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.
As the cool weather finally moves into Afghanistan I have to tell you that from my perspective not much is happening. I am not talking about security incidents – they almost doubled last week from a near all time high the week before. There is lots of villianary going on – the weather is perfect for it – but nothing seems to be really changing. One gets the impression that the players from all sides want to maintain the current status quo because all the sides are benefiting.
Last week yet another story about one of the ISAF countries paying the Taliban to keep things on the down low came out. This story implied the French losses in last August action around the Uzbin Valley were directly tied to them failing to maintain the financial arrangements of their predecessors from Italy. There are hundreds of stories about how the Taliban and their various allies are benefiting from the current war as are various government officials and a rouges gallery of warlords. NATO has issued a strong denial that any of its members are paying off potential trouble makers.
I don’t believe the NATO spokesman nor do I believe there is a direct correlation between payments to local centers of influence by the Italians and the attack on the French patrol in the Uzbin. If the French had known about such an arrangement and refused to honor it one suspects they would have been better prepared when they ran into their first ambush. However there is no question that “centers of influence” on every side of this conflict are making a lot of money by allowing or protecting or stealing from the unbelievable amount of supplies moving into Afghanistan. This is a fact which is not in dispute – many people including myself believe the various Taliban units make much more cash in the protection racket than they make in the poppy trade.
Most of the money being paid for protection is coming from the reconstruction effort and as with most things in life is not as straight forward as paying cash to the head bad guy to be left alone. The cash comes from establishing local monopolies such as vehicle and heavy equipment rentals. If people had any idea how much money there is in waste removal trucks servicing the many different FOB’s and COP’s which dot the countryside we would have a Gold Rush of poop removal prospectors combing Central Asia for honey dipper trucks. Having a monopoly on poop trucks, or fuel tankers, or rock crushers, could make a man millions quickly in Afghanistan. The other way money is extracted from the effort is by providing security or a construction services. Much has been written about the efforts in Kabul to regulate the security industry but once outside the capitol every local power broker has both his own security and construction company and failing to utilize these services invites attack.
There are persistent rumors that the local Army FOB at the Jalalabad Airport is being targeted with rockets by local “land owners” because they are not paying enough rent. My Army friends have heard this too and have not a clue about what it is all about because they don’t pay rent. It is possible that some locals are not happy with the current unit. The CO banned the weekly bazaar in which dozens of local vendors would participate. This was an economic loss to local businessmen but given the amount of aircraft, drones and munitions on the base a reasonable precaution. It is hard to believe that somehow somebody important is no longer getting their cut and is letting lose with 107mm rockets as a result. But they are shooting one or two every week or so. The skipper hired well diggers to go out into the fields next to the base to dig up the dud rockers (they function about 50% of the time) but the army remains convinced they aren’t being shot at.
I’ll tell you this … when us outside the wire contractors fall behind of paying local subcontractors our personal security goes right out of the window. Many a firm has had important local national staff kidnapped and in some cases international staff attacked over money issues. As I have observed in the past experienced mafia leaders would feel very at home operating businesses in Afghanistan.
One of these days the local shooter is going to get lucky with his 107 rockets and hit the fuel pit or ammo dump which will get every-one’s attention for about four or five days. I doubt he is aiming at those sites or even wants to hit them which is why it seems that everything is just moving along the same way it always does. We lose a fuel tanker here, a few men in a MRAP there, the drones continue to kill with scary precision, the military talks COIN but when you observe them operating in and around Kabul you see a attrition warfare oriented army of occupation completely removed and divorced from the locals they are supposed to be protecting.
My prediction for the future is that nothing will change. The President has made it clear he intends to continue vote present. Now he is waiting for the election results in order to determine the best way forward to pursue our goals (whatever the hell they may be) in Afghanistan. John Kerry, who was a CAB Chaser before there were CAB’s, has weighed into the debate helping out President Obama by declaring that targeted strikes combined with Special Forces missions will not be enough to “win” in Afghanistan. It always helps to have a senior senator like Kerry coming out in direct opposition to your Vice President’s new strategary when you are running the clock.
