Imperial Grunts

With the Army Special Forces in the Philippines and Afghanistan—laboratories of counterinsurgency

From Firebase Gardez, Major Holiday's "Spartans" launched sweeps across Paktia Province, trying to snatch radical infiltrators from Pakistan. "All the bad guys are coming from Waziristan," Holiday said, referring to a Pakistani tribal agency. "Because of the threat from Pakistan, there is not much civil-affairs stuff going on here." Officially, the Pakistani government of President Pervez Musharraf was an ally of the United States. But like his predecessors, and like the British before them, Musharraf had insufficient control over the unruly tribal areas. "Pakistan is the real enemy" was something I quickly got used to hearing.

"Who was the puc put on the Chinook when I arrived?" I asked Holiday.

"We hit a compound. It had zero-time grenades, seven RPGs, Saudi passports, and books on jihad. The Puc lived there. We've got more people to round up from that hit."

"Everything we do," he went on, repeating a phrase I had heard often already, "is 'by,' 'through,' 'with' the indigs. The ANA comes along on our hits. Though the AMF [the tribally based Afghan Militia Forces] are the real standup guys. They see themselves as our personal security element. Yeah, every time we go out on a mission, we try to pick up hitchhikers—any Afghan who wants to be associated with what we do. Give the ANA and AMF the credit, put them forward in the eyes of the locals. We have to build up the ANA—it's the only way a real Afghan state will come about. But it's naive to think you can simply disband the militias."

The mud-walled fort was, in Major Holiday's words, a "battle lab" for Special Forces. One of the goals was to implement the El Salvador model: build up a national army while at the same time employing more-lethal paramilitaries, and then make the latter gradually and quietly disappear into the former. The process would take years—a prospect Holiday relished. I was reminded of what another Special Forces officer, Lieutenant Colonel David Maxwell, had told me: counterinsurgency always requires the three Ps—"presence, patience, and persistence."

Holiday, who had just turned forty, seemed the most clean-cut of the fort's inhabitants. A civil engineer with a master's degree from the University of South Florida, and the father of three small children, he was chatty, well-spoken, and intense. "God has put me here," he told me matter-of-factly. "I'm a Christian"—he meant an evangelical. "The best kind of moral leader is one who is invisible. I believe character is more important than education. I have noticed that people who are highly educated and sophisticated do not like to take risks. But God can help someone who is highly educated to take big risks."

Holiday had served in the 82nd Airborne before returning to civilian life and then joining Special Forces as a Florida National Guardsman. His long months of Guard duty did not please his private employer, so he left his job and went to work as a civil engineer for the state. "You see all this around you?" he asked, eyeing the dust, engine grease, and mud-brick walls. "Well, it's the high point of my military life and of everyone else here."

"What about the beards?" I asked.

Holiday smiled, deliberately rubbing his chin. "The other day I had a meeting at the provincial governor's office. All these notables came in and rubbed their beards against mine, a sign of endearment and respect. I simply could not get my message across in these meetings unless I made some accommodations with the local culture and values. Afghanistan is not like other countries. It's a throwback. You've got to compromise and go native a little."

"Another thing," he went on. "Ever since 5th Group was here, in '01, Afghans have learned not to tangle with the bearded Americans. Afghanistan needs more SF, less conventional troops, but it's not that easy, because SF is already overstretched in its deployments."

Holiday disappeared into the Operations Center, or ops cen, where I was not permitted because I lacked the security clearance. He had a tough, lonely job, I learned, being the middleman between the firebase and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force—cjsotf. The higher-ups wanted no beards, no alcohol, no porn, no pets, and very safe, well-thought-out missions. The guys here wanted to go a bit wild and crazy, breaking rules as 5th Group had done in the early days of the war on terrorism, before "Big Army" entered the picture, with its love of regulations and hatred of dynamic risk. A monastic existence of sorts had evolved here, with its own code of conduct.

Holiday had to sell the missions and plead understanding for the beards and ball caps with the cjsotf, which, in turn, was under pressure from the Combined Joint Task Force-180 at Bagram. On one occasion, when the guys were watching a particularly raunchy Italian porn movie during chow, Holiday came in and turned it off, saying, "That's enough of that; keep that stuff hidden, please." An angry silence ensued, but the major got his way. Holiday, though an evangelical Christian, is no prude. He was only being sensible. If we are going to flout the rules, he seemed to be saying, we have to at least be low-key about it.

