Happy Mujahedin Victory Day

Yesterday was the 18th anniversary of the Mujahedin expulsion of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and was marked by a military parade in Kabul.

Vice president, Marshal Fahim in his inaugural speech emphasized on the fight against government corruption and reinforcement of the Afghan Army.

He also suggested from the anti-government groups to return to mainstream and peaceful life.

“The negotiation doors are open for those who are interested in peace and participation of normal life processes,” said Fahim.

The Afghan Defense Minister in his speech criticized the international community and said they haven’t helped Afghanistan in a way they should have.

“The threats in our region and country have been evaluated slight by our international partners, as a result, their aids haven’t been able to meet our needs,” said Afghan Defense Minister.

Well there you go.  I live here, so I’m with the Marshal and I understand that Marshal Fahim is a good man.  Without question, Afghanistan would benefit from many more like him.

However, Kabul is, for the moment, irrelevant.  The center of gravity for the Taliban and their various affiliates is Kandahar.  If ISAF and the Afghan Army can clear and hold Kandahar and the surrounding communities,it will be a game changer.   Here is a great quote from Brian Katulis from the Center for American Progress:

“When I think of the battle of Kandahar, I think of it as a cross between The Wire and The Sopranos. They’re trying to deal with drugs and government and the Taleban. Nobody knows who the good cops are and who the crooks are.”

As I pointed out before, that is exactly the problem – we don’t know who the power brokers are in Kandahar.   We have shaped the entire Afghan campaign at the strategic level to be the center of gravity, but on the tactical level we go in blind (in certain important areas) and that is no damn good.  We lack the depth of intelligence to determine where to apply pressure with the local power structure.  It is not like we don’t have hundreds of really smart people working the issue.  The problem is we have wasted time using surrogates when our operatives should have been out and about finding things out first hand.  There are not too many internationals out and about in Kandahar City now.  Here is a report from Team Canada:

Things are really tense here right now, spending half the day and night at stand-to or on over-watch shift.  Bunch of IEDs and direct-fire attacks this AM.  One of our CFW workers got killed and three injured by an IED targeting ANP today, wrong place wrong time.  Not sure how long we are going to be able to keep operating, but we will be the last to leave if at all, I guarantee that.   XXX, XXXXXXX, and XXX are all gone or holed up on KAF – battle ineffective.  We are the only show in town right now.

The reason Team Canada (comprised of both former Canadian and American military guys) is still operating is because they were raised in a culture of   mission accomplishment.   Gen McChrystal went on record earlier in the month saying that he has too many contractors in theater, which is probably true.   But there are all sorts of different contractors out here and the ones operating outside the wire effectively should be receiving all sorts of encouragement.   Again, I digress; the topic is Kandahar so let me get back on track.   Indirectly.

Two nights ago Jalalabad was hit (again) with a small ineffective IED downtown and 2 rockets impacting near the Governor’s compound.   As I said before, the city has received more IED’s and rockets in the last four weeks than we have had  in the last four years.   What’s going on?   I’ll give you an educated guess.   The Governor of Nangarhar Province is Gul Agha Sherzai, who is from Kandahar City and was one of the warlords who fought on our side in 2001 to rid the place of Taliban.   I suspect that if we had the ability to do so, we would move Karzai’s brother out of Kandahar and bring Governor Sherzai back in as the Provincial Governor.   How much do you want to bet that the sudden dramatic increase in IED and rocket attacks affecting Jalalabad City has more to do with Kandahar Province than Nangarhar?

The battle for Kandahar has already started.   The varsity SF guys are working down the JPEL, taking out senior bad guys, which seems to have become a full time mission.   The SF raid phase is what the military calls “shaping the battle space.”   The villains are doing some shaping too.   This week they assassinated two Agrhandab district shura members – both elders of the Alikozai tribe ,as well as the deputy mayor of Kandahar.   The Alikozai tribe is pretty damn big and knocking off deputy mayors while they pray at the local mosque is supposed to be bad form.   The villains could be alienating the very people they need in order to survive the coming onslaught like Al Qadea did with the tribes in Al Anbar, Iraq.   Then again maybe they aren’t, who knows?   Clearly we don’t.

I hope the targeted strikes in Kandhahar are going better than they are in Jalalabad.   Last night we heard what was clearly a varsity SF raid very close to the Taj.   AC 130’s, fast movers, lots of transport rotary wing.   Apparently, the boys hit a compound belonging to a female member of parliament searching for a “Taliban Facilitator.”   During the raid a neighbor responded to the raid with his AK 47 and was shot and killed.   This morning we were treated to a pretty impressive (by local standards) demonstration a few hundred meters west of the Taj where local villagers had brought the body of the dead man and were chanting “Death to America.”

