Full transcript of a NATO Forum public event with Canadian Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, former commander of Joint Task Force 5-09.
- Damon Wilson, Vice President and Director, International Security Program, Atlantic Council
- Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, Canada; former Commander, Joint Task Force 5-09
Transcript by Federal News Service, Washington, D.C.
February 18, 2010
DAMON WILSON: My name is Damon Wilson and I’m the vice president and director of the international security program here at the council. I’m delighted to welcome you to this installment of the NATO forum with Canadian Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, former commander of Joint Task Force Kandahar.
Before introducing our distinguished guest, I want to underscore just for a moment how this event today fits into our programming here at the Atlantic Council in four quick ways. First is the focus that the council has been putting on Afghanistan-Pakistan – Af-Pak – issues.
As many of you know, the council spoke out pretty strongly on the issue of Afghanistan in early 2008 when then-chairman Gen. Jim Jones issued a report, “Saving Afghanistan: An Appeal and Plan for Urgent Action” on saving Afghanistan.
It’s a report that came out that had an impact on the debate here in the United States and helped to focus our political discourse on the fact that we were not succeeding in Afghanistan and needed to redouble our efforts. We followed up that work by putting out comparable reports on Pakistan, following through with the creation of an actual South Asia center, led by my colleague, Shuja Nawaz.
This event fits in, in a second way in our effort to increasingly put a highlight on Canada’s role within the alliance, especially in Afghanistan. With a minister of defense who has been among the leaders of NATO defense ministers on these issues, Canada has raised its profile on many of the NATO alliance issues whether it’s the strategic concept, hosting the Halifax Forum or Afghanistan itself.
At the council, we have the pleasure to be able to host the Canadian chief of defense staff, Gen. Natynczyk, last September, who gave a fascinating discussion on how Canada’s armed forces have really transformed from peacekeepers to also becoming warfighters.
Canada has been involved in Afghanistan since shortly after 9/11, first as a coalition partner in Operation Enduring Freedom and from 2003 as a NATO ally and a major contributor to the International Security Assistance Force.
Canada has close to 3,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, mostly in the South – in the pivotal South. This contribution makes Canada one of the largest troop-contributors. Canadian forces will be lead elements in the offensive in Kandahar province this spring along the lines of the operation unfolding in Helmand now. Canadian forces have been engaged in heavy fighting in Afghanistan, particularly in 2006 during Operation Medusa. And to-date, about 140 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, making it one of the heaviest tolls among the ISAF members in comparison to their forces deployed.
Against this backdrop, Canadian forces are in Afghanistan with a political deadline of December 2011, something we may have a chance to talk about today. But this event is also part of a broader discussion we’ve had at the council called the NATO Forum. Inaugurated only last year, the NATO Forum is quickly emerging in a trans-Atlantic community as one of the premiere venues for discussion, debate and analysis relating to the alliance.
It began with Sen. Richard Lugar and NATO Sec.-Gen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who inaugurated the forum last fall with major policy speeches on the future of the alliance, on Afghanistan – the strategic concept. National security advisor Jim Jones, Atlantic Council chairman Chuck Hagel and our international advisory board chairman, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, have also participated in the forum.
The forum has continued to highlight major leaders from across the alliance from the Canadian foreign minister on NATO’s role in Southeast Europe. In two weeks, we’ll be hosting the Danish defense minister to talk about the strategic concept and alliance capabilities. So we’re delighted to have Gen. Vance join the ranks of this distinguished group. This NATO Forum has been generously sponsored by BAE Systems.
And finally, this event today is part of the council’s effort to bring voices from the field to help inform the Washington policy debate, particularly voices from the field of our coalition partners, our NATO allies, who have been in the fight with us. There’s been an unfortunate narrative in Washington focused on the American leadership and role in Afghanistan, sometimes overshadowing into the detriment of the role that our coalition forces have played.
To that end, the council has tried to be a platform bringing voices from the field to inform this debate here, ranging from Dutch PRT commanders in Afghanistan; Gen. van Loon, who was the commander of Regional Command South in Afghanistan; Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of ISAF; Gen. David McKiernan, then-commander of ISAF, in addition to a host of political and military leaders from the region, hosted by our South Asia center, ranging from presidential candidate and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani to former Pakistani chief of staff of the army, Gen. Karamat.
So today, we are very pleased to host Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, one of Canada’s leading counterinsurgency practitioners, a warfighter, a trainer, development specialist. In one of the interviews I read before this event today, he referred to himself as a chief cheerleader to a chief mourner to a coach to a general manager.
Gen. Vance is an infantry officer by trade. He has experience having deployed in support of U.N. operations in Croatia in 1994. He deployed in support of Operation Athena, the Canadian contribution to ISAF, in 2003. He took command of the first Canadian mechanized brigade group in 2006 and stood up Task Force Kandahar, the Canadian headquarters for Canadian and coalition civil-military operations in Kandahar province.
Task Force Kandahar, comprised of about 2800 Canadian soldiers, airmen and sailors, also includes about a thousand U.S. soldiers. He deployed to Afghanistan in the wake of the Manley report that demanded new assets for Canadian forces in Afghanistan – transport helicopters, unmanned drones – and at the time of a dramatic surge in Canadian civilian experts into the region, as well.
We’re also pleased to host the general because he has a track record of being thoughtful and outspoken on the challenges of fighting in coalitions. Thank you for joining us today. We look forward to your frank, outspoken comments again today. General, the podium is yours. (Applause.)
BRIG. GEN. JONATHAN VANCE: Well, what a pleasure it is for me to be here with you today. I’ve been on about a month-long speaking tour so far since returning from Afghanistan. And it’s a pleasure for me to see and witness a higher-minded debate amongst organizations such as the Atlantic Council’s thoughtful work being done to look at Afghanistan.
It is indeed – it’s a thinking-person’s game. What we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan does not fit within the norms of warfare as most our society has known. So I am grateful for the invitation and very proud to represent those soldiers, sailors, airmen and women who served in Task Force Kandahar, both American and Canadian and, indeed, British as well. We had them under command for a while.
I’m going to tell you a story today, really, and I’ll use PowerPoint to assist me, that really describes the Afghan mission as I saw it from my spot in Kandahar; how it evolved, really, in 2009. And there are some thematics that are critical in terms of how I describe this story. One is when did we really start prosecuting this war correctly? When were we adequately resourced to do it? When did we start doing counterinsurgency, transitioning from the days post-9/11 when we were really in a counterterrorist-type operation?
And I will also speak to how our public is perceiving what we’re doing, and the challenges with trying to have forces conducting such complex operations as counterinsurgency where maybe our publics are not really in a position to understand it or be adequately involved in the debate, such that those who are not responsible for the words they utter can affect that debate very negatively.
I have a short video. It’s a little hearts-and-minds video that we’d like to show and to dedicate it to my soldiers and to one we lost on the 3rd of July. It’s about four minutes long. And then I’ve got about a 30-minute presentation, assisted with PowerPoint, to talk about Kandahar in 2009.
