On The Border

The military campaign in Afghanistan is apparently going well.  I read that last Monday here in the Washington Post so it must be true. But two days ago the military effort in Afghanistan took a turn for the worst. I know that to be a fact too because I read it here in the Washington Post. The truth is that it is not terribly important how well the military is doing right now. The military is fighting to do the “Clear” portion of the “Clear, Hold and Build” component which is the backbone of our current counterinsurgency strategy.  The people responsible for part of the holding and all of the building are about to ran out of the country in what appears to be another self inflicted wound.

President Karzai is determined to implement the ban on private security companies and apparently it has just dawned on the various embassy’s who are funding the reconstruction projects that this time President Karzai is serious. There are now frantic consultations happening in Kabul with the Americans in the lead and they are asking security companies for mountains of information, due in 48 hours, on the extent that new security platform will degrade technical results. When asked what exactly the new security platform is there is no answer because nobody at the embassy is exactly what the platform is. When asked who will pay for security provided by the the new platform headed by the Afghan National Police (ANP) there is no answer because nobody seems to know those details.

What the American Embassy (and the UN) have made perfectly clear is that they supports the Presidential decree saying that any government should be able to regulate who has guns and what they do with them. The Afghan government is not regulating access to guns for their citizens just those available to internationals who use them for self protection.

Why would the American government support a decree which is going to drive their implementation companies out of the country? It’s not like the American government doesn’t use armed security contractors back in the states. Contractors guard prisons, fly convicts around the country, guard court houses and important officials. Why the hostility to security contractors in Afghanistan?  Who knows?  This is Afghanistan.

Nimroz Province


One of the supervisors on a cash for work project in Nimroz Province
One of the supervisors on a cash for work project in Nimroz Province

I’ve been spending time in Zaranj, the capitol of Nimroz Province. We do a lot of work in Zaranj which is on the border with Iran and has a large population of Baluch tribesmen. It is a Dari speaking town in the predominately Pashtun south with 24 hour electricity from Iran and a surprisingly relaxed attitude towards the female half of the population. You do not see many women in Burkas and it is not uncommon to see them driving vehicles. There are not many social taboos associated with holding a job outside the home so we are doing several large vocational training programs for women in the city.

One of the Zaranj students in our USAID sponsored rug weaving class. Not bad for the first rug but man that is one labor intensive process.
One of the Zaranj students in a rug weaving class. Not bad for the first rug but man that is one labor intensive process.

Zaranj is a desert border town of around 100,000 people just across the border from Milak Iran. The Indian Government’s Border Roads Organization just completed a modern hard top road from Zaranj to the ring road and the city of Delaram.  That means there is now a modern hard ball road direct from the deep water port of Chabahar, Iran to the ring road of Afghanistan and beyond. That route could prove significant to somebody at some point in the future. For now it is hard to capitalize on having a modern route to a large seaport given that the run from Nimroz to Kabul is 500 kilometer ambush alley for truckers.

Iranian border fort just across from one of our irrigation projects. They are manned posts every 300 meters along this portion of the frontier
Iranian border fort just across from the main irrigation canal. They are manned posts every 300 meters along this portion of the frontier

Zaranj is now starting to feel the love after years of getting by on their own. Last year Mullah John and The Boss flew in here (Zaranj is way out in the middle of nowhere) with little idea of what was going on and discovered a community that was ripe for development projects.

There are strict targets we have to hit regarding the percentage of labor to materials in these projects but by going big on the manual excavation portion of canal projects we can build proper intakes and gates.
Cash for work project in Zaranj

This year as the military and civilian surge continues to pour into Afghanistan the regional representatives from various USG agencies as well as the Marines are staging a series of meetings to see where they can help.

Coming in for a morning meeting in Zaranj
Coming in for a morning meeting in Zaranj


The security element fans out - the Marine in the center is carrying an M-240 machinegun as well as his M16A2. Being a machinegunner, an inherently cool job, sucks sometimes
The security element fans out – the Marine in the center is carrying an M-240 machinegun as well as his M16A2. Being a machinegunner, an inherently cool job, sucks sometimes.  He wasn’t going far but if you’re humping that pig for miles….


