Free Ranging the Khyber Pass

There are three ways to tour the Khyber Pass; you can apply for permit and if granted then pay for a soldier to escort you through the pass, If you’re a VIP there are no fees and you get lots of escorts, special presentations at the forts, and lunch at the Khyber Rifles Officer Club, and if you’re really clever (or stupid) you can sneak through the pass dressed like a local and hope none of the roadblocks spot you. I’ve traversed the pass a half dozen times using all three methods. The VIP tour was the most enjoyable, the food on my non VIP tour with a bunch of Afridi “businessmen” was the best, and trying to sneak back through the Pass unescorted the most exciting.   

My first trip through the Khyber Pass was in 2006 when my friend Yahya Sayeed and I flew into Islamabad, got a cheap hotel and spent the afternoon shopping for shalwar kameez (local clothes) and booze for our hosts before taking a taxi to Peshawar the next day. Alcohol may be frowned upon by Islam but that has not stopped Pakistan from producing Vat 69 scotch in Rawalpindi and Cossack Vodka in Quetta, but both are vile. When we arrived in Peshawar we got a room in a modest motel across the street from a Kentucky Fried Chicken shop before a couple of stout, serious looking men showed up to take me on a tour of the world famous Qissa Khawani Bazaar.

My new bodyguards were the advance party of the Afridi clan and were there to look after me given that this was Peshawar, home to the Peshawar Taliban Shura. The famous bazaar was large and looked to me like a large Afghan bazaar with the gold souk from Dubai attached. It had plenty of big buildings built on narrow pockmarked streets with narrow brown water drainage ditches on both sides. I was as little taller than my escorts and deeply tanned at the time, but easily recognizable to the merchants who would greet me in English or Russian. I had not yet learned how easily a western gait was spotted in Central Asia. I guess if one were supple enough to squat comfortably on their heels they’re gait wouldn’t be so distinctive but I can’t do that so I stuck out like a sore thumb whenever I was on foot.

Touring the Qissa Khawani Bazaar with escort

A few hours after we returned from the bazar the main body of the Afridi’s showed up heavily armed, but friendly. I thought Yahya had told them I was a retired Marine and interested in touring famous battlefields, to explain our interest in the pass but I was wrong. The Afridi’s didn’t know anything about the American military, and they had never heard of the United States Marine Corps. They were hoping I could help them out with a business problem but first had to determine if I could be trusted. They asked why I was spending my leave time in Pakistan instead of going back home, so I explained that I had to spend 11 out of 12 months outside the USA to get an overseas tax exemption, and that my second wife was a total bitch, so I had no desire to rush home.  

Avoiding taxes and having an unpleasant wife who made hanging out in the family compound a misery were problems Afridi’s understood. They spent the next hour extolling the virtues of tax avoidance and discussing effective methods for dealing with nagging wives. They then shared a business problem they needed help with; would it be possible for me to sell some beer on their behalf? Apparently a truck load Heineken had mysteriously showed up and they needed to monetize it. This was the start of my lucrative side gig as a rumrunner.

My new business partners (from the much-respected Adam Khel clan) were, with one exception, carrying bizarrely modified rifles built from AK-47 platforms.  The senior guy had a legit Russian AKS 74U identical to the one carried by Osama bin Laden, but the others had custom furniture or parts added to make them look like MP-5’s or M4 rifles. Only the 74U had sights on it so I got the impression these rifles were for show. The Afridi’s, who have been living in the Khyber Pass area for centuries, are allowed (and expected) to be armed even when visiting Peshawar which is a nice, clean, modern city.

Once we had our four-car convoy organized we took off for the Northwest Frontier border at a rather high rate of speed. I looked at Yahya who smiled serenely and said something like “these guys are crazy so get used to it”. Approaching the Bab-e-Khyber gate our convoy barely slowed as the guards waved us through without inspection. We then pulled off the main road onto a dirt track for a few hundred meters and stopped in front of some small, ugly, square cinderblock rooms that functioned as Pashtun roadhouses. They served only Vat 69 Scotch, which tasted like shit. We had three toasts, including one to President Bush, the Afridi’s test fired their guns, because they could (I guess), and we were off into the Khyber.

Outside Michni Fort on the non VIP tour with the Afridi’s

The pass climbs for several miles until reaching the Shagai Fort, built by the British in 1927 and currently home to the Khyber Rifles. It’s massive but closed to the public so after taking pictures we moved on traveling next to the old, abandoned Khyber railroad as the pass narrowed when approaching the Ali Masjid fort. That too is not open to the public, so we pushed on through the town of  Landi Kotel, to the Michni Post, a fort that looks over the valley leading into Afghanistan at the Torkham border. After taking pictures and looking around we doubled back to Landi Kotel for lunch.  We pulled up to a dodgy looking place amid the bazaar and there was a teen aged boy out front squeezing the contents out of the guts of a goat he just butchered. I looked at Yahya with trepidation, but he assured me the food would be excellent. We sat on a cushioned, raised platform inside a small filthy hovel and the food, goat kabab and Kabuli Palau. The food was delicious and caused no abdominal distress which, at the time, I thought a miracle.

The Afridi’s claim this is the best kabob stand in Landi Kotal. I was dubious about this claim to put it mildly

My only disappointment with the first trip was not stopping in the town of Darra Adam Khel a one-road town inside the Khyber Agency that is lined with gunsmiths and famous for fixing, making, and selling military grade rifles, pistols and machineguns. The Afridi’s told us that showing up there with an American would be a problem.

The difference between experiencing the Khyber Pass with the low rent, but beer rich Afridi’s and the upper caste Afridi elite was night and day. My next trip through the Khyber was in 2007 when I escorted the head of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (the USAID of Japan) through the pass to Islamabad. The head of mission had senior diplomatic status, so he received the VIP Khyber tour which was spectacular. That trip started on the Afghan side of the border, we had driven to the Torkham gate from Kabul escorted by my usual team of gunmen from the Panjshir.

Once we reached the Torkham gate I coordinated with the American army Military Policemen (MP’s) stationed there to get the JICA SUV expedited across the border. before surrendering my weapons to my Afghan crew and finished the trip unarmed. On the Pakistan side of the border we were taken into the VIP area which had a large buffet of food that the Japanese wisely ignored. We picked up an escort with motorcycle outriders and three pickup trucks full of riflemen. The lead truck had a machinegun attached over the cab with bungee cords and the gunner was wearing a motorcycle helmet which looked peculiar but was not doubt effective at keeping the wind out of his eyes.

With sirens wailing we drove up to the Michni Post for our first VIP event, a lecture about the history of the Khyber Pass by the Khyber Rifles a.k.a “Guardians of the Khyber”. The presentation room had glass walls allowing an impressive unobstructed view of the Afghanistan border. There four prominent mountain peaks marking the Afghanistan border have large white numbers (1 through 4) painted on them and are used as target reference points during the presentation. The major from the Khyber Rifles had an impeccable upper-class British accent, and had gone to university in the United Kingdom. He gave a brief history of the pass and explained the extensive counter battery battle they had fought back when the Soviet Union was warring in Afghanistan. There were many missile and artillery shrapnel pieces (all painted blue) and a few captured soviet artillery pieces on display just outside the fort to augment the presentation.

VIP briefing room. The Khyber Rifles have a first rate presentation on their role and mission

On on either side of the glass walls were pictures of famous people who had toured the fort in the past. Princess Di, Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, Margaret Thatcher, the former Shah of Iran, and Princess Ann were there along with dozens of famous people from other countries.  I noted a table full of sweets and fruits was set up at the Post just as it had been at the border so after the presentation, I munched on finger food and took pictures. We then headed for the home of a Pakistani physician/diplomat Dr. Afridi (a common last name in the Khyber Agency) who had served on the Pakistan’s delegation to Tokyo. We had lunch with Dr Afridi which my JICA clients barely touched before heading to the Ali Masjid fort, home of the Khyber Rifles Officer’s Club for another official presentation and buffet.

Entrance to the Khyber Rifles O club

The Khyber Rifles Officer Club has a treasure trove of fascinating military artifacts. Outside the club there is an ancient tree that was placed in chains back in 1898. The tree was arrested one Saturday evening by Captain James Quid who after stumbling out of the O Club noticed the tree was moving wildly and he suspected it was trying to leave the post without orders. He ordered the mess sergeant to arrest the tree and place it in chains so it could not escape, which the sergeant did. The chains remain in place to this day, protected by fencing and with a plaque explaining its history in English.

The tree arrested and placed in irons for attempting to go UA in 1927

Being a diplomat is difficult because everywhere you go people prepare local delicacies, they expect you to sample. Three lunches in one day were more than anyone can handle which was why my Japanese clients were adept at sampling a lot but consuming very little. Diplomats need to know that kind of stuff and I sure wished one of them had told me because I was slow to catch on and uncomfortably full by the time we left the pass.

My last trip through the Khyber was to take a physician from Jalalabad to Peshawar where he was scheduled to attend a medial conference. This was in 2010 when the area between Shagai Fort and Landi Kotal was experiencing serious feuding between the beer drinking Afridi’s and Jihadi inclined Shinwaris and both sides were battling the Pakistani army too.

