In The Graveyard of Fuel Tankers

It appears that Taliban fighters are moving out of the “Southern Triangle” of Nangarhar Province and attempting to interdict the road to Kabul. The latest attack (August 6th) occurred closer to Jalalabad then attacks targeting fuel tankers last summer. The talented RPG gunner we nicknamed “The Mechanic” was working the Tangi valley closer to Surobi  last summer shooting up scores of fuel tankers but we are not seeing evidence of the Mechanic this year and have been told French Special Forces whacked him last winter.

The most recent attack happened in broad daylight around 0800 and the ambush team stayed on scene to fight with the ANP/ANA for around an hour; pulling out only after American soldiers arrived on scene. This is a new (not cool) milestone for the Taliban.

This was the targeted tanker - it took multiple hits to the cab and tanker from small arms fire and an RPG hit to the external fuel tank behing the cab
This was the targeted tanker – it took multiple hits to the cab and tanker from small arms fire and an RPG hit to the external fuel tank behing the cab

I was in Kabul when this ambush went down so Shem Bot and Mullah John went out to have a look and reported the following:

20 or so bad guys moved into a refugee settlement from the ridge line of the Tor Ghar mountains (Black Mountains). They dug hasty fighting positions and whacked a fuel tanker then stayed around to fight with the ANP. The villains kept up a sustained rate of fire for 45 minutes and broke contact when the Americans got SA (situational awareness) and got their 81’s (81mm mortars) in action.

When the Taliban attack a major road it brings traffic to a halt which blocks the road and isolates the fight.  Afghans always fill all lanes and road shoulders to push up as close as humanly possible to a road blockage knowing full well that by doing so they will extend the length and time of the blockage. I have seen Afghans jumping a 100 person line at the Dubai airport look mystified when they are forced to go to the back of the line to wait their turn. They just do not like to que up so when the road clears it takes hours to unblock the east/west travel lanes and get moving. An ambush like this will normally make the movement of reinforcements into the fight impossible but the Americans made it through in 45 minutes winning an official Mention in Dispatches from the staff of FRI.

RPG strike - not the work of the Mechanic who would never waste a rocket like this - he consistently hit the cabs killing the drivers last summer...we have no idea what he had against fule truck drivers but I bet Steven King could come up with a good story line about it
RPG strike – not the work of the Mechanic who would never waste a rocket like this – he consistently hit the cabs killing the drivers last summer…we have no idea what he had against fule truck drivers but I bet Steven King could come up with a good story line about it

Our question remains how did a squad of Taliban move over the Tor Ghar mountains, dig in and ambush a fuel tanker to draw all the local ANP units into a sustained firefight. Break contact after the Americans show up yet make it back over the mountains without being hit by 300 to 400 rounds of 30mm cannon fire by an Apache, or a Kiowa or maybe even a fast mover (jet)? I think I found the answer to that question when I was down south with the Marines last week. The Marines are shooting rockets – a lot of them and I was chatting up the Operations Officer who told me he has been coordinating with some Geo Space type agency in DC.

It turns out the new generation of the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) goes so high that they have to de-conflict the missile track with satellites and other stuff hanging out in space. When I asked why they shot so many he said the new ROE makes getting clearance to use Tac Air difficult to do in a timely manner. He added that they’ll fix that in due time when they’ve been in theater a bit longer but for now have to tolerate ISAF micromanagement.

It seems that the Taliban understand the ROE has changed enough that they now operate near local villages knowing we will not shoot when they go to ground around civilians. A year ago there would have been so many attack birds stacked over those deadbeats they would have needed an airborne controller to keep them from hitting each other. There is no vegetation or cover in this area of the country so men moving across the countryside are easy prey for attack pilots.  But not anymore apparently – drop the rifles and you’re no longer a PID (positive ID) candidate.

