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

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

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

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

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


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.

Counterinsurgency 101

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

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

Taliban demolition smugglers or low level black market types?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The newest Milblogger in Jalalabad
The newest Milblogger in Jalalabad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fab Surge Summary Part 2: Projects

Tim san really really wanted me to post our project descriptions for you readers even though I haven’t had enough time to them justice. (I’ve just returned from a very intense install / training / opening week in East Cleveland, Ohio where there was a more tense security presence than much of Afghanistan.)

One ton of machines and materials for the Jalalabad Fab Lab hit the ground in June 2008 and we’ve been busy transforming the pile of equipment into a living breathing community. We’ve accomplished a lot in 6 months, in addition to installing and configuring the machines, we’ve also started several projects with local users. That $40,000 I mentioned in the last post covered all of the below projects, plus a ton of work in infrastructure, groundwork, research and discussions.   What I find really great is all the projects described have been also been continued by Afghans after the international visitors left. Truly “teach a man to fish” stuff here.

T-Shirt Club

The t-shirt club makes custom shirts for profit. They use a computer drawing program and the internet for designs and a computer-controlled knife cutter to make the silk screen mask. Then they print the shirt (or anything) by hand. Club members use a computer spreadsheet to track their orders and cash ledger. In the first two weeks of operation, club members have already experienced business considerations such as pricing, cash accountability, stock management, quality control, delivery requirements and consequences, business goals and plans, scaling, and more.

In 14 days the club earned $142 “take home profit”, paid $19 in “use fees” to the FabLab and deposited $20 into the club account. (On day 15 the students received 6 more orders!) More than a week on and the club is still going strong with a small amount of remote mentoring. Club members are approximately 15-18 years old. More information on the T-shirt Club here.

The “use fee” paid to the FabLab is profoundly encouraging. The monthly burn rate at the lab is approximately $1200 – $1500 – and every single cent goes to directly Afghans in one way or another. A single club of 4 youth was able to generate almost 2% of those fees in their first two weeks by contributing only $1 per shirt… The market for custom T-shirts at $10 each is much bigger especially once these kids set up at the FOB and PRT bazaars. And the “use fee” from the FabFi and other projects have the potential to generate much more. It will take a while before the lab is fully self-sustainable but there is a reasonable path.

User Training (future clubs?)

Stamps, challenge coins, music boxes (in particular microcontroller-based circuits), Picocrickets and Scratch graphical game design and programming.

making stamps on the mini-mill
milling custom rubber stamps
challenge coins
casting custom challenge coins

FabFi : DIY Wireless

FabFi antenna hardware are completely made or sourced locally, the total cost is around $65-$75 in materials for each one depending on the size of the reflector. Reflectors “printed” in the lab are coupled with specially configured commercial access points / routers and can be used to make wireless high speed connections as far as 15 km away. Within the FabFi local network we’re achieving speeds of 4.5+ Mbps. And there’s nothing to stop the users from making more and expanding the network.

As of the end of January 2009, three main links were made: one to the school in our local village of Bagrami, one to the public hospital, and one to an NGO near to the hospital. To make the last two links, both in Jalalabad City center, we made a long-haul link to the water tower (the second highest structure in Jalalabad) then two downlinks fan out from the water tower. In addition to the technical achievement, the water/FabFi transmit tower is now a shared resource for all of the various organizations within the hospital. Since much of Jalalabad City can “see” the tower and are eager to also point downlink antennas at the FabFi, there is budding neighborhood pressure on the hospital to keep the resource working and serviced.

The FabLab freely shares its 2+Mbps down / 485kbps up Intelsat internet connection with anyone that connects to the FabFi network. All current sites are expected to fan out with more links; we’ve had Afghans working with us that are very close to being able to make and install future links. This will ultimately turn into a “FabFi Club” where members make money from making, installing, and maintaining the FabFi network. The prices, membership, and level of service have yet to be worked out. The design is open sourced, meaning that anyone can download the design and configuration files for free; club members would get paid for the service of actually buying the raw materials, constructing the antennas, configuring and installing the system, and so forth.

