One Step Forward Two Steps Back

Every now and then one stumbles across a story which illustrates deeply held convictions so well that you just have to share. Here is one of those and it is a sad tale of incompetence, risk aversion and just plain clown like silliness. It is amusing (I guess) but it is also so typical of why we are making little progress in our battle to bring security and infrastructure development to Afghanistan.

The story is written by Ian Pannell of the BBC and describes his visit with Americans from the Embassy in Kabul who flew into Mazar-e-Sharif to drive out to a school opening.   It is a all to familiar tale, the American palm the Brits off on their local hosts and move out in Armored Suburbans with a full security detail.   One of the trucks breaks down and they all turn around, go back to the airport and fly back to Kabul. The Brits arrive and, as the only internationals present, stand in for the Americans.   After being guests of honor at the banquet the Provincial government organized for the occasion, ( and scoring a chapan which is super cool) they are given a car and driver by the governor to get them back to Kabul.

This is a variance chart done by Mullah Todd. The size of the circles indicate the level of violence for 2007 and 2008. The red indicates increases in incidnet rates between those same years. Note the red up north.
This is a variance chart done by Mullah Todd. The size of the circles indicate the level of violence for 2007 and 2008. The red indicates increases in incident rates between those same years. Note the red up north.

I have pointed out time and time again that there is no need for armored vehicles in the north – or in most of Afghanistan. It is safer for all concerned to be in unarmored vehicles with lots of dispersion and preferable locals mixed in among your vehicles. But that is not what bothers me about this article it is the cavalier way something that was obviously important (or why even fly up from Kabul) was dismissed.

We have not been dumping the money, resources or attention in the north like we have in the south. The south is populated with Pashtun people, the north (with the exception of Kunduz City) has no significant Pashtun population – they are Uzbeks, Hazara and Tajik’s. They have for the most part cooperated in the disarmament programs, stopped growing poppy, and cooperated with the central government.  And we treat them like a bunch of irrelevant rubes. The Governor of Balk province and several other important Afghan’s lost a lot of face because the “professionals” from our embassy found it impossible to drive for 2 hours over rough roads or spend the night in the wilds of Mazar-e-Sharif. Mission has priority my ass.

Mulla Todd spent Spring Break working with some of the boys in the FabLab on all sorts of high tech stuff. The boys gave him the "Mulla" handle because of the long chin whiskers which all the locals never fail to comment on. He's like a rock star in the Bazaar downtown.
Mulla Todd spent Spring Break working with some of the boys in the FabLab on all sorts of high tech stuff. The boys gave him the “Mulla” handle because of the long chin whiskers which all the locals never fail to comment on. He’s like a rock star in the Bazaar downtown.

I have commented in previous posts and several times on Covert Radio the people up north are not amused by how they are being treated. Their old enemies the Pashtun are getting rich on the drug trade and are getting more and more guns and more heavy weapons. The people up north are getting a few crappy schools, ignored or insulted by the American Embassy, preyed upon by a few warlords and more than a few criminal gangs and guess what? I think their patience is nearing the end.

The local school girls got to benefit from Kate - she ran a really popular math class for the boys too
The local school girls got to benefit from Kate – she ran a really popular math class for the boys too

One reason I believe that is the scarcity firearms available on the market. There are international security companies buying and using the old Soviet PSSh 41 submachineguns for jobs in the south.   Ammunition of all calibers has doubled or tripled in price. The weapons market has always been run by northern peoples.   But now they are not selling and that cannot possibly be good news.

It is time to get serious about what we are doing here – define an acceptable endstate, work towards that endstate and get the hell out. One of the sad facts of life is that we really have not figured out why we are here. Conventional wisdom says that if we leave the Taliban will return and with them Al Qaeda and they’ll use Afghanistan as a launching pad for further attacks on the west. That is complete BS.   The Taliban will not come back in power here – not in a million years.   Even if they did they would not be stupid enough to provide shelter or assistance to Al Qaeda. We have reduced Osama and his surviving leaders into walking dead men who freak anytime someone gets near them with a cell phone or a plane flies overhead. They could no more pull off another 9/11 than I could pull a diamond out of a goats ass.

Last fall I wrote in my posts on Shrzad district that the elders said they would return to growing the poppy if they got enough rain in the spring. Guess what kind of weather we have had this past 8 weeks? Rainy and cool - this photo was taken yesterday by Ross McDonnell an independent pro photographer from Dublin.
Last fall I wrote in my posts on Shrzad district that the elders said they would return to growing the poppy if they got enough rain in the spring. Guess what kind of weather we have had this past 8 weeks? Rainy and cool – this photo was taken yesterday by Ross McDonnell an independent pro photographer from Dublin.

