We had the rare treat of accompanying some guys working for the U.S. Army to the Torkham border today. They went up to chat with the platoon of American MP’s who jointly man the border crossing with the Afghan Border Police (ABP). The MP’s have a very cool gig at the Torkham. They mentor their Afghan counterparts and also keep an eye on the large volume of human and vehicular traffic which flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Army guys who let us tag along were conducting some “man on the street” interviews and getting very encouraging remarks from the Afghans they talked with. The American soldier who did the interviewing was born in Pakistan and raised in Washington State. He talks Pashto with an eastern accent (taught to him by the military defense language school a positive sign that we are developing the right skill sets) so the locals assume he is an Afghan. One Afghan we chatted up had the most interesting things to say about both Americans and the problems facing Afghans. I’ll paste in a video of that interview at the end of this post. Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan know the gratitude that local people feel towards them. They often remark about a people who leave their homes and families to help a war ravaged population recover while asking for nothing in return. Just as in Iraq the average Afghan is very moved by what we have done for his country as you will see in the embedded interview. When you hear people express themselves this way it is easier to understand why so many men and woman in our military volunteer to come back for multiple tours. As I have said repeatedly in previous posts the Afghans really like Americans and given a vote on the matter would like to see many more.
As you approach the Torkham border crossing you come upon an extensive open air chop shop. Most of these cars processed in this area come from the auto salvage lots of America and Canada. Trucks bring them up from port in Karachi and off load them on the Pakistan side where gangs of kids push them across the border to the chop shop area about a mile down the road. Crowds of kids bring barrels of fuel and used oil back across the border to Pakistan where it can be recycled. This is one of the industries which really needs infrastructure help or the toxic waste run off will seep into the ground water in concentrations even the locals cannot ignore or tolerate.
The American MP’s keep an eye on the border crossing and are involved in any apprehensions of smugglers. They find weapons, drugs and explosives routinely. There are also former US Customs agents working as contractors to mentor the senior ABP supervisors. Joint military/contractor teams like this one are the wave of the future. There is no proven way to increase the effectiveness of security forces in the third world short of in the field mentorship. It is good for the Afghans who work this vital crossing and it is also good for the Americans who are out here daily interacting with local people.
There was a collection of Afghans who lived in Pakistan but were of Uzbek, Hazara or Tajik origin. A group of Uzbek Taliban with a considerable amount of explosives was captured recently in Pakistan and they are not letting anyone who looks remotely Uzbek into the country without an official visa. These men are waiting to see who else from their group is going to get the boot. What stands out in situations like this is that there is no violence or even harsh words exchanged as these guys get the bad news from the Pakistani Frontier Guard. They explain the situation and escort the men over to their Afghan counterparts who add in their condolences and ask them to wait off to the side as long as they like.
Here are some interesting people shots from the border.
As we were leaving we brought some Samosa from one of the child vendors and head back to Jalalabad. We stopped to chat with an Afghan we saw walking down the road near the American FOB Torkham which is about five miles west of the border. I have heard similar sentiments from Afghans all over the country Happy Veterans Day to all who have or are now serving. Here is a regular Afghan passing on his thanks too.
I know I promised you a video at the end, but the Army guys asked us to scrub out their guy from the vid. Here’s the audio track only to tide you over until we’ve edited the video: torkham_interview_sound_only
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.
Afghanistan is slipping rapidly towards a state of anarchy. The security situation has degraded to the point where the lavish force protection measures adopted by the Department of State Regional Security Officers and the U.S. Military seven years ago now seem prudent. Media reports attribute the decline to a resurgent Taliban movement in Pakistan combined with the explosion in illegal drugs and a corrupt ineffective central government. Many of my colleagues and I believe the crippling of the reconstruction effort by unreasonable risk aversion based security rules has more to do with the current instability than anyone sitting in Washington would care to contemplate let alone admit.
