Kala Jangi Fighter Fortress

Mazar-i-Shariff is home to the Kala Jangi Fighter Fortress which was the scene of a famous battle in November 2001. Unfortunately I only have one picture of the fort’s exterior which does not do it justice. My good friend CC (code-name Cautious Citizen) and I were in the area on a site visit. He is one of the few guys I know who served in the very top tier of our Special Operations establishment which is why I don’t use his real name. He probably could care less but you never know about those tier one guys and I’d hate to have one mad at me. He and I got a tour of the portion inside Kala Jangi where the fighting occurred. The remainder of the base was off limits when we were there which was in June 2007.

Just last week the Shem Bot and Michael Yon tried twice to get inside but were denied entry. The Bot speaks good Dari which the Afghans appreciate and it is most unusual that he was unable to BS his way in. The Eid holidays were last week and the commander was home with his family which may have been the reason Shem couldn’t get past the gate. It would be a shame if American or British visitors are no longer allowed to see where their special operators fought with such courage and ability. Fortunately I have spent a few afternoons wandering around inside and have plenty of interesting photos to share.

CC and I outside the fotress

On November 25th, 2001 two CIA agents went to the Kala Jangi fortress to interview the Taliban who had surrendered to Gen Dostum’s Northern Alliance fighters the day before. While interviewing a group of prisoners the Taliban suddenly attacked the agents and their Northern Alliance escort. One of the agents and all the Northern Alliance fighters were killed. The 300 prisoners revolted and armed themselves with weapons and munitions the Taliban had stored in this portion of the fortress years before. What followed was a three day battle reported to the world in near real time.

The American military and their CIA colleagues had arrived in Central Asia mere weeks after the attacks on our homeland. The Pentagon and Langley had been pushed by Donald Rumsfeld to go quickly. No military professional likes to execute ad-hoc seat of the pants combat operations half a world away but the Pentagon let loose the dogs of war allowing our SF teams aided by CIA paramilitary, CIA paramilitary contractors and advance elements of the US Army 10th Mountain Division to operate independently with mission type orders and without micro management. The result of this initial phase of our campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a brilliant success.

This appears to be what the Marines would term a “Tactical Air Control Party” in action on the north wall of the fortress. They are probably from the 10th Mountain Division. It is interesting to see the old war belt load bearing rigs which were being phased out back then in favor of the load bearing vests in use today.

It is hard to conduct such a fluid wide ranging battle where all the targeting and ordinance delivery is based on inputs from ground controllers in contact. The fog of war is a powerful performance inhibitor which affects all men on the field of battle and the fog of war inserted itself on the battle of Kala Jangi when a 2,000 pound JDAM hit adjacent to the team who had called it in. It was a miracle that none of our troops were killed by this blue-on-blue SNAFU. Dozens American, British and Afghan soldiers were injured, five Americans required medical evacuation and British casualties are unknown because the UK never releases information about SAS operations. The Northern Alliance reported over 30 KIA from this JDAM strike.

Point of impact of the arrant JDAM crater as it appeared in 2007

 

This is the view from the SF teams position when they were calling in the JDAM’s. The Taliban occupied the line of buildings to the front which are 300 meters away. It takes real balls to call in air-delivered ordinance this close to you and I mean real balls.

I remember watching this unfold through the video of a German TV crew who had the good luck to be on hand when the fighting started. I was amazed that we were conducting such a ballsy mobile warfare style campaign and had gotten there so quickly. Checking out this old battlefield was as opportunity I could not pass up.

“devil Taliban” – have to love that.

 

The portion of the fort where all the fighting took place is the southeastern quarter which was right behind the gate next to the sign pictured above. The battlefield is essentially untouched since the battle. EOD teams did remove or destroy most of the UXO (unexploded ordinance) but our Afghan Army guide was adamant that we stay on the many paths through the brush least we step on some live ordinance or a cobra. We were there in July and apparently snakes are a problem in that area during the summer months.

Gen Dostum’s men had not searched the Taliban nor the portion of the fort where they put the Taliban (who had owned the fort until just days before they surrenderd) when American CIA agents arrived to interrogate the captured Taliban fighters they had no idea they were being held in a portion of the fort that the Taliban had used for weapons and ammunition storage. I am certain that they had detected in previous encounters with the Taliban a certain battlefield rhythm and part of that rhythm was acceptance of surrendered Taliban of their POW status. For whatever reason the Taliban in Kala Jangi were in no mood to accept their fate and they revolted killing a CIA agent (and former Marine Corps officer) Mike Spann and a dozen Northern Alliance guards. They then opened up the weapons storage containers they had put there previously and the fight was on.

