Hotel California Naw Zad Edition

Facebook sent me a reminder about a post that went up 5 years ago and asked it I wanted to re-post it. I did then went to read and realized it was probably one of the better more prescient posts I ever wrote so here it is….back on the front page of FRI exactly 5 years after first being published.  It even has click bait if the form of two of must attractive and gutsy Free Ranges in the land. But the video at the end is disturbing …… those kids are fighting age now.

I ended my last post with an observation about the importance of how wars end.  That was most foolish of me because I was assuming we started bombing Libya with the intention of using the military to achieve an appropriate political endstate (because that’s how this shit is supposed to work).  But that isn’t at all what we are doing in Libya….I’m not sure what we are doing but it has nothing to do with an acceptable political endstate because there’s been no political debate or though given to the matter. It appears we’re bombing Libya because Obama feels we need to bomb Libya. Do you understand how unbelieveably stupid it is to start a war without any clue as to what you want to achieve?  Obama is not only a world class intellectual midget he’s now getting to be dangerous (to the entire world) and where the hell are the fucking Joint Chiefs? I know where they are….their where their predecessors are as documented in the excellent book Dereliction of Duty. Obsequious is not a word that should be applied (ever) to senior general officers but there it is.

I’m all for killing Col Gadhafi because he killed Americans; a lot of them in Berlin and over the skies of Lockerbie Scotland. I expected that Obama would not think through what he was doing but for some strange reason assumed the NSC and Pentagon had a plan (I type that with a straight face..honest) I forgot that the NSC is now headed by a political hack (with no previous military or national security experience)  named Tom Donilon and, being on vacation with my kids, it also slipped my mind that the Pentagon is busy focusing on the things that really matter; force feeding acceptance of openly gay service members and retro fitting submarines to accommodate female sailors.

I can’t bring myself to re-hash the hypocrisy, stupidity, or folly of Obama and his minions when it comes to the multiple crises popping up in the Middle East. It’s too depressing; the White House Bat Phone must be ringing off the hook nightly but we now know nobody has the balls to answer it.  Besides Mark Styen has done the heavy lifting on this issue with an excellent assessment which ends:

But lost along the way is hard-headed, strategic calculation of the national interest. “They won’t come back till it’s over/Over there!” sang George M. Cohan as the doughboys marched off in 1917. It was all over 20 minutes later, and then they came back. Now it’s never over over there not in Korea, not in Kuwait, not in Kosovo, not in Kandahar. Next stop Kufra? America has swapped The Art Of War for the Hotel California: We psychologically check out, but we never leave.

I must add this gem which, as the Bot is my witness, is an almost exact replica of conversations I had over and over during the summer of 2008 with Liberal USAID contractors at the Tiki Bar.  Obama has turned out to be worse than my worst summer 2008 nightmare. It is no longer funny (but the clip below is).

What is happening in Libya would not be important to the US had not Obama involved us kinda sorta. The ongoing revolts in Syria, Bahrain and Yeman are important to American interests but you need to know something about the region to understand that. That type of specialist knowledge is hard to come by in Saul Alinsky seminars, Reverend Wrights church sermons or the Harvard Law School.

While on holiday I saw this article on an airstrike targeting a Taliban commander that ended up killing civilians.  The article also helpfully points out that nine kids were killed in the Pech Valley earlier in the month which prompted the usually hysterics from President Karzai.

I’m not so sure about what the deal was with the Pech Valley airstrike except to point out that I know a few of the attack helicopter pilots based out of Jalalabad and they know just about every stinking inch of the Pech Valley.  I doubt the veracity of the report and will address that in a minute because this story about Naw Zad pisses me off and here’s why.

We got played again by the Afghans and the reason we got played has everything to do with the intelligence shortfalls identified by MajGen Flynn two years ago, combined with a still non-existent human intelligence capability.  Here is why I can say that with near total certainty without knowing a damn thing about what went on in this strike.

The unit that was on the ground in Naw Zad  (1st Battalion 8th Marines or 1/8 in Marine speak)  has rotated home and the battalion now working the battle space has been on deck maybe two weeks.  Battalions who have just arrived are not given a long enough leash to do whatever the hell they want; it is inconceivable that they came up with a “these two cars have a Taliban commander in them” plan and were then able to talk the Regimental Combat Team they work for (and I know its commander well) into letting them smoke two vehicles containing persons unknown with attack helicopters. The Naw Zad Valley is a flat, treeless expanse of high desert.  If the battalion thought they had a Taliban commander driving up or down it why not just stop the cars and grab his dumb ass?

