Attention To Detail

My good friend E2 has kept FRI alive for the past few months allowing me to put up a post I’m dying to share. We’ll complete our remaining projects in a few months and then I can start posting again about what we were up to this year. Last week I got a treat that was too good not to share; a chance to link up with my friend Col Dave Furness, USMC, the commanding officer of  Regimental Combat Team 1 currently deployed to the  southern Helmand. Col Furness was heading out to look over the positions of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (Lava Dogs) commanded by LtCol Sean Riordan, who came through the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course when Dave and I were instructors there. I needed to see the USAID FPO’s in that neck of the woods providing a perfect excuse to tag along.

LtCol Riordan, Col Furness and Baba T after a 5 hour foot patrol. - We're hurting too but Bushido forbids the display of weakness on the part of commanders
LtCol Riordan, Col Furness and Baba T after a 5 hour foot patrol. – We’re hurting- it is just too damn  hot –  but Bushido forbids the display of weakness on the part of commanders so I had to buck up too or face unending grief from my buddies.
This is why we're hurting
This is why we’re hurting and believe it or not that is a good ten degrees below summer norms in the Helmand Valley

When  Dave and Sean  first showed up several months ago there was some of hard fighting left do to penetrate this far south but that turned out to be the easy part.  Terrain and vegetation forced the Taliban into linear defenses. They tried minefields in front in an effort to bog down the advancing Marines. But Marines have helicopters, so they would fix the villains with a frontal holding attack and then fly into their rear and chew them up. The Taliban were quick to figure out that move and countered with minefields and fighting positions to their rear too. The Marines started flying into their rear to fix them, a tactic which allowed the Marine infantry in front to flank the Taliban and pin them against the Helmand River.  Fish in a barrel, except for the runners who manage to slip out, ditch their weapons and start walking meaning they no longer fit the PID profile and cannot be engaged.

Heading out to an isolated patrol base - this picture seems timeless to me - how many times have we seen similar photos from Vietnam?
Heading out to an isolated patrol base – this picture seems timeless to me – how many times have we seen similar pictures from Vietnam or Korea or WW II?

A few months back as they were pushing south the Marines would run into situations that (for guys like them) are a dream come true.  An ANP commander pointed out a village where his men have hit 3 IEDs in as many weeks and each time the villagers poured out with AK’s  to start a firefight.  A few nights later the Marines blow a controlled det on the road to simulate an IED hit and when the villains rushed out with their flame sticks they met what we lovingly call the ‘L shaped ambush’.  No doubt (knowing the Lava Dogs) the villains also met Mr. Claymore, were introduced to the proper use of a machine gun section, and were treated to a 40mm grenade shower from those new and  super deadly M32’s.  Bad day.  Not many survived that textbook lesson on the proper use of an ambush squad, but those days are long gone. The Taliban has run out of options in their limited (yet effective) playbook and have gone to ground but are still planting the IED’s and will still strike at what they consider soft targets but these attacks seldom rise above the level of being a minor nuisance.

As everybody in the world (except President Karzai) knows, these IED’s kill and maim vast numbers of innocent Afghans, yet  rarely inflict casualties on ISAF units. The Marines still get hit by them but have deployed in such a way as to significantly reduce the vulnerability of their line infantry. Know how? By staying off the bog box FOBs and getting into little squad size combat outposts.

This is why the Marines are able to dominate this part of the Helmand. The terrain is flat, places to hide are few, and they have much better weapons systems which can reach out a long way. It is no longer possible for the villains to assemble 200 or 300 fighters like they once did in this area when the British Army first moved in. A force that size would have so many rockets falling of them they would need shovels and wheel borrows to scoop up what was left for burial
This is why the Marines are able to dominate this part of the Helmand Valley. The terrain is flat, places to hide are few, and they have precision weapons systems that reach out and touch people from a long long way away.  It is no longer possible for the villains to assemble 200 or 300 fighters like they once did in this area when the British Army first moved in.  A force that size would have so many rockets falling on them that local villagers would need shovels and wheel barrows to scoop up what was left for burial. The Brits didn’t have enough manpower, ISR, indirect fire assets, or mobility to really fight in the Helmand. All they had were small units of brave, well trained infantry. Emphasis on brave. They were and are formidable but too few in number to make any  lasting difference in a Province as large as Helmand.

But Baba T,  you ask,  isn’t that how the Brits got their asses kicked so badly a few years back in the very same district centers the Marines are now occupying? This is true and speaks to the difference in organization, culture, task organization, and combat power between the services. The average British soldier is every bit as good and in most cases better trained than his American army counterpart. But not the Marines who have far superior entry level training and a history of battlefield innovation. But the Marines are not supernatural and trying to work out of COP’s in places like Musa Qala is proving tough.

Southern Helmand Province is a long, flat narrow area, where the population is confined mostly to strips of land in close proximity to the Helmand River or one of its main canals. The Marines are able to spread out into COP’s (combat outposts) PB’s (Patrol Bases) and OP’s (observation posts) covering the entire AO (area of operation).  These positions are manned by junior NCO’s and in one PB the senior Marine was a Lance Corporal.  They move positions frequently; every time the Marines set up in a new one of any size local families immediately move as close to the positions as they are allowed and start building mud huts. For them a  small band of Marines equals security and the implicit trust shown by this pattern of behavior is something in which the Marines rightly take great pride.

See the GBOSS tower off in the distance? This picture was taken from a PB which also has a GBOSS - they now have enough ISR that the Marines can watch the entire main road which runs through the Southern Helmand
See the GBOSS tower off in the distance? This picture was taken from a PB which also has a GBOSS – they now have enough ISR that the Marines can watch the entire main road which runs through the Southern Helmand

So if the Marines have been kicking ass out there, why is the title of this post “Attention to Detail”?

Brace yourself  for a confusing yet  illuminating segue.

Back in the early 90’s, LtGen Paul Van Riper interrupted one of our IOC field events because he had been directed to stage a capabilities demo for a visiting member of the British Royal Family. I think it was Prince Andrew, but may have that wrong. General Van Riper is probably best known as the man who destroyed the US Navy in a 2002 “free play” staff exercise. But his reputation back then was as a general who would go” high order” at the slightest provocation.

I recall when he showed up outside the old combat town in Quantico; my fellow instructors and I lined up to render him a salute but for some reason I cut my salute early. He glared at me as if I were a putrid urine specimen. And not just a casual glare – he held it for what seemed like hours as my face worked its way through the various stages of red finally topping out at crimson. I remember observing full Colonels on the side of the road picking up trash (they had apparently been told to have their Marines get this done the day before but didn’t- so now they had to do it). We saw those Colonels because we had to go back and get clean uniforms for our students and ourselves – after five days in the field we were pretty stinky and no member of the Royal Family was going to be forced to deal with stinky Marines.

The General came up with a slick ambush involving a SPIE rig extract which would deposit our students in a LZ just down the road where the Prince could shake hands and take photos.  We rehearsed for two days all the while correcting what we thought were very minor issues, but they were defects Gen Van Riper found intolerable. The demonstration came off without a hitch – which we expected because we (the IOC staff) were good at this sort of thing. But we were forced to recognize the 5000 rehearsals Gen Van Riper had insisted on had served us well. We had thought General Van Riper  a lunatic; his obsessive attention to detail some sort of sick personality quirk but it turned out he was showing us what had to be done for a mission of this nature.

We were wrong to label Van Riper as anything other than a consummate professional despite his prickly personality.

Here’s why: attention to detail saves lives. It is not something that one can turn on one moment and off the next. It is a habitual behavior borne of years of practice, and even more years of serious ass-chewing from those above you who know the business. We had always known attention to detail was critical, but had applied it only when  practicing the deadly arts of war. We were masters at running complex live fire and maneuver training which required considerable attention to detail to pull off. However, in all honesty, we just didn’t apply it in the garrison or classroom setting.  As young officers we thought we could turn it on in the field because that’s where (we thought) it was important.  What Gen Van Riper and the many others like him were demonstrating to us was that we were wrong – you can never turn off attention to detail.

