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.

Irregular Warfare

The Pentagon recently released a directive on Irregular Warfare that has generated speculation among the various players in Afghanistan. When you see documents that say “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff shall”  it is a powerful piece of paper from on high. There are a finite number of people in the world who can task four star generals or deputy secretaries of defense and professionals in the business study these directives as if they were the Dead Sea Scrolls. This comment came from a discussion thread in a group I belong to.

“I find it particularly interesting that DoD would come up with a “Directive of the obvious”… For all of its claims the Army as an organization doesn’t learn so quickly. I suppose that it took years of doing the same things expecting different results for the light to shine on reality. Not to be condescending in any way; I am glad to see the directive has been introduced. I hope that it grows roots quickly and flourishes… There is a full-spectrum under which many current peripheral entities can be brought to bear in order to surpass the expectations that DoD may currently have.”

I could not have said it better myself; it will be interesting to see how this directive impacts the template used by the U.S. military as it introduces more maneuver units into the country. Reports in the press indicate that the Army is planning on sending combat units in to Loghar and Wardak Provinces which are just outside of Kabul. The Marine Corps appears to be preparing to deploy in expeditionary force strength into the south. That could mean up to three infantry regiments of Marines with all their supporting arms, aircraft and logistics. That is a lot of gunfighters.  The Question is – does it matter?
The Taliban control large swaths of Afghanistan not because they are better fighters but because they are beating the Karzai regime with better governance in the areas they control. The people know that a Taliban tribunal will not award land and water rights based on the largest bribe. They also know that once a case is settled the dispute is over. Fire fights between families involved in land and water disputes are frequent and bloody affairs in areas under government control. In areas under Taliban control the losing part accepts the Taliban ruling or 15 rounds in the chest. People tend to cooperate in systems like that.

But they don’t like it too much and would rather see a platoon of Marines or Army soldiers hanging around than a crew of religious zealots. It would be a pleasant surprise to see the Army and Marine units who flow into the country next year deployed down to the district level. I suspect that there will be tentative steps to branch out like that and these steps will involve what the new directive terms “civilian-military teams.”

That will be interesting to see play out and I believe small teams at the district level can, if properly funded and deployed, make a difference in the battle to control the only thing that matters in Afghanistan. The people.

Getting ready for a road mission. The guy on the right is our buddy Brandon who just graduated college and is in Nangarhar teaching orphans English (a story line he is planning to use to pick up women when he returns home; we’re coaching him on the art of seduction but he’s a big Liberal and isn’t catching on too well). The pixalated guys are American SF – Shem and I are in the middle.

We were able to conduct a “civilian-military team” field trial a few days ago during a road mission to Kabul (to re-stock the bar). This was a demonstration to our SF buddies of why we prefer unarmored local vehicles and they caught on fast. One of the Captains remarked that he never really got to see too much of the country because his visibility in an armored hummer was so restricted. They also marveled at how we attracted no attention (except in the busy main street of Surobi; a HIG R&R village). We also rolled up on a French convoy which gave the boys an excellent opportunity to experience the joy of low visibility ops when the  Frenchman manning the trail .50 cal swung the barrel towards us.

Ah yes using local transport - always a good deal
Using local transport is not always a good deal

The military travels in convoys that do not allow the local vehicles to get near them. They do this to avoid being hit by “suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive devices” (VBIED’s). In the south Canadian and British forces force all traffic off the roads they are driving down to prevent VBIED’s. In the east sometimes all the traffic will pull off the road when they see an American convoy approaching and sometimes it won’t.

One of the Army officers had "good glass" on his camera and took this photo which I think looks pretty damn cool - if I say so myself
One of the Army officers had “good glass” on his camera and took this photo which I think looks pretty damn cool – if I say so myself

Using unarmored local vehicles with light body armor and fighting kit is another option. This appears to be taking unwarranted risks but I’ll let the quote below from Vietnam legend Col David Hackworth address the issue.
In Vietnam, today’s most successful infantry tactics and techniques were yesterday’s heresy and madness. When these ‘overly reckless’ ideas were first introduced by farseeing innovators in 1965 and 1966, few commanders took them seriously. Most, because of parochial conventional orientation, looked upon these new concepts with contempt not unlike many reactionary English lords’ attitude toward the longbow before Crecy. But today in Vietnam, these once ‘wild schemes’ have become standard drill. These bold techniques have changed the thrust of the war from uneconomical multi brigade operations to fights that are fought almost exclusively by the squad and platoon.”

That was true in Vietnam and it’s true today; we need to win the people and that means being in the with them 24/7. We can do it and do it for pennies on the dollar we currently spend. But only if we reach back to our past and remember how to conduct independent small unit operations on a very large scale. Let them live and move around like we do and you’re talking change you can really believe in.

 

Another cool photo shot with the good glass - this is the Mahipar Pass outside Kabul
Another cool photo shot with the good glass – this is the Mahipar Pass outside Kabul

It is time for some “outside the box” thinking and last week’s demonstration may lead to more discussions between the big base behind the wire military and all the other internationals in Afghanistan who feel safer at night on the streets of Kabul or Jalalabad than we do in Washington DC or Chicago.

The Reconstruction Man

For the past five years I have listened intently to the senior generals, politicians, and U. S. State Department officials as they tell the world that the most important thing to be done in Afghanistan is reconstruction and the rehabilitation of infrastructure. In countries where a majority of the population is illiterate actions speak much louder than words. Our ‘actions” on the reconstruction and rehabilitation front are so woefully inadequate that they should be a national scandal. I hold the military and the Department of State equally at fault. The reconstruction “battle” is a Department of State responsibility and they set the security parameters under which US contractors operate. The State Department and US AID people live in the US Embassy complex – a gigantic walled ultra posh compound with everything you could ask for, great gym, extra pay, dirt cheap booze and cigarettes. But they never leave and there is a mindset which develops when you live behind gigantic walls with lavish security and that mindset is THE REASON why reconstruction is so slow.

