All Clear

At 0630 this morning, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the form of the Kabul Critical Response Unit (CRU) finished off a crew of villains who had been fighting for the past 16 hours. These guys, most likely HIG militants, had barricaded themselves in a building under construction next to the Azizi Bank located on Zambaq Square, which is right next to the diplomatic quarter. This is the same tactic they used in the attack on the diplomatic quarter last September, but this time they attacked from the opposite direction.

The location and approximate range fan for yesterday’s attack on the diplomatic quarter. Deeper in this range fan (but well within machinegun range) are the US Embassy and ISAF HQ.

 

At dawn the villains were still active in the 3rd and 4th floors (counting top down). ANSF was hitting them with RPG's and rockets about every 45 seconds followed up with automatic weapons fire
At dawn the villains were still active in the 3rd and 4th floors (counting top down) from this building.   ANSF was hitting them with RPG’s and rockets about every 35 seconds, followed up with automatic weapons fire

 

Heavy Machinegun fire following up a rocket strike
Heavy Machinegun fire following up a rocket strike.  Camp Eggers is just off to the left of that building, Wazar Akbar Khan, where many expats live, is in the foreground.

ANSF had pinned the attackers in that building down at the start of this incident yesterday afternoon. When I climbed up Bibi Mahroo Hill this morning all the shooting (and there was a lot still going on) was being done by the ANSF. When a brick wall is all that separates you from the exploding RPG’s, anti tank rockets and heavy machinegun fire the concussive effect from the over-pressure are brutal. I doubt that the villains were in any condition to offer effective resistance by the time the CRU went in to finish them off. At 0630 local time, the scene was declared secure and ANSF announced that the insurgents had been terminated.

These attacks, like those before them, accomplished very little tactically but then again they don’t have to. Just mounting the attack is a victory for insurgents with the only audience that counts: the people of Afghanistan. Tactical victories are physical victories and at this point in the conflict physical victories don’t count only moral ones do. The Taliban are fighting against infidel invaders and a corrupt central government. They are gaining the moral high ground with the only people who matter now – the Afghan people by standing up to the worlds most powerful military and an unpopular central government.

Watching the action from Bibi Mahroo Hill
Watching the action from Bibi Mahroo Hill

So we now have another problem. Not the attacks – they accomplished nothing except to demonstrate the insurgents’ ability to stockpile weapons and ammunition inside the most secure parts of Kabul. That takes time, money and access; whoever they paid -is the problem and those kind of problems are endemic in Kabul.

Here are the latest casualty figures for this series of attacks from Reuters;

Afghan security forces have killed 32 gunmen and arrested one more in operations to stop coordinated attacks by Taliban fighters that hit the capital, Kabul, and three other provinces, the defense ministry said on Monday.  Eight members of the security forces have been killed and 44 others, including five civilians, wounded, Mohammad Zahir, Kabul CID chief, said on Monday.

Given the amount of ordnance the insurgents fired off that is an amazingly low count. This isn’t the last time Kabul is going to be targeted; we’ll be in the hot seat again soon. For now the local people are going about their business hoping that the next time insurgents decide to make a statement their luck continues to hold.

Storm Warning

America is currently experiencing some monster tornadoes deep in the heartland.  As dawn breaks across my homeland the scenes of devastation are dramatic but the casualties so far remarkably low. When a sudden serious storm breaks in Kabul it’s a tornado of steal and there is one unwinding now in Kabul right down the street from me.  In Afghanistan tornadoes are not a problem; spectacular Taliban attacks are there is a series of them in progress. So far we have reports (via UN and media) of attacks in Zanbaq Square, Qanbar Square, (both in Kabul) the ISAF logistics base a few miles east of downtown and the Parliament. There are also reports of attacks on the PRT’s  in Jalalabad and Logar, the police headquarters in Paktia and Kandahar. With the exception of Kandahar all these targets are in the East; exactly where ISAF is claiming they will concentrate their attention this fighting season.

The problem with announcing your plans long before commencing an offensive is that the enemy gets a vote too.  And the enemy has decided to preempt ISAF with an offensive of their own.  As usual, the attacks are rather spectacular and for a change well coordinated. Tactically they will fail. The attackers will inflict whatever minimal damage they can with small arms, explosives, and RPG’s and then die in place. Afghan security forces have locked down Kabul and no doubt the other sites too and can now afford to take their time clearing out the villains.

