Last week, Kanani Fong of the blog The Kitchen Dispatch, arranged an interview for me with Tim Hetherington, who along with Sebastian Junger produced the award-winning documentary called “Restrepo”. Kanani signed onto the Restrepo team to spearhead a public relations effort, in conjunction with National Geographic, to get the film released nationwide in theaters. This is no easy task for a documentary but, as many of you know, there is a huge groundswell building in the blogosphere over this movie and it is already scheduled for runs in major cities around the country.   This is great news because the one thing Tim stressed in our interview was this is not a film just for the military, but for the general public. In the minds of the men who made it, this film is designed to show Americans who have no direct stake in this fight (which is the vast majority) what is being asked of the men and women who are bearing the brunt of battle.

reestrepoMy conversation with Tim Hetherington was really enjoyable. Our Skype connection was crystal clear and we got along like old friends. Tim and I had such a great time chatting with each other I never got around to doing any interviewing. I know that sounds strange, but we were having such a great give and take about all kinds of things that I asked very few direct questions about the film.
Both this film and the related book War by Sebastian Junger are valuable additions to the special niche in military history dealing with the effects of battle. This type of historical writing was made popular in 1976 by the historian John Keegan when he published his classic The Face of Battle. I loved that book and remember being enthralled by the descriptions of battle – especially his telling of the famous Agincourt fight where English bowmen took out the leading Knights of France. The Knights were encumbered with over 60 pounds of body armor and, when they dismounted their horses, essentially immobile and helpless. I remember talking about this book with my peers, laughing and laughing at the stupidity of going into battle wearing over 60 pounds of body armor. I guess the joke was on us, since my peers now routinely go into battle with more than 60 pounds on their backs. Thanks to ergonomic advances, they can move a little better and react slightly faster than the doomed French nobles at Agincourt….but that’s not the point is it?
Which brings me to the only real question I had for Tim, and it was an unfair one: why does it seem that the Army never tried to preempt the routine attacks on Restrepo and the other FOB’s? Apparently, they generally knew when attacks were forming and the attack positions used by the Taliban never changed, because they couldn’t change…mountains limit your options for good fields-of-fire.

I was taught that fire without maneuver was a waste of time, effort, and money. It still seems strange to me that the reaction to an attack on a FOB or the ambush of a convoy is to shoot back with long range fire, call in airstrikes and then go back to what you were doing before the Taliban started bugging you. I liked the way we used to do these things, which was to gain and maintain contact until you could maneuver on the villains and destroy them in detail. It is a poor idea to provide on-the-job training for your adversary.

Tim pointed out that the Army did run a preemptive operation which is a critical part of the film and book, called Operation Rock Avalanche, but the question really wasn’t a fair one. Both the film and book are focusing on the experience of a single platoon during an entire  combat rotation. Platoons execute orders from on-high and have little to say about operational planning. I already knew the answer to the question I was asking and found this quote later which seems to best express why the men in Restrepo fight the way they do. This quote is from The Father of Us all by Victor Davis Hanson:

“Consequently, emphasis on defense – from body armor to antiballistic missile systems – will become an ever higher priority, as ever more affluent Americans, like Greek hoplights or medieval Lords of old, grow increasingly sensitive to the casualties of war. The current weight of fifty to eighty pounds of gear that so burdens individual soldiers is not so much to provide them with additional offensive power as to achieve better communications, body protection, and survivability.”

The men in Restrepo were executing with skill and determination the orders they had been given. It is still amazing to me that guys can move and fight as well as they did, given the loads they were carrying in a high altitude, mountainous environment. Their attempts at tribal engagement did not pay off in the long run. We no longer staff FOB’s in the Korengal Valley, but these guys gave it their best shot, which comes through clearly in the book as well as in the movie.

In my opinion, it is important that this film be shown in as many theaters as possible. Most of my regular readers know this tale intimately and will appreciate the artistry in this tale about infantrymen in war. Most Americans as well as most people in the countries with troops deployed here, do not have a clue about what they collectively have asked their fellow citizens to do. The amount of responsibility placed on the shoulders of twenty-something year old (or sometimes younger) men who lead fire teams, squads, and platoons, exceeds by several orders of magnitude, the burden placed on their peers in the civilian world. Once they are home and out of the service, it may be decades before they are placed in positions of such responsibility again. Add to that the burden of survivors’ guilt, which is common to all veterans at all times and in all places, and one gets a sense of the overwhelming pressures being shouldered by these veterans at the pointed-end of the spear. Americans need to know this because when our elected leaders send these soldiers to fight for our country they do so in all our names. We owe it to all the men and women who serve in harms’ way to understand what we asked them to do.


President Karzai to reverse his position on using tribal militias.  The new name for these soon to be created Arbaki is Local Police Forces (LPF.) This is a plan which has been tried before without success. In Kandahar the Local Defense Initiative (LDI) forces (the original Arbaki program from a few years back) were quickly targeted and decimated by the Taliban. In Kunduz and Takar province they partnered with armed criminal gangs to exploit the population and government supplies and in Parwan Province they flat out turned Taliban.  I’m not sure what is being modified to make this cunning plan more effective than the last time around but I do know this much – the plan is going  to fail.

