I was asked to review another book written by contractors who served in Afghanistan (and Iraq) titled Outside the Wire in Blue. The book is a series of first-person accounts written by various lawmen who worked the Law Enforcement Professionals (LEP) program in Afghanistan. Being an outside the wire purist I approached the task with the expectation I’d be underwhelmed. I was wrong, the book was a great anthology of interesting stories.
My assumption was that some of these guys had operated with infantry units sortieing off firm bases for short duration patrols, which some did. But the majority of the officers telling their stories were out on frontier in little miserable combat outposts, living in the dirt, eating MRE’s and pulling sentry and patrol duties with the grunts. A few of them were operating outside the wire like I did; partnered with Afghans, wearing local clothes, driving in local beaters, teaching the Afghans how to conduct covert surveillance while relying on local cell phones for communication.
That’s impressive, having an experienced LEP, who had been in gunfights. But, more importantly, a LEP who had developed a keen sense for pre-incident indicators, who applied the rule of opposites instinctively, proved invaluable to the rifle companies assigned LEP teams.
Another chapter explains how they set up low visibility surveillance teams with the NDS in Wardak province. Developing and then selling that concept showed foresight, guts, and the level of trust the senior military leadership in Bagram had in the guys running the program. That story and many others involve bravery, wisdom, passion, and larger-than-life characters in some of the most emotionally intense moments in the human experience. (I lifted that last line from a Dan Carlin podcast and have been waiting a long time for a good place to use it.)
The stories from LEP teams who trained the Afghan National Police (ANP) or the National Directorate of Security (NDS) focused on evidence collection and preservation. They seemed to operate under the assumption that the evidence they collected would be used in a functional judicial system by judges who were free of the taint of corruption. Afghanistan has developed some courts with USG assistance that have trained competent judges. These courts would be best used to prosecute high profile cases of government corruption. The average Afghan doesn’t need or want western style justice.
Afghans have a legal system they already trust and understand well, called the Koran. Mullahs are the preferred judge in most of the country, when Afghans need a judge (which is not often). Afghans don’t want family problems paraded in public by the police or courts. If somebody murders an Afghan’s brother, the last thing he wants or needs is the police getting in the way of him and his relatives sorting it out. If an Afghan’s daughter or sister runs away, the last thing they would tolerate is the police getting involved. That particular scenario is not going to end well for the girl or (if there is one is involved) the guy she was with when she ran off. That’s the way it is in Afghanistan, and it is not going to change anytime soon. This is common knowledge for Afghan vets, and I bring it up to focus on the potential I saw when I started reading how the LEP program unfolded.
One of the stories in the anthology was from an embedded, outside the wire, surveillance team and their mission to find and blow up a Taliban arms cache. Alerted by informers of a large ammo cache located on the side of the Khuna Khomar mountain in Wardak province, the agents and a platoon of Army infantry try a dangerous helicopter insertion on the top of the mountain to get at it. The lead pilot aborts that mission after she was unable to obtain a stable hover in the shifting winds typically found in the Hindu Kush. The next attempt was made by a large combat patrol mounted in armored HUMVEE’s who drove the the base of the mountain and humped up to the ammo cache.
I wrote repeatedly in Free Range International about the only outside the wire EOD trainer in Afghanistan, Ralph Ward a.k.a. the Skipper. In the picture below he’s standing by a large Taliban (or HIG) ammo cache, most of which was stored correctly and obviously useable. Old Soviet ordinance left exposed on the side of mountain corrodes and becomes unstable, it is not worth a penny on the black market. The find below is obviously worth a considerable amount. The informant provided the location of this cache to a third party, who passed it on to Ralph. When Ralph returned to Jalalabad and confirmed the size and composition of the cache, the informant received a large fee for his services. That is how things work in Afghanistan.
The Skipper had been in Jalalabad, operating the same program from the same compound for three years when the above picture was taken. He took leave a couple times a year, but for more than 10 months out of the year he was the guy the Afghans turned to, time and time again, because he would come and either move or blow the boom, no questions asked. They knew him, they trusted him, and it took consistent performance, month in and month out, for well over a year before Ralph was welcomed in almost every district of Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan, and Laghman provinces.
If the LEP teams working undercover, outside the wire, in Wardak province had been designed to duplicate Ralph’s ability to remain in country year in and year out, they would have found the level of information flowing to them would have been similar to the information that flowed to the Skipper. Check that, they would have got MORE information flowing to them because the LEP guys know how to run snitches. My point being that at year three Ralph was getting tipped off about large, valuable ammo caches, and that was a feature, not an anomaly, with his operation.
When the LEP teams working undercover operations linked up with their Afghan counterparts, they knew those Afghans assumed complete responsibility for their safety. I’m not talking about when they were hooking and jabbing with bad guys, I’m talking about when they’re not. It’s a feature with the Afghan people. The tenets of Pashtunwali, regarding the treatment of guests, are universal in Central Asia. That forms a tight bond, but at some point — be it a year or after 8 years — the American mentors return home to a really nice place where they and their families are safe and sound. The Afghans remain in a not so nice place, and if things go the way I believe they will, some of them (and their families) are going to have a problems — because everyone knows they once worked closely with the Americans.
