In an early scene of “My Cousin Vinny,” a hilarious 1992 spoof about the clash of cultures, two stereotypical Italian-American New Yorkers, Vinny Gambini and his fiancé Mona Lisa Vito, arrive in the central square of a stereotypical small town in rural Alabama. Mona Lisa, dressed in flaming Times Square chic, steps out of the car to the amazed stares of the locals and sets the stage for the entire farce by triggering the following dialogue:
Mona Lisa Vito: [Vinny looks at her funny] What?
Vinny Gambini: Nothing. You stick out like a sore thumb around here.
Mona Lisa Vito: Me? What about you?
Vinny Gambini: I fit in better than you. At least I’m wearing cowboy boots.
Mona Lisa Vito: Oh yeah, you blend.
Blending is central assumption underpinning President Obama’s “clear-hold-build” strategy for the war in Afghanistan, but we are wearing cowboy boots, and that begs some questions. Consider, please, the following.
The new strategy presumes US forces at the tactical level can blend into the local culture to build trust, and thereby win over the traumatized hearts and minds of what is perhaps the most the xenophobic, clan/tribe-based, vendetta cultures in the world. In turgid Pentagonese, blending is known as shaping the cultural terrain. It is the basic building block in the entire theory of counterinsurgency. A mathematician would characterize blending as a necessary condition for the clear-hold-build proof. But this necessary condition is just the beginning of a sequence of contingent conditions that must be satisfied, if our latest reincarnation of Marshall Lyautey’s ink spot strategy — a strategy, it should be remembered, that was born of the need rule the oppressed people in France’s colonial empire — is to have any chance of success in Afghanistan.
The requirement for alien outsiders to blend in with xenophobic insiders embodies another requirement: to succeed, blending at the tactical level must be expanded gradually and seamlessly to the strategic level of the conflict. But for this kind of bottom-up evolution to take place, at least two other conditions must be satisfied: First, troops at the lowest level of tactical organization must have the linguistic capabilities needed to communicate effectively with the locals in their own language and dialect. Second, the troops must be given enough time to evolve success from the bottom up, that is, by insensibly synthesizing the empathy skills needed to expand their blending operation from the clan/village level to the tribal/provincial level to the national level. If nothing else, Obama’s reincarnated ink spot strategy is based on the belated recognition that Bush’s seven-year strategy of trying to procure success brutishly from the top down in Afghanistan has not worked — a point made painfully clear by the rejuvenation of the Taliban in the presence of American strategy to prop up the corrupt and inept administration of its protege Hamid Karzai.
Naturally, given the central importance of (1) linguistic skills and (2) time to the success of the “new” counterinsurgency strategy, one would have thought that the Generals who sold President Obama on the new strategy appreciated both fundamental requirements and made robust provisions for providing the minimum essential building blocks to the front-line troopers tasked by the Pentagon to “shape cultural terrain” at the pointy end of the spear.
But this is not the case. After seven years of guerrilla war, there is still a massive shortage of qualified translators supporting the troopers on the front lines, Moreover, there is now there is a shortage of time, because President Obama and his National Security Advisor James Jones have insisted the new strategy must begin to show concrete signs of success, especially in the economic and cultural areas, over the next year. Bear in mind, the new Afghan commander, General Stanley McChrystal has said publicly the new strategy must show progress in a year. This convergence implies McChrystal and presumably his boss, General Petraeus, who is widely credited with being the architect of the new strategy, agreed to the President’s time restriction, before the fact, when Petaeus conceived the strategy and McChrystal accepted the job.
So, how is the first and most basic necessary condition, namely the provision of linguistic capabilities, playing out in field and back home in Versailles on the Potomac?
