It Takes A Clue

Nothing will sour the morale of combat troops faster then the realization that the commander at the top receives frequent visits from the Good Idea Fairy.   Which is a good start point for explaining why  General Stanley A McChrystal took to the pages of Foreign Policy last week to explain the unexplainable.  The story starts with McChrystal’s observation that the SF tier 1 guys found  al Qaeda difficult to collect, fix and target because they were so decentralized.  So McChrystal made up his  own “network” and his centralized, vertically integrated, fixed chain of command network beat the AQI with their horizontally integrated decentralized chain of command.  I’m not buying that about Iraq but the focus of the article was how this genius system was implemented in Afghanistan by the regular military and what do you know the “mo better” network has since delivered us the current spate of good news about the Taliban getting tired of fighting.

BGen Jody Osterman with the Sub Governor of Naw Zad district Sayed Murad touring the Naw Zad bazaar last week
BGen Jody Osterman with the Sub Governor of Naw Zad district Sayed Murad touring the Naw Zad bazaar last week

The article linked above and all the other recent reports stress that the rift between the Taliban fighters and their leaders who are safely ensconced in Pakistan stems from the losses being inflicted on them in the Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.  The pressure being brought to bear on the fighting Taliban has very little (if anything) to do with the nighttime high speed low drag tier 1 special forces raids designed to “decapitate” Taliban leadership.  The whole decapitation strategy is suspect as numerous observers have noted over these many years of SOF raiding and I ask again if somehow a military adversary managed to “decapitate” our leadership would we be weaker or stronger?  Wait that is a stupid example and missing the point (as B correctly observed in the first comment on this post).  The first commenter on Gen McChrystal’s article says it much better than I can:

This essay is interesting in that it describes an effort that for all its success was limited to an extremely small (and disproportionately resourced) line of operation. The author portrays this as an inclusive endeavor while it was decidedly not inclusive in many respects. My experience in working with the General’s Task Force is that it was the most difficult organization to work with in theater and it only functioned as a network if you or your organization were willing to completely subordinate yourself, your resources and your mission to his very narrow line of operation. Most of the time his line of operations, while very important, was not the primary or most important line in the country or region. In the end establishing the Iraqi government as legitimate and enabling its organs to function as designed proved to be the decisive operation

HVT raids do produce results but it seems to me that what has brought the fighting Taliban to their knees is hard fighting infantry who have moved in with the people and deprived the villains of maneuver room while killing ever increasing numbers of them using ROE completly different from the horseshit inflicted on them by McChrystal.

A great example of this would be Naw Zad which is currently home to the headquarters of Charlie Company 1st Battalion 8th Marines.  The rest of the battalion is handling Musa Quala which, like Marjah, was infested with Taliban but is now safe enough for the battalion commander to walk around the bazaar without body armor and helmet.  The Captain at Naw Zad (and he’s there on his own because he’s that good) is surrounded by Taliban.  He has an area of influence which he is constantly expanding and he does this with aggressive patrolling.  He has the clearance to shoot 60mm mortars and run rotary wing CAS guns (Cobra or Apache gunships employing their guns only; rocket or Hellfires have to be cleared) without coordinating with his battalion COC.  He has no problems at all with the current rules of engagement and has never been denied fires when he has asked for them.  He doesn’t get second guessed, he doesn’t get micro managed and his example is proof that the rules of engagement have been “re-defined” radically.  For readers who are not familiar with how badly McChrystal’s ROE hampered forces in the field read this recent post by Herschel Smith on Ganjgal.  Success in the South has nothing to do with ninja night raids and placing a good percentage of the tactical intelligence piece behind a classified curtain where only the tier 1 headhunters can use it.

I was able to spend a lot of time talking with the officers and men currently serving in Naw Zad and here is what they bitch about:  They don’t like the weight they are forced to carry and strongly feel the use of  body armor should be determined by the mission and enemy.  Wearing it in blistering heat or while climbing the massive mountains is so physically debilitating that they have felt on several occasions that they were unable to defend themselves. Many of their Marines are suffering chronic stress fractures, low back problems as well as hip problems caused by carrying loads in excess of 130 pounds daily.  “We’re fighting the Mothers of America” said one; if we lose a Marine and he was not wearing everything in the inventory to protect him that becomes the issue.  Trying to explain that we have removed the body armor to reduce the chances of being shot is a losers game because you can’t produce data quantifying the reduction in gun shot wounds for troops who remain alert and are able to move fast due to a lighter load.  We are all required to read Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation but it is clear nobody understands it.

