Archive for the 'Kunar Province' Category

Return To Nuristan – Only To Leave Again

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 10 months ago

An informative report from Reuters:

U.S. troops returned to the area in Afghanistan they call the “dark side of the moon” this week, a remote Hindu Kush region that controls several access routes to Kabul and where the coalition suffered one of its biggest reverses in the decade-long war.

This part of Nuristan province, in the mountainous far east of Afghanistan, could be the target of a planned Taliban offensive, coalition commanders say.

Carrying “speedballs” – black body bags packed with mortars, ammunition and heavy machine guns – a company of U.S. soldiers landed by helicopter on a narrow ridge and trudged up to a tiny Afghan army post overlooking icy peaks and plunging river valleys, as hostile as breathtaking.

With U.S. intelligence pointing to a possible attack by as many as 1,800 Taliban, the soldiers set up weapons over a backyard-sized square, while Afghan army soldiers in camouflage and plastic sandals pointed out fires and torchlight in the distance in the chill night air.

“We’ll get some eyes overhead to check it out. If it’s Taliban, we’ll get a plane up in the morning and drop a bomb on it,” said U.S. Major Jared Bordwell as some of his men from the 1-12 Infantry Regiment dropped down in the dust and tried to get some sleep.

American soldiers withdrew from Nuristan, or the “land of light”, after around 300 insurgents overran an isolated combat outpost near Kamdesh village – below where Bordwell’s men were huddled – on October 3, 2009, killing eight soldiers and wounding 22.

The former U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, decided in 2010 to give up remote combat outposts and shift American troops to protect larger population centers.

But it was through here that the Taliban shifted men and weapons for a suicide assault on Kabul’s diplomatic and government quarter in April, circling beyond the reach of U.S. and Afghan army positions to the south in neighboring Kunar province, coalition commanders say.

Stanley McChrystal managed the campaign for just over one year, what we should refer to as “the lost months.”  During this time the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, and all along the Hindu Kush, were left to the Taliban and allied fighters to retrain, regroup, recruit, and raise support, while he played population-centric counterinsurgency in the cities.  The attack on Kabul is minor and had little effect on the city.  And that specific attack will be small compared to the effect these provinces will have on Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves.  Another way of saying this is that the media using the Kabul attack as some sort of benchmark is both mistaken and frightening.  It will get much worse.  Continuing:

With Nuristan now a Taliban staging post and haven, the province is a vital pocket for U.S. forces based in Kunar, with only a few hundred Afghan soldiers and police over an area of 5,800 square km.

“Nuristan remains for me a challenge, a black hole. My line in the sand stops at the Kunar and Nuristan borders,” said Lt-Colonel Scott Green, a wiry former Ranger who oversees Nuristan.

But he will not be in the region for long – NATO troops are due to be withdrawn from north Kunar by October. Green and his men, who are based in Kunar and in Nuristan temporarily, will be among those withdrawn.

So his reduced-strength 1st battalion has to counter insurgents while simultaneously building Afghan capability and “retrograding” – closing up U.S. bases – all within months.

It is one of the most hostile areas in war-torn Afghanistan in a landscape that is equally hostile. Taliban and al Qaeda fighters pass through easily, from either Pakistan or from bases located out of easy NATO reach inside a 4 km-wide border buffer zone.

As many as 2,500 Taliban are thought to be in the province, controlling most districts, and around 300 are foreign, mostly Pakistanis or Chechens, Afghan commanders say.

The insurgents control what few roads there are and have three ways to move deeper into Afghanistan, through either the Kunar, Waygal or Parun valleys, which then wind down into provinces nearer to Kabul.

It is recognized that the surge was under-resourced.  It is recognized that the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces are currently in trouble due to neglect.  It is recognized that they may not survive as nominally Afghan-controlled provinces without U.S. troops.  So U.S. troops are back – and plan to leave within about four months.

This is yet another sad tale of troops who know the value of the Hindu Kush, waning support for the campaign back home, and non-existent (or never-existent) support from the administration to properly prosecute this campaign.

Later in the report, an Afghan militia member shows up to inform them that the locals were very worried about the U.S. troop withdrawal.  Of course they are.  Command attempts to paint a happy face on the overall picture by saying that Kunar may in fact be okay.

Just a happy face couched in a sad report.

Enemy Sniper at COP Pirtle-King in Kunar

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 10 months ago

From the Chicago Tribune, and this will require extensive citation, but it’s well worth it.

“Welcome to Combat Outpost Pirtle-King. Here we only move around at night. If you must move in daytime, make sure you stay close in against the northern walls, as most attacks come from there,” he says. “If you must move in the open, do it at a run.”

NATO commanders cite security gains, eleven years in the war, ahead of a 2014 withdrawal by most foreign combat troops, but there are still pockets like this, where the insurgent threat is so potent that U.S. soldiers can barely move.

COP Pirtle-King, or PK, is a low collection of rockfill walls, trenches and camouflage net, built to help secure the sole road running through the strategic Kunar River Valley and intersect insurgent supply routes from Pakistan.

But the forested mountains on both sides provide perfect cover for the insurgents, including a persistent sniper whose aim has been steadily getting closer to the handful of U.S. and Afghan troops here.

Faced with the threat of so-called plunging fire, soldiers have adjusted routines to carry out most tasks at night, apart from sporadic daytime patrols and manning a trio of guard towers where guns angle up to point high into the rocks above.

When not filling sandbags and extending their walls or doing vehicle maintenance in darkness, they sleep through the daytime heat or just read books and talk within the dusty walkways inside the walls, waiting to repel the next attack.

