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Afghanistan: what it’s like

The ground-level realities of western military involvement in Afghanistan - including a few dozen soldiers in an isolated base - reveal the intractability of the war.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
18 February 2010

The high-profile military campaign by International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) forces against Taliban militias in Afghansitan’s southern province of Helmand involves the deployment of some 15,000 heavily armed troops, who are supported by strike-aircraft, helicopter-gunships, artillery and armed drones - all ranged against perhaps 1,000 lightly armed insurgents. Despite this imbalance of power, Operation Moshtarak is already facing unanticipated difficulties.

The seizure of the main urban target, Marjah, has proved harder than expected for two quite different reasons. First, the incoming forces are discovering far greater numbers of deadly improvised-explosive devices (IEDs) than has been customary in past campaigns; in one case a contingent of United States marines took eight hours to move less than two kilometres because of the minute-by-minute need to locate and defuse IEDs. Second, in some areas where they feel more secure Taliban militias have offered strong resistance to US and Afghan army forces, often in house-to-house fighting. They have also made particularly effective use of sniper-fire, with militants often operating at long range (see CJ Chivers, “New Taliban weapon: snipers”, New York Times, 17 February 2010).

The second factor is notable in that many analysts had, drawing on earlier experience of such campaigns, expected the Taliban groups to retreat in the face of the massively superior firepower that United States forces could deploy. But there is abundant evidence of Taliban commanders being very quick to learn from changes in Isaf operating methods, and adapting their own tactics accordingly. In this respect three incidents on 13-15 February 2010 where Afghan civilians were killed in air-raids or shot in combat-zones - again part of a long-standing pattern - underline the limited use and often counterproductive effects of US air-assaults. Since the marines’ firepower advantage has begun to prove less reliable than expected, it looks very much as though the Taliban is more willing to offer direct opposition to foreign troops in and around Marjah.

None of this means that Operation Moshtarak will fail. There is every likelihood that the Taliban militias will soon withdraw from open conflict in the area, as they have already done further north. After all, Nato/Isaf’s great military superiority means that territorial gains are - at least in the short term - inevitable.

The problem for the Isaf forces is that it is not the short-term that counts. It is possible to keep troop numbers of this size in the field only for a certain length of time; in due course most will be withdrawn, leaving behind a number of forward operating-bases and combat-outposts intended to secure the territory for the longer term. This territory, though, will still have many hundreds of Taliban fighters immersed in the local population, virtually indistinguishable from them and ready and willing to counter what they see as foreign control of their country.

On Afghanistan’s plains

The problem can be illustrated by going into a little more detail about what is involved when Isaf forces seek to control a defined area. Consider, for example, a forward operating-base (perhaps British or American) installed around 100 or more kilometres from a main base, and responsible for ensuring stability and security in an area of at least 100 square kilometres. This area has a population of 2,500 people dispersed in villages and hamlets; there are also about fifty active Taliban paramilitaries who know the area intimately (perhaps indeed because they come from it), and may be able to call on other fighters from neighbouring areas and to depend on support from many of the inhabitants.

The local people might well resent the presence of foreign troops and will very likely regard the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul as incompetent (or merely non-existent) and the police force in particular as corrupt - to the extent that these agencies are a threat rather than an aid to their security. They may not like the rigidity and brutality of the Taliban, but they find the paramilitaries not to be corrupt and capable of bringing a degree of order to the district that includes a rough but functioning system of justice.

The foreign base established in this area is intended to remain over months rather than weeks, and has a total troop-deployment of 100. With this degree of force, very few soldiers will be available to patrol the substantial area under its intended control at any one time.

The base itself was built with materials brought by road convoy - itself a difficult operation that also had to brave roadside-bombs laid by the Taliban. It is well supplied and prepared for almost all realistic eventualities, since any emergency resupply would have to come by helicopter or (much more slowly) by road. After the base was built, the land-supply route to it itself became a target for ambush and further roadside-bombs; and indeed, the base itself could be the target of mortar, RPG and light-arms attack at any time.

In addition, there are several occasions in 2008-09 when Taliban militias have quietly gathered together 200 or more people to launch major assault on such isolated bases. A notable example was in early October 2009 when a force of 300 Taliban assaulted Combat Outpost Keating in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan province. The outpost - where sixty soldiers from the 3rd squadron of the 61st cavalry were deployed - had been attacked forty-seven times in the previous five months, though never on this scale.

