Today a new book by my good friend and New York Times bestselling author Brad Thor hits the book stores and man is it a good read. I was sent a draft last month and loved it. In fact I couldn’t put it down; there is a reason he is one of the best thriller writers in the business.
I got to meet Brad when he came to Afghanistan in the winter of 08 with some of some special guys who are friends. He is a great guy to chat up and his meticulous research paid off in a spell binding tale. Experienced Afghan hands will recognize the authenticity in the details he uses to paint the backdrop of this excellent work.
But I have to put in a quick word in defense of Baba G. Baba G a fictional character in the Apostle who is based on Baba T (bloggers who turn up as characters in a thriller invariably start to refer to themselves in the third person). But if he truly had Baba T like savvy and drank 11 beers in one night there is no way he would let Brad find all empties in his shit can. Baba G would spread them around like frigging Easter eggs so no one guy could get the evidence and put 2 and 2 together. But I can see how that worked out in the plot line and I’m telling you this reads true about operating outside the wire in Afghanistan. Free Range awards it 5 stars and cannot recommend it more highly.
Last February I wrote this post about the Afghan Security Market.I was in Kabul for a month as a favor to a friend when I wrote the post filling in for a guy I had not met before named Christian Major.Christian and I spent two days conducting a turn over before he went home.I instantly became a big fan of his when I saw him interacting with the local beggar kids on our first morning together.He had exceptional language skills, he was a very big and very fit guy, had an infectious smile, great sense of humor and like all the good guys in my line of work a tender heart.As many of us do he sponsored children from the slums paying them to go to school.Unlike many of us he followed up on his investment ensuring unscrupulous family members did not take the money from his charges and force them to beg in other parts of the city.Christian Major was a good man; I am proud to call him my friend; Christian died sometime during the night last Thursday and was found in his room by his mates on Friday morning.
We do not know why he died and there is no reason to suspect foul play.Christian was a friend to everyone he met good natured and relaxed in all situations as only big, fit, highly trained men can be.I am on the way home for a much needed break and am therefore not in close contact with my buddies back in Kabul so I do not know what the family is planning or where to send my condolences. When I find out I will post that information on this page.
I do not know why we lost Christian but do know we lost someone special.He was an “outside the wire” guy who knew the languages, culture and people of Afghanistan. Please remember him and his family in your prayers.
Gardez is the capitol of Paktya Province which is located in the southeast of Afghanistan. It is one of the provinces which border Pakistan, the terrain and vegetation is almost identical to the high deserts of the American west. Paktya looks similar to Marine Corps training base in 29 Palms California and exactly like the super large Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Which I mention because I worked at Dugway for a few years after 9/11 and was constantly asking why we weren’t utilizing the maneuver areas for large scale training maneuvers.
We spent a few days in Gardez to scope out projects aimed at bringing cash for work projects. Gardez is one of the larger more important cities in the southeast and has been the home of an American PRT since 2005. I stayed at the PRT with The Boss because Gardez is a dangerous place and we have yet to get a handle on local atmospherics.
So we are fighting a counterinsurgency in support of a government who is actively hindering our efforts by not cooperating with our military, our hapless State Department, or any other organization trying to bring peace, hope, modernity and the rule of law to this once proud and beautiful country.
Gardez has always been a dangerous place due to its proximity to the traditional smuggling routes leading into Pakistan through the Pakistani town of Parachinar. Early in 2002 U.S. and Australian Special Forces troops fought a pitched battle in the Shah-i-Kot Valley (the Battle of Takur Ghar) close to Gardez. One would think that the Army would have done a ton of work in Gardez to help establish a positive climate while placing maneuver units on the Pakistani border to block the well developed and well known smuggling routes. In both cases one would be wrong; there is no coalition presence on the border and the town of Gardez remains a dirt poor shit hole all but ignored by the army and US AID.
I have no insight concerning leaving pours borders uncovered know the FOB’s are full of frustrated troops who have very little to do and understand that the time they are spending here is wasted time. I want to stress that we were hosted by and enjoyed the company of great Americans at the Gardez PRT. For example we talked with a National Guard Sergeant (as in E5) who is an agriculture professor back home and was able to discuss the various types of grasses for livestock feed and fruit trees for large orchards by family, genus and phylum. All he wants to do is teach the Afghan farmers what he knows in order to continue the legacy (which he has researched thoroughly) of the 1970’s Kabul University. In the 70’s the agriculture program at Kabul University was the most advanced in Central Asia. The Ag program was partnered with the University of Nebraska, all courses were taught in English and the graduates of this program were famous throughout the region for their proficiency and expertise.
The sergeant is part of a Tennessee National Guard unit full of agricultural specialists, led by a Colonel whose mannerisms and demeanor mark him as a classic American combat commander. During their shot time in country they are trying to bring their expertise to bear on the problem of developing professional agriculture practices which will produce export quality products and earn money for the people. But they cannot really accomplish much of anything because you cannot mentor from inside of a FOB. They are trying but what can you do when you are forced to travel down the few roads in the province in convoys which must have at a minimum four MRAP’s? What kind of reaction do you expect from local land owners when you roll up with an entire platoon of infantry for your personal protection?
Military professionals study past wars to gain the knowledge required for sound decision making in this kind of environment. Based on thousands of years of military history we can deduce that a large land owner who has received a visit from the PRT and still has his head attached to his shoulders is in some way, shape or form in collusion with the Taliban. That is not to say he is a bad guy but he is not our guy because the enemy owns the turf he lives on while we spend our nights inside Big Box FOB’s enjoying pecan pie and really good coffee.
A moderately wealthy land owner in Afghanistan has many enemies and few friends so they are forced to pay for security or face the certain prospect of being kidnapped or losing a son to kidnappers. The American military provides them zero protection and visits from the military can only bring them more harm than good. Sound like a sound counterinsurgency strategy to you?
As happens at every FOB I visit the troops tell me how much they would enjoy working the way we do. We do not wear body armor and rarely carry long guns; we are not afraid to walk around places like Gardez because we understand the OODA loop and how it applies to the Taliban. Make no mistake; we could not do this on a regular basis because once our routine was known we would be attacked. But we can show up every once in a while, walking with the confidence and interacting with the people, while confronting the big T Taliban who often shadow us in an attempt at intimidation. Nothing pumps up the locals like seeing The Boss or I walk over to a cab with several Talibs inside and go toe to toe with them wearing a big shit eating grin because (for now) they are unarmed and unable to do a damn thing to us. We are armed and would not hesitate to shoot the pricks but we could only do that if they attacked us with a firearm or edged weapon.
Afghans admire calm cool courage and there are tens of thousands of troops in country who could display that kind of cool if they were allowed to do so. The Boss and are are not special but we are smart and we are well armed with both weapons and the knowledge of local customs which is essential to counterinsurgency warfare.
While in the VIP barracks I listened to the staff officers as they prepared to fly out to various other FOB’s to attend conferences. One of which was a big multi-day confab concerning Water Shed Management. Why the hell are we concerning ourselves with Afghan water shed management? We have FOB’s sitting next to important cities where the main canals are full of garbage, human and animal waste, large protozoan parasites, and toxic sludge. Instead of taking care of that simple problem we are conducting huge meetings on big box FOB’s with lots of senior officers about water shed management. You know why? Because dozens of senior officers, Department of State and US AID people can spend their entire tour preparing slides, looking at studies and conducting historical research to produce a product which is meaningless to the Afghans. They then can have multi-day super high speed presentations about water shed management without ever having to leave the FOB’s, deal with a real Afghan, or actually see, taste or feel any real water. It is virtual stability operations done by people who want to help but can’t.
The people of Gardez are about to have their number one complaint (and source of disease and infection) taken care of by my team (working in conjunction with the Mayor) and a paltry budget of $600,000. With that modest sum we are going to clean all the ditches, garbage dams, main canals and karezs. We will employ over five thousand dirt poor people and bring irrigation to over 1000 acres of farm land. This is the low hanging fruit of aid work and something which should have been done seven years ago.
The sad truth is we stay on the Big Box FOBs concerning ourselves with ridiculous projects like Water Shed Management (which will never have any impact at all on the average Afghan), waste millions of dollars and thousands of man hours because we can’t do what is important. We need to get off the FOB’s and fight along side the Afghans. The only unit in country doing that is in Helmand province where the Marines have landed.
The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB) on the ground and they are a combined arms task force built around a Marine Corps infantry regiment. Marine combat units are bigger then similar units in other services. That is a legacy from World War II where Marine units had to continue to fight hard while sustaining cripplingly high casualty rates as they rooted out dug in Japanese. Marine units no longer take massive casualties; they inflict them, which the Taliban learned last year when they foolishly accepted an invitation to dance with Colonel Pete Petronzio and the 24th MEU.
Now they have Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and the entire 2nd MEB to contend with and they are about to get their asses kicked and kicked hard. The Boss and I had the distinct pleasure to visit with General Nicholson yesterday and The Boss, who is not impressed by much, was in awe. He told me that for the first time in his life he has met a real fighting general. Larry Nicholson is one of the best in a talented group of newly minted general officers. The Marines have more like him and they’ll be following him and expanding on his work for the years to come.
You will not hear much about the Marines in the months ahead because their performance will run counter to the preferred corporate media narrative and will therefore be omitted from the nightly news. The Afghans in the Helmand province already know who they are and the citizens (according to our local sources) are excited as they understand the Marines are here to stay. The Afghans in the south fell the Marines treat them with more respect than the other forces operating in the region. They also admire the tenacity of Marine infantry and their propensity to operate in small units while taking on large formations of Taliban. I have seen several stories about small units of Marines kicking the Taliban’s asses good while sustaining zero causalities.
The SF teams, SEALS, and SAS teams working Helmand province now love having the MEB here because Marine pilots fly into the teeth of dug-in enemy to take them on at low altitudes and close range. A SF guy I talked with told me that when his men were pinned down a Marine Huey pilot hovered right above them spraying mini-gun fire into the faces of the Taliban. My friend Eric Mellinger,the operations officer for 2nd MEB, confirmed the story saying the pilot took 3 AK rounds in the only place on the bird which would not bring it down; the self sealing fuel tanks.
