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.

Approaching the Tipping Point

The Fab Folk continue to work like demons to maximize their time on the ground. Yesterday they had successful test shots with their fabricated internet antennas to both a local NGO and the Nangarhar Public Hospital. They work every evening setting up the XO laptops they have sent in and early each morning they meet for a couple of hours to learn Pashto. Their teacher comes from the local school and is a life-long resident of the local village. He tells me that, despite the very mild winter we have had to date, that poverty is driving people to desperate measures. Frequently voices call out to him from the shadows at night “we are Taliban give us your wallet, watch and cell phone.” They are not Taliban but men he has known for years. I asked why this was happening because our understanding of Pashtun culture would prohibit such gross criminality inside one’s own community. “Yes this is true but we are now so poor that the elders do not ask young men where they got this or where they got that they praise them instead for bringing anything of value which will ease their poverty.” This is just a hint at the amount of tension under the surface of a population located in one of the more affluent portions of Afghanistan. Across the river at Little Barabad (official name) or Tutikas (the villagers do not like the official name) the villagers cut down their large shade tree which served as the communal meeting place and picnic site. The wood is not for them – it was sold to a “rich man” to generate cash to buy medicine for several of the children.

Keith working with local school boys establishing a internet link to their school with a custom antenna they built in the fab lab
Keith working with local school boys establishing a internet link to their school with a custom antenna they built in the fab lab

We have been running the road to Kabul a lot as of late taking people to and from the Airport in Kabul. A couple of days ago we took Dr. Dave and Dr. Art Mendoza back to Kabul for their flight home and saw the aftermath of a big fight the night before. We were warned prior to leaving by another security firm (we share all intel at all times in the field) that there had been much fighting outside Gamberi and sure enough when we got to the point in the road where the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) had set up on the shoulders we saw this:

Looking east from the ANP position
Looking east from the ANP position - this is the same position mentioned in my last post

Apparently a group of Armed Opposition Group (AOG) fighters sneaked up the draw between the ANA and ANP positions and shot up the truck above with small arms and RPG’s. They then fired at both the ANP positions to their west and the ANA positions to their east before withdrawing across the Kabul River. The ANA and ANP spent the next hour or so firing at each other. By the time we rolled past the ANA had taken their casualties and withdrawn leaving the poor police to sit in their shallow little holes to suck up all the rain we have been getting of late.

We are convinced that somebody in Laghaman Province is running an RPG gunners school because we see reports of RPG-only attacks on police posts along this portion of the road every 4 to 5 weeks. Normally they volley 10 rounds in rapid succession and withdraw causing little to no damage. But we know there is at least one RPG mechanic out there (most likely in Laghaman) who can really put some English on his rockets and make very difficult shots consistently. I bet he has a group of students he is working with and what better way to train them then to take on the softest of soft targets like the silly deployment of ANA and ANP forces five feet off the main road? You could tell just by looking at them they had no fire plans, no fire control measures, and probably no plan at all. What they need is not more PowerPoint lectures from DynCorp contractors they need mentors with them in the field and there are not enough here.

The same truck viewed from the ANA postion - note how close the two were to each other
The same truck viewed from the ANA position - note how close the two were to each other. The positions are squad size (10 guys) and they are "dug in" (if you can call it that) in a straight line with machineguns on their flanks

Yesterday I was returning from dropping off James the Marine and because I had no choice had to make the return drive alone. As I rounded the Mahipar Pass I saw a wall of trucks pulled off to the side which indicated some sort of blockage in the tunnel. I drove far enough to get a look before turning around and saw it was a U.S. Army convoy stopped right in the middle of the pass. Once the traffic stops flowing in Afghanistan it is very difficult to start it going again because all the east bound traffic will move into every nook and cranny available to their front and block the road. It takes a good hour to get them out of your way so that a convoy can move again. But I was ready checking my wallet to find 100 Euros there I turned around and headed back to the German PX at the ISAF camp outside Kabul to score some premium German beer (at only 12 euro a case) figuring if I had to drive back in the dark I might as well do so with a truck load of beer.

Sure enough when I made it back to the Mahipar Pass it was clear and I was smoothly driving for the next 45 minutes until I got outside Surobi.   Rounding a corner I saw all the trucks parked in the right lane and taking the left lane I moved far enough down to see the same convoy parked in the middle of the road. They sat there for 30 minutes and then took another 30 minutes to get moving before stopping again maybe five miles down the road. I had worked my way up to the front of the line by then and 45 minutes into this stop I approached the convoy tail gunner to ask if they would let me through. He got on the radio and in a few minutes said “no because the road to the front is blocked (by the west bound traffic) and I couldn’t make it through anyway.” I asked him what the problem was and he replied “don’t know” which is exactly the correct answer because he has no business telling me a damn thing just because I’m a lone American with a CAC card. He brushed me off without a moment’s hesitation like a real pro I like seeing that kind of heads up thinking by our troops.

The American convoy is stopped and the vehicles are stacking up behind it.  The same is true to their fron so when they start moving they will have to thread their way through the local traffice which sort of defeats the whole purpose of keeping the traffic away from them at all times.  It also makes it easier for the bad guys to target them.
The American convoy is stopped and the vehicles are stacking up behind it. The same is true to their front so when they start moving they will have to thread their way through the local traffic which defeats the whole purpose of keeping the traffic away from them at all times.

But the longer we sat the more upset the locals behind me became. Soon the sound of a thousand car horns filled the air. Over a hundred men were now standing around my vehicle trying to get the ANA troops to let them pass. As is usually the case there were several fluent English speakers amongst them and they came over to chat me up about what was happening. I was as pissed as they were and being a poltroon by nature freely admitted this. Then out of the crowd came a man with a very sick looking child and I was pressed into service to intervene on his behalf. I walked over to the tail gunner and asked if a vehicle with a medical emergency could get through. He asked how many more vehicles contain people with medical emergencies and I glanced back saw about a thousand vehicles stacked up behind me and said “probably about a thousand” which made the kid laugh. Again correct response from the tail gunner who seems like a great trooper because if you let one vehicle through the rest will follow TIA this is Afghanistan. To make a long story short it took me five hours to get back to the Taj. Several more times the American convoy stopped and each time the fluent English speaker from Leeds England came up to stand near my car. That is a very Pashtun thing to do he was watching out for me to ensure none of the drivers behind took out their frustrations on the lone American in their midst. Not that I thought this would occur but it was a nice gesture.