Several trial balloons being floated out of the White House. The Pakistan First idea which is favored by VP Biden and maybe three other people; the we are “prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s political future” idea – the quote is from a White House press briefing. The third option (which I believe will be the one Obama goes with) is to declare status quo as victory and start to wind things down real slow like. The only problem with that last option is that the bad guys get a vote on your plan too and once they see the money train is leaving the station it is hard to predict just how poorly they will react. It is safe to say that regardless of the direction our current administration takes Afghanistan is going to continue to get more unstable and more violent. The Afghans I know don’t want this but they also understand just how little they can influence current events. Life is hard; harder when you are stupid and there seems to be an inordinate amount of stupid people on all sides trying to “manage” the fight in Afghanistan.
I have been victimized this week by a crashed internet system and one false start on this post. In addition when I do get a little net time I am engaged in several email conversations with FRI readers some of these are so good I may post them as standalone articles. Chris Chivers of the New York Times has been one of the readers I have been chatting with and it is his piece here which is the start point for this week’s post. This post will be unreasonably massive at times confusing but stick with it and I’ll tie all it all together in the end, inshallah. Bonus feature alert: this post includes a photo story board covering last Monday’s assassination attempt on President Karzai’s brother. I was on the road that day too with my faithful finance officer Misael, who hails from the island of Mindanao but claims to be a Catholic and not a Abu Sayef member. When we turned a corner in the Tangi Valley and saw all the expended brass in the road, he ignored his collateral duty as photographers mate and wedged himself firmly under the dash board. Misael has spent the last year in Kandahar and has developed an exaggerated sense of danger but I’ll get him snapped in soon enough. So there are only a few marginal pictures from a point and shoot camera due to the insistence of the ANP that we keep moving … probably a good idea.
I commented last week that this story shows the way forward but I was talking in nuanced terms as our democratic leaders would say which is stateist speak for not telling the whole story. The article covers a rifle company from the 1st Battalion 26th Infantry as they conduct a 40 hour sweep in the Korangel Valley of Kunar Province. That the rifle company was conducting a sweep is the good part of the story everything else about it is, to the professional observer, bad. Let us start with the duration of this patrol … 40 hours. That amount of time outside the wire means the troops reached the limit of their endurance given the heavy loads they must carry. In the last war we fought that rifle companies patrolled on their own (Vietnam), patrolling outside the wire for only 40 hours would have been labeled light weight. The company patrol Chivers wrote about was anything but light weight – here is the story.
There was one General Officer who left Vietnam with his reputation not only intact but enhanced was Major General Razor Ray Davis of the 3rd Marine Division. He deployed his under strength, poorly equipped, infantry battalions out into the bush of Northern I Corps (near the DMZ between south and north Vietnam) to find fix and destroy the NVA maneuver regiments who infested the area. Forty hours? Try 21 days or more of patrolling and if they were not making contact he flew out, talked with the CO, called in a squadron of CH-46’s (the same Marine helicopters still in use today) and flew the battalion to an area that showed more promise. My father, an operations officer with one of those battalions, said they smelled so bad at the end of one of these sweeps that when flown out to a Navy LPH, the ship’s captain insisted they strip in the hanger bay throw all their uniforms (what was left of them) overboard and get hosed down with fire hoses before going anywhere else on his ship. That didn’t work out to well for the Captain in case you were wondering.
What has changed? Several things, starting with the amount of armor our troops must wear and ending with the risk aversion and force protection mind set which has infused the United States Military . Between those two data points lies a chain of command which is designed to reflect responsibility away from senior officers a development that I, a retired professional, find reprehensible. Let me cover that last statement first and we can start right here to see the results of a military decision making by committee. The story is about the first female Air Force Academy graduate to die in Afghanistan. She was killed by a anti tank mine on the road between Bagram and Kabul. The road was built by the Soviets to bypass the Shomali Plains where they were constantly ambushed back in the day. I took Megan Ortagus, who was embedding with the Army, down that road a month ago and pointed out all the massive pot holes that local children from a recently established refugee camp fill with sand in hopes that passing vehicles will throw them some cash or water. I wish I had a picture but imagine this – the only road connecting our main airbase in Bagram with our bases in Kabul is full of potholes so big that kids are constantly filling them with sand so vehicles can drive at a reasonable pace. These holes are just the right size to hold a TC 6 or MK 7 anti tank mine – the most common mines here – and I pointed out to Megan that if we had a military focused on counterinsurgency the first thing they would have done (like 7 years ago) would have been to fix and seal the road between their main airhead and main bases. We are talking at most twenty miles or so of road and every night Terry Taliban could have been effortlessly seeding this route with antitank mines by the hundreds BECAUSE THE HOLES WERE ALREADY THERE AS WAS THE SAND TO COVER THE MINES. I also told Megan that when they do mine that road it will be an indicator of bloody times directly ahead. The only question now is who is going to do the bleeding us or our enemies? I don’t know, so lets get back to the story line.
