ISIS-K Strikes Again And Heckmatyar Comes In From The Cold

Yesterday I was talking with one of the unsung hero’s of the Afghanistan reconstruction battle Jeff “Raybo” Radan. I’ve known Jeff since we were instructors back at the Marine Corps Basic School and we worked together again when I replaced him (at the end of his tour) in Lashkar Gah as the regional manager for the USAID implementing partner CADG. He was has been working out of Kabul and told me about the ISIS-K car bomb before it hit the wires. He’s moving on to another project in Iraq but said he has seen definite improvement in the Afghan Security Forces.

Jeff and I heading to Naw Zad on an old Marine Corps CH-53D that leaked transmission fluid all over us. We’re used to that. Flying in an Osprey which doesn’t leak transmission fluid was unsettling to us old grunts because it made you wonder if it had enough.

Raybo got his nickname when he returned from the Army Ranger Course minus about 20 pounds on his already skinny frame and couldn’t stop talking about how much he loved it. His take on increasing the advise and assist mission? He’s not sure how effective it will be but is certain about what will happen if we don’t do it and that assessment was bleak.

Yesterday’s car bomb attack was to be expected; it was a matter of time before ISIS struck back after getting MOAB’d. This latest attack was unusual in one respect. The car bomb was parked, not driven into the convoy, which is a departure from the norm. It could indicate that the ANP has downtown Kabul under better control…or not…it’s hard to say. Setting off a car bomb that kills local civilians without doing too much damage to the NATO MRAP’s they were targeting is an amateur hour performance. It is also a far cry from their previous attacks in Kabul which were more dramatic and inflicted heavy casualties on their intended targets be they Hazara people or Afghan security forces.

More information regarding the recent MOAB attack is coming out and it would appear that using the MOAB was good weaponeering.  But ISIS-K continues to blast propaganda from their clandestine radio station (despite that too being bombed by US Tac Air) and even managed to assassinate a senior Taliban leader in Peshawar. An excellent assessment on the aftermath of the MOAB strike can be found here and as usual reality is 180 degrees out from the legacy media narrative.

A graphic from the article linked above showing the exact location of the MOAB strike
Another excellent graphic from Alcis showing the physical damage from the strike.

The MOAB took out 38 building in an unnamed (meaning unauthorized) settlement and 69 trees. There was no gigantic crater because the MOAB is a fuel air explosive which is something the media  still doesn’t seem to understand. From the article linked above:

Fuel-Air Explosives [FAE] disperse an aerosol cloud of fuel which is ignited by an embedded detonator to produce an explosion. The rapidly expanding wave front due to overpressure flattens all objects within close proximity of the epicenter of the aerosol fuel cloud, and produces debilitating damage well beyond the flattened area. The main destructive force of FAE is high overpressure, useful against soft targets such as minefields, armored vehicles, aircraft parked in the open, and bunkers.

It looks like the MOAB under-performed but looks are deceiving. If there were men hiding in those tunnels they’re crispy critters now; if the tunnels contained large stores of weapons and ammo those are now gone. It will take months of donkey trains to replace them if replacements are even available. I believe the weapons and ammunition were the targets and that nobody involved in the attack really cared about a high body count because that is a meaningless metric. I also believe all the conjecture in the press surrounding this weapon has proven to be fake news. That conjecture has shifted now and the legacy media is contending the bomb was a dud. That they know not what they are talking about is obvious.

The Taliban is fighting ISIS-K, we’re targeting ISIS-K regularly and the Pakitani’s are targeting them too. I doubt they will survive much longer with all the attention they’re getting. The one disturbing factor is that ISIS-K has the support of the Safi tribes; a problem I’ll address in a future post.

There is a potential game changer being put in play with the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to Kabul. He is a former prime minister and the leader of the Hezb-i-Islami militant group. More importantly he is a Pashtun from the northern city of Kunduz and one would suspect he’ll have the ability to bring a resurgent Taliban in Kunduz to heel. That would be huge and comes at a time when the Taliban from that area have pulled off the most devastating attack (the Mazar-e Sharif attack) against the ANA to date in this long nasty war .

Heckmatyar received a warm welcome in Kabul. The Afghan people are sick of war and welcome anybody (even the butcher of Kabul) who might be able to stop it. Photo from Reuters

The Mazar attack targeted young recruits attending Friday prayers in the base Mosque which has enraged Afghans who feel (correctly) it was an assault against Islam. Heckmatyar has said repeatedly the Taliban are an affront to Islam and that is a message which now resonates, more than ever, with the Afghan people. We shall see how this plays out but if he can dampen the fires of insurgency in the north the Afghans will have the space they need to concentrate their forces in the south and east.

There is one other thing Heckmatyar could help with in this critical phase of the fight for Afghanistan. He may be able to do something about the Haqqani clan.  Every attack inside Kabul and the recent devastating attack in Mazar-e Sharif had Haqqani fingerprints all over them. They are funded by Pakistan’s intelligence agency (the ISI) and have been able to penetrate Kabul seemingly at will. They are dedicated, professional butchers who kill without pity or remorse. They need to be put down and the sooner the better.

We have been trying for years to get both  Jalaluddin (the family patriarch) and his son Sirajuddin with drones but have come up empty. A man like Heckmatyar has the capability to get them the old fashioned way using car bombs or ambushes. I wonder if he’ll make the effort and know taking out the Haqqani’s would have an immediate impact on decreasing the level of violence directed at Kabul. Time will tell.

The Marines of Task Force Southwest are on the ground starting their advise and assist mission in the Helmand province. No news about them is good news because the only news we’ll see in the legacy media will concern casualties. I’m not aware of any reporters who plan to embed with them to write about their mission and how it is working out. Yet another reason why I want to embed with them for a month this summer. The Marines and soldiers on the front lines deserve to have their stories told and not just when they have sustained casualties.

There are no good options available to the international community in Afghanistan. My greatest concern, shared by many others, is that we will calibrate our advise and assist efforts to do just enough not to lose. If we are serious about the advise and assist mission then we have to accept two things. It is going to take more than a decade of sustained effort and at some point we will have to fight with the troops we are training and advising. Fighting means losing troops; it’s inevitable but the public has not been prepared for nor will it accept high numbers of American combat deaths in Afghanistan.

