Seven PMCs Are Going Home

I don’t claim to be an expert on, well, anything, but particularly Private Military Companies (PMCs).

However, this piece from the Associated Press made me think very good thoughts. Firstly, they have a patchy reputation. Think Blackwater, the PMC that just won’t go away. There are apparently links between Raymond Davis and Blackwater/Xe. PMCs also have a reputation for being trigger happy.

But secondly, and more importantly, this is a great day for wider Afghan development. The article makes reference to Hamid Karzai’s desire to take control of the situation. Karzai “charges that they slow down the development of Afghanistan’s own security forces,” which is probably quite true.

Think about it this way: You are trying to learn a new skill and every time you get to an impasse, someone is there saying “that part’s a bit tricky, let me take care of that for you, I’ll give it back when it’s done.”

And also, it’s allowing the Afghan government to further “our commitment to transparency and the rule of law.”

As a first civilian step in demobilizing foreign forces in Afghanistan, I can only see this as a good thing. It will force the Afghan police to step up and take responsibility, knowing, I think, that if bad things start happening, there’ll be a foreigner there, with his foot up someone’s backside, telling him to get it together.

What are your thoughts?

Stephen Walt on Afghanistan

Stephen Walt has a fantastic piece at Foreign Policy, discussing the current American ‘strategy’ in Afghanistan.

His argument is that there seems to be little connection between the strategy, as laid out in FM 3-24, and what is happening on the ground. I must say that I wholeheartedly agree with pretty much everything he has to say.

My biggest issue with the current strategy, as I see it, in Afghanistan, is that there is too much emphasis on the protection of NATO forces, not enough on the protection of the locals. The indigenous population is the central focus of counterinsurgency. (It’s also the central focus of fourth generation warfare. See Thomas Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century) However, as recent operations have shown (see Joshua Foust’s indictment of the destruction of the village at Tarok Kolache—and, crucially, the American reaction to it), there seems to be little, if any, respect from the American soldiers for the livelihoods of ordinary Afghans—the very people they are there to protect, reassure and nuture.

As Josh points out in his piece, “war is hell. … But what is happening right now in Southern Afghanistan is inexcusable.” Personally, I was concerned when I learned that the US were taking over operations in Southern Afghanistan last January. Their penchant for “high tempo, kinetic operations” (read: shoot now, ask questions later) smacks of an inability to comprehend the fundamentals of counterinsurgency.

However, a recent piece from the British army’s PR machine “Helmand Blog” (which I briefly mentioned here) tells the story of a village painstakingly de-mined. The result, a much happier populace, returning to their homes. Josh Foust’s response suggests that this is a model of “how you demonstrate good faith, good intentions, and a desire to delegitimize the Taliban (as opposed to merely destroying whomever you can identify).”

Granted, the American army, at the end of the Cold War, developed into a terrifically unwieldy beast, by the nature of its vast size, and training for Cold War-style, World War Two-style, set piece battles. It’s having trouble ‘training down’ to fight counterinsurgency effectively.


On a side note, has anyone else noticed a similarity between the fighting in Afghanistan (as represented by the documentaries Battle for Marjah and Restrepo) and the Spanish Civil War (as represented by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)?

Doing It The “Right” Way

I’ve not been following the activities of British forces in Helmand, but in light of Joshua Foust’s piece on Barok Taloche, a couple of months ago, this story from UK Media Ops’ Helmand Blog is very much reassuring.

It concerns the actions of 2 Para and an 80-strong counter-IED team in the Afghan village of Char Coucha. The only information about the action is from the blog. The team dismantled nine devices and recovered a large cache of other weapons and component parts for IEDs.

IEDs are a valuable tool for the insurgents in Afghanistan. They slow down (and necessitate) clearing operations. They are crippling for the all-important ‘momentum’ that NATO forces are trying to maintain.

The painstaking work undertaken here meant that the villagers were able to return to their village. This is perhaps a more appropriate way for counterinsurgency operations to go about securing ‘hearts and minds’.

Post Number One

I just read the latest ICOS report “Afghanistan Transition: Dangers of a Summer Drawdown.” [pdf]

Overall, it seemed to me to be rather negative, concerning the situation in Afghanistan. Two things in particular caught my attention. First, the critique of the ANSF seems unnecessary. Second, the statistics surrounding the Afghan people’s knowledge of why NATO forces are in their country.


However, the result of training as many ANSF as fast as possible is a flood of advanced weaponry into the hands of tens of thousands of mostly young men, whose allegiance is often fluid under the pressures they face. There is a risk of trained ANA or ANP switching alliances or fighting for the insurgency instead of for the Afghan state.

This section in particular, based on my understanding of the situation, seemed a little off-base. To threaten defection because of "fluid" allegiances is misleading. Moreover, it detracts from all the positive work that is being done with regard to the ANA and ANP.

It might well be the case that defection from the police is a serious issue in Afghanistan, but without any kind of policing, nothing long-term will be achieved. Of course announcing a date for the withdrawal of NATO forces was unwise, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have noble intentions. Of course we should be saying "end-state not end date." But there has to be room for development, and mistakes.

Omelette and eggs, I think.

A Tale of Two Statistics

I’m wary of quantitative data. Without extensive context, they are difficult to use for any real purpose. However, there were two pieces of data which—if they based on reliable informants and have not been skewed or otherwise manipulated—got my attention.

The first: only 8% of the 1,000 men of Helmand and Kandahar were aware of the "event which the foreigners call 9/11." Really, that speaks for itself.

The second: "in October 2010, 40% of interviewees in Helmand and Kandahar believed that foreigners were in Afghanistan to occupy or destroy the country, or to destroy Islam."