Very poor picture taken from right behind the American convoy which has been stopped for about 45 minutes at this point
Very poor picture taken from right behind the American convoy which has been stopped for about 45 minutes at this point. It would be much easier and safer for them to let traffic pass so that the bad guys don't set up for them with an IED or VBIED as they start to move. It would also help them with their efforts to win over the Afghan population if they started running convoys like their Afghan Army counterparts. Once used to local driving patterns they could then apply the "rule of opposites" which would give them a fighting chance at recognizing and stopping VBIED's before they attack. This convoy technique of keeping all Afghans away from US vehicles at all times has never, not once, prevented a VBIED attack but has caused the hundreds of deaths and casualties amongst innocent (if not reckless) Afghans.

The struggle of the average Afghan to find enough to eat; the continued lack of performance by the Afghan security forces and the inability of the ISAF military to operate amongst the Afghans without treating every civilian they come in contact with as a crazed jihadist killer are linked. The United States and her allies have spent billions in Afghanistan and have very little to show for it. Afghanistan is currently in a death spiral not because of a lack of aid funds but rather how those funds have been spent and allocated. Every indication we see on the ground is that more money will be thrown into the same failed programs currently being implemented; another demonstration that we have not learned any meaningful lessons.

The reason these programs won’t work is that they are off the shelf solutions designed to make the lives of bureaucrats and contracting officers easy rather than bringing assistance to the Afghans. The Department of State has spent 2.5 BILLION bringing in police trainers, jail guard trainers, and lawyers to train the judges. Now what the hell does anyone at DynCorp or PAE know about Afghan police or Afghan jurisprudence? Nothing of course but that is not why they win these large lucrative contracts it is because they already have large lucrative contracts and therefore know how to work with DS contracting officers to make their lives easier. What is the return on our investment? After the large scale jail break in Kandahar last summer investigators discovered there were over 100 illegal cell phones in the hands of inmates. When we capture important Taliban leaders and send them to the main Afghan jail at Pul-i-Charki they are often back home before the soldiers who delivered them. The Afghan police are unreliable and prone to preying on the population. The current Afghan government is more of a problem than a solution. It is being out-governed by the Taliban in the many districts under Taliban control. Who “built capacity” with these Taliban? How many billions of dollars were spent teaching the Taliban to administer justice and civil control so effectively?

Black tea (Tor Chai) is a popular drink in cold weather - the Afghans import tons from Vietnam indicating they have a little more "capacity" than they are given credit for
Black tea (Tor Chai) is a popular drink in cold weather - the Afghans import tons from Vietnam without the assistance of the US or UN indicating they have a little more"capacity" than they are given credit for

What the State department did was to use off the shelf solutions which had nothing to do with the situation in Afghanistan and everything to do with what was easy for the Department of State. After all when you spend all your time in Afghanistan locked inside a gigantic posh embassy compound how in the world would you know what the Afghans need? You are forced to work through the Afghan government and have any of you ever read one news story about the Afghan government that was not about the appalling amount of corruption found at every level in every ministry? I would say you have not but as an insider I will tell you there is one ministry the ministry of aviation is every bit as honest and effective as its international counterparts. In fact the Afghans working in that ministry are more honest than any politician to be found within 153 miles of Chicagobut I digress.

The State Department is and has been the lead agency in Afghanistan and their performance here is every bit the fiasco as their performance in Iraq. Remember that Paul Brenner was a compromise President Bush made between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon he gave the boys at state a year to get Iraq back on its feet but Brenner used his 12 months to destroy the country and hamstring our military. He unilaterally made decisions for which we paid in American blood. The price tag for his incompetence paid by the Iraqis is probably beyond measure. Colin Powell, who foisted Brenner upon Iraq had more to do with the fiasco portion of that war than Rumsfeld but you’d have to do some serious archival research to know it because the nitwits in the MSM would not in a million years burden the people of America with good honest reporting which strayed from their preferred narrative.

That is not to say that the US Military has demonstrated the capacity, tactical flexibility, or ability to assess the situation on the ground, learn from past mistakes, and formulate a strategic framework under which all operations in Afghanistan can be conducted. They have not and we are risking another Vietnam and I am not talking about getting beaten by the rag tag assortment of Taliban and neo Taliban on the field of battle. I am talking about having the American peoples will to fight crippled by a media who are able to reveal that the Generals are spinning tales that are as stupid and uninformed as the old “five O’ Clock follies” in Saigon were back in Vietnam. Let me make this point clear I am not critical of the American (or any other ISAF) soldier who is over here doing his duty. Every one of them volunteered to join a military at war and their grit, determination to do what is right and courage are commendable. I am critical of the generals who seem unable to implement the very doctrine they tout as the answer to the counterinsurgency battle. I am not the only one who sees things this way please take the time to read this excellent piece by a retired Army Colonel who is much better writer than I am. He is calling for a massive forced retirement amongst American General Officers which would be a smart move given their lackluster performance and one with serious historical precedent.

James the Marine and I running the ring road to Khandahar back in the day.  Armed contractors are cheaper, faster and cost pennies on the dollar to deployed military forces.
James the Marine and I running the ring road to Khandahar back in the day. Armed contractors are cheaper, faster and have proven more effective at the stability operations battle than the international military forces operating in Afghanistan.

The only reason we are not at the point where the American people start to treat their military in the manner it was treated in the early seventies is that our media is even more incompetent than the Department of State or the Pentagon. If we had the same type of reporters as the ones who worked Vietnam year in and year out they would be able to throw the BS flag at every single briefing they are given because the things I hear the big Army saying about the situation here are flat out nonsense. This situation will not last much longer. The drive by media is starting to get a clue as I saw when talking with Martha Raddatz the Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent from ABC news. The only thing stopping her from getting a really comprehensive first hand view of how silly the DS and military approach is to this conflict is her own silly corporate “force protection” rules. But she got an earful from me and spent a few hours roaming about the countryside like the thousands of other internationals who live and work here. Not that you can do that in every district or province in Afghanistan there are many where it would now be suicidal for a westerner to walk around knowing where you are safe and where you are not is the most basic function of military intelligence. Why we cannot figure that out and act accordingly is beyond me.

