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Michael Yon: Afghanistan: Stuck in the Mud
September 25, 2012
Posted by Michael Yon
Michael Yon: Afghanistan: Stuck in the Mud
Michael Yon
24 September 2012

Chazray Clark was blown up in September 2011. His buddies posted his image on the door, and on the wall of our tent. Nearly everyone in the tent had been wounded at least once.

Before Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton was blown up and killed in Afghanistan, he wrote to U.S. Representative Bill Young about incompetent leadership and meaningless risk-taking in this hollow war.  Matthew was on his third Afghan tour.

The Soldier’s words are emblematic of the realities and frustrations of a war that many Americans do not realize is still on.  The veteran wrote, “As a Brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives.”

U.S. weapon destroyed when an Afghan Soldier stepped on a bomb in Zhari in September 2011.

Combine that lethal meandering with the fact that our troops are inadequately trained in Ground Sign Awareness (GSA), and are nearly blind when it comes to combat tracking, and it is no wonder that we take so many casualties.  Much of the billions of dollars that we spent on counter-IED gadgets were wasted.  We burned the money.  Most counter-IED appliances cannot be used in the places where our people walk.

In southern Afghanistan, all but a few gadgets are useless in those fields, grape rows, and villages.  Dogs are of limited use.  Matthew wrote truthfully that many missions are about nothing in particular.  They are busywork, combat style, in fields of bombs, where small-arms ambushes and snipers are the daily norm.  Plenty of veterans can vouch for the authenticity of Matthew’s observations. Ask them.

Yet the enemy is not the cause of most frustrations.  This is war.  We try to frustrate each other and this is expected.  The worst frustrations are caused by our own leadership, by our Afghan cohorts, and because we create our own obstacles.  Nothing is more maddening than watching the incompetence of our own side become more disadvantageous than enemy bombs and bullets. We are not just fighting the enemy. We are fighting against ourselves.

SecDef Panetta: Fan of Red Crosses and unarmed MEDEVAC helicopters.

For example, after 11 years of war, our leadership is still forcing unarmed MEDEVAC helicopters to fly over Afghanistan.  They force our pilots and crews to fly into danger, unarmed, while displaying the Red Cross, the symbol of the Crusaders.  I would give a hundred bucks to fly a Red Cross-emblazoned Blackhawk into a hot LZ with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey aboard.

Secretary Panetta and our Generals pretend that we must display Red Crosses to be in compliance with the Geneva Conventions.  This is false.  We are not obligated to display the Red Cross. None of our allied partners display them on their helicopters in Afghanistan.  The Norwegians and other armies removed them.  It was nothing more than common sense.

The Taliban pay no heed to the Geneva Conventions.  When our MEDEVACs do display the Red Cross, it is illegal for them to carry offensive weapons.  The Taliban know this. A helicopter wearing the Red Cross is defenseless. Red Crosses do not just offend the religious sensibilities of the Taliban: they embolden them. The Taliban consider our MEDEVACs to be an easy kill. And they are.

Is it any wonder that we are losing this war? Red Crosses themselves are not entirely to blame, obviously, but they are indicative of poor generalship, and we have had that in abundance. Pundits blame this disaster on former President Bush, on Obama, on the press, on our ISAF partners, and most of all on the Neolithic Afghan “government,” all of which are rancid ingredients of this unhealthy pie. But the reality is that the U.S. military leadership has failed. Who does the President ask for options? He asks the Generals. Our Generals have helped morph Afghanistan into a bomb and opium factory.

Even if our Presidents had made perfect decisions, incompetent military leadership and the inability of our current leaders to execute maneuvers more complex than blunt trauma would still have hobbled them.  It took years for us to get serious about training Afghan forces. When we finally got underway, we did it sloppily, and we have lost many men due in part to our haste and our poor security measures.

America needs a purge of its top military Generals.  Not a wholesale purge, as there are some good leaders, but we have too many Generals and attempts to weed them down have failed.  We need to get back to basics.

Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.

After 11 years, our troops are inadequately and inappropriately trained, and wrongly outfitted.  Money has never been the issue.  Americans were not stingy.  The money supply was generous.  We used the money to buy monster trucks with space-tech gadgets that cannot go off-road on even semi-rough terrain, and counter-IED gear that cannot find simple bombs, because the bombs are too simple. Most of Afghanistan has no roads.  Using these monster trucks is like running missions while staying on railroad tracks. The enemy knows exactly where we will be.  They are not running from us.  If you sit still, they will come.  Believe me.

In Zhari District, the enemy is accurate with their 82mm recoilless rifles, which easily penetrate our armor.  The enemy can stop us with a real or a decoy IED, and then take out four vehicles in thirty seconds.