President Trump has not revealed his plan for Afghanistan yet but when he does his plan will be attacked by the legacy media regardless of content. That’s not good for our country or Afghanistan. It appears the President is allowing Secretary of Defense Mattis to shape this plan without micromanagement or intrigue from the White House. That is good news given the prior pattern of micromanagement by both the Bush and Obama administrations. If the new plan is the same as the old plan then we’ll know the Afghans are screwed. I doubt Secretary Mattis will settle for more of the same and know there is not another American alive today who could handle this task better. If he can quietly kill the current females in the infantry madness while he’s at it we can consider ourselves blessed. Let us hope that both of these things are not a bridge too far given the madness that passes for reality with our ruling class in Washington DC and their accomplices in the press.

There is no way to determine what is going on in Afghanistan without competent reporters on the ground digging up truth and reporting that in context. That is why I’m trying so hard to fund an embed back there but I cannot do that without your support. If you can please consider a donation to the Baba Tim Go Fund Me page in support of accurate reporting from the front lines.

 

Three In A Row And A Look At What Could Have Been

This morning the main stream media caught up with  FRI by reporting how the terrorists who attacked the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) in Mazar-i Sharif got onto the base. They also reported on the relief of the 209th Corps commanding general. To be fair the news report (linked here) contained details I didn’t know so good for them for the original reporting. Here’s one of those details:

When the first fighting broke out, one of the assailants dressed in a special forces uniform rushed into the mosque, the security source said. He herded the panicked recruits to take cover together in a room. “And there he blew himself up,” the source said. Any survivors were gunned down by the remaining militants, he added.

A picture from inside the ANA base mosque.  Photograph from AFP/file

That is a hard attack to defend against. In military terms it was a raid and raids are often easy to pull off because they, by design, target units or people who are not prepared for them. The hard part of any raid isn’t gaining surprise; it’s getting your troops back safely. That problem is mitigated when the assaulting troops have intentions of surviving the attack.

Saying “I told you” is, at this point, a tedious exercise in irrelevance. Nobody really cares and it makes for boring blogging. So, let me tell you something you didn’t know using another current news story.

Last week there was an uplifting story about high school girls in Herat, Afghanistan mastering basic internet skills in a computer lab apparently  provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. The article is titled “In Afghanistan, girls break cyber walls” and was a human interest story designed to showcase progress but really showcased failure, and did so with reckless disregard for the future health and well being of the girls being reported on.

Herat is in the Western part of the country and the local culture, as it is in Zaranj,  has a heavy Persian influence. The mores regarding women are a little more lax but not so lax that encouraging school girls to get on social media is a good idea. Both the Taliban and ISIS have used social media to target apostates and spies. Maybe the girls in this story belong to families with enough clout to keep them safe once we’re gone but I doubt it.

Bringing internet and IT training to Afghan children is not a new story; it’s been done before in a much more comprehensive way. But that effort garnered little media attention or big money foundation support.

Ten years ago in Jalalabad there was a computer and engineering training program that reached hundreds of children, involved sophisticated, appropriate, technical training designed to foster entrepreneurial skill-sets

High School girls from Jalalabad teaching younger children in the Fablab computer room July 2008

Unlike other aid programs this one cost the taxpayers exactly nothing.  Not a dime of aid funding funded the FabLab; the equipment was provided by MIT and grad students from MIT and their geek friends (known as Fab Folk) self funded their way to Afghanistan to set it up. They came from as far away as South Africa and Iceland; it was remarkable to see and best yet they paid their bar bills on time and with cash.

Fab Folk enjoying the world famous Tiki Bar at the Taj in Jalalabad while setting up computers that will be given to the kids at the Fab Lab

The Fab Lab equipment would have been of limited use without good internet conductivity which was installed by Baba Ken from Reachback.org.  Ken supported a start up portable satellite antenna company into field testing their new Gatr ball system to Taj, to determine how long this portable system would function in a remote location. A government agency based in the Fort Washington Facility donated the 15k a month worth of fat pipe bandwidth (they too were interested in seeing how long and at what capacity the system would last). FRI provided the expertise to get all this gear through customs (for a mere 200 buck bribe) and delivered to Jalalabad and (as we did with all our guests at the Taj) Shem Klimiuk and I provided security for the internationals who came to work on the project.

Shem and I with his driver back in the day
Gatr comms at the Taj with a FabFi chicken wire reflector (upper left) This was second one sent to us for testing.
The first Gatr ball took a beating from heavy winds, UV radiation and at least one bullet hole of unknown origin. This is a photo of it after the transponder was blown off in a storm; the Jbad geek squad repaired it every time. The designers were hoping to get 6 months of continues use from this model – it lasted over a year.

Their story is remarkable, inspirational, but never gained any traction despite being told in the pages of this blog and featured in an excellent interview by NPR of Dr. Amy Sun, who introduced the Fab Lab to Afghanistan. Listen to the interview; you’re not going to believe what they accomplished without the help or support of the US Government or any other international aid organization.

Dr. Sun entertaining herself after I got involved in minor traffic accident (with 30 cases of beer in the back of the SUV) at night just outside Surobi which was a bad place to be hanging out after dark

The Jalalabad Fab Lab was unable to generate the donations required to continue operations and I believe that is because the success was counter- narrative. While NATO was spending millions and millions of dollars developing  the”virtual silk road” the universities and teaching hospitals in Jalalabad had lightening fast internet provided free of cost by the Fab Folk and Baba Ken’s Jbad Geek squad (not pictured in this blog for security reasons).

My son Logan humping a Fab Fi reflector (he’ll take it all the way up the tallest water tower in the city) at the Jalalabad Teaching hospital

When dealing with the narrative we have to judge what we know to be true before speculating on anything else. What we know to be true is that the most effective cyber aid program in Afghanistan came about in the exact same manner as America’s current oil boom – despite, not because of the government. It was an effective grass roots movement that ultimately died because the Fab Folk were unable to attract organizations like the Gates foundation to sustain it and they did try that source and many others.