Killing people is serious business best left to true professionals who can separate the big T Taliban from the population. The Marines can do that because the Marines will not hesitate to strong point villages vulnerable to Taliban intimidation with rifle squads. And they tend to go after people who shoot at them running them down and destroying them in detail. If there is a way to win we will see it play out in the years ahead with the Marines in Helmand province where they will prove once again they are the strongest tribe.
I took up the pen last fall out of frustration at seeing our efforts in Afghanistan result in continuous negative trend line.Although I have tried to point out some positives like night platoon ambushes or the admirable performance of other developmental programs run by countries such as Germany and Japan the overall trend of my posts has been negative.That trend mirrors the news as well as the current state of play in Afghanistan but it also ignores the many positives which have occurred over the years.I remain a critic of the velocity and the efficiency of our stability operations battle but the ring road is paved, more and more households have access to electricity, and millions of Afghans are leading vastly improved lives due to the efforts of the U.S. led coalition.The many varied organizations which are conducting reconstruction, redevelopment, and all the other various forms of aid in country (all would fall under the definition of Stability Operations in American military doctrine) are having a noticeable positive impact on the lives of a good portion of the Afghan people.
But changes at the margin at this late stage of the game are one step above worthless.I remain a proponent for radical change in how we approach stability operations and am now currently involved in what I see as a proof of concept demonstration of the way forward.I am now working for a small American company with a long history in Afghanistan.They were exporting dried fruit and pomegranate from here in 1997 and have remained a major player in the south since 2001.They were asked to provide cash for work projects in largest of the contested urban areas in Afghanistan a six month project designed to provide cash payments to the poorest of the poor while also providing a work force to those municipalities in support of large not to sexy projects like canal cleaning, refuse removal, andpublic health initiatives (like treating all shallow wells in the city during breakouts of water borne pathogenic disease.) The program is an 80/20 split 80% of the money goes to the payment of labor 20% to project materials the only money leaving the country under this program is the salaries of the project managers and Filipino finance managers.Every other cent is spent in Afghanistan with the exception of an administrative fee paid to my parent company.There are no security teams, no armored vehicles, no guarded compounds no nothing just a small life support payment for the 2 internationals to rent guesthouse rooms and pay for food.The project managers provide their own security and there is a Canadian, an Australian, a South African and myself working Kandahar, Lashka Ghar, Tiran Kot, Gardez and Jalalabad. All of us are old Afghan hands with at least three years of in-country experience.I have Jalalabad which is considered a safe city by outside the wire types and Gardez which is not a safe or easy place to work.Kandahar, Lash and TK are all considered to be extremely volatile and although there are plenty of internationals working in those cities none of them travel like we do, work like we do or interact with the citizens like we do.
We are two months into our program and the results have been above expectations.We are conducting massive clean ups of critical canals, removing tons of toxic sludge from the main canals which provide all of the agricultural (and in some cases drinking) water to these urban zones which are areas of heavy cultivation.We are removing tons of refuse from the city streets and we have teams out daily conducting public health classes and monitoring the thousands of shallow wells which provide the drinking water for urban residents.There are hundreds of aid workers and probably thousands of military people who could do this job just as well and probably better than we are.But they do not enjoy the freedom of movement which is a fundamental requirement for effective aid delivery.They would operate just like we are if they could but they can’t due to current force protection rules which add billions of unnecessary costs to our aid packages.
Make no mistake this is work at the margins in the overall scheme of things.Our total project expenditures are in the 20 million dollar range and that is not even real money to the giant firms which are normally the prime implementers on US AID or Department of State projects.There are many (myself included) who do believe the long established international methodology of providing aid to impoverished nations does more harm than good.This book on the topic was written by an African woman who directly benefited from Canadian aid programs and she is now a Canadian citizen.She believes that international aid has destroyed many countries in Africa and has visited great harm upon those who were supposed to be helped.I believe her argument to be self evident.
I was able to spend last weekend in Kandahar with a couple of my counterparts one a former Canadian soldier with extensive combat time in Kandahar Province and the other a South African who has over five years in country.These guys are very good and as they operate in and around Kandahar daily prefer to remain anonymous.Working these areas takes a certain type of skill which can only be learned through experience on the ground.Our boss had invited a photographer to come along with us and document the Kandahar projects.Regular readers of FRI will be shocked to learn that photographer was none other the Amy Sun the MIT FABLAB coordinator who seems to have talked to boss into supporting a FabLab extension into the contested areas.Visiting a project site in Kandahar with a female photographer is a no-go Kandahar is distinctly different kind of place where religious fundamentalism still thrives (that is not the case in most of the country.)So my two hosts dressed Amy in boys Shalwar Kamiz and covered her face with a turban.She looked just like the teen-aged Hazara bartender we had at the Global House back in 2005.That kid made the best gin and tonics I’ve ever tasted a skill not taught to MIT PhD a type which, of course, limits their utility in a pinch.We needed three vehicles with close in medium and long security to accomplish the photo shoot but you would have never spotted all three vehicles at the work sites even if you knew to look for them.We drive slowly in local garb using old well maintained vehicles.We never have exposed weapons all rifles remain with the long security team. We do not fool anyone once we leave the vehicles but that is not the point avoiding detection while moving through the city is our goal and my colleagues have that down to a science.
Our projects are designed to prove that regional aid programs can be run with speed and efficiency using the very competent local talent we have developed over the previous seven years.This is the first step in what I believe to be the only rational way forward.The next step would be to combine our project teams with small units of infantry and allow these teams to operate out of fortified villas.The aid community has been doing that since day one and this is the only way to provide the presence, security, and demonstration of commitment needed to move the population towards our side.Our current Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine is very specific on this point but our current deployment on the ground is mostly inside big box FOB’s.
While in Kandahar I was able to pay a brief visit to my old friend Col Duffy White who leads the Marines Special Purpose Task Force in Afghanistan.He was having an out brief with LtCol Dave Odom Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion 8th Marines.3/8 has done a superb job during their time establishing a record clearly marking of them as one the best combat battalions the Marines have ever had. I knew Dave as a lieutenant at the Infantry Officer Course where it was my good fortune to be an instructor.He was a standout then and has developed into one of more capable commanders of his generation.That is saying something because the Marines have consistently fielded capable combat leaders throughout the opening stages of this long war.Being a knucklehead I didn’t have a camera with me it was so gratifying to see such good friends doing so well after all these years.With luck I’ll be able to go down to Kandahar again soon and have some time to spend talking about how the Marines view their Afghan mission.
I also had the good luck to run into Mathew DuPee the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School.We had corresponded for months but never met each other.His program has an excellent human terrain website on Afghanistan which can be found here.
One aspect of the current thinking on Afghanistan which seems to me to be missing is the fact that current financial expenditures cannot be sustained indefinitely.We are pouring more soldiers into the country but only a very few will have any impact on our ability to bring security and reconstruction to the people.We have too large of a tail to tooth ratio; when you send troops in country you have to feed and house them and right now every gram of food consumed by our respective militaries is flown into the country from a far.We are trying to tell the Afghans to stop growing poppy and instead grow fruits and vegetables for export but we won’t even buy the stuff they grow to feed our troops.This ungodly expensive logistical tail which is tenuous at best as it most of it runs through Pakistan –can be trimmed fast by movingthe combat troops off post and allowing them to be housed and fed on the local economy.While at it a good idea would be to send most of the 40 something additional members of the ISAF collation home.They can’t fight, they cannot support themselves, they stay mostly behind the wire, and they are not the right kind of troops to have roaming around the country side in a counter insurgency.
A functional civilian-military team needs to be built around a solid infantry squad with attached Afghans and armed aid implementation contractors.The Afghans and contractors are required to provide expertise and continuity.But here is the thing the Afghans have to be as motivated as the current Afghan Army Commandos which requires daily mentorship and increased pay.One of the main reasons the Afghan Commandos are so good is that they train, fight and live with their American SF trainers and the bonds established through shared hardship and the rigors of war.The Afghan troops selected, screened and trained for this type of duty could be every bit as formidable if they are treated and paid properly.
I have no idea how our campaign in Afghanistan will end but one is certain andthat is we are going to change how we approach both fighting the enemy and in implementing aid.Insallah a system similar to the one I envision will be tried.It would cut costs, cut casualties, and demonstrate to the average Afghan living in contested areas our commitment to providing security.
I have been victimized this week by a crashed internet system and one false start on this post. In addition when I do get a little net time I am engaged in several email conversations with FRI readers some of these are so good I may post them as standalone articles. Chris Chivers of the New York Times has been one of the readers I have been chatting with and it is his piece here which is the start point for this week’s post. This post will be unreasonably massive at times confusing but stick with it and I’ll tie all it all together in the end, inshallah. Bonus feature alert: this post includes a photo story board covering last Monday’s assassination attempt on President Karzai’s brother. I was on the road that day too with my faithful finance officer Misael, who hails from the island of Mindanao but claims to be a Catholic and not a Abu Sayef member. When we turned a corner in the Tangi Valley and saw all the expended brass in the road, he ignored his collateral duty as photographers mate and wedged himself firmly under the dash board. Misael has spent the last year in Kandahar and has developed an exaggerated sense of danger but I’ll get him snapped in soon enough. So there are only a few marginal pictures from a point and shoot camera due to the insistence of the ANP that we keep moving … probably a good idea.
I commented last week that this story shows the way forward but I was talking in nuanced terms as our democratic leaders would say which is stateist speak for not telling the whole story. The article covers a rifle company from the 1st Battalion 26th Infantry as they conduct a 40 hour sweep in the Korangel Valley of Kunar Province. That the rifle company was conducting a sweep is the good part of the story everything else about it is, to the professional observer, bad. Let us start with the duration of this patrol … 40 hours. That amount of time outside the wire means the troops reached the limit of their endurance given the heavy loads they must carry. In the last war we fought that rifle companies patrolled on their own (Vietnam), patrolling outside the wire for only 40 hours would have been labeled light weight. The company patrol Chivers wrote about was anything but light weight – here is the story.
There was one General Officer who left Vietnam with his reputation not only intact but enhanced was Major General Razor Ray Davis of the 3rd Marine Division. He deployed his under strength, poorly equipped, infantry battalions out into the bush of Northern I Corps (near the DMZ between south and north Vietnam) to find fix and destroy the NVA maneuver regiments who infested the area. Forty hours? Try 21 days or more of patrolling and if they were not making contact he flew out, talked with the CO, called in a squadron of CH-46’s (the same Marine helicopters still in use today) and flew the battalion to an area that showed more promise. My father, an operations officer with one of those battalions, said they smelled so bad at the end of one of these sweeps that when flown out to a Navy LPH, the ship’s captain insisted they strip in the hanger bay throw all their uniforms (what was left of them) overboard and get hosed down with fire hoses before going anywhere else on his ship. That didn’t work out to well for the Captain in case you were wondering.
