Counterinsurgency 101

I do not think we have the will to really “win” a counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan. Winning means destroying the Taliban’s ability to excerpt control over the population. There are two ways to do that; by Annihilation of the fighting leadership (and most the rank and file) thus destroying their ability to resist or by Exhaustion which requires the patience to keep fighting until the Taliban tires of war. Exhaustion favors the strength of the Taliban and will not work which leaves the annihilation strategy.

Western armies are not capable of fighting battles of annihilation despite the proven effectiveness of the strategy. Sri Lanka used it to defeat the competent, aggressive and professional insurgents from the Tamil Tigers. We would not consider it because the politically correct military formations of western nations will not take the heat for killing on an industrial scale.  They will be  forced to consider the tactic when international Jihadist attack with a radiation bomb or a bio weapon. The west will not get serious about our war with radical Islam until they inflict another horrific mass casualty event.

Taliban demolition smugglers or low level black market types?

Taliban demolition smugglers or low level black market types?So we are stuck with a battle of exhaustion. We have been at it for eight years and we are the only ones getting exhausted. Nothing about the new “surge” plans seems to indicate a change in how we have been fighting this conflict to date. The Taliban are a movement born of from the Pashtun people and it is, to some extent, embedded inside the Pashtun culture. A simplistic “hearts and minds” approach ignores some basic realities about the Pashtun people best expressed in an excellent paper by Australian General Justin Kelly which I found from a link on a Belmont Club post.

“A hearts-and-minds approach is predicated on the proposition that we foreign, Western, culturally Christian, invaders can persuade a sizable proportion of the Pashtun population to cut themselves off from their cultural roots; subject themselves to an equally foreign and incomprehensible form of government resting largely on the customs of the tribes of pre-Roman Germany; and abandon their cultural birthright of unrivaled hegemony over “Pashtunistan”. To do this we offer some new buildings, some cash and more reliable electricity none of which have been important to them so far in their history. Attendant on these “inducements” of course is the removal of their ability to generate cash by farming poppies and the destruction of cultural mores the subjection of women and the application of traditional law for example that define them as a cultural group.

The evidence from Afghanistan today is that the bargain being offered is being rejected. Peace and prosperity are growing in those areas populated by ethnic minorities for whom the Afghan state provides a shield against Pashtun dominance but is being rejected in those areas in which Pashtuns are predominant. On this basis, “hearts and minds” is bad strategy because the willing acceptance by the Pashtuns, who are the soul of the insurgency, of the governance of a truly foreign state, parliamentary Afghanistan, is unattainable. Apart from it being highly unlikely to work it is also, however, bad strategy because it exposes rather than shields our critical vulnerabilities.”

The first step of any counterinsurgency campaign is to bring security to the population so that infrastructure can be developed. We have not been able to do this in the south, southeast, and eastern regions of Afghanistan. In the remainder of the country we conduct all operations (security and reconstruction) as if we were operating in a war zone. That costs us the respect of local peoples and a ton of money to pay western security contractors. There is no reason to purchase to end armored SUV’s and western security contractors to provide “security” in areas which we know to be secure.

Adding to that problem is our continued backing of a central government which is more a problem than a solution. That too costs us credibility in the eyes of the local people. That is why in my last post I advocated focusing on regional governing capacity, executing the current provincial reconstruction plans and going while leaving behind a robust military training and advising cadre.

American soldiers has been tipped off about a shipment of explosives coming across the Torkham Border crossing and were ready for it
American soldiers has been tipped off about a shipment of explosives coming across the Torkham Border crossing and were ready for it

Here is an example of a serious shortfall in our current approach to counterinsurgency fighting. The vehicle pictured above was stopped by the American army and Afghan border police at the Torkham border crossing. The army had been tipped off about a number of trucks bringing explosives across the border and this was one of them. The truck contained hundreds of pounds of Emulite, a commercial grade (5700m/sec burn rate) bulk emulsion explosive, nonelectric blasting caps, time-fuse and detonation cord. I can tell you with near certainty the explosives were headed to a black market dealer servicing road building or mining contractors.

That is a lot of Emulite which is a powerful commercial explosive - but it is worth much more on the construction black market than it would be if sold to a bomb making syndicate
That is a lot of Emulite which is a powerful commercial explosive – but it is worth much more on the construction black market than it would be if sold to a bomb making syndicate

Good industrial demolition material is impossible to buy and almost impossible to import into Afghanistan. Construction companies who didn’t do the math correctly when they ordered their demolitions will pay a king’s ransom for commercial explosives before taking the time and effort to import more. Requesting emergency authorization to import explosives brings the inevitable risk of daily performance penalties because the Afghan Government then knows you’re not blasting rock. I suspect the family in that Jingle Truck were from a marginalized smuggling tribe trying to break into the black market for construction grade demolition. Those are the kind of people who get dimmed out in Afghanistan. It’s always business – never personal.

But here is the point; Emulite is not the only explosive coming across the Torkham border; there are plenty of these coming across too.

ISAF armored vehicles do not stand up well to mines designed to take out a 60 ton main battle tank.   Note the date stamp – this was found yesterday on the main (still dirt) road to the Ghosta District Administrative Center – a route frequently traveled by American and Afghan military convoys.

The MK 7 anti tank mine is designed to kill tanks; our armored vehicles do not stand up to them well and it seems to me allowing even one across the border is unacceptable. We should have both drug and bomb detection dog teams on the border every day all day. That would take contractors because it would take a lot of dogs but you can set them up in a UN MOSS compliant compound for pennies on the dollar of what we spend on FOB bound units (both civilian and military.) But we don’t and it is impossible to believe that our inability to be proactive on that critical border crossing is not costing us in damaged vehicles and damaged personnel.

The MK 7 mine above was rigged to be command detonated but only with 100 meters of det cord so the trigger man would have had to be very close in to activate it. As I wrote here the best technique for detecting these types of mechanical ambushes is using local scouts on motorcycles. They are not heavy enough to detonate pressure plate triggers on anti tank mines and are able to poke around any areas which appear to offer cover or concealment to trigger men. Using local guys provides a certain amount of protection in insurgent plagued areas because they know the ground and the people.

We need to start thinking through in Afghanistan if we are to have any chance of leaving with our heads held high.

 

Adventures Outside the Wire

End of the Game
End of the Game

This blog post is a bit of a departure from FRI’s normal topics no embed reporting, no strategies on how to win the Global War on Terror (GWOT), no great empowerment projects (aka the Fablab) to talk of, but I hope you’ll find it interesting none the less.

 

Tim and I go back about 3 or so years beginning with our time together with a company called WSI (a bad experience for both of us) and then as partners in a Private security company – VSSA. For the lion share of my time I was based in Mazar-i-Sharif (Northern Afghanistan) working as a Security Coordinator, while Tim was based in Jalalabad doing identical work. Now that I am back in country (after a much needed hiatus in Australia) I find myself at the Taj catching up with Tim. Whilst I was sitting at the Taj bar Tim asked if he could source some photos for the FRI blog from my time in Northern Afghanistan. After viewing a few shots somehow I volunteered to write an article for him not sure how that happened!

 

It took me some time to think about a worthy subject to focus upon. During the thinking process I reminisced about the good times had in Afghanistan and how much fun was packed into the little downtime available. This somewhat pedestrian topic then grew a life of its own and became yet another example of the vast difference between risk adverse deployments / organizations and the more low profile operators / organizations who live and work outside the wire in Afghanistan. I suddenly had my topic!

Living and working within the Afghan community definitely gives you a better idea of the culture and the feel of the people toward you. What is amusing is talking with some International Military personnel on the various bases about living within the community. Normally when you tell them you live off base down town, their bottom jaw drops to the ground with shock. I guess their perception is that once outside the wire it’s certain death which is certainly not the case, demonstrated by the numerous internationals and organizations that continue to live in the community with few problems. This topic is something Tim has talked about on numerous occasions regarding having the military living off the bases and FOB’s and amongst the community, which I fully support.

Another topic Tim has raised is the ability to move through much of the country in a low profile manner. With the exception of areas along the Pakistan border and Southern Afghanistan much of the North and Northwest remains quite permissive. The biggest risk factor in these permissive environments is probably being the subject of criminality (after dark on the highways) or involved and hurt in a traffic accident. If you’ve ever experienced Afghan traffic you’ll immediately know why, and what I mean. For those new to Afghanistan the traffic can be both a disorientating and disconcerting experience. Seeing cars overtaking each other on blind corners with inches to spare while avoiding the goats, chickens, cows, handcarts, taxi’s, donkeys, donkey carts and camels sharing the same bit of road gives you some indication of the chaotic nature of Afghan traffic. It can be a little freaky at first, but like anything, you get use to it and over time actually start driving that way too! The best advice I can give is to drive yourself, and not to travel the highways at night.

An Afghan Buzkashi player with the Buz (carcass) riding toward the flag at this end of the Buzkashi field.  Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007
An Afghan Buzkashi player with the Buz (carcass) riding toward the flag at this end of the Buzkashi field. Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007

A couple of years back I bought a video camera along with a Digital SLR Camera to record my time and experiences in Afghanistan. I had done this specifically for family and friends in order to allay their concerns and fears about me being in a war zone. In those early years family and friends back home simply didn’t know what it was like on the ground in Afghanistan.  The mainstream media depicted car bombs going off, pitched gun battles with insurgents, and soldiers being killed on a regular basis. Although these things occurred, they weren’t a daily occurrence and rarely occurred in Northern Afghanistan where I was posted. However, family and friends back home thought these things were going on everywhere in Afghanistan mainly because of what they saw and heard in the media. So armed with my new cameras I set out to show the folks back home what life was like for me in my little world. In doing so I captured some fantastic photos and videos to share with them.

What triggered all this camera activity off arose from a question posed by my brother back home – What do you do for fun in Afghanistan?’ I answered his question at the time, but thought by showing him, along with other family and friends it would give them a better understanding of my Afghan experience.

Just being in Afghanistan is an event in itself and finding ways to entertain oneself was a popular downtime activity. There are no nightclubs, bars, movie theatres or shopping malls in Mazar-i-Sharif (in the western context anyway), so expatriates like myself made our own fun, which typically was on the weekends. Fun experiences consisted of visits to ancient ruins in Balkh District, trips to check out the drug fields (also in Balkh District), picnics, swimming, watching and participating in Buzkashi, eating at local restaurants and party’s/dinner party’s in each others guest houses. The running of the Mazar Social Club (MSC) was an important part of the weekend process that provided much needed expatriate interaction. Unlike the Taj Tiki Bar which is static, the MSC was basically a roving bar invited to various guesthouses for a night of dancing, drinking and merriment. Most MSC nights ended around 0300 hours and for a lot of those parties I was there to the end. I couldn’t help it because I was the chief barman and a member of the MSC organising committee. Still, people couldn’t believe I hung in there till the end because I’m a non-drinking. What they didn’t realise was that after my 4th Pepsi or Coke I couldn’t sleep due of all that caffeine racing through my veins. I typically stayed on till the end of the nights proceedings because I was high on Coke (the black Panadol type not that other version from South America). Another reason I stayed was for the sheer comedy, pure and simple it got funnier as people got drunker!

