The Dutch Boy Dilemma
I have been victimized this week by a crashed internet system and one false start on this post. In addition when I do get a little net time I am engaged in several email conversations with FRI readers some of these are so good I may post them as standalone articles. Chris Chivers of the New York Times has been one of the readers I have been chatting with and it is his piece here which is the start point for this week’s post. This post will be unreasonably massive at times confusing but stick with it and I’ll tie all it all together in the end, inshallah. Bonus feature alert: this post includes a photo story board covering last Monday’s assassination attempt on President Karzai’s brother. I was on the road that day too with my faithful finance officer Misael, who hails from the island of Mindanao but claims to be a Catholic and not a Abu Sayef member. When we turned a corner in the Tangi Valley and saw all the expended brass in the road, he ignored his collateral duty as photographers mate and wedged himself firmly under the dash board. Misael has spent the last year in Kandahar and has developed an exaggerated sense of danger but I’ll get him snapped in soon enough. So there are only a few marginal pictures from a point and shoot camera due to the insistence of the ANP that we keep moving … probably a good idea.
I commented last week that this story shows the way forward but I was talking in nuanced terms as our democratic leaders would say which is stateist speak for not telling the whole story. The article covers a rifle company from the 1st Battalion 26th Infantry as they conduct a 40 hour sweep in the Korangel Valley of Kunar Province. That the rifle company was conducting a sweep is the good part of the story everything else about it is, to the professional observer, bad. Let us start with the duration of this patrol … 40 hours. That amount of time outside the wire means the troops reached the limit of their endurance given the heavy loads they must carry. In the last war we fought that rifle companies patrolled on their own (Vietnam), patrolling outside the wire for only 40 hours would have been labeled light weight. The company patrol Chivers wrote about was anything but light weight – here is the story.
There was one General Officer who left Vietnam with his reputation not only intact but enhanced was Major General Razor Ray Davis of the 3rd Marine Division. He deployed his under strength, poorly equipped, infantry battalions out into the bush of Northern I Corps (near the DMZ between south and north Vietnam) to find fix and destroy the NVA maneuver regiments who infested the area. Forty hours? Try 21 days or more of patrolling and if they were not making contact he flew out, talked with the CO, called in a squadron of CH-46’s (the same Marine helicopters still in use today) and flew the battalion to an area that showed more promise. My father, an operations officer with one of those battalions, said they smelled so bad at the end of one of these sweeps that when flown out to a Navy LPH, the ship’s captain insisted they strip in the hanger bay throw all their uniforms (what was left of them) overboard and get hosed down with fire hoses before going anywhere else on his ship. That didn’t work out to well for the Captain in case you were wondering.
What has changed? Several things, starting with the amount of armor our troops must wear and ending with the risk aversion and force protection mind set which has infused the United States Military . Between those two data points lies a chain of command which is designed to reflect responsibility away from senior officers a development that I, a retired professional, find reprehensible. Let me cover that last statement first and we can start right here to see the results of a military decision making by committee. The story is about the first female Air Force Academy graduate to die in Afghanistan. She was killed by a anti tank mine on the road between Bagram and Kabul. The road was built by the Soviets to bypass the Shomali Plains where they were constantly ambushed back in the day. I took Megan Ortagus, who was embedding with the Army, down that road a month ago and pointed out all the massive pot holes that local children from a recently established refugee camp fill with sand in hopes that passing vehicles will throw them some cash or water. I wish I had a picture but imagine this – the only road connecting our main airbase in Bagram with our bases in Kabul is full of potholes so big that kids are constantly filling them with sand so vehicles can drive at a reasonable pace. These holes are just the right size to hold a TC 6 or MK 7 anti tank mine – the most common mines here – and I pointed out to Megan that if we had a military focused on counterinsurgency the first thing they would have done (like 7 years ago) would have been to fix and seal the road between their main airhead and main bases. We are talking at most twenty miles or so of road and every night Terry Taliban could have been effortlessly seeding this route with antitank mines by the hundreds BECAUSE THE HOLES WERE ALREADY THERE AS WAS THE SAND TO COVER THE MINES. I also told Megan that when they do mine that road it will be an indicator of bloody times directly ahead. The only question now is who is going to do the bleeding us or our enemies? I don’t know, so lets get back to the story line.
