The FRI Guide to Dangerous Places – Route 1 The Torkham Border to Jalalabad Highway

Early in the 2010 fighting season the vital Torkham – Jalalabad road corridor was suddenly beset with frequent rioting that closed it for days at a time. The Provincial government blamed insurgent attacks for the instability which seemed dubious as insurgent attacks don’t generate large scale rioting. JSOC night raids could cause a few days of agitated rock throwing but there had been none reported astride Route 1 between Jalalabad and Torkham. There was enough confusion about what was happening on the ground that one of our guests at the Taj thought we should go explore the situation. She convinced my Afghan buddy JD and I to escort her down Route 1 to the village of Amanullah Khan to witness a peace shura between the Provincial government and the rioting villagers.

This is a 2010 photograph of the land title storage room in the Nangarhar Provincial Agriculture Department. Some of these papers date back hundreds of years and fall apart if you touch them. They are not cataloged or organized.

The road between the Torkham border and Jalalabad is flat farmland dotted with a series of villages and towns. Attacks along that road were rare and confined to random IED strikes targeting ISAF vehicles around Jalalabad. Insurgent operations were not possible without the tacit support of local civic leaders and those living along Route 1 were interested in commerce. The only useful service the Taliban provided back then was fair and impartial land deed adjudication. That was shrewd on their part because land was always the source of friction between the people and provincial authorities.

This is township of Amanullah Khan in Rodat district – the smoke is from the homes that have been set on fire by the Afghan National Police (ANP). The ANP vehicles in the valley have just arrived in response to intermittent rifle fire from the hills to the left.

The riots along Route 1 erupted after Gul Agha Sherzai, the Nangarhar Provincial Governor, dispatched a construction company to build a village to be named in his honor astride route 1 in Rodat district. The Governor liked to build things named in his honor and had a special “reconstruction tax” levied at the Torkham border to fund those projects. Before the governor could start building his village he had to eject the current residents who he claimed were squatting on government land. The rioting froze hundreds of trucks in place causing a big kink in ISAF logistics so a shura was called to settle the matter.

A member of the Provincial Council and ANP escort work the crowd to try and prevent rioting. As this picture was taken heavy firing broke out in the valley below
The crowd turned hostile as the shooting started to pick up in volume and intensity resulting in the local councilman and his escort beating a hasty retreat
Hard to tell from this photo but there was a bunch of firing going on – most of it coming from the ANP shooting towards the hills to the left.
Rioting here can get out of hand quickly and the crowd at the gas station shura went high order fast.

This incident was an illustration of why our efforts in Afghanistan were doomed from the start. Conventional wisdom at the time was the US State Department was actively supporting the central government, while the US military and American intelligence services were actively supporting local warlords who supplanted central government influence. President Karzai and the UN bitched about this dynamic constantly. But it was President Karzai who put warlords like Sherzai in positions of influence. In Sherzai’s case he was given the lucrative province of Nangarhar governor specifically to remove him as a competitor to Karzai’s empire of graft and thievery in Kandahar.

Once the local officials fled the scene the shooters in the crowd turned their attention to us and started to pepper the hill with small arms fire causing us to scramble for our truck and bolt. To my right is Engineer Sun from MIT (her Afghan name) who had a knack for sniffing out dangerous trips and then conning me or JD or Baba Ken into to taking her on them.

Gul Agha Sherzai was a major Kandahri warlord who was the Governor of Kandahar Province before the Taliban took over and he was the first warlord to return (with an American Army Special Forces team) to Kandahar in 2001. President Karzai gave Sherzai the governorship of Nangarhar province knowing full well he would usurp land, initiate illegal taxation, and amass a personal fortune from American reconstruction funds because that was exactly what his brother was doing in Kandahar.

On our way home the locals massing behind the police lines insisted on telling us about getting screwed over by their governor.

The appointment of Sherzai to governor sidelined the Arsala Family and other provincial powerbrokers but Sherzai was generous enough to ensure the old families were financially rewarded. The Arsalas had governed Nangarhar Province last two decades with Haji Qader Arsalas , in the position of governor before the Taliban regime, and his elder brother Haji Din Mohammad, appointed governor under the Karzai government, a position he held until 2004. Haji Din Mohammad is the only survivor of the once powerful clan. His younger brother Abdul Haq was killed fighting the Taliban in 2001 and his other younger brother Haji Abdul Qader was murdered in Kabul by a gunmen in 2002, while serving as a minister in the interim government.

Governor Sharzai’s attempt to expel the villagers of Amanullah Khan during the summer of 2010 failed. In 2013 he approved the sale of more than 1000 jeribs (around 500 acres) of pasture land in Rodat district long used by local Mohmand tribesmen to Logar Province ‘businessman’ Ghulam Mohammad Charkhi. That pissed the locals off but the straw that broke the camels back for Governor Sherzai were the shenanigans of the Arsalas clan.

Governor Sherzai and I talking business back in the early days when he was adapt at ‘trimming the tree’ with local powerbrokers and popular with the voters.

Zahir Qadeer, a Member of Parliament and the son of Haji Abdul Qader, sold hundreds of acres of government land in Sorkhrud district to various families who were enraged to find out they had been bilked into buying government land they could never develop. He told the investors they would receive land plots in a residential project he was developing near Jalalabad called Zaher Qader Township. A move that seem to make the situation worse. The ensuing 2013 riots cut every route into Jalalabad City and by October of that year Gul Agha Sherzai was forced out of office.

Now that the Taliban are back in charge Route 1 is no longer dangerous. Land grabs require money and the Tsunami of money that flooded into Afghanistan for the past 20 years has dried up. Land adjudication is done in Taliban courts according to Sharia law, a harsh code that tolerates zero arguments once a decision has been made. The people may not be happy under the Taliban but at least their main highways are safe, something we could never accomplished in a thousand years.

The FRI Guide to Dangerous Places – The Salang Pass

In May of 2012 my team of Afghan cut throats and I were dispatched to investigate persistent rumors concerning ISAF vehicle convoys transiting the Salang Pass. The complaint was that ISAF units would close the pass causing Afghans to wait up to 24 hours in the freezing cold before they could get through. The international community was up in arms about that and wanted a boots on the ground report which meant me, or my boss (call sign Bot) would have to go, and I was up. This would be my 10th and final trip through the Salang and I was not happy about going, the pass scared me.

The Salang Pass tunnel entrance in 2005

The dangers from being trapped inside the Salang Tunnel were obvious. The lights inside the tunnel didn’t work, nor did the closed-circuit TV cameras that were installed to warn of problems. The tunnel roof leaked massive amounts of water turning the pot-holed roadbed into a mixture of icy mud, broken concrete, and pieces of asphalt.  Ventilator fans in most of the tunnel were broken resulting in such high levels of carbon monoxide that the Afghan government was reportedly exploring ways to pump oxygen into the tunnel. 

