LaRue Tactical Hats

Shem and I took advantage of getting kitted out in all our gear to re-take some pictures for LaRue Tactical in Texas. All the furniture and sights on or M4’s comes from LaRue and they were kind enough to send a surprise care package full of hats, their signature dry rub and other goodies. We figured the least we could do is send a snap shot back with a written thank you. Here is the most interesting of the photos we took.

It is hard to describe what makes a good photo good but the one above caught everyones eye as having some good qualities. Maybe it is the lighting or a fleeting expression or some other intangible but this one just feels interesting.

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Talking with the AOG

There are many names used in Afghanistan to describe the groups hostile to the central government. Taliban, insurgents, Anti Government Elements (AGE) and Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) are the most common descriptors. AOG can be Taliban, criminal gangs who cooperate with the Taliban, rent-a-Taliban (mostly teenage boys who need money and want adventure) or militias controlled by warlords. Every armed group has its own agenda and few cooperate with each other. This is their principal weakness -the inability to operate with unity of command or purpose. Our big weakness is that we cannot take advantage of their weakness because most (not all) of our military is confined to large bases and most (not all) have a limited understanding of tribal dynamics in their areas of operation.

We were asked by a journalist if we could set up an interview for a story he’s working on. Here he is talking with the village Malik from Spur Kunday and an AOG fighter up in the hills above Surobi.

It is not comfortable for us being out in the open like this. We are at the mouth of the Uzbin valley up in the foothills just off the dirt track which is the only road in the area. The valley has seen much fighting since the French ambush last month. The chances of a predator or some other American surveillance platform zooming in on us to determine friend or foe status is high. We are certain that the American ROE would prohibit attacking us as long as they do not see weapons. But who wants to chance that? Not us which is why we tried to hurry the interview along as best we could.

Shem and I left the weapons and body armor in our vehicle and pulled security for the hour or so it took to conduct the interview. It is a strange situation to be in – we could not put a US flag or an air panel on our roof because we know there are bad guys in the hills above us. We also could not walk around with our rifles which would offer protection from local AOG but open the door for a visit from Mr. Predator.

Friday morning we got organized and set off for our interview – here is a shot of us getting jocked up in the local garb. Shawal Kameez, pakol hat, scarf and vest over the body armor. On the road we take off the sunglasses because Afghans don’t wear them. We do not fool any locals who get a good look at us as we scream by in our vehicle but that is not the point. The point is to be inside the OODA loop of anyone looking to cause mischief. If a bad guy wants to ambush internationals on the Jalalabad – Kabul road he has to Observe the target, Orient his weapon systems on the target, Decided to attack and then Attack the target. Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA.) That loop takes much longer then most people realize because most people received their tactical combat training via Hollywood movies. In the real world understanding the OODA loop theory and how to apply it is the fundamental building block upon which an accurate threat assessment is made. Unless AOG spotters have identified us and radioed ahead to an ambush team (something we have never seen on the Jbad road to date) it would require superhuman decision making ability to ID us and decide to attack us as we scream by in a vehicle that looks just like every other local SUV on the road.

The key to low visibility ops is being smooth because smooth = fast and fast is how we move on the highway up to Surobi. And I mean really fast – we always put new tires and brakes on every vehicle we rent. Being in an auto accident is our number one security concern so we don’t skimp on the vehicle maintenance.

 

The meeting took a long time but that is a story for our journalist friend to tell. Shem and I spread out and kept watch moving to the vehicle and our guns any time another vehicle drove past. Check out our haji SUV:

 

This is what I mean about being exposed, sitting on the topographical crest like this is no good but what are you going to do? The trip back was uneventful and smooth.

Launching the Tajmahal Guesthouse Website

This is the second day in a row we have been working on upgrading the Tajmahal website. With the able help of webmaster Ken and many others we are finally there. www.tajmahalguesthouse.com Here is a great shot of geek central. The Taj’s Bamboo bar where we hang out most evenings with our laptops listening to Soma FM and sometimes chatting about the stories we email each other from a foot or two away.

