The Yellow

In Marine Corps schools “The Yellow” is the school solution for tactical problems normally handed out in the form of an operation order or an annex to an operation order on yellow paper. Having written at great length about the problems we see with both the military and reconstruction efforts I’d now like to take a shot at proposing a solution which has merit. We are currently failing, and failing miserably, at bringing a secure environment to the people of Afghanistan which is the first and most important  step in any counterinsurgency conflict. There are two reasons for our current performance; the first is that the government of Afghanistan is so dysfunctional and corrupt that it is more a problem than a solution. The second factor is our insistence of operating from large forward operating bases (FOB’s) and commuting to the fight instead of living amongst the people to whom we are supposed to be delivering security.

The new Pentagon directive on Irregular Warfare mentions civ-mil teams but does not define them which one suspects will involve experimenting before a solid table of organization is written. There is a model, arrived at through a marriage of convenience, which is capable of delivering enough boots on the ground to bring security and rapid infrastructure development to the Afghan population. That model was a Un Ops sub contractor / SF A-Team operation which informally cooperated with each other in Shinkay back in 2006.

The old road builders from UN Ops were heavily armed and used good
The old road builders from UN Ops were heavily armed and used good armored vehicles for their force protection. You can buy 50 of those large “Tapia’s” for the price of one MRAP

This was one of the most volatile areas of Afghanistan back in 2006 and remains so to this day. Yet the small SF A-team and the equally small numbers of ANZAC and Canadian engineers were able to work effectively in that environment without taking casualties. By cooperating with each other their sum was greater than the parts of their respective groups. They showed what can be done by small groups of men living amongst the people and are a good model to emulate countrywide.

That is James the Kiwi learning how to crew a 120mm mortar. At night when the A-team was active UN Ops contractors would help the two soldiers who remained in the team house with all fire missions
That’s James the Kiwi learning how to crew a 120mm mortar. At night when the A-team was active UN Ops contractors would help the two soldiers who remained in the team house with all fire missions. That level of cooperation between military units and contractors was routine in the early phases of the Afghan campaign.

There is much speculation in the press about bringing in more combat troops as well as trying to arm tribal fighters (Lashgar’s) in hopes that they will assist ISAF and the Afghan government in their fight against Armed Opposition Groups (AOG.) One thing that can be predicted with absolute certainty is that without internationals in the field mentoring these Lashgars they will be of little use or effectiveness. The same holds true with the Afghan police. All the multimillion dollar training centers in the world will not deliver an effective Afghan police force the only way is to mentor them. Direct, daily mentoring by international military personnel is the reason why the Afghan Army is doing so well and perceived by the people as the only functional, effective government force in the country. There are also many stories in the press on the growing problem of poverty. One of the major factors affecting this poverty is unemployment. There is not a district in Afghanistan which does not have an on the shelf plan to fix its irrigation systems. Irrigation, bridge and road work is a labor intensive process here due to the lack of modern machinery or training.

Practicing a react drill on the A-team compound. The SF guys had steel target plates scattered throughout the desert which made for good practice
Armed UN contractors practicing a react drill on the A-team compound. The SF guys had steel target plates scattered throughout the desert which made for good practice

A Civ-mil team built around an infantry rifle squad, augmented with armed contractors housed in a local compound could be a catalyst for stability and growth. The military team would focus on bringing security to the district by training and mentoring both Lashkar’s and local police. The civilian half of the team would focus on simple infrastructure projects like roads, irrigation, micro hydro power plants and bridges. They would need to be able to both approve and fund those projects at their level using cash in order to get these projects rapidly off the ground and ensure they are done correctly. These teams would be working with the local tribal elders and district administrators who are often one and the same. They can bring two key elements into the equation for winning over the population and that is a permanent long term presence in the districts which would act as a visible sign of commitment to the Afghan people. Long term presence on the ground coupled with visible signs that we are committed to bringing security to the people is the very foundation of the counterinsurgency battle. Anything less is just muddling through which is what we have been doing for the past seven years.

