Enable the Warrior-Diplomat

January 30, 2014
Marines establish new contacts in unchartered territory west of Helmand River

The mission in Afghanistan is either going to change into something much smaller—about 10,000 troops—or it will end.  After two long foreign occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the appetite of the American public for lengthy stabilization operations is gone.  Cries for “returning to our roots” and “getting back to the basics” will echo through the corridors of the Pentagon.  Top line fiscal cuts will cause the bottom lines of “nonessential” training and education programs to dwindle.  We’ll lean out our personnel numbers, stick to the basics of offensive and defensive land, amphibious, maritime and airborne operations, and forget the “softer side” of basic combat operations.  Never mind training for what happens after initial combat ends—nongovernmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and other governmental organizations will take care of that, right?

Such outspoken advocates of “returning to the basics” should keep in mind the timeless observation of former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, who was more right than he knew when he said “All politics is local.” This is true in Afghanistan, and will continue to be so wherever Washington tells the military to deploy, even in wars that we may initially view as “conventional,” like Iraq in 2003.   And even as Washington spurns any operation with a whiff of counterinsurgency, U.S. forces remain involved in missions that require partnering with and assisting allied militaries and community leaders. Evan Munsing’s recent article does well to highlight the harsh reality that locally brokered solutions in Afghanistan will be the product of a weak central government.  However, given the failed imposition of a centralized counterinsurgency approach to a decentralized problem in Afghanistan, this author would argue that the need for well-trained “warrior-diplomats” is key for future deployments in resource-constrained environments.  COIN doctrine itself was not the problem.  The strategy was the problem. The lack of a clearly defined political endstate gave rise to interagency parochialism and regional interpretations of “progress” and “stability.”  Some units improvised local solutions, in anticipation of those inevitable locally brokered post-withdrawal deals of which Munsing speaks.  This was certainly the case with the U.S. Marines in Sangin District of Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 when they were given the nebulous mission to “conduct full-spectrum counterinsurgency operations in order to extend the governance and economic development of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” And as the mission in Afghanistan draws down, it is worth looking back on some lessons learned.  For even when dealt a strategy that lacks clearly defined political objectives, units at the operational level can adapt and counter instability using a locally ascertained solution.

The centralized government solution that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was tasked to realize was ignorant of cold hard facts on Afghan society, economy, and history; namely, the feudal traits of Afghan society, a piddling economy, and a history of being the proverbial doormat of invading forces heading into and out of Southwest Asia.  Consequently, the operational objectives that the Marines in Sangin and all other allied forces in Afghanistan were ordered to pursue conflicted egregiously with the political realities of individual districts to the point of being tactically ineffective.  So, like good Marines, they adapted to the local version of stability in the final months of 2010.  Was the result the “picture of success” envisioned in ISAF headquarters and Washington?  Only time and commitment would tell.

In 2010 and 2011, Sangin District was the most violent place in Afghanistan, which is why it bears consideration as an example of a modern stability operation: one Marine unit and its attachments experienced the highest casualty rate since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, with 29 killed in action, and over 200 wounded in action.  This district, one of the smallest in the country, had claimed the lives of over a third of all British soldiers killed in action since the start of the war.  It also produced more poppy than any other district for the Quetta Shura Taliban in Pakistan.  The Marines and their British counterparts thus had to make a decision between conforming to what the central authority had determined to be the counterinsurgency dogma for Operation Enduring Freedom—which told them to promote the Afghan government—or searching for a solution that created stability as defined by the informal political power structure in Sangin.

Just as the residents of Smalltown, U.S.A., don’t often take kindly to those they would call “outsiders” running for a local office, the major landholders and elders in Sangin have an understandable distaste for ISAF-supported government appointees, whom they view as cronies of Karzai or of the Helmand provincial governor.  While it might seem obvious to most Americans, we sometimes forget that governments must obtain the consent of the governed in order to succeed and exert sustainable influence.  It may sound cliché, but the “local solution” really is the answer in a seemingly ungovernable place like Sangin.

Here, the enemy was not some monolithic entity that coalition forces could brand with an epithet as in WWII or Vietnam.  Rather, violent actions were logical events with one of three motives: revenge for the death of a family member or friend, protection of economic interests (often foreign fighters coming from Pakistan who directly worked for the narcotics cartels), or Sangin residents protecting their homes and crops who decided that the cartels, while undesirable, would outlast the ISAF/Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) team in Afghanistan.  Marines were less concerned with political stability than they were with protecting their own during operations designed to root out and eliminate members of this group—and for good reason.  Despite the necessity of this fierce operational posture, it drove local citizens away from the Afghan government and the ANSF, both of which they logically associated with ISAF and its nation-building mission.  Hence, the Sangin locals were the toughest to coerce.  Only a small number of those shooting at the Marines or emplacing bombs were actually fighting for an “insurgent cause,” and could be classified as irreconcilable (not a novel concept, since this is also the case in studies of criminal groups in major U.S. cities—one example of particular note being an evaluation of the successful Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence).  The Marines were now inextricably linked to the former Soviet occupiers in the eyes of those whose support they were trying to win.  Gratuitous monetary awards for “hearts and minds projects” couldn’t convince the population into believing otherwise.  Adding a high casualty rate to this challenge made it easy not only to question ISAF methods, but their reasons for fighting in the first place.

To achieve stability, a political break from the pattern of the past four years would have to occur.  But, who would drive it?  Due to excessive security restrictions, diplomats were rarely allowed to go more than a few hundred meters outside the walls of the forward operating bases.  As a result, the tactical situation demanded that the military commander act beyond his authority and make political decisions that would produce measurable results.  The undeniable absence of a clearly defined or logical political end-state, and of truly expeditionary diplomatic support, actually encouraged the commander—assigned to focus on the Security Line of Operation—to make these types of decisions despite not having political tradecraft training congruent with that of his diplomatic counterparts, who “owned” the Governance Line of Operation.

