Last February I wrote this post about the Afghan Security Market.I was in Kabul for a month as a favor to a friend when I wrote the post filling in for a guy I had not met before named Christian Major.Christian and I spent two days conducting a turn over before he went home.I instantly became a big fan of his when I saw him interacting with the local beggar kids on our first morning together.He had exceptional language skills, he was a very big and very fit guy, had an infectious smile, great sense of humor and like all the good guys in my line of work a tender heart.As many of us do he sponsored children from the slums paying them to go to school.Unlike many of us he followed up on his investment ensuring unscrupulous family members did not take the money from his charges and force them to beg in other parts of the city.Christian Major was a good man; I am proud to call him my friend; Christian died sometime during the night last Thursday and was found in his room by his mates on Friday morning.
We do not know why he died and there is no reason to suspect foul play.Christian was a friend to everyone he met good natured and relaxed in all situations as only big, fit, highly trained men can be.I am on the way home for a much needed break and am therefore not in close contact with my buddies back in Kabul so I do not know what the family is planning or where to send my condolences. When I find out I will post that information on this page.
I do not know why we lost Christian but do know we lost someone special.He was an “outside the wire” guy who knew the languages, culture and people of Afghanistan. Please remember him and his family in your prayers.
Gardez is the capitol of Paktya Province which is located in the southeast of Afghanistan. It is one of the provinces which border Pakistan, the terrain and vegetation is almost identical to the high deserts of the American west. Paktya looks similar to Marine Corps training base in 29 Palms California and exactly like the super large Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Which I mention because I worked at Dugway for a few years after 9/11 and was constantly asking why we weren’t utilizing the maneuver areas for large scale training maneuvers.
We spent a few days in Gardez to scope out projects aimed at bringing cash for work projects. Gardez is one of the larger more important cities in the southeast and has been the home of an American PRT since 2005. I stayed at the PRT with The Boss because Gardez is a dangerous place and we have yet to get a handle on local atmospherics.
So we are fighting a counterinsurgency in support of a government who is actively hindering our efforts by not cooperating with our military, our hapless State Department, or any other organization trying to bring peace, hope, modernity and the rule of law to this once proud and beautiful country.
Gardez has always been a dangerous place due to its proximity to the traditional smuggling routes leading into Pakistan through the Pakistani town of Parachinar. Early in 2002 U.S. and Australian Special Forces troops fought a pitched battle in the Shah-i-Kot Valley (the Battle of Takur Ghar) close to Gardez. One would think that the Army would have done a ton of work in Gardez to help establish a positive climate while placing maneuver units on the Pakistani border to block the well developed and well known smuggling routes. In both cases one would be wrong; there is no coalition presence on the border and the town of Gardez remains a dirt poor shit hole all but ignored by the army and US AID.
I have no insight concerning leaving pours borders uncovered know the FOB’s are full of frustrated troops who have very little to do and understand that the time they are spending here is wasted time. I want to stress that we were hosted by and enjoyed the company of great Americans at the Gardez PRT. For example we talked with a National Guard Sergeant (as in E5) who is an agriculture professor back home and was able to discuss the various types of grasses for livestock feed and fruit trees for large orchards by family, genus and phylum. All he wants to do is teach the Afghan farmers what he knows in order to continue the legacy (which he has researched thoroughly) of the 1970’s Kabul University. In the 70’s the agriculture program at Kabul University was the most advanced in Central Asia. The Ag program was partnered with the University of Nebraska, all courses were taught in English and the graduates of this program were famous throughout the region for their proficiency and expertise.
The sergeant is part of a Tennessee National Guard unit full of agricultural specialists, led by a Colonel whose mannerisms and demeanor mark him as a classic American combat commander. During their shot time in country they are trying to bring their expertise to bear on the problem of developing professional agriculture practices which will produce export quality products and earn money for the people. But they cannot really accomplish much of anything because you cannot mentor from inside of a FOB. They are trying but what can you do when you are forced to travel down the few roads in the province in convoys which must have at a minimum four MRAP’s? What kind of reaction do you expect from local land owners when you roll up with an entire platoon of infantry for your personal protection?
Military professionals study past wars to gain the knowledge required for sound decision making in this kind of environment. Based on thousands of years of military history we can deduce that a large land owner who has received a visit from the PRT and still has his head attached to his shoulders is in some way, shape or form in collusion with the Taliban. That is not to say he is a bad guy but he is not our guy because the enemy owns the turf he lives on while we spend our nights inside Big Box FOB’s enjoying pecan pie and really good coffee.