History is always a good guide to potential problems and the history of the Salang Tunnel had some grim milestones. On the 3rd of November 1982 two Soviet military convoys collided inside the Salang tunnel causing a massive traffic jam. A fuel tanker in one of the convoys exploded inside the tunnel, unleashing a chain reaction of fiery explosions and death. The cause of the explosion remains in doubt, the Russians claim it was an accident, and the Mujahedeen claimed it resulted from a successful attack. Drivers of cars, trucks and buses evidently continued to enter the tunnel after the explosion. Soviet troops, fearing that the explosion might have been a rebel attack, then closed off both ends with tanks, trapping many inside. Some burned to death; others were killed by smoke or by carbon monoxide poisoning. Although records from the era are suspect up to 700 Soviet troops and 2,000 Afghan soldiers and civilians may have died in the 1983 tunnel fire.

The Salang Tunnel entrance in 2012

What we found in 2012 was ISAF had indeed started to use the Salang Pass for logistic convoys. We did not find any Afghan worker who remembered ISAF closing the tunnel to civilian traffic and suspected that reporting in local media was rumor mongering. We did determine that ISAF convoys routinely hit civilian traffic in the tunnel and did not stop or acknowledge the accidents. The tunnel was only 16 feet high (at the centerline) with a sloping, concave roof over a two lane roadbed and it was routine for overburdened trucks, MRAP’s, and fuel tankers to get pinned to the tunnel wall when trying to pass each other.

Typical minor traffic jam in the tunnel

It was also routine for tankers to tip over inside the tunnel due to the poor roadbed condition. When this happened a giant Soviet Era bulldozer was sent in to drag the truck out.

Dragging a fuel tanker full of fuel was an obvious fire hazard

During the trip we interviewed The Director of Maintenance and Protection of Salang Pass, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Rajab, who claimed that overloaded trucks were destroying the tunnel adding that less than 5% of those trucks were civilians – the rest belong to ISAF. Judging from the traffic we observed in the tunnel that statement was questionable, nobody overloads Jingo Trucks better than Afghans.

The Salang tunnel is one of the few places in Afghanistan where the American Army cannot force all traffic away from their convoys. The open air ventilation to the right is blocked by avalanche rubble for 10 months of the year.

Attempts to interview or even talk to any of the American soldiers transiting the pass were unsuccessful. As usual we found the soldiers to be agitated and aggressive, and completely freaked out when a fellow American in civilian attire walked up to chat with them. The refusal to interact with American citizens in Afghanistan was something new for me, when I was on active duty we did the exact opposite no matter where we were in the world.

This was the preferred method for traversing the tunnel – hauling ass on an empty road but by 2006 finding the tunnel empty like this was not going to happen.

The Salang Pass was a dangerous transit for well maintained vehicles which was a problem in a country famous for its inability to maintain vehicles. Mechanical failures were routine inside the tunnel which cause long delays stranding motorists in subzero temperatures for hours at a time. In response the Salang Pass Department of Maintenance and Protection of the Salang Pass Route constructed a purpose built shelter that provided assistance to 6,700 people during the 2011 -2012 winter. When Gen Rajab told me that it surprised me, Afghans can be incredibly altruistic at the individual level, especially with us foreigners, but at the government level we were conditioned to look for a catch and we detected none.

The Salang Pass Department of Maintenance and Protection of the Salang Pass Route (its official title) had taken the initiative to provide life saving aid for thousands of Afghans because it was the right thing to do. The few locals we talked with confirmed that graft in the pass was a thing of the past. That pithy explanation was met with laughter by the diplomats who funded the trip which was gratifying. It’s not easy to be pithy when working for foreigners.

I’ve done many reckless things in my life but eating Salang Pass crabs is not one of them.
I was partial to the fresh trout served al fresco and I got a discount by providing the frag grenade used to harvest the fish.

In 2019 the Russian film Battle for Afghanistan was released and is now available on Amazon Prime. The movie is reportedly based on true events surrounding the withdrawal of the Soviet Army through the one chokepoint they could not force – the Salang Pass. It’s a good film that captures the craziness of Afghanistan and well worth a watch. You can’t help but notice how Soviet troops frequented local bazaars and Afghan restaurants while off duty. That never happened with ISAF units who were restricted to their FOB’s (forward operating bases). Only a small percentage of the troops deployed to Afghanistan ever got outside the wire, for most perceptions of the land and its people were distorted through the prism of electronic warfare collection, boredom induced gossip, and questionable media reporting.

The force protection mentality of ISAF was made possible by their (American taxpayer funded) unlimited budgets which they used to completely isolate their troops from the local population. In a country famous for its melons every bit of fruit consumed by ISAF soldiers was flown in at enormous expense. Something the Soviets and every other nation on the earth would be unable and unwilling to do. The only reason the pass was being used in 2012 was the number of American units operating north of the Salang Pass after the Obama surge. That forced ISAF into running a lot of logistical convoys over the pass for a couple of years. I don’t think the logisticians in Kabul liked the pass any more than I did but I wonder what the soldiers who made those runs thought about the experience.

Old Soviet combat outpost on the plains north of the Salang Pass
In the early days of our Afghan adventure there were still many abandoned Soviet bases north of the Salang Pass. with all sorts of interesting Soviet army messaging directed at both their soldiers and the Afghan Army. These propoganda paintings were long gone by 2007.

In the early days of the Afghanistan conflict it was easy to see that the money pouring into the country was being used to start business’s like restaurants or to buy used vehicles to be used as taxi’s for another income stream. But Afghanistan is a wild place with wild rivers that often overflow their banks and when they destroy a new business there is no insurance money to collect thus the common refrain Inshallah (if God wills it).

This new restaurant was a great place to stop in 2005.
By 2007 the restaurant was destroyed by raging flood waters.
This gas station lasted about two years before the BTR’s became unstable and it started to wash away. Now the Afghans have HUMVEE’s, MRAP’s and M1 tanks to use as river weirs, maybe they’ll work better.

The biggest surprise I found in Afghanistan over the years was their high regard for Russians. If you could speak Russian you could talk with most Afghans in any part of the country. If you asked about the difference between the Soviet military and ISAF you got the same answer in every part of the country. The Soviets were brave and supported the local people but the ISAF soldiers are cowards who hide on their bases and never interact with local people when off duty. The Afghans never understood that and it infuriated me to hear it because I knew cowards among American infantry were astonishingly rare. I’m a retired grunt myself and know. our infantry well.

The number of American soldiers who could speak Dari or Pashto numbered less than 100 for most of the war. The number of American soldiers who spent enough time to learn the country, its people, and the limitations of its central government cannot be counted because there were none. Check that, there was one – Commander Baba D turned special contractor Baba D who worked directly for the ISAF commanders for several years in RC East .

And there he is Baba D photo bombing me during an interview with ABC news. Ms. Raddatz taped an hour or so of Baba Tim explaining in detail why we were losing the war and never aired a second of it.

It is impossible to gauge the consequences of our humiliating retreat from Kabul. The military/political leadership responsible for that fiasco remains in charge of our depleted military to this day. The only military leader held to account over the Kabul evacuation fiasco was a Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel who was thrown out for pointing out the disgraceful lack of accountability of our flag officers (generals and admirals) responsible for the mess.

The northern side of the Salang Pass and yes that herd of goats was heading up and over the pass but I’m not sure how because they weren’t allowed on the roadway inside the tunnel.

After spending 20 years floundering about in Afghanistan what is the senior leadership of the uniformed military concerned with now? Fixing the force? You wish . . . the real emergency our country faces is climate change according to the Army War College.