A longer engagement by the same Americans supporting the same Afghans year after year demonstrates a level of commitment that is not only appreciated but valued by Afghans. It mitigates, to some extent, the knowledge that when you return home you have left your friends in a situation that may not end well for them. But it is also how you uncover large ammo caches and are able to service them without placing an infantry platoon or a section of helicopters in harms way.
I do not believe wars in the future will be fought between uniformed nation state militaries. They will be like Afghanistan and Iraq, centers of durable kinetic disorder where the combatants are indistinguishable from the civilian population. When I think of how I, using 20/20 hindsight, would have used the LEP program (were I king for the day), I focus on the outside the wire guys. I can see how their skills and knowledge would have been invaluable, particularly if they were introduced as early as 2003. Large teams at the Provincial level with smaller teams operating out of district centers, where appropriate, could have been game changers under two conditions.
The first would be total buy-in from the President on down. A mentor program, designed to leverage long-term commitment, would require the elimination of the common practice of selling senior police commissions in lucrative districts to the highest bidder. The senior leadership would have to demonstrate the same level of commitment that comes natural to the Afghan officers (most of them, not all) in the field. A program like this would need to target Taliban, and black market weapons and ammo dealers while ignoring smuggling and drug rackets that would have a negative impact on “business”. Corruption is a reality in Afghanistan that you cannot ignore, so it has to be managed.
A program like this, focused on providing outside the wire operators, would need to be a little more sneaky. For example, I looked up the compensation range for an LEP 1 and easily found it is 150k a year with an additional 70% post differential added for every day spent in country. That level of compensation is average for American contractors working for the American government in Afghanistan, in positions requiring an active Top Secret security clearance. But that figure is a problem for guys who are operating outside the wire. The Taliban or corrupt cops are going to use the level of compensation to justify their corruption. They are also going to use the compensation level to try and turn disgruntled cops, this has already happened and is now a matter of historical record. The salaries paid to the ANP are notoriously low, everybody knows that, the level of compensation for some of these program are really high and everybody know that too.
When somebody searches for salary information on LEP teams in Afghanistan what should come up is something like 65K a year. There should also be stories about LEP officers serving in Afghanistan year after year while earning crap wages. These stories should feature wives who are getting a bit bitter about the time spent overseas because who the hell is going to spend that much time away from home for less pay then they were making at the departments they left? That’s called information warfare (IO), which is something we really suck at.
In the age of Little Green Men and Chinese Unrestricted Warfare, we are going to need to get serious about IO, while controlling the dominant narrative, both at home, and abroad. The level of compensation LEP officers receive will allow the participants to remain in the program for years. I know plenty of contractors who are happily married with children who can sustain a six month on, three month off rotation for years. They aren’t Americans though, because Americans working overseas receive a generous tax break only when they remain outside the country for 330 out of 365 consecutive days. Most of the Americans I know who do this are either not married or have kids already out of the house and a wife who enjoys traveling to link up during the off-month cycle. It is possible to set up a program for long duration commitments and staff it with motivated professionals.
But that level of compensation should not be acknowledged. In the future, plausible deniability is a tactical advantage we should never surrender. Obviously, at some point in a program like this, the compensation figures will leak. That is when plausible deniability is important in the information warfare context. For the teams on the ground the level of commitment demonstrated will show their Afghan colleagues that the mission is the primary motivator for the Americans. That’s true; it doesn’t take long before the money becomes an afterthought and the mission becomes the focus.
But in the Press the story regarding compensation should never change, the amount never admitted. Because we want to dominate the narrative to reflect selfless sacrifice for the Afghan people. In the future the truth needs to be protected by a bodyguard of lies.
We are all victims of our own experiences, so it is not a surprise that I focus on that aspect of the LEP story. There are plenty of other valuable lessons in the book. One of the main authors, J.T. Taman, had an IED detonate underneath his seat of armored HUMVEE during his first tour in Afghanistan. He was blown through the roof, broke his neck, sustained a serious traumatic brain injury, shredded his feet, among other injuries. In a year of brutal physical therapy he had worked his way back into the program passing both the pre-deployment medical physical and physical fitness test.
J.T. goes back to Afghanistan to run the program from the Bagram airbase and reveals himself to be, among other things, a world-class scrounger and networker. His stories tell the reader exactly how to set up an optimal operation on a large military base by leveraging relationships built on a reputation for providing a service the military found to be very useful. As I said above, I highly recommend the book. And for those of you who served in Afghanistan, I would be curious if you come up with any outside the box ideas on focusing a program like this in a more strategic manner.
Feature image of J.T. Tanman and Dave Shearman, the main authors of Outside the Wire in Blue.