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.)

Comments

Why bother talking about what the article says? Do you think anything said here or anything the average person says or thinks will affect what goes on in Afghanistan for real?
I don’t know what’s sillier, actually discussing this article like we can do anything about it or listening to bragging from third world countries about the size of their armies and their nuclear arsenals. Do you think either of these nations armies or nukes mean anything when compared to the developed nations? They have enough power to keep each other in line, but really as world powers? The only reason people care is if their nukes get in to someone else’s hands. Let them nuke each other back to the stone ages, which wouldn’t be a far trip for most areas in these nations, because they seem to want to.
I’m sure if we respect these backwards people customs and goat shagging or whatever it is they do things would be great. Let’s lose some coalition lives so they can grow their beards and herd sheep as seems to be the high point of their civilization. The only thing the west wants out of Afghanistan is a place that won’t produce terrorists. So you can try to waste civilized lives to uphold their desire to be xenophobic goat herders or just depopulate the area and harvest the resources. The real aim should be to be more bloodthirsty than the taliban, make people scared that a NATO airstrike may fall on their village if they don’t report the militants. It’s better to be feared than loved in a hell hole like Afghanistan.

Posted by Steve Rogers | Report as abusive
 

Your reporter doesn’t see the bigger picture. Exploding expensive missles uselessly in the mountains makes perfect sense…. If the reason to stay in Afghanistan was simply to consume military assets for the profit of the US defense establishment. Rumsfeld said long ago there were no more lucrative targets. Consider that the people that keep our forces there really don’t want peace but “commerce”. How much does a Hellfire missle mission plus CIA support cost? No war, no sales.
The only lucrative target still being hit is US taxpayers pockets. When Afghanistan won’t sell enough anymore, our news giants will dutifully report the next big threat. We should be grateful we are currently killing only small numbers of people. With this new concept of preemptive strikes being moral, we could be doing a lot more damage somewhere else.

Posted by David | Report as abusive
 

@Wishful thinking, we have a sying here, SLEEP TIGHT: Pakistan Air Force is awake.
-posted by Umair

Indians believe in the saying “Those with power remain silent”.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive
 

I am seeing that the people are involved with irrational discussion. I have strongly feeling that we may turn our discussion into a beneficial idea sharing.The world is a great place only if we give up our hatred, anger, stereotype, prejudices, and establish mutual respect, patience, sharing thoughts, and gaining knowledge.

 

Steve,
I dont see many illegitimate chilren of hitler on this blog. Welcome!

The problem with nuclear war is that its impact cannot be contained. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan will generate enough nuclear dust to give you skin cancer.So think again!

The Areas you are talking about were flourishing civilization since the time when your ancestars were still living in Caves. Read about Indus valley civilization, Silk route, Bamiyan to enlighten yourself.

Posted by chirkut | Report as abusive
 

Shahin
“The world is a great place only if we give up our hatred, anger, stereotype, prejudices, and establish mutual respect, patience, sharing thoughts, and gaining knowledge.”

http://tmir.org/_wsn/page3.html

“The Arabs are mentally slave to West. The consequences, we all will face in the future, its only because the American dog Kuwait.”
— & then they have the cheek to preach loudly to others…

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

Patrick
“We have the greatest military the world has ever seen (gotta brag on ‘em). “

—Yeah, the greatest military the world has ever seen is hunting a 80 yr. old man for the last 8 years….(worth bragging)

Old Blue
“and how that hinders efforts to provide security for the people, the average Afghan who would dearly love to just live his life without threat on a daily basis, is an important subject.”

— Whoa! Here come the US Cowboys….

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

Steve Rogers
“Do you think either of these nations armies or nukes mean anything when compared to the developed nations?”

—Huh! What did these ‘developed nations’ do when Russia invaded Georgia? anything???

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

Chirkut

“The Areas you are talking about were flourishing civilization since the time when your ancestars were still living in Caves.”

— They still live in their isolated ‘mind-caves’ blissfully unaware of humanity…

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

Steve Rogers writes: “Do you think either of these nations armies or nukes mean anything when compared to the developed nations?”

First your people rape the rest of the world, take away all it was wearing, leaving her stark naked, turn her to prostitution and now you are fighting for the eradication of the same?

Funny comment Steve. Guess what, you are beginning to sound like the Taliban – Rape victim is punished instead of the persons who committed the crime.

And Mr. Steve Rogers, your people now have contracted the venereal disease that you made others get. And it is only going to spread. Enjoy what others have been given all these years.

