Dispatches from the Edge: ‘Strategic Towns’: Why the Afghan Surge Will Fail

By Conn Hallinan
Wednesday November 25, 2009 - 08:50:00 AM

Before the Obama administration buys in to General Stanley McChrystal’s escalation strategy, it might spend some time examining the Aug. 12 battle of Dananeh, a scruffy little town of 2,000 perched at the entrance to the Naw Zad Valley in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province. 

Dananeh is a textbook example of why counterinsurgency won’t work in that country, as well as a study in military thinking straight out of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. 

According to the United States, the purpose of the attack was to seize a “strategic” town, cut “Taliban supply lines,” and secure the area for the presidential elections. Taking Dananeh would also “outflank the insurgents,” “isolating” them in the surrounding mountains and forests.  

What is wrong with this scenario? 

One, the entire concept of a “strategic” town of 2,000 people in a vast country filled with tens of thousands of villages like Dananeh is bizarre. 

Two, the Taliban don’t have “flanks.” They are a fluid, irregular force, not an infantry company dug into a set position. “Flanking” an enemy is what you did to the Wehrmacht in World War II. 

Three, “Taliban supply lines” are not highways and rail intersections, they’re goat trails.  

Four, “isolate” the Taliban in the surrounding mountains and forests? Anyone in the Pentagon ever read the story of Brer Rabbit? “Please don’t throw me in the briar patch, Brer Fox”? Mountains and forests are where the Taliban move freely. 

It also appears that the Taliban were not the slightest bit surprised when the United States showed up. When the Marines helicoptered in at night, all was quiet. At dawn—the Taliban have no night fighting equipment—the insurgents opened up with rockets, mortars, and machine guns. “I am pretty sure they knew of it [the attack] in advance,” Golf Company commander Captain Zachary Martin told the Associated Press. 

Pinned down, the Marines brought in air power and artillery and, after four days of fierce fighting, took the town. But the Taliban had decamped on the third night. The outcome? A chewed up town and 12 dead insurgents, if you accept that there is no difference between an “insurgent” and a villager who didn’t get out in time, so that all the dead are automatically members of the Taliban.  

“I’d say we’ve gained a foothold for now, and it’s a substantial one that we’re not going to let go,” says Martin. “I think this has the potential to be a watershed.” 

Only if hallucinations become the order of the day. 

The battle of Dananeh was a classic example of irregular warfare. The locals tip off the guerrillas that the army is coming. The Taliban set up an ambush, fight until the heavy firepower comes in, then slip away. 

“Taliban fighters and their commanders have escaped the Marines’ big offensive into Afghanistan’s Helmand province and moved into areas to the west and north, prompting fears that the U.S. effort has just moved the Taliban problem elsewhere,” writes Nancy Youssef of the McClatchy newspapers. 

When the Taliban went north they attacked German and Italian troops. 

In short, the insurgency is adjusting. “To many of the Americans, it appeared as if the insurgents had attended something akin to the U.S. Army’s Ranger school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small groups in austere environments,” writes Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post. 

Actually, the Afghans have been doing that for some time, as Greeks, Mongols, British, and Russians discovered. 

One Pentagon officer told the Post that the Taliban has been using fighting in the Korengal Valley that borders Pakistan as a training ground. It’s “a perfect lab to vet fighters and study U.S. tactics,” he said, and to learn how to gauge the response time for U.S. artillery, air strikes, and helicopter assaults. “They know exactly how long it takes before…they have to break contact and pull back.” 

Just like they did at Dananeh. 

General McChrystal has asked for 40,000 new troops in order to hold the “major” cities and secure the population from the Taliban. But even by its own standards, the plan is deeply flawed. According to the military’s “Counterinsurgency Field Manuel,” one needs a ratio of 20 soldiers for every 1,000 residents. Since Afghanistan is slightly over 32 million, that would require a force of 660,000 soldiers. 

The United States will shortly have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, plus a stealth surge of 13,000 support troops. If 40,000 additional troops are sent, that will bring U.S. forces to 121,000. Added to that are 35,000 NATO troops, though most alliance members are under increasing domestic pressure to withdraw their soldiers. McChrystal wants to expand the Afghan army to 240,000, and there is talk of trying to reach 340,000.  

One does not need a calculator to conclude that the counterinsurgency formula—even with the larger Afghan army—is 150,000 soldiers short. 

And can you really count on the Afghan army? It may indeed reach 340,000—although it doesn’t have the officers and sergeants to command those numbers—but the counterinsurgency formula calls for “trained” troops, not just armed boots on the ground. And according to a recent review, up to 25 percent of recruits quit each year, and the number of trained units has actually declined over the past six months. 

On top of which, it is not a national army. If Pashtun soldiers are deployed in the Tajik-speaking north, they will be seen as occupiers, and vice-versa for Tajiks in Pashtun areas. If both groups are deployed in their home territories, the pressures of kinship will almost certainly overwhelm any allegiance to a national government, particularly one as corrupt and unpopular as the current Karzai regime. 

And by defending the cities, exactly whom will U.S. troops be protecting? When it comes to Afghanistan, “major” population centers are almost a contradiction in terms. There are essentially five cities in the country, Kabul (2.5 million), Kandahar (331,000), Mazar-e-Sharif (200,000), Herat (272,000), and Jalalabad (20,000). Those five cities make up a little more than 10 percent of the population, over half of which is centered in Kabul. The rest of the population is rural, living in towns of 1,500 or fewer, smaller even than Dananeh. 

But spreading the troops into small firebases makes them extremely vulnerable, as the United States found out in early September when eight soldiers were killed in an attack on a small unit in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan province. The base was abandoned a week later and, according to the Asia Times, is now controlled by the Taliban. 

While McChrystal says he wants to get the troops out of “armored vehicles” and into the streets with the people, the United States will have to use patrols to maintain a presence outside of the cities. On occasion, that can get almost comedic. Take the convoy of Stryker light tanks that set out Oct. 12 from “Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak” in Khandar province for what was described as a “high-risk mission into uncharted territory.” 

The convoy was led by the new Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles designed to resist the insurgent’s weapon-of-choice in Afghanistan, roadside bombs. But the MRAP was designed for Iraq, which has lots of good roads. Since Afghanistan has virtually no roads, the MRAPs broke down. Without the MRAPs the Strykers could not move. The “high-risk” mission ending up hunkering down in the desert for the night and slogging home in the morning. They never saw an insurgent.  

Afterwards, Sergeant John Belajac remarked, “I can’t imagine what it is going to be like when it starts raining.”  

If you are looking for an Afghanistan War metaphor, the Spin Boldak convoy may be it. 

McChrystal argues that the current situation is “critical,” and that an escalation “will be decisive.” But as former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst A.J. Rossmiller says, the war is a stalemate. “The insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government, and…U.S. forces do not the ability to vanquish the insurgency.” 

While the purported goal of the war is denying al Qaeda a sanctuary, according to U.S. intelligence the organization has fewer than 100 fighters in the country. And further, the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Omar, pledges that his organization will not interfere with Afghanistan’s neighbors or the West, which suggests that the insurgents have been learning about diplomacy as well. 

The Afghanistan war can only be solved by sitting all the parties down and working out a political settlement. Since the Taliban have already made a seven-point peace proposal, that hardly seems an insurmountable task. 

Anything else is a dangerous illusion.