It is easy for those not directly involved in the U.S. effort to highlight and criticize programs which have failed to delivery any quantifiable sign of improvement after years of effort and billions spent on poorly conceived off the shelf solutions. One example; we have spent over 2.5 billion dollars on a police training program which has produced nothing positive on the ground. The Afghan National Police are amongst the least trusted national institutions in Afghanistan with a well earned reputation for corruption and criminal behavior. Similar criticisms could be leveled at every other U.S. Department of State program running in Afghanistan but criticizing is always easy, especially when armed with 20/20 hind sight. In the Marines we had a saying which went something like “if you don’t have a solution you are part of the problem.” In that spirit a group of friends and I been working on finding solutions.
My colleagues and I believe that it is not too late to get effective aid and a permanent presence on the ground in districts currently slipping away and have a rare opportunity to present our views to a few decision makers. This concept paper has taken up most of the week and part of this concept required obtaining a little ground truth which is a good story. Our start point was a dialogue with the Maliks of Sherzad district to try and determine why the area was losing ground so quickly. The term Malik is used in Pashtun tribal areas for tribal leaders. Maliks serve as de facto arbiters in local conflicts, interlocutors in state policy-making, tax-collectors, heads of village and town councils. Although they do not officially represent the district government (they are part of a larger board) they do speak for the people.
Sherzad district is part of what is known as the “Southern Triangle” in Nangarhar Province. This is one of the areas where we have lost ground over the last year. The Sherzad district administrative center has been attacked three times in the past month by AOG fighters. IED discoveries and attacks are routine, night letters are frequently reported, as are other acts of intimidation. This district is the closest point of the southern triangle to our guesthouse and many members of our staff are from there. Finding out what is happening and why may add some weight to our concept paper but is also critical in determining our ability to remain in the Taj and operate the way we do. As the situation in Afghanistan continues to degrade identifying decision making trigger points for determining when to significantly increase our security posture or pull out altogether becomes more and more important.
We took over our primo guesthouse “The Taj” last December from a UN Ops subcontractor (PSS) who had been in this compound for the past three years while building roads deep into the southern triangle. I tagged along on one of their road missions last November all the way to the village of Wazir which is at the foot of Tora Bora in Khogyani district. PSS was a team of Australian and New Zealand engineering and security contractors who had a couple of anti mine vehicles and standard UN armored vehicles. As UN Ops contractors they were well armed eight internationals, twelve Nepalese mobile security guards and they traveled with a two-truck ANP escort. They were well liked by the villagers in the areas they worked and even talked to elders of Wazir into moving their ancient (nobody knows how old it is just that it has always been there) grave yard to accommodate the new road bed. It takes gallons of tea drinking to accomplish goals like that which can only be done if you have a continuous presence on the ground.
Our concept paper is modeled on the successful operations of PSS. They operated in the southern triangle for years without any AOG interference and portions of their operational area were considered very high risk during their time there. We know based on their model and our experiences that contacting and coordinating with the Maliks is the start point for working in any contested area so we invited some of them to Jalalabad for a working lunch which is the only kind of meeting worth having in Afghanistan. If you don’t fork over a good sized meal at these things nobody will take you seriously and it is also considered unspeakably rude in the code of Pastunwali which governs these lands.
I’ll sum up three hours of chatting into concise points. The Taliban in Sherzad is home grown but is being financed by groups in Pakistan. The local people know that the people financing armed attacks on the government and ISAF are not really their friends nor are they representing their interests. But the local people are bored and have no money. The Pakistani Taliban provide good pay to the villagers for planting IED’s, distributing night letters, and allowing them to kidnap people (not from the area) working on government funded projects. It is the “bad people from the mountains” who are launching indirect fire and small arms attack on the US Army’s FOB Lonestar (located next door in Khogyani district) not the local people but they pay for to move through their lands.
The elders said Governor Sherazai promised them jobs and irrigation projects if they stopped growing the poppy and so they did but have received nothing. They say that the governor is getting richer by growing the poppy on his lands in Khandahar while their children go without food or proper clothing. They also said (quite firmly) that if they get enough rain this winter they are going to start growing the poppy again because they feel tricked out of their share of the booming drug economy profits. Once they start growing the poppy they will not allow any foreigners or government people into the district to destroy the crop.
