Losing Hearts and Minds

Ben Arnoldy at the Christen Science Monitor penned an excellent tale on reconstruction efforts going pear shaped and the consequences resulting from such folly. The report was original, focused and resulted from Ben going to the remote Badakshan Province for a couple of weeks to get the details correct.  This article is  the perfect book end to last weeks Toronto Star piece on Panjwayi  Tim and Ghost Team because it highlights the futility of traditional US AID standard operating procedures. Ben sums up the point of his article with these opening paragraphs:

On paper, the multi-pronged project revitalized a backward Afghan province, weaning it off poppy cultivation and winning Afghan hearts and minds.

However, a Monitor investigation reveals that even in spite of a few modest gains, the Afghans here were left angered over project failures, secrecy, and wasted funds.

“Now the people are hating American companies like PADCO because many times they brought millions of dollars, but didn’t do anything,” says Syed Abdul Basir Husseini, the electricity chief for Badakhshan Province. “All Badakhshanis know that it was $60 million [that America] spent,” he says, adding that they see little evidence of it.

The story of what went wrong exposes serious weaknesses in the third pillar of America’s “clear, hold, build” Afghan strategy. Among them: big-spending hastiness, unrealistic deadlines, high development staff turnover, planning divorced from ground realities, and ever-present security risks in this war-torn nation.

“In Vietnam, they were measuring success of operations in the numbers that are killed. In Afghanistan, it is how many schools you are building and how much money you spent. This is better, but as wrong,” says Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, in Kabul. “What you need to measure is what is the impact of what you’ve done.”

I’ve talked about this so many times before that I’m sick of it so time to try something new; it’s time for a story board.

Wednesday 25 July the second "hundred year" flood in less than a year hit Jalalabad following a morning of torrential rain. This is the main road heading towards the airport.
Wednesday 25 July the second “hundred year” flood in less than a year hit Jalalabad following a morning of torrential rain. This is the main road heading towards the airport.

 

The Sarracha bridge - the new Afghan design was not passable but the ribbon bridge installed by the American PRT stood up much better than the stone bridge last year.
The Sarracha bridge – the new Afghan design was not passable but the ribbon bridge installed by the American PRT stood up much better than the stone bridge last year.

 

A modern compound like ours has no problem handling heavy rains
A modern compound like ours has no problem handling heavy rains

 

The avergae Afghan family compound has no grass or driveways so heavy rains are a real problem for them.
The average Afghan family compound has no grass or driveways so heavy rains are a real problem for them.

 

Just like last year the flood caused extensive damage and a few deaths in the villages on the east end of town. Capt A from Ghost Team, The Professor from the American NGO CHF (International) and I teamed up to try and find the source of the flooding and what could be done about it.
Just like last year the flood caused extensive damage and a few deaths in the villages on the east end of town. The next day Capt A from Ghost Team, The Professor from an American NGO and I teamed up to try and find the source of the flooding and what could be done about it.

 

Less than two hours after the monsoon started this village was under 3 meters of swiftly moving water
Less than two hours after the monsoon started this village was under 3 meters of swiftly moving water

 

Crop and road damage about 1 kilometer outside the village
Crop and road damage about 1 kilometer outside the village

 

We heard the familar sound of an IED going off and saw the signature of a fuel tanker attack near FOB Fenty.
We heard the familiar sound of an IED going off and saw the signature of a fuel tanker attack near FOB Fenty.

 

We pushed on - that's The Professor from CHF being escorted by local kids from the village
We pushed on – that’s The Professor being escorted by local kids from the village

 

The villans had hit one of the tankers sitting outside FOB Fenty with a limpet mine.
The villains had hit one of the tankers sitting outside FOB Fenty with a limpet mine.

 

All the fuel tankers traveling the Jalalabad truck by-pass now put their A-drivers on the top to thwart motorcyle mounted limpet mine bombers.
All the fuel tankers traveling the Jalalabad truck by-pass now put their A-drivers on the top to thwart motorcycle mounted limpet mine bombers.

 

These guys lack a sense of style - they're missing a chance to jock up with cool old fashioned weapons like pikes or swords for repelling motorcycle mounted knuckleheads.
These guys lack a sense of style – they’re missing a chance to jock up with cool old fashioned weapons like pikes or swords for repelling motorcycle mounted knuckleheads.

 

The problem - to the left and right is the main water canal for the municipal government. There are three points in the east of the city where the canal goes underground to alloe flash flood drainage. It is clear that there needs to be levees built to control the water which funnels through these chokepoints to cause so much devestation down stream
The problem – to the left and right is the main water canal for the municipal government. There are three points in the east of the city where the canal goes underground to allow flash flood drainage; this is one of them.  It is clear that there needs to be levees built to control the water funneling through these choke-points.

 

Local kids playing in a pool created by the flood waters
Local kids playing in a pool created by the flood waters

 

DSC_0583

As I’m writing this post I’m watching the Afghan Security Face chat room explode with information on a firefight and rioting in Kabul. The story is already on the wire – apparently a armored SUV hit a local car on the main road to the airport causing several fatalities, a crowd gathered, shots were fired and the vehicle drove back into the entrance to the US Embassy which was only a few hundred yards away. After that a firefight erupted, and unknown number of people were killed, and currently crowds are stoning any cars they suspect contain foreigners or ISAF military.  What can one say about a self inflicted wound of such severity?General rioting in the most heavily controlled area of Kabul can rapidly spread to other cities putting the lives of internationals who are out and about in grave danger. If there are any more incidents like the one unfolding in Kabul it’s going to get damn hard to stay outside the wire.

