A Trip to Gardez and a Visit with the Marines

Gardez is the capitol of Paktya Province which is located in the southeast of Afghanistan. It is one of the provinces which border Pakistan, the terrain and vegetation is almost identical to the high deserts of the American west. Paktya looks similar to Marine Corps training base in 29 Palms California and exactly like the super large Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Which I mention because I worked at Dugway for a few years after 9/11 and was constantly asking why we weren’t utilizing the maneuver areas for large scale training maneuvers.

FOB Gardez - an island of American calm removed and isolated from the town they are supposed to portect
The Islamic cemetery on FOB Gardez – an island of American calm in a sea of Taliban turbulence.

We spent a few days in Gardez to scope out projects aimed at bringing cash for work projects. Gardez is one of the larger more important cities in the southeast and has been the home of an American PRT since 2005. I stayed at the PRT with The Boss because Gardez is a dangerous place and we have yet to get a handle on local atmospherics.

So we are fighting a counterinsurgency in support of a government who is actively hindering our efforts by not cooperating with our military, our hapless State Department, or any other organization trying to bring peace, hope, modernity and the rule of law to this once proud and beautiful country.

The main canal in downtown Gardez
The main canal in downtown Gardez

Gardez has always been a dangerous place due to its proximity to the traditional smuggling routes leading into Pakistan through the Pakistani town of Parachinar. Early in 2002 U.S. and Australian Special Forces troops fought a pitched battle in the Shah-i-Kot Valley (the Battle of Takur Ghar) close to Gardez. One would think that the Army would have done a ton of work in Gardez to help establish a positive climate while placing maneuver units on the Pakistani border to block the well developed and well known smuggling routes. In both cases one would be wrong; there is no coalition presence on the border and the town of Gardez remains a dirt poor shit hole all but ignored by the army and US AID.

I have no idea what these things are but they are alive and disgusting - people still use this water for washing because there is no other choice
I have no idea what these things are but they are alive and disgusting – local people still use this water for washing because there is no other choice

I have no insight concerning leaving pours borders uncovered know the FOB’s are full of frustrated troops who have very little to do and understand that the time they are spending here is wasted time. I want to stress that we were hosted by and enjoyed the company of great Americans at the Gardez PRT. For example we talked with a National Guard Sergeant (as in E5) who is an agriculture professor back home and was able to discuss the various types of grasses for livestock feed and fruit trees for large orchards by family, genus and phylum. All he wants to do is teach the Afghan farmers what he knows in order to continue the legacy (which he has researched thoroughly) of the 1970’s Kabul University. In the 70’s the agriculture program at Kabul University was the most advanced in Central Asia. The Ag program was partnered with the University of Nebraska, all courses were taught in English and the graduates of this program were famous throughout the region for their proficiency and expertise.

The sergeant is part of a Tennessee National Guard unit full of agricultural specialists, led by a Colonel whose mannerisms and demeanor mark him as a classic American combat commander. During their shot time in country they are trying to bring their expertise to bear on the problem of developing professional agriculture practices which will produce export quality products and earn money for the people. But they cannot really accomplish much of anything because you cannot mentor from inside of a FOB. They are trying but what can you do when you are forced to travel down the few roads in the province in convoys which must have at a minimum four MRAP’s? What kind of reaction do you expect from local land owners when you roll up with an entire platoon of infantry for your personal protection?

Military professionals study past wars to gain the knowledge required for sound decision making in this kind of environment. Based on thousands of years of military history we can deduce that a large land owner who has received a visit from the PRT and still has his head attached to his shoulders is in some way, shape or form in collusion with the Taliban. That is not to say he is a bad guy but he is not our guy because the enemy owns the turf he lives on while we spend our nights inside Big Box FOB’s enjoying pecan pie and really good coffee.

A moderately wealthy land owner in Afghanistan has many enemies and few friends so they are forced to pay for security or face the certain prospect of being kidnapped or losing a son to kidnappers. The American military provides them zero protection and visits from the military can only bring them more harm than good. Sound like a sound counterinsurgency strategy to you?

