Dubious News Reports from Afghanistan

There were two interesting articles in the news concerning Afghanistan today which illustrate (to me) the dire straits we now face. One article reported on the clever use of Viagra by CIA case officers; the other was a mildly negative critique of the USAID reconstruction efforts made by a senior USAID officer. Both stories represent a total lack of situational awareness as 2008 draws to a close.

When you have lived in a poorly understood, distant country like Afghanistan as long as I have it is easy to find mistakes in the international press. I am not nitpicking two main stream news reports because they report as fact things I know to be completely untrue. You get that a lot from the press these days. What I find alarming is that at least one of these two articles is obviously an entry into the discussion taking place amongst our national leadership. The other article about the CIA is so completely ridiculous that I have no idea what to make of it. Reports like these are truly depressing so let me take these articles one at a time and provide you with some unbiased ground truth.

Feeling the love in Paktia province

The first article was by Mark Ward, a senior Foreign Service Officer with US AID, who has just completed an impressively long tour in Afghanistan. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Nearly every observer of Afghanistan, from the most senior U.S. military officers to Washington think tank analysts and everyone in between, agrees that stability in that country demands a multipronged approach involving the military, diplomatic efforts and economic assistance. Having spent nearly the past five years as the senior career officer responsible for U.S. economic assistance to Afghanistan, I agree with those in the military who have said that 80 percent of the struggle for Afghanistan is about reconstruction and sustainable economic development and only 20 percent about military operations. In the face of a heightened Taliban insurgency, the U.S. military has changed its tactics. But if civilian U.S. agencies do not change the ways they deliver economic assistance, they jeopardize their chances for success and risk alienating the Afghan people.”

He is spot on with this assessment I would judge that he is around six years late but better late than never. He then goes on to discuss the ramifications to the morale of the American people if, given relaxed security standards, Foreign Service Officers get killed in the line of duty. What??? Let me answer that question free of charge. The American public doesn’t even know what a Foreign Service Officer is and they could give a hoot if a few buy the farm in Afghanistan. You have already lost men in Iraq and that caused no detectable disturbance in the body politic. One of those lost was a friend of mine the embassy security force camp in Kabul is named after him and although his loss was a tragedy for his family and friends (and the Department of State RSO program because he was one of their best) it did not cause the slightest ripple on the consciousness of the American public. My friend, Steve Sullivan was killed by a VBIED in Mosul along with three Blackwater contractors. State Department and contractor casualties are not the same as military casualties because the main stream media doesn’t treat them the same. You won’t see our names in memorial on the Sunday talk shows or on PBS nor will you see our numbers included in the national dialogue. There is also a new administration taking office which will change the tone and tenor of media coverage 180 degrees for reasons too obvious to even mention. I do not believe for a second with the concern that FSO casualties will in any way affect (or even register with) the will of the American people to continue our efforts in Afghanistan.

This is a great picture from an old NYT article by Moises Saman

Mr. Ward concludes his article with this paragraph:

The new team at the State Department and USAID should engage a team of outside experts to conduct an objective assessment of the security rules and their impact on our economic assistance program in Afghanistan. The review should give due weight to the importance of interacting with the Afghan people to hear their ideas, get to know them and gain their trust. It should rigorously test the theories about what would happen if an increasing number of Foreign Service officers were killed and injured as a result. And it should look at other donor countries’ approach to security in Afghanistan. Some have the balance between security and access about right, particularly in parts of the country where security is more permissive.”

We do not need expensive DC based contractors to conduct a review of security procedures or conduct an assessment of the consequences on increased Foreign Service officer casualties. There is a seven year track record in Afghanistan from both governmental and nongovernmental organizations that are operating in the exact manner Mr. Ward is advocating. The government of Japan has over 100 of their “Foreign Service officers” (the Japanese do not use that term) spread out from Mazar-e-Sharif to Jalalabad working every day in Afghan ministries and offices mentoring their Afghan colleagues. They do this on a security budget which is less than the cost of providing bottled water to the US Embassy compound in Kabul. The Japan International Cooperation Agency uses the same security guidelines as every other international organization in Afghanistan (with the exception of the US AID contractors who use DS guidelines) and that is the UN minimum occupational safety standards (UN MOSS.)

