Yesterday the New York Times reported a stunner which was that the United States has discovered 1 Trillion dollars in untapped mineral wealth in Afghanistan. That news would seem to be a potential game changer and I went out this afternoon to downtown Jalalabad to conduct a couple man on the street interviews with local Afghans. What a shocker – not one guy I asked had any idea about the story which took up some much of the press cycle yesterday. Not one guy I asked had any idea what the number “trillion” represents. Yet all understood that there is mineral wealth in the country. What they don’t understand is how so much wealth could directly benefit them and their fellow citizens. The concept that a Saudi style money spigot could be turned on and spent on a nation wide program of modernization which would benefit them without their having to pay a penny is impossible for your average Afghan to contemplate.
As expected the Danger Room blog brought some perspective to the story. Katie Drummond added this post to the debate which jived with what Afghans told me today and that is the potential for mineral development is well known. What is not well known is what it takes to convert mineral potential into wealth. Educating the Afghan public about the requirement for all fighting to stop so that the infrastructure can be developed to not only mine but refine these minerals could be a game changer if done correctly. Imagine if every shura in every part of the country with ISAF stressed a sense of urgency about stopping all armed opposition so that the country can get the international investors in so they can start developing the resources which should make every man, woman and child in Afghanistan richer than a Saudi national. I wonder how much pressure from below that would generate?
Generating popular opinion from below to pressure the various factions from on high who could pocket vast fortunes from Afghanistan’s mineral wealth may be one of the most important things we could do for the people of Afghanistan. It seems that we are getting asses kicked by the Taliban (actually we are kicking our own asses) despite winning every firefight and there is little doubt that our feckless President will start pulling out next summer. How fast the military can do that and what will we consider an acceptable end-state remain the Trillion Dollar Question. The only man who can answer it is our Commander in Chief but he seems has absolutely no clue about anything is general and the art of leadership specifically. The military/State Department will have to muddle through for lord knows how long and it will not be long before a majority of our fellow Americans ask just what the hell is the point of being there for so long while accomplishing so little at such great cost.
Back to the Trillion dollars – how do you think this mineral wealth is going to play out for the average Afghan citizen? That may well depend on us and the rest of the international community who remain engaged with Afghanistan. The worst case example is happening right now with the recent announcement that Afghanistan would “delay” the award of iron ore and natural gas contracts in an effort to stamp out corruption. This “delay” sounds suspiciously like the last major award to two Chinese firms for the largest known copper deposits in the world. Firms from American, Canada and Europe were all finalists in that bid until there was a “delay” and the Chinese came out of nowhere to win the bid. Here is the money quote from the WSJ article liked above:
“Mining could be a major economic contributor. But the Mines Ministry has long been considered among Afghanistan’s most corrupt government departments, and Western officials have repeatedly expressed reservations about the Afghan government awarding concessions for the country’s major mineral deposits, fearful that corrupt officials would hand contracts to bidders who pay the biggest bribes — not who are best suited to actually do the work.”
Land disputes generate more killings around Nangarhar Province than Taliban attacks do. That’s because families who are fighting over land go at it toe to toe where you can’t miss with an AK rifle. Ten, twelve, fifteen people killed in one of these fights is rather routine. What if these people thought the land they owned had the potential to earn them riches beyond their wildest dreams? What if every-time any international talked to any group of Afghans The Message came out over and over and over – that message being “you have to stop the fighting and support development or your leaders will sell the future of your country away to the Chinese for pocket change and you’ll leave nothing for your children but death, disease, and a denuded country where no sane person would want to live.
Land disputes are a problem because the central government is not perceived as being honest in its dealings with ownership claims. There are many places in the country where people are squatting on land which is not theirs. The default position of the government seems to be that if you cannot prove ownership the land belongs to the Government. When the government moves to exert eminent domain over land it claims the results are always bloody.
When I talked with average Afghans about this supposed 1 Trillion dollars of mineral wealth I rapidly discovered that not one them could imagine how all that money could possibly benefit them. The thought that they had rights to minerals in land they owned or that the government would negotiate for tons of cash which would be dispersed to Afghans just like Saudis do with their oil wealth is beyond their comprehension.
This is an opportunity for us to attack a problem asymmetrically. Our problem is that we do not have a viable partner in Afghanistan, we do not have a competent Commander in Chief, we do not have military leadership which has the temperament or confidence required to unleash the superior problem solving and fighting skills of the junior leaders on the ground and we do not have anything remotely resembling professional or competent diplomats. What we do have is a compelling story line which would resonate with the Afghan people if it were messaged correctly. That story line is simple – if you do not force an end to the fighting, if you do not force accountability in your leaders, if you do not stand up for your rights and human dignity then a Trillion Dollars, which should belong to you is going to flow directly into the banks of Dubai and the coffers of the Peoples Republic of China.
It is 95 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in Jalalabad making this the coolest start to summer in memory. Unfortunately the number of security incidents in Jalalabad and around the country have started climbing like the temperature normally does. Yesterday, for the first time since a one-off attack in 2008 the villains struck at the U.S. army inside Jalalabad City. A VBIED (vehicle borne improvise explosive device) attacked an RG-31 MRAP killing both the VBIED driver and the turret gunner and also causing injuries of various severity to 11 local people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have been waiting in vain for the Afghan president or media to pile on the Taliban decrying in strong language the deliberate targeting of innocent Afghan civilians.
It is not just the Taliban and other insurgent groups turning on the heat – GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) is putting the heat on the reconstruction battle too. Yesterday President Karzai removed the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) Amrullah Saleh, and the Interior Minister Hanif Atmar. After firing his two top security officials he announced this:
“Karzai made his first official response to the jirga Sunday by ordering a review of all cases of Taliban suspects in Afghan jails and the release of those detained on doubtful evidence.”
This order does not apply to militants in American custody but it is not like the Afghans have a solid record of keeping insurgents in jail in the first place. Then a memo from the new Minister of the Interior appeared which looks like it is going to make getting a work visa (they are damn hard to get now) almost impossible. The Afghan security chat room buzzed for hours about this as we tried to decipher the new rules. The consensus is that the rules are targeting third country nationals (TCN’s,) both Nepalese who are the bulk of TCN armed security and Filipino’s; who make up the bulk of the finance and admin officers in companies who use TCN’s for those important roles. Just like the review of Taliban prisoners these new visa requirements will not impact the contractors working on military bases which are the majority of contractors working in country. Contractors working the FOB’s enter and exit the country aboard mil air or contractor aircraft flying directly to the major military airfields from Dubai; they don’t have visas or work permits. The new rules are specifically targeting security companies who use internationals and the reconstruction implementers who are doing all the reconstruction work outside of the military bases.
At exactly the time when Afghanistan is going to need more international security operatives to harden existing reconstruction efforts and provide (now needed) professional security to internationals operating outside the wire, the central government continues to squeeze them out of the business. On top of that there are on-going problems with Afghan only security operations. Dexter Filkins posted an excellent story on this topic today which can be found here. He points out that both Watan and Compass security were not closed down after being banned by the Kabul government but instead “worked out” their differences and remain in operation. I see reports of convoys from Compass security about their guys being ambushed almost daily on the security face chat room. Normally the reports look like this:
“08 JUNE 10: DRIVE BY SHOOTING: at 1025 hrs Compass escorted convoy subjected to PKM and AK-47 fire delivered from two passing motorcycles at Grid 41R PR 91285 02241, 3 km Northwest of Keshnakod. No damages, convoy continued movement.”
If these convoys are taking fire they are no doubt returning it too, which may account for reports of indiscriminate shooting. I find it hard to believe that security contractors are shooting up the countryside if, for no other reason, then ammo is so expensive and a pain to obtain. 7.62 x 39mm rounds (AK 47 ammo) sells for 50 cents a round at normal market rates with no discount on bulk purchases. I don’t really know what these contractors are doing but Dexter seems to have a good handle on the topic. What I do know is that if ISAF wants the contractors they are hiring as convoy escort to perform at international standards they need to hire internationals. That is becoming increasingly harder to do and clearly not something the Afghans want to see happen as they drive the security dollars to their companies by driving out international competition.