[ … ]

Dushman shoots from somewhere on a green spur known as “the finger”, above curved hills known as “A Cup” and “C Cup”, but only vaguely similar to breasts. Sometimes fire comes from both sides of the valley, from the south and north.

“That kind of crossfire is usually a sign it’s not Taliban, but more likely Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. They’re a bit more together,” says Danison. “We have pushed them back into the hills though. They used to fire from pretty much right in front.”

U.S. troops in full body armor run across the central vehicle park and any open area to reach their rooms or shift between fortified positions, and use the exposed wooden latrines and showers at their own risk.

“If you have to go, we recommend you wait until night,” Danison says. “Here at Pirtle-King, we’re pretty much in a fishbowl, so we typically operate at night. It just mitigates any exposure during the day.”

In a cluster of small rooms more like a submarine than a ground base, as many as 15 soldiers sleep in bunks stacked four high against a plywood wall marked outside by a target drawn where a Taliban rocket grenade hit but did not detonate.

“Bet you can’t do it again,” reads a sign spray-painted in black. A double-head axe on the wall is called the “Alamo Axe”, in a dark-humored reference to last ditch defense in the unlikely case the Taliban ever tried to overrun the post.

Pirtle-King, named after two soldiers killed at a smaller observation post near here in 2009, is one of a handful of bases here due to be shut down as U.S. troops withdraw from the area and handover to Afghan forces in the Kunar Valley.

Battalion Commander Lt-Col Scott Green says Kunar will make the transition successfully, as Afghan security forces were making strong improvements, including running the majority of patrols beyond the walls of Pirtle-King.

This is simply remarkable.  So here are some questions.  Does the Army send its Soldiers through the equivalent of Marine Corps School of Infantry, where land navigation, map reading, small unit maneuver and other aspects of warfare are learned?  Does the Army continue this training when the Soldier is deployed to his unit (what the Marines would call a fleet Marine)?  So, for example, do Soldiers know how to use night vision, and use that equipment to conduct room clearing operations and night time small unit maneuvers?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, then the following question is salient.  Why are the Soldiers sitting in the COP?  What a field grade officer (or staff level officer) should have done for the work-up for this deployment is rehearse every one of those things, and live out in the field for most of the work-up.

The next step would be to dispatch small teams of two, three or four Soldiers (what in the Marine Corps would be a fire team) in distributed operations until the COP was emptied out except for a replacement platoon, until the head of that sniper was brought to the CO on a stick.  Of course, he would need the weapon too in order to do ballistic matching and other forensics.  Then, patrols through the valley should be ubiquitous and non-stop to show the population that U.S. Soldiers do not hide in COPs from enemy snipers.

But then, such a field grade or staff officer probably wouldn’t last very long.  Making time.  That’s all these Soldiers are doing.  Punching their time cards.  And it isn’t their fault.  The strategy is unseemly and even immoral because it places Soldier’s lives at risk to do little more than make time.

Here’s hoping that they make their time and come home safely.  No one wants to be the last man out.  As for this area of Kunar, the sniper will make easy work of the ANA.

Now that U.S. troops are leaving the Kunar Province?

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 4 months ago

From the BBC:

What happens when US forces pull out of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan? The BBC’s Bilal Sarwary, the first journalist to visit one of the areas the US left in Kunar province, uncovers a disturbing situation.

Kunar has always been a crucible of conflict. Tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Afghanistan, it borders Pakistan’s tribal badlands. It is one of the first ports of call for war-minded militants crossing the mountain passes.

But after the US-led invasion, troops began to assert their hold over the province. It is now littered with US and Nato bases and despite bloody battles there, the US invested heavily. Roads were asphalted, buildings renovated and a sense of security slowly developed. Villagers went about their business while infrastructure was put in place.

The US pulled out of parts of Kunar last year, beginning the withdrawal process. What has happened in the province since then makes for grim reading.

The new roads are now pock-marked with craters left by militants who plant bombs targeting Western and Afghan forces.

[ … ]

When I visited the picturesque Pech valley in the west of the province, a cloud of gloom hung over it.

In Barkanday village, I found a group of tribal elders brooding over their predicament: where once US forces were a deterrent to the Taliban, the Afghan government is notable only for its absence.

“It is Taliban across the river,” one elder said. “They are lying in wait. At the first opportunity, they will descend on the village to take their revenge,” he said, refusing to give his name for fear of retribution.

[ … ]

“When US forces left, they told us that our security was now the responsibility of the Afghan government,” Mohammad Akbar said. “But the Afghan government exists only in the district headquarters at Mano Gai.”

I did not come across a single soldier or official on my way there or during my four-hour stay. Villagers say development has also suffered.

Worthless Afghan National Army troops and corrupt Afghan National Police.  It seems that someone should have said something about the ANA and ANP – you know, how the ANA were curled up in fetal positions under blankets during the battle of Kamdesh at COP Keating.

It seems that maybe I did say something about the whole population-centric counterinsurgency thing at one point.

[The Pech River Valley is] … strategically irrelevant to the campaign planners who focused their efforts on population-centric counterinsurgency and thus withdrew troops to redeploy in larger population centers.  Not strategically irrelevant to me.  Google the phrase Abandoning the Pech and see where TCJ lies in authority.  I have supplied a surrogate conversation between flag officers when AQ returns to the Pech (which would be  now), and argued that without hitting the Taliban’s recruiting grounds, fund raising and revenue development, training grounds, and logistical supply lines, the campaign cannot be won.  I have pleaded that we not abandon the chase, and that we kill every last Taliban.  Campaign management and I just disagree.

