10:06 a.m. September 28, 2012

The War Nerd: Camp Bastion -- The Movie

War and movies are getting to be the same business these days. These handheld cameras have been the best thing to happen to low-budget guerrillas since the cellphone. Now anybody can be the producer of an indie insurgent video and hit it big on YouTube.

The best war movie — I mean movie of a real war — to come out in a while was the video the Taliban made of their attack on a USMC air station, Camp Bastion, in Southern Afghanistan. The attack itself was a thing of beauty, but the movie really made it a classic.

“Camp Bastion” — don’t get me started on these melodramatic names the Marines pick for their bases, it’s like they’re already in a John Wayne film, just name them all “Fort Apache” and be done with it — anyway, this Camp Bastion is in the middle of nowhere, the dust desert of Helmand Province. Helmand is a movie in itself, a comedy: Way back in the do-gooder days, the Kennedy years, the US sent a bunch of bright-eyed youngsters to build a huge irrigation project there, make the desert bloom and all that garbage. Well, it worked great, but not in the way the Peace Corps types had in mind, because Helmand is now the best-irrigated Opium Poppy producing area in the world. Afghanistan supplies about 90% of the shit that keeps the world’s junkies hoarse, mumbly and satisfied — and Helmand’s homegrown makes up most of the Afghan stock.

And, since Helmand Province is 93% Pashtun, it’s 110% Taliban. Mullah Omar himself — remember him? One-eyed Imam, “spiritual leader” of the Taliban when they ran the whole country, is a Helmand boy himself. So the billions the locals make on selling their little green happy pods goes directly back to the Taliban, which invests it in attacking the out-of-luck Marines serving out their time there.

Camp Bastion is the kind of target that guerrilla commanders dream about: A sleepy air-support base that usually only has to worry about keeping the aircraft up and running, then sending them off to support other bases closer to the hot zone. That’s exactly the kind of base where people lose focus, start imagining that the war is somewhere else.

And that’s when a local — a passing goatherd, or the guy who delivers water to the base, or the Marines’ weed dealer, I don’t know — mentions to his cousin that they’re getting really lax at that base. And the cousin tells another cousin who’s moving up fast in the Taliban organizational chart, and the planning starts.

It takes a lot of planning. This is something people forget, because we’re used to being on defense in these things, and they seem like they just erupt out of nowhere. They don’t. When you’re the guerrilla — meaning you’re outgunned and out-teched down the line — you have to plan very carefully. If something goes wrong for the guerrillas, they can’t call for air support; they’re just dead.

One way of dealing with that little problem is to plan on dying from the start. That more or less takes care of the toughest part of any guerrilla raid, the getaway. Ain’t gonna be no getaway. But there’s still a lot of planning to do, so your death pays off in terms of damage done to the enemy. A life is a commodity like any other commodity, and the guys who are going to die want to know that they’re dying well, getting a good price for their lives. As one of the Taliban suicide squad says — in English — on the video the Taliban made of the preparations for this raid, “We are young boys with all the hopes of young boys,” and they don’t want to die stupidly.

The planning for this raid was on two levels: “Camp Bastion, The Military Operation” and, maybe more importantly, “Camp Bastion: The Movie.” From the start, the Taliban assigned a film crew to document and glorify the raid. That means several things: First, that they pretty much knew that the raid would be a big success; second, that in wars like the ones we’re having now, there is no such thing as a purely military operation. In guerrilla warfare, violence is drama, and the better the drama, the better for the insurgents.

Insurgent videos have been around for a long time. They’re bigger than K-Pop in parts of the Muslim world. Most of them have that “gritty, hand-held” style that Indie film makers love so much, kind of like Blair Witch with less vegetation and more “Allahu Akbar.” Americans got a taste of them during the bad years in Iraq (2004-2008), usually showing an M1 or Bradley bumping down a dusty road somewhere in the Sunni Triangle, then disappearing in a huge explosion while off-screen locals shout about the glory of God. The credits usually consist of music, using the word loosely — a capella crooning the Quran, because your true Jihadi thinks instrumental music is haram (forbidden), along with wine, women, and everything else that might make life worth living.