FabFi and GATR SatCom Antennas on Fab Lab Roof

More information on FabFi in Afghanistan here, including a FabFi 1.0 distribution download site.

Digital Pathology

20 years ago the pathology lab in the medical school was well known as one of the better labs in Asia. Today the lab looks exactly as it did 20 years ago… complete with 20 year old supplies and processes.

40X view
40X view
of sample
a sample slide on the microscope
a frozen section sample
on a digital microscope

How does technology (especially communication) change everything? With Dr. Mendoza from San Diego Sister Cities Association, we installed, integrated, and demonstrated a frozen section machine, digital microscope, and internet connection to obtain “real time” remote pathology consultations on a sample from a volunteer. See the full story here.

Local Copy of the Internet

A proxy server was installed between the Internet and the FabFi network. Much web content doesn’t change very quickly and a copy kept in country, synced only once in a while, means ridiculously fast “internet” and significantly eased load on the satellite link. This means that most of the traffic is only within the country. The current FabFi has 4.5Mbps bandwidth; the connection to the Internet is limited by the satellite bandwidth. (By the way, the “real” Internet works the same way, with copies of itself physically all over the world, but usually done by slightly more professional folks with bigger budgets for better server farms and power systems.) Right now the proxy server keeps a copy of anything anyone clicks on; in the near future we’ll mirror Wikipedia and other open educational and informational sources.

MIT Open CourseWare

Check out a long time MIT favorite: Prof Lewin
Check out a long time MIT favorite:
Prof Lewin demonstrating that the period
of a pendulum is independent of the mass
hanging from the pendulum in Lecture 10
of MIT 8.10: Physics I.

Every single undergraduate class and many of the graduate classes taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been painstakingly recorded, indexed, transcribed and compiled along with all the materials from the classes. You can watch any class just as if you were in the classroom. Free. And all of Open CourseWare is online in the FabFi network.

From anywhere in the world you can access MIT Open CourseWare; if you’re lucky enough to be connected to the FabFi network in Nangarhar Province you won’t have a wink of delay even with an entire classroom streaming the video courses.

Bagrami School Teacher Laptop Training

Approximately 9 teachers from the school in Bagrami wanted to learn basic computers. Teachers have been loaned OLPCs through the end of this semester so they can take the computers home to spend hands-on time with them. Ultimately these teachers’ students will have OLPCs or similar laptops and as the teachers learn to use the computers themselves, they are thinking about how they will integrate the availability of technology into their lesson plans. The teachers currently come to the FabLab to charge the laptops, connect to the internet, and use the printer (we hope in the near future they will also begin using the other Fab output devices). One teacher in particular is very good in English and has had about 2 weeks more of training from the FabFolk than the other teachers and is leading getting the other teachers involved. Most teachers involved are approximately 23-27 years old. More on the Bagrami teachers’ computer training here and the proposed FabLab/OLPC Bagrami field trial here.

Bagrami Online

The congruence of the FabFi network and teacher laptop training projects above naturally led to installing a FabFi connection at the school in our village of Bagrami. The headmaster and department of education have agreed to allow anyone to use the school rooms (and internet connection) outside of school hours. A wireless access point was installed at the Bagrami school and a small radius of houses nearby can also connect to the network without being inside the school walls. There is great interest in the small village of Bagrami (aproximately 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants) to extend the coverage across all of Bagrami. It is the children of Bagrami that are our constant students in the FabLab and so they are ideally poised to fabricate as many antennas as they wish. This is a village that does not have grid electricity or running water. Some residents share the cost of running a single generator, the others simply don’t have electricity. Ever. It’s funny to think that you could be lying in the sun on your mud roof enjoying faster net speeds than, well, me at my apartment in Cambridge, MA.

