Saturday, July 31, 2010
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
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
*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
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
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
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
*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
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
*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
*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
Monday, July 5, 2010
*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
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.
Friday, July 2, 2010
*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.