The ANP form a line - minutes before opening fire as the local mob surged towards them throwing rocks.  Phot by Michael Yon
The ANP form a line in front of the Taj - minutes before opening fire as the local mob surged towards them throwing rocks. Photo by Michael Yon

The ANP did a good job of controlling this protest.   They rerouted all the trucks and traffic through the gas station, which is just to the right out of frame in the picture above.   About an hour into the protest the crowd surged forward and pelted the police with rocks.   The ANP retreated and fired a few volleys  of AK47 rounds into the air.   They ran forward and threw a few CS grenades, but the wind was wrong and the CS blew back on them (and us at the Taj) so they retreated a bit again.   An hour after that, the crowd had dispersed, traffic was moving again, and we could relax a bit.

These varsity SF raids are really cool, but last night’s efforts came up dry.  There are many better ways to go about getting a “Taliban Facilitator” who is located inside the compound of an Afghan MP, astride the main Jalalabad to Kabul road.   A few truck loads of ANP with a fireteam of American Military Police is more than adequate.   Afghan compounds are, from a tactical perspective, easy to isolate and one can always start a raid by knocking on the door and asking the suspect to come along for a chat.   What is he going to do?   Start a siege in a Member of Parliament’s compound?

Regardless, last night’s raid was a dry hole which, given the status of the compound owner, is a huge screw up.     How did that compound end up on a JPEL target list?   What were the motivations of the people who nominated it?   Who was that shot across the bow directed at?   I bet we don’t know, but if I had to guess, I would say that all of this – the attacks in Jalalabad, last night’s disaster of a raid, all of it, is connected to Kandahar.   And I do not see how they can methodically clear and  hold the Kandahar City and the surrounding districts without pulling the Marines into the fight from their current area of operations.   If they plan to mimic the tactics used in Iraq it is going to take a lot of infantry.   More on this in the next post.   For now my forecast is that it is going to be a very interesting fighting season and the battle for Kandahar remains the most important battle since Tora Bora.

Security For Me But Not For Thee

ISAF continues to reposition forces closer to the civilian population centers as part of their “population centric” strategy. They’ve set off a flurry of activity putting up blast walls, T barriers, concertina wire and Hesco counter mobility obstacles.   Only none of this frantic building of security barriers is happening anywhere near Afghan population centers – it is all happening on the Big Box Fob’s.   General McChrystal is leading by example – at the ISAF HQ in Kabul last week I noted that the finishing touches are going into a custom built, specially designed, multi-million dollar blast wall which is located inside the new giant T barrier wall, which was built inside the outer T barrier wall after the last VBIED attack on ISAF HQ.     The original multi-million dollar T barrier wall was built inside the Hesco wall which itself is backed by a locally made rock and concrete wall shortly after a rocket landed near the ISAF HQ in 2006.   It is hard to square the frantic pace of installing three to four layers of blast walls on Big Box FOB’s with all the talk of securing the population centers.

A Battalion HQ from the 201st Corps - not too much building of security walls or even a fucntional roof for the Afghan Army
An ANA battalion OPs center from the 201st ANA Division. Not many blast walls going up here and as you can see nine years into this exercise and we haven't even repaired an ANA buildings on their main bases. The damage you see here occurred around 1991 when the Muj tried to bum rush Jalalababd shortly after the Soviets withdrew. They got as far as this battalion HQ before being pushed back by the Soviet trained and equipped Afghan National Army

As I am writing this post I am concurrently trying to reroute a client around the almost daily fire fight on the vital Kabul to Jalalabad road.   Last night we had a mortar round impact in Jalalabad City which has seen more IED’s and indirect fire attacks in the past 5 weeks then in the previous five years.   In Kabul rumors are flying around the city about the relative safety of internationals, both on the road and in their compounds.   The Taliban and other bad actors are not the concern – it is the Afghan Security Forces which are currently making life most uncomfortable for the international community.   Last week, the Afghan Vice and Virtue police raided almost every western restaurant in Kabul.   They also raided a gigantic private secured living compound called Green Village because it (like every other secure compound in Kabul) had a bar.   That these places were all licensed, legal and have been operating for years is a given, and apparently irrelevant.   The eastern European waitresses from one of the nicer restaurants were arrested and taken for medical examination “to ascertain whom they might have been sleeping with, police officials said.”   Yeah right, CSI Kabul – I bet they have the ability to “ascertain whom they might have been sleeping with.” Adding insult to injury, the French owner of L’Atmosphère, who has been in business since 2004 and once paid more in Afghan taxes than any other entity in the country, is reported to be in jail after protesting too much during the raid on his fine establishment.

