Gardez is the capitol of Paktya Province which is located in the southeast of Afghanistan. It is one of the provinces which border Pakistan, the terrain and vegetation is almost identical to the high deserts of the American west. Paktya looks similar to Marine Corps training base in 29 Palms California and exactly like the super large Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Which I mention because I worked at Dugway for a few years after 9/11 and was constantly asking why we weren’t utilizing the maneuver areas for large scale training maneuvers.
We spent a few days in Gardez to scope out projects aimed at bringing cash for work projects. Gardez is one of the larger more important cities in the southeast and has been the home of an American PRT since 2005. I stayed at the PRT with The Boss because Gardez is a dangerous place and we have yet to get a handle on local atmospherics.
So we are fighting a counterinsurgency in support of a government who is actively hindering our efforts by not cooperating with our military, our hapless State Department, or any other organization trying to bring peace, hope, modernity and the rule of law to this once proud and beautiful country.
Gardez has always been a dangerous place due to its proximity to the traditional smuggling routes leading into Pakistan through the Pakistani town of Parachinar. Early in 2002 U.S. and Australian Special Forces troops fought a pitched battle in the Shah-i-Kot Valley (the Battle of Takur Ghar) close to Gardez. One would think that the Army would have done a ton of work in Gardez to help establish a positive climate while placing maneuver units on the Pakistani border to block the well developed and well known smuggling routes. In both cases one would be wrong; there is no coalition presence on the border and the town of Gardez remains a dirt poor shit hole all but ignored by the army and US AID.
I have no insight concerning leaving pours borders uncovered know the FOB’s are full of frustrated troops who have very little to do and understand that the time they are spending here is wasted time. I want to stress that we were hosted by and enjoyed the company of great Americans at the Gardez PRT. For example we talked with a National Guard Sergeant (as in E5) who is an agriculture professor back home and was able to discuss the various types of grasses for livestock feed and fruit trees for large orchards by family, genus and phylum. All he wants to do is teach the Afghan farmers what he knows in order to continue the legacy (which he has researched thoroughly) of the 1970’s Kabul University. In the 70’s the agriculture program at Kabul University was the most advanced in Central Asia. The Ag program was partnered with the University of Nebraska, all courses were taught in English and the graduates of this program were famous throughout the region for their proficiency and expertise.
The sergeant is part of a Tennessee National Guard unit full of agricultural specialists, led by a Colonel whose mannerisms and demeanor mark him as a classic American combat commander. During their shot time in country they are trying to bring their expertise to bear on the problem of developing professional agriculture practices which will produce export quality products and earn money for the people. But they cannot really accomplish much of anything because you cannot mentor from inside of a FOB. They are trying but what can you do when you are forced to travel down the few roads in the province in convoys which must have at a minimum four MRAP’s? What kind of reaction do you expect from local land owners when you roll up with an entire platoon of infantry for your personal protection?
Military professionals study past wars to gain the knowledge required for sound decision making in this kind of environment. Based on thousands of years of military history we can deduce that a large land owner who has received a visit from the PRT and still has his head attached to his shoulders is in some way, shape or form in collusion with the Taliban. That is not to say he is a bad guy but he is not our guy because the enemy owns the turf he lives on while we spend our nights inside Big Box FOB’s enjoying pecan pie and really good coffee.
A moderately wealthy land owner in Afghanistan has many enemies and few friends so they are forced to pay for security or face the certain prospect of being kidnapped or losing a son to kidnappers. The American military provides them zero protection and visits from the military can only bring them more harm than good. Sound like a sound counterinsurgency strategy to you?
As happens at every FOB I visit the troops tell me how much they would enjoy working the way we do. We do not wear body armor and rarely carry long guns; we are not afraid to walk around places like Gardez because we understand the OODA loop and how it applies to the Taliban. Make no mistake; we could not do this on a regular basis because once our routine was known we would be attacked. But we can show up every once in a while, walking with the confidence and interacting with the people, while confronting the big T Taliban who often shadow us in an attempt at intimidation. Nothing pumps up the locals like seeing The Boss or I walk over to a cab with several Talibs inside and go toe to toe with them wearing a big shit eating grin because (for now) they are unarmed and unable to do a damn thing to us. We are armed and would not hesitate to shoot the pricks but we could only do that if they attacked us with a firearm or edged weapon.
