Unlimited OPM

OPM stands for “Other Peoples Money” and our politicians are getting so good at spending it they are currently spending OPM which OP have not even earned yet.  Conventional wisdom is that having access to unlimited funds would be a good thing for a military engaged in extended combat operations, but the exact opposite is true.  The abundance of money (in theory, mind you, America really doesn’t have any more to be spending now) is a curse to the military leader and our current military effort.  It allows us to get away with things like procuring a million dollar ATV MRAP for every  fireteam of every squad of every platoon deployed here, which for a Marine infantry battalion would equal somewhere in the neighborhood of  120 MRAPs for the entire battalion.  If you think it is a good thing for a Marine infantry battalion to have 120 million in MRAP rolling stock, you’re wrong.

Before I get to that I need to send a hat tip out to Nathan Hodge and Noah Schactman at Wired’s Danger Room for putting up a post featuring a prominent photo of your humble correspondent.  The Danger Room post got me invited to the Alyona Show – they emailed me  a clip of Joshua Faust from Registan being interviewed by Alyona and I figured if Joshua is on board, so am I.  I agreed to be taped late at night local time and, having read Joshua’s post on his segment tried to take off the tape of my glasses and glue them together.  It didn’t work so I ditched the glasses and moved the laptop far enough away so I could see something and was all set to talk with Alyona.  Only you don’t get to talk to Alyona; all you see is a skype screen with your video going and nothing else.  I had no idea where to look because looking at me looking at me is weird, so in the video I look more like Stevie Wonder looking around all over the place than somebody having a conversation.  It is not too bad to watch – clearly the “contractor” thing was what she wanted to talk about and like all Americans, when she thinks contractor she thinks Blackwater.  When I think contractor I think of big large numbers of big guys (not fit guys)  who are assigned to the FOBs and never leave.  The number of contractors operating outside the wire is a  minuscule percentage of the contractors working this campaign and most of them are implementers not security types.

To illustrate the curse of OPM on military operations I’ll use The Bot as an example.  As I have mentioned, The Bot has been detailed to the south and is based out of Kandahar City now.  He had to move around a lot and has dyed his hair and beard black making him look like some kind of pirate when he is wearing a turban.  Being a vain man (and because he’s smart)  he won’t let me post any pictures of him, but he has an interesting observation on what it’s like to be outside the wire and mixed in with the population of Kandahar.

Yesterday, The Bot almost ran afoul of Taliban checkpoints, twice in the middle of the day, and both checkpoints were within four miles of the massive Kandahar Airfield where something like 22,000 NATO military troops are stationed “protecting the Afghan people.” The MO for both illegal checkpoints was the same – the villains were wearing yellow reflective vests commonly used by Afghan cash for work crews and had placed their weapons in wheelbarrows hiding them with shovels and brooms.  They rucked up to their selected positions which happened to be on the main ring road (Rte 4) about three miles to the Spin Boldak side (at around 0900 in the morning) and another group was on the main road into Kandahar City at about 1100 in the morning.  They stopped cars, checked for anyone with a cell phone number of papers which would connect them to the government or the international military and executed at least one local man who failed to pass muster.

The ring road outside of Kandahar.  We used to run this route routinely just three years ago
The ring road outside of Kandahar. We used to run this route routinely just three years ago but now it is bad guy land.

The Bot had no problems identifying these Taliban checkpoints for what they were and avoiding them. Even with his language skills and dyed hair he is not going to fool any Afghan into thinking he is a local if  given more than a casual glance. Because The Bot and the rest of us do not have unlimited amounts of OPM we have to come up with ways to move around and work, making do with what we can afford on the local market.  When faced with tactical problems, the outside the wire contractor has to develop a tactical solution, or move their operations onto military bases from which they can accomplish very little aside from billing hours to their contracts and collecting massive paychecks. There are lots of  tactical options, the most common being the use of outriders on motorcycles who communicate with hand and arm signals because hand held radios are illegal here.  Unless you are a licensed security company in which case they are legal but still subject to confiscation by the ANP (especially in Kabul.)

The American military was once famous for its ability to organize complex endeavors with limited resources.  Now it is famous for organizing unnecessarily complex schemes using unlimited resources.  The price you pay when given unlimited resources is the current inability to solve the most fundamental tactical problems using the initiative and creativity of your troops at the pointy end of the spear.   We encase our troops in heavy body armor which limits their mobility, quickly saps their endurance, and renders them almost immobile, making them much easier to hit.  That so many survive being shot is great  but I’m solidly in the “I’d rather not be shot, or go down with heat stroke, or sustain serious chronic injury to my ankles, knees or hips” camp.   We then provide multi million dollar “mine resistant” vehicles which protect against most improvised explosives, but cannot protect our troops from standard military anti tank mines, a munition found in abundance throughout Afghanistan.

This is Sparta...no wait this is the wring slide.  This is your Army hard at work.  Next thing you know they'll spend 16 million to come up with a .300 WinMag sniper rifle because the 338 lupia is....(a much better round and one which should have been deployed 5 years ago)
This is what field grade officers confined to the FOB and bored out of their minds do to get even with the general officers who sent them here. It takes balls the size of small cantaloupes to stand up and brief this kind of crap to general officers with a straight face. Taking a complex problem and making it even more complex takes a special kind of skill which need not be resident in the best military the world has ever known.

We, the United States are the ones who said Kandahar was the key and our next big push.  Just like we did in the Helmand Province we broadcast our plans in the media – we told the Taliban we were coming after them.  We unleashed the varsity SF and focused the JPEL on Kandahar, we talked and talked and talked until just hours before D-day and then we put the whole thing on hold because “the Afghans aren’t ready.”    Were the Afghans ready when the Marine Brigade started their operations in the Helmand Province last summer?  No, they weren’t. And they are not ready now to take over for the Marines, which is a huge problem currently not being addressed with anything resembling a workable solution because the Department of State and USAID are involved and they have collectively learned not one damn thing from their nine year record of mission failure in Afghanistan.

The villains do not have unlimited OPM and have to use tactical solution based on fond objects.  The most common is to make anti personnel mines using a large pot reverse threaded so you can screw on the lid.  They drill a hole in the bottom and knot some det cord there with a non electric blasting cap (electric caps are hard to find here because road building companies will pay more than IED syndicates for them) with some wires stuck in them (this often fails which is why more than half of all planted IED's fail to function) and fill the pot with a liquid mixture of ammonium nitrate (which has been outlawed and is less common now) or potassium chlorate (which works but not as well and the other stuff)  and throw in a bunch of common nuts and bolts.
The villains do not have unlimited OPM and have to use tactical solutions based on found objects. The most common is to make large roadsie anti-personnel mines using a large cooking pot. They drill a hole in the bottom and knot some det cord inside with a non electric blasting cap (electric caps are hard to find here because road building companies will pay more than IED syndicates for them) with some wires stuck in them to make them function like an electric cap (this does not always work which is why more than half of all planted IED's fail to function) and fill the pot with a liquid mixture of ammonium nitrate (which has been outlawed and is less common now) or potassium chlorate (which works but not as well as the other stuff) and throw in a bunch of common nuts and bolts. These pots are sealed with some sort of smelly wax for water proofing and hooked up to a circuit board located some feet away with an antenna using fine copper wire salvaged from alternators to complete the circuit. They are crudely aimed at about the height of a pickup truck and used against the unarmored ANA trucks which have troops in the back. They make a big boom and leave a big hole. They are also simple to spot with outriders.

So we broadcast our next “big push” into Kandahar, the villains respond with their own shaping operation attacking international aid workers (which I predicted they would based on the irresponsible crap published by  the NYT,) killing security officials and tribal elders in broad daylight and they are now setting up road blocks and executing Afghans who they think are linked to the government or international forces in the middle of the day within line of sight of the massive ISAF air base.  This is not good.  It should not be tolerated nor does it have to be if we unleash the creative ingenuity of American infantry who love to develop techniques and tactics tailored to specific situations which allow them to get the drop on scumbags and kill them.  If we were not burdened with the unlimited resources and forced to make do with what we can find on hand, do you think American infantry guys could not figure out a way to combat the Taliban in Kandahar?

Here is the real crime; if you deployed your infantry with simple open ended mission type orders, it would take much less of them than we currently use in offensive operations.  An infantry company can call upon and control more fire power, with pin point accuracy, than was available to an infantry division in World War II.  You could take a Marine rifle company, tell the young captain to spread his platoons into four strong points around Kandahar City, augment them with a platoon of ANA, and tell them to figure out a way to stop the damn Taliban check points.  If they were allowed to war game up a solution and implement it, you would end up with all sorts of local vehicles which are carrying uniformed troops working with outriders on motorcycles to try and detect these checkpoints, roll up on them, and then jump them the Marine Corps way, using point blank automatic weapons fire.  How many counter-checkpoint hits do you think it would take before the checkpoints disappeared?  Plus it pumps up the troops to be on the offensive  whacking  cretins who need to be whacked.

Here is the point; protecting the population means being out with the population.  Every evening the sound of rifle fire erupts all around the Taj.  We are a mere 5 miles away from districts which are dominated by the Taliban.  Soon Jalalabad, one of the safest cities in the country will become like Kandahar.  What if we decided to get off the massive Jalalabad FOB and actually embed with the people of Jalalabad?  How would that be different from what we are doing now?

If we gave Jalalabad a rifle company and told them to embed with the local security forces, become visible to the people while ensuring the security forces do their job, we would see ANP and ANA trucks with Americans in them, we would see the incidence of police shaking down local businessmen evaporate overnight.  The businessmen would be used to seeing the same Americans and confident that if they told them about getting the shakedown something would be done about it.  Take this one step further – the rifle company commander starts to know the city as well as I do and, at no additional cost of OPM does things which make life in the city better for all residents.  Here is just two; kill all the stray, feral dogs which run amok in the city inflicting on average seven to eight serious bites on the children nightly, and take the “vector control truck” off the FOB and into the refugee camps to spray these camps and eradicate the vermin (and most importantly the scorpions) which plague those poor people.  Better yet take two of the vector control trucks and start working on mosquito eradication because in Jalalabad malaria is endemic.   Before long the rifle company commander would know  Jalalabad as I know it and the people would know him like they do the many international reconstruction types who have been here for years.  When he has proved that you can operate outside the wire in the same vehicles used by Afghan security forces, that you can bring out vector control trucks and other support vehicles to help the people through a long hot summer (and Ramadan will occur during the summer too which is going to really suck) then you could get even more aggressive.  What do you think the impact of operating in such an open manner would be on the average Afghan from the region? I think it would be a game changer.

There has been much in the press concerning our intelligence agencies and their inability to produce meaningful products.  ISAF is starting to listen to guys like me and recently I had the distinct pleasure taking a very senior American and three of his guys from Gen Flynn’s J2 office on the road with me between Jalalabad and Kabul.  They understood immediately the value of moving around like a regular citizen when it comes to basic situational awareness – everybody already understands that it is obvious.  They sent me an unclassified assessment of Jalalabad City and Beshud district which surrounds most of the city.  Sixty three pages of stuff and guess what?  It was excellent; a commander could pick that up, read it in an afternoon, and have a very good understanding of the city and the prominent players.  What is missing is  personal familiarity with the key power players and intimate knowledge of the terrain and the situation for the average Afghan businessman.  Information which a smart guy could pick up inside of two weeks on the street.

There is nothing hard about getting out and aggressively operating in most of the contested regions.  It seems pretty straightforward to me.  Which brings me to my final topic and it is not something Americans should be happy about.  I have been hearing for weeks rumors about the detention of this guy:

Mullah Omar
Mullah Omar

I have heard about this from both prominent Afghans and from a source from the USG  who has impeccable credentials and has never been wrong in the past.  The media story is here and that story is that the Pakistan ISI has Mullah Omar under house arrest, that our government knows this but for some reason wants to keep it a secret.  I need to stress that not everyone I have contacted about this story has heard these rumors and a few important, well informed milbloggers flat out do not believe them.  Regardless this story has legs and if it is true there is a huge huge problem.  That problem is very simple – there should be no doubt about what happens when an allied intelligence service gets their hands on Mullah Omar.  There is nothing to discuss, nothing to think through, nothing to spin, there only this; give him to us.  Immediately.  End of negotiation. There should be no question on the part of the USG about what to do with this dirtbag either.  He is an unlawful enemy combatant and needs to be detained and held for trial by military tribunal.  There is no other conceivable option.  If this story proves true, and I think it is, what the hell is going on back in DC?  This isn’t a game,  dammit, it’s war and needs to be treated as such.

19 Replies to “Unlimited OPM”

  1. Your insightful perspective and straightforward suggestions are a breath of fresh air. I appreciate your measured and professional observations of the real situation on the ground. Too many uninformed and inexperienced opinions are expressed that are not based on what is currently, or even recently, happening. You break that mold in the best sense and speak your mind in a constructive way.

    Please continue to raise your voice. Most will not listen, but some are. Perhaps one or two will be in a position to act.

    It is reassuring to hear the American Can Do spirit is still kicking despite all obstacles in Afghanistan. You and your team are making a difference.

    Semper Fi indeed.

  2. Mr. Lynch,

    I have read your comments about MO and agree completely! He is our property. No discussion. The Administration should “man up” and bring him in. The Paks are gaming us. In the end, their corruption will be their undoing, and Talibanization of Pakistan is the likely outcome. I’m just praying our government has some cajones.

  3. “Here is the point; protecting the population means being out with the population. Every evening the sound of rifle fire erupts all around the Taj. We are a mere 5 miles away from districts which are dominated by the Taliban. Soon Jalalabad, one of the safest cities in the country will become like Kandahar. What if we decided to get off the massive Jalalabad FOB and actually embed with the people of Jalalabad?”

    No doubt 😉 — Keep saying it bro, eventually, (and i hope soon…..) the right person with decision making authority will hear it!

    That shit happening near KAF is unreal ! Bot keep your head down, and dye that beard white mate !!

  4. So tell me. Where is the breakdown occurring between the talk and the practice?

    Thank you for voicing (again) the frustration that I have felt about the big box mentality. Unfortunately, it stems from the same big box attitude we have over here in the states at home. I can only compare this to the suburbanites who drive fake Humvees, trying to look “military” and like they could kick ass, when all they’re doing is carpooling kids, going to Costco to buy processed food (bloat) –all on credit cards (OPM). It’s an accepted illusion of safety and control, which I’m afraid is exactly the mentality we’ve brought with us into the military.

    The FOBs, the MRAPS, the 1 million dollar hospitals built on bases next to hills covered with goats and flies (instead of having taken over the existing small hospitals and clinics 9 years ago) are a reflection of the same suburbanite mentality. And that includes sending them care packages with food stuffs when they could be partaking of local foods instead. I’ve done it before, I won’t be doing it anymore. I could come up with a million more examples, but there’s no point.

    We won’t be safe until we cast aside the preference for illusions. I don’t think I can put it any simpler than that. I know there are risks to making the shift, but I think what we’re doing now over the long term isn’t going to win us a war.

    As for Noah Schactman: he ruined a perfectly good cut and paste article with a crappy last line, which incorrectly summed things up. That made me mad. I do expect more from him if he’s being paid to blog.

  5. If the head of our Department of Justice, the lawyer/warrior Eric Holder, fellow metrosexual friend of Obama-Mao, while being questioned at Congress this week, is unable to clearly state that radical Islam infects terrorists, if he twists his thoughts wishing to count and present every particle of sand that could lie on a beach, if he does all these things I have stated, then why do you think those in military uniform, who have taken an oath to defend this country with his/her life, have a chance at winning, at securing a “victory” defined by the total surrender of our enemies?

