22 October 2009

Regarding Fortresses (Redux)

One of the replies I got to yesterday's post regarding the battles at COP Keating and at Wanat comes from Paul, a Vietnam veteran. I thought I'd discuss it here, as he brings up a lot of great points.

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?


El Goyito said...

Earlier this year I found a 4-DVD series in the bargain DVD bin at WalMart called "Vietnam: America's Conflict" and has over 24 hours of documentary footage. In watching the various (albeit mostly US gov't produced) documentaries, it is amazing to me that we didn't triumph in Vietnam. Simply put, WE DID EVERYTHING RIGHT! I know there are complex factors which could explain our ultimate failure - mostly the ineptitude & stupidity of the South Vietnamese gov't - but it is interesting to watch these and see how deeply our commitment there actually was.

All that being said, I agree with you that we need to hear more from the Nam vets in regard to Afghanistan.

So if you happen to find yourself in WalMart - pick it up, it's $5 well-spent.

El Goyito said...

BTW, I found one of the best documentaries online. It's called "Vietnam Crucible" and is from 1968. I was amazed at the technology that the US was employing in 1968!


David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/23/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the kind words.

There’s one thing that I forgot to mention and it’s probably the most important. If you’re going to site an outpost on bad ground a long way from support, you have to provide enough troops to not only defend it but do all the other stuff I mentioned. I’m not sure about Keating. First I read that it was a Troop, then that it was only a platoon, but Wanat was definitely a platoon. That’s not enough men. You can’t do everything you need to do with only 40 or so sets of boots. I don’t think I ever saw a firebase that had less than a (usually understrength) infantry company plus however many batteries were located there. Had there been even two full-strength platoons at Wanat it’s at least possible that the Taliban would have decided an attack wouldn’t have been worth the cost.

El Goyito — We did a lot of things right, BUT

(1) We had a LOT of clueless battalion, brigade and division officers (and commanders). For every Hal Moore or David Hackworth or Charlie Beckwith, there were 50 Korean War vintage officers who couldn’t wrap their minds around guerilla warfare tactics. They got a lot of guys killed. Division commanders were, if anything, worse. They came up through WWII and Korea. If the majors and colonels had a hard time, these men had an even more difficult time. It’s not that they were bad soldiers or bad officers or didn’t care about their men (though it often seemed that way to us boonie rats), for the most part they just didn’t have the right background and training. Their entire military lives had been spent in a battlespace that had a front line.

(2) Our strategy sucked. I think it’s safe to say that the American brand of warfare has always relied on attrition as its main approach. Our strategy in Vietnam was a logical extension of this. Once we set boots on the ground, our entire strategy was that we would just keep killing them until they were all gone. It was “bring ‘em on” gone wild. That was OK in some areas (the area that the 101st ABN operated in, for example, was that way once you got away from the coastal areas — there just weren’t any civilians to speak of) but in the more populated areas, such as the delta, it was definitely counterproductive. As an Army vet, I hate to say this, but if we had listened to the Marines with their version of COIN, we would have done a LOT better.