Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Kunar Shakedown

Last week, a Scottish development worker with DAI, Inc. was kidnapped on her way back to Jalalabad from the city of Asadabad in Kunar province.*

*That’s “out east” to those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Afghanistan.

According to reports, her two-car convoy was stopped by armed men on the road south of Asadabad and herself and three Afghans traveling with her were marched into the mountains at gunpoint. The official Taliban spokesman has said, “It wasn’t us,” but that’s really beside the point. If, as seems likely, she was grabbed by a criminal kidnap gang, the Taliban (assuming they want the hostage) will simply buy her off them for a small cash payment.

The ANP immediately rounded up some village elders from the area and asked them to negotiate her release, but they were unsuccessful.*

*According to one of my guys who is related to one of the proposed negotiators, the elders basically said to the ANP, “You want us to go up in those mountains with a police escort and try to save a foreign female infidel. Are you shitting me?”

DAI, Inc. is an “implementation partner” for USAID, which basically means that AID provides the funding and the scope/requirements of the project, and outfits like DAI go out and actually get it done. Or more accurately, they find local companies who can go out and get it done, since a lot of these projects are in unsafe areas (obviously) where Westerners fear to tread. DAI personnel maintain a project management and oversight role, with occasional trips to the project site. Except in this case, it didn’t seem to work out so well.

The missing woman was traveling low-profile, in a couple of Toyota Corollas, with three of her local staff and no security detachment.* Now I’m on record as being a proponent of the low-profile approach, but no security is taking it a little far.

*As opposed to high-profile, which usually means B6 armored SUVs, a scout vehicle and a chase car/gun truck, at a minimum. Basically “guns up” from gate to gate. A big fat rolling target in my opinion.

Perhaps she was in a bind and couldn’t wait for security, or maybe she got some bad advice. There’s even the possibility of some collusion from within the local staff. Either way, she’s gone and no one’s quite sure when/if she’s coming back.

Right on the heels of that news comes word that DAI is under investigation from the Inspector General at USAID concerning roughly $5 million USD that was paid for security on their projects and may have found its way to the Taliban as part of a protection racket.

Let me save the IG some time and a lot of paperwork.


*Although whether they are Taliban, Hezb-islami or just garden-variety scumbags is hard to say.

When you pay cash for security directly to local power brokers in unsafe districts, it almost always ends up in the pocket of somebody you’d rather not know. Think about it. The powerful figures in these districts (every district has at least one) have the influence to pull together fifty or sixty fighters with weapons, and yet the district is still unsafe. That’s because the guys you’re paying for security are the same people who cause the problems that require the security in the first place. Where I come from, it’s called a shakedown.

I wonder if somebody at DAI got wind of the USAID investigation and froze some payment to the local security force. If so, it’s possible that this kidnapping is nothing more than an attempt to collect on some outstanding debts.

In fact, I hope that’s the case, because then it can be solved and this woman returned simply by paying out some cash. If instead she’s being held by hard-core jihadists, then it gets a lot tougher to secure her release.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Jimi Heselden, O.B.E.

The name Jimi Heselden probably doesn't mean much to most people. It didn't mean anything to me until I read his obituary the other day.

Best known as the guy who bought the Segway scooter company, he is more importantly (to me at least) the man who invented the HESCO barrier technology.

HESCOs are ubiquitous here in Afghanistan, providing force protection to every ISAF base and most ANSF posts and government ministries. Although simple in construction and concept, they are a major evolution on old-fashioned sandbags. It's impossible to calculate the number of lives saved by HESCOs in the past nine years, but I'm sure it's considerable.

Ironically for a man who invented such an important life-saving technology, Heselden was apparently killed when he accidentally drove a Segway scooter off a cliff and into a river near his home.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Lt. Srinivasan (or al-Hindustani as the ANA call him) has another good post up at the NY Times At War blog about his time down south co-located with an ANA unit.

This bit reminded me of my first couple of days, now almost nineteen months ago:
This wasn’t about respect anymore. It was about trust. I could watch their eyes retelling my every move and word since I set foot on this post. They had been sizing me up this entire time.
I felt like a lamb surrounded by a herd of wolves, teasing me by keeping their fangs at bay.

Plus, I'm curious to know where an ANA lieutenent got his hands on a chrome-plated 9mm Desert Eagle pistol when I have to get by with a crappy Smith & Wesson.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Contractor Casualty Numbers

According to ProPublica, more contractors than soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first six months of 2010, the first time that has happened since these wars began.

The report mentions the local nationals who work as translators and drivers for the military, but it’s based on Department of Labor statistics so I suspect that the numbers of contractor deaths are actually underreported. For one, most locally-owned PSCs in Afghanistan aren’t required to report their LN losses to the USG, and those are the companies that typically suffer the heaviest casualties. Secondly, there are plenty of LNs (at least in Afghanistan) that work as subcontractors to Western-owned PSCs and those numbers aren’t usually reported either.

If the employee isn’t on file with the USG, or if there are no DBA insurance payments involved, then the casualties don’t get entered into the official statistics. I don’t even want to guess how high the real numbers are.

(h/t to Feral Jundi)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I Like the Coen Brothers, but............WTF?

I like Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin just fine, but this is just wrong on so many levels.

Some movies should never be re-made.*

*Or "reconceived" as I'm sure the Coen brothers will say. Note how they emphasize that they're staying true to the book, not the original movie. Except that the book sucked, a mediocre purple-sage Westerner written by a hack. The book didn't make the movie great. The Duke made the movie great.

Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, Stars Wars, Caddyshack.......films such as these are sacrosanct. One simply cannot improve on greatness, and it's folly to try.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Saving the World? Um......What?

A while back, in response to my post about being worn-down and tired of Afghanistan, a commenter asked me if I was here because I "wanted to be a world-improver, or just because of a job?" A fair question, and not one with a quick and easy answer.

To be clear, I have no illusions about "saving the world,"* And if I did, this place and this job is certainly not where I would start.

*I know, a HUGE shock to those of you who know me.

The world has always needed "saving" in one way or another, and somehow those efforts never seem to pay off quite as permanently as their advocates would like. From the Peace Corps in the 20th century all the way back to Roman efforts to civilize the barbarians in the 2nd century BCE, people have been trying to "fix" the wide variety of misfortunes and ills of the world. Whenver I'm confronted by one of these well-meaning but tragically naive do-gooders extolling the virtues of their NGOs new program to bring Pashto-language Sesame Street to school girls in Kandahar or whatever, I always ask the same question: "So how's that working out for you?" The answers are usually disappointing. So no, I'm not here to "save the world" or even rescue a small Afghan portion of it.

And I'm certainly not here for the money.* In fact, I venture to guess that most PSC contractors are not in it for the money. Sure, back in the crazy days of Iraq in 2003-4, a handfull of guys were getting paid big bucks to put their lives on the line, but pay scales aren't like that anymore, not in Iraq and not certainly not here. The competition is tougher and the industry has matured considerably in the last ten years.

*I could get paid more sitting behind a desk in DC wearing a tie. Except that I no longer own a tie.

All that said, one does hope that there might be some small lasting positive effect from one's efforts. For me personally and for the company as a whole, the value we provide stems from two important factors: security and jobs. The service we provide is security, and in so doing we employ a large number of Afghans who would otherwise be forced to scratch out a living as farmers or laborers.

All that other stuff, building schools, health clinics, instilling democracy, the empowerment of Afghan women, establishing a system of justice, all of that is necessary and good. But they are also irrelevant without security and jobs. Without at least a basic level of security and decent employment for most Afghans, we can build all the schools we want and this effort will still fail.

So, are private security companies saving the world, or even saving Afghanistan? No, but then we don't claim to be. We simply enable others to make that effort, and hopefully keep them safe while they're doing it. And lots of Afghan men can support their families on the salaries that PSCs pay. That's good enough for me.

But of course I never was an idealist.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Mistakes and Mosquitos

Been a crazy couple of weeks here lately, mostly due to internal company problems rather than external factors (i.e. bad guys). In the past month, we've wrapped up two big projects in Uruzgan and Nangarhar, mostly without incident but I'm still sad to see them go.*

*Closing down a project is almost as much work as starting one up, what with accountability lists for weapons and equipment, arranging transport and replacements and the general admin headaches.

The Uruzgan project was a constant nightmare, a combination of poor pricing and a very tough operating environment. Nevertheless, we had finally got it to the point where it was profitable when The Rug Merchant pulled the plug and opted not to take the six-month extension the client was offering. Despite the problems,* we had finally sorted out the operational issues and amortized out the upfront costs. That was the point to sit back and start making decent coin. Alas, it was not to be.

*More on the peculiar joys of Uruzgan Province in a later post.