The security situation is dramatically different from district to district within the 34 Provinces of Afghanistan but you would not know that unless you were in those Provinces 24/7/365. Instead every venture outside a “secure compound” by the embassy or Army is treated like a combat patrol, every Afghan a potential attacker and every vehicle on the road a potential car bomb. A trip to the international airport (3/4 of a mile from the embassy) is as serious to these people as a jet fighter sortie over North Vietnam circa 1969 was to a jet jockey. Tijuana, Mexico is far more dangerous for Americans than Kabul, Afghanistan but getting decision makers to understand that and then adopting force protection rules which reflect it seems to be impossible. The American military is not as culpable as State – a few commanders have even dispersed their formations down to the district level bringing instant stability and security to those areas during their brief tenure in country. But as a general rule the American military is confined to large bases, their situational awareness generated by the classified intelligence circulated from on high.

But we continue to try and find a way to operate better using the same constraints, the same policies, and the same force protection rules which always produce the same results. Capacity building means using and training local contractors to deliver their product to Corps of Engineers (CoE) standard. The CoE personnel and contractors in Nangarhar Province take this seriously. They teach courses on various trade related topics, host RFP (request for proposal) writing workshops, they do what they can but realize that you cannot “capacity build” from inside a gigantic secured compound. CoE personnel may venture away from base but I have never seen them so like all the other U.S. government agencies they use Afghans who have been appointed by the government to be their eye and ears.   Have I ever mentioned the government of Afghanistan has a little corruption problem? Do you think it a solid plan to trust government officials to do 100% of you QA/QC work for American construction projects?

Dsn packed up and ready to go with our new protector dog in training Scout
Dsn packed up and ready to go with our new protector dog in training Scout

The free market is a wonderful thing and the Afghans are responding to the trickle of money not going directly to DynCorp or The Louis Berger Group by developing their capacity to compete without CoE or US AID help. Which brings us to Dan The Reconstruction Man. The Afghans may not have much formal schooling but they are smart. They know they have to perform to standard and need to learn how quickly. There is a model in use which works and works well Dan is one of the expatriate operators working under that model. Dan works for a small group of local construction companies who are building various bases around Nangarhar for the US and Afghan government. His job is to ensure that the bids are written and priced correctly, the work is done correctly, to keep all the various subcontractors honest and on schedule, and to keep the amount of (US Taxpayer) project monies lost to bribes and theft to an absolute minimum. Dan lives at the Taj with us, drives all over the province in a Toyota Corolla, and spends long hours doing the tedious work of mentoring young Afghan construction workers on the finer points of project management. His life support costs are somewhere this side of 2% of the life support costs we pay for State Department and Corps of Engineers (CoE) personnel stationed in Afghanistan and unlike them he is out interacting everyday with the locals by himself mind you. Dan has been in Afghanistan, off and on, for seven years, speaks some Dari (no Pashto which is a tough to learn) has a full set of local garb and like the so many other Afghan hands is perfectly comfortable being the only international around for miles while working on his projects.

Dan is getting ready to head home for a well earned 30 day break. His flight from Jbad to Kabul was canceled so he has to go by road which he doesn’t like one bit. He is not worried about Taliban but the Afghan government security forces might see his who jocked up AK and assume he is illegally armed. Which means they will take his kit and demand bribes which if not paid could result in a couple of weeks in the Pul-e-Charki prison. That sort of thing happens here with depressing regularity. He is no more “illegally armed” then I am as I have related in earlier posts there are no laws because the Afghans don’t want them they want to drive the western security firms out and control the market.

Dan is from North America, a retired military combat engineer with SF time under his belt and an understanding wife who supports his current overseas endeavors. Yesterday evening, as he was sharing the finer points of holographic weapons sights with a couple of his former security team mates and I, he told us a quick story which illustrates exactly how bad things have gotten in the Stability Ops battle.

Chatting up former team mates who are down in Jbad with clients at the winterized Tiki Bar
Chatting up former team mates who are down in Jbad with clients at the winterized Tiki Bar

Apparently Dan got a snarky note from the CoE accusing him of not doing the proper QC on his concrete mix, not having his QA guy on site as required, and not having the required personal protective equipment (PPE) for his stone masons. They sent pictures and demand an immediate response. At the site in question Dan was not even close to pouring concrete and he employs no stone masons so needless to say he was perplexed. He was also (unexpectedly) still in Jalalabad and thus able to get on this complaint quickly. He checked his vehicle log to see if his QA guy had been dispatched, he checked his phone logs to see if his QA guy had called in from the work site, he asked the assigned driver if he had taken him to the work site and finding all in order he drove out himself to find out what the hell was going on. Surprise, surprise it turns out the CoE Quality Assurance engineer (a local national from the government) wanted his “sweets” (shereni) from the subcontractors and was not getting a penny. He thought Dan was gone for a month and made his move thinking he could get away with it. Shereni is a dreaded word in Afghanistan. It is the code for a bribe and internationals will run into this at some point but  Afghans deal with it is every time they interact with any government offical.

Dan was able to send back his own tempered response which should serve as a wake up call but won’t. He pointed out that they were not pouring concrete yet and that the pictures of his “stone masons” were taken at the Afghan business located next to his site which has nothing to do with the project in question. He deals with issues like this almost daily and more than earns his salary by doing so. Dan and people like him are taking serious risks operating without a wing man, armored vehicles, radios, or any kind of protection.   The American embassy does not encourage guys like him or I to be here. Dan provided an immediate, direct, positive impact on all the projects being funded in the eastern region. Without guys like him the Government of Japan would not be able to operate here and they are about 1,000 more effective than US AID.  It is not like we are the only ones who have broken the code on this, I know a few of the CoE reps in Nangarhar and they, to a man, want to operate the way we do, get around like we get around, and use their talents to make a difference. It is easier spending so much time in Afghanistan when you live like we do, when you can have your own little Scout puppy dog, your own room with attached bath, a bar where you can sit and spend time with friends. But that is not the reason to imitate our operational posture the reason to mimic us is the cost savings. We cannot afford to continue operating with the lavish overhead found at the embassy and all large military bases in this country. Quick example – KBR charges the military $35.00 per man per meal.   I can feed myself and 10 guests for $35.00 a day…total.

