After the ceremonies described in the last three posts we had one more task to complete before we went home. In the ANSF after action report on the ambush of Haji Nematullah, they reported seizing three large buckets of Home Made Explosives (HME) and three “milled metal devices with explosives inside”. We had no idea what they meant and were afraid they might be Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) mines. EFP’s were a big problem in Iraq and their source of origin is Iran. Iran being about 1/2 mile away from our safe house in Zaranj we took this report seriously and wanted to see them for ourselves. We also submit reports to the Marines at Camp Leatherneck when we get to verify stuff like this not because they asked to but as a courtesy on the off chance they too were wondering what the three “milled metal devices with explosives inside” were. We have no idea if they already know what we are reporting but it seems like the right thing to do.
On our last day in Zaranj we headed over the Provincial ANP headquarters to talk with the provincial commanders of the Afghan national Police (ANP) and National Directorate for Security (NDS) and to inspect the explosives recovered from the October 5th ambush.
After talking with the Chief of Police we went out to inspect the take from last weeks ambush in their explosives locker.
What we had come to see is what was described as a “milled metal device with explosives inside” and that turned out to be true except they were not EFP’s; they were artillery fuses.
That was good news – EFP’s are a devastatingly effective weapon able to easily penetrate military grade armor. I have not heard of them being in Afghanistan but I checked with The Bot who had heard of one being found around Ghazni last year. A flood of them entering Afghanistan would be alarming to put it mildly.
As we walked back towards our vehicles Mike Yon asked our escort – one of the local NDS men who spoke English – what else they needed and he replied “somebody to fix our trucks”.
We continued on to find the Chief of Police having a Press Conference about a recent drug bust.
I appeared on the Aloyna Show last week and talked to the current conventional wisdom about the need to keep some sort of military presence in Afghanistan for the next 10 years. A link to that show is here and my segment starts around the 34 minute mark.
Our military is a big cumbersome leviathan designed to do one thing and one thing only; crush other nation state armies. Our military is good at killing bad guys. But killing bad guys is the easy part of war. It is everything else you have to do simultaneously that’s the hard part. We once knew how to do the “other things besides killing people” part of expeditionary warfare but that was long ago when the units dispatched half way around the world took a month or two to get there and remained in country for the duration. Our military can’t do that anymore – contractors can (stay in the same Province for years and years) and in doing so could fill in for fighting infantry but then you are outsourcing the fighting to mercenaries and have little reason to maintain such a large force structure.
If I remember my Roman History correctly Rome started down the road to ruin when they became unwilling to bear the burden of military service and outsourced fighting to Barbarian tribes. We have not reached that point. I know the Marine Corps is currently so flush with tier one (99.9% of the current pool) enlistment applicants that the wait for boot camp is 7 months minimum. The wait for candidates entering the officer training pipeline is over a year. We still produce the men needed for our military force structure but the amount of money it takes to do so is ridiculous. Using what the Romans called Auxilia for contingency operations makes perfect sense from a financial and political point of view and I support it 100% but our elites won’t.
When you are unable to do what is important, the unimportant becomes important which is why we spend millions to fly 5 pound bags of crushed ice from Saudi Arabia to our FOB’s. I saw that in Nangarhar – in Helmand there is an ice plant on Camp Bastion run by the Brits but the Marines I rode around with did not have coolers full of ice, which was mandatory with the American army units in Nangarhar. The Vietnam War may not be the best example of doing things right, but my father spent 13 months fighting in Leatherneck Square and the Arizona Territory of Northern I Corps (on the DMZ between South and North Vietnam). In all that time he saw ice once – it was flown in off a Navy ship – but by the time they had divided it evenly among the rifle companies it had mostly melted. Today crushed ice for coolers full of expensive sports drinks and bottled water is considered essential for troop morale.
There are Marines and soldiers in Afghanistan now who man small patrol bases and never see hot chow; let alone ice. I blogged about them in the past. But the guys (and now gals) who are out at pointy end of spear are at most 4% of our deployed military. Everyone else gets ice on demand and has access to unlimited amounts of high quality chow, pecan pie and ice cream.
The press rarely tells the story of the small minority of deployed troops who live, fight and die in conditions their forefathers would recognize unless it involves some sort of tragedy. I read one of the best pieces in this genre this morning in the Wall Street Journal. The story was well told and as supportive of the fighting men as such a piece can be. The journalist who wrote it played the story straight and did a fantastic job with such a tragic topic.
Yet by far, the most common story line concerning the troops deployed to Afghanistan are like this piece, which claims half of the vets returning from Afghanistan need medical treatment for the lingering effects of blasts and psychological trauma. At the very most 15% of those deployed to Afghanistan ever leave the FOB so how can half of them be so damaged?
Do I sound conflicted to you? I know I do, and it will take some distance to get things in perspective. And distance is what I have; I’m back in the US staying with friends while undergoing treatment for the lingering effects of a blast injury. Ironic, I know, given what I just wrote above. I am clean shaven, wearing normal American clothes no longer hear the call to prayer being blasted from speakers all over town five times a day. I miss hearing that call and don’t know why but I really miss it. That is so strange but it is and it is also nice to be back home.
Last week I received and heads up from Mullah John that General Allen and Ambassador Crocker were on 60 Minutes and was able to watch the show on AFN. The one thing I noticed when watching General Allen was the emotion clearly evident as he discussed the truck bomb has had asked the Pakistani military to help stop.That bomb hit a US base in Wardak Province injuring over 8o soldiers. General Allen was told that one of the Pakistani politicians remarked that if he knew about the truck bomb why did he not stop it? He was clearly not amused by the question. I also saw something from Ambassador Crocker I really like. When asked why he came out of retirement he said that when the President tells you he needs you do a job there is only one correct response. I respect that.
I make no claim to having a clue what or how General Allen is thinking as he approaches this war. I knew him 20 years ago when I was an instructor at the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course where he was our group chief. I like General Allen and count him among the finest officers I served with during my time in the Corps. I don’t know Ambassador Crocker at all – I just liked his response on 60 minutes and I am sure he is an exceptionally talented leader.
Having qualified my expertise on the matter I’d like to make an educated guess, and that is General Allen is not the kind of commander who will grant enemy sanctuary indefinitely. I doubt Ambassador Crocker is any different. General Allen is backed up by the Commander of CENTCOM, General Mattis who has a well earned reputation as an exceptionally aggressive and successful general. General Allen also spent three years as the Deputy Commander CENTCOM and the Marine Corps rarely leaves a three start general in one job for three years. During those years General Allen was General Petraeus’s right hand man and he did that while, for the most part, remaining off the main stream press radar. General Allen has juice – and it is not the kind of juice one normally associates with politically powerful people because it is not obvious main stream media juice. It is back channel juice and that is powerful stuff.
The topic is Pakistan and I thought it the perfect place to put in photos of my travels through the Khyber Pass. I’ve done the low budget Khyber Pass visit and the high budget (escorting a senior diplomat from Japan) tour too. The pictures calm me as I’m venting my spleen about the stupidity of our political class below – hopefully they do the same for you too.
Herschel Smith is unimpressed with the reported build up in the east of Afghanistan and I can’t remember a time he’s been wrong about anything. His assessment could prove to be spot on but this is one time I hope it isn’t. And for more bad news check this out: President Karzai has threatened to back Pakistan if the US conducts cross border operations. Secretary of State Clinton stopped by for a few words with President Karzai who immediately gave a TV interview telling the world he would side with Pakistan. I guess the SecState failed to get her message across. Big frigging surprise there.
