Big Army Tribal Engagement

Last month Chief Ajmal Khan Azizi returned to the Zazi valley. As I wrote about here his first attempt to return home had to be postponed after the local American army commander declared him an AOG (Armed Opposition Group) leader. The reason for this label is that Ajmal and his tribal police ran off the representatives of the Kabul government, sent to the valley a few years back, after those representatives tried to steal tribal lands and in one case, raped a male child.

Chief Ajmal Khan Azizi, with Shah Mohammad and his Tribal Police chief Amir Mohammad moments after he landed in Gardez last month.
From right to left Chief Ajmal Khan Azizi, Shah Mohammad and his Tribal Police chief Amir Mohammad moments after they landed in Gardez last month.

The mission of ISAF includes the following:”supporting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”. That sounds great on paper but is not always a good idea in practice. The representatives of the Kabul government have a spotty record. Some are good men who want to help establish a functioning state.  Others are interested exclusively in lining their pockets and the pockets of their family with as much money as they can get; whether it be through bribes, pay for play schemes or outright theft. The initial political appointees to the Zazi Valley were sent packing back to Kabul shortly after they arrived. So now, in the eyes of the FOB bound American military, the Zazi Valley tribal police and their leadership are considered AOG  (just like the Taliban they are constantly fighting).  Check out this correspondence between The Boss and the young commander of the closest Combat Outpost (COP) to the valley:

Sir,

Thank you for your message. Any development project in Jaji would be  great, but I would like to ensure that it ties into the district  development list/tribal development list, in order to ensure that the  district leadership is not undermined.

Unfortunately, Ahjmal Khan Jaji is not a tribal leader at all. I do  not want you to come into this environment thinking that to be a fact.  Additionally, the security force of Amir Muhammad is an illegal force  that is not endorsed by MOI.

The facts are that Azad Khan, the Jaji Sub Governor, has a great  relationship with the tribes a focus for his district. The ANSF in  this area (ANP and ABP) are a professional/legitimate force that does  a tremendous job in keeping the best security for the people.

I’ve CC’d my higher HQ, as well as representation to Department of  State and the PRT, to ensure that they are tied in to your work.  Again, I would love to see development here, but I want you to have  the facts and go through the proper channels before beginning work.  Thank you for your time.

VR, XXXX

The Zazi Valley is in the southeastern corner of the Tora Bora Mountains; it was known as “The Gateway to Afghanistan” during the Soviet-Afghan war. The valley is key terrain which is currently under friendly control thanks to the efforts of Ajmal and his tribal police force. Steven Pressfield has an 11 part interview with Ajmal which you can find here. It’s interesting reading. Ajmal is a Canadian citizen, a fluent English speake who can describe the enemy situation in his tribal area in clear, concise terms. He clearly is on our side in this conflict and wants some American grunts to move into his area to lend a hand.

ALIM2036
The Tribal Police from Zazi Valley in dismounted to clear a known ambush site on  foot before allowing the convoy through. They are funded by Ajmal who provides weapons, uniforms, and vehicles. They have no belt fed machineguns, RPG’s or mortars. The Taliban have plenty of each.

The Boss sent a Ghost Team operative named Crazy Horse with the Chief to do the advance work for a USAID funded cash for work programs targeting the Zazi Valley.  The Horse is a South African giant (6’5″ 230lbs) who serves in the British Army reserve and is now a resident of Scotland. Like many British soldiers he goes to great lengths to protect his identity. Crazy Horse (his call sign from back in the day) asked that I not ID him by name so from now on he’s The Horse.

As the convoy ferrying Ajmal and company into the Zazi Valley left the Gardez area the Chief met with local delegations at every small village along the route. Not all of them were thrilled to see a 6'5" Scotsman tagging along
As the convoy ferrying Ajmal and company into the Zazi Valley left the Gardez area the Chief met with local delegations at every small village along the route. Not all of them were thrilled to see a 6’5″ Scotsman tagging along.   These elders had high hopes nine years ago when we ejected the Taliban.   Now they face significant danger from those same dirt bags and have been fighting them without any help or assistance from ISAF or Kabul.   How long would it take you if you face similar circumstances to start wondering if you are backing the wrong side in this fight?   5 years, 10, 20? Leaving these guys out in the cold to fend for themselves as they guard critical terrain is nothing short of a national disgrace in my humble opinion.