You cannot do stuff like this on your day off in most parts of the world
You cannot do stuff like this on your day off in most parts of the world

There are two reasons why armed contractors should form a bulk of the civ-mil teams in Afghanistan. The first is longevity. Contractors who are working a good paying gig with a decent rotation system can stay on a contract for years at a time. Having a group of former military men who have worked the same districts for year after year brings huge advantages to the military commander who employs them. Most contractors pick up enough language skill to operate without a dedicated interpreter. In the course of their duties they interact with village and district leaders daily thus getting an accurate feeling for the local “ground truth.” The other reason to use contractors is cost. You can outfit contractors with the best weapons, best commercial communications gear, and the best armored vehicles and they are still costing the American taxpayer pennies on the dollar of what it costs for an American serviceman.

It sounds counter intuitive to recommend the employment of ground troops in small units when the security situation has deteriorated significantly during the past year. In that respect it is interesting to compare the results of two Taliban ambushes last year. Both involved ambushing forces of around 250 Taliban fighters. In the first a reinforced rifle company of French paratroopers fought for an entire day to break contact and recover their casualties. In the second a platoon (minus) of 30 U.S. Marines broke the ambush decisively beating the Taliban, killing scores and sending the rest running from the field of battle. The terrain, vegetation and disposition of enemy forces were different in both battles I am not trying to imply that 30 Marines would have been able to perform the same immediate action drill in the Uzbin valley ambush. The relevant point to be made here is that aggressive tactics result in fewer casualties among the good guys and lots of causalities among the bad guys which is a good thing in all situations. Another relevant point is that small units of infantry are much more decisive when they are operating in terrain they know populated by people they know. By operating in the same district filled with people they know our front line troops will be much safer than they are commuting into the districts from large FOB’s in cumbersome armored patrols.

The use of local police outrighters to spot potential IED's was very effective. Not too effective in this case because the ANP driver mistook the "stop there is amine" signal for a go signal
The use of local police motorcycle outriders to spot potential IED’s works well unless the ANP drivers behind them mistake a “stop there is a mine” signal for a “go” signal. In this case the motorcycle rider was injured severely because he was running back towards the blast frantically signaling them to stop. This was the only time the boys from UN Ops suffered an IED strike although they found and destroyed mines targeting them almost daily using motorcycle outriders.   The US military currently uses technology I won’t discuss to do the same thing with dismal results.   Technology will not now nor every replace sound tactics and sound tactics are much cheaper in both lives and treasure.

As I write this post yet another round of recriminations is flying about concerning civilian casualties. The latest incident occurred up the road from us in Laghman Province at the village of Masamut. A known Taliban leader, Gul Pacha, was in his compound entertaining another Taliban commander when an American direct action team flew in and the joint.   Hard. The military claims to have killed 39 Taliban. The villagers say they killed many Taliban but also 13 villagers. There are wounded villagers in the provincial hospital who are telling reporters that they grabbed their rifles and rushed outside their homes when they heard neighbors screaming and were shot as they left their compounds. That makes all the sense in the world to me it is expected that Pashtun males will arm themselves and try to defend their neighbor when he is attacked. Under the code of Pashtunwali they have no choice but to act. It is also expected that any armed male within view of the cordon force will be shot. In the report linked above one of the villagers observes that they should have surrounded the suspect’s house and given the surrounding families a chance to leave before attacking which again makes perfect sense to me. The SF community will tell you that doing this ruins the element of surprise. But look at the price we are paying to generate “surprise” we do not need. If we already had a civ-mil team working that district of Laghman they could have grabbed their Lashkar and ANA protégées, surrounded the compound and had the village elders get the Taliban commanders to come out. If they refused our SF direct action boys could still assault them at their leisure – they control the when, where and how in their deliberate assault. Or they can use standoff munitions controlled by FAC’s at the scene.

