The place I’ve been calling Mudville, vaguely in the eastern part of Jalalabad, is known as Base Eckmunblahblah. It means “military logistics area” and is owned by the Department of Defense. I’ve forgotten the word exactly – today’s new vocabulary includes reshwat (bribe), tofa (gift), bakshish (tip, alms, gift-for-something-you-did-or-’cause-you’re-poor) – but just like the name implies, the residential population are considered squatters and not welcome to rebuild.
It’s the kind of story that just makes you sigh because what else can you do? Long long ago the land was government owned military use land, then during the time of the war – during the mujahadeen times, the folks that seized power gave the land to people who promptly built houses. The recipients were already wealthy people and continue to be even wealthier now. These recipients don’t have the cleanest hands but no one will talk about that stuff outright. But now you get why I was learning the subtle differences among gifts, bribes, and tips.
After the legitimate government was restored, there is a stalemate because the military / government can’t or won’t bulldoze these large, expensive houses and the residents have no reason or desire to move. They didn’t pay for the land and don’t have deeds for land rights, so they also can’t sell their biggest asset. But as far as they are concerned, they were given the land and have every right to be there.
We see a cross section of people in the lab and I ask them about the flooding and damage. No one seems too broken up about “those people with the ruined houses” because they refer to them as “They are rich people. They have big SUVs. “. There are complaints about them exploiting the situation – “Even if they have 1 or 10 million dollars they will stand there on the street and say to the UN or USAID, ‘I am a poor person and I have no house. You must help me.'”
But what about the people I see who’ve hung up sheets and mats and who’ve thrown their soaked bedding on to the street?, I ask. And I show them pictures. More shrugging. Those are only the kids. I’m aware that the pictures tell the story and I’m just not seeing. The windows alone in those houses cost over $100 and some of the debris is super ornate mirrored tile. There are beds and mattresses, not simple carpet and floor cushions. They are rich people, they can fend for themselves. One groped for the right words, then said a fat chicken will not lay eggs, that is they are so wealthy they need for everything to be given to them, they will not rebuild on their own.
The municipality sent out 500 workers again today to help remove the mud and debris. “Since the elections there is no government”, one of the residents told me when I asked him what he would do, “there is no organization, no plan. No one can make a decision.” People have sent their families to live in other houses or with relatives while they wait for foreign donations and help. Waiting is a past time here. “You people must help us, you must give to me.”
It’s now two days after the storm and the water level has dropped amazingly. I don’t know where it all went, Pakistan, I’d guess. The brick and concrete structures still standing have marks from the high water level – dried mud and flotsam on the walls about waist high. Now the unpaved side roads are that special clay-mud-mush which is super slippery and which it is difficult to extricate anything that gets stuck in it (like your shoe).
The residents – some men but mostly young adults – pulled me to the places that had been their homes. The Afghans are fanatics about walls and there wasn’t a structure with four intact walls. A lot of the walls were simply gone – presumably washed away “down there somewhere” – whereas we were standing on the mucky remnants of others. Several buildings had big gaps and cracks because the ground on which they were built had shifted down the street too. All the rocks you see in the pictures were once part of walls.
Afghan homes (here in the rural/suburbs) are often built with enclosed rooms along the outside edge of the property so that there is an enclosed courtyard on the inside behind those tall walls. A compound may have only one enclosed structure with one or more rooms and then a series of porticos for cooking and lounging. When you are invited “into” an Afghan home in the suburbs, depending on the weather, you will probably be received in the courtyard or under the shade of a large tree or corrugated roof portico. There is usually a gate or door in the wall that opens in to the courtyard, and sometimes a door directly in to a room from the street.
I described all this for you so you can study the pictures and see if you can figure out what was what … and where it was once. The yellow cabinet on that white and blue wall is a clue – it should be on the “inside” of a room.
I think I’ve been here too long – my initial response was to avert my eyes from that cabinet in the wall. You’re not meant to be looking in to someone’s house (or courtyard) and seeing the details of their private lives and the innards of their homes without their invitation.
This is two days after the storm and the residents have already removed their belongings, more or less. The ruined textiles and such are in heaps on the side of the paved road.
There are hazards everywhere, from downed electrical cables to huge cracks in the walls that stay standing. The drainage culverts are full of mud and rocks so even a small rain before they are cleared will damage things further.
The affected areas were pretty wide spread. Alley after alley was the same story; a short drive away we saw high brick walls of large compounds… missing.
These were not refugee-camp-style poor people’s housing and people have lived in these neighborhoods for 7-12 years, so they tell me. But “they” say that these people are all illegally squatting on military land and so the government is not rushing to help – they want the people to move anyway. Ah, TIA.
I’m cross-posting this here at FRI because there seem to be more interest in the Saracha Bridge collapse than my little server at MIT can handle. You can find the original post at amy.fablab.af. Update: Download an extended set of photos from the collapsed Saracha Bridge (49 photos, 13.4MB).
