A Trip to Gardez and a Visit with the Marines
Gardez is the capitol of Paktya Province which is located in the southeast of Afghanistan. It is one of the provinces which border Pakistan, the terrain and vegetation is almost identical to the high deserts of the American west. Paktya looks similar to Marine Corps training base in 29 Palms California and exactly like the super large Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. Dugway should be the major training base for Afghanistan because it has the largest military impact and maneuver area in the country but it remains a testing command because the Army in general and the DoD civilians who run Dugway in particular lack vision, a sense of urgency, are afraid of change and are more concerned with guarding their little rice bowl than making a major contribution to the operation formally known as The War on Terror. Institutional stupidity is going to be a theme in this post it is the institution; not the individuals which draws my ire as I digest what I have seen this week and I have seen more than my fair share of stupidity.
As I mentioned in my last post I do not really know what our mission in Afghanistan is. We are engaged in a counterinsurgency war but confine the troops to large FOB’s which directly contradicts our counterinsurgency doctrine. Our troops do not have sustained meaningful contact with local Afghans, cannot provide any real security to them, and due to Big Army casualty policies are forced to ride around in large multimillion dollar MRAP’s where they are subject to IED strikes they can do nothing to stop because they do not control one meter of ground outside their FOBs. We also do not have the cooperation of the government of Afghanistan. President Karzai has cobbled together a coalition of Afghan power brokers and will win the upcoming election. The UN and our Department of State can make all the noise they want about a free and fair election but they are irrelevant because they stay isolated and unengaged in their high speed compounds. The election was decided in Dubai last month as I reported earlier. Besides Afghans have no idea what a free and fair election is they are no more capable of conducting one than the state of Illinois. So we are fighting a counterinsurgency in support of a government who is actively hindering our efforts by not cooperating with our military, our hapless State Department, or any other organization trying to bring peace, hope, modernity and the rule of law to this once proud and beautiful country.
Why would the Karzai government do this? For the same reason Chrysler is closing profitable dealerships it’s all about the money. Chrysler is closing dealerships based on political contributions to and ownership by powerful democrats. The power brokers in the Afghan government stand to make millions and millions and millions of dollars off our counterinsurgency efforts. There is no profit for them in peace if we eliminate the poppy, bring a decent standard of living to the Afghans and go home. Afghanistan would then be a country with a GDP of maybe $175.00. There is little profit to be made under those circumstances. I could be reading this wrong mind you.. but I doubt it.
I spent a few days in Gardez this week bringing a little hope and some spending money to the poorest of the poor there. Gardez is one of the larger more important cities in the southeast which has been the home of an American PRT since 2005. I stayed at the PRT with The Boss who loves running around the country seeing places he has not visited before and showing off his mastery of Pashto. We had to stay at the PRT because Gardez is a dangerous place. It has always been a dangerous place due to its proximity to the traditional smuggling routes leading into Pakistan through the Parrots Beak area which leads directly into Parachinar. Parachinar may be one of the most dangerous towns on earth and was the central staging area for the Mujahedeen when they were fighting the Soviets (with our help) in the 1980’s. Early in 2002 U.S. and Australian Special Forces troops fought a pitched battle in the Shah-i-Kot Valley (the Battle of Takur Ghar) close to Gardez. One would think that the Army would have done a ton of work in Gardez to help establish a positive climate while placing maneuver units on the Pakistani border in Dand Wa Patan district to block the well developed and well known smuggling routes. In both cases one would be wrong; there is no coalition presence on the border at all and the town of Gardez remains a dirt poor shit hole all but ignored by the Army, US AID and all other NGO’s just look at the pictures.
