Change you can believe in

Today started out great I am back in Jalalabad after completing a short job which I cannot freely blog about and the weather is perfect. I fired up the computer and checked in with Power Line to find this excellent story about a Marine rifle platoon who were ambushed by 250 Taliban. They routed the Taliban and sent them fleeing from the battlefield in panic with the designated marksmen putting down dozens of the enemy fighters using their excellent M-14 DMR. The M-14 DMR fires a 175 grain 7.62x51mm match round through a 22 inch stainless steel match grade barrel at 2,837 fps out of the muzzle. Marine marksmen can routinely hit individuals at 850 meters with this rifle and because of the round it has real stopping power. You won’t see a Taliban fighter take six hits with this beast and keep on running (happens a lot with the M4) in fact you won’t see a Taliban or any other kind of human take two rounds and keep moving.

M-14 DMR
M-14 DMR

The Marine story made my day and validated something I have said repeatedly on Covert Radio which is you can move anywhere in this country with a platoon of infantry. The Taliban, rent-a-Taliban, criminals, and war lord affiliated fighters have no ability to stand up to the punishment a well trained platoon can inflict. NATO needs to learn this lesson quickly. The French lost almost a dozen men in an ambush up in the Uzbin valley in August. In that very same valley last month a force of 300 French troopers conducted a “tactical retrograde” leaving behind sophisticated anti tank missiles in the process when they were confronted by a small force of Taliban. When the Marines were hit by a much larger enemy force the entire unit immediately got onto the flanks of the ambushers and rolled them up in order to free the men trapped in the kill zone. Once accomplishing this they maintained contact until the Taliban broke and ran. Conversely the French   expended all their resources and energy trying to break contact and recover casualties, a “tactic” not unheard of with other NATO military units. The point to all this isn’t that the Marines are great and the French army is not but rather it is very very difficult to build and sustain good infantry. NATO countries did not have to worry about producing quality infantry over the past 50 years they let America shoulder that burden while they developed their economies with the money they would have needed for national defense. Producing good infantry requires a certain attitude and mind set not found in polite society but when the Europeans get hit hard with the old clue bat they will develop effective infantry units. You’ll know when they do because you’ll start seeing 30 man platoons from NATO countries running all over the country hoping against hope that 200 to 300 Taliban are stupid enough to try and take them on.

Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty
Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty

I obviously enjoy it when events validate some of the things I say in this blog or on Covert Radio but this excellent story of combat dominance will have absolutely no impact on the Afghanistan situation at all. You cannot win here by just killing people nor can you deal the Taliban and their affiliates a decisive blow because they are not a unified movement and their leaders are all in Pakistan outside our reach. The people of Afghanistan are the prize of this contest and few of them are down in the Helmund or Farah Provinces. While the Marines dominate their area of operations the rest of the country is falling outside of central government control. Every district, town and village in Afghanistan has some sort of land or water dispute ongoing and land disputes here are deadly affairs. We routinely see firefights between clans over land disputes in UN security reporting and some of these fights result in over a dozen KIA’s. When the Taliban move into an area they decide these disputes using Sharia law instead of who can pay the biggest bribe. They are considered fair in most of these rulings and will tolerate no armed fighting over disputes once they have decided upon a case. A country doesn’t lose a war against insurgents by being out fought they lose by being out governed which is exactly what is happening all over this country.

Last night I was chatting down at the new and improved Tiki Bar with some old friends who have considerable Afghanistan experience. One of them first came here with an NGO in 1996, the other in 2002, and our conversation was all about change. When I first arrived in Afghanistan it took about 6 hours to drive between Jalalabad which is a 90 minute drive now. In Kabul it was rare to see a woman who was not wearing a burka and today the opposite is the case. In Jalalabad which is one of the largest cities in the Pashtun belt, not all women here wear the hated burka.

Streets of Kabul 2007
Streets of Kabul 2007
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.

But here is the real change which will never be reversed. The change you can believe in computers and internet.

Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008
Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008

Computers allow access to knowledge by children who are dirt poor and hungry to learn about the world around them. That genie is now long out of the bottle and my friends and I believe that the sudden surge towards modernity is spooking many of the elders who play such an important role in tribal life. We noted the backlash in Peshawar where the Pakistani Taliban is trying to reverse the headlong rush towards modernity by forcing the woman back into the burka (and with some short term success at the moment.) Peshawar used to be a very modern place which welcomed internationals and where very few women could be seen in the burka just two years ago. Not true today and you can’t buy CD’s or pirated movies either. There are many forces in play in central Asia and the biggest one has its own velocity and will continue to generate all sorts of unintended consequences as it goes forward. Knowledge is power extreme poverty is motivation and the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the other Stans are very motivated to acquire the power of knowledge.

The Jalalabad road in Kabul
The Jalalabad road in Kabul

We cannot control the effects from the explosive power of the internet and computer on the local people. What we can do is to continue developing the infrastructure while providing a secure environment in which the Afghans can develop their economy. Security in the Afghan context requires boots on the ground doing what the Marines did in Shewan. Small units who are constantly outside the wire with the Afghan people and who crush anyone silly enough to fight them even if they are outnumbered 20 to 1. Afghanistan is much bigger than Iraq with a much larger population but American infantry (the US Army has great infantry too) augmented by those allies who also have developed high quality infantry will have to start consistently operating in the same manner as the Marines are operating down south which to date they have been unwilling to do. Combat is a dangerous business requiring men who can endure incredible hardships and discomfort while maintaining their motivation and (most importantly) sense of humor.

Good infantry doesn’t need ice cream every day or the cushy barracks found at the Khandahar airfield; they need water, chow, lots of ammunition, and leaders who trust them to operate in a decentralized fashion with their small units. The Marine Commander down south is Colonel Duffy White, a close friend, extraordinarily competent and experienced warrior and a man who combines pragmatism with a great sense of humor. America has a few more like him as do our allies no doubt – inshallah we will see all of them over here soon using the decentralized tactics required for bringing security to people living outside the main cities and military bases.

Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way
Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way

This morning’s email contained two different security alerts about impending attacks on the vital Jalalabad Kabul road. We have been here for almost eight years and still have not oriented our forces to provide security for the vast majority of the Afghan population. We are running out of time but it is not too late to get more of our forces oriented on the population and operating like the lone rifle platoon from the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines did in Shewan a few days ago. That requires courage from commanders on high there are troops on the ground who already have that courage and are ready to fight like lions in order to give people they do not know a chance to enter the modern world. That is a worthy fight by any standard of measurement.

On the verge of modernity
On the verge of modernity

Shakedown

We had to make a run to Kabul last Friday to take some clients to the airport and to pick up new ones. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is considered very dangerous by the military and US State Department, of medium risk by the UN, and very little risk by me and the hundreds of internationals who travel the route daily. The Taliban or other Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) have never ambushed internationals on this route with the sole exception of taking some pot shots at a UN convoy last week. The reason this route remains open is that it is too important to all the players in Afghanistan to risk its closure, almost 80% of the Afghan GDP flows along it so the Taliban would have a real PR problem if they cut it causing a large scale humanitarian crisis. The criminal gangs and drug lords who cooperate with the Taliban would also become very agitated if the road were closed and probably turn on any real Taliban groups foolish enough to be within their reach if that happened.

We don’t take this run lightly but we often choose to make it without body armor or long guns because we are afraid of being ambushed by the other villains members of the Afghan security forces. On Friday our long string of luck ran out and we became the latest victim of the Afghan security company game. It cost us two sets of body armor which we cannot replace because you cannot import body armor into Afghanistan and we were lucky to get away with the weapons (which are also irreplaceable.)

NDS Commander and 2IC
NDS Commander and 2IC

Many think of private security companies as analogous to mercenary bands with all the associated negative connotations. A few of them are shady companies and deserve all the contempt and bad karma in the world to befall their greedy principals. But most of the companies operating here are well run and highly professional. To facilitate bringing the rule of law to Afghanistan they formed an association three years ago to assist in the effort to regulate the industry. However that effort has been stymied at every turn by Afghan government officials who seem less interested in regulation or the rule of law than establishing rules from which they will clearly benefit. Just one of many examples; when the first set of regulations were written by the Afghan government it stipulated the payment of all fees and penalties would be made to the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). The Private Security Company Association of Afghanistan (PSCAA) politely pointed out that the new Afghanistan constitution specifically stated that all fees and taxes would be paid to the Ministry of Finance. There is enough international mentors at the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to ensure fees paid into that ministry go directly to the Government treasury.

It was immediately clear that our assistance in Afghan constitutional law interpretation was not well received and the process has gone downhill ever since. There still are no valid laws regarding PSC’s in Afghanistan but there have been a series of “temporary” licenses issued which every legitimate company in Afghanistan has acquired. These “temporary” licenses of course mean little with state security organs not part of the MoI. Afghan security forces have arrested internationals working for licensed PSC’s who had individual weapons permits from the MoI and thrown them in jail for weeks at a time. Although we cannot replace the body armor stolen from us we were lucky to get off lightly, it would be difficult for a small company like ours to raise the cash needed for springing an international out of the Puli Charki prison.

Here is how it went down. We were through the Mahipar pass and almost to Kabul. We came up to the last “S” shaped curve before the Puli Charki checkpoint and there was a NDS (National Directorate of Security) checkpoint set up with belt fed machineguns off to the side and a good ¼ mile between the east and west checkpoints.