I was under the impression that extensive propaganda campaigns were engaged in at the start of the conflict (2001) to inform and reassure the Afghan people.

Was this not the case? If so, where do you think the disconnect between this information and the Afghan people lies?

I’m interested to read your thoughts.

Civil-Military Relations

A friend pointed me at this post by Kings College lecturer Patrick Porter. He talks about how Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne is—ironically, since he is lamenting it—stuck in the Cold War mentality of fighting “the Russians on the north German plain.” Porter’s argument here however, is that “we are not ‘extremely well prepared’ for a brawl with Russia in Europe. Post Cold War spending has seen to that. The British military is a small fraction of its former size. It is flat out sustaining a Battlegroup in Afghanistan, let alone a Brigade.”

While the notion that the British army is “flat out” in Afghanistan is interesting for the Afghan Outsider, something more interesting is another of Porter’s posts.

It addresses something that has been a hot topic, not least with the release of Bob Woodward’s new book, the relationship between military and civilian leaders and commanders. It’s a problem with which US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has recently expressed concern.

Barack Obama is not the first US president, or leader of a modern nation state for that matter, to be engaged in a war. That sounds flippant. What I mean is that he is a civilian in charge of military matters. It’s not something that has been done well since kings stopped leading their men from the front.

As Lt. Gen. David Barno at CNAS says in a review of Woodward’s book:

The president is the commander-in-chief—and as such, he is ultimately responsible for U.S. military actions overseas. He not only issues the orders that commit troops, but also frames the national policy that those deployments will support. He owns the policy decision “ends” at the strategic level, but must also understand and approve the broad “ways” by which his strategy will be carried out in the field. Further, he must balance the resources required to carry out these decisions—the “means” of people, time and dollars that will always remain precious commodities. The military influences that process, often in outsize ways—but the President owns it.

During the Crimean War, leaders were accused of meddling simply because they could.

The Crimean War also saw the first tactical use of … modern inventions such as the electric telegraph, with the first ‘live’ war reporting to The Times by William Howard Russell. Some credit Russell with prompting the resignation of the sitting British government through his reporting of the lacklustre shape of the British forces deployed to the Crimea. Additionally, the telegraph reduced the independence of British overseas possessions from their commanders in London due to such rapid communications. Newspaper readership informed public opinion in the United Kingdom and France as never before. It was the first European war to be photographed.

The American Civil War began two years before (in 1861) and ended two months after (in April 1956) the Crimean. Porter uses the example of Abraham Lincoln as a commander in chief who had a “brief spell on a quiet garrison during the Black Hawk war” which “can hardly have been a good preparation for steering the country through fratricide and crisis.”

The relationship between civilians and the military, especially in the über-instant globally connected world (where superficial, virtual interactions allegedly don’t really lead to change), has always been strained. It has also always been important. It is important in the modern age as well. Arguably more so.

To get back to the original point of this post, I think that, while it is ultimately the civilians’ decision whether or not to go to war. “[T]he President owns it,” as the Lieutenant General said.

The Rolling Stone article that allegedly got General McChrystal fired shows how intimately linked, in the modern, connected world, soldiers are to their civilian superiors.

Noah Schachtman at Wired suggested that “[k]eeping General Stanley McChrystal in place would have shattered the chain of command, obliterated the authority Obama had with the military, and undermined any hope of waging a successful counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.” The authority of the civilian leadership over the military is vital this post-Cromwellian era. Private armies are not desirable. Renegade commanders are dangerous; Peter Sellers showed us that.

It’s definitely something for the Outsider to consider. Civilians always run the risk of being Outsiders to military affairs. Vice versa, in many instances. McChrystal’s poor handling of public appearances is some kind of testimony to that.

Can these barriers come down without collapsing into some kind of Cromwellian mess?

Feast or Famine

There are many different problems in Afghanistan. It can be difficult to discern any kind of purpose when one reads deeply into what happens there. This short piece by a NavyLive blogger, lieutenant Sarah Higgins, (via USFOR A (US Forces, Afghanistan)) shows very clearly how difficult it is for Outsiders in Afghanistan, let alone those of us not fortunate enough to be able to be out there.

(As an aside: I say ‘fortunate’ in the most humble of senses, not to imply envy of those who are forced to live there, but a respectful humility. I would consider it a great honour, not to mention a privilege and a learning experience, to be able to visit Afghanistan.)

Lieutenant Higgins’ task in Afghanistan is “to advise officers in the Afghan National Security Forces. I basically spend my days coordinating, guiding, explaining and pleading. I don’t actually ‘do’ anything.”

I think that this notion of not really doing anything is an important part of the development process. The NATO forces that are in Afghanistan are going to be there for a long time. Perhaps they won’t be there in such large numbers. NATO can neither afford this kind of financial and physical commitment, nor will this lead ultimately to a state of affairs that is tenable.

Higgins also highlights something that it a key factor in my general thinking about Afghanistan. “Each task is accomplished in baby steps. It would be so easy for me to take over and get the job done. But that isn’t my mission. I need to ensure my Afghan counterparts can do the job after I leave. After we are gone. When only Afghans are here.”

It is vital that we establish the Afghan security forces as independent entities. They must be self-policing, self-governing and self-sufficient.

It is important, as Higgins finishes this piece, to remain patient. What we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan took arguably 150 years in Western Europe and America. The wholesale emancipation of women; massive liberalization of cultural interactions; wider, faster, unprecedented spread and change of ideas. All of these things took time, and a lot of people wringing their hands and portending the end of society and harking back to the “good old days,” but we, in the West, are where we are now, and Afghanistan is where it is. We want to bring it up to our ‘standards’. At the very least, we want to help it integrate into the global economy, especially considering how rich it is in natural resources (oil and iron ore.

I should read Great Powers, I think.