White Information

Friday started with a disturbing report – a fuel tanker attack on the Jalalabad side of the Duranta Dam tunnel.   Ambush teams operating less than a mile from the Taj!   Not good news, so after the incident scene cleared out we went for a look-see.

This turned out to be a traffic accident resulting in a large fire which is a routine event on Afghan roads.
This turned out to be a traffic accident, resulting in a large fire, which is a routine event on Afghan roads.

A trucker had hit an old leaky fuel truck and the resulting spill caught fire.   The various civilian security services had got the story right by late afternoon after issuing an alert for an armed attack inside the Jalalabad movement box just hours before.   The local military folks did not know  what had happened  until we gave them a heads up while clearing the scene.

The cause of the accident
The cause of the accident

If this had been an ambush of tankers with RPG’s, as initially reported, it would have had an immediate effect on the international reconstruction programs throughout Nangarhar Province.   It would not have impacted American or Afghan military convoys on the road, nor slowed the flow of commercial traffic, but it would have showed an alarming  amount of cooperation  between insurgents and local people.   That kind of cooperation, were it ever to occur, would lead to an exodus of most of the 50 or so  internationals that operate in and around Jalalabad.   The few who remained would have to harden – which costs money, lots of money.   That reported attack represented critical white information concerning local atmospherics in a  very key portion of the human terrain environment.

Here comes the local route clearence package.  Maybe they had no idea about a prior reported attack and spotted this to be a typical traffic accident  - who knows? but they were obvioulsy not curious about the burnref tanker or crowds of by standers.
Here comes a US MIL convoy. Maybe they had no idea about a prior reported attack and thought this was a typical traffic accident - who knows? They were obviously not curious about the burned tanker or crowds of by-standers. And I'll bet a month's pay they did not note or report on what should have been an urgent white information CCIR (Commanders Critical Information Requirement).
Fuel recovery
Fuel recovery - it takes a village to do anything in this country.

Today’s little drama illustrates in real time how our military is ignoring the effort to maintain situational awareness via the active collection of white information because of their focus on “red intelligence.”     Tracking and targeting active combatants is what the military is designed and trained to do.     It is also what they have been doing for the past 8 years.   Generals McChrystal and Flynn can write all the papers they want explaining why this approach is missing the point and counterproductive.   Historically, radical military change comes in the face of or after defeat.   That will not happen here – the Taliban could not in a thousand years engage in a set piece combined arms battle with any ISAF military.   They could not stand up to the Afghan Army either, with their tanks, artillery, gun ships, experienced leaders, and international mentors.

Focusing on the population – that takes getting out and living with the population.   There is no other way.   This is supposed to be what we are now doing with our military operations.

And there they go no doubt through the city instead of the truck by-pass but you get that from the Army in Jbad.
And there they go, no doubt straight through the city instead of on the truck by-pass, but what are you going to do? SOP's are SOP's.

You can see decentralized, white information-focused operations at work in the chaotic areas bordering the large military installations in the south.   All trucks entering any ISAF base have to sit in lots, known as “cool down” yards,  way off post for at least 24 hours.   The trucks bring with them butchers, bakers, tea houses, mechanics, and assorted other small shop keepers.   ISAF keeps a close eye on these areas where multiple base agencies have some jurisdiction.   The Marines have security, the Brits are the local law enforcement.   There is a constant stream of trucks, military convoys and civilian vehicles.   The Marines are from a dismounted tank company who left their big beasts back home to come out as part of the Brigade Support Unit (BSU.)   The BSU is built around an artillery battalion because the Marines do not really have Brigade Support Units, except for on paper, and when one mobilizes it is better to build it out of an existing battalion.

Brit MP's out in the shanty town which has sprung up outside a main base they appeared to be looking for somebody
Brit MP's in the shanty town which has sprung up outside a main base; they appeared to be looking for somebody.
The Marines out organing the local merchants for an impending move.  They have learned quickly how to get these things accomp[lished by getting Provincial government buy in and support for their base expansion efforts
The Marines out organizing the local merchants for an impending move. They have learned quickly how to get these things accomplished by getting Provincial government buy-in and support for their base expansion efforts.

The Marines who keep an eye on this lot have a remarkably deep understanding of who the regular shop keepers are, where they came from, and in some cases, what they were doing before.   That is because they are bored being assigned to a base defense role and spend a lot of time out there because they can.   This will pay big dividends in a few months when all these people will be forced to move across the highway when the base expands.

The Brit MP's were on the trail of something moving rapidly through the local shanty town of butchers, bakers, PCO shops and tea tents
The Brit MP's were on the trail of something moving rapidly through the butchers, bakers, PCO shops and tea tents.
Strykers heading out to the highway
Strykers heading out to the highway
105 cannon mounted on a Stryker - that is a pretty cool looking piece of gear.
105 cannon mounted on a Stryker - that is a pretty cool looking piece of gear.
On the hunt - the Brits are off to another part of boarder area to continue their mission
On the hunt - the Brits are off to another part of border area to continue their mission.

If a young sergeant and a squad of dismounted tankers can master the civil terrain nuances of this sprawling, unregulated township outside one of their bases, do you think they could accomplish the same in a village cluster a little further to the south?   When we are able to deploy like that, we will be able to obtain the white information  needed to conduct a counterinsurgency. At that point we will have started down the track to winning in Afghanistan.   Until then, we our wasting time, money and people.

The local butcher, propane, tire repair store
The local butcher, propane, tire repair store.

There is a fad in the first world called “low impact environmental living.”   Afghans are masters at real low impact environmental living: no refrigerators, no electricity, no cardboard packages or fast food bags, and if you’re lucky, a trucker will have a large bag of   dried buffalo dung for sale to cook your food over.   If somebody could just get these people access to the internet they could make a fortune selling carbon credits to Algore and friends.

Turkey Shoot

I was enjoying a morning cup of coffee and checking email up on the Baba Deck with a group of friends who are in from the States when we saw the signature of a tanker attack just up the road.   That has never happened this close to Jalalabad before so we conducted a brief staff meeting which consisted of saying “let’s go” and headed up the road to see what was what.

Moments after the tankers were hit - photo taken from the Taj Jalalabad Baba Deck
Moments after the tankers were hit – photo taken from the Taj Jalalabad Baba Deck

The ANP had closed the Duranta Dam tunnel but recognizing us they waved us through and we continued through the tunnel at speed only to have the ANP on the other side of the tunnel wave us right on down the road and into the kill zone.

Approaching the ambush site - note the armed civilian - who knows who he is - running towards the firing. What is also important to note is the lack of any vegitation or cover in the hills where the bad guys are and the Amry OH 58 Kiowa circiling overhead.
Approaching the ambush site – note the armed civilian – who knows who he is – running towards the firing. What is also important to note is the lack of vegetation or cover in the hills where the bad guys are and the U.S. Army OH58D Kiowa circling overhead. The men on the ridge line are Blue Compass convoy escort who are on the flank of the Taliban ambush squad

We saw a string of tracers stitch the road to our front and immediately pulled a hard left into dead space well short of the burning trucks and continued forward on foot.   The firing was sporadic, just a few incoming rounds cracking well over our heads and we were not sure if it was aimed at us or spill over from the firefight we could hear to our right.   The villains had a belt fed machinegun (probably a PKM) which fired a few bursts in our direction during the 5 or so minutes it took us to reach the kill zone.   There was a section (two) of Army OH58D   helicopters circling overhead very low as they worked out who was who on the ground.

There are no villages up in the hills above the Duranta Dam, no vegetation and no cover.   Once the Kiowa’s obtained good situational awareness they obtain permission to engage the ambush team the bad guys were toast.   They couldn’t go to ground, they couldn’t hide, they were in the open and forced to be on the move by pressure from a convoy escort team from  Blue Compass and a few ANP who had followed them into the hills.

The first two tankers have been hit with multiple rounds and are leakng JP 8 all over the road
The first two tankers have been hit with multiple rounds and are leaking JP 8 all over the road

This was a more effective ambush then we normally see further west on the Jbad /Kabul highway.   The terrain here forced the shooters to be much closer to the road than they are when they ambush from the heights of the Tangi Valley.   There were three tankers hit and dumping JP 8 all over the road but not burning.   Three more were hit and on fire in the northern portion of the kill zone.

