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.

"Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Big news out of the Presidential Palace a couple of days ago.

President Hamid Karzai forced two of his top three security officials to resign Sunday over their failure to prevent attacks on last week’s peace council in the capital, Afghan and American officials said, creating shock and concern among Western
officials about such serious changes in crucial ministries even as the American war effort here reaches a critical phase.

As a consequence of the attack last week on the "peace jirga" here in Kabul, both the Minister of Interior Hanif Atmar and the chief of the National Directorate of Security Amrullah Saleh have been forced from their posts. Official reports say that after several hours of discussion with President Karzai, during which they were unable to offer "satisfactory" explanations about the failure to stop the attack, both men submitted their resignations which were immediately accepted.*

*That's the official line, but it's more likely that the resignations were a result of both men's refusal to accept Karzai's proposal to release several thousand Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill. MoI troops and the NDS spent the last couple of years rounding these guys up (and suffered a lot of casualties in the process), and now Karzai wants to let them go because he feels like he needs more friends. No wonder they up and quit.

The official line probably understates the acrimony of the "discussions." First, I doubt that there was a lot of actual back-and-forth discussion. Tensions have been running high in the upper ranks of the Karzai administration for some time, and I suspect that Karzai did a lot of shouting while Atmar and Saleh sat there stone-faced. Second, if either of them did get an opportunity to actually present their case, it's likely that questions were raised about the comprimising of the Afghan security apparatus by Karzai's friends and relatives.

Too early to estimate the full fallout from the resignations, but it's safe to say that it won't be good. At precisely the moment when ISAF needs a set credible partners in the ANSF to properly launch the summer offensive, two key ministries have lost their experienced chiefs. Despite some serious flaws with the ANP, Atmar was well respected by both the British and Americans and had a reasonably effective working relationship with his ISAF and U.S. Army counterparts.

By most accounts (including my own estimation), Saleh was one of few truly excellent leaders in the Karzai government. Due to the nature of his job (NDS is basically the secret police, essentially a combination of the CIA and FBI), Saleh kept a lower profile than most in the government, but his organization had become quite effective at rooting out cells of bad guys around the country. It's said that even if they couldn't do anything about it, NDS knew the details on the nefarious dealings of everyone, including those within the government itself.*

*Such knowledge was probably a contributing factor to Saleh's ouster. Even the much-feared NDS was prevented from operating effectively down in Kandahar by the interference of Ahmed Wali Karzai and other scumbags close to the President. Nevertheless, Saleh almost certainly knows where the bodies are buried (literally). If Karzai was smart, he would have kept Saleh in the government just to keep him quiet.

Saleh is an ethnic Tajik, and perhaps more importantly a Panjshiri Tajik and old comrade of Ahmed Shah, the most famous and most effective mujiheddin of the Soviet days. That made him unpopular in a government dominated by Pashtuns, but he was well liked by the various Western intelligence and law enforcement agencies. His relationship with the CIA goes back to the days of the Soviet occupation and it's said that he still maintains close ties with Langley.

Both men have been replaced by their deputies, people closer to the Karzai clan and presumably loyal to Karzai personally. General Munir Mangal, the former Deputy Interior Minister, has been promoted, and Ibrahim Spinzada is the new head of NDS. Both of these appointments are desribed as "temporary" but the Karzai administration is probably not going to expend a lot of effort looking for permanent solutions.

Spinzada is Karzai's brother-in-law and the Mangal clan has been loyal to Karzai for a long time. Looks like the President is using the attack on the jirga to consolidate his control over the security apparatus and remove a couple of more independently-minded rivals.

Not exactly what this country needs heading into the fighting season, and with the Taliban becoming more active every day.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ice Cream Music

During the summer months in Kabul, street food is available in large quantities on many major roads. In addition to the fixed stalls and shops, wandering vendors push carts of fruit, vegetables and nuts through every neighborhood. Some of the more ubiquitous vendors are the ice cream men.*

*Although it's not technically ice cream in the sense that most Westerners understand it. It's more like really cold yogurt. Tasty, especially the pistachio flavored, but not entirely safe from a hygeine point of view.

