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 crappy 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.
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 that with a little extra mentoring and support they can turn to corner and become self sufficient.
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 no? 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 a biased and clueless 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. And my money is still on them.
My good friend E2 has kept FRI alive for the past few months allowing me to put up a post I’m dying to share. We’ll complete our remaining projects in a few months and then I can start posting again about what we were up to this year. Last week I got a treat that was too good not to share; a chance to link up with my friend Col Dave Furness, USMC, the commanding officer of Regimental Combat Team 1 currently deployed to the southern Helmand. Col Furness was heading out to look over the positions of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (Lava Dogs) commanded by LtCol Sean Riordan, who came through the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course when Dave and I were instructors there. I needed to see the USAID FPO’s in that neck of the woods providing a perfect excuse to tag along.
When Dave and Sean first showed up several months ago there was some of hard fighting left do to penetrate this far south but that turned out to be the easy part. Terrain and vegetation forced the Taliban into linear defenses. They tried minefields in front in an effort to bog down the advancing Marines. But Marines have helicopters, so they would fix the villains with a frontal holding attack and then fly into their rear and chew them up. The Taliban were quick to figure out that move and countered with minefields and fighting positions to their rear too. The Marines started flying into their rear to fix them, a tactic which allowed the Marine infantry in front to flank the Taliban and pin them against the Helmand River. Fish in a barrel, except for the runners who manage to slip out, ditch their weapons and start walking meaning they no longer fit the PID profile and cannot be engaged.
A few months back as they were pushing south the Marines would run into situations that (for guys like them) are a dream come true. An ANP commander pointed out a village where his men have hit 3 IEDs in as many weeks and each time the villagers poured out with AK’s to start a firefight. A few nights later the Marines blow a controlled det on the road to simulate an IED hit and when the villains rushed out with their flame sticks they met what we lovingly call the ‘L shaped ambush’. No doubt (knowing the Lava Dogs) the villains also met Mr. Claymore, were introduced to the proper use of a machine gun section, and were treated to a 40mm grenade shower from those new and super deadly M32’s. Bad day. Not many survived that textbook lesson on the proper use of an ambush squad, but those days are long gone. The Taliban has run out of options in their limited (yet effective) playbook and have gone to ground but are still planting the IED’s and will still strike at what they consider soft targets but these attacks seldom rise above the level of being a minor nuisance.
As everybody in the world (except President Karzai) knows, these IED’s kill and maim vast numbers of innocent Afghans, yet rarely inflict casualties on ISAF units. The Marines still get hit by them but have deployed in such a way as to significantly reduce the vulnerability of their line infantry. Know how? By staying off the bog box FOBs and getting into little squad size combat outposts.
But Baba T, you ask, isn’t that how the Brits got their asses kicked so badly a few years back in the very same district centers the Marines are now occupying? This is true and speaks to the difference in organization, culture, task organization, and combat power between the services. The average British soldier is every bit as good and in most cases better trained than his American army counterpart. But not the Marines who have far superior entry level training and a history of battlefield innovation. But the Marines are not supernatural and trying to work out of COP’s in places like Musa Qala is proving tough.
Southern Helmand Province is a long, flat narrow area, where the population is confined mostly to strips of land in close proximity to the Helmand River or one of its main canals. The Marines are able to spread out into COP’s (combat outposts) PB’s (Patrol Bases) and OP’s (observation posts) covering the entire AO (area of operation). These positions are manned by junior NCO’s and in one PB the senior Marine was a Lance Corporal. They move positions frequently; every time the Marines set up in a new one of any size local families immediately move as close to the positions as they are allowed and start building mud huts. For them a small band of Marines equals security and the implicit trust shown by this pattern of behavior is something in which the Marines rightly take great pride.
So if the Marines have been kicking ass out there, why is the title of this post “Attention to Detail”?
Brace yourself for a confusing yet illuminating segue.
Back in the early 90’s, LtGen Paul Van Riper interrupted one of our IOC field events because he had been directed to stage a capabilities demo for a visiting member of the British Royal Family. I think it was Prince Andrew, but may have that wrong. General Van Riper is probably best known as the man who destroyed the US Navy in a 2002 “free play” staff exercise. But his reputation back then was as a general who would go” high order” at the slightest provocation.
I recall when he showed up outside the old combat town in Quantico; my fellow instructors and I lined up to render him a salute but for some reason I cut my salute early. He glared at me as if I were a putrid urine specimen. And not just a casual glare – he held it for what seemed like hours as my face worked its way through the various stages of red finally topping out at crimson. I remember observing full Colonels on the side of the road picking up trash (they had apparently been told to have their Marines get this done the day before but didn’t- so now they had to do it). We saw those Colonels because we had to go back and get clean uniforms for our students and ourselves – after five days in the field we were pretty stinky and no member of the Royal Family was going to be forced to deal with stinky Marines.