Prior to his arrival we had asked for a meeting with the US Army battle space owner at the big base in Gardez – that request was denied. But the army figured out that something unique was happening when they noticed large crowds gathering along the route into the Zazi Valley with their UAV surveillance platforms.  Once Ajmal arrived at his family compound he stayed up most of the night with the senior members of the 11 tribe shura. The next three days were identical from dawn until well past dusk. He held multiple meetings with 30 to 40 elders from each tribal grouping which lasted around 50 minutes each. Ajmal displayed more stamina, leadership and drive than any one human should be expected to posses. These meetings are not something which you can just head fake your way through – they are deadly serious business concerning the future of the entire border region; and many of his followers are not impressed by the American military or Kabul government. Nobody in the border region of Paktia Province is mistaking ISAF for the strongest tribe.

For three days all day this was the scene at Ajmals family compound. There were thousands of people camped outside waiting for their turn to meet or waiting for their elders to finish and so they could head home. The American military noted this assembely when they saw it with their UAV's and, as is most often the case, had no idea what was happening just a few miles from their closest outpost.
For three days all day this was the scene at Ajmals family compound. There were thousands of people camped outside waiting for their turn to meet or waiting for their elders to finish so they could head home. The American military noted this assembly when they saw it with their UAV’s and, as is most often the case, had no idea what was happening just a few miles from their closest outpost.

The visit concluded with an election of a new Chief for the Zazi tribal counsel. The tribal counsel includes Commander Aziz Ola’ from Jaji Midan, the Chamkani tribal elders, the Dinda Paton Tribal elders and the District sub governor who is from the area and not an appointee from Kabul. They elected a retired Sharia Judge from the Taliban days by the name of Kazi.

The new
The new chief of the Zazi Valley tribal counsel Judge Kazi – the headdress is his badge of office

The border area of Loya Paktia which includes Paktia, Khost and Paktikia Provinces is a region where the tribes have relevance.  It is also one of the places where a platoon of American troops could make a huge impact on the flow of Taliban fighters and material into Afghanistan. There are 35 Haqqani affiliated fighters and four known Pakistani ISI affiliated organizers in the Zaizi lands which the Tribal Police would be more than happy to run off of if they received a little help. This could be a text book economy of force operation but it would take sending in a platoon (or an A team, or some other similar outfit) and leaving them there with the Afghans to provide actual security as opposed to leaving them locked inside a COP isolated from and of little use to the local tribes.

Ajmal stopped in for a late dinner after driving to Jalalabad from his valley - a dangerous 14 hour trip - he may not look it but he was exhausted
Ajmal stopped in for a late dinner after driving to Jalalabad from his valley, a dangerous 14 hour trip. He may not look it but he was exhausted

Yesterday I talked with a Washington attorney who had taken a leave of absence from his law firm to spend seven months in the Helmand Province as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. He had been an infantry officer while on active duty years ago but functioned as a civil affairs officer during his latest deployment. He told me that in 7 months he had spent a total of maybe 10 hours inside a vehicle and wore out two pairs of boots walking all day every day to the villages around Naw Zad. By the end of his deployment he and his Marines knew every village elder, every family, every child, and most of the goats and sheep who lived in the area. They knew them on sight, interacted with them daily and when a military aged male showed up in his area who was not a resident they rounded him up immediately to determine who he was, why he was there, who could vouch for him as a legitimate visitor, where was coming from and who he had been with. That is counterinsurgency 101  and you cannot do it any other way then to be out with the people all day and all night and operating on foot. You cannot do COIN by patrolling in MRAP convoys a few hours a day before heading back to the FOB for ice cream, pecan pie and a mandatory head count by the First Sergeant.

