Archive for the 'Nuristan' Category



Return To Nuristan – Only To Leave Again

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 5 months ago

An informative report from Reuters:

U.S. troops returned to the area in Afghanistan they call the “dark side of the moon” this week, a remote Hindu Kush region that controls several access routes to Kabul and where the coalition suffered one of its biggest reverses in the decade-long war.

This part of Nuristan province, in the mountainous far east of Afghanistan, could be the target of a planned Taliban offensive, coalition commanders say.

Carrying “speedballs” – black body bags packed with mortars, ammunition and heavy machine guns – a company of U.S. soldiers landed by helicopter on a narrow ridge and trudged up to a tiny Afghan army post overlooking icy peaks and plunging river valleys, as hostile as breathtaking.

With U.S. intelligence pointing to a possible attack by as many as 1,800 Taliban, the soldiers set up weapons over a backyard-sized square, while Afghan army soldiers in camouflage and plastic sandals pointed out fires and torchlight in the distance in the chill night air.

“We’ll get some eyes overhead to check it out. If it’s Taliban, we’ll get a plane up in the morning and drop a bomb on it,” said U.S. Major Jared Bordwell as some of his men from the 1-12 Infantry Regiment dropped down in the dust and tried to get some sleep.

American soldiers withdrew from Nuristan, or the “land of light”, after around 300 insurgents overran an isolated combat outpost near Kamdesh village – below where Bordwell’s men were huddled – on October 3, 2009, killing eight soldiers and wounding 22.

The former U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, decided in 2010 to give up remote combat outposts and shift American troops to protect larger population centers.

But it was through here that the Taliban shifted men and weapons for a suicide assault on Kabul’s diplomatic and government quarter in April, circling beyond the reach of U.S. and Afghan army positions to the south in neighboring Kunar province, coalition commanders say.

Stanley McChrystal managed the campaign for just over one year, what we should refer to as “the lost months.”  During this time the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, and all along the Hindu Kush, were left to the Taliban and allied fighters to retrain, regroup, recruit, and raise support, while he played population-centric counterinsurgency in the cities.  The attack on Kabul is minor and had little effect on the city.  And that specific attack will be small compared to the effect these provinces will have on Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves.  Another way of saying this is that the media using the Kabul attack as some sort of benchmark is both mistaken and frightening.  It will get much worse.  Continuing:

With Nuristan now a Taliban staging post and haven, the province is a vital pocket for U.S. forces based in Kunar, with only a few hundred Afghan soldiers and police over an area of 5,800 square km.

“Nuristan remains for me a challenge, a black hole. My line in the sand stops at the Kunar and Nuristan borders,” said Lt-Colonel Scott Green, a wiry former Ranger who oversees Nuristan.

But he will not be in the region for long – NATO troops are due to be withdrawn from north Kunar by October. Green and his men, who are based in Kunar and in Nuristan temporarily, will be among those withdrawn.

So his reduced-strength 1st battalion has to counter insurgents while simultaneously building Afghan capability and “retrograding” – closing up U.S. bases – all within months.

It is one of the most hostile areas in war-torn Afghanistan in a landscape that is equally hostile. Taliban and al Qaeda fighters pass through easily, from either Pakistan or from bases located out of easy NATO reach inside a 4 km-wide border buffer zone.

As many as 2,500 Taliban are thought to be in the province, controlling most districts, and around 300 are foreign, mostly Pakistanis or Chechens, Afghan commanders say.

The insurgents control what few roads there are and have three ways to move deeper into Afghanistan, through either the Kunar, Waygal or Parun valleys, which then wind down into provinces nearer to Kabul.

It is recognized that the surge was under-resourced.  It is recognized that the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces are currently in trouble due to neglect.  It is recognized that they may not survive as nominally Afghan-controlled provinces without U.S. troops.  So U.S. troops are back – and plan to leave within about four months.

This is yet another sad tale of troops who know the value of the Hindu Kush, waning support for the campaign back home, and non-existent (or never-existent) support from the administration to properly prosecute this campaign.

Later in the report, an Afghan militia member shows up to inform them that the locals were very worried about the U.S. troop withdrawal.  Of course they are.  Command attempts to paint a happy face on the overall picture by saying that Kunar may in fact be okay.

Just a happy face couched in a sad report.

The Kagan’s And The Strategy For Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
2 years, 7 months ago

From The Washington Times:

Afghanistan’s harsh and isolated Korengal Valley two years ago this month served as the setting for an unlikely U.S. military maneuver — a retreat.

The Army evacuated a network of hilltop platoon outposts, left them to the Taliban and started a war strategy devised by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan in 2010.

[ ... ]

Today, the failed Korengal experiment is a factor in a new way of conducting missions in the east, which includes Kunar and 13 other provinces, and a 450-mile-long border with terrorist-infested Pakistan. The military calls it a “refocus” on finding and hitting the enemy, with less reliance on static valley outposts.

[ ... ]

Nearly nine years into the war, the military had to acknowledge a big mistake.

