Synergy Strike Force

I was doing some research for a writing project and came upon this description of one of the Synergy Strike Force operations buried in a post about the fighting in Marjah. My friends Dave Warner and Baba Ken were a near constant presence at the Taj over the years I was there and for a few after I moved to the Helmand. They did a metric ton of really cool operations and sponsored some of the most interesting folks to ever visit the Taj; Jenn Gold, Rachel Robb, Mullah Todd Huffman and Kate Ludicrum come immediately to mind. I extracted this from the post and am putting it up again because what these folks accomplished (often on their own dime) was remarkable.

Dave and Ken showed up the night after the UN had cleared out of the Taj and said "Don't worry about a thing Tim san...we are going to have the times of our lives here".
Dave and Ken showed up the night after the UN had cleared out of the Taj and said “Don’t worry about a thing Tim san…we are going to have the times of our lives here”. They were correct about that and were a big part of why I loved living in Jalalabad.
the-girls-are-back
Jenn and Rachel and one of their Bollywood friends
Kate Ludicrum doing computer training for local school girls
Kate Ludicrum doing computer training with local school girls
Todd Huffman shopping in the Jalalabad bazaar
Todd Huffman shopping in the Jalalabad bazaar

Dr. Dave Warner from the Synergy Strike Force, which is loosely affiliated with the San Diego – Jalalabad Sister City foundation, itself loosely affiliated with the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club (I am not making this up) has been working the sharing issue with the National Geospacial Agency (NGA) for the past four years. The goal was access for a collation of Stability Operations partners to NGA imagery data. The problem turned out to be not classification but intellectual property rights. The commercial imagery provider had a “next view” licensing agreement with NGA which restricted distribution of the product to official users only. Defining “official users” is always a very complicated endeavor for any U S Government (USG) agency. Here is the thing about large bureaucracies – they are run by motivated people and motivated people easily recognize impediments to mission accomplishment. The NGA is staffed by professionals who take their jobs seriously, and Dr. Dave’s efforts had illustrated that their procedures were adversely affecting their mission of supporting America’s efforts in Afghanistan. The NGA management started to chip away at the licensing agreement because they had already paid a king’s ransom for the data and knew they should be able to distribute it as they saw fit.

Little Barabad in a 2008
Little Barabad in a shot taken sometime in 2008
The Synergy Strike Force water weel at Little Barabad village
The Synergy Strike Force water well at Little Barabad village today. See the rock fence outline below the well?   That is an indication of village growth which we attribute to the well.

NGA now has a site called DigitalGlobe RDOG Phase II which ISAF coalition implementation partners can access; write to them here to request imagery assistance. These products are provided to qualified agencies free of charge.

Zone 5 of Jalalabad City in 2007
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City in 2004
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City last month
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City last month

This is White Intelligence which has a limited but useful role in Stability Ops. Check out the results of a poorly designed retaining wall/canal intake project on the Kunar River which has caused serious farm land erosion in the Bishud District of Nangarhar Province.

Shot of the area where the Kunar and Kabul rivers join in 2004
Shot of the area where the Kunar and Kabul rivers join in 2004
A screen shot of the same area last month. Note how much land has been lost to river encroachment
A screen shot of the same area last month. Note how much land has been lost to river encroachment

It is good to see success stories from large USG agencies like the National Geospacial Agency who pushed the envelope to provide critical support without spending an extra dime of taxpayer money. That is the kind of mission focused production us taxpayers love to see. The products NGA provides can clearly provide a lot of help in remote or contested areas.

All Marine Radio

All Marine Radio has been on the air for two weeks now and has some cool content. Mike McNamara does three hours a day with a guest on for an hour at a time. Last week he had both myself and Brigadier General David Furness, USMC on for an hour each and although Dave and Mac strayed into subjects I didn’t want to hear about (like Marine Corps Aviation) I’m glad I listened. More importantly I’m proud of my friends Mike McNamara and David Furness for doing one of the best, most informative hours of radio I have ever heard. That level praise means something so I encourage you to take the time to listen to two of the best professionals you’ll ever hear doing radio the way it is supposed to be done.

Dave-Mike-and-Me
Baba Tim, BGen Dave Furness and Maj Mike ‘Mac” McNamara at Camp Dwyer in 2010

 

Mike did a great hour with me too mostly because he’s an excellent host who knows how to guide an interview. The hour he did with General John Allen, USMC (Ret) and the Commandant, General Robert B. Neller, USMC were exceptional radio. Bookmark this link, download these podcasts and when you have some time to spare take a listen; you’ll be glad you did.

CMC Interview

General John Allen

Brigadier General David Furness*

Tim Lynch

*Free Range International selection for best hour of radio in the 2016 ‘shit you didn’t know’ category.

The Inchon Dwyer Group Goes Live

The Inchon Dwyer Group went live today with the All Marine Radio component of the All Warrior Radio Network up and running at allmarineradio.com. Back in 2010 I had a chance to visit the 1st Marines (call sign Inchon) at Camp Dwyer and wrote about my good friend Mike ‘Mac” McNamara and the 1st Marines CO, Col (now BGen)  Dave Furness. Mac is the founder, CEO and driving force behind the Inchon Dwyer Group which has big plans to mobilize the veteran community to effectivly address mental health issues.  At 1100 EDT today (1 June 2016) All Marine Radio will be broadcasting their first interview featuring the Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert B Neller, USMC. Hit the link above and give it a listen and also take the time to watch Mac’s YouTube video explaining the mission of The Inchon Dwyer Group…you’ll be hearing a lot about them in the future. 

Inchon is the call sign for the 1st Marine Regiment – currently deployed in southern region of the Helmand Province as Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1).  They are  operating out of a large FOB in the middle of the Dasht-e Margo (Deseret of Death) about 50 kilometers from the Provincial capitol of Lashkar Gah, named Camp Dwyer.  Unlike other FOB’s I’ve visited this massive base has lots of room but very few people. The Marines don’t like FOB’s much and having (by design) a lean tooth to tail ratio (trigger pullers to support personnel) this is what one would expect to see.