These trucks took a beating - there were no driver casualties reported just two escort guards who were reported injured
These trucks took a beating – there were no driver casualties   just two escort guards who were reported injured

Shortly after the photograph above was taken the OH58’s got a firing solution and let rip with rockets and gun pods. Kiowa pilots seem to like getting close and personal and these guys were not staying above some hard artificial “ceiling” dictated to them from on high but were on the deck, spitting venom like a good gunship should.   I doubt the villains had much of a chance – reportedly four were killed.

When you see this much fuel pouring out of a tanker you know it is just a matter of time before something bad happens
When you see this much fuel pouring out of a tanker you know it is just a matter of time before something bad happens
Tghe truck drivers start some damage control efforts by sticking small tree branches into the bullet holes. There are coverd in fuel but doing a good job at protecting the shipment they are responsible for.
The truck drivers start some damage control efforts by sticking small tree branches into the bullet holes. They are covered in fuel but doing a good job at protecting the shipment they are responsible for.

The Kiowa’s ended this fight and the efforts on the ground turned to separating the leaking fuel tankers from the burning ones.   This is an effort best watched from at least two ridge lines away and we had work to do so we headed back to Taj noting there were at least 50 fuel tankers lining the road just outside the kill zone. In the big scheme of things these attacks are meaningless on the physical level; the loss of fuel is sucked up by the contractor who only gets paid for what he delivers.  The numbers of trucks being lost are like-wise a problem for Pakistani truck companies and not Uncle Sam. The American taxpayer can’t buy a break like that in most places.

Napoleon reportedly said; “moral power is to the physical as three parts out of four”  “even in war pointed out in warfare the moral is to the physical as three is to one”.  Attacks like the one we witnessed this morning are always victories on the moral level for the Taliban.  That is the problem for our efforts in Afghanistan in a nut shell.  The Taliban do not have to be tactically good or win on the physical level, they don’t have to be smart or survive half ass ambush attempts.  They just need to attack and if they lose every battle in the end it won’t matter; they’ll still win.

Convoy escort from Blue Compass telling us the "Taliban are nishta" after the Kiowa's fired them up
Convoy escort from Blue Compass telling us the “Taliban are nishta” after the Kiowa’s fired them up

The ambush squad who sortied out this morning to burn fuel trucks were clueless. They shoot up 6 trucks out of a convoy of around 80 and then found themselves flanked by armed guards, forced to move in open terrain where they were hunted down like rabid dogs by Kiowa helicopters.  This also was a good demonstration of using PSC’s to perform tasks which are not cost effective for the military.  It was our good luck and the villains bad luck that two helicopters were hanging around the area with full ammo stores when this went down. The pressure applied by aggressive maneuver from the convoy escort security element helped the Kiowa’s PID (positive ID) the bad guys and obtain permission to smoke them and it is rare to see that work out so smoothly. Too bad its not always this easy with the Taliban.

Christian Major

Last February I wrote this post about the Afghan Security Market. I was in Kabul for a month as a favor to a friend when I wrote the post filling in for a guy I had not met before named Christian Major. Christian and I spent two days conducting a turn over before he went home. I instantly became a big fan of his when I saw him interacting with the local beggar kids on our first morning together. He had exceptional language skills, he was a very big and very fit guy, had an infectious smile, great sense of humor and like all the good guys in my line of work a tender heart. As many of us do he sponsored children from the slums paying them to go to school. Unlike many of us he followed up on his investment ensuring unscrupulous family members did not take the money from his charges and force them to beg in other parts of the city. Christian Major was a good man; I am proud to call him my friend; Christian died sometime during the night last Thursday and was found in his room by his mates on Friday morning.

Christian in DC last February while on leave
Christian in DC last February while on leave

We do not know why he died and there is no reason to suspect foul play. Christian was a friend to everyone he met good natured and relaxed in all situations as only big, fit, highly trained men can be. I am on the way home for a much needed break and am therefore not in close contact with my buddies back in Kabul so I do not know what the family is planning or where to send my condolences. When I find out I will post that information on this page.

Christian sucking it up at BUDs in Coronado back in the day
Christian sucking it up at BUDs in Coronado back in the day

 I do not know why we lost Christian but do know we lost someone special. He was an “outside the wire” guy who knew the languages, culture and people of Afghanistan.   Please remember him and his family in your prayers.

Anyone who knew Christian will recognize the smirk - damn ballsy move to pull in the middle of hell week at BUDs - look at how miserable everyone else looks
Anyone who knew Christian will recognize the smirk - damn ballsy move to pull in the middle of hell week at BUDs - look at how miserable everyone else looks

 

Women's Resource Center / Work For Cash

Tim invited me to submit some ideas for ways to spend the Work For Cash program he’s administering this spring. There is a focus on getting the money into the hands of women. Many of the traditional WFC programs are things like digging out the sewers or sweeping the streets, and those are inappropriate for burqa clad women who are likely to have small kids they must keep with them.

Tim reminds me that the program is bound by constraints that he doesn’t yet completely know, he’ll find out this week, so he won’t make any promises or plans yet. If the WFC thing doesn’t work out, we’ll still do most of these things but will have to raise funds otherwise and the program will stand up more slowly (ie, we’ll have to sell the product and generate some revenue to reinvest in more raw supplies).   If you have more ideas, please comment!

dsc_5958

In the Work for Cash program, women will be invited to the FabLab to be paid to do the following :

1) Document scanning. Digitize paper records using bed scanner or camera. May be public records such as the mountain of land title deeds or possibly similar types files (we will have to solicit customers).

2) Make flash cards for school children. (Mostly basic arithmetic). Women learn to use the printing press or wood / rubber stamp making.

3) Make educational props. Clocks with movable hands, giant rulers, large painted flash cards with Pashto / English alphabet.

4) Sew book bag / satchel / purses, with custom embroidery or markings or prints.

5) Sew / embroider (by hand, machines, or with computer controlled machines) “A [picture of apple]” kinds of quilts and fabric books in Pashto. May use other machines in the lab to make the objects out of felt or other material instead of embroidering with thread.

6) Make wind lanterns from empty water bottles. (Requires collecting and cleaning bottles). Wind lanterns spin in a breeze causing internal lights to light up. They can be strung up outside doorways or near wells and other hazards.

7) Make and configure FabFi antennas for long range wireless internet connections terminating in umbrella wireless hotspots. Install on site, possibly, depending on mobility of women.

8) Create and perform puppet / shadow puppet theater show on topics of basic health, local fables, IED (Improvised Explosive Device)   and UXO (Baba Tim Comment: unexploded ordinance is a huge problem and they kill hundreds of children per year in Afghanistan – France has the same problem with ordinance left over from World War I.   For those of you schooled under Jimmy Carters Department of Educatuon that happened in the early part of the last centruy and was a very bad war even though mostly white European males were killed in it – by the hundreds of thousands mind you.) awareness or just entertainment.

img_1563

In addition to immediate pay for work described, in some cases women will gain a skill that may be employable in the long term. I propose giving away the product to the local schools or selling at a very low cost. These products and services were requested by locals and the Fab Lab mentors can help these women establish small cottage businesses from these activities.

dsc_0307

The Fab Lab is an existent infrastructure at the edge of Jalalabad. In addition to raw supplies for the above projects, the Woman’s Resource Room needs to be fitted out to provide a safe and comfortable place for the women to work and sanctuary when there are users of other genders visiting or using the lab. This room is approximately 25′ x 18′ with windows on two walls and an en suite bathroom with sink and toilet. One set of windows opens onto a small concrete walkway which is up against an interior compound wall. The other set of windows looks out small concrete walkway/porch leading to 1/4-1/2 acre vegetable garden. There is a split air conditioner and heater installed in the room. The room is currently empty but clean and freshly painted.

We need to add: Thick wall to wall carpet, comfortable couches and floor cushions. Some low tables. A computer controlled embroidery machine, a sewing machine, some computers, a bookshelf and whiteboard, a projector or TV for lessons. All the print and video educational material we can find. One wall of open-front cubby holes. A shared supply of sewing and knitting needles, scissors, rulers, and so on. An endless supply of female sanitary products, soap, and general toiletries.

img_1988

Women’s Resource Center / Work For Cash

Tim invited me to submit some ideas for ways to spend the Work For Cash program he’s administering this spring. There is a focus on getting the money into the hands of women. Many of the traditional WFC programs are things like digging out the sewers or sweeping the streets, and those are inappropriate for burqa clad women who are likely to have small kids they must keep with them.

