Did We Lose Sangin District to the Taliban?

Taliban Take an Afghan District, Sangin, That Many Marines Died to Keep” said the New York Times a few days ago which, in classic demonstration of poor headline writing, turned out to be technically not true. Located further down in the Times story was a quote from an Afghan National Army (ANA) spokesman who explained what they had moved from the district center to a new base.

 “It is not true,” Maj. Gen. Dawlat Waziri, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, said of the reports of Sangin’s fall. “We relocated an army battalion in Sangin, we moved them to a newly built garrison. Whenever we move our forces in Sangin, they claim that they capture Sangin.”

Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio’s pointed out the obvious which is if the Taliban control the Sangin district center then they control the district.  With an ANA battalion somewhere in the district the central government can claim some degree of control  but in reality the tribes control Sangin and have ever since the Marines left. According to the standard Afghanistan counterinsurgency narrative  it would appear the Taliban now has the momentum it needs to prevail in it’s confrontation with the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA). But appearances are deceptive in Helmand province.

What is happening in Sangin district has little to do with the Taliban movement and everything to do with incessant inter-tribal conflict to control land, patronage and the lucrative poppy trade. The quote below from a Marine who served as an embedded trainer to the ANA sums the situation up well.

“The issues in Sangin are so much deeper than Taliban versus ANA,” one of the last U.S. Marines to serve as a combat adviser in the district, Dom Pellegrini, told Checkpoint, using the acronym for the Afghan National Army. “Those categories aren’t at all adequate to describe what was going on, and I’m not sure I ever figured out what was going on. It was a drug war, I guess.”

In 2011 the Marines were able to bring one of the tribes, the Alikozai, into the government fold. Bill Ardolino writing at The Long War Journal examined this development in detail at the time concluding:

Thus, this reported alliance with the government and the Marines in Sangin may represent less of a watershed political breakthrough and more of an accommodation with a minority of the district as they seek advantage in a bloody tribal grudge match.

The Alikozai tribe gained power and influence after siding with the government in 2011;  Helmand expert Mike Martin described what happened next in this 2016 Washington Post article:

Many in the local government and police hailed from one local tribe, the Alikozai, which historically had battled for drug profits with the neighboring Ishaqzai tribe. The Ishaqzai, predictably, threw in their lot with the Taliban.

“The police in Sangin are a drug militia belonging to one tribe, and the Taliban are another drug militia. Whoever controls the Sangin bazaar is able to tax the drug crop. Hence why people fight for control of the bazaar,” next to which FOB Jackson was located, Martin said.

The Ishaqzai had thrown their lot in with the Taliban back in 2006 which was when the other big tribes around Sangin including the Alizai and Noorzai did the same. They joined the Taliban after the provincial governor at the time, Sher Mohammad Akundzada, (a leader in the Alizai tribe) was sacked (at the insistence of the British) due to his participation in the opium trade. Sher Mohammad Akundzada was President Karzai’s brother-in-law and was key to holding the fragile Durrani tribal alliance that Karzai was using to hold the southern portion of the country together. At the time of his sacking Akundzada said he was being forced to turn his 3000 man militia over to the Taliban because he could no longer pay them. The Durrani tribes in the Helmand then started to turn on the Karzai government to protect their land and booming poppy trade.

Sher Mohammad Akundzada elected to the Meshrano Jirga (House of Elders) in 2010 and now living in Kabul.   Photo by Richard Mills

The Helmand tribes turned to Taliban funding networks (Quetta shura, or Peshawar shura or the Haqqani network) to gain the resources required to fight the government and ISAF but they never ceded operational or tactical control to those networks.  They fought for the survival of their tribes in a province that produces 90% of the world’s illicit opium supply turning Helmand into the most dangerous province (measured by ISAF casualties) in Afghanistan.

By relocating the ANA Kandak that was in Sangin outside the district center GoIRA has removed itself from the middle of a tribal civil war fueled by poppy, power and position. The Taliban are not going to come in and seize the district because the “Taliban” are already live there; it’s their district.

There is no reason to rush back into the district center to re-claim it because the government has never really held it to begin with. The Marines heading to Helmand province this summer know the history of the tribes, the players involved and what’s driving the cycle of violence province wide. But knowing the root of the problems and being able to address those problems is a problem.  A problem because it requires lots of coalition building, chin wagging and horse trading among the tribes but very little (if done correctly) shooting.