Suppose for a moment that the one glaring problem we face is no longer considered acceptable. That problem is that our enemies have sanctuary once they cross over the border to Pakistan. What if we have reached a point where we are no longer going to tolerate it? The reason I ask is because what exactly are the Pakistani’s going to do about it?
They can threaten to cut off our supply lines. We have alternative supply lines running out of Central Asia and seem to have stockpiled enough of the 4- B’s (beans bullets, bandages, and beer). Wait, that can’t be right as everyone in the military knows drinking beer is one step away from consorting with Satan (according to Armed Forces TV and radio and social media outlets). Drink just one beer and the next thing you know your thumping the wife and trying to sell the baby for poker money. So we have stocked up the three B’s and we can hold out with our stash much longer than the Pakistani economy can withstand a sea and air blockade because that is the level of punishment you have to be ready to dish out if you plan to go into Waziristan and start taking scalps.
We have known since the very first days of this conflict that the Taliban use the border area for sanctuary. We have been good about not going across in “hot pursuit” having limited incursions into Pakistan to one that I know of.
We have alternate supply lines, we have stocks of stuff on hand, we still need to move supplies through Pakistan so what to do? How about this famous quote “Never take counsel in your fears”. The Pakistani’s have been playing us for fools since about December of 2001 when we let them rescue Osama bin Laden. Before that they were all about cooperation, as was every other country in the world except the ones that don’t matter anyway. The reason they were so cooperative was they knew we were in the blind rage stage of being pissed off about 9/11. That is several steps up the pissed off ladder and nobody at that time was sure what we were going to do. All they knew was that we were capable of doing whatever the hell we wanted to do. We still are. In fact given the billions spent on high tech platforms we could destroy more, faster, and with greater efficiency than we could a decade ago.
After watching the 60 minutes segment with General Allen I am certain of one thing. He’s pissed. And he’s pissed about how Pakistan has been playing us and he is not the kind of man you want pissed at you. Take it from me because I’ve been there with him and it’s not pleasant. Most of you do not know General Allen or anything about him. What you need to know is he understands that unlimited sanctuary is no way to fight a war. And even though he doesn’t have the political capitol of General Petraeus he has his confidence. As he does with General Mattis – another fighting general who is not too keen on granting anyone sanctuary. I know calls like going across the border in hot pursuit are the Presidents to make but we all now know (thanks to Ron Suskind) that the White House is dysfunctional and getting the President to make a firm decision about anything almost impossible. National level leadership of that kind allows for subordinates to make “interpretations of intent”. A fancy way of saying they can make their own decisions and take the actions they think fit Obama’s intent.
At the moment nobody is too sure about Obama’s intent on anything let alone Pakistan. Pakistan has proved a most unworthy ally. They actively support cross border incursion and have done so with impunity. What is to stop General Allen from coming across the border and reducing Miramshaw to a heap of smoking ashes? Nothing. And when Pakistan starts wailing and moaning about it do you know what we should tell them? First word starts with an F the second with a Y. What are they going to do about it? Fight us? That one would be over quick.
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, no big words, and no cussing. I was an officer in the Marines and know that cussing is good for morale, but only enlisted men rate morale, so, only they can cuss with impunity. Officers are supposed to find more appropriate language to record observations, write reports, etc… My Dad reminded me of this fact due to my proclivity for inserting colorful language in my posts – which, for the record, I think is (word deleted) but I’m trying to talk him into writing for the blog and therefore am compelled to entertain him.
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 implementors 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 very 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 and spend 12 hours a day on the computers doing I have no idea what. But, good intentions are meaningless and the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to bring people like that to Afghanistan and keeping them here for a year 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 proper drainage put in its place. We discovered that back in the 1960’s when Lashkar Gha 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 and started using them to tether sheep and goats. The only way to water a field is to flood it; everybody knows that, and that is exactly what the farmers told the men who showed them how to use drip irrigation 8 years ago. 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; if proving yourself right mattered the entire Helmand River Valley would be using drip irrigation and about 1/3 of the water they are currently using to water their crops.
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 on the FOB’s. 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.
I know I sound like a broken record. It just seems like it is always one step forward and two steps back around here. My PM Bashir is now gone having moved on to bigger and better things. I’m right behind him as my time living here is rapidly coming to an end. The people of Zaranj have already been forgotten and are now on their own.
It doesn’t have to be this way and probably will never be this way again because we can’t afford to spend 2 billion dollars per week (according to last nights 60 minutes segment) to field an army of fobbits. 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”. There is where we should be spending 2 billion a week and we’d even see a return on our investment. How strange would that be?
We are finishing up our projects and preparing to call it a war. This year we have been operating in 20 Provinces, all of them kinetic and getting every project we started finished on schedule and on budget. I now routinely move in Ghost Team mode throughout the Southwest using a few tricks of the trade that we’ve picked up along the way. The way we do what we do is our Afghan staff is awesome and the key regional positions held by Afghans we’ve known for years. We have been successful where every other implementer has failed because we (the expat project managers) visit every project, track all expenditures, and use technology to GPS/time/date the photographs sent in daily by our monitoring crew. Plus we have been doing infrastructure projects for so long that we no longer have to haggle over cement or gravel or steel prices in the local bazaars.
Being successful in the places we worked probably raised the expectations of the average local citizen far above what is reasonable. Operating with low overhead, no security company to impede our operations while directly implementing projects in areas thought to be too unstable would mean something if we were on the winning side of this conflict. But we’re not so it means very little in the big scheme of things. That’s because the entire edifice on which the ISAF Afghanistan counterinsurgency campaign is based has been built on a foundation of lies. The central government in Kabul in not functional now and will not be anytime soon. The Kabul based government line ministries have the ability to project authority down to the district level which is madness given the sensitivity of Afghans concerning legal title to their land. Calling a central government that was installed and is supported by the guns of foreigners legitimate does not make it so in the eyes of the Afghan people. And they don’t give a damn about what the international community has to say on the topic
The ability of modern western armies to train and mentor Afghan security forces are zero. ISAF insists that their troops have a certain amount of protection and access to unlimited quantities of high quality western food flown into the country at God only knows what cost. In order to achieve this goal ISAF is quartered on FOB’s that are physically separated from the forces they are mentoring. That adds to the psychological separation that all westerners have to deal with when they choose to reside in countries like Afghanistan. It also subtracts from their ability to win friends or influence the men they have been sent to train.
The inability of the Government in Kabul to protect the capitol was on display during the attack in Kabul on the ISAF HQ?American Embassy complex. When the attack from Abul Haq Square started at I was skyping with The Bot who was in his office which is just down the street from the building the Taliban were using for their attack. He reported firefights breaking out in a 2-kilometer circle around him. I told him it sounded (over the Skype connection) like the Tet offensive and he might want to think about heading down to the bunker but he wouldn’t budge. He’s resposible for the Japanesse aid workers who were already in the bunker and needed to have eyes on the compound in case villians started to slither over the walls.
