U.S. Navy Suckers Iran into Shooting Down Surplus Drone: Scores Big Intelligence Coup

Editors Note: The title of this post was changed at the suggestion of a long time fan of FRI, LtCol Robert Brown, the  publisher of  Soldier of Fortune magazine

Intentionally or not, in the current contest of wills with Iran, the United States is now in a dominant geo -political and military position. Intentionally or not, the United States now has the most accurate, comprehensive, intelligence on Iran’s order of battle that any adversary has ever harvested from its opponent in history. We may not have arrived at this point due to a clever plan but we are here just the same, so let me describe where “here” is.

Iran was caught seeding mines into the strait of Hormuz in, what many believe, was an attempt to stage a heroic rescue of international sailors who were victims of the instability caused by the reckless actions of the President of the United States. That plan did not survive contact when the freighters did not sink and the USS Bainbridge arrived on scene to stop the Iranians from pushing one the disabled freighters into Iranian waters.

Days later the Iranians shot down a U.S. Global Hawk drone. This was no ordinary Global Hawk, it was a RQ-4N BAMS-D (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator) flown into the area of operations just days prior. It had been the  proof of concept demonstrator for the new navy RQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance drone, but that program was finished and the demonstrators headed to the bone yard. At the last minute that changed and one was sent to the UAE. Why? It did not bring any new capabilities, it wasn’t needed, there are no units set up to crew the beast, what good could it have done?

It is amazing what you can find on the internet

I’m not sure, but here is a theory. That platform was sent to be sacrificed in an effort to fine tune our intelligence of Iranian anti air order of battle. The drone was headed for demobilization anyway; what is the downside to using it for a baited ambush?

One of the four BAMs-D demonstrators

The Iranians shot down a drone for which the United States had no further use. The Iranians contend that we flew the drone into their airspace; we say we didn’t. I say what would you do with the most sophisticated, disposable drone in history? One that is designed to run well below the normal Global Hawk mission profile I might add. One that is so damn big it looks like a jet on radar. What would you do with an asset like that?

I’d run that asset right into the teeth of the Iranian air defense system and record exactly what they do,  how long it takes for them to scramble, and how quickly they acquire and shoot me down.  Let me explain how valuable that intelligence is. Suppose you had very high confidence in your ability to launch a cyber-attack another countries missile control system and take them all out. Very high confidence would be what? 80 -90%? How could you get your confidence level up to almost 100%? Run a drone at the air defense system to watch how it responds.

We then stage a raid saying we will not tolerate any state shooting down our drones. At the last second the President decides to turn the planes around, he doesn’t want to spill blood over a drone. He says any further provocations will be dealt with harshly and is immediately criticized for his indecision. How much intelligence did that feint of a raid generate?

Concurrent with the feint raid was a real cyber attack that knocked out Iranian missile control systems. As Richard Fernandez observers in this  Belmont Club post:

A sucessful cyberattack inflicts considerable financial damage on the target, rendering vital equipment inoperable. It costs money to diagnose the damage, patch it and test the fix. Before the system can be restored it would be necessary to ensure there was no residual malware. Although Iran has denied any damage to its missiles the unbridled fury of their public response indirectly confirms they are hurt.

It looks to me like the President used a large, serious, diversion to cover his actual attack. That is Sun-Tzu level planning and execution, actually winning a battle without firing a shot, something I have never seen at the national command level. There is  another unique aspect to a cyber attack;  it produces no pictures.

Pictures cause problems, and right now President Trump has no problems. Had he gone with traditional strike package he would have big problems from the pictures of dead kids caught in collateral damage. If we had not caused the collateral damage casualties the Iranians would have done so themselves.  That is how the Iranians play the game and we have known that for decades.

The narrative would have been ‘Bad Orange Man strikes because he is unstable. Innocent Persians suffer because Americans need their oil’. The narrative never changes and is impervious to facts. The facts are  we do not need oil from the middle east and we don’t need bombers to deliver a crippling blow to a state in our crosshairs.

Following the script of the traditional Middle East North Africa (MENA)  Kubuki Theater play book President Trump launched a retaliatory strike with air and rocket assets. Congress and the media immediately played their assigned roles by preemptively declaring that congress must authorize any military conflictwith Iran. The bi-partisan duo of Matt Gaetz (R Fl.) and Ro Khanna (D Ca) are correct on this point. BUT, we have been dropping bombs and droning people non-stop over there for 18 years, and now they care?

Congress has removed itself from the oversight of our military by refusing to do the work required, by law, to get proper authorizations for the use of military force. How many times did former SecDef Mattis and the CJCOS General Dunford say, during congressional testimony, that they would welcome and, in fact need congress to do its job with respect to the War Powers Act ? The question answers itself while amplifying, to the American public, serial congressional incompetance at a vital function they assigned themselves with the War Powers Act over forty years ago.

President Trump has used the current crisis to point out inconvenient truths. He has asked why we are protecting shipping lanes we do not need ( without compensation) for too long. Trump has asked why we are shouldering the burden of keeping the straits open to benefit China when the Chinese are stealing us blind and working against our interests.

I understand that keeping the world’s shipping lanes running smoothly and safely is in the best interests of the largest economy in the world. Instability in world markets cause prices to rise and that hurts everybody, who in the world wants to see the price of oil rise?

We do. Oil is selling around $65 a barrel, get that price around $100 and the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford Shale plays (these fields are in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico) will explode.  The one country in the world that would benefit from a significant rise in the price of oil is the United States. The one country no credible person would accuse of manipulating world oil prices is the United States. The position of being the hegemon, who does not put his thumb on the scale, is one Americans shoulder willingly. But we have been taken advantage of by too many for too long and the American people are sick of it.

Iran just got a good taste of the Tump Doctrine and what has that cost them? Untold millions of dollars and man-hours to replace and repair their missile control systems, which means? They are now Open Kimono. They know we know their air defense system inside and out and that their missile control systems are down hard. If we struck now there is not one damn thing they could do about it. They know it, we know it, and now you know it.