The fighting is one block over to the right as you look down the street in this picture. The traffic is pretty light but has not stopped as people try to get around the police barricades that have isolated the attackers. You can't see them but there is a group of school girls clustered at the corner at the right end of the street peering down the road towards the fighting - the ANP escorted them down the road a bit after this photo was taken. A steel tornado is ravaging the downtown just a few hundred meters away while these local people are trying to find their way home. People can adopt to most anything
The fighting is two blocks over (to the right) as you look down the street in this picture. The traffic is pretty light but has not stopped as people try to get around the police barricades that have isolated the attackers. There is a group of school girls clustered at the corner at the end of the street peering down the road towards the fighting, probably trying to decide what to do – the ANP escorted them down the road a bit after this photo was taken. A steel tornado is ravaging the downtown just a few hundred meters away while these local people are trying to find their way home. People can adopt to just about anything.

Wind tornadoes strike with little warning; steel tornadoes strike with no warning. We were exiting a local bank when the shooting started. It was close to us but you get that around here sometimes. A few rounds fired from one weapon is not a reason for alarm and when Haji and I heard that we thought nothing of it. As we headed back towards the safe house we were surrounded by frantic armed men, some in uniforms some not, some carrying M4’s, others sporting AK’s.  They were the security detail for a senior Afghan official and trying to clear the usual traffic jam in order to get their charge off the street and into a secured location. To the perceptive man on the street, frantic high-end Afghan security guards are as sure a sign of heavy winds inbound as a tornado siren would be in the Midwest. My driver Haji jan (former old school Taliban who has been with me for 5 years) looked at me and said, “trouble.” I looked back at him and said, “no shit.” We both smiled because there was nothing else we could do until the traffic jam cleared up.

When I wrote the last post, I asked the question, “to what end?” when discussing the soon to be launched ISAF offensive. I don’t care how many “leaders” are killed in night raids nor how many insurgents are rolled up in this pending offensive. Does anyone honestly think it will make a difference?  I don’t. The Taliban seem to be able to penetrate the Kabul “Ring of Steel” at will and I bet, based on the amount of shooting I’m hearing, they stockpiled ammo and weapons inside the downtown area just like they did for their last attack inside Kabul.  Can ISAF stop it? No, it has nothing to do with ISAF; it’s an Afghan problem and only they can fix whatever it is that is dysfunctional enough to allow HIG and Taliban militants to launch operations inside Kabul at will. I’m getting the feeling that these “spectacular” attacks in Kabul are the new normal. It’s going to be a long summer.

Great photo from todays attack by Reuters
Great photo from todays attack from Reuters

The Afghanistan Live Blog from Al Jazeera has the best coverage and is updated frequently.  You can find it here.

Operation Magistral

There was an article on Afghanistan last week that got my immediate attention.  The article had a one day life cycle and I have not seen any follow ups which, given the content, is surprising.   I am not referring to the change in  night raid policy – I couldn’t care less about night raids because tangible results after years of doing them are nil. The argument for them is that the tactical situation on the ground would be much worse without them. I’m not seeing how it could get much worse.

The big news (for me) was an article running titled Details Emerge on Coming U.S. Offensive in Eastern Afghanistan. One can only hope it was another April Fools prank because I cannot believe we would do something so utterly pointless.  Here are the alleged objectives:

A senior U.S. government official in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new troops will have three primary missions. First, they will work to expand the so-called security bubble surrounding the Afghan capital, which has been battered by a spate of insurgent attacks in recent months. Second, they will try to better connect Kabul with the key southern city of Kandahar, a hotbed of resistance that NATO forces largely reclaimed last year.

The third mission will be the most important, the most complicated, and potentially the most dangerous. The troops, the senior government official said, will move toward the Afghan-Pakistani border as part of a broad push to reduce the numbers of anti-government fighters, weaponry, and bomb-making material flowing in from Pakistan, where militants operate freely from large safe havens.

Extend the “security bubble” from Kabul to Ghazni, clear route one from Kabul to Kandahar and then turn east and clear all the Taliban from the border provinces of Paktya and  Khost with 5000 extra paratroopers?  That’s not going to happen. That plan is not only DOA; its crazy.

Late in the Soviet Afghan War the Soviets tried the same kind of Op for probably the same reasons only they had 28,000 men trying to clear a tiny piece of road running from Gardez to Khost. The Soviet Offensive was called Operation Magistral and if you’re a gamer and have played The Battle For Hill 3234 you were playing a game based on a battle from Operation Magistral. It took two months for Soviets and their Afghan partners to get to Khost and the offensive was conducted in November through January – the non fighting season when the weather is cold, the snow deep and most of the Muj fighters still sitting out the winter in Pakistan.