I live like a king; well more like a king whose family is almost broke but a king all the same. I do so for pennies on the dollar of what is currently spent for life support by the military and Department of State. I also impact the local economy every bit of food consumed on our military bases and embassy is flown in from Dubai, every stinking morsel. We eat locally procured food prepared by locally trained cooks and it is good.   When I need work done on the Taj I hire local contractors and use local products, the military hires KBR and imports every bit of their construction material.   I would think “capacity building” means trying to build capacity. To our friends from Washington DC “capacity building” seems to mean talking about various million dollar programs with well healed lobbyists who recently retired from either State or the military. I guess a complicated society like ours needs and values people who have the fortitude and stamina to engage in endless conversations and meetings about things like “capacity building.” I can’t do that, I hate meetings with a passion. Dan is the same way he doesn’t talk about capacity building nor does he think he is building capacity. He has been paid a fair wage, given a set of tasks and like every good SNCO I have ever known goes quietly about his job demonstrating more initiative and self motivation than any three self help gurus you can think of. Actions speak louder than words in the third world.

Scout - the offical prtector dog in training at the Taj
Scout – the official protector dog in training at the Taj

Our country is going broke. We are already over a Trillion dollars into the bailout money and have yet to spend a penny on the “toxic sub-prime mortgages” which the money was supposed to buy in order to save our economy. The big three are lining up for their turn at the public trough. Arnold wants us to bail out his state while maintaining all the bizarre policies and taxes which has driven capitol and jobs out of California. The Office of the President Elect (I did not know we had one of those need to check my pocket constitution because I’ve missed that part somehow) is talking stimulus but the kind of “stimulus” that Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi have to offer is not something I would care to experience. We are going broke and need to start realizing that at least in Afghanistan we can be much more effective for much less money. Let the senior people who hide their tired, micro managing, ineffective, morale crushing, modes of operation behind the rubric of “force protection” take all their fobbits and go home where “force protection” is much easier.   There are already people here who can do the job faster, better, cheaper while saving the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars.

The way forward is clear; the operational model designed and verified by the people who have been working effectively here for years. I will say this again knowing that I sound like a broken record we are running out of time. When the people of Afghanistan decided that we are not serious and not really here to help they will eject us and we will have no choice but to go. The butcher’s bill for that will be more than most Americans will want to consider. Look at what happened back in 1978 when the people of Herat decided they wanted the Soviets and their families to go, they all went, in body bags.

Change you can believe in

Today started out great I am back in Jalalabad after completing a short job which I cannot freely blog about and the weather is perfect. I fired up the computer and checked in with Power Line to find this excellent story about a Marine rifle platoon who were ambushed by 250 Taliban. They routed the Taliban and sent them fleeing from the battlefield in panic with the designated marksmen putting down dozens of the enemy fighters using their excellent M-14 DMR. The M-14 DMR fires a 175 grain 7.62x51mm match round through a 22 inch stainless steel match grade barrel at 2,837 fps out of the muzzle. Marine marksmen can routinely hit individuals at 850 meters with this rifle and because of the round it has real stopping power. You won’t see a Taliban fighter take six hits with this beast and keep on running (happens a lot with the M4) in fact you won’t see a Taliban or any other kind of human take two rounds and keep moving.

M-14 DMR
M-14 DMR

The Marine story made my day and validated something I have said repeatedly on Covert Radio which is you can move anywhere in this country with a platoon of infantry. The Taliban, rent-a-Taliban, criminals, and war lord affiliated fighters have no ability to stand up to the punishment a well trained platoon can inflict. NATO needs to learn this lesson quickly. The French lost almost a dozen men in an ambush up in the Uzbin valley in August. In that very same valley last month a force of 300 French troopers conducted a “tactical retrograde” leaving behind sophisticated anti tank missiles in the process when they were confronted by a small force of Taliban. When the Marines were hit by a much larger enemy force the entire unit immediately got onto the flanks of the ambushers and rolled them up in order to free the men trapped in the kill zone. Once accomplishing this they maintained contact until the Taliban broke and ran. Conversely the French   expended all their resources and energy trying to break contact and recover casualties, a “tactic” not unheard of with other NATO military units. The point to all this isn’t that the Marines are great and the French army is not but rather it is very very difficult to build and sustain good infantry. NATO countries did not have to worry about producing quality infantry over the past 50 years they let America shoulder that burden while they developed their economies with the money they would have needed for national defense. Producing good infantry requires a certain attitude and mind set not found in polite society but when the Europeans get hit hard with the old clue bat they will develop effective infantry units. You’ll know when they do because you’ll start seeing 30 man platoons from NATO countries running all over the country hoping against hope that 200 to 300 Taliban are stupid enough to try and take them on.

Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty
Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty

I obviously enjoy it when events validate some of the things I say in this blog or on Covert Radio but this excellent story of combat dominance will have absolutely no impact on the Afghanistan situation at all. You cannot win here by just killing people nor can you deal the Taliban and their affiliates a decisive blow because they are not a unified movement and their leaders are all in Pakistan outside our reach. The people of Afghanistan are the prize of this contest and few of them are down in the Helmund or Farah Provinces. While the Marines dominate their area of operations the rest of the country is falling outside of central government control. Every district, town and village in Afghanistan has some sort of land or water dispute ongoing and land disputes here are deadly affairs. We routinely see firefights between clans over land disputes in UN security reporting and some of these fights result in over a dozen KIA’s. When the Taliban move into an area they decide these disputes using Sharia law instead of who can pay the biggest bribe. They are considered fair in most of these rulings and will tolerate no armed fighting over disputes once they have decided upon a case. A country doesn’t lose a war against insurgents by being out fought they lose by being out governed which is exactly what is happening all over this country.

Last night I was chatting down at the new and improved Tiki Bar with some old friends who have considerable Afghanistan experience. One of them first came here with an NGO in 1996, the other in 2002, and our conversation was all about change. When I first arrived in Afghanistan it took about 6 hours to drive between Jalalabad which is a 90 minute drive now. In Kabul it was rare to see a woman who was not wearing a burka and today the opposite is the case. In Jalalabad which is one of the largest cities in the Pashtun belt, not all women here wear the hated burka.

Streets of Kabul 2007
Streets of Kabul 2007
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.

But here is the real change which will never be reversed. The change you can believe in computers and internet.

Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008
Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008

Computers allow access to knowledge by children who are dirt poor and hungry to learn about the world around them. That genie is now long out of the bottle and my friends and I believe that the sudden surge towards modernity is spooking many of the elders who play such an important role in tribal life. We noted the backlash in Peshawar where the Pakistani Taliban is trying to reverse the headlong rush towards modernity by forcing the woman back into the burka (and with some short term success at the moment.) Peshawar used to be a very modern place which welcomed internationals and where very few women could be seen in the burka just two years ago. Not true today and you can’t buy CD’s or pirated movies either. There are many forces in play in central Asia and the biggest one has its own velocity and will continue to generate all sorts of unintended consequences as it goes forward. Knowledge is power extreme poverty is motivation and the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the other Stans are very motivated to acquire the power of knowledge.

