Josh Foust over at Registan wrote recently about the attacks in Nuristan being part of a larger strategy, and also questioned the possibility that American presence increased violence there. I’m convinced that the latest attack in Nuristan is part of a larger operational strategy on the part of insurgents. Actually, I believe that it ties in to the persistent insurgent presence in the Tag Ab Valley of Kapisa. Numerous rat lines have existed through Kunar and Nuristan, many of them leading to Tag Ab, which ties them in to the ancient smuggling route that avoids the capital… or leads to it. There is no doubt in my mind that the increase in violence is tied to the increase in Coalition (and GIRoA) presence in Kunar and Nuristan. There was no reason for violence prior to the increased presence and control in Kunar and Nuristan, because they had free run of the area. The people were easily intimidated and there is significant appeal to residents because they are so isolated and fear outside (especially un-Islamic) presence. In this area, Arabs are preferable to Americans as far as the locals are concerned… and they bring money to pay for local men to participate.
Yes, Haqqani is more active in this area, but Haqqani has been pushing more to the southwest in seeking influence, whereas HiG has always been relatively strong along the rat lines from Pakistan and has always been stronger in Tag Ab than the Taliban. We did see Taliban and HiG cooperating in Tag Ab in 2007 and through to today. Haqqani is seeking, and having, more influence in Khost, for instance, but he is starting to run into QST and they are pushing back. Sirajudin Haqqani is more aggressive in this way than his father. During my service in Nuristan, it was well known that there were Arabic speakers in the local area, reputedly carrying large sums of money with which to pay part-time fighters, buy ammunition for them, etc. They would also transport 107mm rockets etc.
Remember, “Taliban” has become a catch-all word for the Coalition, whereas “Dushman” is the catch-all Afghan (cross-language) word. Various factions and even criminal elements can be lumped under or can attach themselves to the “Taliban” brand as it suits them. There is a significant criminal element in Nuristan, partially driven by the primary industry there, gem mining, which has been criminalized by the Afghan government because they do not have the capacity to manage and tax it. As the natural resources are considered the property of the government, they don’t want the gems mined until they can benefit from it, so they have criminalized gem mining. Whereas the opium crop is more prevalent in other provinces, here the driver is gems. Again, the “Taliban” blends with the criminal element to mutual benefit… but are they Taliban, Haqqani or HiG? All three names are heard locally. Haqqani’s faction is often just called, “Taliban” by the locals, so it’s hard to tell… at least that’s my take on it.
While all politics is local, it is tied to other local politics. The issues in Kunar and Nuristan are not disconnected from the problems in Tag Ab. It is part of a chain that leads back to Pakistan. In Tag Ab we didn’t get a lot of Arabic-speakers, but we did get significant Pakistani presence and also at one point a suspected Chechen cell was present, with a marked increase in the effects of small arms and RPG’s (after weeks of misses with RPG’s, there were 8 turret hits with RPG’s in a three week span and several head shots with aimed fire). This corresponded with information that one insurgent commander had agreed to accept “foreign” help, an action that caused actual firefights among sub-factions of insurgents in the Ala Say area in September of 2007. The brothers of two local commanders were killed in these clashes.
Also, the insurgents in Tag Ab have shown a remarkable ability to reinforce. Locals in the Ala Say area have been frustrated this year by the inability to clear the district of insurgents (again commonly referred to as Taliban but certainly including both Taliban and HiG elements).
The ability to mass forces for the assaults on both Wanat and Keating are very likely seasoned cadre brought in from Pakistan (both Afghan and foreign cadre), reinforced with locals who provide logistics support, shelter and fighters. A deal was struck in 2007 at Keating to stay out of the local villages in return for a lack of attacks. The villages were ceded to insurgent influence, but the Coalition and Afghan forces did not have the strength locally to quash the pressure (attacks) to acquiesce to the villages’ demands to keep out. They could not stop the attacks on Keating, so they agreed to the deal to cede the village. The deal struck pretty much guaranteed that insurgent influence would grow in the village over time. Keating has always been a thorn in the side of the insurgent rat lines, but never completely effective. Insurgent checkpoints have been well-known only a few kilometers north, still in the Kamdesh District. Insurgents operated relatively nearby as if they had impugnity for the past couple of years. Did Keating interfere with the rat lines? Yes. Were they capable of having a tremendous impact towards extending GIRoA control/legitimacy in Kamdesh District or Nuristan? No, not really.
