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.
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?
Stars and Stripes gives us a report on COP Michigan after the abandonment of the Korengal Valley.
For years, U.S. forces struggled in vain to win over the Korengal, so insular and violent that its people defeated an entire Russian division.
Finally, on April 14, the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division packed up their items and pulled the U.S. presence back to COP Michigan.
The 327’s 1st Battalion took over six weeks later.
“When they were back in the Korengal, [U.S. forces] took lots of hits in the Korengal,” said Staff Sgt. Thomas Musgrave, 25, of Columbus, Ohio. “Now, we take hits. It’s really where the buffer is, whether it’s here or in the Korengal.”
Michigan is attacked so frequently now that soldiers at the other three Pech River Valley bases, who all have heavy fights on their hands, grimace when they hear that Michigan is a visitor’s destination.
In most places in Afghanistan, soldiers who stay inside the wire, meaning behind the base walls, are usually considered on safer ground. At Michigan, “sometimes guys feel like they are safer outside the wire,” said Capt. Dakota Steedsman, commander of Company D.
Soldiers spend 80 percent of their time just defending the base or reacting to attacks from the surrounding mountain walls, a far cry from the focus on counterinsurgency and governance in other parts of the country.
Another enlightening report from Stars and Stripes comes to us concerning use of the big guns in the Pech River Valley area.
Each day in this hot summer fighting season, the thundering boom of U.S. artillery reverberates off mountain walls, shaking the Pech River Valley like a giant’s footsteps.
The big guns at Camp Blessing, the 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment’s headquarters in the river valley, fire when any of the four U.S. bases that dot the river road come under attack. They strike when soldiers on patrol are ambushed by insurgents who stalk them from the mountain ridges, or when there are reports of insurgents preparing an assault.
In most of Afghanistan, the counterinsurgency strategy of diplomacy and governance has made these 155 mm howitzer guns almost irrelevant. Most artillery and mortar men are doing infantry jobs, focused on key population centers.
Not so in Pech. This is an artillery fight here, in deeply hostile mountain terrain, and this fighting season is so extreme that there is near constant and imminent threat to soldiers holding the valley floor.
It’s obvious that there are TIC (troops in contact) in the Pech River Valley, and it’s also obvious that there are plenty of insurgents in the area. Friend Joshua Foust, with whom I seldom disagree, argued for leaving the rural, isolated areas in favor of heavy force projection in the heavily populated areas, a strategy that was and is being employed by the administration in a tip of the hat to population-centric counterinsurgency.
I argued, on the other hand (in the context of Helmand and Kahdahar), that:
It is a strange argument indeed that sends Marines to Kandahar while the insurgents in Now Zad have separated themselves off from civilians and invited a fight. So send more Marines to Kandahar to control the streets. The Taliban bullying will stop once a Regimental Combat Team arrives. This should not be too difficult to pull off. As I have said before, there are so many Marines at Camp Lejeune that some units are not even in the same barracks, and more barracks are being built. Not since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom has the Corps been so large with so many Marines garrisoned in the states. Furthermore, if they aren’t in the states they are on board amphibious assault docks doing nothing. Entire Battalions of Marine infantry – doing nothing for nine months.
But if the resources to control Kandahar are there, the argument to remove them from Helmand is not. Whether the sources for the WSJ and Joe Klein’s article are wishing for the narrative to gain traction or there is in reality a sense that Helmand is a sideshow is irrelevant. The strategists need to sense the reality that Helmand is not a sideshow, and that it is a very real line of effort in the campaign. Without hitting the insurgents where they live we will follow the Russians out of Afghanistan.
The Helmand Province is the home of the indigenous insurgency, the Afghanistan Taliban, and its capital is Lashkar Gah. Without hitting the Taliban’s recruiting grounds, fund raising and revenue development, training grounds, and logistical supply lines, the campaign cannot be won. Focusing on the population centers is a loser strategy, doomed to sure failure. Controlling the cities as some sort of prison while the roads are all controlled by Taliban is just what the Russians did, only to withdraw in ignominy. The Marines are in Helmand because just like Anbar, Iraq at the time, it is the worst place on earth.
