Change you can believe in

Today started out great I am back in Jalalabad after completing a short job which I cannot freely blog about and the weather is perfect. I fired up the computer and checked in with Power Line to find this excellent story about a Marine rifle platoon who were ambushed by 250 Taliban. They routed the Taliban and sent them fleeing from the battlefield in panic with the designated marksmen putting down dozens of the enemy fighters using their excellent M-14 DMR. The M-14 DMR fires a 175 grain 7.62x51mm match round through a 22 inch stainless steel match grade barrel at 2,837 fps out of the muzzle. Marine marksmen can routinely hit individuals at 850 meters with this rifle and because of the round it has real stopping power. You won’t see a Taliban fighter take six hits with this beast and keep on running (happens a lot with the M4) in fact you won’t see a Taliban or any other kind of human take two rounds and keep moving.

M-14 DMR
M-14 DMR

The Marine story made my day and validated something I have said repeatedly on Covert Radio which is you can move anywhere in this country with a platoon of infantry. The Taliban, rent-a-Taliban, criminals, and war lord affiliated fighters have no ability to stand up to the punishment a well trained platoon can inflict. NATO needs to learn this lesson quickly. The French lost almost a dozen men in an ambush up in the Uzbin valley in August. In that very same valley last month a force of 300 French troopers conducted a “tactical retrograde” leaving behind sophisticated anti tank missiles in the process when they were confronted by a small force of Taliban. When the Marines were hit by a much larger enemy force the entire unit immediately got onto the flanks of the ambushers and rolled them up in order to free the men trapped in the kill zone. Once accomplishing this they maintained contact until the Taliban broke and ran. Conversely the French   expended all their resources and energy trying to break contact and recover casualties, a “tactic” not unheard of with other NATO military units. The point to all this isn’t that the Marines are great and the French army is not but rather it is very very difficult to build and sustain good infantry. NATO countries did not have to worry about producing quality infantry over the past 50 years they let America shoulder that burden while they developed their economies with the money they would have needed for national defense. Producing good infantry requires a certain attitude and mind set not found in polite society but when the Europeans get hit hard with the old clue bat they will develop effective infantry units. You’ll know when they do because you’ll start seeing 30 man platoons from NATO countries running all over the country hoping against hope that 200 to 300 Taliban are stupid enough to try and take them on.

Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty
Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty

I obviously enjoy it when events validate some of the things I say in this blog or on Covert Radio but this excellent story of combat dominance will have absolutely no impact on the Afghanistan situation at all. You cannot win here by just killing people nor can you deal the Taliban and their affiliates a decisive blow because they are not a unified movement and their leaders are all in Pakistan outside our reach. The people of Afghanistan are the prize of this contest and few of them are down in the Helmund or Farah Provinces. While the Marines dominate their area of operations the rest of the country is falling outside of central government control. Every district, town and village in Afghanistan has some sort of land or water dispute ongoing and land disputes here are deadly affairs. We routinely see firefights between clans over land disputes in UN security reporting and some of these fights result in over a dozen KIA’s. When the Taliban move into an area they decide these disputes using Sharia law instead of who can pay the biggest bribe. They are considered fair in most of these rulings and will tolerate no armed fighting over disputes once they have decided upon a case. A country doesn’t lose a war against insurgents by being out fought they lose by being out governed which is exactly what is happening all over this country.

Last night I was chatting down at the new and improved Tiki Bar with some old friends who have considerable Afghanistan experience. One of them first came here with an NGO in 1996, the other in 2002, and our conversation was all about change. When I first arrived in Afghanistan it took about 6 hours to drive between Jalalabad which is a 90 minute drive now. In Kabul it was rare to see a woman who was not wearing a burka and today the opposite is the case. In Jalalabad which is one of the largest cities in the Pashtun belt, not all women here wear the hated burka.

Streets of Kabul 2007
Streets of Kabul 2007
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.

But here is the real change which will never be reversed. The change you can believe in computers and internet.

Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008
Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008

Computers allow access to knowledge by children who are dirt poor and hungry to learn about the world around them. That genie is now long out of the bottle and my friends and I believe that the sudden surge towards modernity is spooking many of the elders who play such an important role in tribal life. We noted the backlash in Peshawar where the Pakistani Taliban is trying to reverse the headlong rush towards modernity by forcing the woman back into the burka (and with some short term success at the moment.) Peshawar used to be a very modern place which welcomed internationals and where very few women could be seen in the burka just two years ago. Not true today and you can’t buy CD’s or pirated movies either. There are many forces in play in central Asia and the biggest one has its own velocity and will continue to generate all sorts of unintended consequences as it goes forward. Knowledge is power extreme poverty is motivation and the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the other Stans are very motivated to acquire the power of knowledge.

