A Half-Dozen Gargantuan Bases

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 5 months ago

Philip Smucker in the Asia Times:

Although the US is not technically losing, it would be extremely hard to argue that Afghanistan’s safety has not been sacrificed due to the policies of a risk-averse American government. A basic premise of the US military’s own strategy is that ultimate success is gained “by protecting the populace, not the counter-insurgency force”. This principle is violated daily.

The Pentagon’s high-tech-centric approach to the fight in Afghanistan has produced – since 9/11 – a half-dozen gargantuan bases – with more on the way. These are little more than anachronistic monuments to the US military’s superior firepower. At Bagram and Jalalabad air bases, aerial drones, commanded by joystick pilots in the deserts of Nevada, circle and land. Invisible F-16s and F-15s lay figure-eight smoke trails in the blue skies above Tora Bora. At dusk, the snow line of the Hindu Kush is flush with Apache attack helicopters and larger Chinooks. None of them are the key to victory.

In the last several months of living and talking to American soldiers and officers in the field, particularly along the eastern front, I have been impressed with their understanding of what it will take to win in Afghanistan. One enthusiastic young Southerner, Major Tommy Cardone, boiled it down to a useful campaign slogan, “It’s the people, stupid!” Indeed, I was left with the impression that the US military does have a strategy; if only the cautious generals and politicians in Washington will allow it to be implemented.

To win in Afghanistan, the US military – and its Afghan partners – must follow best-practices counter-insurgency down to the last of Afghanistan’s 40,000 villages. Only by taking the fight – along with Afghan soldiers and policemen – to the countryside will the Taliban be isolated and excluded from what Chairman Mao Zedong once referred to as the sea of the people.

Regular readers know that we have always held a nuanced view of counterinsurgency.  There is no reason for FM 3-24 to place protection of the population in juxtaposition over against killing insurgents.  It isn’t an EITHER-OR choice.  It is BOTH-AND.  They are corollary and coupled propositions, not a dilemma.  See for instance the Marine operations in Helmand in 2008 in which the Marines killed some 400 Taliban fighters, but also in which the population made it clear that they wanted the Marines to stay.  From our Following the Marines Through Helmand III:

Take particular note of the words of town elder Abdul Nabi: “We are grateful for the security.  We don’t need your help, just security.”  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.”

Again, similar words were spoken upon the initial liberation of Garmser by the U.S. 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.”

The narrative emerging is not one of largesse, roads, education, crop rotation, irrigation and all of the other elements of the soft side of counterinsurgency.  To be sure, these elements are necessary and good, but sequentially they come after security.

While it isn’t necessarily true – this narrative of the Army on large FOBs in Iraq until Petraeus arrrived (some Army units were conducting dismounted patrols and living amongst the people) – this problem of gargantuan bases in Afghanistan seems to be recurring.  Andrew Lubin, who has also been to Afghanistan and comments wisely on his experiences, says:

Get the Army off their huge stupid bases where bureaucracy flourishes. Put them in the field where they belong. Their “creature comforts” have gotten out of control…Burger Kings, Orange Julius, jewelry stores, -do you know they now offer massage services at Bagram? In a war zone?

Even many of the Army SOF are base-bound except for their forays into the wild via helicopter rides to the next raid.  Some Army are doing it right (e.g., the Korangal Valley), as are the Marines in Helmand.  But the gargantuan bases are an obstacle to success in Afghanistan.  Empty them.  Send the Army on dismounted patrols, open vehicle patrol bases, smaller FOBs, and combat outposts.  Get amongst the people.  Only then will they sense that you are committed and give you intelligence – leading ultimately to killing Taliban, which will then further contribute to their security, and so on the process goes.


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  • TSAlfabet

    Ditto as to strategy, but we must admit that whomever is responsible for such conservative, force-protection policies has at least one, legitimate concern: if U.S. soldiers are employed off the FOB’s and among the population it is probably only a matter of time until the Taliban completely overrun and massacre an isolated unit which, for whatever reason, got caught without sufficient air support or reinforcements. If such a massacre were to develop, it is entirely likely that soft American public opinion will completely turn against any type of vigorous (and by extension risky) involvement in A-stan.

    So, in effect, we are already dead in the water in A-stan unless Obama pulls a 180 and orders more troops. The U.S. will not risk having a platoon (or even a squad) of soldiers overrun with the inevitable, hideous video that the Taliban will circulate. No significant COIN is going to happen until the generals are positive that the troops are safely back-stopped with air and artillery. And the U.S. just does not have the resources in A-stan to provide that kind of reinforcement in enough places.

    On the other hand, if Helmand or Korengal can provide such an example that positive momentum develops from it and it creates impetus to send more troops to keep up the progress then, perhaps, there is hope.

    Still waiting to hear from Gen. Petraeus on this vital strategic crossroads.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Each and every point you make is valid. On the other hand, it is possible to do more, even while maintaining force protection. The solution in Korangal is the same as it was in Wanat. More troops.

    I would never, under any circumstances, deploy a unit to Wanat as small as it was. I also wouldn’t have deployed them after “negotiations” with the tribal elders for a year, during which time the Taliban planned their attack. I also wouldn’t have built VPB Wanat where it was (I would have tried to control the terrain), and neither would I have built and manned OP Top Side (eight men perished defending OP Top Side).

    There are tactical things we can do to enhance our abilities, and a force size double what it was at Wanat would still be there even after the attack. i.e., they would have been able to hold it until CAS, fewer casualties would have ensued, and the VPB would be seen as accomplishing its mission.

    I am saying, essentially, no distributed operations. Go company size or greater, but still get out of the gargantuan bases while still being within CAS range.

    That said, we’re both still right. We need more troops. I am concerned that we won’t get them.

  • Pingback: The Captain’s Journal » General McChrystal Revamps SOF Efforts in Afghanistan

  • Pingback: The Captain’s Journal » Tim Lynch on FOB Gardez


You are currently reading "A Half-Dozen Gargantuan Bases", entry #3049 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published June 3rd, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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