Free Range International

Free Ranging The Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death)

Editors note: We are re-posting some of  our older material in preparation for another round of Free Ranging in Afghanistan

I’m back in my compound after attending a bunch of ceremonies in Zaranj marking the end of our efforts in Nimroz Province.When we flew in last week the skies were dark and it rained that night. The next morning was clear as a bell making for excellent photography and perfect weather for what turned out to be 15 hours of driving through the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death). Our mission that day was the dedication ceremony for the Charborjak Irrigation system which we had built, mostly with shovels, wheelbarrows and lots of man power, over the previous 11 months. We had originally scheduled the ceremony for the 5th of October but changed the date at the last minute. On the 5th there was an ambush waiting for us; when we moved out last Thursday we were a mobile ambush looking for anyone who was looking for us.

The Provincial Governor of Nimroz Province is Al Haji Karim Barahwi and those of you who have read this blog know I’m a big fan of his. He’s a graduate of the Kabul Military Academy and served in the Afghan Army as an officer until the Soviets invaded. Governor Barahwi then became a Muj commander who fought the entire war without any help from the United States.  He was working out of Iran and obviously had a little help from them despite the fact that he is not too happy with Iran at the moment. The trip he took us on was remarkable because we did not go the way we have always gone to Cahrborjak; we jumped the Helmand and moved deep into the desert where the Governor wanted to show us something. This story is best told through pictures and I have around 1800 from that one drive alone. So stand by for a story told the Marine way – lots of pictures and no big words.

We drove to the Governors compound where a large escort of various Afghan Security Forces and a dozen or so Baloch fighters who did not wear uniforms. All of the Afghans escorting us on that day were Baloch men from Nimroz Province

We drove to the Governors compound where a large escort of various Afghan Security Forces and a dozen or so Baloch fighters who did not wear uniforms waiting to escort us to Charborjak.  All of the Afghans escorting us on that day were Baloch men from Nimroz Province

 

We exited Zaranj and headed towards Charborjak on the Lashkary Canal road

We exited Zaranj and headed towards Charborjak on the Lashkary Canal road

 

I note the Lashkary Canal was dry - we just finished that project last year and I ask Bashir why the canal is dry - he claims to have no idea

I note the Lashkary Canal was dry – we just finished that project last year and I ask Bashir why the canal is dry – he claimed to have no idea

 

We entered the choke point of ambush ally spread put and moving fast

We entered the choke point of ambush ally spread out and moving fast

 

Moving out of ambush ally we passed the spot where the Highway Patrol Commander's truck was torched after the ambush last week

Coming out of ambush ally we passed the spot where the Highway Patrol Commander’s truck was torched after the ambush last week

 

And stopped on a plateau for what turned out to be a brief on the days route

And stopped on a plateau for what turned out to be a brief on the days route

 

Governor Barahwi walking along with the Provincial Chief of Police and Haji the Chief of the Highway Police and the man who fought his way out of the ambush last week is directly on the Governor's left

Governor Barahwi walking along with the Provincial Chief of Police and Haji Nematullah, the Chief of the Highway Police and the man who fought his way out of the ambush last week.  Haji Nematullah is directly to the Governor’s left

 

The ANSF convoy team - most of them are from the Zaranj QRF - gets the word from Gov Barahwi and that word is we are sending a small force up the regular route while the rest of us ford the Helmand and head out into the desert. We will ultimately arrive at the Charborjak site from the opposite direction and on the other side of the Helmand River then originally planned

The ANSF convoy team – most of them are from the Zaranj QRF – gets the word from Gov Barahwi and that word is we are sending a small force up the regular route while the rest of us ford the Helmand and head out into the desert. We will ultimately arrive at the Charborjak site from the opposite direction and on the other side of the Helmand River then originally planned

 

Our escorts head back to their trucks for the next stage of the trip

Our escorts head back to their trucks for the next stage of the trip

 

