Archive for the 'Michael Yon' Category



Losing Morale In Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
1 year, 10 months ago

Michael Yon recently penned a piece entitled Stuck In the Mud, written in the same spirit as my own Doing The Same Things For Too Long In Afghanistan.  Michael details better than I did the deleterious and debilitating effects that technology has had on our war efforts.  Visit my own article, and then visit Michael’s article.  Michael adds flesh to the skeleton of my own views.  My friend John Bernard continues Michael’s thoughts by observing:

This is another important piece chronicling the perverse nature of an ill-advised battle strategy chosen by a mindless body politic and their morally defunct General Grade surrogates.

If the strategy (COIN) was such a magnificent contrivance, there would be no discussion about progress; it would in fact be self-evident. Instead we have journalists like Michael Yon, who is not of the exact same camp as I am. He and I have talked and he has held out hope for a properly run COIN operation even in the midst of the demonically possessed while I believe every iteration is doomed to failure.

This, his latest piece, provides even more insight into this nightmare called COIN, conceived in the hearts of spiritually soiled men and in meetings governed by a coward’s concern for global perceptions! This travesty of strategy, as a principle of theater-wide application ought to be outlawed by this Nation!

Readers know my own views.  I disagree with population-centric COIN as a strategy.  It is a tactic, and at that, a poor one.  But I must caveat what John says.  While I agree with John that COIN practiced the way we have in Afghanistan is doomed to failure, if it is practiced in a different way it can succeed in certain parts of the world.

To be more precise, In Fallujah in 2007, al Qaeda fighters had been driven from Ramadi, and had such control over the city that the inhabitants were persuaded to send their own children out to encircle the Marines when they patrolled, raising black balloons in order to show the insurgents where the Marines were for the purposes of mortar targeting.  FOB Reaper was built while my son and others passed sand bags over their heads, being shot at by snipers for much of the time.  Fallujah was utterly controlled by al Qaeda fighters.

Enter the 2/6 Marines for a 7 month deployment.  They went in hard, patrolling heavily, laying down massive fire at times, engaged in forced (and at times violent) searches of homes, performed census operations, locked the city down from vehicular traffic with only two checkpoints into and out of the city, shot insurgents as they attempted to boat over the Euphrates river into Fallujah (my son engaged in those operations), and other things that I simply cannot discuss.

As part of this operation, they had the assistance of the IPs who did everything they could to earn the trust of the Marines, looked up to them, and admired them and their work.  This leads me to my next point.  My son observed that the people of Fallujah were Islamic in name only.  They weren’t committed, and according to my son, were virtually as Westernized as Americans.

We can practice counterinsurgency (not population-centric per se, but a different brand of counterinsurgency like my son did in Fallujah) to an extent that is inversely proportional to strength of belief in Islam.  For example, we couldn’t conduct COIN operations in Egypt, home of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Operations in foreign countries have to be much more brief than we have done in Afghanistan, must find and kill the enemy more effectively, and must lead to the understanding that we may have to do it again within ten or twelve years, which is what the U.S. Marines are for.  The Army’s (and administration’s) notion that we can build a state that never … ever … considers itself an enemy of the U.S., and that is the only definition of success, has in part led to the debacle we have witnessed in Afghanistan.

Population-centric counterinsurgency is based largely on nineteenth and twentieth century Western psychology.  If I reject the pronouncements of those studies, and I do, then I must reject in large measure population-centric COIN and state building.

Finally, take note of Michael’s more recent piece entitled America’s Dumbest War.  Take careful note of the comments.  It’s as if a herd of PAOs dropped by to talk about how the guy who wrote the letter is an idiot and couldn’t possibly have known the full truth.

These commenters missed the point entirely.  First of all, I have reason to believe the Soldier’s comments, at least in part, based on communications with an officer currently in Afghanistan concerning travel, new directives, etc.  But second, what if only part of it is true?  A problem, yes?  Finally, what if none of it true?

Still a problem.  When we get to the point that the grunts feel this way, we have lost the campaign.  If the grunts feel this way, their parents and spouses do to.  When you’ve lost the fighters’ morale, you’ve lost everything.  Technology is useless at that point.  I have said before that one of the most debilitating effects of lousy rules of engagement is the effect they have on morale.  The same thing goes for our strategy.  If they see none (except for the exhausted talking points), they will lose hope.