Here is what happend:
Six bad guys rolled up in a Toyota van to a building under construction at Abul Haq Square, exited the van, shot the security guard stationed in front and occupied the building. The building had been under construction in 2007 but then construction was stopped because (this is local gossip and may not be true) there was direct line of sight into the Presidential compound from the upper floors . There are probably 10 buildings now in Kabul tall enough and close enough for direct line of sight into the Presidential compound which doesn’t make the story untrue but the Occam Razor approach would speculate that the builders ran out of bribe money. TIA (This Is Afghanistan)
So the villains run upstairs where they have a stash consisting of 5 AK 47’s, a 82mm (Type 65) Recoilless Rifle, two RPG launchers (with a bunch of rounds) and an unknown number of Russian F1 fragmentation grenades. From their pre-staged sniper nest they had direct line of sight to the US embassy and ISAF HQ compounds. As soon as they are set up inside the building they started cutting loose with the Recoilless Rifle. The AK’s and hand grenades were used on the ANP troops who came in the building after them. At the same time suicide bombers attacked three separate ANSF targets around the city.
This is important to know; the max effective range of a type 65 Recoilless Rifle is around 1750 meters, for an AK 47 about 400, which is probably about the best you can do with the American M4’s given their shorter barrels. Remember those distances ….now here’s the timeline:
1320 – 6 fighters (Haqqani type) start the attack
1415 – The critical response unit arrives with their ISAF mentors.
1500 Two 82mm shells hit USAID compound.
1515 – The ANP shoot a suspected suicide bomber outside the ANCOP HQ but he detonates against an ANCOP HMMVW wounding two of the cops.
1535 A suicide bomber detonates at the rear entrance of the Shamshod Regional Police HQ killing one ANP officer and wounding three civilians who were in the immediate vicinity.
1540 ANP officers shoot a suspected suicide bomber and he fails to detonate because he was carrying a large charge in a sports bag and that allowed the security forces to examine the bomb. It contained 7 kg of military grade explosives and was loaded with nails to provide fragmentation. The bag also contained one F1 hand grenade and an AK rifle.
1610 The villains launch two more 82mm rounds at the embassy but they overshoot and land around the main mosque in Wazir Akbar Khan.
1930 Some sort of SF team from ISAF makes an assault and the villains respond with a shower of hand grenades rolled down the stairs. The SF door kickers kill two of the six bad guys on the fifth floor and then slow down taking the entire rest of the night to kill the remaining four fighters. The assaulters (whoever they were) did not take any casualties during the clearance phase of the operation.
0700 Incident is declared over.
What was all the firing The Bot and I heard coming from? I thought it was undisciplined fire from Afghan Security Forces who were shooting at ghosts. Turns out I was wrong. Most of the shooting The Bot was hearing came from the ISAF Headquarters where the Macedonian guard force joined by Americans from the HQ staff started shooting at a building 1000 meters away with AK 47’s (Macedonians) and M4 rifles (Americans). What they thought they were doing and where all those rounds landed is a mystery to me but there is a private girls school that is 600 meters out from ISAF HQ and directly in the line of fire so it would be a good guess to assume most the ISAF rounds hit there. I can guarantee that none of them came close to hitting the 6 gunmen who were outside the effective range of ISAF battle rifles.
Despite the wild fire from the ISAF troops this incident was handled well by the Afghan Security Forces. Two of the three suicide bombers were shot before they could strike and the focal point of the incident was isolated and contained rapidly. Most importantly the door kickers took their time rooting out the villains who, as is typical for Taliban fighters, did not fight with much skill despite achieving complete surprise and being prepared to fight to the death.
The subsequent assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani is something on which I’ll withhold comment. I knew Rabbani’s deceased son-in law very well and have no desire to share my opinions on this matter except for two: That was one well planned and executed operation that reveals a skill set we in the west no longer have. And seeing Ambassador Crocker accuse the Pakistani’s of collusion in the attack was a refreshingly honest public statement from a senior diplomat.
Blind support of GIRoA is not a mission, but an abdication of the imperative of paying attention to reality when you define a mission.The American military has a counterinsurgency doctrine based on supporting the local government, and they are not going to tailor their operations to fit reality despite the fact we have do not have a host nation partner that is seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people. The six fighters who launched the main attack obviously had staged thousands of pounds worth of weapons and ordnance inside Kabul’s Ring of Steel and that could only be done with the active assistance of people with seniority in the Kabul security establishment. Corruption in this country is that bad.
Richard Fernandez of The Belmount Club posted today about the consequences of building edifices on the foundation of a lie. This quote from the post lays it out beautifully:
But just as the appeasers have now about abolished the last remaining justification for national self defense and as the Left continued to operate on the Western side of the Berlin Wall in the guise of their transnational schemes, nothing in recent history indicates that being correct about an issue settles anything. Being right has nothing to do with politics. It’s what you can sell that counts. The price of keeping those product lines going was on full display on the world markets today. Stocks plunged all over the world, the 10-Year Treasury yields hit their lowest level since 1940s..
Not just because policymakers have gotten it wrong about the root cause of terrorism, or the Euro; but also about Too Big To Fail, population policy, multiculturalism, a crippling environmentalism and Global Warming, to name a few. The financial, national security and educational systems of the world are in utter collapse because they are stuffed with lies, which even when they are shown to be obviously false suck up trillions of dollars in their pursuit. And nothing will turn the global elites from continuing their ruinous path until they have spent the last nickle and dime they can lay their hands on.
There is little that will be done to change the tragic trajectory of Afghanistan. We blew it years ago by ignoring the obvious and assuming that somehow we could midwife the birth of Afghanistan into modernity. We now have a gigantic military presence that has assumed roles and missions they cannot accomplish by VTC meeting, endless closed loop reporting and chin wagging about good governance or women’s rights among themselves inside the safety of a FOB. Afghanistan is not going to end well and we may not know (in my lifetime) if the investment of blood and treasure was worth it. But it is not Afghanistan that worries me it is the consequences of basing everything we do on lies.
The resolute reluctance by the American government to deal with reality in Afghanistan is not the exception to a rule; it is the rule. The rule of the big lie which infuses our military from top to bottom. I remember vividly the first time I experienced it in the military. Former Commandant of the Marine Crops General Krulak was then the Commanding General in Quantico, Virginia where I was an instructor at The Basic School. There was a new class of Lieutenants on deck and the General had come to welcome them on day one of their 6-month course. The first thing he asked was “who here thinks that a female is incapable of doing anything and everything a man can do”? I almost had a heart attack when I saw some of my new Lt’s preparing to state the obvious fact that there is no way the female gender of the species can physically compete with the male gender in any endeavor that requires strength, stamina, or endurance. Fortunately the good General had paused for only a second before concluding with this warning “because if you do I’ll dismiss you from our Corps this very afternoon” (that may not be an exact quote but it’s close).
On day one of their official Marine Corps careers this group of 300 odd men were exposed to the corruption of the lie. For the rest of their careers (those who stayed in are now Lieutenant Colonels) they have had to deal with an organizational defect built on what they know to be a lie. This is how you end up with senior officers who will look you straight in the eye and tell you they are here to support GIRoA who has shown so much promise and improvement that there is no reason to be here after 2014.