Most cities in Afghanistan contain an old really cool fort - Gardez is no exception
Most cities in Afghanistan contain an old cool fort and Gardez is no exception

As happens at every FOB I visit the troops tell me how much they would enjoy working the way we do. We do not wear body armor and rarely carry long guns; we are not afraid to walk around places like Gardez because we understand the OODA loop and how it applies to the Taliban. Make no mistake; we could not do this on a regular basis because once our routine was known we would be attacked. But we can show up every once in a while, walking with the confidence and interacting with the people, while confronting the big T Taliban who often shadow us in an attempt at intimidation. Nothing pumps up the locals like seeing The Boss or I walk over to a cab with several Talibs inside and go toe to toe with them wearing a big shit eating grin because (for now) they are unarmed and unable to do a damn thing to us.  We are armed and would not hesitate to shoot the pricks but we could only do that if they attacked us with a firearm or edged weapon.

Afghans admire calm cool courage and there are tens of thousands of troops in country who could display that kind of cool if they were allowed to do so. The Boss and are are not special but we are smart and we are well armed with both weapons and the knowledge of local customs which is essential to counterinsurgency warfare.

Local Talibs stalking off after getting their punk cards pulled by the boss and I. Like all cowards Taliban will onlyh assert themselves when they have a 10 to 1 advantage becasue they think there is strength in numbers. Normally that is true untiul you introduce Mr. M 67 frag into the equation. I hate bullies and cowards regardless of creed color or country of origin
Local Talibs stalking off after getting their punk cards pulled by the boss and I. We don’t know Gardez well yet but having two Taliban walk up and start giving you shit is not a good start here. This kind of confrontation would never happen in Jalalabad.

While in the VIP barracks I listened to the staff officers as they prepared to fly out to various other FOB’s to attend conferences. One of which was a big multi-day confab concerning Water Shed Management. Why the hell are we concerning ourselves with Afghan water shed management? We have FOB’s sitting next to important cities where the main canals are full of garbage, human and animal waste, large protozoan parasites, and toxic sludge. Instead of taking care of that simple problem we are conducting huge meetings on big box FOB’s with lots of senior officers about water shed management. You know why? Because dozens of senior officers, Department of State and US AID people can spend their entire tour preparing slides, looking at studies and conducting historical research to produce a product which is meaningless to the Afghans. They then can have multi-day super high speed presentations about water shed management without ever having to leave the FOB’s, deal with a real Afghan, or actually see, taste or feel any real water. It is virtual stability operations done by people who want to help but can’t.

The people of Gardez are about to have their number one complaint (and source of disease and infection) taken care of by my team (working in conjunction with the Mayor) and a paltry budget of  $600,000. With that modest sum we are going to clean all the ditches, garbage dams, main canals and karezs. We will employ over five thousand dirt poor people and bring irrigation to over 1000 acres of farm land. This is the low hanging fruit of aid work and something which should have been done seven years ago.

The Boss showing off his Pashto speaking ability with the locals - I am getting a complex about not mastering that damn tongue
The Boss showing off his Pashto speaking ability with the locals – I am getting a complex about not mastering that damn tongue

The sad truth is we stay on the Big Box FOBs concerning ourselves with ridiculous projects like Water Shed Management (which will never have any impact at all on the average Afghan), waste millions of dollars and thousands of man hours because we can’t do what is important. We need to get off the FOB’s and fight along side the Afghans. The only unit in country doing that is in Helmand province where the Marines have landed.

The 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2nd MEB) on the ground and they are a combined arms task force built around a Marine Corps infantry regiment. Marine combat units are bigger then similar units in other services. That is a legacy from World War II where Marine units had to continue to fight hard while sustaining cripplingly high casualty rates as they rooted out dug in Japanese.  Marine units no longer take massive casualties; they inflict them, which the Taliban learned last year when they foolishly accepted an invitation to dance with Colonel Pete Petronzio and the 24th MEU.

Now they have Brigadier General Larry Nicholson and the entire 2nd MEB to contend with and they are about to get their asses kicked and kicked hard. The Boss and I had the distinct pleasure to visit with General Nicholson yesterday and The Boss, who is not impressed by much, was in awe. He told me that for the first time in his life he has met a real fighting general. Larry Nicholson is one of the best in a talented group of newly minted general officers. The Marines have more like him and they’ll be following him and expanding on his work for the years to come.

Old friends Eric Mellinger and Mike Killian have just arrived in Camp Leatherneck with the 2nd MEB and are about to get busy

You will not hear much about the Marines in the months ahead because their performance will run counter to the preferred corporate media narrative and will therefore be omitted from the nightly news.  The Afghans in the Helmand province already know who they are and the citizens (according to our local sources) are excited as they understand the Marines are here to stay. The Afghans in the south fell the Marines treat them with more respect than the other forces operating in the region. They also admire the tenacity of Marine infantry and their propensity to operate in small units while taking on large formations of Taliban. I have seen several stories about small units of Marines  kicking the Taliban’s asses good while sustaining zero causalities.

