Friday, January 30, 2009


My only real sources of outside news here are my telephone conversations with family and friends, The Wall Street Journal that my father sends me, and the one hour or so a week I get on the internet. In that one hour of time I have on the internet each week I generally do not find traditional news sources’ websites to be especially helpful for what I’m looking for, namely, international relations/defense news and economic/financial news. I have found the following two blogs to be very informative however:

The former being where I go for all things related to defense and international relations and the latter being where I get my economic news. The writer of may take an overly pessimistic view of events, but he’s entertaining nonetheless.

Speaking of The Wall Street Journal (Yes, it is a little strange reading “The Journal” in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, in an area where the local people live much as they must have 1000 years ago.) a quote from the famous historian Edward Gibbon was printed in an edition from last month: “In the end more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security. When the Athenians finally wanted not to give to society but for society to give to them, when the freedom they wished for was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free.”

Seem applicable to today?


Careful with assumptions….

One might assume, for instance, that when the Army delivers you a fuel blivet the blivet will in fact contain fuel. You then might put the ‘fuel’ from the blivet into your generator and your generator might in fact become irreparably damaged in the process since the fuel was spiked with water.

Or one could imagine that the living at 5000 feet of elevation in Afghanistan would lead to a cold winter, but then you’ll live through much of it without even experiencing snowfall.

One might believe that the Afghan soldiers would chop down the nearby trees for firewood rather than destroying their own fighting positions on the base by chopping up the wood the bunkers are made of. A quick look around will confirm that supposition to be erroneous.

One might be tempted to assume that a 180 pound healthy young American could carry a large ammo can full of water on his back up a mountain as least as fast as a 45 year-old 140 pound Afghan soldier that looks to be 60. Don’t count on that assumption being met.

When you put your gear into a humvee you might think the driver knows how to park the vehicle. But after the driver gets out and the humvee ends up at the bottom of a ravine you realize you gave him too much credit. However, you look on the bright side and note that all the trees it knocked over are easy pickings for firewood.

A reasonable man might assume that a firefight won’t erupt outside his door while he’s having tea in the home of the second most influential person in the area. He also might assume that his Afghan soldiers will take cover while the bullets are flying around, but then he sees his Afghans standing and smoking cigarettes and wonders why he’s surprised.

One might also assume that the Afghan soldiers are not so poor that they’re going to pick up spent cartridges in the middle of a shootout. Usually this is a correct assumption, but depending on the soldiers’ assessment of the danger level they may be more concerned with collecting brass to sell at the local shop than they are about fighting.

Most of us would assume that a group of Afghan soldiers living practically at subsistence level due to never-ending problems with their supply chain and corruption would not insist that the Americans they live with partake in their food every night since those Americans have plenty of food of their own…but then you’d be foolish to underestimate Afghan hospitality.

After giving a class on how to operate a claymore mine, one might rightfully assume that a claymore won’t be activated accidentally that same day. It doesn’t take long to realize your assumptions were not met in this case either - maybe a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

When a truck breaks down in your driveway one would suppose that the owner would do everything possible to get the part for the truck so that he can get the truck moving again. A month later when the truck still hasn’t moved you might want to rethink…and in the process learn that the guy is getting paid whether his truck makes deliveries or not.

After our forces have been in the region for years one might assume that the local people know that the Afghan soldiers are in fact practitioners of the Islamic faith. But after you finally convince the local commander to send the Afghan soldiers to the town mosque to pray, don’t be surprised if you learn that many of the local people didn’t know the Afghan National Army is made up of Muslims.

You could even assume that an Afghan soldier standing post early in the evening would not shoot at group of people clearly shining a flashlight and traveling down the road from the nearby base. This is the kind of assumption that could really get you into trouble but thankfully you learn not to make that assumption before someone gets hurt.