Naqibullah, with brothers and cousins in Bagrami discovering Wikipedia
discovering Wikipedia in Bagrami

In places like Bagrami, access to computers and the internet can be life-changing. Nekibulah’s brother, for instance, is interested in medicine but has absolutely no access to any information on the subject. A simple google search for “health” had him excited in no time at all, and I was glad to watch the attending group devour a page on woman’s health (including sexual health) without even batting an eyelash. In contrast to his brother, Nekibulah was more interested in information about Afghanistan and Islam. The tension between traditional cultural values / religious beliefs and the desire for the opportunities of western (for lack of a better term) society is palpable in these moments of discovery. “Are there Muslims in America?” “When you have a guest in your house would you have tea together?” (From Keith’s blog entry the day Bagrami link went online)

Online Lab Journal

It’s still not perfect or posted in the correct place, but we’ve got the teachers and lab assistant posting the daily lab journal online. (It’s supposed to be here but it’s probably in the stream here.) Management, finances, accountability, and responsibility, it’s all being developed wobbly and imperfectly in the open so you can see exactly what’s going on.

Weather Station (Almost) Online

If you go to weather.com and try to find weather for Jalalabad, you’ll get either Kabul or Peshawar weather, and neither are at all close or similar in weather. We installed a weather station – anemometer, temperature, barometer, etc. and had a blast teaching students about atmospheric sciences. Students from Bagrami are deeply connected to farming – they don’t need a gadget to predict the weather but the quantization of the data was world shifting. We realized too late that we don’t have the “special software” to gather the data and post it to something like weather.com, making Bagrami yet more connected with the world. We ran out of time to play with the system which has a serial interface and see if we can pipe the raw data directly into a FabFi router. For now, FabLab users carefully record the temperature and conditions in a journal and are learning how to track and graph the data.

Have you really made it all the way down to here? I’m still plodding through our photos and videos and I wish I was ready with an album to give you a taste of how exciting and vibrant the region as well as our students are — really quite opposite than what you might see on TV.

Interested in helping? We need everything from back end geek work to front end install / maintenance work, curriculum and teaching, small business mentoring, plus other specialist knowledge in pretty much anything that can be useful in Bagrami and beyond that can be enabled or enhanced with technology. If you’re good at something, I can probably use the help.

Fab Surge Summary Part 1 : Value = (Cost)^-1

Tim’s been bugging me to write a summary post for all you readers wondering what became of us.   (Most of us are all the way home now and struggling to catch up on sleep while making an appearance at our “day jobs”.)   In short, we accomplished an awful lot and collectively recorded about 250GBs of photos and 30 hours of high def video – which has made it impossible to write a “short summary”.     Tim would want me to point out that it hasn’t cost the tax paying citizens of any country a single dime/rand/quid/eyrir.

PART 1: A $400,000,000 $40,000 SURGE

On our last full day we alternated among frantically finishing projects, collecting stuff for the trip home, and seeing more stuff. We’re all a little sad to leave, there’s so much to do, could do. The guesthouse was bursting at the seams, and even though some of the FabFolk were stuffed three to a room, that, in and of itself made it fun. It’s like camp for grown up little geeks.


We've chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our "Hundred Dollar Laptop"s with built-in Pashto keyboards... while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.
We’ve chased away the other Taj guests from the dining table by playing with our “Hundred Dollar Laptop”s with built-in Pashto keyboards… while eating dinner. We charge the laptops at the Fablab and loan them out for users to take home or on field trips.

The financial load was pretty hefty for a bunch of unemployed / students. I’m often asked to post our costs but I’ve been resisting for several reasons, the most of which is that I don’t want to seem like we’re complaining about our travel costs. We’d much rather see contributions going directly to FabLab users and infrastructure.

To bring the FabFi and other projects to the state it’s at, we’ve spent a total of about $40,000 where the bulk of that is travel costs across two trips (one in November and one in January).

Materials costs for three links were well under $1000:

  • $60 plywood
  • $20 chicken wire / screening
  • $40 staple gun, staples, gaffers tape, rope, etc.
  • $350 network routers (aprox $50 each)
  • $40 12V batteries and chargers
  • $60 network cables, jacks, crimper tool, etc
  • $50 phone sim cards and top-up cards
  • $60 wireless web cam (used for signal source when pointing)
  • $120 wi-spy (used as spectrum analyzer when pointing)

Average travel costs per person for what has been called the Fab Surge is about $4,000. In an ideal world, these costs would have been reimbursable.