Josh isn’t convinced, and is engaging in a sort of Socratic dialogue with his readers over this issue again, just at the moment with respect to the Kunar Province rather than Helmand. But a recent communication to me from Afghanistan reiterated what I already know: “The Taliban doesn’t dig its roots in the cities.” And again from a commenter to Joshua’s article:
I’m worried that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Afghan insurgency at all levels. It isn’t an urban based insurgency. Dense population centers are not the centers of gravity that they are/were in Iraq or other insurgent movements. Because it is a rural insurgency, counterinsurgents must need be in rural areas with the population, which by extension means that we run the risk of spreading our forces thin. There’s always risk.
If it’s no longer worth the risk to put forces in the decisive points where they need to be in order to defeat the insurgent momentum, then it’s no longer worth the risk to be in the theater of operations at all. I highly disagree with that too.
Just so. While I slightly to moderately disagree with the controlling concept of CoG for warfare, I certainly strongly disagree with the notion of the singular CoG being the population, even in counterinsurgency. This isn’t to say that the population isn’t important, or that we mustn’t work with them, or have no need of living with them, contacting them, or protecting them from insurgents. It is to say, however, that for us to win based on population approval is the same thing as occupation of land, just with a different target.
It doesn’t really matter if we occupy land or the minds of the population. In both cases we are dependent on something else to achieve success. In one case we occupy terrain. In the other, we occupy anthropological terrain, a much more volatile and much less reliable terrain. And if we abandon Korengal, they follow us to the mouth of the Pech River. If we abandon the Pech River Valley, they will follow us to the next location, and next, and next …
While Joshua also seems to disagree with what he called the “Baghdadification” of Kandahar (a tip of the hat to zones, concrete barriers, etc.), at least that focuses on corralling and killing the enemy. In Fallujah in 2007 heavy kinetic operations were employed to kill the enemy, along with concrete barriers, gated communities, biometrics, and so on to identify the enemy. If this sounds different from the popular narrative, it’s because it is. Gated communities and biometrics weren’t employed to protect the population. They were employed to locate and destroy the enemy.
Nuristan and Kunar are worth it because this is the lifeblood of the insurgency. But a strong warning goes along with this advocacy. If we are setting our troops up for the same fate as the men at Wanat or Kamdesh because of lack of CAS, lack of logistics, under-resourcing, lack of artillery and restrictive ROE, then we should withdraw them now. Counterinsurgency isn’t a game to be played out of anthropological textbooks. Real lives are at stake, and unless we are willing to commit the resources, it’s easy (and perhaps wise?) to pose the question as Josh does – is it worth it?
Last week the United States military pulled out of the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Six miles long, sparsely populated and of dubious strategic value, the Korengal was the scene of some of the most relentless fighting of the Afghan war. American forces have been there in one form or another since the summer of 2005, when Taliban fighters cornered a four-man Navy Seal team on a nearby mountain and killed three of them. They then shot down a Chinook helicopter with 16 commandos on board. All of them died.
For much of 2007 and 2008, I was an embedded reporter with a platoon of airborne infantry at a remote outpost called Restrepo, which was attacked up to four times a day. Many soldiers had creases in their uniforms from bullets that had brushed them. In one firefight a bullet hit a sandbag six inches from my head.
The psychological pressure was enormous. “I’ve only been here for four months and I can’t believe how messed up I am,” one soldier told me. “I went to the counselor and he asked if I smoked cigarettes and I told him no and he said, ‘Well, you may want to think about starting.’”
There were around 20 men at Restrepo — part of a 150-member unit called Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team — and the possibility of getting overrun by the enemy was openly discussed. The men slept next to their guns and sometimes with their boots on. More than 40 American soldiers have died in the Korengal Valley.