Before I begin, I’d like to introduce two people very important to me. First is my command sergeant-major, Chief Warrant Officer Stan Stapleford. Please welcome him. He kept me alive and kept me sane. And Capt. Darcy Heddon, who is my chief of civil-military affairs in my headquarters. Good to have them. (Applause.)
So without further ado, can we roll “The Faces of Afghanistan: 2009”?
Thanks very much. We can just turn to the presentation now. The troops chose that song on purpose – “Have a Little Faith.” Have a little faith in them; have a little faith in this enterprise that we are undertaking, and particularly as we look at 2009 and beyond. And so if we can just get the presentation up here?
So I’m going to talk to you about operations in Kandahar in 2009, and I believe that much of what – well, I know much of what translates on the ground in our experience translates well to Central Helmand – basically, the South; not necessarily to the rest of Afghanistan. But the themes count, and the counterinsurgency themes are enduring and would certainly match and resonate with how Gen. McChrystal sees the challenges elsewhere in the country. But there are of course differences in the tribal and political makeup as you move around the country, as changes are also evident in the enemy forces. Next slide, please.
Okay, so I start by showing a map of Kandahar province. Kandahar province is a great, big place – larger than the province of Nova Scotia in Canada. And what I think is really essential to understand about the war in Afghanistan is, in my mind, it divides itself up into about three broad periods.
The first period is that immediate time after 9/11 through to about 2006 where the operations in Afghanistan started off as those designed to depose the Taliban regime and deal with the al-Qaida threat. That was a counterterrorist strike and we could quibble about terminology but ultimately it was an act against the potential to export terrorism.
And what happened between 2001 and 2006 is an insurgency emerged and grew strong. And we still to this day live with some of the effects of that period of time. When we arrive in a country to start conducting counterterrorism operations and cannot predict that an insurgency will ensue, perhaps some of the very partners that you make early on in operations really end up being a disadvantage to you later on as an insurgency breaks out. And perhaps we can talk more of that during the question period.
But suffice to say, that first period was relatively small forces, designed to conduct counterterrorist operations, rid Afghanistan of the regime and the al-Qaida threat; underresourced for counterinsurgency, for sure. And, indeed, when we started counterinsurgency operations versus when we were doing counterterrorist-type operations is up for debate.
The second age, 2006 to 2009, was a period when we knew it was an insurgency. We knew we were to conduct counterinsurgency operations. Every commander who worked in Afghanistan during that period of time knew what the right thing to do was but we didn’t have the resources to do it, particularly in the South.
Kandahar province, the size of the province of Nova Scotia, had effectively one battalion in it, between 1.5 and 1.8 million Afghans, an insurgency that was growing in strength. And one battalion to try and see to the security element of the equation of a counterinsurgency fight: impossible to do.
And so that resulted in the Canadian forces in Kandahar having to deal with the most emergent, critical threats on any day, which produced combat. And it produced a three-year period of combat where there were very few results from – or positive effects that resulted from that period of combat. We were not able to take a battle and turn it into a changed environment where the social, political and economic fabric of communities would start to recover because we were too small and the enemy, although not likely to win, was certainly – had our daily attention.
I remember as I was preparing for this operation and worked at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterrey and a gathering of academics that knew a lot about Afghanistan. And one of them put his arm around me – he’s a fairly senior fellow and often briefed the State Department – and he put his arm around me and said, son, you’ve got two jobs: Don’t lose the city and don’t lose the airfield until the big boys decide what’s really going to happen here.
And I took that to heart, I have to tell you. When we arrived in 2009, we were entirely underresourced and had been for a long time, through nobody’s fault, but it’s just the way it was. Would’ve, should’ve, could’ve, I suppose. We could look back and say we should’ve been doing counterinsurgency from the beginning. But we hadn’t been. So in 2009, the realities were that we were dealing handily with insurgents – the military aspect – and were losing ground in the insurgency. We didn’t lose. But we weren’t winning. Next slide.
The strategic context – and I will summarize here – is important. In 2009, we were in severe stagnation and stalemate, both in the minds of Afghans and in the minds of our home populations – certainly in Canada. We hadn’t translated military action, the loss of blood of treasure, into something positive on the ground. And so we were in some trouble.
We also had – for Canada, very clearly – indications that 2011 was going to be the end of the Canadian military commitment. So there was a time factor, as well. So this period demanded transition. And we needed to change operations very quickly. Resource limitations were going to change. Obama had been elected. The previous administration had put one surge in and was going to arrive during our tour.
And Obama had been elected, and critical to the equation was the changed focus of the U.S. administration from exclusively focused on Iraq with Afghanistan as an economy-of-force effort to a more determined focus on Afghanistan. And that was – really marks the third age. 2009-to-whenever is an adequately resourced – both on the military and civilian fronts –period where the alliance will be able to do all of the right things, both in terms of sectoral reform and in terms of military conditions-setting, so that Afghanistan can begin to recover.
And so those three distinct ages – that third age started as we arrived – we could foresee it. And the story that I’m telling you is really what we were perceiving before we arrived. And I’ll tell you what we did about it.
Kandahar City was becoming vitally important. We knew that. Kandahar City and the environs. And it was very plain to us that as the lens shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, it was going to tighten down on Kandahar because essentially that’s the epicenter of the insurgency. I don’t quibble at all about the assignment of resources to Helmand or Kandahar; they’re both dangerous. But clearly, the vital ground is here in Kandahar.
And as that lens tightened on Kandahar and the international community started to discover really what the challenges were there, it would become the report card of the alliance in terms of its operations. Success or failure in Kandahar is success or failure in this mission, broadly speaking. Next slide.
For me, as a commander about to land in Kandahar, some military factors were uppermost in my mind. Time and forces available were the most important. As I said before, we were definitely running out of time. The Afghan and Canadian and, indeed, other domestic populations were growing weary of a lack of definitive, tangible results. And I think it’s axiomatic in warfare that one must protect through positive results the opinion of your population. And we weren’t getting those. We were acquitting ourselves well in battle but weren’t translating battle into something that meant something.
We had, therefore, no evidence of forward momentum in something as complex as a counterinsurgency. Forces available were going to change. We, for the longest time, could not achieve that counterinsurgency effect that is so critical in this fight, but, indeed, were about to be reinforced. We had been reinforced with an infantry battalion late in 2008, which essentially doubled the Canadian capacity, but we were soon to get far more forces into Kandahar.
The insurgency, therefore, was being defeated every day militarily, yet the insurgency spread through that insidious fear that essentially froze that population into inaction. They couldn’t commit. There was only enough military force to achieve combat victory and their lives weren’t changing.
If you’re a family in Kandahar hearing about the billions of dollars that are pouring into Kabul and the aspirations of the international community as stated time and time again, but you weren’t seeing it in your hometown, you’re like any population that hears of a government program but you’re not getting any of it – we all deal with that. In fact, many of the dynamics that occur in Afghanistan, we can relate to at a community level.
