Wednesday, November 10, 2010
For those of you who didn't know, yesterday Josh Foust (of Registan fame, Central Asia expert, and a great guy) held a launch for his new book, Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. I bought the book at the event and thus haven't yet read it, so hopefully a review will happen once I've finished it. However, the event was very good, with Ambassador Ronald Neumann (US Ambassador to Afghanistan 2005-2007) conversing with Josh. Their discussion covered off on a number of topics related to Afghanistan: the Human Terrain System (HTS), the Afghan people, Karzai and the presidency, the ANA, and US policy and operations. All of which was very interesting. As was the idea of Just World Books turning his blog and other writings into a book.
There are a couple of things that stood out for me from this talk that were probably peripheral to the main talk. The first was Josh talking about the inability of the military to transition their records and knowledge of their area of operations to their follow-on units. Josh recounted that the U.S. Army's Center for Lessons Learned has to send people to units that had rotated home to get copies of their hard drives to provide data to units in the field. This simply blows my mind. I hope this info is dated and doesn't still occur, but the idea that transfers of authority are or have occurred in Afghanistan without digital records is damned near criminal on the part of both units involved. The outgoing needs to provide that info and the incoming needs to ask for it if they don't get it. It's simply common sense. Hopefully, some of you who are there now or recently can let us know if this has changed and transferring data is SOP in a transition.
The second topic that really hit me was the discussion of the HTS and their Human Terrain Teams (HTT) embedded at the brigade level. Josh had worked for them until 18 months ago and had some interesting perspectives. Like all organizations have to deal with, he reported that some teams were really good and some were really bad. Recently, DoD has been moving from a contractor solution to an institutionalized civilian solution to propagate HTS beyond our current wars. I'm actually slightly distressed at this.
I'm a big supporter of the work that the HTS does even if I never had them supporting my units in Iraq. Understanding the locals seems like a pretty good idea to me in any conflict. However, I do question the need to keep large numbers of civilian personnel on the rolls to study areas that we may have conflicts with in the future. Some regional or cultural experts, sure. But not lots. It seems to be a large expenditure that has a small likelihood of ever being practically used.
This may be the former military side of me, but I've always looked at "human terrain" as an intelligence function. Intelligence used to assist the unit commander in making decisions on what activities his unit should conduct. Understanding that a lot of intelligence agencies employ cultural experts, this needs to be done in the military at the unit level. Military intelligence needs to be able to analyze non-combatant locals like they do the enemy. We don't keep civilians who are experts on every enemy we might face and deploy them with BCTs - we train our intel folks to be able to analyze an enemy, however he is and irrespective of that analyst's previous knowledge of them and their organization, so that analyst can give the commander the best information he has. I don't understand why the military is still failing to do this with human intelligence. Granted, there are my intel officers who are leaning forward in the saddle and are doing this on their own, but it needs to be an institutionalized process. Otherwise all that touchy-feely human stuff will remain a civilian role and quite possibly civilians who don't necessarily understand the commander's intelligence needs.
So those are my take aways from the talk. There was, of course, much, much more. Followed by even more engaging discussion at the after-party (#foustfest for your twitter types) with lots of smart and fun people. It was great to meet all of you who I've only conversed with over the interwebs and to see some old friends. Now go buy the book.
UPDATE: Josh has posted a very helpful and insightful response to this post at Registan.