Herschel Smith at the Captains Journal has put up a great post which addresses a topic near and dear to my heart; infantry tactics. The post is The Five Hundred Meter War and I want to reinforce Herschel’s point with some observations.
The tactical argument being raised by Herschel is the alarming trend of engaging in long range fire fights without even attempting to close with and destroy the enemy. The mission of American infantrymen (according to FM 2-21.20 The Infantry Battalion) is “to close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver.”
Aggressive maneuver combined with active patrolling keep the enemy off balance. The army demonstrated this in Kunar over the last few weeks. The first graph below is from the week of the Camp Blessing battle and the second from the week of the elections.
The incident rates above clearly demonstrate a point made over and over by Herschel Smith and many other military bloggers have made and that is incident rates drop when kinetic activity increases. It also demonstrated the folly of running down a road to visit sites for a brief period of time and then returning to the FOB. Yesterday a British national working for the development firm DAI was kidnapped right off the main Abad to Jbad road. She was moving in a two vehicle convoy of low profile Toyota Corollas which is normally a safe mode of travel as long as the people inside the Corollas can pass as locals at first glance. This method of blending in is not a good idea if the convoy is going to be static for any period of time allowing local spotters to get a good look at the passengers. There are internationals in Afghanistan who can fool a trained observer with local clothes and a local style beard but they don’t fool anybody once they start walking. Their gait does not resemble how Afghans move because westerners do not spend their lives squatting on their heels.
I do not know the woman who was kidnapped that well but can say she was one of the more experienced and savvy operators in the eastern region. The company she works for, DAI, is one of the “big boys” in the reconstruction business and although they are not as nimble or fast as we are they are still damn good. So here we are in the middle of the surge and the security situation has never been worse. If the security situation continues to degrade it is just a matter of time before all of us reconstruction types pull up the stakes and go home. I think I am speaking for the outside the wire community when I say (to ISAF) “it’s time to get off the FOB’s and into the fight….or we’re done here.”
We were under UN restricted movement routine last week (for the first time in five years) which provided the opportunity to digest a report from The Afghanistan Study Group entitled A New Way Forward. This report was great news for me because if think tanks are paying big bucks to people who write so poorly and know so little then maybe I can get a job in America and stop spending 11 of every 12 months out of the country. Any think tankers out there who have an opening drop me a line – I’ll be your huckleberry.
Fortunately I don’t have to take this report apart as a genuine regional expert, the formidable Joshua Foust, has already done that over at Registan.net. Take the time to read his post here; it is, as usual, well written and spot on. With the heavy lifting already done I wanted to focus on the one part of the Study Group report which I find alarming and that is the amount of money being spent. This is from the summary of the Afghanistan Study Group report:
The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now the longest in our history, and is costing the U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year, roughly seven times more than Afghanistan’s annual gross national product (GNP) of $14 billion.
100 Billion US dollars per year. That level of expenditure will not be sustainable for much longer so in the spirit of offering solutions instead of highlighting problems I am going to try and articulate a real New Way Forward. The first step to limiting the amount of money being spent while reducing the number of troops deployed in theater is to eliminate the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) program. PRT’s are based on FOB’s, staffed by hundreds of personnel and completely focused internally. The commander of a PRT who is often an officer from the Navy or Air Force will get one fitness report (FitRep) in his/her career where they are commanding troops in combat. The problems that would prevent these commanders from getting a superior fitness report (which is the only way they will be promoted and retained in the service) are all things that happen inside the wire. Sloppy admin, poor vehicle maintenance, problems with CMS (classified material storage and handling) lost gear or (heaven forbid) lost weapons, excessive boy/girl drama, failure to conduct required annual training like suicide prevention, sexual harassment, AIDS awareness (to name just a few) and problems getting mid to senior level NCO’s to professional schools….all these things and many more will ruin a FitRep. What will not ruin a Fitrep is failing to accomplish anything of significance outside the wire which is the primary mission of the PRT’s. The reason that is irrelevant is because there is no way to measure what is happening outside the wire with any precision because to know what is happening outside the wire one has to be outside the wire and riding around in hermetically sealed MRAP’s doesn’t count.
This story published last month in the Danger Room blog is a great example. Nine years into the conflict and a group of soldiers are just now bringing their tech skills to bear in order to gain cooperation from villagers located just outside the wire from Bagram. Captain Balan (pictured above) is a 55 year old reservist who is trying something new because past experience taught him the regular “Key Leader Engagement” techniques yield nothing. He is using his civilian techie skills to engage the villagers in another way. Read the article and note how after visiting the village he is all psyched up to go back and tune up their computer lab. This is what I mean by letting our troops loose to stay outside the wire and develop the situation using their initiative, drive and skill sets. But again there is a huge problem illustrated in the picture above and that is the body armor, rifles, security team etc… when it is right outside the wire from the biggest base in Afghanistan. Compare and contrast what you read in the article with this:
In August of 2010 American soldiers are taking baby steps within a stones throw of the Bagram Airfield but two years ago a bunch of grad student volunteers created a wi fi network which now envelops Jalalabad. What do you think soldiers like Captain Balan could do if they too had the freedom of movement that we have? I am willing to bet you would see massive amounts of projects like the one he is attempting all over the country which, in turn, would bring cooperation from the local people while letting the modernity genie out of the bottle.
Here is another example of spending massive amounts of money while bringing zero benefit to the local population:
In the past expeditionary base fire fighting was a collateral duty assigned to base troops just like it is with the crew on Navy ships. Now we deploy federal firefighters to perform this task which is fine; federal fire fighters are useful individuals who attend multiple schools where they receive first rate training. If we are going to spend over a million a year to deploy each firefighter we could get much more return on investment by letting these guys spend their days with the local Afghan fire and rescue crews. They don’t need some sort of high speed mission to accomplish daily – they could drive around and look for places where they can help out. They could be busy all day every day teaching people all sorts of useful things while spreading goodwill and good karma. Every night they could return to base where they would be available when needed in the event of a conflagration. They don’t need to be armed, they don’t need body armor, they don’t need a powerpoint mission brief, they just need to drive off the base and do it. If they needed experienced guides to make them feel more comfortable they could ask the ladies from the La Jolla Rotary Club who are here right now supporting the San Diego Sister City program.
