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Thread: Plowing Over the Taliban

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    Default Plowing Over the Taliban

    I flew medevac in Northern Helmand June-November. The guys liked the following idea. My boss added that subsidizing soybeans would deny them the cornfields as cover.

    Rather than turn it into a giant thesis (I've looked into all the details about wood for fuel, etc.) I tried to see how few words I could put it in.

    Seeing that you could start with one dozer and a truckload of fencing and irrigation pipe, it would be easy to test. I know the exact tree line to start with.


    Plowing Over the Taliban


    We overlooked why the Taliban are so entrenched – it’s the trenches. Afghanistan is wasteland except for a 5 kilometer wide ribbon of antiquated overgrown irrigation trenches and mud walls. Any soldier will tell you, the denser and wider the web, the thicker the bullets. This war costs $18,000 an acre, annually.

    Each troop removed could buy a million feet of wire fence or irrigation pipe. The lead should be the USDA, not the USMC. Afghanistan’s green belt could be cleaner than Kansas. The farmers would love us. Hunting the Taliban would become unsporting.


    Robert Haston, LtCol, 920th Rescue Wing
    Last edited by davidbfpo; 11-20-2011 at 11:59 AM. Reason: Complete last line

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Sir,

    What do you propose is done with the fencing and irrigation pipe?

    Destroy the current organization of earthen land plot dividers and lay pipe where earthen canals currently exist?

    I could fight in the plains of the Midwest and still have enough micro-terrain to stymie an opposing force that is MRAP bound and constrained by counter-mobility devices (IEDs).

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    Robert,

    Welcome aboard SWC and your first post is intriguing. I shall wait for those with agricultural and development expertise to comment. Jon of course has his own perspective having been in the south of Helmand.
    davidbfpo

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    Do they want us to demolish their centuries old agricultural system and replace it with soybeans, fencing and pipes (that they'll be unable to replace after we leave)?

    I don't think we are dealing with a Pashtun insurgency because of the thickness of a grapehut.

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    Council Member Bob's World's Avatar
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    Afghanistan is an intriguing land to fly over and look down upon.

    I think this concept is an important one as it highlights how many smart, capable, professionals sent to Afghanistan see the problem that they are attempting to resolve. They see the insurgency in Afghanistan as being caused by the insurgents, and that if we simply clear the critical spaces of insurgents, or separate the insurgents from the populace (whatever that means), or in this case presumably convert the spaces they operate withing to have less obstacles to our maneuver or cover to hide behind?

    But insurgents don't cause insurgency any more than a hacking cough causes the flu. They are an obvious, painful symptom of the disease, but they are not the disease, they are not the cause, and the defeat of them is no more the cure than suppression of that afore mentioned annoying cough.

    Like the cough, however, the presence of insurgents is a powerful indicator that an unhealthy situation exists that must be dealt with properly, as left alone it could progress until it threatens the life of the "patient", which in this case is the affected nation state (regardless of how "primitive" it may seem compared to the ones we all live in, the factors of human nature and human dynamics that insurgency is shaped by are largely constant in humans everywhere).

    Most Afghan insurgents come from families and tribes and ethnic groups that are excluded from full participation in the economic and political aspects of their own country. Most come from families and tribes and ethnic groups that were included in this under the Taliban, but have become excluded as US and foreign action shifted the balance of power over to the Northern Alliance, and then dedicated itself to preserving that artificial shift.

    In a heavily patronage society, where concepts of loyalty and revenge burn deep, such a shift forced upon one is something that one cannot simply ignore. It is more than just a desire for power, or wealth; it is a duty of dignity and honor to resist.

    In a perfect world Karzai and the Northern Alliance would demand that ISAF stop perpetuating this unsustainable situation with our blood and treasure and allow them to shred their current constitution that codifies this monopoly of Northern Alliance governance and that turns traditional Afghan patronage into a massive Ponzi scheme that enriches them unfairly and denies the people at the local level of the traditional benefits of Afghan-style governance. They would conduct a massive Loya Jirga to bring all Afghans into fair competition for power and influence and would craft a new constitution designed to create trust between these parties who have no natural reason to trust each other. The kind of trust necessary for any such diverse populace to advance.

