Saturday, October 31, 2009


It's a common thing to see articles in the news media about the negative aspects of war on the micro level. The dead, the wounded, the mentally and emotionally damaged, all appear to get a fair amount of coverage and exposure, so I'm going to focus on a few of the good things some of us get out of serving in combat - because many of us are getting a lot out of it.

Wearing a uniform that says 'US Marines' has always been a great honor for me, and more so when I've been able to wear the uniform overseas. Knowing you represent the ideals and power of the United States gives one quite a bit to live up to, and a lot of pride goes with that. Being out in the middle of nowhere, knowing you represent the end of the line of America's reach is quite a thing...I can remember thinking how the power of all those billions of dollars and millions of people ended right there with us at a lonely outpost in an isolated valley. Maybe the thought of our 'power' ending there in an isolated valley comes across as a bit imperialistic, but I make no apologies for what we're doing and love being a part of it.

People are good at different things. Some people happen to be good at conducting warfare. I spent months this past tour with a Marine who stated numerous times that he kept coming back over to war zones as an infantryman because it was what he was good at. He undoubtedly was very good at it...and there's nothing wrong with that at all. I believe everyone wants the chance to use his or her skills that he or she was born with or has developed and honed over time, even if those skills happen to belong to what some might call an unfortunate but necessary profession.

Undoubtedly, those that come back from combat have an increased appreciation for life generally. Anytime I'm away from friends and family for lengthy periods I miss them, but getting a real feel for the fact that everything can be gone in a moment certainly helps heighten that sense of gratitude for the times together. Having survived some difficult moments, I know I personally have more confidence than I had before. Having taken some risks, lived through and overcome things that were legitimately difficult makes life's daily challenges at home that much easier to deal with, though the flip side of that coin is sometimes daily life at home seems a bit trite. Before I was on the ground directly doing things that were in the news regularly, which kind of makes me feel underutilized today. I'd argue that satisfaction is life's best feeling, and it can come to a person in many ways, but one of the best ways to find it is to overcome a period of difficulty with a job well done.

The losses of warfare are tragic and far-reaching, but for those of us that survive, that feeling of satisfaction is why many of us keep coming back for more.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Decision Time

"Try harder...try again" - Brandon Lee in The Crow

The wait continues for the president's decision on General McChrystal's recommendation. The unfortunate aspect of all of this business is that the debate is taking place in the public eye. While having a public debate on the efficacy of sending more troops certainly satisfies the exigencies of American politics, it's most certainly not beneficial to the war effort as a whole. I say this because if the decision is made to not send more troops, or even not send as many as asked for the by the general, we will be perceived by the Afghan government, people, and security forces as abandoning them and losing our will to fight the insurgents. I can confirm that the ANA leaders I habitually talked with were always worried about our ability to stick things out and did not want to see us go anywhere until the country had progressed significantly.

Perception is an incredibly important part of any counter-insurgency, as winning the support of the people should ultimately lead to victory. I can confirm that many of the people of Afghanistan don't really care who wins this war, just so long as someone wins it, and they can live a semblance of a normal life...i.e. the people will support the side that appears to be on the path to victory.

For these reasons, any action leading to the perception of weakness or lack of commitment on our part needs to be scrupulously avoided. It would have been better to avoid all of this public debate on the issue...unless the request is granted of course, in which case we may take some small benefit from all of this publicizing of our intentions on the matter.

Friday, October 23, 2009


In Afghan languages a kandak is a battalion. I can remember visiting a base outside of our area and talking to a someone who during our conversation remarked to me, "Oh, you're with 3rd Kdk? Is that an infantry battalion?" I was a little taken aback by the question and almost remarked in Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men fashion "Is there any other kind?" But I caught myself, as I remembered that there are indeed other types of kandaks out there, just like in our military. The ANA do have tanks, artillery, Afghan Commandos, and other types of units, to include aviation.

We had a small detachment of ANA artillery soldiers at one of our bases, complete with two D30 122 mm howitzers. In the month I spent at that base, we never once fired those guns...and not for lack of enemy contact. We were firing mortars from the base nearly daily. It was a little tough for the ANA to get into the act of firing those indirect fire assets when they needed the approval of the Kandak Commander, located some 25 km away, in order to fire. Real time comms are easy to achieve out there with cell phones, and that's what the ANA use for much of their communication. Nonetheless, having to route permission to shoot through someone miles down the road, obviously does not make for efficient and timely fire support.

