FOB Frontenac: Arghandab River Valley

BY Herschel Smith
13 years, 9 months ago

In this May 20, 2010 photo, U.S. Army Stryker vehicles kick up dust as they roll across a rocky road to pick up troops from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade who were on patrol in the Shah Wali Kot district of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. Twenty-two men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of 800 died in a yearlong Afghan tour ending this summer. Most were killed last year in the Arghandab, a gateway to the southern city of Kandahar. About 70 were injured, all but two in bomb blasts. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

The AP has a report up on 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of the 5th Stryker Brigade that bears some thought (Google news rarely if ever maintains their news URLs indefinitely; for another URL see The Washington Post).  The article reads much like a journal, but some salient points are lifted out and reproduced below.  I will provide running commentary, with a summary at the end.

Twenty-two men in the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment of 800 died in a yearlong Afghan tour ending this summer. Most were killed last year in the Arghandab, a gateway to the southern city of Kandahar. About 70 were injured, all but two in bomb blasts.

The death toll was one of the highest in the Afghan war, and the tough fight in the Arghandab drew the attention of America’s leaders. President Obama was photographed saluting the coffin of one of the soldiers on arrival in the United States. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told soldiers at their base in March that their efforts had helped push back the Taliban.

However, the battalion failed to dislodge insurgent cells entirely. A similar outcome is emerging in the southern town of Marjah after a bigger operation led by U.S. Marines in February. An even larger campaign is unfolding in Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual capital …

The battalion is part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which originally trained for urban combat in Iraq. But the mission changed in the final months of training, and the brigade’s 130 Arabic students took a crash course in Pashto, the language of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic community.

As a reading of the category Language in COIN will demonstrate, this last paragraph is simply exaggeration.  The Brigade didn’t have 130 Arabic “students.”  They might have had 130 or more Soldiers who had been given short classes in basic Arabic, focused on Phonetics, and rehearsing key phrases important to certain tactical tasks, but they didn’t have Arabic “students.”  The language training is so poor that little was lost, whether they went to Iraq or Afghanistan.

… the battalion had very little intelligence. The soldiers didn’t know it, but they faced an entrenched enemy willing to stand and fight for a sliver of territory vital to the Taliban’s goal of seizing Kandahar. They needed more manpower …

“You can’t get from one side of the river to the other easily. You can’t do anything on vehicles,” Neumann said. “We didn’t know it was going to be saturated with enemy. Nobody was tracking that it was a Taliban sanctuary.”

These last paragraphs are spot on.  Intelligence has routinely failed the Army and Marines, and the deployment of a Stryker Brigade in an area not amenable to the vehicle is absurd.  Such blunders touch on rudimentary logistics, planning and knowledge base of the mission.  The Stryker Soldiers should have been humping 120 pounds of gear up hills for 20 miles in preparation for this deployment, not sitting in situationally worthless fighter vehicles.

One September night, two dozen suspected insurgents appeared with bags around an American post, then pushed into the orchards before dawn. Coalition rules of engagement barred the Americans from opening fire unless there was obvious hostile intent.

The paltry role of Afghan forces was also frustrating. Chaplain Lewis, a 37-year-old father of four from San Diego, California, once boarded a Stryker with two Americans who survived an IED strike. In back were two Afghan soldiers, one of whom had shot himself in the foot. A commander told Lewis: “Keep an eye on those two. Make sure their weapons remain on safe.”

We’re going to have to forget the Afghan National Army if we are going to focus in winning the campaign.  As for the incident above, the Soldiers should have immediately descended upon the insurgents, hazed them, muzzle-thumped them, and held them until they obtained the information they wanted.  The effeminate can cry a river over my barbaric counsel, but failure to implement harder tactics likely cost American lives.

