Military News Highlights: December 20, 2010

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Life and Death Decisions Weigh on Junior Officers

To command soldiers in combat is a privilege, one that this young infantry company commander relishes.  To be clear, life and death decisions weigh more heavily on rifle company commanders than any other combat line officer because of the nature of command and control that battlefield tactics require.  Rifle companies are organized by three-to-four platoons and operate exclusively at the whim of his command.  Often these companies are assigned large swaths of terrain to operate in, and carry out missions issued to him by higher headquarters with little appreciation for their on-the-ground tactical judgment.  It is a lonely perch at the tip of the spear.   What is most compelling about this particular rifle company commander is his commitment to compassion, the prism he uses to gauge his duty while leading his company with steely resolve.    

Afghan War Just a Slice of U.S. Coverage

As the grind continues, U.S. media coverage of the war accounts for only 4% of the news – and as described by the New York Times, “like a faint heartbeat.”  Unfortunately, the old adage that “no news is good news” can’t be applied to the “4%” that gets out to the public since all of the news is one more story or report concerning new casualty records beings set, increased Taliban operational strength in areas that NATO can’t operate in, outlandish tales of government corruption, and so on, and so on.  Simply put, while it may only be “4%” of the total media coverage, the news coming from the war in Afghanistan is bad 100% of the time.

Foreign troop death toll hits 700 in Afghanistan

This weekend the war in Afghanistan claimed its 700th foreign troop death as a result of an IED strike in southern Afghanistan – setting a new record for the number of combat deaths. 

The grind continues.

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Military News Highlights: December 16 & 17

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Uncertainty marks White House review on Afghanistan, Pakistan

In regards to the highly touted release of the administrations review of Afghanistan, one-step up and two-steps back. 

 One-step up, “strategy is showing progress”; two-steps back, no new information on how soon Afghan Security Forces will be able to assume responsibility for security and when the “rat-lines” coming out of Pakistan can be severed.

 One-step up, “we are on track to achieve our goals”; two-steps back, gains are still “fragile and reversible” and the size of the July 2011 drawdown is unknown.

 One-step up, “COIN is working”; two-steps back, but we can’t truly measure its progress until late Spring 2011, which may shift the strategy to pure-kinetic counter-terrorism. 

Oh, and the word “corruption” is only mentioned once in the report.  Two-steps back. 

While the report mentions six times in the sparse five-page summary/report that success hinges on Pakistan shutting down its borders and “safe havens.”  Two-steps back. 

The official White House report summary can be read here:

 A summary of how the report exposes a split over Afganistan pullout timelines can be read here:

Key highlights:

  •  Already, parts of the country with fewer troops are showing a deterioration of security, and the gains that have been made were hard won, coming at the cost of third more casualties among NATO forces this year.
  • Then there are the starkly different timelines being used in Washington and on the ground. President Obama is on a political timetable, needing to assure a restless public and his political base that a withdrawal is on track to begin by the deadline he set of next summer and that he can show measurable success before the next election cycle.
  • Afghanistan and the American military, are running on a different clock, based on more intractable realities. Some of the most stubborn and important scourges they face — ineffectual governance, deep-rooted corruption and the lack of a functioning judicial system — the report barely glanced at.
  • A fundamental conundrum, unmentioned in the report, is that the United States and its NATO allies constantly speak of Mr. Karzai and his government as an ally and a partner and try to shore up his image as the leader of his people. Yet many Afghans view his government as a cabal of strongmen, who enrich themselves and their families at the expense of the country.
  • Also largely glossed over in the report is the extent and implications of pervasive corruption. Bribery and nepotism remain a feature of daily life for the vast majority of Afghans, and nowhere is it more clear than in the judicial system.
  • The elephant in the room is that whatever the trajectory of the war, the Afghan government does not envision a defeat of the Taliban, but a negotiated peace. Unmentioned in the report is what the Americans may be looking for in such a deal, and what they are willing to do to bring that peace.

