“Rough Terrain” by Vanessa Genzer

Normal_tombe-lyautey "That started him thinking: What if soldiers provided real, dependable security to even one Afghan village? If the village were actually safe, development and jobs could follow.

In counterinsurgency circles, this is called the "oil spot" strategy. The term was coined by the French soldier and administrator Louis Hubert Lyautey, who was sent to colonial Morocco and Indochina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Hanoi, he watched as soldiers set up a network of military posts to protect villagers and keep out insurgents, and armed locals to defend themselves. With "pacification a great band of civilization advances like a spot of oil," Lyautey wrote.

In the months before Karl's deployment, his enthusiasm for this approach had grown so noticeable that Banger and others had taken to calling him Oil Spot Spock. Karl envisioned soldiers securing a single village or area — the first spot of oil — and using its success to spread safety and development drop by drop. Areas outside the chosen villages would be treated as battle zones, where soldiers would know unequivocally that they were at war. If the conflict were divided into hot and cool zones, Karl thought, soldiers could focus their humanitarian aid and development efforts in friendly areas and fight in unfriendly ones. They might have a better chance of avoiding an explosion such as the one in the bazaar. "  Vanessa Gezen


The "Human Terrain System" (HTS) is a program for which I have a great personal regard.  I helped to train some of these people.  They are very good people.  In an odd way, the program serves to recreate much of the work that I helped with in the Mid-20th Century.  "The more things change…"  In another odd coincidence, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment was my first unit in the Regular Army.  We have a silver cup that was a present from the battalion's officers on the occasion of our marriage.

I read the article closely.  We have been there… done that…  All of it.   I think that Karl is completely correct in thinking that the "oil spots," (les taches de huile) can be made to "connect" with the "grease spots" overlapping until there is not room between them for the agents of a competing vision.

The key to making that work has always been the permanency of the security offered to the people living within the "oil spots."  Without effective protection, the attempt to make Karl's hope work simply makes the villagers better and more concentrated targets.

There will never be enough coalition troops to provide security for an expanding pattern of "oil spots."  What has always been  needed in this kind of effort is a "pyramid" of security forces beginning with village self defense groups, district forces, province forces and national forces standing in reserve to come to the rescue.  In the end,coalition forces can start the process and act as a mobile reserve but the Afghans really have to do the rest themselves once they have been shown how.

I heard Jim Webb say the other day that "Vietnam and Afghanistan (were) completely different situations."  Well, they are and they aren't.  There are no full time VC  combat units to supplement the guerrilla bands, units like the one that had destroyed the village in which I met Edward Kennedy.  There is not an equivalent to the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) with its highly trained, disciplined and equipped troops.  No NVA artillery, tanks, etc.  Thank God.  There will never be anything like that.  On the other hand, there was an effective government in Vietnam.   You may not like that government but it was a lot more effective than many wish to think.  There is very little government in Afghanistan, very little to work with.

The biggest similarity in the two situations is we Americans.  We are the same, for good or ill.

All of this adds up to an immense task, a generational task.  pl


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24 Responses to “Rough Terrain” by Vanessa Genzer

  1. Patrick Lang says:

    I think it is “a smart assed question.”
    You know exactly what I mean.
    They lost the war? They were not to your taste politically? Do you prefer the winners? pl

  2. Patrick Lang says:

    Ah, “They were corrupt…” Yes, they were corrupt. So what! I wish you joy in the search for a government that is not corrupt…
    A lot of very good men fought for that corrupt government. The ARVN Airborne were among the bravest and most devoted soldiers that I have seen. The RVN Marines were much like their US mentors, then there was the 1st ARVN Infantry Division, etc.
    I doubt very much if the Vietnamese man in the street cared if the government stole money. They expected it. The NLF agitprop teams did not bother to preach about that. They were much more interested in agrarian issues like re-distribution of land from even small landowners and foreign corporations like “Terres Rouges” (Societe des Plantations des Terres Rouges) and “CEXO.” (Caoutchouc d’Extreme Orient) Amusingly, they were busy collecting taxes from the big corporations even as they railed against them.
    As a “19 year old grunt,” I don’t think you had much access to the workings of the RVN government at any level. Too busy trying to stay alive, etc.
    At various points in time I worked with their provincial governments(Phuoc Long, Binh Long and Tay Ninh) and then with their national institutions. They struggled with a cultural blend of Confucianist family oriented layalty and dimly understood French colonial governmental forms. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it did not.
    The Communist victory in Vietnam in 1995 had nothing to do with ciscontent in the populace and everything to do with the simple fact that the NVA crushed the government with its armored fist. You can thank the US Congress for that. pl

