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:

Weekend movie roundup

We saw two movie this weekend while relaxing in the mountain redoubt (which I need to name…would Beagle’s Lair be in bad taste?).

First was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.  Totally forgettable story that was way, way too long.  It might have been better if they tightened it up and reduced it to about 45 minutes in length rather than the 90 minutes it clocked in at.  I enjoyed the monkey though…

Second was The Hurt Locker (I know, weird double feature).  I really enjoyed this movie as it captured the ambiguity and lack of resolution our current wars seem to offer us.  Acting, pacing and visuals were superb.  There were a number of actors I quite like (Guy Pierce and Ray Fiennes in particular) who played supporting roles.  I had some qualms about the realism in parts (the three man EOD team seemed operate without supporting security more often than not) but I only have my time in Afghanistan to compare that to and that was both a different time and country.  Besides, it’s not meant to be a documentary and I found scenes where the team was acting alone could have reasonably be passed off as a metaphor for how EOD personnel feel themselves a separate breed from the rest of the Army.

I found the scenes of SSG James returning home and trying to reintegrate with ‘normal’ life very true to life.  No, violent freak-outs or emotional breakdowns.  Instead, just a disconnectedness with the civilian world which seems irrelevant and unimportant and a desire to return to the war where one feels like they have a clearly defined role.

There’s one scene where he’s in a supermarket and supposed to buy some cereal and is frozen by indecision by the plethora of choices and (simultaneously) the very absurdity of having to make such a decision when just a short time before he living in an environment where life and death decisions were commonplace.

Those scenes struck a nerve with me since I remember being in a very similar place shortly after I returned home from Afghanistan.  In fact, I can remember hating going to the supermarket because it took me so long to make criterionless decisions about which bread or soup to buy.  Likewise, even though I was thrilled to eventually leave Afghanistan I was shocked that for months afterwards, I kept finding myself cruising the National Guard and Army Reserve websites looking for opportunities to go back.

And that’s the strange allure of being in a war zone.  Your life is very structured at some level.  You know when you’ll wake up, where you’ll eat and most of your daily activities are directed by someone else or by routine.  That routine can be comforting and provide a sense of security, especially when confronted with the total chaos of civilian life.

As Robert E. Lee said:  It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.

Very, very good.  Go watch it.

Alan Alda, what hath thou wrought?

Back when I was in my tween/early teen years I was obsessed with all things military.  Part of that included being a huge fan of the TV series MASH.  Towards the later years of the show’s run it was both in syndication and producing new episodes allowing me to catch multiple viewings ever day.  My close proximity to both the New York and Philadelphia (and let’s not forget WWOR) television markets gave me access to three, four or even on some occasions FIVE episodes to watch every day (remember, this was pre-cable TV when we ‘only’ had 10 or so channels).  It didn’t matter that I had seen every episode dozens of times and new them so well that I became discriminating about which network I’d watch the show on since some would cut slightly more of some shows in order to cram in an extra commercial, I never got bored with the show.

Fortunately, that phase passed but I wasn’t aware of how much that show influenced me until much later.  It was then, years after I had first joined that I realized that I had unwittingly internalized some of the Hawkeye Pierce character.  The Quixotic stands, the pranks, thumbing my nose at authority all kind of fit.  Now, I don’t want to make this more than it is.  I always had an anti-authoritarian streak (which, oddly enough, goes away once I have the authority) and have been what my mother would describe (generously) as a ‘mischievous’ side but when the realization hit me (I think as I was in Bagram, listening to helicopters whirl around while lounging in my Hawaiian shirt).

Allow me to provide an example of what I’m talking about.

Back in 1989, I was a newly promoted E-5 (Sergeant) and I hated the army.  That was OK, however, because my enlistment was coming to an end.  I had been accepted to attend the finest university in the country so everything was good.

Then I got word that I had been selected to attend the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC).  It was required for all new non-commissioned officers and was 30 days of all-army stuff, all the time.  Quite frankly, I wasn’t too anxious to attend because it just seemed like a pain in the ass.  Besides, I wasn’t going to do this army thing very long so what was the point of sending me?  Slots to get into this school were fairly hard to get so it seemed to make sense to send someone who could actually get something out of going.

Finally, there was a regulation saying that you couldn’t attend a military school if, upon graduation, you had less than 180 days in your enlistment.  A quick calculation revealed that if I went to this ridiculous school I would have exactly 182 days until the end of my enlistment.  Surely, my chain of command would see all of this and realize that it was senseless to waste a spot in this class on me, right?