What can you say when confronted with such stupidity? I don’t know – I know the Helmand Province is unnaturally free of IED’s and SAF attacks this past week. If that trend keeps up it is safe to deduce that somebody on the Taliban side now understands the lie and have switched tactics in response. The Taliban once massed hundreds of fighters to go after small outposts in the mountains or the British in Helmand Province. They can’t do that now without becoming a HIMAR magnet so going to ground, keeping minor pressure on ISAF with IED’s and shoot and scoot attacks while simultaneously running an assassination campaign targeting Afghan officials is a sound tactical plan. The hit on Rabbani was a most impressive operation and nobody here thinks he’s the last senior government official on the Taliban JPEL (Joint Priority Effects List)
Afghanistan has revealed that NATO can’t fight – it can’t deploy or sustain itself either without the American military but that truth will be ignored for political expediency. Same-same with the flood of USG agency folks who came here as part of the civilian surge; they proved that they are incapable of deploying to or working in primitive environments without literally a million dollars a day (per person) in life support and security services.
I’ll end this post with a quote from Victor Davis Hanson’s book Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power:
Western civilization has given mankind the only economic system that works, a rationalist tradition that alone allows us material and technological progress, the sole political structure that ensures the freedom of the individual, a system of ethics and a religion that brings out the best in humankind and the most lethal practice of arms conceivable.
Western civilization is broke because our elites have robbed future generations to pay for their Utopian schemes. In the process they have ruined many a proud military by insisting on levels of security and life support, which are unnecessary, counter productive to the mission, and ruinous to the fighting spirit. Who cares? You should. Soon a butchers bill for this incompetence will be due. Only the dead have seen the last of war.
Well, the day after E2 posted the droid post, a new report by Afghan “experts” was released. It is a complete crock, which couples blindingly obvious facts to a set of BS recommendations that are so wrong they can easily be dismissed an reasonably intelligent eight year old child (but not our betters in DC). This low hanging fruit I cannot pass up.
So last July, Kabul was graced with a 72 hour visit from the brain trust of The Center for American Progress. As one might expect from the name of this fine organization, they are statists who want nothing to do with progress – if one defines progress to mean getting things done in an efficient, appropriate manner. No, they came to contribute their brain power and earn their seven digit salaries the new “old fashioned” way – by using their impressive academic credentials and political connections to write up a “point paper,” which contains no insight, no understanding, nothing new, and is, in the end, flat-out, demonstrably wrong. But you get that from your hyper-credentialed betters don’t you?
Here are the blindingly obvious “insights” contained in the report linked above; you ready?
1. Reset the relationship with President Hamid Karzai while still using leverage to advance reforms
2. Clarify the message
3. Support and invest in democratic institutions and forces
4. Support a more inclusive peace process.
5. Shift from a development strategy to a sustainable economic strategy
I kid you not; this is what several million dollars funding buys from DC think tanks. If I need to explain how wrong, stupid, boneheaded, or just plain ignorant these five ideas are, then you haven’t been reading FRI long enough. What the geniuses from the Center for American Progress are touting is to continue down the same path we have been on for a decade. Typical statist bullshit from elites who, by virtue of their connections and political advocacy, will always be immune to the consequences of the disastrous policies they inflict upon the citizenry. So, as naturally as day follows night, this brings me to Harry Truman and the Berlin Airlift.
Message from E2: Stay with him folks, this is not an arbitrary tangent; he’s gonna bring it around.
How did the Berlin Airlift come about and why was it successful? My understanding of that critical period in world history has been wrong for most of my life. Like many of you (I’m betting) the period between the end of the war and the blockade of Berlin was compressed in my memory: war ends, Marshall plan starts, the Soviets dick things up because they are stupid and the new Air Force sorts it all out with an impressive military airlift. That is not what happened.
The true story behind the Berlin Airlift is fascinating in many respects. First, there were three years of flailing about (which makes our efforts in Afghanistan almost appear to be favorable in comparison) before the Soviets started the blockade. Second, the men who rescued the effort from the disastrous, amateur hour, FUBAR exercise that it started out as got no credit, while the incompetent who created the mess became Chief of Staff for the Air Force.
The story behind the Berlin Airlift is the subject of a fascinating book by Andrei Cherny call the Candy Bombers. What I did not know before reading it was that nobody in Washington DC thought that Berlin could be supplied by an airlift. Had the initial, unorganized, caffeine and adrenaline fueled effort started by Curtis LeMay continued, the conventional wisdom would have proved correct.
When Harry Truman asked his advisers what should be done about the blockade of Berlin their answers were uniform across the board: cut and run. Here was Harry Truman – a man considered to be the “accidental president” and also considered weak, indecisive and poorly educated.
Truman has a vice president he doesn’t trust, a secretary of defense who was clinically insane (a fact, not a smartass comment), and every general or admiral he asks tells him the same thing: we can’t do the airlift, we can’t fight the Soviets, we have to cut and run. There were two generals who did not agree with this advice – one was Lucius Clay, a man who never saw one day of combat having been forced to head up procurement for the war effort before being appointed the military governor of Berlin. The other a distinctly unpopular general named Bill Turner, who turned the airlift from an exciting seat of the pants misadventure into an operation that ran like a metronome. Every three minutes a plane landed and every three minutes one took off. If there were more than three planes on the ground at the Berlin airport, somebody was in for a severe ass chewing once Turner determined who was responsible. Clay (like Truman) understood the psychological importance of not cutting and running. Turner was the only man who knew how to organize and run a proper airlift. We owe these two men a tremendous debt but I doubt any of you have ever heard of them before. That is sometimes the price of being a real hero- others get the credit and you get sent home.
What I find fascinating is that Truman stuck to his philosophical guns in spite of every newspaper, every TV reporter, every flag officer, and every tenured parasite at the Ivy League schools proclaiming him wrong. This reminds me of President Bush and his experience before The Surge strategy was conceived in Iraq. When he asked the Joint Chiefs for advice, what he got is “keep doing exactly the same thing, only better”.
Where are we going to find leaders who will stand on principle, buck against the tsunami of toxic, ineffective advice thrown at them from elites who went to the “proper schools” for the “right credentials”? Why should we listen to three policy wonks who spent God only knows how much of our (taxpayer) money for three days inside an embassy that is as far removed from the real Afghanistan as the playground at the West Annapolis Elementary School? The simple truth is that the number of acceptable endstates in Afghanistan are limited and none of them involve “clarifying messages” or “resetting” (I hate that word now) relationships with President Karzai.
The best we can do is support regional leaders, train up a respectable security force and then get the hell out. We’ve had ten years of relationship resetting and clarifying of messages. What we need now is a leader to articulate in simple terms what we are going to do and when we are going home. And as Harry Truman proved long ago – sticking by the conviction that America is right and stands with the forces of good on this earth is the most effective way to move past the conflicting advice of the elites and into the pantheon of men who truly made a difference in their time. The men in that pantheon stuck to their guns – we need a leader who will stick to his.
Fighting season is now on. This year the villains strategy appears to involve deliberate attacks on aid projects and let me tell you something we (the outside the wire aid community) are getting hammered. In the last week a majority of us have had to deal with murders, intimidation, shootings, IED’s, kidnappings and attacks on vendors in all areas of the country. I took some serious casualties on two of my projects and I’m pissed about it but not about to quit. There are more men and women outside the wire doing good deeds then any of you suspect; most are smart enough to keep a low profile and I now wish I were one of them.
This will be my last post for awhile. I’m afraid the blog has become too popular thus raising my personal profile too high. We have had to change up in order to continue working. How we move, how we live, our security methodology; all of it has been fine tuned. Part of that change is allowing the FRI blog to go dark. I have no choice; my colleagues and I signed contracts, gave our word, and have thousands of Afghan families who have bet their futures on our promises. If we are going to remain on the job we have to maintain a low profile and that is hard to do with this blog.
