Wednesday, February 26, 2014

With Friends Like These...

Somehow I missed this tidbit of news that came out a few days ago. The representative of Al Qaida Senior Leadership in Syria and Ayman al Zawahiri's intermediary in the conflict, Abu Khalid al Suri, was killed in a suicide attack in Aleppo, Syria. Suri, aka Mohammad Bahaiah, had also established Ahrar al Sham, one of the more successful and powerful rebel organizations in Syria. While no one has claimed responsibility, blame has been quickly placed on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS/AQI/ISI/I love doing this).

The Al Nusrah Front, the organization ISIL attempted to claim and absorb, has issued an ultimatum to ISIL: stop attacking rebel organizations or we're kicking your ass out of Syria and Iraq. Strong words. I like it. The Assad regime has been a small thorn in the side of the United States but if Assad is overthrown, an extremist government would most likely take his place, and that would be much worse. I don't want Assad to come out of this thing victorious, but I certainly don't want Al Nusrah, ISIS, or any of the other myriad of extremist groups to gain victory either. If these groups fight amongst themselves enough, there's hope the moderate Free Syrian Army can claim some sort of victory. But hope is never a good course of action.

It reminds me all a bit of what I've read on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Insurgents under Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin organization often fought more with the other mujahedeen groups than they did against the Soviets or the Afghan government. For reasons I'll never understand, Pakistan backed Hekmatyar over the other mujahedeen and so most of the CIA's funds to arm the insurgency went to HiG. These days HiG is still around, a minor annoyance to ISAF, and they still spend more time fighting the Taliban and Haqqani than they do the coalition or Afghan security forces.

Keep killing each other gentlemen, we'll wait.

Monday, February 24, 2014

We Should Send Them Some Hellfires In Exchange

I'm going to break for a moment from my delving into one of the darker periods of my Army career to post a bit about some more current news, SGT Bowe Bergdahl.

Bergdahl, for those who don't know, was captured by insurgents in Afghanistan when he decided to wander off his unit's observation post in 2009. Bergdahl's sobriety and motivations at the time are up for debate and not clearly known. There are rumors that he was either drunk or high at the time and other rumors say he was attempting to defect. I'm not convinced of the latter since all the videos that have been released appear to show him awfully scared.

In the past week it's been reported that US officials are attempting to secure Bergdahl's release by swapping 5 prisoners held at Guantanamo. This has been attempted before and there is probably multiple reasons for why the US is currently trying to swap Taliban prisoners for our one soldiers. First of all, we're likely closing up shop in Afghanistan come the end of the year and as time goes by it will become increasingly difficult to get Bergdahl back, obviously. Second, the Obama administration has always said it wants to close the detention facility at Guantanamo, but has faced many obstacles to doing that, one of them being the prisoners themselves who we can't seem to move or get rid of. Releasing a few of these guys (in Qatar, not Afghanistan/Pakistan, not sure how the Qataris feel about that) would go a long way to reducing the current population of the facility. Thirdly, he's a damn POW and we need to get his ass back.

However, just days after the US announced the renewal of talks, the Taliban suspended them, stating that the current political situation in Afghanistan is complex...well no shit. Election posturing? Likely. Buying time until it gets closer to the US pulling out and we get desperate? Definitely.

Just one minor detail...

The Taliban doesn't have Bergdahl. The Haqqani Network does. The Haqqani are a family run insurgent network that go back to the mujahedeen days of fighting the Soviet invasion. They are allied with the Taliban. Many even say they are a part of the Taliban. A few senior Haqqani members have even said they are part of the Taliban. But even if the Haqqani are a part of the Taliban, they are still their own masters and may not take kindly to the Taliban telling them what they can and can't do with Bergdahl. It wouldn't shock me to learn that even if we released these 5 prisoners the Haqqani decide that's just not good enough and keep Bergdahl for themselves.