The ANA did apparently fire the D30's from time to time though. Since the ANA has very few people who can read maps and do whatever geometry is done to get artillery rounds on target, they simply direct fire the guns. And since most of the targets are up above them in that particular place, the technique works pretty well. The US forces would somehow mark a target with machine guns or mortars, and the ANA would be instructed to hit those impacts, which they evidently did pretty well. Unfortunately, I never witnessed it.

As for other types of battalions, we knew a few ETTs who got attached to a tank battalion. The tanks they have are Soviet-style like the artillery. They, not surprisingly, did not use their tanks very often given the logistical difficulties in supporting tanks. The ANA have commandos trained by our Special Forces, and having seen them in action as the opposition in a game of military-style paintball, I'd say they're pretty good - not light years better than regular ANA infantry, but certainly more aggressive and better trained. As for Afghan aviation, that was not something we ever saw, though they do have a few helicopters starting to fly around. I look forward to more of those ANA helos getting out there as I know it will be a big source of pride for the ANA to fly in their own equipment with their fellow countrymen at the helm.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Dealing with the ANA

“Success seems to be connected with action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.”
— Conrad Hilton
Getting what you want out of the ANA is a huge part of the job. If you can't get along with your ANA commander, and get him to do things your way, then you aren't going to get much done, because most ANA commanders can't be relied upon to show any initiative to improve and do their jobs well. We all certainly had our ups and downs in the relationships with the different ANA commanders we worked with. Sometimes some of us, including myself, didn't always do things the best way. I definitely don't have any magic formulas for how to work with them, but I did learn a few things. I'll throw this little anecdote out there.

During my last tour to Afghanistan as an embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army (ANA), I conducted training sessions on the M-16 rifle as part of the ANA’s transition from the AK-47 to the M-16. The ANA soldiers had a habit of showing up late for my training sessions. I had tried encouragement, suggestion, and profuse compliments when they were on time as ways to try to get them to show up on time and be more professional, but I had not gotten the results I had hoped for.

Since my efforts to improve the ANA by gently nudging them along were not working to my satisfaction, I decided to try a different approach. The approach I selected was to berate them for being lazy, discourteous, and unprofessional. An Afghan soldier is not unaccustomed to being treated in this manner by an officer, and would expect such a reaction from an ANA officer in a similar situation.

However, the fact of the matter is, it was really not my place as an advisor to the ANA to handle my problems with the ANA soldiers in that manner. I should have known perfectly well that the appropriate and expedient thing to do was to talk to their officer about their behavior and let him deal with it. This approach would not only help develop leadership traits in the ANA officer involved, but would also likely engender much better results. However, on another day when the soldiers again were late for my training, I decided to direct my ire at their officer, Commander B, who happened to be standing right there. While the soldiers could not understand the things I was saying (no interpreter was necessary since Commander B speaks English well), they no doubt caught the gist that I was criticizing their commander.

After the training was completed that day, I thought about the incident. I knew I had overstepped and that my new “approach” to dealing with the ANA of being critical, negative, and worse, criticizing an officer in front of his own men, was counter-productive. Subsequent events proved this to be true, as the ANA became increasingly difficult to deal with, and I lost the trust and confidence of Commander B. I apologized to Commander B and made a special effort afterward to compliment him in front of his men, but I was not able to restore our previously amiable relationship in the limited time we had left together.

In retrospect, I should have remained consistent with the way I had been conducting things…only with more patience and with my expectations in check. Our team had a lot of different personalities, and they all did things different ways; the guys (including myself) who were dictatorial toward their ANA commanders and lost patience with them eventually were unable to accomplish anything at the point where they hardly even worked together. The ETTs who were patient and encouraging with their ANA were able to slowly but surely get more and more out of their ANA. We had one ETT in particular who was always very encouraging and positive with everyone, all the time. I've never heard him say a bad word about anyone, to include the ANA. He, out of everyone I saw, was the best able to get the ANA to work more than they wanted to.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


"Freedom is replacing imposed discipline with self-discipline." - William Lind

Drug cultivation was not something we really dealt with in Kunar. When it comes to illegal trade funding illegal activity, Kunar is more known for the timber might say the situation with the opium in the south is analogous to the timber in the northeast mountainous provinces. Undoubtedly, some opium is cultivated in the mountainous regions, but it wasn't something we really saw or dealt with.

