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University Experts Brief Canada’s New Afghanistan Task Force Commander on Winning ‘Mission Impossible’

Article By: Barbara Honegger

Only days before Lt. Gen. McChrystal released his strategic reassessment of the war in Afghanistan, the about-to-be commander of NATO’s task force in Kandahar -- ground zero for the fight against the Taliban -- was at the Naval Postgraduate School for three days of intensive briefs from faculty members freshly returned from the country and other top experts on Afghan culture and counterinsurgency.

Canadian Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard and a dozen top officers of his Joint Task Force-Afghanistan took time in their pressing schedules preparing to take charge of NATO operations in Kandahar, the center of gravity for the Pashtun insurgency, to attend the Conference on Culture and Counterinsurgency in Southern Afghanistan hosted by the NPS Program for Culture and Conflict Studies (CCS), Aug. 25-27.

Menard’s mission is central to the success of U.S. and NATO efforts in the country.

“’Kandahar means Afghanistan,’ its governor told the Washington Post. ‘It’s the pivotal city. The history of Afghanistan, the politics of Afghanistan, was always determined from Kandahar, and once again, it will be determined from Kandahar.”

The goal of the conference was to paint a clear picture of the battle space the Canadian Task Force was about to enter, enabling its members to better understand the institutions, organizations and individuals affecting conditions on the ground in their area of responsibility. And its subject matter couldn’t have been more timely, coming in the month in which more American troops died than any since the beginning of the eight-year war.

“We’re extremely happy to be here,” General Menard said in his opening remarks. “This conference will definitely enhance our knowledge in these increasingly critical areas, and we’re very much looking forward to the exchanges, both here and in the future.”

In alignment with a recent speech by CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeas’ that “the key terrain is the human terrain,” a theme of the conference was that, in the war on terror, militaries win battles but counterinsurgencies win wars.

“We all realize that military forces alone will not bring the Afghan conflict to an end,” NPS President Daniel Oliver said in opening the workshop. “Canada has been a critical partner in counterinsurgency efforts to clear, hold and build in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. These workshops are a great opportunity for the Naval Postgraduate School and the Canadian Task Force to build upon our shared knowledge and experiences in this critical country.”

“Professor Johnson and his team have put together some of the finest experts in the world on southern Afghanistan,” Oliver noted. “This forum truly represents a unique opportunity to wrap your heads around the critical strategic, operational and tactical details as you make your way through the planning and preparation phase of your mission.”

Menard stressed the central importance of understanding the center of gravity of the insurgency, the tribal Pashtun population.

“It’s essential to exchange with specialists in these vital topics at the intersection of culture and counterinsurgency that I believe are the only things that will make a real difference,” Menard said. “Fighting can be easy [compared to winning hearts and minds], especially in the south where it’s impossible to separate the people from the insurgency because the people are the insurgency. To succeed, a radical change – something dramatic – is needed, and we’re here to listen and learn about the tools we’ll need for success.”

The conference resulted from an outreach by the Canadians to NPS.

“I was contacted last year by the Headquarters and commanding general of their task force as a result of previous consulting for the Canadian Armed Forces and an affinity they have for some of my positions and recommendations on the prosecution of the war, especially the importance of operating at the village level,” said CCS Program Director Prof. Thomas Johnson.

Co-author of Afghanistan is Today’s Vietnam, Johnson’s frank and urgent warnings evoke the inflation of numerical progress benchmarks revealed earlier by the Pentagon Papers – for instance that “The U.S. military touts 91,000 trained and equipped Afghan National Army soldiers, knowing full well that barely 39,000 are still in the ranks and present for duty, and that they’re poorly equipped and have little logistical support,” he intoned. “I estimate that less than four percent of our troops historically have been involved in reconstruction, and that’s no way to secure a population and win a counterinsurgency.

“It’s impressive and refreshing that such an important military unit would reach out and come all the way to Monterey for three days to get ‘out of the box’ expertise from both conventional and unconventional thinkers,” Johnson added.

In addition to Johnson and Menard, speakers at the conference included NPS Senior Research Fellow and retired Foreign Service Officer Chris Mason, U.S. State Department Adjunct Research Fellow and senior political-military analyst Harold Ingram, Asia and Afghanistan tribal expert David Phillips, lead Afghanistan correspondent for The Globe and Mail Graeme Smith, Foreign Service officer and State Department intelligence analyst specializing in Afghanistan and Pakistan Donald Boy, Pakistan and Pashtun expert with the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales in Paris Mariam Abou Zahab, social anthropologist and Afghanistan expert Thomas Barfield; Kandahar native, CCS Research Analyst and former president of one of the largest Afghan student organizations Ahmed Waheed, CCS Research Assistant and Afghan narcotics interdiction expert Matt Dupee, translator-analyst Wali Shaaker, and CCS Research Associate Matthew Dearing.

Presentations spanned a wide range of topics relating to southern Afghanistan, including journalist Smith and native Kandahari Waheed’s perspectives on political and social conditions; an overview of the Pashtun insurgency by Boy; tribal and clan dynamics by Phillips; issues of political legitimacy by Barfield; using Pashtun culture for strategic advantage by Mason; poppy cultivation and interdiction by DuPee; and information operations and culture, and a report on his recent trip to the region by Johnson; and an overview of Islam in the area by Zahab.

According to Johnson, the conference was a definite success.

“I had long conversations with Gen. Menard afterwards and he gave very positive feedback. He was extremely pleased with the information he received throughout the three days,” Johnson said.

The event was the second annual workshop between the Center and the Canadian task force deploying to Kandahar.

“We had [Menard’s predecessor Canadian] Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance and his Kandahar Task Force here at NPS last September and worked with him to develop his ‘Operation Kalay,’” Johnson said. “In fact, this conference architected Gen Vance’s eventual strategy in Kandahar, especially relative to the Canadians village strategy whose aim is to normalize small population centers by ensuring that a secure environment is provided under local Afghan leadership.”

Johnson created the Center for Culture and Conflict Studies in 2006 as part of the NPS Department of National Security Affairs, under the School of International Graduate Studies. Its mission – to study the anthropological, ethnographic, social, political and economic data needed to inform U.S. policies at both the strategic and operational levels – is based on the premise that the U.S. must understand the world’s societies and cultures to effectively interact with the local people.

In 2008, Johnson and a team of research associates spent nearly three weeks in Kandahar working with the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team. In May and June, he and his associates spent another four weeks embedded with Gen. Vance’s Task Force in Kandahar.

For more information on the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies, go to

Posted September 30, 2009.

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