The idea’s being kicked around… though probably not by anyone who is capable or motivated to make a change in the policy… but it has been heard by these ears plenty; and from plenty of people. Most of them have “been there, done that.” They have the little knickknacks on their apparel to show it. The idea itself is about the knickknacks; the badges.
“Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”
Oh, yes, we do. We really really do.
We have a little phenomenon in the Army called, “Badge-hunting.” Although mid-grade officers, very senior NCO’s and fobbits are most often accused of it, everyone wants their “stinking badges.” It affects how those who haven’t yet “gotten some” go about their business. They are looking for the fight that will earn them their combat badge, either the CIB (Combat Infantry Badge) or CAB (Combat Action Badge). Medics are less likely to go way out of their way to get their CMB (Combat Medical Badge), but if they earn it, they want it.
You have a tendency to find what you are looking for. Sometimes, it gets extreme.
In late 2007, a Police Mentor Team assigned to train and mentor the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police) were operating in Konduz for a brief period. Miles away from their accustomed stomping grounds, which to that point had been mostly in and around Kabul, and many kilometers from the nearest flagpole, the PMT were wrapping up their visit to Konduz and would soon return to Kabul. No one could predict where their next mission would take them, or when. They had spent months in the classrooms and training areas to that point. There had been no contact.
During a CONOP, there was a loud explosion near the convoy and a gunner opened fire with his M240 machine gun. Finally, there had been contact! Sworn statements were drawn up, and paperwork was submitted for the vaunted combat badges. Then the wheels came off the bus; an investigation ensued.
The attack, it was determined, had been faked. The gunner, an NCO, had thrown a hand grenade, announced that the convoy was under RPG attack, and opened fire with his turret weapon without a legitimate target.
Weeks later, the same team was sent to the Tagab Valley to replace the Tagab District ANP while they proceeded to Konduz for FDD (Focused District Development) training. The NCO who had thrown the grenade was not present. The ANCOP PMT was involved in several legitimate firefights with their ANCOP, all “qualifying” for the CIB/CAB. Irony.
While the above is an extreme case, it is an actual event. It is very likely not the only case of its type. A Soldier endangered lives, both military and civilian, in pursuit of a combat badge. While extreme cases are certainly rare, what about the less obvious badge hunts?
Do we really need Soldiers looking for their CIB or CAB? I submit that we need Soldiers who are attuned to their whole environment in the current fight… which often doesn’t require actual fighting as much as it does awareness of the other, more subtle signals of the environment… not Soldiers who are attuned more specifically to seeking the kinetic contact.
“Well,” one may say, “we do need Soldiers who are attuned enough to the actual fighting aspect so that they don’t leave themselves exposed to potential danger. We want aggressive Soldiers.”
Granted. However, once the Soldier knows that he has the badge qualifications, the Soldier has a tendency to do a couple of things. First, he realizes that getting shot at is not a picnic, and it’s not glorious. Many discover that, for instance, RPG’s suck. They become a bit more circumspect about seeking that fight. If their unit suffers losses, the bloom comes completely off the rose. Violent death and injuries are not adventure.
But a tremendous amount of damage can be done in that in-between time… the time between when unadorned Soldiers arrive in-country and the time that they are absolutely sure that they have qualified for their badge, the symbol that they, too, have “been there and done that.” If one were to accept that this can have a detrimental effect, the question becomes, “So what would alleviate that negative effect?”
Take a step back in time. In WW-II and Korea, for instance, an Infantryman (there was no such thing as a CAB at that time) had to be of a rank lower than Colonel and be an Infantryman in an Infantry unit in a combat line unit for thirty days… then they were all awarded their CIB. There was no requirement for sworn statements and determinations that the Soldier individually was exposed to a specific danger that would reasonably be expected to potentially cause him personal and immediate bodily harm or death. There were no awards boards considering CIB’s for each and every individual Soldier and officer. The rules have changed, and many of us who have seen what it does to a Soldier’s mind; or especially a leader’s mind, wonder if this is productive.
The recommendation is to go back to the old rules. If you are in a qualifying unit in a combat zone for the requisite period of time (or are wounded prior to that time) then you qualify. Take the pressure off. All you have to do is perform your job satisfactorily. When you are there, in a combat zone, you can be attacked at any time. Why is it a lottery? What is the purpose? Recognize that everyone risks it, and then take the pressure off of them to come up with a story to earn it with.
…When they’ve killed 13 people and wounded 42 more in a botched rocket attack?
“We didn’t do it.”
We were cordially invited to stay at FOB Kutschbach for a few extra days by the rotary wing folks, who bumped our return flight to a day earlier than scheduled. So, as we had some extra time on the ground, we did a foot patrol with the French, the PMT and the ANP through the Tagab bazaar a couple of days after the attack. Being that there were two of us, and we each had an interpreter, we were able to talk with the people we ran into at the bazaar. That is, when we weren’t being hurried along.
While asking people what village they were from, if their village and/or family had suffered any casualties, and how they felt about the attack, the story the Taliban was telling came out. First, they insisted that only one rocket was fired… so the other round must have come from either the Americans or the French on the FOB. Right there they shucked off half of the responsibility. Secondly, they insisted that the rocket was not fired by a Talib. They had, they insisted, “arrested” the man who had fired the “single” rocket, and they were investigating to discover who had paid him to fire the rocket into the crowded bazaar.
