The more things change, the more they stay the same 1

Adm. Bill McRaven, the head of U.S. special operations, is mapping out a potential Afghanistan war plan that would replace thousands of U.S. troops with small special operations teams paired with Afghans to help an inexperienced Afghan force withstand a Taliban onslaught as U.S. troops withdraw.

While the overall campaign would still be led by conventional military, the handfuls of special operators would become the leading force to help Afghans secure the large tracts of territory won in more than a decade of U.S. combat. They would give the Afghans practical advice on how to repel attacks, intelligence to help spot the enemy and communications to help call for U.S. air support if overwhelmed by a superior force.

If approved by the administration, the pared-down structure could become the enduring force that Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak indicated Tuesday at the Pentagon that his country needs, possibly long after the U.S. drawdown date of 2014.
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Wow this seems like such a cutting-edge and new idea….NOT. This was the model we had in Afghanistan from 2002-2007. During that time we had only one active duty brigade combat team in Afghanistan to conduct kinetic operations. There was also this little group called Task Force Phoenix which was filled with National Guard members whom were charged with “pairing with Afghans to help train an inexperienced Afghan Force”. They were called ETT members which stands for Embedded Training Team. It is also what US Army Special Forces have had as a main mission for years, but there will be more on that later.

The difference being back then they were truly inexperienced as compared to now where the Afghans have been working with, fighting with, receiving medical support from, receiving logistics support from and receiving close air support from American and Coalition forces for 10 years.

This “high-speed” special operations war plan is what the National Guard soldiers of TF Phoenix did for years and did with much success, until TF Phoenix was dissolved in 2009. We always said when I was there that we performed a Special Forces mission without Special Forces resources. This is what the mission is, a Special Forces mission. It is not a Special Ops mission, or Navy Seal Mission or anything like that. It is called FID, or Foreign Internal Defense. This has been the classic SF mission since SF was established. It calls for partnering with local national defense forces, training them, mentoring them and providing assistance during combat operations when needed.

So there is nothing “new” or “shiny” or “cutting-edge” about this new war plan, it is a war plan that we have had and executed very well for years.

Too long in coming

Army Capt. Will Swenson has been recommended by the top U.S. general in Afghanistan for the Medal of Honor after widespread speculation about why his heroism had gone unrecognized, according to a published report.

Swenson braved enemy fire on Sept. 8, 2009, with Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, who will receive the nation’s top valor award Thursday at the White House. Meyer, now a sergeant in the Individual Ready Reserve, told Marine Corps Times recently that it was “ridiculous” Swenson already hadn’t received some form of valor award.

“I’ll put it this way,” the outspoken Meyer said in an interview. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Marine Gen. John Allen, the top commander in Afghanistan, took a personal interest in the fierce firefight in Ganjgal, Afghanistan, that led to Meyer’s award, according to a report published on The Wall Street Journal’s website Wednesday night. The record of the battle was reopened last month, and “given the four-star general’s personal interest, sworn statements attesting to Capt. Swenson’s valor were quickly found.”

“Gen. Allen has since forwarded a Medal of Honor recommendation, saying it was the right thing to do despite a lapse of two years,” the report said.

As the story says ( this has taken too long to make happen and I along with many others are highly suspicious why it took so long for this recommendation to go forward.

This delayed recommendation has several scandalous facets to it. First and foremost is that even thought Dakota Meyer was nominated for and received the Medal of Honor, CPT Swenson was not even put in for an Army Commendation Medal, much less anything near MoH or the MoH itself. As documented in multiple sworn statements, CPT Swenson was side by side, performing the same heroic actions as Dakota Meyer.  (more…)

Sorry about that, it is my culture

“Sorry about that, it is my culture”, that is what our terps and Afghan soldiers we used to work with always said when we questioned something they did. Sometimes it was men walking holding hands, sometimes it was them smoking hash on guard duty. Other times it was when we were conducting military operations and the Afghan soldiers would beat the crap out of people we detained. Sometimes we detained them to question them based on intelligence we received or for probable cause. They could have been 100% innocent and many times they were. That didn’t matter to the Afghan army though. As soon as a person has flex-cuffs on them, it might as well have been a unanimous guilty verdict. I saw things that would make the ACLU vomit with disgust, sometimes only standing a few feet away. 

