Imperial Grunts

The Atlantic

America is waging a counterinsurgency campaign not just in Iraq but against Islamic terror groups throughout the world. Counterinsurgency falls into two categories: unconventional war (UW in Special Operations lingo) and direct action (DA). Unconventional war, though it sounds sinister, actually represents the soft, humanitarian side of counterinsurgency: how to win without firing a shot. For example, it may include relief activities that generate good will among indigenous populations, which in turn produces actionable intelligence. Direct action represents more-traditional military operations. In 2003 I spent a summer in the southern Philippines and an autumn in eastern and southern Afghanistan, observing how the U.S. military was conducting these two types of counterinsurgency.

The philippines


 The inability of a democratic and Christian Filipino government to rule large areas of its own Muslim south—with al-Qaeda-related activity the result—became a principal concern of the United States in the wake of September 11, 2001. Operation Enduring Freedom, which focused primarily on removing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, also had an important Philippine component. In the aftermath of 9/11 U.S. troops entered the Muslim south of the Philippines for the first time since World War II.

In Afghanistan, Enduring Freedom combined conventional military elements with Special Operations forces and a militarized CIA. In the Philippines the effort was almost exclusively a Special Forces affair. The base of operations was Zamboanga, the center of the Spanish colonial administration in Mindanao and of the American effort against the Moros a century ago.

By the time I arrived in the Philippines, a number of leaders of the radical Islamic group Abu Sayyaf had been killed, and the group had scattered to smaller islands. Yet the American Joint Special Operations Task Force, or jsotf (pronounced Jay-so-tef), was still in place when I got to Zamboanga, and various Special Forces A teams were still training Filipino units nearby and on the main island of Luzon.

One morning soon after my arrival I found myself on a broken chair in a vast iron shed by the ferry dock in Zamboanga, in rotting heat and humidity. The water was a tableau of fishing nets and banca boats with bamboo outrigging. The floor in front of me was crowded with garbage and sleeping street people. Next to me were two new traveling companions from the jsotf: Special Forces Master Sergeant Doug Kealoha, of the Big Island of Hawaii, and Air Force Master Sergeant Carlos Duenas Jr., of San Diego. They would accompany me to the island of Basilan—”Injun Country” in the view of the jsotf, though Abu Sayyaf guerrillas had largely been routed.

I felt the familiar excitement of early-morning sea travel. From here in Zamboanga you could hop cheap and broken-down ferries all the way south along the Sulu chain to Malaysia and Indonesia. Had I been by myself, I might have been tempted to do it. I would certainly have had no qualms about going to Basilan alone. But being embedded with the U.S. military, as I was, meant giving up some freedom in return for access. I rode to the dock in a darkened van with three soldiers in full kit, along with Kealoha and Duenas, who, although they were in civilian clothes, carried Berettas under their loose shirts. Troops of the 103rd Brigade of the Filipino army would meet us at the dock in Isabela, the capital of Basilan.

pacom (the U.S. Pacific Command) had in 2002 decided to focus on Basilan because it was the northernmost and most populous island in the Sulu chain—the link between the southern islands and the larger island of Mindanao. Were Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim guerrilla groups to be ejected from Basilan, they would be instantly marginalized, it was thought. Basilan, with a population of 360,000, was important enough to matter, yet small enough to allow the United States a decisive victory in a short amount of time.

The first thing Special Forces had done about Basilan was conduct a series of population surveys. SF surveys were a bit like those conducted by university academics; indeed, many an SF officer had an advanced degree. But there was a difference. Because the motive behind these surveys was operational rather than intellectual, there was a practical, cut-to-the-chase quality about them that is uncommon in academia. Months were not needed to reach conclusions. Nobody was afraid to generalize in the bluntest terms; thus conclusions did not become entangled in exquisite subtleties. Intellectuals reward complexity and refinement; the military rewards simplicity and bottom-line assessments. For Army Special Forces—also called Green Berets—there was only one important question: What did they need to know about the people of Basilan in order to kill or drive out the guerrillas?