A moderately wealthy land owner in Afghanistan has many enemies and few friends so they are forced to pay for security or face the certain prospect of being kidnapped or losing a son to kidnappers. The American military provides them zero protection and visits from the military can only bring them more harm than good. Sound like a sound counterinsurgency strategy to you?
As happens at every FOB I visit the troops tell me how much they would enjoy working the way we do. We do not wear body armor and rarely carry long guns; we are not afraid to walk around places like Gardez because we understand the OODA loop and how it applies to the Taliban. Make no mistake; we could not do this on a regular basis because once our routine was known we would be attacked. But we can show up every once in a while, walking with the confidence and interacting with the people, while confronting the big T Taliban who often shadow us in an attempt at intimidation. Nothing pumps up the locals like seeing The Boss or I walk over to a cab with several Talibs inside and go toe to toe with them wearing a big shit eating grin because (for now) they are unarmed and unable to do a damn thing to us. We are armed and would not hesitate to shoot the pricks but we could only do that if they attacked us with a firearm or edged weapon.
Afghans admire calm cool courage and there are tens of thousands of troops in country who could display that kind of cool if they were allowed to do so. The Boss and are are not special but we are smart and we are well armed with both weapons and the knowledge of local customs which is essential to counterinsurgency warfare.
While in the VIP barracks I listened to the staff officers as they prepared to fly out to various other FOB’s to attend conferences. One of which was a big multi-day confab concerning Water Shed Management. Why the hell are we concerning ourselves with Afghan water shed management? We have FOB’s sitting next to important cities where the main canals are full of garbage, human and animal waste, large protozoan parasites, and toxic sludge. Instead of taking care of that simple problem we are conducting huge meetings on big box FOB’s with lots of senior officers about water shed management. You know why? Because dozens of senior officers, Department of State and US AID people can spend their entire tour preparing slides, looking at studies and conducting historical research to produce a product which is meaningless to the Afghans. They then can have multi-day super high speed presentations about water shed management without ever having to leave the FOB’s, deal with a real Afghan, or actually see, taste or feel any real water. It is virtual stability operations done by people who want to help but can’t.
The people of Gardez are about to have their number one complaint (and source of disease and infection) taken care of by my team (working in conjunction with the Mayor) and a paltry budget of $600,000. With that modest sum we are going to clean all the ditches, garbage dams, main canals and karezs. We will employ over five thousand dirt poor people and bring irrigation to over 1000 acres of farm land. This is the low hanging fruit of aid work and something which should have been done seven years ago.
The sad truth is we stay on the Big Box FOBs concerning ourselves with ridiculous projects like Water Shed Management (which will never have any impact at all on the average Afghan), waste millions of dollars and thousands of man hours because we can’t do what is important. We need to get off the FOB’s and fight along side the Afghans. The only unit in country doing that is in Helmand province where the Marines have landed.
The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB) on the ground and they are a combined arms task force built around a Marine Corps infantry regiment. Marine combat units are bigger then similar units in other services. That is a legacy from World War II where Marine units had to continue to fight hard while sustaining cripplingly high casualty rates as they rooted out dug in Japanese. Marine units no longer take massive casualties; they inflict them, which the Taliban learned last year when they foolishly accepted an invitation to dance with Colonel Pete Petronzio and the 24th MEU.
Now they have Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and the entire 2nd MEB to contend with and they are about to get their asses kicked and kicked hard. The Boss and I had the distinct pleasure to visit with General Nicholson yesterday and The Boss, who is not impressed by much, was in awe. He told me that for the first time in his life he has met a real fighting general. Larry Nicholson is one of the best in a talented group of newly minted general officers. The Marines have more like him and they’ll be following him and expanding on his work for the years to come.
You will not hear much about the Marines in the months ahead because their performance will run counter to the preferred corporate media narrative and will therefore be omitted from the nightly news. The Afghans in the Helmand province already know who they are and the citizens (according to our local sources) are excited as they understand the Marines are here to stay. The Afghans in the south fell the Marines treat them with more respect than the other forces operating in the region. They also admire the tenacity of Marine infantry and their propensity to operate in small units while taking on large formations of Taliban. I have seen several stories about small units of Marines kicking the Taliban’s asses good while sustaining zero causalities.