The Jalalabad road in Kabul
The Jalalabad road in Kabul

We cannot control the effects from the explosive power of the internet and computer on the local people. What we can do is to continue developing the infrastructure while providing a secure environment in which the Afghans can develop their economy. Security in the Afghan context requires boots on the ground doing what the Marines did in Shewan. Small units who are constantly outside the wire with the Afghan people and who crush anyone silly enough to fight them even if they are outnumbered 20 to 1. Afghanistan is much bigger than Iraq with a much larger population but American infantry (the US Army has great infantry too) augmented by those allies who also have developed high quality infantry will have to start consistently operating in the same manner as the Marines are operating down south which to date they have been unwilling to do. Combat is a dangerous business requiring men who can endure incredible hardships and discomfort while maintaining their motivation and (most importantly) sense of humor.

Good infantry doesn’t need ice cream every day or the cushy barracks found at the Khandahar airfield; they need water, chow, lots of ammunition, and leaders who trust them to operate in a decentralized fashion with their small units. The Marine Commander down south is Colonel Duffy White, a close friend, extraordinarily competent and experienced warrior and a man who combines pragmatism with a great sense of humor. America has a few more like him as do our allies no doubt – inshallah we will see all of them over here soon using the decentralized tactics required for bringing security to people living outside the main cities and military bases.

Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way
Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way

This morning’s email contained two different security alerts about impending attacks on the vital Jalalabad Kabul road. We have been here for almost eight years and still have not oriented our forces to provide security for the vast majority of the Afghan population. We are running out of time but it is not too late to get more of our forces oriented on the population and operating like the lone rifle platoon from the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines did in Shewan a few days ago. That requires courage from commanders on high there are troops on the ground who already have that courage and are ready to fight like lions in order to give people they do not know a chance to enter the modern world. That is a worthy fight by any standard of measurement.

On the verge of modernity
On the verge of modernity

Shakedown

We had to make a run to Kabul last Friday to take some clients to the airport and to pick up new ones. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is considered very dangerous by the military and US State Department, of medium risk by the UN, and very little risk by me and the hundreds of internationals who travel the route daily. The Taliban or other Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) have never ambushed internationals on this route with the sole exception of taking some pot shots at a UN convoy last week. The reason this route remains open is that it is too important to all the players in Afghanistan to risk its closure, almost 80% of the Afghan GDP flows along it so the Taliban would have a real PR problem if they cut it causing a large scale humanitarian crisis. The criminal gangs and drug lords who cooperate with the Taliban would also become very agitated if the road were closed and probably turn on any real Taliban groups foolish enough to be within their reach if that happened.

We don’t take this run lightly but we often choose to make it without body armor or long guns because we are afraid of being ambushed by the other villains members of the Afghan security forces. On Friday our long string of luck ran out and we became the latest victim of the Afghan security company game. It cost us two sets of body armor which we cannot replace because you cannot import body armor into Afghanistan and we were lucky to get away with the weapons (which are also irreplaceable.)

NDS Commander and 2IC
NDS Commander and 2IC

Many think of private security companies as analogous to mercenary bands with all the associated negative connotations. A few of them are shady companies and deserve all the contempt and bad karma in the world to befall their greedy principals. But most of the companies operating here are well run and highly professional. To facilitate bringing the rule of law to Afghanistan they formed an association three years ago to assist in the effort to regulate the industry. However that effort has been stymied at every turn by Afghan government officials who seem less interested in regulation or the rule of law than establishing rules from which they will clearly benefit. Just one of many examples; when the first set of regulations were written by the Afghan government it stipulated the payment of all fees and penalties would be made to the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). The Private Security Company Association of Afghanistan (PSCAA) politely pointed out that the new Afghanistan constitution specifically stated that all fees and taxes would be paid to the Ministry of Finance. There is enough international mentors at the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to ensure fees paid into that ministry go directly to the Government treasury.

It was immediately clear that our assistance in Afghan constitutional law interpretation was not well received and the process has gone downhill ever since. There still are no valid laws regarding PSC’s in Afghanistan but there have been a series of “temporary” licenses issued which every legitimate company in Afghanistan has acquired. These “temporary” licenses of course mean little with state security organs not part of the MoI. Afghan security forces have arrested internationals working for licensed PSC’s who had individual weapons permits from the MoI and thrown them in jail for weeks at a time. Although we cannot replace the body armor stolen from us we were lucky to get off lightly, it would be difficult for a small company like ours to raise the cash needed for springing an international out of the Puli Charki prison.

Here is how it went down. We were through the Mahipar pass and almost to Kabul. We came up to the last “S” shaped curve before the Puli Charki checkpoint and there was a NDS (National Directorate of Security) checkpoint set up with belt fed machineguns off to the side and a good ¼ mile between the east and west checkpoints.

Unfortunately I did not have the Shem Bot with me so I had Haji jann, my good friend and official driver in the contested areas, come down from Kabul to drive us up. This turned out to be a critical mistake because the NDS will not toy with two armed expats when one is driving but when they see an armed Expat with a local driver it is an indicator for an ” illegally” armed international which means big cash if they play their cards right. I flashed my weapons permit and license but the boys noted my two clients, PhD candidates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – had body armor. In Afghanistan body armor (used to protect clients), armored vehicles (also used to protect clients) and two-way radios are considered the tools of war and those of us working here must obtain licenses for them. But clients change constantly so we cannot get individual licenses for them. We have also never had a problem with this catch-22 before because our language skills and charming personalities normally forestall any potential disagreements.

working things out is a long process
working things out is a long process

The reason I take Haji jann on all missions into contested areas is because he is a former Taliban commander of some repute (emphasis on former.) He has also been with me through thick and thin and I love the guy, we talk for hours although I understand very little of what he says but we love to chin wag with each other. I heard him say right after we were stopped something like “the armed white guy is a little crazy and I would not arrest him if I were you.” I gave him the WTF Hajii? look and he did not smile indicating things were serious.