There is nothing hard about finding “A New Way Forward” all that is needed is the application of common sense while allowing simple principals to guide the deployment of forces on the ground. I spent twenty years in the Marines preparing for contingencies like the one we face in Afghanistan. At no time did anyone ever suggest the way to fight them was to build FOB’s – store 90% of your deployed forces on those FOB’s and put those people to work slaving over powerpoint slides for the daily commanders update brief. Nor did we ever consider something as patently stupid as putting ship drivers or C-130 pilots in charge of reconstruction teams which have more equipment, personnel, money and a larger tactical area of operations then an infantry battalion. When you do that kind of thing you end up with The Helmand Food Zone Fiasco. Its time to send the PRT’s home and to give that mission to Ghost Team and other outside the wire contractors who operate in similar fashion. They are accomplishing more while costing a fraction of a penny when compared to the PRT dollar.
Which brings us to a topic many of you have been asking me about and that is Koran burning threat by an obscure pastor who has a 50 member flock. Obviously the ruckus raised by our main stream media over this threat caused those of us in Afghanistan a lot of problems. However it is hard to take the Secretary of Defense or General Petraus seriously when they warn how inappropriate it is to burn this book when last year our military burned boxes of Dari and Pashtun translations of the Bible which had been sent to Afghanistan by a Christian organization. Why is it OK to burn the Bible and not the Koran? The only person of prominence to address the Koran burning issue in a clear honest fashion was Sarah Palin who said this:
People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.
As I listened to the response by our dinosaur media, military leaders, and President to the Koran burning threat I longed to hear them address this topic in clear honest language. This they cannot do and I am left with just one conclusion. Our elites think the American people are stupid. They insult us with their Quisling like knee jerk reactions and selective outrage when talking about sensitive matters concerning Islam. Nobody needs to tell me how dangerous it is to burn the Koran in a highly publicized manner – my colleagues and I are at much greater risk from the fallout of that act than any military person stationed in Afghanistan. But I’m an American citizen; I do not knuckle my brow, bend my knee or bow before any man for any reason at any time.
Nor do I selectively apply the freedoms granted to me by God and enshrined in our constitution. We are a free people but freedom requires eternal vigilance with the steadfast devotion to principle. All men are equal under American law, all religions are equal too so none deserves nor can be granted special status or consideration. Why is it our ruling class elites and their henchmen in the media have forgotten this basic component of the American way? When I explain my view to the Afghans I work with they understand exactly what I am saying and why…and they respect the message. I’m with Sarah Palin on this one; at least she isn’t treating the American people like a bunch of know-nothing bumpkins.
As the summer started I was optimistic that we would see indications that we are gaining ground in Afghanistan but that has not happened. Incident rates are skyrocketing which is not a bad thing if it is our side initiating the incidents but this too is not the case. While ISAF is conducting more raids and presence patrols they do not seem to have learned how to conduct these operations while managing the perceptions of the population we are supposed to be protecting. By projecting force off of FOB’s and then pulling back into them when the kinetics are done we create a vacuum after every operation.
Earlier in the week a joint Afghan/American SF team raided a madrasa in Sarracha village which is next to the massive airfield/military base in Jalalabad. They hit the madrasa at night and arrested five men described as mullahs or madrasa students (depends on who you ask). The next morning a large crowd closed the main highway between Jalalabad and the border and threatened to start burning cars and throwing stones at the police. The police responded in great numbers but when they arrived a local candidate for Parliament was on hand calming the crowd down and swearing “he will not rest” until he has talked with the Governor and ISAF and the police to get the people detained released. As it was approaching 100 degrees and this is Ramadan the crowd said OK and dispersed. By the time I got there the police were gone and only a few men remained who were clearing the road of rocks. My terp JD and I asked what had happened and were told the American SF had raided the Madras and taken five students and then they tore up the Koran. I burst out laughing at that one as did JD who immediately called bullshit and asked the guy how he could say something so stupid. The man started laughing too – everyone in this country knows that neither US or Afghan troops are going to touch let alone destroy a Koran.
Here’s the thing – why is an Afghan political candidate managing the perceptions of a raid we conducted on a village less than a mile from one of our regional bases? Pashtunwali works both ways and if these people are harboring villains then who is accountable for that? I’m not advocating rounding people up and sweating them I’m saying the elders should be called into the mosque for a shura with the district governor and both Afghan and ISAF military representation and forced to explain why they can’t keep their house in order. If that seems a bit confrontational then both sides can explain their positions and everyone can talk for hours to reach some sort of understanding. Allowing insurgents into a village puts the village at risk because ISAF and the Afghan Army seek insurgents out and hit them aggressively. The potential for collateral damage is significant and the responsibility for that damage has to rest on those who allow targets into their midst. We are using all carrots or all sticks depending on geographic location. In Kunar Province ISAF fights daily while delivering aid programs but in Nangarhar Province we swoop down in the middle of the night and take away suspected insurgents and leave. This allows various actors with their own agendas to fill the vacuum we create with whatever message benefits them. Kunar gets the carrots while Nangarhar gets the stick and I’m not sure why that is. Until ISAF wises up and starts calibrating their operations to gain the maximum effect from every offensive action we are going to continue to get played by Afghan elites.
ISAF needs to think through these night raids. They do not attempt to manage perceptions because the SF teams doing these raids don’t give a damn about the perceptions in an area they’ll visit once in a lifetime. In the last 72 hours we have had 16 rockets and 6 IED attacks in Nangarhar Province. One of these IED attacks killed the sub governor of La Pur district at the gates of the Governor’s compound. Was it Taliban who did this? Who knows? The local people know that the Sub Governor had been spending time in Kabul trying to get his son released from jail. His son has been incarcerated for two months since he copped to killing one of his cousins over a family dispute. A crime he may or may not have done himself. Nothing here is linear or simple and it is common for the son of powerful men to take a fall knowing their father will get them out of prison. There are lots of scores to settle in Afghanistan and the Taliban are not the only actors settling scores.
