The Sorry Story of the Delaram DAC

The FRI Guide to Dangerous Places: Delaram District, Afghanistan

During the summer of 2011 a unique opportunity presented itself to Abdul Karim Brahui, the governor of Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province, during a meeting with the new Marine Corps RCT commander in Delaram II, Colonel Eric Smith, USMC. Colonel Smith had replaced my good friend Paul Kennedy and although I knew Eric, Paul had given me a warning (in infantry officer code) about dropping in on him saying “he still irons his skivvies Timmy, don’t waste your time with him”.

Colonel Smith had come to Zaranj to complain to the provincial governor about the Khash Rod district governor who was an ineffective crook. Governor Brahui had nothing to do with the appointment of district governors, Karzai’s government appointed them but recognizing opportunity Governor Brahui turned to one of his trusted aids, Engineer Khodaidad and told him to accompany the Colonel back to Delaram and then move to assume the duties of the district governor. Col Smith, being new to the game, didn’t think twice about accepting the governors kind offer. He forgot or didn’t know those appointments were made in Kabul. The Colonels apparent complicity in this unusual arrangement stayed Karzai’s hand thus preventing Khodaidad’s immediate removal by the heavy handed Kabul Government.

Coming in for a morning meeting in Zaranj

My provincial manager in Nimroz was an Afghan national from Kabul named Bashir. Well educated Kabuli’s able to speak and write English fluently are normally connected to powerful people in the government making their utility in remote, sparsely populated areas of Afghanistan about zero. The tribes on the fringes of the Dasht-e Margo (desert of death) were more likely to shoot Kabul elites than cooperate with them. Bashir was well educated, a fluent English speaker who was from Kabul but not connected to anyone in the Kabul government. He was, without question the most honest, competent Afghan I knew, and I knew more than a few good men in Afghanistan. He and Governor Brahui became good friends over the years Bashir and his family lived in Zaranj.

 When Governor Brahui told Engineer Khodaidad to go to Delaram, Bashir turned to his assistant provincial manager, Boris, and told him to accompany Engineer Khodaidad to Delaram II. Engineer Khodaidad left with Col Smith with just the clothes on his back but Boris, a Russian Jew who was raised in New York City and a former Army Signal Intelligence operator, had the presence of mind to get his overnight bag and a change of clothes before departing for Delaram II. Boris had learned about working the Nimroz Province from the FRI blog and had contacted me asking if he could work out of Zaranj. He had an intense interest in Central Asian history and was all about supervising projects among the ruins of the Ghurid Sultanate. He turned out to be a hard worker, fluent Dari speaker, and the best field supervisor I ever had.

Bashir is to my left amd Governor Brahui to my right in this picture from on of our project openings

Engineer Khodaidad spoke fluent Russian having received his engineer training in a Russian school in Mazar-i-Sharif in the 1960’s. Like Governor Brahui he was a respected former Nimroz Front Mujahidin leader who had fought out of the Kang District during the Soviet War. Boris and Engineer Khodaidad became instant friends which was fortunate because Boris had to go to the Delaram II base exchange to by Engineer Khodaidad the various sundries and the bedding he would need to live out of the DAC. That would have normally caused embarrassed resentment from an Afghan leader who had limited dealing with Americans, but Boris and the Engineer has remarkably similar opinions about politicians and senior military officers, so it was no problem.

Boris got Engineer Khodaidad a ride to the DAC and helped him move in and I sent him some mini split air conditioners from our stash in Lashkar Gah to make the office and living spaces tolerable. I then called to the country manager in Jalalabad to see if he could shake loose some additional funding to start repairing the streets and drainage ditches in Delaram which turned out to be easy because USAID had developed a sudden interest in seeing projects started there. We turned up a couple million started to pave the streets of Delaram while also rehabilitating the bazar in the old Taliban designated district administrative center of Ghurghuri which was not too far from Delaram.

Boris sporting an M3A1 grease gun in one of the abandoned walled forts

There was a small Marine Corps Civil Affairs attachment co-located with Engineer Khodaidad at the District Administrative Center and they took over getting him established in his new home. I don’t remember who owned those Marines by they were living like the grunts down south with no fresh food, no showers, and no A/C (until we hooked them up).  At least one of them ( the team Gunny) had already been shot once while patrolling the area but that didn’t stop them from continuing to patrol. The DAC detachment also had a Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel from the Afghan Hands program assigned to it, but he had little to do except tease me because I couldn’t speak Pashto. He was a good man in a hard spot, but his assignment said all you needed to know about the Afghan Hands Program (it was a loser track for officers) which sucked because I saw serious talent in the Hands program every time I ran into one. There was also an American SF team located in Ghurghuri but I never saw them and have no idea what they were up to or why they were there.

That sets the table for an interesting tale because when Boris and Engineer Khodaidad showed up the security situation in Delaram wasn’t good but not that bad in the big scheme of things. But not a week after they showed up the Karzai administration struck by appointing a new district police chief named Asif, a Pashtun of the Helalzai subtribe of the Nurzai tribe. The Helalzai fought on the Soviet side of the war and Asif’s father, acting as the Soviet district security chief back then had executed 28 civilians in the Delaram Bazar for supporting the Nimroz Front Mujaheddin.

Commander Asif and Engineer Khodaidad were mortal enemies and he, the  local tribal leaders, and the Afghan Hands LtCol told anybody who would listen that Asif’s appointment was a terrible idea, but that didn’t matter because there was nothing any American could do about it. When Asif showed up a significant proportion of the local police force immediately quit, partially motivated by his appointment and partially by the fact that they had not received their pay in months. Asif immediately brought several of his own trusted men onto the Delaram police payroll.

This was the interesting dynamic from the Afghan perspective because when Col Smith returned from his meeting in Zaranj with Engineer Khodaidad and installed him as the new district governor it was assumed he was under the protection of the Colonel who would support him both morally and materially as he consolidated his position. They expected Col Smith would derail the appointment of Commander Asif after they explained who he was and why his appointment would degrade the district’s security.

But Eric Smith had no intention of doing that, his focus was on the Northern Helmand Province where his maneuver battalions were still having major problems in Sangin, Musa Qala, and the Kajaki Dam. He didn’t give a damn about Delaram, neither did Paul Kennedy when he was there, nor would have I had I been in their shoes. But Paul knew how provincial and district governors were appointed and wouldn’t have short circuited that process – that was an unforced error. The appointment of Commander Asif was uncontested by the Colonel Smith because he had no say in the matter. Even worse Smith was forced to ignore the obvious reason for the decline in district security while acting like the new district police chief was a legit player in the regional security hierarchy.

The shit hit the fan days after Asif took over when a small convoy of Afghan security contractors were ambushed by the Taliban approximately 40 km west of Delaram. These were fuel tanker escorts as I recall, and they tended to roll with lots of guns and  a ton of ready ammunition. In the ensuing 90-minute firefight, the contractors drove the Taliban from the field and captured a vehicle containing 12 IEDs. The contractors then called the Afghan Highway Police, the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army, and the Marines looking for somebody who would take custody of the Taliban IED’s. Nobody came out to help them and nobody wanted the IED’s except for the Taliban who returned in force to recapture their vehicle and IED’s.  The contractors retreated to Delaram DAC with three of the IED’s and reported to the incident to Engineer Khodaidad.

These are the three large IED’s with pressure plates captured by the contractors

Within days carloads of armed men started to show up at our project sites to threaten our workers which was not unusual and Boris, who had the advantage of being tall, fit, disagreeable and a Dari speaker, had no problem running them off. Then IEDs began to detonate in the town several times a week, at first they targeted Asif’s Afghan National Police (ANP) checkpoints, then a few targeted our project site. The escalation continued with two of our Delaram project day laborers were kidnapped and decapitated by the local Taliban when they went to their home village (Tut) for the weekend.

The IED fiasco and sudden eruption of IED blasts brought the RCT-8 commander to the DAC with an entourage including his Sergeant Major, for a security shura. Boris blended in with the Afghans at the meeting and was able to observe from the back of the room. He said the District Governor was not mollified by being patronized by Col Smith with a pat on the back, and the promise “you and I will go out there with pistols and shoot the Taliban”.

Boris thought Engineer Khodaidad had seen a fair number of Americans in uniform making extravagant promises and talking tough, then failing to deliver before they redeployed back home. The Governor walked out of the security shura frustrated at the inability of the participants to agree on any concrete plan of action for security incidents like the IED capture. He later told Boris: “why should I even be here, if none of you listen to me?”. It was time to face a decision I never wanted to make and that was to cancel a project without finishing it, something none of my colleagues and I had done over the years of working contested districts, so I flew into Delaram to talk with the district governor.

This is what high grade home made explosive (HME) looks like

Delaram had grown considerably since my first visit as had the staffs of the Regimental Combat Teams. The RCT 8 CO now had a State Department Contractor assigned to him who was in some way responsible for aid in Nimroz Province. The State guy was a retired Army Colonel who seemed nice enough, but I was unable to figure out his role in the “hold and build” phase of the Marine Corps Southwestern campaign. He didn’t have any funds to spend, he was not part of the approval process for my projects, and he couldn’t leave the Delaram base, so it was hard to see what role he played in the big scheme of things.  He picked me up when I flew in making it a point to ask that I not go directly to the Marine CO with information that should have gone through him. I told him that would not be problem without explaining why and asked if I could use his vehicle to drive out to the DAC.

The vehicle in question, a beat-up old Toyota SUV with bad brakes and no working A/C, did not belong to him. He and a few other contractors rented it (for $1000 a month!) to get around the base and it wasn’t allowed off base according to the rental contract. You could have gone down the ring road to Herat and purchased a vehicle in similar shape for less than a thousand U.S. dollars, but I don’t remember mentioning that to him.

The IED’s still had the blasting cap inside attached which amazed me – imagine bouncing around the pitted dirt roads of Afghanistan with 5 gallons of HME with a blasting cap embedded in it.

I met Boris on the Delaram FOB where the State Department liaison had found some racks for us in transient berthing area. The next morning, we walked to the gate where they screened local workers entering the base, exchanging our ball caps and sunglasses for shalwar kameez tunic’s and pakols and walked off the base to the district administrative center. The gate guards were contractors, not Marines and they were not sure we were allowed to just walk off base. I told them to check with my good friend Colonel Smith if they didn’t believe we could leave. Thankfully that did the trick because I think Eric might have really detained me for being armed, or the bogus Synergy Strike Force CAC card identifying me as DB Cooper CAC card (it even scanned in the DFACS!) , or using an expired SWAMP pass to bullshit my way off base, the number of infractions he could have gotten shitty with me about were alarming when I think about it.

