A Trip to Gardez and a Visit with the Marines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Good News from Southeast Afghanistan (after another unfortunate event)

There has been a flood of RFPs (request for proposal’s) hitting the street of Kabul concerning FOB Sharana. Sharana (spelled Sharan on UN AIMS maps) is the capitol of Paktika Province and a relatively small city of some 2,200 people.

FOB Sharana
FOB Sharana

Here is an assessment done in the not too distant past on Sharana: The dominate tribe in the region is the Suleimankhel who are Ghilzai Pashtuns and inhabit all of the eastern districts of the province, from Wor Momay up to Sharan district.  According to former provincial Governor Ghulab Mangal, the Suleimankhel provide the majority of recruits for the Taliban in the province.   As a result, the level of anti-coalition militia activities remains high in areas dominated by Suleimankhel.   In most areas of Afghanistan the Taliban is a collection of indigenous narco-jihadi-tribal guerrilla forces. Around Sharana this is not the case the Armed Opposition Groups (AOG) fighters are dedicated Taliban who are not motivated by financial gain, access to reconstruction projects, or narco money. Aid projects in the Province have stagnated in the face of unrelenting AOG attacks on all non indigenous peoples, projects, and the Afghan security forces. The Paktika PRT has 35 projects authorized and funded to the tune of 6.5 million but has only spent $691,350 to date. There are no high quality paved roads in the Province. The primary roads which do exist are mostly paved and service the Ghazni Sharana Monari corridor with two connecting Sharana to Ghazni and one connecting Sharna to Khost.

FOB Sharana has historically been a bad place to be. This embedded video of the FOB under attack was typical for the area for most of the recent past:

But the situation there has changed and changed radically. An associate of mine recently traveled to Sharana by road something you simply could not have done just a few short months ago. There is little question that the recent deployment of US Army units in the provinces around Kabul have made road travel in the Southeast much safer. When he arrived at FOB Sharana he interviewed several officers in detail about the local situation. It is unbelievably calm. There are now two maintenance battalions in Sharana and they are building that FOB up to be a second and third echelon maintenance facility. Last year, in preparation for significant expansion, the FOB sponsored a series of local workshops on the construction trades and then hired the graduates. The guys he talked with said they have not been attacked in over a year I didn’t’ believe that and spent hours poring over old reports and sure enough I found nothing on FOB Sharana going back to January 2008. That is one impressive accomplishment – if only we could now get some manuer units off that FOB and embeded into the local community we could very well start seeing light at the end of the Afghanistan tunnel.

Ever the pessimist I pointed out to my colleague that it is crazy to have your maintenance depot located in such a volatile area how are you going to evacuate broken armored vehicles over those roads from the south? Going through Zabul Province is still a drama and it pretty much always had been. Of course what the hell would we know about the planning that went into this but I tell you what. The more I think about it the more I like it. The reason why ISAF units are going to be able to evacuate critical vehicles and equipment to Sharana is that they have no choice. They have keep what is their most important MSR (main supply line in milspeak) wide open or else. This is actually a genius move because it forces every unit in the field to focus their attention and resources on opening and maintaining an MSR system which has been problematic since 2004. If it works if the military is able to routinely evacuate damaged equipment to Sharana from the south, southeast and east that would be one hell of an improvement for everyone on our side of the battle (the other side too for that matter but who cares about them?) Open roads mean the free flow of commerce and the tribe who can bring commerce to this strange land will be the strongest tribe. Damn if it does not look like that tribe may well be the Southeastern Afghanistan branch of the American Army.