The Southeast Region - the next offensive is supposed to clear all of this
The Southeast Region – the next offensive is supposed to clear all of this with the forces on hand plus an extra 5,000 troop mini surge.

 

The Gardez to Khost highway - this tiny part of the Southeast Region
The Gardez to Khost highway – this tiny part of the Southeast Region took the Soviets 2 months to clear using 28,000 troops

Number comparisons between Soviet forces back in 1987 and American forces now are irrelevant. The Soviets had to dig out the thick belt of heavy weapons the Muj used to fortify the Satukandav Pass (30 km east of Gardez) using infantry fire and maneuver. Americans have drone pilots back in Nevada who could sort that out. Any Taliban fortifications uncovered by our side would get plastered by rockets and 2000lb JDAMS. That’s why the villains now use IED’s and when they do fight they do so in areas where there are lots of civilians so they can drop their weapons blend back into the normal pattern of life when hard pressed. The area between Highway 1 and the Pakistan border is huge and has heavily populated flat lands with lots of mountains in between.  It is not the Helmand Province where the Marines were able (with twice the manpower) to dominate the lower Helmand basin in large part because terrain, vegetation, and population density favored their direct fire weapon systems. That still took years for them to accomplish and I don’t want to get into what that effort cost in casualties because it is too damn depressing. It’s depressing because those sacrifices gained nothing that will last.

The reason I bring up Operation Magistral is not to point out the Soviets had 28,000 men and still got their asses kicked – they didn’t. The Paratroopers from the 82nd who are scheduled to conduct this offensive (if it happens as outlined in the article) won’t get their asses kicked either. But they’re going to take some casualties and they are going to inflict much more than they take and my question is to what end?

Brother _B_ and I were chatting on Skype earlier trying to figure out why ISAF would launch an “offensive” in a such a heavily populated area .  _B_ figures its to demonstrate the “capabilities of the Afghan Army we have been mentoring while creating space to withdraw”.  I agree – that is the classic reason to do this kind of operation but it also showcases the Pentagon’s steadfast refusal to deal with reality. The whole American COIN concept is predicated on having a legitimate host nation partner and our ability to build host nation security forces. We don’t have a legitimate host nation government to partner with and have failed to build meaningful capacity in the Afghan Security Forces (ANSF).

Bother _B_ and I know how this so-called offensive is going to end – we’re going to lose soldiers while killing scores of Pastun tribesmen and dozens of civilians. The second we pull out, the turf will go right back into the hands of the local Taliban and/or Warlord. That  is exactly what happened when the Soviets pulled out of the same area after inflicting a good thumping on the Muj back in 87. This planned offensive may well be the craziest idea floated by the American military since Operation Eagle Claw.

Crazy seems to be a theme lately because guess what those crazy Afghans are up to now? They’re threatening Hillary Clinton’s legacy! This is from the linked article;

Clinton embraced the cause long before the first U.S. troops landed in the country, and as secretary of State she has brought Afghan women worldwide attention, political power and unbending promises of American support.

“We will not abandon you,” she pledged.

First; yes, you will abandon them, you already have in most of the country.  Second, what the hell does Hillary Clinton’s “commitment to women” have to do with the foreign policy of the United States of America? I’m all for helping Afghan woman and have done more than my share of projects in support of that effort. But I was working for an NGO which is the only appropriate vehicle for that kind of change. NGO’s work from the bottom up and can ignore or avoid corrupt officials if they are smart enough to understand cultural dynamics. Why is the office of the Secretary of State now a platform where liberal ruling class elites can indulge in imaginary pet projects designed to build a political legacy? Billions of our dollars and the lives of thousands of our fellow citizens hang in the balance in Afghanistan but the issue is Hillary Clinton’s legacy? The State Department had a lot to do with starting and shaping this conflict (if you break it you own it) while also underhandedly creating the dysfunctional central government by foisting their favored candidate and the SNTV voting system on the Afghan people.  Nobody seems to remember these facts nor the myriad unintended consequences of allowing senior people to dabble in the Great Game and leave others to contended with the fall out. The lessons that normally accompany abject failure are being swept under the rug instead of being mined how to not make the same mistakes in the future. Hillary Clinton’s legacy my rosy red ass….I’ve got her legacy right here;

I do not care for people who create tales of martial exploits in order to win high office because it reinforces the sad fact that they think the rest of us are stupid
I do not care for people who create tales of martial exploits in order to win high office because it reinforces the sad fact that they think the rest of us are stupid

Now that I got off my chest let me throw in some more pictures and get back on track. Check out the photos below:

