The other day The Bot and I were talking about Greg Mortenson (author of Three Cups of Tea). Mortenson has been court ordered to fork over a million bucks for managing donor money like a GSA mandarin. He is also guilty of fabricating tales of derring-do in his mission to build schools using the transformative method of drinking tea with village elders. I never believed a word of it so I never read the book but am surprised to learn that Mortenson was paid to lecture senior military officers who should have been able to recognize this fraud a mile away. If the military wants to talk to experts on getting schools built, staffed, and funded they should be talking to the La Jolla Rotary Club. Those folks have been building schools in Nangarhar Province for years under the San Diego Sister City program. Years of success in a difficult, front line province with not much press, very little fanfare and no taxpayer money; that’s an effort to be proud of and now they’re battling polio.
Early on in the Afghan adventure living outside the wire was the norm even for the military. Westerners could drive anywhere knowing their arrival in remote districts would be welcomed if not eagerly anticipated by local villagers. In Jalalabad City there were two different compounds for SF teams, another compound full of psyops or civil affairs or some other outfit like that, the ANP mentors lived out in the town as did the local EOD mentor. The other expats living in Jbad at the time (including the Rotary Club folks) regularly socialized with them at the Taj tiki bar and at the weekly dinner parties hosted by NGO’s or the UN. That changed when the American military issued a massive life support contract called LOGCAP that ended up driving life support costs to a million dollars per soldier per year. The units who had been embedded in Jbad city (and lots of other places around the country) were forced to move into the Big Box FOB’s for force protection and financial reasons. Those units were gathering tons of useful information; they would have picked up a lot from their pattern of life alone; most of them were in the information gathering business anyway and I know they were successful. But performance wasn’t the issue, getting all hands behind the wire was and that was a mistake.
The Bot and I were talking about the old days and how damn cool everything was when I mentioned Mortenson and he looks over and said “mate, you know what it took to build the TK runway? Five Machineguns. His story is interesting mostly because there is no way any international could do what he did today in Afghanistan. There is no faster way to end up in jail (or paying a hefty bribe to avoid it) then to drive around illegally armed. In many of the areas where we once roamed free the Taliban now control the turf. The local folks are no longer happy to see foreigners in their midsts, the Afghan security forces are, in some places, openly hostile and will extort those who don’t know the language or aren’t smart enough to hire a good fixer.
The Afghan people are stressed to the max and who can blame them? The latest attack in Kabul scared them – not the attack itself, it was mostly viewed as a nuisance, what scared them was how people in Washington, London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Rome etc… would react. Afghanistan cannot function without billions in donor support. That support will not come through unless the World Bank and the IMF are able to remain in country and, at some point in the very near future, gain confidence that the central government can manage Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund. If the security situation deterorates to the point where the World Bank can’t stay or the central government proves incapable of managing the ARTF the internationals will go, the money will stop, the international support under the Afghani will drop, and overnight you will see Zimbabwe type inflation.
The local folks understand this and know that in less then two years they could lose everything. Again. And that is some seriously depressing shit which is why The Bot and I were boring ourselves with stories from days gone by. Here is a quick trip down memory lane to illustrate how things have changed in Afghanistan.
I remember back in 06 and 07 when the human terrain started to shift a little. What I didn’t know then was the tide of unease flowing through the population was (in part) triggered by the arrival of the British army in Helmand. Apparently the SAS and their American counterparts had conducted a comprehensive study of the Helmand in 2005 and had come up with a really good deployment plan. They recommended to the army that it fortify the two largest towns, engage in reconstruction in those towns, leave the current governor in place even though he was a Narco Khan, and most importantly, stay out of the rest of the province. Her Majesties government instead insisted that Karzai remove the governor, focused on poppy eradication and, based on intel that there were only 420 Taliban in the province, decided they could ruck up to densely populated areas and kill them while ignoring all the other pricks milling around as if they were gliding through the fucking matrix. (hat tip to Charles Booker for the matrix quote).
I knew the British Army had stumbled badly in the Helmand but I didn’t know how or why nor did I appreciate the adverse impact the Helmand fighting had on the other provinces. I found the gory details of the Helmand fiasco in the new book Losing Small Wars by Frank Ledwidge. The hyperlink is to a not too friendly review of the book in The Telegraph. The only point the reviewer can find to quibble over is the authors contention that most of the British forces sent to Helmand never left the safety of their Big Box FOBs. The review is a little emotional and I suspect the reporter lost friends in this conflict but that kind of reaction clouds rational discorse about sensitive topics. To wit:
One senior officer in General Richards HQ had done the sums. He told the general that ‘on a good day and with a following wind after a good deal of planning, once the HQ and communications staff have been taken into account, and if the guard roster was doubled’ (meaning the assigned manpower cut in half) ‘we can find 168 combat troops to conduct operations from the entire brigade’.
How do you justify that ? Prior to the establishment of big box FOB’s there were detachments of troops spread out around the countryside and for every 20 men assigned to a safe house you had 20 men ready for combat. Then come the FOB’s and with them the rotating battle staffs and before you know it the reality on the ground is so bad that the military creates its own alternative reality based on I am still not sure what. Big Box FOBs are a problem created from the unlimited funding of discretionary spending by both the Pentagon and congress to make our soldiers safer and more comfortable. Who could be against that? But does this lavish support translate into improved tactical performance or significantly contribute to mission accomplishment? Most importantly is it better for our troops on a big box FOB or deployed on shoe string budgets like they were in the early days? What came first the Big Box FOB or Taliban human wave attacks? In my memory they seemed to have arrived back to back.
Here is an interesting article written by the recent American commander back in TK answering my question of how well lavish base support facilities contribute to his ability to accomplish his assigned mission.
When I took command of a NATO task force in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan in July 2010, one of my first patrols in the province included a stop at the construction site for an unfinished U.S.-funded police headquarters. Inside, we found loose 82mm mortar rounds and cell phone components: clearly the tools of an IED-maker.
Finishing this well-intentioned project that had become a shelter for terrorists became one of my top priorities. The project had stalled due to a cumbersome bureaucracy, poor contracting procedures, high leadership turn-over, and a lack of proper supervision,
When I relinquished command and left Afghanistan about a year later, the project was back on track but still incomplete, despite three years of frustrating effort.
I know he doesn’t say a word about facilities in the article but you can’t tell me that if he was living out in the villle in his own compound with his own motley crew and a bunch of Afghan auxiliaries that it would have taken him three damn years to almost build a crappy little ANP post. Besides our ability to perform isn’t the issue; there are many successful reconstruction models to emulate in Afghanistan. The La Jolla Rotary Club would probably be more than happy to explain the reconstruction game to anyone who wants to hear it. What we should be focusing on is the balance between base support for deployed troops and their ability to accomplish the mission. It seems to me the troops were much happier and more effective when allowed to live off the economy and operate independently. It also cost billions less to deploy them in that manner while reducing the ISAF footprint by at least half if not more. That would save a considerable amount of blood and treasure, but who cares? The past is the past and now we face the brave new future. The awkward close of our Afghan adventure is upon us and nobody is in the position to make an educated guess on how this is all going to end. That sad fact is why being here now is like stepping into a pressure cooker.