Saturday, November 14, 2009

OK Corral

In response to my earlier post about the fighting down the street, one of my oldest friends wrote me the following email:

Sounds like the old west, shoot first ask questions later. When you
decide to shoot some of them the next time take a few things into
  1. I have seen how long it takes you to fully wake up in the morning. I doubt you could hit a building, let alone a person.
  2. Since no one will know who you are, they are all likely to start firing back at you.
  3. Obviously your house is not bullet proof.
  4. They are happy to die for their cause. Your cause is to get paid, and if you die you fail at doing that.
  5. There are many of them, and only one of you.
I offer the following point-by-point response:
  1. While it is true that I have a well-deserved reputation for not being at my best before noon (and three cups of coffee and half a dozen cigarettes), I have discovered that even my advanced state of morning lethargy is rapidly and comprehensively dispelled by the sound of gunfire and/or explosions. Even through the haze of a barely-receeding pre-dawn hangover, the proximity of combat tends to focus one's attention. And, to be clear, although I had my weapon with me, I most assuredly did not engage any of the bad guys (see point two, below). And yes, I can, if called upon, shoot well enough to hit a building. Maybe even a small building.
  2. True, and that is in fact what happened, except that as noted above, I did not fire at them. I merely stuck my head out to survey the situation and they decided to fire at me. Fortunately, the bad guys generally can't shoot for shit, and the ANP, for all their bravery, are not much better.
  3. Actually, whether by accident or by design, most Afghan houses are bulletproof. Not much is done properly here, architecture-wise, but the walls of this place are approximately eight inches thick. It would take a lot more than a 7.62mm AK round to pierce that. Of course, that doesn't help when one is on the balcony.
  4. Granted, but isn't that sort of stating the obvious? I mean, I'm not here to oversee an agricultural project or school construction. A certain amount of risk is unavoidable in this place. Plus, although I dislike the word "cause", I like to think that I'm doing something more than just getting paid.
  5. Also true, there is only one of me. And I think I can reliably speak for most of the people who know me that one of me is more than enough. Also true that there are many of them. However, it is worth pointing out that, in that particular moment, there were three of the bad guys and about a hundred cops, and me. 101-3, I'll take those odds any day.

Friday, November 13, 2009


A reader/commenter of yesterday's post asked about Nightwatch, an internet source I referenced. So, here goes.

There are literally thousands of blogs, websites, agencies, NGOs, pundits, talking heads, etc. on the web that will, if you let them, fill your head with assinine reporting, dubious "facts" and lame analysis. If you are an SME*, you might be able to parse these various sources and ferret out some usable information. If you are like the vast majority of the Western public, it can be impossible to figure out who to trust.

*Subject Matter Expert, another class of suspect individuals who are usually to be assiduously avoided. There are dozens of SMEs on Afghanistan working in the US Government, think-tanks and various news organizations, many of whom have never been to Afghanistan and most of whom have never been outside of Kabul. In general, stay away from any self-proclaimed "experts."

My Google Reader is daily jammed with updates and posts from various sources on Afghanistan and Central Asia*, some of them good, some of them not-so-good and a few of them entertaining only for their sheer ignorance. But there are a handful of old standbys, proven providers of verifiable facts and cogent analysis. Nightwatch is one of those.

*As well as some lighter fare, such as Joe Posnanski and Ben Casnocha.

The format is simple, text-based and to the point. No agenda to filter out, no bullshit to wade through, only a daily recap of significant political/military events culled from a wide variety of open sources, usually with a bit of commentary or analysis attached. Recent example here. It's usually the first thing I check in the morning to get an idea of what I missed while I was sleeping off my hangover.

The parent organization to Nightwatch (here) is a non-profit professional organization "serving the military, government, industry, and academia as an ethical forum for advancing professional knowledge and relationships in the fields of communications, IT, intelligence, and global security." I'm not sure what that means exactly, but their output is always reliable and professional.

So, if you're one of those weird people (like me) who just has to know what's going on in the rest of the world, even if it has an almost-zero chance of affecting your life, then start your day with a quick glance at Nightwatch. If not, then stick with The View and FoxNews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

All You Need to Know

Via Nightwatch's daily intel report:

An Afghan Taliban spokesman described follow-on activities in Kamdesh District, Konar Province, after NATO and Coalition forces abandoned their operating bases and retreated. The area is currently under the control of Taliban, who walk freely in the district, according to al Jazeera.

“We finished forming our administrative units and the officials have been appointed. We also established the judiciary department and the commission for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice section. We are working on providing people's basic needs.”

Note the order of priorities for the scumbags once they take over an area.