Tim reminds me that the program is bound by constraints that he doesn’t yet completely know, he’ll find out this week, so he won’t make any promises or plans yet. If the WFC thing doesn’t work out, we’ll still do most of these things but will have to raise funds otherwise and the program will stand up more slowly (ie, we’ll have to sell the product and generate some revenue to reinvest in more raw supplies).   If you have more ideas, please comment!

dsc_5958

In the Work for Cash program, women will be invited to the FabLab to be paid to do the following :

1) Document scanning. Digitize paper records using bed scanner or camera. May be public records such as the mountain of land title deeds or possibly similar types files (we will have to solicit customers).

2) Make flash cards for school children. (Mostly basic arithmetic). Women learn to use the printing press or wood / rubber stamp making.

3) Make educational props. Clocks with movable hands, giant rulers, large painted flash cards with Pashto / English alphabet.

4) Sew book bag / satchel / purses, with custom embroidery or markings or prints.

5) Sew / embroider (by hand, machines, or with computer controlled machines) “A [picture of apple]” kinds of quilts and fabric books in Pashto. May use other machines in the lab to make the objects out of felt or other material instead of embroidering with thread.

6) Make wind lanterns from empty water bottles. (Requires collecting and cleaning bottles). Wind lanterns spin in a breeze causing internal lights to light up. They can be strung up outside doorways or near wells and other hazards.

7) Make and configure FabFi antennas for long range wireless internet connections terminating in umbrella wireless hotspots. Install on site, possibly, depending on mobility of women.

8) Create and perform puppet / shadow puppet theater show on topics of basic health, local fables, IED (Improvised Explosive Device)   and UXO (Baba Tim Comment: unexploded ordinance is a huge problem and they kill hundreds of children per year in Afghanistan – France has the same problem with ordinance left over from World War I.   For those of you schooled under Jimmy Carters Department of Educatuon that happened in the early part of the last centruy and was a very bad war even though mostly white European males were killed in it – by the hundreds of thousands mind you.) awareness or just entertainment.

img_1563

In addition to immediate pay for work described, in some cases women will gain a skill that may be employable in the long term. I propose giving away the product to the local schools or selling at a very low cost. These products and services were requested by locals and the Fab Lab mentors can help these women establish small cottage businesses from these activities.

dsc_0307

The Fab Lab is an existent infrastructure at the edge of Jalalabad. In addition to raw supplies for the above projects, the Woman’s Resource Room needs to be fitted out to provide a safe and comfortable place for the women to work and sanctuary when there are users of other genders visiting or using the lab. This room is approximately 25′ x 18′ with windows on two walls and an en suite bathroom with sink and toilet. One set of windows opens onto a small concrete walkway which is up against an interior compound wall. The other set of windows looks out small concrete walkway/porch leading to 1/4-1/2 acre vegetable garden. There is a split air conditioner and heater installed in the room. The room is currently empty but clean and freshly painted.

We need to add: Thick wall to wall carpet, comfortable couches and floor cushions. Some low tables. A computer controlled embroidery machine, a sewing machine, some computers, a bookshelf and whiteboard, a projector or TV for lessons. All the print and video educational material we can find. One wall of open-front cubby holes. A shared supply of sewing and knitting needles, scissors, rulers, and so on. An endless supply of female sanitary products, soap, and general toiletries.

img_1988

Counterinsurgency 101

I do not think we have the will to really “win” a counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan. Winning means destroying the Taliban’s ability to excerpt control over the population. There are two ways to do that; by Annihilation of the fighting leadership (and most the rank and file) thus destroying their ability to resist or by Exhaustion which requires the patience to keep fighting until the Taliban tires of war. Exhaustion favors the strength of the Taliban and will not work which leaves the annihilation strategy.

Western armies are not capable of fighting battles of annihilation despite the proven effectiveness of the strategy. Sri Lanka used it to defeat the competent, aggressive and professional insurgents from the Tamil Tigers. We would not consider it because the politically correct military formations of western nations will not take the heat for killing on an industrial scale.  They will be  forced to consider the tactic when international Jihadist attack with a radiation bomb or a bio weapon. The west will not get serious about our war with radical Islam until they inflict another horrific mass casualty event.

Taliban demolition smugglers or low level black market types?

Taliban demolition smugglers or low level black market types?So we are stuck with a battle of exhaustion. We have been at it for eight years and we are the only ones getting exhausted. Nothing about the new “surge” plans seems to indicate a change in how we have been fighting this conflict to date. The Taliban are a movement born of from the Pashtun people and it is, to some extent, embedded inside the Pashtun culture. A simplistic “hearts and minds” approach ignores some basic realities about the Pashtun people best expressed in an excellent paper by Australian General Justin Kelly which I found from a link on a Belmont Club post.

“A hearts-and-minds approach is predicated on the proposition that we foreign, Western, culturally Christian, invaders can persuade a sizable proportion of the Pashtun population to cut themselves off from their cultural roots; subject themselves to an equally foreign and incomprehensible form of government resting largely on the customs of the tribes of pre-Roman Germany; and abandon their cultural birthright of unrivaled hegemony over “Pashtunistan”. To do this we offer some new buildings, some cash and more reliable electricity none of which have been important to them so far in their history. Attendant on these “inducements” of course is the removal of their ability to generate cash by farming poppies and the destruction of cultural mores the subjection of women and the application of traditional law for example that define them as a cultural group.

The evidence from Afghanistan today is that the bargain being offered is being rejected. Peace and prosperity are growing in those areas populated by ethnic minorities for whom the Afghan state provides a shield against Pashtun dominance but is being rejected in those areas in which Pashtuns are predominant. On this basis, “hearts and minds” is bad strategy because the willing acceptance by the Pashtuns, who are the soul of the insurgency, of the governance of a truly foreign state, parliamentary Afghanistan, is unattainable. Apart from it being highly unlikely to work it is also, however, bad strategy because it exposes rather than shields our critical vulnerabilities.”

The first step of any counterinsurgency campaign is to bring security to the population so that infrastructure can be developed. We have not been able to do this in the south, southeast, and eastern regions of Afghanistan. In the remainder of the country we conduct all operations (security and reconstruction) as if we were operating in a war zone. That costs us the respect of local peoples and a ton of money to pay western security contractors. There is no reason to purchase to end armored SUV’s and western security contractors to provide “security” in areas which we know to be secure.

Adding to that problem is our continued backing of a central government which is more a problem than a solution. That too costs us credibility in the eyes of the local people. That is why in my last post I advocated focusing on regional governing capacity, executing the current provincial reconstruction plans and going while leaving behind a robust military training and advising cadre.

American soldiers has been tipped off about a shipment of explosives coming across the Torkham Border crossing and were ready for it
American soldiers has been tipped off about a shipment of explosives coming across the Torkham Border crossing and were ready for it

Here is an example of a serious shortfall in our current approach to counterinsurgency fighting. The vehicle pictured above was stopped by the American army and Afghan border police at the Torkham border crossing. The army had been tipped off about a number of trucks bringing explosives across the border and this was one of them. The truck contained hundreds of pounds of Emulite, a commercial grade (5700m/sec burn rate) bulk emulsion explosive, nonelectric blasting caps, time-fuse and detonation cord. I can tell you with near certainty the explosives were headed to a black market dealer servicing road building or mining contractors.

That is a lot of Emulite which is a powerful commercial explosive - but it is worth much more on the construction black market than it would be if sold to a bomb making syndicate
That is a lot of Emulite which is a powerful commercial explosive – but it is worth much more on the construction black market than it would be if sold to a bomb making syndicate

Good industrial demolition material is impossible to buy and almost impossible to import into Afghanistan. Construction companies who didn’t do the math correctly when they ordered their demolitions will pay a king’s ransom for commercial explosives before taking the time and effort to import more. Requesting emergency authorization to import explosives brings the inevitable risk of daily performance penalties because the Afghan Government then knows you’re not blasting rock. I suspect the family in that Jingle Truck were from a marginalized smuggling tribe trying to break into the black market for construction grade demolition. Those are the kind of people who get dimmed out in Afghanistan. It’s always business – never personal.

But here is the point; Emulite is not the only explosive coming across the Torkham border; there are plenty of these coming across too.