The tanker wars continue as you can see above but to what end? It could be the “broken windows” theory of terrorism where the bad guys seek to keep constant pressure on the civilians with nuisance attacks in highly trafficked areas creating the perception of tactical freedom of action or it could be fuel company wars. Who knows? I don’t and I am pretty sure ISAF doesn’t either.
The summer is coming to a close, the surge is on, the bases around Afghanistan are packed with military and contractor personnel yet for the average Afghan things continue to go right down the toilet. Make no mistake we are still in a shooting war and in a shooting war a commander has three forms of currency he must spend; money, blood and time. The various insurgent groups are spending blood – we are spending tons of money and time. The problem is that the Taliban has a vast surplus of fighters while we are running out of both money and time. ISAF is hamstrung for two reasons; the first is risk aversion and lack of initiative. The bloated staffs which expand exponentially are completely focused on the unimportant. If powerpoint briefs could bring the Taliban to bay (and they could if we could inflict a few on them daily – they are worse than water torture) then we would already be home. Anyone who has been anywhere near the ISAF HQ in Kabul speaks of a dysfunctional culture so bizarre that Hollywood could never do it justice. The giant staffs which inflict so much pain and misery on those below them are a self inflicted wound and that is on the US military. The second factor the military can do little about and that is the Karzai government. Check this out:
After the corruption scandals, Karzai criticized U.S. war strategy and ordered private security companies out of Afghanistan within four months. He also signed off on the forced retirement of his official in charge of the Anti-Corruption unit.
We put pressure on the Afghan government about the corruption – they put pressure on the international community operating outside the wire who in turn put pressure on their respective international governments. That is not a recipe for success. This news about the CIA paying members of the Karzai administration who are currently under criminal investigation is a great example. I have no problems with doing what it takes to accomplish the mission but we have been at this for a decade and it seems to me if the information we paid for was worth a damn the ISAF J2 would not publicly complain about the complete lack of relevant intelligence and the current security stats wouldn’t look like this:
I correspond almost daily with American troops in Afghanistan, They are a frustrated crew. I hear the same thing over and over – “take the handcuffs off and let us off the FOB; we know what to do.” I’m not the only one getting this message and hope those on high are thinking about what they’re hearing from the pointed end of the spear because we are running out of time and we are running out of money.
I am overdue on updating all of you on local atmospherics in the rapidly destabilizing Nangarhar Province.
I also recently did another episode of The Aloyna Show where I took a SWAG at who I think is responsible for the murders of the international medical team headed by Dan Terry and Tom Little – the interview is below:
I think it is fair to say that I did not have much more to say on that topic because I remain stunned at what happened to my friends. And the bad news just keeps getting worse….The villains set up and took a shot at The Skipper last week and damn near got him.
The Skipper wasn’t injured in this blast – nobody was which would make one think that maybe it was a warning. But for those of us who live with this shit daily it is impossible to figure out what is going on. They could have set that bomb for The Skipper expecting it to blow him to kingdom come, they could have set it up to just make noise because he’s The Skipper and they want to warn him he is no longer welcome. They could have screwed up the HME (home made explosives) recipe. There is no Taliban proficiency matrix with which to judge attacks because of the wide disparity in competence between various Taliban units. Look at this article from The Atlantic; even the Lib media is figuring out that we are fighting a bunch of clowns. Of course that brings the real question to mind which is why aren’t we beating the snot out of them but I’m going to leave that alone for now. From the Atlantic article linked above:
“Nowhere is the gap between sinister stereotype and ridiculous reality more apparent than in Afghanistan, where its fair to say that the Taliban employ the world’s worst suicide bombers: one in two manages to kill only himself. And this success rate hasn’t improved at all in the five years they’ve been using suicide bombers, despite the experience of hundreds of attacks or attempted attacks. In Afghanistan, as in many cultures, a manly embrace is a time-honored tradition for warriors before they go off to face death. Thus, many suicide bombers never even make it out of their training camp or safe house, as the pressure from these group hugs triggers the explosives in suicide vests. According to several sources at the United Nations, as many as six would-be suicide bombers died last July after one such embrace in Paktika.”
There was an attack on the safe-house of one of the security firms in Kabul last week involving two suicide bombers. They popped up well inside the new Kabul “Ring of Steel” checkpoint system (which seems designed to harass internationals) and opened fire on the exterior guards in front of the Hart Security compound. The Hart guards returned fire for a second or two and locked themselves inside the compound as did the exterior guards outside the gates of every other compound on that street. The attackers ran up to the Hart gate and one positioned himself to blow the gate while the other moved back about 20 feet. When bad guy number one blew down the gate, bad guy two also perished because 20 feet of stand-off is inadequate for powerful suicide vests. Almost funny right?
As the fighting season continues the good guys are losing more land and population to the various insurgent groups operating in the country. Teams of doctors are being murdered in the remote provinces, attacks are launched inside the ANP “Ring of Steel” (or Ring of Steal as JD and Haji jan call it) and where is the focus of the Afghan government? On private security companies of course… yes why not?
Now is exactly not the right time to make all PSC’s illegal and let the ANP and ministry of the interior (MOI) provide security to convoy’s, military bases and internationals working in the reconstruction sector. There are not enough men in the Afghan security forces to go around and their proficiency in preforming these tasks is suspect (to put it politely). But forget that – the real question is how much is this going to cost. We already pay for the ANP and ANA – if they are going to provide mobile and static security then I guess the millions of dollars being paid to private companies will no longer be needed right? Wrong. The MOI is planning to charge PMC rates to augment the millions given them by donor nations. One can predict with 100% certainty what will happen if President Karzai goes through with this crazy scheme. The logistics pipeline will start to rapidly dry up, internationals will be unable to move without their (mandated by their insurance) expat security teams and their projects will ground to a halt. Military operations will have to be suspended because there will not be enough Afghan Security Forces to both fight and provide theater wide static and mobile security support.