Alex Strick van Linschoten has coined the term “hope tactics” to describe the thinking behind arming various local cats and dogs and that sounds like a pretty good description to me.  There is only one way to do this sort of thing and that is to supervise the security forces you are creating. Without supervision and training all you can do is hope the units you create end up becoming effective and hope isn’t a plan. I’m sick of hope and also sick of seeing the same narrow list of options being tried over and over again adding yet another chapter to our legacy of failure in Afghanistan.

Living a low carbon footprint lifestyl; looks nice but smells pretty bad
Living a true low carbon footprint lifestyle in Bamiyan Province

Last night Captain America (regional manager for Ghost Team with 3 years on the ground with the US Army and four more as a contractor) rucked up to the Taj happy hour.  We talked for a long time about why we are always fighting to maintain program funding, keep our safe-houses, keep our mobility and freedom to maneuver despite consistently exceeding program goals. No reason to hash over the details of our incredibly interesting conversation but there was a portion worthy of mention. CPT  A asked if we could do vertical structures, I said we could, to which he said, “you know if we could just knock out  250 schools we’re done”.  CPT  A is currently refurbishing  every district irrigation system in Nangarhar Province. He does three districts at a time, employs around 5,000 laborers and is building proper intakes and installing concrete in main canals and karez systems so that they last. The roads into the Nangarhar districts are done, once we finish all the irrigation systems if we knock out 250 schools we can say “dudes we did what we said we were going to do and we’re taking off….good luck.”

This is what I mean about wasting money. We have spent billions building new regional ANP training centers and running new ANP officers through them yet still we get IED's planted right outside a Provincial Governors compound and nobody knows just how they got there.
This is what I mean about wasting money. We have spent millions and millions of dollars building new regional ANP training centers and running new ANP officers through them yet still we get an  IED  planted right outside a Provincial Governors compound.

CPT A was understating what needs to be done but not by much. He wrote the Provincial reconstruction plan when he here with the Army and knows more about it than anyone else on the planet. But the chances that our military and civilian leaders would recognize a successful template and slim down our efforts to switch up on the hold and build game are zero. The reason they are zero is that doing successful reconstruction is irrelevant for the thousands of military staff, civilian governmental agency personnel, and their contractors who have deployed to Afghanistan. All of them have high level security clearances, they spend their days in  inter-agency working groups designed to trim the bureaucratic red tape for efficiency and speed while reducing “stove pipes.” These people are all highly  paid experts who spend their time flying between FOB’s to brief each other or to participate in “fusion cells” designed to provide the battle commanders with useful information. But they cannot get out and about to dig up any useful information.

An incident like the attack on the DAI office in Kunduz last month gives this Classified Class weeks of work. Guys like the Skipper or CPT America, guys who get the job done day after day without any problems or hiccups – the Classified Class doesn’t even know they exist. There is no reason to track people doing their jobs as promised and without fanfare because they are not going to pop up on the classified nets. A gigantic Poppy Palace full of western aid workers getting attacked – that generates all kinds of classified message traffic and will require lots of flying around to other FOB’s to brief and participate in more emergency inter agency meetings.   Want the truth?  The Classified Class is spending millions of OPM to accomplish not one damn thing other than to feel good about how they spent their year in Afghanistan.

This is an AP photo form the attack on the US AID implementor DAI in Kunduz last month
This is an AP photo form the attack on the US AID implementing partner, DAI,  in Kunduz last month

We have no resilience in our reconstruction fight if we continue doing it the same old way. Kunduz is a perfect example; the contractor was in a large, well fortified compound with a professional international security company providing armed expat and local security experts. They faced a serious ground attack but the fortifications and armed guard force did its job by killing the attackers before they could injure any of the aid workers. But now the contractor is gone, the programs they were working on abandoned which means the security plan was designed to survive one attack and one attack only. How can one expect to get the build portion of the current clear hold and build program completed if the people doing the build leave after one attack?

As our Thursday evening happy hour drew to a close the one thing we all agreed on was that our ability to operate in the manner we do is based on the locals watching after us. The years we have spent in N2KL have resulted in most people in most places knowing who we are and what we do. Reconstruction is not hard, establishing credibility is and that takes time in countries like Afghanistan. It also takes people who can operate on their own on the economy and not just survive but continue to function if attacked. That kind of thinking is not found inside the closed loop of the classified crowd. They do not know what they do not know.  They can’t leave the FOB’s so they don’t have an accurate read on anything except what comes through the classified loop. Anyone who has dealt with that sort of information understands how limited it is.

Which bring us back to the Local Security Forces.   This “inspired” idea of using locals to provide security will fail because nobody responsible for it will get off the FOB to provide daily detailed supervision. I can’t stress enough the importance of daily, full time, supervision. The Skipper’s EOD program works because he provides daily, detailed supervision, while EOD programs elsewhere in the country languish.  CPT America is re-building the entire Provincial irrigation system because he provides daily, detailed supervision, while the same projects elsewhere in the country barely break ground. If we can’t get the various government agencies to operate off of the FOB then there is only one viable option. Armed, outside the wire, experienced, contractors.