“So what the commanders did, they took a very hard look at the east, with the help of the Kagans, who analyzed the terrain and the enemy to a level of detail that maybe had not been done in the past,” Gen. Keane said.

The Kagans are Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, a husband-and-wife analytical team who played a major role in developing and selling the Iraq surge.

In 2010, the U.S. command invited them to Afghanistan as an outside “red team” to tell the generals how operations could be improved.

Mr. Kagan, a military historian who taught at West Point, is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mrs. Kagan, who also taught at West Point, is president of the Institute for the Study of War.

The Kagans spent months in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. They traveled throughout the battle space to study the enemy and the tactics to kill them.

As the Kagans gave their advice, U.S. troops adapted.

“They refocused on the populated areas, which has meant coming out of some of the valleys,” Mrs. Kagan told The Times. “Troops rearranged so that they were massed in the key terrain in population areas in order to interact with the population, protect that population and really help abrogate the enemy by seeing to it they could not engage in the same intimidation campaigns that they were engaged in populated areas.”

Three main intelligence/strike targets emerged: “mobility corridors” through which the Taliban and allied Haqqani Network fighters moved; “support zones,” or safe havens, where the enemy planned and rested; and the areas around possible enemy targets.

“The Kagans did a better job in analyzing which were the ones the enemy was using and which ones were more important,” Gen. Keane said.

And what about the valleys such as Korengal?

“They are using strike forces and basically planned operations on occasion to go back into the valleys and remove pockets of the enemies when they grow sufficient to warrant military attention,” Mrs. Kagan said. “That is really what has changed in operating in the northern Kabul area.”

Mrs. Kagan said the operations of Army Col. Andrew Poppas, who led Task Force Bastogne last year, stand as a good example. He used “creative ways to mass forces” to go after the Taliban, she said.

Nine months into his mission, Col. Poppas talked to the Pentagon press corps from a base in Jalalabad. He gave three examples of combined strikes on identified safe havens that took territory away from the Taliban.

In Operation Bulldog Bite in Kunar’s Pech River Valley, “we successfully reduced the amount of insurgent attacks on the local populace and proved wrong the entire mystique that there were safe havens [for] the enemy,” he said. “We worked through each of the separate valleys, identifying, targeting the enemy network, predominately Taliban.”

Analysis & Commentary

Sounds nice, no?  “Mobility corridors,” and “creative ways to mass forces”?  The only problem is that despite what General Keane is saying, it hasn’t worked, and won’t work.  Let’s begin with Highway 1, the most significant transportation and logistics corridor in Afghanistan, running between Kabul and Kandahar, and then on to other cities as the so-called “ring road.”  Greg Jaffe recently authored a good piece at The Washington Post on this very road.  The entire report is well worth the study time, but after a recent IED attack on Highway 1, U.S. forces wanted to know why a local farmer didn’t report the IED.  The farmer’s reply is telling: “The Taliban were everywhere, including the Afghan army, the farmer replied. “There is no one I can trust,” he insisted.

On to RC South, which is supposed to be so much better off than RC East.  The Marines are frustrated with the constant release of insurgents from prison, the changing strategies, and so much more.  This report is disheartening.

I have seen courageous American soldiers get increasingly frustrated and cynical about the war. Last summer a Marine colonel in southern Afghanistan told me there was low morale among the troops. He said, “On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I’m going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down.’ That’s the feeling of my fellow soldiers.” The marine officer said, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

As for Keane’s claims for the success of the Kagan’s plans in RC East, there is near panic among Afghans in the Nuristan Province.

Local Afghan officials have called for a military intervention in the country’s northeast after scores of suspected Pakistani Taliban fighters overran several districts in Nuristan, a remote province bordering Pakistan.

Ghulamullah Nuristani, the security chief in Nuristan, says the militants captured the Kamdesh and Bargmatal districts of Nuristan two weeks ago and have torched dozens of homes and threatened to kill local villagers who work for the Afghan government.

Nuristani has called on NATO and the Afghan government to intervene, insisting that the small contingent of local police is powerless to stop the militants in Nuristan, from where U.S. forces withdrew in 2009.

“If anybody opposes them, the insurgents burn their homes and threaten to kill them. I have witnessed several houses being burned and seen many of the inhabitants beaten,” Nuristani says. “Until the government intervenes, we don’t have the resources [to fight back]. We can’t do it alone.”

It’s not clear where the militants are from. Nuristani says they are members of the Pakistani Taliban, who control the Pakistani side of the border alongside Al-Qaeda operatives and fighters from the Hizb-e Islami group headed by notorious former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Aziz Rahman, a village elder in Kamdesh, describes the militants as armed and wearing black clothing. He says the militants have set up a shadow government, opening local offices and collecting taxes from local residents.

“Kamdesh is under the control of the Taliban. The men in black clothing are here. They have opened a Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” Rahman says. “They are teaching religious material and are telling people to do the right things. If people violate the rules, then they get punished.”

