Friday, April 4, 2008

The War In Afghanistan Enters an Escalation Phase

Today, we're going to take a look at what's going on in Afghanistan.

Capt. Chris Hammonds expected it. In a mud-brick command center, the 32-year-old Army Ranger pivoted between a radio and a map, tracking reports of approaching Taliban. Several explosions soon ripped through the night as U.S. forces hit the suspected Taliban positions, including a cross-border guided-munitions strike on a compound about a mile inside Pakistan where senior associates of Siraj Haqqani -- considered one of the most dangerous Taliban commanders -- were thought to be meeting.

The U.S. military usually strikes across the border only when taking accurate fire from Pakistan, and standard practice calls for informing the Pakistani military about threats from its side. But Hammonds argued that the Pakistani military checkpoint was "under siege" from the Taliban and that Pakistani officers -- fearful of retaliation -- could tip off the insurgents.

First of all, I'm not going to criticize Captain Hammonds in any way, shape or form. He is on the ground and he is carrying out his orders and he is protecting the lives of his men. Second of all, I am going to criticize the tactics. Third, I'm going to explain why criticizing the tactics DOES NOT mean that I'm finding fault with Captain Hammonds.

The end result of carrying the fight across an International border:

The rare strike averted an imminent Taliban attack, Hammonds said, but across the border a starkly different account emerged. "Two women and two children got killed, so whatever was assessed was not correct," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a spokesman for the Pakistani army. No Taliban were meeting in the family compound, he said. The Pakistani government issued a protest, and demonstrations erupted. "We were never informed about the strike," Abbas said. "This has serious implications for operations."

The March 12 incident highlights how, more than six years into the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, efforts to stabilize the country increasingly focus on the rugged frontier area straddling the border with Pakistan. Over the past 18 months, Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have exploited peace deals by Pakistan's government to create an unprecedented haven in the region, U.S. officials said. From there, insurgents have escalated attacks in Pakistan and in eastern Afghanistan, leading the United States last year to double its troop presence along more than 600 miles of frontier.

The short answer--we're escalating the war into Pakistan. Do we need to? If that's where the enemy is, yes. But there's a right way and a wrong way, and the wrong way is to get lazy and rely on airstrikes or long range artillery. This just creates insurgents. I'm sorry, but send the F-16s home and replace them with helicopters that can ferry in supplies and extra troops when there's trouble.

What do leading proponents of effective Counterinsurgency or "COIN" tactics say about these types of incidents?

Indiscriminate attacks against non-combatants and human-rights abuses aid and abet the enemy’s cause. In our globalized world, abuses such as prisoner maltreatment in Abu Ghraib are quickly broadcast around the globe. Our enemies use these accounts and images as part of their propaganda campaign to discredit host-nation governments and distort popular perceptions of our intentions. Such propaganda mobilizes those who were previously friendly or at least neutral to our efforts to bring stability and security.

Now, this was a fairly discriminate attack. This was not a case where there wasn't a good reason to make a move against the Taliban. The motive was clear but the end result was a propaganda victory for the enemy.

Instead of Captain Hammonds and his men being in a position they are forced to defend, why not take Captain Hammonds OUT of his position and put him in a position to succeed. That is, allow him to close with his real enemy and kill that enemy, irregardless of the International boundary? Here's why I think this is a better approach:

Toward that end, the Army should consider abolishing branch distinctions among field-grade officers for most within the operational career field. Under the current model, an officer remains in his basic branch until he retires or is promoted to the rank of general officer. This lifelong branch affiliation narrows an officer’s perspective and limits his familiarity with capabilities outside his branch. The new model for career advancement should terminate branch affiliation for most officers in the operational career field at the rank of captain. A captain who commands with distinction within his basic branch should have the opportunity to command again in another branch. Officers who command successfully in two organizations from two different branches — maneuver and logistics, fires and intelligence, etc. — are those most suited to command battalions and brigades. The pathway to high command should be reserved for officers who demonstrate a facility with a variety of tools, both lethal and nonlethal. While there would still be a significant need for specialized officers, the surest pathway to high command ought to lie open to the adaptive generalist over the narrow specialist.

To win the Long War, the Army must embrace the combined-arms battalion (CAB) as the basic building block for tactical operations and develop a flatter organizational structure. The development of modular brigade combat teams is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough. The current organization is too hierarchical and too specialized to operate most effectively in the Long War.