As is always the case the outside the wire internationals are catching it from all sides. In Kabul the Afghans have jailed the country manager of Global Security over having four unregistered weapons in the company armory. When the endemic corruption in Afghanistan makes the news or the pressure about it is applied diplomatically to the central government they always respond by throwing a few Expat security contractors in jail. Remember that the next time our legacy media tries to spin a yarn about “unaccountable” security companies and the “1000 dollar a day” security contractor business both of which are products of the liberal media imagination.
We depend on our two fixed wing planes for transportation around the country. Sometimes we are forced to overnight on one of the big box FOB’s where random searches for contraband in contractor billeting is routine. All electronic recording equipment; cell phones, PDA’s laptops, cameras, etc… are all supposed to be registered on base with the security departments. But we aren’t assigned to these bases and cannot register our equipment. Being caught with it means it could be confiscated, being caught with a weapon would result in arrest by base MP’s. Weapons license’s from the Government of Afghanistan aren’t recognized by ISAF. So when we are forced to land on Bastion or Kandahar myself and the other PM’s have to stay on the plane or risk losing our guns.
I’m not bitching because I understand why things are the way they are. Both the British and Americans have armed contractors working for them who have gone through specified pre-deployment training and have official “arming authority”. Afghan based international security types may or may not have any training and they certainly do not have DoD or MoD arming authority. A legally licensed and registered weapon is no more welcomed on a military base in Afghanistan then it would be on a base in America. What is true back home is now true here; remember these bases are crammed full of tens of thousands of people so all sorts of problems crop up with such a large population confined to a small area. It is what it is and for us it is much harder to operate. But not impossible.
Our safety has always come from local people in the communities where we are active. Being armed would be of little value were this not so. Last week when Afghan supervisors from an aid project in the East were kidnapped the local elders commandeered vehicles and took off in hot pursuit of the villains. In my area of responsibility, which covers several provinces, we have around a 90% rate of return for kidnapped personnel from internationally sponsored aid programs (still a rare occurrence in the South unlike the East). Village elders go and get them back with no prodding from us. They do this to keep their end of the bargain and we’re keeping our end too; we’re not stopping projects.
But who, aside from the people directly benefiting cares about our performance? I have spent three years writing poorly edited posts in an effort to describe a way forward that did not cost billions. But our political leaders and military officers would rather be told they could achieve results drinking three cups of tea from a con man peddling news too good to be true. Shura’s are how Afghans solve problems; few of us internationals have the language skill, patience, or reputations required to get things done with a Shura. Sitting down to drink tea while being humble means nothing to Afghans; they have seen enough good intentions and are now only interested in results. When we move into an area, get the lay of the land and then open shop to accept project requests we don’t sit around drinking tea. We need to de-conflict our project requests between the MRRD, local district government, local elders, Marines (if we are in their AO) and USAID. That can’t be done by hours of tea drinking it takes days and days of us traveling to villages or district centers to hammer out compromises. We don’t spend any more time drinking tea than local customs demand.
So now it is time for me to go from blogsphere for a bit. After this contract it will be time for me to physically go. I have a childlike faith in the ability of Gen Allen to come in and make the best of the situation he finds on the ground. Maybe I’ll stick around to see it for myself – we have a long summer ahead and much can change. But staying here means going back to Ghost Team mode.
I want to thank all of the folks who have participated in the comments section, bloggers Matt from Feral Jundi, Old Blue from Afghan Quest, Michael Yon, Joshua Foust from Registan.net, Herschel Smith from The Captains Journal and Kanani from The Kitchen Dispatch for their support and kind email exchanges. Baba Ken of the Synergy Strike Force for hosting me, Jules who recently stepped in to provide much needed editing, and Amy Sun from the MIT Fab Lab for getting me started and encouraging me along the way. Your support meant everything to me; I’m going to miss not being part of the conversation.
2. He launched a unilateral direct action mission deep into Pakistan to kill bin Laden.
This bold move, in view of we have seen from President Obama during the uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya, was decidedly out of character. Then came the press conference, and what should have been a moment of national unity and catharsis has festered into a case study in self-inflicted PR wounds. Only today’s obituary (courtesy of al Qaeda) has managed to quell most of what were increasing doubts in this part of the world that OBL is really dead when there was no doubt about it on Monday. Even worse, the story has now begun to focus on the legality of the assaulters shooting an unarmed bin Laden. It seems to me that the president will exit this news cycle with lower numbers then he entered it with, which is a stunning accomplishment of incompetence.
I watched the President’s news conference live on the internet and it was the strangest Presidential announcement I have ever seen. He could have buttressed his leadership role more forcibly had he confined his remarks to the remarkable efforts of the thousands of people working on this mission for the past 7 + years. Boasting that his absolute confidence in the military to enact this bold plan was justified when they lost one of their insert birds but still completed the mission, and extracted all hands without delay or injuries. That would have reflected the boldness of his personal decision for all to see without him saying anything about himself. But no, Obama couldn’t bring himself to do that… Then the team started leaking details about the mission, which even now are changing daily. They had no need to elaborate on one damn aspect of the mission -namely: we sent in the SEALs, they shot Osama bin Laden in the face, took his body, dumped it into ocean, didn’t take any casualties and left his women and children (minus his adult son) alive. That is all they had to say; the huge advantage of employing JSOC is that all of them have Top Secret security clearances and cannot (nor would not) leak any details to anyone outside of their elite community. The fleshed out story of what happened will come out in time but right now nobody needs to know the details. The mission was impressive enough; the less you say the better- especially because we caught Pakistan with their pants down but still need them if we plan to feed and equip the 200,000 or so troops and contractors currently in Afghanistan.
When the Pakistanis said there were no weapons on the men in bin Laden’s compound, the president could merely have replied “Of course the SEAL’s took all the weapons with them, and by the way, that little AK that Osama was so fond of being photographed with? I’m having the SEAL’s fly it down to President Bush as a fitting addition to his Presidential library for the work he did to hunt him down”. How presidential would Obama appear now if he had said that?
Killing bin Laden is, to use the words of our Vice President, a “Big F___ing Deal”. It leaves the government of Pakistan with a lot of explaining to do, it enables us to define a more acceptable end state, it should allow us to send in our best civ/mil team (Allen and Crocker) with a plan to scale down our massive involvement in Afghanistan and get most of our people out of here. This raid has put us squarely in the drivers seat, but now it is the Obama administration doing the explaining, changing, rearranging their story, spinning like tops and one has to wonder why?
The United Kingdom Mail Online posted a story this morning which may explain some of the confusion at the top. Obama took 16 hours to make the decision according to the article; we were ready to go as early as Thursday. That is not the end of the world – it was a tough decision; a lot of things could have gone wrong. But the mail story got me (and millions of others) surfing the net looking for more detail where I found this link on the wall of The Mark Levine Show facebook page. Check this out:
“I was told in these exact terms, we overruled him. (Obama) I have since followed up and received further details on exactly what that meant, as well as the specifics of how Leon Panetta worked around the president’s persistent hesitation to act. There appears NOT to have been an outright overruling of any specific position by President Obama, simply because there was no specific position from the president to do so. President Obama was, in this case, as in all others, working as an absentee president.”
