Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Here We Go Again?

I have had my attention drawn to a post in Defense One (No, not the Defense version of Police One) about the current situation in Afghanistan. Please go read it. If you don't, you will not necessarily understand some of the points I am going to make. Go on, I'll wait...
Back? Good.

This a familiar theme - "This time for sure." Surges, drawdowns, you name it. It has all been done. So this is completely the same, right?

"Hey Rocky, watch me pull a victory out of my hat."

Well...not quite. There are a couple of changes to the rules that will make US forces more effective. The US is bringing in some forces that have been noticeably absent on the Air side of the house. Also, the Afghan National Army (ANA) has been through a fairly tough time that has winnowed out the weakest links, and the Afghan Air Force has come into somewhat useful form. Will this help - sure. Is it enough...probably not.

Why not? As I have previously harped upon... the Pakistani element in Afghanistan's problems is quite large. Have they received the warning shot (or warning Twitter as the case may be) over the bow needed to get them to slow down helping or tolerating the various insurgent groups? That would take the other Pakistani State apparatuses, most notably the Army, to decide US aid is more important than the ISI's fixation on Afghanistan. Probably not happening at present. However, there is a new factor coming into play. A big source of money and assistance for the ISI and their insurgent backing came/comes from Saudi Arabian sources. Pakistan is pretty much pals with the Kingdom. With the big shakeup in Saudi Arabia - Prince Mohammed bin Salman seemingly taking the reins and taking steps toward reforms - the money spigot might be turned off. There are two reasons bin Salman might cut off the ISI /insurgents;

1) A desire to concentrate Saudi efforts against Iran, not on some Pashtun border squabbles that yield nothing for Saudi Arabia, and

2) THEY ARE RUNNING OUT OF MONEY. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal wasn't hanging upside down in a posh hotel room because they were shaking a few loose Riyals out of his pockets. Allegedly, a whole bunch of money has been beaten out of, er...recovered from the "corruption crackdown". The "welfare family living on a lake of oil" is running low on cash, thanks in large part to greater US production. They don't have lots of money to throw at the Pakistani insurgent machine.
Is that enough to turn the tide? Possibly...maybe even a coin flip of a chance.

HOWEVER, the single most important remaining factor is the Afghans themselves. Are they content to suffer the corruption, at levels that would make a Chicago Alderman blush, that saps their slim resources?  Do they want to fight on, or suffer under creepy theological rule again?  Do they care enough about "Afghanistan" or are they solely concerned about their home village, district or province? THAT will be the main determinant. That is my greatest fear as well - a fractured nation and a non-cohesive society cannot stand off a determined and foreign supported invasion of phanatiques.
I was often asked, when I came home from Iraq, some version of "will they make it"? My reply was always the same - we gave them their chance, it is up to them. Despite my personal feelings for the people and the area, I would say that it is time to say the same for Afghanistan. Maybe with a little bit of (unwilling) Saudi restraint, Pakistani hesitation, US pressure and the Afghan backbone, the whole mess can wind down to the dull background of squabbling and occasional gunfire that was Afghanistan's past.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Bridges of Basrah

Two and a half years after coming home from Afghanistan (and 4 months later, getting sent to New Orleans after Katrina) I was called back up, in 2007, to go to Iraq. This was displeasing. I had anticipated returning to Afghanistan in 2009. This was early, and I knew some Dari and had a good understanding of how Afghanistan worked (or didn’t). I didn’t know Arabic, and I had just started working for my new employer a only a couple of years earlier.

"We finally get to leave Fort Riley?!"

But, I made the best of it I could. I crammed Arabic for a couple of months, and learned as much as I could ahead of time. One small advantage I had was that a decent amount of my work for my B.A. and M.A. was in Middle Eastern History. So I had some idea of the big doo-doo pile I was about to step into as an “adviser” to the Iraqi army. A bit of extra training and I got dumped off with the Iraqi Army 10th Division.

