The Wolves of Helmand

As our two-decade involvement in Afghanistan winds down to an inevitable withdraw there are an increasing number of memories’ being published by participants. I have been looking forward to this as it is the first large conflict in which there was no draft. The military participants were all volunteers, actually all professional recruited (there is a huge difference), and I’ve been interested in seeing their perception of war compared to the men who fought in earlier times against a different enemy. What I experienced when I read Gus Biggio’s book The Wolves of Helmand was déjà vu.

Frank “Gus” Biggio competed for and won a commission in the United States Marine Corps gaining a coveted slot in the infantry back in the 1990’s when the Corps was fat with cash, and overseas deployments both enjoyable and interesting. Unless you pulled a unit rotation to Okinawa in which case you were semi screwed. Sitting on island where you could not train while the yen/dollar exchange rate was around 70 (meaning the dollar was damn near worthless) was misery unless you got nominated to be on the Oki Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in which case you got aboard naval shipping and enjoyed yourself like the rest of the Corps.

I don’t know if Gus pulled a MEU float or a unit deployment rotation to Okinawa, but he enjoyed his tour as an infantry officer and after completing his five-year obligation he moved on, as most Marine officers do. Gus completed a law degree, got married to a physician, started a family and was safely ensconced in Washington DC when the military went to war. Gus held out for years before succumbing to a virus, planted in all Marine infantry, that makes life intolerable unless we see the elephant.

The six blind men touching an elephant parable is an ancient Indian fable that has come to demonstrate moral relativism and religious tolerance. That’s not the fable Gus and the rest of us are talking about; we don’t do moral relativism and assume religious tolerance to be a God given right. When we talk about touching the elephant, we are referring to a Civil War era euphemism for experiencing combat.

Gus was in DC, working a damn good job. He’s not a name dropper but mentions that he started taking morning runs in 2008 to prepare for returning to active duty he would sometimes chat with his neighbor Michelle until she moved into the White House with her husband Barrack. So, Gus was doing pretty damn good on the outside, but he had a problem on the inside. His best friends were in the fight, some of them coming home on, not with, their shields. He is a highly competent adult who has sublimated a serious competitive streak towards the development of an impressive law career and a stable, thriving family. But he doesn’t yet know what his nature demands that he know, information that he’ll only know if he gets to touch the elephant. His closest friends had touched the elephant repeatedly so his volunteering to go back in? He had no choice; I did the same thing for exactly the same reason.

Gus is exactly the kind of guy you want as your lawyer if, for no other reason, than he talked his wife into letting him deploy. Obviously, he married a perceptive woman who probably understood he had to go, but she’s a physician and they’re normally rule followers, so this was by any measure an impressive feat. He then signs on with the 1st Battalion 5thMarines (1/5) and heads to God’s country (Camp Pendelton, California) to start training.

From there he deploys, with his small team, directly into the Nawa district administrative center weeks ahead of the Marine offensive that will secure that portion of the Helmand province. No air conditioning, no working toilets, no hot chow, no roof or windows, and no ability to patrol 100 meters beyond the roofless district center because the Taliban had laid siege to small British garrison who arrived the year prior. Surrounded by Taliban, with the nearest help fifty miles distant, living in the dirt, patrolling constantly, fighting often – the entire time exposed to the elements 24/7; does that sound like fun to you? Of course not, and Gus tries to convince the reader that it wasn’t that much fun for him either. But you can tell by how hard he tries to make his experience seem like no big deal, that it was a big deal through which he earned an intangible that only those who touch the elephant can understand.

The Nawa district administration center in 2009

Gus is a throwback in a sense in that he is a citizen soldier, not a professional Marine. As such he joins the pantheon of Americans who wore the uniform to defend the country, not as a profession. Like all Marine reservists he was exceptionally well trained and had years of small unit leadership to develop his military skills. Yet still he left his young family, an obviously lucrative career in the most powerful city in the world to get dropped into a primitive hell hole. Does that sound like normal guy behavior to you? Me either but Gus is lawyer and musters his arguments well about the reasons behind volunteering to be dropped into the middle of Indian country.

When the rest of 1/5 arrived in Nawa they did so in a pre-dawn combat assault that overwhelmed the Taliban and drove them from the district in a matter of days. That never stopped the little T Taliban (local teens and young adults with little to do mostly) from trying their luck with random small arms fire attacks or improvised explosive devices (IED’s) but the days of the Taliban traveling openly or intimidating the locals passed, for the most part, in most of the Helmand province.

During the year Gus spent in the Helmand province the Marine Corps actually did by the book COIN operations using a completely unsustainable deployment cycle that, while it was being sustained, was the most impressive damn thing you have ever seen. In 2010 when I moved into Lashkar Gah as the regional manager for a USIAD sponsored Civil Development Program, I drove the roads from Lash to Nawa, to Khanashin and to Marjha wearing local clothes in a local beater with a modest security detail and had no issues. The people seemed happy, business was thriving, the poppy harvests returning serious cash into the local economy.

Jagran (Major in Dari) Gus and his six Marine (and 1 corpsman) Civil Affairs Team were yet another combat enabler for the 1st Battalion 5th Marines counterinsurgency battle. The weapon they employed was cash money, they were the carrot that offered to help the Afghan people. The Marines in the line companies were the stick and they were everywhere, deployed in little squad size patrol bases in every corner of the district. Gus and his team did as much patrolling as the grunts which  they needed to do in order to deploy the money weapon. There are few times and few places in Marine Corps history where a major gets to be a gunfighter but that is what the civil affairs team in the Helmand had to do. He was a lucky man to get such a hard corps gig, he could have been deployed to a firm base support role and never left the wire, a fate worse than death for an infantryman.

Jagran Gus tells some great stories about everyday life in rural Afghanistan. I spent much time there myself and appreciate his depiction of normal Afghans going about their business. Sometimes that business involves shooting at Marines for cash and there is an interesting story about catching some teenagers in the act and letting them go to the custody of their elders after the district governor chewed them out.

Marines med-evacing a local Afghan in Nawa district Afghanistan

It’s the little things that are telling; the Marines loved to be the stick, few things are more gratifying than a stiff firefight where you suffer no loses and that is how the vast majority of firefights in Afghanistan went. The Marines were also perfectly cool with safe’ing their weapons, yoking up the dudes that were just shooting at them, treating their wounds and releasing them to the district governor. It didn’t matter to them how a fight ends as long as they end it. This type of humane treatment of wounded enemies is expected of American servicemen, it isn’t even worthy of comment in the book. I’m not saying we are the only military that does this, but a vast majority of militaries don’t, and most people are amazed when we do.

My experience with Afghans in the Helmand, like that of Jargan Gus was mostly positive. That part of the world is so primitive that it’s like a time machine where resilient people carve out an existence with primitive farming methods and zero infrastructure. The Afghans are from old school Caucasian stock which is why the Germans spent so much time and money there in the 1930’s after Hitler came to power. They’re white people who do not have any concept of fragility and who cultivate a fierce pride in their Pashtun tribal roots. Living and working with them was an experience that is hard to capture but Jargan Gus has done that well.

Gus goes on to discuss the futility of his efforts, Nawa fell to the Taliban shortly after the Marines left in 2014. But there is no bitterness when he covers that as there is none concerning the always turbulent re-entry into normalcy when he returned home for good. Touching the elephant always changes a man, but Jargan Gus is a bright guy who explains the unease he felt as he tried to ease back into normal life in a very reasonable manner. He is a perceptive writer and his book will (I bet) be useful to future historians writing about the Afghan war. It is a great story about normal Americans thrust into exceptional circumstances and thriving.

I bet sixty years from now whoever the Tom Hanks of the era is will do a movie based on this book. The movie would be a ground version of the current hit WW II movie Greyhound only with dirt and lots more explosions. So, watch the new Tom Hanks’s Greyhound movie, then read this book when its released and you can tell me if you don’t see Hollywood gold. I’m going to email Gus and give him heads up.

LZ Margo…The Dead Went Last

This story was published in the Naval Institute Proceeding magazine in November of 1995. It is written by my father, MajGen J.D. Lynch, Jr. USMC (Ret) who was the operations officer for BLT 2/26 at LZ Margo. This story is about a bad day in a forgotten place during an unpopular war. The men who died that day were representing this country well, some of them were draftees, none of them were happy about fighting in Vietnam but all of them did their duty. On this Memorial Day take the time to read about the kind of men we are honoring. This is history worth knowing because it is our story and the more you understand it the clearer your picture becomes of the sacrifice made by those we honor on this day.   