Once we crossed the Helmand we were in the bad lands of the Dasht-e Margo. There is nothing out there is this triangle of land that borders both Iran and Pakistan. The Taliban (and smugglers) move through this area regularly

After crossing the Helmand we were in the bad lands of the Dasht-e Margo. There is nothing out there in this triangle of land that borders Iran. The Taliban (and smugglers) move through the area regularly

 

Once on the other side of the Helmand we passed no less than 25 old forts and walled cities - they were literally dotting the horizon for miles and miles in this empty desert

On the other side of the Helmand we passed no less than 25 old forts and walled cities – they were literally dotting the horizon for miles and miles in this empty desert

 

About 90 minutes into the desert we stopped so Governor Barahwi could explain in great detail why this area was not under his control and what he needs to seal the area. Michael Yon video tapped the entire discussion and it is interesting. What the Governor needs is helicopters and a flying squad with soime Americans in it so they can fly around and pounce on anything moving through the desert. That's apparently what the Soviets did to him back in the day and he admitted that tactic had cost him a ton in weapons, vehicles and manpower

About 90 minutes into the desert we stopped so Governor Barahwi could explain in great detail why this area was not under his control and what he needs to fix that. Michael Yon video tapped the entire discussion and it is interesting. The Governor needs helicopters and a flying squad with some Americans in it so they can fly around and pounce on anything moving through the desert. That’s apparently what the Soviets did to him back in the day and he admitted that tactic had cost him a ton in weapons, vehicles and manpower

 

We headed back towards the Helmand - the old truck on the right was the Chicken Truck and carried all the food and drinks for our lunch

We headed back towards the Helmand – the old truck on the right was the Chicken Truck and carried all the food and drinks for our lunch

 

This is the first of about 15 times that the Chicken Truck got stuck in the sand

This is the first of about 15 times that the Chicken Truck got stuck in the sand

 

We had one armored HUMVEE with us and it didn't handle the sand any better than the Chicken Truck. The Toyota and Ford light pickups had no problems

We had one armored HUMVEE with us and it didn’t handle the sand any better than the Chicken Truck. The Toyota and Ford light pickups had no problems

 

We arrive at the ceremony site - you can see dust trails from the escorts who have been working the flanks and are just now crossing the Helmand. Which is dry downstream. Because we built a check dam that is apparently checking the entire river at the moment. I ask Bashir if maybe this dam had something to do with the Lashkary being dry and he said "maybe".

We arrive at the ceremony site – you can see dust trails from the escorts who have been working the flanks and are just now coming towards the Helmand.  Which is dry downstream. Because we built a check dam that is apparently checking the entire river at the moment. I asked Bashir if maybe this dam had something to do with the Lashkary being dry and he said “maybe”.  Five minutes after sending this picture in with my official report my email lit up like a Christmas tree.  Did you know that at Camp Leatherneck there is a PhD Hydrologist who is in charge of the lower Helmand water basin?  Me either, and she was pretty upset to see this dam, that she had no idea existed, plugging up the Helmand.  What could I say? It was in the proposal although to be honest this damn dam is much bigger than I thought it would be.  The Iranians are pretty upset about the water too and will make their ire known to all by launching missiles into a hamlet  just outside Zaranj later that evening.  That act caused the Governor to miss the morning ceremony the next day which is why I was sitting the following morning frozen in place as my bladder remorsefully filled from all the coffee I drank before I arrived.

 

And here it is - the Charborjak canal intake. Not bad for a cash for work program is it? Know how much water it takes in when running at full capacity? Six cubic meters per second. I had to find that and a lot more out about the project after receiving so many emails from agitated Americans who were trying to determine exactly what the hell was going on in Nimroz Province.

And here it is – the Charborjak canal intake our signature project for this year. Not bad for a cash for work program is it? Know how much water it takes in when running at full capacity? Six cubic meters per second. I had to find that and a lot more out about the project after receiving so many emails from agitated Americans who were trying to determine exactly what the hell was going on in Nimroz Province.