Such a complicated mess.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Worst Day

As I mentioned in my last post, the suicide of SSG Amy Tirador has stayed with me for years after it occurred, which I suspect is normal for anyone in my situation. But what happened on the day of the incident? What was my reaction? Here's what I can recall, with some help from my daily notes:

The day started off normal enough on COP COBRA. November 4th was a Wednesday which meant there was the standard Commander Update Brief in the late afternoon/early evening and the weekly Brigade Intel Synch at 1400 over Adobe Connect or something similar...essentially a briefing done over the computer. There was also a Decision Brief at 0930, which I think had something to do with the upcoming checkpoint mission, or possibly elections which I believe were originally scheduled for January or February but were later pushed to March. It doesn't really matter, we were always doing some kind of brief that required time, energy, and several PowerPoint slides.

SSG Tirador's body was found some time in the morning, but I don't recall exactly what time. In my notes I have the Decision Brief checked off which means it got done...the CUB is crossed out, the commander definitely canceled that. I have no idea when the squadron commander was informed of the situation but I was told about 1345-1350, right before the Intel Synch.

The S3 (operations officer) came into the office that I shared with the Fire Support Officer, one of the assistant S3s, and a few others and told me he had to talk to me. This was extremely unusual and I immediately thought I was in some kind of trouble, as did the FSO who asked what I had done wrong. Despite what every SOP and doctrine manual says, the S3 and I did not work that closely with each other. He was standoffish, a grump, difficult to talk to, and I don't think very bright; so getting called into his office had me very much on edge. He told me to sit down and then said something along the lines of, "there's not good way to say this so I'm just going to say it. SSG Tirador was found dead this morning. It was suicide."

I appreciated him being straightforward.

The next several minutes are not very clear. I remember starting to cry and not giving a shit. The S3 handed me a bottle of water and a tissue. At some point he had the ops NCO get the chaplain who only had enough time to give me a look of sympathy and a brief hug of support before the call came to send him down to FOB CALDWELL where he was needed more. As I watched him run out the door I had a brief thought of extreme selfishness...I wanted to chaplain to stay. It's a 2 hour drive between Cobra and Caldwell, the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) made the trip in a little over an hour.

After composing myself I walked back into my office where of course the FSO and AS3 wanted to know what was wrong and how much trouble I was in. I tried my damndest to brush away their questions and say everything was ok, I didn't want to just announce we had lost a soldier, especially since there were junior enlisted soldiers within hearing distance. But I couldn't lie to these guys and they deserved to know. I told them the truth, and then went for a walk.

Of course by now the Intel Synch had started, but I didn't care. The way it was sent up I knew I had 40 minutes or so before my portion to brief would begin anyway. I wandered around the COP for a time mostly wondering what the fuck went wrong, the entire deployment seemed to be collapsing around me and my self doubts were firing on all cylinders. Was this my fault? How bad of a leader was I to lose a soldier like this? Could I have prevented this in any way? I found myself sitting on top of the dirt berm that separated the COP from Iraq. I looked out at the town of Jalula and just stared for awhile. I'm pretty sure I contemplated just walking off the COP to go looking for trouble. I don't think I would have gotten very far and the 10 rounds I had for my M9 wouldn't have done much good anyway.

Eventually I found myself back at my computer and ignoring the stares of my coworkers as I signed back into the Intel Synch. I had come back just in time to give my portion of the briefing which I gave in my usual professional manner as if nothing at all was wrong. As I wrapped up it took more self discipline than I knew I had to keep from mentioning our loss; it wasn't the time or the place.

The rest of the day is blank for me, other than a phone call I received from the squadron XO. He only called when someone on staff had not done something perfectly and this was no exception. The XO discussed for several minutes about some product that wasn't up to his standard, or something along those lines. As you can imagine I didn't have a lot of "give-a-damn" at the moment. After multiple "yes sir's" and "of course, sir's" he finally stopped and then asked me how I was doing. Fuck you man. Don't chew on my ass about a PowerPoint slide and then try to be some kind of grief counselor, I don't respect you enough for that.

There's a note I made to myself the next day in reference to having to replace Amy: "The phone call I don't want to make. The conversation I don't want to have...They don't train you for this."

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Ghost In the Crowd

In early November 2012 I found myself feeling very much alone in a remote corner of Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. I was frustrated, anxious, and a felt like I had failed somewhere in life. When I left the Army in February I had assumed I would never deploy to another 3rd World shithole to face rocket fire, snipers, and IEDs again. Over the course of 7 months of unemployment I became more depressed and more desperate to find a job. To say I hit rock bottom would be an insult to those who have; however, I saw no light leading me away from the dark path I was crawling...slowly...down.

So I took a contractor job in Afghanistan, and for over a week I sat in my room with nothing to do. It took several days to get approval for the badges needed to gain access to where I would work in the Detention Facility In Parwan (DFIP) so my days were spent sitting in my room bored out of my mind and sitting in the dining facility surrounded by military and the hauntings of my previous deployments.

It was at one of these meals that I happened to look over at another table and saw a ghost. There sat a sailor who looked incredibly similar to SSG Amy Tirador, so similar that to this day I would swear they had to be related. For those not aware, SSG Tirador was my human collection NCO who killed herself in November 2009 on FOB CALDWELL, Iraq. This sailor could be Amy's sister and I sat there and stared at her for several minutes, or at least long enough to know I was staring too long...and I didn't care. Eventually the sailor got up to leave and I was able to catch a glimpse of her nametag. It took every fiber of my being to not get up myself and follow her to wherever she was going.

I went back to my room and spent much of the night going full stalker on the internet. Did SSG Tirador have a sister? Did she have a relative in the Navy? Am I losing my mind? What the hell am I even doing here?

For the next three weeks I never saw the sailor. The camp where the DFIP is located is pretty small and I would see the same people day in and day out, but not the sailor. I was beginning to believe that she was a figment of my imagination, the universe having an inside joke with itself.

On my last day at the DFIP before I moved to Kabul and the IJC I saw the sailor again. However, while I recognized her as the person I had seen earlier she did not look all that much like Amy as when I first saw her. Less the sister I thought she might be and more a distant cousin.

Every once in awhile I will think I see SSG Tirador in a crowd; I even thought I saw her at NGIC the other day wandering the halls. I realize now that it's just the ghost of my worst failure as a leader. One day I'll make the pilgrimage to Upstate New York where she is buried and try to let the demon go...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Al Qaida Leadership Shuns An Affiliate

This post is the post I had intended to write yesterday but mid blog I determined I needed to attempt to dump some emotional baggage and decided this blog may be the best forum to do it.

The news of interest for me was the announcement by Al Qaida Senior Leadership and Ayman al Zawahiri that AQ was disowning the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) aka Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) aka Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS) aka Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Holy hell, how many names does ISIS have? Anyway, this announcement has been a long time coming and I'm not shocked at all to see it. The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, had attempted to merge ISIS and Al Nusrah Front (Al Qaida's franchise in Syria) and assume leadership of both organizations himself. Al Nusrah refused to merge and swore allegiance directly to Zawahiri.

The merger fiasco led to an open dispute between Zawahiri and ISIS which I suspect was an open wound that was created during the US occupation of Iraq. Forming in Iraq in 2004, ISIS originally called itself The Monotheism and Jihad but changed it shortly afterward to The Organization of Jihad's Base in the Country of the Two Rivers (TQJBR...or as Coalition Forces called it, Al Qaida in Iraq). Merging with several other insurgent groups the name was changed yet again to Mujahideen Shura Council and then finally, Islamic State of Iraq. After the US left and the Syria civil war kicked off, ISI changed to ISIL.

I believe that Al Qaida Senior Leadership became increasingly frustrated with ISI starting in 2006 when the orgy of bloodshed and religious violence between Sunni and Shia escalated. AQ has never had much of a problem killing innocent people, even innocent Muslims, but to their credit, AQ never (not to my knowledge anyway) specifically targeted Muslims. Any Muslims killed in terrorist attacks were seen as martyrs to the cause and would go to Paradise. While the predominately Sunni AQ may have ideological issues with Shia Islam, the slaughter of thousands of Shia in Baghdad and all of Iraq most likely disgusted the leadership of Al Qaida.

No, I don't have any sources for this assessment and I'm too lazy to try to find any. I'm also not a Muslim scholar who can discuss the nuances of the differences between Shia and Sunni and why Al Qaida is primarily Sunni. I will use this quote though from one of my brigade intel officers, "just because someone is Shia, doesn't mean he can't be Al Qaida."

