Shem Bot and I rolled out to recon another tanker attack last Thursday. Atmospheric collection is continuous; to get a sense of the 5 W’s (who, what, when, where and why) we often do our own BDA (battle damage assessment.) I am most pleased to report that we do not believe the RPG mechanic had anything to do with this latest attack. Looks to be yet another fuel theft which is a booming business these days in Afghan.
I’m going to give you a story board on the fuel tankers while highlighting something that may be a nasty problem for the U.S. Army concerning battle of Wanat which occurred over a year ago in Nuristan Province.
Tomorrow’s Washington Post will contain an article titled “Army Brass Conduct Before Afghan Attack Is Questioned” by Greg Jaffe. Here is an extract from the article:
A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an Army historian are raising serious questions about the performance of Army commanders prior to an assault that killed nine U.S. soldiers at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan last July.
Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) said he has asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to conduct a formal examination of the Taliban assault and suggested that the Army may have mishandled an investigation of the incident. He also cited the flawed investigation into the death of Army Cpl. Pat Tillman, a well-known football player who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004.
“The manner in which the Army mishandled the aftermath of Pat Tillman’s tragic death raised serious questions about the integrity of some who held high positions in its leadership structure,” Webb, who saw intense combat as a Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, said in an e-mailed statement. “This incident raises similar questions. Its importance is not merely to provide lessons learned for future operations. It speaks directly about the Army’s ability to speak honestly to itself and to the American public.”
I have met Jim Webb and once saw him give a speech at the Naval Academy which antagonized a Clinton Defense Department official so badly I thought they were going to get into a fist fight right there on stage. He he is no shrinking violet and his interest in this matter is not a good sign for the Army.
Wanat was a minor disaster – the Army lost 9 killed and over 20 wounded out of a force of 42 soldiers and 3 Marines. The only thing which saved the day for these warriors was their own tenacious resistance. Tom Ricks has written extensively on the battle and even has a book out on it. I went back and looked at the intel reports we were receiving back then – primarily from the UN. Wanat is in Bargi Matal District which just fell to the gem smuggling branch of the Taliban last week. Here is a report on that district from the day before the battle for Wanat:
On 12 July, Nuristan Province, Bargi Matal District, unknown time, a group of AGE (approx 600 members) including foreigners has infiltrated into the area. The group is planning to take over the DAC and is currently engaged in an armed clash with the security forces in the area. The district authorities have requested the provincial government to send more reinforcement to help defend the DAC from the insurgents.
DAC stands for District Administrative Center which is the only area under government control in Bargi Matal.
One of the aspects in dispute from this battle is that the senior commanders were not paying attention to the situation in this remote province and sent too small a force on a mission which made little sense. These things happen in war – but it is always the cover up which causes problems and that is clearly what Senator Webb is focused on. One of the reasons the people in Bargi Matal were in no mood to host soldiers had to do with us killing all their doctors and nurses in one very stupid attack. Again I go back to UN reporting from a year ago:
The most notable incident during this reporting period was the killing of three INGO local staff members (along with approximately 13-18 other locals) and the wounding of a fourth by IMF on 4 July. The victims had been warned to evacuate the area by IMF ahead of an imminent operation and were in the process of departing the area when the incident occurred. The NGO staff was travelling in local transport when it was attacked by a helicopter. IMF claimed the victims were AOG, a claim that was subsequently proven incorrect. The security situation in Nuristan has deteriorated rapidly since Governor Nuristani’s removal from office due to his perceived ineffectiveness with dealing with AOG.
AOG = armed opposition groups and IMF = international military forces in UN reporting. This incident was a bad deal, no other way to describe it and the locals were in a state of high agitation about it too. Did you note the name of the Governor who had just been sacked by the Karzai government? Governor Nuristani who was obviously from Nuristan and, given the surname, a man of prominence. Want to bet the locals were steamed about that too? One has to wonder what the plan for Wanat was and why we would send troops there given the amount of bad juju happening in such a remote place. There are no American forces anywhere near this district today – it is now (and should always have been) a problem the Afghans have to deal with.
