Taking the High Ground in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
8 years, 4 months ago

The Washington Times recently had an article that causes one to stop and ponder some hard facts.

Three politicians in Pakistan yesterday described a nation in crisis, struggling against poverty and terrorism as a new civilian government takes over after years of military rule.

During a teleconference with guests of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in downtown Washington, the politicians also faulted the United States for failing to secure Afghanistan and creating more instability in their neighboring country.

“You can’t blame Pakistan for the problems we are facing,” Mushahid Hussain of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q said from Islamabad.

“We have been at the eye of the storm since 1979,” he added, citing the spillover effects of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Western and Arab nations funneled millions of dollars to Afghan freedom fighters to defeat the Soviets in the 1980s, and then the United States withdrew until al Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The Bush administration responded by invading Afghanistan and liberating it from the brutal Taliban rule, which sheltered al Qaeda.

Since then, Mr. Hussain said, the United States “has outsourced” the war to NATO. He criticized the United States for “fire brigade” policies and NATO for failing to “show the will to win” against resurgent Taliban terrorists.

The U.S. can most certainly lay some blame on Pakistan for her problems, for when a country has a budding insurgency and chooses to let them have free reign in part of the country (in this case, at least the NWFP and FATA), the result can only be a worse insurgency.

On the other hand, the charge of outsourcing the campaign in Afghanistan to inept NATO forces who lack a strategy or even any counterinsurgency experience sticks hard as we have pointed out before.  In Eastern Afghanistan North of the Khyber pass, the 173rd combat team has daily clashes with insurgents, but lack the forces to take the high ground.

Platoon leaders in regular clashes with insurgents here say that their foe is under the direct sway of al-Qaeda. “When we are in a village, we always know that al-Qaeda and the Taliban will soon be back to try to undercut us and try to one-up us,” said Sergeant Mark Patterson, whose platoon in the Korengal Valley has been in some of the heaviest fighting anywhere in Afghanistan. US forces based out of the “KOP”, or Korengal Outpost, face a higher concentration of al-Qaeda-backed insurgents than most regions of Afghanistan, not least because an Egyptian lieutenant of al-Qaeda operates among them, say US officers.

While US forces rarely see their enemy, their mission is to fight for the hearts and minds of the same people al-Qaeda and its affiliates try to win over. While the insurgents try to operate with the cover of the what Chinese leader Mao Zedong once called the “sea of the people”, US forces are trying to pry away that popular backing.

“We are constantly pushing into areas where the enemy operates freely – encroaching upon them and taking away their population base,” says Commander Larry LeGree, who is charged with building roads into insurgent strongholds in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.

The point of building so many roads into remote areas along the Afghan border, say US officers, is also to “create a firewall” against al-Qaeda efforts to infiltrate with men and guns. At the same time, the Afghan forces that are meant to patrol these roads are being “mentored” by their US colleagues.

Yet the firewall can quickly turn into an ambush for US and Afghan fighters in the low ground. There are so many infiltration points available on the Pakistani border – particularly as the snow melts – that real issue is “who controls the high ground”, according to a senior Afghan security official.

Insurgents rarely attack US fighters unless and until they have managed to position themselves at a higher altitude than their foe. “I would say that 95% of the time they hit us from the high ground – when our backs are turned,” says Tanner Stichter, a soldier serving in the Korengal Outpost. “We have a very difficult time finding these foreign fighters – as they remain hidden.”

The first response of US infantry when they are hit from insurgent positions in the hills above them is to call in air power and heavy artillery. This is not always effective as insurgents operate out of well-hidden redoubts – often the same positions used by guerrilla fighters in the war against the Soviets in the 1980s.

American forces, whose air power is far superior to any in the world, often end up pummeling the rocks in frustration. “I’ve watched on – you know – Predator feeds from the drones firing 155 shell after 155 shell and slamming into a house,” says Lieutenant Brandon Kennedy, a recent graduate of West Point military academy. “They watch fighters come running out of these same structures. It is fairly difficult to accurately engage these guys.”

Both US fighters and their Afghan proteges agree that they could do with controlling more of the high ground along the border with Pakistan.

The US forces, along with the Afghan army and police, need to go on the offensive now- before the weather breaks,” insists police chief, Haji Mohammed Jusef. “This time of year is the best time for us to take the high ground and deny it to the enemy.”

We’ve covered the road construction before, in that roads cut both ways.  Sure, they allows goods, services and troops to travel to outlier locations, but roads also provide the Taliban with perfect opportunities to emplace IEDs.  No amount of force protection or winning hearts and minds can give the population security.  Killing or capturing the enemy is necessary for security.  Two problems continue to hamper the campaign: (1) lack of a comprehensive force-wide strategy due to NATO involvement, and (2) lack of force size.  These are themes we have written on extensively, and the only change coming is 3200 Marines, who are deploying in Afghanistan at the moment.  More on the Marines later in the week.


The Marines, Afghanistan and Strategic Malaise

Everyone Thought the Taliban Would Not Fight

NATO Intransigence in Afghanistan

You are currently reading "Taking the High Ground in Afghanistan", entry #1004 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Pakistan and was published March 19th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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