I have no insight into the grand military plan and for all I know there is a super smooth strategic reason why we allow the Taliban to move back and forth across the border in places like the Parrots Beak. However I do know is that FOB’s like the one in Gardez are full of frustrated troops who have very little to do and understand that the time they are spending here is wasted time. I want to stress that I was hosted by and enjoyed the company of some really great Americans in Gardez. These men are hungry to do what they have been trained to do. I talked with a National Guard Army Sergeant (as in E5) who is an agriculture professor back in the world and able to discuss the various types of grasses for livestock feed and fruit trees for large orchards by family, genus and phylum. All he wants to do is teach the Afghan farmers what he knows in order to continue the legacy of the 1970’s Kabul University. In the 70’s the agriculture program at Kabul University was the most advanced in Central Asia. It was tied directly into the University of Nebraska; all courses were taught in English, and the graduates of this program were famous throughout the region for their proficiency and expertise.
The sergeant is part of a Tennessee National Guard unit full of agricultural specialists, led by a Colonel whose mannerisms and demeanor mark him as a classic American combat commander. During their shot time in country they are trying to bring their expertise to bear on the problem of developing professional agriculture practices which will produce export quality products and earn money for the people. But they cannot really accomplish much of anything because you cannot mentor from inside of a FOB. They are trying but what can you do when you are forced to travel down the few roads in the Province in convoys which must have at a minimum four MRAP’s? What kind of reaction do you expect from large local land owners when the good Colonel from Tennessee pulls up with an entire platoon of infantry who acts like they are about to be ambushed every second they are away from the protective cocoon of their million dollar armor? Military professionals study past wars to provide the base of expertise required to make sound decisions in this kind of environment. Based on thousands of years of military history we can deduce that a large land owner who has received a visit like this and still has his head attached to his shoulders is in some way shape or form in collusion with our enemies. That is not to say he is a bad guy but the enemy owns the turf because he stays out on the turf while we stay inside massive FOB’s enjoying what all civilized people enjoy pecan pie and really good coffee.
Wealthy people in Afghanistan are not only targets to Taliban fighters but kidnapping syndicates who are prolific, well organized, and who (in some cases) work with the local police. A moderately wealthy land owner in Afghanistan has many enemies and few friends so they are forced to pay for security or face the certain prospect of being kidnapped or losing a son to kidnappers. The American military provides them zero protection and visits from the military can only bring them more harm than good. Sound like a sound counterinsurgency strategy to you? Spend billions bringing National Guard agriculture specialists over here who triple the risk for every farming family they visit and try to help while not being able to provide real help because their time off the FOB is so limited due to risk avoidance rules and procedures?
As happens at every FOB I visit, the troops button hole us to express how much they would enjoy having the freedom of action to go out and work the way we do. We do not wear body armor nor carry long guns, we are not afraid in the least to walk around places like Gardez because we understand the OODA loop and how it applies to the Taliban. Make no mistake we could not move around Gardez in this manner on a regular basis because once our routine was identified we would be attacked. But we can show up every once in a while, walking with the confidence of true Apex Predators and interact with the people while confronting the big T Taliban who often shadow us in a weak attempt at intimidation. Nothing pumps up the locals like seeing The Boss or I walk over and go toe to toe with these Taliban jerks wearing a big shit eating grin while going through a traditional greeting. There is nothing they can do but give a proper response because Pashtunwali dictates they must do so. Afghans admire calm cool courage and their tens of thousands of troops here nowwho could display that kind of cool (most probably better than I at this sort of thing) if they were allowed to do so. The Boss and are are not special but we are smart and we are well armed with both weapons and the knowlege of local customs which is essential to counterinsurgency warfare.