The Governor of Nimroz Province
The Governor of Nimroz Province Abdul Karim Barahawi

The meeting with the governor and his staff was interesting. In fact a case study in complexities of trying to provide meaningful development in Afghanistan.  ISAF put out a press release about the meeting which can be found here. The governor said that he needed some help with his main canal and also needs some sort of medical treatment facility.  He could also use a proper runway for the airport so commercial flights can resume. For now only our planes and the Marine Osprey’s land at the airport due to the ruts in the runway and packs of feral dogs that always seem to run across the runway when fixed wing planes are on their final approach.

The governor was probably in better spirits six weeks ago when they had their first meeting like this and talked about what kind of help he needed.  He opened the meeting saying he was happy to see everyone again and that he hopes they are not gong to put a base near Zaranj because they don’t need any Taliban lurking about.  He added that he hoped for maybe some action on the last discussion because although talking with friends is always good it is also good to see action resulting from these talks.

I don’t think ISAF has an intention of putting a base way out in Zaranj as there is no reason for them to be here but this getting action instead of talk stuff is going to be problematic.  This is where good intentions drive expectations above what can met with the current contracting processes.

Governer with the Chief of Staff for the II MEF (Fwd) Col. Kevin Frederick, USMC
Governor Barahawi  with the Chief of Staff for the II MEF (Fwd) Col. Kevin Frederick, USMC

As noted in my last post nothing happens fast with the Regional Contracting Command. The Marines and their USG counterparts are trying to use money as a weapon. But if you are going to use money as a weapon you need to have money. They will get the funds to do the canal work and probably pave the airport runway too but that is months and months and months away. Plus the “Afghan First” policy which makes sense on a PowerPoint slide normally produces results like this (a story about botched police station construction) which I found today after surfing the net for .025 seconds.

More distressing is the lack of medical facilities in a such a large urban center. Currently people who can afford it seek treatment in Iran. The others have to make do with local doctors working out of offices with very little equipment. This shortfall  clearly bothered the American delegation and they explained that it will be their first priority. But as the mission of our military and USG agencies remains first and foremost to support GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) they stressed that whatever solution there is to this problem must be fixed in direct consultation with the Ministry of Health in Kabul. Hate to be blunt about this but that is essentially the same as saying nothing is going to happen except years of frustrating meetings resulting in zero action.

From my perspective we’re fighting an insurgency to support a government who is actively working against our interests which normally not be in their best interests but there it is.

Life continues on the border, hot, windy, dusty but secure. The Marines will fund the complete rehabilitation of the main water canal which will make life a little easier for the people of Zaranj but that is going to take time given the current contracting procedures. At some point we have to realize that speed is a weapon that doesn’t subtract from effectiveness.  We are acting as if we have all the time and money in the world and we don’t.


Inchon is the call sign for the 1st Marine Regiment – currently deployed in southern region of the Helmand Province as Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1).  They are  operating out of a large FOB in the middle of the Dasht-e Margo (Deseret of Death) about 50 kilometers from the Provincial capitol of Lashkar Gah, named Camp Dwyer.  Unlike other FOB’s I’ve visited this massive base has lots of room but very few people. The Marines don’t like FOB’s much and having (by design) a lean tooth to tail ratio (trigger pullers to support personnel) this is what one would expect to see.

Camp Dwyer was carved out of the desert last year. Spartan, functional, isolated, and full of Marines who would consider themselves cursed if they had been left in the rear with the gear
Camp Dwyer was carved out of the desert last year. Spartan, functional, isolated, and full of Marines who would consider themselves cursed if they had been left in the rear with the gear

RCT 1 is commanded by another close friend of mine Colonel Dave Furness, USMC, of Columbus, Ohio. Like my friends featured in previous posts, Colonel Paul Kennedy, USMC and Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Kenny, USMC, Dave was on the staff of the Marine Corps Infantry Officer course with me back in the early 90’s. The four of us also commanded recruiting stations in the late 90’s (the Marines take recruiting seriously) and as is often the case in the Corps we would bump into each other in places like Okinawa, Korea or Thailand when assigned to Fleet Marine Force infantry units.