As an aside, the term Open Kimono vis a via Iran was introduced by Jeff Kenney of the world famous All Marine Radio weekly Lynch & Kenny show. We have been on this topic for the past two weeks, those podcasts can be found here and here.

Jeff and I spend about an hour each week with Mike “Mac” McNamara who hosts All Marine Radio. The three of us were instructors at the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course in the early 1990’s. As is typical with infantry officer we bumped into each other repeatedly in the ensuing years in places like Okinawa, Baghdad, and Jalalabad.

Afghanistan has recently surrendered the cherished institution of official corruption called “The Checkpoint”. As I pointed out in my last post this is a potential game changer. Why, after 18 years of resistance, did Afghanistan choose to do away with the checkpoints? Who knows, maybe it is just coincidence, but I smell the makings of a deal because Afghanistan had to give Trump something to make him stay. The only “something” he has asked for is movement on corruption.

It could be a coincidence that the one thing Trump has asked for is actually happening in Afghanistan. It could be a coincidence that in the only confrontation with a foreign power, with shots already fired, he won without firing a kinetic shot. It could be a coincidence that the one drone Iran shot down was past its service life and heading for the junk yard.

This could be a coincidence, or it could be a response to pressure on the China’s energy supply, they import 90%  of their oil through the straits of Hormuz.

SEOUL (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping said in an op-ed in North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun on Wednesday that China supports North Korea’s “correct direction” in politically resolving issues on the Korean Peninsula.

The front-page op-ed is an honor rarely granted to foreign leaders and comes a day before Xi is set to visit Pyongyang on Thursday and Friday at the invitation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, making him the first Chinese leader to visit in 14 years.

Today President Trump became the first American President to set foot in North Korea. That too may be a coincidence. But the coincidences are piling up and all of them favor President Trump.

Intentionally or not, Donald Trump is transforming, in front of our eyes, into one the greatest presidents in American history.

Afghan Security Forces adopt a potential Game Changer

Buried in the news last month was a story announcing the most significant tactical adaptation in the history of Afghan Security Forces. The international media company AFP broke the story with this article Under US pressure Afghan army starts closing checkpoints. The article was reprinted in various legacy media outlets, Stars and Stripes ran their own reporting that included a little more depth, and the subject disappeared from the news cycle without further examination or comment. This should not be as it is a fundamental change in how Afghan Security Forces are handling a resurgent Taliban.

For eighteen years western military advisors to the Afghans have repeatedly pointed out that dispersing manpower out in small, poorly built, militarily unimportant, easily overrun checkpoints is a pointless waste. The Afghans counter that small forts flying the Afghan flag demonstrates to the people that the government holds that area.

The photographs below are from one of the better organized checkpoints I ran across during a road trip with Ralph Ward a.k.a The Skipper. He was heading into Nuristan province to blow an ammo cache the ANA had uncovered, something he normally we not do which was why I was tagging along.

Approaching a checkpoint in Nuristan province. Can you tell its be there for awhile?
Billboards in English in Nuristan….weird right?
As far as ANA checkpoints go this one was not in bad shape. There were around a half dozen guys hanging out, none in uniform, no visible defensive works and no bullet holes despite this post being in (at the time) the most kinetic province in the country.
The boys had a stash of motorbikes that I can promise you they did not arrive with and could never afford….another big problem with checkpoints

In 2016 the American military estimated that there were 8,400 Afghan police and army checkpoints in the country. Despite insisting that the Afghans start closing them the number of checkpoints grew in 2017. It is obvious these poorly manned, undefended, far flung, unsupported positions contribute to low morale, high rates of desertion and high casualties. In fact a week after this policy was announced Afghan Security Forces suffered 23 KIA’s in two attacks on checkpoints, one in Ghor and the other in Logar provinces.

If it is so obvious that these checkpoints are a bad idea why is it they proliferate? The motorbikes in the picture above are a hint and here is another:

Me best mate Shem and I looking over an ANP checkpoint on the Jalalabad -Kabul hwy

The checkpoint Shem and I are looking over had reported they were overrun the night prior and fired all the rounds on hand to drive off the Taliban. The building, on all four sides, is pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel holes, as the  structure pre-dates the Soviet invasion. None of the battle damage on this building was new, and not one piece of brass could be found on the ground. The troops (all Hazara’s from Ghazni province) were obviously selling ammo and AK rounds, at the time, cost 65 cents each on the black market.

When soldiers “benefit” at their checkpoints they are expected to kick a percentage up. It’s similar to the mafia, or at least The Sopranos version of the mafia, and that is the main reason the Afghans have refused  to take them down.  Afghan police and army officers assigned a certain area have normally paid serious cash for the position and expect a return of their investment. The practice is so common it doesn’t require footnotes (but here’s a link anyway). I have been told that this is changing as younger officers in the Afghan Security Forces reach ranks of responsibility. I hope so, I’m a big of the Afghans.

Here is the 02 Unit setting up a snap checkpoint outside of Jalalabad. This is how you should run checkpoints

If the Afghan Security Forces are now willing to forgo revenue from their checkpoints to focus on offensive operations targeting the Taliban they have crossed the Rubicon in military professionalism. Time will tell, but this is the most positive development I’ve seen regarding Afghanistan in a long time. Inshallah it is a sign of a tide starting to turn.

Free Range International Does the Force for Hire Podcast

Michelle Harven, from the new Stars and Stripes Force for Hire podcast interviewed me for this weeks edition. They compressed a lot of material into a tight half hour and although I got to mention both of my current gigs, the weekly column at The Freq and the weekly appearance with Jeff Kenny on All Marine Radio, only AMR made the final cut.

I got a good plug in for Mike “Mac” s’ McNamara’s Post Truamatic Winning program but got emotional doing so, which made for a memorable finish but I still get annoyed at myself when that happens.

Typical Thursday night at the Taj Tiki Bar

 

I cross-posted some of my latest Weekly Afghanistan Updates from The Freq so newcomers to the blog get a sense of how I write about a topic that has grown obscure for the average citizen. If you are a first time visiter I would invite you to, using the side bar, navigate back to October 2011 for the more iconic, well received posts.

You will find the Force for Hire podcast here.