The General came up with a slick ambush involving a SPIE rig extract which would deposit our students in a LZ just down the road where the Prince could shake hands and take photos. We rehearsed for two days all the while correcting what we thought were very minor issues, but they were defects Gen Van Riper found intolerable. The demonstration came off without a hitch – which we expected because we (the IOC staff) were good at this sort of thing. But we were forced to recognize the 5000 rehearsals Gen Van Riper had insisted on had served us well. We had thought General Van Riper a lunatic; his obsessive attention to detail some sort of sick personality quirk but it turned out he was showing us what had to be done for a mission of this nature.
We were wrong to label Van Riper as anything other than a consummate professional despite his prickly personality.
Here’s why: attention to detail saves lives. It is not something that one can turn on one moment and off the next. It is a habitual behavior borne of years of practice, and even more years of serious ass-chewing from those above you who know the business. We had always known attention to detail was critical, but had applied it only when practicing the deadly arts of war. We were masters at running complex live fire and maneuver training which required considerable attention to detail to pull off. However, in all honesty, we just didn’t apply it in the garrison or classroom setting. As young officers we thought we could turn it on in the field because that’s where (we thought) it was important. What Gen Van Riper and the many others like him were demonstrating to us was that we were wrong – you can never turn off attention to detail.
Our first stop on our tour of 1/3’s area was a newly established logistics hub, which was a pigsty. I had never seen Dave ‘channel’ Gen Van Riper before, but I have now, and man, it is a sight to behold. He went high order, repeating over and over that a unit that can’t keep its own little camp in order is a unit unfit for combat operations outside the wire. “If the little things are kicking your ass, how the hell do you expect me to believe you can accomplish the big things I sent you out here to do?” I’m paraphrasing here because between Dave and SgtMaj Zickefoose, so much ass was being chewed that I thought it best to go hide in the MRAP and didn’t even attempt to write down what they were explaining in the harsh unequivocal terms of infantry Marines.
There was good reason for Dave’s rant. The active fighting has been long over, but the dying continues due to IED strikes and the most important factor in countering IED’s is attention to detail coupled with strict adherence to procedure. As we visited every little PB, COP, and OP in the Lava Dogs AO (there are over 50 of them now), we found that the logistics hub was the exception – each base and outpost we visited after that was spotless (or as spotless as things can be in the desert). Although the Lava Dogs had mastered the art of maintaining a clean and organized patrol base, Dave and the SgtMaj continued to pound home their message: the fighting is over, we have tried every trick in the book to lure them into fighting us, but they won’t play anymore and have gone to the IED. The procedures for mitigating IED’s are well established and well drilled. They cannot be deviated from, no matter how hot it is, how long you’ve been out, or how far away the next available EOD teams may be.We must follow the procedure to the letter, no exceptions, because the lives of your fellow Marines depend on it.
Military life is often plagued by weak martinets who make the lives of their troops a burden by insisting every rule and regulation be followed to the letter. They use rules and regulations to cover for a lack of confidence in their professional ability to make good decisions; so when confronted with problems they make no decisions, hiding instead behind the letter of the law contained in the UCMJ. Good commanders insist on attention to detail and following established procedures because paying attention to detail needs to be habitual for it to be effective – you just cannot turn it on and off. To quote Col Furness: “Attention to detail and strict adherence to orders is what keeps men alive.” But then, he’s no martinet. As an example: despite rule 1 (no keeping local dogs as pets) you will find dogs on every little base Dave owns. I’m not sure he knows they are there because he tends not to look at or notice them as he walks into these small, clean outposts.
The local dogs are good for morale, can take the heat better than military working dogs, and have over and over saved mens lives when they accompany their American friends on patrols. Somebody gets them flea collars, a rabies shot and de-wormed and from that point on they are part of the tribe. A martinet would put an end to that nonsense instantly because it is against the rules – benefits to the men and mission be damned. But a commander who understands Napoleon’s maxim “The moral is to the physical as three is to one” he’ll find a way to work around problems like this by applying the spirit, not the letter of the law. Besides, the Marines broke the code on local dogs in Iraq so seeing them on every post here is really no surprise.
As did Gen Van Riper all those years ago, Dave continues to pound into his Marines’ heads the need for attention to detail. When “The Ripper” would rip into us we didn’t have the advantage of combat experience so the context of these lessons were lost on us. Maybe I shouldn’t say “us” but they were on me. I think it was Dave Furness (could have been Paul Kennedy for that matter – now a newly minted Brigadier General – making me one of the prouder former Marines on planet earth – I love seeing my friends do so well) who told me the first time you lose a Marine because he was doing something he shouldn’t or had on him something which he shouldn’t (like an ipod or cell phone that suddenly rings at the worst possible moment) you learn instantly to go Van Riper on them because if you don’t, you’ll lose more in the same manner and that will break you.
