6 years ago
It was a very bad weekend for U.S. Soldiers in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. A combat outpost in the Kunar Province has sustained heavy fighting with the Taliban, and nine U.S. Soldiers have been killed, while fifteen were wounded (along with four Afghan troops). What can we learn from the deaths of nine Soldiers? We’ll focus our efforts under four headings: (1) The Taliban spring offensive, (2) the evolution of Taliban tactics and capabilities, (3) small, disconnected combat outposts, and (4) inadequate forces.
The Taliban Spring Offensive
We have covered the escalation of violence and insurgent activity in Afghanistan recently, but as far back as five months ago U.S. Army intelligence and General Rodriguez were claiming that the Taliban efforts inside Pakistan would effectively kill any chances it had inside Afghanistan, thus negating any consideration of a Taliban spring offensive. The Captain’s Journal called this out as an analysis and intelligence blunder, and we were right.
Violence and insurgent activity have increased yearly since 2002. Generals (and Colonels) and intelligence analysts who examine and assess the data and conclude that a spring offensive is unlikely, while at the same time the Pentagon knows better and planned for one by deploying 3200 Marines to the theater, should be replaced if they haven’t already been. They are at best an impediment to the success of the campaign.
Critical analysis capabilities and an understanding of the ebb and flow of military campaigns (especially insurgencies) should be one of the minimum qualifications for holding a position of such power and authority in the U.S. armed forces.
Evolution of Taliban Tactics
While we have pointed out that Taliban tactics would evolve over time to one of fire and melt away, roadside bombs, suicide bombs and otherwise asymmetric guerrilla warfare, this attack seems to have been much more sophisticated and conventional in both its planning and execution.
A Taliban attack that killed nine U.S. soldiers, the biggest single American loss in Afghanistan since 2005, was a well-planned, complex assault which briefly breached the defenses of an outpost near the Pakistan border.
The Taliban have largely shied away from large-scale attacks on foreign forces since suffering severe casualties in assaults on NATO bases in the south in 2006. Instead the militants have scaled up hit-and-run attacks and suicide and roadside bombs.
“The insurgents went into an adjacent village, drove the villagers out, used their homes and a mosque as a base from which to launch the attack and fire on the outpost,” said NATO spokesman Mark Laity on Monday.
The Taliban also chose the timing wisely.
Troops from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan army only moved into the combat outpost in the mountainous and forested Pech Valley district of Kunar province days before and the defenses were not fully constructed.
Which raises the question of force protection and combat outposts.
The use of combat outposts in Ramadi and elsewhere in the Anbar Province (where they were introduced well before the surge and security plan for Baghdad) involved connectedness to other combat outposts in the case of resupply or reinforcement issues. The combat outposts were not randomly placed throughout Anbar, and neither were they garrisoned before ready for force protection.
The force size in this combat outpost was small: 45 U.S. troops and 25 Afghan troops. The nearest help was air power, which was used with effectiveness, but not before a large number of troops were killed or wounded. With nine U.S. soldiers killed, this is an appalling 20% of U.S. Soldiers lost. With fifteen more wounded, this amounts to approximately half of the U.S. soldiers garrisoned at this outpost counted as casualties. Further, because force protection was not possible at this point, the Taliban were the ones to engage in the chase rather than U.S. troops.
The governor of neighbouring Nuristan province, Hazrat Noor, said: “After the attack the US troops decided to move their base to the district centre of Wanat and they tried to build shelters there in the bazaar overnight. Now the Taleban have attacked again.” US strategy in Afghanistan has focused increasingly on the use of smaller and more numerous bases, called combat outposts. They aim to give US forces greater influence in local communities. However, American military commanders have privately admitted that such small bases could prove vulnerable if the Taleban was able to concentrate enough fighters and take the base by surprise, as apparently happened yesterday.
Finally, while the loss was horrible, it is necessary to think about the effectiveness of the battle. Normally U.S. troops inflict a kill ratio of 10:1. Forty insurgents were killed in the battle, dropping the results to a rate of about 4:1. This is not high enough.
As we have been arguing for half a year, more forces are needed in Afghanistan, and not of the kind which cannot engage in kinetic operations (e.g., the Germans) due to political decisions at home. Combat outposts are effective when combined with the proper size force to make almost constant contact with the enemy and population, and engage in the chase of insurgents. None of these things obtained in the battle in Kunar.
Due to the high losses, this unit is likely combat ineffective and needs replacement (or at least reinforcements) soon. This time around, additional troops need to be committed to the area of operation in recognition of its strategic importance. The Captain’s Journal has already recommended the redeployment of the Marines to Afghanistan.