In Gen. Petraeus' lengthy AEI discourse on military bureacracy last week (discussed here), he didn't much talk about how, exactly, the "big ideas" of COIN work in the military theater. Here's a recent example from CBS, which is following Third Battalion, First Marines, currently in Forward Operating Base Karma in Helmand Province:
In this part of Helmand province almost all of the Marines' patrols are on foot - the few roads that run north-south parallel to the river have been heavily sewn with IEDs, which makes travel in vehicles dangerous, or very slow if they have to sweep the roads in front of them every time they go out. But on foot the Marines are far more maneuverable, they can walk through fields and over ditches along unpredictable routes to minimize the IED threat. The Taliban generally don't plant IEDs in fields, as that alienates the local population.
The fields were busy with farmers in the morning - a good sign for the Marines, because if an ambush is imminent the fields generally empty out of civilians. Now the poppy harvest is over the farmers were going around snapping off the dried-up poppy pods to collect the seeds inside for next year's crop - they then cut down the stalks to use as kindling for their cooking fires. Other fields are planted with wheat that is nearly ready for harvest, and in the summer these fields will be planted with corn. Then in the fall they plant poppy again which grows over the winter. Thanks to the plentiful supply of water from the series of canals running off the Helmand river (built back in the 1950's by American engineers) this part of the province is exceptionally productive farming land.
Gee, funny that that didn't win any hearts and minds....
The Marines have only had a presence this far south for the past seven weeks - before that the area was under Taliban control - so the local population is still a little suspicious of the Marines.
Just a little.
Some farmers were friendly and smiled, others maintained a dour look as the heavily armed Marines walked by. Some our doubtless still Taliban sympathizers, or at the very least are informers for the Taliban because they are paid by them or fear them.
Staff Sgt Worley is a genial guy with an earthy sense of humor, and he didn't hesitate sticking his hand out to people as he met them and saying hello. It will take many more miles of patrolling through the fields and many more handshakes to get the local population to accept them,
The few, the proud, the glad-handers ...
but the turning point will come when the locals are more inclined to come to the Marines and tell them where the IEDs are hidden, instead of going to the Taliban and telling them what the Marines are doing.
Happy Day. How many times have we heard, from Iraq to Afghanistan, about this same shift in dynamics -- now they're telling us where the IEDs are! -- a shift that nonetheless leads absolutely nowhere. Obviously, it's a good thing for our men walking these fields and ditches (why don't they ever seem to send Afghan Army cross country?? Probably too stoned to walk) to know where the IEDs are, but, um, is that taking us, as a country with war goals (supposedly), anywhere at all but across fields and ditches a little more safely? Answer: No. CBS sums up:
One field, one handshake, one smile at a time.
That's "big ideas" in action for you.
When do we get to wake up from this COIN nightmare we are forcing our military to live?