Restrepo

Last week, Kanani Fong of the blog The Kitchen Dispatch, arranged an interview for me with Tim Hetherington, who along with Sebastian Junger produced the award-winning documentary called “Restrepo”. Kanani signed onto the Restrepo team to spearhead a public relations effort, in conjunction with National Geographic, to get the film released nationwide in theaters. This is no easy task for a documentary but, as many of you know, there is a huge groundswell building in the blogosphere over this movie and it is already scheduled for runs in major cities around the country.   This is great news because the one thing Tim stressed in our interview was this is not a film just for the military, but for the general public. In the minds of the men who made it, this film is designed to show Americans who have no direct stake in this fight (which is the vast majority) what is being asked of the men and women who are bearing the brunt of battle.

reestrepoMy conversation with Tim Hetherington was really enjoyable. Our Skype connection was crystal clear and we got along like old friends. Tim and I had such a great time chatting with each other I never got around to doing any interviewing. I know that sounds strange, but we were having such a great give and take about all kinds of things that I asked very few direct questions about the film.
Both this film and the related book War by Sebastian Junger are valuable additions to the special niche in military history dealing with the effects of battle. This type of historical writing was made popular in 1976 by the historian John Keegan when he published his classic The Face of Battle. I loved that book and remember being enthralled by the descriptions of battle – especially his telling of the famous Agincourt fight where English bowmen took out the leading Knights of France. The Knights were encumbered with over 60 pounds of body armor and, when they dismounted their horses, essentially immobile and helpless. I remember talking about this book with my peers, laughing and laughing at the stupidity of going into battle wearing over 60 pounds of body armor. I guess the joke was on us, since my peers now routinely go into battle with more than 60 pounds on their backs. Thanks to ergonomic advances, they can move a little better and react slightly faster than the doomed French nobles at Agincourt….but that’s not the point is it?
Which brings me to the only real question I had for Tim, and it was an unfair one: why does it seem that the Army never tried to preempt the routine attacks on Restrepo and the other FOB’s? Apparently, they generally knew when attacks were forming and the attack positions used by the Taliban never changed, because they couldn’t change…mountains limit your options for good fields-of-fire.

I was taught that fire without maneuver was a waste of time, effort, and money. It still seems strange to me that the reaction to an attack on a FOB or the ambush of a convoy is to shoot back with long range fire, call in airstrikes and then go back to what you were doing before the Taliban started bugging you. I liked the way we used to do these things, which was to gain and maintain contact until you could maneuver on the villains and destroy them in detail. It is a poor idea to provide on-the-job training for your adversary.

Tim pointed out that the Army did run a preemptive operation which is a critical part of the film and book, called Operation Rock Avalanche, but the question really wasn’t a fair one. Both the film and book are focusing on the experience of a single platoon during an entire  combat rotation. Platoons execute orders from on-high and have little to say about operational planning. I already knew the answer to the question I was asking and found this quote later which seems to best express why the men in Restrepo fight the way they do. This quote is from The Father of Us all by Victor Davis Hanson:

“Consequently, emphasis on defense – from body armor to antiballistic missile systems – will become an ever higher priority, as ever more affluent Americans, like Greek hoplights or medieval Lords of old, grow increasingly sensitive to the casualties of war. The current weight of fifty to eighty pounds of gear that so burdens individual soldiers is not so much to provide them with additional offensive power as to achieve better communications, body protection, and survivability.”

The men in Restrepo were executing with skill and determination the orders they had been given. It is still amazing to me that guys can move and fight as well as they did, given the loads they were carrying in a high altitude, mountainous environment. Their attempts at tribal engagement did not pay off in the long run. We no longer staff FOB’s in the Korengal Valley, but these guys gave it their best shot, which comes through clearly in the book as well as in the movie.

In my opinion, it is important that this film be shown in as many theaters as possible. Most of my regular readers know this tale intimately and will appreciate the artistry in this tale about infantrymen in war. Most Americans as well as most people in the countries with troops deployed here, do not have a clue about what they collectively have asked their fellow citizens to do. The amount of responsibility placed on the shoulders of twenty-something year old (or sometimes younger) men who lead fire teams, squads, and platoons, exceeds by several orders of magnitude, the burden placed on their peers in the civilian world. Once they are home and out of the service, it may be decades before they are placed in positions of such responsibility again. Add to that the burden of survivors’ guilt, which is common to all veterans at all times and in all places, and one gets a sense of the overwhelming pressures being shouldered by these veterans at the pointed-end of the spear. Americans need to know this because when our elected leaders send these soldiers to fight for our country they do so in all our names. We owe it to all the men and women who serve in harms’ way to understand what we asked them to do.

Riding with Ghosts

Editors Note:  This article is too good not to share in its entirety. The reporter, Mitch Potter, was kind enough to give me permission to do so. Mitch contacted me through the blog and Panjwaii Tim told me he was a great guy with lots of experience and knowledge who he was happy to host. In Mitch’s honor I hereby officially change the name for Team Canada to Ghost Team. What did I say at the end of my last post?  Armed, outside the wire, experienced, contractors – this is what I was talking about.

Riding With Ghosts

Mitch Potter

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN We are motoring down a bare-dirt back road in Kandahar Province, a road where NATO patrols never go. This way is better, explains the ghost behind the wheel, because roads without soldiers tend not to explode.

The car is soft-skinned no armour. There are no body vests. No helmets. No blast goggles. No convoy. There is a gun on board, but it is concealed to avoid undue attention. Just plain vanilla wheels with two men from Canada dressed as Afghans one, the driver, surveying the way ahead with purposeful, probing eyes, the other, a reporter, wondering what fresh hell awaits on this sweltering Friday afternoon.

Don’t worry. I know these roads better than most Afghans, says the ghost, as we cross the Tarnac River Afghan-style by driving right through it.

He is Panjwaii Tim, a 41-year-old from small-town Manitoba who cites Don Cherry and carries with him a Winnipeg Blue Bombers cap. A few years back he worked in Afghanistan the conventional way as a reservist with the Canadian Forces, a tour replete with frustrations. Too few troops. Too much territory. Too much confusion about which way forward. And just as he began to really understand this place gone. With another fresh batch of wide-eyed six-monthers in his wake. Rinse and repeat.

