Permissive Environment

Gunfire rippled across the morning calm of Jalalabad today. From what we have learned there were up to four gunmen who attacked the Nangarhar Hotel. Two were detected when they walking into the Hotel armed with AK 47’s and pistols.  There was a Provincial Directors workshop in progress which was probably the intended target. As they walked up to the hotel they were identified and challenged by one of the 20 or so ANP soldiers who mill about the area and the lead gunmen opened fire. He hit the closest policemen who in turn shot the first bad guy dead and the second bad guy retreated up to the second floor and barricaded himself in his room. The Provincial Directors bailed out of the second story windows with at least one being directed to exit the building by the surviving gunman.  So maybe they weren’t the target???   The police start to hammer away at the room and wounded the guy has holed up in and after 20 minutes he surrendered and is now in custody.   Reportedly there may have been two more accomplices who got away.

Initial reports in the press reported this to be an assassination attempt on the Governor of Nangarhar Province, Gul Agha Shirzai, but he was not anywhere near the action. It is not clear to what this mornings dust up was all about. To show you how things work in Afghanistan the local ANSO guy reported that it was unclear what this attack was about or who the target was. In Kabul that report morphed into an attempt on the Governor, who was supposedly driving to the hotel, by two suicide bombers on the Afghan evening news. Now all sorts of Kabul based PSC’s are reporting similar nonsense in their country threat intel reports. The sole exception is Tundra Security because the Bot went to the scene to get the story first hand.  One thing is clear – the gunmen were (as if often the case) as amateur as a guys with a guns can be.   There were no suicide vest or explosives on either them.

Second deck of the Nangarhar Hotel where the cover man retreated to after he was engaged by the ANP
Battle damage to the second deck of the Nangarhar Hotel where the cover man retreated to after he was engaged by the ANP.   Photo by Shem Bot

Incidents like this gun fight cause those of us who work outside the wire to reassess our security environment – is Jalalabad a permissive, semi- permissive, or non permissive environment?  These terms were once used by the United States Marines when we planned operations ashore. When my old unit 1st Battalion 8th Marines sent a rifle company to assist with the Kobe earthquake in 1995 they went without weapons or body armor – it was a permissive environment plus the Japanese made it clear that armed Americans were not needed nor welcomed. When that same battalion went into Albania in 1997 it was a semi permissive environment so they took the weapons and body armor but did not fire a shot at all the drunken locals who were milling about armed with looted AK-47’s. You don’t shoot people because they are armed, inebriated and unruly. The rules of engagement in semi permissive environments are very rigid.

The international aid community treats Jalalabad as a permissive environment – the US Military conducts all outside the wire missions in Jalalabad as if they are in a hostile environment. At the Nangarhar Provincial Police HQ in Jalalabad when members of the military (or their contractors) cross the street from the DynCorp side they have Nepalese guards stop all traffic – stand at the ready in the street with rifles while the soldiers hustle across the street in full armor. The soldiers I know who work there occasionally are embarrassed by this procedure understanding well what kind of message they are sending to their Afghan hosts.   How long does it take to turn a permissive environment into a non permissive environment by treating it from the start as non permissive? Will we not create a self fulfilling prophecy if we do not at some point change he way we interact with the Afghan people?

The bad news of the day is about the American losses in the west due to an aviation accident involving three different helicopters which have killed 14 American servicemen. Aviation accidents routinely produce huge casualties and they are always bad news to all involved.  One of the things to remember as the debate about Afghanistan continues is that the Taliban cannot, on their best day and when they throw all they have, inflict the level of casualties on our forces associated with aviation accidents (which most often occur in training.) They have tried twice to inflict heavy casualties by attacking undermanned joint U.S. Army/Afghan outposts in Nuristan over the past 15 months. First a well armed and equipped force tried to turn Wanat into the Alamo and most recently the same thing happened at FOB Keating. Each time the bad guys have suffered heavy casualties while inflicting single digit losses on the American defenders.

All losses be they from enemy action our aviation accident are painful. It is the price of war but what is important as we continue our efforts in Afghanistan is to remember just how ineffective our enemies are. They are getting better with the explosives which is concerning – especially the more advanced IED firing switches we are now seeing originating in Iran. But by and large they remain inept and ineffective. The Taliban cannot beat our military but our military can beat itself by remaining FOB bound while and focused on kinetic operations.

