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 – Los Ebanos, Texas

When you have spent a good bit of your adult life living near international boundaries you develop a sense for dangerous places along a border. History, geography, and population distribution are key indicators so finding a remote bend in the Rio Grande River, that was apparently an ancient ford . . . Apparently? The Spanish mapped the Rio Grande Valley in great detail to include the old fords long used by indigenous tribes. Apparently historical commissions can’t write well but who cares? The Los Ebanos Ferry Crossing is now home to El Chalan, the only hand drawn international ferry in the hemisphere, which apparently makes it a place worth exploring.

Apparently? Is it me or does this not strike you as awkward phrasing? It’s an ancient ford or it’s not an ancient ford and apparently the ancient fords across the Rio Grande are well documented so what was this all about?

The pull cable for El Chalan is wrapped around a centuries old ebony tree in the hamlet of Los Ebanos, population 1,030, named after the ebony tress that grow along the riverbank. The 44 foot long boat is hauled by 6 ruffians across the 40 foot stretch of the Rio Grande and has been owned and operated (since 1950) by the Reyna family on the Texas side and the Armando Garza clan on the Mexican side. El Chalan (horse dealer) has been shortened from El Chalan De San Miguel, the former name of the Mexican town that is now Ciudad Gustavo Díaz Ordaz. Apparently the vaqueros of old San Miguel town were known to be proficient horse dealers.

El Chalan pull cable

Mexico is experiencing some serious political unrest this weekend which has something to do with mail-in voting during presidential elections which the public believes promotes blatant electoral fraud. Add to this civic unrest the fact that our border with Mexico is controlled by narcos who demand payment from every illegal they allow to cross and it is obvious why Los Ebanos should be a modern day war zone .

Before risking a personal reconnaissance of this potential pirates den I consulted crime-grade.org for its expert analysis of crime trends in Los Ebanos and guess what? Los Ebanos gets a D-; it’s just dangerous as hell apparently, because internet says it is and the net knows stuff. Being a savvy investigator of dangerous places I went early Sunday morning the day after St Patrick’s Day. Local customs and cultural mores concerning bars with holiday drinking specials guaranteed most of the adult population would not be out and about until the afternoon.

The El Chalan ferry 3/17/2024

Getting to the ferry proved to be easy, it’s just 2 miles off Highway 83 which is the main east/west route in the Rio Grande Valley. When I drove the road Sunday morning I saw one Border Patrol truck and two Texas State Trooper vehicles on the way in and one State Trooper on the way out. There is always a heavy State Trooper/Border Patrol presence on Highway 83 that increases the further west you travel from McAllen.

Google street view inside Los Ebanos

Los Ebanos village is typical for the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) consisting of 300 or so single family homes, all with fences (mostly chain linked or barbed wire) tightly clustered around a outdoor community softball/soccer field sporting park and with an impressive old church and large, well tended cemetery. The community is 99% Hispanic and they are home owners, not renters who were born and raised inside the RGV. The chances of strangers moving through the residential areas undetected or unchallenged are zero. The town is on a peninsula of land with the Rio Grande River wrapping around the village on three sides so the border wall is a mile behind it. There are old articles on the net with local residents bitching about being behind the border wall but the political winds in the RGV have shifted over the last seven years as was noted on one of my favorite blogs this morning:

From the Monday morning Powerline Blog Starr County is the western most of the four counties that comprise the Rio Grande Valley

Inside the village of Los Ebanos the residential streets narrow forcing traffic to slow as it follows the ‘Texas Historical Marker’ signs to the ferry crossing. The crossing suddenly appears out of the ebony scrub a few hundred meters after the last house. It’s now an expensive, well paved, fenced off, high security area of the post 9/11 federal agency design. Before 9/11 there was a quaint blue shack with a little wall unit air conditioner manned by one of the ferry owners at exactly zero cost to the federal government. How many federal employees do you think are on the table of organization for the Los Ebanos border crossing now? Keep in mind stormy weather or Mexico discharging water upstream (which they do often), or the Coast Guard getting shitty with the ferry owners will close the ferry for days at a time but federal employees get paid regardless of hours on the job. Isn’t it strange that when the Los Ebanos border crossing was regulated out of a shack illegal immigration wasn’t a problem, but now that we’re spending millions to man the Los Ebanos official port of entry illegal immigration is out of control?