Watching a great power implode is unpleasant because there are bills that will come due. There is a price to pay for rampaging around the world sending “carefully calibrated messages” with killer drones just as there will be a leveling for the folly of introducing women into the combat arms. The military/government duopoly used brute digital force to try and alter reality in Afghanistan to construct a reasonable narrative. Here’s what that looked like:

It’s important to note that I supported our approach throughout most of my time in Afghanistan. I once battled the media contention that Marjha was a bleeding ulcer by driving to Marjah and blogging about it. I was not an impartial observer but a retired Marine and my friends were the running the show in the Helmand Province allowing me to embed with their units and write really cool blog posts.

In time the average Afghan correctly deduced that the Kabul government was installed and maintained at the point of infidel bayonets. And that was all most Afghans ever knew or needed to know. They hadn’t heard of 9/11, they had no idea why we showed up and spanked the Taliban in 2001. The Afghans supported us at first because we appeared to be the strong horse but any chance of maintaining that perception ended with the invasion of Iraq.

Get some Army! This is how you fix recruiting woes

What I learned in Afghanistan (besides don’t drive over the Salang Pass if you can avoid it) was our senior military and government leadership have lost sight of the stewardship function integral to their posts. That was reflected by their inability to define a coherent military mission or articulate a reasonable end state. They were incapable of vigorously defending the interests of the United States because those interests were never adequately defined. When unable to determine or accomplish what is important the unimportant becomes important. A lesson the smartest kids in the room never learned while supervising a war we could not lose . . . or win.

The Wolves of Helmand

As our two-decade involvement in Afghanistan winds down to an inevitable withdraw there are an increasing number of memories’ being published by participants. I have been looking forward to this as it is the first large conflict in which there was no draft. The military participants were all volunteers, actually all professional recruited (there is a huge difference), and I’ve been interested in seeing their perception of war compared to the men who fought in earlier times against a different enemy. What I experienced when I read Gus Biggio’s book The Wolves of Helmand was déjà vu.

Frank “Gus” Biggio competed for and won a commission in the United States Marine Corps gaining a coveted slot in the infantry back in the 1990’s when the Corps was fat with cash, and overseas deployments both enjoyable and interesting. Unless you pulled a unit rotation to Okinawa in which case you were screwed. Sitting on an island where you could not train while the yen/dollar exchange rate was around 70 (meaning the dollar was damn near worthless) was misery unless you got nominated to be on the Oki Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in which case you got aboard naval shipping and enjoyed yourself like the rest of the Corps.

I don’t know if Gus pulled a MEU float or a unit deployment rotation to Okinawa, but he enjoyed his tour as an infantry officer and after completing his five-year obligation he moved on, as most Marine officers do. Gus completed a law degree, got married to a physician, started a family and was safely ensconced in Washington DC when the military went to war. Gus held out for years before succumbing to a virus, planted in all Marine infantry, that makes life intolerable unless we see the elephant.

The six blind men touching an elephant parable is an ancient Indian fable that has come to demonstrate moral relativism and religious tolerance. That’s not the fable Gus and the rest of us are talking about; we don’t do moral relativism and assume religious tolerance to be a God given right. When we talk about touching the elephant, we are referring to a Civil War era euphemism for experiencing combat.

Gus was in DC, working a good job, and although he’s not a name dropper he mentions that after his morning runs  he would occasionally chat with his neighbor Michelle until she moved into the White House with her husband Barrack. So, Gus was doing well on the outside, but he had a problem on the inside. His best friends were in the fight, some of them coming home on, not with, their shields. He is a highly competent adult who has sublimated a serious competitive streak towards the development of an impressive law career and a stable, thriving family. But he doesn’t yet know what his nature demands that he know, information that he’ll only know if he gets to touch the elephant. His closest friends had touched the elephant repeatedly so his volunteering to go back in? He had no choice; I did the same thing for exactly the same reason.

Gus is exactly the kind of guy you want as your lawyer if, for no other reason, than he talked his wife into letting him deploy. Obviously, he married a perceptive woman who probably understood he had to go, but she’s a physician and they’re normally rule followers, so this was by any measure an impressive feat. He then signs on with the 1st Battalion 5th Marines (1/5) and heads to God’s country (Camp Pendelton, California) to start training.

From there he deploys, with his small team, directly into the Nawa district administrative center weeks ahead of the Marine offensive that will secure that portion of the Helmand province. No air conditioning, no working toilets, no hot chow, no roof or windows, and no ability to patrol 100 meters beyond the roofless district center because the Taliban had laid siege to small British garrison who arrived the year prior. Surrounded by Taliban, with the nearest help fifty miles distant, living in the dirt, patrolling constantly, fighting often – the entire time exposed to the elements 24/7; does that sound like fun to you? Of course not, and Gus tries to convince the reader that it wasn’t that much fun for him either. But you can tell by how hard he tries to make his experience seem like no big deal, that it was a big deal through which he earned an intangible that only those who touch the elephant can understand.

The Nawa district administration center in 2009

Gus is a throwback in a sense in that he is a citizen soldier, not a professional Marine. As such he joins the pantheon of Americans who wore the uniform to defend the country, not as a profession. Like all Marine reservists he was exceptionally well trained and had years of small unit leadership to develop his military skills. Yet still he left his young family, an obviously lucrative career in the most powerful city in the world to get dropped into a primitive hell hole. Does that sound like normal guy behavior to you? Me either but Gus is lawyer and musters his arguments well about the reasons behind volunteering to be dropped into the middle of Indian country.

When the rest of 1/5 arrived in Nawa they did so in a pre-dawn combat assault that overwhelmed the Taliban and drove them from the district in a matter of days. That never stopped the little T Taliban (local teens and young adults with little to do) from trying their luck with random small arms fire attacks or improvised explosive devices (IED’s) but the days of the Taliban traveling openly or intimidating the locals passed, for the most part, in most of the Helmand province.

During the year Gus spent in the Helmand province the Marine Corps actually did by the book COIN operations using a completely unsustainable deployment cycle that, while it was being sustained, was the most impressive damn thing you have ever seen. In 2010 when I moved into Lashkar Gah as the regional manager for a USIAD sponsored Civil Development Program, I drove the roads from Lash to Nawa, to Khanashin and to Marjha wearing local clothes in a local beater with a modest security detail and had no issues. The people seemed happy, business was thriving, the poppy harvests returning serious cash into the local economy.

Jagran (Major in Dari) Gus and his six Marine (and 1 corpsman) Civil Affairs Team were combat enablers for the 1st Battalion 5th Marines counterinsurgency battle. The weapon they employed was cash money, they were the carrot that offered to help the Afghan people. The Marines in the line companies were the stick and they were everywhere, deployed in little squad size patrol bases in every corner of the district. Gus and his team did as much patrolling as the grunts which  they needed to do in order to deploy the money weapon. There are few times and few places in Marine Corps history where a major gets to be a gunfighter but that is what the civil affairs team in the Helmand had to do. He was a lucky man to get such a hard corps gig, he could have been deployed to a firm base support role and never left the wire, a fate worse than death for an infantryman.

Jagran Gus tells some great stories about everyday life in rural Afghanistan. I spent much time there myself and appreciate his depiction of normal Afghans going about their business. Sometimes that business involves shooting at Marines for cash and there is an interesting story about catching some teenagers in the act and letting them go to the custody of their elders after the district governor chewed them out.

Marines medevacing a local Afghan in Nawa district Afghanistan

It’s the little things that are telling; the Marines loved to be the stick, few things are more gratifying than a stiff firefight where you suffer no loses and that is how the vast majority of firefights in Afghanistan went. The Marines were also perfectly cool with safe’ing their weapons, yoking up the dudes that were just shooting at them, treating their wounds and releasing them to the district governor. It didn’t matter to them how a fight ends as long as they end it. This type of humane treatment of wounded enemies is expected of American servicemen, it isn’t even worthy of comment in the book. I’m not saying we are the only military that does this, but a vast majority of militaries don’t, and most people are amazed when we do.

My experience with Afghans in the Helmand, like that of Jargan Gus was mostly positive. That part of the world is so primitive that it’s like a time machine where resilient people carve out an existence with primitive farming methods and zero infrastructure. The Afghans are from old school Caucasian stock which is why the Germans spent so much time and money there in the 1930’s after Hitler came to power. They’re white people who do not have any concept of fragility and who cultivate a fierce pride in their Pashtun tribal roots. Living and working with them was an experience that is hard to capture but Jargan Gus has done that well.

Gus goes on to discuss the futility of his efforts, Nawa fell to the Taliban shortly after the Marines left in 2014. But there is no bitterness when he covers that as there is none concerning the always turbulent re-entry into normalcy when he returned home for good. Touching the elephant always changes a man, but Jargan Gus is a bright guy who explains the unease he felt as he tried to ease back into normal life in a reasonable manner. He is a perceptive writer and his book will (I bet) be useful to future historians writing about the Afghan war. It is a great story about normal Americans thrust into exceptional circumstances and thriving. We need more stories like that.

The John Paul Vann of Afghanistan Speaks

In the book The Operators by Michael Hastings there is a quote from Command Sergeant Major Michael Hall comparing General Stan McChrystal to John Paul Vann. John Paul Vann was a former army officer who went to Vietnam as a soldier and stayed on working as a Provincial aid advisor. He was famous for his ability to drive around and live in contested districts (alone) and was a tireless advocate for the Vietnamese people. He was also a compulsive womanizer, an alcoholic, and  a shameless self promoter. Remove those negative traits, replace them with a typical all-American Midwest kid raised in a stable two parent household where he developed a strong sense of commitment, a bias for action combined with the ability to thrive while taking calculated risks, and you have Chris Corsten. He was the John Paul Vann of Afghanistan

Our two-decade long involvement in Afghanistan has been a fiasco. Every aspect of our performance had major issues, none more so than the herculean efforts at re-building and rehabilitating the war-torn infrastructure. Yet buried deep inside the legacy of failure are stories of remarkable success. Carter Malkasain described one example of competent development leading directly to local prosperity (briefly) in the book The War Comes to Garmser.

Another example has just been published by my friend Chris Corsten detailing his decade in Afghanistan working both as a soldier and heavily armed humanitarian. The book is 3000 Days in Afghanistan, but I need to reveal something that you will not glean from Chris’s writing. In the world of outside the wire contractors, men (and a few women) who worked in contested districts infested with Taliban, who lived in local compounds, drove local cars, rarely spoke English outside their compound, wore local clothes and lived off the local economy to deliver massive aid projects on time and on budget, Chris Corsten was the best there ever was.

Chris stayed the longest, he had the most impact, he did, by orders of magnitude, the most projects and he was a shura ninja when it came to working through problems with tribal elders. Chris Corsten is a legend – to those of us who knew what accomplished and also to thousands of Afghans who became self-sufficient as hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland became productive again thanks to his irrigation programs.

The book is a clear reflection of Chris and if you know him the two personality traits that stand are conscientious and integrity. Those two traits were combined with an attitude that was the common denominator among all of us working outside the wire; zero tolerance for wasted efforts, make work stupidity, and excuses. Add to this mix the fact that Chris is a modest man who is not prone to exaggeration, routinely attributed all success to his subordinates, and loathes the idea of self-promotion and you have a writer who is going to lay out the facts. Which he does in a manner that is almost business like.

As you get towards the end of this remarkable story Chris lists the spectacular amount of work accomplished during the 2010-2011 surge, and if you know what was going on then in Afghanistan, it is easy to get confused. It seems impossible that Expats (mostly American, British, South African and Australian) were living and working in local Afghan communities while supervising massive irrigation projects in districts where the military was sustaining casualties on a regular basis.

If you don’t know much about Afghanistan, you can read through what Chris accomplished and miss what he accomplished. If you don’t know what was happening in provinces like Khost, Kandahar, Paktia, Kunar, Helmand, Farah, Nangarhar, Herat etc… in 2010 it is hard to appreciate the feat of finishing every project you started with supervision by expats who were out and about in Taliban contested areas daily.

What Chris and his crew proved was aid in contested areas can be delivered effectively, but it has to be done by guys who know what they are doing and have skin in the game. And, at least in Afghanistan, they needed to be armed.

Let me explain the weapons. Our model was if you can’t be safe be hard to kill. The threat to outside the wire contractors took many forms. The biggest was getting kidnapped, the other major problem was we had to store, transport, and distribute large amounts of cash. You are not safe when you are living in a local Afghan compound that contains a safe with over a million dollars in cash. You are not safe when you go to the local branch of the Kabul Bank and withdraw $700,000 for your monthly project payroll. You have to know what you are doing to convert $700,000 in Benjamins into small denomination Afghani’s.

Not all of us carried firearms either – Jeff “Raybo” Radan, a former Marine infantry officer and Ranger School graduate (thus the Raybo call sign), worked a year in the Helmand and never carried a weapon. He did projects in contested towns like Now Zad but being a former Marine he knew how to get a ride on Marine air and thus was able to travel safely. But most of us were armed, and all of us had weapons, including belt fed machine guns (in some provinces), inside our living compounds. Our arming authority came from the Provincial governors and if we ever used our weapons, we were accountable to them as well as the US Embassy.

Chris explains why former, experienced, military men, who have already acquired knowledge of local atmospherics and a solid understanding of local culture, are the best option for staffing aid programs in conflict zones. All the men mentioned in Chris’s book (he uses assumed names) were prior military and all of us had years on the ground before we were able to transition into what I term “Free Range” contracting.

3000 Days in Afghanistan should be required reading at both US AID and the Department of State as they sift through 20 years of lessons learned in Afghanistan. This week a senior USAID executive, who had extensive Afghanistan time, released a paper titled USAID Afghanistan: What Have We Learned. He concludes his assessment with four lessons;

  1. do not try to do everything
  2. stick to proven development principals
  3. flexibility and adaptability are key, and
  4. expect and plan for high levels of oversight.

All four of these lessons are addressed in detail by Chris as he explains how he avoided graft, corruption, security services shake downs, how he dealt (effectively) with theft, and delivered aid that was meaningful while injecting cash directly into local economies. The added benefit of taking Taliban off the battlefield by exchanging a couple months of hard labor for a decent amount of pay was something we discovered early in the program but had not anticipated.

Chris throws no stones as he explains what we were doing and why we felt we should do more. He describes his disappointment at not getting traction with USAID and the State Department and then moves on. The program he was running got plenty of attention in the press at the time. There were NPR radio interviews, 60 minutes segments, multiple magazine articles including this classic account in the Toronto Star about our team in Kandahar. The FRI blog was booming back then as I documented our massive infrastructure projects in Nimroz province. In the end none of that mattered, it turns out being successful where everyone else is failing can be problematic.

As William Hammink admits in his review of USAID in Afghanistan, we threw too much money into a country that could not absorb it. What is now obvious is that Chris Cortsen showed USAID exactly how to do Afghanistan aid. Spend a few years and a few million dollars to get all the irrigation systems back up and running, build a few schools, pave a few roads, bring in engineers with some commercial demo to blast rock and build runways in remote mountain-top towns, and you have done about all that should be done to get the country heading towards self-sufficiency.  Then you can leave.

3000 Days in Afghanistan is an easy read about a remarkable guy who sticks to the facts to make a case on how sustainable development in conflict zones should be done. Buried behind the facts and the business-like narrative are the stories that someday will emerge from this program as historians start to comb through the records in the search of what really happened in Afghanistan. They will find plenty about Chris, hopefully telling  his story in rich detail. There is a lot there and although Chris may not be seeking recognition for what he accomplished he certainly has earned it.

Assessing Trust in The Afghan Peace Deal

Editor’s Note: Chim Chim is back with a post on FRI. It has been over a decade since we last heard from him  He is a friend of mine with years of experience in Afghanistan at the higher levels of the U.S. Intelligence community. It is fitting that he once again reaches out to Free Range International to weigh in with some thoughts on the Afghanistan peace deal.

 

Trust. It’s a mysterious term and rarely understood. Per its definition, key attributes exist such as reliability, truth, ability, and strength. Contrary to popular belief, trust is not earned but rather obtained through a leap of faith. It is natural and can easily be broken. When it comes to the Afghan Peace Deal, trust is non-existent amongst the three players involved—The US Government, the Afghan Government, and the Taliban.

But should one look closely at the situation from an historical perspective, how can trust exist? More importantly, who can be trusted most? Better yet, who SHOULD be trusted most?

During the Russian-Afghan War, the United States was heavily involved in supporting multiple Afghan militias fighting against our greatest adversary. We gave and gave and gave but then, once the Russians were defeated, we put on the brakes. It was arguably one of the most devastating moments in US National Security that would inevitably come back and bite us hard.

We made countless promises to the Afghans and never came through with any of those promises which led to a major civil war between dozens of local tribes and militias. This civil war allowed the Taliban to blossom into a major organization which ruled Afghanistan for many years.

Immediately following 9-11, the United States went into a reactionary mode and was quick to invade Afghanistan on the logic that the Taliban were harboring Al Qaeda. Few realize during this time several nation states were providing safe haven to Al Qaeda during this time as Al Qaeda cells were spread across the globe. Another point of contention is the fact that the Taliban were in talks with Al Qaeda in an attempt to push them out of country instead forcing them into safe-haven in western Pakistan.

Our decision was made and teams of special operators infiltrated Afghanistan initiating America’s longest war. We did this with virtually zero ground truth, meaning, we had no sources or assets for intelligence on the ground prior to our invasion. Many whom we initially engaged in combat operations were nothing more than localized militias whom had little if anything to do with the Taliban (Central) meaning we were fighting tribesmen who would later turn to the Taliban due to our own actions.

Immediately following 9-11, Russia became an American strategic partner. We actually relied on Russia’s past to procure our initial network on the ground in Afghanistan.  The one country Afghans despise most, we became strategic partners with.

As time unfolded and upon immediate successes in achieving two goals set forth from US SOF elements (eliminate Al Qaeda’s safe-haven and rid Taliban of government control), a new force was inserted shortly after—the US Conventional military and State Department.

During this time, the United States threw billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It was during this period which continues even today, the United States implementation of a “quantifiable” approach to warfighting which completely overshadows anything qualitative.

America spent billions on programs that had virtually zero oversight. One example is based on school text books in which the United States and our coalition threw an estimated $30 million into the contract however it is estimated less than $1 million worth of product ever entered the country. HeraldExtra.com shows just a portion of the issue in their article titled, Textbooks not arriving in Afghan school.

The vast majority of funds displaced were not displaced. They were handed to local warlords, provincial governors, tribal leaders, etc. But if people want to see who the vast majority of individuals pocketed these funds, just walk down “Millionaire Row” in Kabul where you will find Afghan mansions vacant—vacant because those whom had such homes built have now fled the nation in fear of a Taliban takeover.

Prior to leaving, these local Afghans milked every last penny they could from the United States. It was the easiest way for anyone to get rich fast and rich as in millionaire rich. Simply put, the Afghan power-players created a racket and the United States didn’t care. More interesting is why we did not care.

We did not care about the misappropriations of funds because of the quantifiable war which we created. Those who held the money needed to get rid of it. And they did. And in doing so, they wrote their own tickets of success be it military personnel boasting numbers on OPER’s/EPR’s or State Department, NGO’s, etc fluffing resumes for permanent hire needs upon completion of their time in country.

What the United States did in Afghanistan does not demonstrate reliability, truth, ability, and strength hence, our inept methods in Afghanistan demonstrate how untrustworthy we are in our Afghan mission.

As bad as we were, the locals and politicians also demonstrated a lack of trust.

Afghan leaders saw how much money was going into Afghanistan. They witnessed their pockets flood with cash. They were empowered on a level most Americans should be jealous of. And as crazy as this sounds, many of these Afghans were closely aligned with Russia and Iran.

The Afghan Government was and continues to be incredibly corrupt.

In 2008, an Afghan warlord once said, “You expect us to believe in your own Rule of Law? You want us to trust the newly established Afghan Government’s Rule of Law which you, the Americans implemented? Do you not see how corrupt your own nation is? Look at the case of OJ Simpson.”

Think about this sentiment for a moment. Reflect on what this warlord was saying. You do not need to agree with what was said but think of the perception held. Perception is reality.

Another warlord once explained why the United States tactical intelligence was flawed. He explained that we would hand out cash to “walk-ins” for information about potential Taliban. We would take that information and execute a mission to kill or capture that individual. But what we seldom knew was the “walk-in” was merely in a tribal dispute with the target. And oftentimes, the “walk-in” was actually the one more aligned with the Taliban than the target itself.

The Afghans manipulated the United States every waking chance they could. And, they succeeded in doing what they wished on individual levels as well as within different political parties. Simply put, the Afghan politicians as well as local leaders demonstrated virtually zero reliability or truth which showcases why they were and remain untrustworthy.

The United States knew the Taliban were our enemy in Afghanistan. The Taliban ensured we were never to forget this. Through video’s published online, a plethora of kidnappings, to constantly attacking our assets, the Taliban and the array of Anti-Afghan Forces never led up.

If early warnings existed pertaining a potential attack, the Taliban came through with it. If the Taliban claimed they would allow for a temporary ceasefire, that ceasefire pretty much always happened. If a break of the ceasefire was sent through the air waves, expect the attack. They TOLD us pretty much every single move they were going to make. Their information was reliable, it was constantly set in truth, and they demonstrated over and over again their ability to do what they said. And, their strength came from not just their numbers but rather the constant support they obtained through the Pakistani ISI, Iranian assets, and the Kremlin itself.

If you watch the evening news and see a report on a serial murderer then take a walk in the woods and come across that serial murderer, do you trust the serial murderer’s potential? You would be a fool not to. The point is, trust in an entity you do not like does not mean trust should not exist. Bad people and bad organizations should be trusted to do bad things.

What is difficult to swallow is when we possess trust in something we cherish and realize that which we cherish most should be the least trusted. In the case of the Afghan Peace Deal, maybe, just maybe, it is not the Taliban who should NOT be trusted. Rather, maybe we should be skeptical over the amount of trust we place in the Afghan Government and that of our own.

Peace in Afghanistan Inshallah

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Qatar’s capital city, Doha today for the signing of a peace deal with the Taliban. In a rare demonstration of presenting both sides of a contentious deal the Washington Post opinion section featured dueling pieces that capture this unique moment in time. The peace deal is a clear win for both the Trump administration and the Afghan people. As usual the devil is in the details but it appears we are on the way out of Afghanistan.

Barnett Rubin who is a senior fellow and associate director of the Center on International Cooperation of New York University and non-resident senior fellow at the Quincy Institute, outlines the agreement in his WaPo OpEd.

The agreement provides a timetable for troop withdrawal, counterterrorism guarantees, a path to a cease-fire and a process for political settlement. Implementation would also require dismantling Taliban infrastructure in neighboring Pakistan and assurances by external powers that none will use Afghanistan against others.

Mr. Rubin has considerable time on the ground in the region and his take on the peace deal (which is it is a good deal)  is identical to mine.

Max Boot, who is a Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, took the opposite view. In his WaPo OpEd he outlines three different scenarios for the near future in Afghanistan. He then goes onto to predict the worst case scenario (the Taliban rolling into Kabul and taking over the country) as the most likely. I can tell you unequivocally that is the least likely scenario.

Many of our foreign policy experts and more than a few of my friends caution that the Taliban is not a cohesive monolithic organization, and that negotiators are only speaking for the Quetta, Peshawar, and Miranshaw Shura’s. This is a fact that is true, but means nothing now. The Taliban were able to enforce the peace during last years Eid celebration across the country and I believe they can do so again. Regardless of what I and my friends believe the only thing that counts is how the Afghans feel about the deal.

Taliban fighters taking selfies with Afghan army troops during the Eid ceasefire last year.

The Senior Vice President-elect of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, published his opinion on the Time website. I Fought the Taliban. Now I’m Ready to Meet Them at the Ballot Box is the title of his piece and that’s a strong endorsement of the process. Amrullah Saleh is the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), a former Interior Minister and he survived a serious assault on his election headquarters last July. That assault started with a car bomb and was continued by suicide vest equipped assault teams. Amrullah Saleh survived by jumping off the roof of his four story headquarters onto the roof of a neighboring building.

It is reasonable to assume Mr. Saleh had engaged in a running gun battle before escaping to safety, he is that kind of guy.

In another fascinating development the Military Times published an article today with the headline ISIS taking a beating in Afghanistan setting  the stage for a potential a U.S. troop withdrawal.  Buried deep in the article is this:

The recent campaign in Nangarhar is one example. Effective operations by US/Coalition & Afghan security forces, as well as the Taliban, led to ISIS-K losing territory & fighters. Hundreds surrendered. ISIS-K hasn’t been eliminated but this is real progress,” Khalilzad tweeted Tuesday

Remember a few posts back I highlighted this article in the Washington Post about the defeat of ISIS because it failed to mention the Taliban’s direct role? It seem like the first draft of history is up for grabs regarding the defeat of ISIS-K in Eastern Afghanistan.  There is little to gain but much to lose in suppression of the truth. I doubt an experienced reporter would have not known about the Taliban’s role in fighting ISIS-K so it is hard to figure out why the WaPo would print such obviously fake news.

Regardless, ISIS is now gone in Eastern Afghanistan and the remaining pockets in the north now the problem of the Taliban. Who seem to be very efficient at rooting them out.

What I cannot determine is how many troops will stay and what those troops will be doing. If the plan is to leave the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) in place to hunt down ISIS and al Qaida that is not going to work. ISIS doesn’t need to be serviced by us any longer and separating al Qaida trainers from Taliban students is impossible.

If Amrullah Saleh is willing to give the Taliban a chance, and they reach an agreement, men like Sirajuddin Haqqani, who have been at the top of the JPEL for years, will be allowed to go in peace. The JPEL is the Joint Prioritized Effects List which is essentially a lethal version of the FBI’s most wanted. Allowing the men on that list to walk free, get passports and travel  is going to be a bitter blow to the people who have been hunting them. But that may be the price of peace.

I have to add that CJSOTF-A is not going to be able to operate behind the back of the Senior VP. Mr. Saleh has decades of experience working with the CIA and CJSTOF and he will have a say on what the Americans can and cannot do if they leave CJSTOF-A in Afghanistan.

This deal with the Taliban is how it ends. It is the only way it can end. The only question in Afghanistan was when, not if, we were leaving. The Taliban cannot beat the Kabul government in battle. The Kabul government cannot beat the Taliban in battle. The continued presence of American SF teams, tactical aircraft and trainers brought the Taliban to the negotiating table which is the best they could do.  It is up to the Afghans to decide what happens next. It is also time for us to leave.

Brookings Institute Fires a Broadside at Haqqani and Misses

General John Allen, USMC (ret) who is the president of the Brookings Institute, lashed out at the New York Times for publishing an  Op-Ed  Sirajuddin Haqqani. His article, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Terrorist was an unfortunate response that reinforces a growing narrative regarding incompetence in the elite, ruling class.

The most glaring mistake in General Allen’s  attack on the New York Times was repeating the thoroughly debunked “very fine people on both sides” hoax. That hoax was spread by the legacy media despite the fact that President Trump was talking about people protesting the removal of Confederate battle monuments.  He specifically condemned the white supremest’s if you listen to the whole quote.  General Allen is the direct descendant  of a Confederate Cavalry officer (I forget his name but remember he fought at Culpepper), for which is he justifiably proud and I suspect he , too was not happy about the removal of confederate battle monuments.  I know General Allen, he was my boss at the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course, I respect and admire him greatly so it is disturbing  to see him trafficking in hoaxes.

Worse was his endorsement of Forever War by implying we should renege on our Peace Agreement with the Taliban. This is his discussion of the Haqqani group:

This organization was and continues to be a central component of the Taliban, a major connecting file into al-Qaida, and a darling of Pakistan’s ISI. The Haqqanis, the Taliban, and al-Qaida endorse a radical interpretation of sharia that deprives women of any meaningful rights, to include the right to an education, and the freedom to pursue their own wants and interests, such as, for example, the legal profession. Countless lives were lost – and many, many more were wounded and otherwise terrorized – at the hands of this group and its peer terrorist entities, and had they not been formally designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, we would have had little means to diminish their influence and stop their violent activities. And at the very center of this violence was Sirajuddin Haqqani, operational commander of the Haqqani network as well as the #2 of the Taliban.