“Really?” I asked the man who conveyed this. “They are really saying this?”
“Yes. This is what they say,” he asserted.
“They really think that you are so stupid that you would believe something so ridiculous?”
Blank stare. The man searched for something… something that wasn’t coming.
“I’ve been talking with you for several minutes. You are going to go to college in Jalalabad to be a lawyer. I know that you are too smart to believe such a ridiculous lie.” Clearly, he wasn’t; but it was beginning to work on his brain.
He stammered a bit… the corners of his mouth began to curl upwards a little. He was stuck.
“If a man kills someone and you ask him if he’s done it, he comes up with a stupid story about how it wasn’t him, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied, hesitantly.
“So that you won’t want to kill him,” I continued.
“Well…” he shifted uncomfortably.
“So then he thinks that if you believe him, then you are a fool. You would be foolish then, right?” I pressed.
“Yes, that would be foolish,” he agreed.
“But you are too smart to believe a foolish lie, aren’t you? You are smarter than that, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am smarter than that,” he agreed.
“The Taliban think you are very stupid people, but you are not so stupid, right?” I offered him a way out.
“Right. We are smarter than that.” The men gathered around began nodding their heads.
It’s not like I could undo the damage done after the Taliban IO (Information Operation) had time, unfettered, to respond to the catastrophe that they had caused among their neighbors. Their gaff was like a kid who throws rocks at a house and breaks a window and then runs away. If confronted by the homeowner later, he comes up with a creative story about someone else breaking the window. Except this rock-throwing nimrod was throwing rockets, and he had killed innocent people.
The French had found rocket fragments from two rockets. One was Chinese and the other of Russian manufacture. They did not get the word out immediately. In fact, the reaction of the French leadership was to cancel a mission that they had planned and “wait it out.” They did not hit the streets immediately, telling the story and showing the rocket fragments to everyone they could find. This gave the Taliban time to concoct a ludicrous lie that, in the absence of any information to the contrary, some people were believing.
The fact is that on the morning of the attack, we were informed that there was some intelligence to indicate that the Taliban were going to attack the District Center that day. The reason was that there was a French General who would be participating in a Shura with local elders and the Sub-governor of Tagab District. COL Z, the local ANP Chief who is much-hated by the Taliban, and the ANA commander would also be there. As with all intelligence, there are a lot of red herrings. The PMT joked about the odds of actually being attacked. But, at roughly 12:30, twin booms rang out from the nearby bazaar. The French quickly identified the site of the launch, a site that the Taliban frequently use to launch rockets at FOB Kutschbach… often missing. This time they missed their mark by a scant 200 meters… just enough to land them in the bazaar, crowded by shoppers stocking up for the Eid celebration on a market day.
The 107mm (4.2 inch) rocket is not a precision weapon system. When tube launched, it is an area weapon. You can get it into a general area, but you cannot ensure a precision hit. When launched Afghan-style… propped up on rocks… it is an order of magnitude less certain. To launch these weapons from four kilometers away at a site which is so close to the bazaar on a bazaar day is criminally negligent at best.
These weapons were fired with a total disregard for civilian lives. It was akin to firing high explosives into a mall during the Christmas shopping season.
The 107mm warhead packs a wallop, but it is notorious for its horrible fragmentation pattern. The warhead casing fragments unevenly, often throwing out very large fragments in a haphazard manner. This undoubtedly spared some while mutilating others. Civilians were torn asunder, some left in bloody heaps while others lost limbs instantly. Still others were injured by flying chunks of rock. One rocket impacted near the place where people shopped for livestock for their Eid feast, not unlike our Thanksgiving Dinner. Livestock and citizens alike were shredded by razor-sharp, white-hot fragments. The carnage was horrendous.
As the shocked survivors gathered themselves and the bazaar emptied in a frenzy, severely wounded shoppers dragged themselves away from the center of the disaster. Colonel Z sprinted out the gate of the District Center, four ANP running to keep pace as their Chief ran into the dust and smoke left on the wake of the high explosive warheads. The Colonel lifted injured people into vehicles and dispatched them to either the FOB or the District Center. Within minutes, casualties began to arrive for French and American medics to triage and treat. The Colonel helped retrieve six dead from the litter of blood and body parts. The families took their dead directly home. More would die later from their wounds. Few villages were left unscathed by the toll. Everyone I spoke with a couple of days later knew someone who had perished or been wounded.
“You notice,” Colonel Z mentioned later, “that no one took their casualties to the Taliban for medical treatment. They brought them to the FOB, or to the District Center. They depended on the government or its allies for help when they needed it.”
This is true. That’s what the people did.
There is a “Radio-in-a-box” setup at FOB Kutschbach, broadcasting to the people of the Tagab Valley. The local commander offered the elders an opportunity to come and denounce the attack on the radio. Only one man, Colonel Z, came and denounced the Taliban for their cowardly act. All the other elders declined. So, as they sat watching, the enemy began their damage-control campaign.