 

Governor Barahawi addressing the local folks who had made it out for the opening ceremony and the free chow which followed. This is a sparsely populated area which I bet you can figure out from the photo

Governor Barahawi addressing the local folks who had made it out for the opening ceremony and the free chow which followed. This is a sparsely populated area which I bet you can figure out from the photo

 

Some of the QRF troops hanging out while the Governor talks

Some of the QRF troops hanging out while the Governor talks

 

After speeches by the local politicians, a prayer by the senior mullah followed by our ops manager Zabi (his dad is the senior Mulllah in the province) singing an Islamic hymn which I didn't understand but Zabi can sing - I mean he is really really good and I've since found out quite well know for his voice.

After speeches by the local politicians, a prayer by the senior mullah followed by our ops manager Zabi (his dad is the senior Mulllah in the province) singing an Islamic hymn which I didn’t understand but Zabi can sing – we cut the ribbon and opened the gates.  As the senior American present I had to relinquish my camera so I asked Mike if I could use some of his pictures for the post.

 

After lunch we headed back across the Helmand towards the desert

After lunch we headed back across the Helmand towards the desert

 

But we didn't go into the desert hugging the bank of the Helmand instead which is why the Chicken Truck and Hummer got stuck so many times. There really isn't a road here at all - just sand and every few miles a dirt poor small village

But we didn’t go into the desert hugging the bank of the Helmand instead which is why the Chicken Truck and Hummer got stuck so many times. There really isn’t a road here at all – just sand and every few miles a dirt poor small village

 

We crisscrossed the Helmand about 5 or 6 times

We ford the Helmand about 5 or 6 times

 

We ran into these boys at one of the fords. They are miles from anywhere and as I look at this pic I wonder what people back home will make of it. Kids alone in a desert riding donkey's and without safety helmets!!!!!

We ran into these boys at one of the fords. They are miles from anywhere and as I look at this pic I wonder what people back home will make of it. Kids alone in a desert riding donkey’s and without safety helmets!!!!!

 

On this side of the river the villages are small and dirt poor

On this side of the river the villages are small and dirt poor

Along the way back to Zaranj we stopped at the village where Governor Barahwi was born and raised.  It was slightly bigger than this one. We also stopped at the village of the ANP soldier who was killed in the ambush last week. We did not take pictures in either place and we hung out in the village of the ANP soldier for a good hour or so too, paying respects as it were. It was a great day and my camera battery died after I took this picture so it is time for analysis and commentary.

The kerfuffle over the dam being built is an interesting contrast between two styles of doing the “build” part of the current Afghanistan plan.  There are direct implementers like us who take USAID money and use it according to the priorities of the Provincial and District governments.  We did not build anything new – we restored a check dam and a major irrigation intake that had been destroyed back in the 80’s. We used the same plans and the same engineers who built those irrigation systems back before the Soviets arrived and depopulated the rural areas of southwestern Afghanistan. The provincial irrigation department coordinated with their national level counterparts in Kabul on every step of this project and sent in regular progress reports. We also employed every man who could handle a shovel in the district for almost a year which is the whole point to cash for work programs.

The dozens of senior, highly credentialed people who reacted with great emotion boarding on distress when they found out about this project are the other side of the coin. These are people who have been given a great deal of authority yet have no responsibility for tangible on the ground results. They never leave the FOB’s and never see anything of the country except what they can see while flying over it. There is a PhD hydrologist working for the USG and also coordinating with a British subject matter expert to come up with the Helmand Water Shed Master Plan. I am sure they are professionals who take their work seriously. But good intentions are meaningless and the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to bring people like that to Afghanistan for a year of FOB life might as well be thrown into a rubbish bin.  Do they honestly think that when we leave here their “master plan” will be worth more than a cup of warm of spit?  How can smart people be so stupid?

