March 12, 2012

Update: It was (or wasn't) Belanday, dammit

Updating the entry below, I've had it semi-confirmed that that mass killing of Afghan civilians over the weekend occurred at the Belanday village on the Panjwaii-Dand district border that Canadians spent a lot of time making one of our "model villages" not so long ago. That's a lot of our national effort in that country down the drain, I'm afraid. Basically the killer worked out of the combat outpost we built and handed over to the U.S. on our departure, then. So sad. See also Fisher. His assessment here also seems, sadly, sound.

Update, 5 pm: Okay, looking like my semi-informed source was insufficiently semi-informed, and both he and Matt Fisher were actually wrong on the location here. Best evidence I have now is that the primary location of the killings was the town I originally thought it was back in the Sunday post, below, which I now recall we actually called Belambay. With an "M", not "N". NOT the model village better known from later rotos with a similar name, more south of Kandahar City than southwest, with that Canadian-built outpost Fisher and I were thinking about. Should have stuck to my first instincts on this one, I guess.

A correspondent points to this story, which points to Americans working out of a COP Belambay, which it also places close to the Zangabad area, which means we'd be talking much closer to the Arghandab River.

We had a couple different outposts in that area over the years, including COP Zangabad and COP "Old School", and that whole area was (theoretically) well dominated by the hilltop fortresses of Mas'um Ghar to the north and Sperwan Ghar overlooking it. This also makes more sense given the name of the second village, Alkozai, which is also in that same locale. So hopefully that places it better for any vets reading than the post above did.

Makes no real difference, I suppose, but for them, at least, I'd like to get it right. (I suppose I got the correction out ahead of Fisher, at least.) It's always important to remember in a place like Afghanistan that the (transliterated) English nomenclature we and Google have for a given area, including village names, feature names, and district boundaries, even when we have good maps, often turns out to be either out of date or wildly variant from local usage. The locals' system, which makes perfect sense to them, ends up on our maps as looking like three adjacent villages all called Zangabad, for instance. It's a real anthropological exercise just to get clear on the basic geography and document it for followon rotations, a step we often jump over to launch into semi-informed analyses of clans and local social networks before we can even really understand what we're being told.

Update, 8 pm: A quick map. Still can't pin Belambay precisely, but in this map it would be closer to FOB Sperwan Ghar on the extreme West. The western border of Panjwaii district is the Arghandab River (blue). The Dand Belanday is also indicated, with the Panjwaii eastern district border with Dand District somewhere in the space between that Belanday and Salavat. (Positions for Alkozai and Zangabad are approximate, and after today's lesson I'm not even going to try to give a fix for Belambay or COP Belambay again until I see something more definitive. But hopefully at least it allows you to place some of the places I've been throwing around.)
Click for Panjwaii-Dand map.

Posted by BruceR at 01:24 PM

March 11, 2012

Well, so much for the 'peaceful' part of Panjwaii

Today's unprovoked shootings of women and children in the Panjwaii district villages of Balandi-Alkozai*, allegedly by a single American serviceman, are a horrible indication of how little the U.S. surge into Afghanistan can be said to have helped the inhabitants of the area Canadians once worked in.

Remember, though, we Canadians chose to leave Panjwaii, so we're in no way responsible for what happened after our replacements showed up. Let's just keep telling ourselves that, k?

*Location on this one's a little uncertain to me. There was a small village of Alkoz(a)i about 5 km east of FOB Masum Ghar, south of what we called Route FOSTERS, halfway to Salavat. What Canadians called and patrolled as "Belanday" in the last couple rotos of the tour is a larger predominantly Noorzai-clan village 10 km further east (too far for it to be involved in the same incident with Alkozai village), but that village was technically in the Dand (sort of the "greater Kandahar City" district). (That district border with Panjwaii tends to be a bit fuzzy, too, though.) I seem to recall a hamlet close to Alkozai called something similar, so for now I'm going to assume reporters have got the district right (and that the Noorzai Belanday's still considered part of the Dand, for that matter) and this atrocity didn't occur in the Dand(ish) Belanday. The other possibility is that this was the larger Belanday, which would really be even more of a tragedy: Canadians poured a lot of resources into making that a peaceful, friendly village. Will correct if it turns out I'm off there.

