Archive for May, 2010
A U.S. Army official says Afghanistan’s army is hanging onto thousands of tons of old, degraded and hazardous amunition in depots around the country, despite the danger that it could be used to make terrorist roadside bombs – or simply blow up, putting nearby residents at risk.
Col. Ronald L. Green, the director of logistics for the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, told a Defense Department bloggers roundtable Friday (May 28) that the Afghans have 6,300 metric tons of bad ammo that they are reluctant to get rid of – and neither the U.S. Army nor NATO can make them.
Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) “has the final say” on the destruction of their own ammunition stockpiles, Green says, despite U.S. warnings that the aging amunition is either useless or poses a combustion threat. “Our hands are tied.”
Most of the ammo – which ranges from small arms bullets to rocket-propelled grenades and 14.5 millimeter shells – is left over from the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. Some of it is older than that, Green says. “There’s about 54 bunkers that were made by the Russians that are packed and stacked full of ammunition,” he adds.
Despite U.S. warnings of the danger and the 2006 London Compact that requires Afghanistan to destroy unsafe and unserviceable ammunition by the end of 2010, the MoD has only been eliminating incremental amounts. Green attributes the reluctance to “a cultural affinity for hoarding.”
“This is a national treasure in their eyes,” Green said. “If it looks good. It is good.” He said two nongovernmental organizations – HALO Trust and Weapons Reduction and Abatement (WRA) have been funded through multiple avenues to eliminate the obsolete ammo within 18 months, without any cost to the Afghan government. Green says at the rate the Afghans are destroying the outdated ammo on their own, it would take 40 years to eliminate all 6,300 metric tons.
The ageing ammo is in dumps around the country at Herat, Kunduz – even outside Kabul the capital. The old stuff takes up so much space, the U.S. has to store new ammo for Afghan use in substandard facilities that will likely cause it to degrade faster.
The stockpiles are under Afghan control and while he is unaware of any pilferage, Green says concerns that some could be stolen and used to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs) “keeps me up at night.”
“We cannot prove that any of this ammunition has been stolen or moved around … but it’s a huge opportunity” for terrorists, Green says.
U.S. and NATO officials are trying to get Afghanistan’s parliament to influence President Hamid Karzai into issuing a presidential decree to destroy the old and surplus ammo, Green says.
The colonel is also worried about more than 1 million pounds of explosives used for dam construction that’s been sitting outside Herat for more than a year. It’s an explosives-grade variant of ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO) — the stuff used to blow up the Murrah federal office building in Oklahoma City. Only about 3,000 pounds of low-grade ANFO was used in that 1995 terrorist attack that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.
The Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan is a multi-national unit focusing on the development and training of Afghan security forces, including the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. CSTC-A joined with the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan Nov. 21, 2009 to form one integrated headquarters under U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell.
Before the rockets’ red glare (Click on image to enlarge)
U.S. Army soldiers fire rounds from a Humvee-mounted .50-caliber machine gun at the base of a training target to show nearby helicopters where to fire their rockets during aerial-ground integration training between U.S. and Iraqi forces at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, May 21, 2010. The soldiers are assigned to the 558th Military Police Company.
The 558th is an active-duty MP company under 728th MP Battalion, 8th MP Brigade, based in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. While deployed in Iraq, it is attached to the 1st (Advise and Assist) Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division. The 1/82 AAB brigade is specially trained to help Iraqi civil and military institutions achieve and maintain security and stability on their own. 4GWAR posted an item on the advise and assist brigades on March 29.
Springtime in South Dakota
U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kristi Terwilliger (left), and Staff Sgt. Benjamin Pieta take aim in the prone position during an operational readiness exercise at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., May 12, 2010. Ellsworth is home to the 28th Bomb Wing, which flies B-1B Lancer bombers. Pieta and Terwilliger are patrolmen assigned to the 28th Security Forces Squadron, which performs police and ground combat functions in providing both facility and personnel security. The exercise is designed to mimic an overseas deployment and tested the readiness of personnel across the base in a combat environment — regardless of weather conditions. The springtime storm dumped 2-5 inches of wet snow and lowered temperatures to the mid 30s. Makes you wonder what it was like in NORTH Dakota that day.
