Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Days 14 and 15

Life on a FOB is, in many ways, like life in a cloister, jail, or military basic training in that it is totalizing. While the discipline may not be as strict, the fact of being attached to a FOB is inescapable. As one of the USMC LTs put it during our daily work out at the gym, “All there is the gym, chow, and movie night. I mean, no real reason to rush it [out of the gym]. I mean what are you going to say, ‘Got to go boys, my girlfriend’s going to pick up in a few for date night?’ The closest thing you will get to date night here is a packed couch full of Brits on movie night!” Days start early, at around 0600 hours, the advisers meet up by 0700, head out to the “cottage” at 0730, pack it in for lunch by 1100 (since the ANA students basically walk off at this time no matter the efforts of the advisers), back out at 1300-1400 for another hour or two of training or at least mentoring of the ANA instructors, to the gym for “the hour of pain” (which is misnamed since it is really 1.5 to 2 hours of pain), then to chow, and by 2000 hours circle back to the Brit club for “a brew” (of tea) and the “tele” or a movie, then its off to bed no later than 2230. Pretty much the same routine day-in and day-out, the only difference is that “the office” consists of  the foothills of the Hindu-Kush mountains, there is the occasional ‘sniper’, your “raw material” is illiterate Afghan farmers who are trying to make a better life for themselves, and occasionally one of your students may violently turn on you because you shamed them or because they are infiltrators.

Movie nights also involve a bit of gambling – the role of two dice to see who has the lowest number and consequently who will have to make “brew” for everyone in the Brit Club.  The loser, i.e. the brew-maker, is likely to spend 20 mins taking orders for tea and coffee and then serving. Those who role snake eyes have to  lick a 9volt battery.

Last night was a movie night (Tom Berenger in “Sniper”) and a gamble for “brew,” which topped off a day in the ANA officers course. The ANA officers infantry course  is far more autonomous than the NCO or enlisted course and for all intents and purposes runs smother and with less intervention from the advisers. The two advisers were an USMC LT, LT P. and a British Captain, CPT M. Both are bright, talkative, and have lots of opinions about what does and does not work in the way of advising the ANA. Due to several disastourous schedualing errors on the part of the camp command as well as of the instructors, not much was accomplished except for a few practicing occupying a FOB and doing FOB patrols.  LT P. said noted, pointing to a group of ANA who were being instructed inside the FOB, “At least they [the instructors] are multi-tasking. Its taken months for them to get to the point where they will see how to efficiently use time. So here you have one platoon getting a lesson, another is doing a FOB patrol, and another is getting prepaired for a dry fire drill tomorrow.”

ANA platoon studies patrolling in a mock FOB. Advisers say that getting classes taught "in the field" is an achievement.

CPT  M. and to a lesser extent LT P. don’t see cultural problems as that large of an obstacle to their training. Rather they organizational problems, lack of resources and  the history of the somewhat paternalistic relationship between Coalition Forces and the ANA as the major impediment to their success. Regarding paternalism, CPT C. says, “In the officers course the biggest problem we have is getting the Kandeck [Company] commander to come up with solutions to the problems they [the company] encounters. But why should he? He [the Kandeck commander] is used to the CF always providing the materials, resources, and training when there was a problem. Now, all of a sudden, the branch school is built and they [the ANA instructors and staff] are expected to come up and do it themselves.  So they aren’t used to having to plan ahead. I am not saying they can’t, but I am saying that they aren’t used to doing it because we [the coalition forces] have always just stepped in. So the problem is that we get all these other issues becfause they [the instructors and Kandeck commanders] don’t take a condor moment to take the long view.” On the other hand CPT M. is also quick to point out that the CF isn’t the only person to blame for the many issues found with the ANA. Rather he says, “Its the bureaucracy of the system. They have this Soviet legacy. Everything needs seven signatures for no good reason. So what happens is that the instructors don’t think ahead about getting ammo until the morning of [the live fire training]. Then they go to get the key to the ammo Conex, and of course, it requires signatures. But the people who need to give those signature may or may not be there that day or they may want other signatures.” The advisers, the instructors, and the students are often left, like K. from Kaffka’s The Castle, standing at the doors of the bureaucracy waiting for their knocks to be answered.

