The Best Defense

Waziristan (VI and last): Roe's lessons

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 16, 2010.

I am not advocating that we adopt an imperial stance, or even that everything the British did was right or even moral. But I do think we can learn from them, which is why I am dwelling this week on Roe's fine book on the British experience in Waziristan.

For example, in 1947, the new Pakistani government invited the former British governor of the North-West Frontier, Sir George Cunningham, to come out of retirement and administer the province, because he was seen as an honest broker. That might be the end-game we should aim for in Iraq, where the American officials eventually subordinate themselves to the Baghdad government and even are seconded to work for it.

That's my lesson, not Roe's. Here are some of his. You'll find more on almost every page:

  • Be prepared to conduct a "constant mapping of political, economic and social information to gain a temporal insight into the views, motivation, and differences among the tribes and subclans."
  • Don't underestimate your enemy. "To take on the tribesman and defeat him in his own hils is a game demanding a lifetime of specialized study."
  • Tribesman will study your tactics and punish lapses or even simple repetitions. "This is one read on why an advance is seldom disputed with vigour, whereas the withdrawal is ferociously harrassed."
  • Political officers must counter the tendency of military commanders to rely on their "instinct and their own values and standards, which often will be mistaken, unsuitable or inappropriate." (Tom: I saw this tendency a lot in Iraq in 2003-06.)
  • "Tolerating ambiguities, shortfalls and inconsistencies must be central to any sustainable policy." (Tom: Hmm, sounds like FM 3-24.)
  • Don't fight the tribal structure. "Employing and, where necessary, reinforcing the existing tribal framework and structures offers the best opportunity for success."
  • Be prepared to pay off the enemy.
  • Local forces should be the heart of your effort, not regular Army troops.

The Best Defense

Quote of the day: Know your allies

From Octavian Manea's interview of Maj. Fernando Lujan in Small Wars Journal:

An eager 23-year old all-American lieutenant, full of energy, would be trying to talk to a local villager through an interpreter. And inevitably, the conversation starts sounding like a tactical interrogation: "Hello I am Lieutenant Jones and I am from America. Can you tell me where the Taliban is? Have you seen any IEDs? Have you seen any suspicious people?" We don't do small talk. And of course the patrol doesn't get any useful information. Everyone is terrified to talk to them. But to the American soldiers, the silence makes it seem like the whole village supports the Taliban. They feel like every patrol is Groundhog Day, and like they're just out there walking around.

Yet during embeds we started to notice that while the young lieutenant was struggling through his conversation, there would almost always be an Afghan Army soldier -- born and raised in the Pashtun areas of the country -- standing a few meters away. And he'd usually be relegated to pulling security and staring out over his rifle instead of engaging with the locals. After the patrol, we'd ask the young lieutenant, "Do you know how many native Pashto speakers (vice Dari) you have in your Afghan platoon? Had you ever considered training them to talk to the locals and get information?" I can literally count on one hand the number of times the lieutenant knew... and this was out of maybe a hundred platoons over 14 months.