What has changed? Several things, starting with the amount of armor our troops must wear and ending with the risk aversion and force protection mind set which has infused the United States Military . Between those two data points lies a chain of command which is designed to reflect responsibility away from senior officers a development that I, a retired professional, find reprehensible. Let me cover that last statement first and we can start right here to see the results of a military decision making by committee. The story is about the first female Air Force Academy graduate to die in Afghanistan. She was killed by a anti tank mine on the road between Bagram and Kabul. The road was built by the Soviets to bypass the Shomali Plains where they were constantly ambushed back in the day. I took Megan Ortagus, who was embedding with the Army, down that road a month ago and pointed out all the massive pot holes that local children from a recently established refugee camp fill with sand in hopes that passing vehicles will throw them some cash or water. I wish I had a picture but imagine this – the only road connecting our main airbase in Bagram with our bases in Kabul is full of potholes so big that kids are constantly filling them with sand so vehicles can drive at a reasonable pace. These holes are just the right size to hold a TC 6 or MK 7 anti tank mine – the most common mines here – and I pointed out to Megan that if we had a military focused on counterinsurgency the first thing they would have done (like 7 years ago) would have been to fix and seal the road between their main airhead and main bases. We are talking at most twenty miles or so of road and every night Terry Taliban could have been effortlessly seeding this route with antitank mines by the hundreds BECAUSE THE HOLES WERE ALREADY THERE AS WAS THE SAND TO COVER THE MINES. I also told Megan that when they do mine that road it will be an indicator of bloody times directly ahead. The only question now is who is going to do the bleeding us or our enemies? I don’t know, so lets get back to the story line.
As I mentioned earlier, the forty hour patrol tested the limits of endurance of this rifle company for one simple reason – they carry too much weight. If you are going to go after insurgents who occupy the higher passes of the Hindu Kush Mountain Range (hint, hint) why in the name of God would you be wearing body armor and helmets? We had this kind of warfare figured out about 50 years ago when the Marine Corps established the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, California. A mountain warfare training rotation was most popular with the troops because they didn’t have to wear helmet and flak jackets during the training. All this talk about fielding lighter body armor is ridiculous – we should be talking about no body armor, no ballistic helmets, and patrols that go out and stay out when working places like the Korengal Valley. These days the Pentagon would recoil in horror at the mere thought of troops stepping one foot off a FOB without full ballistic protection these are the same officers and officials who reacted to the Mogadishu battle in 1993 by trying to buy more F- 32 ground superiority, center of excellence, air dominating, stealth, bat winged, frog footed, super quiet, swift, silent and deadly anti – guerilla fighter jet. I may have the nomenclature on that wrong. OK, OK, I’m making the plane up but what about armored protection for the vehicles used by ground troops? Did not the battle in the streets of Mogadishu illustrate the need for that? Apparently careful study by our military experts determined that armored vehicles and ballistic plates were not a legitimate requirement for ground combat. Not until Secretary Rumsfeld started taking heat after we had invaded Iraq did anyone find the money to armor up our vehicles and troops. But now the mere thought of operating without all the armor that the Pentagon was forced to buy about a decade after your average 7 year old could have figured out we should armor up some of our infantry vehicles and buy ballistic armor for all the troops now it is just inconceivable that they operate without it even when they are climbing around 12,000 foot mountain passes. Is it me or does this not strike you as stupid?
What happens when our men get shot you ask? I ask what happens when they don’t. Coach Vince Lombardi had the last word on this topic when he said “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” The argument against body armor is that too much weight causes physical exhaustion (lots of orthopedic injuries too) and physically exhausted troops are easier to hit. That they survive being hit is something which is good but I am firmly in the “I want to hit the enemy and not be hit myself” camp. I’ve been shot before and it hurts like hell so I’ll do most anything to avoid getting shot again. I’m all for ballistic armor in most times and places but we are talking serious mountains and you cannot conduct mountain warfare in armor – I don’t care how fit the force is. Hitting the enemy is what it is all about – and hitting the enemy is easier when you are not dehydrated and exhausted. Read some of the articles recently published by Mr. Chivers. He points out the enemy is physically weak, they appear malnourished, they can’t shoot a rifle with any accuracy, they cannot shoot mortars or machineguns in a remotly professional manner, nor can they coordinate among themselves. These guys suck at fighting so why are we not dominating them like the chumps they are? Why? Because we do not have a clearly defined mission and thus have no understanding of why we are here which results in extreme risk aversion because the only measurement of success is keeping your casualties low as humanly possible. That’s why.
What is our mission in Afghanistan? I have been here four years and I don’t have a clue. If it is to prevent the return of the Taliban and al Qaeda, that mission was accomplished years ago. They will never be back in any kind of force regardless of when and how we leave. Is it to stand up a central government to allow the people of Afghanistan to join the rest of the functioning core of nation states? That is a noble mission and one I often used to explain why we are here years ago when I first started talking to local leaders in Shrua’s. But our actions on the ground do not remotely correspond to that mission (if that is why we are here.) How can you mentor Afghans if all your diplomats stay completely isolated from them inside a posh embassy throwing endless rounds of parties for each other? Look at the Afghan government. It is judged by all international observers to be in the top three nation sates for official corruption and you can see where all the billions we have spent has gone. Just like the TARP money it has disappeared into thin air and we have nothing to show for it.
This is how big the disconnect is between the inside the wire military and the rest of us currently residing on planet earth – I lifted it from Michael Yon’s website earlier in the week: From: IDR-TCMC-Office Manager
TO:[Distribution list including contractors.]
Sent: Saturday, 16 May, 2009 4:52 PM
The security state at KAF has been raised. Please ensure that all contractors at KAF, including visitors and transit personnel comply with the following instruction. The security dress state has changed to wearing Combat Body Armour and carrying Helmet when outside a hardened structure. Inside they are to be readily available. There is also now an additional alarm sounding which is a warbling alarm, and is the warning of a Ground Attack and all personnel should move inside a building and await further instructions. Instructions for Op ***** which will cover this procedure will be disseminated in the near future. All contractor personnel are to ensure that they carry their ID on them at all times. Further information is available from the TCMC if required.
Game On? How about Game over? This is the law of unintended consequences in action and let me explain why. Our Department of State has insisted on letting the Afghan government do what it wants and one of things they have done is to make the possession of body armor, helmets, weapons, two way radios, and armored cars against the law unless you are a licensed security company. Every contractor on that base who owns and issues body armor and helmets to his or her employees has violated the law of the land. This, according to our military, is grounds for contract termination (failure to comply with all local laws). Check out my post here which was a cover feature in last March’s Soldier of Fortune magazine. This is what happens to contractors working outside the wire who have body armor – note also I had proper licenses. The NDS took the body armor from two MIT PhD candidates knowing full well they were clients and that we were operating in accordance with the law. But let us ignore the law like the State Department and our military do with their contractors and look at ramifications. Say I have 1000 men working construction aboard the Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and receive the memo above. It is now what military guys call a “specified task” meaning it must be addressed and I must comply or face mission failure. 1000 guys x $1800 or so for average body armor equal $1,800,000 which I would invoice immediately along with a contact modification. There are over 10,000 contractors working aboard KAF. Get the picture?
The military is not congress. They cannot impose unfunded mandates on their contractors. Why do all the construction guys, accountants, cooks, bakers, Timmy Horton’s coffee shop girls etc need body armor and helmets? So they can put them on after a missile hits? The Army used to pull that silly drill in Kabul back in 2005. A rocket would land somewhere in Kabul and all the bases and the embassy would sound alarms sending all hands into bunkers with helmets and body armor. But even the slowest force protection officer began to realize that taking measures to mitigate an event which has already occurred was stupid. But Tim, you ask, what if more missiles came? Well we have these things called counter- battery radars which have been around for about 30 years and they so good that the launch point of any indirect fire system is determined before the projectile lands. Even the illiterate peasants commonly conned into launching missiles have figured out that remaining at a launch site is certain death for them. There has not been an indirect fire attack involving volley after volley of rockets in this country since 2001. Not one. Unsurprisingly, this fact never stopped the force protection officers from insisting that all hands wear body armor and helmets after a rockets had landed in Kabul back in ’05. The troops, diplomats and others inside these compounds would only comply for, at most, four hours before they started taking the crap off because it was uncomfortable (and stupid.) When you do not have the time, talent or money to do what is important the unimportant becomes important and that is what the memo above is all about.
Contracting officers like the one who wrote the memo above have a very hard job. They can earn no glory, they do not receive praise, the best thing that can happen to them on a tour in Afghanistan is to return home with their rank and reputation. To avoid the temptation or appearance of fraud or favoritism they write requests for proposals which make little to no sense and award contracts based exclusively on the lowest bid submitted. What is the price for disconnecting contracting from performance? You get security guards hired to protect bases who actually murder American soldiers. I know of three such incidents and there are more. I had a friend show up at the Taj who was asked to stand up a guard force as soon as he could to replace an outfit named Golden State. There is no company by that name on the Afghan list of 37 authorized security companies. It was a rogue outfit run by some Afghans who spent time in America and their bid for these guard jobs was less than half what the reputable firms bid. They won, they sucked, they were fired and shot at their Army employers on the way out the door but, being typical Afghans, they did not hit anyone. I asked my buddy if the Army had finally figured out their guard forces needed international supervision and of course the answer was no. Too expensive don’t you see. Our Army will spend 2 million dollars each on ground penetrating radars to mount on the front of the hundreds of multimillion dollar MRAPs despite the fact that they HAVE NEVER DETECTED A MINE IN AFGHANISTAN. But spending money on proper guard forces to watch over our troops on a base oh no, that is just too expensive. Buying uniforms and proper boots for the American contractor mentored Afghan EOD teams who work outside the wire finding and disarming mines daily not enough money for them either. Unlike the massive American contracts to high tech companies that produce worthless gizmos or large just about worthless MRAPs every contract in this country goes to the lowest bidder – a game the Afghans figured out long ago.