Unfortunately I did not have the Shem Bot with me so I had Haji jann, my good friend and official driver in the contested areas, come down from Kabul to drive us up. This turned out to be a critical mistake because the NDS will not toy with two armed expats when one is driving but when they see an armed Expat with a local driver it is an indicator for an ” illegally” armed international which means big cash if they play their cards right. I flashed my weapons permit and license but the boys noted my two clients, PhD candidates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – had body armor. In Afghanistan body armor (used to protect clients), armored vehicles (also used to protect clients) and two-way radios are considered the tools of war and those of us working here must obtain licenses for them. But clients change constantly so we cannot get individual licenses for them. We have also never had a problem with this catch-22 before because our language skills and charming personalities normally forestall any potential disagreements.

working things out is a long process
working things out is a long process

The reason I take Haji jann on all missions into contested areas is because he is a former Taliban commander of some repute (emphasis on former.) He has also been with me through thick and thin and I love the guy, we talk for hours although I understand very little of what he says but we love to chin wag with each other. I heard him say right after we were stopped something like “the armed white guy is a little crazy and I would not arrest him if I were you.” I gave him the WTF Hajii? look and he did not smile indicating things were serious.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS) wanted the body armor from my MIT clients because they had no license. They also started searching our baggage which was problematic. I had another gig starting up in Kabul and had extra rounds, magazines, and a first aid kit all of which is considered illegal (for internationals) in Afghanistan. The “commander” who is the pot bellied slack jawed fellow in the black fleece started pulling all my stuff out for confiscation.

I looked at Haji jann who shook his head slightly giving me the go sign and went off like a firecracker at the “commander” who also instantly lost his cool and started to yell back at me. That is a great sign because it indicates fear on his part and I knew I was not going to lose my spare ammo (which is expensive) and first aid kit. When he started yelling I started smiling my wolf smile which fellow sheepdogs would recognize as a pre-incident indicator and criminals recognize as a sign they have overplayed their hand. But they took the body armor off my MIT charges and I really could do nothing about it. The “commander” gave me his own wolf smile when his boys stole the body armor because he knew there was no cell signal in the canyon, so what was I going to do? You can only push so far in a situation like this.

Dr Tam wasn't too sure about all this commotion but the 2IC insisted on photos and Dr. Tam was polite enough to pose
Dr Tam wasn’t too sure about all this commotion but the 2IC insisted on photos and Dr. Tam was polite enough to pose

Here is the weird part. Amy Sun our other MIT charge was snapping pictures and caught three armed men way up on the ridge line watching things unfold. They were armed but way outside the range of the AK 47’s they were carrying.

One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
slightly enhanced view
slightly enhanced view

I have no idea who these guys were but do know that the Taliban and in particular Al Qaeda fighters value good body armor and pay well for it. I suspect these guys are now the proud owners of two sets of premium body armor. I may be wrong about that but my current disgust over this incident drives me to assume the worst.

This kind of harassment has been routine for the past 18 months in Kabul. We have been spared because we have the proper licenses and travel normally in pairs. Yesterday I was copied on an email from the security director of the biggest US AID contractor in the land about one of their projects in the north. It is slightly redacted:

“This afternoon Gen Khalil, commander of the police in Sherbegan, visited one of our well sites demanding to see the PSC license of (deleted) Security. He informed (deleted) that the license expired and that they have until 16:00 to produce a new one or face arrest.   Rather than facing arrest all LN guards were stood down and the Expats and TCNs went to Mazar to stay over for the night. This leaves one of our sites uncovered and can have a serious impact on our operations.

Can MOI please as a matter of urgency issue new licenses? Maybe someone in MOI can talk some sense into (deleted) head. His no is xxxxxxx”

Which brings us to the US Embassy and how they react to news like this which is (to my mind) deplorable. The embassy take is and I quote “we do not encourage US citizens to come to Afghanistan for any reason and will not help you in your dealings with the Afghan government. If you are arrested we will endeavor to ensure you have adequate food and a blanket.” It is hard for me to relate the disappointment with which I view our Department of State. I was the project manager for the American Embassy guard force and know exactly what goes on inside our embassy but because I have invested every penny I have in my company I will refrain from further comment.

A major problem with the stability operations part of our campaign in Afghanistan is that the local people do not think we are serious. The local people are the prize here, everything we are doing should be focused on bringing security and infrastructure to the district level to benefit them. But we aren’t and the local people cannot believe that after seven years we still cannot get the most basic infrastructure programs accomplished. The most efficient way to do that is with small numbers of armed contractors who are able to work at the district level for extended periods of time. There are a few people doing that right now, they are armed because they have to be, and they are doing the daily quality control of Afghan contractors working on various reconstruction projects. We need to have more of them out here both mentoring and doing quality control of the projects awarded to Afghan small businessmen. That level of oversight and reporting brings in donor dollars because the money can be accounted for. Donor dollars and expat project management would significantly help break the funding logjam which currently hampers district level reconstruction of roads, irrigation systems and micro hydro power generation.

At some point one hopes the powers that be will realize this and aggressively support the Americans and other internationals who are operating far outside the comfortable confines of Kabul. For right now we are basically on our own which will eventually lead to tragedy. Nothing good will come from continued confrontations between dodgy police running “surprise” checkpoints and armed internationals.

Veterans Day Video Tribute from a "Man on the Street" interview at the Torkham Border

We had the rare treat of accompanying some guys working for the U.S. Army to the Torkham border today. They went up to chat with the platoon of American MP’s who jointly man the border crossing with the Afghan Border Police (ABP). The MP’s have a very cool gig at the Torkham. They mentor their Afghan counterparts and also keep an eye on the large volume of human and vehicular traffic which flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Army guys who let us tag along were conducting some “man on the street” interviews and getting very encouraging remarks from the Afghans they talked with. The American soldier who did the interviewing was born in Pakistan and raised in Washington State. He talks Pashto with an eastern accent (taught to him by the military defense language school a positive sign that we are developing the right skill sets) so the locals assume he is an Afghan. One Afghan we chatted up had the most interesting things to say about both Americans and the problems facing Afghans. I’ll paste in a video of that interview at the end of this post. Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan know the gratitude that local people feel towards them. They often remark about a people who leave their homes and families to help a war ravaged population recover while asking for nothing in return. Just as in Iraq the average Afghan is very moved by what we have done for his country as you will see in the embedded interview. When you hear people express themselves this way it is easier to understand why so many men and woman in our military volunteer to come back for multiple tours. As I have said repeatedly in previous posts the Afghans really like Americans and given a vote on the matter would like to see many more.

As you approach the Torkham border crossing you come upon an extensive open air chop shop. Most of these cars processed in this area come from the auto salvage lots of America and Canada. Trucks bring them up from port in Karachi and off load them on the Pakistan side where gangs of kids push them across the border to the chop shop area about a mile down the road. Crowds of kids bring barrels of fuel and used oil back across the border to Pakistan where it can be recycled. This is one of the industries which really needs infrastructure help or the toxic waste run off will seep into the ground water in concentrations even the locals cannot ignore or tolerate.

The American MP’s keep an eye on the border crossing and are involved in any apprehensions of smugglers. They find weapons, drugs and explosives routinely. There are also former US Customs agents working as contractors to mentor the senior ABP supervisors. Joint military/contractor teams like this one are the wave of the future. There is no proven way to increase the effectiveness of security forces in the third world short of in the field mentorship. It is good for the Afghans who work this vital crossing and it is also good for the Americans who are out here daily interacting with local people.

Chatting with the soldiers at the border
Outside the customs office catching up on how things are going on the border

Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan – these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Can’t leave the belt fed machineguns unattended so the guys rotate through this boring post

There was a collection of Afghans who lived in Pakistan but were of Uzbek, Hazara or Tajik origin. A group of Uzbek Taliban with a considerable amount of explosives was captured recently in Pakistan and they are not letting anyone who looks remotely Uzbek into the country without an official visa. These men are waiting to see who else from their group is going to get the boot. What stands out in situations like this is that there is no violence or even harsh words exchanged as these guys get the bad news from the Pakistani Frontier Guard. They explain the situation and escort the men over to their Afghan counterparts who add in their condolences and ask them to wait off to the side as long as they like.

Uzbecks from Afghanistan wait around to see who else from their group is going to be turned back by the Pakistani’s

Here are some interesting people shots from the border.

There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border
There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans 
It is a long walk to the crossing and you often see kids and woman getting pushed around in hand trucks like this
Dr. Sun at the border. She has an amazing ability to talk her way onto trips like this – the troops always enjoy chatting her up.
Old man at the border – Afghans will stop and pose for photographers regardless of age and location

As we were leaving we brought some Samosa from one of the child vendors and head back to Jalalabad. We stopped to chat with an Afghan we saw walking down the road near the American FOB Torkham which is about five miles west of the border. I have heard similar sentiments from Afghans all over the country Happy Veterans Day to all who have or are now serving. Here is a regular Afghan passing on his thanks too.