Welcome to the MSC Bar  Wodya want!!!!  The MSC (Welcoming) Committee minus the author who is taking the photograph circa Winter 2008.
Welcome to the MSC Bar Wodya want!!!! The MSC (Welcoming) Committee minus the author who is taking the photograph circa Winter 2008.

 

In 2007 I hooked up with an Aussie called Mat who was heading up the northern office for a European Union (EU) funded NGO at the time. I have to say Mat is one of the funniest dudes I’ve met he cracks me up all the time. With cameras in tow, I started recording our little outings. These recorded events morphed into a little video blog I put together called The Un-Named Adventure.’ It was called The Un-Named Adventure’ because basically I didn’t know what we were going to do before we did it purely spur of the moment stuff. Nothing was planned or scripted it just kind of unfolded at the time. It has a comedic thread throughout because 1. Mat cracks me up, and 2. I wanted it to be fairly light for the folks back home. This was a creative way to the further answer my brother’s question and outline what life was really like here in Afghanistan.

 

I am a little hesitant to release this material in the public domain. It’s one thing to just have family and friends looking at it, and a totally different animal when people you don’t know check it out. On the other hand I am quite curious to see other peoples take on our little adventures. Although I do have some misgivings I think showing these adventures will support my case that living outside the wire is the way to go in Afghanistan. I recall the adage – ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ so in this case I’m hoping moving pictures tell 10,000 words.

A word of warning, the show is politically incorrect and has some swearing in it, so if you are easily offended you probably won’t want to watch it. The key to the show though is not to take it seriously, we certainly don’t. Just take it for what it is pure comedic genius (I am biased)! We are fair though – we take the piss’ out of ourselves and those around us.

Buzkashi player at the end of a match.  Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007
Buzkashi player at the end of a match. Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan 2007

The two (2) Adventures I’d like to share are

 

1. Adventure # 3 – Buzkashi, and

2. Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare.

 

Adventure # 3 The Buzkashi Adventure. Mat and I attended this particular Buzkashi game in Mazar-i-Sharif circa 2007. For those who don’t know, Buzkashi is the Afghan National sport. The game originated in the Central Asian steppes and is normally played in the winter months. It involves horseman trying to get a headless calf, goat or sheep’s carcass around a flag at one end of the playing field and depositing it in a circle at the other end. Riders wear heavy clothing, specialised riding boots and headwear (usually ex-Russian Tank headwear) and use whips, both on the horses and each other. Rules are you can’t trip the horses, apart from that – anything else goes.

As outlined in this adventure our take on the game is it’s the Afghan NASCAR’ everyone comes along to see a crash and/or carnage.

 

Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare. I think you’ll just have to watch this one, it’s pretty self-explanatory.

 

There are many more Adventures produced of free ranging outside the wire, but I hope you enjoy the little selection of episodes linked to this article. I also hope this gives you who are not here a better understanding that it’s not all doom and gloom; you can live, work and have fun here. LIFE’S SHORT LIVE IT TO THE MAX!!!

 

If you lot out there like these samples I may post a couple more Adventures down the track.

James – Guest Blogger.

Is Obama’s plan a Surge or the same thing done better approach?

When a large bureaucracy like the Pentagon is faced with making a major decision regarding an issue as complex as Afghanistan experienced observers know they will see one of two approaches. The first (and by far rarest) option is a radical departure from current operational methods representing a new way forward. The way soldiers from the SBS and Delta handled the fight in Tora Bora during the opening month of the war on terror sorry I guess it is now “overseas contingency operations” is a good example. Faced with a complex battlefield containing armed factions of dubious loyalty and motivation they improvised using small units to maneuver firepower in place of the manpower they did not have.

Their solutions or “lessons learned” according to the unit commander, Dalton Fury, were not recorded in the Army after action system and they have been forgotten probably because taking a truly decentralized approach when deploying American fighting forces is completely alien to senior Colonels and General Officers. The second and by far most common approach from the Pentagon is to do “more of the same but do it faster and better.” That is what the generals tried to sell President Bush back when he sold the surge idea to them. And it appears that is what the generals or most probably the national security team have sold President Obama. It will fail. Dismally.

There has been only one document I have seen in the last three months which shows a clear coherent understanding of the situation in Afghanistan. It was written by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and can be found here. Congressman Rohrabacher is “speaking truth to power” when he writes;

“America then put its emphasis on establishing a central government based in Kabul as the dominant authority in Afghanistan, something no one – foreign or Afghan – has been able to do for centuries.

…A genuine commitment to decentralizing power and authority in Afghanistan is only part of the solution, but a critical one. This is difficult for military leaders, schooled in chains of command and top-down structure, to comprehend.”

The performance of our General Officer Corps in both Iraq and Afghanistan seems to back the good Congressman. They were not comfortable with and had to be forced into the decentralized operations which worked so well during the Iraq surge. They have been unwilling to operate in a decentralized manner in Afghanistan with the notable exception of the U. S. Marine Corps Special Purpose Task Force Afghanistan. That unit has repeatedly fought two to three hundred man Taliban formations with reinforced rifle platoons and beat them like a drum. They are now enjoying unrestricted freedom of movement and bringing security to the remote areas of Farah and Helmand Provinces. But there are only so many Marines the US Army, which continues to favor large isolated bases from which they can commute to the war, is clearly not inclined to operate in a similar fashion and our other allies do not have the ability (even those who have the will) to conduct full spectrum combined arms counterinsurgency warfare.

There are many reasons why this is so but until our allies get comfortable with the idea of very junior lieutenants and sergeants making the battlefield calls, committing their forces when and how they feel while controlling all air and ground delivered ordinance they will not be able to duplicate Marine success. And it takes years of dedicated specialized training to produce a military organization which has a bias for action and the ability to train junior officers and non commissioned officers well enough to be true battle leaders. Battlefield geometry, keeping your cool when things go wrong (as they always do) maneuvering men while controlling air delivered ordinance danger close that is not an easy day and it takes the right men who have the right training to pull off with any degree a flare or élan. More importantly it takes senior leaders with the moral courage and intestinal fortitude to step back and let the men of the ground fight. We do not have many senior leaders like that. Not many at all.

Defensive tactics which do not conform to counterinsurgency doctrine, are stupid, unsafe, and cause needles casualties. Here are three car loads of American soldiers in uniform driving like lunatics down the Jalalabad road in Kabul. They would be much safer if they spread out, mixed with civilian traffic and drove in a reasonable manner like us normal people do. But it is too much fun for these young men to speed around blocking traffic, forcing slow moving cars off the road, and being a general pain in the ass to the public at large. Not smart, not safe, not reasonable.
Defensive tactics which do not conform to counterinsurgency doctrine, are stupid, unsafe, and cause needles casualties. Here are three car loads of American soldiers in uniform driving like lunatics down the Jalalabad road in Kabul. They would be much safer if they spread out, mixed with civilian traffic and drove in a reasonable manner like us normal people do. But it is too much fun for these young men to speed around blocking traffic, forcing slow moving cars off the road, and being a general pain in the ass to the public at large. Not smart, not safe, not reasonable.

Large military formations are not only a hindrance to progress they are completely unnecessary. They seem to be part of a new strategy, hinted at but not so far reviled, of controlling the population centers and the main roads while attempting to bring redevelopment aid to the rural population. That my friends was the Soviet plan a plan that worked good enough for them to bring in about 80 times the redevelopment aid in their first eight years when compared to our bloated, inefficient, risk adverse efforts. I hear this from Afghans all the time by the way and I mean all the time – “why can’t the most powerful country on earth do a little better than the godless Soviets?” What can one say? I don’t know but I do know that there are hundreds thousands of unemployed young men in this country and each of them has only one goal in life and that is to get together enough money to get married. This is a powerful motivator in societies which strictly ban contact between men and woman unless they are direct family or married. These guys will go where the money is and right now the various Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) around the country are paying much better wages to those who will plant an IED or take a few shots at the infidels.

Now here is something interesting reportedly Joe Biden and “Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, who argued in closed-door meetings for a minimal strategy of stabilizing Afghanistan that one source described as a “lowest common denominator” approach.” According to the linked article (from Bill Gertz who is a complete and total stud in my book for the excellent books he has authored) “The Holbrooke-Petraeus-Clinton faction, according to the sources, prevailed. The result is expected to be a major, long-term military and civilian program to reinvent Afghanistan from one of the most backward, least developed nations to a relatively prosperous democratic state.”

I hate to say this but I am on Joe Biden’s side of the debate. The way forward is using small teams comprised of civilians and military living in fortified compounds an working with Afghan officials at the district, province and shura level. Using the classic inkblot approach we could set up multiple teams in districts where the shura’s have invited them to come and help. Pashtunwali cuts both ways and we could use that code to our advantage by getting the invite in and holding leaders accountable when bad things happen in their respective villages. Bad things will happen by the way and it is important that we demonstrate resolve and commitment when they do. The ability to operate, even in hostile areas, with small groups is something I have blogged about in the past here, here and here. We did it before in 2001 and need to do it again because it is effective and very cheap. Last time I checked the United States was pretty much broke so the cost thing should be important. But more importantly there is am imperative documented in our doctrine yet ignored by our senior military leaders and that is YOU CANNOT COMMUTE TO A COUNTERINSURGENCY.

That tactic exposes your forces to the IED threat costing you in men and material while you gain nothing, win nothing, bring nothing to the people we are supposed to be helping, in short you spend American blood for not tangible good reason at all and that my friends is a crime. Passive risk adverse tactics cost more blood than going aggressive just look at the Marines down south for validation but we are building more FOB’s and sending more “presence patrols” out to be ambushed and shot up by enemies they cannot see or understand because they are isolated from the people and don’t know a damn thing about anything outside their respective FOB’s.

The kind of approach I advocate could produce an acceptable endstate by its very design. Go into the districts, finish the irrigation, road and school work which has already been identified in Provincial plans, and go home. Continue with the effort to train the Afghan military and use the embedded trainers and their units as your localized react force and you have a plan which conforms to current counterinsurgency doctrine. Low footprint, effective, pennies on the dollar to what we currently spend to support all the people we have deployed here the vast majority of whom never leave the bases to which they are assigned.

But we are not doing that. We are bringing in more forces and placing them on FOB’s. There is an expected “surge” of civilian experts but civilians operating under Department of State or US Military security rules are isolated from the population and of little use they tend to hit the DFAC early and horde the pecan pie too which is completely unsat. I was shut out seven days in a row in Kabul on the pecan pie front and am bitter I don’t get to eat at DFAC’s much which is why I get a little carried away on this whole pie thing. It seems from reporting that we are bringing in experts to help the central government build its capacity to administer this fractious land. That’s a great goal but it is also more of the same. Supporting a central government which is clearly every bit as much of a problem for the average citizen of Afghanistan as the warlords/Taliban are is not going to work well for anyone except the companies who win the lucrative contracts to bring civilian “experts” over here. This “Civilian Surge” is supposed to include a ton of lawyers and judges. What the hell do American lawyers and judges know about Afghan legal practices?   From the perspective of an American patriot I can state unequivocally that:

– The lawyers and judges will have zero impact on the Afghan legal system.