ISAF armored vehicles do not stand up well to mines designed to take out a 60 ton main battle tank.   Note the date stamp – this was found yesterday on the main (still dirt) road to the Ghosta District Administrative Center – a route frequently traveled by American and Afghan military convoys.

The MK 7 anti tank mine is designed to kill tanks; our armored vehicles do not stand up to them well and it seems to me allowing even one across the border is unacceptable. We should have both drug and bomb detection dog teams on the border every day all day. That would take contractors because it would take a lot of dogs but you can set them up in a UN MOSS compliant compound for pennies on the dollar of what we spend on FOB bound units (both civilian and military.) But we don’t and it is impossible to believe that our inability to be proactive on that critical border crossing is not costing us in damaged vehicles and damaged personnel.

The MK 7 mine above was rigged to be command detonated but only with 100 meters of det cord so the trigger man would have had to be very close in to activate it. As I wrote here the best technique for detecting these types of mechanical ambushes is using local scouts on motorcycles. They are not heavy enough to detonate pressure plate triggers on anti tank mines and are able to poke around any areas which appear to offer cover or concealment to trigger men. Using local guys provides a certain amount of protection in insurgent plagued areas because they know the ground and the people.

We need to start thinking through in Afghanistan if we are to have any chance of leaving with our heads held high.

 

Adventures Outside the Wire

End of the Game
End of the Game

This blog post is a bit of a departure from FRI’s normal topics no embed reporting, no strategies on how to win the Global War on Terror (GWOT), no great empowerment projects (aka the Fablab) to talk of, but I hope you’ll find it interesting none the less.

 

Tim and I go back about 3 or so years beginning with our time together with a company called WSI (a bad experience for both of us) and then as partners in a Private security company – VSSA. For the lion share of my time I was based in Mazar-i-Sharif (Northern Afghanistan) working as a Security Coordinator, while Tim was based in Jalalabad doing identical work. Now that I am back in country (after a much needed hiatus in Australia) I find myself at the Taj catching up with Tim. Whilst I was sitting at the Taj bar Tim asked if he could source some photos for the FRI blog from my time in Northern Afghanistan. After viewing a few shots somehow I volunteered to write an article for him not sure how that happened!

 

It took me some time to think about a worthy subject to focus upon. During the thinking process I reminisced about the good times had in Afghanistan and how much fun was packed into the little downtime available. This somewhat pedestrian topic then grew a life of its own and became yet another example of the vast difference between risk adverse deployments / organizations and the more low profile operators / organizations who live and work outside the wire in Afghanistan. I suddenly had my topic!

Living and working within the Afghan community definitely gives you a better idea of the culture and the feel of the people toward you. What is amusing is talking with some International Military personnel on the various bases about living within the community. Normally when you tell them you live off base down town, their bottom jaw drops to the ground with shock. I guess their perception is that once outside the wire it’s certain death which is certainly not the case, demonstrated by the numerous internationals and organizations that continue to live in the community with few problems. This topic is something Tim has talked about on numerous occasions regarding having the military living off the bases and FOB’s and amongst the community, which I fully support.

Another topic Tim has raised is the ability to move through much of the country in a low profile manner. With the exception of areas along the Pakistan border and Southern Afghanistan much of the North and Northwest remains quite permissive. The biggest risk factor in these permissive environments is probably being the subject of criminality (after dark on the highways) or involved and hurt in a traffic accident. If you’ve ever experienced Afghan traffic you’ll immediately know why, and what I mean. For those new to Afghanistan the traffic can be both a disorientating and disconcerting experience. Seeing cars overtaking each other on blind corners with inches to spare while avoiding the goats, chickens, cows, handcarts, taxi’s, donkeys, donkey carts and camels sharing the same bit of road gives you some indication of the chaotic nature of Afghan traffic. It can be a little freaky at first, but like anything, you get use to it and over time actually start driving that way too! The best advice I can give is to drive yourself, and not to travel the highways at night.

An Afghan Buzkashi player with the Buz (carcass) riding toward the flag at this end of the Buzkashi field.  Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007
An Afghan Buzkashi player with the Buz (carcass) riding toward the flag at this end of the Buzkashi field. Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007

A couple of years back I bought a video camera along with a Digital SLR Camera to record my time and experiences in Afghanistan. I had done this specifically for family and friends in order to allay their concerns and fears about me being in a war zone. In those early years family and friends back home simply didn’t know what it was like on the ground in Afghanistan.  The mainstream media depicted car bombs going off, pitched gun battles with insurgents, and soldiers being killed on a regular basis. Although these things occurred, they weren’t a daily occurrence and rarely occurred in Northern Afghanistan where I was posted. However, family and friends back home thought these things were going on everywhere in Afghanistan mainly because of what they saw and heard in the media. So armed with my new cameras I set out to show the folks back home what life was like for me in my little world. In doing so I captured some fantastic photos and videos to share with them.

What triggered all this camera activity off arose from a question posed by my brother back home – What do you do for fun in Afghanistan?’ I answered his question at the time, but thought by showing him, along with other family and friends it would give them a better understanding of my Afghan experience.

Just being in Afghanistan is an event in itself and finding ways to entertain oneself was a popular downtime activity. There are no nightclubs, bars, movie theatres or shopping malls in Mazar-i-Sharif (in the western context anyway), so expatriates like myself made our own fun, which typically was on the weekends. Fun experiences consisted of visits to ancient ruins in Balkh District, trips to check out the drug fields (also in Balkh District), picnics, swimming, watching and participating in Buzkashi, eating at local restaurants and party’s/dinner party’s in each others guest houses. The running of the Mazar Social Club (MSC) was an important part of the weekend process that provided much needed expatriate interaction. Unlike the Taj Tiki Bar which is static, the MSC was basically a roving bar invited to various guesthouses for a night of dancing, drinking and merriment. Most MSC nights ended around 0300 hours and for a lot of those parties I was there to the end. I couldn’t help it because I was the chief barman and a member of the MSC organising committee. Still, people couldn’t believe I hung in there till the end because I’m a non-drinking. What they didn’t realise was that after my 4th Pepsi or Coke I couldn’t sleep due of all that caffeine racing through my veins. I typically stayed on till the end of the nights proceedings because I was high on Coke (the black Panadol type not that other version from South America). Another reason I stayed was for the sheer comedy, pure and simple it got funnier as people got drunker!

Welcome to the MSC Bar  Wodya want!!!!  The MSC (Welcoming) Committee minus the author who is taking the photograph circa Winter 2008.
Welcome to the MSC Bar Wodya want!!!! The MSC (Welcoming) Committee minus the author who is taking the photograph circa Winter 2008.

 

In 2007 I hooked up with an Aussie called Mat who was heading up the northern office for a European Union (EU) funded NGO at the time. I have to say Mat is one of the funniest dudes I’ve met he cracks me up all the time. With cameras in tow, I started recording our little outings. These recorded events morphed into a little video blog I put together called The Un-Named Adventure.’ It was called The Un-Named Adventure’ because basically I didn’t know what we were going to do before we did it purely spur of the moment stuff. Nothing was planned or scripted it just kind of unfolded at the time. It has a comedic thread throughout because 1. Mat cracks me up, and 2. I wanted it to be fairly light for the folks back home. This was a creative way to the further answer my brother’s question and outline what life was really like here in Afghanistan.

 

I am a little hesitant to release this material in the public domain. It’s one thing to just have family and friends looking at it, and a totally different animal when people you don’t know check it out. On the other hand I am quite curious to see other peoples take on our little adventures. Although I do have some misgivings I think showing these adventures will support my case that living outside the wire is the way to go in Afghanistan. I recall the adage – ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ so in this case I’m hoping moving pictures tell 10,000 words.

A word of warning, the show is politically incorrect and has some swearing in it, so if you are easily offended you probably won’t want to watch it. The key to the show though is not to take it seriously, we certainly don’t. Just take it for what it is pure comedic genius (I am biased)! We are fair though – we take the piss’ out of ourselves and those around us.

Buzkashi player at the end of a match.  Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007
Buzkashi player at the end of a match. Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007

The two (2) Adventures I’d like to share are

 

1. Adventure # 3 – Buzkashi, and

2. Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare.