Camp Dwyer was carved out of the desert last year. Spartan, functional, isolated, and full of Marines who would consider themselves cursed if they had been left in the rear with the gear
Camp Dwyer was carved out of the desert last year. Spartan, functional, isolated, and full of Marines who would consider themselves cursed if they had been left in the rear with the gear

RCT 1 is commanded by another close friend of mine Colonel Dave Furness, USMC, of Columbus, Ohio. Like my friends featured in previous posts, Colonel Paul Kennedy USMC and Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Kenny USMC, Dave was on the staff of the Marine Corps Infantry Officer course with me back in the early 90’s. The four of us also commanded recruiting stations in the late 90’s (the Marines take recruiting seriously) and as is often the case in the Corps we would bump into each other in places like Okinawa, Korea or Thailand when assigned to Fleet Marine Force infantry units.

When I arrived at the RCT 1 headquarters building I was shown into a large office where Dave was waiting with a warm smile, big bear hug and man was he a sight for sore eyes. We sat down and Dave started reading me in on his view of the operational situation he’s dealing with in the Southern Helmand. I started taking  notes:

“Timmy planting guys in the ground is easy, I don’t even worry about that, leaving it to the Battalion Commanders. You know what I worry about? The time horizon. That’s my problem because it impacts my grunts and I’m the only guy in this lash-up who can effect it. The main problem we face here is that the poppy has a value added chain. A farmer is given the seed, he is given the fertilizer – poppy doesn’t take much water or care while growing – and at harvest time he is given guys who score the flowers and collect the dope. At the end of the season he is given a portion of the harvest to sell or barter. The dope is then moved, processed and smuggled out of the country. Poppy has a well established added value chain which provides employment for lots of people while making life easy for the farmer. It costs him little to grow and doesn’t take much work. We want to sell him seed and fertilizer for a crop which is difficult to grow and much more susceptible to failure due to bad weather, floods and insects. We want him to harvest it and want him to take it to market and sell it. There are no value added processes to employ other people. There is no cold storage, no food processing plants, no grain elevators, no good roads, and no teamsters to truck produce using economies of scale.  What would you do if you were a farmer in southern Helmand?”

Readers who have been following the Afghan campaign over the years must be depressed at hearing this. What Dave identified as the problem is exactly what military and development experts identified as the problem nine years ago.

Dawn Patrol -Dave, "The Coach" Mike McNamara - who was also on the staff of IOC back in the 90s. Dave was heading to Marjah for meetings and to spend time with his Marines at the pointed end of the spear
Dawn Patrol: Dave, “The Coach” Mike McNamara – who was also on the staff of IOC back in the 90s and me. Dave was heading to Marjah for meetings and to spend time with his Marines at the pointed end of the spear.  Is it me or do Colonels look a lot younger then they did back in the day?

We talked about why, after so long, we’re still talking about the problem instead of fixing it but I don’t want to get my buddies in hot water for bitching about how difficult it is to do what should be easy so I’ll move on to something I also found interesting – the time horizon. Like every other commander in theater Dave is frustrated to the point of insubordination with how slow we are at funding and executing projects. More from Colonel Furness:

“I’m not doing much clearing; the 7th Marines (who rotated home a few weeks ago) did all the clearing. Paul (who commands RCT 2 in Delaram) is fighting like a lion up north right now but we’re pretty much policing up small cells of die-hards which isn’t that hard. Marjah is still active but as we expand out of the district center we’re getting that under control. I’m still losing guys, I still take KIA’s and I have had several Marines lose limbs. I hate that, hate seeing my guys get hit but we’re dishing out more than the bad guys can take so the kinetics will die down. What I want for my Marines is a reasonable time horizon for reconstruction projects so they can see the fruits of their sacrifice.  I can do the paperwork for 40 or 50 projects which I know will create the value chain needed to beat the poppy and there is no chance that me or my Marines will see any of it done, or even started, even if they get approved and “fast tracked.” My guys are patrolling three times a day, eating Mr. E’s or local chow, they sleep on the deck in the dirt and I want them to see why they are doing this. We like the Afghans; every one of them we talk to asks for two things: all weather roads and schools for their kids. They know they are doomed to a lifetime of hard labor with no chance at upward mobility because they are illiterate, so they want a better life for their children. My Marines who are out there living in the dirt and heat and filth with them want the same thing. But I can’t build schools with my CERP funds, nor can I hire teachers with my CERP funds and working through the regional contracting command to program money for those things is like pulling a diamond out of a goat’s ass. It is just doesn’t happen.”

I wanted to talk war but the warrior wanted to talk value added chains and time horizons. “We’ll talk about that later in detail with the staff, I have a treat for you, lets go see Mac.” I had not seen Mac since 1994 and had no idea he was deployed here with Dave.

Mactalk
Mactalk on KNOX News Talk 1310. in Grand Forks North Dakota

Major Mike McNamara USMCR, left active duty in the late 90’s, moving his family to North Dakota where he has a regular job, coaches the high school baseball team (his Dad managed the Boston Red Socks) serves on the city council and has his own radio show. Mactalk has got to be among the most entertaining radio shows in the nation. Mac is one of the smartest, funniest people I have ever met. That’s saying something too – Jeff Kenny is so funny that The Bot couldn’t eat chow around him. Jeff would come up with totally bizarre observations that were so funny Shem would have soda coming out of his nose or start choking on his food he was laughing so hard. Mike doesn’t drill with the reserves and only puts on the uniform when his friends ask him to come run their Combat Operations Center (COC) when they go to war. This is the third time he has been called and it is also the third time a general officer has had to tell the manpower weenies at HQMC to shut up, activate McNamara and send him overseas without delay. Mike will never be promoted past the rank of Major and couldn’t care less – when his buddies call he drops what he’s doing and comes overseas for a year at a time.  Every time.

Mike was set up in the COC like a grand pasha with several computer screens and a few log books arrayed in a semi circle in front of him. He was in the process of planting some guys into the ground who had been foolish enough to start sniping at a Marine patrol. We watched the feed from a Reaper who was loitering about 2o,ooo feet above the doomed Taliban – it was invisible, inaudible, and alert.  The Reaper was hanging Hellfires on its weapon pylons and as we watched it sent one screaming towards four villains when they huddled together next to a wall out of sight of the Marines they had just attacked.