And our whole-of-government efforts, those USAID, CIDA, DFID, State Department, all those civilian actors that have been brought into Kandahar and Afghanistan were working very hard. Talented, dedicated, hardworking people. But the results were not – the results of their work were not producing tangible change for communities either. No community could feel the sum of the parts of international engagement. And therefore we were losing – or we weren’t winning. It’s a fine line, I know. Next slide.
I want to tell you just a little bit about the insurgency. They are not a particularly good insurgency, in my mind. And that’s not just because I fought them, but on a historical plane, they won’t stand out as a really great insurgency.
Militarily, they are marginally effective. They use some weapons to effect, including improvised explosive devices. But they have some great advantages – safe havens, the capacity to work in the population, to keep a population more or less intransigent or incapable of committing, spreading fear and so on. Certainly, they are and remain good at that.
But they’ve got a serious problem in that although they remain quite potent with this unarmed intimidation, they don’t have a plan that would take them to the next step. What would happen if in fact their violence was to result in them having some element of power? They don’t have a message. They’re not attracting the population. This is not a populous movement. About 5 percent of the population of Kandahar province is ideologically aligned with the Taliban. The vast majority are simply frozen into inaction, unable to commit.
And the Taliban, therefore, have a problem because they’ve got no plan. They’ve got no platform. They would attract the population to say, hey, let’s choose them. They’ve already had their go and it was largely rejected. Not a popular movement. So they’re a spoiler. And that’s a key to understanding the dynamic when you starting making your military plans. Next slide.
A simple view of the insurgency would show you that on the ground, they stage, they manage their resources such that they threaten to isolate the city of Kandahar. They operate from the north, the south and largely from the west to try and strangle the city, threaten the seat of power, threaten Afghan security forces, discredit government, discredit the alliance effort.
And this is a – it’s impossible to deal with if you’re not large enough. You’ve got a nascent Afghan army and an Afghan police force that, on any given day, causes more problems sometimes than it’s worth. All of these dynamics at play allowed a certain freedom of the Taliban. Although we had on many occasions beaten them to a standstill militarily, again, it wasn’t translating. Next slide.
What is absolutely essential to understand in Kandahar is where does the population live? If counterinsurgency is about population, you must know where the population is. And that slide shows you that 85 percent of the population of Kandahar province lives in or within about 40 kilometers of Kandahar City.
We fought for 3 years well west of that in Central Zhari in Western Panjwayi because that’s where the greatest emergent threat was. That’s where the Taliban were preparing themselves to operate against that population. But in the course of that 3 years, that population become more and more at risk. That middle period, that population was undermined. So we knew that that population needed to be serviced.
Now, I want to tell you my homegrown view of what is a counterinsurgency fight, what does it feel like. Imagine a community at risk. We’ve got them in North America. Communities at severe risk where you have a lack of – or, a fracturing authority structure, a lack of education, gangism, drugs, disenfranchised youth, lack of prospects for the future, desperate poverty. We have communities like that in Canada and indeed in the United States.
Throw into that mix a heavily armed bike gang that would stop you from doing anything about that, that would prevent you physically from extending the government services or any benevolent acts to that community, just so you’d look bad. And go fix that fast. Go deal with that quickly – surrounded by a thousand other communities at risk, in a country at risk, and put it 15,000 kilometers away and go deal with that quickly.
That’s what we’re dealing with here. This is as much about the social, political and economic fabric of this country, in terms of the fight, as it is about the Taliban. The Taliban, I say, are a spoiler and can prevent the achievement of this repair, this recovery, of these communities.
The life expectancy in Kandahar province is 46 years of age. This country’s been at war or been in a period of conflict for about 33 years. Almost everybody alive in Kandahar province has been doing nothing but surviving their entire lives. And in that environment, your loyalty structure starts to change. You are loyal to yourself, your family, your sub-tribe, your tribe and your business before you are loyal or able to be loyal to any sense of national or provincial-level aspirations or agendas.
This population has been badly damaged on every level. Look at the United Nations indices and where Afghanistan sits on that: bottom of the pile. And so it’s not an armed struggle alone. I love it when people tell me, well, General, it’s not going to be won by military alone. Hell, that’s our doctrine. Of course it’s not. It needs to be a combined effort. And it’s repairing those communities that we knew and those communities living in that 85 percent of the population in a basket around Kandahar City that really need to be the focus of our effort. Next slide.
I’m not going to try and make you all experts about counterinsurgency today. This is Gen. Vance’s simple view of how this works. Suffice to say, that if you want to move from a failed state with an externally enabled insurgency through to something that is stable enough to allow adequate government services to extend to its population, then there are a lot of people at play. There are a lot of actors that must – whose effects must be marshaled and aligned and working together in harmony such that you can actually produce some element of human security and stability.
Now, I’d like to tell you, I learned something about security, the word “security.” It’s not a good word. We use it all the time and I think we understand it. But it’s not a particularly useful word in a counterinsurgency environment because it sort of points to one facet of the challenge.
I found in Kandahar province that the provision of security is elusive. It doesn’t really exist and it can be easily compromised. Security at the end of a gun isn’t security at all. It’s defense. And no community is particularly impressed when they have to be defended. If your hometown was being defended by your police, then I daresay you’re not living in a very good hometown. Afghans think the same way. If they have to be defended, if there’s nothing that happens beyond armed defense, it’s a problem for them.
So what we determined was that you needed to move very, very quickly from that sense of military security into something resembling stability. And stability can only be brought to bear if you have all of those actors – Afghan government, international government employees, NGOs; all of those people that can bring to bear the tools, the expertise and the funds that will allow for the repair of that social, political and economic fabric that is so vital. And when you do that, that community starts to get involved.
They don’t get involved in armed defense or, quote, “security,” unquote. But they do get involved in stability. When they have a vested interest in their town, when they start to see that it’s worth their while and the risk to get involved, to be employed, to work with government, to take advantage of the international community’s aspirations about how things can improve, then they start to get involved in what we would call that one-dimensional aspect of security. They start to call in, hey, there’s a guy in my backyard with a gun and I don’t know who he is. They phone in, there’s an IED on the road right there.
And communities involved, motivated, in their own destiny, in partnership with their government and the alliance forces for as long as we are there, are communities that will defeat the insurgency. And there is no other way. Next slide.
So we’ve learned that battlefield success does not equal mission success. Populations only celebrate results. I mean, certainly in Canada, we don’t celebrate the Battle of Vimy Ridge because we dealt handily with an armed threat on the salient. We celebrate Vimy Ridge because it was the beginning of the birth of a nation standing on its own two feet in the world. None of us celebrate D-Day because of the slaughter that occurred on the beaches where we won that day. We celebrate D-Day because it was the beginning of the liberation of Europe.
No population celebrates battle. For 3 years, we sat and only had, really, battles to celebrate. Yes, there were some incremental improvement in some sectoral reforms. But you really couldn’t feel it. There was no – and counter insurgency is so complex.
Remember that community-at-risk concept. Where do you show the high points of success in unraveling the challenges of a damaged community? How do you get a population to celebrate that like we would celebrate in linear warfare? When you’re defeating an army, you crush another army and the population “huzzah”’s. You cross the Rhine today, you feel like you’re winning. Well, there’s nothing in there in a counterinsurgency that necessarily makes you feel like you’re winning.