What can be done in Afghanistan?  We can bring security – build some infrastructure, and (most importantly) develop the human capitol as best we can. This is being done – the best example being the Afghan Special Forces who enjoy universal respect and appreciation from the local people. SF teams have a model and that model involves living, working, and mentoring their local charges 24/7. If we are going to continue to dump millions into Afghanistan than every program should duplicate that model – there should be an American or Americans at the program level working with the Afghans to ensure whatever they are supposed to do (construction, security, law enforcement etc..) they actually do. And once we finally do what we signed on to do – the roads, the bridges, the dams – once they are done it is time for us to go. Inshallah we will realize this and act accordingly but for now…it will soon be time to worry about the north.

Some Good News from Southeast Afghanistan (after another unfortunate event)

There has been a flood of RFPs (request for proposal’s) hitting the street of Kabul concerning FOB Sharana. Sharana (spelled Sharan on UN AIMS maps) is the capitol of Paktika Province and a relatively small city of some 2,200 people.

FOB Sharana
FOB Sharana

Here is an assessment done in the not too distant past on Sharana: The dominate tribe in the region is the Suleimankhel who are Ghilzai Pashtuns and inhabit all of the eastern districts of the province, from Wor Momay up to Sharan district.  According to former provincial Governor Ghulab Mangal, the Suleimankhel provide the majority of recruits for the Taliban in the province.   As a result, the level of anti-coalition militia activities remains high in areas dominated by Suleimankhel.   In most areas of Afghanistan the Taliban is a collection of indigenous narco-jihadi-tribal guerrilla forces. Around Sharana this is not the case the Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) fighters are dedicated Taliban who are not motivated by financial gain, access to reconstruction projects, or narco money. Aid projects in the Province have stagnated in the face of unrelenting AOG attacks on all non indigenous peoples, projects, and the Afghan security forces. The Paktika PRT has 35 projects authorized and funded to the tune of 6.5 million but has only spent $691,350 to date. There are no high quality paved roads in the Province. The primary roads which do exist are mostly paved and service the Ghazni Sharana Monari corridor with two connecting Sharana to Ghazni and one connecting Sharna to Khost.

FOB Sharana has historically been a bad place to be. This embedded video of the FOB under attack was typical for the area for most of the recent past:

But the situation there has changed and changed radically. An associate of mine recently traveled to Sharana by road something you simply could not have done just a few short months ago. There is little question that the recent deployment of US Army units in the provinces around Kabul have made road travel in the Southeast much safer. When he arrived at FOB Sharana he interviewed several officers in detail about the local situation. It is unbelievably calm. There are now two maintenance battalions in Sharana and they are building that FOB up to be a second and third echelon maintenance facility. Last year, in preparation for significant expansion, the FOB sponsored a series of local workshops on the construction trades and then hired the graduates. The guys he talked with said they have not been attacked in over a year I didn’t’ believe that and spent hours poring over old reports and sure enough I found nothing on FOB Sharana going back to January 2008. That is one impressive accomplishment – if only we could now get some manuer units off that FOB and embeded into the local community we could very well start seeing light at the end of the Afghanistan tunnel.

Ever the pessimist I pointed out to my colleague that it is crazy to have your maintenance depot located in such a volatile area how are you going to evacuate broken armored vehicles over those roads from the south? Going through Zabul Province is still a drama and it pretty much always had been. Of course what the hell would we know about the planning that went into this but I tell you what. The more I think about it the more I like it. The reason why ISAF units are going to be able to evacuate critical vehicles and equipment to Sharana is that they have no choice. They have keep what is their most important MSR (main supply line in milspeak) wide open or else. This is actually a genius move because it forces every unit in the field to focus their attention and resources on opening and maintaining an MSR system which has been problematic since 2004. If it works if the military is able to routinely evacuate damaged equipment to Sharana from the south, southeast and east that would be one hell of an improvement for everyone on our side of the battle (the other side too for that matter but who cares about them?) Open roads mean the free flow of commerce and the tribe who can bring commerce to this strange land will be the strongest tribe. Damn if it does not look like that tribe may well be the Southeastern Afghanistan branch of the American Army.

But with the good comes the bad. On 8 April a Special Forces team conducted a raid at night in the village of Ali Daya which is 5 kilometers south of Khost City. As they prepared for an assault on their target they took fire from a neighboring compound.   They did what they were trained to do attacking the source of fire and eliminating that threat.   Unfortunately they had to quickly admit that the secondary target turned out to be a local family the wife, who was killed, was a well known teacher who worked at at the local girl’s school run by the British NGO Care. The compound belonged to a senior Afghan Army officer who was out in the field fighting the Taliban.   There were two woman wounded, two more killed along with two men and a child. Here is something that I find amazing. I was in Kabul having just finished a marathon trip to Singapore when I started listening to a CNN report and I thought I was hearing things. It was one of the most informed exchanges about the situation in Afghanistan I have ever heard. Here is the not quite verbatim exchange as I remember it:

CNN Kabul reporter The Afghan people are getting very tired of the number of innocent civilians who continued to be killed. But far more are being killed by the Taliban than by ISAF.