General McChrystal is in hot water over this article in Rolling Stone magazine .  Last night news reports indicated remarks from “aides” to the reporter seem to be blunt, confidential assessments from the General about the  President, Vice President, NSC head Gen Jim Jones (USMC Ret) and the American ambassador among others.  Later in the evening stories of McChrystal being  summoned back to Washington for a Presidential ass chewing hit the wires and this morning there are dozens of pieces up on the impending relief for cause.  When I first heard about this my reaction was stunned disbelief. I can’t imagine how or why senior staffers to General McChrystal would talk to a Rolling Stone reporter about anything let alone confidential assessments of the National Command Authority by the boss himself.  It is inconceivable that senior staff of a four star general would reveal the personal confidences of their boss to anyone be they inside or outside media.  That kind of careless candor doesn’t happen with senior military staffs so my initial reaction was that the General was done in, Cesar style,  by cowardly forces from on high.

This morning I was able to read the article  and was struck by two things:  The first is Gen McChrystal, for reasons which cannot be explained because they are inexplicable,  granted the Rolling Stone reporter, Michael Hastings, a long duration embed with himself and his staff.  The second is that most of the comments attributed to McChrystal and his staffers aren’t that inflammatory at all.  Adrian Michaels writing in the Telegraph UK blog said it best:

“There was a copy of the article available online until recently, which I’ve read, ….  Basically, the general or THE RUNAWAY GENERAL as he is hysterically referred to has been the victim of journalist hype. It is the magazine’s editors that call the White House wimps, and it is the author that uses almost every f-word in the piece, gratuitously, gratingly, and not while quoting anyone. The only f-word used by someone else is a Brit saying how much some people love McChrystal’s habit of showing up on patrol.”

From what I am reading on the net this morning Mr. Michaels well reasoned take is not the dominant narrative.  The guys at  Danger Room think that this faux pas has put the Afghanistan campaign in jepordy.    The main stream media are framing the issue as one of adequate civilian control over the military as opposed to the dominate narrative from the Bush years which was “listen to the generals.”    Matt over at Feral Jundi provides his usual expert analysis as he parses the article and I’m not even going to check on what Herschel Smith has to say at the Captains Journal because I agree with everything he writes and he writes what I agree with better than I do.   If I read his take on the article I’ll be hard pressed to come up with something original on my own.

This is the first Army foot patrol I have ever seen in Jalalabad. In and of itself it is too little too late.  Protecting the people means hanging around to provide security all the time, night and day, which would make the local people veryhappy and provide enough experience for the troops to allow them to calm down and interact with the people.
This is the first Army foot patrol I have ever seen in Jalalabad. In and of itself it is too little too late. Protecting the people means hanging around to provide security all the time, night and day, which would make the local people happy and provide enough experience for the troops to allow them to calm down and interact with the people.

Once I got past how bizarre (and I mean totally, completely, unbelievably bizarre) it was for the General and his key staffers to get drunk in a French bar with a Rolling Stone reporter sitting there I started doing a little parsing of my own.  McChrystal apparently voted for Obama – that factoid is strange as men like McChrystal spend their entire adult lives preparing for the rigors of leadership and are naturally reluctant to confer the position of chief executive  of the United States on an individual with zero training or experience in executive  leadership.  It is also a bit strange for an active duty general to discuss who he voted for at all – many of my former colleagues who remain on active duty do not participate in presidential elections because of professional sensibilities.  But McChrystal voted for Obama and he apparently allowed the Rolling Stone magazine unprecedented access to his inner circle so he deserves what he is going to get.

This quote from the article instantly caught my eye:

“COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.”

Live among the population?  How do you do that when your forces are restricted to FOB’s and can only venture off them in four MRAP convoys (minimum) with 16 designated shooters (minimum?)  Who, besides myself, The Shem Bot, the group formally known as Team Canada (we have not had our summer piss-up to generate a new name now that The Boss has added guys from the U.S. and Europe.) and those like us is doing COIN?  The only contribution McChrystal has made during his tenure is the emphasis on stopping civilian casualties which has translated into the denial of critical fire support to units in contact.

George Will published a piece on this subject a few days back and is always the case one need not look further than Herschel Smith for expert analysis …  from the Captain’s Journal:

“This report from Afghanistan is dreary and depressing for its reiteration of all of the problems we have rehearsed here, including the  unreliability of the ANA.   But the contribution is serious and unmistakable.   We cannot achieve sustained tactical success with the current rules of engagement.   They simply aren’t rules suited to win a counterinsurgency campaign.   But the report is more stark for the sad and anecdotal report of the state of the population.   The villagers are laughing at U.S. troops.   So much for winning their hearts and minds by avoiding collateral damage.   When the population is laughing at your weakness, the campaign won’t last much longer.   It will soon be over, one way or the other.”

In  Vietnam my Uncle Chad was a rifle company commander working the area southwest of DaNang.  He started his tour patrolling in the day and digging in at night but was not getting any contacts.  Back then a rifle company commander could make his own tactical deployment decisions so Uncle Chad decided to start sleeping during the day and patrolling at night.  He got lots of contact for a while but then the contacts dropped off so he switched back to daytime patrols and started getting  the contacts he was looking for.  A rifle company is a large fighting formation with organic adult supervision and more than capable of figuring out how to keep the villains at bay while bringing security to the people in their AO (area of operations.)  Our ability to micromanage rifle companies with blue force trackers, drones and satellites has reduced their effectiveness while concurrently providing the allusion of control to staff officers manning the plethora of COC’s (combat operations centers) which grow like weeds on the big box FOB’s.  If we can’t get back to independent operations focused on the people while putting the hurt on every Taliban group who tries to hit us we’re through.