Early in the morning of 8/31 a giant thunderstorm rolled in and dumped a stunning amount of water on us. High winds blew open my window which woke me up briefly enough to see the absolute solid wall of water as if Shem’s house had been moved under a waterfall. Lightning lit up the sky with such frequency it was nearly daylight.
The next morning Logan asked if it had rained the previous night. The concrete houses are sound insulated enough that on the first floor I would have slept through the storm too had my window not blown open. The front yard didn’t look too different but once the front gates were opened we could see that Jalalabad had been flooded.
All over Jalalabad culverts overflowed, low areas became rushing rivers, mud walls melted, and houses were damaged or destroyed. The biggest casualty was Saracha Bridge, about 1 km east of FOB Fenty towards Torkham. Tim and I went out to see the bridge a day later and found two and three story tall bridge footings washed down river and most of the bridge completely gone. The river looks innocent and small, only the near opaque turbidity gives away upstream mischief. Brick archways and stone footings are stranded on dry rock in what now looks like a dry river bed.
The initial ANSO report implied some damage that would be fixed within a day, which in Afghanistan usually might mean a week or so. I couldn’t remember a significant bridge to the east of the customs house because the road bed is wide and the approach to the bridge is long and gentle. We were unprepared for what we saw and initially I didn’t even realize that the enormous expanse had a bridge suitable for heavy truck traffic spanning it only a day before.
There were trucks everywhere, pulled on to the side of the road on both sides of the bridge. Some tried to use smaller roads to the north or south as bypasses but upstream and downstream bridges were questionable themselves. The bypasses were not necessarily a great choice because the heavy trucks made big muddy ruts in the small dirt roads. So most cars and trucks opted to try their luck simply driving across the river after the water level went down.
Several bulldozers had arrived and were making ramps down and up the banks to make it easier for the vehicles to get down to the stream bed. While we watched, about 2 in 3 cars or trucks made it through ok, sometimes with a little help from the masses of Afghans who had collected to watch and see if anything exciting might happen. A handful of jingle trucks seemed to be pretty stuck.
There is no shortage of news flowing out of Afghanistan concerning election mischief and general mayhem. Just tonight we received a report about a BBIED who walked into the Pakistani Khasadar (Tribal) Guard mess and detonated his rig killing 22 and wounding another 15. That was probably revenge for the recent killing of Baitullah Meshud by drone strike. We have been spending an inordinate amount of time investigating the increased number of Anti Government Element (AGE) incidents on the main roads and in Jalalabad City to get a handle on what is criminal and what is Taliban activity.
Late last week we had a fairly large firefight in downtown Jalalabad (most unusual) but upon investigation looked to be a Badal (pashto for vengeance) act – the third targeting a small ANP post in as many weeks. This was a new tactic though – one or possibly two gunmen firing at the post from across the street while a third assailant, described as small and swift, bum rushed the main gate with a satchel bag full of hand grenades. One ANP officer and the grenadier were killed and another five ANP officers were wounded by grenade shrapnel. Rushing into a building behind a shower of hand grenades is an effective technique when properly executed by a squad or so of infantry but this looks to be a poorly planned and executed attempt to kill someone – not a deliberate attack to seize a government facility.
There is no reason to anticipate the election results for some time. Allegations of fraud continue to pour in and this report from Ben Arnoldy of the Christian Science Monitor (who I have seen several times outside the wire getting his own stories) sums the situation up succinctly.
I have been reading the new U.S. Government Integrated Civilian- Military Campaign Plan for Support to Afghanistan as well as the Commander of ISAF COIN Guidance and all I can say about them is actions speak louder than words. There is a world of disconnect between what has been written in these documents and what is happening on the ground. Joshua Foust posted his thoughts on the topic yesterday pointing out that there is no detectable change from what the previous COMISAF guidance. I agree and wanted to exam a couple of recent incidents to explain why we (the United States and our allies) suck at fighting the counterinsurgency battle.
Earlier in the month this story about a Bagram PRT was published in Wired’s Danger Room and it is a classic example of attrition warfare mindset being applied to a COIN problem. The article covers what is termed a “KLE” (key leader engagement) and “HA” (humanitarian assistance) mission to a small village just outside Bagram Air Base from which the military suspects rockets were fired toward Pogadishu (Bagram Airbase – hat tip to Old Blue for the new name.) Although the reporter is not savvy enough to recognize what he is witnessing – this mission is a perfect example of what not to do when engaging an Afghan village.
The problems start when a large force rolls into the town in MRAP’s with full battle kit, a bunch of “HA” aid bags full of tea packets, soccer balls, school supplies, two terps, some medical staff, and no plan. For those of you who have never been to Afghanistan let me clue you into a fact – the last thing in the world these people need is tea.They have plenty and they hate Lipton tea bags because they suck – that is like rolling into a Mexican border town and giving the locals packets of cocaine and boxes of 5.56 ammo – they have enough of that shit … although the thought counts for something I guess.
