Thursday, August 14, 2008

French TV From Tag Ab

Our very own LTC Stone Cold, BSMV, emailed me a link today to a story that was produced by France 24 about Tag Ab and the neighboring district of Ala Say.

For me, it was both exciting and eerie. I've been in all of those places. In the video, they visit the local ANP. I've sat in the stuffed chair that is in their new office. I was in that building before it was completed. I worked with those ANP, and I've met and talked with the Provincial council member who smuggled the reporters back into Tag Ab for their second trip.

Firebase Kutschbach, which started out as a VPB* and then grew into Firebase Tag Ab and is now named for a Special Forces operator who was killed working out of the firebase shortly after the base was begun, has grown quite a bit in the past months since I've left Afghanistan.

The French are sending additional troops to Afghanistan and apparently are going to relieve the soldiers from the 101st who are there currently.

During the first of two visits to Tag Ab, the French crew rides out to Ala Say in an MRAP with soldiers from Co A, 506th INF, 101st ABN during a combat patrol. That was the road that we went up and down numerous times in the valley. I once took a two humvee patrol out there, spent several hours doing a district assessment of the district ANP and returned without incident. Why they didn't hit me is anyone's guess. Box of chocolates, I guess.

Days later, six humvees went out and one of our SECFOR gunners had his M-240 blown clean in half by an RPG which struck the top of his humvee. He was unscathed; not so much as a singed eyebrow. Days later the same soldier, now driving, on the same road, was struck in the door by an RPG. It blew the door open and peppered him with metal and glass fragments in his left arm and face.

No one blamed him when he announced that he would like to be rotated to tower guard duty back at Blackhorse. He's a great kid with a great sense of humor, and he still carries fragments in his left arm. He was one of our awesome SECFOR crew from South Carolina. Can't say enough good things about our valiant South Carolinians; they were the best.

He was, obviously, an RPG magnet as well; so it was in everyone's best interest that he did just that. Great guy; not safe to be around.

It must have been his magnetic personality.

It's a trip to see Afghanistan in the news more often. Americans seem to have a renewed consciousness of this theater of the war. Before I went to Afghanistan, one of my co-workers, Mrs. Howesfrow, asked me with all earnestness, "Is there still a war in Afghanistan?"

My response was one of those that required a conscious effort to leave the "dumbass" off of the end of the sentence.

A commenter on this blog once queried to the effect that he thought that we had already won in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was called "The Forgotten War," likening American lack of awareness to the blithe ignorance of the Korean War. Now there is a resurgent interest in Afghanistan. Part of that interest was generated by the battles that were fought in 2007 and the continued activity in 2008.

This activity draws pundits out of the woodwork claiming with all earnestness that we are losing. Just days over a year ago, Tag Ab was a place that coalition forces rarely went and the nearest permanent presence was at the north end of the valley at Nijrab. That presence was a Special Forces ODA** and about a company of ANA who rotated in and out. The ANP in Tag Ab were completely non-functional. The now-fired Chief of Police in Tag Ab rarely actually ventured into the valley.

It was Talibanland.

Now there is a struggle going on in Tag Ab, which adds to the violence level reported in Afghanistan, and to the casualty count; but before there was not so much activity, because it was left to the Taliban.

The government of Afghanistan is pushing into these areas that were previously ungoverned, and the ACM, the best known of which are the Taliban, are finding themselves pushed back.

It doesn't help that the Taliban have their safe havens in Pakistan. It doesn't help that there is Arab money pouring into those areas, either. It doesn't help that Al Qaeda still functions there and brings resources to bear in defense of their hiding place and training ground.

But that doesn't mean that we are losing. Can we lose? Yes. Are we losing? No. We have gained ground in areas like Tag Ab. But we are clearly reaching a decision point in our efforts.

When we arrived in Tag Ab, the paved road in the video was unpaved and rough. The District Center was 40% complete and not in progress. The ANP had been pinned down in their makeshift district center for days at a time by the Taliban and they were afraid to go more than a few hundred meters from the District Center. Now they are part of the fight for their own country. They hopped in their trucks and went tearing off to assist their commander when he was ambushed.

That's progress.

