Gandamak

Last week I received and polite email from Professor Richard Macrory of the Centre for Law and the Environment, University College London asking me for permission to use some of my photos of the Gandamak battlefield in his upcoming book on the First Afghan War. I said that it would be an honor and I believe the book will come out next year. In the meantime I’m re-posting my Gandamak story because it is different then every other Gandamak story you’ll hear from Afghan based expats. This Gandamak tale is about the battlefield, not one of the best bar/guesthouses in Kabul

Traveling into contested tribal lands is a bit tricky. I had no doubt that the Malicks from Gandamak would provide for my safety at our destination but I had to get there first. Given the amount of Taliban activity between Jalalabad and Gandamak the only safe way to get there and back was low profile.

The first of three downed bridges between Gandamak and Jalalabad
The first of three downed bridges between Gandamak and Jalalabad

The road into Gandamack required us to ford three separate stream beds. The bridges that once spanned these obstacles were destroyed by the Soviets around 25 years ago. We have been fighting the Stability Operations battle here going on seven years but the bridges are still down, the power plants have not been fixed and most roads are little better then they were when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC. The job of repairing and building the infrastructure of Afghanistan is much bigger than anyone back home can imagine. It is also clearly beyond the capabilities of USAID or the US Military PRT’s to fix given their current operational tempo and style. These bridges are still down (as of 2015) and may never be fixed in our lifetimes.

Also destroyed 25 years ago - how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this? What the hell have we been doing for the past seven years? I watchd the tallest building in the world go up in Dubai, with about 300 other super sky scrappers over the past four years but we can't even repair a few stone bridges in seven; check that, make it 14 years?
Also destroyed 25 years ago – how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this? What the hell have we been doing for the past seven years? I watchd the tallest building in the world go up in Dubai, with about 300 other super sky scrappers over the past four years but we can’t even repair a few stone bridges in seven; check that, make it 14 years?

It took over an hour to reach Gandamack which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because vegetation means water and villages with access to abundant clean water are always significantly better off than those without.

My host for the day was the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif he told me “I speak English fluently” and then smiled. I immediately hired him and issued a quick string of coordinating instructions about what we were doing in the morning then bid him good day. He failed to show up on time and when I called him to ask why it became apparent that the only words of English Sharif knew were “I speak English fluently.” You get that from Afghans. But Shariff is learning his letters and has proven an able driver plus a first rate scrounger.

The Maliks (tribal leaders) from Gandamak and the surrounding villages arrived shortly after we did. They walked into the meeting room armed; I had left my rifle in the vehicle which, as the invited foreign guest, I felt obligated to do.  Gandamak is Indian Country and everybody out here is armed to the teeth.  I was an invited guest, the odds of me being harmed by the Maliks who invited me were exactly zero. That’s how Pashtunwali works. The order of business was a meeting where the topic was what they need and why the hell can’t they get some help. Then we were to tour the hill outside Gandamak where the 44th Foot fought to the last man during the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 followed by lunch. I was not going to be able to do much about the projects they needed but I could listen politely which is all they asked of me. Years later I would be in the position to lend them a hand when they really needed it but at the time of this meeting I was a security not an aid guy.  I have enjoyed visiting old battlefields since I was a boy and would go on staff rides with my father to Gettysburg, The Wilderness battlefield and Fredricksburg.  I especially enjoy visiting battlefields that not many people can visit and I’ve not heard of any westerner poking around the Gandamak battlefield in decades. It would be foolish to try without armed tribal fighters escorting you.

Sharif's Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul
Sharif’s Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul

As the Maliks arrived they started talking among themselves in hushed tones and I kept hearing the name “Barack Obama.” I was apprehensive; I’m surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It is unpleasant talking with them because they know absolutely nothing about the man other than he is not Bush and looks cool. They are convinced he is more then ready to be president because NPR told them so. Pointing out that to the NGO girls that Obama can’t possibly be ready to be the chief executive because he has zero experience at executive leadership is pointless and I did not want to have to explain this to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes for them to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span; this was not starting off well.

As I feared the morning discussion started with the question “tell us about Barack Obama?” What was I to say? That his resume is thin is an understatement but he has risen to the top of the democratic machine and that took some traits Pashtun Maliks could identify with. I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine. Not by trying to explain Chicago but in general terms using the oldest communication device known to man a good story. A story based in fact; colored with a little supposition and augmented by my colorful imagination. Once they understood that lawyers in America are like warlords in Afghanistan and can rub out their competition ahead of an election using the law and judges instead of guns they got the picture. A man cold enough to win every office for which he ran by eliminating his competition before the vote is a man the Pashtun’s can understand. I told them that Obama will probably win and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan. They asked if Obama was African and I resisted the obvious answer of who knows? Instead I said his father was African and his mother a white American and so he identifies himself as an African American. I had succeeded in totally confusing my hosts and they just looked at me for a long time saying nothing.

What followed was (I think) a long discussion about Africans; were they or were they not good Muslims? I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the Al Qaeda days. I think the conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs and therefore considered suspect. They talked among themselves for several more minutes and I heard John McCain’s name several times but they did not ask anymore about the pending election praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans regardless of hue and it would be better to see more of them especially if they took off the helmets and body armor because that scares the kids and woman folk. And their big MRAPS  scare the cows who already don’t have enough water and feed so scaring them causes even less milk to be produced and on and on and on; these guys know how to beat a point to death.

Maliks of Sherzad district
Maliks of Sherzad district

We talked for around 35 more minutes about the anemic American reconstruction effort, their needs and the rise in armed militancy. The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remain popular with the local people. They have built some mico-hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) much appreciate. The US AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better if they were given the money to do it themselves but despite this DAI is welcomed and their efforts much appreciated. When I asked who had kidnapped the DAI engineer (a local national) last month and how we could go about securing his release (which was another reason for my visit) they shrugged and one of them said “who knows”?  That was to be expected but I felt compelled to ask anyway. They know I have no skin in that game and am therefore irrelevant.

The elders explained, without me asking, that they are serious about giving up poppy cultivation but they have yet to see the promised financial aid for doing so and thus will have to  grow poppy again (if they get enough rain inshallah). They also need a road over which to transport their crops to market once they get their fields productive. Then they need their bridges repaired, and they need their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970’s and that’s it. They said that with these improvements would come security and more commerce. One of them made a most interesting comment and that was something to the effect of “the way the roads are now the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy.” A little food for thought.

At the conclusion of the talking part of the meeting the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.

The Last Stand of the 44th Foot
The Last Stand of the 44th Foot

The final stand at Gandamak occurred on the 13th of January 1842. Twenty officers and forty five British soldiers, most from the 44th Foot pulled off the road onto a hillock when they found the pass to Jalalabad blocked by Afghan fighters. They must have pulled up on the high ground to take away the mobility advantage of the horse mounted Afghan fighters. The Afghans closed in and tried to talk the men into surrendering their arms. A sergeant was famously said to reply “not bloody likely” and the fight was on. Six officers cut their way through the attackers and tried to make it to British lines in Jalalabad. Only one, Dr Brydon, made it to safety.

The Gandamack Hill today
The Gandamack Hill today

Our first stop was to what the Maliks described as “The British Prison” which was up on the side of the Jalalabad pass and about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed up the steep slope at a vigorous pace set by the senior Malik. About halfway up we came to what looked to be an old foundation and an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. I can’t imagine how that could be – there were no British forces here when the 44th Foot was cut down but they could have established a garrison years later I suppose.  Why the Brits would shove their prisoners inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain is a mystery to me and I doubt this was the real story behind what looked to be a mine entrance.  It was a nice brisk walk up a very steep hill and I kept up with the senior Malik which was probably the point to this detour.

Enterance to the "Brit Jail
Entrance to the “Brit Jail

 

Heading up the slope to the Brit jail
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail – not an easy walk

After checking that out we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jamm until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue at the Gandamak battlefield a few years ago which they figured the British must have pilfered from Kabul. By my estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to buy one. Their excellent fakes and they better be because the penalties for trafficking ancient artifacts are severe in Afghanistan.

I do not know where these foundations came from. Back in 1842 the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area – just off the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Latabad Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle occurred and as their direct ancestors participated in it I assumed we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations are from a small British outpost built here possibly to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879 or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.

Site of the final battle
Site of the final battle

 

Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill

The visit concluded with a large lunch and after we had finished and the food was removed our meeting was officially ended with a short prayer. I’m not sure what the prayer said but it was short. I’m an infidel; short is good.

Man I love Kabuli Pilau - and eating with my hands
Man I love Kabuli Pilau – and eating with my hands. Mehrab Siraj, a close friend and the Manager of the Taj guesthouse is sitting to my right

Post Script

The Maliks of Sherzad district never received the attention they wanted from the US Government or the Afghan authorities. Instead the Taliban came to fill the void and started muscling their way into the district back in 2011. By early 2012 things were bad enough that my old driver Shariff called me to see if there was anything I could do about getting the Americans to help them fight off the encroaching Taliban fighters.  I was in the Helmand Province by then dealing with my own Taliban problems and could offer him nothing. That bothered me then and it bothers me now but that’s life.