As I mentioned earlier, the forty hour patrol tested the limits of endurance of this rifle company for one simple reason – they carry too much weight. If you are going to go after insurgents who occupy the higher passes of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range (hint, hint) why in the name of God would you be wearing body armor and helmets? We had this kind of warfare figured out about 50 years ago when the Marine Corps established the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. A mountain warfare training rotation was most popular with the troops because they didn’t have to wear helmet and flak jackets during the training. All this talk about fielding lighter body armor is ridiculous – we should be talking about no body armor, no ballistic helmets, and patrols that go out and stay out when working places like the Korengal Valley. These days the Pentagon would recoil in horror at the mere thought of troops stepping one foot off a FOB without full ballistic protection these are the same officers and officials who reacted to the Mogadishu battle in 1993 by trying to buy more F- 32 ground superiority, center of excellence, air dominating, stealth, bat winged, frog footed, super quiet, swift, silent and deadly anti – guerilla fighter jet. I may have the nomenclature on that wrong. OK, OK, I’m making the plane up but what about armored protection for the vehicles used by ground troops? Did not the battle in the streets of Mogadishu illustrate the need for that? Apparently careful study by our military experts determined that armored vehicles and ballistic plates were not a legitimate requirement for ground combat. Not until Secretary Rumsfeld started taking heat after we had invaded Iraq did anyone find the money to armor up our vehicles and troops. But now the mere thought of operating without all the armor that the Pentagon was forced to buy about a decade after your average 7 year old could have figured out we should armor up some of our infantry vehicles and buy ballistic armor for all the troops now it is just inconceivable that they operate without it even when they are climbing around 12,000 foot mountain passes. Is it me or does this not strike you as stupid?
What happens when our men get shot you ask? I ask what happens when they don’t. Coach Vince Lombardi had the last word on this topic when he said “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” The argument against body armor is that too much weight causes physical exhaustion (lots of orthopedic injuries too) and physically exhausted troops are easier to hit. That they survive being hit is something which is good but I am firmly in the “I want to hit the enemy and not be hit myself” camp. I’ve been shot before and it hurts like hell so I’ll do most anything to avoid getting shot again. I’m all for ballistic armor in most times and places but we are talking serious mountains and you cannot conduct mountain warfare in armor – I don’t care how fit the force is. Hitting the enemy is what it is all about – and hitting the enemy is easier when you are not dehydrated and exhausted. Read some of the articles recently published by Mr. Chivers. He points out the enemy is physically weak, they appear malnourished, they can’t shoot a rifle with any accuracy, they cannot shoot mortars or machineguns in a remotly professional manner, nor can they coordinate among themselves. These guys suck at fighting so why are we not dominating them like the chumps they are? Why? Because we do not have a clearly defined mission and thus have no understanding of why we are here which results in extreme risk aversion because the only measurement of success is keeping your casualties low as humanly possible. That’s why.
What is our mission in Afghanistan? I have been here four years and I don’t have a clue. If it is to prevent the return of the Taliban and al Qaeda, that mission was accomplished years ago. They will never be back in any kind of force regardless of when and how we leave. Is it to stand up a central government to allow the people of Afghanistan to join the rest of the functioning core of nation states? That is a noble mission and one I often used to explain why we are here years ago when I first started talking to local leaders in Shrua’s. But our actions on the ground do not remotely correspond to that mission (if that is why we are here.) How can you mentor Afghans if all your diplomats stay completely isolated from them inside a posh embassy throwing endless rounds of parties for each other? Look at the Afghan government. It is judged by all international observers to be in the top three nation sates for official corruption and you can see where all the billions we have spent has gone. Just like the TARP money it has disappeared into thin air and we have nothing to show for it.
This is how big the disconnect is between the inside the wire military and the rest of us currently residing on planet earth – I lifted it from Michael Yon’s website earlier in the week: From: IDR-TCMC-Office Manager
TO:[Distribution list including contractors.]