Most of the ice cream vendors advertise their wares by means of a small bullhorn taped to the push-bar of the cart. Situated right next to the mouthpiece is a tape recorder which plays a simple tune over and over again, much like ice cream trucks in the States.* The intent is the same, to bring crowds of children scurrying from homes on every street, waving handfuls of change or the occasional bill.

*Do they still have ice cream trucks in the States? The last time I remember actually seeing one in operation was around 1979. Ah.......orange Blow-Pops. Outstanding.

I say the intent is the same, becase the effect is not. In fact, although I've seen some locals eating Afghan ice cream, I don't recall that I've ever seen one of these vendors actually make a sale. I'm not sure how they manage to survive, much less make a profit.

Anyway, the point of all of this is the music that is played repeatedly ad nauseum over the loudspeaker. Just like traditional ice cream trucks in the States, the musics is designed to be penetrating, pervasive and mildly annoying, the better to attract the customers. Fortunately, even with the traditional slow pace of an ice cream truck, one has to endure only a few minutes of this music while the truck passes. When the source of the music is mounted on a pushcart operated by typical Afghan, not exactly a paragon of fitness, the exposure tends to last upwards of twenty minutes. Even once it fades into the distance, it is soon replaced by another cart with equally annoying music.

For the last month or so, the local vendor in the neighborhood where I live has made his rounds approximately once an hour, all day, every day except Fridays. His particular choice of music was even more grating than most, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why. That is until this morning when, in a flash of insight, it came to me. The tune which I had been suffering at regular intervals for several weeks was a badly-rendered electronic version of this.*

*Note that I take no responsibility for anyone having that piece of tripe stuck in their head for the next week or two. Click on that link at your own risk.

I'm considering buying all of his ice cream tomorrow in exchange for him leaving the neighborhood permanently. Failing that, I may finally crack and shoot him. I'm pretty sure that exposure to that song over and over again rises to the level of a crime against humanity. I'll take my chances with the Afghan justice system.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Tough Questions

The anonymous author of Kandahar Diary asks some tough questions of himself and his mission while waiting for a long-anticipated leave flight home.

Significantly, I’ve begun thinking about why I’m there and whether the whole thing is worth it. Is there any point in my being there? Do we make a difference and is Afghanistan worth it all? Frankly, right now, I answer ‘no’ to all of the above. I just can’t see the point. The country is a basket case – always has been and always will be. It seems to me the government does not have popular support, and Karzai spends more time criticising the West and ’reaching out’ to the Taliban than he does prosecuting the war. Warlords run the country and pose as significant a risk to overall stability, and to the security of my convoys, compound and men, as the Taliban. Everyone knows what will happen to this place when the west pulls out – at best, continued fighting as warlords and their factions vie for power and, at worst, all-out civil war. I’m no expert but I simply cannot imagine a scenario that includes a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.
It just seems to me, right now, that it’s all a gigantic waste of time, money and lives.

I confess to thinking the same thoughts all too often, especially late at night after a long day. My own answers vary, depending on the type of day I've had.

Even the best intentions get ground away by life in this place, and all you're left with is your mission and your men. One can find temporary refuge in trying to do what's best for your people and leaving the bigger questions for later contemplation.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Market Rates

A while back, one of the commenters asked about "market rates" for things here in Kabul, including alcohol. Frankly, I don't pay much attention to the cost of things that I buy, partly because a lot of my regular expenses (food, rent, etc.) are covered and partly because I can't be bothered to keep track of these things.

However, for those people preparing to deploy to A-stan or considering a position here, I can say that a surprising array of products are available nowadays in Kabul. Although the quality may be an issue, there's not much in the way of necessities that you can't find somewhere in the city. Prices are a bit higher than the States (approximately equivalent to London) for most things, with a few exceptions.

Proper, authentic booze is anywhere from $75 to $150 USD a bottle, depending on brand. The fake rotgut stuff distilled from Russian brake fluid is cheaper, but you wake up with your intestines in your socks and can't focus your eyes for 36 hours.