One might finally assume that Afghan soldiers that gaffe off daily patrols in relatively safe areas don’t know what they’re doing, don’t care, and might not give the effort required when the situation gets tough. But when the gunfire starts, you watch them turn around, run not away but toward its source, and then open up on the fire’s origin with everything they’ve got - and you realize you were wrong again.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Helicopter downing

Helicopters do get shot down in Afghanistan. It was the mujahideen’s proficiency in destroying helicopters that really ended up chasing the Soviets out of Afghanistan back in the ‘80s. We’ve certainly lost our fair share of helos in the time we’ve been over in Afghanistan (maybe ten a year), though honestly, we have not lost nearly as many as you might think we would, given how many helicopters we have flying around and the predictability of the routes they run.

On January 17, 2009, I got the opportunity to witness what predictability can do for you against a thinking adversary. But let me explain first how it is that we get our supplies out here in the Korengal Valley. Given the topography of eastern Afghanistan, building a road is no easy task, especially a road that can support the large and armored vehicles we use. As you can imagine, building a road is even tougher when you can’t get any local support or labor for the project due to poor security. A road into the Korengal does exist, but it’s not often used due to its poor condition and the aforementioned poor security situation. I can actually recall an evening when a convoy was on its way out this way to deliver supplies, when a well placed boulder brought the convoy to a halt. The road being carved out of the side of a mountain, there was surely no way to go around the boulder. Apparently, it could not be easily moved either, so someone decided to blow it up. Naturally, the decision being made to blow up the boulder led to the boulder (and the road) being blown up. And the convoy returned from whence it came.

Ground resupply being intermittent and inadequate (Actually, effectively non-existent during the latter part of our tour.), we’re forced to rely on air resupply. Sometimes it comes in the form of C-17s flying overhead and dropping parachuted pallets of water out the back. These CDS drops as they are called, are always interesting, not just for the aftermath involving the recovery of all that water as it’s landed in the village, on homes, or down the mountainside, but also for the fact that the C-17s are often shot at as they fly by, which is comical given that the plane if flying far outside the range of the weapons systems being employed “against” it.

The C-17s help, but most everything comes in via helo. The sensitive stuff (people, classified materials, etc.) stays in the belly of the bird, but the rest of the supplies are “slung” beneath the helicopter. The process of how those supplies are attached beneath the helicopter is pretty interesting to watch. Getting the supplies in their slings attached to the bottom of the helicopter involves the helicopter hovering close to the ground, while some intrepid soul braves the winds and dust underneath the helicopter to attach the sling to the hooks on the bottom. I’ve heard it’s not easy to hover a helicopter; I know I sure couldn’t do it when I tried it in a simulator once. But these guys manage to do it and keep it steady night or day until the slings (up to 3 at a time) are attached. The floor of the helicopter opens up to provide the place where the slings are attached, and surely also makes it easier for the crew to talk to the pilots to give them some idea of how the process is going. Conceivably, the open floor of the bird could provide a place for the guy underneath to go if the helo came down on him since he’s standing right there, but luckily I never saw this happen.

At any rate, we’ve got helicopters flying out here regularly, often making multiple trips to the same location, hovering while the slings are dropped, and then “parking” briefly while the people on board get off and others get on board. All of this takes some time, and since these operations have been going on during the daytime, you would not be crazy to see some danger in the process. The presence of Apaches providing armed escort may deter some would-be attackers, but for some, the sight of a CH-47 (which is about as big as a city bus) must present an inviting, if not irresistible target, if the shooters can manage to get themselves situated in a position close enough to make taking the shots worthwhile.

The hillsides upon which the bases and outposts are situated in this tightly confined valley are rocky and sparsely vegetated at the lower elevations, but the terrain itself provides enough undulations for someone or a group of people, moving carefully, to get reasonably close to some of our outposts. This fact is proven on a nearly daily basis at OP Restrepo. Though OP Restrepo is situated on the high ground with pretty good visibility, it comes under fire constantly, sometimes from fairly close in. Those guys up there at Restrepo have it pretty tough, and tougher still since they can’t seem to kill the guys constantly taking potshots at them. A reporter came out and was shot in the head on his first day there at Restrepo (His helmet saved him and he stayed up there for several days afterwards.). We’re thankful for them there though, as their position on that hill helps protects our base from being attacked from that high ground. That, and the insurgents in the area seem to spend a lot of their time and energy taking it to the guys at Restrepo, which makes for a more relaxed experience down here at Vimoto. Not that we mind a firefight that much, but our position is potentially a bit more precarious than the other outposts in the area since we have no standoff from the village below and depend on our ANA to do much of the fighting, with only a handful of Americans onhand here.