I used to bitch about the same thing 20 years ago and it is reassuring for us old timers to see some things never change.  It is also really nice to hear that the bitching is not about restrictive ROE and meddling from on high which is all my old buddy Jeff Kenney talked about while leading the Eastern Region ANA embedded training team.  His Marines were the ones killed at the Ganjgal fight and let me tell you something – he was bitter to the point of despair about it but sucked it up because that is what high caliber professionals do in this business.

Capt Ben Wagner
Capt Ben Wagner, second from right, in the Naw Zad bazaar

Captain Ben Wagner, the CO of C1/8 is one of the many young officers in the Corps born of battle.  He was a rifle platoon commander in the first battle for Fallujah.  He lost a lot of Marines and had to halt the attack and pull back an experience which no doubt left a deep impression.  He told me (paraphrasing here folks as I’m not a great note taker)

“I can push north or south and run into Taliban controlled villages who will put up a stiff fight but I don’t want to fight for something I can’t hold.  Instead of focusing on the Taliban we focus on the population which is why it is so busy around here at night.  We patrol every night using machineguns and sniper teams in the mountains for overwatch.  In the morning at first prayer we make it a point to walk past the mosque in whatever village complex we were working the night before.  The message is simple; you guys can sleep tight because we’re out every night all night watching over you.”

During the time I spent in Naw Zad over 200 famlies came into the Marines zone of influence from Taliban controlled territory.  I wanted to talk tactics and hear war stories but all the Marines wanted to talk about was reconstruction.  They have cleared more bad guy territory then anyone thought possible and now the entire 1st Division is focused on getting the economy going so they can move on.

High tech is expensive to develop and deploy but inexpensive to defeat.  The devil Taliban are throwing flocks of trained birds against the GBOSS to try and blind the Marines
High tech is expensive to develop and deploy but inexpensive to defeat. The devil Taliban are throwing flocks of trained birds against the GBOSS to try and blind the Marines. (Just kidding) I made that up but you do see the birds sitting in front of the lens sometimes when scanning the area with the GBOSS and I find that really funny.

And guess what?  Move on they shall because we are apparently finishing up with the “stability” phase and moving onto the “transition” phase of the Afghanistan campaign right on schedule.  This move is based on the successes of the past year along with glowing assessments of progress across the board for all ANSF organizations.  One of the Chim Chim’s was in the VTC where this was announced so I’m getting the scoop first hand. There has been real progress made over the past year yet most of that progress is limited to two southern provinces.  While Chim Chim was listening in to the announcement of transition from on high suicide bombers were attacking the Jalalabad branch of the Kabul bank just over a mile away.  In Jalalabad City the Provincial Council has laid siege to the Governors Compound, bussed in armed supporters from the various warlord factions for some low scale rioting, launched a half ass RPG attack at the PRT compound last Thursday night just to let the Americans know they are unhappy and demanded that Gov Sherzai go away because all the promised swag for not growing poppy never materialized.  None of this chaos seems to be of any concern to the army brigade stationed in Jalalabad because they have a network.

They have a giant SIPR network full of the latest “classified” intelligence.  You have to be a special cleared person to see “classified” intelligence which is much better than unclassified intelligence because…. well … cleared people put it into the system and they are smarter than everyone else because they’re cleared.   The situation in Jalabad is a perfect example of McChrystal’s  network in action.  The network is reality for the army in the east and if the drama happening just a few miles away isn’t on the network they don’t have to respond to it.  See how fiendishly clever McChrystal was?  Let me provide a hypothetical example and I stress hypothetical as I have no idea how these systems function but have spent years observing the “effects based” results.

ISAF watch officer: “Hey Pecan Pie we’re hearing Karzai is sending a 10 man delegation to diffuse the armed standoff outside the Governor’s compound to stop the Provincial Council  from throwing the Gov out and naming one of the warlords as governor”

Duty Officer  Pecan Pie: “What’s the date time group on the message about armed groups outside the Governor’s compound?”

Watch Officer:  “There is nothing in the system on it; my terps are watching footage from earlier this afternoon  on Tolo TV News.”

DO Pie: “If there is nothing on this in the system what do you want me to do?”

Watch Officer “Oh I dunno; but if Governor Sherzai gets thrown out of the province and decides to return home to Kandahar where he will have to re-arm and re-fit his militias to protect hismself from Karzai’s brother I bet a lot of stuff will be in the system along with the words “incompetent, catastrophe, and who is responsible”.