The “KLE” meeting doesn’t go well. The locals bum rush the supplies, the medics have no female terp and are also getting overwhelmed to the point of panic by people who no doubt have a ton of problems such as infected sores, intestinal parasites, malaria etc.. which the Americans could easily treat if they had the time, patience and a clue. They see a young man snapping pictures with a cell phone – something Afghans do all the time – and interpret this as possibly hostile activity so they scan him with the BATS (Biometric Automated Tool Set) and erase his cell phone. Of what possible relevance these cell phone pics could be remains a mystery to me. Young Afghans taking cell phone pictures is what one expects to see and is therefore not a “rule of opposites” scenario.
An old man smacks one of the little village girls and an American officer steps in to intervene with a “stern warning.” What kind of stern warning? What the hell is the Captain going to do? What did the terp tell the old man? I bet the Captain in this story has no idea and I also bet it was not what the young Captain told him to say. Little girls in this country have much more pressing concerns than getting cuffed upside the head by their granddad. That is no reason to draw a line in the sand which may alarm some readers but is the way it is here and the Terp knows that. And throughout the mission the company First Sergeant is “getting very agitated” because “They’re going to put soldiers lives at risk.” I hate hearing “they”….who the hell is “they?” What exactly about “they” is putting soldiers lives at risk? A company first sergeant is supposed to be an island of calm in the sea of chaos which is the Big Army. One that gets flustered at being around Afghan woman and children is putting troops at more risk than a “they.”
What is putting the soldiers at risk is the institutional stupidity. Let me explain why. In order to do “KLE” you need to engage the “key leaders” in a manner consistent with your objectives. If your objective is to provide aid and make new friends how should the company commander present himself? I vote for he drives in with his terp in an unarmored SUV; sits down with the local elders and asks permission to come in with his company and also for their help distributing some supplies. You ask them to provide male and female interpreters as well as supervisors to assist with the distribution of aid and you agree to the rate for these folks. You both agree exactly how the MEDCAP will go and pay for supervisors – both male and female to run that too. Leave the security outside the village and walk in without all the body armor – side arms or slung rifles are no big deal and soldiers should never allow theirs to leave their bodies anyway so wear them. The visit is supposed to be about trust and you can only show trust with actions …. not words. If the elders do not hold up their end of the bargain you leave. It is that simple – Pashtunwali cuts both ways and if they won’t play ball they should get the stick … or just be ignored. Both responses are appropriate depending on location, tribal composition, and the overall Provincial security picture.
This is how we get large projects done in the most volatile regions of the south and east and is nothing more than good manners and common sense. What do you think is going to happen when you bring in a large convoy of fully armored troops who have not a clue what they are doing into a village? I run paydays where we distribute very large sums of money to hundreds of poor illiterate workers and these pay calls go like clockwork. The reason they are so smooth is that the Afghans organize them – I can only imagine what a Charlie Foxtrot it would be if the Bagram PRT did pay calls for me ….those guys seem clueless.
As I mentioned above the Bot and I have been spending a lot of time trying to get a handle on the nature and seriousness of the many incidents being reported daily. This means going out to the various posts and talking with the Afghan police or army guys who man them. The physical condition of these posts are very poor as is the most of the equipment the troops are issued, but what is most appalling is the complete lack of adult supervision, military planning, and meaningful mission.
The Bot and I are looking at a ridge line some 600 meters away which is the attack point for Taliban gunmen who fire on this post regularly. There are four ANA soldiers and four ANP policemen manning this position and they have a Hummer mounted M60 machinegun, and RPK machinegun and their rifles for defense. Apparently the bad guys tend to attack in the evening when the ANP re-supply truck arrives with chow and they have wounded at least two ANP policemen this month.
What is frustrating to guys like Bot and I is the fact that we could easily sort out this threat with a good machinegun squad and a mortar – manned by proper infantry. An American squad with a sharp squad leader would be perfect for a job like this. The reason why American infantry is so effective is that their machineguns come with tripods and T&E’s which are traversing and elevation mechanisms. Machineguns are deadly in the defense because you can dial them in using a map, range finders, a little math and test firing. There are five different firing spots on the ridge across from this position and each of them should be dialed in on range cards so that the leader calls out a target designation off the card when he wants to shift fire. The machinegunner than dials that target in on his T&E and he can rock and roll. A mortar which has been placed in properly can do exactly the same thing – register the targets allowing for first round hits which saves ammo and pumps up the troops.