The key to effective patrolliing in a permissive environment is to spread out and practive the most valuable skill a foriegner can have here which is smiling at people and giving them a few words of greeting in Pashto.  Walking around bunched up like this makes everyone nervous and is not too productive.
The key to effective patrolling in a permissive environment is to spread out and practice the most valuable skill a foreigner can have here which is smiling at people and giving them a few words of greeting in Pashto. Walking around bunched up like this makes everyone nervous and is not too productive.

Which brings us to the million dollar question….who will replace McChrystal?  Michael Yon, your humble correspondent and now Tom Ricks are on record as endorsing Gen Mattis (USMC.) I asked my favorite source on from the retired General Officer circuit what he thinks and the response was unequivocal.  There is no way they’ll tap Mattis for the job because he is too strong and too competent which will make those above him look bad in comparison.  This snippet form the “This Ain’t Hell (but you can see it from here“) blog explains the “too strong” part:

“When the first battle of Fallujah in April 2004 reached its climax and it appeared that the Marines and soldiers assaulting the city were close to securing the insurgent stronghold, General John Abizaid travelled to Anbar to order General James Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, to stop the assault. Disingenuous news reports from Arab media outlets which painted the assault as a massacre of innocent civilians had caused an outcry in the international community and as a result the Bush administration and its Iraqi allies waivered in its support for the operation. Abizaid met Mattis in his command post outside the city, where he had been leading the battle from the front for weeks. Over three dozen soldiers, sailors, and Marines had died in the assault. Mattis’s own command element had been attacked multiple times by this point and had suffered casualities. His uniform was soiled and dirty from the weeks of constant combat. When Abizaid (a four-star general in charge of CENTCOM) told Mattis (a two-star divisional commander) to stop the assault Mattis looked Abizaid in the eye and growled  IF YOU ARE GOING TO TAKE VIENNA TAKE FUCKING VIENNA.

Abizaid just nodded and Mattis stormed out of the room.”

God I love that kind of talk.  And I love Gen Mattis too – big man crush love but back to my insiders take on will get the nod to run the war.  His prediction was they would find a General Officer in the mold of the current CJCS Adm Mullin who can be counted on for sycophantic devotion to the administrations agenda no matter how stupid it is.  Depressing huh?  But wait there’s more:

He went on to say that he had always hoped his generation was the last group of Marine officers who had to lead men in combat fighting a war they knew they would not win.  He said the agony of balancing mission against potential loss of life meant that often they did not make moves which were tactically profitable for fear of losing too many men.  That is a very risky way to fight because missing moves which are to your tactical advantage can come back to bite you hard further down the road.

Is it me or is that not the most depressing damn thing you have heard today?  Things here are getting worse by the day and the Gen McChrystal drama portends further bad tidings.   The only hope I have is that my source is wrong and that General Mattis is retained on active duty and given the job.  If that doesn’t happen it is very hard to see a way forward which justifies the time, money, and blood being spent on Afghanistan.

The Battle for Marjah

Operation Moshtarak, the assault on the Marjah District in the Helmand Province started today. The press has been looking at it for months from various angles with stories stressing that secrecy has been lost or that civilians will be killed or with speculation on why the military is publicizing Operation Moshtarak in the first place. These stories all contain grains of truth but none of them are close to telling the real story. Here it is: when the Marines crossed the line of departure today,the battle for Marjah had already been won.

The battle has started and despite the fact that there is still hard fighting ahead it is already over
The battle has started and despite the fact that there is still hard fighting ahead it is, for all intents and purposes, already over. Photo by David Guttenfelder*

That is not to say there will be no fighting – there will be – pockets of Taliban will need to be cleared out along with a ton of IED’s. Just as they did last summer in Nowzad the Marines spent months talking about what they were going do while focusing their efforts at shaping the fight behind the scene. Like a master magician General Nicholson mesmerized the press with flashy hand movements to draw attention away from what was important. The press then focused on the less important aspects of the coming fight. Just like a magic show the action occurred right in front of the press in plain view yet remained out of sight.

The magic show analogy is most appropriate for the 2nd  Marine Expeditionary Brigade  (2nd  MEB) because they have many balls up in the air which have to be managed. They are working under a NATO chain of command with allies who add very little to the fight. Managing these relationships is a distraction and tedious but is still important. The Marines success so far in the Helmand has won them the dubious honor of hosting multiple junkets from our political masters, which is also a distraction and tedious but important. On top of that they have the various other US Gov agencies to work coordinate with and that too takes time, personnel and attention from senior commanders- commodities that are always in short supply.

The current Marjah operation is a replay of the Nowzad operation last summer. Back then the Marines were in the news, constantly saying they did not have enough Afghan security forces (Karzai sent a battalion the day he read that story despite virulent protests from RC South) and that they didn’t have enough aid money (the embassy responded by sending more money and FSO’s).  Those complaints were faints; the Marines welcomed the Afghans, ignored most of the FSO’s and because they have their own tac air, artillery, and rocket systems they were able to cut out both the big army command and control apparatus in Bagram and the Brits who head RC South at the Kandahar Airfield.

