Victory Day

Well  here we  are, a week away from Victory Day, the  third annual national holiday celebrating the martial history of Afghanistan.  There is Independence Day in August, which celebrates running the Brits out of the country in the 1800’s. Then, there is Liberation Day, in February, which marks the end of direct Soviet  Army involvement.    So next week, we   pause to remember the days  when Afghans  beat the stuffing out of each other with  Victory Day  – celebrating the defeat of the Soviet backed Najibullah regime in 1992.

High noon in downtown Lashkar Gah - it will be a ghost town like this for at least another week
High noon in downtown Lashkar Gah - it will be a ghost town like this for at least another week

It’s still ‘crickets down’  in the Helmand Province.  We suspect Victory Day will mark the start of the fighting season.   The last of the poppy harvesters   will return home, sort out their share of paste, rest a bit and then  cast around for something to do. It  appears that for most of the adult males in Helmand, fighting the foreigners for pay, is no longer  quite the  attractive option.  The WaPo published a story last week about how the United States Marine Corps is wearing out the Taliban the old-fashioned way – by shooting them.    This trend is noted  here by the Belmont Club, and here by Herschel at The Captains Journal, and here by the Long War Journal.  This latest article on the martial prowess of the Marines, comes at  a propitious  time (even though it was based on a Bing West embed last fall) because my Dad, of all people, sent a new Marine recruiting poster which I can now share-even with  the F bomb-

 It is rumored the Pentagon is not too happy with the newest USMC recruiting poster
It is rumored the Pentagon is not too happy with the newest USMC recruiting poster

Well, it turns out that it is not just  our Marines who are ‘gettin’ some’ in the Helmand, but also the Brits, who  still have a task force in the province, stationed in and around Lashkar Gah.  The other day, one of their squaddies pounced, literally, on a senior Taliban bomb maker.  “My Muckers were being shot on the ground and I thought, I’m not having that”.  Said Private Lee Stephens, who leaped  from his Warrior armored vehicle to deliver a textbook ‘Flying Clothesline’ takedown on a Taliban who was  hustling to flee from the patrol.  “I jumped out and I grabbed the geezer” said Pvt Stephens;   thank God  he didn’t miss bulldogging  the little bastard, otherwise the Brits and their American allies  would be receiving an unending stream of directives from  High Command-   all  about the folly of trying  a Superman dive from armored vehicles to subdue motorcycle-mounted Taliban.

Look, it’s not like they can be  chased  down on foot-  The very next day, I  learned that the Brits consider themselves to be “Donkey Soldiers” who are being led by “Lions”.  Not the big, scary, aggressive lions,  but instead the male of the species who lie around in the shade alot.  Once again the P.B.I. (poor bloody infantry)  are being victimized by  their bloated and lazy  staffs, who produce  prodigous amounts  of ozone damaging methane gas,  all the while accomplishing nothing productive.    Appearing in the one remaining  British newspaper (which doesn’t have 35 sidebar-linked photos of buxom women married to soccer players!) this story could have been written anytime over the past 9 years.

 Writing anonymously, the author reveals that the Taliban have dubbed British soldiers “donkeys” who move in a tactical “waddle” because they now carry an average weight of 110lbs worth of equipment into battle.
The consequences of the strategy, he says, is that “our infantry find it almost impossible to close with the enemy because the bad guys are twice as mobile”.
The officer claims that by the end of a routine four hour patrol, soldiers struggle to make basic tactical judgements because they are physically and mentally exhausted.

Good grief…  once more ‘ The Lesson Which Can Never Be Learned’  is exposed to the light of day.    The weight these  men carry into battle    is almost impossible to talk about today without “Twilight Zone” music playing in the background.  The optimal load for marching infantry was studied exhaustively and documented extensively during the time of Roman Legions.    One fighting man can carry 60 lbs and march all day, conversely   he can  carry 30 lbs into battle and maintain acceptable speed, mobility, and striking power without draining his  stamina.    Though every officer on active duty knows this,    none of them can move beyond the “survivability aspect” heavy armor brings to the fight.  So off they go,  our PBI- into battle wearing over 100 lbs of armor.  Now  being able to puzzle things out on their own, they’ve  figured out that the armor increases the chance that  they’ll be shot.   But,  if they do get shot, the armor prevents penetration, which is a testament to the concern their senior officers have  regarding their health and welfare. But then again,  having to  hump 100+ lbs of gear in  this blazing hot desert (unless they’re in the east where the heat is not too bad as you work your way 8,000 feet  up the  Hindu Kush mountainside)   is a sobering  testament  of just  how little regard  senior officers  have,  for  the health and welfare of their men.