In August 2012 my old friend Mehrab was gunned down by Taliban outside his home. By then several of the men I had shared a pleasant lunch with back in 2008 had also perished fighting the Taliban. Gandamak is now Taliban territory, the poppy now the main source of income. It will be a long time before a westerner will able to visit the old battlefield again.

Sanctuary Denied?

Last week I received and heads up from Mullah John that General Allen and Ambassador Crocker were on 60 Minutes and was able to watch the show on AFN.  The one thing I noticed when watching General Allen was the emotion clearly evident as he discussed the truck bomb has had asked the Pakistani military to help stop.That bomb hit a US base in Wardak Province injuring over 8o soldiers. General Allen was told that one of the Pakistani politicians  remarked that if he knew about the truck bomb why did he not stop it?  He was clearly not amused by the question. I also saw something from Ambassador Crocker I really like.  When asked why he came out of retirement he said that when the President tells you he needs you do a job there is only one correct response. I respect that.

I make no claim to having a clue what or how General Allen is thinking as he approaches this war. I knew him 20 years ago when I was an instructor at the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course where he was our group chief. I like General Allen and count him among the finest officers I served with during my time in the Corps.  I don’t know Ambassador Crocker at all – I just liked his response on 60 minutes and I am sure he is an exceptionally talented leader.

Having qualified my expertise on the matter  I’d like to make an educated guess, and that is General Allen is not the kind of commander who will grant enemy sanctuary indefinitely.  I doubt Ambassador Crocker is any different. General Allen is backed up by the Commander of CENTCOM, General Mattis who has a well earned reputation as an exceptionally aggressive and successful general. General Allen also spent three years as the Deputy Commander CENTCOM and the Marine Corps rarely leaves a three start general in one job for three years. During those years General Allen was General Petraeus’s right hand man and he did that while, for the most part, remaining off the main stream press radar. General Allen has juice – and it is not the kind of juice one normally associates with politically powerful people because it is not obvious main stream media juice. It is back channel juice and that is powerful stuff.

The topic is Pakistan and I thought it the perfect place to put in photos of my travels through the Khyber Pass. I’ve done the low budget Khyber Pass visit and the high budget (escorting a senior diplomat from Japan) tour too. The pictures calm me as I’m venting my spleen about the stupidity of our political class below – hopefully they do the same for you too.

Lunch at the best kabob stand in Landi Kotal - the last Pakistani town before the Torkham border with Afghanistan
Lunch at the best kabob stand in Landi Kotal – the last Pakistani town before the Torkham border with Afghanistan.  This is where low budget travelers eat.  It was good kabob too.  Honest.
Lunch when you go the VIP route is a lot better
Lunch when you go the VIP route is a lot better

Herschel Smith is unimpressed with the reported build up in the east of Afghanistan and I can’t remember a time he’s been wrong about anything. His assessment could prove to be spot on but this is one time I hope it isn’t. And for more bad news check this out: President Karzai has threatened to back Pakistan if the US conducts cross border operations. Secretary of State Clinton stopped by for a few words with President Karzai who immediately gave a TV interview telling the world he would side with Pakistan. I guess the SecState failed to get her message across. Big frigging surprise there.

The low rent way to visit the Khyber Pass; you need a permit and a tribal policeman and of course some Afridi's never hurt to have along too
The low rent way to visit the Khyber Pass; you need a permit and a tribal policeman and of course some Afridi’s never hurt to have along too
The VIP trip scores you a good 40 minute brief in a glass room in the Michni Post overlooking the eastern end of the Khyber
The VIP trip scores you a good 40 minute brief in a glass room of the Michni Post overlooking the western end of the Khyber
There was once a time when world leaders would travel into the Northwest Frontier because Pakistan was a trusted ally
There was once a time when world leaders would travel into the Northwest Frontier because Pakistan was a trusted ally
That time is well within living memory
That time is well within living memory
The story behind Michni Post so you can get an idea of how far into the NWF international leaders once traveled
The story behind Michni Post so you can get an idea of how far into the NWF international leaders once traveled

Suppose for a moment that the one glaring problem we face is no longer considered acceptable. That problem is that our enemies have sanctuary once they cross over the border to Pakistan. What if we have reached a point where we are no longer going to tolerate it?  The reason I ask is because what exactly are the Pakistani’s going to do about it?

They can threaten to cut off our supply lines. We have alternative supply lines running out of Central Asia and seem to have stockpiled enough of the 4- B’s (beans bullets, bandages, and beer). Wait, that can’t be right as everyone in the military knows drinking beer is one step away from consorting with Satan (according to Armed Forces TV and radio and social media outlets). Drink just one beer and the next thing you know your thumping the wife and trying to sell the baby for poker money.  So we have stocked up the three B’s and we can hold out with our stash much longer than the Pakistani economy can withstand a sea and air blockade because that is the level of punishment you have to be ready to dish out if you plan to go into Waziristan and start taking scalps.

Part of the VIP brief at Michni Post is the use of large reference points marking their side of the international boarder
Part of the VIP brief at Michni Post is the use of large reference points marking their side of the international boarder

We have known since the very first days of this conflict that the Taliban use the border area for sanctuary.  We have been good about not going across in “hot pursuit” having limited incursions into Pakistan to one that I know of.

The Pakistani army has a big display of all the Soviet rockets shot at them back in the day. Of course if we wanted to get shitty with the Pakistanis instead of shooting some low rent rockets we could turn the whole Michni Post into a big smoking hole in the ground. Rockets my ass
The Pakistani army has a big display of all the Soviet rockets shot at them back in the day. Of course if we wanted to get it on with the Pakistanis instead of shooting some low rent rockets we could turn the whole Michni Post into a big smoking hole in the ground. Nothing gets your attention faster than watching a fort full of soldiers get blown sky high.  Remember the World Trade Center?  Did that get your attention?  I have no ill will for the Khyber Rifles who are a good group of guys with a formidable Polo team but we’re talking business here.

We have alternate supply lines, we have stocks of stuff on hand, we still need to move supplies through Pakistan so what to do?  How about this famous quote “Never take counsel in your fears”.  The Pakistani’s have been playing us for fools since about December of 2001 when we let them rescue Osama bin Laden. Before that they were all about cooperation, as was every other country in the world except the ones that don’t matter anyway. The reason they were so cooperative was they knew we were in the blind rage stage of being pissed off about 9/11. That is several steps up the pissed off ladder and nobody at that time was sure what we were going to do. All they knew was that we were capable of doing whatever the hell we wanted to do. We still are. In fact given the billions spent on high tech platforms we could destroy more, faster, and with greater efficiency than we could a decade ago.

Looking east at the Khyber Pass from the Michni Fort. The narrow pass has been militarily significant since the assent of man but it isn't now - we could roll through it, fly over it, or take it with infantry in a matter of hours.
Looking east at the Khyber Pass from the Michni Fort. The narrow pass has been militarily significant since the assent of man but it isn’t now – we could roll through it, fly over it, or take it with infantry in a matter of hours.

After watching the 60 minutes segment with General Allen I am certain of one thing.  He’s pissed.  And he’s pissed about how Pakistan has been playing us and he is not the kind of man you want pissed at you. Take it from me because I’ve been there with him and it’s not pleasant. Most of you do not know General Allen or anything about him.  What you need to know is he understands that unlimited sanctuary is no way to fight a war. And even though he doesn’t have the political capitol of General Petraeus he has his confidence.  As he does with General Mattis – another fighting general who is not too keen on granting anyone sanctuary.  I know calls like going across the border in hot pursuit are the Presidents to make but we all now know (thanks to Ron Suskind) that the White House is dysfunctional and getting the President to make a firm decision about anything almost impossible. National level leadership of that kind allows for subordinates to make “interpretations of intent”. A fancy way of saying they can make their own decisions and take the actions they think fit Obama’s intent.

At the moment nobody is too sure about Obama’s intent on anything let alone Pakistan. Pakistan has proved a most unworthy ally. They actively support cross border incursion and have done so with impunity.  What is to stop General Allen from coming across the border and reducing Miramshaw to a heap of smoking ashes?  Nothing.  And when Pakistan starts wailing and moaning about it do you know what we should tell them?  First word starts with an F  the second with a Y. What are they going to do about it?  Fight us?  That one would be over quick.

Poppy Time

It is Saturday, the 9th of April here in the sunny paradise of Afghanistan and both Kandahar and Kabul are in a UN declared “White City” status as the locals brace for another round of anti-American protests in response to the Koran burning in Florida.  I’m in Kandahar where all is quiet after Thursday’s  spectacular attack on an ANP compound.  Once again the Taliban used an ambulance VBIED to get through police and ISAF cordons, then detonated it inside the incident scene. The Taliban still suck at fighting, but they are getting pretty slick with the tactical planning as of late.