But with the good comes the bad. On 8 April a Special Forces team conducted a raid at night in the village of Ali Daya which is 5 kilometers south of Khost City. As they prepared for an assault on their target they took fire from a neighboring compound.   They did what they were trained to do attacking the source of fire and eliminating that threat.   Unfortunately they had to quickly admit that the secondary target turned out to be a local family the wife, who was killed, was a well known teacher who worked at at the local girl’s school run by the British NGO Care. The compound belonged to a senior Afghan Army officer who was out in the field fighting the Taliban.   There were two woman wounded, two more killed along with two men and a child. Here is something that I find amazing. I was in Kabul having just finished a marathon trip to Singapore when I started listening to a CNN report and I thought I was hearing things. It was one of the most informed exchanges about the situation in Afghanistan I have ever heard. Here is the not quite verbatim exchange as I remember it:

CNN Kabul reporter The Afghan people are getting very tired of the number of innocent civilians who continued to be killed. But far more are being killed by the Taliban than by ISAF.

CNN Anchor In the past rival tribal leaders would pass on intelligence to the military which was solid enough to be actionable but when we acted it would turn out that they had used us to target their enemies who had nothing to do with the Taliban. Is that still a problem?

CNN Kabul reporter Yes, and the bottom line is that people will support the side they feel will bring them security and protection.Right now there are some in Afghanistan who feel that we are not the ones who will bring them security.

Maybe it is me I do not pay much attention to CNN but that seemed to be an unusually balanced and I think accurate bit of reporting. I never heard anything like that during the prior administration. There is some change for you I guess- straight reporting by CNN of all organizations.

But here is the thing I find it hard to believe that we are unable to verify which families in a targeted village are clearly on our side and which are not.   The woman who was killed was not only a prominent citizen but a very brave soul. Khost is a volatile place with a strong local Taliban presence. Female teachers take on a considerable amount of personal risk in areas where the Taliban are active and it is people like her we should bend over backwards to protect. The units who do these kinds of missions are not comprised of amateurs these guys are hard corps professionals who do not like to make mistakes. Somebody on high green-lighted that mission based on what had to be verified (as in not single source) intelligence. They may or may not have been going after a legitimate target but that is now irrelevant.     My problem with this whole situation is that we should be able to verify who the hell is living in a targeted village just outside a main provincial city before we send the apex predators to sort them out. If the FOB in Khost City was doing the same thing the FOB in Sharana was doing they would have (in theory at least) the situational awareness built through relationships – to be able to do target confirmation using trusted locals.

A truck load of ANP stopped for a whicker with the local boys today - that was pretty cool and something I have never seen before
A truck load of ANP stopped for a whicker with the local boys today - that was pretty cool and something I have never seen before

ISAF was very quick this time to admit they had made a terrible mistake and take responsibility for it. That is smart and probably why the incident has disappeared from the local press. But we have got to stop doing this. I understand the constraints of operational security as a good general rule one wants to avoid alerting an enemy you are coming after him least he prepare an unpleasent surprise. But when our varsity SF comes after a high value target it really doesn’t matter too much if the average Taliban leader has been tipped off or not. If he is in the target area he is going to go down and there very little he can do to alter the outcome. There are UAV platforms overhead long before the assault teams move in. If the targeted compound is reinforced with fighters so what? There is a plan for that (think precision air delivered ordinance.) It is not likely the target will try to flee in a vehicle. Everyone is this country knows what a Predator is and a wanted man trying to escape a target by vehicle knows as soon as he is clear of the town Mr. Predator will get him, or maybe an A-10 who is loitering about with some stores to burn, or an AC 130, the end result is the same. As more troops come into the country and duplicate the reported success for FOB Sharana we should be able to leverage those relationships with the local population to help us prevent more incidents of this nature. We own the night and the skies in Afghanistan and should be taking the time and risks to confirm the occupants of targeted compounds, isolate them from the civilian population and then go in and take them down. When the hard boys hit these compounds if the occupants show any resistance, or their neighbors arm themselves and come running over to help their fates are sealed.   Every compound in Southeastern Afghanistan will respond to armed intruders coming through the front gate, or climbing on their compound wall with a hail of AK 47 fire.   We know this to be the case – it is time to incorporate that fact into the mission planning profile and make the appropriate adjustments.