Now a much-savvier Panjwaii Tim is back on his own terms, not with the military but leading one of the last major Western aid groups still operating freely in Kandahar City, an outfit fast gaining a reputation for uncommon courage. A group dubbed Team Canada.

Nearly every other civilian foreigner has fled Kandahar. Some have taken refuge inside nearby NATO bases, others have retreated to comparably calmer Kabul. But not Team Canada, despite the rash of bombs and targeted killings that torment this crucial southern city. They are working under the radar to rapidly turn tens of millions of international aid dollars into jobs for thousands of Afghan men.

Fighting-age Afghan men, you understand, some of whom, in their desperation for income, would join the only other gainful employers in town the cash-paying Taliban, or, more likely, one of the corrupt private armies that Panjwaii Tim assesses bluntly as akin to the Sicilian mafia.

Never mind hearts and minds, Team Canada is about hands and bellies a largely invisible aid network on the front line, offering stay-alive sustenance to Afghans who might otherwise plant roadside bombs aimed at sending more Canadian bodies home down the Highway of Heroes.

Given the unique and risky manner in which they work  low-key, low-security Team Canada is not looking for attention.

But word is trickling out anyway in the wake of a startling, praise-filled post on the military blog Free Range International, which in April anointed Panjwaii Tim and his colleagues with the Team Canada nickname. And it dared NATO commanders to take lessons from Team Canada’s nimble ways and let at least some troops shed the suffocating armour and lumbering metal that encases them.

They are the best crew in the country, the blogger, Tim Lynch, an American contractor who does work similar to Team Canada in safer Nangahar Province, wrote in an email to the Star. They have balls the size of grapefruit.

It was through Lynch that the Star made first contact with Team Canada and, after careful negotiation, scored an invitation to meet them.

The Canadian military today requires reporters to fill out 47 pages of forms before embedding. Panjwaii Tim required only a handshake and a solemn promise on the ground rules.

We’re proud of the work we do. But you understand the stakes: this is life or death for us. No last names, no naming our NGO. No precise description of where we live. The danger is real. Do not make me regret this.

We knit our way through quiet residential streets and then suddenly nose up to the large steel gates of Ghost Central, the Team Canada compound. Two honks of the horn and a small window in the gate opens, eyes peering out. We’re here.

Not that you would know it, for nowhere are the telltale signs of a war-zone Western compound: barbed wire, Hesco blast barrier, sandbagged machine gun turrets. This is just another walled and gated compound in a city of walled, gated compounds.

Inside, however, the operation is vast, half a city block jammed with three main buildings, each with walls of its own and linked by multiple passageways, and a sprawling logistics yard.

People abound. Five to 10 Team Canada expats are in charge at any given time and there are always dozens of carefully vetted Afghan staff.

It needs to be big because this is no branch office. The compound is a full-blown national headquarters overseeing Team Canada’s operations in 14 of Afghanistan’s most precarious provinces, all backed by tens of millions in international donor aid. The money dries up at the end of September, but already Team Canada has been told by coalition diplomats in Kabul to be ready for an even larger chunk of aid cash to come, and to be ready to expand to other provinces.

One quickly discovers Team Canada is actually Team World. A third of this group calls Canada home, but others are from Britain, New Zealand, Texas, New York; some are development specialists, others ex-soldiers. All wear beards of varying lengths; most speak at least some Pashto; the fairer ones have dyed their hair dark to better blend in.

William, a New Zealander who oversees team security, leads me on a tour of the two-storey complex to identify the triage bay, the armoury and the muster area should we come under sudden attack. Along the way we see a well-equipped weight room and a few home comforts: wireless Internet hub, flat-screen TV, a Wii console.

William instructs me to prepare a bug-out bag: passport, money, phone, a change of clothes and work computer. If the call comes to run for the hills, be ready.

Twenty or so vehicles are in the compound. One of the keys to Team Canada’s impressive freedom of movement is never taking the same car (or the same road) in any discernable pattern. Almost all are older Corollas and dust-encrusted Land Cruisers, indistinguishable from the Toyotas Afghans drive.

There is also a small fleet of Chinese motorbikes. Panjwaii Tim quips that they came from the local Haji Davidson dealership. They are another means of escape if the zombie hordes’ come over the wall.

It’s gallows humour, but longer-serving members of this team vividly remember the night they actually saw the zombie hordes: June 13, 2008, when Taliban fighters blasted through the walls of Sarposa Prison on the city’s western edge, releasing all 1,200 inmates in the single largest jailbreak in modern history.

We heard the explosions and the firefight. And then a wave of escapees came running down the street toward us. It looked like Kandahar was about to fall, says Ryan, a South African. The compound was armed and ready. As the night unfolded, the escapees vanished. No contact.

In April, a massive truck-borne suicide bomb managed to penetrate the gates of another foreign compound elsewhere in the city. That blast cleared Kandahar of almost all its Westerners and left Team Canada with an agonizing decision: to stay or go.

After painstaking consideration, they stayed. At first, their stand was tentative, with an around-the-clock watch. We just became more vigilant, taking it up several notches. To say more than that would be giving away our secrets, says Panjwaii Tim.

Within days of the blast, Team Canada received a huge vote of confidence. A tribal elder with whom they had worked closely arrived unbidden with his own armed security team, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the expats for a full week.

To know that you have friends on the Afghan side who will put their own lives on the line for you — that was a decisive moment, says Panjwaii Tim.

Things are still on a knife-edge, to some extent. We can’t let down our guard. But the way we roll, it is not just about being under the radar. A big part of it is building trust with Afghans. We’re not out there waving guns around. We’re out there putting people to work. There are tribal leaders who respect us for that and so we’re not alone, really. We have a network willing to stand up and help us help them.

The team credits Panjwaii Tim for setting the tone in its dealings with Afghans, an approach centred on two fundamental rules: first, never break a promise; second, always underpromise, then overdeliver.

Pashtun culture is really not that different from my home in Manitoba, says Tim. Where I come from everything works on a handshake. No contracts. You make a deal, you honour it period. That’s exactly how Afghans are. If you live up to the bargain you will make incredibly loyal friends.

