December 23, 2009

Rough times in the Arghandab

The Americans fighting in the Arghandab valley this summer had a rough go. Sean "Not a Good Day to Die" Naylor takes the first hit at explaining why. There appears to be a lot of masked discontent with the first bite of the Kandahar apple by the 5 BCT (and the lead unit, 1/17 Infantry). Naylor relates how first the US battalion commander apparently fires the lead company commander, and then the whole brigade got reassigned.

There's a lot of debate about whether large wheeled APCs like the US LAVs and their Canadian equivalents are good vehicles for the Arghandab terrain, which is very similar to the Zhari terrain, that frustrated Canadians for three full years (possibly even more restrictive, in fact). You've got to go dismounted. A lot. Going with tracked instead of wheeled APCs wouldn't help much, either: the real problem is that moving large vehicles past heavily irrigated orchards and fields (two words: foot bridges) on very narrow high walled roads means inevitably either destroying the irrigation, the fields, or the walls to some degree every time you do it, even if you weren't worried about the IED threat. In the Arghandab, as mentioned below, the main FOB (Frontenac) is farther away from the key terrain areas, on a canalized line of march, giving ample early warning and interdiction abilities, as well.

Combine that with trying to keep on side a population that until recently was strongly pro-government and you have a devil of a pickle. The article mentions some American officers were focussed on creating smaller platoon bases, presumably so they could get troops down into the valley at night; I know we had a devil of a time with that ourselves. If you wish to avoid expropriation, competing land claims (there is no Afghan land registry, so you tend to end up paying everyone and adding months of delay each time you try to buy something to put up a new base), and general unwillingness to have a FOB as a neighbour (you'd be a NIMBY too if there was the possibility of direct fire attacks every night) often leads to ISAF forces taking over the local school or district centre or some other public property location. Which is obviously not a great way to advance your development aims.

Note Naylor's article doesn't mention an ANSF contribution to the Arghandab fight at all: I suspect they were as limited in terms of support in this regard as the forces in Helmand, where a shortage of ANSF has often been remarked upon, were. I also found interesting the US focus on clearance operations (Canadian forces, in part to avoid alienating the government's last friends in the area, always insisted on Afghan troops for any sweeps in the Arghandab), and the belief of 1/17 going in that direct fire attacks would be a greater threat in Kandahar Province than IEDs. I honestly don't know how you could believe that, knowing anything about what we were dealing with a year ago.

Note also that 1/17 is being reassigned to RRS (Ring Road South) security, which is almost certainly an effort to get more ANSF off that task, which they were very effective at, but was demoralizing and kept them from participating effectively in operations that engage the local population. I've commented in the past that in a year when for supply chain reasons, only half-a-dozen or so new kandaks (battalions) and those at 40% of their assigned vehicle strength, were created, assigning the new battalions to highway sweeps (without vehicles?) seemed unwise, if necessary.

Keeping Ring Road South (aka Highway 1) open and IED free between Kandahar and Helmand, and up to Kabul and Herat in either direction is obviously key for our own logistics and Afghan government credibility. And by early 2009 it was being done more or less effectively. What was working was a combination of nighttime aerial surveillance by ISAF and early morning route sweeps by the ANSF, which would more or less prove the road until the next day.

IED layers can't work on the main highways in the daytime: these are busy roads except at night, and digging in an IED to be even reasonably detection-free takes time. Even if ISAF or the ANSF or private security didn't come along, you could never count on every person in every vehicle in the dozens that would pass every hour not pulling out a cellphone and trying to claim a reward. So you have to do everything at night; often over a couple nights.

Because the surveillance track is linear (you're just following a road), and IED activity fairly distinguishable on a main highway (unlike a route through a farmland area, there's little chance of confusion with farmers tinkering with local irrigation or foot bridges at night on the highway), in theory so long as your minimum time between night overflights (X) is less than the minimum time required to lay an IED (Y) you have near-perfect security. And for once we turn the tables on the dictum about insurgents, the one about how we have to be perfect every time and they only have to be lucky once... with a guarantee of good nighttime surveillance, now it's the IED layer who has to evade detection every single time he's out, and the requirement for luck shifts to our side.

The only remaining problem as of last spring, when nighttime surveillance assets were finally available in sufficient quantity in RC-South to achieve this sort of thing over large parts of the highway system, was the possibility of ANSF-ISAF disconnects between the night surveillers and the morning sweepers... obviously sub-optimal. Given the lack of any shared command structure, if the aerial surveiller saw something unusual but not necessarily definitive, it was very difficult to vector in an ANSF asset to that precise location to investigate, or even urge greater caution upon them, before they set out in the a.m. to check out the road... and vice versa. So it's likely a well-resourced ISAF lead on road security, in addition to freeing up more ANSF to deal with the Afghan people rather than search Afghan culverts, could be even more effective and cost fewer lives all around, than using Afghans was, purely because it will be easier for aerial and ground-based sweeps to compare notes every day. I wish them luck.

Posted by BruceR at 02:34 PM