On the morning of the 17th, I headed over to the main base in the area, Korengal Outpost (KOP), to meet up with my team leader who happened to be flying in for a brief face to face meeting with some of us out here. We don’t often get to see each other, and this was the first time he’d come out to the Korengal. The plan was for him to get off the helicopter, stop and talk to us for a short while, during which time the helicopters would be making their supply runs to the outposts in the area, and then re-board the aircraft and fly back to our headquarters base, Camp Blessing. He was only supposed to be with us for maybe 30 minutes. But it didn’t end up working out that way…

After the copter stopped at KOP, it picked up some slings while still there at KOP, as well as a passenger, and then headed up to Restrepo to drop it all off. I was not really paying attention to the whole operation until I heard a long burst of machine gun fire, which we all quickly determined was directed at the helo on approach to the Restrepo landing zone. The burst of machine gun fire was quickly followed by the sound of a small explosion (later determined to be caused by an RPG), and the back portion of the cabin of the helicopter bursting into smoke and flame. Seeing the helicopter on fire after being shot was certainly one of the more disheartening moments I've experienced out here to this point. Despite the smoke and flames, the bird kept hovering there in the same place for what seemed like an eternity, until the crew was able to drop the three slings hanging underneath. I suppose you could say that we were lucky the helicopter was shot where it was, since Restrepo is situated at a much higher altitude than the other bases around. Having that extra altitude I’m sure was useful to the pilots as they pushed the helo down into the valley to pick up speed in order to keep the aircraft flying. They attempted to fly all the way over to Firebase Vegas, which is several miles away and probably 1000 feet lower in altitude than Restrepo. They darn near pulled off a great recovery as the helicopter made a ‘hard landing’ (as it was called in the news) near the LZ at Vegas. The helicopter quickly became a smoking ruin, but 6 of the 7 passengers on board were able to make it off alive and with apparently mild injuries.

Bullets and mortars were flying around the valley for probably 30 minutes after the helicopter was brought down, but there was nothing remarkable about any of that - well, at least nothing that was apparent to me at the time from my vantage point over at the KOP, but more on that later.

Once it was determined that one individual did not make it off the helicopter and was missing, my guys back at Vimoto mounted up a group of a couple of Marines (all we had at Vimoto with me being at the KOP) and a few ANA soldiers to search the mountainside to see if the final soldier had somehow fallen off the helicopter as it got shot. No one was found, and it was later determined that the last soldier had not been able to get off the helicopter at it landed and had died. I never did get word whether he was killed by the initial hits the helicopter took or later, but at any rate he did not make it, which marked the first death of any of our forces in the Korengal during my time out there. (The Korengal would claim the lives of 42 US servicemen before we finally pulled out for good in April 2010.)

Once I got back over to Vimoto, I was informed that our ANA had been more concerned with collecting brass and getting to shoot the 240 machine gun than they had been about actually fighting the guys that were shooting down into our base from up the hill toward Restrepo. I will mention that it was quite unusual for us to take fire from that area...Restrepo's presence did effectively (usually) prevent people from shooting down into Vimoto from the high ground to our west. In this case, the insurgents who were able to get close enough to Restrepo to bring down the helicopter likely figured they may as well get a few good shots in at Vimoto since they had the field of fire to do so. Knowing the forces at Restrepo would never assault out of their redoubt to come after them, they could sit in the dug in position for plenty long enough to get some rounds into Vimoto.

