5 years, 10 months ago
Riddle me this. Is the following statement by a tribal elder in the town of Garmser, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, fabricated or real?
Before the Marines came to Garmser we all believed good things about Americans. There were no Taliban here, and it was the Marines who brought them to us. Since the Marines have been here there has been nothing but killing and destruction, and we all wish they would leave us. We don’t need the Marines here, we don’t need their security. We have no problems with the Taliban, and the Taliban will leave when the Marines go.
The answer comes later. Turning our attention to a valuable report from the Telegraph entitled Troops Face a Wall of Silence from Terrified Villagers, its lessons are timely for the campaign in Afghanistan.
The American patrol had found the dusty streets of Sahak bazaar unusually quiet that morning. Most people were distant and unwilling to talk. Those who did speak insisted there were no Taliban fighters nearby.
Barely two hours later, the first mortar round was fired at US soldiers from inside the village. A few seconds passed before a machine gun opened fire from a mud-walled compound the patrol had walked past only that morning.
In south-eastern Afghanistan, thinly stretched US forces are not only hunting down Taliban gunmen. They are also fighting a counter-insurgency war among terrified civilians, who are caught between them and the insurgents and are deeply reluctant to risk death by helping the coalition.
When the men of the 1st Squadron, 61st Cavalry, part of the 101st Airborne Division, first heard they were going to Sahak, they took bets on how long it would take the Taliban to fire rockets at them. In this patch of Paktia province, Sahak has a reputation as a “bad part of town”. In May, it was the scene of an ambush and a separate attack by three roadside bombs, which injured several American soldiers …
The soldiers from 1st Platoon in Alpha Troop, popularly known as the “Hooligans”, were given the task of capturing and holding a barren hillside until an armoured convoy of engineers could arrive to build the outpost.
As they waited for the 80-vehicle convoy to crawl along the booby trap-riddled road from the town of Gardez, the Taliban duly fired as many rockets at them as possible …
… it soon became clear that the Taliban’s hold on the area around Sahak ran deeper than their ability to launch inaccurate 107mm rockets.
When questioned, not one villager had seen where the rockets had come from, nor who had launched them. Each swore they had been too busy visiting relatives, working or praying to notice anything unusual.
One or two reluctantly revealed glimpses of the brutal punishment that faces anyone caught helping the Afghan army or foreign forces.
Abdul Kadir, a 52-year-old minibus driver, said that insurgents had murdered his son for being a police officer and his body had lain undiscovered in a field for three days.
Mohammed Rahim, a 20-year-old truck driver who fidgeted with nerves, said Taliban gunmen had arrived in his village after dark, going from house to house seeking anyone helping President Hamid Karzai’s government.
We have discussed the tendency to treat Operation Enduring Freedom as a special forces campaign, mostly directed at high value targets. In fact, in the current review of the strategic approach in Afghanistan undertaken by General David Petraeus, one option being floated is a turnover of more of the campaign to special forces, with an increase in the number of SOF teams. A recent veteran of OEF comments about this proposal that it’s the only approach that will work, cites Seth Jones of RAND (in saying that the only way to defeat an insurgency is to ensure that it has no state sponsorship), and ends with this imperative:
The only way things change in A-stan is if GEN Petraeus increases SOF presence along the borders by a large amount, to include bumping SOF teams from the current number of ODA and CAT-A to a more robust package and have the entire CJSOTF focus on the border region.
The conventional guys can handle Helmand, Herat, Mez and elsewhere, including the urban areas – but totally agree with the post above that the “surge” will not work if replicated like they did things in Iraq.
The Captain’s Journal respects active duty military and gives the benefit of the doubt to their studied opinions, but several problems become apparent with this analysis. First, we are in receipt of other studied opinions from SOF in Afghanistan who claim to us that the only way to push OEF forward is to make it a “big Army” operation, since the HVT program can only carry us so far, and the operation is too large for the Marines alone.
Second, Seth Jones, who has become the author of one disappointing counterinsurgency study after another at RAND, has given one requirement for defeating an insurgency, but certainly this cannot be the only one. Otherwise the indigenous Sunni insurgency would have been defeated much more easily in Anbar since they didn’t have the backing of the government of Iraq. If the lessons of Anbar are too easily and quickly forgotten, then Colonel Sean MacFarland reminds us.