The ANP commander who was injured in that ambush was in for his second flight on a MEDEVAC bird to Bagram. He is one of the bravest Afghans I met in Afghanistan. A quiet, unassuming man, he always went towards the fire.

Tag Ab is obviously still contested. It is a struggle, and partly because it is their closest major activity to Kabul. Suicide attacks that emanate from Pakistan have staged through Tag Ab to reach Kabul. It is a critical area.

Two years ago, convoys were ambushed much further north, but now much of the drive from Bagram to Tag Ab is fairly peaceful. The government is obviously in control in those areas. Police are in evidence and the people go about their daily lives in relative peace. Tag Ab still has a way to go to get to that level, but it will happen.

It takes time, patience, and unfailing commitment.

Our media is still missing the boat. While the French report is not entirely accurate, they did the best that they could. Most of it is either accurate or close to the truth, but it is by far the best piece I've seen on Tag Ab. There are a thousand stories that are ongoing in Afghanistan where Americans are doing things that would make people here proud, but they are not being reported. The stories are not being told. America is being ripped off.

We're being scooped by the French.

*VPB = Vehicle Patrol Base; a group of vehicles arranged in a defensive perimeter, a temporary arrangement

**ODA = Operational Detachment Alpha; an "A Team"
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Friday, August 8, 2008

Redleg Adjusts Fire

My new old friend Cannoneer No. 4 sent me a comment today that I thought needed to be rescued from comments and brought to light.

Cannoneer No. 4 has left a new comment on your post "Argghhh! And The Red-Headed Stepchildren":

Have you seen A Ragtag Pursuit of the Taliban?

U.S. Effort to Train Afghans as Counterinsurgency Force Is Far From Finished

WAPO, so caveat emptor, but I can't detect much MSM bias in it.

I am, as you know, no great friend of the MSM. The young author for the Washington Post, Candace Rondeaux, did a pretty good job with this article, capturing a snapshot of what it's like for a small team like the one that I was on working with the Afghan National Police. There is also a really nice little bit of video of the team chief, MAJ Vincent Heintz, explaining what the team is trying to do.

I was a member of the first district team in the country. Now teams like the one that MAJ Heintz leads are working in areas that were never even considered as a place that a district team should work in, due to priorities.

While I have been known to rant at the media, and I think rightfully so; this article is the type of reporting that needs to be done more. I think that people need to see what the soldiers are doing on the ground. I think that the attitude of "if it bleeds, it leads," needs to be resisted. Sensationalism should be left to the rags, and papers that wish to carry the mantle of a fine news outlet need to be getting reporters like Candace out on the ground with teams like this much more often.

If someone wants me to go and write for them from the fields and trails of Afghanistan, you know how to find me.

This is what counterinsurgency looks like. It's not all that sexy, but what MAJ Heintz is doing on the ground in a little district in Afghanistan is the type of stuff that will help the IRoA to become a self-sufficient nation. He is mentoring, leading, cajoling, and demonstrating to the ANP how to become a community-based policing organization. He is helping them to develop the leadership, to keep the ANP soldiers out in the neighborhoods where they belong, being the face of a young Islamic republic.

This is how the Afghans will win the war, and how we will be more secure as a nation.

This isn't "SOCOM" or "Call of Duty" video game stuff. This is the slow, frustrating, dirty, aggravating, tedious, wonderful work of counterinsurgency. It is what it takes to be successful in nearly 400 districts across Afghanistan.

What happens in a little village in a backwater valley in Afghanistan sends ripples across the world.

Sometimes the ripples come back. When I read the article, there had been some comments posted, and some right asinine ones at that. I put down some counter-fire on them as best I could. I couldn't resist; I am passionate about this stuff. I got a letter via email this evening from a close friend of MAJ Heintz and his family.

We're talking babysit the kids type close friend. That's close.

It's a small war.

In any case, she thanked me for the cover fire, and she gave me some more details about ripples across the globe. Here is an excerpt from her note to me:

"If you could speak with Vincent for just 5 minutes you would know that he examines every personal thought and action for what is right or wrong. As a prosecutor, he applied the law equitably to all. What the article did not state is that over 180 boxes of shoes, soccer balls, and especially school supplies have been shipped to the Fighting 69th in Chahar Darreh. He believes in the future of the children. He has great respect for women."