One of the issues here is that tribal leaders hear so many promises and every six months there’s a fresh foreign face sitting down with them, ignoring the old promises that weren’t kept and making new ones. That’s not a minor thing. It wouldn’t go over very well in my town either.

The other key part of the approach is the ghostlike, under-armed way Team Canada fits into Afghan society. Nate, a 24-year-old Texan who helps liaise with international donors, tells of being stuck inside a bubble during an earlier posting in Iraq.

Every time we went out, I was surrounded by soldiers with guns. We weren’t fooling anybody. There was no ability to develop relationships with local people. The only moves you could do were with military escort. And the locals often couldn’t come to the base because of security concerns.

That is what is unique about this approach, says Nate. You won’t find another NGO with so large a budget, operating so broadly, with so low a profile. There’s nowhere near the same bureaucracy. When we want to go out and see people, we go. Granted we are very cautious. We move in soft-skinned vehicles, dressed as Afghans. But this way we have a mobility that others don’t because they’re required by their legal departments to go around in these bubbles. We aren’t.

Team Canada’s techniques took 10 years to develop, Panjwaii Tim explains, combining and refining lessens learned since 2001, when the first Westerners arrived in Afghanistan following the attacks of 9/11. To even a casual observer, they appear to be approaches NATO and other agencies would do well to emulate.

Tim notes that living within the community, working with the populace shoulder to shoulder once was a hallmark of Special Forces. Now he says he hears nothing but frustrations from the elite Canadian commandos with JTF2, who, though stationed on the outskirts of Kandahar, appear rarely to leave their base.

JTF2 is not a very happy bunch, says another Team Canada member. Every move they make needs to be approved by Ottawa, and by the time the answer comes, the opportunity is gone. So they’re stuck there.

Put on your manjammies (shalwar kameez) we’re going out, Panjwaii Tim announces from the stairwell. It’s Saturday night in Kandahar and his command is confusing because nobody goes out in this town. Not after dark.

Yet a few minutes later we are motoring down empty streets, ghosts once more. There appear to be more armed checkpoints than normal and Panjwaii Tim takes extra care, choosing a route to avoid the guns.

We approach another set of anonymous compound doors. An Afghan guard nods clearance. Seconds later, a burly Westerner bids us welcome, a hearty hug for Panjwaii Tim, a viselike yet cautious handshake for the reporter.

Here’s where the telling gets especially frustrating because though this turns out to be far and away the most interesting of the nearly 200 evenings I’ve spent in Kandahar since 2002, most of it must stay in the notebook until after this conflict is over. Our host is a private security contractor whose work is too sensitive to risk exposure while he is in the field.

But his regard for Panjwaii Tim is such that he has gathered all the precious treats in the house and assembled an astonishing rooftop party for three, replete with a case of homemade beer, Cuban cigars and, on the coal-fired grill, a mound of Alaskan king crab legs likely the only crustaceans for a thousand kilometres in any direction.

Who is this guy? We will call him John. Ex-special forces from a country we cannot name. Spent time in Iraq. And here now in Kandahar, like Panjwaii Tim, a veteran of this incredibly rarefied work that involves venturing way past the lines NATO considers certain death.

But unlike Panjwaii Tim, John’s smaller team sometimes works directly with NATO special forces in far-flung, unstable districts. Making advance contact with key tribal leaders, working deals to ensure safe meetings, setting the table for the first Western military boots on the ground. And, in some cases, actually showing special forces how to get there.

Over the evening, Tim and John compare notes, working through their mutual depth of knowledge of the Afghan players, big and small. Trading their most valued commodity, information, on who can help and who can hurt the cause.

John actually tries to hire Panjwaii Tim on this night, to steal him from Team Canada. More money, less paperwork. Tim politely declines. He likes his job.

I ask both about trade secrets how they are able to put themselves so far into danger’s way without a net. Both speak of Pashtunwali, their absolute life-or-death faith that Pashtun tribes will keep their promises.

If a leader tells you that on this day at this hour you can take this road and nothing will happen, it will be so, says John. But it works the other way as well. I once had a tribal leader tell me, If you break your word we will kill you.’ I have no doubt that also is true.

John says it’s not just a matter of Western expats saying the right words. He turns to Tim and says, You, for example, have that added X factor. I can hardly put it into words. But you put 100 other guys in front an Afghan leader saying the same things and they won’t be impressed. But you, Tim . . . the Afghans sense your authenticity and they know you are real. Whatever it is, you have it.

Tim squirms uncomfortably with the praise. Later, I ask him about the X factor. It isn’t rocket surgery, as Don Cherry would say. All it takes is hard boots-on-the-ground work and the ability to live long periods in austere environments. You need a dedication to live amongst and learn about the local community. And most of all, you need a strong corporate support network to allow this to happen in a non-bureaucratic manner. . . . That last part is essential.

Tim’s a family man. He doesn’t want you to know how many and where his kids live, but he says he would be with them in Canada today if not for his chance encounter with the smaller, earlier version of what is now Team Canada during his seven-month tour as a soldier in Panjwaii district three years ago.

I got to know Panjwaii well during my tour and if you can understand Panjwaii, you can understand the insurgency in general. But I saw the way the Team Canada operated and I wanted to operate like that too.

On the ride back that night, I notice Tim adjusting a knife sheathed beneath his shalwar kameez. An antique Bowie knife with a storied history it went to war twice before, in WWI and WWII with Tim’s grandfather and great-grandfather, both soldiers from Manitoba.

This knife is pretty well travelled. The thing is, it didn’t come home after six months. They didn’t bring it back until the job was done.

Cruising Kandahar with Team Canada is endlessly hazardous. Moving around Afghan-style means staying on maximum alert for NATO convoys. The second you spot one, pull over instantly or risk the consequences. Because they might shoot you, says Panjwaii Tim.