Most of the big reconstruction outfits use TCN’s in the finance officer positions because they have to handle and disperse large amounts of cash. Eliminating them from the work force is short sighted and dumb. The central government is reducing the ability of the international aid agencies to rapidly develop Afghan human capital via daily mentor-ship by TCN professionals who have the requisite training and certification to pass muster with agencies like US AID. Project management, project engineers and finance officers, as a rule of thumb, have to be approved by funding agencies which is a proven method for controlling fraud and theft.
It took the army about four hours to recover their damaged MRAP and the soldiers let me and one of our engineers look over the bridge so we could check the structural integrity. The roadbed will need to be replaced which will require a few days (probably longer here) but the good news is the damage was superficial.
Talking with the American soldiers is always a treat. Paratroopers from the 101st are now in charge of RC East and they seem to be a confident, cocky bunch which is exactly the right attitude. One of the sergeants told me they get out all the time doing COIN which he describes as talking to and being friendly with the people instead of hunting down and killing bad guys. He said their pre-deployment training stressed that the Afghan people generally remain friendly towards Americans which he said he didn’t really believe until he saw us pop out of the crowd wearing casual western clothes; smiling at and joking with the men around us as we passed through. I told him to always smile warmly when greeting Afghans and to learn four cuss words and two mullah jokes in Pashto. Those modest skills will make him a hero wherever he goes as long as he stays out of the Korengal and Pech valleys in Kunar Province. He thought that was a great heads up and laughed and laughed as he passed on this sage advice to his buddies. I love being around good infantry and these guys have the look of world class fighters.
Here is the thing; the soldiers, through no fault of their own, really aren’t doing COIN. The MRAP vehicles, which protected them this time, are a physical barrier between the people and the soldiers. The body armor, helmets and mandatory sun glasses are both a physical and psychological barrier between the soldiers and the people they are trying to protect. I know the MRAPs and body armor will never go away – they are self imposed constraints the commander has to deal with to accomplish his mission. But no commander can accomplish the mission of protecting the local population if they are forced to deploy from and live on FOB’s. They can’t protect families living 100 meters outside the wire of the bases from the Taliban, which even the illiterate peasant fighters in the south have figured out as they reverse the gains made by the Marines last winter in the Helmand River Valley. The only way to combat small teams of Taliban enforcers roaming the countryside at night is to roam the countryside at night in small teams yourself; preferably without the helmets and body armor so you too can be fast and sneaky.
Yesterday an article popped up from ABC news saying this is the longest war in American history. As is typical with the dying, brain dead, liberal media that is completely wrong; the longest war in American history was the Pig War in the San Juan islands between the British and us. Afghanistan has three more years to go before it really becomes our longest war. Reading the main stream media gives me a headache…. I know that liberalism is a disease with the complete ignorance of your countries history being a major symptom but you would think that by now the dinosaur media would at least have heard of wikipedia. What a bunch of dummies. They continue to think my fellow Americans are stupid enough to believe the partisan spin they publish is really news. How many days did it take those jackasses to realize that we were not going to ignore the virulent racism of Helen Thomas? She has finally exited the stage just like Dan Rather did; in complete and total disgrace. Not that you would know that if you depended on the New York Slimes or Washington Compost for your news; they don’t seem to think that some guy taking out one of the more infamous media names in history with the video camera in his cell phone is an important story. Whoops I was about to launch into another rant …sorry about that.
The question the MSM should be asking, if they were capable of independent thought or even thinking clearly about the important issues of the day, is will Afghanistan become our longest war, and if so, why? President Karzai went to Washington last month for a round of meaningless photo ops and stupid proclamations because the current administration also thinks the American people are stupid enough to be fooled by such nonsense. Karzai obviously has concluded the Commander in Chief will continue to “vote present” for the foreseeable future and is tightening the screws on the few internationals who continue to work outside the wire in attempt to divert more money to Afghan businesses, many of which have proven to be unreliable. Those of us who remain in the reconstruction fight are busy adapting, hardening our compounds, changing up our routines, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort trying to get a handle on how bad the current security situation is and how much worse it will get.
Yesterday NATO lost ten men in battle; five American to an anti tank mine in Nangarhar Province, and another five to different incidents in both the southern and central regions. At least one of the KIA’s was a French Foreign Legion sergeant and the rest could well be Americans. There is no way we will stay engaged here if the Taliban can inflict 10 KIA’s a day on us for any length of time. Imagine that… the NATO military which is designed and deployed to fight a battle of attrition, cannot for a variety of reasons fight a battle of attrition; loses because it cannot accept the casualties which come from fighting a battle of attrition. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is plenty of world class infantry from both America and NATO in theater and now that the villains are offering battle they could be let lose to react with speed, daring, and accurate, overwhelming firepower. To do that the leadership would have to accept risk, it would have to embrace uncertainty and deploy smaller, mobile combat formations. That kind of change in the campaign plan can only come from decisions made at the U.S. Commander in Chief level. Those changes would require a president who is engaged, decisive, resolute and able to exert sustained expert, confident leadership. We don’t have one of those.
Afghanistan is going down the tubes fast my friends and there are no signs; not one, to indicate things are going to start going our way any time soon.
Security incident rates around Afghanistan are skyrocketing and this year it appears that Jalalabad is, for the first time, going to get its fair share of attention. This unfortunate fact is forcing outside the wire implementers to spend an inordinate amount of time tea drinking and jaw jacking with various local officials and ISAF people in order to get a handle on just how safe we are. My assessment? We’re in for a bad summer, but not as bad a summer as the few internationals working outside the FOB’s in the south. There are two reasons for this; the first is most of us working outside the wire in the east have been here a long time and have developed networks to local people who provide both warning and protection. The second thing going in our favor is that the attacks are amateurish and stupid; even if we were being targeted, the chances of being caught in an effective attack are minimal. This is clearly not the case in the southern region of Afghanistan where al Qaeda operatives are lending technical expertise and the Quetta Shura is able to funnel in ample amounts of money and munitions.
The suicide VBIED attack outside Darlaman Palace in Kabul earlier in the month demonstrated how bad it can get when the Taliban score a semi professionally constructed vehicle borne IED and get it into the city of Kabul. Four Americans and one Canadian soldier were killed in that attack (along with scores of Afghan civilians which nobody seems to be too upset about), but the Taliban do not have the ability to build car bombs of that nature (reportedly 1600 pounds of military grade explosives) in large numbers.
Here is the story board of incidents from the last 10 days in Jalalabad – previously an island of calm and safety in Eastern Afghanistan:
Allow me to provide some expert analysis; here it is…..ready? I have no idea what the hell this is all about. Normally tanker attacks are conducted to cover up fuel thefts but all these tankers were full. Normally IED’s are directed at some sort of target but for the last three months the IED’s going off in Jalalabad (with two exceptions covered in previous posts) have been small scale nuisance attacks designed to limit damage and casualties. So I have no idea what to make of it. All the local officials we talk to are adamant that the internationals working reconstruction projects are as safe now as they have always been. They contend the failed anti tank mine attack on locals driving a clearly marked NGO vehicle (and it is stupid to be in a vehicle which is marked with international NGO logos and stickers of an AK47 with a read circle and line drawn through it showing the occupants are unarmed and proud of it) was a simple mistake.
Just last night I saw a report from Jalalabad (I am in Dubai on R&R) that two vehicles had a collision right outside the main gate to the Jalalabad Airfield; both drivers were brought in for questioning and one of the drivers went back outside the gate to get his paperwork and took off running into the night. Upon inspection his vehicle was full of military grade explosives.
There are two things in play which probably account for the disturbing spike in incidents around Jalalabad. The first is Kandahar. The Governor of Nanagarhar Province is the honorable Agha Gul Sherzzai who is the head of a powerful Kandahar family and who fought with the US back in 2001 to rid Kandahar of Taliban. He was moved to Nangarhar Province in 2005 by President Karzai who then moved his brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai (AWK) up to be the head of the provincial council in Kandahar. Those of you who have been paying any attention at all to Afghanistan can instantly read between the lines. For the rest of you read this in order to break the code.
The second factor in play is ISAF – despite all the talk of ‘focusing on the population” and “population centric warfare” ISAF in general and the American army specifically are doing nothing of the sort. The Americans have a unit on the border crossing at Torkham but those guys just sit on the road all day doing nothing and they go back to the FOB every evening. They inspect nothing, they mentor nobody, they serve little purpose outside of providing an armed American presence at that crossing. The Americans have “rule of law specialists” who are fobbits – they do sortie out to the Nangarhar ANP HQ about two to three times a month so they can drink tea and play grab ass with their ANP counterparts but what is the point? What the hell can you accomplish in a three hour visit?