In contested provinces (Helmund, Zabul, Kandahar, etc) the UN MOSS standards are not applicable and in those provinces the best solution would be to turn over all reconstruction monies to our military who has demonstrated time and again they are better at delivering reconstruction aid anyway. For the rest of the country the US could start sending its FSO’s out into the provinces immediately and be reasonably certain that any casualties they do take would come from motor vehicle accidents which are one of the bigger threats faced by internationals who live outside the wire. There have been IGO and NGO casualties in Afghanistan but they are rare and disproportionally suffered by those who choose not to use armed security. By that I mean those organizations that place stickers on their vehicles of an AK 47 with a red circle and a line drawn through it. Nothing says “I am important and unarmed” like a new SUV with “no weapons on board” stickers. This is not a country where it is wise to advertise you are both important and unarmed. It is a dangerous place but the risks are manageable and reasonable which has been proven by JICA and the hundreds of other organizations currently operating outside the wire in Afghanistan.

The last time I was at the Kabul International Airport I saw a group of embassy workers being escorted from the VIP parking lot adjacent to the terminal to the front door by four Blackwater contractors with weapons and full kit. I would submit that having armed men escort your diplomats the entire 100 yards from parking lots to front door is not only unnecessary but insulting to the host nation. The men Blackwater places on the embassy contract are highly trained operatives who must maintain rigorous weapons proficiency standards and top secret security clearances. They would be of much greater use out in the provinces and would undoubtedly be much happier roaming around the countryside where their skill set is of use. Parading around the Kabul airport with rifles at the ready is silly.  

I applaud Mr. Ward for highlighting this issue in Washington DC but have to stress that we need to adopt a sense of urgency regarding the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. We do not have the time or money to study what to do it is time to do. The way forward had been clearly marked by the thousands of internationals operating inside Afghanistan daily using the UN MOSS security guidelines. The American Embassy and US AID already have dozens of highly trained security contractors in Kabul it is time to put them to better use.

The next article (also in the Washington Post) described the cunning use of Viagra by CIA case officers to gain the trust of an influential elder. The premise of the article is ridiculous. Viagra is available in most of the pharmacies (and there are thousands here) located in the prominent towns of Afghanistan. In the remote rural areas of the country one can find people who have never heard of or seen medicine in pill form. They do not know there is such a thing as aspirin let alone Viagra. But I suspect any leader important enough to warrant courting by the CIA is also educated enough to know about medicine in pill form. If he knows what pills are then he probably knows about Viagra and if he wanted some obtaining it would be simple. It certainly would not require debasing one’s self in front of a foreigner especially one from the CIA.

What I do not have to guess about is the consequences of a foreigner trying to give an important leader pills for a flagging libido. That would be an insult so grave that a Pashtun chief could never tolerate it. There is only one way an international could pass on something like Viagra and that would be through a trusted Afghan who was also friends with the target and could deliver the goods to the chief in private. To imply that a CIA operative found out the number and ages of the chieftain’s wives in casual conversation and then reached into his bag of BS to pull out four Viagra pills which were then received “with delight” is beyond ridiculous. It is an outright fabrication which proves the main stream media is every bit as clueless about this country as the FOB bound Big Army or the locked down embassy staff.

But there are other reasons to doubt this story. I know a couple guys on the mobile security team (MST) contract for the CIA. They have never, not once, left the FOB to which they are assigned. My statistical sample of MST contractors may be insignificant and I may be wrong about them being 100% FOB bound but I doubt it. I met only a few CIA officers while on active duty so I claim no insider knowledge or expertise but their description of the agency matches perfectly with the recently published history Legacy of Ashes and that excellent book was not a flattering portrait to say the least.

It is conceivable that the CIA did their homework on a targeted leader and determine the number and ages of his wives. It is inconceivable that they would then send out a case officer who was stupid enough to try the ham handed play described in the WaPo article. At least I hope it is inconceivable because God help us if it is true that after seven plus years of effort we are operating like the Key Stone cops.   When I read silliness like this I think that instead of high speed Blackhawk uniforms and kit maybe we should issue our CIA operatives big red clown noses and large clown shoes to wear around Afghanistan.  