These detainees or PUCs (Person under control) were teenage kids, but that did not matter. That didn’t stop the butt-stocks, or spiked, fingerless gloves or boots from impacting their bodies. That was the way things are done in Afghanistan, cause Afghanistan is not America. Their way of life, what motivates them, and how they discipline people is not anywhere near our standards, nor does it follow our moral compass. 

After a while serving as an advisor and mentor to the Afghans every day, I, like so many others because used to it. It was their country, their army, their people. All we could do was advise and hope they did not kill someone, because that would mean a whole bunch of paperwork for us. As cruel as that sounds, that was the reality on the ground. I am not saying all of this to justify the actions I did or didn’t take or to seek forgiveness. If you weren’t there, then you don’t know and will never understand. It is what it is. 

However I wrote all of that to cast some light on the reasoning that ISAF has for slowing down detainee transfers to the Afghans.

Interior Minister Besmillah Mohammadi and Rahmatullah Nabil, head of the Afghan intelligence service, described the decision to suspend detainee transfers as politically motivated and aimed at slowing down the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan government.

Afghanistan is gradually taking over responsibility for the country’s security from the U.S.-led military coalition as foreign forces aim to withdraw all their combat troops by the end of 2014.

The Afghan government “believes that any move to halt the transfer of prisoners under any false excuses is a serious blow to the transition process,” Mohammadi and Nabil said.

Not that I think ISAF is right, because if they are really on track to hand over most of the combat operations to the Government of Afghanistan by 2014, then they can’t be playing these kind of games. What we would call “harsh interrogations” or “torture” in our country is considered business as usual in places like Afghanistan and many other 3rd world countries. ISAF needs to learn to accept it and quit trying to put western standards on a country that will never be like the US or any other modern country. 

The transfer of authority, if it is really going to happen by 2014 has to be happening now. These people have been living for this way for longer than any of us could imagine, so they aren’t really going to change in the next three years. Again, I am not justifying but just stating it is what it is. If Afghan people are being tortured (as we would classify it) in an Afghan prison, by a fellow Afghan, well “sorry about that, it is their culture”.


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The enemy has figured us out 4

“Not surprising at all”. That is what first came to mind when I read the story below. It was just a matter of time before all of the most feared facets of being an Embedded Trainer came together to result in one of the most feared outcomes. Air Support is never there when you need it and is never proactively provided to the ETT/PMTs unless they are part of a larger active duty kinetic mission. MEDEVACs typically only fly if Americans are wounded and the area is completely secure, and the thought of calling in Artillery from Big Army was never in my mind because I figured it would have been easier to catch Bin Laden in a traffic stop.

That is the life of an ETT/PMT…Tip of the Spear, but at the End of the Line. These Marines are ETTs, even thought the ETT mission is officially over as noted by Scott Kesterson in the Bouhammer Roundtable Podcast from the other day.

I realize some Americans may read this with awe and disgust that our Sons and Daughters could be left out like this flapping in the breeze, but so is the life of our embedded army and police trainers since 2003. Since 2003 the National Guard has been been mentoring Afghan Army Forces. Starting in 2007 we started mentoring the Afghan Police also, to include the Border Police with no increase in forces. In teams of 5-15 Americans with Afghan units numbering up to the several hundred. All with little to no support from higher HQ and always counting on the good graces of active duty units that may be located nearby.

In 2006-2007, my teammates and I would constantly say “man I am sooo glad the enemy is dumb as has no common sense to see how vulnerable we are”. We would always say this because we felt even Helen Keller could see how exposed we were and were amazed the enemy didn’t. This seems to have started to change now. Either they have gotten smart by watching us exposed so many times, or the smart insurgents were in Iraq, and now they are in Afghanistan. Either way I think the enemy has figured us out.

The story below is the first hand account from an embedded reporter that was with the Marine ETT unit which lost four of its brave men yesterday. I realize GEN McChrystal’s reasoning for re-stating the existing ROE that has always been in country, and even tightening it in a few areas. But it is in cases like this one and others I have highlighted on this blog why I think the trade-off is not worth it. If the accounts in this story are true, then I am sorry for the Marine’s families if they lost their loved ones due to higher command scared to authorize artillery in an attempt to stick within the new guidelines.

ETT-Embedded Training Team
PMT-Police Mentoring Team
ROE- Rules of Engagement


By Jonathan S. Landay | McClatchy Newspapers

GANJGAL, Afghanistan — We walked into a trap, a killing zone of relentless gunfire and rocket barrages from Afghan insurgents hidden in the mountainsides and in a fortress-like village where women and children were replenishing their ammunition.