There were different dynamics at work as far as proximal causes for the two attacks. Wanat was a case of quashing an outpost before it became a problem, whereas Keating was simply taking advantage of a planned withdrawal. The abandonment of COP Keating was due to happen, anyway. This attack did not change that. What it did do was make it appear, for IO purposes, to be an insurgent victory. Wanat involved complicity with the local ANP and almost certainly the Sub-Governor, whereas there is no evidence (at this point) of complicity of ANSF in or near Keating… although it is possible that some of the ANP, knowing that they are about to be abandoned to their fate, were currying favor with insurgent leaders in preparation for the abandonment. The root cause of the attacks were the same; clear the rat lines to improve communications along the lines that lead to Kapisa, bypassing Jalalabad and Kabul and allowing control of/access to the ancient smuggling route up the Tag Ab Valley. This provides the ability to either bypass or infiltrate Kabul, and potentially allows massing of forces within a few dozen kilometers of Kabul.
Many actors at play here, for various reasons ranging from political to military to criminal. International actors are at play as well, but thin out the farther from the Pakistani border that they get.
The current strategy is to leave areas alone until the Coalition/GIRoA has the strength to deal with them. Instead of spreading too thinly across a vast mountainous area, focus on the areas that can be controlled now and then push out over time. If the rest of the area is well-governed, the government can push into these areas and subdue them one by one. In the meantime, violence in those areas will decrease as the insurgents won’t have targets in that particular area. This may seem like giving up, but what it really is doing is putting a stop to unproductive behaviors, trying to influence or hang on to areas where there isn’t the ability to mass effects on the target population. This is consistent with current guidance, which is not to clear what we cannot hold and not to try to hold unless there is the capacity to build. The timing of the assault on Keating was unfortunate, but certainly no accident. A weakened outpost was attacked, certainly hoping to overrun it and claim a great victory to add to the illusion of inexorable victory for the insurgents. I would have to describe that effort as a success, even though they failed to annihiliate the garrison and overrun the entire COP. The end result; Americans abandoning the outpost within a short time afterward and the appearance of insurgents causation… as in Wanat… is the same.
We had scheduled to do some training in Kunar, and so we set out on the arduous aerial tour that would take us to the remote outpost which was our destination. My team, consisting of myself, CPT Jean-Luc and two interpreters flew into Bagram planning to catch another helicopter to Jalalabad and yet another out to the outpost in Kunar. At Bagram we discovered that the flight to Kunar was originating from where we stood, but we would wait overnight to catch it. It sounded like it was worth the additional pain of a night in Pogadishu. The terps groaned; they hate Pogadishu, because it makes them feel like sub-humans in their own country. But, they were good sports and took one for the team.
We arrived a half an hour before “show time,” the time when they call the roll for the flight, and immediately noticed the red band on the display. “Canceled.” Whoa. Not good. Sure enough, the Specialist at the window indicated that the flight indeed was canceled, and would not be rescheduled. The next flight to our chosen destination would be the next scheduled flight, now days away.
“That puts us outside our mission window,” I said, obviously irritated.
“I’m sorry, I don’t control the flight schedule,” the young Specialist offered.
“I know. You’re fine. I’m still pissed, because my mission is screwed; but you’re fine. I know it’s not your fault.” I’m sure that made him feel much better. Strain showed on his face.
I called the shop and after pondering our situation, they beckoned us to scrub the whole thing and return. I started looking for air again… headed the other way. The fixed wing pax (personnel) terminal, about a mile away, said that they had a flight leaving with a show time only about an hour and a half distant. They don’t take Space A (space available) listings by phone, so we had to get ourselves, our weapons, armor and gear down to the terminal. No big deal… we were getting used to dragging our gear back and forth all over Bagram. As we grabbed our gear, an Air Force Captain awaiting a different flight recognized my obvious irritation and asked where we had been headed. “Ah, Kunar,” he said, “Couple of places out there having a really bad day. They needed helicopters.” This didn’t sound good. Not a lot of information, but enough to know that some of our guys were having a rough time out there.