[ ... ]

Mawlawi Ahmadullah Moahad, a member of parliament from Nuristan, issued a warning to the government on the deteriorating situation in Nuristan when he addressed parliament on March 24.

Moahad told parliament that the militants had crossed the border from Pakistan and had evicted hundreds of villagers from their homes and replaced them with families from the Pakistani town of Chitral, which is across the border in the Bajaur tribal agency.

It’s just as I had forecast for the Pech River Valley and Hindu Kush once U.S. troops left.  A better chance to kill the trouble-makers in their own safe haven, we will never have.  But we chose to implement population-centric counterinsurgency and withdraw to the cities, and then to top it all off, we decreased troop levels.  It’s a sad, sad story that regular readers have seen well documented on the pages of The Captain’s Journal.

But what we see above is the fruit of our strategy.  The chickens are coming home to roost.  The people of Nuristan are in a panic, the Marines are fed up with the strategy, the farmers in the Kandahar Province are afraid of the Taliban, and just to make sure that you understand how parents and loved ones feel about the engagement, read the comments about the report from Nuristan when the author got the date for the battle at Kamdesh wrong.

by: Vanessa Adelson from: USA

March 29, 2012 23:59
Please get your facts straight. COP Keating was attacked in October 2009, not 2008. I should know. My son was killed during that attack. 300 Taliban attacked our small COP of about 50 soldiers. NOT ONE person from the village of Kamdesh let our COP know about the imminent attack. Some ANA were killed that day. Others turned their guns and attacked our soldiers. Others ran and hid. Let them ROT! Oh yeah, America….Pakistan is not a nation that should be considered our friend. Where do you think the Taliban came from that attacked my son and his buddies. Let’s just get the hell out of that country.

by: Dave from: Ft drum

March 30, 2012 16:52
Justice served. Keating was attacked repeatedly during 2008 as well and the first indicator of an attack was always the locals not showing up for work. No warnings. Screw em. My CO, Capt Yellescas died there in october 2008, a week after telling the local shura that America would abandon them to the Taliban if they didn’t start helping.

by: Cynthia Woodard from: Pa

March 30, 2012 00:23
The Battle of Kemdash was Oct 03, 09, not 08. My son was one of the 8 that were killed that day. Those people didn’t warn the soldiers that they were going to be attacked by 300+ insurgens. NOW they cry for our help. I say NO NO NO.

by: Knighthawk from: USA

March 30, 2012 00:44

All due respect – tough doo-doo. Too little too late we’re out of there soon and these people are screwed by their own failures to act when they had a chance, and their not the only area with the same story. The time for such calls were years ago but most of these villagers didn’t want to risk being involved then, or in many cases they did far worse by aiding the enemy (the very same people they are now complaining about) when US\NATO et all actually did try to secure their areas but this same population wouldn’t lift much of a finger to help themselves.

The fact they are crying foul now is pretty rich, but typical of the general afghan mentality.

Not a lot of love going around.  And when you have lost morale among the Marines due to failed strategy and the parents and loved ones of men who have suffered are angry and resentful, you know that support for the campaign has evaporated.

It didn’t have to be this way, but we pretended that minimal troops and nation-building would work in Afghanistan.  It’s been a costly pretension.

Nuristan, Kunar, Pakistan and the Taliban: The Nexus

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 3 months ago

We’ve covered the Taliban strategy of using Nuristan as a safe haven, and a base from which to launch attacks against the government of Afghanistan.  Kunar is adjacent to Nuristan, and there may as well not be a border between provinces.  As stated by one Taliban commander, “Trouble here can break the central government,” said Qari Ziaur Rahman, a regional commander for the Taliban who is also a leader of the Punjab-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in a 2008 interview. “Whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Kunar.”  For this reason I have insisted on aggressive U.S. troop presence and kinetic operations in both the Kunar and Nuristan provinces, and all along the Pech River Valley.

Thankfully, Tim Lynch of Free Range International could not completely desist from writing about Afghanistan, and he educates us with yet another good post on the current situation in Helmand.

A few months back as they were pushing south, the Marines would run into situations that, for guys like them, are a dream come true.  An ANP commander pointed out a village where his men have hit 3 IEDs in as many weeks and each time the villagers poured out with AK’s to start a firefight.  So, a few nights later the Marines blow a controlled det on the road to simulate an IED hit and when the villains rushed out with their flame sticks they met what we lovingly call the ‘L shaped ambush’.  No doubt (knowing the Lava Dogs) the villains also met Mr. Claymore, were introduced to the proper use of a machine gun section, and were treated to a 40mm grenade shower from those new and super deadly  M32’s.  Bad day.  Not many survived that textbook lesson on the proper use of an ambush squad, but those days are long gone.  Rarely now will somebody shoot at the Marines in southern Helmand, and when they do, it is from so far away that it is hard to notice anybody is even shooting at you.

So the Taliban has returned to doing what guerrillas do when they suck so bad at regular fighting – they rely on the indiscriminate use of  IED’s to fight.  And as everybody in the world (except President Karzai) knows, these IED’s kill and maim vast numbers of innocent Afghans, yet rarely inflict casualties on ISAF units.