DO Pie: “Well that is as it should be I guess but I’m reviewing my commanders instant action matrix and there is nothing in it about the overthrow of a governor by the Provincial Council; my intel section has gone up as high as “Oracle” level but found nothing about this so called news story although we can see a lot of armed people in the streets with our UAV’s but again nothing in the system to tell us what it all means.”

Networks are modern fool’s gold for ground commanders; networks promise to do the heavy lifting while you sit back on the FOB eating the pecan pie. The only way to get the intelligence required to do COIN is by getting it yourself.  Every infantry commander worth his pay knows this which is why they (on the rare occasions such things happen) are drop jawed stunned when useable intel filters down to them from on high.  It doesn’t take a network – it takes somebody with a clue, lots of good infantry, and the intestinal fortitude to take tactical risks for strategic gain.  That last trait is the exact opposite of having the intestinal fortitude to cover up the friendly fire death of a former NFL player with a silver star and concocted heroic story.   I wish McChrystal would have the decency to act as an old general should and just fade away.

Thugs, Mobs And Education

The news this week has been dominated by the Lara Logan story. Ms. Logan was the subject of   the most popular post in FRI history which can be found here. Reactions to the news that Lara was subjected to “a brutal and sustained assault and beating” have cost at least one knucklehead his job when he tweeted dismissively about what exactly those seven words mean. We don’t know what happened to Ms. Logan that day and it will be up to Lara Logan to set the record straight which is what some in the media are calling on her to do. You can read another account of a woman from the international media covering the same story on the same day at the same time here.   As she points out she was lucky, she was scared and I doubt she will ever place herself in a similar position. Ms. Logan has my heartfelt sympathy as does every human victim of mob violence. The specifics of the assault aren’t interesting because there is nothing for us to learn from them. Large crowds celebrating the overthrow of a repressive government are inherently dangerous in all times and in all places. Reasonable people avoid them.

What gets my blood boiling about this story is that CBS sat on the story for five days and only released it when other news outlets were about to do the same. I have no idea why CBS sat on the story and suspect it has more to do with the report that the crowd was yelling “Jew, Jew, Jew” then any concerns for Ms. Logan’s privacy. CBS has an agenda and when confronted with facts running counter to that agenda it reacts like every rich, powerful, arrogant, liberal organization in the world; it ignores the story or spins the details.

Navy Commander Martin Sepulveda with Zarmina and her sister Sharifa. Zarmina who is 12 or 13 years old is the local school teacher
Navy Commander Martin Sepulveda with Zarmina and her sister Sharifa. Zarmina who is 12 or 13 years old is the local school teacher

Which brings us to the protests by the Wisconsin state teachers union. If you want to read some professional liberal spin on the topic here it is from CBS news. If you want the truth you need to hit the blogs; Wisconsin native Ann Althouse is a good place to start and you can find her blog here. The people of Wisconsin, after years of democratic fiscal insanity. decided to bring the adults back to power. The new Governor, Scott Walker, introduced a bill that will dismantle the 50 year-old collective bargaining agreement for public employee unions. It is not like he has any alternatives; every majority democratic state in the union and most of the European Union has the identical problem; gold plated obligations to state employees and no money to pay for them.

I find the reaction from the teachers unions, public employee unions, and state democratic representatives to be repugnant. The crowds descending on Madison behaved like a bunch of thugs which is in stark contrast to the Tea Party movement. I’ll leave the political commentary to others but I have to point something out about the American educational system. The vast majority of state teachers union members should be fired because they have clearly failed to provide an education to our children. I’ll let Mark Styen make the point:

I think if you had to name one institution, which is probably the biggest structural defect in Western societies right now, and the one that places the biggest question mark over the future of Western civilization, if there was one institution you needed to take apart, it would be the education system.

There is no education system in Afghanistan but there are millions of kids who dream of becoming literate. So let me tell you a remarkable story about a little girl with an aptitude for languages and a desire to better herself and her   community through education.

Sgt Barbra Rangel, Zarmina and
Cpl Jessica Costilla, Zarmina, Sgt Barbra Rangel, and Sharifa

The Marines have built a school in Naw Zad but there are no female teachers in the area. The local people want their daughters to receive an education so a brave little girl has stepped in to fill the gap. Every evening at 1900 hours (7:00 pm) Zarmina’s father brings her and her sister to the Marine combat outpost and drops her off with the Female Engagement Team (FET). They spend an hour or so going over a reading, writing or a math lesson and the next day Zarmina teaches those lessons to other girls in Naw Zad.

