Sunday, November 22, 2009

Eats, shoots and leaves

"I am mindful of human weakness, and I reflect upon the might of Fortune and know that everything that we do is exposed to a thousand chances." - Scipio Africanus
Thinking back on things, it does seem strange some of the things that went on. You walk around among, shake hands with, and eat and drink in homes of people you don’t really know and may not like you. But I never felt any fear in those situations, though I knew some of these people collaborated with insurgents. Pashtuns are hospitable people, and they'll take it to the point that they're equally hospitable to some of our enemies as well.

I’d say we returned the favor and were pretty darn hospitable to local people as well, however. On one occasion the local villagers brought men to the base with bullet and shrapnel wounds. They looked like Taliban, with their beards and stares, and my interpreter was absolutely convinced that they were. And how does an innocent get bullet and shrapnel wounds anyway? There was generally enough notice given before the battle commenced (often in the form of a single shot cracking off, followed some 5 seconds later by larger barrages) to allow most people to take cover before things really got crazy. Well, we patched those Taliban up, though they may have been detained for awhile since they had to be shipped away for better care. It’s all part of the game. Patch them up and send them back out to play.

I can recall drinking tea and eating nuts with an elder when bullets from across the valley started impacting near our men outside the house. I immediately put my helmet back on and ran outside to help out, without finishing the nuts or tea, or even saying goodbye or thank you. Afterward, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the bad joke about bad punctuation regarding a panda who walked into a restaurant, had a meal, and then shot the place up...since the book on pandas stated that a panda is a four legged, furry animal that eats, shoots and leaves. Being a panda, he does eat shoots and leaves, but typically does not eat, shoot and leave. Well, Marines sometimes really do eat, shoot, and then leave the area.

Sometimes it's shocking how little we really know about the people we're fighting, but my feeling is that for a lot of these guys we're fighting, especially out in the Korengal, the insurgency is a way of life. It's just what they do, and how they gain respect. Many certainly are ideologically driven - but not all.

The only time we really got a good look at our enemy was on Friday afternoon at the local mosque or occasionally out playing cricket. All those young men that were missing in the villages during our regular patrols would appear out of the woodwork to attend the mosque on Friday, kind of like Sunday morning church for Americans. Their age, body language, avoidance of eye contact, and lack of response to our greetings told us all we needed to know about the loyalties of those young men. But did being 90% sure that these guys were the ones shooting at us from the ridgelines a couple of times a week mean that we could arrest them and deal with them? No. Not at all. We let them go about their business, only to meet again in the near future on the ‘modern’ battlefield to play our dangerous little game of long-distance target practice.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

ANSF vetting

It's always disturbing to hear news of Coalition trainers being turned on by their trainees. When you hear of an incident like the one a couple of weeks ago where the five Brits were killed by one of their trainees, it certainly makes you wonder how feasible the end strategy of training more and more Afghan National Security Forces ( umbrella term to cover the ANA, ANP, Border Police, and other security agencies within Afghanistan) is. Thankfully, such incidents are rare, but with more and more ANSF out there, we're bound to start seeing more of this. To significantly increase the size of the ANP and ANA they are going to have continue lowering the already low standards for recruits...many are essentially conscripts already.

Currently, ANP members need little more than the recommendation of two local elders in order to get accepted into the police academy - and very shortly after that they are police. There are other requirements, but in a country where few people can read and bureaucratic institutions are lacking, the requirement to be a citizen or not have been convicted of a crime in recent years is not difficult to circumvent.

The ANA has a bit more of a vetting process, but both the ANA and ANP could be easily infiltrated by insurgent sympathizers...and undoubtedly have been. However, having a few bad apples within the units I was embedded with was not really a concern of mine. Not that it did not ever cross my mind, but it was kind of like if I'm going to worry about that then I'm going to drive myself crazy. And my view on it was the good ANA in my unit would protect me from the bad ones if there were any. All in all I trusted them...but, of course, I did what I could to maintain cordial relationships with my guys...not that having a undercover insurgent like you personally is really going to save you if he's dedicated, but it's another reason to develop rapport with them all the same.