Solving that kind of problem is one of the challenges facing Task Force Southwest but (ideally) one that requires expert language skills, political juice and the kind of credibility that takes years to establish. Task Force Southwest needs a Pashto speaking diplomat, who is known to the tribes, and has the proper authority for deal making. They may have one for all I know as the Department of State would normally contribute appropriate level personnel to a Task Force of this nature.

They could also use an Islamic Chaplin but the military doesn’t have many of them which is a pity. The only untainted line of communication to the common people in Helmand province is through the Mullahs who are independent of the tribes because they come from outside the tribal system. It is the common farmer who benefits from stability (and who must, by now, be sick of war) who will listen to arguments from the Mullahs. Taking your case directly to the people is another way to bring pressure on both tribal and government leaders to do the right thing. That type of effort would require an American Chaplin (with serious Islamic Scholarship credentials) coordinating with the senior Mullahs. I’ve heard of at least two who fit the bill over the years but do not know if they remain in the service. If they do the next TF Southwest rotation should include one.

Alokozai tribal militia fanning out on patrol in support of GoIRA security forces in Sangin, January 2017; Photograph by Watan Yar/European Pressphoto Agency

Did Afghanistan lose Sangin district to the Taliban? No; they simply moved their army out of the way of the tribal infighting which they should have done when the Marines pulled out in 2014. Is it there a chance the Marines will be able to decrease the level of violence in Sangin district? Probably not; they are other issues closer to the capitol of Lashkar Gah they are going to have to focus on first.

The situation on the ground  facing Task Force Southwest is complex and given our past inability to develop capable, cohesive, proficient Afghan Security Forces, seemingly hopeless. The Marines think they are going to deliver positive change in Helmand province and by stiffening the Afghan Security Forces. I’m not sure how that will work but know what the Marines know and also know they are not, as an institution, comfortable with failure. If they think they can make a difference then my money is on them.

This is going to be the most important yet least covered combat deployment of a generation. You can help ensure this high risk deployment is covered honestly and fairly by supporting independent, expert combat journalism…. donate today at the Baba Tim Go Fund Me page.

Marines and Social Media

I was able to embed with Task Force Southwest for the first two days of their full mission rehearsal exercise last month. Embedding as a journalist with the Marines was a new experience for me that required signing  a dozen waivers acknowledging (among other things) that I knew the ground rules.

Guess what the most interesting ground rule was? No identification of Marines by name and if I had photograph of a Marine with the name tag on his uniform visible it had to be obscured before being published.

Major Kendra Motz, the public affairs officer (PAO) for the Task Force, explained the concern was potential cyber stalking and/or cyber bullying of the Marines and their families through social media accounts. I had asked specifically about using the name, age and home town of the Marines because that’s a  staple of military journalism.  It humanizes the story and reminds fellow citizens that the men and women serving are people just like them.

I was surprised by the new policy but recognized instantly it was a prudent measure. Given the Marines United  scandal the Corps is currently enduring an operational measure designed to prevent exposure of deployed Marines to potential abuse on social media is interesting.

One could make the argument Marines shouldn’t be on social media. Tier One operators aren’t on Facebook; it might be time the rest of the armed forces to do the same. Given the viciousness of trolling from all sides of the political spectrum as well as the weaponization of social media by groups like Daesh (ISIS); banning Marines from using social media makes sense. But passing regulations that you anticipate will be widely ignored makes no sense. And I haven’t any sense on the feasibility of a social media ban in today’s Marine Corps but would be thinking about it were I tasked with finding potential solutions.

Marines United was the topic of an almost two-hour podcast from All Marine Radio with the Legislative Assistant to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Brigadier General Dave Furness. For readers new to FRI Mike “Mac” McNamara is the host of All Marine Radio and he worked for Dave when he took Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1) to the Helmand province in 2010.

Dave, Mike and I outside the CP of RCT 1 on Camp Dwyer, Helmand province

Dave, Mac and I taught at the infantry officer course together in the early 90’s and have been good friends ever since. The Helmand deployment was the third combat deployment where Dave and Mike served together so as you can imagine they are tight.

The program linked above is fascinating, informative, and at times damn funny. It is a rare thing to listen to a general officer giving you the same brief he gives congress members. At the 1 hour 19 minute mark Mac transitions into a discussion about the barracks. What they are talking about is how much control Marine commanders enforce on their Marines during their off duty hours. BGen Furness reviews the barracks have changed from the open squad bays that we had as platoon commanders to the high raise dormitories of today’s Corps.