The 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines rarely appears in the Marine Corps’ illustrious combat history. The battalion saw only brief service during World War II. . . long enough to land in the assault wave at lwo Jima. Later, during the Vietnam War, it reappeared for a few years before its colors once again were returned to the museum curators. Its daily Vietnam experience was usually far less stressful than the Iwo Jima operation but Vietnam had its days and when it did, the late 1960s Marine of 2/26 experienced the horrors of war at the same levels of intensity faced by the generation that fought its way up the black ash terraces beneath Mount Suribachi. This is the story of one of those days: 16 September 1968.

Late 1968 found the 3rd Marine Division serving in the extreme north of I Corps, the northernmost corps area in what was then the Republic of Vietnam, controlling ten infantry battalions: those of its organic 3rd, 4th, and 9th Marine Regiments, plus 2/26. The division’s operational concept-an effective one – was as easy to understand as it was difficult to execute. Relying on few fixed defensive positions and even fewer infantry units to defend them, the defense was offense. Battalions stayed in the bush for weeks on end covering North Vietnamese Army (NVA) infiltration routes and, in general, looking for trouble. They moved constantly, on foot or by helicopter, and when they encountered an NVA unit all hell broke loose until it was destroyed.

Our battalion – I was the operations officer – celebrated the Fourth of July in an area near the coast called Leatherneck Square, where it was responsible for defending the square’s northern and western sides. In late July, the battalion was reinforced to conduct amphibious assault operations and designated Battalion Landing Team (BLT 2/26).

After training with the reinforcements, BLT 2/26 embarked in the ships of Amphibious Ready Group Alfa, including the famous World War Il Essex-class carrier Princeton (LPH-8), now an amphibious assault ship. Initially there was talk of landings just south of the Ben Hai river inside the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), but the pattern of NVA operations had shifted westward and the amphibious talk died out. An early-September landing well in- land marked a temporary end to our amphibious experience and the beginning of service as one of the division’s maneuver battalions. Despite the change in mission, the battalion kept its reinforcements-among them a tank platoon, a 105-mm. artillery battery, and a 4.2-inch mortar battery.

My Dad – then a major and the S-3 of BLT 2/26

Operational control shifted to the 3rd Marines, headquartered at Camp Carroll, but several days of aggressive patrolling yielded no enemy contacts. About 7 September, the BLT’s field elements were trucked to Camp Carroll and staged for two contingencies: a helicopter assault into Landing Zone (LZ) Margo, a barren hill- top just south of the DMZ, roughly l7 kilometers west-north- west of Camp Carroll, or a shift in operational control to the 4th Marines and a return to Khe Sanh where the battalion had served throughout the early-1968 siege.

To the relief of those who had served at Khe Sanh, the Margo operation prevailed – an assault into the LZ followed by movement north to the high ground on the southern border of the DMZ where the battalion was to turn east and sweep the high ground. The orders emphasized the need to take prisoners.

A typhoon brushed the coast and although the tree covered mountains inland showed no outward sign of the rains, movement became impossible. The war ground to a halt. Finally, the weather began clearing and, on 12 September, the commanding officer of the supporting helicopter squadron flew in for the Zippo brief – a planning and coordination meeting attended by the battalion and squadron commanders plus their staffs.

Zippos were businesslike affairs. Lives were at stake and the assaulting battalion and supporting squadron had to reach complete agreement and understanding. On the plus side, Margo was easy to find because of its location on the north side of the Cam Lo River inside a distinctive kilometer-wide and more than kilometer deep U shaped bend – unfortunately this plus was offset by several minuses – most of which stemmed from the tiresome but necessary subject of terrain.

Margo, which resembled a broken bowl, was smaller than the maps indicated. Using north as 12 o’clock, the rim from about 5 to l0 o’clock was the dominant piece of ground within the LZ. The southern side of the rim dropped sharply to the Cam Lo River, actually more stream than river at this point, while the interior slope provided good observation over the landing zone and north toward the DMZ. A spring near the center of the zone fed a stream that had cut a deep draw, which meandered eastward and exited Margo between 2 and 4 o’clock. Margo’s northern rim, from l0 to 2 o’clock, varied in height but was lower than the southern rim. lts exterior sloped sharply downward for a kilometer or so before reaching the steep approaches to the terrain fingers that led to the high ground in the DMZ. At its highest point, Margo was about 150 meters above sea level. The hills to the north were three to four times that height while the intervening terrain dropped to low points of about 50 meters.

It was rugged, forbidding country, made all the more so because-although Margo was clear-the heights and intervening valleys were covered with double- or triple- canopy forest.

The terrain inside the LZ made Margo a “one-bird zone,”-helicopters had to land and unload one at a time. This was hardly unusual, but it slowed the rate of assault dramatically. Margo also was too small to accommodate the entire BLT. Since the intent was to retain only G Company, the BLT command group, and the 8l-mm. mortars, engineer, and reconnaissance platoons in the zone for any length of time (a few days), the size of the LZ did not seem to be a major factor. lts rock-hard soil, however, was another problem. Digging in took time. Finally, there was Margo’s history. For a brief period, some months before, it had been used as an artillery fire support base-and the North Vietnamese were known to keep such positions under observation.

The terrain and history summed to the point that BLT 2/26 was landing, one aircraft at a time, into a zone that was:

  • Too small to hold the entire BLT
  • Dominated by high ground to the north
  • Probably the subject of continuing NVA attention at least to the point of registering mortar fires

Not good . . . but not unusual.

Friday the l3th of September 1968, a date not lost on many of the Marines, marked the beginning of several days of cloudless skies and comfortable temperatures. By 0700, a thousand or so Marines and corpsmen were waiting quietly in the Camp Carroll pick-up zone smoking, talking, thinking, and maybe, especially in Golf Company – which was landing first – praying. They were grunts, a term coined in Vietnam. While it may have been a derisive term originally, the sting was long gone, with a certain pride, it is what they called themselves.

Believing that the chances of infection dramatically increased with the amount of clothing worn when wounded, they were deliberately underdressed. Boots, socks, and trousers were the standard; no underwear and, quite often, no shirt during the day. Their faded helmet covers sported an elastic band around the outside intended to hold camouflage material when the wearer sought invisibility in the bush. More often, it held either a main battle dressing for use if the wearer’s luck turned bad or, in the case of optimists, a bottle of mosquito repellent. The graffiti on most of the covers addressed a variety of subjects but many tended toward the religious. David Douglas Duncan’s striking photographs of 26th Regiment Marines at Khe Sanh captured the phenomenon.

They all wore flak jackets, never zipped because shell or grenade fragments taken in the wrong place could jam the zipper, making it difficult for the corpsmen to remove the jacket and treat a wounded man in the field. The flak jackets, if anything, were dirtier than the helmet covers. Sweat-stained from long wear by a series of owners, they had the same faded color as the camouflage covers but their graffiti, for whatever reason, tended to more basic thoughts than those found on the helmets.

One of the famous Duncan Khe Sanh photos

They carried a haver sack holding a box of the venerable C-rations, a poncho, poncho liner, and most important of all, an extra two or three pairs of socks. They carried extra radio batteries; mortar ammunition, even though they were not mortarmen; rocket launchers; grenades; at least four filled canteens; and as much extra rifle or machine gun ammunition as possible.

They were typical grunts and corpsmen, normally unwashed, usually underfed, always overloaded and, more often than not, tired. The lucky ones, those who avoided disease, wounds, or death, did not enjoy a hot meal or cold shower for weeks on end.

Shortly before 0800 the CH-46s began landing in the pick-up zone with their distinctive whopping blade sound-unforgettable for those who rode them into combat. As the first wave launched, the sounds of the artillery preparatory fires in the distance and the roar of the fast-movers orbiting overhead helped ease the tension.

The actual landing was anti-climactic. There was no opposition, but it still took a long time. Echo, Foxtrot and Hotel companies quickly assembled and began moving north. Echo struck out for a finger on the right that led to the high ground while Foxtrot and Hotel headed for another finger on the left. Golf Company, the command post, the 81mm mortar platoon and others established defensive positions in the LZ and began digging in. Friday the 13th passed quietly.

BLT 2/26 riflemen moving up the fingers after flying in on the 13th

On Saturday, 14 September, the companies continued moving north at first light. While there were well-worn trails in the area and occasional sounds of movement ahead, there were no contacts. Even so, the companies called artillery and mortar fires on possible targets to keep the fire support system active. About mid-day, Hotel Company’s point, leading the movement up the left finger, saw movement ahead and signaled the company to move off the trail and wait. Their patience was rewarded as they watched a North Vietnamese soldier, weapon at sling arms, striding down the path towards them.

The point element was in an excellent ambush position and could have killed him. That they didn’t was a testimony to the discipline and the emphasis on taking prisoners. Waiting until the NVA soldier had passed, the point man re-entered the trail and, in Vietnamese, ordered him to halt-which he did promptly. The capture was reported to the company commander, relayed to battalion, and within a matter of minutes the 3rd Marines had learned of the potential guest speaker.  Within the hour the prisoner had been flown to Camp Carroll for interrogation.