It is the Kabul ANP who stand accused of murdering the American security operative, Louis Maxwell, after he saved 17 of his UN colleagues during an attack on their guesthouse on 28 October 2009.   He had a Heckler and Koch G36K assault rifle, which is worth a fortune here. He was shot repeatedly (he was already badly wounded defending his charges) at point blank range by an ANP soldier who wanted the gun.   Apparently, CSI Kabul lacks the requisite skills to determine if an American contractor, armed and sanctioned by the UN and acting in accordance to his contractual duties, was killed at point blank range by one of their officers.

Louis Maxwell with his H&K G36K.  A true American hero but already one of the forgotten ones.
Louis Maxwell with his H&K G36K. A true American hero.

Paladinsix, at the Knights of Afghanistan blog, has an excellent post from inside Kabul on the effects of endemic corruption.   What he is describing (and I can attest that everything he is saying is 100% on target) is a concerted effort by the Kabul authorities to drive westerners out.   Which is exactly what the Taliban is attempting to do with multiple attacks on USAID implementation partners in Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.   To date, the only Americans to be killed in both these efforts is Louis Maxwell – the Taliban only killed Afghan security guards and local bystanders.   Does that give you some perspective on the current threat level for internationals living in Kabul?

Our fundamental problem in Afghanistan is that we are fighting on behalf of a central government which is not considered legitimate by a vast majority of the population.   When we squeeze this government it tends to squeeze back, which is exactly why all of a sudden the vice and virtue police considered western restaurants to be “centers of immorality.”   Just as a side, the consumption of adult beverages is a very popular pastime with the adult males in Afghanistan.   The liberal canard that the use of alcohol is offensive to Islamic societies, like all liberal canards, is based on willful ignorance by our elites and their lap dog main stream media. Alcohol is not illegal for westerners and has always been part of the male Afghan social scene since before Alexander the Great invaded. Yet unlike Alexander, we have a lot of carrots to dole out to the Afghan government in support of our objectives, but do not have one stick – not one we can use to encourage good behavior.   As a result men and women I have known for years and who have operated here effectively are for the first time ever planning to go home and stay.   There is only so much risk a person can stomach, and the risk for the thousands of outside the wire contractors working in Afghanistan is not only increasing exponentially, it is coming from Afghans on both sides of the conflict.

The civilian reconstruction sector is not the only portion of the international effort being adversely affected by the failure to develop a functional Afghan government – the rot is spreading from the top down with the dangerous contagion of plummeting morale.   Herschel Smith at the Captain’s Journal linked to a depressing report from Afghanistan by journalist Ben Shaw, which showed up in the comments section of his latest post.   The first paragraph:

As a journalist (and combat veteran) currently embedded with US forces in Afghanistan, I have found that roughly 95% of the troops on the ground in no way believe in their mission, have no confidence that their efforts will bring about lasting change to Afghan security, stability, governance, or a decreased influence of radicalism. In truth, they fight simply to stay alive and want nothing more than to go home.

Napoleon said that in war “the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” This is the consequence of fronting a government which abuses the population and international guests alike.   If the ISAF soldiers were methodically clearing areas of Taliban and then assisting in the establishment of law and order, governance and services which serve the people, and that the people appreciate, we would be achieving moral ascendancy.   But that is impossible because the vast majority of troops are based on FOB’s and never leave them, and there is no legitimate government with which to entrust areas we have cleared.   So now that we are unable to do what is important, the unimportant has become important and the mark of military virtue is the enforcement of petty policies like the mandatory wearing of eye protection at all times while outdoors.

By all news accounts the soldier in this picture, Captain Mark Moretti is an exceptional combat leader who knows the business well.  but this picture makes my blodd boil.  I am all for pulling out of the Korengal Valley and have said repeatedly we should never have gopne there in the first palce.  But to pull out like this - holding hands with the local chief villian - him smiling like he just won the lottery because he now owns the milliond of dollars of gear left behind and he gets to hold hands with the last American commander as if a Captain in the Army is his bitch?  We should have pulled out and when Haji dip shit and the local Taliban arrived the next day to flaunt their new prize we should have JDAM'd the whole group.  Yes it is important that the Afghans undersatnd we are a just people who respect the rule of law and are motivated by a sense of justice etc.... but it helps to let them also know we are unpredictable and powerful too  And that we don't give a shit about Korengali villagers anymore.  You know what I call that kind of tactic?  Force Protection...the old fashion way.
We came to the Korengal Valley in peace; we are leaving in peace and at the cost of around 50 American lives. We are also leaving a half finished black top road. How do you put lipstick on this pig? And who do you think see this as a victory Taliban troops or our troops? The sun glasses are considered to be extremely rude by Afghans when talking to them like this but regulations mandate soldiers must wear eye pro at all times. It is safer for junior officers to follow regulations than to use their hard earned local knowledge and common sense in today's Army.