We went on a Friday because if there was one day you could sneak around and not get caught because it was Islam’s day off. It is also the day the faithful swarm popular mosques for the weekly Juma mid-morning prayer and the mosque in Landi Kotel was so popular hundreds of the faithful, many armed to the teeth, were blocking the road as they bowed in supplication.

You see these unit plaques throughout the Khyber Pass

Our taxi driver was freaking out as we stopped well short of the crowd and waited for the Juma prayers to end.  We made no more stops, but I took lots of pictures of battle damaged compounds. Every large compound had armed men stationed outside in sangers and from casual observation it appeared the arms dealers in Darra Adam Khel were having an RPG clearance sale. Hundreds had been fired at some of the compounds and that takes some time to do.

We got to Peshawar and I dropped off my colleague and then attempted to go right back through the Khyber without a tribal pass which would take a day to obtain. I sat in the back of the little Toyota cab and made it all the way to Landi Kotal before a sharp-eyed sentry manning a roadblock spotted me and yelled “Foriengee” before raising his rifle to stop the taxi and inviting me to parlay.  The sentry was not interested in trying to decipher my crude attempts at Dari, a language he probably didn’t understand anyway, so he jumped into the cab, and we drove back to Peshawar.

We arrived at the tribal police headquarters where I explained to the officer of the day, who spoke English, that I was unaware I needed a different permit to travel back to Afghanistan. I was released and told to report back in the morning for a proper permit. I stepped out into the teaming streets of Peshawar, switched the sim cards to my Pakistan cell number and summoned aid before walking to the City View motel to go to ground for the night. It was a long night but in the end I made it back through without further delay. When I first traversed the pass I found it enchanting; it was easy to imagine what it looked like when Tammerlane was invading the subcontinent, but after a few trips the pass lost its charm but it would be cool to again some day . . . inshallah.

The Secret Gate: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan

The Secret Gate is one of the best books of the year which is easily confirmed by noting  its absence on any of the New York Times bestseller lists. I heard about this book from my father who was told about it by the wife of a friend, and she heard about it from one her grandchildren. How many word of mouth referrals do you think the current #1 in the NYT combined Print and E Book nonfiction list, Oath and Honor by Liz Cheney has generated this year? The question answers itself so let’s talk about the next book you’ll want to pick up knowing you won’t be able to put it down.  

The Secret Gate is about the rescue, at the last possible minute, of an Afghan woman and her son by a young American diplomat using a secret gate that the CIA opened to bring in their Afghans. I’ve worked at both the Baghdad and Kabul American embassies which allowed me to take the measure of young diplomats like Sam Aronson the hero in this story, and as a rule, I don’t like them. I found indecisive paralysis of Homeira Qaderi, a celebrated author,  academic, and woman rights activist distasteful. Her inability to make sound decisions in the face of existential danger is a character flaw in my book but her resolute determination to ignore reality in the face of intense international pressure from all the right people does contribute to the tension in the story.

The calm before the storm: this was the entrance to the Kabul American Embassy in the spring of 2005. Within a year these guys were behind 20 foot T walls .

And then there was the secret gate which I understand (this is not in the book) was guarded by Unit 02, the Nangarhar province CIA counter-terrorism pursuit team who arrested me once and were dicks about it. Every character in this book, from the “calm professional” ambassador to the lethargic DSS agents would normally irritate the shit out of me but I couldn’t put the book down and was sorry to reach the end. This story, intentional or not, captured the consequences when the media/government/academic approved narrative collides with cold, hard reality.

The tale opens on August 2nd, 2021, with a chapter about what Homeira and family were up to that day followed by a chapter about Sam’s day which started out rough because he was hung over. As the alternating chapters progress we learn more about the Qaderi family (Homeira’s father is awesome) and we learn about Sam. He, like most diplomats, comes from a wealthy family, and he traveled a bit in his youth which exposed him to the diplomatic service because his Dad worked for the NBA and diplomats love free NBA tickets. But there is an anomaly in young Sam’s background. At the age of 15 he got the EMT bug and by the end of High School he was a member of two different volunteer ambulance corps, racing a ½ mile to the closest station on foot from his High School when a call came in.

It is my lived experience that the best children of our wealthy elites will earn an EMT license and find their way into volunteer rescue squad work. I base this on my time with the Bethesda Chevy Chase Rescue Squad where a healthy percentage of the volunteers came from wealthy, and in some cases, powerful DC families. I started to like Sam when I read about his unique background.

Young Bethesda dandies dressed for a night of excitement in the big city. These guys have additional firefighter training so they can man Rescue 1 – which in my day was Rescue 19 – a squad truck with all the heavy rescue equipment that operates like a ladder company on big calls. Working Rescue 19 was the most fun a young man could have with his pants on in D.C..

The backstory covers Sam’s progression from Diplomatic Security Specialist to junior diplomat and way too much of that tale concerns COVID 19. We hear about Sam’s efforts to “sneak in” vaccines for the embassy staff in some African dump. It appears both Sam and the author, Mitchell Zuckoff, think it normal for senior bureaucrats to displace to their summer coastal bungalows to isolate after of positive COVID test. No doubt drawing daily per diem too and this is in 2021 long after it was obvious that COVID was little more than a bad cold bug and the vaccines worthless. But by the time Sam hits Kabul all the concerns about COVID became OBE (overcome by events in military parlance) and we (thankfully) never hear of it again.

Sam’s first decision of the crisis is to allow a woman who threw her child over the wall to be processed for a flight out. That was explicitly against that days iteration of evacuation guidance which Sam doesn’t know because, to be honest, he barley even knows where Afghanistan is on a map. But he catches on quick and within hours he’s ejecting desperate Afghans by the dozens.

The constant pressure of making literal life and death decisions about Afghans is hard on Sam as it well should be given his total ignorance of Afghanistan and her people. Sam starts to chain smoke, bumming cigarettes from interpreters (Terps) or the troops working near him, a move so typical it is a cliché.  As the story progresses Sam finds his own Terp named Asad who despite getting his parents and siblings into the evacuation que, will not leave Kabul without his sister and her family. He intends to help where he can until talking his sister into another attempt to get into the airport.

On the 25th of August, with just four days left in the evacuation Sam and Asad find themselves assigned to the “secret gate” where the CIA is bringing in busloads of their people who they take directly to the head of the line inside the airport. While Sam is bumming smokes from the CIA contractors manning the gate Asad gets the idea of bringing his sister and her family in from the gas station across the street from the secret entrance to the secret gate. Sam asks one of the CIA “shooters” for a little help, and he, surprisingly, is all in. He directs the pricks from Unit 02 to lay down some serious covering fire to distract the crowd while Asad sprints to the gas station, finds his sister and her family and they run back across the street through a gap in the wire to safety. It works like a charm and Sam then uses his junior diplomat status to walk the sister and her family directly into the airport terminal. Because (again based on my lived experience) Afghan interpreters are among the most awesome, loyal, brave, and trustworthy of temporary friends Asad stays on as his family flies out to help Sam get more deserving Afghans evacuated.

The word about Sam’s secret gate gets out and soon he is inundated with the names of Afghans connected to former friends and colleagues from around the world which he writes on his forearm with a sharpie as he and Asad start bringing the faithful into the wire. On the last day the gate will remain open Sam, as almost an afterthought, calls Homeira Qaderi and tells her that he can get her and her son out if she can get to the Panjshir Pumps gas station in 30 minutes. He stressed they can’t bring any luggage because of the recent suicide bombing, or any other family members. Homeira brings her son and her older brother along with a bag containing her laptop and a change of clothes. That was such a typical Afghan move that it forced a smile and I started to like Ms. Homeira who was making me miss hang around Afghans.

Rescue squad work is an excellent vehicle to teach the young about the importance of good decision making under stress as well as the consequences of poor decision making which is too often done under the influence of drink or drugs .

There’s lots more to the story and tons of tension and danger for the uninitiated, for the rest of us outgoing rifle fire and flash bangs are not considered that risky but what do I know? My perception of risk may be a bit dated. Sam Aronson, who directly violated State Department rules and regulations to get over a dozen under vetted Afghans evacuated comes home a hero which is exactly what he promised his wife he would not do. His wife who is also a junior diplomat cuts him some slack, but he his colleagues at State Department don’t because it is not an organization that tolerates masculine heroic virtues well. Sam quickly exits the State Department for greener pastures.

The problem with great stories like this is they make it easy to forget what we should never forget and that is the self-inflicted wound of our humiliating retreat from Afghanistan. On an early July 2021 edition of All Marine Radio, I offered to following expert analysis: “You cannot conduct a NEO from the airport in Kabul because there will be 200,000 Afghan civilians flooding the field in a panic to get out.” This was not dramatic or original insight, but common sense, any child living in Kabul could have told you that which was the point – our best and brightest knew nothing about what is happening outside the wire and that ignorance fed risk aversion and magical thinking about basic things like the difference between outgoing and incoming rifle fire.

