Hotel California Naw Zad Edition

Facebook sent me a reminder about a post that went up 5 years ago and asked it I wanted to re-post it. I did then went to read and realized it was probably one of the better more prescient posts I ever wrote so here it is….back on the front page of FRI exactly 5 years after first being published.  It even has click bait if the form of two of must attractive and gutsy Free Ranges in the land. But the video at the end is disturbing …… those kids are fighting age now.

I ended my last post with an observation about the importance of how wars end.  That was most foolish of me because I was assuming we started bombing Libya with the intention of using the military to achieve an appropriate political endstate (because that’s how this shit is supposed to work).  But that isn’t at all what we are doing in Libya….I’m not sure what we are doing but it has nothing to do with an acceptable political endstate because there’s been no political debate or though given to the matter. It appears we’re bombing Libya because Obama feels we need to bomb Libya. Do you understand how unbelieveably stupid it is to start a war without any clue as to what you want to achieve?  Obama is not only a world class intellectual midget he’s now getting to be dangerous (to the entire world) and where the hell are the fucking Joint Chiefs? I know where they are….their where their predecessors are as documented in the excellent book Dereliction of Duty. Obsequious is not a word that should be applied (ever) to senior general officers but there it is.

I’m all for killing Col Gadhafi because he killed Americans; a lot of them in Berlin and over the skies of Lockerbie Scotland. I expected that Obama would not think through what he was doing but for some strange reason assumed the NSC and Pentagon had a plan (I type that with a straight face..honest) I forgot that the NSC is now headed by a political hack (with no previous military or national security experience)  named Tom Donilon and, being on vacation with my kids, it also slipped my mind that the Pentagon is busy focusing on the things that really matter; force feeding acceptance of openly gay service members and retro fitting submarines to accommodate female sailors.

I can’t bring myself to re-hash the hypocrisy, stupidity, or folly of Obama and his minions when it comes to the multiple crises popping up in the Middle East. It’s too depressing; the White House Bat Phone must be ringing off the hook nightly but we now know nobody has the balls to answer it.  Besides Mark Styen has done the heavy lifting on this issue with an excellent assessment which ends:

But lost along the way is hard-headed, strategic calculation of the national interest. “They won’t come back till it’s over/Over there!” sang George M. Cohan as the doughboys marched off in 1917. It was all over 20 minutes later, and then they came back. Now it’s never over over there not in Korea, not in Kuwait, not in Kosovo, not in Kandahar. Next stop Kufra? America has swapped The Art Of War for the Hotel California: We psychologically check out, but we never leave.

I must add this gem which, as the Bot is my witness, is an almost exact replica of conversations I had over and over during the summer of 2008 with Liberal USAID contractors at the Tiki Bar.  Obama has turned out to be worse than my worst summer 2008 nightmare. It is no longer funny (but the clip below is).

What is happening in Libya would not be important to the US had not Obama involved us kinda sorta. The ongoing revolts in Syria, Bahrain and Yeman are important to American interests but you need to know something about the region to understand that. That type of specialist knowledge is hard to come by in Saul Alinsky seminars, Reverend Wrights church sermons or the Harvard Law School.

While on holiday I saw this article on an airstrike targeting a Taliban commander that ended up killing civilians.  The article also helpfully points out that nine kids were killed in the Pech Valley earlier in the month which prompted the usually hysterics from President Karzai.

I’m not so sure about what the deal was with the Pech Valley airstrike except to point out that I know a few of the attack helicopter pilots based out of Jalalabad and they know just about every stinking inch of the Pech Valley.  I doubt the veracity of the report and will address that in a minute because this story about Naw Zad pisses me off and here’s why.

We got played again by the Afghans and the reason we got played has everything to do with the intelligence shortfalls identified by MajGen Flynn two years ago, combined with a still non-existent human intelligence capability.  Here is why I can say that with near total certainty without knowing a damn thing about what went on in this strike.

The unit that was on the ground in Naw Zad  (1st Battalion 8th Marines or 1/8 in Marine speak)  has rotated home and the battalion now working the battle space has been on deck maybe two weeks.  Battalions who have just arrived are not given a long enough leash to do whatever the hell they want; it is inconceivable that they came up with a “these two cars have a Taliban commander in them” plan and were then able to talk the Regimental Combat Team they work for (and I know its commander well) into letting them smoke two vehicles containing persons unknown with attack helicopters. The Naw Zad Valley is a flat, treeless expanse of high desert.  If the battalion thought they had a Taliban commander driving up or down it why not just stop the cars and grab his dumb ass?

This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad valley
This is what the terrain and vegetation looks like in the Naw Zad Valley

When aviation assets attack moving cars which reportedly contain high level Taliban it is a safe bet that the hit is driven by intelligence.  Normally that is supplied by the CIA and normally the hit has to be given a green light by someone from on high (who in the modern military/intel system is never held accountable for that decision).  That’s what normally happens but we all know the CIA doesn’t know shit because they have no humint program and rely on ‘walk-ins’. I would bet money that a “walk-in” targeted this car and the NDS vetted for him and we got exactly identical results for targeting folks based on NDS/CIA vetted ‘walk-ins’. That is how we  killed 27 woman and children attending a wedding in Nangarhar Province back in July 2008. Or when we  killed over 2 dozen children at a wedding party in Kandahar in November 2008, or….I could go on and on.

The common denominator with these botched attacks was human intel fed into the system by “walk-in” informants of dubious background and character or fed to our FOB bound intel people by the un-FOB bound Afghanistan intel people who have scores to settle or land to steal.  How many times do we need to be played by the Afghans before we wise up?  How many innocents have to die before we learn we cannot put all our eggs in the electronic warfare basket and start to develop our own human intelligence capability?

It’s not that hard to get off the FOB and stay off the FOB, my children did it.  Grad students from MIT do it…which reminds me the Synergy Strike Force girls are back in Nangarhar staying at the Taj and doing some super cool medical and social networking stuff.  Jenn’s blog is here and Rachel’s blog is here – Rachel brought her husband Juan Rodriguez along and he’s a pro shooter with a good eye and great glass on his camera – you should spend some time on both blogs. As you can see in the picture below hot chicks can stay off the FOB and roam around with no worries ….why can’t our HumInt teams do the same?

The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams - they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months
The Girls are back in town hanging out with Bollywood stars and SF A teams – they have been putting up excellent posts and photos for the past two months

The Pech Valley

Earlier in the month ISAF was accused of shooting up 9 teenagers in the mountains of the Pech River Valley.  The Army attack helicopter pilots who work that part of the country have memorized (it isn’t a big valley) every attack point in the Pech Mountains where it is not unusual to see Taliban fighters who are very young. Remember the video of a 12 year old boy cutting the head off “an American spy”?  Or the herd of teenagers rolling boulders into the road behind American vehicles during the battle at Ganjgal?  Army attack pilots don’t light up people in the mountains for no good reason so there is no doubt in my mind that if they smoked 9 teens it was because they were carrying weapons. Karzai knows this as he does that the gum cameras will provide the answer to any questions he has. Notice how he never asks for the gun camera footage…that’s because he’s getting upset to score political points.

Were he a great leader, a man of integrity and one who listens and cares about the Afghan people what he should be upset about is the video pasted below. This video horrified (and I mean horrified) my Afghan staff.  I didn’t intend to show it to them but one of the cooks heard the music from the video and walked into my office to see why I was playing Jihadi music.  Within minutes the whole staff was watching in mute horror before wondering off in stunned silence tears running down some of their cheeks. This video is what should be concern the Afghan elites but it’s not…why?? I suspect the elites can’t extort cash out of the Taliban over videos like this or over dead civilians so why bother them.  The Americans – they pay and pay and pay.  And look what they have wrought.


Crickets as in “I hear nothing but crickets” is the word of the day for Regimental Combat Team 1 (RCT 1) based in Camp Dwyer and controlling the southern districts of Helmand Province.  I needed to do a little district level coordination last weekend and was able to catch a ride to Marjah with my good friend Col Dave Furness USMC, the CO of RCT 1.  He was heading there to host a CODEL (congressional delegation) and agreed to let me tag along if I promised to not talk to talk to any congressmen.  That’s an easy promise to keep so once again I got to ride with the Marines across the Dasht-i-Margo (desert of death) and into the fertile Helmand Valley River town of Marjah.  The chances of us getting attacked while en-route?  Zero.  Chances of hitting an IED?  Just about zero.  Crickets – the Taliban have taken the winter off and their stay behind IED teams are failing miserably.  Know why?  Because the Marines when faced with tactical problems have turned to tactical solutions.

How cool is this? The M32 40mm grenade launcher - finally something to replace the M203 which was a dog. Imagine being a young infantry Marines living the dream and able to walk around with a super high speed low drag weapon which the Taliban have already grown to hate>
How cool is this? The M32 40mm grenade launcher – finally something to replace the M203 which was a dog. Imagine being a young infantry Marine living the dream at the pointy end of the spear and able to walk around with a super high speed low drag weapon. And this is one lethal piece of kit which can shoot 6 well aimed 40mm grenades in 2 seconds.  The Taliban learned very quickly not to let Marine infantry get too close to them (which they routinely do anyway) and now when Marine infantry gets within 150 meters they have to contend with dedicated grenadiers who will soon have HELLHOUND and DRACO thermobaric rounds.

Last summer Wired magazine had a pretty good article about the DoD Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and the cat and mouse game they’re playing with IED attackers.  Given the size and complexity of the American military these guys are operating as fast as one can expect but they are too far removed from the battlefield to help front line infantry deal with IED cells that vary  dramatically in effectiveness and methodology.  As I mentioned in the last post when line troops want to get actionable intelligence the only dependable option is to get it themselves.  Likewise when the Marines need tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to battle Taliban insurgents the tried and true method is to figure it out on their own and pass on what works to the units coming in behind them.

