There is no shortage of news flowing out of Afghanistan concerning election mischief and general mayhem. Just tonight we received a report about a BBIED who walked into the Pakistani Khasadar (Tribal) Guard mess and detonated his rig killing 22 and wounding another 15. That was probably revenge for the recent killing of Baitullah Meshud by drone strike. We have been spending an inordinate amount of time investigating the increased number of Anti Government Element (AGE) incidents on the main roads and in Jalalabad City to get a handle on what is criminal and what is Taliban activity.
Late last week we had a fairly large firefight in downtown Jalalabad (most unusual) but upon investigation looked to be a Badal (pashto for vengeance) act – the third targeting a small ANP post in as many weeks. This was a new tactic though – one or possibly two gunmen firing at the post from across the street while a third assailant, described as small and swift, bum rushed the main gate with a satchel bag full of hand grenades. One ANP officer and the grenadier were killed and another five ANP officers were wounded by grenade shrapnel. Rushing into a building behind a shower of hand grenades is an effective technique when properly executed by a squad or so of infantry but this looks to be a poorly planned and executed attempt to kill someone – not a deliberate attack to seize a government facility.
There is no reason to anticipate the election results for some time. Allegations of fraud continue to pour in and this report from Ben Arnoldy of the Christian Science Monitor (who I have seen several times outside the wire getting his own stories) sums the situation up succinctly.
I have been reading the new U.S. Government Integrated Civilian- Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan as well as the Commander of ISAF COIN Guidance and all I can say about them is actions speak louder than words. There is a world of disconnect between what has been written in these documents and what is happening on the ground. Joshua Foust posted his thoughts on the topic yesterday pointing out that there is no detectable change from what the previous COMISAF guidance. I agree and wanted to exam a couple of recent incidents to explain why we (the United States and our allies) suck at fighting the counterinsurgency battle.
Earlier in the month this story about a Bagram PRT was published in Wired’s Danger Room and it is a classic example of attrition warfare mindset being applied to a COIN problem. The article covers what is termed a “KLE” (key leader engagement) and “HA” (humanitarian assistance) mission to a small village just outside Bagram Air Base from which the military suspects rockets were fired toward Pogadishu (Bagram Airbase – hat tip to Old Blue for the new name.) Although the reporter is not savvy enough to recognize what he is witnessing – this mission is a perfect example of what not to do when engaging an Afghan village.
The problems start when a large force rolls into the town in MRAP’s with full battle kit, a bunch of “HA” aid bags full of tea packets, soccer balls, school supplies, two terps, some medical staff, and no plan. For those of you who have never been to Afghanistan let me clue you into a fact – the last thing in the world these people need is tea.They have plenty and they hate Lipton tea bags because they suck – that is like rolling into a Mexican border town and giving the locals packets of cocaine and boxes of 5.56 ammo – they have enough of that shit … although the thought counts for something I guess.
The “KLE” meeting doesn’t go well. The locals bum rush the supplies, the medics have no female terp and are also getting overwhelmed to the point of panic by people who no doubt have a ton of problems such as infected sores, intestinal parasites, malaria etc.. which the Americans could easily treat if they had the time, patience and a clue. They see a young man snapping pictures with a cell phone – something Afghans do all the time – and interpret this as possibly hostile activity so they scan him with the BATS (Biometric Automated Tool Set) and erase his cell phone. Of what possible relevance these cell phone pics could be remains a mystery to me. Young Afghans taking cell phone pictures is what one expects to see and is therefore not a “rule of opposites” scenario.
An old man smacks one of the little village girls and an American officer steps in to intervene with a “stern warning.” What kind of stern warning? What the hell is the Captain going to do? What did the terp tell the old man? I bet the Captain in this story has no idea and I also bet it was not what the young Captain told him to say. Little girls in this country have much more pressing concerns than getting cuffed upside the head by their granddad. That is no reason to draw a line in the sand which may alarm some readers but is the way it is here and the Terp knows that. And throughout the mission the company First Sergeant is “getting very agitated” because “They’re going to put soldiers lives at risk.” I hate hearing “they”….who the hell is “they?” What exactly about “they” is putting soldiers lives at risk? A company first sergeant is supposed to be an island of calm in the sea of chaos which is the Big Army. One that gets flustered at being around Afghan woman and children is putting troops at more risk than a “they.”