It often seems to those of us on the outside looking in that we use the high speed direct action mission because we have a lot of guys here who are highly trained to do high speed direct action missions. The units who do these missions are our varsity team highly trained, highly capable and very lethal. Guys like that should be out in the countryside living amongst the people like we do. They would be better tasked if they traveled around the districts augmenting the training dispensed by resident civ-mil teams. It will not take long for problem districts to emerge and that is where we should send our door kickers because we cannot continue to whack a dozen innocent Afghans just to take out a low level “commander” who can be easily and instantly replaced.

I am certain that my friends who remain on active duty view photos of New Zealand civilians crewing 120mm mortars with a degree of alarm. As a former infantry officer I can’t say that I would be any different. Crewing mortars in shorts and tee shirts is not the way we learned how to do these sorts of things. Yet we are in a long war that is going to tax our collective will and stamina. It is time to start experimenting with formations that can make a difference, quickly and cheaply, in the populated areas of Afghanistan. Allowing small units to be scattered about in areas where there is little mutual support is not a technique senior officers are comfortable with. It goes against everything they have learned about employing their men in battle and it is these men who must answer to the families of the soldiers and Marines who will be lost in this fight. But we have to try something new, micro management from on high is plaguing our operations and continuing to cause unacceptable levels of civilian casualties. It is time to turn the sergeants and Lieutenants lose to use their judgment and to develop their area of operations. Not all will measure up to the task but most will.   We have never had better, more experienced junior leadership in our military it is time to place our trust and confidence in them they have earned it.

11 Replies to “The Yellow”

  1. Great post Tim.. You might add a civ comms contingent of geeks into your scenerio. Comms, Lift n Power.. and smiles!

  2. Boy, I read this and thought, Coalition Munitions Clearance Program that the Army Corps of Engineers put on in Iraq. This program was going on all over Iraq, and not very visual to the rest of the world, but the results were awesome. They destroyed tons of munitions, and it was all civilians with civilian guards protecting them. The only military aspect of the operation was one liaison officer with ACE, and even those guys were more civilian than military. The logistics and support of those operations were all civilian as well.

    Most importantly though, is the CMC employed thousands of Iraqi guards and workers. It was that fact alone that saved many of those remote camps. No one really wanted to attack these bases, because they were a source of income and their friends and families worked there. And the work they were doing, was destroying old bombs that would have killed civilians(kids) or used by the insurgents if they didn’t destroy that stuff.

    Now take that concept, and marry it up with what your talking about Tim, and I think it is definitely feasible. Matter of fact, it is a model that has been worked out by your UN/A Team combination, and CMC. On the remote sites, the security was the equivalent to a reinforced platoon or two. Although they did not have CAS, they could easily call one of the numerous patrols nearby and ask for assistance. The key with remote sites though, is to plan the defense just like you would with any military outpost, and have your stuff in order for all the what ifs. But civilians could easily do this stuff, and have.(most civilian EOD and security specialists are prior military and veterans)

    With your idea Tim, it would take a well written contract with clear objectives and plenty of support to get it running well. Then you are right about it being a on going deal that could always insure a force that could be with that civilian population.

    The other point I wanted to make, is the CMC projects were excellent for gaining intelligence and winning hearts and minds. The local nationals that were either guards or workers, had to work right along side the civilian EOD and security specialists. The interpreters were vital, but just the interaction alone is incredible. You eat together, fight together, talk about family and life, and work towards a common goal.

    As for civilians working with an A-team or the military, at the CMC projects, this happened as well. All types of units would utilize these civilian remote sites, and operate there temporarily. There was mutual assistance going on as well, all being done under the watchful eye of ACE and the various company managers of the project. The one caveat though, is the whole concept of the RUF (rules for the use of force) and wether or not civilians could participate in offensive or defensive operations. The scenario you brought up, would require a re-write of the rules for citizens. At this time, civilians can only participate in defensive actions, and are not allowed to participate in offensive operations with the military(that was according to the RUF in Iraq–I am sure it is the same in Afghanistan)

    I am with you there though. The remote camp should have a mortar system, for illum and for just dealing with threats, and civilians should be able to operate those systems. That is why I loved your article, because it points out the idea that civilians can and should be able to do those tasks if called upon. (and if that civilian is trained and proficient). At the CMC sites, they did not have mortars. They did have pop-up flares and illum, but nothing high explosive. (which is a joke to me) You must allow the appropriate amount of force needed to survive all the potential scenarios, and that is one area the CMC projects dropped the ball on. That means communications(maybe have a military radio operator on site), mortars and heavy machine guns, and quality control on the site to insure the contracts(road building, bridges, power, security, etc.) is being carried out and the local nationals are fairly being dealt with.