This is a topic of heated debate these days; open squad bays were not popular with junior Marines but they made the maintenance of good order and discipline easy. The modern barracks are nice providing Marines a degree of privacy and control of their living spaces never available in the past at the expense (apparently) of good order and discipline. Dave and Mac are adamant that discipline saves lives on the battlefield and they connect that discipline directly back to how and who runs the barracks. They have the statistics from their last combat deployment to back that up and it is a fascinating discussion to listen in on.

As Dave got going on the barracks being a key indicator of unit discipline Mac goads him by saying it’s not that way now and Dave goes off like a firecracker. I had tears in my eyes I was laughing so hard because I knew Mac had done this on purpose. Dave Furness is not only a good friend but an interesting, articulate guy who can tell some stories but who also has a critically important job which he remembers at the 1 hour 45 minute mark.  He must have looked at a clock and realized he was behind the power curve for the day when he suddenly said (clearly alarmed) “Hey I’ve got to go! I’ve got a job to do……”It’s hysterical radio and one of the reasons I’m enjoying being a fan of this unique venture .

The Girlfriend has a PhD in organizational leadership and she listened to the barracks discussion twice – taking notes both times. I urge all who have an interest in leadership to listen to this podcast; it’s an education in how to achieve excellence at the lowest levels of an organization.

The Go Fund Me campaign is off to a great start and I appreciate the support from the best friends a man can have. I still need a little help to make it to Afghanistan to report the story of Task Force Southwest. Please  take the time to support straight reporting from the front lines by donating to The Baba Tim Go Fund Me page.


The Afghans

The American military was welcomed by a vast majority of the Afghan population when it entered the country in 2001. We helped rid the country of an unpopular, dysfunctional government and seemed to have set the conditions for sustained peace in a country that has known war for a generation.

We should have finished our mission to Afghanistan in December, 2001 when we had Osama bin Laden (OBL) trapped but instead we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Frantic requests from the special operators in Tora Bora for American troops to seal the escape routes into Pakistan were ignored by CENTCOM.  Reportedly because the generals feared a “meat grinder” or “another Mogadishu” or “offending our Afghan allies”. When OBL slipped away into a dark Pakistani night our mission to Afghanistan started to expand and extend. Sixteen years later there is no end in sight.

Potential losses in risky operations should be evaluated against the mission. Confusing the importance of killing bin Laden with a mission involving the arrests of  Somali warlords is a failure (in my humble opinion) at the highest levels of command. But when CENTCOM went to the White House seeking guidance from on high killing bin Laden took a back seat when former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld handed them back their Iraq war plan and said he wanted a new one in five days. Unbelievable.

When bin Laden escaped we decided to stay and despite near universal acceptance by the Afghan people at the start of our effort we have, to date, failed. The warm welcome both aid workers and the military patrols received from 2002 through 2006 in rural Afghanistan is long gone. Kabul is now a dangerous place for internationals because the Afghans are frustrated, bitter, and angry at what some see as incompetence and others see as deliberate sabotage of Afghanistan and her people.

A good example of our bad start would be America’s initial efforts in Helmand province.  In late 2002 a U.S. Special Forces A Team arrived in the capitol, Laskar Gah and immediately offered bounties for “former members of the Taliban”. Mike Martin describes what happened next in  An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict, (p. 125)

Early in January 2003, for example, Abdul Kadus, a seventeen-year-old orphan from Nad-e Ali, was arrested by Mir Wali’s forces in what appears, from the Guantanamo documents, to be a ‘sting’ in order to gain the bounty offered. In an almost exact copy of this modus operandi, Mohammad Ismail, a sixteen-year-old, was arrested, also in Gereshk. They share consecutive Guantanamo inmate numbers, although the records are unclear about their exact date of arrest.

Those two orphans were in Cuba because we failed to understand how offering a bounty would cause Afghans to denounce those they were feuding with or even innocents to collect the cash.

Afghan boys in Balkh province (summer 2006) if I remember correctly these boys were at an Afghan police station because their father/uncle had died the night prior and relatives were on the way to take custody of them.

Were I on active duty and sent with a team of commandos to Lashkar Gah in  2003 I would have done the same thing; I knew nothing about Afghanistan back then. The SF team in Lashkar Gah did what they were told to do and pointing out the flaw in their plan isn’t to illustrate malfeasance because there was none. In 2017 this story is important only in how the Afghans saw and interpreted those events and our subsequent actions.