The National Directorate of Security (NDS) wanted the body armor from my MIT clients because they had no license. They also started searching our baggage which was problematic. I had another gig starting up in Kabul and had extra rounds, magazines, and a first aid kit all of which is considered illegal (for internationals) in Afghanistan. The “commander” who is the pot bellied slack jawed fellow in the black fleece started pulling all my stuff out for confiscation.

I looked at Haji jann who shook his head slightly giving me the go sign and went off like a firecracker at the “commander” who also instantly lost his cool and started to yell back at me. That is a great sign because it indicates fear on his part and I knew I was not going to lose my spare ammo (which is expensive) and first aid kit. When he started yelling I started smiling my wolf smile which fellow sheepdogs would recognize as a pre-incident indicator and criminals recognize as a sign they have overplayed their hand. But they took the body armor off my MIT charges and I really could do nothing about it. The “commander” gave me his own wolf smile when his boys stole the body armor because he knew there was no cell signal in the canyon, so what was I going to do? You can only push so far in a situation like this.

Dr Tam wasn't too sure about all this commotion but the 2IC insisted on photos and Dr. Tam was polite enough to pose
Dr Tam wasn’t too sure about all this commotion but the 2IC insisted on photos and Dr. Tam was polite enough to pose

Here is the weird part. Amy Sun our other MIT charge was snapping pictures and caught three armed men way up on the ridge line watching things unfold. They were armed but way outside the range of the AK 47’s they were carrying.

One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
One of the watchers on the northern ridgeline
slightly enhanced view
slightly enhanced view

I have no idea who these guys were but do know that the Taliban and in particular Al Qaeda fighters value good body armor and pay well for it. I suspect these guys are now the proud owners of two sets of premium body armor. I may be wrong about that but my current disgust over this incident drives me to assume the worst.

This kind of harassment has been routine for the past 18 months in Kabul. We have been spared because we have the proper licenses and travel normally in pairs. Yesterday I was copied on an email from the security director of the biggest US AID contractor in the land about one of their projects in the north. It is slightly redacted:

“This afternoon Gen Khalil, commander of the police in Sherbegan, visited one of our well sites demanding to see the PSC license of (deleted) Security. He informed (deleted) that the license expired and that they have until 16:00 to produce a new one or face arrest.   Rather than facing arrest all LN guards were stood down and the Expats and TCNs went to Mazar to stay over for the night. This leaves one of our sites uncovered and can have a serious impact on our operations.

Can MOI please as a matter of urgency issue new licenses? Maybe someone in MOI can talk some sense into (deleted) head. His no is xxxxxxx”

Which brings us to the US Embassy and how they react to news like this which is (to my mind) deplorable. The embassy take is and I quote “we do not encourage US citizens to come to Afghanistan for any reason and will not help you in your dealings with the Afghan government. If you are arrested we will endeavor to ensure you have adequate food and a blanket.” It is hard for me to relate the disappointment with which I view our Department of State. I was the project manager for the American Embassy guard force and know exactly what goes on inside our embassy but because I have invested every penny I have in my company I will refrain from further comment.

A major problem with the stability operations part of our campaign in Afghanistan is that the local people do not think we are serious. The local people are the prize here, everything we are doing should be focused on bringing security and infrastructure to the district level to benefit them. But we aren’t and the local people cannot believe that after seven years we still cannot get the most basic infrastructure programs accomplished. The most efficient way to do that is with small numbers of armed contractors who are able to work at the district level for extended periods of time. There are a few people doing that right now, they are armed because they have to be, and they are doing the daily quality control of Afghan contractors working on various reconstruction projects. We need to have more of them out here both mentoring and doing quality control of the projects awarded to Afghan small businessmen. That level of oversight and reporting brings in donor dollars because the money can be accounted for. Donor dollars and expat project management would significantly help break the funding logjam which currently hampers district level reconstruction of roads, irrigation systems and micro hydro power generation.

At some point one hopes the powers that be will realize this and aggressively support the Americans and other internationals who are operating far outside the comfortable confines of Kabul. For right now we are basically on our own which will eventually lead to tragedy. Nothing good will come from continued confrontations between dodgy police running “surprise” checkpoints and armed internationals.

Veterans Day Video Tribute from a "Man on the Street" interview at the Torkham Border

We had the rare treat of accompanying some guys working for the U.S. Army to the Torkham border today. They went up to chat with the platoon of American MP’s who jointly man the border crossing with the Afghan Border Police (ABP). The MP’s have a very cool gig at the Torkham. They mentor their Afghan counterparts and also keep an eye on the large volume of human and vehicular traffic which flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Army guys who let us tag along were conducting some “man on the street” interviews and getting very encouraging remarks from the Afghans they talked with. The American soldier who did the interviewing was born in Pakistan and raised in Washington State. He talks Pashto with an eastern accent (taught to him by the military defense language school a positive sign that we are developing the right skill sets) so the locals assume he is an Afghan. One Afghan we chatted up had the most interesting things to say about both Americans and the problems facing Afghans. I’ll paste in a video of that interview at the end of this post. Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan know the gratitude that local people feel towards them. They often remark about a people who leave their homes and families to help a war ravaged population recover while asking for nothing in return. Just as in Iraq the average Afghan is very moved by what we have done for his country as you will see in the embedded interview. When you hear people express themselves this way it is easier to understand why so many men and woman in our military volunteer to come back for multiple tours. As I have said repeatedly in previous posts the Afghans really like Americans and given a vote on the matter would like to see many more.

As you approach the Torkham border crossing you come upon an extensive open air chop shop. Most of these cars processed in this area come from the auto salvage lots of America and Canada. Trucks bring them up from port in Karachi and off load them on the Pakistan side where gangs of kids push them across the border to the chop shop area about a mile down the road. Crowds of kids bring barrels of fuel and used oil back across the border to Pakistan where it can be recycled. This is one of the industries which really needs infrastructure help or the toxic waste run off will seep into the ground water in concentrations even the locals cannot ignore or tolerate.

The American MP’s keep an eye on the border crossing and are involved in any apprehensions of smugglers. They find weapons, drugs and explosives routinely. There are also former US Customs agents working as contractors to mentor the senior ABP supervisors. Joint military/contractor teams like this one are the wave of the future. There is no proven way to increase the effectiveness of security forces in the third world short of in the field mentorship. It is good for the Afghans who work this vital crossing and it is also good for the Americans who are out here daily interacting with local people.