 

I see these great civilizations have gone back to the caves these days.
Also Russia is one of the developed nations that’s why it got away with what it did.

Posted by Steve Rogers | Report as abusive
 

Steve Rogers writes: “Russia is one of the developed nations that’s why it got away with what it did.”

They fell apart in 1991 remember? They were tight wrapped by Communism until then. Their civilization breathed for the first time in 70 years after Communism was defeated. But Russians belong to the same kind of people – those who are clever and destroy others with cold blood. The world is paying for what they did over centuries.

 

To Shahin:

Do not let them deter you. You are helping, instead of making fun of people. You have shown kindness, and they will see you as weak. To be a sheep among wolves, the only trick is not to run. Wolves attack from behind, using the fear of the sheep to expose itself and run. Don’t run. Let them chase their tales, round and round, in a karmic circle until they get dizzy and fall down. You will not be popular with many of the posters on this forum, but keep trying anyway. These forums have definitely opened my eyes to the way others of the world view themselves and their peers. I hope you gain something here, too. You are light in this world. Please keep SHINING!

I love you.
Peace.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive
 

“same kind of people – those who are clever and destroy others”
- Posted by Mauryan

“your people now have contracted the venereal disease that you made others get”
- Posted by Mauryan

“your people rape the rest of the world”
- Posted by Mauryan

“And it is only going to spread.”
- Posted by Mauryan

In the sport of baseball, this is referred to as “batting the cycle”. And you are one hell of a hitter.
Please continue to spread our “disease” if you like. We are tired of it. But you, Mauryan, definitly have the tools to wield that weapon. Who has wronged YOU? If you continue to live in the past, the world will leave you there. If you preach hate and fear for the future, you WILL BE RIGHT. If you use this hate to make yourself strong, you will fade away that much quicker. I am an American. We are learning this fact, and I fear we may not “get it” in time. Hopefully, we are realizing that our feeling of being “wronged” by the British should have left our hearts the day they left. Don’t forget, just forgive.
Strength is privilege, not a right. Abuse the weak, physically or verbally, and they will rise against you. And so the cycle continues. Show kindness to your foes, not magnamity when it suits you. Help someone, not attack them. I promise you will feel better. And they will too.
No one is or ever will be “educated”, but we are ALL learning.

I love you.
Peace.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive
 

Steve,
Your thoughtless words are not helping. Everyone will group me with you, so for crying out loud, HELP! These are real people you so carelessly dismiss as unimportant, and maybe someone will think our soldiers and leaders have your heartless outlook. Our soldiers are dying for your arrogance. It’s not some f’ing video game. The world is listening here. For real.

I love you.
Peace.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive
 

Patrick
“In the sport of baseball, this is referred to as “batting the cycle”. And you are one hell of a hitter.
Please continue to spread our “disease” if you like. We are tired of it. But you, ‘Patrick’, definitely have the tools to wield that weapon. Who has wronged YOU? Mr. Osama Bin Laden & his Al-Queda? If you continue to live in the past, the world will leave you there. If you preach hate and fear for the future, you WILL BE RIGHT. If you use this hate to make yourself strong, you will fade away that much quicker. You are an American. YOU must learn this fact, and I fear you may not “get it” in time. Hopefully, you shall realize that your feeling of being “wronged” by the Islamists should have left your hearts on the day 9/11. Don’t forget, just forgive.
Strength is privilege, not a right. Abuse the weak, for instance the Taliban, physically or verbally, and they will rise against you. And so the cycle continues. Show kindness to your foes, not magnamity when it suits you. Help someone, not attack them. I promise you will feel better. And they will too.(OSAMA confirms affirmative)
No one is or ever will be “educated”, but we are ALL learning.” (at whose cost & lives? heard the word ‘redemption’?)
I love you.
Peace.

—Almighty have mercy & hopefully in the dawn of the future we won’t have to bear ‘loud-cheap advises-from-the hypocritical westerners’

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

Patrick
—Steve & Umair are a thousand times better-off than you, they speak but what they sincerely perceive as true, & not behave like two-faced snakes…

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

I think this is also the reason that the US Army had no problem droping white phosphorus on Fallujah a couple of years ago. They are afraid of casualties, they know that the superior technology can only go so far in close combat, so they would rather not go in and bomb some buildings with artillary from 10 miles away. We are STILL in Iraq, with 4000+ casualties, and now in Afghanistan we are drumming up war again, only this time we are in economic recession.

 

Patrick writes: “Show kindness to your foes, not magnamity when it suits you. Help someone, not attack them. I promise you will feel better. And they will too.”