The Taliban video of their guys prepping for the attack on Camp Bastion is a whole nuther thing. When you watch it, you can see that it’s made for worldwide distribution, for Western tastes.

There’s no shouting; that’s what hit me first. After the obligatory Quran quote to start the movie, you see about a dozen guys in US camo, holding a Quran in one hand and a SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) in the other, standing in front of a mud wall. You can hear the occasional rooster crowing in the background, lending a real country feel to what movie people call the mise-en-scene. Then the spokesman, a calm dude in a black bandanna, starts talking — first in Pashtun, and then in English. He speaks real calmly, real quietly — and believe me, that’s unusual in a Jihadi video. Then comes a quick cut to the training, with musical accompaniment. You see a trainer demonstrating how to cut the links on a chain link fence.

Now this is the one place where I have to criticize the Taliban. I swear, any fourth-grader in my school could have cut those links faster than this guy. He has no future as a school arsonist, that’s all I can say. It’s pathetic. I don’t think he ever committed a misdemeanor in his life — I mean before he started in the killing-and-dying business. You get that with a lot of these Jihadis; you’d think they were ex-bad boys, but they’re not. Most of them are the sort of daddy’s boys you get in the Muslim countries, well-behaved and serious, classic cannon fodder.

While this idiot is showing how not to cut a chain-link fence, a song plays, an interesting one. I don’t speak Urdu or Pashtun, but I can hear two things in this song: “Amerika” and “Britannia.” Something tells me it might be political, one of those non-hippie protest songs.

Well, after what seems like ten verses of this Islamic moaning, the fence is cut and the guys start going through. Now here I have to make another constructive criticism of the film making technique. The director — and I can just imagine some Pakistani prima donna of a director, with a beret over his kaffiyeh and an old-time bullhorn, yelling at the cast — the director decided to blank out the recruits’ faces.

Now that’s fine, in theory. Long history of blanking out faces to make your comrades harder to identify. Just two little problems: You can see the guys faces before and after the little blank spot pops up in front of them. Note to Taliban: The CIA, I’m pretty sure, has the ability to pause a YouTube video and get a still of your guys’ faces in the frame or two before the blank comes over it.

Second problem: You ain’t supposed to be showing people’s faces anyway if you’re a real hardcore Salafist. Shaykh Bin Baz, the guy who taught bin Laden, said it was haram to show a photograph of any living being. Of course he also said the earth was flat — seriously — which caused some embarrassment for his fans, but he had a point about photos of people being "images," which is bad in Islam. That’s why fashion photos in places like Saudi Arabia have their faces scratched out, which is kind of scary the first few times you see it.

But one good thing about being a Jihadi is that you get a pass for just about anything, which is why Mohammed Atta was able to go to a bar and get stinking drunk the night before he took the express commute flight to the WTC.

Besides, the people who made this video knew that the big audience, the world audience out there, loves a good movie and won’t stand for that no-faces rule. So here’s this quiet, polite-looking guy — I’m guessing a Pakistani, or at least somebody who’s spent a lot of time in the big city, not this mud-wall Pashtun village where they filmed the movie — and whoa! Suddenly, after making his pitch in Pashtun, he switches to English. It happens about 2:42 into the video. (I say that for you folks who don’t have the patience, or the real love of irregular warfare, to watch two and a half minutes of a terrorist video in a language you don’t speak a word of … wimps!)

His speech in English is seriously worth listening to, so even if you don’t watch the rest, make sure to get this part in full. He’s so quiet it’s hard to hear him, at least on my monitor, but you can get the gist pretty easily.

The first thing to notice is what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say what an American would expect: “You dirty rats, you killed my little brother” or anything like that. He doesn’t go on and on about hurt kiddies and poor old bombed grandmas. Not at all.

He talks symbols and pride. Muslims are more comfortable with death than we are, but they are very, very uncomfortable with ritual insults, insults to the tribe or its sacred symbols. So this guy spends one phrase or two grumbling about how “You have invaded Afghanistan” and about twenty sentences going on, and on, and on, about how “you have used The Holy Quran when you…use bathroom.” You can hear him flinch before saying “…use bathroom,” like it hurts him even to say what you did.

