Saturday, January 25, 2014

Reflections On Targeting

I've been dwelling a bit recently on my third deployment and 1-14 Cav's operations in Diyala Province, Iraq. As I was leaving the country I wrote a post about my thoughts at the time. I stated I felt like the mission was incomplete and that there was so much more to do and individuals we should have removed from the battlespace. Part of the reason for those feelings came from the high standards I set for myself, especially since 1-14 had some pretty good initial success at targeting our high value individuals. However, a lot of my frustrations came from the pressures I felt on a daily basis coming from our operations officer and the troop commanders.

There's a saying in the military, "intelligence drives operations". The general meaning of that is information and intelligence gathered should be telling a unit where to send patrols, who to talk to, what areas to conduct clearances, who to detain, etc. Essentially, intel needs to be ahead of ops, not the other way around.

Sounds good on paper, but is often difficult to practice in reality. In my case, intel was hard to come by due to multiple hurdles, one of which was a lack of sources/informants to provide information. This lead to our technical means of collecting information to be weak. Often we were forced to defer to the Iraqis on where operations should occur...which honestly isn't all that bad and in a counter insurgency deferring to the native security forces is usually the best practice.

Unfortunately, the operations officer was not pleased with this and I heard several times from him (both ops officers in fact since the original went up to brigade and was replaced) that my section was failing. The troop commanders also seemed frustrated that I wasn't coming to them daily with compounds and villages that needed to be searched or the exact location of a wanted individual. Multiple times I was told to start targeting like the special ops guys target or to demand from SOF the intel they were getting.

Flash forward to my time in Afghanistan, both at the detention facility and at IJC. In both positions I had daily knowledge of who was being detained or killed and what type of organizations were doing the targeting. Since Afghanistan in 2012-13 was similar to Iraq in 2009-10 (in terms of how spread out units were and their mission) this was a good way to compare 1-14 Cav's time in Iraq to other conventional units and their targeting abilities.

I found that conventional units are doing very little capturing of individuals, it's almost all special forces. SOF have more assets and analysts that have specialized training/experience in conducting the type of targeting that is often required in fighting an insurgency. Conventional units are busy doing the necessary, but somewhat mundane, tasks such as partnership, route clearance, or in the specific case of 1-14's time in Iraq, maintaining checkpoints. They don't have the bodies on the ground and rarely get the intel that leads to something actionable, and when they do they often pass it off to the SOF guys who can further develop and action a target more quickly and efficiently.

This revelation has made me feel better about 1-14's time in Diyala Province. We did what we could and did pretty damn well, especially due to the fact that for a good chunk of our time we were tied to checkpoints and had a very limited number of platoons that could operate to gather information that could then be integrated into our targeting efforts. I have enough demons on my back from that deployment that I don't need to add to them.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

That Won't Buff Out

In my last post I mentioned something along the lines of people in Afghanistan not being very forthcoming or straightforward with information. The same could be said of Iraqis and getting information from them. I suspect it's across the board with every people and nation when you are occupying their country.

Anyway, the statement reminded me of a story from my days in Iraq. Some time during my third deployment an IED went off against a police SUV, as IEDs tend to do. What was unusual about it was that the attack occurred in the city of Khanaqin, an extremely safe, Kurdish controlled town. So safe that 1-14 Cav actually played a football game in the soccer stadium. Now and again something would explode in the area but rarely against the local security forces.

Shortly after the attack the squadron commander went to Khanaqin to meet with various leaders including the police chief. I decided to tag along on this visit. During the meeting the commander asked about the IED attack. The police chief brushed it off and blamed Al Qaida as everyone in the area always blamed Al Qaida for these things (it was probably AQ, but it could also have been other Kurds). He also said it was a small IED that did little damage, we shouldn't worry about it. This was a bit odd since the report we got stated the police SUV was destroyed.

The police chief was likely trying to save face and was a bit embarrassed by the IED attack in his safe city. We didn't press the issue.

As we left the chief's office we got a look at the back courtyard area. What was sitting out there? A completely destroyed police SUV. The commander glanced at me and the operations officer and said something to the effect of, "that looks like more than light damage."

Back at our base at the nightly update brief the commander brought up the meeting and the SUV. We were all a bit amused that the police chief lied right to our faces when the clearly blown to hell SUV was in plain site. But that's the nature of this kind of fight. The police chief was attempting to preserve his honor and the reputation of his town. I also think he didn't want the Americans believing we needed to have more of a presence in his area. He was happy to have us stop by for a visit, or even do the occasional night patrol with his officers; but better the Americans be out of site as much as possible.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Thoughts On Caravans

Back in this post I said I was going to write a bit about each of the books I read in Afghanistan that related to the country. For this post I'll start with Caravans by James Michener, a fiction novel set in post WWII Afghanistan. Written in the 1950s, it's a great story and a must read for anyone who wants to have an understanding of the culture and people of Afghanistan. So here are some of the more interesting/amusing/revealing quotes from the book:

“In Afghanistan I expect no one to tell me anything, and what they do tell me, I distrust.”

While the people of Afghanistan can be welcoming and hospitable (assuming you aren't invading and occupying the country) they aren't going to be very forthcoming with information to strangers/foreigners. Makes human intelligence gathering a challenge.

“What danger can erupt in a Kabul bazaar?”


"Whenever I was with Moheb I appreciated anew the fact that the future history of Afghanistan, if left to Afghans, would be determined by the struggle between the many bearded mullahs from the hills and the few young experts like Moheb, with degrees from Oxford or the Sorbonne or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

While this may seem like an amazing bit of Michener using a crystal ball, the same could be said of most nations. A country's future is often a struggle between the conservative rural and the liberal urban. Still, the current fight in Afghanistan can be viewed as a conflict between bearded mullahs (Taliban) and the urban elite, educated in the West.