Sounds like my tour. I still owe Rosemary a picture of the Afghan kids playing with one of the soccer balls she sent.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that because we go and serve and work with the Afghans and learn to respect and get close to them, that we agree with all of the problems that they suffer from, too. Change is incremental. First things first. Remember where we were 100 years ago.

Wendy also sent me a link to another article about MAJ Heintz in the NY Daily News. It was a nice article; but then I noticed the list of links to articles by the same author. I noticed an article about a funeral for a young NCO who gave his life in Iraq.

I have noticed a disturbing trend. Read the article. Read the comments.

Yes, I left one; and I was pissed.

Some people are using the comments section of an article about the funeral of a soldier who gave his life for principles he or she believed in as an opportunity to put forth their political agenda. Typically, that is an anti-war agenda or a rant for their candidate.

Now, I didn't go to Afghanistan to serve part of my country. I believe in freedom of speech as much as any of our liberties. I do, however, strongly find that using the report of a soldier's ultimate sacrifice as an opportunity to rail about one's particular politics is absolutely heinous and incredibly selfish. While I do not believe in government censorship except for OPSEC reasons (hey, our fathers and grandfathers had their mail censored during WW-II... I think that we can be respectful of OPSEC, too,) I do believe that the paper does not owe every Tom, Dick, and Harry to publish their selfishly political comments in a story about a soldier's sacrifice.

Censor yourselves, publishers. I call for you not to permit the desecration of a soldier's memory in the story of their funeral. There is a time and a place, and that isn't it. Let them write an Op-Ed piece. If they want to disrespect a fallen soldier, make them put their name on it. Call it respect, call it decency. Apparently there are people who are so desperately selfish to forward their agenda that they cannot control themselves. Do it for them, please.

If you read this and agree, send a note to your local paper and second my plea. Let's get the word out there that we don't find this to be acceptable behavior as a society, and we expect better behavior from our media as well.

Let's face it; we can only affect certain things. Our vote counts once, and it is one of many. None of us individually are in control of the outcome of the upcoming elections or the direction that our nation will take in the future. None of us can shut the mouth of one who is so selfish as to bend a soldier's sacrifice to their own political cry. However, as a group we can bring a groundswell of respect for what every politician will refer to every Memorial Day as our "honored dead."

Every one of the fallen has his or her first Memorial Day; the day that they are laid to rest. A hundred years from now, we will each be just another dead schmuck. Our opinions on the day of their funerals will matter not; but they will always be our honored dead.

Let's respect the memories of our brothers and sisters whose names are now on the indelible price tag of liberty, and demand the same from our media outlets.

Thanks to Cannoneer No. 4 for the heads-up, thanks to Candace Rondeaux for a good article and a really nice video clip, thanks to Wendy for the note and info, and thanks to MAJ Heintz for the RIP.
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Monday, August 4, 2008

Argghhh! And The Red-Headed Stepchildren

I'm going to use a post that originated at Argghhh! posted by Kat. This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, having experienced firsthand the effects of this phenomena. Argghhh! used one of my comments as a separate post on the site. I am only using the original post and my comments to form the basis of this post.

Here is the original post:

A report recently about the military adviser training school at Ft Riley says that military advisers can't get no respect:

FORT RILEY, Kan. — Standing next to a screen illuminating a long list of tips, Maj. Anthony Nichols looked out at the classroom of neophyte military trainers and began a lecture about the ways that fellow soldiers will look down at them while they serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other soldiers will call them "undesirables," sent in because they had no other place on the battlefield, the instructor said. Some units will kick military advisers out of security briefings. One recommendation: to "patch swap," carry alternative military insignia for their uniforms so they can pretend to be members of other units. It will help them get supplies and equipment more easily. Or at least more respect.

"I came armed with a stack of patches. . . . Who am I going to be today?" Nichols said about his time in Iraq.

Actually, I think I've read that last "patch" comment somewhere else, but it wasn't from an MA. I think it was from an FOB dweller, but his reason was the same: no respect.