Inside the wire, Green on Blue and insider attacks have reached an all-time high.  Our Afghan counterparts murder our troops on a weekly basis.  (Green on Blue refers to Afghan forces attacking ISAF forces.  Insider attacks refer to Afghan contractors, etc., doing the same, and include Green on Blue.)

When you ask top commanders about the war, the response is something straight out of Apocalypse Now.  The supreme officer in our military is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.  Just this week, Dempsey is quoted on the JCS website:

“The surge had its intended effect,” Dempsey added. “I think it was an effort that was worth the cost -- and don’t forget, it did have its cost. But I think it will prove, as we look back on it, to have set the conditions necessary for us to achieve the objectives by the end of 2014.”

Who does Dempsey think that he is talking to with his comment, “and don’t forget, it did have its cost”?  We get it, General Dempsey.  Loud and clear.  We wonder if you do.

General Dempsey is a favorite on the milblog Small Wars Journal.  The SWJ editor-in-chief is a journalist named Dave Dilegge, a retired service member, and a director at the Small Wars Foundation.  With those credentials, we might expect that Dilegge spends much time downrange to help tune his BS sensors.  If not downrange … at minimum, we would expect him to be at work in a dark basement poring over information streaming in from myriad sources.

The truth of the matter is that amateur journalist and editor Dave Dilegge owns and operates a food truck in Largo, Florida.

Office of Dave Dilegge, editor-in-chief of the influential Small Wars Journal.

Nothing against food trucks, but this is hardly the place to come for advice on Afghanistan, on small wars, or on nation building. Nevertheless, for folks who would like a free counterinsurgency consultation, or to book this food truck for a party, go here.

General Dempsey seems to have booked the food truck.  He does a good job pushing his word out through the service window.  This is a safe way to peddle information.  Critics who actually spend time on the ground in Afghanistan are dangerous, on the other hand: they know too much.

Some of us want more than street food.  We want to know why Camp Bastion security was breached, and we want to know how the Taliban destroyed a Marine Corps Harrier squadron. Who has been held responsible? Who was fired?  HQ in Kabul refused to give me the name of who was in charge of Bastion security.  Typical cover-up.

American taxpayers paid hard earned money for those Harriers, and now they are wreckage.  $200 million is gone.  We lost two U.S. Marines who were trying to save those jets, including the squadron commander, who by all accounts was an outstanding officer.  Our men are gone.

Why is it that sangers (guard towers) sometimes are unmanned in Afghanistan?  Since 2010, I have written about unmanned sangers at least twice, and now word comes that unmanned sangers were the norm at the Bastion base complex.

General Dempsey: Fan of Red Crosses, unarmed MEDEVACs, and food truck information operations.

If we are satisfied with this level of bullshit, we might as well stick to Michael Moore for war news and leadership.  The Taliban are not frustrating: they are the enemy.  Martin Dempsey is frustrating.

One small indicator of Dempsey’s incompetence is his failure to remove Red Crosses from our MEDEVACs. This lack of common sense and imbibing of bureaucratic Pentagon kool-aid by our top military commanders transcends the AfPak war and brings into question the integrity of our national defense.

As a matter of national security, and as an American, I feel vulnerable knowing that our military is administered by political Generals rather than led by seasoned war fighters.  The word administered is appropriate.

Zhari District 2011: American counter-IED, multi-million-dollar Space Wonder, stuck in muddle puddle.

Even during the height of the dry season, on embarrassingly flat terrain, our Space Wonders get bogged down in irrigation puddles.

The Pentagon brags about these machines.  They might look spacious from the outside, but when you crawl inside, they are so stuffed with mysteries and switches and gauges and displays that you could think that you are heading to the moon.  You could probably microwave popcorn in there.

These monster trucks will look impressive during parades at home.  With the band playing, flags waving, and cheerleaders dancing, taxpayers can get a glimpse of the hardware that we bought for our boys.

Yet these Parade Props are easily blown up, and destroyed with recoilless rifles, because the roads are their railroad tracks.  The enemy knows where they will travel.  When it rains, forget it.  In the hills and mountains, forget it.  Small roads.  Deep sands.  No way.  These things are worth half the sum of their parts.

This mission stalled in a puddle on a dry day. We were stuck in the open in one of the most dangerous places of Afghanistan. If my memory is correct, we were already ambushed earlier this day, taking casualties. As I recall, one of the lead vehicles got hit with an 82mm, and one of the guys was not wearing his gloves and got burned. I was so far back that I only heard some boom and rat-a-tat-tat. Our guys got off light with no fatalities. The nets on the outside are to stop RPGs.

