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Forgotten War, Shoestring War

By Michael Fumento

First an update on kinetics, to use the euphemism for violence. Just before I left the States, a unit of the Afghan National Army (ANA) got zapped in what may be the opening of the Taliban spring offensive. Seventeen casualties were evacuated here to FOB Lagman. The aid station was overwhelmed and regular soldiers pitched in. "I was stuffing gauze into bullet holes," 1st. Lt. and Company Executive Officer Keith Wei told me, wincing as he said it. Although one was dead on arrival, the remainder survived. Here, as in Iraq, if you make it to a medic you're chances of survival are excellent.

Romanian convoy back from vital mission (bringing me to Lagman). Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Within days, the Taliban tried a similar ambush but far different results. The Americans accompanying the Afghans called in close air support, killing about 35 Taliban. Then the Taliban scored blood, killing Spc. Conor Masterson of B Company, a medic, and wounding two others when an IED hit their Humvee. It was B Company's first death since it deployed here in January.

Also, apparently they have cobras here -- by which I do not mean Marine gunship helicopters but the kind that slither, hiss, and if you're unfortunate bite. It's not exactly kinetics, but it's something most Americans would find unsettling, especially since the doctor across the way from me, Capt. Slusher, assures me we have no anti-venom. In any case, it's good incentive to keep the place clean because trash brings rodents and rodents bring snakes. They also have the ugliest beetles here I've ever seen. The little monsters fly and they bite. I think they work for al Qaeda.

An Al Qaeda beetle. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
B Company has about 160 men, divided into three platoons plus a squad for headquarters. Back in Germany, where 1-4 is based, the unit usually acts as adversaries during war games. In recent years, they've played guerrillas. So that gives them special expertise in thinking like the enemy. In addition to running patrols out of here in Qalat they operate four other tiny FOBs spread throughout the province, plus a firebase with howitzers.Those little FOBs and the firebase are the heart of B Company's operation.

These little FOBs are about the size of combat operation posts (COPs) I wrote about in Ramadi and that are a major part of Gen. David Petraeus's plan to pacify Baghdad, but one of the most important aspects of COPs is that they are close enough to each other or the mother FOB that they can quickly receive support. These are way too far apart to for that. If they're attacked in force -- and it wouldn't be all that hard for the Taliban and al Qaeda to hit them with superior numbers -- by the time reinforcement could arrive it would be much too late. Close air support is all they can rely on.

The only one of these FOBs that's seen combat since the unit deployed is FOB Mizan; so I asked to be sent there. Unfortunately, the helo that was to bring me out there was supposed to be carrying a general in here. The general decided not to come so there went my ride. I'll get to another outlying FOB, but not for at least two more days.

This hearkens to a subject I teased at in the first blog. I commented in my previous blog about what a nasty FOB Lagman is. In Iraq, if you ask for a helo you get one. Actually, you get two since they usually fly in pairs for safety reasons. Here, theoretically, getting a helo should be easier because they're allowed to fly during the day. There just aren't that many birds in the Afghan theater. So why so few helos and why is this place so crummy?

An Army Apache gunship over Lagman's LZ. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
Part of Lagman's problem might be mismanagement. I've really gotten to like the Romanians; they're exceedingly friendly. But they might be poor administrators. But mostly the helo problem and the Lagman problem is representative of the war effort here. We're trying to win this war on a shoestring; there simply aren't enough men here and there isn't enough money.
FOB Lagman HQ, flying the Romanian, Afghan, and American flags. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
But there's no money. "We know how to win here," says Wei. "But we're so shorthanded. Every platoon we have is covering what used to be a company-sized sector." But they no longer have those men.

"You can see victory on the horizon but we don't have the means to get there."

He says the ANA can fight but they're demoralized because "Some haven't been paid in months." A report from the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that I wrote about states that even when they are paid, "Income for those in the lower ranks remains insufficient to meet more than the most basic needs. ANA soldiers now receive $100 month as a new recruit for a three-year commitment, up from $70 month." However, "In some reported cases, the Taliban are paying up to $12 a day, three times as much as the ANA field soldiers, and there is evidence of defection from the national security forces to the Taliban ranks."

The Taliban and al Qaeda know the value of money and they have plenty of it. They didn't conquer most of Afghanistan through fighting ability, but rather through wheeling and dealing with various warlords, backstabbing of others, and throwing around copious amounts of bribe money.

A lack of money is also strapping the hearts and minds aspect of the war. "It takes four weeks here just to get cement," Wei says. "We need to help build and to provide security, but we just don't have the funds. Everybody here understands what needs to be done but their hands are tied by a lack of resources in both funds and people. We could pacify Zabul in probably a year if they pumped money into here like they do Iraq."

Aye and there's the rub. Even before 9/11 military strategists warned that we no longer had the ability to fight two wars at once, that at best we could fight one and keep the other in a holding pattern. That's what it appears we're doing here. But what if the holding pattern doesn't hold?

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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April 18, 2007 10:53 AM  ·  Afghanistan ~ Military