Operation Moshtarak

I want to thank Amy Sun, the Fab Folk, and my kids Megan, Kalie and Logan for drumming up so much support for FRI’s run at this years Milbloggies award.   I also need to thank America’s First Sergeant at Castra Praetoria and Kanani Fong at The Kitchen Dispatch for their support for FRI’s first attempt at winning a milblog award.   For my readers who have not voted yet I’m about 20   down and can use some help (look for me in the “Veteran” category).   Vote early vote often – that is the Chicago Way.

The holding phase Operation Moshtarak in the Taliban infested area around Marjah has proven to be much more difficult than previous Marine operations in the Helmand Province. The clearing phase was successful despite problems with the new rules regarding artillery and air delivered ordnance. It is the holding phase  that is proving to be a problem. The Taliban still control most of the village hamlets and are exacting a heavy toll on local people who cooperate with the Marines or Afghan Government. The New York Times has a pretty good article on the problem here. The Marines have a limited number of options with which to deal with entrenched guerrillas. They did a good job of driving the Taliban underground. Their campaign against known Taliban leaders and fixers, which was conducted by the varsity SF guys was also very effective netting every named target on the Joint Prioritized Effects List (J-PEL) except one, who made it back to Pakistan despite being wounded. His code name is now Dr. Brydon.

Phase One of Operation Moshtarak went well. Now phase two is going to cost the Marines time, which is one or more of the three (time, ammunition, or manpower) of the most important combat commodities available to combat commanders. It seems to me that the only effective option would be to put “pseudo-operators” into the field just as the Selous Scouts did back in the 1970’s. False Flag Operations with Afghan fighters led by American Marines who look and operate like squads of Taliban roaming the countryside at night appeals to me. It would work too, but would take years to develop the American participants even if such a radical idea were every attempted. A better bet (from way outside the box) would be to employ squads of vicious, highly trained midgets. Nobody takes fighting midgets seriously until it is too late. That is human nature. We could downsize all the million dollar MRAP’s, making them small enough to be of use in this country too. It is not like we do not already have a crappy little rifle for them to use in the inventory. But that is not going to happen either (for obvious reasons but it is an original idea) so we will have to see how the Marines “adapt, improvise and overcome;” my money is on them.

This is a great shot from the linked NYT article by Moises Saman
This is a great shot from the linked NYT article – photograph by Moises Saman

As you read the NYT article on Marjah you note how important it is to get economic aid and cash money into the local economy. The lack of ability to successfully implement projects has been one of the biggest problems with the international community’s operations in Afghanistan. Nathan Hodge at the Danger Room blog wrote on this topic last February and described a possible solution. I can tell you from hard earned experience it is not that easy. Conducting the M&E (monitoring and evaluation which is a requirement on USAID funded projects) requires detailed planning followed by brief backs and inspections. The best way to run M&E missions is to have that section operate independently so that where and when they go is treated as classified information. You have to have a cover story for use at Taliban checkpoints and that needs to be rehearsed. Before M&E teams head out they need to be inspected to ensure they have nothing on their cell phones, cameras (cheap locally procured ones) in their wallets or pockets or bags which would in any way tie them to internationals. When you do this you reinforce trade-craft plus you demonstrate to your Afghan colleagues that their safety is your priority and not something taken for granted. Project M&E is best run as if it were a military operation which comes naturally to guys like Mullah John and Team Canada who are operating successfully all over the southern region.

There is another way of doing M&E which, like the idea of using highly trained midgets, seemed to be a bridge too far with US Government agencies. It required USG agencies to share satellite imagery and to access civilian programs like Goggle Earth from the SIPRnet accounts. After years of effort it appears that counter-bureaucrats inside the USG machine have successfully figured out how to make their products relevant in the challenging world of counterinsurgency stability operations.

Dr. Dave Warner from the Synergy Strike Force, which is loosely affiliated with the San Diego – Jalalabad Sister City foundation, itself loosely affiliated with the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club (I am not making this up) has been working the sharing issue with the National Geospacial Agency (NGA) for the past four years. The goal was access for collation of  Stability Operations partners to NGA imagery data. The problem turned out to be not classification but intellectual property rights. The commercial imagery provider had a “next view” licensing agreement with NGA which restricted distribution of the product to official users only. Defining “official users” is always a very complicated endeavor for any U S Government (USG) agency. Here is the thing about large bureaucracies – they are run by motivated people and motivated people easily recognize impediments to mission accomplishment. The NGA is staffed by professionals who take their jobs seriously, and Dr. Dave’s efforts had illustrated that procedure was adversely affecting their mission of supporting America’s efforts in Afghanistan. The NGA management started to chip away at the licensing agreement because they had already paid a king’s ransom for the data and knew they should be able to distribute it as they saw fit.