Tough fights call for tough men; another interesting photo from David Guttenfelder
Tough fights call for tough men; another interesting photo from David Guttenfelder

Last summer Gen Nicholson talked often about how hard it will be to dislodge the Taliban from places like Nawzad stating repeatedly that the battle would be tough and cost a ton in the only currency important to him; the blood of his Marines. Yet when the Marines moved into Nawzad they had little fighting to do. The Taliban (according to the MSM) had fled in advance of the Marines and nobody really knew where they ran off too because they are tricky bastards who look like local farmers when they move about the AO.

General Nicholson knew where they were and so did his Marines; they were dead. I guess they all migrated to paradise if there is a paradise for defeated armies who were stripped of their civilian cover, tricked by multiple feints into revealing their locations and plans, and then whittled down by small teams of reconnaissance Marines with attached snipers who don’t mind living in the rough forgoing pecan pie, A/C, and internet access while staying deep behind enemy lines for weeks at a time. One feint, two feint, three feint, four; call in an air strike and the Taliban are no more.  I just made that up but it should be a run jody for the 2nd  Recon battalion; that is exactly what they did then and are doing now.

While the Marines handled the close fight around Marjah they used the varsity Special Operations assets to go deep. Getting those organizations to work for you in a subordinate role is not just hard; it is one of the most impressive accomplishments of the Marine deployment to date. I’ve known General Nicholson and the senior members of his operations staff all my adult life and this last accomplishment impresses me more than anything else they have done since arriving in Afghanistan. That’s how hard it is to get the big boys to play nice. One of the consistent complaints concerning the Joint Special Operations forces in Afghanistan is their penchant for running operations without informing or coordinating or even talking to the battle space commander responsible for the area they were working. Tim of Panjwai once got a call from the Canadian HQ in Kandahar back in the day when he was on active duty and in command of a company deployed deep inside the Panjwai district:

Why are you currently fighting in the town of XXXX? he was asked.

Sir, I’m on my COP and were I not here and engaged in some sort of fight I assure you sir, that you would be the first to know.

Then who the hell is in XXXX wearing Canadian uniforms shooting the place up?

It was the varsity SF guys running their own mission with their own assets for reasons known only to them. Tim and his troops had to deal with the mess they created after they were long gone. To this day they have no idea what went on or if the mission’ which cost them in lost credibility, lost cooperation and the loss of hard earned good will was worth it.

The Marines made a deal last summer which went something like this: “we want you guys operating in our AO and we will give you priority on our rotary wing, intelligence and fire support assets but you have work with us integrating everything you do with our campaign plan.” It was not an easy sell and at first there was reluctance from the varsity to cooperate. But they gave it a shot and they started chalking up success after success and nothing attracts more talent into the game like success. While the Marine snipers and their recon brothers have been bleeding the Taliban around Marjah the varsity has been going deep and going deep often. All the big boys have joined the game now, the SAS, the SEAL’s, The Unit and other organizations who you have never heard of and never will hear about. It is true that killing lots of fighters is not that relevant in the COIN battle. Yet you still need to target and kill competent leaders along with any proficient logistic coordinators who pop up on the radar screen. The varsity SOF guys have been doing that for months. Soon we will know how effective their efforts have been.

According to this recent article; Gen McChrystal is seeing progress in Afghanistan. A close reading reveals that the signs of progress he mentions are all located in the AO of the 2nd  MEB. No mention of the Army Stryker brigade who patrols highways 4 and 1 at 15 miles per hour to detect IED’s. No mention of the other army brigades in the east, the southeast or any of the other NATO forces that operate in the rest of the country. This leads me to believe that the units in the rest of the country have yet to change their operational focus and are continuing to do what they’ve been doing for the past 7 years.

There is nothing easy about opoerating on foot outside the wire when you have to carry everything on your back - especially if you are from the 81mm mortar platoon. Photo by David Guttenfelder
There is nothing easy about operating on foot outside the wire when you have to carry everything on your back – especially if you are from the 81mm mortar platoon. Photo by David Guttenfelder

It would appear that the fate of the military and developmental effort has been placed onto the shoulders of a Brigadier General and his small band of Marines. Every US government agency that is supposed to be supporting him in this fight has failed to deliver. The Department of State and USAID are supposed to take on the hold and build portion of the operations in the south but when it came time to actually put district stabilization teams into the districts last summer they balked.

The few competent outside the wire contractors who are currently supporting the Marine efforts with USAID funded projects have to fight USAID FSO’s in order to do so. Many (not all) of the FSO’s are more concerned about procedure than results. They get pissed when small contractors working directly with the Marines cut them out of the loop.

A few hours ago the Marines crossed the line of departure and the battle has been joined by one of the biggest assault forces yet assembled in Afghanistan. If my read on this fight is correct then it will be over very quickly and the butchers bill will be small. The Marines will win, there is no question about that but that is the easy part. Somebody has to do the hold and build and it is not fair or smart to put that burden on the 2nd  MEB. Say a prayer for the fighting men from multiple nations who crossed the line of departure today. Then say another prayer seeking divine intervention with our political leaders so they get a clue and start demanding that the organizations who are supposed to be winning the peace do what they have been sent to do. It would be a crime to see all the sacrifices made by our military squandered due to apathy, risk aversion, lack of innovation and the parochial guarding of rice bowls.