The generals can write all the pithy COIN sounding directives they want but words mean little outside the wire. Only actions count and it seems that our seniors are forgetting the age old dictum “you cannot fool the troops” and that applies to all troops including Afghans. We used to know how to do counterinsurgency back in the early parts of the last century. We would actually embed our troops in with the local formations to live, train, fight and die with them. We do not embed troops now – we say we do but we don’t. Embedded training teams live on mini FOB’s inside Afghan FOB’s and the Afghans they are supposed to mentor cannot enter the little American FOB’s without an escort and a body search. The Americans do not go out and stay out with the troops they mentor and when they do go out the Americans are in MRAP’s with full body armor while their trainees are in unarmored pickups without body armor. That is not leading be example – in fact it is not leading at all. Embedded trainers need to train Afghans exactly as they would Americans which means they really embed, eating what they eat, sleeping like they sleep and fighting with them wearing the same kit they wear. That is what my friends who work that mission tell me they should be doing but they can’t and they are frustrated.
I have mentioned this before and want to stress it again – I joined the military in 1978 back when morale was in the toilet and discipline in the ranks almost nonexistent. The American military we know and love today was created in the 1980’s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan by a cadre of officers who were able to erase the stain of Vietnam with the generous help and support of the greatest President we have ever had. The current occupant of the White House knows nothing about the military and could not in a million years have the impact on that organization that President Reagan did. The current senior military leadership apparently knows nothing about Vietnam or they might understand the consequences of putting layers of ass kissing, careerist motivated, humorless and petty Colonels in stupid do nothing staff jobs to micromanage the troops in the field. Leaders who create larger and larger staffs do so to insulate them from having to take responsibility for everything happening under them in the chain in command. That is why you only see the Navy relieving O-6 level officers as a matter of routine – you can’t create more and more staff jobs on a ship so a Navy CO actually has to live up to the responsibility for everything which happens or fails to happen in his command ….just like a junior officer in the Army does. We need Generals who come to Afghanistan and command in the manner of a U.S. Grant or Patton or Razor Ray Davis. Men who will dump the staffs, ignore PowerPoint briefs, get off the FOB’s and out with the men in the field.
It is hot, humid and sunny this morning in Jalalabad with a pleasant light wind blowing out of the Northeast. The traffic is light, people calm and as we sit here on the Baba deck monitoring the election we are receiving a report about every 10 minutes of mischief and mayhem. I bet less than 50% of them are true. For example, there is a report out of Kunar that the Taliban is shooting “an RPG” off near a polling station “every hour.” We are getting a steady stream of SMS messages out of Kabul where most of the international community is currently located due to potential instability and they say there are several gunfights and a few bombs in the capitol. As most of the security companies are on complete lock-down it is impossible to verify the reporting. Good security companies and good operatives report as fact only those things they have verified themselves – everything else is suspect. So when we hear there is a “gun fight between political parties in Zone 9 of Kabul” we don’t necessarily believe it.
I still believe the Taliban do not view the election as a significant event although it is clear some actors do. Around the city of Kunduz there were 24 election stations burned down on Tuesday night which indicates Hekmatyar’s group HiG is sending a message about the election. HiG reportedly conducted their own version of a RIP (relief in place) by replacing all the commanders in Kunduz last winter and ordering them to fight. They have been battling with the Germans all summer up in the previously very quiet and safe north and it will be interesting to see if the German’s step up their game and rediscover the art of small unit infantry warfare like the French have done outside of Kabul.
We will be out and about later in the day to get some food and ice – the staff is off today and we are forced to fend for ourselves. The extra tight ring of steel securitynever showed in Jalalabad and folded in Gardez the troops folded up their checkpoints at around 2000 local which does not bode well. There is also a ban on reporting of security incidents put on the media from on high according to this article from McClatchy. At the Taj we are tracking the incident levels in real time with software, programming and super tech geek support from Ken and Mullah Todd. The press has picked up on our low budget highly efficient efforts – here is the BBC’s report. Here is the link to Alive Afghanistan and Mullah Todd’s tracking map….it is smoking right now with live reporting from Afghan’s across the country via SMS text messaging.
Although quiet in the city the election day produced some 80+ security incidents in the Eastern Region. Most of them appear to be minor – only two civilian deaths were reported – in Paktia Province and they were civilians caught in a cross fire between the ANP and villains of unknown affiliation. It is clear that in many places in both the south, southeast and east the vote did not go well. The entire Province of Nimroz did not participate according to reporting on the Afghan Alive election tracker. In most of the north the vote went as planned.
It is hard to predict how today’s vote will turn out. We received a report around 1500 today that females and children were moving in mass from the Panjshir section of Kabul but that is unconfirmed. If true it would be a troubling signal but a dumb move by the Northern Alliance party. They are still well positioned to get a seat at the table and I would doubt they are serious about clearing the decks for action in Kabul.
In Gardez the ANP detected a suicide bomber on a motorcycle and opened fire on him. He withdrew about 500 meters away from the checkpoint and detonated his vest. It would appear that at the price of 2 civilians and open hapless suicide bomber the collective entities operating under the Taliban flag did a sufficient job of disrupting things today. Accomplishing this without a high body count is pretty impressive and probably proves me wrong on my prediction above that the various Taliban Shura’s did not view the election as a significant event. I’m not adding the three idiot bank robbers in Kabul yesterday to the Taliban ledger – seizing a bank which is empty of money is too stupid even for them. The countrywide death toll for today is in at 26 which is pretty low yesterday we saw 101 dead and 563 wounded in a Baghdad bombing and it seems to me that Iraq is more important to us strategically than Afghanistan.
