Life, death and the Taliban: Counterinsurgency

KABUL — We were heading for the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency training camp where field officers study how to avoid repeating the fate of so many other empires in Afghanistan.

Along the way, we drove past a 19th-century British military graveyard where broken headstones mark the resting place of the empire’s doomed, colonial adventures among the Afghans.

The road continued past the ugly Soviet architecture of the National Military Hospital and on past a rusted, old Russian tank covered in graffiti that still lay where it was stopped dead in its tracks by the mujahedeen.

And finally, we arrived on the western fringes of Kabul at the Darulaman Palace — its once-grand European facade punched through by mortars and chewed down by machine-gun fire. On the back side of the palace grounds is a maze of razor wire and blast walls that lead to the first checkpoint of the counterinsurgency training center at Camp Julien.

At every turn in Kabul, there are the remains and ruins of old kingdoms and empires that provide hard lessons, for those willing to learn them, on the fate of those who have tried to rule this place and to subdue its people.

After the vehicle checks and body searches, we were inside the counterinsurgency training center, a small cluster of wooden, military-issue huts known as a FOB, or Forward Operating Base.

FOBs like this are sometimes referred to by those who reside in them as “Fobistan,” a closed, insular and separate world, a little American gated community, that is cut off from the reality of Afghanistan and its people.

As I walked through the rows of huts, there was a dull hum of generators and air conditioners, a strange quiet after spending so much time in Kabul’s bustling, crowded streets full of sounds and smells and snatches of conversation and Bollywood music. 

Only when Col. John Agoglia, director of the counterinsurgency training center, swung open the door of his hut to greet us was the silence broken by the blaring sounds of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.”

“How you guys doing?” he asked, shouting over the heavy metal and not waiting for an answer as he led us back into a quieter conference room, where we were offered an array of all-American junk food, including Pop Tarts and Doritos. The air conditioning hummed on high.

Agoglia is sharp, honest and over-caffeinated. He has deep knowledge of Afghanistan and came highly recommended to me by several top U.S. military commanders who arranged for a rare opportunity to go inside the training center.

Agoglia got right to the point when I asked what effect the war in Iraq had on the fight in Afghanistan.

“We f---ing missed the boat. We totally missed the boat, man. We had a chance in 2004 to provide good, solid governance and we trusted that (President) Karzai would do it,” he said, adding that there were far too few troops in Afghanistan to execute an effective counterinsurgency campaign during the year 2004, when the U.S. was focused on Iraq and assigned 135,000 troops to that country while there were only 35,000 in Afghanisan.

The increase of 21,000 troops this summer will bring the total U.S. force in Afghanistan to 68,000 this fall. But even with this increase,  the troop ratios in Afghanistan are still dramatically lower than the U.S. military’s own stated doctrine for counterinsurgency, which calls for "a minimum of 20 counter-insurgents for every 1000 residents in the area of operation." Even when NATO troops and 175,000 Afghan army and police are added to the equation, the ratios are significantly under what is called for. But troop strength is not the only issue.

Agoglia continued, hardly stopping for a breath, “From governance flows security and development. And without governance, I don’t care how many forces you put on the ground, you won’t get security and you won’t get development.”

“We were out there chasing Al Qaeda and Tommy Taliban, and their own government was becoming very corrupt and very problematic. The people are getting taken advantage of by those people who are supposed to be protecting them.

“We just haven’t understood the place. We haven’t understood that you gotta provide for the population and you gotta show ‘em you are the guys who are going to win. And we haven’t demonstrated that to the people because we haven’t understood how important it is.

“(The) Taliban gets it. They get it. And they know that the immediate thing they can offer is security and justice, swift justice. And a population at war, they are looking at that and saying, geez, we got it a little better with them Taliban.

“We lost years. F---in’ years, man. Years.”

Agoglia speaks from considerable experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. He speaks and moves at a breathless pace as he helps troops get up to speed. He wolfed down a hamburger that was handed to him and chugged a Mountain Dew, then motioned to us to follow him to a class in counterinsurgency, or "COIN" to use the military parlance.

After the air-conditioned comfort of the hut, the searing sun outide felt three times hotter as we walked at a brisk march to a larger wooden hut that served as a makeshift classroom.

Inside, an Australian officer, Sgt. Major Smith, led a class of about 12 field commanders from different countries within the U.S.-led coalition known as the International Security Force Afghanistan, or ISAF.

They were discussing the art of divide and conquer and the role it played in the full history of counterinsurgency from ancient Rome to Vietnam.

A handsome, trim Italian officer named Major Mojilio seemed to be getting it. Mojilio, who like many of the students did not want to provide a first name, shared some of his own country’s history with the class.

“While in the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar used to do this separate and rule. Here the Afghan people is a mixture of tribes and complex reality. So our attempt is to exploit these differences to achieve our aim, yes? But this place is different, I think the cultures and religions make it very difficult to know which side to trust,” said Modillion, putting his finger on what is precisely the most difficult question the U.S.-led coalition faces in Afghanistan.

“The way I see the problem is like the iceberg,” said Capt. Ken Lutz from Canada.

“For so long we’ve been focusing on the part that is out of the water, the Taliban. And not the part that is below the water. The unsinkable Titanic was sunk with what is below the waterline," added Lutz, looking around the room for approval and not necessarily getting it.

