The Five Hundred Meter War

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 1 month ago

In Korengal, the fighting often happened at several hundred meters.  In fact, Staff Sergeant Jeffrey Wall states that “we know that 52% of the fights in Afghanistan begin at 500 meters and go out from there.”  He laments the poor state of long distance rifleman skills and training, and recommends a return to that very basic training that creates riflemen.  The Marines are in better shape regarding this concern, every Marine having to qualify at 500 yards.

Yet there is something unstated here – an assumed precondition that sets the framework for this problem.  It is assumed that it will remain a 500 meter war, that we must increase rifleman skills (which we must), and that the only solution to this problem is to perform long distance shooting of the enemy.

But this presupposition only points us to a deeper problem.  We are not manned to close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver.  We are engaging in long distance fire fights until then are completed by calling in air strikes or artillery, rather than engaging in small unit (fire team, squad, platoon, company) maneuver warfare.

Squad rushes, distributed operations, development of enfilade fire and so forth are being done in some circumstances, but unless we chase the enemy they will go unmolested to kill and maim again.  This 500 meter war also becomes problematic for IEDs and ambushes.  The Taliban wouldn’t be able to plant IEDs if they were continuously under fire and surveillance, but of course, this requires more troops.

Eastern Afghanistan (Kunar, Nuristan, etc.) is still an important cornerstone in the campaign in Afghanistan, regardless of the population-centric approach being employed by current command (with which I strongly disagree).  An important report on a recent ambush in the Kunar Province demands our attention.

The ambush I recorded on video for GlobalPost Aug. 26 was not particularly unique.  Unfortunately, it’s an all too common occurrence for the soldiers patrolling here. Soldiers from Monti have been ambushed from the nearby steep mountainsides at least three times. The Taliban are known for being creatures of habit, using the same ambush spot if it proves effective.  The difference is that this time the first truck was hit with a “lucky shot” which disabled it and the driver.  I don’t want to go into more detail per Army operation security rules for embedded reporters.

When Pvt. Justin Greer got hit in the helmet, at first it didn’t seem real. I’ve noticed this immediate reaction in myself before. The mind, for several seconds, acts like it’s watching a movie.  If this lasts for more than several seconds, one could freeze and really put themselves in danger.  I’ve never seen an infantry soldier freeze. They’ve been trained to react to contact and in Kunar, their buddies’ lives depend on it.

Greer also appeared amazed with how close the bullet came to killing him. He showed me the bullet hole and the round he found in his helmet, before tucking it in his pocket as keepsake.  Most likely it was an indirect shot, those Kevlar helmets rarely can stop a direct AK-47 7.62 round.  A reporter told me that the layers of Kevlar in the U.S. helmet are actually designed to split and channel bullets, like Greer’s seemed to do.

Since this position was a suspected ambush site by the Taliban, wouldn’t it have been nice to have brought enough troops to chase the insurgents, or perhaps pre-deployed snipers, or both?  Isn’t it a shame that they were left alive?  The ambush cost us a lost arm, a concussion, a head wound, and a destroyed vehicle.  Isn’t it worth it to deploy enough troops to do the job?  In the end, from the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis, wouldn’t it have been cheaper to have anticipated this and brought enough firepower to chase and kill the enemy instead of sustaining the losses?

Prior: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer



  • http://biophilic.blogspot.com Burk

    Hi, Captain-

    My impression is that this is a question of scale. The hills are full of Afghanistan’s version of rednecks, ready to take potshots at anything. A US firebase might have what, 10 people? I don’t know the details, but it doesn’t seem that we have the manpower to take this fight into the hills on a sustained basis, which is what would be required. We are also pinned down by our logistical chain and technical encumbrances, but the main issue is just a lack of people.

    That seems why the best we can do is aim our mobile units (SOF) at as high-value targets as we can find, and not waste their capabilities in policing the entire hinterland.

  • http://biophilic.blogspot.com Burk

    Oh, if I could add- Ideally, the Afghan government would take on this issue themselves, adding in the manpower it would take to police the country more comprehensively. But Karzai seems both unwilling and unable to conceptualize this basic task.

  • http://www.cowboyjihad.blogspot.com Rick

    Patrolling used to be a capability of the U.S. military but it seems that we are back to the out an back mentality of patrolling and not spending any time in the boonies as it were. U.S. troops have proven the ability to ambush the Taliban when the conditions were right however this is the problem with population centric warfare is that in Afghanistan the people live in valleys. The Taliban however live in the mountains and are able to keep our troops under constant observation and have proven the ability to keep isolated firebases under constant attack. All over Afghanistan we have given away the high ground. We have surrendered the high ground to the Taliban and associated forces in Afghanistan making it so we cannot control the countryside. In effect we have surrendered the tactical advantage nationwide to the Taliban. The only advantage we have is airpower the ultimate high ground however this resource is not available all the time.