 

 

A look at Task Force Southwest and the American effort to cripple the Taliban drug trade

Editors Note: This is cross-posted from The Freq media where I currently write a weekly Afghanistan Update. 

Last month the commanding general of Task Force Southwest, Brig. Gen. Dale Alford, USMC, spent an hour talking with Macon All Marine Radio explaining his mission, his impression on the improved security in the Helmand province, and his take on the current peace talks. Dale has the unique distinction of serving in a combat zone at every rank from second lieutenant to brigadier general. If there is another Marine officer who can claim that distinction, I’ve never heard of him. It is rare to hear a task force commander, in a combat zone, spend an hour going over his assessment of the conflict with an interviewer who is a personal friend and also an experienced combat infantry officer. I’ve never heard of an interview like this, which is why I’m such a fan of the long form podcast interview model.

Since the arrival of TF Southwest, the Afghan Security Forces have expanded their control of the province from just Lashkar Gah (the provincial capitol) to 70% of the province — including most of the green zone and the Ring Road. Gen. Alford stressed that when the ANA 215 Corps goes on operations they are accompanied by drones that feed his control teams data in real time. Those teams (he has two) are co-located at the brigade level where they provide supporting fires and intelligence. That seems to be working and the small foot print combined with limited cost (in Washington dollars) would allow the United States to support similar task forces indefinitely.

 

General Dale Alford, USMC

 

TF Southwest is the Pentagon-preferred template for future American military operations and may prove an effective use of American military power in an areas of durable disorder. Deploying trainers who do not leave firm bases to fight with the men they train is an approach that some critics (me for one) question as a viable strategy. But it has the advantage of keeping American casualties low, and taking casualties at this stage of the Afghan War is our center of gravity. The American public will not tolerate significant loss of American life in combat operations in Afghanistan.

Gen. Alford also discussed the poppy problem at length, suggesting that the opium crop could be replaced with soy beans — much as tobacco was replaced by government subsidized soy beans in the American south. Unfortunately, in the farmlands of Helmand Province (Kandahar too), by 1975 over-irrigation and poor drainage had led to waterlogging and salination, damaging much of the farm lands (unless you are growing poppy). Efforts to mitigatethat damage stopped with the Soviet Invasion back in the 1970’s and they would have to be completed before any serious thoughts of growing soy beans could be entertained.

A better replacement crop would be industrial hemp, something the Afghans know how to grow already. Industrial hemp has huge potential in the textile markets but the money is in converting the hemp into industrial fiber products. That takes infrastructure or a stable logistical link to factories in China and neither of those will be available in Afghanistan anytime soon.

What was not discussed on the podcast was the recent Taliban attack on Camp Shorabak (where TF Southwest is currently housed). Long form podcasters like Mac tend to avoid “gotcha” journalism which is a good thing. What is more interesting or useful; an hour long talk with a general officer commanding in combat or the ambush of a CG by a media shill trying to maximize clicks by generating controversy?  When you listen to the podcast you are hearing a conversation between two experienced infantry officers who know each other well and are operating on a degree of trust. It’s an honest exchange of information without spin or hedging which makes it interesting.

What could the Gen. Alford say about the Taliban attack on Shorabak anyway (aside from the fact that it was pretty well organized)? The Taliban attacked the same base in 2012 when the Marines and Brits ran it and managed to destroy an entire squadron of Marine Harrier jump jets. The Taliban killed over a hundred ANA soldiers in an attack on an ANA firm base outside Mazar-i Sharif just last year. The Taliban has been infiltrating big bases for years and they will continue to do so because there are always gaps in a static defense or firm base perimeter, always. Even if you put your best troops in the static defense roll how many weeks or months of staring out into empty desert for 12 hours a day does it take to degrade alertness?

Soldiers are humans and humans are predictable, they establish routines, they get lazy and complacent, they make mistakes. In an eighteen-year-long war there are going to be setbacks because the enemy is competent and motivated, or he wouldn’t still be in the fight. Tactical setbacks do not prove or disprove that the Marines of TF Southwest are making a difference, only time will tell if these task forces were effective.

Gen. Alford listed a number of facts that support his contention that the Task Force is an effective way to buy time and develop the capacity of Afghan Security Forces while the peace process continues. He said, and virtually everyone involved with the Afghan process agrees, that these is no way to militarily “win” for the Afghan government. The exact same holds true for the Taliban. The TF Southwest model may prove to be effective which would an interesting development for future U.S. operations in durable pockets of disorder.

Also not discussed was the effort made last year to target the labs that process wet opium. In November of 2017, United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A… I’m going to start using this acronym more because it sounds cool) commenced a targeting campaign against drug labs to deny the Taliban the funds gained. In August of 2018, USFOR-A announcedthey had destroyed over 200 labs and denied the Taliban over 200 million in drug sales proceeds.

Screengrab from the Alcis article linked below

The problem with the USFOR-A claims were they did not withstand close scrutiny by journalist Richard Brittan of Alcis. Brittan identified 29 of the compounds hit in the Helmand province and, using satellite imagery databases, his team was able to see the history of those compounds over time. He sent field evaluators to survey the residents and found the results of the campaign were minimal because the costs of re-establishing the labs were minimal. His article can be found here, and is worth reading.

Another screen grab for the Alcis report showing how fast processing labs are re-built after being destroyed.

The drug lab campaign was quietly ended a year after it started because it didn’t offer any return on investment. A good reason Gen. Alford and Mac didn’t talk about it is that Task Force Southwest had nothing to do with the campaign, that’s DEA and spook work, and I bet you money Gen. Alford could have predicted the outcome of that program anyway — I know him; he’s sharp and has a lot of time in the Helmand province.

Opium production in Afghanistan has, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, increased dramatically in recent years. Reading the linked report is depressing, but it did answer the question of what happened in Nimroz province after we fixed the irrigation systems, check out the map below that I pulled from the linked article:

Charborjak district is now a major producer and there wasn’t a drop of water flowing into those lands before we fixed the irrigation system in 2010.

Despite being the number one elicit opium producer in the world, Afghan heroin has little to do with the current opioid crisis in America. Those drugs come from Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala. But regardless of origin, there is only one way to battle the opioid problem in America — just as there is only one way to deprive the Taliban of the millions they are making on the poppy — and that is to legalize drugs.