I asked Zarmina’s father if I could put her picture and story in the blog and he proudly granted permission. Zarmina and her family are all in. The Marines came here; drove the Taliban out and told the people they will protect them for as long as it takes to bring lasting peace. If we pull out early the fate which awaits Zarmina and those like her from the Taliban is too horrible to contemplate. It will make whatever the mob in Egypt inflicted on Lara Logan seem tame in comparison. Zarmina and her sister have bet everything on the Americans seeing this through to the bitter end. The Marines are game – they won’t quit but they don’t have a vote in how this turns out. It is politicians like those in Wisconsin who abandoned their posts to thwart the will of the people who will decide if we stay or go. Recent history regarding peoples in war torn lands who have bet their lives on America sustaining her commitment to them is not positive. The odds are Zarmina and her father bet on the wrong side.

If you believe in prayer send a few extra ones topside for Zarmina and the children of Afghanistan. With friends like us those kids are going need all the help they can get.

Naw Zad

I just did something today which would have been suicidal 10 months ago. My colleague Little Mac and I, in the company of a Marine tank officer and Naval surface warfare officer (he’s a fires guy by trade) just strolled around the town of Naw Zad with no body armor, no helmets, no riflemen escorting us, munching on local bread and handing out candy to the kids. We are safer here than we would be in downtown Chicago. Naw Zad was once the third largest populated area in the province. By 2007 the civilian population had fled the area and there was nobody here except bad guys and a few hard pressed British and Estonian infantrymen.

This was the main street of Naw Zad bazaar a year ago. Offical USMC photo
This was the main street of Naw Zad bazaar a year ago. Official USMC photo


Naw Zad bazaar today

Fox company 2nd Battalion 7th Marines (Fox 2/7) arrived in Naw Zad to reinforce the Brits in late 2008 and were able to expand the security bubble but not by much.   The Brits, Estonians and Marines fought side by side to expel the Taliban from this fertile valley but were hampered by restrictive ROE pushed down from on high by senior officers in Kabul who lacked common sense and experience at counterinsurgency warfare. The Marines and their allies lost a lot of men because they did not have the mass or firepower to do the job correctly.   Way back then there was a lone voice in the blogsphere pleading with all who would listen to free up the combat power and let the Marines in Naw Zad fight.   His name is Herschel Smith and his posts at the Captains Journal can be found here.   It is worth your time to read them all.

Another view of the Naw Zad bazaar today

In the   summer of 2009 the U.S. Marines had deployed the 2nd Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan and their first move was to clear out Naw Zad and the surrounding hamlets of all Taliban. The 2nd MEB was commanded by BGen Larry Nicholson who I was fortunate to serve with as a young Lieutenant back in the 80’s. He had his own Tac Air, his own artillery, his own rotary wing transport and gunships and he had his own ideas about how to fight.  He didn’t have to go to the powers that be in Kabul or Kandahar because he didn’t need anything from them. He seeded the high ground overlooking the rat lines running into Naw Zad with sniper and recon teams in June. They immediately started collecting scalps and then on 2 July 2009 he launched Operation Khanjar dropping 2000 grunts onto Naw Zad and the surrounding villages to finish the Taliban off. The Taliban reacted as they always do when faced with superior forces – they broke contact and ran…into the sniper teams.

Fighting in the town of Naw Zad and its adjacent hamlets is long over. The Taliban can’t muster the manpower or firepower required to drive the Marines out so we are now deep into the “hold & build” stage of the operation and it is slow going. Every brick, piece of steel, bag of cement and all hand tools have to be trucked in from Camp Bastion or Lashkar Gah. My old battalion 1/8 has has deployed a rifle company (C 1/8)   to Naw Zad for the past six months facilitating the hold and build while expanding the zone of safety further into the hinterlands. Actually the rifle company headquarters is based here with what looks like a platoon or so in the district center proper. The three rifle platoons are working areas to the north and southeast.

The Dahanah Pass which is around 5 kilometers to the south. The ANP/Marine outpost on the left hand finger was in contact when I took this picture. It was a typical Taliban nusciance attack - they still really suck at fighting but they are getting better with the IEDs
The Dahaneh Pass which is around 5 kilometers to the southeast of Naw Zad. The ANP/Marine outpost on the left hand finger was in contact when I took this picture. It was a typical Taliban nuisance attack – they still really suck at fighting but they are getting better at planting IEDs

The roads to the south of Dahaneh are controlled by the Taliban. They cannot stand and fight the Marines like they do the army in the east because there aren’t enough of them, the terrain doesn’t facilitate ambushes, and they can’t run to Pakistan for sanctuary. So they use IED’s… a lot of IED’s which, as IED’s do in Afghanistan, strike disproportionately against the civilian population. In order to get building material into the valley local truckers insist on being escorted by Marines. The Marines know the Taliban are going to plant IED’s and they literally walk the convoys into the valley. The 65 kilometer trip from Bastion to Naw Zad takes two days; most of that time is spent waiting for the engineers to blow IED’s which have been seeded ahead of them.