Chatting with the soldiers at the border
Outside the customs office catching up on how things are going on the border

Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan – these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Can’t leave the belt fed machineguns unattended so the guys rotate through this boring post

There was a collection of Afghans who lived in Pakistan but were of Uzbek, Hazara or Tajik origin. A group of Uzbek Taliban with a considerable amount of explosives was captured recently in Pakistan and they are not letting anyone who looks remotely Uzbek into the country without an official visa. These men are waiting to see who else from their group is going to get the boot. What stands out in situations like this is that there is no violence or even harsh words exchanged as these guys get the bad news from the Pakistani Frontier Guard. They explain the situation and escort the men over to their Afghan counterparts who add in their condolences and ask them to wait off to the side as long as they like.

Uzbecks from Afghanistan wait around to see who else from their group is going to be turned back by the Pakistani’s

Here are some interesting people shots from the border.

There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border
There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans 
It is a long walk to the crossing and you often see kids and woman getting pushed around in hand trucks like this
Dr. Sun at the border. She has an amazing ability to talk her way onto trips like this – the troops always enjoy chatting her up.
Old man at the border – Afghans will stop and pose for photographers regardless of age and location

As we were leaving we brought some Samosa from one of the child vendors and head back to Jalalabad. We stopped to chat with an Afghan we saw walking down the road near the American FOB Torkham which is about five miles west of the border. I have heard similar sentiments from Afghans all over the country Happy Veterans Day to all who have or are now serving. Here is a regular Afghan passing on his thanks too.

Samosa – like eating a stick of butter but tastier

I know I promised you a video at the end, but the Army guys asked us to scrub out their guy from the vid.   Here’s the audio track only to tide you over until we’ve edited the video:   torkham_interview_sound_only

Veterans Day Video Tribute from a “Man on the Street” interview at the Torkham Border

We had the rare treat of accompanying some guys working for the U.S. Army to the Torkham border today. They went up to chat with the platoon of American MP’s who jointly man the border crossing with the Afghan Border Police (ABP). The MP’s have a very cool gig at the Torkham. They mentor their Afghan counterparts and also keep an eye on the large volume of human and vehicular traffic which flows between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Army guys who let us tag along were conducting some “man on the street” interviews and getting very encouraging remarks from the Afghans they talked with. The American soldier who did the interviewing was born in Pakistan and raised in Washington State. He talks Pashto with an eastern accent (taught to him by the military defense language school a positive sign that we are developing the right skill sets) so the locals assume he is an Afghan. One Afghan we chatted up had the most interesting things to say about both Americans and the problems facing Afghans. I’ll paste in a video of that interview at the end of this post. Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan know the gratitude that local people feel towards them. They often remark about a people who leave their homes and families to help a war ravaged population recover while asking for nothing in return. Just as in Iraq the average Afghan is very moved by what we have done for his country as you will see in the embedded interview. When you hear people express themselves this way it is easier to understand why so many men and woman in our military volunteer to come back for multiple tours. As I have said repeatedly in previous posts the Afghans really like Americans and given a vote on the matter would like to see many more.engines-2

As you approach the Torkham border crossing you come upon an extensive open air chop shop. Most of these cars processed in this area come from the auto salvage lots of America and Canada. Trucks bring them up from port in Karachi and off load them on the Pakistan side where gangs of kids push them across the border to the chop shop area about a mile down the road. Crowds of kids bring barrels of fuel and used oil back across the border to Pakistan where it can be recycled. This is one of the industries which really needs infrastructure help or the toxic waste run off will seep into the ground water in concentrations even the locals cannot ignore or tolerate.boys-auto-tradefenders

 

 

The American MP’s keep an eye on the border crossing and are involved in any apprehensions of smugglers. They find weapons, drugs and explosives routinely. There are also former US Customs agents working as contractors to mentor the senior ABP supervisors. Joint military/contractor teams like this one are the wave of the future. There is no proven way to increase the effectiveness of security forces in the third world short of in the field mentorship. It is good for the Afghans who work this vital crossing and it is also good for the Americans who are out here daily interacting with local people.amy-and-joechattingjoes

Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend
Afghan vehicles cannot drive into Pakistan - these guys are getting dropped off by a friend

mg

 

There was a collection of Afghans who lived in Pakistan but were of Uzbek, Hazara or Tajik origin. A group of Uzbek Taliban with a considerable amount of explosives was captured recently in Pakistan and they are not letting anyone who looks remotely Uzbek into the country without an official visa. These men are waiting to see who else from their group is going to get the boot. What stands out in situations like this is that there is no violence or even harsh words exchanged as these guys get the bad news from the Pakistani Frontier Guard. They explain the situation and escort the men over to their Afghan counterparts who add in their condolences and ask them to wait off to the side as long as they like.uzbecks-2uzbeks

 

Here are some interesting people shots from the border.

There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border
There seems to be an unusually high concentration of orphans on the border

border-crossingamyold-man

As we were leaving we brought some Samosa from one of the child vendors and head back to Jalalabad. We stopped to chat with an Afghan we saw walking down the road near the American FOB Torkham which is about five miles west of the border. I have heard similar sentiments from Afghans all over the country Happy Veterans Day to all who have or are now serving. Here is a regular Afghan passing on his thanks too.samosa-kid

I know I promised you a video at the end, but the Army guys asked us to scrub out their guy from the vid.   Here’s the audio track only to tide you over until we’ve edited the video:   torkham_interview_sound_only

What is going on in Sherzad District? Part 2

One of the coolest things about living in Afghanistan is the sense of history which surrounds one as you trek off the beaten path. In the rural districts the daily routine of the people has altered little in hundreds of years. It is easy to find the sites of historic battles or ancient ruins which few westerners have seen. The hospitality of the Afghans is constant reminder that the capacity for good in people transcends the evil which constantly searches for cold hearts or idle brains in which it can embed and grow. An armed society is a polite society but the Afghans take politeness to an extreme that is at times bewildering.