The Marines are pulling out of Afghanistan completely in 2012, and there is a general drawdown of all troops underway.  If you’re deploying at the moment (and I know of some men who are), you have to wonder why, to what end, and whether you’re going to attempt to do anything other than survive the deployment?

New Approach in the Pech River Valley?

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 7 months ago

From CSM:

Nestled in a lush but mean valley on the banks of the Pech River, Camp Blessing was no longer the sort of place, US commanders decided in February, that warranted the bloodshed of American soldiers.

Instead, the US war effort would benefit from focusing its limited resources on population centers, they concluded, and away from the Pech’s brutal terrain and rather xenophobic citizenry, ready and more than willing to skillfully take up arms against outsiders.

Better, they concluded, to leave this sparsely settled region – where Afghan fighters mustered to make the first successful stand against Soviet occupation – to the Afghan Army.

So soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division towed away the modern toilet trailers and stripped Camp Blessing of its amenities – air-conditioning units, flat-screen monitors, and the covered plywood porch where senior US troops convened to smoke cigars and discuss the news of the day.

In March, they rechristened the base “Nangalam” and turned it over to Afghan forces.

Today, however, US soldiers are back. The conditions at the once built-up outpost are now spartan. Troops bathe with baby wipes and bottled water and sleep on the floors of buildings that, they discovered upon their return in late July, were littered with human feces.

Insurgents had advanced so steadily since March that the Afghan Army could lose the base itself, say a new crop of US commanders.

They see the return as an opportunity to forge a new model for cooperation and mentoring with the Afghan security forces. But while the Pech is admittedly one of Afghanistan’s toughest assignments, the Afghan Army’s failed four-month attempt take the reins of security illustrates its shortfalls – and how far there is to go, US officers say, if NATO is to turn all security responsibilities over to Afghan forces by 2014.

The troops who have come back to this jagged spine of mountain peaks are under no illusions about the difficulty of the task that awaits them. Their code name for this operation: “Hotel California.”

“It’s like the lyrics,” says 2nd battalion intelligence officer Maj. Marcus Wright of the Eagles song: “ ‘You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’ ”

When US forces moved back into Camp Blessing in late July, they were greeted with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, one of which hit the underbelly of a US Chinook carrying supplies for the base. That marked the first shoot-down of a Chinook this year. The pilot was able to land relatively gently without any serious injuries, though passengers were forced to sprint when thousands of rounds of ammunition caught fire and ignited, causing shrapnel injuries and destroying the helicopter.

It was a pattern of hostility repeatedly encountered by US forces. “We really had to reoccupy the base,” says Maj. Glenn Kozelka, executive officer for the 2nd battalion, 3rd brigade combat team of the 25th Infantry Division.

Security had deteriorated rapidly after US forces departed. Within weeks, the Afghan battalion commander at Nangalam could not safely get to meetings in a Asadabad, Kunar’s bustling capital 25 miles east. The Taliban overran and occupied the capital of a nearby district center.

At the same time, insurgents routinely attacked Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol routes. By May, the Afghan commander stationed at Nangalam had abandoned the outpost, along with his top staff.

“It was better before” the US left, says Afghan commander Col. Adam Khan Matin. “When the coalition forces left, the [insurgent] training camps came back.”

Stopping for a moment for some observations on insurgent bases, U.S. commanders (specifically, McChrystal and his staff) might have argued for a population-centric approach to counterinsurgency, but regular readers know that I didn’t.  Continuing with the CSM article.

Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, the top US commander at Nangalam, grappled with how to address the regression. His battalion now had responsibility for an area that had previously needed two. His 800-plus soldiers were spread out across multiple forward operating bases and command posts.

Simply holding that ground would be challenge enough. After evaluating the capabilities of the ANA at Nangalam, Col. Tuley came to a conclusion. “We needed to do something else.”

In his idea is a hope central to the American exit strategy: If US troops focused more intently on creating a workable partnership with the Afghans, perhaps the mentoring could make up for the diminished number of US troops and ensure that a decade’s worth of US battles are for not for naught.

So began what Tuley calls a “permanent embedded partnership” – or PEP – an experiment that could hold lessons for the American war effort in Afghanistan.

The PEP will revolve around 40 US troops at Nangalam working with multiple companies of the Afghan Army. Most immediately, with a stronger base here, Tuley hopes US forces “can come in and do operations as necessary,” allowing NATO to extend its reach farther into the valley. Perhaps more long-term, he adds, the PEP “is a great kind of interim phase to get the ANA to where [the transition is] not as abrupt.”

The US platoon will run workshops on basics from marksmanship to first aid – lessons that have been taught before, Tuley acknowledges, but bear repeating.

“If you think about it, this [Afghan commander at Nangalam] never had a partnership, Tuley adds. “It was. ‘Here’s your battlespace.’ ”

The first order of business – and lesson for Afghan commanders – is to bolster base defenses. When the US was here, Nangalam had early-attack warning systems, including towers with cameras that sent images to screens in a base defense center, which allowed troops to monitor the perimeter.

When Tuley returned, no vestige of those defenses remained. “The security definitely wasn’t at the level that I would ever feel too comfortable having my soldiers out there,” he says.

In response, he has assigned a US platoon of about 30 soldiers to patrol the surrounding area, and he stationed a single US soldier with night-vision goggles at each Afghan guard post along the perimeter of the base.

Beyond base defenses, Tuley must help the Afghans carry out their own missions more effectively.