The SF teams, SEALS, and SAS teams working Helmand province now love having the MEB here because Marine pilots fly into the teeth of dug-in enemy to take them on at low altitudes and close range. A SF guy I talked with told me that when his men were pinned down a Marine Huey pilot hovered right above them spraying mini-gun fire into the faces of the Taliban. My friend Eric Mellinger,the operations officer for 2nd MEB, confirmed the story saying the pilot took 3 AK rounds in the only place on the bird which would not bring it down; the self sealing fuel tanks.
Killing people is serious business best left to true professionals who can separate the big T Taliban from the population. The Marines can do that because the Marines will not hesitate to strong point villages vulnerable to Taliban intimidation with rifle squads. And they tend to go after people who shoot at them running them down and destroying them in detail. If there is a way to win we will see it play out in the years ahead with the Marines in Helmand province where they will prove once again they are the strongest tribe.
I took up the pen last fall out of frustration at seeing our efforts in Afghanistan result in continuous negative trend line. Although I have tried to point out some positives like night platoon ambushes or the admirable performance of other developmental programs run by countries such as Germany and Japan the overall trend of my posts has been negative. That trend mirrors the news as well as the current state of play in Afghanistan but it also ignores the many positives which have occurred over the years. I remain a critic of the velocity and the efficiency of our stability operations battle but the ring road is paved, more and more households have access to electricity, and millions of Afghans are leading vastly improved lives due to the efforts of the U.S. led coalition. The many varied organizations which are conducting reconstruction, redevelopment, and all the other various forms of aid in country (all would fall under the definition of Stability Operations in American military doctrine) are having a noticeable positive impact on the lives of a good portion of the Afghan people.
But changes at the margin at this late stage of the game are one step above worthless.I remain a proponent for radical change in how we approach stability operations and am now currently involved in what I see as a proof of concept demonstration of the way forward.I am now working for a small American company with a long history in Afghanistan.They were exporting dried fruit and pomegranate from here in 1997 and have remained a major player in the south since 2001.They were asked to provide cash for work projects in largest of the contested urban areas in Afghanistan a six month project designed to provide cash payments to the poorest of the poor while also providing a work force to those municipalities in support of large not to sexy projects like canal cleaning, refuse removal, andpublic health initiatives (like treating all shallow wells in the city during breakouts of water borne pathogenic disease.) The program is an 80/20 split 80% of the money goes to the payment of labor 20% to project materials the only money leaving the country under this program is the salaries of the project managers and Filipino finance managers.Every other cent is spent in Afghanistan with the exception of an administrative fee paid to my parent company.There are no security teams, no armored vehicles, no guarded compounds no nothing just a small life support payment for the 2 internationals to rent guesthouse rooms and pay for food.The project managers provide their own security and there is a Canadian, an Australian, a South African and myself working Kandahar, Lashka Ghar, Tiran Kot, Gardez and Jalalabad. All of us are old Afghan hands with at least three years of in-country experience.I have Jalalabad which is considered a safe city by outside the wire types and Gardez which is not a safe or easy place to work.Kandahar, Lash and TK are all considered to be extremely volatile and although there are plenty of internationals working in those cities none of them travel like we do, work like we do or interact with the citizens like we do.
We are two months into our program and the results have been above expectations. We are conducting massive clean ups of critical canals, removing tons of toxic sludge from the main canals which provide all of the agricultural (and in some cases drinking) water to these urban zones which are areas of heavy cultivation. We are removing tons of refuse from the city streets and we have teams out daily conducting public health classes and monitoring the thousands of shallow wells which provide the drinking water for urban residents. There are hundreds of aid workers and probably thousands of military people who could do this job just as well and probably better than we are. But they do not enjoy the freedom of movement which is a fundamental requirement for effective aid delivery. They would operate just like we are if they could but they can’t due to current force protection rules which add billions of unnecessary costs to our aid packages.
Make no mistake this is work at the margins in the overall scheme of things.Our total project expenditures are in the 20 million dollar range and that is not even real money to the giant firms which are normally the prime implementers on US AID or Department of State projects.There are many (myself included) who do believe the long established international methodology of providing aid to impoverished nations does more harm than good.This book on the topic was written by an African woman who directly benefited from Canadian aid programs and she is now a Canadian citizen.She believes that international aid has destroyed many countries in Africa and has visited great harm upon those who were supposed to be helped.I believe her argument to be self evident.
