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Among advisors to Afghan units, one phrase often heard is “Afghan good enough,” usually as a disparaging comment. It means, ”They’ll never be as good as Americans, but they’re good enough to get by in this country.” It is true that the ANSF will never be able to project land-, sea-, and airpower anywhere in the world. But, in the world the Afghans live in, they bring assets to the table that most American forces do not. People wishing to sound insightful about Afghanistan’s history often remark on how its fighters have made it the “graveyard of empires.” Forgotten is the fact that many of those fighters are on our side, and that there is much they can teach us. While there are wide disparities in the quality and motivation of ANSF, the best are able to achieve more with fewer resources than any Western military could. Applying that same level of resourcefulness and agility to a Western military that already has high quality equipment and training would create a remarkable force.
In 1988, Robert Fulghum wrote a book called “Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” The simple, homespun wisdom borne of the basics we teach children was a publishing sensation at the time. Its advice, such as “Play fair” and “Don’t hit people,” is as true at age 55 as it is at 5. Of course, there are some things one needs to know that are not taught in kindergarten—driving and sex education come to mind. The book’s point is that much of what we really need to know to be successful is really just the basics that we learn early on. Just as adults forget the simple lessons of childhood in favor of the complexities of adulthood, often to their detriment, so do militaries. In our sole-superpower, globe-spanning dominance, we have lost much of our former speed, flexibility, and mental agility. Just as adults can learn from children, so Americans can learn from Afghans. Some of what makes Afghans effective are traits that Americans lost in the course of industrializing warfare.
An Afghan commander once told my advisor team a story about two frogs. He said that Afghans are like a frog at the bottom of a well. That frog there does not know that there is anything in the world beyond the space from one side of the well to the other. Then another frog falls into the well and tells the incredulous first frog about how big the world really is. That second frog is an American. The Afghan CO meant the story as a compliment to Americans and our broad-ranging experiences. While that CO did not mention it, there is a caveat to the story in regards to the American frog. That frog brings a lot of knowledge to the table, but he does not know the inside of the well like the first frog, and if they are both going to succeed inside the well, they need to learn from each other. The Afghan already knows he has much to learn from the American. Americans are often too intellectually arrogant to admit they have several things that they can learn from Afghans.
1. There is such a thing as too much planning. Sometimes things really are as simple as they look. Afghans with no formal education and only the most basic military training can execute vehicle checkpoints, airborne interdictions, HVI snatches, and most of the basics of counterinsurgency without a single PowerPoint slide. If Afghans can successfully do these missions on a moment’s notice, why can’t Americans? Americans frequently get sucked down rabbit holes planning to counter every contingency and mitigate every risk. While we pride ourselves on detailed planning, COA development, wargaming, and so on, sometimes we forget that sometimes a simple mission is just that. While there are missions that require lengthy and detailed planning, many do not. Americans often plan operations for so long that the situation that necessitated an operation in the first place has long since passed by the time we are ready to act. In our zeal to answer every question we often paralyze ourselves with inaction.
2. Risk is part of war. Afghans are consistently willing to put themselves and their troops in danger when the mission requires it. Among other things, they are encouraged to use field expedient methods in order to complete the mission in a timely fashion. While clearly some specific Afghan techniques are unsound, Americans have overcorrected, eliminating risk to the point which the mission becomes secondary to adherence to rules established at higher echelons. In many AORs, “Rules of the Road” and other guidance has been established to the point which small-unit leaders are not allowed to make judgment calls about the composition and conduct of patrols. Lives and equipment are valuable, and should not be spent lightly. However, at least at this point of the war in Afghanistan, it often seems as if our actions are guided by John Kerry’s words of 1971,”How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” It may be someone else’s country, and we may be leaving it soon, but as long as we are in a fight, we need to act with a sense of commitment to fighting, not just to avoiding losses. Running out the clock may work in athletic contests, but is not the way to victory in war.
3.Speed and mobility can be force protection. Afghan troops wear little body armor, and most of their vehicles are unarmored. While body armor and armored vehicles may be necessary in high-kinetic environments, much of the time they cripple the mobility and agility of the forces using them. On partnered operations, Afghans greatly outpace ISAF troops, both on foot and mounted. Their vehicles can go where ISAF’s cannot and can travel at much greater speed. American MRAP vehicles do only one thing well—survive explosive blasts. In every other regard, they are deficient. They are lumbering, difficult to enter or exit, and the armored cocoon saps the situational awareness of the entire crew. They are largely roadbound—even the MATV, designed for all-terrain use, loses most of its off-road capability when encumbered with a mineroller. In most environments, IEDs are best countered by simply staying off roads and trails, which American vehicles are unable to do. If engaged, the ability to displace rapidly can be more valuable than additional armored protection. The same holds true for PPE. Regardless of the mission, conventional American troops are required to wear a minimum of 40 pounds of gear, even before accounting for sustainment. This makes them unable to move at any pace faster than a quick shuffle, rendering them immobile in terms of covering any significant distance or to maneuver against a threat. This immobility is often more dangerous than any lack of protection would be.