We aren’t too worried about protests in the South – a look at last week’s stats from Sami the Finn at Indicium Consulting shows why:

When the incident rate in the south drops like this there is only explanation; Poppy time
When the incident rate drops like this in the south there is only explanation; Poppy Time

When the poppy is being harvested all other activity around the poppy belt, including Taliban attacks, grind to a halt. Opium prices are at an all time high after last years crop failure and we hear this year the opium sap harvesters will keep 1 man (4.5 kilos) for every 6 man they milk out of the poppy bulbs. A man sells (at current prices) for around US $6000. That is a ton of money in these parts, however gathering up that much wet opium takes the average 4 man team two weeks of backbreaking, dawn to dusk effort. Still every able bodied male in the region is hard at work trying to get a man worth of Opium because when you have 6k in your pocket you can get married. That’s right – sex not only sells but it’s also is a great motivator for unmarried men in societies where the only way to get it is through marriage.

With most of the international press trying to figure out what Obama and Hillary are up to in Africa confusion regarding what’s happening here has reached new levels of strangeness.  Are things going well, or are they going  down the tubes? Is a resurgent al Qaeda a problem, or, (as I have long maintained) is this never going to be happen again in Afghanistan? Is the President of the United States really an inexperienced, doctrinaire, ignoramus, or is he rope-a-doping the whole world by pretending to be incompetent while hatching a wickedly genius plan to bring Americans a healthy economy coupled to a foreign policy which is easily understood to benefit the interests of our country?

One of the things about Marines which irritates the other services to no end is their propensity for festooning their cars with the Eagle Globe and Anchor. In time every ANA vehicle in the Helmand Province will have a Marine sticker on it.
One of the things about Marines (which irritates the other services to no end) is our propensity for festooning personal vehicles and most vertical surfaces with Eagle Globe and Anchor stickers. In time every ANA vehicle in the Helmand Province will have a Marine sticker on it.

Allow me to answers my questions in reverse order: Our POTUS is not rope-a-doping, his crisis management performance  is typical for a man who has been promoted way beyond his level of incompetence for reasons other than experience or consistent superior performance. But that is a lesson we cannot acknowledge because it remains fashionable among our cultural and business elite to emphatically believe affirmative action is a good thing. They want to believe that diversity makes us stronger when everyone who has to deal with “diversity” knows the only way it makes anything stronger is when diverse peoples meet the same standards and compete on a level playing field.

The Taliban are resurgent now, have been for the past two years and will be gaining and holding more terrain, will be inflicting more casualties on ISAF and ANSF, will grow stronger and stronger with each passing year. Worse, it appears al-Qaeda is back which I thought would never happen but then again I thought we’d be making progress by now.

And finally I have no idea what in the name of God we are doing bombing Libya but can guarantee you that when it’s all said and done we’re going to discover this was “doing stupid shit”. Let’s just hope we don’t lose too many people in the process.

In the Eastern portion of Afghanistan we have withdrawn from most of Kunar Province because the military geniuses in Kabul have decided that our presence in the isolated valleys was a provocation, so we declared victory and are packing up to head home. The Hillbillies of Kunar didn’t see it that way and thought our withdraw from their turf was a win for them.  Commanders who are victorious against the Americans seem to attract attention, money, recruits, and (this is new) al Qaeda training camps.  Who would have guessed that????????

Poppy
The poppy turns up everywhere to include the vegetable garden in our compound. Our gardener grows some pretty decent looking weed too. I don’t think he’s a smoker and bet he sells the weed – the three poppy plants out back aren’t enough to produce squat and are there because they look cool

This report in the Wall Street Journal was a nasty surprise to those of us paying attention but not for long. Within 24 hours the MSM was spinning a counter story that included this statement: “Petraeus also said he did not agree with reports that al-Qaida was making a comeback in Afghanistan”.  Well, I guess that’s that but hold on the WSJ story was written by Mathew Rosenberg. I know Matt gets outside the security bubble to dig up his own facts having given him a ride from Jalalabad to Kabul a few years ago.  If Rosenberg is reporting there is a resurgent al Qaeda infesting Afghanistan then I’m going to admit I was wrong about the possibility of that happening. General Petraeus can say whatever he likes but we know he doesn’t know because he has no human intelligence capacity with which to know.  That is the price he must pay for having unlimited funds with which to build little islands of America all over the country, isolating most of the forces completely from the Afghans.

Another classic example of  inside the security bubble propaganda  versus  real outside the wire atmospherics can be found in this April Fools article . Written by James Dobbins, and reprinted by the RAND people for some reason  (I am certain protecting their billions in FOB based contracts has nothing to do with it) Mr Dobbins, a DC insider with a vested interest in blowing sunshine up the rectums of other insiders, tells us that “irrational optimism” is the word of the day for your ordinary Afghan. You see, as bad as things are, they have been so much worse over the past 30 years that, from the perspective of the abused populace, everything is now peachy!

Let me paste in graph from one of the few organizations that actually gets out on the ground (with expat led teams) to do their own polling. Check this out:

When you get off the FOB and ask people questions face to face you get an idea about how badly things are going
When you get off the FOB and ask people questions face to face, you get an idea why the Afghans are clueless about our motives for being and staying here.

The pie chart above is based on a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS).  ICOS is the only policy analysis organization in Afghanistan with expatriate headed assessment teams. They are led by the formidable Norine MacDonald: I ran into them last January while they were in the Helmand Province doing research for this report on the dangers of a draw-down in forces this summer.

I personally don’t think the maneuver units are going anywhere this summer. The United States could easily send half the people deployed to Afghanistan home without diminishing a bit of combat power. Simply clear out all the Equal Opportunity Officers, the Sexual Harassment Officers, career jammers, the jerks who monitor base gyms to make sure nobody wears a sleeveless shirt and the military policemen who make life on the FOB’s such a drag. You could easily cut the intelligence effort in half because Afghan intel is an echo chamber of endemic circular reporting.  And you can close the COIN Academy; setting up a new “innovative” school house is a loser move designed to cover over the fact we have no traction with the Afghan people.  The COIN Academy will never answer that question because you can’t do COIN in six month increments which isn’t really the problem either; the Karzai administration is the problem. But I’ve only been saying that for five years now and am sick of repeating myself.

We’re spending too much money and blood in Afghanistan while achieving very little besides beating the dog shit out of the Southern Taliban. That is something which the Marines in Helmand and the ISAF units in Kandahar can be proud of but it’s not enough. When I look at the train wreck that is the United States economy coupled with the unwillingness of our elected leaders to deal with the mess they made I am reminded (yet again) of the Roman Empire.  Contemplate this quote (hat tip Dan Carlin’s Hard Corps History) from historian Michael Crawford who wrote in  The Roman Republic:

The dangerous developments of the second century BC were then in large measure the result of growth of the Roman Empire providing the oligarchy with wealth which had to be invested making it easy for them to acquire extra land, providing them with slaves to work it and offering no alternative land elsewhere to those dispossessed.  A part time peasant army conquers the Mediterranean and that conquest facilitates its destitution.

The level of debt being generated by our political masters is unsustainable, the amount of spending on the war in Afghanistan is unsustainable, the financial obligations of the democratic run blue states are unsustainable.  Yet our political class continues to demagogue, evade, reward themselves with benefits regular Americans can only dream of, while our military leaders focus on marginal issues like women on submarines or the acceptance of homosexuals (as if they have not always been in the military anyway). Our government leaders focus on everything except the fact we have no money. Our military leaders focus on everything except the fact that we’re losing in Afghanistan. The American people work hard to support their families while sending their children off to fight for a military that is rapidly adopting the liberal cultural mores of the ruling class at the expense of traditional martial virtue.  The men and women fighting here and elsewhere will return to a country where only the elite prosper, where the rules for the political class and the working class are different. They are going to fight like lions to support our constitution while the administration shreds that constitution and  leaves the common folk destitute.

Holy shit I sound like a commie!  Time to pack up the laptop and fly to Dubai where I need to score another visa and a beer or two.  Maybe a few days of sleeping in a real bed will improve the mood a bit but I doubt it.  I see a bad moon rising.

What A Mess

I’m not referring to the controversy surrounding the attempted rescue of Linda Norgrove which is currently consuming the news cycle. My experience is that Special Operations folks do not attempt rescue operations without solid intelligence and a well rehearsed plan. I don’t know what happened in Kunar Province last weekend and therefore have no comment. What I do have plenty to comment on is the rash of articles which came out Friday morning about security contractors guarding American bases.  This is the opening from ABC news:

A scathing Senate report says US contractors in Afghanistan have hired warlords, “thugs,” Taliban commanders and even Iranian spies to provide security at vulnerable US military outposts in Afghanistan. The report, published by the Senate Armed Services Committee, says lax oversight and “systemic failures” have led to “grave risks’ to US forces, including instances where contractors have employed Afghan subcontractors who were “linked to murder, kidnapping and bribery, as well as Taliban and anti-coalition activities.” The chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D.-Michigan, said the report was evidence that the US needs to reduce its reliance on contractors.