“We didn’t do it. We caught the man who did, but he only fired one rocket. The Americans or the French fired the other one. We didn’t do it…”
Just as when untrained nimrods in the United States have money for weapons that they have no business possessing, the same is true in Afghanistan. The Afghan version of a drive-by is the 107mm rocket. Another wondrous Russian invention, it, along with the Kalashnikov and the RPG are the cheap, profligate weapons of the world. The 107 is relatively simple, and while not all that easily transportable, it can be moved significant distances by primitive means. They are often hauled by donkeys in Afghanistan.
I returned to Tagab (Tag Ab) a few days ago on a mission. FOB Kutschbach has really grown. Those who were here when the FOB was started would scarcely recognize the place. This morning, shortly after our arrival at the District Center where we were going to work with the ANP for the day, there was a report that insurgents were going to target the District Center with rockets. Such reports are often without merit, and we joked with the Police Mentor Team about the odds that it would actually happen. A Shura was in progress with the new French commander, his ANA and ANP counterparts, and local leaders. A little after 12:30, two explosions rocked the crowded bazaar just past the gates of the District Center. The insurgents had missed an area large enough to play several soccer games simultaneously and instead hit the bustling market about midday on bazaar day.
A CROW gunner in one of the MRAPS nearby announced that he had spotted a group on a nearby mountain that he thought may have been involved. Mortars at FOB Kutschbach launched a number of rounds at the probable POO (Point Of Origin) site. The local ANP Chief, a heroic individual who I’ve written about before, ran up into the bazaar with four ANP. Soon ANP trucks were summoned to assist with evacuating the casualties. The Chief later stated that at least six civilians had been killed and another 26 wounded. Four casualties were brought to the District Center, where French and American medics stabilized them before loading them into French vehicles and rushing to them to FOB Kutschbach for further treatment.
One man had a serious wound to his upper thigh. Bloody clothing lay against his skin over the pressure bandage the French had placed on him. He had clearly lost a good deal of blood, but he was conscious and able to talk. An apparently secondary bloody wound on his left temple awaited treatment while the medics started an IV. Fluids began to flow into the wounded man. A family member clutched his ankle, staying just out of the way as the medics worked to ensure that the man did not sink into deadly shock.
The ANP said that a small boy with a chest wound was being brought in. SFC Tobago, the PMT Medic, called for his bag. As I arrived with the medical bag the boy, on a stretcher, was placed on the ground. His shirt was open, a bandage on his chest. Terror showed through his pain-clouded eyes. Dried blood streaked his chest, his navel a pool of blood. One of my interpreters assisted in communicating with the boy, who was able to talk in spite of his great pain. He was very frightened, the fear clearly communicated in his small voice; but he did not cry. He bore his pain stoically.
The insurgents will claim a successful attack or, failing that, will claim that the civilians died or were seriously wounded because of the presence of coalition troops. “If the coalition were not here,” they will say, “we would have no reason to be shooting in the first place.” This is like a criminal blaming his victim for having had possessions in the first place. In May of 2007, Tagab was a home of terror. The Taliban and HiG were clearly in control of this area. An NDS agent was hung in the central circle of the bazaar, his murderers forbidding the removal of the body for three days, in violation of Islamic law. Two days after I first arrived in Afghanistan in April, 2007, the local insurgents pinned the ANP down for an entire day in what served at the time as a District Center, firing thousands of rounds in that same bazaar area. The coalition were nowhere near. If the Coalition weren’t here, the people would still be living under the sway of the types of people who hang their rivals in the square and forbid people from cutting down the body for a decent burial. The people of Tagab would still be living in a world where supposedly religious people violate religious principles in order to make their political statements. Civilians would still be dying… but there would be no one to blame. They would have no need to blame anyone. The answer at that point was simply, “We are in control, and you are not. If you don’t like it, and you complain, we may kill you; so shut up.”
If the Coalition weren’t here, there would be no reason to be insurgents. They could return to the civil war that tore Afghanistan to pieces after the Soviets left and also when the Taliban fought the Northern Alliance for years. Of course they are going to blame the coalition; because they cannot take responsibility for a couple of things.
First, they cannot live within the social contract. They want so desperately to be in charge that they refuse to work within the political framework to try to include their ideas in the national dialogue. They don’t want a dialogue; they want to make all the rules. So they blame others for the result of their sociopathic behavior.
Secondly, they cannot take responsibility for their own horrible proficiency with weapons. Afghan insurgents are notoriously inaccurate, rarely actually hit what they are shooting at, and frequently kill civilians with their idiotic use of explosives, small arms and rockets. Monkeys from any zoo would be able to engage targets more effectively than the average Taliban. This idiotic “military” or “insurgent” behavior has resulted in many more civilian deaths than the Afghan Government and Coalition militaries combined.
To take responsibility for not only their lack of political acceptance and acceptability but also their total amateur status with weapons ranging from jugs of homemade explosives to rockets in excess of four inches in diameter would seriously alienate not only Afghan civilians but also the world community. No, that’s just not going to happen. Instead, it’s everyone’s fault but their own. Well, today I witnessed the horrendous results of insurgent unprofessionalism. There is no one to blame for that young, terrified boy with a hole in his chest but a bunch of thugs who cannot grow up and behave like reasonable men capable of living in a society where they are not guaranteed having everything their way.