But what impact will Al Qaida's disavowing of ISIS have on the organization? I suspect non at all. During my time in Iraq AQI/ISI/whatever-they-were-calling-themselves seemed to be self sufficient and were able to recruit fighters and acquire weapons and funding without the support from any higher organization. This was more and more apparent as the war went on and ISI lost the support of (most of) the Sunni tribes and the government of Iraq became more capable. Had Al Qaida still supported ISI after the "Sunni Awakening", the organization likely would have still been a force to reckon with during my third Iraq deployment in 09-10; but by that time ISI was a shadow of its former self. Only the government of Iraq's refusal to conduct adequate counterinsurgency operations as well as the war in Syria has allowed ISIS to come back from the dead.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Because Therapists Cost Money and Blogger Is Free

I've been disappointed recently in my posts for this blog. Part of it has to do with me believing I really have nothing interesting left to say. I'm pretty sure I've written about all the interesting/amusing stories that happened to me during my three deployments in the Army and other than a couple of attacks against my base in Afghanistan my time at ISAF Joint Command was extremely uneventful. A post about a lieutenant colonel mildly annoying me with requests he can't fully explain? I don't want to write about boring shit like that, and I'm sure you don't want to read it.

My goal has been to write at least one post a week, but after blogging since mid 2009 I'm nearly out of things to say. The initial purpose of Warhorse Intel was to document my deployment with 1-14 Cav and despite not having a lot of access to the internet I believe I succeeded, hell, I even had some folks up at brigade reading. The blog evolved a bit to me discussing interesting happenings around the world and my thoughts as well as the occasional story from my deployments and I had hoped to one day use the posts as a template for writing a book of my exploits...not that a book about a military intelligence officer would be all that interesting.

So I'm going to take this blog down a road I haven't explored much, the darker moments of my career. I'm an extremely private person when it comes to my emotions and I don't share my feelings easily, even with my close friends. The demons won't go away on their own, however, and I realize I need to write about the time I was in the chow hall and I swore I saw my NCO who had shot herself 3 years prior; or the months at the end of the 2007 deployment where I day dreamed about shooting my boss; hell, the night I stared at my M9 in least I'm still here.

There's one post I've got lined up and then we'll see where this road leads, unless Skyrim completely takes over my life since I made the mistake of starting that game again.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Just the Usual Day With Some Unusual Requests

Day to day life while I was working at ISAF Joint Command was pretty standard boring staff work. There was little that would, or even could, disrupt the IJC battle rhythm...well an attack on the base could disrupt things. Anyway, I knew my schedule would have little change to it and honestly made my deployed life go by fairly quickly and smoothly, unlike the chaos of my 2009-10 deployment. Sometimes chaos is good, but for my fourth deployment I just wanted simple and uncomplicated.

Every once in awhile something would throw my schedule off. Usually it was a meeting of some kind and most times they were stupid/ridiculous. The best example of this was one day when my section was asked to have a "hush hush" meeting with some random lieutenant colonel who wanted to talk to us about our targets (our targets being the "kill list"). We basically went into the meeting blind because all we were told was that it was a special program the lieutenant colonel was working on and we weren't "read on" for it.

I'm going to back up a tad here and try not to cross any classified lines that I shouldn't. In Afghanistan, the military has come up with special programs that are designed to find certain individuals, disrupt insurgent network attacks, or disrupt insurgent supply operations. These programs are pretty clandestine and to know about the individual programs you have to be "read on" to them, basically give up your first born if you talk about them.

So in the meeting the colonel tells my section that he's working on a special project and needs some input from us. He wanted us to provide a list of some of our Tier 1 targets that would best meet the criteria for targeting in this program. Because he was just one person he didn't have the time to sort through all the Tier 1 targets and needed our assistance in nominating individuals for his program. The problem? He couldn't give us any details on what they were doing. I would have been mad about this guy wasting my time, but it was just so absurd.

What was our solution? We picked half a dozen or so targets and emailed him the names. Did it do anything? I highly doubt it. But that's what I feel like a lot of the Afghan war has been. Tossing some darts at a board and seeing what sticks.

This is no way to fight a war.