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  • Robrob

    We might have “given away the high ground” but frankly, no one wants it. Not even the Taliban can live out there on the rocks. Sure they base out of there and conduct ambushes from there but the reality of things is, just as soon as they see our patrols leave a village, the Taliban come down out of the rocks to R&R inside the villages. They hide in the mountains but they live and operate in the villages.

  • Caleb Kavon

    The video was incredibly educational about what is going on in Kunar now..I have been down that blessed road more than once and it is not fun, night or day.

    A. The mission was a simple one to go visit the Provincial capital and consult on security with ANSF. Whether it was necessary or not we cannot tell from the video, but the end result was not good.

    B. No reference was made to any intelligence on the area prior to leaving.

    C. The ambush site was in fact well known, as are most of them along that river valley. In fact they do use the same sites to ambush almost constantly.

    D. The insurgents can easily monitor the movements out of the base. When the patrol left all it would have taken was a phone call and the insurgents were ready to deploy to the ambush positions.

    E. There was apparently no preplanned fires scheduled for this known area of ambushes. Since they literally shoot from the same spots, preplanned fire support could have been laid on to fire at those postions which are in the mountains, known insurgent bases and not part of the local national civilian villages which are down in the valley.

    F. There have been countless ambushes on this road both against the Soviets and ourselves from literally the same positions, everyone knows where they are, so any mounted patrol can EXPECT to have an engagement along that road. This must be taken into consideration any time there is movement in that area. The commander should have considered using Air to fly to the meeting if the area was deemed active during the preceding period. This would have avoided the near certain ambush and severe injury and destruction of the lead vehicle. Each mission must be well thought out in advance. It was not this time.

    G. The hit on the lead vehicle was a lucky shot as was the near miss on Greer. However the ambush was not a matter of luck, it could have been
    predicted quite easily and should have been expected and the likely locations predicted in advance.

    H. RC East must make clearing these areas a regular operation, one which may involve night entry into the area or attack from different angles of entry. There have been hundreds of operations against these same areas, but we
    have never dislodged the insurgent command which is made up of both local and Pakistan based insurgents. Successful operations do result in the insurgents not being able to easily mount ambushes for a period of time, and since this was before the recent elections that would have been a good time to launch such an operation.

    I. Lack of Long range patrolling and moving from Point A back to Point A or only operating out of sealed MRAPs on known roads and routes is what is killing and maiming many of our soldiers. This is where COIN and Afghanistan do not mix at least in this area.

    The below videos are shot also from Kunar and show the ambushes from the Insurgent point of view, it is not the same spot but at one not far away. These videos when combined give both views of the same type of incident, where it is clear that the Insurgents are operating at an advantage and the mounted soldiers are litterally waiting to get hit as was this operation. This fight in Kunar is not easy but operations well planned and occasional preplanned fires can make the ambush a more dangerous task for the Taliban and serve to increase security in the areas

    http://www2.lactualite.com/blogue-monde/2010/08/12/documentaire-un-journaliste-%c2%ab-embedded-%c2%bb-avec-les-talibans/

    http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/video-from-an-embed-with-the-taliban/?partner=rss&emc=rss

    In the Taliban video it is a local commander Darwan, who is still around and operating in the same area. Note how they also are not very mobile and have limited arms and ammunition. The group is about 100 men and operates throughout the area, but prefer to do these relatively easy ambushes. Note that at the end of the video an SOF operation decimates the unit and causes it to disperse. Regular non predictable operations would make quite a difference in this particular area. Taking the fight to them in the base area does make a difference as the videos illustrate, when Darwan orders the unit to disperse and hide from the oncoming attacks in the area.

  • JS

    I was there that day. Agree with all points made in the both the article and the above comment. It’s something that my unit discusses daily, but cannot change. There are few of us, and we cannot be everywhere at once, which forces us to become reactive. Reaction is not a formula for winning.

  • Caleb Kavon

    JS…Thanks for the comment, all the Best to you…Tough area…Would be a nice place if not for the situation…Stay Safe…we are all with you..and Thanks for the Brave efforts in a tough place. We all appreciate it. Just hope RC East gets its operations in order and does a real rethink quickly..Thanks Again to all you….