We have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and should be talking about what an endstate will look like and not about the feasibility of venturing outside Fortress Kabul or co-opting local leaders with Viagra. It would be a welcomed sight to see FSO’s or CIA case officers operating outside the wire with the rest of us as part of those teams they are going to have to take the leap eventually and now is as good a time as any.

9 Replies to “Dubious News Reports from Afghanistan”

  1. I would have to agree with you on the importance of getting outside the wire and focusing on reconstruction projects. I think the big problem — at least from what I have read over the years is security and corruption. I disagree with your assessment that deaths of FSOs would go unnoticed by the American public. If FSO casulties were a regular occurance, I think it would be picked up by the MSM and would probably cause an uproar of people demanding we get out of Afghanistan. Americans are very casualty adverse. I’m sure this thought has crossed the minds of DoS powers and that may explain the level of security and their inability to be out and about. I’m betting most of those FSOs would like to be out and about working with the people.

    That said, there was an interesting article yesterday or over the weekend about how none of the major news networks has a full time correspondent in Iraq – – and haven’t had full-time correspondents in Afghanistan for years. An NBC executive said that the media and the American public have grown weary of the war. Granted, they expect things to shift toward Afghanistan in the Obama administration. But who knows.

    It will be very interesting what the impact of having Hilary Clinton as the Sec of State will be.

    Regarding the CIA and Viagra – – culturally, I see your point – – it could be insulting. And maybe whoever they are courting is educated and does know what Viagra is. Viagra is expensive – – isn’t it like $60 – $100 a pill? Why pay for it when you could get it free — and maybe the contact doesn’t plan on using it himself but selling it? Silly or not that story in the Wash Post probably doesn’t surprise most Americans.

  2. great post tim ! I hope your get your GATR back online soon brother !

    I especially was rolling on the floor this morning on the clown comments – Hang in there..

    Much love to the Taj for 2009!

  3. Given that many “journalists” aspire to write the next great novel, I can’t understand why their penchant for writing fiction surprises you. Many a night in Farah I entertained myself by surfing the net looking for articles on our contacts with the hostiles in the neighborhood. I found the small number of articles actually published in the western media were wildly inaccurate. I was a hoot to read our contact reports and set them beside the news pieces.

    As usual, and excellent piece. Happy New Year


  4. Another great post. While your Afghan storytelling is good stuff, where you point out the disconnect between what we need to achieve and our methods that are incompatible is what needs to be read at the highest levels. FOB-bound is not what we need. We need to get out in the thick of things, where you do risk the chance of being engaged by the ACM; but that’s where the Afghan people live. It’s good to see that the Japanese aren’t afraid to go out and do their jobs.

    For those of us who have functioned outside the wire for lengthy periods in Afghanistan, it’s demystified. Yes, there is a certain amount of danger, but while it may seem safe on the FOBs, that is the surest way to lose. What security do you gain for the United States if force protection always wins over what effects you have in the field? In the end, you bring home tens of thousands of people who have never left the wire and lose the greater struggle. If you truly want to see a robust and healthy Al Qaeda, let the Taliban win in Afghanistan. Then how secure will our families be in the States?

    I know that you see this, and your frustration is evident. Don’t get tired of tossing the bullshit flag, Tim. The only thing I regret is that this posting isn’t being read word for word on each major network. Now THAT would be news!

    Have a great New Year!


  5. This entire war on terror is, for me, a rehash of Vietnam. Same old quack, new set of feathers. Little was learned from that fiasco as we now know.
    Upon reading the headline that the arrogance, J. Paul Breemer 111 esquire, etc., was firing the Iraqi army, way back when, I realised that people who gravitate to Washington DC for work, are likely to be incompetent.