The Jalalabad road in Kabul
The Jalalabad road in Kabul

We cannot control the effects from the explosive power of the internet and computer on the local people. What we can do is to continue developing the infrastructure while providing a secure environment in which the Afghans can develop their economy. Security in the Afghan context requires boots on the ground doing what the Marines did in Shewan. Small units who are constantly outside the wire with the Afghan people and who crush anyone silly enough to fight them even if they are outnumbered 20 to 1. Afghanistan is much bigger than Iraq with a much larger population but American infantry (the US Army has great infantry too) augmented by those allies who also have developed high quality infantry will have to start consistently operating in the same manner as the Marines are operating down south which to date they have been unwilling to do. Combat is a dangerous business requiring men who can endure incredible hardships and discomfort while maintaining their motivation and (most importantly) sense of humor.

Good infantry doesn’t need ice cream every day or the cushy barracks found at the Khandahar airfield; they need water, chow, lots of ammunition, and leaders who trust them to operate in a decentralized fashion with their small units. The Marine Commander down south is Colonel Duffy White, a close friend, extraordinarily competent and experienced warrior and a man who combines pragmatism with a great sense of humor. America has a few more like him as do our allies no doubt – inshallah we will see all of them over here soon using the decentralized tactics required for bringing security to people living outside the main cities and military bases.

Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way
Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way

This morning’s email contained two different security alerts about impending attacks on the vital Jalalabad Kabul road. We have been here for almost eight years and still have not oriented our forces to provide security for the vast majority of the Afghan population. We are running out of time but it is not too late to get more of our forces oriented on the population and operating like the lone rifle platoon from the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines did in Shewan a few days ago. That requires courage from commanders on high there are troops on the ground who already have that courage and are ready to fight like lions in order to give people they do not know a chance to enter the modern world. That is a worthy fight by any standard of measurement.

On the verge of modernity
On the verge of modernity

Shakedown

We had to make a run to Kabul last Friday to take some clients to the airport and to pick up new ones. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is considered very dangerous by the military and US State Department, of medium risk by the UN, and very little risk by me and the hundreds of internationals who travel the route daily. The Taliban or other Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) have never ambushed internationals on this route with the sole exception of taking some pot shots at a UN convoy last week. The reason this route remains open is that it is too important to all the players in Afghanistan to risk its closure, almost 80% of the Afghan GDP flows along it so the Taliban would have a real PR problem if they cut it causing a large scale humanitarian crisis. The criminal gangs and drug lords who cooperate with the Taliban would also become very agitated if the road were closed and probably turn on any real Taliban groups foolish enough to be within their reach if that happened.

We don’t take this run lightly but we often choose to make it without body armor or long guns because we are afraid of being ambushed by the other villains members of the Afghan security forces. On Friday our long string of luck ran out and we became the latest victim of the Afghan security company game. It cost us two sets of body armor which we cannot replace because you cannot import body armor into Afghanistan and we were lucky to get away with the weapons (which are also irreplaceable.)

NDS Commander and 2IC
NDS Commander and 2IC

Many think of private security companies as analogous to mercenary bands with all the associated negative connotations. A few of them are shady companies and deserve all the contempt and bad karma in the world to befall their greedy principals. But most of the companies operating here are well run and highly professional. To facilitate bringing the rule of law to Afghanistan they formed an association three years ago to assist in the effort to regulate the industry. However that effort has been stymied at every turn by Afghan government officials who seem less interested in regulation or the rule of law than establishing rules from which they will clearly benefit. Just one of many examples; when the first set of regulations were written by the Afghan government it stipulated the payment of all fees and penalties would be made to the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). The Private Security Company Association of Afghanistan (PSCAA) politely pointed out that the new Afghanistan constitution specifically stated that all fees and taxes would be paid to the Ministry of Finance. There is enough international mentors at the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to ensure fees paid into that ministry go directly to the Government treasury.

