Neutral Intermediaries

The efforts of the international community to bring aid to Afghanistan, help develop the infrastructure with the goal of allowing Afghanistan a chance at self sufficiency are failing dismally.  That should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the international aid racket.  The international community has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the years in Africa without one iota of success. They are enriching vile, oppressive dictators while sentencing the average African to a life of misery, poverty and squalor. Most people in most places at most times have lived under the yoke of tyranny which seems, with the exception of the western world, to be the natural order of things. One need not be a historical scholar to understand what is self evident – just look at Zimbabwe, Haiti, Mexico or Illinois to see the heavy hand of tyranny stealing from the people to enrich powerful elites.

Is the average citizen of the African continent better off now that colonialism is dead? I doubt it and in fact have personally talked to hundreds of Africans who will tell you without much prodding that life in their country was much better during the days of European colonialism. Aid programs do not work unless the people delivering the aid are in the same boat as the recipients. If the countries who provide aid are not willing to send their aid workers into the recipient country and leave them there then it is much more humane for all involved to do nothing, to spend not one penny, to leave people to their own devices to fend for themselves and figure out how to join modernity on their own terms.  Throwing billions into countries ruled by tyrants does nothing but increase human misery and mayhem; conditions which I’m firmly against as a matter of principle.

Before landing to pick me up in Zaranj our pilots have to sweep the runway to clear out the feral dogs. They do this by flying down the runway at full power – at the end of the field they reduce power and climb while turning right until they almost stall then they drop the left wing, kick out the landing gear and set down on the runway. It is a super cool move which happens fast and is scary to the uninitiated. There are few things in life which are more fun then being flown around by African bush pilots

The Aid business is now a deadly business according to the New York Times in a long detailed story about NGO’s  located right down the street from us. The Times, like all media except the Toronto Star, ignores our operational success and implementation savvy because it runs counter to their narrative. You would think our success at accomplishing all projects on time and on budget in the most kinetic provinces would garner some attention in the US media but it hasn’t. The only reporter to recognize what we were accomplishing and write about it was the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter who wrote about my buddy Panjwaii Tim and his Kandahar operation.

From the linked New York Times article:

Among the contracted aid groups working for coalition government programs, which nearly always employ armed guards and work in fortified compounds or from military bases, the body count has been particularly severe. Eighty aid contractors employed by the United States Agency for International Development were killed and 220 wounded from January through early November of this year. (In the same period, 410 American soldiers and  Marines died.)

The aid contractors were attacked on average 55 times a month  a seven-fold increase over 2009, Mr. Gast said. By contrast, 20 people employed by charitable and humanitarian groups, which refuse to use armed guards or work with the military, were killed during the first nine months of this year.

The article goes on to point out that Doctors Without Borders has a compound in Lashkar Gah which has never been attacked unlike the heavily fortified IRD compound which is right down the street.  That’s a good point, sort of, as I too think the heavily fortified compounds are a waste of money and invite attack from armed actors of various stripes. I live right behind the Doctors Without Borders compound and our compound is more modest and inconspicuous. Unlike our Doctor neighbors every expat bedroom is a mini armory/ammunition supply point. We don’t have wire lacing the top of our walls but we have plenty on our side of the wall out of view of the public. I pity the fool who jumps into our compound because he’s landing on top of triple strand concertina which will slow him long enough for the dogs to get into action.

Here is what really irritates me about the New York Times piece:

Mr. Watson agrees that the lines are often blurred. It makes it difficult for us in the humanitarian community to demonstrate to those on the other side of the conflict that we strive to be neutral intermediaries, he said.

The only “neutral intermediaries” Afghanistan has seen in modern times was the medical team headed by Dan Terry and Tom Little who accounted for 10 of the 20 humanitarian group members that were killed this year.  Unlike Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders and all the armed knuckleheads like me running around the country, Tom and Dan lived here, were fluent in local languages, were never armed, and were seen by all sides as being neutral. Yet they were gunned down in cold blood by Islamic insurgents affiliated with the Taliban. The Taliban once believed in in neutral intermediaries which is why Tom Little and Dan Terry lived and worked in Afghanistan during the Taliban reign. Now the Taliban clearly do not respect neutral intermediaries which was proven beyond a doubt to myself and the other expats Free Ranging beyond the wire by the murder of Tom Little and Dan Terry.