For companies working outside the wire in the reconstruction sector the absence of international PSD teams will also impact their ability to get insurance (required by contract law) for internationals at reasonable rates. At exactly the time that internationals operating outside the wire need to be armed the laws are changing to make it illegal for internationals to be armed. How are we supposed to operate now?
I’ll leave you with a translation of the new presidential decree on PSC’s so you too can puzzle at it’s meaning with the rest of us:
Decree Translation President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan About dissolution of Private Security Companies # 65 17.08.2010
Article 1: Based on point 3,4 article 64 and 66 of Afghan constitution in order to fight the corruption, provision of security for all citizen, avoiding the public disorder and misusing the weapon, uniform and military equipment by private security companies which causes the tragic incidents. After legal and necessary assessment about dissolution of internal and external private security companies within four months I approve the following points.
Article 2: Individual volunteer members of private security companies, if they are qualified can be reintegrated with or without weapon, ammunition, vehicles and other on-hand equipment after registration into the police lines and ministry of interior affair is assigned to complete the reintegration of abovementioned companies and finalize it according to the timeline.
Article 3: The supplies and equipments of foreign private security companies which have already been registered in ministry of interior in case of transportation in initial signed protocol should not belong to government. After agreement of companies MoI, MoD and NDS should purchase the supplies and equipment and the residential visa of companies’ personnel should be cancelled.
Article 4: In case the companies do not agree to sale the equipment their residential visa’s should be cancelled and they can take their supplies and equipments with them out of country.
Article 5: The internal and external private security companies that are not registered in MoI and established arbitrary, should be abort as illegal security companies and their supplies and military equipments to be confiscated in accordance to the law.
Article 6: Embassies in Kabul, foreign consulates in provinces also international organizations, NGOs and economic organizations that are active around the country can have their self belonged private security inside their compounds, that should not be allowed to move outside the relevant compound and the size will be determined and registered by MoI.
Article 7: Ministry of Interior is assigned to provide external security for all embassies and International organizations, NGO in Kabul and in provinces, provide necessary facilities in registration and issuing license for weapons and equipment individuals private security organizations as mentioned in article five of this decree and provide security for all logistical transportations of international troops from province to Kabul, districts and vice-versa in cooperation with MoD and NDS.
Article 8: This decree is valid from the issuance date and the implementation is MoI responsibility.
Hamid Karzai President of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
One of the Chim Chim’s dropped in for a visit last month. He was on some sort of ISAF inspection team which I didn’t ask too much about and told us that every-time he asked officers from the unit he was looking at what they were doing the reply was “getting after it.” They were getting after it by doing daily presence patrols and stopping every now and then to talk with the local villagers. They then return to the FOB for the night. General Petraeus is getting ready to release a revision of the rules of engagement and early reports say he has included “you can’t commute to the battle” guidance just as he did in Iraq. That is sound tactical advice when the bad guys aren’t commuting to fight – they’re here, right now and exerting more influence then we have seen in the past.
As of three days ago every DVD and CD shop in Jalalabad closed their doors. These shops generate a lot of income and were very popular. Closing them all down is a big deal and the local people, as they are prone to do, blame the government and ISAF for not protecting them.
I know I have said this too many times before but the fact remains you can’t project security to any segment of the population from a FOB. You cannot even protect the population living right outside the fence next to the FOB as the Taliban demonstrated last night when they plastered night letters all over the village of Base Ekmalati. A village right behind the large ISAF base in Jalalabad and the same village that I wrote about in this post about the floods.
Here is what the night letter said:
Military Commission of Nangarhar Province
Message of Islamic Emirates Mujahedeen’s to the brave and Mujahid Nation of Nangarhar Province
Allah the great has said lots of realities through his messenger Mohammad that you won’t make these Non-Muslims happy unless you convert to their religion. Every one has eye witnessed the current, devil Supper power, with of Christianity and Jewish fanaticism, thirsty of innocent blood, has invaded the Islamic land of Afghanistan, and trying to reach their hungry and starving goals, by killing innocent people, widowing thousands of women, and orphaned thousands of kids, killings tens of brides and grooms during their wedding nights, bombed/destroyed tens of Madrasas and Masjids, searching our personal belongings in our house looking Usama and Al Qaeda, but few sensation less faces who always sold their Muslim brothers blood for few Dollars are accompanying, and chanting slogans that whatever they, but long life to us.
Still Afghani sensation is alive, still there are lions, in the mountains and Jangles, however a number Mujahedeen’s has died, and wounded, but this has more reinforced Muhedeen’s moral, jailing and difficulties has convinced them more to fight for freedom, and now this feared enemy who was looking at the ground but to the sky, and the slogan for the Muslims they had was either arrest them or kill them, but now with success of Jihad, they are running around the world and seeking an escape route.
Since the enemy is facing their sure defeat, now they are trying to sparate the nation from the Mujaheddens, and discredited Mujahedeens in all different ways.
The Islamic Emirate is informing the nation that we are the guards of Islamic soil and the guard’s life and property, and with the cost of our blood we consider this our religious duty.
The brave nation be awake and remember that the enemy is in escaping position, do not let them to mislead you, and do not let them blame you as the thieves and the abductors.
Islamic Emirate Is Informing the Nation of the necessary things as follows
The Islamic Emirates inform the nation from the following matters.
Those who abducting local and Tribal elders, and charging locals for all the different types of taxations/charities, they are not Taliban indeed, but American agents. The Islamic Emirate is seriously looking into this issue, whoever again faces the mentioned problems they should contact and inform the local Mujahedeens in there are of their problems, in case they can not reach the local Mujahedeens, they can contact the local elders or scholars, so that they can reach the Military Commission, the criminal will face severe consequences.
If any one, welling to pay charity to the Islamic Emirate, he should contact three people District Military commission and at the same time three people from Province Military commission.
The Islamic Emirate is having different commission for, natural resources, Mines, NGOs, those who are working in the mentioned sectors has to refer to them, and if any one is asking them for money they are not Taliban, but the American agents, and Insha’Allah they will face the same consequences as the Americans.