It made all the papers back home; the story of an American who was shot by an ANP enraged over the Soldier drinking and smoking in plain sight during Ramadan. Many opined that our Soldiers need to be more culturally aware. I replied to email chains from friends, and sometimes angrily contended that when I was actively mentoring, the ANP would serve us chai and sweets during Ramadan, ever the gracious hosts.
After the failed mission to Kunar, I was instantly put to work with a group of PMT’s from Georgia’s 48th Brigade Combat Team. A good lot, they have been working with the ANP for over four months now. One of the teams I was working with had been present that day. The Soldier who was shot in the leg by the ANP that day is doing well and is in good spirits, they informed me. They were irritated that the story had been turned into something that it was not.
Those who were there that day told me that the meme came from an ANP General who arrived well after the incident occurred. It was his attempt at explaining the behavior of the ANP who had opened fire. The now-wounded ANP had announced that he had done it, “for my prophet.” He was clearly unstable.
He had opened fire in what is referred to here as “spray and pray.” He fired not from a close distance, as most assumed, but from a range of 75 to 100 meters. The PMT who was hit was not hit by a bullet fired by an offended man from scant feet away, but by a man who had lost his mind and opened fire from some distance away, spraying the vehicles and wounding the Soldier more by chance than any carefully considered action.
The crazed ANP was shot by several people, including the wounded Soldier. The Soldier then calmly assisted the Combat LifeSaver in applying a tourniquet to his leg to staunch the flow of blood. Other American Combat LifeSavers treated the wounded ANP, who also survived the incident.
I have never seen any real psychiatric treatment in Afghanistan, yet mental illness clearly exists. There is no real mental screening for any position, much less the ANP. Had any reporter actually spoken to the men who were on the ground that day, the myth of the smoking, water-drinking offender would have been debunked. The Soldier who was wounded didn’t even smoke. Instead, some made-up fairy tale was sold the American people, leaving the Soldiers who were actually involved scratching their heads and feeling powerless to change that perception. They are not communicators. They don’t blog. They pretty much communicate with only their families and friends. To them, it was just another case of the press screwing Soldiers.
They consider that normal behavior for our media.
And now you know the rest of the story.
In memory of the late Paul Harvey, who would have loved to tell this story.
A blogger friend, military supporter whose husband has served in this war, asked what victory looks like in Afghanistan. It’s a good question, and one that I think is probably in more minds than just hers. So I’m going to take a whack at answering it.
First, I never really think in terms of “victory.” There will be no grand surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship in this conflict. Insurgencies don’t die in a horrendous bright flash of light and culminate in a giant sigh of acceptance of defeat. They dwindle and starve, become a criminal problem, and finally fade out largely from lack of interest. Twenty years from now, former insurgents will own shops and other businesses and live relatively obscure lives here in Afghanistan. Some may even be in government. No, I don’t use the word victory. The words that we use are important, and they are powerful. They evoke images. Americans love victory, even as they love the underdog, most Cincinnati Bengals fans who don’t even bother to show up to games by mid-season demonstrate that the underdog appeal fades in the face of repeated defeat.
I think in terms of success or failure. The previous Afghan government, if you could call it that, was not so much governing as ruling over a failed state. So let’s talk about what success looks like in Afghanistan. We can describe it simply, but then you have to drill down to what that actually means. For starters, success in Afghanistan includes a stable government devoid of dysfunctional or disabling corruption. What does that mean? Look at our own level of corruption in the United States… don’t act like we don’t have corruption… but it’s generally not disabling. Disabling means that whatever corruption is present interferes materially and consistently with the provision of basic governmental responsibilities; what we often call basic services. It means an Afghanistan with a rising economy, dropping unemployment, a growing standard of living, climbing literacy rates and ever higher standards of education. It means an Afghanistan where there is a basic rule of law and where the citizens feel relatively safe in their homes and neighborhoods and where nearly all feel that there is some access to justice. This means that one of the basic services is security; the ability of the populace to live without threat or intimidation.
Can we do that? I think that perhaps we can. Should we do that? Topic for another post, but I am here of my own volition. I don’t like to lose any more than the next guy, and this is not just Operation Enduring Paycheck for me; so you can guess that my answer is likely positive on that one, too.
There are a lot of encouraging signs. The vanguard of the civilian surge is coming aboard. There are hundreds more on the way, and while they don’t meet the typical State Department mold, the community organizers of the Obama Campaign are finding their way to Afghanistan. Just this week I met and worked with a State Department employee of five months standing, four of which were in Afghanistan. She had worked on the Obama campaign, before that on “another candidate’s campaign,” and prior to that was, “in business.” Very well-intentioned. I could write an entire post about that one, but give us the raw material and you might be surprised where we can take this. The point is that we are beginning to develop the civilian capacity-building arm of our foreign policy apparatus.