– There will never be enough Taliban car bombs, IED’s or direct fire attacks around Kabul to weed out these damn lawyers while they are in a combat zone and vulnerable. (I know lawyer jokes are easy but they are also hard to resist sometimes.)

So if they will make exactly the same contribution their peers have made in the last 8 years (that would no contribution at all) and there is no chance of enough of the lawyers getting killed over here to reduce their numbers and parasitic impact on the American people why send them at all?

Here is a Turkish Army convoy heading into a FOB behind a convoy of French paratroopers. The Turks never drive fast, mix in with the local traffic and do not man turret guns in the capitol. The Afghan civilians like the Turks a lot and go out of their way to point out the difference between how the Turks operate when compared to American, British, and French forces. A head of this group were two truck loads of Norwegian Special Forces who travel like I do in unarmored local vehicles. If I had gotten a picture of them and posted it I suspect I'd be inundated by requests from young women to come intern with Free Range International. The guys looked like young Vikings and they should be out with us doing good deeds daily rather than forced to sortie for a large FOB
Here is a Turkish Army convoy heading into a FOB behind a convoy of French paratroopers. The Turks never drive fast, mix in with the local traffic and do not man turret guns in the capitol. The Afghan civilians like the Turks a lot and go out of their way to point out the difference between how the Turks operate when compared to American, British, and French forces. A head of this group were two truck loads of Norwegian Special Forces who travel like I do in unarmored local vehicles. If I had gotten a picture of them and posted it I suspect I’d be inundated by requests from young women to come intern with Free Range International. The guys looked like young Vikings and they should be out with us doing good deeds daily with us rather than forced to sortie out of a large FOB

Here is an original idea. Not that original actually I got the idea from Old Blue. We have many other nations joining us here under the flag of the International Security Forces Afghanistan (ISAF) flag. These allies include military formations from Muslim countries such as Turkey and the UAE. Why not break them down into Provincial level so that our Muslim allies can provide legal and governance guidance? Forget using American lawyers, or judges, or correctional officers who do not know a thing about this country or its people. Let some of our Muslim allies step up the plate and do some heavy lifting. But the Department of State already has programs to provide police, legal, and correctional training with mentorship to foreign nations. They do not required any original thinking or customization and can be implemented with little effort and supervision by our overworked State Department bureaucrats. That these programs have not produced one iota of positive change since they started several years ago is irrelevant (apparently) to our government.

Another important point these civ mil teams should have females attached. The reason for this is that women in Afghanistan wield significant power inside the family compound walls. They may not be able to go to the bazaar without a male relative but inside their home it is a different story. They will rat out the men folk in a heartbeat if they think they (the men) are doing stupid things. Now imagine this you’re a man sitting in your home and you tell your wife “Mohammad and I are going to go out tonight and set in some IED’s for cash.” How many of you men out there could say that and just screw off with your mates for the night? Think things are different here? Think again guys wives are wives and your average Afghan will pull this kind of stuff at his own peril. Because the wives will exact their revenge not directly mind you but indirectly. Last summer when Amy Sun and her MIT crew were here was the first time I realized how powerful women are in Afghan society. Now the San Diego Sister Cites program had brought over another young woman who has never been in a post conflict zone and you can find her blog here. I do not know her well and have no idea what she will do and experience during her visit but I know Afghanistan and she is in for a treat follow her blog she writes well and see for yourself. And remember she is demonstrating how freedom of action and the ability to interact with the local population in an unrestricted manner can bring rapid improvement and understanding with that population. We have doctrine which stresses this point but do not have commanders willing or able to execute that doctrine.

The newest Milblogger in Jalalabad
The newest Milblogger in Jalalabad

Here is an extract from this recent report about our new strategy in Afghanistan:

Most of the American reinforcements are being deployed to the south of the country, a Taliban stronghold that is one of the largest opium-producing regions in the world. U.S. and NATO officials believe that the drug trade provides the Taliban with billions of dollars each year.

The Obama administration hopes to undercut the Taliban by launching a new counter-narcotics offensive in the Helmand River Valley and other parts of southern Afghanistan. The mission will be the primary focus of the U.S. reinforcements.

Under one facet of the plan, U.S. or Afghan troops will first offer Afghan farmers free wheat seed to replace their crops that produce opium. If the farmers refuse, U.S. or Afghan personnel will burn their fields, and then again offer them free replacement seeds. A senior U.S. military official described the approach as a “carrot, stick, carrot” effort.

I assume this bit a strategic wisdom has been blessed by the new ambassador our first active duty general to become an ambassador who was here as the guy in charge years ago. Back when General Eikenberry assumed command in Afghanistan we could drive down to Kandahar with no problem. By the time he left that was a guaranteed fire fight unless you were embedded in a military convoy and many of them were getting attacked too. It is impossible to generate “change you can believe in” using the same people who have yet to demonstrate any original thinking on this complex problem. Carrot, stick, carrot my ass. That is stick, stick and more stick at the end of which the poor farmer sells his 9 y/o daughter for 500 bucks to give the rest of your family a chance to make it through the winter. Wheat seed who thinks up this kind of madness?

Here is another tip for the military that is going to have to implement this new “mo better” plan. An Afghan farmer with a poppy crop in the ground has gone into considerable debt to get that crop started. Destroying his fields will leave him with nothing. He will be forced to sell his children to get out from under his debt to the drug lords. The fields belonging to the rich and powerful have never been touched to date by the poppy eradication teams and they won’t under this new strategy because the Afghan government will not allow them to be touched. I know that the media says drugs are fueling the insurgency and they are certainly contributing but the real winners in the drug trade are the landowners who rent the lots, seed and fertilizer to share croppers.   Those land owners can be found in Kabul and Dubai as well as   Quetta and Peshawar.   Our government knows this heck even the main stream media is getting around to figuring this out too. The large majority of Taliban make their money on the transport and security portions of the pipeline which is chump change compared to the big bucks being made by the land owners.

So as the new surge rolls out the mandarins of Kabul are most pleased they will make millions providing (or leaning on the providers) secure isolated giant FOB’s. They will be able to skim millions from the completely ridiculous and ineffective police and legal “mentoring programs” which has already deployed thousands of European and American police officers to Kabul where they toil daily in a secure purpose built facility churning out paperwork and having absolutely no impact at all on the ability of the Afghan police to do their jobs. They will make tons of money knowing full well the programs they are skimming millions from will not produce anything for the average Afghan which will allow them to retain power. Change you can believe in? Right.

Combat Operator Podcast and the Civilian Surge for Afghanistan

I had a great interview with Jake Allen from the Combat Operator Ezine. He is just as talented on the radio as he is with the pen and it turns out we had met each other several years ago when his former rifle company commander Dave Furness and I dropped by his home in Salt Lake City. In the small world department I should be seeing the good Colonel tomorrow night when he swings through Kabul. Colonel Furness is irritating over two decades of infantry service, multiple combat tours, and he remains in perfect shape and looks like he’s about 37 years old. Smart as a whip, writes way better than I do, no bad back or trick knee or even good scars but a great friend and I could not be prouder seeing him doing so well. There was that kidney stone incident which (unfortunately for Dave) was witnessed by then Captain now Colonel Eric Mellinger acknowledged as one of the best comedic talent amongst our generation of infantry officers. That is a great story involving surprise, suspense, danger (Dave was driving when the stone hit) lots of bad language and a surprise ending. But you won’t get it from me if there is a Marine lurking out there looking for Mess Night material the FRI blog respects the USMC bashido code so you’ll have to look elsewhere. But it is a damn funny story and one which the good Colonel is most reluctant to tell.

Jake and I had wide ranging interview which touched on contractors and reconstruction a topic which is leading current news cycles. You can listen to the interview here. For those who are interested in the private security market you should bookmark Jake’s ezine he is an excellent writer and has a very astute read on the industry. Private security contracting is a growth industry and Jake covers the industry better than any other writer I know.

Afghanistan could use some civilian fire/rescue mentors with modern trucks and equipment.  Especially if they could call in medevac birds and use the excellent military trauma centers for serious auto accident victims.  That is the kind of operation which would generate nothing but goodwill from your average Afghan
Afghanistan could use some civilian fire/rescue mentors with modern trucks and equipment. Especially if they could call in medevac birds and use the excellent military trauma centers for serious auto accident victims. That is the kind of operation which would generate nothing but goodwill from your average Afghan

 

The “civilian surge” has been a topic getting much press as of late. There is little question that Afghanistan could benefit from a surge of civilian reconstruction types with the money and the ability to fund and supervise redevelopment projects. The question is will this “civilian surge” contain people who can do that. Judging from the feeding frenzy I am seeing in the private security market my guess is the answer is no. There are several large US AID prime contractors operating here and they all share similar traits. They have large corporate headquarters in Washington DC. They protect their field teams with expatriate security operatives and live in heavily fortified compounds which is consistent with the contracts they have been awarded. They have lots of corporate overhead to pay for. When they deploy teams into the Provinces it takes a ton of money. Because these are large corporations who are performing a very large contracts the management of money is very strict which I appreciate as a taxpayer but it slows everything down, especially on large complex projects.

I want to be clear about the fact that these companies are running good programs and are executing their assigned projects professionally. There is no question the people on the ground working for these companies are doing great work no question. The point is a ton of money for these projects goes into the front end and most of it is siphoned off before any comes out the receiving end. That fact which is a common complaint aired by Afghan politicians in the local press and thus a point not lost on the Afghan population is compounded with the lack of urgency and commitment with which aid is being delivered.

Work for cash programs can briefly employ massive amounts of manpower.  But it takes internationals in the districts to allow these programs to make a significant impact
Work for cash programs can briefly employ massive amounts of manpower. But it takes internationals in the districts to allow these programs to make a significant impact

 

As I have said many times before you can still travel throughout the majority of Afghanistan without elaborate security measures. Internationals can set up very secure living compounds using the United Nations Minimum Operational Security Standards (UN MOSS) for about half the cost of building a compound to meet the standards on US AID contracts. We need a surge of civilians but it should be a surge of armed contractors who are able to live in the communities with local security. I blogged about exactly that kind of program here and it is this type of cost effective reconstruction that will be effective because it allows capacity building in Afghan firms while keeping the majority of the reconstruction dollars in the Afghan economy.