  • Joshua Novak

    JS…Here is a manual that describes the insurgent tactics from the war against the Soviets. It will give you guys a good view on where and how they set up. They actually do stay up in the hills in those small abandoned houses a lot of the time. Note how they position the weapon systems. Hope it helps a little…You have more surveillance assets now so try to use them on this base area where you are at…I am friends with a lot of the older guerrillas mentioned in this book so they taught me a lot about the area. Try to study it a little…hope it help you.

    and THANKS again…We are all with you…all the time…

    Some of the ambushes described are in Kunar and they are doing the exact same thing today that they did 30 years ago. Also note some of the successful operations that the Soviets launched against the base area. They try to follow your patterns so when you do something they do not expect, they are easier to take out and if they get burned once-twice shy- better for everyone.

    Ok…keep up the fire…we can win this thing, if we do it right. Thanks again…
    Keep in touch we all want you to succeed and come home safe and well….

    http://www.tribalanalysiscenter.com/TAUDOC/Other%20Side%20of%20Mountain.pdf

  • anan

    Video claims that Kunar sees clashes as intense as Kandahar. This is incorrect. Kunar sees much more intense battles than Kandahar. Many Taliban in Kunar are much more international, better lead, and better fighters. The Pakistani Army complains that TTP/TNSM have taken over parts of Kunar and use it as a base to attack Pakistan.

    Not enough ANA, ANP or ISAF in Kunar. Ideally, ANA and ISAF break up into bluks [dismounted light infantry rifle platoons] and aggressively scout and hunt Taliban. Each ANA and ISAF platoon should be able to call in air and artillery support. [meaning each ANA platoon should have one ISAF forward air controller since the Afghan Air Force forward air controllers are still being trained, and each ANA platoon should also have an english speaking officer who can coordinate and deconflict with ISAF in the area.]

  • TS Alfabet

    Anan,

    given the deplorable state of the ANA, what you are really talking about is ISAF. And given the deplorable lack of initiative by all but a few of the ISAF forces, what you are really talking about is U.S. Forces. And given the deplorable tendency of U.S. Army forces to hunker down on FOB’s with short forays outside the wire, what you are really talking about is U.S. Marines. And given the deplorable lack of Marines in Afghanistan, what you are really talking about is… NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.

  • Boris Sizemore

    Anan is at least correct about Kunar. The quality of the fighters in Kunar is really top notch. They have a very high porportion of the dedicated foreign units, and Kunar is the launch pad for expansion into Kunduz, Tahkar, and Balkh.

    Kunar has become the primary secure remaining base zone, and is under resourced in forces due to “lets drink tea now, maybe fight sometime” Petraaus, Nagle(eat soup with fork, drink tea now, fight later) Doctrine.

    In Kandahar after the Shaping-(Waste a litte time, eat soup with fork, drink tea now, maybe fight later) operations, the Enemy is just using small units to harass, and IED the units and concentrating on urban operations and assassination against of key leaders while leaving the bulk of the forces in mobile rear area rest areas. They are rotating both small platoon, locally part time forces, and IED/Suicide Teams in and out of the ISAF ocupied zones. It is enough to maintain some pressure and keep combat to a low boil.

    In Kunar the insurgents are not playing around. They have extensive facilities both with the Province and Bajaur and training/forming/deploying repeated 100 man units each targeted for expansion in the Northern Provinces.

    While the “Lets Drink Tea Now, Maybe Fight Later Crowd” are in control of the Operations in each RC, we will continue to get ambushed and mauled in
    the North and East.

    TS A is correct. Both the Marines, and Army units in Khost, Patika, Paktia are ignoring the “Lets Drink Tea Now, Maybe Fight Later” crowd and hammering the Haqqani units in Khost this year. They are using God Given Non Tea Drinking US Combat skills combined with active intelligence and at least keeping the enemy in neutral mode. The local national farmers, though non educated, have a good idea of who is kicking whose butt in Khost and Helmand and just are not giving the insurgents great support. This is how
    you do COIN…..The ANA 203rd Corp is getting with the plan also. The picture is not completely black.

    Gen Petreaus and Gen Rodriguez have the whole thing backwards.

    The motto “Fight Now, Drink Tea Later” is ringing through the hearts and minds of Freedom loving Soldiers and the few Hard Fighting Country Loving Afghans that want to take out to the Pakistani supported insurgents invading this country.

    Let’s hope they decide to rely on the few who understand the country and have long term experience and not on those advocating the “Eat soup with Fork, Drink Tea Now, Maybe fight later” Doctrine advocated by the Big CG Petraeus.