Killing the Taliban is the easy part of this conflict because, as I’ve pointed out about 100 times in past posts, they just plain suck at fighting and we have become very proficient in targeting and killing people. Getting the Marines to treat the local people with respect and project friendship and warmth is also easy. The Marines with RCT 1 are in close contact and living with these people 24/7. It is in their nature to smile, give kids candy, treat the injured etc… The only consistent problem the Marines have with the local population is their treatment of dogs and other domestic animals. Yet despite this, the Marines cowboy up, doing their duty as good troops always do.
The only thing the local people of southern Helmand are concerned about, when it comes to Marines, is that they are going to leave. They would much rather see them stay – I hear this from the locals everywhere I go in this Province.
Now the hard part of the job is maintaining focus day after day in the heat, dust, and wind of the Helmand River Valley. This is where experienced combat leadership comes into play. Getting face to face with Marines to hammer home over and over that they must maintain their vigilance, that they can’t get sloppy just because the Taliban won’t play anymore. This is when the hammer has to come out because it is human nature to slack off when the pressure is off. Well, the pressure may be off from the Taliban but it certainly isn’t from the RCT 1 command group. Which is exactly how it should be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So where is the spring offensive? Looks like it’s in the north:
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.
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.
Well here we are, a week away from Victory Day, the third annual national holiday celebrating the martial history of Afghanistan. There is Independence Day in August, which celebrates running the Brits out of the country in the 1800’s. Then, there is Liberation Day in February, which marks the end of direct Soviet Army involvement. Next week, we pause to remember the days when Afghans beat the stuffing out of each other with Victory Day – celebrating the defeat of the Soviet backed Najibullah regime in 1992.
It’s still ‘crickets‘ in the Helmand Province. The last of the poppy harvesters will return home, sort out their share of paste, rest a bit and then cast around for something to do. It appears that for most of the adult males in Helmand, fighting the foreigners for pay, is no longer an attractive option. The WaPo published a story last week about how the United States Marine Corps is wearing out the Taliban the old-fashioned way – by shooting them. This trend is noted here by the Belmont Club, and here by Herschel at The Captains Journal, and here by the Long War Journal. This latest article on the martial prowess of the Marines comes at a propitious time (even though it was based on a Bing West embed last fall) because my Dad, of all people, sent a new Marine recruiting poster which I can now share-even with the F bomb-
Turns out that it is not just the Marines who are ‘gettin’ some’ in the Helmand, but also the Brits, who still have a task force in the province, stationed in and around Lashkar Gah. The other day, one of their squaddies pounced, literally, on a senior Taliban bomb maker.
My Muckers were being shot on the ground and I thought, I’m not having that”. Said Private Lee Stephens, who leaped from his Warrior armored vehicle to deliver a textbook ‘Flying Clothesline’ takedown on a Taliban who was hustling to flee from the patrol. “I jumped out and I grabbed the geezer” said Pvt Stephens;
Good thing he didn’t miss bulldogging the little bastard, otherwise the Brits would be receiving an unending stream of directives from on High about the folly of doing a Superman dives from armored vehicles to subdue motorcycle-mounted Taliban. The Brit press followed up with this story that could have been written anytime over the past 9 years.
Writing anonymously, the author reveals that the Taliban have dubbed British soldiers “donkeys” who move in a tactical “waddle” because they now carry an average weight of 110lbs worth of equipment into battle. The consequences of the strategy, he says, is that “our infantry find it almost impossible to close with the enemy because the bad guys are twice as mobile”.The officer claims that by the end of a routine four hour patrol, soldiers struggle to make basic tactical judgments because they are physically and mentally exhausted.
Good grief… once more ‘ The Lesson Which Can Never Be Learned‘ is exposed for all to see and none to act on. The optimal load for marching infantry was studied exhaustively and documented extensively during the time of the Roman Legions. One fighting man can carry 60 lbs and march all day and with a 30 lbs fighting load he can maintain acceptable speed, mobility, and striking power without draining his stamina. Every officer on active duty knows this but none of them can move beyond the “survive-ability aspect” heavy armor brings to the fight. So our PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) go into battle wearing over 100 lbs of armor.
The lads are both fit and smart and have figured out heavy combat loads increase the chance they’ll be shot due to poor mobility and heat exhaustion. When they do get shot, the armor prevents penetration, which is a testament to the concern their senior officers have regarding their health and welfare. But then again, forcing men to hump 100+ lbs of gear in a blazing hot desert is a sobering testament of just how little control senior officers have over the health and welfare of their men. Marine Officers tell me that congress is to blame for the ridiculous notion that force protection is derived from heavy body armor and large armored trucks.