The Fab Folk had a deep reach inside the Jalalabad community that gave all kids to include the handicapped a chance at learning the basics of working with computers

These pictures and this story were once a source of great pride for those who participated in this noble effort. Viewing them now brings a sense of ennui. Baba Ken, Dr. Dave Warner of the Synergy Strike Force and Dr. Amy Sun were told over and over what they were doing could not be done. They took huge risks to prove it could be and did so because they wanted to help and knew their skill set could bring much needed technical education and resources to the Afghan people. But they had no connections in the halls of power and it seemed to me the last thing that the US government agencies deployed to Afghanistan wanted to see was people doing what they themselves contended could not be done. The ruling class and their technical experts hate being proven wrong.

In 2008 young boys from the dirt poor hamlet of Bagrami will building their own bots

The boys pictured above, if they are still alive, are in the fight now; on one side or the other. They wanted to be in university, they wanted a chance to live a productive life. What the can you say to them now? Sorry just doesn’t seem to cut it.

Baba Ken reaching out to village elders and I’m not sure where because he did this all the time. Going to shura’s alone is considered madness by military folks but it was the safest way to do business in contested lands. Afghans respect men of courage and conviction who travel alone to their villages to offer their help; something both Baba Ken and the late Dan Terry taught me early on.

I’d like to report how this story ends but I cannot do that without your support. If you can please consider a donation to the Baba Tim Go Fund Me page in support of accurate reporting from the front lines.

What Did I Tell You Part II

Yesterday I posted the following breaking news on FRI:

The Afghan defense minister, the army chief of staff and (although not in the press and maybe an inaccurate tip) four Afghan army corps commanders have been sacked.

My sources for this kind of information have never failed me but the media and Resolute Support staff are failing you by refusing to allow the news to come out unfiltered. This mornings news feed carried conformation of the scoop in this mealy mouthed way:

Ghani also reshuffled the local army leadership, as the Taliban threatened further attacks.

There are six corps in the Afghan army. Four of them have just had their commanding generals relieved. I do not believe the Afghans have a deep bench of senior general officer talent and know this move will cause turmoil in ongoing operations. It’s devastating to morale and  not well timed either as it’s spring and time to start a new fighting season.

So, at this point, what difference does it make?

I don’t know. As many of my friends have said nobody cares about Afghanistan anymore.  I respond that people will start caring when we start losing troops again but it is possible we’ll continue to avoid casualties (with the exception of the occasional SF soldier because they are staying in the fight). If that pattern holds then it means our train and assist missions are locked down inside FOB’s and never leave them. Which is to say they are wasting their time because you can’t mentor combat troops unless you’re fighting with them too. That approach is the exact same type of kabuki theater that is inflicted on the public daily by TSA agents at our airports.

Yet I still smell danger; not in the form of a threat to our country but in the form of refusing to learn from repeated past mistakes. I remain unable to track down who agreed to the deployment of 300 Marines and why. I’ve talked to general officers up to the three star level and they don’t know either nor are they optimistic about achieving mission success. I could have pressed general Turner on the issue but he’s a friend and I’m not a real reporter and would never put a friend on the spot like that.

I know the Pentagon will contend that the currently level of secrecy involving the Afghan commitment is to prevent enemies from knowing what we are up to. I also know the one entity that knows exactly where American troops are and in what number is the Taliban. They don’t need the press to tell them where we are and what we’re doing. This brings up the disturbing possibility that the Pentagon could fall into the same position of distrust and contempt that they were in at the end of the Vietnam war.

Recently in the news was another story about a gang of youths robbing and beating people. This was on a BART train but in the past similar things have occurred in shopping centers, state fairs or the high end retail property in Chicago. These stories always say the perpetrators are “youths” but look at the comment section following any of these reports and note the commentary concerning the ethnicity of the “youths”. The media won’t report on ethnicity concerning mob assaults which is one of the reasons Americans despise our main stream media. The media lies by omission and fools no one; our military leaders should not emulate their strategy; we’ve been losing enough lately.

I don’t  want to see the military become the home of the “five o’clock follies” again.  Nor do I want to see Afghanistan descend into civil war again. Both these possibilities are inevitable if we continue to do the same thing over and over expecting different results.

As I mentioned yesterday I am comfortable that whatever Secretary Mattis decides is the correct course of action because I respect the man that much. However it is dangerous to put that much faith in one man. Knowing him and knowing his level of understanding about war I would have expected him to drive a stake through the heart of all this females in the infantry bullshit. He hasn’t yet and he may not ever say a word on the subject. If that happens then I’ll admit I was wrong about the man; even our heroes are, in the end, only human and thus vulnerable to the twin curses of hubris and pride.

If there was ever a time in our history we needed a hero to step up an interject reality into the narrative it is now. If we don’t find one soon we’re doomed to descend into the third world status. History tells us that descent can be rapid and when it happens we’ll learn what the Afghans already know; death waits just around the corner and cares nothing about race, gender, annual income, or altruistic feelings. Death cares about death; we can be a free people or a dead people. Everything rides on the truth and treating reality with respect by not feeding a pretend narrative that makes coastal elites feel good about themselves.

Mattis Goes to Afghanistan

This morning’s news contained the best news (for Americans) yet to come from Afghanistan. Our Secretary of Defense, former Marine Corps General James Mattis flew into Kabul to assess our efforts there. His visit was unannounced and I am willing to bet his entourage small. Secretary Mattis is the best general of his generation and is revered by the American military. America saw why if they watched him at his confirmation hearings.  He comes to Kabul at a critical time because the Afghans just got some bad news.

The Afghan defense minister, the army chief of staff and (although not in the press and maybe an inaccurate tip) four Afghan army corps commanders have been sacked. The press is contending the two ministerial level officials resigned but that is not what I am hearing from my sources in country. This level of senior leadership turmoil will crush the already fragile morale of the Afghan National Security Forces while throwing current operations in disarray.