At any rate, the ANA performed quite poorly and worse, did not appear to even be taking things seriously, in the opinion of the senior Marine who was present during all of this. This would lead to the first time I would severely chastise the ANA, telling them essentially, "Hey, here we are out here helping you guys, bringing in your supplies, supporting you, and one of our helos get shot up and a man killed, and you guys just screw it away." Of course, this brought denials and recriminations from the senior sergeant on the base, as the platoon leader sat idly by listening to what turned into a brief argument. (I like that particular platoon leader, and he will get better, but assertiveness and taking command are not his best qualities at the moment.) Rather than argue with them, I attempted to let them know we were disappointed and expected better of them, which appeared to soothe them a bit. We'll move on.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"The Savage Wars of Peace"

We recently went over a week without electricity, which gave me plenty of time to get caught up on my reading. I actually started reading Max Boot’s excellent book about the United States’ history of involvement in small conflicts back in Hawaii, but got sidetracked by some other projects before I finally finished it last night. Any marine would love the book because it lionizes marines and the Marine Corps in general for its exploits over the past couple of centuries fighting “small wars” in such places as North Africa, China, the Philippines, and Latin America. Boot convincing demonstrates that small conflicts have actually been the norm, not the exception, in our nation’s history – an important lesson for those that think the counter-insurgency wars we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have unnecessarily weakened our armed forces ability to fight potential large-scale conventional conflicts against China or a resurgent Russia.

Those “small wars” of the past were often counter-insurgency style warfare like what we’re doing here in Afghanistan. For a few marines to be embedded with and work with indigenous forces, like we’re doing here, is nothing new. The Marines have done it many times, especially in Central America and the Caribbean, with great success. In those situations in the past (with the notable exception of Vietnam) the marines were left in charge of a group of local forces – marine leadership, local troops. The situation here is a bit different. We’re embedded with local forces…but they don’t work for us. We’re here to advise them…we can’t really tell them what to do. Granted we do have some leverage over them in the form of our logistical supply chain which provides them nearly everything they use, but at the end of the day the decision on whether to do a particular operation or training event is up to the Afghan commander. And so it is that our operations tempo is considerably slower than it would be if a marine were calling all the shots.

Does the slower ops tempo dictated by local command make us less effective? Well, yes, it does, because we know that to fight a war like this one needs to provide a constant security presence to the local populace and we simply don’t do enough patrolling to achieve any semblance of a constant presence, despite my best efforts at the scheduling meetings. But I think maybe the question is not whether it makes us less effective, but whether it makes us ineffective. And to that question, I would say no. We may not do as many patrols as I would like, but the fact of our presence on the side of this mountain sitting above the local village has a positive effect on the security situation and the lives of the villagers below.

At any rate, our job here is not just to police the place today but also to build a self-sustaining local army for the future – to do that we obviously need experienced and competent local commanders, and we can’t develop commanders if we don’t let them command. Boot’s book is full of examples of marines commanding the local constabulary and bringing peace and relative prosperity to those regions…but in nearly every case upon the marines’ departure the situations in those places reverted to much like it was prior to our involvement, i.e. in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, even though the governments were not subsequently defeated by an insurgency. Today Haiti and Nicaragua continue to be the two poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Any number of reasons could exist for those unfortunate eventualities: maybe those cultures were just not ready for democracy and the ordered lifestyle we dragged them into, or perhaps the human capital and education level remained too low. Or maybe the result was preordained when we didn’t properly cultivate local leadership at all levels. I don’t know. I know the South Vietnamese military forces failed in the end, and they were led by their own countrymen. But the situation in Vietnam was different in that the South Vietnamese were defeated in the end by a regular army – and only then after we stopped supporting them with our air power and supplies. Whether or not the South Vietnamese leaders we helped develop would have helped turn South Vietnam into another Taiwan or South Korea will be forever open to debate as a result of our abandoning them to the communist North.

I hope that someday historians don’t look back on this war in Afghanistan and “small wars” fighting in general and thereby find applicable to American armed conflict a quote made by the great investor Jeremy Grantham regarding the recent financial bubble, “We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term, and absolutely nothing in the long term.” Of course, the big concern regarding Afghanistan is that the country will be taken over by Islamic extremists, or more likely, that the government and country will remain so broken as to not be able to police itself, thereby reverting to the international lawbreakers’ safe haven it was prior to 9/11. Given the disastrous state of the country when we started here seven years ago no one is really afraid that Afghanistan will merely evolve to become a middling member of the international community in the mold of the Dominican Republic or Nicaragua. We could call the overall mission here a success if we established a reasonably stable, reasonably secular, government that maintained law and order to some small degree...and said government survived. While I’m certain we could have better effects on the insurgents here by turning over the leadership roles to professional foreign soldiers, I also believe that for the long-term future of Afghanistan, developing the local leaders at all levels can go a long way towards keeping the country from indefinitely being an international ward…assuming we stick around long enough to help them win this war and in so doing give their leaders the opportunity to use the skills we so painstakingly developed in them.