Because of a long, flat narrow area, where the population is confined mostly to strips of land in close proximity to the Helmand River and its main canals, the Marines are able to spread out into COP’s (combat outposts) PB’s (Patrol Bases) and OP’s (observation posts) covering the entire AO.  These positions are manned by junior NCO’s and in one PB the senior Marine was a Lance Corporal.   They move positions frequently;  every time the Marines set up in a new one of any size,  local families immediately move as close to the positions as they are allowed and start building mud huts. For them a small band of Marines equals security and the implicit trust shown by this pattern of behavior is something in which the Marines rightly take great pride.

Read Tim’s entire post.  More forces are needed in order to maintain security, but as for the direct firefights, it’s over with the Taliban in Helmand.  They cannot match the U.S. Marines.  The Marines are currently needed elsewhere, specifically, Kunar and Nuristan.

The Taliban are still active there, and are still pursuing their strategy.

“Bullets rained on our house which was close to the site of the clash,” one resident told me. “We were so terrified that we didn’t step out of our house until the next day.”

Another resident said by launching an attack in Mehtar Lam, the insurgents wanted to show that they can still strike at will in any of the seven locations handed over by Nato to Afghan security forces.

In the past month insurgents have killed a judge, a prison guard and a local official in this strategic city known as the gateway to Kabul.

Security handovers like the one in Mehtar Lam are seen as the first step in a lengthy process ultimately aimed to put the Afghan army and police in control of their country by 2014, the deadline for complete withdrawal of Western forces from combat operations.

But judging by developments in Mehtar Lam, the road to transition appears to be far from smooth.

“People live in fear,” said Shah Gul, a barber. “People think that if the security forces can’t protect themselves, how will they protect the people?’”

Insurgents – mainly in the shape of the Taliban or the Hizb-e-Islami militia of former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – are active in many districts of this mountainous province.

Laghman borders the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Kunar.

“This allows insurgents to carry out attacks in Laghman and then escape to Nuristan or Kunar,” said an Afghan intelligence officer.

“By targeting cities handed over to Afghans, the insurgents and their foreign backers intend to prove that Afghan security forces are not capable of protecting their people.”

Just like I predicted.  But in a twist that leverages this lawless area as the trouble-spot of the world, Pakistan is directly involved.

The Pakistani spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), with the help of Taliban, has revived the Al-Huda outfit of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar to target Indians in Afghanistan.

As many as 350 persons have been trained so far particularly to target Indian business interests and development works being executed in the war-torn country.

India’s premier external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), recently reported the development to the Centre. Following the RAW report, security of Indian assets has been beefed up with a view to thwarting any misadventure by the ISI-backed militia.

According to the report, the ISI will provide funds, training and shelter besides intelligence on movement of Indians to the trained recruits of Al-Huda for anti-India operations.

Two training camps were organised recently by the ISI to train the recruits in southern Afghanistan at Chunar and mountainous regions of Nuristan in Afghanistan on Pakistan border, intelligence sources said.

Both — Chunar and Nuristan — are areas dominated by the Hikmatyar group and the NATO forces suffered heavy reverses in the recent past while carrying out operations in these regions. The Hikmatyar group is known for its mastery in ramming explosive-laden vehicles on targetted assets and executing landmine attacks.

India is funding over 300 developmental projects in Afghanistan, including construction of roads, bridges, hospitals, Government office complexes and also the Parliament building of that country. India is the biggest donor country extending aid in revival of the war-torn nation pledging a budget of over $2 billion.

Besides the construction engineers, supporting staff and the personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police guarding the work sites of the ongoing development projects there, the Indian assets in that country also include as many as 24 consulates across Afghanistan and the Indian embassy in Kabul.

Following the inputs, the Indian embassy and the consulates there have been alerted and a security audit of the installations are being carried out to further tighten the security measures, particularly the outer periphery of the office complexes so that any fidayeen attack or blast of an explosive-laden vehicle is checked at a reasonable distance from the perimeter of the buildings, the sources added.

The Taliban had attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul on October 8, 2009 killing 17 persons and injuring 63 others. The Taliban had in the past also targetted work sites maintained by the Indian companies.

The ISI move comes following reverses at the hands of the Americans amid talk of withdrawal of the US forces from the war-ravaged country.

The Pakistani sickness and obsession with India, its own importance in the world, and having access to things (e.g., nuclear weapons, the Taliban, etc.) way beyond their ability to control is working directly against the stability of Afghanistan, the security of U.S. troops, and in fact, the security and stability of the entire region.

Marines to Kunar.  It’s the move that should be made, and sooner rather than later.  If we need more Marines to Helmand in order to pull this off, then so be it.  Someone tell the Marine Corps Commandant to stop playing Iwo Jima, as if we are ever going to conduct a large scale amphibious assault against a near peer state again.  Without chasing and killing the Taliban in his safe haven, the campaign will be lost.