There is no longer a question about our intentions regarding Afghanistan; we are staying to see things through. You can hear for yourself below:

ANSF is taking a beating reportedly losing 9,000 KIA in 2015 and 10,000 in 2016. Attrition from desertions average 1/3 of the force per year but buried in that number are soldiers who are late coming back from leave and marked as new joins when they return. How big or small that number is remains unknown. Ghost soldiers (having men on the payroll who are not there) has always been a problem but  it is a different phenomena than it was in the days before all pay was distributed into individual bank accounts. In the past ghost soldiers were a sign that the commander was pocketing the cash himself. Now it is a sign that commanders are seeing that the families of their soldiers who were killed in action receive financial support without which they will be destitute. The next big idea we should be floating in Afghanistan is adequate compensation for the families of soldiers lost in combat.

Secretary Mattis contends that the levels of cooperation between NATO and the Afghan military and government has never been better. He also has said the ANSF security forces continue to improve in the face of excessively high casualties. If that’s true then how did the Taliban pull of such a spectacular attack in the prosperous and safest city in Afghanistan? I’ll tell you how.

The Taliban approached the base in Mazar-i Sharif with wounded men in their vehicles telling the guards at the first checkpoint they had to get their men to the hospital immediately. They were let past the first checkpoint but stopped at the entrance by guards who wanted to see the wounded men before allowing them to proceed. That was when the first suicide bomber detonated himself killing those guards and allowing the rest to race towards the Mosque and chow hall. Soldiers in the mosque attending Friday prayers would be unarmed; it would be an insult to Islam if they were. Soldiers eating chow are normally not armed either and no military in the world allows its recruits to run around armed. Once through the gates the attackers had everything they need to kill hundreds of unarmed troops.

Attacking troops in a mosque is an affront to Islam; it has enraged many Afghans (it should enrage them all) and the location of the attack is important to understand. Mazar is as anti-Taliban as Dearborn Michigan. Wait, that’s probably not true actually – it is as anti-Taliban as San Antonio. Populated by mostly Tajik and Uzbek peoples it draws thousands of itinerant laborers including Pashtuns from the south of the country. The people of Mazar are now afraid that the central government cannot protect them and they will turn to those who can; the former Northern Alliance which is another way of saying local warlords. They also could turn on the Pashtuns by lynching innocent men in the streets (like they did in 2001) sparking another nasty civil war.

The Mazar attack was a professional operation that was well planned, obviously rehearsed and has the hallmarks of a Haqqani network operation which is to say it was sponsored, directed (and possibly lead) by Pakistan’s secret police, the ISI. The goal of Pakistan is to keep Afghanistan prostrate, unorganized, and at war because they cannot handle a stable state to their west when they are fighting India to their east. Plus they are making millions off us allowing our equipment and supplies to transit their country.

This attack is part of a campaign to bring civil war to Afghanistan and it comes at a time with the progressives seem to be doing the exact same thing in our country. Witness this headline from the odious Think Progress organization The US has failed Afghanistan and the Trump Administration isn’t helping. The article contains no new news and was written to stoke anti Trump feelings. I wrote about these jerks in 2011 after they swooped into Kabul to line their pockets with consulting fees while leaving behind a report that proved them to be masters of the obvious.

So we are staying in Afghanistan to see things through. I’ve got no problems with that but how are we going to make a difference? I’m not sure because the only way to mentor effectively is to fight with the men you’re mentoring. Secretary Mattis knows more about this topic than any man alive and if he’s backing the plan then I’m with him. How this renewed commitment will play out on the ground is something we will not be able to judge due to the lack of reporting coming out of the country.

This is why I’m trying so hard to get the funding required to go back and report from a country I really am passionate about. But my efforts are clearly not bearing fruit so I’m being forced to resort to more extreme measures like this:

When magazine cover came out in the 70’s it was the funnest thing ever. Today it would result in rioting and moral outrage; we don’t seem able to take a joke anymore

Don’t make me do it man. Donate to the Baba Tim Go Fund Me page to support accurate reporting from the front lines.

The Momentum Is Not With Us

The 300 Marines of Task Force Southwest (TF Southwest) are on their way back to the Helmand province of Afghanistan to help stabilize the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in that part of the country. Based on the mornings news from the front it would appear they will be too little, to late.

Last night the Taliban staged an attack on the biggest base in the North of the country, Mazar-i Sharif, killing 140 young recruits who were in the base mosque for Friday prayers. How is it that an army, mentored by international military units for the past 15 years, cannot protect its young recruits from being slaughtered on its largest base? This is the biggest question of the day and one we can anticipate will never asked by our corporate media or explained by the senior American generals in Kabul.

But it’s worse than that because Mazar is not in Pashtun lands and the Tajiks and Uzbeks who comprise a majority of the population up north fought the Taliban back in the 90’s as part of the Northern Alliance. The Taliban is a mainly Pashtun movement and seeing the franchise branch out into the Tajik and Uzbek communities is a sign that the momentum is not going our way. There have been individual northern tribal fighters in the Taliban before but if the non-Pashtun tribes are now majority anti government it would seem that the game clock is rapidly running out.

Standing in front of the Blue Mosque in Mazar-i Sharif back when it was safe to travel the north.

Into the fray the Marines now enter without supporting arms or other combat enablers. They are not going to fight; their mission is to advise and assist which identical to the German army mission that is on the very base in Mazar that was attacked last night. The Germans suffered no casualties because the international advise and assist teams are housed on secure FOBs inside the Afghan FOBs where un-vetted Afghan troops are not allowed to enter.

And therein lies the problem. Mentoring of foreign armed forces is best done with teams who both train and fight with them. Advising officers after mounting (literally) a combat patrol to take you from your office to their office is ridiculous. You cannot put lip stick on that pig. Can it work? Hard to see how at this point.

Which brings up the question of what could the commanding general, Army LtGen John Nicholson,  (no relation to Marine Corps LtGen Larry Nicholson who has been featured in this blog several times) be thinking when he asked for a few thousand more troops to help train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)? That question was answered for me by BGen Roger Turner, the Commanding General of TF Southwest. He said the Afghan security forces in general and the Afghan army specifically have improved to the point where with  a little extra mentoring and support they can turn to corner and become self sufficient.