What is putting the soldiers at risk is the institutional stupidity. Let me explain why. In order to do “KLE” you need to engage the “key leaders” in a manner consistent with your objectives. If your objective is to provide aid and make new friends how should the company commander present himself? I vote for he drives in with his terp in an unarmored SUV; sits down with the local elders and asks permission to come in with his company and also for their help distributing some supplies. You ask them to provide male and female interpreters as well as supervisors to assist with the distribution of aid and you agree to the rate for these folks. You both agree exactly how the MEDCAP will go and pay for supervisors – both male and female to run that too. Leave the security outside the village and walk in without all the body armor – side arms or slung rifles are no big deal and soldiers should never allow theirs to leave their bodies anyway so wear them. The visit is supposed to be about trust and you can only show trust with actions …. not words. If the elders do not hold up their end of the bargain you leave. It is that simple – Pashtunwali cuts both ways and if they won’t play ball they should get the stick … or just be ignored. Both responses are appropriate depending on location, tribal composition, and the overall Provincial security picture.
This is how we get large projects done in the most volatile regions of the south and east and is nothing more than good manners and common sense. What do you think is going to happen when you bring in a large convoy of fully armored troops who have not a clue what they are doing into a village? I run paydays where we distribute very large sums of money to hundreds of poor illiterate workers and these pay calls go like clockwork. The reason they are so smooth is that the Afghans organize them – I can only imagine what a Charlie Foxtrot it would be if the Bagram PRT did pay calls for me ….those guys seem clueless.
As I mentioned above the Bot and I have been spending a lot of time trying to get a handle on the nature and seriousness of the many incidents being reported daily. This means going out to the various posts and talking with the Afghan police or army guys who man them. The physical condition of these posts are very poor as is the most of the equipment the troops are issued, but what is most appalling is the complete lack of adult supervision, military planning, and meaningful mission.
The Bot and I are looking at a ridge line some 600 meters away which is the attack point for Taliban gunmen who fire on this post regularly. There are four ANA soldiers and four ANP policemen manning this position and they have a Hummer mounted M60 machinegun, and RPK machinegun and their rifles for defense. Apparently the bad guys tend to attack in the evening when the ANP re-supply truck arrives with chow and they have wounded at least two ANP policemen this month.
What is frustrating to guys like Bot and I is the fact that we could easily sort out this threat with a good machinegun squad and a mortar – manned by proper infantry. An American squad with a sharp squad leader would be perfect for a job like this. The reason why American infantry is so effective is that their machineguns come with tripods and T&E’s which are traversing and elevation mechanisms. Machineguns are deadly in the defense because you can dial them in using a map, range finders, a little math and test firing. There are five different firing spots on the ridge across from this position and each of them should be dialed in on range cards so that the leader calls out a target designation off the card when he wants to shift fire. The machinegunner than dials that target in on his T&E and he can rock and roll. A mortar which has been placed in properly can do exactly the same thing – register the targets allowing for first round hits which saves ammo and pumps up the troops.
The generals can write all the pithy COIN sounding directives they want but words mean little outside the wire. Only actions count and it seems that our seniors are forgetting the age old dictum “you cannot fool the troops” and that applies to all troops including Afghans. We used to know how to do counterinsurgency back in the early parts of the last century. We would actually embed our troops in with the local formations to live, train, fight and die with them. We do not embed troops now – we say we do but we don’t. Embedded training teams live on mini FOB’s inside Afghan FOB’s and the Afghans they are supposed to mentor cannot enter the little American FOB’s without an escort and a body search. The Americans do not go out and stay out with the troops they mentor and when they do go out the Americans are in MRAP’s with full body armor while their trainees are in unarmored pickups without body armor. That is not leading be example – in fact it is not leading at all. Embedded trainers need to train Afghans exactly as they would Americans which means they really embed, eating what they eat, sleeping like they sleep and fighting with them wearing the same kit they wear. That is what my friends who work that mission tell me they should be doing but they can’t and they are frustrated.
I have mentioned this before and want to stress it again – I joined the military in 1978 back when morale was in the toilet and discipline in the ranks almost nonexistent. The American military we know and love today was created in the 1980’s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan by a cadre of officers who were able to erase the stain of Vietnam with the generous help and support of the greatest President we have ever had. The current occupant of the White House knows nothing about the military and could not in a million years have the impact on that organization that President Reagan did. The current senior military leadership apparently knows nothing about Vietnam or they might understand the consequences of putting layers of ass kissing, careerist motivated, humorless and petty Colonels in stupid do nothing staff jobs to micromanage the troops in the field. Leaders who create larger and larger staffs do so to insulate them from having to take responsibility for everything happening under them in the chain in command. That is why you only see the Navy relieving O-6 level officers as a matter of routine – you can’t create more and more staff jobs on a ship so a Navy CO actually has to live up to the responsibility for everything which happens or fails to happen in his command ….just like a junior officer in the Army does. We need Generals who come to Afghanistan and command in the manner of a U.S. Grant or Patton or Razor Ray Davis. Men who will dump the staffs, ignore PowerPoint briefs, get off the FOB’s and out with the men in the field.