“The prize in the counterinsurgency fight is not terrain,” he says. “It’s the people. When you’ve secured the people, you have won the war. The sheiks lead the people.”
But the sheiks were sitting on the fence.
They were not sympathetic to al-Qaeda, but they tolerated its members, MacFarland says.
The sheiks’ outlook had been shaped by watching an earlier clash between Iraqi nationalists — primarily former members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party — and hard-core al-Qaeda operatives who were a mix of foreign fighters and Iraqis. Al-Qaeda beat the nationalists. That rattled the sheiks.
“Al-Qaeda just mopped up the floor with those guys,” he says.
“We get there in late May and early June 2006, and the tribes are on the sidelines. They’d seen the insurgents take a beating. After watching that, they’re like, ‘Let’s see which way this is going to go.’ ”
MacFarland’s brigade initially struggled to build an Iraqi police force, a critical step in establishing order in the city.
“We said to the sheiks, ‘What’s it going to take to get you guys off the fence?’ ” MacFarland says.
The sheiks said their main concern was protecting their own tribes and families.
Our advocate of the SOF campaign for Afghanistan has told us that an Iraq-style surge won’t work in Afghanistan, but if the considered and studied summary of the surge and its accompanying tactics involves getting troops into contact with the population, intelligence-driven raids, and most of all providing security for the population with the increase in forces, then the advocate hasn’t given us a single reason to believe that providing security for the population won’t work to enable the population to turn against the Taliban. In fact, the report cited above from the Telegraph (in addition to MacFarland’s report) supplies us with yet another anecdotal justification for believing that the population wants security.
The reflexive tendency to deny the obvious is a skill mastered by “experts.” Many of the “experts” apparently don’t see the need for an increase in troop presence, and yet the two most recent Commanding Generals, McNeill and McKiernan, both have demanded and even begged for more troops, saying that the campaign was under-resourced.
An Iraq-style surge won’t work in Afghanistan, or so some of the “experts” say. But the recent Marine Corps operations in the Helmand Province by the 24th MEU have given us a literal laboratory of counterinsurgency, implementing the same approach they used in Anbar. Much of the combat has been heavy, with “full bore reloading” against Taliban in kinetic engagements. The Marines sustained 170 engagements over 35 days of maneuver warfare. But the Taliban sustained these same engagements, and more than 400 of them died. Following the kinetic part of the campaign the Marines transitioned immediately into security operations, payments to citizens for damage to property, constant contact, and all of the other aspects of successful long-term counterinsurgency.
As for the quote by the tribal elder in Garmser? If you guessed that it was fabricated, you might know enough to qualify as a counterinsurgency “expert.” The real exchange between the tribal elder and the Marines went somewhat different, and it was between the Marines and multiple elders who communicated the same thing to the Marines. “The next day, at a meeting of Marines and Afghan elders, the bearded, turban-wearing men told Marine Capt. Charles O’Neill that the two sides could “join together” to fight the Taliban. “When you protect us, we will be able to protect you,” the leader of the elders said.” Indeed, similar words were spoken at a meeting in Ghazni with the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan: ““We don’t want food, we don’t want schools, we want security!” said one woman council member.”
Special Operations Forces are a wonderful asset, with specialized billets that will always be required in any campaign, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism or conventional. But SOF cannot supply this security for the population, as there aren’t enough of them, and the HVT program is designed for counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency.
Our SOF contact from Afghanistan has lamented the lack of long term effect of the HVT program, commenting that the next mid-level Taliban commander killed will cause a week or two delay and scurrying about until the next commander rises to the challenge, and then it’s the same thing all over again. Thus goes the HVT program.
With history as our guide, we can see that both the campaign in Anbar and the seven months that the 24th MEU was in Afghanistan demonstrate the same thing. Security must be implemented as a precondition for the population to turn against the insurgency. This is true regardless of what the “experts” say or how many times they reflexively contradict the commanding Generals.