Tag Archives: War Stories

Afghan roundup

Item 1:  I wrote a short while ago about the release of a ‘new’ set of tactical guidance from Gen. Petraeus for forces in Afghanistan.  I have to admit, I’m surprised it continues to get mention in stories since it really doesn’t reflect any sort of real change over the old McChrystal guidelines.  Still, I guess we need to set up a narrative in case Petraeus does pull this out and this will allow all the know-nothings to start with “It all began with Gen. Petraeus reevaluating the existing rules of engagement, finding them unsatisfactory and issuing his new and improved ones.  That was the day the war was won.”

item 2:  Also not a surprise.  U.S. Military Seeks Slower Pace to Wrap Up Afghan Role.  Can I pat myself on the back for calling this months ago?

I know there’s a lot of opposition forming about Afghanistan and the idea of COIN and I’ve had my own doubts but fundamentally I have to agree with this statement:

…while we’ve been in Afghanistan for nine years, only in the past 12 months or so have we started doing this right, and we need to give it some time…

So, while Sven puts the life of COIN at a very short 2005-2010, one of the central tenets of COIN doctrine is that these conflicts are characteristically long and complex.  Therefore, how can one declare the concept dead when it hasn’t been really implemented?  It may be abandoned for any number of reasons (unpopularity of the war with the public, inability of the military to adjust, etc.) but that doesn’t negate the theory of COIN.  While FM 3-24 was published in 2006 let’s not kid ourselves that we really began to get serious about applying it until recently and, quite frankly, we’ve still got a long way to go.

That being said, Sven’s post about COIN is really good.  Iraq as a COIN model suffers from a number of flaws and the doctrine benefited from “coincidental application” in Iraq at the same time other aspects of the conflict were resolving themselves.  I suspect (and fear) he is right when he says:

The proper time for the new COIN theory’s application in Iraq was probably 2003 and for its application in Afghanistan was probably 2002-2004*. The populations were probably ready to cooperate as envisaged by the COIN theory at that time.

I could feel the opportunity slipping through our grasp in 2003-2004 when I was there.  The atmosphere of inertia was palpable.

Item 3:  Spencer Ackerman is in Bagram now and has an interesting post which reinforces the idea that we ain’t going anywhere soon.

Anyone who thinks the United States is really going to withdraw from Afghanistan in July 2011 needs to come to this giant air base an hour away from Kabul. There’s construction everywhere.

When I was there (hmmm….I’m beginning to fear I’m turning into one of those guys who just tells war stories all day…but I swear I have a point) we were increasing our forces from (about) 8,000 personnel on base to 12,000.  There was a great deal of construction but, (as I understood our agreement with the Afghans) there were to be no ‘permanent structures’ built which would give the impression we were a permanent force.  Therefore, there were a lot of B-huts and tents going up.  With a population estimated by Spencer at 30,000 today I’m not surprised there’s a lot more construction going on.  I can’t even begin to imagine where all those people would go.  It’s the type of construction that’s going on that may be more important than the amount of it.

Also from Spencer:

Troops here told me of shepherd boys scowling their way around Bagram’s outskirts, slingshotting off the occasional rock in hopes of braining an American. Again, something else I wouldn’t have believed two years ago.

When I was there, local opinion was overwhelmingly favorable but there were rare occurrences of slingshots at tower guards and the occasional stink-eye when you drove/walked past.
As a counterpoint, a reader submitted a different view to Andrew Sullivan.
Bagram really isn’t that big.  Seriously.  I live there, and I’ve been there for more than a year.  It’s crowded, surely, but it is not a “massive” base.  The crowding, IMO, is more a result of shitty planning on the part of base operations than because it has such a massive number of forces in it…
I miss my little rustic Bagram (uh…not enough to go back before you ask) and thought it was getting too cramped when I left.  Which leads me to…
Item 4:  Work in Bagram in ’03 made you think about time management and efficiency in new ways.  Phone lines were scarce and people weren’t tied to their email so if you wanted to talk to someone you frequently had to walk to their location.  Depending on where you were and where they were, that could mean quite a hike and so (assuming you aren’t some sort of health nut walker) you learn to try to group together your meetings to become more efficient and come up with a ‘plan b’ for the inevitable (and frequent) times that you walk ten minutes down the road only to be told “Oh, you just missed him.  He should be back in half an hour.”  What do you do then?  Hang around like a dork or walk ten minutes back, wait ten minutes and then come back again?  You can really learn a lot about time management and patience by living that sort of regime for ten months.  ‘Afghan time’ really begins to make sense at that point.

COIN symposium recap 4.5 and more Afghan news…

I wanted to expand on a couple of issues that were either touched upon in the comments thus far in the symposium summaries or were the results of some sparked memories.

