8 years, 12 months ago
Dutch troops deploying to Afghanistan last fall had a surprise awaiting them.
TARIN KOT, Afghanistan — Lt. Col. Wilfred Rietdijk, a 6-foot-7 blond Dutchman, took command of his military’s reconstruction team in the southern Afghan district of Deh Rawood in September. Tranquil and welcoming, it seemed like the perfect place for the Netherlands’ mission to help rebuild this country.
Intelligence reports indicated that the district was free of the Taliban, allowing the soldiers greater freedom of movement than elsewhere in Uruzgan province.
“We could go out on foot,” Rietdijk said.
Reconstruction teams, escorted by a platoon of soldiers, fanned across the fertile countryside, building bridges over streams and canals, repairing irrigation systems, and distributing books and pens to local schools.
But the day after Rietdijk arrived in Afghanistan, his field officers reported hundreds of villagers suddenly fleeing parts of Deh Rawood. “Within a few weeks, everybody was gone,” Rietdijk said. “We didn’t understand why.”
Now the Dutch say they realize what happened. Even as the soldiers believed they had won the support of the local population, the Taliban had secretly returned to reclaim Deh Rawood, home district of the group’s revered leader, Mohammad Omar. It took only a few months for the Taliban to undermine nearly six years of intelligence work by U.S. forces and almost two years of goodwill efforts by Dutch soldiers …
As Hogeveen was settling into his armor-plated metal bunker at the main Dutch base, Camp Holland, near the provincial capital of Tarin Kot, Taliban fighters were evicting local police from three of Deh Rawood’s most strategic checkpoints. They bribed officers to abandon one post, kidnapped the son of a policeman at a second checkpoint and attacked the third, sending officers fleeing. They turned a local school into their headquarters and stocked it with weapons and ammunition, Hogeveen said he learned later.
Then they lay in wait and ambushed the first unsuspecting Dutch convoy they spotted.
“They were better prepared than anyone led us to believe,” Hogeveen said.
Hogeveen’s troops and the Taliban skirmished almost daily.
In mid-December, fighters yanked a 60-year-old woman and her 7-year-old grandson off a bus in Deh Rawood. They interrogated the pair and, after finding a U.S. dollar bill in the boy’s pocket, accused the two of spying and executed them in front of the other passengers and bystanders, according to accounts by Afghan human rights groups, news services and Dutch officers.
Meanwhile, on the advice of U.S. and Dutch intelligence officers, Hogeveen prepared a battle plan for routing the Taliban: “The intelligence guys said, ‘If you go in with large forces, they will leave,’ ” Hogeveen recalled in an interview.
He sent larger contingents of heavily armored troops into the heart of the Taliban stronghold in northern Deh Rawood, a jumble of mud houses connected by mazes of narrow lanes.
“Everyone thought the Taliban would not fight,” Hogeveen said. “The intelligence was wrong.”
Today, after 2 1/2 months of often intense combat, Dutch troops have reclaimed some of the villages of Deh Rawood and are helping villagers repair the damage caused by weeks of fighting between NATO forces and the Taliban. They have also started many new projects and are working more closely with tribal leaders, the Afghan army and local police to provide better security for the residents.
Even so, the Dutch say, the Taliban forces have merely relocated to the fringes of the district, and thousands of villagers remain too frightened to return to their homes.
The resilience of the Taliban, a shortage of NATO forces and the Dutch philosophy that the Afghan people need to take charge of their own lives have prompted the Dutch to adopt a precarious strategy for Uruzgan: evict the Taliban from small enclaves while ceding the surrounding territory to them in hopes that neighboring communities will oust them on their own.
David Galula’s ideas – a man who is a virtual unknown in his country of origin, and who is the doctrinal father of the counterinsurgency manual FM 3-24 – are being implemented in Afghanistan. Galula advocated targeted action in select areas, with resources moved as needed. I have long advocated seeing Galula’s ideas as useful and helpful, but within their proper context. But his campaign in Algeria was far different than the war on terror we fight today, on a least (but not limited to) the following fronts.
- The global insurgency characteristic of the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Africa and Chechnya and other places, thrives on a transnational ideological movement. Whether response to globalization or for religious motivation (I advocate the later), borders mean nothing to international jihadists. David Galula fought a campaign in Algeria; today the U.S. fights a campaign around the world with immediate flow and communication of personnel, ideas, intelligence and weapons.
- Modern technology has introduced standoff weapons to the battle space such as IEDs. This becomes a force multiplier for the insurgency.
- Religious ideology has brought terror and suicide (or martyrdom) missions into the battle space. Hence, rather than vying for good governance and protection of the population, the insurgency uses brutality and torture as weapons of intimidation, preventing the need to take the subsequent steps of a typical 1960’s style insurgency of providing state-like functions and services.
- Popular sentiment at home among the public will prevent the U.S. military from ever again having ten to twelve years to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign. For a COIN campaign to last this long would require the support of three consecutive presidential administrations, obviously an exigency which stands almost no chance of coming to pass.