  3. Babak Makkinejad says:

    I will estimate the number of villages in Afghanistan by taking the estimated number of villages in Iran, 40,000, and multiply that by the ratio of Afghanistan’s are (647,500 sq km) to that of Iran (1.648 million). This gives about 16,000 villages for Afghanistan.
    I will assume, for the sake of argument, that the “Village Guard” will consist of 10 men. This gives a total of 160,000 men that have to be supported in their efforts against the Taliban.
    Next, I will assume that every 10 village has to be supported by a 100-person strong professional para-military force in turn. That is, another 160,000 para-military force (say something like gendarmerie forces but with air-support).
    These troops, must in turn, be supported y the national army and using the same sort of argument the minimum size will be a 160,000-person strong national army.
    Thus Afghanistan must support, according to the model in this thread, a deployable force of 480,000 at 3 structure levels – village, district, and national. To this must be added support personnel etc, probably another 50,000 – mechanics, drivers, cooks, porters, Quarter Master Corps, medical staff, military bureaucracy, etc. So we get something like 530,000
    Now, since I do not want to rely totally on a minimum force, I will multiply these numbers by 2, just to be on the safe side – for a grand total of 1,060,000.
    Can such a force be organized, trained, and deployed in Afghanistan? What is the time frame? And the cost?
    Or am I missing something?

  4. JohnH says:

    And to think how successful Lyautey’s ventures were! Where are Vietnam and Morocco today? In the hands of the same indigenous people that France tried to cow.
    The “oil spot” may work for a while (40 years in the case of Morocco and 65 years in Vietnam), but ultimately the locals get their own government.
    Part of this is due to the increasing insensitivity, incompetence and greed of the colonial administration, lulled to their natural state by the apparent success of early pacification. The other part is that indigenous people simply do not want to be ruled by foreigners. How many times do the blockheads in Washington need to experience this before they wake up to reality?

  5. All of this adds up to an immense task, a generational task.
    A task for which the American people are not prepared to undertake, not asked to sacrifice for (at least directly) and not patient enough to see through.
    Sadly, it will be some time yet before those same people demand its end. Until then, good tropp and valuable resources will pour down the drain.

  6. CK says:

    The afghanis have shown a preference for minimal government for many millenia. They have also shown a penchant for well handled local militia. Probably irrelevant observations, the right application of western logic and local sourced information should make the oil spots coalesce real soon now.

  7. jonst says:

    I found this an interesting short essay.
    quote from the essay:
    >>>Even at first glance the structural parallels alone are sobering. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan (prior to the U.S. engagement there) had surprisingly defeated a European power in a guerrilla war that lasted a decade, followed by a largely north-south civil war which lasted another decade. Insurgents in both countries enjoyed the advantage of a long, trackless, and uncloseable border and sanctuary beyond it, where they maintained absolute political control. Both were land wars in Asia with logistics lines more than 9,000 miles long and extremely harsh terrain with few roads, which nullified U.S. advantages in ground mobility and artillery. Other key contributing factors bear a striking resemblance: Almost exactly 80 percent of the population of both countries was rural, and literacy hovered around 10 percent.<<<

  8. So in violation of Sun Tzu’s dictim’s we did not “know” [how competent] our enemy was in RVN? And do we now know? His dictum’s include something about not understimating and not overestimating the enemy! My question is do we have it about right or is there a predonerance of error either way? I am completely ignorant of the real equation and wonder if I can be enlightened. And where does the Pakistan Armed Forces stand vis a vis the Pakistani Taliban? Or is it all one Taliban?

  9. ael says:

    In Vietname, the US army was a conscription army. Today, it is a volunteer army. Does that make any difference? If so, how?

  10. CK says:

    not so much of this with a volunteer army.
    The conscript military started to fall apart after 3 years of The Nam.
    http://home.mweb.co.za/re/redcap/vietcrim.htm a professional standing army should have little of these sort of incidents.

  11. VietnamVet says:

    Again I agree with your posting. The thing is that Americans are incapable of introspection. Strategically American lost the Vietnam War when the Communists successful labeled us as colonial occupiers. If President Nixon had not decided to withdraw, our offspring would be still pulling guard duty at Bien Hoa instead of Bagran Air Base. There will always be opposition to foreign occupiers. It is bred into us.
    The ink spot strategy works. It did in France until most of the German troops were transferred to the Eastern Front. It is not going to work in Afghanistan with 30,000 troopers; maybe with 500,000; likely with a million. That requires the draft and more money than American is able to borrow. The draft brought on the “one year and home” syndrome and individual rotation that evolved into the Silent Mutiny in Vietnam. To avoid the problems of the Forever War, the Brass are fighting the Long War instead with volunteers and contractors.
    The basic fault of both the Bush and Obama Administration is that they are in thrall to the vested interest who need the flow of money from fighting wars. Instead of killing religious fanatics, one at a time; Containment, Education, Police and Peace should be the strategic goals of Western Civilization.