Let me provide the yellow for anyone reading this who works in contracting and is interested in how to do it right. I got this tip from a good friend who used this technique in 2003 when he was here serving in the American army. You put out a bid for Afghan companies (I’m not talking armed guards which should always be done by reputable international companies) and you’ll get three bids. Take the lowest number and tell the Afghans this is the ceiling and they should bid lower and tender the bid again. Then take the lowest two bidders and tell them to bid against each other and that lowest bid will win. You will end up awarding projects for less than half of the original lowest bid. That is how you save money if saving money is what you want to do. Any other method is just plain head in the sand stupidity which ignores the experience of the Army and Marine units who used to range around the country like true professionals back in the day. That changed when the Big Army came into the country and started getting things organized (read everyone goes on big box FOB’s to be micro managed.)
I mentioned that reputable international security firms should be the only ones providing armed guards for military bases. What about the four Blackwater guys who shot and killed two Afghans after a traffic accident on Jalalabad Road in downtown Kabul? I have said in prior posts that Blackwater has a country manager who has been here longer than I have and is one of the most knowledgeable Americans I know on the state of play in Afghanistan. I have also written that the BW crews I see outside the wire working with the Afghan Border Police are first rate and I am always happy to know they are out and about when I am working the districts of Nangarhar Province. They hardly ever get out and about now by the way, but that is a topic for another day. I stand by that and can surmise that the four individuals involved in this incident shot that Afghans for exactly the same reason that ISAF soldiers have killed about 500 civilians in their vehicles and that is because the car “was threatening.” I don’t know what that means because I live and operate outside the wire and know that Afghan drivers do all sorts of crazy things, none of which seem too threatening to me. Inside the wire types do not think like the thousands of guys (and gals) who are with me outside the wire. They have no front specific knowledge, even after being in country for months and months, because they live on FOB’s. Fobbits have no meaningful interaction with Afghans. That is the nature of the fobbit. They get front specific knowledge from Hollywood movies or dime store novels written by former SAS men or from the many “gun store commando” schools which have popped up in America, Britain and elsewhere. Apparently the Blackwater guys are now on their way home and will probably avoid prosecution just like all the troops who have killed civilians here in the past. They should be in jail awaiting prosecution to fullest extent of law. Being a gun store commando is no excuse for murder and that is exactly what those four committed.
This brings us to the story which will not go away the civilians killed in an ISAF air strike in Farah Province. I pointed out in my last post that the United States military doesn’t even have white phosphorous rounds (called Willie Pete or WP) in the inventory a fact which was contradicted by C.J. Chivers himself in the story linked above. I saw this post by some anti war blogger which sited Chivers piece as proof that ISAF was lying about the entire incident. I was forced to go to Google and yes, it turns out there are now Willie Pete rounds in the inventory for our field artillery. I am still right about the Farah incident that was Tac Air, not field artillery and Tac Air does not have WP munitions. Willie Pete is used by Americans to mark targets for tactical aircraft to bomb. The last thing anyone on the ground wants to see is a jet jockey who is traveling around 400 mph at 25,000 feet above the battle believing he has the situational awareness to drop bombs where he thinks they are needed. Only in the fevered imaginations of Hollywood producers and Air Force Academy cadets would that make sense. In the real world you shoot a marking round, ask the pilot does he see the mark and if he does you tell him how far away from the mark, using meters a simple compass bearings, the target is and then you give him the direction of attack. The key to using Tac Air is to not allow the pilot to do any thinking at all he does exactly what you tell him and any deviation should result in an immediate abort call followed by a healthy round of cussing at him (or her these days) and then sending the offender home with all his stores so everyone back at the base knows he is a liability who cannot follow directions. Failure to follow these simple rules results in the alarming sight of pilots yelling tally ho and coming straight at you. If you let pilots think they can figure out what is happening on the ground without terminal guidance you they end up bombing Canadian field training exercises, or Marine Corps LAV’s.
That is what WP is for and the only reason why you would not use it against enemy troops in the open is that artillery batteries only load out with so much WP but lots of HE (high explosives.) Were I an infantry commander who saw dozens of enemy troops in the open and had enough Willie Pete (better yet the felt wedge red phosphorus rounds) I’d volley a battalion six on top of them in a heartbeat. It would cause all kinds of gruesome third degree burns and after stripping the survivors of their weapons and radios I’d pay the locals to haul the wounded back to Pakistan where they could die a lingering painful death from infection. There is no law of land warfare against hitting troops with WP or RP rounds not treating them would be a clear violation of international law and if I really did something like that as an active duty Marine I would face a well deserved courts martial. Still it is a good tactic pumps up the troops, demoralizes our enemies, lets the tribal leaders in Pakistan know we are serious about making them calm down and they even might stop cutting the heads off of every stranger wondering about the FATA. But RP rounds cost a lot more than HE rounds and that too would get you in hot water with a Marine chain of command. The only time in the history of the Marine Corps a unit fired hundreds of expensive smoke rounds occurred during the battle of Khe San. On Saint Patrick’s Day 1968 the 10th Marines fired hundreds green smoke rounds into all known and suspected NVA positions in the hills around that embattled outpost. That not only motivated the troops but got rid of the rounds the Marines couldn’t take with them when they abandoned the base.
Back to the incident in Farah Province: The locals claim we killed over 150 innocents which I can promise you is a gross exaggeration that is unverifiable due to our insistence on respecting local religious traditions. Of course if there were 150 bodies buried outside that village in Farah and we insisted on paying compensation for say 24 bodies the locals would be digging up the others with great haste to get the additional money but again, I digress. There are several things about this incident that are critical to understanding why we are failing in Afghanistan. The first is President Karzai’s insistence that we stop using tactical aircraft under all circumstances. You cannot fight a counterinsurgency without the complete and total cooperation of the government you are trying to support. It cannot be done. The continued alienation of the President of Afghanistan (and he is going to win again in August of that I am certain), cannot continue if we hope to ever make progress on our fight to bring security to the people of this country. The continued use of the MSM preferred narrative degrades our counterinsurgency fight and the information warriors of the American military do nothing about this from their desks on the big box FOB’s. They cannot even see .af, .com; or .edu websites on military computers all they see is .mil websites. I know, you can’t make this kind of strangeness up. The detail in this story one for which I was taken to task at Registan.net is the ability of the Taliban to come into a village and force the people to act as human shields at the point of a gun.
It seems that a healthy percentage of our no knock HVT Special Forces raids result in the killing of local men who, as expected, grab their guns and race out of their compounds to help defend their neighbors. Yet every report we see of the Taliban using villagers as human shields implies that no local men put up armed resistance. Does that make sense to you? The local men are more than willing to fight our tier one Special Forces operators, yet cower in fear and act like a flock of sheep when groups of Taliban show up in the village? The truth is somewhere in the middle no group of Taliban is going to heard a bunch of Shinwari (dominate Nangarhar Pashtun tribe) into a hut and shower them with Willie Pete grenades and get away with it. But they could do that to the Kuchi villagers of Little Barabad because that village is surrounded by Shinwari tribal peoples who could give a rat’s patootie about the Kuchi’s and would not lift a finger to help them. Clearly there are villages that are vulnerable to Taliban intimidation but they are a minority. There are four kinds of tribes in Afghanistan; ones that want to be left alone (Nuristan and Kunar Provinces have many of them); ones that are interested in making money and cooperate with both sides to do just that (the Shinwari are the classic example); tribes clearly affiliated with the Taliban mostly in the south; and tribes that want our help to bring security and reconstruction to their lands that would be all the tribes of the north, most of the west, some in the east and none in the south. Our answer to this complex human mosaic is to treat all tribes exactly the same. Again does that make sense to you?
Our current military Afghan Campaign can best be illustrated by the old Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike parable. We cannot take our finger out of the dike or it will implode, we cannot try something new to solve the problem of a small breach in the dike because we are afraid it will make the problem worse. Every year the commander rotates and a new guy puts his finger in the dike hoping against hope that the dike will not fail on his watch. At the end of that year he goes home to never again worry himself about Afghanistan, its peoples or its problems. We can do better but that takes a leader with the understanding and ability to change our approach radically. That could have happened if the plan floated by General Conway to let the Marines handle Afghanistan was accepted Generals Mattis, or Kelley, or Allen any of them have the character and ability to change a failing strategy and they have junior General Officers like Hummer, Osterman, and Nicholson (to name a few) to back them up along with a lions’ brood of experienced combat infantry colonels (the army probably has a bunch with equal ability and talent, I just don’t know them and they do not appear to be operating in Afghanistan.) But that is not going to happen so we wait for the next rotation of Big Army and our NATO allies to come put their fingers in the dike while spending billions and billions of dollars we do not have pursuing a strategy that is guaranteed to fail.
My last post has generated considerable interest from all over the blogsphere, providing me a great opportunity to restate a few of my firmly help beliefs about Afghanistan. One of the first and most contentious of my views is that al Qaeda and their Taliban allies will never again run Afghanistan no matter what happens from this point forward. Status quo ante bellum means “the way things were before the war” and it is not possible for the Taliban to ever get back to that point. This is important because you will still see articles in the press emanating from Washington saying that they will. I base my reasoning on four years of traveling about the country and talking with local people. The Taliban were ultimately despised for their self righteous cruelty, just like al Qaeda in Iraq. They filled a power vacuum back in 1996 bringing justice and the rule of law to a country with no infrastructure, no central government, no functioning economy, and ruled by warlords who had varying degrees of competency and cruelty.
Afghanistan now has a good road network, a functioning central government, and an increasingly capable army. The Taliban can at best, leverage their popularity and numbers in the south for a seat at the table with the central government but that is about the best they could do if we pulled out tomorrow and let the chips fall where they may. Look at how the Pashtun tribesmen are reacting to the Taliban who have taken over theSwat Valley in Pakistan – do you think Afghans want a return to that? They don’t and they have enough guns, organization and support from the people to ensure they will never be under the Taliban yoke again.
Yet we continue to battle the Taliban, their various allies and the, “fight for pay” cadres. The intensity of combat increases with each passing year, as do the numbers of Armed Opposition Groups. We are losing ground, a fact that led to the relief for cause of General McKerinan … who Sarah Palin accidentally called “Gen McClellan” during a debate last summer, proving yet again her uncanny grasp of complex affairs of state. It appears that Gen McKerinan had what Abraham Lincoln diagnosed as General McClellan’s problem … a case of the “slows”. The relief for cause of a four star general is no small matter. Clearly things are supposed to change in our approach to the Afghan Campaign. But, one must ask, “what change?”