This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad valley
This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad Valley

When aviation assets attack moving cars which reportedly contain high level Taliban it is a safe bet that the hit is driven by intelligence.  Normally that is supplied by the CIA and normally the hit has to be given a green light by someone from on high (who in the modern military/intel system is never held accountable for that decision).  That’s what normally happens but we all know the CIA doesn’t know shit because they have no humint program and rely on ‘walk-ins’. I would bet money that a “walk-in” targeted this car and the NDS vetted for him and we got exactly identical results for targeting folks based on NDS/CIA vetted ‘walk-ins’. That is how we  killed 27 woman and children attending a wedding in Nangarhar Province back in July 2008. Or when we  killed over 2 dozen children at a wedding party in Kandahar in November 2008, or….I could go on and on.

The common denominator with these botched attacks was human intel fed into the system by “walk-in” informants of dubious background and character or fed to our FOB bound intel people by the un-FOB bound Afghanistan intel people who have scores to settle or land to steal.  How many times do we need to be played by the Afghans before we wise up?  How many innocents have to die before we learn we cannot put all our eggs in the electronic warfare basket and start to develop our own human intelligence capability?

It’s not that hard to get off the FOB and stay off the FOB, my children did it.  Grad students from MIT do it…which reminds me the Synergy Strike Force girls are back in Nangarhar staying at the Taj and doing some super cool medical and social networking stuff.  Jenn’s blog is here and Rachel’s blog is here – Rachel brought her husband Juan Rodriguez along and he’s a pro shooter with a good eye and great glass on his camera – you should spend some time on both blogs. As you can see in the picture below hot chicks can stay off the FOB and roam around with no worries ….why can’t our HumInt teams do the same?

The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams - they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months
The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams – they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months

The Pech Valley

Earlier in the month ISAF was accused of shooting up 9 teenagers in the mountains of the Pech River Valley.  The Army attack helicopter pilots who work that part of the country have memorized (it isn’t a big valley) every attack point in the Pech Mountains where it is not unusual to see Taliban fighters who are very young. Remember the video of a 12 year old boy cutting the head off “an American spy”?  Or the herd of teenagers rolling boulders into the road behind American vehicles during the battle at Ganjgal?  Army attack pilots don’t light up people in the mountains for no good reason so there is no doubt in my mind that if they smoked 9 teens it was because they were carrying weapons. Karzai knows this as he does that the gum cameras will provide the answer to any questions he has. Notice how he never asks for the gun camera footage…that’s because he’s getting upset to score political points.

Were he a great leader, a man of integrity and one who listens and cares about the Afghan people what he should be upset about is the video pasted below. This video horrified (and I mean horrified) my Afghan staff.  I didn’t intend to show it to them but one of the cooks heard the music from the video and walked into my office to see why I was playing Jihadi music.  Within minutes the whole staff was watching in mute horror before wondering off in stunned silence tears running down some of their cheeks. This video is what should be concern the Afghan elites but it’s not…why?? I suspect the elites can’t extort cash out of the Taliban over videos like this or over dead civilians so why bother them.  The Americans – they pay and pay and pay.  And look what they have wrought.

Crickets

Crickets as in “I hear nothing but crickets” is the word of the day for Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1) based in Camp Dwyer and controlling the southern districts of Helmand Province.  I needed to do a little district level coordination last weekend and was able to catch a ride to Marjah with my good friend Col Dave Furness USMC, the CO of RCT 1.  He was heading there to host a CODEL (congressional delegation) and agreed to let me tag along if I promised to not talk to talk to any congressmen.  That’s an easy promise to keep so once again I got to ride with the Marines across the Dasht-i-Margo (desert of death) and into the fertile Helmand Valley River town of Marjah.  The chances of us getting attacked while en-route?  Zero.  Chances of hitting an IED?  Just about zero.  Crickets – the Taliban have taken the winter off and their stay behind IED teams are failing miserably.  Know why?  Because the Marines when faced with tactical problems have turned to tactical solutions.