I would take that concept one step further by saying we should also consider attaching teams of armed contractors directly to maneuver military units. They could represent one of several current US AID programs which are designed to fund and mentor small to medium Afghan businesses. That would instantly magnify the already considerable positive economic impact of the current Commanders Emergency Funds Program (CERP) by allowing a commander to turn to his civvie contractor team and say “I want to get the machinery in here to open this green marble quarry find a program that can fund it.” That would take one phone call right to the ops guy in Kabul for ASMED or one of the many other US AID programs set up to create Afghan enterprises and you’re funded. Working with US AID money is a pain due to the required accounting and reporting procedures but with a small staff embedded into the military you can manage the paperwork delivering aid and starting capitol with precision. And it is dirt cheap compared to how we are doing it now and better yet it would directly support the efforts of maneuver commanders who are on the ground and know much more about what is needed than their US AID or State counterparts in Kabul.

The French are getting better at moving through the constricted Mahipar Pass.  They are much more relaxed too as they have gotten very used to running this road which leads to Surobi
The French are getting better at moving through the constricted Mahipar Pass. They are much more relaxed too as they have gotten very used to running this road which leads to Surobi

 

Also mentioned in the podcast was a current shortage of weapons in the Kabul area. I was trying to find a good pistol for a friend and discovered that all the old sources are not selling any weapons at the moment. There are a hundred theories floating about concerning why this is the case I have my suspicions but don’t really know. What I can say with authority that it is not a positive sign. And then this pops up today in the media. Ten policemen and a district chief ambushed way up north in Jawzjan Province. There were some dusts ups in that province last summer between the police and armed fighters representing who knows but they didn’t amount to much with the ANP easily driving off their antagonists. The provincial chief of police says the Taliban were responsible and that he has also arrested four of the attackers. That is hard to believe so I put a call into the Bot but he’s in Mazar-e-Sharif which is completely locked down due to today’s New Years visit by the foreign ministers from Iran and Tajikistan. He’s not too sure Taliban would be poking around up there but is alarmed with the proficiency of the bad guys who did this one. Ten killed, four more wounded – that was an ambush conducted with a good degree of skillful planning and execution. We would hate to see that kind of stuff happening with any degree of regularity.

As I said the Bot is on lockdown but I’m not sure what that means. Here is more or less the end of our conversation.

Bot        “On lock down mate going to go on the piss with the boys”

Me        “how are you going to go on the piss if you’re locked down?”

Bot        “I’m not that locked down mate for God sakes man”

Me        “Oh then what does lockdown mean?”

Bot        “It means I’m going on the piss mate what’s the problem”

Me        “You know what I mean where is my Blog post?”

Bot        “Now you done it mate XXXXXX and further more mate here is another fact XXXXXXXXXX etc”

I can’t print the rest because then this post won’t get through my Dad’s net nanny which would precipitate a harsh email from him with foul language which somehow escapes his net nanny via the outlook program. Who knows how that works? For the hundreds who have asked the Shem Bot is fine and will post again once he has recovered from being “locked down.”

Northern Exposure Part Two

Over the last couple of weeks I have been conducting a Regional Security Assessment throughout the Northern Region. I approached this task with minimal planning as far as geographical objectives were concerned. Since it was conducted by myself and my driver only, I didn’t feel the need to generate a formal and extensive  plan. A vehicle, map, GPS, med kit, water, MRE’s,  overnight bag, and personal protection equipment was  satisfactory enough for me to hit the road.

Our journey began with the objective to reach Sherberghan City in Jowzjan Province approximately 140km west  from Mazar-e-Sharif  . One of my  aims was to try and organize a meeting with Gen. Dostum, however that plan didn’t work out  since he happened to be on an overseas visit at that point in time.   So, from Sheberghan we moved further west  toward Andkhoy, Faryab Province which is approximately 75km from Sheberghan. In  Andkhoy, I decided to  visit Aqena, the border crossing between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. Having  a poor quality map and not  knowing the  quality of the road, it was a stab in the dark.  Along the way I had my driver inquire about distances and other minor details, however the reports  came back  very conflicting (ranging from 30 minutes to 2 hours, good road, bad road). It took us approximately one and a half hours to reach the border. Once we reached Aqena, we encountered an Afghan Border Police Checkpoint (ABP CP) where the guards  looked rather surprised and a little confused as to why and what we were doing there.  This area does not receive much attention from the international community.  I thought it would be a good time  to seize the opportunity and  asked for a meeting with the Commander of the border crossing.

The Commander took us in  eagerly and even though the CP finished their lunch, like the  hospitality elsewhere in the country, he  delegated one of his guards to  make a lunch for my driver and I – fried eggs, vegetables, fresh bread and an endless supply of Chai. Over the short period of time we spent in Aqena, I conversed with the Commander about numerous issues ranging from the district situation to the upcoming elections.

the-bot-iii

Upon  the conclusion  of our impromptu  meeting, we decided to move back to Andkhoy, and since we had around an hour to pass, we would decide our next leg of the journey along the way. The move back from the border went a little faster and smoother since we were a little bit more familiar with the route. One thing that  we’ve noted along the journey back was the truck drivers’ nervous reaction  to an  SUV rapidly  approaching them at great speed from rear. This is due to this route (along with  other border crossing routes throughout the country) being subject to frequent  armed criminality. However, once we passed each truck, a wave and a smile was well received.

By mid afternoon we were back  in Andkhoy. The next leg of the journey was to head into the southern part  of the province  where the capital, Maymana is located, which is approximately 140 km south of Andhkoy. The trip was rather picturesque; the road in very good condition so speed was no problem. It took us approximately one hour to reach Maymana.  As we moved through southern Faryab, since it was too late in the day  to organize a proper meeting with any law enforcement chiefs, I thought it would be a good chance to speak with local commanders of various checkpoints, and verify certain information as well as  obtaining new information. Once we completed our rounds it was time to move back to Sheberghan in a race against the sunset.

The plan was for us to  stay in Sheberghan for the night, however, the guest house that was organized had little (if any)  security measures and I didn’t think it was worth taking a risk of staying there since Mazar-e-Sharif was only 140 km south.  The main danger for internationals in this region is being targeted by criminal gangs.  We did not know anyone in Sheberghan and could not get a good local assessment on security situation in general or our proposed guesthouse specifically, so I decided to push for Mazar in the dark. The main concern in this region whilst traveling after sunset is the chance of being halted by a rogue CP on the highway which is usually manned by armed criminals, especially in areas such as Chahar Bolak District of  Balkh Province. Other risks include being subject to crossfire when attacks on law enforcement facilities  are  being conducted by  Anti-Government Elements (AGE)/Taliban (TB) groups  along the highway, and these attacks, which were exceedingly rare prior to 2008 have been occurring with greater frequency along our intended route of travel.

Whilst passing through Chahar Bolak District, we encountered what appeared to look like two members of the Afghan National Police (ANP) standing on the road. We know this section of the route quite  well and had never seen a checkpoint in this area before. There is really only one response in a situation like this turning around and going back will expose you for several seconds well within rifle range as you’re turning (there are no fancy J turns on these crappy roads mate) it is best to hit the gas, get the weapon up and be ready to respond if the guys in the road attempt to bring their weapons to bear. Criminal gangs are known to wear ANP uniforms whilst performing their dastardly deeds which is a fact well known to the ANP who always run night time checkpoints in force with lots of ANP vehicles. The two men in front of us who were diving out of the way of my driver were definitely free lancing trouble makers.

Once this unknown CP was passed, we reached Mazar-e-Sharif safely without any further incidents.

the-bot-11

The next day we  proceeded  to Sar-e-Pul Province, which is  located approximately 200km from  Mazar-e-Sharif  in the southern part of the region.  From the Provincial capital, which is of the same name we moved out into the direction of Sangcharak and Gosfandi Districts in order to complete a reconnaissance on a route which leads back into Blakh province.

As  we moved into Sangcharak District, with the weather deteriorating we decided that the remainder of the route would have to be abandoned due to the wet conditions which would slow us down considerably and we would have been still on route in isolated areas which were prone to armed criminality and AGE/TB activity at times after dark. Hand in hand with that, a few days prior to our visit to the area an INGO vehicle containing three expatriates (one of whom was believed to be a reporter for Reuters) was halted and robbed by armed criminals.   Something  that  our friends from the international community have been failing to realize in recent months (especially in the Northern Region, where incidents are predominantly lower in comparison to the rest of the country) is that the days of moving around districts on secondary/isolated routes without adequate security measures  are coming rather abruptly to an end. This isn’t  a Taliban problem it is armed criminality which the Afghan security forces have proved unable to contain.

Following our decision to retreat, we made our way back to Mazar-e-Sharif. The remainder  mission will be resumed shortly.  Over these  two days alone (and there were a few others)  we covered approximately 1400 km along primary and  secondary routes,  calm, medium risk  as well as  hostile areas.  Bearing in mind that this task was executed by a two man team (a driver and a shooter)  – this is something I have come to terms with  whilst operating in Afghanistan. Although this  configuration may not be ideal, it proves that missions of such kind  can be achieved without  spending millions of dollars  annually on multiple expat operators and countless armored vehicles which end up doing nothing more along the routes but cause traffic jams and  dismay  toward the local population. As they say at FRI… “Low Profile = High Speed, Low Drag”! This  is exactly how this task was executed.

the-bot-ii1

In conclusion, I would have to say that the stance on security measures and operations  within Afghanistan  has always been of a  ‘reactive’ nature. And by stating this, I am  including the collective effort, military and civilian organizations combined.   As opposed to knee jerk reactions which are usually  a result of mitigating incidents well after they have occurred, a proactive posture can actually  be assumed and become an effective tool for achieving goals and missions.  This subject will be elaborated in  the next post.

Fab Surge Summary Part 2: Projects

Tim san really really wanted me to post our project descriptions for you readers even though I haven’t had enough time to them justice. (I’ve just returned from a very intense install / training / opening week in East Cleveland, Ohio where there was a more tense security presence than much of Afghanistan.)

One ton of machines and materials for the Jalalabad Fab Lab hit the ground in June 2008 and we’ve been busy transforming the pile of equipment into a living breathing community. We’ve accomplished a lot in 6 months, in addition to installing and configuring the machines, we’ve also started several projects with local users. That $40,000 I mentioned in the last post covered all of the below projects, plus a ton of work in infrastructure, groundwork, research and discussions.   What I find really great is all the projects described have been also been continued by Afghans after the international visitors left. Truly “teach a man to fish” stuff here.

T-Shirt Club

The t-shirt club makes custom shirts for profit. They use a computer drawing program and the internet for designs and a computer-controlled knife cutter to make the silk screen mask. Then they print the shirt (or anything) by hand. Club members use a computer spreadsheet to track their orders and cash ledger. In the first two weeks of operation, club members have already experienced business considerations such as pricing, cash accountability, stock management, quality control, delivery requirements and consequences, business goals and plans, scaling, and more.

In 14 days the club earned $142 “take home profit”, paid $19 in “use fees” to the FabLab and deposited $20 into the club account. (On day 15 the students received 6 more orders!) More than a week on and the club is still going strong with a small amount of remote mentoring. Club members are approximately 15-18 years old. More information on the T-shirt Club here.

