Herschel Smith at the Captains Journal has put up a great post which addresses a topic near and dear to my heart; infantry tactics. The post is The Five Hundred Meter War and I want to reinforce Herschel’s point with some observations.
The tactical argument being raised by Herschel is the alarming trend of engaging in long range fire fights without even attempting to close with and destroy the enemy. The mission of American infantrymen (according to FM 2-21.20 The Infantry Battalion) is “to close with the enemy by means of fire and maneuver.”
Aggressive maneuver combined with active patrolling keep the enemy off balance. The army demonstrated this in Kunar over the last few weeks. The first graph below is from the week of the Camp Blessing battle and the second from the week of the elections.
The incident rates above clearly demonstrate a point made over and over by Herschel Smith and many other military bloggers have made and that is incident rates drop when kinetic activity increases. It also demonstrated the folly of running down a road to visit sites for a brief period of time and then returning to the FOB. Yesterday a British national working for the development firm DAI was kidnapped right off the main Abad to Jbad road. She was moving in a two vehicle convoy of low profile Toyota Corollas which is normally a safe mode of travel as long as the people inside the Corollas can pass as locals at first glance. This method of blending in is not a good idea if the convoy is going to be static for any period of time allowing local spotters to get a good look at the passengers. There are internationals in Afghanistan who can fool a trained observer with local clothes and a local style beard but they don’t fool anybody once they start walking. Their gait does not resemble how Afghans move because westerners do not spend their lives squatting on their heels.
I do not know the woman who was kidnapped that well but can say she was one of the more experienced and savvy operators in the eastern region. The company she works for, DAI, is one of the “big boys” in the reconstruction business and although they are not as nimble or fast as we are they are still damn good. So here we are in the middle of the surge and the security situation has never been worse. If the security situation continues to degrade it is just a matter of time before all of us reconstruction types pull up the stakes and go home. I think I am speaking for the outside the wire community when I say (to ISAF) “it’s time to get off the FOB’s and into the fight….or we’re done here.”
We were under UN restricted movement routine last week (for the first time in five years) which provided the opportunity to digest a report from The Afghanistan Study Group entitled A New Way Forward. This report was great news for me because if think tanks are paying big bucks to people who write so poorly and know so little then maybe I can get a job in America and stop spending 11 of every 12 months out of the country. Any think tankers out there who have an opening drop me a line – I’ll be your huckleberry.
Fortunately I don’t have to take this report apart as a genuine regional expert, the formidable Joshua Foust, has already done that over at Registan.net. Take the time to read his post here; it is, as usual, well written and spot on. With the heavy lifting already done I wanted to focus on the one part of the Study Group report which I find alarming and that is the amount of money being spent. This is from the summary of the Afghanistan Study Group report:
The U.S. war in Afghanistan is now the longest in our history, and is costing the U.S. taxpayers nearly $100 billion per year, roughly seven times more than Afghanistan’s annual gross national product (GNP) of $14 billion.
100 Billion US dollars per year. That level of expenditure will not be sustainable for much longer so in the spirit of offering solutions instead of highlighting problems I am going to try and articulate a real New Way Forward. The first step to limiting the amount of money being spent while reducing the number of troops deployed in theater is to eliminate the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) program. PRT’s are based on FOB’s, staffed by hundreds of personnel and completely focused internally. The commander of a PRT who is often an officer from the Navy or Air Force will get one fitness report (FitRep) in his/her career where they are commanding troops in combat. The problems that would prevent these commanders from getting a superior fitness report (which is the only way they will be promoted and retained in the service) are all things that happen inside the wire. Sloppy admin, poor vehicle maintenance, problems with CMS (classified material storage and handling) lost gear or (heaven forbid) lost weapons, excessive boy/girl drama, failure to conduct required annual training like suicide prevention, sexual harassment, AIDS awareness (to name just a few) and problems getting mid to senior level NCO’s to professional schools….all these things and many more will ruin a FitRep. What will not ruin a Fitrep is failing to accomplish anything of significance outside the wire which is the primary mission of the PRT’s. The reason that is irrelevant is because there is no way to measure what is happening outside the wire with any precision because to know what is happening outside the wire one has to be outside the wire and riding around in hermetically sealed MRAP’s doesn’t count.