This is pro firing circut work - 10 firing circuts were recovered in Herat Province last summer and reportedly were of Iranian origin
This is pro circuit work – 10 firing switches were recovered in Herat Province last summer and reportedly were of Iranian origin.   Amateurs are not going to invest in screw terminals and the boards are from a mass production run which have been modified.   This is probably a high end commercial firing circuit which has been modified by somebody who knows what he is doing.

The reason it is important to focus on the Taliban’s complete lack of ability to conduct meaningful military operations is that eventually they are going to get better and when they do what is our response? If we were serious about our efforts here the clear way forward would be to embed troops into Afghan formations and truly mentor them. Anything short of that is a fools errand planed and implemented not to win here but to kick the can down the road until America elects some adults to take charge of the levers of power.

A Little Positive News

Michael Yon was kind enough to give the blog a plug in his latest post on the National Reviews blog the corner. The problems currently being experienced by the expat community renewing visa’s our obtaining work permits are irksome and expensive but in the big scheme of things minor. The government in Kabul is not working which is not news. My confidence in the ability of all the Afghans, ISAF and the UN to get a runoff election planned and executed in two weeks remains low; but it could happen.

It is hard to see what difference the result of this election will make on the continued problems afflicting central government control exercised from on high in Kabul. Michael posted another interesting piece the other day about adopting the Afghan Army. In that piece was a link to this Dexter Filkins article on General Stanley McChrystal which made for good reading.   The biggest problem with General Stanley McChrystal is that he’s an American. There is no Afghan equivalent of which I am aware and a warrior leader in the McChrystal mold is exactly the kind of man who stands a chance of exercising effective control from Kabul. Unfortunately there is not anyone of that stature or competence in the Afghan Security Forces. It is difficult to see what difference a runoff election will make in the big scheme of things but that is no reason for excessive pessimism.

web shot
For most Afghan families hauling fresh drinking water takes up a considerable amount of their daily routine.  

Towards the end of the Filkins article General McChrystal hears something interesting when he asks the local governor what he could be doing better.

Abdullah Jan said “You need to live in buildings not tents.”

Sounds like a comment one would find on the FRI blog which I find personally gratifying. There is no question that the American military has a handle on the more immediate problems confronting them in Afghanistan and an idea how to fix it. The question is do they have moral courage to do what needs to be done?   Physical courage is easy to find in humans but moral courage in a trait much more rare in the species. It will take a lot of moral courage from on high to get the American military off the FOB’s, out of those stupid MRAP’s, out of the body armor and helmets which make them easier to hit when they are working in the 110 degree heat or climbing steep mountain passes. It was interesting to read that the first thing Gen McChrystal did when he arrived in Garmser was to take off the body armor and helmet.

The leading edge of an Afghan population boom is rapidly coming of age. Their current prospects for meaningful employment are grim. The consequences of a large pool of unemployed young men hanging about are easily predictable
The leading edge of an Afghan population boom is rapidly coming of age. Their current prospects for meaningful employment are grim. The consequences of a large pool of unemployed young men hanging about are easily predictable

Thomas Ricks has an interesting post in the Foreign Policy blog which illustrates the need for radical change in military performance. The post contains extracts from a blunt report Canadian intelligence officer along with his commentary such as the gems below:

  • In one remote village, strong Afghan commanders worked hard to deny the area to the Taliban, and also gained a remarkable amount of intelligence. But then the outpost “was closed just after the end of our tour due to its sustainment difficulties, in all likelihood dooming many of the locals who had collaborated with us there.” This is the opposite of protecting the population — it is endangering them.
  • He also takes a small whack at the Americans, saying that the safest police stations in southern Afghanistan were those where Canadian mentors lived and slept. “The American PMT approach, which involved teams driving out in the morning to visit, regrettably was far less effective in this regard.”
  • After years of training and advising, “we were still very much at year zero. And that’s a big problem because the whole definition of victory in a counter-insurgency, as defined in FM 3-24 and elsewhere, is getting the battle to the point where indigenous forces can take over, and you can leave. … All [the enemy] has to do is deny you that indigenous force development, by making things so kinetic that you can’t focus on mentoring.”
  • Under the way we currently operate, he says, most allied units think that dealing with Afghans is someone else’s job. “Mentors in effect become the excuse for Western soldiers to avoid contact with Afghan soldiers.”
  • That last issue, the failure of mentoring, leads to his strong endorsement of Gen. McChrystal’s recommendations for a radical new approach to the war. The most significant aspect of the general’s plan, he says, is to have Americans and other foreign troops co-located with Afghan forces, living, eating and sleeping alongside them. He advocates giving up mentoring and going instead to this flat-out partnering.
Children from a refugee camp outside of Jalalabad heading out to scavage for animal forage
Children from a refugee camp outside of Jalalabad heading out to scavenge for animal forage