Samosa – like eating a stick of butter but tastier

I know I promised you a video at the end, but the Army guys asked us to scrub out their guy from the vid.   Here’s the audio track only to tide you over until we’ve edited the video:   torkham_interview_sound_only

Veterans Day Video Tribute from a “Man on the Street” interview at the Torkham Border

We had the rare treat of accompanying some guys working for the U.S. Army to the Torkham border today. They went up to chat with the platoon of American MP’s who jointly man the border crossing with the Afghan Border Police (ABP). The MP’s have a very cool gig at the Torkham. They mentor their Afghan counterparts and also keep an eye on the large volume of human and vehicular traffic which flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Army guys who let us tag along were conducting some “man on the street” interviews and getting very encouraging remarks from the Afghans they talked with. The American soldier who did the interviewing was born in Pakistan and raised in Washington State. He talks Pashto with an eastern accent (taught to him by the military defense language school a positive sign that we are developing the right skill sets) so the locals assume he is an Afghan. One Afghan we chatted up had the most interesting things to say about both Americans and the problems facing Afghans. I’ll paste in a video of that interview at the end of this post. Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan know the gratitude that local people feel towards them. They often remark about a people who leave their homes and families to help a war ravaged population recover while asking for nothing in return. Just as in Iraq the average Afghan is very moved by what we have done for his country as you will see in the embedded interview. When you hear people express themselves this way it is easier to understand why so many men and woman in our military volunteer to come back for multiple tours. As I have said repeatedly in previous posts the Afghans really like Americans and given a vote on the matter would like to see many more.engines-2

As you approach the Torkham border crossing you come upon an extensive open air chop shop. Most of these cars processed in this area come from the auto salvage lots of America and Canada. Trucks bring them up from port in Karachi and off load them on the Pakistan side where gangs of kids push them across the border to the chop shop area about a mile down the road. Crowds of kids bring barrels of fuel and used oil back across the border to Pakistan where it can be recycled. This is one of the industries which really needs infrastructure help or the toxic waste run off will seep into the ground water in concentrations even the locals cannot ignore or tolerate.boys-auto-tradefenders

 

 

The American MP’s keep an eye on the border crossing and are involved in any apprehensions of smugglers. They find weapons, drugs and explosives routinely. There are also former US Customs agents working as contractors to mentor the senior ABP supervisors. Joint military/contractor teams like this one are the wave of the future. There is no proven way to increase the effectiveness of security forces in the third world short of in the field mentorship. It is good for the Afghans who work this vital crossing and it is also good for the Americans who are out here daily interacting with local people.amy-and-joechattingjoes

Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend

mg

 

There was a collection of Afghans who lived in Pakistan but were of Uzbek, Hazara or Tajik origin. A group of Uzbek Taliban with a considerable amount of explosives was captured recently in Pakistan and they are not letting anyone who looks remotely Uzbek into the country without an official visa. These men are waiting to see who else from their group is going to get the boot. What stands out in situations like this is that there is no violence or even harsh words exchanged as these guys get the bad news from the Pakistani Frontier Guard. They explain the situation and escort the men over to their Afghan counterparts who add in their condolences and ask them to wait off to the side as long as they like.uzbecks-2uzbeks

 

Here are some interesting people shots from the border.

There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border
There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border

border-crossingamyold-man

As we were leaving we brought some Samosa from one of the child vendors and head back to Jalalabad. We stopped to chat with an Afghan we saw walking down the road near the American FOB Torkham which is about five miles west of the border. I have heard similar sentiments from Afghans all over the country Happy Veterans Day to all who have or are now serving. Here is a regular Afghan passing on his thanks too.samosa-kid

I know I promised you a video at the end, but the Army guys asked us to scrub out their guy from the vid.   Here’s the audio track only to tide you over until we’ve edited the video:   torkham_interview_sound_only

What is going on in Sherzad District? Part 2

One of the coolest things about living in Afghanistan is the sense of history which surrounds one as you trek off the beaten path. In the rural districts the daily routine of the people has altered little in hundreds of years. It is easy to find the sites of historic battles or ancient ruins which few westerners have seen. The hospitality of the Afghans is constant reminder that the capacity for good in people transcends the evil which constantly searches for cold hearts or idle brains in which it can embed and grow. An armed society is a polite society but the Afghans take politeness to an extreme that is at times bewildering.

Yet the Afghans have never been able to govern themselves effectively. Despite their culture of warm hospitality to guests and strangers their political culture remains polarized, vicious, and deadly. These are tribal lands with a small percentage of “haves” and a large population of “have not’s.” The “haves” are the leaders with positions determined at birth and not resented by people at the village level because they do not “have” that much more than their fellow tribal members. The “have not’s” do not agitate politically because they spend most of their lives trying to find the next meal they are not like American poor with health issues stemming from morbid obesity. Poor people here die of starvation daily. Poor children die of exposure during the harsh winters even on the streets of Kabul. Watching the polarization of the American electorate from afar during this presidential campaign has me thinking about politics a lot lately.

This is what real poverty looks like. Remember these kids who stand little chance of reaching adulthood the next time you hear NPR or CBS or the racial grievance mongers carrying on about the poor in America.
This is what real poverty looks like. Remember these kids who stand little chance of reaching adulthood the next time you hear NPR or CBS or the racial grievance mongers carrying on about the poor in America.

And speaking of politics guess what the first topic of conversation was when I joined the elders of Sherzad district for a lunch meeting last Thursday? If you guessed Barack Obama you are correct and I am not making this up. Talk about weird but let me set the trip up before I get to that.

Traveling into contested tribal lands is a bit tricky. I had no doubt that the Malicks from Gandamak would provide for my safety at our destination but I had to get there first. The time tested decision making matrix us outside the wire types use in situations of this nature is to look at what the State Department is doing  and do the exact opposite. The State Department insists on brand new armored SUV’s with heavily armed contractor escorts fore and aft. I went with an old beat up Toyota pick up, no security escort, local clothes and a local driver.  Given the amount of Taliban activity in the Southern Triangle that is the only reasonably safe way to get in and out of isolated villages like Gandamak.

The first of three downed bridges between Gandamak and Jalalabad
The first of three downed bridges between Gandamak and Jalalabad

The road into Gandamack required us to ford three separate stream beds. The bridges which once spanned these obstacles were destroyed by the Soviets around 25 years ago. We have been fighting the Stability Operations battle here going on seven years but the bridges are still down, the power plants have not been fixed and most roads are little better then they were when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC. The job of repairing and building the infrastructure of Afghanistan is much bigger than anyone back home can imagine. It is also clearly beyond the capabilities of USAID or the US Military PRT’s to fix given their current operational MO.  These bridges are still down (as of 2015) and may never be fixed in our lifetimes.

Also destroyed 25 years ago - how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this? What the hell have we been doing for the past seven years? I watchd the tallest building in the world go up in Dubai, with about 300 other super sky scrappers over the past four years but we can't even repair a few stone bridges in seven; check that, make it 14 years?
Also destroyed 25 years ago – how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this? What the hell have we been doing for the past seven years? I watchd the tallest building in the world go up in Dubai, with about 300 other super sky scrappers over the past four years but we can’t even repair a few stone bridges in seven; check that, make it 14 years?

It took over an hour to reach Gandamack which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because vegetation means water and villages with access to abundant clean water are always significantly better off than those without. You can see the difference in the health of the children, livestock and woman (which is the correct order of importance for the tribes.)

My host for the day was the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif he told me in perfect English “I speak English fluently.” I immediately hired him and issued a quick string of coordinating instructions about what we were doing in the morning then bid him good day. He failed to show up on time and when I called him to ask WTF it became apparent that the only words of English Sharif knew were “I speak English fluently.” You get that from Afghans. But Shariff is learning his letters and has proven an able driver plus a first rate scrounger which is a vital for the health and comfort of his ichi ban employer.

The Maliks (tribal leaders) from Gandamak and the surrounding villages arrived shortly after we did. They walked into the meeting room armed; I had left my rifle in the vehicle which, as the invited foreign guest, I felt obligated to do but being without my flame stick wasn’t alarming to me.  Gandamak is Indian Country and everybody out here is armed to the teeth.  I was an invited guest, the odds of me being harmed by the Maliks who invited me were exactly zero.  That’s how Pashtunwali works. The order of business was a meeting where the topic was what they need and why the hell can’t they get some help, followed by a tour of the hill outside Gandamak where the 44th Foot fought to the last man during the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 and then lunch. I was not going to be able to do much about what they needed but I could listen politely which is all they asked of me.  Years later I would be in the position to lend them a hand when they really needed it but at the time of this meeting my agenda was a tour of the Gandamak battlefield.  I have enjoyed visiting old battlefields since I was a kid and would go on staff rides with my father to Gettysburg, The Wilderness battle field and Fredricksburg.  I especially enjoy visiting the battlefields that not many people can visit and to the best of my knowledge I’m the only westerner who visited the Gandamak site in the last 30 or so years.

Sharif's Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul
Sharif’s Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul

As the Maliks arrived they started talking among themselves in hushed tones and I kept hearing the name “Barack Obama.” I was apprehensive; I’m surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It is unpleasant talking with them because they know absolutely nothing about the man other than he is not Bush and looks cool. They are convinced he is more then ready to be president because NPR told them so. Pointing out that to the NGO girls that Obama can’t possibly be ready to be the chief executive because he has zero experience at executive leadership is pointless and I did not want to have to explain this to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes for them to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span; this was not starting off well.