The Army apparently conducted a very weak investigation into this battle and then tried to put it sown the institutional rabbit hole by removing after action interviews from its Operational Leadership Interview series and issuing well deserved medals for bravery to surviving participants. It is not just ignoring the lessons from this unfortunate incident in question but how the Army fights the counterinsurgency battle. The senior Generals are defending their plan by claiming they were executing current COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine. Yet it appears they were doing the exact opposite. The troops manning these small combat outposts have limited to no meaningful contact with the local people. They’re too busy defending themselves.
Inspirational senior battle leaders are hard to come by. Qualities which the services value in peace time commanders do not always translate well to combat command especially in counterinsurgency warfare. I do not believe Senator Webb is after the brigade commander directly responsible for the deployment of a under equipped platoon to Wanat last July. I think he has much bigger fish to fry. Maybe some good will come of all this, but that is not normally how these things turn out.
Yesterday was one of those days which cause friends and family concern but which have little to no impact on myself, my workers, or the conflict in Afghanistan. There were multiple attacks in Gardez and Jalalabad which are the two cities in which I currently head work for cash projects. The suicide bomber who detonated himself outside of police station 1 in Gardez blew out the windows of my Gardez office which is across the street from the police station but fortunately my guys escaped unscathed. Once I determined we had everyone accounted for I sent terse messages instructing them to go get some damn pictures but they were not up for that saying the police would shoot them unless they a press pass. What a bunch of sissies; these guys are professional smugglers but can’t get me some damn pictures when I need them. The Shem Bot did little better when he went to evacuate his guys from their office which is about ¾ of a mile away from the Jalalabad Air Field. The Afghan Security Forces were still looking for a third active shooter and would not let him through their police cordon. Did the Bot get pictures of that? Nope; “left me camera at work mate” which is like saying the dog ate your homework.
Good help is hard to find but it must be harder for the bad guys because the two complex attacks which they tried to launch yesterday were poorly executed and amateurish. At the cost of eight suicide bombers they killed three NDS intelligence officers and three ANP police officers. That is positive math for attrition warfare enthusiasts; at this rate we will run out of Taliban by 2037 if we can just hold on that long.
Having spent time this morning walking the ground where the Jalalabad attack went down it is hard to come up with any rational thought process which would have put two suicide vest wearing riflemen and an RPG gunner on foot, walking up the busiest road in the region to attack the front gate of the Jalalabad airport. There was a VBIED discovered later in the day further down the road from the airport (not yet reported in the news) which was in an abandoned Alto sedan. It had ten 60mm mortar rounds, four 82mm mortar rounds and fifty pounds of additional explosives all rigged to explode with a typical VBIED trigger system. The vehicle was discovered hours after the attack but it is safe to conclude that it was going to be used in some coordinated manner with the three stooges who attacked up the busiest road in Eastern Afghanistan.
Bill Roggio has the best write up on the incidents and he links these two attacks with a series of assaults against government targets going all the way back to the January 2008 attack on the Sernea Hotel. None of those attacks were carried off in an adroit manner – one of the factors which must be remembered in the dog days ahead is that when it comes to actual fighting the Taliban are just not that good. How six of them were uncovered, wearing Burka’s no less, and gunned down outside of the government compound in Gardez is again perplexing.
There are exceptions of course, and one of them is the RPG mechanic who was working the upper Tangi Valley in Kabul Province last summer. He could put the English on an RPG grenade consistently scoring first round hits on fuel tankers running up the valley to Kabul. Looks like he has found a new hide in the eastern end of the Tangi Valley of Kabul Province. Tangi means dam in the Dari language so every province with a dam has a “Tangi Valley.” On the Jalalabad – Kabul road the Tangi valley feeds you into the town of Surobi which is what we would term a ‘contested area.” Last year there were a series of attacks on fuel tankers east of Surobi by an RPG gunner who was talented so we started calling him The Mechanic. He consistently scored first round hits from a hide in the mountains overlooking the road. Once he started hitting trucks frequently the number of trucks getting hit on the road rose dramatically. Know why? Good cover for fuel thieving which is a cottage industry in Afghanistan.