What we did deal with regularly was hashish smoking among the ANA. The hash smoking was something I saw much more of at the more austere bases, and not so much at the more developed bases we were responsible for. I suppose you might say the hash provided a bit of an escape from the poor living conditions at those bases.

The fact that the ANA smoked hash was not a surprise to any of us. I'd seen the same thing with the Iraqis, and we were told we'd see it from time to time, if not regularly. One night early on in the tour, I was woken up by an ANA soldier asking me to attend to a sick soldier. So I grabbed my interpreter and headed over to the sick soldier's hooch to have a look at him. When we got there, my terp informed me that the soldier was only "sick" because of excessive hash smoking. I gave him a couple of aspirin and went back to bed.

It was a common experience to smell hash burning in the early evening or at night. We understood that it's a part of the local culture, so we were never intent on eradicating the habit completely among our ANA, but it didn't seem right to completely ignore the issue, so we brought up the hash smoking with the different commanders we had. One commander denied that it was occurring at all, so we simply asked him to see to it that the soldiers standing guard were sober. Another commander acknowledged the problem and pledged to do something about it, but not surprisingly nothing changed. A third commander would not tolerate it at all, and sent a couple of guys back to the battalion after catching them indulging. That third commander turned out to be the worst commander of the group that I had during that time period, but have to give him credit for maintaining some discipline with his men.

I can't say I ever saw an officer smoke hash or look stoned, but a few of the NCOs were repeat offenders. Some of those hash-smoking NCOs were actually among the best NCOs we had. We even had an incident where a couple of ANA soldiers beat a terp supposedly for trying to interfere with their hash smoking. It's tough to know what's really going on with those guys sometimes, so that incident may have been over something else. Whatever the case may be, the incident resulted in us losing one of our best terps...the two soldiers involved were sent away for awhile but came back eventually. It's tough to get rid of even the worst soldiers when you need everyone you can get your hands on to fight the war.

As you can imagine, having hash-smoking soldiers on hand during patrols can make for some interesting moments. We often stopped in towns to talk to local leaders during our patrols. We'd often just sit there until all hell would break effective if dangerous and uncreative way to locate the enemy. During one of the first times when we decided to just stay in the town until shots were fired, several of the soldiers lit up a joint after the wait was longer than expected. We got on their case about it, but a firefight erupted before we really dealt with the issue. I will say the ANA fought particularly well that day, putting several RPGs directly into a house 300 meters away.

One of our worst hash offenders, who I never once saw without bloodshot eyes, was often our RPG gunner. One day on our way out of base, we started taking large-caliber rounds from a ridgeline across the way. Our RPG gunner proceeded to load up his RPG and get ready to fire it with his back right up against a small cliff face...a no-no since the back-blast would likely rebound off the cliff and do who knows what to the gunner in that situation. Luckily, his comrades yelled at him and got him set up in a safe place...though firing an RPG at a ridgeline 1000 meters away might not be the best use of ammo. In that same event, the ANA platoon sergeant accidentally shot a round that almost blew his foot off while loading a machine gun, and then pointed it right at me while clearing and reloading it.

Suffice to say, there are things we'd rather be doing when enemy contact is imminent or ongoing than chastising ANA soldiers for smoking hash, dodging errant ANA muzzles, and teaching the ANA how to use their own guns. The ANA certainly do keep things interesting, and as long as things don't really go wrong, it's all really a lot of fun.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Latest attack in Nuristan

In my most recent blog entry, I stated that I found it laughable the idea that the Taliban and insurgents could conduct coordinated assaults and challenge US forces on the conventional battlefield...and then a day later they go and kill eight soldiers in a conventional-type attack. Everyone out there knows that Nuristan is full of insurgents. The terrain in Nuristan so severe that anyone could hide out there for years without getting caught, and Coalition forces have virtually no presence in the province. The US Army unit we were partnered was often on reserve-alert to support police stations up that way which were in extremis.

It's very disheartening for everyone to see us lose that many guys in one battle, but I stand by the assertion that with decent terrain selection and unit-tactics this type of thing will not happen. When you build a small outpost in an area where insurgents can shoot down upon you, with few to no supporting positions to help you, then the position is asking for trouble. In Kunar, we had observations posts up further on the hills, or even at the very top in some cases, and other mutually supporting positions, just to prevent something like insurgents being able to surround us and shoot down upon us.