As I feared the morning discussion started with the question “tell us about Barack Obama?” What was I to say? That his resume is thin is an understatement but he has risen to the top of the democratic machine and that took some traits Pashtun Maliks could identify with so I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine. Not by trying to explain Chicago but in general terms using the oldest communication device known to man a good story. A story based in fact; colored a little with little supposition, and augmented with my fevered imagination. Once they understood that lawyers in America are like warlords in Afghanistan and can rub out their competition ahead of an election using the law and judges instead of guns they got the picture. A man cold enough to win every office for which he ran by eliminating his competition before the vote is a man the Pashtun’s can understand. I told them that Obama will probably win and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan. They asked if Obama was African and I resisted the obvious answer of who knows? Instead I said his father was African and his mother a white American and so he identifies himself as an African American which is confusing  because most black Americans identify themselves as African American but they have little, if any, concept of Africa. In Obama’s case he really was an African and American and must know something about Africa because he didn’t know shit about America.  I had succeeded in totally confusing my hosts (and myself) and they just looked at me for a long time saying nothing.

What followed was (I think) a long discussion about Africans; were they or were they not good Muslims. I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the Al Qaeda days. I think the conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs and therefore considered the local equivalent of scumbags. They talked among themselves for several more minutes and I heard John McCain’s name several times but they did not ask anymore about the pending election praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans regardless of hue and it would be better to see more of them especially if they took off the helmets and body armor because that scares the kids and woman folk. And their big MRAPS  scare the cows who already don’t have enough water and feed so scaring them causes even less milk to be produced and on and on and on; these guys know how to beat a point to death.

Maliks of Sherzad district
Maliks of Sherzad district

We talked for around 35 more minutes about the anemic American reconstruction effort, their needs and the rise in armed militancy. The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remain popular with the local people. They have built some mico hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) much appreciate. The US AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better if they were given the money to do it themselves but despite this DAI is welcomed and their efforts much appreciated. When I asked who had kidnapped the DAI engineer (a local national) last month and how we could go about securing his release (which was another reason for my visit) they shrugged and one of them said “who knows”?  That was to be expected but I felt compelled to ask anyway.

The elders explained, without me asking, that  they are serious about giving up poppy cultivation but they have yet to see the promised financial aid for doing so.  Thus they will grow poppy again (if they get enough rain inshallah). They need a road over which to transport their goods to market. They need their bridges repaired, and they need their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970’s. They said that with these improvements would come security and more commerce. One of them made a most interesting comment and that was something to the effect of “the way the roads are now the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy.” A little food for thought.

At the conclusion of the talking part of the meeting the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.

The Last Stand of the 44th Foot
The Last Stand of the 44th Foot

The final stand at Gandamak occurred on the 13th of January 1842. Twenty officers and forty five British soldiers, most from the 44th Foot pulled off the road onto a hillock when they found the pass to Jalalabad blocked by Afghan fighters. They must have pulled up on the high ground to take away the mobility advantage of the horse mounted Afghan fighters. The Afghans closed in and tried to talk the men into surrendering their arms. A sergeant was famously said to reply “not bloody likely” and the fight was on. Six officers cut their way through the attackers and tried to make it to British lines in Jalalabad. Only one, Dr Brydon, made it to safety.

The Gandamack Hill today
The Gandamack Hill today

Our first stop was to what the Maliks described as “The British Prison” which was up on the side of a pass about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed up the steep slope at a vigorous pace set by the senior Malik. About halfway up we came to what looked to be an old foundation and an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. I can’t imagine how that could be – there were no British forces here when the 44th Foot was cut down but they could have established a garrison years later I suppose.  Why the Brits would shove their prisoners down inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain is a mystery to me and I doubt this was story behind what looked to be a mine entrance.  It was a nice brisk walk up the a very steep hill and I kept up with the senior Malik which was probably the point to this detour.

Enterance to the "Brit Jail
Entrance to the “Brit Jail
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail – not an easy walk

After checking that out we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jamm until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue there which they figured the British must have pilfered in Kabul. By my estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to buy one. The penalties for stealing ancient artifacts are severe; messing around with that stuff is not something reasonable people do in unstable third world lands. Nor is buying fake “one of a kind” Buddha statues.

I do not know where these foundations came from. Back in 1842 the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area – just off the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Latabad Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle occurred and as their direct ancestors participated in it I assumed we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations are from a small British outpost built here possibly to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879 or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.

Site of the final battle
Site of the final battle
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill

The visit concluded with a large lunch and after we had finished and the food was removed our meeting was officially ended with a short prayer. I’m not sure what the prayer said but it was short. I’m an infidel; short is good.

Man I love Kabuli Pilau - and eating with my hands
Man I love Kabuli Pilau – and eating with my hands. Mehrab Siraj, a close friend and the Manager of the Taj guesthouse is sitting to my right

Post Script

The Maliks of Sherzad district never received the attention they wanted from the US Government or the Afghan authorities.  Instead the Taliban came to fill the void and started muscling their way into the district back in 2011. By early 2012 things were bad enough that my old driver Shariff called me to see if there was anything I could do about getting the Americans to help them fight off the encroaching Taliban fighters.  I was in the Helmand Province by then dealing with my own Taliban problems and could offer him nothing. That bothered me then and it bothers me now but that’s life.

In August 2012 my old friend Mehrab was gunned down by Taliban outside his home. By then several of the men I had shared a pleasant lunch with back in 2008 had also perished fighting the Taliban. Gandamak is now Taliban territory, the poppy now the main source of income. It will be a long time before a westerner will able to visit the old battlefield again.

What is going on in Sherzad District? Part One

Afghanistan is slipping rapidly towards a state of anarchy. The security situation has degraded to the point where the lavish force protection measures adopted by the Department of State Regional Security Officers and the U.S. Military seven years ago now seem prudent. Media reports attribute the decline to a resurgent Taliban movement in Pakistan combined with the explosion in illegal drugs and a corrupt ineffective central government. Many of my colleagues and I believe the crippling of the reconstruction effort by unreasonable risk aversion based security rules has more to do with the current instability than anyone sitting in Washington would care to contemplate let alone admit.

It is easy for those not directly involved in the U.S. effort to highlight and criticize programs which have failed to delivery any quantifiable sign of improvement after years of effort and billions spent on poorly conceived off the shelf solutions. One example; we have spent over 2.5 billion dollars on a police training program which has produced nothing positive on the ground. The Afghan National Police are amongst the least trusted national institutions in Afghanistan with a well earned reputation for corruption and criminal behavior. Similar criticisms could be leveled at every other U.S. Department of State program running in Afghanistan but criticizing is always easy, especially when armed with 20/20 hind sight. In the Marines we had a saying which went something like “if you don’t have a solution you are part of the problem.” In that spirit a group of friends and I been working on finding solutions.

My colleagues and I believe that it is not too late to get effective aid and a permanent presence on the ground in districts currently slipping away and have a rare opportunity to present our views to a few decision makers. This concept paper has taken up most of the week and part of this concept required obtaining a little ground truth which is a good story. Our start point was a dialogue with the Maliks of Sherzad district to try and determine why the area was losing ground so quickly. The term Malik is used in Pashtun tribal areas for tribal leaders. Maliks serve as de facto arbiters in local conflicts, interlocutors in state policy-making, tax-collectors, heads of village and town councils. Although they do not officially represent the district government (they are part of a larger board) they do speak for the people.

The Maliks
The Maliks

Sherzad district is part of what is known as the “Southern Triangle” in Nangarhar Province. This is one of the areas where we have lost ground over the last year. The Sherzad district administrative center has been attacked three times in the past month by AOG fighters. IED discoveries and attacks are routine, night letters are frequently reported, as are other acts of intimidation. This district is the closest point of the southern triangle to our guesthouse and many members of our staff are from there. Finding out what is happening and why may add some weight to our concept paper but is also critical in determining our ability to remain in the Taj and operate the way we do. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to degrade identifying decision making trigger points for determining when to significantly increase our security posture or pull out altogether becomes more and more important.

Nangarhar Province
Nangarhar Province

We took over our primo guesthouse “The Taj” last December from a UN Ops subcontractor (PSS) who had been in this compound for the past three years while building roads deep into the southern triangle. I tagged along on one of their road missions last November all the way to the village of Wazir which is at the foot of Tora Bora in Khogyani district. PSS was a team of Australian and New Zealand engineering and security contractors who had a couple of anti mine vehicles and standard UN armored vehicles. As UN Ops contractors they were well armed eight internationals, twelve Nepalese mobile security guards and they traveled with a two-truck ANP escort. They were well liked by the villagers in the areas they worked and even talked to elders of Wazir into moving their ancient (nobody knows how old it is just that it has always been there) grave yard to accommodate the new road bed. It takes gallons of tea drinking to accomplish goals like that which can only be done if you have a continuous presence on the ground.

Entering Wazir village in November 2007 - this is Taliban country now
Entering Wazir village in November 2007 - this is Taliban country now

Our concept paper is modeled on the successful operations of PSS. They operated in the southern triangle for years without any AOG interference and portions of their operational area were considered very high risk during their time there. We know based on their model and our experiences that contacting and coordinating with the Maliks is the start point for working in any contested area so we invited some of them to Jalalabad for a working lunch which is the only kind of meeting worth having in Afghanistan. If you don’t fork over a good sized meal at these things nobody will take you seriously and it is also considered unspeakably rude in the code of Pastunwali which governs these lands.