So we had to think about that. How do you engage your own populations and indeed the population that you’re servicing to recognize success and in fact invest themselves in it either politically or materially on the ground?
It is true in warfare that we attack and defend centers of gravity. The center of gravity that we are servicing – or attacking, if you will, but servicing – is the population in Kandahar or in Afghanistan.
That which we are defending, and it’s true in almost every aspect of warfare, is your own population – to protect your population’s motivation, public will and understanding of the environment. And in my view, we have failed in this regard. We have failed badly.
Our populations do not understand this war. They don’t understand counterinsurgency, to the extent that public policy options begin to close. A population disengaged or uninformed or seeing only one small side of the equation will not be engaged enough to commit to the long term or to the depth and detail that you need it to be engaged in.
And so we needed, in 2009, to transition such that battlefield success was not all that we were trying to celebrate; that we could celebrate something that came as close as possible to that liberation of a town in Holland in the Second World War. We had to give something along those lines to our population so they could really start to understand what was going on. Next slide.
So the slide previous to this, of the map, we had a lot of red lines on it, enemy lines. Well, this is how I looked at Kandahar on any given day. It’s where I was going to retain and hold and protect the population. Where were we going to build and where would we use military force – that offensive force – selectively, to achieve effects that would protect that which we were trying to build and hold? Next slide.
The intent, therefore, for my headquarters and the team as we went in was to stabilize. That was a new policy word, by the way. It’s not easy to enter into a stabilization mode because it demands action on multiple partners that are not necessarily accustomed to getting military orders to do something. But it had to be combined together.
So stabilize and protect the population and disrupt, using military forces – by exception – when we needed to. And I assure you, there was unfortunately lots of that because 2009 was also an age where everybody was trying harder, including the enemy. The efforts to discredit the election on the day would have been a disaster had we left the Taliban unmolested as they prepared for that day. Next slide.
Also key was to concentrate the AO – not only get more forces and more resources, but select and actually put our area of operations onto that population. So that is a subset of the province, within 30 or 40 kilometers of the city. Southern Arghandab – critical. Eastern Zhari and Panjwayi – critical. Dand, Daman and the city itself – critical.
Now, you may not know all of these areas intimately, but I can tell you that that odd-looking shape there – I know it looks kind of like a human organ of some sort – that contains 85 percent of that 1.5, 1.8 million people. That’s what needed to be serviced. Concentrate our efforts there, at least to get some traction. Next slide.
Huge challenges: tangible, rapid effects; coordinating military and civilian activities, NGOs. I mean there’s lots of NGOs – God love them, they do amazing work. But they’re not necessarily easily aligned with military activity. There are ideological differences. There are programming differences.
There’s ways of looking at the terrain in Kandahar that vary between actors, but you need an element of precision and harmony as you try to unravel something as complex as the social ills that beset some of these communities. And you can’t do it alone. It needs to be in partnership with the military.
Also, most agencies – civilian agencies of government – do not have at their disposal – I mean, they’ve got bright people, tremendous aspirations, but they don’t necessarily have the tools that allow them to produce tangible, tactical effects in conflict. State Department, aid agencies and so on aren’t necessarily designed to work at that very point and produce tactical effects.
But I’ve got to tell you something: The operational art – that which wins wars – translates effective tactics into strategic objectives. You can have no discussion about counterinsurgency without getting into some detail. The tactical detail counts. You must use the right techniques with the right people in the right amount on the right population. And that accrues to strategic objectives. Strategic objectives cannot be legislated into being. You have to work for them. And it’s the tactics that do it.
And you need to get tactical expressions by all actors that produce effects in an immediate way for that population. They’ve lived in Kandahar, certainly, with promise after promise after promise. Well, those promises had to materialize.
To say Afghan governance is weak is an understatement of course. Not only is it weak and it’s got its corrupt facets to it, but in this environment of survival mode that I described to you earlier, the powerful actors in that environment can act selfishly – do act selfishly. They’re out for themselves, for their business – licit or illicit, for their families.
And in this environment, it is such that governance sometimes can’t extend because the actors who you would have extend governance and perform those benevolent acts for the population won’t or don’t. And so there are so many facets to the threats against a population – some of them armed and dangerous like the Taliban. Others are more insidious, embedded in their population.
Afghan governance suffers from a lack of its ability to extend because much of the white collar capacity that turns ideas into action has disappeared from Afghanistan. It’s either fled in the face of enemy activity so it lives in the diaspora or it has died off. So to take a good idea for the mayor of Kandahar city, who’s a good man, to say, I need to do this – to get that to happen – there’s a physical absence of capacity. So you need to address that.
And I would say here that I found from my perch in Kandahar that the Canadian perception of the complexities and the ambitions of what we were doing were seriously out of step with what was actually on the ground; seriously out of step, which is dangerous of course. And those people who are not accountable for the words they utter, who would throw things into the mix, throw ideas into the mix that would confuse our population. Why are you here when you could be here? Why do this when you could do that? Without any idea of what they’re talking about.
And so the challenges for us were to try and at least start to address that iconic image that sits in Canadians’ minds about this mission. It’s that ramp ceremony; it’s a soldier coming home in a casket on an airplane. I am deeply grateful that my nation mourns every time a soldier dies. And I am deeply grateful for how well we treat our fallen warriors and their families.
But we have made 140 deaths into such a monumental number without anything else to celebrate; that’s what people focus on. The iconic image of this mission needs to change – or needed to in 2009 – from us appearing as victims to producing effects on the ground; that liberation of a town in Holland scenario – that Canadians can celebrate. So that that calculus that everybody goes through – is it worth it – is at least well-informed. Next slide.
Now, most of that was what we were thinking before we went in. And the thing about warfare is you’ve got to get specific at some point. And so all of that’s theory, but we had to come up with a how and where. How do you really do this? Most of our doctrine manuals talk about principles and so on, but – how do you really do it? Next slide.
And this is where the village operations came from. Some of you may be aware of them. It’s a fairly straightforward equation: The population lives in cities and towns and counterinsurgency is about the population; therefore you need to be present in those cities and towns. And you need to have an appropriate balance between the urban and the rural – rural towns and urban centers and so on.
Add in the sensitivity to tribal mix and the doability factor and you can pick your towns and pick your target areas and this is what we did. It’s a fairly straightforward idea, infinitely complex in execution and doesn’t always work out well. We make mistakes, but when you start to invest yourself into a population, they’re a little bit more forgiving and they develop partnerships with you so they help you along. Next slide.
So stabilization, the first town, the little town of Debak (sp), south of Kandahar city, the seat of district government, badly damaged through many years of warfare, still craters from Soviet artillery in and around the town. And what was really required here was a good study, a good analysis before we went in, thoughtful approach, detailed consultation with all actors, political and nongovernmental.
And then on the day moved through the town such that you can assure yourself that there are no armed threats present. And there weren’t because we told them we were coming, like they’ve done in central Helmand. Tell the Taliban you’re coming, they won’t stay and fight; they’re afraid. They don’t stand toe-to-toe with alliance and Afghan forces. Yep, they sprinkle a few IEDs around; the population tells you where they are because you’ve shaped the environment. You’ve given them an indication of what you are all about.
And for the first time, they start to see something other than warfare. I maintain that Canada’s greatest strategic asset in this fight by far is that smiling Canadian soldier who having rid that town of its menace walks up to a tribal elder or village councilor and says, I’m here to stay and I’m going to help you. And he brings – and he is at the tip of the spear of all of those good things that can happen in a town – repair the infrastructure.
And it’s not us doing it; we set conditions for the Afghans to do it themselves. Employment, microeconomy starts to bounce back. Kids go to school. They can get their polio vaccinations. The medical clinic opens up. And as that starts to happen, the environment improves such that nongovernment actors – so, okay, we can go there now. The U.N. shows up. Those marquee NGOs with the expertise and the deep pockets start to show up. And that town and the towns that follow start to invest in this.
Yes, there are setbacks. Yes, the enemy can attack this. And in fact, the Taliban hate this because they’ve got nothing to counter it. There’s no counter-narrative. And when they attack this, they’re cutting off the nose to spite their face. They have difficulties with attacking this on a straight military perspective.
Just like you can’t win if you don’t do this, you lose if you attack it. And they’ve got serious problems. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of what Gen. McChrystal has been speaking of and what the intent for the operations in central Helmand are right now. And this will grow in the future in Kandahar. Next slide.
It grows fast. Way up there in the upper right-hand corner is where town of Debak is. And it grew to other villages rapidly. It’s a galvanizing influence. The population goes, wow. They start to see the sum of the parts. So this is what you’re about. It’s not just gunfire in my backyard; there’s more to this. Their government shows up and it starts to become exciting. And you need a little bit of excitement. Winning a counterinsurgency is very much like making political excitement occur. People have got to get motivated. Next slide.
And it grew more. You know, taking a town that is one of the most difficult challenges – was one of these towns here. And on the day, the villagers welcomed the unit in, showed them where the IEDs were and said, let’s get to work. Next slide.
So simply speaking, in this condensed AO with more forces available to us, we were able to visualize this. And this is what we sort of thought of as we were going into Afghanistan. You have got to start somewhere, so kalay means village in Pashtun. And it grows, very, very quickly. And it grows some more and you got to do some shaping – the U.S. forces came into southern Arghandab, allowed us to concentrate more. You do some shaping operations to accustom the population to the responsibilities and the obligations to be involved in this. And pretty soon, you get that.
Now, just imagine that – green meaning starting to stabilize – imagine that also occurring in the city in the environs to the north and to the west. That, in my opinion, is our strategic deliverable – a stabilizing – definite stabilizing trends in 85 percent of the population. And we want to do that by 2011. That’s what we’ve got to try and achieve. That’s consistent certainly with how Gen. McChrystal and Gen. Rodriguez see our military obligations. Set conditions.
It won’t be done – stabilizing, not stabilized. Upward trends. Positive movement. Doing the right things and all actors firing on all cylinders. Afghan government performing. And the population starts to come along. And that is really what we’re attempting to achieve. And that can grow with more forces. And future operations later on in the spring and summer will solidify that and perhaps be able to expand it. Next slide.
The single – I end the presentation on this slide – the single most persistent threat, ladies and gentlemen, to success in Afghanistan will be the Afghan people and their government. It’s themselves. It’s not that they don’t deserve to win, don’t deserve to have a country that works. But remember that shattered society, that skewed loyalty structure. Add to the mix those selfish, powerful actors. Add years of warfare where we haven’t been producing the results and the skepticism that could arise from that.
That affects the public mind. When will they commit and how will they do so? Let’s not forget that this population adequately motivated can do pretty much whatever it wants. It’s getting it motivated. A fairly small group of Talibs as the law and order party motivated a population and rid themselves of the mujahedeen in a fairly short period of time. This population, adequately motivated, can rid themselves of this menace with allied support.
Afghan government responsibilities, nongovernment responsibilities, societal obligations to each other motivate them to achieve that.
I always end off on a thing about IEDs. You’re all familiar with the IED term: improvised explosive device. It is what kills our soldiers the most. And we have suffered a lot of casualties, not exclusively to IEDs, but a lot of casualties. The IED is the weapon of the insurgency. It’s their artillery. It’s their mine. It’s just the weapon. It is easy to make and widespread.
But I can tell you that the defeat of the IED is not an arms-race-type environment where you’re trying to find better methods to detect them or protect yourself from their explosion. Yeah, you’ve got to do that. The IED will be defeated when the insurgency is defeated. The population will defeat the IED. The population sees them buried. The population knows when they’re being made. It’s really about the population.
IEDs, like crime, can happen. But a population adequately engaged – your towns are safe where you live not because of the police; it’s because of you. You pick up the phone and say, hey, there’s somebody doing this. That’s what needs to happen in Afghanistan. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your attention. (Applause.)
I hope I wore the black socks today. Yeah, I did. (Laughter.)
MR. WILSON: General, thank you very much for that outstanding presentation, discussion. I think you’ve put a lot of important issues on the table and we’ve got a little bit under 30 minutes and I’d like to get into a bit of a conversation drawing from your presentation and to bring in colleagues from the audience so that we can have a real discussion.
But I wanted to, first of all, some key things – the impression that you left on me, some key things that you said. You know, we didn’t lose, but we weren’t winning. Success or failure in Kandahar, success or failure of the mission. Battlefield victories but no evidence of forward momentum. The Taliban is a spoiler with no plan. Analogy to them is biker thugs. I like that.
The challenge of aligning NGOs with the military and the challenge of changing the iconic image of the mission from one of victims to success, to impact that calculation of is it worth it. You’ve put a lot of issues that I hope we can work through, but I wanted to kick off our conversation by asking one question about – from the coalition perspective and one question from the Afghan perspective.
You said that one of the most, I think, powerful tools was the Canadian soldier walking into the village, smiling, his face saying, I’m here to stay. One of the things that –
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: And I’m going to help.
MR. WILSON: And I’m going to help. Exactly. One of the things we had a chance to chat about before today’s session was the perception on the ground, the perception by villagers in Afghanistan of our resolve, of are we there to stay. Given the announcement of the U.S. surge came in the context of a date, July, 2011, where we begin a draw down.
And obviously, Sec.-Gen. Rasmussen, Secretary Gates and others have explained what that date does not mean, but it’s out there. Obviously, Canadian forces have this December, 2011, date also looming over the horizon. How has the debate back in our capitals translated into a perception on the ground in Afghanistan in terms of our resolve to stay, to remain in the fight? And how does that impact their cooperation with the coalition?
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: It’s a great question because it was remarkable to me how well-informed a lot of the Afghans were. Certainly some of the itinerant farmers and so on, perhaps weren’t as well informed. But it’s an oral culture and they share information. They are well aware of the tensions. And even more astute, very capable in this information environment of the Taliban themselves, who know even better. So they can spread words through the population.