My belief is that the Afghans saw us as both seriously dangerous and naively stupid. Their elites played us for years to settle scores, steal land or to collect a kings ransom by turning over illiterate orphans to SF teams. The average Afghan, was (in my experience) baffled by our incompetence but willing to participate with us in the reconstruction effort.

Contributing to both poor program management and alienation from the Afghans (we were supposed to be helping) were unnecessarily restrictive security rules. B6 level armored SUV’s, armed, high end western mobile security teams, hardened compounds and lavish life support was mandated for westerners working USAID or State Department contracts. That crippled our reconstruction efforts from the start and in the ensuing years we not only accomplished little but lost track of 70 Billion dollars.

By 2009 USAID was experimenting with alternative implementation profiles to include using former soldiers in direct implementation projects thus eliminating the need for armored vehicles, security escorts, specialized compounds etc…  That was how Ghost Team got it’s start and despite delivering massive projects on time and on budget, Ghost Team turned out to be too little and too late.

Here is another cultural dynamic where we are tone deaf (due to political correctness) and need to wise up; our fascination with female empowerment. Here’s why: if your tribe lives in a society of scarce resources and makes an equal investment in educating and training both boys and girls your tribe is going to starve.

In rural Afghanistan women spend most of their adult lives producing and raising children regardless of their level of education. Efficient allocation of scarce resources would dictate investing those resources in family members who will use them for the benefit of the family.  Most Afghans I met have no issue with sending their daughters to school when they are young but investing the resources to train a daughter to become a lawyer would be as foolish as training a son to be midwife. In rural Afghanistan a female lawyer will spend her life inside the compound of her husband’s family just like her illiterate neighbors. Every penny spent educating her would have been wasted and rural Afghans don’t have the disposable income to waste.

These little girls lived in Little Barabad village across the Kabul river from the Taj Guesthouse (Jalalabad City, Nangarhar province). The closest school was 400 meters away but might as well been 400 miles because the kids couldn’t get across the river or make the 40 mile round trip via the Beshud bridge to attend. Building a school for them would have been a waste of resources because the village was comprised of squatters from the Kuchi tribe occupying government land.  Building permanent structures in direct support of this little tribe would have made government eviction a near certainty. Baba Ken and Dr. Dave from  Synergy Strike Force sank a well for them in 2009 or 2010 – prior to that their drinking water came for the Kabul River. This picture was taken in 2008.

The Afghans may see more benefit in allowing all their children access to higher education in time but probably not before they have electricity, running water, paved roads, plumbing inside their homes and security.

America and the 41 other countries contributing to Resolute Support are staying on in Afghanistan with the intention of seeing things through to an acceptable end-state. That is going to take time and it is going to generate more casualties; the loss of talented, experienced combat soldiers is going to continue. The countries losing those soldiers are not going to want to continue. America has already made it clear we’re not interested in continuing now and we have much more to endure before anything gets remotely better.

Countries participating in Resolute Support

During the dark days ahead it is important to understand how our misguided efforts contributed to this mess and the impact that has had on a civilian population that just wants to left alone in peace. This is an important story that may not matter to you much now but it will soon which is why I feel it an imperative to cover.

I cannot make this trip without your support so please visit the Baba Tim Go Fund Me Page to donate. The men and women currently serving in harms way in Afghanistan deserve to have their story told and I intend to do just that.



Why America Needs To Send Its Own Reporter To Afghanistan: Updated

There was another Green on Blue attack in Afghanistan over the weekend which is obviously bad news. But, as is often the case these days, when you start reading through the various press reports there is nothing but confusion about who was involved and where the incident occurred.

The story broke early Monday morning when this article appeared on Yahoo news stating that three American soldiers had been shot at Camp Antonik which they reported to be in the “Washer” district of Helmand province. Washer is wrong – the district is Washir and Washir district has been under Taliban control ever since the Taliban returned. If there were American soldiers in Washir district last Sunday they were Special Forces….it is inconceivable that these guys belonged to the 100-man Task Force Forge who are based out of Lashkar Gah. But the story had also talked about the upcoming deployment of Task Force Southwest which implied the soldiers who were wounded were from the unit the Marines are scheduled to replace.

In a series of email between friends of mine with Afghanistan experience I immediately asserted these could not be soldiers from the train and assist mission for the reasons outlined above. A short time later one of them sent this story from Bill Roggio (consistently the best informed writer on Afghanistan for the past 17 years) which adds to the confusion. Bill had found these additional details on the incident in Tolo News:

The assault was carried out by an Afghan National Army officer from the 215 Maiwand Army Corps “during a military training exercise,” TOLONews reported. US troops reportedly killed the Afghan soldier. The 215 Maiwand Army Corps is based in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, which is heavily contested by the Taliban.