The Taliban Strategy of Nuristan

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 5 months ago

The Iowa Army National Guard, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, recently saw significant kinetic operations in the Nuristan Province.

A tale of courage under fire has been received out of Afghanistan involving soldiers of the Waterloo-headquartered Iowa Army National Guard battalion.

Members of the Guard’s 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment – the “Ironman Battalion” – lived up to their nickname in the recapture of the Afghan town of Do Ab, Nuristan province, in heavy fighting with entrenched Taliban insurgents on May 25.

After being pinned down for more than an hour by unrelenting mortar and machine gun fire in an exposed helicopter landing zone, the soldiers fought their way to a livestock compound that offered a defensible position.

They provided cover fire for a second wave mainly made up of friendly Afghan forces. Supported by assault helicopters and Air Force fighter jets, they drove off the enemy and retook Do Ab, a governmental center similar to a county seat, according to soldiers’ accounts.

The 60-soldier force – 42 “Ironmen” and 18 Afghan nationals – sustained no casualties while killing more than 100 Taliban.

While the 1/133rd, part of the 34th “Red Bull” infantry division, has seen combat throughout its eight months in Afghanistan, the May 25 operation was the heaviest fighting experienced to date.

It was one of the “most significant engagements the Red Bull has been involved in since World War II,” Guard spokesman Maj. Mike Wunn in Afghanistan said.

“We had many points through the day where luck was on our side. Our guys did an outstanding job, which led to all of us coming home,” added 1/133rd battalion commander Lt. Col. Steven Kremer of Cherokee.

“It’s just amazing to me, it’s unbelievable everyone came out,” Kremer said.

The soldiers were members of the 1/133rd’s headquarters and headquarter company, as well as Charlie Company, and the battalion mortar and sniper teams. The sniper team was headed by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Buhr of Waverly.

Intelligence reports indicated the reinforced Taliban had seized Do Ab. The 1/133rd’s mission, Kremer said, was to assess the enemy strength and determine how large a force would be needed to deal with the insurgents. The Guardsmen flew in on two Chinook helicopters in a fairly confined landing zone, the only flat area in the rough terrain around Do Ab.

They discovered the enemy strength soon after landing. Guard 1st Lt. Justin Foote of New Hartford, formerly of Evansdale, 1/133rd reconnaissance platoon leader, said an air burst from an enemy rocket-propelled grenade exploded over one of the Chinooks as it took off, and the fight was on.

“The whole (landing zone) erupted into fire,” Foote said. “From every point of high ground, from every piece of defensible fighting position the enemy were in, it pretty much rained down – all types of weapons, small arms fire, machine gun fire, RPG fire and enemy mortar rounds.”

Soldiers would take cover behind rocks for protection, only to be subjected to fire from another angle. “You were taking fire from pretty much every direction,” Foote said.

The experienced Taliban were dug in up to their chests in the rocky fortifications. The two Chinooks had landed 300 meters apart, under such withering fire it took the Ironmen an hour to consolidate their divided force.

Noncommissioned officers moved back and forth in the open, exposed to enemy fire, to coordinate their soldiers’ efforts. But the Ironmen, at this point in their deployment, know their jobs well in such situations, said Maj. Aaron Baugher of Ankeny, senior ground force commander during the operation, and Sgt. Edward Kane of Portland, Ore., an interstate transfer soldier serving with the 1/133rd.

The Ironmen mortar and sniper squads and supporting Black Hawk assault helicopters laid down suppressing fire on the north side of the landing zone. That allowed the entire force to finally move to defensible positions. The Black Hawks also sustained heavy damage from the Taliban fire, but survived the fight.

The force leaders on the ground decided to head for the shelter of the compound of defensible livestock buildings rather than take a narrow and exposed road directly into Do Ab, especially after a friendly Afghan police force the Guardsmen were to meet up with did not show.

With the assistance of Air Force personnel, the soldiers called in F-15 and F-16 fighters which dropped 500-pound bombs on the enemy positions – some within 200 meters of their own. Apache helicopter gunships also arrived to help take out the Taliban positions.

Read the rest of the report at the WCF Courier.  This engagement isn’t surprising, given that the Taliban had stated that their focus would be on this area of operations.

… history is not on NATO’s side. The 1978 uprising by landowners and clerics, which led to civil war, the virtual collapse of the government and ultimately the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, began in eastern Nuristan and spread quickly to Kunar. “Trouble here can break the central government,” said Qari Ziaur Rahman, a regional commander for the Taliban who is also a leader of the Punjab-based militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad, in a 2008 interview. “Whoever has been defeated in Afghanistan, his defeat began from Kunar.” Whether the Taliban and their allies can pull off a successful assault on Asadabad is questionable, but there seems little doubt they’ll try. For its part, NATO has redeployed troops to the valley linking Waygal with Asadabad in what looks like an attempt to lock the door.

Not only in Nuristan, but Kunar as well.  In fact, the whole Pech River Valley and throughout the Hindu Kush is important as a staging area for enemy fighters.  And rather than focus only on the population centers, we seem to be expending some effort on chasing the enemy.