''The area where I'm from we call the Redneck Riviera," Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Custer, of Mobile, Alabama, told me as we returned to Gardez one evening. "Now, I know what you're thinking." He laughed. "Yeah, I've got relatives who live in trailers, who've never been thirty miles from their home. I eat grits." In fact Custer is an ethnic Cuban who had been separated from his family because of Fidel Castro, and was adopted by southerners. "So I'm not really related to the General Custer."

After he had arrived on a short visit, Custer and I moved into my tent, where we had many late-night conversations. He was a 19th Group National Guardsman, and a Customs officer in civilian life. Like the other Guardsmen, he had a lack of ambition that made him doubly honest. One night, while cleaning an old Lee Enfield rifle on a Bukharan carpet, Custer gave me his theory on the problem with the war on terrorism as it was being waged in Afghanistan. I later checked his theory with numerous other sources on the front lines, and it panned out perfectly: This wasn't his theory so much as everyone's, when people were being honest with one another. Sadly, it was a typical American scenario. I will put into my own words what he and many others explained to me.

The essence of military "transformation"—the Washington buzzword of recent years—is not new tactics or even weapons systems but bureaucratic reorganization. In fact, such reorganization was achieved in the weeks following 9/11 by the 5th Special Forces Group, based in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, whose handful of A teams (with help from the CIA, Air Force Special Ops embeds, and others) conquered Afghanistan.

The relationship between 5th Group and the highest levels of Pentagon officialdom had, in those precious, historic weeks of the fall of 2001, evinced the organizational structure that distinguished al-Qaeda and also the most innovative global corporations. It was an arrangement with which the finest business schools and management consultants would have been impressed. The captains and team sergeants of the various 5th Group A teams did not communicate with the top brass through an extended, vertical chain of command. They weren't even given specific instructions. They were just told to link up with the indigs—the Northern Alliance and also friendly Pashtoons—and help them defeat the Taliban. And to figure out the details as they went along.

The result was the empowerment of master sergeants to call in B-52 strikes. Fifth Group was no longer a small part of an enormous defense bureaucracy. It became a veritable corporate spinoff, commissioned to do a specific job its very own way, in the manner of a top consultant. But as time went on, that operating procedure came to an end. Now what had previously been approved orally within minutes took three days of paperwork, with bureaucratic layers of lieutenant colonels and senior officers delaying operations and diluting them of risk. When hits finally took place, they more than likely turned up dry holes. One of the basic laws of counterinsurgency warfare, established in the Marines' Small Wars Manual (1940) and the British Colonel C. E. Callwell's Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice (1896), was being ignored: Get out of the compound and out among the local people, preferably in small numbers. Yet the CJTF-180 in Bagram, by demanding forms and orders for almost every excursion outside the firebase, acted as a restraint on its Special Forces troops, whose whole purpose was to fight unconventionally in "small wars" style.

There was no scandal here, no one specifically to blame. It was just the way Big Army—that is, big government, that is, Washington—always did things. It was standard Washington "pile on." Every part of the military wanted a piece of Afghanistan, and that led to bureaucratic overkill.

"Big Army just doesn't get it," Custer said, like a persevering parent dealing with the antics of a child. "It doesn't get the beards, the ball caps, the windows rolled down so that we can shake hands with the hajis and hand out PowerBars to the kids. Big Army has regulations against all of that. Big Army doesn't understand that before you can subvert a people you've got to love them, and love their culture." (In fact, one reason that some high-ranking officers in the regular Army hated the beards was that they brought back bad memories of the indiscipline of the Vietnam-era Army.)

"Army people are systems people," he went on. "They think the system is going to protect them. Green Berets don't trust the system. We know the Kevlar helmets may not stop a 7.62mm round. So we wear ball caps—they're more comfortable. When you see a gunner atop an up-armor, bouncing up and down in the dust, breaking his vertebrae almost, let him wear a ball cap and he's happy. His morale is high because simply by wearing that ball cap he's convinced himself that he's fucking the system.

"Maybe in the future we'll be incorporated into a new and reformed CIA, rather than into Big Army. Any bureaucracy that is interested in results more than in regulations will be an improvement. You see, I can say these things—I'm a Guardsman."

