Backwards Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 11 months ago

Well known and well-traveled independent journalist Philip Smucker has written an article in the Asia Times Online that warrants our utmost attention.  But first, here is Philip’s take on the road situation in Afghanistan and its significance to successful counterinsurgency.  This is required listening for anyone who really wants to understand the current counterinsurgency situation in Afghanistan.

<a href="">Philip Smucker</a>

Now to the Asia Times article.

In an instant … the mountainside above the rocky town of Doab erupted in muzzle flashes. For the next several hours, American soldiers in a convoy of 18 vehicles scrambled for cover as rockets and mortars rained down from the mountainsides and US helicopters swept in to evacuate the injured. Along with several of his best soldiers out of Fort Hood, Texas, Lieutenant Dashielle Ballarta, 24, displayed composure in the face of fire as his mortar team fell to Taliban bullets. Indeed, over the next five hours, three insurgent commanders with an estimated four dozen fighters would ambush the American soldiers at three different locations along a road with sheer drop-offs of 300 meters.

Only the fast reactions of US soldiers and medics would avert what commanders said could well have been a “slaughter” of American and Afghan forces. In the end, the Americans would boast that “we kicked some ass up there”, but the insurgents would also claim victory; dancing on the splintered remains of an abandoned US Humvee and vowing to keep the Americans from establishing a foothold north of their base in Kalagush, Nuristan.

This province, with its jagged peaks that rise two kilometers high into the blue skies above Pakistan, is known as Afghanistan’s “forgotten province”. But the intensity of the March 30 attack on a US military humanitarian aid convoy suggests that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have designated northern Nuristan as a key infiltration route and supply line for a growing insurgency.

Though Washington officials have castigated Pakistan for allowing al-Qaeda and Taliban “safe havens” to thrive along its own western borders, which abut Nuristan, this province’s vast terrain provides a similarly strong enemy sanctuary.

“The Taliban and al-Qaeda are moving through Nuristan at will,” said Lieutenant Colonel Larry Pickett, 46, a resident of McComb, Illinois, who dove for cover and took aim at the Taliban attackers in Doab, who had signaled their intentions a night earlier. “The north of the province is wide open and there is nothing to stop them.”

Some Western intelligence officers and Pakistani officials believe that the insurgents in Nuristan are part and parcel of a global guerrilla movement and may be protecting important al-Qaeda figures, possibly Osama bin Laden himself. “We can’t prove that Osama bin Laden is not there,” said Robin Whitley, 33, a US military intelligence officer in Kalagush. “A lot of people are on the lookout for a six-foot-four Arab, but when you don’t have anybody up there, you just don’t know.”

The convoy of 16 US Humvees and four Afghan trucks filled with security guards, left Kalagush on March 29 for a road convoy into the Doab district of Nuristan province. Leading the American contingent was naval commander Caleb Kerr, 37, who heads up Nuristan’s Provincial Reconstruction Team, Lieutenant Colonel Sal Petrovia, 37, and Lieutenant Colonel Pickett. Also along for the ride were Pentagon intelligence agents, including an unarmed member of the Human Terrain Team. The overnight mission intended to meet with local Nuristani officials, look at larger development projects and assess the possibility for more assistance …

The American strategy in Nuristan reverses the old US Marine Corps version of counter-insurgency; “clear, hold and build”. It stresses building first, with the hope that Nuristanis will eventually “see the light” and side with the Afghan government.

“There is a ton of bad guys in Nuristan, but we don’t have the resources to go after them all right now,” said Kerr. “We will not win by killing more people.”

The overnight development survey to Doab appeared to be going well until midnight when translators, who were listening to three distinct languages on radio intercepts, picked up chatter that indicated “the enemy” was planning to ambush US forces.

In the morning, meetings with senior officials continued and American engineers surveyed a new hospital and several schools.

Despite the presence of US-funded police in the town, dozens of insurgents managed to converge on the Americans from neighboring valleys, without being detected even by aerial drones specifically tasked with monitoring such movements. After seven years of careful observation, Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents have learned to attack US forces when they are in remote terrain, far from their home base and short on air power.

At 11:15 am, just when the US air cover pulled off the scene to refuel, insurgents, holed up in hidden bunkers, began to fire rockets, mortars and small arms at the largest American patrol position; a circle of jeeps with guns pointing out. Sergeant Mathews, 24, from Chicago, quickly unpacked his mortar system, but enemy fire blasted his legs out from under him.