    But this is not a perfect world. Karzai and the rest of the Northern Alliance prefer the low level violence and the artificial situation that ISAF provides. That is good enough for them. When one knows they are illegitimately in power, a reliance on foreign protection and endless insurgency are success.

    So no, the roots of this conflict are not in the valleys of the Helmand, they are in the halls of Kabul and Washington. Mostly due to well-intended ignorance by most, but guided by very intentional self-serving objectives by others.
    Robert C. Jones
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    Council Member ganulv's Avatar
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    The social and legal context of irrigation is never anything less than complex. There is generally a good deal of haggling and friction involved, as to be expected when dealing with the scarcity of a vital resource. Think Chinatown. Now think Chinatown in a place were almost none of the outside parties understands even the physical infrastructure of local water networks.
    If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. – Mark Twain (attributed)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    Afghanistan is an intriguing land to fly over and look down upon.

    I think this concept is an important one as it highlights how many smart, capable, professionals sent to Afghanistan see the problem that they are attempting to resolve. They see the insurgency in Afghanistan as being caused by the insurgents, and that if we simply clear the critical spaces of insurgents, or separate the insurgents from the populace (whatever that means), or in this case presumably convert the spaces they operate withing to have less obstacles to our maneuver or cover to hide behind?
    He makes a valid point Bob. It is the politicians that send the soldiers into Helmand. It is the soldiers who must do the best they can while they are there. It is a fair question to ask why the junk woodland and scrub bush which has provided cover for the TB has not been cleared after five years of heavy activity in the area. Why do you think this has not been done? When the Marines arrived in Helmand they used bulldozers to widen roads so as to not become trapped in the narrow lanes with high walls on each side. Why did they not pay Afghan labour to clear the bush along the canals (as he suggests)?

    [I][B]Most Afghan insurgents come from families and tribes and ethnic groups that are excluded from full participation in the economic and political aspects of their own country. Most come from families and tribes and ethnic groups that were included in this under the Taliban, but have become excluded as US and foreign action shifted the balance of power over to the Northern Alliance, and then dedicated itself to preserving that artificial shift.
    Actually Bob they are doing quite well given all the drug money floating around and the aid money the US is throwing down the toilet there. So if the US is intent on throwing money away why not consider fixing the terrain to their advantage?

    This view from the air is critically important, more so than grunts walking up and down the same paths day after day at mine clearing pace and finding IEDs along the way. How can one be 'holding' the ground if the TB and their local helpers have free reign (normally at night) to plant/lay IEDs?

    The military have a job to do on the ground and will have until 2014 so they can't just sit on their hands and take causalities while they wait for their tour to end.

    It is becoming commonly reported from Afghans now days that within three months of the departure of ISAF the TB will take over control of those areas again.

    In a heavily patronage society, where concepts of loyalty and revenge burn deep, such a shift forced upon one is something that one cannot simply ignore. It is more than just a desire for power, or wealth; it is a duty of dignity and honor to resist.
    And this is not something the soldier deployed on the ground in Helmand can do anything about. You can take this problem to the politicians on their behalf while they get on with attempting to achieve something during their tour and staying alive in the process.

    In a perfect world ...
    It is not a perfect world and the politicians are screwing it up again.

    So while the politicians try to figure their way out of the problem of their own making let the men on the ground do something that will achieve their lot.

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    Default Plowing Over the Taliban

    Just to clarify "flying medevac" isn't circling around like a drone. We flew at treetop level and landed to pick up the casualty.

    BBC has a good story about the worst area: Upper Gereshk: The Helmand plan meets tough reality http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14897977
    I was bummed they didn't write about us hosing down the irrigation ditch/treeline at point blank range with miniguns. I sure thought it was cool.

    As to MRAPS, the "greenest zones" have no interior roads. Just one more reason to overhaul them.

    The decisive threat is our helicopters, drones, and spotter balloons or camera towers calling in artillery. That's why the Taliban quit when the leaves fall.