The best lunch meeting in Jbad - Chef Burger just like the Chef Burger in Peshawar but not quite as nice
The best lunch meeting in Jbad - Chef Burger just like the Chef Burger in Peshawar but not quite as nice

I’ll sum up three hours of chatting into concise points. The Taliban in Sherzad is home grown but is being financed by groups in Pakistan. The local people know that the people financing armed attacks on the government and ISAF are not really their friends nor are they representing their interests. But the local people are bored and have no money. The Pakistani Taliban provide good pay to the villagers for planting IED’s, distributing night letters, and allowing them to kidnap people (not from the area) working on government funded projects. It is the “bad people from the mountains” who are launching indirect fire and small arms attack on the US Army’s FOB Lonestar (located next door in Khogyani district) not the local people but they pay for to move through their lands.

The elders said Governor Sherazai promised them jobs and irrigation projects if they stopped growing the poppy and so they did but have received nothing. They say that the governor is getting richer by growing the poppy on his lands in Khandahar while their children go without food or proper clothing. They also said (quite firmly) that if they get enough rain this winter they are going to start growing the poppy again because they feel tricked out of their share of the booming drug economy profits. Once they start growing the poppy they will not allow any foreigners or government people into the district to destroy the crop.

I am a slob by nature so eating with my hands comes naturally
I am a slob by nature so eating with my hands comes naturally

Now for a little ground truth from an old Afghan hand. I do not know how much of what they said is true yet. But nobody within the vast US effort could know how much of it is true either. You can’t learn ground truth from one meeting. Everything the Malik’s told me I could have guessed ahead of time. This is the standard litany of complaints (in one form or the other) I have heard in meetings from one end of Afghanistan to the other. This is not to say that everything they said that day was not true or how they felt but you need to do more work before you can claim understanding. I was certain of one thing as I drove back to the office and that is the Maliks still have Sherzad district under their control. When the Taliban move in they do so to fill a power vacuum and they gain control by eliminating any rivals. If the Pakistani Taliban were in Sherzad they Maliks would have been running scared and they clearly were not. They also would have been thinned out the killing of Maliks is something we pay attention to and that has not happened yet in Sherzad. jirga1

 

I pressed the Maliks hard about saying they had the district under control in one breath and then saying “bad men from the mountain” come down at night to create mischief on the other. Afghans are cool when you point out contradictions like that they will respond with a big smile and say “what do you expect me to say?’ Which is a good point. We shared a good laugh over what they could not say and I hope they were laughing with me and not at me. I am no regional expert and still do not catch everything they say my Pashto remains limited but in the end we knew why each other was there and seemed to be getting along like a bunch of old thieves. An apt metaphor given that the main industry of their tribes has been cross border smuggling for the past four or five hundred years. The next step was a visit to Sherzad district so they could host a lunch meeting. An exciting trip but one where I would have to go it alone without my usual wingman or additional back up, but I scored a guided tour of the Gandamack battlefield and I’ll tell the story in the next post.

Poles Apart

It was a regular Saturday night in Mazar-e-Sharif quiet, cold, yet comfortable as I say having dinner with a friend at one of the only restaurants catering to internationals the mighty Oak. We were passing the time with small talk. It was towards the end of our evening that my mate received a phone call from a member of the international community telling him there had been an accident and he needed help immediately. My driver, who was waiting outside rapidly saddled up and we flew across town to lend a hand.

We arrived at the residence, my accomplice started getting the patient’s history and checking the vital signs. I checked out the scene and saw blood everywhere lots of it. I knew that there was no time to lose – this was a ‘Fair Dinkum’ MEDIVAC!

Time to do a ‘Harry Bolt’ up to RC North. RC (Regional Command) North is an ISAF base on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. It is the only facility providing western standard health care in the region. Once we took off from the scene, I instructed my driver to ‘Punch It’! This was due to the casualty having lost a substantial (however, not immediately life threatening) amount of blood. Hand in hand with that, I predicted that there would be dramas at the gate (because it was around 2130 hours), and unless you have direct HF/VHF COMMS with these guys, you get the usual run around.

Once we got to the entrance of RC North the immutable rules of Murphy’s Law took over. I dropped off my local driver and took over driving duties to avoid time consuming screening procedures used when Afghans come on the base. We were greeted by the Force Protection (FP) soldiers who are from Croatia. These FP guys were actually very friendly and helpful they understood exactly what needed to be done however, rules and guidelines aren’t so simple. Once they had a clear handle on who I was, whom I was carrying in the vehicle and the reason I was there, the whole ‘liaison drama’ began.

In the minutes that I was waiting for a clearance to proceed I kept focused on the casualty, checking the vitals and making sure that the bleeding was kept under control. The FP kept on coming back and telling me the hospital is not responding”! They were at a loss, about how we should proceed. This is a German base; the Croats were there to guard the perimeter and apparently did not enjoy the luxury of independent decision making. Between trying to persuade them that we needed to get moving and checking my patients vital signs, I became cut as a mad snake, pulled out my phone and called the Medical Director (MD) for RC North. This is a silver bullet which I would rather not have wasted but the urgency of our situation demanded it. A person in his position is usually pretty busy between his normal daily routine as well as supporting combat operations.

An IED casualty being treated on the scene, Tarin Kowt, Oruzgan.
An IED casualty being treated on the scene, Tarin Kowt, Oruzgan.

He took my call and said he would get us cleared immediately. Thirty seconds later the FP Commander arrived to escort us to the hospital. We needed the escort too as were traveling at a much higher speed than allowed at the base. We got to the hospital, and rushed our casualty in. It was surprising that there was a stretcher waiting at the entrance considering the ‘V8 super car lap speed’ we took to get there. The good doctor was true to his word and had, in less than a minute, infused a needed sense of urgency into the hospital staff.

The German medics quickly controlled the bleeding and were able to suture our friend up and release him within an hour. He came out with a jolly old smile on his dial. We rolled out the gate, picked up my faithful driver Nasser, who was freezing but happy to see us, and headed back into town dropping everyone off at their shacks.

The whole point of this unfortunate event is this; when you have a Priority 1 (Life threatening) or a Priority 2 (Life or Limb threatening) casualty, you need access to professional care quickly. Seven years into this mission and we still do not have these basic procedures in place.

A typical VBIED attack which usually ends up in fatalities and Priority 1 casualties.

This is not the only time or place in Afghanistan where I have experienced these sort of dilemmas. To us former soldiers on the outside looking in the international contingents within ISAF seem to do little if any coordination between themselves. The brand ‘Coalition Forces’ has little meaning when they cannot function as whole, and I believe it has been displayed time after time in this conflict. I’m a former enlisted soldier not an officer like my mate Tim and I do not claim to posses any brilliant insights into the art of war. But I know this mate when you see the lack of coordination in an effort of this size, it tells you something. And usually that something is that we do not have a single focused mission under which to plan and conduct operations. There is no unity of command or unity of purpose concepts I learned as an NCO. Junior enlisted leaders can see the root of our problems in Afghanistan so why can’t our governments? I guess we are Poles Apart.

Traveling in the East of Afghanistan; Jalalabad, The Khyber Pass, Peshawar, with a Small Rant on Reconstruction

There are two main routes heading through the mountains to the east out of Kabul. The Latabad Pass, which is a poorly maintained dirt track road, and the Mahipar Pass which is a newly paved road and in excellent condition. Both passes funnel traffic into the village of Surobi and from there all traffic heading east must take the main Jalalabad to Kabul road, which is also called Route One. The trip between Jalalabad and Kabul takes about two hours on the paved road and four on the Latabad Pass route. Traveling in the east was very safe until this past summer when fuel tankers started getting ambushed in the Tangi valley, which is just to the east of Surobi. Some of these attacks were made by criminal gangs to cover up fuel theft and some looked to be the work of Taliban affiliated fighters. The first post on this blog covered our efforts to determine what was happening on this vital route.

Security on the route has improved in the past week as the Afghan National Army patrols it much more aggressively. They have to because almost all the supplies needed by ISAF enter the country at the Torkham border and move over the Jalalabad Kabul road.

The main road out of Kabul goes through the Puli Charki pass. This is a good picture of that pass looking back towards the direction of Kabul.

The road then heads down the Mahipar Pass which is really spectacular;

The guys at Bill and Bob’s Excellent Adventure have video of them driving the switchbacks of Mahipar Pass in their Hummers which you can find here. They say it takes them three hours to do this drive the Bot and I average 90 minutes. Being unarmored and low profile allows us to move smoothly through the countryside and smooth is fast.

As the road heads towards Surobi a few abandoned villages can be seen across the river. These villages were destroyed by the Soviet Army who would not tolerate attacks on their military convoys. If they felt a village had provided Mujaheddin fighters with sanctuary there was only one response complete destruction. When you see a village like this today which has not been reclaimed by people it is a good indicator that there are lots of mines and/or unexploded ordinance seeded into the soil. Only the very foolish would approach structures like this. When the de-mining teams work these areas they leave behind white rocks where they have cleared, and with the white rocks will come people to reclaim what little productive land remains around these unfortunate settlements.