CNN Anchor In the past rival tribal leaders would pass on intelligence to the military which was solid enough to be actionable but when we acted it would turn out that they had used us to target their enemies who had nothing to do with the Taliban. Is that still a problem?

CNN Kabul reporter Yes, and the bottom line is that people will support the side they feel will bring them security and protection.Right now there are some in Afghanistan who feel that we are not the ones who will bring them security.

Maybe it is me I do not pay much attention to CNN but that seemed to be an unusually balanced and I think accurate bit of reporting. I never heard anything like that during the prior administration. There is some change for you I guess- straight reporting by CNN of all organizations.

But here is the thing I find it hard to believe that we are unable to verify which families in a targeted village are clearly on our side and which are not.   The woman who was killed was not only a prominent citizen but a very brave soul. Khost is a volatile place with a strong local Taliban presence. Female teachers take on a considerable amount of personal risk in areas where the Taliban are active and it is people like her we should bend over backwards to protect. The units who do these kinds of missions are not comprised of amateurs these guys are hard corps professionals who do not like to make mistakes. Somebody on high green-lighted that mission based on what had to be verified (as in not single source) intelligence. They may or may not have been going after a legitimate target but that is now irrelevant.     My problem with this whole situation is that we should be able to verify who the hell is living in a targeted village just outside a main provincial city before we send the apex predators to sort them out. If the FOB in Khost City was doing the same thing the FOB in Sharana was doing they would have (in theory at least) the situational awareness built through relationships – to be able to do target confirmation using trusted locals.

A truck load of ANP stopped for a whicker with the local boys today - that was pretty cool and something I have never seen before
A truck load of ANP stopped for a whicker with the local boys today - that was pretty cool and something I have never seen before

ISAF was very quick this time to admit they had made a terrible mistake and take responsibility for it. That is smart and probably why the incident has disappeared from the local press. But we have got to stop doing this. I understand the constraints of operational security as a good general rule one wants to avoid alerting an enemy you are coming after him least he prepare an unpleasent surprise. But when our varsity SF comes after a high value target it really doesn’t matter too much if the average Taliban leader has been tipped off or not. If he is in the target area he is going to go down and there very little he can do to alter the outcome. There are UAV platforms overhead long before the assault teams move in. If the targeted compound is reinforced with fighters so what? There is a plan for that (think precision air delivered ordinance.) It is not likely the target will try to flee in a vehicle. Everyone is this country knows what a Predator is and a wanted man trying to escape a target by vehicle knows as soon as he is clear of the town Mr. Predator will get him, or maybe an A-10 who is loitering about with some stores to burn, or an AC 130, the end result is the same. As more troops come into the country and duplicate the reported success for FOB Sharana we should be able to leverage those relationships with the local population to help us prevent more incidents of this nature. We own the night and the skies in Afghanistan and should be taking the time and risks to confirm the occupants of targeted compounds, isolate them from the civilian population and then go in and take them down. When the hard boys hit these compounds if the occupants show any resistance, or their neighbors arm themselves and come running over to help their fates are sealed.   Every compound in Southeastern Afghanistan will respond to armed intruders coming through the front gate, or climbing on their compound wall with a hail of AK 47 fire.   We know this to be the case – it is time to incorporate that fact into the mission planning profile and make the appropriate adjustments.

Mr. Reaper flying over the Taj a few days back - he is even better than the Preditor, longer loiter time, better weapons, super cool design.  The bad guys hate them ... for good reason
Mr. Reaper flying over the Taj a few days back - he is even better than the Preditor, longer loiter time, better weapons, super cool design. The bad guys hate them ... for good reason

Want A "Digital" Silk Road in Afghanistan? Let Them Build It

Editors Note:   One of the topics frequently mentioned by ISAF, NATO, and US AID is the need to get Internet and computers into educational facilities, schools, and ultimately homes in Afghanistan.   There is a NATO Virtual Silk Road program which is the closest to actually installing hardware and internet – they have been planning for years now, spent millions, but have yet to install anything (judging from the google search I just did.)   In the post below Amy Sun describes exactly how to get a virtual Silk Road up and running using what is the most efficient model I have ever heard of and one which should be recognized, funded, and expanded not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.

The Fab Folk may be academics but as you’ll see below they (like all good academics should) have proven their concepts in the field – specifically in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.   Read the post below – understand how absolutely incredible it is that Afghan kids are designing, building and installing high speed internet hotspots all around the city and then send this post to your congressmen (or the appropriate equivalent for those who live outside the US.)

An additional point – this internet is fast.   It is, in fact, much faster than the systems our military is using – the only way to get a fatter pipe in Afghanistan is to spend 15k a month for your own satellite feed.   Another point   – these people come here on their own dime.   Not one penny of tax payer money has been spent to accomplish in 7 months something which our governments have been unable to do in seven years. Somebody needs to fund the Fab Folk effort in Afghanistan – it is ridiculous that a group of PhD candidates are spending their life savings to come here and do a task they feel to be vital when that exact task in one all the coalition countries agree is a priority.   Also note the frequent use of a key word by the author; “leadership.”   We sure could use more of that around here.

