Five Hundred Meter War

Herschel Smith at the Captains Journal has put up a great post which addresses a topic near and dear to my heart; infantry tactics. The post is The Five Hundred Meter War  and I want to reinforce Herschel’s point with some observations.

The tactical argument being raised by Herschel is the alarming trend of engaging in long range fire fights without even attempting to close with and destroy the enemy. The mission of American infantrymen (according to FM 2-21.20 The Infantry Battalion) is “to close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver.”

Aggressive maneuver combined with active patrolling keep the enemy off balance. The army demonstrated this in Kunar over the last few weeks. The first graph below is from the week of the Camp Blessing battle and the second from the week of the elections.

Remember a few months back when I posted about the new army battalion at Camp Blessing in Kunar killing over 100 fighters in the Marwa valley? Here is the incident rate for the week that the fighting started
Remember a few months back when I posted about the new army battalion at Camp Blessing in Kunar killing over 100 fighters in the Marwa Valley?  Remember I was hoping this signaled a shift in operational focus away from drive by COIN visits to killing the villains who had unmasked themselves all over the Province? Here is the incident rate for the week that the fighting started.  In order to generate security incidents you need living and breathing insurgents and there were not too many of them left after the Army took off the force protection handcuffs and started getting after it. Graph is courtesy of Sami the Finn who is the Senior Information Analyst for Indicium Consulting.

 

Here is this weeks stats and the spike is due to the Taliban and HIG efforts to disrupt the election. If you watched the embeded video you probably caught that the troops on that mission were heading to a polling center for some reason and yet look at the stats for the week that those polls were open (actually most in Kunar were closed) It would appear that months of effort to facilitate voting in the Kunar Province was a complete waste of effort
Here as the stats from last week note the spike which came from Taliban and HIG efforts to disrupt the election. If you watched the embedded video you probably caught that the troops on that mission were heading to a polling center for some reason and yet look at the stats for the week that those polls were open (actually most in Kunar were closed) It would appear that months of effort to facilitate voting in the Kunar Province was a complete waste of effort

The incident rates above clearly  demonstrate a point made over and over by Herschel Smith and many other military bloggers have made and that is incident rates drop when kinetic activity increases. It also demonstrated the folly of running down a road to visit sites for a brief period of time and then returning to the FOB.  Yesterday a British national working for the development firm DAI was kidnapped right off the main Abad to Jbad road. She was moving in a two vehicle convoy of low profile Toyota Corollas which is normally a safe mode of travel as long as the people inside the Corollas can pass as locals at first glance. This method of blending in is not a good idea if the convoy is going to be static for any period of time allowing local spotters to get a good look at the passengers. There are internationals in Afghanistan who can fool a trained observer with local clothes and a local style beard but they don’t fool anybody once they start walking. Their gait does not resemble how Afghans move because westerners do not spend their lives squatting on their heels.

I do not know the woman who was kidnapped that well but can say she was one of the more experienced and savvy operators in the eastern region. The company she works for, DAI, is one of the “big boys” in the reconstruction business and although they are not as nimble or fast as we are they are still damn good. So here we are in the middle of the surge and the security situation has never been worse.  If the security situation continues to degrade it is just a matter of time before all of us reconstruction types pull up the stakes and go home. I think I am speaking for the outside the wire community when I say (to ISAF)  “it’s time to get off the FOB’s and into the fight….or we’re done here.”

A New Way Forward?

We were under UN restricted movement routine last week (for the first time in five years) which provided the opportunity to digest a report from The Afghanistan Study Group entitled A New Way Forward. This report was great news for me because if think tanks are paying big bucks to people who write so poorly and know so little then maybe I can get a job in America and stop spending 11 of every 12 months out of the country. Any think tankers out there who have an opening drop me a line – I’ll be your huckleberry.

Fortunately I don’t have to take this report apart as a genuine regional expert, the formidable Joshua Foust, has already done that over at Registan.net.  Take the time to read his post here; it is, as usual, well written and spot on. With the heavy lifting already done I wanted to focus on the one part of the Study Group report which I find alarming and that is the amount of money being spent.  This is from the summary of the Afghanistan Study Group report:

The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now the longest in our history, and is costing the U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year, roughly seven times more than Afghanistan’s annual gross national product (GNP) of $14 billion.