Men will take significant risks to reduce the loads they carry into battle.  The ANA soilder in the background and his ANP counterpart if the foreground have just been in contact with the Taliban but they remain as light as they can possibly be
Men will take significant risks to reduce the loads they carry into battle. The ANA soilder in the background and his ANP counterpart if the foreground have just been in contact with the Taliban but they remain as light as they can possibly be, no spare ammo, water, radio etc... I'm not saying this is smart I'm just saying it is the way it is.

Employing gravity, the  PBI are using this extra mass and weight to their advantage  with superman dives  from armored vehicle platforms to apprehend geezers.  On the other hand,  knowing  that American Marines are inflicting so much  punishment on the Taliban, thanks in large part to Bing West (age 70),  who has spent a  significant amount of  time (by normal standards) here  in Afghanistan.  Bing West is, by definition a geezer, having fought in Vietnam, his son went through infantry officer training over 20 years ago (which I recall, being  one of his instructors).   So…can patrolling in body armor really be  that bad, if our own geezers can still  hack it?

Soldiers loads has been one of the more popular topics for staff college papers since the days when Staff Colleges were invented
Optimal soldiers loads have been one of the more popular topics for Staff College papers since the invention of Staff Colleges.

Having done  some research,   I  find that American Geezers have something in common with British Tommies; they too can say “I’m not having that” and the discussion is over.    Turns out Bing West doesn’t wear body armor or helmet!  He may be on the facility of  the Naval War College, and he may submit reports to the American Department of Defense, but somehow he has reached  that glorious  station in life where he can tell the Marines and the Army to  STUFF IT-   He goes out with whoever he wants, while wearing whatever he wants.    Man, that’s nice work if you can get it!

It is not like being a reporter makes one a non-combatant,  as we were reminded again with the passing of Tim Heatherington in Libya yesterday. Bing West doesn’t have to wear body armor because he’s 70,   and nobody expects men his age to walk around  lugging 100 lbs of gear,  and he  has earned his due with the Marines.  That seems perfectly reasonable; what is unreasonable is to expect any man, of any age, to carry around over 100 lbs of armor, water and weapons during combat operations.  We know that forcing men to carry that much weight will cause significant problems;   but the only significant problem senior officers worry about are the  ones which will adversely impact their careers.  They know that we task the PBI to carry too much weight, they know that physical and mental exhaustion leads to increased numbers of our guys suffering enemy wounds and  they know that the men know- which means that the press knows, which is to say everyone knows;  but nobody wants to acknowledge that  what they know- we ALL  know.  The British defense Ministry did what bureaucrats do when confronted by unpleasant facts – they made the shit up and released it to the press:

A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said: “The issue of weight carried by soldiers on operations is well recognised and work is constantly under way to reduce the amount carried by soldiers.  “Since June 2010 a number of weight savings measures have reduced the weight carried by soldiers by up to 26lbs.”

Sure, 26 lbs…color me skeptical, but  prevaracation over  the amount of weight trimmed off the fighting infantry misses the point.    To wit:   despite all the armor,  and all the  accouterments carried by the  modern western infantryman; we are still kicking the dog poop out of local people who, wear no armor, and carry little more than a rifle with a single magazine.  Know what?    That is pretty damned impressive!    Just imagine what we could do if we got serious about fighting here.

Poppy Time

It is Saturday, the 9th of April here in the sunny paradise of Afghanistan and both Kandahar and Kabul are in a UN declared “White City” status as the locals brace for another round of anti-American protests in response to the Koran burning in Florida.  I’m in Kandahar where all is quiet after Thursday’s  spectacular attack on an ANP compound.  Once again the Taliban used an ambulance VBIED to get through police and ISAF cordons, then detonated it inside the incident scene. The Taliban still suck at fighting, but they are getting pretty slick with the tactical planning as of late.