The battalion at the Gardez FOB called The Horse to ask if he knew why thousands of people had migrated towards “some compound in the Zazi Valley.” When he told them what was up they asked to meet with him and Ajmal when they headed back to Kabul. The meeting turned out to be a joke. A visibly upset major demanded to know why, if the Zazi Valley tribal police were on their side, had they not reported to the Americans the location of IED’s? Ajmal, by this time exhausted and barely able to talk, explained that they are not in the “sell IED’s to the Americans” business. Reporting an IED for the cash reward is a common money scam in those parts and increases the number of IED’s being made. The only IED’s the tribal police have seen were aimed at them and all those had gone off. He added that if they do gain knowledge of an IED cell on their lands they will bring both the IED’s and the heads of the IED makers to Gardez.

The Americans remain skeptical, Ajmal remains frustrated, Crazy Horse who, like myself, has spent his adult life as an infantry officer is heart sick and I am so fucking pissed off I can’t see straight. It is impossible to be optimistic about the future of Afghanistan unless the military USAID, State Department and all the other organizations with unlimited funding and influence get out of the FOB’s and to live with the people.

24 Replies to “Big Army Tribal Engagement”

  1. Welcome back to the states Tim. Someone in the dark under belly of the government named Ahjmal Khan a bad guy. And that can happen(shrug) As for “Tribes” It’s strange that im seeing some military sits talking about it now.One time they would not speak of it at all. Maybe they will embrace the idea now.?

  2. The Afghans have been killing foreigners for centuries with long range rifle attacks. The British in the 19th hated the homemade Afghan rifles, the Jezeel, and there are records of kills at a mile back then. Probably legendary but still the Afghans were among the first effective snipers.

  3. the Taliban will continue to become more effective, that is a given. How long will it be before they routinely use explosively formed penetrators ? a year ?

  4. great post babatim…. i didnt realize who ajmal was when he dropped by, wow! I am so .. NOT surprised the fob-folk had no clue of what was going on.

  5. Nothing in war is ever a “given.”

    Talib/al-Q have already used EFP IED’s inside the Afghan theater, as long ago as 2007.

    John Ryan, are you Professor John Ryan of the University of Winnipeg, Canada?

    RED
    DOTS,
    R

  6. Tim,

    I wrote/posted the below on the LWJ’s Threat Matrix on the 17th…

    “Long range shooting has always been a point of pride amongst the Afghan men. Both Kipling and the fictional Sherlock Holmes noted it long ago.

    Afghan and Tribal Pakistani boys learn shooting the same way American kids learn video games, so in that sense the Talib have always fielded trained snipers as just about every Talib gunman is a potential sniper.

    There is no lack of Moisin-Nagant and Lee-Enfield type bolt-actions available in the region and knock-off Dragunov SVD copies are/were fairly popular in the FATA arms shops after the 1980’s. Even the venerable 19th century Martini-Henry (usually in a slightly more modern caliber) has been re-produced in large numbers and had been seen in the hands of some of the poorer Talib units circa 2002-03 and earlier. All are for sale in the FATA arms shops, even PPsH-41 sub machine guns for the Talib that needs glasses.

    Now if the sniper in question is cracking off aimed single shots from an RPK or PKM LMG at 1,000 meters or more, that would be different. That might very well point to advanced training and/or a professional at work.

    But how many of those highly trained professionals and their relatively expensive weapons would the Talib command leave behind to be ground up by the USMC Machine that they know full well is coming and is not stoppable? And how many Talib didn’t get their orders to leave because Baradar got busted by the Pakistanis before he could pass those orders?”

    ===

    Some of the media reports are saying 700 yards and others are saying 700 meters. I think 700 meters is around 765.5 yards (or is it the other way around?)…

    Either way, that’s exceptional but not unheard of shooting for a scoped Lee-Enfield, Moisin-Nagant 1891/30, or Dragunov SVD. It seems to me the hardest part isn’t the shooting, it’s the stress of having a whole lot of really angry USMC looking for the shooter.