Just as encouraging is the participation that we are seeing from Afghans in the civilian government and the military. COIN doctrine is Afghan doctrine as well. Everything that is being taught to Americans and NATO/Coalition partners coming into Afghanistan is Afghan doctrine. It is also being taught to Afghans. Tons of Afghan officers, including the very senior ones, are active participants in the dissemination of the doctrine and in planning for the rapid growth necessary in Afghan forces. I can’t brief it, because it’s not for public release, but there are certain economies of force that are being strongly considered to leverage the existing forces as cadre for rapid expansion. Growth becomes easier when you have a professional core upon which to build, and that core exists in greater numbers every day. The growth within the leadership of the ANA, including the NCO Corps, has been a huge success story here.
Afghan government ministries, Afghan NGO’s and Afghan contractors are also participants. They are also being trained and enthusiastically receiving the training in how to work across organizational boundaries to target effects based on the input and needs of local people. One of the legacies of the Taliban days is that the Taliban destroyed traditional structures that used to regulate Afghan life. Those weakened tribal and village structures are now the target of efforts to strengthen them and by doing so, return a sense of normal life forces in Afghan society. There is a significant movement afoot to leverage traditional methods of local justice. This may, on the surface, appear to be contrary to what we are used to… but in the United States, Mayor’s Courts thrive and are still in widespread use. Think of it along those lines.
Host nation support is unprecedented and growing.
The plan to add resources to the ANP also cannot be described in detail, but it is possible that a plan to move significant resources in that direction, quickly, may be approved for implementation very soon. This will also build upon lessons learned from the successful but time-consuming Focused District Development (FDD) program, as well. The ANP have lacked large-scale mentoring efforts for quite some time, and it appears possible that some horsepower may be directly applied to this most important counterinsurgent force very soon. Another reason for optimism. While months and years will be required, this is not really a long time in context. Positive results may occur very quickly. Remember, you don’t have to be the faster than the bear; you just have to be faster than the next guy. The next guy, in this case, is very small and while agile, he is actually hobbled. The people don’t like him, and only need to feel safe to push back. There are approximately 30,000 active insurgents in Afghanistan to try to subdue approximately 30,000,000 people. Another thing to remember is that while the entire country needs governance and development, there is only a serious insurgent threat in portions of the country. Some threats are actually criminal in nature, sometimes under the guise of insurgency. Lots of weapons trafficking and drug trafficking-related violence is attributed to political violence, which it is not.
Overall, we are going to temporarily construct a national security apparatus that is actually economically unsustainable in the long term. Afghanistan will only need these large forces long enough for the insurgency to be beaten back. If the other factors are addressed during this process… and we are building that capacity now… then the insurgency will begin to fade. As it fades, so long as the positive changes continue, the Afghan people will themselves be less and less likely to feel drawn to any radical ideology. Young men will find fulfillment in licit work rather than finding identity with radical leadership, and the need for such massive security forces will wane. For those who fear that a massive army will need to be sustained in perpetuity, that is usually a red herring used as a bogeyman to frighten others. It’s just fallacious logic.
One of our Achilles heels is public opinion. During the elections, many gravitated towards the “good war” versus “bad war” line of thinking. Many of those folks were simply setting up a straw man. Another thing to take into consideration was that the overwhelming majority of the population knew little about Afghanistan. Our networks were flooded with Iraq doom and gloom. Now those same people who held up the “good” vs “bad” argument are openly questioning Afghanistan.
That’s because it makes their head hurt.
Afghanistan is a complicated environment. Major and minor ethnic groups abound. Tribal rivalries go back centuries. There are over three thousand distinct insurgent groups in Afghanistan. They are linked into confederations of varying degrees of cohesiveness. There are rifts and alliances and more rifts and alliances. These provide many opportunities to leverage cracks… and many opportunities for headaches. For many, who otherwise appear to be very intelligent people, it just makes their head hurt. Unable to comprehend, they prognosticate in the only direction they can. Lots of that from talking heads who know little about actuality in Afghanistan lately. These hurt-headed failures do influence, though. Sadly, some just can’t say that they are ignorant and don’t really need to be involved in the discussion. Sadder still is their inability to listen to or take seriously those who do see and do know, apparently because of some academic sense of superiority or well-developed ego. We’ve all known those types, and the foreign policy wonkworld certainly abounds with them. Their keyboards are aflame with addlepated hammerings this year.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Afghanistan is not Iraq. No question. But there is a similarity. COIN was not executed perfectly in Iraq. The surge didn’t do everything right down to the last detail. But what happened was amazing. Some will ascribe the changes in that country during the time surrounding the surge to be the result of nearly anything but the application of some very basic COIN principles, but that’s driven, often, by personal politics and disingenuous motives. What happened, at least in part, was that even imperfect application of population-centric tactics on a large scale led to disproportionate reactions within society. Positive reactions. We lost momentum in Afghanistan for a number of reasons, but the people here truly want to see us regain it and begin providing hope again. I think that it will take less to switch that momentum than the blithering heads would ever think. They will ascribe it, again, to nearly anything other than acceptably applied COIN, but that doesn’t matter. The proof is in the pudding.