Normal Afghanistan moon mud: Look at those treads. These tires might as well be sliding on ice. The trucks have no chance during a mountain drizzle. The Taliban do not need IEDs to stop us for ambush: they can just flood the road and make mud. For centuries, Afghans have been famous for irrigation, and they are even more famous for simple solutions to high-tech answers to a simple problem. If Vietnam and Afghanistan taught us a common lesson, at the top of the list should be to never underestimate a simple farmer. He ain’t that simple.

Still stuck: The Taliban must be so impressed that they cannot stop laughing. One shot from an 82mm can kill everyone in this truck. Not that everyone is in the truck. People had to get out to hook up the cable, which is a great time for an IED ambush. Meanwhile, other troops were dismounted to provide security for the cable-hookers. Everyone knows the danger. If the enemy gets lucky, first he can kill a few soldiers, then he can shoot down a Red Cross-emblazoned MEDEVAC using an RPG. But if our troops were trained in Ground Sign Awareness (GSA) and Combat Tracking, the chances would greatly diminish that the enemy could perform any grand ambush here. The enemy cannot operate in this terrain and hide bombs without leaving visual evidence, which often is obvious for days or more. Important: typically, the most dangerous part of Afghan operations is during egress. The Taliban knows which way that we go, and can quickly predict our path day or night. They start laying fresh bombs that our gadgets typically will miss, but that our eyes could see—if trained.

On 21 September 2012, the Army Times reported:

...while the Army continues to focus on protecting both mounted and dismounted patrols in Afghanistan, the vast majority of the 16,000 IED “events” in Afghanistan in 2011 came from virtually undetectable combinations of commercially available ammonium nitrate and wood...

Farmers continue to come up with simple solutions to high technology. Yet we continue to fail to train our troops in GSA and Combat Tracking.  Southern Afghanistan is a tracker’s dream.  Track traps are everywhere.

And why are we fighting these farmers?  We could wipe them out in a weekend, but we are trying to force the Pashtuns to like us, which ends up causing them to hate us.  There is no al Qaeda in Southern Afghanistan.  We mostly ignore the provinces where Afghans are friendly—they greatly want us in Nimroz, for example, yet we mostly pretend that they do not exist.

Bad britches in Zhari, 2011.

After burning through tens of billions of dollars at the gadget bonfire, our troops are outfitted with trousers that constantly blow out during missions.  When I wrote about this in 2011, the military responded that it would rush new pants to Afghanistan.  Then a major milblog re-published my dispatch and took credit for the new pants.  (You cannot make this up.)

A year later—last week—a U.S. Soldier in Zhari told me that the britches problem still has not been solved.  Since that milblog wants credit for the pants, let’s also give them credit for failure to follow-through.

Anyway, while we yap about gadgets, britches, and a food truck, there is no doubt that the Taliban is plotting on us while the Space Wonder remains mired in mud.  We sit in the open and danger increases by the minute.

BOOM – CONTACT. While Soldiers got the Space Wonder unstuck, an explosion happened to our right. I turned and snapped some photos and switched to video while moving to cover, while troops lifted weapons to cover their sectors. Did someone step on a bomb? My photos beginning a half-second after the detonation show no arms and legs flying.

There was no incoming fire. Did the Taliban shoot an 82mm and miss? Nobody heard a shot. All were expecting an attack to kick in. Turned out it was just EOD or Sappers reducing an IED and we did not get the heads up. The Soldiers were disciplined and battle-experienced: nobody saw a target so nobody fired a shot. (Good thing--we had guys over there.)

Our Space Wonders cannot handle gentle slopes.

Afghanistan is replete with enormous mountains.  Our machines flip in terrain that the Mars Curiosity rover would sneeze at.  The enemy tries to blow our vehicles into rivers to drown our troops.  It works.  And so we have scuba rescue to recover the bodies and machines.

The black “RHINO” on the front is useless here.  The RHINOs were made for Iraq to counter the many PIR (Passive Infrared) triggers.  The RHINO heats up, radiates, and fools the PIR system to fire early.  Iraqis figured that out, and so they just changed the timing.  Which we figured out, and so we changed the RHINO, which they figured out... you know the story.  Bottom line: fuel is extremely precious in Afghanistan, and we haul around expensive, worthless gadgets while burning money.

When pressed, some leaders will say that we keep the RHINO just in case, or for tripwires.  These are sad answers, indeed.  The RHINO in the up position (as here), is not working.  The RHINO just becomes more shrapnel after a bomb strike, and so we are just hauling Taliban shrapnel.

In 2011, Sappers Ed Wooden and Ian Stauffer saw much combat and both were wounded. Ian went home early after stepping on an IED that partially detonated. Ed is heading back to Afghanistan this year. The man is more important than the gadget. We owe it to these men not to let leaders use them up like other people’s money.