Now, the military has retreated, saying that the valley is too isolated and that the American presence was possibly pushing the locals to side with the Taliban. This raises some questions: If the Korengal was really worth fighting for, why would we ever pull out? Or, conversely, why did we go there in the first place? Like the soldiers at Restrepo, I was looking at the war through a tiny keyhole, and have no way to answer such overarching questions. But I do know that several important points must be acknowledged.
First, a significant proportion of enemy fighters in the Korengal were foreigners who had come to Afghanistan to wage jihad. There were Pakistani cellphone numbers painted on rocks around the valley as a recruiting tool for potential volunteers; there were Arabic graffiti urging local men to join the fight. These foreigners presumably would have fought the Americans wherever they found them; if we had avoided the Korengal they would simply have shifted the battle elsewhere. (To a better place? A worse one? I doubt even the Taliban could say.)
Furthermore, I was told that one of the reasons for establishing a base in the Korengal was to prevent militants from using the valley to stage attacks on the vastly more important Pech River Valley, immediately to the north. The Pech was a major corridor for moving men and supplies, and after American bases were established in the Korengal, attacks at Pech dropped off significantly. The Korengal may not have been important per se, but arguably the Pech was, and there may have been no way to strategically separate the two.
At the beginning of the commentary, Sabastian Junger judges Korengal of dubious strategic value. By the end of the seventh paragraph he has carefully crafted a good case for its unmatched strategic value. Similarly, I said:
… until the places where the religiously-motivated and hard core fighters are taken on head-to-head, his means of rest and recruitment denied him, and his largesse taken away from him, this counterinsurgency cannot be won. While they are unmolested in their favorite places, they can continue to send insurgents into the cities – Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul.
So why wasn’t a drone re-tasked to keep watch over the remains of the COP, and monitor the presence of enemy fighters and kill them while congregated in the COP? This is yet another missed opportunity.
On a slightly different front, the Asia Times has an article up by Brian M Downing in which it is suggested that the reason for the insurgency was the presence of U.S. troops. The solution? Withdraw, just like we have done. The culmination of this logic is to withdraw all U.S. forces from everywhere there is global or transnational insurgency, and presto – the fighters will disappear, never to cause problems anywhere.
With idiotic commentaries like this one (and others recently by anti-American Gareth Porter), the Asia Times is turning into a laughingstock, and is increasingly not worth the time, even for canvassing Taliban propaganda (which is the main reason I study this site).
Make no mistake about it. This withdrawal is harmful to U.S. interests.
It was as if the five years of almost ceaseless firefights and ambushes had been a misunderstanding — a tragic, bloody misunderstanding.
More than 40 U.S. troops have been killed, and scores more wounded, in helicopter crashes, machine-gun attacks and grenade blasts in the Korengal Valley, a jagged sliver just six miles long and a half-mile wide. The Afghan death toll has been far higher, making the Korengal some of the bloodiest ground in all of Afghanistan, according to American and Afghan officials.
In the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, the U.S. presence here came to an abrupt end.
[ … ]
For U.S. commanders, the Korengal Valley offers a hard lesson in the limits of American power and goodwill in Afghanistan. The valley’s extreme isolation, its axle-breaking terrain and its inhabitants’ suspicion of outsiders made it a perfect spot to wage an insurgency against a Western army.
U.S. troops arrived here in 2005 to flush out al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. They stayed on the theory that their presence drew insurgents away from areas where the U.S. role is more tolerated and there is a greater desire for development. The troops were, in essence, bullet magnets.
In 2010, a new set of commanders concluded that the United States had blundered into a blood feud with fierce and clannish villagers who wanted, above all, to be left alone. By this logic, subduing the Korengal wasn’t worth the cost in American blood.
There’s more than a little hyperbole in this report. There was and is no surprise in the difficulty of the Korengal Valley. This is where the Battle of Wanat occurred, but in spite of the level of difficulty, Bing West points out that:
The scale of the fighting was not the reason for withdrawing. One American soldier was killed in the Korengal in the last ten months, a loss rate less than in an average rifle company. The strongest technical rationale for the withdrawal was economy of force. The troop-to-population ratio and the logistics for air support were too onerous, regardless of the level of fighting.