Laying out the main drag of the Delaram Bazaar

The walk was about three miles as I remember, and we witnessed a group of boys cut and then steal an electrical transmission cable that connected an ANP checkpoint with an ANA base across the road. The kids were quick too, laughing hysterically from the back of motorcycles as the ANP troops boiled out of their checkpoint in hot pursuit. Being an ANP officer in Delaram while commander Asif was in charge sucked. When we arrived at the DAC Engineer Khodaidad was meeting with a local farmer discussing a vexing problem in Dari because the Engineer wouldn’t speak Pashto.

We had arrived hot and sweating profusely because it was a good 110 outside but were being ignored so Boris started interpreting for me.

 “He’s asking the Engineer to send the Marines to run off the Taliban near his farm because they are raping his livestock at night. Engineer K just told him the big Foriengee (foreigner) understands Dari so maybe they should discuss this another time”

The farmer then turned to us and asked could we tell the Marines the Taliban are at his farm every night molesting his sheep and they can come and kill them no problem and he’d give them a sheep for their trouble too. Boris translated that for me before saying simply “No”.

There are hundreds of these old walled forts scattered throughout the desert in Nimroz province

Boris then asked Engineer Khodaidad for guidance in Russian and I said to the farmer “Ma dorost dari yad nadaraom” (I can’t speak dari well) but I said it perfectly which made him look at me with narrowing eyes before asking why there were Russians in the DAC. He then launched into a long story about how everything has gone to hell since the Marines showed up and built a forward operating base because Marines attract  livestock raping Taliban and now there is an old Baloch Muj commander running the district but he doesn’t have his Muj army with him just two Russians and a handful of Marines which wasn’t enough fighters … the farmer had the pacing and timing of a stand-up comedian and in no time we were laughing so hard it was silly . After the farmer left Engineer Khodaidad told us he wanted the projects to continue but would understand if we pulled out. We stayed and finished the projects without additional losses.

Most of the old forts are eroding back into the desert, the amount of interesting archeological history being lost to history is a crime.

Engineer Khodaidad and Commander Asif did not survive their appointments to the Kashrud district government. Asif was smoke checked after a few months in command which immediately brought the incident rates down and allowed us to finish our projects. Engineer Khodaidad was killed in a targeted assassination outside his home village a year after his appointment to district governor. The Engineer was a brave man who personally found and ran off a two man hit team sent to kill Boris, but he didn’t tell us about it, he told Governor Brahui who then called Bashir and told him to bring Boris back to Zaranj immediately.

I decided to go get Boris with our Baluch interpreter Zabi and drive him back to Zaranj because he had bitching about not being able to free range the province with me. We took all day to make the drive to Zaranj stopping to examine some of the old walled cities in the desert that were being used by the Taliban to move in and out of the Helmand. We found melon rinds, goat scat and fire pits in them which we assumed came from the Taliban because the Desert of Death in no place to herd goats.

Boris and Zabi during our walled city day trip

Boris the Russian Jew is now Boris the Israeli Kibbutz farmer He and his growing family live the spartan life in the Negav Desert. Zabi and Bashir are now both American citizens and doing well. Governor Brahui returned to his home in Char Burjak district which had experienced an economic revival after we repaired the irrigation system. I have no idea how he is getting along with the Taliban government but suspect he’s reached accommodations with them because what else can he do?

The FRI Guide to Dangerous Places – Nimroz Province

As mentioned in the last post I spent much of 2011 – 2012 in Zaranj, the Capitol of Nimroz Province. Nimroz is in southwestern Afghanistan bordersing Iran to the west, Baluchistan in the south, Helmand province in the east, and Farah province in the north. The province is divided geographically and demographically with the four southwestern districts; Kang, Charborjak, Zaranj and Chakansor comprised of flat desert terrain inhabited mostly by Baluch people and the mountainous Northwestern district of Khashrud which has a majority Pashtun population. Nimroz is the only province in Afghanistan where the minority Baloch make up most of the population, and the capital, Zaranj is one of the few cities in Afghanistan where the women wear the Persian black chador instead of the blue Afghan burqa.

Zaranj was essentially isolated from the rest of the country by the Dash-e Margo (Desert of Death) until the Indian government paved a high-speed highway connecting Zaranj to the ring road at Delaram in 2009. Known as route 606 the road connected to the deep-water port of Chabahar, Iran which the Marines and Afghans hoped would stimulate more economic growth, but that growth needed to be juiced with reconstruction money. In 2009 the Boss sent Mullah Jack Binns who was now working with us to Zaranj to find a guesthouse and to get some projects started. Jack had managed the Jalalabad Afghanistan NGO Security Office (ANSO) the year prior and deployed to Afghanistan with the Canadian Army prior to that. We would be the only USAID implementor to work in Nimroz province for the remainder of the war.

One of the Zaranj students in our USAID sponsored rug weaving class. We ran several training programs for women that were ended by USAID who wanted us to “build capacity” whatever that meant.

Due to its desert terrain and agricultural economy, Nimroz province was completely dependent on large-scale irrigation from rivers. With it, the soil is highly productive and can sustain a large population and large hydraulic civilizations had thrived in the area thousand years ago until Genghis Khan showed up to prove you can win a counterinsurgency by killing people, something today’s military leaders say is impossible to do.

Desert canals require regular large-scale centrally coordinated maintenance efforts; otherwise they fill in with silt from the constant dust storms and canal-bank erosion. A positive feedback loop forms, as the topsoil of newly fallow land is blown into the neighboring canals and blocks them. Over the last thirty years of war and weak government, blocked canals and lack of irrigation led to the depopulation of the province. Our plan was to rebuild the irrigation systems in the Baloch dominated districts while ignoring the Pashtuns in Khashrud district because, being the only people working in Nimroz we could get away with that kind of thing.

Before landing in Zaranj pilots had to sweep the runway of the feral dogs who hang out there all day. 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

I was a big fan of the governor of Nimroz, Abdul Karim Brahui. Governor Brahui was a graduate of the Kabul military academy who founded and commanded the Jabha-e Nimruz (Nimroz Front) as part of the Mujahedeen Southern Alliance against both the Soviet army and Taliban. He was a lead-from-the-front commander and the rare Afghan politician who concerned himself more with the people’s problems than accumulating additional power and wealth.

Explaining my understanding of how USAID awards projects to Governor Abdul Karim Brahui.

Governor Brahui was as close to an honest politician as one could be in Zaranj given that the local economy revolved around plastic jerry cans. They were used to smuggle petrol or heroin across the border or to haul water from various sources for sale to one of the two municipal water treatment plants. Teenage boys selling petrol or diesel out of 5-gallon jerry cans dotted every major road in the city. There was very little industry and as the population swelled with refugees returning from Iran, drinking water became a huge issue. 

These two are unloading petrol from a truck which has just crossed the Iranian border and is turning into the Afghan customs lot. The town ran on Jerry cans back in 2010.

In 2010 I routed my fiscal year plans through the Marines in Leatherneck because Nimroz was the one province in the country without a PRT. I told the Marines that we were going to completely rehabilitate the irrigation systems in Charborjak, Kang, and Chakhansor districts they did not believe we could do it in just one year. The were technically correct because Miullah John had started work on the Chakhansor district system with FY 2009 funds but we finished the rest on time which was still impressive given the size, scope and distances involved.

We built a large main irrigation canal in Charborjak district that extended 56 kilometers and services every farming hamlet in the district. We were going to do 60 kilometers but ran into a mine field at the tail end of the canal and could not find a way around it.

The easiest and fastest project was the Chakhansor district system because the Khashrod River which fed the irrigation system was dry for most of the year. Using 1,500 local laborers we rehabilitated 300 kilometers of canals and re-built a 170 meter, reinforced concrete check-dam to capture the spring run-off. The Chakhansor irrigation system served 7,200 farms and the first post project wheat and melon harvests yielded outputs three times greater than pre-project averages. The Baloch of Nimroz no longer had to import melons from Kandahar and if you knew how much Afghans love their local melons (which are excellent) you would understand the significance of that accomplishment, and we weren’t even getting started.

Opening ceremonies for the Charborjak irrigation system.

The Chakhansor district project was completed by Mullah John while I was still in Jalalabad. With the large fiscal year 2010 budget we could do both Charborjak and Kang districts simultaneously which would mitigate some of the heavy equipment costs. That year we built 400 miles of irrigation canals turning 25,000 acres of the Dasht-e Margo into highly productive farmland allowing the Baloch to get in on the poppy boom. We hired over 18,000 workers to dig these canals in the middle of the desert where the temperature could hit 120° daily.

Opening the Kang district irrigation system.

The key to completing these so quickly was we were replacing systems, not building new ones, and we hired as many of the engineers who had built the original weirs and dams as we could find. The only problem with this massive project was the USAID stipulation that no material originating from Iran could be used in the construction. Instead of using high quality Iranian concrete at $5.00 per 50lb bag we were supposed to import low quality concrete from Pakistan who the State Department insisted was our ally. We worked around that somehow, I don’t remember the details, and finished every project on time and on budget. You can read about those in more detail as well as the Taliban attempt to ambush us here, here and here.

At the completion of our work in Nimroz province I received several plaques and rugs and a proclamation all of which I had to turn over to my company or the USAID representatives in Lash; damnit.

From the time of my first visit to Zaranj in 2010 until I departed the city in 2012 I would tell anyone who asked the city was perfectly safe. I once even lectured the G9 about the requirement to drive around the city in unarmored trucks like the Afghans did because the Baloch held the city and they were not down with the Pashtun dominated Taliban. I often walked around the city of Zaranj alone to inspect our road and stadium building projects because I knew I was safe, protected by locals who respected me because I lived like them, ate with them, and really liked them. It did not take long before I saw the Marines riding around in the back of ANP trucks which I thought a splendid idea.

Marines leaving the Zaranj airport to inspect projects they were funding in 2011

April 28th, 2012 a four vehicle patrol of ANP trucks with Marines and a Wall Street Journal reporter in the back were hit by a suicide bomber in downtown Zaranj. The attacked killed 38 year old MSgt Scott Pruitt, a 38 year old father of two from Gautier, Mississippi. As described in the linked account that explosion was followed by a small arms attack from multiple attackers staged in several different buildings fronting the kill zone. We had not only paved the street they were driving on when attacked we had installed the lane dividers that pinned MSgt Pruitt in the from passenger seat following the blast. According to my understanding of local security issues this attack could not happen because the Baloch were too proficient at recognizing and dealing with Taliban. The attack proved something I didn’t want to admit and that was I never as well informed as I thought I was during my years living in Afghanistan.