One advantage (for what it is worth) of all this weight is when the lads dive off armored vehicles to apprehend villains the extra mass and weight turn them into formidable meat rockets.
Having done some research, I find that American Geezers have something in common with British Tommies; they too can say “I’m not having that” and the discussion is over. Turns out Bing West doesn’t wear body armor or helmet! He may be on the facility of the Naval War College, and he may submit reports to the American Department of Defense, but somehow he has reached that glorious station in life where he can tell the Marines and the Army to STUFF IT- He goes out with whoever he wants, while wearing whatever he wants. Man, that’s nice work if you can get it!
It is not like being a reporter makes one a non-combatant, as we were reminded again with the passing of Tim Heatherington in Libya yesterday. Bing West doesn’t have to wear body armor because he’s 70,and nobody expects men his age to walk around lugging 100 lbs of gear, and he has earned his due with the Marines. That seems perfectly reasonable; what is unreasonable is to expect any man, of any age, to carry around over 100 lbs of armor, water and weapons during combat operations. We know that forcing men to carry that much weight will cause significant problems; but the only significant problem senior officers worry about are the ones which will adversely impact their careers. They know that we task the PBI to carry too much weight, they know that physical and mental exhaustion leads to increased numbers of our guys suffering enemy wounds and they know that the men know- which means that the press knows, which is to say everyone knows; but nobody wants to acknowledge that what they know- we ALL know. The British defense Ministry did what bureaucrats do when confronted by unpleasant facts – they made the shit up and released it to the press:
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The issue of weight carried by soldiers on operations is well recognised and work is constantly under way to reduce the amount carried by soldiers. “Since June 2010 a number of weight savings measures have reduced the weight carried by soldiers by up to 26 lbs.”
Sure, 26 lbs…color me skeptical, but prevarication over the amount of weight trimmed off the fighting infantry misses the point. The lads carry too much weight and suffer casualties because they rapidly run out of steam and sloe down when under fire.
It is Saturday, the 9th of April here in the sunny paradise of Afghanistan and both Kandahar and Kabul are in a UN declared “White City” status as the locals brace for another round of anti-American protests in response to the Koran burning in Florida. I’m in Kandahar where all is quiet after Thursday’s spectacular attack on an ANP compound. Once again the Taliban used an ambulance VBIED to get through police and ISAF cordons, then detonated it inside the incident scene. The Taliban still suck at fighting, but they are getting pretty slick with the tactical planning as of late.
We aren’t too worried about protests in the South – a look at last week’s stats from Sami the Finn at Indicium Consulting shows why:
When the poppy is being harvested all other activity around the poppy belt, including Taliban attacks, grind to a halt. Opium prices are at an all time high after last years crop failure and we hear this year the opium sap harvesters will keep 1 man (4.5 kilos) for every 6 man they milk out of the poppy bulbs. A man sells (at current prices) for around US $6000. That is a ton of money in these parts, however gathering up that much wet opium takes the average 4 man team two weeks of backbreaking, dawn to dusk effort. Still every able bodied male in the region is hard at work trying to get a man worth of Opium because when you have 6k in your pocket you can get married. That’s right – sex not only sells but it’s also is a great motivator for unmarried men in societies where the only way to get it is through marriage.
With most of the international press trying to figure out what Obama and Hillary are up to in Africa confusion regarding what’s happening here has reached new levels of strangeness. Are things going well, or are they going down the tubes? Is a resurgent al Qaeda a problem, or, (as I have long maintained) is this never going to be happen again in Afghanistan? Is the President of the United States really an inexperienced, doctrinaire, ignoramus, or is he rope-a-doping the whole world by pretending to be incompetent while hatching a wickedly genius plan to bring Americans a healthy economy coupled to a foreign policy which is easily understood to benefit the interests of our country?
Allow me to answers my questions in reverse order: Our POTUS is not rope-a-doping, his crisis management performance is typical for a man who has been promoted way beyond his level of incompetence for reasons other than experience or consistent superior performance. But that is a lesson we cannot acknowledge because it remains fashionable among our cultural and business elite to emphatically believe affirmative action is a good thing. They want to believe that diversity makes us stronger when everyone who has to deal with “diversity” knows the only way it makes anything stronger is when diverse peoples meet the same standards and compete on a level playing field.
The Taliban are resurgent now, have been for the past two years and will be gaining and holding more terrain, will be inflicting more casualties on ISAF and ANSF, will grow stronger and stronger with each passing year. Worse, it appears al-Qaeda is back which I thought would never happen but then again I thought we’d be making progress by now.
And finally I have no idea what in the name of God we are doing bombing Libya but can guarantee you that when it’s all said and done we’re going to discover this was “doing stupid shit”. Let’s just hope we don’t lose too many people in the process.