Special Forces officers teamed up with their counterparts in the Filipino army to question the local chiefs and their constituents in the island’s forty barangays, or parishes. They conducted demographic studies with the help of satellite imagery. They found that the Christian population was heaviest in the northern part of Basilan, particularly in Isabela. Abu Sayyaf’s strongest support was in the south and east of the island, where government services were, not surprisingly, the weakest. The islanders’ biggest concerns were clean water, basic security, medical care, education, and good roads—in that order. Democracy or self-rule was not especially critical to the Muslim population. It had already had elections, many of them, which had achieved little for the average person: the government was elected but did not rule the group. Abu Sayyaf activities had shut down the schools and hospitals, and the guerrillas had kidnapped and executed teachers and nurses. The surveys demonstrated that the most basic human right is not freedom in the Western sense but physical security.

Next, under the auspices of Operation Enduring Freedom—Philippines, the Joint Task Force dispatched twelve Green Beret A teams to Basilan, backed up by three administrative B teams. Their mission was to train the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) units, which would then conduct operations against Abu Sayyaf. Doing that meant digging wells for American troops and building roads so that they could move around the countryside. The Americans also built piers and an airstrip for their operations. The Green Berets knew that all this infrastructure would be left behind for the benefit of the civilian population: that was very much to the point.

It was precisely in the Abu Sayyaf strongholds where the Green Beret detachments chose to be located. That in itself encouraged the guerrillas to scatter and leave the island. And by guaranteeing security, the U.S. military was able to lure international relief agencies to Basilan, and also some of the teachers and medical personnel who had previously fled. The American firm Kellogg, Brown & Root built and repaired schools and water systems. SF medics conducted medical and dental civic-action projects (medcaps and dentcaps, in military parlance) at which villagers volunteered information about the guerrillas while their children were being treated for scabies, malaria, and meningitis.

The objective was always to further legitimize the AFP among the islanders. The Americans went nowhere and did nothing without Filipino troops present to take the credit. When ribbons were cut to open new roads or schools, the Americans made sure to stay in the background.

With discretionary funds the Americans also built several small neighborhood mosques. “We hired locally and bought locally,” a Green Beret officer told me, referring to the labor and materials for each project. The policy was deliberately carried to the extreme. Repairing roads meant clearing boulders off them; when the Green Berets saw peasants chipping away at these boulders to make smaller rocks, they bought the “aggregate” from the peasants and used it to lay the new roads.

The ostensible mission was to help Filipino troops kill or capture international terrorists. That was accomplished by orchestrating a humanitarian assistance campaign, which severed the link between the terrorists and the rest of the Muslim population: exactly what successful middle-level U.S. commanders had done in the Philippines a hundred years before. “We changed the way we were perceived,” a Green Beret told me. “When we arrived in Basilan, Muslim kids made throat-slashing gestures at us. By the time we left, they were our friends. That led them to question everything the guerrillas had told them about Americans.”

When I arrived in Basilan, the Americans had been gone for almost a year. Were their accomplishments long-lasting?

 Before Enduring Freedom the hospital in Isabela had had twenty-five beds, and the staff had largely deserted to Zamboanga. Now there were 110 beds plus a women’s clinic. The facility was being kept clean and orderly, with good water and electricity. The grounds were in the midst of landscaping. “Tell the American people that it is a miracle what took place here in 2002,” Nilo Barandino, the hospital’s director, told me. “And what was given to us by the American people, we will do our best to maintain and build upon. But there is still a shortage of penicillin. We get little help from Manila.” Barandino said that Basilan used to be a “paradise for kidnappers,” but since the American intervention kidnapping had stopped and the inhabitants of Isabela had begun going out at night again. A decade earlier he himself had been kidnapped.

