I just re-posted two stories about doing Key Leadership Engagement (KLE) in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. Yesterday, two Green Berets were killed and six wounded while (reportedly) conducting a key KLE in Sherzad district. This is disturbing on several levels.
First, it appears the dead and wounded (including the Afghan SF troops with the Americans) came at the hands of Afghan National Army soldiers. From the article linked above:
Additionally, at least six more American troops were also wounded. The high number of casualties (17 as of this reporting) is attributed to the ODA/Afghan combined force coming under fire from a DShK, a Russian designed heavy machine gun which fires a 12.7mm bullet. The wounded have been evacuated to the appropriate field hospitals.
The source explained to Connecting Vets that it is suspected that the Afghan National Army (ANA) was behind the attack, although details are still developing.
From what I can determine they were attacked by a lone gunman with a heavy machine-gun. It is safe to assume (if this proves true) that the lone gunman was Taliban. They got an assassin into the governor of Kandahar’s security force who was able to gun the irreplaceable Gen Raziq. As I wrote the time and will continue to write this is going to happen again. It is obvious that the screening methods in use are not working and, given my experiences in Afghanistan, I suspect will never work.
Second, one is forced to ask why, at this late stage in the game, are we still conducting KLE’s out in the badlands? What did the SF guys believe would be accomplished? I can’t imagine a good answer to that question and I have over eight years of doing KLE’s in Afghanistan and many of them right there in Sherzad district.
It is difficult to get a sense of what is really happening on the ground in Afghanistan in general and Nangarhar province specifically. Nangarhar Province has gone from one of the more safe-ish provinces in the country to the most deadly one for American forces. The army had been losing soldiers over the past four plus years in Nangarhar Province fighting an outbreak of ISIS along the border with Pakistan.
The Taliban got sick and tired of ISIS deprivations before and rolled into Nangarhar and kicked their asses hard in 2015. Last fall the multiple Taliban units returned to Nangarhar (probably from Loya Paktia via the parrots beak which is that finger of Pakistan land jutting into Afghanistan at the bottom of the district map below) and beat ISIS like a drum. ISIS was surrendering to the Afghan government last time I checked and are longer a threat.
Despite ISIS being routed (reported here in the Military Times three months ago) ISIS-K is still being used to justify our continued involvement in Afghanistan. That is ridiculous – ISIS-K was a collection of Pakistani Taliban who were trying to carve out their own little Jihadi paradise in an area that contains the largest talc powder deposit in the world. Threat to the US Homeland? Hardly. al Qaeda is the same – they have gone to ground and remain unmolested in Pakistan for 18 years now and have no need to use Afghan soil for anything. The airport in Peshawar is 10 times better than Kabul International so why would any decent Jihadi move from his decades long home in Pakistan?
ISIS-K is gone, the Taliban now control of most of the countryside in Nangarhar Province where we have troops at the Jalalabad airfield. Those troops would be mostly avation and avation support but there are two different SF compounds there too which are obviously still the home of one or more army ODA teams. I understand the need to be active outside the wire of a firm base like Jalalabad to keep the bad guys at arms reach but I’m not sure what possible use a key leader engagement would be at this stage in the game.
This is exactly the kind of senseless loss that is driving President Trump to wind down our involvement in Afghanistan. How do you justify losing 8 Americans and unknown number of Afghan Commando’s on a chin wagging mission with a bunch of local elders?
As an aside the only main stream outlet to write about this is Fox and their take is focused on the perfidy of Green on Blue attacks. They have (as usual) completely missed the the obvious and the comments section is so clueless it’s depressing. The other outlets are (I suspect) waiting to see what President Trump is going to say so they can say the exact opposite. Watch and see.
Maybe there are great reasons for the mission to Sherzad that we will never know, but I do know there are better ways to conduct KLE’s. It is always better to risk one contractor than it is to risk a dozen highly trained special operators. The counterintuitive thing about that is an experienced contractor traveling alone into Sherzad district, wearing local clothes, and in a local vehicle is much safer than 20 soldiers rolling around in four MRAP’s. That is a lesson we refuse to learn and I think the President, for one, is getting tired of it.
For Eighteen years the American military has fought the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS from the Hindu Kush to the Philippines Seas and most lands in between. The one common denominator between those Jihadi scum is their view on smoking cigarets. They are militantly anti-smoking, as in cut off your fingers for smoking, anti-smoking. One of the first things people do when they see Americans rolling into villages after thumping ISIS or al Qaeda or whoever, is to light up and enjoy the right to ‘smoke them if they got them’.
I was told repeatedly as a young officer that there are no atheists in the foxholes, and went on to observe there are no non-smokers there either. The closer you are to fighting infantry the more uniform their behavior regarding smoking becomes.
This is is with great mixed emotions I make the following announcement: On 1 October, at every Veterans Administration Facility in America, all smoking and smoking related products will be banned. The ban will include parking lots and facility grounds and will be enforced by the VA police who issue tickets on behalf of the Federal Court. Try dodging one of those and the Men in Black show up to shoot your dog and yoke you up for smoking a cigaret.
As a local VSO (veteran service officer) I frequent VA facilities throughout the Rio Grande Valley. I see the occasional smoker in the designated smoking areas and have never seen anyone smoking in a non-designated area. This new directive is addressing a problem that is not evident, and using the iron fist of Federal law enforcement to isolate, alienate, and eventually incarcerate the most vulnerable in the veteran population.
Most veterans, like most people, understand that smoking is no longer popular or considered acceptable behavior in public places. Most will comply with posted signs prohibiting smoking. Those who ignore those signs and refuse to refrain from smoking on private property have a problem, but it is not tobacco addiction. They have other issues and the last thing they need is a federal police officer in their face issuing them a 300 dollar fine they cannot afford to pay because they felt like having a smoke
Somehow I’ve ended up being the co-chair of the local VA system Management Advisory Council, and I have been doing it long enough for the members to anticipate my reaction to a policy like this. They were hesitant to bring it up, when they did everybody in the room looked at me. I was smiling, trying hard not to laugh out loud, struggling to regain what passes as composure for me these days.