Cigarettes, even the premium brands, are dirt cheap, as low as $0.50 a pack for the crappy Afghan/Pakistani brands. Even for the imported high-end smokes like mine, you won't pay more than $2.50 a pack.*

*And by "imported" I mean "fell off a truck in Tajikistan and smuggled across the border in a donkey's rectum." Gives them extra flavor.

Clothes are easy to find around the city, but quality is an issue. My advice is to pack only what you need and plan on buying extra stuff at the Bush Bazaar or one of the small shops. Most of it won't last, but it's cheap enough not to matter.*

*Note that this applies to men's clothes. I have no idea what women would find, unless you like full-body concealment in a fetching shade of blue.

Boots and shoes are a bit harder. Lots around, but most of it won't last a month. If you have access to an ISAF PX, you can get good stuff at a high price, or look for the stolen stuff that finds it's way to street vendors.

If you're going to be in Kabul for any length of time (and not on an ISAF base), do yourself a favor and get a local fixxer to handle the shopping for you. A keyed-in local can help you avoid the scams, negotiate on your behalf and locate those hard to find items like booze.

Under no circumstances should a Westerner new to Kabul try to buy weapons other than a knife. There are plenty of guns for sale, but it's illegal to buy and sell unless you work for a licensed PSC. The Afghans just love to make an example of Westerners and there's a good chance that the friendly guy with five AKs in the trunk of his Corolla is an NDS agent. Even if he's not, he'll sell you the gun (which won't work anyway) and then call NDS and rat you out. If you absolutely have to have a weapon (and your outfit doesn't provide one), find a friend at a PSC or high-up in the Afghan government. Otherwise, you're liable to end up getting the long-term rate at Pul-i-Charki Prison.

Pack some quality Western medicines (sometimes hard to find here) like rehydration tablets and something for stomach ailments, enough personal supplies (i.e. toothpaste, etc.) to get through a week or two, some rugged and versatile clothes and a decent pair of boots or hiking shoes. Pretty much everything else you can find here, or find someone who can find it for you.

More Bullets vs. Bigger Bullets

The Times of London has a report about how U.S. and British forces are considering a switch away from their current small-caliber assault rifles (the M4 and SA80 respectively) in favor of a return to the larger-caliber weapons that used to be the standard in the '60s and '70s. Specifically, the choice is between the current 5.56mm round (basically a hyped-up .22 cal) and the 7.62mm round (roughly equivalent to .30 cal).

The U.S. Army moved away from the heavier round during Vietnam when it discovered that the 7.62mm M-14 was too heavy for jungle warfare. Perhaps more importantly, emerging doctrine at the time dictated that the primary role of infantry was to find and fix the enemy so that they could be destroyed by airstrikes and indirect fire. Supressive fire became the norm, and soldiers could carry more of the 5.56mm rounds which allowed them to pin the enemy down for longer periods.*

*The Marine Corps briefly resisted this shift away from individual marksmanship, but eventually succumbed to the juggernaut that is the Pentagon's procurement procedures.

This new doctrine affected other NATO nations as well, and the Brits, French and Germans eventually switched over to the lighter NATO-standard round, partly for logistical synchronization and partly because NATO doctrine at the time mirrored U.S. Army combined arms action.*

*Even the Soviets got in on the act, switching from the heavy 7.62mm to the lighter 5.45mm for their new AK-74 (not to be confused with the original AK-47 widely used here in Afghanistan).

Now, according to The Times, both the British and U.S. militaries are considering switching back, apparently due to the fact that they are finding themselves outranged by Taliban fighters with older 7.62mm Kalashnikovs. As the article puts it:

The M4 and the SA80A2 work well in battles at close quarters, such as the narrow streets of Basra in southern Iraq. However, they are less effective in the rural environment of Helmand province, where the Taleban are often positioned more than 300 metres away, making them harder to hit.

