Oct 19

In earlier posts about my experience in Afghanistan, I answered the questions others asked me the most: What did you do out there? Were you scared? What was it like meeting with the locals?

Today’s question is not a question others have asked me, but one I have asked myself over and over since returning from deployment: Did I accomplish anything out there? What, specifically, was my legacy in Afghanistan?

I earned a Bronze Star Medal (for service), a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and 173rd Combat Patch; I earned the trust of my men and built relationships for life; I faced the possibility of death and the emotional turmoil that brings--all things I am proud of. But the question remains, did I leave a lasting positive in my wake?

When I patrolled the Korengal, achieving tactical victories was a struggle. We had a few minor accomplishments. As we started doing dismounted patrols, we found a 107-millimeter rocket on the side of the road probably a future IED. We also conducted a dismounted patrol that found an ambush site.

But when the rubber meets the road, my lasting accomplishments were achieved in Serkani District.  Mainly, we trained Afghanistan National Security Forces in Serkani, both the Army and the Police. Once we had trained, we then started building an intelligence and trust network with the local government.

For the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), we were not their primary trainers, but we partnered with them on every operation. Despite a rocky start, the Marine Embedded Tactical Trainers (anyone who knows me knows I am not the biggest fan of Marines but their trainers were amazingly flexible and resilient) and 4th Platoon taught our ANA Kandak (Pashtun for battalion) how to react quickly, to conduct traffic stops, and, most importantly, how not to accidentally discharge their weapons in our vicinity. 

The other key piece of the security forces was the police. My biggest accomplishment here--and this is the one I am most proud--was gaining their trust. I visited each checkpoint in Serkani at least once a week. I visited the checkpoint in Pashad, the most critical position, at least every three days. Mostly, we drank Chai. In typical Afghan police fashion, their stations would not start work until our convoy pulled up. We also continually urged them to report suspicious activity to us if they couldn’t handle it (which they couldn’t).

While training the ANA and developing the Afghan Police, I also worked to expand the reach of the district sub-governor Mustafa Khan. To gain his trust I offered to take him wherever he needed to go. This approach had definite drawbacks as it showed him reliant on the US. But, as a result of our many patrols, he visited villages and represented the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in places that had never seen the government. We also always included both the ANA and Afghan police so every patrol seemed like a joint patrol, even if our US forces were probably the glue enabling it to occur.

When I came back from the Afghanistan, I generally believed I had accomplished something; I earned the trust of the locals. I am proud of what I accomplished but I still wonder, could I have done more?

Oct 12

Once on a comment on Abu Muqawama, I made a reference to the costs of warfare. Another commenter said I shouldn't comment unless I was prepared to make the sacrifice myself. Someone else then pointed out that I was an infantry officer who had earned a CIB in Afghanistan.

Naturally, my experience in Afghanistan is a huge part of my exploration into Violence, and foreign and military affairs. That's what I would like to write about today, to clarify exactly what I did and did not do in Afghanistan. Also, I know that many of our civilian readers have a lot of questions about the daily life of our soldiers in Afghanistan.  

I joined my battalion six months into a fifteen month deployment. My late arrival as a mid-tour replacement was a double edged sword. The biggest benefit was that I spent all my time downrange as a platoon leader, the smallest unit of organization an officer can lead. Most officers say is the most fun they ever had, and that time has been the most rewarding experience of my short time in the Army. The bonds I formed with my men during deployment will last for the rest of our lives.

On the other hand, the biggest drawback to arriving mid-deployment is the never ending feeling like you aren’t quite a member of the team. You have to prove yourself, you have to earn your place. I never quite felt a part of my battalion until we returned from deployment; I only knew my company. Both companies I worked with were geographically removed from battalion headquarters so the battalion staff did not know me as Michael Cummings, they knew me as Destined 4-6: 4th Platoon Leader, Destined Company.

My battalion deployed to Konar Province, Afghanistan. At the time, it was one of the most dangerous areas of operation on the planet. The enemy favored small arms and indirect fire weapons to IEDs. When they attacked, they were vicious and tenacious. Our battalion’s story was told in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and on Nightline. Because of this media coverage, our battalion in many ways was the face of war in Afghanistan. (Currently, I would say the south of the country, Helmand Province, has taken that role.) 