- In addition to an insurgency being a function of counter-forces within a nation state, they can be (and have been in the case of Iran) funded, supported and trained by nation states to undermine the stability of the host country.
There are many more reasons that I have detailed in past articles, but these five will suffice. Again, Galula’s ideas are worth studying (and implementing in certain circumstances), but inadequate to form the basis for a comprehensive COIN doctrine.
The “whack-a-mole” brand of counterinsurgency didn’t work in Iraq, and will not work in Afghanistan. For COIN operations to succeed, two elements must be present as we have learned in Iraq. First, the force size must be right. If there aren’t enough troops to take, hold and rebuild, the campaign will fail in the brave new world of the global religious insurgency. Second, having the right force size in itself does nothing to ensure the proper use of those troops. The corollary or companion axiom for force size is force projection. The circumstances on the ground, with the population being too afraid to return to their homes due to terror, and the loss of years of effort at becoming trusted for good governance, proves the contrary of the Dutch strategy. Pushing the insurgency into surrounding areas doesn’t work, either short term or long term.
The Dutch contingency represents the wrong strategy, while U.S. forces have recently been documented doing the right thing with too few troops in a stunning New York Times Magazine article.
OVER THE LAST two years, the Americans have steadily increased their presence in Kunar province, fanning out to the small platoon-size outposts that have become the signature of the new counterinsurgency doctrine in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Korengal Outpost, nicknamed the KOP, was built in April 2006 on the site of a former timber mill and motel. The soldiers of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team live there in dusty tents and little wooden huts. They now have hot food and a small chow tent with an Internet linkup and a few phones for calling home. But the place was protected by not much more than concertina wire and sentries. Nearly every time I arrived at the KOP our helicopter was greeted by sniper fire or the dushka — a Russian-made antiaircraft gun.
Dan Kearney was essentially lord of the Korengal Valley. A self-described Georgia army brat, he grew up idolizing his warrior dad, Frank Kearney, and wanted to move in his father’s world of covert and overt operations. (His father is now a lieutenant general in Special Operations command.)
But as hard as Iraq was, he said, nothing was as tough as the Korengal. Unlike in Iraq, where the captains and lieutenants could let down their guard in a relatively safe, fortified operating base, swapping stories and ideas, here they had no one to talk to and were almost as vulnerable to enemy fire inside the wire as out. Last summer, insurgents stormed one of the bases in a nearby valley and wounded 16.
This admission from Kearney – who is undoubtedly a good officer – is telling. The Anbar province saw combat outposts, distributed operations, countersnipers, and higher casualties well before the balance of Iraq. It is fair to say that the surge and security plan was in part modeled after the Anbar campaign. But while Marines (and some Army and National Guard) in Anbar were taking casualties, some forces in Iraq were well protected in safe FOBs. The reason, in other words, that Kearney saw Afghanistan as far different from Iraq is because he was not deployed in the Anbar province. It isn’t too long ago that Marines were dying by the score from sniper rounds and room clearing in Anbar. But Kearney is certainly seeing his share of kinetic operations now.
ON OCT. 19, Kearney and Battle Company were air assaulted into the insurgents’ backyard for a mission that many thought insane. It was called Rock Avalanche and would last about six days. One of its main targets was the village of Yaka China.
Kearney, being the good soldier, tried to pump up his boys with the promise that they would be going after insurgents who had killed their friends and whose grizzled faces were plastered on their bad-guy family-tree wall at the KOP. They would upset the guerrillas’ safe haven and their transit routes from Pakistan. They would persuade the villagers to stop harboring the bad guys by offering an $11 million road project that had just been approved by NATO and Kabul and would be built by the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team. And they’d complete the “human terrain mapping” that is part of the new counterinsurgency doctrine — what families dominate, who’s married, who’s feuding, are there divisions to be exploited?
It was a lot to ask of young soldiers: play killer, cultural anthropologist, hearts-and-minds winner and then killer again. Which is why, just hours before the mission was to begin, some soldiers were smearing black-and-green war paint on their faces when their sergeant shouted: “Take it off. Now!” Why? They’d frighten the villagers.
It seemed a moot point as Rock Avalanche got under way. Apache gunships were scanning the ridges for insurgents. Other helicopters were dropping off more soldiers. An unmanned drone was whining overhead as it sent infrared video feeds to a large screen back at the battalion’s headquarters, Camp Blessing, six miles north of the KOP.
Almost immediately, high on a mountainside looking down on Yaka China, Kearney had to play God. In a ditch to his left, Jesse Yarnell, a young intelligence officer, along with John, an Afghan interpreter, were intercepting insurgents on their two-way radios saying, “We see them, we’re going to wait.”
“They’re right down there!” said Kevin Caroon as he gazed out of his night vision. Caroon, from Connecticut and a father of two, was an Air Force JTAC — the joint terminal attack controller who talks the combat pilots onto their targets. “See that? Two people moving south 400 meters away from us,” Caroon said, pointing down the mountain face. More insurgents were located nearby.