This night patrol brief started with all the Marines gear on the ground. They were then searched by their patrol leader and platoon sergeant. No ipods, tobacco lighters, matches, or any other no essential items are allowed and as every good Marine Sgt knows you inspect what you expect
This night patrol brief started with all the Marines gear on the ground. They were then searched by their patrol leader and platoon sergeant and  then instructed to put on their gear one piece at a time and that too gets inspected twice to ensure that every member has what he is supposed to have and knows exactly how much ammo, pyro and grenades are with them and who has what. No ipods, tobacco, lighters, matches, dip, snuff, written material of any kind, or any other non essential items are allowed.  As every good Sergeant knows you inspect what you expect and these guys know a thing or two about inspecting.

Our first stop on our tour of 1/3’s area was a newly established logistics hub, which was a pigsty.  I had never seen Dave ‘channel’ Gen Van Riper before, but I have now, and man, it is a sight to behold. He went high order, repeating over and over that a unit that can’t keep its own little camp in order is a unit unfit for combat operations outside the wire. “If the little things are kicking your ass, how the hell do you expect me to believe you can accomplish the big things I sent you out here to do?”  I’m paraphrasing here because between Dave and SgtMaj Zickefoose, so much ass was being chewed that I thought it best to go hide in the MRAP and didn’t even attempt to write down what they were explaining in the harsh unequivocal terms of infantry Marines.

At every little base we stopped in Dave's cultural advisor checked up on the ANA troops who live and work side by side with the Marines. Their #1 bitch was lack of leave time which RCT 1 had solved by contracting with an air carrier who could move 300 paxs at a time weekly. The Regional Contracting Command came up with a lower bid and that carrier could only move 150 at time and they have never made it in weekly as agreed due to constant maintenance problems. Gee, I've never heard of that happening before in Afghanistan. So now getting the ANA their home leave is becoming a problem again. And for the record there has never been a fratricide or anything remotely like that between the Marines and their ANA colleagues. Maybe RCT 1 is just lucky - but I think their just that good - which is better than being lucky.
At every little base we stopped in Dave’s cultural adviser checked up on the ANA troops who live and work side by side with the Marines. Their #1 bitch was lack of leave time which RCT 1 had solved by contracting with an air carrier who could move 300 paxs at a time weekly. The Regional Contracting Command came up with a lower bid and that carrier could only move 150 at time and they have never made it in weekly as agreed due to constant maintenance problems. Gee, I’ve never heard of that happening before in Afghanistan. So now getting the ANA their home leave is becoming a problem again. And for the record there has never been a fratricide or anything remotely like that between the Marines and their ANA colleagues. Maybe RCT 1 is just lucky – but I think their just that good – which is better than being lucky.

There was good reason for Dave’s rant. The active fighting has been long over, but the dying continues due to IED strikes and the most important factor in countering IED’s is attention to detail coupled with strict adherence to procedure. As we visited every little PB, COP, and OP in the Lava Dogs AO (there are over 50 of them now), we found that the logistics hub was the exception – each base and outpost we visited after that was spotless (or as spotless as things can be in the desert). Although the Lava Dogs had mastered the art of maintaining a clean and organized patrol base, Dave and the SgtMaj continued to pound home their message:  the fighting is over, we have tried every trick in the book to lure them into fighting us, but they won’t play anymore and have gone to the IED. The procedures for mitigating IED’s are well established and well drilled. They cannot be deviated from, no matter how hot it is, how long you’ve been out, or how far away the next available EOD teams may be.We must follow the procedure to the letter, no exceptions, because the lives of your fellow Marines depend on it.

Dave made it a point to ask the young Corporals and Sergeants who run these outposts if they needed anything. The answer was uniform across the entire AO. "We're good sir but could use some barbells and weights
Dave made it a point to ask the young Corporals and Sergeants who run these outposts if they needed anything. The answer was uniform across the entire AO. “We’re good sir but could use some barbells and weights.”

 

Another PN and another "Hey Sir, We're good here but sure could use a barbell and some weights"
Another PB and another “Hey Sir, we’re good here but sure could use a barbell and some weights”

 

By day 3 Dave would say "I know you need weights is there anything else I can get you?" Well sir we've tried about everything we can to keep our generator going is there a chance for a replacement? If you know the Marine Corps you can guess the answer to that one. I think Dave said "I'll be getting weights to you as soon as I can" Leaving a grinning SgtMaj behind to discuss the virtues of proper generator maintenance in the context of a Marine Corps which prides itself on penny pinching. When the RCT 1 command group roles into these compounds they sleep out in the open with no A/C like everyone else - that's how they roll and let me tell you its all fun and adventure for the first few days but then the prickly heat rrash starts spreading and man that's when the fun meter starts heading right. The white little tubs are clothes washing tubs - hand crank version - and they work OK. Better than a flat rock for sure.
By day 3 Dave would say “I know you need weights is there anything else I can get you?”   “Well sir, we’ve tried about everything we can to keep our generator going is there a chance for a replacement”? If you know the Marine Corps you can guess the answer to that one. I think Dave said “I’ll be getting weights to you as soon as I can” Leaving a grinning SgtMaj Zickefoose  behind to explain the virtues of proper generator maintenance in the context of a Marine Corps which prides itself on penny pinching.  The white tubs in the foreground  are clothes washers – hand crank version – and they work OK. Better than a flat rock for sure.

Military life is often plagued by weak martinets who make the lives of their troops a burden by insisting every rule and regulation be followed to the letter. They use rules and regulations to cover for a lack of confidence in their professional ability to make good decisions; so when confronted with problems they make no decisions, hiding instead behind the letter of the law contained in the UCMJ. Good commanders insist on attention to detail and following established procedures because paying attention to detail needs to be habitual for it to be effective   – you just  cannot turn it on and off.   To quote Col Furness: “Attention to detail and strict adherence to orders is what keeps men alive.” But then, he’s no martinet.   As an example: despite  rule 1 (no keeping local dogs as pets) you will find dogs on every little base Dave owns. I’m not sure he knows they are there because he tends not to look at or notice them as he walks into these small, clean outposts.

The local dogs are good for morale, can take the heat better than military working dogs, and have over and over saved mens lives when they accompany their American friends on patrols.  Somebody gets them flea collars, a rabies shot and de-wormed and from that point on they are part of the tribe. A martinet would put an end to that nonsense instantly because it is against the rules – benefits to the men and mission be damned. But a commander who understands Napoleon’s maxim “The moral  is to the physical as three is to one” he’ll find a way to work around problems like this by applying the spirit, not the letter of the law. Besides, the Marines broke the code on local dogs in Iraq so seeing them on every post here is really  no surprise.

So I get onto Dave's MRAP for a brief from his MK 19 gunner and the while time he's talking I'm fiddiling with my camera. When he finishes I say "I bet I can shoot that MK 19 better than you can" (click). Is his expression priceless or what? Then it was "Sir, let me try this again; when the big dog starts to bark you unstrap the ammo cans. Then you sit and wait for me to yell for ammo, only then do you break the seal and hand the can up. Then you sit right back down until I tell you to do something different or that I need more ammo. Got it"? His expression never changed by the way so maybe I'm not so damn funny after all.
So I get onto Dave’s MRAP for a brief from his MK 19 gunner and while he’s talking I’m fiddiling with my camera. When he finishes I say “I bet I can shoot that MK 19 better than you can” (click). Is his expression priceless or what?  I show him the pic grinning like a village idiot and then it was “Sir, let me try this again; when the big dog starts to bark you unstrap the ammo cans. Then you sit and wait for me to yell for ammo, only then do you break the seal on one can only and hand that can up. Then you sit right back down until I tell you to do something different or that I need more ammo. Got it”? His expression never changed as he went over this for the second time so maybe I’m not so damn funny after all.