Remember this photo from last year?
Remember this photo from last year?  That is the CO of 2/6, LtCol Kyle Ellison, giving a coin to one of the more exceptional ANP officers.  At the time Kyle told him the coin was a token of his appreciation for the professionalism displayed by this officer who is always at his post with his equipment every day without fail.
Look at him today and note the addition to his uniform. 2/6 is long gone - Marjah now belongs to 3/8 but that coin Kyle presented last year means something to this officer and Kyle doesn't pass out many coins which makes the award very special. I was really happy to see this officer again and also see how much he values the coin
Look at him today and note the addition to his uniform (the 2/6 coin attached to his left breast pocket). 2/6 is long gone – Marjah now belongs to 3/9 but that coin Kyle presented last year means something to this officer.  I was good to see him again and also see how much he values the coin.

The Taliban learned that they need two obstacles in front of them when they shoot at Marine patrols and the most common obstacle used is a bunch of IED’s buried in choke points in front of large, deep irrigation ditches.  The Talibs believe that the two obstacles will give them the 30 or so minutes it takes to get air or rocket delivered ordnance targeting them. That was a good plan during the heavy kinetic fighting around Nawa and Marjah when the Marines first arrived.  But the Marines have been here a while now and seeded this vast AO with little patrol bases.  RC Southwest averages 500 patrols daily and those patrols identify and record every compound; recording if they are occupied and by who which is a moving target as families continue to flow back into the villages.

Every patrol submits a fire plan which includes on-call firewalls that  have been pre-planned by the Ops officer Mike (Mac) McNamara and the RCT-1 Air Officer shop.  A firewall is fire coordination measure to clear the air space and near space of all obstacles so RCT can fire HIMAR rockets.  It takes a good 20 minutes to set up a firewall if you are running on the fly.  With pre-planned firewalls when the squad leader calls for fire support – Mac sends a text message to the Direct Air Support Center (DASC) declaring Firewall XYZ in effect. The DASC says “roger that” (unless they have to move assists out of the way which may delay the affirmative a few seconds) and RCT 1 has a firewall.  Knowing if the nominated target is an abandoned or occupied compound speeds up the clearance too which is the whole point of the intensive patrolling and census taking.  Every compound in the AO has an alpha numeric designator and the battalions update their lists daily due to the number of families who are moving back.  What once took 20 minutes can now be done so fast it’s stunning.

Col Dave Furness greeting arriving congress members at the COP in Marjah. Both Dave and Paul Kennedy - the CO of RCT 6 which was based in Delaram last year are
Col Dave Furness greeting arriving congress members at the COP in Marjah.  The delegation is completely jet lagged at this point and would instantly fall asleep if subjected to powerpoint briefs. Day trips like this not only keep them awake and active but become just about the only thing they remember from a weekend visit.  
LtCol David Hudspeth,CO of 3/9 with Representative Kathy Castor D-FL in the Marjah bazaar.
LtCol David Hudspeth,CO of 3/9 with Representative Kathy Castor D-FL in the Marjah bazaar during last weekends CODEL.  

The Marines on the ground still have to contend with the IED’s and the Taliban seed IED’s everywhere which, as you’d imagine, does not endear them to the local population.  To cope with the flood of IED’s, most of which function by pressure plates and have very small magnetic signatures, required new tactics and a special tool, which in typical Marine fashion, was designed by a Gunnery Sergeant, fabricated from materials purchased in local bazaars, and paid for out of pocket by the troops. I’m not going to describe the tools or TTP for now because they are effective and need to stay that way as long as possible.

I missed something I really wanted to see on this trip and that was the monthly NCO symposium.  Dave came up with the idea after seeing the turnover between two sister battalions from the 1st Marines 3/1 and 2/1.  3/1 had a strike to find ratio hovering around 90% during their 7 months in theater and 2/1 who is now 5 months into their deployment has pulled out over 400 IED’s at the cost of 2 WIA and 1 KIA. This was due to an uncommonly planned, organized and executed turn over package based on every bit of front specific knowledge 3/1 had gleaned during their tour.  Using the turnover as a template Dave and his staff started a monthly training symposium for the squad and fireteam leaders from all his battalions designed to facilitate cross decking of the best practices and procedures.  I’ll have to wait a month or two before I can get back and attend one of these and man am I looking forward to it.  It’s a great idea to focus time, attention and limited resources on the young leaders.  It is also worth the investment to get them in front of the principal staff members who clear their calls for fire requests and the Regimental Commander who encourages any and all questions and will sit in the classroom all night to answer them.  Face to face is the best way to get things sorted out and with an endeavor as complex as war things need to get sorted out frequently.

The CODEL heads out to the bazaar. There has been more rain over the past three weeks in Helmand Province then there has been over the previous 3 years. When the congressmen landed one of them asked where the bathrooms were - there are none on this combat outpost just piss tubes inserted into a neutral corner and three wooden boxes with toilet seats bolted on them. Piss tubes and thunder boxes - things congressmen will not soon forget.
The CODEL heads out to the bazaar. There has been more rain over the past three weeks in Helmand Province then there has been over the previous 3 years. When the congressmen landed one of them asked where the bathrooms were – there are none on this combat outpost just piss tubes inserted into a neutral corner and three wooden boxes with toilet seats bolted on them. Piss tubes and thunder boxes – cheap, effective, and something most congressmen have never seen before or want to see again.

There is hard fighting ahead but I just do not see how the Taliban is going to be able to do jack in the southern Helmand Province.  The Marines treat every foot of ground outside their COP’s as if it contained an IED and yet they figured out how to move and move fast through the mine fields.  The Taliban can’t sow anymore mines than they already are sowing and it wouldn’t matter if they did.  The Taliban can’t train effectively, they can’t improve their rudimentary command and control, they are rarely able to coordinate among themselves and they didn’t spend the winter lull learning how to shoot.  They’re guns are old and worn, their ammunition a mix of dodgy 3rd world crap, re-loads, and what they can buy on the black market.  (C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, has been writing extensively about the guns and ammunition used by all side in this conflict and his piece What’s Inside A Taliban Gun Locker is worth a look.)  The Taliban are not going to emerge from their winter off with enhanced capabilities but the Marines will.

The summer fighting season will be here in a matter of weeks.  In RCT 1’s AO the Marines have used the lull in fighting to push out to the fringes of the Green Zone.  There they still occasional gunfights and IED’s continue to take their toll but not that often.  The Marines expand their area of influence while patrolling constantly; the SF guys continue to raid.  Dave told me the HVT raids are a big help and the targeting precise; he’d  be happy to see a lot more (I stand corrected B).  He also told me the raids are coordinated with him so again there seems to be a big shift in not just the ROE but also the TTP.

Nobody is sure what to expect when the poppy harvest is in and the fighting starts again in earnest but I’m predicting the southern Helmand will see limited fighting because the Taliban lack maneuver room, lack good rat lines, and are now isolated from a large percentage of the population.  The fighting this summer is going to be in the north outside Sangin, Musa Quala and Naw Zad.  If the Marines break the Taliban up there and the army/ISAF units in Kandahar continue to press the Taliban out of the green zone the villains are in real trouble. This could be the tipping point but for it to matter countrywide we need the will to hang on and repeat this process in the places like Khost, Paktia and Kunar. That’s not going to happen but still, giving the Taliban a serious ass whooping right in their front yard is a morale booster for the men. It also will give the Afghans space to unfuck themselves and it they don’t take this opportunity to do so then…….what can you say?  It’s going to be a real interesting summer but right now the word of the day in the southern Helmand province is crickets.

It Takes A Clue

Nothing will sour the morale of combat troops faster then the realization that the commander at the top receives frequent visits from the Good Idea Fairy.   Which is a good start point for explaining why  General Stanley A McChrystal took to the pages of Foreign Policy last week to explain the unexplainable.  The story starts with McChrystal’s observation that the SF tier 1 guys found  al Qaeda difficult to collect, fix and target because they were so decentralized.  So McChrystal made up his  own “network” and his centralized, vertically integrated, fixed chain of command network beat the AQI with their horizontally integrated decentralized chain of command.  I’m not buying that about Iraq but the focus of the article was how this genius system was implemented in Afghanistan by the regular military and what do you know the “mo better” network has since delivered us the current spate of good news about the Taliban getting tired of fighting.

BGen Jody Osterman with the Sub Governor of Naw Zad district Sayed Murad touring the Naw Zad bazaar last week
BGen Jody Osterman with the Sub Governor of Naw Zad district Sayed Murad touring the Naw Zad bazaar last week

The article linked above and all the other recent reports stress that the rift between the Taliban fighters and their leaders who are safely ensconced in Pakistan stems from the losses being inflicted on them in the Helmand and Kandahar Provinces.  The pressure being brought to bear on the fighting Taliban has very little (if anything) to do with the nighttime high speed low drag tier 1 special forces raids designed to “decapitate” Taliban leadership.  The whole decapitation strategy is suspect as numerous observers have noted over these many years of SOF raiding and I ask again if somehow a military adversary managed to “decapitate” our leadership would we be weaker or stronger?  Wait that is a stupid example and missing the point (as B correctly observed in the first comment on this post).  The first commenter on Gen McChrystal’s article says it much better than I can:

This essay is interesting in that it describes an effort that for all its success was limited to an extremely small (and disproportionately resourced) line of operation. The author portrays this as an inclusive endeavor while it was decidedly not inclusive in many respects. My experience in working with the General’s Task Force is that it was the most difficult organization to work with in theater and it only functioned as a network if you or your organization were willing to completely subordinate yourself, your resources and your mission to his very narrow line of operation. Most of the time his line of operations, while very important, was not the primary or most important line in the country or region. In the end establishing the Iraqi government as legitimate and enabling its organs to function as designed proved to be the decisive operation

HVT raids do produce results but it seems to me that what has brought the fighting Taliban to their knees is hard fighting infantry who have moved in with the people and deprived the villains of maneuver room while killing ever increasing numbers of them using ROE completly different from the horseshit inflicted on them by McChrystal.

