A History Lesson Gets the Mission Accomplished

The following guest post was provided by Captain Edward “Ted” Halinski, a U.S. Army Acquisition Corps officer. Originally commissioned into the Infantry upon graduating from West Point in 2008, he is now an Assistant Product Manager in the Light Tactical Vehicles Product Office at the Detroit Arsenal. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.

One of the most memorable experiences I had during my Afghanistan deployment occurred within the first couple of months I was in theater. I initially deployed as a mortar platoon leader but my Battalion Commander laterally promoted me to be my company’s executive officer (XO) day 1 of my deployment. As the new XO, my commander placed me in charge of civil-military relations as well as non-lethal projects (infrastructure development and contract management). As the ‘projects guy’, I had less than a month to begin the construction of a combat outpost (COP) in a semi-hostile district of East Paktika. Before I could direct the start of the project, though, I had to obtain the local sub-governor’s written permission. My initial meeting with the sub-governor was an experience that I will never forget.

That day began like any other. I woke up, conducted pre-movement checks, and departed for the local government building. The uneventful trip took about an hour. The start of our meeting was routine — my Afghan partners, the sub-governor, and I all exchanged pleasantries and engaged in small talk over chai. When the time came for me to broach the subject of the day — the construction of an Afghan COP just outside of a local village — tension filled the room. The sub-governor grew fidgety when I first raised the idea of establishing a COP. When I told him the location where we wanted to build the COP, he became increasingly wary. Since he was a relatively new leader to the area, he called upon the local elders to join our discussion. At this point — about fifteen minutes since we opened discussions — my meeting grew from six people to over 30. I, of course, had to re-explain my proposal for the new COP to the full group of elders. After another 25 minutes of heated, emotional discussion, the elders were adamant that we needed to leave their district.

The elders’ convictions came from what they called their ‘experiences’ with the Soviet Army during its decade-long occupation. The Soviets had built many similar COPs across their country, and the village in closest proximity to the COP often found itself caught in the middle of battles between Soviet and Taliban forces, or as a target for Soviet Army retribution.[1] For these reasons, and a few more, the elders were more than a little hesitant to grant us permission to establish a COP near their village. I, however, could not leave the meeting without their consent. I had to reach deep into my kit bag and find some historical lessons to counter their arguments.

As a military history major at West Point, I read many books and articles concerning the Soviet-Afghan War. In fact, I read about the very circumstances the elders were referencing. Therefore, I understood that there was a degree of truth to their words. More importantly, I knew that they neglected to include some major qualifiers in their examples. For example, they failed to mention how the Soviet Army would bulldoze any house within a few hundred meters of a COP.[2] They also glossed over the fact that the villagers would allow their buildings to be used as Taliban staging areas for attacks. These buildings, as a consequence, often became damaged or destroyed in the ensuing battle.[3] We wouldn’t bulldoze their homes, I countered. The rest was up to them.

The elders reluctantly agreed to our plan, and the sub-governor gave me written approval to build the COP near the village. After the elders had left the room, my Afghan partners and I finished our meeting with the sub-governor and were on our way. Before we left, the sub-governor told me that this was the first time an American had been able to cite a historical example to Afghans without being corrected. He was, for a lack of better terms, impressed with my knowledge of his country’s history.

Even today I find inspiration in the sub-governor’s final comments. It took his words to make me realize exactly what I had accomplished. Through my studies at West Point and some professional reading on the side, I was able to go to a country that I had never visited before, lead a constructive dialog with the local elders, and gain their consent on a critical project. Looking back and reflecting on my deployment, that day was one of the most memorable of a long and rewarding tour. One thing that I learned from this event was that the exercise of logic and rhetoric can be much more powerful than the use of force or technology. Yes, an army can greatly influence the battlefield with its technological might, but without intelligent, well-trained leaders at its helm, that army can lose on the strategic level of war even though it may win at the tactical level.

[1] Jalali, Ali Ahmad, and Lester W. Grau. “Chapter 14: Urban Combat.” In The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War. Quantico, VA: U.S. Marine Corps, Studies and Analysis Division, 1995.

[2] Jalali and Grau, “Chapter 1: Ambushes.”Click to copy and paste your citation

[3] Grau, Lester W. “Chapter 7: And In Conclusion.” The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1996.

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