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The Last Brigade and the Last President

Roundtable: Strategic Corporals in an Oral Culture

We spoke with LTG "Bill" Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.  (Transcript here.)  His organization faces a significant challenge:  they need to train as many new members of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) as there are current members of the Afghan National Army.  In fifteen months.  Also, most of their recruits are completely illiterate, which complicates Western models for classroom instruction quite a bit.  

I asked him what I had hoped would be an easy question.  Sun Tzu says that you must know yourself and your enemy if you are to succeed in all your battles.  We're building the ANSF from several ethnic groups, many villages and a number of tribes with different expectations and understandings of the world.  This is your chance to impart a coherent understanding of the kind of force you are joining, the enemy, and the way in which you will defeat the enemy.  So what are we telling them?

GRIM: What are you training them to understand about the enemy they face, especially the internal divisions of the coalition facing us, and the desired end state of the conflict? If you train an officer, what does he understand about who his enemy is, how they're divided, and how we want this conflict to end?

GEN. CALDWELL: Well, right now today, the focus that we have in the training programs is on developing the operated COIN environment, the counterinsurgency environment, you know, because, you know, that will change with time. But right now that's the challenge they have within this country.

So in their training programs at the basic, entry level, it's very COIN-centric. Now, when you move to the mid-grade level -- and, again, we don't have large numbers going through it yet, but we do have a mid-grade-level command staff college here that we have put into existence. That's much longer and obviously far more comprehensive, and looks beyond the days when we anticipate that they would be able to handle the insurgency that exists here down to a low level, and would in fact reorient and be able to use their forces in more holistic manner.

You know, one thing I'll tell you which has really struck me that I have been very, very impressed with is just how they -- like, their Afghan air force that we have today, how they've taken and used that for humanitarian assistance missions here within Afghanistan just in the short time period I've been here from avalanches up in the north on passes where they -- you know, used it to move people, to flooding that's occurred down in the south and out in the east; again, going out and supporting the people to today where they have four Mi-17s deployed forward into Pakistan on day 14 providing humanitarian assistance to the Pakistan people.

So a lot of these concepts about using military force to serve and protect the people they grasp rather quickly and understand how important that is. But at the same time, our focus on training is today COIN-centric in the time that we have available when they're doing the initial entry into the field of force. Over.

Now, believe me when I say that I completely understand the General's concerns, and the scale of the challenge he is facing.  Nevertheless, let me humbly suggest that this is a void in the training that needs to be filled.

What we are trying to do in Afghanistan is to stand up a coherent nation, with a common central government.  If that is going to work, these men (and a few women) in uniform need to be the face of that central authority.  They are going to be the "strategic corporals" -- I mean that there will be a strategic effect created by their having a common sense of purpose and end-state, and a common understanding of the enemy and the challenge.  

There will likewise be a strategic effect if they don't have such a sense.  There are a lot of things mitigating against them developing that common purpose and understanding:  this training is one of your only chances to develop it.

Now, this is BLACKFIVE, not the New York Times, so we're not just going to criticize.  We're all about supporting the warfighter, when we're not actually out there fighting the war ourselves.  So, now that I've described the problem, here's a start on a solution to the problem.

Illiteracy suggests that it is important to focus on the most basic sort of education -- including literacy! -- but there is an oral-culture method for achieving this.  Oral cultures have strong mnemonic systems, usually based around poetry and regular numbers (usually three).  A traditional poet can help you craft an easy-to-remember form that you can teach your recruits in no time flat.  Have them recite it each morning.  It will build unit cohesion, and give them a sense of that common purpose -- as well as the corporal-level understanding of the overall strategy that is so important.

You might start with something like this, but by all means find the right native poet to help you formulate it.  This is just a model that will be generally effective in most oral cultures with a strong warrior tradition, with the division of the enemy tailored to the factions within the Taliban (the true-believer Taliban, the out-for-themselves sorts like the Haqqani, and the 'small-t' Taliban).

Our enemy is three:

There is the enemy that hates.  They are the ones who wish to control us, and kill all who will not obey.  These we must kill.

There is the enemy that is full of greed.  They are the ones who wish for power and wealth for themselves.  These we must teach how costly it is to fight us.

There is the enemy that fears.  These fight because they are afraid of what we will do, or what the enemy will do if we cannot protect them.  These are the ones we can turn.

Our purpose is three:

We must guard the land of Afghanistan.  Every man and every family must be safe on their land.

We must guard the women of Afghanistan.  Their honor is our own, and the enemy would hurt them.

We must guard the honor of Afghanistan.  Every man is a fighting man, and we stand together in common cause.

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