It’s almost as if someone had previously pointed out that we need to do something like this.

Second Guessing the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 9 months ago

There are still lessons to be learned from the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh in the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces of Afghanistan, respectively.

Nuristan

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.

COP_Michigan

Combat Outpost Michigan, Kunar Province, Afghanistan

The full AR 15-6 apparently found that a series of command errors occurred at COP Keating.  There is a larger push to hold field grade officers accountable for these kinds of tactical errors.

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.

Prior:

Systemic Defense Intelligence Failures

Taliban Tactics: Massing of Troops

Kamdesh: The Importance of Terrain

Attack at Kamdesh, Nuristan

Wanat Video 2

Wanat Video

The Battle of Wanat, Massing of Troops and Attacks in Nuristan

The Contribution of the Afghan National Army in the Battle of Wanat

Investigating the Battle of Wanat

Analysis of the Battle of Wanat

Attack at Kamdesh, Nuristan

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 1 month ago

Following up on our coverage and commenting on recent attacks in Nuristan, Afghanistan, and the consequent deaths of eight U.S. Soldiers, ABC News has an interesting account.

The remote base in northern Afghanistan where eight U.S. soldiers were killed this weekend in a deadly battle was well-known inside the military as extremely vulnerable to attack since the day it opened in 2006, according to U.S. soldiers and government officials familiar with the area.

When a reporter visited the base a few months after it opened, soldiers stationed in Kamdesh complained the base’s location low in a valley made most missions in the area difficult.

“We’re primarily sitting ducks,” said one soldier at the time.

Known as Camp Keating, the outpost was “not meant for engagements,” said one senior State Department official assigned to Afghanistan, and brings “a sad and terrible conclusion” to a three-year effort to secure roads and connect the Nuristan province to the central government in Kabul …

The base, located less than 10 miles from the Pakistan border and nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains, was attacked almost every day for the first two months it was opened, hit by a constant stream of rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

By the third or fourth month of the base’s existence, resupply had been limited to nighttime helicopter flights because the daytime left helicopters and road convoys too exposed to insurgent attacks. That remained true through the weekend.

The base had several near-misses with enemy fire over the years. In 2006, all daytime helicopter flights landing at the valley floor were cancelled when an American Blackhawk was nearly hit with an incoming rocket as it was taking off. After the incident, helicopters were banned from landing anywhere but an observation post some three hours’ walk above the base on a nearby ridgeline. Even then, helicopters filled with troops or equipment were rushed during offloading, as pilots were keen to take off before drawing hostile fire.

And like many other remote and rural parts of Afghanistan, the local population had begun souring on the American presence after airstrikes had hit civilians in the neighboring villages.

The initial military goal was to establish the base as a one of 13 Provincial Reconstruction Teams set up throughout Afghanistan to help with reconstruction projects, civil affairs and basic safety for the local population. Within a year, the PRT had been moved to a safer, more hospitable base in the western section of the province.

Camp Keating, along with two other outposts near the border, was then intended to help patrol and oversee the stretch of the Pakistan border. U.S. officials were concerned that the nearby mountain passes were being used by militants to infiltrate Afghanistan and set up for attacks.

American officials were often divided over whether the U.S. effort in the mountainous region could be sustained.

According to an American who has consulted with U.S. forces on their deployment into Nuristan, the effort in the north can only be seen as a failure.

“What have we done there in the last three, four years,” he said. “We didn’t gain anything. We weren’t able to open the road up or make the area secure.

Despite the inherent physical vulnerabilities of Camp Keating, until this weekend, the base had suffered no casualties from hostile fire. The base itself was named after Lieutenant Benjamin Keating, who was killed in vehicle accident nearby in Nov. 2006.

But on Saturday, a force of as many as 300 insurgents attacked the vulnerable base in what the military has termed a “complex” attack that began in a neighboring village mosque. According to an Afghan translator for American forces in Nuristan, the village mosque was used to store the weapons and ammunition used in the attack. The rules of engagement generally prevent U.S. forces from searching or attacking Afghan mosques.

According to the Afghan translator, most of the insurgents were local. Eastern Nuristan has long been filled by the insurgent group led by former mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, called Hezb-e-Islami. U.S. officials believe that Hekmatyar is hiding in Pakistan, and helps coordinate insurgent attacks throughout eastern Afghanistan.

One U.S. military official told ABC News that they believe the insurgents started a fire as they began to attack. “They burned the base down,” said the official.

The smoke from the fire initially limited the air support U.S. soldiers requested, according to a military official. The fighting lasted “throughout the day” as there were signs that the insurgents were able to breach the base before being “repelled.” As insurgents fired from three or four different locations above the base, they also maneuvered and over took one of the observation posts on higher ground, taking out a post meant to protect Camp Keating from enemy fire.

The outpost at its peak was home to roughly 100 U.S. soldiers and a few dozen Afghans from both the national army and police force. According to reports, the base was down to half that size when the attack came over the weekend.