During the Plains Indian Wars, many of the tribes opposing America’s westward expansion adopted decentralized hit-and-run tactics to terrorize settlers. In response to these threats, the U.S. Cavalry abandoned the large-scale tactics of the Civil War in favor of small-unit operations. Cavalry troops and squadrons conducted area security operations to protect settlers dispersed over wide areas of the frontier. Cavalry squadrons were combined-arms formations that contained intelligence collectors and cultural advisers (then called scouts) as well as maneuver forces and an organic indirect fires capability. This decentralized approach was necessary to ensure that these organizations possessed the tools they needed to bring security to the frontier.

Again, I don't fault Captain Hammonds. I fault a system that puts him in a place at night that is vulnerable. He and his unit should be integrated with an Afghan Army unit that can cross the border with the cooperation of the Pakistani forces and attack and surround any Taliban unit it finds. Whatever cultural differences exist, it's in the best interests of the Afghans and the Pakistanis to set aside their differences and work together. If it starts with a dozen of each at a time, fair enough. But we should be constructing small, rapid movement units that take parts of each entity and fuses them into something that we haven't seen yet. This force should be capable of fighting and sustaining itself for short periods of time and it should be able to break contact and move where it needs to move. It should feature a creative implementation of fast movement and ambush tactics. It should be a force large enough to be effective but small enough to emplace itself anywhere it wants and catch any insurgent Taliban movements off guard.

Instead of reliable Afghan and Pakistani counterparts, Captain Hammonds deals with a shortage of US troops, an Afghan Army mutiny, and Pakistani corruption:

In the latest operation, in the Kowchun Valley just north of Paktika, Hammonds's company staked out a position above a narrow streambed that snakes through a gorge into North Waziristan, the scene of dozens of firefights between U.S. troops and the Taliban. From his base, Hammonds can see for miles into Pakistan. Haqqani "is extremely upset and can't get anything through," said Fenzel, citing U.S. intelligence.

But because of a shortage of U.S. troops, Hammonds's company can stay in the area only for several weeks. He doubts that Afghan and Pakistani soldiers will be able to control the route once he leaves.

"You're in the middle of an ANA mutiny," Hammonds said one afternoon, referring to the Afghan National Army, as Afghan soldiers from the 203rd Battalion piled into pickup trucks and quit the camp. The Afghans left after learning that the operation, originally to last nine days, would continue for weeks. The exodus underscored Hammonds's belief that Afghan army units cannot guard the border because they rotate every three to six months and they lack enough local knowledge. "The key to securing the border is to remove the ANA completely," he said.

Instead, Hammonds favors the Afghan border police, but eastern Paktika now has only 66 percent of its 857 authorized border police officers and, until December, they were led by a corrupt commander who colluded with the Taliban.

A greater frustration, he and other U.S. troops said, is that they cannot trust their Pakistani counterparts. "The Pakistan military is corrupt and lets people come through," Hammonds said. Pakistani forces reportedly told insurgents the location of his observation post, and when U.S. troops in a firefight call the Pakistani military for help, he said, "they never answer the phone."

Criticizing the situation that this officer is put into means I'm criticizing the strategic lack of vision and not what this officer goes through on the ground. These men are tired, cold, hungry for good food and doing work that most Americans--myself included--couldn't do and wouldn't do for all of the money in the world. These are far better people than we realize and deserve way more than we're capable of giving them. They don't want yellow ribbon magnets, lapel pin wearing loudmouths, or platitudes. Shut the fuck up and appreciate what they do.

Captain Hammonds should be paired up with an Afghan Army officer and loyal troops who can fight, a Pakistani Army officer and troops that can also fight, and they should combine their efforts to effectively identify, track, chase and kill any Taliban that enter their area of control. If it takes US money to get quality troops, pay it. If it takes concessions, make them. Out of the chaos, use whatever means necessary to solve the fucking problems instead of tolerating indifference, corruption and neglect.

Instead of Captain Hammonds sitting in a bunker waiting for an attack, Captain Hammonds should be waiting in ambush for the Taliban, for as long as necessary, safe in the knowledge that a quick-reaction force can come in with enough firepower to help them out. That doesn't mean parking B-52s overhead. It means his unit is rotating in and out with other units that know what he's going through. When the Taliban cannot move in that area for fear of being ambushed by a combined American/Afghan/Pakistani force that cannot be located or tracked, only then will you take the initiative away from the enemy.

And when they're not doing that, Captain Hammonds should sleep at night in peace and security, in an area protected from Taliban attack. And how do they do that? By making sure the population around them are giving them good intel and alerting them if they see Taliban elements appear in the vicinity.

That's how you make the long war a shorter war.

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