We aren’t too worried about protests in the South – a look at last week’s stats from Sami the Finn at Indicium Consulting shows why:

When the incident rate in the south drops like this there is only explanation; Poppy time
When the incident rate drops like this in the south there is only explanation; Poppy Time

When the poppy is being harvested all other activity around the poppy belt, including Taliban attacks, grind to a halt. Opium prices are at an all time high after last years crop failure and we hear this year the opium sap harvesters will keep 1 man (4.5 kilos) for every 6 man they milk out of the poppy bulbs. A man sells (at current prices) for around US $6000. That is a ton of money in these parts, however gathering up that much wet opium takes the average 4 man team two weeks of backbreaking, dawn to dusk effort. Still every able bodied male in the region is hard at work trying to get a man worth of Opium because when you have 6k in your pocket you can get married. That’s right – sex not only sells but it’s also is a great motivator for unmarried men in societies where the only way to get it is through marriage.

With most of the international press trying to figure out what Obama and Hillary are up to in Africa confusion regarding what’s happening here has reached new levels of strangeness.  Are things going well, or are they going  down the tubes? Is a resurgent al Qaeda a problem, or, (as I have long maintained) is this never going to be happen again in Afghanistan? Is the President of the United States really an inexperienced, doctrinaire, ignoramus, or is he rope-a-doping the whole world by pretending to be incompetent while hatching a wickedly genius plan to bring Americans a healthy economy coupled to a foreign policy which is easily understood to benefit the interests of our country?

One of the things about Marines which irritates the other services to no end is their propensity for festooning their cars with the Eagle Globe and Anchor. In time every ANA vehicle in the Helmand Province will have a Marine sticker on it.
One of the things about Marines (which irritates the other services to no end) is our propensity for festooning personal vehicles and most vertical surfaces with Eagle Globe and Anchor stickers. In time every ANA vehicle in the Helmand Province will have a Marine sticker on it.

Allow me to answers my questions in reverse order: Our POTUS is not rope-a-doping, his crisis management performance  is typical for a man who has been promoted way beyond his level of incompetence for reasons other than experience or consistent superior performance. But that is a lesson we cannot acknowledge because it remains fashionable among our cultural and business elite to emphatically believe affirmative action is a good thing. They want to believe that diversity makes us stronger when everyone who has to deal with “diversity” knows the only way it makes anything stronger is when diverse peoples meet the same standards and compete on a level playing field.

The Taliban are resurgent now, have been for the past two years and will be gaining and holding more terrain, will be inflicting more casualties on ISAF and ANSF, will grow stronger and stronger with each passing year. Worse, it appears al-Qaeda is back which I thought would never happen but then again I thought we’d be making progress by now.

And finally I have no idea what in the name of God we are doing bombing Libya but can guarantee you that when it’s all said and done we’re going to discover this was “doing stupid shit”. Let’s just hope we don’t lose too many people in the process.

In the Eastern portion of Afghanistan we have withdrawn from most of Kunar Province because the military geniuses in Kabul have decided that our presence in the isolated valleys was a provocation, so we declared victory and are packing up to head home. The Hillbillies of Kunar didn’t see it that way and thought our withdraw from their turf was a win for them.  Commanders who are victorious against the Americans seem to attract attention, money, recruits, and (this is new) al Qaeda training camps.  Who would have guessed that????????

Poppy
The poppy turns up everywhere to include the vegetable garden in our compound. Our gardener grows some pretty decent looking weed too. I don’t think he’s a smoker and bet he sells the weed – the three poppy plants out back aren’t enough to produce squat and are there because they look cool

This report in the Wall Street Journal was a nasty surprise to those of us paying attention but not for long. Within 24 hours the MSM was spinning a counter story that included this statement: “Petraeus also said he did not agree with reports that al-Qaida was making a comeback in Afghanistan”.  Well, I guess that’s that but hold on the WSJ story was written by Mathew Rosenberg. I know Matt gets outside the security bubble to dig up his own facts having given him a ride from Jalalabad to Kabul a few years ago.  If Rosenberg is reporting there is a resurgent al Qaeda infesting Afghanistan then I’m going to admit I was wrong about the possibility of that happening. General Petraeus can say whatever he likes but we know he doesn’t know because he has no human intelligence capacity with which to know.  That is the price he must pay for having unlimited funds with which to build little islands of America all over the country, isolating most of the forces completely from the Afghans.