Mr. Reaper flying over the Taj a few days back - he is even better than the Preditor, longer loiter time, better weapons, super cool design.  The bad guys hate them ... for good reason
Mr. Reaper flying over the Taj a few days back - he is even better than the Preditor, longer loiter time, better weapons, super cool design. The bad guys hate them ... for good reason

Change you can believe in

Today started out great I am back in Jalalabad after completing a short job which I cannot freely blog about and the weather is perfect. I fired up the computer and checked in with Power Line to find this excellent story about a Marine rifle platoon who were ambushed by 250 Taliban. They routed the Taliban and sent them fleeing from the battlefield in panic with the designated marksmen putting down dozens of the enemy fighters using their excellent M-14 DMR. The M-14 DMR fires a 175 grain 7.62x51mm match round through a 22 inch stainless steel match grade barrel at 2,837 fps out of the muzzle. Marine marksmen can routinely hit individuals at 850 meters with this rifle and because of the round it has real stopping power. You won’t see a Taliban fighter take six hits with this beast and keep on running (happens a lot with the M4) in fact you won’t see a Taliban or any other kind of human take two rounds and keep moving.

M-14 DMR
M-14 DMR

The Marine story made my day and validated something I have said repeatedly on Covert Radio which is you can move anywhere in this country with a platoon of infantry. The Taliban, rent-a-Taliban, criminals, and war lord affiliated fighters have no ability to stand up to the punishment a well trained platoon can inflict. NATO needs to learn this lesson quickly. The French lost almost a dozen men in an ambush up in the Uzbin valley in August. In that very same valley last month a force of 300 French troopers conducted a “tactical retrograde” leaving behind sophisticated anti tank missiles in the process when they were confronted by a small force of Taliban. When the Marines were hit by a much larger enemy force the entire unit immediately got onto the flanks of the ambushers and rolled them up in order to free the men trapped in the kill zone. Once accomplishing this they maintained contact until the Taliban broke and ran. Conversely the French   expended all their resources and energy trying to break contact and recover casualties, a “tactic” not unheard of with other NATO military units. The point to all this isn’t that the Marines are great and the French army is not but rather it is very very difficult to build and sustain good infantry. NATO countries did not have to worry about producing quality infantry over the past 50 years they let America shoulder that burden while they developed their economies with the money they would have needed for national defense. Producing good infantry requires a certain attitude and mind set not found in polite society but when the Europeans get hit hard with the old clue bat they will develop effective infantry units. You’ll know when they do because you’ll start seeing 30 man platoons from NATO countries running all over the country hoping against hope that 200 to 300 Taliban are stupid enough to try and take them on.

Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty
Fighting in the town of Garmsir last summer - the 24th MEU drove the Taliban out of that district in a 72 hour blitz while taking just one casualty

I obviously enjoy it when events validate some of the things I say in this blog or on Covert Radio but this excellent story of combat dominance will have absolutely no impact on the Afghanistan situation at all. You cannot win here by just killing people nor can you deal the Taliban and their affiliates a decisive blow because they are not a unified movement and their leaders are all in Pakistan outside our reach. The people of Afghanistan are the prize of this contest and few of them are down in the Helmund or Farah Provinces. While the Marines dominate their area of operations the rest of the country is falling outside of central government control. Every district, town and village in Afghanistan has some sort of land or water dispute ongoing and land disputes here are deadly affairs. We routinely see firefights between clans over land disputes in UN security reporting and some of these fights result in over a dozen KIA’s. When the Taliban move into an area they decide these disputes using Sharia law instead of who can pay the biggest bribe. They are considered fair in most of these rulings and will tolerate no armed fighting over disputes once they have decided upon a case. A country doesn’t lose a war against insurgents by being out fought they lose by being out governed which is exactly what is happening all over this country.

Last night I was chatting down at the new and improved Tiki Bar with some old friends who have considerable Afghanistan experience. One of them first came here with an NGO in 1996, the other in 2002, and our conversation was all about change. When I first arrived in Afghanistan it took about 6 hours to drive between Jalalabad which is a 90 minute drive now. In Kabul it was rare to see a woman who was not wearing a burka and today the opposite is the case. In Jalalabad which is one of the largest cities in the Pashtun belt, not all women here wear the hated burka.