I think the Afghans are, I think, a little bit more hopeful than sometimes we give them credit for, or at least positive about our engagement – a little more trusting. They don’t necessarily commit until they see the results. But 18 months is a fairly lengthy time. I would tell you that from, you know, when we would speak to them, it’s not that the alliance is just all of a sudden going to disappear, for example, in 2011.
But there needs to be a period of time where Afghans start to manage this themselves. Remember that, you know, that period where the population, essentially, rid themselves of the mujahedeen. The population needs to get involved. You can’t subcontract success to somebody else in this environment. It can’t be just a job of the army or just the job of the police or just the job of the ministry of interior. It’s everybody together. Everybody together can deal with this.
By 2011 and beyond, they can do it. Will they? And they will do it if they’re adequately motivated. So there’s a fine balance, I think, to be sought here between never-ending contribution at the level that we’re at – and this is a discussion you have to have with them because at some point, they need to take it over.
You know, what’s interesting in the Afghan mindset is that you ask a lot of them, do you want us here? Well, no, of course not. We’d rather you not have to be here is the answer. Now, most, you know, television programs will cut it off at the, no, we don’t want you here. But if you listen to the rest of the sentence, we’d rather you not have to be here, but we’re glad you’re here right now and looking forward to your departure, when we can manage things ourselves.
You know, nothing is said so simply as a sound bite in Pashto. Yet, we try and sound-bite it back in our own capitals. So I think they deeply appreciate that which is being – our intent and are looking forward to the day when they can take it over. So an unending commitment, I think, would be wrong as well, in their mindset.
MR. WILSON: Before I open it up to the audience, I just wanted to follow on that with a question from the Afghan perspective. You concluded your presentation referring to one of the greatest threats that still remains is the question of lack of effective governance. And you talked about this in your talk about how obviously, your operation, your troops are part of creating the conditions for, then, others to move in, whether international NGOs, but in particular, Afghans and Afghan institutions.
There’s been a lot of focus and discussion and concern about the role of Afghan ministries, the Afghan government and being able to pick up that part of the equation. How did you see this as you were winding up your tour in Kandahar, given that part of the success, part of the ability to be able to withdrawal successfully is Afghans picking up that burden, picking up that responsibility?
What do you see coming out of Kabul versus what do you see coming out of provincial authorities in Kandahar? And what does that suggest in terms of the Afghans being able to play that role? We’ve hosted Ashraf Ghani here a few times, who presented his strategy for a 10-year framework for Afghanistan, hitting at exactly this issue that the Afghans having to pick up and lead this process.
Yet I think in many of our capitals and the debate as we watch it unfold in many alliance capitals, still remains concerned about corruption, lack of effective governance, personalities involved in this process. What do you take away from your experience in Kandahar and how do you see the prospects for success on the Afghans stepping into that role?
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: Well, I see that it’s entirely possible to occur. I mean, we did see it at the local level, you know, village and district level – the recuperation of government services. And I think at that low, sort of tactical level, we’ll certainly be able to sponsor that. Whether or not Afghan ministries have the capacity to extend – this is just the sheer physical capacity is something that I know the Canadian – whole-of-government activities are working on, you know, build capacity.
But whether or not they will take full advantage, full responsibility for the nature of the insurgency as it is today and therefore start to campaign adequately along these multiple lines of effort that need to occur in an insurgency, remains to be seen. It is an emergency. It needs to be dealt with as such.
They’ve got an enormous problem; rebuild their government and their country at the same time as dealing with an emergency that our nations would have difficulty dealing with, were it in our midst. So it’s a monumental effort and I believe that they absolutely have the desire. They lack capacity.
There are some mechanical blockages, I think, in their society with some of these powerful actors who act selfishly first. Whether that manifests itself in corruption or just bad business, that needs to be dealt with for sure. It’s a portion of the equation that needs to be dealt with. And ultimately, I think it comes down to motivation. If they are truly motivated at all levels of government and society, I think they can deal with this.
I am optimistic that it can happen, but I’m a realist about whether or not it will.
MR. WILSON: Right, right. Let me bring some audience members into this discussion. I think we’ve got a lot of questions already. Let’s start with the board member in the front row. Who has the mike? Jason? Nick, terrific, thank you.
Q: Thank you very much for a fascinating presentation, General. There’s been a certain amount of talk around here, anyway, that –
MR. WILSON: If you could just introduce yourself to the general.
Q: Oh excuse me, Roger Kirk, member of the – former diplomat, member of the council.
MR. WILSON: Yes.
Q: There’s been a certain amount of talk around here about the desirability of working with, I think, they’re now called regional leaders, sometimes known as warlords and other terminology to sort of give them an incentive, perhaps even a monetary incentive – other incentives to work with us. In other words, to have them be agents for change. As some friend of mine says, you can’t buy them, but you can rent them for a while. And I just wondered if – what you think of that as a kind of strategy?
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: You know, to extend the analogy, I don’t think renting is a long-term answer to anything, whether it’s home ownership or dealing with it in a war like this. Interesting, you know, sometimes you have to partner with those who are able. Those who are able have survival skills that have lasted the multi-generations and those survival skills are not necessarily benevolent and benign in the eyes of the rest of the population.
This would characterize some of the partnerships we formed in the early days in post-9/11. You know, you’ve got to get some things done, so you deal with the most able. They’re not manifestly bad people, but they’ve been shaped by their environment. I think it is important that we focus our efforts on the legitimate institutions of government, both official and tribal, help them repair their societal fabric as they would have it done and aid them in –
We deal with these powerful, very powerful people, shape it such that they don’t exceed cultural norms. And this is what’s happened across the country. Some of the most powerful and perhaps most selfish have exceeded cultural norms so the society is recoiling. There is an element of how they do business that will always be present.
But if you’re constantly exceeding cultural norms and the population is getting no material benefit or support, you know, bottom of the U.N. indices, well, then, the population’s essentially in – it’s despondent, if not in revolt. And so we have to manage those relationships carefully and we try to.
And on any given day, sometimes you need those powerful actors a lot and sometimes they need you. And over time, I think it’s up to Afghans and it’s the president and his regime that needs to manage how they work with these unofficial but powerful actors, just like we do in our societies.
MR. WILSON: I want to turn to a colleague with a lot of experience in the region. Please introduce yourself.
Q: My name’s Christina Lamb. I’m from the Sunday Times of London, but I’ve been reporting on Afghanistan since ’87, when the Russians were there. I was very interested in your presentation as it was fascinating and I was intrigued when you said you thought in this third current stage that the coalition is now adequately resourced because even with the surge announced by Obama, there will be 140,000 troops, which is what the Russians had at most.
Other military commanders I know who’ve served in Afghanistan say to me they think that to really deal with the Taliban, they would need 500,000. So I was intrigued by that. You said that the Taliban as spoilers, that they don’t have a message. Isn’t one of the problems that we’ve underestimated the Taliban up till now, that they’ve actually been much more effective than we gave credit to?