The SF teams, SEALS, and SAS teams working Helmand province now love having the MEB here because Marine pilots fly into the teeth of dug-in enemy to take them on at low altitudes and close range. A SF guy I talked with told me that when his men were pinned down a Marine Huey pilot hovered right above them spraying mini-gun fire into the faces of the Taliban. My friend Eric Mellinger,the operations officer for 2nd MEB, confirmed the story saying the pilot took 3 AK rounds in the only place on the bird which would not bring it down; the self sealing fuel tanks.

Killing people is serious business best left to true professionals who can separate the big T Taliban from the population. The Marines can do that because the Marines will not hesitate to strong point villages vulnerable to Taliban intimidation with rifle squads. And they tend to go after people who shoot at them running them down and destroying them in detail. If there is a way to win we will see it play out in the years ahead with the Marines in Helmand province where they will prove once again they are the strongest tribe.

29 Replies to “A Trip to Gardez and a Visit with the Marines”

  1. OMFG!!! If you could hear me shouting “YES!” “Yes!” as I read this…

    THIS is a MUST READ for every man, woman and child over the age of 12. Now if only we could get it in front of the faces of all those big whigs on the big FOB’s.

    I’m going to take you up on your offer to “share and enjoy”.

    btw, great pics as well.

  2. great post Tim, good to see you cuttin loose, and addressing the FOB PROB… yet again in timsan style.

    You and your “boss” are way special bro, you are out there, walking around, and cleaning shit up (literally).. outstanding project you guys are on, Ive seen the difference you have already made in jalalabad, in almost instant action fashion… – providing jobs and hope, making some friends… and getting the municipality in order – BZ

  3. Thanks for another informative brief. I do wish you’d be more open about your feelings regarding “Mutha”, though. 😉 My team Ops officer from Farah is visiting later this month. He’s a PA reservist. I will print this article out and pass it to him. Keep up the good work, and watch your six.

  4. Good Words and your doing good deeds also. I (like others) wish that those in charge in the various Services would read you and others like you that tell it like it is and tell it like it should be. Our Military has been too long commanded by those of the old army and by those that care more about keeping their job than doing what is right.

    Now that we have a government that will not support our military and even dislikes having one, we need real commanders more than ever. More Men instead of lackeys.

    Papa Ray
    West Texas

  5. As a former Marine and as a current security contractor, your posts are motivating! First, for telling the story of our hard charging Marines in Afghanistan, and second, for being a security professional that is making a difference on the ground. The big one here that everyone in theater should learn from, is that the Taleban should fear you, and the local population should love you. If we are not achieving those two results with our actions, then we are in the wrong.

    Semper Fi.

  6. Oh, and I have to throw in a Patterns of Conflict quote. lol

    And from Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict:
    Break guerillas’ moral-mental-physical hold over the population, destroy their cohesion, and bring about their collapse via political initiative that demonstrates moral legitimacy and vitality of government and by relentless military operations that emphasize stealth/fast-tempo/fluidity-of-action and cohesion of overall effort.*If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides! Page 108

  7. Credibility takes a direct hit when you repeat the “Obama is closing down Repub Chrysler dealerships” malarky.
    Theres a great tool called snopes.com, useful to see if your wingnut radio talking points actually stand scrutiny.
    Other than that, tho, having been a military engineer years ago: yup. Sewers, fresh water, & irrigation. Works better than one ton bombs, usually…..

  8. Great post as always. Thanks for haviing the courage to speak the truth

  9. in general, amen! all your actual policy perscriptions are well-grounded, and reflect what i saw when i was there. the troops need to get the hell off the fobs and into the field, development work needs to be fast-paced and obvious, and powerpoint should be banned and presentations/meetings limited to 10 minutes. we need to be doing stuff, not talking about doing stuff…

    on the other hand, your gratuitous jabs at the vastly-less-corrupt party (were you complaining about cheney having ken lay set national energy policy!?) don’t help your case. after 8 years of nearly-unadulturated incompetance we’ve got a chance to start fixing things, and it behooves us all to pull together on doing so. the constructive thing to do is figure out how you can help influence policy. send an email to the CNAS peeps – they’d be a sympathetic ear.

    all the best man – i’d be up for smuggling you a beverage next time i’m in town… unless you’ve got the hookups in kuduz there, which i wouldn’t put past ya =D

  10. More troops are on the way to Afghanistan, right?

    I think this stage of the war is called, “Hurry up and wait.” WWII GIs sitting on their butts in England found it just as frustrating as you do.

