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.

Baghdad Back In The Day

Editors Note: This is there first of a series of reflections that may become a book. I could use some help with this project; if I made a decent start and have hooked you into wanting more, that would be helpful to know. It would also be helpful to know if the hook doesn’t have enough bait. Comments are most welcome – hitting the donation tab is even more most welcome as I have yet to find a publisher interested enough in the project to fund it. I appreciate any and all help I can get with this project.

I had just cracked open the first beer of the afternoon when I heard the rockets coming in. Wise now to the ways of war I stayed in my lawn chair on the deck of what was once a salt water pool where Saddam Hussein’s sons kept crocodiles that were fed with unfortunates who had crossed them. I was too far away from cover to make a run for it and in less time than it took to write this they hit. A thunderclap sounded from the American army camp next door and I watched a plume of dust and leaves shoot upward. The soldiers were up wind of us so the cloud of leaves and dirt started drifting over the wall towards the giant vat of chicken curry the Gurkhas were preparing for my going away party that night.

FOOKING HELL MATES STAND FAST bellowed my 2IC  a short unassuming Welshman who was famous for his undercover work in Ireland.  THAT’S 50 QUID WORTH OF CHICKEN DAMN YOUR EYES COVER THE POT; COVER THE POT QUCIKLY LADS. The 2IC was galloping around the pool to head the Gurkha’s off at the pass as they scrambled for cover. Being a Welsh lad he was slight of stature and appeared malnourished. I had asked him about that once sending him into a 30-minute harangue about the British but I couldn’t understand most of what he said. I gathered he looked malnourished because as a kid he had subsisted on chicken parama and chips which I have since learned was mystery meat hamburgers and french fries.

Our project manager, a Rhodesian (they don’t like to be called Zimbabweans so we called them Zims) who had been in the Sealous Scouts, started yelling at us just as two more rockets hit home; one inside the other American army camp next to us and the other somewhere behind in an apartment complex outside the Green Zone. Those impacts were down wind so I paid them no attention focusing instead tracking the debris field that was heading in slow motion towards our giant pot of curry.

The 2IC had gotten his hands on three of my Gurkha’s including the Gurkha of Rap (his kill number, which were sewn on his uniform, was 123 and he was prone to rapping ‘I’m Gurkha 1,2,3 you better listen to me. If I see the flag black you know I’ll attack…..he couldn’t find a rhythm for kukri so he didn’t get far with his rap but he worked on it constantly) rallying the men back to the bubbling cauldron. They quickly stripped off their uniform jackets and fashioned some sort of web with them that covered most of the pot as the debris field lost momentum in the wind and crashed down onto of the curry cauldron.

GET A FOOKING SIEVE MATE FROM THE FOOKING DFAC the 2IC yelled to no one in particular; the Gurkha of rap sprinted off to the KBR DFAC (the dining facility was abandoned by the Kellogg Brown and Root cooks who deathly afraid of rockets) to find something to get the leaves and dirt out of the cooking pot.

The PM stalked up and started lecturing me in his sharp British schoolboy voice which meant he was pissed.

“Mate your supposed to set the example for the men and yet here you sit in the exact spot the last rocket hit, the one that killed four of your men mind you, as if the threat can be ignored”.

“Boss (that’s me being passive aggressive; Zims don’t like being called boss) I am in the exact spot of the last impact because we both know the Iraqis cannot, in a million years, hit this spot again. It’s math boss and I’m a Uni (college in commonwealth speak) grad who understands math”.

“What math”?

“The chance they can hit the same spot twice with a rocket – it’s a math problem that involves pi or something and when you’re working with pi the numbers you’re working with big numbers right”?

“Mate are you mental”?

“No boss, I just know math. It’s the same thing for lightning striking in the same spot…it just doesn’t happen”

“Mate do you know how many times lightening strikes the same spot on your Empire State building in New York?

“Do I want to”?

“0n average 25 times each year; the record for repeated strikes stands at 8 times in twenty minutes”.

The PM scowled at me and headed back to the CP to get a roll call. I smiled and thought about how much I was going to miss this.

I had been in Baghdad for just five months, entering the fray in the usual way for contractors back then. I had sent out my CV to every security company I could find on the net after watching my best friend in the Marine Corps interviewed on Fox News.  I couldn’t take being out of the game anymore so off I went to touch the elephant.