The services and security section of the website is pretty good so I’m posting it here too for the edification of my readership.

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The Caves of Little Barabad

We recently took a trip across the river into Beshud District to the village of Little Barabad to photograph the old caves that line northern shore of the Kabul river.

When we show up at this village we often pick up and escort of local kids – the tend to segregate by gender and here are some of the girls from Little Barabad

The people of Little Barabad are Kuchi tribesmen who are dirt poor from a different tribe than the Shinwari’s who live up the river in the village of Big Barabad. Because the elders from these two villages can’t agree on anything Little Barabad suffers and cannot spend their NSP (National Solidarity Program) monies to build a well or make other infrastructure improvements. The NSP money comes from the World Bank and they have $2,000 for each household but that money can only be spent on projects which collectively benefit the village and the only recognized village in this area is Big Barabad

The San Diego sister cities project is scheduled to be build a foot bridge over the Kabul River which would allow the kids from Little Barabad to attend school. There is a large school just 300 meters away on the Jalalabad side of the river but it is an hour’s drive by road. The people of little Barabad do not have a vehicle or much of a road for that matter so their kids are not able to attend school.

San Diego and the La Jolla Rotary Club have been very active in Jalalabad which is a sister city to San Diego. How that happened remains a mystery but believe it or not they (both the city and its Rotary Club) have dumped a ton of money into Nangarhar University and Jalalabad. Here is the current method of crossing the Kabul River and the reason why a foot bridge will be such a God send. When you look at this float keep in mind the river is swift and none of the people in these parts know how to swim.

Fording the river Afghan style

One goal of today’s trip was to get a proper picture of my new SOMA FM tee shirt to send into their web site. Inshallah they will post it so getting the pistol in frame was important. From looking at my fellow donors at the Soma FM site I’m sure to be the only one who even owns a pistol. Soma is based out of San Francisco so I’m sure they’ll find the pic of an armed American to be innately disturbing. Guns = authority = bad to them. To me guns = keeping authority in check and small = good. Plus there is a war going on here and even though it is easy to avoid drama one must be prepared. Be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them. That’s a Marine moto that is worth remembering in this line of work.

Some of the boys who escort us around the area

 

Shem making friends – I think the boy on the left may have some Russian blood in his family 

T

Chai with the locals

The village kids love to have their pictures taken and always enjoy it when we come by to hike up to the caves. We hook them up with a bottled water and a dollar each for being our guides. See how blond the kid in the middle of the photograph above is? You see that a lot of that in Nangarhar Province. The Soviets kept it pretty quiet when they were here and even had an R&R camp in Jalalabad. They also let their troops off the base and into the bazaar where they could support the local economy. I go to the bazaar all the time myself and the local merchants seem to enjoy it when an international stops in to chat them up and buy junk.

Many of the locals think our troops are cowards because they only see them in armored trucks racing through the town and pointing weapons at anyone and who they feel gets to close to them.  The Soviets flooded the bazaar when they were off duty and I believe our troops and the Afghan people would both benefit if our military adopted the same liberty policy as the Soviets. Getting close to the locals is a good thing and the basic tenant of our counterinsurgency doctrine. Judging from all the blond and red headed kids we see in Jalalabad some of the Russians got a little too close to the locals which is a dangerous game to play in Pashtun lands.

The cave complex. Our speculation is they date from the Buddhist era around 178 AD

Little Barabad is really a collection of compounds belonging to one extended family. They have goats and sheep, three cows, plus a little corn and wheat but that is about it.

Last July the caves were full of bats.

The bats were “nishta” or all gone this time because they seem to occupy the caves during the heat of summer. We will have to wait until next year to get a good picture of the bats. Inshallah we will still be able to move freely then…Inshallah

Kabul Re-up Run

Today the Bot and I had to run to Kabul for a re-up. We started our journey by striking a pose for our sponsor. Well not a real sponsor but they sent us some hats, bumper stickers, steak rub, and a generous assortment of candy so we feel sponsored. Here is Shem (a.k.a. Shem Bot a.k.a. Bot) and I at the start of the day with our signature La Rue Tactical hats. We’ll have to do this again as I have been told by the resident expert that this picture lacks technical merit due to failure to use proper lens filters.