1) Appoint "administrative" officials (i.e. tax collectors)
2) Appoint judges to mete out summary punishment
3) Establish the "commission for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice*" to seek out and identify the evildoers, like girls who like to read and men who got a haircut in the last ten years,

and then, finally, when all the important stuff is done,
4) work on providing the people's basic needs (like, I don't know, food?)

Pretty much tells you all you need to know about the Taliban and their fitness for government.

*By the way, the "commission for promotion of virture and the prevention of vice" has got to be the single longest bureaucratic name for a quasi-governmental institution in the world. Wouldn't "assholes-with-a-pointy-stick-gang" be easier?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Very Bold

I wasn't in the area at the time, but yesterday the bad guys hit another fuel convoy out on the Jalalabad road. Blogger Tim Lynch gives a good recap (with pictures) here.*

*Tim always has excellent and timely pictures of any significant events in the area around Jalalabad. Makes me wonder how he has time for his day job.

One of the things Tim highlights is the fact that this was a larger action than is typical for that stretch of road. In the past, the standard method of attacking the fuel trucks is for three or four insurgents to fire a few rounds and the occasional RPG in an attempt to detonate one of the tankers. After running out of ammo, or getting lucky, they generally boogie back over the mountains from whence they came.

In this instance, however, the bad guys seemed to have been more deliberate. They came with a larger force than usual, and stayed long enough to light up at least four of the tankers. As Tim points out, that perhaps wasn't really wise, since they lingered long enough to be engaged by three different elements, the tankers' own PSC convoy escorts, the ANP (better late than never) and a pair of Kiowa scout choppers out of JAF. End result, four burned tankers and a very bad day for an undetermined number of bad guys.

Perhaps an isolated incident, or maybe a harbinger of things to come. Tim acknowledges that these limited attacks don't really stand a chance of closing the main east-west artery between Kabul and Pakistan, but maybe the scumbags are getting closer to their goal. They're certainly getting bolder in their tactics and the location of the attack (very close to Jalalabad) possibly indicates that they unconcerned about a response. Plus, it's worth remembering that the guys who died yesterday almost certainly weren't individuals acting alone. Someone sent them there, presumably someone with enough saavy to realize that they weren't coming back. Sounds to me like their probing the route security and are willing to sacrifice a few hotheads to do it.

Incidentally, I have no idea who the outfit is that Tim refers to as Blue Compass. They may be a local, unlicensed PSC operating in a limited area, or he may simply be trying to shield the identities of the operators who have that duty. "Blue Compass" sounds suspiciously like an amalgam of the names of two prominent PSCs, so I suspect it's the latter.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Flight to Nowhere

I've been fortunate enough to do a fair amount of traveling in the last week or so. It's always good to get out of Kabul (especially after the events of two weeks ago make the city seem considerably less safe), and I enjoy seeing different parts of the country, even if the scenery doesn't really change all that much.

The first trip was a quick, three hour helicopter ride down to Uruzgan Province.* Uruzgan is usually described as part of "southern" Afghanistan, like Helmand or Kandahar, but to my mind it's really part of central Afghanistan. Uruzgan is more mountainous than Helmand or Kandahar**, and it's also more sparsely populated. It's also the birthplace of Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban, so that tells you all you need to know about the attitude of the locals.

*At least this time the crew was largely sober. As usual, they were Russian pilots with a mixed Eastern European ground crew, but this group was considerably more professional than last time. Plus, the chopper started on the first try without anyone having to get on top and bang on the engine with a wrench.
**Not that one should make the mistake of thinking that Uruzgan's mountains are lush valleys of pine forests and clear mountain streams. It's basically high desert. Broadly speaking, in most of Afghanistan, there are two types of terrain. There's the desert (rocks on flat ground) and the mountains (rocks on sloped ground). Either way, it's rocks. And dust.

This is what Uruzgan looks like from the air:

And this is what it looks like on the ground:

I think you'll agree, not exactly inspiring scenery.

Two hours at the KAIA waiting for the bird, three hours flight time down and another three hours back, all for about forty-five minutes on the ground while the construction guys take soil samples and measure the depth of gullys. My job in all this (besides providing cigarettes to those expats who failed to bring their own) is to manage my guys while the pull security on the chopper and keep an eye out for locals.

Of course, as one would expect for a remote valley like the one we went to, the only locals around were the shepherds tending their herds of goats. Down in Uruzgan, just about everyone goes armed, even the shepherds. As long as they keep their distance and don't show too much interest, we don't mess with them. After all, before too long we might need to hire their cousins or sons to work on the project we're in Uruzgan to scout. Fortunately, they seem to take the same attitude. As long as we don't mess with their goats, they don't try to approach closer than about 300 meters. Any closer than that and things get real tense real fast.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Wake-Up Call II

After last week, I guess I have to reclassify Kabul as "Indian Country." At least that's the opinion of the majority of the international media and the so-called "area experts." I'm not fully convinced that the security situation in Kabul has really shifted quite as much as they think it has, but nevertheless the attack on the UN does compel one to rexamine one's assumptions.