As I mentioned earlier, the forty hour patrol tested the limits of endurance of this rifle company for one simple reason – they carry too much weight. If you are going to go after insurgents who occupy the higher passes of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range (hint, hint) why in the name of God would you be wearing body armor and helmets? We had this kind of warfare figured out about 50 years ago when the Marine Corps established the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. A mountain warfare training rotation was most popular with the troops because they didn’t have to wear helmet and flak jackets during the training. All this talk about fielding lighter body armor is ridiculous – we should be talking about no body armor, no ballistic helmets, and patrols that go out and stay out when working places like the Korengal Valley. These days the Pentagon would recoil in horror at the mere thought of troops stepping one foot off a FOB without full ballistic protection these are the same officers and officials who reacted to the Mogadishu battle in 1993 by trying to buy more F- 32 ground superiority, center of excellence, air dominating, stealth, bat winged, frog footed, super quiet, swift, silent and deadly anti – guerilla fighter jet. I may have the nomenclature on that wrong. OK, OK, I’m making the plane up but what about armored protection for the vehicles used by ground troops? Did not the battle in the streets of Mogadishu illustrate the need for that? Apparently careful study by our military experts determined that armored vehicles and ballistic plates were not a legitimate requirement for ground combat. Not until Secretary Rumsfeld started taking heat after we had invaded Iraq did anyone find the money to armor up our vehicles and troops. But now the mere thought of operating without all the armor that the Pentagon was forced to buy about a decade after your average 7 year old could have figured out we should armor up some of our infantry vehicles and buy ballistic armor for all the troops now it is just inconceivable that they operate without it even when they are climbing around 12,000 foot mountain passes. Is it me or does this not strike you as stupid?
What happens when our men get shot you ask? I ask what happens when they don’t. Coach Vince Lombardi had the last word on this topic when he said “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” The argument against body armor is that too much weight causes physical exhaustion (lots of orthopedic injuries too) and physically exhausted troops are easier to hit. That they survive being hit is something which is good but I am firmly in the “I want to hit the enemy and not be hit myself” camp. I’ve been shot before and it hurts like hell so I’ll do most anything to avoid getting shot again. I’m all for ballistic armor in most times and places but we are talking serious mountains and you cannot conduct mountain warfare in armor – I don’t care how fit the force is. Hitting the enemy is what it is all about – and hitting the enemy is easier when you are not dehydrated and exhausted. Read some of the articles recently published by Mr. Chivers. He points out the enemy is physically weak, they appear malnourished, they can’t shoot a rifle with any accuracy, they cannot shoot mortars or machineguns in a remotly professional manner, nor can they coordinate among themselves. These guys suck at fighting so why are we not dominating them like the chumps they are? Why? Because we do not have a clearly defined mission and thus have no understanding of why we are here which results in extreme risk aversion because the only measurement of success is keeping your casualties low as humanly possible. That’s why.
What is our mission in Afghanistan? I have been here four years and I don’t have a clue. If it is to prevent the return of the Taliban and al Qaeda, that mission was accomplished years ago. They will never be back in any kind of force regardless of when and how we leave. Is it to stand up a central government to allow the people of Afghanistan to join the rest of the functioning core of nation states? That is a noble mission and one I often used to explain why we are here years ago when I first started talking to local leaders in Shrua’s. But our actions on the ground do not remotely correspond to that mission (if that is why we are here.) How can you mentor Afghans if all your diplomats stay completely isolated from them inside a posh embassy throwing endless rounds of parties for each other? Look at the Afghan government. It is judged by all international observers to be in the top three nation sates for official corruption and you can see where all the billions we have spent has gone. Just like the TARP money it has disappeared into thin air and we have nothing to show for it.
This is how big the disconnect is between the inside the wire military and the rest of us currently residing on planet earth – I lifted it from Michael Yon’s website earlier in the week:
From: IDR-TCMC-Office Manager
TO:[Distribution list including contractors.]
Sent: Saturday, 16 May, 2009 4:52 PM
The security state at KAF has been raised. Please ensure that all contractors at KAF, including visitors and transit personnel comply with the following instruction. The security dress state has changed to wearing Combat Body Armour and carrying Helmet when outside a hardened structure. Inside they are to be readily available. There is also now an additional alarm sounding which is a warbling alarm, and is the warning of a Ground Attack and all personnel should move inside a building and await further instructions. Instructions for Op ***** which will cover this procedure will be disseminated in the near future. All contractor personnel are to ensure that they carry their ID on them at all times. Further information is available from the TCMC if required.