Yet even when we flood Kabul with young diplomats trained to treat the official government narrative as legitimate reality at least one of them will recognize that he has arrived in Absurdistan and instinctively ignore what he is told in order do the right thing. For that Sam Aronson deserves a solid Bravo Zulu. And it turned out that the performance of Unit 02 at the secret gate was most honorable and they too deserve to be recognized for filling the breach at a desperate time with professional poise and determination. But the biggest thanks for this treat of a tale goes to the author Mitchell Zuckoff for finding a positive story of human courage and sacrifice buried inside our ignoble retreat from Central Asia.

Burn Notice

This is one in a series of fictional short stories that I’ll be posting in the ensuing weeks. Like all good fiction there is enough truth in the stories to include pictures, which I believe is an interesting modification of the fictional short story genre.

The heavily armed American bumped along the Lashkary Canal road at the wheel of an old Toyota Hi Lux heading south into the vast Dasht-e Margo (Desert of Death). He watched the not-so-bright lights of Zaranj, the capitol of Afghanistan’s Nimroz province recede in the rearview mirror. His Afghan driver and constant companion, Haji jan, an old Taliban fighter who couldn’t see shit at night, was riding shotgun. Zaki, one of his construction project foremen was sitting in the center of the back seat staring pensively out of the windshield. All three of the men wore chest rigs with rifle magazines and smoke grenades, the American also carried a .45caliber Kimber holstered on his chest for easy access. Tor Spay (Black Dog in Pashto) sat behind the driver, the massive black beast was relaxed, panting slowly, as he rested contently. Tor Spay loved being out at night on the hunt.

Migrating sand dunes were a constant menace in this part of the desert. On some nights they moved at 10 miles per hour in gigantic piles of talc fine sand shaped like arrow heads. You could see dozens of them blasting across the flat desert floor when you flew in or out of Zaranj.  One of those arrowheads could bury the Lashkary road under a 30 foot wall of sand in less than 15 minutes and they were hard to see when the sand was blowing. Hitting one was like hitting a concrete wall and the buses running between Zaranj and Ring Road at Delaram occasionally hit them at speed causing horrific injuries.

The autumn night was cool and clear, with bright ambient light provided by millions of stars stretched across the high desert sky. Normally beautiful, tonight the ambient light was magnifying the blowing sand making it that much more difficult to navigate. The American was a singleton, part of an off-the-book’s black operation called The Eclipse Group that was loved by ISAF and loathed by the CIA. His source code was Willie 4 which came from the “Free Willie” operation a few years back that involved rescuing a well-known reporter from even better-known kidnappers. He had not done much on that operation because the reporter self-rescued, but his participation landed him a meeting with The Old Man at his oceanfront home in La Jolla. His presidential pardon for the Iran Contra affair was the first thing you saw when entering the home and the six MG 34 German machineguns in various states of assembly littering his garage added to the ambiance.

The Old Man explained what a singleton was telling him that if he ever got pulled into some sort of agency ass covering operation he was on his own. He then added that if he directed him to participate in such an adventure it was because there were no other options. Wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke the Old Man had stared hard into his eyes and said, “If you get yoked up, you are on your own; I don’t know you, Uncle Sam don’t know you, you’re fucked; do you understand this, and I want to hear you say it out loud”. He liked his code name; he liked the mission, and he liked the Old Man; he understood and said so.

The Spy was a retired 48 year old Marine who looked to be in his 30’s, he was fit and even with the long hair and two fist beard, penetrating blue eyes and perpetual pleasant smile he still looked like a solider.  And now here he was, launching a rescue mission on blind faith that the Old Man wouldn’t send him into the unknown unless it was some sort of national level emergency. The Old Man had skyped him from his villa in La Jolla in a state of high excitement. Being old school, he was certain the NSA couldn’t hack into Skype calls, so he used Skype frequently which was how the NSA knew what Eclipse was up to. Speaking in a hushed tone, staring intently into his laptop which was perched next to his poolside lounge chair, the Old Man told the spy a disaster was unfolding just a few hundred miles from him in Iran.

Dewey explained that the current administration had bragged about a cyber attack conducted by the Israeli’s using the Sextent virus. Both President Obama and Vice President Biden had crowed about the op on national television while claiming credit for it despite having nothing to do with it. The Iranians had responded with a mole hunt that turned out to be child’s play when they discovered the internet-based platform the CIA used to communicate with their agents in the field was a post 9/11 temporary quick fix. Nobody at the CIA ever thought it important to go back and fix the quick fix so their now archaic platform was easily penetrated by the legions of professional grade Iranian and Chinese hackers.

The Iranians had already killed 15 CIA assets; the Chinese had cleared the board of every CIA asset in their country. The agency needed to get their one remaining agent out of Iran with an emergency extract but had nobody positioned to do it. The American was in the position to do something; he could get across the Iranian border with Nimroz province into the uninhabited desert. He had gone over the border before to gather a census of the scores of ancient abandoned walled cities that dot the Dasht-e Margo. The flourishing Persian civilization that once lived in those towns were forced the flee when Genghis Khan dammed the Helmand River turning the productive farmland into a desert. If the Old Man could get his agent and family  into the Sistan basin portion of the desert of death then the American could get him over the border and on a plane to Kabul. Inshallah.

They forded the Helmand River easily; the intake dam the American had built the prior summer for the Charborjak district irrigation system took in most of the river upstream. That had caused the Iranians to bitch about not getting their mandated share of Helmand water, which amused the American, but not the USAID field representatives who had funded the project. Once they moved away from the river deeper into the desert the blowing sand abated, and they made good time across the hard-packed desert floor. An hour northeast of the river Zaki’s Icom radio sparked to life; Baloch tribal fighters from the Iranian side of the border were waiting to link up. A red star cluster shot up into the sky marking the stationary Baloch patrol, the American stopped and sent up two green star clusters to signal they were coming in clean.

The American pulled into a small cluster of Ford pickups that had once belonged to the Afghanistan National Police. They were now painted is desert camouflage and sported the markings of the Iranian Border Police. The men inside the trucks, like the American and his crew, wore local shalwar kameez pants and tunics; unlike the American their tunic bottom hems were squared in the Pakistani manner. The American took turns greeting the patrol leaders with a big hug, and three kisses on the cheek because they knew each other well. The American had repaired the irrigation systems the desert Baloch needed to re-occupy the land that the Soviets had driven them off some 30 years prior. The American had kept his word and delivered on every promise he made and that meant something to the desert tribes.

The American produced a claymore bag containing 50,000 US dollars: all of it in Benjamin’s which were immediately stashed in the patrol leaders’ truck without being counted. The men sat around a small campfire drinking chai and smoking cigarettes, the American was staring into the fire while visualizing the linkup in his mind, trying to anticipate how it should go down while inventorying in his head things he should not see like firearms or bulky clothing. The rule of opposites is a powerful subconscious observation tool that humans use instinctively. Thinking about what ‘opposite’ would look like in this context was critical, the American was not going to end up in an orange jump suit on Iranian national television.

At midnight they took off with the main body tucked in behind the point element and flankers dispatched by the Patrol leader to screen their movement to an abandoned walled city identified as EF 595 – C on the satellite imagery that had been provided him by the DARPA funded, burning man loving, humanitarian outfit at the Taj guesthouse in Jalalabad known as the Synergy Strike Force. The claimed they were “prosocial cyberizing in complex combat zones” by running a guesthouse with a bar and nice pool but that was just a cover, they were spooks.

The Baluch patrol leader looked at the imagery and said the target was known as Qala Fath which meant clear water, which also meant it was a frequent stop on the Taliban rat lines running out of both Pakistan and Iran. Clean, clear water was hard to find in the Dasht-e Margo; this was a popular spot and the American wondered how the Old Man had known to send his guy there. They were 45 minutes away and had to move fast, being on the Iranian side of the border when the sun came up was asking for trouble.

The fighting patrol pulled into the eastern entrance to Qala Fath and stopped. Baba D dismounted with his weapons and went alone to the center of the old complex with Tor Spay. He found some steps to sit on, broke a green chem light shaking it good to get the fluorescence going, and threw it on the ground in front of him. He then lit a cigarette and waited, Tor Spay sitting obediently by his side. An old man accompanied by three women stepped out of one of the buildings and approached him. The man asked in English if he knew Jack; the American replied “ Yep”, before adding “I’m from the American government and here to help” then laughed at his own joke. The old man looked confused, the women behind him were shaking, clearly terrified by Tor Spay who was up on his feet looking at the Iranians with interest.

The American stood walking over to the family while asking them to stand still so Tor Spay could meet and smell them which they did with trepidation. Once that was completed he took the massive black dog off his lead and gave him a one word command: “Hunt”. Tor Spay took off like a rocket back towards the area the family was just occupying. He moved like lightening and made no sound at all as he searched the ruins for any signs of uninvited Iranians. He returned ten minutes later looking at the American expectantly for some treats.

They arrived at the American’s safe house in Zaranj, with the dawn. The safe house was across the street from the Zaranj municipal airport which consisted of a runway, an abandoned building, and a resident pack of feral dogs. The house staff had hot chai and breakfast waiting. The American made a pot of coffee and headed outside to the porch to watch the sunrise. The Iranian walked out on the porch to ask for a cup of his coffee. The American smiled and said there was plenty. The Iranian stood there uncertain what to say or do so the American spoke first.