Yet the Afghans have never been able to govern themselves effectively. Despite their culture of warm hospitality to guests and strangers their political culture remains polarized, vicious, and deadly. These are tribal lands with a small percentage of “haves” and a large population of “have not’s.” The “haves” are the leaders with positions determined at birth and not resented by people at the village level because they do not “have” that much more than their fellow tribal members. The “have not’s” do not agitate politically because they spend most of their lives trying to find the next meal they are not like American poor with health issues stemming from morbid obesity. Poor people here die of starvation daily. Poor children die of exposure during the harsh winters even on the streets of Kabul. Watching the polarization of the American electorate from afar during this presidential campaign has me thinking about politics a lot lately.

This is what real poverty looks like. Remember these kids who stand little chance of reaching adulthood the next time you hear NPR or CBS or the racial grievance mongers carrying on about the poor in America.
This is what real poverty looks like. Remember these kids who stand little chance of reaching adulthood the next time you hear NPR or CBS or the racial grievance mongers carrying on about the poor in America.

And speaking of politics guess what the first topic of conversation was when I joined the elders of Sherzad district for a lunch meeting last Thursday? If you guessed Barack Obama you are correct and I am not making this up. Talk about weird but let me set the trip up before I get to that.

Traveling into contested tribal lands is a bit tricky. I had no doubt that the Malicks from Gandamak would provide for my safety at our destination but I had to get there first. The time tested decision making matrix us outside the wire types use in situations of this nature is to look at what the State Department is doing  and do the exact opposite. The State Department insists on brand new armored SUV’s with heavily armed contractor escorts fore and aft. I went with an old beat up Toyota pick up, no security escort, local clothes and a local driver.  Given the amount of Taliban activity in the Southern Triangle that is the only reasonably safe way to get in and out of isolated villages like Gandamak.

The first of three downed bridges between Gandamak and Jalalabad
The first of three downed bridges between Gandamak and Jalalabad

The road into Gandamack required us to ford three separate stream beds. The bridges which once spanned these obstacles were destroyed by the Soviets around 25 years ago. We have been fighting the Stability Operations battle here going on seven years but the bridges are still down, the power plants have not been fixed and most roads are little better then they were when Alexander the Great came through the Khyber Pass in 327 BC. The job of repairing and building the infrastructure of Afghanistan is much bigger than anyone back home can imagine. It is also clearly beyond the capabilities of USAID or the US Military PRT’s to fix given their current operational MO.  These bridges are still down (as of 2015) and may never be fixed in our lifetimes.

Also destroyed 25 years ago - how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this? What the hell have we been doing for the past seven years? I watchd the tallest building in the world go up in Dubai, with about 300 other super sky scrappers over the past four years but we can't even repair a few stone bridges in seven; check that, make it 14 years?
Also destroyed 25 years ago – how do we expect the farmers to get their produce and livestock to market over this? What the hell have we been doing for the past seven years? I watchd the tallest building in the world go up in Dubai, with about 300 other super sky scrappers over the past four years but we can’t even repair a few stone bridges in seven; check that, make it 14 years?

It took over an hour to reach Gandamack which appeared to be a prosperous hamlet tucked into a small valley. The color of prosperity in Afghanistan is green because vegetation means water and villages with access to abundant clean water are always significantly better off than those without. You can see the difference in the health of the children, livestock and woman (which is the correct order of importance for the tribes.)

My host for the day was the older brother of my driver Sharif. When I first met Sharif he told me in perfect English “I speak English fluently.” I immediately hired him and issued a quick string of coordinating instructions about what we were doing in the morning then bid him good day. He failed to show up on time and when I called him to ask WTF it became apparent that the only words of English Sharif knew were “I speak English fluently.” You get that from Afghans. But Shariff is learning his letters and has proven an able driver plus a first rate scrounger which is a vital for the health and comfort of his ichi ban employer.

The Maliks (tribal leaders) from Gandamak and the surrounding villages arrived shortly after we did. They walked into the meeting room armed; I had left my rifle in the vehicle which, as the invited foreign guest, I felt obligated to do but being without my flame stick wasn’t alarming to me.  Gandamak is Indian Country and everybody out here is armed to the teeth.  I was an invited guest, the odds of me being harmed by the Maliks who invited me were exactly zero.  That’s how Pashtunwali works. The order of business was a meeting where the topic was what they need and why the hell can’t they get some help, followed by a tour of the hill outside Gandamak where the 44th Foot fought to the last man during the British retreat from Kabul in 1842 and then lunch. I was not going to be able to do much about what they needed but I could listen politely which is all they asked of me.  Years later I would be in the position to lend them a hand when they really needed it but at the time of this meeting my agenda was a tour of the Gandamak battlefield.  I have enjoyed visiting old battlefields since I was a kid and would go on staff rides with my father to Gettysburg, The Wilderness battle field and Fredricksburg.  I especially enjoy visiting the battlefields that not many people can visit and to the best of my knowledge I’m the only westerner who visited the Gandamak site in the last 30 or so years.

Sharif's Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul
Sharif’s Great Great Grandfather and son waiting on the Brits to make it down from Kabul

As the Maliks arrived they started talking among themselves in hushed tones and I kept hearing the name “Barack Obama.” I was apprehensive; I’m surrounded by Obama fanatics every Thursday night at the Taj bar. It is unpleasant talking with them because they know absolutely nothing about the man other than he is not Bush and looks cool. They are convinced he is more then ready to be president because NPR told them so. Pointing out that to the NGO girls that Obama can’t possibly be ready to be the chief executive because he has zero experience at executive leadership is pointless and I did not want to have to explain this to the Maliks. They have time and will insist on hashing things out for as long as it takes for them to reach a clear understanding. I have a wrist watch and a short attention span; this was not starting off well.

As I feared the morning discussion started with the question “tell us about Barack Obama?” What was I to say? That his resume is thin is an understatement but he has risen to the top of the democratic machine and that took some traits Pashtun Maliks could identify with so I described how he came to power in the Chicago machine. Not by trying to explain Chicago but in general terms using the oldest communication device known to man a good story. A story based in fact; colored a little with little supposition, and augmented with my fevered imagination. Once they understood that lawyers in America are like warlords in Afghanistan and can rub out their competition ahead of an election using the law and judges instead of guns they got the picture. A man cold enough to win every office for which he ran by eliminating his competition before the vote is a man the Pashtun’s can understand. I told them that Obama will probably win and that I have no idea how that will impact our effort in Afghanistan. They asked if Obama was African and I resisted the obvious answer of who knows? Instead I said his father was African and his mother a white American and so he identifies himself as an African American which is confusing  because most black Americans identify themselves as African American but they have little, if any, concept of Africa. In Obama’s case he really was an African and American and must know something about Africa because he didn’t know shit about America.  I had succeeded in totally confusing my hosts (and myself) and they just looked at me for a long time saying nothing.