Getting off the FOB’s and stopping the “commute to the job” mentality is something I have been railing about since day one. It is good to see us heading in this direction but I have to tell you it is not that easy as it sounds. It is physically easy to set up safe houses in Afghan towns and embed with the locals (where invited to do so) but it requires a complete change in the perceptions of risk by the military bureaucracy. I drive around Jalalabad by myself in an unarmored vehicle with nothing more than a concealed pistol for protection as a matter of routine as do many other internationals. When working in contested areas we wear local clothes, often have rifles and extra local guys with us but we still stay out of the armored vehicles because they draw too much attention allowing for easier targeting by the bad guys. Many of the American military mentors I know would love to do the same thing because it would allow them more freedom of movement and make them more effective. But getting buy-in to deploy your military forces in such a manner from on high? Not a chance. If you have not lived like we do or had the experiences that our military mentor teams have had living with the people then chances are you think the risks we take daily are insane. They are not but it is not easy to convince people who have had multiple FOB tours here of that fact.

girls

As we muddle through a new approach to the Afghan Campaign there is one fact of ground truth which remains very positive. In most places of this country what the local people want is for us to move in and stay. America and her allies are viewed very positively by a majority of the population. As I have written in the past the most potent weapon the foreigners arsenal is a big smile and the ability to say a local greeting. Afghans are a very friendly and polite people – they love it when they meet friendly, polite foreigners.   Inshallah soon we will see civ/mil teams moving into the local districts and living on the economy like we do. That is the only way you can rapidly spread not only security but projects like this. That is how you start to reach the key demographic in Afghanistan which is the young people who are rapidly coming of age. The link above about a computer lab in Gardez is more good news – but you could do more faster with Fab Labs and it would costs pennies on the dollar when compared to the way we currently field similar projects.

Pay to Play

As the cool weather finally moves into Afghanistan I have to tell you that from my perspective not much is happening. I am not talking about security incidents – they almost doubled last week from a near all time high the week before. There is lots of villianary going on – the weather is perfect for it – but nothing seems to be really changing. One gets the impression that the players from all sides want to maintain the current status quo because all the sides are benefiting.

The bad guys continue to pick off lone fuel tankers a few time each month on the main road between Jalalabad and Kabul. The level of activity seems seems artificaly low. If a small armed group really wanted to cause problems on this vital road they could do so without too much difficulty
The bad guys continue to pick off lone fuel tankers a few time each month on the main road between Jalalabad and Kabul. The level of activity seems seems artificially low. If a small armed group really wanted to cause problems on this vital road they could do so without too much difficulty

Last week yet another story about one of the ISAF countries paying the Taliban to keep things on the down low came out. This story implied the French losses in last August action around the Uzbin Valley were directly tied to them failing to maintain the financial arrangements of their predecessors from Italy. There are hundreds of stories about how the Taliban and their various allies are benefiting from the current war as are various government officials and a rouges gallery of warlords. NATO has issued a strong denial that any of its members are paying off potential trouble makers.

fight pos
This is the closest ANA post to the truck attack pictured above. The six men manning this position have no transport and seem to stay on post for weeks at a time. They really do not have the ability nor inclination to interdict bad guys attacking the road below them.

I don’t believe the NATO spokesman nor do I believe there is a direct correlation between payments to local centers of influence by the Italians and the attack on the French patrol in the Uzbin. If the French had known about such an arrangement and refused to honor it one suspects they would have been better prepared when they ran into their first ambush. However there is no question that “centers of influence” on every side of this conflict are making a lot of money by allowing or protecting or stealing from the unbelievable amount of supplies moving into Afghanistan. This is a fact which is not in dispute – many people including myself believe the various Taliban units make much more cash in the protection racket than they make in the poppy trade.