    So to end this behemoth post, civilians can be used in the capacity you are talking about Tim, and it is something that should be looked at by today’s strategist in this war. If cost or manpower or continuous population interaction and protection is an issue, civilian operations can step up and will if given the chance. Cheers.

  3. Love the idea, but how do we counter the bravo sierra about civilian mortarmen being mercenaries? Taliban IO will feed that to the American MSM, and the usual suspects in the rear will make the usual federal case out of it.

    We need a hard core group of stayers, who aren’t putting X’s on the Maxim calendars in their hooches for every day down, guys committed to multiple-year tours and/or contracts, promoted/paid appropriately for that level of committment and sacrifice. We need the stayers drinking chai with the elders, speaking Pashto, taking off the battle rattle, walking around like they aren’t afraid of anybody, gaining respect, developing informers, telling wedding parties from gangs of Taliban, knocking on doors instead of kicking them down, going native. But they’d be our natives

  4. Well one way to do it, is just have a small military mortar team assigned to such a thing. Or use Afghani Military, with civilian advisors watching over their every move. It would be nice to have civilian radio operators, and civilian mortar operators, to keep everything organic. But in the end, the RUF’s need to be changed, and the military needs to be able to trust the civilians ability to do such operations. And your right, the main stream media would be all over it, that’s unless it was stated that this was a fully endorsed activity–both politically and militarily. Everyone needs to be sold on the value of the idea.

    As for guys who could be stayers, the contracting community is totally about staying. Guys get attached to a contract and they will work it for years(or months), and then move on to the next one. War zone contracts are looked at more like a job that puts food on the table back home, and not so much as a forced deployment or whatever. The companies set up rotations and leave schedules, and it works itself out. If it is too strenuous, then guys leave–poorly managed. If the rotations are good, and everyone is happy and the job is getting done–that means it is well managed.

    If a contract requires a long term commitment, the civilian community will be there for as long as it takes. That’s if that contract is well supported and managed, and it has excellent oversight by the client. As soon as the client doesn’t care anymore about a quality product, then that is when companies start doing their own thing and getting in trouble.

    Like I said, the biggest problem I saw with CMC projects are the lack of firepower to deal with all the possible threats, and sufficient communications with all the friendlies nearby. The solution could be to add a small military team that would be in charge of communications and the mortar operations at the outpost, and have them work side by side with the rest of the civilian groups(security, road builders, managers, etc.) With Tim’s example, an A Team had the mortar system and ran the thing, but used a couple of civilians to help out with loading and keeping the pit organized and ready to go.

    The other interesting deal with the defense of the these camps, is there are several incidents I know of in Iraq where contractors were instrumental in the defense. Blackwater in Najaf was one, and Triple Canopy in Al Kut was another. The defense of a camp by civilians is totally possible, it just needs to planned/approved/managed/trained for and appropriately armed. There is doing a lot with a little, and then there is trying to work miracles with a ‘sling shot’. I prefer having the right tools for survival of the camp.

    Now with the main stream media, that is where guys like me and the rest of the blogging community come in. We are here to explain what it is we can do and have done, and there should be no reason for the MSM to be idiots about it. If anything, the MSM chooses to ignore the various sources out there, and continues to default to stereotypical ideas about the ‘big bad mercenaries’. The truth of the matter, is the contracting community has been a force multiplier in this war, and we have had a massive impact on the war. With over 230,000 of us scattered throughout the war all over the globe, we are doing the things that allow our military war fighters go out and kill the enemy. We are also the ones that add capability and make things work for our military, and we will always be there for them so they can do their job.