While in the VIP barracks a wooded B hut with my own little bed and table, I listened to the staff officers as they prepared to fly out to various other FOB’s to attend conferences of great import. One of which I remember is a big multi-day confab concerning Water Shed Management. Why the hell are we concerning ourselves with Afghan water shed management? We have FOB’s sitting important cities in which the main canals are full of garbage, human and animal waste, large protozoan parasites, and toxic sludge but instead of taking care of that simple problem we are conducting huge meetings on big box FOB’s with lots of senior officers about water shed management. You know why? Because dozens of senior officers, Department of State flunkies, and US AID techno weenies can spend their entire tour preparing slides, looking at studies, conducting historical research, looking up old hands from the American heyday of public works projects in the Helmund Valley (back in the 50’s and 60’s) to produce a product which in the end is meaningless to the Afghans but shows forward thinking on behalf of the fobbits. They then can have multi-day super high speed presentations about water shed management without ever having to leave the FOB’s, deal with a real Afghan, or actually see, taste or feel any real water. It is virtual stability operations done by people who want to help but can’t so they do the next best thing which it to switch on the denial mechanism resident in us all and plow ahead on complex projects designed by complex people who are spending a virtual tour in Afghanistan.
But the people of Gardez are about to have their number one complaint, and source of untold amounts of disease and infection taken care of by my team and I who, working in conjunction with the Mayor and a modest stipend of 600k are going to clean all the ditches, garbage dams, main canals and kariz’s. We will employ over a thousand dirt poor people and bring irrigation to damn near 1000 acres of farm land. This is the low hanging fruit of aid work something which should have been done seven years ago but you just don’t develop a sense of urgency about things like this when you live on a Big Box FOB isolated from the day to day struggles of poor Afghans.
Make no mistake it takes a special kind of courage to ride around in an MRAP. I’d never be caught in one; not because I lack courage but because I disabled my denial mechanism years ago and will not do stupid things just because it looks cool or because some beltway bandit based in that walking and breathing human turd John Murtha’s district says it is safe. For my non US readers John Murtha is a fat corrupt democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who should still be in prison for what he was caught doing in the FBI Abscam investigation back in the 1970’s. Because he is from the real party of corruption the main stream media and his democratic cronies closed ranks and save his pathetic stupid ass. The people of Pennsylvania keep electing this disgrace so they deserve what they get from him but his position on various defense related committees has allowed a series of worthless, crooked beltway bandits to flourish in his district where they inflict their unwanted wares on a military. Sounds like Kabul on the Allegheny to me.and our State people talk about teaching good governance. Give me a break.
You cannot counter good tactics with technology because your enemy will always find ways of beating the technology for around 1/1000 of the cost it took to develop the technology in the first place. You will hear from senior commanders over and over that the MRAP’s save lives. That is bullshit. The enemy will find a way to turn those beasts into iron coffins in time what is saving lives is the fact that our enemies are more incompetent than we are. This is a sad truth we are able to stay on the Big Box Fobs, concern ourselves with ridiculous pie in the sky projects like Water Shed Management which will never have any impact at all on the average Afghan, waste billions of dollars and hundreds of years worth of man hours because as screwed up as we are the enemy is ten times worse. I mean look at this our head guy on the operation formally known as the War of Terror is a Clinton crony brought in to keep Bill and Hillary in a tight little box where they can do little harm to Obama. Mr. Holbrooke is concerned that the surge of troops will drive the Taliban into Pakistan. What an idiot how are we going to do that when the surge is going to Big Box FOB’s? The Taliban don’t need to go anywhere in most the country nobody is putting pressure on them to do a damn thing. The only proactive operations being run against the Talibs is in the south where the Marines have landed and are getting ready to follow up on the success of last year MEU deployment. A MEU is a Marine Expeditionary Unit a combined arms task force built around one battalion of infantry. Now we have a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) on the ground which is a combined arms task force built around a Marine Regiment. Marine combat units are bigger and more capable then similar units in the American army and the other ISAF forces. This is a legacy of World War II where Marine units had to continue to fight hard while sustaining casualty rates which would cripple a regular army battalion. Marine units no longer take massive casualties they inflict them which the Taliban learned last year when they foolishly accepted an invitation to dance with Colonel Pete Petronzio and the 24th MEU. Now they have BGen Larry Nicholson and the entire 2nd MEB to contend with and they are about to get their asses kicked and kicked hard. They will rapidly figure out it is time to move out of the Helmund and will be heading somewhere a few will go to Pakistan but most will go somewhere else in Afghanistan which is what the political hack Holbrooke should be worried about the dimwit.