Game On? How about Game over? This is the law of unintended consequences in action and let me explain why. Our Department of State has insisted on letting the Afghan government do what it wants and one of things they have done is to make the possession of body armor, helmets, weapons, two way radios, and armored cars against the law unless you are a licensed security company. Every contractor on that base who owns and issues body armor and helmets to his or her employees has violated the law of the land. This, according to our military, is grounds for contract termination (failure to comply with all local laws). Check out my post here which was a cover feature in last March’s Soldier of Fortune magazine. This is what happens to contractors working outside the wire who have body armor – note also I had proper licenses. The NDS took the body armor from two MIT PhD candidates knowing full well they were clients and that we were operating in accordance with the law. But let us ignore the law like the State Department and our military do with their contractors and look at ramifications. Say I have 1000 men working construction aboard the Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and receive the memo above. It is now what military guys call a “specified task” meaning it must be addressed and I must comply or face mission failure. 1000 guys x $1800 or so for average body armor equal $1,800,000 which I would invoice immediately along with a contact modification. There are over 10,000 contractors working aboard KAF. Get the picture?
The military is not congress. They cannot impose unfunded mandates on their contractors. Why do all the construction guys, accountants, cooks, bakers, Timmy Horton’s coffee shop girls etc need body armor and helmets? So they can put them on after a missile hits? The Army used to pull that silly drill in Kabul back in 2005. A rocket would land somewhere in Kabul and all the bases and the embassy would sound alarms sending all hands into bunkers with helmets and body armor. But even the slowest force protection officer began to realize that taking measures to mitigate an event which has already occurred was stupid. But Tim, you ask, what if more missiles came? Well we have these things called counter- battery radars which have been around for about 30 years and they so good that the launch point of any indirect fire system is determined before the projectile lands. Even the illiterate peasants commonly conned into launching missiles have figured out that remaining at a launch site is certain death for them. There has not been an indirect fire attack involving volley after volley of rockets in this country since 2001. Not one. Unsurprisingly, this fact never stopped the force protection officers from insisting that all hands wear body armor and helmets after a rockets had landed in Kabul back in ‘05. The troops, diplomats and others inside these compounds would only comply for, at most, four hours before they started taking the crap off because it was uncomfortable (and stupid.) When you do not have the time, talent or money to do what is important the unimportant becomes important and that is what the memo above is all about.
Contracting officers like the one who wrote the memo above have a very hard job. They can earn no glory, they do not receive praise, the best thing that can happen to them on a tour in Afghanistan is to return home with their rank and reputation. To avoid the temptation or appearance of fraud or favoritism they write requests for proposals which make little to no sense and award contracts based exclusively on the lowest bid submitted. What is the price for disconnecting contracting from performance? You get security guards hired to protect bases who actually murder American soldiers. I know of three such incidents and there are more. I had a friend show up at the Taj who was asked to stand up a guard force as soon as he could to replace an outfit named Golden State. There is no company by that name on the Afghan list of 37 authorized security companies. It was a rogue outfit run by some Afghans who spent time in America and their bid for these guard jobs was less than half what the reputable firms bid. They won, they sucked, they were fired and shot at their Army employers on the way out the door but, being typical Afghans, they did not hit anyone. I asked my buddy if the Army had finally figured out their guard forces needed international supervision and of course the answer was no. Too expensive don’t you see. Our Army will spend 2 million dollars each on ground penetrating radars to mount on the front of the hundreds of multimillion dollar MRAPs despite the fact that they HAVE NEVER DETECTED A MINE IN AFGHANISTAN. But spending money on proper guard forces to watch over our troops on a base oh no, that is just too expensive. Buying uniforms and proper boots for the American contractor mentored Afghan EOD teams who work outside the wire finding and disarming mines daily not enough money for them either. Unlike the massive American contracts to high tech companies that produce worthless gizmos or large just about worthless MRAPs every contract in this country goes to the lowest bidder – a game the Afghans figured out long ago.
