Monday, November 9, 2009

Diagnosis from Down Under

Today, the Australian Army hosted the Australian Army Symposium at their embassy in Washington. It was a pretty good program that included the Australian Chief of Army, Dave Kilcullen, Michael Evans, a commando battalion commander recently returned from Afghanistan, and some others. I'd like to talk more about Dr. K's bit, but for now I'll just throw out my notes from his talk. He talked about Afghanistan (no kidding), so this is it from his point of view with some editorial notes:

Afghanistan is not a traditional COIN fight, as outlined in FM 3-24, but is instead a stability operation. There are five phases to that drive the correlating instability:

1. Corruption in the Afghan government. Which drives...
2. Bad governance behaviors. Such as government officials seizing private property without eminent domain which alienates the population and drives...
3. Popular rage, discontent, and disillusionment with the government. Which of course in turn drives....
4. Creation of space for the Taliban to fill the political and military gaps. Which then...
5. Promotes poppy growth to fund Taliban activities. Oh, and since there's all this poppy money, that drives corruption of local government officials who want a piece of the pie....

And back to the beginning we go. I don't think anyone here will find that all terribly surprising. He next went into the Taliban strategy: Discredit, Exhaust, Inherit. This isn't a Maoist protracted war - but time is on their side. The longer the Afghan government remains illegitimate and bad, the harder it is for the West to justify their intervention, and then we leave the country to the Taliban.

Next up are Taliban tactics. Dr. K framed this discussion around Taliban organization, the elements of which are:

1. Main Force Column. 100-300 person force who are extremely mobile. They serve in Afghanistan for short durations (4-6 month tours) and are recruited and trained in Pakistan.
2. Local guerrillas. Local actors [maybe they're accidental??] who live in one valley and wait for the main force to conduct operations.
3. Village infrastructure. Local Taliban cells - could be military and/or political.
4. Support elements. Located in Pakistan and do finance, leadership, training, etc. [I guess even insurgents need the ash and trash that a uniformed army does.]
5. Terrorist cells. These guys run parallel, but not coordinated operations with the main force. [The description made them sound like the Taliban's version of SOF.]

Dr. K then said quite frankly, that we are losing. He laid out a number of reasons why and a couple ways to turn it around. Reason 1: "red-first" aid policy. We were doing reconstruction in areas with poor security instead of using the aid to solidify gains in "green" or pacified areas. The money quote for this one was from governor of a northern province: "Who do I have to shoot at to get some aid around here?" Awesome. Reason 2: a disengaged administration. He attributed this to the current and previous administration. He didn't seem a fan of the current and dithering debate going on currently.

So what's the fix? My distillation of his options are quite simple: go big or go home [my words, not his]. Go big would entail giving ISAF enough troops to control the environment and turn back the Taliban. Go home would be the threat (and if necessary, follow through) of withdrawl to leverage the Karzai government to start governing effectively. The Iraq Surge was a sort of combination of the two and worked somewhat successfully. What he did say that would guarantee failure would be some half-assed measure that provided some more troops but not enough to control the environment with the attitude of "let's see what happens." So go big or go home.

I can't say that I disagree with that option set. Apologies for the scatter-shot of notes, but they struck me as interesting and worth sharing. Comments, as always, are welcome.


  1. Did he stick with the nonsensical notion that Pakistan was about to fall to the Taliban?

    That was his scare tactic before Congress.


  2. "This isn't a Maoist protracted war."

    Gunslinger, can you elaborate a bit more on this? I have yet to see a small war that Mao's three phases couldn't explain.



  3. Very interesting description of enemy organization. Are there any transcripts or anything?

  4. Tintin -- This is basically the same construct he elaborates in The Accidental Guerilla, ch. 2, p 54-58, 83-87.

  5. 1) re 5 phases of instability -
    one thru four are facts, but not phases.
    five is misleading. the taliban are minor figures in heroin compared to the warlords. see craig murrays recent youtube. also note the bridge over the panj into tajikistan for exports. (what does afghanistan export?)

    2)re 'the karzai government to govern effectively'
    give me one indication in the last eight years (since karzai was negotiator for the unocal pipeline) that he has any interest in the people of afghanistan - not words, acts.

  6. 1)Do we think that Hamid Karzai cares about the Afghan people more than, say, Donald Rumsfeld did?
    2)Hamid cannot legally clean-up the Afghan government except by bringing charges and getting convictions - something even the US is not willing to do to our own criminals.
    3)Hamid has been talking about getting rid of the warlords since day one of his administration, but doing the very opposite.
    4)Boiling prisioners may be bad, but killing or cluster bombing children is worse, is not human. Before the US can be taken seriously, it needs to explain why it cannot sign the agreement to ban cluster bombs.