As did  Gen Van Riper all those years ago, Dave continues to pound into his Marines’ heads the need for attention to detail. When “The Ripper” would rip into us we didn’t have the advantage of combat experience so the context of these lessons were lost on us. Maybe I shouldn’t say “us”  but they were on me. I think it was Dave Furness (could have been Paul Kennedy for that matter – now a newly minted Brigadier General – making me one of the prouder former Marines on planet earth – I love seeing my friends do so well) who told me the first time you lose a Marine because he was doing something he shouldn’t or had on him something which he shouldn’t (like an ipod or cell phone that suddenly rings at the worst possible moment) you learn instantly to go Van Riper on them because if you don’t, you’ll lose more in the same manner and that will break you.

Killing the Taliban is the easy part of this conflict because, as I’ve pointed out about 100 times in past posts, they just plain suck at fighting and we have become very proficient in targeting and killing people.  Getting the Marines to treat the local people with respect and project friendship and warmth is also easy.  The Marines with RCT 1 are in close contact and living with these people 24/7.  It is in their nature to smile, give kids candy, treat the injured etc…   The only consistent problem the Marines have with the local population is their treatment of dogs and other domestic animals. Yet despite this, the Marines  cowboy up,  doing their duty as good troops always do.

The only thing the local people of southern Helmand are concerned about, when it comes to Marines, is that they are going to leave. They would much rather see them stay –  I hear this from the locals everywhere I go in this Province.

Now the hard part of the job is maintaining focus day after day in the heat, dust, and wind of the Helmand River Valley. This is where experienced combat leadership comes into play. Getting face to face with Marines to hammer home  over and over that they must maintain their vigilance, that they can’t get sloppy just because the Taliban won’t play anymore. This is when the hammer has to come out because it is human nature to slack off when the pressure is off.  Well, the pressure may be off from the Taliban but it certainly isn’t from the RCT 1 command group.  Which is exactly how it should be.

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Victory Day

Well  here we  are, a week away from Victory Day, the  third annual national holiday celebrating the martial history of Afghanistan.  There is Independence Day in August, which celebrates running the Brits out of the country in the 1800’s. Then, there is Liberation Day, in February, which marks the end of direct Soviet  Army involvement.    So next week, we   pause to remember the days  when Afghans  beat the stuffing out of each other with  Victory Day  – celebrating the defeat of the Soviet backed Najibullah regime in 1992.

High noon in downtown Lashkar Gah - it will be a ghost town like this for at least another week
High noon in downtown Lashkar Gah - it will be a ghost town like this for at least another week

It’s still ‘crickets down’  in the Helmand Province.  We suspect Victory Day will mark the start of the fighting season.   The last of the poppy harvesters   will return home, sort out their share of paste, rest a bit and then  cast around for something to do. It  appears that for most of the adult males in Helmand, fighting the foreigners for pay, is no longer  quite the  attractive option.  The WaPo published a story last week about how the United States Marine Corps is wearing out the Taliban the old-fashioned way – by shooting them.    This trend is noted  here by the Belmont Club, and here by Herschel at The Captains Journal, and here by the Long War Journal.  This latest article on the martial prowess of the Marines, comes at  a propitious  time (even though it was based on a Bing West embed last fall) because my Dad, of all people, sent a new Marine recruiting poster which I can now share-even with  the F bomb-

 It is rumored the Pentagon is not too happy with the newest USMC recruiting poster
It is rumored the Pentagon is not too happy with the newest USMC recruiting poster

Well, it turns out that it is not just  our Marines who are ‘gettin’ some’ in the Helmand, but also the Brits, who  still have a task force in the province, stationed in and around Lashkar Gah.  The other day, one of their squaddies pounced, literally, on a senior Taliban bomb maker.  “My Muckers were being shot on the ground and I thought, I’m not having that”.  Said Private Lee Stephens, who leaped  from his Warrior armored vehicle to deliver a textbook ‘Flying Clothesline’ takedown on a Taliban who was  hustling to flee from the patrol.  “I jumped out and I grabbed the geezer” said Pvt Stephens;   thank God  he didn’t miss bulldogging  the little bastard, otherwise the Brits and their American allies  would be receiving an unending stream of directives from  High Command-   all  about the folly of trying  a Superman dive from armored vehicles to subdue motorcycle-mounted Taliban.

Look, it’s not like they can be  chased  down on foot-  The very next day, I  learned that the Brits consider themselves to be “Donkey Soldiers” who are being led by “Lions”.  Not the big, scary, aggressive lions,  but instead the male of the species who lie around in the shade alot.  Once again the P.B.I. (poor bloody infantry)  are being victimized by  their bloated and lazy  staffs, who produce  prodigous amounts  of ozone damaging methane gas,  all the while accomplishing nothing productive.    Appearing in the one remaining  British newspaper (which doesn’t have 35 sidebar-linked photos of buxom women married to soccer players!) this story could have been written anytime over the past 9 years.

 Writing anonymously, the author reveals that the Taliban have dubbed British soldiers “donkeys” who move in a tactical “waddle” because they now carry an average weight of 110lbs worth of equipment into battle.
The consequences of the strategy, he says, is that “our infantry find it almost impossible to close with the enemy because the bad guys are twice as mobile”.
The officer claims that by the end of a routine four hour patrol, soldiers struggle to make basic tactical judgements because they are physically and mentally exhausted.

Good grief…  once more ‘ The Lesson Which Can Never Be Learned’  is exposed to the light of day.    The weight these  men carry into battle    is almost impossible to talk about today without “Twilight Zone” music playing in the background.  The optimal load for marching infantry was studied exhaustively and documented extensively during the time of Roman Legions.    One fighting man can carry 60 lbs and march all day, conversely   he can  carry 30 lbs into battle and maintain acceptable speed, mobility, and striking power without draining his  stamina.    Though every officer on active duty knows this,    none of them can move beyond the “survivability aspect” heavy armor brings to the fight.  So off they go,  our PBI- into battle wearing over 100 lbs of armor.  Now  being able to puzzle things out on their own, they’ve  figured out that the armor increases the chance that  they’ll be shot.   But,  if they do get shot, the armor prevents penetration, which is a testament to the concern their senior officers have  regarding their health and welfare. But then again,  having to  hump 100+ lbs of gear in  this blazing hot desert (unless they’re in the east where the heat is not too bad as you work your way 8,000 feet  up the  Hindu Kush mountainside)   is a sobering  testament  of just  how little regard  senior officers  have,  for  the health and welfare of their men.

Men will take significant risks to reduce the loads they carry into battle.  The ANA soilder in the background and his ANP counterpart if the foreground have just been in contact with the Taliban but they remain as light as they can possibly be
Men will take significant risks to reduce the loads they carry into battle. The ANA soilder in the background and his ANP counterpart if the foreground have just been in contact with the Taliban but they remain as light as they can possibly be, no spare ammo, water, radio etc... I'm not saying this is smart I'm just saying it is the way it is.

Employing gravity, the  PBI are using this extra mass and weight to their advantage  with superman dives  from armored vehicle platforms to apprehend geezers.  On the other hand,  knowing  that American Marines are inflicting so much  punishment on the Taliban, thanks in large part to Bing West (age 70),  who has spent a  significant amount of  time (by normal standards) here  in Afghanistan.  Bing West is, by definition a geezer, having fought in Vietnam, his son went through infantry officer training over 20 years ago (which I recall, being  one of his instructors).   So…can patrolling in body armor really be  that bad, if our own geezers can still  hack it?

Soldiers loads has been one of the more popular topics for staff college papers since the days when Staff Colleges were invented
Optimal soldiers loads have been one of the more popular topics for Staff College papers since the invention of Staff Colleges.

