Musa Qala: The Argument for Force Projection

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 11 months ago

Ever since the British pulled out of Musa Qala, Afghanistan, in October of 2007, the Taliban have committed atrocities against the population and subjugated them to Taliban rule, and with forces more powerful than the Afghan police in Musa Qala, the agreement between British forces and the tribal leaders to prevent the Taliban from entering Musa Qala was rendered powerless and irrelevant.

Almost immediately after the British pullout from Musa Qala, the Taliban rolled in.  British officials believed the Taliban to be too deeply rooted to be eradicated by military means, and heretofore had intended to court the alleged more “moderate” members of the Taliban to attempt to divide their organization.

But the brutality of the Taliban occupation, along with the direct refusal of the Taliban ever to negotiate with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, apparently convinced NATO that negotiations would have redounded to no positive results.  So NATO planned operations against the Taliban that months ago was billed as Afghanistan’s Fallujah.  A series of air attacks killed various Taliban leaders over the intervening months, but this didn’t weaken the Taliban hold on the area.

The assault on Musa Qala began on December 7, with Afghan forces in the lead.  Heavy arial bombardment  preceded the advance of Afghan forces from the South, while U.S. forces were flown in by helicopter just North of the city.  Approximately seven soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were wounded after being air assaulted in about 14 kilometers North of Musa Qala and engaging in a five or six hour gun fight with Taliban forces.  Two NATO soldiers perished as a result of the operations against the Taliban.  Several significant Taliban leaders were killed or captured during operations.

British forces have said that they wouldn’t take something they have no plan to hold, and at the moment NATO and Afghan forces, in anticipation of Taliban counterattacks, are digging in and fortifying their positions.  But while U.S. forces battled some of the Taliban as the fled North, most fighters simply melted away into the terrain.  These fighters will live to fight another day, under cover of darkness, in the shadows, planting roadside bombs, and shooting innocent Afghanis.  Afghanistan’s “battle of Fallujah” didn’t occur, as the forces necessary to encircle the Taliban forces and chase them until captured or killed didn’t exist.  While the Taliban lost some fighters and indeed some significant local leaders, they know better than to engage NATO forces in kinetic operations for any protracted period of time.

Australian Army Colonel Don Roach has argued for a larger force size in Afghanistan.

… NATO-backed International Security Assistance Force and its Afghan army allies are stretched too thinly in Oruzgan province, home to the 370-strong Australian Reconstruction Task Force, which is facing a growing threat from resurgent Taliban militants … “One of the fundamental principles of a counter-insurgency is you can always do with more forces,” said Colonel Roach, who is on the headquarters staff of the ISAF, serving as its senior liaison officer with the Afghan army and police in Regional Command South. “You can go into an area and leave and Taliban will come back and chop peoples heads off.”

At The Captain’s Journal, we agree with Colonel Roach’s axiom, but it should be noted that this is not a given in COIN doctrine.  In fact, Military transition teams in Afghanistan are designed with exactly the opposite idea in mind.

MiTT training is a major part of the Pentagon’s new approach to counterinsurgency. A MiTT embeds with an Iraqi or Afghan unit. The team itself is small–10-15 soldiers, usually of more advanced rank, from staff sergeant to colonel–but designed to work with almost any size unit from battalion to division. Their goal is to make the local troops self-sustaining: tactically, operationally, and logistically. Aside from providing training and expertise, MiTTs also provide a huge morale boost to their foreign counterparts as they have the power to call in air support and reinforcements otherwise not at the disposal of the local police and military. The MiTT should encourage the locals to go on the offensive and gain the confidence needed to later fight on their own: a necessary component of our we-stand-down-as-they-stand-up exit strategy. Transition teams also leave a small footprint in hostile areas that might be stirred up by a larger U.S. presence. Such small groups remain in the shadows and emphasize the achievement of Iraqi and Afghan forces–something that greatly reduces the political fallout of U.S. operations.

But this may be more pedantic than wise.  The Anbar Province in Iraq has also seen its share of tribal leaders and concerned citizens stepping up to be counted, but in order for this to obtain, a tank had to be parked outside the home of Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, the most powerful figure in Anbar, to protect him from al Qaeda attacks.  There is no replacement for force projection.  The British reaction to the Taliban re-entry into Masu Qala is befuddling given the nature of power in this region.  Agreements come and go, but without the means to enforce the agreements, it seems odd that the British would have relied on this “gentleman’s understanding” with the tribes in the area.

The British want other NATO forces to shoulder more of the burden in Afghanistan, the Canadians are there only because the U.S. says they have to be there (according to a recent poll), and there are roads through Afghanistan that, in a less dangerous situation, might force competition against the poppy trade.  Yet this road is too dangerous because of bombs, shootings and Taliban influence to be relied upon for commerce.

The ruined Afghan police truck smoldered on the highway in the village bazaar, flames rising from its cargo bed. The village was silent. Its residents had hidden themselves ahead of a U.S. patrol.

The remains of a second truck, a tanker, sat on its wheel rims 100 yards to the north. To the south, another patrol was removing two other freshly burned tankers from the highway, clearing the lanes so traffic might pass.

The Americans examined the police truck. Holes marked where bullets had passed through. The front passenger door was gone; a rocket-propelled grenade had struck and exploded there.

This vehicle graveyard on Highway 1, roughly 50 miles south of Kabul, the Afghan capital, symbolizes both the ambitions and frustrations in Afghanistan six years after the Taliban were chased from power.

Highway 1 is the country’s main road, the route between Kabul and Kandahar, the country’s second largest city. It lies atop an ancient trade route that, in theory, could connect Central Asia and Afghanistan with ports in Pakistan, restoring Afghanistan’s place as a transit hub for something besides heroin.

The highway, which has been rebuilt with $250 million from the United States and other nations, accommodates a daily flow of automobiles, buses and ornately decorated cargo carriers, which the soldiers call “jingle trucks.”

The Afghan and U.S. governments say the road’s restored condition is a tangible step toward a self-sufficient Afghanistan.

But Highway 1 remains bedeviled by danger, extortion and treachery. Police corruption and insurgent attacks sow fear and make traveling many sections of the road a lottery. The risks limit its contribution to the economy and underscore the government’s weakness beyond Kabul.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has ordered Marines to stay in the Anbar Province (rather than deploy to Afghanistan) where they will likely be conducting public relations missions and handing out food bags to the Anbaris, but force projection is needed in Afghanistan.  Yet as long as the small footprint counterinsurgency advocates hold sway, the campaign appears to be proceeding apace in Afghanistan.  Doctrine can indeed color the lenses through which we see the world.




You are currently reading "Musa Qala: The Argument for Force Projection", entry #825 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured and was published December 12th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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