“Sir, what do you want to do?” Caroon asked Kearney.
“I want them dead,” Kearney said.
“Yes. Take ’em out.”
Caroon radioed the pilot his instructions, “On-scene commander’s intent is to engage.” And that was it.
A sudden wail pierced the night sky. It was Slasher, an AC-130 gunship, firing bullets the size of Coke bottles. Flaming shapes ricocheted all around the village. Kearney was in overdrive. The soldiers back at the KOP were radioing in that the drone was tracking 10 men near the tree line. Yarnell was picking up insurgent radio traffic. “They’re talking about getting ready to hit us,” someone said. The pilot could see five men, one entering a house, then, no, some were in the trees, some inside, and then, multiple houses. He wanted confirmation — were all these targets hostile? Did Kearney have any collateral-damage concerns? Cursing, Kearney told them to engage the men outside but not to hit the house. The pilots radioed back that men had just run inside. No doubt there would be a family. Caroon reminded Kearney that Slasher had only enough fuel to stay in position for 10 more minutes.
“What do you want to do, sir?” Caroon asked him.
Kearney radioed his soldiers back at the KOP to contact his boss, Lt. Col. Bill Ostlund. Ostlund, a Nebraska social scientist who could switch effortlessly from aggressive bomber to political negotiator talking family values with Afghan tribal elders, was in the crowded tactical-operations room at Camp Blessing watching the drone’s video feed and getting the same intelligence. He signed off on collateral damage, and Kearney turned to Caroon: “Take out the compound. And anyone that comes out.”
Flaming rockets flashed through the sky. Thunder rumbled and echoed through the valley. Then there was a pause. Slasher asked Caroon whether the insurgents were still talking. Kearney shouted over to Yarnell in his ditch, “You picking anything up?” Nothing. More spitting rockets.
The night seemed incomprehensible and interminable. Slasher departed and Gunmetal — an Apache helicopter — swept in. Radio communication kept breaking down. At one point the crew of Gunmetal, sensing no hostile intent, refused Kearney’s orders to fire. Then suddenly Gunmetal was rocketing at figures scattering for cover. Then Slasher was back in the sky doing more “work.” In the predawn light Bone — the nickname for the B-1 bomber that seemed to be the soldiers’ favorite — winged in and dropped two 2,000-pound bombs above the village. Finally, around dawn, a weary Kearney, succumbing to gallows humor, adrenaline and exhaustion, said: “O.K., I’ve done my killing for the week. I’m ready to go home.”
Kearney estimated that they killed about 20 people, adding: “I’m not gonna lie. Some are probably civilians.”
In the logic of war, the best antidote for the menacing ghostliness of the ambushing enemy is killing and knowing you’ve killed them. The soldiers in the Korengal almost never had that kind of satisfaction. Any insurgents, if they were killed, would be buried fast, and all that was left in their wake were wounded civilians. That morning, after a long night of fighting, was no different. Within an hour or so, Lt. Matt Piosa, an earnest, 24-year-old West Point grad, and his patrol were in Yaka China. They radioed that the village elders were asking to bury their dead. They’d also collected wounded civilians. The tally was bad — 5 killed and 11 wounded, all of them women, girls and boys.
Human terrain mapping, anthropologists, provincial reconstruction teams, and all of the things that make classical COIN advocates happy. The next installment should be theme parks for the kiddies. But this dissipates in the face of kinetic operations that need more troops. The pretext to successful reconstruction, I have discussed before, is force projection and security.
To be clear about the civilian casualties, it occurs to me that the journalist with the NYT Magazine doesn’t understand the nature of war. Her clinical perceptions hopefully didn’t survive several weeks in Afghanistan. I have clearly advocated ROE that holds first in importance the protection of U.S. forces rather than the implementation of international law. All other things take secondary or even tertiary importance. I am not concerned about neither ROE problems nor the potential loss of noncombatant support for the campaign in this specific instance.
However, the concern appropriate to this incident is the use of air power and what role it plays. I have also advocated air power in COIN, but for the purpose of protecting U.S. forces and providing acceleration to the campaign. I do not advocate air power as a replacement for ground forces. Air power should be used as a force multiplier, not force replacement.
Captain Kearney knows how to conduct kinetic operations and work the population. Captain Kearney doesn’t have enough troops. With the narcotic influence of classical COIN doctrine which claims that we have ten to twelve years, and in which it is acceptable to push the insurgency to different locations rather than kill or capture them, the strategic malaise in the Afghanistan campaign continues unabated.
The campaign needs more forces, more force projection, and strong leadership. This kind of campaign belongs to regular, active duty Army and Marine infantry, not air power (which is simply a force multiplier) or state-side COIN specialists – and certainly not NATO intransigence. Captain Kearney and his men need reinforcements, and NATO command is holed in FOBs wondering what their public back home thinks.