On the small Combat Outposts (COP’s) these guard forces man the outer perimeter only and have to provide their own life support (food and shelter) and they do not go inside the wire of the Army unit they are guarding. They don’t know any more about what is happening inside the FOB’s they guard then any other Afghan living in the vicinity. Local nationals working inside the wire doing menial tasks like emptying port-a-johns, collecting and burning trash, or washing dishes would know a lot more and pose a greater intelligence risk than the exterior guard force. On the large FOB’s the guard forces have barracks inside the post but are a small percentage of the Afghan local national work force and again, limited as to where they are allowed to go. So how is it just the security guards are the ones putting our troops at risk?

I wrote bids for several of these contracts and know they require a minimum of 80% of the guards to come from the local area. When you have remote outposts and need so many armed men who do you think is going to provide them? Now Washington is shocked, shocked that we were paying warlords and other various undesirables for guard forces. When I bid on these contracts our local manpower was coordinated through the district sub governor (which I  recall was another requirement) and not all sub governors are created equal. I’m not sure why the big surprise that some of the people who are benefiting from the fire hose of dollars flowing into Afghanistan are undesirables. I’m also not to sure about the definition of “undesirables” given the number of former warlords connected to the central government. Seems to me we don’t know enough about the Afghan culture to start labeling some war lords undesirables and others patriots.

Sounds like politics and looks like piling on by by the Senate Armed Services Committee who are now supporting President Karzai as he continues his program to dismantle private security companies. It’s nice to finally see some support for President Karzai from the DC crowd even if they are supporting a policy un-tethered from reality.  Accepting the fact that President Karzai is not going away would be the best contribution our elected members can make now.

J
Jalalabad City continues to grow as more families come in from the outer districts to escape Taliban intimidation

Shutting down the security companies makes little sense. Earlier in the month it was reported that the Afghans had shut down several companies to include Xe (Blackwater), Four Horsemen, and White Eagle. This is not true; all four remain open for business and they, like Karzai, are not going anywhere. Those companies don’t need to pay the Afghan government for a business license because they are working directly for the military, Department of State and other international government agencies and are exempt from paying Afghan taxes. The Afghan government is making it hard for internationals working for security companies outside the wire only. They have stopped issuing visa’s so many contractors remain here on expired ones. The companies with government contracts come into the country on contractor run flight that land in Bagram and by pass Afghan immigration so they do not need visas.  Afghanistan isn’t like the United States with foreigners who overstay their visa. In Afghanistan that is a one strike offense that could land you in prison.

Kabul is in turmoil, the North is going right down the tubes; years ago it was easy to operate in most of the country without armored vehicles and international mobile security teams but not anymore. While this is playing out there is a growing sense that the military side of the operation is starting go well.  ISAF has, for the first time, apparently locked down the Arghandab and Panjwai districts around Kandahar City. The Helmand Province is getting quieter week in and week out and the American Army in Nangarhar Province has moved a battalion of paratroopers into the southern triangle to deal with Taliban and their Pakistani cousins who have been operating openly down there all summer. This force projection off the FOB’s is a welcomed change but all the clearing currently being done needs a hold and build effort behind it and that capability is not resident within the Kabul government.

Provincial capitols in the south are not so busy or crowded
Lashkar Gah the capitol of Helmand Province. Provincial capitols in the south are not as busy or crowded as they are in the rest of the country

The situation on the ground is rapidly changing which makes it the perfect time for me to shift to another part of the country where I’m not so well known.  I have moved south and will be joining Ghost Team again for another year of adventure. This year I’m not going to be so candid about where I live or the location of our projects. The days when we could roam about the countryside at will and have my kids visit for months at a time to work with local kids at the Fab Lab – those days are over.

The military seems to be doing what it set out to do. It is too early to know how successful they will be but if they can drive the Taliban out of Kandahar and the surrounding districts they will need help with the build portion. Ghost Team will do our part but we are not miracle workers. We’ll give it our best until the window closes on outside the wire operations for good.

Five Hundred Meter War

Herschel Smith at the Captains Journal has put up a great post which addresses a topic near and dear to my heart; infantry tactics. The post is The Five Hundred Meter War  and I want to reinforce Herschel’s point with some observations.

The tactical argument being raised by Herschel is the alarming trend of engaging in long range fire fights without even attempting to close with and destroy the enemy. The mission of American infantrymen (according to FM 2-21.20 The Infantry Battalion) is “to close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver.”

Aggressive maneuver combined with active patrolling keep the enemy off balance. The army demonstrated this in Kunar over the last few weeks. The first graph below is from the week of the Camp Blessing battle and the second from the week of the elections.

Remember a few months back when I posted about the new army battalion at Camp Blessing in Kunar killing over 100 fighters in the Marwa valley? Here is the incident rate for the week that the fighting started
Remember a few months back when I posted about the new army battalion at Camp Blessing in Kunar killing over 100 fighters in the Marwa Valley?  Remember I was hoping this signaled a shift in operational focus away from drive by COIN visits to killing the villains who had unmasked themselves all over the Province? Here is the incident rate for the week that the fighting started.  In order to generate security incidents you need living and breathing insurgents and there were not too many of them left after the Army took off the force protection handcuffs and started getting after it. Graph is courtesy of Sami the Finn who is the Senior Information Analyst for Indicium Consulting.

 

Here is this weeks stats and the spike is due to the Taliban and HIG efforts to disrupt the election. If you watched the embeded video you probably caught that the troops on that mission were heading to a polling center for some reason and yet look at the stats for the week that those polls were open (actually most in Kunar were closed) It would appear that months of effort to facilitate voting in the Kunar Province was a complete waste of effort
Here as the stats from last week note the spike which came from Taliban and HIG efforts to disrupt the election. If you watched the embedded video you probably caught that the troops on that mission were heading to a polling center for some reason and yet look at the stats for the week that those polls were open (actually most in Kunar were closed) It would appear that months of effort to facilitate voting in the Kunar Province was a complete waste of effort

The incident rates above clearly  demonstrate a point made over and over by Herschel Smith and many other military bloggers have made and that is incident rates drop when kinetic activity increases. It also demonstrated the folly of running down a road to visit sites for a brief period of time and then returning to the FOB.  Yesterday a British national working for the development firm DAI was kidnapped right off the main Abad to Jbad road. She was moving in a two vehicle convoy of low profile Toyota Corollas which is normally a safe mode of travel as long as the people inside the Corollas can pass as locals at first glance. This method of blending in is not a good idea if the convoy is going to be static for any period of time allowing local spotters to get a good look at the passengers. There are internationals in Afghanistan who can fool a trained observer with local clothes and a local style beard but they don’t fool anybody once they start walking. Their gait does not resemble how Afghans move because westerners do not spend their lives squatting on their heels.

I do not know the woman who was kidnapped that well but can say she was one of the more experienced and savvy operators in the eastern region. The company she works for, DAI, is one of the “big boys” in the reconstruction business and although they are not as nimble or fast as we are they are still damn good. So here we are in the middle of the surge and the security situation has never been worse.  If the security situation continues to degrade it is just a matter of time before all of us reconstruction types pull up the stakes and go home. I think I am speaking for the outside the wire community when I say (to ISAF)  “it’s time to get off the FOB’s and into the fight….or we’re done here.”

A New Way Forward?

We were under UN restricted movement routine last week (for the first time in five years) which provided the opportunity to digest a report from The Afghanistan Study Group entitled A New Way Forward. This report was great news for me because if think tanks are paying big bucks to people who write so poorly and know so little then maybe I can get a job in America and stop spending 11 of every 12 months out of the country. Any think tankers out there who have an opening drop me a line – I’ll be your huckleberry.

Fortunately I don’t have to take this report apart as a genuine regional expert, the formidable Joshua Foust, has already done that over at Registan.net.  Take the time to read his post here; it is, as usual, well written and spot on. With the heavy lifting already done I wanted to focus on the one part of the Study Group report which I find alarming and that is the amount of money being spent.  This is from the summary of the Afghanistan Study Group report:

The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now the longest in our history, and is costing the U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year, roughly seven times more than Afghanistan’s annual gross national product (GNP) of $14 billion.

100 Billion US dollars per year. That level of expenditure will not be sustainable for much longer so in the spirit of offering solutions instead of highlighting problems I am going to try and articulate a real New Way Forward.  The first step to limiting the amount of money being spent while reducing the number of troops deployed in theater is to eliminate the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT)  program.  PRT’s are based on FOB’s, staffed by hundreds of personnel and completely focused internally.  The commander of a PRT who is often an officer from the Navy or Air Force will get one fitness report (FitRep) in his/her career where they are commanding troops in combat.  The problems that would prevent these commanders from getting a superior fitness report (which is the only way they will be promoted and retained in the service) are all things that happen inside the wire. Sloppy admin, poor vehicle maintenance, problems with CMS (classified material storage and handling) lost gear or (heaven forbid) lost weapons, excessive boy/girl drama, failure to conduct required annual training like suicide prevention, sexual harassment, AIDS awareness (to name just a few) and problems getting mid to senior level NCO’s to professional schools….all these things and many more will ruin a FitRep. What will not ruin a Fitrep is failing to accomplish anything of significance outside the wire which is the primary mission of the PRT’s. The reason that is irrelevant is because there is no way to measure what is happening outside the wire with any precision because to know what is happening outside the wire one has to be outside the wire and riding around in hermetically sealed MRAP’s doesn’t count.