To the Authorities
Those who are working with the ANA/ANP, Parliament, Provincial counsel and other governmental organizations for few dollars they should immediately quite their jobs, and promise Allah that they won’t do it in the future. This will be the last warning of Mujahedeens of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan for them.
Those conscienceless spies, who are spying about Muslims for few dollars we have a list of them and very soon we will publish their details, and for sure they will face severe consequences.
Some slave type people who are trying to establish tribal Arbakia forces or to convince others to join these forces, the Islamic Emirate is not differentiating them from the Americans.
To The Scholars and Mullahs
Dear, you are the leaders of the tribe, and the representatives of Mohammad, you better know that most Quranic verses and Adiths is ordering to stay away from non Muslims and tells to fight them, this is your Islamic duty and responsibility that you implement this order of Allah.
Those of you who know a thing or two about night letters will note that this one lacks a seal of either the commander or the organization who released it. But the abrupt closing of all the DVD shops in town indicates the bad guys have established a foothold inside the city.
I wish I could see some evidence that the American Army is getting after it too but so far, with the exception of a brief, effective offensive in Kunar I see nishta. The Army is setting itself up for more scathing criticism like this article. An example from the linked article:
Yet even as I was filling my notebook with details of their delusionary schemes, the base commander told me he had already been forced to put aside development. He had his hands full facing a Taliban onslaught he hadn’t expected. Throughout Afghanistan, insurgent attacks have gone up 51 percent since the official adoption of COIN as the strategy du jour. On this eastern front, where the commander had served six years earlier, he now faces a surge of intimidation, assassination, suicide attacks, roadside bombs, and fighters with greater technical capability than he has ever seen in Afghanistan.
The only reason we are not seeing more stories like this is the media narrative remains squarely with the Obama administration and they are not going to release too many stories ridiculing our (his) efforts on the ground. How much longer will that paradigm hold? Saying you are focused on bringing security to the population while doing little in the way of securing the population is obviously not going to work much longer. Had the reporter (Ms. Jones) been a little more savvy about things military she may have asked the one question nobody can honestly answer and that is if you are not going to secure the population then why are all these people here and shouldn’t they be sent home?
The Taliban are out in the open, trying to tax the people, running shadow governments, putting up night letters to intimidate the people living 100 meters outside the wire of a major regional base. There is only one thing the military can do given current ground truths and one need look no further than Herschel Smith at the Captains Journal to find the yellow (school solution.)
They need to look into the eyes of every inhabitant, be inside every home, take every fingerprint and scan every iris. Their patrols need to be ubiquitous, day and night, and they don’t need to wait on the ANA or send them into the homes first. They need to proceed with door kicking in the middle of the night if that’s what it takes, they need to project force, and they need to do it beginning now and carrying on until every last insurgent has been captured or killed. Killed is better than captured given the poor state of the Afghanistan system of justice (i.e., catch and release).
It is just that simple but we seem to be light-years away from doing this. Now everything hangs in the balance, all the work we have done, all the programs we are currently running, all of that is now in play and the bad guys are setting the agenda, have the initiative, and dictating the terms of the fight. They’re the ones who are getting after it.
Ben Arnoldy at the Christen Science Monitor penned an excellent tale on reconstruction efforts going pear shaped and the consequences resulting from such folly. The report was original, focused and resulted from Ben going to the remote Badakshan Province for a couple of weeks to get the details correct. This article is the perfect book end to last weeks Toronto Star piece on Panjwayi Tim and Ghost Team because it highlights the futility of traditional US AID standard operating procedures. Ben sums up the point of his article with these opening paragraphs:
On paper, the multi-pronged project revitalized a backward Afghan province, weaning it off poppy cultivation and winning Afghan hearts and minds.
However, a Monitor investigation reveals that even in spite of a few modest gains, the Afghans here were left angered over project failures, secrecy, and wasted funds.
“Now the people are hating American companies like PADCO because many times they brought millions of dollars, but didn’t do anything,” says Syed Abdul Basir Husseini, the electricity chief for Badakhshan Province. “All Badakhshanis know that it was $60 million [that America] spent,” he says, adding that they see little evidence of it.
The story of what went wrong exposes serious weaknesses in the third pillar of America’s “clear, hold, build” Afghan strategy. Among them: big-spending hastiness, unrealistic deadlines, high development staff turnover, planning divorced from ground realities, and ever-present security risks in this war-torn nation.
“In Vietnam, they were measuring success of operations in the numbers that are killed. In Afghanistan, it is how many schools you are building and how much money you spent. This is better, but as wrong,” says Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, in Kabul. “What you need to measure is what is the impact of what you’ve done.”
I’ve talked about this so many times before that I’m sick of it so time to try something new; it’s time for a story board.
As I’m writing this post I’m watching the Afghan Security Face chat room explode with information on a firefight and rioting in Kabul. The story is already on the wire – apparently a armored SUV hit a local car on the main road to the airport causing several fatalities, a crowd gathered, shots were fired and the vehicle drove back into the entrance to the US Embassy which was only a few hundred yards away. After that a firefight erupted, and unknown number of people were killed, and currently crowds are stoning any cars they suspect contain foreigners or ISAF military. What can one say about a self inflicted wound of such severity?General rioting in the most heavily controlled area of Kabul can rapidly spread to other cities putting the lives of internationals who are out and about in grave danger. If there are any more incidents like the one unfolding in Kabul it’s going to get damn hard to stay outside the wire.
Last week, Kanani Fong of the blog The Kitchen Dispatch, arranged an interview for me with Tim Hetherington, who along with Sebastian Junger produced the award-winning documentary called “Restrepo”. Kanani signed onto the Restrepo team to spearhead a public relations effort, in conjunction with National Geographic, to get the film released nationwide in theaters. This is no easy task for a documentary but, as many of you know, there is a huge groundswell building in the blogosphere over this movie and it is already scheduled for runs in major cities around the country. This is great news because the one thing Tim stressed in our interview was this is not a film just for the military, but for the general public. In the minds of the men who made it, this film is designed to show Americans who have no direct stake in this fight (which is the vast majority) what is being asked of the men and women who are bearing the brunt of battle.