 

Adventure # 3 The Buzkashi Adventure. Mat and I attended this particular Buzkashi game in Mazar-i-Sharif circa 2007. For those who don’t know, Buzkashi is the Afghan National sport. The game originated in the Central Asian steppes and is normally played in the winter months. It involves horseman trying to get a headless calf, goat or sheep’s carcass around a flag at one end of the playing field and depositing it in a circle at the other end. Riders wear heavy clothing, specialised riding boots and headwear (usually ex-Russian Tank headwear) and use whips, both on the horses and each other. Rules are you can’t trip the horses, apart from that – anything else goes.

As outlined in this adventure our take on the game is it’s the Afghan NASCAR’ everyone comes along to see a crash and/or carnage.

 

Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare. I think you’ll just have to watch this one, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

 

There are many more Adventures produced of free ranging outside the wire, but I hope you enjoy the little selection of episodes linked to this article. I also hope this gives you who are not here a better understanding that it’s not all doom and gloom; you can live, work and have fun here. LIFE’S SHORT LIVE IT TO THE MAX!!!

 

If you lot out there like these samples I may post a couple more Adventures down the track.

James – Guest Blogger.

Fab Surge Summary Part 2: Projects

Tim san really really wanted me to post our project descriptions for you readers even though I haven’t had enough time to them justice. (I’ve just returned from a very intense install / training / opening week in East Cleveland, Ohio where there was a more tense security presence than much of Afghanistan.)

One ton of machines and materials for the Jalalabad Fab Lab hit the ground in June 2008 and we’ve been busy transforming the pile of equipment into a living breathing community. We’ve accomplished a lot in 6 months, in addition to installing and configuring the machines, we’ve also started several projects with local users. That $40,000 I mentioned in the last post covered all of the below projects, plus a ton of work in infrastructure, groundwork, research and discussions.   What I find really great is all the projects described have been also been continued by Afghans after the international visitors left. Truly “teach a man to fish” stuff here.

T-Shirt Club

The t-shirt club makes custom shirts for profit. They use a computer drawing program and the internet for designs and a computer-controlled knife cutter to make the silk screen mask. Then they print the shirt (or anything) by hand. Club members use a computer spreadsheet to track their orders and cash ledger. In the first two weeks of operation, club members have already experienced business considerations such as pricing, cash accountability, stock management, quality control, delivery requirements and consequences, business goals and plans, scaling, and more.

In 14 days the club earned $142 “take home profit”, paid $19 in “use fees” to the FabLab and deposited $20 into the club account. (On day 15 the students received 6 more orders!) More than a week on and the club is still going strong with a small amount of remote mentoring. Club members are approximately 15-18 years old. More information on the T-shirt Club here.

The “use fee” paid to the FabLab is profoundly encouraging. The monthly burn rate at the lab is approximately $1200 – $1500 – and every single cent goes to directly Afghans in one way or another. A single club of 4 youth was able to generate almost 2% of those fees in their first two weeks by contributing only $1 per shirt… The market for custom T-shirts at $10 each is much bigger especially once these kids set up at the FOB and PRT bazaars. And the “use fee” from the FabFi and other projects have the potential to generate much more. It will take a while before the lab is fully self-sustainable but there is a reasonable path.

User Training (future clubs?)

Stamps, challenge coins, music boxes (in particular microcontroller-based circuits), Picocrickets and Scratch graphical game design and programming.

making stamps on the mini-mill
milling custom rubber stamps
challenge coins
casting custom challenge coins

FabFi : DIY Wireless

FabFi antenna hardware are completely made or sourced locally, the total cost is around $65-$75 in materials for each one depending on the size of the reflector. Reflectors “printed” in the lab are coupled with specially configured commercial access points / routers and can be used to make wireless high speed connections as far as 15 km away. Within the FabFi local network we’re achieving speeds of 4.5+ Mbps. And there’s nothing to stop the users from making more and expanding the network.

As of the end of January 2009, three main links were made: one to the school in our local village of Bagrami, one to the public hospital, and one to an NGO near to the hospital. To make the last two links, both in Jalalabad City center, we made a long-haul link to the water tower (the second highest structure in Jalalabad) then two downlinks fan out from the water tower. In addition to the technical achievement, the water/FabFi transmit tower is now a shared resource for all of the various organizations within the hospital. Since much of Jalalabad City can “see” the tower and are eager to also point downlink antennas at the FabFi, there is budding neighborhood pressure on the hospital to keep the resource working and serviced.

The FabLab freely shares its 2+Mbps down / 485kbps up Intelsat internet connection with anyone that connects to the FabFi network. All current sites are expected to fan out with more links; we’ve had Afghans working with us that are very close to being able to make and install future links. This will ultimately turn into a “FabFi Club” where members make money from making, installing, and maintaining the FabFi network. The prices, membership, and level of service have yet to be worked out. The design is open sourced, meaning that anyone can download the design and configuration files for free; club members would get paid for the service of actually buying the raw materials, constructing the antennas, configuring and installing the system, and so forth.


FabFi and GATR SatCom Antennas on Fab Lab Roof

More information on FabFi in Afghanistan here, including a FabFi 1.0 distribution download site.

Digital Pathology

20 years ago the pathology lab in the medical school was well known as one of the better labs in Asia. Today the lab looks exactly as it did 20 years ago… complete with 20 year old supplies and processes.

40X view
40X view
of sample
a sample slide on the microscope
a frozen section sample
on a digital microscope

How does technology (especially communication) change everything? With Dr. Mendoza from San Diego Sister Cities Association, we installed, integrated, and demonstrated a frozen section machine, digital microscope, and internet connection to obtain “real time” remote pathology consultations on a sample from a volunteer. See the full story here.

Local Copy of the Internet

A proxy server was installed between the Internet and the FabFi network. Much web content doesn’t change very quickly and a copy kept in country, synced only once in a while, means ridiculously fast “internet” and significantly eased load on the satellite link. This means that most of the traffic is only within the country. The current FabFi has 4.5Mbps bandwidth; the connection to the Internet is limited by the satellite bandwidth. (By the way, the “real” Internet works the same way, with copies of itself physically all over the world, but usually done by slightly more professional folks with bigger budgets for better server farms and power systems.) Right now the proxy server keeps a copy of anything anyone clicks on; in the near future we’ll mirror Wikipedia and other open educational and informational sources.

MIT Open CourseWare

Check out a long time MIT favorite: Prof Lewin
Check out a long time MIT favorite:
Prof Lewin demonstrating that the period
of a pendulum is independent of the mass
hanging from the pendulum in Lecture 10
of MIT 8.10: Physics I.

Every single undergraduate class and many of the graduate classes taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been painstakingly recorded, indexed, transcribed and compiled along with all the materials from the classes. You can watch any class just as if you were in the classroom. Free. And all of Open CourseWare is online in the FabFi network.

From anywhere in the world you can access MIT Open CourseWare; if you’re lucky enough to be connected to the FabFi network in Nangarhar Province you won’t have a wink of delay even with an entire classroom streaming the video courses.

Bagrami School Teacher Laptop Training

Approximately 9 teachers from the school in Bagrami wanted to learn basic computers. Teachers have been loaned OLPCs through the end of this semester so they can take the computers home to spend hands-on time with them. Ultimately these teachers’ students will have OLPCs or similar laptops and as the teachers learn to use the computers themselves, they are thinking about how they will integrate the availability of technology into their lesson plans. The teachers currently come to the FabLab to charge the laptops, connect to the internet, and use the printer (we hope in the near future they will also begin using the other Fab output devices). One teacher in particular is very good in English and has had about 2 weeks more of training from the FabFolk than the other teachers and is leading getting the other teachers involved. Most teachers involved are approximately 23-27 years old. More on the Bagrami teachers’ computer training here and the proposed FabLab/OLPC Bagrami field trial here.

Bagrami Online

The congruence of the FabFi network and teacher laptop training projects above naturally led to installing a FabFi connection at the school in our village of Bagrami. The headmaster and department of education have agreed to allow anyone to use the school rooms (and internet connection) outside of school hours. A wireless access point was installed at the Bagrami school and a small radius of houses nearby can also connect to the network without being inside the school walls. There is great interest in the small village of Bagrami (aproximately 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants) to extend the coverage across all of Bagrami. It is the children of Bagrami that are our constant students in the FabLab and so they are ideally poised to fabricate as many antennas as they wish. This is a village that does not have grid electricity or running water. Some residents share the cost of running a single generator, the others simply don’t have electricity. Ever. It’s funny to think that you could be lying in the sun on your mud roof enjoying faster net speeds than, well, me at my apartment in Cambridge, MA.