At the time the base was due to be evacuated, a situation almost certainly known to local Taliban commanders and part of the calculations factored into their operation. This particular assault, repelled after hours of heavy fighting, left eight American soldiers dead and twenty-two wounded (see Joshua Partlow, “U.S. outpost in Afghanistan was left vulnerable to attack, inquiry finds”, Washington Post, 6 February 2010).

Combat Outpost Keating was much more vulnerable than the bases that will now be established around Marjah are likely to be. But the point is that the Taliban militias are highly versatile, and any base-commander has to work on a worst-case basis and assess the risk of sudden and substantial attacks.

Under these circumstances, the base is rigorously organised for protection as well as action. Around forty of the 100 personnel at the base are involved in command-and-control, signalling, logistics, mechanical and electrical maintenance, food-supply, medical-support and the scores of other jobs required to maintain a base in a hostile environment. In some parts of Afghanistan, as many as half of the base-personnel are so engaged. Most of these are fully combat-trained and can engage directly in military action in an emergency, but this is not their primary role. If this seems a large proportion of the total, it is well to remember that many of the operating functions, such as surveillance and communications, have to be maintained on a twenty-four-hour basis.

The sixty troops involved directly in securing the base operating-area are divided into groups according to their core function. At least a dozen are assigned to base security, supplemented where necessary by troops drawn from the forty base-personnel. Another dozen will form a rapid-reaction unit, complete with medivac, ready at any time to go to the aid of any patrol outside the base that comes under heavy attack. This is an absolute minimum reserve, since once again (with the Combat Outpost Keating experience always in mind) it is a 24/7 operation.

That leaves thity-six troops available for patrol. If the base seeks to maintain round-the-clock surveillance and cover a significant part of its (100 sq km) zone, then the very most that can be maintained is twelve troops on patrol at any one time. This means that each patrol-group is operating for the equivalent of eight hours a day (or night), seven days a week - fifty-six hours of arduous and dangerous active duty that even to the fittest of soldiers is hugely debilitating and even exhausting. It is a routine possible to sustain for long only via the rotation of fresh troops from the main base.

In practice, any given base-commander may choose to operate only day-time patrols over a large part of the area, with two groups out rather than one (perhaps further split into smaller units). That might cover a large area, but it also leaves the night free for insurgents to operate. It is true that bases will be aided by the use of reconnaissance drones and aircraft, airborne Sigint and Elint and satellite-based systems; but these have little effect without the work of the patrols.

These are only very broadly-based indicators of base operations. The various national components of the Isaf force organise themselves in different ways, and have varying rules of engagement and degrees of support from their main bases. Bases in areas of lower risk operate less intensively. But it is a reliable working assumption that a maximum of 10% of any contingent of foreign troops operating in forward bases in Afghanistan is available for active patrol at any one time; in fact, returning soldiers would often see a lower figure, even 5%, as far more realistic.

What comes next

These ground-level realities make clearer why such initiatives as the attempt to double the size of the Kajaki power-station in August-September 2008 so often end in failure (see “Afghanistan: propaganda of the deed”, 11 February 2010). In that case, the deployment of 5,000 troops in a single logistics operation ensured the delivery of a huge new turbine, but insecurity around Kajaki meant that it could not be installed; the programme had to be abandoned in December 2009. More recent reports that Taliban paramilitaries have again infiltrated into many of the areas ostensibly cleared by British troops during the Panther's Claw operation in central Helmand in June-July 2009 offer a further example of the transience of military “success” in Afghanistan.

The very size of Operation Moshtarak seems at first sight to make it more than enough to drive the Taliban out of central Helmand. The emerging reality is that the militants are adapting to the assault by melting into the surrounding communities, with a few engaging in direct combat, and that they are able to survive most of what is thrown at them. The apparent arrest near Karachi on 8 February 2010 of the Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, is hailed as a major achievement by some analysts; though previous experience suggests that the movement is able to replace lost senior figures without great difficulty.

In any event, what happens after the peak of the assault matters more than its immediate, local details - and that will become apparent only over many months and even years. The fighting around Marjah is being intensively reported in the western media, just as the Kajaki operation was. There will be much less attention on the aftermath of Operation Moshtarak - yet, as with the Kajaki dam, it is precisely when the media caravan has moved on that the deeper realities of the Afghanistan war are revealed.

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