A parting gift from the city fathers of Zaranj

My company, CADG, pulled out of Zaranj after we completed the district irrigation projects but not before the Governor talked us into doing some work in Delaram which I’ll cover in a separate post because it was an interesting problem that involved a regimental commander who is now the Commandant of the Marine Corps. There was a big ceremony where excellent provincial manager, Bashir Ahmad Sediqi, and my company and USAID and the Marine Corps were all recognized with plaques and proclamations for delivering so much valuable aid to the province. I was the senior representative for my company, USAID and the Marines so I got a bunch of really cool swag which I had to surrender when I got back to Lashkar Gah. When we arrived at our compound that evening there was a case of Red Horse Beer waiting for us, an anonymous donation from the city fathers that was both unexpected and appreciated, but not a surprise given porous border just a mile away.

The FRI Guide to Dangerous Places – The Helmand Province

The Helmand Province was the scene of the heaviest fighting of the Afghanistan war for both the United States Marine Corps and British Army. Yet my experience in the Helmand was different, in fact the first time I was there the Helmand was quiet. In 2005 Sher Muhammad Akhundzada was the governor and his vast militia was designated the 93rd Division of the Afghanistan National Army. When I drove through Grishk on my way to Herat in 2005 the ANA troops manning the checkpoints looked like Taliban because they were wearing shalwar kameez (local man jams) and turbans but they kept commerce flowing and security incidents down on the vital ring road.

Five years later I moved to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, to take over the USAID Community Development Program for the southwest region. The Marines had locked down the southern and central regions of the province and I could drive from Lashkar Gah to Marjah or the district center in Nawa without a problem. Just three years before that my friend Cody Elmore was working out of Lash and witnessed a truck full of his Afghan Boost demonstration farm workers vaporized by a Taliban IED. Of course when the Marines pulled out at the end of the Obama surge the Taliban eventually re-gained the ground they lost, but during the time Marines sustained an unsustainable deployment tempo into the province it was sort of safe.

Was there a better time to be an American than the 1950’s? This is a photo of the Lashkar Gah housing area for the Morrison-Knudsen firm circa 1958.

The Helmand wasn’t dangerous because there was a war on between two uniformed combatants as defined by Clausewitz, it was dangerous because an infidel military was trying to force a corrupt, worthless, central government down the throats of the Afghan people. Which was the height of irony because the only thing the people of Afghanistan expected the central government to do was to protect them from foreign soldiers especially if they were infidels.  I had lived in Afghanistan for five years before moving to Lashkar Gah but had not figured this out yet because effective redevelopment program managers were treated well by local Afghans, especially if they lived embedded inside their communities.

Before the 1940’s Lashkar Gah was a desert fort, Lashkar means soldier in Pashto and Gah translates as home so Lashkar Gah was home to the soldiers before the development of the Helmand Green Zone. In 1949 King Mohammed Zahir Shah hired the American Morrison-Knudsen firm to turn the desert into agricultural oasis with electricity Lashkar Gah was the headquarters for the Americans thus Lashkar Gah became known as Little America from the late 1940’s until the early 1970’s . Morrison-Knudsen had built the Hoover Dam and San Francisco Bridge, but they failed in the Helmand because they never addressed the fundamental problem of salty soil that drained poorly. That problem was mitigated by the American government and the Helmand green zone finally reached its potential just as the Soviet invasion ended our involvement there in the 1970’s.

in the 1950’s Lashkar Gah had the only coed pool in Afghanistan
In 2008 my happy home – The Taj in Jalalabad had the only coed pool in the country. I don’t think there will be another anytime soon.

I had lived in Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, and Jalalabad when those cities had been full of westerners living and working outside the wire. Mazar and Kabul had several bars and restaurants that catered to westerners and Jalalabad had the Taj Guesthouse and Tiki Bar where the international aid community gathered weekly on Thursday evenings. That was not the case in Lashkar Gah where the few westerners living in town kept a low profile. There were no weekly gatherings, booze was hard to find, and the internationals rarely mingled outside their secure compounds.

I did not live like the other USAID implementors in Lash who followed the UN Minimum Occupational Security Standards (UN MOSS) which mandated enhanced outer RPG screens, hard rooms, 24/7 communication capability with the regional UN headquarters, B7 Armored SUV’s, and international personal security details. We used local vehicles, wore local clothes, and I lived in a regular compound using the Jeff Cooper rules for compound security that mandated concertina wire inside (not on top of) the outer walls, the use of dogs, turning bedrooms into barricaded fighting positions, and not arming local guards with AK’’s that could be turned against us. We armed our guards with shotguns and they were instructed to fire them and run if attacked, the resident expats would take over at that point.

Living outside the wire in the south forces one to adapt to the situation as it is. Adding three feet to the exterior walls and topping them with concertina is not practical because it costs money we didn’t have and drew attention we didn’t need.
This part of the Jeff Cooper compound defense plan failed when Tor Spay (Black Dog in Pashto) chose to hide under my bed whenever fighting drew close to our quarters. He was great at keeping strangers out of our sleeping area though – the only Afghan who could get near him without getting mauled was my Terp Zaki.

I had inherited some projects from my good friend Jeff “Raybo” Radan, the only Marine officer I ever met who thought attending Ranger School was a good deal thus the call sign “Raybo”. Raybo had turned hippy on me but was also a fan of the FRI blog which is how he got hired to go to Lash in 2009. I wanted to stay in Jalalabad but my boss wanted a former Marine officer in the Helmand and Raybo was all about experiencing the outside the wire lifestyle. Being an energetic optimist Raybo had moved into the northern portion of the province to rebuild the Naw Zad bazaar. His first two attempts to get a convoy loaded with building material failed and ended up in the hands of the Taliban. By the time I arrived he had gotten enough material to start work so he passed the project off to me.

Jeff “Raybo” Radan and I heading out to the far reaches of Helmand Province on an old Marine Corps CH 53D that leaked hydraulic fluid all over us. We returned in an Osprey that didn’t leak a drop of fluid which was caused old grunts like us undue concern.
This was the main street of Naw Zad bazaar in 2009
Naw Zad bazaar in 2010 – this was the only project of mine that took longer than planned. It still came in on budget though because we did no subcontracting.

Reconstruction projects in the Helmand Province were supposed to be coordinated through the British PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team which included American, Danish and Estonian government representatives). In practice that meant every project needed to be approved by a trilateral commission consisting of DFID (British Department for International Development), DANIDA (the Danish Governments development agency), and USAID. How long do you think project proposal took to work their way through that sausage machine? I wouldn’t know because I refused work through them after the USAID rep gave me shit about carrying a pistol on base and the PRT SgtMaj refused to let me drive my vehicle on post because he thought it might have a bomb attached to it.

I believe the Taliban attached a bomb to a parked vehicle in a targeted attack exactly never during the 20 year conflict but the reality of outside the wire living could not be understood by soldiers or civilians who never left the wire. My company had run out of experienced Afghan hands and hired an NGO worker from New York City to manage the Helmand projects. He was unarmed and restricted to doing project in Lashkar Gah but he also finished the Naw Zad bazaar which I appreciated. That left me with 10 million dollars to burn and I knew exactly who to ask about where to burn it, the Marine Corps G9 (Civil Affairs) shop at Camp Leatherneck. They wanted me to dump it all in Nimroz province because they could not deploy Marines there due to the capital, Zaranj, being on the border with Iran and having armed Marines on the border of Iran was bad according to the genius’s in Foggy Bottom.

I had a fantastic Afghan provincial manager in Zaranj so although I spent a lot of time in the Nimroz I had plenty of time to burn hanging out with the two Marine Corps Regimental Combat Team commanders currently working the Helmand. The three of us had been Infantry Officer Course instructors, then went to the Amphibious Warfare School together, and we then commanded the three most successful Marine Corps recruiting stations (in the late 90’s) even though we were assigned to stations that had not been previous powerhouses. I was in Salt Lake City, Dave Furness next to me in Sacramento, and Paul Kennedy next to Dave at RS San Francisco and none of us ever missed mission.

Colonel Paul Kennedy, the Commanding Officer of RCT 2 in his Ops center

Colonel Paul Kennedy had just moved into the Delaram 2 firm base and was responsible for the northern districts in the Helmand. He did not have much time left in country and the air strip on his new base wasn’t open yet but that was no obstacle for the South Africans who flew our company 12 seat turboprops. All they need was a bottle of scotch each and I was on my way to see Paul. The pilots kicked me out of the plane and hauled ass after landing because the control tower was giving them a hard time. A pair of MP’s pulled up to ask me who I was and why I was there and you should have seen their faces when I told them I was the Regimental Commanders best friend. They looked both dubious and annoyed which I expected, when they raised Paul on the radio he ordered them to arrest me and bring me directly to him. They knew better than to really yoke me up but they didn’t find the situation nearly as amusing as I did. My visit with Paul was brief – he got me on a helicopter out the next day because they were heavily engaged with the Taliban and he had better things to do then entertain me.

LtCol Sean Riordan, (one of our IOC students in the early 90′) Col Dave Furness and me after a 5 hour foot patrol. – We’re hurting too but it was an interesting experience.

But not Dave Furness who commanded RCT 1 out of Camp Dwyer down in the south. He was still taking casualties and doing some hooking and jabbing with the Taliban but for the most part (by Marine Corps standards) his area was quiet. I was able to fly into Dwyer and link up with Dave several times which I blogged about here, here, and here.

When you’re hanging out with a good friend commanding a Marine Corps Regiment in combat its a good idea to go out of your way not to be a dick around the enlisted Marines. But the first time I got into Dave’s MRAP I couldn’t help myself when his MK 19 gunner briefed me on what to do if he opened fire with his grenade launcher. When he finished I said “I bet I can shoot that MK 19 better than you can” (and took this picture). Is his expression priceless or what? He said “Sir, let me try this again; when the big dog starts to bark you unstrap the ammo cans. Then you sit and wait for me to yell for ammo, only then do you break the seal and hand the can up. Then you sit right back down until I tell you to do something different or that I need more ammo. Got it”? His expression never changed so maybe I wasn’t so damn funny after all.

The only problem I had in the Helmand was when I foolishly agreed to inspect a road building project in Grishk, a large town on the Ring Road that was inside the British Army zone by 2011. When we arrived at the project site there was no paved roads and no people as all the local businesses appeared to be abandoned. That is a pre-incident indicator for an ambush and I didn’t”t hesitate to order my crew to immediately head back home and we almost made it out without incident. Almost.

Yukking it up with the workers at one of our road building projects. Dressing in local garb didn’t fool anyone once they saw your walking gait but the Afghans seemed to appreciate the effort.