    And a Word of Thanks …to the Screaming Eagles of 101st…Holding that line in Kunar like our forefathers did in Bastogne.

    We just need a real leader like Patton to emerge from the Power Poin loving politicians up in Kabul now, who wants to find seek and destroy the enemy and not “Waste some time, drink tea now, maybe fight later.”

    They do not realize it, but the population wants to see us improve security first, and drink tea later”

    Then we win…Huh ah..!! and finally a Semper Fi for our Marines-they are not messing around…God Bless America and a Free Afghanistan!!! For our enemies, let God sort them out in Hell.

  • Caleb Kavon

    I second the motion…

    The population wants us to improve security first-DRINK TEA LATER

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  • Lt Col Bill McDonald (Ret)

    As an ex Infantry Officer I empathize with any soldier who is in contact but I must ask where was the First Contact Battle Drills? It seemed that once the contact was made no one took command and strategically assessed the situation to counter attack. As the area was a known “ambush” area, why wasn’t there any artillery / mortar support with pre-determined fire coordination points with codewords for immediate return fire? Was there an Artillery FO with the patrol and if not why not? It seems that the US Army is not trained or tasked to “close with the enemy, to kill or capture him, regardless of weather, season or terrain”. A war cannot be won by long range action, it can only be won by the grunt on the ground.

  • http://rangeragainstwar.com jim hruska

    LTC McDonald,
    I ask the same question re; preplanned fires. In addition why not have a mech track mounted mortar along to fire hipshot type missions?
    Why not use organic indirect assets?
    Why not leap frogging in danger areas?
    Even in the Chosin retreat the Marines used outlyers to secure the flanks and point elements to secure the main body. These fights on the flanks etc produced many MOH awards and are historically available to any reading leader. They also relied on Naval aviation to defeat pockets of en soldiers. This theory is still relevent today.
    jim hruska ltc retired

  • Caleb Kavon

    LTC(Ret)s In general you have to be very careful with indirect preplanned fires(because of LN civilians), however in these particular ambush sites, it is good to go-as long as you plot correctly and fire on target. There is enough non civilian area to make these guys pay and they love these spots, been using them for 30 years now.

    Remember we essentially fight the war(again) one year at a time. These 101st Fine soldiers just arrived in May, now with this experience they still have a while to hit back.

    But this base area is a tough as you get. Not going to be easy.

  • Caleb Kavon

    FYI: Note the recent operation same area, It looks like our 101st Soldiers just gave the ambushers a little less reason to use the same ambush area again.

    Major counter strike against seasoned insurgents. This is the kind of proactive operation that will make the enemy think twice before moving out to harass the highway next time.

    Great work, the insurgents are far from supermen, and that ambush team is basically out of commission. That should more than make up for the ambush situation. Payback is M……… That’s how you hit em…

    This is a thinking war, and this contact showed we can outthink them when whenever we want. Impressive hit. Keep up the Fire.!!

    BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Afghan and coalition forces killed at least 15 insurgents in a firefight after they attempted to set up an attack position in the Tsowkey District, Konar Province, Oct. 1.

    After positively identifying insurgents in the area setting up what has been known as a historical attack position, an attack weapons team engaged them, resulting in 15 insurgents killed.

    Initial reports indicated all rounds were on target, and there were no injuries to civilians in the area.

  • Joshua Novak

    Caleb good point…Now that this position has been hit, they need to start looking at the other side of the highway. The insurgents will alter the attack angle somewhere in the same area from the opposite or try a frontal hit.

    Same principles apply, preplan fires on alternate positions using the historical data base, use reconnaissance over these alternate positions and prepare for their countermove.

    Note that they will definitely alter their timing for the attack. They had been using the mid to late afternoon, they may move to an AM attack set up.

    The enemy unit has about 100 fighters so they will be setting up for another action soon but changing locations. If you plan for this, they can be decimated twice in the several weeks.

    The strike on 1 October will cause them to review their operations and try something new and more difficult, but they are now out of their comfort zone. The ambush team had the experience and now the losses will cause them to restart a new training cycle. It may also have destroyed their heavy weapons section which will be a huge setback maybe for a month or two. This was a great success for the 101st ABN Infantry.

    Not only that but the local nationals will have noted that the Insurgents just lost the momentum for the first time in about one year. The farmers watch everything good and bad, like fans watching football on TV deciding whom to root for. This last attack will make them think that our side is starting to hit back fiercely. The insurgents cannot act like everything is going their way anymore. Big change and the farmers will note this. This is also a good time to push the reconstruction projects ongoing in the same area.