Patrols in the neighboring villages and mountaintops were often limited by the lack of U.S. forces, and forced commanding officers to stay on base for fear of being over-run while on patrol.

“American officials were often divided over whether the U.S. effort in the mountainous region could be sustained.”  This was wasted effort on a juvenile disagreement, and they should have been reading The Captain’s Journal.  The answer was and remains simple.  Just as we have noted in our analysis of the Battle of Wanat, this has all of the markings of lack of force projection: inability to go on patrol for fear of being overrun, lack of logistics because of the danger to helicopters, no roads open to NATO traffic, bad location regarding the terrain because of lack of better choices, inability to connect with the population because of the necessity to focus on survival, and massing of enemy forces to near half-Battalion size.

From Jelawur, Afghanistan there is a similar account concerning lack of forces from a Stryker Battalion.

So far, the Army mission has been an uneasy mix of trying to woo elders with offers of generators, roads and other improvements while fighting a nasty war with an often-unseen enemy.

Bravo Company arrived in Afghanistan with 24 Strykers, the first of the eight-wheeled combat vehicles outfitted with high-tech communications and surveillance gear to arrive in Afghanistan. A third of the vehicles are now out of service due to bomb attacks or maintenance …

The Taliban presence is strong enough in some areas that children are afraid to go to school.

“If we send our children to school during the day, then the Taliban will come kill the parents at night,” said one elder in a meeting with Bravo Company soldiers in the village of Adirah.

The company had 152 soldiers when it arrived, more than a dozen short of its authorized strength. Since then, some platoons have been depleted by injuries.

“I don’t have enough troops for everything they want me to do here,” said Capt. Jamie Pope, the company commander …

The problems aren’t as severe as they are in Nuristan, but lack of forces is crippling the counterinsurgency effort all over Afghanistan.  Protecting the population as a strategy is an absurd pipe dream without the necessary forces in places to do the work.  Force projection is a necessary precondition for the other aspects of counterinsurgency.  Counterinsurgency requires troops.

The Battle of Wanat, Massing of Troops and Attacks in Nuristan

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 1 month ago

After the Army’s AR 15-6 investigation, General Petraeus has ordered a new investigation of the Battle of Wanat, in what may be deemed a victory for the fathers of both 1st Lt. Jonathan Brostrom and Private Gunnar Zwilling who had requested such an investigation.

The increased attention brought to bear on the Battle of Wanat comes partially as a result of an unpublished study by an Army Historian at the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth named Douglas R. Cubbison which I have reviewed as I stated two months ago.

I found that Mr. Cubbison did a remarkably able job of laying out the framework, historical and military, for the engagement, and made careful use of the facts to weave a narrative together of the event and things that lead to it.  Where I found Mr. Cubbison’s study lacking was his focus on heavy kinetics and the lack of meetings with elders.  In other words, the failure at Wanat had to do with the failure to implement proper counterinsurgency, i.e., winning hearts and minds, or so much of his study concluded.

To be sure, Mr. Cubbison does outline a number of tactical failures, but as I stated two months ago, in my humble opinion Mr. Cubbison’s analysis goes awry when tackling the elements of population-centric counterinsurgency.  Colonel William B. Ostlund documents the kinetic engagements during the deployment in his analysis of lessons learned.

Ultimately, the task force was involved in 1,100 enemy contacts. Those engagements required:
●5,400 fire missions (expending 36,500 rounds).
●3,800 aerial deliveries (bombs and gun runs).
●23 Javelin anti-tank missiles.
●108 TOW missiles.
●Hundreds of grenades thrown.
The enemy routinely engaged at the maximum effective
range, but on at least five occasions were close enough to touch Americans. Twenty-six members of Task Force Rock gave their lives in Kunar Province. Other noteworthy Soldier statistics include:
●143 wounded.
●Three nominated for the Medal of Honor.
●Two nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross (one awarded by the time of this publication).
●25 Silver Stars awarded.
●90 Bronze Star Medals with Valor awarded.
●Over 300 Army Commendation Medals with Valor awarded.

Mr. Cubbison reviews this data and remarks that:

“TF Rock was unable to provide commensurate statistics for Shuras conducted, VETCAPS and MEDCAPS performed, quantities of Humanitarian Supplies distributed, economic development projects initiated, schools constructed, or similar economic, political and diplomatic initiatives.”

Later, he also concludes that population-centric counterinsurgency is not consistent with such heavy kinetics.  I have always attempted to be open, honest and clear with my readers on this issue.  I reject the single center of gravity focus of the Clausewitz school and favor the notion of lines of effort in any counterinsurgency campaign.  There is absolutely no reason to place protecting the population over against killing the enemy.  Moreover, many COIN campaigns can be more neatly placed into phases, with heavier kinetics dominating the initial stages and more population-centric tactics dominating the subsequent stages.

The Washington Post has a recent article that, while initially pointing to under-resourcing of the efforts in the smaller, less population-heavy provinces, nonetheless steps on the same terrain as the Cubbison study.