A CIA agent identified in the media as “Dave” using the sat phone from a German TV crew to call the K2 base in Uzbekistan for reinforcements.

In response the the call made from a CIA agent identified as “Dave” a mixed group of 9 American special operators, 6 British Special Boat Service operators and a nine man advance party from the 10th Mountain Division arrived on scene.

The Taliban weapons stores remain there to this day although the Afghan Army has rendered the weapons un-serviceable. The second picture below is of one of the shipping containers which received much attention from an AC-130 gunship during the night of 26 November.

The weapons in this conex were here in 2001 and functional
Inside a weapons conex that got some AC130 love  – it looked like Swiss cheese it was so shot up

Although the battle lasted for three days it was essentially over after the AC-130’s pounded the Taliban on the night of the 26th. On the morning of the 27th the surviving Taliban retreated into the basements under the mud huts which line the southern wall.

This is a shot from the Taliban perspective looking north towards the allied positions.

You can still find medicine bottles, primitive field dressings, torn and bloody clothing, and a ton of rusty un-serviceable small arms ammo down in the these basements.

What is left of the stairs leading down to the basement rooms.

In order to drive the surviving band of die hard fighters out of the basement Dostum’s men flooded it. And when they did out popped Johnny Walker Lindh and another 80 or so surviving fighters. There are few absolutes in life but the death penalty for traitors to our great land is one of them. Lindh should have been hung a long time ago. In public. Nothing personal but the same principal applies here as it did to the murdering horse thieves in Lonesome Dove. Gus and Captain Call had to string up the group they caught which included their life-long friend Jake Spoon. The didn’t want to do it but they had to because it was their duty under their code. There are some things a man cannot tolerate if he is going to call himself a free man. Horse thieves and traitors are two of those things. Again this is not personal – I can understand the ennui which drove young Walker to Islam. I can admire his courage and fortitude in leaving home at such a young age to venture into the northwest frontier of Pakistan alone. But he turned traitor and at that point all the understanding and empathy in the world is irrelevant. The issue becomes black and white. Just like a Panda.

Johnny Walker Lindh moments after being recaptured
Picture taken after the battle which I lifted off the net along with Lindh’s pic. Apparently nobody knew the Taliban had an arms cache inside that portion of the fort because Gen Dostum used it to stable his horses.

I arrived in Afghanistan four years after this battle and can only imagine what it was like for the American and British operators who drove into the breach back in 2001. They were free to operate as they saw fit based on what they developed on the ground. The Afghan people were 100% behind our efforts to rid them of the Taliban scourge. They must have been greeted like liberators everywhere they went and when the Taliban tried to stand and fight they were able to defeat them in detail with precision direct and indirect fire. What could be better than that?

Visiting Northern Afghanistan is a trip of a lifetime but if you want to make it you better hurry.

Travelling North: Salang Pass to Mazar-i-Sharif

The northern regions of Afghanistan are the safest areas in the country. A majority of the population in these provinces are Tajik or Hazara and were not known for supporting the Taliban. We routinely travel in the north without body armor or rifles and have, on occasion, left the side arms at home out of respect for the local leaders and populace. All my trips into the north have terminated in the fabled city of Mazar-i-Shariff where our main client JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) has an office and several programs.

The trip north starts by crossing the Shamali Plain (Shamali means “windy” in Dari) which saw much fighting during the Soviet invasion in the 80’s. As a point of interest, the main road from Kabul to Bagram airbase used by our armed forces today was built by the Soviets so they could stay out of the Shamali plain as much as possible. The Soviets fought hard and often all along the main road to the north. After the Northern Alliance and our SF teams drove out the Taliban in 2001 there has been no fighting or attacks on the international or Afghan military on the plain or anywhere else along the route to Mazar-i-Shariff.

Shamali plain just north of Kabul

In 2006 an American army convoy caused a fatal traffic accident where the roads above terminates inside Kabul. They opened fire on the crowd that gathered at the accident site sparking an entire day of rioting in Kabul. Unruly and agitated crowds are a staple at Afghan traffic accidents which occur frequently and tend to be gruesome given the speeds at which Afghans drive and their propensity for stuffing extra women and children in car trunks or on roof racks. Firing into the crowd that day (I saw it live on Tolo TV) is a symptom of the big base big army mentality that infected our efforts here as soon as the regular army took over the fight. The solider I saw unleash his 50 cal into the Afghan crowd at point blank range was scared. He was scared because he did not understand Afghanistan or its people and he thought the crowd was after him and his fellow soldiers. This was four years after we first set foot in the country. Today, some seven years into the fight, a majority of the soldiers are just as clueless about the Afghan people and their customs as the knucklehead on the machinegun that day. But I digress.