When you're out power, the picture is how we stay warm.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Sometimes as Americans we think we’re the only ones that have to deal with ethnic and racial differences. While we have our problems, we’ve also advanced a long way and are well on our way to being the world’s first truly multi-cultural society – I’ll place no value judgment on that eventuality, but the end state is unavoidable. Most of the rest of the world, on the other hand, is only just now dealing with some of these issues brought on by a smaller world or have ancient ethnic differences that they are nowhere near resolving. In fact, when put into context with the rest of the human race here on earth, Americans as a whole are quite accepting of each other and get along well. The Latin Americans of European descent have historically exploited the indigenous peoples of those regions and avoid inter-mingling with them, much like the situation in Australia; African tribes routinely slaughter each other over ethnic differences, never mind what they’re systematically doing to the whites that remain on the continent; as a people the Chinese and Japanese, despite their best attempts to hide their contempt for outsiders, are among the world’s worst bigots…a phenomenon that can’t be explained by religious intolerance or ignorance but probably only by their own inferiority complex. Whether open borders and economic unity in Europe will lead to improved relations is open to debate.

While the Islamic world reserves most of its loathing for non-Muslims, their mutual disdain for dissimilar ethnic groups is alive and well. Here in Afghanistan, the problems go far beyond mere hatred amongst the various ethnicities that inhabit these lands. 30 years of war have left this place a disaster zone. The poverty and lack of education here is probably as bad as any place on earth save sub-Saharan Africa. The Afghan National Army is certainly not immune to the problems that plague the nation as a whole. Lack of supplies, corruption brought on my extreme poverty, shattered or non-existent infrastructure – all of these make our job tougher.

Given that the US military has done more for racial equality and understanding than any US institution, I’m hopeful that someday the Afghan Army can perform the same function for the people here. I say someday because today racial, ethnic, and linguistic differences are a big hurdle we have to clear every day. The Pashtun platoon commander doesn’t distribute winter supplies to the Uzbeks. The Uzbek sergeant is openly defiant to the Tajik company executive officer, who in turn, doesn’t distribute supplies to the Pashtuns, and the Pashtuns, therefore, won’t cooperate with him. The Uzbeks and Tajiks that only speak Dari can’t communicate with Pashtuns here that make up the majority, and so they avoid each other. And the Hazara company commander is detested by all (talk about a ‘traditionally oppressed’ minority). We’re in the Pashtun speaking part of the country, but even the Pashtuns can’t always communicate with the locals, many of whom speak their own dialect, incomprehensible to speakers of the other major languages in the region, which we can’t even find an interpreter for.

I don’t write this to make our job sound impossible, because it’s not…we usually work things out somehow, but I often have to play the mediator between two leaders, more often than not of different ethnicities, who will avoid talking directly to each other and attempt to use me as a go-between for their discussions (I wonder if is this what parenthood is like…?), 90% of which involve logistics in some form or another. I often have to put my arm around each one of them and physically guide them in front of each other so they’ll (hopefully) talk to each other and not me. After all, it’s their country and their problem to solve, not mine, though I’m certainly affected by the ‘results’ of their discussion. At first I wondered if they were putting on some sort of game…produce enough gridlock between them that I would finally step in and provide an easy answer using my resources and money, which are more limited than they seem to believe. But since I don’t give in easily and am traditionally tight with money (even when it’s not mine) I’ve learned it’s not a game to play on my patience or sympathy - they really don’t like each other. Fortunately, this is the Muslim world, and here the enemy of my enemy is my friend…since they all share a very real and bitter hatred of the Taliban, once they are out operating on patrol they’ve given me no reason to doubt their ability to work together for our mutual gain.