  • $180 Afghanistan visa
  • $100 travel medical insurance
  • $100 travel medicines, vaccines, etc.
  • $2,000 – $2,500 Flight from USA to Dubai, return
  • $680 flight from Dubai to Kabul, return
  • $100 travel from Kabul to Jalalalabad by car
  • $630 guesthouse lodging fee (a special shared rate by cramming multiple people into rooms)
  • $20-$50 travel to/from home airport
  • (There is an additional $150-250 that each person has likely spent on random things to include internet access at Heathrow/Amsterdam/Delhi or postage fees of passports and so on)

In addition, all together we spent about $750 in excess baggage and/or shipping mostly for FabFi and video/photo gear, and we’ve used about $200 in DV tapes.

Additionally, Tim Lynch and Shem Klimiuk from Free Range International haven’t charged us a cent for several weeks worth of armed expat security work as well as rides to and fro. We never would have been able to cover those costs out of our pockets. Fortunately I think we’re a little bit entertaining to Tim and Shem and they kind of like us. But they have to fit us in with their day jobs which hasn’t been the most convenient for either side.

Perhaps the biggest cost that’s difficult to put a value on is the unpaid time. For some of us, our employers or universities did not want the liability of their student/staff in Afghanistan so we all had to quit and go on unpaid leave. For others, they were unemployed but could have been employed in the time they spent preparing for the trip (for example, Keith put in a solid 2 months of 100-hour weeks rather than, you know, working for pay.) That’s impossible to really put a price on.

One of the reasons we were so productive is because we’re individually experienced at what we do.   You can’t throw newbies out into the field with no mentoring and expect them to do anything that doesn’t read like Lord of the Flies… and that’s if you’re lucky and they do anything at all.   And not to pat myself on the back too much, but just as important is to put together a complementary team focused on a well defined set of goals.

Which is the biggest lesson I desperately hope someones out there learns. Never before in history has there been a significantly large population of educated, skilled, experienced, young talent with a semi-disposable income willing and eager to do professional work for little or no pay and even some that will spend their own funds. You have to provide a minimum infrastructure for them to come, and help offset some of the costs they just couldn’t bear. You have to rally them around an idea, spin a coherent vision and place them and their contributions squarely in focus. They won’t accept a mission that doesn’t make sense or isn’t technically or socially viable – and they’re more than competent to develop rational opinions that will need to be vetted and addressed. They will walk away from half-baked plans so you better be ready with supporting data for your claims; but once they buy into the vision they will autonomously meet mission with focus and intensity. It costs much less in dollars than you think.

Those few of us that have come to Afghanistan over the last few months represent a small part of the larger Fab Folk community. We are from many different nationalities and ancestries. Most of us have technical or professional degrees and advanced degrees. All of us have worked in the real world. We are generally between 25-35 years old, male and female.


Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is currently working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.
Ryan from Hawaii and 6th grade boys from Bagrami. Ryan has a PhD from MIT in Urban Planning and is now working on the Hawaii airport light rail project.   Ratafullah, the boy on the left, is the leader among equals of the T-shirt Club.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, former Navy, and was most recently a DOD analyst.
Andreas and Lucy from DC getting the OLPCs ready for a mini-lesson. Lucy has a BS in Biochemistry, MS in Applied Anatomy & Physiology, is former Navy, and is a DOD analyst.
Andreas from Iceland installing the downlink at the Public Hospital
Andreas from Iceland (but lives in Argentina) installing the downlink at the Public Hospital.   Andreas has BS in Math from University of Iceland, is working on an MS Math at the University of Amsterdam and works as a computer virus disassembler/analyst.
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab
Said Jalal from Bagrami and Steve from Seattle atop the water tower near the long haul link from the Fab Lab.     Said Jalal is a high school student.   Steve recently worked in the Dean’s office in the MIT Sloan School and is now in Seattle goofing off — restoring and flying WW2 era aircraft.
Smári from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna. Smári is a Math student at the University of Iceland and is currently working for Nýsköpunarmiðstöð Íslands as an IT projects manager.
Smari from Iceland concentrating hard while peaking an antenna in Jalalabad City. Smari studied Mathematics at the University of Iceland and is currently working as an IT projects manager.
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad
Carl from South Africa and Naqueeb from Jalalabad/Peshawara configuring and peaking a router.   Carl is currently a Physics / Math PhD student at Cambridge University in the UK.   Dr. Naqueeb just passed his exams in the Medical School in Jalalabad.
Keith from Boston tethering down the AP on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Computer Science from Harvard.
Keith from Boston tethering down an antenna on the water tower for the downlink to the hospital. Keith has a BS in Biomedical Engineering Sciences from Harvard and most recently helped found a medical devices startup.
That’s me, Amy, with what seems to be a perpetual cadre of inquisitive kids excited to learn by day and (sometimes) friendly ANA soldiers by night . I’m an American and I live in Boston. I have a dual BSes in Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering from Purdue, an MS from MIT, am working on a PhD from MIT, and have more than 10 years experience as a defense engineer… and have been on the Fab Lab ride since 2002.


The FabLabs all over the globe are magnets for us, offering technological infrastructure nearly as good as (and often better than) what we have available at home. We’re big-brained bugs flitting about bright pinpricks of light we don’t need lush hotels, gourmet cooks, or shiny cars. Most of us don’t even have TVs at home. More and more of us are coming of age every day, seeking and searching for light.


Smari, Lucy, Carl, Andreas, Steve, Keith, Amy… enjoying a proper spot of tea.


Fab Lab Surge and ABC News

The Fab Lab team has arrived and is now hard at work.  They are blogging daily and you can monitor their progress here. They’re doing cool stuff like fabricating antenna’s to share our fatpipe with the local schools and NGO’s. They’re  raising money to buy XO Laptops for every 6th grader in the local (Bagrami) school. They’re setting the local kids up with a tee shirt business to fund the Jalalabad FabLab operations and the local kids are beside themselves with opportunity that just landed on their doorstep.

Amy and her roomate Kieth from MIT - the Fab Lab advance party
Amy and her roommate Keith from Harvard – the Fab Lab advance party

We have had to run up to Kabul and back several times to get all the Fab Folk to Jalalabad. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is a vitally important supply route to both the military and the government of Afghanistan. There were several attacks on the road this past summer and there continues to be problems on it now despite the winter weather. We saw several interesting things along the route and the first was the number of French Army troops transiting from Kabul to Surobi.

French troops on the road outside of Kabul
French troops on the road outside of Kabul

Surobi is a large hamlet half way between Kabul and Jalalabad, last August the French suffered a humiliating defeat in the Uzbin valley which is just to the north of Surobi. The town has long been considered to be sympathetic if not supportive of Gulbiddin Hekmatyar and his party Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG.) We see sunburned adult males with high-water trousers, tennis shoes, and black turbans every time we pass through Surobi. They could be Sheppard’s or gold miners but it’s a safe bet their Taliban fighters hitting Surobi in for in-country R&R (rest and recreation).

The French have been serious about establishing a presence in Surobi since their first unfortunate encounter with the Taliban. They are keeping units in the field 24/7; have launched several operations which have netted some prominent local commanders (according to UN incident reporting). It’s good to see our ISAF allies taking the initiative, going on the offensive and clearing out such an important area.

But after you clear an area you have to hold it and it will be interesting to see how (or if) they do that. The operations in Surobi are not impacting the repeated attacks on the Kabul/Jalalabad road – with one exception. We’ve heard from reliable sources they tracked down and killed The Mechanic. It appears to be true too because it’s been months since we’ve seen his signature long range pin point RPG shots nailing tankers. The tankers are still getting nailed but only other portions of the road that allow ambush from rifle and machinegun range.

As noted in previous posts these occur in the Tangi valley area east of Surobi and in portions of Laghman Province below the Tangi. Both the ANP and ANA have posted small units along the road to augment the numerous permanent police posts. As you can see from the pictures below the positions they have set up are weak at best and their patrol routine, which appears to be sitting by the side of the road, is not proving very effective.

Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad - Kabul road
Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad – Kabul road
ANP machinegun crew - they are not dug in and they don't move so they are not accomplishing much
ANA machine gun crew – they are not dug in and they don’t move so they do not really accomplish much

Here is an intel report from one of the PSC’s (the private security companies in Afghanistan do a lot of intel sharing with each other.)

Laghman Province, Qarghayi District, Route 1-area of Tangy

AOG Vehicle Checkpoint 05 January 2009, between 1630-1700 hrs

A doctor who works for a NGO was returning to Jalalabad from Kabul alone in his private car, when his vehicle was forced to stop by a group of armed men. The doctor was then questioned about his work and personal behaviour. He was finally allowed to proceed unharmed when, on seeing the cassette player in the vehicle, the armed men instructed the doctor to play a cassette found in the vehicle. The cassette played was a religious tape and satisfied the requirements of those who had stopped the car. Despite reported increased security force deployments, this is the third reported instance of AOG activity on Route 1 in the Tangy area since 31 Dec 08. All three incidents have occurred in daylight hours and two have been attacks on military vehicles. These incidents should demonstrate to all the risk of travel along Route 1 between Kabul-Jalalabad at any time of day. Any international staff using Route 1 should expect further instances such as that outlined in this report and seek alternative means of travel between Jalalabad-Kabul.

Along with the above report, we have made several trips the past few days along the route. A few ANA vehicles have been pulled off the side of the road about half way back to Kabul, and the soldiers were in a defensive posture behind their vehicles, weapons pointed at the high ground. Most likely some pot shots taken at the ANA as they passed thru.

The Kabul to Jalalabad route is one of the most important in Afghanistan. The effort being expended to secure this route is currently being wasted because the troops are being deployed in poorly sited positions and being tasked to do nothing other than sit there. There is an easy fix and that would be to embed and infantry squad into the Qarghayi District ANP headquarters with a mission style order. It should sound something like this; “Sergeant you’ve got six months to work with these guys and stop any and all attempts to attack this vital route, go down there scout it out, come up with a plan and I’ll see you in five days so you can brief me on your plan. ” Winning the IED battle requires that you kill the IED makers and you can only do that if they are unmasked by the people. To reach the people with the consistency required to gain that level of cooperation requires that you leave the big armored vehicles and spend time (lots of it) among the people. I am pretty sure that if you consult the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manual you’ll find that it says more less exactly the same thing.

It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks
It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks along the Jbad to Kabul road

There is hope for those of us who use the Kabul Jbad road frequently and that is the appearance of a small American patrol right in the heart of the Tangy valley visiting the local ANA checkpoint. Inshallah they will be spending some time and effort trying to help the various small unit commanders develop a more aggressive plan to secure the route. We did not encounter any problems on our numerous trips to Kabul and back. What follows is some photo blogging about the Fab Folk we are hosting and some of the things they are up to.

Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi
Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi – we have a lot of James’s here (James the Brit,   James the Aussie,   James the Marine, and James the German)- chatting with Dr Dave from the Synergy Strike Force
Kieth, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Kieth and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpretur duty - he is between Steve and Carl
Keith, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Keith and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpreter duty – he is between Steve and Carl
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Here is a better shot of Lucy
Smari and Andres - Fab Folk from Iceland
Smari and Andres – Fab Folk from Iceland
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday.
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday. She interviewed myself and Dr. Dave, the Fab Lab Folk, saw a school built by the La Jolla Rotary Club, and made the river crossing to Little Barabad. She had a big day and shot lots of tape.   More on our day with ABC in the next post.

Here’s a link to Martha’s first news story from her visit to Jalalabad.

Fab Lab Jalalabad

Editors Note: This post is written by Amy Sun the MIT team leader for the Jalalabad FabLab.