“Look I don’t want to know your name or who you are or how you got to that old walled city in the desert. I’m not from the CIA, they will meet you on the flight to Kabul which leaves in three hours. I would appreciate it if are vague in your description of me, the less the CIA knows about me the better and the less I know about you the better. Both you and the CIA know the Old Man sent me and that is all any of you need know”.

The Iranian relaxed and sat down taking in the spectacular sunrise with the American. “How do I thank you for what you have given my family and I”?

The Spy didn’t look at him saying quietly “You owe the Old Man, not me for your rescue, but when you see him next if you would please tell him Willi 4 deserves a serious cash bonus and a long vacation I’d be much obliged”. The two sat quietly watching the sunrise until Haji jan called them down for breakfast.

At 1100 they left the safe house and drove to the airport gate where they were met by Zaki’s uncle Mohammad, a local mullah who doubled as the airport manager. Mohammad had been the airport manager for 30 years and spoke fluent Russian, Persian, English, German as well as all the local languages of Afghanistan. At 1115 a Beechcraft Super King came screaming down the runway mere feet off the deck which sent a large pack of feral dogs fleeing towards holes in the fence line. Having rid the landing strip of dogs the plane gained altitude and kicked the rudder to starboard (going to its port side would put it into Iranian airspace), came back around and settled on the runway, taxing to an old abandoned administrative building.

The airport consisted of a chain link fence around a single runway with a single entrance gate on the western side. There were no other passengers for this flight just the Iranian and family so the Spy and the ten truckloads of Afghan Border Police sent by Governor Abdul Karim Brahui to secure the airport. The plane did not shut down its engines as Iranian and his family were hustled aboard. He was met by his CIA case officer who apologized profusely for his cover being blown and for failing to give him a burn notice. Interestingly the CIA man did not speak to or acknowledge the American who had rescued them from Iran. The Iranian thanked Allah, for the hundredth time, that the man who had recruited him had not forgotten him. That man had told him 30 years ago that he could never trust the CIA but could always trust him. He had been true to his word.

As the plane taxied down the runway towards freedom, he looked for the American, but he had disappeared. The man was a ghost; he would never see him again, never know his name, and never forget him.

The Kabul NEO Ends the US Mission in Afghanistan in bitter Defeat: Exactly as Osama bin Laden Predicted

The end of our Afghanistan adventure was worse than my most pessimistic predictions. Since 2008 I have insisted there was only one way the Afghanistan conflict could end and that would be with an accommodation of the Taliban. I never imagined that the Taliban would sweep the board and help us extricate ourselves from the country in the most amateurish Non-Combatant Operation (NEO) ever executed by the United States military.

I first got wind of the impending disaster on the 28th of July when a freelancer friend of mine asked if he could provide my contact information to a man in Zaranj, the capitol of Nimroz province, who wanted me to apply for a visa on his behalf. I checked with my former interpreter from Nimroz, now a resident of California, about the man in question and it turned out he was a resident of Zaranj, but had worked for the contractor GRS, not me. But I did learn about the new P1/P2 visa program which would open a route to the United States for Afghans who were not interpreters but had worked for Americans in other rolls.

Seen this one before

On the 6th of August I started receiving a flood of emails from Afghans in Nimroz province (in the southwest), Nangarhar province (in the east), Balkh province (in the north), and Kabul. All of them wanted P2 visa applications started for them but not all of them qualified. 

The guidance on who could recommend visa’s is as follows: “For non-governmental organizations (NGO) and media organizations that were not funded by the U.S. government, but are headquartered in the United States, the senior-most U.S. citizen employee of that organization may make a referral”. As a regional manager I had Chief of Party status, according to the State Department, which was the excuse they used to get me to stop wearing a pistol to provincial reconstruction meetings. My old company CADG backed me up by providing proof of employment letters within 24 hours of my requests.

As the Taliban started taking provincial capitals the trickle of Afghans reaching out to me became a flood. In addition, my former interpreter from Nimroz province called to tell me he had sent his wife and four children to Afghanistan when his mother-in-law fell ill. They were stuck in Zaranj and the two youngest, who were born in California, only spoke English. He needed help so we organized a WhatsApp group to guide the family back to Kabul and into the airport. My favorite war correspondent Michael Yon, and the owner of CADG Steve Shaulis, got the family to Kabul. Getting them through the Marine perimeter became the problem, despite the children having American passports and the mother a permanent resident card they were not allowed into the airport.

One of the maps we used to guide Afghans to the airport

I was podcasting daily during the Kabul NEO with the Mensa Brothers on All Marine Radio and updating the audience regularly on the plight of my friend’s family and the travails my visa applicants were facing outside the Kabul Airport. On the third day of the evacuation (August 18th) a listener put me in touch with a with a former Marine who was (I assume) a contractor working for the State Department inside the evacuation center. The next day I contacted another former Marine working inside the evacuation center. On the 20th of August I received a call from an old friend in Langley, Virginia asking if I had a “useful man” in Kabul. I had just been chatting with my old friend N who was a fixer at the Kabul embassy back when I ran the guard force. Mr. N is one of the most useful guys you could find in Kabul as he had the ability to acquire or do anything asked of him. The first thing he said to me when we connected on signal was “the fucking Taliban took all my houses and cars and they have closed the banks too and I cannot stay here with them”.  I do miss Kabul at times.

On the 20th of August I had one visa applicant through the process, seven complete applications in the process, and eleven other applications that were not complete and not submitted. My Langley friend (we went through the Marine Corps officer training pipeline together) sent my useful man a message on the Signal app dropping my name and telling him to sit tight. That was cool and now one of the richest sketchy dudes from Kabul owes me. I placed my approved visa guy on a target list telling the Marines where he thought he was in the crowd and what he was wearing. I asked about my other applicants and was told they were on it. 

Steve and Michael had done the same thing with their contacts inside the evacuation center and had the fix in to get our California family through the gate. I could feel the momentum going our way and went the sleep that night convinced we salvage something positive from the Afghanistan debacle.  

Then everything turned to shit. 

My former Terp’s wife and children were again turned away and the wife told us she was not risking taking the children through the Taliban lines again. The Marines had not found my family either which I deduced from the panicked messages waiting for me when I woke up. Then I received several emails from my applicants saying they had notifications from the embassy telling them to report to the Abbey Gate for processing. That is news that falls under the category of too good to be true, so I asked them to send screen shots. It did not take an evidence technician to see they were all the same screen shot. The notification system the embassy was using had been compromised and there were now 100,000 Afghans standing outside the airport with embassy notifications on their cell phones. 

Adding to the confusion was a message from one of my contacts in the evacuation center which is pasted below 

Tim, 

Please have a current USAID official submit this referral. 

Based on the information that you have provided, this individual and their immediate family members may be eligible for a P2 referral to the U.S. Refugee Assistance Program if they were employed by a U.S.-based non-governmental organization in Afghanistan. P-2 referrals are intended for certain Afghans who are affiliated with the United States through employment, but who do not qualify for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). It is not possible for individuals to self-refer to the program; the senior-most U.S. citizen employee of the non-governmental organization for which an Afghan individual worked must submit the referral. More information is available at: https://www.state.gov/u-s-refugee-admissions-program-priority-2-designation-for-afghan-nationals/. Completed forms should be sent to ATF-TF3@state.gov with the subject “P2 Referral.” Additional guidance will be provided to the individual(s) you referred at the email address you provide for them. 

Best, 

State Department Afghanistan Task Force – People at Risk 

There are no current USAID officials who would have any knowledge of me or the Afghans who worked for me. The USAID program officials managing the projects I worked in Afghanistan were Afghans, the USAID officials I would (rarely) see outside the wire were contractors. What the Task Force was asking me to do was find an official from USAID willing to perjure him or herself on behalf of an American he doesn’t know to support an Afghan he has never met. It was at this point I started recognizing the sure signs of a massive clusterfuck.

Another map sent to the Afghans heading to the Kabul Airport

I now had five families from outside Kabul waiting at the airport gates, two families in Kabul who spent their days outside the airport and seven families making their way towards Kabul from points west and north. I was still working with some of the applicants to get their paperwork in order and being ever the optimist, I told them all to not fear. The Marines were at the airport and would sort things out soon. On the daily podcast we said the same thing – one of the four of us had been involved in every Non-Combatant Evacuation the Marine Corps has conducted since Vietnam.  We knew how it’s done and what we were seeing on the ground was the abandonment of every lesson we had learned about conducting these operations starting with the imperative of standoff for the screeners.

It was clear to me that my two contacts in the evacuation center were exhausted, overwhelmed, and that the evacuation would end before the 31st of August. The next few days were a blur, I was coaxing my Afghans to be patient, I was waiting for the Marines to get organized enough that they could start focusing on the people there were sent there to take out which would be Americans, green card holders, and Afghans with a legitimate SIV or P1 or P2 applications. That never happened. The inevitable attack by ISIS sealed the fate of those Afghans, the ones who put their skin in our game, and they were now screwed.