Here is the connection to my rambling observations. If our billions of dollars went to implement the infrastructure improvements which the Afghans at the district level have been pleading for during the last six to seven years you could instantly start employing massive amounts of idle unemployed men. But you cannot do this with the Department of Sate contracting vehicles nor through large, bloated, international companies like Louis Berger or DynCorp or PAE or KBR or any of the other current “implementers” who are receiving most of the reconstruction monies. You need a company like Louis Berger to build big things like hydro electric dams, posh embassy compounds, or international airports. You do not need Louis Berger to build roads and schools. The Afghans can do that themselves. You also don’t need the nitwits of Foggy Bottom deciding how to implement a reconstruction plan because what you get is what the average Afghan sees now. Lots of police posts, government office building and training bases being built for the very people and organizations who abuse them, steal from them and fail to protect them from other (non uniformed) criminals or the Taliban. The only way forward are civil military teams who are embedded into the community, who stay in the community and who are able to green light and supervise Afghan designed and built irrigation, road, and micro hydro projects. An excellent prototype of exactly this kind of team was working in Afghanistan back in the early days before Big Army came and put all the SF teams back inside the large FOB’s. It will be the topic of my next post.

Road and irrigation projects can employ massive amounts of manpower providing much needed pay to the average Afghan
Road and irrigation projects can employ massive amounts of manpower providing much needed pay to the average Afghan. Photo by Holly Barnes Higgins

Let me stress something my friends and that is time is running out for us in Afghanistan. Soon the MSM is going to discover they are missing a great opportunity to play in their favorite game of pin the tail on the Pentagon spokesman. They are still sore at the military for making them collectively look like a bunch of know-nothing amateurs back in 2003 during the massive military embed for the storming of Iraq.

There are several multi million dollar programs being funded to bring laptops and internet to Afghan school children.  The Fab Folk have done that at a cost of zero to the American tax payer and with a shoe string budget.  If any of you know people who award grants for this sort of thing send them to the fab Jbad web site.  These seven people accomplished more in three weeks than a hundred highly paid US AID contractors do in a year
There are several multimillion dollar programs being funded to bring laptops and internet to Afghan school children. To date they have not sent one computer and have established not one internet system. The Fab Folk have done that at a cost of zero to the American tax payer and with a shoe string budget. If any of you know people who award grants for this sort of thing send them to the fab lab Jbad web site. These seven people accomplished more in three weeks than a hundred highly paid US AID contractors do in a year. Somebody should fund them.

I asked the local headmaster what he was going to do about the highway men who lurk in the shadows around Bagrami but he said it is no longer a problem and would say no more. That means the Taliban have stepped in and are now active right behind my guesthouse. In time we will have to reach some sort of accommodation with them. We are not going to be attacked because the local people would not allow it and the Talibs, if they are here, are local people too. Plus we have excellent fields of fire, Pashin (not Pashtun) tribal fighters for guards and lots of guns and ammo. Local Talibs do not attack hard targets like us for good reason they are trying to feed their families too and will be of little use to them if they get “seriously kilt” by the Free Rangers at FOB Taj. We are probably teaching their kids in the Fab Lab; in fact I know we are. But This Is Afghanistan and if they are here it is going to cost me more damn money to be left alone. Just as in Chicago, you have to pay to play and just as in Chicago one check will not cover the entire bill if you know what I mean.

Fab Lab Surge and ABC News

The Fab Lab team has arrived and is now hard at work.  They are blogging daily and you can monitor their progress here. They’re doing cool stuff like fabricating antenna’s to share our fatpipe with the local schools and NGO’s. They’re  raising money to buy XO Laptops for every 6th grader in the local (Bagrami) school. They’re setting the local kids up with a tee shirt business to fund the Jalalabad FabLab operations and the local kids are beside themselves with opportunity that just landed on their doorstep.

Amy and her roomate Kieth from MIT - the Fab Lab advance party
Amy and her roommate Keith from Harvard – the Fab Lab advance party

We have had to run up to Kabul and back several times to get all the Fab Folk to Jalalabad. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is a vitally important supply route to both the military and the government of Afghanistan. There were several attacks on the road this past summer and there continues to be problems on it now despite the winter weather. We saw several interesting things along the route and the first was the number of French Army troops transiting from Kabul to Surobi.

French troops on the road outside of Kabul
French troops on the road outside of Kabul

Surobi is a large hamlet half way between Kabul and Jalalabad, last August the French suffered a humiliating defeat in the Uzbin valley which is just to the north of Surobi. The town has long been considered to be sympathetic if not supportive of Gulbiddin Hekmatyar and his party Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG.) We see sunburned adult males with high-water trousers, tennis shoes, and black turbans every time we pass through Surobi. They could be Sheppard’s or gold miners but it’s a safe bet their Taliban fighters hitting Surobi in for in-country R&R (rest and recreation).

The French have been serious about establishing a presence in Surobi since their first unfortunate encounter with the Taliban. They are keeping units in the field 24/7; have launched several operations which have netted some prominent local commanders (according to UN incident reporting). It’s good to see our ISAF allies taking the initiative, going on the offensive and clearing out such an important area.

But after you clear an area you have to hold it and it will be interesting to see how (or if) they do that. The operations in Surobi are not impacting the repeated attacks on the Kabul/Jalalabad road – with one exception. We’ve heard from reliable sources they tracked down and killed The Mechanic. It appears to be true too because it’s been months since we’ve seen his signature long range pin point RPG shots nailing tankers. The tankers are still getting nailed but only other portions of the road that allow ambush from rifle and machinegun range.

As noted in previous posts these occur in the Tangi valley area east of Surobi and in portions of Laghman Province below the Tangi. Both the ANP and ANA have posted small units along the road to augment the numerous permanent police posts. As you can see from the pictures below the positions they have set up are weak at best and their patrol routine, which appears to be sitting by the side of the road, is not proving very effective.

Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad - Kabul road
Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad – Kabul road
ANP machinegun crew - they are not dug in and they don't move so they are not accomplishing much
ANA machine gun crew – they are not dug in and they don’t move so they do not really accomplish much

Here is an intel report from one of the PSC’s (the private security companies in Afghanistan do a lot of intel sharing with each other.)