Obviously, in a modern counter-insurgency fight, pinning the enemy down with a high volume of supressing fire and then anihilating them with airstrikes is problematic. Even before the new restrictions on close-air support and indirect fire, U.S. and British troops were having a very hard time successfully engaging the enemy without leveling half a village in the process. Now that the restrictions are in place, many engagements consist of a brief firefight in which the Taliban fire a few volleys from long-range and then disappear before ISAF troops can close and destroy them. We take a few casualties and the Talibs melt away. So, the thinking goes, re-equip our guys with longer-range weapons so that they can effectively engage the enemy at 300+ meters without having to rely on tactical air or artillery.

All well and good, but the article propogates a particularly annoying falsehood about Afghans in general and the Taliban in particular, namely that they somehow come out of the womb as master marksmen. This natural talent, wedded to the greater range of their favored AK-47, gives them an important edge over Coaltion forces. This, to put it simply, is bullshit.

First, Afghans can't shoot. Not naturally at birth, and not even after considerable training. Sure there are a few out there (mostly among the bad guys) who have decades of experience and have developed wicked skills with a rifle. But the vast majority of Afghans don't even know how to hold a weapon properly, much less successfully engage a target at 300+ meters. Your average Tennessee redneck has better marksmanship skills than most Taliban. Fortunately, we have a lot of Tennessee rednecks in the U.S. Army.

Second, while the Kalashnikov is well-suited to Afghanistan, being a simple, reliable and rugged weapon, it is not know for it's accuracy. A fresh-out-of-the-factory AK posseses reasonable accuracy, but there are precious few of those around here.* And, nearly every AK in Afghanistan has been rebuilt multiple times, often with hand-tooled parts from gunsmiths in Pakistan. As a result, most AKs are a hodge-podge of different parts and manufacturers. It's not unusual to find an AK with a Russian barrel, Ukrainian receiver, Chinese bolt assembly and a Pakistani firing pin, all scavenged from other weapons. The AKs vaunted interchanability notwithstanding, these weapons are hardly the pinnacle of accuracy and precision.

*A significant percentage of Kalashnikovs in Afghanistan are nearly as old or older than I am, and I was born when Afghanistan still had a king.

So let's leave aside all this hagiography that makes the Taliban seem like ten-foot tall superwarriors. They are tough, resourceful and dedicated, but they are not masters of the art of warfare, nor are the Afghans in general naturally unconquerable warriors born with a talent for fighting. By all means, switch to the 7.62 round and rediscover the virtues of well-trained marksmanship, but remember that it's tactics, not technology, that will win this fight.

After all, we have Tennessee on our side.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Tough Choices

A pair of interesting articles recently by C.J. Chivers of the NY Times. Despite what one thinks in general of the Times, some of their reporters are the best in the field in Afghanistan, including Chivers, Dexter Filkins, Alissa Rubins and Carlotta Gall.

Chivers' latest pieces concern the difficult choices that U.S. Army Medevac crews make on a daily basis when confronted with wounded or injured Afghans. Officially, the U.S. Army position is that non-combat injuries are not their responsibility. As they correctly point out, there simply aren't enough airlift and medical facilities in-country to serve as the first point of treatment for routine injuries. What assets are in place are focused (rightly) on providing the best care they can to wounded soldiers and Marines, and there just isn't enough to go around. No TOC officer wants to be the one to deny a Medevac request to a Marine because the chopper is busy transporting an Afghan with a farming injury.

On the other hand, there are potentially significant benefits to a counter-insurgency operation in treating and assisting the local population with medical emergencies. MEDCAPs (Medical Civil Assistance Programs) are important elements of local COIN operations which build trust and rapport with locals and provide an opportunity to gather valuable information about Afghan villagers.*

*There's even a variant of the MEDCAP called the VETCAP which is, you guessed it, a Veterinarian Civil Assistance Program. Basically, Army vets go out and treat goats with modern medicine. Depressingly, I've heard many more positive reactions from Afghans to the VETCAP program than the MEDCAPs. Apparently, children are cheap but goats are expensive.

Chivers gets to the heart of the problem with two contrasting articles here and here. I noticed that the second article took the form of a blog post rather than an actual piece in the paper, and I can't help but wonder if Chivers is trying to emphasize one aspect of the story over another. Points however for putting up both and thereby illustrating the two sides to the story.