Two days  after sending my CV out I got a call from London; “Mate do you want to go to Iraq or Afghanistan”? After explaining the Afghan gig was voter registration and the one in Iraq was guarding the American embassy I chose Iraq. That job included arming authority and paid more. “Can you come to London the day after tomorrow mate to sign your contract”? I could and did; six days after sending my CV out to the security world I was in a C-130 that had launched out of Kuwait and was corkscrewing down to slam onto a runway at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport).

There were no customs to clear back then so contractors were met by drivers from their respective companies on the tarmac. My driver was a huge Fijian guy who, like most Fijians, had a perpetual pleasant smile. He grabbed one of my bags and walked me to his SUV where his brother was waiting. The brother (who also had a huge smile) reached into the back seat and came out with an AK 47 and three magazines. “Here you go mate” he said as he handed them over. I took them and looked at the brothers who were watching me like a pair of smiling hawks.

I locked the bolt to the rear, looked down the barrel, felt into the chamber for any excessive grit and ran the action a couple of times. I looked over each magazine for dings or deformaties, stripped a couple of rounds from them to check the tension on the follower springs, loaded them back up, seated one in the rifle, loaded it and put it on safe while placing the other two in my high speed 5.11 vest pockets. The vest was made for this don’t ya know.

The older bother remarked “I think you’re one of the good ones maybe”. I had no idea what he was talking about. He then handed me two M-67 fragmentation grenades telling me they may come in handy. I looked at them saying “you’ve got to be shitting me” which made them smile even more. I took the grenades, checked to make sure the thumb safeties were attached and the pins secure; both the spoons were taped down so I took that off before  putting them in my cargo pockets. The brothers looked at each other and nodded. I was sure the reason for handing me the grenades had little to do with an actual threat but I wanted to be ready just in case.

We mounted up and started on my first of many trips down route Irish; at the time the most dangerous road in the world. We did not have armored vehicles on this contract so the driver had his window down and a Browning pistol in his left hand. His brother had his window down with an AK pointing outboard. I put both the back-seat windows down so I could cover both sides of the vehicle. I asked why we didn’t have brand new armored SUV’s like the other companies had ; the younger brother turned to face me, “they’re target’s mate, death traps and you should never roll in one if you can avoid it.

Once past the security check point the driver put the throttle down and did not let it up until we entered the Green Zone.  I had  passed my first test by not being a whanker and knowing how to load an AK 47. Standards were not high in the industry back then.

The contract called for third country national guards (in our case Gurkha’s from Nepal; most of whom were not really Gurkha’s) and supervisors who could be American or Commonwealth citizens. We had Canadian’s, Brits, Welshmen (who claim not to be Brits) a couple of Irish guys but mostly the expats were South Africans and Rhodesians. I was one of two Americans.

The South Africans ran the show and they are an impressive lot. On my first morning a couple of them took me to the public affairs area to introduce me to two guys he said were retired Marines. This was my second test; they had several previous new joins who claimed to be prior American military but were so clueless about things military they were run off as frauds.

When we arrived at the PA shop it turned out one of the two retired Marines was my first rifle company commander. I had been a good infantry lieutenant; my old CO was excited to see me, I was in like flint. He had already told the SA guys about requesting a DD-214 from former American military but the Brits running the show would have none of it. Getting bodies on the contract was how they got paid and they didn’t want to slow their process down for a second.

Last night in Baghdad

Doing a good job on the Baghdad American Embassy contract was not difficult. The supervisors supervised or trained; the posts were manned by our Nepalese who had an internal chain of command that did all the detailed work of watch rosters and shift rotations. We had cell phones issued to us with US numbers (NYC area code) that allowed friends and family to call without incurring overseas charges. We had a large armory with weapons that had been gathered up by the military the year prior where I found a H&K G3 (7.62 x 51mm) with a folding stock. The markings indicated it had once belonged to the Pakistani army; how it got to Iraq was a mystery.