Render who runs the Last Stand blog points out that my good friend Michael Yon sneaked into Afghanistan without stopping by the Taj (that’s twice now Michael which you know is a violation of combat correspondent Bushido code) so you will want to check his site often once he gets embedded. Until then the best source to check with daily is Bill Roggio’s Long War Journal.  Hat tip to Render… thanks brother, you rock.

* David Guttenfelder is an exceptionally talented professional photographer.   You can find a collection of his work at on this website.

Stop Making Sense

It is proving impossible to get a read on “the Afghan street” since our Commander in Chief articulated the new set of tactics for Afghanistan at his speech at West Point.   It is clear the dynamics on the ground have changed and that this change is being driven by the fact that our great communicator placed an arbitrary date on when we will be done and start going home.   Of course nobody in Afghanistan or any place else on planet earth believes we will start to pull out in 18 months but that is not the point.   Afghans currently populating positions of power have paid hefty sums to be appointed to those positions and are insisting on getting a good return on their investments before the gravy train leaves the station.   My military friends have seen the same thing as they fight endless battles on the Niper net to get the food allowances and other petty cash paid to their Afghan Army soldiers without getting the Afghan senior officers they mentor fired for bringing the problem up in the first place.   It is most depressing and leaves little for me to write about as I cannot blog on specifics which were told to me in confidence.

It is good to see the Army out and about in places like Kunar Province but this is not COIN because COIN takes living with and protecting the local population. Driving around glad handing the locals is a good thing but accomplishes nothing except adding stats to the unit ops board
It is good to see the Army out and about in places like Kunar Province but this is not COIN because COIN takes living with and protecting the local population. Driving around glad handing the locals is OK but accomplishes nothing except adding stats to the unit ops board.

I am at the moment inside both the loop and the wire.   There is a huge problem which we are trying to help fix and that is the “hold and build” portion of the “clear, hold and build” tactic which is our current strategy (even though it is not a strategy but I have been over that and will leave it for now.)     Here is the interesting thing – as we talk with the Marines (the only outfit on the ground who has successfully done the clear part of the mission and have an institutional legacy of innovation and thinking outside the box) – I am recognizing a concept which is at the heart of the Tea Party movement as well as the current alarm in American at our elected representatives shoving massive government take overs of our economy down our throats.   And here it is:   our government is not capable of developing or executing innovative, cost effective solutions to unique problems.   They are only capable of knee jerk reactions to events which have already happened all the while treating us citizens as if we are stupid, incapable of recognizing hypocrisy and too lazy to do anything about it.   The American ruling class may be proved correct in their assessment of a lethargic, uneducated, disconnected population and if so then my fellow Americans deserve what they will get which is a nanny state from hell coupled with generations of debt.

Downtown Jalalabad, busy, noisy, crowded, and relativly safe
Downtown Jalalabad, busy, noisy, crowded, and relatively safe.   Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar Province is in the east which despite the degree of insurgent activity remains clam enough to allow everyone (except the US Government agencies and the US military who remain locked down behind the wire in their various FOB’s) to get projects and commerce flowing.

Case in point – the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA agents/contractors in Khost.   There appears to be much confusion as to how this happened.   At first we were told the bomber was a known asset who could freely come and go as he pleased.       Now it is being reported that this cat had never been to FOB Chapman before but had provided “actionable intelligence”   in the past and had some really hot scoop which drew down the senior guys from Kabul.   Which is it?   I don’t know or care because it doesn’t matter.   The bad guys have smart bombs too and one of them found its way onto FOB Chapman. As I have repeatedly pointed out in past posts it is always easier and much cheaper to defeat a technology than it is to field it. How much does it cost us to keep the drones flying so that we can hit “high value target?”   We don’t know because those budgets are classified but it took less than 100 dollars worth of explosives for the bad guys smart bomb to score a big hit against us on multiple high value targets.

Here is the question – how many years have they (the CIA) been doing the exact same procedure in the exact same place? Does not field craft 101 state that you cannot run a static agent operation from the same base for almost a decade? Especially when that operation is designed to target bad guys for termination – would you not think that maybe running off the same base with the same security procedures for year after year is a bit unreasonable?

Downtown Lashka Gar - the capitol of Helmand province which is in the south. Not too crowded not
Downtown Lashkar Gah – the capitol of Helmand province which is in the south. Not crowded, not noisy, not too busy,   not that safe. The Taliban are costing the people of this region their shot at getting back to where they were in the early 1970’s.   Do you think they do not realize this?

Our vaunted CIA never leaves the wire under any circumstances even in tame places like Jalalabad so all their intel comes from people who walk into the FOB’s.   How good is the product they are producing using these risk averse intelligence gathering techniques and procedures?   It is worthless – or as the general in charge of military intelligence put it “marginally relevant.”   Maj Gen Michael Flynn is one of those general officers I would really like to know – a man who clearly is fighting the Counterbureaucracy battle with skill, insight and passion like a true patriot. The wires are currently humming with this report on the state of our intelligence efforts.   It seems that after all the time, money, and blood we spent in Afghanistan we are unable to provide the war-fighter or decision-maker with any useful intelligence products.