The troop (and air power and logistics) commitment in Korengal didn’t comport with a population-centric counterinsurgency model General McChrystal wants to employ. When it comes to population, the Korengal Valley can’t compete with Kandahar with its half a million residents.
But is it really correct to assert that we merely stumbled into a tribal feud? Bing West continues: “… in 2007, half the fighters were locals and half were hard-core Islamic jihadists. When I was in the Korengal in 2009, the interpreters estimated a third of the voices heard over the enemy radios had Pakistani-tinged accents, a third were Pashto and a third were the local dialects.”
The Washington Post report eventually becomes interesting with a touchstone account of attempting to persuade hard core insurgents.
Moretti’s predecessors had spent countless hours trying to persuade Zalwar Khan to rally the locals to support the road project. Three years of prodding had produced virtually no progress. Moretti sensed that the real power in the valley lay with the men leading the insurgency.
He asked Khan to deliver a letter to a timber baron and insurgent leader known as Matin, who like many Afghans uses only one name. Long before Moretti’s arrival in the valley, U.S. troops had killed several of Matin’s family members in airstrikes, according to the Korengalis. In banning the timber trade, the Afghan government had deprived him of his sole means of income.
“Haji Matin hates the Americans too much,” Khan told Moretti, using an honorific that signified Matin’s completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca. “He won’t respond.”
Instead he advised Moretti to write to Nasurallah, a colleague of Matin’s. “It is our belief that you are the rightful leader of the Korengalis,” the captain wrote. “You hold the power not only among the villagers but also among the fighters. If you want the valley to prosper all you have to do is talk with us and bring your fighters down from the mountains.”
The letter offered Nasurallah two choices: development or death. “It is not our wish to kill your fellow Korengalis,” Moretti continued. “But we are good at it and will continue to do it as long as you fight us.”
Two days later, Moretti received a response. “If you surrender to the law of God then our war against you will end,” Nasurallah wrote. “If you keep fighting for man’s law then we will fight you until Doomsday.”
As I have contended before, until the places where the religiously-motivated and hard core fighters are taken on head-to-head, his means of rest and recruitment denied him, and his largesse taken away from him, this counterinsurgency cannot be won. While they are unmolested in their favorite places, they can continue to send insurgents into the cities – Kandahar, Jalalabad and Kabul.
We don’t have enough troops, and SOF raids against high value targets – which contrary to belief is becoming even more important that it was previously – won’t ameliorate the need for contact with both the enemy and the population. U.S. forces in the Korengal Valley have fought bravely, but don’t be surprised if this area becomes safe haven for not only hard core Taliban, but globalist insurgents of various ilk.
September 8, 2009, a deadly engagement occurred in the Kunar Province, in which three Marines and one Navy Corpsman perished in a well planned and coordinated ambush. I had predicted that the field grade officers responsible for the call to withhold artillery and air support had better be about their business finding new employment because their careers in the military were over. No AR 15-6 investigation would find fault with the tactical directive of a four star general. I was right.
The absence of experienced senior leaders and inadequate action by officers in a tactical operations center, including a failure to provide effective artillery and air support, contributed to the deaths of five U.S. troops and nine Afghans in a Sept. 8 battle, an official investigation has found.
Three unidentified officers from the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, N.Y., received official reprimands following the inquiry into the clash, which erupted after Afghan security forces and U.S. Army and Marine trainers were ambushed in the Ganjgal Valley, near the border with Pakistan in northeastern Kunar province …
The names of the colonels and the troops were redacted from the summary, which hasn’t been released publicly.
A McClatchy correspondent was embedded with the U.S. trainers for the operation, which was launched after elders in the village of Ganjgal publicly disavowed the Taliban and agreed to accept the authority of local Afghan officials …
The investigation found that numerous oversights contributed to the deaths of the U.S. and Afghan forces. Most involved 10th Mountain Division officers assigned to Forward Operating Base Joyce, the U.S. outpost that had tactical control of the operation.