Platoon leader Lieutenant Dashielle Ballarta sprinted over. As medics assisted two wounded soldiers, the young lieutenant grabbed the mortar and pointed it towards muzzle flashes on the mountain. “It was pretty much ‘grab-and-point’ as the insurgents were so close he couldn’t calibrate their distance,” said Lieutenant Colonel Sal Petrovia, who had raced down to join the patrol team. “Our medics were treating the wounded, Specialist Shane McMath and Sergeant Mike Mathews, for 15 minutes behind a Humvee when the opposite mountainside opened up with muzzle flashes. They had snipers and I think they had been waiting for us to move to one side of the Humvees.”

After stabilizing the injured, the convoy moved down the road towards a pre-designated helicopter landing zone. A huge boulder blocked their exit. The Americans had to settle for a make-shift landing zone on a terraced wheat field, where a chopper could only send down a rope and harness.

“As we were preparing the wounded to be lifted out, we started taking fire again, this time on the retaining wall above the heads of the wounded soldiers,” said Lieutenant Colonel Petrovia. “The medics, Kurt Willen, 25 and David Myers, 23, covered the bodies of the two wounded soldiers and the rescue chopper had to back away as we called in two Apaches to suppress the enemy fire.”

Fighting continued as the US convoy snaked away, jeeps limping along with blown-out tires and dragging another disabled vehicle.

As the convoy negotiated switch-backs above cliff faces some four kilometers forward, insurgents launched yet another assault, rocketing the disabled vehicle, which still had four soldiers in it. Three-inch thick glass windows shattered and rockets bounced off the metal armor. “I looked around the bend and I could see Captain Tino Gonzales trying to keep his rear covered, ducking and dodging behind a tiny boulder as bullets pinged off the rock,” said Petrovia, who finally decided to abandon the disabled vehicle. An Apache was ordered to destroy it to prevent the Taliban or al-Qaeda from gaining access to sensitive military information.

At 8 pm, well after sunset, the US convoy puttered back into its base at Kalagush. Commanders said they had been taken aback by both the weaponry and the number of insurgents that had attacked them in Doab.

This is important and compelling journalism.  Take particular note of the comment that the plan reverses the clear-hold-build strategy “with the hope that Nuristanis will eventually “see the light” and side with the Afghan government.”

Sadly, I believe that it won’t work.  The force projection must first be implemented to ensure that the road-builders have safety, the aid workers have security, the infrastructure doesn’t go to financing the Taliban, and the soft counterinsurgency doesn’t in effect work directly against the kinetic operations at which the U.S. Army is working so hard.

Philip also reviewed David Kilcullen’s book Accidental Guerrilla.  At the end of his review, he asks:

It may be that the imminent American surge in forces (at least 20,000 more troops on the way) could provide some of the answer, but if the US military goes in hard, particularly into the indomitable terrain of Nuristan, will it just end up creating more “accidental guerrillas?” One wonders what the Australian expert would advise on this point, just as US intelligence on al-Qaeda movements in Nuristan is increasing. As Kilcullen notes, “Our too-willing and heavy-handed interventions in the so-called ‘war on terror’ to date have largely played into the hands of this al-Qaeda exhaustion strategy.”

I think that this issue is largely a nonstarter.  This issue may in fact be salient for some international engagements, but we were far from it in Iraq, and are extremely far from in in Afghanistan.  On the contrary.  We may have found the hornets nest, and the hornets must be eradicated.  Reader and commenter TSAlfabet recently asked the following question.

Assuming that more than the 21,000 additional troops will not be forthcoming and, further assuming that the U.S. will apply some kind of cordon & secure strategy as discussed, where would you focus those efforts, at least initially? Kandahar? Helmand? In other words, since it is highly unlikely that the Administration is going to invest the necessary forces to secure all of the desired areas, what, in your view … are the most critical areas of A-stan that must be pacified and held in order to have a shot at prevailing long-term?

Great question.  The Marines are obviously needed for the major combat operations in Now Zad.  But more Marines are on the way, and they should be deployed to the Nuristan and Kunar Provinces (where the Korangal Valley is).