The PEP’s first big test: A humanitarian mission into one of the more isolated and government-averse areas of the country.

PEP teams.  It’s permanent now, except that it’s not.  U.S. troops will be leaving, and leaving the ANA in a lurch without the cultural framework, logistical know-how, equipment or honesty to run an army.  And they don’t understand force protection.  Furthermore, historically, only Western armies can field high quality NCOs.  And it doesn’t really produce much confidence that a humanitarian mission is the first really big test of the ANA.  During the battle of Kamdesh at COP Keating, ANA soldiers were found curled up in fetal positions in bed under blankets.  We’ve got larger problems than whether the ANA can pull off humanitarian missions.  Continuing.

Afghans also lack equipment, including night-vision goggles. “That’s a pretty critical piece of equipment to provide security,” says Tuley. US officials worry, however, that if they give night-vision goggles to the Afghans, particularly with ANA attrition rates remaining high, they could fall into insurgents’ hands.

Yes, expensive equipment will end up in enemy hands.  Said one ANA soldier about his conditions, “Some of the guys wear sandals at the border because their boots have been taken by officers who sell them.”

Finally, the most important part of the report.

For now … the US troop presence at Nangalam is likely only to increase.

As the first week of partnership at Nangalam winds to a close, Tuley is increasingly convinced that rather than the 40-plus soldiers currently taking part in the PEP, he will need closer to 200.

He knows, too, that this plan comes with opportunity costs. With US forces set to draw down across Afghanistan, he can only bolster the American presence at Nangalam by closing a combat outpost or a forward operating base.

After the PEP’s first big mission, though, he believes that expanding US forces here is key to US troops being able to one day go home for good.

This is important enough to bear repeating.  He needs more troops (or a higher ratio of U.S. forces to ANA).  The only way he can accomplish that is to close COPs or FOBs.  I repeat.  Marines to Kunar.

Nuristan, Kunar, Pakistan and the Taliban: The Nexus

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 8 months ago

We’ve covered the Taliban strategy of using Nuristan as a safe haven, and a base from which to launch attacks against the government of Afghanistan.  Kunar is adjacent to Nuristan, and there may as well not be a border between provinces.  As stated by one Taliban commander, “Trouble here can break the central government,” said Qari Ziaur Rahman, a regional commander for the Taliban who is also a leader of the Punjab-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in a 2008 interview. “Whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Kunar.”  For this reason I have insisted on aggressive U.S. troop presence and kinetic operations in both the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, and all along the Pech River Valley.

Thankfully, Tim Lynch of Free Range International could not completely desist from writing about Afghanistan, and he educates us with yet another good post on the current situation in Helmand.

A few months back as they were pushing south, the Marines would run into situations that, for guys like them, are a dream come true.  An ANP commander pointed out a village where his men have hit 3 IEDs in as many weeks and each time the villagers poured out with AK’s to start a firefight.  So, a few nights later the Marines blow a controlled det on the road to simulate an IED hit and when the villains rushed out with their flame sticks they met what we lovingly call the ‘L shaped ambush’.  No doubt (knowing the Lava Dogs) the villains also met Mr. Claymore, were introduced to the proper use of a machine gun section, and were treated to a 40mm grenade shower from those new and super deadly  M32’s.  Bad day.  Not many survived that textbook lesson on the proper use of an ambush squad, but those days are long gone.  Rarely now will somebody shoot at the Marines in southern Helmand, and when they do, it is from so far away that it is hard to notice anybody is even shooting at you.

So the Taliban has returned to doing what guerrillas do when they suck so bad at regular fighting – they rely on the indiscriminate use of  IED’s to fight.  And as everybody in the world (except President Karzai) knows, these IED’s kill and maim vast numbers of innocent Afghans, yet rarely inflict casualties on ISAF units.

Because of a long, flat narrow area, where the population is confined mostly to strips of land in close proximity to the Helmand River and its main canals, the Marines are able to spread out into COP’s (combat outposts) PB’s (Patrol Bases) and OP’s (observation posts) covering the entire AO.  These positions are manned by junior NCO’s and in one PB the senior Marine was a Lance Corporal.   They move positions frequently;  every time the Marines set up in a new one of any size,  local families immediately move as close to the positions as they are allowed and start building mud huts. For them a small band of Marines equals security and the implicit trust shown by this pattern of behavior is something in which the Marines rightly take great pride.

Read Tim’s entire post.  More forces are needed in order to maintain security, but as for the direct firefights, it’s over with the Taliban in Helmand.  They cannot match the U.S. Marines.  The Marines are currently needed elsewhere, specifically, Kunar and Nuristan.

The Taliban are still active there, and are still pursuing their strategy.

“Bullets rained on our house which was close to the site of the clash,” one resident told me. “We were so terrified that we didn’t step out of our house until the next day.”

Another resident said by launching an attack in Mehtar Lam, the insurgents wanted to show that they can still strike at will in any of the seven locations handed over by Nato to Afghan security forces.

In the past month insurgents have killed a judge, a prison guard and a local official in this strategic city known as the gateway to Kabul.

Security handovers like the one in Mehtar Lam are seen as the first step in a lengthy process ultimately aimed to put the Afghan army and police in control of their country by 2014, the deadline for complete withdrawal of Western forces from combat operations.

But judging by developments in Mehtar Lam, the road to transition appears to be far from smooth.

“People live in fear,” said Shah Gul, a barber. “People think that if the security forces can’t protect themselves, how will they protect the people?'”

Insurgents – mainly in the shape of the Taliban or the Hizb-e-Islami militia of former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – are active in many districts of this mountainous province.