Marines from TF Southwest heading into the Helmand. BGen Roger Turner is on right. (Photo by Cameron Glendenning)

General Turner, who I have known for a long time, is nobodies fool. He is a bright, tough and more importantly, intuitive combat leader. General Nicholson has been at his job for over a year and also has a stellar reputation. Both of these men have been handed tasks that, in my humble opinion, cannot be achieved. But I don’t know what they know and will give them the benefit of the doubt.

Mainstream press coverage of this deployment has been uniformly uninformed, as has has the normally more accurate alternative media. This story posted on Brietbart yesterday is a good example. Read it and think about what you know on the topic when you’re finished. Then scroll through any of the last 10 posts on this blog and you’ll see what I mean. Apples versus oranges.

There is no indication that the momentum in this conflict is shifting towards our side. It clearly belongs to the various groupings of Taliban, ISIS and the other armed opposition groups and drug running syndicates that flourish countrywide. And then there is the annoying fact that the picture being painted by the Resolute Support mission staff differs (dramatically) from reality. This backgrounder PDF released by NATO states the following about ANSF attrition:

Reducing attrition is essential for the long-term viability of the ANSF, especially with respect to retaining quality personnel. If total strength objectives are increased in the future, attrition must be reduced even further. Average monthly attrition rates are 2.6% in the ANA and 1.29% in the ANP. The ANSF’s goal is to reach an attrition rate of less than 1.4%. On average, the ANSF consistently gets 6,000-9,000 recruits every month

Those rates of attrition are (to be charitable) suspect. This week Steve Inskeep of NPR had an interview with the author of a new book,  Our Latest Longest War, LtCol Arron O’Connell, USMC.  This book may well be the best yet from the military perspective on the Afghan conflict and I cannot recommend it more highly. Here is a portion of the interview:

O’CONNELL: I believe we’ve been trying to help them out of the tragic story of Afghanistan for 15 years. Americans are big-hearted people. The United States is the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. But there is still space to reason what the appropriate amount of blood and treasure is to spend on a mission that seems to be in stalemate at best, backsliding at worst.

I think we have pretty good evidence now, both from Iraq and Afghanistan, that the massive assembly-line attempt to produce capable, professional national security forces has not worked well, and it’s been at tremendous cost. And for all those who say we should just keep doing what we’re doing in Afghanistan, let me explain why that’s not sustainable. Every year, between a quarter and a third of the Afghan army and the police desert. Now, these are people that we have armed and trained. We’ve given weapons to them. We’ve given them basic military training. And every year, a third of them disappear.

INSKEEP: With the guns.

O’CONNELL: With the guns. That’s not sustainable for us economically, and it’s certainly not sustainable for the Afghan people to just fill the hills with armed militias.

That sounds a little higher than 2.6% per month but 2.6 x 12 = 31 so the NATO brief is about right but looks better than the stats provided in the interview above.  And this is why I feel it imperative to go back and cover this deployment. There is too much blood and treasure riding on this mission to condemn it to the mediocre coverage of the main stream media.

If you have the means and are interested in the truth regarding the situation in Afghanistan then please take the time to visit the Baba Tim Go Fund Me page and donate. We all deserve the truth about what is being done in our name and the only way to get it is to send someone over there who understands what he’s seeing and has the depth of knowledge to give context and background to his reporting.

After making a generous donation it would be appropriate to say a quiet prayer for the men and woman of TF Southwest. Their going need all the good karma in the world to pull this off. My money is still on them.

Where There Is Smoke

This year’s fighting season has started off with a whimper in Helmand Province.  On May Day (as predicted) the only action was in Paktika Province where a child suicide bomber violated the latest Taliban  public announcement by blowing himself up in a police station.  The Taliban had just announced they would no longer allow beardless boys into their ranks and although the Pashtun are a hirsute people I’m not aware of  any 12 year olds who can cultivate a beard. On the 7th of May the Taliban launched a two day siege in Kandahar which accomplished little; they didn’t even manage to  inflict any casualties on ISAF or the Afghan security forces.

I have never seen this before. The poppy harvest is in (for the most part) the weather is warming up, it is time for the fighting to start but across the region the Taliban remains inactive.
We have never seen this before. The poppy harvest is in (for the most part) the weather is warming up, it is time for the fighting to start but across the region the Taliban remains inactive. Hat tip to Sami the Finn at Indicum Consulting for the stats.

 

Panjawayi Tim tells us this is the enduring image of the Kandahar siege. 24/7 helicopter gunship coverage overhead
Panjawayi Tim said this is the enduring image of what became known as the 2011 Battle of Kandahar;  24/7 helicopter gunship coverage overhead

Defeating the Taliban in battle in downtown Kandahar is not a victory for the good guys because of the fact they were fighting in downtown Kandahar.  The people of Kandahar are the prize for both ISAF and the Taliban; the real estate is meaningless so the fact that the Taliban even mounted this operation is bad news.  There are additional reports that groups of Taliban fighters had “foreigners” embedded in them which may, or may not, be true.

It is still amazing to see ISAF throwing around air to ground missiles like this is such a crowded urban area. They are unbelievably good at this
It is still amazing to see ISAF throwing around air to ground missiles like this in such a crowded urban area.  This strike went into one of the Taliban strong points which were only a few buildings away from Panjawai Tim’s compound.

The Taliban did spend 10 to 15 minutes warning local people near the government buildings to bug out ahead of the fighting which was appreciated by the local population.  They then launched a spirited attack, gained a foothold in some government buildings, barricaded themselves inside those buildings and then sat around waiting for ANSF to come fight them which took a couple of days of deliberately cautious fighting. After the assassination of the Provincial Chief of Police, Khan Mohammed Mujaheed, and the jail break at Sarapoza prison, the locals have serious doubts about the ability of ISAF and ANSF to protect them. This summer is going to be the tipping point for somebody and now that the Taliban have reportedly imported foreigners to help them fight they have to fight or risk losing their foreign fighters piecemeal.  JSOTF doesn’t take days off, they don’t sleep, they won’t stop and will not run out of money.  They go after foreigners like white on rice and Afghans will sell out foreigners in a heartbeat (if the price is right) regardless of which side in this conflict they support. If there are that many foreigners here they have to fight or flee; going to ground in hopes of avoiding compromise by the locals is not going to work.

