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.
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.
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.