Laghman borders the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Kunar.

“This allows insurgents to carry out attacks in Laghman and then escape to Nuristan or Kunar,” said an Afghan intelligence officer.

“By targeting cities handed over to Afghans, the insurgents and their foreign backers intend to prove that Afghan security forces are not capable of protecting their people.”

Just like I predicted.  But in a twist that leverages this lawless area as the trouble-spot of the world, Pakistan is directly involved.

The Pakistani spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), with the help of Taliban, has revived the Al-Huda outfit of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar to target Indians in Afghanistan.

As many as 350 persons have been trained so far particularly to target Indian business interests and development works being executed in the war-torn country.

India’s premier external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), recently reported the development to the Centre. Following the RAW report, security of Indian assets has been beefed up with a view to thwarting any misadventure by the ISI-backed militia.

According to the report, the ISI will provide funds, training and shelter besides intelligence on movement of Indians to the trained recruits of Al-Huda for anti-India operations.

Two training camps were organised recently by the ISI to train the recruits in southern Afghanistan at Chunar and mountainous regions of Nuristan in Afghanistan on Pakistan border, intelligence sources said.

Both — Chunar and Nuristan — are areas dominated by the Hikmatyar group and the NATO forces suffered heavy reverses in the recent past while carrying out operations in these regions. The Hikmatyar group is known for its mastery in ramming explosive-laden vehicles on targetted assets and executing landmine attacks.

India is funding over 300 developmental projects in Afghanistan, including construction of roads, bridges, hospitals, Government office complexes and also the Parliament building of that country. India is the biggest donor country extending aid in revival of the war-torn nation pledging a budget of over $2 billion.

Besides the construction engineers, supporting staff and the personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police guarding the work sites of the ongoing development projects there, the Indian assets in that country also include as many as 24 consulates across Afghanistan and the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Following the inputs, the Indian embassy and the consulates there have been alerted and a security audit of the installations are being carried out to further tighten the security measures, particularly the outer periphery of the office complexes so that any fidayeen attack or blast of an explosive-laden vehicle is checked at a reasonable distance from the perimeter of the buildings, the sources added.

The Taliban had attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul on October 8, 2009 killing 17 persons and injuring 63 others. The Taliban had in the past also targetted work sites maintained by the Indian companies.

The ISI move comes following reverses at the hands of the Americans amid talk of withdrawal of the US forces from the war-ravaged country.

The Pakistani sickness and obsession with India, its own importance in the world, and having access to things (e.g., nuclear weapons, the Taliban, etc.) way beyond their ability to control is working directly against the stability of Afghanistan, the security of U.S. troops, and in fact, the security and stability of the entire region.

Marines to Kunar.  It’s the move that should be made, and sooner rather than later.  If we need more Marines to Helmand in order to pull this off, then so be it.  Someone tell the Marine Corps Commandant to stop playing Iwo Jima, as if we are ever going to conduct a large scale amphibious assault against a near peer state again.  Without chasing and killing the Taliban in his safe haven, the campaign will be lost.

COP Honaker Miracle in Kunar

BY Herschel Smith
12 years, 10 months ago

While the President and generals debate, the grunts still do the heavy work in the South (Marines in Now Zad, Marjah, Sangin and other locales), and remote outposts in the East.  USA Today has a must read on COP Honaker Miracle in the Kunar Province that gives us a view to the still salient importance of chasing the enemy into his sanctuaries.

COMBAT OUTPOST HONAKER MIRACLE, Kunar province, Afghanistan — Sgt. Lawrence Teza was in his barracks when the door was ripped open by an explosion, spraying his left side with shrapnel and breaking his hand.

“When the bombing started I was counting all my men … then wham!” he recalled from his hospital bed hours later.

Teza, along with Spc. Mathew Standford, who was peppered with shards from the metal door, joined the growing ranks of the wounded at this remote combat outpost in Afghanistan’s restive Pech River Valley in Kunar province, which borders Pakistan.

Since deploying in late April to this small base nestled among jagged mountains, small farms and mud-brick villages, about 10% of the U.S. troops here have been injured by Taliban mortars, small-arms fire and improvised explosive devices.

“We’ve had a lot of guys get hurt, but we have a tough AO (area of operations),” said Capt. Brian Kalaher, commander of the outpost, which was named after two servicemembers killed in action.

Much of the attention over the past year has been on southern Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. reinforcements have been deployed and have pushed the Taliban from former strongholds in a visible effort to regain the momentum.

Here in the Pech Valley, U.S. and Afghan forces are fighting an “economy of force” mission, holding the line against the Taliban while building the capability of Afghan security forces.

It’s part of a broad coalition strategy to concentrate forces in main population centers and to scale back in remote areas. Until recently, Combat Outpost Honaker Miracle was one of four U.S. bases along the Pech, a region that was previously occupied by a battalion, Kalaher said. Battalions are typically 600 to 700 troops. Over the winter, several of the bases were turned over to the Afghan army and another U.S. position — Combat Outpost Michigan — was closed and razed.

In previous years even smaller bases were scattered deeper in remote valleys off the Pech.

The troops here at Honaker Miracle have received a regular barrage of attacks, more than a dozen in less than two months, some lasting several hours.

During one attack, a mortar round hit a crane used to tow disabled armored vehicles and set it ablaze, reducing the vital piece of equipment to a charred hulk.

“They tested us during the first part of the deployment, a lot in May,” said Kalaher from his office where an all-white Taliban flag, removed from a nearby mountainside, hangs from the ceiling. “We set a precedent that we are not afraid to shoot back.”