Stopping brings danger of another sort. Because no matter how well your head is wrapped, Kandahars can spot a non-Pashtun from great distance. And you don’t want that. Smiling or laughing, for example, is discouraged when this crew is travelling because, well, the people of Kandahar hardly ever smile.

Even the Afghan National Police can be bad news for non-military Westerners. Sometimes the ANP checkpoints are manned by 18-year-olds shaking in their boots. But there’s also the risk of criminals or insurgents posing in stolen uniforms.

Team Canada members have a nose for these things. A sixth sense that enables them to calmly motor through things that would reduce most Westerners to a jangling bundle of nerves.

The work itself is all about, well, work creating as much as possible as quickly as possible for Afghans who might otherwise be lost to the insurgency. And we see it firsthand throughout Kandahar, a city of roughly 800,000 where, at present, 2,200 Afghan men are working on low-cost, high-impact projects.

In four locations, we walk among hundreds of Afghans building sidewalks under the hot sun. At each site, one crew levels and grades by hand, while others mix and cast concrete, followed by skilled masons who finish the job. So far, Team Canada’s workers have laid 50 kilometres of sidewalk in Kandahar City.

At other sites, canal and drainage ditches are being cleaned. At one point, we visit the new Kandahar garbage dump near the Tarnac River basin, where Team Canada is overseeing the city’s entire sanitation system.

Team Canada is focusing on Afghanistan’s most problematic districts, those most recently held by the Taliban.

We’re the first ones in, explains Nate, the Texan. The idea is to be as labour-intensive as possible. If it’s a drainage ditch, for example, you might be able to dig it in a week with big machines. But instead, we use men with shovels, and that way employ several hundred for several months. As we reach the peak of the fighting season, that vulnerable population desperate for employment has an option other than to become prime recruits for insurgents.

Back at the safe house , everyone has a different way of winding down. Occasionally, some gather to watch a DVD. Movie night during our stay was especially surreal seeing Robert Downey Jr. abducted in Afghanistan in Iron Man takes a different twist when you are actually in Afghanistan. Others stayed in their rooms, using the wireless connection to Skype home to loved ones.

But every morning the routine is the same all gather around a vast circular breakfast table for a daily security update, which lately involves eyebrow-raising information about spiralling violence. One such morning the Star arrived at the table just as Panjwaii Tim was grimly warning about the consequences of gunfire: prosecution by Afghan officials. If any of you shoot an Afghan, your career is over. You are done.

Yet there are times when the guns come out. Ours occurs on Day 5, as we return from a morning surveying projects only to find a suspicious Afghan loitering in front of the gate.

I don’t know this guy. What is he doing here? This is bad, says Panjwaii Tim. He doesn’t need to say aloud what we’re both thinking suicide bomber.

A split-second later, Panjwaii Tim raises a pistol showing it to, but not pointing it directly toward, the unknown Afghan. He waves the gun menacingly, gesturing the man away from the gate. The Afghan quickly obliges.

What happens next, however, reveals more about the character of this crew. After pulling inside the compound, Panjwaii Tim puts his gun away and returns unarmed apologetic, even to ask the man’s business.

Speaking in Pashto, the man pleads for work to feed his family. And he produces a typed letter, written in English, bearing the Canadian flag. It is a testimonial from a Canadian military commander, circa 2007, attesting to the man’s efforts assisting an earlier troop rotation.

Panjwaii Tim scans the letter. Phone numbers are exchanged. Promises given. Two days later the man is building sidewalks under the watchful eyes of the Canadian ghosts.

Arbaki

President Karzai to reverse his position on using tribal militias.  The new name for these soon to be created Arbaki is Local Police Forces (LPF.) This is a plan which has been tried before without success. In Kandahar the Local Defense Initiative (LDI) forces (the original Arbaki program from a few years back) were quickly targeted and decimated by the Taliban. In Kunduz and Takar province they partnered with armed criminal gangs to exploit the population and government supplies and in Parwan Province they flat out turned Taliban.  I’m not sure what is being modified to make this cunning plan more effective than the last time around but I do know this much – the plan is going  to fail.

Alex Strick van Linschoten has coined the term “hope tactics” to describe the thinking behind arming various local cats and dogs and that sounds like a pretty good description to me.  There is only one way to do this sort of thing and that is to supervise the security forces you are creating. Without supervision and training all you can do is hope the units you create end up becoming effective and hope isn’t a plan. I’m sick of hope and also sick of seeing the same narrow list of options being tried over and over again adding yet another chapter to our legacy of failure in Afghanistan.

Living a low carbon footprint lifestyl; looks nice but smells pretty bad
Living a true low carbon footprint lifestyle in Bamiyan Province

Last night Captain America (regional manager for Ghost Team with 3 years on the ground with the US Army and four more as a contractor) rucked up to the Taj happy hour.  We talked for a long time about why we are always fighting to maintain program funding, keep our safe-houses, keep our mobility and freedom to maneuver despite consistently exceeding program goals. No reason to hash over the details of our incredibly interesting conversation but there was a portion worthy of mention. CPT  A asked if we could do vertical structures, I said we could, to which he said, “you know if we could just knock out  250 schools we’re done”.  CPT  A is currently refurbishing  every district irrigation system in Nangarhar Province. He does three districts at a time, employs around 5,000 laborers and is building proper intakes and installing concrete in main canals and karez systems so that they last. The roads into the Nangarhar districts are done, once we finish all the irrigation systems if we knock out 250 schools we can say “dudes we did what we said we were going to do and we’re taking off….good luck.”

This is what I mean about wasting money. We have spent billions building new regional ANP training centers and running new ANP officers through them yet still we get IED's planted right outside a Provincial Governors compound and nobody knows just how they got there.
This is what I mean about wasting money. We have spent millions and millions of dollars building new regional ANP training centers and running new ANP officers through them yet still we get an  IED  planted right outside a Provincial Governors compound.