My conversation with Tim Hetherington was really enjoyable. Our Skype connection was crystal clear and we got along like old friends. Tim and I had such a great time chatting with each other I never got around to doing any interviewing. I know that sounds strange, but we were having such a great give and take about all kinds of things that I asked very few direct questions about the film.
Both this film and the related book War by Sebastian Junger are valuable additions to the special niche in military history dealing with the effects of battle. This type of historical writing was made popular in 1976 by the historian John Keegan when he published his classic The Face of Battle. I loved that book and remember being enthralled by the descriptions of battle – especially his telling of the famous Agincourt fight where English bowmen took out the leading Knights of France. The Knights were encumbered with over 60 pounds of body armor and, when they dismounted their horses, essentially immobile and helpless. I remember talking about this book with my peers, laughing and laughing at the stupidity of going into battle wearing over 60 pounds of body armor. I guess the joke was on us, since my peers now routinely go into battle with more than 60 pounds on their backs. Thanks to ergonomic advances, they can move a little better and react slightly faster than the doomed French nobles at Agincourt….but that’s not the point is it?
Which brings me to the only real question I had for Tim, and it was an unfair one: why does it seem that the Army never tried to preempt the routine attacks on Restrepo and the other FOB’s? Apparently, they generally knew when attacks were forming and the attack positions used by the Taliban never changed, because they couldn’t change…mountains limit your options for good fields-of-fire.
I was taught that fire without maneuver was a waste of time, effort, and money. It still seems strange to me that the reaction to an attack on a FOB or the ambush of a convoy is to shoot back with long range fire, call in airstrikes and then go back to what you were doing before the Taliban started bugging you. I liked the way we used to do these things, which was to gain and maintain contact until you could maneuver on the villains and destroy them in detail. It is a poor idea to provide on-the-job training for your adversary.
Tim pointed out that the Army did run a preemptive operation which is a critical part of the film and book, called Operation Rock Avalanche, but the question really wasn’t a fair one. Both the film and book are focusing on the experience of a single platoon during an entire combat rotation. Platoons execute orders from on-high and have little to say about operational planning. I already knew the answer to the question I was asking and found this quote later which seems to best express why the men in Restrepo fight the way they do. This quote is from The Father of Us all by Victor Davis Hanson:
“Consequently, emphasis on defense – from body armor to antiballistic missile systems – will become an ever higher priority, as ever more affluent Americans, like Greek hoplights or medieval Lords of old, grow increasingly sensitive to the casualties of war. The current weight of fifty to eighty pounds of gear that so burdens individual soldiers is not so much to provide them with additional offensive power as to achieve better communications, body protection, and survivability.”
The men in Restrepo were executing with skill and determination the orders they had been given. It is still amazing to me that guys can move and fight as well as they did, given the loads they were carrying in a high altitude, mountainous environment. Their attempts at tribal engagement did not pay off in the long run. We no longer staff FOB’s in the Korengal Valley, but these guys gave it their best shot, which comes through clearly in the book as well as in the movie.
In my opinion, it is important that this film be shown in as many theaters as possible. Most of my regular readers know this tale intimately and will appreciate the artistry in this tale about infantrymen in war. Most Americans as well as most people in the countries with troops deployed here, do not have a clue about what they collectively have asked their fellow citizens to do. The amount of responsibility placed on the shoulders of twenty-something year old (or sometimes younger) men who lead fire teams, squads, and platoons, exceeds by several orders of magnitude, the burden placed on their peers in the civilian world. Once they are home and out of the service, it may be decades before they are placed in positions of such responsibility again. Add to that the burden of survivors’ guilt, which is common to all veterans at all times and in all places, and one gets a sense of the overwhelming pressures being shouldered by these veterans at the pointed-end of the spear. Americans need to know this because when our elected leaders send these soldiers to fight for our country they do so in all our names. We owe it to all the men and women who serve in harms’ way to understand what we asked them to do.
President Karzai to reverse his position on using tribal militias. The new name for these soon to be created Arbaki is Local Police Forces (LPF.) This is a plan which has been tried before without success. In Kandahar the Local Defense Initiative (LDI) forces (the original Arbaki program from a few years back) were quickly targeted and decimated by the Taliban. In Kunduz and Takar province they partnered with armed criminal gangs to exploit the population and government supplies and in Parwan Province they flat out turned Taliban. I’m not sure what is being modified to make this cunning plan more effective than the last time around but I do know this much – the plan is going to fail.
Alex Strick van Linschoten has coined the term “hope tactics” to describe the thinking behind arming various local cats and dogs and that sounds like a pretty good description to me. There is only one way to do this sort of thing and that is to supervise the security forces you are creating. Without supervision and training all you can do is hope the units you create end up becoming effective and hope isn’t a plan. I’m sick of hope and also sick of seeing the same narrow list of options being tried over and over again adding yet another chapter to our legacy of failure in Afghanistan.
Last night Captain America (regional manager for Ghost Team with 3 years on the ground with the US Army and four more as a contractor) rucked up to the Taj happy hour. We talked for a long time about why we are always fighting to maintain program funding, keep our safe-houses, keep our mobility and freedom to maneuver despite consistently exceeding program goals. No reason to hash over the details of our incredibly interesting conversation but there was a portion worthy of mention. CPT A asked if we could do vertical structures, I said we could, to which he said, “you know if we could just knock out 250 schools we’re done”. CPT A is currently refurbishing every district irrigation system in Nangarhar Province. He does three districts at a time, employs around 5,000 laborers and is building proper intakes and installing concrete in main canals and karez systems so that they last. The roads into the Nangarhar districts are done, once we finish all the irrigation systems if we knock out 250 schools we can say “dudes we did what we said we were going to do and we’re taking off….good luck.”