  11. Tim, great post my friend. Makes me want to join the Marines and head to Helmand Province and kick some Taliban Ass. Great points as usual and don’t worry about the political jibs from other comments – I love your rants, that’s you – reading your posts is like I never left the Taj Tiki Bar -hearing you go off on all sorts of topics! Keep up the good work mate. One of these days I’ll post a couple of articles too. Cheers. James.

  12. Fascinating but yet consistent bullshit and arrogance-so classical colonial rubbish.
    We the big brave intelligent Western warrior (with lots more guns) -you cowardly stupid native.
    Just get out and stay out

  13. Excellent post, except for the political stuff. If you left that out I would be forwarding this to everyone. BTW, nice to see someone who has read Boyd.

    Query. Given the low numbers of troops we have had there, is it realistic to expect anything other than a FOB based war? How could we effectively hold any area we captured? What is your sense on how effectively we have monitored money being spent on aid projects? My sense from reading many links, is that over the last 7 years the contractors have made out well, but not the Afghans. Is it possible that the Afghans, who have spent years figuring out how to cheat foreigners, are just too slick for the average contractor? Do we have enough culturally clued in and experienced people to make things work? How many people like The Boss do we have running around?


  14. I am in the middle of an Afghan Transtion Team tour that takes me all over the theater and puts me in contact with every ANA unit. I have spent several combat ops outside the wire for extended periods, secured only by the ANA and my M4. I feel your “can’t get off the FOB” case is a bit overstated.

    Now, my real beef: With 23 years and counting as a Regular Army Infantry officer I have made a consistant observation: Why is it that Marine officers (and it is the officers, almost never the NCOs) feel it neccessary to constantly pump up their own image at the expense of the Army? We are all on the same side, my friend. You have some good stuff to say, but it gets lost in the “oo-rah, Marines are badasses, Army sucks” propaganda you are pushing.


  15. babatim – i respect the hell out of you for saying that. i’d love to hang out with yall and solve all the world’s problems next time i’m in kunduz – i’ll send you an email =)

    paul – wtf? where’s tim calling afghans cowardly or stupid!? quite the contrary, i suspect… anybody who’s come through half the shit most afghans have and is still going strong is going to be sharp as a tack in all the ways that matter there. you don’t last long otherwise.

    steve – it is totally realistic to adopt a small-fob tactical posture and a high operational tempo. we need to use the resources we’ve got, which are considerable. we need damn near everybody kinetic, damn near all the time.

    we can hold the areas we’ve captured by operating amongst the people, with the aim of providing genuine security for them – and that includes economic security as well. they need jobs, stat. if your kids are starving then rule of law becomes significantly less important then it otherwise would be…

    sadly, we have not been effectively monitored money spent on aid projects, and have gotten scant little bang for our buck. NSP was the most successful development project in the history of afghanistan, and my previous bosses hadn’t even heard of it. the failures of imagination are staggering.

    it’s not just american contractors btw – there are a lot of slick afghan contractors taking their share of the gravy. it’s not that they’re too slick, i think. it’s just that the current system is doesn’t provide the right incentives at all.

    your last point is quite solid. we do not have nearly enough culturally clued-in and experienced people to do this properly. in ww2 FDR had thousands of people in school learning japenese and german six months after war was declared. the fact that nothing like this happened in 2002 is just illustration that this war was not taken seriously.

    CDR – what percentage of total army person-hours are spent outside the wire? i agree about dissin the army though – no point =P

  16. Having a self contained force being proactive like an MEB is a welcome addition. As you pointed out previously, however proactive you are if there aren’t enough of you and if you’re not equipped for the task at hand then it just doesn’t work.

    If they’re attempting what 3 PARA tried in 2006 by spreading forces out it should work this time because this time the men are there to do it!

  17. We met with a USAID Party Chief in Kandahar back a few years. The first thing this PC did was ask about my own background. “What the hell are you doing here?” Their backstory was as a former petroleum advisor, which should tell you all you need to know about TAPI, pappy! Anyway, Afghan’s hired (us) to prepare and present their traffic master plan to USAID and PRT, but the PC cut us off right quick, chiding, “Afghani’s don’t tell US what to build, that comes from Arlington (DoD), and nothing is gonna happen around here, anytime soon. ‘Afghanistan’ is just a money pot for Congress to fill, and most of that has already been diverted to Iraq and Katrina already.” Other than the free advice and roadblock, we got a free fruit cup and a GatorAide at the OEF-A-KAF mess, that made it worth the 7,500 mile trip!!