Throughout the war, most higher headquarters consistently failed to pass timely intelligence information down to the battalion level where it could be acted upon. The 3rd Marines did not make that mistake. Just before sundown 2/26 learned that the prisoner had intended to surrender because he had been at Khe Sanh when the Marines first arrived. Stating that he “had a love of life” he added that he wanted no more of anything remotely resembling that battle, a confrontation that clearly had a psychological hold on both sides. Of greater interest was his disclosure that the lead company of the northwest finger – Hotel Company – would be attacked at about 2000 that evening. All three companies were alerted.

Echo, Foxtrot, and Hotel halted for the night and began registering artillery defensive fires. Hotel Company’s artillery forward observer (FO), controlling a supporting 155-mm. howitzer battery, had just started registering fires to cover a listening post located on the western side of the finger when the Marines manning the post reported hearing movement through the draw to their direct front. Since the registration rounds were on the way, they could only wait. Seconds later, as the roar of the explosions died away, the listening post reported screams and other sounds of panic. The FO immediately called “Fire for effect” and swept the draw with 155-mm rounds. Other than moans and the sound of some movement in the draw, the remainder of the night was quiet.

15 September dawned clear and cloudless. Visibility was so good that Marines could watch outgoing 8l-mm. mortar rounds until they reached their apogee. Again keeping the mortar and artillery fire-support systems active, E, F , and H companies resumed their slow and careful climb toward the high ground. Signs of enemy presence were plentiful but there was no contact.

The trouble started at noon, when a radio message from the 3rd Marines ordered the BLT to pull its companies back to the LZ and prepare to shift to the operational control of the 9th Marines.  The message was cryptic – it had to be because none of the radio transmissions with any of the battalions in the 3rd Marine Division’s area were secure. The encryption equipment of the day was too heavy to be carried in the field and, in any case, seldom worked in the heat and humidity of the bush. Problems with getting shackle sheets (codes) down to the company level precluded the use of even that decades-old mans of encryption. Everyone assumed that the North Vietnamese heard most of the radio traffic.

Communication security problems notwithstanding, the order was received with incredulity. There was little doubt that the NVA would follow companies back to the landing zone and less doubt that mortar and perhaps infantry attacks would follow. The three rifle companies were told to halt and then begin moving south to Margo; meanwhile, the order was strenuously argued. The regimental commander made it clear the order stood- but it was clear he agreed tactical assessment of what lay in store. Obedience would have a price, that much was obvious. What was not obvious was how much.

After a few hours, the three companies were told to halt, reorient, and return to the original northward advance. We had to know if the trailing -enemy theory was correct. The order did not specifiy how long to follow the reverse course but did tell the company commanders something they already knew – to expect contact. It came quickly on both ridges as small NVA units were surprised to find Marines heading north again. Breaking contact the companies once more turned south toward Margo. So far as 2/26 was concerned, the point had been proven. We reported this to the 3rd Marines and forcefully recommended cancellation of the withdrawal order.

The reply was more enlightening than helpful. The battalion was told that its arguing and temporary resumption of the offense had caused some difficulties (it wasn’t phrased that way) and that there would be a 24-hour postponement. Further, however, the entire battalion was to concentrate in LZ Margo south of the 61 grid line- an east-west grid line that split the LZ- by a specified time early the next afternoon, 16 September. In the interim, the BLT was authorized to do whatever it thought best to prepare for a return to the LZ. The maneuver companies were turned north again; within minutes they bumped into NVA troops following them down the ridge lines.

The enlightening section of the order was the part about moving south of the 61 grid line, It made no sense because the area remaining in the LZ south of the grid line was too small to accommodate the BLT in anything resembling tactical positions. Even worse, it did not permit a tactical defense of the LZ, especially against infantry attacks coming from the most logical direction – north. It was apparent that the order had emanated from a headquarters other than regiment of division, neither of which would have displayed that level of tactical ignorance, This, and the urgency associated with the 61 grid line provision, led to a conclusion that an Arc Light – high altitude B-52 area bombing mission- was imminent.

To those steeped in the traditions of obedience to orders, it might seem strange, but the BLT now confronted a dilemma. If its tactical assessment was correct, the order returning the maneuver units to the LZ would result in some form of NVA attack; if, on the other hand, the Arc Light guess was right there were other problems. The timing and target areas were unknown and, for security, would remain unknowns at the battalion level. Further, the tactically inane directive to move south of the 61-grid line indicated that the Arc Light was going in north of Margo – but close.

The dilemma was simple and stark: comply with the order and risk NVA action  or move the companies toward Margo, retaining some semblance of tactical deployment north of the LZ, and risk the Arc Light. To those who have seen a proper Arc Light, the choice was easy. The companies were directed to hold in place and begin moving south to the LZ early the next morning. But as a concession to common sense, that portion of the order regarding the 61 grid line was interpreted rather loosely. We would defend Margo.

The weather on 16 September matched the brilliance of the days gone by. Today, the Vietnamese Bureau of Tourism would be touting the weather, on that day in 1968, however, it turned into a scene from hell.

Occasionally stopping to engage NVA units following them, the three rifle companies slowly made their way back to Margo. Echo Company came in last. Commanded by Captain John Cregan, now a Roman Catholic priest, the company began to climb up Margo’s northern slope and by 1430 or so was beginning to take up it assigned defensive positions on the northern perimeter. Even after ignoring the order to stay south of the 61-grid line, there were too many troops in too small an area – and they had to contend with Margo’s hard ground. Digging in took more time.

Early in the afternoon there were ominous sightings of North Vietnamese soldiers with mortars fording the Cam Lo River west of Margo. Artillery fire was called, probably without effect. At the same time, there was a minor flurry of activity as the BLT shifted to the operational control of the 9th Marines and radio frequencies were changed and tested. That done, the chatter of the troops and clanging of their entrenching tools were the only sounds disturbing the quiet.

At 1500, Captain Ken Dewey, an F-4 pilot serving as the battalions air liaison officer, was looking north toward the left of the two hills that had been the original objectives when suddenly a mirror started flashing – followed immediately by the soft “thunking” sound of mortars firing in the distance. Within seconds Margo was blanketed with exploding 82 mm rounds from several points on the compass, especially the northern arc. The battalion began its “time on the cross” – as the French put it in an earlier Indochina War.

The noise was deafening. Each explosion filled the surrounding air with black, stinking, greasy-tasting smoke. The mortarmen poured it on until 200 to 300 rounds had pummeled the Marines and corpsmen, a good percentage of whom had no protection beyond that of shallow fighting holes. As the fire eased, the LZ sprang to life and First Lieutenant Al Green’s 81mm mortar began counter-battery fires, an action that won them concentrated NVA attention.

Battalion CP at Margo

Battalion machine gunners on Margo’s southern rim saw some enemy mortarmen and began to engage at long range-attracting in turn their share of the incoming. The exchange continued for a few more minutes until the mirror on high ground flashed again. The incoming barrage slowed, then stopped-but the noise in the zone went to deafening proportions as hundreds of rifles went into action. At first, it seemed as if the frustrated Marine riflemen were wasting ammunition on the out-of-range NVA Mortarmen, but a radio query to First Lieutenant Bob Riordan, the Golf Company commander revealed that from his position of the southern rim, North Vietnamese soldiers could be seen moving uphill to assault the LZ’s northern side.

Then the rifle fire stopped abruptly and, within seconds, the southern rim and center of the LZ were alive with Marines running to the northern side, Their fires had been masked by those manning the northern slope defenses and they were leaving their own positions to get into the fight. The enemy never had a chance. The NVA commander who ordered the assault probably had fewer troops than he thought as a result of previous contacts. In any case, the reaction of the defenders was too violent. No more than 20 minutes had elapsed. The cost to BLT 2/26 was more than 150 dead and wounded. The cost to the enemy was unknown.

At 1700, the mirror flashed again, and the mortars went to work. Once more, rounds rained down on Margo – fewer this time and without an infantry attack – but the BLT’s casualty list grew longer.

For the first time since the attacks began, medical evacuation of the wounded now seemed possible. It was likely that the NVA had expended most or all of their mortar ammunition and would not interfere with the helicopter evacuation.

The casualties had been separated by category…emergency, priority, routine…..and the “permanent routine” a euphemism for the dead that had crept into the radio operators’ lexicon. We hoped to MedEvac at least the emergency and priority wounded before nightfall. Several CH-46s and gunships arrived about 1830 and the laborious process of loading the casualties, one at a time, began as soon as the lead bird touched down.