Laghman Province, Qarghayi District, Route 1-area of Tangy

AOG Vehicle Checkpoint 05 January 2009, between 1630-1700 hrs

A doctor who works for a NGO was returning to Jalalabad from Kabul alone in his private car, when his vehicle was forced to stop by a group of armed men. The doctor was then questioned about his work and personal behaviour. He was finally allowed to proceed unharmed when, on seeing the cassette player in the vehicle, the armed men instructed the doctor to play a cassette found in the vehicle. The cassette played was a religious tape and satisfied the requirements of those who had stopped the car. Despite reported increased security force deployments, this is the third reported instance of AOG activity on Route 1 in the Tangy area since 31 Dec 08. All three incidents have occurred in daylight hours and two have been attacks on military vehicles. These incidents should demonstrate to all the risk of travel along Route 1 between Kabul-Jalalabad at any time of day. Any international staff using Route 1 should expect further instances such as that outlined in this report and seek alternative means of travel between Jalalabad-Kabul.

Along with the above report, we have made several trips the past few days along the route. A few ANA vehicles have been pulled off the side of the road about half way back to Kabul, and the soldiers were in a defensive posture behind their vehicles, weapons pointed at the high ground. Most likely some pot shots taken at the ANA as they passed thru.

The Kabul to Jalalabad route is one of the most important in Afghanistan. The effort being expended to secure this route is currently being wasted because the troops are being deployed in poorly sited positions and being tasked to do nothing other than sit there. There is an easy fix and that would be to embed and infantry squad into the Qarghayi District ANP headquarters with a mission style order. It should sound something like this; “Sergeant you’ve got six months to work with these guys and stop any and all attempts to attack this vital route, go down there scout it out, come up with a plan and I’ll see you in five days so you can brief me on your plan. ” Winning the IED battle requires that you kill the IED makers and you can only do that if they are unmasked by the people. To reach the people with the consistency required to gain that level of cooperation requires that you leave the big armored vehicles and spend time (lots of it) among the people. I am pretty sure that if you consult the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manual you’ll find that it says more less exactly the same thing.

It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks
It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks along the Jbad to Kabul road

There is hope for those of us who use the Kabul Jbad road frequently and that is the appearance of a small American patrol right in the heart of the Tangy valley visiting the local ANA checkpoint. Inshallah they will be spending some time and effort trying to help the various small unit commanders develop a more aggressive plan to secure the route. We did not encounter any problems on our numerous trips to Kabul and back. What follows is some photo blogging about the Fab Folk we are hosting and some of the things they are up to.

Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi
Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi – we have a lot of James’s here (James the Brit,   James the Aussie,   James the Marine, and James the German)- chatting with Dr Dave from the Synergy Strike Force
Kieth, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Kieth and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpretur duty - he is between Steve and Carl
Keith, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Keith and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpreter duty – he is between Steve and Carl
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Smari and Andres - Fab Folk from Iceland
Smari and Andres – Fab Folk from Iceland
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday.
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday. She interviewed myself and Dr. Dave, the Fab Lab Folk, saw a school built by the La Jolla Rotary Club, and made the river crossing to Little Barabad. She had a big day and shot lots of tape.   More on our day with ABC in the next post.

Here’s a link to Martha’s first news story from her visit to Jalalabad.

Dubious News Reports from Afghanistan

There were two interesting articles in the news concerning Afghanistan today which illustrate (to me) the dire straits we now face. One article reported on the clever use of Viagra by CIA case officers; the other was a mildly negative critique of the US AID reconstruction efforts made by a senior US AID officer. Both stories represent a total lack of situational awareness as 2008 draws to a close.

When you have lived in a poorly understood, distant country like Afghanistan as long as I have it is easy to find mistakes in the international press. I am not nitpicking two main stream news reports because they report as fact things I know to be completely untrue. You get that a lot from the press these days. What I find alarming is that at least one of these two articles is obviously an entry into the discussion taking place amongst our national leadership. The other article about the CIA is so completely ridiculous that I have no idea what to make of it. Reports like these are truly depressing so let me take these articles one at a time and provide you with some unbiased ground truth.

The first article was by Mark Ward, a senior Foreign Service Officer with US AID, who has just completed an impressively long tour in Afghanistan. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Nearly every observer of Afghanistan, from the most senior U.S. military officers to Washington think tank analysts and everyone in between, agrees that stability in that country demands a multipronged approach involving the military, diplomatic efforts and economic assistance. Having spent nearly the past five years as the senior career officer responsible for U.S. economic assistance to Afghanistan, I agree with those in the military who have said that 80 percent of the struggle for Afghanistan is about reconstruction and sustainable economic development and only 20 percent about military operations. In the face of a heightened Taliban insurgency, the U.S. military has changed its tactics. But if civilian U.S. agencies do not change the ways they deliver economic assistance, they jeopardize their chances for success and risk alienating the Afghan people.”

He is spot on with this assessment I would judge that he is around six years late but better late than never. He then goes on to discuss the ramifications to the morale of the American people if, given relaxed security standards, Foreign Service Officers get killed in the line of duty. What??? Let me answer that question free of charge. The American public doesn’t even know what a Foreign Service Officer is and they could give a hoot if a few buy the farm in Afghanistan. You have already lost men in Iraq and that caused no detectable disturbance in the body politic. One of those lost was a friend of mine the embassy security force camp in Kabul is named after him and although his loss was a tragedy for his family and friends (and the Department of State RSO program because he was one of their best) it did not cause the slightest ripple on the consciousness of the American public. My friend, Steve Sullivan was killed by a VBIED in Mosul along with three Blackwater contractors. State Department and contractor casualties are not the same as military casualties because the main stream media doesn’t treat them the same. You won’t see our names in memorial on the Sunday talk shows or on PBS nor will you see our numbers included in the national dialogue. There is also a new administration taking office which will change the tone and tenor of media coverage 180 degrees for reasons too obvious to even mention. I do not believe for a second with the concern that FSO casualties will in any way affect (or even register with) the will of the American people to continue our efforts in Afghanistan.