When I first arrived, I spent a few weeks learning how to become the Battalion Mortar Platoon Leader. The initial plan was that I would learn how to operate the Battalion Mortars, then transfer to a rifle or weapons platoon. Like all of the best laid plans, this one changed. Before I could take the mortar platoon job, a job in Destined Company--our heavy weapons company--opened up. Before I knew it, I was on a plane flying to the Korengal valley.

As a heavy weapons platoon leader, I deployed to two different areas within Konar Province. In the first area of operations, the Korengal Valley, we were attached to Battle Company. The Korengal Vally had roughly eight kilometers of road. The area of operations spread out on either side by a few kilometers but very little was reachable by Coalition Forces. My platoon operated as a quick reaction force or a pre-positioned support-by-fire element. As a quick reaction force, we assisted a force in trouble by providing additional troops, heavy weapons fire or, if needed, ground based casualty evacuation. For the latter, we pre-positioned our trucks and provided overwhelming fire to units in contact.

Because we dominated the roads, by default the IED defeat mission fell to us. In my terms, we did not conduct counter-IED missions (trying to take down the cells) but anti-IED missions (trying to find the IEDs in the road). A few days before I took lead of the platoon, an IED had detonated and destroyed one of our trucks. One of our soldiers lost both legs as a result. The IED mission, therefore, occupied much of my mental and emotional energy.

After two months in this area, my platoon rejoined Destined Company, our parent company. Captain Rowe gave my platoon the districts of Serkani and Marawara. Instead of providing the specific mission support-by-fire we executed in the Korengal, we controlled an entire AO. This AO included over one hundred square kilometers, at least forty-thousand families, and twenty kilometers of road. Instead of a purely tactical mission focus as in the Korengal, I had to learn the skills of counter-insurgency and try to influence the local government.

In the former AO, I experienced glimpses of the intense fighting my men had endured before I arrived. Because of the tenacious fight, Battle Company and their commander earned many awards and adulation for what they endured. In our second area of operations, Serkani, we generally pushed out the Taliban with our presence. Before our presence patrols they had attacked Afghan police checkpoints and smuggled in goods. After a few weeks of patrolling, they shifted their smuggling routes and the attacks on Afghan security forces ceased.

In Serkani and Marawara my missions were as varied as the terrain. We conducted dismounted, mounted and aerial patrols. We conducted kinetic movement to contacts and support by fires. We conducted presence patrols like traffic control points and route clearances. We conducted soft-skill missions like humanitarian aid distributions, medical civil action projects and economic reconstruction with the local provincial reconstruction team. We also trained three separate Afghan security forces: the Army, the Police and the Border Police.

I was proud of my experience and performance in both the Korengal and Serkani. In the Korengal I saw the fighting and the headlines; in Serkani, I saw real people get real help. In many ways, I saw the different approaches an Army can take to war, both the high-intensity and the population-centric counter-insurgency. Both ways influenced how I think about warfare and nation building.

Oct 08

Yesterday, I described two patrols conducted by my company in Afghanistan. In the first, our humanitarian assistance was gladly received and the mission was a wild success. In the second, an IED killed a US soldier, wounded two others and failed to help the local population. Today, I want to discuss the lessons both military folks, and the public at large, can learn from these two operations.

When we experience failures as a military, like the second MEDCAP, our leadership is prepared to dismiss so-called non-kinetic operations. One failure erases ten successes. This is a mistake. Instead of dismissing civil action projects as useless because of one failure, we ought to see how we can improve their effectiveness. The following are the lessons I think we should take away from these two MEDCAPs and their different outcomes.

(One note as well, I do not hold the platoon leader who ran the second MEDCAP to blame. I respect him for trying to influence the population in a positive way even though he did not succeed.)

First, no mission or area of operations in Afghanistan is simple. A huge number of factors influence every patrol, every mission and every campaign in Afghanistan. Whether it be the Taliban (AAF), coalition forces, the population at large, the Afghanistan National Security Forces, or even the terrain itself; anything can either hurt or harm the outcome of counter-insurgency efforts. Acknowledging the complexity of our mission in Afghanistan leads to a simple conclusion: plan your missions with the best intelligence possible. And even when you've gathered all the intelligence you possibly can, even when you've gone over the plan ten times, and even after numerous rehearsals, keep planning and gathering intelligence.