These PRT members are on their way to a village just outside our largest airbase in the region with a IT specalist to try and network computers donated to a local school years agp
Captain Christian Balan, who teaches  digital forensics at Burlington’s Champlain College in civilian life, heading towards a school just outside the massive Bagram airbase to trade his tech skills fixing the computer lab in hopes of generating good will and cooperation.  Photo by Spencer Akerman of the Danger Room blog

 

This story published last month in the Danger Room blog is a great  example. Nine years into the conflict and a group of soldiers are just now bringing their tech skills to bear in order to gain cooperation from villagers located just outside the wire from Bagram. Captain Balan (pictured above)  is a 55 year old reservist who is trying something new because past experience taught him the regular “Key Leader Engagement” techniques yield nothing. He is using his civilian techie skills to engage the villagers in another way. Read the article and note how after visiting the village he is all psyched up to go back and tune up their computer lab. This is what I mean by letting our troops loose to stay outside the wire and develop the situation using their initiative, drive and skill sets. But again there is a huge problem illustrated in the picture above and that is the body armor, rifles, security team etc… when it is right outside the wire from the biggest base in Afghanistan. Compare and contrast what you read in the article with this:

 

My son Logan doing the heavy lifting during the intial instal of the Jalalabad Fab Fi network.
My son Logan doing the heavy lifting during the initial install of the Jalalabad Fab Fi network.

 

25 simultaneous live nodes in Jalalabad. That's a new high. The map can't even keep up!
The Jalalabad Fab Fi network created by the MIT Fab Folk, maintained and expanded by local teenagers. This program does not cost the American taxpayer one dime.

 

The boys at the Jalalabad Fab Lab came up with their own design to meet the growing demand created by the International Fab surge last September. As usual all surge participants who came from the US, South Africa, Iceland and Englad paid their own way. Somebody needs to sponser these people.
The local Fab Fi club members at the Jalalabad Fab Lab came up with their own design to expand the Fab Fi network using US AID cooking oil cans (or “found objects” in geek talk)

In August of 2010 American soldiers are taking baby steps within a stones throw of the Bagram Airfield but two years ago a bunch of grad student volunteers created a wi fi network which now envelops Jalalabad.  What do you think soldiers like Captain Balan could do if they too had the freedom of movement that we have?  I am willing to bet you would see massive amounts of projects like the one he is attempting all over the country which, in turn, would bring cooperation from the local people while letting the modernity genie out of the bottle.

Here is another example of spending massive amounts of money while bringing zero benefit to the local population:

The local airfield has about a dozen Federal Firefighters to augment the Air Force crash and rescue crew
The local airfield has about a dozen Federal Firefighters to augment the Air Force crash and rescue crew

In the past expeditionary base fire fighting was a collateral duty assigned to base troops just like it is with the crew on Navy ships.  Now we deploy federal firefighters to perform this task which is fine; federal fire fighters are useful individuals who attend multiple schools where they receive first rate training.  If we are going to spend over a million a year to deploy each firefighter we could get much more return on investment by letting these guys spend their days with the local Afghan fire and rescue crews. They don’t need some sort of high speed mission to accomplish daily – they could drive around and look for places where they can help out. They could be busy all day every day teaching people all sorts of useful things while spreading goodwill and good karma. Every night they could return to base where they would be available when needed in the event of a conflagration. They don’t need to be armed, they don’t need body armor, they don’t need a powerpoint mission brief, they just need to drive off the base and do it. If they needed experienced guides to make them feel more comfortable they could ask the ladies from the La Jolla Rotary Club who are here right now supporting the San Diego Sister City program.

This ultra sound machine was donated to the Jalabad Teaching Hospital some years back and like most of the machines we have donated was broken. A grad student from the Synergy Strike Force who here with the La Jolla Rotary club sister city program got the directions, figured out what was wrong and fixed it in about 3 hours. She was then presented with a list of broken machines which she started repairing. Using the internet and a large support network of geeks from America she was able to repair about 90% of the machines in less than a month. What do you think a crew of federal firefighters could do given similar circumstances? I know exactly what they could do - fix 100% of the machines while finding all sorts of other things to improve. We're paying these guys six figure salaries to work out in the gym everyday - they get bored and we get no return on investment.
This ultra sound machine was donated to the Jalalabad Teaching Hospital some years back and like most of the donated machines it was broken.  Kate, a grad student sponsored by the Synergy Strike Force who is here with the La Jolla Rotary Club which is the driving force behind the San Diego Sister City Program got the manual, figured out what was wrong and fixed it in about 3 hours. She was then presented with a list of broken machines which she started repairing. Using the internet and a large support network of geeks back in America she was able to repair about 90% of the machines in less than a month. What do you think a crew of federal firefighters could do in similar circumstances? I know exactly what they could do – fix 100% of the machines while finding all sorts of other things to improve. We’re paying these guys six figure salaries to workout in the gym everyday. They get bored and we get no return on investment while the people we are supposed to be protecting only see American military forces when they tie up traffic and force them off the road.

There is nothing hard about finding “A New Way Forward” all that is needed is the application of common sense while allowing simple principals to guide the deployment of forces on the ground. I spent twenty years in the Marines preparing for contingencies like the one we face in Afghanistan. At no time did anyone ever suggest the way to fight them was to build FOB’s – store 90% of your deployed forces on those FOB’s and put those people to work slaving over powerpoint slides for the daily commanders update brief. Nor did we ever consider something as patently stupid as putting ship drivers or C-130 pilots in charge of reconstruction teams which have more equipment, personnel, money and a larger tactical area of operations then an infantry battalion. When you do that kind of thing you end up with The Helmand Food Zone Fiasco. Its time to send the PRT’s home and to give that mission to Ghost Team and other outside the wire contractors who operate in similar fashion. They are  accomplishing more while costing a fraction of a penny when compared to the PRT dollar.

Which brings us to a topic many of you have been asking me about and that is Koran burning threat by an obscure pastor who has a 50 member flock. Obviously the ruckus raised by our main stream media over this threat caused those of us in Afghanistan a lot of problems. However it is hard to take the Secretary of Defense or General Petraus seriously when they warn how inappropriate it is to burn this book when last year our military burned boxes of Dari and Pashtun translations of the Bible which had been sent to Afghanistan by a Christian organization. Why is it OK to burn the Bible and not the Koran?  The only person of prominence to address the Koran burning issue in a clear honest fashion was Sarah Palin who said this:

People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.

As I listened to the response by our dinosaur media, military leaders, and President to the Koran burning threat I longed to hear them address this topic in clear honest language. This they cannot do and I am left with  just one conclusion. Our elites think the American people are stupid. They insult us with their Quisling like knee jerk reactions and selective outrage when talking about sensitive matters concerning Islam. Nobody needs to tell me how dangerous it is to burn the Koran in a highly publicized manner – my colleagues and I are at much greater risk from the fallout of that act than any military person stationed in Afghanistan.  But I’m an American citizen; I do not knuckle my brow, bend my knee or bow before any man for any reason at any time.

Obama breaks his neck for America

Nor do I selectively apply the freedoms granted to me by God and enshrined in our constitution. We are a free people but freedom requires eternal vigilance with the steadfast devotion to principle. All men are equal under American law, all religions are equal too so none deserves nor can be granted special status or consideration. Why is it our ruling class elites and their henchmen in the media have forgotten this basic component of the American way? When I explain my view to the Afghans I work with they understand exactly what I am saying and why…and they respect the message. I’m with Sarah Palin on this one; at least she isn’t treating the American people like a bunch of know-nothing bumpkins.

Rocky Road

As the summer started I was optimistic that we would see indications that we are gaining ground in Afghanistan but that has not happened. Incident rates are skyrocketing which is not a bad thing if it is our side initiating the incidents but this too is not the case. While ISAF is conducting more raids and presence patrols they do not seem to have learned how to conduct these operations while managing the perceptions of the population we are supposed to be protecting.  By projecting force off of FOB’s and then pulling back into them when the kinetics are done we create a vacuum after every operation.

