2 years, 10 months ago
From The New York Times:
An ambitious military operation that Afghan officials had expected to be a sign of their growing military capacity instead turned into an embarrassment, with Taliban forces battering an Afghan battalion in a remote northeast area for the last week.
The fighting has been so intense that the Red Cross has been unable to reach the battlefield to remove dead and wounded.
The operation, east of Kabul, was not initially coordinated with NATO forces, but the Afghans called for help after 10 of their soldiers were killed and perhaps twice as many captured at the opening of their operation nine days ago, and American and French NATO forces poured in to the area.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned here,” said a senior American military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the debacle. “How they started that and why they started that.” He said there had been no public statements on the battle because of the need for confidentiality during a rescue mission.
The Afghan National Army now numbers 134,000 men, and only Wednesday, the new American commander, General David H. Petraeus, complimented the Afghans on reaching that target three months ahead of schedule.
Still, the Afghan National Army runs relatively few operations on its own, particularly large-scale operations. They take a little more than half as many casualties as coalition military forces here, who now have roughly the same number of troops in the country. (In 2009, according to NATO figures, 282 Afghan soldiers were killed, compared to 521 coalition soldiers.)
The operation began when the Afghan Army sent a battalion of about 300 men from the 1st Brigade, 201st Army Corps, into a village called Bad Pakh, in Laghman Province, which is adjacent to the troubled border province of Kunar. Their operation, which began on the night of Aug. 3, was to flush out Taliban in a rugged area where they had long held sway. First, using the Afghan Army’s own helicopters, a detachment was inserted by air behind Taliban lines, while the main part of the battalion attacked frontally.
But, according to a high-ranking official of the Afghan Ministry of Defense, the plan was betrayed; Taliban forces were waiting with an ambush against the main body. Then the airborne detachment was cut off when bad weather grounded its helicopters, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
In the confusion, the 201st Army Corps commanders lost contact with the battalion. The battalion’s 3rd Company — 100 men — took particularly heavy casualties, the official said, although he did not have a number. He said many of the company were killed, captured or missing, and as of Wednesday at least, the situation of the rest of the battalion remained unclear.
However, the senior American military official said the battalion had not been lost. “We know exactly where that battalion is, although there are several soldiers unaccounted for and several killed.” He estimated that “about 10” soldiers had been killed, and no more than a platoon-sized number were missing, meaning up to 20. An official of the Red Crescent in the area said casualties were very heavy on the government side and that the Taliban had destroyed 35 Ford Ranger trucks, the standard Afghan Army. transport vehicle, which typically carry six or more soldiers each.
Analysis & Commentary
There is no indication whether the Taliban massed forces as is their practice when encountering larger concentrations of U.S. troops. But it’s probable that they did, and that gives us a good basis for comparison of the performance of U.S. forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA). I have detailed the drug abuse, refusal to go on night patrols, lack of discipline and refusal to obey orders, sleeping on post, poor marksmanship and other catalog of problems with the ANA. But even granting the assumption that these problems didn’t effect their performance in this engagement with the Taliban, this example speaks poorly of the capabilities of the ANA.
The loss of operational security is unfortunate and still shows how easy it apparently is to corrupt the individual members of the ANA. But that’s not the salient point here. Engagement with the Taliban was bound to happen, and the ANA should have been able to employ enough fires from infantry combined arms (rifle, automatic fire, mortar, etc.) with a force this size to have both defended themselves and inflict severe damage to the Taliban. In fact, a force this size should have been able to employ maneuver tactics to close with the enemy.
In comparison, while the battles at Wanat and Kamdesh are still fresh in our memories and remain an unfortunate testimony to the need for force projection, the U.S. forces in these battles were approximately platoon-size, lost fewer men than the ANA in this engagement, and faced Taliban massing of forces (300 or more fighters in each case). In neither case was the U.S. outpost overrun.
The comparison and contrast isn’t perfect, as the U.S. forces had close air support (CAS), although not as soon as they needed. But this size ANA force is a huge unit to have performed so poorly against Taliban fighters. We have have fielded 134,000 ANA troops at the present, but it really doesn’t matter. Numbers are irrelevant. They would disintegrate in the face of heavy engagements, and this portends a significant problem with the administration plans to begin winding down U.S. troop presence in 2011.