One more key; the Afghans really need to know that we are here for the long haul with them. Our history in the past half century doesn’t bear this out, but it’s time to show the world that we can keep going even when our head hurts and helping ourselves means helping someone else first. There are a lot of Americans who resent spending a cup of urine to extinguish a flaming neighbor, bewailing whatever other purpose they may have had for that cup of urine. Think about how those people feel when it is tax dollars they could be using for some pet project. We’ve got lots of those types, too. They often have headaches and think themselves truly brilliant analysts, too. Don’t even get me started about how they pretend to give two shits about my life or my family, though. They don’t. That’s just political fodder for them. The Afghans need to know that we are not quitters any more; that our word actually means something. The meaning of a person’s word has lost something in our society, but not in theirs nor in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The partnering of units remains to be seen. There are concerns that the American Regular Army units will revert to the same old behaviors that they had in the past; abusing their Afghan “partners” as the equivalent of their own pissboys. These units have received some basic COIN training, but there will be another factor, and that would be the Mc-Rod Factor. McChrystal and Rodriguez are serious about enforcing the application of their plan… that Afghan forces are going to lead and the Americans are there as a multiplier. It will only take a few bell-ringers to correct the old ways. Neither impresses me as a man to spare a career in the presence of failure to execute his orders.
Lastly a reason for optimism is the total lack of traction of failed ideas such as strict reliance on “CT” or counter terrorist operations. Discussions which contain references with suggestions to abandoning population-centric concepts for a strictly CT approach are the equivalent of discussing the merits of a football bat. It’s like asking if someone thinks that roughing the passer should be called more strictly during the World Series. Just roll your eyes and know that you’ve just heard from someone who has as much credibility in the current fight as a gelding on a stud farm. No one here on the ground is able to open their mouths and make such ridiculously inane noises. I think it’s happening back home on a regular basis, but no worries; no traction whatsoever where COIN meets the real world.
Afghanistan won’t look like a Mini-Me version of the United States. It will look like a war torn country with hope, though. Success looks like Afghans making plans to access their sub-soil resources in partnership with companies who don’t just buy the rights to a seam of ore. It looks like a court system that functions in such a way that Afghans feel that if they have a dispute, no one can buy the decision. It takes a while to come from the 19th century to the 20th, much less the 21st. We have to understand that success in Afghanistan doesn’t look like perfection; it looks like positive momentum and a lack of interest in further insurgency. There will be die-hards, but the police will be tracking them down. Success looks like most people not having time to listen to radicals because they are either on their way to work or on their way home from school. There is a lot to do to get there, but with the buy-in we’re seeing from the Afghan Army, Police and civil Ministries, as well as the civilian and NGO surge, there’s a sense that the momentum can be regained.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit my old stomping grounds in Kapisa, and stay at FOB Morales-Frazier, the scene of many adventures in Kapisa. It was surprising, pleasant, poignant, encouraging and disappointing all rolled up into one big ball. First, the FOB, which was still called a Firebase when I left, a step down from a FOB in the hierarchy of combat structures, has exploded. FOB Morales-Frazier, or M-F to the local military speakers, has now become home to hundreds. When SFC O, SSG Maniac and I arrived there in late May of 2007, this large area was occupied by a Special Forces ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) and a light company of ANA and their ETT’s; a few dozen people. The entire compound, an area of approximately 400 x 600 meters, is full of tents, structures and vehicles. It is a small town of its own.
Amazed, I climbed the tower in what used to be the ODA compound and looked over the scene. I could easily see the original structures and the original Hesco boundaries of previous fiefdoms; the Special Forces, the compound that the SF referred to as the “overflow” compound, which those of us who suffered its privations called “GITFO” for “Git The Freak Out,” and what the few American Soldiers there now call “The Alamo;” the scene of O, the Maniac and my first good shelling.
The American Provincial Police Mentor Team (PMT-P) for Kapisa occupies structures that my group had built. What was built for us to use as a kitchen/chow hall has now been divided in half and is used for offices for the PMT-P and the PRT. The Hesco compound boundary has had a hole knocked out of it, allowing a pass-through to the French area beyond where French Soldiers and Marines live, for the most part, in tents. Many tents.
The erstwhile Special Forces compound has been partially opened up as well, and at one point I walked through the old front gate, now vestigial. This was the site where, for several weeks during our time there as the Bastard Children, O, Maniac and I had to wait for the precise time of chow in order to be permitted entrance to ODA 744’s compound so that we might share in their victuals… after most of them had eaten, of course. If we arrived a minute too early, the ODA’s hired Afghan guards would hold us in place until the appointed hour. We used to joke that we were like dogs waiting to be fed. I could still see the adhesive marks on the remnants of the gate where the ODA had posted their sign decreeing that we could have access only at those times.
I passed the place where O and I put my four ANP KIA in body bags on my worst day of the first tour. I thought about them for a moment. I can still see their torn bodies when I do think of them. I can still smell the scent of fresh death and torn bowels. I can still see the lifeless eyes, the shroud of death having emptied them of light, and the rendered parts. I remember my surgical-gloved hand resisting against the cloth of their clothing as I searched for identification. I remember the heartbreak of recognizing the young radio operator who had always been near me for over a month as we operated in The Valley from the picture on his ANP identification card. Suddenly I could see the resemblance to the grinning youth in the mask of death, eyes akimbo, missing the top of the skull. I remember seeing deeply into the young man’s head, brokenhearted and at the same time detached; a portion of my brain noting surprise at the small amount of brain matter remaining after what appeared to be a nearly surgical removal of the top rear of his skull. I found this stray, detached thought mildly shocking in its own right. How can one be so emotionally shredded and yet almost clinically detached at the same moment? I still find this dichotomy notable. The events, sensations, and even thoughts of those short hours remain embedded in my memory like few others in my life. They will never go away; and I do not wish them to.