CPT M. also notes that those adviser who have been on long deployments begin to withdraw. “Their energy dwindles overtime. Guys stop putting in the extra mile because their are tired and near the end of their tour. It’s not about whether or not they are good at dealing with other culture. The grind eventually gets to you and you are to tired to keep doing the extra work it takes to get things done as well as you would like.”

CPT M. and LT P. agree that the major obstacles to working with ANA has nothing to do with cultural differences. CPT M. says, “Its about resources and planning. The ANA don’t have the resources do simple things like maintain weapons or even having radios. And the way we set up the school here, without involving ANA in the process and then just throwing them in and expecting them to do well, well that’s crazy.” LT P says, “I’d expect the same issues with the Corps in the same situation. If someone else were always making decision for Corps instructors and then one day said, ‘Ah, its all up to you to take the initiative now’ they wouldn’t do any better than ANA because they would have been just as dependent on the Coalition.” LT P. does follow up saying that, “the cultural issues everyone talks about are exagerated. The ANA are sometime just lazy and they use the word ‘culture’ to sometime just justify taking an extra hour off or to go home early even when we, the interpreters, and they, know its totally untrue. But what can you say? Nothing. They invoked the culture card! It would come off disrespectful and they could justify being pissed at you for insulting them.”

Back up at the mock FOB where the officers are practicing their patrols, CPT M. smiles, after getting into a dispute with the ANA instructors over a night time FOB based patrol, where the instructor used the Program of Instruction developed by the advisers to get out of doing another late night patrol. CPT M. says, “sometimes they [the instructors] use our own plans, POI, and rules against us! He then tells me a story of how on a range day, the instructors had failed to secure ammunition on the day before the range day. When the instructors and advisers showed up the range master said they needed the proper signatures to have the ammunition released. So we go and get the signatures and come back and he says, ‘well it’st not here on the POI that you have the range.’ So I look at the POI and its an old one. ‘You have the wrong POI,’ I said and he says, ‘well this is what i have.’ So we end up having to get the garrison commander to have the range masters come up to his office and tell him to his face that he has the wrong POI. O’course, by then the days is half over!”

The next day I am out with the Recce (recon) group. While yesterday there was a lot of down time to discuss friction between advisers and the ANA, and further, there were numerous schedualing conflicts to prompt discussion, today was a more typical day of simply training.

Whatever the different accounts of how advisers and ANA instructors/students work together, the amazing fact is that they do work together, day after day, with few real break downs in training, except for the usual scheduling issues.  For example, on the M249, when one of ANA crews was having problems, SGT K. was able to make the appropriate corrections with no interpreter help. The issue was that the shooter was shooting to low from the target. The crew member who lays beside the shooter, and is supposed to direct the shooter, wasn’t giving any direction. To correct the problem, SGT K. tapped the crewman on the back, pointed to the shooter, and cupped his hands over his mouth like he was going to shout. Then SGT K. put his hands out in front of himself, like he was firing a rifle and dramatically reoriented both of his hands and arms up at an angle, to indicate that the shooter needed to raise his aim. It is through hundreds of such small interventions and interactions that the advisers and the ANA manage the business of training.

SGT S. the replacement for SGT K. demonstrated this all to well. Later in the day, when doing ambushes, SGT S. took the first oppurtunity he had to go engage the ANA students in training. He asks SGT K. “Hey do you mind if I take this one? Might as well just jump straight in!” He walks up to a group of ANA students and with a big smile, claps his hands together and says “Alright! Lets get started… okay!” SGT P. shouts out for the interpreter and as soon as the interpreter shows up next to him, he slaps him on the shoulder, smiles, pulls the interpreter in closer, as if to use him as an extension of his own voice, and says, “lets start shall we? Okay” he says as he pulls out a magazine  and starts pulling out cartridges. He grabs one and holds it out in front of him, and with his other hand points at an ANA soldier, then sets it down on the ground. He grabs another cartridge and points at the next ANA soldier in line and does the same thing. This time he says, with the interpreter translating, “Imagine each of these bullets is one of you. I am going to show you how to set up an ambush…” He then proceeds to start with a circular formation. What is fascinating is that SGT S. uses large exaggerated movements, lots of pointing, and almost in lock step, the interpreter moves with the adviser. Even though neither has worked with each other before, it is clear that the two “click.” The ANA nod their heads and nearly in unison say,  درست (durust or “Ok”) when SGT S and the translator pause. At a bare minimum it appears that Adviser and students share similar notions of turn taking in conversation and that between the gestures, movements, diectical moves such as pointing, and the help of the translator, that everyone has come to a shared definition of the situation.