Eighteen years….. was how I started, and rejecting the temptation to describe my minor contributions in reducing the number of Islamic Harm Reduction Totalitarians during delightful sojourns in Afghanistan and Iraq I focused on the point.
That point is this new rule has nothing to do with smoking. It is an obvious attempt to force compliance on a small segment of the population that the mandarins running the VA find deplorable. I used deplorable on purpose too just in case anyone was slow on the uptake.
The VA maintained that their concern is exclusively veteran health which is why, in addition to throwing the full weight of federal law upon the head of hapless Vets, they now offer smoking cessation classes, 5-days a week. Having declared a smoking jihad the VA decided that Vets can even bring their spouses to smoking cessation class where they can participate for free.
If smoking cessation classes actually worked that would be a fair point, but they do not work, and that is a long-known inconvenient fact. Being rather pedantic on the “fact-stuff” I pointed out there is a drug with over 80% success at treating life-long smokers with just one application. Some of the VA folks knew where I was going and hung their heads because that drug is psilocybin. Here is an abstract from an NIH study conducted at John Hopkins in 2014 telling you all about it.
The number one health problem facing veterans (and non-vets) in the Rio Grande Valley is morbid obesity and the resulting problems of diabetes and hypertension. If there were a way to magically remove the excess lipids in every human within 100 meters of our meeting we could have (in theory) built one hell of an elephant with which to remind people reality has a vote in the affairs of humans.
The signature injury of the current war is low testosterone in the men who fought it. Is the VA doing anything about that? No, of course not; in America cutting edge therapy that address hormone imbalances, addiction, PTSD, Insomnia, chronic orthopedic problems, and Traumatic Brain Injuries are only available to the wealthy and connected. You can listen to hours of discussions about new innovative treatments for those problems on the Joe Rogan podcast. But to access the treatments you need to make Joe Rogan money.
Harm Reduction Totalitarians are annoying, joyless, pale creatures who could be dangerous in countries with a feminized culture and unarmed citizenry. Here Harm Reduction Totalitarians remain a source of amusement because they are crazy people. What are you supposed to do when a 350 pound bald man tells you that smoking will ruin the quality of your life? If your answer is to laugh I’m warning you right now that is a bad move. Fat shaming is as bad as dead naming and you wouldn’t call Bruce Jenner, Bruce would you? Actually his son did say that in an interview and even he caught social media shit for it, but that’s not the point.
The point is it is time to make a stand for freedom. I know how to do that too so in support of the millions of muslims liberated from anti smoking tyranny by the American armed forces I’m going to start smoking. All the right people hate it so it must be the right thing to do.
Yesterday news broke of what appears to be a cold blooded shooting by a US soldier of an Afghan truck driver. The story was first reported by politico and the short segment featured below was apparently part of a 3 minute video titled “Happy Few Ordnance Symphony,” that was briefly posted to Youtube this week.
Speculation in the press is this incident occurred recently in Nangarhar province which is the only part of Afghanistan where US forces are operating outside the wire. I don’t think that’s the case as it is very rare to have snow in Nangarhar province and the portions that do see some snow would by in the Spin Ghar mountains where there are not any good hard ball roads.
If I were to hazard a guess I would say that this film was made on the ring road between Kabul and Ghazni….probably in Wardak province. That would mean the tape was shot before 2014.
I have written dozens of times about the unnecessary deaths US and NATO forces inflicted on civilians due to their tendency to shoot up cars that come too close to their convoys. This force protection measure was an attempt to stop SVBIED’s; the vehicle variant of the suicide bomber phenomenon. This post on the Raven 23 travesty contains several links to my previous posts on this topic.
The press always points to Raven 23 (the Nissor Square shootings) as the behavior of trigger happy contractors while studiously ignoring the hundreds if not thousands of examples of military convoys doing the exact same thing. Having had two vehicles shot out from under me, one by the British Army and one by the American Army (both incidents happened in Kabul) I am very touchy on this topic.
But what happened in all the examples I cite above and what you see in the video pasted above are two different things. The video depicts a gratuitous assault (and possibly a murder) on the part of an American serviceman. The problem is that there are anomalies in the video which are difficult to account for.
The weapon used in this shooting is an M4 Benelli tactical shotgun. That is a semiautomatic shotgun and when fired it should automatically eject the spent shell. In the video we see some gas escaping the barrel as it is apparently fired into the cab of an Afghan truck. What we don’t see is any recoil or the automatic extraction of the spent shotgun shell. That’s a little strange and I’m not able to explain why that happened.
It could be a non lethal round was fired at the Afghan driver which may account for the light recoil but I thought even non lethal rounds generated enough energy to cycle the action. I could be wrong but if that is the case then we are not witnessing a cold blooded murder but a really stupid assault on an innocent civilian. I hope that proves the be the case. If that kid fired buck shot from the M4 he killed that driver. You can see where the round impacted on the drivers window; there is no question buck shot would have resulted in a fatal wound.
My problem with the force protection measures used by ISAF military units in Afghanistan was that they not only killed civilians but they were also poor tactics. The gunners in those incidents could not have identified a threat, oriented on it and put enough fire on those vehicles to be effective. It was an OODA loop issue. I also think the Blackwater guys involved in the Nissor Square shootings reacted with excessive force. My problem there was they were prosecuted for doing exactly what the military did in similar circumstances.
When you’re operating in Afghanistan or Iraq where the battlefield is full of non combatants sometimes you have to suck up incoming, hunker down and drive like hell to get off the X. It;’s not fun and I’ve done it often enough to know what a raw deal it is. But it is what it is; I would not shoot at random civilians anymore than I would shoot at ISAF soldiers who fired on me. It’s not a rational response or legal option.
One of the reasons I’m an advocate of the PMC model is that contractors, despite the common perception of the media, are much less likely to drop the hammer on people than the military. Contractors don’t have the protection afforded military personnel by status of forces agreements. They are on their own and have to answer to host nation authorities when they use deadly force.