    So (noting my comments about the Talib’s perceived strategy for Helmand from the previous thread) are we looking at imported talent, the best of the locals, a couple of really lucky shots, or some combination of all of the above?

    …and when was the last time the Corp was held up by a handful of resolute snipers?

    MR. PULLER
    LINE ONE
    IS FOR YOU,
    R

  7. I would point out that the Marines use M4s and possibly for wide open spaces an M16 would be more appropriate. This may be one of the times the better handling shorter weapon is a disadvantage.

  8. @Render I say from outside.allot of afghans have stated there is outside forces working with the Taliban now.and one is a four letter word.:)

  9. Gentlemen,

    Expect to hear more about possible foreigners fighting with the Taliban in Marjeh (and elsewhere) in the days to come…some come from Iran but most are Pakistani’s and probably some Uzbeks, Chechens, and a couple from the Arab states as welll. The enemy had a long time to get their defensive plan in order and in typical U.S. fashion we planned the heck out if it, pushed our timeline to the right by months, and still announced the crap out of our intentions. Residents (and the enemy) in Marjeh have been expecting this for quite some time…not too mention we went in there last spring for “mini-offensive” failed to hold the ground and came back later. Almost like a practice match prior to the big game. This enemy is a lot of things but they are most definitely adaptive, learning, and applying lessons learned.

    IEDs will continue to be the force multiplier of choice for the bad guys as they halt U.S. forces in their tracks, buy time to flee or maneuver/attack, or simple attrit forces one injury at a time. They are cheap, crude, but effective for the most part. No, they’re not always reliable but I think that has a lot to with them sitting in the ground for such a long period of time. Again, the enemy has been expecting this for a long time now so there are A LOT of IEDs in that town.

    My sources tell me there is already some concern and discussion about what size force will remain in Marjeh and more importantly for how long. This town is just the first step in GEN McChrystal’s “clear, sweep, hold, and build” strategy for central Helmand. Lot’s of reorganization of headquarters coming this spring/summer as the “surge” really takes off in that part of the country. In the meantime, RC-North continues to grow as does the Al Qaeda influence in that region spilling in from the Central -Stan’s. Not sure how effective the Germans will be in countering/neutralizing that threat.

    Oh well, Afghanistan is a big place and there a lot of idealogues willing to die for Allah and a chance to kill an infidel “invader”….will be an interesting spring and summer to say the least.

  10. optimistic about Afghanistan ? it does not sound like that country has changed a whole lot from when I was there in the 70s. Except that the 303 Lee-enfield has been supplanted by the AK47. How much do you expect it to change ? We have spent 500 billion there on 25 million people that is 20 grand per person probably 100 grand per family. It costs us 1 million to keep a soldier there for a year. Tell me that this is the best way to handle that problem.

  11. I can think of two things in Afghanistan that have changed dramatically since the 1970’s.

    The USMC is there, and the Marxists are not.

    NEXT,
    R

  12. I would back the British Army annonyminity rule. If you can use Google Blog Search and can get CNN, Sky News and BBC News on your television then so can the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA. The troubles may be “over” but as a car bomb in Newry, County Down proves, the situation is still very dangerous for British servicemen at home and abroad.

    Great article. A lot of what this is being echoed by guys like Bob Shepherd: that various tribal groups in those various provinces bordering Pakistan who are doing a sterling job on their own are being considered AOGs because they don’t want Karzai’s men screwing them over. Pacha Khan for example was denounced by Karzai and thus became a target for ISAF and the Americans. Now he’s a member of the Afghan Parliament and still survives somehow and the Americans in the province leave him alone but its still an example of naive meddling in tribal politics.

  13. Yesterday I watched The Man Who Would Be King once again and thought of our current dealing with tribes when Carnahan was explaining to Utta, the first and only tribal leader he had met that his enemies were Carnahan’s enemies. Much like Gant deciding to go to war with “his” tribe against the “others” based solely on which village he had pitched up first to. The chances of a foreigner understanding Afghan politics is nil and we shouldn’t be kidding ourselves that we luckily happened to stumble upon some good guys when all the rest are rotten.