Having done  some research,   I  find that American Geezers have something in common with British Tommies; they too can say “I’m not having that” and the discussion is over.    Turns out Bing West doesn’t wear body armor or helmet!  He may be on the facility of  the Naval War College, and he may submit reports to the American Department of Defense, but somehow he has reached  that glorious  station in life where he can tell the Marines and the Army to  STUFF IT-   He goes out with whoever he wants, while wearing whatever he wants.    Man, that’s nice work if you can get it!

It is not like being a reporter makes one a non-combatant,  as we were reminded again with the passing of Tim Heatherington in Libya yesterday. Bing West doesn’t have to wear body armor because he’s 70,   and nobody expects men his age to walk around  lugging 100 lbs of gear,  and he  has earned his due with the Marines.  That seems perfectly reasonable; what is unreasonable is to expect any man, of any age, to carry around over 100 lbs of armor, water and weapons during combat operations.  We know that forcing men to carry that much weight will cause significant problems;   but the only significant problem senior officers worry about are the  ones which will adversely impact their careers.  They know that we task the PBI to carry too much weight, they know that physical and mental exhaustion leads to increased numbers of our guys suffering enemy wounds and  they know that the men know- which means that the press knows, which is to say everyone knows;  but nobody wants to acknowledge that  what they know- we ALL  know.  The British defense Ministry did what bureaucrats do when confronted by unpleasant facts – they made the shit up and released it to the press:

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The issue of weight carried by soldiers on operations is well recognised and work is constantly under way to reduce the amount carried by soldiers.  “Since June 2010 a number of weight savings measures have reduced the weight carried by soldiers by up to 26lbs.”

Sure, 26 lbs…color me skeptical, but  prevaracation over  the amount of weight trimmed off the fighting infantry misses the point.    To wit:   despite all the armor,  and all the  accouterments carried by the  modern western infantryman; we are still kicking the dog poop out of local people who, wear no armor, and carry little more than a rifle with a single magazine.  Know what?    That is pretty damned impressive!    Just imagine what we could do if we got serious about fighting here.

Hotel California Naw Zad Edition

Facebook sent me a reminder about a post that went up 5 years ago and asked it I wanted to re-post it. I did then went to read and realized it was probably one of the better more prescient posts I ever wrote so here it is….back on the front page of FRI exactly 5 years after first being published.  It even has click bait if the form of two of must attractive and gutsy Free Ranges in the land. But the video at the end is disturbing …… those kids are fighting age now.

I ended my last post with an observation about the importance of how wars end.  That was most foolish of me because I was assuming we started bombing Libya with the intention of using the military to achieve an appropriate political endstate (because that’s how this shit is supposed to work).  But that isn’t at all what we are doing in Libya….I’m not sure what we are doing but it has nothing to do with an acceptable political endstate because there’s been no political debate or though given to the matter. It appears we’re bombing Libya because Obama feels we need to bomb Libya. Do you understand how unbelieveably stupid it is to start a war without any clue as to what you want to achieve?  Obama is not only a world class intellectual midget he’s now getting to be dangerous (to the entire world) and where the hell are the fucking Joint Chiefs? I know where they are….their where their predecessors are as documented in the excellent book Dereliction of Duty. Obsequious is not a word that should be applied (ever) to senior general officers but there it is.

I’m all for killing Col Gadhafi because he killed Americans; a lot of them in Berlin and over the skies of Lockerbie Scotland. I expected that Obama would not think through what he was doing but for some strange reason assumed the NSC and Pentagon had a plan (I type that with a straight face..honest) I forgot that the NSC is now headed by a political hack (with no previous military or national security experience)  named Tom Donilon and, being on vacation with my kids, it also slipped my mind that the Pentagon is busy focusing on the things that really matter; force feeding acceptance of openly gay service members and retro fitting submarines to accommodate female sailors.

I can’t bring myself to re-hash the hypocrisy, stupidity, or folly of Obama and his minions when it comes to the multiple crises popping up in the Middle East. It’s too depressing; the White House Bat Phone must be ringing off the hook nightly but we now know nobody has the balls to answer it.  Besides Mark Styen has done the heavy lifting on this issue with an excellent assessment which ends:

But lost along the way is hard-headed, strategic calculation of the national interest. “They won’t come back till it’s over/Over there!” sang George M. Cohan as the doughboys marched off in 1917. It was all over 20 minutes later, and then they came back. Now it’s never over over there not in Korea, not in Kuwait, not in Kosovo, not in Kandahar. Next stop Kufra? America has swapped The Art Of War for the Hotel California: We psychologically check out, but we never leave.

I must add this gem which, as the Bot is my witness, is an almost exact replica of conversations I had over and over during the summer of 2008 with Liberal USAID contractors at the Tiki Bar.  Obama has turned out to be worse than my worst summer 2008 nightmare. It is no longer funny (but the clip below is).

What is happening in Libya would not be important to the US had not Obama involved us kinda sorta. The ongoing revolts in Syria, Bahrain and Yeman are important to American interests but you need to know something about the region to understand that. That type of specialist knowledge is hard to come by in Saul Alinsky seminars, Reverend Wrights church sermons or the Harvard Law School.

While on holiday I saw this article on an airstrike targeting a Taliban commander that ended up killing civilians.  The article also helpfully points out that nine kids were killed in the Pech Valley earlier in the month which prompted the usually hysterics from President Karzai.

I’m not so sure about what the deal was with the Pech Valley airstrike except to point out that I know a few of the attack helicopter pilots based out of Jalalabad and they know just about every stinking inch of the Pech Valley.  I doubt the veracity of the report and will address that in a minute because this story about Naw Zad pisses me off and here’s why.

We got played again by the Afghans and the reason we got played has everything to do with the intelligence shortfalls identified by MajGen Flynn two years ago, combined with a still non-existent human intelligence capability.  Here is why I can say that with near total certainty without knowing a damn thing about what went on in this strike.

The unit that was on the ground in Naw Zad  (1st Battalion 8th Marines or 1/8 in Marine speak)  has rotated home and the battalion now working the battle space has been on deck maybe two weeks.  Battalions who have just arrived are not given a long enough leash to do whatever the hell they want; it is inconceivable that they came up with a “these two cars have a Taliban commander in them” plan and were then able to talk the Regimental Combat Team they work for (and I know its commander well) into letting them smoke two vehicles containing persons unknown with attack helicopters. The Naw Zad Valley is a flat, treeless expanse of high desert.  If the battalion thought they had a Taliban commander driving up or down it why not just stop the cars and grab his dumb ass?

This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad valley
This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad Valley

When aviation assets attack moving cars which reportedly contain high level Taliban it is a safe bet that the hit is driven by intelligence.  Normally that is supplied by the CIA and normally the hit has to be given a green light by someone from on high (who in the modern military/intel system is never held accountable for that decision).  That’s what normally happens but we all know the CIA doesn’t know shit because they have no humint program and rely on ‘walk-ins’. I would bet money that a “walk-in” targeted this car and the NDS vetted for him and we got exactly identical results for targeting folks based on NDS/CIA vetted ‘walk-ins’. That is how we  killed 27 woman and children attending a wedding in Nangarhar Province back in July 2008. Or when we  killed over 2 dozen children at a wedding party in Kandahar in November 2008, or….I could go on and on.

The common denominator with these botched attacks was human intel fed into the system by “walk-in” informants of dubious background and character or fed to our FOB bound intel people by the un-FOB bound Afghanistan intel people who have scores to settle or land to steal.  How many times do we need to be played by the Afghans before we wise up?  How many innocents have to die before we learn we cannot put all our eggs in the electronic warfare basket and start to develop our own human intelligence capability?