100 Billion US dollars per year. That level of expenditure will not be sustainable for much longer so in the spirit of offering solutions instead of highlighting problems I am going to try and articulate a real New Way Forward.  The first step to limiting the amount of money being spent while reducing the number of troops deployed in theater is to eliminate the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT)  program.  PRT’s are based on FOB’s, staffed by hundreds of personnel and completely focused internally.  The commander of a PRT who is often an officer from the Navy or Air Force will get one fitness report (FitRep) in his/her career where they are commanding troops in combat.  The problems that would prevent these commanders from getting a superior fitness report (which is the only way they will be promoted and retained in the service) are all things that happen inside the wire. Sloppy admin, poor vehicle maintenance, problems with CMS (classified material storage and handling) lost gear or (heaven forbid) lost weapons, excessive boy/girl drama, failure to conduct required annual training like suicide prevention, sexual harassment, AIDS awareness (to name just a few) and problems getting mid to senior level NCO’s to professional schools….all these things and many more will ruin a FitRep. What will not ruin a Fitrep is failing to accomplish anything of significance outside the wire which is the primary mission of the PRT’s. The reason that is irrelevant is because there is no way to measure what is happening outside the wire with any precision because to know what is happening outside the wire one has to be outside the wire and riding around in hermetically sealed MRAP’s doesn’t count.

These PRT members are on their way to a village just outside our largest airbase in the region with a IT specalist to try and network computers donated to a local school years agp
Captain Christian Balan, who teaches  digital forensics at Burlington’s Champlain College in civilian life, heading towards a school just outside the massive Bagram airbase to trade his tech skills fixing the computer lab in hopes of generating good will and cooperation.  Photo by Spencer Akerman of the Danger Room blog

 

This story published last month in the Danger Room blog is a great  example. Nine years into the conflict and a group of soldiers are just now bringing their tech skills to bear in order to gain cooperation from villagers located just outside the wire from Bagram. Captain Balan (pictured above)  is a 55 year old reservist who is trying something new because past experience taught him the regular “Key Leader Engagement” techniques yield nothing. He is using his civilian techie skills to engage the villagers in another way. Read the article and note how after visiting the village he is all psyched up to go back and tune up their computer lab. This is what I mean by letting our troops loose to stay outside the wire and develop the situation using their initiative, drive and skill sets. But again there is a huge problem illustrated in the picture above and that is the body armor, rifles, security team etc… when it is right outside the wire from the biggest base in Afghanistan. Compare and contrast what you read in the article with this:

 

My son Logan doing the heavy lifting during the intial instal of the Jalalabad Fab Fi network.
My son Logan doing the heavy lifting during the initial install of the Jalalabad Fab Fi network.

 

25 simultaneous live nodes in Jalalabad. That's a new high. The map can't even keep up!
The Jalalabad Fab Fi network created by the MIT Fab Folk, maintained and expanded by local teenagers. This program does not cost the American taxpayer one dime.

 

The boys at the Jalalabad Fab Lab came up with their own design to meet the growing demand created by the International Fab surge last September. As usual all surge participants who came from the US, South Africa, Iceland and Englad paid their own way. Somebody needs to sponser these people.
The local Fab Fi club members at the Jalalabad Fab Lab came up with their own design to expand the Fab Fi network using US AID cooking oil cans (or “found objects” in geek talk)

In August of 2010 American soldiers are taking baby steps within a stones throw of the Bagram Airfield but two years ago a bunch of grad student volunteers created a wi fi network which now envelops Jalalabad.  What do you think soldiers like Captain Balan could do if they too had the freedom of movement that we have?  I am willing to bet you would see massive amounts of projects like the one he is attempting all over the country which, in turn, would bring cooperation from the local people while letting the modernity genie out of the bottle.

Here is another example of spending massive amounts of money while bringing zero benefit to the local population:

The local airfield has about a dozen Federal Firefighters to augment the Air Force crash and rescue crew
The local airfield has about a dozen Federal Firefighters to augment the Air Force crash and rescue crew

In the past expeditionary base fire fighting was a collateral duty assigned to base troops just like it is with the crew on Navy ships.  Now we deploy federal firefighters to perform this task which is fine; federal fire fighters are useful individuals who attend multiple schools where they receive first rate training.  If we are going to spend over a million a year to deploy each firefighter we could get much more return on investment by letting these guys spend their days with the local Afghan fire and rescue crews. They don’t need some sort of high speed mission to accomplish daily – they could drive around and look for places where they can help out. They could be busy all day every day teaching people all sorts of useful things while spreading goodwill and good karma. Every night they could return to base where they would be available when needed in the event of a conflagration. They don’t need to be armed, they don’t need body armor, they don’t need a powerpoint mission brief, they just need to drive off the base and do it. If they needed experienced guides to make them feel more comfortable they could ask the ladies from the La Jolla Rotary Club who are here right now supporting the San Diego Sister City program.