Let me provide the yellow for anyone reading this who works in contracting and is interested in how to do it right. I got this tip from a good friend who used this technique in 2003 when he was here serving in the American army. You put out a bid for Afghan companies (I’m not talking armed guards which should always be done by reputable international companies) and you’ll get three bids. Take the lowest number and tell the Afghans this is the ceiling and they should bid lower and tender the bid again. Then take the lowest two bidders and tell them to bid against each other and that lowest bid will win. You will end up awarding projects for less than half of the original lowest bid. That is how you save money if saving money is what you want to do. Any other method is just plain head in the sand stupidity which ignores the experience of the Army and Marine units who used to range around the country like true professionals back in the day. That changed when the Big Army came into the country and started getting things organized (read everyone goes on big box FOB’s to be micro managed.)
I mentioned that reputable international security firms should be the only ones providing armed guards for military bases. What about the four Blackwater guys who shot and killed two Afghans after a traffic accident on Jalalabad Road in downtown Kabul? I have said in prior posts that Blackwater has a country manager who has been here longer than I have and is one of the most knowledgeable Americans I know on the state of play in Afghanistan. I have also written that the BW crews I see outside the wire working with the Afghan Border Police are first rate and I am always happy to know they are out and about when I am working the districts of Nangarhar Province. They hardly ever get out and about now by the way, but that is a topic for another day. I stand by that and can surmise that the four individuals involved in this incident shot that Afghans for exactly the same reason that ISAF soldiers have killed about 500 civilians in their vehicles and that is because the car “was threatening.” I don’t know what that means because I live and operate outside the wire and know that Afghan drivers do all sorts of crazy things, none of which seem too threatening to me. Inside the wire types do not think like the thousands of guys (and gals) who are with me outside the wire. They have no front specific knowledge, even after being in country for months and months, because they live on FOB’s. Fobbits have no meaningful interaction with Afghans. That is the nature of the fobbit. They get front specific knowledge from Hollywood movies or dime store novels written by former SAS men or from the many “gun store commando” schools which have popped up in America, Britain and elsewhere. Apparently the Blackwater guys are now on their way home and will probably avoid prosecution just like all the troops who have killed civilians here in the past. They should be in jail awaiting prosecution to fullest extent of law. Being a gun store commando is no excuse for murder and that is exactly what those four committed.
This brings us to the story which will not go away the civilians killed in an ISAF air strike in Farah Province. I pointed out in my last post that the United States military doesn’t even have white phosphorous rounds (called Willie Pete or WP) in the inventory a fact which was contradicted by C.J. Chivers himself in the story linked above. I saw this post by some anti war blogger which sited Chivers piece as proof that ISAF was lying about the entire incident. I was forced to go to Google and yes, it turns out there are now Willie Pete rounds in the inventory for our field artillery. I am still right about the Farah incident that was Tac Air, not field artillery and Tac Air does not have WP munitions. Willie Pete is used by Americans to mark targets for tactical aircraft to bomb. The last thing anyone on the ground wants to see is a jet jockey who is traveling around 400 mph at 25,000 feet above the battle believing he has the situational awareness to drop bombs where he thinks they are needed. Only in the fevered imaginations of Hollywood producers and Air Force Academy cadets would that make sense. In the real world you shoot a marking round, ask the pilot does he see the mark and if he does you tell him how far away from the mark, using meters a simple compass bearings, the target is and then you give him the direction of attack. The key to using Tac Air is to not allow the pilot to do any thinking at all he does exactly what you tell him and any deviation should result in an immediate abort call followed by a healthy round of cussing at him (or her these days) and then sending the offender home with all his stores so everyone back at the base knows he is a liability who cannot follow directions. Failure to follow these simple rules results in the alarming sight of pilots yelling tally ho and coming straight at you. If you let pilots think they can figure out what is happening on the ground without terminal guidance you they end up bombing Canadian field training exercises, or Marine Corps LAV’s.
