Afghanistan War

2010-2015: The Road to Burnout

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I just returned from yet another deployment, albeit a shorter one than usual. I was in South Korea for a month, and the Philippines for the same.

Well, I’m done. Those two months were two of the longest of my life, and I simply can’t do it anymore. Since mid-2010, I’ve been away from home for almost 900 days; I did the math. And this says nothing of the insane windup that comes before a unit even deploys. The operational tempo in our modern army is out of control, and no one’s tamping it back, because senior leaders are still fighting for those positive evaluation reports. They do not understand that the tempo at which the military moved for over a decade has never been matched. And it can’t be sustained.

Finally, someone noticed. 

Many people on my recent deployment told me they were getting out. The military had changed so much in such a short period of time, they’ve had enough. One airman said that in almost 20 years of service, he’d never seen worse living conditions than what we had. And we have absolutely no freedom anymore. We are locked inside small compounds, unable to explore, see a movie, or simply see sights. Today’s Army has much less freedom than it did just 20 years ago, a fact that goes unnoticed.

Our numbers have been drastically cut, and we are asked to do more and more.

My symptoms of burnout appeared shortly after arriving at my new unit in Hawaii. I’d recently returned from an 8 month tour in Afghanistan in which I did more work than i’d ever done in that span of time. Little did I know that my new unit was the busiest aviation regiment in the Army, according to the Pentagon.  I felt my work slowly grinding away at my reserves, until I reached a point where I hated the idea of getting up to go to work.  But the unit pushed people hard, and I saw how people get a prison mentality, each person for themselves, and a lack of any empathy at all. I lost interest in almost everything. I stopped reading, stopped writing, avoided volunteering for any extra work, and indeed tried to game the system to relieve pressure on myself.  The prison mentality had infected me, too.

My cynicism about the Army is something to behold. I simply do not trust it as an organization that will look out for me, but only an organization that checks the box, and says all the right things. So much of what we do, including my recent deployment, is for publicity. One of the most important jobs my section had was ensuring the unit’s Facebook page was updated with photo and that half-truths were used to paint a glowing picture of what we were really accomplishing with millions upon millions of taxpayer’s dollars. All the while America has accumulated more debt than any nation in history.  I find that disgusting. Once on this last deployment, I listened to another Staff Sergeant brag about how he kicked in the door to the room of a subordinate soldier whom he suspected was sleeping. When the soldier complained that the Sergeant’s boot struck him in the chest, the Staff Sergeant told him: “You’re lucky I didn’t cave your fucking skull in.” He made these statements to another Staff and a Sergeant First Class. So much a part of the culture is abuse of subordinates, that bragging to superiors does not pose a risk of punitive action.. That’s the fine organization I work for.

With my previous deployments, I experienced a rebound of energy upon my return. That has not happened after this last one. A central board will look at my promotion packet for E7 next month. I’ve barely had enough time to get ready, and I’m considering blowing off the whole thing, because I really don’t want to be promoted. I want to leave the Army, and have some stability in my life. I’ve given them 7 years, in wartime. They’ve gotten every last ounce of energy from me.

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My letter to the President about the war in Afghanistan

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Had to keep it short to to a limitation on the number of characters:

Sir,

I am a Staff Sergeant in the 1st Brigade, 2-22 Battalion, 10th Mountain Division of the US Army. I am an intelligence analyst by trade and was deployed to Afghanistan 2010-2011. It is my job to keep up with events and to make assessments based on facts and data. Sir, the last decade proves a fact better than the hundreds of pie charts and link diagrams you’ve likely been briefed on during your time in the White House: We are not accomplishing our desired goals in Afghanistan. We have not degraded the Taliban insurgency significantly enough to allow an ANSF takeover in 2014. There are several reasons for this. First, our generals have massively underestimated the difficulty in building a democracy in a society that holds few democratic ideals. Secondly, the counterinsurgency strategy employed in Afghanistan fails to meet the military’s own doctrinal standards of 1 security force member to 50 civilians. Actually, our numbers aren’t even close to the required personnel. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the cross-border safe haven in the Pakistani FATA presents an insurmountable stronghold for insurgent training, rest and recruitment. There are other factors, such as the probability that the Taliban holds the moral high ground over the government in Kabul, even by Western standards.
The insurgency has employed every gambit of Sun Tzu, while we have sought to fight a war Galahad would be proud of. Our troops patrol with vague or unknown directives, because current counterinsurgency doctrine says this will connect them with the people. Little consideration is given to the enemy, who is also trying in every manner to influence the people. They are doing a much better job at it then are we. Our Soldiers are targets for snipers and bomb makers who do not fear retribution because retribution rarely comes.
Now, because of insider threats, the meager relationship we’d forged with the ANSF is gone. We are trapped in our bases. The enemy is now free to move about and mass for attack. And why is the Taliban able to penetrate the ANSF with such frequency? Because the Taliban’s creed is almost indistinguishable from the average Pashtun male’s. Xenophobic, jealous, quick to anger, Pashtuns love a good fight. And unlike our Soldiers in Afghanistan, they can go back to their houses and families every night after they kill our service members.

