September 08, 2009

This wasn't supposed to happen

Every ANSF mentor's worst nightmare came true in Konar today:

"U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines despite being told repeatedly that they weren't near the village.

"'We are pinned down. We are running low on ammo. We have no air. We've lost today,' Marine Maj. Kevin Williams, 37, said through his translator to his Afghan counterpart, responding to the latter's repeated demands for helicopters."

That translator was among the KIA, along with 4 Americans and 8 ANSF. God rest them all.

UPDATE: "K" from Konar's Marine ETT team recently RIP'd home, so this was probably either the tail end or the start of a new rotation for the Marines under fire.

Posted by BruceR at 09:37 PM

On the liquid bombers

I recall spending a good part of August, 2006 trying to figure out the story of the liquid airline bombers, convicted to a second set of lengthy prison terms yesterday. Lewis Page, an ex-EOD guy who actually knows what he's talking about, had the best writeup I've seen on what the actual plan was, a year ago.

In short, the group had a workable plan to create and smuggle explosives and fox security, possessed the necessary skills to carry it out, believed it had sufficient willing suicide recruits, and had assembled the right precursor chemicals. It had not done the (admittedly final) steps of chemical mixing, bomb assembly or ticket purchase, and in the process of getting that far had picked up police surveillance, which is certainly to the credit of British law enforcement.

I think what I said at the time still stands up. The plan would not involve the mixing of chemicals on a plane: the only thing an airport bathroom would be used for would be to attach the detonator, power source and/or main charge together. The use of a liquid main charge (which had been done in the past) would help them bypass security, but more importantly allow for the kind of easy assembly which any suicidal, distracted terrorist could be expected to accomplish on his own in his last seconds of life (unscrew the cap, pop in the det and you're done).

Clever, yes. Whether it would have worked is an open question: as the second round of Brit train bombers (aka, the "Goo Bombers") found, concentrating peroxide for your main charge is not without its challenges. Without any time or effort spent on testing, it's possible that some or all of the final airline bombs would have fizzled similarly to those failures. Not something you would ever count on, though.

The other thing I said at the time was that the initial blanket ban on all liquids, gels and pastes of any size was an overreaction (hence tempered sensibly at least somewhat; I can live with the 100ml-or-less rule on my travel toothpaste), and much of the reaction both by security officials and the press (seizure of 400 computers, banning of the carrying of fresh fish in your carry-on) largely mass-hysterical in nature. I think that assessment stands up, too. (What I actually wrote below the jump, if you don't feel like scrolling through a month of meandering):

What I actually wrote:

"Let's try and be absolutely clear, before this gets completely out of hand. Doing final assembly of a bomb in flight (meaning connecting the igniter/timer to the substance to be detonated) is certainly plausible, and has been done. Sneaking a prepared explosive in liquid form (such as nitroglycerine) onto a plane is, as well: it's been done before. But any "expert" or journalist who surmises that this plot involved *creating* a chemical explosive from the reaction of two or more components *in flight* (ie, making an ad hoc chem lab out of the rest room) is engaging in unsubstantiated surmise, as will be undoubtedly borne out when more facts on this particular plot become known..." (Aug. 11)

"The simple fact is this escapade has so far been a total victory for anti-Western terror: massive dislocation of Western society out of all proportion to the effort expended. In achieving its victory, terror has relied on the three things -- superstition, mass hysteria, and scientific ignorance -- of which it seems we have an almost inexhaustible human supply." (Aug. 29)

Posted by BruceR at 09:19 AM

More on helplessness and powerlessness

Just an addendum to the post below: the lack of any Afghan involvement in kinetic strikes such as the Kunduz bombing doesn't just leave the Afghan soldier out of the loop, but the country's political leadership as well. Assuming civilians do turn out to have perished there by mistake, what exactly can the President or his Defence Minister be seen to do at this point to redress that mistake? They can't fire anyone... no one fireable was involved.

So you have this situation where, when it comes to the issue that most excises Afghans right now (accidental bombings of civilians) the government we are trying to empower has exactly zero it can do or say about it, in the eyes of its own people.

Not hard to make the Karzai government look powerless, of course, no matter what the outcome is of any coalition action. If there is no action, and the Taliban do gather and pull off another significant attack, the government looks powerless. If the action hurts the Taliban entirely successfully, the Coalition can look great... the government looks dependent on the coalition to keep them in power, hence powerless. And if the strike has ambiguous or negative results, such as Kunduz... hey, ho, we're powerless! Some days I wonder how the Afghan president gets out of bed.

Posted by BruceR at 08:40 AM