Little Barabad in a 2008
Little Barabad in a shot taken sometime in 2008
The Synergy Strike Force water weel at Little Barabad village
The Synergy Strike Force water well at Little Barabad village today. See the rock fence outline below the well?   That is an indication of village growth which we attribute to the well.

NGA now has a site called DigitalGlobe RDOG Phase II which ISAF coalition implementation partners can access; write to them here to request imagery assistance.   These products are provided to qualified agencies free of charge.

Zone 5 of Jalalabad City in 2007
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City in 2004
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City last month
Zone 5 of Jalalabad City last month

This is White Intelligence which has a limited but useful role in Stability Ops. Check out the results of a poorly designed retaining wall/canal intake project on the Kunar River which has caused serious farm land erosion in the Bishud District of Nangarhar Province.

Shot of the area where the Kunar and Kabul rivers join in 2004
Shot of the area where the Kunar and Kabul rivers join in 2004
A screen shot of the same area last month. Note how much land has been lost to river encroachment
A screen shot of the same area last month. Note how much land has been lost to river encroachment

It is good to see success stories from large USG agencies like the National Geospacial Agency which are pushing the envelope to provide critical support without spending an extra dime of taxpayer money. That is the kind of mission focused production us taxpayers love to see (China too for that matter given the amount of our debt they are holding.) The products NGA provides may not be timely enough to solve all M&E requirements but it can clearly provide a lot of help in remote or contested areas.

10 Replies to “Operation Moshtarak”

  1. If not midget, then certainly Marines dressed up and driving small cars.

    My pleasure helping Amy get you guys to the top. I’ve always like this blog because it doesn’t waste my time with superfluous crap.
    And besides, Amy said there’d be no Christmas on Facebook if I didn’t vote for you. So there.

  2. So true, so true. But to give credit where it’s due, America’s 1st Sergeant is the one who (correctly) identified that there would be no Christmas. And if A1S says so, I believe him.

  3. I recall that one of our Iraq coalition partners, Morroco, sent trained monkeys for mine detection as their contribution. A little more training and voila, a midget platoon.

  4. (from way outside the box) would be to employ squads of viscous highly trained midgets. Nobody takes fighting midgets seriously until it is too late.

    dude, u crack me up, but what a great post !!!

  5. Actually, there is nothing meaner and with a bigger chip on their shoulder than a really short Marine. As Robert Downey said in the ever classic movie Tropic Thunder “You never go full retard” well, we dont go full midget… The Silent Drill team has height and appearance standards, I see no reason why we couldn’t recruit some really short Marines and turn them loose. If Obama gets his way then we will also have gay Marines. So, again in the spirit of the Corps we overcome and adapt. Can you imagine a meaner animal on the planet than a really short, gay Marine who has been dropped behind enemy lines? I simply shudder at the thought. Oh the carnage! Oh the savings on downloaded porn form the internet! Not only will they bring stability to a harsh region but will certainly bring a smashing appreciation for fashion. And, isn’t that really what’s important in the long run?

  6. well like you said,this will be a big undertaking for the marines. even without the help of Midgets.

  7. Hey Tim,
    I really dig your blog–I came here via the wifi story that appeared on boingboing and I’ve been subscribing ever since. Even though our political knees jerk in opposite directions, I find your perspective incredible. We don’t get insight like this in the news.

    It blows my mind to compare the way you and your colleagues move about the countryside to the elephantine MRAP convoys the military uses on its patrols. Which approach shows respect? Which approach builds trust? Which approach is more likely to yield long-term improvements in security? (I do understand the desire to keep troops safe, but as you show, it’s leading to perverse outcomes.) Man, I hope some higher-ups at the Pentagon read this stuff. Anyhow, enuf gushing from me. Please keep up the good work, and the postings. They’re invaluable.

    Actual comment: I’m glad to hear of gov’t agencies not letting usual bureaucratic territory BS keep them from working together on the mission. (Sad, isn’t it.)

  8. That’s awesome. The follow on article about the M4 sure shines a light on military thinking. The entire world is awash in Kalashnikov knock offs and the US is thinking on spending $8000 per rifle for M110s. Yes, awesome weapons, but if they wanted to level the playing field they could get AKs for $25 a piece in most places in Africa…

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