During last month’s sex scandals involving Tampa socialites, biography writers, and military generals, many people in the Coastal Bend were horrified to learn there is still a shooting war going on in Afghanistan. The American Army hasn’t forgotten about the shooting war. In a demonstration of focusing on the unimportant instead of the important, the Army is writing up new guidelines for soldiers interacting with Afghans. Check out these pearls of wisdom:
“… offers a list of “taboo conversation topics” that soldiers should avoid, including “making derogatory comments about the Taliban,” “advocating women’s rights,” “any criticism of pedophilia,” “directing any criticism towards Afghans,” “mentioning homosexuality and homosexual conduct” or “anything related to Islam.”
I spent over eight years living in Afghanistan working almost exclusively with an Afghan crew built around a nucleus of trusted Afghan friends. Making “derogatory comments” about the Taliban, criticizing Afghans (particularly politicians), busting their balls about dancing boys, noting the fact that they have more terms for buggery then the Eskimos have for snow, and teasing them about their cultural mores was how we bonded.
I learned over the years working in Afghanistan that people are people no matter where you are. When operating in an active conflict zone the only way to learn how to interact effectively with the locals is to engage with the locals. One has to build up a baseline of trust which can not be done without open and honest communication. There are huge variations between Afghans and Westerners in what constitutes acceptable topics for public conversation, but learning the cultural norms is not hard and doesn’t take long.
The ISAF mission in Afghanistan now seems to be focused on training Afghan security forces in the way of the gun, so they can defend what is now recognized as the most corrupt government in the world. Our “COIN Doctrine” remains silent on what to do when the government one is trying to support is the most corrupt in the world.
The military has learned how to operate inside the bureaucracy using the same techniques the “outside the wire crew” used over the years. This is a quote from a Belmont Club post that I also quoted in this prescient November 2009 FRI post on Counter-Bureaucracy:
“In other words, they wanted to give the troops a chance against the bureaucracy. In that fight, the troop’s main weapon was the habitual relationship, a word which apparently signifies the informal networks that soldiers actually use to get around the bureaucracy. If done by the book most everything might actually be impossible. Only by performing continuous expedients is anything accomplished at all.”
It seems strange that the Army goes to Afghanistan for over a decade, learns how to operate Afghan style inside their own bureaucracy, yet fails to apply the same solution in their dealings with Afghans. They do not have the patience, time or ability to develop the “habitual relationships” required to navigate inside Afghan society. As a result they devise ludicrous short-sighted strategies such as walking on eggshells around Afghan troops.
Also in the linked FRI post was the definitive description of “COIN” by my good friend Mullah John. I think it has withstood the test of time.
”COIN is the graduate level of war: complete nonsense. COIN is police work, a touch of CT with decent municipal services. To say that handing out welfare in Logar (Eastern Province in Afghanistan) requires even the same level of military expertise as conducting Overlord or the Six Day War is utter rubbish.
It’s hubris designed to make Petreaus et al seem to be considerably more clever than they actually are and also serves to justify the continued existence of the US Army at its current size and holds out the hope however unlikely, that Zen Masters like the object of the article have the magical answer to Pashtoon objections to foreign armies being in their country: Poetry! Of course why didn’t we all see it and VON KRIEGE in the original German ! and Sun Tzu and captains being allowed to spend money EUREKA!
BTW thinking outside the box normally describes thought at odds with received wisdom and certainly with the entire chain of command.”
Here is long and very sad story by Dr. Peretz Partensky from the Synergy Strike Force. It is the first of what will become many upsetting tales concerning Afghans who befriended and worked with us “foreigners”. Below is an extract from the end of Peretz’s fascinating story:
“On August 21, motorcycle gunmen targeted Sudir and Najib’s car. Sudir managed to accelerate away unharmed. The rear windshield was shattered and three bullets lodged inside the cabin, including one in the driver’s seat.
“Najib wrote to share a rumor of a circulating kill list with forty names. All of these people are Afghans who have been associated with Americans. His family has asked him to leave Jalalabad because his presence presents a danger to them. His cousins have split up his land with a ritual rite of inheritance, as if he were dead. An old friend of his from the orphanage in Tashkent, whom he’s found on a Russian social network, has taken him in.
Sudir’s family’s land was also confiscated, by neighbors invoking Ghanima law, which says that you can pillage the land of your enemies. Sudir had been saving earnings from his work for the SSF, but supporting his displaced family has now burned through these resources.”
These days, I hesitate to log onto Facebook or Skype, partly to avoid conversations (like one below) with one of my former Afghan crew, a competent engineer who is a good man:
Dear Mr. Tim,
Good day I hope you and your family are doing well,
It has been long time that I have not heard of you ? Where are you in these days. Here in Afghanistan we see lots of new programs runing under USA fund but I dont know about your plan is there any plan you to have some USA fund for our country or not . If there is fund or program with you for our country please contact us to help you in implementaion or if you dont please try to get some fund for programs. Beucase this is the time that USA again provided fund in Afghanistan .
I have Mr. S******* former ### International security manager say hello to you and to your family and he has also imphasized that you need to come Afghanistan and help your formers subardonates getting jobs, otherwise we are about to be taken by flood , you know what I mean if you dont have support you will have never job by your own qulification. Eventually, we need you here our big loin .
G**** And S*********
These notes break my heart as I contemplate the misfortune that has befallen our friends in Jalalabad. Sudir and Najib are pseudonyms for guys who are not only college graduates but talented Fab Labbers. They also, along with my son Logan, built out the Jbad Fab Fi system. What’s happening to them is a disaster and there seems to be nothing any of us can do for them.
As I have said repeatedly in the past, Afghanistan is not going to end well. There was a time when many of us who worked there had hope for some sort of acceptable endstate. That hope is about gone, as are too many good friends like the late manager of the Taj Mehrabudin Saraj pictured above with Matthew VanDyke and I in Jalalabad, November 2010.
The next two years are going to be painful for those of us who have friends, family or interest in Afghanistan. I’m not sure I can sit them out either but, at the moment, have no plans to go back. I’m not going to be able to watch my friends suffer because they spent years loyally working with me. I’m not sure what I can do but do know doing nothing is not an option.