Istalif Pottery

Halfway across the plain is the town of Istalif which is famous for its pottery. With a little haggling and good humor you can buy any of these pieces for just one dollar although after haggling and completing the sale I always give a tip. Haggling is fun but a couple extra dollars thrown in at the end of the deal is fun too. Afghans seem to enjoy foreigners who are of good humor and fair.

After getting through the Shamali you have to climb up the Salang Pass which is 12,723 feet up into the Hindu Kush Mountains making it one of the highest roads in the world. Here is a view going up the pass and looking back towards Kabul.

Kabul side of the Salang Pass

The Soviet Union built a tunnel through the pass back in the 60’s which is 2.6 kilometers long and scary. The road bed is pitted and often filled with slush, the evacuation fan system stopped working decades ago, it is dark, and the Afghans have no ability to deal with vehicle accidents or any serious injuries. In 1982 an explosion in the tunnel caused the Soviets to block both ends as they thought there was an attack in progress. Those trapped inside kept their vehicles running to avoid freezing, the resulting buildup of carbon monoxide and smoke killed as many as 700 Soviet troops and over 2,000 Afghans.

Northern entrance to the Salang Pass

Once you’re through the Salang tunnel it is a steep drop down into the valley floor where one can find the best fresh fish in Afghanistan. Here is my favorite seasonal fish stand seen from the road above:

Approaching the valley floor on the northern side of the Salang Pass

Like I said it is a step grade down the north side of the Salang.

My two new friends and I enjoying fine Afghan dining al fresco

The guys sitting behind me in the picture above are truck drivers who wandered over just in case I ate like an Afghan which is to automatically share food and drink. I have been here long enough to understand that so the three of us tucked into the excellent fish and engaged in conversations with a mix of basic Dari, American slang, and sign language.

The drive from the Salang Pass to Mazar is pleasant and fast over good roads. The largest city along the route is Puli Khumri which has little international presence but also few AOG (armed opposition group) incidents. One of the more interesting aspects of driving around the country is to discover how the industrious Afghans can be with found objects. The picture below demonstrates that point well and is also the best use of old Soviet BTR’s I’ve yet to see.

Fuel station a few miles south of Puli Khumri built on top of old Soviet BTR 72’s that were stacked into the river, covered with dirt and rock, compacted and leveled – one way to get a land title in Afghanistan is to create your own land.

From Puli Khumri it is about three hours of  driving through one small hamlet after another. It is not a good idea to move off the main road in areas where there are no villages or towns. Every natural choke-point has an old Soviet command post and the terrain around them could still be seeded with anti-personnel mines. Most of these areas have been cleared but the sign below provides a warning that remains applicable today to the smart traveler.

A warning from HALO trust (de-mining NGO) in Dari and English explaining the land off of the main highway in this pass contains an active mine field.

The Afghanistan state-controlled media back in the Soviet days called Soviet soldiers Quay Dhost which means “friendly forces”. When we rolled up to Afghan police checkpoints we’d smile and introduce ourselves as Quay Dhost which generated a look of surprise followed by a big belly laugh.  Afghans love jokes and funny foreigners who make an effort at speaking Dari.

I took this picture at an old soviet check point on the main ring road in 2005. It was gone when I was last up north in 2007.

Mazar-i-Sharif is a small city famous for the Blue Mosque which is supposed to contain the remains of Hazrat Ali, who was a son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. Islamic scholars believe the real grave of Ali is in the Imam Mosque in Najaf Iraq.

 

Checking out the Blue Mosque in Mazar

I have read and also heard from the locals that the Mosque was buried to prevent its sacking by Genghis Khan in 1220 and not uncovered until the 1480’s. I have no idea how the locals could have done that back then but I also don’t know how the Egyptian Pyramids were built so maybe it’s a true story. For us foreigners this is as close as we can get to the Mosque which is fine because the real treat when visiting the North is checking out the Kala Jangi fortress which was the scene of a big fight on 25 November 2001.

There is also work and in Mazar and that means looking after Ms Tani san of JICA who runs the women empowerment program. The picture below is of Tani san issuing a critique to one of her woman’s groups who have been slacking on keeping the cows and barn that the people of Japan provided them clean and functional.