One of the frequent and more interesting sights along this road are the nomadic Kuchi people, who head up into the northern mountains for the summer and back into the lower plains around Jalalabad during the winter months. These are a hardy people who follow their own ancient traditions even the Taliban were deferential to them and did not attempt to force their women into the Burka. They are mostly illiterate and they have not had a good run since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan almost 30 years ago. Drought, land mines, UXO’s, and constant conflict with Afghans villagers over open range grazing areas have decimated the Kuchi. These are people who really bitterly cling to their guns and religion – and with good reason.

Typical Kuchi camp with low tents, camels and dogs but no water or vegitation nearby
Kuchi’s using the foundation of an old destroyed fort to anchor their tents. The woman do not wear the burka and are often responsible for moving the family while the men scout ahead for their next camp site

The Kuchi nomads are not the only people you see on this road Afghan families being repatriated by the UN are a common site too. This used to be a money maker for more affluent Afghans. Every spring they would fly into Peshawar and rent a truck, fill it with empty boxes and some cheap livestock, rent a family or two worth of woman and children to throw on top, and then proceed to the UN repatriation station for their cash payment to go home. Much to my surprise I have learned there are parts of the UN which function with admirable efficiency. This was the case with UNDP Peshawar who obtained biometric data measurements on all returning displaced persons thus instantly eliminating the massive fraud which had plagued the program. The UN also runs absolutely first rate mine dog training and certification programs, thus ensuring mine dogs are in fact performing to standard. There are no similar standards for bomb dogs in Afghanistan outside of the military working dogs and almost every bomb dog team in this country should be considered suspect. The good canine operations will follow the US Army training manual on canine team employment to the letter; the marginal operations have little in the way of training program documentation at all. It is too bad the UN does not have a mandate to certify all detection dog teams working in Afghanistan.

Afghani men heading towards Kabul in high spirits
I’m not too sure I’d be so happy to be riding down Rte 1 like this but it is a common site.

Here is a picture of the Latabad Pass dusty, miserable, dangerous and long. We had to use this route for about three months earlier in the year when the main route was closed for repairs. I get a headache just thinking about it.

Latabad Pass – May a pox fall upon anyone who makes me drive that route again

All passes lead into Surobi a large town with good water and 24/7 electricity thanks to the hydroelectric dam which is named after the town. This is the territory of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) which was founded by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The boys from HIG are not our friends. Their leader is not too friendly with the Taliban either, but does cooperate with them when it is in his interests. He also has a long association with Al Qaeda and we believe that the foreign fighters who moved into the Surobi area and tangled with the French back in August were funded and protected by HIG. Although there is a strong Afghan police presence in Surobi and many internationals travel through the town daily on Rte 1 it is not a good idea to stop here.

The Surobi Dam – Rte 1 is on the other side of this reservoir as is the town of Surobi. This picture was taken from the head of the Uzbin valley which is now Indian Country

Once you exit Surobi (if you’re smart) you’ll drive like hell through the Tangi valley and on into Jalalabad. The Tangi saw a half dozen or so attacks on fuel tankers this summer. Since the end of Eid there have been several reports of Taliban affiliated vehicle check points (VCP’s) appearing on this part of the road. These VCP’s could well be manned by criminals who are shaking down motorists for money, but UNDSS reports say they are looking for Afghans who work for the government or international organizations. It is hard to say without interviewing the Afghans who were stopped at these VCP’s, but I can tell you this much it is impossible for these VCP’s to operate without some sort of tacit support from the ANP who man checkpoints on the road every 2 to 3 kilometers. I drove to Kabul yesterday to resupply the Taj bar and saw that the Afghan National Army (ANA) had units on the road and in the high ground throughout the Tangi Valley area. They really have to drive any criminal or enemy activity off the road because all of the ISAF supplies and most of the Afghan legitimate commerce travel this route to and from Pakistan. If the route were cut the impact on both the international military and normal Afghans would be disastrous.

FRI incident investigation team augmented by Dr. Sun from MIT. This tanker was destroyed by Taliban fighters. Most of the others attacked and burned last summer we attribute to fuel theft.

When heading into the east of Afghanistan the international visitor has to stay on the main paved roads and really has one of two destinations. They can visit Jalalabad or they can head to the Torkham border and cross into Pakistan via the Khyber Pass. The other Provinces in the east Nuristan, Kunar and most of Laghman are considered extremely high risk. The US Army averages several firefights per day in Kunar Province (although they rarely take any casualties). Nuristan is very isolated and violent and would generate more incident reporting were it not for the fact that no international organizations (except the military) operate there. Jalalabad City is in Nangarhar Province which is generally considered to be stable. However the districts of Nangarhar bordering the Spin Ghar (White Mountains which contain Tora Bora) are rapidly falling out of the government’s control. Taliban flags now fly openly in the bazaars of Khogiani district which is very close to Jalalabad moving off Rte 1 into the surrounding countryside is not a good idea unless you really know what you are doing.

Jalalabad is a city of some 200,000 people and sits at the junction of the Kabul and Kunar rivers. It remains the business center for the region and is considered a “green” or open city by the UN. There are lots of schools in Jalalabad and lots of kids. The international community has been here over seven years yet there is still very little electricity or infrastructure improvements. There is a hydro electric dam in the Duranta area just outside the city which is supposed to be refurbished as part of the US AID AIRP program. The Louis Berger Group was awarded this multi-Billion dollar program in 2006 but they have not gotten around to the Duranta Dam which is (to be fair) a very small component of that massive effort.

The Duranta power plant was put back on line with donations from local businessmen in 2003.

The Duranta Dam was built in the 1950’s by the Soviet Union and is producing 25% of its rated capacity due to equipment shortages. The plant managers told me that it was bombed by US planes back in 2001 but I don’t believe that. When American Tactical Aircraft go after a target like a hydroelectric dam there is normally not much left of it when they finish. I saw no evidence that it had been attacked back in 2006 when we conducted a security assessment for the refurbishing project we thought was to start back then. There are probably good reasons why, two years later, nothing has been done. No doubt one could sit in the US Embassy and get a great PowerPoint from US AID explaining what to me is unexplainable.

So the people of Jalalabad go without electricity and seven years into our rebuilding effort you see this; schools without lights, or heat, or much of anything. Allow me a slight rant here please. Every year I hear the ISAF commander stressing the fact that the reconstruction effort is the most important mission in Afghanistan. There is no question that this is true. Yet the reconstruction effort has yet to gain momentum while the central government continues to lose control over larger sections of the countryside. This will slow the reconstruction effort to a snail’s pace. Well, that is not true – it is at snails pace now and always has been so I guess I’ll have to think of a metaphor for slower than a snails pace.

It was freezing cold when I took this picture last winter. Note the chairs and desks piled up on the roof of the school building. You see that at every school in the area because they take up too much room in the classrooms given all the children who attend.

We are cursed by the “man on the moon” phenomenon. The Afghans believe that if we could put a man on the moon than we are more than capable of fixing their infrastructure if we really wanted to. I understand that this is a common problem in third world redevelopment work. Another common problem is the conviction amongst the educated locals that the CIA has a master plan and everything that happens is a planned milestone from the master plan. Trying to explain the historically dismal record of our Central Intelligence Agency is pointless no one believes you. And so the frustration mounts and the population which is the center of gravity slips further away from us. These are the seeds of disaster which if allowed to grow will cause our defeat.

The Afghans believe in education but do not have the capacity to provide enough of it to their children

The second best reason to drive east from Kabul is to pay a visit to the Khyber Pass. You need to obtain special permission to transit the tribal areas of Pakistan. If you enter from the Afghanistan side and exit the tribal lands in Peshawar you have to again get permission to transit them back to Afghanistan. I learned this the hard way which was a most unpleasant experience and cost me a ton of cash. The pass is just plain cool 53 kilometers long and 3 meters wide at its most narrow point. On one of my trips I was escorting a diplomat from one of our strongest allies. We had a large armed escort which you can see in the picture below. Note the old belt fed machinegun bungee corded to the top of the pickup bed cover. This is a stupid way to rig a machinegun and is more for show than utility. It also tells the military experts out there a lot about the kind of weapons and support the Khyber Rifles enjoy today. These old weapons may help explain why the Frontier Corps gets beaten like a drum every time they try to take on the Pakistani Taliban.

Ceremonial escort – although Rambo could make it through a 2 hour movie with just 10 rounds of linked ball hanging out of his machinegun feed tray in real life it doesn’t work that way. These troops are carrying enough ammo to last them about 45 seconds in a real firefight.

The Michni Post is the ceremonial HQ of the Khyber Rifles and it overlooks the Torkham crossing into Afghanistan. The Khyber Rifles do an excellent dog and pony show for visiting VIP’s. I’ll let the pictures tell that story.

VIP briefing room. The Khyber Rifles have a first rate presentation on their role and mission
VIP briefing room. The Khyber Rifles have a first rate presentation on their role and mission
More ceremonial guards. Having sentries pull stag out in the open like this may make sense to a Hollywood producer but not to someone who knows what they are doing (like the Pakistani Taliban.)
The Sov’s apparently shot rockets into the Khyber Agency on a regular basis back in the day.