The post 9/11 ferry crossing which is closed on Sundays, stormy days, days when Mexico discharges water upstream, or whenever the Coast Guard decides the professional river ruffians pulling the barge across the river need more mandated DEI training.
The pre 9/11 toll both for the ferry

A few years ago some of the inherent dangers associated with travel aboard a hand drawn ferry were mitigated by the United States Coast Guard. In the summer of 2022 the Coast Guard closed the ferry for two months of inspections and crew training. They even pulled the boat from the water and hauled it off somewhere and who knows what that was all about but one suspects the ongoing disagreement between Gov Abbot and FJB about the lack of border integrity had something to do with it. Look at the Library of congress photo below and note the lack of floatation devices or hard hats among the river ruffians who pull El Chalan back and forth all day.

Library of Congress file photo of the Los Ebanos ferry.

I’d wager a weeks pay that after the two week Coast Guard stand down everybody on the ferry has to wear big orange kapoc life vests and the crew hard hats in addition to the vests. Safetyism ruins everything it touches and trying to dodge OSHA mandates is a fools game. It’s possible the minute you took off a helmet or ditched the kapok vest you’d be hear the buzz of a little drone like a Russian conscript trapped in a shallow, muddy, Ukrainian trench. I know OSHA inspectors have drones these days too, and they are congenitally sneaky bastards, so how often do you think they sneak up on worksites or ferry crossings?

Looking east from the customs parking lot – note the Border Patrol truck parked back in the trees. There are dirt roads cut along the river bank along the entire peninsula.
Walking through the ebony and mesquite thickets that line the Rio Grande River in the RGV is difficult.

It’s a safe bet the high crime reported on criminal activity aggregator sites is driven by the illegal immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures that occur daily along our porous southern border. Los Ebanos was once located on a remote river bend but with Highway 83 just 2 miles away it’s no longer isolated and a poor choice for border jumpers who want to get into the interior undetected. For illegals who want to be caught and processed there are several places nearby where you can walk across the river using a tow rope to get through the chest high rapids. Apparently plenty of illegals still make the swim at the Los Ebanos ford judging from the multiple Border Patrol trucks in the area on a quiet Sunday morning.

Illegals who make into the village of Los Ebanos have to deal with dogs and shotguns because this is South Texas and that’s how we roll down here. There is an unknown number of people trafficking drugs across the border and they will, naturally, go to ground in one of the houses in Los Ebanos because that’s how drug trafficking works. The local residents who are not part of the narcotics smuggling trade have been forced to deal with people being trafficked through their neighborhoods and are not amused by it. This is the major drive behind the increasing support for the Bad Orange Man in the Rio Grande Valley.

The fine dirt roads inside the ebony groves make it easy to spot when people or large snakes cross them after a Border Patrol vehicle has passed.

The President, like any other officer of the United States, has an obligation to vigorously defend the interests of the United States. That is basic stewardship, and it is impossible to explain how allowing millions of undocumented people to flood into our country is in the interests of the United States. But there is a darker side to allowing systematic human trafficking by violent cartels; slavery. Joshua Treviño and Melissa Ford Maldonado from the Texas Public Policy Foundation pointed this out on a recent episode of their Hard Country podcast titled The Modern Slave Trade and More. They were discussing several recent American media reports of illegal immigrants who were enslaved and subjected to horrible abuse when Joshua made this prescient observation:

From a historical standpoint this is all predictable in one sense because you know the nature of humanity and when you have a flood of people who are off the books, not part of a legal structure, not citizens, and they have no recourse to authority or protection, they don’t know the culture they’re going to be vulnerable to being exploited and they’re going to be enslaved.

Let’s hope we get an administration in Washington DC that takes its stewardship obligations seriously and puts an end to cartel sponsored human trafficking. It’s a humanitarian crisis that is facilitating some amount of modern day slavery. I don’t know the number of unfortunates who have found themselves isolated and trapped inside the home of an abusive sociopath, one hopes it’s not many, but how many are too many?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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