All of that is true and every bit of it irrelevant if we intend to sign a peace deal with the Taliban. It is none of our business if the Afghans decide to reconcile withTaliban leaders including Sirajuddin Haqqani. Haqqani is a bad man, so is Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, who reconciled years ago, and ran in the recent Presidential election. The notorious warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been a member of the Kabul government when he wasn’t in exile dodging human rights tribunals, is a bad man. He was nominally on our side, so he’s a good, bad man, but to the Afghans he’s little better than Haqqani.

What the Afghans do to reconcile the rift in their civil society is their business. If they want to reconcile with and guarantee the freedom of warlords like Haqqani it is their right to do so. There are reasons to doubt Taliban commitment to a more inclusive civil process, but again, it is no longer our concern.

It is important to acknowledge the reality on the ground and that reality is the Taliban cannot win militarily and the same holds true for the Central Government. Given that context I believe it is time to let the Afghans work this out for themselves.

Taliban Stakeout the Moral High Ground Announcing a Peace Deal with the United States

Sirajuddin Haqqani  wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times yesterday where he explained the Taliban’s expectations and goals in signing a Peace Agreement with the United States. The piece was professionally written and I do not believe Sirajudin can write so well in English so I doubt he wrote himself. Regardless, the Taliban statement clearly stakes out the moral high ground with sentences like:

“I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”

Sirajudin Haqqani represents the Miranshah Shura and the fact that he’s doing the writing indicates that the various factions in the Taliban are presenting a unified front. Haqqani is also directly responsible for scores of car bombings in Kabul and a laundry list of other attacks that targeted innocent Afghans. There is more than a little hypocracy in his statement but who cares? This communique was addressing the Afghan people and if they want to allow men like Haqqani to reconcile with the government it is their business, not ours.

While the MSM component of the national media waited to see what President Trump would say so they could take the opposite position, the conservative press pounced on this sentence to dismiss the entire missive.

“We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves.”

Becket Adams, writing in the Washington Examiner called the claim of self defense “a damnable lie”. Mr. Adams went on to state that “The Taliban 100% chose this conflict with the U.S.” That was true in 2001 but that is not what Haqqani is talking about and from the Taliban perspective we did indeed force them to fight us.

In 2002 the majority of Taliban had surrendered and returned to their villages. There was one group of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters holed up in the mountains of Shah-i Kot which we attacked, willy nilly, with no intelligence or fire support preparation of the battlefield, and no idea how many adversaries we faced. The remainders were turning in their weapons and going home which is exactly what Karzai, when he accepted the surrender of the Taliban government, asked them to do.

What do you do when you are part of a Special Operations Task Force with no enemies to identify or target? What we did was target the enemies of the warlords who cooperated with us and in the south of the country the Warlords we supported would be Karzai and his bitter rival Haji Gul Agha Sherzad. The village of Khas Uruzgan provides a perfect example of how we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by relying on those two men.

When the Taliban were routed in an epic battle pitting a Special Forces A-team headed up by Maj. Jason Amerine and dozens fast movers (jets) vs. a couple thousand  Taliban just outside the provincial capitol of Tirin Kot the local Afghans held jirga’s and agreed to candidates for the positions of district mayor, district chief of police, etc… Unfortunately, the acting president (Karzai) sent one of his friends named Jan Muhammad, to be the provincial governor and Jan Mohammad intended to put his fellow tribesmen (Popalzai) into every paying billet in his province.

In towns like Khas Uruzgan the men selected by the people to govern them moved into the district center and started accepting weapons from surrendering Taliban. Jan Mohammad, who had just been released from the Taliban prison by Karzai himself, moved into the provincial governors compound and promptly appointed his tribesmen  to every district governor and police chief billet in the province.

In Khas Uruzgan the man elected by the jirga occupied the district governors compound. Next door was a schoolhouse where Jan Mohammad’s men (representing the Kabul government)  set up shop.  Both groups were busy dis-arming Taliban and there were a ton of weapons in both buildings.

In late 2002 the U.S. Army conducted a raid on both buildings (which they thought held Taliban), killing several men in the process and yoking up several more for interrogations at the Bagram airbase. Anand Gopal, in his excellent book No Good Men Among the Living describes the results of this raid:

Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies. People in Khas Uruzgan felt what Americans might if, in a single night, masked gunmen had wiped out the entire city council, mayor’s office, and police department of a small suburban town: shock, grief, and rage.

It would be years before the United States admitted they had raided the wrong place. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (the current senior Taliban negotiator) had gone to ground near Khas Uruzgan and our Special Forces decimated not one, but two wedding parties (with AC-130 gunships) in an attempt to catch him. Dozens of children and women were killed in these raids and this is important to acknowledge – to the Afghan people there were two wars, one that drove the Taliban from power quickly and a second one that started when we stayed on in the country to “capture senior Taliban and al-Qaida”.  The responsibility of this second war rest solely on the National Command Authority of the United States who failed to define Phase four (what happens when we win).

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second from left, with members of a Taliban delegation in Russia in 2019.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

If you want to read an infuriating account of our own incompetence making us enemies among people who wanted to be allies during that second round of war, read Chapter 5 of No Good Men Among the Living. It is a detailed description of how we were tricked into detaining and/or killing the entire anti-Taliban leadership of Band-i-Timor in the Maiwand district of Khandahar. You cannot make some of this stuff up.

The opinion peace by Sirajudin Haqqani was a masterstroke of Information Warfare and will be hard to refute by the United States. The Taliban leadership, unlike the American leadership, has skin in the game. There is no reason to doubt their commitment to participate in establishing an Afghanistan free of foreign troops and moving towards a consensus on who is governing what. It is now time for the United States to move out of the way and allow the Afghans to determine what their country will become.

In 2002 the Taliban were defeated and al-Qaida already gone to Pakistan. All the fighting since then has not changed a thing on the ground.  It is time to pull out, reduce funding to Afghanistan and let them sort out the situation among themselves.

 

 

Light at the End of the Tunnel in Afghanistan

Last week news broke of a possible peace deal in Afghanistan leading to a firestorm of speculation in the media about what’s really going on. The reporting was not consistent but the consensus is the peace deal would call for negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict to start next month, an eventual countrywide cease-fire and a commitment from the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups like al Qaida, while setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A famous quote incorrectly attributed to Winston Churchill dictates “Jaw Jaw is better than War War” (actually he said “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war” which makes more sense ) reinforces this is (potentially)  good news. The devil is in the details and we do not know what “reduction of violence”means to the United States  or “withdrawal of U.S. troops” means to the Taliban.

TheTaliban are not a monolithic organization but several competing factions. We have been dealing with the Quetta Shura who is representing, but cannot speak for, the other players like the Miranshah Shura (primarily the Haqqani Network) or the Peshawar Shura. That being said the Taliban did deliver on an Eid ceasefire agreement last year and that ceasefire held.

Taliban fighters taking selfies with Afghan army troops during Eid ceasefire last year.

We can get a reliable read on what the Taliban considers a reduction of violence in this detailed report from the always reliable Afghan Analysts Network. From the linked report:

Another Pakistani newspaper, quoting an un-named Taleban official, reported that the movement had agreed not to carry out attacks in major cities including Kabul and would not use car bombs and that the Taleban had also offered not to attack US bases and US soldiers, and that they wanted the US to cease air strikes in return. The newspaper said it had learnt “that Khalilzad had urged” the Taleban to agree to more measures, including a halt to IED attacks, but that they did not agree “as they have planted IEDs in many areas and it is difficult for them to remove all [of them].” Furthermore, the paper reported, the US also wanted a pause in Taleban attacks on Afghan government forces’ check posts, “which was also a concern of the Afghan government.”