My time in the dangerous Helmand province wasn’t that bad because I spent most of it in Nimroz province or with the Marines. I was never comfortable in Lash although I was treated well by local Afghans who thought of me as a direct link to the Marines controlling the province, which wasn’t always the case. After Paul Kennedy and Dave Furness headed home they were replaced by Colonels I knew well, but avoided like the plague. Now security in the Helmand province is like it was before 9/11 – safer than any major city in America. There is lesson in there somewhere but it eludes me for now because all I feel now about Afghanistan is humiliation over our dreadful performance there.

These two Marines taught the daughters of a local teacher in Naw Zad how to read and write English. I’m not sure we did the girls any favors in the long run but this is what Marines or soldier did when given the chance. They were unquestionable the good guys while they were in the Helmand.

But I got to see the pointy end of the stick at the small unit level where junior Marine interacted daily with Afghans who saw their tiny spartan combat outposts as a legitimate source of protection from both the Taliban and Afghan Security Forces. It was no mystery to me who the good guys were when we had boots on the ground. Yet in the end all the good intentions in the world can’t compensate for foreign policy based on path-dependent groupthink that results in George Floyd murals and gay pride flags painted on the Kabul embassy walls.

I’ll let the Base Mickey have the last word.

EFP’s

After the ceremonies described in the last three posts we had one more task to complete before we went home. In the ANSF after action report on the ambush of Haji Nematullah, they reported seizing three large buckets of Home Made Explosives (HME) and three “milled metal devices with explosives inside”. We had no idea what they meant and were afraid they might be Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) mines. EFP’s were a big problem in Iraq and their source of origin is Iran. Iran being about 1/2 mile away from our safe house in Zaranj we took this report seriously and wanted to see them for ourselves. We also submit reports to the Marines at Camp Leatherneck when we get to verify stuff like this not because they asked to but as a courtesy on the off chance they too were wondering what the three “milled metal devices with explosives inside” were. We have no idea if they already know what we are reporting but it seems like the right thing to do.

On our last day in Zaranj we headed over the Provincial ANP headquarters to talk with the provincial commanders of the Afghan national Police (ANP) and National Directorate for Security (NDS) and to inspect the explosives recovered from the October 5th ambush.

The day started with a 45 minute grilling of the Police Chief by Michael Yon. He sounded like a 60 minutes reporter doing a "gotcha" on a hapless Republican pol. The Chief was clearly not accustomed to such a direct line of questioning but was than happy to answer all of them
The day started with a 45 minute grilling of the Police Chief about Taliban and Iranian activity in the Province by Michael Yon. He sounded like a 60 minutes reporter and the Chief was clearly not accustomed to such a direct line of questioning but was happy to answer all of them.  Mike is like a pit bull when he starts questioning someone and I found it fascinating for about the first 10 minutes or so.

 

I had heard all this before and my attention wandered over to the TV screen where an Iranian station was blurring out the cleavage on a 24 episode
I had heard all this before – having a handle on ground truth is critical to our ability to operate independently. My attention wandered over to the TV screen where an Afghan station was blurring out the cleavage of female actresses on an episode of the American TV show 24

 

Looks like they missed a good 30 seconds of this money shot
Looks like they missed a good 30 seconds of this money shot – bet a thousand bucks because the censor was staring.

 

But they caught that mistake after a whiel
But he caught up after getting an eye full (I’m guessing)

After talking with the Chief of Police we went out to inspect the take from last weeks ambush in their explosives locker.

These are the three large IED's with pressure plates captured on the raid
These are the three large IED’s with pressure plates captured after the ambush

 

Looked to be very high grade home made explosive
It looked to be very high-grade home made explosives but I’m no expert on the subject

 

One of the officers explains how the pressure plate functions - a topic we already more than we wanted to know about from first had experience
One of the officers explains how the pressure plate functions – a topic we are already all too familar with .

What we had come to see is what was described as a “milled metal device with explosives inside” and that turned out to be true except they were not EFP’s; they were artillery fuses.

This is one of the arty fuses outside of its packaging container
This is one of the arty fuses outside of its packaging container

That was good news – EFP’s are a devastatingly effective weapon able to easily penetrate military grade armor.  I have not heard of them being in Afghanistan but I checked with The Bot who had heard of one being found around Ghazni last year. A flood of them entering Afghanistan would be alarming to put it mildly.

I notice that one of the large IED's still had the electric blasting cap inside it. An EOD tech would probably tell you this is still perfectly safe - I'm not sure but us old infantrymen are spooked about being around any explosives armed with blasting caps. Right after I took this picture we headed out of the storage room.
I notice that one of the large IED’s still had a blasting cap inside it. An EOD tech would probably tell you this is still perfectly safe – I’m not sure, but us old infantrymen are spooked about being around explosives primed with blasting caps. Right after I took this picture we headed out of the storage room.

As we walked back towards our vehicles Mike Yon asked our escort – one of the local NDS men who spoke English – what else they needed and he replied “somebody to fix our trucks”.

The ANP seem to have more vehicles down than running. There was an American contract that placed mechanic teams headed by internationals (mainly British citizens) and comprised of Filipino mechanics who mentored Afghan mechanics on the art of Ford pick up maintenance but that contract died back in 08 as I recall. They would have never sent a team to a place as remote an isolated as Zaranj - only Ghost Team can operate in these types of environments
The ANP seem to have more vehicles down than running. There was an American contract that placed mechanic teams headed by internationals (mainly British) with Filipino mechanics who mentored Afghan mechanics on the art of Ford pick up maintenance but that contract died back in 08. They would have never sent a team to a place as remote and isolated as Zaranj  anyway – only Ghost Team can operate in these types of environments

We continued on to find the Chief of Police having a Press Conference about a recent drug bust.

Afghan pressers are fun to watch because they appear to be utter chaos but the results are pretty professional when you watch the news on local TV stations
Afghan pressers are fun to watch because they appear to be utter chaos but the results are pretty professional when you watch the news on local TV stations

 

It looked like they had confiscated about 10 kilos of dry opium which would be (I'm guessing here) around 0.0000001% of this years harvest. Still a bust is a bust and if the guys who were muling these drugs across the border had been caught in Iran they would have been tried, convicted, and hung in about 48 hours
It looked like they had confiscated about 10 kilos of dry opium which would be (I’m guessing here) around 0.0000001% of this years harvest. Still a bust is a bust and if the guys who were muling these drugs across the border had been caught in Iran they would have been tried, convicted, and hung in about 48 hours

I appeared on the Aloyna Show last week and talked to the current conventional wisdom about the need to keep some sort of military presence in Afghanistan for the next 10 years.  A link to that show is here and my segment starts around the 34 minute mark.

Our military is a big cumbersome leviathan designed to do one thing and one thing only; crush other nation state armies. Our military is good at killing bad guys. But killing bad guys is the easy part of war. It is everything else you have to do simultaneously that’s the hard part. We once knew how to do the “other things besides killing people” part of expeditionary warfare but that was long ago when the units dispatched half way around the world took a month or two to get there and remained in country for the duration. Our military can’t do that anymore – contractors can (stay in the same Province for years and years) and in doing so could fill in for fighting infantry but then you are outsourcing the fighting to mercenaries and have little reason to maintain such a large force structure.

If I remember my Roman History correctly Rome started down the road to ruin when they became unwilling to bear the burden of military service and outsourced fighting to Barbarian tribes. We have not reached that point. I know the Marine Corps is currently so flush with tier one (99.9% of the current pool) enlistment applicants that the wait for boot camp is 7 months minimum. The wait for candidates entering the officer training pipeline is over a year. We still produce the men needed for our military force structure but the amount of money it takes to do so is ridiculous. Using what the Romans called Auxilia for contingency operations makes perfect sense from a financial and political point of view and I support it 100% but our elites won’t.

When you are unable to do what is important, the unimportant becomes important which is why we spend millions to fly 5 pound bags of crushed ice from Saudi Arabia to our FOB’s. I saw that in Nangarhar – in Helmand there is an ice plant on Camp Bastion run by the Brits but the Marines I rode around with did not have coolers full of ice, which was mandatory with the American army units in Nangarhar. The Vietnam War may not be the best example of doing things right, but my father spent 13 months fighting in Leatherneck Square and the Arizona Territory of Northern I Corps (on the DMZ between South and North Vietnam). In all that time he saw ice once – it was flown in off a Navy ship – but by the time they had divided it evenly among the rifle companies it had mostly melted. Today crushed ice for coolers full of expensive sports drinks and bottled water is considered essential for troop morale.

There are Marines and soldiers in Afghanistan now who man small patrol bases and never see hot chow; let alone ice. I blogged about them in the past.  But the guys (and now gals) who are out at pointy end of spear are at most 4% of our deployed military. Everyone else gets ice on demand and has access to unlimited amounts of high quality chow, pecan pie and ice cream.

The press rarely tells the story of the small minority of deployed troops who live, fight and die in conditions their forefathers would recognize unless it involves some sort of tragedy. I read one of the best pieces in this genre this morning in the Wall Street Journal. The story was well told and as supportive of the fighting men as such a piece can be. The journalist who wrote it played the story straight and did a fantastic job with such a tragic topic.

Yet by far, the most common story line concerning the troops deployed to Afghanistan are like this piece, which claims half of the vets returning from Afghanistan need medical treatment for the lingering effects of blasts and psychological trauma.  At the very most 15% of those deployed to Afghanistan ever leave the FOB so how can half of them be so damaged?

Do I sound conflicted to you?  I know I do, and it will take some distance to get things in perspective. And distance is what I have; I’m back in the US staying with friends while undergoing treatment for the lingering effects of a blast injury. Ironic, I know, given what I just wrote above. I am clean shaven, wearing normal American clothes no longer hear the call to prayer being blasted from speakers all over town five times a day. I miss hearing that call and don’t know why but I really miss it. That is so strange but it is and it is also nice to be back home.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

The closing of our FY 2011  Zaranj City Infrastructure Rehabilitation Project  was completed with the opening of their brand new sports complex. We built this along with a bunch of other infrastructure for the municipal authorities for (in the big scheme of USAID things) peanuts.

Cash for work money can be used to build anything if you know what you are doing and this is the brand news stadium for Zaranj. Designed and built by Afghans with money from the generous peoples of America who are flat broke but continue to spend 2 billion a week here because of some reason which nobody currently living on planet earth can articulate in a clear coherent manner

 

There were the usual prayers followed by a ribbon cutting – I’m on the far right and being a fellow “man of the book” allowed to bow my head to our lord vice lifting my hands to Allah.