Alkozai, of course, is named after a Pashtun subtribe (aka Alikozai), and (at least until now) a relatively pro-government one, that dominated commercial business in Panjwaii and whose elders "held the Arghandab" for President Karzai, for a time, anyway.

Posted by BruceR at 11:04 AM

March 09, 2012

Epic webmaster fail

Within days of the premature demise of lying gadfly Andrew Breitbart, his successors have completely screwed up all the backlinks on his website in a redesign. LGF has the tracking details. Remarkable. The net effect will be ensuring he (and they) will be forgotten faster than they otherwise would have been, which is a comforting thought.

At least when the Egyptians were defacing all the public references to the Pharaoh Akhenaten to erase him from history they were doing so intentionally.

Posted by BruceR at 12:07 PM

March 07, 2012

Good UAV piece, one flaw

I liked Micah Zenko's primer on drones (aka, "unmanned aerial vehicles") at, because I think a little more knowledge on the subject in the public realm is not a bad thing. One quibble, though: where Zenko talks about the fragility of drones in hostile weather and climate conditions (something every soldier knows well) his basis is a citation about something completely different:

The primary reasons for the crashes: bad weather, loss or disruption of communications links, and "human error factors," according to the Air Force. As Lt. Gen. David Deptula, former Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, has noted with refreshing honesty, "Some of the [drones] that we have today, you put in a high-threat environment, and they'll start falling from the sky like rain."

I'm assuming there's a missing sentence or two in there, because of course Gen. Deptula wasn't talking about bad weather. His "high threat environment" is when your opponent has some weapon capable of shooting a drone down. So far, over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya, this hasn't been an issue. Deptula's point is that as soon as you have a hostile air force capable of air-to-air combat in the picture, the environment for UAVs suddenly becomes a lot less permissive, and a lot of the stuff we're getting away with in counterinsurgency ops simply won't be as possible. He's not talking about bad weather or crashes, he's talking drones getting hit with missiles, a different order of problem altogether.

Now, the counter-argument has always been that drones are cheap enough, in cost and lives, to waste in just such a fashion, that there's an inherently lower risk of loss involved in using them. And I for one am skeptical that interceptor aircraft or surface to air missiles are going to be quite as useful against them as some might think. Historical analogies would be artillery spotter aircraft or helicopters or maritime patrol aircraft, none of which are very survivable when jet fighters are around either, but they still have long and illustrious service histories in shooting wars when the local conditions are favourable to them flying. There's every reason to believe that, wherever you can maintain air superiority (which fighters like the F-22 and F-35 are designed to do) then you can continue to operate pretty much as now. If you can't, well, then, the enemy's drones are not going to be the biggest of your problems.

Posted by BruceR at 11:17 PM

Unfortunate metaphor

Look, I know finding public affairs successes in ANSF advising these days is hard work, but really, if your central metaphor is "building a plane while flying it" in a Afghan army mentoring success story, your public affairs staff is either burned out or trying to get fired, or both.

Look, the whole expression is meant to define something as inherently impossible, because the act it refers to is not actually humanly achievable. The written-up (and I have no doubt meritable) accomplishments of yon Sgt. MacAlister are therefore undercut by a headline that's basically shouting to our unconscious minds: "Stop This! This is insane!"

Posted by BruceR at 11:25 AM

March 02, 2012

He's on a roll

Ta-Nehisi Coates is saying everything that needs to be said these days about the current awful dishonesty and cruelty of the American right. Just go over there.

Posted by BruceR at 01:10 PM

Turn turn turn

Josh Foust talks about turning points here. I was in the States last week, casting about for a paper during a dull moment, and I have to admit this article made me laugh out loud. It could, have course, been written word for word in early 2009. Or 2008. Probably 2007. Canadian Zhari District veterans (spelled Zharai now, apparently), I hope you all enjoy, "Stability takes root in Kandahar province."

For those who don't get the joke, look. It was February when this was written. It's always quiet in Zhari in February. Violence always goes down in the winter. "Stability takes root" in February, and gets blown away by June. Year after year. Freelancer Carmen Gentile has no idea what went before, and will not be around when he's proven horribly wrong in a few months.

I love the "new strategy" that finally won "Zharai," by the way: "U.S. military leaders in the Zharai district responded with a new strategy. They ended the foot patrols on the roads and narrow paths where vast farmlands are flanked by steep, jagged mountains. They established small "strong points," heavily fortified guard posts made of earth and sandbags. They called in airstrikes and helicopter gun runs on Taliban positions."