A Soldier wrote to me on Friday (unedited):

I just got back from Afghanistan about 2 weeks ago. SSG Sitton was in our sister battalion. They were definitely getting hit harder than we were. But, nonetheless, it felt like we were getting thrown to the wolves out there. There were so many IED's. Just in my company alone, our minesweepers found about 150 in about 6 months. We had over 500 turned in by locals, ALP, ANP and ANA. Our counterparts pretty much hate our guts. They do not take patrolling seriously. Whenever we patrol, we pull all of the security while they sit in the shade and drink tea. Meanwhile, they are supposed to be battlespace owners now. If they can't take it seriously, why the hell do we even care? I nearly got into a fist fight with an ANA soldier because he didn't feel like it was important enough to walk behind me on the cleared path, but instead tried to walk next to me on the uncleared path because it was easier. I tried to explain to them that we are there to help them and keep them as safe as possible. I told them that we would go wherever they wanted, but just stay on the path. They don't give a shit. Easiest path is their path of choice. It is beyond frustrating. Very glad I am not there anymore.”
---End of Soldier’s letter---

And here is the unedited letter written by Staff Sergeant Matthew Sitton to U.S. Representative Bill Young, shortly before Sitton was killed:


Hello my name is SSG Matthew Sitton. I am in the 82nd Airborne Division stationed in Ft. Bragg, NC. I am currently deployed with the 4th Brigade Combat Team in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. I am writing you because I am concerned for the safety of my soldiers. This is my 3rd combat tour to Afghanistan so I have seen the transition in Rules of Engagement and Overall Tactics over the past 6 years.

I am only writing this email because I feel myself and my soldiers are being put into unnecessary positions where harm and danger are imminent. I know the threat of casualties in war and am totally on board with sacrifice for my country, but what I don't agree with is the chain of command making us walk through, for lack of a better term, basically a mine field on a daily basis.

I am in a platoon of 25 soldiers. We are operating at a tempo that is set for a full 35-40 man infantry platoon. We have been mandated to patrol twice daily for 2-4 hours each patrol on top of guarding our FOB and conducting routine maintenance of our equipment. There is no endstate or purpose for the patrols given to us from our higher chain of command, only that we will be out for a certain time standard. I am all for getting on the ground and fighting for my country when I know there is a desired endstate and we have clear guidance of what needs to be done. But when we are told basically to just walk around for a certain amount of time is not sitting well with me.

As a Brigade, we are averaging at a minimum an amputee a day from our soldiers because we are walking around aimlessly through grape rows and compounds that are littered with explosives. Not to mention that the operation tempo that every solider is on leaves little to no time for rest and refit. The moral and alertness levels on our patrol are low and it is causing casualties left and right.

Here is an example of how bad things have gotten. Our small FOB was flooded accidentally by a local early one morning a few days ago. He was watering his fields and the damn he had broke and water came flooding into our Living Area. Since our FOB does not have any portable bathrooms, we had to dig a hole in the ground where soldiers could use the bathroom. That also got flooded and contaminated all the water that later soaked every soldier and his gear. Instead of returning to base and cleaning up, our chain of command was so set on us meeting the brigade commanders 2 patrols a day guidance that they made us move outside the flooded FOB and conduct our patrols soaked in urine.

That is just one single instance of the unsatisfactory situations that our chain of command has put us in. At least three of my soldiers have gotten sick since that incident and taken away from our combat power because of their illness caused by unhealthy conditions.

I understand that as a commander you are to follow the orders of those appointed over you however there needs to be a time where the wellness of your soldiers needs to take priority over walking around in fields for hours a day for no rhyme or reason, but only to meet the Brigade Commanders guidance of you will conduct so many patrols for such an allotted time.

I'm concerned about the well being of my soldiers and have tried to voice my opinion through the proper channels of my own chain of command only to be turned away and told that I need to stop complaining. It is my responsibility to take care of my soldiers and there is only so much I can do with that little bit of Rank I have. My guys would fight by my side and have my back in any condition and I owe it to them to have their best interest in mind. I know they would and I certainly would appreciate it if there was something that you could do to help us out. I just want to return my guys home to their families healthy. I apologize for taking your time like this Sir, and I do appreciate what you do for us. I was told to contact you by my Grand Mother (name blacked out) who said that you had helped her son (my uncle) (name blacked) out many years ago. He also was serving in the military at the time. Thank you again for allowing soldiers like me to voice their opinion. If anything Please Pray for us over hear. God Bless

Rest in Peace Matthew Sitton.

For more on Matthew:





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