What we see in the video above has nothing to do with force protection. It is a straight up atrocity, an unlawful use of force and the soldiers involved should face the full force of the law for their criminal action. It is also a huge setback to America in our effort to get Afghanistan under control so we can leave. The prize now, as it has been all along, is the Afghan people. And the Afghan people are not going to forget this video anytime soon.
Last week I received and polite email from Professor Richard Macrory of the Centre for Law and the Environment, University College London asking me for permission to use some of my photos of the Gandamak battlefield in his upcoming book on the First Afghan War. I said that it would be an honor and I believe the book will come out next year. In the meantime I’m re-posting my Gandamak story because it is different then every other Gandamak story you’ll hear from Afghan based expats. This Gandamak tale is about the battlefield, not one of the best bar/guesthouses in Kabul
Traveling into contested tribal lands is a bit tricky. I had no doubt that the Malicks from Gandamak would provide for my safety at our destination but I had to get there first. Given the amount of Taliban activity between Jalalabad and Gandamak the only safe way to get there and back was low profile.
The road into Gandamack required us to ford three separate stream beds. The bridges that once spanned these obstacles were destroyed by the Soviets around 25 years ago. We have been fighting the Stability Operations battle here going on seven years but the bridges are still down, the power plants have not been fixed and most roads are little better then they were when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC. The job of repairing and building the infrastructure of Afghanistan is much bigger than anyone back home can imagine. It is also clearly beyond the capabilities of USAID or the US Military PRT’s to fix given their current operational tempo and style. These bridges are still down (as of 2015) and may never be fixed in our lifetimes.
It took over an hour to reach Gandamack which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because vegetation means water and villages with access to abundant clean water are always significantly better off than those without.
My host for the day was the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif he told me “I speak English fluently” and then smiled. I immediately hired him and issued a quick string of coordinating instructions about what we were doing in the morning then bid him good day. He failed to show up on time and when I called him to ask why it became apparent that the only words of English Sharif knew were “I speak English fluently.” You get that from Afghans. But Shariff is learning his letters and has proven an able driver plus a first rate scrounger.
The Maliks (tribal leaders) from Gandamak and the surrounding villages arrived shortly after we did. They walked into the meeting room armed; I had left my rifle in the vehicle which, as the invited foreign guest, I felt obligated to do. Gandamak is Indian Country and everybody out here is armed to the teeth. I was an invited guest, the odds of me being harmed by the Maliks who invited me were exactly zero. That’s how Pashtunwali works. The order of business was a meeting where the topic was what they need and why the hell can’t they get some help. Then we were to tour the hill outside Gandamak where the 44th Foot fought to the last man during the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 followed by lunch. I was not going to be able to do much about the projects they needed but I could listen politely which is all they asked of me. Years later I would be in the position to lend them a hand when they really needed it but at the time of this meeting I was a security not an aid guy. I have enjoyed visiting old battlefields since I was a boy and would go on staff rides with my father to Gettysburg, The Wilderness battlefield and Fredricksburg. I especially enjoy visiting battlefields that not many people can visit and I’ve not heard of any westerner poking around the Gandamak battlefield in decades. It would be foolish to try without armed tribal fighters escorting you.
As the Maliks arrived they started talking among themselves in hushed tones and I kept hearing the name “Barack Obama.” I was apprehensive; I’m surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It is unpleasant talking with them because they know absolutely nothing about the man other than he is not Bush and looks cool. They are convinced he is more then ready to be president because NPR told them so. Pointing out that to the NGO girls that Obama can’t possibly be ready to be the chief executive because he has zero experience at executive leadership is pointless and I did not want to have to explain this to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes for them to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span; this was not starting off well.
As I feared the morning discussion started with the question “tell us about Barack Obama?” What was I to say? That his resume is thin is an understatement but he has risen to the top of the democratic machine and that took some traits Pashtun Maliks could identify with. I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine. Not by trying to explain Chicago but in general terms using the oldest communication device known to man a good story. A story based in fact; colored with a little supposition and augmented by my colorful imagination. Once they understood that lawyers in America are like warlords in Afghanistan and can rub out their competition ahead of an election using the law and judges instead of guns they got the picture. A man cold enough to win every office for which he ran by eliminating his competition before the vote is a man the Pashtun’s can understand. I told them that Obama will probably win and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan. They asked if Obama was African and I resisted the obvious answer of who knows? Instead I said his father was African and his mother a white American and so he identifies himself as an African American. I had succeeded in totally confusing my hosts and they just looked at me for a long time saying nothing.
What followed was (I think) a long discussion about Africans; were they or were they not good Muslims? I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the Al Qaeda days. I think the conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs and therefore considered suspect. They talked among themselves for several more minutes and I heard John McCain’s name several times but they did not ask anymore about the pending election praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans regardless of hue and it would be better to see more of them especially if they took off the helmets and body armor because that scares the kids and woman folk. And their big MRAPS scare the cows who already don’t have enough water and feed so scaring them causes even less milk to be produced and on and on and on; these guys know how to beat a point to death.
We talked for around 35 more minutes about the anemic American reconstruction effort, their needs and the rise in armed militancy. The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remain popular with the local people. They have built some mico-hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) much appreciate. The US AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better if they were given the money to do it themselves but despite this DAI is welcomed and their efforts much appreciated. When I asked who had kidnapped the DAI engineer (a local national) last month and how we could go about securing his release (which was another reason for my visit) they shrugged and one of them said “who knows”? That was to be expected but I felt compelled to ask anyway. They know I have no skin in that game and am therefore irrelevant.
The elders explained, without me asking, that they are serious about giving up poppy cultivation but they have yet to see the promised financial aid for doing so and thus will have to grow poppy again (if they get enough rain inshallah). They also need a road over which to transport their crops to market once they get their fields productive. Then they need their bridges repaired, and they need their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970’s and that’s it. They said that with these improvements would come security and more commerce. One of them made a most interesting comment and that was something to the effect of “the way the roads are now the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy.” A little food for thought.