Senior U.S. military officials (speaking off the recored)  in Afghanistan stressed that U.S. counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida will continue, separate from the truce agreement. This is problematic for several reasons, not the least of which is that ISIS-K in Nangarhar Province has been defeated.

Their fighters have mostly surrendered to the government or gone to ground. There are ISIS-K cells in the north of the country but they are not large or powerful and are in the sights of the same fighters who rid Nangarhar Province of ISIS and those fighters are Taliban.

The counterterrorism mission in the eastern part of Afghanistan has been focused on ISIS-K (Daesh to the locals) for years. Now that ISIS-K is gone the Special Forces teams are flying around the province conducting ‘Key Leadership  Engagements’ like the one I wrote about last week. That occurred in the Sherzad district which is very close to Jalalabad and full of former HiG fighters who have cooperated with the Taliban  on and off over the years. They cooperate mostly because Taliban shadow courts settle land disputes quickly and, they feel, fairly.

The land deed office for Nangarhar Province – some of these documents are hundreds of years old

The time for our SF troops and the Afghans varsity Commandos to be running around district centers meeting with key elders seems long past. The local elders know all about the dysfunctional government in Kabul and are not going to be convinced it has their interests at heart until the government  demonstrates it.

With ISIS-K on the ropes trying to separate Taliban connected fighters from al Qaida will be problematic. The remaining senior al Qaida leaders have successfully gone to ground inside the tribal areas of Pakistan and have no need to move anywhere. al Qaida has a presence at Taliban training camps and may even run a few but I have no doubt the Taliban understand the consequences of allowing them to use their territory  for international Jihad.

If there no independent al-Qaida formations so if you go after them you are still going after the Taliban.

The incident rate in Afghanistan has plummeted this year. Some of this is due to the pounding the Taliban have taken from American air attacks which increased dramatically in 2019. Some of this can also be attributed to the Taliban winding down operations as the peace talks continued. The stats below come from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

This is from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) – note the sudden steep drop in incident rates as we move into 2020

Time will tell but it seems that the end to American involvement in Afghanistan is near. But if you pull all the training support mission out and leave a Special Forces task force to continue hunting “al-Qaida and ISIS” it will test, if not break, the fragile peace. We need to pull everyone out and let the Afghans settle things themselves. Continuing night raids and killing bad guys in Afghanistan does not reduce any threats to our homeland. It’s time to admit that and act accordingly.

American Green Berets Gunned Down during a KLE Meeting in Sherzad District; What’s Going On There?

I just re-posted two stories about doing Key Leadership Engagement (KLE) in the Sherzad district of Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan. Yesterday, two Green Berets were killed and six wounded while (reportedly) conducting a key KLE in Sherzad district. This is disturbing on several levels.

First, it appears the dead and wounded (including the Afghan SF troops with the Americans) came at the hands of Afghan National Army soldiers. From the article linked above:

Additionally, at least six more American troops were also wounded. The high number of casualties (17 as of this reporting) is attributed to the ODA/Afghan combined force coming under fire from a DShK, a Russian designed heavy machine gun which fires a 12.7mm bullet. The wounded have been evacuated to the appropriate field hospitals.

The source explained to Connecting Vets that it is suspected that the Afghan National Army (ANA) was behind the attack, although details are still developing.

From what I can determine they were attacked by a lone gunman with a heavy machine-gun. It is safe to assume (if this proves true) that the lone gunman was Taliban. They got an assassin into the governor of Kandahar’s security force who was able to gun the irreplaceable Gen Raziq. As I wrote the time and will continue to write this is going to happen again. It is obvious that the screening methods in use are not working and, given my experiences in Afghanistan, I suspect will never work.

Second, one is forced to ask why, at this late stage in the game, are we still conducting KLE’s out in the badlands? What did the SF guys believe would be accomplished? I can’t imagine a good answer to that question and I have over eight years of doing KLE’s in Afghanistan and many of them right there in Sherzad district.

It is difficult to get a sense of what is really happening on the ground in Afghanistan in general and Nangarhar province specifically. Nangarhar Province has gone from one of the more safe-ish provinces in the country to the most deadly one for American forces. The army had been losing soldiers over the past four plus years in Nangarhar Province fighting an outbreak of ISIS along the border with Pakistan.

The Taliban got sick and tired of ISIS deprivations before and rolled into Nangarhar and kicked their asses hard in 2015. Last fall the multiple Taliban units returned to Nangarhar (probably from Loya Paktia via the parrots beak which is that finger of Pakistan land jutting into Afghanistan at the bottom of the district map below) and beat ISIS like a drum. ISIS was surrendering to the Afghan government last time I checked and are longer a threat.

This is the Nangahar province of Afghanistan. Sherzad district is in the east of the Province and the ISIS threat was centered in Achin district well to the west. Back in the day Sherzad was HIG land (not Taliban) but Heckmyter Chu-Hoi’d to the government side a few years back and it is now a Taliban stronghold.

Despite ISIS being routed  (reported here in the Military Times three months ago) ISIS-K is still being used to justify our continued involvement in Afghanistan. That is ridiculous – ISIS-K was a collection of Pakistani Taliban who were trying to carve out their own little Jihadi paradise in an area that contains the largest talc powder deposit in the world. Threat to the US Homeland? Hardly. al Qaeda is the same – they have gone to ground and remain unmolested in Pakistan for 18 years now and have no need to use Afghan soil for anything. The airport in Peshawar is 10 times better than Kabul International so why would any decent Jihadi move from his decades long home in Pakistan?

ISIS-K is gone, the Taliban now control of most of the countryside in Nangarhar Province where we have troops at the Jalalabad airfield. Those troops would be mostly avation and avation support but there are two different SF compounds there too which are obviously still the home of one or more army ODA teams. I understand the need to be active outside the wire of a firm base like Jalalabad to keep the bad guys at arms reach but I’m not sure what possible use a key leader engagement would be at this stage in the game.

This is exactly the kind of senseless loss that is driving President Trump to wind down our involvement in Afghanistan. How do you justify losing 8 Americans and unknown number of Afghan Commando’s on a chin wagging mission with a bunch of local elders?

As an aside the only main stream outlet to write about this is Fox and their take is focused on the perfidy of Green on Blue attacks. They have (as usual) completely missed the the obvious and the comments section is so clueless it’s depressing.  The other outlets are (I suspect) waiting to see what President Trump is going to say so they can say the exact opposite. Watch and see.

Maybe there are great reasons for the mission to Sherzad that we will never know, but I do know there are better ways to conduct KLE’s.  It is always better to risk one contractor than it is to risk a dozen highly trained special operators. The counterintuitive thing about that is an experienced contractor traveling alone into Sherzad district, wearing local clothes, and in a local vehicle is much safer than 20 soldiers rolling around in four MRAP’s.  That is a lesson we refuse to learn and I think the President, for one, is getting tired of it.