According to Johaan Hari, author of the recent bestseller Chasing the Scream, everything you know about addiction is wrong. When you read about the Swiss program of providing addicts their daily dose for free at government clinics, it is hard to believe that is an effective treatment option. When you read on about similar programs in Portugal or Vancouver, it is hard not to see the utility of the approach.

A comprehensive program based on the Swiss model could stop the opioid crisis dead in its tracks. If the United States did that, most of the the world would follow. In fact, most of the world was forced to opt into our war on drugs back in 50’s. That effort was lead by the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry J. Anslinger — as virulent a racist who has ever served on the national stage.

Type Harry J. Anslinger quotes in Google and standby… you won’t believe your eyes. Here, I’ll give you a tame one: “The primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races.” The War on Drugs started because Anslinger (who was ignorant, but neither stupid or lazy) needed to grow a bureau created out of the old Revenue office after prohibition was repealed, just before his appointment. Regardless of its origins, there is no question that the war on drugs has been a dismal failure — and an incredibly expensive one, at that. Here is a historical note that renders the current opioid crisis narrative of the “chemical hook” model of addiction suspect. In 1971 35% of the servicemen in Vietnam had tried heroin and 20% were addicted. James Clear picks up the story in this article from Behavioral Psychology, How Vietnam War Veterans Broke Their Heroin Addictions:

“The discovery led to a flurry of activity in Washington, including the creation of the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention under President Nixon, to promote prevention and rehabilitation and to track addicted service members when they returned home.“

Lee Robins was one of the researchers from that special action office. In a finding that completely upended the accepted beliefs about addiction, Robins found that when soldiers who had been heroin users returned home, only 5 percent of them became re-addicted within a year, and just 12 percent relapsed within three years. In other words, approximately nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addiction nearly overnight”.

Johaan Hari musters a good argument about the utility of currently banned drugs and the folly of the War on Drugs. So did Michael Pollan in last year’s NYT bestseller How to Change Your Mind. A quote from this New York Times article about the book explains Pollan’s understanding of the neural physiology behind psychedelic experiences:

“Where Pollan truly shines is in his exploration of the mysticism and spirituality of psychedelic experiences. Many LSD or psilocybin trips — even good trips — begin with an ordeal that can feel scarily similar to dissolving, or even dying. What appears to be happening, in a neurological sense, is that the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence — the default mode network, it’s called — drops away. An older, more primitive part of the brain emerges, one that’s analogous to a child’s mind, in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and a capacity for awe and wonder is stronger.”

The statistics Pollan musters from legitimate medical studies in the 50’s and 60’s regarding the effectiveness of LSD in treating smoking or alcohol addiction were stunning. That is why there are medical trials being conducted today in many countries, including America, on using psychedelics (a.k.a. entheogens) to treat a variety of problems from end-of-life acceptance to alcoholism to PTSD. Our laws regarding drugs are going to change. The sooner they change towards rationally treating addicts with the drugs they need — while guiding towards establishing meaning and purpose in their lives — the better.

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I have no experience with entheogens, although if offered I’d certainly try them. I can’t imagine that happening and it’s not on my bucket list, so I really don’t care. If they prove effective in treating PTSD, then I’m an advocate — but it is too early to make that claim. None of the science discussed in the books linked above is settled. But that’s the nature of science, it’s mostly never settled. Researches must keep an open mind and follow the evidence before any scientific question can be considered “settled”. Right now the evidence researchers are finding is encouraging.

What I know is there is no way to rid Afghanistan of the poppy, except by devaluing the crop. Just as there is no way to beat the Taliban as long as they have safe sanctuary in Pakistan. We are not in a position to effect the cross border problem nor the booming poppy economy. The continued commitment of units like Task Force Southwest may prove to be the only way to buy Afghanistan the time and space it needs to solidify into a viable state. But we will need a lot more time and a lot more money to do this, and I do not see how the United States will find enough of either for too much longer.

Featured image: HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan (May 8, 2009) – An Afghan National Police officer picks up a bag of opium. Afghan National Police officers, along with U.S. Special Operations Soldiers, discovered 600 pounds of opium May 7, 2009, during a cordon and search operation of a known Taliban safe house, collection center and trauma center in Babaji Village, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Photo by Cpl. Sean K. Harp, U.S. Army.

The Real Reason to Stay in Afghanistan

Editors Note: This is cross-posted from The Freq media where I currently write a weekly Afghanistan Update. 

Last week Military.com published an Associated Press article under the headline “Islamic State Expands Reach in Afghanistan, Threatens West”. I have read it three times now, and consider it fake news. Here is an example:

“The area comprising the provinces of Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar and Laghman was so dangerous that the U.S.-led coalition assigned an acronym to it in the years after the invasion, referring to it as N2KL”.

This is not true, N2KL was named after the provinces assigned to R.C. East back around 2008, or so. When the Army started calling the area N2KL it was so safe that I’d have my kids’ vacation with me in Jalalabad over the summers.

Picking apart news stories written by young journos who don’t know much about the topic they were assigned is not the point. This story is only important in respect to the continued involvement of the United States in Afghanistan. If that involvement is based on the fear that ISIS-K will metastasize into an organization capable of planning and launching attacks against the West, we are on a fool’s errand.  ISIS-K (hereafter referred to as Daesh-K, because that’s what the cool kids call them) in Afghanistan is not capable of sophisticated international operations targeting the Homeland. Daesh-K are not our friends, but they are also not our problem. They are Pakistan, Afghanistan and maybe Uzbekistan’s problem. A quick history of Daesh-K will help explain my contention, and it just so happens I wrote one in this post back in 2017.

khyber_pass
The provincial capitols of RC East (N2KL) are identified on this map. Note the large parrots beak looking part of Pakistan that juts into Afghanistan below the Khyber Pass — that is called the Parrots Beak and that is how Taliban from the southeast got into the rear of Daesh-K back in 2014.