What followed was (I think) a long discussion about Africans; were they or were they not good Muslims. I assume this stems from the Africans they may have seen during the Al Qaeda days. I think the conclusion was that the Africans were like the Arabs and therefore considered the local equivalent of scumbags. They talked among themselves for several more minutes and I heard John McCain’s name several times but they did not ask anymore about the pending election praise be to God. They assured me that they like all Americans regardless of hue and it would be better to see more of them especially if they took off the helmets and body armor because that scares the kids and woman folk. And their big MRAPS  scare the cows who already don’t have enough water and feed so scaring them causes even less milk to be produced and on and on and on; these guys know how to beat a point to death.

Maliks of Sherzad district
Maliks of Sherzad district

We talked for around 35 more minutes about the anemic American reconstruction effort, their needs and the rise in armed militancy. The American military visits the district of Sherzad about once a month and remain popular with the local people. They have built some mico hydro power projects upstream from Gandamak which the people (even those who do not benefit from the project) much appreciate. The US AID contractor DAI has several projects in the district which the elders feel could be done better if they were given the money to do it themselves but despite this DAI is welcomed and their efforts much appreciated. When I asked who had kidnapped the DAI engineer (a local national) last month and how we could go about securing his release (which was another reason for my visit) they shrugged and one of them said “who knows”?  That was to be expected but I felt compelled to ask anyway.

The elders explained, without me asking, that  they are serious about giving up poppy cultivation but they have yet to see the promised financial aid for doing so.  Thus they will grow poppy again (if they get enough rain inshallah). They need a road over which to transport their goods to market. They need their bridges repaired, and they need their irrigation systems restored to the condition they were in back in the 1970’s. They said that with these improvements would come security and more commerce. One of them made a most interesting comment and that was something to the effect of “the way the roads are now the only thing we can economically transport over them is the poppy.” A little food for thought.

At the conclusion of the talking part of the meeting the senior Maliks and I piled into my SUV and headed to the Gandamak battlefield.

The Last Stand of the 44th Foot
The Last Stand of the 44th Foot

The final stand at Gandamak occurred on the 13th of January 1842. Twenty officers and forty five British soldiers, most from the 44th Foot pulled off the road onto a hillock when they found the pass to Jalalabad blocked by Afghan fighters. They must have pulled up on the high ground to take away the mobility advantage of the horse mounted Afghan fighters. The Afghans closed in and tried to talk the men into surrendering their arms. A sergeant was famously said to reply “not bloody likely” and the fight was on. Six officers cut their way through the attackers and tried to make it to British lines in Jalalabad. Only one, Dr Brydon, made it to safety.

The Gandamack Hill today
The Gandamack Hill today

Our first stop was to what the Maliks described as “The British Prison” which was up on the side of a pass about a mile from the battlefield. We climbed up the steep slope at a vigorous pace set by the senior Malik. About halfway up we came to what looked to be an old foundation and an entrance to a small cave. They said this was a British prison. I can’t imagine how that could be – there were no British forces here when the 44th Foot was cut down but they could have established a garrison years later I suppose.  Why the Brits would shove their prisoners down inside a cave located so high up on the side of a mountain is a mystery to me and I doubt this was story behind what looked to be a mine entrance.  It was a nice brisk walk up the a very steep hill and I kept up with the senior Malik which was probably the point to this detour.

Enterance to the "Brit Jail
Entrance to the “Brit Jail
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail
Heading up the slope to the Brit jail – not an easy walk

After checking that out we headed to the battlefield proper. We stopped at the end of a finger which looked exactly like any other finger jutting down from the mountain range above us. It contained building foundations which had been excavated a few years back. Apparently some villagers started digging through the site looking for anything they could sell in Peshawar shortly after the Taliban fell. The same thing happened at the Minaret of Jamm until the central government got troops out there to protect the site. The elders claimed to have unearthed a Buddha statue there which they figured the British must have pilfered in Kabul. By my estimation there are 378,431 “ancient one-of-a-kind Buddha statues” for sale in Afghanistan to the westerner dumb enough to buy one. The penalties for stealing ancient artifacts are severe; messing around with that stuff is not something reasonable people do in unstable third world lands. Nor is buying fake “one of a kind” Buddha statues.

I do not know where these foundations came from. Back in 1842 the closest British troops were 35 miles away in Jalalabad and there are no reports of the 44th Foot pulling into an existing structure. We were in the right area – just off the ancient back road which runs to Kabul via the Latabad Pass. My guides were certain this finger was where the battle occurred and as their direct ancestors participated in it I assumed we were on the correct piece of dirt. I would bet that the foundations are from a small British outpost built here possibly to host the Treaty of Gandamak signing in 1879 or for the purpose of recovering the remains of their dead for proper internment.

Site of the final battle
Site of the final battle
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill
Foundation from an unknown building on Gandamak Hill

The visit concluded with a large lunch and after we had finished and the food was removed our meeting was officially ended with a short prayer. I’m not sure what the prayer said but it was short. I’m an infidel; short is good.

Man I love Kabuli Pilau - and eating with my hands
Man I love Kabuli Pilau – and eating with my hands. Mehrab Siraj, a close friend and the Manager of the Taj guesthouse is sitting to my right

Post Script

The Maliks of Sherzad district never received the attention they wanted from the US Government or the Afghan authorities.  Instead the Taliban came to fill the void and started muscling their way into the district back in 2011. By early 2012 things were bad enough that my old driver Shariff called me to see if there was anything I could do about getting the Americans to help them fight off the encroaching Taliban fighters.  I was in the Helmand Province by then dealing with my own Taliban problems and could offer him nothing. That bothered me then and it bothers me now but that’s life.

In August 2012 my old friend Mehrab was gunned down by Taliban outside his home. By then several of the men I had shared a pleasant lunch with back in 2008 had also perished fighting the Taliban. Gandamak is now Taliban territory, the poppy now the main source of income. It will be a long time before a westerner will able to visit the old battlefield again.