A great example of this would be Naw Zad which is currently home to the headquarters of Charlie Company 1st Battalion 8th Marines.  The rest of the battalion is handling Musa Quala which, like Marjah, was infested with Taliban but is now safe enough for the battalion commander to walk around the bazaar without body armor and helmet.  The Captain at Naw Zad (and he’s there on his own because he’s that good) is surrounded by Taliban.  He has an area of influence which he is constantly expanding and he does this with aggressive patrolling.  He has the clearance to shoot 60mm mortars and run rotary wing CAS guns (Cobra or Apache gunships employing their guns only; rocket or Hellfires have to be cleared) without coordinating with his battalion COC.  He has no problems at all with the current rules of engagement and has never been denied fires when he has asked for them.  He doesn’t get second guessed, he doesn’t get micro managed and his example is proof that the rules of engagement have been “re-defined” radically.  For readers who are not familiar with how badly McChrystal’s ROE hampered forces in the field read this recent post by Herschel Smith on Ganjgal.  Success in the South has nothing to do with ninja night raids and placing a good percentage of the tactical intelligence piece behind a classified curtain where only the tier 1 headhunters can use it.

I was able to spend a lot of time talking with the officers and men currently serving in Naw Zad and here is what they bitch about:  They don’t like the weight they are forced to carry and strongly feel the use of  body armor should be determined by the mission and enemy.  Wearing it in blistering heat or while climbing the massive mountains is so physically debilitating that they have felt on several occasions that they were unable to defend themselves. Many of their Marines are suffering chronic stress fractures, low back problems as well as hip problems caused by carrying loads in excess of 130 pounds daily.  “We’re fighting the Mothers of America” said one; if we lose a Marine and he was not wearing everything in the inventory to protect him that becomes the issue.  Trying to explain that we have removed the body armor to reduce the chances of being shot is a losers game because you can’t produce data quantifying the reduction in gun shot wounds for troops who remain alert and are able to move fast due to a lighter load.  We are all required to read Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation but it is clear nobody understands it.

I used to bitch about the same thing 20 years ago and it is reassuring for us old timers to see some things never change.  It is also really nice to hear that the bitching is not about restrictive ROE and meddling from on high which is all my old buddy Jeff Kenney talked about while leading the Eastern Region ANA embedded training team.  His Marines were the ones killed at the Ganjgal fight and let me tell you something – he was bitter to the point of despair about it but sucked it up because that is what high caliber professionals do in this business.

Capt Ben Wagner
Capt Ben Wagner, second from right, in the Naw Zad bazaar

Captain Ben Wagner, the CO of C1/8 is one of the many young officers in the Corps born of battle.  He was a rifle platoon commander in the first battle for Fallujah.  He lost a lot of Marines and had to halt the attack and pull back an experience which no doubt left a deep impression.  He told me (paraphrasing here folks as I’m not a great note taker)

“I can push north or south and run into Taliban controlled villages who will put up a stiff fight but I don’t want to fight for something I can’t hold.  Instead of focusing on the Taliban we focus on the population which is why it is so busy around here at night.  We patrol every night using machineguns and sniper teams in the mountains for overwatch.  In the morning at first prayer we make it a point to walk past the mosque in whatever village complex we were working the night before.  The message is simple; you guys can sleep tight because we’re out every night all night watching over you.”

During the time I spent in Naw Zad over 200 famlies came into the Marines zone of influence from Taliban controlled territory.  I wanted to talk tactics and hear war stories but all the Marines wanted to talk about was reconstruction.  They have cleared more bad guy territory then anyone thought possible and now the entire 1st Division is focused on getting the economy going so they can move on.

High tech is expensive to develop and deploy but inexpensive to defeat.  The devil Taliban are throwing flocks of trained birds against the GBOSS to try and blind the Marines
High tech is expensive to develop and deploy but inexpensive to defeat. The devil Taliban are throwing flocks of trained birds against the GBOSS to try and blind the Marines. (Just kidding) I made that up but you do see the birds sitting in front of the lens sometimes when scanning the area with the GBOSS and I find that really funny.

And guess what?  Move on they shall because we are apparently finishing up with the “stability” phase and moving onto the “transition” phase of the Afghanistan campaign right on schedule.  This move is based on the successes of the past year along with glowing assessments of progress across the board for all ANSF organizations.  One of the Chim Chim’s was in the VTC where this was announced so I’m getting the scoop first hand. There has been real progress made over the past year yet most of that progress is limited to two southern provinces.  While Chim Chim was listening in to the announcement of transition from on high suicide bombers were attacking the Jalalabad branch of the Kabul bank just over a mile away.  In Jalalabad City the Provincial Council has laid siege to the Governors Compound, bussed in armed supporters from the various warlord factions for some low scale rioting, launched a half ass RPG attack at the PRT compound last Thursday night just to let the Americans know they are unhappy and demanded that Gov Sherzai go away because all the promised swag for not growing poppy never materialized.  None of this chaos seems to be of any concern to the army brigade stationed in Jalalabad because they have a network.

They have a giant SIPR network full of the latest “classified” intelligence.  You have to be a special cleared person to see “classified” intelligence which is much better than unclassified intelligence because…. well … cleared people put it into the system and they are smarter than everyone else because they’re cleared.   The situation in Jalabad is a perfect example of McChrystal’s  network in action.  The network is reality for the army in the east and if the drama happening just a few miles away isn’t on the network they don’t have to respond to it.  See how fiendishly clever McChrystal was?  Let me provide a hypothetical example and I stress hypothetical as I have no idea how these systems function but have spent years observing the “effects based” results.

ISAF watch officer: “Hey Pecan Pie we’re hearing Karzai is sending a 10 man delegation to diffuse the armed standoff outside the Governor’s compound to stop the Provincial Council  from throwing the Gov out and naming one of the warlords as governor”

Duty Officer  Pecan Pie: “What’s the date time group on the message about armed groups outside the Governor’s compound?”

Watch Officer:  “There is nothing in the system on it; my terps are watching footage from earlier this afternoon  on Tolo TV News.”

DO Pie: “If there is nothing on this in the system what do you want me to do?”

Watch Officer “Oh I dunno; but if Governor Sherzai gets thrown out of the province and decides to return home to Kandahar where he will have to re-arm and re-fit his militias to protect hismself from Karzai’s brother I bet a lot of stuff will be in the system along with the words “incompetent, catastrophe, and who is responsible”.

DO Pie: “Well that is as it should be I guess but I’m reviewing my commanders instant action matrix and there is nothing in it about the overthrow of a governor by the Provincial Council; my intel section has gone up as high as “Oracle” level but found nothing about this so called news story although we can see a lot of armed people in the streets with our UAV’s but again nothing in the system to tell us what it all means.”

Networks are modern fool’s gold for ground commanders; networks promise to do the heavy lifting while you sit back on the FOB eating the pecan pie. The only way to get the intelligence required to do COIN is by getting it yourself.  Every infantry commander worth his pay knows this which is why they (on the rare occasions such things happen) are drop jawed stunned when useable intel filters down to them from on high.  It doesn’t take a network – it takes somebody with a clue, lots of good infantry, and the intestinal fortitude to take tactical risks for strategic gain.  That last trait is the exact opposite of having the intestinal fortitude to cover up the friendly fire death of a former NFL player with a silver star and concocted heroic story.   I wish McChrystal would have the decency to act as an old general should and just fade away.

Thugs, Mobs And Education

The news this week has been dominated by the Lara Logan story. Ms. Logan was the subject of   the most popular post in FRI history which can be found here. Reactions to the news that Lara was subjected to “a brutal and sustained assault and beating” have cost at least one knucklehead his job when he tweeted dismissively about what exactly those seven words mean. We don’t know what happened to Ms. Logan that day and it will be up to Lara Logan to set the record straight which is what some in the media are calling on her to do. You can read another account of a woman from the international media covering the same story on the same day at the same time here.   As she points out she was lucky, she was scared and I doubt she will ever place herself in a similar position. Ms. Logan has my heartfelt sympathy as does every human victim of mob violence. The specifics of the assault aren’t interesting because there is nothing for us to learn from them. Large crowds celebrating the overthrow of a repressive government are inherently dangerous in all times and in all places. Reasonable people avoid them.

What gets my blood boiling about this story is that CBS sat on the story for five days and only released it when other news outlets were about to do the same. I have no idea why CBS sat on the story and suspect it has more to do with the report that the crowd was yelling “Jew, Jew, Jew” then any concerns for Ms. Logan’s privacy. CBS has an agenda and when confronted with facts running counter to that agenda it reacts like every rich, powerful, arrogant, liberal organization in the world; it ignores the story or spins the details.

Navy Commander Martin Sepulveda with Zarmina and her sister Sharifa. Zarmina who is 12 or 13 years old is the local school teacher
Navy Commander Martin Sepulveda with Zarmina and her sister Sharifa. Zarmina who is 12 or 13 years old is the local school teacher

Which brings us to the protests by the Wisconsin state teachers union. If you want to read some professional liberal spin on the topic here it is from CBS news. If you want the truth you need to hit the blogs; Wisconsin native Ann Althouse is a good place to start and you can find her blog here. The people of Wisconsin, after years of democratic fiscal insanity. decided to bring the adults back to power. The new Governor, Scott Walker, introduced a bill that will dismantle the 50 year-old collective bargaining agreement for public employee unions. It is not like he has any alternatives; every majority democratic state in the union and most of the European Union has the identical problem; gold plated obligations to state employees and no money to pay for them.

I find the reaction from the teachers unions, public employee unions, and state democratic representatives to be repugnant. The crowds descending on Madison behaved like a bunch of thugs which is in stark contrast to the Tea Party movement. I’ll leave the political commentary to others but I have to point something out about the American educational system. The vast majority of state teachers union members should be fired because they have clearly failed to provide an education to our children. I’ll let Mark Styen make the point:

I think if you had to name one institution, which is probably the biggest structural defect in Western societies right now, and the one that places the biggest question mark over the future of Western civilization, if there was one institution you needed to take apart, it would be the education system.

There is no education system in Afghanistan but there are millions of kids who dream of becoming literate. So let me tell you a remarkable story about a little girl with an aptitude for languages and a desire to better herself and her   community through education.

Sgt Barbra Rangel, Zarmina and
Cpl Jessica Costilla, Zarmina, Sgt Barbra Rangel, and Sharifa

The Marines have built a school in Naw Zad but there are no female teachers in the area. The local people want their daughters to receive an education so a brave little girl has stepped in to fill the gap. Every evening at 1900 hours (7:00 pm) Zarmina’s father brings her and her sister to the Marine combat outpost and drops her off with the Female Engagement Team (FET). They spend an hour or so going over a reading, writing or a math lesson and the next day Zarmina teaches those lessons to other girls in Naw Zad.

I asked Zarmina’s father if I could put her picture and story in the blog and he proudly granted permission. Zarmina and her family are all in. The Marines came here; drove the Taliban out and told the people they will protect them for as long as it takes to bring lasting peace. If we pull out early the fate which awaits Zarmina and those like her from the Taliban is too horrible to contemplate. It will make whatever the mob in Egypt inflicted on Lara Logan seem tame in comparison. Zarmina and her sister have bet everything on the Americans seeing this through to the bitter end. The Marines are game – they won’t quit but they don’t have a vote in how this turns out. It is politicians like those in Wisconsin who abandoned their posts to thwart the will of the people who will decide if we stay or go. Recent history regarding peoples in war torn lands who have bet their lives on America sustaining her commitment to them is not positive. The odds are Zarmina and her father bet on the wrong side.

If you believe in prayer send a few extra ones topside for Zarmina and the children of Afghanistan. With friends like us those kids are going need all the help they can get.

Naw Zad

I just did something today which would have been suicidal 10 months ago. My colleague Little Mac and I, in the company of a Marine tank officer and Naval surface warfare officer (he’s a fires guy by trade) just strolled around the town of Naw Zad with no body armor, no helmets, no riflemen escorting us, munching on local bread and handing out candy to the kids. We are safer here than we would be in downtown Chicago. Naw Zad was once the third largest populated area in the province. By 2007 the civilian population had fled the area and there was nobody here except bad guys and a few hard pressed British and Estonian infantrymen.

This was the main street of Naw Zad bazaar a year ago. Offical USMC photo
This was the main street of Naw Zad bazaar a year ago. Official USMC photo


Naw Zad bazaar today

Fox company 2nd Battalion 7th Marines (Fox 2/7) arrived in Naw Zad to reinforce the Brits in late 2008 and were able to expand the security bubble but not by much.   The Brits, Estonians and Marines fought side by side to expel the Taliban from this fertile valley but were hampered by restrictive ROE pushed down from on high by senior officers in Kabul who lacked common sense and experience at counterinsurgency warfare. The Marines and their allies lost a lot of men because they did not have the mass or firepower to do the job correctly.   Way back then there was a lone voice in the blogsphere pleading with all who would listen to free up the combat power and let the Marines in Naw Zad fight.   His name is Herschel Smith and his posts at the Captains Journal can be found here.   It is worth your time to read them all.

Another view of the Naw Zad bazaar today

In the   summer of 2009 the U.S. Marines had deployed the 2nd Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan and their first move was to clear out Naw Zad and the surrounding hamlets of all Taliban. The 2nd MEB was commanded by BGen Larry Nicholson who I was fortunate to serve with as a young Lieutenant back in the 80’s. He had his own Tac Air, his own artillery, his own rotary wing transport and gunships and he had his own ideas about how to fight.  He didn’t have to go to the powers that be in Kabul or Kandahar because he didn’t need anything from them. He seeded the high ground overlooking the rat lines running into Naw Zad with sniper and recon teams in June. They immediately started collecting scalps and then on 2 July 2009 he launched Operation Khanjar dropping 2000 grunts onto Naw Zad and the surrounding villages to finish the Taliban off. The Taliban reacted as they always do when faced with superior forces – they broke contact and ran…into the sniper teams.

Fighting in the town of Naw Zad and its adjacent hamlets is long over. The Taliban can’t muster the manpower or firepower required to drive the Marines out so we are now deep into the “hold & build” stage of the operation and it is slow going. Every brick, piece of steel, bag of cement and all hand tools have to be trucked in from Camp Bastion or Lashkar Gah. My old battalion 1/8 has has deployed a rifle company (C 1/8)   to Naw Zad for the past six months facilitating the hold and build while expanding the zone of safety further into the hinterlands. Actually the rifle company headquarters is based here with what looks like a platoon or so in the district center proper. The three rifle platoons are working areas to the north and southeast.

The Dahanah Pass which is around 5 kilometers to the south. The ANP/Marine outpost on the left hand finger was in contact when I took this picture. It was a typical Taliban nusciance attack - they still really suck at fighting but they are getting better with the IEDs
The Dahaneh Pass which is around 5 kilometers to the southeast of Naw Zad. The ANP/Marine outpost on the left hand finger was in contact when I took this picture. It was a typical Taliban nuisance attack – they still really suck at fighting but they are getting better at planting IEDs

The roads to the south of Dahaneh are controlled by the Taliban. They cannot stand and fight the Marines like they do the army in the east because there aren’t enough of them, the terrain doesn’t facilitate ambushes, and they can’t run to Pakistan for sanctuary. So they use IED’s… a lot of IED’s which, as IED’s do in Afghanistan, strike disproportionately against the civilian population. In order to get building material into the valley local truckers insist on being escorted by Marines. The Marines know the Taliban are going to plant IED’s and they literally walk the convoys into the valley. The 65 kilometer trip from Bastion to Naw Zad takes two days; most of that time is spent waiting for the engineers to blow IED’s which have been seeded ahead of them.

In 6 months the Marines have lost 3 MRAP's but no men to IED's
In 6 months C1/8 has lost 3 MRAP’s but no men to IED’s


50% of the IED's made by the Taliban fail to function or blow up at some point in the deployment cycle. One metric of success for the Marines is the number of them which are pointed out or dug up and turned into the Marines. They are not paying money for these and each morning at the District Governors compound IED's are turned into the Marines for destruction
50% of the IED’s made by the Taliban fail to function or blow up at some point in the deployment cycle. The remaining 50% go into the ground.   One metric of success for the Marines is the number of them which are pointed out or dug up and turned in to the Marines. They are not paying money for these but still each morning at the District Governors compound IED’s are turned into the Marines for destruction

The villains have deployed countless numbers of IED’s targeting the Marines of 1/8. Only three of them scored hits but none have resulted in a fatality.   One can only wish IED’s were so ineffective in other areas of Helmand Province.   The Naw Zad area has been cleared; the hold and build underway. The Marines who are here would like to be somewhere else – preferably a place where the Taliban will stand and fight them.  Infantry Marines, even after ten years of constant deployment, still hunger for a good fight.   But that is not to be for 1/8 as they are stuck in place to do the hold and build. There was a time when Marines were dying here and there needed to be a lot more thrown into the fight. Now Marines are fighting and dying in other places like Sangin and they need more of their brother devil dogs to back them up.  Now many of the folks I correspond with are starting to see what I was talking about when I opined that you need a hold and build force working directly for the ground commander. This is where contractors can save money, time and lives by freeing up the gunfighters to do what they do best. Kill villains, protect the innocent, and unmask the evil who prey upon the population.

Ride For The Brand

When I first started this blog I used to hammer away on a couple of themes which really bothered me. The first were Provincial Reconstruction Teams which I maintain are, by design, unable to accomplish their assigned mission. The second theme had to do with the reason we remain in Afghanistan. Our current mission is predicated on three goals; to deny al Qaeda safe haven, to reverse the momentum of the Taliban and to prevent the ability of insurgents to overthrow the government. As I have pointed out many times in the past there is no chance al Qaeda can or wants to re-establish themselves on Afghan soil and there is also no chance that anyone of the various insurgent groups who are fighting against the Karzai regime has the ability to win militarily.

These two themes are now hot news after President Karzai announced that it was time for PRT teams to go and the Center on International Cooperation released a report co-authored by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Flex Kuehn on separating the Taliban from al Qeada.  I have commented on Alex Strick van Linschoten before noting that he has a really cool name.  How can you go wrong reading something from a member of the Strick van Linschoten family?  And as a huge bonus Alex knows what he’s talking about being another member of the outside the wire tribe.

the vast majority of Afghans are young, poor, illiterate, and have never experienced a functional social order
the vast majority of Afghans are young, poor, illiterate, and have never experienced a functional social order

Jousha Foust posted on the PRT issue saying unequivocally that Karzai’s is right in his desire to rid himself of PRT’s and have that money flow through the Afghan government.  The problem is that anytime Karzai mentions the need to funnel money through his government a majority of my fellow citizen are convinced the money will just disappear. I’m no fan of the Karzai government but if someone could explain to me the difference between giving a member of the Afghan ruling elite a suitcase full of money to get something done or paying Tom Daschle’s wife a few million bucks to get a favorable ruling from the USG I’d love to hear it. From Hillary Clinton’s cattle futures swindle to our current treasury secretary dictating to the IRS when and how much he would pay in back taxes (until he was appointed to his present post) American politicians are as corrupt as Afghan politicians but more sophisticated.  The only other difference is that America has the largest economy in the world allowing our political class to enrich themselves and their families without killing economic growth.

Afghanistan has no economy so the corruption here kills any chance that outside capital will flow in the form of investments. The only major western company  stupid enough to invest money here is AOL but they are tapped out. And when contemplating corruption here remember the problem was partly created by us when we pushed Karzai to adopt SNTV . It is not going to change. But if we funneled every penny through the Afghan government who would get the blame when construction projects proved to be inferior, when money disappeared or when basic needs are not addressed? Wouldn’t it be to our advantage if every time the local people complained about reconstruction projects we could point to the billions we fed into the Kabul government and say  “go ask them – we gave them billions for this”?  It’s not like anyone has the slightest clue where all the money we have spent to date has gone anyway.  But we can’t change the way our government does business – too many rice bowls and too much money being made by special interests don’t you know.

Lashkar Gah Walmart
Lashkar Gah Walmart

What could and should change is our mission here.  As the Strick van Linschoten piece (PDF available here) convincingly argues the core reason for our continued fighting in Afghanistan is predicated on the stupid idea that if we leave al Qaeda will return.  I’ve been calling bullshit on that idea from the start and it is important for us to acknowledge that this concept is nonsense because it drives the mission statements of the military and other USG agencies who are in the fight.  We shouldn’t  act like we can tailor make solutions in the third world because we remain clueless about ground truth in every country except our own.  We will never have enough situational awareness to institute custom one-off solutions in every country where instability threatens good order and discipline.  This fact should serve as a wake up call to all Americans.

We spend billions and billions of dollars on “top secret America” and get next to nothing in return. Witness the fiasco of our current response in Egypt. The head of our Central Intelligence Agency stated that Mubarak would step down yesterday. He said that because he’s an idiot politician; a CIA Mandarin would never make that claim because he knows the CIA has rarely been right about anything important in its entire history. Don’t take my word for it read Legacy of Ashes and The Human Factor; books written by CIA agents disgusted with the waste, fraud and abuse organic to that dysfunctional agency. How do you explain the head of intelligence for this administration saying something as preposterous as the Muslim Brotherhood are “largely secular”? Our liberal elites and their hand maidens in the press think we’re stupid.

The military can accomplish a lot of things including sending small detachments deep into contested areas to do good deeds while supporting host nation security forces. It cannot change the nature of third world peoples or third world institutions nor should it be asked to
The military can accomplish a lot of things including sending small detachments deep into contested areas to do good deeds while supporting host nation security forces. It cannot change the nature of third world peoples or third world institutions nor should it be asked to

Back to the ISAF mission statement for Afghanistan – here it is:

ISAF, in support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.

How does a military force “facilitate improvements in the governance and socio-economics development” of the second most corrupt country in the world?  How does a western secular military “provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population” in an Islamic Republic?  The ISAF military effort is reducing the capability and will of the insurgents and they are also, believe it or not, growing the capacity and capability of the ANSF. I see signs of that everywhere I go in this country. It is our political leaders who are squandering the opportunities the military has won them and rather then piss and moan about it I’m going to man up and offer a solution our government can use around the world to bring simplicity and clarity to America’s efforts to have everyone just get along.

These ten simple principals, distilled by Jim Owens who heads up the Center for Cowboy Ethics and Leadership, are all one needs to know about running their lives, a company, or the most powerful nation on earth.      Here they are:

1 Live each day with courage

2 Take pride in your work

3 Always finish what you start

4 Do what has to be done

5 Be tough, but fair

6 When you make a promise, keep it

7 Ride for the brand

8 Talk less and say more

9 Remember that some things aren’t for sale

10 Know where to draw the line

Courage, pride, keeping promises, draw the line and ride for the brand. These are principals which have never failed us in the past. Translated to the sophisticated world of geo-politics it means acknowledging we can’t export our ideas about democracy to peoples who have no desire for them. We have to keep our goals simple, clean and consistent. We stand for freedom. We stand behind people who desire freedom and will lend them a hand in every and all circumstances. We should have backed the citizens in Iran when they confronted that hideous regime, the government of Honduras when they tried to enforce their constitution be expelling a tyrant, the citizens of Egypt and Tunisia when they spontaneously rose to rid themselves of dictators. But we didn’t did we? Our political leaders tried to finesse these situations or ignored them or worked against them. Our political class aided and abetted by the Mandarins who populate the senior levels of  USG agencies honestly think they have the knowledge, ability, and situational awareness required to manage every crisis in a unique custom tailored manner.  But they don’t, they are fooling themselves, bankrupting our nation and breaking our military.

It doesn’t have to be that way – we don’t need cleaver solutions dreamed up by legions of credentialed smart fellers.  We need leadership which articulates in unambiguous language what America stands for and who she will back.  If you are with us we’ll back you with our military might (while it lasts) and favorable economic policies.  If you are not with us you’ll not get favorable trade deals in our markets. If you attack us or our allies we will come to your country and kill you. See how simple that is? Apply it to Pakistan right now. They are harboring bin Laden, Mullah Omar and the senior Taliban leadership while actively aiding the insurgents we are fighting and, adding insult to injury, they have one of our citizens who rates diplomatic immunity in jail. What are they getting in return?  Billions of aid dollars which we have to borrow from “our friends”  the Chinese. What should they get?  A blockade of their ports and the grounding of all air transport in their country would be a good start. You know why?  Because some things are not for sale and at some point we have to draw a line.

How would we supply the gigantic logistic effort in Afghanistan if we did that?  I don’t know and I am sure we probably couldn’t. Which means most of the bloated headquarter staffs and base infrastructure would have to go and the combat arms units who remain would have to live like my colleagues and I do on the economy. Right vs wrong; good vs evil – there nothing difficult about figuring these things out when you live each day with courage.

The Start of a Long Year

While I was back home for a few weeks rest some articles caught my attention and they serve as a useful point of departure to evaluate where we are at the start of 2011.

Sami the Finn
Sami the Finn from Indicium Consulting provides this useful graphic on incident rates.  We anticipate seeing the incident rate to approach the 20,000 mark in 2011

The American military is under significant strain after almost a decade of fighting. This is common knowledge yet it remains difficult for those outside the military to gauge the true cost fighting the Long War.  A few weeks back Richard Cohen at the Washington Post penned an opinion piece reflecting the typical liberal view on our military which can be found here.  He opened his piece with this sentence:

“I present you with a paradox. The U.S. Army that fought the Vietnam War was reviled, not spit upon (that’s a myth) but not much admired, either. In contrast, the Army of Iraq and Afghanistan is embraced and praised.”

I hate it when liberal commentators dismiss inconvenient truths with “that’s a myth”.  From Rick Atkinson’s book  The Long Grey Line we  take up the story of Army Captain Tom Carhart West Point class of 66 (pages 324 & 325):

“Still in uniform, he was strolling through the O’Hare terminal in search of a telephone when  group of hippie girls darted up and spat on him.  The shock and pain could have not been more intense if they had slashed him with knives.  Reeling with surprise and uncertain what to do, he did nothing.”

I’ve read dozens of accounts of Vietnam veterans being spit upon when they arrived in civilian air terminals on their way home, but I’m touchy about the subject so the Cohen comment irritates me.

Cohen went on to point out that the military of today is removed from society at large, is composed mostly of southern white guys and is effective. It is so effective that it can be deployed indefinitely and so divorced from the citizens that we can now engage in perpetual war. Few of our elected leaders have served or understand the military which is (according to Cohen) so impressive that it is “awfully hard for mere civilians – including the commander in chief – to question it.” I have seen this same theme repeated in the liberal press for 20 years.

The military does what it is told to do and bends over backwards to fall in line with the current thinking of the National Command Authority.  Examples of senior military leaders rushing to embrace the latest PC fad which is being forced down their throats are too numerous and depressing to cite. Our military is in great disarray, unable to on the important it is focused on the unimportant; Mr. Cohen’s concerns about an “Uber effective military full of southern whites” is ridiculous. But an army that can fight for 20 years without a declaration of war while civilian life back home continues as normal? That cannot be a healthy thing for a free peoples on general principal alone.

This month’s Atlantic Magazine has an interesting article by former Air Force intelligence officer Tim Kane titled Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving. The bleeding of talent  seems to be a problem that crops up on a regular basis within the military.  I remember listening to a talk by Sen Jim Webb at the Naval Academy in 1996 where he pointed out that 53% of the post-command aviation squadron commanders had retired after their tours because they were disgusted with the senior leadership of the Navy.  His speech, which almost caused a fist fight between then Secretary Webb and one of President Clinton’s National Security staffers, can be found here and is interesting reading when contrasted with the article from Atlantic.

Canadian and American Army Patrol in downtown Kandahar last month. This was a rare sight prior to the surge but now mounted patrols are common
A Canadian patrol backed up behind an American mounted patrol in downtown Kandahar last month.   Seeing a patrol was a rare sight prior to the surge but now mounted patrols are so common they stack up on the main drag.   2011 is going to be hard year for the troops operating outside the wire and there are now a lot of them doing just that

I think Tim Kane is onto something:

“Why is the military so bad at retaining these people? It’s convenient to believe that top officers simply have more- lucrative opportunities in the private sector, and that their departures are inevitable. But the reason overwhelmingly cited by veterans and active-duty officers alike is that the military personnel system does not recognize or reward merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day regardless of an officer’s competence so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.”

That was not my experience in the Marines but I’ve been retired for 10 years so my experience may not be relevant. Our military is being asked to accomplish a very difficult mission while simultaneously being forced to absorb a radical change in its culture. If Tim Kane is on target then I suspect our military is heading for some very hard times and that is not good for our country or the rest of the world. National Reviews’ John Derbyshire spoke with great insight about the change being forced on our military in his podcast a couple of weeks back – we join Mr. Derbyshire in mid rant:

“The downward side of our military from a formidable fighting force with an ethos of service, sacrifice, comradeship and manliness to a social welfare organization with an ethos of multicultural cringing and pandering.   Or to put it another way, from an instrument for winning wars to an instrument for celebrating the moral vanity of our ruling class.

Our military today Consists of a few lethal units of dedicated fighters, in the finest military tradition, embedded like steal splinters in a bun in a great soft doughy mass of flabby time servers, single moms, diversity enforcers, touchy yet untouchable Muslims, Oprhafied weepers and rejects from other kinds of government work.”

That would be funny were it not so true.  I have addressed risk aversion many times in past posts. That this remains a concern after almost a decade of intense combat operations in two different countries is disturbing.  By now one would think that the value of innovation and risk taking in the spirit of the British SAS motto “Who Dares Wins” would be recognized, valued and rewarded. But it’s not and that may be because there is no “win” to win here.

Every year there are many more boys reaching fighting age then there was the year before. Over 75% of the population is under the age of 24.
Every year the number of military aged males available to both sides of the conflict increases dramatically.  Over 75% of the population is  under the age of 24.  Photo by Logan Lynch

We can drive the Taliban out of areas they once dominated with the sustained commitment of infantry and keep them out. We can train Afghan security forces and despite the mixed results we have fielded some good units. I saw a dismounted ANA patrol the other day who looked to be as switched on and professional as an American patrol.  ISAF forces in the south have clearly gone on the offensive and are off the FOB’s protecting the population but they cannot generate the social capitol required to “win”.

We’re not fighting a top down ideology which is incompatible with western interests, instead we’re fighting an insurgency of Islamic insurgents in a their home Islamic land.  Infidels are never going to capable of defeating Islamic insurgents in their home court. You could beat the Nazi’s in Germany or the Communist in Cambodia without having to fight the people too because they were not all nazis or communists first, they were Germans or Cambodians. We’re fighting a bottom up ideology fueled by the religion from which our enemies (and allies) derive their identities. We can never get enough social capitol to “win” because we’re not Muslims. We can’t separate the Taliban from the people nor can me reduce the attractiveness of jihad against infidel foreigners because we do not have the juice where it counts – with the people and with the Ulema (religious leaders).

This is where having the military Richard Cohen thinks we have would come in handy. Professional Legions accustomed to incessant campaigning are probably better suited for hard fighting in limited wars on foreign shores. They may better understand that they fight for each other when they are sent into battle while having little concern about where they are fighting or why. High intensity limited warfare is no place for a risk averse commander who is concerned with not making mistakes or avoiding battle. This is going to be a long year of heavy fighting and it is important that we inflict serious losses on the Taliban fighters who take us on because that is the only way we can drive the level of violence down.

I have little confidence in reaching an acceptable end-state but having seen first hand the progress in Marjah and Nawa it seems possible to pacify the areas we are currently clearing thus avoiding three years of heavy combat. That’s the best we will be able to do but it can only be done by those tough splinters John Derbyshire describes. Instead of valuing and supporting those splinters our military and congress is going to ruin them if they don’t stop with the social engineering to focus on the tasks at hand.  But we all know that’s not going to happen so I guess we are now living in interesting times.

Neutral Intermediaries

The efforts of the international community to bring aid to Afghanistan, help develop the infrastructure with the goal of allowing Afghanistan a chance at self sufficiency are failing dismally.  That should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with the international aid racket.  The international community has spent hundreds of billions of dollars over the years in Africa without one iota of success. They are enriching vile, oppressive dictators while sentencing the average African to a life of misery, poverty and squalor. Most people in most places at most times have lived under the yoke of tyranny which seems, with the exception of the western world, to be the natural order of things. One need not be a historical scholar to understand what is self evident – just look at Zimbabwe, Haiti, Mexico or Illinois to see the heavy hand of tyranny stealing from the people to enrich powerful elites.

Is the average citizen of the African continent better off now that colonialism is dead? I doubt it and in fact have personally talked to hundreds of Africans who will tell you without much prodding that life in their country was much better during the days of European colonialism. Aid programs do not work unless the people delivering the aid are in the same boat as the recipients. If the countries who provide aid are not willing to send their aid workers into the recipient country and leave them there then it is much more humane for all involved to do nothing, to spend not one penny, to leave people to their own devices to fend for themselves and figure out how to join modernity on their own terms.  Throwing billions into countries ruled by tyrants does nothing but increase human misery and mayhem; conditions which I’m firmly against as a matter of principle.

Before landing to pick me up in Zaranj our pilots have to sweep the runway to clear out the feral dogs. They do this by flying down the runway at full power – at the end of the field they reduce power and climb while turning right until they almost stall then they drop the left wing, kick out the landing gear and set down on the runway. It is a super cool move which happens fast and is scary to the uninitiated. There are few things in life which are more fun then being flown around by African bush pilots

The Aid business is now a deadly business according to the New York Times in a long detailed story about NGO’s  located right down the street from us. The Times, like all media except the Toronto Star, ignores our operational success and implementation savvy because it runs counter to their narrative. You would think our success at accomplishing all projects on time and on budget in the most kinetic provinces would garner some attention in the US media but it hasn’t. The only reporter to recognize what we were accomplishing and write about it was the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter who wrote about my buddy Panjwaii Tim and his Kandahar operation.

From the linked New York Times article:

Among the contracted aid groups working for coalition government programs, which nearly always employ armed guards and work in fortified compounds or from military bases, the body count has been particularly severe. Eighty aid contractors employed by the United States Agency for International Development were killed and 220 wounded from January through early November of this year. (In the same period, 410 American soldiers and  Marines died.)

The aid contractors were attacked on average 55 times a month  a seven-fold increase over 2009, Mr. Gast said. By contrast, 20 people employed by charitable and humanitarian groups, which refuse to use armed guards or work with the military, were killed during the first nine months of this year.

The article goes on to point out that Doctors Without Borders has a compound in Lashkar Gah which has never been attacked unlike the heavily fortified IRD compound which is right down the street.  That’s a good point, sort of, as I too think the heavily fortified compounds are a waste of money and invite attack from armed actors of various stripes. I live right behind the Doctors Without Borders compound and our compound is more modest and inconspicuous. Unlike our Doctor neighbors every expat bedroom is a mini armory/ammunition supply point. We don’t have wire lacing the top of our walls but we have plenty on our side of the wall out of view of the public. I pity the fool who jumps into our compound because he’s landing on top of triple strand concertina which will slow him long enough for the dogs to get into action.

Here is what really irritates me about the New York Times piece:

Mr. Watson agrees that the lines are often blurred. It makes it difficult for us in the humanitarian community to demonstrate to those on the other side of the conflict that we strive to be neutral intermediaries, he said.

The only “neutral intermediaries” Afghanistan has seen in modern times was the medical team headed by Dan Terry and Tom Little who accounted for 10 of the 20 humanitarian group members that were killed this year.  Unlike Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders and all the armed knuckleheads like me running around the country, Tom and Dan lived here, were fluent in local languages, were never armed, and were seen by all sides as being neutral. Yet they were gunned down in cold blood by Islamic insurgents affiliated with the Taliban. The Taliban once believed in in neutral intermediaries which is why Tom Little and Dan Terry lived and worked in Afghanistan during the Taliban reign. Now the Taliban clearly do not respect neutral intermediaries which was proven beyond a doubt to myself and the other expats Free Ranging beyond the wire by the murder of Tom Little and Dan Terry.

The Governor of Nimroz Province Abdul Karim Brahui, my super Provincial Manager Bashir and I opening up the Kang district canal which will bring irrigation to the district for the first time in 40 years. Will projects like this help?  I think they might but don’t really know.  What I care about is that we do what we say we are going to do without wasting millions of donor dollars to do it. The international NGO community seems to specialize in administering  ineffective aid at the margins. They want to be perceived by all sides as “neutral intermediaries” which makes motivates their international staff while giving them a false sense of security. But they do not have the staying power or religious based motivation that sustained Dan Terry and his wife for 30 years and thus the results they produce are as transitory as they are.

If the true neutral intermediaries are no longer safe in Afghanistan then the only way “aid” is going to be accomplished is by aid workers who can protect themselves. Which is what we do but what nobody else (in the aid game) wants to do (because hiring former military guys to deliver aid is like giving fish bicycles or something) despite the fact it is the only way to get things done.

Qala Fath is an old abandoned fortress city which sits on top of a huge aquifer of drinking water out in the middle of the Nimroz desert. As is typical none of the locals seem to know anything regarding it origins or age. It is a safe guess it was one of the many fortress cities which sprung up along the Silk Road. I wanted to explore the ruins but the local police insisted there were mines around them. I asked who put them there and they said the Godless Soviets. I replied there was no way the Sov’s were operating this close to the Iranian border so then the blame shifted to the Taliban. I think the real problem was it was too close to evening and any delay would have left us in the bad lands when darkness fell. Not that the Taliban are known to be effective night fighters mind you. I’ll be back someday soon to look around this place.

The ineptitude of our Taliban advisories is one reason why the military portion of the surge is working so well.  Another reason is that we have (under the radar) eased up the restrictions on the use of firepower. As I mentioned in past posts the Marines down south have no problems with the ROE and they shoot HIMARS and run tac air daily.  Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room has blogged on the HIMAR  but unlike his observations it seemed to me that shooting  HIMARS was easier for the Marines then working in Tac Air.  Regardless it is clear that the military has turned a corner and is prevailing on the southern field of battle.  For a retired infantry guy like me it is great to see but it is also irrelevant.

The reason our current military success is meaningless is because our other governmental agencies insist on working through the government in Kabul despite a decade of experience proving the central government is not going to function like a western government. The other problem that every senior decision maker involved with this endeavor also knows is that the people of Afghanistan will not accept a government installed and maintained by infidels as legitimate. It’s one of those inconvenient truths that is not talked about in polite company.

Under promise and over deliver – explaining to the Governor Abdul Karim Brahui that we can’t control the way USAID awards projects.  The  Governor is a good, honest, brave man and an effective advocate for the people of Nimroz province who can’t understand why the Marines can spend 50K in fuel and flight hours to visit him but not find the cash to give him a working budget the fix the problems the Marines come to visit him about. 

It occurs to me that a rational approach towards Afghanistan would mandate we spend more time and effort bolstering leaders like Governor Abdul Karim Brahui  while simultaneously ignoring and marginalizing the central government in Kabul.  That is the only way (as I see it) that we can compliment the military success we are seeing in the South.  But the big boys in the aid racket don’t want effective solutions; they want giant multi-million dollar contracts and despite a 10-year history of failure they will get them. Those fools will continue pissing away a kings fortune daily while accomplishing little. That is not right, it is not fair, it pisses me off but I’ll you this; it is the truth.

Afghanistan’s Forgotten Province

There are a couple of recent articles in the flood of coverage about Afghanistan which caught my eye last week.  The first is factually wrong but I understand what the author was saying and he is, in a sense correct.  The second is factually correct, I understand what that reporter was saying too and think he is, in a sense wrong.  By analyzing both one can get a read on where we are in our battle to bring security to the population in the context of nation building.

The first article is Afghanistan’s Forgotten Province by Karlos Zurutuza which is about Nimroz Province.  From the article:

‘You’re right, no troops based there,’ he says. And I’m realizing now that there’s not a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in the area, either.’ I ask him why none are stationed there, but he doesn’t have an answer. Neither do the experts.

Nimroz is a major smuggling hub in Afghanistan: heroin goes out and weapons get in across the Afghan-Iranian border,’ says best-selling writer and renowned Afghanistan commentator Ahmed Rashid. He says he has no explanation for the military abandonment’ of this remote, but potentially key, southern province.

Nimroz Province has two major municipal centers; the capitol of Zaranj which is on the border with Iran and Delaram which is astride Rte 1 bordering Helmand Province.  There are no ISAF forces in Zaranj but there is the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team in Delaram.  There are over 10,000 ISAF troops in the Province and if you google “Nimroz Province” you’ll see several articles about the Marines fighting there.  So the article is wrong but the point the author is trying to make which is Nimroz has not received anything like the redevelopment love being dumped into other key provinces is correct.  Was correct is more accurate because Nimroz is about to feel the love.

These opium farmers were telling us they would stop growing the poppy if there were good roads and markets. This was their reaction when asked what came first the chicken or the egg. I think they have heard that one before.
These opium farmers were telling us they would stop growing the poppy if there were good roads and markets. This was their reaction when asked what came first the chicken or the egg?  I think they have heard that one before – they sure thought it was funny.

This War was published by self described “person of liberal temperament”  James Traub who takes the reader on a lengthly yet concise review of American force projection overseas to explain why he thinks Afghanistan “…feels like, increasingly, is Vietnam, especially to people who formed their views of American military power, and indeed of America itself, in opposition to the Vietnam War.”  He is unable to make his case because we just do not know what the end game will look like.  Along the way he reports from the front of the Khandahar battle a few things I find very interesting.

By the time I arrived, Arghandab had become safe enough for the district governor, Hajji Abdul Jabbar, to report to work every day at the district center inside the base. Abdul Jabbar was just about the whole of government in the district, since the few officials sent from ministries in Kabul tended either not to show up or not to work when they did. Every morning, Abdul Jabbar held an audience for petitioners, listening to their grievances and stamping their tattered papers. Once a week, he met with the district  shura, a group of village elders and farmers. The meeting I attended featured a lot of shouting and accusation, much of it by Abdul Jabbar. It seemed pretty formless, but Kevin Melton, a very tall and very young official from USAID, leaned over to me and said, They’re talking about security. Normally it’s ISAF doing the talking. They’re pointing fingers at each other; that’s progress.

I felt like I was watching a political-science experiment: forging a social contract in a state of nature. Melton believed that what mattered was not so much building roads or schools as overcoming the legacy of distrust, the habit of seeking violent solutions to all problems. He saw his job as helping give local citizens a voice in decisions, so that ultimately they could take responsibility for themselves rather than simply accepting assistance. And he felt that his efforts were working. Thanks to small-team units living out in the district and to constant patrolling among the villages a crucial element of COIN strategy the Taliban presence had dropped significantly. If things continue as they have for the last four months, Melton quoted Hajji Mohammad, the  shura leader, as saying, this next year could reverse the last seven.

The presence of a USAID Field Service Officer (FSO) is due to the civilian component of the surge and they are showing up in just every key district in the South.  The second bit of information in the quote is that the American army has dispersed it’s maneuver battalions in the same manner the Marines have done in the Helmand.  They are off the FOB’s and in the ville with the people which means Gen Petraeus may in fact be the most effective General Officer of his generation.  The General sits on top of a massive military bureaucracy fighting a nasty insurgency with a coalition combat force and a dysfunctional host government. Despite this he has been able to turn his intent of getting off the FOB’s into action which is something his predecessors were unable or unwilling to do.

If you re going to secure the population you need to live with the population. This is how you clear and hold Taliban controlled areas but at some point the grunts have to move on
If you re going to secure the population you need to live with the population. This is how you clear and hold Taliban controlled areas but at some point the grunts have to move on

As I said above Nimroz Province is about to feel the love as the Marines and their USG surge counterparts start to focus on a Province which has been quiet yet remains  important due to the border crossing with Iran. The Province has a new Governor, Abdul Karim Barahawi who is an elder in the Barahawi  Baloch tribe and a respected, reportedly effective, commander who fought both the Soviets and the Taliban. He is a serious, competent man who wants to do right by the people of his province. Nimroz is a place which has plenty of Taliban but pretty good security. The roads are not safe at night for expats or Afghans who work for the government but commerce seems to flow without too much shrinkage. The Taliban in Nimroz seem to be mostly locals and focused on protecting and running the logistical pipeline from Iran into the Helmand Province.

The Americans face a tough choice in Nimroz. It is calm enough and the threat diffuse enough that there is no geographic or human terrain at which one can aim a kinetic operation. There is little to clear but it is not safe enough to hold. The Marines understand the best way to accomplish the “Hold” part of the mission is not with combat troops.  They want to weaponize money and use that to conduct the build but due to self imposed force protection measures they cannot get out and about in Nimroz or any other quiet, permissive area of the country.

Riding in a B6 armored SUV provides exactly the same level of security as a TSA groping. The villains here shoot armor piercing rounds and tend to open ambushes with RPG's or IED's large enough to flip an MRAP. Armored SUV's provide no protection against Taliban weapons, they stand out in normal traffic making them easy to ID and are sealed which prevents the use of weapons unless outside the vehicle
Riding in a B6 armored SUV provides exactly the same level of security as a TSA groping. The villains here shoot armor piercing rounds and tend to open ambushes with RPG’s or IED’s large enough to flip an MRAP. Armored SUV’s provide no protection against Taliban weapons, they stand out in normal traffic making them easy to ID and are sealed which prevents the use of weapons unless outside the vehicle.  The give the illusion of safety while in reality increasing the risk for those who use them.

We are spending billions of dollars to accomplish a mission we can’t do because of artificial constraints that do not reflect reality on the ground. Yet lightly armed experienced international stability operators can work all anywhere in the province when they work with local shura’s, village elders and district government officials.  I know this from personal experience.

Let me provide a hypothetical example to illustrate the point of how artificially high the overhead is for your typical US Government (USG) employee trying to do reconstruction. In this example the USG employee concerned with good governance and assigned to a PRT to mentor  provincial authorities.

This is a great way to drive down total costs for reconstruction because the alternative for off base movement is four MRAPS and 16 riflemen (minimum) according to standing ISAF orders
This is one way to drive down total costs for reconstruction because the alternative for off base movement is four MRAPS and 16 riflemen (minimum) according to standing ISAF orders.  With a fleet of B6 armored vehicles we can get USG officials to meetings for the extra low cost of $203,750 per trip.

To make this a best case scenario allow me to further stipulate that USG employees are allowed to move off post for official meetings with just two vehicles and four armed protection specialists and that he is able to get off base once a week or about 40 times in a 12 month deployment.  Here’s the stubby pencil math:

Cost of vehicles (including import fee’s and ECM equipment) 450k each

Cost of security operatives (including R&R rotations, mobilization training, insurance, admin fees etc…) 550k each

Cost of housing both operatives and USG official on a FOB 1 million each

Total cost divided by 40 trips =  $203,750.00 per trip most of which are less than 3 miles total.  I cost less than half that per year and don’t need or want the security specialists.

I have often argued contractors are the only efficient tool we have but let’s face it – that doesn’t look like it is going to happen.  Creating yet another USG agency with a mandate to operate closer to the contractor model won’t work.  Once a US Government Agency comes is created it is impossible to un-create and will grow exponentially regardless of performance.

This is where having unlimited amounts of other peoples money (OPM) really hurts.  I know most of the USAID FSO’s in the Helmand and I deal with the American military on a daily basis. The FSO’s at the district level are smart, competent and just as dedicated to the mission as the Marines they are living with.  They are also frustrated because they know all to well the cost of being hamstrung by force protection mandates. The Marines are looking for a few good men to operate the way we are currently operating in Nimroz Province and they too are frustrated.  I have been advocating for years that armed contractors (not security contractors but project implementors) are the perfect solution. But let’s be honest that is not going to happen.

Sen John McCain in the Nawa district administrative center last month. He looks much better then he did 5 years ago when I last saw him (from a distance I do not know Sen McCain personally) and it seemed to me that the Marines enjoyed seeing Senators in an area which still sees its share of Taliban attacks
Sen John McCain in the Nawa district administrative center last month. He looks much better then he did 5 years ago when I last saw him (from a distance I do not know Sen McCain personally) and it seemed to me that the Marines enjoyed seeing Senators in an area which still sees its share of Taliban attacks

Being efficient, accomplishing the mission in a cost effective manner with minimal loss of life; all the things I was taught were important as a junior officer in the Marines turns out to be completely irrelevant to the ever expanding big government agencies. Americans have a long history of successfully fighting small wars far from home as do many of our allies. These small wars were fought on shoe string budgets by small units of Marines and sailors (and at times the American army too) who had arrived on ships are weren’t going home until the conflict was over. It is now inconceivable that the United States would send combat units into a theater of action for years on end. That is the only way a western military will ever be able to operate effectively while limiting their casualties and civilian casualties from collateral damage. I bet you could raise a battalion or two of volunteers to try a deployment like this but it is hard to imagine the USA pulling it off.

