Not that we’re not grateful, but……

June 15, 2009

Word in the NYTtoday is that the French are replacing their aging Gazelle helicopters with a deployment of the fancy new Eurocopter Tiger.  The Gazelle was a decent light attack chopper for a long time, but it’s getting old and is no longer up to the hard environmental conditions of Afghanistan.  So, the French Army has decided to deploy their latest and greatest, with not incidentally their best pilots, to see if they can improve the support they give to the ground troops.

All well and good, until one realizes a couple of key facts:

1) The Tiger is strictly a scout/attack bird.  Although highly capable in those roles, it is useless in the ways that matter in a COIN dogfight like Afghanistan, i.e air assault, logistical support, Medevac, etc.

2) As the article notes, a grand total of THREE Tigers will be deployed, replacing three Gazelles that will be withdrawn.  Three?  Are you shitting me?  Is that the best the French can do?  Three measly helicopters.

Obviously, the French think of it as a large jump in capabilities.  As one French officer notes:

“Two Tigers can do the job of eight Gazelles,” said a senior staff officer, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

So, if one follows the logic, take away three Gazelles, add three Tigers (which are four times as capable) and the net effect is that the French now have the equivalent of twelve helicopters.  Hardly a massive contribution, considering that the U.S. has over 120 helicopters based in Afghanistan, and the UK another forty or so. 

I won’t fault the valuable and difficult work that the French Army is doing in Kapisa Province, but one wonders if they’re getting the proper level of support from Paris.



May 9, 2009

The newswires are abuzz lately with the word that an ISAF airstrike killed over 50 people in Azizabad, Farah Province.  Exact numbers are still to be determined, but it looks at this point like approximately 30 civilians and another 20 or Talibs.  Not particularly good odds for a supposedly “population-centric” COIN campaign.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that at least some of the early reports (including the ones coming out of ISAF and CJTF-101) state that the Taliban intentionally took refuge in civilian residences after ambushing a combined ISAF/ANA unit, and that at least some of these civilians were then prevented from leaving the area by the insurgents.  In other words, the Taliban went looking for a fight, found one and then did everything they could to ensure that the local population got caught in the crossfire.  No telling if these allegations will turn out to be true this time, but it wouldn’t be the first instance of this sort of thing.

The usually-respectable Free Range International seems to blame the civilians for allowing the Taliban to operate out of their village in the first place (certainly a no-no by any standards).  However, I’m mildly more sympathetic to the dilemna of the locals in this instance.  The chance of being incinerated by an ISAF airstrike pales in comparison to the near-certainty of being shot by the insurgents for resisting.  The fact that (apparently) the Taliban was willing to sacrifice several dozen local villagers to accomplish their mission indicates that they had little regard for the locals well-being, a idea which would have been abundantly clear to said locals at the time.

More important in my mind is the differing approaches to Information Operations (IO) which come out of this incident.  ISAF is conducting a full inquiry, with teams of investigators on the ground, sifting through the rubble and attempting to determine the truth.  Eventually, I’m sure they’ll figure it out, and I’m fairly confident that ISAF will be at least partially vindicated.

The Taliban on the other hand did not conduct any investigation.  This however did not stop them from making numerous public statements in the immediate aftermath, including the first public acknowledgment of civilian casualties.  That makes sense if your goal is a) to discredit ISAF for their overly agressive use of airpower, b) take the moral high ground and claim that it wasn’t your fault, or c) both.  The interesting thing for me was a story I heard the next day from a member of my staff.  This officer, an Afghan and a medical doctor, has a brother who works in Farah Province for the ICRC.  He claimed that within hours of the strike, the Taliban had called the ICRC (one of the few NGOs with decent relations with the insurgents) and reported the casualties and requested aid.  An ICRC convoy of medical supplies and personnel was dispatched almost immediately, which is pretty good reaction time for an NGO.

So, while the wounded were still bleeding out and the ruins were still smoldering, the Taliban had already put into motion a sophisticated IO campaign involving public denouncements of the action, cooperation with a respected international NGO and detailed claims as to the causes and effects.  True or not, the first mover advantage is hard to overcome. 

Meanwhile, the PAOs at ISAF were still in the “Wait a minute, we did what……….!?” stage of their reaction to the public and international press.  No wonder most of the Muslim world has the good guys and bad guys mixed up.

A Step in the Right Direction

March 21, 2009

Somewhat in line with my last post about the difficulties of counterinsurgency in Afghanstan (and the way in which NATO/ISAF is falling short), along comes the Obama administration to say that they intend to dramatically increase the number of Afghans in the security forces.

From the New York Times:

A plan awaiting final approval by the president would set a goal of about 400,000 troops and national police officers, more than twice the forces’ current size, and more than three times the size that American officials believed would be adequate for Afghanistan in 2002…

While my first reaction is, “Do we really want more guys with guns in this country?” on second thought I am heartened by the possibility of a stronger ANA/ANP.  There are two reasons for this.

First, the Afghan National Army (ANA) consistently ranks among the most respected institutions in Afghanistan, higher than the central government, higher than local and provincial governors.  If any indigenous institution can bring stability to this country, its probably the ANA.

Second, from the standpoint of ISAF/NATO forces, the larger and more professional the ANA becomes, the more they can take the lead on the really nasty counterinsurgency work that needs to be done.  For all of their tactical and technological excellence, foreign forces are always at a disadvantage when conducting population-centric operations.  Locals simply don’t face the same constraints and difficulties.  If we’re ever going to leave this country (that is, leave it better than it was when we got here), the Afghans are going to have to prove that they can handle this fight on their own.  A strong and effective ANA is the first step in that process.

The always-wise Abu Muqawama seems to disagree with my position on this, citing an unnamed defense analyst who questions the long-term financial costs.  I’m all for long-term thinking, but I think that if the biggest problem Afghanistan faces ten years from now is a budget deficit, then at least we’ve done something right.