It has been a hectic first week back for me but having cleaned up the inbox I can now turn the gimlet eye onto the state of play in Afghanistan. And the state of play is not too good for the home team at the moment. Let’s review just the major events for yesterday to give all of you an idea on how bad things are getting
This past Thursday (9 July) the three things which popped up on our radar in the east were an ANP ambush which killed four police and dozens of civilians, the loss of Bargi Matal district in Nuristan the Taliban flag went up over the District Administrative Center (DAC) at 1412 on the 9th of July, and a one round Tinian shot into the American combat outpost (COP) located around the Sirkanay DAC which blew up all their fuel stores and half of their vehicles. These incidents are part of a disturbing set of storm clouds on the horizon; we are heading into heavy weather when the storm breaks we could start losing people and losing them fast.
The ANP ambush in Logar Province was noteworthy because it involved a ruse which added to the destructiveness of the bomb creating a very high body count. They bad guys tipped over a Jingo truck full of wood simulating a traffic accident ahead of a large convoy of ANP vehicles. A crowd gathered, wood is the most common fuel for both heating and cooking and is a valuable commodity in Afghanistan and locals will come for miles around if they think there is an arm load of wood to be had for free. When the ANP tried to navigate through this mess the bad guys blew the truck and it apparently contained tons of explosives. With the truck on its side the blast wave shoots out horizontally at about head height instead vertically like it would if the truck were upright. It also creates more shrapnel by throwing bits of the engine, transmission, undercarriage etc sideways at head instead of into the road. The civilians most have been standing on the undercarriage side of the truck which is why so many were killed. This incident is another indicator that the bad guys are gaining proficiency at setting up ambushes. It is also typical that most of the casualties are civilians it seems the Taliban can kill as many civilians as they like without incurring harsh denunciations from the current Afghan President or international press.
A Tinian Shot is an old sea story in the Marines used to describe a single lucky round which takes out something critical to the enemy. One story has it that the 75mm pack howitzer which was used to signal the landing craft to open fire as the first assault wave churned toward Tinian had the good fortune to see its signaling round disappear down an air shaft detonating the main Japanese ammo dump. The term could also be referring to an impressive one shot kill by a U.S. Navy destroyer who caught a Japanese ship trying to slip away off the coast of Tinian. Whatever the origins if you can launch a single mortar round into a base and blow up half the vehicles and all the fuel that’s a Tinian shot and the bad guys in Kunar Province finally scored one on the American COP outside of Sirkanay after six years of trying. Was it luck or skill? Who knows but it is bad karma stuff which portends nothing positive.
Then we have something not yet in the press and that is the loss of Bargi Matal district in Nuristan. The US Army has been pulling out of eastern Nuristan for many months now and had nobody in the area. This is a good thing in my humble opinion we have no business in Nuristan Province and should leave it for the Afghans to deal with. The fight for Bargi Matal was between the ANA and the Taliban (work for pay type Taliban in this case) and the fall of the DAC means only one thing the ANA cannot call for or control ISAF close air support. There is no way the fight for pay (or any other) Taliban can mass 300 men to take a DAC if our Tac Air is in the fight. Eight years into this war and we do not appear to have ISAF qualified close air support controllers in the Afghan Army. I could care less about the Bargi Matal district of Nuristan Province it is controlled by gem smuggling syndicates comprised of Pashtun and Punjab families from the Pakistan side of the border. Gem merchants in Afghanistan are taxed at around 51% – in Peshawar 15% and on both sides of the border that percentage is reduced with proper bribes. Our forces cannot be everywhere and should focus on areas and people who want our help and the tribes of Nuristan do not. The Soviets were putting an Afghan Cosmonaut in space eight years into their Afghan adventure yet we cannot train up FAC’s?
Speaking of not good the Bot and I took a little Recee over the back way into Kabul the bone jarring Latabad Pass. We have not used that route since the main road was repaired and Shem needed to look the route over for his company. It was in good shape and completely deserted. No security forces, no local traffic, nothing – all the way into Kabul. Not one checkpoint we just drove through like we were in the desert of the American southwest. With all the concern over security during the elections it is hard to believe that the back route from Surobi to Kabul is wide open with no evidence of any security forces monitoring it.
The Marines have launched out of their FOB’s in Operation Khanjar (Thrust of the Sword) and they plan to remain in the areas they have just cleared. Here is a quote on that topic from Gen Larry Nicholson who is the Commanding General for the Marines:
General Nicholson says NATO will change its ways: “Where we go, we will stay; and where we stay we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces.” The problem for the marines, as for other NATO forces, is that there are nowhere near enough Afghans. Thrust of the Sword involved just 650 Afghan soldiers alongside 4,000 marines. General Nicholson wants as many Afghans as Americans.