JICA’s Woman’s Empowerment Program in action. The woman huddled in a school circle are catching hell for being behind the maintenance of their new cattle barn

While she is in the villages the police guard and I hang out with the males of the village often  sitting in the closest field for a little nan and yogurt. If we check up on five villages that’s five lunches of nan and yogurt and sometimes kabob that you can’t not eat because it’s impolite for guests to refuse hospitality. The life of an independent international security operative often looks like this:

I’m going to get fat if I keep doing this. The cold mint yogurt tea is damn good though and I’ve never tasted anything like it.

The eggplant we are eating with the nan (bread) is called Borani Banjan and is absolutely delicious; greasy as the day is long but delicious. Next stop will be the Fortress but it deserves a post of its own.

Afghanistan Travel Series

One of the advantages of working outside the wire is the ability to travel. Internationals can move freely through most of Afghanistan without taking elaborate or expensive security measures. It is always a good idea to be armed due to the extent of armed criminality which plagues the land. One reason that internationals are rarely targeted by criminals is the universal belief among Afghans that we are all armed and capable with those arms. That is not always true but it is the conventional wisdom.

My oldest daughter Megan came over last summer and worked for us when we had a few bomb and drug dog contracts. She is an excellent dog handler/trainer and like her father thrives on travel and adventure. Here she is with her friend Sarah, formerly of the Australian Army and at the time the Kabul coordinator for ANSO (Afghan NGO Safety Office.)

Megan and Sarah exploring the Panjshir Valley

The picture above was taken in the Panjshir Valley where the girls had gone to visit with the families of Sarah’s driver and her interpreter. This was not considered by myself or any of my colleagues to be unusually risky. My daughter is very capable with a sidearm after taking multiple four day handgun courses at Front Sight in Las Vegas when I was on the staff there. Sarah has a few years of experience and is very capable too but the reason they were perfectly safe on this trip is the Afghan people.

Megan and I at the Taj in Jalalabad

One of the facts of life on the ground here which has not translated well in the media coverage is the acceptance of internationals by vast majorities of the Afghan people. Without their active support the various international organizations involved in the reconstruction fight could not stay here or operate. Afghanistan is a poor country with little infrastructure, a spotty track record of central government control, and no ability to extract the valuable natural resources (which are considerable) that have been identified to date. The people have little and expect little which is why they respond so positively to internationals who have come to help them. This includes the international military. There are few places in this country happier than an isolated village who just had a platoon of Americans roll in with plans to stay for awhile.

I took this picture of a kid who was working a one person vehicle maintenance stall on the Shamoli Plain just north of Kabul in the summer of 2006

The more the average Afghans interact with internationals and specifically the international military, the more they like us. We have tens of thousands of troops deployed here but a vast majority spend their entire tour behind the wire on gigantic military bases. These bases are called FOB’s (forward operating base) but when there are restaurants, American and Canadian fast food stands, coffee shops, gigantic bazaars and massage parlors it is hard to think of a base as being forward or operating. The words rear and supporting are better descriptors.

We cannot continue to rely on technology to solve tactical problems. When you do that you end up with the MRAP a vehicle so tall it will rip out the electrical wires from every street it drives down if it moves off a main road into a village or town. It is also so heavy it cannot maneuver well on the local dirt roads, or cross local bridges, or climb the many mountain passes in Afghanistan.

MRAP’s – not as useful as one would think. Not good on narrow canal roads or inside villages due to their width and height

Yes it will protect the troops inside from most of the mines and IED’s used by the AOG but as a student of history I know it is easier and cheaper to defeat new technology then to develop it. The AOG will develop IED’s big enough to defeat this improved armor. All the players in the game know that.

There will be additional posts covering the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan. They include lots of pictures which I hope all enjoy. Many of the places pictured are no longer safe for internationals. It will be decades before another westerner is able to photograph them again. We are losing terrain to the bad guys and with the terrain go the people. In a counter insurgency fight the people are the center of gravity, we cannot allow this current trend of ceding terrain to the Taliban to continue or we will lose. It is that simple.

Talking with the AOG

There are many names used in Afghanistan to describe the groups hostile to the central government. Taliban, insurgents, Anti Government Elements (AGE) and Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) are the most common descriptors. AOG can be Taliban, criminal gangs who cooperate with the Taliban, rent-a-Taliban (mostly teenage boys who need money and want adventure) or militias controlled by warlords. Every armed group has its own agenda and few cooperate with each other. This is their principal weakness -the inability to operate with unity of command or purpose. Our big weakness is that we cannot take advantage of their weakness because most (not all) of our military is confined to large bases and most (not all) have a limited understanding of tribal dynamics in their areas of operation.