Please consider an early withdrawal. We are the hunted, not the hunters.

SSG Douglas Moore

My time walking through the Old Testament

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I’ll be writing several entries on my blog about my experiences in Afghanistan.  Look for it soon.  It’ll include photos and several vignettes.  Not everyone will like what they read; we screwed the pooch on this one.

Knowing the rules

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I read an article written by David Killcullen, one of the world’s top counter-insurgency men. He stated that the populace in a counter-insurgency want to know the rules that have been set in place for them. They want to know their boundaries, what will bring punishment and what will bring reward.

I believe that one of the biggest failures of the last 8 years in the war in Afghanistan is the lack of effort in reporting the real reasons and intentions for America being in the country in the first place. Since General Petraeus took over, there’s been a concerted effort to rectify this, but there’s a long way to go.

As Washington Post writer, David Ignatius points out, according to recent polls, Afghan haven’t a clue as to why Americans are in their backyard.

America’s first problem in Afghanistan is that the Afghan people in the key battleground don’t understand why we’re there: When pollsters read a simple summary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack and its aftermath to a sample of 1,000 young men in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, only 8 percent said they knew about this event.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so it is with information and propaganda. Whenever Coalition Forces fail to fill information gaps, we can be sure the enemy will oblige. Add to this the propensity of people in the region to believe the wildest of mythology–a neck-tie is a secret symbol of Christianity, Osama Bin Laden is a CIA operative–and you have a formula for unending war. Many Afghans, since they may not have even heard of 9-11, can only assume that America is in-country to do what every other invader has tried to do: Become a colonial power. And since America is primarily a Christian power, we must want to destroy Islam, too. No Afghan tribe that believes these things will ever fully support our efforts. And we need full support if the people are to be the eyes that find insurgents, not just a level of support that takes our money and goes about enabling the Taliban. The Taliban aggressively speads its message and rules through Shabnamah or Night Letters as well as face to face contact. The message and rules? Cooperate with the Coalition and you die. The Taliban has won the information war in to this point in Afghanistan. After researching the subject for an intelligence paper I wrote, I believe it is the number one reason that this war has lasted so long.

In a land rife with illiteracy, getting the word out is a huge task. But it is doable. When I visited a refugee camp in Afghanistan, I saw 25,000 inhabitants whom were ripe for Taliban picking. I made sure when I spoke with the camps leader to ask him why he thought America was in Afghanistan. I also told him that he needs to tell all of his people that America is here to fight al-Qaeda and trans-national terrorists, that American soldiers don’t want to spend years in his country; they want to go back to their family and friends. But we needed his help.

Every leader that interfaces with various tribes in Afghanistan should have a list of things that they tell the people. On that list should be an explanation for American presence and the rules that the people are expected to follow: Do this and we help you. Do this and we kill you or arrest you. The messaging should also include a laundry list of all the horrible things that the Taliban does, and a negation of the myth (propagated as much by Western media as the Taliban) that Americans kill more civilians than the insurgents do. All of this should be SOP with every engagement.

What I think of the war in Afghanistan now

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After having spent four months in Afghanistan and seeing much of the war from the inside, some may wonder if my opinions of the efficacy of fighting there have changed. In short, they haven’t changed much.

While I do see the benefit of having some foot print in the country, I also see that the country’s leaders and outside influencers in Pakistan are playing both sides in hopes that when the US leaves, the Taliban won’t have any grudges. Their actions form a self-fulfilling prophecy and enable the Taliban to continue maintaining some legitimacy.

I want to dismiss the myth that Afghan fighters are incredible guerrilla warriors, able to defeat our troops because of their years’ experience in this kind of fighting. In fact, the Taliban and Haqqani fighters get severely smashed every time they confront US troops. Obliterated. I’m talking 40 bad guys dead, and 0 US dead on several occasions since I’ve been in the country. The way they kill our troops is by paying some dupe with no job to plant a bomb on a road and then detonating it as we ride by.

So why can’t we win? I have several opinions on this. First, we must define what winning is. I think in some ways, we have won. Al-Qaeda is almost non-existent in Afghanistan. The Taliban in many areas is reduced to a loose crime syndicate. And America is still a great place to live. If we read the memo that directed then-General Stanley McChrystal on the objectives of this war, the goal was to “degrade” the Taliban. We’ve done that.

But the one conclusion that I’ve come to that means the most to me is this: Democracy is a reward. Democracy is not a cause, it is the result of doing the right things. The people of Afghanistan have not earned Democracy because they refuse to change the way they do business. And they must suffer the consequences. The people of Iraq have earned the right to reap the benefits of Democracy (much to the chagrin of the Left) , as they demonstrated in the Anbar Awakening.  To ask that Democracy be the cause that brings success to Afghanistan is like buying a teenager a new BMW in hopes it brings him a sense of responsibility.

