Michael's Dispatches

All The King’s Horses (Some notes from a weekend of thought)

08 October 2012


Terrain is the single most important factor in combat.

During the early days of the wars, back when everyone seemed to know we had won in Afghanistan, testimonials streamed from the battle zones about how badly the deserts treated our super-gear.

Batman could only dream about the techno-wonders we complained about.  But we pleaded that the high temperatures, moon dust, and that terrible Brownian Motion could be the undoing of our high tech.  (Send more money.)

Yet, no Einstein was required to see that the commotion over climate and dust avoided a few important realities; Iraqis and Afghans have lived there beyond the frayed edges of history, and today their televisions, motorbikes, and cars work, despite the sand and heat.  Their helicopters still fly.  Their AK-47s still burp flames and hot metal.  (Yes, the Taliban really did have high-performance aircraft working.)

Eventually we stopped crying about the gear.  Many of our own training centers are in U.S. deserts, and we have many times fought in deserts, yet somehow we still fielded gear that we said has difficulty in deserts.  (Send more money.)

The truth is that desert terrain and weather have provided the finest moments for gadget warfare.  Any major defense contractor purveying the modern high-tech would want to exhibit them on the perfect stage of Afghanistan, or against the Iraqi Army, so easily detected in wide open spaces, and hit with precision weapons.  Our ships did not face major threats from high-tech missiles, or even basic sea mines, which still in 2012 remain serious threats.

In Afghanistan, what looks so wonderful against a low-tech enemy in made-for-Hollywood terrain will not shine brightly in triple-canopy jungles, or even in the dense forests of the Appalachians, or in the thick Florida swamps.   Deserts are the last place to complain about our gear.

This dispatch is not an attempt to perturb military policy.  Shelves of books already have been written by more qualified others, spanning many wars and generations.  If performance is any measure, they did little good.

Yet it is vital to put some of these recent observations on paper while the memories remain fresh.  These notes will not help the current military, any more than reading glasses and books will help an illiterate Afghan farmer who for seventy years has been set in his ways.  But they may be of some use to rare historians, and the curious, who years later, wonder why we fumbled so in Afghanistan.  These notes might be of value to some as-yet unborn commander, and provide insight to our political and military failure against enemies who easily should have been defeated.

This dispatch is not comprehensive.   It represents a weekend of effort.  A small donation for posterity.


With some exceptions, the Afghanistan battlefields are mostly treeless, even bald.  Advanced optics of many sorts can see for miles.  Today, some optics are outfitted with software to highlight potential targets.  So, there you are, using a thermal imager, when a little box appears.   It draws your attention away from the warm haystack, to something manlike under sparse trees.  Not only does the imager enhance the eyes; it also tells us where to look, and the precise coordinates of the object of attention.

image005-1000Ghor Province, Afghanistan

At night, low humidity, crystal-clear skies, and practically zero light pollution allows operators to easily identify targets.

The logistics to Afghanistan are hard, expensive, and fraught with international politics.  But after the supplies land in Afghanistan—especially in the south where most fighting occurs—logistics become easy (if still wildly expensive due to aircraft and fuel costs).  Much of the supplies are parachuted to minor bases, or delivered by helicopter, or by trucks, which often are destroyed.  The major bases have large runways.  All of our ammunition and sensitive items are flown into Afghanistan.  I once flew from Kuwait to Bagram on a C-17 (costing about $200m per) with a full load of 155mm ammunition.

We have created a virtual (if small) country within Afghanistan.  Our virtual country is completely electrified except at tiny outposts.  Most of the troops and contractors have running hot water, sewerage systems, and on some bases, pizza delivery and laundry service.  There is WiFi, cell phone service, excellent gyms and many if not most troops who deploy to Afghanistan actually gain weight.  (This is untrue for combat troops, who often skinny up.)  There is FedEx and DHL at the major bases.  Helicopters or trucks deliver mail to minor bases.

Most Afghans have no electricity.  Their villages are dark.  Our bases stand out like spaceships in the night.  The Afghans have asked for years why we are able to quickly electrify our bases, but cannot electrify a village just outside the wire.  They only expect these things because they were promised.

For years, we said we had to guard Kajaki Dam because the Taliban would destroy it.  Which makes no sense.  The Taliban controlled the dam for years and never destroyed it; their opium farms depend on it, and they hope to have electricity from it.  The Taliban had eliminated opium before we came.  They outlawed the dancing boys, and executed people for raping boys and girls.  Yes, they were savage.  Afghanistan is savage no matter who is in charge.  President Karzai supported a law that allows a man to starve his wife if she refuses sex.  Afghanistan still forces girls to marry men who rape them.

We also said the Taliban will destroy the electrical posts and lines, but this also is untrue.  This brief combat video was shot by me, miles down from Kajaki, in the area of Sangin, in Helmand Province.

image007-1000I had just walked under and photographed this power line in enemy-controlled terrain when we came under machine-gun fire. We say that the Taliban destroy the power lines, but it is a lie: we generate the electricity, and they charge people for it, and the Taliban like electricity. The Taliban are the power company executives; we work for them. If we really wanted to damage the Taliban, we would blow up Kajaki Dam. Instead, we guard and maintain it, and slave for the Taliban who uses the water to grown their opium.

There were plenty of power lines in the area that were completely controlled by the Taliban.  There are only glimpses of power lines in the video, but it is a fact that the Taliban were not destroying them.  The video was a composite from different firefights; during the ambush in the open, the two Javelin missiles were used in panic.  One shot hit the dirt, which at first I thought must be a hidden position.  But video would prove that it was just dirt in the wide open.  The second hit the generator.  We had no air support because there was a bigger fight going on nearby, and we could hear and see that they needed the Apaches and the rest more than we did.