FabFi now has  five fully operating  nodes with two more  coming online in days – they’ve already got the config all down but haven’t done the final strapping down.   That’s  seven, SEVEN, high speed comms “hot spots”  for Afghan use delivered  and working in  about 5 months serving an estimated 500-1,000 users.     Of  those seven,  only the first four were installed with international FabFolk help.   The remainder were  built, configured, and installed, end-to-end, by and for “ordinary people”.

dsc00867

Because the end points are made for and by the users, access is completely based on individual will and merit.   Meaning, you can have it if you do the work.   So while the “usual suspects” continue to propose connecting hospitals, universities, and government buildings, with FabFi, regular people are connecting those places AND a small orphanage, an NGO, and a public school in a small village.   And  they’re doing it now.

dsc00863

I can’t emphasize enough –  the key to FabFi isn’t the technology, it’s the implementation where everything is developed specifically to allow  regular people  the ability  to solve problems.    If  you don’t already know the  tech term “viral“, look it up.     This is the way these projects need to be done,  you have to  involve and employ absolutely everyone you can, especially the very population that you’re targeting. If it’s important to them, they’ll do it.

dsc01274

No caveats. Want to go to the moon? There’s only one way to get there and it’s not handouts or coddling from Vulcans.     Otherwise you’re just a tourist along for the ride, and you still won’t be able to get there on your own. We’re there to guide and make available the collective knowledge and lessons learned of the developed world.   Mentor, not suppress.   Lead, not micromanage.

dsc01277

There does have to be leadership and focus.   Open source projects fail if they are literally open loop frenzied parties of undirected work.   FabFi is not a new idea within the Fabuniverse but you need someone to pull together resources, funding, and a timeline – and hold even volunteers to their word.       To be effective, that  leadership needs “street cred”  –   out there slugging through the heat and mosquitoes, or ice and  snow,  or late night geeking sessions with everyone else.     I said leadership, not finance manager.

Because good leadership and mentoring begets good leadership and mentoring.   South End Boston Fab Lab has a tremendously successful “Learn to Teach / Teach to Learn” program where grad students teach undergrads who teach high schoolers who teach middle schoolers.     They don’t just teach rote skills or what to think, they are teaching young teens how to think.   That program started with a handful of kids and has grown to hundreds, nearly a thousand confident young adults that any parent would be proud of.

And you know what’s just as  wild?   These labs  lead and support each other.   We’re just begininng to foster the relationships in Afghanistan – these kids are shy! – but the Pabal, India (7 years old)  and Soshanguve, South Africa (3.5 years old) labs are reaching out to Afghanistan to share their projects and design files for the things they’ve developed over the past several years.

Their most valuable contributions to each other aren’t the machines or product – those change over time as needs and people change.   It’s the collective mentoring in how to think, how to approach problems.   It’s a slow process because it’s a journey for the user, not an answer to memorize.

dsc_1834

Here’s what’s next: it’s called the thinner client. Basically about $10 in parts, it’s the bare minimum of what you need to connect to the internet for things like email and access to Wikipedia and the like. Two way information stations with crazy low power consumption. A group of Pretoria, South African Fab Folk are heading up the implementation and distribution of these in South Africa, and both projects will trade around August with the South Africans learning and implementing FabFi and the Afghanis learning and implementing Thinner Client, with help from each other.   And the whole rest of the world watching.

dsc_1839

To keep the semantics simple, I’ll describe with the Jbad-appropriate words. Pashto native character map, plugs in to PAL or NTSC TV or any other display device you can find (just load in different software).   Requires 3.3 VDC – 5VDC in pretty much any way you can get it to it (including through the comms, keyboard, etc.).   In Jbad we’ll intentionally promote the text-only or vector-line-drawing-only versions so the units are acceptable for non-chaperone use (no effective net-nanny in Afghanistan!).

They connect to each other, they connect to FabFi. The connect wired or wireless, over RF, IR, and even acoustically. It’s all just different drop in electronic  bits and different software modules, but it’s totally cut-and-paste. Don’t think they can do it? Watch young Valentina of the Ghana Fab Lab make and show you her circuit “Efe”, which means “it’s beautiful!” in Fanti.

She started by making something that was already designed, then she modified it, both the hardware and software. That’s the way “real engineers” learn stuff, start with something that works, understand it, modify it. And that’s basically the  Fab Lab secret power.

Watch for this  to explode – the combination of device and network is like, well, cell phones but without having to wait for the  provider  company to invest millions in the initial infrastructure.   The learning curve is steep – it doesn’t help that the router kernel is in English – but once these things get translated in to local languages and processes, it’s going to go wild.   The interest and requests are already overwhelming.   People are bewildered when they ask who to ask to get an antenna to find that there is not an authority, they simply  “must to do”.   The biggest hurdle at the moment is people actually believing that is true!