Outfitting the ANA with M16's and protective armor was a great call. It deprives the Taliban of one of their traditional sources for small arms ammunition while allowing our mentors to operate with troops who have the same level of protection as they do.
Outfitting the ANA with M16’s and body armor was a great call. It deprives the Taliban of one of their traditional sources of small arms ammunition while allowing our mentors to operate with troops who have the same level of protection as they do.

So where is the spring offensive?  Looks like it’s in the north:

The north is starting to heat up which is not good because there is all sorts of room up there to maneuver and the ISAF forces in the region are not known for offensive prowless
The north is starting to heat up which is not good because there is all sorts of room up there to maneuver and the ISAF forces in the region are not known for offensive prowess

Here are a few recent security reports from last week (AGE =anti-government elements in UN security speak):

On 2 May, Balkh Province, Chahar Bolak District, Timurak Village, at approximately 1830hrs, reportedly 150 fully armed AGE entered to the village and overwhelmed the entire village.

On 6 May, Sari Pul Province, Sayyad District, Khwaja Chargonbat and Khwaja Yagana Villages, at approximately 1300hrs, AGE attacked ANSF within the above villages. There were firefights for three consecutive nights which forced the ANSF to withdraw from the village and AGE captured the mentioned villages. One ANA personnel and one local police were wounded.

On 7 May, Balkh Province, Chimtal District, Hotaki Village, at approximately 2005hrs, AGE fired 15 rounds of mortar towards ANP Posts. One of the mortars impacted on an ANP vehicle and as a result, the ANP vehicle was damaged.

Security in the northern portion of the country has been going down the tubes since 2008 with Taliban influence spreading into provinces that have little or no Pashtun population. Their gains came from a combination of  ideology and religion with non-Pashtun peoples who have very few reasons to  side with them.  Actually they have only one reason to  throw in  with the Taliban  which is this; the Taliban settle land disputes and other legal manners in a way which is perceived by all sides as fair and just. Two of the most experienced journalists working in  Afghanistan, Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter, just released a 64 page report titled The Insurgents of the Afghan North which is a fascinating, detailed account about how the Taliban gained such a large foothold. But 150 armed Taliban running around Balkh Province?  That is hard to believe.

Panjawai Tim has been trying out his new D 90 and got a few good shots from his compound. A few of my loyal readers (mainly Marines I must admit) have been complaining bitterly about the lack of pictures and graphs lately so I'm sticking a bunch in this post
Another shot from Tim’s compound

In 2010 joint Afghan/American SF teams started in on the Taliban shadow government and Taliban leaders up North and they had a clean run with only one exception; the targeted killing of “a senior member” of the Islamic Movement of  Uzbekistan (IMU) Mohammed Amin. They did not get Mr. Amin but ended up killing a prominent former Taliban commander named Zabet Amanullah, who was out campaigning for his nephew’s parliament run. I remember this as being a big deal when it happened but didn’t know the story behind it until this  recent post on The AfPak Channel by Kate Clark.  Ms. Clark makes an interesting observation in her piece:

Dealing with the U.S. military, it has felt like we are from parallel worlds. Their Afghanistan, where knowledge is often driven largely by signals intelligence and reports provided by a very limited number of local informants, with a very narrow focus on insurgent behavior, and the normal, everyday world of Afghan politics. In the case of the Takhar attack, these two worlds simply did not connect.

This too  has been my observation for many years however it is no longer true in the Helmand Province. The Marines are too active inside a population which is limited to the irrigated lands fed by the Helmand River. Their constant patrolling out of an ever expanding series of spartan combat outposts is paying off.  They are gleaning the human intelligence that naturally flows from constant contact with local villagers. We don’t have that ability in the north and judging from both of the articles linked above we have done about all we can do.

The SF teams have run the JPEL up north and although the Taliban filled their vacancies, the old home grown local leaders have apparently been decimated.  Their replacements are not from the local tribes and are  overwhelmingly Pashtun.  My prediction (and I’m on a roll with Egypt still up in the air) is that the North will be end up being the test case for the Karzai government and the Afghan Security Forces.  With the Helmand on  lock-down, our litmus test in the southern Pastun heartland remains in and around Kandahar. If the Taliban have really imported foreign fighters they have a  problem. They’re running out of maneuver room and their foreign fighters are soon going start run out of time.

Afghanistan Gone Wild

The killings in Mazar-i Sharif followed by rioting in Kandahar, Jalalabad and towns across the country are more than a little troubling.  Joshua Foust posted on the topic expressing concern about the viability of internationals remaining outside the wire which makes me concerned too because Joshua isn’t one to cry wolf..  Registan.net then added  a post by Joel Hafvenstein arguing that the insurgency is not targeting aid workers and the time to talk of pulling out has not been reached.

Kandahar, where protests broke out on Saturday was locked down until this morning by ISAF.  We had our own scare today when a villain walking near the Governors compound spontaneously detonated (malfunctions are as predictable as rain with Afghan suicide bombers) and his partner immediately started running down a side street towards our compound.  He was brought down in a spirited fusillade most of which seemed to snap over our compound walls.  This meeting engagement in downtown Lash apparently disrupted crowds which were gathering in the surrounding neighborhoods for a Koran burning protest.  We dispatched scouts to check out the city when we heard that but they reported the town to be locked down, streets empty and ANSF check points everywhere.  There was a Koran burning protest across the river fronting the main Lashar Gah bazaar but the ANSF won’t let them into the city.  The locals know that a large agitated mob would result in indiscriminate looting of the bazaar so the local elders were in the ANP  HQ by the afternoon complaining bitterly about allowing crowds to form in the first place.