Mr. Patrick,

Talking is easy. If you put yourself to test, I can bet your human emotions will take over. If you are such a forgiving person, I dare you to take a back pack and walk into Tora Bora or southern Afghanistan all by yourself, showing kindness and mercy to everything there. When you meet with Bin Laden, forgive him, embrace him and allow him to cut you up while you pray to the Lord for forgiving the ignorant.

Criminals must be punished no matter who they are. Bin Laden organized one of the greatest crimes against humanity by killing innocent people. He is hiding inside the lawless regions of Pakistan (how about the rest of it, on second thoughts). And he is able to survive this far because of the support he is getting from criminal minded people and organizations in the area. The problem will not stop with just getting Bin Laden. The whole system has to be cleaned up. When we get there, there will be a realization that the root cause is even larger – greed of “civilized nations” that needs to be addressed. And so on.

The world is like a well manicured lawn. Weeds will always grow. You cannot show mercy to the weeds if you want to keep the lawn and the yard perfect. Once in a while you have to clean up and good grass will go with it too.

One cannot talk of idealism in a war zone. Gandhi paid a price for it. Remember that India is the only country in the world that could produce the Buddha, Gandhi and numerous such people. Because of the such people, most of India has remained benign. If Lincoln had preached mercy and forgiveness, the US would be two countries now, armed to the teeth and looking just like India and Pakistan. There are times when you have to be the police and when you have to be a priest. You cannot switch roles in the wrong context.

 

No rape victims shall go unpunished in Pakistan. Honor killings will continue.

Pakistan will not be ready for democracy until it leaves the 8th century behind.

The Americans are seriously delusional if they they think these Pakistani’s who practice these backwards things are serious and honest in fighting extremist Islam.

Posted by Global Watcher | Report as abusive
 

“In the sport of baseball, this is referred to as “batting the cycle”. And you are one hell of a hitter.
Please continue to spread our “disease” if you like. We are tired of it. But you, Mauryan, definitly have the tools to wield that weapon. Who has wronged YOU? If you continue to live in the past, the world will leave you there. If you preach hate and fear for the future, you WILL BE RIGHT. If you use this hate to make yourself strong, you will fade away that much quicker. I am an American. We are learning this fact, and I fear we may not “get it” in time. Hopefully, we are realizing that our feeling of being “wronged” by the British should have left our hearts the day they left. Don’t forget, just forgive.
Strength is privilege, not a right. Abuse the weak, physically or verbally, and they will rise against you. And so the cycle continues. Show kindness to your foes, not magnamity when it suits you. Help someone, not attack them. I promise you will feel better. And they will too.
No one is or ever will be “educated”, but we are ALL learning.

I love you.
Peace.”

- Posted by Patrick

I wish more people would think like you Patrick, truly wise words, some people on this blog need to take notes.

Posted by Glad | Report as abusive
 

—Almighty have mercy & hopefully in the dawn of the future we won’t have to bear ‘loud-cheap advises-from-the hypocritical westerners’

–Patrick gives that with “I love you”.

I think when the bomber nuked Hiroshima/Nagaski and killed 250,000 ?? and gave diseases to generation—he also said “I love you”. 100,000 innocent Iraqis (read as children, kids, men and women) got killed in a show of firepower to take out their former friend Sadaam Hussain–al with I love you. But Shahin, you keep on shining since patrick wants it. Interesting. Cannot get hold of such nice guys so easily off the net. Also read that it is not Isreal who is bombing the kids in school in Gaza it is US–it is all US support–I love you again.

Indian-Pakistanis can verbally nuke but westerners do in reality–the reality shows–I love you Patrick and would like to teach you american football, baseball and cricket too.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive
 

@We are STILL in Iraq, with 4000+ casualties, and now in Afghanistan we are drumming up war again, only this time we are in economic recession.
- Posted by Aron

-For a change let us count the innocent killed by Westerners.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive
 

I like to make one thing clear that “Honor Killing” is not Islamic. It is a babarious practice from pre-Islamic time (Jahilila). To punish somebody in the accusation of adultery it requires four witness and permission of the Kadi (Sharia court judge). Those who are trying to push their evil practices they are enemy of Islam.

 

Unless we go to an absolute, no holds barred war, we will lose big time…count on it!