At the conclusion of the talking part of the meeting the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.
The final stand at Gandamak occurred on the 13th of January 1842. Twenty officers and forty five British soldiers, most from the 44th Foot pulled off the road onto a hillock when they found the pass to Jalalabad blocked by Afghan fighters. They must have pulled up on the high ground to take away the mobility advantage of the horse mounted Afghan fighters. The Afghans closed in and tried to talk the men into surrendering their arms. A sergeant was famously said to reply “not bloody likely” and the fight was on. Six officers cut their way through the attackers and tried to make it to British lines in Jalalabad. Only one, Dr Brydon, made it to safety.
Our first stop was to what the Maliks described as “The British Prison” which was up on the side of the Jalalabad pass and about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed up the steep slope at a vigorous pace set by the senior Malik. About halfway up we came to what looked to be an old foundation and an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. I can’t imagine how that could be – there were no British forces here when the 44th Foot was cut down but they could have established a garrison years later I suppose. Why the Brits would shove their prisoners inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain is a mystery to me and I doubt this was the real story behind what looked to be a mine entrance. It was a nice brisk walk up a very steep hill and I kept up with the senior Malik which was probably the point to this detour.
After checking that out we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jamm until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue at the Gandamak battlefield a few years ago which they figured the British must have pilfered from Kabul. By my estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to buy one. Their excellent fakes and they better be because the penalties for trafficking ancient artifacts are severe in Afghanistan.
I do not know where these foundations came from. Back in 1842 the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area – just off the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Latabad Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle occurred and as their direct ancestors participated in it I assumed we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations are from a small British outpost built here possibly to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879 or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.
The visit concluded with a large lunch and after we had finished and the food was removed our meeting was officially ended with a short prayer. I’m not sure what the prayer said but it was short. I’m an infidel; short is good.
The Maliks of Sherzad district never received the attention they wanted from the US Government or the Afghan authorities. Instead the Taliban came to fill the void and started muscling their way into the district back in 2011. By early 2012 things were bad enough that my old driver Shariff called me to see if there was anything I could do about getting the Americans to help them fight off the encroaching Taliban fighters. I was in the Helmand Province by then dealing with my own Taliban problems and could offer him nothing. That bothered me then and it bothers me now but that’s life.
In August 2012 my old friend Mehrab was gunned down by Taliban outside his home. By then several of the men I had shared a pleasant lunch with back in 2008 had also perished fighting the Taliban. Gandamak is now Taliban territory, the poppy now the main source of income. It will be a long time before a westerner will able to visit the old battlefield again.
After the ceremonies described in the last three posts we had one more task to complete before we went home. In the ANSF after action report on the ambush of Haji Nematullah, they reported seizing three large buckets of Home Made Explosives (HME) and three “milled metal devices with explosives inside”. We had no idea what they meant and were afraid they might be Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) mines. EFP’s were a big problem in Iraq and their source of origin is Iran. Iran being about 1/2 mile away from our safe house in Zaranj we took this report seriously and wanted to see them for ourselves. We also submit reports to the Marines at Camp Leatherneck when we get to verify stuff like this not because they asked to but as a courtesy on the off chance they too were wondering what the three “milled metal devices with explosives inside” were. We have no idea if they already know what we are reporting but it seems like the right thing to do.
On our last day in Zaranj we headed over the Provincial ANP headquarters to talk with the provincial commanders of the Afghan national Police (ANP) and National Directorate for Security (NDS) and to inspect the explosives recovered from the October 5th ambush.
After talking with the Chief of Police we went out to inspect the take from last weeks ambush in their explosives locker.
What we had come to see is what was described as a “milled metal device with explosives inside” and that turned out to be true except they were not EFP’s; they were artillery fuses.
That was good news – EFP’s are a devastatingly effective weapon able to easily penetrate military grade armor. I have not heard of them being in Afghanistan but I checked with The Bot who had heard of one being found around Ghazni last year. A flood of them entering Afghanistan would be alarming to put it mildly.
As we walked back towards our vehicles Mike Yon asked our escort – one of the local NDS men who spoke English – what else they needed and he replied “somebody to fix our trucks”.
We continued on to find the Chief of Police having a Press Conference about a recent drug bust.
I appeared on the Aloyna Show last week and talked to the current conventional wisdom about the need to keep some sort of military presence in Afghanistan for the next 10 years. A link to that show is here and my segment starts around the 34 minute mark.
Our military is a big cumbersome leviathan designed to do one thing and one thing only; crush other nation state armies. Our military is good at killing bad guys. But killing bad guys is the easy part of war. It is everything else you have to do simultaneously that’s the hard part. We once knew how to do the “other things besides killing people” part of expeditionary warfare but that was long ago when the units dispatched half way around the world took a month or two to get there and remained in country for the duration. Our military can’t do that anymore – contractors can (stay in the same Province for years and years) and in doing so could fill in for fighting infantry but then you are outsourcing the fighting to mercenaries and have little reason to maintain such a large force structure.
If I remember my Roman History correctly Rome started down the road to ruin when they became unwilling to bear the burden of military service and outsourced fighting to Barbarian tribes. We have not reached that point. I know the Marine Corps is currently so flush with tier one (99.9% of the current pool) enlistment applicants that the wait for boot camp is 7 months minimum. The wait for candidates entering the officer training pipeline is over a year. We still produce the men needed for our military force structure but the amount of money it takes to do so is ridiculous. Using what the Romans called Auxilia for contingency operations makes perfect sense from a financial and political point of view and I support it 100% but our elites won’t.