Well, no.  They said I had to go.

I said I didn’t want to and found out that there was actually a procedure (there’s one for everything) to decline a school.  Ah, brilliant!  So I walked into the orderly room and told them that I wanted to decline going to PLDC.

‘But, why?’ The sergeant behind the desk asked.

‘Because,’ I replied ‘I’m getting out of the Army and it’s a waste for me to go.’

‘Well, ok.’  He said.  ‘But, you know you’ll have to sign a Bar to Reenlistment.’  (Which means I wouldn’t be able to reenlist in the army).

‘So, if I say I don’t want to go to this school because I’m getting out of the army, you’re saying my punishment is not being able to stay in the army?’  I was beginning to feel like I was in an Abbott and Costello routine.

‘Well, I guess you could put it like that.’

‘Where do I sign?’

Now, I should have known it wouldn’t end there.  I went about my happy way and a few days later was told the First Sergeant wanted to see me.  Uh oh.

So, I had to explain my situation again while she tried to feed me the company line.  We were getting nowhere fast, going round and round.  I explaining that I was getting out of the army and her telling me that I was on the list to go to this school (We mustn’t change the list!).  Finally, in a fit of exasperation she said:

‘You can’t say with 100% certainty that you’re getting out of the army.’

To which I replied ‘First Sergeant, I’ll sell pencils on the street before I reenlist in the army.’

And with that, she knew she was defeated.  She let me go with a ‘You’re the worst NCO I’ve ever met in my career.’  I’m sure that wasn’t true.  I had only been in the army for 3 years by that point and I had met lots of NCOs worse than me.  But still, that seemed a bit harsh.  I wasn’t incompetent, after all, just a slacker.

Shortly thereafter, fate smiled upon me.  It was time for the NCO of the Quarter boards and I was submitted to compete by the agency I worked for (I was in a unit in Washington D.C. which had strange lines of command between who you worked for and who had responsibility for you otherwise).  And after some studying, I had the pleasure of receiving an award and certificate announcing that I was, in fact, the best NCO of my unit.  Mysteriously, my First Sergeant was away the day I was given the award, which was a shame but I was comforted in the fact that my name joined the honor roll of previous winners on the wall right outside her office.

heh…

Of course, five years later I did, in fact, rejoin the army (bars to reenlistment not being worth the paper they were printed on) and so it’s a lot less clear who has ultimate bragging rights in this conflict.  But, I’ll take it as a win.

Now, had I not watched so much MASH, I probably would have just gone to the stupid school and made everyone’s like just a bit easier.  So Mr. Alda, I hope your satisfied with yourself.  I am.

Afghanistan

I haven’t written much about Afghanistan lately because I didn’t think I had much to add to the conversation.  My experiences there are becoming less and less relevant but I occasionally see something that sparks a memory or thought.

This article (from late June) talks about a rocket attack at Bagram Airbase that killed two soldiers.  When I was there we came under rocket attack a few times and I was always under the impression that either the rockets that were fired against us were virtually useless as a weapon when jury-rigged to fire as they were (we never had one come close to any living/working areas in spite of the base housing around 10,000 soldiers and all sorts of equipment) or that the people firing them were more interested in sending a message than in actually hitting anything.  When I first got in country I believed the former but by the end of my tour began to strongly suspect the latter.  An occasional rocket over the perimeter could be an effective tool in convincing the military leadership that we still needed local warlords to maintain control and order in the countryside and guarantee the flow of money and materiel.

In fact, I was so non-plussed by the threat of rockets that I refused to get out of bed during one attack until I heard the second one whistle over my tent and then didn’t think much of casually sauntering to the latrine before making my way to my assigned station (a shoddily constructed plywood building that would have collapsed into a pile of matchsticks had it been hit).  I’d like to think I was just incredibly brave (and believe me that’s how I’ll play it up if anyone is buying the drinks) but really it just didn’t seem like a real threat.

I think back to my time outside the wire in the area around Bagram in 2003-2004 and I have to say it’s surprising to hear that things have deteriorated so much since then.  It’s a long way from riding in unarmored SUVs with poor communication equipment, 4 or 5 other soldiers armed only with individual weapons and not being particularly concerned and the way the country is described today.

As a related aside, I highly recommend reading the dispatches of Graeme Wood.  He’s currently in Helmand with the Marines and has some great observations.