When I arrived at the RCT 1 headquarters building I was shown into a large office where Dave was waiting with a warm smile, big bear hug and man was he a sight for sore eyes. We sat down and Dave started reading me in on his view of the operational situation he’s dealing with in the Southern Helmand. I started taking  notes:

“Timmy planting guys in the ground is easy, I don’t even worry about that, leaving it to the Battalion Commanders. You know what I worry about? The time horizon. That’s my problem because it impacts my grunts and I’m the only guy in this lash-up who can effect it. The main problem we face here is that the poppy has a value added chain. A farmer is given the seed, he is given the fertilizer – poppy doesn’t take much water or care while growing – and at harvest time he is given guys who score the flowers and collect the dope. At the end of the season he is given a portion of the harvest to sell or barter. The dope is then moved, processed and smuggled out of the country. Poppy has a well established added value chain which provides employment for lots of people while making life easy for the farmer. It costs him little to grow and doesn’t take much work. We want to sell him seed and fertilizer for a crop which is difficult to grow and much more susceptible to failure due to bad weather, floods and insects. We want him to harvest it and want him to take it to market and sell it. There are no value added processes to employ other people. There is no cold storage, no food processing plants, no grain elevators, no good roads, and no teamsters to truck produce using economies of scale.  What would you do if you were a farmer in southern Helmand?”

Readers who have been following the Afghan campaign over the years must be depressed at hearing this. What Dave identified as the problem is exactly what military and development experts identified as the problem nine years ago.

Dawn Patrol -Dave, "The Coach" Mike McNamara - who was also on the staff of IOC back in the 90s. Dave was heading to Marjah for meetings and to spend time with his Marines at the pointed end of the spear
Dawn Patrol: Dave, Mike “Mac” McNamara – who was also on the staff of IOC back in the 90s and me. Dave was heading to Marjah for meetings and to spend time with his Marines at the pointed end of the spear.  Is it me or do Colonels look a lot younger then they did back in the day?

We talked about why, after so long, we’re still talking about the problem instead of fixing it but I don’t want to get my buddies in hot water for bitching about how difficult it is to do what should be easy so I’ll move on to something I also found interesting – the time horizon. Like every other commander in theater Dave is frustrated to the point of insubordination with how slow we are at funding and executing projects. More from Colonel Furness:

“I’m not doing much clearing; the 7th Marines (who rotated home a few weeks ago) did all the clearing. Paul (who commands RCT 2 in Delaram) is fighting like a lion up north right now but we’re pretty much policing up small cells of die-hards which isn’t that hard. Marjah is still active but as we expand out of the district center we’re getting that under control. I’m still losing guys, I still take KIA’s and I have had several Marines lose limbs. I hate that, hate seeing my guys get hit but we’re dishing out more than the bad guys can take so the kinetics will die down. What I want for my Marines is a reasonable time horizon for reconstruction projects so they can see the fruits of their sacrifice. I can do the paperwork for 40 or 50 projects which I know will create the value chain needed to beat the poppy and there is no chance that me or my Marines will see any of it done, or even started, even if they get approved and “fast tracked.” My guys are patrolling three times a day, eating Mr. E’s or local chow, they sleep on the deck in the dirt and I want them to see why they are doing this. We like the Afghans; every one of them we talk to asks for two things: all weather roads and schools for their kids. They know they are doomed to a lifetime of hard labor with no chance at upward mobility because they are illiterate, so they want a better life for their children. My Marines who are out there living in the dirt and heat and filth with them want the same thing. But I can’t build schools with my CERP funds, nor can I hire teachers with my CERP funds and working through the regional contracting command to program money for those things is like pulling a diamond out of a goat’s ass. It is just doesn’t happen.”

I wanted to talk war but the warrior wanted to talk value added chains and time horizons. “We’ll talk about that later in detail with the staff, I have a treat for you, lets go see Mac.”

Mike McNamara is one those characters with a story so improbable that you would think he was a creation of Hollywood. In the golden days of Hollywood Mike McNamara, a.k.a Mac would have made a worthy character in any war flick. I had not seen Mac since 1994 and had no idea he was deployed here with Dave.

Mactalk on KNOX News Talk 1310. in Grand Forks North Dakota

Major Mike McNamara, USMCR, left active duty in the late 90’s, moving his family to North Dakota where he has a regular job, coaches the high school baseball team (his Dad managed the Boston Red Socks) serves on the city council and has his own radio show. Mactalk has got to be among the most entertaining radio shows in the nation. Mac is one of the smartest, funniest people I have ever met. That’s saying something too – Jeff Kenny is so funny that The Bot couldn’t eat chow around him. Jeff would come up with totally bizarre observations that were so funny Shem would have soda coming out of his nose or start choking on his food he was laughing so hard.  Mike doesn’t drill with the reserves and only puts on the uniform on when his friends ask him to come run their Combat Operations Center (COC) when they go to war. This is the third time he has been called and it is also the third time a general officer has had to tell the manpower weenies at HQMC to shut up, activate McNamara and send him overseas without delay. Mike will never be promoted past the rank of Major and couldn’t care less – when his buddies call he drops what he’s doing and comes overseas for a year at a time.  Every time.