Come on in, the water is....non-existent.
Oh boy. This was going to be work, but at least it was only moderately dangerous in their Area of Operations (not counting the 3 KIA we had the first week I was there). That lasted 3 weeks. The Iraqis had gotten sick of not controlling the second largest city in their country, and decided to do something about it. It was pretty much an Iraqi show, but the US decided it would at least lend them a bit of air support, some Special Forces to advise their Iraqi counterparts…and me.
I was taken from the 10th Division, and sent to go “help” the Iraqi Army 14th Division. They needed help. They were a relatively new unit, and had just finished initial training and were not fully equipped yet. But the knucklehead in charge, Iraqi 3 star General Mohan, launched them into the the fray immediately. One brigade saw a lot of its members walk away, since they were from Basrah itself, to go home and take care of business there. Fortunately, the Iraqi 1st Division (some serious killers) and a brigade of National Police (similar to European Gendarmes) as well a tank unit had been sent down too.
The other forces in the area were British, as this was their area…on the map. They had pretty much given up trying, had handed over “military control” to the Iraqis and were huddled in in their base at the airport. However, they did have a team of advisers with the 14th Division. So, I jumped out to join them and “advise”.
Thank you for flying the RAF - Welcome to Mahmud al-Kasim.

In the meantime, the Iraqis had gotten serious. They kicked Mohan upstairs to the “Basrah Operations Command”and put a general in charge of the 14th who had been to both the US and Australian Staff Colleges. He was a good leader, who was angry about how his troops had been handled, and their equipment and support. The Prime Minister and the Interior Minister showed up and suddenly red tape vanished – units could get fuel, ammo, whatever they were short. They even brought some more police with them.

All I had to worry about was the $&%#ing Jaish al-Mahdi’s version of Davey Crockett blowing me up with a 107mm rocket. He got really close. But he still missed, in the end (I think one night after the nearest miss, someone asked where the Hell was that large bell was that had just rung…I explained that it was no bell, just my sphincter slamming shut so hard it sounded like one). The Iraqis kicked the Jaish al-Mahdi’s ass, and their Iranians handlers too. When the first three prisoners were brought in, I asked why I couldn’t understand anything they said. The Iraqi soldiers looked at me and said “They are speaking Farsi, they are Persians” (The Iraqis always called them ‘Persians’, never Iranians). Whoopsie. Oh, and up yours, IRGC!
I was really, really tired, after going through a lot of 16 hour days – but the end of this phase was in sight. So, a Brit officer and I huddled up with the staff of the 14th DIV and asked what was next. The Iraqis said they were going to chase the baddies out of the last part of town they held – and it was close to the only available bridge across the Euphrates. I was as pleased as Zardoz directing a brutal hunt.
We set up a plan where the Iraqis would drop a company by helicopter on the far side of the river, and set up strong points at both ends of the bridge across the river. I told the 14th DIV CoS (Chief of Staff ) that they could trap every one of the bad guys, and make them surrender, or be killed. He agreed it would work, and I shuffled off to sleep.
"We are going in to town...have some Jaish al-Mahdi to wipe out. You want us to pick anything up while we are there?"

The next morning I went to the DIV HQ to see how things were going. The staff looked pleased, and the Brigadier I had talked with smiled. I asked him how things were going and he said “Good, they are all running away!” I was a bit bemused. As we had blocked the bridge, where were they running? “Oh, we let them go. They are running to the Persian side.” I about has a stroke on the spot. Did we not plan to BLOCK them from getting away?! What was the Division doing, letting them get away to Iran?!
While I was asking this, apparently I had gotten a bit … excited. I realized that I had backed the Iraqi General almost literally into a corner of his office. He had his hands up a bit and was saying “They are finished, it is no problem!” And I was urging him to kill every one of them because they would be back, causing trouble. I was trying to perpetuate a junior version of the Marianas Turkey Shoot.
The Iraqis took the word of Americans quite seriously. We had booted their asses, hard, a couple of times in the past 15 years, and they respected our opinions. Here I was urging slaughter of the fleeing enemy…and the Iraqi CoS said “no”. I calmed down, pretty quick once I realized what I was doing. I told the general “it is your country, I hope you do not have to deal with them later.” I saluted, and I left.
I often wonder if I had badgered him into calling the strong points and saying “light ’em up”…It would have been triple digit KIAs at the least – and despite the guys running away, we had killed a few dozen. It bothered me for years. It also took me years to tell anyone. I finally told my most trusted buddy, an NCO who I had previously been with in Afghanistan (after a few whiskies, I spilled it out – oh, and you should have heard what he ended up telling me!) and my pastor at church. Now, I can reflect back on this and only wince a bit.
I think it says something sort of good about the US Army that I managed to reel it in, before pushing it too far. And for that, I will toast Brigadier Baseem today, and his backbone…and that I did manage to rein it in, in the end.
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