It was hard to separate civilians from insurgents. On village patrols, the Americans probably shook hands with unarmed fighters. The battalion struggled for traction in civil outreach. One platoon delivered a generator on a pallet outside a medical clinic; gunmen shot holes in it overnight …

Grousing is common in any army, but a deeper resentment brewed in the 1-17. In November, brigade chief Col. Harry Tunnell replaced Capt. Joel Kassulke of Charlie Company, which had suffered the most deaths — 12 men — of the four companies.

The soldiers fumed. They thought the captain was made a scapegoat.

In December, the battalion took a new mission to secure area highways. Fighting had ebbed, and a unit from the 82nd Airborne Division took over most of the Arghandab. Some 1-17 soldiers were emotional — they thought they were winning, and felt defeat at leaving.

A month later, an Army Times newspaper article included assertions by Charlie Company junior leaders that they had not trained adequately for the Afghan mission, and that the battalion had not focused enough on civilian concerns.

Neumann said civil development was hardly the first option in a heavy combat zone, but acknowledged he could have done more to convey command thinking down the chain. As for Kassulke’s transfer, he said, the brigade command believed the man and the company were close to a “breaking point” and needed change.

“That was a bitter pill for that company to swallow,” Neumann said. The Army Times article, he said, “tore at the fiber of this unit and I was proud that we shook that off too.”

I have read in full the Army Times article in which Staff Sergeant Jason Hughes figures so prominently.  Color me unpersuaded and unimpressed.  A generator gets delivered, and its gets shot to hell.  So much for reconstruction and civilian concerns while killers are on the loose.

The Stryker Brigade was unprepared alright, but not because of what Staff Sergeant Hughes charges.  They were not trained to the terrain in Afghanistan because they were not intended to go there.  That failure belongs with senior leadership, i.e., above Colonel, not the Brigade command.  As for training in COIN, my coverage and commentary on Wanat and Kamdesh shows that it’s best to focus on kinetics and force projection before the population and good governance.

In this manner, the advocates of population-centric COIN (in their higher chain of command) also failed the Brigade.  They have lost twenty two men in the quest to secure the terrain of the population.  They should have been pursuing and killing the enemy.  If they had done so, maybe by now they would have been sitting in homes drinking chai and discussing grievances.  First things first, as they say.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On June 1, 2010 at 6:56 am, TSAlfabet said:

    So who is the culprit here? McCrystal? Petraeus?

  2. On November 8, 2010 at 9:25 pm, Jacob Alexander said:

    Wow, I didn’t think I would get censored but here we are. Guess freedom of speech is only protected by some people. A response or friendly debate would be much more “American” don’t you think?

  3. On November 8, 2010 at 9:49 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Yes, as a matter of fact, that’s exactly what I think. A friendly debate is what it’s all about. If you wish to discuss the facts of the issue, or if you simply wish to weigh in differently, then that’s fine. Commenting is a privilege, not a right. It’s one I give to my readers.

    That is, as long as they are respectful, not insulting, and not demeaning. Your initial comment was all of those things. Practice what you preach, sir!

    If you wish to discuss any issue respectfully and without hurling insults, then I will engage you – or maybe not. I might just leave a critical response unaddressed, thus leaving the last word to the commenter. What I won’t do is allow insulting speech while the commenter also insults me for deleting that insulting speech.

    Are the rules clear enough now?

  4. On November 8, 2010 at 10:58 pm, Jacob Alexander said:

    You have me email please send me one. I’m assuming you did not get the email I tried to send after my first post. If you had received it I think it would have cleared where I was coming from. For the record I was not trying to come across as being demeaning and chalk that up to the fact that my profession is to send lead down range, I’m not in the profession of words when it comes to getting my point across!

  5. On November 8, 2010 at 11:15 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    I got no e-mail from you. I have a problem with the web site, sometimes, not always. There are some instabilities and things that don’t exactly work. I need to look into this.

    Putting metal down range is fine with me. I advocate it completely. At the enemy, that is. As for me, criticize till you are content that you’re finished. I don’t mind it, and frankly I like to get views from the front. If you read more, you will find that I often publish them. What I don’t like is meaningless insults that add nothing to the discussion. That makes the web site look like any other hack web site with trolls and commenters who get overly emotional and detract from the prose. I think we can do better and be more professional than that.