It was immediately clear that our assistance in Afghan constitutional law interpretation was not well received and the process has gone downhill ever since. There still are no valid laws regarding PSC’s in Afghanistan but there have been a series of “temporary” licenses issued which every legitimate company in Afghanistan has acquired. These “temporary” licenses of course mean little with state security organs not part of the MoI. Afghan security forces have arrested internationals working for licensed PSC’s who had individual weapons permits from the MoI and thrown them in jail for weeks at a time. Although we cannot replace the body armor stolen from us we were lucky to get off lightly, it would be difficult for a small company like ours to raise the cash needed for springing an international out of the Puli Charki prison.

Here is how it went down. We were through the Mahipar pass and almost to Kabul. We came up to the last “S” shaped curve before the Puli Charki checkpoint and there was a NDS (National Directorate of Security) checkpoint set up with belt fed machineguns off to the side and a good ¼ mile between the east and west checkpoints.

Unfortunately I did not have the Shem Bot with me so I had Haji jann, my good friend and official driver in the contested areas, come down from Kabul to drive us up. This turned out to be a critical mistake because the NDS will not toy with two armed expats when one is driving but when they see an armed Expat with a local driver it is an indicator for an ” illegally” armed international which means big cash if they play their cards right. I flashed my weapons permit and license but the boys noted my two clients, PhD candidates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – had body armor. In Afghanistan body armor (used to protect clients), armored vehicles (also used to protect clients) and two-way radios are considered the tools of war and those of us working here must obtain licenses for them. But clients change constantly so we cannot get individual licenses for them. We have also never had a problem with this catch-22 before because our language skills and charming personalities normally forestall any potential disagreements.

working things out is a long process
working things out is a long process

The reason I take Haji jann on all missions into contested areas is because he is a former Taliban commander of some repute (emphasis on former.) He has also been with me through thick and thin and I love the guy, we talk for hours although I understand very little of what he says but we love to chin wag with each other. I heard him say right after we were stopped something like “the armed white guy is a little crazy and I would not arrest him if I were you.” I gave him the WTF Hajii? look and he did not smile indicating things were serious.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS) wanted the body armor from my MIT clients because they had no license. They also started searching our baggage which was problematic. I had another gig starting up in Kabul and had extra rounds, magazines, and a first aid kit all of which is considered illegal (for internationals) in Afghanistan. The “commander” who is the pot bellied slack jawed fellow in the black fleece started pulling all my stuff out for confiscation.

I looked at Haji jann who shook his head slightly giving me the go sign and went off like a firecracker at the “commander” who also instantly lost his cool and started to yell back at me. That is a great sign because it indicates fear on his part and I knew I was not going to lose my spare ammo (which is expensive) and first aid kit. When he started yelling I started smiling my wolf smile which fellow sheepdogs would recognize as a pre-incident indicator and criminals recognize as a sign they have overplayed their hand. But they took the body armor off my MIT charges and I really could do nothing about it. The “commander” gave me his own wolf smile when his boys stole the body armor because he knew there was no cell signal in the canyon, so what was I going to do? You can only push so far in a situation like this.

Dr Tam wasn't too sure about all this commotion but the 2IC insisted on photos and Dr. Tam was polite enough to pose
Dr Tam wasn’t too sure about all this commotion but the 2IC insisted on photos and Dr. Tam was polite enough to pose

Here is the weird part. Amy Sun our other MIT charge was snapping pictures and caught three armed men way up on the ridge line watching things unfold. They were armed but way outside the range of the AK 47’s they were carrying.

One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
slightly enhanced view
slightly enhanced view

I have no idea who these guys were but do know that the Taliban and in particular Al Qaeda fighters value good body armor and pay well for it. I suspect these guys are now the proud owners of two sets of premium body armor. I may be wrong about that but my current disgust over this incident drives me to assume the worst.

This kind of harassment has been routine for the past 18 months in Kabul. We have been spared because we have the proper licenses and travel normally in pairs. Yesterday I was copied on an email from the security director of the biggest US AID contractor in the land about one of their projects in the north. It is slightly redacted:

“This afternoon Gen Khalil, commander of the police in Sherbegan, visited one of our well sites demanding to see the PSC license of (deleted) Security. He informed (deleted) that the license expired and that they have until 16:00 to produce a new one or face arrest.   Rather than facing arrest all LN guards were stood down and the Expats and TCNs went to Mazar to stay over for the night. This leaves one of our sites uncovered and can have a serious impact on our operations.