Until our actions on the ground include teaming up with the ANP; embedding into their units and patrolling with them we will continue to see tons and tons of explosives rolling across the border daily and guess what happens next? This happens – Afghan insurgents learn to destroy key U.S. armored vehicle. I have written at least a dozen times on the folly of trying to answer tactical problems with technology. Now even the McClatchey news service has figured that out. Maybe given more time and unlimited amounts of OPM the brass will figure this out too. They need to relearn the timeless military lesson that you lose more troops trying to protect them with a passive operational posture and “advanced” technology then you do using aggressive offensive action. If we’re here to fight, lets fight – if not lets go home – its that simple.
A few days ago I was invited back to The Alyona Show to talk about tribal militias. You can see Alyona now during these interviews, but I still ended up looking all over the place like Stevie Wonder. No idea why I do that… Alyona and I ended up talking about two different aspects of the militia issue. She was more concerned about the abuse angle – that we may be creating armed groups who abuse the population and ignore the rule of law. I remain more concerned about the economy of force angle – using tribal militias to control key areas, thus sparing our limited manpower for heavily populated areas currently infested with Taliban.
It is hard to get into sync when doing such a short interview but I was able to address a common misconception and that is the use of tribal militia forces to spearhead Special Forces raids. I am no fan of some of the Special Forces work in Afghanistan because there is no need to hit local compounds with the full SF direct action package which includes the varsity Afghan Commandos (who are very very good) a half dozen or so helicopters, dedicated UAV platforms, dedicated attack jets and AC 130 gunships, etc… to pick up a few suspected Taliban. That is a ton of time and money to spend on trying to get villains who may or may not be in the targeted compound. It is easier and cheaper to drive up in the middle of the day with some ANA troops, knock on the door and ask your target if he wants to come now or does he want to fight? These guys are inside compounds with 9 foot high walls, it’s not like they can run away – there are four options when faced with deadly force confrontation; fight, flight, posture or submission. When trapped inside a compound those options are reduced to fight or submission. If the target wants to fight you can invite him to be a true Pashtun man of honor and let the women and kids out of the compound before you come in to get him. You can also move the neighbors out of their compounds, and then try to talk them out or bomb them or go in after them… whatever option you want. It is much easier and safer for everyone (except the targets because this is only going to end one way for them) if you would just think things through and take your time.
Watch the interview clip and then read on as I attempt to explain why this “arm the tribal militia” story is even more confusing and complex then you can imagine.
Last night I received a call from my good friend Chief Ajmal Khan Azizi who had just escaped a serious Taliban ambush. As I reported in this post last February Chief Azizi had returned to his tribal homelands to coordinate with The Boss on reconstruction projects and to renew his pleading with the American army stationed in his area for support in battling the Taliban. Ajmal is the chief of a large tribal federation as well as a Canadian citizen. He has gone hat in hand to London, Kabul and Washington DC to raise support for his beleaguered tribal area, and although he finds a sympathetic audience wherever he goes, what he never gets is a firm commitment to help. I am not the only one taking up his cause, The Boss has been working with the US Embassy in Kabul and Steven Pressfield published a multi part interview with Ajmal this year too.
Last night as Ajmal was moving through the town of Ali Khel near the Pakistan border, he was ambushed by a platoon of Pakistani Taliban (their accents give them away). The ambush was initiated with an IED explosion followed by small arms fire (SAF) and RPG’s. I talked with the chief of the Zazi Valley police, Amir Mohammad who said the Paki’s shot volley after volley from at least 6 RPG’s and they threw over 14 grenades during the fight. Ajmal called on the near by Afghan Border Police for help and they declined to intervene, so the ambush was not broken until Zazi Valley tribal police (or tribal militia- depends on who’s naming them) reinforcements showed up and drove the attackers back towards Pakistan. Ajmal lost a truck and had three men wounded. One of them was seriously wounded and was being transported to Kabul (a five hour drive) in order to get him proper medical care.
Forty five minutes of sustained RPK fire from multiple machineguns takes tens of thousands of rounds. Firing multiple rockets from up to six RPG launchers is also an extravagant use of ammo given the current rates of consumption by the Taliban. Somebody really wants to see a tribal leader, who is on our side in this fight, and who controls the critical border lands of the Parrot’s Beak; dead.
Ajmal has a problem as the chief of an eleven tribe federation; he’s not on good terms with the Karzai government in Kabul. The reason he is on the outs is his insistence that officials appointed by the Kabul government not abuse their powers or positions at the expense of the the local people living in the Zazi valley. He insists they not steal land, not steal aid money, not encourage the narcotics trade, and to not sell weapons and ammunition across the border to Pakistani Taliban. Not all the Kabul appointees were able to abide by these simple rules so they were run out of the valley. The Kabul officials went to the US army to complain and, as is typical in most of their country, they were not only believed by the Americans, but supported. The reason for this is the current ISAF mission statement is based on “supporting GIRoA” (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.)
How many of you have read over and over and over that the biggest obstacle to progress is the thoroughly corrupt and abusive central government? Here is a recent story on the topic – just one of dozens that will be published this week just as they werre last week and will be the week after next. GIRoA is the problem – we know they are corrupt and operating on personal agendas that start with getting wealthy and end with getting wealthy. So when they come to the Americans saying they were run out of a valley by the tribal chiefs because those chiefs are bad, or Taliban or drug merchants (pick your story but those three are standard complaints from the Karazi regime) – when that happens why do we automatically side with Kabul. I was going to write ‘why would we believe them’ but I don’t think the senior people in the military and State are so stupid or lazy as to be fooled by this bullshit. I may be giving them too much credit.
When Alyona asked me about Tribal Militias my first thoughts were about men I know like Ajmal who are walking the fine line between a central government who abuses their positions of trust (I am referring to Kabul not Washington D.C. but it is true for DC too) and the American led ISAF. You would think that ISAF would be bending over backwards to help a tribal federation chief from Canada who is obviously all in with us in battling the Taliban. Ajmal and his association of border tribes are the perfect economy of force option. They want to drive the Taliban and assorted Pakistani enablers out of their valley. They have no desire to operate outside of their hereditary lands and inside those lands their is no police abuse because the police answer to the tribal elders. This isn’t a unique situation many areas (but not all) in Afghanistan have strong tribal federations. This is a viable solution only among the tribes bordering Pakistan in parts of the east and southeast and in remote interior sections of the country.
Attempts by ISAF to use the tribes as militia in other portions of the country have resulted in debacles. This article from Time is a good example and no doubt the kind of tribal militia related problems which has caught the attention of The Alyona Show and every other person paying attention to this conflict. This is a complex place requiring solutions tailored to the area, people and situation on the ground at the district level. Designing a campaign to do that requires decentralized decision making on the ground with small units of infantry who are empowered to provide support as they see fit in their area of operations. The advantage of operating this way is the ability of these infantry units to build good governance from the bottom up because they are in the position to know what is transpiring, 24/7, in the district administrative centers, which would serve as the area security forces TOC (tactical operations center) too.
Afghanistan is going to hell in a hand basket. As I am sitting here these messages from multiple watch officers just popped up on the Afghanistan security chat room which was established some months back:
22 MAY 10 2012L: COMPLEX ATTACK: KAF: KANDAHAR PROVINCE; KAF subjected to 9 rounds of indirect fire accompanied by SAF. Will update as information becomes available.
2020L Our guys in KAF are reporting 3 rounds…1 near the hotel, 2 near the boardwalk…..no info on the reported other 6 rkts or the SA.
2027L Reports from RED HORSE that KAF north side is under ground attack, further report that one container (possibly but not confirmed) ECOLOG was hit by a rocket. All this is too preliminary to confirm at this time.
2034L I have unarmed guards on north side of KAF 100 meters from inside fence line reporting no small arms fire heard in their vicinity, but siren GROUND ATTACK is broad-casted. Number of rockets is between 4-8. Situation still developing.