When you are unable to do what is important, the unimportant becomes important which is why we spend millions to fly 5 pound bags of crushed ice from Saudi Arabia to our FOB’s. I saw that in Nangarhar – in Helmand there is an ice plant on Camp Bastion run by the Brits but the Marines I rode around with did not have coolers full of ice, which was mandatory with the American army units in Nangarhar. The Vietnam War may not be the best example of doing things right, but my father spent 13 months fighting in Leatherneck Square and the Arizona Territory of Northern I Corps (on the DMZ between South and North Vietnam). In all that time he saw ice once – it was flown in off a Navy ship – but by the time they had divided it evenly among the rifle companies it had mostly melted. Today crushed ice for coolers full of expensive sports drinks and bottled water is considered essential for troop morale.
There are Marines and soldiers in Afghanistan now who man small patrol bases and never see hot chow; let alone ice. I blogged about them in the past. But the guys (and now gals) who are out at pointy end of spear are at most 4% of our deployed military. Everyone else gets ice on demand and has access to unlimited amounts of high quality chow, pecan pie and ice cream.
The press rarely tells the story of the small minority of deployed troops who live, fight and die in conditions their forefathers would recognize unless it involves some sort of tragedy. I read one of the best pieces in this genre this morning in the Wall Street Journal. The story was well told and as supportive of the fighting men as such a piece can be. The journalist who wrote it played the story straight and did a fantastic job with such a tragic topic.
Yet by far, the most common story line concerning the troops deployed to Afghanistan are like this piece, which claims half of the vets returning from Afghanistan need medical treatment for the lingering effects of blasts and psychological trauma. At the very most 15% of those deployed to Afghanistan ever leave the FOB so how can half of them be so damaged?
Do I sound conflicted to you? I know I do, and it will take some distance to get things in perspective. And distance is what I have; I’m back in the US staying with friends while undergoing treatment for the lingering effects of a blast injury. Ironic, I know, given what I just wrote above. I am clean shaven, wearing normal American clothes no longer hear the call to prayer being blasted from speakers all over town five times a day. I miss hearing that call and don’t know why but I really miss it. That is so strange but it is and it is also nice to be back home.
Last week I received and heads up from Mullah John that General Allen and Ambassador Crocker were on 60 Minutes and was able to watch the show on AFN. The one thing I noticed when watching General Allen was the emotion clearly evident as he discussed the truck bomb has had asked the Pakistani military to help stop.That bomb hit a US base in Wardak Province injuring over 8o soldiers. General Allen was told that one of the Pakistani politicians remarked that if he knew about the truck bomb why did he not stop it? He was clearly not amused by the question. I also saw something from Ambassador Crocker I really like. When asked why he came out of retirement he said that when the President tells you he needs you do a job there is only one correct response. I respect that.
I make no claim to having a clue what or how General Allen is thinking as he approaches this war. I knew him 20 years ago when I was an instructor at the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course where he was our group chief. I like General Allen and count him among the finest officers I served with during my time in the Corps. I don’t know Ambassador Crocker at all – I just liked his response on 60 minutes and I am sure he is an exceptionally talented leader.
Having qualified my expertise on the matter I’d like to make an educated guess, and that is General Allen is not the kind of commander who will grant enemy sanctuary indefinitely. I doubt Ambassador Crocker is any different. General Allen is backed up by the Commander of CENTCOM, General Mattis who has a well earned reputation as an exceptionally aggressive and successful general. General Allen also spent three years as the Deputy Commander CENTCOM and the Marine Corps rarely leaves a three start general in one job for three years. During those years General Allen was General Petraeus’s right hand man and he did that while, for the most part, remaining off the main stream press radar. General Allen has juice – and it is not the kind of juice one normally associates with politically powerful people because it is not obvious main stream media juice. It is back channel juice and that is powerful stuff.
The topic is Pakistan and I thought it the perfect place to put in photos of my travels through the Khyber Pass. I’ve done the low budget Khyber Pass visit and the high budget (escorting a senior diplomat from Japan) tour too. The pictures calm me as I’m venting my spleen about the stupidity of our political class below – hopefully they do the same for you too.
Herschel Smith is unimpressed with the reported build up in the east of Afghanistan and I can’t remember a time he’s been wrong about anything. His assessment could prove to be spot on but this is one time I hope it isn’t. And for more bad news check this out: President Karzai has threatened to back Pakistan if the US conducts cross border operations. Secretary of State Clinton stopped by for a few words with President Karzai who immediately gave a TV interview telling the world he would side with Pakistan. I guess the SecState failed to get her message across. Big frigging surprise there.
Suppose for a moment that the one glaring problem we face is no longer considered acceptable. That problem is that our enemies have sanctuary once they cross over the border to Pakistan. What if we have reached a point where we are no longer going to tolerate it? The reason I ask is because what exactly are the Pakistani’s going to do about it?
They can threaten to cut off our supply lines. We have alternative supply lines running out of Central Asia and seem to have stockpiled enough of the 4- B’s (beans bullets, bandages, and beer). Wait, that can’t be right as everyone in the military knows drinking beer is one step away from consorting with Satan (according to Armed Forces TV and radio and social media outlets). Drink just one beer and the next thing you know your thumping the wife and trying to sell the baby for poker money. So we have stocked up the three B’s and we can hold out with our stash much longer than the Pakistani economy can withstand a sea and air blockade because that is the level of punishment you have to be ready to dish out if you plan to go into Waziristan and start taking scalps.
We have known since the very first days of this conflict that the Taliban use the border area for sanctuary. We have been good about not going across in “hot pursuit” having limited incursions into Pakistan to one that I know of.
We have alternate supply lines, we have stocks of stuff on hand, we still need to move supplies through Pakistan so what to do? How about this famous quote “Never take counsel in your fears”. The Pakistani’s have been playing us for fools since about December of 2001 when we let them rescue Osama bin Laden. Before that they were all about cooperation, as was every other country in the world except the ones that don’t matter anyway. The reason they were so cooperative was they knew we were in the blind rage stage of being pissed off about 9/11. That is several steps up the pissed off ladder and nobody at that time was sure what we were going to do. All they knew was that we were capable of doing whatever the hell we wanted to do. We still are. In fact given the billions spent on high tech platforms we could destroy more, faster, and with greater efficiency than we could a decade ago.
After watching the 60 minutes segment with General Allen I am certain of one thing. He’s pissed. And he’s pissed about how Pakistan has been playing us and he is not the kind of man you want pissed at you. Take it from me because I’ve been there with him and it’s not pleasant. Most of you do not know General Allen or anything about him. What you need to know is he understands that unlimited sanctuary is no way to fight a war. And even though he doesn’t have the political capitol of General Petraeus he has his confidence. As he does with General Mattis – another fighting general who is not too keen on granting anyone sanctuary. I know calls like going across the border in hot pursuit are the Presidents to make but we all now know (thanks to Ron Suskind) that the White House is dysfunctional and getting the President to make a firm decision about anything almost impossible. National level leadership of that kind allows for subordinates to make “interpretations of intent”. A fancy way of saying they can make their own decisions and take the actions they think fit Obama’s intent.
At the moment nobody is too sure about Obama’s intent on anything let alone Pakistan. Pakistan has proved a most unworthy ally. They actively support cross border incursion and have done so with impunity. What is to stop General Allen from coming across the border and reducing Miramshaw to a heap of smoking ashes? Nothing. And when Pakistan starts wailing and moaning about it do you know what we should tell them? First word starts with an F the second with a Y. What are they going to do about it? Fight us? That one would be over quick.
I’m back in my compound after attending a bunch of ceremonies in Zaranj marking the end of our efforts in Nimroz Province. When we flew in last week the skies were dark and it rained that night. The next morning was clear as a bell making for excellent photography and perfect weather for what turned out to be 15 hours of driving through the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death). Our mission that day was the dedication ceremony for the Charborjak Irrigation system which we had built, mostly with shovels, wheelbarrows and lots of man power, over the previous 11 months. We had originally scheduled the ceremony for the 5th of October but changed the date at the last minute. On the 5th there was an ambush waiting for us; when we moved out last Thursday we were a mobile ambush looking for anyone who was looking for us.
The Provincial Governor of Nimroz Province is Al Haji Karim Barahwi and those of you who have read this blog know I’m a big fan of his. He’s a graduate of the Kabul Military Academy and served in the Afghan Army as an officer until the Soviets invaded. Governor Barahwi then became a Muj commander who fought the entire war without any help from the United States. He was working out of Iran and obviously had a little help from them despite the fact that he is not too happy with Iran at the moment. The trip he took us on was remarkable because we did not go the way we have always gone to Cahrborjak; we jumped the Helmand and moved deep into the desert where the Governor wanted to show us something. This story is best told through pictures and I have around 1800 from that one drive alone. So stand by for a story told the Marine way – lots of pictures, no big words, and no cussing. I was an officer in the Marines and know that cussing is good for morale, but only enlisted men rate morale, so, only they can cuss with impunity. Officers are supposed to find more appropriate language to record observations, write reports, etc… My Dad reminded me of this fact due to my proclivity for inserting colorful language in my posts – which, for the record, I think is (word deleted) but I’m trying to talk him into writing for the blog and therefore am compelled to entertain him.
Along the way back to Zaranj we stopped at the village where Governor Barahwi was born and raised. It was slightly bigger than this one. We also stopped at the village of the ANP soldier who was killed in the ambush last week. We did not take pictures in either place and we hung out in the village of the ANP soldier for a good hour or so too, paying respects as it were. It was a great day and my camera battery died after I took this picture so it is time for analysis and commentary.
The kerfuffle over the dam being built is an interesting contrast between two styles of doing the “build” part of the current Afghanistan plan. There are direct implementors like us who take USAID money and use it according to the priorities of the Provincial and District governments. We did not build anything new – we restored a check dam and a major irrigation intake that had been destroyed back in the 80’s. We used the same plans and the same engineers who built those irrigation systems back before the Soviets arrived and depopulated the rural areas of southwestern Afghanistan. The provincial irrigation department coordinated with their national level counterparts in Kabul on every step of this project and sent in regular progress reports. We also employed every man who could handle a shovel in the district for almost a year which is the whole point to cash for work programs.
The dozens of very senior, highly credentialed people who reacted with great emotion boarding on distress when they found out about this project are the other side of the coin. These are people who have been given a great deal of authority yet have no responsibility for tangible on the ground results. They never leave the FOB’s and never see anything of the country except what they can see while flying over it. There is a PhD hydrologist working for the USG and also coordinating with a British subject matter expert to come up with the Helmand Water Shed Master Plan. I am sure they are professionals who take their work seriously and spend 12 hours a day on the computers doing I have no idea what. But, good intentions are meaningless and the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to bring people like that to Afghanistan and keeping them here for a year might as well be thrown into a rubbish bin. Do they honestly think that when we leave here their “master plan” will be worth more than a cup of warm of spit? How can smart people be so stupid?
The Helmand River Valley will never reach its full potential unless every farmers field is dug up, the clay removed, and proper drainage put in its place. We discovered that back in the 1960’s when Lashkar Gha was called “Little America” and the State Department was trying to salvage the disaster that was the original Hellmand River Valley project run by the engineering firm Morrison Knudsen. Since the completion of that project local farmers have irrigated their fields by flooding them. The NGO I work for tried to introduce drip irrigation to the local farmers years ago but they pulled the hoses out of the ground and started using them to tether sheep and goats. The only way to water a field is to flood it; everybody knows that, and that is exactly what the farmers told the men who showed them how to use drip irrigation 8 years ago. You cannot force change on Afghan farmers any easier than you can force change in Americas’ two-party political system. Proving that drip irrigation is efficient and works better turned out to be completely irrelevant; if proving yourself right mattered the entire Helmand River Valley would be using drip irrigation and about 1/3 of the water they are currently using to water their crops.
Not that using less water is a big deal because, as any Afghan sod buster will tell you, that just means more water for the Iranians. Water is a zero sum game for Helmand Valley farmers; changing that mind set is not going to happen in my life time….or yours.