No sooner had we pulled our people out of Uruzgan then word came down that we would be doing the same on the Nangarhar project. Unlike Uruzgan, Nangarhar is a reasonably safe place.*

*"Safe" is a relative term, of course.

We had been on the job for twelve months and things were humming along nicely. We had excellent support from the US Army, a good site with LSA constructed and paid for, a well-trained crew of expats and locals who were operating like a finely-tuned machine, and no heavy contact for the last six months (and no casualties for the duration). And to top it off, a decent profit every month.

Apparently, all that wasn't enough for the boss, so he pulled the plug. I fought that decision, but never did get a reasonable explanation. The client was left scratching their head, just as puzzled as I was.

So, yesterday we pulled all our people and gear off the site and conducted a Relief in Place with the outfit who was taking over. The managers from the new outfit were all smug smiles, knowing as they did the gold mine they'd stumbled into. I suspect that in 30 days, when the income stops rolling in, The Rug Merchant will regret that decision, but there's nothing I can do about that now.

Although I can't confirm it, I think the decisions to cut and run from Uruzgan and Nangarhar was a result of Karzai's latest brain cramp in which he announced his intention to close all PSCs by the end of the year. A couple of the big Western outfits have been raided and temporarily shut down, and I suspect that the boss wants to "fly under the radar" until the heat from MoI cools off. Last man standing after the bloodbath kind of thing. We'll see if that works. I have my doubts.

Back in Kabul now, dodging the last of the summer's mosquitos. Normally the flies are the most prevalent and annoying pest, but two of the people in my villa and three of my guards have gone down with malaria in the past few weeks, so I've become somewhat obsessive about the nasty little buggers. Malaria is treatable, but it's still no joke. If not caught in time, it can do serious liver damage, and even kill if it's particularly virulent. And the basic prophylactic treatment is some of the nastiest-tasting pills you'll ever find.

I spend a lot of effort listening for the telltale hum of a hungry mosquito, and keeping a can of industrial-stength bug killer handy.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Maximizing Self-Interest

The NY Times has a good series of reports running on their website currently, written by a US Army lieutenent who was stationed in Kandahar. Unlike most of the high-level analysis offered by traditional news sources, Lt. Srinavasan's stuff is local, personal and micro-scale news, about his day-to-day challenges in dealing with Afghans in his sector. (I believe that he's writing about stuff that happened on his recent deployment, rather than posting real-time events.)

His latest column is chock full of interesting tidbits about the intricacies of dealing with locals, and neatly captures the shift that comes over an officious Afghan army officer when he realizes that he's not going to be able to take advantage of the newbies.

Unfortuately, the lieutenent's conclusions are probably spot-on:
But Captain Kalay represented to me the greatest frustration and disappointment of all: no matter how many troops, how much time, or how much money we throw at Afghanistan, no democracy can take hold and nothing will change unless this country’s leaders want it for their own nation. Captain Kalay is a powerful man — he has no incentive to want anything more than the status quo.........I was right about one thing though; this is indeed a math problem, not only to me, but also to Captain Kalay and every Afghan leader in this country. It’s about the maximization of self-interest. No matter how much Captain Kalay likes me, or even identifies with me, it doesn’t change the fact that he will act only to maximize his personal gain.

The truth of that was recently brought home to me when I was alerted to the fact that a man I considered a close friend in Afghanistan, and one of the best Afghans I had met thus far, was not as clean and as honest as I thought he was. He wasn't stealing from me directly, but he had kept certain information to himself and taken credit and profited personally from something I had worked very hard on. To make matters worse, the story of his deception was provided to me by another Afghan I had also considered to be trustworthy, but the revelation is causing me to question the trust I place in him as well.* Now I'm left wondering what kind of payment he will expect in return for revealing this secret.

*And yes, I did confirm the story through independent sources.

First installment of Lt. Srinavasan's story here. Second and third, here and here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Life's Little Ironies

There are still a large number (no one knows for sure how many) shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles kicking around Afghanistan and Pakistan. Back in th '80s, the U.S. shipped hundreds of Stingers to the mujaheddin to fight the Soviets and not all of them were fired before the Red Army had had enough and bailed. In addition, the Afghan National Army of the time had some Soviet-made SAMs and there were even a few British Blowpipes shipped to the Northern Alliance.

The presence of all these portable anti-air missiles has made the Pentagon nervous for the last nine years but there have been few credible reports of any of them actually being used by the Taliban. While the missiles and launchers themselves are fairly robust, they weren't designed to be buried in some Afghan's backyard for twenty years. Time, heat, moisture and dirt take their toll. In addition, the batteries required to run the things were not designed to last for twenty years either.*

*It's not like you can just pop in a few D-cells and fire away. The batteries are manufactured specifically for the launchers, and one can't just buy new batteries off the shelf.

Still, the possibility exists that there are some functioning launchers and missiles out there and that sooner or later the trogs will find a way to get them in proper working order. There's also the chance that their friends in Iran or Pakistan could procure some more modern versions for them. Either way, it would be extremely hazardous to be a pilot in Afghanistan (especially a chopper pilot) if the bad guys get their hands on a number of SAMs.

So, in typical Pentagon fashion, DARPA throws a lot of money at the question of how to effectively counter surface-to-air missiles. Flares, chaff and jammers are pretty much standard on NATO aircraft nowadays (not so for the civilian and charter aircraft here), but those are only of partial effectiveness, especially during the lift-off and landing phases of a flight, when an aircraft is particularly vulnerable.

However, some smarty-pants at the University of Michigan is working on a cheap, solid-state laser to mount on military aircraft that will spoof or decoy incoming missiles. It's still in the early testing phases at this point, but looks promising.

*And is further anecdotal proof that the truly great ideas and most impressive people come out of the Big Ten, not those ivy-choked bastions of tweed and boat shoes on the East Coast.

The reason for this post is not actually to discuss SAM-counter measures but to draw attention to the name of the researcher at U of M who's working on this project. In one of life's little ironies, his name is Professor Mohammad Islam. He's actually named after both the prophet and the religion. Kind of like if his name was Doctor Jesus Christian.

I bet this year's Eid celebration at his house is going to kind of awkward.

Mrs. Islam: "So, what have you done for the faithful this Ramadan, dear?"
Prof. Islam: "Umm......invented a device that will make it harder for us to kill the infidel?"
Mrs. Islam: "Excuse me? You invented what?"
Prof. Islam: "Never mind. This mantu is delicious. Is there anymore tea?"

h/t to Danger Room

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

And They Took My Dog Too......

Last week we moved out of the palatial villa that had been home for the past eight months and into a much smaller, more modest place in the Shahr-e-Naw section of Kabul. Not a bad house overall, considerably more homey and less institutional than the last place,* but not without its difficulties.

*Which was a marvel of modern Kabul narco-techture.

First, we’re on city power most of the time, which is unpredictable at best. We do have a generator, but only one and it’s ill-advised to run a generator 24/7. Sooner or later it burns out the motor and then you are well and truly screwed. So, we run it when we have to (or when I can convince the house manager to turn it on), but much of the time we draw power from the regular Kabul grid. That’s kind of like depending on three crackhead monkeys on exercise bikes to provide electricity. You never know how much you'll get and the cost of frustration is pretty high.*

*Actually, that’s not fair……to the crackhead monkeys. Drugged-up simians strapped to exercise bikes would at least have some entertainment value. The retards at the Ministry of Energy have nothing to recommend them, least of all entertainment value.

Secondly, I no longer qualify for the room at the top of the house. A reorganization due to client demands means that I get the room right next to the main door on the first floor. The cleaning staff rolls in chattering like hens about 0630 every morning which makes it tricky to get a decent night’s sleep when I finally rack out, usually around 0230. More importantly, if any trogs manage to get past the gate guards………….first stop, my room! Needless to say, I check my AK every night and make sure it’s close at hand.

This house does have a nice garden out back, which is useful in a country with a shortage of green spaces. Unfortunately, because the garden is so nice, the Safers decided that having Tiger digging up the flowers was not an optimum situation. And since he chews through any sort of leash or restraint in about three minutes flat, they insisted we leave him behind.

I don’t even like dogs, but I’d come to enjoy Tiger’s company and all his bizarre quirks. His visceral hostility to any strange Afghans in the compound, his obsession with well-chewed footwear, his love of spaghetti and his penchant for lunging at unprotected genitals. A good (if slightly crazy) dog. But then again, if you were a dog here, you’d be slightly crazy too.

Tiger, showing his best "Crazy Eyes"

So now Tiger is back on the mean streets of Kabul from whence he came. I hope that the six months of good food and proper care will have improved his health to the point that he can compete with the other strays, but I wonder if living with people who didn’t routinely beat him will have softened his survival instincts too much.