In 2010, Pakistani Taliban, mainly from Tehrik-e Taleban Pakistan (TTP), started to settle in Achin, Nazian, Kot, Deh Bala, Rodat and Ghanikhel districts of Nangarhar province. They invoked Melmastia (the hospitality requirement Pashtunwali places on all its tribesmen towards others, whether they are strangers or members of one’s own tribe) from the local communities saying it was their moral obligation to help their Pashtun brothers. They were moving to avoid the Pakistan army’s Operation Khyber I, which was targeting the TTP in the Northwest Frontier.

Fast forward to 2014; the muhajerin(refugees) from Pakistan have continued to trickle into Nangarhar province but when the Pakistani army launches operation Khyber II, the trickle turns into a flood. Mule trains full of weapons and ammo, some of them 50 animals long, arrive daily into the Mamand Valley, in Achin district, along with hundreds of militants. Suddenly, the muhajerin declare they are now ISIS and evict the Taliban from the districts they control, but leave the Afghan security forces alone. The locals are happy because trade is moving, Taliban and government road blocks are down and nobody is shooting at anybody. The government is happy too because Daesh-K is an enemy of the Pakistanis, making them an enemy of an enemy — which in Afghanistan is a good basis for a long friendship.

But the Taliban did not take this threat lightly, and started attacking ISIS in Nazim district. ISIS battled back hard, and took control of five districts by June of 2015. Then the Taliban went all in with their “elite forces from Loya Paktia and Loy Kandahar” who infiltrated the Mamand Valley (in Achin district), and on one night during Ramadan… (The always excellent Afghan Analyst Network picks up the story):

In early July 2015, Taleban fighters sneaked into Mamand and, during the night of 2 July, talked to their sympathisers about staging a coordinated attack against the ISKP fighters. They managed to secure the help of various tribal elders. One morning during Ramadan, on 3 July 2015, local men (including those not usually sympathetic to the Taleban) and Taleban rose up together against ISKP, with calls by the Taleban via the mosque’s loud-speakers for all men of fighting age to come out and participate, or face seeing their homes burnt down. Taken by surprise, the ISKP fighters retreated from most of Mamand valley by the end of that day”.

Having routed the Daesh-K the non-local Taliban had to leave too, and it took exactly a week for the Daesh-K to return. After driving most of the locals out of the Mamand Valley, Daesh-K then became our problem. They have been a costly problem, turning Nangarhar into the most dangerous province for American servicemen in the country.

The threat from Daesh-K, as outlined in the AP story is as follows:

Without an aggressive counterterrorism strategy, Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate will be able to carry out a large-scale attack in the U.S. or Europe within the next year, the U.S. intelligence official said, adding that ISIS fighters captured in Afghanistan have been found to be in contact with fellow militants in other countries.

Authorities have also already made at least eight arrests in the United States linked to the ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan.

Martin Azizi-Yarand, the 18-year-old Texan who plotted a 2018 attack on a suburban mall, said he was inspired by ISIS and was preparing to join the affiliate in Afghanistan. He was sentenced in April to 20 years in jail.

Rakhmat Akilov, the 39-year-old Uzbek who plowed his truck into pedestrians in Stockholm in 2017, also had links with the Afghanistan affiliate, the intelligence official said. “During interrogation he said ‘this is my commander in Afghanistan and he is telling me what to do,'” he said”.

If the Daesh-K, working diligently from their mountain keeps in Achin district, are causing people around the world to up and Jihad, then how about we cut their internet? The Taliban made cell phone companies turn off their towers at night because they knew ISAF could track them through cell phones so why can’t we do the same with the internet? It’s not like there is a booming local internet service provider economy in the area. How likely is it that the Daesh-K have their own satellite with secure uplinks? The question answers itself.

chatting
FRI on the Pakistan/Afghan (Torkham) border with the N2KL Human Terrain Team in 2009.

I don’t think Daesh-K in Nangarhar has anything to do with lone wolf Jihadis LARPingon the internet. But just in case they are, here is another modest proposal that will save serious bucks.  Ask the Taliban (at the peace talks) to,  as a sign of good faith,  go into Nangarhar province and eliminated Daesh-K. In an unimpeachable demonstration of how reasonable we (the US) are, we could lend them some FACs’ and run some close air to support them;  maybe even drop another MOAB (which is just a big fuel air explosive). MOAB’s are great for morale as long as you are on the side dropping them.

Using the threat of Daesh-K to justify continued involvement in Afghanistan is folly, because Daesh-K and the Taliban are not a threat to us.  The threats to our interests in the region come from Pakistan, Iran, and China.

The linked article above has a good, detailed, explanation of that fact. Here is a sample:

Pakistan’s duplicity has continued for over seventeen years. While accepting billions of American dollars in military and economic aid, Pakistan has been slowly bleeding the U.S. to death in Afghanistan through its support of the Taliban, Haqqani Network and other terrorist groups.12”

China represents a more significant threat, but one that is difficult to explain unless you are listening to reliable experts. Grant Newsham, a regular on All Marine Radio, does the best  job I’ve found explaining China’s vampire-like expansion which targets all sectors of a competitors economy. China already dictates the terms on which Hollywood movies are developed and released. The stakes are explained well by Richard Fernandez in an excellent post titled They Are Coming Through the Wire.

“They [the Chinese] are betting they can put enough harm into the US economy that the 2020 elections go to somebody else. Regions, industries. If you look at the Foxconn factory in Wisconsin, the natural gas agreement in West Virginia, each one of these are means for putting hooks into the local politics into those regions or states then turning around and saying ‘the President is making it very hard to continue making investments’, many of which they never had any actual intention of making. Then they can say ‘it is the President’s fault that your economy is failing.”

Countering the growing influence of China in the region is a good reason to stay in Afghanistan. An independent Afghanistan would be a significant geostrategic win for the West. But is it probable? This I do not know… but what I do know is a way to give our continued presence in Afghanistan a purpose vis-a-vis the threat we are trying to counter.

Here is how you put our advisories on defense, reacting to our moves while fighting a frantic rear action battle for their own legitimacy.

The United States, in the name of free peoples everywhere, and in the context of what is right for peoples who have been wronged, now insists on a homeland for the Pashtun, Baloch and Kurdish peoples.