In 6 months the Marines have lost 3 MRAP's but no men to IED's
In 6 months C1/8 has lost 3 MRAP’s but no men to IED’s


50% of the IED's made by the Taliban fail to function or blow up at some point in the deployment cycle. One metric of success for the Marines is the number of them which are pointed out or dug up and turned into the Marines. They are not paying money for these and each morning at the District Governors compound IED's are turned into the Marines for destruction
50% of the IED’s made by the Taliban fail to function or blow up at some point in the deployment cycle. The remaining 50% go into the ground.   One metric of success for the Marines is the number of them which are pointed out or dug up and turned in to the Marines. They are not paying money for these but still each morning at the District Governors compound IED’s are turned into the Marines for destruction

The villains have deployed countless numbers of IED’s targeting the Marines of 1/8. Only three of them scored hits but none have resulted in a fatality.   One can only wish IED’s were so ineffective in other areas of Helmand Province.   The Naw Zad area has been cleared; the hold and build underway. The Marines who are here would like to be somewhere else – preferably a place where the Taliban will stand and fight them.  Infantry Marines, even after ten years of constant deployment, still hunger for a good fight.   But that is not to be for 1/8 as they are stuck in place to do the hold and build. There was a time when Marines were dying here and there needed to be a lot more thrown into the fight. Now Marines are fighting and dying in other places like Sangin and they need more of their brother devil dogs to back them up.  Now many of the folks I correspond with are starting to see what I was talking about when I opined that you need a hold and build force working directly for the ground commander. This is where contractors can save money, time and lives by freeing up the gunfighters to do what they do best. Kill villains, protect the innocent, and unmask the evil who prey upon the population.

Ride For The Brand

When I first started this blog I used to hammer away on a couple of themes which really bothered me. The first were Provincial Reconstruction Teams which I maintain are, by design, unable to accomplish their assigned mission. The second theme had to do with the reason we remain in Afghanistan. Our current mission is predicated on three goals; to deny al Qaeda safe haven, to reverse the momentum of the Taliban and to prevent the ability of insurgents to overthrow the government. As I have pointed out many times in the past there is no chance al Qaeda can or wants to re-establish themselves on Afghan soil and there is also no chance that anyone of the various insurgent groups who are fighting against the Karzai regime has the ability to win militarily.

These two themes are now hot news after President Karzai announced that it was time for PRT teams to go and the Center on International Cooperation released a report co-authored by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Flex Kuehn on separating the Taliban from al Qeada.  I have commented on Alex Strick van Linschoten before noting that he has a really cool name.  How can you go wrong reading something from a member of the Strick van Linschoten family?  And as a huge bonus Alex knows what he’s talking about being another member of the outside the wire tribe.

the vast majority of Afghans are young, poor, illiterate, and have never experienced a functional social order
the vast majority of Afghans are young, poor, illiterate, and have never experienced a functional social order

Jousha Foust posted on the PRT issue saying unequivocally that Karzai’s is right in his desire to rid himself of PRT’s and have that money flow through the Afghan government.  The problem is that anytime Karzai mentions the need to funnel money through his government a majority of my fellow citizen are convinced the money will just disappear. I’m no fan of the Karzai government but if someone could explain to me the difference between giving a member of the Afghan ruling elite a suitcase full of money to get something done or paying Tom Daschle’s wife a few million bucks to get a favorable ruling from the USG I’d love to hear it. From Hillary Clinton’s cattle futures swindle to our current treasury secretary dictating to the IRS when and how much he would pay in back taxes (until he was appointed to his present post) American politicians are as corrupt as Afghan politicians but more sophisticated.  The only other difference is that America has the largest economy in the world allowing our political class to enrich themselves and their families without killing economic growth.

Afghanistan has no economy so the corruption here kills any chance that outside capital will flow in the form of investments. The only major western company  stupid enough to invest money here is AOL but they are tapped out. And when contemplating corruption here remember the problem was partly created by us when we pushed Karzai to adopt SNTV . It is not going to change. But if we funneled every penny through the Afghan government who would get the blame when construction projects proved to be inferior, when money disappeared or when basic needs are not addressed? Wouldn’t it be to our advantage if every time the local people complained about reconstruction projects we could point to the billions we fed into the Kabul government and say  “go ask them – we gave them billions for this”?  It’s not like anyone has the slightest clue where all the money we have spent to date has gone anyway.  But we can’t change the way our government does business – too many rice bowls and too much money being made by special interests don’t you know.