Having an American cell phone number was great fun because we’d often get unexpected calls from the states. I was on the range one Friday morning when my friend ‘The Big Guy’ called. We had been instructors at Front Sight, a firearms training center outside of Las Vegas. It was Thursday evening in the US so I knew he had probably been drinking before deciding to give me a call. I signaled the guys on the range pointing to the cell and telling them it was my buddy from the States and he’s on the piss. They moved in close and started cranking off rounds and yelling as I connected the call on speaker mode.

Me sounding tense “Lynch”

B.G. “ Hey man….what the hell is going on”… instant concern in his voice.

“… a little busy here brother hold on” I put the phone on a bench and cranked off 3 or 4 rounds yelling “somebody shoot that prick…I’m on the phone damnit”. I picked the cell up and said in a calm voice “Hey brother, little bit of an issue here but how’s it going back home”?

B.G. clearly upset “what’s happening Tim…holy shit are you Ok”?

Me “Of course brother….hold on a sec..” I dropped the cell and all of us started shooting and yelling as if we were repelling a human wave attack in Korea circa 1951. After shooting our magazines dry I picked up the cell. “We’re Ok Big Guy how are things in Vegas”?

But he wasn’t on the line, his wife was and she was pissed. “What are doing Lynch, where the hell are you”?

“We’re at the range  and um…..just having a laugh because ummm….”.

“You’ve got the big guy crying for Christ sakes Lynch, why would you do that to him? He’s been scared to death for you and you think it’s funny to do this to him?”

“Bonnie, love, we’re guys…this is what we do to each other when we care”.

“Bullshit Tim (at least she called me Tim) that’s it, you’re on a 2-week time out and the next time the Big Guy calls you’d better not even think about pulling another stunt like this”.

We were rolling; laughing so hard it hurt but I felt bad…for about 3 seconds. The Big Guy didn’t call again until Thanksgiving Day; I was walking out of the DFAC and as I connected the call a 122mm rocket slammed into our camp knocking me on my ass. We took casualties, lots of them, so I went into rescue mode and left the cell in the dirt where I dropped it. The State Department soon turned them all off anyway after the costs they had racked up made national headlines. I sent the Big Guy an email telling him I was OK and attaching one the the news reports about the rocket attack. Mrs Big Guy still put me on a year long time out.

Around this time (the end of 2004) being outside the Green Zone became problematic for expats so our project manager put together a team to start bringing folks inside the wire. The various entities; engineering firms, other security companies, our companies country team, NGO’s etc…. couldn’t pay us for the service but the PM knew how to barter. Our armory grew, our ammo stockpiles grew, we accumulated ample stores of free booze and beer and the Nepalese were never without a goat to butcher up for curry.  Some things are better than money in a combat zone.

While doing this work with the South Africans and Zims I learned a valuable lesson on how to work in a hostile environment while avoiding the stupidity of an avoidable gun fight.  At some point in every move we would  run into a massive traffic jam. As soon as we stopped moving shooters would dismount to create a buffer zone, free of unknown pedestrians, fore and aft of our vehicles. The first time I did that I was paired with a South African named Jerri who was one of the more experienced (I learned later famous) former 32 Commando veterans.

We exited our vehicle moving onto a packed sidewalk, Jerry looked at me and said “lose the body armor mate you look like a Robo Cop, take a spare mag and put it in your back pocket”. I did as requested and walked back to the side walk. Jerry said “now smile man; In South Africa we always say be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them”.

I shot back “you don’t say that, General Mattis says that… why are stealing lines from my favorite Marine Corps General”? He replied they had always said that in South Africa and the line was stolen from them which I wouldn’t accept so we started arguing.

But we were laughing too which was the point and Jerri said in a low voice “see all the people smiling at us mate? They’re relaxing because we have big guns but don’t seem inclined to use them. Smile, keep talking to me and relax, confidence is a language all humans understand got it”?

It was true, the people walking down the street towards us smiled when they saw us teasing each other an laughing. “What are you looking for” I asked Jerri who never really looked at me when he turned his head to talk; he was obviously concentrating on what was showing up in his peripheral vision.

“We’re looking for any chap who glares at us mate”.

“What do we do then”? I was laughing still while asking this.

“I walk up and glare back, you cover our back; the lads will see us and reinforce if we need them and our glaring asshole Iraqi friend can lose face by backing down or go to guns. Makes no difference to me mate”.