The “use fee” paid to the FabLab is profoundly encouraging. The monthly burn rate at the lab is approximately $1200 – $1500 – and every single cent goes to directly Afghans in one way or another. A single club of 4 youth was able to generate almost 2% of those fees in their first two weeks by contributing only $1 per shirt… The market for custom T-shirts at $10 each is much bigger especially once these kids set up at the FOB and PRT bazaars. And the “use fee” from the FabFi and other projects have the potential to generate much more. It will take a while before the lab is fully self-sustainable but there is a reasonable path.

User Training (future clubs?)

Stamps, challenge coins, music boxes (in particular microcontroller-based circuits), Picocrickets and Scratch graphical game design and programming.

making stamps on the mini-mill
milling custom rubber stamps
challenge coins
casting custom challenge coins

FabFi : DIY Wireless

FabFi antenna hardware are completely made or sourced locally, the total cost is around $65-$75 in materials for each one depending on the size of the reflector. Reflectors “printed” in the lab are coupled with specially configured commercial access points / routers and can be used to make wireless high speed connections as far as 15 km away. Within the FabFi local network we’re achieving speeds of 4.5+ Mbps. And there’s nothing to stop the users from making more and expanding the network.

As of the end of January 2009, three main links were made: one to the school in our local village of Bagrami, one to the public hospital, and one to an NGO near to the hospital. To make the last two links, both in Jalalabad City center, we made a long-haul link to the water tower (the second highest structure in Jalalabad) then two downlinks fan out from the water tower. In addition to the technical achievement, the water/FabFi transmit tower is now a shared resource for all of the various organizations within the hospital. Since much of Jalalabad City can “see” the tower and are eager to also point downlink antennas at the FabFi, there is budding neighborhood pressure on the hospital to keep the resource working and serviced.

The FabLab freely shares its 2+Mbps down / 485kbps up Intelsat internet connection with anyone that connects to the FabFi network. All current sites are expected to fan out with more links; we’ve had Afghans working with us that are very close to being able to make and install future links. This will ultimately turn into a “FabFi Club” where members make money from making, installing, and maintaining the FabFi network. The prices, membership, and level of service have yet to be worked out. The design is open sourced, meaning that anyone can download the design and configuration files for free; club members would get paid for the service of actually buying the raw materials, constructing the antennas, configuring and installing the system, and so forth.


FabFi and GATR SatCom Antennas on Fab Lab Roof

More information on FabFi in Afghanistan here, including a FabFi 1.0 distribution download site.

Digital Pathology

20 years ago the pathology lab in the medical school was well known as one of the better labs in Asia. Today the lab looks exactly as it did 20 years ago… complete with 20 year old supplies and processes.

40X view
40X view
of sample
a sample slide on the microscope
a frozen section sample
on a digital microscope

How does technology (especially communication) change everything? With Dr. Mendoza from San Diego Sister Cities Association, we installed, integrated, and demonstrated a frozen section machine, digital microscope, and internet connection to obtain “real time” remote pathology consultations on a sample from a volunteer. See the full story here.

Local Copy of the Internet

A proxy server was installed between the Internet and the FabFi network. Much web content doesn’t change very quickly and a copy kept in country, synced only once in a while, means ridiculously fast “internet” and significantly eased load on the satellite link. This means that most of the traffic is only within the country. The current FabFi has 4.5Mbps bandwidth; the connection to the Internet is limited by the satellite bandwidth. (By the way, the “real” Internet works the same way, with copies of itself physically all over the world, but usually done by slightly more professional folks with bigger budgets for better server farms and power systems.) Right now the proxy server keeps a copy of anything anyone clicks on; in the near future we’ll mirror Wikipedia and other open educational and informational sources.

MIT Open CourseWare

Check out a long time MIT favorite: Prof Lewin
Check out a long time MIT favorite:
Prof Lewin demonstrating that the period
of a pendulum is independent of the mass
hanging from the pendulum in Lecture 10
of MIT 8.10: Physics I.

Every single undergraduate class and many of the graduate classes taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been painstakingly recorded, indexed, transcribed and compiled along with all the materials from the classes. You can watch any class just as if you were in the classroom. Free. And all of Open CourseWare is online in the FabFi network.

From anywhere in the world you can access MIT Open CourseWare; if you’re lucky enough to be connected to the FabFi network in Nangarhar Province you won’t have a wink of delay even with an entire classroom streaming the video courses.

Bagrami School Teacher Laptop Training

Approximately 9 teachers from the school in Bagrami wanted to learn basic computers. Teachers have been loaned OLPCs through the end of this semester so they can take the computers home to spend hands-on time with them. Ultimately these teachers’ students will have OLPCs or similar laptops and as the teachers learn to use the computers themselves, they are thinking about how they will integrate the availability of technology into their lesson plans. The teachers currently come to the FabLab to charge the laptops, connect to the internet, and use the printer (we hope in the near future they will also begin using the other Fab output devices). One teacher in particular is very good in English and has had about 2 weeks more of training from the FabFolk than the other teachers and is leading getting the other teachers involved. Most teachers involved are approximately 23-27 years old. More on the Bagrami teachers’ computer training here and the proposed FabLab/OLPC Bagrami field trial here.

Bagrami Online

The congruence of the FabFi network and teacher laptop training projects above naturally led to installing a FabFi connection at the school in our village of Bagrami. The headmaster and department of education have agreed to allow anyone to use the school rooms (and internet connection) outside of school hours. A wireless access point was installed at the Bagrami school and a small radius of houses nearby can also connect to the network without being inside the school walls. There is great interest in the small village of Bagrami (aproximately 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants) to extend the coverage across all of Bagrami. It is the children of Bagrami that are our constant students in the FabLab and so they are ideally poised to fabricate as many antennas as they wish. This is a village that does not have grid electricity or running water. Some residents share the cost of running a single generator, the others simply don’t have electricity. Ever. It’s funny to think that you could be lying in the sun on your mud roof enjoying faster net speeds than, well, me at my apartment in Cambridge, MA.

Naqibullah, with brothers and cousins in Bagrami discovering Wikipedia
discovering Wikipedia in Bagrami

In places like Bagrami, access to computers and the internet can be life-changing. Nekibulah’s brother, for instance, is interested in medicine but has absolutely no access to any information on the subject. A simple google search for “health” had him excited in no time at all, and I was glad to watch the attending group devour a page on woman’s health (including sexual health) without even batting an eyelash. In contrast to his brother, Nekibulah was more interested in information about Afghanistan and Islam. The tension between traditional cultural values / religious beliefs and the desire for the opportunities of western (for lack of a better term) society is palpable in these moments of discovery. “Are there Muslims in America?” “When you have a guest in your house would you have tea together?” (From Keith’s blog entry the day Bagrami link went online)

Online Lab Journal

It’s still not perfect or posted in the correct place, but we’ve got the teachers and lab assistant posting the daily lab journal online. (It’s supposed to be here but it’s probably in the stream here.) Management, finances, accountability, and responsibility, it’s all being developed wobbly and imperfectly in the open so you can see exactly what’s going on.

Weather Station (Almost) Online

If you go to weather.com and try to find weather for Jalalabad, you’ll get either Kabul or Peshawar weather, and neither are at all close or similar in weather. We installed a weather station – anemometer, temperature, barometer, etc. and had a blast teaching students about atmospheric sciences. Students from Bagrami are deeply connected to farming – they don’t need a gadget to predict the weather but the quantization of the data was world shifting. We realized too late that we don’t have the “special software” to gather the data and post it to something like weather.com, making Bagrami yet more connected with the world. We ran out of time to play with the system which has a serial interface and see if we can pipe the raw data directly into a FabFi router. For now, FabLab users carefully record the temperature and conditions in a journal and are learning how to track and graph the data.

Have you really made it all the way down to here? I’m still plodding through our photos and videos and I wish I was ready with an album to give you a taste of how exciting and vibrant the region as well as our students are — really quite opposite than what you might see on TV.

Interested in helping? We need everything from back end geek work to front end install / maintenance work, curriculum and teaching, small business mentoring, plus other specialist knowledge in pretty much anything that can be useful in Bagrami and beyond that can be enabled or enhanced with technology. If you’re good at something, I can probably use the help.

Afghanistan as Vietnam

I am wrapping up my time in Kabul and getting ready to press embed with the Marines down south in early March. I am currently working on something I cannot blog about and it is boring. Inshallah I’ll have a story to tell soon in the meantime I have been catching up on some reading (when the net works here) during my downtime. I recently came across a Men’s Journal article written by Robert Young Pelton (RYP) on his brief embed with a Human Terrain Team. Mr. Pelton’s article was neither positive nor accurate and completely lacked the ring of authenticity. Old Blue over at Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghanistan Adventure was the first off the mark questioning the factual content of Pelton’s article and he took it apart with his usual humor and sharp insight.

Amazingly RYP responded to Old Blue on his blog and other blogs and then engaged Old Blue in a direct email exchange where he threatened Blue with retribution from on high. That is called playing a weak hand where I come from normally a stunt pulled by a weak man. Blue was kind enough to forward me the correspondence and ask for my humble opinion on the matter. I spent the better part of a day reading various blog postings and related articles and I got a strong sense of déjà-vu. Then it hit me; Pelton was trying to come up with a Vietnam tale. This was his first installment of the Afghanistan version of Dispatches.

My Dad and three of my four uncles were career Marines like me infantry officers and there was seldom a time during the Vietnam conflict when one or more of them was not deployed in harm’s way. I have read everything I could about Vietnam since childhood and remember when Michael Herr’s Dispatches was published in the late 70’s. Dispatches is a travel log of sorts where the reader gets to hear the personal stories of the forgotten men at the front. The stories were typical of that period the generals were liars and clueless, the troops just wandered around the jungle not knowing where they were going or why they were there, they hated their officer’s and senior NCO’s, they committed atrocities and one of the front line grunts in the book carried a bag of severed ears with him. All the “cool kids” (fellow journalists) got together for dope smoking sessions and talked with authority about what was really going on because they were out and about covering the action and knew the real score. The military brass hung out in Saigon doing nothing constructive except for concocting lies to tell the press at the infamous five O’clock follies (the nightly press briefing in Saigon.) Some of the material in Dispatches was used in films like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. Michael Herr and his fellow journalist defined the Vietnam generation in our collective consciousness and stuck them with a reputation that they did not earn and did not rate.

I liked Dispatches when it came out because I thought it was an authentic account of “real war.” I was also 18 at the time and not the brightest 18 year old you have ever seen either. I have since spent 22 years in the military as both commissioned officer and an enlisted man and now recognize Herr’s book for what it is. Fiction. Philip Caputo a soldier/author who served in Vietnam (Army infantry I think) is on record with this quote “Herr has told me, and he’s told other people, ‘I’ve made a lot of that shit up.’ But out of real stuff.”

