Taliban Tactics: Massing of Troops

BY Herschel Smith
15 years, 1 month ago

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff criticizes air strikes:

The United States cannot succeed in Afghanistan if the American military keeps killing Afghan civilians, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Monday.

In remarks to scholars, national security experts and the media at the Brookings Institution, Admiral Mullen said that the American air strikes that killed an undetermined number of civilians in Afghanistan’s Farah Province two weeks ago had put the U.S. strategy in the country in jeopardy.

“We cannot succeed in Afghanistan or anywhere else, but let’s talk specifically about Afghanistan, by killing Afghan civilians,” Admiral Mullen said, adding that “we can’t keep going through incidents like this and expect the strategy to work.”

At the same time, Admiral Mullen said, “we can’t tie our troops’ hands behind their backs.”

Admiral Mullen’s comments on the civilian casualties from the Farah air strikes, which have caused an uproar in Afghanistan, reflect deep concern within the Pentagon about the intensifying criticism from Kabul against the American military. Admiral Mullen, who noted that commanders in the region had in recent months imposed more restrictive rules on air strikes to avoid civilian casualties, offered no new solutions in his remarks. He only said that “we’ve got to be very, very focused on making sure that we proceed deliberately, that we know who the enemy is.”

By midafternoon on May 4, after a battle between Afghan police and army forces and Taliban fighters had raged for hours, Marines Special Operations forces called in air strikes.

Three F-18 fighter-bombers, flying in succession over several hours, dropped a total of five laser-guided and satellite guided bombs against Taliban fighters who were firing at the American and Afghan forces, said the official, Col. Gregory Julian, in an email message late Sunday.

Villagers, however, have reported that an even heavier bombardment came after 8 p.m. when they said the fighting appeared to be over and the Taliban had left the village.

The military has disputed this version of events, saying the Taliban fighters continued to fire at American and Afghan troops, requiring additional air strikes. These came from a B-1 bomber, which dropped three 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on a tree grove, four 500-pound and 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs on one building, and one 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb on a second building, Colonel Julian said. Villagers have said they sought safety from the initial air strikes in a compound of buildings, but it was not clear whether these were the same buildings the American aircraft later bombed. Villagers said the bombings were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies.

In all, Colonel Julian said, eight targets were attacked over a seven-hour period, but he denied reports from villagers that a mosque had been damaged in the strikes. Colonel Julian and other American military officials have said that the Taliban deliberately fired at American and Afghan forces from the rooftops of buildings where civilians, including women and children, had sought shelter, to provoke a heavy American military response.

Colonel Julian said at the peak of the fighting that day, some 150 Afghan soldiers and 60 Afghan police, along with their 30 American trainers, as well as two Marine Special Operations teams that made up a quick-reaction force, were battling about 300 militants, including a large number of foreign fighters.

Afghan government officials have accepted handwritten lists compiled by the villagers of 147 dead civilians. An independent Afghan human rights group said it had accounts from interviews of 117 dead. American officials say that even 100 is an exaggeration but have yet to issue their own count.

Analysis & Commentary

There remains an uproar over this incident because of noncombatant casualties, and some of it even over military analysis web sites.  The focus of much of the discussion is on how counterinsurgency cannot succeed with noncombatant casualties, and that successful counterinsurgency must be population centric.  True enough within context, this point misses the mark by a wide margin and succeeds only in parroting doctrinal talking points without a true understanding of what this incident can tell us about the campaign.

Regular readers of The Captain’s Journal can do better.  Be circumspect, smart and deliberate, and consider the question of what we might learn from this incident?  Considering the recent few months of the campaign, what information may we cobble together to place this incident within its proper context?  How can we avoid the traps into which most apparatchiks fall, of advocating either bombing them into submission or implementing procedures to avoid noncombatant casualties altogether because it isn’t “population centric?”

First of all, there is no doubt that fathers and mothers of children who have perished, or children of fathers or mothers or siblings who have perished at the hands of U.S. military action, intentional or not, will forever be our enemies.  It is understandable, and would be the same with most readers.  Noncombatant casualties makes enemies.

Of course, many things make enemies, including promises to stop the Taliban and failing to meet those promises.  But in this case there is something deeper going on, something that requires a bit of thought and trending.

