In War Too, Personnel Is Policy
By ANN MARLOWE
June 14, 2008
As it becomes clear that the surge in Iraq is working – and with the Marines in southern Afghanistan succeeding where the British spent two years in a stalemate – we should beware of the temptation to congratulate ourselves on getting counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine right. In following a well-planned and executed counterinsurgency in Khost Province, Afghanistan, from summer 2007 to the present, I’ve seen that doctrine is not enough.
There are recognized best practices, such as living among the people and separating them from the insurgency. But in the societies where an army is likely to be fighting an insurgency – tribal, badly governed, poorly educated, and where politics is overwhelmingly personal – the role of commanders’ personalities may be larger than we want to acknowledge.
Experience – and the intuition it brings – may be as valuable as doctrine. The long tours of duty that the U.S. Army has been mandating in Iraq and Afghanistan are thus an excellent idea – at least for our fight against terror, if not for military families.
On three embeds – in July and November 2007 and March 2008 – I saw the American military adopting best-practice COIN strategies. The troops in question were the 619 paratroopers of the second battalion of the 321st regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division. They spent most of a 15-month deployment in Khost, and all but two returned home.
As a result of their efforts, this million-population, San Francisco Bay-sized border province became known as the “model province” among the 14 under American command.
But the real secret was the decision of Khost maneuver commander Lt. Col Scottie D. Custer to move his men off the big base at Salerno, and to live, platoon by platoon, in eight Force Protection Centers around the province, providing security to the people. Also playing key roles were Arsala Jamal, Khost’s efficient 43-year-old governor, and Navy Cmdr. David Adams, an unusually gifted Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) commander.
“Key to our counterinsurgency success in Khost was that projects went hand-in-hand with our presence in the districts,” Cmdr. Adams explains. “We would respond to every attack with a new project ceremony in order to point out that the Afghan government and coalition were partnering to rebuild the country, while the enemy was just blowing things up. It seemed after a while the insurgents got tired of competing because the tribes were clearly on our side.”
As a result, 11 of Khost’s 12 districts supported the Afghan government by the end of the battalion’s deployment. (The two paratroopers who were killed died in the 12th district, Sabari.) In later 2007 and early 2008, a greater number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were being called in before they could explode. Khostis were engaging with local government in increasing numbers. A network of asphalt roads crisscrossed Khost, 50 schools were built by the American military and 12,000 jobs added to the economy.
In April 2008, the 82nd Airborne troops in Khost went home. They were replaced by soldiers from the 101st Airborne. At the same time, Gov. Jamal went to Canada to see his family.
Suddenly, the successful COIN program in Khost began to show signs of strain. Within two months, five American troops and one military civilian died in IED and vehicle-born IED attacks in Sabari. A new type of IED began to appear, essentially 20 pounds of explosives in a plastic bucket. Without any metal elements, it can’t be detected by mine sweepers.