Bad Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 2 months ago

Tim Lynch hasn’t seen much progress in Afghanistan this year.  We’ll let him speak on the issue.

As the summer started I was optimistic regarding the chances that we would see some indications that we are gaining ground in Afghanistan but that has not happened.  Incident rates are skyrocketing which in and of itself is not a negative thing if it is our side who are instigating the incidents but that is not the case.  While ISAF is conducting more raids and presence patrols they do not seem to have learned anything when it comes to pulling these operations off while managing the perceptions and attitudes of the population we are supposed to be protecting.  By projecting force off of FOB’s we create a vacuum after every operation.  Nature hates a vacuum so at the moment we see politicians filling that void.  Let me provide an example:

Earlier in the week a joint Afghan/American SF team raided a madrasa in Sarracha village which is next to the massive airfield/military base in Jalalabad.

Uh oh.  A SF team performs a raid and didn’t stay around to explain to the population what they did and why.  Stay tuned and keep reading.

They hit the madrasa at night and arrested five men described as mullahs or madrasa students (depends on who you ask).  The next morning a large crowd closed the main highway between Jalalabad and the border and threatened to start burning cars and throwing stones at the police and in general getting out of hand.  The police responded in great numbers but when they arrived a local candidate for Parliament was on hand calming the crowd down and swearing  ”he will not rest” (where did he get that line) until he has talked with the Governor and ISAF and the police to get the people detained released.  As it was approaching 100 degrees and this is Ramadan the crowd said OK and dispersed.  By the time I got there the police were gone and only a few men remained who were clearing the road of rocks.  My terp JD and I asked what had happened and were told the American SF had raided the Madras and taken five students and then they tore up the Koran.  I burst out laughing at that one as did JD the Terp saying that and said flat was BS and JD asked the guy how he could say something that stupid.  The man started laughing too – everyone in this country knows that neither US or Afghan troops are going to touch let alone destroy a Koran.

Here’s the thing – why is an Afghan political candidate managing the perceptions of a raid we conducted on a village less than a mile from one of our regional bases?  Pashtunwali works both ways and if these people are harboring villains then who is accountable for that?  I’m not advocating rounding people up and sweating them I’m saying the elders should be called into the mosque for a shura with the district governor and both Afghan and ISAF military representation and forced to explain why they can’t keep their house in order.  If that seems a bit confrontational then both sides can explain their positions and everyone can talk for hours to reach some sort of understanding.  Allowing insurgents into a village puts the village at risk because ISAF and the Afghan Army seek insurgents out and hit them aggressively.  That is why they exist and nobody can claim that seeking out those who are against a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is an illegitimate task.  The potential for collateral damage is significant and the responsibility for that damage has to rest on those who allow targets into their midsts.  We are using all carrots or all sticks depending on geographic location.   In Kunar Province ISAF fights daily while delivering aid programs while in Nangarhar Province we swoop down in the middle of the night and take away suspected insurgents and leave allowing various actors with their own agendas to fill the vacuum we create with whatever message benefits them. Kunar gets the carrots while Nangarhar gets the stick and I’m not sure why that is.  Until ISAF wises up and starts calibrating their operations to gain the maximum effect from every offensive action we are going to continue to get played by Afghan elites.

In Good Counterinsurgency, Bad Counterinsurgency and Tribes, we already discussed this problem.  I said:

I just don’t know how else to say it.  There are some in Afghanistan who are doing COIN.  The boys in the Korengal Valley did (they are gone now, unfortunately).  The Marines in Helmand are.  But confinement to FOBs is death to the campaign.  And that means the “special” SOF boys who ride helicopters to direct action kinetics for the night, and then back to the FOB for a warm meal and a bed for the night.  They aren’t contributing to the campaign.  They are a drain and drag on the national treasury. Period.  The Marines in Fallujah in 2007 spent weeks at a time in distributed operations, in units as small as a fire team, embedded with IPs at local Police Precincts, killing insurgents, taking note of the human terrain, and ensuring that their AO was locked down.  The SOF needs to figure out a way to contribute like this.

And recall the good counterinsurgency I cited?  It went something like this.

American troops in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province called in a helicopter strike against Taliban fighters who ambushed them here Tuesday night, killing several. The missile strike narrowly avoided doing serious damage to a mosque where some of the fighters were hiding, underlining both the risks and the potential benefits of using air power to support ground troops.

Under rules of engagement strictly enforced by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal that have provoked resentment among troops, American forces are required to exercise extreme caution when calling in airstrikes, and generally avoid mosques entirely. But in this case, American commanders defended the action, saying that they believed no civilians had been killed and that there was no way of knowing the building was a mosque.

If Afghanistan is getting a reputation as a war in which the “soft” side of counterinsurgency is driving out the use of force — and that is certainly the perception among some soldiers in the south — this is an instance of the “hard” side being brought to bear in the way familiar to any officer who fought in Iraq during the surge.