The current borders were artificially created by the West, specifically to keep these people separate and at each other’s throats. We’re America — and are all about freedom for oppressed peoples victimized by our nasty and brutish (not really in true historical context, but you know where I’m going…) colonial systems.

If we were to suddenly adopt such a radically smart approach to international diplomacy, what would our military in Afghanistan do? I have no idea. Letting the Taliban come over from the Paktia/Khost franchises (they can sneak in behind the Daesh from Pakistan) to battle Daesh-K would be a good start, after that you would have to see how things play out.

The United States is energy independent; we export food, we have two giant oceans separating us from most of the global madness. There is nothing in Central Asia we need or want, except for everyone to calm down and establish some semblance of a legitimate governing apparatus. Our interests are in preventing large disruptions to the global economy from Black Swan attacks, like the one we sustained on 9/11. Those giant hits to the global economy are not sustainable if they become frequent. But saying that Deash-K, or the many and manifest other Jihadi organizations with roots in Uzbekistan or Western China but now resident in Afghanistan, are capable of another 9/11 is to risk developing a “boy who cried wolf” reputation.

There are legitimate threats in the central Asian area, and we should focus on them with effective tools designed for a long game. China is only a peer threat to our military if we are fighting in China, they cannot project combat power around the globe, only the United States can do that in any meaningful numbers.

Our mission in Afghanistan should now be to prevent China and Pakistan from benefitting from our failure. A military presence in Afghanistan helps, forcing our adversaries to react to our moves on the global stage would be better. And what could possibly be better than advocating for a homeland for peoples long oppressed and divided thanks to those devil Europeans and their damn maps?

 

Reality Interferes With The Narrative In Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan took a catastrophic turn for the worse when General Abdul Raziq was assassinated last Thursday (18th of October). He was killed after attending a regional security meeting with the commanding general for the NATO forces in Afghanistan General Scott Miller. The Kandahar provincial intelligence chief, Gen. Abdul Momin Hussain Khel was also killed. The governor of Kandahar, Zalmai Wesa, and Gen. Nabi Elham, a senior police commander responsible for several provinces were also hit as were two unidentified Americans. At this point it is a safe assumption that the wounded Americans were from Gen Miller’s PSD team. They’re high end contractors, not American military and so their names may never be reported as contractors are not normally included in DoD personnel reporting procedures.

Gen. Abdul Raziq in 2015. He had survived dozens of attempts on his life before the attack on Thursday. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York Times

General Raziq was from the Pashtun Adozai Achakzai tribe in Spin Boldak which is a port of entry with Pakistan. The tribe has always opposed the Taliban and Raziq had lost several members of his immediate family to the Taliban over the years. He got his start as a border guard at age 17 and steadily advanced through the ranks the way all warlords rise to prominence in places like Afghanistan. He was ruthless, efficient, a natural leader with a knack for making money; he hated the Taliban and was relentless in driving them out of his area. That attracted the attention of the American Special Forces and the CIA who mentored him for years. By  the time  the Americans pulled out Raziq was a general officer who was responsible for the security of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban.  He locked Kandahar down, making it one of the safer cities in Afghanistan and he did it the old fashioned way; he didn’t take prisoners.

For this the foreign policy establishment condemned him. The most positive establishment spin is summed up well in a paragraph from a 2016 Foreign Policy article:

Considered by many as a “special case” due to his outsized and abnormal means of exerting influence and holding power, Raziq serves the interests of the state-building elite by crafting an image of strength and stability in southern Afghanistan, even if that comes at the expense of accountable governance, human rights, and long-term stability. Raziq road the coattails of a coterie of ruthless warlords empowered by western intelligence and security organizations like the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and NATO military allies. He is a leading figure in the Achakzai tribe, a major power bloc along the southern border and strong auxiliary security component through formal and informal militias. Raziq grew up in Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar, and was mentored by strongmen such as Gul Agha Sherzai, Ahmad Wali Karzai, and Asadullah Khalid, who protected Raziq from prosecution when 16 Nurzai tribal members were murdered in 2006. Numerous stories link Raziq, or men working for him, to human rights violations, torture, and murder of prisoners. While such stories of abuse are disquieting, it seems even more alarming when Raziq openly boasts of such acts. In the summer of 2014, Raziq, along with other Afghan security officials, issued a take no prisoners directive: “My order to all my soldiers is not to leave any of them alive.”

There are very few military leaders who, if lost, cannot be replaced. Ahmad Shah Massoud was one and Raziq is the only other when it comes to modern Afghanistan. His loss is a crippling blow in a year that has not seen any positive news concerning the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). ANSF is taking casualties on the battlefield that are unsustainable. We have no idea what their true desertion rate is but can assume it’s not good in those formations that have taken a beating all summer long.

The most important election since 2001 in continuing despite sporadic attacks in polling sites. In Kabul a suicide bomber detonated inside a polling station in northern neighborhood of Khair Khana killing at least 10 people. The station is inside the upgraded Kabul Ring of Steel which is yet another failure on the part of the Kabul security forces who are being mentored by the Turkish army.

The established narrative is that the US and her allies are going to stay in Afghanistan and continue to train Afghan forces while helping them fight by providing enablers in the form of brigade level operational support, fixed wing close air support and ground to ground rockets. Over time the increasing proficiency of the ANSF’s combined with the casualties being inflicted on the Taliban will force them to realize they cannot win and thus come to the peace talk table.

Here’s a news flash for the credentialed elite who are leading our efforts in Afghanistan: the Taliban already know they cannot win. They don’t have to win, they just need to keep doing what they are doing and that is controlling the population where they can and pressing the government forces in the rest of the country. They don’t have to win to get what they want which is a degree of autonomy in the areas they control and  the areas they control seem to be increasing.

Any hope that the Taliban is going to reach an agreement with the government on anything other then their own terms is fantasy which you can see by their behavior. In 2011 the Taliban opened an office in Qatar to conduct peace talks. The US asked that they not do is use the name of the old Taliban regime in Afghanistan which was the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The day the office opened they put up their sign identifying themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and that is what they are called to this day. Does that sound like a group who are looking for a way out of continued fighting? Of course not and they’re winning anyway so why even bother with negations?