I find I can’t look at the mangy, feral dogs in the streets anymore, for fear I might spot Tiger in a bad state. The fate of single dog is a small thing in a place with so much misery but ultimately it’s the small things that matter. At least to me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


As some of you may have noticed, I haven't been writing much lately (for this blog or for other projects). Things have been a little thin around here lately.*

*A recurring problem.

There's no shortage of things to write about, and discuss, but frankly, I'm too tired to do the issues justice.

I'm tired of this job. I'm tired of this company. I'm tired of this industry. I'm tired of the Afghan government.* I'm tired of this war.

*And not all that enamored with the U.S. government at the moment.

Most of all, I'm tired of this place. I've always been ambivalent about the mission here, but lately I find myself wandering to extremes. One day I'm convinced that we can do this right and that someday this country will be better off. The next day I'm emphatic that this country deserves it's self-inflicted fate. Whether either position is correct, I have no idea.

Maybe I just need to get out and recharge my batteries. Or maybe I'm just done. I'm not sure which yet. What I am sure of is that something needs to change. Just haven't figured out what that "something" is yet.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Kidnap & Ransom

Last Sunday night I got the sort of text message that everyone one in this business dreads. "Incident in Kabul. One of ours down. Details to follow."

A message like that sets off several hours of frantic activity trying to trace the course of events, determine the casualties and sort out the next step. The Ops Manager, the Duty Officer, myself and the Deputy President all traded calls and texts for the next two hours until we pieced together the story.

A kidnap attempt of a local national in Kabul had resulted in one of our guys being shot, and his protectee snatched by four men in a dark SUV. The puzzling thing was that the name of the protectee was not on our list of clients. WTF? What was our PSD doing with a high-risk target when we didn't even have a contract or an agreement to provide the service? And what exactly is the fallout when someone you are protecting is snatched when you weren't supposed to be protecting him in the first place?

Turns out that one of actual clients, the president of an Afghan construction company, had contracted with us for static security at his office and a PSD team to cover his movements. Nothing unusual there. Where it gets strange is that this client had decided that his brother, the president of another separate Afghan construction company, ought to have protection as well. Rather than recommend that he contact us and write a proper contract, he simply phoned The Rug Merchant and asked if his brother could "borrow" one of our CPOs from time to time.*

*CPO= Close Protection Officer, i.e. a bodyguard; PSD= Personal Security Detail, i.e. a team of bodyguards.

Now the obvious answer to a request like this is "Uhhhhh........no."

Upon reflection, one might say, "Hell no."

But, The Rug Merchant, renowned across two continents for his limited mental capacity, said, "Sure, why not?" And then didn't bother to inform Operations, or anyone else in the chain of command. Just one Afghan doing a favor for another, no reason to make it formal.

The problem arises because a PSD team is calibrated and staffed to account for the anticipated threat and the likely movements of the client. Most importantly, there's more than one guy on a typcial PSD team, both to provide backup and to allow for downtime. In this case, the client's PSD team consisted of three guards, two of whom were with the client whenever he moved outside his office or residence.

Last Sunday, the client decided to stay at home and give two of the CPOs the night off. The third he loaned out to his brother for the night, failing to consider that one CPO is rarely sufficient if there's trouble. And, as I said, he had verbal approval for this from The Rug Merchant himself.*

*It's not the client's job to understand the risks and tactical situation. Our job is to protect them and tell them when they're being stupid. A task that The Rug Merchant failed at spectacularly.

So, the client's brother (whom I suspect is a deeply nefarious character with lots of enemies) goes off for a night on the town. His only protection is a CPO who has been loaned out without notice on his night off, has never met the protectee or his driver before, and has no idea of the destination or the schedule. Pretty much a recipe for disaster.

Plan for disaster, you generally get disaster. On a side street in Sherpur, their car was blocked by a pair of SUVs and four armed men rapidly surrounded the car. One of them smashed the passenger-side window and stuck the barrel of an AK-47 in my guy's face. Unable to bring his own weapon to bear, the CPO simply grabbed the barrel and pushed it down, trying to get the muzzle away from his face.

Generally, kidnap of locals in Kabul is a non-violent affair. The gangs who pull it off are usually experienced criminals and the last thing they want is shots fired in the middle of the night. They're also not used to being resisted and they certainly don't like it when someone grabs their weapon. In this case, I suspect that the kidnapper simply panicked, surprised that anyone would dare to argue with him. Unfortunately, his Kalashnikov was set to full-auto and in his surprise and anger he squeezed the trigger and put a burst into our CPO at a range of about ten inches.

Because the CPO had pushed the muzzle downward away from his face, he took five rounds between the chest and the knees. Needless to say, he stopped resisting at that point (as one does with five bullets embedded in your soft tissue) and the kidnappers bustled the protectee into one of their vehicles and tore out of there before the cops could arrive.

Despite several faults, the AK-47 is an effective weapon. The 7.62 x 39mm round is a powerful one (roughly equivalent to .30 caliber) and usually one is enough to put someone down, two is almost always fatal. Taking five, at point blank range, into the chest, stomach and upper thighs, is an invitation to Allah. Amazingly, not only did the CPO survive, but the doctors at the local hospital tell us that he'll make a full recovery. I've come close to death from a particularly bad hangover, and this guys gets punctured through his vitals by five bullets traveling over 2000 feet per second, and he's going to be fine, albeit after a long recovery. I'm told that his name in English means "strong" or "powerful" and now I don't doubt that it's appropriate.

Now we're stuck with the fallout, including a lot of uncomfortable questions from the Ministry of Interior as to why were providing an armed escort to someone without a contract. As to the fate of the "protectee," I confess that I don't much care. He's not one of my clients, he's obviously a moron and he nearly got one of my people killed. His family will probably pay the ransom, but they better not come to me for donations.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Ramadan-Eve Gift

Tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan, the month-long Muslim festival. During Ramadan, it is forbidden to eat, drink, smoke or have sex during daylight hours. It's considered a time for reflection, practicing restraint and patience. Traditionally, things are more quiet around here during Ramadan, with even the Taliban taking a break from major operations.*

*Afghans will tell you that this pause is because of religious strictures against violence and the fact that Ramadan is a time for prayer and being with family. Personally, I think it has more to do with the fact that even the Taliban are tired and hungry. It's tough to go out and set an ambush at nightfall if you haven't eaten anything all day.

I guess the trogs* decided that before Ramadan kicks off and they fall into a hunger-induced stupor they should use up the explosives they've managed to smuggle into Kabul recently. Use 'em or lose 'em, I guess the theory goes.

*Henceforth, my preferred designation for the Taliban will be "trogs" or "troglodytes," a more accurate term given their genesis as primitive, cave-dwelling, illiterate mouth-breathers. Plus, "booger-eaters" was taken.

Today, they decided to use 'em. I was at my office when we heard the blast. It was close enough to be of concern, although far enough away that I knew right away that it sucked to be somebody else. My second thought was, "That sort of sounded like it came from the direction of my house."

As it turns out, the attack was on a guesthouse about ten blocks from my office, and four blocks from my residence. Initial reports are still coming in and there's a lot of conflicting information, but it appears that two suicide attackers attempted to breach the gate at the guesthouse, were stopped by the Afghan security guards and that at least one detonated himself on the street. Both attackers died and they took at least two Afghan guards with them. Apparently, none of the guests inside the house were seriously hurt (but I bet their ears are still ringing).

Tactically, it's very similar to the attack on the UN guesthouse last fall, except that in this case the trogs didn't get through the perimeter. That's the difference between properly-trained and motivated private security guards and the ANP that died defending the UN guesthouse. Proper procedures, a hardened perimeter and alert guards made all the difference. Could have been a nightmare scenario, but the security seems to have done their job. Of course, it cost two of them their lives.

I'm told the guesthouse belonged to Hart Security, but I'm not sure if it was a simple hotel, or an operational center. Either way, if this turns out to be an attack specifically targeting a PSC, then this game is changing and fast.

Hart Security is a proper outfit, so I'm sure they will do the right thing for the families of their men. And the imams say that the trog "martyrs" will by now be enjoying their 72 virgins in paradise.* But two of them for two of us is not even close to a fair trade.

*Is it written anywhere in the Koran that the virgins** are actually female? That's something I'd want to clarify before I strap on an explosive-vest. I think I'd want some assurances on that point.
**And what exactly is the attraction of virgins anyway?

Perhaps Ramadan is going to be busier than I thought.

More from the NYTimes here.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Nation Building?

The other day, in a post titled Taliban Justice, I noted a Time Magazine story with a rather disturbing cover photo. The story was basically a human-interest piece about the fate of an Afghan girl named Aisha who had been horribly mutilated by the Taliban for fleeing an abusive, arranged marriage.

One commenter (known only as "b") wrote:

The girl was mutilated a year ago. At that time there were some 100,000 NATO troops in country plus lots of contractors. So if a 100,000 troops can't prevent such, what are they doing there? And how would that change with 200,000 troops? Just asking ...

A fair question, but here's the thing: no matter how many troops we have here, Western forces cannot ever put a stop to this sort of thing. The marginalization, diminution and sometimes abuse of women is part and parcel of Afghan culture. Western military force will never put an end to that. Only Afghans can end that, if they so choose.

I've been here nearly 18 months, working closely everyday with a large number of Afghans. In all that time, not once have I met the wives of any of my people, except for The Rug Merchant, and that was in Dubai and only briefly. Even modern-minded, relatively progressive Afghans like the men I work with keep "their" women sequestered. They may object to the depredations of the Taliban, but that doesn't extend to breaking ancient social taboos about women and public life.

So, once we accept that the social structure of this country is not something that can be adjusted by force, the real question becomes two-fold, "Can/should the social structure of this country be changed to a more progressive, modern approach, and if so, what (if anything) can Westerners do to assist that transformation?"

To me, the answer to the first part is fairly obvious. If Afghanistan is ever to be peaceful, prosperous and stable, then some of fundamental underlying principles of Afghan society will have to be cast aside. I'm not saying that will be easy, or even likely, but it is a cold, hard fact. Analysts and pundits like to make long-winded arguments about the Great Game, the Cold War, "strategic depth," etc., all intended to absolve Afghans of responsibility for their plight, but the basic truth is that Afghanistan is the way it is partly because of the atavistic elements present in Afghan culture.

The second part of the question is considerably more difficult. I'm not convinced that there is all that much that Westerners can do to promote the sort of "social adjustment" that I feel is necessary here. People everywhere are notoriously resistant to cultural change, especially when they feel that it is being imposed from outside. That said, I see some small signs of hope among the slowly-emerging Afghan middle class. Thus far, they are concentrated in the major cities, and greatly overshadowed by the oligarchs, warlords, and narco-terrorists who rule much of the countryside. But they do exist, albeit in small numbers, and they almost unanimously desire a society that affords the opportunities that Westerners tend to take for granted. Jobs, security, education, a government that is more protective than predatory, these are the things that this Afghan middle-class desires.

They're not about to give up their cultural identity, nor will they cease being devout Muslims, but they are willing to cast a critical eye on some of the traditions and structures that have given this country over thirty years of war.

And that, I think, is what ISAF can accomplish here: buy the Afghan middle-class the time necessary to make their own changes, and find their own, better way of doing things.

If that's "nation-building" then so be it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I Love the Smell of Cordite in the Morning

I'm not regular reader of The Guardian, but a friend of mine in DC alerted me to this video report on their website from last Thursday. It covers over a month that the reporter spent embedded with USAF and US Marines in Helmand Province.

Note that a significant portion of the video shows US Marines on a combat patrol, so don't expect polite language. They are Marines, after all; they're not hired for their decorum.

The one flaw is that the reporter, Sean Smith, keeps incorrectly referring to the USAF Pararescue Jumpers (aka PJs) as "Prepared Jumpers." I'm sure they are "prepared" but that's not what the "P" stands for. Hey Sean, perhaps a quick Google search would be in order before you do your next voice-over.

Best line in the video (at the 5:30 mark):

Call over the radio to the Marine patrol leader:
"We don't know if it's your position or not, but there is a possible imminent attack"
"Hey, you're using a double negative, dickhead. 'Possible' and 'imminent' are two different words. Which is it going to be?"

One can imagine how the distinction between 'possible' and 'imminent' might be important to the guys in the field.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Taliban Justice

Note: The links below connect to a disturbing story, and an even more shocking photograph. Not for the faint-hearted or the squeamish.

A while back, I asked to be reminded of what we're doing here. Ultimately, is the cost of so many allied and Afghan lives, not to mention the financial burdens, worth it for what we may accomplish here. I still don't have an answer to that, at least not one that I find satisfying. My own opinion changes from day to day.

Time Magazine has a cover story about one Afghan girl's experience with Taliban justice. Time even used a photo of the girl on the cover of their latest issue. Needless to say, both are disturbing. The other day, in a post about WikiLeaks, I mentioned the Taliban's concept of "justice." That concept is on display in the Time story.

I won't editorialize the story here, except to say that it is A) one individual's story and should be read as such, and B) it certainly highlights one of the things that is fundamentally wrong with this place. To all who claim that we should reduce our presence here to simply hunting Al Qaeda with drones and let the Afghans sort out the rest for themselves, try going to Aisha's house and tell her that Afghanistan will be a better place under the Taliban. Somehow, I don't think she would agree.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Dutch Go Home

This has always been an "American" war, with insufficient attention paid to the other nations whose troops fight and die as part of ISAF. The Brits, Germans, French, Italians, Canadians and Poles all have sizeable contingents here, as does Australia, Turkey and Spain. Click here for a full list of ISAF contributing nations.

Granted, not all of them are engaged at the same level of intensity. Most of the Turks are in Kabul, and most of the Italians are stationed in relative calm of the western provinces. In contrast, the Canadians and Brits are stuck in Helmand and Kandahar, two of the worst provinces in the entire country. And before anyone makes jokes about French military prowess, try and survive a week in Kapisa Province, where the Brigade de La Fayette keeps the bad guys mostly on the run.*

*Note the historical allusion in the name. Some people accuse the French of forgetting the long and firm ties of friendship with the US. Not true of the fusiliers in Kapisa.

The Netherlands has long had a small, but vital role here, securing the south-central province of Uruzgan, one of the most underdeveloped places in the country. With insufficient troops, wavering public and government support and last-generation technology, the Dutch have
struggled to pacify the river valleys around Tarin Kowt and implement numerous reconstruction projects.

Now the last of the Dutch are leaving Uruzgan Province, where they have battled against the Taliban for four years. Americans and Australians are already in the process of taking over the FOBs and outposts.

With all due respect to the Dutch soldiers who have fought hard in Uruzgan, perhaps someone should tell the politicians in The Hague that a good guiding principle in wartime is do nothing that causes your enemy to offer their public congratulations.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Julian's Hitlist

Warning: What follows is largely a policy discussion. Read at your own risk.

Many people have already commented on the propriety of WikiLeaks and their release of thousands of pages of classified ISAF intelligence and incident reports from Afghanistan. As far as I'm able to determine, the responses have ranged from the overwhelmingly positive among the ardently free-speech/anti-secrecy crowd, to the crushingly negative from the big government hawks and GWOT fanatics.* Of course, the intel community is unsurprisingly alternating between horror and rage.

*In the former group seem to be a pretty high percentage of people who count The Pentagon Papers as a formative event in their lives, and probably consider the assassination of JFK an unresolved issue. The latter group, at the other end of the spectrum, is full of the same people who were puzzled by all the fuss over "enhanced interrogation" techniques.

Not unexpectedly, various senior government and military figures have condemmed the release of the documents as a breach of security, a violation of ethics or simply bad faith. In truth, it's probably all of those things, but debating whether or not laws were broken is kind of missing the point.

SecDef Gates and Chairman of the JCS Mullen have both publically and strongly criticized WikiLeaks for making the information available without first vetting it for details that might potentially put people at risk. Most of the furor (at least on CNN and the BBC) has been about the risk to US and ISAF servicemembers. A careful study of the documents could allow a clever enemy to piece together useful intel about our TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) and thereby develop some counter-measures. In addition, in theory, the Taliban could learn the identity or operating habits of ISAF personnel, especially those engaged in intelligence collection and contact with the local population.

WikiLeaks' founder, Julian Assange, claims that the documents have been redacted to conceal the identities of ISAF personnel and this seems (so far) to be largely true. However, as Tom Coughlin and Giles Whittell report for The Australian, no such care appears to have been taken for the Afghans identified in the documents.

In just two hours of searching the WikiLeaks archive, The Times found the names of dozens of Afghans credited with handing intelligence to US forces. Their villages are given for identification and, in many cases, their fathers' names.

As anyone who has spent any time here can tell you, it's pretty simple to positively identify an Afghan with only his first name, his father's name and the name of his village. This is not like trying to find "Dave, son of Pete, from Cleveland." It's more like looking for "Dave Peterson from Lexington, Nebraska." Not all that hard, especially if the bad guys already have suspicions about their old friend Dave.

And, of course, the Taliban have proven that they are not adverse to casting their net rather widely when it comes to retribution and public displays of dissatisfaction. Can't find Dave, 'cause he's fled to the nearest FOB for protection? No worries. Just shoot his uncle and throw rocks at his wife until she's dead. Dave will surrender voluntarily to prevent them from taking out their frustrations on his kids.

So Mr. Assange and his cronies, under the guise of freedom of information, have just put hundreds, if not thousands, of Afghans in mortal danger.* Not just the informants who cooperate with ISAF or GIRoA, but their families and friends as well.

*Note that I say "under the guise of freedom of information" because I don't believe that Mr. Assange's** primary concern is dispelling the shadows of government secrecy. He's a modern tech-savvy equivalent of the anti-war protestors that were active during Vietnam. He's out to stop this war (perhaps all wars) and, ironically, he doesn't care who gets hurt in the process. Where's the Ohio National Guard when you need them?
**Is it just me, or does Julian Assange look like a guy who tried out for a role in the Twilight movies as "the geeky vampire?" Somebody should check his fridge and make sure there's no mysterious packages marked "Blood Bank" in there.

ISAF is not sitting on their hands through all of this. According to the NY Times, Pentagon officials are busy screening the documents to determine which Afghans are at risk of reprisals, but that will take time. In the race between the Pentagon and the Taliban to see who reacts faster, my money is on the bad guys. And they're already on the job as well. Also from the Times:

A spokesman for the Taliban told Britain’s Channel 4 News on Thursday that the insurgent group is scouring classified American military documents posted online by the group WikiLeaks for information to help them find and “punish” Afghan informers.

We need not guess what kind of "punishment" they're contemplating.

The point of all this, at least from my perspective, is fairly straightforward. We have over 1500 Afghans employed at my company, spread over every province in Afghanistan. Many of them have worked with or for the government, ISAF or the U.S. or Afghan military prior to coming to work for me. And a conservative estimate would be that there are thousands more in their extended families. Those are all people who are dependent on my company for a significant portion of their income and their continued well-being. In short, you're messing with my people. Even if only a small percentage of them could be classified as "informer" by the Taliban, that's still hundreds who are potentially named in the WikiLeaks report.

Consider yourself on notice, Mr. Assange. If even one of my people suffers because of your pathetic attempt at relevance, they will all know who is to blame. And Afghan justice is often a very personal affair. I only promise that I won't let them throw rocks at your head.

h/t to Abu Muqwama at CNAS

Policy Posts

In the past, I've largely stayed out of the big policy debates on this site, except for occasionally discussing the merits of specific elements of counter-insurgency doctrine as it applies to Afghanistan or to PSCs in particular. There are plenty of blogs, journalists, pundits and think-tanks out there that love nothing more than bloviating about this war*, usually after an arduous week in-country spent swilling beer in the garden at The Gandamack and laughing about the funny hat their driver wears.

*Here's a tip: if the phrase "blood and treasure" appears anywhere in an article, it's probably not worth reading.

However, I've recently had cause to re-evaluate my (mostly) policy-free content. Several people have written me from various places (mostly anonymously) and asked rather pointed questions about various aspects of this war. Mostly this is stuff that is above my pay grade or beyond my area of expertise, but that doesn't seem to stop others from writing about it. So why should I hold back, right?

So, I will continue to point to other sources for more serious analysis, and I will try to keep this mostly a personal-focused blog,* but there will be some occasional pieces that delve into the more public side to all of this.

*Because, let's face it, my mother doesn't really care about COIN theory or practice and since she's about my only regular reader, I have to try to keep her happy.

All of these "policy-posts" will come with a disclaimer up front, so consider yourself warned. If you don't care, or just come here to laugh about Afghans in funny hats, you can skip those posts.

First up, sometime later today, will be a post on the recent WikiLeaks controversy.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Personnel Changes

The Rug Merchant has returned to his roots and is now concentrating on.........well, selling rugs. Which seems fitting. He's still the head of the company, but he spends a lot less time hanging around the compound and screwing things up. Which is nice.

What's not so nice is that he took the Doctor with him to help develop the nascent carpet business. Which means that I've lost the single best employee the company had, a man whom I have depended on for 18 months to hold this outift together. He sticks his head in from time to time, and helps out when he can, but it's not the same as having him around on a daily basis. Needless to say, things are falling through the cracks and some of our supervisors have reverted to their status as useless mouth-breathers.

By way of compensation, I got to pick my new Ops Manager and I think I found a good one. So far, he's professional, focused and competent. Within a couple of days of being hired, he took it upon himself to visit all of our local sites in Kabul and check on the status of the guards and the clients. He didn't need to be told to do this, just assumed (rightly) it was something he should do.

As a former member of the Afghan Air Force (back in the 80s), he was trained by the Soviets (which is always a red flag; no pun intended). However, he spent the last twenty years living in the West and occasionally visiting family here, so he has a good grasp of the proper (i.e. Western) ways of doing business. As a bonus, much of his Western experience was actually in the security business, so I don't need to babysit him and he understands the basic concepts quite well.

Tomorrow we take 40 of our guys to the firing range for basic marksmanship training, so we'll see what the new Ops Manager can do. And I get to take out some stress on innocent pieces of fruit, which is always a good time.*

*If you've never shot a watermelon with an AK-47, I highly recommend it. It's a waste of good food, I admit, but it still makes me laugh a day later. Just remember to save some for the other guys to eat. Fresh fruit is a luxury here, so it's not advisable to use it all for target practice. Good rule of thumb: shoot half the fruit, distribute the rest, buy extra. Have fun, make friends, earn some loyalty.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Highway One

As a follow-up to yesterday's post about Team Canada down in Kandahar, here's a post from the anonymous expat at Kandahar Diary about the dangers of operating in and around Kandahar.

The PSC that he works for is heavily involved in some of the most difficult work in this country, escorting fuel convoys to ISAF bases. Highway One is dodgy pretty much anywhere, but it's especially bad between Kabul and Helmand, and KD's guys make the run from Kandahar west on a daily basis. Not a road I'd want to drive regularly.

The Rug Merchant has accused me in the past of pricing us out of the lucrative logistics market in Kandahar and Helmand, and in a sense he's right. I won't put my people at risk on that road under those circumstances without a guarantee that we're making enough money to cover our expenses, including the inevitable death benefits we'd have to pay. Can't do it on the cheap, better to not do it at all.*

*The single most annoying trait of Afghan businessmen is to over-promise and under-deliver. Afghans, my boss included, will underbid every job just to get the work and then flounder about trying to find a way to make it work. Ultimately, with that approach, people get dead.

That said, we're looking at a couple of large static jobs in Kandahar and Helmand that might deploy later this summer. Static security is considerably more manageable than mobile logistics security, but any operations down south come with considerable risks. All that remains is to convince the potential clients that their security is perhaps not the best place to cut costs.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ghost Riders

Take a few minutes and read this article from Canada's The Star about a group of expats doing difficult but vital work down in Kandahar.

As Tim Lynch at Free Range International has pointed out many times, the only way to truly influence the population is to be outside the wire of the big FOBs, interacting with them on a daily basis. These guys with "Team Canada" have been doing that for several years in one of the toughest operating environments in all of Afghanistan. ISAF, NATO and the Pentagon could all take a lesson from them.

If you roll into a village in Strykers and MRAPs, with wrap-around sunglasses and bristling with high-tech weaponry, it should be no surprise that the locals don't come running to have a chat. Too often, ISAF forces* look and act like Imperial Stormtroopers, fearsome, intimidating and alien. Not exactly the best way to get the locals to trust you.

*The U.S. Army is particularly guilty of this sort of behaviour. Note that this is entirely due to Big Army's restrictive force protection rules, and not necessarily the choice of soldiers on the ground. Those rules are the result of the fact that the American public in general has not yet grasped the concept that we can't have a war without casualties.

An important distinction to bear in mind is that "low profile" does not mean "low security." With the exception clients who require it, we never move in armored vehicles and always strive not to be "guns up." Knowing the environment and the people in it is a much more effective guarantee of security than all the armor and firepower in the world. I'd rather ghost through unnoticed with help of friends and allies than trust to armor and firepower. Better to avoid the confrontation in the first place than to count on winning it.

This country has a myriad of problems that need fixing, but it all starts with two simple concepts: jobs and security. Everything else can wait. Without sufficient employment to give Afghans the chance at a better life, and the security to enjoy that life, nothing else matters.

The Ghost Riders of Team Canada are doing both simultaneously.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Gender Politics

Kabul is still on lock-down due to the latest international conference going on at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so we're a bit professionally constrained right now. The usually laughable ANP checkpoints around the city* have been replaced/reinforced by much more serious ANA and NDS guys, under orders to use force if they feel it justified in any way. So, we're spending a lot of time indoors lately.

*Incidentally, I'd like to find out who the genius was at ISAF who decided that the standard ANP checkpoints should be fixed at permanent locations, and then came up with the new slogan. Every ANP checkpoint in Kabul now has a bright blue sign with a dual-language message announcing the "Ring of Steel" and denoting the number of that particular checkpoint. Seriously? That's what the ANP needs? A cheesy slogan? How about more ammunition and a requirement not to shake people down for bribes. The Brits are the "official" mentors to the MoI, but I bet the whole "Ring of Steel" thing is the product of an American mind. Only an American could come up with something so silly.

With the city full of ANA, who are in charge of security after the ANP dropped the ball badly during the last conference, the ANP mostly stand around their blue signs and look sheepish, while the ANA strut around and wave M-16s at anyone who looks at them funny. And the deadly-serious NDS operatives lurk around and scare the shit out of everybody. In short, it's a good time to stay home. The local staff at the villa has been given a couple of days off,* and we're operating on half-staff at company HQ.

*While I don't generally rave about the skills of the locals, the ones we have at the villa are actually quite good. You never miss them until they're gone. After two days of eating meals prepared by South Africans, I'm beginning to appreciate the talents of our local cook. Plus, you'd think grown men would be able to clean up after themselves for a couple of days, but apparently not. Two days without the local cleaners and this place looks like a fraternity house after a particularly taxing weekend (minus the beer cans, of course).

Anyway, being stuck inside with lots of downtime has allowed me to catch up on my reading (and the writing that inevitably follows), so I should have a series of posts up over the next week or so highlighting some recent items.

In the meantime, ponder this bit from the NY Times about the governor of Bamiyan Province. Habiba Sorabi is the only female governor in the entire country and said this to Britain's Channel 4:
Why are they not doing the sacrifice? Always we women should do the sacrifice? Always women during the war and during the conflict, for a long period in Afghanistan, women sacrificed. So this is enough I think.
Needless to say, Governor Sorabi was not invited to Kabul to meet with the foreign dignitaries. Methinks that perhaps SecState Clinton could at least have demanded that Sorabi be present at the conference. Even better, HRC could have made a trip out to Bamiyan by chopper to meet with her personally. That would have sent a powerful message to Karzai and his cronies that shit was going to change, or else.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Happy Birthday to Me

When I was 20, armed with the certain immortality of youth, I was sure I'd live to 100.

When I turned 30, having learned something of the fragility of the human existence, I thought I might see 50.

Today I'm 40, and the prospect of even ten more seems particularly daunting, not to mention increasingly improbable.

Time is a harsh mistress.

Friday, July 9, 2010

COIN by Ke$ha

Until today, I confess that I wasn't familiar with the pop artist known as Kesha.*

*Who is apparently actually known as Ke$ha. I have no idea why. Not exactly to my taste musically.**
*Always been more of a fan of classic 70's and 80's music myself. Journery, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Guns 'n Roses....these are just some of the bands that populate my iTunes playlists. What can I say? My musically formative years were between 1975 and 1988.

However, this video from the IDF on patrol in Hebron is still worth watching.

I have no doubt that the squad leader will probably lose his job over this, and the rest of the squad will face disciplinary action. Still, I can't help but smile at the way young soldiers in every conflict try to make it their own and express a little optimism and individuality despite their conditions.

Incidentally, their patrol techniques suck, but I assume that's a result of pre-staging this video. I like to think the IDF can do it better than this.

Update: As it turns out, the two squad leaders responsible for the video have been disciplined by the IDF. Their punishment for making a dance video? To make an educational video for their fellow soldiers about NOT making dance videos. Hey, at least you can't say that the IDF isn't embracing Web 2.0. (thanks to the anonymous commenter for the tip to the update)

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Even Capone Had a Lawyer

Disgraced journalist* Gerald Posner, who was a lawyer in a previous incarnation, has now decided to return to his professional roots by taking on a few new clients.

*Is the term "disgraced journalist" at risk of becoming redundant, like "slimy lawyer" or "corrupt politician?"

Apparently, he's decided that the way to reenter the legal profession is to seek out the most oppressed, maligned and downtrodden people he can find, and then write laughably stupid letters to the editor on their behalf. So, he trolls the world for suitably aggreived clients and settles on..................the Karzais? WTF?

Specifically, Posner, in a letter posted on the WSJ online, objects to the WSJ's earlier characterization of Mahmood Karzai (younger brother to Hamid) as a money-launderer and smuggler. Mahmood was one of two Afghans personally named in the recent report (although of course he's hardly the only one suspected of moving large sums of cash to Dubai).

After conducting his own interview with his new client, Posner concludes:
Mr. Karzai has never transferred large amounts of cash out of the country. He is willing to take a lie-detector test on this matter. This unproven and false accusation hurts him since he is the only Afghan businessman I'm aware of who is investing his money into the country—in large real-estate projects in Kandahar and the nation's infrastructure, such as its only cement plant*— rather than taking money out as many others have done. No Afghan businessman or politician or public figure is more transparent than Mahmood Karzai.

Is he seriously claiming that Mahmood Karzai is "the only Afghan businessman" investing money into the country? That's beyond stupid; it's insultingly stupid. Even my moronic boss, The Rug Merchant, no angel himself, has invested millions of US dollars into Afghanistan, and facilitated the investment of millions more.

*And those real estate deals and the cement plant? Hardly examples of free enterprise at work. There's only one cement plant in Kandahar because Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's other brother (the really naughty one) only allows one cement plant in Kandahar, so he can charge what he likes to construction companies. Monopolistic extortion. The real estate deals are based on the Afghan conception of emminent domain, basically "I have more guns than you, so get the hell off your land and give it to me so I can rent it to foreigners, OK?"

According to Charles Homans at Foreign Policy, Posner is representing other members of the Karzai clan as well, including older brother Qayum and the aforementioned Ahmed Wali. Posner is quoted as saying, "They're really proud of the reputations they have earned." That statement is so bizarre I can't even begin to ridicule it.*

*Although I suspect that Ahmed Wali Karzai truly is proud of his reputation as the "King of Kandahar." It's just that he's so far gone as to actually believe that he is a virtuous and magnamimous emir, rather than a brutal thug and petty tyrant.

On the upside, I don't think anyone can accuse Posner of plagarizing this stuff, since no one else would ever consider writing it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Butcher's Bill

No commentary. No snark. Just read this.

And recognize the quality of the young men we have fighting these wars for us.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Unity of Effort

Matt over at Feral Jundi draws attention to yesterday's speech by incoming ISAF commander General David Petraeus (aka Super Dave), in which his main theme was 'unity of effort,' within the ISAF hierarchy, their civilian counterparts and the Afghan government.*

*Good luck with those last two elements. The Afghan government can't even manage unity of effort within itself, much less with ISAF and Western diplomats. And as for the civilian side, Ambassador Eikenberry was quoted as telling General Petraeus that he was "welcome at this (U.S.) Embassy 24/7." Well no shit, Eik. Thanks for the hall pass. Petraeus is the theatre commander in charge of 130,000 coalition troops, 100,000 of those American. Did anyone seriously believe that he might not be "welcome" at his own embassy? Exhibit A for why Eikenberry should spend the rest of his diplomatic career stamping visas in Bangladesh. With a supervisor watching him closely.

Unity of effort is one of the cornerstones of successful COIN theory, the idea being that all elements of the COIN-force have to be working from a common plan with clearly defined goals and joint operations to achieve them. Matt suggests that the 100,000+ contractors currently in Afghanistan should be included under this unity of effort umbrella, and wonders how exactly to make that happen.

Leaving aside the near-certainty that Super Dave and his staff don't spend a lot of time thinking about contractors,* there is a fairly simple way for ISAF to create a more effective working relationship with the contractor community.

*Let's face it: the bigwigs at ISAF don't put a lot of effort into thinking about the contractors working for them. Part of the value of contractors (to ISAF and the U.S. military) is that shit gets done without them having to think about it. Need supplies at that remote COP? Call a contractor. Need some extra perimeter security at a FOB? Call a contractor. Need a suck-truck to empty the septic tanks at Camp Phoenix? Call a contractor. Need anything done that won't be reflected on a promotion board evaluation? Yep, call those contractors and throw some cash at them.

There is a venue for Petraeus to meet personally with movers and shakers of the security community here. The PSCAA (Private Security Companies Association of Afghanistan) is the coordinating and lobbying group for all PSCs interested in working here long-term. (They're supported in their efforts by the Union of Private Security Companies, which is limited to Afghan-owned outfits and whose meetings I've had the unfortunate luck to attend.) Mostly it's a talking-shop and a venue for sharing complaints about the ineptitude of the Afghan government and the Ministry of Interior.* The irregular meetings are not particularly well-attended and usually degenerate into a bitch-fest pretty quickly.

*It's also a handy place to pick up tips on which MoI officials are susceptible to "success-guarantee fees." A wonderful euphemism, don't you think?

However, if General Petraeus (or any senior officer from ISAF) made it known that he would like to address the PSCAA, I'm sure that every country manager from all 52 licensed companies would be there, with most of their operations staff, and all on their best behavior. Spread among those 52 companies, there are hundreds of millions of dollars of contracts supporting ISAF and U.S. Army operations. Even the contracts that aren't written with PSCs directly usually involve a security element at some point.