If you are on the VIP tour you will also stop into the Khyber Rifles officer club. Back in the 1920’s when the British were still garrisoning the Khyber a group of junior officer’s stumbled out of this club in the early morning hours and thought they saw the large oak tree in front attempting to desert the post without proper orders. They had the sergeant of the guard place the tree in chains and those chains remain there to this day.

This tree was placed under arrest in 1922 for attempting to go AWOL.

Like any proper O club there are lots of plaques including this one from the mighty 22 MEU. I know Col McKenzie (now a two star if memory serves) and I’m pretty sure he didn’t clear the spelling on this plaque. I would be interested in learning how it got there. Col McKenzie commanded the 22nd MEU in 2001 2002 when they were down south policing up the Taliban and I can’t imagine that he found time for a courtesy call on the Khyber Rifles. By 2004 the good Colonel would have been on another assignment – you only get one shot at commanding a MEU. Check out the old uniforms on the side boys which reflect the incredible history of the Khyber Pass. As an old military man there are few things more interesting to me than this kind of nonsense.

The plaque reads “Presented by Col Mekenzei on 20 Jul 2004”
Traditional uniform of Khyber warriors dating back to the time of the Golden Horde

My first trip to the Khyber was self funded. I had a month to kill before going home at the end of a contract. Going home earlier would have cost me around 25k in income taxes as I had been outside the country for just 10 months. Yahya and I headed to Peshawar to kill a couple of weeks and Yahya’s childhood friends welcomed us like we were part of their extended family. This trip was on the cheap so I wore my Shalwar Kameez and we stayed in a dive guesthouse. They had 24/7 Fox News in the City View Inn which made my stay most enjoyable. We applied for permits and traveled the Khyber with Afridi tribal fighters who knew Yahya since he was boy. Yahya’s family had moved to Peshawar to escape the Soviets, but returned just before the Taliban took over. That proved to be a big mistake. The Afridi’s were an interesting crew who all wanted to immigrate to the US. I told them to cough up Bin Laden and I’d get the whole tribe green cards which they thought was really funny. Because I was their guest of honor I was duty bound to eat lunch in the most disgusting room I have set foot in. Being an American guest of honor I got to pay for the feast too which wasn’t exactly cheap. The Afridi tribe is a collection of land pirates who don’t really follow the tenants of Pashtunwali. The meal was actually very tasty and I didn’t get sick which was nothing short of amazing. We also traveled around Peshawar which has interesting museums and is home to the famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar.

Once again I’ll let the pictures flesh out the story.

The Afridi's claim this is the best kabob stand in Landi Kotal. I was dubious about this claim to put it mildly
The Afridi’s claim this is the best kabob stand in Landi Kotal
You can't just not eat in this kind of situation but the only thing gripping my bowls was apprehension
You can’t refuse to eat in this type situation without losing face. The only thing that ended up gripping my bowls was apprehension. The food was really good. Honest.
Outside Michni Fort on the non VIP tour with the Afridi's
Outside Michni Fort on the non VIP tour with the Afridi
Yahya and some friends waiting to linkup with the rest of our land pirate guides
Yahya and some friends waiting to linkup with the rest of our land pirate guides
You see these unit plaques throughout the Khyber Pass
You see these unit plaques throughout the Khyber Pass

The bazar

Qissa Khawani Bazaar.

 

Driving through the Khyber these days has gotten much more risky. There was serious fighting between the semi secular Afridi. like Yahya’s friends, and their more fundamentalist Taliban influenced neighbors. Scenes like the picture below are common now and unless things change dramatically I would not recommend driving through the Khyber Pass.

Tribal fighter at his post two feet off the main road. The compound he is guarding was attacked two days prior to our last trip to the Khyber

Covert Radio, Michael Yon Online with Fox News, the Gatr is Nishta and Links to Something really Cool

This week has been very busy. It started with another covert radio show interview. Brett Winterable had Bill Roggio from the Long War Journal and I on for the opening segment. Bill is an old friend who visited with us back in 2006. He and I took a run to Qalat where he got some good footage of Taliban outriders stalking a large convoy of civilian trucks. You can find the video here. Bill is also the most knowledgeable person I know on what is happening in Pakistan, the second most knowledgeable on Afghanistan and the third most knowledgeable on Iraq. I’m kidding of course, he may well be the most knowledgeable on all three  – you can find a link to the podcast here.

Also on Monday Michael Yon released a post on his web site about the French Army ambush in the Uzbin valley last August. We set up his interviews and took him out to the meetings. The back story can be found in the “talking with the AOG” post I made shortly after our trip into the Uzbin. You can find the Michael Yon article here it was also linked at Fox News. Michael has moved on for now but I hope to run into him again in the future he is really a great guy doing important work.

The Bot and I getting jocked up for the run into Uzbin Valley. See the post "Talking with the AOG" for the full back story
The Bot and I getting jocked up for the run into Uzbin Valley. See the post”Talking with the AOG” for the full back story.

Proving once again that things happen in three’s on Monday night we had a huge wind storm blow through which took the transponder right off our Gatr ball thus bringing to an end (for now) our fat pipe internet. Mehrab and the Jalalabad Geek Squad from Synergy Strike Force have been trying to super glue the mounts in and get it back on line but it is still “Nishta” which in Pashto means something like “no have.” Canadian Dan and I have the day off tomorrow and will try to fix that bad boy up our ownselves but that is probably a waste of time. The Jbad geek squad is a proficient crew, if it was going to work they would have probably got it up by now.

Gatr down - winds tore the transponder off our ball. It has survived everything mother nature threw at it until last Monday night
Gatr down – winds tore the transponder off our ball. It has survived everything mother nature threw at it until last Monday night
You hate to see this - transponder attachments torn off the ball
You hate to see this – transponder attachments torn off the ball – this thing was super fast when up and running

 

Here is something really cool – the young boys from the village behind our guesthouse who are learning how to build battle bots. They are in the MIT sponsored FabLab which we host in our compound.

 

Local boys from Bagrami Village learning how to design and build their own bots.
Local boys from Bagrami Village self-learning how to design and build their own bots.

There is a web page for the Jalalabad Fab Lab which can be found here and it contains links to the San Diego Sister Cities Foundation which is where the Jbad Geek Squad got its start and meager funding. For those of you who want to read about the brave men and woman who come here at their own expense to coordinate the delivery of aid directly to the people of Afghanistan you should take the time to look through those blogs. Much of the aid they bring comes from donations and charitable contributions. None of it comes from the billions of dollars being spent by US AID and our hapless Department of State. This is the story of American generosity and compassion which every American should know and be proud of.

 

Amy Sun during one of the many visits she made to local area schools
Amy Sun during one of the many visits she made to local area schools

There are other organizations from other lands doing the same; Rory Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation jumps immediately to mind and he should be the pride of England for all the good work and good will he had brought to this blighted land. No doubt there are others here too which I do not know about. What I do know is people like Amy Sun of MIT, Ken Kraushaar and Dr. Dave Warner of the Synergy Strike Force make me proud to be an American. The most effective aid programs come from non government organizations and these people who risk so much to help with the goal of developing even more effective methodologies for aiding the poorest of the poor in the future deserve at the very least our thanks, respect and admiration.

Dr. Dave, Ken and I at the TAj last winter
Dr. Dave, Ken and I at the Taj last winter

Please spend a little time reading about what these talented, motivated, and very bright people are doing it will make you proud too. Plus you will be flat out amazed at what a FabLab is and what it can do.

If you are a wealthy person or heading up something like…..oh let’s say the Annenberg Foundation this is where you should leave a grant or two. You would then actually get a return on that investment rather than watching it go down some Chicago rat hole.

Making a real difference - the first group of FabLab instructors in training. This is how woman empowerment is done in a country like Afghanistan. Read Amy's blog for the details - she and her class of future instructors are braver than you can ever know for doing what they are doing in Eastern Afghanistan
Making a real difference – the first group of FabLab instructors in training. This is how woman empowerment is done in a country like Afghanistan.   One step at a time by internationals who live and work with the Afghan people. It takes courage to do it for all the women involved.   See the Jalalabad Fablab blog roll link for the details

Travelling West: Ghazni, Herat, Ghor, Chaghcharan, Jam Minaret, Badghis, Qala-i-Naw

The security situation in the western provinces of Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly over the last year. The first five years after the allied invasion were a time of peace and hope for the people in the west. The city of Herat is out west and Herat has 24/7 electricity from nearby Iran, functioning modern infra-structure, and showed much promise early on. But bad news started filtering out in late 2006. Stories about businessmen unable to operate or turn a profit due to the graft, corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government appeared in the press. Now Taliban fighters are active in Herat, Ghor and Badghis provinces and the brief flame of hope that Herat once represented is dying slowly but surely. Active Taliban  units attract the attention of ISAF, which means fighting, fighting means the use of tactical air support by ISAF and every time tactical air hits a compound containing bad guys the other people in the compound are hit too.

The press and the Taliban make a big deal about this collateral damage repeating over and over that our aircraft are hitting houses full of innocent women and children. It is impossible for me or any other person not on the scene to determine if these claims have merit. But I do know how the ISAF targeting system works and I also know the safe guards in place to prevent such incidents which leads me to doubt the veracity of most (not all) of these stories. Our information warriors should be using the Taliban’s propensity for going  to ground inside compounds full of women and children to our advantage but don’t.