    This really isn't theoretical. It isn't like "I know it would work". We proved it daily. Where the green was thin, I didn't get shot at. Where it was really thick, I got shot at 90% of the time - and I was trying real hard to not get shot at.

    My apologies for going for brevity instead of detail on my original post.

    I'm clueless as to how one would try to get the management to take a real look at this issue; but I'm open to suggestions.

    Thanks for your inputs

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    The management has most likely looked at the issue, several times over from the moment that we started to spread out in the Helmand River Valley. They probably concluded that:

    1. Afghanistan is a sovereign state, and Karzai does not want population control measures to be employed in that fashion.

    2. Doing so would add to sentiment and unrest against the coalition, fomenting more resistance insurgency, at a time when getting a handle on the ideological insurgency is hard enough.

    Each district has a group of older men (the title escapes me now) who are responsible for the irrigation and canal issues of the district. They coordinate the annual clean-ups, settle disputes over water access and rights, and maintain the corporate knowledge over everything water in the area (or at least claim to). I can imagine their response, and behavior afterwards, if we were to tell them that we were going to come in and tear up years of hand-wrought effort.

    Treelines also serve as demarcation for land plots, and the Afghans are highly attuned to the aesthetic appeal of the range of vegetation that grows in the valley. Destroy those and there are going to be a whole lot of pissed off people weighing in with their "angry brothers."
    Last edited by jcustis; 11-20-2011 at 11:18 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    Each district has a group of older men (the title escapes me now) who are responsible for the irrigation and canal issues of the district. They coordinate the annual clean-ups, settle disputes over water access and rights, and maintain the corporate knowledge over everything water in the area.
    Is that the mirab?
    If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. – Mark Twain (attributed)

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    Council Member jcustis's Avatar
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    Yes, thank you. The mirab.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    The management has most likely looked at the issue, several times over from the moment that we started to spread out in the Helmand River Valley. They probably concluded that:

    1. Afghanistan is a sovereign state, and Karzai does not want population control measures to be employed in that fashion.

    2. Doing so would add to sentiment and unrest against the coalition, fomenting more resistance insurgency, at a time when getting a handle on the ideological insurgency is hard enough.
    What he said.

    RHaston, what you've proposed is a very practical solution to a tactical problem. It's no secret that most of the resistance is centered around the "greenzones". It's also no secret that most of the population lives there.

    As BW pointed out above, tactical solutions aren't necessarily going to help with political problems. In fact, something like you've proposed may likely exacerbate the issue. I have seen first hand the results of damage to a single canal, and it ends up a bit like this:

    Destroy those and there are going to be a whole lot of pissed off people weighing in with their "angry brothers."

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    As I recall, Genghis came to Afghanistan, he stole everything of value, he killed every male taller than a wagon wheel, and he destroyed the canals that allowed a society to flourish in the desert. Then a few decades later his successor came back to Afghanistan and did the same thing all over again. Set the whole place back several hundred years in the process.

    Effective, but not what we're all about.

    This article was written by a guy who thinks that (my assessment) insurgents cause insurgency, and that once we defeat the insurgents we win. That isn't how insurgency works.

    Our problems are not in the green zones along the waterways of rural Afghanistan, other than that we go there in pursuit of insurgents. Our problems are in "the green zone" in Kabul where Karzai and gang live and "govern" in protected isolation, running their little Ponzi scheme under the protection of ISAF. We are patsies, plain and simple.

    The key to AQ sanctuary in the region lies with the Taliban and always has. Cut a deal with those guys and AQ will have to find a new home to operate out of. That won't solve the AQ problem, but it will solve the AF/PAK problem. One step at at time...
    Robert C. Jones
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    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    This article was written by a guy who thinks that (my assessment) insurgents cause insurgency, and that once we defeat the insurgents we win. That isn't how insurgency works.
    What article? What guy?

    Bob, we have been through this all before in the SWJ Blog

    In addition you selected the word insurgent over the word terrorist or guerilla or (a possibility in the case of Afghanistan) anti-government (paid) mercenaries.

    So please define who we are talking about here. Are your insurgents armed? Or are they merely rural tribal people rebelling against the central government by passive means?