Michael Yonis down south with the Marines and sent this very cool picture of a CH-47 landing in brownout conditions. It takes a ton of both skill and guts to land a bird in these kinds of conditions
Michael Yon is down south with the Marines and sent this very cool picture of a CH-47 landing in brownout conditions. It takes a ton of both skill and guts to land a bird in these kinds of conditions

Changing the Rules of Engagement (ROE) based on pressure over civilian casualties would be one thing if the civilian casualty statistics were solid but they’re not.  For example; a convoy of fuel trucks is attacked by the villains and in that attack 20 PSC guards and 15 tanker drivers are killed. Under current polices (which are not standardized among the UN, military, ANSO or  the Afghan Security Forces) they are civilians. Another example; A local land owner hosts a war party of Villains in his Qalat providing them food, shelter, safe haven and weapons storage. Those fighters later attack an Afghan police checkpoint and a predator follows them back to the Qalat allowing it’s controllers to call in fast movers and light the place up. The compound owner, his wife and kids are killed in the ensuing air strike….are they civilians or fighters?

I have been a consistent and harsh critic of the way we have used air strikes which have resulted in the killing of innocent civilians and only innocent civilians because the target was nominated by intel that in-evidently involves a walk-in HumInt asset.  The over reliance on technology and “trusted” government officials resulted in dropping ordinance on people we don’t know to be Taliban. Their crime was getting on the wrong side of “trusted government assets” and are then whacked based on intel provided by these them to the spooks.     That’s bad tactics and bad tactics rarely provide good opportunists for lasting results. The Captains Journal, using excerpts from Vampire Six and the FRI blog has the best write up on the topic I have seen right here.

Expended brass in one of the fighting positions used on the 6 August tanker ambush. 20 armed men should not be allowed to walk anywhere in Afghanistan without feeling the heat of an airborne targeting laser on their neck just before the lights go out for good. Photo by The Shem Bot
Expended brass in one of the fighting positions used on the 6 August tanker ambush. 20 armed men should not be allowed to walk anywhere in Afghanistan without feeling the heat of an airborne targeting laser on their neck just before the lights go out for good. Photo by The Shem Bot

In war people die; that’s why it is in everyone’s best interest to get this shit over quickly and to beat the enemy decisively. It’s not important how wars start but how they end is critical. When the enemy is beaten and knows he’s beaten wars end. Until we reach that point we will spend blood, our blood, their blood and the blood of innocents. The longer this is allowed to continue the more we are going to bleed which is why we need to finish it. And the only way to finish it is to kill the Big T Taliban when and where we find them even when there might be innocents around them.

6 Replies to “In The Graveyard of Fuel Tankers”

  1. Bravo! The last paragraph says it all. I agree. War should never be seen as a long term engagement, yet I feel as though we are lacking decisive pack leaders with a central focus.

    I can say on the stateside, there are very serious things that will happen if we keep treating this conflict as a combination social exercise and philosophical debate. The first is more lives will be lost. The second is that the public it will continue to move off the radar of the vast majority of Americans who don’t serve. Once people stop caring, 8 years can easily turn in 16. And those fighting will have an increasingly hard time at re-integrating back into civilian life, as well as seeing their needed health benefits whittled down by a congress perpetually out to “save taxes” (as happened with Vietnam vets). And the voices of dissent (whether or not they agree with one another, after all, there’s diversity in the ranks) will grow weaker and seem more marginalized.

  2. Tim,

    The loss of our TACAIR has not missed the Taliban, they are sure to adapt their TTPs and start ‘hugging’ civilians as they ambush and attack their targets. The one sad estimation I see combat commanders make is to label these guys as ‘dumb’ or ‘incapable’, these idiots can and will continue to fight and they are not tied to some FOB or retarded CONOP process that makes their ability to move mired in bullsh!t from on high. These low tech idiots are fighting their fight on their terms, and we continue to play into their hands due to politics and risk aversion.