The Helmand River Valley will never reach its full potential unless every farmers field is dug up, the clay removed, and the fields leveled which we tried to do in the 1960’s but the farmers got their guns out and refused to allow the bulldozers in.   That was when Lashkar Gah was called “Little America” and the State Department was trying to salvage the disaster that was the original Hellmand River Valley project run by the engineering firm Morrison Knudsen. Since the completion of that project local farmers have irrigated their fields by flooding them. The NGO I work for tried to introduce drip irrigation to the local farmers years ago but they pulled the hoses out of the ground using them to tether sheep and goats. You cannot force change on Afghan farmers any easier than you can force change in Americas’ two-party political system. Proving that drip irrigation is efficient and works better turned out to be completely irrelevant; the Afghans are going to farm the way they farm and the way they farm wastes water.

Not that using less water is a big deal because, as any Afghan sod buster will tell you, that just means more water for the Iranians. Water is a zero sum game for Helmand Valley farmers; changing that mind set is not going to happen in my life time….or yours.

Last year Michael Yon visited our Nimroz projects and put up an interesting post called Please don’t forget us. He was writing about a massive women’s training program we ran that year because Zaranj has a more Persian culture, woman can drive in Zaranj, work outside the home and attend training courses without any problems.We tried to do an even bigger woman’s training program this year but we’re rejected.  The woman had already been forgotten and this year’s crew in Kabul wanted “capacity building” which is the new buzzword from the geniuses at our State Department.  For 1/10th of the cost of keeping just one hydrologist in this country for a year, and I’m talking the million bucks of life support and security costs, not the salary or cost of mobilization which would easily add another million to the sum, for 1/10th of that we could have trained 300 woman and sent them on their way with the tools they needed (Sewing Machines, beauty salon equipment, wool and weaving boards etc..) to start their own business.

My PM Bashir is now gone having moved on to bigger and better things.  I’m right behind him as my time living in Afghanistan is coming to an end. The people of Zaranj have already been forgotten by our political/media class and are now on their own.

We have no business foisting a “watershed master plan” on the Afghans – it’s their country, their river, and their breadbasket and when allowed to do so they will build things back to the way they were.  It may not be optimal, there may be inefficiencies in the system that a PhD hydrologist could fix (if she had freedom of movement and actually spent time on the river) but who cares? What is going to remain when we leave is an Afghan system, built by and for Afghans and to be honest, I have no idea why we think we should be bringing all these “subject matter experts” over here in the first place.  Who are we to dictate to them how to manage their own natural resources? We should send all the hydrologists back to America to aid in a gigantic shovel ready program I’d like to see started called “Get all our oil from Alaska and the Western States Project”. That’s where we should be spending 2 billion a week and we’d even see a return on our investment.  How strange would that be?

Dawn Dreams About an Impending Nightmare

I’m sitting on my deck drinking coffee as the sun comes up. The sky is softening with all the variations of reddish yellow (I can’t really see them all with my red/green colorblindness but can sense they are there) start creeping up from the dark horizon. A song is stuck in my head and I hear it clearly; String Cheese Incident singing Arleen and not just any version of that song but the one they recorded live with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

PI

The song is annoying me and I try to clear my mind when the music suddenly stops. I’m hyper alert; I remember this feeling and immediately flash back to Afghanistan. The day dream starts again only now I’m thinking about the Afghan version of Baba Tim. What is he looking at when the sun comes up? What is he thinking about? The Afghan version of me would not have a String Cheese Incident song trapped inside his head so what would be stuck there on a beautiful early morning?

The answer flows into my consciousness without effort. As I look at the clouds building above the calm canals of Padre Island I see an ancient fortress. This is not the famous Fighters Fortress of Mazar-e Sharif, or the ancient Ghazni fortress nor is it the one in Alexander the Great built in Farah. The fortress the clouds are forming is the Boost Fortress in Lashkar Gah.