Most of the money being paid for protection is coming from the reconstruction effort and as with most things in life is not as straight forward as paying cash to the head bad guy to be left alone. The cash comes from establishing local monopolies such as vehicle and heavy equipment rentals. If people had any idea how much money there is in waste removal trucks servicing the many different FOB’s and COP’s which dot the countryside we would have a Gold Rush of poop removal prospectors combing Central Asia for honey dipper trucks. Having a monopoly on poop trucks, or fuel tankers, or rock crushers, could make a man millions quickly in Afghanistan. The other way money is extracted from the effort is by providing security or a construction services. Much has been written about the efforts in Kabul to regulate the security industry but once outside the capitol every local power broker has both his own security and construction company and failing to utilize these services invites attack.

107mm Rocket dug out of a vegetable field near the Jalalabad Airport last week. These weapons are only effective when fired in large numbers which is why the one or two a week being shot at the Jbad airport is not getting the local folks or the soldiers too excitied.
107mm Rocket dug out of a vegetable field near the Jalalabad Airport last week. These weapons are only effective when fired in large numbers which is why the one or two a week being shot at the Jbad airport is not getting the local folks or the soldiers too excited.

There are persistent rumors that the local Army FOB at the Jalalabad Airport is being targeted with rockets by local “land owners” because they are not paying enough rent. My Army friends have heard this too and have not a clue about what it is all about because they don’t pay rent. It is possible that some locals are not happy with the current unit. The CO banned the weekly bazaar in which dozens of local vendors would participate. This was an economic loss to local businessmen but given the amount of aircraft, drones and munitions on the base a reasonable precaution. It is hard to believe that somehow somebody important is no longer getting their cut and is letting lose with 107mm rockets as a result. But they are shooting one or two every week or so. The skipper hired well diggers to go out into the fields next to the base to dig up the dud rockers (they function about 50% of the time) but the army remains convinced they aren’t being shot at.

I’ll tell you this … when us outside the wire contractors fall behind of paying local subcontractors our personal security goes right out of the window. Many a firm has had important local national staff kidnapped and in some cases international staff attacked over money issues. As I have observed in the past experienced mafia leaders would feel very at home operating businesses in Afghanistan.

ISAF and the US Department of State have closed all roads leading away from the International Airport with the exception of this one which runs through Wazar Akbra Khan. Every year Afghan politicians try to pass legislation forcing the military and others who feel they have to live behind blast walls out of the city. Every year ISAF and DS just ignore the problem - which to them isn't really a probelm at all because they don't move much from behind their blast walls and when they do they can use the three other roads they have cut to civilian traffic
ISAF and the US Department of State have closed all roads leading away from the International Airport with the exception of this one which runs through Wazar Akbar Khan. Every year Afghan politicians try to pass legislation forcing the military and others who feel they have to live behind blast walls out of the city. Every year ISAF and DS just ignore the problem – which to them isn’t really a problem at all because they don’t move much from behind their blast walls and when they do they can use the three other roads they have cut to civilian traffic.   Unless they are taking the senior folks out for a 3 martini lunch in which case they clog up the road moving the VIP’s to Boccacio

One of these days the local shooter is going to get lucky with his 107 rockets and hit the fuel pit or ammo dump which will get every-one’s attention for about four or five days.   I doubt he is aiming at those sites or even wants to hit them which is why it seems that everything is just moving along the same way it always does.   We lose a fuel tanker here, a few men in a MRAP there, the drones continue to kill with scary precision, the military talks COIN but when you observe them operating in and around Kabul you see a attrition warfare oriented army of occupation completely removed and divorced from the locals they are supposed to be protecting.

The Nangarhar PRT got right on the Sachria Bridge and have already awarded the work - this is a great sign of progress and one of the only examples I know of where the local PRT reacted with speed to a serious problem. Most PRT's are just not that useful and the people trapped inside them should be let free and sent home because we cannot afford to keep hundreds of fobbits confined on PRT bases where they earn yet another college degree - we need people who are off the FOB's doing work...not on the FOB's talking about doing work
The Nangarhar PRT got right on the Saracha Bridge and have already awarded the work – this is a great sign of progress.   Most PRT’s are just not that useful and the people trapped inside them should be free ranging about the countryside doing similar major projects like repairs the 30 or so bridges which are still down in most of the eastern provinces.

My prediction for the future is that nothing will change.   The President has made it clear he intends to continue vote present.   Now he is waiting for the election results in order to determine the best way forward to pursue our goals (whatever the hell they may be) in Afghanistan.   John Kerry, who was a CAB Chaser before there were CAB’s, has weighed into the debate helping out President Obama by declaring that targeted strikes combined with Special Forces missions will not be enough to “win” in Afghanistan.   It always helps to have a senior senator like Kerry coming out in direct opposition to your Vice President’s new strategary when you are running the clock.