MedEvac bird in LZ Margo

As always, the strength and example can be found in the casualties. I saw Staff Sergeant Donner from the reconnaissance platoon, covered with blood, as he was being escorted to the medevac staging area. He was refusing to leave, insisting that he was okay. I told him that he would leave.

Late the afternoon of 16 September, I watched as an uninjured Marine rapidly searched the rows of wounded , clearly looking for a friend. Suddenly, a large arm reached out and waved. “There you are” said the first Marine as he took the wounded man’s hand and squatted to talk. They held hands quietly until the medevac helicopters arrived.

The wounded Marine had been hit badly; I do not know if he survived. Nor do I know if his friend survived our subsequent encounters with the NVA. What I do know is that the wounded Marine was black and his buddy white. I remember thinking at the time how much better a people we would be if we were all like those two.

Recently, we have been told that the best and brightest did not go to Vietnam, When I heard that, I thought of those two Marines so long ago, the hardships they endured, and their obvious respect for each other. Maybe they were not the brightest. They were the best.

Realizing that there would be no other MedEvacs from Margo that night the last pilot insisted on overloading his aircraft with wounded. Over his objections, the loading was stopped, and the pilot told to launch. He must have been good. If not good, he was lucky. The overloaded CH-46 resembled a giant praying mantis as it struggled into the air, tail down, nose swinging back and forth in a wide arc, as though searching for escape from a trap. Finally, he nursed it a few feet higher, leveled, and began slipping sideways, just above the trees, down the slope that formed Margo’s northern rim. Again, the LZ filled with Marines running north; convinced that the 46 was about to crash. They were moving to assist survivors.

The helicopter disappeared from view behind the trees and, an eternity later, came back in view, this time in full flight , nose-high on a southerly course, jettisoning fuel to lighten the load and clear the ridge to Margo’s east. All movement stopped as everyone in the LZ watched the miracle claw its way over the ridge line taking the wounded to safety.

Quiet settled over Margo. As the troops returned to their positions, the silence was broken by a single “thunk” off to the north. This time there was only one round, but it landed precisely where the MedEvac birds had loaded. It was “Charlie”, saying he knew what had been done and could have stopped it anytime. He also was saying he was a “pro”. We knew that already.

The XXIV Corps Commanding General visited Margo the following morning. His worries about morale evaporated as he watched Marine improving their defensive positions. He then looked toward a large group of wounded waiting to be evacuated. In response to a question, he was told they were routine MedEvacs. Behind them were rows of ponch-covered objects. He looked at them, saying nothing, knowing what they were. Finally, a Marine broke the spell. “The dead go last, sir”.

______________Epilogue______________

The Arc Light went in five or six kilometers north of Margo on the afternoon of 16 September. Maybe too much had happened or maybe there was an unusually high number of duds. Regardless, it was unimpressive. Paradoxically, it hurt 2/26 more than it hurt the enemy.

Early on l7 September Golf, Foxtrot, and Hotel Companies returned to the familiar trails, attacking north. Echo Company, having lost nearly 70 Marines in the mortar and infantry attacks, remained behind. The LZ was mortared twice that day but there were few casualties. Margo’s final toll probably will never be known exactly. We evacuated more than 200 dead and wounded. some of whom doubtless died later. Before we left, we filled l8 helicopter external nets with packs, weapons, and other equipment no longer needed.

Eventually, after another long period of torrential rains, the attacking companies reached the high ground, where Golf found a graveyard-I8 graves with markers aligned in rows-near where the mirror had flashed before the mortar attack. They excavated a few to confirm that it was a graveyard. They also traced the extensive writings on the markers and sent them to the rear for translation. The writings turned out to be a history of each of the casualties. We learned that we had gotten the NVA battalion commanding officer and much of his staff. The CO had been a soldier since joining the Viet Minh in the late 1940’s; he was a professional. I think that whoever ordered all of the writing put on the markers did so, at least in part, so that we would not dig up their dead.

We stood by to attack to the west. It never happened. Near the end of September, the BLT moved by helicopter into another one-bird zone, this one in the DMZ just south of the Ben Hai River, nearly 15 kilometers north and east of LZ Margo. In a series of assaults, BLT 2/26 routed an enemy force defending a headquarters complex and artillery positions. During the last assault, Marines of Echo and Hotel companies were treated to the rare sight of North Vietnamese troops fleeing in panic.

The Marines and corpsmen of 2/26 formed a typical grunt battalion. They fought a dirty, unpopular war and they did it well. They never said that they were the best. All they said was that, if they met somebody better, they hoped he was on our side.

The John Paul Vann of Afghanistan Speaks

In the book The Operators by Michael Hastings there is a quote from Command Sergeant Major Michael Hall comparing General Stan McChrystal to John Paul Vann. John Paul Vann was a former army officer who went to Vietnam as a soldier and stayed on working as a Provincial aid advisor. He was famous for his ability to drive around and live in contested districts (alone) and was a tireless advocate for the Vietnamese people. He was also a compulsive womanizer, an alcoholic, and  a shameless self promoter. Remove those negative traits, replace them with a typical all-American Midwest kid raised in a stable two parent household where he developed a strong sense of commitment, a bias for action combined with the ability to thrive while taking calculated risks, and you have Chris Corsten. He was the John Paul Vann of Afghanistan

Our two-decade long involvement in Afghanistan has been a fiasco. Every aspect of our performance had major issues, none more so than the herculean efforts at re-building and rehabilitating the war-torn infrastructure. Yet buried deep inside the legacy of failure are stories of remarkable success. Carter Malkasain described one example of competent development leading directly to local prosperity (briefly) in the book The War Comes to Garmser.

Another example has just been published by my friend Chris Corsten detailing his decade in Afghanistan working both as a soldier and heavily armed humanitarian. The book is 3000 Days in Afghanistan, but I need to reveal something that you will not glean from Chris’s writing. In the world of outside the wire contractors, men (and a few women) who worked in contested districts infested with Taliban, who lived in local compounds, drove local cars, rarely spoke English outside their compound, wore local clothes and lived off the local economy to deliver massive aid projects on time and on budget, Chris Corsten was the best there ever was.

Chris stayed the longest, he had the most impact, he did, by orders of magnitude, the most projects and he was a shura ninja when it came to working through problems with tribal elders. Chris Corsten is a legend – to those of us who knew what accomplished and also to thousands of Afghans who became self-sufficient as hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland became productive again thanks to his irrigation programs.

The book is a clear reflection of Chris and if you know him the two personality traits that stand are conscientious and integrity. Those two traits were combined with an attitude that was the common denominator among all of us working outside the wire; zero tolerance for wasted efforts, make work stupidity, and excuses. Add to this mix the fact that Chris is a modest man who is not prone to exaggeration, routinely attributed all success to his subordinates, and loathes the idea of self-promotion and you have a writer who is going to lay out the facts. Which he does in a manner that is almost business like.

As you get towards the end of this remarkable story Chris lists the spectacular amount of work accomplished during the 2010-2011 surge, and if you know what was going on then in Afghanistan, it is easy to get confused. It seems impossible that Expats (mostly American, British, South African and Australian) were living and working in local Afghan communities while supervising massive irrigation projects in districts where the military was sustaining casualties on a regular basis.

If you don’t know much about Afghanistan, you can read through what Chris accomplished and miss what he accomplished. If you don’t know what was happening in provinces like Khost, Kandahar, Paktia, Kunar, Helmand, Farah, Nangarhar, Herat etc… in 2010 it is hard to appreciate the feat of finishing every project you started with supervision by expats who were out and about in Taliban contested areas daily.

What Chris and his crew proved was aid in contested areas can be delivered effectively, but it has to be done by guys who know what they are doing and have skin in the game. And, at least in Afghanistan, they needed to be armed.

Let me explain the weapons. Our model was if you can’t be safe be hard to kill. The threat to outside the wire contractors took many forms. The biggest was getting kidnapped, the other major problem was we had to store, transport, and distribute large amounts of cash. You are not safe when you are living in a local Afghan compound that contains a safe with over a million dollars in cash. You are not safe when you go to the local branch of the Kabul Bank and withdraw $700,000 for your monthly project payroll. You have to know what you are doing to convert $700,000 in Benjamins into small denomination Afghani’s.

Not all of us carried firearms either – Jeff “Raybo” Radan, a former Marine infantry officer and Ranger School graduate (thus the Raybo call sign), worked a year in the Helmand and never carried a weapon. He did projects in contested towns like Now Zad but being a former Marine he knew how to get a ride on Marine air and thus was able to travel safely. But most of us were armed, and all of us had weapons, including belt fed machine guns (in some provinces), inside our living compounds. Our arming authority came from the Provincial governors and if we ever used our weapons, we were accountable to them as well as the US Embassy.