Posted by akamaial | Report as abusive
 

Courtesy Umair
Excerpts from- Inter Services Pubilc Relations, Pakistan

“The term extremism is generally used to elucidate the activities or ideologies of individuals or groups outside the perceived political centre of a society.”
“. 9/11 is indicative of frustration coming to an extreme juncture, thus reaching its critical mass and exploding in the form of terrorism.”
“US needed Pakistan to organize proxy war against … Soviet Union, by promoting Jihad culture through religious outfits that were showered with weapon, money and other resources… thus the Jihad culture acquired roots here in Pakistani society. Pakistan’s geo-political location rendered it appropriate to be used as a centre of all activities…”
“The current state of instability in Pakistan is a result of a series of direct intercessions in Afghanistan by USSR and the United States.”
“Madaris have a failing in the course they teach one sect as true Islam and others as false . This insufficient education makes these students amateurs and quacks, fodder for the ever increasing disharmony among sects.”
“Taliban established peace in Afghanistan for the first time ever since 1979. Osama Bin Laden along with his Arab and non Arab accomplices remained in Afghanistan till US piloted attack following the incident of 9/11.
United States, West and international community should be relentlessly harked back that Pakistan’s current fatalities at the hands of extremists and terrorists is because of our coalition with them, either against Soviet invasion or being used as a front line state in Global War on Terrorism. Pakistan did not get any thing in return except adding enemies for itself both at domestic and global arena.”

“India is investing greatly on these terrorists to cause instability in Pakistan”
“India incorrectly assumed that Pakistan is behind the indigenous Kashmiri’s struggle…”

—Umair, How come almost every Pakistani & govt. agencies have the ‘same’ sound-bytes to offer- do the universities in Pakistan conduct special brain-washing & anti-India / anti-west courses? I would love to attend one such course.

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

emptiness & fullness
set opponents off on the wrong track so that they can never fight with you. when opponents come to attack you do not fight with them but rather set up a
STRATEGIC CHANGE to confuse them (can’t be that hard)
and make them uncertain, deflecting them from their original intention to attack, making them reluctant to fight with you.
when Sima Yi was going to attack Zhuge Liang, Zhuge took down his flags & put away his battle drums, opened the gates and swept the road.
Yi suspected an ambush, so he withdrew his forces and fled.(variations on this theme could be fun)
when you induce others to construct a formation while you yourself are FORMLESS then you are concentrated while the opponent is DIVIDED.

what is orthodox to you ,make opponents see as unorthodox; visa versa. this is inducing others to construct a formation. to be able to use the unorthodox as orthodox & use the orthodox as unorthodox, CHANGE in a whirl, making yourself UNFATHOMABLE to opponents, is being FORMLESS. once the opponent’s formation is seen, then you mass your troops against it. since your FORM is not revealed, the opponent will surely divide up his forces for security.
when you are concentrated into one while the opponent is divided into ten, you are attacking at a concentration of 10 to 1, so you outnumber the enemy.
do not go to the trouble of elaborate preparations.

while being deeply entrenched & highly barricaded, NOT allowing ANY INFORMATION about yourself to BECOME KNOWN, go out & in formlessly attacking & taking unfathomably. harry & confuse enemies so that they divide their troops in fear, trying to cover themselves on all sides. it is like climbing a high mountain to spy on a citadel!
don’t let the enemy know where you will clash, for if they know they will mass their strength to resist you.
the more defences you induce your enemy to adopt the more impoverished your enemy will be.

so if you know the place and time of battle you can join the fight from a thousnd miles away.
[excerpts from the Art of War by Master Sun]

Posted by sweeny | Report as abusive
 

I like to make one thing clear that “Honor Killing” is not an Islamic teaching. It is a babarious practice from pre-Islamic time (Jahilila).Islamically to punish somebody in the accusation of adultery it requires four witness and the verdict from a Kadi (Sharia court judge). Those who are trying to push their evil practices in the name of Islam they are the enemy of Islam.For everyone to know that there is no Sharia court in the world for last 100 years except Sauidi Arabia.

 

Mullah Shahin
“For everyone to know that there is no Sharia court in the world for last 100 years except Sauidi Arabia.”

—Care to spell out what’s it’s track record for the up-liftment @ empowerment of women.

Posted by anup | Report as abusive
 

I disagree with what the journalist has said about us losing the COIN war because of us being behind too much armor and protection. We’re losing the COIN war not because of us trying to protect ourselves, but simply because there are too many rules and we worry more about popular opinion than really winning a war. We are not able to fully implement our warfighting tools to ensure a victory, no matter how much we disagree with it but the the dirtiest player wins. Additionally, we protect ourselves so much because the country and the majority of the people are not worth risking ourselves anymore than we already do. As a numerous deployer myself I will say that it is not worth it at all.

Posted by Kris | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •