My latest trip included a quick stop in a dusty, sparsely populated corner of Afghanistan where I found my best friend Colonel Paul Kennedy USMC. Paul and I were instructors at the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) 20 years ago, after IOC we were both pulled out of the last quarter of the Amphibious Warfare School to work together on a project for then LtGen Krulak. We later ended up in Okinawa at the same time where we were battalion operations officers (we were still captains then). We both were selected to be Recruiting Station commanders back in the late 90’s when every other service were failing to make their annual recruiting quotas. I had RS Salt Lake City and after missing mission the first month of my tour I never failed again. Paul had RS San Francisco and never once failed to make mission. Think about that … San Francisco, not the most military friendly town in America and he not only made his mission but consistently over shipped month in and month out to carry the 12 Marine Corps Recruiting District during the days when making mission was a nightmare. I had all of Montana, Idaho, Utah and a good bit of Wyoming and Nevada to recruit from, but rarely had the bones to over ship. When it comes to leading Marines and accomplishing the mission, regardless of what that mission may be, Paul is one of the guys I’ll admit is better than I was at leading Marines.
Paul is currently commanding Regimental Combat Team 2, which has around 6000 Marines on its rolls. They will ultimately comprise half of the ground combat power for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (forward) when it arrives in country sometime this spring. Paul has developed into one of the finest combat commanders of his generation. His combat tour in Ramadi, Iraq where he commanded the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines (2/4) was a battle from the start, which has been documented in books by Bing West and Oliver North. He was hard pressed on several occasions, sustaining heavy casualties while inflicting much heavier losses on his attackers. Despite fighting virtually every day during his year in Ramadi he was able to restore city infrastructure, open local schools and he never shot artillery or ran tac air into the city. There are at least three Marines in his regiment who are brothers of 2/4 Marines killed in action in Ramadi during Paul’s tenure as the commanding officer. He knows this because their mothers have written him to say that there is no other leader in the Corps they would want watching over their son as he ships out to fight the Taliban. That the younger brothers of those lost warriors would work the system to join his regiment so that they too could have a chance to fight under such a dynamic, proficient combat leader is, even to me, stunning. I don’t know about you but when I hear that a mother who has already lost a son in Iraq has written Paul to tell him another of her precious sons is currently under his command as he again enters the fray and that both Marine and parent would have it no other way, it brings a little water to my eyes. Paul’s too, but I pretended not to notice things like that (USMC Bushido Code rules.)
Paul and the 6000 or so of his closest friends here with him have a very tough road ahead of them. They are taking over towns which have been giving the British army fits over the past years while simultaneously taking on new areas under solid Taliban control. Paul has no intention of using the “penny packet” outpost system currently being used by allied forces in places like Musa Qala. He has no intention of allowing his main LOC’s to be cut and dominated by the Taliban. He has no intention of leaving his maneuver battalions on FOB’s, nor does he plan to be on his for very much of the next year. He intends to find, fix and destroy every armed group operating in his AO so that he can get to the real mission assigned to him, which is to hold and build. Nobody knows how to use violence of action to take the fight to insurgents better than the Marines. All it takes is one look at the infantrymen of RCT 2 to get the clue that a new apex predator has moved into northern Helmand Province. No greater friend, no worse enemy; you can take that to the bank.
Paul already has one of his maneuver battalions on deck, the 1st Battalion 2nd Marines (pronounce one/two in Marine speak), commanded by LtCol Mike Manning, a student of ours back when we were on the IOC staff. Mike and his battalion command group spend four to five days a week on operations with joint Marine/Afghan Army patrols, living and sleeping in the rough like traditional infantry. Two of his three rifle companies are out in the boonies at all times. They are not finding too many bad guys in the Naw Zad area, so they spend most of their time interacting with and helping out the local population. As I have said in the past, there are very few places in this country which do not welcome American infantry. The caveat is that the Afghans would prefer the Americans- or British or Canadian or Norwegians to hang around for a year or two to eradicate the conditions that drive the cycle of violence. One of the places I would not have expected to welcome the Marines would be Naw Zad because most of the farmers in that area have fought for or support the other side in this conflict. That makes little difference to the Marines who are more than willing to let bygones be bygones as long as everyone can get along. It is when the local villains decide not to play nice that the true difference between the Marine way of fighting and theirs becomes evident.
Western armies have three options upon enemy contact: violence of action in the form of direct assault by heavy infantry, using supporting arms to soften the enemy followed by a direct assault, or using direct arms in combination with direct fire to punish the enemy before withdrawing without making physical contact. The last option, although the most common response by NATO units, is the least preferred. Fire without maneuver is a waste of resources and accomplishes little.
As I have said in the past humans can adapt to aerial bombardment over time but they can never adapt to another human who has come to kill them at close range. Bombs ultimately do not scare humans; humans scare humans. Just as the Koreans and Chinese learned to avoid the “yellow legs” during the Korean War and Somalis learned to fear the “black boots” and the Haitians rapidly figured out not to tangle with the “white sleeves“, the Taliban in Northern Helmand are about to get the same graduate-level education that their southern brethren started receiving over a year ago when Duffy White and his Regimental Combat Team arrived in country. Trying to play shoot and scoot with the Marines is a dead mans game. Use IED attacks on the Marines and they will quickly get “left of the boom” to collect the scalps they are due. The local Talib leaders can stay here and go with the program to reap the benefits of American generosity as we re-build this shattered land or they can leave for some other shit hole to cause mischief or they can try to fight. There are no longer any other options for them in the Helmand Province.
The Marines from RCT 2 are going to prove predictable too. When attacked they will respond with direct assaults and once contact is made they will not let go until their tormentors are decimated. Direct assaults break the cycle of violence by stripping the bad guys of experienced fighters. Experienced fighters who keep their wits in the face of direct assault are dangerous adversaries. They can cost you a fortune in time, ammo, or blood – the three commodities you never have enough of in combat. Less experienced cadres will do one of three things: stay in place because they are too freaked out to move; break contact and run because they are too freaked out to stay; or quickly surrender because they are too freaked out to fight. Afghans do not have a cultural history of standing firm in battle and slugging it out toe to toe with heavy infantry. Only men of the west fight using that style of warfare, which is why western armies have dominated those of other lands since the battle of Plataea in 479 B.C. I am not saying the Afghan Taliban does not have brave fighters….they do, but brave individual fighters do not a cohesive combat unit make. The shock of rapid, violent assault by multiple platoons from multiple angles is something only a well trained, well equipped, well supported western army can handle. The Talibs of Helmand Province are accustomed to ISAF forces engaging from a 1000 meters out, dropping some tac air or arty on them and withdrawing. RCT 2 doesn’t play the drop ordinance and withdraw game. They play the close with you and stay on your ass until you are dead game.
Although I was able to talk at great length with Paul about his combat experience that was not why he wanted to see me. I have always wondered if the theories about human factors in combat we studied so diligently, argued over so passionately and taught to our students 20 years ago turned out to be true. They did but I don’t want to bore you with that least I catch you know what from you know who. Paul has the combat part of his mission down cold but understands that his band of Killer Angels has a much harder mission than seeking out and destroying their enemies. They need to master the “hold and build”, which is not something combat units train to do. The true mission of RCT 2 is described perfectly in today’s excellent post by Richard Fernandez at the Belmont Club.
“Kaplan describes how in the process of muddling along through intractable situations, the US military has become the master of the possible, simply because they have had to be. Kaplan predicts they may succeed in Afghanistan yet again and that very success will become a poisoned pawn.
The secret to their success, Kaplan says in his article Man Versus Afghanistan, is that the men in the field have discovered what their political masters have long forgotten: legal concepts are not enough. Governance doesn’t just mean installing someone, anyone – let alone someone as corrupt as Karzai- and recognizing them as sovereign. Governance means the ability to harness a population’s aspirations to make things work. To paraphrase Lenin’s famous observation on Communism, counterinsurgency is the freedom agenda plus competence. And the worst thing about the US military, Kaplan says, is that they’ve learned to do it. Kaplan describes how McChrystal has approached the problem and is at some level alarmed at how good at it they’ve become.”
Mullah John and Raybo who are working the southwest for Ghost Team are going to be helping with the hold and build as they implement a very clever USAID project, which has flat lines of authority, flexibility, and speedy implementation built into the project design. This program is the follow-on to the very small project Panjwai Tim and I did last summer, and to the everlasting credit of USAID, has been reinforced by extra cash. Mullah John has over 10,000 Afghans working in Helmand, Farah and Nimroz Provinces and the only internationals involved are Raybo, an Aussie bloke I don’t know in Farah, and Mullah John. That is an unbelievable accomplishment considering the project started last December. Despite this success the best thing one can say about the other US Government agencies who are responsible for the “hold and build” is that they do not hinder our efforts in the cash for work programs currently being implemented by Ghost Team. The various funding streams for reconstruction, with their associated rules and multiple agencies who manage these complex programs from the safety of big box FOB’s makes the job of executing the “build” portion a supremely difficult task.
What is going to be even more difficult is reinforcing the success of Team Canada and crew as they grow what was once a small cash for work program into a regional reconstruction vehicle. The big boys in the reconstruction biz did not hire a platoon of former AID executives and a squad of retired Marine Colonels to lose business and prestige to a band of small upstarts who have accomplished in months what they have not been able to do in years. The Marine Corps, given their history of innovation, their institutional bias for action and our personal relationships with the current commanders are a perfect match to do effective hold and build. As I have blogged in the past it is possible to do reconstruction in contested areas without ridiculously expensive, completely ineffective security measures like B6 armored trucks and know- nothing gun goons escorting your expats. My good friends and I have been doing it for years and we are just now gaining traction with the guys who matter. I’m feeling more optimistic about the ultimate outcome of our adventure in Afghanistan then I have at any point in the five years I have been here. Time will tell if my optimism is warranted, but my money is and will remain on the Marines.
As the cool weather finally moves into Afghanistan I have to tell you that from my perspective not much is happening. I am not talking about security incidents – they almost doubled last week from a near all time high the week before. There is lots of villianary going on – the weather is perfect for it – but nothing seems to be really changing. One gets the impression that the players from all sides want to maintain the current status quo because all the sides are benefiting.
Last week yet another story about one of the ISAF countries paying the Taliban to keep things on the down low came out. This story implied the French losses in last August action around the Uzbin Valley were directly tied to them failing to maintain the financial arrangements of their predecessors from Italy. There are hundreds of stories about how the Taliban and their various allies are benefiting from the current war as are various government officials and a rouges gallery of warlords. NATO has issued a strong denial that any of its members are paying off potential trouble makers.
I don’t believe the NATO spokesman nor do I believe there is a direct correlation between payments to local centers of influence by the Italians and the attack on the French patrol in the Uzbin. If the French had known about such an arrangement and refused to honor it one suspects they would have been better prepared when they ran into their first ambush. However there is no question that “centers of influence” on every side of this conflict are making a lot of money by allowing or protecting or stealing from the unbelievable amount of supplies moving into Afghanistan. This is a fact which is not in dispute – many people including myself believe the various Taliban units make much more cash in the protection racket than they make in the poppy trade.
Most of the money being paid for protection is coming from the reconstruction effort and as with most things in life is not as straight forward as paying cash to the head bad guy to be left alone. The cash comes from establishing local monopolies such as vehicle and heavy equipment rentals. If people had any idea how much money there is in waste removal trucks servicing the many different FOB’s and COP’s which dot the countryside we would have a Gold Rush of poop removal prospectors combing Central Asia for honey dipper trucks. Having a monopoly on poop trucks, or fuel tankers, or rock crushers, could make a man millions quickly in Afghanistan. The other way money is extracted from the effort is by providing security or a construction services. Much has been written about the efforts in Kabul to regulate the security industry but once outside the capitol every local power broker has both his own security and construction company and failing to utilize these services invites attack.
There are persistent rumors that the local Army FOB at the Jalalabad Airport is being targeted with rockets by local “land owners” because they are not paying enough rent. My Army friends have heard this too and have not a clue about what it is all about because they don’t pay rent. It is possible that some locals are not happy with the current unit. The CO banned the weekly bazaar in which dozens of local vendors would participate. This was an economic loss to local businessmen but given the amount of aircraft, drones and munitions on the base a reasonable precaution. It is hard to believe that somehow somebody important is no longer getting their cut and is letting lose with 107mm rockets as a result. But they are shooting one or two every week or so. The skipper hired well diggers to go out into the fields next to the base to dig up the dud rockers (they function about 50% of the time) but the army remains convinced they aren’t being shot at.
I’ll tell you this … when us outside the wire contractors fall behind of paying local subcontractors our personal security goes right out of the window. Many a firm has had important local national staff kidnapped and in some cases international staff attacked over money issues. As I have observed in the past experienced mafia leaders would feel very at home operating businesses in Afghanistan.
One of these days the local shooter is going to get lucky with his 107 rockets and hit the fuel pit or ammo dump which will get every-one’s attention for about four or five days. I doubt he is aiming at those sites or even wants to hit them which is why it seems that everything is just moving along the same way it always does. We lose a fuel tanker here, a few men in a MRAP there, the drones continue to kill with scary precision, the military talks COIN but when you observe them operating in and around Kabul you see a attrition warfare oriented army of occupation completely removed and divorced from the locals they are supposed to be protecting.
My prediction for the future is that nothing will change. The President has made it clear he intends to continue vote present. Now he is waiting for the election results in order to determine the best way forward to pursue our goals (whatever the hell they may be) in Afghanistan. John Kerry, who was a CAB Chaser before there were CAB’s, has weighed into the debate helping out President Obama by declaring that targeted strikes combined with Special Forces missions will not be enough to “win” in Afghanistan. It always helps to have a senior senator like Kerry coming out in direct opposition to your Vice President’s new strategary when you are running the clock.
Several trial balloons being floated out of the White House. The Pakistan First idea which is favored by VP Biden and maybe three other people; the we are “prepared to accept some Taliban involvement in Afghanistan’s political future” idea – the quote is from a White House press briefing. The third option (which I believe will be the one Obama goes with) is to declare status quo as victory and start to wind things down real slow like. The only problem with that last option is that the bad guys get a vote on your plan too and once they see the money train is leaving the station it is hard to predict just how poorly they will react. It is safe to say that regardless of the direction our current administration takes Afghanistan is going to continue to get more unstable and more violent. The Afghans I know don’t want this but they also understand just how little they can influence current events. Life is hard; harder when you are stupid and there seems to be an inordinate amount of stupid people on all sides trying to “manage” the fight in Afghanistan.
I have been victimized this week by a crashed internet system and one false start on this post. In addition when I do get a little net time I am engaged in several email conversations with FRI readers some of these are so good I may post them as standalone articles. Chris Chivers of the New York Times has been one of the readers I have been chatting with and it is his piece here which is the start point for this week’s post. This post will be unreasonably massive at times confusing but stick with it and I’ll tie all it all together in the end, inshallah. Bonus feature alert: this post includes a photo story board covering last Monday’s assassination attempt on President Karzai’s brother. I was on the road that day too with my faithful finance officer Misael, who hails from the island of Mindanao but claims to be a Catholic and not a Abu Sayef member. When we turned a corner in the Tangi Valley and saw all the expended brass in the road, he ignored his collateral duty as photographers mate and wedged himself firmly under the dash board. Misael has spent the last year in Kandahar and has developed an exaggerated sense of danger but I’ll get him snapped in soon enough. So there are only a few marginal pictures from a point and shoot camera due to the insistence of the ANP that we keep moving … probably a good idea.
I commented last week that this story shows the way forward but I was talking in nuanced terms as our democratic leaders would say which is stateist speak for not telling the whole story. The article covers a rifle company from the 1st Battalion 26th Infantry as they conduct a 40 hour sweep in the Korangel Valley of Kunar Province. That the rifle company was conducting a sweep is the good part of the story everything else about it is, to the professional observer, bad. Let us start with the duration of this patrol … 40 hours. That amount of time outside the wire means the troops reached the limit of their endurance given the heavy loads they must carry. In the last war we fought that rifle companies patrolled on their own (Vietnam), patrolling outside the wire for only 40 hours would have been labeled light weight. The company patrol Chivers wrote about was anything but light weight – here is the story.
There was one General Officer who left Vietnam with his reputation not only intact but enhanced was Major General Razor Ray Davis of the 3rd Marine Division. He deployed his under strength, poorly equipped, infantry battalions out into the bush of Northern I Corps (near the DMZ between south and north Vietnam) to find fix and destroy the NVA maneuver regiments who infested the area. Forty hours? Try 21 days or more of patrolling and if they were not making contact he flew out, talked with the CO, called in a squadron of CH-46’s (the same Marine helicopters still in use today) and flew the battalion to an area that showed more promise. My father, an operations officer with one of those battalions, said they smelled so bad at the end of one of these sweeps that when flown out to a Navy LPH, the ship’s captain insisted they strip in the hanger bay throw all their uniforms (what was left of them) overboard and get hosed down with fire hoses before going anywhere else on his ship. That didn’t work out to well for the Captain in case you were wondering.
What has changed? Several things, starting with the amount of armor our troops must wear and ending with the risk aversion and force protection mind set which has infused the United States Military . Between those two data points lies a chain of command which is designed to reflect responsibility away from senior officers a development that I, a retired professional, find reprehensible. Let me cover that last statement first and we can start right here to see the results of a military decision making by committee. The story is about the first female Air Force Academy graduate to die in Afghanistan. She was killed by a anti tank mine on the road between Bagram and Kabul. The road was built by the Soviets to bypass the Shomali Plains where they were constantly ambushed back in the day. I took Megan Ortagus, who was embedding with the Army, down that road a month ago and pointed out all the massive pot holes that local children from a recently established refugee camp fill with sand in hopes that passing vehicles will throw them some cash or water. I wish I had a picture but imagine this – the only road connecting our main airbase in Bagram with our bases in Kabul is full of potholes so big that kids are constantly filling them with sand so vehicles can drive at a reasonable pace. These holes are just the right size to hold a TC 6 or MK 7 anti tank mine – the most common mines here – and I pointed out to Megan that if we had a military focused on counterinsurgency the first thing they would have done (like 7 years ago) would have been to fix and seal the road between their main airhead and main bases. We are talking at most twenty miles or so of road and every night Terry Taliban could have been effortlessly seeding this route with antitank mines by the hundreds BECAUSE THE HOLES WERE ALREADY THERE AS WAS THE SAND TO COVER THE MINES. I also told Megan that when they do mine that road it will be an indicator of bloody times directly ahead. The only question now is who is going to do the bleeding us or our enemies? I don’t know, so lets get back to the story line.
As I mentioned earlier, the forty hour patrol tested the limits of endurance of this rifle company for one simple reason – they carry too much weight. If you are going to go after insurgents who occupy the higher passes of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range (hint, hint) why in the name of God would you be wearing body armor and helmets? We had this kind of warfare figured out about 50 years ago when the Marine Corps established the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. A mountain warfare training rotation was most popular with the troops because they didn’t have to wear helmet and flak jackets during the training. All this talk about fielding lighter body armor is ridiculous – we should be talking about no body armor, no ballistic helmets, and patrols that go out and stay out when working places like the Korengal Valley. These days the Pentagon would recoil in horror at the mere thought of troops stepping one foot off a FOB without full ballistic protection these are the same officers and officials who reacted to the Mogadishu battle in 1993 by trying to buy more F- 32 ground superiority, center of excellence, air dominating, stealth, bat winged, frog footed, super quiet, swift, silent and deadly anti – guerilla fighter jet. I may have the nomenclature on that wrong. OK, OK, I’m making the plane up but what about armored protection for the vehicles used by ground troops? Did not the battle in the streets of Mogadishu illustrate the need for that? Apparently careful study by our military experts determined that armored vehicles and ballistic plates were not a legitimate requirement for ground combat. Not until Secretary Rumsfeld started taking heat after we had invaded Iraq did anyone find the money to armor up our vehicles and troops. But now the mere thought of operating without all the armor that the Pentagon was forced to buy about a decade after your average 7 year old could have figured out we should armor up some of our infantry vehicles and buy ballistic armor for all the troops now it is just inconceivable that they operate without it even when they are climbing around 12,000 foot mountain passes. Is it me or does this not strike you as stupid?
What happens when our men get shot you ask? I ask what happens when they don’t. Coach Vince Lombardi had the last word on this topic when he said “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” The argument against body armor is that too much weight causes physical exhaustion (lots of orthopedic injuries too) and physically exhausted troops are easier to hit. That they survive being hit is something which is good but I am firmly in the “I want to hit the enemy and not be hit myself” camp. I’ve been shot before and it hurts like hell so I’ll do most anything to avoid getting shot again. I’m all for ballistic armor in most times and places but we are talking serious mountains and you cannot conduct mountain warfare in armor – I don’t care how fit the force is. Hitting the enemy is what it is all about – and hitting the enemy is easier when you are not dehydrated and exhausted. Read some of the articles recently published by Mr. Chivers. He points out the enemy is physically weak, they appear malnourished, they can’t shoot a rifle with any accuracy, they cannot shoot mortars or machineguns in a remotly professional manner, nor can they coordinate among themselves. These guys suck at fighting so why are we not dominating them like the chumps they are? Why? Because we do not have a clearly defined mission and thus have no understanding of why we are here which results in extreme risk aversion because the only measurement of success is keeping your casualties low as humanly possible. That’s why.
What is our mission in Afghanistan? I have been here four years and I don’t have a clue. If it is to prevent the return of the Taliban and al Qaeda, that mission was accomplished years ago. They will never be back in any kind of force regardless of when and how we leave. Is it to stand up a central government to allow the people of Afghanistan to join the rest of the functioning core of nation states? That is a noble mission and one I often used to explain why we are here years ago when I first started talking to local leaders in Shrua’s. But our actions on the ground do not remotely correspond to that mission (if that is why we are here.) How can you mentor Afghans if all your diplomats stay completely isolated from them inside a posh embassy throwing endless rounds of parties for each other? Look at the Afghan government. It is judged by all international observers to be in the top three nation sates for official corruption and you can see where all the billions we have spent has gone. Just like the TARP money it has disappeared into thin air and we have nothing to show for it.
This is how big the disconnect is between the inside the wire military and the rest of us currently residing on planet earth – I lifted it from Michael Yon’s website earlier in the week: From: IDR-TCMC-Office Manager
TO:[Distribution list including contractors.]
Sent: Saturday, 16 May, 2009 4:52 PM
The security state at KAF has been raised. Please ensure that all contractors at KAF, including visitors and transit personnel comply with the following instruction. The security dress state has changed to wearing Combat Body Armour and carrying Helmet when outside a hardened structure. Inside they are to be readily available. There is also now an additional alarm sounding which is a warbling alarm, and is the warning of a Ground Attack and all personnel should move inside a building and await further instructions. Instructions for Op ***** which will cover this procedure will be disseminated in the near future. All contractor personnel are to ensure that they carry their ID on them at all times. Further information is available from the TCMC if required.
Game On? How about Game over? This is the law of unintended consequences in action and let me explain why. Our Department of State has insisted on letting the Afghan government do what it wants and one of things they have done is to make the possession of body armor, helmets, weapons, two way radios, and armored cars against the law unless you are a licensed security company. Every contractor on that base who owns and issues body armor and helmets to his or her employees has violated the law of the land. This, according to our military, is grounds for contract termination (failure to comply with all local laws). Check out my post here which was a cover feature in last March’s Soldier of Fortune magazine. This is what happens to contractors working outside the wire who have body armor – note also I had proper licenses. The NDS took the body armor from two MIT PhD candidates knowing full well they were clients and that we were operating in accordance with the law. But let us ignore the law like the State Department and our military do with their contractors and look at ramifications. Say I have 1000 men working construction aboard the Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and receive the memo above. It is now what military guys call a “specified task” meaning it must be addressed and I must comply or face mission failure. 1000 guys x $1800 or so for average body armor equal $1,800,000 which I would invoice immediately along with a contact modification. There are over 10,000 contractors working aboard KAF. Get the picture?
The military is not congress. They cannot impose unfunded mandates on their contractors. Why do all the construction guys, accountants, cooks, bakers, Timmy Horton’s coffee shop girls etc need body armor and helmets? So they can put them on after a missile hits? The Army used to pull that silly drill in Kabul back in 2005. A rocket would land somewhere in Kabul and all the bases and the embassy would sound alarms sending all hands into bunkers with helmets and body armor. But even the slowest force protection officer began to realize that taking measures to mitigate an event which has already occurred was stupid. But Tim, you ask, what if more missiles came? Well we have these things called counter- battery radars which have been around for about 30 years and they so good that the launch point of any indirect fire system is determined before the projectile lands. Even the illiterate peasants commonly conned into launching missiles have figured out that remaining at a launch site is certain death for them. There has not been an indirect fire attack involving volley after volley of rockets in this country since 2001. Not one. Unsurprisingly, this fact never stopped the force protection officers from insisting that all hands wear body armor and helmets after a rockets had landed in Kabul back in ’05. The troops, diplomats and others inside these compounds would only comply for, at most, four hours before they started taking the crap off because it was uncomfortable (and stupid.) When you do not have the time, talent or money to do what is important the unimportant becomes important and that is what the memo above is all about.
Contracting officers like the one who wrote the memo above have a very hard job. They can earn no glory, they do not receive praise, the best thing that can happen to them on a tour in Afghanistan is to return home with their rank and reputation. To avoid the temptation or appearance of fraud or favoritism they write requests for proposals which make little to no sense and award contracts based exclusively on the lowest bid submitted. What is the price for disconnecting contracting from performance? You get security guards hired to protect bases who actually murder American soldiers. I know of three such incidents and there are more. I had a friend show up at the Taj who was asked to stand up a guard force as soon as he could to replace an outfit named Golden State. There is no company by that name on the Afghan list of 37 authorized security companies. It was a rogue outfit run by some Afghans who spent time in America and their bid for these guard jobs was less than half what the reputable firms bid. They won, they sucked, they were fired and shot at their Army employers on the way out the door but, being typical Afghans, they did not hit anyone. I asked my buddy if the Army had finally figured out their guard forces needed international supervision and of course the answer was no. Too expensive don’t you see. Our Army will spend 2 million dollars each on ground penetrating radars to mount on the front of the hundreds of multimillion dollar MRAPs despite the fact that they HAVE NEVER DETECTED A MINE IN AFGHANISTAN. But spending money on proper guard forces to watch over our troops on a base oh no, that is just too expensive. Buying uniforms and proper boots for the American contractor mentored Afghan EOD teams who work outside the wire finding and disarming mines daily not enough money for them either. Unlike the massive American contracts to high tech companies that produce worthless gizmos or large just about worthless MRAPs every contract in this country goes to the lowest bidder – a game the Afghans figured out long ago.
Let me provide the yellow for anyone reading this who works in contracting and is interested in how to do it right. I got this tip from a good friend who used this technique in 2003 when he was here serving in the American army. You put out a bid for Afghan companies (I’m not talking armed guards which should always be done by reputable international companies) and you’ll get three bids. Take the lowest number and tell the Afghans this is the ceiling and they should bid lower and tender the bid again. Then take the lowest two bidders and tell them to bid against each other and that lowest bid will win. You will end up awarding projects for less than half of the original lowest bid. That is how you save money if saving money is what you want to do. Any other method is just plain head in the sand stupidity which ignores the experience of the Army and Marine units who used to range around the country like true professionals back in the day. That changed when the Big Army came into the country and started getting things organized (read everyone goes on big box FOB’s to be micro managed.)
I mentioned that reputable international security firms should be the only ones providing armed guards for military bases. What about the four Blackwater guys who shot and killed two Afghans after a traffic accident on Jalalabad Road in downtown Kabul? I have said in prior posts that Blackwater has a country manager who has been here longer than I have and is one of the most knowledgeable Americans I know on the state of play in Afghanistan. I have also written that the BW crews I see outside the wire working with the Afghan Border Police are first rate and I am always happy to know they are out and about when I am working the districts of Nangarhar Province. They hardly ever get out and about now by the way, but that is a topic for another day. I stand by that and can surmise that the four individuals involved in this incident shot that Afghans for exactly the same reason that ISAF soldiers have killed about 500 civilians in their vehicles and that is because the car “was threatening.” I don’t know what that means because I live and operate outside the wire and know that Afghan drivers do all sorts of crazy things, none of which seem too threatening to me. Inside the wire types do not think like the thousands of guys (and gals) who are with me outside the wire. They have no front specific knowledge, even after being in country for months and months, because they live on FOB’s. Fobbits have no meaningful interaction with Afghans. That is the nature of the fobbit. They get front specific knowledge from Hollywood movies or dime store novels written by former SAS men or from the many “gun store commando” schools which have popped up in America, Britain and elsewhere. Apparently the Blackwater guys are now on their way home and will probably avoid prosecution just like all the troops who have killed civilians here in the past. They should be in jail awaiting prosecution to fullest extent of law. Being a gun store commando is no excuse for murder and that is exactly what those four committed.
This brings us to the story which will not go away the civilians killed in an ISAF air strike in Farah Province. I pointed out in my last post that the United States military doesn’t even have white phosphorous rounds (called Willie Pete or WP) in the inventory a fact which was contradicted by C.J. Chivers himself in the story linked above. I saw this post by some anti war blogger which sited Chivers piece as proof that ISAF was lying about the entire incident. I was forced to go to Google and yes, it turns out there are now Willie Pete rounds in the inventory for our field artillery. I am still right about the Farah incident that was Tac Air, not field artillery and Tac Air does not have WP munitions. Willie Pete is used by Americans to mark targets for tactical aircraft to bomb. The last thing anyone on the ground wants to see is a jet jockey who is traveling around 400 mph at 25,000 feet above the battle believing he has the situational awareness to drop bombs where he thinks they are needed. Only in the fevered imaginations of Hollywood producers and Air Force Academy cadets would that make sense. In the real world you shoot a marking round, ask the pilot does he see the mark and if he does you tell him how far away from the mark, using meters a simple compass bearings, the target is and then you give him the direction of attack. The key to using Tac Air is to not allow the pilot to do any thinking at all he does exactly what you tell him and any deviation should result in an immediate abort call followed by a healthy round of cussing at him (or her these days) and then sending the offender home with all his stores so everyone back at the base knows he is a liability who cannot follow directions. Failure to follow these simple rules results in the alarming sight of pilots yelling tally ho and coming straight at you. If you let pilots think they can figure out what is happening on the ground without terminal guidance you they end up bombing Canadian field training exercises, or Marine Corps LAV’s.
That is what WP is for and the only reason why you would not use it against enemy troops in the open is that artillery batteries only load out with so much WP but lots of HE (high explosives.) Were I an infantry commander who saw dozens of enemy troops in the open and had enough Willie Pete (better yet the felt wedge red phosphorus rounds) I’d volley a battalion six on top of them in a heartbeat. It would cause all kinds of gruesome third degree burns and after stripping the survivors of their weapons and radios I’d pay the locals to haul the wounded back to Pakistan where they could die a lingering painful death from infection. There is no law of land warfare against hitting troops with WP or RP rounds not treating them would be a clear violation of international law and if I really did something like that as an active duty Marine I would face a well deserved courts martial. Still it is a good tactic pumps up the troops, demoralizes our enemies, lets the tribal leaders in Pakistan know we are serious about making them calm down and they even might stop cutting the heads off of every stranger wondering about the FATA. But RP rounds cost a lot more than HE rounds and that too would get you in hot water with a Marine chain of command. The only time in the history of the Marine Corps a unit fired hundreds of expensive smoke rounds occurred during the battle of Khe San. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1968 the 10th Marines fired hundreds green smoke rounds into all known and suspected NVA positions in the hills around that embattled outpost. That not only motivated the troops but got rid of the rounds the Marines couldn’t take with them when they abandoned the base.
Back to the incident in Farah Province: The locals claim we killed over 150 innocents which I can promise you is a gross exaggeration that is unverifiable due to our insistence on respecting local religious traditions. Of course if there were 150 bodies buried outside that village in Farah and we insisted on paying compensation for say 24 bodies the locals would be digging up the others with great haste to get the additional money but again, I digress. There are several things about this incident that are critical to understanding why we are failing in Afghanistan. The first is President Karzai’s insistence that we stop using tactical aircraft under all circumstances. You cannot fight a counterinsurgency without the complete and total cooperation of the government you are trying to support. It cannot be done. The continued alienation of the President of Afghanistan (and he is going to win again in August of that I am certain), cannot continue if we hope to ever make progress on our fight to bring security to the people of this country. The continued use of the MSM preferred narrative degrades our counterinsurgency fight and the information warriors of the American military do nothing about this from their desks on the big box FOB’s. They cannot even see .af, .com; or .edu websites on military computers all they see is .mil websites. I know, you can’t make this kind of strangeness up. The detail in this story one for which I was taken to task at Registan.net is the ability of the Taliban to come into a village and force the people to act as human shields at the point of a gun.
It seems that a healthy percentage of our no knock HVT Special Forces raids result in the killing of local men who, as expected, grab their guns and race out of their compounds to help defend their neighbors. Yet every report we see of the Taliban using villagers as human shields implies that no local men put up armed resistance. Does that make sense to you? The local men are more than willing to fight our tier one Special Forces operators, yet cower in fear and act like a flock of sheep when groups of Taliban show up in the village? The truth is somewhere in the middle no group of Taliban is going to heard a bunch of Shinwari (dominate Nangarhar Pashtun tribe) into a hut and shower them with Willie Pete grenades and get away with it. But they could do that to the Kuchi villagers of Little Barabad because that village is surrounded by Shinwari tribal peoples who could give a rat’s patootie about the Kuchi’s and would not lift a finger to help them. Clearly there are villages that are vulnerable to Taliban intimidation but they are a minority. There are four kinds of tribes in Afghanistan; ones that want to be left alone (Nuristan and Kunar Provinces have many of them); ones that are interested in making money and cooperate with both sides to do just that (the Shinwari are the classic example); tribes clearly affiliated with the Taliban mostly in the south; and tribes that want our help to bring security and reconstruction to their lands that would be all the tribes of the north, most of the west, some in the east and none in the south. Our answer to this complex human mosaic is to treat all tribes exactly the same. Again does that make sense to you?
Our current military Afghan Campaign can best be illustrated by the old Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike parable. We cannot take our finger out of the dike or it will implode, we cannot try something new to solve the problem of a small breach in the dike because we are afraid it will make the problem worse. Every year the commander rotates and a new guy puts his finger in the dike hoping against hope that the dike will not fail on his watch. At the end of that year he goes home to never again worry himself about Afghanistan, its peoples or its problems. We can do better but that takes a leader with the understanding and ability to change our approach radically. That could have happened if the plan floated by General Conway to let the Marines handle Afghanistan was accepted Generals Mattis, or Kelley, or Allen any of them have the character and ability to change a failing strategy and they have junior General Officers like Hummer, Osterman, and Nicholson (to name a few) to back them up along with a lions’ brood of experienced combat infantry colonels (the army probably has a bunch with equal ability and talent, I just don’t know them and they do not appear to be operating in Afghanistan.) But that is not going to happen so we wait for the next rotation of Big Army and our NATO allies to come put their fingers in the dike while spending billions and billions of dollars we do not have pursuing a strategy that is guaranteed to fail.
The Pentagon recently released a directive on Irregular Warfare that has generated speculation among the various players in Afghanistan. When you see documents that say “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff shall” it is a powerful piece of paper from on high. There are a finite number of people in the world who can task four star generals or deputy secretaries of defense and professionals in the business study these directives as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. This comment came from a discussion thread in a group I belong to.
“I find it particularly interesting that DoD would come up with a “Directive of the obvious”… For all of its claims the Army as an organization doesn’t learn so quickly. I suppose that it took years of doing the same things expecting different results for the light to shine on reality. Not to be condescending in any way; I am glad to see the directive has been introduced. I hope that it grows roots quickly and flourishes… There is a full-spectrum under which many current peripheral entities can be brought to bear in order to surpass the expectations that DoD may currently have.”
I could not have said it better myself; it will be interesting to see how this directive impacts the template used by the U.S. military as it introduces more maneuver units into the country. Reports in the press indicate that the Army is planning on sending combat units in to Loghar and Wardak Provinces which are just outside of Kabul. The Marine Corps appears to be preparing to deploy in expeditionary force strength into the south. That could mean up to three infantry regiments of Marines with all their supporting arms, aircraft and logistics. That is a lot of gunfighters. The Question is – does it matter?
The Taliban control large swaths of Afghanistan not because they are better fighters but because they are beating the Karzai regime with better governance in the areas they control. The people know that a Taliban tribunal will not award land and water rights based on the largest bribe. They also know that once a case is settled the dispute is over. Fire fights between families involved in land and water disputes are frequent and bloody affairs in areas under government control. In areas under Taliban control the losing part accepts the Taliban ruling or 15 rounds in the chest. People tend to cooperate in systems like that.
But they don’t like it too much and would rather see a platoon of Marines or Army soldiers hanging around than a crew of religious zealots. It would be a pleasant surprise to see the Army and Marine units who flow into the country next year deployed down to the district level. I suspect that there will be tentative steps to branch out like that and these steps will involve what the new directive terms “civilian-military teams.”
That will be interesting to see play out and I believe small teams at the district level can, if properly funded and deployed, make a difference in the battle to control the only thing that matters in Afghanistan. The people.
We were able to conduct a “civilian-military team” field trial a few days ago during a road mission to Kabul (to re-stock the bar). This was a demonstration to our SF buddies of why we prefer unarmored local vehicles and they caught on fast. One of the Captains remarked that he never really got to see too much of the country because his visibility in an armored hummer was so restricted. They also marveled at how we attracted no attention (except in the busy main street of Surobi; a HIG R&R village). We also rolled up on a French convoy which gave the boys an excellent opportunity to experience the joy of low visibility ops when the Frenchman manning the trail .50 cal swung the barrel towards us.
The military travels in convoys that do not allow the local vehicles to get near them. They do this to avoid being hit by “suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices” (VBIED’s). In the south Canadian and British forces force all traffic off the roads they are driving down to prevent VBIED’s. In the east sometimes all the traffic will pull off the road when they see an American convoy approaching and sometimes it won’t.
Using unarmored local vehicles with light body armor and fighting kit is another option. This appears to be taking unwarranted risks but I’ll let the quote below from Vietnam legend Col David Hackworth address the issue.
“In Vietnam, today’s most successful infantry tactics and techniques were yesterday’s heresy and madness. When these ‘overly reckless’ ideas were first introduced by farseeing innovators in 1965 and 1966, few commanders took them seriously. Most, because of parochial conventional orientation, looked upon these new concepts with contempt not unlike many reactionary English lords’ attitude toward the longbow before Crecy. But today in Vietnam, these once ‘wild schemes’ have become standard drill. These bold techniques have changed the thrust of the war from uneconomical multi brigade operations to fights that are fought almost exclusively by the squad and platoon.”
That was true in Vietnam and it’s true today; we need to win the people and that means being in the with them 24/7. We can do it and do it for pennies on the dollar we currently spend. But only if we reach back to our past and remember how to conduct independent small unit operations on a very large scale. Let them live and move around like we do and you’re talking change you can really believe in.
It is time for some “outside the box” thinking and last week’s demonstration may lead to more discussions between the big base behind the wire military and all the other internationals in Afghanistan who feel safer at night on the streets of Kabul or Jalalabad than we do in Washington DC or Chicago.
We had to make a run to Kabul last Friday to take some clients to the airport and to pick up new ones. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is considered very dangerous by the military and US State Department, of medium risk by the UN, and very little risk by me and the hundreds of internationals who travel the route daily. The Taliban or other Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) have never ambushed internationals on this route with the sole exception of taking some pot shots at a UN convoy last week. The reason this route remains open is that it is too important to all the players in Afghanistan to risk its closure, almost 80% of the Afghan GDP flows along it so the Taliban would have a real PR problem if they cut it causing a large scale humanitarian crisis. The criminal gangs and drug lords who cooperate with the Taliban would also become very agitated if the road were closed and probably turn on any real Taliban groups foolish enough to be within their reach if that happened.
We don’t take this run lightly but we often choose to make it without body armor or long guns because we are afraid of being ambushed by the other villains members of the Afghan security forces. On Friday our long string of luck ran out and we became the latest victim of the Afghan security company game. It cost us two sets of body armor which we cannot replace because you cannot import body armor into Afghanistan and we were lucky to get away with the weapons (which are also irreplaceable.)
Many think of private security companies as analogous to mercenary bands with all the associated negative connotations. A few of them are shady companies and deserve all the contempt and bad karma in the world to befall their greedy principals. But most of the companies operating here are well run and highly professional. To facilitate bringing the rule of law to Afghanistan they formed an association three years ago to assist in the effort to regulate the industry. However that effort has been stymied at every turn by Afghan government officials who seem less interested in regulation or the rule of law than establishing rules from which they will clearly benefit. Just one of many examples; when the first set of regulations were written by the Afghan government it stipulated the payment of all fees and penalties would be made to the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). The Private Security Company Association of Afghanistan (PSCAA) politely pointed out that the new Afghanistan constitution specifically stated that all fees and taxes would be paid to the Ministry of Finance. There is enough international mentors at the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to ensure fees paid into that ministry go directly to the Government treasury.
It was immediately clear that our assistance in Afghan constitutional law interpretation was not well received and the process has gone downhill ever since. There still are no valid laws regarding PSC’s in Afghanistan but there have been a series of “temporary” licenses issued which every legitimate company in Afghanistan has acquired. These “temporary” licenses of course mean little with state security organs not part of the MoI. Afghan security forces have arrested internationals working for licensed PSC’s who had individual weapons permits from the MoI and thrown them in jail for weeks at a time. Although we cannot replace the body armor stolen from us we were lucky to get off lightly, it would be difficult for a small company like ours to raise the cash needed for springing an international out of the Puli Charki prison.
Here is how it went down. We were through the Mahipar pass and almost to Kabul. We came up to the last “S” shaped curve before the Puli Charki checkpoint and there was a NDS (National Directorate of Security) checkpoint set up with belt fed machineguns off to the side and a good ¼ mile between the east and west checkpoints.
Unfortunately I did not have the Shem Bot with me so I had Haji jann, my good friend and official driver in the contested areas, come down from Kabul to drive us up. This turned out to be a critical mistake because the NDS will not toy with two armed expats when one is driving but when they see an armed Expat with a local driver it is an indicator for an ” illegally” armed international which means big cash if they play their cards right. I flashed my weapons permit and license but the boys noted my two clients, PhD candidates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – had body armor. In Afghanistan body armor (used to protect clients), armored vehicles (also used to protect clients) and two-way radios are considered the tools of war and those of us working here must obtain licenses for them. But clients change constantly so we cannot get individual licenses for them. We have also never had a problem with this catch-22 before because our language skills and charming personalities normally forestall any potential disagreements.
The reason I take Haji jann on all missions into contested areas is because he is a former Taliban commander of some repute (emphasis on former.) He has also been with me through thick and thin and I love the guy, we talk for hours although I understand very little of what he says but we love to chin wag with each other. I heard him say right after we were stopped something like “the armed white guy is a little crazy and I would not arrest him if I were you.” I gave him the WTF Hajii? look and he did not smile indicating things were serious.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS) wanted the body armor from my MIT clients because they had no license. They also started searching our baggage which was problematic. I had another gig starting up in Kabul and had extra rounds, magazines, and a first aid kit all of which is considered illegal (for internationals) in Afghanistan. The “commander” who is the pot bellied slack jawed fellow in the black fleece started pulling all my stuff out for confiscation.
I looked at Haji jann who shook his head slightly giving me the go sign and went off like a firecracker at the “commander” who also instantly lost his cool and started to yell back at me. That is a great sign because it indicates fear on his part and I knew I was not going to lose my spare ammo (which is expensive) and first aid kit. When he started yelling I started smiling my wolf smile which fellow sheepdogs would recognize as a pre-incident indicator and criminals recognize as a sign they have overplayed their hand. But they took the body armor off my MIT charges and I really could do nothing about it. The “commander” gave me his own wolf smile when his boys stole the body armor because he knew there was no cell signal in the canyon, so what was I going to do? You can only push so far in a situation like this.
Here is the weird part. Amy Sun our other MIT charge was snapping pictures and caught three armed men way up on the ridge line watching things unfold. They were armed but way outside the range of the AK 47’s they were carrying.
I have no idea who these guys were but do know that the Taliban and in particular Al Qaeda fighters value good body armor and pay well for it. I suspect these guys are now the proud owners of two sets of premium body armor. I may be wrong about that but my current disgust over this incident drives me to assume the worst.
This kind of harassment has been routine for the past 18 months in Kabul. We have been spared because we have the proper licenses and travel normally in pairs. Yesterday I was copied on an email from the security director of the biggest US AID contractor in the land about one of their projects in the north. It is slightly redacted:
“This afternoon Gen Khalil, commander of the police in Sherbegan, visited one of our well sites demanding to see the PSC license of (deleted) Security. He informed (deleted) that the license expired and that they have until 16:00 to produce a new one or face arrest. Rather than facing arrest all LN guards were stood down and the Expats and TCNs went to Mazar to stay over for the night. This leaves one of our sites uncovered and can have a serious impact on our operations.
Can MOI please as a matter of urgency issue new licenses? Maybe someone in MOI can talk some sense into (deleted) head. His no is xxxxxxx”
Which brings us to the US Embassy and how they react to news like this which is (to my mind) deplorable. The embassy take is and I quote “we do not encourage US citizens to come to Afghanistan for any reason and will not help you in your dealings with the Afghan government. If you are arrested we will endeavor to ensure you have adequate food and a blanket.” It is hard for me to relate the disappointment with which I view our Department of State. I was the project manager for the American Embassy guard force and know exactly what goes on inside our embassy but because I have invested every penny I have in my company I will refrain from further comment.
A major problem with the stability operations part of our campaign in Afghanistan is that the local people do not think we are serious. The local people are the prize here, everything we are doing should be focused on bringing security and infrastructure to the district level to benefit them. But we aren’t and the local people cannot believe that after seven years we still cannot get the most basic infrastructure programs accomplished. The most efficient way to do that is with small numbers of armed contractors who are able to work at the district level for extended periods of time. There are a few people doing that right now, they are armed because they have to be, and they are doing the daily quality control of Afghan contractors working on various reconstruction projects. We need to have more of them out here both mentoring and doing quality control of the projects awarded to Afghan small businessmen. That level of oversight and reporting brings in donor dollars because the money can be accounted for. Donor dollars and expat project management would significantly help break the funding logjam which currently hampers district level reconstruction of roads, irrigation systems and micro hydro power generation.
At some point one hopes the powers that be will realize this and aggressively support the Americans and other internationals who are operating far outside the comfortable confines of Kabul. For right now we are basically on our own which will eventually lead to tragedy. Nothing good will come from continued confrontations between dodgy police running “surprise” checkpoints and armed internationals.
One of the coolest things about living in Afghanistan is the sense of history which surrounds one as you trek off the beaten path. In the rural districts the daily routine of the people has altered little in hundreds of years. It is easy to find the sites of historic battles or ancient ruins which few westerners have seen. The hospitality of the Afghans is constant reminder that the capacity for good in people transcends the evil which constantly searches for cold hearts or idle brains in which it can embed and grow. An armed society is a polite society but the Afghans take politeness to an extreme that is at times bewildering.
Yet the Afghans have never been able to govern themselves effectively. Despite their culture of warm hospitality to guests and strangers their political culture remains polarized, vicious, and deadly. These are tribal lands with a small percentage of “haves” and a large population of “have not’s.” The “haves” are the leaders with positions determined at birth and not resented by people at the village level because they do not “have” that much more than their fellow tribal members. The “have not’s” do not agitate politically because they spend most of their lives trying to find the next meal they are not like American poor with health issues stemming from morbid obesity. Poor people here die of starvation daily. Poor children die of exposure during the harsh winters even on the streets of Kabul. Watching the polarization of the American electorate from afar during this presidential campaign has me thinking about politics a lot lately.
And speaking of politics guess what the first topic of conversation was when I joined the elders of Sherzad district for a lunch meeting last Thursday? If you guessed Barack Obama you are correct and I am not making this up. Talk about weird but let me set the trip up before I get to that.
Traveling into contested tribal lands is a bit tricky. I had no doubt that the Malicks from Gandamak would provide for my safety at our destination but I had to get there first. The time tested decision making matrix us outside the wire types use in situations of this nature is to look at what the State Department is doing and do the exact opposite. The State Department insists on brand new armored SUV’s with heavily armed contractor escorts fore and aft. I went with an old beat up Toyota pick up, no security escort, local clothes and a local driver. Given the amount of Taliban activity in the Southern Triangle that is the only reasonably safe way to get in and out of isolated villages like Gandamak.
The road into Gandamack required us to ford three separate stream beds. The bridges which once spanned these obstacles were destroyed by the Soviets around 25 years ago. We have been fighting the Stability Operations battle here going on seven years but the bridges are still down, the power plants have not been fixed and most roads are little better then they were when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC. The job of repairing and building the infrastructure of Afghanistan is much bigger than anyone back home can imagine. It is also clearly beyond the capabilities of USAID or the US Military PRT’s to fix given their current operational MO. These bridges are still down (as of 2015) and may never be fixed in our lifetimes.
It took over an hour to reach Gandamack which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because vegetation means water and villages with access to abundant clean water are always significantly better off than those without. You can see the difference in the health of the children, livestock and woman (which is the correct order of importance for the tribes.)
My host for the day was the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif he told me in perfect English “I speak English fluently.” I immediately hired him and issued a quick string of coordinating instructions about what we were doing in the morning then bid him good day. He failed to show up on time and when I called him to ask WTF it became apparent that the only words of English Sharif knew were “I speak English fluently.” You get that from Afghans. But Shariff is learning his letters and has proven an able driver plus a first rate scrounger which is a vital for the health and comfort of his ichi ban employer.
The Maliks (tribal leaders) from Gandamak and the surrounding villages arrived shortly after we did. They walked into the meeting room armed; I had left my rifle in the vehicle which, as the invited foreign guest, I felt obligated to do but being without my flame stick wasn’t alarming to me. Gandamak is Indian Country and everybody out here is armed to the teeth. I was an invited guest, the odds of me being harmed by the Maliks who invited me were exactly zero. That’s how Pashtunwali works. The order of business was a meeting where the topic was what they need and why the hell can’t they get some help, followed by a tour of the hill outside Gandamak where the 44th Foot fought to the last man during the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 and then lunch. I was not going to be able to do much about what they needed but I could listen politely which is all they asked of me. Years later I would be in the position to lend them a hand when they really needed it but at the time of this meeting my agenda was a tour of the Gandamak battlefield. I have enjoyed visiting old battlefields since I was a kid and would go on staff rides with my father to Gettysburg, The Wilderness battle field and Fredricksburg. I especially enjoy visiting the battlefields that not many people can visit and to the best of my knowledge I’m the only westerner who visited the Gandamak site in the last 30 or so years.
As the Maliks arrived they started talking among themselves in hushed tones and I kept hearing the name “Barack Obama.” I was apprehensive; I’m surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It is unpleasant talking with them because they know absolutely nothing about the man other than he is not Bush and looks cool. They are convinced he is more then ready to be president because NPR told them so. Pointing out that to the NGO girls that Obama can’t possibly be ready to be the chief executive because he has zero experience at executive leadership is pointless and I did not want to have to explain this to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes for them to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span; this was not starting off well.
As I feared the morning discussion started with the question “tell us about Barack Obama?” What was I to say? That his resume is thin is an understatement but he has risen to the top of the democratic machine and that took some traits Pashtun Maliks could identify with so I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine. Not by trying to explain Chicago but in general terms using the oldest communication device known to man a good story. A story based in fact; colored a little with little supposition, and augmented with my fevered imagination. Once they understood that lawyers in America are like warlords in Afghanistan and can rub out their competition ahead of an election using the law and judges instead of guns they got the picture. A man cold enough to win every office for which he ran by eliminating his competition before the vote is a man the Pashtun’s can understand. I told them that Obama will probably win and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan. They asked if Obama was African and I resisted the obvious answer of who knows? Instead I said his father was African and his mother a white American and so he identifies himself as an African American which is confusing because most black Americans identify themselves as African American but they have little, if any, concept of Africa. In Obama’s case he really was an African and American and must know something about Africa because he didn’t know shit about America. I had succeeded in totally confusing my hosts (and myself) and they just looked at me for a long time saying nothing.
What followed was (I think) a long discussion about Africans; were they or were they not good Muslims. I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the Al Qaeda days. I think the conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs and therefore considered the local equivalent of scumbags. They talked among themselves for several more minutes and I heard John McCain’s name several times but they did not ask anymore about the pending election praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans regardless of hue and it would be better to see more of them especially if they took off the helmets and body armor because that scares the kids and woman folk. And their big MRAPS scare the cows who already don’t have enough water and feed so scaring them causes even less milk to be produced and on and on and on; these guys know how to beat a point to death.
We talked for around 35 more minutes about the anemic American reconstruction effort, their needs and the rise in armed militancy. The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remain popular with the local people. They have built some mico hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) much appreciate. The US AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better if they were given the money to do it themselves but despite this DAI is welcomed and their efforts much appreciated. When I asked who had kidnapped the DAI engineer (a local national) last month and how we could go about securing his release (which was another reason for my visit) they shrugged and one of them said “who knows”? That was to be expected but I felt compelled to ask anyway.
The elders explained, without me asking, that they are serious about giving up poppy cultivation but they have yet to see the promised financial aid for doing so. Thus they will grow poppy again (if they get enough rain inshallah). They need a road over which to transport their goods to market. They need their bridges repaired, and they need their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970’s. They said that with these improvements would come security and more commerce. One of them made a most interesting comment and that was something to the effect of “the way the roads are now the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy.” A little food for thought.
At the conclusion of the talking part of the meeting the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.
The 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.
Our first stop was to what the Maliks described as “The British Prison” which was up on the side of a pass about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed up the steep slope at a vigorous pace set by the senior Malik. About halfway up we came to what looked to be an old foundation and an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. I can’t imagine how that could be – there were no British forces here when the 44th Foot was cut down but they could have established a garrison years later I suppose. Why the Brits would shove their prisoners down inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain is a mystery to me and I doubt this was story behind what looked to be a mine entrance. It was a nice brisk walk up the a very steep hill and I kept up with the senior Malik which was probably the point to this detour.
After checking that out we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jamm until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue there which they figured the British must have pilfered in Kabul. By my estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to buy one. The penalties for stealing ancient artifacts are severe; messing around with that stuff is not something reasonable people do in unstable third world lands. Nor is buying fake “one of a kind” Buddha statues.
I do not know where these foundations came from. Back in 1842 the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area – just off the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Latabad Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle occurred and as their direct ancestors participated in it I assumed we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations are from a small British outpost built here possibly to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879 or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.
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.
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.
There are two main routes heading through the mountains to the east out of Kabul. The Latabad Pass, which is a poorly maintained dirt track road, and the Mahipar Pass which is a newly paved road and in excellent condition. Both passes funnel traffic into the village of Surobi and from there all traffic heading east must take the main Jalalabad to Kabul road, which is also called Route One. The trip between Jalalabad and Kabul takes about two hours on the paved road and four on the Latabad Pass route. Traveling in the east was very safe until this past summer when fuel tankers started getting ambushed in the Tangi valley, which is just to the east of Surobi. Some of these attacks were made by criminal gangs to cover up fuel theft and some looked to be the work of Taliban affiliated fighters. The first post on this blog covered our efforts to determine what was happening on this vital route.
Security on the route has improved in the past week as the Afghan National Army patrols it much more aggressively. They have to because almost all the supplies needed by ISAF enter the country at the Torkham border and move over the Jalalabad Kabul road.
The main road out of Kabul goes through the Puli Charki pass. This is a good picture of that pass looking back towards the direction of Kabul.
The road then heads down the Mahipar Pass which is really spectacular;
The guys at Bill and Bob’s Excellent Adventure have video of them driving the switchbacks of Mahipar Pass in their Hummers which you can find here. They say it takes them three hours to do this drive the Bot and I average 90 minutes. Being unarmored and low profile allows us to move smoothly through the countryside and smooth is fast.
As the road heads towards Surobi a few abandoned villages can be seen across the river. These villages were destroyed by the Soviet Army who would not tolerate attacks on their military convoys. If they felt a village had provided Mujaheddin fighters with sanctuary there was only one response complete destruction. When you see a village like this today which has not been reclaimed by people it is a good indicator that there are lots of mines and/or unexploded ordinance seeded into the soil. Only the very foolish would approach structures like this. When the de-mining teams work these areas they leave behind white rocks where they have cleared, and with the white rocks will come people to reclaim what little productive land remains around these unfortunate settlements.
One of the frequent and more interesting sights along this road are the nomadic Kuchi people, who head up into the northern mountains for the summer and back into the lower plains around Jalalabad during the winter months. These are a hardy people who follow their own ancient traditions even the Taliban were deferential to them and did not attempt to force their women into the Burka. They are mostly illiterate and they have not had a good run since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan almost 30 years ago. Drought, land mines, UXO’s, and constant conflict with Afghans villagers over open range grazing areas have decimated the Kuchi. These are people who really bitterly cling to their guns and religion – and with good reason.
The Kuchi nomads are not the only people you see on this road Afghan families being repatriated by the UN are a common site too. This used to be a money maker for more affluent Afghans. Every spring they would fly into Peshawar and rent a truck, fill it with empty boxes and some cheap livestock, rent a family or two worth of woman and children to throw on top, and then proceed to the UN repatriation station for their cash payment to go home. Much to my surprise I have learned there are parts of the UN which function with admirable efficiency. This was the case with UNDP Peshawar who obtained biometric data measurements on all returning displaced persons thus instantly eliminating the massive fraud which had plagued the program. The UN also runs absolutely first rate mine dog training and certification programs, thus ensuring mine dogs are in fact performing to standard. There are no similar standards for bomb dogs in Afghanistan outside of the military working dogs and almost every bomb dog team in this country should be considered suspect. The good canine operations will follow the US Army training manual on canine team employment to the letter; the marginal operations have little in the way of training program documentation at all. It is too bad the UN does not have a mandate to certify all detection dog teams working in Afghanistan.
Here is a picture of the Latabad Pass dusty, miserable, dangerous and long. We had to use this route for about three months earlier in the year when the main route was closed for repairs. I get a headache just thinking about it.
All passes lead into Surobi a large town with good water and 24/7 electricity thanks to the hydroelectric dam which is named after the town. This is the territory of Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) which was founded by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The boys from HIG are not our friends. Their leader is not too friendly with the Taliban either, but does cooperate with them when it is in his interests. He also has a long association with Al Qaeda and we believe that the foreign fighters who moved into the Surobi area and tangled with the French back in August were funded and protected by HIG. Although there is a strong Afghan police presence in Surobi and many internationals travel through the town daily on Rte 1 it is not a good idea to stop here.
Once you exit Surobi (if you’re smart) you’ll drive like hell through the Tangi valley and on into Jalalabad. The Tangi saw a half dozen or so attacks on fuel tankers this summer. Since the end of Eid there have been several reports of Taliban affiliated vehicle check points (VCP’s) appearing on this part of the road. These VCP’s could well be manned by criminals who are shaking down motorists for money, but UNDSS reports say they are looking for Afghans who work for the government or international organizations. It is hard to say without interviewing the Afghans who were stopped at these VCP’s, but I can tell you this much it is impossible for these VCP’s to operate without some sort of tacit support from the ANP who man checkpoints on the road every 2 to 3 kilometers. I drove to Kabul yesterday to resupply the Taj bar and saw that the Afghan National Army (ANA) had units on the road and in the high ground throughout the Tangi Valley area. They really have to drive any criminal or enemy activity off the road because all of the ISAF supplies and most of the Afghan legitimate commerce travel this route to and from Pakistan. If the route were cut the impact on both the international military and normal Afghans would be disastrous.
When heading into the east of Afghanistan the international visitor has to stay on the main paved roads and really has one of two destinations. They can visit Jalalabad or they can head to the Torkham border and cross into Pakistan via the Khyber Pass. The other Provinces in the east Nuristan, Kunar and most of Laghman are considered extremely high risk. The US Army averages several firefights per day in Kunar Province (although they rarely take any casualties). Nuristan is very isolated and violent and would generate more incident reporting were it not for the fact that no international organizations (except the military) operate there. Jalalabad City is in Nangarhar Province which is generally considered to be stable. However the districts of Nangarhar bordering the Spin Ghar (White Mountains which contain Tora Bora) are rapidly falling out of the government’s control. Taliban flags now fly openly in the bazaars of Khogiani district which is very close to Jalalabad moving off Rte 1 into the surrounding countryside is not a good idea unless you really know what you are doing.
Jalalabad is a city of some 200,000 people and sits at the junction of the Kabul and Kunar rivers. It remains the business center for the region and is considered a “green” or open city by the UN. There are lots of schools in Jalalabad and lots of kids. The international community has been here over seven years yet there is still very little electricity or infrastructure improvements. There is a hydro electric dam in the Duranta area just outside the city which is supposed to be refurbished as part of the US AID AIRP program. The Louis Berger Group was awarded this multi-Billion dollar program in 2006 but they have not gotten around to the Duranta Dam which is (to be fair) a very small component of that massive effort.
The Duranta Dam was built in the 1950’s by the Soviet Union and is producing 25% of its rated capacity due to equipment shortages. The plant managers told me that it was bombed by US planes back in 2001 but I don’t believe that. When American Tactical Aircraft go after a target like a hydroelectric dam there is normally not much left of it when they finish. I saw no evidence that it had been attacked back in 2006 when we conducted a security assessment for the refurbishing project we thought was to start back then. There are probably good reasons why, two years later, nothing has been done. No doubt one could sit in the US Embassy and get a great PowerPoint from US AID explaining what to me is unexplainable.
So the people of Jalalabad go without electricity and seven years into our rebuilding effort you see this; schools without lights, or heat, or much of anything. Allow me a slight rant here please. Every year I hear the ISAF commander stressing the fact that the reconstruction effort is the most important mission in Afghanistan. There is no question that this is true. Yet the reconstruction effort has yet to gain momentum while the central government continues to lose control over larger sections of the countryside. This will slow the reconstruction effort to a snail’s pace. Well, that is not true – it is at snails pace now and always has been so I guess I’ll have to think of a metaphor for slower than a snails pace.
We are cursed by the “man on the moon” phenomenon. The Afghans believe that if we could put a man on the moon than we are more than capable of fixing their infrastructure if we really wanted to. I understand that this is a common problem in third world redevelopment work. Another common problem is the conviction amongst the educated locals that the CIA has a master plan and everything that happens is a planned milestone from the master plan. Trying to explain the historically dismal record of our Central Intelligence Agency is pointless no one believes you. And so the frustration mounts and the population which is the center of gravity slips further away from us. These are the seeds of disaster which if allowed to grow will cause our defeat.
The second best reason to drive east from Kabul is to pay a visit to the Khyber Pass. You need to obtain special permission to transit the tribal areas of Pakistan. If you enter from the Afghanistan side and exit the tribal lands in Peshawar you have to again get permission to transit them back to Afghanistan. I learned this the hard way which was a most unpleasant experience and cost me a ton of cash. The pass is just plain cool 53 kilometers long and 3 meters wide at its most narrow point. On one of my trips I was escorting a diplomat from one of our strongest allies. We had a large armed escort which you can see in the picture below. Note the old belt fed machinegun bungee corded to the top of the pickup bed cover. This is a stupid way to rig a machinegun and is more for show than utility. It also tells the military experts out there a lot about the kind of weapons and support the Khyber Rifles enjoy today. These old weapons may help explain why the Frontier Corps gets beaten like a drum every time they try to take on the Pakistani Taliban.
The Michni Post is the ceremonial HQ of the Khyber Rifles and it overlooks the Torkham crossing into Afghanistan. The Khyber Rifles do an excellent dog and pony show for visiting VIP’s. I’ll let the pictures tell that story.
If you are on the VIP tour you will also stop into the Khyber Rifles officer club. Back in the 1920’s when the British were still garrisoning the Khyber a group of junior officer’s stumbled out of this club in the early morning hours and thought they saw the large oak tree in front attempting to desert the post without proper orders. They had the sergeant of the guard place the tree in chains and those chains remain there to this day.
Like any proper O club there are lots of plaques including this one from the mighty 22 MEU. I know Col McKenzie (now a two star if memory serves) and I’m pretty sure he didn’t clear the spelling on this plaque. I would be interested in learning how it got there. Col McKenzie commanded the 22nd MEU in 2001 2002 when they were down south policing up the Taliban and I can’t imagine that he found time for a courtesy call on the Khyber Rifles. By 2004 the good Colonel would have been on another assignment – you only get one shot at commanding a MEU. Check out the old uniforms on the side boys which reflect the incredible history of the Khyber Pass. As an old military man there are few things more interesting to me than this kind of nonsense.
My first trip to the Khyber was self funded. I had a month to kill before going home at the end of a contract. Going home earlier would have cost me around 25k in income taxes as I had been outside the country for just 10 months. Yahya and I headed to Peshawar to kill a couple of weeks and Yahya’s childhood friends welcomed us like we were part of their extended family. This trip was on the cheap so I wore my Shalwar Kameez and we stayed in a dive guesthouse. They had 24/7 Fox News in the City View Inn which made my stay most enjoyable. We applied for permits and traveled the Khyber with Afridi tribal fighters who knew Yahya since he was boy. Yahya’s family had moved to Peshawar to escape the Soviets, but returned just before the Taliban took over. That proved to be a big mistake. The Afridi’s were an interesting crew who all wanted to immigrate to the US. I told them to cough up Bin Laden and I’d get the whole tribe green cards which they thought was really funny. Because I was their guest of honor I was duty bound to eat lunch in the most disgusting room I have set foot in. Being an American guest of honor I got to pay for the feast too which wasn’t exactly cheap. The Afridi tribe is a collection of land pirates who don’t really follow the tenants of Pashtunwali. The meal was actually very tasty and I didn’t get sick which was nothing short of amazing. We also traveled around Peshawar which has interesting museums and is home to the famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar.
Once again I’ll let the pictures flesh out the story.
Qissa Khawani Bazaar.
Driving through the Khyber these days has gotten much more risky. There was serious fighting between the semi secular Afridi. like Yahya’s friends, and their more fundamentalist Taliban influenced neighbors. Scenes like the picture below are common now and unless things change dramatically I would not recommend driving through the Khyber Pass.
The security situation in the western provinces of Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly over the last year. The first five years after the allied invasion were a time of peace and hope for the people in the west. The city of Herat is out west and Herat has 24/7 electricity from nearby Iran, functioning modern infra-structure, and showed much promise early on. But bad news started filtering out in late 2006. Stories about businessmen unable to operate or turn a profit due to the graft, corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government appeared in the press. Now Taliban fighters are active in Herat, Ghor and Badghis provinces and the brief flame of hope that Herat once represented is dying slowly but surely. Active Taliban units attract the attention of ISAF, which means fighting, fighting means the use of tactical air support by ISAF and every time tactical air hits a compound containing bad guys the other people in the compound are hit too.
The press and the Taliban make a big deal about this collateral damage repeating over and over that our aircraft are hitting houses full of innocent women and children. It is impossible for me or any other person not on the scene to determine if these claims have merit. But I do know how the ISAF targeting system works and I also know the safe guards in place to prevent such incidents which leads me to doubt the veracity of most (not all) of these stories. Our information warriors should be using the Taliban’s propensity for going to ground inside compounds full of women and children to our advantage but don’t.
We had a mission out west back in December of 2006 to conduct a wheat assessment survey. It was rumored that famine was about to strike in the remote villages out there and someone needed to go out and determine how much wheat was available and at what price. Readers who are familiar with the military effort here are probably thinking “wait, that is what the PRT’s are supposed to be doing”, which is true. But that would require extended missions outside the wire and that is something PRT’s do not seem to do, so we were contracted to do it for them. Long haul remote trips like that are our specialty so the Afghan American specialist assigned to this task contracted us to take him. I was gone two weeks, yet at times felt I had traveled back in time 200 years. Along the way we came across one of the most unbelievable sites in Afghanistan: the minaret of Jam.
We had serious time and budget constraints which forced us to drive around the ring road to Herat where the assessment was to begin. That could not be safely done today and it was dangerous two years ago too but not so much during the winter months. The picture below illustrates one of the reasons why being molested by the Taliban while traveling in the winter is rare.
I have always believed that throwing US contractors out onto the ring road with snow plows, heavy rescue trucks, and ambulances which can call in medical evacuation helicopters would have made all the difference in the world. The Afghans living along that route would have immediately understood the intent behind such a program and ensured the security of its participants. I can just imagine the old Rescue One Squad truck like the one I rode years ago as a Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad volunteer screaming down the roads with a half US / half Afghan crew. Clearing wrecks, administering advanced life support, helping those trapped in flooded or snow bound roads. You could have started something like that in 2004 but not now.
There are no snow plows in Afghanistan (except on the Salang Pass and they were left behind by the Soviets) so a traffic jam like this can last for several days. Working with my usual team of Tajiks we weaved through this mess in about 90 minutes by cajoling people to move a little here and a little there, and at times driving through the snow on the shoulder. Afghans will always cooperate and help an international who smiles at them, is polite, and knows a few words of Dari or Pashto. Being a good Marine the first thing I learned were the swear words which helped get us clear that day. Swearing about the weather and road and lack of snow plows allowed me to fit right in.
We arrived in Herat the next day and hit one of the better restaurants in town for an early afternoon meal. The weather was cold that day so of course we ate outside because my team knew I would be cold and wanted to see if I bitched or moaned about it. Silly buggers did they think I spent 20 years in the Marines for nothing? I know how to play this game and acted as if eating out in 40 degree cold was exactly what I wanted to do. This made Little Daud (pronounced Dow ood which is Dari for David and a common name) glum. He had bet Big Daud and Medium Daud (there are three in my crew) that I would make them move inside and now owed a little coin to his cousins. Little Daud underestimated my Dari comprehension thus allowing me the pleasure of taking the piss out of him while I sat freezing and eating a great lunch.
The Marco Polo Inn in Herat has a wing for us foreigners with heaters in the halls and rooms, sit down toilets, and TV’s playing live CNN and the BBC news casts. I would have to wait for a trip to Peshawar of all places to be able to watch Fox News but man did I like the sit down toilet and heat. Afghan buildings are not heated and this was the last I was to see of a warm room and biased crappy western news for the next 10 days so I sat on the toilet watching TV just because I could.
We headed into Ghor Province the next day planning to take two days to reach Chaghcharan the provincial capital. Like most of the country the roads into Ghor are unpaved and often hard to follow. At times they peter out into dry stream beds or divide up into three different directions. A map and compass are critical if you are going to stay on track. When in the countryside you have two choices to overnight; camp out in the mud or stay on the floor of a local tea house. We choose the tea house route.
Life in the villages of this rural area has remained unchanged for many many years. There are a few modern conveniences, the people have access to motor transport, some have generators, and most have radios. The irrigation systems are primitive but works plus this is one area where the US AID contractors have had great success with their field veterinary units. These outposts, run by Afghans, provide vaccinations and medicine for local livestock which are the major source of food and income. But for all intents and purposes life in these villages has not changed for generations.
On our second day of travel my crew and Karim awoke with great excitement and anticipation. They would not tell me why, saying that I would not believe what we were going to see in a few hours. They were right. As we moved down a valley towards the Hari Rud River up popped the minaret of Jam. The tallest complete and authentic ancient minaret in the world, it is believed to have been built by the once great Ghorid Empire, who in the late 12th century ruled over what are now Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Rumors about of this magnificent tower did not reach the west until 1944. They were not confirmed until a French archaeologist located it in 1957. For 700 years, since Genghis Khan had rampaged through the valley destroying the Ghorids it had been forgotten to history.
None of my Afghan colleagues had ever seen the Jam and a few had doubted its existence. There was one ANP policeman guarding the site and he told us no westerner had ever been here before as far as he knew. I was excited soon convincing myself I was the first westerner to see the Jam in 40 years. After this trip I flew home for Christmas and picked up a book in the Dubai airport by a Brit named Rory Stewart. Turns out he had walked the exact route I was driving with just a dog, a back pack and walking stick. His book had an entire chapter on the Jam Minaret and the surrounding Turquoise Mountain complex. I thought I was ballsy being there with just 6 other guys. Took a little wind out of my sail that book did. Rory lives in Kabul now and is restoring an old bazaar with his Turquoise Mountain foundation and I hope to meet him some day. Walking from Herat to Kabul with nothing but a dog and a big stick in the middle of winter that is madness. But the kind of madness I can respect.
Crossing the Hari Rud River in the middle of the day was drama – the river was swollen and the ford point so deep that when we came back we hit this spot at 0200 knowing the water level would be much lower. In Chaghcharan we stayed at the house of a local judge who was related to Karim. We reported into the PRT which was manned by troops from Lithuania so that Karim could chat with the US AID representative. I don’t know how much the Lithuanians get out and about, but man did they have a gigantic, very cool looking sauna set up in their camp. After conducting our census and talking with the Provincial Governor we headed back out the next night with the aim of crossing to Hari Rud before dawn.
On the way out of Ghor one of our vehicles had a front strut weld break. Big Daud spotted a hand cranked welding machine on the side of the road in one of the villages so we stopped and asked for the owner to come help us fix the truck. That took about 10 minutes and cost all of two dollars. The weld has worked to this day Afghans may not have been afforded good educations but they are smart people.
The next leg of trip was into Badghis Province which would require us to go way up above the snow line. As you transit the lowlands you’ll see most of the houses are made of thick mud walls with domed roofs. Domed roofs are common in the lower elevations of the west and north because there is not enough timber to build flat roofs. The domes also are an efficient system in areas where there is a large variation in the daytime and nighttime temperatures. They vent the warm air at night and allow cool air in making it comfortable for the families below.
As we moved up into the Badghis Pass we hit a fair sized snow storm which required us to get the tire chains fitted.
Once in the pass we ran into a typical scene traffic jammed up due to heavy snow and trucks with bald tires and no chains. Once again the crew got out and started moving traffic out of our way.
The capitol of Badghis Province is Qala-i-Naw and Spain has the PRT there. We stayed at the local RRD (rural rehabilitation department) office although Karim and I could probably get onto the PRT’s overnight our escorts could not and leaving them to fend for themselves is uncool. Tajiks from the Panjshir valley are not always welcomed in these parts despite the fact that the population is majority Tajik so we stick together, at all times and in all places.
Qala-i-Naw reminded me of an old western town like Deadwood. Mud, mud and more mud. We took a census of the wheat lot and moved out because heavy weather was coming in and we didn’t want to be stuck there.
The drive out was easy as we beat the storm here is a great shot of medium Daud up on the pass.
We could not make a trip like that today even in the snows of winter. I saw a news article about a BBC film crew that went to the Jam Minaret last year to film a special. They took 60 ANP policemen with them. That is unquestionably overkill, in the remote west the chances of running into AOG bands numbering more than a dozen are around zero. It probably cost the BBC a fortune too but who cares? They’re spending tax payers’ money and people do not seem to care what something costs when they are spending tax payers’ cash.
There is little doubt that the region is much more dangerous then it was just two years ago, ten times more dangerous then it was four years ago and twenty times more dangerous then it was six years ago. See the trend line?
The southern region of Afghanistan is unstable, dangerous, and an extremely risky place to travel by road these days. This is a new development which started about one year ago. Prior to that we would make trips down to Kandahar routinely, tracing the same route made famous in James Michener’s excellent book Caravans. Back in 2005 and 2006 it was still a risky trip, but the risks were manageable. We always travel in armored trucks in these contested areas but unlike 98% of the other security companies in Afghanistan we opted for the low profile trucks with firing ports. These are not comfortable rides and they are noisy too, but they perform as advertised.
I hate being stuck in large armored SUV’s because you are locked in and cannot use your weapons unless the Taliban opens the vehicle for you. Normally that is done with an RPG which of course disables the vehicle as well any survivors inside. People working outside the wire in Afghanistan are like people anywhere they really don’t think that they will be targeted or attacked and therefore they value the comfort and false sense of security large brand new armored American SUV’s provide.
Hope is a bad security plan but it is the most common plan people use. Every second of every day somewhere in the world someone is being victimized. The chances that you are the one being victimized are very small. But that is irrelevant when you find yourself the target of criminals or terrorists. When that happens the statistical chances for you are now 100% and at exactly the time you realize they are 100% you also discover you are dealing with a pack of wolves (terrorists) or a rabid dog (criminals) and they do not respond to reason.
Most people are sheep my friends and I are sheep dogs who protect the sheep and boy am I drifting way off the story line reservation here sorry dear readers I’ll get back on track. Remember be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them that is a good place to start if you too want to be a sheepdog. The next step is a good multi-day handgun course; followed by obtaining a concealed carry permit, (if you live in the United States) and then learning how to apply the color code of mental awareness to your daily routine. If you live in a country where owning firearms or any type of weapon is prohibitedwell I guess it is back to “hope” for you. Call your local police and then call Dominos Pizza and see who gets to your house first then tell me how Neanderthal us Americans are for owning guns. OK I’m stopping the rant…honest.
The route to Kandahar runs southwest through the provinces of Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul and Kandahar. Up until last year Wardak and Ghazni provinces were pretty safe. Our Panjshir fighters used to pick up their weapons from the police in Ghazni when operating in Kabul city became too difficult due to police harassment. They are a registered company with weapon permits but that has nothing to do with getting arrested by the Kabul police. The amount of corruption in Kabul is truly stunning and the local cops have gotten bolder in the last few years. They have even locked up internationals from large security companies who had weapons permits, licenses and letters from one of the generals running the Ministry of the Interior. Our embassy and those of our allies couldn’t care less security contractors are as popular with them as an ACORN trained community activist would be with me. Local Afghan security companies have it much worse depending on who owns them and who is watching over them. I would go on about this rather sore topic but prudence dictates I leave this sleeping bear alone.
Wardak province is now statically the most dangerous portion of the trip south. Earlier this month AOG fighters ambushed a convoy guarded by Afghan security guards in the middle of the day. They killed three guards in the firefight and captured four whom they beheaded, again in broad daylight, on the main ring road. These AOG fighters call themselves Taliban but they are not the Taliban we read about training and infiltrating out of Pakistan. The “Taliban” elements who routinely attack military units and oil tankers along the route south are local people who may or may not be sympathetic to the Taliban cause. Many are local criminals who the Taliban pay to do their bidding which is most ironic. The Taliban got their start back in the 90’s in Kandahar by hanging an Afghan soldier (and his commander) who had raped a local school girl the day prior. Mullah Omar was the leader of this group of religious students which entered the Army camp reportedly armed with only the Koran and self righteous indignation. I guess that makes Omar sort of an Afghan version of Gandhi because showing up unarmed to lynch a few miscreants is as close to non violent protest as Afghans are ever going to get. Now instead of protecting the faithful from criminals they are using criminals to prey on the faithful.
The road out of Wardak descends down to the plains of Afghanistan and the ancient city of Ghazni. Ghazni was once considered the greatest military fort of its day but that fame was short lived after the British Army arrived in 1839 and stormed it rather quickly with little effort. Here is how it looked when the British first arrived:
And here is a picture of the city today
The Ghazni PRT, which is run by the American military, sits outside of the town astride the main road. Not all the PRT’s are manned by Americans, our NATO allies are responsible for over half of them. Here is a map of the PRT’s which I pulled off the Wikipedia. Like many things on Wikipedia it is wrong the Swedes have the PRT in Mazar, the Canadians in Lashkar Gah and Pul-i-Khumri belongs to the Romanians.
Knowing which country is in which PRT is critical for internationals working in Afghanistan because each nation in ISAF has its own set of caveats covering which missions they are authorized, by their respective governments, to do. This is a fancy way of saying that many of our allies are not allowed to leave their compounds and come to the rescue of internationals in distress. The American PRT’s will always respond to calls for help anytime and in any conditions. I understand the Brits, Canadians, and Aussies have identical rules and attitudes. As for the others.you are on your own. Needless to say these caveats have contributed to glacier like pace of international reconstruction.
Like many of the bases situated in unstable areas the Ghazni PRT has an aerostatic balloon for surveillance and controlling fires.
These aerostatic systems are impressive – some friends and I got to see how they work at FOB Lonestar right down the road from the Taj in Khogyani district. The technology is impressive, the capabilities unbelievable and the details best kept on the down low, but trust me this is one piece of technology worth every penny spent developing it.
Ghazni used to be the last safe place to stop for any needed vehicle maintenance which we did on one of our trips in the summer of 2006. One of our vehicles had a tire problem and we wanted to fix it before heading into Indian country. There are no tire stores here, just stands on the side of the road with a compressor. The stand we pulled into was run by a young boy and his even younger brother. Here they are diagnosing the problem.