    Anyway, the American public and politico’s cannot have it both ways — winning wars without civilian casualties is a fallacy. No decent Marine or Soldier wants to kill an innocent civilian, but like any guerilla war it’s hard determine good guy from bad guy in Afghanistan. My experiences in Afghanistan have taught me that if we simple “unleashed the dogs” and pushed the fight from RC South and RC East to inside the Pakistan border by five kilometers would see a less capable Taliban fighting force….I will quickly digress since this thought in itself is an even larger fallacy considering our political and military decision machine!!

    In the end, I still think our ticket out will come from the same methodology as in Iraq — buy some limited time of relative ‘stability’, train the locals (police and Army), and then leave calling it a success and whatever the end game (i.e. civil war, which we will see in Iraq and once again along sectarian lines (Shia, Sunni, and Kurd)) it won’t be our fault since we did what we were suppose to — bought time for the Afghans to fix this problem themselves. I expect to see SECSTATE and POTUS beating up on Karazai in the Fall as they demand he take more steps to ensure the security of his own nation. Pay attention to the game plan because it will look a lot like how we whipped PM Maliki around in the press almost two years ago…

    The Taliban will remain an entity within Afghanistan and not restricted to the south either. One eyed Omar has stated several times he wants the whole enchilada (circa pre-9/11) with the Taliban in control of Kabul. Expect violence to spike in an effort to disrupt and more importantly discredit the upcoming election process. Then I expect the Taliban will follow our script once POTUS shows his cards in the Fall/Winter. I expect an announcement from the White House within four months or so following the Afghan elections (by the end of the year, beginning of next as we enter mid-term U.S. election cycle) where the administration will announce a tentative end to this so-called Afghanistan “surge”…read this to mean “we’re not staying for much longer” and if their on point beating up Karazai at the same time to “take action” then we move further along from disavowing ourselves of any long term failure in Afghanistan.

    The Taliban will probably reduce operations this winter allowing us some ‘success’ which will prompt us to claim success and ultimately leave sooner. The Taliban can and will await our certain withdrawal from the country. Once the U.S. presence diminishes it will be game on like Donkey Kong and the ANA and ANP will start getting their asses handed to them and quickly the Taliban will retake what was theirs starting in the south. I expect this to happen either next summer or the Fall of 2010…no later since we will be entering the U.S. Presidential election cycle and the POTUS will not have much to tout as success in Afghanistan. Remember he claimed to ‘surge’ and then turn this thing over, so he has to do this within one term…the second term is never guaranteed.

    I guess this is what we call counter-insurgency today. I am sure many pundits out there will disagree and tell me that we are making success across Afghanistan and I do not doubt this… I am certain there are small successes occuring every day in villages and cities all across Afghanistan but these are not mutually supporting accomplishments and in the end we still lack an over-arching grand strategy (economic, military, and political) that will see Afghanistan through the next 10 years.

    I really hope I am wrong and all my assessments prove false…

    “Politics is the tail that wags the military dog” — Anonymous

    Stay safe out there.

  3. Tim,

    Saw you quoted by the CSM online following the latest Taliban suicide car bomb attack in Kabul today. Interestingly, Reueters is reporting that GEN McChrystal will deliver his assessment of the situation following the elections. All this is reading like a poorly written strategy of finding the solution before identifying the problem. President Karazai and his two swindling brothers (esp. Ahmed Wali, who by the way speaks under DoD contract for events overseas and in CONUS at a price of about $2,000 a day!!) could be run out of town for a start. Then POTUS names Ambassador Eikenberry as interim ruler/leader of Afghanistan and we try martial law for a while conducting an effective COIN strategy (which would include chasing out every corrupt politician and security official) while at the same time putting in place those leaders and officials who have the best interest of Afghanistan writ large vice these dopes they have running Kabul today.

    Anyway, mirror imaging this latest attack it appears the Taliban have struck their enemy’s heart of security — Kabul. If they can sneak a car bomb within 100 meters of ISAF headquarters what does that portend for the future?