Afghans, in general, are not suicidal about their cause and have quite a bit of guile. These incidents where an ANP or ANA member shoots our men are likely to result in the death of the aggressor (though the shooter in the incident mentioned above is still on the loose as far as I know). I would think an infiltrator in the ANA or ANP would be more likely to partake in a more survivable activity, like simply reporting to the insurgents on our patterns and giving early warning of operations. For many reasons, we had quite a bit of difficulty getting the initiative on the enemy during my time - I would not discount the possibility of informers within the ANA contributing to this.

The good news is we have initiatives going on that should help with the vetting and accountability of ANSF forces, and should help over time in getting the bad ones out and out for good. Before I left, we were, with the help of a civilian contractor who was a specialist in working with the biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans, etc.) collection systems in the process of collecting biometric data on our ANA and the local ANP, and putting it into a database. The ANP seemed to think we just needed the biometric data so we could give them an ID card to access the base. Well, our having that data will have longer lasting effects hopefully. I should mention that we were able to collect biometric data on whomever, during checkpoints or otherwise, and we did so from time to time. These systems can quickly link back to databases to identify the person standing in front of you. These are great systems with outstanding potential in a counter-insurgency, but are very underutilized, chiefly because of the painstakingness of the data collection process, in my opinion.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Street smarts

In an insurgency, when so much of the enemy's advantage lies in the element of surprise and its ability to hide among the populace, the power of perception and ability to 'sense' trouble become of the utmost importance. It's a skill we try to acquire in training, but some will always be better than others. I do believe awareness can be developed, and that the mind picks up on much more than we're consciously aware. Some days when we went out, just a few moments in the local area and we could feel that we're were going to receive some enemy 'attention' at some point. It's was not necessarily an absence of people or dirty looks that would alert us, just...something, and in time we learned to listen to those feelings.

At any rate, the ANA have their deficiencies, and they don't often bring their "A" game on patrols that have little chance of receiving enemy contact, but the ANA do have a way of doing well when it matters and knowing when to be their best. Much like how the ANA are deficient in formal education but are experts at reading people and making-do, what they lack in military tactics and proficiency they make up for with street smarts and ingenuity. I would not be surprised if patrols with ANA in them were more likely to discover an IED rather than get hit by one than Coalition-pure patrols.

I'd been in Afghanistan for months before I went on my first convoy. (This was by design...I hate riding around in a truck waiting to get blown up - being dismounted is not only a better way to interact with the local people but safer as well). Since we were going off the paved road, we had some trepidation of the dreaded IED, a fear which would turn out to be not at all unreasonable since we would shortly discover one. So on one cold February morning, off we went. Not knowing the area and mainly just being along for the ride, I got put up in the turret, which is generally not my favorite place to be in a humvee, especially when its 40 degrees, though the wind on your face can be invigorating.

I should mention that when a road in Kunar is unpaved, and the vast majority of them are (and probably all were unpaved before we arrived here some years ago), there's generally a very good reason for it to be unpaved; often the pre-existing dirt road has been narrowly hacked out of a steep hillside, not leaving enough width to make paving the road feasible in an engineering sense, given the realities of security and available resources. On the missions along those roads, an equally great threat along with the IED is the threat of driving off the road and ending up in the river 50 or more feet below. On missions out that way we more than once inadvertently got a chance to 'spread the democratic message' while we waited for another truck in the convoy to be recovered after having nearly driven off the road into the ravine.

We got some miles down the road before the convoy had to halt due to the presence of a large boulder in the middle of road. Now, we knew we'd had some rain in the area, winter being the rainy season in Kunar, which can always potentially lead to rockslides and boulders in the road, but this particular boulder looked rather well placed so as to stop our larger vehicles, and yet allow for the local hi-luxes to pass unimpeded. By the time our vehicle, which was somewhere in the middle of a 10-vehicle convoy, had come to a halt, the ANA vehicle in front had already dismounted its soldiers, one of whom nearly immediately started pulling buried detonation cord out of the road and began following it toward the river below. The ANA can be fearless indeed.

We set up security around the site, detained a few suspicious-looking folks in the area, and waited some hours for Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) to show up. In the end, EOD found quite a fair amount of explosives buried in the road, and disposed of them in the usual way by, well, blowing them up.