Last year Michael Yon visited our Nimroz projects and put up an interesting post called Please don’t forget us. He was writing about a massive women’s training program we ran that year because Zaranj has a more Persian culture, woman can drive in Zaranj, work outside the home and attend training courses without any problems. We tried to do an even bigger woman’s training program this year but we’re rejected. The woman had already been forgotten and this year’s crew in Kabul wanted “capacity building” which is the new buzzword on the FOB’s. For 1/10th of the cost of keeping just one hydrologist in this country for a year, and I’m talking the million bucks of life support and security costs, not the salary or cost of mobilization which would easily add another million to the sum, for 1/10th of that we could have trained 300 woman and sent them on their way with the tools they needed (Sewing Machines, beauty salon equipment, wool and weaving boards etc..) to start their own business.
I know I sound like a broken record. It just seems like it is always one step forward and two steps back around here. My PM Bashir is now gone having moved on to bigger and better things. I’m right behind him as my time living here is rapidly coming to an end. The people of Zaranj have already been forgotten and are now on their own.
It doesn’t have to be this way and probably will never be this way again because we can’t afford to spend 2 billion dollars per week (according to last nights 60 minutes segment) to field an army of fobbits. We have no business foisting a “watershed master plan” on the Afghans – it’s their country, their river, and their breadbasket and when allowed to do so they will build things back to the way they were. It may not be optimal, there may be inefficiencies in the system that a PhD hydrologist could fix (if she had freedom of movement and actually spent time on the river) but who cares? What is going to remain when we leave is an Afghan system, built by and for Afghans and to be honest, I have no idea why we think we should be bringing all these “subject matter experts” over here in the first place. Who are we to dictate to them how to manage their own natural resources? We should send all the hydrologists back to America to aid in a gigantic shovel ready program I’d like to see started called “Get all our oil from Alaska and the Western States Project”. There is where we should be spending 2 billion a week and we’d even see a return on our investment. How strange would that be?
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.
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.
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.
My latest trip included a quick stop in a dusty, sparsely populated corner of Afghanistan where I found my best friend Colonel Paul Kennedy USMC. Paul and I were instructors at the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) 20 years ago, after IOC we were both pulled out of the last quarter of the Amphibious Warfare School to work together on a project for then LtGen Krulak. We later ended up in Okinawa at the same time where we were battalion operations officers (we were still captains then). We both were selected to be Recruiting Station commanders back in the late 90’s when every other service were failing to make their annual recruiting quotas. I had RS Salt Lake City and after missing mission the first month of my tour I never failed again. Paul had RS San Francisco and never once failed to make mission. Think about that … San Francisco, not the most military friendly town in America and he not only made his mission but consistently over shipped month in and month out to carry the 12 Marine Corps Recruiting District during the days when making mission was a nightmare. I had all of Montana, Idaho, Utah and a good bit of Wyoming and Nevada to recruit from, but rarely had the bones to over ship. When it comes to leading Marines and accomplishing the mission, regardless of what that mission may be, Paul is one of the guys I’ll admit is better than I was at leading Marines.
Paul is currently commanding Regimental Combat Team 2, which has around 6000 Marines on its rolls. They will ultimately comprise half of the ground combat power for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (forward) when it arrives in country sometime this spring. Paul has developed into one of the finest combat commanders of his generation. His combat tour in Ramadi, Iraq where he commanded the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines (2/4) was a battle from the start, which has been documented in books by Bing West and Oliver North. He was hard pressed on several occasions, sustaining heavy casualties while inflicting much heavier losses on his attackers. Despite fighting virtually every day during his year in Ramadi he was able to restore city infrastructure, open local schools and he never shot artillery or ran tac air into the city. There are at least three Marines in his regiment who are brothers of 2/4 Marines killed in action in Ramadi during Paul’s tenure as the commanding officer. He knows this because their mothers have written him to say that there is no other leader in the Corps they would want watching over their son as he ships out to fight the Taliban. That the younger brothers of those lost warriors would work the system to join his regiment so that they too could have a chance to fight under such a dynamic, proficient combat leader is, even to me, stunning. I don’t know about you but when I hear that a mother who has already lost a son in Iraq has written Paul to tell him another of her precious sons is currently under his command as he again enters the fray and that both Marine and parent would have it no other way, it brings a little water to my eyes. Paul’s too, but I pretended not to notice things like that (USMC Bushido Code rules.)
Paul and the 6000 or so of his closest friends here with him have a very tough road ahead of them. They are taking over towns which have been giving the British army fits over the past years while simultaneously taking on new areas under solid Taliban control. Paul has no intention of using the “penny packet” outpost system currently being used by allied forces in places like Musa Qala. He has no intention of allowing his main LOC’s to be cut and dominated by the Taliban. He has no intention of leaving his maneuver battalions on FOB’s, nor does he plan to be on his for very much of the next year. He intends to find, fix and destroy every armed group operating in his AO so that he can get to the real mission assigned to him, which is to hold and build. Nobody knows how to use violence of action to take the fight to insurgents better than the Marines. All it takes is one look at the infantrymen of RCT 2 to get the clue that a new apex predator has moved into northern Helmand Province. No greater friend, no worse enemy; you can take that to the bank.
Paul already has one of his maneuver battalions on deck, the 1st Battalion 2nd Marines (pronounce one/two in Marine speak), commanded by LtCol Mike Manning, a student of ours back when we were on the IOC staff. Mike and his battalion command group spend four to five days a week on operations with joint Marine/Afghan Army patrols, living and sleeping in the rough like traditional infantry. Two of his three rifle companies are out in the boonies at all times. They are not finding too many bad guys in the Naw Zad area, so they spend most of their time interacting with and helping out the local population. As I have said in the past, there are very few places in this country which do not welcome American infantry. The caveat is that the Afghans would prefer the Americans- or British or Canadian or Norwegians to hang around for a year or two to eradicate the conditions that drive the cycle of violence. One of the places I would not have expected to welcome the Marines would be Naw Zad because most of the farmers in that area have fought for or support the other side in this conflict. That makes little difference to the Marines who are more than willing to let bygones be bygones as long as everyone can get along. It is when the local villains decide not to play nice that the true difference between the Marine way of fighting and theirs becomes evident.