The best Afghanistan observer in media, Bill Roggio and I in Kabul, June 2006. We took a drive to Qualat together where I had to swap out project managers and I believe his wife insisted that trip was his last trip when he showed up back home with video of Taliban in the open on Route 1. Despite the Taliban the trip was a reasonably un-risky thing to do back then. By mid 2007 a trip down route 1 in a low profile rig would have been suicidal.

If the three soldiers reportedly shot the day before had been at a live fire training exercise in Laskar Gah then they would most certainly be members of Task Force Forge.

Then this mornings inbox had a press release announcing the death of Sgt. 1st Class Robert R. Boniface, 34, of San Luis Obispo, California, a Special Forces operator from the 7th Group. The announcement said he was injured on March 19, in Logar Province, Afghanistan, in a “non-combat” related incident. The date and description correlate to the insider attack last Sunday. Or not; SFC Boniface could have been involved in a training or motor vehicle accident for that was unrelated to the green on blue shootings for all we know.

Were I one of the 8000 plus families with loved ones in Afghanistan I’d be getting a little worried, as this story continues to morph, about getting a knock on the front door by men wearing dress uniforms. This amount of confusion about casualties from a high risk combat deployment to a country we have been fighting in for sixteen years is unacceptable. And why I feel it imperative to go back and cover our continued involvement in Afghanistan in detail.

UPDATE: The New York Times just printed an article about a VBIED (Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device) that also sums up what is known about the shooting on 19 March as well as other bad news from Afghanistan.  This is their report on the shooting:

The soldier who mistakenly shot was loyal and brave and has fought successfully against the enemy,” said Shakil Ahmad, a spokesman for the Afghan corps.

He said that the commando, from the northern province of Balkh, had been guarding the tower when he fired accidentally and that there had been no dispute before the episode. He was wounded when American soldiers returned fire and died at a hospital.

If this report is true then we can attribute this unfortunate accidental shooting to the fog of war. I don’t know what happened last Sunday but do know we remain engaged. Secretary of Defense Mattis had much to say during his confirmation hearings regarding the deployment of military forces without a rational  plan, measurable goals and a clear end-state.

I’m guessing he hasn’t worked down his list of crisis’s left him by Obama to get to Afghanistan.  When he does I sure hope we see an indication that this time we are fighting the right guys for the right reasons. That would be a welcomed change from business as usual for America in Afghanistan.

I cannot make this trip without your support so please visit the Baba Tim Go Fund Me Page to donate. The men and women currently serving in harms way in Afghanistan deserve to have their story told and I intend to do just that.

Push Back

Since launching my campaign to embed in Afghanistan I’ve received a lot of push back from my American friends who spent time outside the wire in Jalalabad with me. They are concerned that I’m placing myself in grave danger to cover a story that will end in dismal failure. They have little confidence in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GoIRA) or the American military when it comes to solving the true problems driving the fighting country-wide. They also believe the military is incapable of telling the truth about the effectiveness of their efforts nor able to develop the tactical models required to deal with what is now a general insurgency.

One of them shared this observation in a group email a few days ago:

I remember something Sitting Bull said to Jim when Jim spoke of coming back and marrying into the tribe.  His response, “you’re not Muslim”.. So if ANYONE had a level of rapport with any Afghan who lives in the countryside, Jim did.  And for his counterpart to make that distinction after all they had been through, THAT means something.

He’s talking about Jim Gant who I consider the most remarkable soldier of our generation and a man I admire greatly. Jim was cursed by being successful where all others failed miserably and got the shaft for it but that’s another story for another post.

What’s ironic about that comment is (unknown by my friends) I’ve been asked to convert, marry into a tribe and stay in Afghanistan on four different occasions. Unlike Jim I was not talking with a tribal leader who loved me like a son; these men hardly knew me. They were trying to get another connected, educated, competent guy to join the tribe for the obvious benefits that would bring to the community. It is a typically Afghan thing to do in rural districts and I spent months at a time in remote districts accompanied by only an interpreter (Zaki or JD) and a driver. None of my friends (with the notable exception of Jim Gant and fellow Ghost Team members) have remotely similar experiences.

My colleagues from Ghost Team and I (along with a handful of westerners sprinkled throughout the country by marriage or business) are the only westerners who embedded inside local communities and directly supervised large projects that were completed on time and on budget. Consistent performance at that level required detailed knowledge of how local communities functioned. Projects had to be vetted correctly the first time, every time, to avoid the perception of favoritism of one tribe over another.