The Hellfire is a supersonic missile but when it makes its final course correction just prior to hitting target it slows to subsonic speed. The sonic boom gets ahead of it so that the targets hear it about 1.5 seconds before it strikes.  Sure enough three of the four look straight up at the sound while the fourth immediately started running like an Olympic sprinter. A bright flash and the three Lookie Lous’ disappear – the sprinter starts to stagger clearly wounded. Within the hour he would be joining us at Camp Dwyer where he received  state of the art medical care and will be kept in the base hospital until well enough to be turned over to the Afghan Army.

The Hellfire is pinpoint accurate with a limited ECR (effective casualty radius).  Designed to kill enemy armor the military has discovered it is the perfect weapon to shoot at human targets because they can take out guys leaning against a wall without any damage to the wall or people standing just a few feet away.

Nobody is safe from catching a ration of good humored ribbing when The Coach is in the room.
Nobody is safe from catching a ration of crap when Mac is in the room.

The morning news feed contained this story: yet another front line dispatch about restrictive rules of engagement. Which was most timely because I asked Mac about that yesterday and I give him the last word.

“This is “smart guy” war dummies get people killed here just like they did in al Anbar Province (Iraq).  The current ROE emphasizes the preservation of civilian life except in extreme cases which is fundamental to winning the civilian population and also fundamental to “winning the peace.”  Anybody who doesn’t understand this is either stupid or inexperienced in this business.   When our Marines are in contact near structures or civilians and ask us for supporting fires we ask   “are you unable to maneuver?”  Answer: “…wait one… then you get “…we’re good, we can still maneuver…”

Even though it’s harder you restrain your firepower allowing the ground force to work the problem while we get attack helicopters, or jets or drones into a position to use precision weapons is how you keep the pressure on miscreants until you can whack them.  This is smart guy war from squad to RCT (Regimental Combat Team) level.

We also use our air assets to do “show of force” runs in order to suppress accurate small arms fire and that works too.   There are creative non-kinetic things you can do before you have to drop the hammer. Our Marines are great at exercising restraint; it’s amazing to me to see them work each day.

My take on those who bitch is that they haven’t studied the ROE close enough to learn the “in’s and out’s”. We run rotatory and fixed wing CAS (close air support) multiple times every day. We understand killing civilians sets the effort back in a huge way… especially when we are beginning to see so many positive signs in the AO. BUT, we know we can protect our Marines and we do. Smart guy war is harder, it demands more from both the Marines in contact and my guys who are just itching to unload ordnance on the bad guys.

I’ll tell you what’s tough and that’s the days after we have had our own killed or badly wounded. Those days are the most challenging in terms of restraint. When we’re evaluating targets on those days you can feel the vibe in the room is different. That’s when the adults have to show up and keep things solid. It’s not easy and it’s not fun but that’s what we’re paid to do; be the adults.”

Hotel California Naw Zad Edition

Facebook sent me a reminder about a post that went up 5 years ago and asked it I wanted to re-post it. I did then went to read and realized it was probably one of the better more prescient posts I ever wrote so here it is….back on the front page of FRI exactly 5 years after first being published.  It even has click bait if the form of two of must attractive and gutsy Free Ranges in the land. But the video at the end is disturbing …… those kids are fighting age now.

I ended my last post with an observation about the importance of how wars end. I was assuming we started bombing Libya with the intention of using the military to achieve an appropriate political endstate (because that’s how this is supposed to work).  But that isn’t what we are doing in Libya….I’m not sure what we are doing but it has nothing to do with an acceptable political endstate. It appears we’re bombing Libya because Obama feels we need to bomb Libya which brings up the question of where the are the Joint Chiefs? I know where they are….their where their predecessors were as documented in the excellent book Dereliction of Duty. Obsequious is not a word that should be applied (ever) to senior general officers but there it is.

I’m all for killing Col Gadhafi because he killed Americans; a lot of them in Berlin and over the skies of Lockerbie Scotland. I don’t expect Obama to come up with a rational plan but for some strange reason assumed the NSC and Pentagon had a plan that made sense in the context of our national strategy. The NSC is now headed by a political appointee with no previous military or national security experience named Tom Donilon. There is the near universal confusion about what the American military’s mission in Libya is. Who is calling the shots on deploying military assets? What is the end game? Meanwhile the Pentagon is focusing on the things that really matter: force feeding acceptance of openly gay service members and retro fitting submarines to accommodate female sailors.

Mark Styen has done the heavy lifting on this issue with an excellent assessment that ends:

But lost along the way is hard-headed, strategic calculation of the national interest. “They won’t come back till it’s over/Over there!” sang George M. Cohan as the doughboys marched off in 1917. It was all over 20 minutes later, and then they came back. Now it’s never over over there not in Korea, not in Kuwait, not in Kosovo, not in Kandahar. Next stop Kufra? America has swapped The Art Of War for the Hotel California: We psychologically check out, but we never leave.

I must add this gem which, as the Bot is my witness, is an almost exact replica of conversations I had over and over during the summer of 2008 with liberal USAID contractors at the Tiki Bar.  Obama has turned out to be worse than my worst summer 2008 nightmare. It is no longer funny (but the clip below is).

The ongoing revolts in Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yeman are important to American interests but you need to know something about the region to understand that. That type of specialist knowledge is hard to come by in Saul Alinsky seminars, Reverend Wrights church sermons or the Harvard Law School.

While on holiday I saw this article on an airstrike targeting a Taliban commander that ended up killing civilians.  The article also helpfully points out that nine kids were killed in the Pech Valley earlier in the month which prompted harsh condemnation  from President Karzai.

I’m not so sure about what the deal was with the Pech Valley airstrike except to point out that I know a few of the attack helicopter pilots based out of Jalalabad and they know every stinking inch of the Pech Valley. I doubt the veracity of the report and will address that in a minute because this story linked above about Naw Zad has my attention. There is no way this bombing went down as reported. Here is why I can say that with near total certainty without knowing a thing about what went on with this strike.

The unit that was on the ground in Naw Zad  (1st Battalion 8th Marines or 1/8 in Marine speak)  has rotated home and the battalion now working the battle space has been on deck maybe two weeks. Battalions who have just arrived in theater are not given a long enough leash to do whatever the hell they want; it is inconceivable that they came up with a “these two cars have a Taliban commander in them” plan and were then able to talk the Regimental Combat Team they work for (and I know its commander well) into letting them vehicles containing persons unknown with attack helicopters. The Naw Zad Valley is a flat, treeless expanse of high desert. If the battalion thought they had a Taliban commander driving up or down it why not just stop the cars and grab him?