Western armies have three options upon enemy contact: violence of action in the form of direct assault by heavy infantry, using supporting arms to soften the enemy followed by a direct assault, or using direct arms in combination with direct fire to punish the enemy before withdrawing without making physical contact. The last option, although the most common response by NATO units, is the least preferred. Fire without maneuver is a waste of resources and accomplishes little.
As I have said in the past humans can adapt to aerial bombardment over time but they can never adapt to another human who has come to kill them at close range. Bombs ultimately do not scare humans; humans scare humans. Just as the Koreans and Chinese learned to avoid the “yellow legs” during the Korean War and Somalis learned to fear the “black boots” and the Haitians rapidly figured out not to tangle with the “white sleeves“, the Taliban in Northern Helmand are about to get the same graduate-level education that their southern brethren started receiving over a year ago when Duffy White and his Regimental Combat Team arrived in country. Trying to play shoot and scoot with the Marines is a dead mans game. Use IED attacks on the Marines and they will quickly get “left of the boom” to collect the scalps they are due. The local Talib leaders can stay here and go with the program to reap the benefits of American generosity as we re-build this shattered land or they can leave for some other shit hole to cause mischief or they can try to fight. There are no longer any other options for them in the Helmand Province.
The Marines from RCT 2 are going to prove predictable too. When attacked they will respond with direct assaults and once contact is made they will not let go until their tormentors are decimated. Direct assaults break the cycle of violence by stripping the bad guys of experienced fighters. Experienced fighters who keep their wits in the face of direct assault are dangerous adversaries. They can cost you a fortune in time, ammo, or blood – the three commodities you never have enough of in combat. Less experienced cadres will do one of three things: stay in place because they are too freaked out to move; break contact and run because they are too freaked out to stay; or quickly surrender because they are too freaked out to fight. Afghans do not have a cultural history of standing firm in battle and slugging it out toe to toe with heavy infantry. Only men of the west fight using that style of warfare, which is why western armies have dominated those of other lands since the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. I am not saying the Afghan Taliban does not have brave fighters….they do, but brave individual fighters do not a cohesive combat unit make. The shock of rapid, violent assault by multiple platoons from multiple angles is something only a well trained, well equipped, well supported western army can handle. The Talibs of Helmand Province are accustomed to ISAF forces engaging from a 1000 meters out, dropping some tac air or arty on them and withdrawing. RCT 2 doesn’t play the drop ordinance and withdraw game. They play the close with you and stay on your ass until you are dead game.
Although I was able to talk at great length with Paul about his combat experience that was not why he wanted to see me. I have always wondered if the theories about human factors in combat we studied so diligently, argued over so passionately and taught to our students 20 years ago turned out to be true. They did but I don’t want to bore you with that least I catch you know what from you know who. Paul has the combat part of his mission down cold but understands that his band of Killer Angels has a much harder mission than seeking out and destroying their enemies. They need to master the “hold and build”, which is not something combat units train to do. The true mission of RCT 2 is described perfectly in today’s excellent post by Richard Fernandez at the Belmont Club.
“Kaplan describes how in the process of muddling along through intractable situations, the US military has become the master of the possible, simply because they have had to be. Kaplan predicts they may succeed in Afghanistan yet again and that very success will become a poisoned pawn.
The secret to their success, Kaplan says in his article Man Versus Afghanistan, is that the men in the field have discovered what their political masters have long forgotten: legal concepts are not enough. Governance doesn’t just mean installing someone, anyone – let alone someone as corrupt as Karzai- and recognizing them as sovereign. Governance means the ability to harness a population’s aspirations to make things work. To paraphrase Lenin’s famous observation on Communism, counterinsurgency is the freedom agenda plus competence. And the worst thing about the US military, Kaplan says, is that they’ve learned to do it. Kaplan describes how McChrystal has approached the problem and is at some level alarmed at how good at it they’ve become.”
Mullah John and Raybo who are working the southwest for Ghost Team are going to be helping with the hold and build as they implement a very clever USAID project, which has flat lines of authority, flexibility, and speedy implementation built into the project design. This program is the follow-on to the very small project Panjwai Tim and I did last summer, and to the everlasting credit of USAID, has been reinforced by extra cash. Mullah John has over 10,000 Afghans working in Helmand, Farah and Nimroz Provinces and the only internationals involved are Raybo, an Aussie bloke I don’t know in Farah, and Mullah John. That is an unbelievable accomplishment considering the project started last December. Despite this success the best thing one can say about the other US Government agencies who are responsible for the “hold and build” is that they do not hinder our efforts in the cash for work programs currently being implemented by Ghost Team. The various funding streams for reconstruction, with their associated rules and multiple agencies who manage these complex programs from the safety of big box FOB’s makes the job of executing the “build” portion a supremely difficult task.
What is going to be even more difficult is reinforcing the success of Team Canada and crew as they grow what was once a small cash for work program into a regional reconstruction vehicle. The big boys in the reconstruction biz did not hire a platoon of former AID executives and a squad of retired Marine Colonels to lose business and prestige to a band of small upstarts who have accomplished in months what they have not been able to do in years. The Marine Corps, given their history of innovation, their institutional bias for action and our personal relationships with the current commanders are a perfect match to do effective hold and build. As I have blogged in the past it is possible to do reconstruction in contested areas without ridiculously expensive, completely ineffective security measures like B6 armored trucks and know- nothing gun goons escorting your expats. My good friends and I have been doing it for years and we are just now gaining traction with the guys who matter. I’m feeling more optimistic about the ultimate outcome of our adventure in Afghanistan then I have at any point in the five years I have been here. Time will tell if my optimism is warranted, but my money is and will remain on the Marines.