Streets of Kabul 2007
Streets of Kabul 2007
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.
Duranta area of Jalalabad this local woman and her daughter walked in and joined us for lunch without ever saying a word.

But here is the real change which will never be reversed. The change you can believe in computers and internet.

Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008
Middle School girls in Jalalabad summer 2008

Computers allow access to knowledge by children who are dirt poor and hungry to learn about the world around them. That genie is now long out of the bottle and my friends and I believe that the sudden surge towards modernity is spooking many of the elders who play such an important role in tribal life. We noted the backlash in Peshawar where the Pakistani Taliban is trying to reverse the headlong rush towards modernity by forcing the woman back into the burka (and with some short term success at the moment.) Peshawar used to be a very modern place which welcomed internationals and where very few women could be seen in the burka just two years ago. Not true today and you can’t buy CD’s or pirated movies either. There are many forces in play in central Asia and the biggest one has its own velocity and will continue to generate all sorts of unintended consequences as it goes forward. Knowledge is power extreme poverty is motivation and the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the other Stans are very motivated to acquire the power of knowledge.

The Jalalabad road in Kabul
The Jalalabad road in Kabul

We cannot control the effects from the explosive power of the internet and computer on the local people. What we can do is to continue developing the infrastructure while providing a secure environment in which the Afghans can develop their economy. Security in the Afghan context requires boots on the ground doing what the Marines did in Shewan. Small units who are constantly outside the wire with the Afghan people and who crush anyone silly enough to fight them even if they are outnumbered 20 to 1. Afghanistan is much bigger than Iraq with a much larger population but American infantry (the US Army has great infantry too) augmented by those allies who also have developed high quality infantry will have to start consistently operating in the same manner as the Marines are operating down south which to date they have been unwilling to do. Combat is a dangerous business requiring men who can endure incredible hardships and discomfort while maintaining their motivation and (most importantly) sense of humor.

Good infantry doesn’t need ice cream every day or the cushy barracks found at the Khandahar airfield; they need water, chow, lots of ammunition, and leaders who trust them to operate in a decentralized fashion with their small units. The Marine Commander down south is Colonel Duffy White, a close friend, extraordinarily competent and experienced warrior and a man who combines pragmatism with a great sense of humor. America has a few more like him as do our allies no doubt – inshallah we will see all of them over here soon using the decentralized tactics required for bringing security to people living outside the main cities and military bases.

Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way
Poor Bloody Infantry - they wouldn't have it any other way

This morning’s email contained two different security alerts about impending attacks on the vital Jalalabad Kabul road. We have been here for almost eight years and still have not oriented our forces to provide security for the vast majority of the Afghan population. We are running out of time but it is not too late to get more of our forces oriented on the population and operating like the lone rifle platoon from the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines did in Shewan a few days ago. That requires courage from commanders on high there are troops on the ground who already have that courage and are ready to fight like lions in order to give people they do not know a chance to enter the modern world. That is a worthy fight by any standard of measurement.

On the verge of modernity
On the verge of modernity

Travelling South: Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul, Khandahar

The southern region of Afghanistan is unstable, dangerous, and an extremely risky place to travel by road these days. This is a new development which started about one year ago. Prior to that we would make trips down to Kandahar routinely, tracing the same route made famous in James Michener’s excellent book Caravans. Back in 2005 and 2006 it was still a risky trip, but the risks were manageable. We always travel in armored trucks in these contested areas but unlike 98% of the other security companies in Afghanistan we opted for the low profile trucks with firing ports. These are not comfortable rides and they are noisy too, but they perform as advertised.