Less foot patrolling, check. Strong points, check. Air support, check. Amazing we never thought of any of that.

"Today, the villagers in the region are able to go about their lives without fear of the Taliban."

No fear? Oh, good.

"Fears remain that any appointed leader would be murdered by Taliban fighters based a few miles to the west who regularly engage U.S. and Afghan forces on patrols."

Well, so much for that no-fear thing...

"With its fortified positions and razor wire lining the road, the area little resembles its previous incarnation, and it's more secure."

So there's a strongpoint in Nalgham again, apparently. That's good. But there's been one there before. On alternate rotations in Zhari, units raze their strongpoints and concentrate their forces at larger bases to buy some freedom of action. On the next roto, they put the strongpoints back. This has been going on for about six years: and regardless of which approach was in effect at the moment, every February's been quiet, and every August has sucked rocks.

I really can't blame the journalist for not knowing this, though. Most Americans in Zhari are continually surprised there was anything there before them at all. I count among peers both the first American commander of Zhari's Strong Point Lakokhel when it was created in late 2009, and the last Canadian commander of Strong Point Lakokhel when it was razed three months previously (obviously fairly effectively), before being rebuilt by the U.S. arrivals in exactly the same location. Neither knew of the existence of the other prior to me telling them: pity, we could have told the U.S. guys where the sniping was coming from, the good places to buy bread, etc. What always amazed me was the Afghan soldiers who were pulled out and then put back in alongside the Western troops never let the Americans in on the joke.

Posted by BruceR at 11:47 AM

Cordesman on Afg: sometimes you're just screwed

Analysis on the current situation worth reading, here. A couple points I pulled out:

On the Obama strategy: "A strategy that called for a combination of 'clear, hold, and build' and 'integrated civil-military operations,' was also described as one that did not involve 'nation building.' This was a sop to the Republican side of Congress, just as deadlines were a sop to Democrats. It was also dishonest and absurd."

On the current 2014 pullout "plan": "These budget requests were made without any meaningful transition plan or clear picture of what would happen as the United States and its allies cut outside spending that the World Bank estimated was equal to the entire domestic GDP of Afghanistan and that funded most of the Afghan government budget and virtually all of the Afghan security forces. Aside from conceptual papers and back of the envelope calculations, the United States had no real funding strategy and no clear picture of how Afghanistan could make it through the coming massive cuts in spending and hold together in the face of the resulting economic shock."

On ANSF training: "The NATO Training Mission for Afghanistan (NTM-A) has ceased any meaningful public reporting on what is happening."

On the capability of the Afghan government: "The Afghan government does not even possess the ability to calculate its own needs after 2014—it simply copied the World Bank estimate in its request for aid at the Bonn conference."

On the UN's limited role: "The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)—which reports on drugs, human rights, and casualties—has never shown any serious ability to coordinate the international aid effort, develop effective plans and requirements, or do any more to ensure that aid money is spent honestly and has real measures of effectiveness than the United States and its allies."

On insurgent strategy: "There is a bitter covert debate within the U.S. intelligence community over whether the Taliban are 'tired,' lacking in effective leadership, divided and seeking peace, or have simply shifted away from clashes with ISAF forces to efforts to control the Afghan population and ride out U.S. and ISAF withdrawal."

On the likely consequences of the 2014 pullout: "Given the time it takes to act in Afghanistan, and the steadily declining support for the war in the United States and allied countries, credible plans [for financial drawdown] were needed last fall... Moreover, the only near-term source of [alternate] major income becomes narcotics, and the combination of sudden funding cuts and lack of security is an invitation to capital flight and brain drains for those who can leave, while forcing power brokers into even more competition and efforts to grab what they can if they stay."

The West is war-tired. The insurgents see the light at the end of the tunnel, meaning stats on dropping violence now will always be suspect. And after all the money goes away, Karzai and the rest of the kleptocrats will light out for Dubai, leaving the dispossessed to fight over the bones of a country: Iraq's ability to bribe itself some internal peace with oil money cannot be repeated. This was the entirely foreseeable outcome four years ago, and not a thing of importance has changed.

Posted by BruceR at 09:59 AM