We had a mission out west back in December of 2006 to conduct a wheat assessment survey. It was rumored that famine was about to strike in the remote villages out there and someone needed to go out and determine how much wheat was available and at what price. Readers who are familiar with the military effort here are probably thinking “wait, that is what the PRT’s are supposed to be doing”, which is true. But that would require extended missions outside the wire and that is something PRT’s do not seem to do, so we were contracted to do it for them. Long haul remote trips like that are our specialty so the Afghan American specialist assigned to this task contracted us to take him. I was gone two weeks, yet at times felt I had traveled back in time 200 years. Along the way we came across one of the most unbelievable sites in Afghanistan: the minaret of Jam.

The Minaret of Jam — I thought I was the first Westerner to see this unbelievable sight!

We had serious time and budget constraints which forced us to drive around the ring road to Herat where the assessment was to begin. That could not be safely done today and it was dangerous two years ago too but not so much during the winter months. The picture below illustrates one of the reasons why being molested by the Taliban while traveling in the winter is rare.

Snow covered Ring Road – we are in the hills just north of Ghazni

I have always believed that throwing US contractors out onto the ring road with snow plows, heavy rescue trucks, and ambulances which can call in medical evacuation helicopters would have made all the difference in the world. The Afghans living along that route would have immediately understood the intent behind such a program and ensured the security of its participants. I can just imagine the old Rescue One Squad truck like the one I rode years ago as a Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad volunteer screaming down the roads with a half US / half Afghan crew. Clearing wrecks, administering advanced life support, helping those trapped in flooded or snow bound roads. You could have started something like that in 2004 but not now.

There are no snow plows in Afghanistan (except on the Salang Pass and they were left behind by the Soviets) so a traffic jam like this can last for several days. Working with my usual team of Tajiks we weaved through this mess in about 90 minutes by cajoling people to move a little here and a little there, and at times driving through the snow on the shoulder. Afghans will always cooperate and help an international who smiles at them, is polite, and knows a few words of Dari or Pashto. Being a good Marine the first thing I learned were the swear words which helped get us clear that day. Swearing about the weather and road and lack of snow plows allowed me to fit right in.

More waiting in traffic on the way to Ghazni

We arrived in Herat the next day and hit one of the better restaurants in town for an early afternoon meal. The weather was cold that day so of course we ate outside because my team knew I would be cold and wanted to see if I bitched or moaned about it. Silly buggers did they think I spent 20 years in the Marines for nothing? I know how to play this game and acted as if eating out in 40 degree cold was exactly what I wanted to do. This made Little Daud (pronounced Dow ood which is Dari for David and a common name) glum. He had bet Big Daud and Medium Daud (there are three in my crew) that I would make them move inside and now owed a little coin to his cousins. Little Daud underestimated my Dari comprehension thus allowing me the pleasure of taking the piss out of him while I sat freezing and eating a great lunch.

Cold eating outdoors at a restaurant in Herat

 

The city of Herat – beautiful, modern, and currently failing

The Marco Polo Inn in Herat has a wing for us foreigners with heaters in the halls and rooms, sit down toilets, and TV’s playing live CNN and the BBC news casts. I would have to wait for a trip to Peshawar of all places to be able to watch Fox News but man did I like the sit down toilet and heat. Afghan buildings are not heated and this was the last I was to see of a warm room and biased crappy western news for the next 10 days so I sat on the toilet watching TV just because I could.

Downtown Herat

We headed into Ghor Province the next day planning to take two days to reach Chaghcharan the provincial capital. Like most of the country the roads into Ghor are unpaved and often hard to follow. At times they peter out into dry stream beds or divide up into three different directions. A map and compass are critical if you are going to stay on track. When in the countryside you have two choices to overnight; camp out in the mud or stay on the floor of a local tea house. We choose the tea house route.

The main road through Ghor Province

 

Afghan Tea House in Ghor Province
Dining in Afghan style – after folding up the sleeping mats it is time for chow. This tea house is 10 miles south of the Jam Minaret

Life in the villages of this rural area has remained unchanged for many many years. There are a few modern conveniences, the people have access to motor transport, some have generators, and most have radios. The irrigation systems are primitive but works plus this is one area where the US AID contractors have had great success with their field veterinary units. These outposts, run by Afghans, provide vaccinations and medicine for local livestock which are the major source of food and income. But for all intents and purposes life in these villages has not changed for generations.

Wooden Irrigation controls

 

Remote mountain village

On our second day of travel my crew and Karim awoke with great excitement and anticipation. They would not tell me why, saying that I would not believe what we were going to see in a few hours. They were right. As we moved down a valley towards the Hari Rud River up popped the minaret of Jam. The tallest complete and authentic ancient minaret in the world, it is believed to have been built by the once great Ghorid Empire, who in the late 12th century ruled over what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Rumors about of this magnificent tower did not reach the west until 1944. They were not confirmed until a French archaeologist located it in 1957. For 700 years, since Genghis Khan had rampaged through the valley destroying the Ghorids it had been forgotten to history.

The Jamm Minaret suddenly appears as you drive down towards the river – the sight is stunning and this picture does not do it justice
Detail work from from over 700 years ago

 

Remnants of the Turquoise Mountain Complex behind the Jam

None of my Afghan colleagues had ever seen the Jam and a few had doubted its existence. There was one ANP policeman guarding the site and he told us no westerner had ever been here before as far as he knew. I was excited soon convincing myself I was the first westerner to see the Jam in 40 years. After this trip I flew home for Christmas and picked up a book in the Dubai airport by a Brit named Rory Stewart. Turns out he had walked the exact route I was driving with just a dog, a back pack and walking stick. His book had an entire chapter on the Jam Minaret and the surrounding Turquoise Mountain complex. I thought I was ballsy being there with just 6 other guys. Took a little wind out of my sail that book did. Rory lives in Kabul now and is restoring an old bazaar with his Turquoise Mountain foundation and I hope to meet him some day. Walking from Herat to Kabul with nothing but a dog and a big stick in the middle of winter that is madness. But the kind of madness I can respect.

Group photo – the boys seemed excited to be here but their enthusiasm was tempered by the raging river behind us that we had to cross.

Crossing the Hari Rud River in the middle of the day was drama – the river was swollen and the ford point so deep that when we came back we hit this spot at 0200 knowing the water level would be much lower. In Chaghcharan we stayed at the house of a local judge who was related to Karim. We reported into the PRT which was manned by troops from Lithuania so that Karim could chat with the US AID representative. I don’t know how much the Lithuanians get out and about, but man did they have a gigantic, very cool looking sauna set up in their camp. After conducting our census and talking with the Provincial Governor we headed back out the next night with the aim of crossing to Hari Rud before dawn.

This is why I was so happy to see a sit down toilet in Herat. At least these did not smell given the sub zero temperatures
Downtown Chaghcharan

On the way out of Ghor one of our vehicles had a front strut weld break. Big Daud spotted a hand cranked welding machine on the side of the road in one of the villages so we stopped and asked for the owner to come help us fix the truck. That took about 10 minutes and cost all of two dollars. The weld has worked to this day Afghans may not have been afforded good educations but they are smart people.

On the road fix
Big Daud and the broken vehicle

The next leg of trip was into Badghis Province which would require us to go way up above the snow line. As you transit the lowlands you’ll see most of the houses are made of thick mud walls with domed roofs. Domed roofs are common in the lower elevations of the west and north because there is not enough timber to build flat roofs. The domes also are an efficient system in areas where there is a large variation in the daytime and nighttime temperatures. They vent the warm air at night and allow cool air in making it comfortable for the families below.

Domed style housing found in the west and north of Afghanistan

As we moved up into the Badghis Pass we hit a fair sized snow storm which required us to get the tire chains fitted.

Putting on the chains at Badghis Pass

Once in the pass we ran into a typical scene traffic jammed up due to heavy snow and trucks with bald tires and no chains. Once again the crew got out and started moving traffic out of our way.

Main road into Badghis

The capitol of Badghis Province is Qala-i-Naw and Spain has the PRT there. We stayed at the local RRD (rural rehabilitation department) office although Karim and I could probably get onto the PRT’s overnight our escorts could not and leaving them to fend for themselves is uncool. Tajiks from the Panjshir valley are not always welcomed in these parts despite the fact that the population is majority Tajik so we stick together, at all times and in all places.

Downtown Qala-i-Naw

Qala-i-Naw reminded me of an old western town like Deadwood. Mud, mud and more mud. We took a census of the wheat lot and moved out because heavy weather was coming in and we didn’t want to be stuck there.

Typical wheat lot; we found that supplies were plentiful and the prices not inflated.

The drive out was easy as we beat the storm here is a great shot of medium Daud up on the pass.

Medium Daud in the mountains

We could not make a trip like that today even in the snows of winter. I saw a news article about a BBC film crew that went to the Jam Minaret last year to film a special. They took 60 ANP policemen with them. That is unquestionably overkill, in the remote west the chances of running into AOG bands numbering more than a dozen are around zero. It probably cost the BBC a fortune too but who cares? They’re spending tax payers’ money and people do not seem to care what something costs when they are spending tax payers’ cash.

Karim getting a photo for the folks back home

There is little doubt that the region is much more dangerous then it was just two years ago, ten times more dangerous then it was four years ago and twenty times more dangerous then it was six years ago. See the trend line?