Lashkar Gah is the capitol of Helmand Province and a town I know well having lived there over a year back in 2010. Lashkar (soldier) Gah (fort) is an old military town that has been occupied since the 11th century. It now houses over a half million refugees who have fled the encroaching Taliban. There is only a brigade of ANA soldiers in Lashkar Gah and they have just been reinforced by 100 American soldiers.  It is on these men the Afghan version of Tim Lynch would focused.

Boost

The Americans are trying to create depth to the ANA defense and they are headquartered just down the road from the fort (the old Brit PRT base) on flat open terrain now surrounded by new housing built by the USAID and occupied by Taliban sympathizers. They will not be able to land helicopters at the base when we strike and will need to move to the Boost airport – miles of heavily populated neighborhoods away to get to fixed wing airplanes. It is during this move, which we will negotiate a cease fire to facilitate, that we will kill every American.

The Afghan version of me would be in his late fifties; active and fit, free of arthritis, gout and disease which marks him as a land holder and tribal leader. Farmers don’t reach their fifties with the blessings of good health in the Helmand Province. I carry scars from gunshot wounds and shrapnel which means I’m Taliban (when it is covenant to be so) and the scars combined with my good health mark me as a man who has the one attribute admired by all Afghans – consistent good luck.

My new mission, passed to me by the Quetta Shura when the Americans arrived, is to destroy (to a man) an American unit. At this stage in the war nothing else matters. The puppet government in Kabul is a dead man walking, not legitimate in the eyes of Afghans, more importantly not feared by the people. The central government is no longer a threat to the success of our movement.

I know the Americans having met with senior Marine officers many times; I even have a picture with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. When I met them I smiled a lot and thanked them for doing whatever it was they thought they were doing in Marjah. But I thought the two soft, fat, uninformed, passive with the eyes of supplicants; they were not serious men. Politicians are the same regardless of land of origin; they are in their hearts cowards who demand others do the work while they amass personal wealth despite their limited government income. The Marines were a problem but one of limited duration. We knew the day they arrived exactly what day they would be leaving thanks to the African man who is the President of that land. After losing too many Mujahedin to the Marines early on we decided to wait them out with IED’s and long range fires.

Marjah

I am in my family compound looking at the old Boost Fort as the sun rises and I don’t have Widespread Panic songs locked inside my head. My mind is free of clutter and as clear as my mission.

I have many sons and three wives – my oldest son is a Taliban commander, the next oldest a captain in the Afghan army. Three of the younger boys are in Quetta at the madrasa and my four youngest boys are squatting in the shade next to me watching quietly. Afghan children do not initiate conversations with their elders, they aren’t loud, they don’t fidget, they don’t argue – they obey just as Allah would wish. Once I get confirmation of today’s American deployment the boys will each be given a position where they will spend the day. If they are skillful they will get the Americans to feed them and give them bottled water. If they aren’t they’ll go hungry. As their father I could care less. The smart ones will grow true and strong, the weak or stupid ones will perish young. Allah decides that not me.

My boys will be questioned closely when they return; how are the Americans acting? Are they jittery, unsure of their Afghan partners? Do they have the same confidence those damn Marines had when they were here or do they look more like the British? I know the answers to these questions already but reconnaissance is continuous as any change in the demeanor of the Americans would be significant. At this point they are scared, unsure of their new allies and the civilians who surround them. The smell of fear is strong when near an American position.

Soon my oldest will join me with the specialists we need from Quetta. Combat multipliers are what the Americans would call them but we call them Russians as they are from the former Soviet Union and are expert snipers and demolition men. The Mujahedin from Musa Qala and Sangin are arriving daily and with them the one item I cannot have enough of; 82mm mortar rounds.

Every police checkpoint attacked at night is cover for smuggling mortar rounds into the city. While the puppet government soldiers and police fight off small probing attacks our boats (manned by small boys so the American planes will not attack them) move back and forth across the Helmand River bringing more mortar rounds. Survey teams from Quetta have spent the last fortnight establishing mortar firing positions. With firing tables and their computers, they have even locked in the elevation and deflection readings for the mortar crews. We Afghans can do shock and awe too. When the mortars start opening up from every quadrant in the city the Americans will be shocked. The awe part will come when they realize they cannot use their planes or drones but are going to have to fight like men.