Another classic example of  inside the security bubble propaganda  versus  real outside the wire atmospherics can be found in this April Fools article . Written by James Dobbins, and reprinted by the RAND people for some reason  (I am certain protecting their billions in FOB based contracts has nothing to do with it) Mr Dobbins, a DC insider with a vested interest in blowing sunshine up the rectums of other insiders, tells us that “irrational optimism” is the word of the day for your ordinary Afghan. You see, as bad as things are, they have been so much worse over the past 30 years that, from the perspective of the abused populace, everything is now peachy!

Let me paste in graph from one of the few organizations that actually gets out on the ground (with expat led teams) to do their own polling. Check this out:

When you get off the FOB and ask people questions face to face you get an idea about how badly things are going
When you get off the FOB and ask people questions face to face, you get an idea why the Afghans are clueless about our motives for being and staying here.

The pie chart above is based on a report by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS).  ICOS is the only policy analysis organization in Afghanistan with expatriate headed assessment teams. They are led by the formidable Norine MacDonald: I ran into them last January while they were in the Helmand Province doing research for this report on the dangers of a draw-down in forces this summer.

I personally don’t think the maneuver units are going anywhere this summer. The United States could easily send half the people deployed to Afghanistan home without diminishing a bit of combat power. Simply clear out all the Equal Opportunity Officers, the Sexual Harassment Officers, career jammers, the jerks who monitor base gyms to make sure nobody wears a sleeveless shirt and the military policemen who make life on the FOB’s such a drag. You could easily cut the intelligence effort in half because Afghan intel is an echo chamber of endemic circular reporting.  And you can close the COIN Academy; setting up a new “innovative” school house is a loser move designed to cover over the fact we have no traction with the Afghan people.  The COIN Academy will never answer that question because you can’t do COIN in six month increments which isn’t really the problem either; the Karzai administration is the problem. But I’ve only been saying that for five years now and am sick of repeating myself.

We’re spending too much money and blood in Afghanistan while achieving very little besides beating the dog shit out of the Southern Taliban. That is something which the Marines in Helmand and the ISAF units in Kandahar can be proud of but it’s not enough. When I look at the train wreck that is the United States economy coupled with the unwillingness of our elected leaders to deal with the mess they made I am reminded (yet again) of the Roman Empire.  Contemplate this quote (hat tip Dan Carlin’s Hard Corps History) from historian Michael Crawford who wrote in  The Roman Republic:

The dangerous developments of the second century BC were then in large measure the result of growth of the Roman Empire providing the oligarchy with wealth which had to be invested making it easy for them to acquire extra land, providing them with slaves to work it and offering no alternative land elsewhere to those dispossessed.  A part time peasant army conquers the Mediterranean and that conquest facilitates its destitution.

The level of debt being generated by our political masters is unsustainable, the amount of spending on the war in Afghanistan is unsustainable, the financial obligations of the democratic run blue states are unsustainable.  Yet our political class continues to demagogue, evade, reward themselves with benefits regular Americans can only dream of, while our military leaders focus on marginal issues like women on submarines or the acceptance of homosexuals (as if they have not always been in the military anyway). Our government leaders focus on everything except the fact we have no money. Our military leaders focus on everything except the fact that we’re losing in Afghanistan. The American people work hard to support their families while sending their children off to fight for a military that is rapidly adopting the liberal cultural mores of the ruling class at the expense of traditional martial virtue.  The men and women fighting here and elsewhere will return to a country where only the elite prosper, where the rules for the political class and the working class are different. They are going to fight like lions to support our constitution while the administration shreds that constitution and  leaves the common folk destitute.

Holy shit I sound like a commie!  Time to pack up the laptop and fly to Dubai where I need to score another visa and a beer or two.  Maybe a few days of sleeping in a real bed will improve the mood a bit but I doubt it.  I see a bad moon rising.

Afghanistan Gone Wild

The killings in Mazar-i Sharif followed by rioting in Kandahar, Jalalabad and towns across the country are more than a little troubling.  Joshua Foust posted on the topic expressing concern about the viability of internationals remaining outside the wire which makes me concerned too because Joshua isn’t one to cry wolf..  Registan.net then added  a post by Joel Hafvenstein arguing that the insurgency is not targeting aid workers and the time to talk of pulling out has not been reached.