Key passage from the first story:

While the pilots stared at the message board, wondering whether this time the mission for Sadiq would be approved, an officer at the second outpost issued a blunt challenge: would whoever denied the mission, the officer wrote, acknowledge that they knew the boy would die?
The typed answer came back on the screen. The mission was approved

Bravo to the unnamed Marine officer at the outpost who put his higher-up on the spot by insisting on an acknowledgement of the gravity of the situation. Sounds a bit like blackmail, but sometimes it's helpful to remind the FOBBITs that their decisions has consequences.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Campaign Season, 2010

Now that it's June, the campaign season for 2010 is fully upon us. Not that the bad guys waited for June, they actually got started a little earlier with a series of high-profile attacks across the country just to remind everyone that they're still here.*

*Not that anyone had really forgotten.

First up was the 18 May VBIED attack on an ISAF convoy in southern Kabul, which killed two colonels (one Canadian) and two lieutenent colonels and their two drivers. A dozen locals were also killed in the blast. From the location of the attack, it looks like the convoy was on it's way to the COIN Academy at Camp Julien.*

*Here's a tip for the Force Protection guys at ISAF: your olive-green, armored SUVs festooned with antennas aren't fooling anybody, especially when you put three of them in close proximity in rush hour traffic. If you're going high-profile, then use an MRAP; if you want low-profile, try a beat-up Surf or a Land Cruiser. You can't do low-profile in a high-profile vehicle. Choose one or the other.

Next were a pair of complex, coordinated assaults on Bagram Airbase (19 May) and Kandahar Airfield (20 May). Althougth the perimeter was not breached in either attack, the scope and intensity of the action indicates a pretty serious planning effort from Taliban-central. In both cases, there was a combination of small-arms fire, indirect fire (i.e. rockets) and suicide bombers. By all accounts, ISAF security responded well and gave the bad guys a harsh slapdown. Nevertheless, the very fact that the attacks were launched at all bolstered the Taliban's claim to be able to attack whenever and wherever they choose. Tactically, it was a disaster, but in terms of Information Operations it worked out pretty well for the bad guys.

More recently, elements of the Pakistani Taliban pushed the ANP out of the remote Barg-e-Matal district of Nuristan province. Apparently, the ANP and ABP put up a stiff fight, but withdrew when they ran out of ammunition.* An ANA Commando battalion supported by U.S. Army Special Forces is now in the process of taking the valley back.**

*What does it say about the readiness of the ANSF when the ABP, in established border forts, run out of ammunition before the insurgents who just hiked over some of the toughest terrain in the world?
**If we were smart, we'd let the Pakistani Taliban keep the valley and get used to the world-famous hospitality of the Nuristanis. The Pakis would last about two weeks before they went screaming back across the border, dragging their dead and wounded. Nuristanis are sort of like the Afghan equivalent of West Virginian mountain clans- they prefer to be left alone and demonstrate that preference with an impressive talent for bloodshed. It's said that if the Nuristanis don't have any outsiders to fight, they simply occupy their time by fighting each other until someone shows up.

Finally, there's the so-called peace jirga going on currently in Kabul. Couple thousand tribal leaders, mullahs and parliamentarians from around the country (all personally selected by Karzai) are meeting in a big tent to discuss reconciliation and the prospects for peace. Of course, none of the bad guys were invited which sort of undercuts the theme of reconciliation a bit, if you ask me.

Despite the fact that they weren't invited, the Taliban made their presence known anyway by firing a few rockets at the jirga site and briefly taking over the top floors of the nearby Kabul Polytechnic University. A combination of Afghan security forces (there are over 12,000 in the city right now) and U.S. Army helicopter support managed to contain the situation, but once again the Talibs made their point by simply being able to launch the attack in the first place. Tactical or operational success is less important than spreading the strategic message.

The jirge continues until mid-afternoon tomorrow, so things are a bit tense in Kabul right now. Still going out tonight, but we'll keep it close to home and avoid the jittery ANP at the checkpoints.