Maybe my day wasn’t so bad after all.
We wound up catching a shuttle, and soon were on the tail end of a 200 person list to fly to Kabul. Going by the numbers, that didn’t sound promising. However, there were very few people in the pax terminal who seemed to want to go to Kabul. I have no idea where all the people on the list were, but they weren’t where we were. Sure enough, we got seats. We palletized our gear and waited to be called to board the bus that would drive us out to the C-130. In the meantime Tamin, one of our experienced interpreters, noticed someone from our unit who was due back from leave. “I saw Pickling, Sir.”
“He was over there. I dunno… he might be in the bathroom.”
I didn’t see Specialist Pickling anywhere. I got up to look around. There were Soldiers everywhere. A flight had come in from Kuwait with at least 150 Soldiers, Marines and Airmen returning from leaves. I soon spotted Pickling and quickly had a reservation for him on our flight as well. He was relieved not to have to spend the night in the purgatory that is Pogadishu. Something had gone right.
Messages began to come in on my phone. Something was going on. There was word from a friend in the states that a base in Kunar had been overrun. I sent back a message that I had already heard that a base was having a bad day, but nothing at all about anyone anywhere being overrun. Still no solid information.
The picture began to gel as time passed. So did the flu I was coming down with, a gift from the Frenchman. It wasn’t until the next morning, after finally flying back to KAIA and grabbing just under three hours of sleep in the transient tent there (the nicest I’ve slept in in Afghanistan) and a European breakfast (where do they call that sausage?), that reports of 8 KIA at Camp Keating began to filter through. They were part of the same Task Force I was going to work with.
My mission was a scrub; but maybe, in comparison, my day wasn’t so bad after all.
I know that a lot of folks use Memorial Day as a day to honor all service members, but that’s not really what it is. It was started as a day to honor the dead; those who gave their all for this great republic. I’ve often spent this day as a living symbol of those who have gone before me. Parades, memorials, ceremonies; I’ve accepted the thanks of grateful people… but it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t my day.
I’ve gazed upon the graves of soldiers lost in the Civil War and wondered about them. I’ve seen the photos from the Civil War, WW-I, WW-II, Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq; photos of the anonymous dead who symbolize all of the dead of each of those conflicts. So hard to personalize beyond the abstract… they were, “the other guy.” They weren’t like me. I was the survivor, the one it wouldn’t happen to. Memorial Day was their day.
I have two brothers who are significantly older than myself. One, since passed, spent a career in the Army and a tour in Vietnam that forever changed him and may have ultimately led to his loss at a young age. My other brother was in ROTC for a spell in college. He eventually went on to a doctorate, but one of his closest friends was also in ROTC, accepting his commission when I was fairly young; perhaps seven or so. His name was Bob Rice.
Before he went to Vietnam, we went to what was, at the time, Cincinnati’s amusement park, Coney Island. Since replaced by Kings Island, I remember it to be pretty cool. I thought Bob and my brother were the coolest things going. I was in awe of Bob, the strong young man who carried me around on his shoulders that day and accompanied me on the roller coasters I was tall enough to ride.
I never saw him again after that day. 1LT Robert Thomas Rice, Jr., 23, of Springfield, Ohio, was killed near Pleiku, RVN, on August 8, 1970. He was in B Co, 2nd Bn, 8th Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division. He was awarded a Silver Star. For me, he and my brother were the face of the Vietnam War.
Memorial Day is his day.
Many years later, I met a man who seemed to be liked by all who met him. He was fairly soft-spoken and calm. He carried an air of self assurance and common sense, and, like me, he loved to play golf and was just as much an amateur. We became fast friends. He was prior service Marine Corps and Army, and pined for an opportunity to do his part in this war. He had been turned away by recruiters who didn’t want to make the effort to go through the medical review process his back injury would have required. They preferred the low-hanging fruit. Jon Stiles would not be deterred.
He fought his way through bureaucracies across state lines, and eventually got back in, joining the Colorado Army National Guard. When their scheduled deployment was delayed, he found an open position with a unit from Louisiana and actually transferred across state lines to make sure that he wasn’t left behind.
