Two stories surfaced last week that seem unrelated, yet both illustrate serious structural problems in our current military approach in Afghanistan. The first is an excellent analysis of how the Taliban consolidated control in the Jaghori district of Ghazni province. The second was a story of blatant corruption involving an $8 billion contract awarded in 2012 to a trio of Northern Virginia businessmen to provide food and supplies to American troops in Afghanistan. The first article concerns a military tactic that many have long advocated calling “Pseudo Operations.” The second is related to the first only in so far as it illustrates the unbelievable amount of money we spend to support deployed troops which allows us to ignore viable tactical solutions like Pseudo Ops.
Let’s look at the second article first. The concentration of legal, financial, and cultural power in Washington DC — along with all the corruption, graft, racketeering and influence peddling that such centralization of power inevitably attracts — is an old story. The lowest bidder of an $8 billion contract failing to provide what they said they would and lying about it (allegedly) is old news too. That happens so routinely that one is forced to question the wisdom of always taking the lowest, technically acceptable bid in large federal contracts. But that too, is old news; the eye opener is the amount of money in play.
Prior to World War II, the biggest killer of American troops in the field was infectious disease. During World War II, the wide use of vaccines and antibiotics made that conflict the first in our history where combat related deaths predominated. Yet infectious disease remain a problem; listeria monocytogenes, salmonella, E. coli O157, and campylobacter are few of the many food or water-borne diseases that remain killers to this day. We’ve known this for centuries. Long before we were able to print unlimited amounts of money or had the technology to fly in every morsel of food consumed by our troops into a combat zone, there were methods in place to ensure locally procured food and water were safe.
Our old technology and procedures did not stop every pathogen. When I was a corpsman floating off the coast of Beirut in 1983, we had two Marines medevaced to our ship who were so sick they soon lapsed into comas. Their fevers topped out at 105 and stayed there, and they had positive blood cultures; the only reason they survived was because the pathogen was stopped (by shot-gunning every antibiotic we had) before the disease broke the blood brain barrier. The disease in this case was salmonella paratyphi, which took thee to four days to identify using the technology available on naval shipping back then. We did not have the ability to serotype the salmonella with the equipment available, and I don’t even think the various serotypes were even known back then.
It is impossible to determine how many of our troops have died from infectious disease in the Afghanistan war. Casualties are reported as combat related or “other causes.” Included in the other causes category would be deaths from armored vehicles running over sleeping troops inside hasty defensive positions, riflemen ejected from the back of a HMMWV into a raging rivers, a squad leader who drowned after jumping into a irrigation canal in an attempt to save his interpreter who fell in and could not swim. Add in suicides, heart attacks, heat stroke, and you get a muddled picture that obscures how many of the non-combat deaths came from disease. I am certain of one thing, and that is that the number of disease-related deaths is not zero.
Even if we were spending well over $8 billion to fly in water and food, it makes zero sense. Afghanistan produces great food which, when properly prepared, is perfectly safe to consume. The problem with agricultural production in the country centers on limited cold storage, lack of adequate road networks for transporting produce, and rampant corruption that makes any attempt to move large volumes of locally produced food financially untenable. Had western military units been dependent on Afghan food sources, these problems would have been solved long ago.
But that’s not the point; unintended consequences are, and what are the unintended consequences of flooding one of the poorest countries on earth with a tsunami of American dollars? Destabilization of the country while simultaneously failing to develop functional local economies. This failure to develop organic, sustainable local economies has contributed more fuel to an insurgency that already has enough fuel to last a few lifetimes.
The only NATO military force demonstrating a rational approach to sustaining their troops in Afghanistan was the United Kingdom. The Brits tapped the Helmand River aquifer to bottle their own water at Camp Bastion. They produced ice from that source instead flying in 5lb bags of ice from Saudi Arabia. Although the British flew in most of the food dispensed in their DFACs (dining facilities), they limited the amounts dispensed to their troops. There was no unlimited servings of pecan pie, no multiple scoops Baskin and Robbins ice cream, no second helpings; you got one entree per meal, were expected to wolf that done quickly, and get out.
The amount of money we spent and continue to spend on feeding our troops deployed to Afghanistan is ridiculous. And yet, we have the money allocated to throw at our messing needs and if it is not spent on the troops our elected representatives will find other ways to waste it on equally useless, unnecessary programs — so why complain? Because with unlimited funding comes unlimited ways to ignore a limited set of tactical solutions that are forced on a military operating with limited resources.
