Approaching the Tipping Point

The Fab Folk continue to work like demons to maximize their time on the ground. Yesterday they had successful test shots with their fabricated internet antennas to both a local NGO and the Nangarhar Public Hospital. They work every evening setting up the XO laptops they have sent in and early each morning they meet for a couple of hours to learn Pashto. Their teacher comes from the local school and is a life-long resident of the local village. He tells me that, despite the very mild winter we have had to date, that poverty is driving people to desperate measures. Frequently voices call out to him from the shadows at night “we are Taliban give us your wallet, watch and cell phone.” They are not Taliban but men he has known for years. I asked why this was happening because our understanding of Pashtun culture would prohibit such gross criminality inside one’s own community. “Yes this is true but we are now so poor that the elders do not ask young men where they got this or where they got that they praise them instead for bringing anything of value which will ease their poverty.” This is just a hint at the amount of tension under the surface of a population located in one of the more affluent portions of Afghanistan. Across the river at Little Barabad (official name) or Tutikas (the villagers do not like the official name) the villagers cut down their large shade tree which served as the communal meeting place and picnic site. The wood is not for them – it was sold to a “rich man” to generate cash to buy medicine for several of the children.

We have been running the road to Kabul a lot as of late taking people to and from the Airport in Kabul. A couple of days ago we took Dr. Dave and Dr. Art Mendoza back to Kabul for their flight home and saw the aftermath of a big fight the night before. We were warned prior to leaving by another security firm (we share all intel at all times in the field) that there had been much fighting outside Gamberi and sure enough when we got to the point in the road where the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) had set up on the shoulders we saw this:

Apparently a group of Armed Opposition Group (AOG) fighters sneaked up the draw between the ANA and ANP positions and shot up the truck above with small arms and RPG’s. They then fired at both the ANP positions to their west and the ANA positions to their east before withdrawing across the Kabul River. The ANA and ANP spent the next hour or so firing at each other. By the time we rolled past the ANA had taken their casualties and withdrawn leaving the poor police to sit in their shallow little holes to suck up all the rain we have been getting of late.

We are convinced that somebody in Laghaman Province is running an RPG gunners school because we see reports of RPG-only attacks on police posts along this portion of the road every 4 to 5 weeks. Normally they volley 10 rounds in rapid succession and withdraw causing little to no damage. But we know there is at least one RPG mechanic out there (most likely in Laghaman) who can really put some English on his rockets and make very difficult shots consistently. I bet he has a group of students he is working with and what better way to train them then to take on the softest of soft targets like the silly deployment of ANA and ANP forces five feet off the main road? You could tell just by looking at them they had no fire plans, no fire control measures, and probably no plan at all. What they need is not more PowerPoint lectures from DynCorp contractors they need mentors with them in the field and there are not enough here.

Yesterday I was returning from dropping off James the Marine and because I had no choice had to make the return drive alone. As I rounded the Mahipar Pass I saw a wall of trucks pulled off to the side which indicated some sort of blockage in the tunnel. I drove far enough to get a look before turning around and saw it was a U.S. Army convoy stopped right in the middle of the pass. Once the traffic stops flowing in Afghanistan it is very difficult to start it going again because all the east bound traffic will move into every nook and cranny available to their front and block the road. It takes a good hour to get them out of your way so that a convoy can move again. But I was ready checking my wallet to find 100 Euros there I turned around and headed back to the German PX at the ISAF camp outside Kabul to score some premium German beer (at only 12 euro a case) figuring if I had to drive back in the dark I might as well do so with a truck load of beer.

Sure enough when I made it back to the Mahipar Pass it was clear and I was smoothly driving for the next 45 minutes until I got outside Surobi.   Rounding a corner I saw all the trucks parked in the right lane and taking the left lane I moved far enough down to see the same convoy parked in the middle of the road. They sat there for 30 minutes and then took another 30 minutes to get moving before stopping again maybe five miles down the road. I had worked my way up to the front of the line by then and 45 minutes into this stop I approached the convoy tail gunner to ask if they would let me through. He got on the radio and in a few minutes said “no because the road to the front is blocked (by the west bound traffic) and I couldn’t make it through anyway.” I asked him what the problem was and he replied “don’t know” which is exactly the correct answer because he has no business telling me a damn thing just because I’m a lone American with a CAC card. He brushed me off without a moment’s hesitation like a real pro I like seeing that kind of heads up thinking by our troops.