We hadn’t scene any activity from The Mechanic for many moons and thought the French might have bagged him because they’ve been hard on the Taliban since the ambush.
Last week the auntie of a local girl came from London to assist in her arranged wedding. The bride had little interest in the cousin to whom she had been engaged for the last 15 years but lots of interest in the boy next door so the English Auntie provided the age old remedy for situations like this; poison. It didn’t work but the Auntie made a clean getaway before her involvement was revealed and the young bride has gone missing as has the neighbor kid. The groom is reportedly recovering in Peshawar where the physicians have much experience treating this sort of problem. The crime of passion game is a dangerous one to play in Afghanistan. This kind of thing gets my local guys asking many many questions about us western folk. Tainted love is a bad deal everywhere but here the boys get the poisoning part but the concept of romantic love? That is confusing for them.
If you can’t think in real time you are worthless. That is a quote from a friend of mine who runs his own security company in Kabul. Thinking in real time is becoming a little difficult as we see instability and armed criminality rapidly spreading to parts of the country which were incident free for years. There was an attack last week on and ANA convoy driving the Kabul to Mazar-e-Sharif road. The last time there was an attack up there the the Afghan Army was fighting Soviets. The security situation in all the provinces is trending down; there are many more incidents occurring daily than are being reported. Staying on top of the local state of play has never been harder and to that we can add the upcoming elections which have the people’s attention. There was a helicopter shot down earlier this week in the south and the US Air Force lost an F-15E somewhere in the east of Afghanistan (probably means Kunar Province) and it appears that the crew was lost with the plane… bad news.
There is not much good to report from Afghanistan at the moment. With armed criminality reaching epidemic proportions there is a flood of stories about the dismal state of the Afghan National Police (ANP). The Afghan police are not just ineffective they are despised by rural people who will take the hard tyranny of the Taliban over being preyed upon by the police. This article puts the blame for Afghanistan’s dysfunctional police force on the Germans but that is BS. The Department of State has spent over 10 BILLION on their cookie cutter law enforcement training program which I have written about before. There is only one way to get the police to perform and that is to live with them, mentor them daily, and make them perform. Mentor teams who live on FOB’s and commute to the job become targets because their routine is fixed and predictable. The civilian contractors who work out of the gigantic regional training centers are inflicting death by PowerPoint on their students on subjects Afghan police will never use. What can they teach an Afghan cop about being an Afghan cop? Afghanistan cops are functioning as a paramilitary organization and are trained, armed and deployed as such. But some, perhaps a great many have retained the thuggish ways of warlord sponsored foot soldiers and that is obviously not too good.
The Marines continue to hold all the area they claimed in their massive operation and they too are finding the Afghan security forces to be their biggest problem. But the Marines are serious about staying and are putting out a continuous series of RFP’s (request for proposals) to jump start the build portion of their operation. I was just chatting with Michael Yon about the Marines on Skype last night. He is in Kabul and had been chin wagging with some European journalists who had just returned from a Marine embed. They could not say enough about how much they loved the Marines and how good they were to them and went out of their way to make things easier or more comfortable (very relative concept for Marines in the field). I occasionally pick up journalists at the Kabul airport and drop them off at Bagram Airbase for embeds with the Army. They all absolutely hate embedding with the Army because it is such a pain in the ass and they don’t get the attentive treatment the Marines are so good at providing. The Army should wise up on how they handle journalists – they have a story to tell too and the people back home would like to hear it. In fact here is a cool article about an Army patrol into no mans land and they should and could have more of this type of coverage if they would get a clue.
We had a road trip to Gardez last Thursday and was able to bring the Bot along. We were moving the payroll so bringing all my friends with guns seemed like a good idea. My counterpart from Kandahar Tim of Panjwayi also came along for the same reason and we flew into the airport at around 1300. Gardez is not a happy place these days. The police average 3 to 4 IED finds a day. They don’t report them but instead detonate them with rifle fire. There are frequent attacks on the airport which are also not reported. The pilots seemed to know because we flew over the airport at about 20,000 feet; they pointed the left wing at the runway and spiraled down in about three evolution’s coming over the runway still turning righting the plane and slamming down like we were landing on an aircraft carrier. We felt G- force pushing us into the seats and the three of us were giggling like school kids. Our Afghan manager Hamid wasn’t too happy about the landing and got a little sick which bugged the hell out of him. Being a little slow I failed to have the camera ready. Taking off was pretty cool too we skimmed at rooftop level over the city and then through a notch in the mountains before climbing like a fighter up above 20,000 feet.
The Gardez project is going well. The city is now cleaned up and we are about to kick off a massive phase II which will clean and rehabilitate all the fresh water canals and Karez systems. I have only around 300 workers doing the side canals and picking up garbage but apparently men came from 12 different districts and rented rooms to get on the project for 52 days of pay. Many of the men are ill-numerate and had to get friends to verify their pay as they have never had so much money in their hands at one time. My project is making a positive impact in a critically important area but without follow up it will amount to very little. If you sent in guys like us and our Afghan teams we could start massive cash for work projects ahead of a military operation and tie up thousands of local men with better pay than the Taliban can give them for much less work and risk. But we are not even close to that kind of thought process yet and it might not work anyway – we’d have to recon the area first to determine the feasibility. Worth a shot though and we’d take it if asked.
This is a good deal for the city, its people and the program participants but it is not a long term solution.
We have to come up with a new strategy – better yet and exit strategy for Afghanistan. We are spending billions yet achieving very little. We need to set reasonable goals – meet them and go. The Afghan police problem is a problem which the Afghans must solve – adding more anti corruption PowerPoint classes taught by western contractors who never leave their little FOB’s is producing poor results and it’s expensive. I would bet all the security incidents which are not getting reported are the result of a Kabul initiative to improve reporting because the European mentors there use written reporting as an important benchmark of success. I might be wrong but I bet I’m not.
There is still time to salvage this effort but we have to get off the FOB’s out of the body armor and start working directly with and in the cities and towns we were sent here to protect. It is cheaper and safer to embed directly into the communities than it is to commute to the job. We need to pick the districts and provinces we want to improve – get in them and do the projects and go home. There is no good reason to stay unless the Afghan government starts supporting our efforts and works with us like a partner instead of a client state.
This past Thursday (9 July) the three things which popped up on our local radar. There was an ANP (Afghan National Police) ambush which killed four police and dozens of civilians in Logar Province. Nuristan lost the Bargi Matal district when the Taliban flag went up over the District Administrative Center (DAC). And at 1412 local we had a one round Tinian shot into the American combat outpost (COP) located at the Sirkanay DAC which blew up all their fuel stores and half of their vehicles. These incidents are part of a disturbing set of storm clouds on the horizon; we are heading into heavy weather when the storm breaks we could start losing people and losing them fast.
The ANP ambush in Logar Province was noteworthy because it involved a ruse which added to the destructiveness of the bomb creating a very high body count. They bad guys tipped over a Jingo truck full of wood simulating a traffic accident ahead of a large convoy of ANP vehicles. A crowd gathered, wood is the most common fuel for both heating and cooking and is a valuable commodity in Afghanistan and locals will come for miles around if they think there is an arm load of wood to be had for free. When the ANP tried to navigate through this mess the bad guys blew the truck and it apparently contained tons of explosives. With the truck on its side the blast wave shoot out horizontally instead vertically like it would if the truck were upright. It also creates more shrapnel by throwing bits of the engine, transmission, undercarriage etc sideways. The civilians must have been standing on the undercarriage side of the truck which is why so many were killed. This incident an indicator that the bad guys are gaining proficiency at setting up ambushes. It is also typical that most of the casualties are civilians; it seems the Taliban can kill as many civilians as they like without incurring harsh denunciations from the current Afghan President or international press.
A Tinian Shot is an old sea story in the Marines used to describe a single lucky round which takes out something critical to the enemy. One story has it that the 75mm pack howitzer which was used to signal the landing craft to open fire as the first assault wave churned toward Tinian had the good fortune to see its signaling round disappear down an air shaft into a Japanese ammo dump. The term could also be referring to an impressive one shot kill by a U.S. Navy destroyer who caught a Japanese ship trying to slip away off the coast of Tinian. Whatever the origins if you can launch a single mortar round into a base and blow up half the vehicles and all the fuel that’s a Tinian shot. The bad guys in Kunar Province finally scored one on the American COP outside Sirkanay after six years of trying. Was it luck or skill? Who knows but it is bad karma stuff which portends nothing positive.
Then we have something not yet in the press and that is the loss of Bargi Matal district in Nuristan Province. The US Army has been pulling out of eastern Nuristan and had nobody in the area. This is a good thing in my humble opinion we have no business in Nuristan Province and should leave it for the Afghans to deal with. The fight for Bargi Matal was between the ANA and the Taliban (work for pay type Taliban in this case) and the fall of the DAC means the ANA cannot call for or control ISAF close air support. There is no way the Taliban can mass 300 men to take a DAC if our Tac Air is in the fight. Eight years into this war and we do not appear to have ISAF qualified close air support controllers in the Afghan Army. I could care less about the Bargi Matal district of Nuristan Province – it is controlled by gem smuggling syndicates comprised of Pashtun and Punjab families from the Pakistan side of the border. Gem merchants in Afghanistan are taxed at around 51% – in Peshawar 15% and on both sides of the border that percentage is reduced with proper bribes. Our forces cannot be everywhere and should focus on areas and people who want our help and the tribes of Nuristan do not. The Soviets were putting an Afghan Cosmonaut in space eight years into their Afghan adventure yet we cannot train up FAC’s?
Speaking of not good the Bot and I took a little Recee over the back way into Kabul; the bone jarring Latabad Pass. We have not used that route since the main road was repaired and Shem needed to look the route over for his company. It was in good shape and completely deserted. No security forces, no local traffic, nothing – all the way into Kabul. Not one checkpoint – we just drove through like we were in the desert of the American southwest. With all the concern over security during the elections it is hard to believe that the back route from Surobi to Kabul is wide open with no evidence of any security forces monitoring it.
There is a civilian surge of sorts which I understand is mostly going to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT’s). The PRT concept is a sound theory that is not paying the dividends required to keep this place under control. This article which concerns my local PRT is a good example of what I am talking about. Jalalabad is a moderately safe area with lots of internationals doing good deeds daily but we do not work or coordinate with the PRT. It is not that the people manning the PRT are the problem they aren’t and they want to get out and work. But their ability to do the mission is crippled by stringent force protection rules. Placing more civilians in these bases will do nothing to increase the amount of sorties or assistance. The constraint is the requirement for robust security detachments and MRAP seats and both those are impediments to providing meaningful aid.
Michael Yon has been in country and hanging out in remote Ghor Province and recently wrote a great piece . The Belmont club picked up on the post and Richard Hernandez (one of my personal favorites) wrote this comment:
“The current plan for Afghanistan campaign has implicitly assumed that the goal of creating a society able to resist al-Qaeda like groups can be reached with the time and resources available. There’s no reason to believe why this must be true beyond the assertion that it is. If Michael Yon’s insight is correct, then the assertion is not proved; and we may be trying to solve an problem of exponential complexity with a polynomial time algorithm; that is to say trying to attain a strategic goal unreachable by the tactical means at our disposal.”
We need a polynomial time algorithm to solve a problem of exponential complexity… I like the way it sounds which is why I read the Belmont Club first thing every morning. Michael’s observations are spot on; this is a big country full of people who have not concept of modernity. We do not have the time or resources to fix all that is broken the key is setting reasonable goals in critical areas where the people want our help and then leaving. Just say no to polynominal time algorithms they have no place in our strategic or tactical thinking.
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 and that 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.