This ultra sound machine was donated to the Jalabad Teaching Hospital some years back and like most of the machines we have donated was broken. A grad student from the Synergy Strike Force who here with the La Jolla Rotary club sister city program got the directions, figured out what was wrong and fixed it in about 3 hours. She was then presented with a list of broken machines which she started repairing. Using the internet and a large support network of geeks from America she was able to repair about 90% of the machines in less than a month. What do you think a crew of federal firefighters could do given similar circumstances? I know exactly what they could do - fix 100% of the machines while finding all sorts of other things to improve. We're paying these guys six figure salaries to work out in the gym everyday - they get bored and we get no return on investment.
This ultra sound machine was donated to the Jalalabad Teaching Hospital some years back and like most of the donated machines it was broken.  Kate, a grad student sponsored by the Synergy Strike Force who is here with the La Jolla Rotary Club which is the driving force behind the San Diego Sister City Program got the manual, figured out what was wrong and fixed it in about 3 hours. She was then presented with a list of broken machines which she started repairing. Using the internet and a large support network of geeks back in America she was able to repair about 90% of the machines in less than a month. What do you think a crew of federal firefighters could do in similar circumstances? I know exactly what they could do – fix 100% of the machines while finding all sorts of other things to improve. We’re paying these guys six figure salaries to workout in the gym everyday. They get bored and we get no return on investment while the people we are supposed to be protecting only see American military forces when they tie up traffic and force them off the road.

There is nothing hard about finding “A New Way Forward” all that is needed is the application of common sense while allowing simple principals to guide the deployment of forces on the ground. I spent twenty years in the Marines preparing for contingencies like the one we face in Afghanistan. At no time did anyone ever suggest the way to fight them was to build FOB’s – store 90% of your deployed forces on those FOB’s and put those people to work slaving over powerpoint slides for the daily commanders update brief. Nor did we ever consider something as patently stupid as putting ship drivers or C-130 pilots in charge of reconstruction teams which have more equipment, personnel, money and a larger tactical area of operations then an infantry battalion. When you do that kind of thing you end up with The Helmand Food Zone Fiasco. Its time to send the PRT’s home and to give that mission to Ghost Team and other outside the wire contractors who operate in similar fashion. They are  accomplishing more while costing a fraction of a penny when compared to the PRT dollar.

Which brings us to a topic many of you have been asking me about and that is Koran burning threat by an obscure pastor who has a 50 member flock. Obviously the ruckus raised by our main stream media over this threat caused those of us in Afghanistan a lot of problems. However it is hard to take the Secretary of Defense or General Petraus seriously when they warn how inappropriate it is to burn this book when last year our military burned boxes of Dari and Pashtun translations of the Bible which had been sent to Afghanistan by a Christian organization. Why is it OK to burn the Bible and not the Koran?  The only person of prominence to address the Koran burning issue in a clear honest fashion was Sarah Palin who said this:

People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.

As I listened to the response by our dinosaur media, military leaders, and President to the Koran burning threat I longed to hear them address this topic in clear honest language. This they cannot do and I am left with  just one conclusion. Our elites think the American people are stupid. They insult us with their Quisling like knee jerk reactions and selective outrage when talking about sensitive matters concerning Islam. Nobody needs to tell me how dangerous it is to burn the Koran in a highly publicized manner – my colleagues and I are at much greater risk from the fallout of that act than any military person stationed in Afghanistan.  But I’m an American citizen; I do not knuckle my brow, bend my knee or bow before any man for any reason at any time.

Obama breaks his neck for America

Nor do I selectively apply the freedoms granted to me by God and enshrined in our constitution. We are a free people but freedom requires eternal vigilance with the steadfast devotion to principle. All men are equal under American law, all religions are equal too so none deserves nor can be granted special status or consideration. Why is it our ruling class elites and their henchmen in the media have forgotten this basic component of the American way? When I explain my view to the Afghans I work with they understand exactly what I am saying and why…and they respect the message. I’m with Sarah Palin on this one; at least she isn’t treating the American people like a bunch of know-nothing bumpkins.