    While considering a reply it would be worth your while to read Wilf's article:

    Killing Your Way to Control - by William F Owen

    (took him a little time but he has finally got it right )

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    Quote Originally Posted by JMA View Post
    What article? What guy?

    Bob, we have been through this all before in the SWJ Blog

    In addition you selected the word insurgent over the word terrorist or guerilla or (a possibility in the case of Afghanistan) anti-government (paid) mercenaries.

    So please define who we are talking about here. Are your insurgents armed? Or are they merely rural tribal people rebelling against the central government by passive means?

    While considering a reply it would be worth your while to read Wilf's article:

    Killing Your Way to Control - by William F Owen

    (took him a little time but he has finally got it right )

    I have read WILF's article and engaged with him on this topic extensively. We agree to disagree. My assessment is that he sees insurgency as war brought against a state by the insurgent, and that defeat of the insurgent through warfare is victory. I see insurgency as a civil emergency rooted in illegal political challenge internal to a state, in which the primary source of causation is government action and policy as perceived by the affected populace, that may, or may not elevate to a degree of violence that looks like warfare.

    I see Western concepts of insurgency as being heavily shaped by Western efforts to establish and maintain colonial possessions and to establish and maintain a ring of containment during the Cold War. I believe that experience colors Western perceptions toward the belief that manipulation of others is harmless, and that mere suppression of those who dare to complain is success. That used to be good enough. In the current environment it is not only not "good enough," it is also the primary driver of acts of transnational terrorism, creating rich pools of highly motivated nationalist recruits for AQ and others to co-opt for transnationalist missions.

    I am sure we will agree to disagree as well. As I do with the author of this thread. I am comfortable with that. I realize that it makes others uncomfortable to have their beliefs challenged, but I am used to it and happy to defend my positions.

    Cheers!

    Bob
    Robert C. Jones
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    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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    Quote Originally Posted by jcustis View Post
    The management has most likely looked at the issue, several times over from the moment that we started to spread out in the Helmand River Valley.
    Geresk was one of the first areas the Taliban restarted operations in the spring of 2003. Seven plus years and there's no answer for the problem of denying the enemy cover to conduct their operations. Seven plus years and we've been unable to negotiate anything with the locals, or the Helmand governors (We're on our fourth now) or Karzai. How often has our "management" changed? It used to change about every 18 months. My time in Afghanistan is long past - I was last there in 2005 - but the record is playing the same tune.

    Maybe the LtCol Haston's proposed solution isn't viable, but it seems to me that the problem he's trying to address has been with us for a long time. Is there really no solution other than the status quo?
    Supporting "time-limited, scope limited military actions" for 20 years.

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    My battalion had to detach a company to work in vicinity of Gereshk during the last deploy, and they had a hard fight there. No doubt, the issue of insurgent cover, concealment, and mobility has been with us from day one. This isn't an issue of the Taliban being able to engage a USAF SAR bird with a brace of Pedros in the back, from a treeline, and I don't think that incident is symptomatic of a larger issue. Sure, they made good use of cover and lighting it up with a minigun makes for a good tale, but if it wasn't a canal depression or a hedgerow, it would be a compound wall, or a mud guest house, or a mosque. I suppose we could just blaze away at them too, but I wouldn't advise that.

    The Taliban aren't entrenched because of the trenches--they're entrenched because of the human terrain, in my opinion.

    It's not like these knuckleheads spend all their time lying up in harbor sites in the sticks. They conduct an amazing amount of movement in the open, scooting around via pickups, 'motorcyclos', heck, even tractors. When we are positioned well enough to ambush them, we hit jackpot and we win hands-down. We, the Brits, Canadians, Danes, etc., have tended to enjoy similar success during meeting engagements as well. They know this and therefore pick their battles wisely, generally preferring to set up on a principal direction of fire, use IEDs as protective obstacles, and engage us in a very narrow engagement window that tends to not last very long, and then get out of Dodge.