Chris explains why former, experienced, military men, who have already acquired knowledge of local atmospherics and a solid understanding of local culture, are the best option for staffing aid programs in conflict zones. All the men mentioned in Chris’s book (he uses assumed names) were prior military and all of us had years on the ground before we were able to transition into what I term “Free Range” contracting.

3000 Days in Afghanistan should be required reading at both US AID and the Department of State as they sift through 20 years of lessons learned in Afghanistan. This week a senior USAID executive, who had extensive Afghanistan time, released a paper titled USAID Afghanistan: What Have We Learned. He concludes his assessment with four lessons;

  1. do not try to do everything
  2. stick to proven development principals
  3. flexibility and adaptability are key, and
  4. expect and plan for high levels of oversight.

All four of these lessons are addressed in detail by Chris as he explains how he avoided graft, corruption, security services shake downs, how he dealt (effectively) with theft, and delivered aid that was meaningful while injecting cash directly into local economies. The added benefit of taking Taliban off the battlefield by exchanging a couple months of hard labor for a decent amount of pay was something we discovered early in the program but had not anticipated.

Chris throws no stones as he explains what we were doing and why we felt we should do more. He describes his disappointment at not getting traction with USAID and the State Department and then moves on. The program he was running got plenty of attention in the press at the time. There were NPR radio interviews, 60 minutes segments, multiple magazine articles including this classic account in the Toronto Star about our team in Kandahar. The FRI blog was booming back then as I documented our massive infrastructure projects in Nimroz province. In the end none of that mattered, it turns out being successful where everyone else is failing can be problematic.

As William Hammink admits in his review of USAID in Afghanistan, we threw too much money into a country that could not absorb it. What is now obvious is that Chris Cortsen showed USAID exactly how to do Afghanistan aid. Spend a few years and a few million dollars to get all the irrigation systems back up and running, build a few schools, pave a few roads, bring in engineers with some commercial demo to blast rock and build runways in remote mountain-top towns, and you have done about all that should be done to get the country heading towards self-sufficiency.  Then you can leave.

3000 Days in Afghanistan is an easy read about a remarkable guy who sticks to the facts to make a case on how sustainable development in conflict zones should be done. Buried behind the facts and the business-like narrative are the stories that someday will emerge from this program as historians start to comb through the records in the search of what really happened in Afghanistan. They will find plenty about Chris, hopefully telling  his story in rich detail. There is a lot there and although Chris may not be seeking recognition for what he accomplished he certainly has earned it.

Apocalypse Not #8 South Texas Lockdown

The Rio Grande Valley consists of four counties Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy. The population is almost 90% hispanic, and the majority of the folks born and raised here, whites included, speak fluent Spanish. Despite the prevalence of Spanish speaking It’s still an unmistakably American place. The infrastructure is new as the population has grown significantly over the last 20 years. The VA system here is excellent as military service is and always has been popular with South Texans.

The migration pressure on the border comes from Central Americans who muster at collection points on this side of the border for speedy processing. Once processed and released they are taken to Catholic Relief shelter, given food and a bus ticket to the interior and dropped off at the Greyhound station. Mexican citizens can cross the border and stay in the valley as long as they want but they can’t go inland without a visa. A significant percentage of the local economies in cities like McAllen comes from Mexican tourism, especially during Christmas and Easter.

The McAllen/Edinburg area has a serious public health problem; we are (according to a recent Grub Hub ranking) the fattest metro area in the United States.  Morbid obesity leads to type II diabetes and hypertension, and all three are the principal comorbidity factors contributing to fatal outcomes from COVID-19.

The counties have all issued shelter in place orders and masks must be worn in public except when exercising. Cameron County has issued the most draconian mandates which include prohibiting more than two in a vehicle, which will be a problem for lawn maintenance crews, and children under age 14 have been confined to quarters. These measures are exactly the wrong ones to take if we are concerned about the health and welfare of our fellow citizens.

One of the known characteristics of COVID-19 is that hypertension, diabetes and being overweight dramatically increase hospitalization and fatality rates. It seems to me the perfect vehicle for public health officials to attack the epidemic of obesity in the population. If there was ever a time to start messaging about the necessity of a balanced diet combined with regular outdoor exercise that time is now.

Instead local officials have done the exact opposite. When the schools and non-essential businesses closed the local parks and play grounds were active. They were not crowded, there were no social distancing issues, but you would see groups of half dozen cross-fit folks working out together, families using the picnic benches, and others running or using exercise stations.

I would think the city leader would be encouraging people to get out of the house and into the many city parks to let their kids burn up some energy. Instead the city placed barricades around all jungle gyms, removed every picnic bench, closed all the park parking lots, and made it clear it doesn’t want people exercising in the parks.

Remember the purpose of flattening the curve was not to shelter in place until the bug was gone, the assumption that we will all eventually be exposed remains in place. If we are all going to get the bug eventually should we not be strengthen our immune systems now when we have all this time on our hands? Getting people, especially children, outside and active strengthens immune systems. Being immobile and sedentary indoors, passively watching television while eating highly processed food decreases immune systems.

The Land Shark is a lock down essential. It’s flat here, the streets are empty and this old school custom bike can fly. Getting outside to exercise instead of using an indoor gym has been the surprise of the COVID quarantine. I had forgotten how good it felt to train outside – and its good for the immune system too.

The local hospitals are empty so the curve has flattened which was the purpose of social distancing and mask wearing. Now that we accomplished the goal of the shut down why are we continuing the shut down?

The reason to open the economy is it will save more lives than it will cost.  There is little question that the lives lost to the economic catastrophe following an extended shut down and collapse of the economy would dwarf the numbers of lives lost from  COVID-19.

The alternative to relaxing the quarantine and allowing the virus to run its course is to remain locked down until there is a vaccine or cure. This is why prominent health policy types like Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel are talking about an 18 month lockdown. That is flat out insane. How can American look herself in the mirror and call herself the land of the free without NCAA football this fall? The question answers itself.

Apocalypse Not #4: What Now?

I was convinced if the Wuhan Corona Virus was as virulent as advertised we would have already seen evidence of it. My theory that  a nasty strain of flu that swept the Rio Grande Valley last December was the S strain of the Wuhan was a SWAG and we can now see I was wrong. I then thought the data driven analysis explained the lack of an outbreak but that too, has been debunked.

New York City has been hit hard, but at least one hospital, Lennox Hill is using HydroxyChloroquin, and they have yet to lose anyone of the 100 plus cases that they are treating. That is encouraging. Although the number of positive tests for COVID-19 will skyrocket there as testing comes on live there has yet to be a flood of pneumonia patients outside of New York City.

That too is encouraging.

One of the most popular videos in my area on the pandemic  is this one from Dr Emily Porter, an Emergency Medicine physician from Austin, Texas.  In her analysis she assumes a low end infection rate of 45% of the population and then does the math to show how large a catastrophe  that would be.  I’m certain the forecasted numbers have decreased since she made her presentation and I don’t think we are going to see those kinds of numbers. But again I base that on the assumption that we would already be seeing a surge in emergency room admissions for pneumonia. Maybe I’m wrong and we will see a surge in hospitalizations in the coming weeks. I sure hope not.

Tokyo,  despite being one of the most densely populated places on earth, has weathered the Wuhan virus well.  The Japanese success at stopping the virus is an excellent argument for taking our shoes off before we enter the house. It’s not a bad habit to adopt these days.

I can no longer traffic in “Do you know anyone with Wuhan?” meme’s because my friend Smari McCarthy, who lives in Iceland, tested positive. He’s going to be OK which is good news. He reminded me about riding out the Swine Flu epidemic in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in 2009. I don’t have the ingredients for the malaria chai though, that needs some #1 hash ghee and a little tincture of opium and those are in short supply in Texas. Helps to have somebody who knows what they’re doing brewing the stuff too.

Without the malaria chai we are left to do little else but stay off the streets, help our neighbors as need and wait to see what happens.  The President was quoted as saying he will reassess where we are in two weeks and maybe lift the bans as appropriate.

I still suspect we should have isolated the venerable while protecting our economy but future events may well prove me wrong. I’m just encouraged by each new day that arrives without another cluster overwhelming a local hospital system. As long as that continues we’ll be OK, and if it doesn’t continue I think we’ll see Americans, at the community level, coming together to work through the crisis at hand.

For now the only thing to do is stay at home, look after your neighbors and check up on the elderly folks who are not getting out much to see if they need anything.

Apocalypse Not: The Fear of COVID-19 is Unwarranted

There is something about the current Wuhan virus response that is not adding up. The first case appeared in America on 17th of January, we then stopped direct flight from China on the 31st of January. From the time this pathogen surfaced in November until the end of January, there were daily flights from the Wuhan area to Seattle, LA, San Francisco, New York and Toledo, Ohio. This flu strain is unusually virulent and if that is true (which is not in doubt), by the time it surfaced in America it had already spread across the land.