Lashkar Gah Walmart
Lashkar Gah Walmart

What could and should change is our mission here.  As the Strick van Linschoten piece (PDF available here) convincingly argues the core reason for our continued fighting in Afghanistan is predicated on the stupid idea that if we leave al Qaeda will return.  I’ve been calling bullshit on that idea from the start and it is important for us to acknowledge that this concept is nonsense because it drives the mission statements of the military and other USG agencies who are in the fight.  We shouldn’t  act like we can tailor make solutions in the third world because we remain clueless about ground truth in every country except our own.  We will never have enough situational awareness to institute custom one-off solutions in every country where instability threatens good order and discipline.  This fact should serve as a wake up call to all Americans.

We spend billions and billions of dollars on “top secret America” and get next to nothing in return. Witness the fiasco of our current response in Egypt. The head of our Central Intelligence Agency stated that Mubarak would step down yesterday. He said that because he’s an idiot politician; a CIA Mandarin would never make that claim because he knows the CIA has rarely been right about anything important in its entire history. Don’t take my word for it read Legacy of Ashes and The Human Factor; books written by CIA agents disgusted with the waste, fraud and abuse organic to that dysfunctional agency. How do you explain the head of intelligence for this administration saying something as preposterous as the Muslim Brotherhood are “largely secular”? Our liberal elites and their hand maidens in the press think we’re stupid.

The military can accomplish a lot of things including sending small detachments deep into contested areas to do good deeds while supporting host nation security forces. It cannot change the nature of third world peoples or third world institutions nor should it be asked to
The military can accomplish a lot of things including sending small detachments deep into contested areas to do good deeds while supporting host nation security forces. It cannot change the nature of third world peoples or third world institutions nor should it be asked to

Back to the ISAF mission statement for Afghanistan – here it is:

ISAF, in support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.

How does a military force “facilitate improvements in the governance and socio-economics development” of the second most corrupt country in the world?  How does a western secular military “provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population” in an Islamic Republic?  The ISAF military effort is reducing the capability and will of the insurgents and they are also, believe it or not, growing the capacity and capability of the ANSF. I see signs of that everywhere I go in this country. It is our political leaders who are squandering the opportunities the military has won them and rather then piss and moan about it I’m going to man up and offer a solution our government can use around the world to bring simplicity and clarity to America’s efforts to have everyone just get along.

These ten simple principals, distilled by Jim Owens who heads up the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, are all one needs to know about running their lives, a company, or the most powerful nation on earth.      Here they are:

1 Live each day with courage

2 Take pride in your work

3 Always finish what you start

4 Do what has to be done

5 Be tough, but fair

6 When you make a promise, keep it

7 Ride for the brand

8 Talk less and say more

9 Remember that some things aren’t for sale

10 Know where to draw the line

Courage, pride, keeping promises, draw the line and ride for the brand. These are principals which have never failed us in the past. Translated to the sophisticated world of geo-politics it means acknowledging we can’t export our ideas about democracy to peoples who have no desire for them. We have to keep our goals simple, clean and consistent. We stand for freedom. We stand behind people who desire freedom and will lend them a hand in every and all circumstances. We should have backed the citizens in Iran when they confronted that hideous regime, the government of Honduras when they tried to enforce their constitution be expelling a tyrant, the citizens of Egypt and Tunisia when they spontaneously rose to rid themselves of dictators. But we didn’t did we? Our political leaders tried to finesse these situations or ignored them or worked against them. Our political class aided and abetted by the Mandarins who populate the senior levels of  USG agencies honestly think they have the knowledge, ability, and situational awareness required to manage every crisis in a unique custom tailored manner.  But they don’t, they are fooling themselves, bankrupting our nation and breaking our military.

It doesn’t have to be that way – we don’t need cleaver solutions dreamed up by legions of credentialed smart fellers.  We need leadership which articulates in unambiguous language what America stands for and who she will back.  If you are with us we’ll back you with our military might (while it lasts) and favorable economic policies.  If you are not with us you’ll not get favorable trade deals in our markets. If you attack us or our allies we will come to your country and kill you. See how simple that is? Apply it to Pakistan right now. They are harboring bin Laden, Mullah Omar and the senior Taliban leadership while actively aiding the insurgents we are fighting and, adding insult to injury, they have one of our citizens who rates diplomatic immunity in jail. What are they getting in return?  Billions of aid dollars which we have to borrow from “our friends”  the Chinese. What should they get?  A blockade of their ports and the grounding of all air transport in their country would be a good start. You know why?  Because some things are not for sale and at some point we have to draw a line.