The US Embassy entrance in 2005
The US Embassy entrance in 2005 looking towards Massoud Circle

 

School in nangarhar in 2005
Public school in Nangarhar Province 2005

 

The front entrance to the Embassy gate
The US Embassy entrance in 2012 looking from Massoud Circle back towards the gate; note the difference in security set up

 

Public School in Nangarhar 2012
Public School in Nangarhar Province 2012

Shortly after the first set of  pictures above were taken ISAF decided that we were going to do COIN and emphasize protecting the people. Every year since then the Taliban and other insurgent groups have grown stronger while not much has changed for the average Afghan. Yet ISAF and the American embassy have never stopped putting up more walls, more wire, and adding more movement restrictions which isolate diplomatic and aid staff even more than before.  Security for me but not for thee is what I had to say about this back in 2010, and not much has changed since. Admitting this seems to be problematic even for  the practical people of Australia. From the linked article:

Australian officials have rejected a report commissioned by the government agency AusAID that is critical of the security assessment in Afghanistan, insisting it be rewritten to match upbeat claims of dramatic progress.

What can you say about that bullshit? What I’d like to say to any Australian government representatives reading this post is that The Bot and I can do a 3 year Provincial security assessment, in any province mind you, for 2.5 million (Australian dollars please – they’re worth more than American dollars) and we’ll have teams on the ground in every district bringing in the ground truth within 96 hours of signing the contract. But we don’t do re-writes; that may seem a disadvantage based on the article above but look at this way: save a million here and million there and before you know it you have a huge budget surplus and are then politically strong enough to take the truth straight.  And that’s how you should want your security assessments….right?

Let me predict something and I know I’m right so don’t even think about emailing me asking to bet…you’ll lose. There will be no offensive by ISAF in eastern Afghanistan this year or next year or any year. The conventional military has done all they can do and it is time for them to leave. They think their fighting big T and little t Taliban but they’re wrong. What they are fighting is a Afghan insurgency because the Afghans don’t like foreigners and they don’t like the government in Kabul no matter who is charge. They know and have known for years that the only way to get a fair settlement in a land dispute or any civil law matter is to take the issue to a Taliban judge for adjudication. We have screwed this up so badly words are not adequate to express my level of disgust with what we have wrought on the Afghans.

 

Return to Kabul

Kabul is currently a tense place. It has had periods of unrest many times in the past (the 2006 riots that erupted after American soldiers caused a multi-fatality motor vehicle accident springs instantly to mind) but Kabul isn’t experiencing unrest – it’s tense like a tight spring. The endgame is near, internationals are no longer welcomed in most parts of the country and barely tolerated in the rest. Armored SUV’s, still the only way most internationals will travel in Kabul, are routinely stopped and the legally licensed weapons of the international security consultants confiscated. On a technical note every weapon owned and licensed to PSC firms are now illegal because the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF)  was supposed to take over the security duties from international PSC’s last month and that’s not remotely close to happening. For those who do have APPF guards on their compounds the word is the guards have no weapons and are not being paid by the APPF leadership. This is a surprise to who? Nobody that has clue about how these things usually work out in Afghanistan I can assure you.

The locals in Kabul are concerned about what will happen when ISAF and the international community pull out. They are also disgusted with the US, ISAF, the UN, the big international reconstruction firms and the Afghan politicians who are looting the country. Who can blame them? I’m disgusted with the American politicians who are looting my country too. Over here the mob is inflamed by Koran burning and rouge shootings. In America the mob is inflamed by a media manufactured “racially motivated” shootings.  The New York Times prints articles about corrupt officials in Kabul and ponder aloud why they remain at liberty.  I’d like to know why Jon Corzine is still at liberty; he stole 1.6 billion dollars from his investors making the millions his Afghan counterparts are pocketing pale in comparison. But we know why these men are free – politically powerful members of corrupt political machines never face the consequences of their actions.

With Kabul so tense we are spending most of our time in the compound tracking atmospherics with our local national staff.

The Koran Burning Apologies

It was not the apologies that were so bad it was how they were made and what was said. Some regular Joe’s in Bagram made a mistake and placed Korans into an incinerator. Local Afghans saw this and, with the help of the soldiers, rescued the material. That’s the story – there is nothing else need be said and here’s why. We have an 11- year track record in Afghanistan of not only respecting cultural mores and traditions but of bending over backward to show that respect. Any accusation or remark by a senior Afghan official that we disrespect Islam or the Koran should have been met with an explosion of righteous indignation. And I mean eyes bugged out, frothing at the mouth explosion of spitting right back at them the years and years of evidence that such a charge is out of line. If there is nobody at the ISAF HQ capable of doing that maybe we should consider forgiving the considerable tax debt of NBC news commentator Al Sharpton and send him over here to deal with the press.

