The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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A Letter from Bagram

A dispatch from a still-imbalanced front.

Published on July 1, 2009

Having just entered my fourth month in Afghanistan as brigade political advisor and Department of State representative at Task Force Warrior, I have no doubt that as the months roll by I will be disabused of much premature wisdom about where I am and what I’m doing here. (Task Force Warrior is the battle-space owner for Bamyan, Panjshir, Kapisa and Parwan provinces, along with Bagram Air Field, the principal U.S. base in Regional Command–East.) This is my fifth duty post in an irregular conflict, following El Salvador 1980–83; the Bougainville Rebellion, Papua New Guinea 1987–88; the People Power Revolution and Maoist insurgency in Nepal 1990–93; the death of Jonas Savimbi and the termination of the Angolan civil war 1999–2002. I know the drill: As illusions fall away, new truths will reveal themselves.

The one old truth I am confident will remain, however, is that foreign organizations always come to reflect the nature of their host, in one way or another. In a way, we non-Afghans already do. Afghanistan is a tribal society, and we bring our own tribes, with our own customs and feuds, to the enterprise. That makes the NATO-plus effort in Afghanistan something of a joint venture within a joint venture.

The proof is everywhere, some of it static and buried, some of it very much alive. A half hour’s drive from where I sit at Task Force Warrior headquarters on Bagram Air Field, southeast of Charikar in Parwan province, there lies a literal empire’s graveyard of rusting Soviet tanks, BMP armored troop carriers, trucks, guns and other dead armor, stretching out for miles across the skirt of the Hindu Kush where it meets the Shomali Plain. Somewhere nearby, buried deep in the dust, lies the base camp Alexander the Great used for his invasions of Central Asia and India.

Bagram Air Field today resembles the bar scene in Star Wars, only there is more dust and different music. It is filled with a dizzying complexity of clans and camp followers, all of them connected to our current Afghan enterprise: soldiers and airmen, marines and landlocked sailors of all branches and badges; multiple flavors of special operators, each behind his own wire within the wire; bearded representatives of unknown organizations, in sleek windbreakers, wearing leather shoulder holsters with matching ammo clips. Here at Bagram, I’ve learned more flags in three months than I had learned in years, tacked to the uniforms of French Chasseurs Alpins, Romanian Special Forces, Kiwi Provincial Reconstruction Team members, Singaporean engineers, and enough others in this COIN-by-coalition to make even Gulf Storm seem like simple addition. Then there is the contractor caste system, where KBR reigns by virtue of quantity, but others hold their own, like the Green Beans Coffee concession, the hairdressers from Kyrgyzstan and the high-tech folks who skulk about on the other side of the flight line.

However, the second you roll outside the perimeter—a Force Protection feat in itself—the scene becomes pre-biblical. Camel caravans, mud-brick fortresses and anonymous women in their light blue burqas fill the landscape. Only the omnipresent cell phones and the need to watch for VBIEDS (that’s vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) spoil the ancient scene.

Why didn’t someone think of the idea of a Brigade Political Advisor before? Task Force Warrior stands at the best possible intersection of political strategy and military operations, and my job is to make that intersection effective and accident-free. The position is less ethereal than the traditional Political Advisor, or POLAD, at the divisional level or higher, who shadows the commanding generals. At the brigade level, we experience Washington hurricanes as merely a dry breeze. The scope is different, too, broader than serving as a civilian on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

Don’t get me wrong. Bamyan or Panjshir are brilliant places for intrepid PRT officers who don’t mind a lot of independence, places off the beaten track where U.S. military and civilian teams make up nation-building as they go. But what an honor it is to ride with Colonel Scott Spellmon, West Point class of 1986, wide receiver and best of the best. Company like his makes the job easier—whether we’re trying to keep civilian casualty “consequence mitigation” payouts from being more than just throwing compensation dollars over the transom, standing next to a C-17 in soft rain during a Fallen Comrade ceremony, or patrolling the mountains at 11,000 feet in the snow, trying to figure out how the hell to keep a suicide truck bomber from getting inside the Salang Tunnel and shutting down the main supply line into Afghanistan from Central Asia. My job is in between that of a POLAD and a PRT ranger. In Goldilocks parlance, it is just right.

What do I do, specifically, as brigade political advisor? Here are three issue areas that encompass me day in and day out:

Full-Spectrum Counterinsurgency (COIN). Iraq turned Afghanistan into a lousy secondary operation, when it should have been the primary one. And in this situation, “secondary” might as well have been tertiary or even dead last, since you can only get so far with economy of force. Ratios definitely matter, as in which one of these four valleys would you like the battalion to hold, sir? Broadly speaking, we get it now: Shape/Clear/Hold/Build, with four lines of effort—security, governance, development and information—and the inevitable power-point slide to illustrate the temple of strategy.