The drive was smooth and fast. We rent SUV’s and switch them up frequently so we do not stand out on the road. We stop at all checkpoints and chat up the ANP (Afghan National Police) who appreciate that we speak some Pashto and are polite. In this country a little Pashto or Dari and a big smile will win you a ton of goodwill from the local officials and people.

 The problem with traveling in low profile mode is running into an ISAF or American military convoy can cause drama. I was shot at by the American Army in downtown Kabul back in ’07 while driving a brand new Armored Land Cruiser with diplomatic plates identifying it as belonging to the Government of Japan. A rear gunner in a five truck convoy thought I got a little too close to them as they were exiting a traffic circle. I may well have strayed too close but it never occurred to me that the young trooper would not recognize a large brand new armored SUV as being on his side. The startled gunner unleashed a good 6 round burst into the hills above my truck (where about 3000 people live packed into squalid mud huts.) I was out of the drivers door and running down the road yelling at this idiot before I realized what I was doing. That startled the five hundred or so Afghan pedestrians who stopped and watched this unfold in utter amazement.

That was an embarrassing incident, getting too close to the convoy was sloppy on my part, getting shot at was bad, bolting out of the drivers door without even letting the vehicle stop was very bad but it elicited one of the more memorable quotes from my favorite Japanese client. He was a senior diplomat who I consider a great man and who I was very fond of and proud to work for. When I came back to the truck he looked at me shaking his head and muttering Tim san I do not understand how you people beat us. It is a funny story to tell now but it is also still a problem; our military is not learning how to operate here.

 We were jamming up the Mahipar Pass passing a slow moving truck when up pops the American Army in MRAPs and the Bot swears the turret gunner has his pistol pointed at him. The kid did have his pistol out but as the more experienced professional I opined that the chances of him even hitting the car from up on top of that giant armored vehicle were remote. Plus the soldier was switched on and lowered his pistol once he saw we were expats. The Bot took no comfort from that and unleashed a torrent of invective (as us high-speed writers say) which seemed to calm him down.

 Here are the guilty bastards (I say that in good humor mind you) as they moved further down the pass note the futility of attempting to keep all civilian traffic away from you which the military tries to do on all their convoys. Only once have I seen a convoy of obviously very experienced soldiers (French) who moved with the traffic and let the local vehicles get mixed in with their convoy. That is good solid thinking on their part.

As you can probably tell the pass is a long series of hairpin switchbacks and one can always count on a old truck to be broken down and blocking one lane in the road. The fuel truck in this photo is broken down which is why the buses are stacked up behind it. I have spent hours sitting on the road here because a truck broke down and blocked one of the four tunnels. Here is a good shot of the Mahpair pass;

After that bit of minor excitement we were off to Kabul to shop for proper pasta, some seafood, beer, wine, and spirits. We hit our favorite Italian place for a proper sit down lunch and spent the next few hours running around Kabul sans body armor and long guns. The Kabul PD gets crappy with expats for having full kit while transiting the metropolitan area. That is fair enough Kabul – is not currently a place where you can expect any problems unless you are driving in American or ISAF armored vehicles. There is no real reason for body armor or long guns, they upset the local citizenry as well as the authorities, so we go with the concealed carry route.

 Here is what the ole Haji ride looked like after our last stop in the greater Kabul area:

It was smooth sailing back to the Taj. We made it from Camp Warehouse to here in 85 minutes. There was little traffic on the road, no ISAF convoys thank god (they can double or triple your trip time and often jam up traffic for 5 to 10 miles behind them because they move so slow) and the weather was perfect. The Taj is now stocked and ready for the arrival of Baba Ken the leader of the Jbad geek squad. One of the wonders of the third world is the number of young men in these places who are scary proficient with computers.