In the Battle of Wanat where nine U.S. Soldiers perished and twenty seven were wounded, the Taliban massed some 300 or more fighters at one time in the area.  Were it not for Close Combat Aviation (CCA) and Close Air Support (CAS), the casualty rate would have been even higher.  Vehicle Patrol Base Wanat and Observation Post Top Side were what one might consider “far flung.”  It was an area of operation that had heretofore not seen U.S. troops, but in which the Taliban were numerous and Taliban control unquestioned.

When the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit was deployed to the Garmser region of the Helmand Province in 2008, they killed approximately 400 Taliban who had massed in Garmser, at times calling their fire fights “full bore reloading.”

In Marines, Taliban and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, we covered the exploits of one Force Recon platoon who documented the fact that in their engagements with the Taliban the enemy fighters swelled to over 400 during ambushes and even during Taliban attacks on Forward Operating Bases.  This is remarkable.  This is basically half a Battalion of Taliban forces conducting what Force Recon called very good infantry tactics, including enfilade and interlocking fires, combined arms, and all of the other infantry tactics on which most good infantry is trained.

Finally, in Trouble in the Afghan Army: The Battle of Bari Alai we discussed the probable treachery of the Afghan Army during a Taliban attack on Observation Post Bari Alai in which three U.S. Soldiers perished along with two Latvian Soldiers.  More than 100 Taliban fighters massed for the attack on the Observation Post.

Now go back and study the report above that has Admiral Mullen so concerned.  The Taliban massed approximately 300 fighters for the fire fight with what turns out to be a fairly small U.S. force.  They had Afghan troops alongside, but as we learned at Wanat, no Afghan troops perished that fateful night.  The Afghan Army is shot through with drug abuse, and during the fight for Observation Post Bari Ala, it is believed that the Afghan troops laid down their weapons in a pre-arranged agreement with the Taliban.

Actually, a bit of study yields the conclusion that the Taliban have always wanted to mass troops (2005 report):

As the Taliban start shooting, O’Neal’s platoon scurries for cover. But there’s no panic. “They think, without a doubt, they have us outnumbered,” recalls O’Neal, a native of Jeannette, Pa., and leader of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company. “We’ve got only 23 people on the ground, and I would say the Taliban had over 150 before the day was over” …

Taliban fighters, meanwhile, appear to gain courage from numbers, the ability to swarm a smaller enemy unit. A sense of safety in numbers, however, is often the Taliban’s undoing if a US platoon can fix an enemy’s position long enough for aircraft or other infantry units to arrive. This is the backbone of US military strategy in Zabul, and one reason why the Taliban have lost so many fighters this year.

It is fairly well known now that the additional troops deployed to Afghanistan are going to the population centers around Kabul and Kandahar – of course, in a tip of the hat to population centric counterinsurgency doctrine.  So the balance of Afghanistan is left to the Taliban to raise revenue, recruit fighters, train, interdict our logistics lines, implement their governance and basically control as they see fit.

Then, since the U.S. is massing troops in and around the population centers, far fewer are left for the rural terrain.  The most that can usually be accomplished is squad, platoon and company-sized engagements, or even smaller units to embed with the Afghan forces.  This is very close to what is considered distributed operations.  Few patrols in Taliban-controlled areas, no ensuring that the Taliban feel the strong presence of forces, just bare minimum to “train” the Afghan forces.

Yet when the Taliban are able to mass forces of as much as half a Battalion, the expectation is that much smaller units of U.S. forces will engage them without causing noncombatant casualties, while at the same time, the Taliban are clearly using human shields.

Clearly, we are asking the impossible of U.S. troops.  The Obama administration doesn’t want to deploy more than about 68,000 U.S. troops to the theater, and as long as this small footprint obtains, heavy use of air power will be necessary to keep smaller units from being completely overrun when the Taliban mass troops.

There is a solution to this dilemma, but it requires more troops to disengage the Taliban from the population.  The number of troops we have at the moment is not enough to do this mission.  Hence, while noncombatant casualties are a sad thing and certainly counterproductive, the answer is not to inform the smaller units of U.S. forces that they cannot use air support.  As much as The Captain’s Journal hates to see noncombatant casualties, more Marines and Soldiers in coffins would be much worse.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On May 20, 2009 at 9:59 am, Warbucks said:

    One additional possibility for future wars is the development of a supplemental air-strike weapon, or smart anti-personnel heavy artillery delivery systems for urban centers or engagements with non-combatant human shields:

  2. On May 20, 2009 at 10:34 am, Herschel Smith said:

    There are a number of typographical errors in the link you provided.