Sounds like the plan is to remove the post in Kamdesh and other similar ones. I can tell you once an outpost like that is gone, then the area it occupied is no longer going to be visited by the Coalition, and the territory is essentially Taliban-territory at that point, although it sounds like it already was given the number of fighters they had gathered, and the fact that the US Army unit in the area didn't even patrol in the local village. They say the plan is to push those troops into the larger population centers, which sounds all well and good, but I always thought the idea behind those mountain posts was to fight the enemy in the mountains and more sparsely-populated areas rather than fight them in the larger cities and villages.

The fact is, the whole strategy in north-eastern Afghanistan is extremely predictable and reactive. Basically, the US Army and ANA tactics are to build a firebase somewhere and then wait for it to get attacked. Patrols last a couple of hours and stay within sight of the base. If an "operation" is conducted it never lasts more than a couple of days. In the past, units conducted operations that lasted more than a month...the entire time outside their bases in the villages and mountains. The Marines in Helmand keep moving and sleep in ditches they've dug themselves before moving on somewhere else the next day.

The Army might want to think about what they need to do take the initiative in this war. Simply inhabiting a firebase, waiting for it to get attacked, and then calling in fire support, does not appear to be an effective, nor risk-free, way to conduct a war. The insurgents have a nearly unlimited supply of manpower from Pakistan. The idea in warfare to break the enemy's will to fight, not just kill a bunch of guys. By allowing the insurgents to always have the initiative, and topping it off with abandoning these firebases (which will be perceived as weakness, as it should be) we'll do nothing but put wind in their sails, which will only lead to more of the same.

So yes, I'm criticizing the approach of building all these firebases, and I'm also criticizing the idea of abandoning them. We need to put more thought into where we put these bases if we're going to put them anywhere, so we don't give up propaganda victories when we close them. In Iraq, when we left bases, they were turned over to the Iraqi security forces, not just abandoned. Ideally, we'd patrol in unpredictable places for extended periods of time out of larger bases in larger population centers. Why build a base when you can inhabit local homes for a few days while you're there and then move on somewhere else? Why use all your manpower protecting something...? Better off projecting something. I criticize the Army for closing firebases because I know they don't do large-scale ops of lengthy duration, at least not the units I was partnered with. Without a firebase in an area, they'll have no almost no effect on the area (unless a paved road happens to run right to the area), and the territory is ceded to the insurgents.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Came across this article about the battle of Wanat on the internet today. Wanat was a part of our area of operations while we were out there, but we never went there - no one goes up that far any more after what happened, although that it's true that we do have "a large base four miles away" like what you read in articles. I'll just say that four miles is a very long way when there's no paved road leading up there. The previous ETT had some members involved in the battle of Wanat, which resulted in nine US solders being killed. You don't read it in the main article but all the guys that were killed were manning an observation post outside the main compound. Lots of conflicting information out there on exactly what happened, but I've heard it said that the insurgents never breached the wire of the main compound, contrary to what you read in the article.

At any rate, after what happened in July 2008 at Wanat, the battalion that came out to replace the guys from the 173rd didn't have much interest in heading back up that way, and really had their hands full with the (smaller) area they had. The proximity to Pakistan and the difficulty of the terrain out in Kunar-Nuristan means that every valley turns into an insurgent haven if you go far enough up into it. You can pick as many fights as you want out there...just go further and further into a valley and the shooting is sure to start sooner or later. The guys from the 173rd, for all the mistakes they made leading up to what happened at Wanat, certainly were not afraid to get out and mix it up with the enemy. And frankly, you keep a unit over there in an extremely difficult and dangerous environment for 15 months and it's easy to see how mistakes happen at the end of the tour.

From what I've heard and read on Wanat and seen in similar areas, I think the lesson is if you poorly select your terrain, allowing yourself to be surrounded and people to approach within grenade range of you unseen by simply staying in a village, and are unable to build it up, then, yes, perhaps the Taliban can put together a very deadly attack using conventional assault tactics. The notion that "The battle stands as proof (the Taliban) can operate like a disciplined armed force using well-rehearsed small-unit tactics to challenge the American military for dominance on the conventional battlefield" as stated in the NYT article is gross hyperbole. If that statement were correct, we'd really be getting our asses handed to us over there. I say that not to disparage the capabilities of the insurgents we're fighting. Clearly, they are giving us all we can handle and absolutely know how to take advantage of an opportunity like the one we put in their lap like at Wanat, but they don't challenge us on the "conventional battlefield" in the absence of gross negligence.