We have pulled out of the Korengal Valley of Kunar Province as part of the new strategy to focus on population centers.   Yet all the new building and all the new surge forces are being shoehorned onto Big Box FOB’s, where they are forming fusion cells to fuse the information generated by the 3 or 4 existing fusion cells in each brigade TOC in an attempt to make sense out of the avalanche of “story boards” and “white papers” being generated by thousands of officers and former officer contractors who are locked into FOB’s, but still feel compelled to work 14 hours a day.   The surge in building activity is confined exclusively to ISAF bases and there are no indications, not one, that the military is going to shift into a “population centric” posture by putting troops out within the population 24/7 to provide security.   This is deja vu all over again, it is exactly the same dilemma we faced in Iraq before the surge there.   As usual, there is one segment of the population which is not fooled by story boards and white papers authored by their seniors – the troops. And so morale is apparently now a problem.   While the Taliban make videos as they swarm over our latest abandoned base our troops are facing this;

As a recent example, I filmed approximately 75 minutes of combat footage, knowingly exposed myself to concentrated enemy fire, and learned two days ago that if I post this footage, the Soldiers on film will be charged and/or relieved for uniform violations, improper wear of personal protective equipment (ballistic glasses, fire-retardant gloves, etc), and that low-level commanders have already begun this process. In an attempt to preserve the careers of the Soldiers I am trying to advocate, I am unable to tell (or show) the US public what they’re experiencing and what they think of it. The military only wants good news to flow from embedded journalists not facts.

There are huge costs hidden behind this kind of pass the buck, risk averse, stupidity.     Risk aversion is expensive, not for the bureaucrat, but for the taxpayer and it leads to fiscal insanity.   For example, was it cost effective or even necessary to shut down Europe to all air travel because of the recent volcano eruption in Iceland?   Richard Fernandez at the Belmont Club posted this yesterday:

As volcanoes go Eyjafjallajökull   was accounted by Icelandic volcanologists as a weary old man. It’s recent eruption was unremarkable.

Ash from the volcano’s plume has reached an altitude of only about 10 kilometers (six miles), not high enough to reach the stratosphere images taken by the Eumetsat satellite concluded that Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull has spewed 2,000 tons of sulphur dioxide into the air. Pinatubo spouted 10,000 times that amount.

So the economy loses about 4 Billion to the over reaction of bureaucrats in England who honestly believe they must drive down risk to near zero no matter what the cost.   Do you remember all the airliners that were damaged by flying   Pacific routes after the eruption of Mt Pinatubo?   Yeah me neither – there were none and there would have been none if we had ignored the British “experts.”   British “experts” are not confining their depredations to the global economy, this observation by Max Hastings is fair warning about where our military is heading:

We are in danger of emasculating the armed forces we claim to love so much, by extending Health and Safety protection to the battlefield. I have no doubt that the coroners who preside at inquests on soldiers killed in Afghanistan are compassionate men. But senior officers regard them as a menace to the Services’ real interests.

If our Commander in Chief wants to remain committed to Afghanistan he needs to sell his plan to the American people.   Come over here to sort out the Karzai administration and bring in a military commander who can motivate the troops and focus the effort on a common enemy with clearly defined goals and objectives.   If we see Barak Obama come to Afghanistan, followed shortly by the appointment of General Mattis to lead our efforts here, we will win.   If not we are on our way out and it may get real ugly before we are gone.

April Fools

The ever alert FRI regular commentators picked up on this tragedy in near real time. Last Tuesday morning an Army patrol opened fire on a bus on the main road between Kandahar and the large ISAF base just outside the city. They killed four Afghans which sparked protests inside Kandahar City. The NATO statement is pasted below:

NATO said the bus approached a slow-moving military patrol from the rear at a high speed. Troops opened fire after the driver ignored flares and other warnings including flashlights and hand signals  to slow down, NATO said in a statement. It confirmed four people were killed, adding the alliance “deeply regrets the tragic loss of life.”

I have a problem with the “flares and other warnings including flashlights and hand signals.” If a fast moving bus is approaching a slow moving convoy, how much time does the turret gunner have to make a shoot/no shoot decision?  Subtract the time it takes to bring the machine gun to bear on target and fire, which is 3 to 5  seconds, and I have a hard time seeing how he armed and fired a flare, then used his flashlight, then used hand signals (which would not have been visible in the pre-dawn gloom) in the 20 or so seconds it took for the bus to close with the convoy. When you read the news accounts, the statements by witnesses from the bus sound much more credible. They said they were just driving along when the Americans opened fire without warning.