From Isabela I headed southwest with Kealoha and Duenas, in a Humvee. Everywhere we saw portable bridges and sections of new road. If one island paradise on earth surpassed all others, I thought, it was here, with rubber-tree plantations and pristine palm jungles adorned with breadfruit, mahogany, mango, and banana trees under a glittering sun.

In Maluso, a predominantly Muslim area on Basilan’s southwestern tip, facing the Sulu Sea, I met a water engineer, Salie Francisco. He jumped into the Humvee with us and took us deep into the jungle to follow the trail of a pipeline constructed by Kellogg, Brown & Root. It led to a dam, a water-filtration plant, and a school, all recently built by the United States Agency for International Development. The area used to be an Abu Sayyaf lair. The terrorists were gone. But, as Francisco told me, there were no jobs, no communications facilities, and no tourism, despite expectations raised by the Americans.

I saw poor and remote villages of the kind that I had seen all over the world, liberated from fear, and with a new class of Westernized activists beginning to trickle in. “The Filipino military is less and less doing its job here,” Francisco told me. “We are afraid that Abu Sayyaf will return. No one trusts the government to finish building the roads that the Americans started.” He went on: “The Americans were sincere. They did nothing wrong. We will always be grateful to their soldiers. But why did they leave? Please tell me. We are very disappointed that they did so.”

 As I continued around the island over the next few days, especially in the Muslim region of Tipo-Tipo, to the southeast, local Muslim officials were openly grateful toward the U.S. military for the wells, schools, and clinics that had been built, but critical of their own government in Manila for corruption and for not providing funds for development. True or not, this was the perception.

In southern Basilan the material intensity of Islamic culture became overpowering for the first time on my journey south, with a profusion of headscarves, prayer beads, signs for halal food, and a grand new mosque in Tipo-Tipo, paid for, it was said, by Arabian Gulf countries. I had entered an Islamic continuum, in which the Indonesian islands of Java, Borneo, and Sumatra seemed closer than Luzon.

Though I would learn more about Operation Enduring Freedom, one thing was already obvious: America could not change the vast forces of history and culture that had placed a poor Muslim region at the southern edge of a badly governed, Christian-run archipelago nation. All America could do was insert its armed forces here and there, as unobtrusively as possible, to alleviate perceived threats to its own security when they became particularly acute. And because such insertions were often in fragile Third World democracies, with colonial pasts and prickly senses of national pride, U.S. forces had to operate under very restrictive rules of engagement.

Humanitarian assistance may not be the weapon of choice for Pentagon hardliners, who prefer to hunt down and kill “bad guys” through direct action rather than dig wells and build schools—projects that in any case are possibly unsustainable, because national governments like that of the Philippines lack the resolve to pick up where the United States leaves off. I had the distinct sense that the work of Special Forces on Basilan had merely raised expectations—ones the government in Manila would be unable to meet. But nineteenth-century-style colonialism is simply impractical, and the very spread of democracy for which America struggles means that it can no longer operate without license. An approach that informally combines humanitarianism with intelligence gathering in order to achieve low-cost partial victories is what imperialism in the early twenty-first century demands.

The Basilan operation was a case of American troops’ applying lessons and techniques learned from their experience of occupation in the Philippines a hundred years before. Although the invasion and conquest of the Philippine Islands from 1898 to 1913 became infamous to posterity for its human-rights violations, those violations were but one aspect of a larger military situation that featured individual garrison commanders pacifying remote rural areas with civil-affairs projects that separated the local population from the insurgents. It is that second legacy of which the U.S. military rightly remains proud, and from which it draws lessons in this new imperial age of small wars.

The most crucial tactical lesson of the Philippines war is that the smaller the unit, and the farther forward it is deployed among the indigenous population, the more it can accomplish. This is a lesson that turns imperial overstretch on its head. Though one big deployment like that in Iraq can overstretch our military, deployments in many dozens of countries involving relatively small numbers of highly trained people will not.