    Those private contractors are doing what these elected winners/warriors of ours want, nothing more, nothing less.

    You must be living on another planet where life has other realities. Then again Jarheads think a special way…some would say they think like “winners” not losers.

    Too bad those who are pulling the strings are losers! I sure as hell didn’t vote for these coward, candy assed lawyers…no I didn’t and never will!

  6. Do our military commanders actually believe the war is vital? even important? What if they don’t have their hearts in it and are simply trying to get their troops home with the fewest casualties while doing enough to get promoted.

    Does anyone get a sense that they’re in a war zone when they’re on a big box FOB? Is there any sense of urgency when dealing with the US gov or any part of NATO?

    I’d say very little and the only thing that prevents catastrophes is our overwhelming technological advantage.
    A minor uptick in Taliban weaponry- say 500 or so late generation ATGW or Manpads and the entire project would come off the rails.

  7. The Mullah Omar story is almost certainly BS reported by one dope with no credibility. I seriously doubt The Pakis have any interest in capturing or detaining him unless they want to lose what little control over the country they have. if we do have him then why must that reported to the American public? There are plenty of reasons not to do so. The public has no right to be informed of such things for a variety of reason. Assuming you think the story is true which I find laughable.


    “The American military was once famous for its ability to organize complex endeavors with limited resources.’

    Really? Since when? We have been about overwhelming force and industrial might for a long time and still are.

    I agree with much of what you say after reading your blog today but a few things are real head shakers.

    1. A couple examples from WWII:
      1) the Devastator torpedo bombers used in the battle of Midway were pure crap– deathly slow, poor torpedoes, flying coffins. The Navy and Marine fliers figured out an ingenious way to use the Devastators as bait to lure the Japanese CAP away from the carriers so the more effective planes could dive bomb the enemy carriers from above;
      2) the war of the hedgerows in Normandy; G.I.’s figured out a way to jerry-rig Sherman tanks with bulldozer blades to plow through the hedges… they didn’t get the best equipment;
      3) the Sherman tank itself was a comparatively crappy tank vis a vis German armor and especially German 88mm guns. Yes, U.S. industry was churning these things out at record pace but the tankers had to figure out on their own, in practical experience, how to use these poorly armored and poorly gunned tanks in an effective way.
      4) Lack of gasoline in Normandy, August 1944. Patton’s 3d Army was constantly shorted on gasoline to run their tanks, yet they found a way to overcome those limitations in a variety of ways.

      And finally, from Iraq, circa 2005 and 2006, Marines in Anbar did not have anything like overwhelming force or industrial might. They had to figure out how to beat a ruthless insurgency with very basic tools.

      Bottom line: you are correct that the U.S. outspends the world in military hardware, but, for the last 20 years we have been too afraid to use it in any meaningful way.

  8. Great stuff as always, Tim.

    I think we all know why the Afghan campaign is one big SNAFU: this Admin’s number one priority is zero casualties.

    Let’s be honest. We all saw what happened to Bush in Iraq when the casualty count started to mount. The media and politicians used it to destroy support for the war. This Admin believes, rightly or wrongly, that if we start taking the kinds of casualties in A-stan that one should expect to take in order to actually win (as opposed to stalemate), then it will become an unacceptable political liability.

    It is only natural that the U.S. military is putting as many troops on FOB’s and spending huge sums on MRAP’s and force-protection. When your goal is minimizing casualties at all costs, this is what you do.

    If the goal, on the other hand, was to actually win then we would be doing exactly as you suggest, Tim, and putting the troops out there with the people. That’s how we finally prevailed in Iraq. But it was costly in U.S. casualties. And if U.S. commanders are not sure that they have the backing of the top decision makers for this kind of thing… well, better keep them on base and only go outside the gates when you have maximum force protection etc…

    There is no will to win this thing, therefore, the U.S. military is struggling to find some way to stay in the game long enough for a change of leadership in 2010 or 2012. If this Admin follows through on its plans to withdraw in 2011, however, then game over.

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