There is a lot going on in Afghanistan and it is being driven by one simple fact: the burn rate for operating the ANSF and the central government is unsustainable.  The aid dollars that run the country are going to dry up soon but our operational strategy for Afghanistan is playing the long game. If we can keep the Afghans in the fight long enough they should, according to historical statistics, prevail.

Eric Prince has been in Afghanistan seeking local support forces plan to introduce contractor trainers down to the battalion level along with contracted air crews and air frames for close air support. President Trump also inserted a powerful player into Kabul in the form of U.S. Special Advisor Zalmay Khaliizad who was the ambassador to Afghanistan when I arrived in Kabul back in 2005.

Zalmay Khalilzad is popular with the Afghan people but I remember him mostly for the introduction of the SNTV election system which is why the elections going on today will be a gigantic mess. I wrote about this in 2011 saying: SNTV stands for single non-transferable vote and it is one way to ensure that opposition political parties cannot be formed or sustained.  Afghanistan went to the SNTV system after some sort of back room deal was cut between Karzai and our ambassador at that time Zalimay Khalizad.  Khalizad is an Afghan-American, fluent in the local languages who served here as Ambassador before being sent to Iraq to be the ambassador in 2005.  He did not last long in Baghdad and is now heading his own consulting agency at a time when an Arabic/Pashto/Dari speaking US Ambassador would be of great use to the administration.

If you want to read some in depth, original reporting on the inherently flawed Afghan election system check out this outstanding piece by Mattieu Aikins.

Kahlizad is not sitting around Kabul waiting for something to do. One would assume he is working closely with the ambassador and General Miller but who knows? He’s a deal maker and problem solver who had been known to go his own way for reasons unknown which is what I think the SNTV incident clearly shows.

I also hear, although I’ve found no verification yet, that China is most interested in assisting the Afghan military with tons of equipment, aircraft, trainers and both combat and combat service support. The combat service support piece is, to be honest, about 10 times more important than contractors advising at the battalion level. And I think having contractors take on that role is a good idea, particularly in the cost effectiveness category.

The Chinese, like Mr. Prince, are also interested in mineral extraction which can only be accomplished with significant infrastructure development that can only be accomplished if people stop blowing things up and shooting at the ANSF.

Unlike Mr. Prince the Chinese are self funding, and there are more of them, but my understanding is there is significant pushback from both the US and India on the matter. Which may not, in the long run, matter because the donor money has already started to dry up and that trend will continue. If the Chinese really want to come into Afghanistan and invest in both security and natural resource development I don’t see a better option.

As long as Secretary Mattis and General Dunford remain in their respective positions both the Prince and Chinese plans are D.O.A.  But both Kahlizad and President Trump are practical men who are not afraid of counter narrative options. The narrative is a product of elite thinking and the billions spent on credentialed elites, both in and outside the government, to think, has not produced in reasonable path forward. What the elites don’t think about is the fact that they have little idea what is happening in Afghanistan  outside the wire of our embassy and military installations. If they could get their brains around that and mitigate it maybe reality and the narrative would come in closer alignment.

But that ain’t happening and I do not believe the elites narrative will survive much more contact with reality.

Eid Cease Fire and a salute to Zee Man and Mullah John Binns

There are some interesting things happening in Afghanistan that could spell an end to our involvement there. What are the chances that our Department of State and Pentagon will capitalize on it? Zero.

CNN story on Taliban coming into the cities during the Mid cease fire

Michael Yon’s Road to Hell dispatch from 2008 featuring Zee

The Road to Hell part II – Michael Yon’s coverage of journalist kidnappings in Kabul 

Spirit of America NGO pays tribute to Zee

Rockefeller Brothers Fund pays tribute to Zee

San Diego Jalalabad Sister Cities Foundation Website 

A True Son of Afghanistan

SSF monitors the Presidential election in 2009 

 

 

Hacking The Afghanistan War

My second podcast is up and as a reminder once I get a few more done I’ll be using a service to get these out as listening podcasts on iTunes and Goggle Play.  Links from the material used for the show are below.

The Merry Pranksters Who Hacked the Afghan War from Pacific Standard

The White Man’s Burden

The most recent quarterly report from SIGAR

Mayday! Britain’s heroic lifeboat volunteers are drowning in a sea of political correctness imposed by former Save the Children executive

This is a Martha Raddatz interview with Dr Dave in which she tours OBL’s old house with the Taj “security team” that consisted of Baba Tim .  I’m not only a one man security detail but also the driver as you can see if you look closely.  The shit I would do without pay or bitching for my buddies ……Despite this interview and the NPR interview we were never able to raise funds.

 

Free Range Starts Podcasting

As Afghanistan fades into the rear view mirror interests in the conflict wanes as does the desire to learn lesson’s that were paid for by the lives of both combatants and innocents. In an attempt to highlight some of the observations I’ve made over the years I’m venturing into the world of podcasting in an effort to determine if I can mimic the success of the masters. Dan Carlin, Daniele Bolelli, Darryl Cooper, Joe Rogan, Jocko Willink and Dave Rubin have excellent podcasts some focused on history some on current events and they are consistently interesting.

This first episode is on the Lone Survivor incident which was an easy one to do because virtually everything people remember about it is false. Once a put up a few more of these my. plan is to your an audio podcast service to get them on iTunes and Goggleplay to see if I can carve out a niche.  Enjoy.

The Jamm Minaret

 

My Panjshir crew and I at the Jamm

Asking the Hard Questions About Afghanistan

Editors Note: This post is worth investing some time to digest. The author, Jake Allen, has an excellent, thought provoking, response to my latest post on Afghanistan. Jake, a former Marine infantry officer and a good friend asks the hard questions on our current efforts in Afghanistan. A mini bio for Jake is located at the end of this post.

Last week’s post by Babatim posed as interesting question “Will Security Sector Assistance Work in Afghanistan?” His observations on the current inadequacies as well as his prescribed solutions was certainly thought-provoking.