The American patrol set out from a base in Yahya Khel district center at 6 p.m. Tuesday, planning to provoke a fight with a team of Taliban sharpshooters suspected to be operating around the village of Palau. The troops, from Angel Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, dropped off a team at a small Afghan army outpost and then moved by foot toward the village.

Just before dusk, the patrol was ambushed, not by the expected long-range marksmen, but by a team of gunmen who attacked with rifles and grenades from as close as 50 feet away. Two American soldiers were wounded. Half an hour later, at the outpost, Angel Company’s commander, Capt. Joshua Powers, received permission over the radio from Col. David Fivecoat, the battalion commander, to call in fire from attack helicopters. The pilots had watched a group of fighters move from the area of the gun battle to a courtyard in a small village north of Palau. They told Captain Powers that they could make out a machine gun and several rifles. At 8:38 p.m., one of the helicopters fired a Hellfire missile into the cluster, then shot another man who was on the roof of the building abutting the courtyard. Over the next half hour the helicopters attacked two more groups of suspected fighters in the area with cannon fire.

In the dark, Angel Company walked north from the outpost to assess the damage. In the courtyard, the corpses of two men were illuminated by burning weapons and motorcycles. While his medic tended to a third man, severely wounded and clad in camouflage, Captain Powers radioed his battalion with bad news: The building by the courtyard was a mosque. The pilots had not known, since no loudspeakers were visible and identifying writing was visible only from the ground. There was shrapnel damage to the walls, and the roof had a hole in it from cannon rounds.

The patrol, along with a group of Afghan soldiers and their commander, Lt. Col. Mir Wais, stayed the night outside the mosque. The Taliban would undoubtedly claim that civilians had been killed, Captain Powers explained, and he wanted to be there when the villagers woke up to show them the weapons and combat gear. “If we hold this ground, we can show them the evidence right away,” he said. “The first story is usually the one that sticks.”

The pilots thought they had killed half a dozen fighters at a second site the helicopters had attacked, but the bodies were already gone when the patrol arrived. Captain Powers acknowledged that this meant there was no way to know for sure whether civilians had been killed, but thought it unlikely: the site was secluded, and among charred motorcycles there were rocket-propelled grenades and camouflage vests with rifle magazines. At the first site, all four bodies — the two in the courtyard, the one on the roof, and the wounded man, who later died — wore camouflage fatigues and similar vests, containing grenades, ammunition, makeshift handcuffs and a manual on making homemade explosives.

Around 5 a.m., the men of the village started to congregate by the mosque. Captain Powers and Colonel Mir Wais addressed them, telling their story of what had happened. The men complained that the strike had frightened their wives and children and damaged the mosque, and that they were trapped between the pressures of the Americans and the Taliban. But they did not suggest that any residents of the village had been wounded or killed, and did not claim the bodies. Later in the morning, the district subgovernor, Ali Muhammad, described the night’s events to citizens gathered in the Yahya Khel bazaar. He also signed, along with Captain Powers, a letter about the attack  that would be distributed in the area after dark: a counterpoint to the Taliban’s infamous “night letters.”

The same people who ordered the strike were there to explain it in the morning, just as I suggested should happen.  The same people who fight by night are there for the locals to look at in the morning.  And look into their eyes.

We can only correct problems to the extent that we actually know that they are problems.  Yet we keep sending SOF guys to raid in the middle of the night while the enemy captures the narrative the next day, and we keep garrisoning our infantry on FOBs while the population contacts the enemy daily and waits for contact from us.


Comments

  1. On September 10, 2010 at 8:24 pm, Jeromy Henning said:

    My suggestion has always been for the SOF personnel to contact/coordinate with the local US “land owners” prior to a raid. Prior to the SOF forces leaving, they should conduct a handover with the land-owning unit, which includes a CA team or unit rep who is capable of managing the message about the action that just occurred. For all intensive purposes, it could be anyone for the stay-behind as long as they have a beard and “the look” of a SOF guy. These SOF raids are necessary but SOF should assist with the post-action damage control.

    In one particular instance that comes to mind, if SOF would have let us know that they wanted a particular person, we could have handed him over. In this case, they raided his house (he wasn’t there), roughed up his brother and left. He came to our FOB and asked us why his house was raided. We talked to him long enough for the SOF guys to come and pick him up. We dealt with quite a bit of fallout because of this raid.

  2. On September 22, 2010 at 9:58 am, Robrob said:

    @Jeromy – good point about coordinations with the US “land owner” and CA/PSYOPS.

    “…everyone in this country knows that neither US or Afghan troops are going to touch let alone destroy a Koran.”

    It’s good we have convinced them of this. It removes that card from their “deck.” Unfortunately, some idiot in FL recently tried to sabotage all of that for us.

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You are currently reading "Bad Counterinsurgency", entry #5456 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published September 9th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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