The Governor of Nimroz Province Abdul Karim Brahui, my super Provincial Manager Bashir and I opening up the Kang district canal which will bring irrigation to the district for the first time in 40 years. Will projects like this help?  I think they might but don’t really know.  What I care about is that we do what we say we are going to do without wasting millions of donor dollars to do it. The international NGO community seems to specialize in administering  ineffective aid at the margins. They want to be perceived by all sides as “neutral intermediaries” which makes motivates their international staff while giving them a false sense of security. But they do not have the staying power or religious based motivation that sustained Dan Terry and his wife for 30 years and thus the results they produce are as transitory as they are.

If the true neutral intermediaries are no longer safe in Afghanistan then the only way “aid” is going to be accomplished is by aid workers who can protect themselves. Which is what we do but what nobody else (in the aid game) wants to do (because hiring former military guys to deliver aid is like giving fish bicycles or something) despite the fact it is the only way to get things done.

Qala Fath is an old abandoned fortress city which sits on top of a huge aquifer of drinking water out in the middle of the Nimroz desert. As is typical none of the locals seem to know anything regarding it origins or age. It is a safe guess it was one of the many fortress cities which sprung up along the Silk Road. I wanted to explore the ruins but the local police insisted there were mines around them. I asked who put them there and they said the Godless Soviets. I replied there was no way the Sov’s were operating this close to the Iranian border so then the blame shifted to the Taliban. I think the real problem was it was too close to evening and any delay would have left us in the bad lands when darkness fell. Not that the Taliban are known to be effective night fighters mind you. I’ll be back someday soon to look around this place.

The ineptitude of our Taliban advisories is one reason why the military portion of the surge is working so well.  Another reason is that we have (under the radar) eased up the restrictions on the use of firepower. As I mentioned in past posts the Marines down south have no problems with the ROE and they shoot HIMARS and run tac air daily.  Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room has blogged on the HIMAR  but unlike his observations it seemed to me that shooting  HIMARS was easier for the Marines then working in Tac Air.  Regardless it is clear that the military has turned a corner and is prevailing on the southern field of battle.  For a retired infantry guy like me it is great to see but it is also irrelevant.

The reason our current military success is meaningless is because our other governmental agencies insist on working through the government in Kabul despite a decade of experience proving the central government is not going to function like a western government. The other problem that every senior decision maker involved with this endeavor also knows is that the people of Afghanistan will not accept a government installed and maintained by infidels as legitimate. It’s one of those inconvenient truths that is not talked about in polite company.

Under promise and over deliver – explaining to the Governor Abdul Karim Brahui that we can’t control the way USAID awards projects.  The  Governor is a good, honest, brave man and an effective advocate for the people of Nimroz province who can’t understand why the Marines can spend 50K in fuel and flight hours to visit him but not find the cash to give him a working budget the fix the problems the Marines come to visit him about. 

It occurs to me that a rational approach towards Afghanistan would mandate we spend more time and effort bolstering leaders like Governor Abdul Karim Brahui  while simultaneously ignoring and marginalizing the central government in Kabul.  That is the only way (as I see it) that we can compliment the military success we are seeing in the South.  But the big boys in the aid racket don’t want effective solutions; they want giant multi-million dollar contracts and despite a 10-year history of failure they will get them. Those fools will continue pissing away a kings fortune daily while accomplishing little. That is not right, it is not fair, it pisses me off but I’ll you this; it is the truth.

Afghanistan’s Forgotten Province

There are a couple of recent articles in the flood of coverage about Afghanistan which caught my eye last week.  The first is factually wrong but I understand what the author was saying and he is, in a sense correct.  The second is factually correct, I understand what that reporter was saying too and think he is, in a sense wrong.  By analyzing both one can get a read on where we are in our battle to bring security to the population in the context of nation building.

The first article is Afghanistan’s Forgotten Province by Karlos Zurutuza which is about Nimroz Province.  From the article:

‘You’re right, no troops based there,’ he says. And I’m realizing now that there’s not a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in the area, either.’ I ask him why none are stationed there, but he doesn’t have an answer. Neither do the experts.

Nimroz is a major smuggling hub in Afghanistan: heroin goes out and weapons get in across the Afghan-Iranian border,’ says best-selling writer and renowned Afghanistan commentator Ahmed Rashid. He says he has no explanation for the military abandonment’ of this remote, but potentially key, southern province.

Nimroz Province has two major municipal centers; the capitol of Zaranj which is on the border with Iran and Delaram which is astride Rte 1 bordering Helmand Province.  There are no ISAF forces in Zaranj but there is the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team in Delaram.  There are over 10,000 ISAF troops in the Province and if you google “Nimroz Province” you’ll see several articles about the Marines fighting there.  So the article is wrong but the point the author is trying to make which is Nimroz has not received anything like the redevelopment love being dumped into other key provinces is correct.  Was correct is more accurate because Nimroz is about to feel the love.

