Now, I'd love to show everyone a 3D Google map of the area like Fareed Zakaria on CNN's GPS, but alas, I can't quite find COP Keating, so I leave you all mapless. Not to fear, as Paul does a great job at summing up much of the difficulties at Keating.
I knew nothing about COP Keating until after the battle. When I saw some of the photos, I said to myself “oh sh*t, I can see why these guys got pounded.” Anytime the opposition can direct fire down on you, you’ve got a big helping of hurt on your hands. On the other hand, it didn’t look like there was much in the way of flat ground, or even a reasonable slope, on which to set up a base in the hills. And locating it too far up the hill would have meant that resupply could probably only be done by helicopter. I gather that that’s not a real solid link at times during the year.
I had some questions, though. Did these guys have listening posts out? Did they do nighttime patrols in the village and in the hills around their base? How was their intel capability within the village? If something out of the ordinary was going on, would they have known about it? How were they keeping an eye on the mosque (which was an obvious rallying point)? Did they set ambushes every night? The impression I’ve gotten is that the answers to these questions might be kinda negative. It strikes me that if they were doing these things properly, it would have been fairly difficult to assemble over 100 fighters without our troops knowing about it.
If you have a base on bad ground, you absolutely cannot sit around and wait for the other guy to come to you. You have to project your eyes and ears outward so you have advance warning. You also have to make the enemy cautious about approaching you. That’s the purpose of foot patrols and ambushes.
In the kind of guerrilla warfare that we’re facing now, the enemy is always going to go for the lowest hanging fruit on the tree. The T’ban undoubtedly spent a fair amount of time observing this base, absorbing what their routine was and then figuring out how they could use the terrain (including the buildings in the village) to their advantage. Had their observation been adequately disrupted, they may well have said “hey, these guys are on their toes — let’s go somewhere else.”
The change to a counterinsurgency force (at least in some circles) has been positive in many aspects, but it's caused some skills to atrophy. Nearly a decade of war has allowed the US military to build increasingly massive garrisons in the middle of nowhere in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before the US military really had an enemy, we focused on "joint forcible entry"--parachuting in to an area and setting up an air head or beach head for follow-on operations. US forces were trained to enter a country, secure an area, occupy it, and defend it.
Years after the initial invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the concepts of "secure, occupy and defend" are not in the lexicon of most troops. We simply move to massive garrisons which have already been built for us--the guard towers, the fortifications, the defenses are all in place. The "priorities of work" that are often found in infantry manuals (and at the conclusion of the first segment of The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa) are an anathema to most troops. Upon hopping off the plane, troops can easily go to their sleeping quarters, the mini-mall, the post exchange, the Starbucks, etc. instead of securing and defending their positions. Indeed, "improving the foxhole" on these bases meant building more luxurious conditions, not making the area more tenable.
And there's little defending to do, particularly in Iraq, especially on the larger bases. These bases are located in the middle of the desert, where no insurgent group can realistically mount a credible sustained assault upon it. Most troops play little role in external base defense--a small cadre performs that duty, while troops are free to do their everyday tasks such as fixing aircraft, mission planning, operating a blog, you name it. The massive Forward Operating Bases are static and immobile, not just in the physical sense, but also in the sense that it stagnated one's thinking.
Only a few troops have had the task of setting up defensible areas in the past few years, most notably those who established many of the combat outposts during the troop surge of 2007 (with an urban siege on a combat outpost in Baghdad described in detail in Tom Ricks' The Gamble) .
I wonder if, based on experience in Iraq, we've lost the ability to accurately analyze terrain. Numerous people looked at the locations of these bases and instantly smacked their heads upon realizing they were located on the low ground. A number of the Vietnam veterans correctly noted comparisons to the Battle at Dien Bien Phu, where the French were pummeled by Vietnamese forces, after taking up positions in the low ground.
The battles at COP Keating and Wanat also bring up another interesting tidbit--the lack of unmanned aerial sensors, which are the modern-day equivalent of the listening post. (The official AR 15-6 investigation specifically suggests adding more air-ground sensors in its conclusion) One of the key observations many made about both battles was the Taliban's propensity to attack during periods of poor weather, presumably to take advantage of degraded NATO air support (which affects not only the ability detect the enemy, but also to target and destroy attacking forces).
Focus: Soldiers got quite a bit of good combat experience conducting counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, but some skills have atrophied. What other skills have you noticed?