Lazy Friday

Fridays are always laid back as it is the one day off we get each week. We had our normal compliment of French and German aid workers come by for drinks and a dip in the pool.

If you can’t tell my French friend Pierre is in flagrant violation of the Taj no Speedo rule. Every time we try to explain the rule to him he pretends not to understand us. But he and his crew are great folks who pay in Euros which makes them especially popular with me so we let him slide on the speedo thing.

The interesting tidbit of the day comes from the lady all to way in the right. She is German, works for GIZ and asked for our assessment of the attack last night on the Dih Bala district center which is 300 meters away from one of her offices. Like many IGO workers she has a high tolerance for risk. She has been here a long time, knows Dih Bala and the surrounding area well and is completely freaked out because there have been no problems with Taliban before.

Dih Bala is about 10 miles to the east of us and the home of many large clans of Brigands. They never molest the NGO’s or IGO’s as reconstruction makes it easier for them to smuggle stuff across the frontier which is how they have earned their living for the past 2 to 3 thousand years. The Governor of Nangarhar Province has successfully eliminated the cultivation opium poppy in the area but there are still tons of the stuff here because of the smuggling expertise of peoples like those in the Dih Bala district. So the fact that Taliban (armed criminal gangs do not attack district centers) is reportedly active and attacking the district center means something.

It could be the elders posturing with weapons to get the governors attention. The Governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, is from Khandahar Province and the local tribal chiefs have a tenuous working relationship with him. One way to get the attention and a little love from the big man is to have your district center attacked and then say you drove the bad guys out when the Afghan Army arrives to investigate. Or it could be the Taliban has moved into the district and that is always bad news for the elders. The Taliban normally removes the local power structure in order to dominate an area. Removal could be in the form of a pledge not to interfere with Taliban efforts to assassination. If the Taliban are not strong enough or if they miscalculate when dealing with certain elders the villagers will grab their rifles and fight. Intimidation of an armed population is a dangerous game – the Taliban screw it up sometimes.

Our assessment of Din Bala district is that the Taliban are back and strong enough to challenge the central government for the district center. Our German friend agreed which is a bitter thing for her to do because with the Taliban back her work here is at an end.

 As the security situation continues to deteriorate we have been making it point to look at every tanker and police check post attacked by the Taliban.

This truck was attacked by the Taliban note the local kid who has walked about 3 miles from Surobi to drain some of the remaining diesel.

The tanker pictured above was attacked from across the river and took a good 60 to 70 rounds into the cab and front right aspect. It also took an RPG round into the cab. The RPG shot was either beginners luck or we have one hell of a pro RPG gunner working the area. The closest probable ambush site is 400 meters away and 200 meters above the truck.

This truck was not attacked by the Taliban; it was torched to cover up fuel theft. I’m with my buddy Special K who visits from time to time and wanted a picture in the blog.

The tanker pictured above had 10 bullet and one RPG hit; all the rounds came in from the left rear or road side of the river. There are ANP checkposts 500 meters behind us and 500 meters to the front – it is impossible for an ambushing party to cross the river or set up on the side of the road without being detected.  All the Taliban attacks come from across the river and include enough firepower to fix the checkposts while they got after fuel tankers. That didn’t happen this time and there is also little fuel left in the tanker. Our guess is that it was emptied in Laghman Province and then shot up in exactly the same spot as the previous two Taliban attacks. The criminals were probably mounted in local vehicles, and they and driver escaped after paying off the cops. Just a guess but it is the simplest explanation.

Two trucks on the same road and attacked in almost the same spot and reported as Taliban attacks. This is why we spend so much time getting out and about.

9/11

It has been seven years since the events of 9/11. The war of terror or the Long War which is a better term is the reason I am here. I’m in Jalalabad Afghanistan where I’ve been living for the past year. I spent a few years living in Kabul and free ranging the country having found a reason to visit every province in Afghanistan. I’m a security contractor; outside the wire type and the crew I run with use low profile, local vehicles and are very good at talking their way past checkpoints.