John Kerry was for CAB Chasing before he was against it
John Kerry was for CAB Chasing before he was against it.   This badge was designed to reward non infantry soldiers who have fought in combat but like all silly devices and patches and most medals it is now meaningless.   There are hundreds of Junior John Kerry’s out here who will go outside the FOB until they earn a CAB and then it takes a block of C4 under the butts to ever get them off again.   Upon embarking on a career as a Marine infantry officer my Dad gave this one bit of advice; “watch what the Army does son and do the exact opposite.”   He could not have been more correct and the Army’s extravagant use of badges, tabs, and other shiny reflective objects placed about the uniform has rendered all of them meaningless because everyone has them.   Looks goofy too but that is just my opinion.

Several trial balloons being floated out of the White House.   The Pakistan First idea which is favored by VP Biden and maybe three other people; the we are “prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s political future” idea – the quote is from a White House press briefing.   The third option (which I believe will be the one Obama goes with) is to declare status quo as victory and start to wind things down real slow like.   The only problem with that last option is that the bad guys get a vote on your plan too and once they see the money train is leaving the station it is hard to predict just how poorly they will react.   It is safe to say that regardless of the direction our current administration takes Afghanistan is going to continue to get more unstable and more violent.   The Afghans I know don’t want this but they also understand just how little they can influence current events.   Life is hard; harder when you are stupid and there seems to be an inordinate amount of stupid people on all sides trying to “manage” the fight in Afghanistan.

Reading Tea Leaves

I have been in Dubai on a business trip for the past week. The boss is spoiling his talented group of Canadians and I in preparation for expanding out efforts into the most contested districts in the country. He didn’t have to spend the money as my colleagues and I are motivated by the challenge – although staying at the Raffles Hotel in Dubai was pretty damn cool.

Saturday evening my inbox started filling with news of a serious fight in Nuristan.   I checked the wires and found nothing.   I checked again Sunday morning and nishta – I even emailed my Buddy Michael Yon and he too was hearing something was up but but did not know what was happening.   The wires started humming about the attack on two isolated outposts in Nuristan Province about 24 hours after I had first heard about it.   The New York Slimes has an OK roundup of what happened here.   If my information is correct this story contains a “untruth” told by a Colonel – and that is the kind of thing which really gets me worried.   I get worried because I know what happened to our military post Vietnam and would be crushed to see them held in such low esteem and outright contempt by the American public again in my lifetime.   Let me insert an excellent point from a more than excellent post by one of the all time most excellent bloggers “…lying, while advantageous in the short run, is like a drug, temporary in its effects; requiring higher and higher doses to maintain the same effect and is finally self-destructive.” That is from this mornings post on the Belmont Club by Richard Fernandez; a blogger I admire greatly….and I’m stopping with all the “excellents.”

Saturdays attack on two outposts started in similar fashion to the attack last year in Wanat.   The fighters; described as “local militia” by ISAF boiled up out of a mosque and laid siege to the American soldiers and their Afghan counterparts located inside a small forward operating base called ‘FOB Keating” and a nearby smaller Afghan police post.   The fighting was so intense that none of the wounded could be evacuated for the first 16 hours which explains the number of alarming emails I was getting last Saturday evening.   As is always the case when dealing with American infantry be they Marine or Army the wounded who could still fight did fight and refused to be evacuated.   This report from ABC news covered that angle with the amazement one always sees in graduates from elitist American journalism schools when they encounter the selflessness of first rate infantrymen in contact.

Pedros are the direct descendants of the Jolly Green Giants from Vietnam. These cats get to combine the rush of paramedic work with the even bigger rush of getting in short sharp gunfights.
Pedros are the direct descendants of the Jolly Green Giants from Vietnam. These cats get to combine the rush of paramedic work with the even bigger rush of getting in short sharp gunfights.