    When will the MSM take notice of these contributions, I do not know. They are still stuck on an incident at Nisour Square where the enemy was trying to kill diplomats and civilian guards, and the civilian guards were able to to win that fight and get everyone home alive. The MSM never scorns the insurgents for starting the fight in a built up civilian area in the first place. Nor do they recognize the training and security clearances that those guards had to go through just to be were they are on a team like that.

    Instead, they are the ‘evil mercenaries’ that ruthlessly killed civilians in an unprovoked fight. No one wakes up one day and says, “boy, I want to kill women and children with my weapon”, and what those men had to go through that day was certainly a personal and mental sacrifice of the highest order. That doesn’t bring those civilians back to life, but that is the reality of war. The fighting military man and woman goes through the same thing in a war, and these guys are no different.(and these guys were all prior service) Now they are viewed as criminals by the MSM–the judge, jury, and the proverbial executioners.

    I guess my point is to continue to engage the media, and challenge their assumptions and naivety and their sensationalist accusations in order to prove that we do have a purpose in this war and that we are an asset. There are countless examples of civilians doing good things in this war. Tim brought up a fine example of civilians working with the military, so the military can be more lethal and efficient in their job. I am a civilian contractor, and my mindset is exactly that. The better I can do my job, then the better the military can do their job and be even more focused, lethal and effective.

  5. Tim,

    Completely concur that we make a lot of mileage with just a small amount of intelligently applied assetts, such as your civ-mil team. I am currently on a military team that has the advantage of mentoring both an ANA kandak (our primary mission) as well as the local ANPs- we also try to do the civilian development, but struggle to fit all that on to our plate as well. A squad-sized PRT/CMO element could do wonders for our effectiveness.


  6. Mark,

    Thanks for serving, and I appreciate the work you are doing. Also, I just wanted to clarify to the war fighters out there that might be reading this, that we as contractors(and I speak for myself) have no desire to compete with the military. My mindset has always been the one in which we are there in Iraq or Afghanistan only to free up the military so they can be even more lethal and efficient in the war effort. When the war is over, then we are no longer needed and that is that. But to appeal to the Max Weber fans out there, the state has the monopoly on force, and it will always have the monopoly in my mind.
    Overall, us contractors want you guys freed up so you are able to kill the enemy and protect and serve the local populations. If you are always sidetracked with manpower issues by either fixing vehicles/weapons/living quarters or performing kitchen duty or camp security or massive logistics operations, then that is when you are taken away from that fight and we lose ground. You guys have such an important and tough job out there, and most of us contractors only wish to help in any way we can. That is why it kills me when I hear of a company or contractor being idiots and doing things that make us a liability and not an asset. To sum it up, costumer satisfaction should be the motto of all of us over there, and that is what I try to promote on my site as well. Thanks to Tim for starting a cool discussion and I am sure he feels the same way with this stuff. S/F -matt

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  8. This thread is a good one. This topic requires much thought and discussion. If you want contractors to learn how to live with the locals and learn to be sensitive to local customs and traditions then you’d need a group of local people to be “hand holders” to these babes in unchartered waters.

    You’d need some one to train the contractors on how to tell the difference between a war party and a wedding party,the difference between a local pashtu man trying to defend his neighbor from looters, or how to pick out a suicide VBIED driver from normal erratic Afghan drivers.

    At this point that is easier said than done.

    Just returning from spending three months in the jungles of Burma, where I was the only white man 9 hours walk from the nearest road for over a month, and one of three whites “embedded” with local freedom fighters for an additional 2 months. I can tell you that if you want operators to mesh with locals and understand them it will take at least 6 months of living with them everyday to gain their trust and start to get a real understanding of what is going on and why. One of my guys had learned to be conversationally fluent in the local language and was just starting to “feel the vibe” of the local people after six months.

    I think this would be even harder in Afghanistan than Burma. Please keep going on this topic I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this can be accomplished, not just with outsider civi-contractors but locals as well.

    Thanks for the good posts and comments I will re-read them several times to diguest as fully as possible.

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