Sitting across from Lutz was Emsharaf, a senior translator for a U.S. military unit, who had also been invited to take the course. The whole time I was there, Emsharaf was the only Afghan I saw at the camp, apart from a few laborers who worked quietly and sullenly in a corner of the camp.

“I think in COIN we really need to understand religion and culture,” said Emsharaf.

“In a COIN environment, religion, culture that is all a cause … . The Taliban want to take over the government so they need a cause. The biggest thing is religion, that is a master key to their problems to open every lock,” he added.

Emsharaf explained that COIN requires that U.S. forces understand Islam and have the confidence to make it part of the dialogue with the communities whose hearts and minds they are trying to win.

“If you want to win this war, we can use our religious leaders speaking out … and let them know what is the real Islam,” said Emsharaf as at least half of his fellow students nodded their heads in agreement.

“If they hit us by religious bullet, we have got to hit them back with the same thing,” he said.

In a large, cavernous hangar, about 200 new troops from the Georgia National Guard were just arriving and getting their first COIN lessons. This was a more basic class and the grunts were not allowed to talk to the media. The few who did while on a cigarette break offered about what you would expect from young men who had not spent much time outside of Georgia.

“I know they’re the enemy and that’s about all you need to know,” said a grunt as he pulled hard on a Marlboro and stamped it out to punctuate the point like some scene he had seen in a Clint Eastwood film.

But listening in on what these new arrivals were being told was interesting. A commander with a Brooklyn accent was taking questions from the audience.

“Okay, so we talked a lot today about winning the people over … about building infrastructure, building wells, building schools, stuff like that. Any questions here?” he asked.

A soldier mumbled something unintelligible but the instructor jumped on it and expanded upon it.

“Okay, good. Is it possible to take a project like building a well and use it as leverage, saying we need you to support us in this area. We need you to tell us where there is Taliban in this area. Is that an accurate description?” he asked, looking back at the fresh-faced Georgia recruit, who nodded like a kid in school.

The commander responded, “Okay, so the answer is, yes. If you can win them over by building a well don’t just build the well but be in that constant interaction with them that will help build trust. Does that make sense?”

There was an uncomfortable silence in the dimly lit hangar as the grunts shifted in the folding chairs.

When we retreated back into Agoglia’s hut we met up with Owen Sirrs. He’s a professor at the University of Montana and a former analyst on Afghanistan for more than a decade with Defense Intelligence Agency. He’s in Afghanistan to help Agoglia develop a curriculum and to lecture field commanders.

“We have to understand the Taliban,” said Sirrs, adding, “That’s where we as a coalition are falling flat … . I really don’t think we understand the religious dimension very well. And if there is an Achilles heel in our psyops it is a misunderstanding of religion.”

“In analyzing the Taliban, people say it is a political movement, but Islam doesn’t accept any real difference between politics and religion. They are all one. But I do believe the Taliban is a religious movement. They are preaching Pashtun values to a population that is largely illiterate,” Sirrs added.

And one of the greatest disadvantages the American military faces in counterinsurgency is that the militant Muslim clerics have easy access to the mosques and a way to reach an uneducated, rural population that the U.S. not only fails to understand but with whom it has very little opportunity to interact. The American military, Sirrs added, has been hesitant to do outreach in the mosques for political, cultural and tactical reasons.

“I think as Americans we are hesitant to play that game, we are hesitant to get into it and when we do get into it, it seems to backfire,” he said.

Sirrs added that one of the greatest needs he sees in working with field commanders is to educate them on the complexity of the enemy they face.

“The Taliban is not monolithic, OK,” he said. “I don’t have access to the intelligence, and I don’t even know if it exists. But from what I’ve seen the Taliban is fractured on tribal lines, on clan lines … and I think it is wise and part of the counterinsurgency lore to look at your enemy and try to split them.”

The lessons on divide and conquer and other COIN tactics are spelled out in the Army manual authored by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus. It can be found on every desk in this camp and in the footlockers of every field commander. It is in many ways the playbook for the U.S. military’s post Sept. 11 operations. Rule one is to understand the insurgents and the wider community in which they are permitted to find refuge. It's clear the military has a long way to go in accomplishing that goal.

In an interview before this trip, Petraeus confirmed that the greatest challenge in Afghanistan will be in educating field commanders and troops on the “human terrain,” to use the military term.

Specifically, the troops and commanders will need to convince the population that the Taliban is not the future of Afghanistan. It is to borrow the phrase so often used in Vietnam, a battle for “hearts and minds.” And the overall counterinsurgency campaign is built around the three-phase strategy of “secure, build and hold.” It is language straight out of the U.S. military’s strategic hamlet program of the mid 1960s, and one can only hope — for America, the coalition countries and Afghanistan — that the policy is not as doomed to failure as it was in Vietnam.

The key to its success, Petraeus said will be to understand the Taliban — its history and its connection to and friction with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The field officers will need to grasp how and why the Taliban still holds sway in large swaths of the south and east.

“I think we need to know it better. We have all recognized that to foster reconciliation for example at the lowest levels you must understand who the reconcilables and the irreconcilables are and to do that you need a very nuanced appreciation of the local situation, of who is who, who are the local power brokers, who could be part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem,” said Petraeus.

He added, “I don’t think we have that kind of granular understanding across the board, not right now.”

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