SAF is the acronym for small arms fire which would indicate a ground attack. Maneuvering a Taliban assault team into small arms range of the gigantic ISAF Kandahar Air Field (KAF) is a tactical feat I do not believe the Taliban could plan and execute. As the watch officers above noted it cannot be confirmed that a ground assault is taking place. The ground attack earlier this week targeting the Bagram Airbase outside of Kabul was a joke – typical amateur hour execution of a poor plan which had zero chance of success. This is a serious attack. Normally the Taliban can’t hit anything with rockets but they are winging them inside the fence line now.
We announced to all who would listen that we were going to sort out Kandahar with a major military operation this summer. Now we have called it off and the locals in the city are questioning our resolve. The Taliban are testing our resolve as I write this post. This is not good, especially given the dog and pony show of President Karzai’s recent trip to Washington. It is going to be a very long summer – I hope we get our bearings soon or more and more of our citizens are going to start to ask why the hell we are here.
OPM stands for “Other Peoples Money” and our politicians are getting so good at spending it they are currently spending OPM which OP have not even earned yet. Conventional wisdom is that having access to unlimited funds would be a good thing for a military engaged in extended combat operations, but the exact opposite is true. The abundance of money (in theory, mind you, America really doesn’t have any more to be spending now) is a curse to the military leader and our current military effort. It allows us to get away with things like procuring a million dollar ATV MRAP for every fireteam of every squad of every platoon deployed here, which for a Marine infantry battalion would equal somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 MRAPs for the entire battalion. If you think it is a good thing for a Marine infantry battalion to have 120 million in MRAP rolling stock, you’re wrong.
Before I get to that I need to send a hat tip out to Nathan Hodge and Noah Schactman at Wired’s Danger Room for putting up a post featuring a prominent photo of your humble correspondent. The Danger Room post got me invited to the Alyona Show – they emailed me a clip of Joshua Faust from Registan being interviewed by Alyona and I figured if Joshua is on board, so am I. I agreed to be taped late at night local time and, having read Joshua’s post on his segment tried to take off the tape of my glasses and glue them together. It didn’t work so I ditched the glasses and moved the laptop far enough away so I could see something and was all set to talk with Alyona. Only you don’t get to talk to Alyona; all you see is a skype screen with your video going and nothing else. I had no idea where to look because looking at me looking at me is weird, so in the video I look more like Stevie Wonder looking around all over the place than somebody having a conversation. It is not too bad to watch – clearly the “contractor” thing was what she wanted to talk about and like all Americans, when she thinks contractor she thinks Blackwater. When I think contractor I think of big large numbers of big guys (not fit guys) who are assigned to the FOBs and never leave. The number of contractors operating outside the wire is a minuscule percentage of the contractors working this campaign and most of them are implementers not security types.
To illustrate the curse of OPM on military operations I’ll use The Bot as an example. As I have mentioned, The Bot has been detailed to the south and is based out of Kandahar City now. He had to move around a lot and has dyed his hair and beard black making him look like some kind of pirate when he is wearing a turban. Being a vain man (and because he’s smart) he won’t let me post any pictures of him, but he has an interesting observation on what it’s like to be outside the wire and mixed in with the population of Kandahar.
Yesterday, The Bot almost ran afoul of Taliban checkpoints, twice in the middle of the day, and both checkpoints were within four miles of the massive Kandahar Airfield where something like 22,000 NATO military troops are stationed “protecting the Afghan people.” The MO for both illegal checkpoints was the same – the villains were wearing yellow reflective vests commonly used by Afghan cash for work crews and had placed their weapons in wheelbarrows hiding them with shovels and brooms. They rucked up to their selected positions which happened to be on the main ring road (Rte 4) about three miles to the Spin Boldak side (at around 0900 in the morning) and another group was on the main road into Kandahar City at about 1100 in the morning. They stopped cars, checked for anyone with a cell phone number of papers which would connect them to the government or the international military and executed at least one local man who failed to pass muster.
The Bot had no problems identifying these Taliban checkpoints for what they were and avoiding them. Even with his language skills and dyed hair he is not going to fool any Afghan into thinking he is a local if given more than a casual glance. Because The Bot and the rest of us do not have unlimited amounts of OPM we have to come up with ways to move around and work, making do with what we can afford on the local market. When faced with tactical problems, the outside the wire contractor has to develop a tactical solution, or move their operations onto military bases from which they can accomplish very little aside from billing hours to their contracts and collecting massive paychecks. There are lots of tactical options, the most common being the use of outriders on motorcycles who communicate with hand and arm signals because hand held radios are illegal here. Unless you are a licensed security company in which case they are legal but still subject to confiscation by the ANP (especially in Kabul.)
The American military was once famous for its ability to organize complex endeavors with limited resources. Now it is famous for organizing unnecessarily complex schemes using unlimited resources. The price you pay when given unlimited resources is the current inability to solve the most fundamental tactical problems using the initiative and creativity of your troops at the pointy end of the spear. We encase our troops in heavy body armor which limits their mobility, quickly saps their endurance, and renders them almost immobile, making them much easier to hit. That so many survive being shot is great but I’m solidly in the “I’d rather not be shot, or go down with heat stroke, or sustain serious chronic injury to my ankles, knees or hips” camp. We then provide multi million dollar “mine resistant” vehicles which protect against most improvised explosives, but cannot protect our troops from standard military anti tank mines, a munition found in abundance throughout Afghanistan.
We, the United States are the ones who said Kandahar was the key and our next big push. Just like we did in the Helmand Province we broadcast our plans in the media – we told the Taliban we were coming after them. We unleashed the varsity SF and focused the JPEL on Kandahar, we talked and talked and talked until just hours before D-day and then we put the whole thing on hold because “the Afghans aren’t ready.” Were the Afghans ready when the Marine Brigade started their operations in the Helmand Province last summer? No, they weren’t. And they are not ready now to take over for the Marines, which is a huge problem currently not being addressed with anything resembling a workable solution because the Department of State and USAID are involved and they have collectively learned not one damn thing from their nine year record of mission failure in Afghanistan.
So we broadcast our next “big push” into Kandahar, the villains respond with their own shaping operation attacking international aid workers (which I predicted they would based on the irresponsible crap published by the NYT,) killing security officials and tribal elders in broad daylight and they are now setting up road blocks and executing Afghans who they think are linked to the government or international forces in the middle of the day within line of sight of the massive ISAF air base. This is not good. It should not be tolerated nor does it have to be if we unleash the creative ingenuity of American infantry who love to develop techniques and tactics tailored to specific situations which allow them to get the drop on scumbags and kill them. If we were not burdened with the unlimited resources and forced to make do with what we can find on hand, do you think American infantry guys could not figure out a way to combat the Taliban in Kandahar?
Here is the real crime; if you deployed your infantry with simple open ended mission type orders, it would take much less of them than we currently use in offensive operations. An infantry company can call upon and control more fire power, with pin point accuracy, than was available to an infantry division in World War II. You could take a Marine rifle company, tell the young captain to spread his platoons into four strong points around Kandahar City, augment them with a platoon of ANA, and tell them to figure out a way to stop the damn Taliban check points. If they were allowed to war game up a solution and implement it, you would end up with all sorts of local vehicles which are carrying uniformed troops working with outriders on motorcycles to try and detect these checkpoints, roll up on them, and then jump them the Marine Corps way, using point blank automatic weapons fire. How many counter-checkpoint hits do you think it would take before the checkpoints disappeared? Plus it pumps up the troops to be on the offensive whacking cretins who need to be whacked.
Here is the point; protecting the population means being out with the population. Every evening the sound of rifle fire erupts all around the Taj. We are a mere 5 miles away from districts which are dominated by the Taliban. Soon Jalalabad, one of the safest cities in the country will become like Kandahar. What if we decided to get off the massive Jalalabad FOB and actually embed with the people of Jalalabad? How would that be different from what we are doing now?