Can MOI please as a matter of urgency issue new licenses? Maybe someone in MOI can talk some sense into (deleted) head. His no is xxxxxxx”

Which brings us to the US Embassy and how they react to news like this which is (to my mind) deplorable. The embassy take is and I quote “we do not encourage US citizens to come to Afghanistan for any reason and will not help you in your dealings with the Afghan government. If you are arrested we will endeavor to ensure you have adequate food and a blanket.” It is hard for me to relate the disappointment with which I view our Department of State. I was the project manager for the American Embassy guard force and know exactly what goes on inside our embassy but because I have invested every penny I have in my company I will refrain from further comment.

A major problem with the stability operations part of our campaign in Afghanistan is that the local people do not think we are serious. The local people are the prize here, everything we are doing should be focused on bringing security and infrastructure to the district level to benefit them. But we aren’t and the local people cannot believe that after seven years we still cannot get the most basic infrastructure programs accomplished. The most efficient way to do that is with small numbers of armed contractors who are able to work at the district level for extended periods of time. There are a few people doing that right now, they are armed because they have to be, and they are doing the daily quality control of Afghan contractors working on various reconstruction projects. We need to have more of them out here both mentoring and doing quality control of the projects awarded to Afghan small businessmen. That level of oversight and reporting brings in donor dollars because the money can be accounted for. Donor dollars and expat project management would significantly help break the funding logjam which currently hampers district level reconstruction of roads, irrigation systems and micro hydro power generation.

At some point one hopes the powers that be will realize this and aggressively support the Americans and other internationals who are operating far outside the comfortable confines of Kabul. For right now we are basically on our own which will eventually lead to tragedy. Nothing good will come from continued confrontations between dodgy police running “surprise” checkpoints and armed internationals.

Veterans Day Video Tribute from a "Man on the Street" interview at the Torkham Border

We had the rare treat of accompanying some guys working for the U.S. Army to the Torkham border today. They went up to chat with the platoon of American MP’s who jointly man the border crossing with the Afghan Border Police (ABP). The MP’s have a very cool gig at the Torkham. They mentor their Afghan counterparts and also keep an eye on the large volume of human and vehicular traffic which flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Army guys who let us tag along were conducting some “man on the street” interviews and getting very encouraging remarks from the Afghans they talked with. The American soldier who did the interviewing was born in Pakistan and raised in Washington State. He talks Pashto with an eastern accent (taught to him by the military defense language school a positive sign that we are developing the right skill sets) so the locals assume he is an Afghan. One Afghan we chatted up had the most interesting things to say about both Americans and the problems facing Afghans. I’ll paste in a video of that interview at the end of this post. Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan know the gratitude that local people feel towards them. They often remark about a people who leave their homes and families to help a war ravaged population recover while asking for nothing in return. Just as in Iraq the average Afghan is very moved by what we have done for his country as you will see in the embedded interview. When you hear people express themselves this way it is easier to understand why so many men and woman in our military volunteer to come back for multiple tours. As I have said repeatedly in previous posts the Afghans really like Americans and given a vote on the matter would like to see many more.

As you approach the Torkham border crossing you come upon an extensive open air chop shop. Most of these cars processed in this area come from the auto salvage lots of America and Canada. Trucks bring them up from port in Karachi and off load them on the Pakistan side where gangs of kids push them across the border to the chop shop area about a mile down the road. Crowds of kids bring barrels of fuel and used oil back across the border to Pakistan where it can be recycled. This is one of the industries which really needs infrastructure help or the toxic waste run off will seep into the ground water in concentrations even the locals cannot ignore or tolerate.

The American MP’s keep an eye on the border crossing and are involved in any apprehensions of smugglers. They find weapons, drugs and explosives routinely. There are also former US Customs agents working as contractors to mentor the senior ABP supervisors. Joint military/contractor teams like this one are the wave of the future. There is no proven way to increase the effectiveness of security forces in the third world short of in the field mentorship. It is good for the Afghans who work this vital crossing and it is also good for the Americans who are out here daily interacting with local people.

Chatting with the soldiers at the border
Outside the customs office catching up on how things are going on the border

Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan – these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Can’t leave the belt fed machineguns unattended so the guys rotate through this boring post

There was a collection of Afghans who lived in Pakistan but were of Uzbek, Hazara or Tajik origin. A group of Uzbek Taliban with a considerable amount of explosives was captured recently in Pakistan and they are not letting anyone who looks remotely Uzbek into the country without an official visa. These men are waiting to see who else from their group is going to get the boot. What stands out in situations like this is that there is no violence or even harsh words exchanged as these guys get the bad news from the Pakistani Frontier Guard. They explain the situation and escort the men over to their Afghan counterparts who add in their condolences and ask them to wait off to the side as long as they like.