This evening my boys will be back as will the others I have deployed over the city. My commanders and I will gather their information, adjust our plans, and wait for Allah. When Allah sends a sand storm or a rain storm or any storm that grounds the infidels’ aircraft we will strike and by the time the Americans respond with their planes we will be among the people. Thousands of Mujahedin fighters’ surrounded by tens of thousands of civilians will make us immune from the American air power. We will have 100 American fish in our nets and we will kill them all. Unless there are women with them; they will be spared for use as entertainment for the Mujahedin. Then they will be killed.

If the Americans do not use their attack aircraft out of fear of killing civilians, I win. If they use their air-power to destroy the attacking Mujahedin, they will kill thousands of women and children so again, I win. Win/win – that’s the way of the Pashtun because if you are going to fight you must win or why bother fighting? If we capture an American officer I will have to ask him this before he is beheaded. They have fought here for a decade with no chance of winning and I wonder why they remain.

For now we wait, we watch, we plan and we listen. Allah will give us the cover we need to strike. When all the mortar rounds are here along with the Russians and the Mujahedin from the north I will be one move away from checkmate. The Americans will not realize their peril because they play checkers; we play chess.

I am a 58-year-old Afghan, a 1,000-year-old Muslim but a 6,000-year-old Pashtun. The Pashtun has one and only one way to deal with infidel invaders and that is to isolate them and kill them to a man.  It’s what we do.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Synergy Strike Force

I was doing some research for a writing project and came upon this description of one of the Synergy Strike Force operations buried in a post about the fighting in Marjah. My friends Dave Warner and Baba Ken were a near constant presence at the Taj over the years I was there and for a […]

All Marine Radio

All Marine Radio has been on the air for two weeks now and has some cool content. Mike McNamara does three hours a day with a guest on for an hour at a time. Last week he had both myself and Brigadier General David Furness, USMC on for an hour each and although Dave and […]

The Inchon Dwyer Group Goes Live

The Inchon Dwyer Group went live today with the All Marine Radio component of the All Warrior Radio Network up and running at allmarineradio.com. Back in 2010 I had a chance to visit the 1st Marines (call sign Inchon) at Camp Dwyer and wrote about my good friend Mike ‘Mac” McNamara and the 1st Marines […]

Hotel California Naw Zad Edition

Facebook sent me a reminder about a post that went up 5 years ago and asked it I wanted to re-post it. I did then went to read and realized it was probably one of the better more prescient posts I ever wrote so here it is….back on the front page of FRI exactly 5 […]

Free Range International Reviews The New Film A War

Free Range International (FRI) was invited by our favorite Hollywood insider, the lovely Kanani Fong, to review the film A War and as reward put me in touch for an interview with the producer Tobis Lindholm . The editorial staff (which is consists of just me) watched the film, frozen in place until the end and […]

Kandahar Rocks

This is a post from March 2010 re-posted now as a reminder of how unstable most of Afghanistan has become in the past five years. There was a Taliban attack outside of the Kandahar Airport that killed over 50 people (Cartman says 61 in his reporting) two days ago. For those of us who spent […]

Gandamak

Last week I received and polite email from Professor Richard Macrory of the Centre for Law and the Environment, University College London asking me for permission to use some of my photos of the Gandamak battlefield in his upcoming book on the First Afghan War. I said that it would be an honor and I believe the book will […]

Spiking The Ball

Last night I was coming back from the La Taverna du Liban, Kabul’s best Lebanese Restaurant, located in the Wazar Akbar Khan section of Kabul.  Back in the day it had a full bar and open patio and was packed with expat customers. Most of the expats back then had at least a pistol on them […]