Garrisons and force protection crowd out other objectives in Afghanistan

March 27, 2009

- Joshua Foust is a defense consultant who has just spent the last 10 weeks embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. He also blogs at Registan.net. Any opinions expressed are his own. -

It is a cliché that, in counterinsurgency, one must be among “the people”. In Iraq, the U.S. Army did this to great effect under the leadership of General David Petraeus, moving large numbers of soldiers off the enormous bases and into smaller, community-oriented security outposts. As a result, in densely populated urban areas like Baghdad, an active presence of troops played a significant role in calming the worst of the violence. The Western Coalition forces in Afghanistan, however, face an altogether different problem. Kabul is not Baghdad – far less of Afghanistan’s population lives there than in Iraq, and the insurgency is concentrated outside the country’s largest urban areas. In many urban areas-Herat in the west, Jalalabad in the east, Mazar-i Sharif in the north-a westerner is far safer in the city itself than out in the countryside.

A rural insurgency is a devil’s game. It is difficult for a foreign counterinsurgent force to concentrate itself to maximize effectiveness, in part because the insurgency itself is not concentrated. When there are no obvious population clusters, there are no obvious choices for bases. Bagram Air Base, the country’s largest military base, is in the middle of nowhere, comparatively speaking – dozens of miles north of Kabul, and a 45-minute drive from Charikar, the nearest city in Parwan Province. FOB Salerno, a large base in Khost Province, is miles away from Khost City, the province’s capital-and the road in between is riddled with IEDs.

The many smaller bases strung in between are surrounded by enormous Hesco barriers, concertina wire, and guard towers. No one is allowed on the base without being badged and interviewed by base security, and in many places delivery trucks are forced to wait in the open for 24 hours before completing their trips to the dining halls, clinics, or technology offices.

There are other ways in which Coalition Forces are separated from the people of Afghanistan beyond their heavily fortified bases. Most transit – on patrol, on delivery runs, or on humanitarian missions – is performed through Mine Resistance Ambush Protection, or MRAP vehicles. These enormous trucks, thickly plated with metal blast shields on the bottom with tiny blue-tinted ballistic glass, make it near-impossible to even see the surrounding countryside from another other than the front seat.

On the narrow mountain roads that sometimes collapse under the mutli-ton trucks, soldiers drive, too, in up-armored Humvees, which are similarly coated in thick plates of armor and heavy glass windows they aren’t allowed to open.

When soldiers emerge from their imposing vehicles, they are covered from head to groin in various forms of shielding: thick ceramic plates on the torso, the ubiquitous Kevlar helmets, tinted ballistic eye glasses, neck and nape guards, heavy shrapnel-resistant flaps of fabric about the shoulders and groin, and fire-resistant uniforms. A common sentiment among Afghans who see these men and women wandering in their midst is that they look like aliens, or, if they know of them, robots.

There is no doubt that MRAPs, up-armored Humvees, and the seventy pounds or so of bullet and blast shielding has saved the lives of countless soldiers. But counterinsurgency is counterintuitive: in the relentless quest to ensure a casualty-free war, it seems the West has begun to engineer its own defeat.

By separating itself so completely from the population it claims to be trying to win-even at Bagram, where there is almost no combat, ever, it is almost impossible for a soldier or civilian to walk outside the gates to purchase something in the nearby bazaar-there remain precious few opportunities to do the gritty work of actually trying to “win hearts and minds”.

The end result is stark: in a war that is desperately short of the troops needed to provide security to increasingly less remote communities, 93% of the soldiers stationed at the Coalition’s primary base never walk outside the gates. Instead of a focus on separating the insurgents from the population – another clichéd pillar of counterinsurgency – the focus seems instead to be simply killing as many of the enemy as can be identified.

It is a brutal catch-22. The United States operates an incomprehensibly sophisticated Army – its ability to see things from afar, monitor and decode transmissions, and snoop on anything electronic is unmatched, and quite daunting.

But without strong Human Intelligence, there is little chance to contextualize the many streams of data they receive each day: is that man digging near the road emplacing a bomb, or is he digging up rocks for his fence? When this man identifies the elder from across the valley as a Taliban commander, is he telling the truth or pursuing some decades-old rivalry? Is that firefight the result of Jalaluddin Haqqani’s foot soldiers, or are they villagers worried their timber harvest might be impounded?

These are the sorts of questions that cannot be answered while holed up on a large base. Military bases are societies in miniature: they have their own politics, their own players, a separate culture, and even their own language. When focused on themselves, they develop into a so-called “garrison mentality” – a focus on rules, administration, and process, rather than accomplishing any larger strategic objectives.

There are entire swaths of territory that have been ceded to the militants in Afghanistan. In some cases, entire districts are essentially “no go” areas, starved of development and even regular security resources. The abandonment of these areas – at a cost in Afghan lives – has not resulted in any punishments or reprimands of the commanders who did so. Rather, they were praised for reducing their own casualties.

It is a mindset bred into the very framework of the U.S. Army. If a soldier dies in combat, his or her commanding officer is investigated. A “15-6,” as they are called, is convened by Court Martial authority, and should any fault be found on the commander’s part, his or her career could be destroyed.

“No one has ever gotten a 15-6 for losing a village in Afghanistan,” a Lieutenant Colonel who worked at the U.S. Army’s headquarters in Afghanistan recently said, “but if he loses a soldier defending that village from the Taliban, he gets investigated.”

Under such a threat, can a mid-level Army officer be blamed for taking few risks? The problem is much higher than individual battalion and brigade commanders: a command obsessed over casualties in the short term misses the chance to create an environment that results in fewer casualties over the long term.

In Afghanistan, that process is growing worse by the month: already in January of 2009, casualties were several times higher than they were the previous winter, when fighting is normally at its least intense.

It is that mentality – severe risk aversion, coupled with attention paid to process rather than outcome – that risks ultimately undoing the Western mission in Afghanistan. As an institution, the U.S. Army seems unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary to create the conditions for peace: a population that is adequately protected from the crime, drug, and war lords, and therefore no longer contributing to the desperate regional instability.

It is also a mentality that can be challenged in small doses from below, but demands concerted action from above. Command at the highest levels is vital in changing course, and admitting that war is actually a terrible and ghastly thing that requires your own people dying to win. It is a choice not many at the top seem willing to consider.

(Photos by Joshua Foust: ANP officer in Charikar, Parwan Province; the Nijrab Bazaar in Kapisa Province and FOB Salerno, in Khost Province.)

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