Naqibullah, with brothers and cousins in Bagrami discovering Wikipedia
discovering Wikipedia in Bagrami

In places like Bagrami, access to computers and the internet can be life-changing. Nekibulah’s brother, for instance, is interested in medicine but has absolutely no access to any information on the subject. A simple google search for “health” had him excited in no time at all, and I was glad to watch the attending group devour a page on woman’s health (including sexual health) without even batting an eyelash. In contrast to his brother, Nekibulah was more interested in information about Afghanistan and Islam. The tension between traditional cultural values / religious beliefs and the desire for the opportunities of western (for lack of a better term) society is palpable in these moments of discovery. “Are there Muslims in America?” “When you have a guest in your house would you have tea together?” (From Keith’s blog entry the day Bagrami link went online)

Online Lab Journal

It’s still not perfect or posted in the correct place, but we’ve got the teachers and lab assistant posting the daily lab journal online. (It’s supposed to be here but it’s probably in the stream here.) Management, finances, accountability, and responsibility, it’s all being developed wobbly and imperfectly in the open so you can see exactly what’s going on.

Weather Station (Almost) Online

If you go to weather.com and try to find weather for Jalalabad, you’ll get either Kabul or Peshawar weather, and neither are at all close or similar in weather. We installed a weather station – anemometer, temperature, barometer, etc. and had a blast teaching students about atmospheric sciences. Students from Bagrami are deeply connected to farming – they don’t need a gadget to predict the weather but the quantization of the data was world shifting. We realized too late that we don’t have the “special software” to gather the data and post it to something like weather.com, making Bagrami yet more connected with the world. We ran out of time to play with the system which has a serial interface and see if we can pipe the raw data directly into a FabFi router. For now, FabLab users carefully record the temperature and conditions in a journal and are learning how to track and graph the data.

Have you really made it all the way down to here? I’m still plodding through our photos and videos and I wish I was ready with an album to give you a taste of how exciting and vibrant the region as well as our students are — really quite opposite than what you might see on TV.

Interested in helping? We need everything from back end geek work to front end install / maintenance work, curriculum and teaching, small business mentoring, plus other specialist knowledge in pretty much anything that can be useful in Bagrami and beyond that can be enabled or enhanced with technology. If you’re good at something, I can probably use the help.

Fab Surge Summary Part 1 : Value = (Cost)^-1

Tim’s been bugging me to write a summary post for all you readers wondering what became of us.   (Most of us are all the way home now and struggling to catch up on sleep while making an appearance at our “day jobs”.)   In short, we accomplished an awful lot and collectively recorded about 250GBs of photos and 30 hours of high def video – which has made it impossible to write a “short summary”.     Tim would want me to point out that it hasn’t cost the tax paying citizens of any country a single dime/rand/quid/eyrir.

PART 1: A $400,000,000 $40,000 SURGE

On our last full day we alternated among frantically finishing projects, collecting stuff for the trip home, and seeing more stuff. We’re all a little sad to leave, there’s so much to do, could do. The guesthouse was bursting at the seams, and even though some of the FabFolk were stuffed three to a room, that, in and of itself made it fun. It’s like camp for grown up little geeks.

 

We've chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our "Hundred Dollar Laptop"s with built-in Pashto keyboards... while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.
We’ve chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our “Hundred Dollar Laptop”s with built-in Pashto keyboards… while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.

The financial load was pretty hefty for a bunch of unemployed / students. I’m often asked to post our costs but I’ve been resisting for several reasons, the most of which is that I don’t want to seem like we’re complaining about our travel costs. We’d much rather see contributions going directly to FabLab users and infrastructure.

To bring the FabFi and other projects to the state it’s at, we’ve spent a total of about $40,000 where the bulk of that is travel costs across two trips (one in November and one in January).

Materials costs for three links were well under $1000:

  • $60 plywood
  • $20 chicken wire / screening
  • $40 staple gun, staples, gaffers tape, rope, etc.
  • $350 network routers (aprox $50 each)
  • $40 12V batteries and chargers
  • $60 network cables, jacks, crimper tool, etc
  • $50 phone sim cards and top-up cards
  • $60 wireless web cam (used for signal source when pointing)
  • $120 wi-spy (used as spectrum analyzer when pointing)

Average travel costs per person for what has been called the Fab Surge is about $4,000. In an ideal world, these costs would have been reimbursable.

  • $180 Afghanistan visa
  • $100 travel medical insurance
  • $100 travel medicines, vaccines, etc.
  • $2,000 – $2,500 Flight from USA to Dubai, return
  • $680 flight from Dubai to Kabul, return
  • $100 travel from Kabul to Jalalalabad by car
  • $630 guesthouse lodging fee (a special shared rate by cramming multiple people into rooms)
  • $20-$50 travel to/from home airport
  • (There is an additional $150-250 that each person has likely spent on random things to include internet access at Heathrow/Amsterdam/Delhi or postage fees of passports and so on)

In addition, all together we spent about $750 in excess baggage and/or shipping mostly for FabFi and video/photo gear, and we’ve used about $200 in DV tapes.

Additionally, Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk from Free Range International haven’t charged us a cent for several weeks worth of armed expat security work as well as rides to and fro. We never would have been able to cover those costs out of our pockets. Fortunately I think we’re a little bit entertaining to Tim and Shem and they kind of like us. But they have to fit us in with their day jobs which hasn’t been the most convenient for either side.

Perhaps the biggest cost that’s difficult to put a value on is the unpaid time. For some of us, our employers or universities did not want the liability of their student/staff in Afghanistan so we all had to quit and go on unpaid leave. For others, they were unemployed but could have been employed in the time they spent preparing for the trip (for example, Keith put in a solid 2 months of 100-hour weeks rather than, you know, working for pay.) That’s impossible to really put a price on.

One of the reasons we were so productive is because we’re individually experienced at what we do.   You can’t throw newbies out into the field with no mentoring and expect them to do anything that doesn’t read like Lord of the Flies… and that’s if you’re lucky and they do anything at all.   And not to pat myself on the back too much, but just as important is to put together a complementary team focused on a well defined set of goals.

Which is the biggest lesson I desperately hope someones out there learns. Never before in history has there been a significantly large population of educated, skilled, experienced, young talent with a semi-disposable income willing and eager to do professional work for little or no pay and even some that will spend their own funds. You have to provide a minimum infrastructure for them to come, and help offset some of the costs they just couldn’t bear. You have to rally them around an idea, spin a coherent vision and place them and their contributions squarely in focus. They won’t accept a mission that doesn’t make sense or isn’t technically or socially viable – and they’re more than competent to develop rational opinions that will need to be vetted and addressed. They will walk away from half-baked plans so you better be ready with supporting data for your claims; but once they buy into the vision they will autonomously meet mission with focus and intensity. It costs much less in dollars than you think.

Those few of us that have come to Afghanistan over the last few months represent a small part of the larger Fab Folk community. We are from many different nationalities and ancestries. Most of us have technical or professional degrees and advanced degrees. All of us have worked in the real world. We are generally between 25-35 years old, male and female.

 

Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is currently working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.
Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is now working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.   Ratafullah, the boy on the left, is the leader among equals of the T-shirt Club.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, former Navy, and was most recently a DOD analyst.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, MS in Applied Anatomy & Physiology, is former Navy, and is a DOD analyst.
Andreas from Iceland installing the downlink at the Public Hospital
Andreas from Iceland (but lives in Argentina) installing the downlink at the Public Hospital.   Andreas has BS in Math from University of Iceland, is working on an MS Math at the University of Amsterdam and works as a computer virus disassembler/analyst.
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab.     Said Jalal is a high school student.   Steve recently worked in the Dean’s office in the MIT Sloan School and is now in Seattle goofing off — restoring and flying WW2 era aircraft.
Smári from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna. Smári is a Math student at the University of Iceland and is currently working for Nýsköpunarmiðstöð Íslands as an IT projects manager.
Smári from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna in Jalalabad City. Smári studied Mathematics at the University of Iceland and is currently working for Nýsköpunarmiðstöð Íslands as an IT projects manager.
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad/Peshawara configuring and peaking a router.   Carl is currently a Physics / Math PhD student at Cambridge University in the UK.   Dr. Naqueeb just passed his exams in the Medical School in Jalalabad.
Keith from Boston tethering down the AP on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Computer Science from Harvard.
Keith from Boston tethering down an antenna on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Biomedical Engineering Sciences from Harvard and most recently helped found a medical devices startup.
That’s me, Amy, with what seems to be a perpetual cadre of inquisitive kids excited to learn by day and (sometimes) friendly ANA soldiers by night . I’m an American and I live in Boston. I have a dual BSes in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering from Purdue, an MS from MIT, am working on a PhD from MIT, and have more than 10 years experience as a defense engineer… and have been on the Fab Lab ride since 2002.

