Leadership: The Secrets Of Going From Iraq To Afghanistan


February 22, 2009: The message board and listservs American soldiers and marines use to share professional knowledge are lighting up as everyone headed for Afghanistan, tries to figure out how much of their Iraqi experience will be useful, or maybe even counterproductive, in Afghanistan.

The facts are these. Afghanistan is 50 percent larger than Iraq, with only 15 percent more people. In Iraq, over 70 percent of the population is urban (living in cities or towns), in Afghanistan, over fifty percent of the population is rural (depends on how you count tiny villages as "urban"). In Iraq, the literacy rate is 85 percent, and nearly all children are in school. In Afghanistan, literacy is 28 percent, and in rural areas, it's common for girls to be kept out of school, even if schools are available. Iraq has 45,000 kilometers of roads, of which 84 percent are paved. Afghanistan has 35,000 kilometers of roads, of which only 24 percent are paved. Iraq is generally flat, while Afghanistan is generally hilly or mountainous. Iraq has had centralized government for over 4,000 years, while Afghanistan has never had a centralized government (in practice anyway, there have been some attempts at it in the past half century). Tribal and clan relationships count for much more in Afghanistan, although such arrangements exist in Iraq as well. Afghanistan is poor, with the average income (including locally produced food and other goods) about $1,000 per capita. It's more than three times that in Iraq. Afghanistan is the poorest country in Asia, and about 40 percent of the population are children. Life is short in Afghanistan, and the kids grow up fast.

There are thousands of soldiers and marines who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and their observations are eagerly sought. These men report that the Afghans are definitely more fierce and clever warriors than the Iraqis. At the same time, the Iraqis were better educated, and used technology a lot. The consensus seems to be that the Afghans are more trustworthy than Iraqis, and that Afghans tend to believe this as well. Arabs do not have a very good reputation in Afghanistan, largely because of the way the Taliban used groups of Arab al Qaeda gunmen to enforce their rule from the late 1990s, until late 2001. During the 1980s, when thousands of Arabs came to help drive the Russians out, there was a culture clash between the Arabs and Afghans. In short, the Arabs considered the Afghans a bunch of ignorant, violent and unpredictable tribesmen. The Afghans considered the Arabs a bunch of arrogant loud mouths who could not be depended on in a fight.

In general, Afghans do not like foreigners. Never have. And their definition of "foreigner" is a broad one. Someone from another part of Afghanistan, who does not speak your language, is a "foreigner." In some parts of the country, anyone from a few valleys away, who is not a blood relative, is a "foreigner." On the other hand, the warrior tradition is alive and well in Afghanistan. Thus the Afghans respect the combat prowess of foreigners. U.S. Special Forces troops, and foreign commandos in general, are respected. And if these guys speak the local language, like many Special Forces operators do, the Afghans are willing to sit down and form relationships. But above all, the Afghans respect power, and can be bought (or leased, they don't stay bought for long). In battle, the average Afghan will run for it if they sense that they are up against someone they can't beat. But they will keep trying.

As was the case in Iraq, the local religious fanatics (the Taliban) are not just fighting for religion. In fact, most of the Taliban are teenagers and guys in their early 20s, seeking to scrape together enough money to get married. Some of the Pakistani gunmen in Afghanistan are volunteers, usually students from religious schools. But they are a minority, most of the Taliban are at it because a big shot in their neighborhood convinced them it would be a good thing to do and, by the way, there's money to be made. Most of the money comes from the heroin trade, and for years the foreign troops have complained about the lack of action against the drug gangs. That was because the drug gangs had bought some pretty senior government officials, and the U.S. government was hoping that the official government efforts would do the trick. They didn't, and now the foreign troops have been turned loose on the drug operations.

This is a big difference from Iraq, where most of the anti-government terrorism was paid for by former Saddam cronies and family members, along with the proceeds of criminal activity. In Afghanistan, if you follow the money, you quickly encounter the unholy trinity of heroin, opium and morphine (all derived from the poppy plant grown in the area.) For a lot of the enemy fighters, it's mainly about business. The few religious fanatics that run with the Taliban get most of the publicity, but the majority of the guys carrying guns for the Taliban, are as guilty as anyone else of listening to music, watching videos, and maybe even considering letting their sisters go to school.

One thing Afghan veterans cannot emphasize enough is the greater need for physical conditioning in Afghanistan. Much more of the combat is out in the hills, and there's a lot more moving around on foot. The fighting often takes place in areas where vehicles can't go, and helicopters can only move you to the general area of the battle. The Afghan vets are constantly discussing which combination of gear to jettison when you go chasing after the bad guys, and tactics for dealing with the fact that the enemy is travelling lighter and faster on foot.

Those who have been outside the wire in Iraq can appreciate the need to connect with the locals, and the Afghan vets have numerous tips on how to do that with the different culture in Afghanistan. In general, you have to deal with the Afghans more as equals, even though they are much less educated. Afghans are very resourceful, and  have a much harder life than Iraqis. They have no oil, but now they have heroin, at least in the south (where all American troops are operating), and many Afghans see the drug trade as the road to a better future. Afghan vets counsel that you have to learn to cope with this relationship with the drug trade. Some Special Forces troops have served in Colombia and Afghanistan, some American troops are from Colombia, and they can see the resemblance between the impact of the cocaine trade on Colombia (which does have some oil production and a much better economy) and Afghanistan (which has many people who have not entered the 20th century, much less the 21st).

The U.S. Army is aware of the great wealth of practical advice being passed around when the troops use the Internet together. For the last two decades the army has had a special program for collecting this knowledge, organizing it and making it available to all the troops. Alas, the database of CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned) is only available to military personnel (to prevent the enemy from knowing which of their tricks we are on to.) And the troops are on to a lot of enemy ideas, concepts and tactics. This has been a largely unreported combat advantage in Iraq and Afghanistan.





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