 

Governor Barahwi does the honors

 

The VIPS are seated up in the upper viewing stand – sitting at the Governors right side is a big deal and I look at this picture knowing I’ll never do anything as cool as this again and think…you know

 

And we are treated to a demonstration of Afghans second favorite sport. It's first favorite sport - dog fighting is something which the locals catch mucho grief about from international media so the next best thing is kids fighting
We were then treated to a demonstration of Afghans second favorite sport. It’s first favorite sport – dog fighting is something which the locals catch much grief about from international media so the next best thing is kids fighting.  The fighting sequence photographs were all taken by Michael Yon who was down on the field

 

The matches follow an identical script; the smaller of the two fighters takes a beating – in this one he has landed his first blow of the match after already being knocked down once.

 

And takes an elbow for the effort

 

Followed by a stiff knee to the mid section

 

And down he goes again

 

The little fella picks himself up for the third time (it is always 3 times)

 

With a shake of the head his senses return, just like on TV, and he jumps up onto the shoulders of his husky opponent

 

And gets ready to deliver…

 

The double elbows of death

 

The double elbows of death is (apparently) a catastrophic strike

 

Allowing the little fella to immediately declare victory

 

And there you go – a life lesson on overcoming adversity in the form of some sort of mixed martial arts morality play.  None of these matches were full contact which is why they were identical and I was kidding about the dog fighting thing.  Afghans favorite sport appears to be Cricket but they are formidable volleyball players too.

After a few fighting demonstrations Governor Barahwi stood; said a few words to the assembled teams and was off. We were right behind him and I have to admit it was a bittersweet afternoon. Saying my goodbyes to all the elders and officials who worked with and supported us over the years was tough. We were pulling out and nothing is coming in behind us. As I said in my last post these people are now on their own but late that evening some of them dropped off a gift.

A parting gift – I know….I almost cried myself

The beer felt like it just came out of a pizza oven is was so hot so we threw it into the two freezers we have up on the second deck and waited for an hour. But it turned out we were on city power which isn’t strong enough to run the freezers so now everything in them to room temperature. I went downstairs and tell the night guards to turn on the big generator so we can run the freezers. They said no because they can only run the big generator for eight hours a day. I ask who told them that and they said “you did”. I explained that we have a case of beer but can’t get it cold which is an emergency for us infidels. They knew that and said they were not turning on the generator. I threatened to shoot them but they laughed at me and countered with a request for two beers each before turning on the generator. I smiled the wolf smile and threatened to call Zabi down because his Dad is the senior Mullah for the Province and no fan of demon rum. They balked and turned on the big gen but I gave them each a beer anyway just for being good sports.

We started drinking them down warm; the last few were chilled but this was typical – nothing and I mean nothing is easy in this country, yet somehow things always work out.  The parting gift was a considerate gesture – we’re going miss our friends in Zaranj.

Diplomacy 101

I am in the middle of an interesting few days as we finish up our larger projectsvwith official ceremonies.  Those of you who follow Michael Yon on facebook know where I am and what we have been up to.  What is interesting to watch is Michael, myself and our friend (and co-worker) Chadd Nyerges, trying to process the thousands of pictures and a dozen hours of video we collectively shot over the past 48 hours.  We are all writing reports, posting on the internet, trying to figure out what we have with all these photos and waiting for the plane to come back and get us.

One person can generate a amazing amount of digital imagery in a day. This is the rig Michael Yon used to record day one of our stay in Nimroz
One person can generate an amazing amount of digital imagery in a day. This is the rig Michael Yon used to record day one of our stay in Nimroz.

The place for me to start my narrative of the trip is right in the middle.  Yesterday morning we found out none of the State Department folks or Marines from Leatherneck would attend the ceremonies. This made me the senior American present a fact which I failed to think through before walking into the reception hall for the morning program of recognition for the US AID in general and my company specifically. As I entered the hall my Afghan provincial manager, Bashir greeted me with most unwelcome news.  “You are the senior man, Tim; you have to sit next to the Governor.” I said that would be fine, but I needed to find the men’s room first. Bashir said that was not possible, and I had to go to my seat “right now.”

Almost an hour after Bashir said I had to be in my seat I remain frozen in place waiting for the program to start. At this point I figure I can make it an hour maybe even 90 minutes before I fold and make a break for the men's room - which is a mark of weakness and lack of self control in this part of the world
Almost an hour after Bashir said I had to be in my seat, I remain frozen in place waiting for the program to start. At this point, I figure I can make it an hour, maybe even 90 minutes, before I fold and make a break for the men’s room ; a mark of weakness and lack of self-control in this part of the world.

So I’m stuck in place, and I know that if I get up and the Governor shows up and I amble on over to sit next to him after he has sat down…that would just not do, so I wait.

And wait - at this point I'm making up an elaborate fictional story about the last two days in order to keep my mind off the fact that what I really need to do, more than anything else in the word, was go use the mens room
And wait – at this point I’m making up an elaborate fictional story about the last two days in order to keep my mind off the fact that what I really need to do, more than anything else in the world, is go use the men’s room.

As I sat, concentrating on positive energy for the test of wills that was to come, Deputy Provincial Governor Haji Qasem Khedry walked in, said his greeting to us and sat down next to me. The clock had finally started, and I settled in, determined to hang tough. A number of community elders came up to praise the US-funded Community Development Program and the management team in Nimroz, headed by Bashir Sediqi, who is my best provincial manager.

This is Haju Moulavi Sedahuddin who is a sharp critic of the governor and municipal authorities but agreed to come and testify as to the effectiveness of our programs and their positive impact on the people
This is Haji Moulavi Sedahuddin, who is a sharp critic of the governor and municipal authorities, but agreed to come and testify as to the effectiveness of our programs and their positive impact on the people.  It was interesting to see him at this awards ceremony, and I was hoping his remarks would be brief but was to be disappointed.

I was pretty confident we were at least half way through the schedule of events when fate intervened in the form of an unfortunate event which allowed me to make a brief graceful exit.

If you look closely at the man in the back of this photo - second from the right you'll notice he appears to be unconscious. He is about to lean forward and start throwing up. Half of the men sitting with me are doctors and I knew the best thing for me to do was get out of the way as this emergency medical situation was handled
If you look closely at the man in the back of this photo – second row next to the wall, you’ll notice he appears to be unconscious. He may or may not be. I don’t know.  What I do know is he’s about to lean forward and start throwing up.  This could be the sign of something serious or not – turns out he was alert and pain free when he left, so I’m guessing his was a minor medical issue.  Half of the men sitting with me in the front are doctors, and I knew the best thing for me to do was get out of the way as this emergency medical situation was handled

Once I caught the commotion over my right shoulder and recognized there was a medical emergency, I took immediate action. I bolted toward Bashir and pointed to the man saying, “He needs a doctor, and where is the toilet?”  Bashir said, “Downstairs to the left.” I flew down the stairs with Mike Yon in hot pursuit.  “Do you know where the men’s room is?” he asked. I told him we were on the way and stayed in front in case it was only one stall.  But it wasn’t – there were plenty of open toilets, as we had beaten the rush down to them. We were back before the ceremony re-started, and I resumed my post.

This is the tail of the end of the presentation and I'm accepting a award from the people on behalf of my company. The Boss should be here accepting this not me
This is the tail of the end of the presentation, and I’m accepting an award from the people on behalf of my company. The Boss should be here accepting this not me

During the past three years, we have accomplished some amazing projects. I’ll be posting in detail about two of them in the near future. What is important to remember, as we close down our Nimroz operations and move on, is that all the projects we did in Nimroz were conceived by, designed by and built by Afghans.  As the only American in the lash-up, my role was limited to minor writing of reports and moving money for paydays. The Boss was the man with the vision to tell USAID we could go down to Zaranj and work, and he proved he was right. I know I sound like a broken record, but I am trying to point out how easy it is to get things done in this country when you know what you’re doing. And if you know what you are doing in Afghanistan, you will never walk into some public awards ceremony without first visiting the men’s room. I now remember that I once knew that, bet I don’t forget it again anytime soon.

High Noon in the Forgotten Province

Yesterday morning there was a running gunfight spanning 100 kilometers on the Nimroz Province side of the Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death.) It started just outside the little hamlet of Qala Fath, which is home to the only reliable source of drinking water near Zaranj and also houses this spectacular walled city which once guarded a portion of the Silk Road. Or it guarded the water source; or something else; because nobody in Nimroz Province has a clue when it was built or by whom.

Part of the walled city in Qala Fath
Part of the walled city in Qala Fath

The fight started when Haji Mehedin, the commander of the Afghan Highway Police, turned off the Lashkary Canal road heading towards Qala Fath. Once you exit the Lashkary road you enter into a canyon with 30 to 40 foot high sandstone cliffs right next to the single track road, and this is the one area in southern Nimroz Province I hate driving through, because it is too easy to ambush vehicle traffic from almost point blank range.  Haji Mehedin was alone and saw a vehicle with armed men about 100 meters down the track to his front. The armed men fired warning shots into the air. Haji Mehedin grabbed his rifle and started firing at the men in front of him. He was then engaged from his right flank by an RPG  and more small arms fire. He conducted a one man fighting withdrawal back to the Lashkary Canal road where he linked up with a two-man ANP guard post and called for the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) from Zaranj.  The ANA and ANP and every Highway Patrolman in the area converged on Haji Mehedin within an hour, and the chase was on. The road in that part of the province heads one way – into Charborjak District, running about 110 kilometers astride the Helmand River, where it ends at the start of a massive irrigation project we just finished last week.

The posse found Haji Mehdin’s police truck, which did not make it far because its radiator had been shot up. The villains apparently set it on fire and were now crammed into one Hi Lux truck.  The posse fanned out and raced across the Dasht-e Margo in pursuit.

In the desert heading towards Charborjak; imagine about 60 ANP trucks in a massive line sweeping across this very road yesterday. It must have been a sight to behold.
In the desert heading toward Charborjak. Imagine about 60 ANP trucks in a massive line sweeping across this very road yesterday. It must have been a sight to behold.

The villains’ vehicle broke down about 14 kilometers outside of the Charborjak District Center, and they abandoned it, leaving behind large quantities of explosives and ammunition. The QRF fanned out and started heading toward the highlands, away from the Helmand River. The villians then struck with a pretty impressive RPG shot which killed the driver of one of the ANP trucks. That shot was the villains’ undoing, as dozens and dozens of trucks loaded with infantry, cops, and highway patrolmen moved in for the kill. And kill they did – 9 of the 11 insurgents died on the spot. Two got away but were leaking blood, and they headed into the desert where chances of survival are slim. They carried no identification papers, were clearly not local people, and the best guess is they were Pashtuns from the South.