Mike was set up in the COC like a grand pasha with several computer screens and a few log books arrayed in a semi circle in front of him. He was in the process of planting some guys into the ground who had been foolish enough to start sniping at a Marine patrol. We watched the feed from a Reaper which was loitering about 2o,ooo feet above the doomed Taliban – it was invisible, inaudible, and alert.  The Reaper was hanging Hellfires on its weapon pylons and as we watched it sent one screaming towards four villains when they huddled together next to a wall out of sight of the Marines they had just attacked.

The Hellfire is a supersonic missile but when it makes its final course correction just prior to hitting target it slows to subsonic speed. The sonic boom gets ahead of it so that the targets hear it about 1.5 seconds before it strikes.  Sure enough three of the four look up startled while the fourth immediately started running like he’s in the Olympic finals of the 100 meter sprint.  The three Lookie Lous’ disappear – the sprinter starts to stagger clearly wounded. Within the hour he would be joining us at Camp Dwyer where he received  state of the art medical care and will be kept in the base hospital until well enough to be turned over to the Afghan Army.

The Hellfire is pinpoint accurate with a limited ECR (effective casualty radius).  Designed to kill enemy armor the military has discovered it is the perfect weapon to shoot at human targets because they can take out guys leaning against a wall without any damage to the wall or people standing just a few feet away.

Nobody is safe from catching a ration of good humored ribbing when The Coach is in the room.
Nobody is safe from catching a ration of crap when Mac is in the room.

The morning news feed contained this story: yet another front line dispatch about restrictive rules of engagement. Which was most timely because I asked Mac about that yesterday and I give him the last word.

“This is “smart guy” war dummies get people killed here just like they did in al Anbar Province (Iraq).  The current ROE emphasizes the preservation of civilian life except in extreme cases which is fundamental to winning the civilian population and also fundamental to “winning the peace.” Anybody who doesn’t understand this is either stupid or inexperienced in this business. When our Marines are in contact near structures or civilians and ask us for supporting fires we ask  “are you unable to maneuver?” Answer: “…wait one… then you get “…we’re good, we can still maneuver…”

Even though it’s harder you restrain your firepower allowing the ground force to work the problem while we get attack helicopters, or jets or drones into a position to use precision weapons. The goal is how to keep the pressure on miscreants until you can whack them. This is smart guy war from squad to RCT (Regimental Combat Team) level.

We also use our air assets to do “show of force” runs in order to suppress accurate small arms fire and that works too. There are creative non-kinetic things you can do before you have to drop the hammer. Our Marines are great at exercising restraint; it’s amazing to me to see them do it every day.

My take on those who bitch is that they haven’t studied the ROE close enough to learn the “in’s and out’s”. We run rotatory and fixed wing CAS (close air support) multiple times every day. We understand killing civilians sets the effort back in a huge way… especially when we are beginning to see so many positive signs in the AO. BUT, we know we can protect our Marines and we do. Smart guy war is harder, it demands more from both the Marines in contact and my guys who are just itching to unload ordnance on the bad guys.

I’ll tell you what’s tough and that’s the days after we have had our own killed or badly wounded. Those days are the most challenging in terms of restraint. When we’re evaluating targets on those days you can feel the vibe in the room is different. That’s when the adults have to show up and keep things solid. It’s not easy and it’s not fun but that’s what we’re paid to do; be the adults.”

The Going Is Getting Tough

The ongoing saga about banning security contractors in Afghanistan continues while the need for them grows to the point that  CNN has gotten a clue. Many big reconstruction projects are grinding to a halt and let me tell you something – the local people are sick and tired of this. We have been at the reconstruction business going on ten years now yet our impact on the lives of the average Afghan has been minimal. In Kabul there is a rising epidemic of Cutaneous leishmanisis which has stuck some 65,000 people, mostly woman and children. Do you know how simple it is to stop the an epidemic of leishmanisis? Start a cash for work program to build concrete floors in every dwelling in the city including all the squatter huts in the hills – it is that simple. We could stop this problem cold for what is essentially chump change in reconstruction dollars.