These opium farmers were telling us they would stop growing the poppy if there were good roads and markets. This was their reaction when asked what came first the chicken or the egg. I think they have heard that one before.
These opium farmers were telling us they would stop growing the poppy if there were good roads and markets. This was their reaction when asked what came first the chicken or the egg?  I think they have heard that one before – they sure thought it was funny.

This War was published by self described “person of liberal temperament”  James Traub who takes the reader on a lengthly yet concise review of American force projection overseas to explain why he thinks Afghanistan “…feels like, increasingly, is Vietnam, especially to people who formed their views of American military power, and indeed of America itself, in opposition to the Vietnam War.”  He is unable to make his case because we just do not know what the end game will look like.  Along the way he reports from the front of the Khandahar battle a few things I find very interesting.

By the time I arrived, Arghandab had become safe enough for the district governor, Hajji Abdul Jabbar, to report to work every day at the district center inside the base. Abdul Jabbar was just about the whole of government in the district, since the few officials sent from ministries in Kabul tended either not to show up or not to work when they did. Every morning, Abdul Jabbar held an audience for petitioners, listening to their grievances and stamping their tattered papers. Once a week, he met with the district  shura, a group of village elders and farmers. The meeting I attended featured a lot of shouting and accusation, much of it by Abdul Jabbar. It seemed pretty formless, but Kevin Melton, a very tall and very young official from USAID, leaned over to me and said, They’re talking about security. Normally it’s ISAF doing the talking. They’re pointing fingers at each other; that’s progress.

I felt like I was watching a political-science experiment: forging a social contract in a state of nature. Melton believed that what mattered was not so much building roads or schools as overcoming the legacy of distrust, the habit of seeking violent solutions to all problems. He saw his job as helping give local citizens a voice in decisions, so that ultimately they could take responsibility for themselves rather than simply accepting assistance. And he felt that his efforts were working. Thanks to small-team units living out in the district and to constant patrolling among the villages a crucial element of COIN strategy the Taliban presence had dropped significantly. If things continue as they have for the last four months, Melton quoted Hajji Mohammad, the  shura leader, as saying, this next year could reverse the last seven.

The presence of a USAID Field Service Officer (FSO) is due to the civilian component of the surge and they are showing up in just every key district in the South.  The second bit of information in the quote is that the American army has dispersed it’s maneuver battalions in the same manner the Marines have done in the Helmand.  They are off the FOB’s and in the ville with the people which means Gen Petraeus may in fact be the most effective General Officer of his generation.  The General sits on top of a massive military bureaucracy fighting a nasty insurgency with a coalition combat force and a dysfunctional host government. Despite this he has been able to turn his intent of getting off the FOB’s into action which is something his predecessors were unable or unwilling to do.

If you re going to secure the population you need to live with the population. This is how you clear and hold Taliban controlled areas but at some point the grunts have to move on
If you re going to secure the population you need to live with the population. This is how you clear and hold Taliban controlled areas but at some point the grunts have to move on

As I said above Nimroz Province is about to feel the love as the Marines and their USG surge counterparts start to focus on a Province which has been quiet yet remains  important due to the border crossing with Iran. The Province has a new Governor, Abdul Karim Barahawi who is an elder in the Barahawi  Baloch tribe and a respected, reportedly effective, commander who fought both the Soviets and the Taliban. He is a serious, competent man who wants to do right by the people of his province. Nimroz is a place which has plenty of Taliban but pretty good security. The roads are not safe at night for expats or Afghans who work for the government but commerce seems to flow without too much shrinkage. The Taliban in Nimroz seem to be mostly locals and focused on protecting and running the logistical pipeline from Iran into the Helmand Province.

The Americans face a tough choice in Nimroz. It is calm enough and the threat diffuse enough that there is no geographic or human terrain at which one can aim a kinetic operation. There is little to clear but it is not safe enough to hold. The Marines understand the best way to accomplish the “Hold” part of the mission is not with combat troops.  They want to weaponize money and use that to conduct the build but due to self imposed force protection measures they cannot get out and about in Nimroz or any other quiet, permissive area of the country.

Riding in a B6 armored SUV provides exactly the same level of security as a TSA groping. The villains here shoot armor piercing rounds and tend to open ambushes with RPG's or IED's large enough to flip an MRAP. Armored SUV's provide no protection against Taliban weapons, they stand out in normal traffic making them easy to ID and are sealed which prevents the use of weapons unless outside the vehicle
Riding in a B6 armored SUV provides exactly the same level of security as a TSA groping. The villains here shoot armor piercing rounds and tend to open ambushes with RPG’s or IED’s large enough to flip an MRAP. Armored SUV’s provide no protection against Taliban weapons, they stand out in normal traffic making them easy to ID and are sealed which prevents the use of weapons unless outside the vehicle.  The give the illusion of safety while in reality increasing the risk for those who use them.