The most important task in a NEO is gaining standoff for your processing center. We could have done that ourselves instructing the Taliban that any armed Afghan near us would be smoke checked as we busted out of the airport to gain the stand off we needed. With the forces on the ground we could haver easily taken a large slice of the old Kabul City and stayed there until job was done (which would have been long after 9/11 if I had anything to say about it)

Only 705 of the 18,000 Afghan visa applicants were evacuated. An estimated three-quarters of the people we evacuated were not visa applicants or green card holders. The Kabul NEO was a miserable failure, and an educated guess would point to the 6,938 mile screwdriver driven by micromanagers in the White House Tank taking stock in the good idea fairy. I know all the super geeky technology we now have in abundance looks cool in Hollywood movies, but it allows for micromanagement by the mouth breathers who lurk in every higher headquarters. When you have too much supervision from on high you get the results we got in the Kabul NEO: failure with zero accountability.

We failed to bring the Afghans who proved their loyalty to the United States by putting their lives on the line out with us as promised. Instead, we evacuated tens of thousands of unknown Afghans who can never be screened or vetted because there are no records against which to vet anyone. 

My old fixer Mr. N got the Turkish army to give him a ride to the civilian terminal where they put him on a Turkish military flight with a bunch of other Afghans who, like Mr. N, were wise enough to facilitate and partner with Turkish companies during the reconstruction boom. As I said he is a very useful man. I’m still trying to get him a visa though because the one thing I want to see before I die is Mr. N having a night on the town in Las Vegas.

We not only failed to accomplish the mission we lost eleven Marines, a navy corpsman, and an army sergeant in the process and under circumstances which were completely avoidable. Yet after the attack on the Kabul airport there was still hope. One of my insiders sent the email pasted in below:

Apologize the delay brother — it’s been an exhausting week. At the moment, here’s the word;

1. Gates are closing due to troop withdrawal and retrograde operations 

2. State Department has significantly halted processing any SIV/P2 cases, US Passports are being accepted at limited capacity due to gate closures

3. All resources have been exhausted due to security and accessibility issues 

His best bet is to get his family to the Abbey gate (canal side). Make a sign that says “Gy Tate”. He is my guy on the ground. His Marines know to look for that sign. 

Good luck!

S/F

The signs did not work, my Afghan families who had submitted the proper paperwork, had paid the $3,000 for required medical exams and clearance, and had already been issued visa’s never made it past the gate. Apparently female sports teams made it in, a collection of Special Forces dudes started the Pineapple express to get their people inside. That was no doubt rewarding for them but their victories came the at the expense of the Afghans who were qualified, had done the paperwork, had waited their turn, and who face legitimate threats if they returned home. I’m not being bitter, I would have done the exact same thing had I been in their shoes.

The Kabul NEO was a fiasco and it did not come remotely close to achieving the mission assigned which was to get American citizens, allies, and Afghans who had applied for Visas under the SIV P1 or P2 program out. We did not get all the Americans or allies out, and we barely made a dent in the visa applicants.

It is now time to rethink our military. I am not comfortable having an army capable of fighting 20 years without a declaration of war. I no longer trust our military leadership or our civilian masters to do what is best for the country instead of what is best for themselves.

I was hoping for a win – getting one family would have a victory of sorts, getting a dozen out would have been better. But the confusion generated by trying to conduct a NEO from Kabul International and not Bagram Airbase crushed any hope of getting the Afghans who earned the right to become Americans out as we had promised. And just to rub it in good and hard the general who headed this debacle arranged to have a portrait of himself taken as “the last man out”. I was hoping for a win but what I got was a kick in the balls from an organization that has lost its way and is no longer worthy of our trust or confidence.

The Wolves of Helmand

As our two-decade involvement in Afghanistan winds down to an inevitable withdraw there are an increasing number of memories’ being published by participants. I have been looking forward to this as it is the first large conflict in which there was no draft. The military participants were all volunteers, actually all professional recruited (there is a huge difference), and I’ve been interested in seeing their perception of war compared to the men who fought in earlier times against a different enemy. What I experienced when I read Gus Biggio’s book The Wolves of Helmand was déjà vu.

Frank “Gus” Biggio competed for and won a commission in the United States Marine Corps gaining a coveted slot in the infantry back in the 1990’s when the Corps was fat with cash, and overseas deployments both enjoyable and interesting. Unless you pulled a unit rotation to Okinawa in which case you were screwed. Sitting on an island where you could not train while the yen/dollar exchange rate was around 70 (meaning the dollar was damn near worthless) was misery unless you got nominated to be on the Oki Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) in which case you got aboard naval shipping and enjoyed yourself like the rest of the Corps.

I don’t know if Gus pulled a MEU float or a unit deployment rotation to Okinawa, but he enjoyed his tour as an infantry officer and after completing his five-year obligation he moved on, as most Marine officers do. Gus completed a law degree, got married to a physician, started a family and was safely ensconced in Washington DC when the military went to war. Gus held out for years before succumbing to a virus, planted in all Marine infantry, that makes life intolerable unless we see the elephant.

The six blind men touching an elephant parable is an ancient Indian fable that has come to demonstrate moral relativism and religious tolerance. That’s not the fable Gus and the rest of us are talking about; we don’t do moral relativism and assume religious tolerance to be a God given right. When we talk about touching the elephant, we are referring to a Civil War era euphemism for experiencing combat.

Gus was in DC, working a good job, and although he’s not a name dropper he mentions that after his morning runs  he would occasionally chat with his neighbor Michelle until she moved into the White House with her husband Barrack. So, Gus was doing well on the outside, but he had a problem on the inside. His best friends were in the fight, some of them coming home on, not with, their shields. He is a highly competent adult who has sublimated a serious competitive streak towards the development of an impressive law career and a stable, thriving family. But he doesn’t yet know what his nature demands that he know, information that he’ll only know if he gets to touch the elephant. His closest friends had touched the elephant repeatedly so his volunteering to go back in? He had no choice; I did the same thing for exactly the same reason.

Gus is exactly the kind of guy you want as your lawyer if, for no other reason, than he talked his wife into letting him deploy. Obviously, he married a perceptive woman who probably understood he had to go, but she’s a physician and they’re normally rule followers, so this was by any measure an impressive feat. He then signs on with the 1st Battalion 5th Marines (1/5) and heads to God’s country (Camp Pendelton, California) to start training.

From there he deploys, with his small team, directly into the Nawa district administrative center weeks ahead of the Marine offensive that will secure that portion of the Helmand province. No air conditioning, no working toilets, no hot chow, no roof or windows, and no ability to patrol 100 meters beyond the roofless district center because the Taliban had laid siege to small British garrison who arrived the year prior. Surrounded by Taliban, with the nearest help fifty miles distant, living in the dirt, patrolling constantly, fighting often – the entire time exposed to the elements 24/7; does that sound like fun to you? Of course not, and Gus tries to convince the reader that it wasn’t that much fun for him either. But you can tell by how hard he tries to make his experience seem like no big deal, that it was a big deal through which he earned an intangible that only those who touch the elephant can understand.

The Nawa district administration center in 2009

Gus is a throwback in a sense in that he is a citizen soldier, not a professional Marine. As such he joins the pantheon of Americans who wore the uniform to defend the country, not as a profession. Like all Marine reservists he was exceptionally well trained and had years of small unit leadership to develop his military skills. Yet still he left his young family, an obviously lucrative career in the most powerful city in the world to get dropped into a primitive hell hole. Does that sound like normal guy behavior to you? Me either but Gus is lawyer and musters his arguments well about the reasons behind volunteering to be dropped into the middle of Indian country.

When the rest of 1/5 arrived in Nawa they did so in a pre-dawn combat assault that overwhelmed the Taliban and drove them from the district in a matter of days. That never stopped the little T Taliban (local teens and young adults with little to do) from trying their luck with random small arms fire attacks or improvised explosive devices (IED’s) but the days of the Taliban traveling openly or intimidating the locals passed, for the most part, in most of the Helmand province.

During the year Gus spent in the Helmand province the Marine Corps actually did by the book COIN operations using a completely unsustainable deployment cycle that, while it was being sustained, was the most impressive damn thing you have ever seen. In 2010 when I moved into Lashkar Gah as the regional manager for a USIAD sponsored Civil Development Program, I drove the roads from Lash to Nawa, to Khanashin and to Marjha wearing local clothes in a local beater with a modest security detail and had no issues. The people seemed happy, business was thriving, the poppy harvests returning serious cash into the local economy.

Jagran (Major in Dari) Gus and his six Marine (and 1 corpsman) Civil Affairs Team were combat enablers for the 1st Battalion 5th Marines counterinsurgency battle. The weapon they employed was cash money, they were the carrot that offered to help the Afghan people. The Marines in the line companies were the stick and they were everywhere, deployed in little squad size patrol bases in every corner of the district. Gus and his team did as much patrolling as the grunts which  they needed to do in order to deploy the money weapon. There are few times and few places in Marine Corps history where a major gets to be a gunfighter but that is what the civil affairs team in the Helmand had to do. He was a lucky man to get such a hard corps gig, he could have been deployed to a firm base support role and never left the wire, a fate worse than death for an infantryman.

Jagran Gus tells some great stories about everyday life in rural Afghanistan. I spent much time there myself and appreciate his depiction of normal Afghans going about their business. Sometimes that business involves shooting at Marines for cash and there is an interesting story about catching some teenagers in the act and letting them go to the custody of their elders after the district governor chewed them out.