Sure, who could argue the merits of and need for basic military leadership and esprit de corps borne of shared commitment and sacrifice at the small unit level. Aligning ANSF with regional tribal leaders (warlords) would most likely be a tactical improvement to the current arrangement which clearly isn’t getting results. And, replacing the NATO military train and assist teams with private contractors, who might be willing to engage in combat, could reduce overall costs, although that’s debatable if, as Babatim suggests, tactical air support and other expensive support would remain part of the package. In any case, on its face, it all seems logical.

However, Babatim’s observations and suggestion, true as they may be, only prompt a much more important set of questions. Like, what would we achieve by changing our tactics this way? A decentralized Afghanistan run by dozens of autonomous regional warlords sounds a lot like Afghanistan in the 1990s. After 15+ years, thousands of KIA/WIA and over $800 billion taxpayer dollars spent is “rebuilding” Afghanistan in the image of its former self now the goal? I’m reminded of Sun Tzu’s admonition that, “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, while tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” After 15 years I think it’s safe to say we are at best on the slow path.

If this were truly a binary choice between using military or private contractors, then I support the later for all the reasons Babatim outlined and for one major one he didn’t. Transitioning to private contractors would help preserve the military’s reputation as they departed the stage. Let’s face it, General after General have devised plans that simply have not achieved lasting results. In truth, I place more blame on our elected civilian leaders and the State Department, but I’ll leave that for another post. In any event, if the military could be seen to be following orders to withdraw while handing the baton to private contractors it would largely give them the top-cover they need to execute a tactical retreat with their dignity intact. If all that ends up costing somebody less money, then so much the better. But question remains, why does that somebody have to be U.S. taxpayers who haven’t even been born yet? Why should future generations of Americans be forced to pay for new tactics, even at a lower price, when no real strategy for Afghanistan exists?

Let’s be clear, for Afghans, duping well-meaning but ignorant foreigners into funding their wars is the national pastime. The artistry and skill of separating foreigners from their money has been passed down from fathers to sons among regional tribal elders and modern-day politicians for millennia. Simply stated, this is what they do.

We should be asking, if these new proposed tactics, aligning ANSF with warlords and privatizing the train and assist missions are so necessary, beneficial and cost-effective why aren’t the warlords themselves willing to make the financial investment? After all, they will effectively be securing their own regional kingdom for future generations.

Or…maybe, just maybe, this is merely the next western tactic the Afghans are willing to go along with since old paleface is willing to pay for it. Sorry, but I’ve heard these shepherds crying wolf too many times before. I’m willing to wager that when the Taliban push these warlords too far they’ll find all the Muj they need without U.S. taxpayer money. As a matter of self-preservation, they’ll literally have the rest of their lives to solve the problem, or not.

Still, if it’s funding they so desperately need to pay the privateers’ invoices, why can’t the Qataris, Emiratis or Saudis pay for it? They have the money, whereas the U.S. doesn’t, and aren’t they equally committed to preventing the spread of Islamic extremism? No, both the Arabs and the Afghans know that only western powers fall for these scams.

If President Trump is the skilled negotiator he claims he should remind our Afghan counterparts and allies that the universe has a natural order. The fittest and most committed tend to survive. So, if it is the case that the Taliban simply have more “want to” when it comes to controling Afghanistan then there’s really nothing money can buy to square that circle. The Taliban’s moral will likely be 3 times greater than anything physical that can be purchased, and the results will be inevitable.

President Trump should tell our so-called Afghan friends that we are OK with that. Remind them that two previous presidential administrations have tried mightily for over 15 years to help the Afghan people and it hasn’t worked. We’re now ready to try something else. As the world’s greatest deal-maker the President should make it clear that the U.S. is open to negotiating with their vanquishers for a while to see if he can get a better deal with for the U.S. I mean, how much worse could that actually be? Probably not a whole lot worse and at least we could use the $45 billion earmarked for Afghanistan in 2018 alone to instead rebuild infrastructure in the U.S. The fact is, the U.S. doesn’t need Afghanistan nearly as much as they need us. We have all the leverage in any negotiation.

But as I said, our choices aren’t, or at least they shouldn’t be. There is a third way forward, and it’s one that has a chance of being successful. President Trump should form a team of advisors to develop an actual tangible goal and strategy to achieve it. The process goes like this:

First Level Questions: What is the end-game? What does “success” even look like? How do we measure incremental progress and ultimate success so that the American people, our Afghan counterparts and not least our enemies know that we’ve achieved our goal(s)? Maybe privateers are the correct means to the end. But WTF is the end? What is the Commander’s (in Chief) Intent and the Final Result Desired (FRD)? If we cannot do this then we shouldn’t stay in Afghanistan.

Next Level Questions: Is that FRD realistic and achievable? Do most of the Afghan people share in the vision? If not, then at best they are a passive terrain feature to navigate around and at worst they are an active force providing aid and comfort to the enemy. For the sake of argument let’s just assume that the FRD is overwhelmingly supported by the Afghans. What then is the estimated cost to the U.S. in terms of blood and treasure to achieve it? How many years, how many lives would we need to commit? How many billions of dollars of debt would we need to incur?

Level 3 Questions: Only after Levels 1 and 2 are complete can we finally ask ourselves: Is the cost to achieve that FRD worth it? What does the US get in return for our investment? If you think turning Afghanistan into a modern society would guarantee the security of our homeland you’re dead wrong. In the past 15 years, while we have been dicking-around chasing ghosts our enemy (Islamic terrorism) adapted and moved on. The enemy no longer requires remote “safe havens” in places like Helmand province to plan attacks on our homeland. And even if they have a few safe havens our current ability to detect and destroy them is light years ahead of where it was in 2001. So, ask yourself, what are we really getting in return for our investment?

But I doubt President Trump will form the committee or if he does they can’t or won’t clearly state a Final Result Desired. Not because the questions above are hard to answer, they aren’t. Rather the answers these questions produce cannot be sold to the American people which means new tactics are just the noise before eventual defeat.

Jake Allen is a co-founder and Managing Partner at the Mozayix International, a leading private security consultancy.  He has more than 15 years experience providing private security services in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Turkey and Ukraine.  Prior to his contracting career he served as an Infantry Officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.