We were asked by a journalist if we could set up an interview for a story he’s working on. Here he is talking with the village Malik from Spur Kunday and an AOG fighter up in the hills above Surobi.

It is not comfortable for us being out in the open like this. We are at the mouth of the Uzbin valley up in the foothills just off the dirt track which is the only road in the area. The valley has seen much fighting since the French ambush last month. The chances of a predator or some other American surveillance platform zooming in on us to determine friend or foe status is high. We are certain that the American ROE would prohibit attacking us as long as they do not see weapons. But who wants to chance that? Not us which is why we tried to hurry the interview along as best we could.

Shem and I left the weapons and body armor in our vehicle and pulled security for the hour or so it took to conduct the interview. It is a strange situation to be in – we could not put a US flag or an air panel on our roof because we know there are bad guys in the hills above us. We also could not walk around with our rifles which would offer protection from local AOG but open the door for a visit from Mr. Predator.

Friday morning we got organized and set off for our interview – here is a shot of us getting jocked up in the local garb. Shawal Kameez, pakol hat, scarf and vest over the body armor. On the road we take off the sunglasses because Afghans don’t wear them. We do not fool any locals who get a good look at us as we scream by in our vehicle but that is not the point. The point is to be inside the OODA loop of anyone looking to cause mischief. If a bad guy wants to ambush internationals on the Jalalabad – Kabul road he has to Observe the target, Orient his weapon systems on the target, Decided to attack and then Attack the target. Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA.) That loop takes much longer then most people realize because most people received their tactical combat training via Hollywood movies. In the real world understanding the OODA loop theory and how to apply it is the fundamental building block upon which an accurate threat assessment is made. Unless AOG spotters have identified us and radioed ahead to an ambush team (something we have never seen on the Jbad road to date) it would require superhuman decision making ability to ID us and decide to attack us as we scream by in a vehicle that looks just like every other local SUV on the road.

 

The meeting took a long time but that is a story for our journalist friend to tell. 

 

This is what I mean about being exposed, sitting on the topographical crest like this is no good but what are you going to do? The trip back was uneventful and smooth.

Launching the Tajmahal Guesthouse Website

This is the second day in a row we have been working on upgrading the Tajmahal website. With the able help of webmaster Ken and many others we are finally there. www.tajmahalguesthouse.com Here is a great shot of geek central. The Taj’s Bamboo bar where we hang out most evenings with our laptops listening to Soma FM and sometimes chatting about the stories we email each other from a foot or two away.

The services and security section of the website is pretty good so I’m posting it here too for the edification of my readership.

Continue reading “Launching the Tajmahal Guesthouse Website”

The Caves of Little Barabad

We recently took a trip across the river into Beshud District to the village of Little Barabad to photograph the old caves that line northern shore of the Kabul river.

When we show up at this village we often pick up and escort of local kids – the tend to segregate by gender and here are some of the girls from Little Barabad

The people of Little Barabad are Kuchi tribesmen who are dirt poor from a different tribe than the Shinwari’s who live up the river in the village of Big Barabad. Because the elders from these two villages can’t agree on anything Little Barabad suffers and cannot spend their NSP (National Solidarity Program) monies to build a well or make other infrastructure improvements. The NSP money comes from the World Bank and they have $2,000 for each household but that money can only be spent on projects which collectively benefit the village and the only recognized village in this area is Big Barabad

The San Diego sister cities project is scheduled to be build a foot bridge over the Kabul River which would allow the kids from Little Barabad to attend school. There is a large school just 300 meters away on the Jalalabad side of the river but it is an hour’s drive by road. The people of little Barabad do not have a vehicle or much of a road for that matter so their kids are not able to attend school.

San Diego and the La Jolla Rotary Club have been very active in Jalalabad which is a sister city to San Diego. How that happened remains a mystery but believe it or not they (both the city and its Rotary Club) have dumped a ton of money into Nangarhar University and Jalalabad. Here is the current method of crossing the Kabul River and the reason why a foot bridge will be such a God send. When you look at this float keep in mind the river is swift and none of the people in these parts know how to swim.

Fording the river Afghan style

One goal of today’s trip was to get a proper picture of my new SOMA FM tee shirt to send into their web site. Inshallah they will post it so getting the pistol in frame was important. From looking at my fellow donors at the Soma FM site I’m sure to be the only one who even owns a pistol. Soma is based out of San Francisco so I’m sure they’ll find the pic of an armed American to be innately disturbing. Guns = authority = bad to them. To me guns = keeping authority in check and small = good. Plus there is a war going on here and even though it is easy to avoid drama one must be prepared. Be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them. That’s a Marine moto that is worth remembering in this line of work.