Marines medevacing a local Afghan in Nawa district Afghanistan

It’s the little things that are telling; the Marines loved to be the stick, few things are more gratifying than a stiff firefight where you suffer no loses and that is how the vast majority of firefights in Afghanistan went. The Marines were also perfectly cool with safe’ing their weapons, yoking up the dudes that were just shooting at them, treating their wounds and releasing them to the district governor. It didn’t matter to them how a fight ends as long as they end it. This type of humane treatment of wounded enemies is expected of American servicemen, it isn’t even worthy of comment in the book. I’m not saying we are the only military that does this, but a vast majority of militaries don’t, and most people are amazed when we do.

My experience with Afghans in the Helmand, like that of Jargan Gus was mostly positive. That part of the world is so primitive that it’s like a time machine where resilient people carve out an existence with primitive farming methods and zero infrastructure. The Afghans are from old school Caucasian stock which is why the Germans spent so much time and money there in the 1930’s after Hitler came to power. They’re white people who do not have any concept of fragility and who cultivate a fierce pride in their Pashtun tribal roots. Living and working with them was an experience that is hard to capture but Jargan Gus has done that well.

Gus goes on to discuss the futility of his efforts, Nawa fell to the Taliban shortly after the Marines left in 2014. But there is no bitterness when he covers that as there is none concerning the always turbulent re-entry into normalcy when he returned home for good. Touching the elephant always changes a man, but Jargan Gus is a bright guy who explains the unease he felt as he tried to ease back into normal life in a reasonable manner. He is a perceptive writer and his book will (I bet) be useful to future historians writing about the Afghan war. It is a great story about normal Americans thrust into exceptional circumstances and thriving. We need more stories like that.

The John Paul Vann of Afghanistan Speaks

In the book The Operators by Michael Hastings there is a quote from Command Sergeant Major Michael Hall comparing General Stan McChrystal to John Paul Vann. John Paul Vann was a former army officer who went to Vietnam as a soldier and stayed on working as a Provincial aid advisor. He was famous for his ability to drive around and live in contested districts (alone) and was a tireless advocate for the Vietnamese people. He was also a compulsive womanizer, an alcoholic, and  a shameless self promoter. Remove those negative traits, replace them with a typical all-American Midwest kid raised in a stable two parent household where he developed a strong sense of commitment, a bias for action combined with the ability to thrive while taking calculated risks, and you have Chris Corsten. He was the John Paul Vann of Afghanistan

Our two-decade long involvement in Afghanistan has been a fiasco. Every aspect of our performance had major issues, none more so than the herculean efforts at re-building and rehabilitating the war-torn infrastructure. Yet buried deep inside the legacy of failure are stories of remarkable success. Carter Malkasain described one example of competent development leading directly to local prosperity (briefly) in the book The War Comes to Garmser.

Another example has just been published by my friend Chris Corsten detailing his decade in Afghanistan working both as a soldier and heavily armed humanitarian. The book is 3000 Days in Afghanistan, but I need to reveal something that you will not glean from Chris’s writing. In the world of outside the wire contractors, men (and a few women) who worked in contested districts infested with Taliban, who lived in local compounds, drove local cars, rarely spoke English outside their compound, wore local clothes and lived off the local economy to deliver massive aid projects on time and on budget, Chris Corsten was the best there ever was.

Chris stayed the longest, he had the most impact, he did, by orders of magnitude, the most projects and he was a shura ninja when it came to working through problems with tribal elders. Chris Corsten is a legend – to those of us who knew what accomplished and also to thousands of Afghans who became self-sufficient as hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland became productive again thanks to his irrigation programs.

The book is a clear reflection of Chris and if you know him the two personality traits that stand are conscientious and integrity. Those two traits were combined with an attitude that was the common denominator among all of us working outside the wire; zero tolerance for wasted efforts, make work stupidity, and excuses. Add to this mix the fact that Chris is a modest man who is not prone to exaggeration, routinely attributed all success to his subordinates, and loathes the idea of self-promotion and you have a writer who is going to lay out the facts. Which he does in a manner that is almost business like.

As you get towards the end of this remarkable story Chris lists the spectacular amount of work accomplished during the 2010-2011 surge, and if you know what was going on then in Afghanistan, it is easy to get confused. It seems impossible that Expats (mostly American, British, South African and Australian) were living and working in local Afghan communities while supervising massive irrigation projects in districts where the military was sustaining casualties on a regular basis.

If you don’t know much about Afghanistan, you can read through what Chris accomplished and miss what he accomplished. If you don’t know what was happening in provinces like Khost, Kandahar, Paktia, Kunar, Helmand, Farah, Nangarhar, Herat etc… in 2010 it is hard to appreciate the feat of finishing every project you started with supervision by expats who were out and about in Taliban contested areas daily.

What Chris and his crew proved was aid in contested areas can be delivered effectively, but it has to be done by guys who know what they are doing and have skin in the game. And, at least in Afghanistan, they needed to be armed.

Let me explain the weapons. Our model was if you can’t be safe be hard to kill. The threat to outside the wire contractors took many forms. The biggest was getting kidnapped, the other major problem was we had to store, transport, and distribute large amounts of cash. You are not safe when you are living in a local Afghan compound that contains a safe with over a million dollars in cash. You are not safe when you go to the local branch of the Kabul Bank and withdraw $700,000 for your monthly project payroll. You have to know what you are doing to convert $700,000 in Benjamins into small denomination Afghani’s.

Not all of us carried firearms either – Jeff “Raybo” Radan, a former Marine infantry officer and Ranger School graduate (thus the Raybo call sign), worked a year in the Helmand and never carried a weapon. He did projects in contested towns like Now Zad but being a former Marine he knew how to get a ride on Marine air and thus was able to travel safely. But most of us were armed, and all of us had weapons, including belt fed machine guns (in some provinces), inside our living compounds. Our arming authority came from the Provincial governors and if we ever used our weapons, we were accountable to them as well as the US Embassy.

Chris explains why former, experienced, military men, who have already acquired knowledge of local atmospherics and a solid understanding of local culture, are the best option for staffing aid programs in conflict zones. All the men mentioned in Chris’s book (he uses assumed names) were prior military and all of us had years on the ground before we were able to transition into what I term “Free Range” contracting.

3000 Days in Afghanistan should be required reading at both US AID and the Department of State as they sift through 20 years of lessons learned in Afghanistan. This week a senior USAID executive, who had extensive Afghanistan time, released a paper titled USAID Afghanistan: What Have We Learned. He concludes his assessment with four lessons;

  1. do not try to do everything
  2. stick to proven development principals
  3. flexibility and adaptability are key, and
  4. expect and plan for high levels of oversight.

All four of these lessons are addressed in detail by Chris as he explains how he avoided graft, corruption, security services shake downs, how he dealt (effectively) with theft, and delivered aid that was meaningful while injecting cash directly into local economies. The added benefit of taking Taliban off the battlefield by exchanging a couple months of hard labor for a decent amount of pay was something we discovered early in the program but had not anticipated.

Chris throws no stones as he explains what we were doing and why we felt we should do more. He describes his disappointment at not getting traction with USAID and the State Department and then moves on. The program he was running got plenty of attention in the press at the time. There were NPR radio interviews, 60 minutes segments, multiple magazine articles including this classic account in the Toronto Star about our team in Kandahar. The FRI blog was booming back then as I documented our massive infrastructure projects in Nimroz province. In the end none of that mattered, it turns out being successful where everyone else is failing can be problematic.

As William Hammink admits in his review of USAID in Afghanistan, we threw too much money into a country that could not absorb it. What is now obvious is that Chris Cortsen showed USAID exactly how to do Afghanistan aid. Spend a few years and a few million dollars to get all the irrigation systems back up and running, build a few schools, pave a few roads, bring in engineers with some commercial demo to blast rock and build runways in remote mountain-top towns, and you have done about all that should be done to get the country heading towards self-sufficiency.  Then you can leave.

3000 Days in Afghanistan is an easy read about a remarkable guy who sticks to the facts to make a case on how sustainable development in conflict zones should be done. Buried behind the facts and the business-like narrative are the stories that someday will emerge from this program as historians start to comb through the records in the search of what really happened in Afghanistan. They will find plenty about Chris, hopefully telling  his story in rich detail. There is a lot there and although Chris may not be seeking recognition for what he accomplished he certainly has earned it.

Assessing Trust in The Afghan Peace Deal

Editor’s Note: Chim Chim is back with a post on FRI. It has been over a decade since we last heard from him  He is a friend of mine with years of experience in Afghanistan at the higher levels of the U.S. Intelligence community. It is fitting that he once again reaches out to Free Range International to weigh in with some thoughts on the Afghanistan peace deal.

 

Trust. It’s a mysterious term and rarely understood. Per its definition, key attributes exist such as reliability, truth, ability, and strength. Contrary to popular belief, trust is not earned but rather obtained through a leap of faith. It is natural and can easily be broken. When it comes to the Afghan Peace Deal, trust is non-existent amongst the three players involved—The US Government, the Afghan Government, and the Taliban.