The new U.S. COIN strategy really does work, too. But it works only in district-by-district and village-by-village dimensions, and only as long as we and the Afghan government stay around. In some places we still have to skip perhaps a few too many steps or can’t yet get much beyond clear and clear again (that’s CACA, for those keeping track of acronyms). There are also some behavioral tics coming down the chain of command that give anyone with historical memory an uncomfortable feeling. There is, for example, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) directive to “consider the political effects of military operations.” In a counterinsurgency environment like Afghanistan, a directive like this one is the equivalent of a “Caution: Hot” warning label on a cup of coffee. Then there are almost daily official press releases proclaiming, “Twenty Taliban Killed in Operation” or some such similar message. Didn’t Vietnam rid us once and for all of the corrosive lesson that body counts tell us anything meaningful in this kind of conflict?

Nonetheless, the COIN seam is evident where I work at all levels, everywhere that political and military dimensions interact, not only as consequence of combat, but as a truly integral operating principle. After we clear this or that valley, when the Afghan Army re-occupies the combat outpost it abandoned the year before, it’s not enough simply to expect gratitude for the road we are paving, or for the new district headquarters we are building among the villages, from people who may be, depending on the day of the week, our open partners or our secret adversaries. Gratitude wears out; we need trust.

Interagency Coordination. Here is another truth provisionally proven in Afghanistan: Unity of effort is a second-best solution when unity of command is not possible. Images of the CORDS program (which stood for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support), that stunning, late-inning success of interagency coordination in an Indochinese war already gone wrong for too long, keep rising in my mind’s eye. I’ve gotten more out of re-reading War Comes to Long An—Jeffrey Race’s 1973 classic on the Vietnamese insurgency in a single province—than just about anything other than Robert Warburton’s classic memoir, Eighteen Years in the Khyber, 1879–98 (1900).

In any event, it did not take long for the ambient Afghan reality to absolutely convince me that there is no substitute for the U.S. military, which has completely absorbed the order to build a new nation and gotten right to the job. It may seem counterintuitive, but Army engineers make great counterinsurgents; they love to build things under the most difficult conditions. Road construction and water projects get carried out like combat operations, with thorough planning and consummate speed. You don’t “sit for tea” with a government official if you can avoid it; you get down to business courtesy of an acronym—you have a KLE (Key Leader Engagement). As the civilian surge in Afghanistan plans for dozens of new positions, the U.S. military is already operating thousands of them. The civilian contribution to the rebuilding effort will be critical—that is, if we can actually find them and ship them over here. But still it is hard not to think that the military tail of the reconstruction effort will long wag the civilian dog.

The Expeditionary Foreign Service. Then there are those “other” civilians, ones like me. The Expeditionary Foreign Service, much touted by the past Administration, is almost, but not quite a dream come true. It is great to see Foreign Service Officers volunteer to go to the provinces, and not just because they’ve been promised the follow-on job they really want. Their dedication is proven by how many come back for more. (More than you might think.)

For those who do come back, or come for the first time, it’s not typical embassy work. Beyond Kabul, suits and ties and wordy reporting cables are pretty much out. This is a country for boots and rough wear. After riding a convoy through ambush country with her military colleagues, Larilyn Reffert, a young State Department representative to the Kapisa Province PRT, shrugs off her body armor and helmet, covers her head with a scarf, and steps into a shura of grizzled Pashtun elders, her blonde hair peeking out at them. She is there to discuss development projects and tell the elders why the Taliban are lying when they claim that America is fighting a war against Islam. Here, on the other, non-kinetic side of COIN, operations to defeat the enemy translate into operations to win over people. It’s all about transforming truth into the right cultural idiom. If we can get this difficult translation process right, we will succeed.

True, a certain ambivalence still remains at the juncture of the civilian and military worlds. Back at Bagram Air Field nearly everyone carries a weapon, even the U.S. Public Health Service officer, despite the fact that most people never, ever leave the base. But up on the line, even under the most dangerous of circumstances, State Department officers are directed not to carry weapons. It’s as if somehow your special status comes down in the end to qualifying you to be a victim, but not to being able to protect yourself or contribute to the defense of your companions.

I also pay attention to real and potential irony—what I call the sanity defense. The other day, I joined a planning session in a CJTF-101 staff room. I kept running my fingers over the finely carved edges of the gigantic conference table and staring at the delicate flower patterns inlaid into the dark wooden surface. Then it dawned on me: We were in a building erected by the Soviets. The chairs were their chairs and we were making our plans around their conference table. To the victor go the spoils, I suppose, but will anyone take a wager on who will be the victor, the eventual owner of that fine conference table here in Parwan Province?

The daily need to get our jobs done means we have to cultivate a typical American can-do spirit, so my first impulse is to answer that it will be an Afghan table, with Americans welcome to sit around it. Then again, I’ve only been here a few months. Ask me again after 12.

Todd Greentree is author of Crossroads of Intervention: Insurgency and Counterinsurgency Lessons from Central America (2008).