One of the many smaller protests in downtown Kandahar this morning
One of the many smaller protests in downtown Kandahar Saturday morning

The violent protests in Kandahar left at least 8 Afghans dead and caused a complete lockdown of the city by ISAF ground combat units.  I’m ignoring the attacks on the Kabul ISAF bases last Friday.  Attacking them is a stupid, meaningless gesture which puts Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire at much greater risk then the international troops who guard the ECP’s.  The rioting in Kandahar is not a big surprise given the powder keg nature of the city as ISAF and ANSF forces continue to put the screws to Taliban networks.  The attack on a UN Compound in Mazar in which two of the Nepalese guards were reportedly beheaded is a little harder to explain.

The Wall Street Journal released the well researched article Inside the Massacre at Afghan Compound which gives a good account of what happened and why ISAF did not respond in time.  Mazar-i Sharif has indeed always been considered one of the safest towns in the country for foreigners.  Back in ’06 and ’07 when I frequently traveled to Mazar we considered the entire area to be benign and never carried rifles or body armor.  Just as in Jalalabad, a town reportedly hit with Koran burning protests today, the security situation in Mazar deteriorated dramatically during 2010.  I have heard from friends that the armed guards in the UN compound did surrendered their weapons without firing a shot.  That is not a big surprise.  Shooting into a crowd of unarmed people is not an easy thing to do.

The only way to handle a crowd this big and this close would be with CS gas grenades while pleading with ISAF to come to the rescue
The only way to handle a crowd this big and this close would be with CS gas grenades while pleading with ISAF to come to the rescue. This is the crowd outside the UN compound before they went high order. Photo from Sami the Finn

Private Security Companies in Afghanistan are not allowed to have CS or any other kind of grenade (except smoke) in their inventory so the UN guards could not volley CS gas over the walls in an effort to drive the mob away.  Nor could they volley frags and as you can see from the picture above gunfire would have been effective only if they started drilling a lot of people fast.  Most folks in that situation will decide lethal force is an option which will most likely make the situation worse.  Identifying the tipping point when lethal force would be appropriate would have been next to impossible last Friday. Trusting your fate to the mercy of the mob is a plan that could very likely go very wrong but most of us would probably go that route if the alternative is shooting massive numbers of unarmed people.  But not now.

Reuters is reporting:

A senior interior ministry investigator said on Sunday the killers of the U.N. staff appear to have been “reintegrated” Taliban — fighters who had formally laid down arms — although the insurgents have denied any role in the attack.

Over 30 people have been arrested, from areas as far afield as southern Kandahar, western Herat and central Baghlan province, said Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

If all those bad actors converged on Mazar-i Sharif to start a riot it was most likely because Mazar has a reputation as being safe.  It would be much harder to pull off a similar stunt in Lash and we saw how quickly the protests in Kandahar were locked down.  The security forces in contested areas react much faster to large unruly crowds.  In Mazar they were used to how things go in Mazar; they have never locked down the city nor have they ever had to deal with multiple Taliban complex attacks.  It appears the Koran burning provided the perfect opportunity for an organization with motive, money and organization to whip a large crowd out of control.  It would not surprise me if the killers were imported and paid too, but that is speculation on my part.  I note with interest that the Taliban have not claimed responsibility.

I am seeing things the same way as Joel Hafvenstein regarding the Afghanistan Aid effort; I don’t know of any company out here slowing down operations or packing up to go home.  The security situation deteriorated rapidly in the past 12 months except for in the Helmand and Kandahar Provinces where most population centers are solidly under ISAF/ANSF control.  I still think this summer could be a tipping point if the Taliban continue to get shredded in their southern homeland but we’ll have to see.  It may not prove to be decisive in the long term but then again who knows?  It’s going to be an interesting summer.

The Good Don’t Always Die Young

The Godfather of Free Range International – the man who pioneered the techniques, tactics and procedures we use to travel in remote districts was executed last week in Badakhshan Province. Dan Terry was a good man. He was humble, self-effacing, and competent. He lived in Afghanistan with his family and spoke fluent Dari and Pashto.  Despite knowing him for over 5 years, I don’t know really much more about himpther than he was a humble man who was not comfortable talking about himself. I met Dan in 2005 when he was in Kabul through a doctor friend. I learned later he was in town because he had brought in several children for free cleft palate surgery provided by the excellent CURE hospital in Kabul where they were his wife Seija heads the nursing department. Dan was a religious man who used his love of God as inner strength to help lift the conditions of those he chose to live among – and he didn’t need to tell stories about what he’d done.

When we were starting out in the security business he taught us how to operate safely, how easy it was to travel around the country (as long as you didn’t have big armored SUV’s) and how to seek food and shelter in remote districts if we ended up on foot for some reason. Dan taught how to operate as a westerner in Afghanistan; be true to your word, speak openly, greet warmly, and always smile.

om right to left Dan Terry, Dr. Keith Rose, and one of Dan's Drivers. This photo is a few years old and taken in front of the CURE hospital. Dr. Rose is one of those self funded doctors (in his case a plastic surgeon who fixes cleft palates and builds ears and noses for kids who had theirs removed by the Taliban) volunteering at the CURE hospital in Afghanistan.
One of the volunteer surgeons and Dan Terry outside the CURE hospital in 2006.

The story  about his loss broke yesterday after authorities recovered the remains of Dan and seven international doctors who had conducted an eye clinic in Nuristan Province. The team decided to take the longer, harder route back to Kabul through Badakshan Province because that part of the country is relatively free of Taliban gangs.

Press reports indicated that the local people warned Dan and Tom Little (team lead and another friend who’s been here for more than 3 decades) that the woods they were going to camp in were not safe but they went as planned telling the people they were doctors and that the Taliban would not molest them. That last fact has been true for many years in Afghanistan. Despite this precedent the Taliban claimed credit for this multiple murder but I find that hard to believe. Afghan Taliban groups don’t do that to western doctors who are traveling in harms way, unarmed and unafraid, to treat people in remote districts. At least they never have before.

Dan’s wife Seija is the director of nursing at CURE international and also makes long trips into the bad lands to bring modern midwife techniques to a population of women facing the highest childbirth mortality rate in the world. Dan and Seija, who raised their daughters in Afghanistan, worked for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries which is an ecumenical NGO based in Central Asia.