A couple of hours with General Petraeus would give those country managers a better idea of what ISAF requires by way of support, and hopefully give Super Dave a better appreciation of exactly how integral to his efforts we really are. Even if we disagree on tactics and strategy (which we almost certainly would), there would be value in the discussion.

The ops and intel staffs at ISAF might even benefit, because there'd be a decades of Afghanistan experience among the PSC management in that room. Unlike the ten-months-and-rotate-out planning staff at Camp Phoenix and Bagram, most senior staff for private security companies spend years here, and they learn how to operate in Afghanistan very effectively.

So, Super Dave? Whadda ya' think? Want to come have some chai with your backup?

(Just do me a favor and leave Eik and Holbrooke off the invite list. This isn't a photo op, so they shouldn't mind too much.)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bill Shaw, Free and Clear

Well, a while back I promised a post on Bill Shaw, the ArmorGroup country manager who was convicted of bribery in Afghanistan and jailed for two years in Kabul's notorious Pul-i-Charki prison.

I had planned to discuss the definition of "bribery" as it applied to this case, as well as the rather obvious double standard at work in Afghan justice.

Alas, my procrastination has made all of that somewhat irrelevant. The BBC is reporting that Shaw will be released in the next few days and repatriated to the UK as soon as practicable. The official reason is that an appeals court found a "lack of evidence" to sustain the conviction. A secondary reason is the probable behind the scenes pressure from the British embassy that got him sprung early.

In the end, the Karzai administration made their point that it's not only Afghans who are involved in corruption here.* PSC employees are put on notice that the government is keeping a close eye on them, and government functionaries are now terrified of the omnipresent anti-corruption police.

*The are certainly the bulk of it, but Westerners are hardly as clean and pure as they sometimes claim.

I'm hesitant to call what Shaw did "bribery" but there really isn't a better word for it. He claims that he was told the $20,000 USD he paid to the Customs Department was fine for improper licensing. I don't doubt that's what he was told, but I am highly skeptical of his claim of ignorance. He knew perfectly well that it was an off-the-books "service fee." We've all done it, myself included.* I suspect that, if a proper accounting could be made, one would find that millions of unaccounted dollars have changed hands simply to navigate the difficult maze of licensing B6 armored vehicles. Bill simply had the bad luck to be made the poster-child for Karzai's attempt to deflect criticism from his own shortcomings.

*Don't ask what happened to the brown envelope full of cash that was in my safe until a few days ago. It was a "service fee."

Either way, I'm glad he's out. Pul-i-Charki is a hellhole on par with Black Beach Prison in Equitorial Guinea. Most who go in for any length of time are never heard from again. I doubt that even a man reportedly as tough as Bill Shaw could have survived two years in there.

As a side note, despite the "lack of evidence" found by the appeals court, the conviction of Shaw's interpreter and bodyguard was upheld and he's facing another eight months inside. I hope that ArmorGroup won't forget that one of their employees is still in peril. How we treat our local nationals is a good indication of the true nature of a private-security company. ArmorGroup still has an outstanding debt to be paid to Maiwand Limar. Assuming he lives long enough to collect.

Back on Deck

The author of Kandahar Diary is back from leave and posting again. Good luck to him on what promises to be a hot and dangerous summer down south.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Not Just a Southern Thing Anymore

Until sometime last year, the insurgency here was usually described as a "southern-based" or "Pashtun-based" problem, and that was, by and large, mostly true. But although the Pashtuns are concentrated in the south and east, and although most of the Taliban are Pastun, this fight is no longer limited to Helmand, Kandahar, and the mountainous provinces of the southeast.*

*With no disrespect intended to the ISAF troops who've been hammering and bleeding in the valleys of east central Afghanistan for years. Kunar, Nuristan, Kapisa and Laghman have been shitty for a long time; they just don't get the press that the southern deserts do.

Baghlan, Samangan, Takhar and other northern provinces have been heating up for several months now. The Germans have been having a hard time in Kunduz for at least a year.* Dramatic evidence of that can be found in yesterday's attack on a the compound of a USAID subcontractor in Kunduz.

*Incidentally, the Germans in Kunduz are receiving some reinforcements from the US Army's 10th Mountain Division this summer. We'll soon know if the problems in Kunduz are because of German's inept handling of the population, or a more intractable problem.

The subcontractor, an outfit called DAI, apparently got off fairly lightly, given that half a dozen suicide attackers got in the main gate in a matter of minutes. Apparently, many of the Western staff took refuge on the roof while the security guards and responding police fought it out with the Taliban. That many attackers inside the perimeter is a recipe for disaster and it could have been much worse. I suspect that when the details come out we'll find out that both the private security guards and the ANP performed admirably. Nevertheless, at least one German and one Filipino and possibly a Brit, along with at least one cop, were killed.

Coming on the heels of the attacks on Bagram, KAF and Fob Fenty (at Jalalabad Airfield), it seems that the bad guys have a new plan to hit a variety of targets across the country and aren't too troubled by the fact that they're not usually all that successful. USAID and other developement agencies are considerably softer targets than major ISAF bases, and it won't take much to drive them out of the provinces and back to the more secure compounds in Kabul. Without development assistance, nothing in the provinces gets better for the local residents and this whole enterprise becomes "the island of Kabul in a sea of insurgents."

Like I've said about the Taliban before, scumbags they may be, but they're clever scumbags.

Update: Tim Lynch over at Free Range International has some more information on recent happenings in formerly secure Jalalabad and the activity in the eastern provinces. As always, he has photos which I never seem to have the time to do.

Update #2: Feral Jundi has more details on the Kunduz attack. Apparently, the Brit, the German and the two Afghans who were killed were security guards employed by Edinburgh International. A dark day for a fine outfit, but EI can be proud of their people today. Without their quick reaction and tenacious defense, it could have been a lot worse.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What We're Fighting For

On most days, I have trouble seeing the good side to this place. Very occasionally, I find some small bit of encouragement in the people here. And all too often, I'm reminded of what a primitive, atavistic culture this is.

Someone remind me again of why we're here.

Monday, June 14, 2010

$1 trillion USD of.......oh, screw it.

ISAF military operations, corruption in the government, strategic planning by the Obama administration, the weaknesses of current counter-insurgency theory, and all sorts of other Afghanistan-centered topics generate a predictable response in the blogosphere. Often the commentary is juvenile, hyperbolic or just plain wrong, but generally it barely rises beyond the level of nitpicking among COIN specialists or partisan hackery. There's often an undertone of negativity and defeatism, as the old saying about "bad news selling more papers" applies just as accurately to blog traffic, but no single article usually creates quite the firestorm that seems to have ignited over this article in the NY Times.

Maybe it's the overwhelming eminence of The Grey Lady, or perhaps their oft-perceived liberal bias or maybe simply the fact that the headline seemed custom-made to demand investigation and counter-point.*

*Here's a fun mental exercise: skim any major US paper (or British for that matter), reading only the headlines. Formulate in your head your own perception of the days events, and then go back and actually read the articles. I'm betting that the headline-induced perception is significantly different than the reality described in the articles.

To summarize, underneath a headline that read, "U.S. Identifies Vast Riches of Minerals in Afghanistan," the text of the article went on to say:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

That's a pretty shocking headline, and an exceptionally bold opening paragraph. The rest of the article includes phrases like "the vast scale of Afghanistan's mineral wealth," "stunning potential" and (my personal favorite) "the Saudi Arabia of lithium."*

*Afghanistan is probably one of the few countries that aspires to be the "Saudi Arabia" of anything. Personally, I'll take decadent poverty over the Vice and Virtue Police.

Apparently, there are potentially significant deposits of iron, copper, cobolt, gold, lithium and something called niobium.*

*So who gets to name these things anyway? Is "niobium" really the best name we could come up with for a mineral? Sounds like a particularly unimportant part of a dog's salivary system. "Well, if you ever want Sparky to lick his own ass again, we'll have to remove his infected niobium."

As the article goes to great lengths to emphasize, all of this is potentially hugely beneficial for Afghanistan. Mining, especially for iron and copper, is largely low-skilled industry, which suits Afghanistan's total lack skills rather nicely. I assume that lithium, cobolt and niobium require a bit more technology and know-how to extract, but still the revenue would be nice for a cash-strapped government. Someday, in the distant future, maybe these deposits will generate some revenue for the government. It will take billions of dollars of foreign investment, not to mention replacing a tenacious insurgency with a functioning government, but at least it's possible.

I'm no optimist when it comes to the eventual fate of this 12th century shithole, and the article didn't sufficiently address the difficulties and dangers of this possible bonanza. It also fails to clarify where the $1 trillion USD figure came from, or when this "discovery" was actually made (Hint: the guys who originally stumbled on this had the hammer and sickle on their passports). But even I was a little put off by the exceedingly negative "gotcha" reaction of the blogosphere.