Before Brostrom moved to Wanat, he went home on leave to see his parents in Hawaii, where they had settled after his father retired from the Army. One evening, he showed his father videos from Afghanistan. Most of the clips were of Brostrom and his troops under fire at the Bella outpost.

In one video, Brostrom’s battalion fired artillery and white phosphorus, an incendiary weapon, at a distant campfire in the mountains where it had killed insurgents earlier that day. Someone had come to collect the bodies. The soldiers were determined to kill them.

“Here comes a mighty big explosion on this little candlelight ceremony that the Taliban is having for their buddies that died there earlier,” one of the soldiers says on the video. “This is going to be glorious. It is going to be a bloodbath.”

A few seconds later, the mountainside exploded with fire, and the soldiers let up a raucous cheer.

Human rights groups have criticized the United States for employing white phosphorus to kill enemy fighters, but this type of use is permitted under military rules. The elder Brostrom weighed his words carefully before he spoke. “How do you know those people dragging the bodies away weren’t villagers coming to get their relatives?” he asked.

“They are all [expletive] Taliban up there,” the son replied.

The father continued to press his doubts. The son maintained that the hard-nosed approach was the only thing keeping him alive in a hopeless corner of Afghanistan. Finally, the young lieutenant snapped. “You don’t understand,” he said.

“You’re right, son. I don’t,” the father replied. “I don’t understand it. But I am worried. I am really worried.”

[ ... ]

A few days after the platoon arrived, a Wanat village elder gave Brostrom a list of Afghans who had been killed in a helicopter attack the previous week. The dead included insurgents but also several local medical personnel who had worked closely with U.S. soldiers. The incident had infuriated people throughout the valley.

On July 13, their fifth day at the Wanat base, Brostrom and Dzwik ordered all of the soldiers to rise at 3:30 a.m. and man their fighting positions. In Afghanistan, the hours just before dawn are typically the most deadly.

Shortly after 4 a.m., an estimated 200 insurgents let loose a torrent of rocket-propelled-grenade fire, destroying the base’s anti-tank missile system and its mortar tubes. Then they trained their guns on the observation post.

The Washington Post makes it seem as if the ham handedness of the U.S. efforts was at least a contributing cause of the event.  But there are many things that this account doesn’t tell us.  For instance, the town elders had tried to tell the U.S. troops for months that a large scale attack was imminent, and had in fact requested that the Army, which had tried for eleven months to get jirga approval for Vehicle Patrol Base Wanat, simply ignore the highly political inner workings of the jirga and put up the base without approval.

Eleven months delay allowed the Taliban to mass troops, and this plus the horrible terrain of Observation Post Top Side allowed the Taliban to successfully attack with some 300 fighters – near half Battalion size force.  Whether the people of the valley were infuriated or not had nothing to do with the massing of Taliban forces, the fact that the people had no control over the Taliban, or the fact that the elders had already informed the American troops that an attack was coming based on their own observations.

We have previously discussed the Taliban tactic of massing of forces to outnumber U.S. Soldiers or Marines.  The Battle of Wanat occurred in the Nuristan Province.  Not twenty miles from this battle and in the same Province, the Taliban have massed troops once again, killing eight American Soldiers and two Afghan troops.

Eight American soldiers and two Afghan troops have been killed in the deadliest attack on coalition troops for more than a year, officials say.

The battle happened in Nuristan province in the remote east of the country when military outposts were attacked, a Nato statement said.

The Taliban said it carried out the attack. Reports say local officials including a police chief were captured.

Violence has escalated in the east as insurgents relocate from the south.

In a statement, Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said that tribal militia launched attacks on the foreign and Afghan military outposts from a mosque and a nearby village.

The attack is thought to have taken place in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan, and lasted several hours.

About 300 militants attacked one outpost at the foot of a hill, before turning their fire on a US base on higher ground, attacking from two sides, a provincial police chief said.

One Nato spokesman called it a “complex attack in a difficult area”.

Counterinsurgency doctrine says that you must have the support of the population in order to flush out the insurgents.  But what the doctrine doesn’t mention is that force projection is the necessary pre-condition for any of that other doctrine to obtain.  The population will not ally with the weaker side, and not only are heavy kinetics necessary up front in any such campaign, but the troops necessary to pull this off must be in place.

While it might be easy to point the finger at failing to win hearts and minds, it’s much more difficult (and more salient) to ask why any counterinsurgent would be able to win hearts and minds by continually placing platoon-size forces into hostile provinces to be overrun by half-Battalion size enemy forces?

Prior:

Taliban Tactics: Massing of Troops

The Contribution of the Afghan National Army in the Battle of Wanat

Investigating the Battle of Wanat

Analysis of the Battle of Wanat

Combat Action in Nuristan and Now Zad

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 4 months ago

Two videos, the first from the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan.


Watch CBS Videos Online

Next, this video was posted a few weeks ago, and is a followup to our article Video of U.S. Marine Operations in Helmand and Now Zad (see second video).  This video is low resolution and looks as if it was taken with a helment camera.  Bear with it.


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