Last November, Jon saw a suspicious vehicle approaching his Route Clearing Team of Engineers in Jalalabad. Sensing danger to his team, Jon went through his escalation of force measures and wound up engaging the vehicle with his M-240B machine gun. The vehicle-borne explosive device detonated and Jon caught a facefull of the blast and fragmentation. He was knocked unconscious immediately, and SGT Jon Stiles, 38, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital of head and neck wounds. Numerous Afghan civilians were killed, but Jon was the only American casualty. He couldn’t prevent the civilian carnage, but he forced the bomber to detonate prematurely, saving his buddies from the blast. He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor for an action the previous month in which he pulled soldiers from a burning vehicle after a similar attack. He had declined medical leave for his wounds from that day which would have had him at home on the day he met his fate.
Jon joins the ranks of such men as Bob Rice in the ranks of our hallowed dead. This is his first Memorial Day, a day that he earned with his sacrifice on that dusty road in Afghanistan. I can barely remember Bob Rice’s face these many years later, but I can still see Jon’s, and I can still hear his voice and his laughter.
I will spend part of this Memorial Day in uniform, standing in for Bob and Jon at a ceremony at a school, symbolizing those who are the very fabric of the red stripes in the flag. It’s not my day, though. It belongs to so many men just like Bob Rice.
And now, Jon, this day is yours.
CJ put up this post, a tribute to 1LT Schulte, killed recently in Afghanistan.
I made the trip through the J-bad Pass a number of times during my deployment. Twice in one day, with one of them at night; which was crazy. It was one of the most dangerous things that I did the whole time in country. One of the drivers later told me that he had started hallucinating from fatigue during the trip.
This particular clip was shot on December 15th, 2007. The total trip from Kabul to Jalalabad takes over three hours and is about 90 miles in length. Along the way you lose about 5,000 feet in elevation. This clip is nearly seven minutes in duration, and is the most exciting part of the trip; the switchbacks. It is the most dramatic elevation change, probably around a thousand feet or so. The first time I made the trip there were no retaining walls, which was really interesting as I was driving at the time with O in the turret.
It may sound like I am talking to myself during the clip, but we use an intercom in the humvee, so you can’t hear anyone talking back.
Yes, humvees really do rattle like that.
We are more or less on the southwestern edge of Kabul, so we had to go through Kabul to get started to J-bad. Not long after leaving Kabul, the mountain pass starts, following the Kabul River. A few miles later, the really dramatic stuff starts, with the road on the side of the mountain with no guard rails, retaining walls, or anything between you and a 500 – 1000 foot drop down the mountainside. At this point the river is far below. There are a series of switchbacks carved into the mountain, and you descend down until the road is next to the river again.
When you leave Kabul, there is a large marshy area before the river flows into the mountains. As the river heads down the mountain pass, the water is muddy brown. The raw sewage of Kabul flows into the Kabul River. Kabul’s infrastructure was destroyed by the war, so there isn’t much else they can do. There are a couple of dams and hydroelectric power stations, and then a fair-sized lake. Then the water takes on an aqua green color for the rest of the way down the course, which looks beautiful as it splashes down a seemingly never ending series of rapids to a broad, flat valley full of rice paddies and grazing livestock. The drive through this area is absolutely pastoral. The fields are well-tended, and there are people in twos and threes every few hundred yards or so working in the fields, walking, sometimes groups of children playing or helping.
After a while, there is another dam and a pretty good sized lake with several villages along the shores. It is beautiful, almost Mediterranean-looking.
I think I may have mentioned before that I kind of test the mood of the people in a certain place by waving to them. Support for the central government in Kabul is spotty. Some places very much support the government, the ANA, and Hamid Karzai. Others… not so much. The reasons are various, but suffice it say that some do and some don’t. Some, on the extreme ends of the poles, are vehemently for or against. I get a quick and dirty read on this by waving to people and making a humble friendly gesture. Some will wave enthusiastically, some will wave half-heartedly, some will give the ‘thumbs up’ (which may or may not be good,) some will not respond at all, and some will make a negative gesture. Some will only stare with unbridled hatred in their eyes. I call it the ‘death stare.’ You can tell that they are literally wishing you dead. It is pure evil.
I guage the general support of the people in that area (and our chances of getting attacked by locals, of course,) by the relative balance between the above. We also look for the presence or absence of children. If there are no kids around, it is a bad sign, and we all hunker a little lower in the turrets.