The War Pig – armored low profile

I hate being stuck in large armored SUV’s because you are locked in and cannot use your weapons unless the Taliban opens the vehicle for you. Normally that is done with an RPG which of course disables the vehicle as well any survivors inside. People working outside the wire in Afghanistan are like people anywhere they really don’t think that they will be targeted or attacked and therefore they value the comfort and false sense of security large brand new armored American SUV’s provide.


Hope is a bad security plan but it is the most common plan people use. Every second of every day somewhere in the world someone is being victimized. The chances that you are the one being victimized are very small. But that is irrelevant when you find yourself the target of criminals or terrorists. When that happens the statistical chances for you are now 100% and at exactly the time you realize they are 100% you also discover you are dealing with a pack of wolves (terrorists) or a rabid dog (criminals) and they do not respond to reason.

Most people are sheep my friends and I are sheep dogs who protect the sheep and boy am I drifting way off the story line reservation here sorry dear readers I’ll get back on track. Remember be friendly to everyone you meet but always have a plan to kill them that is a good place to start if you too want to be a sheepdog. The next step is a good multi-day handgun course; followed by obtaining a concealed carry permit, (if you live in the United States) and then learning how to apply the color code of mental awareness to your daily routine. If you live in a country where owning firearms or any type of weapon is prohibitedwell I guess it is back to “hope” for you. Call your local police and then call Dominos Pizza and see who gets to your house first then tell me how Neanderthal us Americans are for owning guns. OK I’m stopping the rant…honest.

The route to Kandahar runs southwest through the provinces of Wardak, Ghazni, Zabul and Kandahar. Up until last year Wardak and Ghazni provinces were pretty safe. Our Panjshir fighters used to pick up their weapons from the police in Ghazni when operating in Kabul city became too difficult due to police harassment. They are a registered company with weapon permits but that has nothing to do with getting arrested by the Kabul police. The amount of corruption in Kabul is truly stunning and the local cops have gotten bolder in the last few years. They have even locked up internationals from large security companies who had weapons permits, licenses and letters from one of the generals running the Ministry of the Interior. Our embassy and those of our allies couldn’t care less security contractors are as popular with them as an ACORN trained community activist would be with me. Local Afghan security companies have it much worse depending on who owns them and who is watching over them. I would go on about this rather sore topic but prudence dictates I leave this sleeping bear alone.

Our team of Tajik fighters from the Panjshir Valley getting their weapons and body armor from the ANP in Ghazni. The chief of police there is an uncle of the team leader

Wardak province is now statically the most dangerous portion of the trip south. Earlier this month AOG fighters ambushed a convoy guarded by Afghan security guards in the middle of the day. They killed three guards in the firefight and captured four whom they beheaded, again in broad daylight, on the main ring road. These AOG fighters call themselves Taliban but they are not the Taliban we read about training and infiltrating out of Pakistan. The “Taliban” elements who routinely attack military units and oil tankers along the route south are local people who may or may not be sympathetic to the Taliban cause. Many are local criminals who the Taliban pay to do their bidding which is most ironic. The Taliban got their start back in the 90’s in Kandahar by hanging an Afghan soldier (and his commander) who had raped a local school girl the day prior. Mullah Omar was the leader of this group of religious students which entered the Army camp reportedly armed with only the Koran and self righteous indignation. I guess that makes Omar sort of an Afghan version of Gandhi because showing up unarmed to lynch a few miscreants is as close to non violent protest as Afghans are ever going to get. Now instead of protecting the faithful from criminals they are using criminals to prey on the faithful.

The road out of Wardak descends down to the plains of Afghanistan and the ancient city of Ghazni. Ghazni was once considered the greatest military fort of its day but that fame was short lived after the British Army arrived in 1839 and stormed it rather quickly with little effort. Here is how it looked when the British first arrived:

Old Ghazni

And here is a picture of the city today

Source: http://avalon.unomaha.edu/afghan/afghanistan/ghazni/bz01pic.htm

The Ghazni PRT, which is run by the American military, sits outside of the town astride the main road. Not all the PRT’s are manned by Americans, our NATO allies are responsible for over half of them. Here is a map of the PRT’s which I pulled off the Wikipedia. Like many things on Wikipedia it is wrong the Swedes have the PRT in Mazar, the Canadians in Lashkar Gah and Pul-i-Khumri belongs to the Romanians.