Opening Day at Camp Sullivan in Kabul, Afghanistan December 2005
First day of operations at Camp Sullivan in Kabul December 2005. The camp is named in honor of Special Agent (and former Marine) Steven Eric Sullivan (Sully to his friends) who was killed by a VBIED in Mosul Iraq September 19, 2005

Mr. Ward concludes his article with this paragraph:

The new team at the State Department and USAID should engage a team of outside experts to conduct an objective assessment of the security rules and their impact on our economic assistance program in Afghanistan. The review should give due weight to the importance of interacting with the Afghan people to hear their ideas, get to know them and gain their trust. It should rigorously test the theories about what would happen if an increasing number of Foreign Service officers were killed and injured as a result. And it should look at other donor countries’ approach to security in Afghanistan. Some have the balance between security and access about right, particularly in parts of the country where security is more permissive.”

We do not need expensive DC based contractors to conduct a review of security procedures or conduct an assessment of the consequences on increased Foreign Service officer casualties. There is a seven year track record in Afghanistan from both governmental and nongovernmental organizations that are operating in the exact manner Mr. Ward is advocating. The government of Japan has over 100 of their “Foreign Service officers” (the Japanese do not use that term) spread out from Mazar-e-Sharif to Jalalabad working every day in Afghan ministries and offices mentoring their Afghan colleagues. They do this on a security budget which is less than the cost of providing bottled water to the US Embassy compound in Kabul. The Japan International Cooperation Agency uses the same security guidelines as every other international organization in Afghanistan (with the exception of the US AID contractors who use DS guidelines) and that is the UN minimum occupational safety standards (UN MOSS.)

In contested provinces (Helmund, Zabul, Kandahar, etc) the UN MOSS standards are not applicable and in those provinces the best solution would be to turn over all reconstruction monies to our military who has demonstrated time and again they are better at delivering reconstruction aid anyway. For the rest of the country the US could start sending its FSO’s out into the provinces immediately and be reasonably certain that any casualties they do take would come from motor vehicle accidents which are one of the bigger threats faced by internationals who live outside the wire. There have been IGO and NGO casualties in Afghanistan but they are rare and disproportionally suffered by those who choose not to use armed security. By that I mean those organizations that place stickers on their vehicles of an AK 47 with a red circle and a line drawn through it. Nothing says “I am important and unarmed” like a new SUV with “no weapons on board” stickers. This is not a country where it is wise to advertise you are both important and unarmed. It is a dangerous place but the risks are manageable and reasonable which has been proven by JICA and the hundreds of other organizations currently operating outside the wire in Afghanistan.

The last time I was at the Kabul International Airport I saw a group of embassy workers being escorted from the VIP parking lot adjacent to the terminal to the front door by four Blackwater contractors with weapons and full kit. I would submit that having armed men escort your diplomats the entire 100 yards from parking lots to front door is not only unnecessary but insulting to the host nation. The men Blackwater places on the embassy contract are highly trained operatives who must maintain rigorous weapons proficiency standards and top secret security clearances. They would be of much greater use out in the provinces and would undoubtedly be much happier roaming around the countryside where their skill set is of use. Parading around the Kabul airport with rifles at the ready is silly.   The Afghan police, with daily help from their DynCorp mentors, have the place locked down very tightly. You are safer at that terminal than you would be walking on the Capitol Mall in Washington DC.

I applaud Mr. Ward for highlighting this issue in Washington DC but have to stress that we need to adopt a sense of urgency regarding the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. We do not have the time or money to study what to do it is time to do. The way forward had been clearly marked by the thousands of internationals operating inside Afghanistan daily using the UN MOSS security guidelines. The American Embassy and US AID already have dozens of highly trained security contractors in Kabul it is time to put them to better use.

The next article (also in the Washington Post) described the cunning use of Viagra by CIA case officers to gain the trust of an influential elder. The premise of the article is ridiculous. Viagra is available in most of the pharmacies (and there are thousands here) located in the prominent towns of Afghanistan. In the remote rural areas of the country one can find people who have never heard of or seen medicine in pill form. They do not know there is such a thing as aspirin let alone Viagra. But I suspect any leader important enough to warrant courting by the CIA is also educated enough to know about medicine in pill form. If he knows what pills are then he probably knows about Viagra and if he wanted some obtaining it would be simple. It certainly would not require debasing one’s self in front of a foreigner especially one from the CIA.

What I do not have to guess about is the consequences of a foreigner trying to give an important leader pills for a flagging libido. That would be an insult so grave that a Pashtun chief could never tolerate it. There is only one way an international could pass on something like Viagra and that would be through a trusted Afghan who was also friends with the target and could deliver the goods to the chief in private. To imply that a CIA operative found out the number and ages of the chieftain’s wives in casual conversation and then reached into his bag of BS to pull out four Viagra pills which were then received “with delight” is beyond ridiculous. It is an outright fabrication which proves the main stream media is every bit as clueless about this country as the FOB bound Big Army or the locked down embassy staff.

But there are other reasons to doubt this story. I know a couple guys on the mobile security team (MST) contract for the CIA. They have never, not once, left the FOB to which they are assigned. My statistical sample of MST contractors may be insignificant and I may be wrong about them being 100% FOB bound but I doubt it. I met only a few CIA officers while on active duty so I claim no insider knowledge or expertise but their description of the agency matches perfectly with the recently published history Legacy of Ashes and that excellent book was not a flattering portrait to say the least.

It is conceivable that the CIA did their homework on a targeted leader and determine the number and ages of his wives. It is inconceivable that they would then send out a case officer who was stupid enough to try the ham handed play described in the WaPo article. At least I hope it is inconceivable because God help us if it is true that after seven plus years of effort we are operating like the Key Stone cops.   When I read silliness like this I think that instead of high speed Blackhawk uniforms and kit maybe we should issue our CIA operatives big red clown noses and large clown shoes to wear around Afghanistan.   That way their appearance would be congruent with with the stupid stories they are peddling about Viagra and congruency is a good thing I heard that on Oprah so it must be true.

To be honest I don’t really watch Oprah so I’m making up the congruency thing but I am making it up to illustrate a point which I believe to be true. This is a new technique used by “professional media correspondents” these days . Just ask CBS news or the AP if you don’t believe me.