We are fighting an insurgency. Military formations facing a competent insurgency far away from their homeland and among people who are culturally, linguistically, religiously, and ethnically distinct are at a severe disadvantage. Counterinsurgencies can be won but they can cost a fortune in either time, money, munitions or men, or for that matter, all of the above. Let me refine that … they will cost a fortune in time or money or munitions or men if you have a military that has the organization, doctrine, training, equipment and public support, including time, to wage counterinsurgency warfare. They will cost a larger fortune in time and money and munitions and men if you have a military that is not organized, trained and equipped for counterinsurgency warfare. With the exception of the Taliban, none of the military organizations currently operating in Afghanistan is fully organized, trained and equipped for that war. This story provides a typical example of the consequences of establishing what I term the big box FOB around the contested south to fight a counterinsurgency. In order to accommodate the expected surge in troop levels, the U.S. Army needed to expand its base in Zabul Province. An Army captain who leads the local embedded training team working with the Afghan Army (and who belongs to a separate task force with a completely different chain of command), warned the base CO that the expansion would cut off a vital karez (water) access to the locals, a fact certain to cause problems. He was ignored until the Army realized that cutting off the karez access tunnel was in fact causing real problems with the locals. At that point they engaged the local shura but it was too late.The Afghans reacted with indignation and cold fury at the thought that the Army would cut off their karez. The reaction was expected by old Afghan hands. Either the villagers were rightfully outraged or they were posturing because they knew that such behavior would get them bigger compensation payments (your tax dollar at work one more time). But as the story moves on, we find that the Taliban had beaten the Army tothe punch.The elder from the one village that agreed to cooperate, was paid a visit by the local Talibs and lost an ear. Things of this nature cannot ever be allowed to happen in a counterinsurgency fight.
In counterinsurgency warfare there is one simple imperative; who stays wins. This extract from the article linked in the Belmont Club (the best milblog going) says it all.
And unfortunately a reality of this kind of war is that civilians have no choice but to support the group that exerts the most pressure on them. So in order to be effective, the counterinsurgent must exert more authority and control and protect the civilians over a long period of time. Temporary security is self-defeating because of erosion of trust and exposure of the population to retribution. Furthermore, to be successful the counterinsurgent must form a closeness to the population at the local levels to compete with and edge out the guerrilla and insurgent who by nature are closer and more connected to the population than the central government; centralized counterinsurgency is less effective, local effective governance and security are more effective.
The United States military and her NATO allies are not trained or organized for this kind of warfare. The big box bases we are building would be useful if we were going to exercise the “Carthage Solution” but we do not do that kind of thing unless we are involved in a “total war.” See show # 23 in attached link – Dan Carlin is one of the best history podcasts going – every episode is worth listening to.Counterinsurgency warfare requires close cooperation between the host country and foreign troops. But we don’t have that. We have this the President of Afghanistan calling for the end of air strikes based on an incident I blogged about last week and one which appears to be the work of the Taliban. The end of air strikes? How the hell do you fight a counterinsurgency without using tac air?
You can’t. We have a huge problem. The Afghan and American led ISAF forces need to be in complete agreement, presenting a united front having a simple message. Something like this:
“We are fighting for the people of Afghanistan. We do not run. We do not hide. We do not throw acid on little girls nor do we behead little boys. We fight for the people. We will not stop. We will not waver. We will fight until every armed opposition group in this country sends their foreign lackeys away and joins us in peace as brothers.”
I’m no expert but that is a good start on a message which would play well in the local market if used over and over and over. It is bold talk which must be backed up with bold action which is, of course, the problem. A problem that is part self inflicted due to our risk adverse poorly thought out military plans and in part the work of a dying organization – the main stream media.
Life as 8-year-old Razia knew it ended one March morning when a shell her father says was fired by Western troops exploded into their house, enveloping her head and neck in a blazing chemical, she writes. Now she spends her days in a U.S. hospital bed at the Bagram airbase, her small fingernails still covered with flaking red polish but her face an almost unrecognizable mess of burned tissue and half her scalp a bald scar.
Well, no shit. Life normally changes when an 8 year old girls head and torso are enveloped in a blazing chemical. That sort of thing is a real bummer and in Afghanistan normally happens to older girls who have angered their husband’s family. There is a reason why Afghanistan is the only country in the world having a female suicide rate higher than the male rate. I am not ignoring the horrible fate that befell this young child – I do think she is lucky to be cared for by ISAF who at least have access to strong pain killers. Believe it or not opiate based pain medicine is in short supply throughout the third world which is why the DEA looks like a bunch of retards when they insist that using the poppy to make morphine is off the table. Absolute mouth breathing retards. Spraying poppies with aerial delivered herbicide is the kind of stupidity that should be rewarded with a wood shampoo and three years in prison, not with promotions and fancy corner offices in DC. Sorry, again I digress. War is a horrible thing and nobody understands better or grieves stronger for the loss of innocent life than the American military and our ISAF allies. But war is war – what does focusing on a wounded child do to help us in our understanding of what is happening in Afghanistan? Not one damn thing. It simply allows the MSM to parade their sense of moral superiority and self righteousness in front of the world at the expense of the men and women who are doing the fighting.
Here is something you’ll never see in the main stream media narrative. “Life as 8-year old Monique knew it changed forever when a Volkswagen sized shell fired from one of the American battleships off the coast of France slammed into her summer beach home in Normandy on the 6th of June.” Or this – “Life for 13-year old Jesse Dirkhising changed forever the morning of September 26 when the homosexual couple living below young Jesse and his mother decided to spend the evening raping and torturing him.” Poor Jesse was killed the same weekend as Mathew Shepard and even though the drug addicts who killed Mathew said they were after money, not young homosexual males, the media and HBO had a feeding frenzy telling the American people Mathew was killed due to our “intolerance.” They made Mathew (who was gay) into a martyr. He was and remains the preferred media narrative on homosexuality in America – not the two rapists who killed young Jesse. The main stream media doesn’t want to inflame the passions of us gun carrying, bible loving, rubes. They determine which stories become part of our national dialogue – and stories about homosexual murders and rapists are not ever going to be on their radar screen anymore than stories about the poor souls who jumped out of the World Trade Towers on 9/11.
But they are soon to be gone, to be replaced by people like me who know what they are talking about, have strong opinions which they do not hide, and care about something bigger than themselves … which in my case is the United States of America and our beautiful constitution. A constitution that, I have learned, is the envy of Canadians, Australians, Brits and Kiwi’s, all of whom want to live as free men, not wards of the state.
So the context of the preferred media narrative is well established – if a girl is horribly wounded during fighting between ISAF and the Taliban than that girls was victim of “a shell fired by western troops.” What kind of shell? what ordnance do we have that penetrates houses, detonates, yet leaves the people inside alive? Anyone know what that can possibly be? I do – a Willie Pete hand grenade which apparently the Taliban were using in attempt to kill the non combatants they had herded into local compounds. Our air delivered ordnance, artillery, and mortars would not have detonated inside a house and caused just chemical burns -they would have killed all inside. We don’t even have WP rounds anymore – we use felt wedge red phosphorous rounds that detonate way above the ground. Willie Pete was phased out of our inventory about 20 years ago. I know technical details – we can’t expect that from Reuters “correspondents” now can we?
But we can find accurate technical reporting on the military in the New York Times (of all places) which has featured the work of C J Chivers as of late. Mr. Chivers is a former Marine infantry officer who has been reporting from inside the Kunar Province where he is spending considerable time embedded with our troops. C.J. broke the news about the night ambush I commented on in my last post. This guy knows his topic and is giving it to us straight – he will no doubt soon be downsized – bet a 20 spot on it – but for now he is one of the few main stream media correspondents who knows the job. He wrote a piece last week about two Marines who are in an outpost mentoring a squad of ANA deep in the Koringal Valley. He titled his piece “Dream Job” which is what I’d expect from a former Marine infantryman and that title alone vaulted him past all competition to become my favorite newspaper reporter of all time.
We have hamstrung our efforts by placing our maneuver forces in “big box” FOB’s. Afghanistan as viewed from behind the wire of a big box is not the Afghanistan I know and see daily. It can’t be – that is nature of an isolated, high security FOB – it completely removes you from meaningful interaction with the local people. Adding to the problem is the “main stream media” preferred narrative which is being used as a wedge to divide us even more from the people we are supposed to be here to protect. Chivers’ recent articles provide an example of a rational way forward for our military efforts in Afghanistan and this will be the start point of my next post.
It is time to turn the ole gimlet eye onto the news, cut through the clutter, provide a little ground truth, and introduce another obscure military concept to the FRI family and their informed friends. The start point is this article concerning the killing of a little girl by the Italian army ISAF contingent in Herat which I want to compare to the current civilian casualty flap in Farah Province where over 100 people are reported to have been killed in ISAF air strikes. In my opinion one these incidents should result in a murder charge and the other is the way things have to be but we are not managing that message well at all.
The facts as reported about the Italian shooting seem very clear. They overtook a civilian vehicle but reported it to be driving at high speed they claim to have fired warning shots but TV footage of the car shows it was hit repeatedly in the left rear quarter panel area indicating the shooter was behind the vehicle. The shooting resulted in the death of a 12 year old girl and the Italians drove right past after shooting this car load of people without even stopping. That is murder. There is no way to justify it as anything else based on the facts presented in the news article. Most civilian traffic will attempt to stay in front of convoys because once overtaken you’ll join 100’s of other vehicles in a miles long 20 mph rat line. Which of course is point #1 how can the Italians overtake a racing car in their armored troop carriers? They can’t.
It is a common technique for suicide bombers to slow down and wait for a convoy to draw close and then detonate their vehicles. It is also common for the slow moving traffic to allow convoys to overtake them too.These convoys pass vehicles all the time so that fact that this car slowed to allow the convoy to draw near and pass was also very typical behavior.I have mentioned this whole convoy procedure thing so many times that my Dad will send emails sounding like this; oh great son another post about convoysif I didn’t know better I’d mistake you for a whiner. At risk of receiving yet another email of this nature let me again attempt to point out the problem with convoys who shoot at vehicles they think to be VBIED’s.