That is what WP is for and the only reason why you would not use it against enemy troops in the open is that artillery batteries only load out with so much WP but lots of HE (high explosives.) Were I an infantry commander who saw dozens of enemy troops in the open and had enough Willie Pete (better yet the felt wedge red phosphorus rounds) I’d volley a battalion six on top of them in a heartbeat. It would cause all kinds of gruesome third degree burns and after stripping the survivors of their weapons and radios I’d pay the locals to haul the wounded back to Pakistan where they could die a lingering painful death from infection. There is no law of land warfare against hitting troops with WP or RP rounds not treating them would be a clear violation of international law and if I really did something like that as an active duty Marine I would face a well deserved courts martial. Still it is a good tactic pumps up the troops, demoralizes our enemies, lets the tribal leaders in Pakistan know we are serious about making them calm down and they even might stop cutting the heads off of every stranger wondering about the FATA. But RP rounds cost a lot more than HE rounds and that too would get you in hot water with a Marine chain of command. The only time in the history of the Marine Corps a unit fired hundreds of expensive smoke rounds occurred during the battle of Khe San. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1968 the 10th Marines fired hundreds green smoke rounds into all known and suspected NVA positions in the hills around that embattled outpost. That not only motivated the troops but got rid of the rounds the Marines couldn’t take with them when they abandoned the base.
Back to the incident in Farah Province: The locals claim we killed over 150 innocents which I can promise you is a gross exaggeration that is unverifiable due to our insistence on respecting local religious traditions. Of course if there were 150 bodies buried outside that village in Farah and we insisted on paying compensation for say 24 bodies the locals would be digging up the others with great haste to get the additional money but again, I digress. There are several things about this incident that are critical to understanding why we are failing in Afghanistan. The first is President Karzai’s insistence that we stop using tactical aircraft under all circumstances. You cannot fight a counterinsurgency without the complete and total cooperation of the government you are trying to support. It cannot be done. The continued alienation of the President of Afghanistan (and he is going to win again in August of that I am certain), cannot continue if we hope to ever make progress on our fight to bring security to the people of this country. The continued use of the MSM preferred narrative degrades our counterinsurgency fight and the information warriors of the American military do nothing about this from their desks on the big box FOB’s. They cannot even see .af, .com; or .edu websites on military computers all they see is .mil websites. I know, you can’t make this kind of strangeness up. The detail in this story one for which I was taken to task at Registan.net is the ability of the Taliban to come into a village and force the people to act as human shields at the point of a gun.
It seems that a healthy percentage of our no knock HVT Special Forces raids result in the killing of local men who, as expected, grab their guns and race out of their compounds to help defend their neighbors. Yet every report we see of the Taliban using villagers as human shields implies that no local men put up armed resistance. Does that make sense to you? The local men are more than willing to fight our tier one Special Forces operators, yet cower in fear and act like a flock of sheep when groups of Taliban show up in the village? The truth is somewhere in the middle no group of Taliban is going to heard a bunch of Shinwari (dominate Nangarhar Pashtun tribe) into a hut and shower them with Willie Pete grenades and get away with it. But they could do that to the Kuchi villagers of Little Barabad because that village is surrounded by Shinwari tribal peoples who could give a rat’s patootie about the Kuchi’s and would not lift a finger to help them. Clearly there are villages that are vulnerable to Taliban intimidation but they are a minority. There are four kinds of tribes in Afghanistan; ones that want to be left alone (Nuristan and Kunar Provinces have many of them); ones that are interested in making money and cooperate with both sides to do just that (the Shinwari are the classic example); tribes clearly affiliated with the Taliban mostly in the south; and tribes that want our help to bring security and reconstruction to their lands that would be all the tribes of the north, most of the west, some in the east and none in the south. Our answer to this complex human mosaic is to treat all tribes exactly the same. Again does that make sense to you?
Our current military Afghan Campaign can best be illustrated by the old Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike parable. We cannot take our finger out of the dike or it will implode, we cannot try something new to solve the problem of a small breach in the dike because we are afraid it will make the problem worse. Every year the commander rotates and a new guy puts his finger in the dike hoping against hope that the dike will not fail on his watch. At the end of that year he goes home to never again worry himself about Afghanistan, its peoples or its problems. We can do better but that takes a leader with the understanding and ability to change our approach radically. That could have happened if the plan floated by General Conway to let the Marines handle Afghanistan was accepted Generals Mattis, or Kelley, or Allen any of them have the character and ability to change a failing strategy and they have junior General Officers like Hummer, Osterman, and Nicholson (to name a few) to back them up along with a lions’ brood of experienced combat infantry colonels (the army probably has a bunch with equal ability and talent, I just don’t know them and they do not appear to be operating in Afghanistan.) But that is not going to happen so we wait for the next rotation of Big Army and our NATO allies to come put their fingers in the dike while spending billions and billions of dollars we do not have pursuing a strategy that is guaranteed to fail.