letter that's circulated all the time by the functionaries who do this sort of thing.

    A goodly portion of it, in the beginning, is pretty much trash-talking the infidel dog Americans. It's not written TO the Americans, but the style is such that it implies an open letter to the idiotic. To prove just how idiotic we are, we've cut it into proper PowerPoint format for rapid consumption across the force structure.

    In other words, much of the beginning is the sort of IO scutwork these sorts of epistles take. Some of it is true, some bluster, none of it for us, even if it seems like it should be.

    So, what is it really? Well, it's a propagandistic manifesto issued on the eve of Eid ul-Adha.

    It's not a "COIN Manual," at least not one that Leavenworth would churn out.


    SNLII

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  24. Hmmmm... I might have erred. The non-classified version that I have was footnoted to the larger translated report. It was a previous code of conduct shipped in 2008.

    Sorry, I probably got the documents wrong. The other document file is no longer in my computer, so I can't ship it.

    SNLII

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  25. Bacevich's latest: http://www.commonwealmagazine.org/article.php3?id_article=2609

    It seems--the contrarian that he is--SNLII has turned to the Gentile/Bacevich side.

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  26. ""Having a written, distributed code of conduct means that if fighters behave outside of those restrictions, the Taliban can disavow the individual.""

    That was the impression I got, but also more towards control and cohesion. There's also some evidence of smart thinking in those policies.

    I'm interested to see who starts getting whacked first. Criminals or rogue militants. Whether this is about imposing central control over the fighters or just doing a bit of PR and brand management.

    Either's likely. There's been some half-arsed co-ordinated suicide attacks lately that amounted to more losses than kills and look very poorly planned. There's also no shortage of bandits et al who'd be exploiting the banner just to leech payoffs etc.

    I wonder if they've yet boiled the problem down to the obvious. Uniforms.

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