The base commander was on leave, his deputy was deployed elsewhere and the response to the ambush by the officers who manned the tactical operations center in their absence was “inadequate and ineffective, contributing directly to the loss of life,” the report said.
Two majors, the senior officers there, “were not continually present” in the operations center. They left a captain who’d been on the overnight shift in charge of the center for more than four hours after the fighting began.
The officers’ names were redacted from the report that McClatchy obtained.
“The absence of senior leaders in the operations center with troops in contact … and their consequent lack of situational awareness and decisive action was a key failure,” it said.
Another major factor, it said, was the operations center officers’ failure to provide “effective” artillery fire on the insurgents, despite repeated requests from the battlefield.
The acting commander and “all commissioned staff officers” failed to “monitor a rapidly degenerating tactical situation,” the report said. That mistake “prevented timely supporting fires in the critical early phases of the operation and ensured that higher headquarters did not grasp the tactical situation.”
Only four artillery salvoes were fired in the first hour of the operation; three were ineffective and no more salvoes were authorized from 6:39 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., the report said.
One of the majors told the investigators that he denied further requests for fire support “for various reasons including: lack of situational awareness of locations of friendly elements; proximity to the village; garbled communications; or inaccurate or incomplete calls for fire.”
The inquiry, however, found that too many calls over a radio network “may account for some confusion in the conduct of fires, but in our judgment is not an adequate explanation for the complete lack of fires from 0639 until 1615.”
The report found that the failure to provide adequate artillery support wasn’t due to a tactical directive issued by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal that was designed to avert civilian casualties, as officers involved in the battle had believed.
“A second key failure was the lack of timely air support,” the report said.
An unidentified officer denied requests from the battlefield to send a helicopter gunship that was minutes away because the requests weren’t sent through his brigade headquarters and the aircraft was assigned to another operation, the report said.
You can read the redacted executive summary of the AR 15-6 report below. [Editorial comment: I wish Congress would pass a law against the existence of executive summaries in any situation – they tend to make readers dumber rather than smarter, and in this case, the military has learned far too much from corporate America]
It states that “our investigation did not reveal any violations of the ISAF tactical directive. [redacted] stated that he did not feel constrained by the tactical directive in employing indirect fires. However, that perception clearly existed in the minds of the ETT leaders during and after the battle.”
So that’s how it ends. During and after the battle, those under fire might claim that they said certain things over the radio, and they might claim that they heard certain responses back, but if any blame redounds to the tactical directive, we can rest assured that those under fire that day are merely confused because we know better than they do. We have read the AR 15-6 investigation, and it says that this was all just a perception on their part.
On the other hand, the McClatchy reporter, Jonathan S. Landay, was there as well, and under fire. He reported that “U.S. commanders, citing new rules to avoid civilian casualties, rejected repeated calls to unleash artillery rounds at attackers dug into the slopes and tree lines — despite being told repeatedly that they weren’t near the village.” Everything else reported that day Landay, the NCOs and field grade officers present in the fire fight was correct, including no response to requests for air support due to the unavailability of assets. Artillery was available to fire white phosphorus smoke rounds to cover their retreat.
But when it comes to the issue of refusal of artillery to fire anything but white phosphorus smoke rounds due to the rules of engagement, the Marines were just dead wrong that day. No one who refused to allow artillery support of the engagement did so as a result of McChrystal’s tactical directive. The 10th Mountain officers and NCOs “failed to monitor a rapidly degenerating (sic, degrading?) tactical situation,” but apparently had no problem supporting the Marines with white phosphorus smoke rounds that couldn’t possibly cause any collateral damage to noncombatants.
I believe everything I read in AR 15-6 investigations. And pigs fly.
There are still lessons to be learned from the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh in the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces of Afghanistan, respectively.