  12. PirateLaddie says:

    Yeah, that’s the nut cutter, ain’t it? We’re still Americans — measuring success/change in football quarters and 22 minute sitcoms. Pashtuns are tough cookies, quick learners and slow forgetters. After a couple of years in the Pashtun’s largest city (Karachi, can you dig it?), after watching these “backwoods yokels” jerk around and out strategize everybody else through their control of the transport sector, I doubt anyone — not the fine gentlemen of ISI(D) and maybe not even a gringo with a few stars on his hat and a two to three year job cycle staring him in the face, has the staying power needed to break this pony to saddle.
    Mercs or draftees? Well, which benefits from a long-haul war? What does Affie seem to be shaping up to being? “Dope’ll get you thru a time of no money better than money will get you thru a time of no dope.” It’s when you ain’t got neither that things get interesting. We’re about there, don’t you think?

  13. wilfred says:

    What about training? The success of putting detachments of young Americans in rural Afghan villages is going to depend on intensive training on Afghan/Islamic culture. How are they handling that?
    What worries me is that being Americans, as Col. Lang points out, we have managed to condition younger people with a lot of negativity regarding Islam. My own limited experience in Afghanistan began with advice given in Darra that nobody would shoot me while I was there unless I gave them a good reason. Learning what ‘good reason’ meant is what I mean here.
    In my little corner of the Arab/Muslim world I see people behave horrendously, with complete disrespect for local culture. I hope our young soldiers are armed with the kind of knowledge that can help protect them as much as weapons and body armor.

  14. stickler says:

    Again, the question we must ask: “at what cost?”
    What benefit do we Americans derive from the “pacification” of Helmand province, weighed against the cost in blood and treasure to achieve this? Our means are no more limitless than Britain’s were when Churchill was playing polo on the Northwest Frontier.
    Why Are We There?

  15. John Minnerath says:

    The US Army in Vietnam was not a conscription army. The Draft was in effect, but only about 1/3rd of the troops were draftees.

  16. John Kirkman says:

    “All of this adds up to an immense task, a generational task.”
    I am not interested in spending, or leaving my heirs to spend, another life or dollar in or for Afghanistan. They have survived very well for many, many centuries despite the efforts of various arrogant individuals and their armies, flags flying, B. S. flowing, people dying and so on. As a former volunteer in the military I know all to well that duty honor country comes just before I get volunteered for something stupid.
    Admittedly, the slime in Congress leave the military folks with some very bad options, and some few of them, politicians and military alike, do the best they can, but we have to quit assuming everyone wants to live like we do, and then forcing them to do so at gunpoint.
    The events of 9/11 happened because the CIA was seriously concerned with their golf game, not because some Afghan peasant was checked out in a B757. We were prisoners for years of “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming” and now we are supposed to believe that some pissed off ragheads who defeated the invading Russian Army are going to show up offshore of Boston Harbor? In what? For what? It is mostly when we harm other people that they understandably tend to come for our throat.
    Of course, some pissed off Pakistani may very well show up offshore with a serious nuclear device in the trunk of his ocean freighted Mercedes sedan. I do hope someone is looking for that, someone other than the clowns from the less than vaunted intelligence services of the USA, or the guys who gave the nukes to the crazies to start with.
    “There is no need to sally forth, for it remains true that those things which make us human are, curiously enough, always close at hand. Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blast on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.
    *Quimby’s Law. (Passed by the Town of Quimby after the Trouble with Harold Porch in 1897)”
    With apologies to Walt Kelly, and Pogo.

  17. Sun_Too says:

    Further to Babak Makkinejad’s post; there are 40 020 villages in Afghanistan according to Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerilla, there is a population of 32 million, with 6 million Pashtun males of fighting age…