It’s not that hard to get off the FOB and stay off the FOB, my children did it.  Grad students from MIT do it…which reminds me the Synergy Strike Force girls are back in Nangarhar staying at the Taj and doing some super cool medical and social networking stuff.  Jenn’s blog is here and Rachel’s blog is here – Rachel brought her husband Juan Rodriguez along and he’s a pro shooter with a good eye and great glass on his camera – you should spend some time on both blogs. As you can see in the picture below hot chicks can stay off the FOB and roam around with no worries ….why can’t our HumInt teams do the same?

The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams - they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months
The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams – they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months

The Pech Valley

Earlier in the month ISAF was accused of shooting up 9 teenagers in the mountains of the Pech River Valley.  The Army attack helicopter pilots who work that part of the country have memorized (it isn’t a big valley) every attack point in the Pech Mountains where it is not unusual to see Taliban fighters who are very young. Remember the video of a 12 year old boy cutting the head off “an American spy”?  Or the herd of teenagers rolling boulders into the road behind American vehicles during the battle at Ganjgal?  Army attack pilots don’t light up people in the mountains for no good reason so there is no doubt in my mind that if they smoked 9 teens it was because they were carrying weapons. Karzai knows this as he does that the gum cameras will provide the answer to any questions he has. Notice how he never asks for the gun camera footage…that’s because he’s getting upset to score political points.

Were he a great leader, a man of integrity and one who listens and cares about the Afghan people what he should be upset about is the video pasted below. This video horrified (and I mean horrified) my Afghan staff.  I didn’t intend to show it to them but one of the cooks heard the music from the video and walked into my office to see why I was playing Jihadi music.  Within minutes the whole staff was watching in mute horror before wondering off in stunned silence tears running down some of their cheeks. This video is what should be concern the Afghan elites but it’s not…why?? I suspect the elites can’t extort cash out of the Taliban over videos like this or over dead civilians so why bother them.  The Americans – they pay and pay and pay.  And look what they have wrought.

Crickets

Crickets as in “I hear nothing but crickets” is the word of the day for Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1) based in Camp Dwyer and controlling the southern districts of Helmand Province.  I needed to do a little district level coordination last weekend and was able to catch a ride to Marjah with my good friend Col Dave Furness USMC, the CO of RCT 1.  He was heading there to host a CODEL (congressional delegation) and agreed to let me tag along if I promised to not talk to talk to any congressmen.  That’s an easy promise to keep so once again I got to ride with the Marines across the Dasht-i-Margo (desert of death) and into the fertile Helmand Valley River town of Marjah.  The chances of us getting attacked while en-route?  Zero.  Chances of hitting an IED?  Just about zero.  Crickets – the Taliban have taken the winter off and their stay behind IED teams who are supposed to keep the pressure on with morale and Marine killing IED’s are failing miserably.  Know why?  Because the Marines when faced with tactical problems have turned to tactical solutions.

How cool is this?  The M32 40mm grenade launcher - finally something to replace the M203 which was a dog.  Imagine being a young infantry Marines living the dream and able to walk around with a super high speed low drag weapon which the Taliban have already grown to hate>
How cool is this? The M32 40mm grenade launcher - finally something to replace the M203 which was a dog. Imagine being a young infantry Marine living the dream at the pointy end of the spear and able to walk around with a super high speed low drag weapon. And this is one lethal piece of kit which can shoot 6 well aimed 40mm grenades in 2 seconds. The Taliban learned very quickly not to let Marine infantry get too close to them (which they routinely do anyway) and now when Marine infantry gets within 150 meters they have to contend with dedicated grenadiers who will soon have HELLHOUND and DRACO thermobaric rounds.

Last summer Wired magazine had a pretty good article about the DoD Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and the cat and mouse game they’re playing with IED attackers.  Given the size and complexity of the American military these guys are operating as fast as one can expect but they are too far removed from the battlefield to help front line infantry deal with IED cells that vary  dramatically in effectiveness and methodology.  As I mentioned in the last post when line troops want to get actionable intelligence the only dependable option is to get it themselves.  Likewise when the Marines need tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to battle Taliban insurgents the tried and true method is to figure it out on their own and pass on what works to the units coming in behind them.

Remember this photo from last year?
Remember this photo from last year? That is the CO of 2/6, LtCol Kyle Ellison, giving a coin to one of the more exceptional ANP officers. At the time Kyle told him the coin was a token of his appreciation for the professionalism displayed by this officer who is always at his post with his equipment every day without fail.
Look at him today and note the addition to his uniform.  2/6 is long gone - Marjah now belongs to 3/8 but that coin Kyle presented last year means something to this officer and Kyle doesn't pass out many coins which makes the award very special. I was really happy to see this officer again and also see how much he values the coin
Look at him today and note the addition to his uniform (the 2/6 coin attached to his left breast pocket). 2/6 is long gone - Marjah now belongs to 3/9 but that coin Kyle presented last year means something to this officer. I was good to see him again and also see how much he values the coin.

The Taliban learned that they need two obstacles in front of them when they shoot at Marine patrols and the most common obstacle set is a bunch of IED’s buried in choke points in front of a large, deep irrigation ditch.  The Talibs believe that the two obstacles will allow them the 30 or so minutes it takes to get air or rocket delivered ordnance targeting them.  That was a good plan which worked for them during the heavy kinetic fighting around Nawa and Marjah when the Marines first arrived.  But the Marines have been here a while now and seeded this vast AO with little patrol bases.  RC Southwest averages 500 patrols daily and those patrols identify and record every compound identifying if they are occupied and by who which is a moving target as families continue to flow back into the villages.

Every patrol submits a fire plan which includes all on-call firewalls which have been pre-planned by The Coach and the RCT-1 Air Officer shop.  A firewall is fire coordination measure to clear the air space and near space of all obstacles so RCT can fire in HIMAR rockets.  It takes a good 20 minutes to set up a firewall if you are running on the fly.  With preplanned firewalls the squad leader calls for fire support – The Coach sends a text message to the DASC declaring Firewall XYZ in effect, the DASC says “roger that” (unless they have to move assists out of the way which may delay the affirmative a few seconds) and RCT 1 has a firewall.  Knowing if the nominated target is an abandoned or occupied compound speeds up the clearance too which is the whole point of the intensive patrolling and census taking.  Every compound in the AO has an alpha numeric designator and the battalions update their lists daily due to the number of families who are moving back.  What once took 20 minutes can now be done so fast it’s stunning.

Col Dave Furness greeting arriving congress members at the COP in Marjah.  Both Dave and Paul Kennedy - the CO of RCT 6 which was based in Delaram last year are
Col Dave Furness greeting arriving congress members at the COP in Marjah. The delegation is completely jet lagged at this point and would instantly fall asleep if subjected to powerpoint briefs. Day trips like this not only keep them awake and active but become just about the only thing they remember from a weekend visit.
LtCol David Hudspeth,CO of 3/9 with Representative Kathy Castor D-FL in the Marjah bazaar.
LtCol David Hudspeth,CO of 3/9 with Representative Kathy Castor D-FL in the Marjah bazaar during last weekends CODEL. It is really weird that we can take congresswoman out into the ville in Marjah but cannot do the same in Jalalabad or Kabul.

The Marines on the ground still have to contend with the IED’s and the Taliban seed IED’s everywhere which, as you’d imagine does not endear them to the local population.  To cope with the flood of IED’s, most of which function by pressure plates and have very small magnetic signatures called for new tactics and a special tool, which in typical Marine fashion, was designed by a Gunnery Sergeant, fabricated from materials purchased in local bazaars, and paid for out of pocket by the troops. I’m not going to describe the tools or TTP for now because they are effective and need to stay that way as long as possible.