Gates recently talked about insuring that military personnel with unconventional resumes would be given as much attention and room for promotion as any who followed the conventional career paths. Gates was not just talking out the side of his face, he actually put it in motion by bringing Petraeus back to over see the promotion board for the next set of generals. He's quoted retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl who wrote about a permanent Army Advisor Corps (complete with tab) of about 20,000 for America's future "wars" where, as Gates and Nagl puts it, we will augment our security, not by fighting every war ourselves or by ourselves, but with the assistance of allies in the country or region.

But, as Kaplan noted in this piece last year, it was tantamount to declaring war on the military brass. Not just the brass, though, it will be military culture that will have to change. It isn't just about inter-service rivalry. Every unit promotes the idea that it is the best in order to push their personnel to be the best. That typically goes towards general harassment and feelings of superiority as well as a sense of privilege among some.

Part of the issue is about "chain of command" concepts. The military operates on a strict adherence to command structures. This is ostensibly to maintain control and eliminate, as much as possible, any confusion in orders, priorities and expectations. In a complex battle situation, with war raging all around, the simpler the command structure, the less confusion and the more likely an operation will come off successfully.

This can also cause a somewhat stagnated and moribund adherence to old structures and ideas that can lead to disasters. Think of it as the "Charge of the Light Brigade" in the face of massed artillery behind a redoubt or massed infantry charging out of trenches across wide spaces covered by machine guns, artillery and snipers of the enemy in World War I. Or, the Maginot Line fortress defenses being built as Germany created the machinery and doctrine of "blitzkrieg".

Or, as John Gates (no relation to Secretary of Defense Gates) wrote in a paper on the US Army and Unconventional Warfare, the conventional warfare methods of the US army in Vietnam against a guerrilla force. J. Gates notes that the army had gravitated away from 18th century "Captains of War" to the managerial, careerist "professional" military of the 20th century where promotion was set in concrete steps and often had little time or patience for "unconventional"; neither in personnel or in function.

Gates also noted two other complementary ideas. First, that the command structure in Vietnam was confusing and more representative of an inverted pyramid with more decisions being made from offices and officers (or, in some cases Pentagon and Oval office) far away from the battlefield. The type of autonomy officers get in their areas today was unheard of fifty years ago. The second issue was that such decision making cycles and chains stifled creative thinking and resolution. In the case of Vietnam, Marines who were conducting CAP (civil affairs patrols), living within villages and doing what is now associated with COIN, were eventually redirected to active, mass operations, abandoning the villages and the likely most successful strategy.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, the idea of counter-insurgency was a dead subject by most commanders who preferred the Powell Doctrine: get in, smash the enemy and get out. It had to go the long way around to get to where it is today. And, the same thing nearly happened in Iraq: we nearly lost the war for want of a unified counter-insurgency strategy.

Also in Iraq and Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, military advisers occupy a nebulous "tween". They are attached to one command, but reliant on many to do their jobs. They have to fight for the things they need because the Army, right or wrong, focuses first on supplying their own needs and supporting their own operations. Transition teams with advisers to allied units don't always have the support, supplies or money necessary to do what they believe is necessary to develop their AOs.

In terms of being "chased out" of briefings, it is about a myriad of things that include command structure, operational necessity, a fear of disruption, a fear of lost security and, finally, sometimes about hoarding control. The power of an adviser truly comes down to "how to influence people and make friends". This concept and nebulous position of the military adviser does not necessarily win him or her accolades among those who live, and die, by the command structure.

Nagl's idea about an advisor corps might have some merit, but that corp will still have to learn to live and operate with the rest of the army when both types of operations are being conducted. Nagl suggested a "combat advisor" tab to designate these men from others, much like special forces or other specialized units. This may go someway towards mitigating the lack of respect or appreciation among the rank and file, but, what is most likely to earn these service members respect will be the successful build up and transition to the Iraq government and its armed forces. Along with the concurrent reduction in other military "combat" personnel from the country.

Some of that will only occur while "combat advisers" are actually out in the field getting shot at along with their indigenous forces (which is happening now). The rest of that respect may only come when the military comes to grip with its dual role as a peace breaker and a peace maker.

