Kilcullen on horticulture

Nah, just kidding…but what if David Kilcullen had taken horticulture instead of political anthropology…it’s entirely feasible…my last commander had a degree in zoology…

Anyway, this site still gets a number of daily hits from people searching for information on Michael Yon, BGEN Menard and the Tarnak Bridge incident aka Bridgegate – sometimes when I am bored I type in some of the search terms to see what pops up…this time around, I found a thread on, which appears to be the official forum of  the Canadian forces (why don’t we have one of those?) and it’s thread on Bridgegate is hardly complimentary to Mr Yon…hardly surprising, is it?

One of the the hits in my search of the Milnet site brought me to a treasure trove of links, called the Sandbox, on Afghanistan. One of the linked articles was The Boston Globe‘s Mowing the grass in Afghanistan, published on March 2…this guy, H.D.S. Greenway, gets it…

‘MOWING THE grass’’ is the term frustrated soldiers use to describe the war in Afghanistan. America and its NATO allies sweep in and clear an area. But, once they leave, the Taliban creep back like weeds in the lawn and the allies have to mow it all over again.

General Stanley McCrystal wants to put an end to grass mowing. He plans to hold Marja and has brought in his ready-made Afghan “government in a box.’’ Can it last? And what of other Marjas? Since it would take a foreign army of many hundreds of thousands to stand on every blade of grass – a force level we will never see – the war will continue.

Part of the problem is the very nature of Afghanistan, driven by ethnic, tribal, and linguistic rivalries. It is governed best when it is decentralized, playing to its strengths rather than its weaknesses. But the United States and NATO have tried to build a highly centralized state, lumping regional commanders together and ignoring tribal differences.

Apart from Christmas, I’ve been at home since the beginning of November and it being summer (or as close as we are likely to get this year) I have spent a reasonable amount of that time out in the garden. My main gardening mission this ‘summer’ is to root out all the buttercup (an evil strangling weed) from the garden and then eradicate from the rest of the Lodge section and then the Chalet as well. In doing so, I have made the most of the opportunity to contemplate the similarities between COIN and gardening.

Buttercup is insidious. I’m not sure yet how it initially inserts into the garden although I suspect birds are the only real common denominator. Once it takes root, it will gain strength while sheltered and concealed, usually unwittingly, by other plants; it spreads locally by extending tendrils under the leaves of plants and grass, strangling them as it goes. It grows through bushy plants where it is difficult to back-track to a root that can be pulled  complete from the soil.

The enemy - elusive and tenacious

The temptation is to just blitz the garden with Roundup and start over on the scorched bare soil remaining. However this is hardly ever practical for a number of reasons. Our monthly rainfall is quite high even in ‘summer’ so baring the earth only opens us to erosion. There are already established communities in the garden which are not readily transplantable and which have grown over long periods of time – to try to regrow them would just take too long. Other communities are protected in other ways, often alliance with other power blocs like my wife whose trip-wire retaliation policy is quite clear. Other communities again offer too much in the way of practical value to be subjected to a bare earth strategy: these include vegetable gardens and the flower beds serviced by the 20,000 head of bees that graze the ranges here over summer.

Other conventional weapons are often equally ineffective against an adversary like this. In other campaigns we have found the use of the goats and sheep to be quite effective but attempting to apply this lesson in this campaign was not only ineffective but was grossly detrimental to the overall war effort. We found the hard way that the goats conventional targeting methodologies were more likely to take out useful infrastructure and productive parts of the biosystem while leaving the main adversary untouched…it would appear that goats find it difficult if not outright impossible to accept the targeting paradigms of this new war.

Precision strike is an option approved under current domestic rules of engagement so long as due diligence is paid to wind direction and water courses. But as we all know, precision strike is a bit of an oxymoron: event the most precise strike is almost bound to create so collateral damage, even when applying with high-tech precision technologies like a weed brush. And buttercup, like the typical insurgent, doesn’t exactly advertise its presence and precise location unless in a position of strength. Often sighting a leaf or two will result in an area pattern spray in order to best take out the whole plant; same-same for spraying along the tendrils. This responsible engagement seems to offer the best balance between proportional use of resources, effect upon the enemy and being seen to be taking reasonable steps to mitigate unnecessary collateral damage. Yes, you can read into that last statement that there is such a thing as acceptable collateral damage.