Firebase Phoenix overlooking the Korengal Valley

These are adjacent provinces, in the East area of responsibility, very near the Pakistan border and subject not only to indigenous Taliban fighters, but an influx of Taliban from Pakistan.  We’ve struck the motherload.


Counterinsurgency Successes in Afghanistan

More on Combat in Korangal Valley Afghanistan

Leave a Reply

3 Comments on "Backwards Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
A few cautionary words re Smucker’s article in The Asia Times: 1. With all due respect to Cmdr. Kerr, he presents a false choice to the extent that he believes that U.S. forces must either “go after them all right now” or “build first.” It is never an “either-or” choice. A better formulation might be to consolidate the ground that Kerr is currently holding in Kalagush, train up local forces to take over local security and build in Kalagush. Spread from there as resources and local forces permit. The Afghans outside of Kalagush will see the good being done there. Let that percolate through the province so the people understand tha 2. It is absolutely fundamental that the local population understands that government forces are willing and able to protect them from the bad guys. So long as the Al Qaeda and Associates can freely walk into town and behead, rape, steal and destroy at will, no amount of schools, water projects, roads or clinics are going to make any difference to defeating the insurgency. Do Cmdr. Kerr or Lt.Col. Petrovia think that the locals are going to rise up and kill the AQA by any amount of public works… Read more »

We need to review the process used in building the Kunar road. We as in the Afghan Central Government have to engage local leadership and get their support. Meanwhile employing local for security and construction of the road, canal, etc this is the soft side. At the same time the ANA and ANP have to be brought in and built up and provide security for the local towns this is a mandatory fact as you have to get these people in touch with the central government. Meanwhile U.S. and NATO can go out and create a bubble like TSAlfabet mentioned and use kinetic operations to beat back the threat to the townspeople and the construction project.
The build it and they will come process is backwards you have to engage the local get them involved and protect them. Then offer the services they need but they also need to be part of that process as well.

The Captain’s Journal » Reclaiming the Ring Road

[…] Afghanistan is to ever be secure, it must first be paved.”  We linked his interview in Backwards Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and if you haven’t listened, you have another chance to hear this important […]


You are currently reading "Backwards Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan", entry #2735 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Taliban and was published April 21st, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (677)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (31)
Air Power (9)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (7)
Ammunition (26)
Animals in War (4)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
Antonin Scalia (1)
AR-15s (88)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (49)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (26)
Australian Army (5)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (2)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (53)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (17)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (2)
Blogs (7)
Body Armor (17)
Books (2)
Border War (7)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (27)
British Army (35)
Camping (4)
Canada (2)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (10)
Christmas (8)
CIA (23)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (2)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (215)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (130)
Department of Homeland Security (16)
Disaster Preparedness (3)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (6)
Donald Trump (1)
Drone Campaign (3)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
El Salvador (1)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (1)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (7)
Featured (177)
Federal Firearms Laws (18)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (590)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (14)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (41)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (7)
Georgia (19)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (472)
Guns (1,087)
Guns In National Parks (3)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (7)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (4)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (11)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (1)
Horses (1)
Humor (13)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (54)
India (10)
Infantry (3)
Information Warfare (2)
Infrastructure (2)
Intelligence (22)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (169)
Iraq (378)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (44)
Islamists (69)
Israel (18)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (2)
Jihadists (80)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (9)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (2)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (3)
Lawfare (6)
Leadership (5)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (2)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (14)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (8)
Logistics (49)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (244)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
Media (32)
Memorial Day (2)
Mexican Cartels (24)
Mexico (30)
Michael Yon (5)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (4)
Military Equipment (24)
Militia (4)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (15)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (16)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (17)
NATO (15)
Navy (21)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (2)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (2)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (53)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (218)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (6)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (33)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Pistol (2)
Pizzagate (21)
Police (242)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (317)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (114)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Rifles (1)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (74)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (29)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (175)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (24)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (18)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Supreme Court (2)
Survival (13)
SWAT Raids (53)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (1)
Tactical Gear (1)
Taliban (167)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (16)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (92)
Thanksgiving (6)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (14)
TSA Ineptitude (11)
TTPs (1)
U.S. Border Patrol (5)
U.S. Border Security (14)
U.S. Sovereignty (17)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (3)
Uncategorized (42)
Universal Background Check (3)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (2)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (212)
War & Warfare (40)
War Movies (3)
War Reporting (18)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (6)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (57)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (18)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2017 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.