05 November 2009

The Story Behind a Firefight

I came across an interesting article this morning by AP reporter David Guttenfelder highlighting the back-story behind a firefight he was recently involved in along with a platoon of soldiers from 2-12 IN (part of the Fort Carson-based 4th BCT, 4ID). This is the same brigade who recently suffered 8x KIA during twin assaults on COPs in Nuristan (for more details on these attacks, see articles from the BBC, LWJ, and CNN). Much more interesting than the details of the firefight itself are the events which preceded the coordinated ambush on the platoon as they departed the small village of Qatar Kala in E. Afghanistan.

Guttenfelder explains that ISAF forces had built a small medical clinic in the village last year, which was promptly blown up by the Taliban sometime last spring. US forces continued to visit the village occasionally, but hadn’t been to Qatar Kala in over three months. Upon entering the village, the platoon leader examined the remaining wreckage of the medical clinic and then quickly changed gears, explaining to a group of local tribal leaders that he believed local Taliban forces were using Qatar Kala as a waypoint during travels west to attack nearby US bases along the Pech River. He then issued them an all too common ultimatum, "Unless this is stopped, you have to understand that you'll be getting regular visits from coalition forces.” One of the local elders responded, explaining, "We ask you not to come here…It is better for us, and better for you." The locals also explained that they tried to keep the Taliban out as well – they just wanted to be left alone.

We must look beyond this statement, though, to understand the difficult position that these local Afghans find themselves in. Pressured by both ISAF forces and the Taliban, they have no good option. They view Karzai’s government as inept and corrupt, they see US forces once every few months if they’re lucky, but the one thing they can count on is regular visits from the Taliban, who not only far outnumber US forces in the area, but have an extensive intelligence network and know whenever locals cooperate with ISAF. Most of these folks would probably prefer to rely on their local, tribal-based governance system (as they have for centuries), but they don’t have the resources to stand up to the Taliban and secure themselves without a partner they can call on for support 24/7. ISAF forces are too few and the number of villages like Qatar Kala is too large for US forces to be able to provide the “area security” that these locals so desperately need and desire. Bing West highlights this same dilemma in his recently published Afghanistan trip report, explaining that “A rural population – no matter how content with its government - cannot stand up to a tough enemy.” See the full report from West here.

I normally try to avoid the practice of criticizing the decisions of tactical leaders on the ground, but I think the events that occurred in Qatar Kala require a hard look at the actions of that platoon. Looking at this situation through the lenses of the platoon leader (and his immediate superiors), you’ve got to re-think the decision-making process behind sending that platoon to the village. If we’re going to achieve any sort of lasting effects, we must be willing to identify and prioritize certain areas and villages (based on a detailed understanding of the local environment and the enemy), and dedicate our limited resources to focus on them. The risk involved with visiting a small village once every three months is not worth the potential benefits. Acknowledging that that company commander probably has much more terrain than he can possibly cover, I would argue that he should not have even bothered to send the platoon at all – unless they intended to stay. I don’t envy the daunting challenge that is handed to these commanders and leaders.

At the same time, the line of reasoning that the platoon leader used when engaging the local leaders was extremely flawed. Paying little attention to the lack of services and security in the village, he instead told the locals that the reason he was there was to eliminate the use of the village as a transit point for Taliban. Can you really expect the locals to be motivated to work with us if we’re not looking out for their long-term interests – in terms of both our actions and our deeds? We're not likely to make lasting progress unless the local Afghans think we truly care about their well-being (even if we don't...)

Examining this situation in the larger context of President Obama’s decision on whether to send more troops, you could use the situation in Qatar Kala as justification for two different COAs: 1) In order to provide sustainable area security, we need more combat power. This would allow ISAF units to visit villages like Qatar Kala more than once every three months; 2) On the flip side, looking at the numbers of people and villages as well as the complex terrain, it would require way more than 40,000 additional soldiers to do this effectively. Are we really ready to make this serious a commitment in Afghanistan. Maybe this scenario is evidence that conducting full-spectrum COIN in Afghanistan is just not realistic – in which case we should cut our losses and drawdown.

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