Friday, April 16, 2010

CPT Jeremiah Ellis and the Senjaray school

I don't have time to provide a whole lot of commentary on this new piece by TIME's Joe Klein, but I encourage you to read it. There are a lot of interesting details that we can hopefully discuss in the comments; in general it just shows exactly how difficult it is to execute COIN and development at the company and battalion level, even in what's considered to be a priority area.

The Pir Mohammed School was built by Canadians in 2005, in Senjaray, a town just outside the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. It is said that 3,000 students attended, including some girls — although that seems a bit of a stretch, given the size and rudimentary nature of the campus. There are two buildings, a row and a horseshoe of classrooms, separated by a playground in a walled compound. No doubt, the exaggerations about the school's size reflect a deeper truth: most everyone in Senjaray loved the idea that their children were learning to read and write — except the local Taliban. They closed the school in 2007, breaking all the windows and furniture, booby-trapping the place, lacing the surrounding area with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), daring the Canadians to reopen it. But the Canadians were overmatched, and it wasn't until December of 2009, when the Americans came to Senjaray, that people began to talk about reopening the school.

It was, in fact, a no-brainer, a perfect metaphor. The Taliban closed schools; the Americans opened them. That this particular school was located deep in the enemy heartland, in a district — Zhari — that was 80% controlled by the Taliban, an area the Russians called the Heart of Darkness and eventually refused to travel through, in a town that will be strategically crucial when the most important battle of the war in Afghanistan — the battle for Kandahar — is contested this summer, made it all the more perfect.

"From the start, the people here said they wanted better security and the school," said Captain Jeremiah Ellis, the commander of Dog Company of the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division, the 120 soldiers who represented the American presence in Senjaray. "We are required to ask certain questions on patrol: What are your problems here? What do you need? It's called a TCAF interview, for some reason." Ellis, a young man well acquainted with the uses of, and need for, irony when dealing with the command structure, raised an eyebrow and smiled. Later, I looked it up. A TCAF is a Tactical Conflict Assessment Framework — in English, an interview script. "Anyway, we've been asking the TCAF questions for months now. People look at us and think, 'Why do you keep asking the same questions and not doing anything? You must be one stupid bunch of Caucasians,' " Ellis continued, replaying the dialogue. "It's totally insulting: 'What do you need here?' 'Open the frigging school, just like last week.' "

No one — no one — wanted to reopen the Pir Mohammed School more than Jeremiah Ellis. He had worked on it for months; he figured it would be Dog Company's legacy in Senjaray. It fit perfectly into the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine: protect the people, provide them with security and government services, and they will turn away from the insurgency. Unlike many of his fellow officers in Zhari district, and many of the troops under his command, Ellis really believed in counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.

Take a look and let me know what you think.


  1. "No one — no one — wanted to reopen the Pir Mohammed School more than Jeremiah Ellis."

    There's the problem. I'm still absorbing the article, but this is one of the main issues of our intervention (and yes, I've fallen into this trap before).

    For the residents of Senjaray, there is no incentive, no responsibility, and no accountability. So, it won't work.

    WWGMD? What would Greg Mortenson do? He wouldn't build the school there unless certain criteria were met- namely, the citizens take ownership.

  2. For the residents of Senjaray, there is no incentive, no responsibility, and no accountability. So, it won't work.

    Mike, I'm not sure I agree. It seems more likely to me that it's "not working" because of 1) bureaucratic hurdles, and 2) people refusing to take responsibility because of the pervasive influence of the insurgent enemy.

    And I hate to be the guy who thinks this can be solved by numbers, but it seems to me that this is probably a result of the fact that we simply don't exercise control of this area and cannot deliver security. When people are running their pre-decisional thought process past the Taliban in Quetta, we've got to wonder why. Is it because they like them and want their approval, or is it because they fear getting fucked up if they make the wrong choice?

    And if it's the latter, how do we demonstrate that that's not going to happen? Or even before we worry about demonstrating that it's not, how do we make sure that it won't?

  3. That was just an initial reaction. I really liked this article- Joe Klein does a good job of describing all of the difficulties that the Commander is facing.

    1. Bureacratic Drift
    2. Theory and Practice of ROE (lack of warning shots on van)
    3. Enemy Coersion, Influence, and Intimidation
    4. Theory and Practice of COIN
    5. Corruption and Lack of Initiative of fence-sitting populace.
    Etc, etc, etc...

    I'd submit, for the ground commander, the first course of action is to start asking the right questions and trying to determine exactly what he can accomplish.

    This seems to be the biggest hurdle:

    "Ellis asked the boy how he thought the war would end. "Whenever you guys get out from here, things will get better," he said. "The elders will sit down with the Taliban, and the Taliban will lay down their arms."

  4. How about this: why do we find this story novel in 2010? Soldiers have dealt with this, with reporters writing about it, since at least 2006 or so. And we still don't seem able to move past "oh wow, what enormous hurdles we face."