  7. SNLII - no comments about Pakistan's imminent failure. He seems to be off that topic.

    Tintin - no transcripts, no slides. Just Dr. K talking off the cuff. Sorry, I guess my notes are the best we can do here (or actually the Belgian Defense Attache who seemed to be burning a hole through her notebook scribbling notes, but I don't know her to ask for them. And as noted, I don't speak French anyway).

    A little more clarification on the Protracted War bit in a new post - thanks for the question MikeF.

  8. SNLII -- Did he stick with the nonsensical notion that Pakistan was about to fall to the Taliban?

    That was his scare tactic before Congress.

    Well, in case you were worried about alarmism...

    See here.

  9. Too bad the Guardian was scooped by little Ink Spots.

    This is almost the exact same spiel he gave on Monday on his last point. So there's your transcript (minus the whole Mao/focoism bit of course).

  10. As smarter chap than lil ol' me recently penned this response to Kilcullen, in re Guardian article:

    I love how Dave Kilcullen finds the “middle ground” approach to strategy deeply flawed, but explains his perspective with the meaningless but emotional analogy to a house fire and firemen trapped inside.

    First, when firefighters arrive on a scene and the building is already in flames or is so valueless to the community that there’s no reason to save it, they simply contain the blaze by keeping it from spreading to other structures. This, jokingly, is called “saving the foundation” by wags in the hook and ladder brigade.

    Second, in Afghanistan I’m not exactly sure that the firemen – apparently in metaphor NATO soldiers and our allied Karzai kleptocracy government – aren’t feeding the fires. I mean, there wasn’t much war in Helmand Province or East Nuristan on Sept. 10, 2001, was there? What is so aggravating the peoples of these parts of Afghanistan (and now Pakistan) that they wish to blow up the “firemen” and keep the fireman’s union from entering their villages or, even, conceive of the very concept of state “firemen,” whether they’re Afghan or American?

    Somehow, the Taliban managed to exert 90 percent fire coverage over a landmass the size of Texas for a mere fraction of the cost in treasure and nowhere near so many firemen. Why, however did they do that?

  11. And continued:

    I don’t care about “moral obligations.” Perhaps the Karzai kleptocracy has a “moral obligation” to quit stealing from US taxpayers and their own people, stealing elections and our development dollars at the same time. Perhaps the Afghan security forces have a “moral obligation” to be a bit more than retreat-at-the-sound-of-gunfire extortion rackets or jobs programs for out of work warlords or Tajik bums considered annoying by the Pathan populations we’re trying to reach? Perhaps our policymakers have a “moral obligation” to articulate a military strategy that will arrive at some of our pertinent foreign policy goals instead of defaulting to doctrine and paying Kilcullen and other sages for the privilege of listening to more about dogma than results?

    NATO already is weakened. Canada and the Netherlands already have announced their inability to continue ground combat operations, and it’s expected that several of our Scandanavian, Baltic and Middle Eastern friends -- some not in the alliance -- will follow in their footsteps. Within Germany and Britain, polls continue to show declining support for this murky war, as they do in the US. To then suggest that pulling out of Afghanistan would somehow hurt NATO seems at best debatable, at worst a punch line.

    As for Pakistan, is he seriously suggesting that Pakistan would be worse off if reality reverted to Sept. 10, 2001? You know, when Pakistan outwardly supported the Taliban regime, and ISI didn’t have to worry about backlash amongst their own Pasthun peoples or the lack of legitimacy of the once relatively popular military junta because it was now tethered to foreign occupiers? In the past, Kilcullen has sought to spook our more easily addled senators by suggesting that the Pathan revolutionaries are mere seconds removed from punching in the launch codes to the missiles aimed at Mumbai or Memphis, a scenario Islamabad finds laughable.

    As for safe havens for terrorists, I guess it doesn’t matter so much that al Qaeda currently is harbored in NW Pakistan, that our Pakistani allies don’t seem all that quick to evict them, and that this ungoverned social stratum of Pathans is separated by a meaningless border from similar sorts of ungoverned Pathans.

    In his written works, Kilcullen often echoes the wise words of Callwell – if avoidable, it’s best to bypass these messy wars of little strategic value. For some reason, however, he continues to believe that a long-term, bloody, expensive population-centric campaign to rebuild the nation of Afghanistan into something approaching the Burkina Faso of the Hindu Kush is vital to achieve US foreign policies in the region.

    I don’t understand this Janus notion of national security, but I’ve come to believe that it might have something to do with the minds of those who are so hot to continue fighting these wars. I disagree with Bacevich on Kilcullen’s financial motive in all of this (although it should be better disclosed in articles about him), believing that the Australian is sincerely concerned about how we wage wars and for what gains. Nor does he have the compulsion to uniformed careerism or even the burden of proving right a flawed theory, because he often criticizes it, too.