John Boyd, who I had the pleasure of meeting once, is one of those eccentric’s often found behind the scenes in military history. He was a Colonel in the Air Force with the reputation as a strategist and unorthodox reformer.One of his greater contributions to military science was the Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA) Loop.Here is the Wikipedia entry on the subject:
According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby “get inside” the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage. Frans Osinga argues that Boyd’s own views on the OODA loop are much deeper, richer, and more comprehensive than the common interpretation of the ‘rapid OODA loop’ idea
Boyd developed this theory after an analysis of enemy tactics during air to air engagements over Korea during the conflict there. At the time the Soviet MiG-15 was faster than the American F-86 Sabre and they were operating from Chinese airfields close to the fight while the American jets would arrive with maybe 15 minutes of fuel. The MiG could out-climb the Sabre at all altitudes, and it had a greater operational ceiling. But the MiG had design flaws resulting in poor control at high speeds, a low rate of roll and directional instability at high altitudes. Boyd recognized that the way of taking advantage of these flaws was to enter a series of intricate turns designed to make the MiG react to the Sabre. Once the MiG was committed it just a matter of time before the Sabre was able convert his high speed maneuver advantage to get a gun solution using the K14 radar gun-sight, which was designed to use derivative movement information for the firing solution. This is why there is a Top Gun course and whatever the Air Force calls their jet fighter school which obviously lacks cool factor or we’d have seen a movie about it.
For earthbound gunfighters the OODA loop also has great utility.The best example would be the famous (in my circles anyway) Tueller drill. Named after Salt Lake City Police Sergeant Dennis Tueller (he was a Gunsight instructor too) it is a simple demonstration of perceived vs actual risk. The drill assumes an assailant armed with an edged weapon is being uncooperative and is designed to show how close is too close in that situation. The assailant stands back to back with a shooter who has a holstered pistol and is facing a target 7 yards away. On cue the assailant starts to run and stops when he hears the pistol report the shooter presents his weapon to the target and delivers a controlled pair center mass. A well trained shooter using a good rig and pistol can deliver a controlled pair from the holster in 1.1 to 1.3 seconds – about the time it takes a young adult male to cover the 21 feet.
Twenty one feet is about three car parking spaces or the length of a slightly bigger than average room. Most people feel safe with that much room between them and a stranger. If an assailant starts at you full speed from that distance only the best trained top tier shooters in the world have a chance of presenting a pistol and firing two effective shots. And that is only if they have already decided to shoot; the step in the OODA loop model which takes the longest to work through. The Tueller drill is a perfect example of training designed to improve OODA loop decision making. By illustrating how close is too close and reinforcing the concept with dynamic training the students learn how to make the critical shoot don’t shoot decision faster based off legitimate state of the art training.
Which brings us to ISAF convoys and machinegunners; ISAF convoys over take civilian traffic and pass on coming civilian traffic as a matter of routine.Convoy gunners are responsible for recognizing potential threats, warning them to keep their distance, and firing on them when that warning is ignored. Although ISAF convoys are slow they will still close with on coming traffic at a rate of 60 feet per second which is 3.5 car lengths. On a flat road with perfect visibility a convoy gunner has about 60 seconds – the time it takes a vehicle to reach him from just outside the max effective range of his machine gun – to determine if a vehicle is a threat. There are very few places in Afghanistan with that much flat terrain – my guess would be that the average civilian car to ISAF convoy encounter is around 10 to 15 seconds long. What do you think it would take to get your attention, have you orient your weapon, then make the critical friend or foe decision before firing into an oncoming car?
To distinguish potential threats in the normal chaotic local traffic clutter requires gunners with enough knowledge to apply the rule of opposites. Suicide vehicle drivers tend to have a signature, they tend to behave erratically, and in order to detect one in time to warn and engage him you would have to detect him a long way off. If you think through this process – especially while driving so you can do a little real time war gaming – you will come to the same conclusion I have. And that is our counter VBIED measures will never work because it is not possible for a soldier to complete the OODA loop and reach an informed firing solution given the small amount of time, short distances, and number of innocent people who drive like lunatics in Afghanistan. You cannot recognize a VBIED that fast – not possible – so why the hell are we still shooting 12 year old girls in this country? Because we have the wrong troops here. Killing people is serious business best left to professionals.
Then there is the story of the 100 dead civilians, victim of an ISAF air strike.Apparently the Afghan Army responded in support of a police post which had been repeatedly attacked by fighters who disappeared into some small hamlet in Farah Province. The Taliban continued to fight from that hamlet and ISAF air was called in to deal with them. ISAF air is not controlled by the Afghan army which means American trainers or an SF team was with them to handle the tac air. The Taliban starts a fight, kills a few of the local cops, goes to ground in a local compound which we blast causing the deaths of all inside you tell me who is the asshat? Not us this is what happens when you allow the Taliban to operate out of your village. And don’t tell me the poor villagers are defenseless in the face of these swarms of Taliban which just appear out of nowhere in their midst. They are anything but defenseless and the last time I checked there was the Kharan Desert just south of Farah province so where are all these Taliban fighters coming from anyway?
The people in Farah are rioting over this incident; the politicians are making hay with it. Time magazine is outraged (I know I could give a rats ass too about what Time thinks) and the newly rehabilitated President Karzai has chimed in to declare the incident unacceptable. This is not the same as all the previous incidents where we acted based on false intelligence because we are not smart enough to confirm targets with ground based assets this was hot pursuit and they have to end the same way every time with a bang not a whimper. Body counts are irrelevant we will never kill enough Taliban to win what we need to do is bring security to the people. Do the reconstruction we said we would do, and go home. But to do that we must deal with armed assaults by putting a hurting on those doing the assaulting. You cannot let these guys ambush you time and time again with impunity. They want to fight? fine we fight and when that happens they die. That is how it has to be.
I had a dream – in that dream my Commander in Chief gets President Karzai into the oval office and leans on him like he does the lawyers representing the secure debt holders of Chrysler Motors. He tells Karazi in no uncertain terms how things are going to be and to stop the pissing and moaning over civilians who give sanctuary to Taliban fighters. He’ll allow him to continue to get upset over random acts of stupidity like the Italian shooting, which I think to be murder anyway but would make him toe the line on civilian casualties which were taken when we flew in SUPPORT OF HIS ARMY WHO WAS IN CONTACT AT THE TIME. If he doesn’t like it then the Chief of Staff Rahim “Boom Boom” Emanual might just take him for a ride and give him some truck music Chicago style. Just like we do to hard working honest Americans who attempt to discharge their fiduciary obligations in accordance with our laws and blessed constitution. If the President can bully them why not our allies too?
Yeah it is a dream but if the President of the United States can attack private citizens engaged in the execution of their fiduciary obligations to clients and expose them to harassment and ridicule for refusing to sell their clients out in order to benefit the auto unions than why can’t he do a little arm bending to benefit all the citizens of this country? Isn’t that his job now? Well.Chris Matthews leg says he is executing all duties flawlessly so what do I know?
I mentioned a rehabilitated President Karazi because by my calculations August’s presidential election was decided about five days ago and Karzai is the winner. The day after Nangarhar Provincial Governor Gul Agha Shirzai withdrew from the presidential race I had the following conversation with my local fixer/manager/man of influence Mr. W.
Me:what is going on the President Karzai and why is the Governor so down?
Mr. W:He is the leader of our country and a great man. His Excellency Governor Shirzai is tired is all he too is very happy for our country
I thought Karzai was just the mayor of Kabul who cannot even stop his ministries from preying upon the citizens let alone govern?
When he first started he was just Kabul mayor but he had no one below who knew about government and it was bad. But he now learn how to govern and how to work with the Americans and this is the most important thing to work with Americans.
What about Marshall Fahim? Isn’t he a warlord from the north?
No he is great Mujahedeen leader from the north and also a great man
What? When did all this happen?How long have you been thinking that Marshall Fahim and the President are the future of your country?
Ohfor five maybe six days now.
Ole Mr. W – demonstrating a text book use of one of most potent tools of the Scots Irish tribe irony. This from a man who as child worked on an NGO project in Jalalabad during the Taliban times carried a flag for escorting female NGO sponsored health awareness workers. His job was to escort them in public and then stand outside the compound during their home visits so that all knew the woman was out and about on official government business and should not be beaten on sight. For this he earned 5 kilos of wheat per day and now Mr. W, who is the driving force behind many aid programs which target the female population because he believes their education and empowerment is key to the future of his country, is mastering irony too.
It would appear that President Karzai has quietly built a capable coalition during these last 100 days despite snubs from both VP Biden and President Obama.It was rumored that Speaker of the House Pelosi commissioned a hand crafted Haitian-American Karzai voodoo doll for just 375,000 tax payer dollars into which she plunged needles dipped in Newt’s urine. Newt Gingrich urine; not urine from the small amphibian known to all Disney fans as a common witch spell ingredient. Nothing but the best for our speaker and that includes the urine used on hand crafted voodoo dolls. But none of that fazed President Karzai who is off to Washington to deal with Obama with a recently acquired position of strength. Intuition tells me that Karzai has taken the measure of our bright, handsome, articulate, President and decided to stay in the game despite months of our side (the most talented and honest administration ever) hinting he should collect his chips and go home. I wonder why that is?
There were a series of news stories which aroused more than a little interest amongst the circle of professional infantrymen I correspond with.One of those stories concerned young lieutenant leading a nighttime ambush patrol with his platoon from the 1st battalion of the 26th infantry.And what a story it is they patrol onto the bad guys side of the mountain, set up a classic linear ambush with all the fixings claymores, hand grenades and machineguns, along a known trail and within hours bag a squad plus of Taliban.There are few things in life more gratifying than going to the enemy’s side of the mountain, kicking his ass like he’s a punk, and with the help of Rotary CAS (gunships) hunting down and killing all the leakers just so everyone in the area understands who the apex predators are.Classic infantry tactics executed by proficient, aggressive infantrymen; I’d donate a kidney for the opportunity to do a mission like that as would several thousand of my good friends.As you’ll note in the story all involved say this bold move has sent shock waves through the Korangal Valley because the Taliban are not used to having the Americans snooping around their neck of the woods at night annihilating all the bad guys unlucky enough to cross their path.