Uzbecks from Afghanistan wait around to see who else from their group is going to be turned back by the Pakistani’s

Here are some interesting people shots from the border.

There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border
There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans 
It is a long walk to the crossing and you often see kids and woman getting pushed around in hand trucks like this
Dr. Sun at the border. She has an amazing ability to talk her way onto trips like this – the troops always enjoy chatting her up.
Old man at the border – Afghans will stop and pose for photographers regardless of age and location

As we were leaving we brought some Samosa from one of the child vendors and head back to Jalalabad. We stopped to chat with an Afghan we saw walking down the road near the American FOB Torkham which is about five miles west of the border. I have heard similar sentiments from Afghans all over the country Happy Veterans Day to all who have or are now serving. Here is a regular Afghan passing on his thanks too.

Samosa – like eating a stick of butter but tastier

I know I promised you a video at the end, but the Army guys asked us to scrub out their guy from the vid.   Here’s the audio track only to tide you over until we’ve edited the video:   torkham_interview_sound_only

Veterans Day Video Tribute from a “Man on the Street” interview at the Torkham Border

We had the rare treat of accompanying some guys working for the U.S. Army to the Torkham border today. They went up to chat with the platoon of American MP’s who jointly man the border crossing with the Afghan Border Police (ABP). The MP’s have a very cool gig at the Torkham. They mentor their Afghan counterparts and also keep an eye on the large volume of human and vehicular traffic which flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Army guys who let us tag along were conducting some “man on the street” interviews and getting very encouraging remarks from the Afghans they talked with. The American soldier who did the interviewing was born in Pakistan and raised in Washington State. He talks Pashto with an eastern accent (taught to him by the military defense language school a positive sign that we are developing the right skill sets) so the locals assume he is an Afghan. One Afghan we chatted up had the most interesting things to say about both Americans and the problems facing Afghans. I’ll paste in a video of that interview at the end of this post. Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan know the gratitude that local people feel towards them. They often remark about a people who leave their homes and families to help a war ravaged population recover while asking for nothing in return. Just as in Iraq the average Afghan is very moved by what we have done for his country as you will see in the embedded interview. When you hear people express themselves this way it is easier to understand why so many men and woman in our military volunteer to come back for multiple tours. As I have said repeatedly in previous posts the Afghans really like Americans and given a vote on the matter would like to see many more.engines-2

As you approach the Torkham border crossing you come upon an extensive open air chop shop. Most of these cars processed in this area come from the auto salvage lots of America and Canada. Trucks bring them up from port in Karachi and off load them on the Pakistan side where gangs of kids push them across the border to the chop shop area about a mile down the road. Crowds of kids bring barrels of fuel and used oil back across the border to Pakistan where it can be recycled. This is one of the industries which really needs infrastructure help or the toxic waste run off will seep into the ground water in concentrations even the locals cannot ignore or tolerate.boys-auto-tradefenders

 

 

The American MP’s keep an eye on the border crossing and are involved in any apprehensions of smugglers. They find weapons, drugs and explosives routinely. There are also former US Customs agents working as contractors to mentor the senior ABP supervisors. Joint military/contractor teams like this one are the wave of the future. There is no proven way to increase the effectiveness of security forces in the third world short of in the field mentorship. It is good for the Afghans who work this vital crossing and it is also good for the Americans who are out here daily interacting with local people.amy-and-joechattingjoes

Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend

mg

 

There was a collection of Afghans who lived in Pakistan but were of Uzbek, Hazara or Tajik origin. A group of Uzbek Taliban with a considerable amount of explosives was captured recently in Pakistan and they are not letting anyone who looks remotely Uzbek into the country without an official visa. These men are waiting to see who else from their group is going to get the boot. What stands out in situations like this is that there is no violence or even harsh words exchanged as these guys get the bad news from the Pakistani Frontier Guard. They explain the situation and escort the men over to their Afghan counterparts who add in their condolences and ask them to wait off to the side as long as they like.uzbecks-2uzbeks

 

Here are some interesting people shots from the border.