The total weapon count from this group was 11 AK 47s, one RPG with 8 rounds, a few pistols, two plastic jugs full of HME (home made explosives) and an old PPSh-41 submachinegun.  The PPSh-41 fires a 7.62x25mm pistol round from a drum magazine; it is an open bolt weapon, just like the  Uzi and the old American M3 Grease Gun, but it has a dangerous design flaw. If the bolt is forward on an empty chamber with a full magazine inserted into the magazine well, the gun has an annoying habit of going off if you’re riding in a truck which is bouncing along on poorly maintained dirt roads. The Americans, for this exact reason,  modified their M3 Grease Guns by attaching a peg to the bolt and cutting a groove for the peg in the ejection port cover, which prevents the bolt from functioning as long as the cover is closed . Older Afghan men who know a little bit about weapons hate the PPSh subgun, and it is interesting that this group of scumbags had one. They really suck.

The Charborjak District Administrative Center - this district is geographically huge but sparsely populated with a few small villages situated close to the river and nothing but desert inland.
The Charborjak District Administrative Center – this district is geographically huge but sparsely populated with a few small villages situated close to the river and nothing but desert inland.

We built a large main irrigation canal that extends 56 kilometers and services every farming hamlet in the district. We were going to do 60 kilometers but ran into a mine field at the tail end of the canal and could not find a way around it. Yesterday was the day we originally scheduled the grand opening of this canal.
We built a large main irrigation canal that extends 56 kilometers and services every farming hamlet in the district. We were going to do 60 kilometers but ran into a mine field at the tail end of the canal and could not find a way around it. Yesterday was the day we originally scheduled the grand opening of this canal.

There are several things about this story which interest me. The first is that my guys and I, and the Provincial Governor, and a well known journalist were supposed be on that road yesterday morning to conduct the opening ceremony for our irrigation project. That project employed every working age male in the district, and because we dug most of it by hand, we kept these men employed for almost a full year. More importantly, we built reinforced concrete intakes, water control points and three bypass sections, allowing for portions of the canal to be closed for repairs as needed. Most importantly, we did not dig secondary canals.  We said up front we could bring the water inland but bringing that water to farmers’ fields was their job, not ours; and keeping the main canal up and running is again their job, not ours. I’m a little proud of that given the number of times local men came up to me to ask if we could dig a canal into their village and I just laughed and said no.  Politely – I’m a culturally sensitive guy.

Given the way the villains were set up, they could have intended to ambush the rather large convoy heading out to the ceremony. I honestly now wish we hadn’t changed the date – 11 knuckleheads with AKs, one RPG launcher and a dog of a subgun? Given the number of ANP who were going to be with us, I’d take those odds any day. I have the flame stick dialed in for 300 meters and this may have been my only chance to bust a cap into a real honest to God villain. Besides, we would have moved through there hours before noon, so I’m not so sure this was an attempt on the governor’s life, which is what the buzz on the street is saying.  Had these 11 idiots brought along a heavy machinegun or two that would be a different story; nobody wants to get caught in a narrow draw while being stitched up by machinegunners who, at that close distance, would have had to try really hard to miss. Had we not been traveling with the governor’s escort, we would have never entered the draw – we use multiple outriders who would have alerted us long before we got there.  We have one drill for potential ambushes – and that drill is called turn around and run. We’re not here for gun play, and despite a long year of moving low-pro throughout the most dangerous provinces in this country, the Ghost Team record of never being ambushed stands. Except for that time Crazy Horse got lit up in Paktiya, but he was with Chief Ajmal Khan, and it wasn’t that big of an ambush, so I’m still thinking technically we have a 100% movement success rate.

But here is something else of interest – Haji Mehedin is a Baloch (most of southern Nimroz is Baloch), and they, for the most part, dislike Pashtuns and hate the Taliban. Haji Mehedin has also not been to one of the multimillion dollar regional training centers where they cram powerpoint classes about things which an Afghan policeman will never do, would hardly understand, and couldn’t care less about.  He doesn’t need instruction from US Department of State contractors to tell him what to do to bring order and the rule of law (Afghan style – which is a little different than the standards in western law enforcement) in his own damn district. Which is, of course, another great point – it is his district, where he grew up and knows all the residents. Do you think men like Haji Mehedin will tolerate his troopers shaking down truck drivers and other civilians for pocket change?

The canal was not all dug by hand - we rented every excavator in the Province too for the harder sections of the canal
The canal was not all dug by hand – we rented every excavator in the province for the harder sections.

Back in World War I, the British had a problem, and that problem was German agents were moving through Balochistan and into Afghanistan where they were trying to get some traction and allies to fight with them. Three of the four major Baloch tribes had gone over to the German side when the Germans told them their country had converted to Islam and that they had giant airships which travel around the world leaving death and destruction in their wake.

The British sent out what they had: a lone Colonel, his London born driver and 23 Sepoy’s (Indian infantry) who had not been trained or issued any weapons. I read the Colonel’s fascinating account of how he bluffed the insurgent Baloch tribes into coming back to the British side by telling them he led a huge army and had mountain guns, and all the holes in the radiator grill of his now beat up car were machinegun barrels with which he could kill them all in the blink of an eye.  These bluffs, as bluffs always do, did not last long, but by then the Colonel (who had promoted himself to general, so he had more juice with the natives) did get a couple of mountain guns. He also got a cavalry troop with a British officer, a squad of Seapoys who were trained and had rifles, and I think maybe a machinegun platoon – I  returned the book to its owner and now have to go on memory. Once he had a little firepower behind him, the now-General summoned a few of the rebel chiefs to his mud brick fort, had a quick military tribunal, found the lot guilty and ordered them to be hanged in the morning. One of the bandit chief’s wives – reportedly the most beautiful woman in Balochistan – asked the General to come to her camp, where she presented him with a magnificent white horse (it was his horse and had been stolen earlier in the year.) She promised him that her husband would never again fight against the Raj or the crown and would from that day forward be a trusted ally.

That’s about as far as I got in the book before I had to return it to its owner – so B, be a good friend and fill us in after you read this.  I’m pretty sure the bandit chief turned around and attacked the small garrison after his stay of execution and subsequent release, which prompted the British General (his self-promotion was approved during his first year there) to mobilize his army.  That army was a few infantry, one field gun, a cavalry troop and 600 camels, and they marched to the winter camping grounds of the tribe, where he threatened to let his camels loose on the wheat fields and vegetable gardens.  Six hundred camels would have consumed every bit of the winter fodder these nomads had grown, so the threat posed by the Brits was literally a death sentence for the whole tribe.

Compare and contrast the responses of a cash strapped, over-extended British military almost 100 years ago to the response of a cash strapped over-extended United States military today. The Brits send in a field grade officer with an enlisted driver and push him whatever horse, small mountain guns, infantry and machineguns they can spare, and throughout the entire war they could spare less than 100 men total to send into Balochistan. We start by spending billions and billions of dollars to set up high speed training centers staffed by people who know absolutely nothing about this land, culture or people, and even when it is recognized from on high (as it was in 2005) that these training centers accomplish next to nothing what do we do?  Double down and spend billions more.

Haji Mehedin demonstrated something that old British General knew and something we could not learn in a million years due to the slow thinking, one size fits all problem solving of Big Government, which wholly owns and manages our Big Military.  That something is that we don’t need to spend billions building and manning regional training centers full of ex-cops who cannot possibly teach much to their students because they have no idea what those students really do all day when they are out on the job. Nobody needed to train Haji Mehedin how to fight or what to do when ambushed by Taliban. He’s a Baloch tribesman, a tribal leader in fact, and to be honest he would have probably done better if we have given him an old Enfield bolt gun instead of the piece of shit AMD 65 that is standard issue for Afghan police.

Could this man be the next Brad Thor? If you are in the publishing business you'd be smart to send me a large check and a contract right now or lose the chance of a lifetime. Throw in a business class upgrade when I head home and I'll sign over the sequel. I'm a cheap date but won't be after you see the manuscript.
Could this man be the next Brad Thor? If you are in the publishing business you’d be smart to send me a large check and a contract right now or lose the chance of a lifetime. Throw in a business class upgrade when I head home and I’ll sign over the sequel. I’m a cheap date but won’t be after you see the manuscript.

We no longer send colonels out into the wilds of lawless lands like Balochistan with a single enlisted man assigned to them and a written order which says something like “stop the Baloch from raiding our supply trains, and if they won’t stop, kill them.”  Or words to that effect – they did come from the British so I’m sure his written orders were a little more polished than I remember.  We once knew how to fight a counterinsurgency while having to deal with a dysfunctional host nation government and fight on the cheap.  We can’t do anything on the cheap now and we’re broke.

 

On The Border

The military campaign in Afghanistan is apparently going well.  I read that last Monday here in the Washington Post so it must be true. But two days ago the military effort in Afghanistan took a turn for the worst. I know that to be a fact too because I read it here in the Washington Post. The truth is that it is not terribly important how well the military is doing right now. The military is fighting to do the “Clear” portion of the “Clear, Hold and Build” component which is the backbone of our current counterinsurgency strategy.  The people responsible for part of the holding and all of the building are about to ran out of the country in what appears to be another self inflicted wound.

President Karzai is determined to implement the ban on private security companies and apparently it has just dawned on the various embassy’s who are funding the reconstruction projects that this time President Karzai is serious. There are now frantic consultations happening in Kabul with the Americans in the lead and they are asking security companies for mountains of information, due in 48 hours, on the extent that new security platform will degrade technical results. When asked what exactly the new security platform is there is no answer because nobody at the embassy is exactly what the platform is. When asked who will pay for security provided by the the new platform headed by the Afghan National Police (ANP) there is no answer because nobody seems to know those details.

What the American Embassy (and the UN) have made perfectly clear is that they supports the Presidential decree saying that any government should be able to regulate who has guns and what they do with them. The Afghan government is not regulating access to guns for their citizens just those available to internationals who use them for self protection.

Why would the American government support a decree which is going to drive their implementation companies out of the country? It’s not like the American government doesn’t use armed security contractors back in the states. Contractors guard prisons, fly convicts around the country, guard court houses and important officials. Why the hostility to security contractors in Afghanistan?  Who knows?  This is Afghanistan.