This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad valley
This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad Valley

When aviation assets attack moving cars which reportedly contain high level Taliban it is a safe bet that the hit is driven by intelligence. Normally that is supplied by the CIA and the hit has to be given a green light by someone from on high. I would bet money that a “walk-in” targeted this car and the NDS vetted him for their CIA colleagues. That is how we  killed 27 woman and children attending a wedding in Nangarhar Province back in July 2008. Or when we  killed over 2 dozen children at a wedding party in Kandahar in November 2008, or….I could go on and on.

The common denominator with these botched attacks was human intel fed into the system by “walk-in” informants of dubious background and character or fed to our FOB bound intel people by the un-FOB bound Afghanistan intel people who have scores to settle. How many innocents have to die before we learn we cannot put all our eggs in the electronic warfare basket and start to develop our own human intelligence capability?

It’s not that hard to get off the FOB and stay off the FOB, my children did it. Grad students from MIT do it…which reminds me the Synergy Strike Force girls are back in Nangarhar staying at the Taj and doing some super cool medical and social networking stuff.  Jenn’s blog is here and Rachel’s blog is here – Rachel brought her husband Juan Rodriguez along and he’s a pro shooter (photography type) with a good eye and great glass on his camera – you should spend some time on both blogs. As you can see in the picture below hot chicks can stay off the FOB and roam around with no worries ….why can’t our HumInt teams do the same?

The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams - they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months
The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams – they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months

The Pech Valley

Earlier in the month ISAF was accused of shooting up 9 teenagers in the mountains of the Pech River Valley. The Army attack helicopter pilots who work that part of the country have memorized (it isn’t a big valley) every attack point in the Pech Mountains where it is not unusual to see Taliban fighters in their teens. They tell me that when they here where in the valley they are being called to fight they will know exactly where the Taliban are because they run up there to get in firefights almost daily. Mountains limit your options for effective ambush sites – our pilots know where they will be and have excellent situational awareness regarding the normal pattern of life of Hill Pashtuns. Army attack pilots don’t light up people in the mountains for no good reason so there is no doubt in my mind that if they smoked 9 teens it was because they were carrying weapons and firing at Americans.

What President Karzai should be upset about is the video pasted below. This video horrified (and I mean horrified) my Afghan staff.  I didn’t intend to show it to them but one of the cooks heard the music from the video and walked into my office to see why I was playing Jihadi music. Within minutes the whole staff was watching in mute horror before wondering off in stunned silence tears running down some of their cheeks. This video is what should be concern the Afghan elites but it’s not…why?? I suspect the elites can’t extort cash out of the Taliban over videos like this so why bother them.  The Americans – they pay and pay and pay.  And look what we have wrought.

A War

Free Range International (FRI) was invited by our favorite Hollywood insider, the lovely Kanani Fong, to review the film A War and as reward she put me in touch for an interview with the producer Tobis Lindholm . I set up on the Baba Deck started the film, and when it was over found myself just sitting in stunned silence trying to figure out why this film had upset me. I emailed Kanani who emailed the producer who emailed me the info to watch it again (it’s a one time password) and again I watched it, slowly and began to understand what it was all about. This film should be required viewing for every idiot political in the Western world who thinks it’s a great idea to nation build.

a war 2 copy

The cinematography, tight battle shots, clean story line and understated tone reminded me of another military classic, Breaker Morant. Breaker Morant exploded in popularity around the world and garnered too many awards to list here. I hope A War will have a similar reception.

breaker morant copy

A War follows a Danish infantry company commander as he is prosecuted by his own government over collateral damage he may or many not have inflicted (this is never really established) and the toll it takes on him and his family. That the civilians sitting in judgment of him have no idea of the pressures or realities facing their fellow countrymen on the field of battle is an obvious plot line that is handled with tact. Directed by the talented Tobias Lindholm and staring Pilou Aesbeck (Game of Thrones) with a supporting cast of unreasonably attractive Danish folks, the film sucks you in and never lets go.

The movie is based, in part, on the prosecution of a Danish company commander charged with the illegal killing of 4 men he contends were planting IED’s near a Danish base in the Helmand Province on the night of October 23, 2011. The Staff Judge Advocate ended up dropping the charges when Task Force Helmand (the Brits) were unable to produce the evidence as promised. I think the issue was the credibility of the source or lack of a clean chain of custody from source to prosecutor. Regardless the case never went to trial but one can imagine the toll paid by the company commander in question.

The first half of A War introduces the Danish company commander Claus Pederson (played by Pilou Aesbeck) and shows why he has been charged with the deaths of civilians. We are introduced to the concept of PID (positive identification) during the exceptionally realistic combat scenes. We see the Danes paying scrupulous attention to their rules of engagement. We watch them allow clearly armed Taliban to move through their area unmolested. When an armed Taliban stops his motorcycle to plant an IED; they plant him, from 500 meters out, with two rounds into the 10-ring. These lads were good infantrymen, patient, talented and professional to a fault.

A War copy

During one of the ensuing patrols all hell breaks loose when the Danes are sucked into a village that turns out to be a complex ambush. In order to get a medevac flight in to take his wounded out the CO (Pederson) calls in tac-air on one of the adjacent compounds from which he was taking fire. Week’s later Staff Judge Advocate officers show up with some photos, allegedly from the targeted compound, of dead woman and children. The company commander is immediately sent home to face trial for the deaths of these civilians.

At this point the fact that the Taliban fire died off after the compound in question was hit is irrelevant – the issue becomes did he know exactly who was in that compound when he smoked it and that, of course, is a question that would be impossible for any human in his position to answer.

As the trial progresses you want to hate the prosecutor and heap scorn or contempt on the three-judge panel but that’s impossible. The officers of the court come off as intelligent, reasonable people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. They wear sensible earth toned natural fibers, ask reasonable questions, they are the kind of folks you’d like to hang out with in a fine restaurant talking about art or culture for an evening.

What makes this movie work is the character of Claus Pederson. He is sending an important message about, and aimed directly at veterans from both Iraq and Afghanistan. This was the intent of the producer who told me the idea for the film came after he read an article quoting a Danish infantry officer who was heading to Afghanistan for his third deployment. The officer was not afraid of dying at the hands of the Taliban but terrified, given the stringent rules of engagement (ROE) of being prosecuted by the government when he returned.