How cool is this? The M32 40mm grenade launcher - finally something to replace the M203 which was a dog. Imagine being a young infantry Marines living the dream and able to walk around with a super high speed low drag weapon which the Taliban have already grown to hate>
How cool is this? The M32 40mm grenade launcher – finally something to replace the M203 which was a dog. Imagine being a young infantry Marine living the dream at the pointy end of the spear and able to walk around with a super high speed low drag weapon. And this is one lethal piece of kit which can shoot 6 well aimed 40mm grenades in 2 seconds.  The Taliban learned very quickly not to let Marine infantry get too close to them (which they routinely do anyway) and now when Marine infantry gets within 150 meters they have to contend with dedicated grenadiers who will soon have HELLHOUND and DRACO thermobaric rounds.

Last summer Wired magazine had a pretty good article about the DoD Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and the cat and mouse game they’re playing with IED attackers.  Given the size and complexity of the American military these guys are operating as fast as one can expect but they are too far removed from the battlefield to help front line infantry deal with IED cells that vary  dramatically in effectiveness and methodology.  As I mentioned in the last post when line troops want to get actionable intelligence the only dependable option is to get it themselves.  Likewise when the Marines need tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to battle Taliban insurgents the tried and true method is to figure it out on their own and pass on what works to the units coming in behind them.

Remember this photo from last year?
Remember this photo from last year?  That is the CO of 2/6, LtCol Kyle Ellison, giving a coin to one of the more exceptional ANP officers.  At the time Kyle told him the coin was a token of his appreciation for the professionalism displayed by this officer who is always at his post with his equipment every day without fail.
Look at him today and note the addition to his uniform. 2/6 is long gone - Marjah now belongs to 3/8 but that coin Kyle presented last year means something to this officer and Kyle doesn't pass out many coins which makes the award very special. I was really happy to see this officer again and also see how much he values the coin
Look at him today and note the addition to his uniform (the 2/6 coin attached to his left breast pocket). 2/6 is long gone – Marjah now belongs to 3/9 but that coin Kyle presented last year means something to this officer.  I was good to see him again and also see how much he values the coin.

The Taliban learned that they need two obstacles in front of them when they shoot at Marine patrols and the most common obstacle used is a bunch of IED’s buried in choke points in front of large, deep irrigation ditches.  The Talibs believe that the two obstacles will give them the 30 or so minutes it takes to get air or rocket delivered ordnance targeting them. That was a good plan during the heavy kinetic fighting around Nawa and Marjah when the Marines first arrived.  But the Marines have been here a while now and seeded this vast AO with little patrol bases.  RC Southwest averages 500 patrols daily and those patrols identify and record every compound; recording if they are occupied and by who which is a moving target as families continue to flow back into the villages.

Every patrol submits a fire plan which includes on-call firewalls that  have been pre-planned by the Ops officer Mike (Mac) McNamara and the RCT-1 Air Officer shop.  A firewall is fire coordination measure to clear the air space and near space of all obstacles so RCT can fire HIMAR rockets.  It takes a good 20 minutes to set up a firewall if you are running on the fly.  With pre-planned firewalls when the squad leader calls for fire support – Mac sends a text message to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) declaring Firewall XYZ in effect. The DASC says “roger that” (unless they have to move assists out of the way which may delay the affirmative a few seconds) and RCT 1 has a firewall.  Knowing if the nominated target is an abandoned or occupied compound speeds up the clearance too which is the whole point of the intensive patrolling and census taking.  Every compound in the AO has an alpha numeric designator and the battalions update their lists daily due to the number of families who are moving back.  What once took 20 minutes can now be done so fast it’s stunning.

Col Dave Furness greeting arriving congress members at the COP in Marjah. Both Dave and Paul Kennedy - the CO of RCT 6 which was based in Delaram last year are
Col Dave Furness greeting arriving congress members at the COP in Marjah.  The delegation is completely jet lagged at this point and would instantly fall asleep if subjected to powerpoint briefs. Day trips like this not only keep them awake and active but become just about the only thing they remember from a weekend visit.  
LtCol David Hudspeth,CO of 3/9 with Representative Kathy Castor D-FL in the Marjah bazaar.
LtCol David Hudspeth,CO of 3/9 with Representative Kathy Castor D-FL in the Marjah bazaar during last weekends CODEL.  