The other notable thing to me in the article was the shooting of a US soldier by an ANA soldier after the US soldier went to check on them to see if they were sleeping. Seeing in the news a similar story recently, in a case where the Afghan police officer clearly deliberately killed those guys, one might be tempted to think that this type of thing happens all the time. I can say that I never once felt like my ANA would shoot me intentionally. All the same, I made sure to keep things amiable between us, as you do hear horror stories, not of ANA shooting their embeds, but perhaps not...putting in the effort to help them when they need it, shall we say. Given that the ANA had all the security at the base where I spent much of my time, I had extra incentive to keep things smooth between us. But I never in all that time really doubted them, and they never let me down.

In any case, that the US soldier would get shot checking on the ANA at night is absolutely no surprise to me, especially given how dangerous that area proved to be. The ANA can get jumpy out there. It takes courage to approach them at night, and best if you can warn them somehow that you're there. I always made sure to shine a light or make plenty of noise and talk loudly in broken Pashto if I were checking up on them. Sneaking up on them is not a good idea. It's easy to see how a shooting incident like that would poison relations between the two parties. ETTs are there to see that a working relationship is maintained between the regular US forces and ANA, but it's not always easy to make it happen. High time to solve the whole issue by separating them completely by giving the ANA their own battlespace and making them accountable for it.

A few memorable words

- Marine: “Since we just had an IED blow up outside the base, just down there in the town, I think we should search the town down there.”
- ANA commander: “No, not a good idea.”
- “Yes, it is a good idea. We can’t let them get that close to us. The villagers at least need to know that if they aren’t our eyes and ears out there, then we’ll put them through some inconvenience by searching their homes.”
- “I don’t want to do it.”
- “I know you don’t but we have to.”
- “Couldn’t do it even if I wanted to because we already made the schedule and a search of that town is not on the schedule for this week.”
- “Right, but this little operation is based on new information. Remember what we talked about changing operations based on new information and intelligence?”
- “Can’t do it and won’t do it.”
- “Ok, I’ll give you one phone card to call your family with if you do the op.”
- “No.”
- “Two phone cards.”
- “No.”
- “Two phone cards and I’ll buy a cow for the soldiers.”
- “Can’t do it.”
- “Ok, two phone cards, a cow, and we’ll find you a new wife. Plus I’ll throw in a summer house in Nuristan.”
- (laughing) “Seriously, we’re not doing that operation.”
- “Roger.”

Thermals from the sky
- Apache Pilot: “I got a guy on my scope moving all nimbly-bimbly through the trees!”
- Air controller on the ground: “Yeah, that’s probably a monkey.”

Soviet War heroes
- Marine: “How come every officer I meet claims he was a commander during the war against the Soviets?”
- ANA mullah: “Because some of us were.”
- Marine: “Maybe, but not Commander Hanif here. He looks way too young to have been commanding anything during those times. Maybe he was the chai boy.”
- Commander Hanif: “You may be right.”

We’re ready

- ANA officer: “We’ve got intel that the base is going to be attacked tonight.”
- Marine: “Sounds like a great opportunity to kill some people…but how are we going to prepare for this?”
- “We are at stand-to.”
- “What does that mean?”
- “It means we are ready.”
- “Are there more soldiers on duty? Are they sleeping in their gear?”
- “No. None of that. But we are ready.”
- “Yes, but are we doing anything differently than before?”
- “Yes, we are ready now.”
- “Well, alright then.”

Prelude to a firefight

Unknown insurgent on handheld radio: “I am going to do something.”

We meet again

- Marine: “Hello there Haji Z. Been awhile.”
- Haji Z: “Here you are. Where have you been? I didn’t give you permission to leave my valley.”
- Marine: “Ah, yes, but I have to take orders from someone and can’t always be where I want to be.”
- Haji Z: “Let me talk to this person!”

Korengal Tank
- ANA officer: "You know what would help us? A tank! We need a tank our here."
- Marine: (egging him on) "Oh yeah? A tank? Great idea! How would we employ a tank here exactly?"
- "Easy. We'll just drive it around and the Taliban will shoot at it. Then we'll shoot them with the big gun."
- "Hmm. You sure we can drive a tank around this valley? It's kind of narrow and the roads might not hold a tank."
- "Oh, we don't really need to drive it anywhere. We can just park it out there somewhere."
- "Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of a tank?"
- "No. No. It would work great."
- (laughing) "You guys need tanks in the Korengal about as badly as you need a navy."
- (petulant) "If you Americans cared about us you'd get us tanks out here."
- (placating) "Ok, ok, we'll see what we can do."