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. Dugway should be the major training base for Afghanistan because it has the largest military impact and maneuver area in the country but it remains a testing command because the Army in general and the DoD civilians who run Dugway in particular lack vision, a sense of urgency, are afraid of change and are more concerned with guarding their little rice bowl than making a major contribution to the operation formally known as The War on Terror. Institutional stupidity is going to be a theme in this post it is the institution; not the individuals which draws my ire as I digest what I have seen this week and I have seen more than my fair share of stupidity.
As I mentioned in my last post I do not really know what our mission in Afghanistan is.We are engaged in a counterinsurgency war but confine the troops to large FOB’s which directly contradicts our counterinsurgency doctrine.Our troops do not have sustained meaningful contact with local Afghans, cannot provide any real security to them, and due to Big Army casualty policies are forced to ride around in large multimillion dollar MRAP’s where they are subject to IED strikes they can do nothing to stop because they do not control one meter of ground outside their FOBs.We also do not have the cooperation of the government of Afghanistan.President Karzai has cobbled together a coalition of Afghan power brokers and will win the upcoming election.The UN and our Department of State can make all the noise they want about a free and fair election but they are irrelevant because they stay isolated and unengaged in their high speed compounds.The election was decided in Dubai last month as I reported earlier.Besides Afghans have no idea what a free and fair election is they are no more capable of conducting one than the state of Illinois.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.
Why would the Karzai government do this? For the same reason Chrysler is closing profitable dealerships it’s all about the money. Chrysler is closing dealerships based on political contributions to and ownership by powerful democrats. The power brokers in the Afghan government stand to make millions and millions and millions of dollars off our counterinsurgency efforts. There is no profit for them in peace if we eliminate the poppy, bring a decent standard of living to the Afghans and go home. Afghanistan would then be a country with a GDP of maybe $175.00. There is little profit to be made under those circumstances. I could be reading this wrong mind you.. but I doubt it.
I spent a few days in Gardez this week bringing a little hope and some spending money to the poorest of the poor there.Gardez is one of the larger more important cities in the southeast which has been the home of an American PRT since 2005.I stayed at the PRT with The Boss who loves running around the country seeing places he has not visited before and showing off his mastery of Pashto. We had to stay at the PRT because Gardez is a dangerous place. It has always been a dangerous place due to its proximity to the traditional smuggling routes leading into Pakistan through the Parrots Beak area which leads directly into Parachinar.Parachinar may be one of the most dangerous towns on earth and was the central staging area for the Mujahedeen when they were fighting the Soviets (with our help) in the 1980’s. 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 in Dand Wa Patan district 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 at all and the town of Gardez remains a dirt poor shit hole all but ignored by the Army, US AID and all other NGO’s just look at the pictures.
I have no insight into the grand military plan and for all I know there is a super smooth strategic reason why we allow the Taliban to move back and forth across the border in places like the Parrots Beak.However I do know is that FOB’s like the one in Gardez 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 I was hosted by and enjoyed the company of some really great Americans in Gardez.These men are hungry to do what they have been trained to do.I talked with a National Guard Army Sergeant (as in E5) who is an agriculture professor back in the world and 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 of the 1970’s Kabul University.In the 70’s the agriculture program at Kabul University was the most advanced in Central Asia.It was tied directly into 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 large local land owners when the good Colonel from Tennessee pulls up with an entire platoon of infantry who acts like they are about to be ambushed every second they are away from the protective cocoon of their million dollar armor?Military professionals study past wars to provide the base of expertise required to make sound decisions 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 like this and still has his head attached to his shoulders is in some way shape or form in collusion with our enemies.That is not to say he is a bad guy but the enemy owns the turf because he stays out on the turf while we stay inside massive FOB’s enjoying what all civilized people enjoy pecan pie and really good coffee.
Wealthy people in Afghanistan are not only targets to Taliban fighters but kidnapping syndicates who are prolific, well organized, and who (in some cases) work with the local police.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?Spend billions bringing National Guard agriculture specialists over here who triple the risk for every farming family they visit and try to help while not being able to provide real help because their time off the FOB is so limited due to risk avoidance rules and procedures?