My buddy Gaz sends the following from Kandahar; “at 1915 we have counted 37 explosions in the city.” That is a lot of rocket fire and one has to wonder how that happens given the counter battery radar, aircraft and other sensors ringing the city. Here are some pics from some of the closer strikes:
I’m glad I live in Jalalabad – this level of excitement is bad on the digestion.
As the elections approach there has been much in the news on Afghanistan and most of it is not terribly accurate. Yesterday’s VBIED in Kabul is a good example. Most news outlets are connecting this attack to a countrywide effort by Taliban groups to interfere with the Presidential election scheduled for Thursday. I’m not buying that and I don’t think the Taliban view this upcoming election as a significant event. Some groups have publicly stated they will not interfere, other groups say they will disrupt the process, but we are not seeing any real attempts to do that.
This Washington Post story is typical of the MSM reporting on the Kabul blast with the title of “Pre Vote Blast in Kabul Signal Taliban Intent.” That is bullshit – what the blast signals is that somebody was able to bribe their way past the ANP check-posts and get right up to the U.S. Embassy checkpoint without being detected. This is the first successful Taliban attack in Kabul since last winter and although the execution was better than average the Taliban once again managed to kill or wound innocent Afghan civilians most of whom were undoubtedly children. I was interviewed for my take on the bombing by the Christian Science Monitor and remarked that it seemed this attack was executed better than the average Taliban lash up but after seeing the picture above I take it back. Poor bomb making with typically poor execution – there would be nothing left of the vehicle or that poor bike rider had this been a Baghdad VBIED.
This blast in Kabul needs to be investigated with both forensics and interviews with every guard at every post around ISAF being grilled by counter intelligence specialists in an effort to determine how that little as vehicle with all the explosives on board made it to the front of ISAF Headquarters. But that is not going to happen. Take a moment to read this article from CSM and to see why. The ANP general in charge of conducting criminal investigations is denied access to the scene and run off by ISAF HQ troops who would not know an Afghan general from the Easter Bunny. What kind of an investigation do you think we will have now? The Afghans have done a good job at securing Kabul and this was a serious breach but we (ISAF we) will never know how it happened because we do not embed with the police – we have meetings and PowerPoint briefs and drink a little tea with them and call that “mentoring.”
Gen. Sayed Abdul Ghafar Sayed Zada is not going to be inclined to help us when he is treated so poorly during a routine bombing investigation and who can blame him? But it gets worse. In Jalalabad the city is emptying of civilian internationals who are being forced to spend the week in Kabul or out of the country as election day nears. The Army Brigade in Jalalabad has nightly meetings to go over and over and over the plans for placing Afghan security forces in concentric rings to screen all the traffic coming into the city. An officer I chatted with today was very proud telling me how they have the Afghans in on the planning and everything is going just perfectly. But there is one problem; there are no security checkpoints going up around Jalalabad. The officer was stunned when I told him that I have seen only one extra checkpoint and that was up for 3 hours several night ago. No I was told “they are up all night and have been for weeks.” I swear you cannot make this stuff up…they are no extra check posts up and I drive frequently from the Taj to the Shem Bot’s house at night and know exactly which check posts are working, how many men are manning them and who the men are. This is what happens when you live on a FOB and your daily reality is defined by PowerPoint briefs and classified(read closed loop) reporting. Just because a bunch of guys sitting in a conference room say something is happening doesn’t mean it is happening – whatever happened to the old troop leading steps?
Military officers are not the only ones with a warped perception about how things are going in Afghanistan big time foreign policy wonks are capable of making fools of themselves too. This article in Foreign Policy by Anna Husarska is full of the kind of lunacy which can only come from classified reports and briefing with senior officers. In the article Anna states that ANSO – the Afghanistan NGO security office has stated NGO’s “were generally attacked for being perceived as intrinsic to the military and political objectives.” ANSO has said no such thing. NGO’s are targeted by criminals because they are easy targets and the Taliban because they are foreigners or work for foreigners. Ms Husaraska goes on to bitch about ISAF using white SUV’s saying that NGO’s use white SUV’s and the military shouldn’t so that the bad guys don’t get confused about which SUV’s to attack. Pick your own cuss word for a response – the NGO’s in Afghanistan do not all have white SUV’s (very few do) and the military is not about to change the color of the white trucks they have finally gotten around to procuring …why should they? The final interesting tidbit in this article is the description of her ride from the Jalalabad Airport to downtown Jbad. That is a drive I do almost daily and I promise tell you she is not describing Jalalabad in her article. Maybe the military flew her into Ghor Province and told her she was in Jalalabad…who knows?