4.Minimize logistical requirements. Afghans are well-known for having a poor logistics system. While this has continued to hamper ANSF’s development into a more capable force, it has also fostered innovation and required commanders to get by with less. As Americans, we have a tendency to bring everything but the kitchen sink with us, just in case we need it. This cripples our ability to act quickly by increasing equipment requirements, which increases planning time and further decreases tactical mobility. While Americans will never be able to live off the land as Afghans do, drinking from streams and resupplying from bazaars, emphasizing travelling light increases operational tempo. We often find ourselves in an escalating spiral of requirements. We bring extra vehicles in case the primary vehicles fail, which necessitates more recovery assets, which requires more fuel, which requires vehicles to carry the fuel, which requires more vehicles to escort the fuel vehicles, and so forth. The Afghan mindset is often closer to the expeditionary mindset we should be trying to achieve. Keeping things as simple as possible and reducing logistical footprints can reduce risk.
5.Aggressiveness can make up for a lack of skill. In initial military training, Americans are hammered with truisms about such things as “speed, surprise, and violence of action.” Later in careers, the importance of these in warfare receives only lip service. When one has only his rifle and his comrades to rely on, the only thing that keeps one going towards the sound of battle is his determination to close with and destroy the enemy. Every day, Afghans push through dangers that would stop American units in their tracks. Americans will not drive across an Afghan street without minerollers and ECM equipment. American units stop even administrative movements when air support is unavailable. Afghan troops execute virtually all of their operations operating under what Americans would consider “no-go” criteria. While restraint and discretion certainly have their places in military operations, leaders should never emphasize them to the detriment of aggressiveness and a bias towards action.
6.Sometimes the appearance of being outgunned is an advantage. Americans roll through the Afghan countryside armed to the teeth and armored like medieval knights, then wonder why the enemy never shows himself. Afghans have no choice but to go out, even when they do not have the advantage, and unsurprisingly, the enemy frequently shows up. One cannot fight the enemy one cannot find. Letting the enemy think he has a chance can be a useful tactic in counterinsurgency. Unlike Afghans, Americans have airpower to bring down destruction upon the enemy once he presents himself. The enemy will never show if he believes himself to be outgunned from the start.
7.Don’t be afraid to leave a subordinate in charge. While it is true that the Afghans lack a professional NCO corps, and this continues to be a huge weakness, in certain other regards they are more decentralized than some American units. Many leaders in the American military are afraid to allow subordinates to make decisions in their absence. Often, they insist on receiving updates on even routine matters while they are gone. On the other hand, Afghan unit leaders are often gone for days or even weeks at a time, leaving subordinates completely on their own. This is in a land where communication technology is lacking, so subordinates are truly working without nets. While this situation is partially due other systemic problems, the result is frequently the development of trusted subordinates who have the ability to run a unit on their own. Few Americans are willing to delegate more than symbolic authority to subordinates, for fear that those subordinates will make mistakes. In reality, while they may make some errors, the errors are rarely catastrophic, and the subordinates learn in the process. Subordinates usually rise to the challenge and become better leaders themselves.
8.Uneducated does not mean stupid. Americans value education greatly, and it is indeed very important, especially in a technologically advanced force. We tend to look down on those who do not have formal knowledge. The average Afghan spends his entire life living in conditions that most Americans would consider military-caliber survival training. He continuously has to improvise solutions to problems. Once one realizes the value of this type of learning, it prompts two revelations. One, never underestimate the capability of a man who has grown up in such an environment. There is a reason that some Afghans, having never taken a chemistry class, can turn ingredients found in a typical hardware store into bombs capable of throwing 30,000lb vehicles into the air. Two, it shows us that just because a procedure is nowhere in any manual does not make it invalid—Afghans devise effective solutions that are not found in manuals because they can’t read the manuals. Americans need to know when to use the manual, and when they need to pretend it doesn’t exist.
9.No better friend. No worse enemy. Reward those who cooperate with you. In counterinsurgency, one’s friends have to know that there are advantages to cooperation. It is often better to live with a little evil if that allows one to defeat the bigger evil. As long as one knows what the ultimate goal is, he can ignore smaller infractions as long as progress continues towards the larger goal. In Afghanistan, one can see this in the government-led eradication programs. While some areas are indeed so corrupt that major traffickers own the entire area, in other areas selective enforcement can be a viable tool. If the government can’t eradicate all the poppy harvest, then at least the farmers who don’t harbor the enemy should be left alone. If someone is not cooperating, make his life hard. In the parts of Afghanistan where law enforcement is more effective, that means known bad actors get searched, get treated roughly, their poppies get destroyed, and their equipment gets confiscated. If enough fence-sitters see the upside of cooperation and the downside of opposing the government, an area can begin to turn.
10.Always make time for tea. In the end, armed forces are bands of brothers who put their lives in one another’s hands. Afghans always greet every individual warmly and will take the time to sit down and discuss any issue, whether business or social. Personal interaction is what makes everything happen. Personal relationships are often an afterthought in American forces, especially in garrison. Training is done via computer. People e-mail instead of calling or walking down a hall. Whether it is over a cup of Afghan sheen chai, or over an American Budweiser, troops need to have the time and opportunity to form those bonds that let them trust one another when the chips are down. Beyond that, Americans neglect the value of face-to-face interaction. Giving an informal class can be more effective than death-by-PowerPoint. Stopping by someone’s office is usually more effective than sending an e-mail.
As individual military leaders progress through their careers, they pick and choose attributes from other leaders that they try to emulate. The same should apply for militaries. While there are certainly many qualities of ANSF not worth copying, there are certain things at which they excel, and Americans need to have the institutional humility to learn from them. The US military will not keep its premier status unless it has the moral courage to examine itself critically, to identify better ways of doing things, and to take risks in implementing those changes.