Editors Note: A hat tip with many many thanks goes out to Tim of Panjwayi, the country manager of Team Canada for providing the detailed report and pictures from the 5 May attack in Zaranj.
The fighting season is rapidly ramping up to make this the bloodiest yet, which makes it the perfect time for President Karzai to go to Washington for a little face time with the Commander in Chief. What is to be accomplished during this meeting is easy to predict: Not one damn thing. This article in the Washington Post explains why – here is a quote from it: “‘We don’t have a plan yet,’ worries the senior military official.” With the operation to clear Kandahar on hold, that’s a huge problem. I’m worried too.
As often happens when the good President leaves to conduct important affairs of state the Taliban have declared that they will ramp up a major offensive targeting ISAF, the Afghan government and all internationals. This offensive even has a name; al Faath (victory) and it is scheduled to start tomorrow. Threats of this nature have come often in the past but this one is being taken more seriously by Afghan security forces and internationals working outside the wire. The military, as far as we can tell, ignores these kinds of things completely which is a shame because they could mount a one day surge which would impress the hell out of everybody earning them huge social capital. They could do that, but can’t. Let me explain why using the recent Taliban attack in the previously peaceful city of Zaranj, which is the Capital of Nimroz Province. Then describe how easy it could be to preempt this kind of activity using aggressive patrolling tactics.
On the 5th of May at approximately 0930 a squad of nine Taliban fighters in two Toyota Corollas attacked the Nimroz Provincial Council office and the Governors compound. They attacked sequentially in what appear to be a well planned raid. All nine attackers were dressed in ANA uniforms with AK47 assault rifles and at least one grenade. All nine were wearing suicide vests.
The raid force had failed to recently confirm their target reconnaissance because they were forced to stop and dismount well short of their breach points due to roads into the objective being cut for the installation of drainage pipes to the north and a counter-mobility barrier blocking their ingress from the south.
Five attackers from this first vehicle moved past this gate and stopped outside the entrance gate of the Provincial Council office where they engaged ANP (Afghan National Police) troops who were responding from the Governors compound to the south. There were also ANP units arriving to the north of the attackers on the street pictured above.
A second attacker detonated his suicide vest to breach the door into the Provincial Council’s office complex. The remaining three attackers rushed inside to fire into the council offices from the outer windows.
The attackers started running around the building firing at the Provincial Council members through the outside windows. The members were running around inside the building looking for a place to hide. At least one ANP guard was inside the building returning fire and many of the council members also started to return fire with their sidearms. One of the attackers was killed during this portion of the attack. The attackers then threw in a hand grenade (which detonated under a stairwell sending the frag back at the attackers) and turned their attention to the Governors compound.
Now things start to get really crazy. If you look at the google map above, you can see where the second corolla pulled up and emptied out four more fighters. This car was not found after the fight so the driver probably chickened out – it is unusual for the Taliban to use a driver for transport only in these assaults. The second vehicle was stopped well short of the Governors compound by a recently installed road block. By the time both assault teams had linked up there was organized effective fire coming at them from the Governors compound to the south and ANP troops arriving north of the attackers.
Their second vehicle – which was probably rigged as a vehicle born IED was unable to make it into the fight and retreated, so the raiding party was stuck and had to come up with a way to close the final 300 meters. So they did what all suicide vest wearing raiding parties do – they started breaching the walls of compounds adjacent to the Governors place by throwing themselves against the wall and detonating.
As the raid force breached each wall they moved into the compounds looking for a way to the Governors office. They did not fire at the compound owners or their families. Having breached their way into the compound above they then used another attacker to blow himself up at the doorway of an adjacent compound.
At this point the assault squad is down to four men and they had a mighty big wall to get through. Obviously these guys were not disposed to alternative courses of action – I guess when you strap on a suicide vest everything around you looks like a target. So hey diddle diddle straight up the middle they went.
The attackers never made it into the governors compound and the fighting ended with the suicide of the last surviving attacker. This attack was typical for Taliban operations. The planning seemed to be good as was the reconnaissance but the failure to confirm that reconnaissance after the raid was green lighted meant this mission was compromised from the start. The execution of the plan was typically amateurish with poor gun handling, poor grenade handling, poor marksmanship and no branch or squeal planning being the defining characteristics. As soon as the attackers found themselves cornered or stymied by an unanticipated obstacle they blew themselves up.