I must point out that General Patraeus has made it clear we only need to make Afghanistan “good enough”. We don’t need to make it Switzerland, as he quipped. He is absolutely correct, and I do think that a good enough Afghanistan is in reach. But until the problems in Pakistan are dealt with, good enough is not possible. Our military leaders know this.

This is not a military failure. The military has defeated the Taliban on every battle front, though I don’t think we’ve been nearly aggressive enough. There’s also the problem of defining the enemy himself. Any guy can pick up a Kalashnikov and call himself Taliban, just as any person could now call himself a Nazi. So when do we know the Taliban has been defeated? The problem at this point, does not have a military solution. It is a Rule of Law problem and the result of cultural failure. The military part of the problem had been solved. The puzzle that remains is the endemic collapse of stabilizing social structures within Afghanistan. Chaos begets chaos. Corruption fathers corruption.

The War on Terror has not been a failure. Al-Qaeda suffered a massive strategic defeat. It’s plans are consistently disrupted, its fighters arrested or eliminated, many of it’s leaders killed or facing trial. The Taliban barely has a corporeal existence in Afghanistan, but its ghost remains in the form of criminal gangs and warlords. There are very real and positive results that’ve been gained from ignoring the defeatists. And we should continue to fight Islamic extremist. It is a fight that will continue in some form for the rest of our lives. That does not mean it’s not worth fighting. And the whining of the Left over this fight will also continue. We should throw them a couple of bones, like allowing gays in the military or legalizing pot. And then we should ignore them.

Our lesson should be that nation building while under fire is a bad idea. You don’t fix social structures while the enemy shoots at you. You smash the enemy, grab as much power as you can, than build. In most places you have to let everything burn out before you move in, and that can take generations.

The fact is, we’ve reduced the threat to America by fighting in Afghanistan. We just shouldn’t be giving the teenager a new car.

Afghanistan deepens my patriotism

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Some like to claim that America is built on greed and corruption. That all’s that’s needed to make lots of money is an overriding love for money.

After seeing Afghanistan and getting a picture for what’s happening here, I can honestly say that most people in the US don’t understand real systemic and cultural corruption. The only side that many people are on here is the side that can pay them the most money, NATO or Taliban. Or the side that threatens them the most.

Almost daily, in my week of flying around Logar and Sayed Abad Districts, the areas I was in were attacked by rockets, and RPGs. One time, a US route clearance team was attacked by a group of insurgents right outside the gate of the FOB I was staying at. For almost an hour, I could hear small arms fire before the insurgents were finally driven off.

There is virtually no one that can be trusted in this country.

The distrust of Americans is largely born from Taliban and HIG terror. Fear works. Guns work. Propaganda works. Nothing will happen here until security is established. We hand out money, build roads, schools, waterworks, electrical grids, but still the Taliban move in at night and threaten the people. Cooperation with NATO and ISAF means death. The fear is more powerful than our gifts. And even when we can get the tribes to cooperate for more than a day, their military simply does not have the tradition of discipline that ours does. We were blessed by the Prussians. Afghanistan is cursed a warrior spirit combined with no regard for order.

If we win, it will be by an inexorable crawl to victory. Nothing will be quick. And we still need more troops. 100,000 more probably. That won’t happen. So we’ll do everything right here, but have no promise of victory. We need to be in more places at once.

But now I know just how much is right with America.

Dilbert and the world of military intelligence

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Read Dilbert. Then you’ll know exactly what the higher end of military intelligence work is like. A bunch of smart people who get bored and start arguing about the color of Power Point slides. I’ve never really worked in an office environment before the intel world, but I think it drives people insane. To the point where they can barely function in any other aspect of life other than intel. They’ll spend three hours tweeking a single PP slide, to get that just-right shade of green that the Colonel likes on his borders. Need real analysis on the psychological makeup of a dangerous insurgent leader? What will this guy do next? Will he cooperate with us if we offer peace? Is he only trying to get our help so that he can destroy his tribal enemies?

Well, don’t ask most people in the intel field. They can show you every nuance of the latest app. They can almost get Power Point to make coffee. But real analysis? No, that takes talent. You can barely teach it. The best analysts are the ones that just get it. Many won’t like my take on that. It’s not scientific enough. Oh but it is scientific, I’m just not describing it in a scientific way. Real Intel analysis has a human face. Nerds hate human faces. They feel much safer around 0011000101110111100111……

Then you’ll get the PHDs over at the Human Terrain Team. Good, smart people most of them. Speak multiple languages, write awesome reports. I’ve read them and used them recently. But then you’ll get that one PHD who’s just downright insane. The person that’s only here because they have a PHD. You know, the soft, social-science type. The one who’s completely out of their league in a war zone, so makes a great effort in messing up the daily lives of their allies, acting territorial. “Don’t try to steal my stuff!” I guess they just want to give the world a Coke. Instead, the world over here is smoking hashish and opium,  waving an AK and studying bomb-making.

So not cool. But Dilbert would be right at home over at HTT.