Following the recent attack injuring Teza and Standford, airstrikes obliterated a nearby fighting position, reportedly killing at least two Taliban fighters.

Plenty of hidden crevices and caves dotting the mountains make effective retaliation difficult. The hardscrabble terrain and a largely unseen enemy fighting from mountainside positions makes for a daunting mission, in general.

“When we first got here it was night, so we couldn’t see what was around us,” said Cpl. Ian Beard, who was injured during the first few weeks of their deployment, taking shrapnel to his arm, leg and his lip. “When we woke up the next morning and saw all the mountains around us, it was intimidating. You feel like people (in the mountains) are looking at you all the time.”

The proximity of enclaves of Afghans surrounding the outpost adds to the difficulty. The prospect of civilian casualties weighs heavily on soldiers trying to win over a populace that is largely on the fence in their loyalties.

Platoons of troops regularly patrol nearby villages on foot and interact with the local populace in hopes of winning their trust and gaining intelligence on Taliban movements in the area.

According to local leaders, the Taliban has set up impromptu checkpoints along the roadways and even donned Afghan soldier and police uniforms to “rough up the locals,” Lt. Matt Snyder said.

Haji Ajab Khan, district sub-governor, claimed that the residents of the Pech oppose the Taliban “but can’t do anything to stop them.”

I submit the following.  First, I am sick of hearing about “economy of force” efforts.  Second, not only should these boys not have been afraid to shoot, they shouldn’t have been afraid to chase the enemy into the hills.  Third, winning the population with more patrols should take on secondary or tertiary importance to killing the Taliban.  Fourth, if the Taliban feel the freedom of movement to set up checkpoints, we are losing.  Bring in more troops and chase them and kill them … all of them.  No negotiations.  Sit snipers in the hills waiting for the checkpoints, and then rain death from above when the try to bully the population.  They must all die.

Fighting in Barawala Kalet

BY Herschel Smith
13 years ago

From an ABC News Report:

This appears to be in Kunar near the Pech Valley.  We seem to be of two minds, with our abandonment of the Pech Valley, and our simultaneous boasting of clearing operations (thanks to reader Šťoural for the reference).  We want to turn over FOB Blessing to the ANA, but send in U.S. troops because they can’t clear insurgents.  There is a paradox in the narrative because there is a paradox on the ground, and there is a paradox on the ground because there is a paradox in the strategy.

Regular readers know exactly where I stand.  We chase the insurgents into their safe havens, kill them and stay there to prevent their return.  We do it with enough troops to accomplish the objective, and we don’t pretend that bringing governance will cause the Taliban to cease and desist from their nefarious aims.  Then we send more troops to chase the ones who remain alive into their safe havens, and we kill them.  We don’t capture them because that’s ineffectual in counterinsurgency, everywhere and every time it has been tried.  We kill them – all of them.

But our strategy just hasn’t matured enough to know what our aim is.  I’ve decided on a strategy – and ISAF management hasn’t.  I may be wrong, but at least I’ve decided.

Prior: See Taliban Massing of Forces Part III for smart, knowledgeable and insightful comments from my faithful readers (some of who have been in the Kunar Province).  I am truly thankful for them.  They make this site worth reading, and certainly my prose does not.

Reprimands in Marine Deaths in Ganjgal Engagement

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 2 months ago

Recall that in 2009 three Marines and a Navy Corpsman approached the remote Kunar village of Ganjgal where they were ambushed in what was surely a planned incident.  At the time even the women and children could be seen firing weapons, spotting or carrying munitions.  The Marines made repeated calls for artillery and air support over the next couple of hours, with support denied due to the fact that the authorizing Army officers could not verify that noncombatants wouldn’t be harmed.  We know this because a McClatchy reporter was with the Marines.  In other words, whatever obfuscation that the Army can throw at this incident cannot supersede the conclusions that we can draw directly from McClatchy’s report.

And obfuscation came.  The Army did an investigation that concluded, among other things, that the officers were out of the command center for decision-making during this engagement.  But in fact they were out only some of the time, and did indeed refuse on multiple occasions to authorize supporting fires.  They also had the presence of mind to authorize white phosphorus rounds to provide smoke and thus give cover for retreat, so they knew about the danger.  They just didn’t authorize support.

The families have pursued a conclusion to this, and they may have finally gotten it.

The Army “severely reprimanded” two of the three officers cited for negligence after a flawed mission in eastern Afghanistan resulted in five U.S. deaths, according to a congressman who pushed for the information’s release.

The Army officers were cited for poor planning and oversight of a Sept. 8, 2009, operation in Ganjgal, a remote village near the Pakistan border with Kunar province. Three Marines and a corpsman were killed on the battlefield after they were repeatedly denied air and artillery support while pinned down by more than 100 insurgents. A soldier died the following month of medical complications related to wounds he suffered in the ambush.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Army recently shared with him documents indicating two of the three officers cited last year in a joint Army-Marine Corps investigation were deemed primarily responsible for the mission’s failures and given reprimands, likely career killers.

“There was nothing else we could do,” Jones said of the discipline. “This was a very tragic situation that never should have happened.”

Jones, whose congressional district includes thousands of Marines at Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps air stations New River and Cherry Point, got involved in October after family members of the fallen troops expressed disgust that the Army refused to disclose whether anyone was held accountable for mistakes that led to their loved ones’ deaths. On Jan. 28, he sent letters to the families of each service member informing them what he learned.

Army officials declined to comment on the disciplinary action. The officers are entitled to privacy unless they are charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Col. Thomas Collins, an Army spokesman.