Sent: Saturday, 16 May, 2009 4:52 PM
The security state at KAF has been raised. Please ensure that all contractors at KAF, including visitors and transit personnel comply with the following instruction. The security dress state has changed to wearing Combat Body Armour and carrying Helmet when outside a hardened structure. Inside they are to be readily available. There is also now an additional alarm sounding which is a warbling alarm, and is the warning of a Ground Attack and all personnel should move inside a building and await further instructions. Instructions for Op ***** which will cover this procedure will be disseminated in the near future. All contractor personnel are to ensure that they carry their ID on them at all times. Further information is available from the TCMC if required.
Game On? How about Game over? This is the law of unintended consequences in action and let me explain why. Our Department of State has insisted on letting the Afghan government do what it wants and one of things they have done is to make the possession of body armor, helmets, weapons, two way radios, and armored cars against the law unless you are a licensed security company. Every contractor on that base who owns and issues body armor and helmets to his or her employees has violated the law of the land. This, according to our military, is grounds for contract termination (failure to comply with all local laws). Check out my post here which was a cover feature in last March’s Soldier of Fortune magazine. This is what happens to contractors working outside the wire who have body armor – note also I had proper licenses. The NDS took the body armor from two MIT PhD candidates knowing full well they were clients and that we were operating in accordance with the law. But let us ignore the law like the State Department and our military do with their contractors and look at ramifications. Say I have 1000 men working construction aboard the Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and receive the memo above. It is now what military guys call a “specified task” meaning it must be addressed and I must comply or face mission failure. 1000 guys x $1800 or so for average body armor equal $1,800,000 which I would invoice immediately along with a contact modification. There are over 10,000 contractors working aboard KAF. Get the picture?
The military is not congress. They cannot impose unfunded mandates on their contractors. Why do all the construction guys, accountants, cooks, bakers, Timmy Horton’s coffee shop girls etc need body armor and helmets? So they can put them on after a missile hits? The Army used to pull that silly drill in Kabul back in 2005. A rocket would land somewhere in Kabul and all the bases and the embassy would sound alarms sending all hands into bunkers with helmets and body armor. But even the slowest force protection officer began to realize that taking measures to mitigate an event which has already occurred was stupid. But Tim, you ask, what if more missiles came? Well we have these things called counter- battery radars which have been around for about 30 years and they so good that the launch point of any indirect fire system is determined before the projectile lands. Even the illiterate peasants commonly conned into launching missiles have figured out that remaining at a launch site is certain death for them. There has not been an indirect fire attack involving volley after volley of rockets in this country since 2001. Not one. Unsurprisingly, this fact never stopped the force protection officers from insisting that all hands wear body armor and helmets after a rockets had landed in Kabul back in ’05. The troops, diplomats and others inside these compounds would only comply for, at most, four hours before they started taking the crap off because it was uncomfortable (and stupid.) When you do not have the time, talent or money to do what is important the unimportant becomes important and that is what the memo above is all about.
Contracting officers like the one who wrote the memo above have a very hard job. They can earn no glory, they do not receive praise, the best thing that can happen to them on a tour in Afghanistan is to return home with their rank and reputation. To avoid the temptation or appearance of fraud or favoritism they write requests for proposals which make little to no sense and award contracts based exclusively on the lowest bid submitted. What is the price for disconnecting contracting from performance? You get security guards hired to protect bases who actually murder American soldiers. I know of three such incidents and there are more. I had a friend show up at the Taj who was asked to stand up a guard force as soon as he could to replace an outfit named Golden State. There is no company by that name on the Afghan list of 37 authorized security companies. It was a rogue outfit run by some Afghans who spent time in America and their bid for these guard jobs was less than half what the reputable firms bid. They won, they sucked, they were fired and shot at their Army employers on the way out the door but, being typical Afghans, they did not hit anyone. I asked my buddy if the Army had finally figured out their guard forces needed international supervision and of course the answer was no. Too expensive don’t you see. Our Army will spend 2 million dollars each on ground penetrating radars to mount on the front of the hundreds of multimillion dollar MRAPs despite the fact that they HAVE NEVER DETECTED A MINE IN AFGHANISTAN. But spending money on proper guard forces to watch over our troops on a base oh no, that is just too expensive. Buying uniforms and proper boots for the American contractor mentored Afghan EOD teams who work outside the wire finding and disarming mines daily not enough money for them either. Unlike the massive American contracts to high tech companies that produce worthless gizmos or large just about worthless MRAPs every contract in this country goes to the lowest bidder – a game the Afghans figured out long ago.