Yet simple solutions to complex problems elude us; we focus instead on “good governance” or the “Afghanistan water table project” or a dozen other programs which suck up hundreds of millions of dollars while doing not one damn thing for the Afghan people. The Afghan government continues to fail at providing basic services while excelling at hounding outside the wire contractors. Visa’s for internationals working in-country remain impossible to obtain so more and more of us who work outside the FOB’s are heading home. Yet ISAF continues to support the elimination of private security contractors as noted below. I extracted the quote from some article I forgot to bookmark and am too irritated to look for at the moment.

Karzai has said repeatedly in recent months that the companies undermine government security forces, creating a parallel security structure. His desire to ban the private security groups seems to reflect the thinking of the former top American commander in Afghanistan.

Before he was replaced earlier this year for making disparaging comments about the Obama administration, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said “the coalition in Afghanistan has become too dependent on private contractors.”

There is no doubt that the military is too dependent on private contractors – the FOB’s are full of them 98% of whom are not in the security industry. Those of us who are outside the wire  doing the heavy lifting in the reconstruction piece need to be able to protect ourselves. The Afghan security forces are not remotely capable of doing the job and the sad fact is that the only international military force we can count on to come to our aid when attacked are the Americans.

For those of you who think I am exaggerating read this article closely.  If you are a German citizen you may want to skip it because it’s about the response to the Taliban attack on the USAID Implementation partner DAI in Kunduz earlier this year by the German military. As a retired military officer I have studied the innovation and professionalism of the German military during the First and Second World Wars all my adult life. It gives me no pleasure to highlight this story of indifference from a military which was once the best the world had ever seen.

Ghost Team continues exceeding expectations and getting massive numbers of local workers out on the job. Being successful where everyone else is failing is not endearing us to many with the notable exceptions of the military and the Afhgan people
Some people are still able to put massive numbers of local people to work on large reconstruction projects using manual labor. Reconstruction experts can argue the effectiveness of cash for work in   the context of counterinsurgency warfare all they want. We don’t care – we’re doing what we were contracted to do but it is getting much harder for us maneuver around in the contested districts.

Given the train wreck that is Afghanistan at the moment, Nic Lee, who heads the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) has recommended that NGO’s deal with the Taliban to facilitate their projects. That is not as ridiculous as it probably sounds to FRI readers because he is talking about NGO’s not implementation firms.

Nic sees the NGOs (unarmed, non-profits) as neutral and believes that if the Taliban also see them as non-participants in the war they’ll leave them alone. This has been generally true in the east for years. In the South not so much and in the North and West the problem for NGO’s and other internationals has been criminal groups not Taliban.  It’s to the Taliban’s advantage to allow medical clinics and farm projects to run without interference so they can show the locals that good stuff happens when they’re in charge. There’s no upside to harming NGOs and the Taliban senior leaders know it. Criminals and junior Taliban who didn’t get the memo and are another matter.

The problem for NGOs ( Lee does not consider DAI, Chemonics and the other USAID implementing partners including us as to be true NGO’s) is in areas where control is contested and their locals are at risk from kidnappings and IEDs strikes because they are working for infidel invaders. Infidel neutral non-participants bearing gifts are still infidels and there are many areas in this country where they (and their Afghan employees who bear the risk) should not (and mostly do not) go. NGO’s operating deep in contested districts are probably dealing with the Taliban anyway. For many tribes the Taliban flag is a flag of convenience and NGO’s embedded inside Afghan districts know that better than we do. I’m not sure why Nic published advice that is already understood by the target audience but sure to raise eyebrows with the international press. I don’t know him that well but don’t think he’s a publicity seeker so I’m not sure what this is all about.

The bigger problem for NGO’s and the rest of us is Nic’s advice is flat out wrong. The security situation for foreigners living outside the wire changed radically for the worst on August 6th, 2010 with the murder of a eight person medical team who had just conducted eye clinics in the remote Nuristan Province. Dan Terry and Tom Little spent over 30 years living in Afghanistan while bringing modern medical treatment to thousands of Afghans. Despite their decades of experience and close relationships with the tribes of the area  they were gunned down  in what has been describes as the “the worst crime targeting the humanitarian community that has ever taken place in Afghanistan.”

The security situation has degraded too far too fast for NGO’s to operate safely in most of Afghanistan. Ghost Team is now the only viable option for outside the wire reconstruction but that won’t happen because we’re not popular with the USAID preferred contractors or USAID. We carry guns and send in pictures from projects in places nobody else has or would ever go. We never miss a deadline…..want to be popular with bureaucrats? Do not succeed where all others have failed.