    As for non-lethal weapons, the Marines and Soldiers usually get at least some training on them. They are typically good for large crowd control and not much else.

    As for the employment of some sort of non-lethal weapon when the enemy is hiding behind a human shield, the problem is that you don’t know when that occurs. He doesn’t announce it.

    Use of non-lethal weapons because the enemy “may be” hiding behind a human shield would lead to their use all of the time. This, of course, would lead to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of enemy fighters, the high costs associated with their upkeep, and finally their release back into society to do it all over again.

    Won’t work. This is no solution. The fundamental point is that there is a solution to the heavy use of air power, and it is heavy use of infantry. We can choose one or the other, but “none of the above” is not an option.

  3. On May 28, 2009 at 9:22 am, Warbucks said:

    True but… once you get them all in one spot and shine the light of day on them, the UN can then exercise that huge power they are so well known for and place a scarlet letter on each forehead and issue a stern letter of warning that says in no uncertain terms…”Please do not do that again.”

    Or, turn them all over to the local authorities and say something like, “mission accomplished, now you guys work it out internally.”.. or something like that.

    Or, we start deprogramming them, ourselves like John Candy in his 1985 film with Tom Hanks called “The Volunteers”.


    where the resolute pro-American business stalwart and Peace Corp volunteer, John Candy, is captured by the Communists and quickly deprogrammed in about 12 hours.

    Or, we then pressure religions of the world to step up and reform themselves and their followers …

    Or,… all of the above.. hey it could work!

  4. On May 31, 2009 at 5:43 pm, Mark Eichenlaub said:

    Interesting notes…

  5. On June 12, 2009 at 11:04 am, jbrookins said:

    I’m curious having been in Afghanistan and Iraq, what constitutes and official civilian? Are those that harbor Taliban forces innocent?

    Ever notice in places like this that civilian populations tend to support those they think are winning or seems the strongest? There’s a reason folks.

    We can make great progress in Afghanistan. I enjoyed (mostly) working with ANA forces. Dealing with our own bureaucracy was infuriating. Our half assed approach to war conventional or unconventional makes winning anything very difficult.

    Just some questions and thoughts.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You are currently reading "Taliban Tactics: Massing of Troops", entry #2953 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghan National Army,Afghanistan,Air Power,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Weapons and Tactics and was published May 19th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