Second, counter-insurgency missions are still combat missions. Soldiers and leaders must never forget that. Both of our missions show this universal truth. Luckily, most of the US Army has learned this and leaders of all branches try to grill combat thinking into their troops. The Marine Corps understands this truth even better than the Army with their philosophy "every soldier a riflemen" that existed before the war on terror began. (For those who know me personally and believe I have just committed an act of heresy, I'll begrudgingly admit the Marine Corps does have some positives.)

Third, fifteen miles can make a dramatic difference in Afghanistan. I wrote an entire post about this, but members of the military still forget this all the time. Literally, fifteen miles up one valley can mean changes in the culture, the demographics, and the economic capabilities of an area. These changes help the Taliban and inhibit the US because they understand the subtle differences in Afghan culture and we don't. This makes designing operations or choosing between different courses of action extremely difficult.

Fourth,  MEDCAPs--humanitarian or soft demonstrations of power--cannot be forced on a population. Afghans can tell when coalition forces care, and when they are doing what they are simply supposed to. Thus, MEDCAPs should both be run by Afghan Security Forces and actually wanted by the population. Afghan and coalition forces should wait until they are invited into a community, not force aid on villages.

Fifth, American infantry soldiers enjoy fighting. The counter-insurgency fight should really be run by non-profits, diplomats, intelligence officers and police. Yet, we use infantrymen—those who define themselves as “dedicated infantry combat killers.” When we employ grunts to demonstrate soft power, we run a huge risk. For example, the second MEDCAP occurred in a valley that had endured nearly constant fighting for the last year. That close fighting, and the losses associated with it, made it very hard for our soldiers to want to help the population. As a coalition force, we need to run these missions; but we need to staff these patrols with other people besides infantrymen. This may seem to contradict my second point, but the differences are subtle. While every patrol is a combat patrol, and should be ready to fight to defend itself, some people in the Army live to fight and others support the fight. That latter group needs to run humanitarian missions, not the group dedicated to fighting.

As I said earlier, I wasn’t on both MEDCAPs. I can't definitively speak to why one mission succeeded and the other ended in tragedy. Simply put, the coalition tried to help the population, and the Taliban or insurgents in the Chowkay valley decided to attack my company as we left. In a series of days, our company both influenced the local population successfully and suffered a tragic defeat. Whether the attack cost us more than the successful MEDCAP gained is something we will never know.

Oct 07

The following events occurred while I was deployed to Afghanistan. They directly influenced my views on counter-insurgency. Today, I write about what happened; tomorrow, I will write about what I learned.

A few weeks before my company was due to leave Afghanistan, our Company Commander secured the resources to conduct two Medical Civil Action Projects (MEDCAP) within our area of operations. The first MEDCAP would occur in my area of operations in the recently secured village of Pashad. The second would occur two days later in the contentious Chowkay River Valley.

My MEDCAP ended as an unqualified success--we treated so many people our medical supplies ran out. The other MEDCAP ended in an IED explosion: three coalition casualties, a destroyed Humvee and much fewer civilians treated.  

Based on my meetings with village elders, I knew that the village of Pashad lacked any medical facilities. They didn't even have a pharmacy. I have posted about Pashad before and the success of coalition and Afghan efforts in that area. Pashad was special to me, I had connected with the leaders in that village and I wanted to help them.

Before our MEDCAP, I laid the groundwork by continuing my security visits at night to Pashad. At least every three days, my Platoon and I drove down to Pashad and met with the local Afghanistan National Police checkpoint commander Sayed Abdullah. He and I discussed security issues and I started laying the groundwork for the MEDCAP with basic planning. Meanwhile, the newly appointed District Governor Mustafa Khan talked with village elders about the need for a MEDCAP and laid the groundwork on the Afghan side of the house. Somewhere in the middle, the Afghan Army got on board. We also secured a local Afghan doctor and our battalion surgeon to run the medical portion of the MEDCAP.
On the day of the MEDCAP, I led a convoy of eight US vehicles, fifty or so US PAX, eight Afghan Security Force vehicles and an about equal strength of Afghanistan National Army soldiers—the largest convoy I would ever lead. Even though I had told the leaders of Pashad what day I would arrive, I did not tell them the time. I trusted Sayed Abdullah, but even though I trusted him I could never trust who he would tell and what they would do. Fortunately, on our way to the village we we weren't attacked.