"We will do to you what we did to the Russians," the insurgent’s leader boasted over the radio, referring to the failure of Soviet troops to capture Ganjgal during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

Dashing from boulder to boulder, diving into trenches and ducking behind stone walls as the insurgents maneuvered to outflank us, we waited more than an hour for U.S. helicopters to arrive, despite earlier assurances that air cover would be five minutes away.

U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren’t near the village.

"We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We’ve lost today," Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, 37, said through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter’s repeated demands for helicopters.

Four U.S. Marines were killed Tuesday, the most U.S. service members assigned as trainers to the Afghan National Army to be lost in a single incident since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Eight Afghan troops and police and the Marine commander’s Afghan interpreter also died in the ambush and the subsequent battle that raged from dawn until 2 p.m. around this remote hamlet in eastern Kunar province, close to the Pakistan border.

Three Americans and 19 Afghans were wounded, and U.S. forces later recovered the bodies of two insurgents, although they believe more were killed.

The Marines were cut down as they sought cover in a trench at the base of the village’s first layer cake-style stone house. Much of their ammunition was gone. One Marine was bending over a second, tending his wounds, when both were killed, said Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer, 21, of Greensburg, Ky., who retrieved their bodies.


A full moon was drenching the mountains in ghostly light as some 60 Afghan soldiers, 20 border police officers, 13 Marine and U.S. Army trainers and I set out for Ganjgal at 3 a.m. from the U.S. base in the Shakani District.

The operation, proposed by the Afghan army and refined by the U.S. trainers, called for the Afghans to search Ganjgal for weapons and hold a meeting with the elders to discuss the establishment of police patrols. The elders had insisted that Afghans perform the sweep. The Americans were there to give advice and call for air and artillery support if required.

Dawn was breaking by the time we alighted for a mile-long walk up a wash of gravel, rock and boulders which winds up to Ganjgal, some 60 rock-walled compounds perched high up the terraced slopes at the eastern end of the valley, six miles from the Pakistani border.

Small teams of Afghan troops and U.S. trainers headed to ridges on the valley’s southern and northern sides, setting up outposts as the main body headed slowly up toward the village and, unbeknownst to us, into the killing zone.

The terrain — craggy ravines and sweeping, tree-studded mountains riddled with boulders and caves — was made for guerrilla warfare. The ethnic Pashtun villagers pride themselves on their rejection of official authority, their history of resistance and their disdain of foreign forces that many regard as occupiers.

A possible clue to what was to come occurred when the lights in Ganjgal suddenly blinked out while our vehicles were still several miles away, crashing slowly through the semi-dark along a rutted track toward the village.


The first shot cracked out at 5:30 a.m., apparently just as the four Marines and the Afghan unit to which they were attached reached the outskirts of the village. It quickly swelled into a furious storm of gunfire that we realized had been prepared for our arrival.

Several U.S. officers said they suspected that the insurgents had been tipped off by sympathizers in the local Afghan security forces or by the village elders, who announced over the weekend that they were accepting the authority of the local government.

"Whatever we do always leaks," said Marine Lt. Ademola Fabayo, 28, a New Yorker who was born in Nigeria and is the operations officer for the trainers from the 3rd Marine Division. "You can’t trust even some of their soldiers or officers."

Sniper rounds snapped off rocks and sizzled overhead. Explosions of recoilless rifle rounds echoed through the valley, while bullets inched closer to the rock wall behind which I crouched with a handful U.S. and Afghan officers.

Lt. Fabayo and several other soldiers later said they’d seen women and children in the village shuttling ammunition to fighters positioned in windows and roofs. Across the valley and from their ridgeline outposts, the Afghans and Americans fired back.

At 5:50 a.m., Army Capt. Will Swenson, of Seattle, WA, the trainer of the Afghan Border Police unit in Shakani, began calling for air support or artillery fire from a unit of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The responses came back: No helicopters were available.

"This is unbelievable. We have a platoon (of Afghan army) out there and we’ve got no Hotel Echo," Swenson shouted above the din of gunfire, using the military acronym for high explosive artillery shells. "We’re pinned down."

The insurgents were firing from inside the village and from positions in the hills immediately behind it and to either side. Judging from the angles of the ricochets, several appeared to be trying to outflank us to get better shots.

"What are you going to do?" Maj. Talib, the operations officer of the Afghan army unit, asked Maj. Williams through his translator.