The aftermath of a brief reportedly violent demonstration on the Jalabad/Torkham road yesterday morning
The aftermath of a brief reportedly violent demonstration on the Jalabad/Torkham road yesterday morning

Earlier in the week a joint Afghan/American SF team raided a madrasa in Sarracha village which is next to the massive airfield/military base in Jalalabad.  They hit the madrasa at night and arrested five men described as mullahs or madrasa students (depends on who you ask). The next morning a large crowd closed the main highway between Jalalabad and the border and threatened to start burning cars and throwing stones at the police. The police responded in great numbers but when they arrived a local candidate for Parliament was on hand calming the crowd down and swearing “he will not rest” until he has talked with the Governor and ISAF and the police to get the people detained released. As it was approaching 100 degrees and this is Ramadan the crowd said OK and dispersed. By the time I got there the police were gone and only a few men remained who were clearing the road of rocks. My terp JD and I asked what had happened and were told the American SF had raided the Madras and taken five students and then they tore up the Koran. I burst out laughing at that one as did JD who immediately called bullshit and asked the guy how he could say something so stupid. The man started laughing too – everyone in this country knows that neither US or Afghan troops are going to touch let alone destroy a Koran.

The fuel tanker fleet continues to use anti bording parties topside only now they are in place from the Torkham border all the way to Kabul.
The fuel tanker fleet continues to use anti boarding parties topside only now they are in place from the Torkham border all the way to Kabul.

Here’s the thing – why is an Afghan political candidate managing the perceptions of a raid we conducted on a village less than a mile from one of our regional bases? Pashtunwali works both ways and if these people are harboring villains then who is accountable for that?  I’m not advocating rounding people up and sweating them I’m saying the elders should be called into the mosque for a shura with the district governor and both Afghan and ISAF military representation and forced to explain why they can’t keep their house in order. If that seems a bit confrontational then both sides can explain their positions and everyone can talk for hours to reach some sort of understanding. Allowing insurgents into a village puts the village at risk because ISAF and the Afghan Army seek insurgents out and hit them aggressively. The potential for collateral damage is significant and the responsibility for that damage has to rest on those who allow targets into their midst. We are using all carrots or all sticks depending on geographic location. In Kunar Province ISAF fights daily while delivering aid programs but in Nangarhar Province we swoop down in the middle of the night and take away suspected insurgents and leave. This allows various actors with their own agendas to fill the vacuum we create with whatever message benefits them. Kunar gets the carrots while Nangarhar gets the stick and I’m not sure why that is. Until ISAF wises up and starts calibrating their operations to gain the maximum effect from every offensive action we are going to continue to get played by Afghan elites.

 

Now the villains have switched up hitting tankers heading into Kunar as the transit Jalalabad towards the Bishood Bridge. This was a spectacular attack as the driver hit the gas when his truck blew up in an attempt to outrun the flames shooting out of the back. He didn't make it but did leave a trail of burning fuel for the entire length of the main downtown area.
Now the villains have switched up their tactics hitting tankers heading into Kunar as the transit Jalalabad towards the Bishood Bridge. This was a spectacular attack as the driver hit the gas when his truck blew up in an attempt to outrun the flames shooting out of the back. He didn’t make it but did leave a trail of burning fuel for the entire length of the main downtown area.

 

ISAF needs to think through these night raids. They do not attempt to manage perceptions because the SF teams doing these raids don’t give a damn about the perceptions in an area they’ll visit once in a lifetime. In the last 72 hours we have had 16 rockets and 6 IED attacks in Nangarhar Province. One of these IED attacks killed the sub governor of La Pur district at the gates of the Governor’s compound. Was it Taliban who did this?  Who knows?  The local people know that the Sub Governor had been spending time in Kabul trying to get his son released from jail. His son has been incarcerated for two months since he copped to killing one of his cousins over a family dispute. A crime he may or may not have done himself.  Nothing here is linear or simple and  it is common for the son of powerful men to take a fall knowing their father will get them out of prison. There are lots of scores to settle in Afghanistan and the Taliban are not the only actors settling scores.

 

Today 5 trucks were destoyed in a gas station a few miles to the east of Jalalabad by a single limpet mine attack
Today 5 trucks were destroyed in a gas station a few miles to the east of Jalalabad by a single limpet mine attack

 

One mine - quickly attached from a passing motorcycle was all it took
One mine quickly attached from a passing motorcycle was all it took

 

It appears that the intial explosion caused a massive fireball which wiped out the men siting in the station office. Over 70% of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the various insurgent groups
The men siting in the station office were not injured but the flaming fuel destroyed the office which was downstream of the tankers.  Nobody was killed this time but over 70% of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the various insurgent groups

 

There is another mine attached to one of the trucks parked in the background but it failed to function. Being that Friday is a day off the Skipper is, as usual on a call in the boonies and will have to get this one when he finishes. The Skipper is a "man of the book" and tells me "evil never takes a day off and niether do I"l
There was another mine attached to one of the trucks parked in the background which went off shortly after I took this picture. But the truck was full of water and didn’t burn so the ANP immediately arrested the driver and his assistant for fuel theft.

The tanker wars continue as you can see above but to what end? It could be the “broken windows” theory of terrorism where the bad guys seek to keep constant pressure on the civilians with nuisance attacks in highly trafficked areas creating the perception of tactical freedom of action or it could be fuel company wars.  Who knows?  I don’t and I am pretty sure ISAF doesn’t either.

This is the start of a higly charged meeting between the Rodat district sub governor, the police chief and the station owner. The topic of the meeting is easy to guess - why can't the government protect people from this sort of nonesense
This is the start of a highly charged meeting between the Rodat district sub governor, the police chief and the station owner. The topic of the meeting is easy to guess – why can’t the government protect people from this sort of nonsense.

The summer is coming to a close, the surge is on, the bases around Afghanistan are packed with military and contractor personnel yet for the average Afghan things continue to go right down the toilet. Make no mistake we are still in a shooting war and in a shooting war a commander has three forms of currency he must spend; money, blood and time.  The various insurgent groups are spending blood – we are spending tons of money and time. The problem is that the Taliban has a vast surplus of fighters while we are running out of both money and time. ISAF is hamstrung for two reasons; the first is risk aversion and lack of initiative. The bloated staffs which expand exponentially are completely focused on the unimportant.  If powerpoint briefs could bring the Taliban to bay  (and they could if we could inflict a few on them daily – they are worse than water torture) then we would already be home. Anyone who has been anywhere near the ISAF HQ in Kabul speaks of a dysfunctional culture so bizarre that Hollywood could never do it justice. The giant staffs which inflict so much pain and misery on those below them are a self inflicted wound and that is on the US military. The second factor the military can do little about and that is the Karzai government.  Check this out:

After the corruption scandals, Karzai criticized U.S. war strategy and ordered private security companies out of Afghanistan within four months. He also signed off on the forced retirement of his official in charge of the Anti-Corruption unit.

We put pressure on the Afghan government about the corruption – they put pressure on the international community operating outside the wire who in turn put pressure on their respective international governments. That is not a recipe for success. This news about the CIA paying members of the Karzai administration who are currently under criminal investigation is a great example. I have no problems with doing what it takes to accomplish the mission but we have been at this for a decade and it seems to me if the information we paid for was worth a damn the ISAF J2 would not publicly complain about the complete lack of relevant intelligence and the current security stats wouldn’t look like this:

AGE is UN speak for anti government elements and as you can see they are operating at an all time high
AGE is UN speak for Anti-Government Elements and as you can see they are operating at an all time high.  Hat tip to Sami the Finn at Indicium Consulting.

I correspond almost daily with American troops in Afghanistan,  They are a frustrated crew. I hear the same thing over and over – “take the handcuffs off and let us off the FOB; we know what to do.”  I’m not the only one getting this message and hope those on high are thinking about what they’re hearing from the pointed end of the spear because we are running out of time and we are running out of money.

The Dog Days of Summer

I am overdue on updating all of you on local atmospherics in the rapidly destabilizing Nangarhar Province.

I also recently did another episode of The Aloyna Show where I took a SWAG at who I think is responsible for the murders of the international medical team headed by Dan Terry and Tom Little – the interview is below:

I think it is fair to say that I did not have much more to say on that topic because I remain stunned at what happened to my friends. And the bad news just keeps getting worse….The villains set up and took a shot at The Skipper last week and damn near got him.

 

They lured The Skipper and his boys across the bridge into Kunar Province with this fake bomb - it was full of sand and rocks.
They lured The Skipper and his boys across the bridge into Kunar Province with this fake bomb – it was full of sand and rocks.

 

Then they blew a remote controlled IED (RCIED) under his truck. It was in a plastic jug like the fake bomb the energy from the blast when 360 degrees doing little damage to the Skippers ride.
Then they blew a remote controlled IED (RCIED) under his truck. It was in a plastic jug like the fake bomb the energy from the blast went 360 degrees doing little damage to the Skippers ride.

 

The local militia and ANP showed up - everyone was vbery upset that The Skipper was attacked and nobody could imagine how such a device was planted right there next to the bridge. No idea
The local militia and ANP showed up – everyone was very upset that The Skipper was attacked and nobody could imagine how such a device was planted next to the bridge.