First, regarding the concept of ‘nation building’ in Afghanistan, many speakers kept reiterating that the bar for good governance, stability and security is pretty low there.  We shouldn’t get wrapped up in thinking Afghanistan needs to meet Western standards for the effort to be considered a success.

The idea was advanced that the center of gravity in COIN isn’t among the Afghan population but rather the American one.  If that’s the case, there’s some bad news in the most recent Economist polling.

Would you say the U.S. is winning the war in Afghanistan?
Yes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17%
No . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .47%
Not sure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36%

The respondents seem to be of the same opinion as the attendees of the conference.  We’ll be in Afghanistan for awhile:

At the end of 2012, do you think the United States will have more or fewer troops in Afghanistan than it has now?
More troops in Afghanistan than it has now . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23%
About the same number of troops in Afghanistan as it has now . . . . . . . . . . . 50%
Fewer troops in Afghanistan than it has now . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .28%

With a very pessimistic view of the outcome

What do you think will eventually happen in Afghanistan?
The United States will win the war in Afghanistan. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .31%
The United States will withdraw from Afghanistan without winning. . . . . . . . 69%

And the government has not done a good job of explaining the strategy (or, if you have a less charitable view, it’s done a very good job of demonstrating it doesn’t have a strategy):

Do you think Barack Obama has a clear plan for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan?
Yes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22%
No . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .53%
Not sure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25%

Wherever the center of gravity may be, this isn’t good news.

Last week I wrote about the attack on Bagram and spent a little time on the hundreds of day laborers who came on base to do a variety of tasks.  There certainly was always the risk that some of those laborers might conduct intelligence collection while there.  It is worth noting that there was also some strong motivators to encourage the opposite behavior.  (Again, my comments here reflect my observations in 2003/2004.  How things may or may not have changed in the interim I can’t say.)

Jobs on the base were generally handed out to local commanders or tribal leaders who would then hand them out to individuals.  On the few occasions when we had problems with local workers serious enough to get them fired (usually from locals getting argumentative with soldiers or trying to get overly friendly with female soldiers) this would reflect upon the local commander.  As commanders were also involved with contracting and providing jobs for other people in their communities they usually made it clear that they would not tolerate nonsense from their people.

Jobs were also highly sought after among locals.  Unskilled labor was paid about $5 a day which is slave labor in most of the world but for many actually was a significant increase in income.  I know a significantly higher salary might have had a disruptive influence in the area but there is something disconcerting about watching people work like dogs all day an know they’re getting paid the equivalent of a modest fast food meal.  Laborers rarely did anything to jeopardize their prospects of continued employment.  I heard about a few who attempted to smuggle trash out of the base (usually discarded porn from my understanding) but nothing serious.

I’d also not underestimate the goodwill that we had in those days.  In the area surrounding Bagram, my experience was there was a great deal of relief and hope that fighting was finally over.  I can remember one laborer, part of a group clearing out an area that a unit had recently departed, had found a stack of official documents (I can’t remember now if they were FOUO or something a bit sensitive but they weren’t something that should have been left around in any case).  He could have thrown them in the trash but instead he brought them to the soldier performing escort duty and eventually worked their way over to me.  By the time they made it that far the poor guy was afraid he was going to get fired.

(As an aside, I occasionally helped out in interviewing potential laborers on base.  We had to ask all sorts of ridiculous questions like ‘Do you know where bin Laden is?’ and ‘How did you feel about 9/11?’  At one interview I asked one guy ‘What’s your opinion about the constitution?’  He looked at me and said (through an interpreter) ‘Look, I’ll believe whatever you want.  If I don’t get this job I’ll have to decide between feeding my family this winter or buying fuel.  I won’t be able to make enough to do both.’    That kind of thing really helps you put your issues into perspective.)

We’ve gotten much better (even if we aren’t perfect) at treating our returning veterans.  Sweden still has some ways to go.  While their contributions to peacekeeping missions and the mission in Afghanistan are relatively small in terms of personnel, they do engage in many such missions and so you’d think they’d be have this sort of thing well in hand by now.

Four Swedish soldiers seriously injured in a roadside bomb attack in Afghanistan are facing a new battle on the home front: the Social Insurance Agency (Försäkringskassan) is refusing to pay them benefits for their first two weeks back in Sweden since they neglected to register as unemployed.

No more chilli cheese fries in Kandahar

TGIFriday franchises (and a whole lot more) are being closed on military bases in Afghanistan.

The Kandahar boardwalk now has a Burger King, Subway sandwich shop, three cafes, several general stores, a Cold Stone Creamery, Oakley sunglasses outlet, hockey rink (thanks to the Canadians, of course), basketball court, and tiny stage where members of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (the 70s band that brought the world “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”) recently performed on a cool southern Afghanistan evening.

I’m all for comfort but this does seem like overkill.  I remember when they were just starting up that base and some of the guys from my unit went there to help establish the place.