But the longer we sat the more upset the locals behind me became. Soon the sound of a thousand car horns filled the air. Over a hundred men were now standing around my vehicle trying to get the ANA troops to let them pass. As is usually the case there were several fluent English speakers amongst them and they came over to chat me up about what was happening. I was as pissed as they were and being a poltroon by nature freely admitted this. Then out of the crowd came a man with a very sick looking child and I was pressed into service to intervene on his behalf. I walked over to the tail gunner and asked if a vehicle with a medical emergency could get through. He asked how many more vehicles contain people with medical emergencies and I glanced back saw about a thousand vehicles stacked up behind me and said “probably about a thousand” which made the kid laugh. Again correct response from the tail gunner who seems like a great trooper because if you let one vehicle through the rest will follow TIA this is Afghanistan. To make a long story short it took me five hours to get back to the Taj. Several more times the American convoy stopped and each time the fluent English speaker from Leeds England came up to stand near my car. That is a very Pashtun thing to do he was watching out for me to ensure none of the drivers behind took out their frustrations on the lone American in their midst. Not that I thought this would occur but it was a nice gesture.

The struggle of the average Afghan to find enough to eat; the continued lack of performance by the Afghan security forces and the inability of the ISAF military to operate amongst the Afghans without treating every civilian they come in contact with as a crazed jihadist killer are linked. The United States and her allies have spent billions in Afghanistan and have very little to show for it. Afghanistan is currently in a death spiral not because of a lack of aid funds but rather how those funds have been spent and allocated. Every indication we see on the ground is that more money will be thrown into the same failed programs currently being implemented; another demonstration that we have not learned any meaningful lessons.

The reason these programs won’t work is that they are off the shelf solutions designed to make the lives of bureaucrats and contracting officers easy rather than bringing assistance to the Afghans. The Department of State has spent 2.5 BILLION bringing in police trainers, jail guard trainers, and lawyers to train the judges. Now what the hell does anyone at DynCorp or PAE know about Afghan police or Afghan jurisprudence? Nothing of course but that is not why they win these large lucrative contracts it is because they already have large lucrative contracts and therefore know how to work with DS contracting officers to make their lives easier. What is the return on our investment? After the large scale jail break in Kandahar last summer investigators discovered there were over 100 illegal cell phones in the hands of inmates. When we capture important Taliban leaders and send them to the main Afghan jail at Pul-i-Charki they are often back home before the soldiers who delivered them. The Afghan police are unreliable and prone to preying on the population. The current Afghan government is more of a problem than a solution. It is being out-governed by the Taliban in the many districts under Taliban control. Who “built capacity” with these Taliban? How many billions of dollars were spent teaching the Taliban to administer justice and civil control so effectively?

What the State department did was to use off the shelf solutions which had nothing to do with the situation in Afghanistan and everything to do with what was easy for the Department of State. After all when you spend all your time in Afghanistan locked inside a gigantic posh embassy compound how in the world would you know what the Afghans need? You are forced to work through the Afghan government and have any of you ever read one news story about the Afghan government that was not about the appalling amount of corruption found at every level in every ministry? I would say you have not but as an insider I will tell you there is one ministry the ministry of aviation is every bit as honest and effective as its international counterparts. In fact the Afghans working in that ministry are more honest than any politician to be found within 153 miles of Chicagobut I digress.

The State Department is and has been the lead agency in Afghanistan and their performance here is every bit the fiasco as their performance in Iraq. Remember that Paul Brenner was a compromise President Bush made between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon he gave the boys at state a year to get Iraq back on its feet but Brenner used his 12 months to destroy the country and hamstring our military. He unilaterally made decisions for which we paid in American blood. The price tag for his incompetence paid by the Iraqis is probably beyond measure. Colin Powell, who foisted Brenner upon Iraq had more to do with the fiasco portion of that war than Rumsfeld but you’d have to do some serious archival research to know it because the nitwits in the MSM would not in a million years burden the people of America with good honest reporting which strayed from their preferred narrative.

That is not to say that the US Military has demonstrated the capacity, tactical flexibility, or ability to assess the situation on the ground, learn from past mistakes, and formulate a strategic framework under which all operations in Afghanistan can be conducted. They have not and we are risking another Vietnam and I am not talking about getting beaten by the rag tag assortment of Taliban and neo Taliban on the field of battle. I am talking about having the American peoples will to fight crippled by a media who are able to reveal that the Generals are spinning tales that are as stupid and uninformed as the old “five O’ Clock follies” in Saigon were back in Vietnam. Let me make this point clear I am not critical of the American (or any other ISAF) soldier who is over here doing his duty. Every one of them volunteered to join a military at war and their grit, determination to do what is right and courage are commendable. I am critical of the generals who seem unable to implement the very doctrine they tout as the answer to the counterinsurgency battle. I am not the only one who sees things this way please take the time to read this excellent piece by a retired Army Colonel who is much better writer than I am. He is calling for a massive forced retirement amongst American General Officers which would be a smart move given their lackluster performance and one with serious historical precedent.