If we gave Jalalabad a rifle company and told them to embed with the local security forces, become visible to the people while ensuring the security forces do their job, we would see ANP and ANA trucks with Americans in them, we would see the incidence of police shaking down local businessmen evaporate overnight. The businessmen would be used to seeing the same Americans and confident that if they told them about getting the shakedown something would be done about it. Take this one step further – the rifle company commander starts to know the city as well as I do and, at no additional cost of OPM does things which make life in the city better for all residents. Here is just two; kill all the stray, feral dogs which run amok in the city inflicting on average seven to eight serious bites on the children nightly, and take the “vector control truck” off the FOB and into the refugee camps to spray these camps and eradicate the vermin (and most importantly the scorpions) which plague those poor people. Better yet take two of the vector control trucks and start working on mosquito eradication because in Jalalabad malaria is endemic. Before long the rifle company commander would know Jalalabad as I know it and the people would know him like they do the many international reconstruction types who have been here for years. When he has proved that you can operate outside the wire in the same vehicles used by Afghan security forces, that you can bring out vector control trucks and other support vehicles to help the people through a long hot summer (and Ramadan will occur during the summer too which is going to really suck) then you could get even more aggressive. What do you think the impact of operating in such an open manner would be on the average Afghan from the region? I think it would be a game changer.
There has been much in the press concerning our intelligence agencies and their inability to produce meaningful products. ISAF is starting to listen to guys like me and recently I had the distinct pleasure taking a very senior American and three of his guys from Gen Flynn’s J2 office on the road with me between Jalalabad and Kabul. They understood immediately the value of moving around like a regular citizen when it comes to basic situational awareness – everybody already understands that it is obvious. They sent me an unclassified assessment of Jalalabad City and Beshud district which surrounds most of the city. Sixty three pages of stuff and guess what? It was excellent; a commander could pick that up, read it in an afternoon, and have a very good understanding of the city and the prominent players. What is missing is personal familiarity with the key power players and intimate knowledge of the terrain and the situation for the average Afghan businessman. Information which a smart guy could pick up inside of two weeks on the street.
There is nothing hard about getting out and aggressively operating in most of the contested regions. It seems pretty straightforward to me. Which brings me to my final topic and it is not something Americans should be happy about. I have been hearing for weeks rumors about the detention of this guy:
I have heard about this from both prominent Afghans and from a source from the USG who has impeccable credentials and has never been wrong in the past. The media story is here and that story is that the Pakistan ISI has Mullah Omar under house arrest, that our government knows this but for some reason wants to keep it a secret. I need to stress that not everyone I have contacted about this story has heard these rumors and a few important, well informed milbloggers flat out do not believe them. Regardless this story has legs and if it is true there is a huge huge problem. That problem is very simple – there should be no doubt about what happens when an allied intelligence service gets their hands on Mullah Omar. There is nothing to discuss, nothing to think through, nothing to spin, there only this; give him to us. Immediately. End of negotiation. There should be no question on the part of the USG about what to do with this dirtbag either. He is an unlawful enemy combatant and needs to be detained and held for trial by military tribunal. There is no other conceivable option. If this story proves true, and I think it is, what the hell is going on back in DC? This isn’t a game, dammit, it’s war and needs to be treated as such.
Yesterday morning started with an event so senseless and evil that it is hard to describe. An American army patrol was moving through downtown Jalalabad when the villains detonated a bicycle mounted IED. This IED had no chance of even denting the paint job on an MRAP, but it did throw out a bunch of shrapnel, which killed one of the best diesel engine mechanics in town and wounded another 15 civilians – mostly children.
I drove up behind the convoy a few minutes after the attack. They had stopped, dismounted and were treating the injured. I walked up to the rear vehicle turret gunner and asked if I could cut through the convoy and head into the downtown area. He pointed over to the scene and said they were treating a bunch of school kids and I could not get through the circle yet. I had thought that the IED had gone off much further down the street, where there’s a stretch of road with very little pedestrian activity. Once I saw where the bomb had gone off I was stunned – the traffic circle is full of children at that time of the day. I asked if they were OK and he said yes, but there were a lot of injured school kids; he was visibly upset about the children. I could see soldiers working on the kids about 50 yards further down the street and can only imagine how upset they were.
It is hard to determine exactly what an attack of this nature was supposed to accomplish. There was zero chance that the bomb would damage an American convoy. We are told again and again that careless use of firepower by ISAF is generating more fighters determined to get revenge for the deaths of family members. If that is true one would suspect the Taliban would also not conduct meaningless attacks which kill and injure innocents; there are conflicting reports, one says the Taliban claimed credit for the attack, another says they specifically denied any involvement.
Bicycle borne IED’s are anti-personal weapons which are not very powerful and not effective against vehicles – especially armored vehicles. They can cause a lot of casualties among unprotected civilians, which is exactly what happened yesterday. So what was the point? That is impossible to say, but here are some things to mull over. In the last three weeks or so there have been a series of very minor rocket strikes and IED attacks. This started around Nowruz, which is the Persian New Year (it is 1389 now by that calender) and was celebrated on the 19th of March. There were reportedly warnings by the Taliban to local people not to celebrate Nowruz, which were dismissed out of hand. Pashtunistan square in the downtown area was crammed with people (male people anyway) during the evening of Nowruz. During the early morning hours a single 107mm rocket landed in the eastern end of the city and two small IED’s went off near Pashtunistan square. Even on New Year’s the streets are empty by 0100 so these three attacks caused no casualties and little damage. They caused no reaction from the local people other than annoyance. There have been several single 107 rocket shots which have landed in local housing areas since Nowruz which have caused little damage and only one casualty. The bike attack yesterday seems to be a tipping point; it has the locals attention – they are upset and angry.
One of the factors in play with our efforts in Afghanistan is the absolute disgust local Afghans harbor for the various factions who conduct attacks of this nature or try to intimidate them into not celebrating traditional Persian holidays because the Wahhabi school of Islam does not recognize them. They are fed up with this kind of incredibly reckless use of weapons which are targeting them. Hezb-e-Islami Gullbuddin (HIG), the Taliban sort of affiliate party run by Gullbuddin Heckmatyar, has announced a suspension of operations while they talk with the Karzai Government and has even been fighting with Taliban formations in both the northern part of the country and in Kunar Province. HIG is responsible for much of the mayhem in the region and it could be that withdrawing their fighters created a power vacuum which has been filled by amateurs of the religious extremist type. They will not be able to hide inside the local population for long if they are so stupid that they shoot rockets at the biggest public park in Jalalabad during Nowruz and cook off anti personnel IED’s around crowds of school children. When the local security apparatus gets wound up and on the trail of cells operating in urban areas like Jalalabad they can be very effective. Somebody is going to answer for the bike attack, but even if they roll up the entire cell it will not have a meaningful or lasting impact in the overall provincial security situation. The only meaningful measurement of progress is economic. When the unemployment is reasonable and opportunity for a living wage widely available to all Afghans, then the little bands of psychos who set off bombs around school children will never be able to survive inside the population. We have a long way to go before we reach such an aggressive milestone and until we do, we are going to see more senseless attacks of this nature.
Last month Chief Ajmal Khan Zazai returned to the Zazi valley. As I wrote about here his first attempt to return home had to be postponed after the local American army commander declared him an AOG (Armed Opposition Group) leader. The reason for this label is that Ajmal and his tribal police ran off the representatives of the Kabul government, sent to the valley a few years back, after those representatives tried to steal tribal lands and in one case, raped a male child.
The mission of ISAF includes the following:”supporting the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”. That sounds great on paper but is not always a good idea in practice. The representatives of the Kabul government have a spotty record. Some are good men who want to help establish a functioning state. Others are interested exclusively in lining their pockets and the pockets of their family with as much money as they can get; whether it be through bribes, pay for play schemes or outright theft. The initial political appointees to the Zazai Valley were sent packing back to Kabul shortly after they arrived. So now, in the eyes of the FOB bound American military, the Zazai Valley tribal police and their leadership are considered AOG (just like the Taliban they are constantly fighting). Check out this correspondence between The Boss and the young commander of the closest Combat Outpost (COP) to the valley:
Thank you for your message. Any development project in Jaji would be great, but I would like to ensure that it ties into the district development list/tribal development list, in order to ensure that the district leadership is not undermined.
Unfortunately, Ahjmal Khan Jaji is not a tribal leader at all. I do not want you to come into this environment thinking that to be a fact. Additionally, the security force of Amir Muhammad is an illegal force that is not endorsed by MOI.
The facts are that Azad Khan, the Jaji Sub Governor, has a great relationship with the tribes a focus for his district. The ANSF in this area (ANP and ABP) are a professional/legitimate force that does a tremendous job in keeping the best security for the people.