“It’s difficult to comprehend our attitude toward women,” Shah Khan confessed. “We cherish them. We love them. We protect them. And we dedicate most of our poetry to them. But we don’t want them cluttering up our lives.”

We demand they stay in the kitchen...

“The point is, Miller Sahib, that brilliant young men like you come to Afghanistan and say, ‘Such a quaint land beset by such quaint problems.’ When I go to France or Moheb to America we make exactly the same observation.”

An interesting statement about cultural differences.

"In Afghanistan almost every building bears jagged testimony to some outrage."

An understatement on the history of conflict in the region. Sucks to be a strategic crossroads that is the battleground of greater nations.

"Don’t be afraid of looking stupid, because one of these days we could be driven into war across this terrain, and you’d be the only American who’d ever seen parts of it. Keep your eyes open.”

America invading Afghanistan? That would never happen...

"But the rivers of Afghanistan, like the people of Afghanistan, never attack the enemy head on."

If an Afghan is attacking you face to face, beware his buddy about to stab you in the back.

“So if I tell you, Miller Sahib, that we have an Afghan way of doing things, and it works, please don’t think I’m being obstinate. It’s just possible that it does work.”

While working at ISAF Joint Command we had a saying: "Afghan good enough". When occupying a country and dealing with an insurgency, your ways of doing things may not be the best. The solution that the locals come up with may not be pretty, but it will probably work better than anything you come up with. This is a lesson that is often learned over and over and over again, often at the cost of lives and treasure.

“It was a terrifying punishment, to cut off a man’s right hand. Automatically it banished him from the food bowl.”

Afghans, like all peoples, are social and meal times are a social event where everyone eats from the same dish/bowl. The left hand is the unclean hand (I'll leave it to your imagination why) so if someone's hand has been cut off, for whatever reason, he will not be allowed to eat with the group. He is now forever cut off from the social group.

"If you have a society where women are forbidden, men must volunteer for the female functions.”

There's a story of an American unit that pushed into a remote valley that hadn't been visited in years, if ever. All the men in the villages came out to greet the soldiers and were very friendly. Excessively so. It took awhile, but the Americans realized that many of the men were actually hitting on them. These were poor subsistence farmers who could not afford wives and rarely interacted with women. Homosexuality is banned by Pashtun and Afghan culture, however, it's only homosexual if a man falls in love. If there's no love...well...

“A German can be many things,” Stiglitz explained robustly. “A Catholic, a Jew, a Lutheran, a Muslim. But always he’s a beer drinker. I have a dispensation from the mullah … the one you saw today. He’s an understanding liberal.”

This just makes me laugh. Stiglitz's character is a German who fled to Afghanistan after WWII in order to hide and converted to Islam. Still, he has to have his beer.

"Do you know what I expect… seriously? When a thousand men like me have rebuilt Kabul and made it as great as The City once was, either the Russians or the Americans will come with their airplanes and bomb it to rubble.”

Maybe Mitchener did have a crystal ball after all?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

I May Not Be Here As Long As I Thought

There was a crisis in the office earlier this week. In reality it was two problems that blended into one big mess that more than one person in the office is blaming on my company's baffling policy of seeming to hire anyone that walks in the door. My company's hiring techniques are something I won't get into but the consequences are the reason I fell into the position I'm in now.

Anyway it started off with one individual on my team quitting...or at least claiming he was quitting. For reasons that are not known to me he put in his two week notice on Monday. The problem? He was scheduled to deploy in two weeks. This puts the program in a bind in that they now have to find somebody to replace him on short notice. The person he is replacing in Afghanistan may have to extend, someone may have to work two jobs for a time to cover any gaps, or the worst solution, the position remains vacant until somebody can be found to fill it.

This immediate crisis was temporarily solved the next morning when the individual decided he didn't want to quit after all. However, from the office RUMINT this is not the first time he has pulled something like this and the leadership are not expecting him to complete his pre-deployment process in Indiana or get on the plane to Afghanistan. The problem is currently festering.

The problem became a crisis when my replacement in Afghanistan apparently had a melt down and was removed from his position by the customer (the military). By Friday he would be escorted off the base and is currently on his way back to us. Learning this hit me hard of course because I'm the guy who handed over the position to him and told my section he would do fine. I had been hearing rumors about things not going so well and the sergeant who is in charge of the section had messaged me on Facebook right after I left that they really needed me back. I figured it was just a matter of a new person learning the job, position, and role. I was wrong.

Currently the only other person on the program who is on the base will be filling in for my replacement and doing two jobs until somebody else can get out there. My boss scrambled to try to find somebody who could quickly deploy and fill the position for 2 to 3 months before being replaced. Options were extremely limited. Virtually the entire team is either just back from Afghanistan or scheduled to go in the next few months. The other teams are in the same position.

For a brief moment in time I considered going back.

2 or 3 months? Doing the same job I was just doing? I could do that in my sleep.

WTF? Am I insane? I've been barely back two months! Why would I do this to myself.

Luckily for my sanity somebody else volunteered. However, that volunteer left Afghanistan about a month and a half prior to me. She's also a single mom of two kids, she needs to be in the States more than I do.

During all of this my boss asked me when I would be ready to deploy again. I don't know if he was serious or not. I told him it would have to be after hockey season is done. I don't know if I was serious or not.

I spent my 20's deployed to Iraq. Seems I'm doing my best to spend my 30's deployed to Afghanistan.