As we watch Pederson dealing with his court martial it is impossible to miss that he is demonstrating the only useful strategies available to combat veterans when returning home. You recognize that Pederson has the same dignified silence over the weight he is carrying that we saw in our WW II Veterans. Pederson is teaching important lessons the first of which is simple to say but tough to understand. When you get home from the wars you’re alone and you have to deal with that. Even when surrounded by friends and family you’re alone and that won’t change until enough time has passed for the memories to fade.

This is revealed in a subtle way which is why it comes across so powerfully. There are many times when Pederson is there but not there; when he slips out at night to stare at the stars and smoke a cigarette, when he tracks a helicopter flying through night skies. The moments are fleeting, the camera doesn’t linger, but you know what he’s thinking and for those of us who were there we know we did the same thing when we first came home.

Then we witness another important truth unmasked by Pederson and that is that nobody really cares or understands what happened to you. We see this in the reaction of Pederson’s wife when she learns of the dead children, the way the officers of the court remain unmoved by the detailed description of the desperate situation in which Pederson had to make instant decisions. They clearly don’t understand what he’s trying to tell them nor do they give a damn. Their concern remains only the concept of PID not the reality that PID could never be established given the situation on the ground.

For the OIF/OEF combat vet a majority of the people in your life will never understand, nor do they really care about what you did during your rotation. Many are uncomfortable around you because you saw the elephant. They believe that seeing the elephant results in life long psychological problems because that’s what Hollywood tells them. It’s not true but so often in America today perception becomes reality when it is reinforced by our media and Hollywood.

The third, and by far most important lesson Pederson reveals is that every problem you are now facing was caused by decisions you made. Period. Nobody else is responsible, nobody else is to blame and nobody else can fix whatever negative situation you are in. It was your decisions that got you where you are today and the only way out is on you.

Pederson is calm and collected while under enemy fire in Afghanistan and friendly fire in Copenhagen. He makes no apologies and holds no grudges even when his XO testifies in a way that was honest, yet damning. It is clear the he is conflicted by his experience and feel’s responsible for the deaths of civilians but not the woman and children he is being prosecuted for but rather a family that had sought protection inside his Combat Outpost;  something he could never allow.

This is a scene played out many times during our years of fighting in Afghanistan. I talked with a Marine who had been at a Combat Outpost (COP) that took in a teenage girl who had been beaten and was going to be killed by her brothers for talking to another boy on the phone without their permission. The Marines took the girl in and reported this up the chain. It went to the embassy for a decision and their decision was to to kick her out of the COP. The girl was released and we can assume (but don’t know for sure) suffered a hideous death. The men who took her in and then were forced to kicked her out have to live with that. I know the ambassador and his staff were no more thrilled about making this decision than I would have been but let’s be honest; in the grand scheme of things it was the right call. I’d rather we stick to principal but taking that girl in that could have (I believe would have) resulted in a province wide revolt. War forces men (and women) to make decisions that are right for both tactical and strategic reasons but wrong for the sole.

Back to the review:

At no time does Pederson bring up the fact that he was given a mission (the protection of local civilians from the Taliban) he could never accomplish. Virtually every Afghan in the Helmand Province thought the foreigners were propping up an illegitimate government in Kabul. Nobody in that Province knew what 9/11 was, who al Qaeda was or why the foreigners were in their country. What they did know was the government in Kabul was corrupt and the foreigners were responsible for standing that government up.

If you’re a vet or a friend or family member of an OIF or OEF vet you need to watch A War. Claus Pederson will show you what it was like to fight in Afghanistan. More importantly, for vets and their families he will show you the way forward when you return.

 

Kandahar Rocks

This is a post from March 2010 re-posted now as a reminder of how unstable most of Afghanistan has become in the past five years. There was a Taliban attack outside of the Kandahar Airport that killed over 50 people (Cartman says 61 in his reporting) two days ago. For those of us who spent time at Kandahar it is hard to imagine a two- day siege going down just outside the wire. There are Americans still stationed at that airfield today and one has to wonder just how secure they can be given their reduced numbers. There was a time when internationals who knew what they were doing could operate safely even in kinetic places like Kandahar and this is a story from that time…it didn’t have to end this way.

I’m still on the road trying to make my way back to Jalalabad from a big implementation working group meeting in Lashkar Gah. Step one of the journey back was to hitch a ride to Kandahar where Panjawaii Tim promised to pick me up and take me out to his compound for the night. It is a large, comfortable place which has something I have been looking forward to… cold beers. The plane was late which was annoying – driving around Kandahar at night is risky. But there’s cold beer and piss up at stake so this trip was obviously mission essential.

We were delayed getting across the Tarnak River bridge by an American convoy – the bridge was blown up a few days back and the convoy was trying to maneuver around it in the river bed. Michael Yon has the story about the loss of that vital bridge here.  It turns out the delay was a good thing because as we cleared the bridge area and headed towards the city the sky in front of us lit up like a flashbulb. “That’s not good,” said Tim as his cell started to ring. The boys back in the safe house reported a large explosion in the vicinity of the Karazi compound about 300 meters west of our destination. Then we saw what looked like a smaller (yet still pretty impressive blast) followed by another very large boom. Then Tim’s cell phone went dead, which was completely uncool. The the night sky just lit up with a few more big bangs and we both shut up – I reached into the back seat for a long gun; the shit I’ll go through for cold beer….I’m retarded.

The boys standing to on the roof of the Team Canada safe house. Of course I did not have my good camera so this shot looks like crap. The four expolsions bracketed this house on three sides and were very close.
The boys standing-to on the roof of the Team Canada safe house. Of course I did not have my good camera so this shot looks like crap. The four explosions bracketed this house on three sides and were very close.   There was still a lot of small arms fire going off when this shot was taken – seemed to us to be coming mostly from the Afghan security forces.

We were entering the city by then and could see an American QRF force racing towards the area where most of the international compounds, Afghan government offices, the Sarposa prison and our safe house are located.  The roads were being cut by Afghan Security Forces (ANSF) and during times like this trying to talk your way through security checkpoints is a bad idea so we switched to plan B. Panjawaii Tim knows Kandahar like I know Jalalabad; he started working his way through side streets that were full of people milling about looking towards the blast clouds. There were lots of broken store windows the closer we got to home; in fact all of them were broken as we worked our way parallel to the main road closer to the area targeted in the attacks. We had to clear only one ANSF checkpoint  – it is always funny to see the police react when Tim and I drive up in local garb with our ISAF (contractor) ID’s and tell them we’re with ISAF and need to get through. They get confused when we start talking Pashto and look at us like we’re ghosts, or Jinn, or just plain crazy.