I like this approach and am interested in seeing how it is going to work but can promise you it will not work without the extensive use of civilian contractors coming in right behind the Marines to help with the hold and do the build portion of the mission. General Nicholson is many things to many people including a hero to me but he is just one man and as a MEB commander he remains a minor player in the military/political insider’s game playing out in DC. He has to follow orders and there is no way our congress will let him leave his Marines out in contact if they start taking casualties or if they he cannot get them under proper cover and out of the harsh environment. The Marines understand this which is why they have sent little battle packets of engineers out to construct combat outposts in as little as 96 hours. Pretty damn slick and a real impressive start but the hold and build part takes time and demonstrated commitment. That is best done with contractors on three year tours not troops who are in for seven months at a time and from what I can tell there is no civilian surge to back up the Marines play.
There is a civilian surge of sorts which you can read about here but these guys are going to PRT’s and PRT’s are worthless. They reason they are worthless is that they are housed in their own FOB’s and whenever you put a force onto a FOB the focus of the FOB bound command is internal. It has to be and this article which concerns my local PRT is a good example of what I am talking about. Jalalabad is a moderately safe area with lots of internationals doing good deeds daily but do not work or coordinate with the PRT. It is not that the people manning the PRT are the problem they want to get out and help too but they are constrained by force protection rules. Placing more civilians in these bases will do nothing to aid the military commanders who are asking over and over again for a little help.
Back to the Marines it appears that the operation is going exactly as planned. Col Mellinger, the MEB G3 or operations officer, told me they expected the bad guys to squirt out of the contested areas when they moved in. The Taliban always does that because they cannot stand and fight. The Marines could have sealed off villages and killed the escaping Taliban but they are not interested in that. They have said over and over they want to protect the people and allow redevelopment which is what our COIN doctrine mandates should be done. At the moment heat is the biggest problem the Marines are facing and they have been evacuating heat stroke cases on a daily basis. Heat stroke is serious business before the wide use of antibiotics disease and heat always killed more men campaigning in this land than enemy action. When your body can no longer thermoregulate due to heat it starts cooking protein and that cooking happens in the brain pan. Heat stroke is bad news and in peacetime a commander who has a string of heat stroke casualties can look forward to a JAG investigation and possibly a court martial if the investigation turns up excessive stupidity on his part. That is not the case with the Marines down south or any other ISAF unit in country. The military medical system understands thermoregulation problems better than their civilian counterparts. Everybody in the system knows that heat stroke is as critical evac because there is not much you can do in the field to get the body core temperature under control. As I write this it is around 110 in Jalalabad add 20 degrees to that and you have the temperature in the Helmand Province
But these days our troops go into battle with armor weighing as much as that worn by medieval knights. Add to that water and ammo and our troops are working in 130 degree heat with 80 to 100 pounds on their bodies and that is just the combat load. What can be done about that? I would not want to be the commander who had to tell a father his son died from a gun shot wound to the chest which could have been stopped by our standard issue body armor but wasn’t because it was too hot that day to be wearing it. I would not want to tell the same father his son will never be mentally stable because his brain fried in the desert heat before we could get him back into an ice bath at the field hospital fast enough.
The answer is to have a single policy from on high dictating at what temperature and under what conditions body armor and helmet will be considered too dangerous to wear which would take the heat off of the combatant commanders. That won’t happen because our senior leadership is terrified of excessive battle casualties. Iraq showed us that the American public will tolerate this sort of deployment as long as we do not approach or exceed 2.5 casualties per day. The British who lost eight men today are rapidly getting to the point where their public will not tolerate much more. The goal for all commanders in theater is to avoid losing people and that is not the proper mindset for counterinsurgency warfare.
Michael Yon has been in country and hanging out in the very remote Ghor Province and recently added to the Afghanistan debate with this piece last week. The Belmont club picked up on the post and Richard Hernandez (one of my personal favorites) wrote this comment:
“The current plan for Afghanistan campaign has implicitly assumed that the goal of creating a society able to resist al-Qaeda like groups can be reached with the time and resources available. There’s no reason to believe why this must be true beyond the assertion that it is. If Michael Yon’s insight is correct, then the assertion is not proved; and we may be trying to solve an problem of exponential complexity with a polynomial time algorithm; that is to say trying to attain a strategic goal unreachable by the tactical means at our disposal.”
Solve a problem of exponential complexity with a polynomial time algorithm; those are the exact words I used at the Tiki Bar last night during our weekly social the exact words..Ok that’s BS but man; I like the way it sounds which is why I read the Belmont Club first thing every morning. Michael’s observations are spot on this is a big country full of people who have not concept of modernity. We do not have the time or resources to fix all that is broken the key is setting reasonable goals in critical areas where the people want our help and then leaving. Just say no to polynominal time algorithms they have no place in our strategic or tactical thinking.