It’s not just Afghanistan.   The rate at which  FabFi has spread  is phenomenal.   We released the FabFi 1.0 distribution in mid-March, essentially we got our act together and finally zipped all the files together with a little documentation and threw it up on our website.    Not even a month later,   I’ve heard from folks all over –  from Soshanguve, South Africa  to South Bronx, New  York.    The Heads On Fire Fab Lab in San Diego has  endeavored to  make antenna pairs to connect San Diego with Tijuanna, and I’ve even heard from the GATR folks who just want to connect to their work net from home.

Let me summarize: provide mission  orders and appropriate funding.   Trust  the folks who know  both the tech and understand how  to engage the target population.   Stand out of the way.   Taking credit is optional.

Want A “Digital” Silk Road in Afghanistan? Let Them Build It

Editors Note:   One of the topics frequently mentioned by ISAF, NATO, and US AID is the need to get Internet and computers into educational facilities, schools, and ultimately homes in Afghanistan.   There is a NATO Virtual Silk Road program which is the closest to actually installing hardware and internet – they have been planning for years now, spent millions, but have yet to install anything (judging from the google search I just did.)   In the post below Amy Sun describes exactly how to get a virtual Silk Road up and running using what is the most efficient model I have ever heard of and one which should be recognized, funded, and expanded not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.

The Fab Folk may be academics but as you’ll see below they (like all good academics should) have proven their concepts in the field – specifically in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.   Read the post below – understand how absolutely incredible it is that Afghan kids are designing, building and installing high speed internet hotspots all around the city and then send this post to your congressmen (or the appropriate equivalent for those who live outside the US.)

An additional point – this internet is fast.   It is, in fact, much faster than the systems our military is using – the only way to get a fatter pipe in Afghanistan is to spend 15k a month for your own satellite feed.   Another point   – these people come here on their own dime.   Not one penny of tax payer money has been spent to accomplish in 7 months something which our governments have been unable to do in seven years. Somebody needs to fund the Fab Folk effort in Afghanistan – it is ridiculous that a group of PhD candidates are spending their life savings to come here and do a task they feel to be vital when that exact task in one all the coalition countries agree is a priority.   Also note the frequent use of a key word by the author; “leadership.”   We sure could use more of that around here.

FabFi now has  five fully operating  nodes with two more  coming online in days – they’ve already got the config all down but haven’t done the final strapping down.   That’s  seven, SEVEN, high speed comms “hot spots”  for Afghan use delivered  and working in  about 5 months serving an estimated 500-1,000 users.     Of  those seven,  only the first four were installed with international FabFolk help.   The remainder were  built, configured, and installed, end-to-end, by and for “ordinary people”.

dsc00867

Because the end points are made for and by the users, access is completely based on individual will and merit.   Meaning, you can have it if you do the work.   So while the “usual suspects” continue to propose connecting hospitals, universities, and government buildings, with FabFi, regular people are connecting those places AND a small orphanage, an NGO, and a public school in a small village.   And  they’re doing it now.

dsc00863

I can’t emphasize enough –  the key to FabFi isn’t the technology, it’s the implementation where everything is developed specifically to allow  regular people  the ability  to solve problems.    If  you don’t already know the  tech term “viral“, look it up.     This is the way these projects need to be done,  you have to  involve and employ absolutely everyone you can, especially the very population that you’re targeting. If it’s important to them, they’ll do it.

dsc01274

No caveats. Want to go to the moon? There’s only one way to get there and it’s not handouts or coddling from Vulcans.     Otherwise you’re just a tourist along for the ride, and you still won’t be able to get there on your own. We’re there to guide and make available the collective knowledge and lessons learned of the developed world.   Mentor, not suppress.   Lead, not micromanage.

dsc01277

There does have to be leadership and focus.   Open source projects fail if they are literally open loop frenzied parties of undirected work.   FabFi is not a new idea within the Fabuniverse but you need someone to pull together resources, funding, and a timeline – and hold even volunteers to their word.       To be effective, that  leadership needs “street cred”  –   out there slugging through the heat and mosquitoes, or ice and  snow,  or late night geeking sessions with everyone else.     I said leadership, not finance manager.

Because good leadership and mentoring begets good leadership and mentoring.   South End Boston Fab Lab has a tremendously successful “Learn to Teach / Teach to Learn” program where grad students teach undergrads who teach high schoolers who teach middle schoolers.     They don’t just teach rote skills or what to think, they are teaching young teens how to think.   That program started with a handful of kids and has grown to hundreds, nearly a thousand confident young adults that any parent would be proud of.

And you know what’s just as  wild?   These labs  lead and support each other.   We’re just begininng to foster the relationships in Afghanistan – these kids are shy! – but the Pabal, India (7 years old)  and Soshanguve, South Africa (3.5 years old) labs are reaching out to Afghanistan to share their projects and design files for the things they’ve developed over the past several years.