The link above has popped up all over the internet but I don’t believe it. I think Obama will go down in history as the worst president we have suffered through in my lifetime but even he can’t possibly be as clueless and cowardly as portrayed in the account of an alleged “Washington Insider”. Makes you wonder who wrote those posts and what their political ties are, doesn’t it? It seems that the hosting website has a strong liberal orientation and the first name to pop into my head was H. Clinton.
In Afghanistan, the reaction to Osama’s death was the same as it was Salida, Colorado; nothing. I was in Zaranj when the news broke and aside from being congratulated by my Afghan and Pakistani project managers, not a peep from anyone around me. Killing bin Laden was a huge victory for Americans because it was personal for us but the Afghans, having a much more pragmatic view of the event, immediately concluded that killing bin Laden will make it easier for us to leave. They are correct, but they don’t know how this is going to play out, and neither do I.
It doesn’t have to be this way; we should be letting the successful hunting down and killing of bin Laden re-energize our efforts and refocus our mission while leveraging this impressive achievement with our political “allies” Pakistan and Afghanistan. But we lost control of the story because the administration has too much invested in the on-going investigation of the very intelligence people who extracted the information that started this hunt. The administration has too much invested in the narrative that George Bush and Dick Cheney were off the reservation, acting illegally and recklessly when they set up the enhanced interrogation program. Now the president lectures us about the Osama death photos, saying “We don’t need to spike the football” that as Americans “we don’t do that”. Don’t do what? What the hell is he talking about?
An experienced leader would know a thing or two about how not to let a huge victory go to waste. He would also know that those photos will leak at some point in the future and frankly there is nothing he can do to stop it. President Obama might well have used this remarkable event to elevate his stature and to seal another election victory, but only if he was big enough to act like the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. As the leader, he could have focused his praise on the people who worked years to put us in the position where we could launch the raid. Months ago when the mission started to come together, he could have told the Attorney General to quietly drop the investigations targeting the very people who performed the enhanced interrogations. He could have positioned himself to use this victory as a blunt instrument with which to forward the goals of the United States throughout this entire region. What other country can work ten years at tracking down one man and when they find him fly stealth helicopters into the middle of another country to shoot him in the face? We’re so bad ass that we sent sailors to do the shooting – that’s how deep our bench is.
Instead of re-election; what he is going to get in 2012 is exactly what I believe he wants – he’ll get to be an ex-president. Wealth and affluence beyond his wildest dreams, surrounded daily by the pomp and circumstance of an ex-head of state, super cool Secret Service detail for the rest of his life, and above all, no responsibility or accountability to anyone other than Barack H. Obama. I’m sure he can’t wait and neither can I.
The ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) has taken an unusual step by issuing a warning to all internationals, alerting of coordinated “spectacular attacks”, kidnapping of internationals, suicide bombings, and all manner of general mayhem to kick off Sunday, 1 May. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time ISAF has ever distributed a written warning to internationals at large, it’s also the first time ISAF has used social media to reach out to the general public. The message came to us via the Afghanistan security contractors Skype group. Now this Skype group has around 150 members, and although skype chatting is stone age technology by military standards, the military has not been able to join our chats in the past. Nevertheless, witnessing their use of social media like this is pretty darn cool (and it’s about time too).
The UN has sent all their internationals scurrying to seek shelter in local PRT’s and declared “WHITE CITY” countrywide. This means emergency road movements only. Afghan security forces (ANSF) are out in force all over the country. Our local workers are now clearly spooked, but oddly none of them seem to know of any specific threat. As I write this, a frantic effort is being made throughout the south to confirm that there are no missing internationals as (I’m guessing) the Taliban claim to have one in their possession.
This unprecedented warning by ISAF has migrated into the mainstream media as seen with this “exclusive” published in Reuters yesterday by reporter Paul Talt. Paul continued the story in his article today explaining that the May Day offensive is really the start to the summer fighting season. The Taliban are calling their new operation “Badar” which could mean “out” in Dari or “war” in Arabic….hard to say with the Taliban these days… One thing is certain, the Afghans and ISAF are ready for them and unlike big alerts in the past everyone is taking this one seriously.
Myself, Im not too worried, with my suspicion being the current Taliban press offensive is directed more at Afghan fighters and the Afghan people. If the southern Taliban do in fact launch any major ground attacks, it’ll be for them what the Tet offensive was to the North Vietnamese; a total tactical defeat! It cannot morph into a strategic victory (as Tet did for North Vietnam) because the legacy media can no longer spin a story that big to bolster their agenda. Plus- the Taliban are simply not strong enough to conduct a major military offensive; they lack the logistical capacity, they lack heavy weapons, command and control, imagination, not to mention the lack of serious cash an operation of size and scope requires.
My prediction? This- we will see some serious attacks in the eastern portion of the country near the Pakistan border because these villains can more easily mount operations across the border. I’m betting we’ll see something big in Kunar tomorrow or possibly Paktia Province. I still think the boys in the south cannot and will not mount large attacks. But they can dig some more tunnels, making me wonder if the effort they put into digging a tunnel under Saraposa prison isn’t also being duplicated under an ISAF base or PRT? Tunneling under defensive positions is a tactic as old as man and it certainly is one way of launching a spectacular attack without loss of too much manpower. In reality there just isn’t much the Taliban is good at, outside of jail breaks and suicide bombing easy targets in Kabul. They are adept at settling land disputes in the rural districts too – have to give them that. The question I have is why are they doing anything at all?
By the summer of 2014, ISAF is supposed to be gone, leaving the only remaining forces in country attached to the Afghan Army which will have the responsibility to continue the fight. So, for the next three years the Taliban could merely content themselves with economy of force operations; concentrating on targeting and removing officials from the Kabul government who have abused the public trust, all the while avoiding fights with western military forces who routinely beat them like a drum. It’s madness to pit Taliban insurgents against modern infantry because there is no requirement for them to fight, nor can they win. If they foolishly unmask themselves in large attacks tomorrow, they are going to be slaughtered. If they don’t do anything tomorrow, that is going to worry ISAF because it may indicate the Taliban has finally thought things through and wised up. The Taliban doesn’t have to fight, it has little to gain by fighting. Heck, waiting three summers is nothing for an organization which has competent leaders who take the long view on strategic decisions. We shall soon see, but my money is on the Taliban being stupid and trying to flex its military muscle this summer. Stupid is as stupid does.
I predict this summer’s fighting will gut the Quetta shura, while leaving the Peshawar shura pretty much intact. That is to say, I predict the Taliban getting decisively beaten in the south, whilein the east, they fight to a draw. Regardless, at the end of this year’s fighting season we will have another bout of change in American leadership. General Petraeus is going to head the CIA, Leon Panetta is moving from Langley to head up the DoD, and Marine LtGeneral John R. Allen comes east to deal with Afghanistan.
The spy guys at the New York Times, feeling that the CIA is safe from being eliminated by the efforts of a 80 year old retiree in coastal California have turned their attention to the impending leadership change and are warning that the CIA is becoming militarized. Who cares what the CIA becomes as long as whatever they do, they start getting it right. If there’s a chance (however small it be) that the CIA could actually develop into an agency which accomplishes its basic mission, then I’m confident General Petraeus is one of the few men who can lead that change. When General Allen arrives to Afghanistan he will come with a new ambassador, Ryan Crocker, who has a serious reputation for getting things done. His posting will be a welcomed relief.