The Executive Summary of the AR 15-6 Investigation into the complex attack at COP Keating has been released. It begins:
On 3 October 2009, Soldiers of Bravo Troop, 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry, repelled an enemy force of 300 Anti-Afghan Forces (AAF) fighters, preserving their combat outpost and killing approximately 150 of the enemy fighters. US forces sustained eight killed in action and 22 wounded, all but three of whom returned to duty after the attack. The Soldiers distinguished themselves with conspicuous gallantry, courage, and bravery under the heavy enemy fire that surrounded them.
Combat Outpost (COP) Keating, originally established as a base for a Provincial Reconstruction Team in 2006, was located deep in a bowl in Nuristan Province, surrounded by high ground, with limited overwatch protection from nearby Observation Post (OP) Fritsche. The mission for COP Keating during the rotation of B Troop was unclear to the Soldiers of B Troop who understood counterinsurgency doctrine and the need to engage with and protect the local population. But owing to limited manpower and tactical reach off of the compound, the mission devolved into one of base defense and by mid-2009 there was no tactical or strategic value to holding the ground occupied by COP Keating. As a result, the chain of command decided to close the remote outpost as soon as it could. (bold added)
But while this summary hints at population-centric procedures, COP Keating was intended to patrol and oversee a stretch of Pakistani border to interdict the flow of insurgents coming into Afghanistan. By any account, being located on a transit route for insurgents brings legitimacy to the outpost. A command decision was made, however, to close the COP due to lack of proper manpower. This delay caused additional problems.
The delayed closing of COP Keating is important as it contributed to a mindset of imminent closure that served to impede improvements in force protection on the COP. There were inadequate measures taken by the chain of command, resulting in an attractive target for enemy fighters. Over time, and without raising undue concern within the US intelligence system, the enemy conducted numerous probing attacks, learning the tactics, techniques and procedures of B Troop, and pinpointing location of weapons systems and key infrastructure and material, such as generators and barracks.
Compounding the situation for the Soldiers on COP Keating, intelligence assessments became desensitized to enemy actions over several months. During the five months of B Troop’s deployment to COP Keating, the enemy launched approximately 47 attacks – three times the rate of attacks experienced by their predecessors. On several occasions intelligence reports in advance of an attack indicated there was a large enemy force that would strike, but the attack that followed generally consisted of a few number of fighters who used indirect and small arms fire for an engagement that averaged five to ten minutes in duration. Owing to this experience with the enemy in vicinity of COP Keating, the perception prevailed that reports of massing enemy forces were exaggerated and improbable.
Approximately eight months ago (and approximately four months before the attack on COP Keating at Kamdesh) I outlined in detail six different battles in Afghanistan where the Taliban has massed between 100 and 400 fighters, or close to half a Battalion size force. There is absolutely no reason to have assumed that massing of enemy forces was improbable. In fact, there is never again a reason to assume that in any engagement in Afghanistan. As for the intelligence failures, John Brookins notes of previous testimony on Capital Hill about Kamdesh:
Gen. Burgess explained in testimony to the committee that the military had three intelligence reports on the issue, but that the reports were among many human-source reports that had not been verified by other means, such as electronic intelligence. As a result, the reporting was not deemed “actionable” intelligence, said defense officials familiar with the testimony. We don’t trust our human intelligence people to make a call. We rely way too much on sigint more than anything. If it’s not in a signal some don’t think it’s real. It’s as if someone can’t lie over the radio or phone.
Recalling our analysis of the Wanat engagement, intelligence failed the 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company by ignoring the signs of an imminent attack by massed Taliban forces. The Vehicle Patrol Base (COP) Kahler was located in low terrain, and worse still, the insufficient force protection at Observation Post Top Side took eight of the nine who perished that fateful night (including Soldiers who attempted relief of Top Side). The video below (from approximately 1:00 to approximately 2:00) shows the terrain and natural features of the location at Wanat.