A sampling:

*Is it just me, or is Ricks' constant harping on the supposed "unraveling" in Iraq starting to sound like a guy hoping for a predicition to come true, regardless of the consequences? Things in Iraq are not good, but are ever so slowly getting better, but sometimes I think Ricks would prefer that the country falls apart so he can stand up and say "I told you so!"

Tomorrow, a sampling of some reactions from actual Afghans to the supposed news that their country holds impressive mineral wealth, along with a few thoughts of my own. In the meantime, there are plenty of more relevant, interesting and important articles in the NY Times recently. For examples, see here and here.

N.B. Apologies for the "wall of text" but I couldn't find a way to communicate the salient points in more concise language. Verbosity was always one of my faults.

Four Lions

We all know that the Taliban, even the rank-and-file gun bunnies, can be tough, resourceful, and wicked hard to stop. And this is generally thought to be the case for Islamic jihadists in general, at least as far as the Western security organizations and international media are concerned.

However, it is worth remembering that most of the malcontents and scumbags drawn to that self-destructive and self-defeating lifestyle are, well, just that.......malcontents and scumbags. And usually not very bright ones at that.

Evidence for that can be found in many of the laughably inept attempts to deliver "Islamic justice" to the so-called Western oppressors. Sure, there have been successful attacks like 9-11, the London and Madrid bombings and the attack on the USS Cole. But there have also been some abject failures, distinguished only by their pathetic planning and bungled execution. Just think of the original shoe bomber*, his spiritual successor or the-carbomb-that-wasn't in Times Square.**

*Just take a look at the picture of Richard Reid, aka Abdul Raheem. That's pretty strong evidence for the theory that cousins shouldn't marry.
**Seriously, there's a bit more to an ammonium-nitrate fertilizer bomb than just throwing some firecrackers, propane and a few bags of Scott's Lawncare in the back of an SUV.

So, it's nice to note that someone has finally decided it was time to illustrate these buffoons in an amusing way. Here's the trailer for a new British flick that promises to entertain certain people at the same time it infuriates others:

I have no dobut that this film will trigger a new fatwa from the hardline Muslim preachers in Britain and a fresh round of hand-wringing from their liberal establishment apologists. However, at the end of the day it's useful to remember that the quickest way to undercut this brutal and medieval creed is to poke fun at it. No institution or movement withstands the harsh light of effective satire very long. Just ask Sarah Palin.

N.B. Hat-tip to Londonstani who has a deeper (and more serious) post about this issue over at Abu Muqawama's blog on CNAS.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


I've said recently that the Taliban doesn't gain their intelligence from reading The New York Times or any other Western publication. Most of them can't read in their own language, much less in English, and they have robust networks of local informers and agents that provide them all the intel they need.

However, that said, this strikes me as a particularly muddle-headed approach to journalism. Filkins writes a blog post about how simply meeting with Afghans puts them in danger, and describes the difficulties that a friendly tribal leader undergoes to meet for a short chat. And then he identifies the Afghan by name, even going so far as to say that he lives "about 30 minutes outside of Tarin Kowt" in Uruzgan Province.

Armed with nothing more than that information, even I could probably locate this guy in 24 hours or less just by going to TK and asking around. The Taliban wouldn't even need to do that; they probably recognized the guy right off the bat.*

*The possibility exists that Filkins changed the name or intentionally scrubbed some of the details from the story. If that's the case, he doesn't mention it in the article, which simply opens the door to more randomized retaliations as the bad guys search for everyone who might be the subject.

I usually respect and enjoy Filkins work for the NYT, but this seems to me particularly bone-headed.

WTF, Dex?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Lone Guerilla Paradox

Over at DefenseTech, Greg Grant has a brief piece on a particular difficulty of COIN operations called The Lone Guerilla Paradox. Basically, as Grant puts it:

In a village, a single insurgent fighter represents a “monopoly of force,” controlling that village even if challenged by an entire battalion of government troops doing continuous battalion sweeps.
The only time the lone guerrilla doesn’t control the village is the few hours when the counterinsurgents sweep through, once they leave, the guerrilla’s monopoly is re-established.

The comments section of the DT post are unsurprisingly alive with a bunch of back-and-forth about current ISAF practice, the pseudo-history of guerilla warfare (complete with bullshit examples) and some partisan hackery. Oh, and a bit of Obama-bashing just for flavor.

All of the discussion about whether or not the U.S. Army (or the Marines) can effectively wage counter-insurgency warfare, or whether they have in the past, misses the basic point. I guess that's to be expected, since Grant misses the salient issue as well.

Certainly, ISAF/Army/Marines has to be better at waging counter-insurgency campaigns. There's been much improvement in the last few years, and there will be more going forward. Also true is the fact that the ANSF needs to be be better at protecting their own people and more effective in the field. Again, they've improved but they still have a long way to go.

But, contrary to what Grant (and his commenters) seem to think, this was will not be won by ISAF, the U.S. Army or Marines. It will not even be won by the ANA and ANP. No conventional security forces will ever have the breadth and depth of coverage to truly eliminate The Lone Guerilla Paradox. They cannot be everywhere all the time.

To return to Grant's quote from above:
The only time the lone guerrilla doesn’t control the village is the few hours when the counterinsurgents sweep through, once they leave, the guerrilla’s monopoly is re-established.

Not necessarily true. This war will be won when we reach a point where, in the absence of a security sweep, that Lone Guerrilla tries to exercise his "monopoly of force" over villagers and they turn on him and beat him to a bloody pile of rags. Because they believe it is in their interests to do so. That is the ultimate goal of counter-insurgency. It's not hunting bad guys with SOF night raids, it's not joint battalion-sized sweep and clear missions, it's not even improved irrigation and some reconstruction funding. It's convincing the general population to pick the right side and act upon that choice. All of those other elements are necessary but insufficient conditions for victory.

The Afghan people are not simply victims in this conflict; they are also the prize and, ultimately, the solution to the Paradox.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Shaping Operations

In advance of any major military operation like the Marine assault on Marjah a few months ago, U.S. forces conduct what they call "shaping operations." That particulary elegant euphemism covers the various activities that take place before the full assault is launched, everything from information operations (i.e. propoganda) to securing important avenues of approach or transit points. The most important element of shaping operations is the movement of small teams of Special Operations troops into the future area of conflict with the mission of killing or capturing Taliban leader or other key personnel. The idea is that the enemy's leadership and operational staff will be significantly eroded by the time the regular forces move in, thereby disrupting the Taliban's ability to resist.

Although the nature of the upcoming Kandahar offensive may have changed somewhat recently, with a seemingly greater emphasis on reconstruction and governance and less on purely 'kinetic' action*, SOF units down south are still engaging in these shaping operations.

*Another wonderful military euphemism. "Kinetic" = "shooting at bad guys"

However, the Taliban aren't stupid and have learned to conduct their own shaping operations in advance of the anticipated attack. In fact, one could argue that the bad guys have been doing such operations for a long time.

Recently, the Taliban have stepped up their campaign of intimidation and assassination in Kandahar, almost certainly in an effort to so degrade the government's ability to govern that any military success will be quickly undercut by political failure. As I said, these guys ain't stupid.

Couple of things jump out at me from the article, one small and petty and the other not so much.


The insurgents have just as busily been trying to undermine that approach, by killing local officials and intimidating others into leaving their posts.
“They read the papers; they know what we are doing,” said a NATO
official here, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with his government’s policy. “It’s very much game on between the coalition and the Taliban.”
I know it's just a handy little phrase not meant to be taken literally, but these guys don't really "read the papers." Most of them can't read at all. They do know what we're doing, but it ain't coming from the New York Times.


The youngest victim was a 7-year-old boy, identified only as the grandson of a farmer named Qodos Khan Alokozy, from the village of Heratiano in the Sangin District of Helmand Province. According to Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor’s office in Helmand, Taliban insurgents came to his village and dragged the boy from his home at 10:30 in the morning, accusing him of acting as a government informant for telling authorities of their movements. They killed him by hanging him from a tree in the middle of the village, Mr. Ahmadi said. A spokesman for the Taliban, reached by telephone, denied that the incident took place.
Deny it all you want, but I seriously doubt that a 7-year old was hung from a tree because of some land dispute or a criminal enterprise gone wrong. Nope, that was classic Taliban all the way. No doubt the higher-ups in Quetta aren't going to be happy about the bad PR, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the ruthlessness of the Taliban's local operatives.

Was he an informant for ISAF or the ANSF? Quite possibly, but it seems unlikely that one could gain significant actionable intelligence from a 7-year old. More likely they made an example of the kid to send a message to the locals. Talk to the police and no one is safe, not even your children.

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