Their most valuable contributions to each other aren’t the machines or product – those change over time as needs and people change.   It’s the collective mentoring in how to think, how to approach problems.   It’s a slow process because it’s a journey for the user, not an answer to memorize.

dsc_1834

Here’s what’s next: it’s called the thinner client. Basically about $10 in parts, it’s the bare minimum of what you need to connect to the internet for things like email and access to Wikipedia and the like. Two way information stations with crazy low power consumption. A group of Pretoria, South African Fab Folk are heading up the implementation and distribution of these in South Africa, and both projects will trade around August with the South Africans learning and implementing FabFi and the Afghanis learning and implementing Thinner Client, with help from each other.   And the whole rest of the world watching.

dsc_1839

To keep the semantics simple, I’ll describe with the Jbad-appropriate words. Pashto native character map, plugs in to PAL or NTSC TV or any other display device you can find (just load in different software).   Requires 3.3 VDC – 5VDC in pretty much any way you can get it to it (including through the comms, keyboard, etc.).   In Jbad we’ll intentionally promote the text-only or vector-line-drawing-only versions so the units are acceptable for non-chaperone use (no effective net-nanny in Afghanistan!).

They connect to each other, they connect to FabFi. The connect wired or wireless, over RF, IR, and even acoustically. It’s all just different drop in electronic  bits and different software modules, but it’s totally cut-and-paste. Don’t think they can do it? Watch young Valentina of the Ghana Fab Lab make and show you her circuit “Efe”, which means “it’s beautiful!” in Fanti.

She started by making something that was already designed, then she modified it, both the hardware and software. That’s the way “real engineers” learn stuff, start with something that works, understand it, modify it. And that’s basically the  Fab Lab secret power.

Watch for this  to explode – the combination of device and network is like, well, cell phones but without having to wait for the  provider  company to invest millions in the initial infrastructure.   The learning curve is steep – it doesn’t help that the router kernel is in English – but once these things get translated in to local languages and processes, it’s going to go wild.   The interest and requests are already overwhelming.   People are bewildered when they ask who to ask to get an antenna to find that there is not an authority, they simply  “must to do”.   The biggest hurdle at the moment is people actually believing that is true!

It’s not just Afghanistan.   The rate at which  FabFi has spread  is phenomenal.   We released the FabFi 1.0 distribution in mid-March, essentially we got our act together and finally zipped all the files together with a little documentation and threw it up on our website.    Not even a month later,   I’ve heard from folks all over –  from Soshanguve, South Africa  to South Bronx, New  York.    The Heads On Fire Fab Lab in San Diego has  endeavored to  make antenna pairs to connect San Diego with Tijuanna, and I’ve even heard from the GATR folks who just want to connect to their work net from home.

Let me summarize: provide mission  orders and appropriate funding.   Trust  the folks who know  both the tech and understand how  to engage the target population.   Stand out of the way.   Taking credit is optional.

Technology Development Stemming from 9/11 and the Wars In Afghanistan and Iraq

The title above will be the basis for a series of articles I will write over the coming weeks outlining some cutting-edge technologies that are just being placed in the field, or will soon debut in the next few years. The events surrounding  September 11th 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been the catalyst for major defense research, as well as the development of some interesting and unique technologies. This series will primarily focus on technologies that will assist the soldier or tactical operator on the ground.
The majority of these new technologies are designed to reduce the fog of war by giving better situational awareness, improving the ability to track, designate or hand-off targets to other weapons systems, along with the key benefit of saving soldiers’ lives. The advantages of this research and the new technologies developed from these two wars will permeate into the civilian world at some future date.
Being a former Tactical Police Officer from 1990 through 2002, I’ve personally seen the transfer of military technology into the unit that helped us better carry out our missions to save lives. Off the top of my head, these are examples of some of those technologies introduced over that period: Thermal Imagers, Night Vision Scopes for Sniper and Assault Rifles, Gen II and Gen III Night Vision Goggles, and Digital Radios with encryption.
My first topic in this article focuses on a transformational technology that will penetrate the military, law enforcement and civilian world in a profound way. The most important aspect of this technology is that it is designed to save lives.
Blackhawk's Integrated Tourniquet System

Blackhawk’s Integrated Tourniquet System
THE INTEGRATED TOURNIQUET SYSTEM (ITS)
The ITS system was the brainchild of a Texan surgeon by the name of Dr. Keith Rose. In 2006, Dr. Rose was in Afghanistan conducting a humanitarian medical mission in the field, doing surgery to repair children’s cleft pallets. Upon returning to Kabul from the field, he encountered a US military up-armoured Humvee that had been hit by an RPG round. The vehicle’s damage caused the doors to jam and to trap a soldier inside with a femoral artery bleed. The soldier was finally freed from the vehicle a few minutes later, but died because they weren’t able to reach him or free him in time to save his life. Dr. Rose was very affected by this tragic incident and felt it a senseless loss of life. It sparked an idea that eventually lead to the Integrated Tourniquet System (ITS). To develop the product, he teamed up with Blackhawk, a US based manufacturer of tactical equipment and clothing. Dr. Rose’s invention essentially pre-locates tourniquets within garments to stop blood loss if an extremity suffers from severe bleeding.
With the core of the body and head protected by body armor and a helmet, battlefield injuries to the extremities (arms and legs) have increased significantly. Reports indicate that vascular injuries accounted for 50-70% of all injuries treated during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and that extremity wounds were the leading cause of preventable death on the battlefield. This new technology will go a long way to reduce the incidents of preventable death from basically bleeding Each garment includes a total of four (4) tourniquets, with two (2) for each limb.
With an arterial bleed, time is of the essence. Someone could die in less than four (4) minutes if the bleeding is not stopped. The beauty of the system is that tourniquets are pre-located in the correct medical positions. There is no need to waste time looking for a tourniquet in the first aid kit. The system can be self-administered or, if the victim is unconscious, his/her teammate automatically knows the location of the tourniquets and simply activates them immediately.
This technology has already been adopted by the US Navy Seals, and I suspect other SF teams around the world will want to have access to this technology in their uniforms as well. Although the SF community is an early-adapter of this technology, my prediction is Defense Forces around the world will incorporate the system into their uniforms within the next 3-5 years. Law Enforcement will also adopt this technology, especially within the world’s Tactical Units. To the Australian and New Zealand Defense Forces, talk to me and I can steer you in the right direction regarding this technology I have a line straight to the top!
It’s a simple design invention repackaged into a functional system addressing a specific need on the battlefield. This technology will save lives…. period. This is not only a technology for military and law enforcement tactical teams, but also for the civilian market including extreme sports like hunting, mountain climbing, surfing, skiing, snowboarding and diving. Watch this space.
Blackhawk has a YouTube video demonstrating the technology, which I’ve linked here.  Blackhawk also released their “Warrior Wear” line of clothing. which incorporates the ITS technology. Check out their website for more details.

Women's Resource Center / Work For Cash

Tim invited me to submit some ideas for ways to spend the Work For Cash program he’s administering this spring. There is a focus on getting the money into the hands of women. Many of the traditional WFC programs are things like digging out the sewers or sweeping the streets, and those are inappropriate for burqa clad women who are likely to have small kids they must keep with them.

Tim reminds me that the program is bound by constraints that he doesn’t yet completely know, he’ll find out this week, so he won’t make any promises or plans yet. If the WFC thing doesn’t work out, we’ll still do most of these things but will have to raise funds otherwise and the program will stand up more slowly (ie, we’ll have to sell the product and generate some revenue to reinvest in more raw supplies).   If you have more ideas, please comment!

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In the Work for Cash program, women will be invited to the FabLab to be paid to do the following :

1) Document scanning. Digitize paper records using bed scanner or camera. May be public records such as the mountain of land title deeds or possibly similar types files (we will have to solicit customers).

2) Make flash cards for school children. (Mostly basic arithmetic). Women learn to use the printing press or wood / rubber stamp making.

3) Make educational props. Clocks with movable hands, giant rulers, large painted flash cards with Pashto / English alphabet.

4) Sew book bag / satchel / purses, with custom embroidery or markings or prints.

5) Sew / embroider (by hand, machines, or with computer controlled machines) “A [picture of apple]” kinds of quilts and fabric books in Pashto. May use other machines in the lab to make the objects out of felt or other material instead of embroidering with thread.

6) Make wind lanterns from empty water bottles. (Requires collecting and cleaning bottles). Wind lanterns spin in a breeze causing internal lights to light up. They can be strung up outside doorways or near wells and other hazards.

7) Make and configure FabFi antennas for long range wireless internet connections terminating in umbrella wireless hotspots. Install on site, possibly, depending on mobility of women.

8) Create and perform puppet / shadow puppet theater show on topics of basic health, local fables, IED (Improvised Explosive Device)   and UXO (Baba Tim Comment: unexploded ordinance is a huge problem and they kill hundreds of children per year in Afghanistan – France has the same problem with ordinance left over from World War I.   For those of you schooled under Jimmy Carters Department of Educatuon that happened in the early part of the last centruy and was a very bad war even though mostly white European males were killed in it – by the hundreds of thousands mind you.) awareness or just entertainment.

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In addition to immediate pay for work described, in some cases women will gain a skill that may be employable in the long term. I propose giving away the product to the local schools or selling at a very low cost. These products and services were requested by locals and the Fab Lab mentors can help these women establish small cottage businesses from these activities.