I missed something I really wanted to see on this trip and that was the monthly NCO symposium.  Dave came up with the idea after seeing the turnover between two sister battalions from the 1st Marines 3/1 and 2/1.  3/1 had a strike to find ratio hovering around 90% during their 7 months in theater and 2/1 who is now 5 months into their deployment has pulled out over 400 IED’s at the cost of 2 WIA and 1 KIA. This was due to an uncommonly planned, organized and executed turn over package based on every bit of front specific knowledge 3/1 had gleaned during their tour.  Using the turnover as a template Dave and his staff started a monthly training symposium for the squad and fireteam leaders from all his battalions designed to facilitate cross decking of the best practices and procedures.  I’ll have to wait a month or two before I can get back and attend one of these and man am I looking forward to it.  It’s a great idea to focus time, attention and limited resources on the young leaders.  It is also worth the investment to get them in front of the principal staff members who clear their calls for fire requests and the Regimental Commander who encourages any and all questions and will sit in the classroom all night to answer them.  Face to face is the best way to get things sorted out and with an endeavor as complex as war things need to get sorted out frequently.

The CODEL heads out to the bazaar. There has been more rain over the past three weeks in Helmand Province then there has been over the previous 3 years.  When the congressmen landed one of them asked where the bathrooms were - there are none on this combat outpost just piss tubes inserted into a neutral corner and three wooden boxes with toilet seats bolted on them.  Piss tubes and thunder boxes - things congressmen will not soon forget.
The CODEL heads out to the bazaar. There has been more rain over the past three weeks in Helmand Province then there has been over the previous 3 years. When the congressmen landed one of them asked where the bathrooms were - there are none on this combat outpost just piss tubes inserted into a neutral corner and three wooden boxes with toilet seats bolted on them. Piss tubes and thunder boxes - cheap, effective, and something most congressmen have never seen before or want to see again.

There is hard fighting ahead but I just do not see how the Taliban is going to be able to do jack in the southern Helmand Province.  The Marines treat every foot of ground outside their COP’s as if it contained an IED and yet they figured out how to move and move fast through the mine fields.  The Taliban can’t sow anymore mines than they already are sowing and it wouldn’t matter if they did.  The Taliban can’t train effectively, they can’t improve their rudimentary command and control, they are rarely able to coordinate amongst themselves and they didn’t spend the winter lull learning how to shoot.  They’re guns are old and worn, their ammunition a mix of dodgy 3rd world crap, re-loads, and what they can buy on the black market.  (C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, has been writing extensively about the guns and ammunition used by all side in this conflict and his piece What’s Inside A Taliban Gun Locker is worth a look.)  The Taliban are not going to emerge from their winter off with enhanced capabilities and the Marines will.

The summer fighting season will be here in a matter of weeks.  In RCT 1’s AO the Marines have used the lull in fighting to push out to the fringes of the Green Zone.  There they still occasional gunfights and IED’s continue to take their toll but not that often.  The Marines expand their area of influence while patrolling constantly; the SF guys continue to raid.  Dave told me the HVT raids are a big help and the targeting precise; he’d  be happy to see a lot more (I stand corrected B).  He also told me the raids are coordinated with him so again there seems to be a big shift in not just the ROE but also the TTP.

Nobody is sure what to expect when the poppy harvest is in and the fighting starts again in earnest but I’m predicting the southern Helmand will see limited fighting because the Taliban lack maneuver room, lack good rat lines, and are now isolated from a large percentage of the population.  The fighting this summer is going to be in the north outside Sangin, Musa Quala and Naw Zad.  If the Marines break them up there and the army/ISAF units in Kandahar continue to press the Taliban out of the green zone the villains are in real trouble.  This could be the tipping point but for it to matter countrywide we need the will to hang on and repeat this process in the places like Khost, Paktia and Kunar.  That’s not going to happen but still, giving the Taliban a serious ass whooping right in their front yard like this is a crippling blow.  It’s going to be a real interesting summer but right now the word of the day is crickets.

It Takes A Clue

Nothing will sour the morale of combat troops faster then the realization that the commander at the top receives frequent visits from the Good Idea Fairy.   Which is a good start point for explaining why  General Stanley A McChrystal took to the pages of Foreign Policy last week to explain the unexplainable.  The story starts with McChrystal’s observation that the SF tier 1 guys found  al Qaeda difficult to collect, fix and target because they were so decentralized.  So McChrystal made up his  own “network” and his centralized, vertically integrated, fixed chain of command network beat the AQI with their horizontally integrated decentralized chain of command.  I’m not buying that about Iraq but the focus of the article was how this genius system was implemented in Afghanistan by the regular military and what do you know the “mo better” network has since delivered us the current spate of good news about the Taliban getting tired of fighting.

BGen Jody Osterman with the Sub Governor of Naw Zad district Sayed Murad touring the Naw Zad bazaar last week
BGen Jody Osterman with the Sub Governor of Naw Zad district Sayed Murad touring the Naw Zad bazaar last week

The article linked above and all the other recent reports stress that the rift between the Taliban fighters and their leaders who are safely ensconced in Pakistan stems from the losses being inflicted on them in the Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.  The pressure being brought to bear on the fighting Taliban has very little (if anything) to do with the nighttime high speed low drag tier 1 special forces raids designed to “decapitate” Taliban leadership.  The whole decapitation strategy is suspect as numerous observers have noted over these many years of SOF raiding and I ask again if somehow a military adversary managed to “decapitate” our leadership would we be weaker or stronger?  Wait that is a stupid example and missing the point (as B correctly observed in the first comment on this post).  The first commenter on Gen McChrystal’s article says it much better than I can:

This essay is interesting in that it describes an effort that for all its success was limited to an extremely small (and disproportionately resourced) line of operation. The author portrays this as an inclusive endeavor while it was decidedly not inclusive in many respects. My experience in working with the General’s Task Force is that it was the most difficult organization to work with in theater and it only functioned as a network if you or your organization were willing to completely subordinate yourself, your resources and your mission to his very narrow line of operation. Most of the time his line of operations, while very important, was not the primary or most important line in the country or region. In the end establishing the Iraqi government as legitimate and enabling its organs to function as designed proved to be the decisive operation

HVT raids do produce results but it seems to me that what has brought the fighting Taliban to their knees is hard fighting infantry who have moved in with the people and deprived the villains of maneuver room while killing ever increasing numbers of them using ROE completly different from the horseshit inflicted on them by McChrystal.

A great example of this would be Naw Zad which is currently home to the headquarters of Charlie Company 1st Battalion 8th Marines.  The rest of the battalion is handling Musa Quala which, like Marjah, was infested with Taliban but is now safe enough for the battalion commander to walk around the bazaar without body armor and helmet.  The Captain at Naw Zad (and he’s there on his own because he’s that good) is surrounded by Taliban.  He has an area of influence which he is constantly expanding and he does this with aggressive patrolling.  He has the clearance to shoot 60mm mortars and run rotary wing CAS guns (Cobra or Apache gunships employing their guns only; rocket or Hellfires have to be cleared) without coordinating with his battalion COC.  He has no problems at all with the current rules of engagement and has never been denied fires when he has asked for them.  He doesn’t get second guessed, he doesn’t get micro managed and his example is proof that the rules of engagement have been “re-defined” radically.  For readers who are not familiar with how badly McChrystal’s ROE hampered forces in the field read this recent post by Herschel Smith on Ganjgal.  Success in the South has nothing to do with ninja night raids and placing a good percentage of the tactical intelligence piece behind a classified curtain where only the tier 1 headhunters can use it.

I was able to spend a lot of time talking with the officers and men currently serving in Naw Zad and here is what they bitch about:  They don’t like the weight they are forced to carry and strongly feel the use of  body armor should be determined by the mission and enemy.  Wearing it in blistering heat or while climbing the massive mountains is so physically debilitating that they have felt on several occasions that they were unable to defend themselves. Many of their Marines are suffering chronic stress fractures, low back problems as well as hip problems caused by carrying loads in excess of 130 pounds daily.  “We’re fighting the Mothers of America” said one; if we lose a Marine and he was not wearing everything in the inventory to protect him that becomes the issue.  Trying to explain that we have removed the body armor to reduce the chances of being shot is a losers game because you can’t produce data quantifying the reduction in gun shot wounds for troops who remain alert and are able to move fast due to a lighter load.  We are all required to read Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation but it is clear nobody understands it.