This picture was taken today outside on of our secure bases in the Helmand - that is a local Afghan guard doing the searching. I asked the ISAF guys at the gate who that guard was and how long he had been working for them. They had no idea.
This picture was taken today outside one of our secure bases in Helmand Province – that is a local Afghan guard doing the searching. I asked the ISAF guys at the gate who that guard was and how long he had been working for them. They had no idea. We have all the money in the world for MRAP’s,   bat wing stealth fighter jets and aircraft carriers but no money for a simple bomb dog contract which would substantially increase the personal safety of the 1000 or so servicemen on this base.   That is your Big Government at work – lots of smart people acting stupidly as a matter of routine.   If you are a British citizen don’t laugh – this is one of your bases.

It appears the only “actionable intelligence” being generated on the ground is being generated by infantrymen on the ground which is to say generated by the Marines in the south (the only armed force consistently outside the wire and “on the ground” in theater.)   My father, a retired Marine Corps general officer often told me the only intel he ever received in 35 years of active service worth more than a warm cup of spit was intel he generated himself with his Marines.   My Dad hated the CIA, hated Special Forces – pretty much had no use for any “special” organization to include the Marines’ own Force Recon.   All they had ever done for him was to get his Marines killed in stupid rescue missions which he was forced to launch in response to urgent requests from some “snake eaters” who had discovered that they could not, in fact, just melt away into the jungle when the NVA were in the area and on their ass.

Let me try a little application of common sense starting with the   attempt on Christmas day to blow up an American airliner which was handled so amateurishly by the current administration.   Mark Levin and the rest of the freedom media has that aspect of the story covered so I’ll take another angle.   The underpant bomber (I know I should say suspect) who I shall now call Mr. Bacon-strip was in the tropical paradise of Yemen for demolition training.   He was issued a pair of underwear with det cord sewn into it and a chemical ignition system and told to fly into Chicago and blow up the plane just before it lands.   His detonator failed which allowed a journalist from Europe (of all places) to jump the little turd, give him some chin music (good thing he is not a SEAL or he’d be in legal trouble) and stop him from trying to ignite the explosives which apparently had caught fire and burned off a good portion of his Johnson.   In response the “experts” at Homeland security issued a dictate that no passenger can have anything in his/her/their/its lap or watch the entertainment system or read a book for the final hour of international flights.

Two questions; was this a good operation from the oppositions point of view? (The attack in Khost sure was and I hear they even filmed it.) And what the hell is the purpose behind taking away everything from passengers on the final leg of an international flight? Conventional wisdom seems to be of the opinion that the operation was well planned and executed minus the faulty detonator and the response by American Homeland Security is stupid and pointless.   Conventional wisdom is wrong.

I have taken more than my share of demolition classes over the years – the longest being a ten day assault breacher course (back in the 90’s that course was classified available only to us “special” folk – assault breaching is now a common infantry technique.)   After that training I was very proficient with demolitions and would have had no problem figuring out a how to set off det cord with or without a proper detonator.   My initial demolition training with the Marine Corps at The Basic School was just four hours after which my classmates and I blew up an old tractor – there was nothing left of it but a smoking hole in the ground.   When you are working with educated, bright, motivated people like Mr Bacon-strip mastering demolitions takes little time or practice.   So how long was he in training?   Weeks? Days? Hours?   Get the point?

Why is this Kuchi family camped out at the base of the Spin Ghar mountains with all those donkey's? Let me guess "engaging in appropriate international trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan?" You think? Of course not and the shame here is all you need to do is go talk to these people slip them a modest amount of money and some antibiotics and they' ll be on their way without any dramas. If you are really smart you would slip some transponders on the damn donkey's but that is spy shit best left to the CIA if and when they ever get off their FOB's.
Why is this Kuchi family camped out at the base of the Spin Ghar mountains with all those donkey’s at this time of the year? Let me guess; “engaging in appropriate, legal, and necessary   international trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan?” You think?   Of course not and the shame here is all you need to do is go talk to these people, slip them a modest amount of money and some antibiotics for the animals, and they’ ll be on their way without any dramas and without hauling tons of ammunition over the border for the bad guys who have taken the time to talk with them and slip them a little money.

Then the jerk goes to Europe, buys a one-way ticket to America with cash, doesn’t check in any luggage… that state of the art field craft for al Qaeda?   Of course not; that little shit (…sorry I mean man caused disaster suspect)   did everything he could to get caught by behaving in a manner which shouted to anyone paying attention “I am a terrorist.”   This attempt was amateur hour and you know why I think it was?   Because the guys pulling this little jerks strings had no intention of blowing up a plane.   They wanted what they got – a failed attempt which embarrasses the U.S. (as if the current administration needs help in that area,) costs us tons of money to re-mediate and leads to what they really want which is the harassment and stigmatization of Islamic people flying into western nations.   Remember the various organizations flying the al Qaeda flag are at war with us and they need to keep their base motivated just like we do.   What better way then to finally force the United States to treat all Muslims as suspects with our heavy handed TSA?   It will piss them off …. just ask Michael Yon who was recently detained at the SeaTac airport for exercising his constitutional right to call bullshit on a petty agent of the state who demanded to know his level of income.