Contractors have gotten a bad rap in the press and with the FOB bound portion of our military establishment. Troops at the pointed end of the spear where we do our projects love us and go out of their way to protect and take care of us. But on the big box FOB’s we are not allowed weapons, cameras, laptops, or cell phones.  On every FOB there is an Afghan bazaar plus several military exchanges that sell knives, swords, antique guns, cell phones, computers, cameras, etc… proving again that stupidity never takes a holiday. By contract with the United States Government we are required to have cell phones, cameras and laptops in order to submit detailed reports to USAID program managers living on military bases. But look at what we are not allowed on those bases.

Flying into the main base in order to catch military flights into the cotested districts where we have projects is now very problematic. Not all contractors live on the FOB and those of us who don't need weapons, cameras, and laptops to do our job. Being on the big box FOB's is most depressing - drive over 24 kph while failing to wear a seat belt and you'll find out why. Most of our old beaters have no seat belts or working odometers which makes us "antisocial" in the eyes of MP's from our allies
Flying into a big box FOB in order to catch military flights into the contested districts where we have projects is now problematic. Not all contractors live on the FOB and those of us who don’t need weapons, cameras, and laptops to do our jobs. Being on the big box FOB’s is most depressing – drive over 24 kph or fail to wear a seat belt and you’ll get pulled over by MP’s. Most of our old beaters have no seat belts or working odometers … this place is crazy

The few contractors who remain outside the wire need protection from the Taliban, from criminals, from the Afghan government and the rear echelon military establishment.  It’s getting damn lonely for us these days and there is no excuse for harassing the few good men who are out in harms way getting projects done on time and on budget.

What A Mess

I’m not referring to the controversy surrounding the attempted rescue of Linda Norgrove which is currently consuming the news cycle. My experience is that Special Operations folks do not attempt rescue operations without solid intelligence and a well rehearsed plan. I don’t know what happened in Kunar Province last weekend and therefore have no comment. What I do have plenty to comment on is the rash of articles which came out Friday morning about security contractors guarding American bases.  This is the opening from ABC news:

A scathing Senate report says US contractors in Afghanistan have hired warlords, “thugs,” Taliban commanders and even Iranian spies to provide security at vulnerable US military outposts in Afghanistan. The report, published by the Senate Armed Services Committee, says lax oversight and “systemic failures” have led to “grave risks’ to US forces, including instances where contractors have employed Afghan subcontractors who were “linked to murder, kidnapping and bribery, as well as Taliban and anti-coalition activities.” The chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin, D.-Michigan, said the report was evidence that the US needs to reduce its reliance on contractors.

On the small Combat Outposts (COP’s) these guard forces man the outer perimeter only and have to provide their own life support (food and shelter) and they do not go inside the wire of the Army unit they are guarding. They don’t know any more about what is happening inside the FOB’s they guard then any other Afghan living in the vicinity. Local nationals working inside the wire doing menial tasks like emptying port-a-johns, collecting and burning trash, or washing dishes would know a lot more and pose a greater intelligence risk than the exterior guard force. On the large FOB’s the guard forces have barracks inside the post but are a small percentage of the Afghan local national work force and again, limited as to where they are allowed to go. So how is it just the security guards are the ones putting our troops at risk?

I wrote bids for several of these contracts and know they require a minimum of 80% of the guards to come from the local area. When you have remote outposts and need so many armed men who do you think is going to provide them? Now Washington is shocked, shocked that we were paying warlords and other various undesirables for guard forces. When I bid on these contracts our local manpower was coordinated through the district sub governor (which I  recall was another requirement) and not all sub governors are created equal. I’m not sure why the big surprise that some of the people who are benefiting from the fire hose of dollars flowing into Afghanistan are undesirables. I’m also not to sure about the definition of “undesirables” given the number of former warlords connected to the central government. Seems to me we don’t know enough about the Afghan culture to start labeling some war lords undesirables and others patriots.

Sounds like politics and looks like piling on by by the Senate Armed Services Committee who are now supporting President Karzai as he continues his program to dismantle private security companies. It’s nice to finally see some support for President Karzai from the DC crowd even if they are supporting a policy un-tethered from reality.  Accepting the fact that President Karzai is not going away would be the best contribution our elected members can make now.