26th MEU (10)
Abu Muqawama (12)
ACOG (2)
ACOGs (1)
Afghan National Army (36)
Afghan National Police (17)
Afghanistan (704)
Afghanistan SOFA (4)
Agriculture in COIN (3)
AGW (1)
Air Force (40)
Air Power (10)
al Qaeda (83)
Ali al-Sistani (1)
America (22)
Ammunition (277)
Animals (292)
Ansar al Sunna (15)
Anthropology (3)
Antonin Scalia (1)
AR-15s (373)
Arghandab River Valley (1)
Arlington Cemetery (2)
Army (87)
Assassinations (2)
Assault Weapon Ban (29)
Australian Army (7)
Azerbaijan (4)
Backpacking (3)
Badr Organization (8)
Baitullah Mehsud (21)
Basra (17)
BATFE (222)
Battle of Bari Alai (2)
Battle of Wanat (18)
Battle Space Weight (3)
Bin Laden (7)
Blogroll (3)
Blogs (24)
Body Armor (23)
Books (3)
Border War (18)
Brady Campaign (1)
Britain (38)
British Army (35)
Camping (5)
Canada (17)
Castle Doctrine (1)
Caucasus (6)
Center For a New American Security (8)
Charity (3)
China (16)
Christmas (16)
CIA (30)
Civilian National Security Force (3)
Col. Gian Gentile (9)
Combat Outposts (3)
Combat Video (2)
Concerned Citizens (6)
Constabulary Actions (3)
Coolness Factor (3)
COP Keating (4)
Corruption in COIN (4)
Council on Foreign Relations (1)
Counterinsurgency (218)
DADT (2)
David Rohde (1)
Defense Contractors (2)
Department of Defense (210)
Department of Homeland Security (26)
Disaster Preparedness (5)
Distributed Operations (5)
Dogs (15)
Donald Trump (27)
Drone Campaign (4)
EFV (3)
Egypt (12)
El Salvador (1)
Embassy Security (1)
Enemy Spotters (1)
Expeditionary Warfare (17)
F-22 (2)
F-35 (1)
Fallujah (17)
Far East (3)
Fathers and Sons (2)
Favorite (1)
Fazlullah (3)
FBI (39)
Featured (189)
Federal Firearms Laws (18)
Financing the Taliban (2)
Firearms (1,777)
Football (1)
Force Projection (35)
Force Protection (4)
Force Transformation (1)
Foreign Policy (27)
Fukushima Reactor Accident (6)
Ganjgal (1)
Garmsir (1)
general (15)
General Amos (1)
General James Mattis (1)
General McChrystal (44)
General McKiernan (6)
General Rodriguez (3)
General Suleimani (9)
Georgia (19)
Google (1)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (1)
Gun Control (1,651)
Guns (2,317)
Guns In National Parks (3)
Haditha Roundup (10)
Haiti (2)
Haqqani Network (9)
Hate Mail (8)
Hekmatyar (1)
Heroism (5)
Hezbollah (12)
High Capacity Magazines (16)
High Value Targets (9)
Homecoming (1)
Homeland Security (3)
Horses (2)
Humor (72)
Hunting (34)
ICOS (1)
IEDs (7)
Immigration (108)
India (10)
Infantry (4)
Information Warfare (4)
Infrastructure (4)
Intelligence (23)
Intelligence Bulletin (6)
Iran (171)
Iraq (379)
Iraq SOFA (23)
Islamic Facism (64)
Islamists (98)
Israel (19)
Jaish al Mahdi (21)
Jalalabad (1)
Japan (3)
Jihadists (81)
John Nagl (5)
Joint Intelligence Centers (1)
JRTN (1)
Kabul (1)
Kajaki Dam (1)
Kamdesh (9)
Kandahar (12)
Karachi (7)
Kashmir (2)
Khost Province (1)
Khyber (11)
Knife Blogging (7)
Korea (4)
Korengal Valley (3)
Kunar Province (20)
Kurdistan (3)
Language in COIN (5)
Language in Statecraft (1)
Language Interpreters (2)
Lashkar-e-Taiba (2)
Law Enforcement (6)
Lawfare (14)
Leadership (6)
Lebanon (6)
Leon Panetta (2)
Let Them Fight (2)
Libya (14)
Lines of Effort (3)
Littoral Combat (8)
Logistics (50)
Long Guns (1)
Lt. Col. Allen West (2)
Marine Corps (280)
Marines in Bakwa (1)
Marines in Helmand (67)
Marjah (4)
Media (68)
Medical (146)
Memorial Day (6)
Mexican Cartels (41)
Mexico (61)
Michael Yon (6)
Micromanaging the Military (7)
Middle East (1)
Military Blogging (26)
Military Contractors (5)
Military Equipment (25)
Militia (9)
Mitt Romney (3)
Monetary Policy (1)
Moqtada al Sadr (2)
Mosul (4)
Mountains (25)
MRAPs (1)
Mullah Baradar (1)
Mullah Fazlullah (1)
Mullah Omar (3)
Musa Qala (4)
Music (25)
Muslim Brotherhood (6)
Nation Building (2)
National Internet IDs (1)
National Rifle Association (95)
NATO (15)
Navy (30)
Navy Corpsman (1)
NCOs (3)
News (1)
NGOs (3)
Nicholas Schmidle (2)
Now Zad (19)
NSA (3)
NSA James L. Jones (6)
Nuclear (62)
Nuristan (8)
Obama Administration (221)
Offshore Balancing (1)
Operation Alljah (7)
Operation Khanjar (14)
Ossetia (7)
Pakistan (165)
Paktya Province (1)
Palestine (5)
Patriotism (7)
Patrolling (1)
Pech River Valley (11)
Personal (73)
Petraeus (14)
Pictures (1)
Piracy (13)
Pistol (4)
Pizzagate (21)
Police (653)
Police in COIN (3)
Policy (15)
Politics (973)
Poppy (2)
PPEs (1)
Prisons in Counterinsurgency (12)
Project Gunrunner (20)
PRTs (1)
Qatar (1)
Quadrennial Defense Review (2)
Quds Force (13)
Quetta Shura (1)
RAND (3)
Recommended Reading (14)
Refueling Tanker (1)
Religion (493)
Religion and Insurgency (19)
Reuters (1)
Rick Perry (4)
Rifles (1)
Roads (4)
Rolling Stone (1)
Ron Paul (1)
ROTC (1)
Rules of Engagement (75)
Rumsfeld (1)
Russia (37)
Sabbatical (1)
Sangin (1)
Saqlawiyah (1)
Satellite Patrols (2)
Saudi Arabia (4)
Scenes from Iraq (1)
Second Amendment (673)
Second Amendment Quick Hits (2)
Secretary Gates (9)
Sharia Law (3)
Shura Ittehad-ul-Mujahiden (1)
SIIC (2)
Sirajuddin Haqqani (1)
Small Wars (72)
Snipers (9)
Sniveling Lackeys (2)
Soft Power (4)
Somalia (8)
Sons of Afghanistan (1)
Sons of Iraq (2)
Special Forces (28)
Squad Rushes (1)
State Department (23)
Statistics (1)
Sunni Insurgency (10)
Support to Infantry Ratio (1)
Supreme Court (57)
Survival (185)
SWAT Raids (57)
Syria (38)
Tactical Drills (38)
Tactical Gear (14)
Taliban (168)
Taliban Massing of Forces (4)
Tarmiyah (1)
TBI (1)
Technology (21)
Tehrik-i-Taliban (78)
Terrain in Combat (1)
Terrorism (96)
Thanksgiving (13)
The Anbar Narrative (23)
The Art of War (5)
The Fallen (1)
The Long War (20)
The Surge (3)
The Wounded (13)
Thomas Barnett (1)
Transnational Insurgencies (5)
Tribes (5)
TSA (25)
TSA Ineptitude (14)
TTPs (4)
U.S. Border Patrol (6)
U.S. Border Security (19)
U.S. Sovereignty (24)
UAVs (2)
UBL (4)
Ukraine (10)
Uncategorized (98)
Universal Background Check (3)
Unrestricted Warfare (4)
USS Iwo Jima (2)
USS San Antonio (1)
Uzbekistan (1)
V-22 Osprey (4)
Veterans (3)
Vietnam (1)
War & Warfare (413)
War & Warfare (41)
War Movies (4)
War Reporting (21)
Wardak Province (1)
Warriors (6)
Waziristan (1)
Weapons and Tactics (79)
West Point (1)
Winter Operations (1)
Women in Combat (21)
WTF? (1)
Yemen (1)

