Small Wars Journal

Tactics or Strategy?

Sat, 08/15/2009 - 7:23pm
I came back from my latest month in the field in Afghanistan disquieted about our basic military mission. Is the military mission to engage, push back and dismantle the Talbian networks, with population protection being a tactic to gain tips and local militia, or is the military mission to build a nation by US soldiers protecting the widespread population, with engagements against the Taliban as a byproduct?

It appears our strategy is nation-building, with fighting and dismantling of the Taliban a secondary consideration. Thus, the number of enemy killed will not be counted, let alone used as a metric. This non-kinetic theory of counterinsurgency has persuaded the liberal community in America to support or at least not to vociferously oppose the war. But we have to maintain a balance between messages that gain domestic support and messages that direct battlefield operations.

We must understand what our riflemen do in Afghanistan every day. The answer is they conduct combat patrols. That underlies all their other activities. They go out with rifles to engage and kill the enemy. That is how they protect the population. For our generals to stress that the war is 80% non-kinetic discounts the basic activity of our soldiers. Although crime isn't eradicated by locking up criminals, we expect our police to make arrests to keep the streets safe. Similarly, our riflemen are trained to engage the enemy. That's how they protect the population. If we're not out in the countryside night and day -- and we're not -- then the Taliban can move around as they please and intimidate or persuade the population.

I'm not arguing that we Americans can ever dominate the Taliban gangs. There's a level of understanding and accommodation among Afghans in the countryside that culturally surpasses our understanding. During the May poppy harvest, the shooting stops on both sides and men from far and wide head to the fields to participate in the harvest. That's an Afghan thing. Only the Afghans can figure out what sort of society and leaders they want.

That said, we should strive to do a better job of what we are doing for as long as we are there. I condensed several hours of firefights I filmed during various patrols into the 30-second clip I posted here on 10 August (Not a Tactical Hurdle). The purpose is to illustrate a tactical problem that is strategic in its dimensions. Simply put, our ground forces are not inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. However, the annual bill for the US military in Afghanistan exceeds $70 billion, with another four to six billion for development. We've already spent $38 billion on Afghan reconstruction. Congress may eventually balk at spending such sums year after year. The problem is we're liable to be gradually pulled out while the Taliban is intact. Nation-building alone is not sufficient; the Taliban must be disrupted.

Our soldiers only get a small number of chances to engage the enemy. Our battalions average one arrest every two months, and one platoon-sized patrol per day per company that infrequently makes solid contact. On average, a US rifleman will glimpse a Taliban once a month. The Taliban initiate the fights because they know they can escape. Our patrols have firepower but lack mobility. Our soldiers are carrying 70 pounds; a Taliban is carrying ten pounds. The Taliban have the distinct edge in mobility. Because the Taliban are well-concealed and scoot away, our superior firepower does not yield precision aim points to do severe damage.

More senior-level attention must be paid to inflicting severe enemy losses in firefights and to arresting the Taliban, so that their morale and networks are broken. A recent directive forbids applying indirect fires against compounds where civilians might be hiding. That directive upholds human decency and may reduce enemy propaganda. But indirect fires -- helicopter gunships and jets -- used to be called "precision fires" and gave the US its enormous advantage in combat. Now that such fires are restricted, what provides our advantage when the enemy sensibly fights from compounds? Don't expect Afghan soldiers to do it for us. We have equipped and trained the Afghans in our image. They are as heavy and slow-moving on the ground as we are, and rely upon our advisors to call in the firepower.

This is my third war. It has the highest level of military scholars. Those scholars who emphasized the concepts of non-kinetic counterinsurgency need also to design concepts that bring more lethality to the ground battlefield. We're pumping billions into UAVs. Surely we can find technologies and techniques for the grunt.



Sun, 08/16/2009 - 6:31am

Infantry wasn't made for fast movement under fire and pursuit. That's a cavalry role.

Even a lightened infantry could often not destroy an opponent who doesn't want to hold ground.
A two-part patrol (two platoons) might help (one Plt gets fixed in a contact, the other is still free to maneuver), but even that could be countered by tactics.

Permanent air support would help as well, but such a resource-intensive approach is simply unaffordable and still no solution to the "compound" problem.

So maybe we should use cavalry (in protected combat vehicles) for most patrols, and solve the compound problem by encircling/fixing at daylight and eliminating at nighttime.

Yet, as I understand it we're lacking the right type of vehicle for this job; off-road capable in AFG, yet durable and low maintenance and low fuel consumption.

general contempt (not verified)

Sun, 08/16/2009 - 2:37am…

---She says there is no difference for ordinary Afghans between the Taliban and the equally fundamentalist warlords. "Which groups are labelled 'terrorist' or 'fundamentalist' depends on how useful they are to the goals of the US," she says. "You have two sides who terrorise women, but the anti-American side are 'terrorists' and the pro-American side are 'heroes'."

Karzai rules only with the permission of the warlords. He is "a shameless puppet" who will win next month's presidential elections because "he hasn't yet stopped working for his masters, the US and the warlords... At this point in our history, the only people who get to serve as president are those selected by the US government and the mafia that holds power in our country."

---The Afghan public, she adds, are on her side, pointing to a recent opinion poll showing 60 per cent of Afghans want an immediate Nato withdrawal. Many people in Afghanistan were hopeful, she says, about Barack Obama - "but he is actually intensifying the policy of George Bush... I know his election has great symbolic value in terms of the struggle of African-Americans for equal rights, and this struggle is one I admire and respect. But what is important for the world is not whether the President is black or white, but his actions. You can't eat symbolism."

US policy is driven by geopolitics, she says, not personalities. "Afghanistan is in the heart of Asia, so it's a very important place to have military bases - so they can control trade very easily with other Asian powers such as China, Russia, Iran and so on.

"But it can be changed by Americans," she adds. She is passionate now, her voice rising. "I say to Obama - in my area, 150 people were blown up by US troops in one incident this year. If your family had been there, would you send even more troops and even more bombs? Your government is spending $18m ( £11m) to make another Guantanamo jail in Bagram. If your daughter might be detained there, would you be building it? I say to Obama - change course, or otherwise tomorrow people will call you another Bush." ---

KWG (not verified)

Sat, 08/15/2009 - 11:12pm

We need to inject marauding bands of fighters. The election is Aug. 20, we need to send platoon size elements of operators dressed as women trying to get their voting cards and NGO type vehicles offering election support and supervision. When they are attacked the forces take their weapons from under their burkhas and engage. This sends a message we are able to bring the fight to them as guerrillas. ALL OVER THE COUNTRY.Employ more warfighters on horses with beards and traditional clothing living and partrolling like marauding Kuchi tribesmen.We will take casualties but we will take the battle to the enemy. There are operators who would engage in this type warfare that aren't with defense contractors overseas.

Patrick (not verified)

Sat, 08/15/2009 - 10:01pm

<em>Dont expect Afghan soldiers to do it for us. We have equipped and trained the Afghans in our image. They are as heavy and slow-moving on the ground as we are, and rely upon our advisors to call in the firepower.</em>

Isn't this one of the issues brought forth by Nagl in his book "Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife"? After reading "The Gamble" it seemed like American counterinsurgency had taken a major step forward. What went wrong during this conflict?