Military Historian Douglas R. Cubbison has written an extensive and smart study of the Wanat engagement, and provides some useful insight into the circumstances surrounding the battle. But as smart as his study is, I diverged from his conclusions when he pointed towards the lack of nonkinetic engagement with the population as a significant contributor to the failure at Wanat. Rather, I see this counsel being implemented at a different phase of the campaign for Eastern Afghanistan, with the problems being more directly related to combat tactics. Marine officer and commenter Slab noted of my remarks concerning terrain:
The platoon in Wanat sacrificed control of the key terrain in the area in order to locate closer to the population. This was a significant risk, and I don’t see any indication that they attempted to sufficiently mitigate that risk. I can empathize a little bit – I was the first Marine on deck at Camp Blessing back when it was still Firebase Catamount, in late 2003. I took responsibility for the camp’s security from a platoon from the 10th Mountain Div, and established a perimeter defense around it. Looking back, I don’t think I adequately controlled the key terrain around the camp. The platoon that replaced me took some steps to correct that, and I think it played a significant role when they were attacked on March 22nd of 2004. COIN theorists love to say that the population is the key terrain, but I think Wanat shows that ignoring the existing natural terrain in favor of the population is a risky proposition, especially in Afghanistan.
COP Keating at Kamdesh suffered from the same sort of force protection and terrain problems. The best video I have found of COP Keating has been removed, but another useful one can be seen below (the video is obviously being taken from Observation Post Fritsche.
This is an issue for all such Combat Outposts in this part of Afghanistan.
The military does not release figures on disciplinary actions taken against field commanders. But officials familiar with recent investigations said letters of reprimand or other disciplinary action have been recommended for officers involved in three ambushes in which U.S. troops battled Taliban forces in remote villages in 2008 and 2009. Such administrative actions can scuttle chances for promotion and end a career if they are made part of an officer’s permanent personnel file.
The investigations are a departure for the U.S. military, which until recently has been reluctant to second-guess commanders whose decisions might have played a role in the deaths of soldiers in enemy action. Disciplinary action has been more common in cases in which U.S. troops have injured or killed civilians.
In response to the recent reprimands, some military officials have argued that casualties are inevitable in war and that a culture of excessive investigations could make officers risk-averse.
“This is a war where the other side is trying, too,” said one Army officer who commanded troops in Afghanistan and requested anonymity in order to speak freely.
As many as five battlefield commanders have received letters of reprimand in the past month or have been the subject of an investigation by a general who recommended disciplinary action. A sixth commander received a less-severe formal letter of admonishment. None of the investigations or letters of reprimand has been released publicly.
Regarding COP Keating, leaving Soldiers garrisoned at an ill-defended outpost that (contrary to claims, did serve a purpose) is intended to be abandoned is a huge error in judgment and points to inept logistics and planning. Regarding COP Kahler, poor terrain, poor force protection, poor intelligence and a delay of almost 12 months (allowing the Taliban to do their own intelligence work and mass forces) again points to horrible errors in judgment. But the idea of using smaller, less defended Combat Outposts to put Soldiers and Marines more in touch with the population comes from counterinsurgency doctrine, and it is here that the failure is occurring.
When a particular location has not been subjected to intensive kinetics to place the insurgents on the defensive and reduce their influence and power, it is naive to plan population-centric tactics and procedures. We are attempting to employ the later phases of the campaign in earlier phases (contrary to the claims of the certainly still grieving David Brostrom, father of 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom). Counterinsurgency is being practiced absent a conventional mindset, leading to poor force protection. We can wish for the utmost in contact with the population. But winning hearts and minds won’t work unless and until the insurgents’ control over their hearts and minds is challenged with kinetics. The enemy is certainly telling us that when they can mass forces of nearly half a Battalion against platoon size U.S. forces. The population has no reason to side with the U.S. when the Taliban are stronger.