“Remember this Timothy (they called me that to annoy me or when they were dead serious…just like my Mom) they have to make the first move. It’s bad for morale if you shoot a civilian who didn’t have it coming. Your General Mattis teach you that mate”?

The sidewalk was crowded, the people seemed amused at the two infidels who were teasing each other and laughing. Nobody gave us the stink eye that day or any day we were in the red zone walking our vehicles through a traffic jam.

Just after Christmas the PM told me that I’d be heading to Kabul to stand up the US Embassy security guard contract there. I would spend eight years in Afghanistan traveling to every province in the country. When Route Irish lost it’s designation as the most dangerous road in the world it was replaced by the Kabul to Jalalabad road;  I drove on it  several times a month for years, often alone. The lessons learned in Baghdad would serve me well in the years to come.

Will Security Sector Assistance Work in Afghanistan?

The Taliban has been busy reminding the United States and her allies in Afghanistan that the moral is to the physical as three is to one. They have done this by side stepping our Security Sector Assistance (SSA) efforts in the Helmand and Nangarhar provinces by hitting the Afghan state where it is weak. Launching two large attacks inside the ‘Ring of Steel’ of Kabul (attacking the Intercontinental Hotel and the checkpoint outside the old Ministry of the Interior) and hitting a western NGO (Save the Children) in Jalalabad, the capitol of Nangarhar province.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report last September revealing that 60% of the funds expended since 2002, some 70 Billion dollars, were spent on developing Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF). In this report he listed several reasons why our efforts have borne little fruit.

The U.S. government was ill-prepared to conduct SSA programs of the size and scope required in Afghanistan. The lack of commonly understood interagency terms, concepts, and models for SSA undermined communication and coordination, damaged trust, intensified frictions, and contributed to initial gross under-resourcing of the U.S. effort to develop the ANDSF.

Initial U.S. plans for Afghanistan focused solely on U.S. military operations and did not include the construction of an Afghan army, police, or supporting ministerial-level institutions.

Early U.S. partnerships with independent militias—intended to advance U.S. counterterrorism objectives—ultimately undermined the creation and role of the ANA and Afghan National Police (ANP).

Critical ANDSF capabilities, including aviation, intelligence, force management, and special forces, were not included in early U.S., Afghan, and NATO force-design plans

Providing advanced Western weapons and management systems to a largely lliterate and uneducated force without appropriate training and institutional infrastructure created long-term dependencies, required increased U.S. scale support, and extended sustainability timelines. 

To answer some of these shortfalls the US Army is developing Security Force Assistance Brigades (SFAB) that will be tailored to the mission and free up brigade combat teams. This idea, based on sound theory, will not work in practice. It won’t work for the same reasons it’s not working now; limited dwell time in country, high turnover of key personnel and the unwillingness to partner with host nation military units in combat.

Mentoring host nation military units does not take special classes on cultural awareness (although these help) or dedicated personnel; it takes the commitment to go into battle. It also takes sharing the same misery your local soldiers experience while demonstrating the leadership, tenacity and discipline required to prevail in the counterinsurgency fight.

As I pointed out in this post we know how to do it. Our problem is that we are too big and too complex organizationally to reinforce the limited success in the SSA mission we have achieved on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Former Marine and current Undersecretary of Defense Owen West wrote a book on how his team, and the ones that preceded him, did it in Iraq. American Spartan was another great book about a superb SF officer named Jim Gant who also broke the code on how to mentor in Afghanistan although he was not in the SAA role when he did it.

The Gant experience is important when dealing specifically with Afghanistan. As noted in the SIGAR report the central weakness of our Afghan assistance mission has been the inability of the central government to eliminate corruption and develop the efficiency needed to equip and maintain a professional military force. Jim Gant went into the most kinetic province of Afghanistan (Kunar) and stabilized a good portion of it by training up and directly supporting tribal militias. He accepted the reality that the central government will never control or be accepted by the hill Pashtuns living in the Hindu Kush.

The government in Kabul was established by and is currently maintained by the might of the American military (and her allies). We are westerners, we are not Muslims, we are attempting to create a system that is not organic to the people or region. It will not work.