When we showed up, the local police had cordoned off an old school. The local Afghans waiting for medicine acted perfectly civil--no pushing, shoving or otherwise inappropriate behavior. Even better, the Afghan police and Afghan Army worked together to secure our perimeter, something that doesn't always happen. Our company's trucks simply provided additional security and, of course, the resources for the MEDCAP. Once we arrived in Pashad, I wasn't too worried about security; a huge crowd was waiting for us and in this region in Afghanistan, the Taliban and other insurgents wouldn't risk injuring civilians. They needed the support of the local population as much as we did. After a short set up, we began treating civilians.

Eventually, a shura began. No one started it, it just sort of accreted out of the ether. Before I knew it, I was sitting in a room in the school eating a meager portion of chicken and rice and beans, a feast in Afghan terms. Whenever you have that many big names in a small village like Pashad, a shura is bound to begin. The locals talked, thanked us for our help, and then asked for more. A typical Afghan shura.

By the end of the day, our US/Afghan medical team treated over 150 children, 50 women and 120 men. Due to their culture, treating women is very unusual in Afghanistan; most get denied medical treatment. This shows both the level of trust we had earned with the locals and their desperation for medicine. Our mission in Pashad proved a humanitarian success, a quality training mission for the Afghanistan National Army, and an intelligence victory for our Tactical Humint Team.

A few days later, a second MEDCAP left from a sister FOB headed out the Chowkay River Valley. VPB Chowkay lay about fifteen kilometers in straight line distance from Camp Joyce or a forty-five minute drive on the roads. A similar force to the first MEDCAP would arrive at VPB Chowkay with both coalition forces and Afghan security forces prepared to treat local civilians. Unfortunately, few locals turned out. The road to VPB Chowkay had a persistent IED threat. When I went into the command post for the nightly update brief, I learned that an IED detonated on the route clearance platoon as my company prepared to return for the day. The blast killed a soldier, wounded two others and completely destroyed a Humvee.

Two crucial missions in Afghanistan, why does one mission succeed in Afghanistan and another fail? Tomorrow I will address the lessons these two patrols can teach us about Afghanistan.

Jul 21

Yesterday, when I criticized the US Army’s conduct of Information Operations, I left out one crucial point: even our best, most culturally sensitive Information Operations ignore the reality on the ground. Below is an actual Good News Story I wrote in Afghanistan:

Local Afghans Fighting For Afghanistan
Chowkay District- On May 11th 2008, local Afghans reported the location of a suspected IED to Afghan National Security Forces. Within minutes, the Afghan National Army moved to the area and secured the site to protect local Afghans. Soon, the Afghan National Army and Coalition Forces detonated the suspected IED and declared the road safe for the people of Chowkay.

The Government of Afghanistan highly encourages all Afghans to report Taliban activity as these braves citizens did. Afghans in Chowkay are using the Small Rewards Program honorably protect their district and homes.

The Government of Afghanistan and Coalition Forces will pay Afghans who can provide intelligence, parts or the locations of IEDs and IED makers. The Small Rewards Program also pays citizens who turn in weaponry such as AK-47s and RPGs or the location of Taliban weapon caches.

The tide continues to turn against the Taliban and other anti-Afghanistan Forces. Local citizens like the ones who reported the IEDs know that the Taliban continues to lose power in Konar Province. The Afghan National Army can react quickly to threats and they are planning future operations to dominate all of Konar Province by ground or air. With these continued capabilities, the Afghanistan National Army continues to prove they are “Destined for Vectory!” [sic]

While I never lie, I definitely give too much credit to the Afghanistan National Army and local Afghans. I also virtually ignore Destined Company’s role in the discovery and detonation of the IED. In reality, without the US Army, that IED would have killed Afghani soldiers.