Let me ask you dear reader, a question. How many Army general officers do you think ride around Afghanistan in “skull adorned black painted hot-rodded Blackhawks?” YeahI’m betting on zero too. Where does such imagery come from? It comes from movies about Vietnam. I say that knowing full well that Old Blue has posted an apology to RYP on his blog acknowledging that he was sent a picture by RYP of a Blackhawk helicopter with a faded grim reaper type illustration on the rear of the right engine nacelle. Big deal that is a long way from hot-rodded black rotary birds with skulls painted on them. Blue was keeping his word as a real man does by posting that mea culpa but we all know what he saw in the picture and what Pelton describes in his story are two different things. But good on you Blue for being a man of your word (as if guys like him would have it any other way.)

There was nothing remotely “authentic” about the classic Vietnam movies (with the exception of the Marine Boot Camp portion of Full Metal Jacket) and many now know they did a disservice to the men who had fought and died in that conflict. I know their depictions of haunted veterans who were unable to cope were absolute nonsense my Dad, all my friends Dad’s, as well as all the Dad’s of my High School classmates had served multiple tours in Vietnam. They had none of the typical symptoms of PTSD, they were not substance abusers, they were not haunted gilt ridden losers. They were and continue to be highly functioning reputable members of their communities. The book Stolen Valor is one of the best on this topic ever written and documents exactly where the common perception of Vietnam Vet as dehumanized, barely functioning, drug addled loser came from. It came from Hollywood and writers like Michael Herr. This is the legacy Pelton is reaching for in his hatchet job on the Bagram Human Terrain Team.

RYP is trying to sell a tired old Vietnam era song about Americans at war and he is wrong. I enlisted the military in 1979 the same year our president said he was thinking of enlisting because the military was such a proud organization full of quality people. Back in 1979 that was not the case which is why I know (at least on this topic) that President Obama was passing on contemporary democrat talking points. Another word for that is “telling a bald face lie” but who cares? President Obama’s fibbing on this subject pales in comparison with Hilary’s bizarre war stories or Biden’s blatant plagiarism of a British politician’s life story. Sorry the “stimulus Bill” saga has fouled my mood and I digress.

In 1979 the military was recovering from the debacle of Vietnam and had serious race, drug, and morale issues. I joined in 1979 because I had run out of viable options and needed to get out of the house. It turned out to be a brilliant move but at the time it was demoralizing at least in my case it was. The military did not start to recover and then transform itself into the organization we know and love today until the early 80’s and that transformation started with a zero tolerance drug policy. It was also aided by a gigantic pay raise and a new mandate for professionalism made by Ronald Regan. Under President Regan the military completed its stunning transformation into the most professional Armed Forces the world has ever seen.

I am a rather harsh critic of our efforts in Afghanistan. I have written repeatedly on the topic of risk aversion and how that drives our tactics costing us momentum. I remain convinced that we will take more casualties by trying to avoid them then if we followed our own counterinsurgency doctrine and got off the big FOB’s. But I have seen no indication on the bases I have visited (and I have been on a lot of them) that today’s military is in any way similar to the force I joined back in 1979. General officers are not frivolous people who fly around the battle space dropping in on combat outposts for a five minute grip and grin. Lieutenants assigned to Human Terrain Teams are trying to adapt scientific theory into action in the midst of the most complicated environment any military has ever operated in before. Lt Jones, it seems to me, demonstrates initiative and enthusiasm for his difficult task well above the norm. The officers and troops living outside the main FOB’s are not clueless draftees counting down the days until they fly home on the “freedom bird.” They are mission focused and when they bitch the topic is normally about being able to do their jobs better by being allowed greater freedom of action and movement.

I do not agree with current “force protection” policies and what appears to me to be an addiction to high technology solutions for tactical problems. But I understand where this mind set comes from. The military does not like losing its men or woman in combat. They are also terrified of inadvertently offending local sensibilities by allowing the American military outside of the bases and into the local bazaars with the people. When you see the number of blond and red headed children in Jalalabad (a Soviet Army R&R base was located there back in the day) you can understand why senior commanders are worried.

The American media is not going follow RYP’s lead and try to play “got ya” with the Pentagon in the near future. They have invested too much getting Barrack Obama elected to try to shoe horn Afghanistan into their Vietnam template. The main stream media also has an access problem in Afghanistan. It is possible to travel throughout most of this country without elaborate security measures but I do not know of any media organization who has figured out how to do it. Quite a few reporters were kidnapped in Afghanistan last year while trying to get out on their own to develop their stories. Afghanistan is a dangerous place where you really need to know what you are doing if you’re going to move outside the main cities. But it can be done and there are thousands of internationals in this country who live and work outside the wire with the Afghans daily to prove that point. The press has not broken the code on that and until they do their ability to deliver independent analysis will be minimal.

But there are guys like Pelton out there who are chasing little specks of Pulitzer dust and they know exactly the tone and tenor of the stories they need to write in order to achieve their goal. They are not going to be successful due to our military men and woman who are now able to enter the debate via the World Wide Web. Read Old Blue’s blog it is there you will find honest, pointed, at times even harsh criticism of how this war is being prosecuted. He is one voice in a sea of thousands of active duty mil bloggers who are not going to back down because some “jurno” threatens them. They also know more, explain more, and are funnier than RYP.

And there are guys like me and The Bot who are from the military, understand the military, understand Afghanistan, its people, culture and language, who are way outside the wire. We have the backs of our milblogging brothers and sisters in arms. I am absolutely disgusted at how Pelton depicted Lt. Jones in his article. It is the kind of yellow journalism which makes the blood boil. Gratuitous insults while depicting a young officer working a difficult, poorly defined billet is beneath contempt. It added nothing to the overall story line serving only to make Pelton look like a grade A number 1 asshole.

Pelton – if you want to be this war’s Michael Herr you need to get out like we do to get an understanding of this complex, dangerous, confusing situation the international military and aid agencies face here daily. Until you put in the time and effort that Old Blue or bloggers like I have you’ll have no voice and no real impact. Stop taking the easy way out you jerk.

I mentioned The Bot above because that knucklehead is two blog posts in arrears. He promised to cover me during my current gig and I’m now resorting to calling him out on the FRI blog. The Bot has been conducting a survey of all the Northern Provinces with just his driver as escort. I saw him briefly 10 days ago in Kabul and was disgusted to observe his Dari is almost fluent again. My Pashto is still pretty basic and I forgot most of my Dari but the Bot seems to pick this stuff up with little effort at all. Frigging annoying if you ask me. A little help in the comments section to motivate The Bot would be appreciated. He has fascinating tales to tell from the North which is becoming more dangerous and volatile. He doesn’t have too much good news but he does have fair and accurate news which is getting harder and harder to come by these days.

Observations on Kabul and the private security market

Private security contractors have been in news lately mostly due to the ongoing Blackwater saga from Iraq. Afghanistan has had its share of security contractor issues too but the market has never been as big or as wild as the Iraq PSC market. I cannot comment on Blackwater’s operations in Iraq but do know a few of their contractors working Afghanistan. They seem to be above average in the quality department and better yet (the ones I know) are on interesting contracts. The Blackwater country director is a former FBI agent who has been in Afghanistan a couple of years longer than I have. He is unquestionably one of the most knowledgeable Americans on Afghanistan and the current administration should spend time talking with him.   Given the time he has spent in -country combined with the breadth of projects he has supervised there are few Americans who have is insight. The problem contractors in this country come in two flavors, local companies that are unable to perform and companies spawned by former Department of State officals or closely tied to US prime contractors.   USPI, a Texas based company with all its corporate officers now under federal indictment is one example. The defunct, transparently corrupt World Services International (WSI) headed by   Henry Wilkins is another.

The Afghan Army is trying to drive around like their American mentors
The Afghan Army is trying to drive around like their American mentors but Afghan drivers will not give way knowing the soldiers will not shoot at them

I have only seen a group of wild international contractors, rifles pointed out all windows, screaming through downtown traffic like the more extreme Iraq crews, once and that was over two years ago. The international firms operating here are staffed with expats who, as a rule, have extensive in-country experience. They tend to move, some in hardened vehicles and some not, blended in with local traffic and obeying local traffic laws. That last remark is a joke there are no real traffic laws in Afghanistan just a number of unwritten rules revolving around perceived position vis a vis the bumper or quarter panel area of adjacent vehicles.

ISAF troops making an illegal U turn and menacing all Afghans around while
ISAF troops making a U turn in downtown Kabul and menacing all Afghans around them while doing so. We have been in Kabul for 8 years and one would think that maybe we could come up with better techniques

The good companies would sack international consultants immediately for conducting convoy operations which were out of sync with the local traffic. But there are convoys of large armored SUV’s which do drive at break neck speed around town aggressively blocking traffic, hitting vehicles which do not get out of the way fast enough, and being a general pain in the ass for all law abiding motorist and they belong to the United States Army. For the life of me I cannot figure out why it is that they continue to operate in Kabul as if they were on Route Irish back in 2005.

Kabul had changed dramatically since I moved to Jalalabad 14 months ago. The tension in the city is palatable. Old Afghan friends who were brimming with optimism back in 2005 no longer smile much or joke about when they too will visit Disney World in America. Mil blogger David Tate has a great post on being back in Kabul after a four year absence and he also has several posts detailing the misery of trying to move around the country as a reporter embedded with the military. I do not know David but find his observations spot on.

I awake every morning to the sound of multiple sirens peeling through the pre dawn chill. That is the newest technique of the American Army loud sirens to help alert traffic ahead to move out of the way. I hear those sirens all day long because both international and American military traffic has increased at least 10 fold in the past year. Convoy after convoy after convoy line the Jalalabad and airport roads all of them pointing guns at every vehicle or person who comes to close, all of them forcing traffic off the road in front of them, all of them looking every bit as stupid here as they would driving through Washington DC in a similar manner. Except now they have an abundance of SUV’s to add in the mix.

The other day I saw one of these SUV convoy’s (at least 8 vehicles) and in the middle was a large Expedition with an American flag placard in the left windshield and the two star placard of an American Major General in the right of the windshield. Is it me or is that not the most stupid thing you have ever heard? I am the son of a two star general I have very close friends who are about 5 years away from becoming two star generals. I know generals and guess what?   They exist on a bell shape curve just like the rest of us. On the front end of the curve are generals like Mattis, Kelly and Allen (John Allen is probably the least known best general officer serving in the military today Inshallah he will gain more prominence in the near future) at the back end of the curve are generals nobody has heard of or knows much about but who wreak havoc on the morale of their subordinates. Somewhere near the back end is the idiot riding around Kabul today with a flag placard on his SUV to remind one and all that he is an important man.   I hasten to add that my father was on the forward slope of the general officer curve too (having just been threatened by my Step Mom for ignoring this salient fact) despite his irrepressible sense of humor which will normally arouse suspicion from dour political appointees on high.