No, not lose hope.  They have already lost hope.  Bring them home.  The campaign is over.

Doing The Same Things For Too Long In Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
1 year, 11 months ago

Michael Yon does well with his rehearsal of how the Taliban would have pulled off their attack on Camp Bastion, but he does a lot more than that.

In every respect, Southern Afghanistan is a dark part of the world. Without moonlight, most villages are black at night.  The brightest places in the country are our bases.  Cultural lights present little danger to Taliban moving at night.  Our air assets, including our aerostat balloons, are often their biggest concern.

This war is mature.  The enemy knows us, and we know them.  After 11 years, the Taliban realizes that most helicopter traffic ceases during red illum.  Most birds will only fly for urgent MEDEVAC, or for special operations.  The enemy closely observes our air traffic.  Operations slow under red illum, so air traffic declines, and the chances of being spotted by roving aircraft are reduced.

There is a misconception that UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) such as Predators can detect everything.  They cannot.  Their field of vision is like looking through a toilet paper roll.  The UAVs are great for specific targets, such as watching a house, but imagine patrolling.  It is like trying to visually swat mosquitoes using no ears, no sense of touch, and only the ability to look through a toilet paper roll.  You will get some, and miss many.

We only have enough UAVs to cover small splotches of the country, and there are bases, roads, operations, and targets spread throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere that need watching.  The enemy can spoof observers by using a “pattern of life” (POL) for camouflage.  So even if our UAV operators see apparently unarmed natives moving, it is no guarantee of early detection.

Our UAVs over Afghanistan fly with their strobes flashing to avoid collisions.  If a Predator or Reaper crashes into a commercial airliner because it was flying blacked out while staring at the ground, that is a problem.  The enemy can see our UAVs from miles away.

A key realization: the enemy uses cheap night vision gear in the form of cameras that have night functions.  When our IR lasers, our IR strobes, our IR illumination or our IR spotlights are radiating, they can easily be seen using cheap digital cameras.  I recently told this to some Norwegian soldiers, who were as surprised as our soldiers to learn it.  I learned this from the enemy, not from our guys.  The Taliban even use smart phone cameras to watch for invisible lasers.  The enemy in Afghanistan has been caught using cameras for night vision.  It is just a stroke of common sense: I have been doing it for eight years since I noticed an IR laser one night in Iraq.

A Norwegian trooper explained that one dark night in Afghanistan, they got ambushed with accurate but distant machinegun fire.  When they turned off their IR strobes, the fire ended.  When they turned the IR strobes back on, the fires resumed.  When they turned them off for good, it was over.

Many of our people believe that the enemy does not use night vision.  There was a time when this was true, but the war has matured and this is now false.  If your firefly is strobing on your helmet, or if you are carrying a cracked IR chemlight, do not be surprised if you take accurate fire during a black night.  When JTACs mark targets with IR lasers, or when aircraft such as Predators lase for Hellfire shots or for target ID, they look like purple or green sunbeams through night vision optics and they are crazy bright.  You cannot miss them.

To maximize chances of success for an assault such as that at Bastion last Friday, the Taliban know that it is best to start early, on a moonless night, just after red illum has begun.  Other Afghans engaged in normal masking movements can provide POL camouflage.  The enemy knows that only “Terry Taliban” is skulking around after midnight, so they start early when possible.

By 7PM last Friday, the night was very dark, and by 8PM, it was thick and black, making it a perfect time to close in on the target.  Camp Bastion would appear lit up like Las Vegas, standing alone, glowing like a giant bubble of light in the “Desert of Death.”  On the darkest nights, the lights of Bastion sometimes reflect orange off the clouds above, and they can be seen for miles around, causing Afghans to ask why the base glows like the morning sun, yet they do not have a drop of electricity.  The days of goodwill and hope are over.

Go read the rest of Michael’s report.  He is at his best, and this is a very good one, with his knowledge of the terrain, the conditions on the ground, and technology on display.

But I want to take off to discuss corollary points.  Americans tend to think that every problem is technological, and thus, that every solution must likewise be technologically based.  The fact that Marines carry heavy kit means that loads must be lightened so that females can be in the infantry, and thus we send massive amounts of money to DARPA to design ridiculous robotic assistance for troopers.