The only reason we are not at the point where the American people start to treat their military in the manner it was treated in the early seventies is that our media is even more incompetent than the Department of State or the Pentagon. If we had the same type of reporters as the ones who worked Vietnam year in and year out they would be able to throw the BS flag at every single briefing they are given because the things I hear the big Army saying about the situation here are flat out nonsense. This situation will not last much longer. The drive by media is starting to get a clue as I saw when talking with Martha Raddatz the Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent from ABC news. The only thing stopping her from getting a really comprehensive first hand view of how silly the DS and military approach is to this conflict is her own silly corporate “force protection” rules. But she got an earful from me and spent a few hours roaming about the countryside like the thousands of other internationals who live and work here. Not that you can do that in every district or province in Afghanistan there are many where it would now be suicidal for a westerner to walk around knowing where you are safe and where you are not is the most basic function of military intelligence. Why we cannot figure that out and act accordingly is beyond me.

Here is the connection to my rambling observations. If our billions of dollars went to implement the infrastructure improvements which the Afghans at the district level have been pleading for during the last six to seven years you could instantly start employing massive amounts of idle unemployed men. But you cannot do this with the Department of Sate contracting vehicles nor through large, bloated, international companies like Louis Berger or DynCorp or PAE or KBR or any of the other current “implementers” who are receiving most of the reconstruction monies. You need a company like Louis Berger to build big things like hydro electric dams, posh embassy compounds, or international airports. You do not need Louis Berger to build roads and schools. The Afghans can do that themselves. You also don’t need the nitwits of Foggy Bottom deciding how to implement a reconstruction plan because what you get is what the average Afghan sees now. Lots of police posts, government office building and training bases being built for the very people and organizations who abuse them, steal from them and fail to protect them from other (non uniformed) criminals or the Taliban. The only way forward are civil military teams who are embedded into the community, who stay in the community and who are able to green light and supervise Afghan designed and built irrigation, road, and micro hydro projects. An excellent prototype of exactly this kind of team was working in Afghanistan back in the early days before Big Army came and put all the SF teams back inside the large FOB’s. It will be the topic of my next post.

Let me stress something my friends and that is time is running out for us in Afghanistan. Soon the MSM is going to discover they are missing a great opportunity to play in their favorite game of pin the tail on the Pentagon spokesman. They are still sore at the military for making them collectively look like a bunch of know-nothing amateurs back in 2003 during the massive military embed for the storming of Iraq.

I asked the local headmaster what he was going to do about the highway men who lurk in the shadows around Bagrami but he said it is no longer a problem and would say no more. That means the Taliban have stepped in and are now active right behind my guesthouse. In time we will have to reach some sort of accommodation with them. We are not going to be attacked because the local people would not allow it and the Talibs, if they are here, are local people too. Plus we have excellent fields of fire, Pashin (not Pashtun) tribal fighters for guards and lots of guns and ammo. Local Talibs do not attack hard targets like us for good reason they are trying to feed their families too and will be of little use to them if they get “seriously kilt” by the Free Rangers at FOB Taj. We are probably teaching their kids in the Fab Lab; in fact I know we are. But This Is Afghanistan and if they are here it is going to cost me more damn money to be left alone. Just as in Chicago, you have to pay to play and just as in Chicago one check will not cover the entire bill if you know what I mean.

Fab Lab Surge and ABC News

The Fab Lab team has arrived and is now hard at work.  They are blogging daily and you can monitor their progress here. They’re doing cool stuff like fabricating antenna’s to share our fatpipe with the local schools and NGO’s. They’re  raising money to buy XO Laptops for every 6th grader in the local (Bagrami) school. They’re setting the local kids up with a tee shirt business to fund the Jalalabad FabLab operations and the local kids are beside themselves with opportunity that just landed on their doorstep.

Amy and her roomate Kieth from MIT - the Fab Lab advance party
Amy and her roommate Keith from Harvard – the Fab Lab advance party

We have had to run up to Kabul and back several times to get all the Fab Folk to Jalalabad. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is a vitally important supply route to both the military and the government of Afghanistan. There were several attacks on the road this past summer and there continues to be problems on it now despite the winter weather. We saw several interesting things along the route and the first was the number of French Army troops transiting from Kabul to Surobi.

French troops on the road outside of Kabul
French troops on the road outside of Kabul

Surobi is a large hamlet half way between Kabul and Jalalabad, last August the French suffered a humiliating defeat in the Uzbin valley which is just to the north of Surobi. The town has long been considered to be sympathetic if not supportive of Gulbiddin Hekmatyar and his party Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG.) We see sunburned adult males with high-water trousers, tennis shoes, and black turbans every time we pass through Surobi. They could be Sheppard’s or gold miners but it’s a safe bet their Taliban fighters hitting Surobi in for in-country R&R (rest and recreation).