Now for a little ground truth from an old Afghan hand. I do not know how much of what they said is true yet. But nobody within the vast US effort could know how much of it is true either. You can’t learn ground truth from one meeting. Everything the Malik’s told me I could have guessed ahead of time. This is the standard litany of complaints (in one form or the other) I have heard in meetings from one end of Afghanistan to the other. This is not to say that everything they said that day was not true or how they felt but you need to do more work before you can claim understanding. I was certain of one thing as I drove back to the office and that is the Maliks still have Sherzad district under their control. When the Taliban move in they do so to fill a power vacuum and they gain control by eliminating any rivals. If the Pakistani Taliban were in Sherzad they Maliks would have been running scared and they clearly were not. They also would have been thinned out the killing of Maliks is something we pay attention to and that has not happened yet in Sherzad.
I pressed the Maliks hard about saying they had the district under control in one breath and then saying “bad men from the mountain” come down at night to create mischief on the other. Afghans are cool when you point out contradictions like that they will respond with a big smile and say “what do you expect me to say?’ Which is a good point. We shared a good laugh over what they could not say and I hope they were laughing with me and not at me. I am no regional expert and still do not catch everything they say my Pashto remains limited but in the end we knew why each other was there and seemed to be getting along like a bunch of old thieves. An apt metaphor given that the main industry of their tribes has been cross border smuggling for the past four or five hundred years. The next step was a visit to Sherzad district so they could host a lunch meeting. An exciting trip but one where I would have to go it alone without my usual wingman or additional back up, but I scored a guided tour of the Gandamack battlefield and I’ll tell the story in the next post.
It was a regular Saturday night in Mazar-e-Sharif quiet, cold, yet comfortable as I say having dinner with a friend at one of the only restaurants catering to internationals the mighty Oak. We were passing the time with small talk. It was towards the end of our evening that my mate received a phone call from a member of the international community telling him there had been an accident and he needed help immediately. My driver, who was waiting outside rapidly saddled up and we flew across town to lend a hand.
We arrived at the residence, my accomplice started getting the patient’s history and checking the vital signs. I checked out the scene and saw blood everywhere lots of it. I knew that there was no time to lose – this was a ‘Fair Dinkum’ MEDIVAC!
Time to do a ‘Harry Bolt’ up to RC North. RC (Regional Command) North is an ISAF base on the outskirts of Mazar-e-Sharif. It is the only facility providing western standard health care in the region. Once we took off from the scene, I instructed my driver to ‘Punch It’! This was due to the casualty having lost a substantial (however, not immediately life threatening) amount of blood. Hand in hand with that, I predicted that there would be dramas at the gate (because it was around 2130 hours), and unless you have direct HF/VHF COMMS with these guys, you get the usual run around.
Once we got to the entrance of RC North the immutable rules of Murphy’s Law took over. I dropped off my local driver and took over driving duties to avoid time consuming screening procedures used when Afghans come on the base. We were greeted by the Force Protection (FP) soldiers who are from Croatia. These FP guys were actually very friendly and helpful they understood exactly what needed to be done however, rules and guidelines aren’t so simple. Once they had a clear handle on who I was, whom I was carrying in the vehicle and the reason I was there, the whole ‘liaison drama’ began.
In the minutes that I was waiting for a clearance to proceed I kept focused on the casualty, checking the vitals and making sure that the bleeding was kept under control. The FP kept on coming back and telling me the hospital is not responding”! They were at a loss, about how we should proceed. This is a German base; the Croats were there to guard the perimeter and apparently did not enjoy the luxury of independent decision making. Between trying to persuade them that we needed to get moving and checking my patients vital signs, I became cut as a mad snake, pulled out my phone and called the Medical Director (MD) for RC North. This is a silver bullet which I would rather not have wasted but the urgency of our situation demanded it. A person in his position is usually pretty busy between his normal daily routine as well as supporting combat operations.
He took my call and said he would get us cleared immediately. Thirty seconds later the FP Commander arrived to escort us to the hospital. We needed the escort too as were traveling at a much higher speed than allowed at the base. We got to the hospital, and rushed our casualty in. It was surprising that there was a stretcher waiting at the entrance considering the ‘V8 super car lap speed’ we took to get there. The good doctor was true to his word and had, in less than a minute, infused a needed sense of urgency into the hospital staff.