Because of the way that buttercup weaves its way into and through existing communities, it is ultimately necessary to get hands-on and surgically remove it. This is not without certain risks. Many of these communities e.g. roses, raspberries, etc are relatively well defended and even with the greatest care, passive defensive mechanisms can inflict quite nasty wounds. Further out in the hinterlands, there are others who would simply prefer to be left alone and who tend to strike lethally at intruders. The worst of these are wasps and due to their somewhat intractable attitude towards compromise, it is usually necessary to destroy the entire nest. Wild bees are also common however these can be bypassed if spotted early and not provoked as can the giant wetas that frequent less traveled areas.

As H.D.S Greenway states in his article, the insurgent is more likely to spring back into a cleared area than more benign and useful communities. Frustrations arising from this ‘whack-a-mole’ resilience often tempts friendly forces into responding with more and less discriminate force – cures that do almost as much damage as the original invaders. The secrets to successful campaigns in the garden are…

To have a clear idea of what you want to do and how you are going to do it.

Accept that it is going to get messy and that there will be casualties.

Know your enemy.

Before commencing operations, agree on the measurables for success.

Ensure that you have adequate resources to fight the campaign properly – time is one of those resources.

Be prepared to get your hands dirty.

There is no such thing as a nice short war in the garden either…

Who are the Taliban?

That’s the title of another article listed in the Sandbox written by an Afghan woman living in Vancouver. Her description of the Taliban could apply across any one of a number of cultures and religions and it is important to note that “…The Taliban are perhaps less easily identifiable than we might think. We are accustomed to thinking of them as bushy-bearded Afghan men with black turbans and kohl around cold eyes, clutching automatic weapons. Yet this is merely the visual symbol of what does, in fact, not always announce itself visually. The Taliban were officially born in 1994. But in truth, they were born long before…” This is where a number of key strategic documents are getting it wrong, among them the 2010 QDR and Australia’s 2010 Counter-terrorism White Paper, in that they persist in identifying “…global violent jihadist movement…” as the “…main source of international terrorism and the primary terrorist threat…” for the new decade. This is no more correct than those who trumpeted urban operations as the new war in 2005-2006. What we should be focusing as the threat facing us for the next decade at least is that alluded to in the Who are the Taliban article, that of those who seek to subject others’ ways of life to their own, those who, in seeking to do so, would destabilise ‘normalcy’ as WE now it…

On similar lines, Neptunus Lex documented an attempt by an Australian Moslem to introduce a parallel sharia legal system into Australia…whatever, if it’s such a great system, why doesn’t he pack his bags and head off to someplace that already has one in place?


To just take issue with something ADM Mullen said in what’s being referred to as the ‘Mullen Doctrine’ address…”…The Australians are experts at counterinsurgency warfare…” No, sorry, not true at all. Peace support, yeah, sure but COIN? Not since its hey day in South East Asia. Australia is the only Anglospheric nation to not have conducted at least one counter-insurgency campaign on its own soil – even little New Zealand has had four distinct campaigns to determine who actually runs the country. Australia struggled to identify any relevant COIN experiences which to illustrate points in LWD 3-0-1 Counterinsurgency 2008 and ironically, omitted what is probably one of the best examples of the blurred lines and fuzzy responsibility in the complex environment, that of Breaker Morant in the Boer War…

While it’s nice that ADM Mullen has tried to spread the love around the coalition, the fact remains that, apart from political considerations and because it must be nauseatingly tiresome saving the world on its own all the time, the US military doesn’t rally need much help from anyone and really can get by quite nicely (and more smoothly) on its own, thank you very much. The correlative side of this is that if you want to work with the Americans, read the instruction manuals first.

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