  18. Mark Stuart says:

    Interesting reference to someone buried next to Napoleon and who became associated with France’s growing fascist movement, admired Italian leader Benito Mussolini, and was associated with the far right Croix de Feu!
    By the way, he was a little bit more than “soldier and administrator” as Genzer suggests: he was Marechal Lyautey!
    I am no expert but ‘la tache d’huile’ started catching fire outside the gate of Oujda, a stone throw away from Algeria. So much for the “strategie de la tache d’huile”!
    Why would any man accept to be invaded and ruled by a foreigner and have him impose his own cultural, religious and human experience?
    Let’s put ourselves in their shoes: would anyone of us accept the imposition of Shari’a or Talmudic laws on us? Would anyone here accept the different human and spiritual visions brought by those two religions or those two people? I think not.
    You can build all the hospitals, roads, schools you wish. You can bring in the iron fist peace. But as long as the occupied views the occupier as disrespectful, arrogant and culturally domineering, the peace will be but just a temporary one. And “la tache d’huile” will catch fire outside the gate of Kandahar!
    They all hate us over there (with the exception maybe of those poor souls that lined up outside the TV studios to watch live, the Afghan version of American idol).
    Taliban, Takfeeris,Jihadists, Arab fighters, Pashtun, Taijiks, Hazaras,Aimaqs, Baluchis, they all hates us (unless we slip them a bill of course). And they all differ in culture,religiosity, political philosophy, in goals, and methodology. But they all agree on two things: foreigners out and free Palestine.
    Some will argue that Palestine is too remote and culturally too different for them to really care and be part of he equation. The same people will refuse to see a correlation, between the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the sharp increase in number of terrorist/jihadist/takfeeris groups globally after the Srebrenica massacre.
    It is not the competence of our enemy that we fail to evaluate properly. Let’s regain our sense of proportion and dignity. We’re talking about America vs. Afghanistan! It is his sense of brotherhood with other muslims around the world that we fail to recognize and estimate appropriately. And i want for proof the stir caused in Algeria and more importantly Turkey after the recent riots in Urumqi.
    It is his sense of religiosity. It is his pride and dignity we fail to recognize and respect for fear to be labeled a traitor. But throughout history, the most brilliant soldiers were able to recognize and respect their adversaries and see their humanity.
    Those people didn’t decide out of the blue to have a grudge against us and hate the US. It was a slippery process that our politicians too enmeshed in Washington with lobby groups i will not name, failed to recognize.
    The Israelo-Palestinian war is still a symbol for those we fight over there. It is the symbol of a violent imposition by a foreign element on the locals of their injustices and arrogance . Isn’t that how the creation of the State of Israel was felt by many?
    I know i will get the wrath here of the Israel firsters for even remotely suggesting that Israel was a creation although 1948 is referred in history books as the creation of Israel. Wether we acknowledge or not the human necessity for Jews to have a home, and i am firmly among those who recognize that need and necessity, the State of Israel remains a thorn in the heart of many a Muslim worldwide. The speech given about Israel by a tearful King Faisal is very telling.

  19. Ken Roberts says:

    Not being expert on issues re the Afghan war, I observe it as common man on the street. But there does not seem to be any reason for Canada to participate in such a war – the only exception being the claim than our former PM traded that off to get out of Iraq commitment. Maybe. But that is long gone by, and we (Canada) should exit Afghan war forthwith, it seem to me.
    We don’t even need the oil which the war is supposedly about, in some circles of hypothesis.
    It is just foolishness, maybe morphed into face-saving inertia. Bush 43 is charitably described as a spendthrift Why keep on with his bad initiatives?
    At one point, years ago, I was a supporter of the proposal to trade off a Canadian commitment to an Afghan war, vs a resolution of the softwood lumber dispute. But that was a wash-out. We’ve had many more deaths of our men and women than forecast and never got the quid pro quo. Enough with that deal.

  20. VietnamVet says:

    To say that the US Army in Vietnam was not a conscription army is very misleading. If you were a male in your twenties in the 60’s the Draft affected everything you did from going to college, getting marriage to job choices.
    I was drafted out of Grad School but after 2 days signed up for an extra year to be a Supply Specialist/Armorer to avoid the possibility of being sent to Infantry School. Enlisting also gave a sense of choice even if it was to get extra pay from jumping out of airplanes. But, I don’t remember anyone over there saying he volunteered to go to Vietnam. There are stories of men who took two or three tours out in the field but there were none when I was there in 69 and 70,
    The draft did ensure an endless rotation of bodies through LZ English.

  21. Bart says:

    On the difference between volunteer and drafted armies: Even if it was only 1/3 drafted in Viet Nam, it sure as hell got people out in the streets. Now, not so much.
    Jim Webb is my senator, too, and I cringe when I hear him supporting this war.

  22. Patrick Lang says:

    There were people who volunteered to go to Vietnam. I did, but I was a Regular Army officer and was going anyway. Volunteering at a particular time got me the job I was looking for in a particular unit. For the second tour they called me in Turkey and described a “by name request” they had for me. After listening to the qualifications listed, I said, “Ah, SOG, well, why not?” pl

  23. Patrick Lang says:

    I have meditated over the death of the woman HTS team member and the trial and sentence of her comrade who pursued and killed her assailant. I am from another world. God help the man if I or any of my old comrades had caught him. pl

  24. Mark Stuart says:

    “Court filings reveal 54 letters of support have been written on behalf of Ayala.”
    Who after that is going to want to enroll in the army and defend the Nation?
    54 letters in a Nation of 300 Millions!

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