There was also this article from USA Today concerning the counter IED program in Nangarhar Province. It covers a call made to the local Army FOB concerning an IED and the soldiers response with a 4 MRAP flying squad. The mission unquestionably went down as described but there is a problem with the whole story line and that is 95% of the ordinance recovered and 99% of the calls for EOD support go to a single American contractor who lives outside the wire and has a team of Afghan EOD techs in training. The reason he gets all the calls and most of the recoveries is that he responds within 5 minutes of notification 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The FOB bound Army cannot run to their vehicles and respond – they take at least 3 hours to get organized, make a patrol plan, file and brief the plan before even drawing their weapons. A retired Navy Chief who travels in unarmored low profile vehicles – exactly as most of us do can often be on scene, disarm and secure the device, and be back home in bed before the ISAF team can even clear the base. That is the price of fighting a counterinsurgency off of big box FOB’s. The lone American also has the time and ability to rent a backhoe and dig out reported missile hits from farmers fields – just like the one above which impacted right outside the Army base in Jalalabad. It is important to know why missiles fail to function which is the whole point in having highly trained EOD techs in country. The Army guys locked down on their FOB in Jbad can do this work too but they have to be given the freedom of movement to allow them to work like their lone out side the wire contractor does.
It would be safer for an EOD flying squad to be in armored SUV’s like the cats in Kabul pictured earlier in the post. The belief that MRAP’s will protect you from the bad guys is just not true. They have saved many lives so far in Afghanistan but that will not last. It is always, in all times and in all places, easier and cheaper to defeat a new technology than it is to field it.
It appears that Taliban fighters are moving out of the “Southern Triangle” of Nangarhar Province and attempting to interdict the road to Kabul. The latest attack (August 6th) occurred closer to Jalalabad then attacks targeting fuel tankers last summer. The talented RPG gunner we nicknamed “The Mechanic” was working the Tangi valley closer to Surobi last summer shooting up scores of fuel tankers but we are not seeing evidence of the Mechanic this year and have been told French Special Forces whacked him last winter.
The most recent attack happened in broad daylight around 0800 and the ambush team stayed on scene to fight with the ANP/ANA for around an hour; pulling out only after American soldiers arrived on scene. This is a new (not cool) milestone for the Taliban.
I was in Kabul when this ambush went down so Shem Bot and Mullah John went out to have a look and reported the following:
20 or so bad guys moved into a refugee settlement from the ridge line of the Tor Ghar mountains (Black Mountains). They dug hasty fighting positions and whacked a fuel tanker then stayed around to fight with the ANP. The villains kept up a sustained rate of fire for 45 minutes and broke contact when the Americans got SA (situational awareness) and got their 81’s (81mm mortars) in action.
When the Taliban attack a major road it brings traffic to a halt which blocks the road and isolates the fight. Afghans always fill all lanes and road shoulders to push up as close as humanly possible to a road blockage knowing full well that by doing so they will extend the length and time of the blockage. I have seen Afghans jumping a 100 person line at the Dubai airport look mystified when they are forced to go to the back of the line to wait their turn. They just do not like to que up so when the road clears it takes hours to unblock the east/west travel lanes and get moving. An ambush like this will normally make the movement of reinforcements into the fight impossible but the Americans made it through in 45 minutes winning an official Mention in Dispatches from the staff of FRI.
Our question remains how did a squad of Taliban move over the Tor Ghar mountains, dig in and ambush a fuel tanker to draw all the local ANP units into a sustained firefight. Break contact after the Americans show up yet make it back over the mountains without being hit by 300 to 400 rounds of 30mm cannon fire by an Apache, or a Kiowa or maybe even a fast mover (jet)? I think I found the answer to that question when I was down south with the Marines last week. The Marines are shooting rockets – a lot of them and I was chatting up the Operations Officer who told me he has been coordinating with some Geo Space type agency in DC.
It turns out the new generation of the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) goes so high that they have to de-conflict the missile track with satellites and other stuff hanging out in space. When I asked why they shot so many he said the new ROE makes getting clearance to use Tac Air difficult to do in a timely manner. He added that they’ll fix that in due time when they’ve been in theater a bit longer but for now have to tolerate ISAF micromanagement.
It seems that the Taliban understand the ROE has changed enough that they now operate near local villages knowing we will not shoot when they go to ground around civilians. A year ago there would have been so many attack birds stacked over those deadbeats they would have needed an airborne controller to keep them from hitting each other. There is no vegetation or cover in this area of the country so men moving across the countryside are easy prey for attack pilots. But not anymore apparently – drop the rifles and you’re no longer a PID (positive ID) candidate.
