The Best Defense

Lessons from Waziristan (II): The central role of the political agent

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on March 10, 2010

At the center of British operations in Waziristan was not the military commander but the political officer, writes Andrew Roe in his useful study Waging War in Waziristan. As best as I can make out, we really don't have a parallel position -- the "political advisors" that senior generals have in the Army are nothing like it.

The British political officer frequently was someone of military background, holding a rank, but not in the military chain of command, and with his own small forces to use on a daily basis. When things fell apart, he would call in the army, and the military commander would take over. But most of the time, says Roe, he was "the central player around whom the entire local administration revolved."

One agent, Capt. Jack "Lotus" Lewis, was not only fluent in Pushtu, he was fluent in its local tribal dialects, Mahsud and Wazir. This appears to have been more the rule than the exception. The Indian Political Service was a popular destination for young Britons seeking excitement, and it could pick and choose from applicants. Those going to the frontier had to pass the Higher Standard Pushtu examination, and "mastery of tribal dialects was a matter of pride." Military commanders came and went, but the political officers stayed for several years -- and the tribes gave them their allegiance as individuals, Roe says.

Describing one successful political officer, Roe writes that he employed

steady and unfaltering conciliation, combined with personal interaction. It was reinforced with a range of tribal subsidies for undertaking militia duty.

There always was friction between political officers and military commanders, Roe notes, especially because the politicals would put limits on operations, or order them to stop altogether. Also, the better a political was at his job, the less he tended to be noticed. "[S]uccessful tribal management could consign the officer concerned to political oblivion," Roe notes. By contrast, combat operations led to medals and recognition.

His account of their role makes me wonder if we need to put political officers on multi-year tours in Afghanistan. I bet Capt. Matt Pottinger would volunteer.

The Best Defense

And now, a few words about how to measure the enemy

While Tom Ricks is away from his blog, he has selected a few of his favorite posts to re-run. We will be posting a few every day until he returns. This originally ran on February 12, 2010

We bring Kilcullenpalooza to an end with his observations on a few ways of judging the performance of your local Taliban unit. Significantly, only near the end of the essay does he focus on the enemy. You listening, S-2s of the world?

So here are some ways to know your enemy:

  • "High-technology inserts." When you see the enemy using satellite phones, sniper optics and high-end roadside bombs, those indicate that the group may have access to external sponsors, and is a mainline Taliban outfit, rather than just the local minor league team.
  • "Insurgent medical health." What shape are detainees arriving in? The local wannabes tend to suffer from afflictions like malnutrition, parasitic diseases, TB, and such. "Main force units, on the other hand, often have a better general level of health," especially if based in Pakistan.
  • "Presence of specialist teams and foreign advisers." If you are facing a Taliban group with mortar teams, intelligence teams, and more, then you are facing the major leaguers. Doubly so if they have foreigners with them.
  • "Insurgent village of origin." Where is the guy from? If he is caught fighting on his home turf, he may well be a part-timer and more amenable to switching sides. These are the guys to think about reconciling, especially because "attempts to destroy local guerrillas outright can backfire by alienating communities, creating blood feuds that perpetuate the conflict." But guys from outside the district "should be targeted with maximum lethality." They can be killed without disrupting local relationships -- indeed, the locals may feel safer  without the outsiders hanging around.
  • "First to fire ratio." Which side starts the firefights? That shows who holds the tactical initiative. And the side holding that is better able to control both its loss rate and that of its opposition. "If they are losing more of their casualties in engagements we initiate, then we control their loss rate and can force them below replenishment level and ultimately destroy the network in question."
  • "Price of black market weapons and ammunition." Price fluctuations in common items, such as AK-47s, or bullets for them, are possible indicators of changes in the enemy's operating tempo. But price increases also may be signs of greater demand by the local community, or of more effective interdiction.
  • "Insurgent kill/capture versus surrender ratio." You can track enemy morale by following rates of surrender.
  • "Mid-level insurgent casualties." Pay attention especially to the middle tiers, the planners, facilitators, specialists, trainers, recruiters, and low-level operational commanders. This is the guts of an organization, and so a good indicator of its health. Conversely, you may want to keep alive the rank and file, who "may be good candidates for reintegration," and the top guys, who might be convinced over time to give up.

That's it. Again, I think this is a terrific paper, one of the most insightful things I've read lately, and one of Kilcullen's best essays. I think it is most significant for the order of its recommendations. It tells you what not to track, and then emphasizes measuring the people, the government, the security forces -- and, lastly, the enemy. It is signed, "David Kilcullen/ Kabul, December 2009."

QAZI RAUF/AFP/Getty Images