One of the Team Canada guys is on leave so I was given his kit to use tonight - a poor shot I know - my little pocket camera sucks
One of the Team Canada guys is on leave so I was given his kit to use tonight – don’t know what is going on with me eyes in this picture – my   pocket camera sucks

Here is Panjawaii Tim’s report on the incident:

“The first bomb was at the Al Jadeed market: 10-20 killed, unknown number injured; second was a large bomb at the Sarpoza prison.   20 -30 killed and 100 injured allegedly; third was the bomb near PHQ, unknown number injured/killed; fourth was bomb near Mandigak mosque, unknown number injured killed. First bombs lured the ANP response out of PHQ and then they were hit. US and CDN units seen responding with ANSF assets. No reports of a prison break at this time. We heard Taliban propaganda broadcast over a megaphone in our neighborhood within half hour of attacks. Many ambulances and other vehicles seen transporting casualties to Mirwais (Chinese) Hospital.”

You know what all this means?  It means no sitting on the roof and drinking cold beers with my buddies. It also means that I have to get up in the middle of the night to pull sentry duty. Fucking Taliban; killing civilians for no damn reason, damaging people’s stores and homes for no damn reason, and spoiling what looked to be a good piss up.   I hate them.

Gandamak

Last week I received and polite email from Professor Richard Macrory of the Centre for Law and the Environment, University College London asking me for permission to use some of my photos of the Gandamak battlefield in his upcoming book on the First Afghan War. I said that it would be an honor and I believe the book will come out next year. In the meantime I’m re-posting my Gandamak story because it is different then every other Gandamak story you’ll hear from Afghan based expats. This Gandamak tale is about the battlefield, not one of the best bar/guesthouses in Kabul

Traveling into contested tribal lands is a bit tricky. I had no doubt that the Malicks from Gandamak would provide for my safety at our destination but I had to get there first. Given the amount of Taliban activity between Jalalabad and Gandamak the only safe way to get there and back was low profile.

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

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

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

It took over an hour to reach Gandamack which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because vegetation means water and villages with access to abundant clean water are always significantly better off than those without.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maliks of Sherzad district
Maliks of Sherzad district

We talked for around 35 more minutes about the anemic American reconstruction effort, their needs and the rise in armed militancy. The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remain popular with the local people. They have built some mico-hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) much appreciate. The US AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better if they were given the money to do it themselves but despite this DAI is welcomed and their efforts much appreciated. When I asked who had kidnapped the DAI engineer (a local national) last month and how we could go about securing his release (which was another reason for my visit) they shrugged and one of them said “who knows”?  That was to be expected but I felt compelled to ask anyway. They know I have no skin in that game and am therefore irrelevant.

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

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

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

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

The Gandamack Hill today
The Gandamack Hill today

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

Enterance to the "Brit Jail
Entrance to the “Brit Jail

 

Heading up the slope to the Brit jail
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail – not an easy walk

After checking that out we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jamm until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue at the Gandamak battlefield a few years ago which they figured the British must have pilfered from Kabul. By my estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to buy one. Their excellent fakes and they better be because the penalties for trafficking ancient artifacts are severe in Afghanistan.

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

Site of the final battle
Site of the final battle

 

Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill

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

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

Post Script

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

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

Spiking The Ball

Last night I was coming back from the La Taverna du Liban, Kabul’s best Lebanese Restaurant, located in the Wazar Akbar Khan section of Kabul.  Back in the day it had a full bar and open patio and was packed with expat customers. Most of the expats back then had at least a pistol on them and senior diplomat types had heavily armed, high end expat guards sitting at the table next to them. Those days are long gone; now you have to walk down a long blast proof hallway through a series of locked doors and that’s after being searched for weapons curbside. The La Taverna du Liban, like most of the restaurants in Kabul, no longer allows armed Expats. The Afghan government and UN say the lack of armed westerners makes everyone safer. I say it makes them sitting ducks but I still go to the Taverna cause I love the place and the owner is a friend.

They still serve great food and have a good double apple shesha mix but now when the waiter takes your order he’ll wink and ask if would you like the red chai?   That’s code for red wine and it arrives in a teapot with tea mugs.  The days of having an open bar are behind us in Kabul restaurants too. When my Afghan friend Cartman and I were coming home last night we saw a dozens of riot police from the ANP cutting the road to the interior ministry and Serena Hotel. The cops didn’t have riot helmets or shields but they did have their batons which is a hint to their mission that night.  The only way Afghan drivers will pay attention to the police is if they believe failure to comply will result in a wood shampoo. Last night it was clear the cops were ready to administer wood shampoos to anyone ignoring their road block and that is most unusual.

Cartman’s phone rings and I hear the voice of an international reporter, attractive female type, who I don’t know that well.

“Boss, she wants to know if Obama is coming to talk to Karzai” asked Cartman.

“Tell her it is a gross breach of etiquette for her to talk to an Afghan male who is not a member of her immediate family.”

“She said your blog sucks and to shut up because she’s not asking you”.

The question sure put what I was seeing in context. The local cops don’t come out at night and cut roads unless something big is up.

It turns out the Commander in Chief was on the ground for a secret visit that obviously wasn’t too secret and one has to wonder if we might want to think of re-branding the Secret Service because they can’t keep a damn thing secret anymore.

The president was on the ground in Bagram Air Base pumping up the troops but (according to NPR) not spiking the ball on the one-year anniversary of his “gutsy” call to send a crew of hardened sailors into Pakistan to whack OBL.  Recently that gutsy call has been in the news…something about Mitt wouldn’t have made it and I guess there is a MSM video of the VP making an ass out of himself describing how the difficult decision was made. Mitt batted the sleazy allegations leveled at him out of the park and then the real story behind the decision to whack OBL came out and it looks to me like our POTUS came as close to voting present as is possible with a presidential finding.

