In War Too, Personnel is Policy


In War Too, Personnel Is Policy
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.

A young officer of the 101st serving in Khost explained to me that these “command-pull” IEDs “are accurate, and can be targeted against any vehicle in an element. Sure, the attacker exposes himself during the attack, but if you are 300 meters away and can immediately drive off, there’s little threat.”

This same officer emailed me that two months after the arrival of the 101st, no area of Khost was secure from IEDs anymore, the Taliban was gaining political support, and the people’s cooperation with the government was deteriorating in Gov. Jamal’s absence.

A more senior officer who served in Khost confided that the success there was at least in part “a perfect storm” created by personality, the fruit of the collaboration of Gov. Jamal with the brilliant and personable Lt. Col. Custer and Cmdr. David Adams. These men left and were replaced by commanders still at the beginning of their learning curve.

As Lt. Col. Custer put it, “despite the best COIN pre-deployment training in the world, it took me 90 to 120 days to understand the battlefield environment, personalities, and gain trust with the Afghan officials. It is only at this point does the ground maneuver commander become effective.”

The original genius of COIN theory, the Tunisian-French pied-noir colonel David Galula, touches on this problem in the last pages of his masterpiece, “Pacification in Algeria. 1956-1958.”

Galula’s big idea was simple: Place small numbers of the 100 soldiers under his command in isolated villages, living among the populace. Galula’s men supervised and funded the building of the area’s first schools, latrines, garbage pits and street cleaning in their villages. According to Galula, the very fact that he could disperse his company so much was proof of success.

Galula realized that the objective wasn’t to kill terrorists so much as to create an environment in the civilian population where they could not find support. This idea – which was eventually adopted by the entire French Army in Algeria – is the kernel of all subsequent COIN theory.

“There were no sharp edges to Galula,” recalls defense expert Stephen Hosmer. “He was charming.” Just days after Galula finished his rotation in Kabilya, his successor was shot dead on an evening patrol. That officer’s replacement was then assassinated after eight months in command.

Perhaps Galula’s success stemmed as much from his extraordinary personality as from his innovative ideas. This implies that the U.S. should approach our counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan in the spirit of true conservatism – skeptical of grand claims, patient and aware that war is more art than science.

Ms. Marlowe is a New York-based writer. This year she completed her 10th trip to Afghanistan and her third embed with U.S. forces there.

Comments are closed.