The band doesn’t seem to be a big deal.  After all, the USO has been bringing entertainment to troops for decades.  Now, if BTO was the local bar band I might have an objection…

Call me weird but I actually liked the semi-primitive conditions of Bagram circa 2003.  We had a little PX, a local bazaar every Friday (with the same stuff every week) and that was it and a place where you could get your hair cut by people from somewhere (I was never quite sure) whose understanding of english meant you couldn’t ask for anything too fancy.

Yeah…Shiloh and I won’t be doing this

Just an amazing photo. How do they get the dog to go along?

“Dogs don’t perceive height difference, so that doesn’t worry them.

Yeah…I’ve got a 23 pound beagle that would freak the hell out if you tried to jump out of an airplane with him (although, to be fair so would I).

That reminds me that when I first enlisted in the Army my recruiter was processing my contract and said:

Recruiter:  Ok, based on your job selection and test scores you have the option of either getting stationed in Germany for 2 years or going airborne.

Me:  Uh, (I figured there had to be a catch somewhere) what would be involved with the airborne thing?

Recruiter:  Jumping out of airplanes.  (Obviously thinking I must have cheated on my ASVAB test to be asking such a dumb question)

Me:  Yeah, I’ll go to Germany.

And that, my friends, was one great decision.

Where will they get their pork rinds?

AAFES will be closing a number of concessions throughout Afghanistan according to this news report.

More than 50 AAFES concessions would close under the order, including popular fast-food outlets like Burger King, Popeyes and Taco Bell, as well as jewelry stores, souvenir stores and new car sales outlets.

Interestingly enough, I recently commented on Simon’s blog on a related issue.  When I was there none of those outlets were in Bagram and I have to admit the idea of them don’t sit well with me but I wouldn’t want to be one of those guys who insists that soldiers be inconvenienced just for the sake of inconvenience.  The real factor should be if they have a negative impact upon performance.  Well, apparently the command is worried that they do:

“MWR should never be the distracter that changes the focus of the mission.”

According to McChrystal’s order, priority command support will be limited to fitness centers, MWR Internet services, the Stars and Stripes newspaper, unit-operated AAFES stores, barber and beauty shops, recreation equipment (books, movies, board games and outdoor recreation gear), USO packages (USO2Go and USO in a Box), and education services, all of which will continue.

That is essentially what we had circa 2003/2004 and really was fine.  I have only good things to say about the mess hall we had so when I heard that fast food crap was being installed it seemed totally unnecessary.  Besides, if you’re really jonesing for something other than that you could always order food on-line and prep your own dinner.

I will say this however.  In 2003/04 AAFES did a wonderful job of making sure soldiers had creature comforts (almost always snacks) available and made them available at a good cost.  They didn’t come anywhere close to recovering their cost and soldiers (from all countries) transiting through Bagram were able to stock up on pogey bait before moving out.

Of course stocking the PX with pork rinds (stocked by local Afghan workers) seemed a culturally clumsy (what’s wrong with chips and nachos?), especially given how we (well, the U.S. military only) had a ban on ‘pornography’ because it would offend ‘local sensibilities’.  But that’s another story…

Orgun-e…then and now

As I was clicking through various links I found this site which had this photo about the Forward Operating Base at Orgun-e. I was there (well, for a day) in late 2003 and it was primitive.  A whole lot of nothing.  I remember tubes sunk into the ground that you’d urinate into.  Today it seems to have showers and a morale tent which must be a huge morale booster.

Ooof…memories of turning green from a three hour (or did it just seem that long) ride in a CH-47.  The best part of that trip was when it ended.

A bad day for blimps

UPDATE:  My bad.   It’s apparently the anniversary of the Hindenburg’s first flight.  The date of the crash was May 6, 1937.  Oh well, it’s never a bad time to talk about blimps…

Thanks to the reminder from Airships.net that today is the anniversary of the crash of the Hindenburg back in 1937.  Airships has an extensive post about the mighty airship (yeah, I know it wasn’t a blimp).  Apart from the incident itself, it’s a shame that the event set back the perception of lighter than air flight for decades.

Me…I love airships.  And the future designs look totally cool.  My big disappointment is that there don’t seem to be any real plans to build passenger carrying airships.  How great would it be to fly (sail?) to Europe, Asia or around the world in an airship.

We had a blimp in Afghanistan (similar to this, but smaller) and like the Hindenburg it crashed, although it was more comical than horrific.  It fell outside of our perimeter and so we rushed to the top of our Hesco barrier wall and worked with the locals in securing the site until we could get a rescue party out to the crash site (which was probably less than 50 feet from our perimeter but it still took almost an hour to get a convoy together and out there.  And then, with as much dignity as could be mustered, we gathered up the pieces of our blimp and returned to base.

Why am I reminded of this scene?

Back to the Hindenburg…I’m sure you’ve seen it before but worth watching again is the film of the crash: