In Afghan war, officer flourishes outside the box


ALTIMUR, Afghanistan (AP) — You may wonder how Thomas Gukeisen made it to lieutenant colonel, and by age 39 at that. He breaks Army rules and operates by his own rendition of counterinsurgency warfare whose arsenal includes Afghan poetry, chaos theory and the thoughts of a 17th-century English philosopher.

A towering, rough-and-ready 205-pounder, the officer from Carthage, New York peppers his sentences with unprintables and reads Karl von Clausewitz’s classic on war in the original German.

But the high-ups seem to like what they see. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who commands U.S. forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, has visited his sector, as have Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry.

Substantial resources have flowed into Gukeisen’s hands, including $850,000 in small bills for such jobs as building schools and putting carpets in the mosques of Afghans who turn against the Taliban.

Col. David B. Haight, Gukeisen’s superior, calls him one of the brightest officers he has met.

Gukeisen wages his war across 620 restive, rugged square miles (1,000 kilometers) of Logar, a strategically important province bordering Kabul where he has implemented what he calls an “extreme makeover.”

Rather than rigidly applying the current mantra — Clear, Hold, Build — he has held back from trying to clear large, Taliban-influenced swaths of territory, focusing instead on areas he believes are ripe for change, and then injecting aid where it counts most. Combat, he says, is driven by reliable intelligence and limited to eradicating Taliban fighters.

The goal was to create “security bubbles” where life could improve, so that “the rest of the districts would want to join the club,” Gukeisen said in an interview at his headquarters in the village of Altimur.

Six months later, he says, nearly half the 400,000 people of Baraki-Barak, Charkh and Kherwar districts, along with half of Puli-a-Alam, are within the bubble. He says roadside bombs, attacks and other violent incidents have dropped by 60 percent while intelligence from locals about the insurgents has soared by 80 percent.

Gukeisen believes rules sometimes have to be broken to get past the bureaucrats. He says he had to browbeat the purse-holders for the $850,000 and the authority to distribute it through his junior officers. “If you go outside the box, you have to be cognizant of the risk. I’ve often been questioned about my moves, about being a maverick,” he says.

But he sees a much-changed Army that is, in his sardonic wording, “beginning to gain a semblance of intelligence.”

“It’s no longer party-like thinking. COIN (counterinsurgency) is graduate-level warfare. You need those collegiate thinkers,” he says. “I think the Army is coming back to the soldier as scholar and statesman.”

“When I began my career, the image of the high school jock, football player, pickup truck, NRA (National Rifle Association) was very trendy,” he recalls. “Of course, generals were never dumb, but you’d hear them saying, ‘Shucks, I’m just a good ole’ boy.'”

Haight, in an interview, confirmed Gukeisen’s intellectual side with an anecdote. When he asked Gukeisen about the components of a mineral mined in Logar, “I thought he would tell me, ‘I will look that up, sir, and let you know.’ Instead he came right out and gave me a detailed description including exact names and positions on the chemical periodic table of elements.'”

Some credit Petraeus with having helped to foster the new breed of officers to tackle counterinsurgency, surrounding himself with innovative thinkers and encouraging them to play devil’s advocate.

Military historian Douglas B. Cubbison admires the work Gukeisen has done during 30 months in Afghanistan, but he sees limits and pitfalls.

Innovation is always critical to success, especially in a counterinsurgency, he says. “Unfortunately, one inhibiting factor is that defense organizations tend to be conservative and traditional. Officers who think ‘outside of the box’ often find themselves to not only be unpopular, but are the subject of vehement attacks.”

So they need supportive, thinking commanders, one of whom he says is Haight, Gukeisen’s superior, who commands a task force in Logar and neighboring Wardak province.

Gukeisen, now commanding 600 soldiers of the 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry, says his fascination with non-conventional warfare began when growing up in Europe with his German mother and U.S. Air Force father, and hearing the stories of Dutch, Belgian and French resisters in World War II.

“As I grew up I realized the military does not operate in a singular world so I started reading outside that world,” he says.

His personal list of “Most Influential COIN Items” includes a collection of Afghan poetry, a study of chaos theory, and Hollywood films such as “Red Dawn,” a fantasy about American guerrillas fighting a Soviet invasion of the U.S. From John Maynard Keynes, the visionary British economist, he drew the idea that by “jump-starting the economy via an initial stimulus you create a cascade.”

His approach to pacifying the Logar districts, Gukeisen said, was also influenced by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, author of “Leviathan,” who explored man’s fear of death and his quest for security in a violent world.

“You take the theory of COIN, you take history, understand the people, make a philosophic inquiry and then you act,” he says. “But you still have to be rooted in the fundamentals of military operations.”

Gukeisen says U.S. Army doctrine provides only “a guide for commanders, a basis to begin, to provoke thought.” He says “Clear, Hold, Build” needs to be nuanced, and he doesn’t know whether it can be a model for the rest of Afghanistan. “Each area of Afghanistan is different,” he cautions.

Winding up his second tour here, Gukeisen says he looks forward to being back with his wife and 7-year-old son but is reluctant to leave things uncompleted.

“It’s like giving your child up for adoption, and having no control about how the new parent will bring up your child,” he says. “I’d like to be here another year.”