Some of the boys who escort us around the area
Chai with the locals

The village kids love to have their pictures taken and always enjoy it when we come by to hike up to the caves. We hook them up with a bottled water and a dollar each for being our guides. See how blond the kid in the middle of the photograph above is? You see that a lot of that in Nangarhar Province. The Soviets kept it pretty quiet when they were here and even had an R&R camp in Jalalabad. They also let their troops off the base and into the bazaar where they could support the local economy. I go to the bazaar all the time myself and the local merchants seem to enjoy it when an international stops in to chat them up and buy junk.

Many of the locals think our troops are cowards because they only see them in armored trucks racing through the town and pointing weapons at anyone and who they feel gets to close to them.  The Soviets flooded the bazaar when they were off duty and I believe our troops and the Afghan people would both benefit if our military adopted the same liberty policy as the Soviets. Getting close to the locals is a good thing and the basic tenant of our counterinsurgency doctrine. Judging from all the blond and red headed kids we see in Jalalabad some of the Russians got a little too close to the locals which is a dangerous game to play in Pashtun lands.

The cave complex. Our speculation is they date from the Buddhist era around 178 AD
Little Barabad is really a collection of compounds belonging to one extended family. They have goats and sheep, three cows, plus a little corn and wheat but that is about it.
Last July the caves were full of bats.

The bats were “nishta” or all gone this time because they seem to occupy the caves during the heat of summer. We will have to wait until next year to get a good picture of the bats. Inshallah we will still be able to move freely then…Inshallah

Kabul Re-up Run

Today the Bot and I had to run to Kabul for a re-up. We started our journey by striking a pose for our sponsor. Well not a real sponsor but they sent us some hats, bumper stickers, steak rub, and a generous assortment of candy so we feel sponsored. Here is Shem (a.k.a. Shem Bot a.k.a. Bot) and I at the start of the day with our signature La Rue Tactical hats. We’ll have to do this again as I have been told by the resident expert that this picture lacks technical merit due to failure to use proper lens filters.

 

The drive was smooth and fast. We rent SUV’s and switch them up frequently so we do not stand out on the road. We stop at all checkpoints and chat up the ANP (Afghan National Police) who appreciate that we speak some Pashto and are polite. In this country a little Pashto or Dari and a big smile will win you a ton of goodwill from the local officials and people.

 The problem with traveling in low profile mode is running into an ISAF or American military convoy can cause drama. I was shot at by the American Army in downtown Kabul back in ’07 while driving a brand new Armored Land Cruiser with diplomatic plates identifying it as belonging to the Government of Japan. A rear gunner in a five truck convoy thought I got a little too close to them as they were exiting a traffic circle. I may well have strayed too close but it never occurred to me that the young trooper would not recognize a large brand new armored SUV as being on his side. The startled gunner unleashed a good 6 round burst into the hills above my truck (where about 3000 people live packed into squalid mud huts.) I was out of the drivers door and running down the road yelling at this idiot before I realized what I was doing. That startled the five hundred or so Afghan pedestrians who stopped and watched this unfold in utter amazement.

That was an embarrassing incident, getting too close to the convoy was sloppy on my part, getting shot at was bad, bolting out of the drivers door without even letting the vehicle stop was very bad but it elicited one of the more memorable quotes from my favorite Japanese client. He was a senior diplomat who I consider a great man and who I was very fond of and proud to work for. When I came back to the truck he looked at me shaking his head and muttering Tim san I do not understand how you people beat us. It is a funny story to tell now but it is also still a problem; our military is not learning how to operate here.

 We were jamming up the Mahipar Pass passing a slow moving truck when up pops the American Army in MRAPs and the Bot swears the turret gunner has his pistol pointed at him. The kid did have his pistol out but as the more experienced professional I opined that the chances of him even hitting the car from up on top of that giant armored vehicle were remote. Plus the soldier was switched on and lowered his pistol once he saw we were expats. The Bot took no comfort from that and unleashed a torrent of invective (as us high-speed writers say) which seemed to calm him down.

 Here are the guilty bastards (I say that in good humor mind you) as they moved further down the pass note the futility of attempting to keep all civilian traffic away from you which the military tries to do on all their convoys. Only once have I seen a convoy of obviously very experienced soldiers (French) who moved with the traffic and let the local vehicles get mixed in with their convoy. That is good solid thinking on their part.