That’s the point of all the charges he lays out in the video: You insulted the Quran, you insulted The Prophet, PBUH. All the time he’s making this speech, the two un-blurred guys behind him, who seem like nice, shy toe-scuffers, are scratching themselves and rocking back and forth, waiting for this Frankish gibberish to be over. The guy with the glasses could play the nice nerd in any high-school movie without rehearsals — well, he’s dead now, unless he’s the unlucky one out of the 15 attackers who was wounded and survived, to get the very best medical care, and then a free flight to someplace where they will remove his teeth and fingernails while asking very personal questions about where he spent the last couple of years.

If you’re one of those old-school war fans who only gets off on actual military prep, you should jump to the 5:25 point, where the same guy who spoke in English poses as the leader of the attack group. He may have been the leader, but I doubt it; he’s “tentative” when playing the commander, as an acting teacher would say. I think he got the job because he speaks English, looks non-threatening, and/or was already blown, his face up on CIA station offices from Jakarta to Munich. Those are usually the guys guerrillas pick for their videos, guys who are already way too well-known.

Even if he’s not the real commander, he does what the real commander probably did: Diagram the raid. He’s got a whiteboard with a detailed marker-pen diagram of Camp Bastion. That, right there, should be an “Uh-oh” moment for any US officer watching the video. How’d he get this incredibly detailed and (I’d bet) accurate picture of the base? The Taliban may be getting smarter, but they still don’t have recon drones, far as I know.

Actually, there are lots of ways to diagram a base without planes. A base in this filthy dust desert has to have deliveries all the time. People drive those trucks, and those people talk, either because they totally support the Taliban (and if they’re Pashtun, they almost certainly do) or because it’s healthier to talk than not to talk.

Even if deliveries to the base are by US drivers only (which I doubt), there’s a simpler way to get that info: The so-called Afghan Army. Nobody knows how many Afghan soldiers are double agents, but judging by the non-stop “green on blue” (Afghan soldier on NATO “ally”) shootings, it’s something like, oh, let’s say 47%. Romney pulled that number out of his ass, why shouldn’t I?

One way or another, they know Camp Bastion, every inch of it. And they know that the guys in there are mainly pilots and mechanics. The USMC has that famous line, “Every man a rifleman” — I dunno, is it “Every person a rifleperson” now? — but aircraft mechanics have such a scary and hard job, keeping planes and choppers running in a place where the air is mostly dust that it’d be stupid to focus on ordinary grunt stuff. They had a more important job, and they were focused on that, which is why all the Marines interviewed after the attack said, “This is usually a really quiet base.”

And the Taliban, who have spent their lives in this godforsaken chunk of opium desert, also know “the ground,” as those Gettysburg generals liked to mumble — every gully, every dune, every sewage trickle flowing out of that base. If the locals are on the guerrillas’ side, and they are in Helmand, then it’s not that hard to figure out the weak point in the base defenses. You’ve got all the time in the world, and the foreign soldiers are looking at their machines, not the villages around them. You just can’t break the US military — or American war buffs, for that matter — of thinking about hardware instead of people, and it costs them. It cost them big on the night of September 14, when 15 Taliban cut the wire, entered Camp Bastion, and started shooting RPGs at the sitting-duck aircraft. There was no moon that night, classic raid weather. It shouldn’t have mattered, because the Marines have night vision to spare, but somebody wasn’t looking in the right direction with his expensive goggles.

If I’ve said it once … that’s what comes of relying on hardware, instead of talking to the locals, kidnapping their sons, doing whatever it takes to get that local knowledge. The hackers have a saying that applies just as well to guerrilla war: “People are the key to any lock.” The guys at Camp Bastion weren’t thinking that way. Their job was to fly combat support, and then come home to a safe base — a “bastion,” if you like that sort of fancy talk, a walled box. But guerrillas have to think outside the box, like managers are always telling you. They’re getting clobbered by these planes and helicopters, what are they gonna do? Buy their own? Much cheaper and easier to use what you’ve got: willing cannon fodder and RPGs to kill those planes on the ground.

And that’s what they did. Pretty thoroughly, too: six jets and two attack helicopters (SuperCobras, which the Marines still use just to piss everybody off) totally destroyed on the ground, several others damaged, two Marines killed. The British Army sent a Quick Reaction Force zipping over to Camp Bastion, the Marines put on their armor and started shooting back, and soon enough 14 out of 15 Taliban were dead — which is fine with the Taliban — and one was injured and captured — which is not so good, because he can talk (and will, after a few weeks in a Kuwaiti torture cell).