Let’s look at the first story about the Jaghori district and I’ll try to connect the dots. For well over a year there were groups of itinerant shepherds moving their flocks around Jaghori district who consistently talked up the Taliban. They said the Taliban were better quipped and much more dangerous now than ever before. In early November, these shepherds disappeared from the surrounding hills only to re-appear with the Taliban who overran the district. When they came back, they identified government employees, locals who were known to be armed, and others who they knew to be anti-Taliban. We can imagine what happened to the Afghans that the shepherds dimed out.
That was a virtuoso display of effective intelligence preparations of the battlefield using the tactic of Pseudo Operations.
The paragraph below, lifted from a post on the Weapons Man blog, sums up Pseudo Ops succinctly:
To most American students of war and insurgency, “pseudo ops” mean the Selous Scouts of Rhodesia, especially as recounted in the unit’s founding commander’s, the late Ron Reid-Daly’s, memoirs. The Scouts were the Rhodesian Army’s one truly mixed-race unit, and they incorporated large numbers of turned insurgents. While they trained intensively in bushcraft, and maintained a cover as a tracking unit, their prime raison d’être was to impersonate ZANLA and ZIPRA terrorist groups for the purposes of both intelligence gathering and combat operations. The psychological effect was profound, although late in the war, the terrorists and their allies in the global Left succeeded in sticking labels on the Scouts in the western media, even as they had their greatest successes against enemy camps.
As Weapons Man goes on to note, the Rhodesians did not think this tactic up out of thin air. The British army had run similar operations during their Kenyan and Malaysia insurgencies. American Special Operations Forces had done the same in the early days of Vietnam with Road Runner Reconnaissance Companies, which were part of Operation Delta. These companies were commanded by a South Vietnamese SF officer and advised by two attached American SF NCOs. They would infiltrate enemy occupied areas and recon roads, trails, and paths dressed as Viet Cong. The Rhodesians, the Brits, and Americans (early in the Vietnam conflict) all shared the same problem; limited resources with which to prosecute their respective wars.
When a military does not have unlimited funds to throw at solving tactical problems, it must come up with tactical solutions. The two biggest tactical problems for NATO were the Taliban safe havens in the tribal lands of Pakistan and IEDs targeting military vehicles.
The Pentagon addressed the sanctuary problem with high tech drones. It addressed the IED problem with the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO). The problem with using technology to solve tactical problems is that technology can be easily defeated by improved tactics which cost pennies compared to the billions spent on that technology.
The family of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles were easily defeated by making bigger mines. MRAPs were also so tall that they ripped down all the jerry-rigged electrical wires in every village they drove through. They were so wide that they sometimes fell off narrow roads in rural Afghanistan, tipping over into irrigation ditches which drowned the soldiers trapped inside.
The MRAP design was based off the effective, 30-year old Casspir vehicle developed by the South African army. The Casspir was raised high off the ground and had a V-shaped hull to deflect the blast of mines away from the troop compartment. They held 12 men, offered protection from small arms fire, and were cheap to produce. JIDO took that design and added a metric ton of bells and whistles to it, resulting in the MRAP which costs between $500,000 to $1,000,000 per copy, depending on the variant. The MRAPs certainly helped keep the KIA rate lower, but they were no panacea for the roadside IED problem.
The drone program in Pakistan depended, for the most part, on cooperation from the Pakistani military and their Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) which limited their effectiveness. Pakistan and the ISI had another client they protected (the Taliban), so their intelligence focused on Taliban groups who were actively battling the Pakistanis. Limited-to-no human intelligence inside the tribal lands forced NATO and the CIA to rely on signals intelligence, which is easy to counter by staying off of cell phones or removing the battery and sim card from phones.
When a large western military cannot overtly operate inside safe havens like the tribal lands of Pakistan, it always has the option of doing so covertly. When a large western intelligence agency is limited in their targeting efforts by an uncooperative host nation intelligence agency, it has the option of acquiring its targeting via HumInt (human intelligence) covertly.