Changing the Rules of Engagement (ROE) based on pressure over civilian casualties would be one thing if the civilian casualty statistics were solid but they’re not. For example; a convoy of fuel trucks is attacked by the villains and in that attack 20 PSC guards and 15 tanker drivers are killed. Under current polices (which are not standardized among the UN, military, ANSO or the Afghan Security Forces) they are civilians. Another example; A local land owner hosts a war party of Villains in his Qalat providing them food, shelter, safe haven and weapons storage. Those fighters later attack an Afghan police checkpoint and a predator follows them back to the Qalat allowing it’s controllers to call in fast movers and light the place up. The compound owner, his wife and kids are killed in the ensuing air strike….are they civilians or fighters?
I have been a consistent and harsh critic of the way we have used air strikes which have resulted in the killing of innocent civilians and only innocent civilians because the target was nominated by intel that in-evidently involves a walk-in HumInt asset. The over reliance on technology and “trusted” government officials resulted in dropping ordinance on people we don’t know to be Taliban. Their crime was getting on the wrong side of “trusted government assets” and are then whacked based on intel provided by these them to the spooks. That’s bad tactics and bad tactics rarely provide good opportunists for lasting results. The Captains Journal, using excerpts from Vampire Six and the FRI blog has the best write up on the topic I have seen right here.
In war people die; that’s why it is in everyone’s best interest to get this shit over quickly and to beat the enemy decisively. It’s not important how wars start but how they end is critical. When the enemy is beaten and knows he’s beaten wars end. Until we reach that point we will spend blood, our blood, their blood and the blood of innocents. The longer this is allowed to continue the more we are going to bleed which is why we need to finish it. And the only way to finish it is to kill the Big T Taliban when and where we find them even when there might be innocents around them.
Yesterday was one of those days which cause friends and family concern but which have little to no impact on myself, my workers, or the conflict in Afghanistan. There were multiple attacks in Gardez and Jalalabad which are the two cities in which I currently head work for cash projects. The suicide bomber who detonated himself outside of police station 1 in Gardez blew out the windows of my Gardez office which is across the street from the police station but fortunately my guys escaped unscathed. Once I determined we had everyone accounted for I sent terse messages instructing them to go get some damn pictures but they were not up for that saying the police would shoot them unless they a press pass. What a bunch of sissies; these guys are professional smugglers but can’t get me some damn pictures when I need them. The Shem Bot did little better when he went to evacuate his guys from their office which is about ¾ of a mile away from the Jalalabad Air Field. The Afghan Security Forces were still looking for a third active shooter and would not let him through their police cordon. Did the Bot get pictures of that? Nope; “left me camera at work mate” which is like saying the dog ate your homework.
Good help is hard to find but it must be harder for the bad guys because the two complex attacks which they tried to launch yesterday were poorly executed and amateurish. At the cost of eight suicide bombers they killed three NDS intelligence officers and three ANP police officers. That is positive math for attrition warfare enthusiasts; at this rate we will run out of Taliban by 2037 if we can just hold on that long.
Having spent time this morning walking the ground where the Jalalabad attack went down it is hard to come up with any rational thought process which would have put two suicide vest wearing riflemen and an RPG gunner on foot, walking up the busiest road in the region to attack the front gate of the Jalalabad airport. There was a VBIED discovered later in the day further down the road from the airport (not yet reported in the news) which was in an abandoned Alto sedan. It had ten 60mm mortar rounds, four 82mm mortar rounds and fifty pounds of additional explosives all rigged to explode with a typical VBIED trigger system. The vehicle was discovered hours after the attack but it is safe to conclude that it was going to be used in some coordinated manner with the three stooges who attacked up the busiest road in Eastern Afghanistan.
Bill Roggio has the best write up on the incidents and he links these two attacks with a series of assaults against government targets going all the way back to the January 2008 attack on the Sernea Hotel. None of those attacks were carried off in an adroit manner – one of the factors which must be remembered in the dog days ahead is that when it comes to actual fighting the Taliban are just not that good. How six of them were uncovered, wearing Burka’s no less, and gunned down outside of the government compound in Gardez is again perplexing.
There are exceptions of course, and one of them is the RPG mechanic who was working the upper Tangi Valley in Kabul Province last summer. He could put the English on an RPG grenade consistently scoring first round hits on fuel tankers running up the valley to Kabul. Looks like he has found a new hide in the eastern end of the Tangi Valley of Kabul Province. Tangi means dam in the Dari language so every province with a dam has a “Tangi Valley.” On the Jalalabad – Kabul road the Tangi valley feeds you into the town of Surobi which is what we would term a ‘contested area.” Last year there were a series of attacks on fuel tankers east of Surobi by an RPG gunner who was talented so we started calling him The Mechanic. He consistently scored first round hits from a hide in the mountains overlooking the road. Once he started hitting trucks frequently the number of trucks getting hit on the road rose dramatically. Know why? Good cover for fuel thieving which is a cottage industry in Afghanistan.
We hadn’t scene any activity from The Mechanic for many moons and thought the French might have bagged him because they’ve been hard on the Taliban since the ambush.