Kabul has always had an element of risk to it, but nothing approaching the threat level in the southern and eastern provinces. For Westerners specifically, the threat was two-dimensional. First is the possibility of criminal kidnap. This is actually a much greater problem for Afghans (a fact which goes unreported in the Western media), but it is still a concern. Fortunately, it's a threat that is fairly easy to counter. Kidnappers are (generally) in it for the money. They don't want a gunfight, because a dead target is worth nothing to them. So, taking certain basic precautions can reduce the level of risk to acceptably low levels. For instance, the presence of even one armed guard can deter all but the most determined kidnappers, and simply reinforcing the doors and access points to a residence will often cause them to look elsewhere for easier targets (hence the greater number of kidnappings of Afghan businessmen.)

The second threat in Kabul is the possibility of random violence, such as a car bomb or suicide attacker. If one is in the vicinity, there's little you can do, but the trick is to simply avoid those places and times when such attacks are likely. Never make appointments at any embassy or government building before mid-morning; stay well clear of ISAF/NATO convoys; keep away from public demonstrations and political rallies. Not that hard to do with a little advanced planning and keeps one out of the line of fire.

Then comes the attacks of last Wednesday, which forces everybody to reassess their prior assumptions and begin questioning their security procedures.*

*To be honest, people questioning their security procedures is actually good for business, since they usually decide that they need increased protection. One would prefer of course that it didn't take an event like this latest attack to convince people that maybe they should take this stuff seriously.

As the BBC article rather uncharitably points out:

The fact remains that the Afghan interior ministry clearly failed to stop that attack. Afghan guards should have been outside the guesthouse, protecting the UN staff inside. Were they? Did they attempt to do their job? If not, why not? All pressing questions for the UN.
I can state as a fact that Afghan guards (ANP) were outside during the attack, guarding the gate as they are supposed to. I saw those guards everyday when I left my residence and they were as vigilant and as capable as anyone can expect.

I can also state that both of them are now dead, victims of a well-planned and effectively executed attack. The Taliban, if that's who the attackers were, wore ANP uniforms themselves, undoubtedly stolen or purchased from some corrupt district commander. Some of my guys, who witnessed the attack, tell me that the Taliban conducted a thorough recon of the area first, disguised as police, and then simply walked up and shot those two guards at point blank range.

They then blew the door down and were inside the compound in a matter of seconds. Very intelligently, they left one of their number on the street, behind the recently-vacated sandbag barrier at the entrance. So, when the real ANP rolled up,* they had to contend with a lone Taliban, fortified and well-stocked with ammunition. He was eventually taken down, but that bought enough time for the two inside to do a considerable amount of damage. It's actually surprising that there weren't more fatalities.

*Reaction time is something that always impresses me about the ANP in Kabul. As soon as anything happens, there's ten cops there in five minutes or less, and another fifty ten minutes after that. Within half an hour of the first shots being fired, there were at least a hundred ANP on the streets below me, suplemented by a platoon of Afghan Army Special Forces. Afghans, contrary to what you might hear, will come running to the sound of gunfire.

I have never been inside the Bakhtar Guesthouse, but if it's like most of the others here in Kabul the problem was not with the Afghan guards at the gate. More likely, it was the lack of a simple counter-measure on the ECP* that cost those UN workers their lives.

*ECP=Entry Control Point, i.e. a gate for people in the normal part of the world.

A single door may slow down the attackers, especially if it's reinforced steel. Explosives, of which there are plenty floating around, will knock down just about any door one can put up. However, the presence of a second door, also reinforced, inside the first and with a small, walled dead space in between, can make all the difference in the world. The concept of a simple, robust double-gate has been around since at least the time of the Roman republic. Force the attackers to breach not one but two doors at the ECP, and you at least double the reaction time for those inside. Not to mention that while the attackers are dealing with the second door, they are highly vulnerable to one well-placed defender overlooking that dead space. They didn't use to call them "murder-holes" for nothing.

Ironically, although the BBC asks whether the guards outside were doing their jobs, it was the lack of a guard inside that made the difference. External guards serve little purpose other than to deter petty crime and draw attention to the importance of the building. It's the internal guards, and the structures in place to support them, that will prove decisive in an attack like this one. A lesson the UN would do well to incorporate into the security assessments they will conducting over and over again in the coming months.