The most effective tactical solution to the problems identified above would be Pseudo Operations. Roadside IEDs are not a threat if you’re not driving down those roads in gigantic armored vehicles that are easily identified and targeted. Safe havens located across the border become unsafe if you introduce groups that look like Taliban war parties, but are the exact opposite. If the prospect of American servicemen being killed in cross border operations is too much for our political class to handle, there is always the option to contract the work out.
We are not fighting the uniformed military of another nation state. We are fighting non state actors who are not limited by international norms governing military conduct. But our adversaries do have rules and those rules are enshrined in the ancient warrior code of Pashtunwali. I am not advocating fighting without rules; my contention is we should fight the Taliban using their rules.
The CIA’s ground Branch had a program that reportedly involved training and leading Afghan tribal fighters into Pakistan called the Counter-Terrorism Pursuit Teams. I’m not sure what these teams accomplished, but I did hear from Afghans in the Kunar province that when they showed up they were effective at running down Taliban groups. They may have had the right idea but they were obviously not Pseudo Operators as can be seen in the photograph below.
The one attempt to adopt some of the precepts of Pseudo Operations during the Afghanistan War was done by my friend Jim Gant. Jim was not running cross border operations, nor was he going on the offensive against the Taliban in Kunar province where he was operating. He was trying to build local militias in what became Village Stability Operations (VSO). Jim took that mission seriously, and he knew the only way the Afghans would take him seriously was if he moved into their tribal lands, lived like them, fought like them, and trained them like he had been trained. To the best of my knowledge he was the only Green Beret to operate this way. Every other team ran their VSO ops off the big box FOB’s where there were gyms, nice bunks, air conditioning, and pecan pie.
Jim did pull some pseudo ops-type missions during his time in Kunar and I’ll share one that few have heard about. When Jim came back to Afghanistan to beta test his VSO theory, he was not at the head of an SF team. He did have one of his SF sergeants assigned, but the rest of the Americans were mostly support personnel from FOB Fenty in Jalalabad. Included in his mixed bag of personnel was another good friend we’ll call Baba D. He was a contractor (probably ground branch from the CIA side but I’m not sure) who had serious connections at the four star level and was often sent places to provide his personnel assessment directly to the top of the chain of command. He was a former SF officer and a former NCAA football star. Many of you would recognize his name, especially those of you who are fans of the SEC.
Baba D and Jim were asked by Ops CW-3 if they could get to the Jalalabad-Asadabad road to yoke up a Taliban financier who was reportedly leaving Asadabad (the capitol of Kunar province) to return to Khost within the hour. They were told he would be in a “white Toyota truck with a blue stripe” and they were provided a poor grainy photograph of their intended target.
Baba D and Jim and a few of his Lashkars (tribal fighters) took off in two trucks. Jim and Baba D pulled off the road to watch the oncoming traffic for the target while the other truck drove up and down the road looking for the same. The problem was that white Toyota trucks with blue stripes were a dime a dozen in that area, I had one myself, and that was probably why that truck/paint scheme was being used to begin with. Realizing they had to make an attempt, they selected a truck that looked the part and matched the time distance calculation they had made based on the targets reported departure time.
Having selected a target vehicle, Jim and Baba D mounted up and with the other truck, boxed the target in, and pulled them over into one of the turnouts on the main highway. Baba D said the stop was textbook perfect, the boys bailed out, got the occupants of the target vehicle out, and tried to match one of the Afghans to the crappy photo they had.
That didn’t work, so they started questioning the men (individually of course) looking for inconsistencies that would justify yoking them all up, but that was slow going. In the midst of this, one of the Lashkars alerted them to a big Army convoy of MRAPs was heading toward them from Jalalabad. Jim and Baba D knew what they looked like (see the picture above) and knew trying to wave down the convoy to explain what was happening would probably result in getting lit up by the turret gunners. They cut their suspects loose, jumped into their trucks, and went screaming across the Kunar river on a little one-lane bridge into real Taliban country to avoid a possible blue on blue.
If memory serves, there were no ambushes on that road for weeks afterward because it freaked the Taliban out so bad they had to get a handle on what was happening before resuming their normal operations. I even heard about it down south in Lashkar Gah where I was working at the time. That was a perfect example a good Pseudo Op. It is a crying shame that the only other example I know about was the recent Taliban operation in Jaghori.
Good tactics are better and cheaper (in money and lives) than great technology. That is a lesson that, as far as I can determine, the military will never learn… until it is forced to learn, and by then it may well be too little too late.