 

The FabLabs all over the globe are magnets for us, offering technological infrastructure nearly as good as (and often better than) what we have available at home. We’re big-brained bugs flitting about bright pinpricks of light we don’t need lush hotels, gourmet cooks, or shiny cars. Most of us don’t even have TVs at home. More and more of us are coming of age every day, seeking and searching for light.

 

tea
Smari, Lucy, Carl, Andreas, Steve, Keith, Amy… enjoying a proper spot of tea.

 

Approaching the Tipping Point

The Fab Folk continue to work like demons to maximize their time on the ground. Yesterday they had successful test shots with their fabricated internet antennas to both a local NGO and the Nangarhar Public Hospital. They work every evening setting up the XO laptops they have sent in and early each morning they meet for a couple of hours to learn Pashto. Their teacher comes from the local school and is a life-long resident of the local village. He tells me that, despite the very mild winter we have had to date, that poverty is driving people to desperate measures. Frequently voices call out to him from the shadows at night “we are Taliban give us your wallet, watch and cell phone.” They are not Taliban but men he has known for years. I asked why this was happening because our understanding of Pashtun culture would prohibit such gross criminality inside one’s own community. “Yes this is true but we are now so poor that the elders do not ask young men where they got this or where they got that they praise them instead for bringing anything of value which will ease their poverty.” This is just a hint at the amount of tension under the surface of a population located in one of the more affluent portions of Afghanistan. Across the river at Little Barabad (official name) or Tutikas (the villagers do not like the official name) the villagers cut down their large shade tree which served as the communal meeting place and picnic site. The wood is not for them – it was sold to a “rich man” to generate cash to buy medicine for several of the children.

Keith working with local school boys establishing a internet link to their school with a custom antenna they built in the fab lab
Keith working with local school boys establishing a internet link to their school with a custom antenna they built in the fab lab

We have been running the road to Kabul a lot as of late taking people to and from the Airport in Kabul. A couple of days ago we took Dr. Dave and Dr. Art Mendoza back to Kabul for their flight home and saw the aftermath of a big fight the night before. We were warned prior to leaving by another security firm (we share all intel at all times in the field) that there had been much fighting outside Gamberi and sure enough when we got to the point in the road where the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) had set up on the shoulders we saw this:

Looking east from the ANP position
Looking east from the ANP position - this is the same position mentioned in my last post

Apparently a group of Armed Opposition Group (AOG) fighters sneaked up the draw between the ANA and ANP positions and shot up the truck above with small arms and RPG’s. They then fired at both the ANP positions to their west and the ANA positions to their east before withdrawing across the Kabul River. The ANA and ANP spent the next hour or so firing at each other. By the time we rolled past the ANA had taken their casualties and withdrawn leaving the poor police to sit in their shallow little holes to suck up all the rain we have been getting of late.

We are convinced that somebody in Laghaman Province is running an RPG gunners school because we see reports of RPG-only attacks on police posts along this portion of the road every 4 to 5 weeks. Normally they volley 10 rounds in rapid succession and withdraw causing little to no damage. But we know there is at least one RPG mechanic out there (most likely in Laghaman) who can really put some English on his rockets and make very difficult shots consistently. I bet he has a group of students he is working with and what better way to train them then to take on the softest of soft targets like the silly deployment of ANA and ANP forces five feet off the main road? You could tell just by looking at them they had no fire plans, no fire control measures, and probably no plan at all. What they need is not more PowerPoint lectures from DynCorp contractors they need mentors with them in the field and there are not enough here.

The same truck viewed from the ANA postion - note how close the two were to each other
The same truck viewed from the ANA position - note how close the two were to each other. The positions are squad size (10 guys) and they are "dug in" (if you can call it that) in a straight line with machineguns on their flanks

Yesterday I was returning from dropping off James the Marine and because I had no choice had to make the return drive alone. As I rounded the Mahipar Pass I saw a wall of trucks pulled off to the side which indicated some sort of blockage in the tunnel. I drove far enough to get a look before turning around and saw it was a U.S. Army convoy stopped right in the middle of the pass. Once the traffic stops flowing in Afghanistan it is very difficult to start it going again because all the east bound traffic will move into every nook and cranny available to their front and block the road. It takes a good hour to get them out of your way so that a convoy can move again. But I was ready checking my wallet to find 100 Euros there I turned around and headed back to the German PX at the ISAF camp outside Kabul to score some premium German beer (at only 12 euro a case) figuring if I had to drive back in the dark I might as well do so with a truck load of beer.

Sure enough when I made it back to the Mahipar Pass it was clear and I was smoothly driving for the next 45 minutes until I got outside Surobi.   Rounding a corner I saw all the trucks parked in the right lane and taking the left lane I moved far enough down to see the same convoy parked in the middle of the road. They sat there for 30 minutes and then took another 30 minutes to get moving before stopping again maybe five miles down the road. I had worked my way up to the front of the line by then and 45 minutes into this stop I approached the convoy tail gunner to ask if they would let me through. He got on the radio and in a few minutes said “no because the road to the front is blocked (by the west bound traffic) and I couldn’t make it through anyway.” I asked him what the problem was and he replied “don’t know” which is exactly the correct answer because he has no business telling me a damn thing just because I’m a lone American with a CAC card. He brushed me off without a moment’s hesitation like a real pro I like seeing that kind of heads up thinking by our troops.

The American convoy is stopped and the vehicles are stacking up behind it.  The same is true to their fron so when they start moving they will have to thread their way through the local traffice which sort of defeats the whole purpose of keeping the traffic away from them at all times.  It also makes it easier for the bad guys to target them.
The American convoy is stopped and the vehicles are stacking up behind it. The same is true to their front so when they start moving they will have to thread their way through the local traffic which defeats the whole purpose of keeping the traffic away from them at all times.

But the longer we sat the more upset the locals behind me became. Soon the sound of a thousand car horns filled the air. Over a hundred men were now standing around my vehicle trying to get the ANA troops to let them pass. As is usually the case there were several fluent English speakers amongst them and they came over to chat me up about what was happening. I was as pissed as they were and being a poltroon by nature freely admitted this. Then out of the crowd came a man with a very sick looking child and I was pressed into service to intervene on his behalf. I walked over to the tail gunner and asked if a vehicle with a medical emergency could get through. He asked how many more vehicles contain people with medical emergencies and I glanced back saw about a thousand vehicles stacked up behind me and said “probably about a thousand” which made the kid laugh. Again correct response from the tail gunner who seems like a great trooper because if you let one vehicle through the rest will follow TIA this is Afghanistan. To make a long story short it took me five hours to get back to the Taj. Several more times the American convoy stopped and each time the fluent English speaker from Leeds England came up to stand near my car. That is a very Pashtun thing to do he was watching out for me to ensure none of the drivers behind took out their frustrations on the lone American in their midst. Not that I thought this would occur but it was a nice gesture.

Very poor picture taken from right behind the American convoy which has been stopped for about 45 minutes at this point
Very poor picture taken from right behind the American convoy which has been stopped for about 45 minutes at this point. It would be much easier and safer for them to let traffic pass so that the bad guys don't set up for them with an IED or VBIED as they start to move. It would also help them with their efforts to win over the Afghan population if they started running convoys like their Afghan Army counterparts. Once used to local driving patterns they could then apply the "rule of opposites" which would give them a fighting chance at recognizing and stopping VBIED's before they attack. This convoy technique of keeping all Afghans away from US vehicles at all times has never, not once, prevented a VBIED attack but has caused the hundreds of deaths and casualties amongst innocent (if not reckless) Afghans.

The struggle of the average Afghan to find enough to eat; the continued lack of performance by the Afghan security forces and the inability of the ISAF military to operate amongst the Afghans without treating every civilian they come in contact with as a crazed jihadist killer are linked. The United States and her allies have spent billions in Afghanistan and have very little to show for it. Afghanistan is currently in a death spiral not because of a lack of aid funds but rather how those funds have been spent and allocated. Every indication we see on the ground is that more money will be thrown into the same failed programs currently being implemented; another demonstration that we have not learned any meaningful lessons.