After diagnosing the problem it is up to the younger of the two to get the tire off which he does using a pry bar and tackle rig.
It was well over 100 degrees that day if we came back during the winter months these two boys would probably be wearing the exact same clothes. The people here are that poor, my friends, and if you think this looks sad you should see the beggars and trash dump kids. Having patched the tire the younger child fills it while his brother prepares to mount it on the car. This pit stop was over in 5 minutes, the boys worked with the intensity and speed of a NASCAR pit crew.
Heading south out of Ghazni towards Qalat you run through a series of villages that even back in 2006 were not safe for foreigners. One of the most notorious was Shah Joy and it is the scene of the only attack against us if you could call it that. I was in the trail vehicle when out of the corner of my eye I saw a frag grenade sailing towards the truck. We were doing about 70 kph so hitting us with the thing was not going to happen and the bazaar was packed with local people I watched in utter amazement as it went off, clearly injuring some of the bystanders who did not even react when the grenade landed in the middle of the road. How weird is that?
But the Taliban is not the only threat on the Kabul to Kandahar road. The terrain and weather conspire to turn this route into a real pain at times. The only way to build roads in this part of the country is to build them to withstand floods. The easiest way to do that is to allow the water to spill over the road in traditional areas of flooding. We discovered during a November trip that there are 23 such spots on the road and here is the first one you run into when heading from Kandahar towards Kabul.
We were already late and clearly not too happy about this. The locals were of good cheer as Afghans almost always are and offered all sorts of advice. Understanding when you are in danger and when you are not is a key skill and these people were not a threat and seemed to enjoy having us stuck there too.
One way to tell if they are a threat is to look for high water pants and tennis shoes. Afghans wear open toed sandals, tennis shoes are normally seen only on male children and fighters transiting the area. The high water trousers seem to be a style statement but I do not know why. In this type of situation if you saw a group of men in tennis shoes the best thing to do is walk up and offer a formal greeting. If the men do not immediately break into wide smiles and offer a return greeting chances are they are Taliban or associates. When that happens guys like us get in our trucks and turn around because unless they produce a gun we can do nothing. We operate with the same rules of engagement as our military but unlike our military are also subject to the laws of Afghanistan. Do not be fooled by the main stream media writing stories about armed contractors being able to do anything they like in Afghanistan. There are expatriates sitting behind bars in the big house at Pul-e-Charkhi to prove the media reports and agenda not facts.
The truck was followed by a small passenger car which triggered a mad rush from our side of river.
Qalat is the provincial capital of Zabul Province and also the home of another impressive old fortress. Qalat has an American PRT co-located inside an ANA base and they were always very hospitable when we dropped by. Here is what the town looks like as you drive in from the south. Every hilltop in this country seems to have a fort or outpost built on its crest the one in Qalat is really cool when you see it pop up on the horizon.
Heading south from Qalat there are just a few isolated compounds and no major bazaars or towns. In sparsely populated areas like that attack by AOG fighters are rare. Taliban do not like humping around in the boonies much and confine most of their activity to populated areas. That makes sense because the civilian population is cover and concealment for the bad guys. Moving out in the desert away from the protection innocent civilians provide is very risky for insurgents.
Our trips south always terminated in Kandahar city home of the Continental Inn. We could find a bunk out at the Kandahar Airfield but would have to leave our escort to fend for themselves which is uncool. Here is a shot of the Continental which has slow internet but a super cook who excels at making curry.
Before hitting the Continental we would normally pull into the Kandahar Air Field (KAF) which is home to about 15,000 international troops and is a rear echelon establishment extraordinaire. Gyms, restaurants, fast food stands, a boardwalk, stores, a hockey rink, and field music on Sundays.
A vast majority of the troops on this base will never set one foot outside the wire during their tour. Many from allied nations are obese and have problems so fat they have problems with the heat even though they do not wear body armor or carry weapons on base. For my padres and I KAF means getting a double double at Timmy Horton’s and Burger King. Afghans love Burger King and we like the Timmy Horton’s.
We do not run down south without at least one if not two escort vehicles filled with Tajik fighters from the Panjshir valley. We use Sediqi Security Services (SSS) exclusively for work in both the south and west for two reasons. They are great fighters who battled the Taliban back in the day and the bad guys hate them more than they do us. This is an age old technique for outsiders operating in central Asia. If the north were as dangerous as the south we’d travel the north with Pashtun escorts for exactly the same reason.
We use the same guys on all the high risk trips we have done over the years and needless to say we are a tight crew. The owners of SSS are young mid thirties and as children would sneak into Taliban lines to steal disarm and then steal anti personnel mines. They would then sell them to the Northern Alliance. Below is a picture of them leading the way back to Kabul.
That is a PKM machinegun sticking out of the back window which is a good piece of gear to bring along on trips south. The new laws being written for private security companies in Afghanistan will prohibit us from owning or using machineguns. That is taking stupidity to new and higher levels but the laws here are designed for one thing only and that is to make the people writing them rich. In that respect the Afghan law makers are just like their democratic counterparts in Washington only a little more up front about it.
Kandahar had a large population of expatriates in 2006 who lived and worked inside the city. There was even a starbucks influenced coffee shop run by an Afghan American which was very popular with the locals. The internationals are almost all gone now; those who remain live in heavily guarded compounds and rarely travel. On our last trip down we were leaving the Continental to head back to Kabul and I took this snap shot of the street.
Suddenly the next block was empty, the shops shuttered and the hair on the back of me neck was standing tall. I took another picture before picking up my weapon. Here it is:
When you roll down a street that looks like this you are heading for big time trouble. There was only one way out of the city, so we had no choice but to keep on moving north, but Jesus it was a scary 10 minutes. Nothing happened that day and I don’t know why the street cleared out like it did but I’ll tell you what. Don’t think we’ll be heading back to Kandahar anytime soon.
Mazar-i-Shariff is home to the Kala Jangi Fighter Fortress which was the scene of a famous battle in November 2001. Unfortunately I only have one picture of the fort’s exterior which does not do it justice. My good friend CC (code-name Cautious Citizen) and I were in the area on a site visit. He is one of the few guys I know who served in the very top tier of our Special Operations establishment which is why I don’t use his real name. He probably could care less but you never know about those tier one guys and I’d hate to have one mad at me. He and I got a tour of the portion inside Kala Jangi where the fighting occurred. The remainder of the base was off limits when we were there which was in June 2007.
Just last week the Shem Bot and Michael Yon tried twice to get inside but were denied entry. The Bot speaks good Dari which the Afghans appreciate and it is most unusual that he was unable to BS his way in. The Eid holidays were last week and the commander was home with his family which may have been the reason Shem couldn’t get past the gate. It would be a shame if American or British visitors are no longer allowed to see where their special operators fought with such courage and ability. Fortunately I have spent a few afternoons wandering around inside and have plenty of interesting photos to share.
On November 25th, 2001 two CIA agents went to the Kala Jangi fortress to interview the Taliban who had surrendered to Gen Dostum’s Northern Alliance fighters the day before. While interviewing a group of prisoners the Taliban suddenly attacked the agents and their Northern Alliance escort. One of the agents and all the Northern Alliance fighters were killed. The 300 prisoners revolted and armed themselves with weapons and munitions the Taliban had stored in this portion of the fortress years before. What followed was a three day battle reported to the world in near real time.
The American military and their CIA colleagues had arrived in Central Asia mere weeks after the attacks on our homeland. The Pentagon and Langley had been pushed by Donald Rumsfeld to go quickly. No military professional likes to execute ad-hoc seat of the pants combat operations half a world away but the Pentagon let loose the dogs of war allowing our SF teams aided by CIA paramilitary, CIA paramilitary contractors and advance elements of the US Army 10th Mountain Division to operate independently with mission type orders and without micro management. The result of this initial phase of our campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a brilliant success.
It is hard to conduct such a fluid wide ranging battle where all the targeting and ordinance delivery is based on inputs from ground controllers in contact. The fog of war is a powerful performance inhibitor which affects all men on the field of battle and the fog of war inserted itself on the battle of Kala Jangi when a 2,000 pound JDAM hit adjacent to the team who had called it in. It was a miracle that none of our troops were killed by this blue-on-blue SNAFU. Dozens American, British and Afghan soldiers were injured, five Americans required medical evacuation and British casualties are unknown because the UK never releases information about SAS operations. The Northern Alliance reported over 30 KIA from this JDAM strike.
I remember watching this unfold through the video of a German TV crew who had the good luck to be on hand when the fighting started. I was amazed that we were conducting such a ballsy mobile warfare style campaign and had gotten there so quickly. Checking out this old battlefield was as opportunity I could not pass up.
The portion of the fort where all the fighting took place is the southeastern quarter which was right behind the gate next to the sign pictured above. The battlefield is essentially untouched since the battle. EOD teams did remove or destroy most of the UXO (unexploded ordinance) but our Afghan Army guide was adamant that we stay on the many paths through the brush least we step on some live ordinance or a cobra. We were there in July and apparently snakes are a problem in that area during the summer months.
Gen Dostum’s men had not searched the Taliban nor the portion of the fort where they put the Taliban (who had owned the fort until just days before they surrenderd) when American CIA agents arrived to interrogate the captured Taliban fighters they had no idea they were being held in a portion of the fort that the Taliban had used for weapons and ammunition storage. I am certain that they had detected in previous encounters with the Taliban a certain battlefield rhythm and part of that rhythm was acceptance of surrendered Taliban of their POW status. For whatever reason the Taliban in Kala Jangi were in no mood to accept their fate and they revolted killing a CIA agent (and former Marine Corps officer) Mike Spann and a dozen Northern Alliance guards. They then opened up the weapons storage containers they had put there previously and the fight was on.
In response the the call made from a CIA agent identified as “Dave” a mixed group of 9 American special operators, 6 British Special Boat Service operators and a nine man advance party from the 10th Mountain Division arrived on scene.
The Taliban weapons stores remain there to this day although the Afghan Army has rendered the weapons un-serviceable. The second picture below is of one of the shipping containers which received much attention from an AC-130 gunship during the night of 26 November.
Although the battle lasted for three days it was essentially over after the AC-130’s pounded the Taliban on the night of the 26th. On the morning of the 27th the surviving Taliban retreated into the basements under the mud huts which line the southern wall.
You can still find medicine bottles, primitive field dressings, torn and bloody clothing, and a ton of rusty un-serviceable small arms ammo down in the these basements.
In order to drive the surviving band of die hard fighters out of the basement Dostum’s men flooded it. And when they did out popped Johnny Walker Lindh and another 80 or so surviving fighters. There are few absolutes in life but the death penalty for traitors to our great land is one of them. Lindh should have been hung a long time ago. In public. Nothing personal but the same principal applies here as it did to the murdering horse thieves in Lonesome Dove. Gus and Captain Call had to string up the group they caught which included their life-long friend Jake Spoon. The didn’t want to do it but they had to because it was their duty under their code. There are some things a man cannot tolerate if he is going to call himself a free man. Horse thieves and traitors are two of those things. Again this is not personal – I can understand the ennui which drove young Walker to Islam. I can admire his courage and fortitude in leaving home at such a young age to venture into the northwest frontier of Pakistan alone. But he turned traitor and at that point all the understanding and empathy in the world is irrelevant. The issue becomes black and white. Just like a Panda.
I arrived in Afghanistan four years after this battle and can only imagine what it was like for the American and British operators who drove into the breach back in 2001. They were free to operate as they saw fit based on what they developed on the ground. The Afghan people were 100% behind our efforts to rid them of the Taliban scourge. They must have been greeted like liberators everywhere they went and when the Taliban tried to stand and fight they were able to defeat them in detail with precision direct and indirect fire. What could be better than that?
Visiting Northern Afghanistan is a trip of a lifetime but if you want to make it you better hurry.