And in that context, you talked – you didn’t mention Pakistan, but you talked about the advantage that they have of having a safe haven. When you talked about motivating the population to rise up against the Taliban in the way that they did with the mujahedeen – that happened – and I was there when it happened – very much because they had Pakistan’s support behind them. This case, they’re on the other side. So if you could comment on those things, thanks.
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: Right, well, where to start? (Laughter.) Why don’t you ask me the hard questions? I honestly believe that working with troop figures is a bit of a mug’s game. I trust Gen. McChrystal’s opinion about what he needs and how he employs forces. Given X number of soldiers, you know, you need to use the following techniques; fewer number, different technique; more, perhaps different techniques.
A lot of times, people will quote that larger figure if you are strictly going to militarily deal with the Taliban. And if your strategy is really one facet, which is you’re on your own, you are a military alliance and you’re going to crush the Taliban.
I come from a school where the Taliban will be made irrelevant over time through the population. And you don’t necessarily best create irrelevance just through putting more soldiers on the ground. They are part of the equation. It is necessary. More critical are their own soldiers – Afghan security forces, and the efforts to rehabilitate them.
And so I believe that – you know, I certainly come at this question from the angle of, what technique would I use with those forces, if they are condition-setters. And this is what the Soviets didn’t do, necessarily – they weren’t condition-setters for the rehabilitation of society in all of its dimensions. So they didn’t necessarily, uniformly use all of these techniques.
And I really only have expertise in the South. There may be differences to this equation elsewhere in the country – in the East and in the North. But I know in the South, technique matters and no amount of force, if used exclusively, will solve this problem because you – even if you did defeat the Taliban militarily, you’ve still got this badly damaged, fractured, mauled society that would be ripe for other insurgencies to occur.
So I think that’s most critical. The Taliban, as a – I don’t underestimate them, I can tell you that. They are lethal. But they are not working on a positive messaging campaign, if you will, with the population. So they can spread fear, dissent, you know, implant negative ideas. But they’re not exactly vying for the – for popular support. They’re kind of relying on that it will happen simply because the international community represents a foreign presence. And I think they’re underestimating their own population, and they’re certainly underestimating us.
So it’s – we ought not to every underestimate them. I do believe that Pakistan is essential to the equation and that, ultimately, as has been mentioned many times, certainly by the current administration in the States, that it is a regional approach that’s essential. But you’ve got to start somewhere. So we started in a town that – the alliance is starting in Afghanistan – stabilize that. And stabilize the critically important part of the population so that can spread.
I firmly believe that there will be an element of insurgency in Afghanistan, probably, forever, like there is in some modern European states, and as we have dealt with elsewhere in the world. Is it politically relevant? Is it harmful to the population such that the country remains on the bottom of the U.N. indices forever? That’s how to look at it. Great question, though.
MR. WILSON: Interesting. Is there someone on this side of the room that I can bring in? All right, then I guess we’ll stick over here. Right here in the corner – please, Nick.
Q: Thank you, General, for your talk, and thank you for your service in Kandahar, as well. I think it’s very impressive the way that the momentum has, sort of, turned around during your time there.
MR. WILSON: Please introduce yourself as well.
Q: I’m Carl Forsberg with the Institute for the Study of War. You emphasized, General, that counterinsurgency does requires us to have a mastery of tactics, as opposed to, sort of, just broad strategy. And sort of, to go on this governance issue a bit, I’m wondering if you could address the actual tactics when it come to managing relationships with some of the figures you alluded to – people like Ahmed Wali Karzai or the Sherzai family, or Abdul Razak.
How does one actually, I guess, go about restraining these figures, restraining some of their worse abuses and actually turning them into forces for good, forces for our broad, strategic goals?
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: Great question, Carl. Thanks very much. I’ve read your work and I think you and I would agree on most things. The actual methodology, I’ve found, is first of all, you need to work at all levels, all at once. So from the president’s palace down to the living room, there needs to be a consistent effort by all parties engaged. So public policy at the national level down through the province, down into a district, into a town, and the aspirations and therefore, the expression of government, need to be consistent.
And so there is a role to play by military and non-military actors to help draw down, force, in some respects, coerce – moral suasion, if necessary – to bring something – these government – particularly those critical activities – you know, health and education and so on – bring them to bear where we can create – legitimately create the conditions.
So it’s not an easy thing, because I can say hey, we’re ready, but if UNAMA says, oh, no you’re not, or the ministry of health says, well, we’re not going to show up because we’re still, you know, afraid, you know. So you’ve got to get over this one-sided view of battlespace as a military guy and say okay, we need to have buy-in from everybody. So it needs to be stable. So that’s the first hurdle.
Then, when you start to create that stable environment, then it’s working tirelessly – and our civilian political officers and development officers work tirelessly – to draw down, to put government services where they ought to be, either through mentoring or through sponsoring activities.
One of the – I’ll give you an example that was something really critical – was, I think it was on the 25th of August, after we’d been working in this first district for a while, UNAMA left Kandahar city for the first time in about 2 years and went to that district center and sponsored a significant meeting of NGOs and government actors to think, okay, let’s get to work here. The secret is to make it – or to sponsor and set conditions for the indigenous government and people to deal with it.
Because we can’t possible engineer their governance. We can show them some best practices, but we can’t do it for them. We just need to sponsor them to do it. And Carl, I think that the advantage to working at all levels, all at once, particularly down at that grassroots level, like in a village, is that you bypass a lot of the potential corruption. You – it’s direct injection of funds and activities at the lowest level. And you’re cautious about where and who you contract with to help get things done.
Ideally, you’re using local capacity. And so if you’re working at the lowest level and it starts to work and the population accepts it and is happy, and it starts to grow, then those who would try and thwart it by, perhaps, being corrupt in their midst will stand out to the population in a big way, but also to us. And that certainly gives us the opportunity, then, to follow up. And so we would.
MR. WILSON: You had mentioned the civilian side of the equation, and I think you’re tenure in Afghanistan was marked with an increase in Canadian civilian assets coming into play.
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: And U.S.
MR. WILSON: But given, still, the dramatic mismatch in resources – the disparity in resources – do you feel, as part of the process unfolding right now, that our civilian agencies across the alliance are coming in, in a credible way to be able to back up what’s happening with the military surge?
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: Yeah, that’s a good question. I wouldn’t sort of try and describe it around the word “credible,” because it absolutely is credible. It’s more, do you have the capability? You know, when you’re training a development officer or a political officer, you’re not necessarily thinking of them working their knowledge and achieving effects in a dusty, little compound somewhere in Kandahar.
They’re not necessarily trained for that. But they learn quickly. They’re dedicated and intelligence, so – and they understand what needs to happen. So the first and most important thing is, it’s a team. It’s a military-civilian team that has to produce combined effects. Now, that’s not necessarily uniformly agreed upon. It’s my view, but it’s not – you know, there are some people that have, kind of, ideological differences about this, but so be it. The fact is that the team results are the ones that are far more enduring and sophisticated than just one, sort of, element at a time.