The original Taskforce Southwest, with BGen Roger Turner at the helm has turned over with a new task force headed up by BGen Ben Watson. Turners Marines, who stayed inside the wire while mentoring ANSF, helped drive the incident rate down in Helmand province. They accomplished their mission and have brought some time and space for the Afghan army and national police. The big T Taliban have responded by hitting the Afghan government where its weak and where it hurts; inside the Ring of Steel in downtown Kabul. This is classical insurgent tactics; where the government  is strong they are weak; where the government is weak they attack.

We have spent 70 Billion and counting to stabilize a country that is so unstable that our own diplomats and military cannot drive 2 miles from the international airport in Kabul to our own embassy. And it’s straight shot, down one road.

The center of gravity for both the Taliban and the central government is the people of Afghanistan. The SIGAR report identified our early partnership with militias as having undermined the creation and role of the ANA and National Police. This may be true but it is also irrelevant. Ignoring the powerful regional warlords while trying to marginalize them has consistently failed.

The current hit film, 12 Strong, portrays two of them, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Muhammad Nur. Dostum was given a place in the central government by Karzai (Deputy Minister of Defense) and is currently the First Vice President of Afghanistan. Both positions were designed to sideline him and he has spent years in Turkey to avoid prosecution for killing political rivals and the Dash-i-Leili massacre of 2000 Taliban in 2001. Atta Muhammad Nur has been the governor of Balkh province sine 2004. In 2014 the current president fired all 34 provincial governors but Nur has refused to leave office and remains there to this day.

Both Nur and Dostum can raise and field thousands of Mujahideen. They may not be the type of leaders we would like to deal with but we are already dealing with and supporting them in official capacities that limit them and that’s not helping us. I wrote here about Ismail Khan who controls the western city of Herat and why it would be a good idea to bring his Muj into the fight. There is also Abdul Karim Brahui, former governor of Nimroz province and one of the warlords who was effective against the Soviets and Taliban and has never been accused of human rights violations. That’s just four of the dozens of local leaders who could raise Muj forces.

Trying to explain how the USG works to Governor Brahui in 2011

If the Afghan central government is not going to work (and it isn’t) then the only way forward is to incorporate ANSF units with the forces of regional warlords. The warlords bring a sizable chunk of the population with them; it’s that simple. The people are the prize and the central government doesn’t represent the people, regional warlords do because in Afghanistan that’s the way it is.

The US military could have worked wonders embedding with these warlords like they did in 2001 but that window has closed. The only rational way forward is to incorporate Mujahideen into the fight against the Taliban by using contractors for liaison and access to American enablers (Tac Air, Drone feeds, Artillery etc..). These contractors need to be already known to and accepted by the warlords (that pool of men is larger than most would suspect).

I emphasize rational because rational people care about how expensive things are and the US Armed Forces are too damn expensive. Check this article out about the new SF Battle Buggies. Contractors don’t need million dollar battle buggies – they’ll use the same beat up Toyota Hi-Lux trucks the Muj are using. We’re a cheap date and yes this argument is self serving; limit the selection pool to guys who are known and accepted by warlords and I’m back in the game (inshallah).

These are nice and I’m all for giving the men serving the best protection we have but it’s damn expensive. Contractors don’t need them…we’ll take the big paycheck (and adventure) instead.

I know my assessment and recommendations will fall on deaf ears just as the SIGAR report from last September did. That’s too bad because we’re still spending a fortune on a failed strategy. We’re still losing servicemen too because the Army is sending advisors into combat with the Afghans in Nangarhar province while the Marines are not doing that in Helmand province. If we had a competent press corps that would the story they would be out to answer. But that’s not going to happen so ‘we the people’ have little idea what exactly is happening with the cash were expending and troops we are sending to Afghanistan.

That’s a shame too because we made promises to the Afghans that we are not keeping. The inability to keep your promises is bad for individuals (see Jordan Peterson’s excellent 12 Rules for Life for a detailed explanation why) and bad for countries too.

Kill Shot – The Narrative Takes Two to the Chest

Last week Professor Jordan Peterson sat for a 30 minute live interview with journalist Cathy Newman on the BBC’s Chanel 4. The results were a stunning unmasking of the liberal narrative that dominates western culture today. It was the most important debate of my generation unmasking the hubris and fallacy of the left by a calm, collected, brilliant professor speaking substantive truth to privileged, dishonest power (hat tip to Paul Weston for the cleaver phrase).