I’ve CC’d my higher HQ, as well as representation to Department of State and the PRT, to ensure that they are tied in to your work. Again, I would love to see development here, but I want you to have the facts and go through the proper channels before beginning work. Thank you for your time.
The Zazai Valley is in the southeastern corner of the Tora Bora Mountains; it was known as “The Gateway to Afghanistan” during the Soviet-Afghan war. The valley is key terrain which is currently under friendly control thanks to the efforts of Ajmal and his tribal police force. Steven Pressfield has an 11 part interview with Ajmal which you can find here. It’s interesting reading. Ajmal is a Canadian citizen, a fluent English speake who can describe the enemy situation in his tribal area in clear, concise terms. He clearly is on our side in this conflict and wants some American grunts to move into his area to lend a hand.
The Boss sent a Ghost Team operative named Crazy Horse with the Chief to do the advance work for a USAID funded cash for work programs targeting the Zazi Valley. The Horse is a South African giant (6’5″ 230lbs) who serves in the British Army reserve and is now a resident of Scotland. Like many British soldiers he goes to great lengths to protect his identity. Crazy Horse (his call sign from back in the day) asked that I not ID him by name so from now on he’s The Horse.
Prior to his arrival we had asked for a meeting with the US Army battle space owner at the big base in Gardez – that request was denied. But the army figured out that something unique was happening when they noticed large crowds gathering along the route into the Zazi Valley with their UAV surveillance platforms. Once Ajmal arrived at his family compound he stayed up most of the night with the senior members of the 11 tribe shura. The next three days were identical from dawn until well past dusk. He held multiple meetings with 30 to 40 elders from each tribal grouping which lasted around 50 minutes each. Ajmal displayed more stamina, leadership and drive than any one human should be expected to posses. These meetings are not something which you can just head fake your way through – they are deadly serious business concerning the future of the entire border region; and many of his followers are not impressed by the American military or Kabul government. Nobody in the border region of Paktia Province is mistaking ISAF for the strongest tribe.
The visit concluded with an election of a new Chief for the Zazi tribal counsel. The tribal counsel includes Commander Aziz Ola’ from Jaji Midan, the Chamkani tribal elders, the Dinda Paton Tribal elders and the District sub governor who is from the area and not an appointee from Kabul. They elected a retired Sharia Judge from the Taliban days by the name of Kazi.
The border area of Loya Paktia which includes Paktia, Khost and Paktikia Provinces is a region where the tribes have relevance. It is also one of the places where a platoon of American troops could make a huge impact on the flow of Taliban fighters and material into Afghanistan. There are 35 Haqqani affiliated fighters and four known Pakistani ISI affiliated organizers in the Zaizi lands which the Tribal Police would be more than happy to run off of if they received a little help. This could be a text book economy of force operation but it would take sending in a platoon (or an A team, or some other similar outfit) and leaving them there with the Afghans to provide actual security as opposed to leaving them locked inside a COP isolated from and of little use to the local tribes.
Yesterday I talked with a Washington attorney who had taken a leave of absence from his law firm to spend seven months in the Helmand Province as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. He had been an infantry officer while on active duty years ago but functioned as a civil affairs officer during his latest deployment. He told me that in 7 months he had spent a total of maybe 10 hours inside a vehicle and wore out two pairs of boots walking all day every day to the villages around Naw Zad. By the end of his deployment he and his Marines knew every village elder, every family, every child, and most of the goats and sheep who lived in the area. They knew them on sight, interacted with them daily and when a military aged male showed up in his area who was not a resident they rounded him up immediately to determine who he was, why he was there, who could vouch for him as a legitimate visitor, where was coming from and who he had been with. That is counterinsurgency 101 and you cannot do it any other way then to be out with the people all day and all night and operating on foot. You cannot do COIN by patrolling in MRAP convoys a few hours a day before heading back to the FOB for ice cream, pecan pie and a mandatory head count by the First Sergeant.
The battalion at the Gardez FOB called The Horse to ask if he knew why thousands of people had migrated towards “some compound in the Zazai Valley.” When he told them what was up they asked to meet with him and Ajmal when they headed back to Kabul. The meeting turned out to be a joke. A visibly upset major demanded to know why, if the Zazai Valley tribal police were on their side, had they not reported to the Americans the location of IED’s? Ajmal, by this time exhausted and barely able to talk, explained that they are not in the “sell IED’s to the Americans” business. Reporting an IED for the cash reward is a common money scam in those parts and increases the number of IED’s being made. The only IED’s the tribal police have seen were aimed at them and all those had gone off. He added that if they do gain knowledge of an IED cell on their lands they will bring both the IED’s and the heads of the IED makers to Gardez.
The Americans remain skeptical, Ajmal remains frustrated, Crazy Horse who, like myself, has spent his adult life as an infantry officer is heart sick and I am so fucking pissed off I can’t see straight. It is impossible to be optimistic about the future of Afghanistan unless the military USAID, State Department and all the other organizations with unlimited funding and influence get out of the FOB’s and to live with the people.
Jalalabad finally has some winter weather with much needed rain. The Hindu Kush has sparse snow on their peaks; the weather has been unseasonably mild and dry so far this winter. A dry winter is a disaster in a parched country that relies heavily on small scale farms to feed its people. So the rain is good but only if it stops soon. Nothing is straightforward in Afghanistan even when it comes to rain – a few more days of this will render most of the housing structures unstable. Houses made of mud bricks do not handle the wet well.
Yesterday Dexter Filkins filed an interesting story on the recent conversion of the Shinwari tribe to the Afghan government side of the conflict. The Shinwaris have around 400,000 or so members in the southeastern portion of Afghanistan and are a major tribe. They have openly declared themselves to be against the Taliban which is a significant political victory for the Karzai regime but will have limited impact on the ground. They have a strong tribal militia that has no problems running Taliban off their lands. Throwing their prestige behind the government is one way to avoid having their tribal militia disarmed and declared illegal. I wonder if that represents a more pragmatic approach to using the tribes by Kabul?
I have learned from a State Department Foreign Service Officer (who worked the deal) that this announcement was brokered by the Army battlespace commander in conjunction with the Department of State. That is most encouraging and demonstrates the utility of allowing professionals from our Foreign Service to slip outside the security bubble and engage tribal leaders directly. As hard as I am on our State Department this move deserves nothing but praise and respect.
The Shinwaris control the area in and around the Route One corridor and it is vital to their collective interests that trade flows smoothly. As Dexter noted in his piece, the American SF team from Jalalabad flew into the Mahmand Valley to offer support last summer (Mohmand is the tribe; Mahmand is the valley and Dexter got them wrong…need to stop in the Taj and chat us up Dexter – we’ll get you sorted). I commented on that story at that time bitching about commuting to the village from their FOB.
I have since learned that the CJSOTF (Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force) teams wanted to stay out in the villages, but the “battle space owner” did not want CJSOTF teams operating in the Shinwari territory for reasons unknown. On a side note, the mission of CJSOTF is primarily to partner with “indigenous” forces in order to prosecute what’s known as FID missions – Foreign Internal Defense, i.e. partnering with the local security forces to counter an insurgency). SF teams are a perfect economy of force option which can, if done in enough places, have a significant impact on local security conditions and perceptions. But they cannot do FID off a FOB – something General Petraus pointed out in Iraq years ago.
ISAF continues to confine itself to large bases while manning static outposts (some located in indefensible valleys) in key regions of the various provinces. Their focus is on resupplying these positions, responding to periodic attacks on the vulnerable outposts, and supporting the frequent patrols who venture from the outposts to engage local leaders. Their biggest threat is from IED’s because they are road bound in a country with few roads. The counter IED battle includes paying cash to locals when they alert ISAF to IED’s. Do you think that might be incentive for locals to set off an IED every now and then in an effort to raise a little spending money?
Despite self imposed force protection there are units working exceptionally well with local tribes. This excellent article about Army Captain Michael Harrison is a great example. However, Captain Harrison is the exception – he was requested by name by his brigade commander because he had served a tour in Kunar Province and was effective at engaging local villagers. There are not that many rifle company commanders who have that unique qualification.
The small cohort of company grade military leaders with successful tribal engagements under their belt are rarely sent back to the same area they worked in prior only a few are stationed here at any given time. From that small cohort fewer still will find themselves in the same area they once worked and none will have the freedom of action currently enjoyed by CPT Harrison.