I have been shot at three times, once by the Brits (American Embassy project vehicle put out of commission – downtown Kabul, spring of 2005), once by the American army (warning shots into the hillside while in a Japanese Embassy vehicle with diplomatic plates and a very senior passenger – downtown Kabul winter 2006), and once by the ANA (last Monday when they shot at a car right next to me that had nicked their fender in a gigantic traffic jam).  The common denominator of those shootings was the lack of warning.  The turret gunners suddenly got behind their weapons and I thought, “Holy shit, they are going to shoot,” and they did.

One of those shootings produced the best quote I have to date from my years here. My Japanese client, the Chief of Party for JICA, shook his head and said, “Tim san, I do no understand how your army beat us in World War II.”   I launched into a spirited defense of the Fleet Marine Force, but he cut me off to make a phone call.  I was very fond of Mr. N and he knew better than to try and ride out a Tim san rant. 

Last week the Taliban culminated a series of ineffective IED and rocket attacks on the population of Jalalabad with a bicycle bomb detonated in a swarm of children – a  weapon supposedly directed against the Americans, one which could never even dent an MRAP, but could slice through unprotected children.  This week our guys pulled a bonehead move – one of which I have blogged about many times before – the shooting of civilians by convoy turret gunners.  With the dynamics on the ground, our stupid moves are costing more then the Taliban’s stupid moves. The good people of Jalalabad were pissed off about the bike bomb, but not enough to stage a protest and shout “death to the Taliban.”

That is the critical dynamic with which to judge how the people feel about us and the assorted groupings of bad guys who cause them much more grief and hardship, in their reaction to loss of life through stupidity.  When people react with spontaneous outrage to Taliban killings, then we will know the tipping point is well behind us. Until then the best thing we could do is to limit the number of military vehicles we put on the road by stopping the “commute to work” mentality found on Big Army FOB’s and by removing turret gunners.   As I have pointed out about 100 times or so, the tactic of shooting at VBIED’s to stop them before they hit a convoy has never worked.   ISAF gunners have killed hundreds of civilians and never stopped a single suicide bomber.

There is a large roomy truck by-pass which the Army can use to move around Jalalabad City. Moving through this densely packed urban area places everyone at risk unless the gunners are very familiar with the local traffic congestion and having swarms of local people moving around them. In this close urban terrain the ability to pick out a VBIED and successfully engage it are zero. Experienced troops will stay low in their gunners turrets in a relaxed, alert posture and stay away from the big machineguns mounted in them.
There is a large roomy truck by-pass which the Army can use to move around Jalalabad City. Moving through this densely packed urban area places everyone at risk unless the gunners are familiar with the local traffic congestion and having swarms of local people moving around them. In this close urban terrain the ability to pick out a VBIED and successfully engage it is zero. Experienced troops will stay low in their gunners turrets in a relaxed, alert posture and stay off of the big machine guns.

This summer the big push for ISAF will be Kandahar City. The urban terrain there looks just like the picture above of downtown Jalalabad.  Although you would not know it from this week’s tragic shooting, the American military has considerable experience in urban counterinsurgency fighting. That was what the Iraq surge was all about – taking back the cities to halt ethnic cleansing while simultaneously peeling Al Qaeda away from the Sunni population. The big message from General Petraeus at that time was to stop commuting to the fight and establish fortified positions from which to control neighborhoods.

Last night there was another series of attacks in Kandahar City, two car bombs, both of which were targeting the international community.   A VBIED apparently penetrated into a compound shared by the Louis Berger Group and Chemonics – a large USAID implementing partner.   Reportedly, three internationals and three Afghans were killed in the blast which was huge – this was a well designed, powerful VBIED which are rare in Afghanistan.  Another small IED detonated last night in Jalalabad very close to the site of last week’s bicycle bomb; it caused no damage or casualties because it was an act of intimidation.  I should say another failed attempt of intimidation because the local people really could give a damn about these nuisance attacks which, for all we know, could be (as E2 observed in the comment section) directed at Governor Sherzai.

What is happening in Jalalabad and Kandahar are two completely different events.  Jalalabad is experiencing a rash of small scale incidents designed to minimize casualties (with the notable exception of last week’s bike bomb), which are having zero impact on the attitudes of the local population.   In Kandahar there is clearly a well organized campaign designed to preempt the impending ISAF operation focused on Kandahar.

Heading out on the Jalalabad by-pass road. Trying to get large convoys through the congestion of downtown is silly
Here is a rare event, a convoy using the Jalalabad bypass road, something all convoys should do.