CPT A was understating what needs to be done but not by much. He wrote the Provincial reconstruction plan when he here with the Army and knows more about it than anyone else on the planet. But the chances that our military and civilian leaders would recognize a successful template and slim down our efforts to switch up on the hold and build game are zero. The reason they are zero is that doing successful reconstruction is irrelevant for the thousands of military staff, civilian governmental agency personnel, and their contractors who have deployed to Afghanistan. All of them have high level security clearances, they spend their days in inter-agency working groups designed to trim the bureaucratic red tape for efficiency and speed while reducing “stove pipes.” These people are all highly paid experts who spend their time flying between FOB’s to brief each other or to participate in “fusion cells” designed to provide the battle commanders with useful information. But they cannot get out and about to dig up any useful information.
An incident like the attack on the DAI office in Kunduz last month gives this Classified Class weeks of work. Guys like the Skipper or CPT America, guys who get the job done day after day without any problems or hiccups – the Classified Class doesn’t even know they exist. There is no reason to track people doing their jobs as promised and without fanfare because they are not going to pop up on the classified nets. A gigantic Poppy Palace full of western aid workers getting attacked – that generates all kinds of classified message traffic and will require lots of flying around to other FOB’s to brief and participate in more emergency inter agency meetings. Want the truth? The Classified Class is spending millions of OPM to accomplish not one damn thing other than to feel good about how they spent their year in Afghanistan.
We have no resilience in our reconstruction fight if we continue doing it the same old way. Kunduz is a perfect example; the contractor was in a large, well fortified compound with a professional international security company providing armed expat and local security experts. They faced a serious ground attack but the fortifications and armed guard force did its job by killing the attackers before they could injure any of the aid workers. But now the contractor is gone, the programs they were working on abandoned which means the security plan was designed to survive one attack and one attack only. How can one expect to get the build portion of the current clear hold and build program completed if the people doing the build leave after one attack?
As our Thursday evening happy hour drew to a close the one thing we all agreed on was that our ability to operate in the manner we do is based on the locals watching after us. The years we have spent in N2KL have resulted in most people in most places knowing who we are and what we do. Reconstruction is not hard, establishing credibility is and that takes time in countries like Afghanistan. It also takes people who can operate on their own on the economy and not just survive but continue to function if attacked. That kind of thinking is not found inside the closed loop of the classified crowd. They do not know what they do not know. They can’t leave the FOB’s so they don’t have an accurate read on anything except what comes through the classified loop. Anyone who has dealt with that sort of information understands how limited it is.
Which bring us back to the Local Security Forces. This “inspired” idea of using locals to provide security will fail because nobody responsible for it will get off the FOB to provide daily detailed supervision. I can’t stress enough the importance of daily, full time, supervision. The Skipper’s EOD program works because he provides daily, detailed supervision, while EOD programs elsewhere in the country languish. CPT America is re-building the entire Provincial irrigation system because he provides daily, detailed supervision, while the same projects elsewhere in the country barely break ground. If we can’t get the various government agencies to operate off of the FOB then there is only one viable option. Armed, outside the wire, experienced, contractors.
Spencer Ackerman wrote a post last week at Danger Room with the disturbing title of East Afghanistan Sees Taliban as “Morally Superior” to Karzai. This assessment came from the after action slides of Col Randy George who commanded Task Force Warrior this past year. There is nothing in the article or Col George’s slides which is a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. What is not obvious to those outside of Regional Command East is that there is the distinct possibility that change is afoot.
RC East (a.k.a. N2KL to those in the know) is comprised of Nangarhar, Nuristan, Kunar, and Laghaman Provinces. It is mountainous, has over 300 kilometers of border with Pakistan and is full of isolated clannish tribes who have a long history being a pain in the ass to anyone trying to establish governance over their territory. ISAF is restricted to moving along valley roads where ambushes are so common they have become part of the daily routine. But here is the thing; there are only so many places in these mountain from which to ambush convoys. There are only so many places from which the bad guys can attack isolated combat outposts too and we know where each and every one of those places are. As one of the OH 58 scout pilots told me the other day “when we respond to an ambush once we learn where the contact is we know exactly where the Taliban will be. They never change, they never deviate, and we see the same thing over and over and over again.”
Look at this money quote from Spencer’s article:
“As a result, those big mistakes by the Afghan government lead the locals of N2KL to rank the Taliban/al-Qaeda/Militant-Insurgent Syndicate’ fourth out of four on George’s list of how they perceive their problems. Locals consider the insurgents morally superior to the Karzai government. The insurgents provide the population something the government doesn’t, or at least doesn’t provide sufficiently: culturally appropriate access to justice, resources and Islamic identity, in George’s assessment.”
There is little that Col George or ISAF can do about that. But what they can do is to set up the conditions for success by beating the Taliban like a drum on a routine basis. Which is exactly what the commander at Camp Blessing (Kunar Province) started doing last week after the villains over reached with a large attack aimed at his battalion. Let me set the picture for you as we see it using open source security reports.
Sami the Finn from Indicium Consulting was the first to raise the alarm as he watched the incident rate in Kunar drop at the height of fighting season. He warned that this meant the Taliban was massing for another big attack. A quick plug if I may; Sami has been in Afghanistan for over 8 years and is the most informed analysts in the country. Anyone doing business here would benefit from utilizing his company which is highly respected among the old hands.
As the security incident rate was falling we were getting reports from Kunar that the place was awash with Pakistani Taliban and “foreigners” which could be al Qaeda or could be Jihadi tourists not that there is much difference. One project manager I know who is an Arab/American was approached by a Taliban emissary and told that if he did projects in the Korengal Valley they would provide for his security and give him a Taliban work permit. That would have been cool -I have been trying for a long time to get a scan of one of those but to date nishta. The NGO he works for wouldn’t have gone for that deal anyway.
We were seeing lots of smoke but no fire and had little idea what was going on but then the 101st (current battlespace owners) attacked into the Marwarwa valley and started dropping bodies. They apparently were seeing the build up of forces too and decided to preempt whatever they were up to with a battalion of paratroopers.