The German medics quickly controlled the bleeding and were able to suture our friend up and release him within an hour. He came out with a jolly old smile on his dial. We rolled out the gate, picked up my faithful driver Nasser, who was freezing but happy to see us, and headed back into town dropping everyone off at their shacks.
The whole point of this unfortunate event is this; when you have a Priority 1 (Life threatening) or a Priority 2 (Life or Limb threatening) casualty, you need access to professional care quickly. Seven years into this mission and we still do not have these basic procedures in place.
This is not the only time or place in Afghanistan where I have experienced these sort of dilemmas. To us former soldiers on the outside looking in the international contingents within ISAF seem to do little if any coordination between themselves. The brand ‘Coalition Forces’ has little meaning when they cannot function as whole, and I believe it has been displayed time after time in this conflict. I’m a former enlisted soldier not an officer like my mate Tim and I do not claim to posses any brilliant insights into the art of war. But I know this mate when you see the lack of coordination in an effort of this size, it tells you something. And usually that something is that we do not have a single focused mission under which to plan and conduct operations. There is no unity of command or unity of purpose concepts I learned as an NCO. Junior enlisted leaders can see the root of our problems in Afghanistan so why can’t our governments? I guess we are Poles Apart.
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.
This week has been very busy. It started with another covert radio show interview. Brett Winterable had Bill Roggio from the Long War Journal and I on for the opening segment. Bill is an old friend who visited with us back in 2006. He and I took a run to Qalat where he got some good footage of Taliban outriders stalking a large convoy of civilian trucks. You can find the video here. Bill is also the most knowledgeable person I know on what is happening in Pakistan, the second most knowledgeable on Afghanistan and the third most knowledgeable on Iraq. I’m kidding of course, he may well be the most knowledgeable on all three – you can find a link to the podcast here.
Also on Monday Michael Yon released a post on his web site about the French Army ambush in the Uzbin valley last August. We set up his interviews and took him out to the meetings. The back story can be found in the “talking with the AOG” post I made shortly after our trip into the Uzbin. You can find the Michael Yon article here it was also linked at Fox News. Michael has moved on for now but I hope to run into him again in the future he is really a great guy doing important work.
Proving once again that things happen in three’s on Monday night we had a huge wind storm blow through which took the transponder right off our Gatr ball thus bringing to an end (for now) our fat pipe internet. Mehrab and the Jalalabad Geek Squad from Synergy Strike Force have been trying to super glue the mounts in and get it back on line but it is still “Nishta” which in Pashto means something like “no have.” Canadian Dan and I have the day off tomorrow and will try to fix that bad boy up our ownselves but that is probably a waste of time. The Jbad geek squad is a proficient crew, if it was going to work they would have probably got it up by now.
Here is something really cool – the young boys from the village behind our guesthouse who are learning how to build battle bots. They are in the MIT sponsored FabLab which we host in our compound.
There is a web page for the Jalalabad Fab Lab which can be found here and it contains links to the San Diego Sister Cities Foundation which is where the Jbad Geek Squad got its start and meager funding. For those of you who want to read about the brave men and woman who come here at their own expense to coordinate the delivery of aid directly to the people of Afghanistan you should take the time to look through those blogs. Much of the aid they bring comes from donations and charitable contributions. None of it comes from the billions of dollars being spent by US AID and our hapless Department of State. This is the story of American generosity and compassion which every American should know and be proud of.
There are other organizations from other lands doing the same; Rory Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation jumps immediately to mind and he should be the pride of England for all the good work and good will he had brought to this blighted land. No doubt there are others here too which I do not know about. What I do know is people like Amy Sun of MIT, Ken Kraushaar and Dr. Dave Warner of the Synergy Strike Force make me proud to be an American. The most effective aid programs come from non government organizations and these people who risk so much to help with the goal of developing even more effective methodologies for aiding the poorest of the poor in the future deserve at the very least our thanks, respect and admiration.