Another project completed on time, on budget, and 300 miles away from the closest American. Free Ranging is hard, can be dangerous but is also the most gratifying thing a westerner can do in Afghanistan.

I knew the tribes where we worked trusting them to protect our little team on nothing more than a hand shake. Free Ranging requires a high tolerance for risk, unshakable confidence in your ability to get through any situation along with the application of reason and logic to local atmospherics. Reason and logic allowed us to be comfortable operating in areas where everyone else was uncomfortable.  Reason and logic is why I’m comfortable going back. What is uncomfortable is being lectured by friends who don’t really know what I know. Which provides a perfect opportunity to discuss the realities of Free Ranging in contested lands.

Rule #1 is you will not be able to talk your way through every checkpoint. I was detained in Afghanistan, Dubai and the Northwest frontier of Pakistan during the years I spent Free Ranging. When pinched in Pakistan I was being driven through the town of Landi Kotal and was about 5 miles from the border. I was taken back to Peshawar (a policeman jumped in my cab to escort me and I had to pay for the ride back) where a magistrate released me on my own recognizance minus my cash, passport, and expensive (recently purchased) wristwatch. But I had my cell phone and called my friend (and manager of the Taj)  Mehrab who arrived (in the middle of the night) with enough cash to pay for a permit and escort to  get me through the Khyber Pass. I spent the intervening hours keeping a low profile in a crappy tea house and let me assure you I was terrified. Anyone who says they can handle that much risk and not be scared to death is delusional. But I kept my cool, remained calm and waited patiently.

If you ever found yourself alone, broke, tired and hungry in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the middle of the night, you might be a Free Ranger.

Mehrabudding Sirajuddin a good man who paid a high price for believing America was the strongest tribe. Photo by Michael Yon

Mehrab like many Afghans who worked with the international community was killed outside his house by Taliban gunmen in 2012. He was a good man who believed that the international community would bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. He also was a typical Afghan who would do anything to include transiting the Khyber Pass at night in the middle of the 2009 Khyber Pass offensive to help a friend in need. Meharb and the many Afghans I met who are just like him are the reason I want to go back.

The Free Range threat matrix, developed over a decade ago, is interesting reading for those unfamiliar with the realities on the ground in Afghanistan. It’s been updated for the embed this summer.

Free Range International Threat Matrix 2007

  1. Afghan Security Forces
  2. Motor Vehicle Accident
  3. Running into American or British army convoys while driving (high probability of getting shot even in Kabul and even in brand new up-armored SUV with diplomatic plates)
  4. Taliban ambush
  5. Serious disease or sudden illness

Free Range International Threat Matrix 2017

  1. Afghan Security Forces
  2. Motor Vehicle Accident
  3. Taliban ambush
  4. Serious disease or sudden illness

See the difference? Only the threat presented by ISAF road movements has been eliminated. Afghanistan is a scary place because the country is falling apart as a direct result of repeated failures by the international community to develop strategies that actually help the Afghan people.

Sixteen years down the road the Marines are going back because America has decided that we will, for the first time in my lifetime, actually see one of the debacles we created in a foreign land through to some sort of acceptable end state.

This story needs to be told honestly by a reporter who understands the Marines, the environment they are operating in and the degree of difficulty they will encounter as they balance force protection against mission effectiveness. Please take the  time to donate on my Go Fund Me page to enable honest, professional reporting on a story that will have a significant impact on your children’s future. Your kids may not be interested in war but war is interested in them. And if we cannot develop effective strategies to combat radical Islam war is going to find them.

Who Are We Fighting In The Helmand Province?

The most difficult thing to explain about the upcoming deployment of Marines back into the Helmand province is the threat they are facing. The traditional counterinsurgency narrative that has driven past deployments is best explained as follows:

…a legitimate Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), which is recognized and supported by the international community, is violently opposed by a movement of insurgents, called the Taliban, who have sanctuary in Quetta, Pakistan. Thus, the Taliban are religiously inspired insurgents who are opposed to the democratic and women’s rights that the GIRoA embodies and promotes.

That is not an accurate assessment of what’s driving the instability in Helmand province. The video pasted below (about 3 minutes) is an interview with Dr. Mike Martin, author of An Intimate War, and he provides a good explanation of what is driving the current fighting in the province.