Let me provide the yellow for anyone reading this who works in contracting and is interested in how to do it right. I got this tip from a good friend who used this technique in 2003 when he was here serving in the American army. You put out a bid for Afghan companies (I’m not talking armed guards which should always be done by reputable international companies) and you’ll get three bids. Take the lowest number and tell the Afghans this is the ceiling and they should bid lower and tender the bid again. Then take the lowest two bidders and tell them to bid against each other and that lowest bid will win. You will end up awarding projects for less than half of the original lowest bid. That is how you save money if saving money is what you want to do. Any other method is just plain head in the sand stupidity which ignores the experience of the Army and Marine units who used to range around the country like true professionals back in the day. That changed when the Big Army came into the country and started getting things organized (read everyone goes on big box FOB’s to be micro managed.)
I mentioned that reputable international security firms should be the only ones providing armed guards for military bases. What about the four Blackwater guys who shot and killed two Afghans after a traffic accident on Jalalabad Road in downtown Kabul? I have said in prior posts that Blackwater has a country manager who has been here longer than I have and is one of the most knowledgeable Americans I know on the state of play in Afghanistan. I have also written that the BW crews I see outside the wire working with the Afghan Border Police are first rate and I am always happy to know they are out and about when I am working the districts of Nangarhar Province. They hardly ever get out and about now by the way, but that is a topic for another day. I stand by that and can surmise that the four individuals involved in this incident shot that Afghans for exactly the same reason that ISAF soldiers have killed about 500 civilians in their vehicles and that is because the car “was threatening.” I don’t know what that means because I live and operate outside the wire and know that Afghan drivers do all sorts of crazy things, none of which seem too threatening to me. Inside the wire types do not think like the thousands of guys (and gals) who are with me outside the wire. They have no front specific knowledge, even after being in country for months and months, because they live on FOB’s. Fobbits have no meaningful interaction with Afghans. That is the nature of the fobbit. They get front specific knowledge from Hollywood movies or dime store novels written by former SAS men or from the many “gun store commando” schools which have popped up in America, Britain and elsewhere. Apparently the Blackwater guys are now on their way home and will probably avoid prosecution just like all the troops who have killed civilians here in the past. They should be in jail awaiting prosecution to fullest extent of law. Being a gun store commando is no excuse for murder and that is exactly what those four committed.
This brings us to the story which will not go away the civilians killed in an ISAF air strike in Farah Province. I pointed out in my last post that the United States military doesn’t even have white phosphorous rounds (called Willie Pete or WP) in the inventory a fact which was contradicted by C.J. Chivers himself in the story linked above. I saw this post by some anti war blogger which sited Chivers piece as proof that ISAF was lying about the entire incident. I was forced to go to Google and yes, it turns out there are now Willie Pete rounds in the inventory for our field artillery. I am still right about the Farah incident that was Tac Air, not field artillery and Tac Air does not have WP munitions. Willie Pete is used by Americans to mark targets for tactical aircraft to bomb. The last thing anyone on the ground wants to see is a jet jockey who is traveling around 400 mph at 25,000 feet above the battle believing he has the situational awareness to drop bombs where he thinks they are needed. Only in the fevered imaginations of Hollywood producers and Air Force Academy cadets would that make sense. In the real world you shoot a marking round, ask the pilot does he see the mark and if he does you tell him how far away from the mark, using meters a simple compass bearings, the target is and then you give him the direction of attack. The key to using Tac Air is to not allow the pilot to do any thinking at all he does exactly what you tell him and any deviation should result in an immediate abort call followed by a healthy round of cussing at him (or her these days) and then sending the offender home with all his stores so everyone back at the base knows he is a liability who cannot follow directions. Failure to follow these simple rules results in the alarming sight of pilots yelling tally ho and coming straight at you. If you let pilots think they can figure out what is happening on the ground without terminal guidance you they end up bombing Canadian field training exercises, or Marine Corps LAV’s.