As you can probably tell the pass is a long series of hairpin switchbacks and one can always count on a old truck to be broken down and blocking one lane in the road. The fuel truck in this photo is broken down which is why the buses are stacked up behind it. I have spent hours sitting on the road here because a truck broke down and blocked one of the four tunnels. Here is a good shot of the Mahpair pass;

After that bit of minor excitement we were off to Kabul to shop for proper pasta, some seafood, beer, wine, and spirits. We hit our favorite Italian place for a proper sit down lunch and spent the next few hours running around Kabul sans body armor and long guns. The Kabul PD gets crappy with expats for having full kit while transiting the metropolitan area. That is fair enough Kabul – is not currently a place where you can expect any problems unless you are driving in American or ISAF armored vehicles. There is no real reason for body armor or long guns, they upset the local citizenry as well as the authorities, so we go with the concealed carry route.

 Here is what the ole Haji ride looked like after our last stop in the greater Kabul area:

It was smooth sailing back to the Taj. We made it from Camp Warehouse to here in 85 minutes. There was little traffic on the road, no ISAF convoys thank god (they can double or triple your trip time and often jam up traffic for 5 to 10 miles behind them because they move so slow) and the weather was perfect. The Taj is now stocked and ready for the arrival of Baba Ken the leader of the Jbad geek squad. One of the wonders of the third world is the number of young men in these places who are scary proficient with computers.

Lazy Friday

Fridays are always laid back as it is the one day off we get each week. We had our normal compliment of French and German aid workers come by for drinks and a dip in the pool.

If you can’t tell my French friend Pierre is in flagrant violation of the Taj no Speedo rule. Every time we try to explain the rule to him he pretends not to understand us. But he and his crew are great folks who pay in Euros which makes them especially popular with me so we let him slide on the speedo thing.

The interesting tidbit of the day comes from the lady all to way in the right. She is German, works for GIZ and asked for our assessment of the attack last night on the Dih Bala district center which is 300 meters away from one of her offices. Like many IGO workers she has a high tolerance for risk. She has been here a long time, knows Dih Bala and the surrounding area well and is completely freaked out because there have been no problems with Taliban before.

Dih Bala is about 10 miles to the east of us and the home of many large clans of Brigands. They never molest the NGO’s or IGO’s as reconstruction makes it easier for them to smuggle stuff across the frontier which is how they have earned their living for the past 2 to 3 thousand years. The Governor of Nangarhar Province has successfully eliminated the cultivation opium poppy in the area but there are still tons of the stuff here because of the smuggling expertise of peoples like those in the Dih Bala district. So the fact that Taliban (armed criminal gangs do not attack district centers) is reportedly active and attacking the district center means something.

It could be the elders posturing with weapons to get the governors attention. The Governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, is from Khandahar Province and the local tribal chiefs have a tenuous working relationship with him. One way to get the attention and a little love from the big man is to have your district center attacked and then say you drove the bad guys out when the Afghan Army arrives to investigate. Or it could be the Taliban has moved into the district and that is always bad news for the elders. The Taliban normally removes the local power structure in order to dominate an area. Removal could be in the form of a pledge not to interfere with Taliban efforts to assassination. If the Taliban are not strong enough or if they miscalculate when dealing with certain elders the villagers will grab their rifles and fight. Intimidation of an armed population is a dangerous game – the Taliban screw it up sometimes.

Our assessment of Din Bala district is that the Taliban are back and strong enough to challenge the central government for the district center. Our German friend agreed which is a bitter thing for her to do because with the Taliban back her work here is at an end.

 As the security situation continues to deteriorate we have been making it point to look at every tanker and police check post attacked by the Taliban.

This truck was attacked by the Taliban note the local kid who has walked about 3 miles from Surobi to drain some of the remaining diesel.

The tanker pictured above was attacked from across the river and took a good 60 to 70 rounds into the cab and front right aspect. It also took an RPG round into the cab. The RPG shot was either beginners luck or we have one hell of a pro RPG gunner working the area. The closest probable ambush site is 400 meters away and 200 meters above the truck.

This truck was not attacked by the Taliban; it was torched to cover up fuel theft. I’m with my buddy Special K who visits from time to time and wanted a picture in the blog.