As noted in my first post on the topic Dr. Martin is part of the a team of British experts on the Helmand province who have been working with the Marines of Task Force Southwest (TF Southwest).  How are the Marines (and the U.S. Department of State) going to use their detailed knowledge of the factors driving province-wide instability given the limitations of the train, assist and advise mission?

That is the million dollar question which can only be answered by embedding with and recording the Marines effort. This mission is the first of many to follow and the lessons learned will be used in other countries where we face the identical problem of bringing security to populations traumatized by war and naturally suspicious of and hostile to military formations from Western countries. Please take the time to visit my Go Fund Me page and donate to help fund this important story. It’s important and needs to be told to the people who sent the TF Southwest Marines on such a high-risk mission.

The next video is a difficult conversation between Mike Martin and a Danish veteran named Jimmy Krig. It is an important conversation on how a veteran of the fighting there can square what he or she did with the knowledge of what really drove the levels of violence in the province. It is a reminder of what we are asking the Marines (and the soldiers of Task Force Forge who they are replacing) to do when they venture into harms way to try and help drive the violence down. I need to stress that for veterans and those who love them this may be a difficult video to watch…but it’s an important one to understand.

Why Go Back?

There are two ways out of Afghanistan for America and her allies manning the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. They can establish enough security in the provinces to allow for a graceful exit or they can declare victory and leave. If they take the second option getting all their people and equipment out of the country will be problematic and odds are that they will lose troops in that effort. If they take the first option they will (eventually) be forced to fight with the Afghan Security Forces (there is no other way to mentor effectively) which will result in casualties. The war in Afghanistan is not over and is about to enter a second phase that may prove the basis of a model for re-establishing security in the many countries currently afflicted by the contagion of war.

The security situation in Afghanistan has never been worse. Earlier in the week ISIS (Afghans use the Arabic name Daesh) attacked a 400 bed military hospital in Kabul reportedly killing at least 30 people. That hospital is in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood about 350 meters from the United States embassy. The Daesh are not the Taliban; they’ve been fighting the Taliban in Nangarhar Province for the past several years. How the Daesh is able to inject fighters inside the “Ring of Steel” is a mystery with few palatable explanations.  The end appears to be near and we are still there.

Old School (Russian style) Ring of Steel checkpoint

We were supposed to declare victory and leave Afghanistan; Obama once promised to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan within 16 months of taking office for his second term. But he had to slow and then stop the withdraw as the security situation deteriorated to the extent that we could not disengage without it being seen as cutting and running on a country we promised to help.

Now we are returning with the intent of staying to see this thing through to the bitter end. Most Americans will have no idea about our growing commitment in Afghanistan unless the Marines start to take casualties. If they do we can anticipate a lot of media attention that focuses on the casualties but produces little understanding of why the Marines are there or what they are accomplishing.

The Marines from Task Force Southwest who I spoke with last month were mostly veterans of prior Afghanistan deployments. They have worked with the Afghans before and are confident they will have a positive impact on them when they return. That is their mission and where they focus; not one man or woman among them is the least bit hesitant to return.

I’m not the least bit hesitant either. When I started my go fund me effort to embed in Afghanistan one of my best friends posted an article on Rhino Den that was not exactly an endorsement. This trip will require loitering in Kabul for a few days before I embed to obtain the proper credentials. Every journalist entering Afghanistan has to do that which is why there will not be many there.  Kabul is not the safe, hospitable city it once was but despite this experienced internationals move around the capitol every day. Going back to Afghanistan to embed with the Marines is not going to be hard or risky for the brief amount of time I’ll be outside the wire.

The deplorable state security in Afghanistan is the direct result of our failure to bring security and good governance to the citizens of that proud country. The Afghans have contributed to that failure as have other countries like Pakistan and Iran. We could have pulled out in 2016 and blamed the resulting chaos on politicians in DC but the military, the ones who still have their skin in the game and will pay a price for staying, said that leaving the country in chaos would be not only a strategic but a moral failure.

The Marines are returning to the fray just 300 strong without fear, without doubts, and without questions about the importance or risk of this unique deployment. They deserve to have their story told by a reporter who understands them and the people of Afghanistan. Please contribute to my go fund me effort to bring this story home to the people who sent the Marines on this difficult and dangerous mission.



Back To The Helmand

Editors Note: This is the first in a series of posts covering the return of the Marines to the Helmand province in Afghanistan. My goal is to return with them and post once again from the Helmand province. I need to raise $8,000 to make this trip and there are two ways to contribute. You can donate via my go fund me page or  through pay pal on my blog.