    Great work, now keep up chess match, as soon as they see we are playing them they will start to back off a bit.

    However also increase and change the perimeter security as the recent success may increase the likelihood of a vbied strike on the main position as we saw in Khost and Gardez recently.

    They like to do this when a unit is becoming effective to hurt the units operational pace. This type of attack is actually a signal that they are becoming concerned about the friendly unit’s success, it is a very backhanded compliment at times.

    Remember they have been fighting in this same area most of 30 years so they are not used to receiving punishment on their turf. The 101st is marking them now and it is beginning to hurt mentally and physically. Great work all around. Perfect mission, hit them before they hit you.

  • gian p gentile

    Hersh:

    this is a really good set of postings on tactical action in Afghanistan. They have been very helpful to me in thinking through some things about tactics, Coin, Afghanistan, and the condition of the American Army.

    Might you drop me a line if you get the chance at my new email at ggentile@cfr.org.

    thanks

    gian

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

    Thanks for the undeserved props Gian. I have several (four?) e-mail addresses for you, and I wasn’t sure which one to use knowing that you were on assignment. I will surely write.

    In the mean time, I appreciate all of the good comments on this article. It’s very gratifying to see the interest. Also, please check out what I feel is the best account of recent combat action coming from Afghanistan in a long time, and I appreciate the trust shown in me for my contact to have sent me this account. It happened in Paktika, but in order to protect my contact, that’s all I am willing to divulge.

    http://www.captainsjournal.com/2010/10/03/from-the-front-lines-in-afghanistan/

  • Josh

    If medium to long range combat is effective, it’s a great thing. Unfortunately, it has proven unneffective and inefficient. There’s only so much that can be done by missiles and heavy artillery in the end, and we can’t afford to throw a JDAM into every deffilade. When it does work, however, it saves lives.

    The problem is wholly political in nature, and has three facets: 1) Military policy that spends innordinate amounts of money on conflict avoidance rather than a ground force well-outfitted and trained for executing simple, conventional warfare, 2) Policy that ships off the nations most fit warriors to private contractors after investing small fortunes in their training and experience (President Bush’s fault), and 3) an unwillingness to commit the ground troops and ROE necessary to kill the enemy due to domestic political concerns (President Obama’s fault).

    In the end, the solution is simple and easily executed: match a large, aggressive ground force with long range and air support and wage nasty, filthy conventional warfare. Afghanistan is winnable; our politics of greed and cowardice is a disrespect to our warriors in so many ways.

  • john

    since 80%+ of our casualties are from IEDs I don’t really see that this would make all that much difference. The American people will not stand for a large number of dead. The Russians had rather liberal ROEs didn’t seem to help them all that much

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

    You’ve missed the point entirely. The people who plant IEDs are the insurgents. Kill the insurgents and the IEDs go away. We have all kinds of partially-effective anti-IED techniques, and partially effective they are. I know a very good Marine who recently lost his life to one in Helmand.

    Technology isn’t the solution to IEDs. Dogs are the proximate solution to IEDs. Killing insurgents is the ultimate solution to IEDs. So far from NOT making a difference, chasing and attacking them where they are is the most effective tactic we have.

  • major.rod

    Really great comments across the board though I personally hesitate to second guess the troops on the ground as to what they should have done having not been there, aware of what assets were available to them or how much time hey had to plan the op.

    Its been mentioned but this situation begs for a counter ambush. Artillery is relatively the easiest to coordinate but a couple of attack helicopters or if possible an air assault would do some serious damage to the enemy.

  • major.rod

    Oh, one question. Where does SSG Wall come up with 52% of engagements occur beyond 500m? I remember a paper that was done where the author used a survey of people he knew to come up with this number. Not a very good source or representative of the total fight. Anybody have better sources of reliable data?

    Without reliable info the whole marksmanship argument rests on a foundation of sand (as per the need).

    Don’t doubt the validity of the rest of the discussion. Th first paragraph just doesn’t do the rest of the discussion justice.

  • Pro-dog, Anti-IED

    Herschel-
    I don’t think dogs are really all that effective at finding IEDs. I know the marines are raving about them, but it’s far easier and more effective to use soldiers/marines to look.

    -Pro-dog, anti-IED

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You are currently reading "The Five Hundred Meter War", entry #5506 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Featured,Kunar Province,Weapons and Tactics and was published September 19th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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