Nimroz Province
One of the supervisors on a cash for work project in Nimroz Province
One of the supervisors on a cash for work project in Nimroz Province

I’ve been spending time in Zaranj, the capitol of Nimroz Province. We do a lot of work in Zaranj which is on the border with Iran and has a large population of Baluch tribesmen. It is a Dari speaking town in the predominately Pashtun south with 24 hour electricity from Iran and a surprisingly relaxed attitude towards the female half of the population. You do not see many women in Burkas and it is not uncommon to see them driving vehicles. There are not many social taboos associated with holding a job outside the home so we are doing several large vocational training programs for women in the city.

One of the Zaranj students in our USAID sponsored rug weaving class. Not bad for the first rug but man that is one labor intensive process.
One of the Zaranj students in a rug weaving class. Not bad for the first rug but man that is one labor intensive process.

Zaranj is a desert border town of around 100,000 people just across the border from Milak Iran. The Indian Government’s Border Roads Organization just completed a modern hard top road from Zaranj to the ring road and the city of Delaram.  That means there is now a modern hard ball road direct from the deep water port of Chabahar, Iran to the ring road of Afghanistan and beyond. That route could prove significant to somebody at some point in the future. For now it is hard to capitalize on having a modern route to a large seaport given that the run from Nimroz to Kabul is 500 kilometer ambush alley for truckers.

Iranian border fort just across from one of our irrigation projects. They are manned posts every 300 meters along this portion of the frontier
Iranian border fort just across from the main irrigation canal. They are manned posts every 300 meters along this portion of the frontier

Zaranj is now starting to feel the love after years of getting by on their own. Last year Mullah John and The Boss flew in here (Zaranj is way out in the middle of nowhere) with little idea of what was going on and discovered a community that was ripe for development projects.

There are strict targets we have to hit regarding the percentage of labor to materials in these projects but by going big on the manual excavation portion of canal projects we can build proper intakes and gates.
Cash for work project in Zaranj

This year as the military and civilian surge continues to pour into Afghanistan the regional representatives from various USG agencies as well as the Marines are staging a series of meetings to see where they can help.

Coming in for a morning meeting in Zaranj
Coming in for a morning meeting in Zaranj
The security element fans out - the Marine in the center is carrying an M-240 machinegun as well as his M16A2. Being a machinegunner, an inherently cool job, sucks sometimes
The security element fans out – the Marine in the center is carrying an M-240 machinegun as well as his M16A2. Being a machinegunner, an inherently cool job, sucks sometimes.  He wasn’t going far but if you’re humping that pig for miles….
The Governor of Nimroz Province
The Governor of Nimroz Province Abdul Karim Brahui

The meeting with the governor and his staff was interesting. In fact a case study in complexities of trying to provide meaningful development in Afghanistan.  ISAF put out a press release about the meeting which can be found here. The governor said that he needed some help with his main canal and also needs some sort of medical treatment facility.  He could also use a proper runway for the airport so commercial flights can resume. For now only our planes and the Marine Osprey’s land at the airport due to the ruts in the runway and packs of feral dogs that always seem to run across the runway when fixed wing planes are on their final approach.

The governor was probably in better spirits six weeks ago when they had their first meeting like this and talked about what kind of help he needed.  He opened the meeting saying he was happy to see everyone again and that he hopes they are not gong to put a base near Zaranj because they don’t need any Taliban lurking about.  He added that he hoped for maybe some action on the last discussion because although talking with friends is always good it is also good to see action resulting from these talks.

I don’t think ISAF has an intention of putting a base way out in Zaranj as there is no reason for them to be here but this getting action instead of talk stuff is going to be problematic.  This is where good intentions drive expectations above what can met with the current contracting processes.

Governer with the Chief of Staff for the II MEF (Fwd) Col. Kevin Frederick, USMC
Governor Brahui with the Chief of Staff for the II MEF (Fwd) Col. Kevin Frederick, USMC

As noted in my last post nothing happens fast with the Regional Contracting Command. The Marines and their USG counterparts are trying to use money as a weapon. But if you are going to use money as a weapon you need to have money. They will get the funds to do the canal work and probably pave the airport runway too but that is months and months and months away. Plus the “Afghan First” policy which makes sense on a PowerPoint slide normally produces results like this (a story about botched police station construction) which I found today after surfing the net for .025 seconds.

More distressing is the lack of medical facilities in a such a large urban center. Currently people who can afford it seek treatment in Iran. The others have to make do with local doctors working out of offices with very little equipment. This shortfall  clearly bothered the American delegation and they explained that it will be their first priority. But as the mission of our military and USG agencies remains first and foremost to support GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) they stressed that whatever solution there is to this problem must be fixed in direct consultation with the Ministry of Health in Kabul. Hate to be blunt about this but that is essentially the same as saying nothing is going to happen except years of frustrating meetings resulting in zero action.

From my perspective we’re fighting an insurgency to support a government who is actively working against our interests which normally not be in their best interests but there it is.

Life continues on the border, hot, windy, dusty but secure. The Marines will fund the complete rehabilitation of the main water canal which will make life a little easier for the people of Zaranj but that is going to take time given the current contracting procedures. At some point we have to realize that speed is a weapon that doesn’t subtract from effectiveness.  We are acting as if we have all the time and money in the world and we don’t.

Happy al-Faath Day

The fighting season is rapidly ramping up to make this the bloodiest yet, which makes it the perfect time for President Karzai to go to Washington for a little face time with the Commander in Chief.   What is to be accomplished during this meeting is easy to predict: Not one damn thing. This article in the Washington Post explains why – here is a quote from it: “‘We don’t have a plan yet,’ worries the senior military official.” With the operation to clear Kandahar on hold, that’s a huge problem.

The Taliban have declared a major offensive targeting ISAF, the Afghan government, ANSF, and all internationals. The offensive is named  al Faath (victory) and it is scheduled to start tomorrow. Threats of this nature have come often in the past but this one is being taken seriously by Afghan security forces and internationals working outside the wire. But taking things seriously has not, as far as we can tell, resulted in changes to the daily routine of the Afghan Security Forces.

This is a pity because a more proactive approach is obviously required and I’ll explain how that could work  using the recent attack on the governor and provincial council in the previously peaceful city of Zaranj, which is the Capital of Nimroz Province.

On the 5th of May at approximately 0930 a squad of nine Taliban fighters in two Toyota Corollas attacked the Nimroz Provincial Council office and the Governors compound. They attacked sequentially in what appeared to be a well planned raid.  All nine attackers were dressed in ANA uniforms, armed  with AK47 assault rifles, and carried at least one hand grenade. All nine were wearing suicide vests.

Zarangj Gov attack
The attack started north of the governors compound and rolled south where it was stopped before the governors compound was breached

Mullah John Binns called from his compound in Zaranj that day announcing “the villains made a determined assault on the governors compound but were thwarted by reconnaissance failure and stout walls”. That was an exceptionally long statement from John so I perked up asking for details. He said he’s send a report and hung up. Our company, Central Asia Development Group, (CADG) was the only USAID contractor working in Nimroz province. The closest ISAF base was in the Helmand province but we knew Zaranj was one of the safest cities in Afghanistan and had no problems operating in such a remote location.

The raid force, who may or may not have been Taliban, armed opposition groups being prolific in the country,  had failed to confirm their target reconnaissance. They were forced to stop and dismount well short of their objective because most of  the roads into the objective had been cut (by us) so we could installation drainage pipes as part of a civic works project. Our road work created a counter-mobility barrier blocking their ingress from the south which was the direction of the villains, mounted in two Toyota Carolas  approached.

The first group of attackers dismounted here due to road construction and assaulted through the gate. The first attacker detonated his vest here killing the ABP guard at this gate.
The first group of attackers dismounted here due to road construction and assaulted through the gate. 

Five attackers from the first vehicle moved past this gate and stopped outside the entrance gate of the Provincial Council office where they engaged ANP (Afghan National Police) who were responding from the Governors compound to the south. There were also ANP units arriving to the north of the attackers on the street pictured above.

Breach point into the Provincal Council compound
Breach point into the Provincial Council compound

One of the villains detonated his suicide vest to clear the security stationed at the gate of the Provincial Council’s office complex. The remaining villains rushed inside the compound firing into the council offices from the outer windows.

This is the window outside the main Provincial Counsel meeting room through which the three attackers poured in AK47 fire which mortally wounded a female member of the counsel
This is the window outside the main Provincial Council meeting room through which the three attackers poured in AK47 fire which mortally wounded a female council   member

Looking into the council office from the attackers perspective at the window
Looking into the council office from the attackers perspective at the window – it looks like they did not fire too many rounds   into this room, but look at all the bullet strikes outside the window frame in the picture above – as I have said before these guys really suck at gun fighting.   Could you imagine standing right where this picture was taken and putting more rounds into the wall you are standing behind than into the room?

At least one ANP guard was inside the building returning fire and many of the council members also started to return fire with their sidearms. One of the attackers was killed during this portion of the attack. The attackers then threw in a hand grenade (which detonated under a stairwell sending the frag back at the attackers) and turned their attention to the Governors compound.

Throwing a grenade into a doorway where it lodges under a stairwell throwing all the frag back inot your face is just a step above shooting yourself in the stupidity chain. These guys were Darwin award candidated for sure.
Throwing a grenade into a doorway where it lodges under a stairwell which forces the blast and   frag back at you is just a step above shooting yourself in the stupidity chain. These guys were Darwin Award candidates for sure.

Now things start to get really crazy.   If you look at the google map above, you can see where the second corolla pulled up and emptied out four more fighters. The second vehicle was stopped well short of the Governors compound by a recently installed road block that I believe the Marines had recommended and paid for as part of a security assessment they made when Nimroz fell under their area of operations in 2009. By the time both assault teams linked up there was organized effective fire coming at them from the Governors compound to the south and ANP troops arriving from the north.

Looking south towards the Governors compound from the attackers perspective. At this point they could not move down the street due to heavy fire from Afghan security forces.
Looking south towards the Governors compound from the attackers perspective. At this point they could not move down the street due to heavy fire from Afghan security forces.

Their second vehicle – which was probably rigged as a vehicle born IED was unable to make it into the fight and retreated, so the raiding party was stuck and had to come up with a way to close the final 300 meters.  They did what all suicide vest wearing raiding parties do – they started breaching the walls of compounds adjacent to the Governors place by throwing themselves against the wall and detonating.

The raid goes super kineteic - the four new attackers linked up with the two surviving attackers from the first crew and started towards the governors office. Oneof the bomber breached the wall by detonating his vest - the damage is being repaired by the owner less than 24 hours later
The raid goes super kinetic – the four new attackers linked up with the two surviving attackers from the first crew and started towards the governors office. One of the bombers breached the wall by detonating his vest – the damage is being repaired by the owner less than 24 hours later

As the raid force breached each wall they moved into the compounds looking for a way to the Governors office.   They did not fire at the compound owners or their families. Once in the first compound and out of the line of fire of the ANP, another attacker blew himself up at the doorway of an adjacent compound.