Last night’s attack in Kandahar was the third attack on an aid organization operating in the south in the last month. Two of these attacks targeted large compounds with multiple layers of security, the attempted attack on IRD in Lashkar Gah last month failed. The attack last night on Louis Berger did not.   By successfully targeting international aid workers, the bad guys are able to slow down and in some cases stop the “build” part of the “clear, hold, and build” tactic which is now the focus of ISAF.   By driving up the level of violence in Kandahar they can force ISAF and ANSF units to deploy into the city center without doing the methodical job of clearing street by street, erecting mobility obstacles to funnel all traffic into joint check points, conducting a census to establish who belongs where and who’s controlling the city. Thrusting units deep inside a hostile unstable city will dramatically increase the probability of another shooting event which ISAF can clearly not afford.

In the east things are not looking great either. The districts of Sherzad and Khogyani,  less than 20 miles away from the Taj, are under complete Taliban control. Our local nationals who are from villages in these district can no longer travel to their homes. Yesterday there was another small arms attack on the Jalalabad to Kabul road.  The attackers struck along the boundary which separates areas of responsibility between the French Army (Kabul Province) and American Army (Laghman Province), which resulted in only Afghan police responding to the attack while units of the Afghan Army were on holiday routine not 2 miles further down the road.   Make of that what you will, but enemy units that know how to work unit boundaries are demonstrating tactical competence.   As bad as things look in the south, all of it could change if we clear and hold Kandahar City and the major village complexes around the city while continuing to hold what the Marines have cleared in the Helmand Province. Driving out the forces sponsored by the Quetta Shura from their home provinces and keeping them out would be a devastating psychological blow to all the other bad actors   in the east and south east as well as a huge victory for Afghan people.

But here is the thing…..politics.   The linked article covers it pretty well.   What ISAF hopes to do is use international forces operating in conjunction with the Afghan Army to chase the Taliban out of the second largest city in the country. Simultaneously they want to replace the current racketeering-infected government with one which is recognized by Afghans as being more inclusive and less corrupt.  The first step in accomplishing that mission would seem to be removing Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK), from the scene which, apparently, is not going to happen. Instead, the military is going to attempt to work around and “contain” him. This is not because of his rumored association with the CIA, but because the military realizes it has no real knowledge of Kandahar’s mafia-influenced political scene and thus no ability to predict the ramifications of removing the guy perched at the very top.

ISAF wants to clear the city in a slow, deliberate, methodical fashion, spending lots of time in hopes of avoiding casualties. The Taliban appear to be trying to draw them into the city ahead of schedule and then bleed them.   If they are successful at inflicting casualties (and not even heavy casualties, just a few a day, a number which would have been irrelevant in past wars) then they will completely derail ISAF.   If that happens, RC South will want to throw the Marines into the fray and we’ll lose everything they have gained over the past 18 months in a bid to win Kandahar.   So we shall see. The way things look to me at the moment, the entire Afghanistan operation now depends on being successful at both eliminating the Taliban and the corrupt government from Kandahar. That is a difficult mission the military cannot accomplish alone.

Death in the Morning

Yesterday morning started with an event so senseless and evil that it is hard to describe.   An American army patrol was moving through downtown Jalalabad when the villains detonated a bicycle mounted IED.   This IED had no chance of even denting the paint job on an MRAP, but it did throw out a bunch of shrapnel, which killed one of the best diesel engine mechanics in town and wounded another 15 civilians – mostly children.

Mastafyat Square in Jalalabad City the abandoned bicycle explode in the area marked (upper left quadrant) - there is a large school directly behind this area.  At 0845 there are hundreds of elementary aged school children funneling down that road to school
Mastafyat Square in Jalalabad City; the abandoned bicycle explode in the area marked (upper left quadrant) - there is a large school directly behind this area. At 0845 there are hundreds of elementary aged school children funneling down that road to school.

I drove up behind the convoy a few minutes after the attack.   They had stopped, dismounted and were treating the injured.   I walked up to the rear vehicle turret gunner and asked if I could cut through the convoy and head into the downtown area.   He pointed over to the scene and said they were treating a bunch of school kids and I could not get through the circle yet.   I had thought that the IED had gone off much further down the street, where there’s a stretch of road with very little pedestrian activity.   Once I saw where the bomb had gone off I was stunned – the traffic circle is full of children at that time of the day.   I asked if they were OK and he said yes, but there were a lot of injured school kids; he was visibly upset about the children.   I could see soldiers working on the kids about 50 yards further down the street and can only imagine how upset they were.

The point of origin about 6 hours after the attack throughout the day local people came to see  what had happened
The point of origin about 6 hours after the attack throughout the day local people came to see what had happened.