The attackers were reported to be younger males, not Afghan in appearance, with red faces and Pakistani-style shoes. Some witnesses believed them to be Pakistani, others Iranian. Everyone we talked to agreed that they weren’t locals. They were all wearing ANA uniforms and all nine had Suicide -IED vests, AK47s and at least one had a grenade.
There are several theories amongst the more credible local nationals (LNs) who are familiar with all the facts of the attack. One theory is that this was an attack staged by Quetta Shura Taliban. In 2008 and early 2009, there had been frequent S-IED attacks in Zaranj, approx one per month according to residents, until NDS conducted two big raids in March 2009, after which these attacks dropped to zero. The Nimroz Governor had been recently reporting the Zaranj City had been free from AGE/INS attacks for over one year. Some of the LNs who believe that this was a QST attack also believe that it was very ineffective on purpose. They believe that this wasn’t a poorly planned and executed attack, but simply a message sent to citizens and officials of Nimroz that they can attack whenever and wherever they please and they got off lucky this time.
Another theory held by many LNs, including most of the Provincial Council members and perhaps even the NDS, was that this attack was perpetrated by Iranian elements trying to destabilize the area and pass the blame on to the Taliban. There has been much recent confrontation along the Iranian/Afghan border in the vicinity of Zaranj, including Iranian border guards shooting Afghan civilians along the border at the rate of one per day, which goes unreported by GOA or media according to the LNs. Also, there is a war of words underway regarding water rights and a hydro-electric project. Several prominent LNs report that Iranian Border Guards didn’t let any traffic pass from Iran into Zaranj the day of the attack and the day before, which is highly suspicious to them. Also, it is believed that the Iranians have operatives inside Zaranj, working under the guise of the local Red Crescent and Khomeini Foundation organizations. The Governor of Nimroz has recently changed his public rhetoric from pro-Iranian to anti-Iranian. Also, approximately 2 weeks before the attack, members of the Provincial Council took local media to disputed areas of the border which have been occupied by Iran, where they are said to be stealing Afghan water. The Iranian Border Police sent a squad to dispel the group of politicians and media so the Nimroz Governor sent a platoon of ANA to intervene.
One thing is certain and that is it is easy – really easy to preempt these kinds of attacks with the proper deployment of ISAF troops. Everyone of these attacks occurs during the morning hours. Everyone of them involve bad guys wearing ANA or ANP uniforms and suicide vests being delivered to the objective by small private cars. All it would take to stop these kinds of attacks would be deploying joint military/ANP patrols in the neighborhoods but here is the catch – MRAPS won’t work. They are too big, the people inside cannot see, smell, hear, or feel anything outside of the massive iron MRAP. Plus the damn things would tear out the electrical wires in 97% of the suburban streets in Afghanistan. Preempting Taliban attacks in the cities and larger towns means Americans and Afghans riding around in the LTV’s (light tactical vehicle to the military; pick up truck to the rest of us) where they can see, hear and observe the local environment while applying the rule of opposites. This they can do in theory but not in practice because of “force protection” rules laid out from on high.
Zaranj is an important city which currently has no ISAF or Afghan Army units stationed near the city. One rifle company of American infantry could instantly make this city and its people safe and secure. All they need do is partner up with the local ANP and ride around the town looking for something or someone out of place. The Taliban are not tactically proficient at anything they try to do. Their target surveillance methods are about as effective as their small unit raids – which is to say not effective and therefore easy to spot. Their raid forces always look the same, men in uniforms with AK’s and bulky suicide vests packed into small passenger cars. How hard would it be to spot that? Five guys crammed into a Toyota are nothing more than helpless targets unless they have the time to deploy from their vehicles. Given two marine riflemen, four ANP troopers and a half dozen pissed off but disciplined oysters on the half shell you could whack groups like this day in and day out for the next nine years.
So tomorrow is al Faath day which may or may not bring some more of these attacks. The local people in the east do not seem worried nor are we, but you know what would really make an impression? To see the US Army out in force tomorrow morning manning checkpoints with the ANP and driving around the neighborhoods looking for things which are exactly opposite to what they expect to see. If we are supposedly focused on the population then the population should actually see us being focused on them and being proactive during times when the villains are up to mischief. Flooding Jalalabad with a few hundred of the 7 to 8 thousand troops in residence outside the city would do wonders for the morale of the locals and the morale of our troops. But the chances of that happening are zero. You can talk “COIN” and “population centric” all you want and it will make no difference to anyone here. Actions always speak louder than words.