June 2024
May 2024
April 2024
March 2024
February 2024
January 2024
December 2023
November 2023
October 2023
September 2023
August 2023
July 2023
June 2023
May 2023
April 2023
March 2023
February 2023
January 2023
December 2022
November 2022
October 2022
September 2022
August 2022
July 2022
June 2022
May 2022
April 2022
March 2022
February 2022
January 2022
December 2021
November 2021
October 2021
September 2021
August 2021
July 2021
June 2021
May 2021
April 2021
March 2021
February 2021
January 2021
December 2020
November 2020
October 2020
September 2020
August 2020
July 2020
June 2020
May 2020
April 2020
March 2020
February 2020
January 2020
December 2019
November 2019
October 2019
September 2019
August 2019
July 2019
June 2019
May 2019
April 2019
March 2019
February 2019
January 2019
December 2018
November 2018
October 2018
September 2018
August 2018
July 2018
June 2018
May 2018
April 2018
March 2018
February 2018
January 2018
December 2017
November 2017
October 2017
September 2017
August 2017
July 2017
June 2017
May 2017
April 2017
March 2017
February 2017
January 2017
December 2016
November 2016
October 2016
September 2016
August 2016
July 2016
June 2016
May 2016
April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006

about · archives · contact · register

Copyright © 2006-2024 Captain's Journal. All rights reserved.