Jalalabad City continues to grow as more families come in from the outer districts to escape Taliban intimidation

Shutting down the security companies makes little sense. Earlier in the month it was reported that the Afghans had shut down several companies to include Xe (Blackwater), Four Horsemen, and White Eagle. This is not true; all four remain open for business and they, like Karzai, are not going anywhere. Those companies don’t need to pay the Afghan government for a business license because they are working directly for the military, Department of State and other international government agencies and are exempt from paying Afghan taxes. The Afghan government is making it hard for internationals working for security companies outside the wire only. They have stopped issuing visa’s so many contractors remain here on expired ones. The companies with government contracts come into the country on contractor run flight that land in Bagram and by pass Afghan immigration so they do not need visas.  Afghanistan isn’t like the United States with foreigners who overstay their visa. In Afghanistan that is a one strike offense that could land you in prison.

Kabul is in turmoil, the North is going right down the tubes; years ago it was easy to operate in most of the country without armored vehicles and international mobile security teams but not anymore. While this is playing out there is a growing sense that the military side of the operation is starting go well.  ISAF has, for the first time, apparently locked down the Arghandab and Panjwai districts around Kandahar City. The Helmand Province is getting quieter week in and week out and the American Army in Nangarhar Province has moved a battalion of paratroopers into the southern triangle to deal with Taliban and their Pakistani cousins who have been operating openly down there all summer. This force projection off the FOB’s is a welcomed change but all the clearing currently being done needs a hold and build effort behind it and that capability is not resident within the Kabul government.

Provincial capitols in the south are not so busy or crowded
Lashkar Gah the capitol of Helmand Province. Provincial capitols in the south are not as busy or crowded as they are in the rest of the country

The situation on the ground is rapidly changing which makes it the perfect time for me to shift to another part of the country where I’m not so well known.  I have moved south and will be joining Ghost Team again for another year of adventure. This year I’m not going to be so candid about where I live or the location of our projects. The days when we could roam about the countryside at will and have my kids visit for months at a time to work with local kids at the Fab Lab – those days are over.

The military seems to be doing what it set out to do. It is too early to know how successful they will be but if they can drive the Taliban out of Kandahar and the surrounding districts they will need help with the build portion. Ghost Team will do our part but we are not miracle workers. We’ll give it our best until the window closes on outside the wire operations for good.

Meet a Couple of Heroes

Hero is one of those terms which comes up often in reporting about the military. Not every service member is a hero nor is every hero we encounter in our lives associated with the military. I point this out because the label “hero” is at risk of becoming a meaningless cliche as we approach the first decade of what will be a very long war. But I have a couple of hero’s I’d like to introduce as an innovative way to talk about the fog of war as well as the price being paid by the people fighting this conflict on our behalf.

Over a year ago my Dad told me one of my former students from the Infantry Officer Course was at the Tampa VA hospital recovering from a severe gunshot wound.  LtCol Ty Edwards was the senior Embedded Training Team leader, mentoring the Afghan Army’s 2/2 Kandak.  He and his command group were  traveling with an American Army re-supply mission out of FOB Bostick in October 2008 up in the Nuristan Province. The following narrative was provided to Leatherneck Magazine three days after the incident by 1stLt Sean McQuiston and is extracted from an article that can be found here.

“I heard RPG fire ahead of me, but I couldn’t see any bad guys. But I saw the Army humvees ahead of me firing on a hill about 300 meters off to my 2 o’clock, so I swung my turret over and shot maybe 50 rounds in support.

“The Army humvees then drove off, which is their TTP (tactics, techniques and procedures), while the ANA dismounted from their trucks and hugged a berm to the right of us. The ANA vehicles are unarmored; you can’t fight from them.  Lieutenant Colonel Edwards jumped out and went forward  to work with the ANA. I’m still up in the turret, putting out rounds. There’s machine-gun fire coming in on us, but it’s not heavy. But suddenly it increased, and I got hit in the left arm.”

And here is where we enter into the fog of war.  The fire increased on the Marines and their ANA unit because the Army had left the kill zone. That is what they are trained to do and it’s a sound tactical move. All armored vehicles are vulnerable to fire plunging down onto the top of them; sticking around in a kill zone can be risky. The Army unit leading the convoy were not responsible for the ANA vehicles; their job was to move supplies through an area where contact with the enemy was a frequent occurrence. They reacted the way they always react and clearly would not have kept going with their mission if they had known what was unfolding behind them.  LtCol Edwards reacted the way he had been trained to do too. He went forward into the fire to lead the troops he had been sent to mentor because that is what infantry leaders do. With the fire now concentrated on him and his crew he did not make it far and went down when he was hit in the head. Ty was out of the fight, exposed in the open and helpless as a baby; he would not wake up until weeks later. There is no fault to be assessed, no blame to be apportioned there is just the fog of war which will never be lifted from the face of battle no matter how much technology we field.