Jalalabad was on lock down for the international community today. Declared a “white city” by the UN due to two reports; one of “five female BBIED (Body Borne Improvised Explosive Device) bombers who are looking to strike important targets” and one concerning reporting “spectacular attacks,” while President Karzai is in London attending an international conference. There has never been a female suicide bomber in Afghanistan to the best of my knowledge and there is no historical correlation to President Karzai attending international meetings and “spectacular” attacks. We aren’t buying it.
We ignored the White City warning and carried on with our daily routine. International reconstruction specialists cost the taxpayers of America over $1000 per day, so locking them down for no reason is a very expensive mistake. The military knew the principal threat spooking the UN security people was bogus, but they don’t talk to each other much. Both the UN and the military are operating inside huge bureaucratic closed loops – neither organization has the capacity to get into the local environment to conduct real time assessments. Only the small fries in the reconstruction business: JICA, CADG, CHF, etc… pay attention to White Information because they have to in order to operate. The large bureaucracies react to bogus intel which flows around the closed, insulated loops because their analysts deal with emails not people.
Speaking of money our army had taken to shuttling personnel between the airport and PRT in helicopters. You could walk between the bases in less than 15 minutes or drive it in 5. Does the military honestly believe that the 200 meters of Route 1 separating their bases is so dangerous that it warrants flying helicopters between them? Of course not – but flying in helicopters is easier than running four vehicle MRAP convoys and every time a soldier drives outside the front gate of a base he has to be in a four vehicle convoy with at least 16 riflemen. Who the hell can afford to spend money this way? Helicopter crashes in Afghanistan routinely kill two to three times more military members than the Taliban has ever been able to kill even when they mass their best fighters against isolated positions held by only a handful of Americans. Why is flying in a helicopter safer than a 15 minute walk or 5 minute bus ride? In large bureaucracies cost efficiency and common sense are not part of the operational paradigm.
There are people getting it right on the ground right now and they represent the only feasible way forward. But small fries have no champions in Washington and getting the job done right in areas where the big boys are floundering is not proving to be relevant at this time. One can only hope it gets relevant in the near future.
Friday started with a disturbing report – a fuel tanker attack on the Jalalabad side of the Duranta Dam tunnel. Ambush teams operating less than a mile from the Taj! Not good news, so after the incident scene cleared out we went for a look-see.
A trucker had hit an old leaky fuel truck and the resulting spill caught fire. The various civilian security services had got the story right by late afternoon after issuing an alert for an armed attack inside the Jalalabad movement box just hours before. The local military folks did not know what had happened until we gave them a heads up while clearing the scene.
If this had been an ambush of tankers with RPG’s, as initially reported, it would have had an immediate effect on the international reconstruction programs throughout Nangarhar Province. It would not have impacted American or Afghan military convoys on the road, nor slowed the flow of commercial traffic, but it would have showed an alarming amount of cooperation between insurgents and local people. That kind of cooperation, were it ever to occur, would lead to an exodus of most of the 50 or so internationals that operate in and around Jalalabad. The few who remained would have to harden – which costs money, lots of money. That reported attack represented critical white information concerning local atmospherics in a very key portion of the human terrain environment.
Today’s little drama illustrates in real time how our military is ignoring the effort to maintain situational awareness via the active collection of white information because of their focus on “red intelligence.” Tracking and targeting active combatants is what the military is designed and trained to do. It is also what they have been doing for the past 8 years. Generals McChrystal and Flynn can write all the papers they want explaining why this approach is missing the point and counterproductive. Historically, radical military change comes in the face of or after defeat. That will not happen here – the Taliban could not in a thousand years engage in a set piece combined arms battle with any ISAF military. They could not stand up to the Afghan Army either, with their tanks, artillery, gun ships, experienced leaders, and international mentors.
Focusing on the population – that takes getting out and living with the population. There is no other way. This is supposed to be what we are now doing with our military operations.
You can see decentralized, white information-focused operations at work in the chaotic areas bordering the large military installations in the south. All trucks entering any ISAF base have to sit in lots, known as “cool down” yards, way off post for at least 24 hours. The trucks bring with them butchers, bakers, tea houses, mechanics, and assorted other small shop keepers. ISAF keeps a close eye on these areas where multiple base agencies have some jurisdiction. The Marines have security, the Brits are the local law enforcement. There is a constant stream of trucks, military convoys and civilian vehicles. The Marines are from a dismounted tank company who left their big beasts back home to come out as part of the Brigade Support Unit (BSU.) The BSU is built around an artillery battalion because the Marines do not really have Brigade Support Units, except for on paper, and when one mobilizes it is better to build it out of an existing battalion.
The Marines who keep an eye on this lot have a remarkably deep understanding of who the regular shop keepers are, where they came from, and in some cases, what they were doing before. That is because they are bored being assigned to a base defense role and spend a lot of time out there because they can. This will pay big dividends in a few months when all these people will be forced to move across the highway when the base expands.
If a young sergeant and a squad of dismounted tankers can master the civil terrain nuances of this sprawling, unregulated township outside one of their bases, do you think they could accomplish the same in a village cluster a little further to the south? When we are able to deploy like that, we will be able to obtain the white information needed to conduct a counterinsurgency. At that point we will have started down the track to winning in Afghanistan. Until then, we our wasting time, money and people.
There is a fad in the first world called “low impact environmental living.” Afghans are masters at real low impact environmental living: no refrigerators, no electricity, no cardboard packages or fast food bags, and if you’re lucky, a trucker will have a large bag of dried buffalo dung for sale to cook your food over. If somebody could just get these people access to the internet they could make a fortune selling carbon credits to Algore and friends.
It is proving impossible to get a read on “the Afghan street” since our Commander in Chief articulated the new set of tactics for Afghanistan at his speech at West Point. It is clear the dynamics on the ground have changed and that this change is being driven by the fact that our great communicator placed an arbitrary date on when we will be done and start going home. Of course nobody in Afghanistan or any place else on planet earth believes we will start to pull out in 18 months but that is not the point. Afghans currently populating positions of power have paid hefty sums to be appointed to those positions and are insisting on getting a good return on their investments before the gravy train leaves the station. My military friends have seen the same thing as they fight endless battles on the Niper net to get the food allowances and other petty cash paid to their Afghan Army soldiers without getting the Afghan senior officers they mentor fired for bringing the problem up in the first place. It is most depressing and leaves little for me to write about as I cannot blog on specifics which were told to me in confidence.
I am at the moment inside both the loop and the wire. There is a huge problem which we are trying to help fix and that is the “hold and build” portion of the “clear, hold and build” tactic which is our current strategy (even though it is not a strategy but I have been over that and will leave it for now.) Here is the interesting thing – as we talk with the Marines (the only outfit on the ground who has successfully done the clear part of the mission and have an institutional legacy of innovation and thinking outside the box) – I am recognizing a concept which is at the heart of the Tea Party movement as well as the current alarm in American at our elected representatives shoving massive government take overs of our economy down our throats. And here it is: our government is not capable of developing or executing innovative, cost effective solutions to unique problems. They are only capable of knee jerk reactions to events which have already happened all the while treating us citizens as if we are stupid, incapable of recognizing hypocrisy and too lazy to do anything about it. The American ruling class may be proved correct in their assessment of a lethargic, uneducated, disconnected population and if so then my fellow Americans deserve what they will get which is a nanny state from hell coupled with generations of debt.
Case in point – the suicide bomber who killed seven CIA agents/contractors in Khost. There appears to be much confusion as to how this happened. At first we were told the bomber was a known asset who could freely come and go as he pleased. Now it is being reported that this cat had never been to FOB Chapman before but had provided “actionable intelligence” in the past and had some really hot scoop which drew down the senior guys from Kabul. Which is it? I don’t know or care because it doesn’t matter. The bad guys have smart bombs too and one of them found its way onto FOB Chapman. As I have repeatedly pointed out in past posts it is always easier and much cheaper to defeat a technology than it is to field it. How much does it cost us to keep the drones flying so that we can hit “high value target?” We don’t know because those budgets are classified but it took less than 100 dollars worth of explosives for the bad guys smart bomb to score a big hit against us on multiple high value targets.