Maybe it will only come when they accept "unconventional warfare" as an actual doctrine of war instead of an aberration.

Here is my first comment:

"The article is on target. During my time at Ft Riley, we were told that we were the main effort; that everyone on that fort wished they were us.

I volunteered for the ETT mission in Afghanistan through Guard Bureau after seeking a conventional rotation to Iraq with anybody who was going. My unit had nothing projected and I felt the need to contribute. The SGM at Guard Bureau’s deployment desk recommended that I look into the ETT mission in Afghanistan. My response: “Huh?” I, like the rest of the Army, was clueless.

At Ft Riley we were, if not the main effort, a very significant effort of that installation and the 1ID. It wasn’t until we got in country and downrange that the problems began. To top that off, after rumors of some of the ETT’s who had law enforcement experience being assigned to the developing ANP mission. I had no fear of that, having been only the subject of law enforcement, but having never carried a badge myself.

I was assigned to the ANP mission shortly after my arrival in Afghanistan because I am an Infantry NCO. Go figure.

The problems started with the team from the 7th SF Group whose firebase we were sent to without a vehicle, crew-served weapon, SECFOR team, or any long-range communications ability other than the cell phones that we had acquired privately in Kabul. We were not provided minutes for these phones, as they were not government phones. They were our only link to the our support structure.

TF Phoenix exists to support the ETT’s and PMT’s downrange. We did not see our UAH, crew-served weapons, radios, or SECFOR team for six weeks. There’s lots more to that story, but after we fought in a big operation with our ANP, took fire and casualties with them, and got a few cool things done, it was a different story. The 82nd guys were telling us that we were crazy. They saw how we hung it out there and how exposed we were a lot of the time and they respected that.

Really, nobody knew what we were about. We had to earn our respect. The 82nd gave us their patch. They wanted to give us medals, but our own chain of command asserted themselves at that point. We were OPCON to the 82nd, but not ADCON. The OPCON thing made a difference.

Someday, people will wish that they could say that they were an ETT or a PMT. As the stories come out and people become more aware, like they did about some of the things that happened in Viet Nam. For now, we are the red-headed stepchildren. My little crew called ourselves the Bastard Children. It all worked out. Great mission, lasting memories, and a lot to be proud of. Very small reunions."

And here is my second:

"Counterinsurgency is not acting like an insurgency. It is using the position of strength in such a way that you are able to separate the insurgent from the people. First, you have to be there, on the ground. Big Army thinks that means going to where the insurgents are massed and attacking them with weapons. While that is certainly part of it, it's actually a small percentage of the real work.

Insurgents, including the Afghan insurgents, do try to goad the bigger force into attacking civilian targets. When the government forces oblige, that helps to separate the people from the government and lean towards the insurgents.

Galula likened insurgents to fish, and the people to the water that they swim in. Big Army likes to go after schools of fish, but is lost on how to handle the smaller groups that blend into the population. The wily guerilla, on the other hand, knows better than to mass unless they believe that there is a direct benefit, like actually being able to defeat a unit of government forces.

Galula also explained that the Army tends to move into areas that are troubled and step on them. The insurgents squirt away from the pressure, leaving only token forces to harrass and let the people know that they haven't abandoned them... remember, the insurgent has an appeal to the people; "we are the good guys, and we are in need of your help. We care about you, but the big guys don't understand or care about you."

That's simplistic, but it gets the gist of it. Part of the counterinsurgent's job is to understand the enemy's message and coopt it; take away the significance of the message. If the message is, "you want jelly beans, and our insurgency will get you jelly beans," then the COIN forces need to start working on getting some jelly beans. Again, simplistic.

That part is particularly difficult when fighting an Islamic "religiously-based" insurgency. How do Kafirs such as ourselves take that high ground? Obviously, we can't. However, there are elements that are perfectly suited to dealing with the other problem that results from stepping on an area.

While that area calms down while the Army is there, the Army's attention is then drawn elsewhere. Insurgents go and become strong where you ain't. So the Army goes there, and then the area you just left descends once again firmly into the sphere of the insurgent.

That's where the police come in. However, if the police had been doing a good job and had the respect of the people, the area wouldn't have been under the sway of the insurgents in the first place. They need to be fixed or replaced. There can be no consistent security on the ground without them.