But should one look closely at the situation from an historical perspective, how can trust exist? More importantly, who can be trusted most? Better yet, who SHOULD be trusted most?

During the Russian-Afghan War, the United States was heavily involved in supporting multiple Afghan militias fighting against our greatest adversary. We gave and gave and gave but then, once the Russians were defeated, we put on the brakes. It was arguably one of the most devastating moments in US National Security that would inevitably come back and bite us hard.

We made countless promises to the Afghans and never came through with any of those promises which led to a major civil war between dozens of local tribes and militias. This civil war allowed the Taliban to blossom into a major organization which ruled Afghanistan for many years.

Immediately following 9-11, the United States went into a reactionary mode and was quick to invade Afghanistan on the logic that the Taliban were harboring Al Qaeda. Few realize during this time several nation states were providing safe haven to Al Qaeda during this time as Al Qaeda cells were spread across the globe. Another point of contention is the fact that the Taliban were in talks with Al Qaeda in an attempt to push them out of country instead forcing them into safe-haven in western Pakistan.

Our decision was made and teams of special operators infiltrated Afghanistan initiating America’s longest war. We did this with virtually zero ground truth, meaning, we had no sources or assets for intelligence on the ground prior to our invasion. Many whom we initially engaged in combat operations were nothing more than localized militias whom had little if anything to do with the Taliban (Central) meaning we were fighting tribesmen who would later turn to the Taliban due to our own actions.

Immediately following 9-11, Russia became an American strategic partner. We actually relied on Russia’s past to procure our initial network on the ground in Afghanistan.  The one country Afghans despise most, we became strategic partners with.

As time unfolded and upon immediate successes in achieving two goals set forth from US SOF elements (eliminate Al Qaeda’s safe-haven and rid Taliban of government control), a new force was inserted shortly after—the US Conventional military and State Department.

During this time, the United States threw billions of dollars into Afghanistan. It was during this period which continues even today, the United States implementation of a “quantifiable” approach to warfighting which completely overshadows anything qualitative.

America spent billions on programs that had virtually zero oversight. One example is based on school text books in which the United States and our coalition threw an estimated $30 million into the contract however it is estimated less than $1 million worth of product ever entered the country. HeraldExtra.com shows just a portion of the issue in their article titled, Textbooks not arriving in Afghan school.

The vast majority of funds displaced were not displaced. They were handed to local warlords, provincial governors, tribal leaders, etc. But if people want to see who the vast majority of individuals pocketed these funds, just walk down “Millionaire Row” in Kabul where you will find Afghan mansions vacant—vacant because those whom had such homes built have now fled the nation in fear of a Taliban takeover.

Prior to leaving, these local Afghans milked every last penny they could from the United States. It was the easiest way for anyone to get rich fast and rich as in millionaire rich. Simply put, the Afghan power-players created a racket and the United States didn’t care. More interesting is why we did not care.

We did not care about the misappropriations of funds because of the quantifiable war which we created. Those who held the money needed to get rid of it. And they did. And in doing so, they wrote their own tickets of success be it military personnel boasting numbers on OPER’s/EPR’s or State Department, NGO’s, etc fluffing resumes for permanent hire needs upon completion of their time in country.

What the United States did in Afghanistan does not demonstrate reliability, truth, ability, and strength hence, our inept methods in Afghanistan demonstrate how untrustworthy we are in our Afghan mission.

As bad as we were, the locals and politicians also demonstrated a lack of trust.

Afghan leaders saw how much money was going into Afghanistan. They witnessed their pockets flood with cash. They were empowered on a level most Americans should be jealous of. And as crazy as this sounds, many of these Afghans were closely aligned with Russia and Iran.

The Afghan Government was and continues to be incredibly corrupt.

In 2008, an Afghan warlord once said, “You expect us to believe in your own Rule of Law? You want us to trust the newly established Afghan Government’s Rule of Law which you, the Americans implemented? Do you not see how corrupt your own nation is? Look at the case of OJ Simpson.”

Think about this sentiment for a moment. Reflect on what this warlord was saying. You do not need to agree with what was said but think of the perception held. Perception is reality.

Another warlord once explained why the United States tactical intelligence was flawed. He explained that we would hand out cash to “walk-ins” for information about potential Taliban. We would take that information and execute a mission to kill or capture that individual. But what we seldom knew was the “walk-in” was merely in a tribal dispute with the target. And oftentimes, the “walk-in” was actually the one more aligned with the Taliban than the target itself.

The Afghans manipulated the United States every waking chance they could. And, they succeeded in doing what they wished on individual levels as well as within different political parties. Simply put, the Afghan politicians as well as local leaders demonstrated virtually zero reliability or truth which showcases why they were and remain untrustworthy.

The United States knew the Taliban were our enemy in Afghanistan. The Taliban ensured we were never to forget this. Through video’s published online, a plethora of kidnappings, to constantly attacking our assets, the Taliban and the array of Anti-Afghan Forces never led up.

If early warnings existed pertaining a potential attack, the Taliban came through with it. If the Taliban claimed they would allow for a temporary ceasefire, that ceasefire pretty much always happened. If a break of the ceasefire was sent through the air waves, expect the attack. They TOLD us pretty much every single move they were going to make. Their information was reliable, it was constantly set in truth, and they demonstrated over and over again their ability to do what they said. And, their strength came from not just their numbers but rather the constant support they obtained through the Pakistani ISI, Iranian assets, and the Kremlin itself.

If you watch the evening news and see a report on a serial murderer then take a walk in the woods and come across that serial murderer, do you trust the serial murderer’s potential? You would be a fool not to. The point is, trust in an entity you do not like does not mean trust should not exist. Bad people and bad organizations should be trusted to do bad things.

What is difficult to swallow is when we possess trust in something we cherish and realize that which we cherish most should be the least trusted. In the case of the Afghan Peace Deal, maybe, just maybe, it is not the Taliban who should NOT be trusted. Rather, maybe we should be skeptical over the amount of trust we place in the Afghan Government and that of our own.

Peace in Afghanistan Inshallah

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Qatar’s capital city, Doha today for the signing of a peace deal with the Taliban. In a rare demonstration of presenting both sides of a contentious deal the Washington Post opinion section featured dueling pieces that capture this unique moment in time. The peace deal is a clear win for both the Trump administration and the Afghan people. As usual the devil is in the details but it appears we are on the way out of Afghanistan.

Barnett Rubin who is a senior fellow and associate director of the Center on International Cooperation of New York University and non-resident senior fellow at the Quincy Institute, outlines the agreement in his WaPo OpEd.

The agreement provides a timetable for troop withdrawal, counterterrorism guarantees, a path to a cease-fire and a process for political settlement. Implementation would also require dismantling Taliban infrastructure in neighboring Pakistan and assurances by external powers that none will use Afghanistan against others.

Mr. Rubin has considerable time on the ground in the region and his take on the peace deal (which is it is a good deal)  is identical to mine.

Max Boot, who is a Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, took the opposite view. In his WaPo OpEd he outlines three different scenarios for the near future in Afghanistan. He then goes onto to predict the worst case scenario (the Taliban rolling into Kabul and taking over the country) as the most likely. I can tell you unequivocally that is the least likely scenario.

Many of our foreign policy experts and more than a few of my friends caution that the Taliban is not a cohesive monolithic organization, and that negotiators are only speaking for the Quetta, Peshawar, and Miranshaw Shura’s. This is a fact that is true, but means nothing now. The Taliban were able to enforce the peace during last years Eid celebration across the country and I believe they can do so again. Regardless of what I and my friends believe the only thing that counts is how the Afghans feel about the deal.

Taliban fighters taking selfies with Afghan army troops during the Eid ceasefire last year.

The Senior Vice President-elect of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, published his opinion on the Time website. I Fought the Taliban. Now I’m Ready to Meet Them at the Ballot Box is the title of his piece and that’s a strong endorsement of the process. Amrullah Saleh is the former head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), a former Interior Minister and he survived a serious assault on his election headquarters last July. That assault started with a car bomb and was continued by suicide vest equipped assault teams. Amrullah Saleh survived by jumping off the roof of his four story headquarters onto the roof of a neighboring building.

It is reasonable to assume Mr. Saleh had engaged in a running gun battle before escaping to safety, he is that kind of guy.

In another fascinating development the Military Times published an article today with the headline ISIS taking a beating in Afghanistan setting  the stage for a potential a U.S. troop withdrawal.  Buried deep in the article is this:

The recent campaign in Nangarhar is one example. Effective operations by US/Coalition & Afghan security forces, as well as the Taliban, led to ISIS-K losing territory & fighters. Hundreds surrendered. ISIS-K hasn’t been eliminated but this is real progress,” Khalilzad tweeted Tuesday

Remember a few posts back I highlighted this article in the Washington Post about the defeat of ISIS because it failed to mention the Taliban’s direct role? It seem like the first draft of history is up for grabs regarding the defeat of ISIS-K in Eastern Afghanistan.  There is little to gain but much to lose in suppression of the truth. I doubt an experienced reporter would have not known about the Taliban’s role in fighting ISIS-K so it is hard to figure out why the WaPo would print such obviously fake news.