Mules to carry supplies for the Marines are animals rather than technology, and so DARPA builds ridiculous things like the big dog, which uses an incredible amount of electricity and sounds like a million Africanized bees.  The Air Force must proceed apace to pilot-less aircraft since everyone knows about UAVs now, and finding IEDs requires sophisticated sensors rather than dogs.

But in reality, with their expeditionary mission, the Marine infantry will always carry heavy kit, and DARPA cannot and should not negate the differences between men and women.  Robots on the battlefield are a very large set of failure modes waiting to be actualized, animals will always be needed in war, and there will always be pilots in the Air Force.  And … solving the problem of IEDs means killing the IED-makers.

Sometimes technology can make things better for us, but just for a period of time.  Sometimes it can be our enemy, and reliance on it can make us incapable of making war without it.  As for failures, I am an engineer by training and trade, and I can outline failure modes (from which you cannot recover) until you can’t listen any more.

The Taliban have learned our habits, our vulnerabilities, and practices – good and bad – and have mentally processed our methods.  As my friend John Bernard said recently, concerning making war, we are trained to turn the enemy on his heels and then capitalize on that by not allowing him to regain his balance.  But we didn’t do that in Afghanistan.

Rather than kill the enemy, our mission is now to protect the population in a tip of the hat to state-building and population-centric counterinsurgency.  That mission has worn thin, and we are even now watching ISAF command jettison the very doctrines that we brought to the campaign.

If I thought we would resource and retool the mission, I would be the first to say stay.  But we won’t, and the mission is over.  Oh, we will be back.  We will endure Afghanistan / Pakistan / Hindu Kush II, and maybe III.  Perhaps then we will have the heart necessary to win the campaign.

But as Michael and I have both written, it’s time to come home.  The Taliban have our number, and the very troops we have put in place to prevent their return are killing U.S. servicemen.

Army MEDEVAC Dishonesty And Other Strategic Malfeasance

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 2 months ago

Recall that Michael Yon has discussed Army MEDEVAC issues at length, investigating and pressing and doing so in an unrelenting manner?  Recall that I discussed this issue before, where I pointed out that the U.S. Marines don’t do business that way (i.e., where they leave MEDEVAC unarmed)?  At Blackfive they responded, in part: The Army is the only Service that is dedicated to this essential mission. In fact, other uninformed bloggers claim that the Marines don’t do Medevac.  That part is correct.  However, to assume that’s because “The U.S. Marine Corps doesn’t do business this way” is incorrect.  That is because the Army provides that service for the Marines, Navy, and Air Force.  Just like the Marines don’t do CSAR – because the USAF has the lead on that.  Not because they don’t do business that way (bold his).

In then pointed out that “I never made the claim that the Marines don’t do MEDEVAC.  I just made the claim that they didn’t do it that way.  Matt has conflated two issues, i.e., MEDEVAC in Afghanistan with MEDEVAC generally.  I also never made the claim that the Marines do MEDEVAC in Afghanistan.  But the Marines did in fact do MEDEVAC in Iraq.”

If you carefully study my previous articles, you will find that I specifically state that the Marines did do MEDEVAC with the CH-46 Sea Knight.  I also pointed out that my own son was MEDEVAC’d out by such an aircraft, and that he was gunner for vehicle-borne MEDEVAC.  The case was closed, but Michael Yon comes forward with even more interesting revelations.

One Army aviation regiment observes in a PowerPoint presentation that:

Precedence exists for arming aircraft that are dedicated to a MEDEVAC mission. USAF HH60s in Afghanistan are dedicated MEDEVAC platforms with medical aid-man aboard and are armed. USMC uses CH46s in Iraq as medical evacuation platforms that are armed and have corpsman as crewmembers. Both the USAF and USMC do not mark their aircraft with a distinctive emblem described in the Geneva Conventions.

You knew this, but only because you read The Captains’s Journal, and take note that I said what I said before becoming aware of this presentation.  I said what I said because I know it to be true.  But now for the disturbing part.

The MNC-I Staff Judge Advocate recommends against using the M249 on MRAP ambulances marked with a red cross.  Though not a technical violation of international law, using an M249 on a vehicle marked with a medical symbol would have negative IO implications … to maintain the proper strategic communication plan and maintain the momentum of U.S. forces reducing kinetic operations, the M249 SAW will not be mounted on properly marked MRAP ambulances …

There are other oddities in this order, such as considering the M249 SAW a “crew-served” weapon.  I am unaware of any time for any Marine where it required a crew to operate a SAW (my own son operated a SAW, and in fact, used it to clear rooms and patrol in Fallujah).  Why would the U.S. Army be referring to the SAW as a crew-served weapon?  Do the authors not know better?  But on to more important things.