CPT A was understating what needs to be done but not by much. He wrote the Provincial reconstruction plan when he here with the Army and knows more about it than anyone else on the planet. But the chances that our military and civilian leaders would recognize a successful template and slim down our efforts to switch up on the hold and build game are zero. The reason they are zero is that doing successful reconstruction is irrelevant for the thousands of military staff, civilian governmental agency personnel, and their contractors who have deployed to Afghanistan. All of them have high level security clearances, they spend their days in  inter-agency working groups designed to trim the bureaucratic red tape for efficiency and speed while reducing “stove pipes.” These people are all highly  paid experts who spend their time flying between FOB’s to brief each other or to participate in “fusion cells” designed to provide the battle commanders with useful information. But they cannot get out and about to dig up any useful information.

An incident like the attack on the DAI office in Kunduz last month gives this Classified Class weeks of work. Guys like the Skipper or CPT America, guys who get the job done day after day without any problems or hiccups – the Classified Class doesn’t even know they exist. There is no reason to track people doing their jobs as promised and without fanfare because they are not going to pop up on the classified nets. A gigantic Poppy Palace full of western aid workers getting attacked – that generates all kinds of classified message traffic and will require lots of flying around to other FOB’s to brief and participate in more emergency inter agency meetings.   Want the truth?  The Classified Class is spending millions of OPM to accomplish not one damn thing other than to feel good about how they spent their year in Afghanistan.

This is an AP photo form the attack on the US AID implementor DAI in Kunduz last month
This is an AP photo form the attack on the US AID implementing partner, DAI,  in Kunduz last month

We have no resilience in our reconstruction fight if we continue doing it the same old way. Kunduz is a perfect example; the contractor was in a large, well fortified compound with a professional international security company providing armed expat and local security experts. They faced a serious ground attack but the fortifications and armed guard force did its job by killing the attackers before they could injure any of the aid workers. But now the contractor is gone, the programs they were working on abandoned which means the security plan was designed to survive one attack and one attack only. How can one expect to get the build portion of the current clear hold and build program completed if the people doing the build leave after one attack?

As our Thursday evening happy hour drew to a close the one thing we all agreed on was that our ability to operate in the manner we do is based on the locals watching after us. The years we have spent in N2KL have resulted in most people in most places knowing who we are and what we do. Reconstruction is not hard, establishing credibility is and that takes time in countries like Afghanistan. It also takes people who can operate on their own on the economy and not just survive but continue to function if attacked. That kind of thinking is not found inside the closed loop of the classified crowd. They do not know what they do not know.  They can’t leave the FOB’s so they don’t have an accurate read on anything except what comes through the classified loop. Anyone who has dealt with that sort of information understands how limited it is.

Which bring us back to the Local Security Forces.   This “inspired” idea of using locals to provide security will fail because nobody responsible for it will get off the FOB to provide daily detailed supervision. I can’t stress enough the importance of daily, full time, supervision. The Skipper’s EOD program works because he provides daily, detailed supervision, while EOD programs elsewhere in the country languish.  CPT America is re-building the entire Provincial irrigation system because he provides daily, detailed supervision, while the same projects elsewhere in the country barely break ground. If we can’t get the various government agencies to operate off of the FOB then there is only one viable option. Armed, outside the wire, experienced, contractors.

N2KL

Spencer Ackerman  wrote a post last week at Danger Room with the disturbing title of East Afghanistan Sees Taliban as “Morally Superior” to Karzai. This assessment came from the after action slides of Col Randy George who commanded Task Force Warrior this past year. There is nothing in the article or Col George’s slides which is a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. What is not obvious to those outside of Regional Command East is that there is the distinct possibility that change is afoot.

RC East (a.k.a. N2KL to those in the know)  is comprised of Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghaman Provinces.  It is mountainous, has over 300 kilometers of border with Pakistan and is full of isolated clannish tribes who have a long history being a pain in the ass to anyone trying to establish governance over their territory.  ISAF is restricted to moving along valley roads where ambushes are so common they have become part of the daily routine. But here is the thing; there are only so many places in these mountain from which to ambush convoys. There are only so many places from which the bad guys can attack isolated combat outposts too and we know where each and every one of those places are. As one of the OH 58 scout pilots told me the other day “when we respond to an ambush once we learn where the contact is we know exactly where the Taliban will be. They never change, they never deviate, and we see the same thing over and over and over again.”

Look at this money quote from Spencer’s article:

“As a result, those big mistakes by the Afghan government lead the locals of N2KL to rank the Taliban/al-Qaeda/Militant-Insurgent Syndicate’ fourth out of four on George’s list of how they perceive their problems. Locals consider the insurgents morally superior to the Karzai government. The insurgents provide the population something the government doesn’t, or at least doesn’t provide sufficiently: culturally appropriate access to justice, resources and Islamic identity, in George’s assessment.”

There is little that Col George or ISAF can do about that. But what they can do is to set up the conditions for success by beating the Taliban like a drum on a routine basis. Which is exactly what the commander at Camp Blessing (Kunar Province) started doing last week after the villains over reached with a large attack aimed at his battalion. Let me set the picture for you as we see it using open source security reports.

Sami the Finn sent this to me after week 26 to see what I knew about the steep drop off of activity in Kunar Province. He's been here from the start and nobody has ever seen Kunar incident rate tank like this before
Sami the Finn sent this to me after week 26 to see what I knew about the steep drop off of activity in Kunar Province. We had never seen the Kunar incident rate tank like this during a fighting season before

Sami the Finn from Indicium Consulting was the first to raise the alarm as he watched the incident rate in Kunar drop at the height of fighting season. He warned that this meant the Taliban was massing for another big attack. A quick plug if I may; Sami has been in Afghanistan for over 8 years and is the most informed analysts in the country. Anyone doing business here would benefit from utilizing his company which is highly respected among the old hands.

As the security incident rate was falling we were getting reports from Kunar that the place was awash with Pakistani Taliban and “foreigners” which could be al Qaeda or could be Jihadi tourists not that there is much difference. One project manager I know who is an Arab/American was approached by a Taliban emissary and told that if he did projects in the Korengal Valley they would provide for his security and give him a Taliban work permit. That would have been cool -I have been trying for a long time to get a scan of one of those but to date nishta. The NGO he works for wouldn’t have gone for that deal anyway.