Those men, and that place, are part of me now.
Kapisa is a part of me, and I am a tiny part of it. I am still there, the light of recognition in the eyes of ANP officers and soldiers who recognized me revealing that my time there is still a part of the individual histories of these men’s lives. They greeted me with enthusiasm, there being no doubt that the sign of deep friendship, the handshake followed by the hug with cheeks pressed, was to be exchanged. As others who did not know me looked on curiously, the ANP would explain that I had been in many fights with them. I recognized Dari words in the rapid explanations, “jang” (fight), “Afghanya,” “Tag Ab,” “Ala Say,” “bisyar khoobas” (very good.) I knew the general drift before our interpreter told me in English what the full interpretation was. I felt a deep sense of pride in having reached that level with the Afghan soldiers who I had mentored and operated with. I recall wondering if I would earn such respect from such men; men for whom the stripes on my uniform and the patch on my sleeve matter less than my actions on the dusty ground in the obscure valleys where Afghan life and death are to be found. They judge me on actions that few, if any, Americans were there to witness. Many asked also about others who had impacted them deeply; SFC O, LTC Cold, and SFC Pulvier. Absent were other names. It seems that Afghans have very little time for those who had no real regard for them. Certain things can’t be faked, regardless of the fairy tales told on forms. Some names are left for dead in the dusty past.
There were many such reunions, but none so deeply satisfying as seeing once more the constant thread in Kapisa since the time of LTC SFowski. Sam, the combat terp, dismounted from the MRAP when the team arrived at Bagram to retrieve us from that circus of fobbitry. (I will have an entire post about Bagram soon.) Seeing Sam again was like a bowl of ice cream on an Afghan summer day; so cool I couldn’t believe it. We inquired as to each other’s health, family and after old friends. Again, names were raised from what seems the long ago past, less than two years ago.
Our business at Kapisa was slightly less successful, mostly due to the changing of some leadership and the reluctance of the new leadership to really extend an effort regarding any new training. Excusing his lack of coordination with explanations about the elections and difficulties having to do with that, we were not provided access to the district and provincial leadership who could really drive new ways of organizing information. However, after seeing what we have to offer, I think that upon our return sometime in the future, we will find more cooperation.
When you are called by a brother in arms, you answer the call. Whether it is O calling from an ambush on Route Vermont, the Marine ETT’s asking for escort to respond to a call to blow up a suspected IED, our ANP reporting that they were under fire, or when characters are being assassinated, it’s the same; you respond.
Shoot at one, draw fire from all.
Especially, for me, when it’s ANP mentors putting out the call. Grab your helmet and body armor, check your weapons and fuel, grab your terp and mount up; we’re riding out.
Recently, a British journalist named Nick Meo from the Telegraph embedded with a PMT (Police Mentor Team) in Helmand Province, one of the hottest parts of Afghanistan. ARSIC South (Afghan Regional Security Integration Command – South) was responsible for coordinating the embed. One night in the past week, the team left Kandahar Airfield to head back to their AO (Area of Operations,) heading out into the darkness of the Afghan night in Helmand Province. I’ve done plenty of night moves in Afghanistan. While they can be spooky, sometimes it actually felt safer than traveling in daylight. If you stay out of each others headlights, it’s harder to tell what you are, making ambushes more difficult to time properly.
Nick Meo rode in that convoy. He rode with Major Becker, the team leader, and two other soldiers; Mitch Chapman and Scott Dimond, in a Cougar MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protective) vehicle. The combat patrol was struck by an IED and apparent ambush about an hour later.
This is where the story takes a left turn at Albuquerque.
Nick Meo was uninjured in the IED strike. MAJ Becker and Chapman were injured, strapped upside down in their seats. Meo released his seatbelts and made his way from the vehicle, leaving the two injured soldiers hanging upside down in their belts in the mine-damaged vehicle. Scott Dimond, a 39 year old father of four from New Hampshire, was crushed under the vehicle when it flipped over from the force of the blast; a common danger for turret gunners on combat vehicles.
Nick Meo began doing what he thought he was supposed to be doing, shooting video of himself, soon after leaving the stricken vehicle. Shortly thereafter he was safely ensconced in another, undamaged armored vehicle while the American soldiers he was accompanying dealt with the deadly situation outside. He had been asked not to shoot video by this point, a directive that he flouted. It’s clear to me that the video he shot inside the vehicle was shot surreptitiously.
I’ve seen uninjured people hop on MEDEVAC birds before. The man who did it in Tag Ab did it not once but twice, and everyone considered him a coward for it. Meo, uninjured, did not want to be on the ground any longer. I guess embedded journalism isn’t as much fun when you are actually under fire. In any case, Meo lost his taste for the assignment and begged a ride back to Kandahar on the bird.
This is where the fun begins, and I suspect Meo’s justification for his panicked flight from his assignment.
Meo wrote an article, filled with contradictions and published in the Telegraph, that was exceedingly unkind to the men who he was with and who kept him uninjured on that fateful October night in southern Afghanistan. Meo crossed the line in so many ways in his incredibly self-serving article, criticizing everything from the Major’s standard “high and tight” Army haircut to the fire discipline and overall professionalism of the team of men who had functioned successfully in Helmand for over six months. These same men who successfully got him MEDEVAC’d without injury were pretty thoroughly panned in his article.
I would ask that you read the article and view the embedded video. Then ask yourself if those sound like “thousands of rounds” being expended in the background or if the soldier speaking to higher on the radio sounds fearful or like a man who is agitated by having one of his own crushed to death under a vehicle, two more who require MEDEVAC, and a jerkweed reporter in the back seat who won’t follow directions and is trying to be sneaky about filming things that he shouldn’t be filming. Watch the soldier’s movements as he sends up an FBCB2 (Blue Force Tracker) Spot Report on a system that shouldn’t have been filmed by a foreign national reporter and judge if his actions are panicked or the actions of a man in combat doing what he is trained to do.
Now consider this; Scott Dimond, a 39 year old who had already lived a career as a police officer in his home state, a soldier who was described as “stellar,” died that night. First, Meo brags about having the good fortune to not have spoken with the man prior to his death. Then, back at Kandahar, he refused to have the respect to attend the ramp ceremony for this hometown American hero unless he could film it (which is a big no-no for ramp ceremonies out of respect for the dead.) That’s what we in the business call, “class.”
Please read the above linked posts, including Meo’s despicable article. Then please take a minute to do two things; write Nick Meo and his boss a quick note and let them know that you don’t appreciate his slander and his self-aggrandizing. Nick Meo took the worst day of several men’s lives, and the last of one’s, and made it his personal “legend-story.” Even the title is all about him.
Here are the emails for Nick Meo and the Telegraph:
On a dark night in the “Indian Country” of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, a small group of Americans experienced the ultimate nightmare; they lost one of their own. One man rode with them; an outsider, a “journalist” whose safety they took responsibility for and whom they delivered back to Kandahar unscathed by the event that took one of their lives and left two others injured. The work that these men do and have done for over six months has been unheralded, dirty, frustrating and dangerous. No one knows of their daily struggles, grinds, disappointments, or successes. Now this one self-important blow-hard takes it upon himself to trash their names and their actions after riding away on a helicopter meant for the wounded and dead, refusing to honor the man who gave his life that night, and congratulating himself for having been spared the emotional pain of having had even one conversation with the honored dead while he stood on earth.
All, apparently, to cover for his own cowardice in hopping uninjured onto a MEDEVAC helicopter when he lost his nerve to stay on the ground and continue doing his job.
Please don’t let him get away with it. Many say, “support our troops.” Here’s an opportunity to do so. It won’t cost you anything but a few minutes of your time. These aren’t just anonymous “troops;” they’re real men. Show them that you care. Show Scott Dimond that you care about his sacrifice by taking the time to shoot off a couple of emails, or even one with both addresses, and condemn the behavior of this coward who justifies his abandonment of his assignment by slandering good men.
While we spent a great deal of time in the Tag Ab Valley, we also worked with the ANP in northern Kapisa Province. On our trips into the northern districts, I took some pictures of the much more peaceful and orderly life there.
On this mission, we went up the eastern boundary of Kapisa, the “back door” into Koh Band.
Heading north from Kohistan into Koh Band through the back door, a quiet village comes into view.
A lovely little villa in northern Kapisa.
Drying laundry in the sun in northern Kapisa. Who needs a Maytag?
This young man just realized that his future as the village Maytag Repairman is bleak.
The Taliban sabotaged my lens cover. It’s still beautiful.
A man washes his feet in an irrigation canal in northern Kapisa as our convoy passes.
A shop in the bazaar in Koh Band.
This tiny shopkeeper is the toughest businessman in Kapisa.
Afghan Stop ‘N Go.
Koh Band District was nearing completion of the new District Center.
A humanitarian aid (HA) drop at a boy’s school in Koh Band.
Afghan taxi. Are those ski racks?
Eddie Murphy’s character from Shrek made an appearance and was quickly put to use.
A home in the shadow of the mountain.
A burqa-clad Afghan mother and her daughter stroll home from the bazaar in Koh Band.
Sheep grazing in Koh Band District.
Two shots of mountains in Koh Band District.
Koh Band District, Kapisa Province, Afghanistan
The northern districts of Kapisa Province are a model of what could happen in all of Afghanistan. The Taliban are not welcome here. Local tribal leaders and ANP leadership work hand-in-hand to govern the area, using traditional village leadership methods like Jirga’s to dispense justice on village-level issues, much like a Mayor’s Court in a village in the United States. The ANP are respected here.
Children go to school, farmers farm, shopkeepers do business in a busy and peaceful bazaar. While the districts are not technologically advanced, there is a fertile atmosphere for growth. The Afghan government is able to begin to deliver basic government services. It’s not Utopia, but it is peaceful. This is what Afghanistan can be in the short term, establishing a framework for what Afghanistan can be in the future.