And as I said, it cannot be linear. So do they have the actual toolset to do something of immediate, tangible value? And yes, they do. USAID, for example, has got the office of transitional initiatives, with rapid AVIPA funding available to it to start addressing – it’s not necessarily nation-building level of engagement, but in that community, what’s the infrastructure like? How’s the health? Why is the health bad? Oh, because of that stagnant water. Okay, well, let’s do that. What’s the agricultural, economic value chain here? How is it broken? How can we – and you know, there are some things you can do in a few short months that actually can turn things around locally.
Now, that might be a happy little town in an otherwise unhappy district, so you’ve got to work at all levels. And this is what I mean. I think there needs to be engagement at all levels. So you’ve got sectoral reform, political reform, activities at the national level that don’t trickle down, necessarily, to make families happy, but they’re vitally important. So you also have to work at that low level to try and connect all these stovepipes. And ideally, you prevent them from becoming totally stovepiped, at the same time.
So I believe that they are credible. I think many civilians that arrive understand very quickly that, although they may come with a mandate, there’s a war on, and that war needs to be won, or at least stabilized to the extent that some of those other, larger, national, nation-to-nation engagements can actually bear fruit. So are you there as a civilian as part of a counterinsurgency effort, or are you there as a civilian trying to rebuild Afghanistan? And the answer is yes, you are.
MR. WILSON: Yes. All right, given our time, let’s try to collect two last questions and then have – maybe the gentleman in the front and then the colleague in the back.
Q: Yes, David Isby. Sir, Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” And in my experience, local politics in Kandahar is tribal politics. How were you able to deal with this without either undercutting governmental authority or giving the Taliban leverage through tribal rivalries, to use that effectively?
MR. WILSON: And let’s go ahead and collect – Nick, if you can – in the far back, please. This will be your last, here, and you can sum up.
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: Right. Do you want me to – yeah, go ahead and just say your piece.
Q: Yes, sir. Paul Calbos. I’m working with NORAD NORTHCOM now, but I spent 2005-2006 working with the Canadians in Kandahar on the police side of the house. But you talked about center of gravity and the Afghan population being the main center of gravity. It seems like there’s a second, and that is the Western, democratic populations. It is a race, it seems like. How fast can we get our job done there to outpace the dissatisfaction that is growing?
You know, even as we announced the surge, we had polls saying that most Americans, now, are dissatisfied and tired of the campaign there. So that seems – and I agree with you – seems like the perception in the West is terribly mismatch with what’s going on, on the ground there, on the ground. So how do we do that? What kind of information operations do we need to mount to make sure that we have support in a civil democracy? Because the second that, that support’s not there, everything gets – the plug gets yanked.
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: Well, it’s a great question, Paul, and I certainly tried to address it in part. I will start by saying I think we have somewhat failed in this regard. And I – but I don’t think we – you and I, certainly, in uniform – are not in the business of convincing the population. What we need to make sure of is that the truth is being seen, that the population is able to digest and debate using facts, using that which is true.
Sure, ideology comes to bear, baggage and prejudices come to bear, but ultimately most – certainly, the populations that we come from are pretty smart. And given the facts, given transparency and so on, generally, they’ll make up their mind. And whatever their mind is, so be it. But we know what it is. So I don’t think we ought to be in a mode where we are trying to, as a military force, convince our populations of what we are – of the validity of what we’re doing. We just need to make certain – we need to be part of a larger machine that makes certain the population is well-informed. And my fear is that the populations have not been well-informed, you know, necessarily on the specifics of this mission.
Now, what we need to make sure of – you and I on the military side – is we need to be very careful and understand, during those periods of time like we maybe dealt with in the ’06-’09 period, where it was an economy of force effort, globally, where we were – and we knew we were – under-resourced to achieve permanent effect, where military force could only achieve so much until the situation changed, that honest dialogue with our populations occurred, but was also interspersed with, hey, here’s a success, here’s a success, here’s a success.
We won today. We beat them today. You know, we did some bricks-and-mortar work over here today. And we were generally saying, yeah, it’s successful; it’s going the right direction; we’re on track. And I don’t know if there was enough dramatic on track or success or real, permanent, sustainable-type success such that the population could really perceive it. So it was just words.
And when you’re in a war of words, the other guy’s got words, too and he can discredit everything you say, and he’s good at it. And not just the Taliban, but also our own, internal, divisive voices that would say, you know – that would describe the situation completely differently simply because they’re getting airtime. You know, it happens. So population, as a center of gravity, is very important, which is a great segue to your question.
Because you know, the population of Afghanistan is wildly fractured. I mean, it’s a constellation of different. You’ve got tribes; you’ve got businesses; you’ve got official government; you’ve got sub-tribes; you’ve got family intrigue. It’s just like here, but it’s there. And tribal groupings, perhaps replaced by some other loyalty structures in our own countries, but nonetheless, they exist and they are very, very tight.
They need to be involved. But it is not nearly as fractious, sir, as you would describe. I mean, there is not a challenge between tribe and legitimate governance. It certainly doesn’t manifest itself every day that way. Tribes need to be empowered and supported to do the things that they’re very good at. There is a remarkable low-level conflict resolution system that exists in the Pashtun culture. They’re very good at sorting out what some things that would probably go to civil litigation in our societies – they’re pretty good at sorting it out at the lowest level with satisfactory results – culturally acceptable, satisfactory results across the board.
A lot of those were – you know, those are tribal issues. Those are insular – kind of dealt with by the family. It’s not challenging government. It’s a part of that. And what we also need to recognize is, government as you and I see it isn’t necessarily government as they see it. We cannot use our lens selectively on this population. So look at the tribe and go, okay, I understand that and then put our – this is what a Jeffersonian state kind of looks like and look at government and say, well, that’s not working. You have to recognize that it’s going to create a whole that works for them, and our obligation is to make certain that we provide them support to do that.
And we make lots of mistakes. We talk to the wrong people. You know, we say, well, that doesn’t look right; do it this way. We do make mistakes. But we learn. And when you are doing something that involves the sum of the parts of all of your ambition together, you’re willing to forgive a little bit. Okay, we made a mistake there – sorry. Let’s try it your way. It is a very personal, close-up type of conflict. And you – all parties have a right to be involved, including the tribes.
MR. WILSON: General, thank you very much. I know we’ve got a series of additional questions out there, but I want to respect everyone’s time. But it just shows the interest in this issue. We began this forum – the NATO forum – with a speech by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who made a very passionate defense of the alliance’s role in Afghanistan at a time when some Americans were questioning the allied commitment to the fight.
So we’re so delighted to be able to continue using this forum to, now, host an allied military commander coming out of the field, out of the South of Afghanistan, to be able to offer your insights, your perspective on the debate at a time when our alliance is engaged in another serious offensive next door in Helmand. So thank you for your time, thank you for your insights, thank you for your presentation. It’s been a pleasure to have you here.
BRIG. GEN. VANCE: Same here, thank you. (Applause.) Thanks, Damon. Thanks very much.