In the Eastern portion of Afghanistan we have withdrawn from most of Kunar Province because the military geniuses in Kabul have decided that our presence in the isolated valleys was a provocation, so we declared victory and are packing up to head home. The Hillbillies of Kunar didn’t see it that way and thought our withdraw from their turf was a win for them. Commanders who are victorious against the Americans seem to attract attention, money, recruits, and (this is new) al Qaeda training camps. Who would have guessed that????????
This report in the Wall Street Journal was a nasty surprise to those of us paying attention but not for long. Within 24 hours the MSM was spinning a counter story that included this statement: “Petraeus also said he did not agree with reports that al-Qaida was making a comeback in Afghanistan”. Well, I guess that’s that but hold on the WSJ story was written by Mathew Rosenberg. I know Matt gets outside the security bubble to dig up his own facts having given him a ride from Jalalabad to Kabul a few years ago. If Rosenberg is reporting there is a resurgent al Qaeda infesting Afghanistan then I’m going to admit I was wrong about the possibility of that happening. General Petraeus can say whatever he likes but we know he doesn’t know because he has no human intelligence capacity with which to know. That is the price he must pay for having unlimited funds with which to build little islands of America all over the country, isolating most of the forces completely from the Afghans.
Another classic example of inside the security bubble propaganda versus real outside the wire atmospherics can be found in this April Fools article . Written by James Dobbins, and reprinted by the RAND people for some reason (I am certain protecting their billions in FOB based contracts has nothing to do with it) Mr Dobbins, a DC insider with a vested interest in blowing sunshine up the rectums of other insiders, tells us that “irrational optimism” is the word of the day for your ordinary Afghan. You see, as bad as things are, they have been so much worse over the past 30 years that, from the perspective of the abused populace, everything is now peachy!
Let me paste in graph from one of the few organizations that actually gets out on the ground (with expat led teams) to do their own polling. Check this out:
The pie chart above is based on a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS). ICOS is the only policy analysis organization in Afghanistan with expatriate headed assessment teams. They are led by the formidable Norine MacDonald: I ran into them last January while they were in the Helmand Province doing research for this report on the dangers of a draw-down in forces this summer.
I personally don’t think the maneuver units are going anywhere this summer. The United States could easily send half the people deployed to Afghanistan home without diminishing a bit of combat power. Simply clear out all the Equal Opportunity Officers, the Sexual Harassment Officers, career jammers, the jerks who monitor base gyms to make sure nobody wears a sleeveless shirt and the military policemen who make life on the FOB’s such a drag. You could easily cut the intelligence effort in half because Afghan intel is an echo chamber of endemic circular reporting. And you can close the COIN Academy; setting up a new “innovative” school house is a loser move designed to cover over the fact we have no traction with the Afghan people. The COIN Academy will never answer that question because you can’t do COIN in six month increments which isn’t really the problem either; the Karzai administration is the problem. But I’ve only been saying that for five years now and am sick of repeating myself.
We’re spending too much money and blood in Afghanistan while achieving very little besides beating the dog shit out of the Southern Taliban. That is something which the Marines in Helmand and the ISAF units in Kandahar can be proud of but it’s not enough. When I look at the train wreck that is the United States economy coupled with the unwillingness of our elected leaders to deal with the mess they made I am reminded (yet again) of the Roman Empire. Contemplate this quote (hat tip Dan Carlin’s Hard Corps History) from historian Michael Crawford who wrote in The Roman Republic:
The dangerous developments of the second century BC were then in large measure the result of growth of the Roman Empire providing the oligarchy with wealth which had to be invested making it easy for them to acquire extra land, providing them with slaves to work it and offering no alternative land elsewhere to those dispossessed. A part time peasant army conquers the Mediterranean and that conquest facilitates its destitution.
The level of debt being generated by our political masters is unsustainable, the amount of spending on the war in Afghanistan is unsustainable, the financial obligations of the democratic run blue states are unsustainable. Yet our political class continues to demagogue, evade, reward themselves with benefits regular Americans can only dream of, while our military leaders focus on marginal issues like women on submarines or the acceptance of homosexuals (as if they have not always been in the military anyway). Our government leaders focus on everything except the fact we have no money. Our military leaders focus on everything except the fact that we’re losing in Afghanistan. The American people work hard to support their families while sending their children off to fight for a military that is rapidly adopting the liberal cultural mores of the ruling class at the expense of traditional martial virtue. The men and women fighting here and elsewhere will return to a country where only the elite prosper, where the rules for the political class and the working class are different. They are going to fight like lions to support our constitution while the administration shreds that constitution and leaves the common folk destitute.
