5 years, 10 months ago
World Politics Review gives us a glimpse into operations in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan.
The most surprising thing, initially, is how difficult and time-consuming even the most basic tasks are — like getting around between coalition camps, for instance.
I had left Forward Operating Base Airborne — where I am based with U.S. Army units from the 10th Mountain Division and a French army training team — for a short trip to a nearby combat outpost, only a few miles away. The objective had been to take water, food, and building materials to the new outpost. The trip, which had promised to be relatively easy and painless, ended up consuming the entire morning, and was both inordinately tiring and far more dangerous than I had expected for such a minor mission.
The problems started as soon as the convoy of armoured vehicles and trucks left the camp’s gate. A suspicious object was spotted nearby on the road, and a group of Afghan soldiers — mentored by the French — was sent to investigate. Because the Taliban and other insurgent groups cannot take the Coalition on in a straight battle, they have multiplied roadside bomb attacks. These now cause the most Western casulties, leading Coalition convoys to proceed with extraordinary care.
When the road was eventually declared clear, the convoy turned onto it, rumbling along at little more than 10 mph. Army vehicles and trucks beat up the dust and shook painfully, the French-made VABs (véhicule de l’avant blindés, or armored vanguard vehicles) struggling against the unpaved Afghan road.
A French machine-gunner leaned out of the gunner’s window next to me at the back of the vehicle, his hands resting impassively on his gun. The only thing that gave away his excitement was the trembling of his voice as he occasionally translated the chatter coming over his crackling radio into English for me.
The convoy stopped repeatedly as the French, who are supposed to be here only in an advisory capacity, kept sending the Afghans ahead to check out an area before the convoy could roll on. Locals, whether passing by or standing outside their shops and fields, looked on, occasionally giving a nod, a wave or even a smile. Some just stared — impassively, sullenly, perhaps even with some hostility: Wardak province has been very violent since things started to fall apart in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007.
My gunner still waved at almost everybody, evidently very aware that this campaign is now about winnings hearts and minds. He seemed less aware of the scorching heat, or else he had grown oblivious to it, to say nothing of the clouds of dust the VAB churned up in his face, and the violent shaking of the vehicle that kept bumping my helmet-covered head against the roof.
Upon reaching the combat outpost — perhaps the size of a soccer field surrounded by three-foot-wide walls — the soldiers quickly unloaded the supplies off the VABs. They then stopped for a cigarette break, during which their focused professionalism quickly dissolved into playfulness, chatter, and a happy performance of Happy Birthday for one of the sergeants.
Then the atmosphere quickly reverts back into soldiering, as the French commander explains to the American team returning with us how we are to proceed and how the convoy should respond should it be attacked.
Which is precisely what happens almost the moment the vehicles are out of the gate. The whoosh of an incoming rocket, then two more, is followed by a burst of crackle over the radio. The machine-gunner shouts to me — “Get down, get down!” — his head turning back towards the front of the vehicle, his hands ready on his gun. I automatically lower myself inside the VAB, wondering numbly whether I should perhaps take at least a few photos.
We aren’t hit and neither is the base, but the convoy is now stuck. There is no more firing, but mortars are soon launched from inside the base, and the two A-10 bombers covering the convoy are called in. We sit there for minutes as nothing seems to happen. And then we rumble on. We do not stop anywhere on the way back, and in fact take a different route than the one we used to come. It is unclear where the rockets were fired from, or even who fired them.
Stepping out of their vehicles, some of the soldiers begin to enthusiastically discuss the events. “Did you hear how they came?” they ask one another. “Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh: one, two, three!”
A French officer walks over. “You okay?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I nod, exhausted, black from the dust, my skin badly sunburnt on my neck.
He grins. “Monsieur, c’est normal ici, tu sais?” (“Mister, that’s normal here, you know?”) Apparently they come under attack every day.
Did this report impress you the same way it did me? Good men all around, but bad strategy. What’s missing in this account is something like the following:
Following the desire to protect the population as well as provide for force protection, the 10th Mountain had sent several squads out on what they termed “distributed operations” to find and kill the enemy. The dispatching of troops occurred during dark so as to preclude direct observation by insurgents. The Soldiers were deployed with night vision gear, and had found concealment prior to combat operations beginning.
Upon initial mortar fire, the squads from the 10th Mountain Division went into action, having observed the terrain for the last eight hours. They apparently knew where the fire was coming from, and had not only prepared to initiate offensive combat operations upon detection of insurgent movement, but had also called in close air support in anticipation of the kinetic engagement.
Six insurgents were killed in the ensuing operations, and two were captured. Subsequent interrogation revealed information that led to the discovery of an extensive weapons cache. PAO “so-and-so” remarked that subsequent aggressive patrolling by the 10th Mountain Division in the AO was intended to assure the population that their security was improving and would make further gains upon cooperation to find and kill or capture the Taliban fighters who were causing the instability.
Why is it that we’re reading accounts of the 10th Mountain squirreling away in FOBs and logistics routes which are regularly subject to mortar attacks? Why does the Taliban have the initiative rather than the 10th Mountain Division?