This story published last month in the Danger Room blog is a great example. Nine years into the conflict and a group of soldiers are just now bringing their tech skills to bear in order to gain cooperation from villagers located just outside the wire from Bagram. Captain Balan (pictured above) is a 55 year old reservist who is trying something new because past experience taught him the regular “Key Leader Engagement” techniques yield nothing. He is using his civilian techie skills to engage the villagers in another way. Read the article and note how after visiting the village he is all psyched up to go back and tune up their computer lab. This is what I mean by letting our troops loose to stay outside the wire and develop the situation using their initiative, drive and skill sets. But again there is a huge problem illustrated in the picture above and that is the body armor, rifles, security team etc… when it is right outside the wire from the biggest base in Afghanistan. Compare and contrast what you read in the article with this:
In August of 2010 American soldiers are taking baby steps within a stones throw of the Bagram Airfield but two years ago a bunch of grad student volunteers created a wi fi network which now envelops Jalalabad. What do you think soldiers like Captain Balan could do if they too had the freedom of movement that we have? I am willing to bet you would see massive amounts of projects like the one he is attempting all over the country which, in turn, would bring cooperation from the local people while letting the modernity genie out of the bottle.
Here is another example of spending massive amounts of money while bringing zero benefit to the local population:
In the past expeditionary base fire fighting was a collateral duty assigned to base troops just like it is with the crew on Navy ships. Now we deploy federal firefighters to perform this task which is fine; federal fire fighters are useful individuals who attend multiple schools where they receive first rate training. If we are going to spend over a million a year to deploy each firefighter we could get much more return on investment by letting these guys spend their days with the local Afghan fire and rescue crews. They don’t need some sort of high speed mission to accomplish daily – they could drive around and look for places where they can help out. They could be busy all day every day teaching people all sorts of useful things while spreading goodwill and good karma. Every night they could return to base where they would be available when needed in the event of a conflagration. They don’t need to be armed, they don’t need body armor, they don’t need a powerpoint mission brief, they just need to drive off the base and do it. If they needed experienced guides to make them feel more comfortable they could ask the ladies from the La Jolla Rotary Club who are here right now supporting the San Diego Sister City program.
There is nothing hard about finding “A New Way Forward” all that is needed is the application of common sense while allowing simple principals to guide the deployment of forces on the ground. I spent twenty years in the Marines preparing for contingencies like the one we face in Afghanistan. At no time did anyone ever suggest the way to fight them was to build FOB’s – store 90% of your deployed forces on those FOB’s and put those people to work slaving over powerpoint slides for the daily commanders update brief. Nor did we ever consider something as patently stupid as putting ship drivers or C-130 pilots in charge of reconstruction teams which have more equipment, personnel, money and a larger tactical area of operations then an infantry battalion. When you do that kind of thing you end up with The Helmand Food Zone Fiasco. Its time to send the PRT’s home and to give that mission to Ghost Team and other outside the wire contractors who operate in similar fashion. They are accomplishing more while costing a fraction of a penny when compared to the PRT dollar.
Which brings us to a topic many of you have been asking me about and that is Koran burning threat by an obscure pastor who has a 50 member flock. Obviously the ruckus raised by our main stream media over this threat caused those of us in Afghanistan a lot of problems. However it is hard to take the Secretary of Defense or General Petraus seriously when they warn how inappropriate it is to burn this book when last year our military burned boxes of Dari and Pashtun translations of the Bible which had been sent to Afghanistan by a Christian organization. Why is it OK to burn the Bible and not the Koran? The only person of prominence to address the Koran burning issue in a clear honest fashion was Sarah Palin who said this:
People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation much like building a mosque at Ground Zero.
As I listened to the response by our dinosaur media, military leaders, and President to the Koran burning threat I longed to hear them address this topic in clear honest language. This they cannot do and I am left with just one conclusion. Our elites think the American people are stupid. They insult us with their Quisling like knee jerk reactions and selective outrage when talking about sensitive matters concerning Islam. Nobody needs to tell me how dangerous it is to burn the Koran in a highly publicized manner – my colleagues and I are at much greater risk from the fallout of that act than any military person stationed in Afghanistan. But I’m an American citizen; I do not knuckle my brow, bend my knee or bow before any man for any reason at any time.