Holy shit I sound like a commie! Time to pack up the laptop and fly to Dubai where I need to score another visa and a beer or two. Maybe a few days of sleeping in a real bed will improve the mood a bit but I doubt it. I see a bad moon rising.
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.
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.
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.
Facebook sent me a reminder about a post that went up 5 years ago and asked it I wanted to re-post it. I did then went to read and realized it was probably one of the better more prescient posts I ever wrote so here it is….back on the front page of FRI exactly 5 years after first being published. It even has click bait if the form of two of must attractive and gutsy Free Ranges in the land. But the video at the end is disturbing …… those kids are fighting age now.
I ended my last post with an observation about the importance of how wars end. That was most foolish of me because I was assuming we started bombing Libya with the intention of using the military to achieve an appropriate political endstate (because that’s how this shit is supposed to work). But that isn’t at all what we are doing in Libya….I’m not sure what we are doing but it has nothing to do with an acceptable political endstate because there’s been no political debate or though given to the matter. It appears we’re bombing Libya because Obama feels we need to bomb Libya. Do you understand how unbelieveably stupid it is to start a war without any clue as to what you want to achieve? Obama is not only a world class intellectual midget he’s now getting to be dangerous (to the entire world) and where the hell are the fucking Joint Chiefs? I know where they are….their where their predecessors are as documented in the excellent book Dereliction of Duty. Obsequious is not a word that should be applied (ever) to senior general officers but there it is.
I’m all for killing Col Gadhafi because he killed Americans; a lot of them in Berlin and over the skies of Lockerbie Scotland. I expected that Obama would not think through what he was doing but for some strange reason assumed the NSC and Pentagon had a plan (I type that with a straight face..honest) I forgot that the NSC is now headed by a political hack (with no previous military or national security experience) named Tom Donilon and, being on vacation with my kids, it also slipped my mind that the Pentagon is busy focusing on the things that really matter; force feeding acceptance of openly gay service members and retro fitting submarines to accommodate female sailors.
I can’t bring myself to re-hash the hypocrisy, stupidity, or folly of Obama and his minions when it comes to the multiple crises popping up in the Middle East. It’s too depressing; the White House Bat Phone must be ringing off the hook nightly but we now know nobody has the balls to answer it. Besides Mark Styen has done the heavy lifting on this issue with an excellent assessment which ends:
But lost along the way is hard-headed, strategic calculation of the national interest. “They won’t come back till it’s over/Over there!” sang George M. Cohan as the doughboys marched off in 1917. It was all over 20 minutes later, and then they came back. Now it’s never over over there not in Korea, not in Kuwait, not in Kosovo, not in Kandahar. Next stop Kufra? America has swapped The Art Of War for the Hotel California: We psychologically check out, but we never leave.
I must add this gem which, as the Bot is my witness, is an almost exact replica of conversations I had over and over during the summer of 2008 with Liberal USAID contractors at the Tiki Bar. Obama has turned out to be worse than my worst summer 2008 nightmare. It is no longer funny (but the clip below is).
What is happening in Libya would not be important to the US had not Obama involved us kinda sorta. The ongoing revolts in Syria, Bahrain and Yeman are important to American interests but you need to know something about the region to understand that. That type of specialist knowledge is hard to come by in Saul Alinsky seminars, Reverend Wrights church sermons or the Harvard Law School.
While on holiday I saw this article on an airstrike targeting a Taliban commander that ended up killing civilians. The article also helpfully points out that nine kids were killed in the Pech Valley earlier in the month which prompted the usually hysterics from President Karzai.
I’m not so sure about what the deal was with the Pech Valley airstrike except to point out that I know a few of the attack helicopter pilots based out of Jalalabad and they know just about every stinking inch of the Pech Valley. I doubt the veracity of the report and will address that in a minute because this story about Naw Zad pisses me off and here’s why.
We got played again by the Afghans and the reason we got played has everything to do with the intelligence shortfalls identified by MajGen Flynn two years ago, combined with a still non-existent human intelligence capability. Here is why I can say that with near total certainty without knowing a damn thing about what went on in this strike.
The unit that was on the ground in Naw Zad (1st Battalion 8th Marines or 1/8 in Marine speak) has rotated home and the battalion now working the battle space has been on deck maybe two weeks. Battalions who have just arrived are not given a long enough leash to do whatever the hell they want; it is inconceivable that they came up with a “these two cars have a Taliban commander in them” plan and were then able to talk the Regimental Combat Team they work for (and I know its commander well) into letting them smoke two vehicles containing persons unknown with attack helicopters. The Naw Zad Valley is a flat, treeless expanse of high desert. If the battalion thought they had a Taliban commander driving up or down it why not just stop the cars and grab his dumb ass?