At the end of this engagement Pedros flew in and extracted all the Americans and Afghans from Keating which had been completely destroyed in the fighting.   But an Army Colonel quoted in the NYT article said “American forces still controlled the compound, which they share with Afghan security forces.”   This is a perfect example of the attrition warfare mindset which is ingrained in most of our military officers.   Owning the field of battle post fight is a measurement of success in conventional military operations. It is irrelevant in the context of a counterinsurgency.   The only relative measurement of success is how much of the population is on your side.   In the battle for FOB Keating the population was never on our side – they were apparently the ones who attacked us – so why were we even there in the first place? I don’t know the answer but will bet a months pay that we are soon out of Nuristan Province.   As I have said many times before the instability in Nuristan is financed by gem smuggling syndicates which is an Afghan problem.   We have no solutions to offer the Nuristani people except to leave them alone which is all they want anyway.

No idea what the helmet is for but this looks really cool and looking good is half the battle - another Pedro shot from Michael Yon
No idea what the helmet is for but this looks really cool and looking good is half the battle - another Pedro shot from Michael Yon

But there is something else which needs to be said about my view on how to win the Afghan fight using small civ/mil teams embedded into Afghan districts and here it is.   If this war was fought the way I recommend you would have more incidents similar to the attack on Keating.   There is no way to be as aggressive as I recommend (and operate) without getting a team attacked at some point.   When that happens you are going to lose some …dying is part of living and even though every loss is a tragedy to the family bearing that loss on high you have expect and accept the fact that in war you are going to lose people.   Lots of missions = lots of risks; no missions = no risk and for a vast majority of the military units deployed here the later seems to be the rule.   Those who do not want to get off the FOB’s and fight should redeploy back to home station.

This is the typical use of small NATO forces from the Baltic countries.  These guys sit on the runway at Kandahar all day, every day to keep an eye on traffic coming out of the commercial side of the Kandahar Airport.  It was around 125 degrees when this picture was taken last summer.  This is all this unit will do for the duration of their time in Afghanistan although I think this country has resposnibility for some of the entry control points too. We need people off the FOB's...do you know how expensive it is to keep military units deployed here to do this kind of make work?  Under what circumstances can you imagine that the men and or woman in this vehcile would actually start shooting with that machinegun?  They are facing an internatioanl air terminal for chrst sakes...what a waste of money, time and manpower.
This is the typical use of small NATO forces from the Baltic countries. These guys sit on the runway at Kandahar all day, every day to keep an eye on traffic coming out of the commercial side of the Kandahar Airport. It was around 125 degrees when this picture was taken last summer. This is all this unit will do for the duration of their time in Afghanistan although I think this country has resposnibility for some of the entry control points too. We need people off the FOB's...do you know how expensive it is to keep military units deployed here to do this kind of make work? Under what circumstances can you imagine that the men and or woman in this vehcile would actually start shooting with that machinegun? They are facing an internatioanl air terminal for chrst sakes...what a waste of money, time and manpower.

Which brings us the reading tea leaves.   It appears that our Commander in Chief has made up his mind what to do in Afghanistan.   He is voting present.   We will not be sending more troops nor will we be pulling any out.   His new commanding general is on record as saying this is not acceptable and for his troubles the good general got to fly to England to get his ass chewed by the President who was coming or going from his failed attempt to win an Olympics bid for the crime plagued, politically corrupt, scandal ridden shit hole known to us Americans as “Chicago.” General McChrystal apparently does not understand the genius of voting “present” (being a man of action and all) and said “waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome.   This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely, and nor will public support.”

For speaking a little truth to power the General got his ass chewed and this review from a Bruce Ackerman a purported expert on constitutional law at Yale University, who said in the Washington Post: “As commanding general, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements.”

Hey Bruce – nobody cares what our academic “betters” thinks about what a general should and should not do…they know more about political infighting than your entire faculty lounge ….. how do you think you get to be a four star general anyway you dumbass.

Sorry I’m ranting again – but although we are not gettig more troops … we are getting a civilian surge known in State Department speak as “the uplift” which will flood our FOB’s with more civilian experts.   I know some of the men coming out in the uplift and can say without reservation they are smarter than I am about the Stan, more capable than I am at running reconstruction projects and if let lose could make a huge difference. But they won’t be let off the FOB.   Lots of missions = big risks and nobody is into taking risks to achieve a mission which has yet to be clearly defined, properly resourced, or supported by the one man who’s support is crtical – The President of the United States.