But the Basilan intervention is more pertinent as a model for future operations elsewhere than for what it finally achieved. For example, if the United States and Pakistan are ever to pacify the radicalized tribal agencies of the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, it will have to be through a variation on how Special Forces operated in Basilan; direct action alone will not be enough.

Moreover, as free societies gain ground around the world, the U.S. military is going to be increasingly restricted in terms of how it operates. An age of democracy means an age of frustratingly narrow rules of engagement. That is because fledgling democratic governments, besieged by young and aggressive local media, will find it politically difficult—if not impossible—to allow American troops on their soil to engage in direct action.

Iraq and Afghanistan are rare examples where restrictive rules of engagement do not apply. But in most other cases U.S. troops will be deployed to bolster democratic governments rather than to topple authoritarian ones. Therefore unconventional warfare in the Philippines provides a better guidepost for our military than direct action in Iraq and Afghanistan.




By the time I left the Philippines, the postwar consolidations of Iraq and Afghanistan were in jeopardy. Both the Pentagon and the American public had thought in terms of a decisive victory. Yet the fact that more U.S. soldiers had been killed by shadowy Iraqi gunmen after the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s regime than during the war itself indicated that the real war over Iraq’s future was being fought now, and Operation Iraqi Freedom of 2003 had merely shaped the battle space for it.

In Afghanistan, too, a rapid and seemingly decisive military victory had been followed by a dirty and bloody peace. Small-scale eruptions of combat, with few enemy troops visible, were now a permanent feature of the landscape. They were something the United States would have to get used to, whichever party occupied the White House.

Warlordism, always strong in Afghanistan, had been bolstered in recent decades by the diffuse nature of the mujahideen rebellion against the Soviets, the destruction wrought by fighting among the mujahideen following the Soviet departure, and the bureaucratic incompetence of the Taliban itself, which was more an ideological movement than a governing apparatus. An Afghan state barely existed even before the U.S. invasion of October 2001. Thus, barring some catastrophe such as the fall of a major town to a reconstituted Taliban, or the assassination of President Hamid Karzai, discerning success or failure would be a subtler enterprise in Afghanistan than in Iraq. The continued turmoil in the greater Middle East, and my desire to observe Army Special Forces in a more varied role than what I saw in the Philippines, led me on a two-month journey to Afghanistan in the fall of 2003.

The American invasion of Afghanistan a month after 9/11 was greeted with a chorus of dire, historically based predictions from the media and academia. American soldiers, it was said, would fail to defeat the rugged, unruly Afghans, just as the Soviets and the nineteenth-century British had. The Afghans had never been defeated by outsiders; nor would they ever be. After only a few weeks of American bombing, however, the Taliban fled the Afghan capital of Kabul in disarray. To say that the Americans succeeded because of their incomparable technology would be a narrow version of the truth. America’s initial success rested on deftly combining high technology with low-tech field tactics. It took fewer than 200 men on the ground from the Army’s 5th Special Forces Group, in addition to CIA troops and Air Force Special Ops embeds, helped by the Afghan Northern Alliance and friendly Pashtoons, to topple the Taliban regime.

If history could have stopped at that point, it would be an American success story. But history does not stop. By the fall of 2003 the Taliban had regrouped to fight a guerrilla struggle against the U.S.-led international coalition—similar to the struggle that the mujahideen had waged against the Soviets. With hit-and-run attacks across a dispersed and mountainous battlefield, and a new national army that needed to be trained and equipped, Afghanistan constituted a challenge better suited to Special Operations forces than to the conventional military.

 With troops jammed elbow-to-elbow along the sides, divided by a high wall of Tuff bins, mailbags, and rucksacks, the C-47 Chinook, followed by its Apache escort, lifted off the pierced steel planking that the Soviets had left behind at Bagram Air Force Base. The rear hatch was left open where an M-60 7.62mm mounted gun was manned by a soldier strapped to the edge. Beyond the gun the landscape of Afghanistan fell away before me: mud-walled castles and green terraced fields of rice, alfalfa, and cannabis on an otherwise gnarled and naked sandpaper vastness, marked by steep canyons and volcanic slag heaps. The rusty, dried-blood hue of some of the hills indicated iron-ore deposits, the drab greens copper. Because of the noise of the engine, everyone wore earplugs. Nobody talked. Soon, like everyone else, I fell asleep.