If Big Army goes after the schools of fish with tuna boats, the local police use the smaller nets constantly in their local areas, then they occasionally need a speargun when they learn of or find where a big fish is lurking. Big Army's SOF are great spearguns... but you even want to leave the indigenous forces with that capability, too.

When the host nation can do all of these things and develop the ability to provide other governmental services throughout their country, the insurgents become irrelevant; as long as you have addressed the concerns of the people that made them support the insurgents in the first place.

Galula pointed out that, while you may have some forces that act insurgent-like (SOF,) that by and large the government needs to act like the government and cannot reduce themselves to the level of the insurgents.

The government needs to basically criminalize the insurgents. "Freedom fighters" are sexy. Mafia thugs are not.

Okay, here's where Big Army has a problem; counterinsurgency is not sexy Audie Murphy stuff, and does not feed the elitism. Killing one or two insurgents once in awhile doesn't add to the unit's legend or prestige, and arresting them counts for even less... in their minds.

The Army doesn't want an advisor corps for the same reason that the Navy resisted submarines. Most naval officers weren't submariners. Most naval officers... especially the ranking ones weren't carrier pilots, either. First, they didn't understand it; second, it threatened what they did know; third, it changed everything.

Giving manuever units a small internal advisor team is like putting a submarine on the deck of a battleship. It sounds neat, but the battleship commander will rarely know what to do with it. He'll use it as a garbage skow or a grocery-getter. The maneuver force commander will do the same thing. The advisors will wind up staffing his TOC at night like the internal red-headed stepchildren.

The DSTB, 82nd Airborne, did a pretty good job of supporting us. They did, on occasion, use it as a hammer to get things done the way that they wanted them done, though.

There needs to be an established mechanism to support the teams in the field. Basic stuff like fuel, food, bullets, maintenance, and housing became big problems fast when our jobs ran counter to the battlespace owner's ideas/taskings/job.

There was one other major issue, but this is long enough and the thread may be dead anyway."

Actually, there are a number of other issues. The Army recently addressed how being an advisor affected an officer's career, for instance. There is now a mechanism in place designed to prevent time spent as a mentor from actually damaging an officer's career. The Army is not sure how to recognize time spent as a mentor.

One other issue that we dealt with was during my time in Nuristan, the final couple of months of my deployment. There, the battlespace commander decided that MP's would be a good way to train the ANP.

It was a good idea, but there was a disconnect. The MP's found themselves working in conjunction with PMT's, but not in any way answerable to them. An MP SSG in charge of the equivalent of a reinforced squad of MP's could find himself working in conjunction with a Captain who had no real authority over him, other than by general authority. The Staff Sergeant may find that he doesn't like the way that the Captain wants things done, and decide that he wasn't going to follow that guidance.

That's exactly what happened. Not only that, but the Staff Sergeant tried to use his access to the local battlspace commander to poison the Captain's reputation. He also tried to poison the Captain's relationship with his own chain of command. While the Staff Sergeant wasn't entirely successful, it was a great waste of time and energy and the military strength that stems from unity of command was completely absent.

In that zone, tasks that were normally the realm of the PMT's, such as district assessments, were delegated to the MP's. This minimalization of the role of the Police Mentor Teams resulted in a lack of unity of effort that impaired the effectiveness of the work done by both factions in the effort and damaged the command relationship with the host Task Force.

In Kapisa Province, the only contact that we had with the MP's was when they were being used to escort the Task Force commander in the battlespace. In Nuristan, we were thrown into situations where the MP's had similar objectives, but there was no unity of command and sometimes little unity of effort. This relationship was left entirely to the overall Task Force commander.

Of course, many of the issues that we ran into in country were related to tactical and supply issues that impacted us on the ground level; sometimes down to the housing level. The ETT's shared in that experience. Sometimes it worked out well, sometimes it worked out horribly for the embedded trainers/mentors.

Battlespace commanders, who are commanders of maneuver units, sometimes come to distrust the PMT/ETT members, accusing them of "going native." Abu Muqawama addresses some of the aspects of the maneuver unit relationship here.
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