Which brings us to General John R Allen, USMC. One of the characteristics of the War on Terror which should cause alarm to my fellow Americans has been the performance of our General Officers corps. As an institution that consistently polls as the most trusted in America, theperformance of it’s senior executives has been pretty weak. This is one reason we have been reading of General Petraeus year in and year out since the surge in Iraq. I don’t know General Petraeus or Ambassador Crocker or Leon Panetta; so predicting the effect of their new executive positions is impossible. But I do know General John R. Allen, whom it was my privilege to work for back in the early 90’s. General Allen was the Group Chief for the Marine Infantry Officer Course when I was an instructor there. He is, quite simply, the best military officer I have ever known and brother, I have known quite a few. I could share stories in hopes of illuminating why I feel the way I do, but nothing I can write would do justice to the man. He is, plainly put, the best we have. I’ve never met anyone more impressive and I know a lot of impressive people. As you will see when the change occurs next fall I’m not alone in my high opinion of General Allen.
Now, the skype group is currently pinging off the hook with reports of the ANP stopping and detaining armed contractors in Kabul. This is an almost daily occurrence, mind you all these contractors have proper licenses and paperwork. The reason this happens daily is stupidity on the part of government officials who are trying to send a message to the international community. The Taliban is poised to launch some large attacks over the next 72 hours and the reason for that is again- stupidity. The Taliban have won as much as they are going to win already: they ought be spending the next three years on internal growth and administration. But they are stupid in their belief that challenging western militaries is the only way to grow the Jihad. We’ll just see how the fighting season plays out, but when it is over a new team is going to come in and take the reins of this campaign. That new team will be our last chance at achieving an end-state in Afghanistan that justifies the investment we continue to make.
Nothing will sour the morale of combat troops faster then the realization that the commander at the top receives frequent visits from the Good Idea Fairy. Which is a good start point for explaining why General Stanley A McChrystal took to the pages of Foreign Policy last week to explain the unexplainable. The story starts with McChrystal’s observation that the SF tier 1 guys found al Qaeda difficult to collect, fix and target because they were so decentralized. So McChrystal made up his own “network” and his centralized, vertically integrated, fixed chain of command network beat the AQI with their horizontally integrated decentralized chain of command. I’m not buying that about Iraq but the focus of the article was how this genius system was implemented in Afghanistan by the regular military and what do you know the “mo better” network has since delivered us the current spate of good news about the Taliban getting tired of fighting.
The article linked above and all the other recent reports stress that the rift between the Taliban fighters and their leaders who are safely ensconced in Pakistan stems from the losses being inflicted on them in the Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. The pressure being brought to bear on the fighting Taliban has very little (if anything) to do with the nighttime high speed low drag tier 1 special forces raids designed to “decapitate” Taliban leadership. The whole decapitation strategy is suspect as numerous observers have noted over these many years of SOF raiding and I ask again if somehow a military adversary managed to “decapitate” our leadership would we be weaker or stronger? Wait that is a stupid example and missing the point (as B correctly observed in the first comment on this post). The first commenter on Gen McChrystal’s article says it much better than I can:
This essay is interesting in that it describes an effort that for all its success was limited to an extremely small (and disproportionately resourced) line of operation. The author portrays this as an inclusive endeavor while it was decidedly not inclusive in many respects. My experience in working with the General’s Task Force is that it was the most difficult organization to work with in theater and it only functioned as a network if you or your organization were willing to completely subordinate yourself, your resources and your mission to his very narrow line of operation. Most of the time his line of operations, while very important, was not the primary or most important line in the country or region. In the end establishing the Iraqi government as legitimate and enabling its organs to function as designed proved to be the decisive operation
HVT raids do produce results but it seems to me that what has brought the fighting Taliban to their knees is hard fighting infantry who have moved in with the people and deprived the villains of maneuver room while killing ever increasing numbers of them using ROE completly different from the horseshit inflicted on them by McChrystal.
A great example of this would be Naw Zad which is currently home to the headquarters of Charlie Company 1st Battalion 8th Marines. The rest of the battalion is handling Musa Quala which, like Marjah, was infested with Taliban but is now safe enough for the battalion commander to walk around the bazaar without body armor and helmet. The Captain at Naw Zad (and he’s there on his own because he’s that good) is surrounded by Taliban. He has an area of influence which he is constantly expanding and he does this with aggressive patrolling. He has the clearance to shoot 60mm mortars and run rotary wing CAS guns (Cobra or Apache gunships employing their guns only; rocket or Hellfires have to be cleared) without coordinating with his battalion COC. He has no problems at all with the current rules of engagement and has never been denied fires when he has asked for them. He doesn’t get second guessed, he doesn’t get micro managed and his example is proof that the rules of engagement have been “re-defined” radically. For readers who are not familiar with how badly McChrystal’s ROE hampered forces in the field read this recent post by Herschel Smith on Ganjgal. Success in the South has nothing to do with ninja night raids and placing a good percentage of the tactical intelligence piece behind a classified curtain where only the tier 1 headhunters can use it.
I was able to spend a lot of time talking with the officers and men currently serving in Naw Zad and here is what they bitch about: They don’t like the weight they are forced to carry and strongly feel the use of body armor should be determined by the mission and enemy. Wearing it in blistering heat or while climbing the massive mountains is so physically debilitating that they have felt on several occasions that they were unable to defend themselves. Many of their Marines are suffering chronic stress fractures, low back problems as well as hip problems caused by carrying loads in excess of 130 pounds daily. “We’re fighting the Mothers of America” said one; if we lose a Marine and he was not wearing everything in the inventory to protect him that becomes the issue. Trying to explain that we have removed the body armor to reduce the chances of being shot is a losers game because you can’t produce data quantifying the reduction in gun shot wounds for troops who remain alert and are able to move fast due to a lighter load. We are all required to read Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation but it is clear nobody understands it.
I used to bitch about the same thing 20 years ago and it is reassuring for us old timers to see some things never change. It is also really nice to hear that the bitching is not about restrictive ROE and meddling from on high which is all my old buddy Jeff Kenney talked about while leading the Eastern Region ANA embedded training team. His Marines were the ones killed at the Ganjgal fight and let me tell you something – he was bitter to the point of despair about it but sucked it up because that is what high caliber professionals do in this business.
Captain Ben Wagner, the CO of C1/8 is one of the many young officers in the Corps born of battle. He was a rifle platoon commander in the first battle for Fallujah. He lost a lot of Marines and had to halt the attack and pull back an experience which no doubt left a deep impression. He told me (paraphrasing here folks as I’m not a great note taker)
“I can push north or south and run into Taliban controlled villages who will put up a stiff fight but I don’t want to fight for something I can’t hold. Instead of focusing on the Taliban we focus on the population which is why it is so busy around here at night. We patrol every night using machineguns and sniper teams in the mountains for overwatch. In the morning at first prayer we make it a point to walk past the mosque in whatever village complex we were working the night before. The message is simple; you guys can sleep tight because we’re out every night all night watching over you.”
During the time I spent in Naw Zad over 200 famlies came into the Marines zone of influence from Taliban controlled territory. I wanted to talk tactics and hear war stories but all the Marines wanted to talk about was reconstruction. They have cleared more bad guy territory then anyone thought possible and now the entire 1st Division is focused on getting the economy going so they can move on.
And guess what? Move on they shall because we are apparently finishing up with the “stability” phase and moving onto the “transition” phase of the Afghanistan campaign right on schedule. This move is based on the successes of the past year along with glowing assessments of progress across the board for all ANSF organizations. One of the Chim Chim’s was in the VTC where this was announced so I’m getting the scoop first hand. There has been real progress made over the past year yet most of that progress is limited to two southern provinces. While Chim Chim was listening in to the announcement of transition from on high suicide bombers were attacking the Jalalabad branch of the Kabul bank just over a mile away. In Jalalabad City the Provincial Council has laid siege to the Governors Compound, bussed in armed supporters from the various warlord factions for some low scale rioting, launched a half ass RPG attack at the PRT compound last Thursday night just to let the Americans know they are unhappy and demanded that Gov Sherzai go away because all the promised swag for not growing poppy never materialized. None of this chaos seems to be of any concern to the army brigade stationed in Jalalabad because they have a network.
They have a giant SIPR network full of the latest “classified” intelligence. You have to be a special cleared person to see “classified” intelligence which is much better than unclassified intelligence because…. well … cleared people put it into the system and they are smarter than everyone else because they’re cleared. The situation in Jalabad is a perfect example of McChrystal’s network in action. The network is reality for the army in the east and if the drama happening just a few miles away isn’t on the network they don’t have to respond to it. See how fiendishly clever McChrystal was? Let me provide a hypothetical example and I stress hypothetical as I have no idea how these systems function but have spent years observing the “effects based” results.
ISAF watch officer: “Hey Pecan Pie we’re hearing Karzai is sending a 10 man delegation to diffuse the armed standoff outside the Governor’s compound to stop the Provincial Council from throwing the Gov out and naming one of the warlords as governor”
Duty Officer Pecan Pie: “What’s the date time group on the message about armed groups outside the Governor’s compound?”
Watch Officer: “There is nothing in the system on it; my terps are watching footage from earlier this afternoon on Tolo TV News.”
DO Pie: “If there is nothing on this in the system what do you want me to do?”
Watch Officer “Oh I dunno; but if Governor Sherzai gets thrown out of the province and decides to return home to Kandahar where he will have to re-arm and re-fit his militias to protect hismself from Karzai’s brother I bet a lot of stuff will be in the system along with the words “incompetent, catastrophe, and who is responsible”.
DO Pie: “Well that is as it should be I guess but I’m reviewing my commanders instant action matrix and there is nothing in it about the overthrow of a governor by the Provincial Council; my intel section has gone up as high as “Oracle” level but found nothing about this so called news story although we can see a lot of armed people in the streets with our UAV’s but again nothing in the system to tell us what it all means.”
Networks are modern fool’s gold for ground commanders; networks promise to do the heavy lifting while you sit back on the FOB eating the pecan pie. The only way to get the intelligence required to do COIN is by getting it yourself. Every infantry commander worth his pay knows this which is why they (on the rare occasions such things happen) are drop jawed stunned when useable intel filters down to them from on high. It doesn’t take a network – it takes somebody with a clue, lots of good infantry, and the intestinal fortitude to take tactical risks for strategic gain. That last trait is the exact opposite of having the intestinal fortitude to cover up the friendly fire death of a former NFL player with a silver star and concocted heroic story. I wish McChrystal would have the decency to act as an old general should and just fade away.
I just did something today which would have been suicidal 10 months ago. My colleague Little Mac and I, in the company of a Marine tank officer and Naval surface warfare officer (he’s a fires guy by trade) just strolled around the town of Naw Zad with no body armor, no helmets, no riflemen escorting us, munching on local bread and handing out candy to the kids. We are safer here than we would be in downtown Chicago. Naw Zad was once the third largest populated area in the province. By 2007 the civilian population had fled the area and there was nobody here except bad guys and a few hard pressed British and Estonian infantrymen.
Fox company 2nd Battalion 7th Marines (Fox 2/7) arrived in Naw Zad to reinforce the Brits in late 2008 and were able to expand the security bubble but not by much. The Brits, Estonians and Marines fought side by side to expel the Taliban from this fertile valley but were hampered by restrictive ROE pushed down from on high by senior officers in Kabul who lacked common sense and experience at counterinsurgency warfare. The Marines and their allies lost a lot of men because they did not have the mass or firepower to do the job correctly. Way back then there was a lone voice in the blogsphere pleading with all who would listen to free up the combat power and let the Marines in Naw Zad fight. His name is Herschel Smith and his posts at the Captains Journal can be found here. It is worth your time to read them all.
In the summer of 2009 the U.S. Marines had deployed the 2nd Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan and their first move was to clear out Naw Zad and the surrounding hamlets of all Taliban. The 2nd MEB was commanded by BGen Larry Nicholson who I was fortunate to serve with as a young Lieutenant back in the 80’s. He had his own Tac Air, his own artillery, his own rotary wing transport and gunships and he had his own ideas about how to fight. He didn’t have to go to the powers that be in Kabul or Kandahar because he didn’t need anything from them. He seeded the high ground overlooking the rat lines running into Naw Zad with sniper and recon teams in June. They immediately started collecting scalps and then on 2 July 2009 he launched Operation Khanjar dropping 2000 grunts onto Naw Zad and the surrounding villages to finish the Taliban off. The Taliban reacted as they always do when faced with superior forces – they broke contact and ran…into the sniper teams.
Fighting in the town of Naw Zad and its adjacent hamlets is long over. The Taliban can’t muster the manpower or firepower required to drive the Marines out so we are now deep into the “hold & build” stage of the operation and it is slow going. Every brick, piece of steel, bag of cement and all hand tools have to be trucked in from Camp Bastion or Lashkar Gah. My old battalion 1/8 has has deployed a rifle company (C 1/8) to Naw Zad for the past six months facilitating the hold and build while expanding the zone of safety further into the hinterlands. Actually the rifle company headquarters is based here with what looks like a platoon or so in the district center proper. The three rifle platoons are working areas to the north and southeast.
The roads to the south of Dahaneh are controlled by the Taliban. They cannot stand and fight the Marines like they do the army in the east because there aren’t enough of them, the terrain doesn’t facilitate ambushes, and they can’t run to Pakistan for sanctuary. So they use IED’s… a lot of IED’s which, as IED’s do in Afghanistan, strike disproportionately against the civilian population. In order to get building material into the valley local truckers insist on being escorted by Marines. The Marines know the Taliban are going to plant IED’s and they literally walk the convoys into the valley. The 65 kilometer trip from Bastion to Naw Zad takes two days; most of that time is spent waiting for the engineers to blow IED’s which have been seeded ahead of them.
The villains have deployed countless numbers of IED’s targeting the Marines of 1/8. Only three of them scored hits but none have resulted in a fatality. One can only wish IED’s were so ineffective in other areas of Helmand Province. The Naw Zad area has been cleared; the hold and build underway. The Marines who are here would like to be somewhere else – preferably a place where the Taliban will stand and fight them. Infantry Marines, even after ten years of constant deployment, still hunger for a good fight. But that is not to be for 1/8 as they are stuck in place to do the hold and build. There was a time when Marines were dying here and there needed to be a lot more thrown into the fight. Now Marines are fighting and dying in other places like Sangin and they need more of their brother devil dogs to back them up. Now many of the folks I correspond with are starting to see what I was talking about when I opined that you need a hold and build force working directly for the ground commander. This is where contractors can save money, time and lives by freeing up the gunfighters to do what they do best. Kill villains, protect the innocent, and unmask the evil who prey upon the population.