Rocky Road

As the summer started I was optimistic that we would see indications that we are gaining ground in Afghanistan but that has not happened. Incident rates are skyrocketing which is not a bad thing if it is our side initiating the incidents but this too is not the case. While ISAF is conducting more raids and presence patrols they do not seem to have learned how to conduct these operations while managing the perceptions of the population we are supposed to be protecting.  By projecting force off of FOB’s and then pulling back into them when the kinetics are done we create a vacuum after every operation.

The aftermath of a brief reportedly violent demonstration on the Jalabad/Torkham road yesterday morning
The aftermath of a brief reportedly violent demonstration on the Jalabad/Torkham road yesterday morning

Earlier in the week a joint Afghan/American SF team raided a madrasa in Sarracha village which is next to the massive airfield/military base in Jalalabad.  They hit the madrasa at night and arrested five men described as mullahs or madrasa students (depends on who you ask). The next morning a large crowd closed the main highway between Jalalabad and the border and threatened to start burning cars and throwing stones at the police. The police responded in great numbers but when they arrived a local candidate for Parliament was on hand calming the crowd down and swearing “he will not rest” until he has talked with the Governor and ISAF and the police to get the people detained released. As it was approaching 100 degrees and this is Ramadan the crowd said OK and dispersed. By the time I got there the police were gone and only a few men remained who were clearing the road of rocks. My terp JD and I asked what had happened and were told the American SF had raided the Madras and taken five students and then they tore up the Koran. I burst out laughing at that one as did JD who immediately called bullshit and asked the guy how he could say something so stupid. The man started laughing too – everyone in this country knows that neither US or Afghan troops are going to touch let alone destroy a Koran.

The fuel tanker fleet continues to use anti bording parties topside only now they are in place from the Torkham border all the way to Kabul.
The fuel tanker fleet continues to use anti boarding parties topside only now they are in place from the Torkham border all the way to Kabul.

Here’s the thing – why is an Afghan political candidate managing the perceptions of a raid we conducted on a village less than a mile from one of our regional bases? Pashtunwali works both ways and if these people are harboring villains then who is accountable for that?  I’m not advocating rounding people up and sweating them I’m saying the elders should be called into the mosque for a shura with the district governor and both Afghan and ISAF military representation and forced to explain why they can’t keep their house in order. If that seems a bit confrontational then both sides can explain their positions and everyone can talk for hours to reach some sort of understanding. Allowing insurgents into a village puts the village at risk because ISAF and the Afghan Army seek insurgents out and hit them aggressively. The potential for collateral damage is significant and the responsibility for that damage has to rest on those who allow targets into their midst. We are using all carrots or all sticks depending on geographic location. In Kunar Province ISAF fights daily while delivering aid programs but in Nangarhar Province we swoop down in the middle of the night and take away suspected insurgents and leave. This allows various actors with their own agendas to fill the vacuum we create with whatever message benefits them. Kunar gets the carrots while Nangarhar gets the stick and I’m not sure why that is. Until ISAF wises up and starts calibrating their operations to gain the maximum effect from every offensive action we are going to continue to get played by Afghan elites.

 

Now the villains have switched up hitting tankers heading into Kunar as the transit Jalalabad towards the Bishood Bridge. This was a spectacular attack as the driver hit the gas when his truck blew up in an attempt to outrun the flames shooting out of the back. He didn't make it but did leave a trail of burning fuel for the entire length of the main downtown area.
Now the villains have switched up their tactics hitting tankers heading into Kunar as the transit Jalalabad towards the Bishood Bridge. This was a spectacular attack as the driver hit the gas when his truck blew up in an attempt to outrun the flames shooting out of the back. He didn’t make it but did leave a trail of burning fuel for the entire length of the main downtown area.

 

ISAF needs to think through these night raids. They do not attempt to manage perceptions because the SF teams doing these raids don’t give a damn about the perceptions in an area they’ll visit once in a lifetime. In the last 72 hours we have had 16 rockets and 6 IED attacks in Nangarhar Province. One of these IED attacks killed the sub governor of La Pur district at the gates of the Governor’s compound. Was it Taliban who did this?  Who knows?  The local people know that the Sub Governor had been spending time in Kabul trying to get his son released from jail. His son has been incarcerated for two months since he copped to killing one of his cousins over a family dispute. A crime he may or may not have done himself.  Nothing here is linear or simple and  it is common for the son of powerful men to take a fall knowing their father will get them out of prison. There are lots of scores to settle in Afghanistan and the Taliban are not the only actors settling scores.