There was another VBIED on the Beshud bridge the other day. None of the soldiers in the MRAP were injured but local bystanders did not fare well.
There was another VBIED on the Beshud bridge the other day. None of the soldiers in the MRAP were injured but local bystanders did not fare well.

We were seeing lots of smoke but no fire and had little idea what was going on but then the 101st (current battlespace owners) attacked into the Marwarwa valley and started dropping bodies. They apparently were seeing the build up of forces too and decided to preempt whatever they were up to with a battalion of paratroopers.

the incidnet rate shot up after the Americans and ANA went on the offensive but all thisfighting is pretty one sided and judging from air activity around Jalalabad pretty intense
The incident rate shot up after the Americans and ANA went on the offensive

The local people have every right to be upset about the performance of the government in Kabul. But they also have no interest in seeing any central government strong enough to meddle in their affairs.  For example, Afghans will go to great lengths to avoid having their problems brought into the legal system. Regardless of the crime be it murder or little boys stealing apples from a neighbor the Afghans know how to handle it and feel personally disgraced when the authorities step in to apply the rule of law. Their family business them becomes public and their problems known to people outside their clan which brings disgrace upon the family.  They are going to bitch about the central government no matter who is in charge and how effective it becomes. The best we can do is concentrate on making regional government functional at basic things like irrigation, sanitation, health care delivery and other municipal services.

The Skipper - a retired navy master chief, EOD type runningaround Nuristan. He respondes to all EOD calls in N2KL 24/7 because he's outside the wire in his own safe house with a mobile security crew. He's been doing this for years and the local people know and look after him because he is fast, efficent, and doesn't ask questions. He collects a lot of ordnance and isyet another example that internationals can and should be operating embeded with the population
The Skipper – a retired navy Senior Chief, EOD type running around Nuristan. He respondes to all EOD calls in N2KL 24/7 because he’s outside the wire in his own safe house and has a mobile security crew. Being able to get a call and go is key – his ISAF counterparts get a call and it takes at least four hours for them to plan and brief their mission before their allowed off base. FOB based security is not really security because they cannot respond rapidly to anything.  The Skipper has been doing this for years and the local people know and look after him because he is fast, efficient, and doesn’t ask questions. He collects a lot of ordnance and is another example that internationals can and should be operating embedded with the population

The Taliban have been operating in the open all over Nuristan and  Kunar Provinces this year as well as southern Nangarhar Province and part of Laghman too.  It doesn’t take long for them to wear out their welcome because the locals have big plans for their daughters and getting hitched to some wild eye Waziristani illiterate isn’t past of the plan. Yet the villains are out there filling in the power vacuum created by dysfunctional government and poorly trained Afghan Police.  The Taliban is in the open and exposed at exactly the wrong time. The ANA and the Americans have never been stronger and are more than capable of running the Taliban to ground if that is what they want to do. Insurgents are supposed to wait until they defeat local and international security forces before they start walking around with impunity.

This is typical - the Taliban trigger man gets a bomb to set off but it doesn't come with a motorcycle battery so he has to walk to the big city to buy one. Correctly thinking it to be a bad idea to walk around with the bomb he hides it in the median strip of the busiest road in Jalalabad hoping none of the 2 or so thousand people walkng by will take notice.
This is typical – the Taliban trigger man gets a bomb to set off but it doesn’t come with a motorcycle battery so he has to walk to the big city to buy one. Correctly thinking it to be a bad idea to walk around with the bomb he hides it in the median strip of the busiest road in Jalalabad hoping none of the thousands of people walking by will take notice.

The insurgents have unmasked themselves way too early which is a strategic blunder of the first order. In N2KL ISAF and the ANA can make them pay for that.  If they did it would be the perfect time to get the “civilian surge” off the FOB’s and out interacting daily with officials at the province and district level. I know the State Department guy and the duty FBI agent, and the US AID guys etc… are all frustrated that they are not able to operate off the bases like the NGO’s and The Skipper do.

An ABP trainer and his terp duringa rnage shoot. These trainers are from Xe which was Balckwater and is now something else I think. There are several dozen guys on the contract with some embeded American Army troops and they have a large base at the Pachir Wa Agam distrcit center. Using large regional training centers has proven to be a bust for train Afgahan police. These guys from Xe are first rate working a top of the line contract for excellent pay. They would be much more effective if they were out and about with their charges instead of being restricted to a training base.
An ABP trainer and his terp during a range shoot. These trainers are from Xe which was known as Blackwater. There are several dozen guys on the contract with some embedded American Army troops and they have a large base at the Pachir Wa Agam district center. Using large regional training centers has proven to be a bust for training Afghan police. These guys from Xe are first rate working a top of the line contract for excellent pay. They would be much more effective if they were out and about with their charges instead of being restricted to a training base.  The taxpayer would get a better return on investment and the contractors would probably enjoy the freedom of movement and break in routine.

There is little question that we are going to have to start reducing our footprint in Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean we cannot define an acceptable end state and start working towards it now while we have so many assets in-country. There are civilian experts who want to get out and start making a difference but can’t due to force protection policies. These people have the exact skill set needed to mentor regional government agencies but they cannot bring those skills to bear from the FOB. It is time to set these and a number of other people free to follow up what has started to be a little house cleaning of the local Taliban.

Jalalabad Rocks

Last Wednesday morning the local Taliban sent eight guys to attack the US Army base at Jalalabad Airfield known as FOB Fenty. They initiated the attack with a car bomb in a rarely used entry point on the southeastern side of the airfield which is well away from the Torkham to Jalalabad road. The remaining attackers tried to bum rush the damaged gate and got shot all to hell by the American soldiers who man the guard towers. Adding insult to injury there just happened to be a section of fully armed and fueled Apaches in the air and they were instantly able to pounce on the survivors of the futile charge at the damaged gate as they fled back towards a small village called Moqamkhan. A joint force of ANA and 101st Paratroopers went into the village and finished off the survivors in a short fire fight. FOB Fenty was back to normal by noon but the attack did generate plenty of news which may have been the point.