Take careful note.  This is dated September of 2008, just when the 24th MEU was engaging in intense kinetic operations in and around the Garmsir AO in Helmand, and before the Marines were sent in to Marjah, and even as the U.S. Marines were suffering through Now Zad, losing legs and arms and retaining more trauma doctors than any other unit in combat at that time because of catastrophic losses of limbs and life.

What we have learned in these documents is that the Army has lied concerning the issue of MEDEVAC, but worse still, the strategic malfeasance we have seen in Afghanistan is not so much a function of incompetence as it is intentional.  While the Marines were suffering (as were Soldiers in the Korengal and other places), the official Army position from at least 2008 onward was to reduce kinetic operations, much like the British in Basra (the British eventually being run out of Basra by the Shi’a militia).  Remember that.  The so-called surge in Afghanistan was part of an overall plan to reduce kinetic operations.  Don’t forget that.  Ever.  It isn’t just that the strategy lacked focus, or that it wasn’t clear.  It is that the Afghanistan strategy was self referentially incoherent – directly and internally contradictory.

You read The Captain’s Journal because we aren’t tools of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and we tell the truth.  I would like to believe that my work on ROE cause amended rules in Iraq, if not the Standing ROE of the CJCS or the theater-specific ROE, then at least the way they were applied at a unit level by the JAGs.  There are other areas in which I might have made a slight difference.

If you cannot do that as a military blogger, then why would you write?  At any rate, Michael Yon has made a difference, and at least at TCJ you get the unvarnished truth.  We aren’t tools.

Friends, Relationships and Changes

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 2 months ago

Tim Lynch gives us some bad news.

This will be my last post.  I’m afraid the blog has become too popular raising my personal profile too high.  We have had to change everything in order to continue working.  How we move, how we live, our security methodology;  all of it has been fine tuned.   Part of that change is allowing the FRI blog to go dark.  I have no choice; my colleagues and I signed contracts, gave our word, and have thousands of Afghan families who have bet their futures on our promises.  If we are going to remain on the job we have to maintain a low profile and that is hard to do with this blog.

This is hard news for me to hear.  While I understand the decision, I sincerely regret that Tim has come to this fork in the road.  Tim’s honesty, integrity, wisdom, insight, experience and knowledge of the situation makes his web site one of the very few must reads for those who follow Afghanistan.  Tim continues:

As is always the case the outside the wire internationals are catching it from all sides.  In Kabul the Afghans have jailed the country manager of Global Security over having four unregistered weapons in the company armory.   When the endemic corruption in Afghanistan makes the news or the pressure about it is applied diplomatically the Afghans always respond by throwing a few Expat security contractors in jail.  Remember that the next time our legacy media tries to spin a yarn about “unaccountable” security companies and the “1000 dollar a day” security contractor business both of which are now fictions of the liberal media imagination.

With time comes progress; especially on the big box FOB’s; but progress has served us quiet the dilemma.  We depend on our two fixed wing planes for transportation around the country.  Sometimes we are forced to overnight on one of the big box FOB’s where random searches for contraband in contractor billeting is routine.  All electronic recording equipment; cell phones, PDA’s laptops, cameras, etc… are all supposed to be registered in base with the security departments. But we aren’t assigned to these bases and cannot register our equipment.  Being caught with it means it could confiscated, being caught with a weapon would result in arrest by base MP’s.  Weapons license’s from the Government of Afghanistan aren’t recognized by ISAF; at least not on the big bases.

I’m not bitching because I understand why things are the way they are.  The military has had serious problems with shootings in secure areas.  Not one of those has been committed by an armed Expat but that fact is irrelevant.  Both the British and Americans have armed contractors working for them who have gone through specified pre-deployment  training and have official “arming authority”.  Afghan based international security types may or may not have any training and they certainly do not have DoD or MoD arming authority.  A legally licensed and registered weapon is no more welcomed on a military base in Afghanistan then it would be on a base in America.  Try walking around one with a legally concealed weapon and see what happens if you’re detected.  Just because you have a concealed carry permit doesn’t mean you’re welcomed to carry a loaded weapon onto a military installation in America.