The security contracting business in Afghanistan is tough. The American firms Blackwater, and DynCorp have all the good paying DoD and DoS contracts locked up and the rest of the market here consists of British PSC’s and a growing number of Afghan companies who employ Expats. Tight competition for lucrative reconstruction work drove the compensation rates into the basement.

Our State Department and US AID have established ridiculously heavy security standards that far exceed the UN MOSS (minimum operational security standard.) These stringent standards slow projects and drain millions from building infrastructure to paying for fleets of armored vehicles and large secure compounds. Other donor countries abide by the UN standards and their operating costs are a fraction of what the US spends on security and life support for their Aid implementers.

Tonight I am sitting behind the bar of the world famous Tajmahal Guesthouse (Taj) of Jalalabad. Check out the high speed hat;

Today we had a very pleasant surprise. They guys from LaRue Tactical in Texas sent us some candy, cool hats, and Dillo Dust which we immediately put to good use on our meat pie. Our cook Khan has been pissing and moaning about cooking during Ramadan and came up with a dozen very crappy meat pies and then took off for his home village to prepare for Eid. We were getting ready to go buy some chickens to cook up but tried dillo dusting the meat pies. It’s Thurday night which is the night the Tiki Bar hosts all the NGO folks and who wants to fuss with dressing out a skinny chicken during happy hour?

Here is the other expat IMOA guy working out of the Taj me best mate Shem Klimiuk, a former paratrooper from Oz.

So it is Poppy Eradication Program Bob’s birthday tonight. He’s former Army SF and loves to sing all the old crappy high rotation FM hair band songs from his misspent youth. His singing is horrible but he’s a “good bloke” in contractor speak so we tolerate the noise with grace and humor.

It is about 2200 here now and we have the usual mix of European NGO, American NGO and a sprinkling of outside the wire security types. Outside the wire guys are the ones who live in villas with the population where most of our military should be but is not.

The price we are paying for not having enough troops outside the wire is increased instability and more and more Taliban attacks. It is not yet a problem in Jbad city but the Jalalabad to Kabul road which is essential to the ISAF and US supply efforts and also for our weekly booze runs has been hit with all sorts of ambushes this summer. We go out to look at most of them in order to get a handle on just how bad the attacks are getting and the tactics they are using.

Here is a photo of the whole team from this summer when we were fortunate enough to have Amy Sun a PhD grad student from MIT who is a no kidding missile engineer. She was pretty sharp about figuring out what happened from the forensics and amount of fuel left in the tankers. She wasn’t bad at reading bullet and RPG strikes too in fact she was smarter about all this than we are which was annoying but handy.

Here we are checking out an ANP checkpost that claimed they were attacked and repulsed a force of 30 Taliban expending all their ammo in the process. Did you know 7.62×39 mm ammo (Ak 47 bullets) sells for in Afghanistan? 75 cents round. We suspect that most of these “attacks” are really done to cover ammo sales on the black market. The Taliban humping in over the mountains are not doing so with 800 rounds of ball (that is grunt speak for full metal jacket rifle bullets) on their backs.

So it is 7 years since 9/11 and I have been out here for almost four of them. We work for the Japan International Cooperation Agency . Unlike US AID the JICA people work in the countryside or in Kabul with their Afghan counterparts. Every yen the Japanese people send here to help the Afghans gets spent exactly as it is supposed to because the Japanese JICA staff is in the offices with the Afghans ensuring they know where every yen goes. We’d be in much better shape if US AID did the same.

This will be a long war which my children will fight, if they chose to serve, and their children will too. There is no way to understand this place or fight effectively here unless you understand the people and their culture. Eventually we have to figure out how to keep more people like me in country for long duration so that they too know how to operate in the tribal districts. I havbe lots of ideas on how to do that which I will share in future posts.