The Skipper wasn’t injured in this blast –  nobody was which would make one think that maybe it was a warning. But for those of us who live with this shit daily it is impossible to figure out what is going on. They could have set that bomb for The Skipper expecting it to blow him to kingdom come, they could have set it up to just make noise because he’s The Skipper and they want to warn him he is no longer welcome. They could have screwed up the HME (home made explosives) recipe. There is no Taliban proficiency matrix with which to judge attacks because of the wide disparity in competence between various Taliban units. Look at this article from The Atlantic; even the Lib media is figuring out that we are fighting a bunch of clowns. Of course that brings the real question to mind which is why aren’t we beating the snot out of them but I’m going to leave that alone for now.  From the Atlantic article linked above:

“Nowhere is the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality more apparent than in Afghanistan, where its fair to say that the Taliban employ the world’s worst suicide bombers: one in two manages to kill only himself. And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.”

There was an attack on the safe-house of one of the security firms in Kabul last week involving two suicide bombers. They popped up well inside the new Kabul “Ring of Steel” checkpoint system (which seems designed to harass internationals) and opened fire on the exterior guards in front of the Hart Security compound. The Hart guards returned fire for a second or two and locked themselves inside the compound as did the exterior guards outside the gates of every other compound on that street. The attackers ran up to the Hart gate and one positioned himself to blow the gate while the other moved back about 20 feet. When bad guy number one blew down the gate, bad guy two also perished because 20 feet of stand-off is inadequate for powerful suicide vests. Almost funny right?

As the fighting season continues the good guys are losing more land and population to the various insurgent groups operating in the country. Teams of doctors are being murdered in the remote provinces, attacks are launched inside the ANP “Ring of Steel” (or Ring of Steal as JD and Haji jan call it) and where is the focus of the Afghan government?  On private security companies of course… yes why not?

Now is exactly not the right time to make all PSC’s illegal and let the ANP and ministry of the interior (MOI) provide security to convoy’s, military bases and internationals working in the reconstruction sector.  There are not enough men in the Afghan security forces to go around and their proficiency in preforming these tasks is suspect (to put it politely). But forget that – the real question is how much is this going to cost. We already pay for the ANP and ANA – if they are going to provide mobile and static security then I guess the millions of dollars being paid to private companies will no longer be needed right?  Wrong. The MOI is planning to charge PMC rates to augment the millions given them by donor nations. One can predict with 100% certainty what will happen if President Karzai goes through with this crazy scheme. The logistics pipeline will start to rapidly dry up, internationals will be unable to move without their (mandated by their insurance) expat security teams and their projects will ground to a halt. Military operations will have to be suspended because there will not be enough Afghan Security Forces to both fight and provide theater wide static and mobile security support.

For companies working outside the wire in the reconstruction sector the absence of international PSD teams will also impact their ability to get insurance (required by contract law) for internationals at reasonable rates.  At exactly the time that internationals operating outside the wire need to be armed the laws are changing to make it illegal for internationals to be armed. How are we supposed to operate now?

I’ll leave you with a translation of the new presidential decree on PSC’s so you too can puzzle at it’s meaning with the rest of us:

Decree Translation
President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan About dissolution of Private Security Companies
# 65
17.08.2010

Article 1:
Based on point 3,4 article 64 and 66 of Afghan constitution in order to fight the corruption, provision of security for all citizen, avoiding the public disorder and misusing the weapon, uniform and military equipment by private security companies which causes the tragic incidents. After legal and necessary assessment about dissolution of internal and external private security companies within four months I approve the following points.  

Article 2:
Individual volunteer members of private security companies, if they are qualified can be reintegrated with or without weapon, ammunition, vehicles and other on-hand equipment after registration into the police lines and ministry of interior affair is assigned to complete the reintegration of abovementioned companies and finalize it according to the timeline.  

Article 3:
The supplies and equipments of foreign private security companies which have already been registered in ministry of interior in case of transportation in initial signed protocol should not belong to government. After agreement of companies MoI, MoD and NDS should purchase the supplies and equipment and the residential visa of companies’ personnel should be cancelled.  

Article 4:
In case the companies do not agree to sale the equipment their residential visa’s should be cancelled and they can take their supplies and equipments with them out of country.

Article 5:
The internal and external private security companies that are not registered in MoI and established arbitrary, should be abort as illegal security companies and their supplies and military equipments to be confiscated in accordance to the law.

Article 6:
Embassies in Kabul, foreign consulates in provinces also international organizations, NGOs and economic organizations that are active around the country can have their self belonged private security inside their compounds, that should not be allowed to move outside the relevant compound and the size will be determined and registered by MoI.  

Article 7:
Ministry of Interior is assigned to provide external security for all embassies and International organizations, NGO in Kabul and in provinces, provide necessary facilities in registration and issuing license for weapons and equipment individuals private security organizations as mentioned in article five of this decree and provide security for all logistical transportations of international troops from province to Kabul, districts and vice-versa in cooperation with MoD and NDS.  

Article 8:
This decree is valid from the issuance date and the implementation is MoI responsibility.  

Hamid Karzai
President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Getting After It

One of the Chim Chim’s dropped in for a visit last month.  He was on some sort of ISAF  inspection team which I didn’t ask too much about and told us that every-time he asked officers from the unit he was looking at what they were doing the reply was “getting after it.” They were getting after it by doing daily presence patrols and stopping every now and then to talk with the local villagers.  They then return to the FOB for the night. General Petraeus is getting ready to release a revision of the rules of engagement and early reports say he has included “you can’t commute to the battle” guidance just as he did in Iraq. That is sound tactical advice when the bad guys aren’t commuting to fight – they’re here, right now and exerting more influence then we have seen in the past.

The Taliban have been getting after the lucrative and popular DVD and CD shops all summer. This one was destroyed by about 3lbs of explosives which went off around midnight when it was empty.
The Taliban have been getting after the lucrative and popular DVD and CD shops all summer. This one was destroyed by about 3lbs of explosives which went off around midnight when it was empty.

 

As of three days ago every DVD and CD shop in Jalalabad closed their doors. These shops generate a lot of income and were very popular. Closing them all down is a big deal and the local people, as they are prone to do, blame the government and ISAF for not protecting them.

colatteral damage from the DVD shop blast - this barber shop was destroyed too.
Collateral damage from the DVD shop blast – this barber shop was destroyed too.

I know I have said this too many times before but the fact remains you can’t project security to any segment of the population from a FOB.  You cannot even protect the population living right outside the fence next to the FOB as the Taliban demonstrated last night when they plastered night letters all over the village of Base Ekmalati. A village right behind the large ISAF base in Jalalabad and the same village that I wrote about in this post about the floods.

Page one of the Base Ekmalati night letter
Page one of the Base Ekmalati night letter

Here is what the night letter said:

Military Commission of Nangarhar Province

Message of Islamic Emirates Mujahedeen’s to the brave and Mujahid Nation of Nangarhar Province

 

Allah the great has said lots of realities through his messenger Mohammad that you won’t make these Non-Muslims happy unless you convert to their religion. Every one has eye witnessed the current, devil Supper power, with of Christianity and Jewish fanaticism, thirsty of innocent blood, has invaded the Islamic land of Afghanistan, and trying to reach their hungry and starving goals, by killing innocent people, widowing thousands of women, and orphaned thousands of kids, killings tens of brides and grooms during their wedding nights, bombed/destroyed tens of Madrasas and Masjids, searching our personal belongings in our house looking Usama and Al Qaeda, but few sensation less faces who always sold their Muslim brothers blood for few Dollars are accompanying, and chanting slogans that whatever they, but long life to us.

Still Afghani sensation is alive, still there are lions, in the mountains and Jangles, however a number Mujahedeen’s has died, and wounded, but this has more reinforced Muhedeen’s moral, jailing and difficulties has convinced them more to fight for freedom, and now this feared enemy who was looking at the ground but to the sky, and the slogan for the Muslims they had was either arrest them or kill them, but now with success of Jihad, they are running around the world and seeking an escape route.

Since the enemy is facing their sure defeat, now they are trying to sparate the nation from the Mujaheddens, and discredited Mujahedeens in all different ways.

The Islamic Emirate is informing the nation that we are the guards of Islamic soil and the guard’s life and property, and with the cost of our blood we consider this our religious duty.

The brave nation be awake and remember that the enemy is in escaping position, do not let them to mislead you, and do not let them blame you as the thieves and the abductors.

Islamic Emirate Is Informing the Nation of the necessary things as follows

 

The Islamic Emirates inform the nation from the following matters.

  1. Those who abducting local and Tribal elders, and charging locals for all the different types of taxations/charities, they are not Taliban indeed, but American agents. The Islamic Emirate is seriously looking into this issue, whoever again faces the mentioned problems they should contact and inform the local Mujahedeens in there are of their problems, in case they can not reach the local Mujahedeens, they can contact the local elders or scholars, so that they can reach the Military Commission, the criminal will face severe consequences.
  2. If any one, welling to pay   charity to the Islamic Emirate, he should contact three people District Military commission and at the same time three people from Province Military commission.
  3. The Islamic Emirate is having different commission for, natural resources, Mines, NGOs, those who are working in the mentioned sectors has to refer to them, and if any one is asking them for money they are not Taliban, but the American agents, and Insha’Allah they will face the same consequences as the Americans.