Jul 20

Simply put, the US Army is bad at Information Operations. When the US Army tries to publish mass media it frequently sounds more like state-run propaganda than honest journalism. As one Iraqi told the Washington Post, “They do it (newspapers) the same way the prior regime did its newspapers."

In Afghanistan, my battalion tried its own hand at mass media. I myself wrote “Good News Stories” of our successful missions. My company then pushed them up to our battalion to get published in who knows what form. This was our version of Information Operations.

Information Operations is the Army phrase for public relations or, more cynically, propaganda. All too often, the military on the ground believes Information Operations are the articles we publish in local papers, the handouts we give to locals, or the billboards we put on the wall. Information Operations is all these things, but so much more. If our mission in Afghanistan is persuading people to support the government, then every time we leave the wire we are engaging in Information Operations.

When I deployed to Afghanistan, I didn’t know anything about Information Operations. Fortunately, a shura I conducted, completely by accident, taught me how to communicate to Afghanistan’s population.

I had planned a simple mission: I would bring the District Governor of Serkani to meet with the Pashad Afghanistan National Police checkpoint commander and a handful of elders. I had planned for a simple meeting with a few locals, but I ended up in a village shura with over a hundred locals.

Our district Governor, Mustafa Khan, didn’t have a vehicle. Even if he had a vehicle, he wouldn’t be able to afford the gas to drive it. If he could afford the gas, he wouldn’t have had protection from the IEDs buried in the road. Yet, Pashad is in his district and he needed to get there. I volunteered to take him.

I arrived at the ANP checkpoint in Pashad and established security. I had several dozen Afghanistan National Army soldiers and their Marine Corps trainers with me. When I greeted Sayed Abdullah, the police checkpoint commander, he was excited as always. When he saw the governor, all he could say was, “Why didn’t you tell me he was coming?” I talked my way around the issue, because I didn’t want to tell him the reason was the IED threat on the road to his village. I trusted Sayed Abdullah, but not the people he could tell.

Sayed Abdullah quickly decided that we should move to an elder’s house. More accurately, he decided we should move to the most respected village elder’s courtyard.

When we arrived, I saw Pashtun culture in action. Villagers greeted us. They brought us chairs. They arranged themselves around the District Governor and myself in order of precedence. And then, they started to arrive. And kept arriving. When we started the meeting an hour later, villagers were still arriving.

At this point, I realized that this wasn’t just a meeting, this was an event. The District Governor knew it and responded accordingly. He greeted the important elders and made a long Afghan speech. The representative of Pashad village made another long speech. The most sincere thing the Pashad Village representative said was that Pashad had not seen a representative of the government of Afghanistan in five or six years. He emphasized this point over and over: in Pashad they did not feel connected to Serkani District, let alone the Government in Kabul.

I learned two important lessons at this unexpectedly large shura. First, communications in Afghanistan and America are not the same thing. The US Army considers mass media, like newspapers and television, as Information Operations; the rural people of Afgahnistan do not. Their media is the village meeting.

Second, I learned that to convince the population of Pashad to support the Government of Afghanistan, this one meeting was not enough. I would have to return again and again to make my point. I couldn’t return alone either, the district governor needed to prove his sincerity as well.

When I returned to base that night, I schedule another daytime patrol to Pashad scheduled for five days later.

Jul 13

On July 6, The New Yorker published the story of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, the Rakkasans and their tour of Iraq in 2006. Raffi Khatchadourian’s article captures the difficulties inherent in nation building, like target identification, war crimes and the proper way to disarm a population.

Many Soldiers will have heard stories about Colonel Steele and his Rakkasans before reading the article; I first heard about them during my infantry officer training in early 2007. Now that the New Yorker has broken the ice, I feel comfortable publishing what I have heard. The following story is not a word for word quotation, but what I remembered and recorded in my journals during my training.