When aviation assets attack moving cars which reportedly contain high level Taliban it is a safe bet that the hit is driven by intelligence. Normally that is supplied by the CIA and normally the hit has to be given a green light by someone from on high (who in the modern military/intel system is never held accountable for that decision). That’s what normally happens but we all know the CIA doesn’t know shit because they have no humint program and rely on ‘walk-ins’. I would bet money that a “walk-in” targeted this car and the NDS vetted for him and we got exactly identical results for targeting folks based on NDS/CIA vetted ‘walk-ins’. That is how we killed 27 woman and children attending a wedding in Nangarhar Province back in July 2008. Or when we killed over 2 dozen children at a wedding party in Kandahar in November 2008, or….I could go on and on.
The common denominator with these botched attacks was human intel fed into the system by “walk-in” informants of dubious background and character or fed to our FOB bound intel people by the un-FOB bound Afghanistan intel people who have scores to settle or land to steal. How many times do we need to be played by the Afghans before we wise up? How many innocents have to die before we learn we cannot put all our eggs in the electronic warfare basket and start to develop our own human intelligence capability?
It’s not that hard to get off the FOB and stay off the FOB, my children did it. Grad students from MIT do it…which reminds me the Synergy Strike Force girls are back in Nangarhar staying at the Taj and doing some super cool medical and social networking stuff. Jenn’s blog is here and Rachel’s blog is here – Rachel brought her husband Juan Rodriguez along and he’s a pro shooter with a good eye and great glass on his camera – you should spend some time on both blogs. As you can see in the picture below hot chicks can stay off the FOB and roam around with no worries ….why can’t our HumInt teams do the same?
The Pech Valley
Earlier in the month ISAF was accused of shooting up 9 teenagers in the mountains of the Pech River Valley. The Army attack helicopter pilots who work that part of the country have memorized (it isn’t a big valley) every attack point in the Pech Mountains where it is not unusual to see Taliban fighters who are very young. Remember the video of a 12 year old boy cutting the head off “an American spy”? Or the herd of teenagers rolling boulders into the road behind American vehicles during the battle at Ganjgal? Army attack pilots don’t light up people in the mountains for no good reason so there is no doubt in my mind that if they smoked 9 teens it was because they were carrying weapons. Karzai knows this as he does that the gum cameras will provide the answer to any questions he has. Notice how he never asks for the gun camera footage…that’s because he’s getting upset to score political points.
Were he a great leader, a man of integrity and one who listens and cares about the Afghan people what he should be upset about is the video pasted below. This video horrified (and I mean horrified) my Afghan staff. I didn’t intend to show it to them but one of the cooks heard the music from the video and walked into my office to see why I was playing Jihadi music. Within minutes the whole staff was watching in mute horror before wondering off in stunned silence tears running down some of their cheeks. This video is what should be concern the Afghan elites but it’s not…why?? I suspect the elites can’t extort cash out of the Taliban over videos like this or over dead civilians so why bother them. The Americans – they pay and pay and pay. And look what they have wrought.
Crickets as in “I hear nothing but crickets” is the word of the day for Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1) based in Camp Dwyer and controlling the southern districts of Helmand Province. I needed to do a little district level coordination last weekend and was able to catch a ride to Marjah with my good friend Col Dave Furness USMC, the CO of RCT 1. He was heading there to host a CODEL (congressional delegation) and agreed to let me tag along if I promised to not talk to talk to any congressmen. That’s an easy promise to keep so once again I got to ride with the Marines across the Dasht-i-Margo (desert of death) and into the fertile Helmand Valley River town of Marjah. The chances of us getting attacked while en-route? Zero. Chances of hitting an IED? Just about zero. Crickets – the Taliban have taken the winter off and their stay behind IED teams are failing miserably. Know why? Because the Marines when faced with tactical problems have turned to tactical solutions.
Last summer Wired magazine had a pretty good article about the DoD Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and the cat and mouse game they’re playing with IED attackers. Given the size and complexity of the American military these guys are operating as fast as one can expect but they are too far removed from the battlefield to help front line infantry deal with IED cells that vary dramatically in effectiveness and methodology. As I mentioned in the last post when line troops want to get actionable intelligence the only dependable option is to get it themselves. Likewise when the Marines need tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to battle Taliban insurgents the tried and true method is to figure it out on their own and pass on what works to the units coming in behind them.
The Taliban learned that they need two obstacles in front of them when they shoot at Marine patrols and the most common obstacle used is a bunch of IED’s buried in choke points in front of large, deep irrigation ditches. The Talibs believe that the two obstacles will give them the 30 or so minutes it takes to get air or rocket delivered ordnance targeting them. That was a good plan during the heavy kinetic fighting around Nawa and Marjah when the Marines first arrived. But the Marines have been here a while now and seeded this vast AO with little patrol bases. RC Southwest averages 500 patrols daily and those patrols identify and record every compound; recording if they are occupied and by who which is a moving target as families continue to flow back into the villages.