Farr’s Law, named for British epidemiologist William Farr in 1840, states that epidemics, develop and recede according to a bell-shaped curve. This happens with or without human intervention. Farr’s Law undoubtedly is in play for the Wuhan virus.

Last Christmas my wife and several neighbors had a horrible flu bug that mimicked the Wuhan virus symptoms exactly.  She was miserable and did not respond to a Z-pack or a course of Levaquin our family doctor prescribed.

The bug she had was no joke, and when she mentioned my theory that the Wuhan had already washed through the population last Christmas her friends saw it immediately. She started hearing other stories about the Christmas bug that ravaged the Rio Grande Valley for a good four weeks. The stories all matched up to the symptoms for Wuhan virus.

The President’s early attempts to calm the situation were ridiculed as was his suspension of air travel to China. Then the narrative changed on a dime and the cancelations started with, as I recall, the Ivy League Universities leading the way. Once they did that every other major sports league (with the exception of the UFC) did the same.

The various leagues and venues that have closed had no choice, ignoring the experts advice and example would risk a devastating backlash if the Wuhan virus turns out to be as deadly as advertised.

But  Ivy League role in starting the current chain reaction of closing public venues is not a coincidence. The very experts who are on the TV daily had just  staged a Pandemic table top exercise. The response we are seeing is based off the dire predictions made in that exercise.

On the afternoon of Friday, 18 October 2019, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, World Economic Forum and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation hosted  a Virtual Exercise Called Event 201 and described as:

“a 3.5-hour pandemic tabletop exercise that simulated a series of dramatic, scenario-based facilitated discussions, confronting difficult, true-to-life dilemmas associated with response to a hypothetical, but scientifically plausible, pandemic”.

The pathogen used for the exercise was a COVID virus with properties similar to COVID-19. The exercise predicted that the virus would overwhelm the medical systems in North America resulting in catastrophic loss of life.

Tabletop exercises like Event 201 happen all the time, the fact that this one was played out a month before COVID-19 surfaced in Wuhan China is not that significant. What is significant is how different the current crisis is playing out compared to the one our experts war-gamed.

There were a seven recommendations made following the exercise (they can be found here). Every recommendation focused on the need for international cooperation with the free flow of information and people across national borders which is consistent with the ethos and vision of globalists like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other major donors, like Open Philanthropy .

But our response to the Wuhan virus has been the exact opposite of the “viruses know no borders” narrative of Event 201.  Instead we (and the rest of the world) have closed the borders, rebuffed international offers of help and turned to the private sector to fight the virus ourselves.

The Centers for Disease Control was not up to the task of testing for or tracking the Wuhan virus and they were rapidly sidelined by the President. This was the exact opposite of  Event 201 in which the CDC and every other similar international organization performed flawlessly. The ‘experts” may have been surprised the CDC failed so spectacularly but this is expected from those of us who know and understand government bureaucracies.

When the CDC failed the President  went straight to the private sector, suspended regulations inhibiting the development and production of test kits and protective wear, and solved the testing problem rapidly. He then held a press conference with these Titans of industry and did a good job of calming frayed nerves. After his poor start briefing the nation last Wednesday night watching him get back into the grove was gratifying.

This is not playing out as the experts who ran Event 201 thought. Then, in another move a blatant dishonesty, on the same day that China launches an IO campaign to deflect criticism from them onto the USA, our legacy media decides the Wuhan virus is now to be called COVID-19.  Any mention of the word Wuhan was now racist and news anchors were getting apoplectic about this new muh racism.

As events across the land started to close. Governors and DC mandarins ran to the TV cameras to announce the draconian measures they were going to take. These pronouncements have to moldy scent of Virtue Signalling. The men and women making these decisions have themselves, no skin in the game.  Regardless of how long this lasts or how bad it gets the people running Ivy League institutions, the federal legislatures, state governors and the media infotainment complex insiders – all of them will weather the storm just fine. In fact, most of them will make millions off  low interest rates while buying blue chip stock at a significant markdown.

You and your family? Not so much.

“I don’t claim to know what’s motivating the media, but, my God, their reporting is absolutely reprehensible. They should be ashamed of themselves. They are creating a panic that is far worse than the viral outbreak. The bottom line, everybody, is to listen to Dr. Anthony Fauci of the CDC [Centers of Disease Control and Prevention]. Do what he tells you, and go about your business.… Stop listening to journalists! They don’t know what they are talking about!” Dr. Drew Pinsky commenting on the media yesterday (17 March 2020)

An anonymous  source quoted in The Spectator points out the only salient (and obvious) fact now which is:  “We know the numerator (the number of deaths), but we don’t know the denominator, which is the number of people who have been infected by COVID-19. And without the denominator, we have no way of estimating either the spread or the fatality rate of COVID-19.”

That bothers me and it should bother you too, but at the moment there is nothing to be done except hunker down, avoid panic shopping, and wait to see what happens. How long Americans will tolerate these measures will be interesting to see.

There is no reason to think that this time the experts warnings about a catastrophic event are correct. They have a perfect record of being wrong with every prediction in the past because their models are incapable of predicting complex events reliably.

When the people discover that once again, they were manipulated by a partisan press, compromised academic shills, and virtue signalling politicians there is going to be hell to pay.  When the dust settles maybe we will de-couple science from politics and even dismantle the narrative driving legacy media.

It is time to keep your head down, and your powder dry. Courage and cowardice are contagions and few of our elected leaders seem to operate with an abundance of courage. Their default is finger pointing, name calling, and blame shifting. The rest of us should refrain from that behavior and focus on helping, not panicking our neighbors. When this emergency passes we may be able to hold incompetents to account but for now all we can do is what we do best; refuse to panic.

Assessing Trust in The Afghan Peace Deal

Editor’s Note: Chim Chim is back with a post on FRI. It has been over a decade since we last heard from him  He is a friend of mine with years of experience in Afghanistan at the higher levels of the U.S. Intelligence community. It is fitting that he once again reaches out to Free Range International to weigh in with some thoughts on the Afghanistan peace deal.

 

Trust. It’s a mysterious term and rarely understood. Per its definition, key attributes exist such as reliability, truth, ability, and strength. Contrary to popular belief, trust is not earned but rather obtained through a leap of faith. It is natural and can easily be broken. When it comes to the Afghan Peace Deal, trust is non-existent amongst the three players involved—The US Government, the Afghan Government, and the Taliban.

But should one look closely at the situation from an historical perspective, how can trust exist? More importantly, who can be trusted most? Better yet, who SHOULD be trusted most?

During the Russian-Afghan War, the United States was heavily involved in supporting multiple Afghan militias fighting against our greatest adversary. We gave and gave and gave but then, once the Russians were defeated, we put on the brakes. It was arguably one of the most devastating moments in US National Security that would inevitably come back and bite us hard.

We made countless promises to the Afghans and never came through with any of those promises which led to a major civil war between dozens of local tribes and militias. This civil war allowed the Taliban to blossom into a major organization which ruled Afghanistan for many years.

Immediately following 9-11, the United States went into a reactionary mode and was quick to invade Afghanistan on the logic that the Taliban were harboring Al Qaeda. Few realize during this time several nation states were providing safe haven to Al Qaeda during this time as Al Qaeda cells were spread across the globe. Another point of contention is the fact that the Taliban were in talks with Al Qaeda in an attempt to push them out of country instead forcing them into safe-haven in western Pakistan.

Our decision was made and teams of special operators infiltrated Afghanistan initiating America’s longest war. We did this with virtually zero ground truth, meaning, we had no sources or assets for intelligence on the ground prior to our invasion. Many whom we initially engaged in combat operations were nothing more than localized militias whom had little if anything to do with the Taliban (Central) meaning we were fighting tribesmen who would later turn to the Taliban due to our own actions.

Immediately following 9-11, Russia became an American strategic partner. We actually relied on Russia’s past to procure our initial network on the ground in Afghanistan.  The one country Afghans despise most, we became strategic partners with.

As time unfolded and upon immediate successes in achieving two goals set forth from US SOF elements (eliminate Al Qaeda’s safe-haven and rid Taliban of government control), a new force was inserted shortly after—the US Conventional military and State Department.

During this time, the United States threw billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It was during this period which continues even today, the United States implementation of a “quantifiable” approach to warfighting which completely overshadows anything qualitative.

America spent billions on programs that had virtually zero oversight. One example is based on school text books in which the United States and our coalition threw an estimated $30 million into the contract however it is estimated less than $1 million worth of product ever entered the country. HeraldExtra.com shows just a portion of the issue in their article titled, Textbooks not arriving in Afghan school.