This is good to see - new armored SUV's with firing ports.  The staff officers
This is good to see - new armored SUV's with firing ports. The staff officers in Kabul don't need these - ETT's do. Only is the south is the threat capable enough to warrant the use of infantry fighting vehicles

To what lengths do you think the Taliban (and their many associates) would go to kill an American General Officer? If my son had been tasked to be on this Major General’s PSD detail I would be tempted to deliver a stunning blow with the old clue bat   just on general principal. There is not that much risk to armored SUV’s in Kabul but that is no reason to increase it dramatically by advertising that a general officer is contained therein.

We are supposed to bringing security and infrastructure to the people of Afghanistan. Yet when our military interacts with the people they do so at the point of a gun with full body armor, helmet, ballistic glasses, nomex special purpose fighting gloves (I have a pair myself because they do look cool,) ear plugs, etc And do you know what the people of Afghanistan think? They think our military men and woman are cowards. When the Soviets were here their troops would go out on the town after duty hours (unarmed) to patronize local restaurants, stores, tea houses, and bars. In Kabul, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e-Sharif the international community does just that today. The French restaurant in Kabul is the single largest taxpayer in the country that is how busy it is packed every night of the week save Sunday.   You will see senior military types there drinking occasionally despite the ban on alcohol consumption by American forces. But the rank and file are restricted to large FOB’s and subjected to morale crushing micro management by a legion of senior SNCO’s and officers who all need to immediately give up the pecan pie and hit the gym. That last remark may sound a little snippy but I have struck out my last three times at an American DFAC on the pecan pie front so I’m lashing out a bit.   I love pecan pie but never seem to make it into the DFAC early enough to score a slice.

I am starting to sound like a broken record and will end my critique of American convoy procedures with this observation if the current practice had once, ever, in the history of the Afghan conflict, worked at detecting a VBIED soon enough to engage it and prevent it from ramming our troops I would never bring the subject up.   The only time a VBIED was detected and engaged before it struck friendly forces occurred last month in Kandahar but the Canadian troops involved were dismounted and it therefore is not a valid example of our force protection posture actually protecting our forces.

We have killed hundreds of innocent Afghans (and three internationals) because nervous, poorly trained soldiers thought that Afghans driving like normal Afghans (which would seem chaotic to the point of madness to the average international) were instead suicide bombers. Our troops would be much safer allowing the local traffic to mix in with them, getting used to the lunacy that is normal Afghan driving and concentrating on spotting vehicles displaying the classic “rule of opposites” signature which is used to sort out potential threats based on unusual behavior.

I would also like to add that all these armored SUV’s being sent into Kabul should be serviced, stuffed with a dozen pecan pies, and given to the Embedded Training Teams (ETT’s) who are out with the people in the districts doing the real counterinsurgency work. As is always the case in war it is the raggedy assed infantry doing the fighting at the front and getting the least when it comes to vehicles and pecan pie. They currently have old worn out armored Hummers and complain bitterly that the Taliban, local criminals, and even teenage boys in donkey carts can outrun them in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The good gear and good rides should be given to the guys in the front who know how to use them without pissing off every Afghan citizen they come in contact with.

A friend leant me his shortie upper with the super cool pig snout suppressor
A friend lent me his shortie upper with the super cool pig snout flash suppressor to use on the PSD gig I am currently working. It is a vortex design which kicks all the gas and most of the noise out in front of the weapon. A standard bird cage suppressor will give both shooter and driver a vicious headache if you have to shoot from inside a vehicle which is the most common scenario for contractors in Afghanistan

I am in Kabul filling in for the month for a friend who is home on leave. I’m working for one of the larger security companies as a “shooter” on a PSD team which is looking after business developers from the largest American firm working in Afghanistan. My co-workers (both Afghan and international) are fit, well trained, and very competent. My duties consist of escorting men around three or four offices in Kabul. Most of the people we escort have been here a long time. After working hours they jump in to unarmored beaters like mine to hit the town for a little night life. I have not asked but suspect all of them will tell you that having the lavish security they currently enjoy is overkill in Kabul. But what we think doesn’t matter the fact is that they are operating under contract from the US State Department and must conform to the security regulations in those contracts and the State Department requires their prime contractors to operate this way.

Your tax dollars at work - this is just one of many 600 man camps built by American
Your tax dollars at work - this is just one of many 600 man camps built by American contractors and filled with brand new Ford armored trucks. Even the UN is not this lavish in their pursuit of first class health and comfort. We were supposed to spend billions helping the Afghans but what they got was this - a place where Afghans are not allowed to work or loiter.

Is it stupid? You bet. Is it necessary? Absolutely not and today’s multiple small arm/suicide bomber attack in Kabul doesn’t change my assessment one bit. Is this your government at work? It sure is (if you are American) and the excessive secutiy driven overhead costs is the symptom of a large government machine which is not really serious about the mission in Afghanistan.     Next time you see money being thrown around without serious thought or purpose behind it will be when the democrats inflict their new “stimulis” bill upon the people of America.   I understand you have to be employed by a K Street lobbying firm to read a copy so who knows what the hell is in this damn bill.

Do you know what a National Coordinator of Health Information Technology is? Better learn quickly if you’re American because that is who is going to dictate to your doctor what he or she can or cannot do when treating you and your family. As noted in my last post even the UN is doing a better job at reconstruction in Afghanistan than our federal governmental agencies. But wait you say, “I thought the UN placed their personal health and comfort at the very top of their list of priorities.” Well, that is exactly the case the UN has not changed and they do spend a lion’s share of their money of their own health and comfortand yet they are still operating in Afghanistan for pennies on the dollar when compared to the official US Government agencies.

The people of Afghanistan are waiting for a little change they can believe in and it looks to be a very very long wait.

Fab Surge Summary Part 1 : Value = (Cost)^-1

Tim’s been bugging me to write a summary post for all you readers wondering what became of us.   (Most of us are all the way home now and struggling to catch up on sleep while making an appearance at our “day jobs”.)   In short, we accomplished an awful lot and collectively recorded about 250GBs of photos and 30 hours of high def video – which has made it impossible to write a “short summary”.     Tim would want me to point out that it hasn’t cost the tax paying citizens of any country a single dime/rand/quid/eyrir.

PART 1: A $400,000,000 $40,000 SURGE

On our last full day we alternated among frantically finishing projects, collecting stuff for the trip home, and seeing more stuff. We’re all a little sad to leave, there’s so much to do, could do. The guesthouse was bursting at the seams, and even though some of the FabFolk were stuffed three to a room, that, in and of itself made it fun. It’s like camp for grown up little geeks.

 

We've chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our "Hundred Dollar Laptop"s with built-in Pashto keyboards... while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.
We’ve chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our “Hundred Dollar Laptop”s with built-in Pashto keyboards… while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.

The financial load was pretty hefty for a bunch of unemployed / students. I’m often asked to post our costs but I’ve been resisting for several reasons, the most of which is that I don’t want to seem like we’re complaining about our travel costs. We’d much rather see contributions going directly to FabLab users and infrastructure.

To bring the FabFi and other projects to the state it’s at, we’ve spent a total of about $40,000 where the bulk of that is travel costs across two trips (one in November and one in January).

Materials costs for three links were well under $1000:

  • $60 plywood
  • $20 chicken wire / screening
  • $40 staple gun, staples, gaffers tape, rope, etc.
  • $350 network routers (aprox $50 each)
  • $40 12V batteries and chargers
  • $60 network cables, jacks, crimper tool, etc
  • $50 phone sim cards and top-up cards
  • $60 wireless web cam (used for signal source when pointing)
  • $120 wi-spy (used as spectrum analyzer when pointing)

Average travel costs per person for what has been called the Fab Surge is about $4,000. In an ideal world, these costs would have been reimbursable.

  • $180 Afghanistan visa
  • $100 travel medical insurance
  • $100 travel medicines, vaccines, etc.
  • $2,000 – $2,500 Flight from USA to Dubai, return
  • $680 flight from Dubai to Kabul, return
  • $100 travel from Kabul to Jalalalabad by car
  • $630 guesthouse lodging fee (a special shared rate by cramming multiple people into rooms)
  • $20-$50 travel to/from home airport
  • (There is an additional $150-250 that each person has likely spent on random things to include internet access at Heathrow/Amsterdam/Delhi or postage fees of passports and so on)

In addition, all together we spent about $750 in excess baggage and/or shipping mostly for FabFi and video/photo gear, and we’ve used about $200 in DV tapes.

Additionally, Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk from Free Range International haven’t charged us a cent for several weeks worth of armed expat security work as well as rides to and fro. We never would have been able to cover those costs out of our pockets. Fortunately I think we’re a little bit entertaining to Tim and Shem and they kind of like us. But they have to fit us in with their day jobs which hasn’t been the most convenient for either side.

Perhaps the biggest cost that’s difficult to put a value on is the unpaid time. For some of us, our employers or universities did not want the liability of their student/staff in Afghanistan so we all had to quit and go on unpaid leave. For others, they were unemployed but could have been employed in the time they spent preparing for the trip (for example, Keith put in a solid 2 months of 100-hour weeks rather than, you know, working for pay.) That’s impossible to really put a price on.

One of the reasons we were so productive is because we’re individually experienced at what we do.   You can’t throw newbies out into the field with no mentoring and expect them to do anything that doesn’t read like Lord of the Flies… and that’s if you’re lucky and they do anything at all.   And not to pat myself on the back too much, but just as important is to put together a complementary team focused on a well defined set of goals.

Which is the biggest lesson I desperately hope someones out there learns. Never before in history has there been a significantly large population of educated, skilled, experienced, young talent with a semi-disposable income willing and eager to do professional work for little or no pay and even some that will spend their own funds. You have to provide a minimum infrastructure for them to come, and help offset some of the costs they just couldn’t bear. You have to rally them around an idea, spin a coherent vision and place them and their contributions squarely in focus. They won’t accept a mission that doesn’t make sense or isn’t technically or socially viable – and they’re more than competent to develop rational opinions that will need to be vetted and addressed. They will walk away from half-baked plans so you better be ready with supporting data for your claims; but once they buy into the vision they will autonomously meet mission with focus and intensity. It costs much less in dollars than you think.

Those few of us that have come to Afghanistan over the last few months represent a small part of the larger Fab Folk community. We are from many different nationalities and ancestries. Most of us have technical or professional degrees and advanced degrees. All of us have worked in the real world. We are generally between 25-35 years old, male and female.