His interpreter, who will soon be immigrating to the United States, was the first to reach him and apparently shielded Ty as Lt McQuiston rallied the ANA to put out suppressive fire so the senior corpsman could work his way to him. The Army QRF (Quick Reaction Force) from Bostick arrived behind a curtain of heavy weapons fire to grabbed the wounded and they rapidly got Ty into the medical evacuation system. Lots of heroic men and women did heroic things to keep Ty alive and allow him a chance to recover. Everyday Quick Reaction Forces (QRF’s) thunder off the FOB’s into harms way all demonstrating the fortitude and bravery that should make us all proud.  It comes with the job and is, in some respects, easy to do when you are part of a tight infantry unit.

And for men who thunder off FOB’s into harms way without hesitation or fear know that the heaviest weight they could ever be asked to carry is to sustain the virtues of a great infantry leader for a lifetime when fate deals you a bad hand.

Meet LtCol Ty Edwards, USMC and my father MajGen J.D. Lynch Jr, USMC (Ret)
LtCol Ty Edwards USMC and my father MajGen J.D. Lynch Jr, USMC (Ret)

Those of us who know Ty and understand his background expected him to run into the fire to rally men under his charge (regardless of their nationality).  That is not terribly impressive to us. What is impressive is to see him now. Ty got hit, he lost the use of the right side his body, his speech is impaired but his mind is sharp and the left side of his body gets stronger as week in and week out he exceeds the goals established by his physical therapist.  He will walk again, of that I’m certain but it is going to take years of blood sweat and tears to get there. Ty is on a mission. He has children to raise and a wife to emotionally support so he has to demonstrate by personal example, every day, how a good man overcomes hardship, how a winner never quits, and why it is important to live like a Marine regardless of severe physical limitations imposed in the prime of life.

I was trading emails with an old friend who had been the battalion surgeon for  1st Battalion 8th Marines back in the early 90’s when I was the operations officer.  My buddy Barney is a big lib which was great because we were a hard deploying unit and there is nothing better than having a smart guy like Barney around who would argue with me for hours about politics and modern culture. He was a great advocate for his side despite being wrong 100% of the time in my humble estimation.  Even better (and what can be better than having your own lib to argue with) he could suck up bad weather and long hikes while maintaining a sense of humor which made him an especially valuable medical officer. When our conversation turned to friends in harms way I told him about Ty and also that my Dad visits Ty every week when he goes in for physical therapy. Barney wrote back the following:

My observation is that with time dedication to tragedy fades among  most—except those directly touched (9/11 comparison here in NY).

That comment by Barney got me to thinking about my Dad and how happy I was that he makes this weekly visit with Ty.  Much as Ty reacted by instinct that fateful October day two years ago my Dad too responded by instinct when notified via the retired Marine chain that there was a fallen infantry officer who would benefit greatly from a visit.  The reason this makes me happy is that I love my Dad and I know as we talk over how Ty is doing during our not frequent enough phone calls that my Dad is benefiting from this relationship as much if not more than Ty is.  Like Ty my Dad lives by a code which is easy to understand but very hard to follow.  Staying true; demonstrating strength in the face of adversity, endurance when faced with unending commitments; living by the code without complaint or hesitation…it is a beautiful thing to witness.

Ty Edwards and family with Gen Amos - the assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps
Ty Edwards and family with Gen Amos – the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps

I’m sorry my former student and brother Devil Dog was shot but I don’t feel sorry for him.  I feel awe at how well he faces this trail without complaint, struggling every day to set the example for his children, his wife and his fellow Marines.  He is taking on an increasingly heavier load of reading and correspondence which will eventually lead him back into gainful employment.  He will walk again.

Many of us in the profession of arms are asked to step into the hero’s role for a brief period of time, its part of the job.  Very few of us are asked to take that mantle permanently and all of us are afraid that when called in such manner we will be found wanting.  Ty has been called, he has not been found wanting and like a true hero is contributing positive karma to the people in his life.  One of them is my Dad and for that I am truly grateful.