Downrange: An Informal Report of a trip to Afghanistan with Marine Gen. James N. Mattis
[Part Four of Four]
COIN doctrine, counter-insurgency theory, says “protect the people” comes before “kill the enemy.” In meeting after meeting we heard all the right things from officers and civilian leaders who were earnest, brave, well-intentioned, smart, sincere, hard-working and absolutely decent and ethical. We heard about construction projects and rules of engagement and mitigating civilian casualties, about liaising with tribal elders and managing escalation of force and irrigation and extracting resources and using local people, defeating the corruption of the Karzai regime, delivering good governance, etc. But I didn’t see any Afghans in the rooms. I didn’t see any in the PRT sessions (the meetings with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.)
Maybe that observation is unfair. Maybe it was in the nature of this trip—that its task was to investigate other areas. In Marjah and Lashkar Gah, we heard about the construction contracts that would start soon and the “government in a box” that would be set up immediately. Certainly the new Afghan flag fluttering over the police station looks hopeful. But Marjah has been a Taliban stronghold for the past five years and those boys aren’t going away. Will development efforts stick? Will the tribal people accept police and administration from the government in the capital? In meetings in Kabul, we heard experienced, honest U.S. generals declare with full confidence that today’s Afghans possess a sense of national identity. “Ask a man who he is and he won’t name his tribe; he’ll tell you he’s an Afghan.”
Will he? I wish I believed it. Searching the eyes of the men and boys in Marjah, the best I could see was wariness and skepticism, the worst enmity and hostility. Who can blame them? I’d be half-Taliban and hedging my bets too. Yeah, the Americans are strong and brave and they’ve got jets and armor. Some of them even speak a bit of Pashto. But how long are they going to stick around?
Can the Machine make the stretch? In Kabul we drove past rows of Arabian Nights mansions behind fifteen-foot walls topped with razor wire and security cameras. Drugs lords and corrupt officials who have raked millions from construction contracts and international aid. To truly reach the people (and that is, after all, the be-all and end-all of COIN strategy), the Machine has to get around that—and around a culture of family, clan and tribal loyalty and patronage that goes back five thousand years, not to mention bonds and rivalries, blood feuds and grievances of honor among warlords who are now cabinet ministers and sub-commanders and ex-mujahideen who are fighting on three sides at the same time and whose codes and secret ways are as impenetrable to our Machine as the squiggles in Farsi and Dari (or is it Arabic?) on the walls of the mechanics’ shops and the ad billboards for cell phones.
11. We meet with ISAF commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in a conference area adjacent to his “war room.” Without exception, the American and Coalition commanders we spend time with are A+++ leaders, and Gen. McChrystal impresses me as the best of the best. Clearly he understands (far better than any of us reporting on it) the maddening complexity of the conflict, and he and his team are working as hard and as smartly as they can to do their job and accomplish their mission. Gen. McChrystal is the only U.S. commander with no budget. What he needs, he gets. He can cherry-pick any individual from any unit and get him sent wherever he wants. At least that’s the theory. But even the Machine can grind slowly sometimes. I ask him if he feels he is getting enough support from up the chain of command. He answers sincerely, I believe, that he feels backed up fully by the White House, the SecDef and all hands in the Capitol and the Pentagon.
I know he means it, and I know that generals don’t get four stars because they don’t relish handling an adult portion. But this chore is a real bastard. I wish I felt that the Prez and the American people were in it with both feet.
12. Maybe Vietnam is the culprit–the U.S.’s last unhappy experience with a conscripted army. Maybe blame can be localized to whatever forces or events turned the U.S. electorate off to the idea that every citizen owes service to his country–and decreed that 100% of the burden for defending our nation be borne by 5% of its citizenry. The all-volunteer military is probably the most highly functioning sector in American society and the only one in which the public still places full faith. But our troops are out here alone in space. They can hack it. In their own way they relish it. But that’s a lot of weight on their shoulders–and lot on Gen. McChrystal’s. “Today in America,” says Navy Capt. Kevin Sweeney, Gen. Mattis’ executive assistant, “if you don’t have a son or husband or a neighbor who’s in the military, you don’t even know there’s a war on. You see film on the news but the fight seems a million miles away, and you don’t want to hear about it anyway. It’s someone else’s problem. I don’t blame people. Who wants to ruin their dinner, hearing about civilian casualties and suicide bombers? But it’s happening. We’re here and this is a real fight and somebody ought to know about it.”