  5. People have been writing about the difficulties of war (if not COIN) since a lot longer ago than 2006, and yet the public is still interested in stories about it. What's your point?

  6. "When people saw how well we were treating them, they were grateful. The motorcycle driver's brother started helping us with some good information."

    Um, whatever happened to Opsec?

  7. Some background on Senjaray from Pol-Mil FSO:

    In late September 2007, a nighttime hard knock SOF operation in Senjaray killed two brothers, the local mullahs. In addition to immediate protests that blocked Highway One/Ring Road South, a delegation of village elders led by the Malik visited the Kandahar PRT a week later to denounce the operation. The delegation was accompanied by Habibullah Jan, the local Alizai powerbroker and Parliament member. We heard some angry and impassioned denunciations from the delegation; in a sidebar conversation Habibullah Jan said he was unable to prevent the demonstrations that blocked Highway One and was trying to tamp down the anger.

    Regardless of his actual role and motives, it seemed clear to us that Habibullah Jan's power and prestige took a definite blow from this hard knock operation that took place in his hometown and power base. Habibullah Jan's power took another hit when the CSTC-A Focused District Development (FDD) program of ANP reform came to Zhari District in early 2008 as Jan was compelled to dismantle several "illegal" checkpoints that were manned by his Alizai militia in eastern Zhari District. (On the other hand, the ANP checkpoints and outposts manned by Sherzai-controlled Barakzai militia in Dand District south of Kandahar escaped a similar fate.)

    The final nail in the coffin was the early July 2008 assassination of Habibullah Jan a week after he met with the TF Kandahar Commander to discuss Alizai cooperation with planned TF Kandahar operations in the Senjaray area. Jan's brother took over his depleted militia forces but has reportedly not been an adequate replacement. The stretch of Highway One between Kandahar City and Maywand District has always been an IED challenge but I would argue that the demise of Habibullah Jan has made it even worse.

    There are some parallels with what has happened in Arghandab District since the death of Alikozai leader Mullah Naqib in October 2007. It seems that only in retrospect do we understand what was happening in these districts and we still do not have good answers as to how to address these governance developments.

  8. What COIN strategy, come in and offer to build stuff, well that will have a pretty obvious result, thank you for the help and we still support the Taliban.
    It seems the issue here is that the commander has confused the means of winning over the population, with the end goal of replacing the Taliban with a new Afghan government.
    He should be concentrating first on clearing and holding before he builds... I would suggest reading Galula's COIN book to him...

  9. It seems he's stymied by the ROE in terms of what he's allowed to clear and hold, though.

  10. I love seeing the dialogue the article on Pir Mohammed school has generated. Although I am not Army, I spent several months in Senjeray providing housing and quality of life imrovements to the strong point. I watched the morale of Dog company rise and fall with the successes and failures of their extremely difficult mission there. Although this was my seventh deployment, it is the first time I have seen such in-depth reporting on the successes the US military works so hard to garner. I can tell you from experience there is a story such as this one in every FOB and strong point across Afghanistan. I am thankful to Joe Klein (and Time Magazine) for writing on the actual struggle instead of the story that just sells more magazines. The soldiers of Dog Company deserve every bit of recognition from this mission and more.

  11. ellis is try'n to get people killed! it was a very dangerous thing to do with a month left in the deployment! the rest of the battalion is relaxing, and dog company is doing all this extra work at the last min. instead of letting the guys relax and get a break from a long year! he just wants his name everywhere cause he's a new commander to the battalion and no one liked him!

  12. ellis is try'n to get people killed! it was a very dangerous thing to do with a month left in the deployment! the rest of the battalion is relaxing, and dog company is doing all this extra work at the last min. instead of letting the guys relax and get a break from a long year! he just wants his name everywhere cause he's a new commander to the battalion and no one liked him!

    Or alternatively, he was trying to do his job. The job that he's paid to do, and that he's taken an oath to do. The job that all of his men have signed up to do. You know, the "very dangerous" job that they chose rather than doing something else where they could "relax and get a break."

  13. ellis is ok, cpt.lamb was sooooooo much better! ellis kiss's the afghan people's ass. he thinks about them before his own men!

  14. Anonymous-

    I know Jeremiah Ellis and I think you're a coward for commenting like that without giving your name.

  15. Recently read the Time magazine cover story, "The New Greatest Generation" and was very inspired. I'm a psychotherapist with a specialty practice for men tailored for military personnel. I'd like to salute Captain Jeremiah Ellis for his nobility and contact him to inform him of my work and to discuss what more can be done. Also, is there anything else I can do to help from my home in Tacoma, Washington. My website,
    Damian Gennette, MDiv

  16. Major Ellis,
    Good to talk with you today and inspiring to hear of your continued work with and for our warriors. Please don't hesitate to contact me anytime, for joint collaborations, etc.
    All the best,
    Damian Gennette, MDiv