Adviser and translator are moving in lock step while explaining an ambush

Durust!(!درست )

After SGT S. was done explaining, or rather, in animated fashion, demonstrating,  the ambush scenario, the ANA instructor and the squad leader take over and execute the ambush as a dry fire drill. Even though the ambush does not go exactly the way that SGT S. laid it out in the dirt (e.g. the machine guns are placed next to each other rather than spread somewhat apart to create a larger arc of interlocking fires), the adviser is quite pleased. “Even though he [the instructor] didn’t do it the way I would, you could just tell by the way he moved people that he was doing it the Afghan way. I would rather he take what I give him and modify it to his SOP than to do it completely wrong. I guess I am saying its not the way I would do it but it is not wrong either. It is right for Afghanistan.” I asked SGT S. how he knew that it went well even though it was not the way he had demonstrated it. “It was the confidence, really. He was real snappy, you know, everything came in a well ordered manner, people were moving in coordinated manner, fires were coordinated.  The instructor looked confident.”

ANA instructor and squad leader direct ANA students in a ambush drill.

How the adviser, SGT S. “knew” that the ANA instructor “understood” the ambush drill, despite the variance from the demonstrated manner, is an interesting problem. Indeed, how SGT S. “knew” that the ANA students “understood” his demonstration at all, is an interesting problem to explore. Certainly in the conventional understanding of cognition, we would assume that somehow SGT S. had deteceted, formulated, and represented the mind of all the other agents in the ‘scene’ after which he woudl formulate a Course of Action (COA). After all, this is what most COIN training emphasizes. In what De Jaegher describes as the “sandwhich” view of cognition, social cognition is squeezed in between, and is separate from,  perceiving on the one hand, and action on the other hand. Social understanding, would then be considered to happen “in the head” of monadic individuals. This view, which is pervasive in DOD COIN doctrine, is inane.  The motive for being critical of this view should be apparent in the training scenes I have already described and even in the account I have given of the adviser’s “accounts” of the uses and abuses of ‘culture’ in routine interactions. What is this motive? It is simply that the agents — SGT K., SGT S., the interpreters, the students, CPT M, LT P — are all connecting with one another in concrete and observable ways. They are immersed in their situations and are continually connecting to their interactive partners. They are physically present to one another in a shared material world. They often physically connect through touch, gesture, seeing, hearing, pointing, pantomime, etc. These processes are not marginal to social cognition.

Nor am I alone in my critical view of how COIN is taught. Those who have a practical mastery of being “good strangers” will articulate something similar, that success in COIN is not about some kind of total information awarness, new methods of statistical analysis, or social data mining. Rather, what nearly all of the outstanding advisers here will point out in their own pre-theoretical manner, is that it is a style of comporting oneself with others in engaged situations that is the heart of understanding and connecting with others. Thus, on the drive back today, from the 100m range, SGT  K. speaks over the schizophrenic radio station we are listening to. First plays Ode to Joy, then a song from the Jackson Five, then a classical piece, and then Rockin Robbin. Over the radio, SGT K. talks to SGT S. about his stay. “It’s been good, alright. You know, its all about building relatinoships with the ANA, with everyone. The American’s at the COIN school, they don’t get that. We Kiwis, when we go on patrol, sure we have a mission statement, ops order, and all that, but when we go out on patrol we don’t just drive out and drive back. You know, get out, walk around, a little “hey bro!,” that’s all. But the some of the COIN instructors here, they don’t get why we do so well. They always ask, ‘what do you do. Why does everyone like you New Zelanders? We do patrols too.’ I always say, ‘yes, but, you don’t dismount on your patrols. You don’t take time to walk and talk. Slow down, and take it easy bro!’ You know, its a style thing. Sure we both patrol but how we patrol is different. Like, you know, what do they call it? Oh, yeah, ‘atmospherics.’ So they run around trying to interview people and gather these ‘atmospherics’ but You don’t need to do that. You get that just by taking it low key and hanging out. Some of these marines, you know, they are so stiff. And they  are always like ‘they blow us up whenever we go out.’ I say, ‘they don;t blow us up because they know who we are.’ That’s why I don’t mind being here. You know, I make friends with the interpreters, learn a little Dari, hang out with the ANA, the Brits, the French. It don’t matter. You can’t just go say, ‘oh, hearts and minds.’ You got to get out and relate to people. That’s what makes us Kiwis good at this. We like everybody. Its an island thing I guess!”