What’s my final takeaway from all this?
13. I went into this trip with an axe to grind (the name of this blog is, after all, “It’s The Tribes, Stupid”) and I came home carrying that same axe.
To me, the tribes are the X factor. They and the boots-on-the-ground troopers who work with them are the link between the Machine and the People. We were meeting with Gen. Scaparotti, commander of Combined Joint Task Force – 82, whose area of responsibility is the 14 provinces of Regional Command East, where the Pashtun tribes dominate and where enemy supplies and fighting men roll in and out across the Pakistani border. Gen. Scap told us of the Shinwari tribe, 400,000-strong, who had on their own concluded an internal treaty to resist the Taliban and work with Coalition forces. Tribal elders signed and planted their thumb prints, agreeing to fine any member who supported the insurgency and to burn down that person’s house. I asked the general how he placed this development in context of the overall fight. Was it an aberration or a potential game-changer? “The tribes signing up was huge,” he said. In the cities it’s different because tribal influences are less, but in the country (and 95% of Afghanistan is country) this is exactly the kind of turnaround we need and we must support it any way we can.
Gen. Scap worried though that such self-generated, bottom-up movements can be messy and difficult to control. I told him about my own friend, Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai (you know him if you’ve followed this blog), and the Tribal Police Force he has raised in his district in Paktia province. Though the chief speaks better English than I do and is passionately pro-Western, he has had to move heaven and earth to get the U.S. units in his district to work with him–and as recently as a month ago, American elements were trying to arrest his chief of police. I heard this same skepticism voiced at a recent think tank meeting in Washington, D.C. “Won’t empowering the tribes,” one of the Senior Fellows asked, “inevitably conflict with supporting the central government, which is, after all, our mission in Afghanistan?”
We missed the tribes on this trip. The agenda was to meet with American and Afghan commanders. But in the meetings and the walkarounds and on the plane flights, I couldn’t help thinking about Special Forces Maj. Jim Gant (you know him too from these pages) and the Marine infantry battalions and Special Forces teams and the officers and men of army and allied units who have been, and are today, out there with the real Afghan people. I still don’t know how many of these men (and women too) there are—or where this fits into the enterprise of the overall Machine. I hope we’ve got somebody with the Shinwari. I hope more are coming, to that tribe and to others <em>as tribes</em>. And I hope those officers who are doing this work, in whatever form it takes, are getting support and not just lip service.
14. What makes us Americans different from the Russians or the Brits who came to Afghanistan before us? For one thing, we’re not there to conquer the place. We’re not out to destroy the tribal system, as the Russians tried to do, and we’re not here unilaterally. Our mandate derives from the U.N. and our support comes from troops of more than forty countries. We’re the good guys, and the more up close and personal our soldiers and Marines and PRT teams can get with the village and tribal Afghans, the clearer that truth will become to them and the more impact it will have. The Machine is doing fine in its sphere. The Afghan people are the same as they’ve always been. Where the twain meet, if indeed they do, is and will be face-to-face, person-to-person, man-to-man.
Can we do that? Does the Machine have that gear? I don’t know.
The Senior Fellow at the think tank raised another excellent question. He was expressing skepticism about the feasibility of a policy that reaches out to the tribes and banks on the people-skills of American and Coalition team members to produce bonds and build trust across cultures so disparate and so far apart. “How can the United States bet on a policy,” the Fellow asked, “that relies on geniuses?”
That question shut me up. I didn’t have an answer in the moment. But I think now that such a policy doesn’t need geniuses. It doesn’t need anything that our Marines and soldiers don’t already have and aren’t already doing. It needs smart and brave young captains and lieutenants and sergeants and lance corporals who can connect across the cultural divide. It needs civilians like Greg Mortenson of <em>Three Cups of Tea</em> and <em>Stones Into Schools.</em> It needs money to back these individuals, political will to protect them and patience to keep them in place until they have time to do their job. I hope Marjah works. I hope it’s the start of something.
Afghanistan is ancient; it’s not coming into the modern world any time soon. Afghanistan is tribal. We’re not going to turn it into New Jersey in the next eighteen months. The Machine can’t overcome those realities by itself, and it can’t connect across the gulf between East and West, ancient and modern, unless it can bring to bear a dedicated element whose task is to do just that. I’m not a believer yet. I want to be. When I see that dedicated component–and see it in the field, being supported by our unbeatable Machine–maybe I will be.
[Photos by 1LT Joshua Diddams, MEB-A Media Officer.]