The reason these programs won’t work is that they are off the shelf solutions designed to make the lives of bureaucrats and contracting officers easy rather than bringing assistance to the Afghans. The Department of State has spent 2.5 BILLION bringing in police trainers, jail guard trainers, and lawyers to train the judges. Now what the hell does anyone at DynCorp or PAE know about Afghan police or Afghan jurisprudence? Nothing of course but that is not why they win these large lucrative contracts it is because they already have large lucrative contracts and therefore know how to work with DS contracting officers to make their lives easier. What is the return on our investment? After the large scale jail break in Kandahar last summer investigators discovered there were over 100 illegal cell phones in the hands of inmates. When we capture important Taliban leaders and send them to the main Afghan jail at Pul-i-Charki they are often back home before the soldiers who delivered them. The Afghan police are unreliable and prone to preying on the population. The current Afghan government is more of a problem than a solution. It is being out-governed by the Taliban in the many districts under Taliban control. Who “built capacity” with these Taliban? How many billions of dollars were spent teaching the Taliban to administer justice and civil control so effectively?

Black tea (Tor Chai) is a popular drink in cold weather - the Afghans import tons from Vietnam indicating they have a little more "capacity" than they are given credit for
Black tea (Tor Chai) is a popular drink in cold weather - the Afghans import tons from Vietnam without the assistance of the US or UN indicating they have a little more"capacity" than they are given credit for

What the State department did was to use off the shelf solutions which had nothing to do with the situation in Afghanistan and everything to do with what was easy for the Department of State. After all when you spend all your time in Afghanistan locked inside a gigantic posh embassy compound how in the world would you know what the Afghans need? You are forced to work through the Afghan government and have any of you ever read one news story about the Afghan government that was not about the appalling amount of corruption found at every level in every ministry? I would say you have not but as an insider I will tell you there is one ministry the ministry of aviation is every bit as honest and effective as its international counterparts. In fact the Afghans working in that ministry are more honest than any politician to be found within 153 miles of Chicagobut I digress.

The State Department is and has been the lead agency in Afghanistan and their performance here is every bit the fiasco as their performance in Iraq. Remember that Paul Brenner was a compromise President Bush made between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon he gave the boys at state a year to get Iraq back on its feet but Brenner used his 12 months to destroy the country and hamstring our military. He unilaterally made decisions for which we paid in American blood. The price tag for his incompetence paid by the Iraqis is probably beyond measure. Colin Powell, who foisted Brenner upon Iraq had more to do with the fiasco portion of that war than Rumsfeld but you’d have to do some serious archival research to know it because the nitwits in the MSM would not in a million years burden the people of America with good honest reporting which strayed from their preferred narrative.

That is not to say that the US Military has demonstrated the capacity, tactical flexibility, or ability to assess the situation on the ground, learn from past mistakes, and formulate a strategic framework under which all operations in Afghanistan can be conducted. They have not and we are risking another Vietnam and I am not talking about getting beaten by the rag tag assortment of Taliban and neo Taliban on the field of battle. I am talking about having the American peoples will to fight crippled by a media who are able to reveal that the Generals are spinning tales that are as stupid and uninformed as the old “five O’ Clock follies” in Saigon were back in Vietnam. Let me make this point clear I am not critical of the American (or any other ISAF) soldier who is over here doing his duty. Every one of them volunteered to join a military at war and their grit, determination to do what is right and courage are commendable. I am critical of the generals who seem unable to implement the very doctrine they tout as the answer to the counterinsurgency battle. I am not the only one who sees things this way please take the time to read this excellent piece by a retired Army Colonel who is much better writer than I am. He is calling for a massive forced retirement amongst American General Officers which would be a smart move given their lackluster performance and one with serious historical precedent.

James the Marine and I running the ring road to Khandahar back in the day.  Armed contractors are cheaper, faster and cost pennies on the dollar to deployed military forces.
James the Marine and I running the ring road to Khandahar back in the day. Armed contractors are cheaper, faster and have proven more effective at the stability operations battle than the international military forces operating in Afghanistan.

The only reason we are not at the point where the American people start to treat their military in the manner it was treated in the early seventies is that our media is even more incompetent than the Department of State or the Pentagon. If we had the same type of reporters as the ones who worked Vietnam year in and year out they would be able to throw the BS flag at every single briefing they are given because the things I hear the big Army saying about the situation here are flat out nonsense. This situation will not last much longer. The drive by media is starting to get a clue as I saw when talking with Martha Raddatz the Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent from ABC news. The only thing stopping her from getting a really comprehensive first hand view of how silly the DS and military approach is to this conflict is her own silly corporate “force protection” rules. But she got an earful from me and spent a few hours roaming about the countryside like the thousands of other internationals who live and work here. Not that you can do that in every district or province in Afghanistan there are many where it would now be suicidal for a westerner to walk around knowing where you are safe and where you are not is the most basic function of military intelligence. Why we cannot figure that out and act accordingly is beyond me.

Here is the connection to my rambling observations. If our billions of dollars went to implement the infrastructure improvements which the Afghans at the district level have been pleading for during the last six to seven years you could instantly start employing massive amounts of idle unemployed men. But you cannot do this with the Department of Sate contracting vehicles nor through large, bloated, international companies like Louis Berger or DynCorp or PAE or KBR or any of the other current “implementers” who are receiving most of the reconstruction monies. You need a company like Louis Berger to build big things like hydro electric dams, posh embassy compounds, or international airports. You do not need Louis Berger to build roads and schools. The Afghans can do that themselves. You also don’t need the nitwits of Foggy Bottom deciding how to implement a reconstruction plan because what you get is what the average Afghan sees now. Lots of police posts, government office building and training bases being built for the very people and organizations who abuse them, steal from them and fail to protect them from other (non uniformed) criminals or the Taliban. The only way forward are civil military teams who are embedded into the community, who stay in the community and who are able to green light and supervise Afghan designed and built irrigation, road, and micro hydro projects. An excellent prototype of exactly this kind of team was working in Afghanistan back in the early days before Big Army came and put all the SF teams back inside the large FOB’s. It will be the topic of my next post.

Road and irrigation projects can employ massive amounts of manpower providing much needed pay to the average Afghan
Road and irrigation projects can employ massive amounts of manpower providing much needed pay to the average Afghan. Photo by Holly Barnes Higgins

Let me stress something my friends and that is time is running out for us in Afghanistan. Soon the MSM is going to discover they are missing a great opportunity to play in their favorite game of pin the tail on the Pentagon spokesman. They are still sore at the military for making them collectively look like a bunch of know-nothing amateurs back in 2003 during the massive military embed for the storming of Iraq.

There are several multi million dollar programs being funded to bring laptops and internet to Afghan school children.  The Fab Folk have done that at a cost of zero to the American tax payer and with a shoe string budget.  If any of you know people who award grants for this sort of thing send them to the fab Jbad web site.  These seven people accomplished more in three weeks than a hundred highly paid US AID contractors do in a year
There are several multimillion dollar programs being funded to bring laptops and internet to Afghan school children. To date they have not sent one computer and have established not one internet system. The Fab Folk have done that at a cost of zero to the American tax payer and with a shoe string budget. If any of you know people who award grants for this sort of thing send them to the fab lab Jbad web site. These seven people accomplished more in three weeks than a hundred highly paid US AID contractors do in a year. Somebody should fund them.

I asked the local headmaster what he was going to do about the highway men who lurk in the shadows around Bagrami but he said it is no longer a problem and would say no more. That means the Taliban have stepped in and are now active right behind my guesthouse. In time we will have to reach some sort of accommodation with them. We are not going to be attacked because the local people would not allow it and the Talibs, if they are here, are local people too. Plus we have excellent fields of fire, Pashin (not Pashtun) tribal fighters for guards and lots of guns and ammo. Local Talibs do not attack hard targets like us for good reason they are trying to feed their families too and will be of little use to them if they get “seriously kilt” by the Free Rangers at FOB Taj. We are probably teaching their kids in the Fab Lab; in fact I know we are. But This Is Afghanistan and if they are here it is going to cost me more damn money to be left alone. Just as in Chicago, you have to pay to play and just as in Chicago one check will not cover the entire bill if you know what I mean.