The local people have every right to be upset about the performance of the government in Kabul. But they also have no interest in seeing any central government strong enough to meddle in their affairs. For example, Afghans will go to great lengths to avoid having their problems brought into the legal system. Regardless of the crime be it murder or little boys stealing apples from a neighbor the Afghans know how to handle it and feel personally disgraced when the authorities step in to apply the rule of law. Their family business them becomes public and their problems known to people outside their clan which brings disgrace upon the family. They are going to bitch about the central government no matter who is in charge and how effective it becomes. The best we can do is concentrate on making regional government functional at basic things like irrigation, sanitation, health care delivery and other municipal services.
The Taliban have been operating in the open all over Nuristan and Kunar Provinces this year as well as southern Nangarhar Province and part of Laghman too. It doesn’t take long for them to wear out their welcome because the locals have big plans for their daughters and getting hitched to some wild eye Waziristani illiterate isn’t past of the plan. Yet the villains are out there filling in the power vacuum created by dysfunctional government and poorly trained Afghan Police. The Taliban is in the open and exposed at exactly the wrong time. The ANA and the Americans have never been stronger and are more than capable of running the Taliban to ground if that is what they want to do. Insurgents are supposed to wait until they defeat local and international security forces before they start walking around with impunity.
The insurgents have unmasked themselves way too early which is a strategic blunder of the first order. In N2KL ISAF and the ANA can make them pay for that. If they did it would be the perfect time to get the “civilian surge” off the FOB’s and out interacting daily with officials at the province and district level. I know the State Department guy and the duty FBI agent, and the US AID guys etc… are all frustrated that they are not able to operate off the bases like the NGO’s and The Skipper do.
There is little question that we are going to have to start reducing our footprint in Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean we cannot define an acceptable end state and start working towards it now while we have so many assets in-country. There are civilian experts who want to get out and start making a difference but can’t due to force protection policies. These people have the exact skill set needed to mentor regional government agencies but they cannot bring those skills to bear from the FOB. It is time to set these and a number of other people free to follow up what has started to be a little house cleaning of the local Taliban.
Last Wednesday morning the local Taliban sent eight guys to attack the US Army base at Jalalabad Airfield known as FOB Fenty. They initiated the attack with a car bomb in a rarely used entry point on the southeastern side of the airfield which is well away from the Torkham to Jalalabad road. The remaining attackers tried to bum rush the damaged gate and got shot all to hell by the American soldiers who man the guard towers. Adding insult to injury there just happened to be a section of fully armed and fueled Apaches in the air and they were instantly able to pounce on the survivors of the futile charge at the damaged gate as they fled back towards a small village called Moqamkhan. A joint force of ANA and 101st Paratroopers went into the village and finished off the survivors in a short fire fight. FOB Fenty was back to normal by noon but the attack did generate plenty of news which may have been the point.
The attack on FOB Fenty has had limited impact on the local citizens or the troops stationed there. But Jalalabad has also had a series of IED attacks in the Safi Bazaar which is in the main downtown area. The word on the street is that these are bombing targeting “un-Islamic” stores but they have hit cell phone stores and a juice bar which clearly fall within the definition of being properly Islamic.These attacks are concerning but to date none of the local security forces have found a night letter which is an indicator the Taliban may not be responsible. This area of the bazaar has had its share of internecine fighting over the years with several firefights breaking out between vendors which the ANP joined in for good measure. This could be score settling or the Taliban may feel strong enough to operate in openly in Jalalabad.
Attacking security forces checkpoints is a standard Taliban tactic but their ability to do so in Jalalabad is not a new development. Their targeting has gotten better which is concerning.
Right now things are not looking too cool in Jbad for us internationals but there could be change afoot. Lost in all the news surrounding the appointment of Gen Petraeus is the amazing (one-sided) fights that have been happening in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces. Last week the troops stationed at the Nuristan PRT in Kala Gush spent several hours watching video feed of some 200 fighters climbing the mountain to the west of them in order to stage a massive attack. By the time the villians had humped all the heavy guns, mortars, rockets, ammo, etc… up the mountain there were B1’s stacked above them with 2000 lbs JDAMS. Talk about an ass whooping – these kind of debacles piss off the local tribes because their young men join the fighters and promptly get atomized by JDAMs for nothing and losing men for no reason is not covered in the Pashtunwali code.
Around the same time the Kala Gush Taliban were sucking up massive tac air attacks a group of local Taliban launched an effective IED attack which killed 5 Americans in the Marawara valley which is just across the river from Assadabad. I am guessing that the commander of the 101st had enough and went after them with his entire battalion. The villains, who have been openly hanging around Marawara for weeks, rushed in to reinforce the Taliban groups caught in the paratroppers dragnet and the Army has by now killed well over 150 of them.
There is much more American military activity around Jalalabad including flying columns of the varsity Afghan SF with their American advisers who use Toyota trucks just like their Afghan colleges. These small, fast, powerful formations are by far the most effective joint US/Afghan effort of the war and the only example of real embedded (as opposed to co-located) training currently being done with the Afghans .
The shop keepers, ANP, Provincial Counsel members and various other men of importance can run the Taliban right out of Jalalabad if they want to. But they haven’t which is why this string of bombings is concerning and why the aggressive operations by the U.S. Army in RC East is welcomed news. Focusing on the population doesn’t mean giving the bad guys a free pass which I have written about many times in the past. Herschel Smith over at The Captain’s Journal has consistently covered this aspect of the COIN debate with the most coherent, in depth pieces on the topic. His latest can be found here and I am, as usual, in complete agreement.
The only way this current, and admittedly troubling, activity inside Jalalabad City is going to stop is if the Taliban out in the districts start getting their asses kicked on a routine basis. That is exactly what is happened in Kunar and Nuristan Province this week and may be happening south of me as I write this post. What I hope to see is a lot more of this aggressive posture because it is the only way those of us in the reconstruction fight will be able to maintain freedom of movement.
General Petreaus has a window of opportunity to turn this thing around. He arrived in country today and he may well turn out to be the right man arriving at exactly the right time. Inshallah.