Last January the United States Marine Corps announced it was returning to the Helmand province. The media reacted to the news with articles like I Deployed Twice To The Helmand And Cannot Believe The Marines Are Going Back. I too was mystified that somebody thought it was a good idea to send (reportedly) just 300 Marines into the most unstable province in Afghanistan.

If the Marines are going back into Helmand light on fire power they have to have a deep understanding of the inter-tribal conflicts that drive the cycle of violence in the province. I’m asking for a month-long embed with the detachment handling the Afghan National Police training in Lashkar Gah to see what they can do/ if they’re up to the task.

But the question is, how are they were going to translate that knowledge into action on the ground?
The PAO politely told me she was not talking about that with me. I’m now in the press; the rules are different than they were for me when I linked up with RCT 1 back in the day.

I had a 45 minute meeting with the BGen Turner who, after spending time catching up, laid a few of the rules of the road out for me. The most interesting was that I not reveal any of the “enhanced capabilities” they are taking on this rotation because he wants them to be a surprise when they are placed in service. That was an easy request for me because I have no idea what he’s talking about. What was interesting about the request was the change in his demeanor; we were both leaning forward looking at each other and after he made that request he sat back and smiled. Not in manner that conveyed warmth but rather in the manner Patton must have smiled when his troops were rolling up the Wehrmacht. I thought it the smile of a battle commander who has options not available before. I liked that smile; it conveyed confidence.

U.S. Marines with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, greet a member of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) as he takes his post aboard Camp Leatherneck, Helmand Province, Afghanistan on October 27, 2014. The ANA will took command of all posts aboard Camp Leatherneck upon the end of Regional Command (Southwest) operations in Helmand province. (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. John A. Martinez Jr. / Released)

During our meeting Roger told me that both Cater Malkasian and Mike Martin have been working with the Task Force to help them sharpen their understanding of the human terrain and inter-tribal conflicts in the Helmand. This was the best news I’ve heard in a long while.

If you’re interested on gaining a thorough understanding of the inter-tribal dynamics that drive the cycle of violence in the Helmand Province there are just two books you need to read. The first is War Comes To Garmser written by Carter Malkasian, an American and the second is An Intimate War by Mike Martin who is British. Both men spent years on the ground in the Helmand and both are fluent Pashto speakers. Their histories are comprehensive but can be tough going for readers unfamiliar with Afghan names and places. I recommend tackling Carter’s book first because it is limited in scope to one critical district; Mike’s book takes in the entire Province; it’s comprehensive and it is brutally honest about how our limited understanding of inter-tribal dynamics sabotaged our early efforts.

BGen Turner stressed they are looking for Afghan solutions to Afghan problems and that the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) Corps he is working with (the 215th) was assigned a new Commanding General who fights well, organizes his logistics like a pro and leads from the front. He also pointed out that the ANP trainers will be working with locals who are joining the ANP, not recruits from the north who are not Pashtun and know less about the province than we do.

The ANA 215th Corps experienced some bad press a year ago when an interview with ISAF spokesman BGen Wilson Shoffner revealed the following:

I can tell you that in the 215th Corps, the corps commander has been switched out, two of the brigade commanders in the 215th Corps have been changed out, as have several members, key members, of the staff,” Shoffner said. ….In the 215th Corps, “they had problems with equipment maintenance. They had problems with units that had been attrited. They had problems with poor leadership. What we have found when units have an issue with attrition, it typically is traced back to poor leadership,” Shoffner said. Overall, the ANA was short about 25,000 troops because of desertions, he said.

As depressing as reports like this are (because they occur so frequently) I’ll take BGen Turner at his word – the new Corps Command team has been there a year and it’s been a tough one. This article in SOF News provides a good background on the deployment and includes this reasonable speculation;

There are sure to be additional Marine units rotating into Helmand province in the future in light of commitment to Afghanistan until 2020 made by the European Union and NATO at the Brussels Conference and Warsaw Summit this past year (2016).

And this article in USNI has a good interview with BGen Turner and concludes with this quote:

A lot of us have served there before, we have a lot of blood, sweat and tears invested in Helmand, and so I think a lot of the Marines are really excited about this opportunity to go back and to work again with their Afghan partners and to improve their capabilities and get the situation in a better place.

Task Force South West has the knowledge needed to help drive the cycle of violence down. But the devil will be in the details. Developing the the level of relationship required to have influence with senior Afghans is not easy but it’s also not impossible.

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