The tanker pictured above had 10 bullet and one RPG hit; all the rounds came in from the left rear or road side of the river. There are ANP checkposts 500 meters behind us and 500 meters to the front – it is impossible for an ambushing party to cross the river or set up on the side of the road without being detected.  All the Taliban attacks come from across the river and include enough firepower to fix the checkposts while they got after fuel tankers. That didn’t happen this time and there is also little fuel left in the tanker. Our guess is that it was emptied in Laghman Province and then shot up in exactly the same spot as the previous two Taliban attacks. The criminals were probably mounted in local vehicles, and they and driver escaped after paying off the cops. Just a guess but it is the simplest explanation.

Two trucks on the same road and attacked in almost the same spot and reported as Taliban attacks. This is why we spend so much time getting out and about.

9/11

It has been seven years since the events of 9/11. The war of terror or the Long War which is a better term is the reason I am here. I’m in Jalalabad Afghanistan where I’ve been living for the past year. I spent a few years living in Kabul and free ranging the country having found a reason to visit every province in Afghanistan. I’m a security contractor; outside the wire type and the crew I run with use low profile, local vehicles and are very good at talking their way past checkpoints.

The security contracting business in Afghanistan is tough. The American firms Blackwater, and DynCorp have all the good paying DoD and DoS contracts locked up and the rest of the market here consists of British PSC’s and a growing number of Afghan companies who employ Expats. Tight competition for lucrative reconstruction work drove the compensation rates into the basement.

Our State Department and US AID have established ridiculously heavy security standards that far exceed the UN MOSS (minimum operational security standard.) These stringent standards slow projects and drain millions from building infrastructure to paying for fleets of armored vehicles and large secure compounds. Other donor countries abide by the UN standards and their operating costs are a fraction of what the US spends on security and life support for their Aid implementers.

Tonight I am sitting behind the bar of the world famous Tajmahal Guesthouse (Taj) of Jalalabad. Check out the high speed hat;

Today we had a very pleasant surprise. They guys from LaRue Tactical in Texas sent us some candy, cool hats, and Dillo Dust which we immediately put to good use on our meat pie. Our cook Khan has been pissing and moaning about cooking during Ramadan and came up with a dozen very crappy meat pies and then took off for his home village to prepare for Eid. We were getting ready to go buy some chickens to cook up but tried dillo dusting the meat pies. It’s Thurday night which is the night the Tiki Bar hosts all the NGO folks and who wants to fuss with dressing out a skinny chicken during happy hour?

So it is Poppy Eradication Program Bob’s birthday tonight. He’s former Army SF and loves to sing all the old crappy high rotation FM hair band songs from his misspent youth. His singing is horrible but he’s a “good bloke” in contractor speak so we tolerate the noise with grace and humor.

It is about 2200 here now and we have the usual mix of European NGO, American NGO and a sprinkling of outside the wire security types. Outside the wire guys are the ones who live in villas with the population where most of our military should be but is not.

The price we are paying for not having enough troops outside the wire is increased instability and more and more Taliban attacks. It is not yet a problem in Jbad city but the Jalalabad to Kabul road which is essential to the ISAF and US supply efforts and also for our weekly booze runs has been hit with all sorts of ambushes this summer. We go out to look at most of them in order to get a handle on just how bad the attacks are getting and the tactics they are using.

Here is a photo of the whole team from this summer when we were fortunate enough to have Amy Sun a PhD grad student from MIT who is a no kidding missile engineer. She was pretty sharp about figuring out what happened from the forensics and amount of fuel left in the tankers. She wasn’t bad at reading bullet and RPG strikes too in fact she was smarter about all this than we are which was annoying but handy.

Here we are checking out an ANP checkpost that claimed they were attacked and repulsed a force of 30 Taliban expending all their ammo in the process. Did you know 7.62×39 mm ammo (Ak 47 bullets) sells for in Afghanistan? 75 cents round. We suspect that most of these “attacks” are really done to cover ammo sales on the black market. The Taliban humping in over the mountains are not doing so with 800 rounds of ball (that is grunt speak for full metal jacket rifle bullets) on their backs.

So it is 7 years since 9/11 and I have been out here for almost four of them. We work for the Japan International Cooperation Agency . Unlike US AID the JICA people work in the countryside or in Kabul with their Afghan counterparts. Every yen the Japanese people send here to help the Afghans gets spent exactly as it is supposed to because the Japanese JICA staff is in the offices with the Afghans ensuring they know where every yen goes. We’d be in much better shape if US AID did the same.

This will be a long war which my children will fight, if they chose to serve, and their children will too. There is no way to understand this place or fight effectively here unless you understand the people and their culture. Eventually we have to figure out how to keep more people like me in country for long duration so that they too know how to operate in the tribal districts. I havbe lots of ideas on how to do that which I will share in future posts.