Nor do I selectively apply the freedoms granted to me by God and enshrined in our constitution. We are a free people but freedom requires eternal vigilance with the steadfast devotion to principle. All men are equal under American law, all religions are equal too so none deserves nor can be granted special status or consideration. Why is it our ruling class elites and their henchmen in the media have forgotten this basic component of the American way? When I explain my view to the Afghans I work with they understand exactly what I am saying and why…and they respect the message. I’m with Sarah Palin on this one; at least she isn’t treating the American people like a bunch of know-nothing bumpkins.
As the summer started I was optimistic that we would see indications that we are gaining ground in Afghanistan but that has not happened. Incident rates are skyrocketing which is not a bad thing if it is our side initiating the incidents but this too is not the case. While ISAF is conducting more raids and presence patrols they do not seem to have learned how to conduct these operations while managing the perceptions of the population we are supposed to be protecting. By projecting force off of FOB’s and then pulling back into them when the kinetics are done we create a vacuum after every operation.
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. 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. 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” 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 who immediately called bullshit and asked the guy how he could say something so 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. The potential for collateral damage is significant and the responsibility for that damage has to rest on those who allow targets into their midst. We are using all carrots or all sticks depending on geographic location. In Kunar Province ISAF fights daily while delivering aid programs but in Nangarhar Province we swoop down in the middle of the night and take away suspected insurgents and leave. This allows 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.
ISAF needs to think through these night raids. They do not attempt to manage perceptions because the SF teams doing these raids don’t give a damn about the perceptions in an area they’ll visit once in a lifetime. In the last 72 hours we have had 16 rockets and 6 IED attacks in Nangarhar Province. One of these IED attacks killed the sub governor of La Pur district at the gates of the Governor’s compound. Was it Taliban who did this? Who knows? The local people know that the Sub Governor had been spending time in Kabul trying to get his son released from jail. His son has been incarcerated for two months since he copped to killing one of his cousins over a family dispute. A crime he may or may not have done himself. Nothing here is linear or simple and it is common for the son of powerful men to take a fall knowing their father will get them out of prison. There are lots of scores to settle in Afghanistan and the Taliban are not the only actors settling scores.
The tanker wars continue as you can see above but to what end? It could be the “broken windows” theory of terrorism where the bad guys seek to keep constant pressure on the civilians with nuisance attacks in highly trafficked areas creating the perception of tactical freedom of action or it could be fuel company wars. Who knows? I don’t and I am pretty sure ISAF doesn’t either.
The summer is coming to a close, the surge is on, the bases around Afghanistan are packed with military and contractor personnel yet for the average Afghan things continue to go right down the toilet. Make no mistake we are still in a shooting war and in a shooting war a commander has three forms of currency he must spend; money, blood and time. The various insurgent groups are spending blood – we are spending tons of money and time. The problem is that the Taliban has a vast surplus of fighters while we are running out of both money and time. ISAF is hamstrung for two reasons; the first is risk aversion and lack of initiative. The bloated staffs which expand exponentially are completely focused on the unimportant. If powerpoint briefs could bring the Taliban to bay (and they could if we could inflict a few on them daily – they are worse than water torture) then we would already be home. Anyone who has been anywhere near the ISAF HQ in Kabul speaks of a dysfunctional culture so bizarre that Hollywood could never do it justice. The giant staffs which inflict so much pain and misery on those below them are a self inflicted wound and that is on the US military. The second factor the military can do little about and that is the Karzai government. Check this out:
After the corruption scandals, Karzai criticized U.S. war strategy and ordered private security companies out of Afghanistan within four months. He also signed off on the forced retirement of his official in charge of the Anti-Corruption unit.
We put pressure on the Afghan government about the corruption – they put pressure on the international community operating outside the wire who in turn put pressure on their respective international governments. That is not a recipe for success. This news about the CIA paying members of the Karzai administration who are currently under criminal investigation is a great example. I have no problems with doing what it takes to accomplish the mission but we have been at this for a decade and it seems to me if the information we paid for was worth a damn the ISAF J2 would not publicly complain about the complete lack of relevant intelligence and the current security stats wouldn’t look like this:
I correspond almost daily with American troops in Afghanistan, They are a frustrated crew. I hear the same thing over and over – “take the handcuffs off and let us off the FOB; we know what to do.” I’m not the only one getting this message and hope those on high are thinking about what they’re hearing from the pointed end of the spear because we are running out of time and we are running out of money.