We have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and should be talking about what an endstate will look like and not about the feasibility of venturing outside Fortress Kabul or co-opting local leaders with Viagra. In my humble opinion a viable endstate would involve the deployment of small teams into every province to sheppard continuing reconstruction and to help (with embedded trainers) the Afghans secure their country. It would be a welcomed sight to see FSO’s or CIA case officers operating outside the wire with the rest of us as part of those teams they are going to have to take the leap eventually and now is as good a time as any.

Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

This will be a long post because the topic is important requiring that I be 100% clear concerning my observations, recommendations and opinions. In previous posts I have made my case regarding the speed and efficiency with which we are conducting stability operations in Afghanistan. I believe our reconstruction efforts are flawed; we are wasting time while spending billions of dollars without impacting the majority of the population. We are not conducting meaningful infrastructure projects nor establishing security to the vast majority of the Afghan people which is reflected by the growing percentage of the country falling outside the control of the central government. In these areas the Taliban is “out-governing” the Karzai administration which is the worst thing that could be happening after seven years of effort by America and her ISAF allies. These are facts beyond dispute.

The topic of how we are operating on the ground involves not just facts but observations and opinions too. It also involves talking about the currency used by the military in pursuit of their objectives; and that currency is blood. My contention is that the way we have operated here could ultimately cost us more in blood because our tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP’s) are becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. If you treat every Afghan you come into contact with as a potential assassin, guess what? Every Afghan you come in contact with will, in time, become a potential assassin.

Currently this is not the case in all places nor at all times. Every day ISAF military units move into areas and conduct positive interactions with the local population in many of the Provinces of Afghanistan. After a few hours of work they go back to their large fortified bases. When ISAF military convoys travel on the roads they tend to block all the traffic, which routinely produces multiple vehicle accidents due to the jockeying among drivers in the long traffic jams that stack up behind convoys. You have to experience Afghan driving to appreciate how chaotic traffic jams can be, Afghans reputation for aggressive driving is well deserved. The ISAF force protection posture is enforced by the aggressive use of weapons to force back traffic.

Typical results from a flat tire on an ISAF convoy - vehicles heading south have blocked the west bond lanes causing a tarffic jam which lasted over four hours
Typical results from a flat tire on an ISAF convoy – vehicles heading south have blocked the west bond lanes causing a traffic jam which lasted over four hours

If an ISAF convoy has a vehicle break down they stop all traffic, both ways and dismounted soldiers keep all pedestrians away from the vehicles. I was once stuck for an hour in downtown Jalalabad while an American convoy worked to repair a broken truck. The crowd that gathered during this time was enormous, the troops on the ground were very professional and I got the feeling from talking with one that they would rather let the traffic pass. The Sergeant I was chatting up was not the least bit intimidated by the hundreds of Afghans gathering around to watch the hub bub; he knew the local people are not a threat. The American in Jalalabad knew that forcing all traffic to halt bringing the entire city to a bumper to bumper stand still was probably not the best way to handle things but he had his orders.

It is not the inconvenience of being stuck behind a convoy or how they conduct mobile vehicle repair which is the biggest problem, it is the tendency to mark local vehicles as potential vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED’s) and then fire at them that is the problem. This tactic has never successfully (to the best of our knowledge) stopped a VBIED attack. It has caused hundreds of deaths among Afghans who tend to drive a little irresponsibly (to be charitable). I have been told that we have lost at least one soldier who was leaning over the top of his vehicle engaging a real VBIED when it detonated instead of getting down behind the cover provided by his armored vehicle. It’s almost impossible to distinguish the erratic driving mannerisms of a VBIED driver (erratic behavior is the main pre incidence indicator of VBIED’s) from your typical Afghan driver. Afghans routinely drive so aggressively that they would have caused every soldier and contractor I know to light them up if we were all in Iraq. I have traveled route Irish (the road between the Baghdad Airport and the Green Zone) many times and understand how to do so safely. Safe convoys were convoys which kept all Iraq traffic well away from them or (better yet) ones in armored low visibility vehicles mixed in with the local traffic. But Afghanistan is not Iraq; there are no multi-lane separated highways here. You cannot force all traffic away from you like we routinely did in Iraq. Afghan roads are two-lane, poorly maintained affairs with plenty of blind curves, steep grades, and narrow bridges. Vehicles heading towards you pop up fast with little time or distance with which to make an accurate determination of intent. You can train people to work the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop only so fast.

If the TTP you are using has caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians and demonstrated over and over that it will not stop a VBIED and if that TTP has caused the loss of troops who were exposed shooting at a VBIED instead of taking cover when it detonates, if that TTP causes aggravation, traffic accidents, and the alienation of the local population then why are we still using this TTP? I know blending in with the traffic is easy for me to say because I’m always in a low profile vehicle. But it would not cause you to take more VBIED strikes because the way you are trying to keep them away fails every time. If you allowed the civilian traffic to flow around your vehicles every time you did take a VBIED strike it would cause even more collateral damage to the surrounding civilians. We are not the only combatants who do not like to inflict collateral damage among the population. The various Taliban, neo Taliban, sorta Taliban, etc… are not al Qaeda. They are fighting to control the civilian population; they understand that you can inflict only so much misery on them before reaching a tipping point. And when the Afghan population reaches a tipping point history shows that they are not the least bit hesitant to let their antagonist know it. There is an information warfare opportunity in moving with the locals if attacked and again – I don’t think you are inviting more attacks because everyone they launch is either successful or goes off before it hits home due to operator error or design flaws.

One of the things working in our favor is the quality control on Afghan car bomb production. The latest VBIED attack near the Taj in Nangahar Province is a perfect example it was directed at an American Army convoy on the road to Khogyani District (that would be the only paved road in the entire southern triangle of Nangarhar Province.) The suicide attacker was waiting on the shoulder off the road by the UN refugee camp pictured in my earlier post on Gandamak. He saw the Americans crest the hill about ½ mile away and gunned his engine to run into them head on. His initiation device was the typical design we find here and was either pressure release or pressure activated and held in the driver’s hand. This suicide attacker had either ‘Buck fever’ or a case of advanced stupidity forgetting about the large dip in the road between him and the Americans. When he hit it at speed he lost control of his vehicle and the initiation device blowing himself to kingdom come. There are much better ways to rig a VBIED and it is to our distinct benefit that those ways have not found their way to Afghanistan yet. But even in this case had the Americans recognized the threat they would not have been able to engage him until he popped out of the low ground right in front of them which obviously would have been too late.