Afghans admire calm cool courage and there are tens of thousands of troops in country who could display that kind of cool if they were allowed to do so. The Boss and are are not special but we are smart and we are well armed with both weapons and the knowledge of local customs which is essential to counterinsurgency warfare.
While in the VIP barracks I listened to the staff officers as they prepared to fly out to various other FOB’s to attend conferences. One of which was a big multi-day confab concerning Water Shed Management. Why the hell are we concerning ourselves with Afghan water shed management? We have FOB’s sitting next to important cities where the main canals are full of garbage, human and animal waste, large protozoan parasites, and toxic sludge. Instead of taking care of that simple problem we are conducting huge meetings on big box FOB’s with lots of senior officers about water shed management. You know why? Because dozens of senior officers, Department of State and US AID people can spend their entire tour preparing slides, looking at studies and conducting historical research to produce a product which is meaningless to the Afghans. They then can have multi-day super high speed presentations about water shed management without ever having to leave the FOB’s, deal with a real Afghan, or actually see, taste or feel any real water. It is virtual stability operations done by people who want to help but can’t.
The people of Gardez are about to have their number one complaint (and source of disease and infection) taken care of by my team (working in conjunction with the Mayor) and a paltry budget of $600,000. With that modest sum we are going to clean all the ditches, garbage dams, main canals and karezs. We will employ over five thousand dirt poor people and bring irrigation to over 1000 acres of farm land. This is the low hanging fruit of aid work and something which should have been done seven years ago.
The sad truth is we stay on the Big Box FOBs concerning ourselves with ridiculous projects like Water Shed Management (which will never have any impact at all on the average Afghan), waste millions of dollars and thousands of man hours because we can’t do what is important. We need to get off the FOB’s and fight along side the Afghans. The only unit in country doing that is in Helmand province where the Marines have landed.
The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB) on the ground and they are a combined arms task force built around a Marine Corps infantry regiment. Marine combat units are bigger then similar units in other services. That is a legacy from World War II where Marine units had to continue to fight hard while sustaining cripplingly high casualty rates as they rooted out dug in Japanese. Marine units no longer take massive casualties; they inflict them, which the Taliban learned last year when they foolishly accepted an invitation to dance with Colonel Pete Petronzio and the 24th MEU.
Now they have Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and the entire 2nd MEB to contend with and they are about to get their asses kicked and kicked hard. The Boss and I had the distinct pleasure to visit with General Nicholson yesterday and The Boss, who is not impressed by much, was in awe. He told me that for the first time in his life he has met a real fighting general. Larry Nicholson is one of the best in a talented group of newly minted general officers. The Marines have more like him and they’ll be following him and expanding on his work for the years to come.
You will not hear much about the Marines in the months ahead because their performance will run counter to the preferred corporate media narrative and will therefore be omitted from the nightly news. The Afghans in the Helmand province already know who they are and the citizens (according to our local sources) are excited as they understand the Marines are here to stay. The Afghans in the south fell the Marines treat them with more respect than the other forces operating in the region. They also admire the tenacity of Marine infantry and their propensity to operate in small units while taking on large formations of Taliban. I have seen several stories about small units of Marines kicking the Taliban’s asses good while sustaining zero causalities.
The SF teams, SEALS, and SAS teams working Helmand province now love having the MEB here because Marine pilots fly into the teeth of dug-in enemy to take them on at low altitudes and close range. A SF guy I talked with told me that when his men were pinned down a Marine Huey pilot hovered right above them spraying mini-gun fire into the faces of the Taliban. My friend Eric Mellinger,the operations officer for 2nd MEB, confirmed the story saying the pilot took 3 AK rounds in the only place on the bird which would not bring it down; the self sealing fuel tanks.
Killing people is serious business best left to true professionals who can separate the big T Taliban from the population. The Marines can do that because the Marines will not hesitate to strong point villages vulnerable to Taliban intimidation with rifle squads. And they tend to go after people who shoot at them running them down and destroying them in detail. If there is a way to win we will see it play out in the years ahead with the Marines in Helmand province where they will prove once again they are the strongest tribe.