If you are not one of the over 3 million people who have watched this interview on YouTube take the time to watch it now. It is remarkable.

Cathy Newman entered this debate without any idea on why Professor Peterson burst onto the YouTube scene just over a year ago. She expected to win this debate with the weak strengths of rhetoric and sophistry.  That is how the left always wins but winning has made them soft so she was unprepared for a concentrated dose of reality.

She walked into a buzzsaw of undeniable truth laid out by a man who has spent years thinking deeply about human motivations and interactions. Every time she tried to reframe a comment with one of her straw-men talking points Professor Peterson would respond with an argument she could not refute and, due to her liberal bias, could not accept. It is a beautiful thing to watch.

Here’a the Kill Shot:

Newman: Is gender equality desirable?

Peterson: “If you mean equality of outcome than almost certainly it’s undesirable…Men and women won’t sort themselves out into the same categories if you leave them alone to do it on their own accord. We’ve seen that in Scandinavia, it’s 20 to 1 female nurses to male nurses…and approximately the same male engineers to female engineers and that’s the consequences of free choice by men and women in the societies that have gone farther than any other societies to make to make gender equality the purpose of the law. Those are ineradicable differences. You can eradicate them with tremendous social pressure and tyranny but if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcomes.”

This answers, once and for all, both the how and why behind forcing women onto the infantry.

It is not bias against or animus for women that drives my insistence that they are unsuited for the role of direct combatant. It is love for and the respect of the role of women in society that makes the insanity of placing them in the infantry unpalatable. It is also love of and respect for the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) combined with (for men like myself) an intimate understanding of the physical, emotional and psychological toll infantry combat exacts on humans that makes the idea of subjecting women to the role abhorrent.

Think back to the senate confirmations of Secretary Jim Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joe Dunford. Do you remember the questioning from the distaff side of the chamber? Do you remember the concern of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand about the possibility of Secretary Mattis rolling back the recent policies forcing women onto the combat arms ? That was rhetoric and sophistry in action. It was the demand, by a clueless political class, for equal outcomes.

The Marine Corps, like all the branches of the armed forces, is helpless against the diktats of our ruling elites. They can’t sit down and spend 30 minutes dismantling liberal dogma on live TV. They fought back against Ash Carter and the idiot Ray Mabus the only way they could, by launching a detailed experiment on the performance of mixed gender infantry units. The results were unequivocal; mixed gender units performed poorly, women Marines were unable to meet the physical demands of infantry combat. Even if they could hack it the critical topic of how infantry Marines socialize to develop the cohesion required to sustain themselves in combat was ignored.

Yet our political elites, using the blunt tools of rhetoric and sophistry, ignored the Marines findings. They chose to use tyranny to force their preferences on the military because there have been no consequences (at least ones visible to us) from their contemptuous treatment of Marine leaders and ignorance of historical precedents. That has all changed now. Every day a million more people watch the video linked above. Every day dozens of YouTubers critique this remarkable debate and they are uniform in their admiration for the remarkable Jordan Peterson.

This is what a kill shot looks like on the internet

The media minders of the narrative reacted to this devastating defeat exactly as one would suspect. The rolled out the victim card claiming, without any evidence whatsoever, that Cathy Newman had been subjected to such ‘vicious misogynistic abuse and nastiness,’ that Channel 4  hired a “security specialist” to “review the threats”.  A careful analysis of twitter comments by the blogger hequal showed the following:

Non-sexist violence aimed at Newman or her supporters: 2

Sexist violence aimed at Newman or her supporters: 0

Non-sexist violence aimed at Peterson or his supporters: 8

Sexist violence aimed at Peterson or his supporters: 55

As media critic Stephen Knight pointed out “these findings raise some inconvenient questions for those who like to play victimhood Olympics in order to detract from genuine criticism”.

Will this debate change the trajectory of the politically correct dogma which infuses our political class? It might but that could be little more than wishful thinking on my part. I can accurately predict what will put a nail in the ‘women in the infantry’ coffin. A real shooting war with a near peer adversary. And history tells us those kinds of events happen when you least expect them to.