A shocking AP Report by Jason Sraziuso describes a horrifying situation in the field. While recruiting statistics suggest, at least to the mindless bean counters in Versailles, that linguistics capabilities are building up rapidly, the information in Sraziuso’s report reveals this to be a sham. Sraziuso describes how the Pentagon’s brass hats have created and reinforced a translator crisis by relying on unscrupulous contractors to provide the crucially needed linguistics capabilities. In effect, the brass hats have made a mockery of their own strategy by short shrifting its most basic building block. Moreover, by privatizing the translator requirement, they are making an oxymoronic policy decision that effectively says the centrally important assumption of the new blending strategy — basic linguistic skills — is not important enough to be provided for in-house.
But there is more. Sraziuso goes on to show how the oxymoron is playing out in the real world of Pentagon contracting: The contractors have used false pretenses to recruit large numbers of unqualified translators. Recruiters tell prospective translators that they will not be placed in harms way, yet the the strategy requires the translators to be on the pointy end of the spear at the squad level. Recruiters are accepting translators who are physically unqualified; some are in their 60s and 70s, have not been required to pass physical fitness exams, have heart conditions, or are not acclimated to the effects of searing heat and high altitude. Yet upon arrival in Afghanistan, these recruits discover they are expected to hump it with the grunts. Not surprisingly, many quit. Incredibly, Sraziuso cites instances where recruiters have recruited translators with the wrong language skill — e.g., recruiting Dari-only speakers to translate Pashto. An, oh by the way, the whole process is greased Pentagon-style with gobs of money: Class II translators are bribed to join in this sham with base salaries of over $210,000 per year. No doubt, these a little research would find that these exorbitant salaries inflate profits, because they are added to the companies’ cost bases, which are used in the cost-reimbursement clauses of cost-plus contracts. Despite such bloated salaries, many translators quite sensibly call in sick or quit, once they realize what they have gotten into. Not surprisingly, soldiers also told Sraziuso they are being endangered by this incompetent give way, because when the translators can not talk to locals, they can not provide the local intelligence needed by the soldiers to avoid ambushes and boob traps. The greater strategic requirement to blend into and build empathy with the local cultures is not addressed by Sraziuso, but the implication is clear.
Also not discussed by Sraziuso, is the fact that this kind of privatization program shows all the hallmarks of being regulated and controlled by the Pentagon’s notoriously corrupt management and auditing practices, particularly those governing personal services contracts, including the revolving door where former Defense Department employees set up or work for the companies providing the needed services.
Turning our attention to the second necessary assumption — i.e., having enough time for the new strategy to procure success at the strategic level by gradually expanding the ink blots accruing from lower-level tactical successes. We know that General McChrystal agreed to becoming the field commandeer of a clear-hold-build strategy that must begin to show results within a year. We also know his previous job was Commander of the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) which runs the special forces — Green Berets, Seals, etc. — who are the military’s specialists in blending into local cultures at the tactical level, including language skills. So, presumably he understood the situation in the field, or at least he should have.
Sraziuso’s report, therefore, begs several pregnant questions:
If General McChrystal knew about the translator crisis, what rationale did he have to justify his agreeing to a one year deadline when accepting his new job?
If McChrystal knew about a problem that threatened to undermine the entire counterinsurgency strategy, did he tell his bosses, General Petraeus and President Obama?
The latter question begs yet another question: Was the selling of the new counterinsurgency strategy another Pentagon front-loading operation designed to maneuver President Obama into signing up to a long-term commitment before Obama understood the future consequences of that commitment?
If, on the other hand, Generals McChrystal and Petraeus did not know about the translator crisis, what does that say about the fact-finding and reality checking analyses that preceded the synthesis of the new strategy?
Of course, the Pentagon’s farm defenders will insist there is one other obvious countervailing question: Is Sraziuso’s report BS? All I can say is, read his report carefully and judge for yourself.
And if Sraziuso in not full of crap, then you can rest assured the farm defenders in Versailles will fall back on the Maginot Line of all bureaucratic defenses by invoking the hoary wisdom exhibited by General Buck Turgidson in the 1964 classic movie Dr. Strangelove, “Mr President, well, I, uh, don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.”
Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org