  18. This a very good dose of reality for those in their cocoons at higher echelons. I was an ETT for an ANA Infantry Kandak and a SECFOR PL last year in Afghanistan. I spent time in many different AOs, I saw the best and worse of ISAF and ANSF units in RC-East, Kabul, RC-Central, and RC-South. I spent most of my time in Kabul, Paktya and Paktika province.

    What Tim is saying is very much true, our risk adverse policies and procedures distract competent, creative and dynamic junior officers and NCOs from doing their jobs and accomplishing the mission.

    At the tactical level our junior leaders are being stifled by their commanders that don’t have the audacity to trust their subordinates to take care of the mission and the men.

    Chris Reed, from your perspective as a VTT you aren’t seeing what Tim describes, but anyone who has plopped themselves down in the middle of a US Army ISAF component’s battlespace for more than a couple weeks knows exactly what the deal is, i.e. ISAF units need to submit conops 24 hours in advance, they have minimum force protection rules, their PPE has to be a certain way, etc, etc. All of these rules and policies are distractors and take away our ability to be adaptive and to gain initiative and then maintain the momentum.

    I love the OODA loop reference, I wish more of our senior leaders would understand the decision making cycle and how to apply it to COIN, lethal and non-lethal operations. We need to keep the enemy off balance and always re-active to us. If we can secure the civilian population and keep the enemy constantly re-orienting to our actions, then we’ve won half of the battle…easier said than done I realize, but we aren’t even close to that right now.

    At the CNAS conference in Washington today, GEN Petraeus stated that we would NOT be moving US Forces directly into villages in rural Afghanistan. The CENTCOM CDR believes that as long as our FOB/COBs overwatch the village, preferably on the high ground, that is good enough in his opinion. Well, from my experience operating out of a FOB in rural Afghanistan only 200 yards from a village, I can tell you that it is not enough due to our risk adverse nature.

    The population is not going to feel secure if it takes our forces 45 minutes to radio and get approval from their higher hq 70KM away to launch a QRF mission or to act on time-sensitive intelligence. Our current policies and procedures limit the ability of junior leaders to make quick and decisive decisions independent of the battlespace owner or task force commander. We need to give our junior leaders overwatching these rural villages more flexibility in conductiing their missions and providing security for the population.

    Another big problem is the lack of Unity of Effort. In any one battle space in Afghanistan the units there will report to three different chains of command. 1) The ISAF units report up to their Regional Command. 2) the ANSF report up their chain of command. 3) ETT/PMTs report up to the ARSIC and CSTC-A.

    This needs to be corrected, there is a huge lack of synchronization and sharing of resources at the tactical level occurring throughout Afghanistan right now.

    Myself and others have talked about this more on BCKS through AKO in the past month, here are some links worth looking at for further discussion on the distractors and problems we face tactically.




  19. Nice post Tim, but go a little lighter on the Army huh? The Marines have had their share of SNAFUs in this war as well. Politics aside, your assessment of FOBs is 100% accurate, and whoever this Paul character is, I invite him to provide a little more substance to his neo-colonialism comment. Does anyone honestly believe if the US pulls out, things will be better? I’m pretty sure most Afghans don’t, even if they don’t like us.

  20. Spot on. Including (especially, maybe) the observations on big Army. I would say, though, that there are a few particular staffs of a few particular units that are the bulk of the problem in Afghanistan, and they are in the process of leaving (good riddance) and being replaced by commanders who have the integrity to make and stand by tough decisions.

  21. Inteltrooper, don’t be shy which commands in your opinion were not getting the job done? Let’s make these people accountable for their actions because others certainly suffered due to their decisions. For example, I am of the opinion that 4th bct 101st abn is one of he worst led and unimaginative BCTs in the Army. They made absolutely no progress in their year in Afganistan and consistently made it difficult or impossible for us to prosecute the fight in RC East

  22. Good to see you helping the forgotten. I wish I could be there with you. However I leave for burma again in a month for a 3 month tour, getting back State side in Oct and taking off again in jan. The air is thick with mortars and lead right now the Burmese Government is trying to crush all opposition before the 2010 elections. I wish you luck. Keep doing what you are doing.

  23. Hi Jim,

    In my AO, it was 3rd Brigade, 1st ID that was mucking up the works. COL Spiszer is a coward, and his staff was beyond incompetent.

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