Knowing which country is in which PRT is critical for internationals working in Afghanistan because each nation in ISAF has its own set of caveats covering which missions they are authorized, by their respective governments, to do. This is a fancy way of saying that many of our allies are not allowed to leave their compounds and come to the rescue of internationals in distress. The American PRT’s will always respond to calls for help anytime and in any conditions. I understand the Brits, Canadians, and Aussies have identical rules and attitudes. As for the others.you are on your own. Needless to say these caveats have contributed to glacier like pace of international reconstruction.

Like many of the bases situated in unstable areas the Ghazni PRT has an aerostatic balloon for surveillance and controlling fires.

Aerostatic Balloon at the Ghazni PRT

These aerostatic systems are impressive – some friends and I got to see how they work at FOB Lonestar right down the road from the Taj in Khogyani district. The technology is impressive, the capabilities unbelievable and the details best kept on the down low, but trust me this is one piece of technology worth every penny spent developing it.

Ghazni used to be the last safe place to stop for any needed vehicle maintenance which we did on one of our trips in the summer of 2006. One of our vehicles had a tire problem and we wanted to fix it before heading into Indian country. There are no tire stores here, just stands on the side of the road with a compressor. The stand we pulled into was run by a young boy and his even younger brother. Here they are diagnosing the problem.

Boys working on tire in Ghazni

After diagnosing the problem it is up to the younger of the two to get the tire off which he does using a pry bar and tackle rig.

It was well over 100 degrees that day if we came back during the winter months these two boys would probably be wearing the exact same clothes. The people here are that poor, my friends, and if you think this looks sad you should see the beggars and trash dump kids. Having patched the tire the younger child fills it while his brother prepares to mount it on the car. This pit stop was over in 5 minutes, the boys worked with the intensity and speed of a NASCAR pit crew.

Afghan pit crew


Kids with kites normally indicate limited Taliban in the area

Heading south out of Ghazni towards Qalat you run through a series of villages that even back in 2006 were not safe for foreigners. One of the most notorious was Shah Joy and it is the scene of the only attack against us if you could call it that. I was in the trail vehicle when out of the corner of my eye I saw a frag grenade sailing towards the truck. We were doing about 70 kph so hitting us with the thing was not going to happen and the bazaar was packed with local people I watched in utter amazement as it went off, clearly injuring some of the bystanders who did not even react when the grenade landed in the middle of the road. How weird is that?

But the Taliban is not the only threat on the Kabul to Kandahar road. The terrain and weather conspire to turn this route into a real pain at times. The only way to build roads in this part of the country is to build them to withstand floods. The easiest way to do that is to allow the water to spill over the road in traditional areas of flooding. We discovered during a November trip that there are 23 such spots on the road and here is the first one you run into when heading from Kandahar towards Kabul.

Decision time – cross or wait? I hate being out in the open like this.

We were already late and clearly not too happy about this. The locals were of good cheer as Afghans almost always are and offered all sorts of advice. Understanding when you are in danger and when you are not is a key skill  and these people were not a threat and seemed to enjoy having us stuck there too.

If you can’t move the next best thing is to chat up the locals to make sure everything is on the up and up

One way to tell if they are a threat is to look for high water pants and tennis shoes. Afghans wear open toed sandals, tennis shoes are normally seen only on male children and fighters transiting the area. The high water trousers seem to be a style statement but I do not know why. In this type of situation if you saw a group of men in tennis shoes the best thing to do is walk up and offer a formal greeting. If the men do not immediately break into wide smiles and offer a return greeting chances are they are Taliban or associates. When that happens guys like us get in our trucks and turn around because unless they produce a gun we can do nothing. We operate with the same rules of engagement as our military but unlike our military are also subject to the laws of Afghanistan. Do not be fooled by the main stream media writing stories about armed contractors being able to do anything they like in Afghanistan. There are expatriates sitting behind bars in the big house at Pul-e-Charkhi to prove the media reports and agenda not facts.