The Ganjgal investigation, conducted by Army Col. Richard Hooker and Marine Col. James Werth, determined that the “negligent” leadership of three officers at nearby Forward Operating Base Joyce contributed “directly to the loss of life which ensued.” They refused direct calls for help from U.S. forces on the ground and failed to notify higher commands that they had troops under fire, the investigation found.

The officers were members of Task Force Chosin, a unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y. The military has not released their names, but they are likely captains or majors.

Killed in the battle were four members of Marine Embedded Training Team 2-8, out Okinawa, Japan: 1st Lt. Michael Johnson, 25; Gunnery Sgts. Aaron Kenefick, 30; and Edwin Johnson, 31; and Hospitalman 3rd Class James Layton, 22. Hours after the battle began, they were found in a ditch shot to death, stripped of gear and weapons.

A former corporal, Dakota Meyer, is nominated for the Medal of Honor for charging into the kill zone to find the four military trainers and carry them to safety.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook, 41, survived the battle despite suffering several gunshot wounds. He died Oct. 7, 2009, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington after his body rejected a blood transfusion he received in Afghanistan, said his widow, Charlene.

Charlene Westbrook questioned why the third officer cited for negligence wasn’t reprimanded, and said she is frustrated the Army hasn’t explained the rationale for its disciplinary decisions.

“We were searching for answers, not for the same thing we’ve been told before,” she said. “It’s very frustrating and, again, another betrayal, I feel.”

Collins said the families were provided complete, redacted copies of the investigation report last year. There is no indication they were ever promised an update on disciplinary actions, he said.

Reprimands in the Ganjgal case were delivered after similar discipline was rescinded last year for mistakes made in Wanat, Afghanistan, during an ambush July 13, 2008. Nine soldiers died and 27 were wounded in the battle.

Perhaps the families have partial conclusion (and I confess, I didn’t know until this report that Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook had also perished) .  I had previously recommended that the Army field grade and staff level officers involved in this incident find a different line of work.  And now they must do exactly that.  I had said that the source of this problem – rules of engagement and micromanaging the military – would not be targeted, and General McChrystal wouldn’t even so much as be mentioned in the AR 15-6.  I was right on all accounts.

When he took over the campaign in Afghanistan, McChrystal quickly issued a severely debilitating tactical directive, but in fact added to the cultural milieu with his own interpretation:

“If you are in a situation where you are under fire from the enemy… if there is any chance of creating civilian casualties or if you don’t know whether you will create civilian casualties, if you can withdraw from that situation without firing, then you must do so.”

As for micromanaging the military, when the Marines first entered Marjah in the Helmand Province, General Rodriguez, then second in command in Afghanistan, decided that he wanted to micromanage a completely separate command structure, that of the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF).  “Less than six hours before Marines commenced a major helicopter-borne assault in the town of Marja in February, Rodriguez’s headquarters issued an order requiring that his operations center clear any airstrike that was on a housing compound in the area but not sought in self-defense.”

The officers on duty that fateful day the Marines were killed in Gamjgal were responsible for their decisions.  It gives me no joy to report or comment on their demise as officers in the U.S. Army.  But the climate of micromanagement of forces in theater set in motion by Generals McChrystal and Rodriguez was also responsible for the incident at Ganjgal.  Incidents can (and in fact most often do) have more than a single root cause.

I will forever hold General McChrystal responsible for the deaths of three Marines, a Navy Corpsman and a Soldier in this incident.  Until he admits to the debilitating nature of his command and visits these families to watch them weep, this incident is unresolved, and the families have no closure.  He can join as many boards of directors as he likes.  There is unfinished business, and the ghosts of four Marines and a Soldier are watching.


Taliban Ambush in Eastern Kunar Kills Four U.S. Marines

More Thoughts on Marines and Rules of Engagement

AR 15-6 Investigation of Marine Deaths in Kunar Province

Ganjgal Ambush Congressional Probe

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 5 months ago

From the Marine Corps Times:

A member of the House Armed Services Committee is calling for the Army to divulge what punishment three officers received for failing to respond adequately to an ambush in Afghanistan that killed five U.S. troops.

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., asked Army Secretary John McHugh to explain the “consequences” the Army officers faced following a joint Army-Marine investigation of the Sept. 8, 2009, ambush near the village of Ganjgal, he said in an interview with Marine Corps Times.

Army Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, a spokesman for McHugh, declined to comment on what punishment was delivered, but said the Army planned to respond to Jones’ inquiry.

“Clearly, the deaths at Ganjgal were tragic,” she said. “But as is standard practice in the Army, we apply the lessons learned from all reviews and investigations … to prevent repeating mistakes of the past.”

The attack occurred as 13 U.S. military trainers and about 80 Afghan security forces made an early-morning trip to the remote village in Kunar province to meet with village elders.

Three Marines and a Navy corpsman were found shot to death and stripped of their gear and weapons in a ditch after being pinned down for hours, without air and artillery support, by more than 100 insurgents wielding rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, according to witness statements obtained by Marine Corps Times. A U.S. soldier wounded in the ambush died the following month at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

“I believe that they are seriously looking into the facts as to what happened during that fight,” said Jones, who served in Congress with McHugh, a former New York representative. “I have a great respect for Secretary McHugh, and I believe he will get to the bottom of it, and once a decision is made … he will release his findings.”