One of these quaint little lakeside towns was one of the most hostile places I’ve been while in-country. It was a pretty little lakeside town, too.
Our first destination was a little town called Mehtar Lam. It was a little out of the way off of the main road, and it was a deceivingly pleasant drive. The road was paved the whole way, and the farms and villages and Khalats (walled family compounds whose walls are made of a mud/straw mixture 2-4 feet thick and as much as 25 feet tall)
are well-kept and beautiful. Lots of rice was being grown there, and water didn’t seem to be an issue. Clean drinking water was probably a problem, but not water for the paddies. There were many beautiful, green scenes along the way. Lots of children were playing and people were working in the fields.
In nearly every village you could smell the strong odor of marijuana being smoked, seemingly by the bushel. It reeked. You don’t smell dope in Kabul, but in the southeast, you smell it in nearly every village.
We looked at the fob and headed back to the main road into J-bad.
It is about a mile drop in elevation between Kabul and Jalalabad. The air is thicker, warmer, and much more humid. It’s not like an American city, where there is a clue that you are getting there. Seemingly out of nowhere, J-bad just happens. The people in Jalalabad are mostly Pashtuns, the largest tribe in Afghanistan. The Taliban leadership and origins are Pashtun. Still, there are those who wave enthusiastically, and there are those who give the death stare. I just wave, and observe the reaction. I make a point to wave right at the ones who seem to be staring. I acknowledge their hatred with a polite nod of my head and go about my business, noting their position and whether or not they seem to be armed or trying to make a cell phone call. A couple of times I have put my hand on my pistol… the machine gun is the last thing you want to use on a busy street, and the pistol is quicker than the rifle. They can’t see what I’ve done, but there have been a couple who I thought might be more than idly hostile.
For all I know, they are Taliban. The thing about insurgents is that they don’t wear uniforms and they mix with the people. It has been written that the people are the water that the insurgent fish swims in. Part of our job is to separate him from the water. I’m sure that I’ve looked right into Taliban eyes by now. I just can’t be sure which ones. I won’t take action against someone I’m not sure is an enemy. But to ignore them is to court disaster.
J-bad was not nearly as dirty nor anywhere close to as damaged as Kabul. It seems like a resort next to the post-apocalyptic world of the capitol city. There were trees, and greenery, and undamaged buildings and new businesses and undamaged pavement.
There was a new gas station/mini mart along the lines of any American gas station. It was brand new and hadn’t even opened yet. It was called “Atock” and instead of concrete or blacktop, the area was paved with bricks. The sign that declared it to be open 24 hours was in English. It was so out of place, it made me laugh.
Even here, in this Pashtun stronghold, there were people who were obviously still happy to see us. We went to the Jalalabad Airfield (JAF) and ate dinner, then went the roughly half mile up the road to the Army compound which also contains Bin Ladin’s last known address and spent the night there.
I wonder if anyone checked with the Post Office to see if he had filed an address forwarding card. No, that would be too easy.
We all woke up fairly early the next morning, got the vehicles ready, and then headed to breakfast at JAF. The made-to-order omelet was pretty good, but the sausage was terrible. Then we mounted up again and headed out of town to a place called Khogyani. It was roughly 20 – 30 km outside of J-bad, and as we rolled out of town into more of the farmland dotted with khalats and interspersed with small villages, it was a pretty nice drive.
The paved road was in fairly decent shape and the traffic wasn’t bad at all.
Suddenly, the paved road ended, and although we didn’t know it, the saying, “ten miles of bad road” was about to take on new meaning. The road was rocky, dusty, full of ruts and washboards, and in places it was blocked. As we drove we would occasionally come across vehicles coming the other direction, and they were very often the ubiquitous Toyota Corollas of Afghanistan. It was amazing how people will drive those cars just about anywhere. I’m sure that road is nothing but a quagmire when it rains.
