Sunday, June 21, 2009
How we fight
I can’t speak for the whole country and different areas can be pretty distinct, but I’ve been in enough scrapes by now to give readers a pretty good idea of how the battles are actually fought in eastern Afghanistan. Most every engagement between the Anti-Afghanistan Forces (AAF) and us (when I say “us” I’m referring to the ANA and the US Army) is begun by them. They always know where we are and we rarely know where they are with any exactitude. In fact, I can easily count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually seen the enemy since I’ve been out here, and I’ve been involved in at least 50 different firefights by now. The AAF almost always get the first shot off, and luckily they don’t shoot very accurately or we’d take a lot of casualties. We don’t do a lot of sneaking around and we don’t go up into the mountains very often. Most of our patrols are during the daylight. We do all different types of operations, but the most common is for us to walk into a village and stay there to talk to the elders. While we’re in the village, we’ll often get indications that we’re going to be shot at. And many times, we’ll just sit there and wait until the shooting starts – this can take hours. We call many of these patrols a “Movement to Contact”, meaning we walk into an ambush in order to find the enemy, or advertise our presence to the enemy and then wait for him to do something. It may seem a strange why to fight an enemy, giving up the initiative like that, but when you're fighting an enemy who's not wearing a uniform and is difficult to identify your options are limited as to how to bring him to battle. One of my favorite things to do is sit in a village, wait for the shooting, have the firefight, and then continue to sit the village and begin to talk with the elders again after the shooting stops. Like, ok, you tried, but we’re still here; try again if you like. We often use the homes and local people as our cover and concealment, but at some point, the local people will often get the word to clear the area, and then the shooting starts soon thereafter. The AAF generally do not start shooting until the local people have cleared the area since they don’t want to lose the support of the local people.
I should mention at this point that we, well at least the ANA, rarely go far enough away from a base or observation post (OP) that we can’t be supported by direct fires from that base or OP. We certainly don’t go anywhere we consider dangerous unless bring a lot of ass (assets). By this I mean we’re not going to go walking into a firefight without one or more of the following - a lot of people, separate elements in separate places, support-by-fire position(s), or air support.
Often the shooting will start with a single shot (luckily, the ambush is not often initiated with an IED blast), followed a few seconds later by shots from a few different positions. Once the shooting starts, we find cover and start looking around to locate the enemy. Whoever the leader is gets on the radio and starts calling for fire support in the form of mortars, artillery, helicopters, or jets. Roughly two minutes after the first shot has been fired mortars are usually landing in the vicinity of the suspected AAF positions. Everyone is pretty familiar with the known fighting positions used by the AAF so it doesn’t take long to get oriented to what’s going on, though finding an exact location is always very difficult. Generally, the AAF are 400-800 meters away from us somewhere up above us in the mountains and are shooting light machine guns and AKs. From their point of view, I can understand why they bury themselves in their little caves and fighting positions – they must feel very invulnerable that way. However, their marksmanship, or lack thereof, combined with the distance they maintain means their shots are not overly effective. And given that their supply lines are a bit less capable than ours, they tend to have to conserve ammo a bit. We don’t have that problem, so we’ll keep dropping mortars, bombs, artillery, rockets, grenades, and bullets of all calibers until things calm down.
The smarter AAF will fire at us for a few minutes and then exfiltrate. Of course, we know this so we’ll often shoot mortars at those exfil routes once they stop shooting and we think they’re retrograding. The ones that hang around and continue to shoot for awhile are asking for “martyrdom”, as once the helicopters get on station the birds usually get a pretty good bead on the enemy if the enemy continues to fire on us. Martyrdom is exactly what some of these guys want but is not the wish of the vast majority of our foes.
It’s interesting that the AAF choose to engage us from afar. They would cause many, many more casualties if they fought from inside the villages. But then turning a local village into Fallujah is not likely to win them much support from the people. However, they could ambush us along our routes outside of the towns with good effect if they were close enough. By getting close to us they’d mitigate our fire support since we’re not going to fire mortars at targets that are close to us. We don’t often give them the chance to do this though. The Army tends to stay in their heavily armored vehicles when they’re moving through bad areas; the AAF have no answer for 10 ton armored vehicles other than IEDs and the vigorous road building and paving efforts have reduced IED effectiveness in many areas. The ANA doesn’t have heavily armored vehicles, or armored vehicles at all at this point, and we usually walk everywhere we go so the ANA could be vulnerable to this type of attack. But again, we don’t go walking into places where we think something like could happen unless we’ve got all kinds of support. Annihilating an ANA patrol might not win the AAF much support from the people either. Fighting an all-American convoy is different for them.
The end result of the tactics used on both sides of this war is fewer casualties. I’ve been in firefights that lasted two or more hours and likely had zero casualties on either side. We could try more aggressive tactics, like spending more time up in the mountains, attacking suspected training camps, clearing known bad villages, or trying to ambush the enemy more frequently, but in reality, while we may not be annihilating the enemy at a fast pace, we’re not getting hurt too badly by them either. And daily the Afghan government institutions get stronger and development wins the people over (in theory). Realistically, the way we’re fighting the war is the only way to do it on the political level. If this war were causing 100 deaths or more on our side each month no one would support it, even if we were killing many thousands of the enemy and thereby bringing stability. I think we learned somewhere along the line that body counts either on our side or the enemies’ weren’t necessarily a useful or desirable metric of the war’s progress (Though see WSJ article on use of body counts not as metric for progress but rather propaganda tool.), so we’re focusing much more now than in past wars on the reconstruction and political aspect of the war, though there are certainly those that would argue we neglected to reconstruct Afghanistan for many critical years due to our attention on Iraq. We’re using money instead of blood to win, which is an American tradition dating back to WWII; the trend is increased use of the former in order to avoid loss of the latter.
I have no doubt our military could create regular infantrymen (or could use the Special Operations Forces in this capacity if given the right training) with the skills to live off the land that would have the ability to go up into the mountains in small units for long periods of time in order to locate and kill the enemy while operating nearly independently of our fire support and logistical chain. One should never make the mistake of underestimating his enemy, but I believe such individuals would have great success against the AAF and would greatly shorten the timeframe for us to achieve our objectives here. Undoubtedly a highly trained force with the right skills can kill a great deal of insurgents of marginal training and capability (see Selous Scouts). Sadly, we don’t seem to have those individuals at our disposal at this time, so we fight the kinetic side of the war in a way that maximizes our strengths: logistics and fire support, and minimizes our biggest weakness: negative public opinion brought on by casualties.
The video shows a firefight that took place near a schoolhouse...with the children and local elders inside and nearby. The AAF shooting at our forces with so many civilians nearby would hopefully constitute a victory for us in the propaganda (or IO, information operations) aspect of the fight. The video is about 4 minutes long.