Four important lessons can be learned from the deadly engagements at Wanat and Kamdesh. First, terrain is of critical importance to far flung Forward Operating Bases and Combat Outposts in the rugged, mountainous regions of Afghanistan (or anywhere else there is undulating terrain). Second, the Taliban have shown the propensity and capability to mass troops to near half a Battalion size force. The proper force protection must be planned and implemented to prepare for such engagements. Third, as a corollary to the second, FOBs and COPs must be properly manned with U.S. combat forces to accomplish the mission. Thus far, U.S. command has demonstrated a predilection to underestimate proper manning of smaller outposts. Fourth, our intelligence apparatus has shown a predilection to intransigence. The response time and sensitivity of our intelligence must improve or more lives will be lost due to inept analysis.
For those who haven’t followed events in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan, as reported at the end of December, approximately nine people were killed in the Kunar Province during a raid by U.S. forces.
Nine people killed in a military action targeting militants in eastern Afghanistan apparently were members of an insurgent network, a U.S. military official told CNN on Tuesday.
“The operation was against a network of folks, who had been tracked for a while, involved in producing IEDs as well as some criminal activity,” said the official, who asked not to be named.
“As a result of the action, the best info that we have is that nine of those militants in that network were killed. That’s based on weapons and IED components at the scene,” and it appears the nine were males, the official said.
Spencer Ackerman has worked himself into a lather over these events. “What we do know is that eight adolescent and teenage boys died horrifically nine days ago. Regardless of the circumstances, this is a tragedy; depending on the circumstances, it’s possibly also a war crime.”
War crimes. It is not so frequent an occurrence that Spencer Ackerman and I agree, but in this case, I too and deeply and profoundly concerned about events in the Kunar Province. You might recall that four Marines died approximately four months ago as a result of a fire fight in which they twice requested air and artillery support, only to be twice denied that support because noncombatants might be involved.
The ISAF weighed in almost immediately and said that the McClatchy report about being denied air and indirect fire support was false. I have a reliable report that indicates to me that the ISAF report is false and the McClatchy report true. The Marines were denied air and artillery support and died as a result of that lack of support.
I have watched this issue closely for these four months, and have yet to see any indication of the release of an official report on this event. If the McClatchy report is false, it should be easy to show. On the other hand, if the CENTCOM and the ISAF have something to hide in this incident, I would expect them to behave exactly like they have. Tell us nothing.
In the mean time, both Spencer Ackerman and I are profoundly concerned about ROE issues in the Kunar Province – just for very different events. And I am still watching and waiting.
This video documentary, courtesy of the Unrestricted Warfare Analysis Center, is remarkable for its summary of various themes that can be found at The Captain’s Journal over the past three or four years, from control over roads to logistics, from the need for troops and force projection to the ineptitude of much or the ANA, from the difficulty of raising a coherent and cohesive Army in a culture that is inhospitable to such a concept to allowing the enemy control over the high terrain. Each and every one of these ideas has been rehearsed and documented ad infinitum at TCJ.
You might remember Staff Sergeant O’Brien, USMC, from an earlier video documentary showing the problems associated with startup on the ANA. It would appear that progress is halted and the problem quite protracted in nature.
Briefly following up on Taliban Ambush in Eastern Kunar Kills Four U.S. Marines, we know now that there will be an investigation of this incident reviewing whether the ROE was a contributing cause to four Marines perishing. There have been some blog posts and other discussion forums questioning the veracity of the reporting done that day by McClatchy. Christian at Defense Tech (whom I respect) says Jonathan Landay with McClatchy is “a well-respected journalist whom I’ve known for years.” I see absolutely no reason prima facie to doubt the veracity or accuracy of the report.
If the report had vacillated I would be less strident about this incident. But the report was clear. The Marines were under fire and demanded artillery not once, but twice. They were denied artillery and CAS not once, but twice – for the stated reason that the ROE didn’t allow it.
“If you are in a situation where you are under fire from the enemy… if there is any chance of creating civilian casualties or if you don’t know whether you will create civilian casualties, if you can withdraw from that situation without firing, then you must do so,” said McChrystal.
There is always a chance. Always. But here is something that has no chance of happening. No investigation will find that a tactical directive written or endorsed by a four star general was responsible for anything bad. The directive will be exonerated and the field grade officers responsible for denying artillery had better begin looking for another line of work.