A lot is going on in the Taj Fab Lab and it’s pretty exciting. The lab was deployed quite recently – equipment and I hit the ground in June 2008 – so expectations from all of our supporters and critics alike were quite low. Nonetheless the lab has already seen tremendous activity and growth in meaningful ways, even during the long slow ramp-up. We’re having some angst over long term support and funding but for the moment at least activity in the lab is exceeding expectations.

Each day approximately 45 users come to the lab and patiently deal with power and network and other issues and have been cranking out simple projects in staggering quantities. They have self-organized a system where some of the more advanced students hold classes and workshops for newer or less advanced users. There is a mix of genders, ages, background, ethnicities, and economic status.


In January I and 5 other internationals will be in Jbad to kick off two self sustainability projects. The simpler of the two is for the fablab to organize a club where members make and sell customized things like t-shirts, trinkets (ie, challenge coins), vinyl stickers, signs, etc. all of which are run in way to pay users to learn to use machines very well and carefully. Additionally they will learn about simple accounting and business concepts. The club has something like a forced graduation when the user becomes very good at a particular skill, but first the person serves as a mentor for another incoming novice apprentice in any given skill. Generally speaking the users have been cranking out astonishing quantity but the quality is poor and there are few users who see the point to going back and making everything perfect since it’s all just play anyway. So I hope that needing to meet quality specs in order to get paid will make them sufficiently motivated. Some users are very talented but have no reward path for their talents.silkscreenedtshirt


boy_robotcarThe second project, much more ambitious and complex, is to stand up something like an IT services company out of the fablab specifically to do with point-to-point long range connections with equipment fabbed in the lab (and later meshed networking also fabbed in the lab) as well as intranet support. Here we’re (informally) working with Cisco and the members of this club could become Cisco network certified and instantly highly employable in the Jbad area. We aim to provide local Afghans the knowledge, skills, and access to the machines to make equipment to push the edges of the network as well as have actual real-world systems to learn and apply their just in time learning. Just as importantly, they’ll be paid as they learn and not paid if they don’t perform. It’s this project that we’ll mostly be focused on in our January trip. We’ll be making, installing, and configuring several point to point connections with at least a 1 to 1 Afghan to international ratio where our goal is for the Afghans to be doing all the work by the last pair and for them to continue on as owner-employees of this company after we leave. Follow along at the temporary site: http://fabfiwireless.blogspot.com/ (this URL will change within the next two days as we bring our server and services online so don’t bookmark it).

The FabFi Long Range Wireless Antenna
The FabFi Long Range Wireless Antenn

Some of the earnings from both the above will come back to the fablab to help offset operation costs such as management, cleaning supplies, and to maintain teachers for open lab time. While I’m not expecting a deluge of cash, the mindset should bear fruit over time. In particular this lab may manage to stand up as Afghan owned without a heavily involved international owner. This is consistent with the other fab labs in the world but somewhat unusual for technical organizations in Nangarhar.

Because of extraordinary circumstances (eg, conflict zone), the Jbad lab will not be able to fund some extraordinary operations expenses. For example, the internet connection is super expensive because we’ve had to use a satcon because there isn’t an alternative (there’s no Verizon/AT&T/T-Mobile/Comcast for data). As Afghanistan as a whole makes forward progress these will ease. International support is necessary to equalize the playing field a little until then. Other than those things, our aim is for the lab to fund its own operations and projects, in the process busting the technical skills / technical jobs logjam in the eastern province. That’s why the two projects we kick off in January are so important.


As to interim funding for the lab, many of my cohorts are helping to pull together a web and online community funding drive to seed the lab startup. We’ve even accidentally made $90 before going live with the site! (See http://www.fablab.af/). I plan to visit again with the local PRT, GO, and NGO organizations to find out about their funding and procurements processes – I envision funding not to pay the expenses outright but as customers of projects. Surely the PRT would like some wooden signs that say Chow Hall – 500 m straight ahead for like $500, right? I can think of a number of things that I would like to have the users make for a customer and maybe the PRT can think of some that they would really like to have too.