"We are getting air," Williams replied.

"What are we going to do?" Talib repeated.

"We are getting air," Williams replied again, perhaps knowing that none was available but hoping to quiet Talib.

At 6:05 a.m., as our position was becoming increasingly tenuous, Swenson and Fabayo agreed that it was time to pull back and radioed for artillery to fire smoke rounds to mask our retreat.

"They don’t have any smoke. They only have Willy Pete," Swenson reported, referring to white phosphorus rounds that spew smoke.

Fifty minutes later, as a curtain of white phosphorus smoke roiled across the valley, Swenson and Fabayo unleashed an intense volley of covering fire while the rest of us sprinted back some 20 yards to a series of dirt furrows, weighed down by our flak vests and water carriers.

The two officers raced back to join us. Everyone jumped up and ran for the next stone wall. Everyone but me. Afraid that too many people were jammed together as they raced, offering easy targets, I waited behind for a break in the gunfire, an Afghan border police officer crouched next to me.


We soon noticed that the insurgent snipers were trying to outflank us again. I saw one up on a small rise fire and miss us by several feet. My companion decided that it was time to go and bolted away across the wash, but the gunfire grew too intense, and again I pulled my body into the dirt and rocks.

I wasn’t as terrified as I was angry: angry at the absence of air support, angry that there was no artillery fire, angry that Williams’ interpreter had been killed, angry at the realization that the operation had obviously been betrayed and angry at myself for not bolting with the others.

I knew it was time to move when I saw a gaggle of Afghan soldiers pounding through the boulders past me, their commander, a bright 26-year-old lieutenant named Ruhollah, hopping between two of them, a bullet wound in his groin. Staying put was no longer an option.

Bundling my legs beneath me and grabbing the small bag I use to carry my pad, pens, glasses and other necessities, I sprang and ran, trying to weave as bullets kicked up dust around me.

I reached the next wall and plunged behind it, nearly falling on top of Swenson, Fabayo and several badly wounded U.S. soldiers.

As Fabayo cracked off rounds, Swenson lay flat on his back, clasping a pressure bandage to the shoulder of one soldier with one hand and holding the microphone of his radio in the other, calling out insurgents’ positions to two U.S. helicopters that finally had arrived.

It was now 7:10 a.m., and with the helicopters prowling overhead and firing into the hillsides, the incoming gunfire slackened enough for us to move again.

I stumbled down the valley to safety after I helped one of the injured soldiers into a medivac helicopter. Capt. Swenson and Lt. Fabayo headed off to find vehicles and, together with Cpl. Meyer, crashed back up the way we’d just fled to retrieve the bodies of the dead Marines and any other casualties they could find.


McClatchy’s Jonathan S. Landay, who was ambushed with U.S. Marines in a remote Afghan village Tuesday, is a veteran foreign affairs reporter with long experience in South Asia, Iraq, the Balkans and Washington.

Landay covered South Asia — including Afghanistan — as well as the Balkans from 1985 to 1994 for United Press International and for The Christian Science Monitor. He joined the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau in 1999.

He was part of the Knight Ridder team, with State Department correspondent Warren P. Strobel and Bureau Chief John Walcott, that investigated and disproved the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program and ties to al Qaida.

The team won a National Headliner Award for "How the Bush Administration Went to War in Iraq," a 2005 Award of Distinction from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for "Iraqi Exiles Fed Exaggerated Tips to News Media," and a 2007 Edward Weintal Prize from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy for the Iraq coverage.

The McClatchy Co. acquired Knight Ridder in 2006, and Landay is now the senior national security correspondent in the McClatchy Washington Bureau and a regular contributor to the bureau’s Nukes & Spooks blog. He regularly travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan and other trouble spots.

Blogger’s Roundtable #2 with COL McGrath 1

This morning I was fortunate enough to participate in another DOD sponsored blogger’s round-table discussion with COL Tom McGrath. You can see his bio and the minutes of the call (when they are posted) at The actual audio of the almost 30 min call is located by clicking here.

I encourage all to listen to it as I was one of only two bloggers/journalists on the call which allowed me to get in a lot of questions. Also, he mentions a very story during the interview when he talks about a local Afghan man that steps in front of a US ETT convoy to warn them of an IED but was then injured by the IED as it went off. This action no doubt saved some American lives. The man was evacuated and treated my US medical personnel and I think survived.