The only reasonable way to handle the VBIED threat is to allow the civilian traffic to mix in with your convoys because they will provide some cover from VBIED cells which do not want to kill large numbers of innocents and it will also let the troops learn what is normal driving behavior in Afghanistan.   The only way to successfully identify VBIED drivers is to know what is normal behavior so you can apply the “rule of opposites” to ID potential VBIED’s with enough time and space to do something about it.

American Soldiers moving through Kabul without shooting at the locals or forcing all traffic to a stop
American Soldiers moving through Kabul (in low pro SUV’s) without shooting at the locals or forcing all traffic to a stop

If the moving among the civilians is unacceptably risky then all our convoys should consider moving at night because there is little to no civilian traffic anywhere in Afghanistan after 2100 hours. Being ambushed by the Taliban at night, given our aviation assets, would be a big problem for the Taliban. There is nowhere to run or hide from the thermal sights on our gunships or the NVG’s our troops on the ground use.

This trooper would be even safer if he would lose the helmet and drape a locally made Pattu (blanket worn as a shawl by men) around the shoulders of his body armor but he is much safer in this vehicle than in an MRAP or armored Hummer
This trooper would be even safer if he would lose the helmet and drape a locally made Pattu (blanket worn as a shawl by men) around the shoulders of his body armor but he is much safer in this vehicle than in an MRAP or armored Hummer

The video that was embedded below (it has since been removed) was broadcast on public television; the You Tube comments about it are uniformly supportive. When I first saw this segment I was appalled. The mission being filmed involved going to a local bazaar to purchase a spark plug. To accomplish this mission they shoot at I don’t know how many vehicles forcing them all to stop because ( I am guessing here) no locals can drive past the Canadians while their vehicles are pulled off the road. Their lavish use of ball ammunition causes traffic accidents at least one of which results in injuries to one of the occupants serious enough to warrant the dispatch of an American MEDEVAC helicopter. My firm belief is that The Trailer Park Boys could have figured out an easier way to get a spark plug in Kandahar.

I used to work in Kandahar frequently back during the time this segment was filmed. I know exactly how to obtain a spark plug in Kandahar it’s as simple as this “Hajji go get me a spark plug, please.” The Canadians from Senlis Council were working in Kandahar back then too conducting road missions almost daily with a three man security detail (good friends of mine) augmented with local security contingents. Senlis spent a considerable amount of time on the ground in dodgy places like refugee camps and the mean shanty towns which ring the city; you can find one of their excellent reports from Kandahar here. They were able to operate more or less freely around Kandahar which was my experience too.

I would like to stress that I am not contending the Canadians in this video did anything wrong. It is clear that they are operating according to their established rules of engagement and they are no doubt a crew of brave men and women who are proud of what they were able to accomplish during their operational tour in Kandahar. What I am trying to stress is that these rules of engagement are not consistent with the mission of bringing a secure environment along with much needed infrastructure development to the people of Afghanistan. Here is the ISAF mission statement which I just pulled off their web site:

“ISAF’s role is to assist the Government of Afghanistan and the International Community in maintaining security within its area of operation. ISAF supports the Government of Afghanistan in expanding its authority to the rest of the country, and in providing a safe and secure environment conducive to free and fair elections, the spread of the rule of law, and the reconstruction of the country.”

If the situation in Kandahar was so bad that the PRT cannot move a foot outside the wire without establishing a “no locals zone” around them and their vehicles at all times then I would contend that Kandahar doesn’t need a PRT. There are ways of gaining and controlling ground. In a place like Kandahar that would best be done from a series of safe houses manned by infantry soldiers who could would work on a daily basis with the local security forces and the various elders to maintain or re-establish security. This could have been done in Kandahar a few years ago with small teams spread out over a large geographical area. That is a risky way to conduct operations but our experience in Iraq would argue that it is safer for the grunts than riding around in armored vehicles on high IED and VBIED threat roads to “show the flag.”   I was in a “show the flag” operation back in Beirut Lebanon in 1983 and it did not work out that well for us.   Watching our military flounder about in Afghanistan some 25 years later taking casualties while showing the flag and accomplishing little is depressing.

In 2006 there were plenty of people in Kandahar who welcomed the military presence and were happy to see the Taliban vanquished. There were never as many on our side as you’ll find in the other cities of Afghanistan but they were there. I am not sure what the situation is in Kandahar now. I still have friends working there in the reconstruction battle but their security posture is now the same as it was in Iraq circa 2004. They don’t visit the bazaar nor go about at night on social calls. Somebody is going to have to go in and clean that mess up and I think I know who that somebody is going to be.

Fab Lab Jalalabad

Editors Note: This post is written by Amy Sun the MIT team leader for the Jalalabad FabLab.



A lot is going on in the Taj Fab Lab and it’s pretty exciting. The lab was deployed quite recently – equipment and I hit the ground in June 2008 – so expectations from all of our supporters and critics alike were quite low. Nonetheless the lab has already seen tremendous activity and growth in meaningful ways, even during the long slow ramp-up. We’re having some angst over long term support and funding but for the moment at least activity in the lab is exceeding expectations.

Each day approximately 45 users come to the lab and patiently deal with power and network and other issues and have been cranking out simple projects in staggering quantities. They have self-organized a system where some of the more advanced students hold classes and workshops for newer or less advanced users. There is a mix of genders, ages, background, ethnicities, and economic status.

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In January I and 5 other internationals will be in Jbad to kick off two self sustainability projects. The simpler of the two is for the fablab to organize a club where members make and sell customized things like t-shirts, trinkets (ie, challenge coins), vinyl stickers, signs, etc. all of which are run in way to pay users to learn to use machines very well and carefully. Additionally they will learn about simple accounting and business concepts. The club has something like a forced graduation when the user becomes very good at a particular skill, but first the person serves as a mentor for another incoming novice apprentice in any given skill. Generally speaking the users have been cranking out astonishing quantity but the quality is poor and there are few users who see the point to going back and making everything perfect since it’s all just play anyway. So I hope that needing to meet quality specs in order to get paid will make them sufficiently motivated. Some users are very talented but have no reward path for their talents.silkscreenedtshirt

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boy_robotcarThe second project, much more ambitious and complex, is to stand up something like an IT services company out of the fablab specifically to do with point-to-point long range connections with equipment fabbed in the lab (and later meshed networking also fabbed in the lab) as well as intranet support. Here we’re (informally) working with Cisco and the members of this club could become Cisco network certified and instantly highly employable in the Jbad area. We aim to provide local Afghans the knowledge, skills, and access to the machines to make equipment to push the edges of the network as well as have actual real-world systems to learn and apply their just in time learning. Just as importantly, they’ll be paid as they learn and not paid if they don’t perform. It’s this project that we’ll mostly be focused on in our January trip. We’ll be making, installing, and configuring several point to point connections with at least a 1 to 1 Afghan to international ratio where our goal is for the Afghans to be doing all the work by the last pair and for them to continue on as owner-employees of this company after we leave. Follow along at the temporary site: http://fabfiwireless.blogspot.com/ (this URL will change within the next two days as we bring our server and services online so don’t bookmark it).

The FabFi Long Range Wireless Antenna
The FabFi Long Range Wireless Antenn

Some of the earnings from both the above will come back to the fablab to help offset operation costs such as management, cleaning supplies, and to maintain teachers for open lab time. While I’m not expecting a deluge of cash, the mindset should bear fruit over time. In particular this lab may manage to stand up as Afghan owned without a heavily involved international owner. This is consistent with the other fab labs in the world but somewhat unusual for technical organizations in Nangarhar.

Because of extraordinary circumstances (eg, conflict zone), the Jbad lab will not be able to fund some extraordinary operations expenses. For example, the internet connection is super expensive because we’ve had to use a satcon because there isn’t an alternative (there’s no Verizon/AT&T/T-Mobile/Comcast for data). As Afghanistan as a whole makes forward progress these will ease. International support is necessary to equalize the playing field a little until then. Other than those things, our aim is for the lab to fund its own operations and projects, in the process busting the technical skills / technical jobs logjam in the eastern province. That’s why the two projects we kick off in January are so important.

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As to interim funding for the lab, many of my cohorts are helping to pull together a web and online community funding drive to seed the lab startup. We’ve even accidentally made $90 before going live with the site! (See http://www.fablab.af/). I plan to visit again with the local PRT, GO, and NGO organizations to find out about their funding and procurements processes – I envision funding not to pay the expenses outright but as customers of projects. Surely the PRT would like some wooden signs that say Chow Hall – 500 m straight ahead for like $500, right? I can think of a number of things that I would like to have the users make for a customer and maybe the PRT can think of some that they would really like to have too.

I’m told that pretty much all internationals that visit Nangarhar are taken to the fablab when their schedules and transpo permit. Construction, security, doctors/subject matter experts, business people, journalists, and other grad students alike. They always report that they are surprised to find that no matter what day they arrive unannounced there are indeed swarms of users wholly engaged in learning something and doing something that they don’t expect those people to be working with. I’ve been having a lot of difficulty with the particular brand of multipoint videoconference system at Jbad (something to do with the MCU and/or the network connection) so we haven’t been able to get maximal people to see into the lab. You can peek in at any time of the day on the other labs (username “guest”, no password, if asked). As they become more net-savy and are connected to the world, what’s particularly neat is that we’re starting to see and hear real voices from real, regular Afghans. (One of the ways you can help is engaging these early users in conversation – leave comments on their posts and uploads!)

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That’s probably the area that needs the most help as with everywhere in country, comms and power are at the top of my worries. The comms connection is great when it’s up, but it’s not always up especially as the experimental balloon continues to degrade. Our Mindtel collaborator work their butts off every several months to keep the support of the comms sponsor for just a little while longer. We have a great generator for power but can’t run it 24/7. We’re out of capital money to get either a battery system or second generator, and we can’t really afford the diesel anyway. It feels like I am asked for money for a new fuel filter every week. Most of all, the wiring to and within the fablab is a nightmare and I’ve already lost (expensive) equipment due to dirty power. Each day in the lab requires several hours of troubleshooting which generally turns out to be a problem with under/over powering or similar. It would cost on the order of $6k to rewire the lab, money we don’t have, so for the moment we make do.

Just over a week's worth of diesel.
Just over a week’s worth of diesel.

Secondary things that would be nice to get some help on are the practical matters of food, water, transpo, for the younger users that come to our lab. Some don’t get clean water or real meals anywhere. I would like to get to a point where we can provide something like fortified biscuits and the like for the sessions with younger children. They are usually the population that are very very quick to learn things and it’s the best time for them to be learning more stuff. But perpetual and crippling hunger, malnutrition, and dehydration work against paying attention to anything much less brain development. I can see big problems with hand-eye coordination and muscle control with the village kids. I’m a technical person and definitely not in a position to know anything about this kind of help so help from organizations that would be willing to collaborate would be quite ideal. Additionally, the local public schools aren’t teaching English, computers, etc. The fablab could be a place to facilitate and foster this but I and my cohorts are basically limited to technical topics. Both of these vectors are quite long term and in the vein of long term idealistic vision.

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I realize it’s a little strange to be giving an update on something that some of the readers have heard nothing about. You can find a short history of the Jalalabad Fab Lab, more on Fab Labs in general, and lots and lots more about what’s going on at a few of the labs from my fab blog and others’ blogs linked from that site. We don’t think that fab labs alone are the solution to all of Afghanistan’s problems but I’m aiming to show that after the Marines clean out an area and make it reasonably sane for people to come out of their houses, part of the future requires local Afghan nationals (regular people) to have access to the tools to help themselves (rather than waiting for internationals or Afghan government to provide them with everything). So far, I have one shiny example of this in the township of Soshanguve, South Africa where a group of unemployed youth have transformed where they live from a dead end to a nearly self-contained thriving place where people can have a future without leaving. The Christian Science Monitor went to see for themselves in 2006 when the lab was still somewhat new – it’s really more and more amazing now three years later. But that’s another story.

We’re about a month away now from getting on the ground and kicking off the two big projects described above. I welcome any and all comments, thoughts, and help.