How would we supply the gigantic logistic effort in Afghanistan if we did that?  I don’t know and I am sure we probably couldn’t. Which means most of the bloated headquarter staffs and base infrastructure would have to go and the combat arms units who remain would have to live like my colleagues and I do on the economy. Right vs wrong; good vs evil – there nothing difficult about figuring these things out when you live each day with courage.

Shifting Sands

With most of the world’s attention focused unfolding events in the Mideast now is a good time to shed some light on the current ground-truth in Afghanistan. Sami the Finn is always a good place to start and he provides interesting perspective on the suicide bombing at the Finest supermarket in Kabul this past Friday (the original article can be found here).

In any case, Sami Kovanen, a senior analyst with Indicium Consulting in Kabul, which provides security information, warns that the assumption had to be that “this kind of attack will happen again.” Says Kovanen: “It’s a new kind of attack – in many ways the first direct attack against the whole international community, against civilians.” He adds, “There have been really specific reasons behind previous attacks. The attack on the Bektar guesthouse [in October 2009] targeted the U.N. during elections; the attack against the Indian guesthouse [in February 2010] targeted Indians. But [this one targeted] foreign civilians known to go shopping on Friday at this time. It was against us – regardless of who you are, which organization you’re working for or what your nationality is. So in that way it is really concerning.”

Sami is spot on – this is the first time suicide bombers have targeted outside the wire westerners. What is worse is that the Karzai government continues to make it hard for internationals working independent from the FOB’s and embassies to operate. Look at this latest decree:

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
Office of the Presidential Spokesperson
January 27, 2011

The National Security Council Meeting was held in Presidential Palace led by Hamid Karzai, the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Participants included the authorities of the security branches of the government.

At the beginning of the meeting, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzi, Chief of the Transition Commission spoke in detail regarding the assessment of the Minister of Defence and ANA. After the extensive discussion, they decided the authorities of Afghan Security Forces should include the following topics in discussions with the United States and international organizations in order to expedite the transition process:

First, currently, the Ministry of Defence and all its equipment, supplies and total expenses are being furnished by the international community without any participation by the Ministry of Defence. From now on the Ministry of Defense will take the lead on these activities.

Second, in order to expedite the transition responsibilities, the Ministry of Defence needs to increase its technical, engineering, equipment, vehicles, aircraft, and heavy weapons. These needs should be furnished as possible.

Third, the ANA needs a large armory and logistics warehouse for each corps. All ANA corps should establish these facilities and the necessary long-term goods should be stocked there.

Fourth, the government of Afghanistan agrees with the increase of ANA and ANP personnel, but that these increases should be implemented with the condition that the expenses and equipment should be paid for by the international community.

Fifth, Director of National Security, Chief of the Transition Commission, and the Minister of Defence has the presidential directive to begin talks with the authorities of the international community and the United States and submit the result of their work in the next National Security Council meeting.

Sixth, National Security Advisor and Minister of the Interior discussed the dissolution of private security companies. Their report says that 16 private companies in charge of security of embassies, diplomatic locations and international companies committed serious violations of the law including without proper armor vehicle licenses, employment of foreign personnel without registering with the government, and using diplomatic vehicles.

The tone of this decree is typical – Dari doesn’t translate well into English so the wording is awkward but notice what is being said. At the same time he is demanding an expansion of his security forces and the money with which to do this he is also finalizing laws which will drive out the vast majority of internationals currently working outside the wire.

Helping a child out of the Finest after the attack
Helping a child out of the Finest supermarket after the attack

There is nothing we can about the Karzai Government because we need him just as much as he needs us. The entire military mission is predicated upon “providing support to GoIRA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan)” and words in mission statements have meanings. When the military is told to support the host nation government it supports the host nation government. But the Karzai government is so dysfunctional that it has turned our counterinsurgency strategy into a cruel farce. Dexter Filkins filed an excellent story on this last week showing to all who read this blog why he gets paid big bucks to explain things and I don’t.  From the Flikins piece:

The larger fear, at least among some American officials, is that the Obama Administration will decide to do nothing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was briefed on the investigation in January. But the findings are considered so sensitive that almost no one; generals, diplomats, the investigators themselves are willing to talk about it publicly. After months of sparring with the Karzai administration, the Obama Administration, in its public rhetoric, appears to be relegating the issue of corruption to a lower tier of concern, despite the widespread belief that the corruption in Karzai’s government degrades its reputation and helps fuel recruitment for the Taliban insurgency. We have to work with these people, the senior NATO officer told me.