That is what WP is for and the only reason why you would not use it against enemy troops in the open is that artillery batteries only load out with so much WP but lots of HE (high explosives.) Were I an infantry commander who saw dozens of enemy troops in the open and had enough Willie Pete (better yet the felt wedge red phosphorus rounds) I’d volley a battalion six on top of them in a heartbeat. It would cause all kinds of gruesome third degree burns and after stripping the survivors of their weapons and radios I’d pay the locals to haul the wounded back to Pakistan where they could die a lingering painful death from infection. There is no law of land warfare against hitting troops with WP or RP rounds not treating them would be a clear violation of international law and if I really did something like that as an active duty Marine I would face a well deserved courts martial. Still it is a good tactic pumps up the troops, demoralizes our enemies, lets the tribal leaders in Pakistan know we are serious about making them calm down and they even might stop cutting the heads off of every stranger wondering about the FATA. But RP rounds cost a lot more than HE rounds and that too would get you in hot water with a Marine chain of command. The only time in the history of the Marine Corps a unit fired hundreds of expensive smoke rounds occurred during the battle of Khe San. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1968 the 10th Marines fired hundreds green smoke rounds into all known and suspected NVA positions in the hills around that embattled outpost. That not only motivated the troops but got rid of the rounds the Marines couldn’t take with them when they abandoned the base.
Back to the incident in Farah Province: The locals claim we killed over 150 innocents which I can promise you is a gross exaggeration that is unverifiable due to our insistence on respecting local religious traditions. Of course if there were 150 bodies buried outside that village in Farah and we insisted on paying compensation for say 24 bodies the locals would be digging up the others with great haste to get the additional money but again, I digress. There are several things about this incident that are critical to understanding why we are failing in Afghanistan. The first is President Karzai’s insistence that we stop using tactical aircraft under all circumstances. You cannot fight a counterinsurgency without the complete and total cooperation of the government you are trying to support. It cannot be done. The continued alienation of the President of Afghanistan (and he is going to win again in August of that I am certain), cannot continue if we hope to ever make progress on our fight to bring security to the people of this country. The continued use of the MSM preferred narrative degrades our counterinsurgency fight and the information warriors of the American military do nothing about this from their desks on the big box FOB’s. They cannot even see .af, .com; or .edu websites on military computers all they see is .mil websites. I know, you can’t make this kind of strangeness up. The detail in this story one for which I was taken to task at Registan.net is the ability of the Taliban to come into a village and force the people to act as human shields at the point of a gun.
It seems that a healthy percentage of our no knock HVT Special Forces raids result in the killing of local men who, as expected, grab their guns and race out of their compounds to help defend their neighbors. Yet every report we see of the Taliban using villagers as human shields implies that no local men put up armed resistance. Does that make sense to you? The local men are more than willing to fight our tier one Special Forces operators, yet cower in fear and act like a flock of sheep when groups of Taliban show up in the village? The truth is somewhere in the middle no group of Taliban is going to heard a bunch of Shinwari (dominate Nangarhar Pashtun tribe) into a hut and shower them with Willie Pete grenades and get away with it. But they could do that to the Kuchi villagers of Little Barabad because that village is surrounded by Shinwari tribal peoples who could give a rat’s patootie about the Kuchi’s and would not lift a finger to help them. Clearly there are villages that are vulnerable to Taliban intimidation but they are a minority. There are four kinds of tribes in Afghanistan; ones that want to be left alone (Nuristan and Kunar Provinces have many of them); ones that are interested in making money and cooperate with both sides to do just that (the Shinwari are the classic example); tribes clearly affiliated with the Taliban mostly in the south; and tribes that want our help to bring security and reconstruction to their lands that would be all the tribes of the north, most of the west, some in the east and none in the south. Our answer to this complex human mosaic is to treat all tribes exactly the same. Again does that make sense to you?
Our current military Afghan Campaign can best be illustrated by the old Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike parable. We cannot take our finger out of the dike or it will implode, we cannot try something new to solve the problem of a small breach in the dike because we are afraid it will make the problem worse. Every year the commander rotates and a new guy puts his finger in the dike hoping against hope that the dike will not fail on his watch. At the end of that year he goes home to never again worry himself about Afghanistan, its peoples or its problems. We can do better but that takes a leader with the understanding and ability to change our approach radically. That could have happened if the plan floated by General Conway to let the Marines handle Afghanistan was accepted Generals Mattis, or Kelley, or Allen any of them have the character and ability to change a failing strategy and they have junior General Officers like Hummer, Osterman, and Nicholson (to name a few) to back them up along with a lions’ brood of experienced combat infantry colonels (the army probably has a bunch with equal ability and talent, I just don’t know them and they do not appear to be operating in Afghanistan.) But that is not going to happen so we wait for the next rotation of Big Army and our NATO allies to come put their fingers in the dike while spending billions and billions of dollars we do not have pursuing a strategy that is guaranteed to fail.