So what to do about Afghanistan’s forgotten province?  I ask one of my brother Marines what he would do were he given this problem to solve under the historical constraints normally faced by Marine commanders fighting a small war.  He replied immediately ; Q-cars, fire force and pseudo operators. Which is exactly what I would say as would all of my friends who are in the business. But there is no way the American military could even contemplate let alone run such decentralized high risk operations.

There are legitimate reasons to give Nimroz Province some attention but we don’t have to spend billions to do it.  We are going to put our money on the line to prove that. Soon Ghost Team will be heading into Nimroz Province with the intent of getting the irrigation canals up and the capitol city refurbished.  Nimroz will soon no longer be the forgotten Province.

Rules of Engagement

I have written in the past about night raids and aggressive ISAF convoy tactics causing unnecessary civilian casualties.  I have also written on the importance of not allowing enemy fighters who attack ISAF units to live and fight another day.  Counterinsurgency requires adaptation and my annoyance at night raids or shooting car loads of locals who come too close to convoys is that there are better ways to handle both situations. Nine years and counting and I have seen little adaptation to the local environment by the American military and our NATO allies until now.

I have just witnessed adaptation by the military after spending some time with the Marines of Regimental Combat Team 1.  They are operating in the southern Helmand province where the terrain is flat and the enemy not able or willing to operate in large numbers. Prior to this trip all my observations regarding military efforts have been “effects based”.  I had been on the outside looking in.  I have never before traveled with a military patrol nor have I had the opportunity to observe and talk with troops in the field.

The Marines in all three battalions I was with let civilian traffic pass them while both mounted and dismounted. The old post linked above has a short video of another ISAF unit doing the exact oppisate
The Marines in all three battalions I observed let civilian traffic pass them while both mounted and dismounted. The old post linked above has a short video of another ISAF unit doing the exact opposite

I have posted in the past on the rules of engagement often linking to Herschel Smith at  The Captains Journal with whom I am in complete agreement.  We feel the rules of engagement are too restrictive and endanger the lives of ISAF and Afghan soldiers in the field. I posted recently about my first visit to RCT 1 where Col Furness and his staff do not feel the rules of engagement are too restrictive or inappropriate. On this trip I had a chance to talk to grunts in the field, platoon sergeants, company commanders as well as all three battalion commanders. The consensus is that the Marines do not consider the rules of engagement too restrictive. The only bitching I heard from the junior enlisted men concerned the strict PID – positive identification of a target before they can engage.

LtCol Kyle Ellison in the Choor  Bazaar – these shops were closed by the Taliban last August just before Ramadan – just like the DVD shops in Jalalabad. When the shop owners refused to open back up the Marines cancelled their leases and brought in new store owners. The bazaar has been opened ever since.

The examples I heard about the problems with PID were instructive. One of the Sergeants told me about an incident where the lead MATV had hit a large pressure plate IED which destroyed the mine roller attached to the front of it and most of the engine compartment. As the Marines worked to recover the vehicle small teams of Taliban would open up from the outside of some compounds a few hundred of meters to the East. Then they would displace and do the same thing from the West. The battalion commander had strict rules about firing into the populated portions of blocks (this was in Marjah) and being a passenger in the targeted  vehicle he was standing right there taking the whole situation in. The sergeant was frustrated because they never got a fix on the shooters so they could not return fire. I asked LtCol Ellison about this and he was blunt; “I’m not lighting up an area where families we know and support are living in order to suppress a couple of idiots who were shooting a few long range, ineffective rounds.”

I’m growing fond of LtCol Ellison – that’s warrior talk there brother.

All the bazaars in Marjah are heavily guarded. This squad of ANA troops had been in a fire fight right down the road from the bazaar a few minutes prior to our arrival

Another interesting story unfolded as we were touring the Choor Bazaar. The ANA troops had spotted a man carrying an AK47 and they exchanged gunfire with him. The man ran into a local compound just as a patrol of Marines rounded the corner on a dead run. The Marines threw in a frag grenade which killed the gunmen and went into the compound to recover him and his weapon. The man’s brother came to the bazaar to speak to LtCol Ellison telling him his brother was “not right in the head” and should not have been out with a rifle. He understood that his brother should not have been shooting at the ANA and that Marines responded as expected to an active gunman. After saying that he asked for his brother body and the AK 47 he had been using. LtCol Ellison was polite but firm telling the man the Marines will not tolerate shooting at the Afghan security forces in Marjah because they leave him little choice in response. Having established this point he apologized and asked the man to come in and make a claim for their loss (financial compensation for accidental death) at the district governors office. He promised they would have no further issues with the burial and to ensure that told him a squad of Marines would be there to protect them.  All of this was heard by the mans neighbors who crowded in to listen to the interpreter as the discussion progressed. The man then asked if he could have his AK back.  LtCol Ellison just looked at him and his terp said “no”.  And that was that – the villagers headed back home and we continued on our way.

Satisfied with their discussion with the Marine commander these villagers are heading back to bury one of their members.

Ltcol Ellison is an exceptionally gifted commander with a very clear understanding of what he is doing and where his efforts are going.  His rules of engagement are different from his sister battalions to the north and south of him.  He has packed away his 81 mortars and sent that large platoon out west in the desert across the Helmand river to interdict Taliban fighter infiltration. He only lets his company commanders shoot illumination rounds from their 60 mortars unless there are exceptional circumstances requiring HE (high explosive) rounds.  He told me the battalion that proceeded him, the 1st Battalion 6th Marines had cleared central Marjah and that he was solidly in the hold phase of the operation.  He has spread out into over 80 positions ranging from lone static MRAP’s  (manned by rotating fireteams) watching areas of high IED activity to squad, platoon and company combat outposts.  LtCol Ellison told me “we shoot a lot of Hellfire’s and sometimes other air delivered ordnance but for the most part our aggressive patrolling keeps the Taliban out.  We’re driving the incident numbers into the basement.”

Thermal camera on the front of the new MATV – they are a really nice ride
A platoon patrol base – pretty spartan digs for these guys too.

In the northern outskirts of Marjah and beyond the 2nd Battalion 9th Marines (2/9) has been tasked with pushing the Taliban out of the populated areas and keeping them out.  They have sections of 81mm mortars in each company patrol base and use them frequently.

81 section set up in the middle of a 2/9 company patrol base

The portion of 2/9’s A.O. that I saw looked exactly like the rest of Marjah.  The same large grid pattern with clusters of houses surrounded by fields but there were a lot less people visible in the streets and fields.  The Marines patrol aggressively but get much more contact and they are much quicker with the supporting arms and heavy machineguns.  Fire missions have to be cleared at the battalion level but that is how the Marines do things regardless of front specific ROE and the reason for this is de-confliction.  They have a lot of Marines out patrolling at any given time and have to know where all of them are before they cut lose the firepower.

Rifle company CP’s are pretty high tech these days. The watch chief has a chat window open with the battalion and updates it constantly with locations of friendly patrols as well as a narrative of what they are up to. Accounting for them when clearing fire missions is virtually instantaneous.

Rifle company CP’s are pretty high tech these days. The watch chief has a chat window open with the battalion and updates them constantly with locations of friendly patrols as well as a narrative of what they are up to. Accounting for them when clearing fire missions is virtually instantaneous.  When a patrol makes contact or calls in a casualty the chat box pops up on every operations screen in the region. This makes clearing fires or launching a medical evacuation  just  a matter of minutes after the green light is received.

Marjah is the first place I have seen ANCOP’s who are the Afghanistan National Civil Order Police. The Marines make good use of them and they also give them specialized training at Camp Leatherneck prior to sending them out.  The ANCOPs I saw in Marjah were clearly Tajiks from the North of the country.  They spend a lot of time talking with the local people and they are clearly a valuable asset in gaining the kind of local atmospherics which can greatly aid the Marines as they work through the “Hold” portion of their mission.  I have seen articles like this one in the press about patrols from 2/6 looking for the houses of certain tribal members.  I am guessing that was earlier in the  deployment. They seem to know all the tribal members now and would be sending the ANCOP’s out to locate the compound for a specific guy if they did not already know where he lived.

ANCOP’s at the bazaar. These guy’s look like they hail from the Panjshier valley. They are there to restore civil order and act like it. They have also earned the trust of the local people – there have been no reports of misbehavior by the ANCOP’s in Marjah.

Marjah is a small area of Helmand province with a unique set of circumstances.  It was fascinating to me that Marine battalions had adapted with different operational templates between units just a few miles away from each other.  But that is what it takes to do counterinsurgency.  The ability to adapt and make tactical determinations based on micro level ground truth is essential to the mission.

The Marines have a distinct advantage in counterinsurgency due to the size of their maneuver units.  Marine rifle companies, battalion and regiments are much larger than their army counterparts. This is a legacy of World War II where the Marine battalion table of organization was designed to allow the battalion to function in the face of heavy casualties. Size matters in most things and especially when it comes to boots on the ground but the Marines also have another advantage;their well documented bias for action.

Not all my readers thought Mac’s observation in this post; (that this is smart guys war) – was that smart.  I did at the time and now that I have seen the line units in the field I agree with Mac even more. I’m all for stopping most night raids and using those teams for village stability operations. I am also for adopting convoy techniques that fit the local environment so that the shooting of civilian vehicles (which I have to admit has dropped off considerably over the past year) stops.  But it seems to me that the current ROE is proving to be more than adequate for those who can fight the smart guy war.

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