How do you assess a battle like this? In tactical terms, you can call it a US victory — if you’re an idiot. Yeah, we killed or captured the whole attack squad. So what? 15 dead Afghan, or Pakistani, boys. They have a surplus of pious young idiots in both those countries, guys who’d be proud to step into their dead friends’ Jihadi shoes. The cost to the Taliban is zero, because they only used bodies and RPGs, and they’ve got plenty of both.

The cost to the US? Well, start with the planes and choppers destroyed. Each of those planes will cost about $30 million dollars to replace, so …lessee, that makes $180 million right there. And two SuperCobras at $12 million each, another $24 million. So, figure the dollar cost of the raid at $200 million, minimum.

There’s an asterisk after that figure, though, because the funny thing is that every one of the aircraft that got blasted was a piece of shit. The Marines … well, they’re very, very weird about procurement, basically their rule is “If the other services want it, we don’t.” It’s a lot of old, territorial crap, basically to justify the Marines’ claim to be some special kind of amphibious force (yeah, out there in a landlocked desert country) that needs special vehicles.

Which is why the six planes that got zapped were Harriers. Yup, Harriers, that famous “Jump-Jet” invented by the British during the 1980s panic about runway cratering in Europe if the Warsaw Pact attacked.

These Harriers are stupid toys, fit for a James Bond movie (and they’ve appeared in one too). Their gimmick is that they can take off and land vertically, if need be, or on a very short runway. And that’s all they can do. Like birds, they sacrificed everything to this one design cost, instant flight. They can’t carry a decent bomb load; they’re slow; they’re expensive; they’re easy to bring down. They’re junk.

And the Supercobra attack helicopters? Well, same story. The Marines are those “bitter clingers” that Obama talked about, and they’ve been clinging to this Nam-era helicopter while everybody else went with the AH-64 (which has its own problems, but that’s another story). The model they’re using now is the AH-1W; the “W” means they’ve used up all the letters up to “W” on previous tinkering with the old airframe. They’re actually planning, if you can believe this, to move on to the “Z” model, AH-1Z. Hopefully, that means they’ll go on to another airframe after the Z, but you know the Marines; they’re likely to invent a new letter instead, just to be special.

You could argue the Taliban did us a favor by destroying this useless, overpriced shit. But it doesn’t work that way. The USMC will pay some inflated price, probably something like $300 million, to buy more of exactly the same crappy craft that got destroyed by RPG rounds that retail in Kandahar for a hundred each.

But push harder, and you realize that doesn’t matter either. The US taxpayer is going to get gouged for some other lousy weapon, if they didn’t get gouged for this one — something even stupider, like an aircraft carrier. So, that makes the raid a stalemate; nobody loses much on either side, right?

Wrong. The Taliban wins, because they got to make the movie. Remember, the rule for contemporary irregular warfare is simple: The side that gets to make the movie usually wins. These low-budget indie film makers managed to make their suicide squad look civilized, speak quietly, and explain, in English and Pashtun, why they’re doing what they’re doing. And unlike a lot of would-be Jihadis, they backed it up, destroyed eight expensive aircraft and died doing it.

They may not get far with the stateside audience, but we’re not their main audience anyway. There are a lot of young Muslims who use English every day. English is the best way for a Pashtun speaker to reach English-speaking kids from Pakistani families living in London, or Bradford, or Manchester. Or Somali kids living in Rotterdam, or Copenhagen, or Helsinki. Or even Algerian kids living in the banlieues outside Paris, because they’re learning English too.

The real score for this one depends on understanding that guerrilla war is about the symbol. The US armed forces didn’t lose, really, in this attack (you did, though, American taxpayer), in terms of personnel or material — but they lost big-time in the real war, the one on YouTube, where this movie will bring in huge amounts of money, and thousands of recruits, for the Salafists.

And it’s not even finished yet. The Taliban says it’s got a movie showing the whole raid. This is the first time in about 20 years that I really can’t wait for a sequel.