Here is the question – how many years have they (the CIA) been doing the exact same procedure in the exact same place? Does not field craft 101 state that you cannot run a static agent operation from the same base for almost a decade? Especially when that operation is designed to target bad guys for termination – would you not think that maybe running off the same base with the same security procedures for year after year is a bit unreasonable?
Our vaunted CIA never leaves the wire under any circumstances even in tame places like Jalalabad so all their intel comes from people who walk into the FOB’s. How good is the product they are producing using these risk averse intelligence gathering techniques and procedures? It is worthless – or as the general in charge of military intelligence put it “marginally relevant.” Maj Gen Michael Flynn is one of those general officers I would really like to know – a man who clearly is fighting the Counterbureaucracy battle with skill, insight and passion like a true patriot. The wires are currently humming with this report on the state of our intelligence efforts. It seems that after all the time, money, and blood we spent in Afghanistan we are unable to provide the war-fighter or decision-maker with any useful intelligence products.
It appears the only “actionable intelligence” being generated on the ground is being generated by infantrymen on the ground which is to say generated by the Marines in the south (the only armed force consistently outside the wire and “on the ground” in theater.) My father, a retired Marine Corps general officer often told me the only intel he ever received in 35 years of active service worth more than a warm cup of spit was intel he generated himself with his Marines. My Dad hated the CIA, hated Special Forces – pretty much had no use for any “special” organization to include the Marines’ own Force Recon. All they had ever done for him was to get his Marines killed in stupid rescue missions which he was forced to launch in response to urgent requests from some “snake eaters” who had discovered that they could not, in fact, just melt away into the jungle when the NVA were in the area and on their ass.
Let me try a little application of common sense starting with the attempt on Christmas day to blow up an American airliner which was handled so amateurishly by the current administration. Mark Levin and the rest of the freedom media has that aspect of the story covered so I’ll take another angle. The underpant bomber (I know I should say suspect) who I shall now call Mr. Bacon-strip was in the tropical paradise of Yemen for demolition training. He was issued a pair of underwear with det cord sewn into it and a chemical ignition system and told to fly into Chicago and blow up the plane just before it lands. His detonator failed which allowed a journalist from Europe (of all places) to jump the little turd, give him some chin music (good thing he is not a SEAL or he’d be in legal trouble) and stop him from trying to ignite the explosives which apparently had caught fire and burned off a good portion of his Johnson. In response the “experts” at Homeland security issued a dictate that no passenger can have anything in his/her/their/its lap or watch the entertainment system or read a book for the final hour of international flights.
Two questions; was this a good operation from the oppositions point of view? (The attack in Khost sure was and I hear they even filmed it.) And what the hell is the purpose behind taking away everything from passengers on the final leg of an international flight? Conventional wisdom seems to be of the opinion that the operation was well planned and executed minus the faulty detonator and the response by American Homeland Security is stupid and pointless. Conventional wisdom is wrong.
I have taken more than my share of demolition classes over the years – the longest being a ten day assault breacher course (back in the 90’s that course was classified available only to us “special” folk – assault breaching is now a common infantry technique.) After that training I was very proficient with demolitions and would have had no problem figuring out a how to set off det cord with or without a proper detonator. My initial demolition training with the Marine Corps at The Basic School was just four hours after which my classmates and I blew up an old tractor – there was nothing left of it but a smoking hole in the ground. When you are working with educated, bright, motivated people like Mr Bacon-strip mastering demolitions takes little time or practice. So how long was he in training? Weeks? Days? Hours? Get the point?
Then the jerk goes to Europe, buys a one-way ticket to America with cash, doesn’t check in any luggage…..is that state of the art field craft for al Qaeda? Of course not; that little shit (…sorry I mean man caused disaster suspect) did everything he could to get caught by behaving in a manner which shouted to anyone paying attention “I am a terrorist.” This attempt was amateur hour and you know why I think it was? Because the guys pulling this little jerks strings had no intention of blowing up a plane. They wanted what they got – a failed attempt which embarrasses the U.S. (as if the current administration needs help in that area,) costs us tons of money to re-mediate and leads to what they really want which is the harassment and stigmatization of Islamic people flying into western nations. Remember the various organizations flying the al Qaeda flag are at war with us and they need to keep their base motivated just like we do. What better way then to finally force the United States to treat all Muslims as suspects with our heavy handed TSA? It will piss them off …. just ask Michael Yon who was recently detained at the SeaTac airport for exercising his constitutional right to call bullshit on a petty agent of the state who demanded to know his level of income.
What about the Homeland Security response to Bacon-strip? Why force people to remain in their seats for the final hour of a flight? I have heard pundits saying that the terrorist would just blow the plane up two hours before hitting the United States so the rule is pointless. I agree the rule is pointless as is much of crap we must put up with to fly around the United States but there is a certain logic to it. Terrorists are not going to blow up a plane two hours out because the plane then falls out of the sky into the ocean and nobody knows what happened nor do they really care. Remember the Air France plane which plunged into the Atlantic en route from Brazil last year? Not many people do and nobody knows why that plane went down. It could have been the first Mr. Bacon-strip for all we know but we don’t know and never will because the ocean is a big, deep, cold, dark place which knows how to keep a secret. Janet Nepolitano isn’t really a brain dead bureaucrat incapable of saying anything other than focus group pablum. She knows we can’t really protect our selves from terrorist aboard international airlines and has therefore put in rules that will hopefully get them to act outside the United States. If a plane full of mostly Americans gets blown up outside the US that is not her problem and if she is really lucky it will go down in the ocean and be nobody’s problem.
Turning our attention back to Afghanistan we see nothing but doom and gloom. This article, featuring expert analysis by retired Army General Barry McCaffrey says we should expect 500 casualties per month this summer. If you did not have a reason to ignore talking head generals before you have one now because McCaffrey’s opinion, shaped by unlimited access inside the US military security bubble, is about as stupid as anything else emanating from the Temple of Doom (a.k.a. White House.) Barry McCaffrey is one of those generals I have no desire to ever meet.
McCaffrey sites the Army debacles at Wanat and FOB Keating as examples of very clever fighters with ferocious combat capabilities who I guess are going to pick up their game this summer and put the whoop ass on us. The Taliban affiliates and their foreigner mercenaries can be cleaver and have demonstrated the will (occasionally) to advance under fire. But Ferocious combat capabilities? Like what? They throw everything they have after planning for weeks at isolated American troops and accomplish what? They can’t even inflict double digit casualties. When they mass like they did at both Wanat and Keating the American military (after the attack never before) lifts all its restrictions on artillery and air delivered ordinance, puts its SF teams and their Afghan Commando counterparts into the field, and proceeds to run down any group larger than two people who seem to be heading towards the Pakistan border. The SF guys I talked with who responded to the attack on FOB Keating are certain that they bagged every dirt bag involved in that attack. Even the Iraqis who, also suck at fighting, could do better than that. There are brave Taliban fighters and even a few who can hit what they are shooting at but small groups of brave fighters are no match for the American, British, French or even the German military because we know the two C’s; combined arms and cohesion.
We have been at this going on nine years. The security situation has steadily deteriorated in that time. We are fighting (for the most part) Pashtoon peoples who have some sort of Taliban affiliation. We are not fighting the Tajiks, Uzbecks, Hazara, or Turkimen peoples who populate the northern portions of the country. In this respect our current operations are not anywhere near as difficult or comprehensive as those mounted by the old Soviet Union. We spend billions to be here and most of that money is ending up in the pockets of Afghan elites and war lords or the corporate coffers of various European and American companies. It seems to me that if we had small teams of guys going about the countryside telling all who care to listen that we’ll pay 1 million dollars to anyone who produces a live Taliban and 2 million to anyone who produces a live al Qaeda foreigner that we would not only save billions but we would have finished this adventure a long time ago. That is just one hair brained idea – I have hundreds more. How about dropping plastic bags containing porno magazines, a loaded syringe full of heroin, 3 little bottles of good scotch and a cell phone which only dials 900 numbers into areas along the border which are known routes of infiltration. I know ….what am I thinking…plastic bags? Bad for the environment and they’ll produce greenhouse gases when burned so the program would need to purchase carbon credits from AlGore……
Yes that is a seriously stupid plan which would never really work….well it would work but the fallout would be intense and rightfully so. But I tell you one thing – at least it is a plan which is more than most the military outfits operating in this theater have.