I’m told that pretty much all internationals that visit Nangarhar are taken to the fablab when their schedules and transpo permit. Construction, security, doctors/subject matter experts, business people, journalists, and other grad students alike. They always report that they are surprised to find that no matter what day they arrive unannounced there are indeed swarms of users wholly engaged in learning something and doing something that they don’t expect those people to be working with. I’ve been having a lot of difficulty with the particular brand of multipoint videoconference system at Jbad (something to do with the MCU and/or the network connection) so we haven’t been able to get maximal people to see into the lab. You can peek in at any time of the day on the other labs (username “guest”, no password, if asked). As they become more net-savy and are connected to the world, what’s particularly neat is that we’re starting to see and hear real voices from real, regular Afghans. (One of the ways you can help is engaging these early users in conversation – leave comments on their posts and uploads!)


That’s probably the area that needs the most help as with everywhere in country, comms and power are at the top of my worries. The comms connection is great when it’s up, but it’s not always up especially as the experimental balloon continues to degrade. Our Mindtel collaborator work their butts off every several months to keep the support of the comms sponsor for just a little while longer. We have a great generator for power but can’t run it 24/7. We’re out of capital money to get either a battery system or second generator, and we can’t really afford the diesel anyway. It feels like I am asked for money for a new fuel filter every week. Most of all, the wiring to and within the fablab is a nightmare and I’ve already lost (expensive) equipment due to dirty power. Each day in the lab requires several hours of troubleshooting which generally turns out to be a problem with under/over powering or similar. It would cost on the order of $6k to rewire the lab, money we don’t have, so for the moment we make do.

Just over a week's worth of diesel.
Just over a week’s worth of diesel.

Secondary things that would be nice to get some help on are the practical matters of food, water, transpo, for the younger users that come to our lab. Some don’t get clean water or real meals anywhere. I would like to get to a point where we can provide something like fortified biscuits and the like for the sessions with younger children. They are usually the population that are very very quick to learn things and it’s the best time for them to be learning more stuff. But perpetual and crippling hunger, malnutrition, and dehydration work against paying attention to anything much less brain development. I can see big problems with hand-eye coordination and muscle control with the village kids. I’m a technical person and definitely not in a position to know anything about this kind of help so help from organizations that would be willing to collaborate would be quite ideal. Additionally, the local public schools aren’t teaching English, computers, etc. The fablab could be a place to facilitate and foster this but I and my cohorts are basically limited to technical topics. Both of these vectors are quite long term and in the vein of long term idealistic vision.


I realize it’s a little strange to be giving an update on something that some of the readers have heard nothing about. You can find a short history of the Jalalabad Fab Lab, more on Fab Labs in general, and lots and lots more about what’s going on at a few of the labs from my fab blog and others’ blogs linked from that site. We don’t think that fab labs alone are the solution to all of Afghanistan’s problems but I’m aiming to show that after the Marines clean out an area and make it reasonably sane for people to come out of their houses, part of the future requires local Afghan nationals (regular people) to have access to the tools to help themselves (rather than waiting for internationals or Afghan government to provide them with everything). So far, I have one shiny example of this in the township of Soshanguve, South Africa where a group of unemployed youth have transformed where they live from a dead end to a nearly self-contained thriving place where people can have a future without leaving. The Christian Science Monitor went to see for themselves in 2006 when the lab was still somewhat new – it’s really more and more amazing now three years later. But that’s another story.

We’re about a month away now from getting on the ground and kicking off the two big projects described above. I welcome any and all comments, thoughts, and help.

The Reconstruction Man

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

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

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

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

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

Dan is getting ready to head home for a well earned 30 day break. His flight from Jbad to Kabul was canceled so he has to go by road which he doesn’t like one bit. He is not worried about Taliban but the Afghan government security forces might see his jocked up AK and assume he is illegally armed. Which means they will take his kit and demand bribes which if not paid could result in a couple of weeks in the Pul-e-Charki prison. That sort of thing happens here with depressing regularity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change you can believe in

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

M-14 DMR
M-14 DMR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jalalabad road in Kabul
The Jalalabad road in Kabul

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

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

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

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

On the verge of modernity
On the verge of modernity


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

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

NDS Commander and 2IC
NDS Commander and 2IC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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