Next thing you know we have a not so secret, secret visit where the Prez pumps up the troops and then last night sneaks into Kabul to ink a really, really, great deal with President Karzai. But none of this had anything to do with the anniversary of killing OBL because the president said so himself .

The Taliban decided that they too were not going to not observe the one year anniversary of OBL’s demise by conducting another well planned, poorly executed, attack inside the Kabul Ring of Steel (my guys call it the Ring of Steal).  The tactics were standard; a VBIED at the gate, followed by a ground assault by gunmen disguised by burkas. The target a bit ambitious, it’s called Green Village and is a privately owned FOB (Forward Operating Base) designed to provide ISAF level security to internationals who are not living on one of the military FOB’s. The results were predictable; the attackers rapidly isolated, this time rapidly dispatched, their intended targets unscathed and a bunch of innocent civilians  (mostly children) killed or injured.

Most international guesthouses in Afghanistan meet the UN Minimum Occupational Safety Standards (UN MOSS) but Green Village far exceeds UN MOSS because its intended clientele is the US Government not stingy, tight wad NGO’s. Opened in 2008 the place has never stopped growing. It is always at 100% occupancy, has great food, a decent gym, racquetball courts, a bar, pool, and all sorts of kiosks selling local goods and other stuff. I don’t care for the place myself because its pre-fabricated high-end feel combines everything that is wrong about our efforts in Afghanistan and confines it in a small artificially nice place. We have called it Menopause Manor for years because of the unending stream of reporting (mostly generated by the residents) saying the Taliban are targeting them.

This morning the Taliban were not able to talk their way past the gate guards so they blew their VBIED on the road at exactly the time when one would expect 200 to 300 school children to be walking by.

This is a picture from 2005 of kids waiting for their school bus on the corner of Jalalabad Road and the Green Village road. There are hundreds more children walking to schools along that road every morning now. At least one of those killed and many of the wounded today were school children.
This is a picture from 2005 of kids waiting for their school bus on the corner of Jalalabad Road and the Green Village road. There are hundreds more children walking to schools along that road every morning now. At least one of those killed and many of the wounded today were school children.

The VBIED was followed up by three-man assault force who approached their objective wearing burkas and started battling with the Serbs and Nepalese guards from the Green Village guard force.

One of the three attackers blew himself up, another was gunned down and the third made it into the laundry building which is still well outside the blast walls of the main camp. The Kabul PD Critical Response Unit took the last one out soon after arriving on the scene. This was a typical Taliban attack – good planning, excellent operational security, poor execution coupled to a complete disregard for collateral damage.

The planning was pretty impressive because Green Village is the only privately run FOB in the country that houses ISAF contractors and troops. It would be, by far, the easiest ISAF FOB in the country to attack but only if you could sneak a rifle company into Kabul. One VBIED and three suicide bombers is not really an attack; it’s a statement. Like the last attack in Kabul it was successful only because it happened. The tactical failure of the assault force is, as it always is here, irrelevant.

Here are (in my humble opinion) the lessons learned from this latest attack.

The President’s schedule was compromised to the mainstream media. The planning for his visit was excellent; in around 2000 out by 0400; which allowed the downtown to be cleared and the President to meet with Karzai while causing minimal disruption to local residents. But I knew he was coming before he arrived because the MSM phone call put what I was witnessing downtown into context. It appears I wasn’t the only one in on the secret.

This dispatch came in from Taliban central on twitter today:

Al Farouq spring offensive will be launched on May 3 all over Afghanistan.  The Taliban said the code name came from Islam’s second caliph, Omar al Farouq known for his military advances in Asia and the Arab world during the seventh century.

The announcement comes hours after Taliban insurgents armed with guns, suicide vests and a bomb-laden car attacked a heavily fortified compound used by Westerners in Kabul, killing seven people and wounding more than a dozen.

The militants claimed the attack in defiance of US President Barack Obama’s call that the war was ending during a visit to Afghanistan on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death on Wednesday.”

Did the Taliban launched one of their pre-planned attacks a day early because they discovered that Obama was in Kabul? The attack happened two hours after the POTUS left and that means two hours after all the elite police units in the capitol went off duty after being up all night because he was here. That’s a pretty impressive reaction time by the Taliban and it demonstrates the danger of allowing administration operatives to leak details of Presidential trips to preferred members of the MSM.

The reaction to today’s attack by the people inside Green Village was also impressive when compared to the attack on the ISAF HQ last fall.  None of the residents, many of whom are EUPOL police officers or ISAF troops and therefore have weapons, ran out to the walls to start shooting wildly in the general direction of attack. They let the guard force do its work which, I understand, is a drilled SOP at Green Village. This reinforces the point that there is nothing, not one damn thing, big government can do more efficiently and effectively then the private sector and that includes repelling ineffective insurgent attacks on FOB’s hosting government troops.

The Afghans are hosed; the agreement Obama came into Kabul to sign last night is long on promises but short on specifics. The level of funding for ANSF he is promising has to be approved every year by congress and what are the chances that they decide to cut it at some point in the future?

Our involvement in Afghanistan is not going to end well. I predict we will pull all of our military out in 2014 just like we did Iraq in 2011.  There will be no “force enablers” and, unlike Iraq, there will be no massive international Private Security Company presence to enable continued reconstruction.We will pull all our forces out and with them will go the reconstruction piece and when that happens the world bank will no longer support the Afghani. The Afghani will then free fall just like the Zimbabwean dollar while the country erupts in civil war.

I have made many grim predictions on this blog over the years (my take on the so called Arab spring comes immediately to mind) and I always use the caveat that I hope I’m wrong.  So, I hope I’m wrong about Afghanistan’s future but I doubt it.

All Clear

At 0630 this morning, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in the form of the Kabul Critical Response Unit (CRU) finished off a crew of villains who had been fighting for the past 16 hours. These guys, most likely HIG militants, had barricaded themselves in a building under construction next to the Azizi Bank located on Zambaq Square, which is right next to the diplomatic quarter. This is the same tactic they used in the attack on the diplomatic quarter last September, but this time they attacked from the opposite direction.

The location and approximate range fan for yesterday’s attack on the diplomatic quarter. Deeper in this range fan (but well within machinegun range) are the US Embassy and ISAF HQ.