We rolled past a number of Khalats surrounded by fields and livestock and finally entered a scenic little village and up the main street. The greeting was a bit lukewarm, but we knew we were close to where we were going and didn’t mind that much. We rolled out of the village and could see the fob up on a hill, but we were on the wrong road! We stopped by a large Khalat that looked more like a small village in it’s own right and figured out our plan to get on the right track. A couple of us noticed what happened next… all the women who were out in the fields began to walk back into the Khalat while a teenage boy stood next to the gate watching us intently. Khogyani had been rocketed only four days before, and this area has a small but active group of Taliban. Twenty years ago, the Soviet response to that type of activity was sometimes to raze the nearest village to demonstrate their power and to try to destroy the shelter of the Mujahideen. Perhaps they expected the same treatment from us. In any case, the women calmly walked back into the village and a few minutes later we turned around and headed back through the bazaar to the intersection where we had missed the turn.
Minutes later, we were entering the fob. After sweating inside the vehicles in our body armor, getting out into the bright sunlight and shucking our shells was heaven. In the distance beyond the rolling hills around Khogyani were snowcapped mountains. We found ourselves next to a small castle surrounded by Hesco barriers (modular barriers made of interlocking wire baskets with a feltlike bag liner that hold anything from dirt to concrete and are excellent barrier walls.) As we walked into the “castle” I realized that it was a khalat. It felt like we were in a small western fort. We joked about how the only thing we were missing here was to be surrounded by a ring of whooping Comanches riding circles around us and firing arrows over the walls.
It turns out that the khalat had been owned by a Taliban Lieutenant who fled to Pakistan when the Americans helped the Northern Alliance take over Afghanistan and kicked the Talibs out. The provincial governor had handed it over to the Army to use as a base. What a trip, I thought, to be using the enemy’s former home as a base. Now there are Americans and ANA stationed there to be the government’s presence in the area.
The four rockets that had landed at the camp a few days earlier had done no real harm. One had landed next to the Afghan’s volleyball court and rearranged the sand. The Afghans are avid volleyball players, believe it or not. We saw a game going on outside a small village on our way back out of Mehtar Lam the previous day.
We stayed for about two hours and then saddled up again for the six hour drive from Khogyani back up to Kabul. We drove back along the same road, seeing everything from the opposite angle. Finally we rolled back into J-bad, rolled through and headed out of town towards the mountains to the northwest.
We retraced our route up the broad river valley, and stopped at the Afghan equivalent to a truck stop to let the vehicles cool down and swap out drivers/gunners. I had been driving up to this point, and I wanted to experience the pass from the turret. We stopped well out away from anything, did our close proximity checks for any dangers and dismounted the vehicles. We must look like spacemen to the locals, helmeted, armored, with earphones and microphones and weapons hanging all over us as we dismount our vehicles. I waved to a family of Afghans sitting in front of their house next to the “store” and they waved back, watching with intent curiosity.
We all grabbed bottles of water to drink (it’s amazing how good warm water can taste!) and some grabbed snacks or a smoke while we assumed a posture of relaxed vigilance. Heads on swivels, we stretched our legs and enjoyed the breeze outside of our humvees. I glanced over at a nearby village and saw a group of children coming up a trail towards us. I counted: seven. I got into the “trunk” of our humvee and opened a twelve pack of water and pulled out the package.
As the children arrived, they knew that the water was for them. I passed out the water, making sure that each got at least one bottle of water. The children here will continue to beg, and it’s heartrending, but once you have given them something, it’s easier. We can’t give something to everyone, but I do what I can. I took pictures of them as we mounted back up and headed towards the mountains.
We went back through up the valley in reverse order as it narrowed, past the dam and the beautiful, quaint, hostile village of Sarobi, back up into the narrowing passes and into the beautiful, primitive mountainous wonder. This time I had a full appreciation of the incredible, massive beauty of the mountains and all of the detail. There was so much to see… and I was still watching for people up on the mountainsides who wanted to blow us up.
As we went along the river, the spray from the rapids could be felt from time to time. I kept my mouth closed. It was beautiful, but completely unsafe. It still felt good. We climbed into the sun, twisting and turning.
After a dramatic climb up a mountainside full of switchbacks we finally drove up a stretch of slightly more open space and through a final pass into the dusty plain that Kabul lies on. We had returned and it was time to make our way back through the chaos to Camp Phoenix, where we stopped for dinner, and on back to Camp Dubs. It was after dark when we returned, tired, incredibly dirty, and happy to have done it all without injury. We were “home.”
And so they called a meeting. I wanted to strangle someone.