During my time at Firebase Gardez, I went out regularly on "presence patrols" throughout the countryside. On one occasion the convoy descended from the mountains through cannabis fields and newly tilled poppy plantations. A massive mud-walled fort with Turkic-style towers loomed in the distance, marijuana leaves drying on its ramparts. I thought of the poppy fields on the way to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.

We halted in the middle of the road at the sight of what looked like a landmine. It wasn't. But by a turn of events the halt led to a local Afghan intelligence officer's inviting a counterintelligence guy, two other Green Berets, and me into his house for tea, while the rest of the convoy stood guard outside. He served the tea in a carpeted room heated by a dung-fired stove, with aspen beams overhead. I stared at the dust drifting into the tea.

Our host eventually discussed a certain Maulvi Jalani, who had entered into an informal alliance with Jalalludin Haqqani, the former mujahideen leader in Paktia and Khost, and a man associated with Saudi Wahhabi extremists like Osama bin Laden. He explained how opium profits were funding the Islamic opposition to Karzai. He believed that the Taliban would not return to power. More likely was the coalescing of an Iranian-brokered coalition of anti-American and anti-Karzai forces, to include Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and other of the more radical ex-mujahideen leaders, along with disaffected elements of the Northern Alliance, some remnants of the Taliban, and al-Qaeda.

The intelligence officer wanted us to stay for a meal, but we politely declined, since we had hours of traveling ahead. As usual, the map was useless. The dendritic pattern of dirt roads dissolved into incomprehensibility. The idea that a command post far away at Bagram could determine, as it had tried to, what roads we turned down, in a land where roads were virtually nonexistent, suddenly struck me as ludicrous. Twenty-first-century communications technology worked toward the centralization of command, and thus toward micro-management. But the war on terrorism would be won only by adapting the garrison tactics of the nineteenth century, in which lower-level officers in the field forged policy as they saw fit.

A few days later approval came for a hit near Gardez. Rather than wait, an eleven-vehicle convoy was imme- diately stood up, and around 9:00 p.m. we were off. By now I had been on enough compound hits to know the drill, so after we arrived I drifted away in the dark from my assigned vehicle and, after a while, proceeded inside the compound by myself, to see how the search was progressing.

Green Berets were probing with flashlights for two unexploded grenades that one of the occupants had just thrown at them. "Watch where you walk," I was warned. Along the courtyard were darkened rooms, illuminated by blue chemlights that the Green Berets had left behind to indicate that the rooms had already been cleared. Inside the house I peeked into a room where two Green Berets were kneeling on a carpet. They were using a flashlight to go over a pile of documents they had found, being careful not to wake two children who, miraculously, were sleeping through this mayhem.

As I left the compound, I noticed a counterintelligence officer interrogating one of the male inhabitants. They were both squatting against a section of mud wall, illuminated by flashlights attached to the M-4s held by other Green Berets, who had formed a semi-circle. The Afghan had a long white beard and a brown hood over his pakol. He looked stoic, unafraid. The counterintelligence officer was asking him simple stock questions in English: Had he seen anything suspicious? Who were his friends?

Each question elicited a long conversation between the man and the interpreter. It was clear that the counterintelligence guy was missing a lot. He didn't speak Pashto beyond a few phrases. Here was where the American Empire, such as it existed, was weakest.

Finally, all the counterintelligence officer could say to the man was "If you ever have a problem, come and see me at the firebase." Yes, this is what the man would surely do: forsake his kinsmen, and trust this most recent band of invaders passing through his land, invaders who could not even speak his tongue.

It wasn't the counterintelligence officer's fault that he hadn't been given the proper language training. Several years into the war on terrorism, one would think that Pashto would be commonly spoken, at least on a basic level, by American troops in these borderlands. It isn't. Nor are Farsi and Urdu—the languages of Iran and the tribal agencies of Pakistan, where U.S. Special Operations forces are likely to be active, in one way or another, over the coming decade. Like Big Army's aversion to beards, the lack of linguistic preparedness demonstrates that the Pentagon bureaucracy pays too little attention to the most basic tool of counterinsurgency: adaptation to the cultural terrain. It is such adaptation—more than new weapons systems or an ideological commitment to Western democracy—that will deliver us from quagmires.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic. This article, part of an Atlantic series, will appear in somewhat different form in Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, to be published this month by Random House.

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