That we all grasp the practical wisdom – phronesis– of SGT K’s “hey bro!”

3 Comments on “Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Days 14 and 15”

  1. Brain, I’ve been enjoying your posts. The content is quite relevant to myself and the team of colleagues attending Ivy’s ONR workshop on Human Interactions in Irregular Warfare as a Complex System at GTRI.
    Safe travels!

    • Thank you and hope all is well. I hope the “human interaction” piece of the conference gets its due attention since. From what I have seen here, it is all about the human interactions, not human interaction via the mediation of a chart, analysis, map, ASCOPE, or any other means. The guys I see here, doing COIN everyday, and doing it well, don’t need complex adaptive systems. They have good hearts, a good sense of humor, a passion for being with people, are up late at night writing lesson plans, worrying about their interpreters and students, and basically being brilliant human beings. Eventually it all bottoms out in face-to-face interaction, and no formal analysis will be able to give a warfighter the ability to meaningfully and sincerely deploy the occasional Kiwi strategy of “hey bro.”

  2. Why is it that every time I read something from you, Brian, I feel like my brain just did PT? 🙂

    So you’re saying the Kiwis are less uptight than American Marines. They recognize that these irregular soldiers haven’t been and aren’t going to be broken down and then reformed into cohesive units with God, Country, and Corps on their lips. They’re not going to follow step-by-step instructions from a manual of battle drills, even if they could read it.

    They create a PERSONAL connection by associating a particular bullet (a token for a weapon) to a particular person. Then they use visual aids to bridge the language chasm and draw each person into the situation. That’s not just a bullet – that’s ME! And look at me moving! They do what every good teacher should do – know your students, know what they know, know what scares them, know WHY they don’t understand. Praise them for what they do right, be cautious about admonishing inconsequential errors.

    The exercise doesn’t go exactly as planned, but they never do. What he praises is their confidence in execution, not conformity with tactical dogma. When training ROTC cadets in battle drills, the problem was not a lack of rote knowledge of the battle drills – it was their lack of aggression, audacity, initiative, and flexibility. The leaders didn’t take command – they just expected everyone to do the job they were told to do, and were befuddled, disappointed, and insulted when they didn’t do it.

    Sure, employing your weapon systems more effectively raises the chances of success and decreases risk. But in an ambush, you’ve already got surprise on your side. The machineguns can fire 1100 meters effectively. So what if they are not interlocking? The US infantry doctrine on machineguns in the offense specifically permits both guns on the support team or one on support and one on assault. Since the support team is merely suppressing enemy fire so the assault team can maneuver, it really doesn’t matter what angle the fire is coming from. In fact, having them together gives the squad leader more direct fire control. The problem with having the guns together is that they can both be taken out with one grenade!

    On patrols, the Kiwis build local rapport and recognition. They ENGAGE the locals (who might be enemy). Let them SEE who you are, that you are capable, and not afraid. Let them know that you are a worthy adversary, but not an arbitrary one. See their humanity and let them see yours. They might fight you, but you’re giving them a reason not to hate you.

    This function is usually pare of US Army and Marine Civil Affairs, but we try to get all troops involved in Civil-Military Operations. It’s hard to do when all their training is on warfighting, but training is improving.

    The stolid indoctrination of Marines and soldiers is part of the problem. The bigger part of the problem is the zero-defects mentality of our officers. You dare not dismount and engage the locals because you expose your COMMANDER to the great embarrassment of your deaths.

    On our first day in Kosovo, 2000 people showed up at the main gate on a rumor that there were jobs available. We waded into the crowd, talked to the people, figured out what was going on, and then explained that the rumor was false. Meanwhile, the Infantry was behind us pounding in posts for a make-shift fence. As the crowd was leaving, PSYOP charged to the scene blaring messages through their loudspeaker, upon which the crowd ceased departing and stopped to listen.

    After our fellow soldiers applauded us, we were reprimanded by the commander for taking the initiative. He said the Infantry Lieutenant was actually in charge, and we were just supposed to support them. He thought the crowd might take us hostage. Oh brother! Let’s just say it didn’t get any better for the next six months.

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