Dubious News Reports from Afghanistan

There were two interesting articles in the news concerning Afghanistan today which illustrate (to me) the dire straits we now face. One article reported on the clever use of Viagra by CIA case officers; the other was a mildly negative critique of the USAID reconstruction efforts made by a senior USAID officer. Both stories represent a total lack of situational awareness as 2008 draws to a close.

When you have lived in a poorly understood, distant country like Afghanistan as long as I have it is easy to find mistakes in the international press. I am not nitpicking two main stream news reports because they report as fact things I know to be completely untrue. You get that a lot from the press these days. What I find alarming is that at least one of these two articles is obviously an entry into the discussion taking place amongst our national leadership. The other article about the CIA is so completely ridiculous that I have no idea what to make of it. Reports like these are truly depressing so let me take these articles one at a time and provide you with some unbiased ground truth.

Feeling the love in Paktia province

The first article was by Mark Ward, a senior Foreign Service Officer with US AID, who has just completed an impressively long tour in Afghanistan. Here is the opening paragraph:

“Nearly every observer of Afghanistan, from the most senior U.S. military officers to Washington think tank analysts and everyone in between, agrees that stability in that country demands a multipronged approach involving the military, diplomatic efforts and economic assistance. Having spent nearly the past five years as the senior career officer responsible for U.S. economic assistance to Afghanistan, I agree with those in the military who have said that 80 percent of the struggle for Afghanistan is about reconstruction and sustainable economic development and only 20 percent about military operations. In the face of a heightened Taliban insurgency, the U.S. military has changed its tactics. But if civilian U.S. agencies do not change the ways they deliver economic assistance, they jeopardize their chances for success and risk alienating the Afghan people.”

He is spot on with this assessment I would judge that he is around six years late but better late than never. He then goes on to discuss the ramifications to the morale of the American people if, given relaxed security standards, Foreign Service Officers get killed in the line of duty. What??? Let me answer that question free of charge. The American public doesn’t even know what a Foreign Service Officer is and they could give a hoot if a few buy the farm in Afghanistan. You have already lost men in Iraq and that caused no detectable disturbance in the body politic. One of those lost was a friend of mine the embassy security force camp in Kabul is named after him and although his loss was a tragedy for his family and friends (and the Department of State RSO program because he was one of their best) it did not cause the slightest ripple on the consciousness of the American public. My friend, Steve Sullivan was killed by a VBIED in Mosul along with three Blackwater contractors. State Department and contractor casualties are not the same as military casualties because the main stream media doesn’t treat them the same. You won’t see our names in memorial on the Sunday talk shows or on PBS nor will you see our numbers included in the national dialogue. There is also a new administration taking office which will change the tone and tenor of media coverage 180 degrees for reasons too obvious to even mention. I do not believe for a second with the concern that FSO casualties will in any way affect (or even register with) the will of the American people to continue our efforts in Afghanistan.

This is a great picture from an old NYT article by Moises Saman

Mr. Ward concludes his article with this paragraph:

The new team at the State Department and USAID should engage a team of outside experts to conduct an objective assessment of the security rules and their impact on our economic assistance program in Afghanistan. The review should give due weight to the importance of interacting with the Afghan people to hear their ideas, get to know them and gain their trust. It should rigorously test the theories about what would happen if an increasing number of Foreign Service officers were killed and injured as a result. And it should look at other donor countries’ approach to security in Afghanistan. Some have the balance between security and access about right, particularly in parts of the country where security is more permissive.”

We do not need expensive DC based contractors to conduct a review of security procedures or conduct an assessment of the consequences on increased Foreign Service officer casualties. There is a seven year track record in Afghanistan from both governmental and nongovernmental organizations that are operating in the exact manner Mr. Ward is advocating. The government of Japan has over 100 of their “Foreign Service officers” (the Japanese do not use that term) spread out from Mazar-e-Sharif to Jalalabad working every day in Afghan ministries and offices mentoring their Afghan colleagues. They do this on a security budget which is less than the cost of providing bottled water to the US Embassy compound in Kabul. The Japan International Cooperation Agency uses the same security guidelines as every other international organization in Afghanistan (with the exception of the US AID contractors who use DS guidelines) and that is the UN minimum occupational safety standards (UN MOSS.)

In contested provinces (Helmund, Zabul, Kandahar, etc) the UN MOSS standards are not applicable and in those provinces the best solution would be to turn over all reconstruction monies to our military who has demonstrated time and again they are better at delivering reconstruction aid anyway. For the rest of the country the US could start sending its FSO’s out into the provinces immediately and be reasonably certain that any casualties they do take would come from motor vehicle accidents which are one of the bigger threats faced by internationals who live outside the wire. There have been IGO and NGO casualties in Afghanistan but they are rare and disproportionally suffered by those who choose not to use armed security. By that I mean those organizations that place stickers on their vehicles of an AK 47 with a red circle and a line drawn through it. Nothing says “I am important and unarmed” like a new SUV with “no weapons on board” stickers. This is not a country where it is wise to advertise you are both important and unarmed. It is a dangerous place but the risks are manageable and reasonable which has been proven by JICA and the hundreds of other organizations currently operating outside the wire in Afghanistan.

The last time I was at the Kabul International Airport I saw a group of embassy workers being escorted from the VIP parking lot adjacent to the terminal to the front door by four Blackwater contractors with weapons and full kit. I would submit that having armed men escort your diplomats the entire 100 yards from parking lots to front door is not only unnecessary but insulting to the host nation. The men Blackwater places on the embassy contract are highly trained operatives who must maintain rigorous weapons proficiency standards and top secret security clearances. They would be of much greater use out in the provinces and would undoubtedly be much happier roaming around the countryside where their skill set is of use. Parading around the Kabul airport with rifles at the ready is silly.  

I applaud Mr. Ward for highlighting this issue in Washington DC but have to stress that we need to adopt a sense of urgency regarding the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. We do not have the time or money to study what to do it is time to do. The way forward had been clearly marked by the thousands of internationals operating inside Afghanistan daily using the UN MOSS security guidelines. The American Embassy and US AID already have dozens of highly trained security contractors in Kabul it is time to put them to better use.

The next article (also in the Washington Post) described the cunning use of Viagra by CIA case officers to gain the trust of an influential elder. The premise of the article is ridiculous. Viagra is available in most of the pharmacies (and there are thousands here) located in the prominent towns of Afghanistan. In the remote rural areas of the country one can find people who have never heard of or seen medicine in pill form. They do not know there is such a thing as aspirin let alone Viagra. But I suspect any leader important enough to warrant courting by the CIA is also educated enough to know about medicine in pill form. If he knows what pills are then he probably knows about Viagra and if he wanted some obtaining it would be simple. It certainly would not require debasing one’s self in front of a foreigner especially one from the CIA.

What I do not have to guess about is the consequences of a foreigner trying to give an important leader pills for a flagging libido. That would be an insult so grave that a Pashtun chief could never tolerate it. There is only one way an international could pass on something like Viagra and that would be through a trusted Afghan who was also friends with the target and could deliver the goods to the chief in private. To imply that a CIA operative found out the number and ages of the chieftain’s wives in casual conversation and then reached into his bag of BS to pull out four Viagra pills which were then received “with delight” is beyond ridiculous. It is an outright fabrication which proves the main stream media is every bit as clueless about this country as the FOB bound Big Army or the locked down embassy staff.

But there are other reasons to doubt this story. I know a couple guys on the mobile security team (MST) contract for the CIA. They have never, not once, left the FOB to which they are assigned. My statistical sample of MST contractors may be insignificant and I may be wrong about them being 100% FOB bound but I doubt it. I met only a few CIA officers while on active duty so I claim no insider knowledge or expertise but their description of the agency matches perfectly with the recently published history Legacy of Ashes and that excellent book was not a flattering portrait to say the least.

It is conceivable that the CIA did their homework on a targeted leader and determine the number and ages of his wives. It is inconceivable that they would then send out a case officer who was stupid enough to try the ham handed play described in the WaPo article. At least I hope it is inconceivable because God help us if it is true that after seven plus years of effort we are operating like the Key Stone cops.   When I read silliness like this I think that instead of high speed Blackhawk uniforms and kit maybe we should issue our CIA operatives big red clown noses and large clown shoes to wear around Afghanistan.  

We have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and should be talking about what an endstate will look like and not about the feasibility of venturing outside Fortress Kabul or co-opting local leaders with Viagra. It would be a welcomed sight to see FSO’s or CIA case officers operating outside the wire with the rest of us as part of those teams they are going to have to take the leap eventually and now is as good a time as any.

Change you can believe in

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

M-14 DMR
M-14 DMR

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

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

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

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

Streets of Kabul 2007
Streets of Kabul 2007

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

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

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

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

The Jalalabad road in Kabul
The Jalalabad road in Kabul

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

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

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

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

On the verge of modernity
On the verge of modernity

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