April 29, 2009
COIN: THE FLIPSIDE
Name: Vampire 06
Posting date: 4/29/09
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Hometown: Folsom, CA
Milblog: Afghanistan Shrugged
Often what’s most neglected here in Afghanistan is the battle we fight within our own forces. Overcoming the fear and xenophobic tendencies that quite a few of the soldiers deploying here posses is a decisive point in the fight that not many discuss.
A new unit just arrived here in our battle space. I say “our” in that it’s the ANA’s country so it’s their battle space; I count the ETTs with the ANA. Now, the commanders that arrive here continually refer to themselves as "battle space owners." I’d advocate for a rebranding as "battle space renters." But, as in all good COIN fights, the battle isn’t at the Battalion level. It’s really with the individual soldier that interfaces and spends the most time with the Afghans.
Some of the soldiers that have arrived here have previous experience working with indigenous forces. That experience is with the Iraqi Security Forces, and I’ll borrow a line from my friend Troy at Bouhammer.com: “Afghanistan isn’t Iraq." The Afghans are much different from the Iraqis. (Troy, I’ll give the royalty check to Kesterson.)
These preconceived notions get in the way of them working, training and just generally interacting with the Afghans. They call them “Haji” and are afraid of them. Afraid may seem like a strong word to use here, but it accurately describes what I’ve seen. Here’s an example.
The ETTs and CF move onto the ANA side of the FOB to get ready for a dismounted patrol into the local area. As we walk onto the ANA side I hear the sound of 30 M4s being locked and loaded. Look, we haven’t even gotten near leaving the FOB and these guys are locking their weapons. What does that communicate to the ANA? When I ask why, they reply with various answers that all revolve around, "What if the ANA attack us?"
So the second front in the fight has emerged. We as ETTs are in the middle, the ambassadors of goodwill, or as I like to say, COIN's Bob Hope Tour. We need to break down the walls and get these guys together. “Can’t we all just get along?"
Our Bob Hope Tour started at the basic level. MSG Famine began giving classes to the CF squads about COIN and what’s going on here. Each Private needs to understand that their actions are pivotal in the COIN fight. What we’ve seen is that the officers and senior NCOs get the classes but “Joe” gets ignored. One more way that the US conventional force is missing how COIN works: Joe is the key interface with the populace and the Afghan National Security Force.
Next, we started taking them over to the ANA for Chai and meals.Many of you have already read my posts about Chai and it’s importance within the Afghan culture. But the initial response to this was poor. Only one squad leader wanted to bring his guys over and they were met with ridicule and called “Haji Lovers." But eventually we started seeing more interest. I took some squad leaders over and got them some Nan -- Afghan bread -- to share with their squads. Eventually, more guys expressed an interest. I knew we were starting to win this phase of the fight when I overheard this exchange in the US chow hall:
“Dude, your squad is a bunch of Haji Lovers for going over there, “ one Joe said to another.
“You know what man, they’re not Haji, they’re Afghan, and these guys were beating up the Hajis centuries ago and then were kicking ass on the Russians. So yeah, they’re pretty cool to hang out with,” the other Joe replied with a sense of pride.
Finally we started joint training with the US and ANA. We started with the medics. What I’ve found is that generally the medics are a little more receptive and accepting. So, my medic SSG Doc planned a mass casualty exercise (MASCAL) in which the Afghan medics would receive and triage the casualties, move them to the US Aid Station for joint stabilization, and then the US and ANA would move them to the LZ for medevac. The genius in this plan is that MASCAL requires the whole FOB to mobilize, so the rest of the US Forces have no choice but to see all the medics working together.
You know what? It’s worked. Since then we’ve had squads asking to go do PT with the ANA and do joint training with them. We’ve got our foot in the door and it’s working. We’re pushing back on the second front now too, and like any Bob Hope show you can’t help but walk away happy.
During my incredibly arduous ETT training (that’s a joke by the way) no one ever mentioned the idea that we’d have to battle our own forces to start winning the COIN fight. But it’s critical to start building that bond and breaking down those prejudices. These guy will have to fight alongside each other at some point, and you don’t want that being the first time they meet.
Nothing like a little Chai, Nan and a MASCAL to start the process.