The Internal Focus of ISAF

Earlier in the week I had one of those trips from hell which make being in Afghanistan such a drag.   The drive between Jalalabad and Kabul takes less than 2 hours on a good day.   Last Sunday the drive took over 12 hours – 9 of them spent sitting in a traffic jam just outside the the Poli Charki pass.   The reason I was stuck with thousands and thousands of Afghans is that the French army had closed the road between Kabul and Jalalabad.   They had (again second time in a week about the 50th time this year) rolled one of their armored vehicles and insisting that no traffic pass the accident scene until it had been recovered.   The vehicle went over the side of the road into a ravine so the recovery required an industrial size crane which did not even arrive on scene until around five hours after the accident.   That is five hours worth of traffic which should have been flowing freely but ISAF does not think that way.   Whatever impact their actions have on the Afghans seems to be irrelevant to ISAF commanders – a mindset which is 180 degrees out from our recently upgraded, improved counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine.

The French were having a very bad day.   They lost a legionnaire in this single vehicle traffic accident, had lost another 12 hours earlier to a lightening strike and two more who were drowned in a flash flood.   A violent storm had scoured the eastern region at around 0530 Sunday morning causing a series of dangerous flash floods.   The French were reportedly out and about at that hour in   “an operation designed to strike at a network of bomb-setters.”

Typical French convoy moving from the FOB in Kabul.  A year ago the French took a bit of an ass whopping outside of Surobi and to their credit they have not backed down.  Not backing down is good - but it has nothing to do with counterinsurgency and being able to drive around Kabul Province in old crappy armored personnel carriers does nothing to win the COIN fight and  a lot to alienate the population
Typical French convoy moving from the FOB in Kabul. A year ago the French took a bit of an ass whopping outside of Surobi and to their credit they have not backed down. Not backing down is good - but it has nothing to do with counterinsurgency and being able to drive around Kabul Province in old crappy armored personnel carriers does nothing to win the COIN fight and a lot to alienate the population

Striking a “network of bomb-setters” normally requires extensive human intelligence,   reconnaissance to verify the intelligence followed by a visit by the direct action door kickers.   Unless the “bomb – setters” are operating off an ISAF FOB or are stupid enough to give up their location and intention over cell phones there is no way the French or anyone else will be able to accurately target them because the recon guys, the human intelligence collectors and the door kickers are all confined to FOB’s and when they venture out they do so in gigantic armored personnel carriers (which tend to roll over on the narrow, mountainous roads of Afghanistan) and are completely isolated from the Afghan people they are supposedly here to protect.   But the French were out and about; off the FOB in the bush doing some sort of operation which is more than can be said for the majority of military units operating in Afghanistan.

I am a proud former member of the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad and have some experience at dealing with motor vehicle accidents involving fatalities
I am a proud former member of the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad and have some experience at dealing with motor vehicle accidents involving fatalities

The problem is that the focus of the French (and every other unit here except the US Marines) is completely internal.   Closing the most important route in Afghanistan for an entire day is too stupid for words.   When that happens all the traffic jams up every bit of lane and shoulder on either side of the accident scene.   The Afghans trapped in this scrum cannot get food or water or turn around and leave.   The woman cannot get out of their vehicles and enjoy a bit of fresh air – they are stuck packed (and I mean packed) into small cars or vans where they must sit and bake in the sun unless a male relative happens to be there and agrees to walk them off to a side ditch somewhere to go to the bathroom.

Life is hard on woman in Afghanistan due to cultural mores.  This is not an easy point to grasp when your time here is spent on a FOB.  When you are able to develoo the situational awarness required for successful COIN operations then you can lose the inward focus of a attrition warfare army and figure out things such as closing the only main east-west road in the entire country for 12 hours is mind numbingly stupid
Life is hard on woman in Afghanistan due to cultural mores. This is not an easy point to grasp when your time here is spent on a FOB. When you are able to develoo the situational awarness required for successful COIN operations then you can lose the inward focus of a attrition warfare army and figure out things such as closing the only main east-west road in the entire country for 12 hours is mind numbingly stupid

The reason it seems reasonable to the French Army to close the most important road in Afghanistan is the same reason the US Army continues to roll through downtown Jalalabad instead of using the brand new high speed truck by pass which is faster and safer for them.   Their focus in exclusively internal.   They plan all operations, movements, and interactions with the Afghans (when they manage to get off a FOB) based on what is easiest and safest for them with no consideration of the Afghan people.   This is an “effects based” opinion based on what I see daily.