I used to bitch about the same thing 20 years ago and it is reassuring for us old timers to see some things never change.  It is also really nice to hear that the bitching is not about restrictive ROE and meddling from on high which is all my old buddy Jeff Kenney talked about while leading the Eastern Region ANA embedded training team.  His Marines were the ones killed at the Ganjgal fight and let me tell you something – he was bitter to the point of despair about it but sucked it up because that is what high caliber professionals do in this business.

Capt Ben Wagner
Capt Ben Wagner, second from right, in the Naw Zad bazaar

Captain Ben Wagner, the CO of C1/8 is one of the many young officers in the Corps born of battle.  He was a rifle platoon commander in the first battle for Fallujah.  He lost a lot of Marines and had to halt the attack and pull back an experience which no doubt left a deep impression.  He told me (paraphrasing here folks as I’m not a great note taker)

“I can push north or south and run into Taliban controlled villages who will put up a stiff fight but I don’t want to fight for something I can’t hold.  Instead of focusing on the Taliban we focus on the population which is why it is so busy around here at night.  We patrol every night using machineguns and sniper teams in the mountains for overwatch.  In the morning at first prayer we make it a point to walk past the mosque in whatever village complex we were working the night before.  The message is simple; you guys can sleep tight because we’re out every night all night watching over you.”

During the time I spent in Naw Zad over 200 famlies came into the Marines zone of influence from Taliban controlled territory.  I wanted to talk tactics and hear war stories but all the Marines wanted to talk about was reconstruction.  They have cleared more bad guy territory then anyone thought possible and now the entire 1st Division is focused on getting the economy going so they can move on.

High tech is expensive to develop and deploy but inexpensive to defeat.  The devil Taliban are throwing flocks of trained birds against the GBOSS to try and blind the Marines
High tech is expensive to develop and deploy but inexpensive to defeat. The devil Taliban are throwing flocks of trained birds against the GBOSS to try and blind the Marines. (Just kidding) I made that up but you do see the birds sitting in front of the lens sometimes when scanning the area with the GBOSS and I find that really funny.

And guess what?  Move on they shall because we are apparently finishing up with the “stability” phase and moving onto the “transition” phase of the Afghanistan campaign right on schedule.  This move is based on the successes of the past year along with glowing assessments of progress across the board for all ANSF organizations.  One of the Chim Chim’s was in the VTC where this was announced so I’m getting the scoop first hand. There has been real progress made over the past year yet most of that progress is limited to two southern provinces.  While Chim Chim was listening in to the announcement of transition from on high suicide bombers were attacking the Jalalabad branch of the Kabul bank just over a mile away.  In Jalalabad City the Provincial Council has laid siege to the Governors Compound, bussed in armed supporters from the various warlord factions for some low scale rioting, launched a half ass RPG attack at the PRT compound last Thursday night just to let the Americans know they are unhappy and demanded that Gov Sherzai go away because all the promised swag for not growing poppy never materialized.  None of this chaos seems to be of any concern to the army brigade stationed in Jalalabad because they have a network.

They have a giant SIPR network full of the latest “classified” intelligence.  You have to be a special cleared person to see “classified” intelligence which is much better than unclassified intelligence because…. well … cleared people put it into the system and they are smarter than everyone else because they’re cleared.   The situation in Jalabad is a perfect example of McChrystal’s  network in action.  The network is reality for the army in the east and if the drama happening just a few miles away isn’t on the network they don’t have to respond to it.  See how fiendishly clever McChrystal was?  Let me provide a hypothetical example and I stress hypothetical as I have no idea how these systems function but have spent years observing the “effects based” results.

ISAF watch officer: “Hey Pecan Pie we’re hearing Karzai is sending a 10 man delegation to diffuse the armed standoff outside the Governor’s compound to stop the Provincial Council  from throwing the Gov out and naming one of the warlords as governor”

Duty Officer  Pecan Pie: “What’s the date time group on the message about armed groups outside the Governor’s compound?”

Watch Officer:  “There is nothing in the system on it; my terps are watching footage from earlier this afternoon  on Tolo TV News.”

DO Pie: “If there is nothing on this in the system what do you want me to do?”

Watch Officer “Oh I dunno; but if Governor Sherzai gets thrown out of the province and decides to return home to Kandahar where he will have to re-arm and re-fit his militias to protect hismself from Karzai’s brother I bet a lot of stuff will be in the system along with the words “incompetent, catastrophe, and who is responsible”.

DO Pie: “Well that is as it should be I guess but I’m reviewing my commanders instant action matrix and there is nothing in it about the overthrow of a governor by the Provincial Council; my intel section has gone up as high as “Oracle” level but found nothing about this so called news story although we can see a lot of armed people in the streets with our UAV’s but again nothing in the system to tell us what it all means.”

Networks are modern fool’s gold for ground commanders; networks promise to do the heavy lifting while you sit back on the FOB eating the pecan pie. The only way to get the intelligence required to do COIN is by getting it yourself.  Every infantry commander worth his pay knows this which is why they (on the rare occasions such things happen) are drop jawed stunned when useable intel filters down to them from on high.  It doesn’t take a network – it takes somebody with a clue, lots of good infantry, and the intestinal fortitude to take tactical risks for strategic gain.  That last trait is the exact opposite of having the intestinal fortitude to cover up the friendly fire death of a former NFL player with a silver star and concocted heroic story.   I wish McChrystal would have the decency to act as an old general should and just fade away.

Thugs, Mobs And Education

The news this week has been dominated by the Lara Logan story. Ms. Logan was the subject of   the most popular post in FRI history which can be found here. Reactions to the news that Lara was subjected to “a brutal and sustained assault and beating” have cost at least one knucklehead his job when he tweeted dismissively about what exactly those seven words mean. We don’t know what happened to Ms. Logan that day and it will be up to Lara Logan to set the record straight which is what some in the media are calling on her to do. You can read another account of a woman from the international media covering the same story on the same day at the same time here.   As she points out she was lucky, she was scared and I doubt she will ever place herself in a similar position. Ms. Logan has my heartfelt sympathy as does every human victim of mob violence. The specifics of the assault aren’t interesting because there is nothing for us to learn from them. Large crowds celebrating the overthrow of a repressive government are inherently dangerous in all times and in all places. Reasonable people avoid them.

What gets my blood boiling about this story is that CBS sat on the story for five days and only released it when other news outlets were about to do the same. I have no idea why CBS sat on the story and suspect it has more to do with the report that the crowd was yelling “Jew, Jew, Jew” then any concerns for Ms. Logan’s privacy. CBS has an agenda and when confronted with facts running counter to that agenda it reacts like every rich, powerful, arrogant, liberal organization in the world; it ignores the story or spins the details.

Navy Commander Martin Sepulveda with Zarmina and her sister Sharifa. Zarmina who is 12 or 13 years old is the local school teacher
Navy Commander Martin Sepulveda with Zarmina and her sister Sharifa. Zarmina who is 12 or 13 years old is the local school teacher

Which brings us to the protests by the Wisconsin state teachers union. If you want to read some professional liberal spin on the topic here it is from CBS news. If you want the truth you need to hit the blogs; Wisconsin native Ann Althouse is a good place to start and you can find her blog here. The people of Wisconsin, after years of democratic fiscal insanity. decided to bring the adults back to power. The new Governor, Scott Walker, introduced a bill that will dismantle the 50 year-old collective bargaining agreement for public employee unions. It is not like he has any alternatives; every majority democratic state in the union and most of the European Union has the identical problem; gold plated obligations to state employees and no money to pay for them.