Then there was this story about an American army convoy getting ambushed repeatedly as they exited the small hamlet called Doab in Nuristan Province.There was nothing unusual about this tale.The Army went in with a large convoy for an overnight stay in a remote Nuristan valley and on the way out had to run a gauntlet of ambushes.They suspect the local village elders were complicit in the attacks and they are without question correct.Nuristan is a province where the people are linguistically and ethnically distinct from other Afghans.They have a long history of feuding with their neighbors, all of them mind you, and their women are highly prized as wives among other Afghan tribes because they have a reputation for delivering many children and enjoying sex.I doubt that is 100% true but who knows?What is a fact is that there is no way armed opposition groups made their way into this remote valley without the permission and support of the local village leaders. These are a remote clannish people who have spent the last 2,000 years defending their wives and daughters from raiding parties by horny teenagers from the rest of the country.I have no idea why we would venture into Nuristan in the first place those people want to be left alone and I’m all for that.If we are there because our National Intelligence Assets think that Al Qaeda will infiltrate through Chitral and destabilize the government than I say those assets should actually get off the FOB’s and try to infiltrate into Kabul through Nuristan.There are no less than 1,473 routes into Kabul from Pakistan that are easier and do not involve tangling with Nuristani’s.
Upon reflection I take that back – it is probably easier to move through Nuristan now that we have built all those roads in there. My point is that we don’t need to be in every remote valley or hamlet to do what needs to be done in this country. If the remote villagers don’t want our help concentrate on the vast majority of the country who does. The only enemies operating in Nuristan pay through the nose to operate there and the only reason they do that is to get at Americans who they mistakenly think are isolated and vulnerable.That was what the fight in Wanat was about last year and it cost us 9 KIA.The villagers and their paymaster guests from Pakistan got a chance to experience consequences of trying to overrun and American position but putting an ass whooping on them was small consolation given the cost.
I am straying way off the story line again anyway there was nothing unusual about this ambush except that Chim Chim was along for the ride and he told me something fascinating.He said the fight from beginning to end was controlled by the BCT (Brigade Combat Team) headquarters in Jalalabad via drone feeds. That surprised me, there is no way a Marine regimental commander would reach around a battalion commander to control a fight.Ever it is just not done and this news seemed to validate the grave concern my peers and I had in the 80’s and 90’s as technology evolved allowing commanders from on high to micromanage units under contact.After thinking it through I have come up with an interesting angle.I know a few guys from that BCT and they are first rate. They have a solid commanding officer and the brigade chief of staff is well known, well liked and much respected by the local politicians and leaders in Nangarhar Province and no doubt Kunar Province too. It takes a ton of time, patience, and ability to accomplish as much as that Lieutenant Colonel has during his short time here. The current BCT has done as much as they can possibly be done give the constraints they must deal with to engage and support the government which is critical in counterinsurgency operations.
These two enemy contacts explain a lot about what kind of forces we have in country, what kind we need in country, and why the move made by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Conway, to take over operations in Afghanistan was brilliant (although DOA due to inter-service rivalry.) To help illustrate my point for those of you who are not military professionals I am going to introduce a topic most have never heard of or thought about.It is time to talk about Killology.
Former Army Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman coined the term Killology back in the early 90’s when he published a book of the same name and subtitled The Price and Process of Killing in Battle.One of the topics he covers is the misconception most people have of the fight or flight response.The fight or flight model applies only to extra-species confrontations; for all inter-species conflicts there is a four option model; fight, flight, posture, or submission.When confronted by a rattlesnake you can kill the snake or leave the immediate area; you cannot plead with it, or threaten it, or scare it because it’s just a snake.With humans it is obviously different; the typical confrontation is a rapid escalation of name calling followed by a half ass shoving match and few ineffective roundhouses.Is that fighting?It may be under the eyes of our law but in the law of the jungle that is posturing. Posturing and submission are how animals solve disputes with each other; snakes don’t bite other snakes (of the same species) they wrestle each other. Bucks do not gore other bucks to death they lock horns and push each other around.Inter-species animal fights are a series of posturing moves followed by submission from the loser. In humans it is a small percentage of the population which responds to provocation by immediately fighting really fighting when provoked.Check this out did you know 2% of the fighter pilots in WW II were responsible for downing over 40% of verified enemy kills?Know what trait they had in common? They all had a propensity for and history of fighting when provoked.This is interesting stuff and you should visit the Killology website and read through some of the articles.Better yet buy the Killology book it is the work of a very bright, very talented guy who has created a dedicated following in the international law enforcement community.
As Grossman points out there is a distinct difference, on several levels, between losing a dozen men to an airstrike from an unseen drone and losing them in a point blank ambush by infantrymen who want, more than anything else in life, the chance to close with a destroy and armed enemy.It is the same difference seen in people who have survived critical injuries sustain in an auto accident as opposed to people who sustained similar serious injury at the hands of a violent criminal predator.The auto accident victim will not have to deal with the possibility of post traumatic stress; the assault victim stands a near 100% chance of suffering severe psychological problems during their recovery.This is basic psychology hard wired into all of us bipeds and it is also why having a crew of highly competent American infantrymen tooling around the AO (area of operations) destroying entire units in short, decisive, bloody, contacts has more impact on our enemies than a thousand armed drones.Drone missiles strike out of the blue with no warning and although deadly they just do not have the same psychological impact as a band of infantry who lurking about with only one mission in life which is to hunt you down and kill you.This is why the classic air power theorist Giulio Dohet was proved wrong in World War II.One of the objectives behind the massive bombings of civilian cities in Germany and Japan was to inflict PTSD type symptoms upon them thus rendering the population incapable of supporting war related industry.The law of unintended consequences dictated otherwise it turned out pummeling civilians with air delivered ordinance increased their resolve.The German civilian population didn’t start to fold until the Red Army was on their door step.Bombs don’t terrify humans humans terrify humans.
Here is the connection – sending large armored convoys into remote mountainous hamlets who respond to an ambush by breaking contact is posturing; not fighting.Sending ambush patrols deep into contested territory is fighting; not posturing.A brigade commander who is fighting as part of a larger formation against a uniformed enemy army that is a legitimate threat to world peace and our way of life will routinely probe enemy terrain and positions with ambush patrols knowing full well he will lose some of them.If it costs the lives of 10 or 20 men in the course of an evening so be it if in return you are able to get a good fix on the enemy strength and disposition.That is the grim calculus of war, military commanders deal in the commodity of blood their men’s blood – and although losing men you have trained, personally know, in most cases respect and always care for is never easy but it is the job.
So we have two incidents last week; the one in Nuristan fit the typical profile a large armored column travels into a remote valley, they get ambushed repeatedly and expend all their time, energy and resources evacuating wounded and breaking contact while being controlled from on high.In the other we have a platoon allowed to go out into the unknown at night to ambush any and all enemy formations stumbling into their kill zones.Both of these missions were controlled by the same BCT command team who is approaching the end of their tour and very aware of what happened to their predecessors last year in Wanat as they were finishing up their time in the Stan.Ambush patrols are high risk evolutions where a whole host of things can go wrong resulting in a hefty butcher’s bill.So what is going on?A unit with the talent, confidence and ability to launch nighttime ambush patrols should also be able to react with the same intensity and aggressiveness to an ambush.Good infantry does not break contact in an ambush they attack the flanks attempt to fix the enemy and then destroy him with fire and maneuver.
What is going on is that we do not have the right forces on the ground.The difference in the two fights was that one was conducted by professional infantrymen and one was fought with a temporary lash-up of red legs (artillerymen) and National Guard with a bunch of strap hangers from various other organizations.Those were Stability Operations troops in Nuristan not a combat maneuver unit and they are not designed to or capable of operating as a combat maneuver element.
In October of 2007 the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway created one hell of a dust up when he proposed the Marines take over responsibility for Afghanistan and the Army take on sole responsibility for Iraq.Gen Conway was hammered by the other services who pointed out (correctly) that the Marines would still need their help to support them.General Conway is not a foolish man, he was my commanding officer in the early 90’s at The Basic School and is one of the most seasoned and impressive Commandants the Marines have ever had. He did his homework before floating that trial balloon and he must have had an impressive list of facts supporting his incredibly bold move.
He was right because what last week’s action illustrated perfectly is the need for infantry.The Marines are a small (by American standards) service but they have a lot of infantry.They also have a lot of combat arms and support units who, due to the unique training system, can function as infantry with very little notice or additional training.The Marines field good infantry as does our army and those of many of our allies.We need to bring security to vast swaths of the Afghan countryside and when challenged we need to respond with decisiveness.That takes infantry who know how to close with and destroy their adversaries.Too many Taliban, rent a Taliban, and all the other types of armed opposition groups are taking on ISAF units and escaping unscathed.We can’t have that experience will teach these knuckleheads how to stay on the front sight and hit what they shoot at.If the armed opposition starts to actually master the demanding art of warfighting we are going to have serious problems.Just imagine if the troops in Nuristan had been ambushed by a platoon as proficient as the men from the 26th Infantry?They would have never been able to winch out wounded men, or attempt to recover a downed truck, in fact they probably would not havesurvived the beating a platoon like that can deliver to a road bound convoy.
The ambush by the 26th Infantry indicates that the army, like their Marine comrades down south, have developed the confidence and situational awareness to send small units deep seeking contact.That is great news.Tactics like that allow you to start working on the enemies’ morale and confidence.Gaining that kind of moral ascendancy over your adversaries is worth the risks incurred.But once ground is gained it must be held and that can be done here by small agile teams of reconstruction experts most of them Afghan headed by internationals who know the area, know the people, and are capable of defending themselves.That is exactly what I am doing now as part of a new US AID project.More on that soon.
Every now and then one stumbles across a story which illustrates deeply held convictions so well that you just have to share. Here is one of those and it is a sad tale of incompetence, risk aversion and just plain clown like silliness. It is amusing (I guess) but it is also so typical of why we are making little progress in our battle to bring security and infrastructure development to Afghanistan.
The story is written by Ian Pannell of the BBC and describes his visit with Americans from the Embassy in Kabul who flew into Mazar-e-Sharif to drive out to a school opening. It is a all to familiar tale, the American palm the Brits off on their local hosts and move out in Armored Suburbans with a full security detail. One of the trucks breaks down and they all turn around, go back to the airport and fly back to Kabul. The Brits arrive and, as the only internationals present, stand in for the Americans. After being guests of honor at the banquet the Provincial government organized for the occasion, ( and scoring a chapan which is super cool) they are given a car and driver by the governor to get them back to Kabul.