Plays Well with Others
The U.S. military is continuing with plans to draw down forces in Iraq to 50,000 troops by September. Meanwhile, Iraqi politicians are still wrangling over forming a coalition government after the confused results of the March 7 elections. And violence is on the rise, especially in Diyala Province north of Baghdad.
However, one bright spot in all the uncertainty say U.S. officials in northern Iraq is the growing cooperation among the Iraqi Army, Iraqi police and the Kurdish defense force, known as the peshmerga.
Joint raids by U.S., Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have uncovered several caches of weapons – as well as a thriving arms smuggling business along Iraq’s northeast border with Iran, in and around the rugged Hamrin Mountains. But a top U.S. Army intelligence officer says there’s been no indication that the arms are coming from Iranian government sources.
“There are profiteers selling weapons to both Sunis and Shia,” Lt. Col. Michael Marti, the G-2 – intelligence chief – for the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division, told a recent bloggers roundtable. “We look very closely at any cache that we find and subsequently destroy,” to determine if it is was looted from the Sadam Hussein regime’s pre-war stockpiles or brought in from outside Iraq.
As far as Iranian involvement: “We get very little reporting of the specifics, of lethal munitions coming across the Iranian border. The information just isn’t there,” Marti says.
But he adds: “I know that on the Iranian border, we haven’t interdicted a smuggling operation that’s been bringing lethal munitions across.”
Marti, who is also in charge of intelligence for Task Force Marne, also called U.S. Division-North, a unit of about 21,000 troops responsible for U.S. operations in northern Iraq, spoke with bloggers by phone from Contingency Operating Base Speicher, in Tikrit, Iraq last week. He discussed a series of joint U.S.-Iraqi-Kurdish raids – known as Operation Chelan – that have captured stockpiles of arms and at least eight insurgents — some believed to be mid-level leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq for Diyala Province.
He says small arms, including mortar systems, artillery rounds and some anti-tank missiles have been recovered in the raids. And the intelligence gained in each raid has driven subsequent operations. The focus of the operations have been al Qaeda in Iraq, specifically in Diyala province because the area has been targeted by extremists seeking to stir sectarian tension among the wary — if not openly hostile — Suni and Shia communities.
The operations have usually included a brigade-sized unit of the Iraqi Army and peshmerga troops and a battalion of U.S. forces, operating in an advisory capacity. Marti says cooperation went well among the U.S., Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army units – which are usually about 60 percent Sunni and 40 percent Shia. He called the cooperation “very important” in light of the planned decrease in U.S. forces. “It wasn’t easy to conduct the operation. I mean, there are some cultural barriers and communication barriers to break through,” Marti said, but U.S. forces were there to help facilitate it.
And Don’t Call Me Snoopy
A military working dog wears Doggles (yes, goggles for dogs) to protect his eyes as a Chinook helicopter takes off, kicking up dust and debris, during an air assault operation by U.S. soldiers assigned to Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Vermont National Guard in Parwan province, Afghanistan, May 11, 2010. The soldiers visited a remote village in Parwan Province to conduct a key leader engagement with village elders.
All military working dogs receive their initial training at the 341st Training Squadron at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. To view a photo essay about the advanced training of U.S. Air Force military working dogs, click here.
Soggy sock time
U.S. Marines run to position with Brunei Air Force helicopters flying support overhead during an amphibious landing exercise with the Royal Brunei Land Forces, Binturan Beach, Brunei, May 7, 2010. The Marines, assigned to the 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, participated in Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training 2010, also called CARAT.
More than 45 Marines participated in jungle warfare and urban warfare training as part of a series of bilateral exercises held annually in Southeast Asia to strengthen relationships and to enhance force readiness.