Messaging

ISAF

The Taliban kick our ass every day on twitter - that's Big Army IO for you and that is yet another indicator that our military may be good at a lot of things but winning wars is not one of them
Social media is not a game for big bureaucratic PC centric battle staffs because even illiterate tribesmen can make them look stupid

 

The Mask of Command; Modern Marine Corps version
The Mask of Command; Modern Marine Corps version

 

Pasted above are two recent examples of ISAF messaging; the first is self explanatory, the second un-explainable. Let me take the second first and, to make it fair, let me stipulate the following. I’ll ignore the color of the Shalwar Kamise (the senior guy should be in all white) and ignore the man dancing (the senior guy doesn’t dance – he has subordinates that he can make do that) and focus on the venue. Locked deep inside the most secure base in Southern Afghanistan, behind multiple secure entry points is a prefabbed trailer with pictures of the Prez and the Queen and no doubt President Karzai along with some local textiles hanging on the walls and probably a bunch of Afghan rugs the Marines paid 18 times too much for and its called the Afghan Cultural Center. The Commanding General wanted to thank the Governor of Helmand for all the great team work that has made his year-long tour so successful and he does this inside a gigantic Marine base where he established some bullshit “cultural center”?  You know what that makes him look like in the local context?  Weak.  If he wanted to put on local clothes and spend the night man dancing to thank the governor for such a great year on the ground he should have had the balls (and G2) to go to the Governors compound.  At least he would have been in a real Afghan room listening to real Afghan music while eating real Afghan food and most importantly demonstrating some confidence in all the improved security that was the cause of this silly celebration in the first place.

The Big Picture

Is there a reason for us to stay in Afghanistan?  No there’s not but I’ve been saying that for years.  Should the military be packing up and going home?  They are – it is going to take until 2014 and probably well beyond just to retrograde all the equipment and personnel from theater and I doubt there is much they can do to speed the process up. Should we stop doing night raids?  Yes – I’ve been saying that for years too and I don’t care how many phone conversations of panicked Taliban ISAF intercepts or how many senior guys they kill because it doesn’t matter. Every month the Taliban spread, every month the number of successful IED strikes goes up, every month more Afghan government officials are assassinated. If these are indicators that the night raid tactic is working what are the indicators that it’s not?  I think the reason we do night raids is because we have a huge, expensive, special operations apparatus that specializes in night raids.  When you’re a hammer every problem looks like a nail right?

April Fools

But night raids aren’t my problem today…this is and I took a screen shot just in case the story disappears from the web as fast as the stories about Obama sending one of his kids, with a dozen of her friends, and two dozen Secret Service agents to Mexico (on our dime) did.

If this isn't a joke us internationals in Afghanistan are in big trouble
If this isn’t a joke us internationals are in big trouble

Breaking News: Ban on full-face veils instituted in Afghanistan may be the only hint of good news I’ve seen from Afghanistan this month.  Somebody here has developed a serious sense of humor combined with an understanding of irony and fooled the western media with a fake news story. If (and I can’t see how) but if, the central government tried to force Afghan women out of the Burka the appropriate Immediate Action Drill for all foreigners would be to head to the Kabul airport and fly out with the clothes on your back. Any attempt to go to ground in a safe house or delay your departure a day or two would be suicidal. That’s how disruptive the topic of women and their place in society is in Afghanistan.

To those westerners the treatment of Afghan women is so uniformly dismal that it is unbelievable. You want to see the ANP respond to a police call with true alacrity? Phone in a report of an un-escorted teenage girl talking to a male who is not her relative. I’ve seen that kind of call play out in the past and it’s not pretty. In fact here’s a story from yesterday about just how strongly locals feel on the issue:  Boy and Girl killed in Afghanistan acid attack ‘over friendship’. But to Afghans the treatment of women in this country and boys who befriend them outside the conventions of social mores, is the way it is supposed to be because it’s the way it has always been. That will change when the Afghan people want it to change and there is very little any one person or country can do to speed that process up.

How woman are treated in Afghanistan may be something are progressive leaders believes worth fighting for but it’s not. You cannot change 6,000 years of cultural practice by force because cultures double down on themselves when under attack from outsiders. But that’s just reality which seems optional with our senior leaders at times.

That fake news story would be hysterically funny but it could also set off violent rioting that would target westerners. Let’s hope it disappears fast.