It is hard to determine exactly what an attack of this nature was supposed to accomplish.   There  was zero chance that the bomb would damage an American convoy.   We are told again and again that careless use of firepower by ISAF is generating more fighters determined to get revenge for the deaths of family members.   If that is true one would suspect the Taliban would also not conduct meaningless attacks which kill and injure innocents; there are conflicting reports, one says the Taliban claimed credit for the attack, another says they specifically denied any involvement.

The evening after the IED attack crowds were still gathered at the point of origin
It does not take a very large blast to knock down local brick walls - bike bombs most often contain explosives externally disguised to look like some sort of cargo.

Bicycle borne IED’s are anti-personal weapons which are not very powerful and not effective against vehicles – especially armored vehicles.   They can cause a lot of casualties among unprotected civilians, which is exactly what happened yesterday.   So what was the point?   That is impossible to say, but here are some things to mull over.   In the last three weeks or so there have been a series of very minor rocket strikes and IED attacks.   This started around Nowruz, which is the Persian New Year (it is 1389 now by that calender) and was celebrated on the 19th of March.   There were reportedly warnings by the Taliban to local people not to celebrate Nowruz, which were dismissed out of hand.   Pashtunistan square in the downtown area was crammed with people (male people anyway) during the evening of Nowruz.   During the early morning hours a single 107mm rocket landed in the eastern end of the city  and two small IED’s went off near Pashtunistan square.   Even on New Year’s the streets are empty by 0100 so these three attacks caused no casualties and little damage.   They caused no reaction from the local people other than annoyance.   There have been several single 107 rocket shots which have landed in local housing areas since Nowruz which have caused little damage and only one casualty.   The bike attack yesterday seems to be a tipping point; it has the locals attention – they are upset and angry.

The day after the bike IED attack local school children exam the scene
The day after the bike IED attack local school children exam the scene.

One of the factors in play with our efforts in Afghanistan is the absolute disgust local Afghans harbor for the various factions who conduct attacks of this nature or try to intimidate them into not celebrating traditional Persian holidays because the Wahhabi school of Islam does not recognize them.   They are fed up with this kind of incredibly reckless use of weapons which are targeting them.   Hezb-e-Islami Gullbuddin (HIG), the Taliban sort of affiliate party run by Gullbuddin Heckmatyar, has announced a suspension of operations while they talk with the Karzai Government and has even been fighting with Taliban formations in both the northern part of the country and in Kunar Province.   HIG is responsible for much of the mayhem in the region and it could be that withdrawing their fighters created a power vacuum which has been filled by amateurs of the religious extremist type.   They will not be able to hide inside the local population for long if they are so stupid that they shoot rockets at the biggest public park in Jalalabad during Nowruz and cook off anti personnel IED’s around crowds of school children. When the local security apparatus gets wound up and on the trail of cells operating in urban areas like Jalalabad they can be very effective.   Somebody is going to answer for the bike attack, but even if they roll up the entire cell it will not have a meaningful or lasting impact in the overall provincial security situation.   The only meaningful measurement of progress is economic.   When the unemployment is reasonable and opportunity for a living wage widely available to all Afghans, then  the little bands of psychos who set off bombs around school children will never be able to survive inside the population.   We have a long way to go before we reach such an aggressive milestone and until we do, we are going to see more senseless attacks of this nature.

Operation Moshtarak

I want to thank Amy Sun, the Fab Folk, and my kids Megan, Kalie and Logan for drumming up so much support for FRI’s run at this years Milbloggies award.   I also need to thank America’s First Sergeant at Castra Praetoria and Kanani Fong at The Kitchen Dispatch for their support for FRI’s first attempt at winning a milblog award.   For my readers who have not voted yet I’m about 20   down and can use some help (look for me in the “Veteran” category).   Vote early vote often – that is the Chicago Way.

The holding phase Operation Moshtarak in the Taliban infested area around Marjah has proven to be much more difficult than previous Marine operations in the Helmand Province. The clearing phase was successful despite problems with the new rules regarding artillery and air delivered ordnance. It is the holding phase  that is proving to be a problem. The Taliban still control most of the village hamlets and are exacting a heavy toll on local people who cooperate with the Marines or Afghan Government. The New York Times has a pretty good article on the problem here. The Marines have a limited number of options with which to deal with entrenched guerrillas. They did a good job of driving the Taliban underground. Their campaign against known Taliban leaders and fixers, which was conducted by the varsity SF guys was also very effective netting every named target on the Joint Prioritized Effects List (J-PEL) except one, who made it back to Pakistan despite being wounded. His code name is now Dr. Brydon.