Regardless, ISIS is now gone in Eastern Afghanistan and the remaining pockets in the north now the problem of the Taliban. Who seem to be very efficient at rooting them out.

What I cannot determine is how many troops will stay and what those troops will be doing. If the plan is to leave the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A) in place to hunt down ISIS and al Qaida that is not going to work. ISIS doesn’t need to be serviced by us any longer and separating al Qaida trainers from Taliban students is impossible.

If Amrullah Saleh is willing to give the Taliban a chance, and they reach an agreement, men like Sirajuddin Haqqani, who have been at the top of the JPEL for years, will be allowed to go in peace. The JPEL is the Joint Prioritized Effects List which is essentially a lethal version of the FBI’s most wanted. Allowing the men on that list to walk free, get passports and travel  is going to be a bitter blow to the people who have been hunting them. But that may be the price of peace.

I have to add that CJSOTF-A is not going to be able to operate behind the back of the Senior VP. Mr. Saleh has decades of experience working with the CIA and CJSTOF and he will have a say on what the Americans can and cannot do if they leave CJSTOF-A in Afghanistan.

This deal with the Taliban is how it ends. It is the only way it can end. The only question in Afghanistan was when, not if, we were leaving. The Taliban cannot beat the Kabul government in battle. The Kabul government cannot beat the Taliban in battle. The continued presence of American SF teams, tactical aircraft and trainers brought the Taliban to the negotiating table which is the best they could do.  It is up to the Afghans to decide what happens next. It is also time for us to leave.

Brookings Institute Fires a Broadside at Haqqani and Misses

General John Allen, USMC (ret) who is the president of the Brookings Institute, lashed out at the New York Times for publishing an  Op-Ed  Sirajuddin Haqqani. His article, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Terrorist was an unfortunate response that reinforces a growing narrative regarding incompetence in the elite, ruling class.

The most glaring mistake in General Allen’s  attack on the New York Times was repeating the thoroughly debunked “very fine people on both sides” hoax. That hoax was spread by the legacy media despite the fact that President Trump was talking about people protesting the removal of Confederate battle monuments.  He specifically condemned the white supremest’s if you listen to the whole quote.  General Allen is the direct descendant  of a Confederate Cavalry officer (I forget his name but remember he fought at Culpepper), for which is he justifiably proud and I suspect he , too was not happy about the removal of confederate battle monuments.  I know General Allen, he was my boss at the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course, I respect and admire him greatly so it is disturbing  to see him trafficking in hoaxes.

Worse was his endorsement of Forever War by implying we should renege on our Peace Agreement with the Taliban. This is his discussion of the Haqqani group:

This organization was and continues to be a central component of the Taliban, a major connecting file into al-Qaida, and a darling of Pakistan’s ISI. The Haqqanis, the Taliban, and al-Qaida endorse a radical interpretation of sharia that deprives women of any meaningful rights, to include the right to an education, and the freedom to pursue their own wants and interests, such as, for example, the legal profession. Countless lives were lost – and many, many more were wounded and otherwise terrorized – at the hands of this group and its peer terrorist entities, and had they not been formally designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, we would have had little means to diminish their influence and stop their violent activities. And at the very center of this violence was Sirajuddin Haqqani, operational commander of the Haqqani network as well as the #2 of the Taliban.

All of that is true and every bit of it irrelevant if we intend to sign a peace deal with the Taliban. It is none of our business if the Afghans decide to reconcile withTaliban leaders including Sirajuddin Haqqani. Haqqani is a bad man, so is Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, who reconciled years ago, and ran in the recent Presidential election. The notorious warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been a member of the Kabul government when he wasn’t in exile dodging human rights tribunals, is a bad man. He was nominally on our side, so he’s a good, bad man, but to the Afghans he’s little better than Haqqani.

What the Afghans do to reconcile the rift in their civil society is their business. If they want to reconcile with and guarantee the freedom of warlords like Haqqani it is their right to do so. There are reasons to doubt Taliban commitment to a more inclusive civil process, but again, it is no longer our concern.

It is important to acknowledge the reality on the ground and that reality is the Taliban cannot win militarily and the same holds true for the Central Government. Given that context I believe it is time to let the Afghans work this out for themselves.

Taliban Stakeout the Moral High Ground Announcing a Peace Deal with the United States

Sirajuddin Haqqani  wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times yesterday where he explained the Taliban’s expectations and goals in signing a Peace Agreement with the United States. The piece was professionally written and I do not believe Sirajudin can write so well in English so I doubt he wrote himself. Regardless, the Taliban statement clearly stakes out the moral high ground with sentences like:

“I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.”

Sirajudin Haqqani represents the Miranshah Shura and the fact that he’s doing the writing indicates that the various factions in the Taliban are presenting a unified front. Haqqani is also directly responsible for scores of car bombings in Kabul and a laundry list of other attacks that targeted innocent Afghans. There is more than a little hypocracy in his statement but who cares? This communique was addressing the Afghan people and if they want to allow men like Haqqani to reconcile with the government it is their business, not ours.

While the MSM component of the national media waited to see what President Trump would say so they could take the opposite position, the conservative press pounced on this sentence to dismiss the entire missive.

“We did not choose our war with the foreign coalition led by the United States. We were forced to defend ourselves.”

Becket Adams, writing in the Washington Examiner called the claim of self defense “a damnable lie”. Mr. Adams went on to state that “The Taliban 100% chose this conflict with the U.S.” That was true in 2001 but that is not what Haqqani is talking about and from the Taliban perspective we did indeed force them to fight us.

In 2002 the majority of Taliban had surrendered and returned to their villages. There was one group of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters holed up in the mountains of Shah-i Kot which we attacked, willy nilly, with no intelligence or fire support preparation of the battlefield, and no idea how many adversaries we faced. The remainders were turning in their weapons and going home which is exactly what Karzai, when he accepted the surrender of the Taliban government, asked them to do.

What do you do when you are part of a Special Operations Task Force with no enemies to identify or target? What we did was target the enemies of the warlords who cooperated with us and in the south of the country the Warlords we supported would be Karzai and his bitter rival Haji Gul Agha Sherzad. The village of Khas Uruzgan provides a perfect example of how we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by relying on those two men.

When the Taliban were routed in an epic battle pitting a Special Forces A-team headed up by Maj. Jason Amerine and dozens fast movers (jets) vs. a couple thousand  Taliban just outside the provincial capitol of Tirin Kot the local Afghans held jirga’s and agreed to candidates for the positions of district mayor, district chief of police, etc… Unfortunately, the acting president (Karzai) sent one of his friends named Jan Muhammad, to be the provincial governor and Jan Mohammad intended to put his fellow tribesmen (Popalzai) into every paying billet in his province.

In towns like Khas Uruzgan the men selected by the people to govern them moved into the district center and started accepting weapons from surrendering Taliban. Jan Mohammad, who had just been released from the Taliban prison by Karzai himself, moved into the provincial governors compound and promptly appointed his tribesmen  to every district governor and police chief billet in the province.

In Khas Uruzgan the man elected by the jirga occupied the district governors compound. Next door was a schoolhouse where Jan Mohammad’s men (representing the Kabul government)  set up shop.  Both groups were busy dis-arming Taliban and there were a ton of weapons in both buildings.

In late 2002 the U.S. Army conducted a raid on both buildings (which they thought held Taliban), killing several men in the process and yoking up several more for interrogations at the Bagram airbase. Anand Gopal, in his excellent book No Good Men Among the Living describes the results of this raid:

Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies. People in Khas Uruzgan felt what Americans might if, in a single night, masked gunmen had wiped out the entire city council, mayor’s office, and police department of a small suburban town: shock, grief, and rage.

It would be years before the United States admitted they had raided the wrong place. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (the current senior Taliban negotiator) had gone to ground near Khas Uruzgan and our Special Forces decimated not one, but two wedding parties (with AC-130 gunships) in an attempt to catch him. Dozens of children and women were killed in these raids and this is important to acknowledge – to the Afghan people there were two wars, one that drove the Taliban from power quickly and a second one that started when we stayed on in the country to “capture senior Taliban and al-Qaida”.  The responsibility of this second war rest solely on the National Command Authority of the United States who failed to define Phase four (what happens when we win).

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, second from left, with members of a Taliban delegation in Russia in 2019.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

If you want to read an infuriating account of our own incompetence making us enemies among people who wanted to be allies during that second round of war, read Chapter 5 of No Good Men Among the Living. It is a detailed description of how we were tricked into detaining and/or killing the entire anti-Taliban leadership of Band-i-Timor in the Maiwand district of Khandahar. You cannot make some of this stuff up.

The opinion peace by Sirajudin Haqqani was a masterstroke of Information Warfare and will be hard to refute by the United States. The Taliban leadership, unlike the American leadership, has skin in the game. There is no reason to doubt their commitment to participate in establishing an Afghanistan free of foreign troops and moving towards a consensus on who is governing what. It is now time for the United States to move out of the way and allow the Afghans to determine what their country will become.

In 2002 the Taliban were defeated and al-Qaida already gone to Pakistan. All the fighting since then has not changed a thing on the ground.  It is time to pull out, reduce funding to Afghanistan and let them sort out the situation among themselves.

 

 

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