Kandahar, where protests broke out on Saturday was locked down until this morning by ISAF.  We had our own scare today when a villain walking near the Governors compound spontaneously detonated (malfunctions are as predictable as rain with Afghan suicide bombers) and his partner immediately started running down a side street towards our compound.  He was brought down in a spirited fusillade most of which seemed to snap over our compound walls.  This meeting engagement in downtown Lash apparently disrupted crowds which were gathering in the surrounding neighborhoods for a Koran burning protest.  We dispatched scouts to check out the city when we heard that but they reported the town to be locked down, streets empty and ANSF check points everywhere.  There was a Koran burning protest across the river fronting the main Lashar Gah bazaar but the ANSF won’t let them into the city.  The locals know that a large agitated mob would result in indiscriminate looting of the bazaar so the local elders were in the ANP  HQ by the afternoon complaining bitterly about allowing crowds to form in the first place.

One of the many smaller protests in downtown Kandahar this morning
One of the many smaller protests in downtown Kandahar Saturday morning

The violent protests in Kandahar left at least 8 Afghans dead and caused a complete lockdown of the city by ISAF ground combat units.  I’m ignoring the attacks on the Kabul ISAF bases last Friday.  Attacking them is a stupid, meaningless gesture which puts Afghan civilians caught in the crossfire at much greater risk then the international troops who guard the ECP’s.  The rioting in Kandahar is not a big surprise given the powder keg nature of the city as ISAF and ANSF forces continue to put the screws to Taliban networks.  The attack on a UN Compound in Mazar in which two of the Nepalese guards were reportedly beheaded is a little harder to explain.

The Wall Street Journal released the well researched article Inside the Massacre at Afghan Compound which gives a good account of what happened and why ISAF did not respond in time.  Mazar-i Sharif has indeed always been considered one of the safest towns in the country for foreigners.  Back in ’06 and ’07 when I frequently traveled to Mazar we considered the entire area to be benign and never carried rifles or body armor.  Just as in Jalalabad, a town reportedly hit with Koran burning protests today, the security situation in Mazar deteriorated dramatically during 2010.  I have heard from friends that the armed guards in the UN compound did surrendered their weapons without firing a shot.  That is not a big surprise.  Shooting into a crowd of unarmed people is not an easy thing to do.

The only way to handle a crowd this big and this close would be with CS gas grenades while pleading with ISAF to come to the rescue
The only way to handle a crowd this big and this close would be with CS gas grenades while pleading with ISAF to come to the rescue. This is the crowd outside the UN compound before they went high order. Photo from Sami the Finn

Private Security Companies in Afghanistan are not allowed to have CS or any other kind of grenade (except smoke) in their inventory so the UN guards could not volley CS gas over the walls in an effort to drive the mob away.  Nor could they volley frags and as you can see from the picture above gunfire would have been effective only if they started drilling a lot of people fast.  Most folks in that situation will decide lethal force is an option which will most likely make the situation worse.  Identifying the tipping point when lethal force would be appropriate would have been next to impossible last Friday. Trusting your fate to the mercy of the mob is a plan that could very likely go very wrong but most of us would probably go that route if the alternative is shooting massive numbers of unarmed people.  But not now.

Reuters is reporting:

A senior interior ministry investigator said on Sunday the killers of the U.N. staff appear to have been “reintegrated” Taliban — fighters who had formally laid down arms — although the insurgents have denied any role in the attack.

Over 30 people have been arrested, from areas as far afield as southern Kandahar, western Herat and central Baghlan province, said Munir Ahmad Farhad, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

If all those bad actors converged on Mazar-i Sharif to start a riot it was most likely because Mazar has a reputation as being safe.  It would be much harder to pull off a similar stunt in Lash and we saw how quickly the protests in Kandahar were locked down.  The security forces in contested areas react much faster to large unruly crowds.  In Mazar they were used to how things go in Mazar; they have never locked down the city nor have they ever had to deal with multiple Taliban complex attacks.  It appears the Koran burning provided the perfect opportunity for an organization with motive, money and organization to whip a large crowd out of control.  It would not surprise me if the killers were imported and paid too, but that is speculation on my part.  I note with interest that the Taliban have not claimed responsibility.

I am seeing things the same way as Joel Hafvenstein regarding the Afghanistan Aid effort; I don’t know of any company out here slowing down operations or packing up to go home.  The security situation deteriorated rapidly in the past 12 months except for in the Helmand and Kandahar Provinces where most population centers are solidly under ISAF/ANSF control.  I still think this summer could be a tipping point if the Taliban continue to get shredded in their southern homeland but we’ll have to see.  It may not prove to be decisive in the long term but then again who knows?  It’s going to be an interesting summer.