The call to implement a “reintegration program” came down the chain of command and created an opening.  ISAF had directed the Marines to implement a program that welcomed former fighters into the arms of the new government.  But, the Marines on the ground in Sangin were skeptical.  Could a program that subordinated fighters to the very government they were fighting work?  In their judgment, what needed to occur was reconciliation between those whom ISAF and the Afghan government wanted in power and the dissenting groups in Sangin who viewed cooperation with Pakistan-based cartels in their long-term interest.  This, however, was a decision that was reserved for the national political leadership, and the ISAF leadership in Lashkar Gah, the Helmand provincial capital, reminded the Marines in Sangin of this on a near daily basis for several weeks.

As casualties continued to increase in the district center, the opinion of the locally based battalion, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines (or “3/5” in the vernacular) remained the same: a local political solution was the only way to win the consent of the governed.  ISAF leadership had indicated that it wanted to provide ISAF and ANSF freedom of movement all the way to the Kajaki Dam, which bordered Sangin to the north; 3/5 knew that the Marine leadership would keep charging north until the road to Kajaki was opened.  With this in mind, the Civil Affairs Team and District Stabilization Team (DST) pressed their counterparts for a diplomatic solution that would result in repairs to the decrepit agricultural infrastructure in the Upper Sangin Valley in exchange for participation in a new district community council in the district center—if the agreement held, the Sangin residents who had been fighting for the Quetta-based foreign fighters would collaborate with the ANSF and create a bulwark against the cartels.  The DST had been speaking with senior Alikozai leadership in the Upper Sangin Valley long enough to have formed strong bonds with men who could command the respect of most of these Taliban-loyal fighters in the Upper Sangin Valley, which created an unprecedented opportunity for meaningful discussion.  The 3/5 leadership, the civil affairs team leadership, and the DST began pressing their local Afghan counterparts, their Afghan government counterparts, and their ISAF superiors for a common solution.  Leaders within the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Leatherneck and ISAF in Kabul eventually agreed and signed the Sangin Security Agreement with Alikozai tribal leadership from the Upper Sangin Valley Taliban Civil Commission in January 2011.  This group of influential elders had now essentially consented to a social contract with the Afghan government, based on ISAF and official Afghan legitimization of what was formerly a nefarious group.  Casualties plummeted for the battalion in the final two months of its deployment.

This series of political and military moves would subsequently be referred to by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates as “a major strategic breakthrough.”  What Secretary Gates was referring to was the newfound freedom of movement for which the ANSF/ISAF team had bled and bargained that January.  While the actual “breakthrough” was not immediately strategic in nature, it was an operational breakthrough with potentially sustainable strategic implications, enabled by connecting force with local politics.  The revelations of the Taliban “siege” in this critical district in a September article from the New York Times, and continued coverage of the district in the Wall Street Journal are a perfect yet somber window into the effects of what happens when an occupying force fails to sustain its political promises with conditions-based commitment of resources for the target country.  The opportunity for strategic effects was set in motion by the agreement; yet, it was an opportunity lost.  In January 2011, this new picture of success, while not nearly utopian by U.S. standards, was one that gave local people with real skin in the game an opportunity to act from a position of strength when faced with the prospect of coercion by Pakistani cartels.  The Marines and the DST had generated their own political end-state for Sangin, which they knew was unlikely to acknowledge the authority of the national government.  But, such circumstances are not unique to endeavors like Operation Enduring Freedom.  Embarking upon future engagements with a decisively more modest military and diplomatic corps will exacerbate the need for innovative leaders with a proclivity for local politics.

What This Means for the Future

While it certainly does not appear as though the American public has the stomach for more nation-building excursions, the decision process encountered by the Marines and DST in Sangin is a microcosm of what could be a much larger, and potentially catastrophic, political-military situation.  In future conflicts, where the military is expected to bring stability to a large yet decentralized power structure, commanders are likely to be confronted with similar scenarios, some of which could entail even higher casualty rates more akin to those encountered in the last major counterinsurgency in Vietnam.

Further, it doesn’t look like the State Department’s Foreign Service is getting any larger, let alone more willing to take risks in the field.  Afghanistan and Iraq were unique engagements, but the strain they placed on our expeditionary corps of diplomats was readily apparent to anyone attempting to work with them in the field.  Thus, as the United States looks to the future restructuring of the force, the Department of Defense would do well to review how it enables its ground commanders to interact with the Foreign Service, starting at the battalion level.  A mutual understanding of missions and methods would exponentially increase the tactical flexibility of both services.  Moreover, it would allow diplomats who are co-located with military units, yet subject to stringent mobility restrictions, to give their more mobile military colleagues a better understanding of what is important within the local political structure (political “priority information requirements” if you will).

The DoD currently offers cursory “key leader engagement” training to maneuver unit commanders, which focuses more on the proper use of interpreters and local customs and courtesies than it does on practicing political tradecraft.  Rather than relying on liaison officers to manage interagency relationships at the high level, or continuing to convene unproductive and largely rhetorical workshops in Washington, D.C., we should give our tactical leaders the tools they need to make informed choices in austere environments that require an acute understanding of local politics.  In a resource-constrained environment, workshops and liaison jobs will likely be among the first cuts.  Rather than continuing the rhetorical bluster in Washington, let us cultivate the innate abilities of our truly expeditionary leaders in the field to be warrior-diplomats, and to ascertain the politics of the locale they are expected to stabilize.


Karl Kadon served as the civil affairs team leader for 3d Battalion, 7th Marines and 3d Battalion, 5th Marines in Sangin, Afghanistan from September 2010 until March 2011.


Photo credit: isafmedia