The Pentagon recently released a directive on Irregular Warfare that has generated speculation among the various players in Afghanistan. When you see documents that say “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff shall” it is a powerful piece of paper from on high. There are a finite number of people in the world who can task four star generals or deputy secretaries of defense and professionals in the business study these directives as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. This comment came from a discussion thread in a group I belong to.
“I find it particularly interesting that DoD would come up with a “Directive of the obvious”… For all of its claims the Army as an organization doesn’t learn so quickly. I suppose that it took years of doing the same things expecting different results for the light to shine on reality. Not to be condescending in any way; I am glad to see the directive has been introduced. I hope that it grows roots quickly and flourishes… There is a full-spectrum under which many current peripheral entities can be brought to bear in order to surpass the expectations that DoD may currently have.”
I could not have said it better myself; it will be interesting to see how this directive impacts the template used by the U.S. military as it introduces more maneuver units into the country. Reports in the press indicate that the Army is planning on sending combat units in to Loghar and Wardak Provinces which are just outside of Kabul. The Marine Corps appears to be preparing to deploy in expeditionary force strength into the south. That could mean up to three infantry regiments of Marines with all their supporting arms, aircraft and logistics. That is a lot of gunfighters. The Question is – does it matter?
The Taliban control large swaths of Afghanistan not because they are better fighters but because they are beating the Karzai regime with better governance in the areas they control. The people know that a Taliban tribunal will not award land and water rights based on the largest bribe. They also know that once a case is settled the dispute is over. Fire fights between families involved in land and water disputes are frequent and bloody affairs in areas under government control. In areas under Taliban control the losing part accepts the Taliban ruling or 15 rounds in the chest. People tend to cooperate in systems like that.
But they don’t like it too much and would rather see a platoon of Marines or Army soldiers hanging around than a crew of religious zealots. It would be a pleasant surprise to see the Army and Marine units who flow into the country next year deployed down to the district level. I suspect that there will be tentative steps to branch out like that and these steps will involve what the new directive terms “civilian-military teams.”
That will be interesting to see play out and I believe small teams at the district level can, if properly funded and deployed, make a difference in the battle to control the only thing that matters in Afghanistan. The people.
We were able to conduct a “civilian-military team” field trial a few days ago during a road mission to Kabul (to re-stock the bar). This was a demonstration to our SF buddies of why we prefer unarmored local vehicles and they caught on fast. One of the Captains remarked that he never really got to see too much of the country because his visibility in an armored hummer was so restricted. They also marveled at how we attracted no attention (except in the busy main street of Surobi; a HIG R&R village). We also rolled up on a French convoy which gave the boys an excellent opportunity to experience the joy of low visibility ops when the Frenchman manning the trail .50 cal swung the barrel towards us.
The military travels in convoys that do not allow the local vehicles to get near them. They do this to avoid being hit by “suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices” (VBIED’s). In the south Canadian and British forces force all traffic off the roads they are driving down to prevent VBIED’s. In the east sometimes all the traffic will pull off the road when they see an American convoy approaching and sometimes it won’t.
Using unarmored local vehicles with light body armor and fighting kit is another option. This appears to be taking unwarranted risks but I’ll let the quote below from Vietnam legend Col David Hackworth address the issue.
“In Vietnam, today’s most successful infantry tactics and techniques were yesterday’s heresy and madness. When these ‘overly reckless’ ideas were first introduced by farseeing innovators in 1965 and 1966, few commanders took them seriously. Most, because of parochial conventional orientation, looked upon these new concepts with contempt not unlike many reactionary English lords’ attitude toward the longbow before Crecy. But today in Vietnam, these once ‘wild schemes’ have become standard drill. These bold techniques have changed the thrust of the war from uneconomical multi brigade operations to fights that are fought almost exclusively by the squad and platoon.”
That was true in Vietnam and it’s true today; we need to win the people and that means being in the with them 24/7. We can do it and do it for pennies on the dollar we currently spend. But only if we reach back to our past and remember how to conduct independent small unit operations on a very large scale. Let them live and move around like we do and you’re talking change you can really believe in.
It is time for some “outside the box” thinking and last week’s demonstration may lead to more discussions between the big base behind the wire military and all the other internationals in Afghanistan who feel safer at night on the streets of Kabul or Jalalabad than we do in Washington DC or Chicago.