But it should.  Having a concealed weapon permit should in fact mean that you can legally carry on military installations in the U.S.  If concealed carry was allowed Major Hasan might not have been able to pull off the carnage that he did.  Furthermore, regular readers know that I have advocated that Marines and Soldiers (other than just SAW gunners) carry side arms.  But even if I disagree with the policy, Tim is working within the system.  Continuing:

So it is time for me to go from blogsphere. After this contract it will be time for me to physically go.  I have a childlike faith in the ability of Gen Allen to come in and make the best of the situation he finds on the ground.  Maybe I’ll stick around to see it for myself – we have a long summer ahead and much can change.  But staying here means going back to Ghost Team mode.

I want to thank all of the folks who have participated in the comments section, bloggers Matt from Feral Jundi, Old Blue from Afghan Quest, Michael Yon, Joshua Foust from Registan.net, Herschel Smith from The Captains Journal and Kanani from The Kitchen Dispatch for their support and kind email exchanges.  Baba Ken of the Synergy Strike Force for hosting me, Jules who recently stepped in to provide much needed editing, and Amy Sun from the MIT Fab Lab for getting me started and encouraging me along the way.  Your support meant an awful lot to me; I’m going to miss not being part of the conversation.

This is an interesting list of journalists, analysts and bloggers.  There are other admirable and prolific journalists whom I follow, e.g., Sebastian Junger and C. J. Chivers.  But none of the other journalists have contacted me, nor have any others answered my e-mails (Bing West, Tony Perry, David Wood, etc.) .  Many journalists make themselves highly inaccessible.

Not so for analyst and blogger Joshua Foust, and certainly not so for Michael Yon.  I have developed a relationship with both Michael Yon and Tim Lynch that means a lot to me, and it isn’t necessarily I who have contributed most of the work.  That’s what’s so significant about this.  Tim and those on his list are genuinely good guys.

I truly want Tim not to be a stranger, and I am honored that he made mention of me in his last post.  I will cherish that.  Take note that Michael Yon begins another embed on June 2 or thereabouts.  But there is one more person whom I want to mention.  I am embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until well into his captivity that I learned that James Foley (who writes for the Global Post) had been kidnapped in Libya.  Jim has now been released, and I am thankful for his safe return.  Jim is also a genuinely good guy, and I used his work in The Five Hundred Meter War (as well as other work by Jim in other posts).  Jim was eager to strike up a relationship with me via e-mail, and offered up kind words to me from day one.

I expect (and hope) that my friends stay in touch with me, and I also appreciate my readers.  I believe that I have some of the best on the web.  I appreciate your following my musings and analysis even as I evolve the web site into coverage and commentary on firearms and second amendment rights, as well as political observations.  But I will always cover and analyze military affairs, and especially the Marine Corps.  Ten years from now, when others have forgotten about Iraq and Afghanistan, I will still be following them, God willing, and if I’m still alive and writing.  And the Lance Corporal in the field under fire will always have an advocate in me.

Yon Returns to Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 5 months ago

Michael Yon returns to Afghanistan, and he has given us a remarkable picture of the men of Chora (in the Oruzgan Province) honoring a dead Taliban.

Today, I accompanied members of Central Asia Development Group (CADG).  We drove from the town of Tarin Kot to the violent village of Chora.  A quick web search for Chora will reveal countless articles about the heavy fighting.  We took an extremely dangerous stretch of road.  We saw nary a soldier, though I am told many have died here.  Leonard Grami, the Urozgan Provincial Manager for CADG, reckons well over a hundred troops and Afghans have died on this stretch in the last 14 months, including some last week and last night.

Somehow we made it to Chora and saw that the USAID project seems to be doing fine, but while the managers checked the work, Afghan authorities dumped the body of a Taliban killed last night in nearby in fighting.  They dumped him at a “traffic circle” underneath what they call “the steeple.”  Men and boys flocked to the body and were so tight around him that they must have been almost stepping on him.  When we arrived, they pulled back for a moment, and I made a panorama of these dangerous men.

Make sure to stop by Michael’s place and tool around the panorama link combining multiple pictures Michael took.  My initial thoughts are that if these men engage in such honorific behavior openly and in public for a dead insurgent, and if they admire the man and his work to this extent, then we are not winning this war.  We haven’t marginalized the insurgency, or anywhere near it.  A picture is worth a thousand words.


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