This will be a long post because the topic is important requiring that I be 100% clear concerning my observations, recommendations and opinions. In previous posts I have made my case regarding the speed and efficiency with which we are conducting stability operations in Afghanistan. I believe our reconstruction efforts are flawed; we are wasting time while spending billions of dollars without impacting the majority of the population. We are not conducting meaningful infrastructure projects nor establishing security to the vast majority of the Afghan people which is reflected by the growing percentage of the country falling outside the control of the central government. In these areas the Taliban is “out-governing” the Karzai administration which is the worst thing that could be happening after seven years of effort by America and her ISAF allies. These are facts beyond dispute.
The topic of how we are operating on the ground involves not just facts but observations and opinions too. It also involves talking about the currency used by the military in pursuit of their objectives; and that currency is blood. My contention is that the way we have operated here could ultimately cost us more in blood because our tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP’s) are becoming a self fulfilling prophecy. If you treat every Afghan you come into contact with as a potential assassin, guess what? Every Afghan you come in contact with will, in time, become a potential assassin.
Currently this is not the case in all places nor at all times. Every day ISAF military units move into areas and conduct positive interactions with the local population in many of the Provinces of Afghanistan. After a few hours of work they go back to their large fortified bases. When ISAF military convoys travel on the roads they tend to block all the traffic, which routinely produces multiple vehicle accidents due to the jockeying among drivers in the long traffic jams that stack up behind convoys. You have to experience Afghan driving to appreciate how chaotic traffic jams can be, Afghans reputation for aggressive driving is well deserved. The ISAF force protection posture is enforced by the aggressive use of weapons to force back traffic.
If an ISAF convoy has a vehicle break down they stop all traffic, both ways and dismounted soldiers keep all pedestrians away from the vehicles. I was once stuck for an hour in downtown Jalalabad while an American convoy worked to repair a broken truck. The crowd that gathered during this time was enormous, the troops on the ground were very professional and I got the feeling from talking with one that they would rather let the traffic pass. The Sergeant I was chatting up was not the least bit intimidated by the hundreds of Afghans gathering around to watch the hub bub; he knew the local people are not a threat. The American in Jalalabad knew that forcing all traffic to halt bringing the entire city to a bumper to bumper stand still was probably not the best way to handle things but he had his orders.
It is not the inconvenience of being stuck behind a convoy or how they conduct mobile vehicle repair which is the biggest problem, it is the tendency to mark local vehicles as potential vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED’s) and then fire at them that is the problem. This tactic has never successfully (to the best of our knowledge) stopped a VBIED attack. It has caused hundreds of deaths among Afghans who tend to drive a little irresponsibly (to be charitable). I have been told that we have lost at least one soldier who was leaning over the top of his vehicle engaging a real VBIED when it detonated instead of getting down behind the cover provided by his armored vehicle. It’s almost impossible to distinguish the erratic driving mannerisms of a VBIED driver (erratic behavior is the main pre incidence indicator of VBIED’s) from your typical Afghan driver. Afghans routinely drive so aggressively that they would have caused every soldier and contractor I know to light them up if we were all in Iraq. I have traveled route Irish (the road between the Baghdad Airport and the Green Zone) many times and understand how to do so safely. Safe convoys were convoys which kept all Iraq traffic well away from them or (better yet) ones in armored low visibility vehicles mixed in with the local traffic. But Afghanistan is not Iraq; there are no multi-lane separated highways here. You cannot force all traffic away from you like we routinely did in Iraq. Afghan roads are two-lane, poorly maintained affairs with plenty of blind curves, steep grades, and narrow bridges. Vehicles heading towards you pop up fast with little time or distance with which to make an accurate determination of intent. You can train people to work the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop only so fast.
If the TTP you are using has caused the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians and demonstrated over and over that it will not stop a VBIED and if that TTP has caused the loss of troops who were exposed shooting at a VBIED instead of taking cover when it detonates, if that TTP causes aggravation, traffic accidents, and the alienation of the local population then why are we still using this TTP? I know blending in with the traffic is easy for me to say because I’m always in a low profile vehicle. But it would not cause you to take more VBIED strikes because the way you are trying to keep them away fails every time. If you allowed the civilian traffic to flow around your vehicles every time you did take a VBIED strike it would cause even more collateral damage to the surrounding civilians. We are not the only combatants who do not like to inflict collateral damage among the population. The various Taliban, neo Taliban, sorta Taliban, etc… are not al Qaeda. They are fighting to control the civilian population; they understand that you can inflict only so much misery on them before reaching a tipping point. And when the Afghan population reaches a tipping point history shows that they are not the least bit hesitant to let their antagonist know it. There is an information warfare opportunity in moving with the locals if attacked and again – I don’t think you are inviting more attacks because everyone they launch is either successful or goes off before it hits home due to operator error or design flaws.
One of the things working in our favor is the quality control on Afghan car bomb production. The latest VBIED attack near the Taj in Nangahar Province is a perfect example it was directed at an American Army convoy on the road to Khogyani District (that would be the only paved road in the entire southern triangle of Nangarhar Province.) The suicide attacker was waiting on the shoulder off the road by the UN refugee camp pictured in my earlier post on Gandamak. He saw the Americans crest the hill about ½ mile away and gunned his engine to run into them head on. His initiation device was the typical design we find here and was either pressure release or pressure activated and held in the driver’s hand. This suicide attacker had either ‘Buck fever’ or a case of advanced stupidity forgetting about the large dip in the road between him and the Americans. When he hit it at speed he lost control of his vehicle and the initiation device blowing himself to kingdom come. There are much better ways to rig a VBIED and it is to our distinct benefit that those ways have not found their way to Afghanistan yet. But even in this case had the Americans recognized the threat they would not have been able to engage him until he popped out of the low ground right in front of them which obviously would have been too late.
The only reasonable way to handle the VBIED threat is to allow the civilian traffic to mix in with your convoys because they will provide some cover from VBIED cells which do not want to kill large numbers of innocents and it will also let the troops learn what is normal driving behavior in Afghanistan. The only way to successfully identify VBIED drivers is to know what is normal behavior so you can apply the “rule of opposites” to ID potential VBIED’s with enough time and space to do something about it.
If the moving among the civilians is unacceptably risky then all our convoys should consider moving at night because there is little to no civilian traffic anywhere in Afghanistan after 2100 hours. Being ambushed by the Taliban at night, given our aviation assets, would be a big problem for the Taliban. There is nowhere to run or hide from the thermal sights on our gunships or the NVG’s our troops on the ground use.
The video that was embedded below (it has since been removed) was broadcast on public television; the You Tube comments about it are uniformly supportive. When I first saw this segment I was appalled. The mission being filmed involved going to a local bazaar to purchase a spark plug. To accomplish this mission they shoot at I don’t know how many vehicles forcing them all to stop because ( I am guessing here) no locals can drive past the Canadians while their vehicles are pulled off the road. Their lavish use of ball ammunition causes traffic accidents at least one of which results in injuries to one of the occupants serious enough to warrant the dispatch of an American MEDEVAC helicopter. My firm belief is that The Trailer Park Boys could have figured out an easier way to get a spark plug in Kandahar.
I used to work in Kandahar frequently back during the time this segment was filmed. I know exactly how to obtain a spark plug in Kandahar it’s as simple as this “Hajji go get me a spark plug, please.” The Canadians from Senlis Council were working in Kandahar back then too conducting road missions almost daily with a three man security detail (good friends of mine) augmented with local security contingents. Senlis spent a considerable amount of time on the ground in dodgy places like refugee camps and the mean shanty towns which ring the city; you can find one of their excellent reports from Kandahar here. They were able to operate more or less freely around Kandahar which was my experience too.
I would like to stress that I am not contending the Canadians in this video did anything wrong. It is clear that they are operating according to their established rules of engagement and they are no doubt a crew of brave men and women who are proud of what they were able to accomplish during their operational tour in Kandahar. What I am trying to stress is that these rules of engagement are not consistent with the mission of bringing a secure environment along with much needed infrastructure development to the people of Afghanistan. Here is the ISAF mission statement which I just pulled off their web site:
“ISAF’s role is to assist the Government of Afghanistan and the International Community in maintaining security within its area of operation. ISAF supports the Government of Afghanistan in expanding its authority to the rest of the country, and in providing a safe and secure environment conducive to free and fair elections, the spread of the rule of law, and the reconstruction of the country.”
If the situation in Kandahar was so bad that the PRT cannot move a foot outside the wire without establishing a “no locals zone” around them and their vehicles at all times then I would contend that Kandahar doesn’t need a PRT. There are ways of gaining and controlling ground. In a place like Kandahar that would best be done from a series of safe houses manned by infantry soldiers who could would work on a daily basis with the local security forces and the various elders to maintain or re-establish security. This could have been done in Kandahar a few years ago with small teams spread out over a large geographical area. That is a risky way to conduct operations but our experience in Iraq would argue that it is safer for the grunts than riding around in armored vehicles on high IED and VBIED threat roads to “show the flag.” I was in a “show the flag” operation back in Beirut Lebanon in 1983 and it did not work out that well for us. Watching our military flounder about in Afghanistan some 25 years later taking casualties while showing the flag and accomplishing little is depressing.
In 2006 there were plenty of people in Kandahar who welcomed the military presence and were happy to see the Taliban vanquished. There were never as many on our side as you’ll find in the other cities of Afghanistan but they were there. I am not sure what the situation is in Kandahar now. I still have friends working there in the reconstruction battle but their security posture is now the same as it was in Iraq circa 2004. They don’t visit the bazaar nor go about at night on social calls. Somebody is going to have to go in and clean that mess up and I think I know who that somebody is going to be.