The second breach point - the attackers moved through this door to get into the compound next door to the governors place
The second breach point – the attackers moved through this door to get into the compound next door to the governors place. Repairs are underway – this photo was taken the day after the attack.

At this point the assault squad is down to four men and they had a mighty big wall to get through. Obviously these guys were not disposed to alternative courses of action – I guess when you strap on a suicide vest everything around you looks like a target.  So hey diddle diddle straight up the middle they went.

Number one man go - the first attempt to breach the Governors compound
Number one man go!   The first attempt to breach the Governors compound – not too effective

Number two man go! The second failed attempt to break into the Gov's place
Number two man go! The second attempt to get through this rather stout wall failed too

Number 3 man....oh wait he's dead..so I guess I'll just sit down here and BOOM
Number 3 man….oh wait he’s dead…so I guess I’ll just sit down here and…. BOOM!

The attackers never made it into the governors compound and the fighting ended with the suicide of the last surviving attacker. This attack was typical for the various armed insurgent groups in Afghanistan. The planning seemed to be good the execution was amateurish with poor gun handling, poor grenade handling, poor marksmanship, and no branch or squeal planning being the defining characteristics. As soon as the attackers found themselves cornered or stymied by an unanticipated obstacle they blew themselves up.

dead_attacker
One of the attackers who was killed before he could activate his vest. The vest was removed by NDS.

The attackers were reported to be younger males, not Afghan in appearance, with red faces and Pakistani-style shoes. Some witnesses believed them to be Pakistani, others Iranian. They were wearing ANA uniforms and all nine had Suicide -IED vests, AK47s and at least one had a grenade.

There are several theories amongst the more credible local nationals (LNs) who are familiar with all the facts of the attack. One theory is that this was an attack staged by Quetta Shura Taliban. The Nimroz Governor had recently been in the media pointing out that  Zaranj had not had one Taliban incident in the past year.

Another theory held by many if the attack was perpetrated by Iranian elements trying to further destabilize Afghanistan. There is has also been a recent war of words between Iran and Afghanistan regarding water rights and a hydro-electric project. Several locals reported that Iranian closed the Milak/Zaranj border crossing the day of the attack and the day before.

One thing is certain and that is it is easy – really easy to preempt these kinds of attacks with the proper deployment of ISAF troops.  Everyone of these attacks occurs during the morning hours.  Everyone of them involve bad guys wearing ANA or ANP uniforms and suicide vests being delivered to the objective by small private cars.  All it would take to stop these kinds of attacks would be deploying joint military/ANP patrols in the neighborhoods but here is the catch – MRAPS won’t work.  They are too big, the people inside cannot see, smell, hear, or feel anything outside of the massive iron MRAP.   Plus the damn things would tear out the electrical wires in 97% of the suburban streets in Afghanistan.

Preempting Taliban attacks in the cities and larger towns means Americans and Afghans riding around in the LTV’s (light tactical vehicle to the military; pick up truck to the rest of us) where they can see, hear and observe the local environment while applying the rule of opposites. This they can do in theory but not in practice because of “force protection” rules laid out from on high.

So tomorrow is al Faath day which may or may not bring some more of these attacks. I’m in Jalalabad and too worried about it but you know what would really make an impression?  Seeing the Afghan and US Army out in force tomorrow morning manning checkpoints and driving around the neighborhoods looking for things which are exactly opposite to what they expect to see.   If we are supposedly focused on the population then the population should actually see us being focused on them and being proactive during times when the villains are up to mischief.  Flooding Jalalabad with a few hundred of the 7 to 8 thousand troops in residence outside the city would do wonders for the morale of the  population we are supposed to be protecting.  But the chances of that happening are zero.  The concepts of “COIN” and “population centric” operations all you want but it means nothing to the population. Actions always speak louder than words.

Fab Lab Surge and ABC News

The Fab Lab team has arrived and is now hard at work.  They are blogging daily and you can monitor their progress here. They’re doing cool stuff like fabricating antenna’s to share our fatpipe with the local schools and NGO’s. They’re  raising money to buy XO Laptops for every 6th grader in the local (Bagrami) school. They’re setting the local kids up with a tee shirt business to fund the Jalalabad FabLab operations and the local kids are beside themselves with opportunity that just landed on their doorstep.

Amy and her roomate Kieth from MIT - the Fab Lab advance party
Amy and her roommate Keith from Harvard – the Fab Lab advance party

We have had to run up to Kabul and back several times to get all the Fab Folk to Jalalabad. The Jalalabad to Kabul road is a vitally important supply route to both the military and the government of Afghanistan. There were several attacks on the road this past summer and there continues to be problems on it now despite the winter weather. We saw several interesting things along the route and the first was the number of French Army troops transiting from Kabul to Surobi.

French troops on the road outside of Kabul
French troops on the road outside of Kabul

Surobi is a large hamlet half way between Kabul and Jalalabad, last August the French suffered a humiliating defeat in the Uzbin valley which is just to the north of Surobi. The town has long been considered to be sympathetic if not supportive of Gulbiddin Hekmatyar and his party Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG.) We see sunburned adult males with high-water trousers, tennis shoes, and black turbans every time we pass through Surobi. They could be Sheppard’s or gold miners but it’s a safe bet their Taliban fighters hitting Surobi in for in-country R&R (rest and recreation).

The French have been serious about establishing a presence in Surobi since their first unfortunate encounter with the Taliban. They are keeping units in the field 24/7; have launched several operations which have netted some prominent local commanders (according to UN incident reporting). It’s good to see our ISAF allies taking the initiative, going on the offensive and clearing out such an important area.

But after you clear an area you have to hold it and it will be interesting to see how (or if) they do that. The operations in Surobi are not impacting the repeated attacks on the Kabul/Jalalabad road – with one exception. We’ve heard from reliable sources they tracked down and killed The Mechanic. It appears to be true too because it’s been months since we’ve seen his signature long range pin point RPG shots nailing tankers. The tankers are still getting nailed but only other portions of the road that allow ambush from rifle and machinegun range.

As noted in previous posts these occur in the Tangi valley area east of Surobi and in portions of Laghman Province below the Tangi. Both the ANP and ANA have posted small units along the road to augment the numerous permanent police posts. As you can see from the pictures below the positions they have set up are weak at best and their patrol routine, which appears to be sitting by the side of the road, is not proving very effective.

Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad - Kabul road
Typical ANP deployment on the Jbad – Kabul road

ANP machinegun crew - they are not dug in and they don't move so they are not accomplishing much
ANA machine gun crew – they are not dug in and they don’t move so they do not really accomplish much

Here is an intel report from one of the PSC’s (the private security companies in Afghanistan do a lot of intel sharing with each other.)

Laghman Province, Qarghayi District, Route 1-area of Tangy

AOG Vehicle Checkpoint 05 January 2009, between 1630-1700 hrs

A doctor who works for a NGO was returning to Jalalabad from Kabul alone in his private car, when his vehicle was forced to stop by a group of armed men. The doctor was then questioned about his work and personal behaviour. He was finally allowed to proceed unharmed when, on seeing the cassette player in the vehicle, the armed men instructed the doctor to play a cassette found in the vehicle. The cassette played was a religious tape and satisfied the requirements of those who had stopped the car. Despite reported increased security force deployments, this is the third reported instance of AOG activity on Route 1 in the Tangy area since 31 Dec 08. All three incidents have occurred in daylight hours and two have been attacks on military vehicles. These incidents should demonstrate to all the risk of travel along Route 1 between Kabul-Jalalabad at any time of day. Any international staff using Route 1 should expect further instances such as that outlined in this report and seek alternative means of travel between Jalalabad-Kabul.

Along with the above report, we have made several trips the past few days along the route. A few ANA vehicles have been pulled off the side of the road about half way back to Kabul, and the soldiers were in a defensive posture behind their vehicles, weapons pointed at the high ground. Most likely some pot shots taken at the ANA as they passed thru.

The Kabul to Jalalabad route is one of the most important in Afghanistan. The effort being expended to secure this route is currently being wasted because the troops are being deployed in poorly sited positions and being tasked to do nothing other than sit there. There is an easy fix and that would be to embed and infantry squad into the Qarghayi District ANP headquarters with a mission style order. It should sound something like this; “Sergeant you’ve got six months to work with these guys and stop any and all attempts to attack this vital route, go down there scout it out, come up with a plan and I’ll see you in five days so you can brief me on your plan. ” Winning the IED battle requires that you kill the IED makers and you can only do that if they are unmasked by the people. To reach the people with the consistency required to gain that level of cooperation requires that you leave the big armored vehicles and spend time (lots of it) among the people. I am pretty sure that if you consult the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manual you’ll find that it says more less exactly the same thing.

It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks
It is always a good sign to see American soldiers getting a handle on the recent attacks along the Jbad to Kabul road

There is hope for those of us who use the Kabul Jbad road frequently and that is the appearance of a small American patrol right in the heart of the Tangy valley visiting the local ANA checkpoint. Inshallah they will be spending some time and effort trying to help the various small unit commanders develop a more aggressive plan to secure the route. We did not encounter any problems on our numerous trips to Kabul and back. What follows is some photo blogging about the Fab Folk we are hosting and some of the things they are up to.

Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi
Dan the Reconstruction Man is back with James the Kiwi – we have a lot of James’s here (James the Brit,   James the Aussie,   James the Marine, and James the German)- chatting with Dr Dave from the Synergy Strike Force

Kieth, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Kieth and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpretur duty - he is between Steve and Carl
Keith, Steve and Carl from the Fab Folk team. Carl is from South Africa, Keith and Steve are Americans. The Taj manager Mehrab is pulling interpreter duty – he is between Steve and Carl

Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad
Miss Lucy, a former US Navy officer, getting ready to cross the Kabul river from Little Barabad

Here is a better shot of Lucy
Here is a better shot of Lucy

Smari and Andres - Fab Folk from Iceland
Smari and Andres – Fab Folk from Iceland

Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad
Steve and Keith getting ready to cross the river to Little Barabad

The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river
The Fab Folk took a box of stuffed animals with them to Little Barabad. Here is a great shot of the girls watching them cross the river

We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday.
We hosted ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz at the Taj yesterday. She interviewed myself and Dr. Dave, the Fab Lab Folk, saw a school built by the La Jolla Rotary Club, and made the river crossing to Little Barabad. She had a big day and shot lots of tape.   More on our day with ABC in the next post.

Here’s a link to Martha’s first news story from her visit to Jalalabad.