The French have been serious about establishing a presence in Surobi since their first unfortunate encounter with the Taliban. They are keeping units in the field 24/7; have launched several operations which have netted some prominent local commanders (according to UN incident reporting). It’s good to see our ISAF allies taking the initiative, going on the offensive and clearing out such an important area.

But after you clear an area you have to hold it and it will be interesting to see how (or if) they do that. The operations in Surobi are not impacting the repeated attacks on the Kabul/Jalalabad road – with one exception. We’ve heard from reliable sources they tracked down and killed The Mechanic. It appears to be true too because it’s been months since we’ve seen his signature long range pin point RPG shots nailing tankers. The tankers are still getting nailed but only other portions of the road that allow ambush from rifle and machinegun range.

As noted in previous posts these occur in the Tangi valley area east of Surobi and in portions of Laghman Province below the Tangi. Both the ANP and ANA have posted small units along the road to augment the numerous permanent police posts. As you can see from the pictures below the positions they have set up are weak at best and their patrol routine, which appears to be sitting by the side of the road, is not proving very effective.

Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad - Kabul road
Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad – Kabul road
ANP machinegun crew - they are not dug in and they don't move so they are not accomplishing much
ANA machine gun crew – they are not dug in and they don’t move so they do not really accomplish much

Here is an intel report from one of the PSC’s (the private security companies in Afghanistan do a lot of intel sharing with each other.)

Laghman Province, Qarghayi District, Route 1-area of Tangy

AOG Vehicle Checkpoint 05 January 2009, between 1630-1700 hrs

A doctor who works for a NGO was returning to Jalalabad from Kabul alone in his private car, when his vehicle was forced to stop by a group of armed men. The doctor was then questioned about his work and personal behaviour. He was finally allowed to proceed unharmed when, on seeing the cassette player in the vehicle, the armed men instructed the doctor to play a cassette found in the vehicle. The cassette played was a religious tape and satisfied the requirements of those who had stopped the car. Despite reported increased security force deployments, this is the third reported instance of AOG activity on Route 1 in the Tangy area since 31 Dec 08. All three incidents have occurred in daylight hours and two have been attacks on military vehicles. These incidents should demonstrate to all the risk of travel along Route 1 between Kabul-Jalalabad at any time of day. Any international staff using Route 1 should expect further instances such as that outlined in this report and seek alternative means of travel between Jalalabad-Kabul.

Along with the above report, we have made several trips the past few days along the route. A few ANA vehicles have been pulled off the side of the road about half way back to Kabul, and the soldiers were in a defensive posture behind their vehicles, weapons pointed at the high ground. Most likely some pot shots taken at the ANA as they passed thru.

The Kabul to Jalalabad route is one of the most important in Afghanistan. The effort being expended to secure this route is currently being wasted because the troops are being deployed in poorly sited positions and being tasked to do nothing other than sit there. There is an easy fix and that would be to embed and infantry squad into the Qarghayi District ANP headquarters with a mission style order. It should sound something like this; “Sergeant you’ve got six months to work with these guys and stop any and all attempts to attack this vital route, go down there scout it out, come up with a plan and I’ll see you in five days so you can brief me on your plan. ” Winning the IED battle requires that you kill the IED makers and you can only do that if they are unmasked by the people. To reach the people with the consistency required to gain that level of cooperation requires that you leave the big armored vehicles and spend time (lots of it) among the people. I am pretty sure that if you consult the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manual you’ll find that it says more less exactly the same thing.

It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks
It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks along the Jbad to Kabul road

There is hope for those of us who use the Kabul Jbad road frequently and that is the appearance of a small American patrol right in the heart of the Tangy valley visiting the local ANA checkpoint. Inshallah they will be spending some time and effort trying to help the various small unit commanders develop a more aggressive plan to secure the route. We did not encounter any problems on our numerous trips to Kabul and back. What follows is some photo blogging about the Fab Folk we are hosting and some of the things they are up to.

Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi
Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi – we have a lot of James’s here (James the Brit,   James the Aussie,   James the Marine, and James the German)- chatting with Dr Dave from the Synergy Strike Force
Kieth, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Kieth and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpretur duty - he is between Steve and Carl
Keith, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Keith and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpreter duty – he is between Steve and Carl
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Smari and Andres - Fab Folk from Iceland
Smari and Andres – Fab Folk from Iceland
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday.
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday. She interviewed myself and Dr. Dave, the Fab Lab Folk, saw a school built by the La Jolla Rotary Club, and made the river crossing to Little Barabad. She had a big day and shot lots of tape.   More on our day with ABC in the next post.

Here’s a link to Martha’s first news story from her visit to Jalalabad.