It is time to turn the ole gimlet eye onto the news starting with this article about the killing of a little girl by the Italian army ISAF contingent in Herat. which I want to compare to the current civilian casualty flap in Farah Province where over 100 people are reported to have been killed in ISAF air strikes. In my opinion one these incidents should result in a murder charge and the other is the way things have to be but we are not managing that message well at all.
The facts as reported about the Italian shooting seem very clear. They overtook a civilian vehicle but reported it to be driving at high speed they claim to have fired warning shots but TV footage of the car shows it was hit repeatedly in the left rear quarter panel area indicating the shooter was behind the vehicle. The shooting resulted in the death of a 12 year old girl and the Italians drove right past after shooting this car load of people without even stopping. That is murder. There is no way to justify it as anything else based on the facts presented in the news article. Most civilian traffic will attempt to stay in front of convoys because once overtaken you’ll join 100’s of other vehicles in a miles long 20 mph rat line. Which of course is point #1 how can the Italians overtake a racing car in their armored troop carriers? They can’t.
It is a common technique for suicide bombers to slow down and wait for a convoy to draw close and then detonate their IED. It is also common for the slow moving traffic to pull over allowing military convoys to overtake them. These convoys pass vehicles all the time but they will light up vehicles they suspect to be VBIED’s. It’s a poor tactic due to the compressed time/distance ratio.
Colonel John Boyd, USAF (Ret) developed the Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA) Loop theory after an analysis of air to air engagements during the Korea conflict. The Soviet MiG-15 was faster than the American F-86 Sabre and were operating from Chinese airfields close to the front. The F-86 squadrons were flying from the south and would arrive with maybe 15 minutes of fuel to burn before they were forced to head home. The MiG could out-climb the Sabre at all altitudes, and it had a greater operational ceiling.
But the MiG had design flaws resulting in poor control at high speeds, a low rate of roll and directional instability at high altitudes. Boyd recognized that the way of taking advantage of these flaws was to enter a series of intricate turns designed to make the MiG react to the Sabre. Once the MiG was committed it just a matter of time before the Sabre was able convert his high speed maneuver advantage to get a gun solution using the K14 radar gun-sight, which was designed to use derivative movement information for the firing solution.
For earthbound gunfighters the OODA loop also has great utility. The best example would be the famous (in my circles anyway) Tueller drill. Named after Salt Lake City Police Sergeant Dennis Tueller it is a simple demonstration of perceived vs actual risk. The drill assumes an assailant armed with an edged weapon is being uncooperative and is designed to show how close is too close in that situation. The assailant stands back to back with a shooter who has a holstered pistol and is facing a target 7 yards away. On cue the assailant starts to run and stops when he hears the pistol report. The shooter presents his weapon to the target and delivers a controlled pair center mass. A well trained shooter using a good rig and pistol can deliver a controlled pair from the holster in 1.1 to 1.3 seconds – about the time it takes a young adult male to cover the 21 feet.
Twenty one feet is about three car parking spaces or the length of a slightly bigger than average room. Most people feel safe with that much room between them and a stranger. If an assailant starts at you full speed from that distance only the best trained top tier shooters in the world have a chance of presenting a pistol and firing two effective shots. And that is only if they have already decided to shoot; the step in the OODA loop model which takes the longest to work through. The Tueller drill is a perfect example of training designed to improve OODA loop decision making. By illustrating how close is too close and reinforcing the concept with dynamic training the students learn how to make the critical shoot don’t shoot decision faster based off legitimate state of the art training.
Which brings us to ISAF convoys and machinegunners; ISAF convoys over take civilian traffic and pass on coming civilian traffic as a matter of routine. Convoy gunners are responsible for recognizing potential threats, warning them to keep their distance, and firing on them when that warning is ignored. Although ISAF convoys are slow they will still close with on coming traffic at a rate of 60 feet per second which is 3.5 car lengths. On a flat road with perfect visibility a convoy gunner has about 60 seconds – the time it takes a vehicle to reach him from just outside the max effective range of his machine gun – to determine if a vehicle is a threat. There are very few places in Afghanistan with that much flat terrain – my guess would be that the average civilian car to ISAF convoy encounter is around 10 to 15 seconds long. What do you think it would take to get your attention, have you orient your weapon, then make the critical friend or foe decision before firing into an oncoming car?
To distinguish potential threats in the normal chaotic local traffic clutter requires gunners with enough knowledge to apply the rule of opposites. Suicide vehicle drivers tend to have a signature, they tend to behave erratically, and in order to detect one in time to warn and engage him you would have to detect him a long way off. If you think through this process – especially while driving so you can do a little real time war gaming – you will come to the same conclusion I have. And that is our counter VBIED measures will never work because it is not possible for a soldier to complete the OODA loop and reach an informed firing solution given the small amount of time, short distances, and number of innocent people who drive like lunatics in Afghanistan. You cannot recognize a VBIED that fast – not possible – so why the hell are we still shooting 12 year old girls in this country?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.