Please spend a little time reading about what these talented, motivated, and very bright people are doing it will make you proud too. Plus you will be flat out amazed at what a FabLab is and what it can do.
If you are a wealthy person or heading up something like…..oh let’s say the Annenberg Foundation this is where you should leave a grant or two. You would then actually get a return on that investment rather than watching it go down some Chicago rat hole.
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?
International hospitals in Kabul do not allow cameras on their facilities because of cultural sensitivities. The treatment of female patients by male doctors is not universally accepted in this corner of the world. Educated families in Kabul have no problem with male doctors treating their woman; in the south men will fight to the death to avenge the slight to their family honor if a male doctor so much as looks at their woman. I have been to both the CURE hospital and the French Medical Institute for Children (FMIC) on the job and have a good idea about their missions and operations. I have a good friend who volunteers his time and skill at CURE which is how I was able to obtain these photos. There is also a German hospital in Kabul, but I have never visited it. There are no similar efforts by closer rich influential nations like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or China. I often wonder why?
Birth defects in Afghanistan are common. The culturally accepted practice of marrying within the family is generally believed to be the cause of this alarming problem. Last winter Phil Woolas, of the British Environmental Ministry ignited a fire storm by calling attention to the alarming rates of birth defects in the Pakistani community due to cousin marriages. Just raising issues like that in England is now grounds for dismissal. That to me is very strange.
In Afghanistan it is common to see children with club feet awkwardly moving down the street. I was born with a club foot. I read somewhere that former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aiken was too. Correcting that type of birth defect has been a routine procedure in the west for over a hundred years. Correcting those defects is not common here and when you see children with cleft palates or club foots on public they are not laughing and playing. They are out too stigmatized by their appearance in this culture. CURE hospital fixes cleft palates and club feet at no cost to the Afghan families daily. The demand far outstrips their capacity. Like their French counterpart, they also train Afghan doctors to do these procedures and over the years have developed some real talent in the Afghan medical community.
The heroes of this story are the doctors and nurses who volunteer their time and spend their own money to come here and do these procedures. They do not seek attention, they are not self promoters, they live outside the wire without any of the elaborate security procedures found in official US government programs. They come here to help and help they do. My Dad, who is a retired general officer (Marine of course), forwarded me an email he received from a friend about a highly qualified doctor sent to Kabul on a six month deployment. He related a story about going out to the main Kabul hospital to consult on an orthopedic case but getting there (about a mile away from his base) took days as the security escort package was arranged. When he arrived the head of the hospital served up tea and a good hour of chit chat, when the Americans asked to see the patient they came to examine they were told the child was sent to Pakistan for treatment days ago.
This is stupidity beyond measurement. I used to walk to work daily down the same streets he had to travel for his appointment because driving is such a nightmare in downtown Kabul. We are losing the war in Afghanistan and losing it fast and one reason for that is our military acts like force protection is mission number one. Guess what? If force protection is the mission it is easier to do that back in the United States. The US military sent a highly skilled orthopedic surgeon here for a six month tour and all he will do is go to Bagram (his first trip to Bagram took three days as he had to stage a day early at the Kabul military airfield which is half a mile away from his base and wait for a flight. We drive from Kabul to Bagram in 45 minutes) once a month to sit in conferences and suffer death by PowerPoint. His civilian counterparts who are here at their own expense and do not have armored trucks or armed escorts would operate on hundreds of patients and train scores of doctors if they could afford to stay six months. As a retired military officer it pains me to write this but it is true.
The doctors who volunteer at CURE also work on adults. Team Texas had a great plastic surgeon who replaced the ear of a truck driver who had lost his to a Taliban checkpoint in the south when he was stopped while hauling fuel for ISAF.
The men and women from France, Germany and America who come to this war torn land to help people who are so poor and need so much represent the best of what our countries stand for. To give so much and ask for nothing in return…that means something to me and should to you too. They do not get medals, or bands, or parades, or any formal recognition. They are heroes and do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. They make all of us a little prouder and little better. May God watch over and bless them.
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.