16 August 2009

Upstate New York's finest do counterinsurgency in Afghanistan

War is Boring Reporter Jason Reich is embedded with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. Reich discusses the complexities and nuances of "COIN" in Afghanistan. Also of note is the use of artillery Soldiers as infantrymen in these environments, and not as artillerymen (certainly not new, but it's an interesting trend worth discussing)

I don't know why I noticed this, but take a look at the picture from the article (included here). Check your sack, #2 man in the stack. I guess the Army is still having problems with the crotch coming apart in the Army Combat Uniform. (Gives new meaning to the phrase "going commando". See, I'm not the only one who does this.)
JALREZ VALLEY, Afghanistan -- It's a chilly summer night in the Jalrez valley, lit well by a three-quarter moon. I'm on a mission with the men of the 4/25 Artillery Battalion, part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, based in the Wardak and Logar provinces. We are weaving through ancient irrigation canals and wading across the numerous small rivers that feed the fertile valley, making our way to a medium sized village nestled into a hillside. Our winding path has been carefully chosen to minimize the chance that we will step on an IED, but it also seems to maximize the chance that everyone's feet will be completely soaked by the end of the operation. The men of 4/25 are almost all "13 Bravos," the U.S. Army's designation for heavy artillery -- but there won't be any artillery fire tonight. In fact, their "tubes" are all packed away in storage, and have been since the 10th Mountain's arrival in Afghanistan eight months ago at the head of the "Afghanistan surge." What these artillery soldiers are doing here, on a dismounted infantry patrol through one of Afghanistan's most IED-laden provinces, illustrates the flexibility and patience that this new breed of warfare demands. This fact isn't lost on the men in 4/25. They are quick to remind me that Napoleon called artillery the "king of the battlefield" and they bemoan the lack of artillery in these COIN operations. "I've seen guys in training put consecutive 155mm rounds through a window" boasts Sgt. First Class Ernest Steih. Yet the restrictive rules of engagement, coupled with an elusive enemy has prevented them from using their cannons in the fight -- and it's beginning to take a toll on their morale. The company I am embedded with has just lost four men in an IED attack, and like many attacks in this area, there was nobody around to shoot back at. But this is what tonight's mission is all about -- a rare chance for the men of 4/25 to go "kinetic." Even without the support of their heavy guns, the men are energetic and ready for battle. They are looking for the local Taliban cell leader and his deputy in the village of Ala-Khel, the men likely responsible for the IED that killed four of their friends only two weeks earlier. They have been told that there are at least 20-30 armed Taliban fighters protecting the village and they are ready for a fight. After trudging for a few kilometers, we reach our initial objective and blocking positions are established. As we get ready to start clearing houses, a new order filters down the radio net -- houses are not to be searched at night, we must wait until daybreak. The frustration is palpable -- the soldiers, who moments ago were wound up and ready for battle, now seem visibly deflated. We move to a small culvert between two khalats, and hunker down for the few remaining hours until dawn.

From a COIN perspective, the reason for this "tactical pause" is obvious. The coalition doesn't want to barge into peoples' homes in the middle of the night -- especially in this village with its large, traditionally friendly, Hazara population. On the other hand, Lt. John Gillette, the platoon leader, thinks that this is mission suicide. "We're calling a time-out," he jokes to his men, "I'm sure that our target will understand." At daybreak, the troops assemble and begin searching through the 40 or 50 khalats in the village. As per coalition protocols, the Afghan National Police is always the first to enter a house, followed by the Afghan National Army, while the Americans secure the perimeter. After numerous operations with the ANP, I have yet to see an Afghan policemen actually unshoulder his rifle before entering a home. They usually knock softly on the door, exchange a few words with the homeowner, and then casually enter the courtyard. This is in sharp contrast to the team of tightly wound U.S. soldiers by the door, lined up in "stack formation" with weapons at the ready. Curiously, almost no males of military age are found in the village -- in every home children answer the door. By the end of the operation, a couple of detainees are brought back to the battalion headquarters, but from what I understand, they are small-time operatives. It seems the elusive Taliban in Wardak have escaped to fight another day. This operation perfectly illustrates the paradox of the coalition's new COIN doctrine: The more you protect your soldiers, the more you endanger them. Slow, infantry-style dismounted patrols and joint operations with the ANA and ANP are what provide the necessary intelligence required to unmask the Taliban, but they carry with them the risk of higher coalition casualties. Instead of shelling the target house from kilometers away with their 155mm artillery rounds, the soldiers of 4/25 put themselves on the ground, and very much in harm's way, in order to protect the civilians here in Wardak. Sadly, the same measures that are put into place to protect the civilians can protect the Taliban as well. In Wardak, like in the rest of Afghanistan, many of the Taliban are civilians -- for at least 12 hours a day. This challenge of shifting from "kings of the battlefield" to "armed social workers" has not been easy on the soldiers of 4/25. On a recent patrol to purchase supplies for an upcoming key leader engagement, one disgruntled soldier expressed it best: "If I die here today, what are they going to tell my mother? Your son was killed buying drinks for dinner."

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