Monday, October 5, 2009

Latest attack in Nuristan

In my most recent blog entry, I stated that I found it laughable the idea that the Taliban and insurgents could conduct coordinated assaults and challenge US forces on the conventional battlefield...and then a day later they go and kill eight soldiers in a conventional-type attack. Everyone out there knows that Nuristan is full of insurgents. The terrain in Nuristan so severe that anyone could hide out there for years without getting caught, and Coalition forces have virtually no presence in the province. The US Army unit we were partnered was often on reserve-alert to support police stations up that way which were in extremis.

It's very disheartening for everyone to see us lose that many guys in one battle, but I stand by the assertion that with decent terrain selection and unit-tactics this type of thing will not happen. When you build a small outpost in an area where insurgents can shoot down upon you, with few to no supporting positions to help you, then the position is asking for trouble. In Kunar, we had observations posts up further on the hills, or even at the very top in some cases, and other mutually supporting positions, just to prevent something like insurgents being able to surround us and shoot down upon us.

Sounds like the plan is to remove the post in Kamdesh and other similar ones. I can tell you once an outpost like that is gone, then the area it occupied is no longer going to be visited by the Coalition, and the territory is essentially Taliban-territory at that point, although it sounds like it already was given the number of fighters they had gathered, and the fact that the US Army unit in the area didn't even patrol in the local village. They say the plan is to push those troops into the larger population centers, which sounds all well and good, but I always thought the idea behind those mountain posts was to fight the enemy in the mountains and more sparsely-populated areas rather than fight them in the larger cities and villages.

The fact is, the whole strategy in north-eastern Afghanistan is extremely predictable and reactive. Basically, the US Army and ANA tactics are to build a firebase somewhere and then wait for it to get attacked. Patrols last a couple of hours and stay within sight of the base. If an "operation" is conducted it never lasts more than a couple of days. In the past, units conducted operations that lasted more than a month...the entire time outside their bases in the villages and mountains. The Marines in Helmand keep moving and sleep in ditches they've dug themselves before moving on somewhere else the next day.

The Army might want to think about what they need to do take the initiative in this war. Simply inhabiting a firebase, waiting for it to get attacked, and then calling in fire support, does not appear to be an effective, nor risk-free, way to conduct a war. The insurgents have a nearly unlimited supply of manpower from Pakistan. The idea in warfare to break the enemy's will to fight, not just kill a bunch of guys. By allowing the insurgents to always have the initiative, and topping it off with abandoning these firebases (which will be perceived as weakness, as it should be) we'll do nothing but put wind in their sails, which will only lead to more of the same.

So yes, I'm criticizing the approach of building all these firebases, and I'm also criticizing the idea of abandoning them. We need to put more thought into where we put these bases if we're going to put them anywhere, so we don't give up propaganda victories when we close them. In Iraq, when we left bases, they were turned over to the Iraqi security forces, not just abandoned. Ideally, we'd patrol in unpredictable places for extended periods of time out of larger bases in larger population centers. Why build a base when you can inhabit local homes for a few days while you're there and then move on somewhere else? Why use all your manpower protecting something...? Better off projecting something. I criticize the Army for closing firebases because I know they don't do large-scale ops of lengthy duration, at least not the units I was partnered with. Without a firebase in an area, they'll have no almost no effect on the area (unless a paved road happens to run right to the area), and the territory is ceded to the insurgents.


BruceR said...

Dude, mountains ain't got nothing to do with it. It was exactly the same in Kandahar Province when I was there (Cdn OMLT 2008-09). Stay on the base, keep the patrols tight and short, and when the base is pulled because you can't sustain it any longer, you're out of an area for good. What you're really describing is economy of force tactics due to an insufficiency (real or perceived) of combat power. It was the same throughout Afghanistan until this summer.

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/06/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

James Gundun said...

Not to sound pretentious, but the attack on Kamdish is the Taliban's MO. You're right that the NYT overstated because the Taliban doesn't usually deploy conventional tactics simply to challenge America on the battlefield. The Taliban seems to use large formations for surprise special occasions, their version of shock and awe - conventional tactics applied unconventionally. I study counterinsurgency and as an operator in Afghanistan, I would be very interested in your opinion of my theories. Just if you have the time.

K said...

Their own version of "shock and awe"...I like that. Absolutely, a perfect way to put it. They are certainly able to perceive and opportunity and take advantage of it...coincidence that both the Wanat and Kamdesh attacks took place days before those bases were to be abandoned...? I doubt it...the insurgents wanted to get their licks in on a vulnerable base while they could, and the knowledge that our forces were leaving soon likely gave them the impetus to get on with a large-scale attack. I think the lesson is when we give them a good opportunity to fight conventionally they'll do so, but barring that they'll stick to their typical stand-off tactics of IEDs, sporadic indirect fire when they can get the ammo, and small arms from afar.

John said...

I have to comment about Kamdesh. In NE Afghanistan the general US policy has been to put garrisons next to district (like US counties) centers. Wanat was a DC. Blessing is next to the DC for the Pech district, Honaker-Miracle is next to the Watapur DC, etc. The COp near Kamdesh was literally right next to the DC for Kamdesh district and next to the major river and the best road in that part of the province. The lovation wasi n lowland but te Op, Fritsche, was located on to of a omuntain that overlooked both the COP and Kamdesh, the largest toen in Nuristan. The loss of 8 Amwricans somehow makes the battle seem like a defeat, but in fact it was a tremendous victory. The attack on the COP was aimed at the ANA section and the enemy set this on fire. US forces retreated only because of the fire. While early reports claimed the Op on the mountain was overrun. this was not true. It had a formidable position and all later reinforcements were funnelled through it. Unlike at Wanat, US forces followed through after the battle and killed at least 100 insurgents. Such casualties undoubtedly destroyued the enemy forces in the district. The US retreat afterwards may have given the enemy an IO (ie propaganda) victory in spite of these tremendous losses. How many insurgents could have possibly remained in the district after those losses? Replacements would have to have been called for from sanctuary areas in Pakistan. Anyway, Kamdesh was assuredly a Coalition victory, although it may end up being a Tet-like victory. BTW recent eports have indicated the people ion Wanat are upset with their year long isolation from Coalition assistance.

K said...


Thanks for commenting and sorry for the delay in this response.

I'm going to have to completely disagree with the assessment of Kamdesh being considered a victory of any kind. For one thing, if the US Army claims they killed "at least 100 insurgents" then you can probably take the hard number (100) halve it and then divide by two if you want to get the real amount. I know for a fact Battle Damage Assessment is almost never done in the sense of counting bodies. Those numbers often come from reports from pilots and radio intercepts, both of which I would submit are unreliable.

Even if losing 8 of our guys to 100 of there's were somehow a tactical victory (and I don't think it should be considered as such), it's still a strategic defeat. In the end, winning this war is going to have little to do with how many insurgents we kill, and a lot more to do with whether we can get the people on board. COIN 101. The mere fact that we're even reporting these body count type numbers bothers me because it does not really matter. Throwing that big number out there is the only way they can cover their ass that they lost 8 Americans for nothing because we ceded the territory anyway.

The people in Afghanistan will get on board with whomever they perceive to be the likely winner. Having a firebase attacked and set on fire, and then abandoning it days later (whether that was the plan all along or not) is a tremendous IO victory for our opponents. We suck at IO for the most part as we don't engage the population the way we should in the first place, and then go and abandon bases and territory - just giving the insurgents easy IO victories and digging ourselves into that much more of a hole.

Nothing I said above should be read to disrespect or downplay the job done by the solders that fought at Kamdesh that day. I have no doubt they fought well. But the whole thing should never have happened like that.