Every patrol submits a fire plan which includes on-call firewalls that have been pre-planned by the Ops officer Mike (Mac) McNamara and the RCT-1 Air Officer shop. A firewall is fire coordination measure to clear the air space and near space of all obstacles so RCT can fire HIMAR rockets. It takes a good 20 minutes to set up a firewall if you are running on the fly. With pre-planned firewalls when the squad leader calls for fire support – Mac sends a text message to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) declaring Firewall XYZ in effect. The DASC says “roger that” (unless they have to move assists out of the way which may delay the affirmative a few seconds) and RCT 1 has a firewall. Knowing if the nominated target is an abandoned or occupied compound speeds up the clearance too which is the whole point of the intensive patrolling and census taking. Every compound in the AO has an alpha numeric designator and the battalions update their lists daily due to the number of families who are moving back. What once took 20 minutes can now be done so fast it’s stunning.
The Marines on the ground still have to contend with the IED’s and the Taliban seed IED’s everywhere which, as you’d imagine, does not endear them to the local population. To cope with the flood of IED’s, most of which function by pressure plates and have very small magnetic signatures, required new tactics and a special tool, which in typical Marine fashion, was designed by a Gunnery Sergeant, fabricated from materials purchased in local bazaars, and paid for out of pocket by the troops. I’m not going to describe the tools or TTP for now because they are effective and need to stay that way as long as possible.
I missed something I really wanted to see on this trip and that was the monthly NCO symposium. Dave came up with the idea after seeing the turnover between two sister battalions from the 1st Marines 3/1 and 2/1. 3/1 had a strike to find ratio hovering around 90% during their 7 months in theater and 2/1 who is now 5 months into their deployment has pulled out over 400 IED’s at the cost of 2 WIA and 1 KIA. This was due to an uncommonly planned, organized and executed turn over package based on every bit of front specific knowledge 3/1 had gleaned during their tour. Using the turnover as a template Dave and his staff started a monthly training symposium for the squad and fireteam leaders from all his battalions designed to facilitate cross decking of the best practices and procedures. I’ll have to wait a month or two before I can get back and attend one of these and man am I looking forward to it. It’s a great idea to focus time, attention and limited resources on the young leaders. It is also worth the investment to get them in front of the principal staff members who clear their calls for fire requests and the Regimental Commander who encourages any and all questions and will sit in the classroom all night to answer them. Face to face is the best way to get things sorted out and with an endeavor as complex as war things need to get sorted out frequently.
There is hard fighting ahead but I just do not see how the Taliban is going to be able to do jack in the southern Helmand Province. The Marines treat every foot of ground outside their COP’s as if it contained an IED and yet they figured out how to move and move fast through the mine fields. The Taliban can’t sow anymore mines than they already are sowing and it wouldn’t matter if they did. The Taliban can’t train effectively, they can’t improve their rudimentary command and control, they are rarely able to coordinate among themselves and they didn’t spend the winter lull learning how to shoot. They’re guns are old and worn, their ammunition a mix of dodgy 3rd world crap, re-loads, and what they can buy on the black market. (C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, has been writing extensively about the guns and ammunition used by all side in this conflict and his piece What’s Inside A Taliban Gun Locker is worth a look.) The Taliban are not going to emerge from their winter off with enhanced capabilities but the Marines will.
The summer fighting season will be here in a matter of weeks. In RCT 1’s AO the Marines have used the lull in fighting to push out to the fringes of the Green Zone. There they still occasional gunfights and IED’s continue to take their toll but not that often. The Marines expand their area of influence while patrolling constantly; the SF guys continue to raid. Dave told me the HVT raids are a big help and the targeting precise; he’d be happy to see a lot more (I stand corrected B). He also told me the raids are coordinated with him so again there seems to be a big shift in not just the ROE but also the TTP.
Nobody is sure what to expect when the poppy harvest is in and the fighting starts again in earnest but I’m predicting the southern Helmand will see limited fighting because the Taliban lack maneuver room, lack good rat lines, and are now isolated from a large percentage of the population. The fighting this summer is going to be in the north outside Sangin, Musa Quala and Naw Zad. If the Marines break the Taliban up there and the army/ISAF units in Kandahar continue to press the Taliban out of the green zone the villains are in real trouble. This could be the tipping point but for it to matter countrywide we need the will to hang on and repeat this process in the places like Khost, Paktia and Kunar. That’s not going to happen but still, giving the Taliban a serious ass whooping right in their front yard is a morale booster for the men. It also will give the Afghans space to unfuck themselves and it they don’t take this opportunity to do so then…….what can you say? It’s going to be a real interesting summer but right now the word of the day in the southern Helmand province is crickets.
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.