This logjam was broken when a large bus when it plowed through the deep fast moving water

The truck was followed by a small passenger car which triggered a mad rush from our side of river.

If this little car could make it we were going too

Qalat is the provincial capital of Zabul Province and also the home of another impressive old fortress. Qalat has an American PRT co-located inside an ANA base and they were always very hospitable when we dropped by. Here is what the town looks like as you drive in from the south. Every hilltop in this country seems to have a fort or outpost built on its crest the one in Qalat is really cool when you see it pop up on the horizon.


Heading south from Qalat there are just a few isolated compounds and no major bazaars or towns. In sparsely populated areas like that attack by AOG fighters are rare. Taliban do not like humping around in the boonies much and confine most of their activity to populated areas. That makes sense because the civilian population is cover and concealment for the bad guys. Moving out in the desert away from the protection innocent civilians provide is very risky for insurgents.


Our trips south always terminated in Kandahar city home of the Continental Inn. We could find a bunk out at the Kandahar Airfield but would have to leave our escort to fend for themselves which is uncool. Here is a shot of the Continental which has slow internet but a super cook who excels at making curry.

The Continental Inn in Khandarhar

Before hitting the Continental we would normally pull into the Kandahar Air Field (KAF) which is home to about 15,000 international troops and is a rear echelon establishment extraordinaire. Gyms, restaurants, fast food stands, a boardwalk, stores, a hockey rink, and field music on Sundays.

band at Khandarhar base

A vast majority of the troops on this base will never set one foot outside the wire during their tour. Many from allied nations are obese and have problems so fat they have problems with the heat even though they do not wear body armor or carry weapons on base. For my padres and I KAF means getting a double double at Timmy Horton’s and Burger King. Afghans love Burger King and we like the Timmy Horton’s.

We do not run down south without at least one if not two escort vehicles filled with Tajik fighters from the Panjshir valley. We use Sediqi Security Services (SSS) exclusively for work in both the south and west for two reasons. They are great fighters who battled the Taliban back in the day and the bad guys hate them more than they do us. This is an age old technique for outsiders operating in central Asia. If the north were as dangerous as the south we’d travel the north with Pashtun escorts for exactly the same reason.

The SSS Tajik crew

We use the same guys on all the high risk trips we have done over the years and needless to say we are a tight crew. The owners of SSS are young mid thirties and as children would sneak into Taliban lines to steal disarm and then steal anti personnel mines. They would then sell them to the Northern Alliance. Below is a picture of them leading the way back to Kabul.

SSS crew in vehicle headed back from Kandahar

That is a PKM machinegun sticking out of the back window which is a good piece of gear to bring along on trips south. The new laws being written for private security companies in Afghanistan will prohibit us from owning or using machineguns. That is taking stupidity to new and higher levels but the laws here are designed for one thing only and that is to make the people writing them rich. In that respect the Afghan law makers are just like their democratic counterparts in Washington only a little more up front about it.

Kandahar had a large population of expatriates in 2006 who lived and worked inside the city. There was even a starbucks influenced coffee shop run by an Afghan American which was very popular with the locals. The internationals are almost all gone now; those who remain live in heavily guarded compounds and rarely travel. On our last trip down we were leaving the Continental to head back to Kabul and I took this snap shot of the street.

Kandahar street

Suddenly the next block was empty, the shops shuttered and the hair on the back of me neck was standing tall. I took another picture before picking up my weapon. Here it is:

Kandahar EMPTY street

When you roll down a street that looks like this you are heading for big time trouble. There was only one way out of the city, so we had no choice but to keep on moving north, but Jesus it was a scary 10 minutes. Nothing happened that day and I don’t know why the street cleared out like it did but I’ll tell you what. Don’t think we’ll be heading back to Kandahar anytime soon.

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