4 years, 8 months ago
In this May 20, 2010 photo, U.S. Army Stryker vehicles kick up dust as they roll across a rocky road to pick up troops from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade who were on patrol in the Shah Wali Kot district of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Twenty-two men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of 800 died in a yearlong Afghan tour ending this summer. Most were killed last year in the Arghandab, a gateway to the southern city of Kandahar. About 70 were injured, all but two in bomb blasts. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
The AP has a report up on 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade that bears some thought (Google news rarely if ever maintains their news URLs indefinitely; for another URL see The Washington Post). The article reads much like a journal, but some salient points are lifted out and reproduced below. I will provide running commentary, with a summary at the end.
Twenty-two men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of 800 died in a yearlong Afghan tour ending this summer. Most were killed last year in the Arghandab, a gateway to the southern city of Kandahar. About 70 were injured, all but two in bomb blasts.
The death toll was one of the highest in the Afghan war, and the tough fight in the Arghandab drew the attention of America’s leaders. President Obama was photographed saluting the coffin of one of the soldiers on arrival in the United States. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told soldiers at their base in March that their efforts had helped push back the Taliban.
However, the battalion failed to dislodge insurgent cells entirely. A similar outcome is emerging in the southern town of Marjah after a bigger operation led by U.S. Marines in February. An even larger campaign is unfolding in Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital …
The battalion is part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which originally trained for urban combat in Iraq. But the mission changed in the final months of training, and the brigade’s 130 Arabic students took a crash course in Pashto, the language of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic community.
As a reading of the category Language in COIN will demonstrate, this last paragraph is simply exaggeration. The Brigade didn’t have 130 Arabic “students.” They might have had 130 or more Soldiers who had been given short classes in basic Arabic, focused on Phonetics, and rehearsing key phrases important to certain tactical tasks, but they didn’t have Arabic “students.” The language training is so poor that little was lost, whether they went to Iraq or Afghanistan.
… the battalion had very little intelligence. The soldiers didn’t know it, but they faced an entrenched enemy willing to stand and fight for a sliver of territory vital to the Taliban’s goal of seizing Kandahar. They needed more manpower …
“You can’t get from one side of the river to the other easily. You can’t do anything on vehicles,” Neumann said. “We didn’t know it was going to be saturated with enemy. Nobody was tracking that it was a Taliban sanctuary.”
These last paragraphs are spot on. Intelligence has routinely failed the Army and Marines, and the deployment of a Stryker Brigade in an area not amenable to the vehicle is absurd. Such blunders touch on rudimentary logistics, planning and knowledge base of the mission. The Stryker Soldiers should have been humping 120 pounds of gear up hills for 20 miles in preparation for this deployment, not sitting in situationally worthless fighter vehicles.
One September night, two dozen suspected insurgents appeared with bags around an American post, then pushed into the orchards before dawn. Coalition rules of engagement barred the Americans from opening fire unless there was obvious hostile intent.
The paltry role of Afghan forces was also frustrating. Chaplain Lewis, a 37-year-old father of four from San Diego, California, once boarded a Stryker with two Americans who survived an IED strike. In back were two Afghan soldiers, one of whom had shot himself in the foot. A commander told Lewis: “Keep an eye on those two. Make sure their weapons remain on safe.”
We’re going to have to forget the Afghan National Army if we are going to focus in winning the campaign. As for the incident above, the Soldiers should have immediately descended upon the insurgents, hazed them, muzzle-thumped them, and held them until they obtained the information they wanted. The effeminate can cry a river over my barbaric counsel, but failure to implement harder tactics likely cost American lives.
It was hard to separate civilians from insurgents. On village patrols, the Americans probably shook hands with unarmed fighters. The battalion struggled for traction in civil outreach. One platoon delivered a generator on a pallet outside a medical clinic; gunmen shot holes in it overnight …
Grousing is common in any army, but a deeper resentment brewed in the 1-17. In November, brigade chief Col. Harry Tunnell replaced Capt. Joel Kassulke of Charlie Company, which had suffered the most deaths — 12 men — of the four companies.
The soldiers fumed. They thought the captain was made a scapegoat.
In December, the battalion took a new mission to secure area highways. Fighting had ebbed, and a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division took over most of the Arghandab. Some 1-17 soldiers were emotional — they thought they were winning, and felt defeat at leaving.
A month later, an Army Times newspaper article included assertions by Charlie Company junior leaders that they had not trained adequately for the Afghan mission, and that the battalion had not focused enough on civilian concerns.
Neumann said civil development was hardly the first option in a heavy combat zone, but acknowledged he could have done more to convey command thinking down the chain. As for Kassulke’s transfer, he said, the brigade command believed the man and the company were close to a “breaking point” and needed change.
“That was a bitter pill for that company to swallow,” Neumann said. The Army Times article, he said, “tore at the fiber of this unit and I was proud that we shook that off too.”
I have read in full the Army Times article in which Staff Sergeant Jason Hughes figures so prominently. Color me unpersuaded and unimpressed. A generator gets delivered, and its gets shot to hell. So much for reconstruction and civilian concerns while killers are on the loose.
The Stryker Brigade was unprepared alright, but not because of what Staff Sergeant Hughes charges. They were not trained to the terrain in Afghanistan because they were not intended to go there. That failure belongs with senior leadership, i.e., above Colonel, not the Brigade command. As for training in COIN, my coverage and commentary on Wanat and Kamdesh shows that it’s best to focus on kinetics and force projection before the population and good governance.
In this manner, the advocates of population-centric COIN (in their higher chain of command) also failed the Brigade. They have lost twenty two men in the quest to secure the terrain of the population. They should have been pursuing and killing the enemy. If they had done so, maybe by now they would have been sitting in homes drinking chai and discussing grievances. First things first, as they say.