  6. On November 8, 2010 at 11:40 pm, Jacob Alexander said:

    If you would email my at the address I provided with the submission of this post I will send you a copy of the email. It would at least give perspective on what was going on at the time of my original post and I feel is something I owe since I was brash at best, something else as worst. Since I did bring up “credentials” (not that it matters, there are duds in all professions) I’ll give a short overview of mine; 18 years Army Infantry training and leading troops, 7 deployments.

  7. On January 24, 2011 at 8:36 am, Sasquatch said:

    I stumbled across this website and post after a CQ shift and drinking a bit (not on CQ, of course!). I wanted to post my opinion right away, but as a soldier in Jonny T’s 1-17 I thought I should restrain until I am of a more even straight of mind. Will follow-up soon… very soon (24 to 48 hours of 24 Jan 2011).

  8. On February 9, 2011 at 11:08 pm, KIEV said:

    Can anyone send me some no bullsh@#facts on the rivervalley, my guys and I will be there with in a matter of weeks with no real fact, anything would help

  9. On February 11, 2011 at 4:52 pm, TS Alfabet said:

    Kiev, if you want the ever-lovin’ truth about the rivervalley (and pretty much anything else on A-stan from someone who has been there for years, living and functioning outside the wire, a retired Marine and straight-shooter, I would recommend that you get in touch with Tim Lynch at

    The Captain would second me on this as well, I’m sure.

  10. On June 27, 2013 at 10:15 am, Joshua 1-17 said:

    A bit late I know, but I was just made aware of this posting. Our 1st Sgt was also replaced. Thats our whole chain of command, gone, and some strange men with radically different ideas are supposed to tell us how to operate the company? Breaking point, if anything pushed us closer it was that.

    I mean come on, taking part in a foot race with the local police with no warning to anyone and starting it with a blast from an AK-47? Very Professional.

    They also removed Ssg Hughes and SSg Sanders from our platoon, the ones who commented publicly, and whether or not they expressed it properly they knew of some very valid complaints about our chain of command. So they get taken off of the line? But thats not fair, we dont know if thats why, we can only assume it is because they never gave us a reason. There is another step towards the breaking point right there.

    And then there is punishing us (the new command staff, or them rather creating the climate where my PLT SGT felt he had to punish us) in sector. For the uneducated civilian, “in sector” generally means the bad guys could be on the other side of your dirt walls or posing as the leaders your boss is sitting down with a few hundred feet away. In some parts of our patrol base, there wasn’t even a wall, just a berm that you could easily walk over. And when you are done being punished, you just want to sleep because you are so physically exhausted, but for some they went right our on patrol, or on guard duty, so no rest for them, just certain death if they were attacked because they had no strength to fight back. There is another step towards the edge.

    Its one thing to say “the brigade command believed the man and the company were close to a “breaking point” and needed change” and another entirely to take our leaders and leave us no explanation, and after TWELVE of your men, anyone is due to be a little worn down and stressed. But the men didnt need some idiots, thats my professional opinion of the leaders we got, with a 180 degree different in approach as our last ones did.

    And by the way the guys that replaced us when we left the argendab didnt take our advice and lost something close to ten guys in a week right after taking control of the area. Some of their solders said something along the lines of, oh yeah lets listen to the guys getting kicked out because they can’t hack it. So thats how it comes across on the ground. The bureaucrats (If you think a general or a colonel or even a major is anything but that, there are only a handful that aren’t, and you are probably wrong) can say what ever they like, but the fact is that their actions left us in a new area of operations with no local contacts and the people we relied on get us through, our CO and 1SGT were gone. I dont care what the brass says, they did wrong and they screwed US on the ground.

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You are currently reading "FOB Frontenac: Arghandab River Valley", entry #5051 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Arghandab River Valley and was published May 31st, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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