We can’t fix the Karazai  problem because of one decision made years ago in a manner nobody understands but one in which the US Department of State played the key role. That decision was the adoption of the SNTV electoral system. SNTV stands for single non-transferable vote and it is one way to ensure that opposition political parties cannot be formed or sustained.  Afghanistan went to the SNTV system after some sort of back room deal was cut between Karzai and our ambassador at that time Zalimay Khalizad.  Khalizad is an Afghan-American, fluent in the local languages who served here as Ambassador before being sent to Iraq to be the ambassador in 2005.  He did not last long in Baghdad and is now heading his own consulting agency at a time when an Arabic/Pashto/Dari speaking US Ambassador would be of great use to the administration. I don’t know why he is on the outs but his part in creating the SNTV system, which Karzai will be using to stay in power for years to come, is reason enough to banish him from the halls of power.

What happens when you live on an international border and the guys on the other side stop all fuel shipments? In America this could cause significant problems in time costing the economy billions in losses while leaving thousands out of work. In Afghanistan it causes smugglers to focus on fuel. These two are unloading petrol from a truck which has just crossed the Iranian border and is turning into the Afghan customs lot.
What happens when you live on an international border and the guys on the other side stop all fuel shipments? In America this could cause significant problems costing the economy billions in losses while leaving thousands out of work. In Afghanistan it causes smugglers to focus on fuel. These two kids are unloading smuggled petrol from a truck which has just crossed the Iranian border and is turning into the Afghan customs lot in Zaranj.

The SNTV system makes every election a lottery with so many candidates running for each available office that winning can only be due to luck or electoral fixing. Guess which is  the more popular option here?  The story behind SNTV is fascinating but not well known or understood.  One of the best journalist working the AFPAK beat today, Matthieu Aikins  spent months uncovering it; his piece was published in Harpers last December.  You can download a PDF copy of the article here and this too is worth reading in order to understand just how screwed up the political system in Afghanistan is, how it got that way, why we can’t change it and who is to blame. And here it is; the money quote:

In May of 2004, at a meeting held in the residence of Jean Arnault, who was then the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, and attended by most of the senior members of the diplomatic community in Kabul, Khalilzad arrived late and declared, simply, I’ve spoken with the president, and it’s going to be SNTV.

Just like that our efforts to “fix what we broke” (paraphrasing a vastly overrated Colin Powell) were doomed to failure.  Holding shura’s with village elders where you promise them security while  improving their lives through the vehicle of GiROA is a joke nobody laughs at.

When the flow of petrol is cut every street corner has a kid selling it by the liter.
When the flow of petrol is cut every street corner has a kid selling it by the liter. This won’t happen in the west when the flow of petrol is unexpectedly interrupted and we will find ourselves in a dire emergency where in this land the people work around market disruptions because they never had functioning markets to start with.

Fixing the government and improving its ability to service the population is not going to happen and that failure is not a military failure. The military has been tasked to do much more then it is designed, equipped and trained to do but being the military they are making progress with a minimal amount of pissing and moaning about it. Its not fair, not right, not smart, but it is the way it is.  That doesn’t mean we still can’t find an acceptable end-state. We can do that easily by focusing on the army and the army only. A strong army will create a governing coalition between army officers and government bureaucrats because that, my friends, is the model used in most of this part of the world. Bureaucratic Authoritarianism may not be the best model but I see no other way out.

We can bond with members of the Afghan military because we have years of fighting side by side with each other and that kind bond is hard to break. We cannot “bond” with Afghan government bureaucrats because there is no daily or habitual close contact between the Americans locked down in their embassy and their Afghan counterparts.

Small groups of troops working directly with regional governments should be used to make rapid progress at improving critical infrastructure
Small groups of troops working directly with regional governments should be used to make rapid progress at improving critical infrastructure

In the big scheme of things running the Taliban out of their southern hunting grounds is not going to solve that many problems. But if we concentrate on the military while continuing to fund and lavish attention on the Major Crimes Task Force while never deviating from our anti corruption message we could end up finding an acceptable end-state. Doing that requires solid  vision, leadership, and planning from on high but that is currently a bridge too far for our President or his Department of State.

I’ve said for years the only question worth asking is if we (the international community) will learn one damn thing from this folly.  Just one thing would be better than nothing but years of observation of our government at work leads me to believe we cannot expect even one positive, no bullshit lesson to be learned from our time in this forgotten land. That will cost us downstream.