As happens at every FOB I visit, the troops button hole us to express how much they would enjoy having the freedom of action to go out and work the way we do.We do not wear body armor nor carry long guns, we are not afraid in the least 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 move around Gardez in this manner on a regular basis because once our routine was identified we would be attacked.But we can show up every once in a while, walking with the confidence of true Apex Predators and interact with the people while confronting the big T Taliban who often shadow us in a weak attempt at intimidation.Nothing pumps up the locals like seeing The Boss or I walk over and go toe to toe with these Taliban jerks wearing a big shit eating grin while going through a traditional greeting.There is nothing they can do but give a proper response because Pashtunwali dictates they must do so.Afghans admire calm cool courage and their tens of thousands of troops here nowwho could display that kind of cool (most probably better than I at this sort of thing) 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 knowlege of local customs which is essential to counterinsurgency warfare.
While in the VIP barracks a wooded B hut with my own little bed and table, I listened to the staff officers as they prepared to fly out to various other FOB’s to attend conferences of great import.One of which I remember is 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 important cities in which the main canals are full of garbage, human and animal waste,large protozoan parasites, and toxic sludge but 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 flunkies, and US AID techno weenies can spend their entire tour preparing slides, looking at studies, conducting historical research, looking up old hands from the American heyday of public works projects in the Helmund Valley (back in the 50’s and 60’s) to produce a product which in the end is meaningless to the Afghans but shows forward thinking on behalf of the fobbits.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 so they do the next best thing which it to switch on the denial mechanism resident in us all and plow ahead on complex projects designed by complex people who are spending a virtual tour in Afghanistan.
But the people of Gardez are about to have their number one complaint, and source of untold amounts of disease and infection taken care of by my team and I who, working in conjunction with the Mayor and a modest stipend of 600k are going to clean all the ditches, garbage dams, main canals and kariz’s.We will employ over a thousand dirt poor people and bring irrigation to damn near 1000 acres of farm land. This is the low hanging fruit of aid work something which should have been done seven years ago but you just don’t develop a sense of urgency about things like this when you live on a Big Box FOB isolated from the day to day struggles of poor Afghans.
Make no mistake it takes a special kind of courage to ride around in an MRAP.I’d never be caught in one; not because I lack courage but because I disabled my denial mechanism years ago and will not do stupid things just because it looks cool or because some beltway bandit based in that walking and breathing human turd John Murtha’s district says it is safe.For my non US readers John Murtha is a fat corrupt democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who should still be in prison for what he was caught doing in the FBI Abscam investigation back in the 1970’s.Because he is from the real party of corruption the main stream media and his democratic cronies closed ranks and save his pathetic stupid ass.The people of Pennsylvania keep electing this disgrace so they deserve what they get from him but his position on various defense related committees has allowed a series of worthless, crooked beltway bandits to flourish in his district where they inflict their unwanted wares on a military.Sounds like Kabul on the Allegheny to me.and our State people talk about teaching good governance. Give me a break.
You cannot counter good tactics with technology because your enemy will always find ways of beating the technology for around 1/1000 of the cost it took to develop the technology in the first place.You will hear from senior commanders over and over that the MRAP’s save lives.That is bullshit.The enemy will find a way to turn those beasts into iron coffins in time what is saving lives is the fact that our enemies are more incompetent than we are.This is a sad truth we are able to stay on the Big Box Fobs, concern ourselves with ridiculous pie in the sky projects like Water Shed Management which will never have any impact at all on the average Afghan, waste billions of dollars and hundreds of years worth of man hours because as screwed up as we are the enemy is ten times worse.I mean look at this our head guy on the operation formally known as the War of Terror is a Clinton crony brought in to keep Bill and Hillary in a tight little box where they can do little harm to Obama.Mr. Holbrooke is concerned that the surge of troops will drive the Taliban into Pakistan.What an idiot how are we going to do that when the surge is going to Big Box FOB’s?The Taliban don’t need to go anywhere in most the country nobody is putting pressure on them to do a damn thing.The only proactive operations being run against the Talibs is in the south where the Marines have landed and are getting ready to follow up on the success of last year MEU deployment.A MEU is a Marine Expeditionary Unit a combined arms task force built around one battalion of infantry.Now we have a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) on the ground which is a combined arms task force built around a Marine Regiment.Marine combat units are bigger and more capable then similar units in the American army and the other ISAF forces.This is a legacy of World War II where Marine units had to continue to fight hard while sustaining casualty rates which would cripple a regular army battalion.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 BGen Larry Nicholson and the entire 2nd MEB to contend with and they are about to get their asses kicked and kicked hard.They will rapidly figure out it is time to move out of the Helmund and will be heading somewhere a few will go to Pakistan but most will go somewhere else in Afghanistan which is what the political hack Holbrooke should be worried about the dimwit.