I was able to spend last weekend in Kandahar with a couple of my counterparts one a former Canadian soldier with extensive combat time in Kandahar Province and the other a South African who has over five years in country. These guys are very good and as they operate in and around Kandahar daily prefer to remain anonymous. Working these areas takes a certain type of skill which can only be learned through experience on the ground. Our boss had invited a photographer to come along with us and document the Kandahar projects. Regular readers of FRI will be shocked to learn that photographer was none other the Amy Sun the MIT FABLAB coordinator who seems to have talked to boss into supporting a FabLab extension into the contested areas. Visiting a project site in Kandahar with a female photographer is a no-go Kandahar is distinctly different kind of place where religious fundamentalism still thrives (that is not the case in most of the country.) So my two hosts dressed Amy in boys Shalwar Kamiz and covered her face with a turban. She looked just like the teen-aged Hazara bartender we had at the Global House back in 2005. That kid made the best gin and tonics I’ve ever tasted a skill not taught to MIT PhD a type which, of course, limits their utility in a pinch. We needed three vehicles with close in medium and long security to accomplish the photo shoot but you would have never spotted all three vehicles at the work sites even if you knew to look for them. We drive slowly in local garb using old well maintained vehicles. We never have exposed weapons all rifles remain with the long security team. We do not fool anyone once we leave the vehicles but that is not the point avoiding detection while moving through the city is our goal and my colleagues have that down to a science.
Our projects are designed to prove that regional aid programs can be run with speed and efficiency using the very competent local talent we have developed over the previous seven years.This is the first step in what I believe to be the only rational way forward.The next step would be to combine our project teams with small units of infantry and allow these teams to operate out of fortified villas.The aid community has been doing that since day one and this is the only way to provide the presence, security, and demonstration of commitment needed to move the population towards our side.Our current Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is very specific on this point but our current deployment on the ground is mostly inside big box FOB’s.
While in Kandahar I was able to pay a brief visit to my old friend Col Duffy White who leads the Marines Special Purpose Task Force in Afghanistan. He was having an out brief with LtCol Dave Odom Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines. 3/8 has done a superb job during their time establishing a record clearly marking of them as one the best combat battalions the Marines have ever had. I knew Dave as a lieutenant at the Infantry Officer Course where it was my good fortune to be an instructor. He was a standout then and has developed into one of more capable commanders of his generation. That is saying something because the Marines have consistently fielded capable combat leaders throughout the opening stages of this long war. Being a knucklehead I didn’t have a camera with me it was so gratifying to see such good friends doing so well after all these years. With luck I’ll be able to go down to Kandahar again soon and have some time to spend talking about how the Marines view their Afghan mission.
I also had the good luck to run into Mathew DuPee the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School. We had corresponded for months but never met each other. His program has an excellent human terrain website on Afghanistan which can be found here.
One aspect of the current thinking on Afghanistan which seems to me to be missing is the fact that current financial expenditures cannot be sustained indefinitely.We are pouring more soldiers into the country but only a very few will have any impact on our ability to bring security and reconstruction to the people.We have too large of a tail to tooth ratio; when you send troops in country you have to feed and house them and right now every gram of food consumed by our respective militaries is flown into the country from a far.We are trying to tell the Afghans to stop growing poppy and instead grow fruits and vegetables for export but we won’t even buy the stuff they grow to feed our troops.This ungodly expensive logistical tail which is tenuous at best as it most of it runs through Pakistan -can be trimmed fast by movingthe combat troops off post and allowing them to be housed and fed on the local economy.While at it a good idea would be to send most of the 40 something additional members of the ISAF collation home.They can’t fight, they cannot support themselves, they stay mostly behind the wire, and they are not the right kind of troops to have roaming around the country side in a counter insurgency.
A functional civilian-military team needs to be built around a solid infantry squad with attached Afghans and armed aid implementation contractors.The Afghans and contractors are required to provide expertise and continuity.But here is the thing the Afghans have to be as motivated as the current Afghan Army Commandos which requires daily mentorship and increased pay.One of the main reasons the Afghan Commandos are so good is that they train, fight and live with their American SF trainers and the bonds established through shared hardship and the rigors of war.The Afghan troops selected, screened and trained for this type of duty could be every bit as formidable if they are treated and paid properly.
I have no idea how our campaign in Afghanistan will end but one is certain and that is we are going to change how we approach both fighting the enemy and in implementing aid. Insallah a system similar to the one I envision will be tried. It would cut costs, cut casualties, and demonstrate to the average Afghan living in contested areas our commitment to providing security.