  6. As I read the comments above, and rerad other blogs such as “Afghanistan Shrugged,” “Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure” etc, I am struck by the almost always exact discovery of the same points, over and over.
    Now I retired from Uncle Sams Sugar corps in 2006 after four combat tours, with three adventure filled trips to Afghanistan, and what I told my bosses (and their bosses, anybody I could find actually), is the same as what you all above are discovering. It was in October of 2001 that I first told the Intel director of the USMC that the only way to pacify Afghanistan was via engineers, as the British had begun to do in the tribal areas of their then colony of India in the 1920s and 1930s (funny, Pakistan seems to have stopped that program in the 1940s). I took the time to verify my views in the field from 2003 thru 2006, frequently in civvies and sans body armor (as I liked to say, alone and very afraid).

    Roads and services will always seduce a populace, giving them a claim as part or whole owners of the infrastructure that the dissatisfied ones (insurgents, terrorist, jihadis, guerrillas, freedom-fighters, criminals, dacoits, take your pick) are or will try to destroy.
    Roads let services and goods (money and food most especially) in, and ambitious or poor out to better fields. Schools, medical services, electrical power, etc all flow in, maybe slowly at first, but they do. The “barbarians” get seduced and eventaully become stake-holders in reasonably settled conditions (corruption is a different beast to tackle).

    I sold this line from 2001 to 2006. I sold this line based on experiences in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Yemen, Iraq, the Philippines, etc, etc. I sold this line to DoD folks, DoS folks, DoJ folks and the politician.

    Seems that since you all are still discovering the same things, nobody bothered to listen.

    that is what angers me…that we can see the problems but that since our (and allied) politicos see no viable reason to address these observation as it brings them no immediate domestic political gain…

    Well, never mind, I can see you all feel the same way. We are doomed to repeat failure again and again, I fear. Victory is in our grasp and our leadership will snatch defeat from its jaws, again. What really upsets me is that we really can change many lives for the better as well as defuse the allure of the Islamiyun death-worshipers.
    My opinion.


  7. I agree with you 100%. There are already hundreds of military personnel such as SF, ETTs and others operating outside the wire with Afghan counterparts. A huge resource that has yet to be tapped in anyway shape or form. That they should start the cycle of learning over by them, FSOs, attempting to get outside the wire is a massive waste of time. Learn what those who are already out there know and springboard from there.

    The belief that the loss of FSOs in theater will sway the American public into not supporting the war; smacks of elitism and self importance. Soldiers are dying all the time, it sounds callus to write but is an FSO more important than an American warrior? This sounds similar to the argument that FSOs shouldn’t be forced to serve in the embassy at Baghdad because they could get killed, well no DUH!

    I have yet so see anyone from the Department of State, PRT, USAID or the UN in my area of operations. So how are they getting the information to make the plans to reconstruct Afghanistan? By listening to the FOB bound in Kabul??

    A road into the AO would do more than 100 JDAMs and 1000 Cordon and Searches, but somebody has to fund them, so give the military the money and let us get to work. Time is always a constraint and we’re rapidly pissing it away worry about issues that have no impact at the populace level. The people in Bermel don’t care or know who the new US President is, but they will care when a road shows up that makes it faster to drive to OE than to drive to the tribal region of Pakistan.

    It’s time to stop studying and start doing, no more committees, focus groups or think tank papers. Time for shovels, graders and construction. If anyone from State, USAID or any other organization wants to come down here and get outside the wire I’m not going anywhere for the next 6 months or so, come on down!

    P.S. I subscribe to the idea of looking unimportant and being armed to the teeth

  8. About the CIA & Viagra:

    While Viagra is most certainly available in Afghanistan, not many Pashtun elders would be willing to admit that they needed chemical assistance to “get their freak on”. Discreetly providing a way for an elder to demonstrate his virility might just be the ticket to get a crucial bit of intelligence or cooperation when needed. I’m sure that the Washington Post chose the Viagra example because of it’s tawdry appeal to readers, but it just falls under the mundane heading of “liaison gifts”. Money, guns, livestock, medical procedures and medications, water-wells, and almost anything else you can imagine have been used to curry favor with assets.

    There is an account in “Charlie Wilson’s War” where a Polish military officer agreed to help supply the CIA with Warsaw Pact weaponry destined for the Afghan Muj. His price for cooperation? A nice headstone for the grave of his father, who had died as an ex-pat in Canada.

    Just another MSM-sensationalized account of a valid intelligence practice.

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