I have pointed out time and time again that there is no need for armored vehicles in the north – or in most of Afghanistan. It is safer for all concerned to be in unarmored vehicles with lots of dispersion and preferable locals mixed in among your vehicles. But that is not what bothers me about this article it is the cavalier way something that was obviously important (or why even fly up from Kabul) was dismissed.
We have not been dumping the money, resources or attention in the north like we have in the south. The south is populated with Pashtun people, the north (with the exception of Kunduz City) has no significant Pashtun population – they are Uzbeks, Hazara and Tajik’s. They have for the most part cooperated in the disarmament programs, stopped growing poppy, and cooperated with the central government. And we treat them like a bunch of irrelevant rubes. The Governor of Balk province and several other important Afghan’s lost a lot of face because the “professionals” from our embassy found it impossible to drive for 2 hours over rough roads or spend the night in the wilds of Mazar-e-Sharif. Mission has priority my ass.
I have commented in previous posts and several times on Covert Radio the people up north are not amused by how they are being treated. Their old enemies the Pashtun are getting rich on the drug trade and are getting more and more guns and more heavy weapons. The people up north are getting a few crappy schools, ignored or insulted by the American Embassy, preyed upon by a few warlords and more than a few criminal gangs and guess what? I think their patience is nearing the end.
One reason I believe that is the scarcity firearms available on the market. There are international security companies buying and using the old Soviet PSSh 41 submachineguns for jobs in the south. Ammunition of all calibers has doubled or tripled in price. The weapons market has always been run by northern peoples. But now they are not selling and that cannot possibly be good news.
It is time to get serious about what we are doing here – define an acceptable endstate, work towards that endstate and get the hell out. One of the sad facts of life is that we really have not figured out why we are here. Conventional wisdom says that if we leave the Taliban will return and with them Al Qaeda and they’ll use Afghanistan as a launching pad for further attacks on the west. That is complete BS. The Taliban will not come back in power here – not in a million years. Even if they did they would not be stupid enough to provide shelter or assistance to Al Qaeda. We have reduced Osama and his surviving leaders into walking dead men who freak anytime someone gets near them with a cell phone or a plane flies overhead. They could no more pull off another 9/11 than I could pull a diamond out of a goats ass.
What can be done in Afghanistan? We can bring security – build some infrastructure, and (most importantly) develop the human capitol as best we can. This is being done – the best example being the Afghan Special Forces who enjoy universal respect and appreciation from the local people. SF teams have a model and that model involves living, working, and mentoring their local charges 24/7. If we are going to continue to dump millions into Afghanistan than every program should duplicate that model – there should be an American or Americans at the program level working with the Afghans to ensure whatever they are supposed to do (construction, security, law enforcement etc..) they actually do. And once we finally do what we signed on to do – the roads, the bridges, the dams – once they are done it is time for us to go. Inshallah we will realize this and act accordingly but for now…it will soon be time to worry about the north.
There has been a flood of RFPs (request for proposal’s) hitting the street of Kabul concerning FOB Sharana. Sharana (spelled Sharan on UN AIMS maps) is the capitol of Paktika Province and a relatively small city of some 2,200 people.
Here is an assessment done in the not too distant past on Sharana: The dominate tribe in the region is the Suleimankhel who are Ghilzai Pashtuns and inhabit all of the eastern districts of the province, from Wor Momay up to Sharan district. According to former provincial Governor Ghulab Mangal, the Suleimankhel provide the majority of recruits for the Taliban in the province. As a result, the level of anti-coalition militia activities remains high in areas dominated by Suleimankhel. In most areas of Afghanistan the Taliban is a collection of indigenous narco-jihadi-tribal guerrilla forces. Around Sharana this is not the case the Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) fighters are dedicated Taliban who are not motivated by financial gain, access to reconstruction projects, or narco money. Aid projects in the Province have stagnated in the face of unrelenting AOG attacks on all non indigenous peoples, projects, and the Afghan security forces. The Paktika PRT has 35 projects authorized and funded to the tune of 6.5 million but has only spent $691,350 to date. There are no high quality paved roads in the Province. The primary roads which do exist are mostly paved and service the Ghazni Sharana Monari corridor with two connecting Sharana to Ghazni and one connecting Sharna to Khost.
FOB Sharana has historically been a bad place to be. This embedded video of the FOB under attack was typical for the area for most of the recent past:
But the situation there has changed and changed radically. An associate of mine recently traveled to Sharana by road something you simply could not have done just a few short months ago. There is little question that the recent deployment of US Army units in the provinces around Kabul have made road travel in the Southeast much safer. When he arrived at FOB Sharana he interviewed several officers in detail about the local situation. It is unbelievably calm. There are now two maintenance battalions in Sharana and they are building that FOB up to be a second and third echelon maintenance facility. Last year, in preparation for significant expansion, the FOB sponsored a series of local workshops on the construction trades and then hired the graduates. The guys he talked with said they have not been attacked in over a year I didn’t’ believe that and spent hours poring over old reports and sure enough I found nothing on FOB Sharana going back to January 2008. That is one impressive accomplishment – if only we could now get some manuer units off that FOB and embeded into the local community we could very well start seeing light at the end of the Afghanistan tunnel.
Ever the pessimist I pointed out to my colleague that it is crazy to have your maintenance depot located in such a volatile area how are you going to evacuate broken armored vehicles over those roads from the south? Going through Zabul Province is still a drama and it pretty much always had been. Of course what the hell would we know about the planning that went into this but I tell you what. The more I think about it the more I like it. The reason why ISAF units are going to be able to evacuate critical vehicles and equipment to Sharana is that they have no choice. They have keep what is their most important MSR (main supply line in milspeak) wide open or else. This is actually a genius move because it forces every unit in the field to focus their attention and resources on opening and maintaining an MSR system which has been problematic since 2004. If it works if the military is able to routinely evacuate damaged equipment to Sharana from the south, southeast and east that would be one hell of an improvement for everyone on our side of the battle (the other side too for that matter but who cares about them?) Open roads mean the free flow of commerce and the tribe who can bring commerce to this strange land will be the strongest tribe. Damn if it does not look like that tribe may well be the Southeastern Afghanistan branch of the American Army.
But with the good comes the bad. On 8 April a Special Forces team conducted a raid at night in the village of Ali Daya which is 5 kilometers south of Khost City. As they prepared for an assault on their target they took fire from a neighboring compound. They did what they were trained to do attacking the source of fire and eliminating that threat. Unfortunately they had to quickly admit that the secondary target turned out to be a local family the wife, who was killed, was a well known teacher who worked at at the local girl’s school run by the British NGO Care. The compound belonged to a senior Afghan Army officer who was out in the field fighting the Taliban. There were two woman wounded, two more killed along with two men and a child.Here is something that I find amazing.I was in Kabul having just finished a marathon trip to Singapore when I started listening to a CNN report and I thought I was hearing things. It was one of the most informed exchanges about the situation in Afghanistan I have ever heard. Here is the not quite verbatim exchange as I remember it:
CNN Kabul reporter The Afghan people are getting very tired of the number of innocent civilians who continued to be killed. But far more are being killed by the Taliban than by ISAF.
CNN Anchor In the past rival tribal leaders would pass on intelligence to the military which was solid enough to be actionable but when we acted it would turn out that they had used us to target their enemies who had nothing to do with the Taliban. Is that still a problem?
CNN Kabul reporter Yes, and the bottom line is that people will support the side they feel will bring them security and protection.Right now there are some in Afghanistan who feel that we are not the ones who will bring them security.
Maybe it is me I do not pay much attention to CNN but that seemed to be an unusually balanced and I think accurate bit of reporting.I never heard anything like that during the prior administration. There is some change for you I guess- straight reporting by CNN of all organizations.
But here is the thing I find it hard to believe that we are unable to verify which families in a targeted village are clearly on our side and which are not. The woman who was killed was not only a prominent citizen but a very brave soul.Khost is a volatile place with a strong local Taliban presence. Female teachers take on a considerable amount of personal risk in areas where the Taliban are active and it is people like her we should bend over backwards to protect.The units who do these kinds of missions are not comprised of amateurs these guys are hard corps professionals who do not like to make mistakes.Somebody on high green-lighted that mission based on what had to be verified (as in not single source) intelligence.They may or may not have been going after a legitimate target but that is now irrelevant. My problem with this whole situation is that we should be able to verify who the hell is living in a targeted village just outside a main provincial city before we send the apex predators to sort them out.If the FOB in Khost City was doing the same thing the FOB in Sharana was doing they would have (in theory at least) the situational awareness built through relationships – to be able to do target confirmation using trusted locals.
ISAF was very quick this time to admit they had made a terrible mistake and take responsibility for it.That is smart and probably why the incident has disappeared from the local press.But we have got to stop doing this.I understand the constraints of operational security as a good general rule one wants to avoid alerting an enemy you are coming after him least he prepare an unpleasent surprise.But when our varsity SF comes after a high value target it really doesn’t matter too much if the average Taliban leader has been tipped off or not.If he is in the target area he is going to go down and there very little he can do to alter the outcome.There are UAV platforms overhead long before the assault teams move in.If the targeted compound is reinforced with fighters so what?There is a plan for that (think precision air delivered ordinance.)It is not likely the target will try to flee in a vehicle.Everyone is this country knows what a Predator is and a wanted man trying to escape a target by vehicle knows as soon as he is clear of the town Mr. Predator will get him, or maybe an A-10 who is loitering about with some stores to burn, or an AC 130, the end result is the same.As more troops come into the country and duplicate the reported success for FOB Sharana we should be able to leverage those relationships with the local population to help us prevent more incidents of this nature.We own the night and the skies in Afghanistan and should be taking the time and risks to confirm the occupants of targeted compounds, isolate them from the civilian population and then go in and take them down.When the hard boys hit these compounds if the occupants show any resistance, or their neighbors arm themselves and come running over to help their fates are sealed. Every compound in Southeastern Afghanistan will respond to armed intruders coming through the front gate, or climbing on their compound wall with a hail of AK 47 fire. We know this to be the case – it is time to incorporate that fact into the mission planning profile and make the appropriate adjustments.