The ever alert FRI regular commentators picked up on this tragedy in near real time. Last Tuesday morning an Army patrol opened fire on a bus on the main road between Kandahar and the large ISAF base just outside the city. They killed four Afghans which sparked protests inside Kandahar City. The NATO statement is pasted below:
NATO said the bus approached a slow-moving military patrol from the rear at a high speed. Troops opened fire after the driver ignored flares and other warnings including flashlights and hand signals to slow down, NATO said in a statement. It confirmed four people were killed, adding the alliance “deeply regrets the tragic loss of life.”
I have a problem with the “flares and other warnings including flashlights and hand signals.” If a fast moving bus is approaching a slow moving convoy, how much time does the turret gunner have to make a shoot/no shoot decision? Subtract the time it takes to bring the machine gun to bear on target and fire, which is 3 to 5 seconds, and I have a hard time seeing how he armed and fired a flare, then used his flashlight, then used hand signals (which would not have been visible in the pre-dawn gloom) in the 20 or so seconds it took for the bus to close with the convoy. When you read the news accounts, the statements by witnesses from the bus sound much more credible. They said they were just driving along when the Americans opened fire without warning.
I have been shot at three times, once by the Brits (American Embassy project vehicle put out of commission – downtown Kabul, spring of 2005), once by the American army (warning shots into the hillside while in a Japanese Embassy vehicle with diplomatic plates and a very senior passenger – downtown Kabul winter 2006), and once by the ANA (last Monday when they shot at a car right next to me that had nicked their fender in a gigantic traffic jam). The common denominator of those shootings was the lack of warning. The turret gunners suddenly got behind their weapons and I thought, “Holy shit, they are going to shoot,” and they did.
One of those shootings produced the best quote I have to date from my years here. My Japanese client, the Chief of Party for JICA, shook his head and said, “Tim san, I do no understand how your army beat us in World War II.” I launched into a spirited defense of the Fleet Marine Force, but he cut me off to make a phone call. I was very fond of Mr. N and he knew better than to try and ride out a Tim san rant.
Last week the Taliban culminated a series of ineffective IED and rocket attacks on the population of Jalalabad with a bicycle bomb detonated in a swarm of children – a weapon supposedly directed against the Americans, one which could never even dent an MRAP, but could slice through unprotected children. This week our guys pulled a bonehead move – one of which I have blogged about many times before – the shooting of civilians by convoy turret gunners. With the dynamics on the ground, our stupid moves are costing more then the Taliban’s stupid moves. The good people of Jalalabad were pissed off about the bike bomb, but not enough to stage a protest and shout “death to the Taliban.”
That is the critical dynamic with which to judge how the people feel about us and the assorted groupings of bad guys who cause them much more grief and hardship, in their reaction to loss of life through stupidity. When people react with spontaneous outrage to Taliban killings, then we will know the tipping point is well behind us. Until then the best thing we could do is to limit the number of military vehicles we put on the road by stopping the “commute to work” mentality found on Big Army FOB’s and by removing turret gunners. As I have pointed out about 100 times or so, the tactic of shooting at VBIED’s to stop them before they hit a convoy has never worked. ISAF gunners have killed hundreds of civilians and never stopped a single suicide bomber.
This summer the big push for ISAF will be Kandahar City. The urban terrain there looks just like the picture above of downtown Jalalabad. Although you would not know it from this week’s tragic shooting, the American military has considerable experience in urban counterinsurgency fighting. That was what the Iraq surge was all about – taking back the cities to halt ethnic cleansing while simultaneously peeling Al Qaeda away from the Sunni population. The big message from General Petraeus at that time was to stop commuting to the fight and establish fortified positions from which to control neighborhoods.
Last night there was another series of attacks in Kandahar City, two car bombs, both of which were targeting the international community. A VBIED apparently penetrated into a compound shared by the Louis Berger Group and Chemonics – a large USAID implementing partner. Reportedly, three internationals and three Afghans were killed in the blast which was huge – this was a well designed, powerful VBIED which are rare in Afghanistan. Another small IED detonated last night in Jalalabad very close to the site of last week’s bicycle bomb; it caused no damage or casualties because it was an act of intimidation. I should say another failed attempt of intimidation because the local people really could give a damn about these nuisance attacks which, for all we know, could be (as E2 observed in the comment section) directed at Governor Sherzai.
What is happening in Jalalabad and Kandahar are two completely different events. Jalalabad is experiencing a rash of small scale incidents designed to minimize casualties (with the notable exception of last week’s bike bomb), which are having zero impact on the attitudes of the local population. In Kandahar there is clearly a well organized campaign designed to preempt the impending ISAF operation focused on Kandahar.
Last night’s attack in Kandahar was the third attack on an aid organization operating in the south in the last month. Two of these attacks targeted large compounds with multiple layers of security, the attempted attack on IRD in Lashkar Gah last month failed. The attack last night on Louis Berger did not. By successfully targeting international aid workers, the bad guys are able to slow down and in some cases stop the “build” part of the “clear, hold, and build” tactic which is now the focus of ISAF. By driving up the level of violence in Kandahar they can force ISAF and ANSF units to deploy into the city center without doing the methodical job of clearing street by street, erecting mobility obstacles to funnel all traffic into joint check points, conducting a census to establish who belongs where and who’s controlling the city. Thrusting units deep inside a hostile unstable city will dramatically increase the probability of another shooting event which ISAF can clearly not afford.
In the east things are not looking great either. The districts of Sherzad and Khogyani, less than 20 miles away from the Taj, are under complete Taliban control. Our local nationals who are from villages in these district can no longer travel to their homes. Yesterday there was another small arms attack on the Jalalabad to Kabul road. The attackers struck along the boundary which separates areas of responsibility between the French Army (Kabul Province) and American Army (Laghman Province), which resulted in only Afghan police responding to the attack while units of the Afghan Army were on holiday routine not 2 miles further down the road. Make of that what you will, but enemy units that know how to work unit boundaries are demonstrating tactical competence. As bad as things look in the south, all of it could change if we clear and hold Kandahar City and the major village complexes around the city while continuing to hold what the Marines have cleared in the Helmand Province. Driving out the forces sponsored by the Quetta Shura from their home provinces and keeping them out would be a devastating psychological blow to all the other bad actors in the east and south east as well as a huge victory for Afghan people.
But here is the thing…..politics. The linked article covers it pretty well. What ISAF hopes to do is use international forces operating in conjunction with the Afghan Army to chase the Taliban out of the second largest city in the country. Simultaneously they want to replace the current racketeering-infected government with one which is recognized by Afghans as being more inclusive and less corrupt. The first step in accomplishing that mission would seem to be removing Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai (AWK), from the scene which, apparently, is not going to happen. Instead, the military is going to attempt to work around and “contain” him. This is not because of his rumored association with the CIA, but because the military realizes it has no real knowledge of Kandahar’s mafia-influenced political scene and thus no ability to predict the ramifications of removing the guy perched at the very top.
ISAF wants to clear the city in a slow, deliberate, methodical fashion, spending lots of time in hopes of avoiding casualties. The Taliban appear to be trying to draw them into the city ahead of schedule and then bleed them. If they are successful at inflicting casualties (and not even heavy casualties, just a few a day, a number which would have been irrelevant in past wars) then they will completely derail ISAF. If that happens, RC South will want to throw the Marines into the fray and we’ll lose everything they have gained over the past 18 months in a bid to win Kandahar. So we shall see. The way things look to me at the moment, the entire Afghanistan operation now depends on being successful at both eliminating the Taliban and the corrupt government from Kandahar. That is a difficult mission the military cannot accomplish alone.