5 years, 12 months ago
The incomparable Philip Smucker has given us a very stark look at the latest counterinsurgency struggle at a far flung outpost in Afghanistan.
The Taliban took shelter in the U.S.-built school they blew up last year before they began the 400-foot climb, rockets in hand, to the American bastion on the hill.
Wrapped in space blankets – thin foil sheets familiar to campers – to avoid detection by the thermal imaging cameras in the U.S. outpost, they zigzagged up the escarpment. Troops at the base said insurgents had come right up on the helicopter landing zone, fired their rockets, then disappeared “like ninjas into the night.”
Fortress Margha, with its grenade launchers and mortars sticking out from behind sandbags and bulletproof windows on three watchtowers, is a safe redoubt for the American troops stationed there. Within its walls, soldiers play ice hockey and video games that imitate guerrilla warfare.
For the Afghans who live in a medieval world of mud homes with interlocking walls in the valley below, however, reality is a reign of terror.
Taliban fighters rule the day and the night in the Bermel district, using threats and atrocities to control the civilian population, Afghans in the valley told a visiting reporter in interviews over two weeks. Accompanied by Arab and Chechen advisers, they behead civilians or sever their hands to force their cooperation. One of the latest Taliban edicts is a ban on cutting trees, so that insurgents can hide and lay ambushes for foreign troops.
From a distance, the U.S. base in Margha, occupied by a platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Richardson, Alaska, is a monument to a risk-averse, shorthanded American strategy in Afghanistan …
The small U.S. base can be defended against as many as a thousand insurgents at once, confident American soldiers said. That sums up their dilemma, however: The fortress protects American troops, but it does little to help win a guerrilla war that’s now in its eighth year and about to enter another violent summer.
The faltering U.S. and NATO efforts in eastern Afghanistan have in effect surrendered the countryside – village after village – to insurgent bands, many of them criminal gangs but some of them with weaponry and the backing of al-Qaida.
The American troops descend from their bastion only on occasion, and there’s no one to protect Afghan civilians from Taliban fighters, who collect a “zakat,” or religious tax, from many residents in Bermel …
An older man, leaning against a mud wall, sighed … “People want protection, but they have none,” he said.
“The enemy attacks are sophisticated and well-coordinated,” he said. “They fight you longer and harder than the insurgents in Iraq. At the same time, when you pursue, they just disappear and blend back into the population.”
Jones said that in a half-dozen attacks on his “route clearance” convoy – manned mostly by National Guardsmen from Virginia and California – insurgents had destroyed several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of U.S. equipment. He added that his platoon hadn’t been able to confirm that it had killed a single Taliban fighter.
Read the entire article. There are a number of nuggets of gold in this one. First of all, it’s time that this unit get out of Fortress Margha and go on patrol. It’s being done in the Korangal valley, and it can be done in Bermel. Second, take note again at Philip’s salient observation: the campaign is “shorthanded.” It has always been, and as long as there is reluctance in the Obama administration to send more than 68,000 troops, it will always be shorthanded.
It’s worse than whack-a-mole” counterinsurgency in Iraq. We have ceded control of the rural terrain to the insurgents, and melting back into the population is why day and night time patrols must be conducted and the population engaged.
There are many more observations we may draw from this report, but take note of the recent Taliban tactic of using space blankets to avoid thermal imaging technology. This is a learning and adaptive insurgency, and the employing of technology as a replacement for boots on the ground simply won’t do.