Part I, Our Guy in Kabul
The recent outbreak of violence in and around Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, underscores the difficult task for U.S. and Coalition forces face in conducting counterinsurgency operations in a country with a weak central government and a struggling national security force.
In the last week, five U.S. soldiers and one Canadian – four of them senior officers – were killed in a suicide bomb attack on a military convoy in Kabul. Then on May 19, at least seven insurgents were killed and several U.S. soldiers wounded — and a civilian contractor killed — in an unsuccessful attempt to breach the perimeter at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul.
The attacks follow the recent Washington visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. After months of criticizing Karzai publicly, U.S. officials have recently taken a softer approach with the Afghan president, who has come under fire for ignoring corruption and winning re-election through widespread vote fraud. U.S. officials have also complained about the Karzai government’s poor follow-through in providing a government presence after the Taliban is driven out an area. The slow pace of restoring civil society was highlighted after the U.S clear and hold operation around Marjah in the southern province of Helmand.
“Counter insurgency isn’t enough to win the war,” says Andrew Exum, a fellow at a Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). In a paper released last week, Exum urges the U.S. and its allies to use political, economic or military leverage to get Karzai’s government to be more cooperative and productive. “To a large extent, U.S. and allied success in Afghanistan depends on what the Afghan government does and fails to do,” Exum writes.
But it’s a mistake to assume Afghan politicians’ aims coincide with those of the U.S., Exum adds. He thinks, however, that a strategy utilizing Afghanistan’s neighbors, rivals and allies to bring pressure to bear could influence – if not coerce – the politicians to do the right thing, at least some of the time.
Despite claims of fraud, Karzai was elected president of Afghanistan and the U.S. is likely to be dealing with him for several years, so berating him to fire corrupt officials, stop wasting money and get services to the Afghans who need them in the hinterland isn’t going to work, Exum advises. “Hamid Karzai is, for better or for worse, the United States’ man in Kabul,” Exum argues.
A senior fellow at CNAS – retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno – agrees on that point, noting Karzai is more cooperative when he isn’t pushed into a corner. And Barno would know. He commanded the 20,000 U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan for 19 months starting in 2003. Karzai, he says, “works best in a positive environment … he works least effectively when he’s under pressure, when he feels threatened.”
Barno says there have been some positive signs coming out of Afghanistan since the Obama administration has been running the show: Military momentum is beginning to shift away from al Qaeda and the Taliban, thanks in part to the drone attacks that are decimating their leadership; the integration of civil and military efforts is improving and the Afghan national security forces are growing – although they still have far to go in training. Barno says Obama’s timetable to start withdrawing U.S. troops in 2011 – which he has some doubts about – nevertheless has changed the attitude of both U.S. and Afghan officials. But Barno says more work needs to be done to mend relations with Karzai and improve the effectiveness of his cabinet ministers.
Even if a better relationship develops with Karzai, Barno says he is “guarded” in his opinion of U.S. success in Afghanistan. With only about half of the 30,000-troop surge completed, however, it’s too soon to assess its success, he says.
(MORE NEXT WEEK)
More turtle, mate?
Australian infantrymen taking survival training in the tropical Top End of the rugged Northern Territory got some advice on the acquisition and preparation of bush tucker, or native foods found in the wild, from indigenous women of the nearby community of Daly River. The bill of fare ranged from kangaroo and turtle meat to bush yams and a kind of bread made from wild grains and nuts and cooked over campfire coals, known as damper.
Four generations of the McTaggart family visited the training course and explained hunting and gathering techniques to members of the 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and the North West Mobile Force (NORFORCE). The indigenous folk, once known as Australian aborigines also demonstrated cooking methods and other survival skills in the bush.
For more pictures of this training exercise, click here.
Keep on Truckin’
They say an army moves on its stomach, but it needs all sorts of things – fuel, ammunition, communications equipment – besides food to keep on going.
Mail, for instance.