The only military unit I have been able to personally observe while planning future operations was the US Marine Corps 2nd MEB.   The Marines were asking the Boss and I about cutting military roads so they could avoid adversely impacting the local people in the Helmand Green Zone.   Their focus was exclusively external on what was convenient for the Afghans not what was easiest for them.   This may explain why they have taken such a large chunk of the Helmand River Valley and dominated it with little to no post assault fighting while the British army is unable to walk 100 meters off their combat outposts in the same river valley without getting blown up or in a fire fight.

The truck by-pass around Jalalabad City.  This terminates right outside the large Army FOB at the Jalalabad airport but the US Army never uses it.  I asked a convoy leader once why and he did not know it was there and then added it was not in the SOP and therefore an unauthorized route.  The Army fob is less than a mile away from this point of the by-pass route
The truck by-pass around Jalalabad City. This terminates right outside the large Army FOB at the Jalalabad airport but the US Army never uses it. I asked a convoy leader once why and he did not know it was there and then added it was not in the SOP and therefore an unauthorized route. The Army fob is less than a mile away from this point of the by-pass route

As the security situation in Afghanistan continues to degrade it is most frustrating to see that our military is completely unable to break away from its risk adverse, zero defects, careerist mentality.   I never thought it would be easy for our attrition warfare oriented military to learn the decentralized and risky business of fighting a proper counterinsurgency but I did think we would figure it out given enough time and money.   But we are not even close.   General McChrystal knows what needs to be done – our very own counterinsurgency doctrine also spells out how to fight in the COIN environment but our military is hobbled by Colonels and Sergeants Major who are motivated exclusively by what is good for their careers and reputations.   Careerist sycophants will never think outside the box or try something new least they fail.   Failure is not possible when you do exactly what the man before you did regardless of what is happening outside the wire with the Afghan people.   No way to measure that so it cannot count against you on your combat command officer fitness evaluation right?   The US Marines seem to be breaking this mold but they are not here in enough strength to make much of an impact and thus are irrelevant in the big picture.

Motor vehicle accidents are frequent and  bad in Afghanistan.  This one was worse than most - a van full of woman and children was t-boned by a white corolla which tried to enter the by-pass without giving way. Many of the woman and children were still alive and being manhandled out of the wreakage by local people.  This accident occured about 600 meters away from a major US FOB.  A Brigade commander who was oriented on the people of Afghanistan could have the few high speed roads in the area coverd with little flying colums of mixed gendered troops.  We stopped to lend a hand but were by the police (correctly) that it would be a bad idea for a male foriegner to tend to the criticaly injured woman - the children were already in cabs and heading to the Nanagarhar Teaching Hospital some 3 miles away.
Motor vehicle accidents are frequent and bad in Afghanistan. This one was worse than most - a van full of woman and children was t-boned by a white corolla which tried to enter the by-pass without giving way. Many of the woman and children were still alive and being manhandled out of the wreakage by local people. This accident occured about 600 meters away from a major US FOB. A Brigade commander who was oriented on the people of Afghanistan could have the few high speed roads in the area coverd with little flying colums of mixed gendered troops. We stopped to lend a hand but were by the police (correctly) that it would be a bad idea for a male foriegner to tend to the criticaly injured woman - the children were already in cabs and heading to the Nanagarhar Teaching Hospital some 3 miles away.

ISAF is here to bring security to the people of Afghanistan so they can re-build their economy and infrastructure.   But ISAF can’t protect the people of Afghanistan – they cannot even protect themselves.   The reality is that we have this backwards – it is the people of Afghanistan who are able to provide the protection and security us foreigners need to operate outside the wire.   All we need do is demonstrate commitment to the people thus providing a reason for them to believe in us and support our mission.

That is why my son and I can travel around as freely as we do – the people protect us – they warn us if danger is about – they look after us when we walk around the bazaars. The reason the people protect us is because everyone in Jalalabad knows who we are and what we are doing and they appreciate it. In Gardez the Taliban came to several of our projects and asked what was going on.   The local people told them in no uncertain terms that the rehabilitation of their karez’s and canals was the first good thing which has happened to them since the Americans came and that if the Taliban interfered the people would fight them.   The Taliban did not interfere and I suspect many of them were working on our projects – 6 bucks a day is good pay for unskilled laborers in Afghanistan.

Our FOB’s are full of men and woman who would love to have the freedom to operate like we do so they too could make a difference.   I recieve emails from them daily.   But our military system will not let them off the FOB’s, out of the body armor, or out of the large stupid, dangerous MRAP’s.   Instead we continue to bring “security” to the local people at the point of a gun.   How stupid is that?