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The Fab Lab is an existent infrastructure at the edge of Jalalabad. In addition to raw supplies for the above projects, the Woman’s Resource Room needs to be fitted out to provide a safe and comfortable place for the women to work and sanctuary when there are users of other genders visiting or using the lab. This room is approximately 25′ x 18′ with windows on two walls and an en suite bathroom with sink and toilet. One set of windows opens onto a small concrete walkway which is up against an interior compound wall. The other set of windows looks out small concrete walkway/porch leading to 1/4-1/2 acre vegetable garden. There is a split air conditioner and heater installed in the room. The room is currently empty but clean and freshly painted.

We need to add: Thick wall to wall carpet, comfortable couches and floor cushions. Some low tables. A computer controlled embroidery machine, a sewing machine, some computers, a bookshelf and whiteboard, a projector or TV for lessons. All the print and video educational material we can find. One wall of open-front cubby holes. A shared supply of sewing and knitting needles, scissors, rulers, and so on. An endless supply of female sanitary products, soap, and general toiletries.

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Women’s Resource Center / Work For Cash

Tim invited me to submit some ideas for ways to spend the Work For Cash program he’s administering this spring. There is a focus on getting the money into the hands of women. Many of the traditional WFC programs are things like digging out the sewers or sweeping the streets, and those are inappropriate for burqa clad women who are likely to have small kids they must keep with them.

Tim reminds me that the program is bound by constraints that he doesn’t yet completely know, he’ll find out this week, so he won’t make any promises or plans yet. If the WFC thing doesn’t work out, we’ll still do most of these things but will have to raise funds otherwise and the program will stand up more slowly (ie, we’ll have to sell the product and generate some revenue to reinvest in more raw supplies).   If you have more ideas, please comment!

dsc_5958

In the Work for Cash program, women will be invited to the FabLab to be paid to do the following :

1) Document scanning. Digitize paper records using bed scanner or camera. May be public records such as the mountain of land title deeds or possibly similar types files (we will have to solicit customers).

2) Make flash cards for school children. (Mostly basic arithmetic). Women learn to use the printing press or wood / rubber stamp making.

3) Make educational props. Clocks with movable hands, giant rulers, large painted flash cards with Pashto / English alphabet.

4) Sew book bag / satchel / purses, with custom embroidery or markings or prints.

5) Sew / embroider (by hand, machines, or with computer controlled machines) “A [picture of apple]” kinds of quilts and fabric books in Pashto. May use other machines in the lab to make the objects out of felt or other material instead of embroidering with thread.

6) Make wind lanterns from empty water bottles. (Requires collecting and cleaning bottles). Wind lanterns spin in a breeze causing internal lights to light up. They can be strung up outside doorways or near wells and other hazards.

7) Make and configure FabFi antennas for long range wireless internet connections terminating in umbrella wireless hotspots. Install on site, possibly, depending on mobility of women.

8) Create and perform puppet / shadow puppet theater show on topics of basic health, local fables, IED (Improvised Explosive Device)   and UXO (Baba Tim Comment: unexploded ordinance is a huge problem and they kill hundreds of children per year in Afghanistan – France has the same problem with ordinance left over from World War I.   For those of you schooled under Jimmy Carters Department of Educatuon that happened in the early part of the last centruy and was a very bad war even though mostly white European males were killed in it – by the hundreds of thousands mind you.) awareness or just entertainment.

img_1563

In addition to immediate pay for work described, in some cases women will gain a skill that may be employable in the long term. I propose giving away the product to the local schools or selling at a very low cost. These products and services were requested by locals and the Fab Lab mentors can help these women establish small cottage businesses from these activities.

dsc_0307

The Fab Lab is an existent infrastructure at the edge of Jalalabad. In addition to raw supplies for the above projects, the Woman’s Resource Room needs to be fitted out to provide a safe and comfortable place for the women to work and sanctuary when there are users of other genders visiting or using the lab. This room is approximately 25′ x 18′ with windows on two walls and an en suite bathroom with sink and toilet. One set of windows opens onto a small concrete walkway which is up against an interior compound wall. The other set of windows looks out small concrete walkway/porch leading to 1/4-1/2 acre vegetable garden. There is a split air conditioner and heater installed in the room. The room is currently empty but clean and freshly painted.

We need to add: Thick wall to wall carpet, comfortable couches and floor cushions. Some low tables. A computer controlled embroidery machine, a sewing machine, some computers, a bookshelf and whiteboard, a projector or TV for lessons. All the print and video educational material we can find. One wall of open-front cubby holes. A shared supply of sewing and knitting needles, scissors, rulers, and so on. An endless supply of female sanitary products, soap, and general toiletries.

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Counterinsurgency 101

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

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

Taliban demolition smugglers or low level black market types?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Adventures Outside the Wire

End of the Game
End of the Game

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

1. Adventure # 3 – Buzkashi, and

2. Adventure # 5 The Tabasco Dare.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

James – Guest Blogger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The newest Milblogger in Jalalabad
The newest Milblogger in Jalalabad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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