  14. Also lots of weed and poppies to distribute. Who will be heading this up?
    Don’t forget the cash cow.

  15. Hay Babatim! Just read that at Mazer-e Sharif there are large building construction taking place there.work sites popping up all over town.Could this be from proper local engagement.? It is run by the Swedes an Finns PRT. And omagod they do foot patrols down town. 🙂

  16. J Harlan,

    I expect the answer to dealing with tribalism will look a lot like the CDI or Community Defense Initiative exercised in Anbar Province under the “Sons of Awakening” program which was touted as a success. Basically, we will give our enemies money, weapons, and other ‘things’ to stop shooting at us. If we’re lucky we can get some of them to kill those tribal members who won’t get onboard. It’s a strategy that is temporarily effective or at least a lot GO/FO’s are hoping will be in Afghanistan much like it was in Iraq. I wouldn’t call it a solution but it is a short term fix to buy some “stability”, create the appearance of success (whatever that finally gets defined as), and then exit the country with some form of dignity.

    Not to sound dramatic but senior leaders learned and still apply the lesson of Vietnam today. The perception at home must be we left successfully or as in the case of Iraq at least non-violently as possible to avoid attention from American voters. Most Americans are unaware or even care about Iraq today, so that apathy equates to success. Total war with total victory are outdated principles that don’t apply to Iraq and Afghanistan, but at the same time we can’t be evacuating off the roof of the embassy in Kabul as the Taliban seize the city either. I don’t advocate the Taliban are capable of doing this in the near term but in time I believe history will repeat itself as Americans lose interest in the LONG TERM (10 years and beyond) health of Afghanistan.

    Giving troops the ability to operate outside the wire and interact with the local population and develop an appreciation of the culture ain’t gonna happen anytime soon. No GO/FO will stand in front of our sorry ass Congress and say, “Yes, I did authorize the troops to wear soft caps, no body armor, and carry only side arms” to conduct community engagement or God forbid live outside the wire with the very locals we are there to “protect and serve”…. No GO/FO will commit that kind of career suicide, it’s dangerous out there don’t you know? If you’re not traveling with an infantry squad, with at least three crew served weapons, an approved CONOP, and some form of ISR overhead then you’re not leaving the front gate of the FOB. Good luck engaging the public and developing an appreciation of the tribal dynamic within Afghanistan under those constraints.

  17. As usual, the Americans don’t f-ing get it.

    The battalion at the Gardez FOB called my buddy the Horse to ask if he knew why thousands of people had migrated towards, some compound in the Zazi Valley. They asked to meet with them on their way out but that meeting turned out to be a joke. A visibly upset major demanded to know why, if the Zazi Valley tribal police were on their side, had they not reported to the Americans the location of IED’s? Ajmal, by this time exhausted and barely able to talk, explained that they are not in the, sell IED’s to the Americans business because they are not that desperate for money. The only IED’s the police have seen were either aimed at them or the tribal chiefs; but if they do have knowledge of an IED cell on their lands, then they will bring both the IED’s and the heads of the IED makers to Gardez. The Americans remain skeptical, Ajmal remains frustrated, Crazy Horse who, like myself, has spent his adult life as an infantry officer, remains heart sick, and I remain pissed off.

    Is some kind of cognitive disability a requirement to become an Army officer?

  18. The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade lived COIN everyday. They did it because they were able and willing to take a leap of faith that this could be done, as you, your colleagues and Amy and the FabLab crew continue to do. Unfortunately, what I am seeing in what you describe (and what I’ve heard from others) is a monolithic mindset incapable of taking the leap of faith to really implement COIN.

  19. This is just a tip of the hat for trying.”30 day through Afghanistan”. by two airman for ISAF.

  20. Heard that some contractors were killed. Cannot get any more info. Hope it was none of your guys.

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