An hour later the Chinook descended steeply amid twisted, cindery peaks. Hitting the ground, those of us who were headed for the firebase grabbed our rucksacks and ran off through the wind and dust generated by the rotors. At the same time, another group of soldiers, waiting on the ground, ran inside. The crew threw off the mailbags and Tuff bins. Then two soldiers on the ground led a hooded figure, his hands tied in flex cuffs and a number scrawled on his back, to the helicopter. In less than five minutes the Chinook roared back up into the sky.

The handcuffed man was a puc: “person under control”—what the U.S. military calls its temporary detainees in the war on terrorism. It has become a verb; to take someone into custody is to “puc him.” The men who had put the puc in the Chinook—en route to Bagram, where he would be interrogated—were members of an Army Special Forces A team based at an Afghan firebase in Gardez. But they didn’t look like any of the Green Berets I had so far encountered in my travels. These Green Berets had thick beards and wore traditional Afghan kerchiefs, called deshmals, around their necks and over their mouths, Lone Ranger—style, as protection against the dust. On their heads were either flat woolen Afghan pakols or ball caps. Except for their camouflage pants, M-4s, and Berettas, there was nothing to identify them with the U.S. military. They brought to mind the 2001 photos of Special Forces troops on horseback in Afghanistan that had mesmerized the American public and horrified the old guard at the Pentagon. All were covered with dust, like sugar-coated cookies.

I threw my rucksack in the back of one of their Toyota pickups and we drove to the firebase, a few minutes away. There was a science-fiction quality to the landscape, which seemed devoid of all life forms. Near the fort were two distinctive hills that the driver referred to as “the two tits.”

Firebase Gardez is a traditional yellow, mud-walled fort; the flags of the United States, the State of Texas, and the Florida Gators football team were flying from its ramparts. Surrounded by barren hills on a tableland 7,600 feet above sea level, the fort looks like a cross between the Alamo and a French Foreign Legion outpost.

An armed Afghan militiaman opened the creaky gate. Inside, caked and matted with “moondust,” as everyone called it, stood double rows of armored Humvees, armed GMVs (ground mobility vehicles), and Toyota Land Cruisers—the essential elements of a new kind of convoy warfare, in which Special Ops was adapting tactics more from the Mad Max style of the Eritrean and Chadian guerrillas of recent decades than from the lumbering tank armies of the passing Industrial Age.

Hidden behind the vehicles and veils of swirling dust were canvas tents, a latrine, a crude shower facility, and the perennial Special Forces standby—a weight room. Almost everyone here was either a muscular Latino or a white guy dressed like an Afghan-cum-convict-cum-soldier. Half of them smoked. They put Tabasco sauce on everything. Back at home most owned firearms. They bore an uncanny resemblance to the freelance journalists who had covered the mujahideen war against the Soviets two decades earlier.

“Welcome to the Hotel Gardez,” said a smiling and bearded major, Kevin Holiday, of Tampa, Florida. Major Holiday was the commander of this firebase and of another in Zurmat, two hours south by dirt road. “Within these walls we have ODB-2070 and two A teams, 2091 and 2093,” he told me in rapid-fire fashion. “Next door, living with an ANA [Afghan National Army] unit, is 2076. Down at Zurmat is 2074. Most of us are 20th Group guardsmen from Florida and Texas, here for nine months, except for a tent full of active-duty 7th Group guys on a ninety-day deployment”—the Latinos. “We’re the damn Spartans.” Holiday smiled again. “Physical warriors with college degrees.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the beards?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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