Phase One of Operation Moshtarak went well. Now phase two is going to cost the Marines time, which is one or more of the three (time, ammunition, or manpower) of the most important combat commodities available to combat commanders. It seems to me that the only effective option would be to put “pseudo-operators” into the field just as the Selous Scouts did back in the 1970’s. False Flag Operations with Afghan fighters led by American Marines who look and operate like squads of Taliban roaming the countryside at night appeals to me. It would work too, but would take years to develop the American participants even if such a radical idea were every attempted. A better bet (from way outside the box) would be to employ squads of vicious, highly trained midgets. Nobody takes fighting midgets seriously until it is too late. That is human nature. We could downsize all the million dollar MRAP’s, making them small enough to be of use in this country too. It is not like we do not already have a crappy little rifle for them to use in the inventory. But that is not going to happen either (for obvious reasons but it is an original idea) so we will have to see how the Marines “adapt, improvise and overcome;” my money is on them.

This is a great shot from the linked NYT article by Moises Saman
This is a great shot from the linked NYT article – photograph by Moises Saman

As you read the NYT article on Marjah you note how important it is to get economic aid and cash money into the local economy. The lack of ability to successfully implement projects has been one of the biggest problems with the international community’s operations in Afghanistan. Nathan Hodge at the Danger Room blog wrote on this topic last February and described a possible solution. I can tell you from hard earned experience it is not that easy. Conducting the M&E (monitoring and evaluation which is a requirement on USAID funded projects) requires detailed planning followed by brief backs and inspections. The best way to run M&E missions is to have that section operate independently so that where and when they go is treated as classified information. You have to have a cover story for use at Taliban checkpoints and that needs to be rehearsed. Before M&E teams head out they need to be inspected to ensure they have nothing on their cell phones, cameras (cheap locally procured ones) in their wallets or pockets or bags which would in any way tie them to internationals. When you do this you reinforce trade-craft plus you demonstrate to your Afghan colleagues that their safety is your priority and not something taken for granted. Project M&E is best run as if it were a military operation which comes naturally to guys like Mullah John and Team Canada who are operating successfully all over the southern region.

There is another way of doing M&E which, like the idea of using highly trained midgets, seemed to be a bridge too far with US Government agencies. It required USG agencies to share satellite imagery and to access civilian programs like Goggle Earth from the SIPRnet accounts. After years of effort it appears that counter-bureaucrats inside the USG machine have successfully figured out how to make their products relevant in the challenging world of counterinsurgency stability operations.

Dr. Dave Warner from the Synergy Strike Force, which is loosely affiliated with the San Diego – Jalalabad Sister City foundation, itself loosely affiliated with the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club (I am not making this up) has been working the sharing issue with the National Geospacial Agency (NGA) for the past four years. The goal was access for collation of  Stability Operations partners to NGA imagery data. The problem turned out to be not classification but intellectual property rights. The commercial imagery provider had a “next view” licensing agreement with NGA which restricted distribution of the product to official users only. Defining “official users” is always a very complicated endeavor for any U S Government (USG) agency. Here is the thing about large bureaucracies – they are run by motivated people and motivated people easily recognize impediments to mission accomplishment. The NGA is staffed by professionals who take their jobs seriously, and Dr. Dave’s efforts had illustrated that procedure was adversely affecting their mission of supporting America’s efforts in Afghanistan. The NGA management started to chip away at the licensing agreement because they had already paid a king’s ransom for the data and knew they should be able to distribute it as they saw fit.

Little Barabad in a 2008
Little Barabad in a shot taken sometime in 2008
The Synergy Strike Force water weel at Little Barabad village
The Synergy Strike Force water well at Little Barabad village today. See the rock fence outline below the well?   That is an indication of village growth which we attribute to the well.

NGA now has a site called DigitalGlobe RDOG Phase II which ISAF coalition implementation partners can access; write to them here to request imagery assistance.   These products are provided to qualified agencies free of charge.

Zone 5 of Jalalabad City in 2007
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City in 2004
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City last month
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City last month

This is White Intelligence which has a limited but useful role in Stability Ops. Check out the results of a poorly designed retaining wall/canal intake project on the Kunar River which has caused serious farm land erosion in the Bishud District of Nangarhar Province.

Shot of the area where the Kunar and Kabul rivers join in 2004
Shot of the area where the Kunar and Kabul rivers join in 2004
A screen shot of the same area last month. Note how much land has been lost to river encroachment
A screen shot of the same area last month. Note how much land has been lost to river encroachment

It is good to see success stories from large USG agencies like the National Geospacial Agency which are pushing the envelope to provide critical support without spending an extra dime of taxpayer money. That is the kind of mission focused production us taxpayers love to see (China too for that matter given the amount of our debt they are holding.) The products NGA provides may not be timely enough to solve all M&E requirements but it can clearly provide a lot of help in remote or contested areas.