 

At dawn the villains were still active in the 3rd and 4th floors (counting top down). ANSF was hitting them with RPG's and rockets about every 45 seconds followed up with automatic weapons fire
At dawn the villains were still active in the 3rd and 4th floors (counting top down) from this building.   ANSF was hitting them with RPG’s and rockets about every 35 seconds, followed up with automatic weapons fire

 

Heavy Machinegun fire following up a rocket strike
Heavy Machinegun fire following up a rocket strike.  Camp Eggers is just off to the left of that building, Wazar Akbar Khan, where many expats live, is in the foreground.

ANSF had pinned the attackers in that building down at the start of this incident yesterday afternoon. When I climbed up Bibi Mahroo Hill this morning all the shooting (and there was a lot still going on) was being done by the ANSF. When a brick wall is all that separates you from the exploding RPG’s, anti tank rockets and heavy machinegun fire the concussive effect from the over-pressure are brutal. I doubt that the villains were in any condition to offer effective resistance by the time the CRU went in to finish them off. At 0630 local time, the scene was declared secure and ANSF announced that the insurgents had been terminated.

These attacks, like those before them, accomplished very little tactically but then again they don’t have to. Just mounting the attack is a victory for insurgents with the only audience that counts: the people of Afghanistan. Tactical victories are physical victories and at this point in the conflict physical victories don’t count only moral ones do. The Taliban are fighting against infidel invaders and a corrupt central government. They are gaining the moral high ground with the only people who matter now – the Afghan people by standing up to the worlds most powerful military and an unpopular central government.

Watching the action from Bibi Mahroo Hill
Watching the action from Bibi Mahroo Hill

So we now have another problem. Not the attacks – they accomplished nothing except to demonstrate the insurgents’ ability to stockpile weapons and ammunition inside the most secure parts of Kabul. That takes time, money and access; whoever they paid -is the problem and those kind of problems are endemic in Kabul.

Here are the latest casualty figures for this series of attacks from Reuters;

Afghan security forces have killed 32 gunmen and arrested one more in operations to stop coordinated attacks by Taliban fighters that hit the capital, Kabul, and three other provinces, the defense ministry said on Monday.  Eight members of the security forces have been killed and 44 others, including five civilians, wounded, Mohammad Zahir, Kabul CID chief, said on Monday.

Given the amount of ordnance the insurgents fired off that is an amazingly low count. This isn’t the last time Kabul is going to be targeted; we’ll be in the hot seat again soon. For now the local people are going about their business hoping that the next time insurgents decide to make a statement their luck continues to hold.

Storm Warning

America is currently experiencing some monster tornadoes deep in the heartland.  As dawn breaks across my homeland the scenes of devastation are dramatic but the casualties so far remarkably low. When a sudden serious storm breaks in Kabul it’s a tornado of steal and there is one unwinding now in Kabul right down the street from me.  In Afghanistan tornadoes are not a problem; spectacular Taliban attacks are there is a series of them in progress. So far we have reports (via UN and media) of attacks in Zanbaq Square, Qanbar Square, (both in Kabul) the ISAF logistics base a few miles east of downtown and the Parliament. There are also reports of attacks on the PRT’s  in Jalalabad and Logar, the police headquarters in Paktia and Kandahar. With the exception of Kandahar all these targets are in the East; exactly where ISAF is claiming they will concentrate their attention this fighting season.

The problem with announcing your plans long before commencing an offensive is that the enemy gets a vote too.  And the enemy has decided to preempt ISAF with an offensive of their own.  As usual, the attacks are rather spectacular and for a change well coordinated. Tactically they will fail. The attackers will inflict whatever minimal damage they can with small arms, explosives, and RPG’s and then die in place. Afghan security forces have locked down Kabul and no doubt the other sites too and can now afford to take their time clearing out the villains.

The fighting is one block over to the right as you look down the street in this picture. The traffic is pretty light but has not stopped as people try to get around the police barricades that have isolated the attackers. You can't see them but there is a group of school girls clustered at the corner at the right end of the street peering down the road towards the fighting - the ANP escorted them down the road a bit after this photo was taken. A steel tornado is ravaging the downtown just a few hundred meters away while these local people are trying to find their way home. People can adopt to most anything
The fighting is two blocks over (to the right) as you look down the street in this picture. The traffic is pretty light but has not stopped as people try to get around the police barricades that have isolated the attackers. There is a group of school girls clustered at the corner at the end of the street peering down the road towards the fighting, probably trying to decide what to do – the ANP escorted them down the road a bit after this photo was taken. A steel tornado is ravaging the downtown just a few hundred meters away while these local people are trying to find their way home. People can adopt to just about anything.

Wind tornadoes strike with little warning; steel tornadoes strike with no warning. We were exiting a local bank when the shooting started. It was close to us but you get that around here sometimes. A few rounds fired from one weapon is not a reason for alarm and when Haji and I heard that we thought nothing of it. As we headed back towards the safe house we were surrounded by frantic armed men, some in uniforms some not, some carrying M4’s, others sporting AK’s.  They were the security detail for a senior Afghan official and trying to clear the usual traffic jam in order to get their charge off the street and into a secured location. To the perceptive man on the street, frantic high-end Afghan security guards are as sure a sign of heavy winds inbound as a tornado siren would be in the Midwest. My driver Haji jan (former old school Taliban who has been with me for 5 years) looked at me and said, “trouble.” I looked back at him and said, “no shit.” We both smiled because there was nothing else we could do until the traffic jam cleared up.

When I wrote the last post, I asked the question, “to what end?” when discussing the soon to be launched ISAF offensive. I don’t care how many “leaders” are killed in night raids nor how many insurgents are rolled up in this pending offensive. Does anyone honestly think it will make a difference?  I don’t. The Taliban seem to be able to penetrate the Kabul “Ring of Steel” at will and I bet, based on the amount of shooting I’m hearing, they stockpiled ammo and weapons inside the downtown area just like they did for their last attack inside Kabul.  Can ISAF stop it? No, it has nothing to do with ISAF; it’s an Afghan problem and only they can fix whatever it is that is dysfunctional enough to allow HIG and Taliban militants to launch operations inside Kabul at will. I’m getting the feeling that these “spectacular” attacks in Kabul are the new normal. It’s going to be a long summer.

Great photo from todays attack by Reuters
Great photo from todays attack from Reuters

The Afghanistan Live Blog from Al Jazeera has the best coverage and is updated frequently.  You can find it here.