The Marines on the ground still have to contend with the IED’s and the Taliban seed IED’s everywhere which, as you’d imagine, does not endear them to the local population.  To cope with the flood of IED’s, most of which function by pressure plates and have very small magnetic signatures, required new tactics and a special tool, which in typical Marine fashion, was designed by a Gunnery Sergeant, fabricated from materials purchased in local bazaars, and paid for out of pocket by the troops. I’m not going to describe the tools or TTP for now because they are effective and need to stay that way as long as possible.

I missed something I really wanted to see on this trip and that was the monthly NCO symposium.  Dave came up with the idea after seeing the turnover between two sister battalions from the 1st Marines 3/1 and 2/1.  3/1 had a strike to find ratio hovering around 90% during their 7 months in theater and 2/1 who is now 5 months into their deployment has pulled out over 400 IED’s at the cost of 2 WIA and 1 KIA. This was due to an uncommonly planned, organized and executed turn over package based on every bit of front specific knowledge 3/1 had gleaned during their tour.  Using the turnover as a template Dave and his staff started a monthly training symposium for the squad and fireteam leaders from all his battalions designed to facilitate cross decking of the best practices and procedures.  I’ll have to wait a month or two before I can get back and attend one of these and man am I looking forward to it.  It’s a great idea to focus time, attention and limited resources on the young leaders.  It is also worth the investment to get them in front of the principal staff members who clear their calls for fire requests and the Regimental Commander who encourages any and all questions and will sit in the classroom all night to answer them.  Face to face is the best way to get things sorted out and with an endeavor as complex as war things need to get sorted out frequently.

The CODEL heads out to the bazaar. There has been more rain over the past three weeks in Helmand Province then there has been over the previous 3 years. When the congressmen landed one of them asked where the bathrooms were - there are none on this combat outpost just piss tubes inserted into a neutral corner and three wooden boxes with toilet seats bolted on them. Piss tubes and thunder boxes - things congressmen will not soon forget.
The CODEL heads out to the bazaar. There has been more rain over the past three weeks in Helmand Province then there has been over the previous 3 years. When the congressmen landed one of them asked where the bathrooms were – there are none on this combat outpost just piss tubes inserted into a neutral corner and three wooden boxes with toilet seats bolted on them. Piss tubes and thunder boxes – cheap, effective, and something most congressmen have never seen before or want to see again.

There is hard fighting ahead but I just do not see how the Taliban is going to be able to do jack in the southern Helmand Province.  The Marines treat every foot of ground outside their COP’s as if it contained an IED and yet they figured out how to move and move fast through the mine fields.  The Taliban can’t sow anymore mines than they already are sowing and it wouldn’t matter if they did.  The Taliban can’t train effectively, they can’t improve their rudimentary command and control, they are rarely able to coordinate among themselves and they didn’t spend the winter lull learning how to shoot.  They’re guns are old and worn, their ammunition a mix of dodgy 3rd world crap, re-loads, and what they can buy on the black market.  (C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, has been writing extensively about the guns and ammunition used by all side in this conflict and his piece What’s Inside A Taliban Gun Locker is worth a look.)  The Taliban are not going to emerge from their winter off with enhanced capabilities but the Marines will.

The summer fighting season will be here in a matter of weeks.  In RCT 1’s AO the Marines have used the lull in fighting to push out to the fringes of the Green Zone.  There they still occasional gunfights and IED’s continue to take their toll but not that often.  The Marines expand their area of influence while patrolling constantly; the SF guys continue to raid.  Dave told me the HVT raids are a big help and the targeting precise; he’d  be happy to see a lot more (I stand corrected B).  He also told me the raids are coordinated with him so again there seems to be a big shift in not just the ROE but also the TTP.

Nobody is sure what to expect when the poppy harvest is in and the fighting starts again in earnest but I’m predicting the southern Helmand will see limited fighting because the Taliban lack maneuver room, lack good rat lines, and are now isolated from a large percentage of the population.  The fighting this summer is going to be in the north outside Sangin, Musa Quala and Naw Zad.  If the Marines break the Taliban up there and the army/ISAF units in Kandahar continue to press the Taliban out of the green zone the villains are in real trouble. This could be the tipping point but for it to matter countrywide we need the will to hang on and repeat this process in the places like Khost, Paktia and Kunar. That’s not going to happen but still, giving the Taliban a serious ass whooping right in their front yard is a morale booster for the men. It also will give the Afghans space to unfuck themselves and it they don’t take this opportunity to do so then…….what can you say?  It’s going to be a real interesting summer but right now the word of the day in the southern Helmand province is crickets.