 

Today 5 trucks were destoyed in a gas station a few miles to the east of Jalalabad by a single limpet mine attack
Today 5 trucks were destroyed in a gas station a few miles to the east of Jalalabad by a single limpet mine attack

 

One mine - quickly attached from a passing motorcycle was all it took
One mine quickly attached from a passing motorcycle was all it took

 

It appears that the intial explosion caused a massive fireball which wiped out the men siting in the station office. Over 70% of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the various insurgent groups
The men siting in the station office were not injured but the flaming fuel destroyed the office which was downstream of the tankers.  Nobody was killed this time but over 70% of civilian deaths in Afghanistan are caused by the various insurgent groups

 

There is another mine attached to one of the trucks parked in the background but it failed to function. Being that Friday is a day off the Skipper is, as usual on a call in the boonies and will have to get this one when he finishes. The Skipper is a "man of the book" and tells me "evil never takes a day off and niether do I"l
There was another mine attached to one of the trucks parked in the background which went off shortly after I took this picture. But the truck was full of water and didn’t burn so the ANP immediately arrested the driver and his assistant for fuel theft.

The tanker wars continue as you can see above but to what end? It could be the “broken windows” theory of terrorism where the bad guys seek to keep constant pressure on the civilians with nuisance attacks in highly trafficked areas creating the perception of tactical freedom of action or it could be fuel company wars.  Who knows?  I don’t and I am pretty sure ISAF doesn’t either.

This is the start of a higly charged meeting between the Rodat district sub governor, the police chief and the station owner. The topic of the meeting is easy to guess - why can't the government protect people from this sort of nonesense
This is the start of a highly charged meeting between the Rodat district sub governor, the police chief and the station owner. The topic of the meeting is easy to guess – why can’t the government protect people from this sort of nonsense.

The summer is coming to a close, the surge is on, the bases around Afghanistan are packed with military and contractor personnel yet for the average Afghan things continue to go right down the toilet. Make no mistake we are still in a shooting war and in a shooting war a commander has three forms of currency he must spend; money, blood and time.  The various insurgent groups are spending blood – we are spending tons of money and time. The problem is that the Taliban has a vast surplus of fighters while we are running out of both money and time. ISAF is hamstrung for two reasons; the first is risk aversion and lack of initiative. The bloated staffs which expand exponentially are completely focused on the unimportant.  If powerpoint briefs could bring the Taliban to bay  (and they could if we could inflict a few on them daily – they are worse than water torture) then we would already be home. Anyone who has been anywhere near the ISAF HQ in Kabul speaks of a dysfunctional culture so bizarre that Hollywood could never do it justice. The giant staffs which inflict so much pain and misery on those below them are a self inflicted wound and that is on the US military. The second factor the military can do little about and that is the Karzai government.  Check this out:

After the corruption scandals, Karzai criticized U.S. war strategy and ordered private security companies out of Afghanistan within four months. He also signed off on the forced retirement of his official in charge of the Anti-Corruption unit.

We put pressure on the Afghan government about the corruption – they put pressure on the international community operating outside the wire who in turn put pressure on their respective international governments. That is not a recipe for success. This news about the CIA paying members of the Karzai administration who are currently under criminal investigation is a great example. I have no problems with doing what it takes to accomplish the mission but we have been at this for a decade and it seems to me if the information we paid for was worth a damn the ISAF J2 would not publicly complain about the complete lack of relevant intelligence and the current security stats wouldn’t look like this:

AGE is UN speak for anti government elements and as you can see they are operating at an all time high
AGE is UN speak for Anti-Government Elements and as you can see they are operating at an all time high.  Hat tip to Sami the Finn at Indicium Consulting.

I correspond almost daily with American troops in Afghanistan,  They are a frustrated crew. I hear the same thing over and over – “take the handcuffs off and let us off the FOB; we know what to do.”  I’m not the only one getting this message and hope those on high are thinking about what they’re hearing from the pointed end of the spear because we are running out of time and we are running out of money.