After shattering some small rocks with the first Javelin (he had two missiles), the Soldier used the Javelin thermal (CLU) and locked his gates onto the heat source from a generator.  He and the Soldiers in this image were covering the half I was with, while we ran out of the giant kill zone.  The Javelin man launched a top-down attack, making an impressive fireball.  Nobody knew what caused the fireball until the villagers (from the place where the gunfire was coming) came to base demanding payment for the generator.

The Taliban seem to think we are their retarded little toys; they shoot us, and blow us up, and then demand we pay for their stuff, which we do.  Sometimes the Taliban seem to pity us.  Rich, ignorant suckers.  The power lines in this dispatch are safely under complete [Taliban] control.

During fighting, combat air support is seldom more than a few minutes away, and helicopter resupply is so certain in Kandahar and Helmand that even a brief contact from the enemy can result in massive return fire.  In this brief firefight, we saw approximately a quarter of a million dollars’ worth (depending on which price you cite) of Javelin used to destroy some rocks and a generator.  This cost does not include operator training, transport to Afghanistan, and then the helicopter flight to the outpost.  More return fire could have been accomplished with RPGs for maybe a hundred bucks.

U.S. and British troops on foot missions sometimes unleash just to lighten the load.  Americans are far worse at this than British.  Courageous helicopter pilots—at risk of being shot down—will deliver “speedball” resupply on call, and the troops on the ground are easy to find.  The pilots can put the speedball at your feet.  American troops in Vietnam were notorious for doing the same.

This ain’t the jungle, and the Taliban are not bristling with surface-to-air missiles, and so the airspace is relatively safe, above small-arms range.  Occasionally, the enemy uses surface-to-air missiles with success, and they have learned to reasonably match our night vision gear by using cheap cameras set to night mode.  We use all sorts of IR beacons that the enemy can see with simple cameras.

For us, targets are easy to identify and mark by air or ground.  We even have pricey GPS-guided mortars and artillery that can hit a parked car from miles away on the first strike.  Using such gear would be far more difficult in a Louisiana bayou.  If we were in a jungle or swamp, the apparent thousands of Javelin missiles that we and allies have fired in Afghanistan would often be impossible to bring to bear.  The Javelins are great missiles, when they work, but we use them as fly swatters.

The taxpayers are generous and we waste that generosity self-righteously, with a massive sense of entitlement, which mostly is kept hidden with good PR, and willful blindness from those who foot the bills.

To dare spare any and all expense on the troops is seen as tantamount treason.  Some years ago, there was a groundswell to supply troops with inferior body armor called Dragon Skin.  The rally cry was that Dragon Skin was more expensive and therefore must be better, and that the military refused to buy it because it was more expensive.

The reality was that Dragon Skin was far more expensive, and far inferior to competitors.  After trying Dragon Skin, which some people were buying for loved ones deployed, I refused to wear it in combat, and sold mine.  To the Pentagon’s credit, the procurement system worked and the military did not cave to demands to buy the inferior Dragon Skin.  The system is not totally broken.  There really is some fine gear in use, but the failures are maddening, and this tendency to spare no expense is often used in commission of wanton waste.

In September 2011, I made video of a nearby U.S. strike using 12 GMLRS rockets.  The Soldiers had to wait for well over a day—in a very dangerous area where two friendly fatalities (1 U.S., 1 ANA) occurred over two days.  Finally came the rockets.  About $2 million worth.  Their actual cost would be far more if counting air transportation to Afghanistan, and other enormous associated costs, such as maintenance and specialized crews.  While approval for the strike was on hold in Kabul, about 120 men waited as sitting ducks.  (Many were Afghan Soldiers.)

The target: probably a few hundred dollars’ worth of ammonium nitrate. There were no enemy personnel on target.  There were no civilians anywhere around.  The target could have been hit within half an hour with a single bomb that already was under someone’s wing.  Sometimes you get the impression that the choice of weapons—which was made in Kabul, hundreds of miles away—has nothing to do with the tactical realities.

On that particular mission – there was nothing special about it other than that it will be memorialized here – given that we came in and went out by helicopters, and took a U.S. fatality and one ANA killed, and the extreme costs of wasting Soldiers’ time in Afghanistan, it is not unrealistic to guess that that strike cost at least ten million dollars, or likely far more.  There is no way to account for it, but we know that we were burning money at the bonfire of insanity, including a risky nighttime resupply halfway through by CH-47.

It has been estimated that it costs about $1 million to keep a U.S. Soldier in Afghanistan for one year. Let’s make a jagged stab at accounting for that mission, including some of the support, planning, and execution that went into it.  Let’s argue that 400 people spent 10 days on it, or 4,000 man days.  There was pre-mission planning that lasted weeks for some.  Execution.  And reset.  So 10 days is safe.  (Not including the many aircraft that supported us.)  Most of the Soldiers involved with the mission did not actually go on it; they were support.  That’s about $11 million, plus the $2 million for missiles, not to mention the aircraft, and the peanuts paid as death gratuity for the killed Soldier.

For what?  A few hundred pounds of fertilizer. For every dollar we cost the enemy, we probably waste thousands.

It must cost at least a billion dollars to deploy an infantry battalion to Afghanistan for a year.  It is hard to imagine it costing less.  And this can never account for the casualties on both sides, the worn out and destroyed gear, and the suicide bomber and opium warehouse that has grown under our perceived wisdom.  The Afghans, including in most of the worst places, have continuously demonstrated that they will welcome people and protect those who are helping, and they will resist those that they see as invaders.  We would do the same.

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