There are few men as selfless, patient, kind or as good as Dan Terry. So often it seems in life and especially in war that the good go first. Dan wasn’t a young man, he had lived a long life but he was, to all who knew him, a good man.

Dan was exceptionally gifted at operating outside the wire in the most remote areas of Afghanistan. He was the Godfather of Free Rangers and now we are forced to determine if the deteriorating security situation is going to allow us to or operate in the open. Clearly Dan thought he had a solid plan to get in and out of Nuristan Province. This time the plan failed and the manner in which his team was murdered portends poorly.  This is yet another indicator of how fast the security situation is changing in Afghanistan.  If there is any indication that things will turn around soon I’m not seeing it. Goodbye and God Bless to Dan and his crew…we are better people for having known you.

One Step Forward Two Steps Back

Every now and then one stumbles across a story which illustrates deeply held convictions so well that you just have to share. Here is one of those and it is a sad tale of incompetence, risk aversion and just plain clown like silliness. It is amusing (I guess) but it is also so typical of why we are making little progress in our battle to bring security and infrastructure development to Afghanistan.

The story is written by Ian Pannell of the BBC and describes his visit with Americans from the Embassy in Kabul who flew into Mazar-e-Sharif to drive out to a school opening.   It is a all to familiar tale, the American palm the Brits off on their local hosts and move out in Armored Suburbans with a full security detail.   One of the trucks breaks down and they all turn around, go back to the airport and fly back to Kabul. The Brits arrive and, as the only internationals present, stand in for the Americans.   After being guests of honor at the banquet the Provincial government organized for the occasion, ( and scoring a chapan which is super cool) they are given a car and driver by the governor to get them back to Kabul.

This is a variance chart done by Mullah Todd. The size of the circles indicate the level of violence for 2007 and 2008. The red indicates increases in incidnet rates between those same years. Note the red up north.
This is a variance chart done by Mullah Todd. The size of the circles indicate the level of violence for 2007 and 2008. The red indicates increases in incident rates between those same years. Note the red up north.

I have pointed out time and time again that there is no need for armored vehicles in the north – or in most of Afghanistan. It is safer for all concerned to be in unarmored vehicles with lots of dispersion and preferable locals mixed in among your vehicles. But that is not what bothers me about this article it is the cavalier way something that was obviously important (or why even fly up from Kabul) was dismissed.

We have not been dumping the money, resources or attention in the north like we have in the south. The south is populated with Pashtun people, the north (with the exception of Kunduz City) has no significant Pashtun population – they are Uzbeks, Hazara and Tajik’s. They have for the most part cooperated in the disarmament programs, stopped growing poppy, and cooperated with the central government.  And we treat them like a bunch of irrelevant rubes. The Governor of Balk province and several other important Afghan’s lost a lot of face because the “professionals” from our embassy found it impossible to drive for 2 hours over rough roads or spend the night in the wilds of Mazar-e-Sharif. Mission has priority my ass.

Mulla Todd spent Spring Break working with some of the boys in the FabLab on all sorts of high tech stuff. The boys gave him the "Mulla" handle because of the long chin whiskers which all the locals never fail to comment on. He's like a rock star in the Bazaar downtown.
Mulla Todd spent Spring Break working with some of the boys in the FabLab on all sorts of high tech stuff. The boys gave him the “Mulla” handle because of the long chin whiskers which all the locals never fail to comment on. He’s like a rock star in the Bazaar downtown.

I have commented in previous posts and several times on Covert Radio the people up north are not amused by how they are being treated. Their old enemies the Pashtun are getting rich on the drug trade and are getting more and more guns and more heavy weapons. The people up north are getting a few crappy schools, ignored or insulted by the American Embassy, preyed upon by a few warlords and more than a few criminal gangs and guess what? I think their patience is nearing the end.

The local school girls got to benefit from Kate - she ran a really popular math class for the boys too
The local school girls got to benefit from Kate – she ran a really popular math class for the boys too

One reason I believe that is the scarcity firearms available on the market. There are international security companies buying and using the old Soviet PSSh 41 submachineguns for jobs in the south.   Ammunition of all calibers has doubled or tripled in price. The weapons market has always been run by northern peoples.   But now they are not selling and that cannot possibly be good news.

It is time to get serious about what we are doing here – define an acceptable endstate, work towards that endstate and get the hell out. One of the sad facts of life is that we really have not figured out why we are here. Conventional wisdom says that if we leave the Taliban will return and with them Al Qaeda and they’ll use Afghanistan as a launching pad for further attacks on the west. That is complete BS.   The Taliban will not come back in power here – not in a million years.   Even if they did they would not be stupid enough to provide shelter or assistance to Al Qaeda. We have reduced Osama and his surviving leaders into walking dead men who freak anytime someone gets near them with a cell phone or a plane flies overhead. They could no more pull off another 9/11 than I could pull a diamond out of a goats ass.

Last fall I wrote in my posts on Shrzad district that the elders said they would return to growing the poppy if they got enough rain in the spring. Guess what kind of weather we have had this past 8 weeks? Rainy and cool - this photo was taken yesterday by Ross McDonnell an independent pro photographer from Dublin.
Last fall I wrote in my posts on Shrzad district that the elders said they would return to growing the poppy if they got enough rain in the spring. Guess what kind of weather we have had this past 8 weeks? Rainy and cool – this photo was taken yesterday by Ross McDonnell an independent pro photographer from Dublin.

What can be done in Afghanistan?  We can bring security – build some infrastructure, and (most importantly) develop the human capitol as best we can. This is being done – the best example being the Afghan Special Forces who enjoy universal respect and appreciation from the local people. SF teams have a model and that model involves living, working, and mentoring their local charges 24/7. If we are going to continue to dump millions into Afghanistan than every program should duplicate that model – there should be an American or Americans at the program level working with the Afghans to ensure whatever they are supposed to do (construction, security, law enforcement etc..) they actually do. And once we finally do what we signed on to do – the roads, the bridges, the dams – once they are done it is time for us to go. Inshallah we will realize this and act accordingly but for now…it will soon be time to worry about the north.

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.