I find the reaction from the teachers unions, public employee unions, and state democratic representatives to be repugnant. The crowds descending on Madison behaved like a bunch of thugs which is in stark contrast to the Tea Party movement. I’ll leave the political commentary to others but I have to point something out about the American educational system. The vast majority of state teachers union members should be fired because they have clearly failed to provide an education to our children. I’ll let Mark Styen make the point:

I think if you had to name one institution, which is probably the biggest structural defect in Western societies right now, and the one that places the biggest question mark over the future of Western civilization, if there was one institution you needed to take apart, it would be the education system.

There is no education system in Afghanistan but there are millions of kids who dream of becoming literate. So let me tell you a remarkable story about a little girl with an aptitude for languages and a desire to better herself and her   community through education.

Sgt Barbra Rangel, Zarmina and
Cpl Jessica Costilla, Zarmina, Sgt Barbra Rangel, and Sharifa

The Marines have built a school in Naw Zad but there are no female teachers in the area. The local people want their daughters to receive an education so a brave little girl has stepped in to fill the gap. Every evening at 1900 hours (7:00 pm) Zarmina’s father brings her and her sister to the Marine combat outpost and drops her off with the Female Engagement Team (FET). They spend an hour or so going over a reading, writing or a math lesson and the next day Zarmina teaches those lessons to other girls in Naw Zad.

I asked Zarmina’s father if I could put her picture and story in the blog and he proudly granted permission. Zarmina and her family are all in. The Marines came here; drove the Taliban out and told the people they will protect them for as long as it takes to bring lasting peace. If we pull out early the fate which awaits Zarmina and those like her from the Taliban is too horrible to contemplate. It will make whatever the mob in Egypt inflicted on Lara Logan seem tame in comparison. Zarmina and her sister have bet everything on the Americans seeing this through to the bitter end. The Marines are game – they won’t quit but they don’t have a vote in how this turns out. It is politicians like those in Wisconsin who abandoned their posts to thwart the will of the people who will decide if we stay or go. Recent history regarding peoples in war torn lands who have bet their lives on America sustaining her commitment to them is not positive. The odds are Zarmina and her father bet on the wrong side.

If you believe in prayer send a few extra ones topside for Zarmina and the children of Afghanistan. With friends like us those kids are going need all the help they can get.

Naw Zad

I just did something today which would have been suicidal 10 months ago. My colleague Little Mac and I, in the company of a Marine tank officer and Naval surface warfare officer (he’s a fires guy by trade) just strolled around the town of Naw Zad with no body armor, no helmets, no riflemen escorting us, munching on local bread and handing out candy to the kids. We are safer here than we would be in downtown Chicago. Naw Zad was once the third largest populated area in the province. By 2007 the civilian population had fled the area and there was nobody here except bad guys and a few hard pressed British and Estonian infantrymen.

This was the main street of Naw Zad bazaar a year ago. Offical USMC photo
This was the main street of Naw Zad bazaar a year ago. Official USMC photo

 

Naw Zad bazaar today

Fox company 2nd Battalion 7th Marines (Fox 2/7) arrived in Naw Zad to reinforce the Brits in late 2008 and were able to expand the security bubble but not by much.   The Brits, Estonians and Marines fought side by side to expel the Taliban from this fertile valley but were hampered by restrictive ROE pushed down from on high by senior officers in Kabul who lacked common sense and experience at counterinsurgency warfare. The Marines and their allies lost a lot of men because they did not have the mass or firepower to do the job correctly.   Way back then there was a lone voice in the blogsphere pleading with all who would listen to free up the combat power and let the Marines in Naw Zad fight.   His name is Herschel Smith and his posts at the Captains Journal can be found here.   It is worth your time to read them all.

Another view of the Naw Zad bazaar today

In the   summer of 2009 the U.S. Marines had deployed the 2nd Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan and their first move was to clear out Naw Zad and the surrounding hamlets of all Taliban. The 2nd MEB was commanded by BGen Larry Nicholson who I was fortunate to serve with as a young Lieutenant back in the 80’s. He had his own Tac Air, his own artillery, his own rotary wing transport and gunships and he had his own ideas about how to fight.  He didn’t have to go to the powers that be in Kabul or Kandahar because he didn’t need anything from them. He seeded the high ground overlooking the rat lines running into Naw Zad with sniper and recon teams in June. They immediately started collecting scalps and then on 2 July 2009 he launched Operation Khanjar dropping 2000 grunts onto Naw Zad and the surrounding villages to finish the Taliban off. The Taliban reacted as they always do when faced with superior forces – they broke contact and ran…into the sniper teams.

Fighting in the town of Naw Zad and its adjacent hamlets is long over. The Taliban can’t muster the manpower or firepower required to drive the Marines out so we are now deep into the “hold & build” stage of the operation and it is slow going. Every brick, piece of steel, bag of cement and all hand tools have to be trucked in from Camp Bastion or Lashkar Gah. My old battalion 1/8 has has deployed a rifle company (C 1/8)   to Naw Zad for the past six months facilitating the hold and build while expanding the zone of safety further into the hinterlands. Actually the rifle company headquarters is based here with what looks like a platoon or so in the district center proper. The three rifle platoons are working areas to the north and southeast.

The Dahanah Pass which is around 5 kilometers to the south. The ANP/Marine outpost on the left hand finger was in contact when I took this picture. It was a typical Taliban nusciance attack - they still really suck at fighting but they are getting better with the IEDs
The Dahaneh Pass which is around 5 kilometers to the southeast of Naw Zad. The ANP/Marine outpost on the left hand finger was in contact when I took this picture. It was a typical Taliban nuisance attack – they still really suck at fighting but they are getting better at planting IEDs

The roads to the south of Dahaneh are controlled by the Taliban. They cannot stand and fight the Marines like they do the army in the east because there aren’t enough of them, the terrain doesn’t facilitate ambushes, and they can’t run to Pakistan for sanctuary. So they use IED’s… a lot of IED’s which, as IED’s do in Afghanistan, strike disproportionately against the civilian population. In order to get building material into the valley local truckers insist on being escorted by Marines. The Marines know the Taliban are going to plant IED’s and they literally walk the convoys into the valley. The 65 kilometer trip from Bastion to Naw Zad takes two days; most of that time is spent waiting for the engineers to blow IED’s which have been seeded ahead of them.

In 6 months the Marines have lost 3 MRAP's but no men to IED's
In 6 months C1/8 has lost 3 MRAP’s but no men to IED’s

 

50% of the IED's made by the Taliban fail to function or blow up at some point in the deployment cycle. One metric of success for the Marines is the number of them which are pointed out or dug up and turned into the Marines. They are not paying money for these and each morning at the District Governors compound IED's are turned into the Marines for destruction
50% of the IED’s made by the Taliban fail to function or blow up at some point in the deployment cycle. The remaining 50% go into the ground.   One metric of success for the Marines is the number of them which are pointed out or dug up and turned in to the Marines. They are not paying money for these but still each morning at the District Governors compound IED’s are turned into the Marines for destruction

The villains have deployed countless numbers of IED’s targeting the Marines of 1/8. Only three of them scored hits but none have resulted in a fatality.   One can only wish IED’s were so ineffective in other areas of Helmand Province.   The Naw Zad area has been cleared; the hold and build underway. The Marines who are here would like to be somewhere else – preferably a place where the Taliban will stand and fight them.  Infantry Marines, even after ten years of constant deployment, still hunger for a good fight.   But that is not to be for 1/8 as they are stuck in place to do the hold and build. There was a time when Marines were dying here and there needed to be a lot more thrown into the fight. Now Marines are fighting and dying in other places like Sangin and they need more of their brother devil dogs to back them up.  Now many of the folks I correspond with are starting to see what I was talking about when I opined that you need a hold and build force working directly for the ground commander. This is where contractors can save money, time and lives by freeing up the gunfighters to do what they do best. Kill villains, protect the innocent, and unmask the evil who prey upon the population.