What about the Homeland Security response to Bacon-strip?   Why force people to remain in their seats for the final hour of a flight?   I have heard pundits saying that the terrorist would just blow the plane up two hours before hitting the United States so the rule is pointless.   I agree the rule is pointless as is much of crap we must put up with to fly around the United States but there is a certain logic to it.   Terrorists are not going to blow up a plane two hours out because the plane then falls out of the sky into the ocean and nobody knows what happened nor do they really care.   Remember the Air France plane which plunged into the Atlantic en route from Brazil last year?   Not many people do and nobody knows why that plane went down.   It could have been the first Mr. Bacon-strip for all we know but we don’t know and never will because the ocean is a big, deep, cold, dark place which knows how to keep a secret.   Janet Nepolitano isn’t really a brain dead bureaucrat incapable of saying anything other than focus group pablum.   She knows we can’t really protect our selves from terrorist aboard international airlines and has therefore put in rules that will hopefully get them to act outside the United States.   If a plane full of mostly Americans gets blown up outside the US that is not her problem and if she is really lucky it will go down in the ocean and be nobody’s problem.

Turning our attention back to Afghanistan we see nothing but doom and gloom.   This article, featuring expert analysis by retired Army General Barry McCaffrey says we should expect 500 casualties per month this summer.   If you did not have a reason to ignore talking head generals before you have one now because McCaffrey’s opinion, shaped by unlimited access inside the US military security bubble, is about as stupid as anything else emanating from the Temple of Doom (a.k.a. White House.)     Barry McCaffrey is one of those generals I have no desire to ever meet.

Armed AID workers? This is the model the boss and I have pushed for the past year and one we proved can work in the most heavily contested regions of the country. We are at it still but find it hard to generate more than passing interest from the various US government agencies in Kabul who are busy gurading their rice bowls as the coutry continues to slide into anarchy. Amy Sun is responsible for bringing real hope and change - in the form of a Fab Lab and high speed internet to the kids of Nangarhar Province and it has cost the American taxpayer not one red cent. Do you think that US AID of the Department of State want to reinfoce her success by funding more Fab Labs? Nope. What they care about is their rice bowls and nobody is going to upset their apple carts by bringing in technology and program which actually work.
Armed AID workers? This is the model the boss and I have pushed for the past year and one we proved can work in the most heavily contested regions of the country. We are at it still but find it hard to generate more than passing interest from the various US government agencies in Kabul who are busy gurading their rice bowls as the coutry continues to slide into anarchy. Amy Sun is responsible for bringing real hope and change – in the form of a Fab Lab and high speed internet to the kids of Nangarhar Province and it has cost the American taxpayer not one red cent. Do you think that US AID of the Department of State want to reinforce her success by funding more Fab Labs? Nope. What they care about is their rice bowls and nobody is going to upset their apple carts by bringing in technology and programs which actually work.

McCaffrey sites the Army debacles at Wanat and FOB Keating as examples of very clever fighters with ferocious combat capabilities who I guess are going to pick up their game this summer and put the whoop ass on us.   The Taliban affiliates and their foreigner mercenaries can be cleaver and have demonstrated the will (occasionally) to advance under fire.   But Ferocious combat capabilities?   Like what?   They throw everything they have after planning for weeks at isolated American troops and accomplish what?   They can’t even inflict double digit casualties.   When they mass like they did at both Wanat and Keating the American military (after the attack never before) lifts all its restrictions on artillery and air delivered ordinance, puts its SF teams and their Afghan Commando counterparts into the field, and proceeds to run down any group larger than two people who seem to be heading towards the Pakistan border.   The SF guys I talked with who responded to the attack on FOB Keating are certain that they bagged every dirt bag involved in that attack.   Even the Iraqis who, also suck at fighting, could do better than that.   There are brave Taliban fighters and even a few who can hit what they are shooting at but small groups of brave fighters are no match for the American, British, French or even the German military because we know the two C’s; combined arms and cohesion.

We have been at this going on nine years.   The security situation has steadily deteriorated in that time.   We are fighting (for the most part) Pashtoon peoples who have some sort of Taliban affiliation.   We are not fighting the Tajiks, Uzbecks, Hazara, or Turkimen peoples who populate the northern portions of the country.   In this respect our current operations are not anywhere near as difficult or comprehensive as those mounted by the old Soviet Union.   We spend billions to be here and most of that money is ending up in the pockets of Afghan elites and war lords or the corporate coffers of various European and American companies.   It seems to me that if we had small teams of guys going about the countryside telling all who care to listen that we’ll pay 1 million dollars to anyone who produces a live Taliban and 2 million to anyone who produces a live al Qaeda foreigner that we would not only save billions but we would have finished this adventure a long time ago.   That is just one hair brained idea – I have hundreds more.   How about dropping plastic bags containing   porno magazines, a loaded syringe full of heroin, 3 little bottles of good scotch and a cell phone which only dials 900 numbers into areas along the border which are known routes of infiltration.   I know ….what am I thinking…plastic bags?   Bad for the environment and they’ll produce greenhouse gases when burned so the program would need to purchase carbon credits from AlGore……

Yes that is a seriously stupid plan which would never really work….well it would work but the fallout would be intense and rightfully so.     But I tell you one thing – at least it is a plan which is more than most the military outfits operating in this theater have.