To the Authorities

  1. Those who are working with the ANA/ANP, Parliament, Provincial counsel and other governmental organizations for few dollars they should immediately quite their jobs, and promise Allah that they won’t do it in the future. This will be the last warning of Mujahedeens of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan for them.
  2. Those conscienceless spies, who are spying about Muslims for few dollars we have a list of them and very soon we will publish their details, and for sure they will face severe consequences.
  3. Some slave type people who are trying to establish tribal Arbakia forces or to convince others to join these forces, the Islamic Emirate is not differentiating them from the Americans.

To The Scholars and Mullahs

  1. Dear, you are the leaders of the tribe, and the representatives of Mohammad, you better know that most Quranic verses and Adiths is ordering to stay away from non Muslims and tells to fight them, this is your Islamic duty and responsibility that you implement this order of Allah.

Those of you who know a thing or two about night letters will note that this one lacks a seal of either the commander or the organization who released it. But the abrupt closing of all the DVD shops in town indicates the bad guys have established a foothold inside the city.

I wish I could see some evidence that the American Army is getting after it too but so far, with the exception of a brief, effective offensive in Kunar I see nishta.  The Army is setting itself up for more scathing criticism like this article.  An example from the linked article:

Yet even as I was filling my notebook with details of their delusionary schemes, the base commander told me he had already been forced to put aside development. He had his hands full facing a Taliban onslaught he hadn’t expected. Throughout Afghanistan, insurgent attacks have gone up 51 percent since the official adoption of  COIN as the strategy  du jour. On this eastern front, where the commander had served six years earlier, he now faces a surge of intimidation, assassination, suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and fighters with greater technical capability than he has ever seen in Afghanistan.

The only reason we are not seeing more stories like this is the media narrative remains squarely with the Obama administration and they are not going to release too many stories ridiculing our (his) efforts on the ground. How much longer will that paradigm hold?  Saying you are focused on bringing security to the population while doing little in the way of securing the population is obviously not going to work much longer. Had the reporter (Ms. Jones) been a little more savvy about things military she may have asked the one question nobody can honestly answer and that is if you are not going to secure the population then why are all these people here and shouldn’t they be sent home?

The Taliban are out in the open, trying to tax the people, running shadow governments, putting up night letters to intimidate the people living 100 meters outside the wire of a major regional base. There is only one thing the military can do given current ground truths and one need look no further than Herschel Smith at the Captains Journal to find the yellow (school solution.)

They need to look into the eyes of every inhabitant, be inside every home, take every fingerprint and scan every iris.   Their patrols need to be ubiquitous, day and night, and they don’t need to wait on the ANA or send them into the homes first.   They need to proceed with door kicking in the middle of the night if that’s what it takes, they need to project force, and they need to do it beginning now and carrying on until every last insurgent has been captured or killed.   Killed is better than captured given the poor state of the Afghanistan system of justice (i.e., catch and release).

It is just that simple but we seem to be light-years away from doing this. Now everything hangs in the balance, all the work we have done, all the programs we are currently running, all of that is now in play and the bad guys are setting the agenda, have the initiative, and dictating the terms of the fight.  They’re the ones who are getting after it.

Losing Hearts and Minds

Ben Arnoldy at the Christen Science Monitor penned an excellent tale on reconstruction efforts going pear shaped and the consequences resulting from such folly.  It is good reporting from one of the truly professional foreign correspondents working the country today. The report was original, focused and resulted from Ben going to the remote Badakshan Province for a couple of weeks to get the details correct and to prove that traveling in the safer northern provinces is easy.  This article is  the perfect book end to last weeks Toronto Star piece on Panjwayi  Tim and Ghost Team because it highlights the futility of traditional US AID standard operating procedures. Ben sums up the point of his article with these opening paragraphs:

On paper, the multi-pronged project revitalized a backward Afghan province, weaning it off poppy cultivation and winning Afghan hearts and minds.

However, a Monitor investigation reveals that even in spite of a few modest gains, the Afghans here were left angered over project failures, secrecy, and wasted funds.

“Now the people are hating American companies like PADCO because many times they brought millions of dollars, but didn’t do anything,” says Syed Abdul Basir Husseini, the electricity chief for Badakhshan Province. “All Badakhshanis know that it was $60 million [that America] spent,” he says, adding that they see little evidence of it.

The story of what went wrong exposes serious weaknesses in the third pillar of America’s “clear, hold, build” Afghan strategy. Among them: big-spending hastiness, unrealistic deadlines, high development staff turnover, planning divorced from ground realities, and ever-present security risks in this war-torn nation.

“In Vietnam, they were measuring success of operations in the numbers that are killed. In Afghanistan, it is how many schools you are building and how much money you spent. This is better, but as wrong,” says Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, in Kabul. “What you need to measure is what is the impact of what you’ve done.”

I’ve talked about this some many times before that I’m sick of it so time to try something new; it’s time for a story board.

Wednesday 25 July the second "hundred year" flood in less than a year hit Jalalabad following a morning of torrential rain. This is the main road heading towards the airport.
Wednesday 25 July the second “hundred year” flood in less than a year hit Jalalabad following a morning of torrential rain. This is the main road heading towards the airport.

 

The Sarracha bridge - the new Afghan design was not passable but the ribbon bridge installed by the American PRT stood up much better than the stone bridge last year.
The Sarracha bridge – the new Afghan design was not passable but the ribbon bridge installed by the American PRT stood up much better than the stone bridge last year.

 

A modern compound like ours has no problem handling heavy rains
A modern compound like ours has no problem handling heavy rains

 

The avergae Afghan family compound has no grass or driveways so heavy rains are a real problem for them.
The average Afghan family compound has no grass or driveways so heavy rains are a real problem for them.

 

Just like last year the flood caused extensive damage and a few deaths in the villages on the east end of town. Capt A from Ghost Team, The Professor from the American NGO CHF (International) and I teamed up to try and find the source of the flooding and what could be done about it.
Just like last year the flood caused extensive damage and a few deaths in the villages on the east end of town. The next day Capt A from Ghost Team, The Professor from an American NGO and I teamed up to try and find the source of the flooding and what could be done about it.

 

Less than two hours after the monsoon started this village was under 3 meters of swiftly moving water
Less than two hours after the monsoon started this village was under 3 meters of swiftly moving water

 

Crop and road damage about 1 kilometer outside the village
Crop and road damage about 1 kilometer outside the village

 

We heard the familar sound of an IED going off and saw the signature of a fuel tanker attack near FOB Fenty.
We heard the familiar sound of an IED going off and saw the signature of a fuel tanker attack near FOB Fenty.

 

We pushed on - that's The Professor from CHF being escorted by local kids from the village
We pushed on – that’s The Professor being escorted by local kids from the village

 

The villans had hit one of the tankers sitting outside FOB Fenty with a limpet mine.
The villans had hit one of the tankers sitting outside FOB Fenty with a limpet mine.

 

All the fuel tankers traveling the Jalalabad truck by-pass now put their A-drivers on the top to thwart motorcyle mounted limpet mine bombers.
All the fuel tankers traveling the Jalalabad truck by-pass now put their A-drivers on the top to thwart motorcycle mounted limpet mine bombers.

 

These guys lack a sense of style - they're missing a chance to jock up with cool old fashioned weapons like pikes or swords for repelling motorcycle mounted knuckleheads.
These guys lack a sense of style – they’re missing a chance to jock up with cool old fashioned weapons like pikes or swords for repelling motorcycle mounted knuckleheads.

 

The problem - to the left and right is the main water canal for the municipal government. There are three points in the east of the city where the canal goes underground to alloe flash flood drainage. It is clear that there needs to be levees built to control the water which funnels through these chokepoints to cause so much devestation down stream
The problem – to the left and right is the main water canal for the municipal government. There are three points in the east of the city where the canal goes underground to allow flash flood drainage; this is one of them.  It is clear that there needs to be levees built to control the water funneling through these choke-points.

 

Local kids playing in a pool created by the flood waters
Local kids playing in a pool created by the flood waters

 

DSC_0583

As I’m writing this post I’m watching the Afghan Security Face chat room explode with information on a firefight and rioting in Kabul. The story is already on the wire – apparently a armored SUV hit a local car on the main road to the airport causing several fatalities, a crowd gathered, shots were fired and the vehicle drove back into the entrance to the US Embassy which was only a few hundred yards away. After that a firefight erupted, and unknown number of people were killed, and currently crowds are stoning any cars they suspect contain foreigners or ISAF military.  What can one say about a self inflicted wound of such severity?General rioting in the most heavily controlled area of Kabul can rapidly spread to other cities putting the lives of internationals who are out and about in grave danger. If there are any more incidents like the one unfolding in Kabul it’s going to get damn hard to stay outside the wire.