There is a bright light in Kabul which is the Deputy Ambassador Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr. in whom the Marines place great stock. Ambassador Riccardone should be in charge of our Kabul embassy but Obama, acting the typical democrat, played politics with the post and appointed an active duty Army general who joins a long line of undistinguished, uninspiring plain vanilla leaders. The Boss and I had the distinct pleasure of a short visit with General Nicholson yesterday and The Boss, who is not impressed by much, was in awe. That is the best way to put it the boss remarked that for the first time since 2002 he has met a real combat leader from on high. You better believe it and there are plenty more where he came from but again I digress.
You will not hear much about the Marines in the months ahead because they run counter to the preferred MSM narrative but the Afghans in the Helmund valley know who they are and they, according to our local sources (which are extensive in the regionThe Boss was exporting fruit and cotton out of here back in 97 when the Taliban ruled and has more than a few reliable sources) the Afghans eagerly await the arrival of the Marines as they understand the Marines are here to stay. The Afghans in the Helmund like the Marines who they feel treat them with more respect than the other forces operating in the region. They also admire the tenacity of Marine infantry and their propensity to operate in small units while taking on large formation of Taliban. I have cited in previous posts examples from the mighty 3rd Battalion 8th Marines of 30 man platoons attacking groups of Taliban numbering in the hundreds and kicking their asses good while sustaining zero causalities. Old Terry the Taliban doesn’t like getting beat on like that but that is the way it is going to be this summer.
Speaking of preferred narrative do you want to know how you can tell the U.S. Army is at the end of its Big Box FOB micro managing rope? You can tell when they start reporting body counts as a metric of success which is exactly what they have started doing. I have said before and will say again that killing people is meaningless in this war. There will always be more small t Taliban to used as cannon fodder by the various warlords, Taliban and drug kingpins. Small t Taliban are local kids who fight for money or because a family member has been killed. They are not true believers those would be the big T Taliban and their host of foreign fighters who are fighting for pay and because they can’t go home to Uzbekistan or China or Russia. The number of enemy killed is meaningless you have to kill the right guys the bomb makers, foreign trainers, leaders, and money men. These are the high value targets (HVT’s) are tier one special ops go after in raids which are launched from afar based on suspect intelligence which more often than not result in the killing of innocent Afghans. The only way to separate HVT’s from the people is to be out in the districts with the people no other method will work and that is exactly what our counterinsurgency doctrine says should be done. There is only one large outfit in Afghanistan who has the training, ability, attitude, courage and balls to do that the United States Marine Corps. There are plenty of American Army and ISAF units who can do the same again it is the institutions which are flawed not the individuals. The Marines have always been able to filed senior combat leaders who retain the hunger for the fight at the senior level. They retain the confidence in their small unit leaders to allow them to go outside the wire and stay there.
The Army SF teams, SEALS, SAS operators and small unit fighters from other lands who are as lethal and dedicated as the Marines all welcome the MEB they prefer Marine helicopter gunships primitive though they are when compared to the Army Apache because Marine pilots fly right into the teeth of dug in enemy to take them on at ridiculously low altitudes and close ranges. An Army SF guy I talked with said that when his men were pinned down fighting for their lives it was a Marine Huey pilot who hovered right above them spraying mini-gun fire into the faces of the Taliban. Col Mellinger the operations officer for 2nd MEB confirmed the story saying the pilot took 3 AK rounds in the only place on the bird which would not bring it down the self sealing fuel tanks. No stand off rocket shots for Marine pilots they want to get close enough to shoot pistols at the Taliban. The various special operators out there now, preparing the battle space for the 2nd MEB, love Marine air who wouldn’t?
Killing people is serious business best left to true professionals who can separate the big T Taliban from the population. It is time to tackle the viper’s nest which has grown in the south. Judgment day is about to arrive for Terry Talibanthe killing machine is about to take the field, they play for keeps and are here to stay.