    The larger issue is a lack of boots on the ground, Afghan National Security Forces development, and our FOB/COP-centric means of waging this fight. Cover and concealment is something like 0.1% of the problem, and there are a slew of bigger ones we'd have to tackle before cover becomes relevant.
    Last edited by jcustis; 11-23-2011 at 03:16 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Bob's World View Post
    I have read WILF's article and engaged with him on this topic extensively. We agree to disagree. My assessment is that he sees insurgency as war brought against a state by the insurgent, and that defeat of the insurgent through warfare is victory.
    Your assessment is plain wrong.

    Wilf says:

    "Non-violent opposition is normal everyday politics, and not something that the Army should worry about, ..."

    and

    "An Army’s job is to kill or capture anyone who seeks to violently contest ... (the government's authority)"
    Crush the armed insurrection and it all reverts to a political process (which the police should be able to manage).

    I see insurgency as a civil emergency rooted in illegal political challenge internal to a state, in which the primary source of causation is government action and policy as perceived by the affected populace, that may, or may not elevate to a degree of violence that looks like warfare.
    If it does not "elevate to a degree of violence" there is no need to use the military deal with those peacefully contesting the authority of the state.

    So the bottom line that when the hurly-burly of everyday politics develops into an armed insurrection that is when effective military action is called for.

    So quite honestly your apparent inability to understand the need for military action to quell an armed insurrection/insurgency is difficult to understand.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JMA View Post
    If it does not "elevate to a degree of violence" there is no need to use the military deal with those peacefully contesting the authority of the state.
    RCJ can of course speak for himself, but I'd have to point out that insurgencies often evolve in places where "those peacefully contesting the authority of the state" are likely to get a billy club in the teeth or a bullet in the back of the head. It's often not insurgents who initiate violence: states do it too.

    Quote Originally Posted by JMA View Post
    So the bottom line that when the hurly-burly of everyday politics develops into an armed insurrection that is when effective military action is called for.

    So quite honestly your apparent inability to understand the need for military action to quell an armed insurrection/insurgency is difficult to understand.
    That comes back to the critical question of why the insurgents - not necessarily the leaders, but the people doing the fighting - are taking up arms against the state. If they have a reasonable grievance that can be reasonably addressed, it may not be necessary to use force to quell the insurgency. Of course that will not always the case, but since it's usually easier to address the grievance than to keep on quelling recurring insurgency, it's always worth asking from the outset what the causes of the insurgency are, and whether its possible to address those causes without killing people and blowing stuff up.

    People where I live fought a small war against their government because their government wanted to drive them off their land, and when they tried to peacefully contest the plan the government sent armed men to kill them. Over 10 years of fighting led to a stalemate, and the Government finally decided to stop trying to drive the people off their land, at which point the insurgency ceased. It would have been a lot less trouble if they'd tried that from the start.

    We cannot assume that "the authority of the state" is always legitimate, or that it's always something we want to ally ourselves with. Often it's neither. From an American perspective, way too often we've joined fights on the side of governments any one of us would rebel against, if we had the misfortune to be their subjects.
    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary”

    H.L. Mencken

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    JMA,

    As I said, we can agree to disagree. But when you do disagree, ensure you read what I say and argue with that.

    illegal political challenge is not "day to day," and it is a populace driven to the belief that it must operate outside the law to achieve resolution of issues that the government is unwilling to address through legal means that makes the essence of insurgency.

    The military should be last in and first out in government prevention and response to insurgency. Definitions that only recognize the high end violent aspect of insurgency is like a definition of icebergs that only recognizes that portion rising above the surface of the water. One can attack that portion of the iceberg for a long time and only give rise to more ice. Same if one treats insurgency the same way.

    A civil emergency is civil business. That is the vast majority of insurgency.

    I will agree with WILF on this point: "War is war." Where we disagree is that I do not believe that insurgency is war.

    Cheers!

    Bob
    Robert C. Jones
    Intellectus Supra Scientia
    (Understanding is more important than Knowledge)

    "The modern COIN mindset is when one arrogantly goes to some foreign land and attempts to make those who live there a lesser version of one's self. The FID mindset is when one humbly goes to some foreign land and seeks first to understand, and then to help in some small way for those who live there to be the best version of their own self." Colonel Robert C. Jones, US Army Special Forces (Retired)

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