We are spending billions of dollars to accomplish a mission we can’t do because of artificial constraints that do not reflect reality on the ground. Yet lightly armed experienced international stability operators can work all anywhere in the province when they work with local shura’s, village elders and district government officials.  I know this from personal experience.

Let me provide a hypothetical example to illustrate the point of how artificially high the overhead is for your typical US Government (USG) employee trying to do reconstruction. In this example the USG employee concerned with good governance and assigned to a PRT to mentor  provincial authorities.

This is a great way to drive down total costs for reconstruction because the alternative for off base movement is four MRAPS and 16 riflemen (minimum) according to standing ISAF orders
This is one way to drive down total costs for reconstruction because the alternative for off base movement is four MRAPS and 16 riflemen (minimum) according to standing ISAF orders.  With a fleet of B6 armored vehicles we can get USG officials to meetings for the extra low cost of $203,750 per trip.

To make this a best case scenario allow me to further stipulate that USG employees are allowed to move off post for official meetings with just two vehicles and four armed protection specialists and that he is able to get off base once a week or about 40 times in a 12 month deployment.  Here’s the stubby pencil math:

Cost of vehicles (including import fee’s and ECM equipment) 450k each

Cost of security operatives (including R&R rotations, mobilization training, insurance, admin fees etc…) 550k each

Cost of housing both operatives and USG official on a FOB 1 million each

Total cost divided by 40 trips =  $203,750.00 per trip most of which are less than 3 miles total.  I cost less than half that per year and don’t need or want the security specialists.

I have often argued contractors are the only efficient tool we have but let’s face it – that doesn’t look like it is going to happen.  Creating yet another USG agency with a mandate to operate closer to the contractor model won’t work.  Once a US Government Agency comes is created it is impossible to un-create and will grow exponentially regardless of performance.

This is where having unlimited amounts of other peoples money (OPM) really hurts.  I know most of the USAID FSO’s in the Helmand and I deal with the American military on a daily basis. The FSO’s at the district level are smart, competent and just as dedicated to the mission as the Marines they are living with.  They are also frustrated because they know all to well the cost of being hamstrung by force protection mandates. The Marines are looking for a few good men to operate the way we are currently operating in Nimroz Province and they too are frustrated.  I have been advocating for years that armed contractors (not security contractors but project implementors) are the perfect solution. But let’s be honest that is not going to happen.

Sen John McCain in the Nawa district administrative center last month. He looks much better then he did 5 years ago when I last saw him (from a distance I do not know Sen McCain personally) and it seemed to me that the Marines enjoyed seeing Senators in an area which still sees its share of Taliban attacks
Sen John McCain in the Nawa district administrative center last month. He looks much better then he did 5 years ago when I last saw him (from a distance I do not know Sen McCain personally) and it seemed to me that the Marines enjoyed seeing Senators in an area which still sees its share of Taliban attacks

Being efficient, accomplishing the mission in a cost effective manner with minimal loss of life; all the things I was taught were important as a junior officer in the Marines turns out to be completely irrelevant to the ever expanding big government agencies. Americans have a long history of successfully fighting small wars far from home as do many of our allies. These small wars were fought on shoe string budgets by small units of Marines and sailors (and at times the American army too) who had arrived on ships are weren’t going home until the conflict was over. It is now inconceivable that the United States would send combat units into a theater of action for years on end. That is the only way a western military will ever be able to operate effectively while limiting their casualties and civilian casualties from collateral damage. I bet you could raise a battalion or two of volunteers to try a deployment like this but it is hard to imagine the USA pulling it off.

So what to do about Afghanistan’s forgotten province?  I ask one of my brother Marines what he would do were he given this problem to solve under the historical constraints normally faced by Marine commanders fighting a small war.  He replied immediately ; Q-cars, fire force and pseudo operators. Which is exactly what I would say as would all of my friends who are in the business. But there is no way the American military could even contemplate let alone run such decentralized high risk operations.

There are legitimate reasons to give Nimroz Province some attention but we don’t have to spend billions to do it.  We are going to put our money on the line to prove that. Soon Ghost Team will be heading into Nimroz Province with the intent of getting the irrigation canals up and the capitol city refurbished.  Nimroz will soon no longer be the forgotten Province.