    Stay safe out there…

  4. I think one thing which we can learn from history is that long term engagements (such as Operation Banner in Northern Ireland, Britain in Aiden & the Yemen, etc) is that they tend to be very bloody and that all sides lose legitimacy with civilians as time passes and the atrocities build.

    At the same time, a long term conflict tends to dissolution and moderate even the most hawkish of commander regardless of the side they sit on. The question is how long will it be before the various groups in Afghanistan currently opposing NATO will turn to the negotiating table and ballot box rather than pick up the gun? Years? Decades? Definitely no time soon.

  5. Bloody indeed… I don’t think these various groups that oppose NATO will never NOT pick-up the gun. The history of Afghanistan shows that when all else fails fall back on the tribe and the gun. American intervention is mostly seen as temporary in the eyes of most Afghans and Pakistani’s. They have seen us come and go before (our support to the jihad ended once the Soviets withdrew) so they are simply awaiting the withdrawal of US support (again). In the meantime, the Taliban are more than happy to wage their own campaign to rally against the ‘foreign invaders’ which is a unifying theme among the disparate groups in Afghanistan.

    Between our intervention efforts and the Taliban’s jihad is the fight over perception. US mil-gov must be perceived as improving Afghanistan long term (this fight is and will be waged in the American media which will parrot whatever they hear from US officials in Kabul, Bagram, and D.C.)…free lancing journalists from the MSM ended in Vietnam. The military and government will not allow indepent MSM reporters to caravan the countryside telling their own story…anyway…

    Near term look for a lot of US-Afghan “partnering” at the tactical and operational level with a focus on securing population centers and Lines of Communications. A big push in increasing the size of the ANA, ANP, and ABP is happening now! What will be ignored is how these institutions will be infilitrated and corrupted from within and again the metric for success isn’t the abolishment of the opium trade, destroying the Taliban/HQN/AQN safe havens (which are all in Pakistan), or ensuring a non-corrupt political entity is left to steer the ship but rather the perception that our efforts were successful.

    In the final analysis conditions will be measured through perception and political realities here in the United States. If POTUS should get a resurgence in popularity and the Dems should hold the majority following the mid-term elections then you will see some room for shifting time lines should the Afghans and the bad guys not follow our script. If POTUS is getting hammered because the war is costing too much and the political perception at home among voters is unfriendly toward Afghanistan and POTUS in general then expect the perception spin machine to churn faster. Currently, the USG Integrated Civ-Mil Campaign Plan is timed out to around 2011-2012, so expect them stay on message within those dates.

    2009-2010 expect to hear success after success that US forces are routing the Taliban in the Helmand River Valley and throughout Kandahar Province. In part, this is accurate but even the tactical commanders will admit they are mostly dispersing the bad guys and not really destroying/defeating them. This Fall/Winter expect an increase in US-Afghan patrols and security outposts throughout Afghanistan (mostly in cities)while at the same time beefing up MSR security.

    2010-2011 expect to see substantial increases in the numbers of ANA, ANP, and ABP in uniform as we dump billions into funding these units. Also some moves toward reducing opium production but this will be limited and not forever. There is way too much money to be made by the warlord drug dealers and NATO and US forces are too small in number to do it all — secure population centers, train and partner with Afghan forces, and go after irreconciliables while at the same time counter-drug production is too much for even a surge force to accomplish.

    2011-2012 expect to see decreases in Taliban attacks due to allowing the Taliban to exist in some shape or form will be inevitable. The ‘irreconciliables’ will have been rounded up and gone. Good luck finding someone that can tell you the difference between a reconciliable Taliban and one that isn’t… My guess is the smart ones will stop publically decrying death to Americans until after we leave. The more die hard ones will fight on regardless…and those safe havens in Pakistan? Probably still intact and operating as usual…

    Anyway, we call it what we call it but I tend to believe the last time the US military defeated anyone with any lasting and changing effect was WWII against the Axis in Italy, Germany, and ultimately Japan. The ‘win’ in all this machination is short term perceptions of success driven by political standings and polls at home.

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