Two investigations were launched following the Ganjgal attack. The first was headed by an Army major in the first days after the attack. The second, in November, focused primarily on command-post failure, and was overseen by Army Col. Richard Hooker and Marine Col. James Werth, military officials said. The colonels found that there was a failure of leadership in the operations center, and that the troops on the ground were promised air and artillery support before the mission if it became necessary.

The investigating colonels recommended that three Army officers — likely captains or majors — receive letters of reprimand for failing to provide adequate support from a nearby operations center at Forward Operating Base Joyce. The officers were part of Task Force Chosin, an Army unit comprising soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, N.Y.

… the reprimands (Editorial Note: For the Wanat engagement, not Ganjgal) were rescinded in June by retiring Gen. Charles Campbell, who commanded U.S. Army Forces Command, out of Fort McPherson, Ga. He shared his decision with the families of the dead soldiers June 23, and the meeting ended abruptly when several of them walked out angrily, family members told Army Times.

Regular readers know my position on this ambush.  I had predicted that no investigation would find that General McChrystal’s tactical directive and associated guidance played a role in the lack of fire support during the engagement.  I had (correctly) predicted that the field grade officers involved in this incident should watch their six.  I also don’t see much value to the AR 15-6 investigation into the ambush.

But I maintain one fact.  McChrystal’s rules of engagement was directly responsible for three Marines and one Navy Corpsman perishing that fateful day.  Their blood is on his hands.

The Marine Corps Times has apparently obtained witness statements, and I have requested them but have not yet received any word concerning the statements.  The next step will be a contact to Representative Walter Jones.  We’ll eventually have full disclosure on the circumstances surrounding these deaths.


Taliban Ambush in Eastern Kunar Kills Four U.S. Marines

More Thoughts on Marines and Rules of Engagement

AR 15-6 Investigation of Marine Deaths in Kunar Province

Combat Action in Eastern Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 6 months ago

U.S. Army Pfc. Ryan L. Carson of Richmond, Va., a member of the Company Intelligence Support Team with Company A, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, Task Force Bulldog, and an Afghan National Police officer search the nearby hillside just prior to a more than three-hour firefight at the Shege East ANP checkpoint Sept. 18th.

In the Kunar Province, “An estimated two dozen insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns and small arms at the post in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar Province. International Security Assistance Forces and ANP responded in kind with small arms, heavy machine gun and mortar fire. Neither ISAF nor ANP personnel were injured during the attack.”

In the Paktya Province:

One Afghan security contractor and five insurgents were killed when a squad-sized element of insurgents attacked three bases near Gardez, Paktya province, Sept. 24. At least two others were injured.

The attack began when insurgents opened fire on the Forward Operating Base Goode (Gardez) entry control point with AK-47 rifles at about noon, said U.S. Army Capt. Scott M. Frederick, the FOB commander of FOB Lightning. One insurgent was killed and a truck belonging to a respected village elder was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and set aflame in this initial attack.

After coalition forces suppressed the first wave of the attack, four insurgents who had been wearing suicide vests removed their explosive vests and began firing on the entry control point with AK-47 rifles. All four were killed. One of the suicide vests “cooked off,” but caused no damage. Coalition forces seized the other three before they detonated.

The small group of surviving insurgents escaped to a nearby wadi, or dry riverbed, where they were fired upon by U.S. troops at FOB Lightning. The insurgents retreated to the tree line and began firing on both FOB Lightning and FOB Thunder, an adjacent Afghan National Army installation.

Suddur, an Afghan National Army soldier in Garrison Kandak, 203rd Thunder Corps was guarding FOB Thunder’s entry control point when the attack was under way, and described the events.

“At first it was just a few people firing, we thought it was [celebratory fire for] a wedding,” he said. “Then, the firing increased dramatically, and we called the quick reaction force.”

The firefight went on uninterrupted for about 20 minutes, and sporadic gunfire continued for at least another hour. Rounds could be heard ricocheting inside the wire of both installations.

In the Khost Province:

U.S. Apache attack helicopters virtually wiped out a platoon-size insurgent force that was assaulting a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan’s Khost province Sept. 21, according to coalition spokesmen.

But while the AH-64 Apaches were the agents of the insurgents’ destruction, a combination of at least one unmanned aerial vehicle and ground-based surveillance cameras was the key to identifying the insurgents before they were able to launch their attack, according to an account of the battle published online by Task Force Rakkasan, which is built around the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). The unmanned aerial vehicle was “an organic brigade UAV system,” said TF Rakkasan spokesman Maj. S. Justin Platt.

Coalition forces suffered no casualties during the multi-hour nighttime battle at Combat Outpost Spera, said Platt. Nor were there any reports of civilian casualties.

COP Spera, located about 10 miles from the Pakistan border, is manned by soldiers from TF Rakkasan’s A Troop, 1st Squadron, 33rd Cavalry Regiment, as well as Afghan forces. Platt declined to be more specific about the size of the coalition force at Spera, but according to an April story by the Associated Press, “the outpost is regularly manned by one U.S. platoon of 20-30 troops serving 10-week rotations along with an Afghan National Army company about 100-strong.”

These instances are positive in their engagement of the enemy, and some of the engagement involves patrols.  All of the engagements involve patriotic Soldiers doing their duty, and any time the Taliban masses forces against U.S. troops, they lose badly or at least have a low kill ratio compared to U.S. troops.  Not a single casualty occurred in the three engagements detailed above.  This is very good.  Very good indeed.

But as we proceed through this campaign, we will win or lose based on whether these engagements are within or without the confines of FOBs.  We need to be chasing the enemy and killing them in the hills and tree lines in which they hide.  Recall the boys in the Korengal as reported by C. J. Chivers?

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