 

Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is currently working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.
Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is now working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.   Ratafullah, the boy on the left, is the leader among equals of the T-shirt Club.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, former Navy, and was most recently a DOD analyst.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, MS in Applied Anatomy & Physiology, is former Navy, and is a DOD analyst.
Andreas from Iceland installing the downlink at the Public Hospital
Andreas from Iceland (but lives in Argentina) installing the downlink at the Public Hospital.   Andreas has BS in Math from University of Iceland, is working on an MS Math at the University of Amsterdam and works as a computer virus disassembler/analyst.
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab.     Said Jalal is a high school student.   Steve recently worked in the Dean’s office in the MIT Sloan School and is now in Seattle goofing off — restoring and flying WW2 era aircraft.
Smári from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna. Smári is a Math student at the University of Iceland and is currently working for Nýsköpunarmiðstöð Íslands as an IT projects manager.
Smári from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna in Jalalabad City. Smári studied Mathematics at the University of Iceland and is currently working for Nýsköpunarmiðstöð Íslands as an IT projects manager.
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad/Peshawara configuring and peaking a router.   Carl is currently a Physics / Math PhD student at Cambridge University in the UK.   Dr. Naqueeb just passed his exams in the Medical School in Jalalabad.
Keith from Boston tethering down the AP on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Computer Science from Harvard.
Keith from Boston tethering down an antenna on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Biomedical Engineering Sciences from Harvard and most recently helped found a medical devices startup.
That’s me, Amy, with what seems to be a perpetual cadre of inquisitive kids excited to learn by day and (sometimes) friendly ANA soldiers by night . I’m an American and I live in Boston. I have a dual BSes in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering from Purdue, an MS from MIT, am working on a PhD from MIT, and have more than 10 years experience as a defense engineer… and have been on the Fab Lab ride since 2002.

 

The FabLabs all over the globe are magnets for us, offering technological infrastructure nearly as good as (and often better than) what we have available at home. We’re big-brained bugs flitting about bright pinpricks of light we don’t need lush hotels, gourmet cooks, or shiny cars. Most of us don’t even have TVs at home. More and more of us are coming of age every day, seeking and searching for light.

 

tea
Smari, Lucy, Carl, Andreas, Steve, Keith, Amy… enjoying a proper spot of tea.

 

The Yellow

In Marine Corps schools “The Yellow” is the school solution for tactical problems normally handed out in the form of an operation order or an annex to an operation order on yellow paper. Having written at great length about the problems we see with both the military and reconstruction efforts I’d now like to take a shot at proposing a solution which has merit. We are currently failing, and failing miserably, at bringing a secure environment to the people of Afghanistan which is the first and most important  step in any counterinsurgency conflict. There are two reasons for our current performance; the first is that the government of Afghanistan is so dysfunctional and corrupt that it is more a problem than a solution. The second factor is our insistence of operating from large forward operating bases (FOB’s) and commuting to the fight instead of living amongst the people to whom we are supposed to be delivering security.

The new Pentagon directive on Irregular Warfare mentions civ-mil teams but does not define them which one suspects will involve experimenting before a solid table of organization is written. There is a model, arrived at through a marriage of convenience, which is capable of delivering enough boots on the ground to bring security and rapid infrastructure development to the Afghan population. That model was a Un Ops sub contractor / SF A-Team operation which informally cooperated with each other in Shinkay back in 2006.

The old road builders from UN Ops were heavily armed and used good
The old road builders from UN Ops were heavily armed and used good armored vehicles for their force protection. You can buy 50 of those large “Tapia’s” for the price of one MRAP

This was one of the most volatile areas of Afghanistan back in 2006 and remains so to this day. Yet the small SF A-team and the equally small numbers of ANZAC and Canadian engineers were able to work effectively in that environment without taking casualties. By cooperating with each other their sum was greater than the parts of their respective groups. They showed what can be done by small groups of men living amongst the people and are a good model to emulate countrywide.

That is James the Kiwi learning how to crew a 120mm mortar. At night when the A-team was active UN Ops contractors would help the two soldiers who remained in the team house with all fire missions
That’s James the Kiwi learning how to crew a 120mm mortar. At night when the A-team was active UN Ops contractors would help the two soldiers who remained in the team house with all fire missions. That level of cooperation between military units and contractors was routine in the early phases of the Afghan campaign.

There is much speculation in the press about bringing in more combat troops as well as trying to arm tribal fighters (Lashgar’s) in hopes that they will assist ISAF and the Afghan government in their fight against Armed Opposition Groups (AOG.) One thing that can be predicted with absolute certainty is that without internationals in the field mentoring these Lashgars they will be of little use or effectiveness. The same holds true with the Afghan police. All the multimillion dollar training centers in the world will not deliver an effective Afghan police force the only way is to mentor them. Direct, daily mentoring by international military personnel is the reason why the Afghan Army is doing so well and perceived by the people as the only functional, effective government force in the country. There are also many stories in the press on the growing problem of poverty. One of the major factors affecting this poverty is unemployment. There is not a district in Afghanistan which does not have an on the shelf plan to fix its irrigation systems. Irrigation, bridge and road work is a labor intensive process here due to the lack of modern machinery or training.

Practicing a react drill on the A-team compound. The SF guys had steel target plates scattered throughout the desert which made for good practice
Armed UN contractors practicing a react drill on the A-team compound. The SF guys had steel target plates scattered throughout the desert which made for good practice

A Civ-mil team built around an infantry rifle squad, augmented with armed contractors housed in a local compound could be a catalyst for stability and growth. The military team would focus on bringing security to the district by training and mentoring both Lashkar’s and local police. The civilian half of the team would focus on simple infrastructure projects like roads, irrigation, micro hydro power plants and bridges. They would need to be able to both approve and fund those projects at their level using cash in order to get these projects rapidly off the ground and ensure they are done correctly. These teams would be working with the local tribal elders and district administrators who are often one and the same. They can bring two key elements into the equation for winning over the population and that is a permanent long term presence in the districts which would act as a visible sign of commitment to the Afghan people. Long term presence on the ground coupled with visible signs that we are committed to bringing security to the people is the very foundation of the counterinsurgency battle. Anything less is just muddling through which is what we have been doing for the past seven years.

You cannot do stuff like this on your day off in most parts of the world
You cannot do stuff like this on your day off in most parts of the world

There are two reasons why armed contractors should form a bulk of the civ-mil teams in Afghanistan. The first is longevity. Contractors who are working a good paying gig with a decent rotation system can stay on a contract for years at a time. Having a group of former military men who have worked the same districts for year after year brings huge advantages to the military commander who employs them. Most contractors pick up enough language skill to operate without a dedicated interpreter. In the course of their duties they interact with village and district leaders daily thus getting an accurate feeling for the local “ground truth.” The other reason to use contractors is cost. You can outfit contractors with the best weapons, best commercial communications gear, and the best armored vehicles and they are still costing the American taxpayer pennies on the dollar of what it costs for an American serviceman.

It sounds counter intuitive to recommend the employment of ground troops in small units when the security situation has deteriorated significantly during the past year. In that respect it is interesting to compare the results of two Taliban ambushes last year. Both involved ambushing forces of around 250 Taliban fighters. In the first a reinforced rifle company of French paratroopers fought for an entire day to break contact and recover their casualties. In the second a platoon (minus) of 30 U.S. Marines broke the ambush decisively beating the Taliban, killing scores and sending the rest running from the field of battle. The terrain, vegetation and disposition of enemy forces were different in both battles I am not trying to imply that 30 Marines would have been able to perform the same immediate action drill in the Uzbin valley ambush. The relevant point to be made here is that aggressive tactics result in fewer casualties among the good guys and lots of causalities among the bad guys which is a good thing in all situations. Another relevant point is that small units of infantry are much more decisive when they are operating in terrain they know populated by people they know. By operating in the same district filled with people they know our front line troops will be much safer than they are commuting into the districts from large FOB’s in cumbersome armored patrols.

The use of local police outrighters to spot potential IED's was very effective. Not too effective in this case because the ANP driver mistook the "stop there is amine" signal for a go signal
The use of local police motorcycle outriders to spot potential IED’s works well unless the ANP drivers behind them mistake a “stop there is a mine” signal for a “go” signal. In this case the motorcycle rider was injured severely because he was running back towards the blast frantically signaling them to stop. This was the only time the boys from UN Ops suffered an IED strike although they found and destroyed mines targeting them almost daily using motorcycle outriders.   The US military currently uses technology I won’t discuss to do the same thing with dismal results.   Technology will not now nor every replace sound tactics and sound tactics are much cheaper in both lives and treasure.

As I write this post yet another round of recriminations is flying about concerning civilian casualties. The latest incident occurred up the road from us in Laghman Province at the village of Masamut. A known Taliban leader, Gul Pacha, was in his compound entertaining another Taliban commander when an American direct action team flew in and the joint.   Hard. The military claims to have killed 39 Taliban. The villagers say they killed many Taliban but also 13 villagers. There are wounded villagers in the provincial hospital who are telling reporters that they grabbed their rifles and rushed outside their homes when they heard neighbors screaming and were shot as they left their compounds. That makes all the sense in the world to me it is expected that Pashtun males will arm themselves and try to defend their neighbor when he is attacked. Under the code of Pashtunwali they have no choice but to act. It is also expected that any armed male within view of the cordon force will be shot. In the report linked above one of the villagers observes that they should have surrounded the suspect’s house and given the surrounding families a chance to leave before attacking which again makes perfect sense to me. The SF community will tell you that doing this ruins the element of surprise. But look at the price we are paying to generate “surprise” we do not need. If we already had a civ-mil team working that district of Laghman they could have grabbed their Lashkar and ANA protégées, surrounded the compound and had the village elders get the Taliban commanders to come out. If they refused our SF direct action boys could still assault them at their leisure – they control the when, where and how in their deliberate assault. Or they can use standoff munitions controlled by FAC’s at the scene.

It often seems to those of us on the outside looking in that we use the high speed direct action mission because we have a lot of guys here who are highly trained to do high speed direct action missions. The units who do these missions are our varsity team highly trained, highly capable and very lethal. Guys like that should be out in the countryside living amongst the people like we do. They would be better tasked if they traveled around the districts augmenting the training dispensed by resident civ-mil teams. It will not take long for problem districts to emerge and that is where we should send our door kickers because we cannot continue to whack a dozen innocent Afghans just to take out a low level “commander” who can be easily and instantly replaced.

I am certain that my friends who remain on active duty view photos of New Zealand civilians crewing 120mm mortars with a degree of alarm. As a former infantry officer I can’t say that I would be any different. Crewing mortars in shorts and tee shirts is not the way we learned how to do these sorts of things. Yet we are in a long war that is going to tax our collective will and stamina. It is time to start experimenting with formations that can make a difference, quickly and cheaply, in the populated areas of Afghanistan. Allowing small units to be scattered about in areas where there is little mutual support is not a technique senior officers are comfortable with. It goes against everything they have learned about employing their men in battle and it is these men who must answer to the families of the soldiers and Marines who will be lost in this fight. But we have to try something new, micro management from on high is plaguing our operations and continuing to cause unacceptable levels of civilian casualties. It is time to turn the sergeants and Lieutenants lose to use their judgment and to develop their area of operations. Not all will measure up to the task but most will.   We have never had better, more experienced junior leadership in our military it is time to place our trust and confidence in them they have earned it.