There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border
There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border

border-crossingamyold-man

As we were leaving we brought some Samosa from one of the child vendors and head back to Jalalabad. We stopped to chat with an Afghan we saw walking down the road near the American FOB Torkham which is about five miles west of the border. I have heard similar sentiments from Afghans all over the country Happy Veterans Day to all who have or are now serving. Here is a regular Afghan passing on his thanks too.samosa-kid

I know I promised you a video at the end, but the Army guys asked us to scrub out their guy from the vid.   Here’s the audio track only to tide you over until we’ve edited the video:   torkham_interview_sound_only

What is going on in Sherzad District? Part 2

One of the coolest things about living in Afghanistan is the sense of history which surrounds one as you trek off the beaten path. In the rural districts the daily routine of the people has altered little in hundreds of years. It is easy to find the sites of historic battles or ancient ruins which few westerners have seen. The hospitality of the Afghans is constant reminder that the capacity for good in people transcends the evil which constantly searches for cold hearts or idle brains in which it can embed and grow. An armed society is a polite society but the Afghans take politeness to an extreme that is at times bewildering.

Yet the Afghans have never been able to govern themselves effectively. Despite their culture of warm hospitality to guests and strangers their political culture remains polarized, vicious, and deadly. These are tribal lands with a small percentage of “haves” and a large population of “have not’s.” The “haves” are the leaders with positions determined at birth and not resented by people at the village level because they do not “have” that much more than their fellow tribal members. The “have not’s” do not agitate politically because they spend most of their lives trying to find the next meal they are not like American poor with health issues stemming from morbid obesity. Poor people here die of starvation daily. Poor children die of exposure during the harsh winters even on the streets of Kabul. Watching the polarization of the American electorate from afar during this presidential campaign has me thinking about politics a lot lately.

This is what real poverty looks like. Remember these kids who stand little chance of reaching adulthood the next time you hear NPR or CBS or the racial grievance mongers carrying on about the poor in America.
This is what real poverty looks like. Remember these kids who stand little chance of reaching adulthood the next time you hear NPR or CBS or the racial grievance mongers carrying on about the poor in America.

And speaking of politics guess what the first topic of conversation was when I joined the elders of Sherzad district for a lunch meeting last Thursday? If you guessed Barack Obama you are correct and I am not making this up. Talk about weird but let me set the trip up before I get to that.

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. The time tested decision making matrix us outside the wire types use in situations of this nature is to look at what the State Department is doing  and do the exact opposite. The State Department insists on brand new armored SUV’s with heavily armed contractor escorts fore and aft. I went with an old beat up Toyota pick up, no security escort, local clothes and a local driver.  Given the amount of Taliban activity in the Southern Triangle that is the only reasonably safe way to get in and out of isolated villages like Gandamak.

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 which 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 MO.  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. You can see the difference in the health of the children, livestock and woman (which is the correct order of importance for the tribes.)

My host for the day was the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif he told me in perfect English “I speak English fluently.” 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 WTF 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 which is a vital for the health and comfort of his ichi ban employer.

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 but being without my flame stick wasn’t alarming to me.  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, followed by a tour of the hill outside Gandamak where the 44th Foot fought to the last man during the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 and then lunch. I was not going to be able to do much about what 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 my agenda was a tour of the Gandamak battlefield.  I have enjoyed visiting old battlefields since I was a kid and would go on staff rides with my father to Gettysburg, The Wilderness battle field and Fredricksburg.  I especially enjoy visiting the battlefields that not many people can visit and to the best of my knowledge I’m the only westerner who visited the Gandamak site in the last 30 or so years.

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 so 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 a little with little supposition, and augmented with my fevered 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 which is confusing  because most black Americans identify themselves as African American but they have little, if any, concept of Africa. In Obama’s case he really was an African and American and must know something about Africa because he didn’t know shit about America.  I had succeeded in totally confusing my hosts (and myself) 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 the local equivalent of scumbags. 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.

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.  Thus they will grow poppy again (if they get enough rain inshallah). They need a road over which to transport their goods to market. They need their bridges repaired, and they need their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970’s. 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 a pass 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 down inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain is a mystery to me and I doubt this was story behind what looked to be a mine entrance.  It was a nice brisk walk up the 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 there which they figured the British must have pilfered in 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. The penalties for stealing ancient artifacts are severe; messing around with that stuff is not something reasonable people do in unstable third world lands. Nor is buying fake “one of a kind” Buddha statues.

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.