Michael's Dispatches

False Sense of Something: Some observations and thoughts on the unfolding wars

01 October 2012

img001-1000Camp Bastion Sanger circa 2011. Camp Bastion is a major foothold in Afghanistan.

If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. - Sun Tzu, the Art of War

Despite the past eleven years in Afghanistan, U.S. ground troops are less prepared than ever for “small wars.”  We have become so dependent on gadgets and contractors that we would not know what to do without them.  Contractors provide much of the security at major bases in Afghanistan, and even on many smaller bases.

We like to use contractors because they are cheaper and politically expedient.  When they are killed by car bombs at the gates, they are not added to the only body count that Americans care about.  Leaders do not have to deal with photographs of grieving families.

When TCN (Third Country National) contractors are maimed, we can send them home to Africa or Nepal, and wash our hands while avoiding burdensome veterans’ issues.  Contractors have no political or moral clout. They are our mercenaries.  Using mercenaries makes business and political sense.

Many of our security contractors are Afghans.  Does this make military sense?

A source mentioned that guard towers (known as “sangers”) were frequently empty at BLS.  BLS refers to the Bastion, Leatherneck, Shorbak complex.

I witnessed a similar incident last year in Zhari.   Zhari was, and remains, one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.

One night in Zhari, the contracted Afghan guards left their post, which was just ten seconds away from the tents where 4-4 Cav Soldiers lived, and a few tents down from my own.  The sanger appeared to be empty.  I looked inside.  They were gone.  For obvious security reasons, I did not publish this.

Image2-1000Screen grab from Taliban video, allegedly made before the Bastion attack.

On 14 September 2012, a small band of Taliban breached the defenses of one of the most heavily guarded bases in the world, and effectively destroyed a Marine Corps Harrier squadron.  They did this in the open desert.

Image4-1000Planning the Bastion attack.

Plainly, the enemy knew more about our BLS defenses vs. threat than did our commanders in Kabul, or for that matter, the ones at BLS.  To plan, rehearse, and execute this attack, the enemy first had to identify a persistent weakness.

Many questions regarding the Bastion attack remain: Who was tasked to be in those sangers?  Were all of the sangers manned?  If so, were they fully manned?  If the guards were there, were they awake?  Were they under the influence of narcotics?  (A persistent problem in Afghanistan.)

How did fifteen attackers get near the perimeter without being spotted and shot?

img004-1000BLS defenses circa 2011. 

An unguarded obstacle is just a speed bump.  The greatest value of these obstructions is to slow and canalize the enemy.  If defenders are not ready, the attackers are coming in.

Maxim: a wall is only as strong as the people defending it.  This is as true today as it was when the Great Wall was built.

Maxim: a wall is no stronger than its weakest part. This is typically at the gates, but not always.

Knowing that a sanger is unguarded, you can quickly think of many ways to breach the fence: car bomb, motorbike bomb, suicide vest, satchel charge, ladder, shovel, pole-vault, or just crash it with a truck, sensors be dammed.  On this moonless night, the audacious seized the initiative until the defenders could get their boots and body armor on, and figure out what had happened

If they were thinking a little bigger, the enemy might swarm in with a hundred motorbike bombs and engage force on force.  Afghans are known for swarming, but their weakness has been to assemble too long in one area, and then our guys kill them efficiently. 

And so the enemy switched to smaller units, which we touted as evidence of looming victory. It was just a change in tactics.  Luckily, the Taliban have not mastered a technique of quickly massing from many directions, and launching multi-pronged attacks from the march.  They are good at small-unit tactics in their home environments, but have difficulty with broad coordination.

They come like mosquitoes in the jungle.  There is (apparently) no mosquito king who sounds a trumpet to arms, but where you go, the local mosquitoes rise up for blood.  You whack some of them, they get some blood and give you malaria, and everyone claims victory.

Image3-1000Screengrab from enemy video: The barrels in the drawing are the hangars

Some may cry “OPSEC” over these images, but the enemy already has good photos, intel and target sketches.  The attack and the video prove that.

(Admin note: despite accusations by members of Soldiers Angels, and stay-at-home milbloggers, I have never been accused of OPSEC violations by any military authority.  The only complaints come from couch generals and basement milbloggers.)


In this screen grab, the enemy is practicing fence cutting.  Notice the shoes.  Villagers in southern Afghanistan do not wear athletic shoes.  Normally they wear sandals, or old shoes that are too small or too large.   A group of young men wearing sports shoes in southern Afghanistan is a WARNING.  Though these guys are wearing American uniforms, those shoes are enemy uniform. 

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