The vast majority of funds displaced were not displaced. They were handed to local warlords, provincial governors, tribal leaders, etc. But if people want to see who the vast majority of individuals pocketed these funds, just walk down “Millionaire Row” in Kabul where you will find Afghan mansions vacant—vacant because those whom had such homes built have now fled the nation in fear of a Taliban takeover.

Prior to leaving, these local Afghans milked every last penny they could from the United States. It was the easiest way for anyone to get rich fast and rich as in millionaire rich. Simply put, the Afghan power-players created a racket and the United States didn’t care. More interesting is why we did not care.

We did not care about the misappropriations of funds because of the quantifiable war which we created. Those who held the money needed to get rid of it. And they did. And in doing so, they wrote their own tickets of success be it military personnel boasting numbers on OPER’s/EPR’s or State Department, NGO’s, etc fluffing resumes for permanent hire needs upon completion of their time in country.

What the United States did in Afghanistan does not demonstrate reliability, truth, ability, and strength hence, our inept methods in Afghanistan demonstrate how untrustworthy we are in our Afghan mission.

As bad as we were, the locals and politicians also demonstrated a lack of trust.

Afghan leaders saw how much money was going into Afghanistan. They witnessed their pockets flood with cash. They were empowered on a level most Americans should be jealous of. And as crazy as this sounds, many of these Afghans were closely aligned with Russia and Iran.

The Afghan Government was and continues to be incredibly corrupt.

In 2008, an Afghan warlord once said, “You expect us to believe in your own Rule of Law? You want us to trust the newly established Afghan Government’s Rule of Law which you, the Americans implemented? Do you not see how corrupt your own nation is? Look at the case of OJ Simpson.”

Think about this sentiment for a moment. Reflect on what this warlord was saying. You do not need to agree with what was said but think of the perception held. Perception is reality.

Another warlord once explained why the United States tactical intelligence was flawed. He explained that we would hand out cash to “walk-ins” for information about potential Taliban. We would take that information and execute a mission to kill or capture that individual. But what we seldom knew was the “walk-in” was merely in a tribal dispute with the target. And oftentimes, the “walk-in” was actually the one more aligned with the Taliban than the target itself.

The Afghans manipulated the United States every waking chance they could. And, they succeeded in doing what they wished on individual levels as well as within different political parties. Simply put, the Afghan politicians as well as local leaders demonstrated virtually zero reliability or truth which showcases why they were and remain untrustworthy.

The United States knew the Taliban were our enemy in Afghanistan. The Taliban ensured we were never to forget this. Through video’s published online, a plethora of kidnappings, to constantly attacking our assets, the Taliban and the array of Anti-Afghan Forces never led up.

If early warnings existed pertaining a potential attack, the Taliban came through with it. If the Taliban claimed they would allow for a temporary ceasefire, that ceasefire pretty much always happened. If a break of the ceasefire was sent through the air waves, expect the attack. They TOLD us pretty much every single move they were going to make. Their information was reliable, it was constantly set in truth, and they demonstrated over and over again their ability to do what they said. And, their strength came from not just their numbers but rather the constant support they obtained through the Pakistani ISI, Iranian assets, and the Kremlin itself.

If you watch the evening news and see a report on a serial murderer then take a walk in the woods and come across that serial murderer, do you trust the serial murderer’s potential? You would be a fool not to. The point is, trust in an entity you do not like does not mean trust should not exist. Bad people and bad organizations should be trusted to do bad things.

What is difficult to swallow is when we possess trust in something we cherish and realize that which we cherish most should be the least trusted. In the case of the Afghan Peace Deal, maybe, just maybe, it is not the Taliban who should NOT be trusted. Rather, maybe we should be skeptical over the amount of trust we place in the Afghan Government and that of our own.

Peace in Afghanistan Inshallah

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Qatar’s capital city, Doha today for the signing of a peace deal with the Taliban. In a rare demonstration of presenting both sides of a contentious deal the Washington Post opinion section featured dueling pieces that capture this unique moment in time. The peace deal is a clear win for both the Trump administration and the Afghan people. As usual the devil is in the details but it appears we are on the way out of Afghanistan.

Barnett Rubin who is a senior fellow and associate director of the Center on International Cooperation of New York University and non-resident senior fellow at the Quincy Institute, outlines the agreement in his WaPo OpEd.

The agreement provides a timetable for troop withdrawal, counterterrorism guarantees, a path to a cease-fire and a process for political settlement. Implementation would also require dismantling Taliban infrastructure in neighboring Pakistan and assurances by external powers that none will use Afghanistan against others.

Mr. Rubin has considerable time on the ground in the region and his take on the peace deal (which is it is a good deal)  is identical to mine.

Max Boot, who is a Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, took the opposite view. In his WaPo OpEd he outlines three different scenarios for the near future in Afghanistan. He then goes onto to predict the worst case scenario (the Taliban rolling into Kabul and taking over the country) as the most likely. I can tell you unequivocally that is the least likely scenario.

Many of our foreign policy experts and more than a few of my friends caution that the Taliban is not a cohesive monolithic organization, and that negotiators are only speaking for the Quetta, Peshawar, and Miranshaw Shura’s. This is a fact that is true, but means nothing now. The Taliban were able to enforce the peace during last years Eid celebration across the country and I believe they can do so again. Regardless of what I and my friends believe the only thing that counts is how the Afghans feel about the deal.

Taliban fighters taking selfies with Afghan army troops during the Eid ceasefire last year.

The Senior Vice President-elect of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, published his opinion on the Time website. I Fought the Taliban. Now I’m Ready to Meet Them at the Ballot Box is the title of his piece and that’s a strong endorsement of the process. Amrullah Saleh is the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), a former Interior Minister and he survived a serious assault on his election headquarters last July. That assault started with a car bomb and was continued by suicide vest equipped assault teams. Amrullah Saleh survived by jumping off the roof of his four story headquarters onto the roof of a neighboring building.

It is reasonable to assume Mr. Saleh had engaged in a running gun battle before escaping to safety, he is that kind of guy.

In another fascinating development the Military Times published an article today with the headline ISIS taking a beating in Afghanistan setting  the stage for a potential a U.S. troop withdrawal.  Buried deep in the article is this:

The recent campaign in Nangarhar is one example. Effective operations by US/Coalition & Afghan security forces, as well as the Taliban, led to ISIS-K losing territory & fighters. Hundreds surrendered. ISIS-K hasn’t been eliminated but this is real progress,” Khalilzad tweeted Tuesday

Remember a few posts back I highlighted this article in the Washington Post about the defeat of ISIS because it failed to mention the Taliban’s direct role? It seem like the first draft of history is up for grabs regarding the defeat of ISIS-K in Eastern Afghanistan.  There is little to gain but much to lose in suppression of the truth. I doubt an experienced reporter would have not known about the Taliban’s role in fighting ISIS-K so it is hard to figure out why the WaPo would print such obviously fake news.

Regardless, ISIS is now gone in Eastern Afghanistan and the remaining pockets in the north now the problem of the Taliban. Who seem to be very efficient at rooting them out.

What I cannot determine is how many troops will stay and what those troops will be doing. If the plan is to leave the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) in place to hunt down ISIS and al Qaida that is not going to work. ISIS doesn’t need to be serviced by us any longer and separating al Qaida trainers from Taliban students is impossible.

If Amrullah Saleh is willing to give the Taliban a chance, and they reach an agreement, men like Sirajuddin Haqqani, who have been at the top of the JPEL for years, will be allowed to go in peace. The JPEL is the Joint Prioritized Effects List which is essentially a lethal version of the FBI’s most wanted. Allowing the men on that list to walk free, get passports and travel  is going to be a bitter blow to the people who have been hunting them. But that may be the price of peace.

I have to add that CJSOTF-A is not going to be able to operate behind the back of the Senior VP. Mr. Saleh has decades of experience working with the CIA and CJSTOF and he will have a say on what the Americans can and cannot do if they leave CJSTOF-A in Afghanistan.

This deal with the Taliban is how it ends. It is the only way it can end. The only question in Afghanistan was when, not if, we were leaving. The Taliban cannot beat the Kabul government in battle. The Kabul government cannot beat the Taliban in battle. The continued presence of American SF teams, tactical aircraft and trainers brought the Taliban to the negotiating table which is the best they could do.  It is up to the Afghans to decide what happens next. It is also time for us to leave.