There is a bright light in Kabul which is the Deputy Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr. in whom the Marines place great stock.Ambassador Riccardone should be in charge of our Kabul embassy but Obama, acting the typical democrat, played politics with the post and appointed an active duty Army general who joins a long line of undistinguished, uninspiring plain vanilla leaders.The Boss and I had the distinct pleasure of a short visit with General Nicholson yesterday and The Boss, who is not impressed by much, was in awe.That is the best way to put it the boss remarked that for the first time since 2002 he has met a real combat leader from on high.You better believe it and there are plenty more where he came from but again I digress.
You will not hear much about the Marines in the months ahead because they run counter to the preferred MSM narrative but the Afghans in the Helmund valley know who they are and they, according to our local sources (which are extensive in the regionThe Boss was exporting fruit and cotton out of here back in 97 when the Taliban ruled and has more than a few reliable sources) the Afghans eagerly await the arrival of the Marines as they understand the Marines are here to stay.The Afghans in the Helmund like the Marines who they feel 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 formation of Taliban.I have cited in previous posts examples from the mighty 3rd Battalion 8th Marines of 30 man platoons attacking groups of Taliban numbering in the hundreds and kicking their asses good while sustaining zero causalities.Old Terry the Taliban doesn’t like getting beat on like that but that is the way it is going to be this summer.
Speaking of preferred narrative do you want to know how you can tell the U.S. Army is at the end of its Big Box FOB micro managing rope?You can tell when they start reporting body counts as a metric of success which is exactly what they have started doing.I have said before and will say again that killing people is meaningless in this war.There will always be more small t Taliban to used as cannon fodder by the various warlords, Taliban and drug kingpins.Small t Taliban are local kids who fight for money or because a family member has been killed.They are not true believers those would be the big T Taliban and their host of foreign fighters who are fighting for pay and because they can’t go home to Uzbekistan or China or Russia.The number of enemy killed is meaningless you have to kill the right guys the bomb makers, foreign trainers, leaders, and money men.These are the high value targets (HVT’s) are tier one special ops go after in raids which are launched from afar based on suspect intelligence which more often than not result in the killing of innocent Afghans.The only way to separate HVT’s from the people is to be out in the districts with the people no other method will work and that is exactly what our counterinsurgency doctrine says should be done.There is only one large outfit in Afghanistan who has the training, ability, attitude, courage and balls to do that the United States Marine Corps.There are plenty of American Army and ISAF units who can do the same again it is the institutions which are flawed not the individuals.The Marines have always been able to filed senior combat leaders who retain the hunger for the fight at the senior level.They retain the confidence in their small unit leaders to allow them to go outside the wire and stay there.
The Army SF teams, SEALS, SAS operators and small unit fighters from other lands who are as lethal and dedicated as the Marines all welcome the MEB they prefer Marine helicopter gunships primitive though they are when compared to the Army Apache because Marine pilots fly right into the teeth of dug in enemy to take them on at ridiculously low altitudes and close ranges.An Army SF guy I talked with said that when his men were pinned down fighting for their lives it was a Marine Huey pilot who hovered right above them spraying mini-gun fire into the faces of the Taliban.Col 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.No stand off rocket shots for Marine pilots they want to get close enough to shoot pistols at the Taliban.The various special operators out there now, preparing the battle space for the 2nd MEB, love Marine air who wouldn’t?
Killing people is serious business best left to true professionals who can separate the big T Taliban from the population.It is time to tackle the viper’s nest which has grown in the south.Judgment day is about to arrive for Terry Talibanthe killing machine is about to take the field, they play for keeps and are here to stay.
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 andthat 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.