The attack on FOB Fenty has had limited impact on the local citizens or the troops stationed there. But Jalalabad has also had a series of IED attacks in the Safi Bazaar which is in the main downtown area. The word on the street is that these are bombing targeting “un-Islamic” stores but they have hit cell phone stores and a juice bar which clearly fall within the definition of being properly Islamic.These attacks are concerning but to date none of the local security forces have found a night letter which is an indicator the Taliban may not be responsible. This area of the bazaar has had its share of internecine fighting over the years with several firefights breaking out between vendors which the ANP joined in for good measure.  This could be score settling or the Taliban may feel strong enough to operate in openly in Jalalabad.

latest bombing in the Safi Bazaar targeted this ANP checkpost which is manned 24 hours a day. The villains placed a good 3lb magnetic mine on there and walked off at around 2030 at night an nobody saw a thing. That is not cool
latest bombing in the Safi Bazaar targeted this ANP check-post which is manned 24 hours a day. The villains placed a good 3lb magnetic mine on there and walked off at around 2030 at night and nobody saw a thing. Not cool.

Attacking security forces checkpoints is a standard Taliban tactic but their ability to do so in Jalalabad is not a new development.  Their targeting has gotten better  which is concerning.

This was placed under the passenger side of a Toyota corolla belonging to a Colonel in the National Directerate of Security. Although magnetic there is not enough metal under a passanger seat to attach it securly so the villains used tape which the Colonel saw the next morning which is why he checked his undercarriage. Typical keystone cop execution by the forces of evil. These bombs are made with 2 to 3 lbs of PE 3 explosive and are pretty powerful.
This was placed under the front passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla belonging to a Colonel in the National Directorate of Security. It’s about the size of a cigar box but thicker and protruded from under the vehicle.  The Colonel saw the shiny light colored tape the next morning so he checked his undercarriage. Typical keystone cop execution by the forces of evil. These bombs are made with 2 to 3 lbs of PE 3 explosive and are pretty powerful.

Right now things are not looking too cool in Jbad for us internationals but there could be change afoot. Lost in all the news surrounding the appointment of Gen Petraeus is the amazing (one-sided) fights that have been happening in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces. Last week the troops stationed at the Nuristan PRT in Kala Gush spent several hours watching video feed of some 200 fighters climbing the mountain to the west of them in order to stage a massive attack. By the time the villians had humped all the heavy guns, mortars, rockets, ammo, etc… up the mountain there were B1’s stacked above them with 2000 lbs JDAMS.  Talk about an ass whooping – these kind of debacles piss off the local tribes because their young men join the fighters and promptly get atomized by JDAMs for nothing and losing men for no reason is not covered in the Pashtunwali code.

Kala Gush Nuristan - the Taliban attempted to attack by fire from the mountain to the left and sucked up a couple of 2000 lb JDAM's for their troubles.
Kala Gush Nuristan – the Taliban attempted to attack by fire from the mountain to the left and sucked up a couple of 2000 lb JDAM’s for their troubles.

Around the same time the Kala Gush Taliban were sucking up massive tac air attacks a group of local Taliban launched an effective IED attack which killed 5 Americans in the Marawara valley which is just across the river from Assadabad. I am guessing that the commander of the 101st had enough and went after them with his entire battalion. The villains, who have been openly hanging around Marawara for weeks, rushed in to reinforce the Taliban groups caught in the paratroppers dragnet and the Army has by now killed well over 150 of them.

There is much more American military activity around Jalalabad including flying columns of the varsity Afghan SF with their American advisers who use Toyota trucks just like their Afghan colleges.  These small, fast, powerful formations are by far the most effective joint US/Afghan effort of the war and the only example of real embedded (as opposed to co-located) training currently being done with the Afghans .

Afghan Commandos with embedded American SF pause for a radio check outside their base in Jalalabad. They are heading towards the Southern Triangle which contains Taliban units who operate day and night and have driven the Afghan Security Forces out of many districts.
Afghan Commandos with embedded American SF pause for a radio check outside their base in Jalalabad. They are heading towards the Southern Triangle which contains Taliban units who operate day and night and have driven the Afghan Security Forces out for the time being.  Local traffic always stops well short of the Afghan Commandos who enjoy an excellent reputation among the Afghan population but have pretty strict force protection standards.

The shop keepers, ANP, Provincial Counsel members and various other men of importance can run the Taliban right out of Jalalabad if they want to. But they haven’t which is why this string of bombings is concerning and why the aggressive operations by the U.S. Army in RC East is welcomed news. Focusing on the population doesn’t mean giving the bad guys a free pass which I have written about many times in the past. Herschel Smith over at The Captain’s Journal has consistently covered this aspect of the COIN debate with the most coherent, in depth pieces on the topic.  His latest can be found here and I am, as usual, in complete agreement.

The only way this current, and admittedly troubling, activity inside Jalalabad City is going to stop is if the Taliban out in the districts start getting their asses kicked on a routine basis. That is exactly what is happened in Kunar and Nuristan Province this week and may be happening south of me as I write this post. What I hope to see is a lot more of this aggressive posture because it is the only way those of us in the reconstruction fight will be able to maintain freedom of movement.

Look at the body language here - the guy getting searched has the classic Taliban look; long hair, untrimmed beard, Pakol and high water pants.
Look at the body language here – the guy getting searched has the classic Taliban look; long hair, untrimmed beard, Pakol and high water pants.  The ANP officer recognizes him for what he is and is giving him a pat down but do you note this officers posture? He’s giving this guy a pass

General Petreaus has a window of opportunity to turn this thing around.  He arrived in country today and he may well turn out to be the right man arriving at exactly the right time.  Inshallah.