Taliban Stakeout the Moral High Ground Announcing a Peace Deal with the United States

Sirajuddin Haqqani  wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times yesterday where he explained the Taliban’s expectations and goals in signing a Peace Agreement with the United States. The piece was professionally written and I do not believe Sirajudin can write so well in English so I doubt he wrote himself. Regardless, the Taliban statement clearly stakes out the moral high ground with sentences like:

“I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”

Sirajudin Haqqani represents the Miranshah Shura and the fact that he’s doing the writing indicates that the various factions in the Taliban are presenting a unified front. Haqqani is also directly responsible for scores of car bombings in Kabul and a laundry list of other attacks that targeted innocent Afghans. There is more than a little hypocracy in his statement but who cares? This communique was addressing the Afghan people and if they want to allow men like Haqqani to reconcile with the government it is their business, not ours.

While the MSM component of the national media waited to see what President Trump would say so they could take the opposite position, the conservative press pounced on this sentence to dismiss the entire missive.

“We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves.”

Becket Adams, writing in the Washington Examiner called the claim of self defense “a damnable lie”. Mr. Adams went on to state that “The Taliban 100% chose this conflict with the U.S.” That was true in 2001 but that is not what Haqqani is talking about and from the Taliban perspective we did indeed force them to fight us.

In 2002 the majority of Taliban had surrendered and returned to their villages. There was one group of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters holed up in the mountains of Shah-i Kot which we attacked, willy nilly, with no intelligence or fire support preparation of the battlefield, and no idea how many adversaries we faced. The remainders were turning in their weapons and going home which is exactly what Karzai, when he accepted the surrender of the Taliban government, asked them to do.

What do you do when you are part of a Special Operations Task Force with no enemies to identify or target? What we did was target the enemies of the warlords who cooperated with us and in the south of the country the Warlords we supported would be Karzai and his bitter rival Haji Gul Agha Sherzad. The village of Khas Uruzgan provides a perfect example of how we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by relying on those two men.

When the Taliban were routed in an epic battle pitting a Special Forces A-team headed up by Maj. Jason Amerine and dozens fast movers (jets) vs. a couple thousand  Taliban just outside the provincial capitol of Tirin Kot the local Afghans held jirga’s and agreed to candidates for the positions of district mayor, district chief of police, etc… Unfortunately, the acting president (Karzai) sent one of his friends named Jan Muhammad, to be the provincial governor and Jan Mohammad intended to put his fellow tribesmen (Popalzai) into every paying billet in his province.

In towns like Khas Uruzgan the men selected by the people to govern them moved into the district center and started accepting weapons from surrendering Taliban. Jan Mohammad, who had just been released from the Taliban prison by Karzai himself, moved into the provincial governors compound and promptly appointed his tribesmen  to every district governor and police chief billet in the province.

In Khas Uruzgan the man elected by the jirga occupied the district governors compound. Next door was a schoolhouse where Jan Mohammad’s men (representing the Kabul government)  set up shop.  Both groups were busy dis-arming Taliban and there were a ton of weapons in both buildings.

In late 2002 the U.S. Army conducted a raid on both buildings (which they thought held Taliban), killing several men in the process and yoking up several more for interrogations at the Bagram airbase. Anand Gopal, in his excellent book No Good Men Among the Living describes the results of this raid:

Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies. People in Khas Uruzgan felt what Americans might if, in a single night, masked gunmen had wiped out the entire city council, mayor’s office, and police department of a small suburban town: shock, grief, and rage.

It would be years before the United States admitted they had raided the wrong place. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (the current senior Taliban negotiator) had gone to ground near Khas Uruzgan and our Special Forces decimated not one, but two wedding parties (with AC-130 gunships) in an attempt to catch him. Dozens of children and women were killed in these raids and this is important to acknowledge – to the Afghan people there were two wars, one that drove the Taliban from power quickly and a second one that started when we stayed on in the country to “capture senior Taliban and al-Qaida”.  The responsibility of this second war rest solely on the National Command Authority of the United States who failed to define Phase four (what happens when we win).

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second from left, with members of a Taliban delegation in Russia in 2019.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

If you want to read an infuriating account of our own incompetence making us enemies among people who wanted to be allies during that second round of war, read Chapter 5 of No Good Men Among the Living. It is a detailed description of how we were tricked into detaining and/or killing the entire anti-Taliban leadership of Band-i-Timor in the Maiwand district of Khandahar. You cannot make some of this stuff up.

The opinion peace by Sirajudin Haqqani was a masterstroke of Information Warfare and will be hard to refute by the United States. The Taliban leadership, unlike the American leadership, has skin in the game. There is no reason to doubt their commitment to participate in establishing an Afghanistan free of foreign troops and moving towards a consensus on who is governing what. It is now time for the United States to move out of the way and allow the Afghans to determine what their country will become.

In 2002 the Taliban were defeated and al-Qaida already gone to Pakistan. All the fighting since then has not changed a thing on the ground.  It is time to pull out, reduce funding to Afghanistan and let them sort out the situation among themselves.

 

 

Light at the End of the Tunnel in Afghanistan

Last week news broke of a possible peace deal in Afghanistan leading to a firestorm of speculation in the media about what’s really going on. The reporting was not consistent but the consensus is the peace deal would call for negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict to start next month, an eventual countrywide cease-fire and a commitment from the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups like al Qaida, while setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A famous quote incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill dictates “Jaw Jaw is better than War War” (actually he said “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war” which makes more sense ) reinforces this is (potentially)  good news. The devil is in the details and we do not know what “reduction of violence”means to the United States  or “withdrawal of U.S. troops” means to the Taliban.

TheTaliban are not a monolithic organization but several competing factions. We have been dealing with the Quetta Shura who is representing, but cannot speak for, the other players like the Miranshah Shura (primarily the Haqqani Network) or the Peshawar Shura. That being said the Taliban did deliver on an Eid ceasefire agreement last year and that ceasefire held.

Taliban fighters taking selfies with Afghan army troops during Eid ceasefire last year.

We can get a reliable read on what the Taliban considers a reduction of violence in this detailed report from the always reliable Afghan Analysts Network. From the linked report:

Another Pakistani newspaper, quoting an un-named Taleban official, reported that the movement had agreed not to carry out attacks in major cities including Kabul and would not use car bombs and that the Taleban had also offered not to attack US bases and US soldiers, and that they wanted the US to cease air strikes in return. The newspaper said it had learnt “that Khalilzad had urged” the Taleban to agree to more measures, including a halt to IED attacks, but that they did not agree “as they have planted IEDs in many areas and it is difficult for them to remove all [of them].” Furthermore, the paper reported, the US also wanted a pause in Taleban attacks on Afghan government forces’ check posts, “which was also a concern of the Afghan government.”

Senior U.S. military officials (speaking off the recored)  in Afghanistan stressed that U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida will continue, separate from the truce agreement. This is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that ISIS-K in Nangarhar Province has been defeated.

Their fighters have mostly surrendered to the government or gone to ground. There are ISIS-K cells in the north of the country but they are not large or powerful and are in the sights of the same fighters who rid Nangarhar Province of ISIS and those fighters are Taliban.

The counterterrorism mission in the eastern part of Afghanistan has been focused on ISIS-K (Daesh to the locals) for years. Now that ISIS-K is gone the Special Forces teams are flying around the province conducting ‘Key Leadership  Engagements’ like the one I wrote about last week. That occurred in the Sherzad district which is very close to Jalalabad and full of former HiG fighters who have cooperated with the Taliban  on and off over the years. They cooperate mostly because Taliban shadow courts settle land disputes quickly and, they feel, fairly.

The land deed office for Nangarhar Province – some of these documents are hundreds of years old

The time for our SF troops and the Afghans varsity Commandos to be running around district centers meeting with key elders seems long past. The local elders know all about the dysfunctional government in Kabul and are not going to be convinced it has their interests at heart until the government  demonstrates it.

With ISIS-K on the ropes trying to separate Taliban connected fighters from al Qaida will be problematic. The remaining senior al Qaida leaders have successfully gone to ground inside the tribal areas of Pakistan and have no need to move anywhere. al Qaida has a presence at Taliban training camps and may even run a few but I have no doubt the Taliban understand the consequences of allowing them to use their territory  for international Jihad.

If there no independent al-Qaida formations so if you go after them you are still going after the Taliban.

The incident rate in Afghanistan has plummeted this year. Some of this is due to the pounding the Taliban have taken from American air attacks which increased dramatically in 2019. Some of this can also be attributed to the Taliban winding down operations as the peace talks continued. The stats below come from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

This is from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) – note the sudden steep drop in incident rates as we move into 2020

Time will tell but it seems that the end to American involvement in Afghanistan is near. But if you pull all the training support mission out and leave a Special Forces task force to continue hunting “al-Qaida and ISIS” it will test, if not break, the fragile peace. We need to pull everyone out and let the Afghans settle things themselves. Continuing night raids and killing bad guys in Afghanistan does not reduce any threats to our homeland. It’s time to admit that and act accordingly.