U.S. Army Major Coleen Carr says the military has a goal to get troops’ mail from the U.S. to Afghanistan or Iraq within seven to 10 days. “We couldn’t survive without strategic airlift,” says Carr, a human resources planner at the Theater Sustainment Command level.
In fact, to get the mail out to the troops at forward operating bases and other remote locations, “we actually have our own small feet of helicopters that only do mail airlift in Afghanistan,” she says.
Mail isn’t the only thing that moves by air in Afghanistan, says Army Maj. Yon Kimble, a logistics expert and former deputy director of logistics for Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan. The biggest challenge was the road infrastructure there because “there is really hardly any,” she told an Army bloggers roundtable recently. The weather especially in winter exacerbates the problem making it hard to move goods during the snowy months. “So our time to conduct any type of mission is pretty limited, she says. While airlift can take up the slack in the winter months, weather poses yet another problem for flying, especially to Special Operations troops like Army Rangers and Navy SEALs posted in remote locations.
Carr and Kimble were among six field grade or intermediate officers attending the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas who spoke with the bloggers. They included five Army majors and one Navy lieutenant commander. The CGSC is a graduate school for mid-grade officers (Army, Air Force and Marine Corps majors and Navy and Coast Guard lieutenant commanders).
The naval officer, Lt. Cmdr. David Collis – also assigned to logistics work for Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – said “everybody would prefer to move things by air because its faster and [with] a lot less issues than on the ground.”
Those issues included providing security to truck convoys – sometimes from local police or military. Because Afghanistan is a land-locked country, everything has to be trucked in over often dangerous roads from Pakistan, like the one that runs through the wild and wooly Federally Administered Tribal Areas – a Taliban stronghold.
After dealing with the threat of attack in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s poor quality roads present additional challenges – especially in winter.
In Iraq, Collis said, pilferage was a problem until the U.S. military started providing security to supply truck convoys. Once when transporting containerized housing units from one base to another, Collis said the Iraqi drivers were stopped at a checkpoint where Iraqi police had broken into the trucks and were handing out beds and furniture to “local Iraqis that were selling them. It was kind of like a free-for-all auction.” Collis said U.S. troops broke up the impromptu bazaar and started escorting the convoys of Iraqi trucks after that. The Iraqi truck drivers asked the Special Operations troops to escort them home, too, so “they didn’t have to stop at the checkpoints, and they didn’t get shaken down” by Iraqi police.
The six staff college students said the take-away from their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan varied. For some it was learning the importance of cooperating with the other services, or learned to adapt to the very different culture and infrastructure of a combat zone. Major Carr, the human resources expert, said for her the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan came in handy responding to the earthquake in Haiti.
“I know it may sound a little odd,” she says, but the lessons learned in the surges in Iraq and Afghanistan “we were able to put into practice in Haiti, which was a very austere environment.”
The Unsung Elite
U.S. Army combat engineers – or sappers – jump into the water from a hovering Chinook CH-47 helicopter during the Best Sapper Competition in late April. Sappers perform crucial but often overlooked functions — often under fire — including bridge building, road and airfield construction, demolition of enemy defenses and minefield clearing. The grueling, six-phase, three-day competition at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri included locating and neutralizing dummy land mines or IEDs (improvised explosive devices), carrying a wounded soldier (a man-sized dummy) through a combat obstacle course and an advanced physical fitness test – that began at 3 o’clock in the morning and ended with a three-mile run in boots while loaded down with body armor and weapons.
Organized into two-person teams, the competition seeks not only to determine the “Best Sapper” team, but to test the physical and mental stamina of the participants — as well as their tactical and technical skills. The Army’s Engineer School, based at Fort Wood, conducts a Sapper Leader Course that is considered to be about as challenging as Army ranger or airborne training. Capt. Joe Byrnes and his partner, Capt. Jason Castro, both of C Company, 554th Engineer Battalion, beat out 28 teams in the competition. It was the second win for Byrnes, who was declared Best Sapper in 2006. The Pentagon’s Website has a photo essay slideshow. For more pictures, click here.