My platoon mentor for infantry officer training had just come from 3rd Brigade of the 101st. During down time, he would answer questions from the new lieutenants about warfare, deployments and counter-insurgency. One day, as we waited to practice room clearing a soldier raised his hand and asked about Rules of Engagement (ROE) in Afghanistan or Iraq and his thoughts on it.
“That’s a good question.” He paused. “I have a story that shows the difference between killers on the ground and politicians covering their asses, acting politically correct.    
“I was with the Rakkasan’s during OIF IV. One day CJTF headquarters decided to change the ROE. The change altered the criteria needed to engage a ‘target.’ Basically, it said that if two sources confirmed a target then it could be destroyed. What JAG didn’t realize at the time, was they hadn’t defined the term ‘target.’ They meant hard target as in buildings or vehicles. A rational person could also describe a target as a hostile individual.

“So we devised a plan where we had informants give us names of an IED cell. We then took pictures of individuals in the area they operated. We had another source point out which ones were the IED cell. With the second identification, we had our two sources confirming our targets. Our source even gave us home addresses.

“We called the operation ‘Judgement Day.’
“A few nights later in the dead of night we simultaneously hit the houses. As the targets prepared to surrender the soldiers entering didn’t pause or stop; just put two in the chest and one in the head.

“By the last house, the word had gone out that the coalition forces were no longer detaining suspects. The last man held up his baby son in front of his face. SGT _______  used his M4 to push the baby to the side and put two rounds in his face. Oh, in another house, one of the target’s daughters ran to him as the team came in and she accidentally took several rounds and died with him.

“After we executed the mission and the word went up to higher, CJTF headquarters quickly adjusted the ROE to restrict targeting individuals like we had done. They basically made only High Value Targets kill on sight and that authorization had to come from Corps level.”

The platoon was silent. Slowly the guys started to comment how awesome that mission sounded, and how it sucked we could not conduct missions like that more often.

I disagreed. Operation Judgement Day epitomized bad counter-insurgency to me. Practically, the death of one little girl outweighs the benefits of killing three insurgents to a local population. And of course, ethically, killing little girls should be avoided at all costs, and never treated casually or flippantly. I don’t know if anyone else felt the same way, but no one agreed with me. As we discussed ROE, and I took the position that this mission made no sense, my fellow lieutenants--all about to be Platoon Leaders--disagreed with me and supported Operation Judgment Day.

The US Army has a long way to go before population-centric counter-insurgency, the intelligent, difficult style advocated by General Petraues, David Kilcullen and John Nagl, is accepted by the Army as a whole. While it may be doctrine, that does not mean that the Army at large buys into it. Or, as my story shows, has been trained in it.

Jul 08

Every so often, a person asks--boldly in my opinion--whether I was scared when I deployed to Afghanistan. I rarely provide a straight forward answer; it is too hard to be honest. I obscure my answer in half-truths without ever admitting the reality of war.

Truthfully, no two people experience war in the same way; and they never feel the same about it. I can speak about my experience and say, I did not want to die. I confronted the reality and would have sacrificed myself if needed, but I did not want to die. The thought of dying terrified me.  

Is the fear I felt a universal emotion or was I alone?

I deployed from Vicenza, Italy with twenty-two guys, three of whom had deployed before, the rest who had not. (Our Brigade had deployed a few months earlier and we were mid-tour replacements.) The rest of us, 2nd Lieutenants or Privates First Class, were scared--or I assumed others felt the same as I.

The fear, if it was there, was always hidden. The infantry prides itself on giving nothing away. An infantry soldier will complain, but never in a way that will make him seem weak. Weakness should be avoided at all costs. When joining a fighting force dedicated to revealing no weakness, it is expected that you will hide your emotions.

I acted the same way with my family as I would the infantry--I revealed no weakness. I was heading to danger but I avoided letting anyone know. When deploying to the Pacific in WW II, my grandpa told his family he simply drove a truck. I told my family that I was merely the truck driver’s boss.

The fear that started in Vicenza never really left throughout deployment. Routine set in eventually -- there are only so many places you can go and so many things that can happen -- but then something would change the entire focus of operations and fear would creep back.

To answer the question: yes I was scared. I was fearful of never seeing my twin brother again, never seeing my girlfriend again and never seeing home again. It worked out fine for me. As I returned from deployment, regret replaced my fear: first, the regret for those Soldiers who did not come back, and, second, for the soldiers too embarrased to admit they are scared.