A summary of what the White House report on the Afghanistan War didn’t mention or highlight can be read

Key highlights:

  • State Department diplomats have complained that President Hamid Karzai has been an unreliable ally. Political resolution is key, but the review’s language on governance questions and on the shape of an Afghan “end-state” is vague.
  • Coalition support has helped the Afghan army meet its targets in terms of troop buildup. The Afghan force quality is a mixed bag. The majority of Afghan soldiers lack basic skills, including literacy. Preparing the Afghan army and police to be capable of providing security as Western troops depart has become an increasing focus of coalition efforts but remains a challenge.
  • The administration’s review summary highlights NATO’s “enduring commitment beyond 2014,” yet it’s clear that European leaders face considerable political pressure back home to withdraw, and only Britain has a sizable number of troops on the ground. As a result, the war is becoming increasingly Americanized. On Thursday, Germany’s foreign minister confirmed that country’s intention to begin withdrawing its 4,600 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
  • The review summary devotes considerable attention to the problem of AQ and Taliban leaders finding a safe haven across the board in Pakistan.  The document calls for greater cooperation with Pakistan but is short on specifics about how to get there. Pakistan clearly has ambivalent feelings about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. It doesn’t want Western forces to leave behind a mess in its backyard, but at the same time it doesn’t trust the government in Afghanistan.
  • The review summary highlights “significant progress” in disrupting al-Qaida’s leadership in Pakistan. “Al-Qaida’s senior leadership has been depleted, the group’s safe haven is smaller and less secure, and its ability to prepare and conduct terrorist operations has been degraded in important ways,” it states. The war’s initial aim of driving al-Qaida from Afghanistan has also largely been successful. Yet al-Qaida remains a mobile threat, and it’s unlikely the U.S. can readily muster 100,000 more troops to chase it outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Ratlines’ threaten White House Afghan war plans

While US troops logistics and lines of communications are held hostage to: the tyranny of terrain, the necessity of maintaining logistic hubs in a very inhospitable nature of Pakistan (and now the end around the bordering “stans”), the growing contractor base of support, and the necessity of pushing supplies to forward combat outposts and patrols.  It appears that the insurgency has little trouble maintaining their flow of supplies and refitting at their leisure while ensconced in Pakistan (and in controlled Taliban areas within Afghnistan, i.e. anywhere outside of Kabul, Kandahar, and Khost). 

The border with Pakistan remains porous and US/NATO/Afghan efforts to seal the flow of supplies “threaten Afghan war plans.”   Practically speaking we should dissuade ourselves from thinking that there are “safe havens” per se – a clearly marked area or region – in fact the entire country of Pakistan is a safe haven for the Taliban, AQ, and their confederates (i.e Haqqani and Hekmatyar network). 

Ultimately that is the root of the problem and one without a solution.

U.S. Army Modernization Review Set for Dec. 22

“Here we go again, same old stuff again.  Marching down the avenue…”  Next week senior Army leaders will conduct a modernization review to determine the future of weapon and equipment systems.  Called the Early Infantry Brigade Combat Team (E-IBCT) equipment set, it was originally developed as part of the whiz-bang, bells-and-whistles Future Combat Systems (FCS) program which thankfully Secretary of Defense Gates ended.  But here we go again, marching back up that avenue to see if the Army can get some of the FCS components and systems approved for further development and tactical issue.  The question Undersecretary Ashton Carter should ask is, “would any of these equipment sets and systems, if deployed tomorrow to a Soldier in Afghanistan, and given the costs required to field them, improve his/her force protection while defeating the threat he/she faces?”  It’s a simple standard, because what Joe needs right now, this very moment, is equipment and small-arms that will increase his force protection posture while providing him a dead-certain lethality.  If the “Tactical and Urban Unattended Ground Sensors, the Class 1 Unmanned Aircraft System, the Small Unmanned Ground Vehicle and the Network Integration Kit can’t meet this standard, then don’t waste the money, time, industrial base, or organizational energy that is being put into the E-IBCT.

Yearly Price Tab for Afghan Forces: $6 Billion, Indefinitely

Speaking of guns and butter, the waiter serving security in the outdoor cafes of Kabul, Kandarhar, and Khost just gave Uncle Sam the tab for training and equipping Afghan security forces — $6 Billion annually – indefinitely.   No problem, we’ll pay with a Chinese credit card.

Unused in Afghanistan, Longbow Deliveries Continue

The vaunted “Longbow” didn’t help the 11th Aviation Regiment in support of the 3rd Infantry Division’s fight north in OIF I, yet we still are procuring the system and deploying it to Afghanistan where it is not being put to use.  Great investment.  Great idea.

 

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Military News Highlights: December 15, 2010

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U.S. intelligence reports cast doubt on war progress in Afghanistan

National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) are authoritative assessments by the Director of National Intelligence related to a particular national security issue.  NIE’s are not written in a vacuum and express coordinated judgments of the entire US intelligence community.  Although these assessments are classified, summaries and excerpts are simultaneously provided to policy makers and/or leaked to the media when NIE’s are published. 

Commanders in Afghanistan argue that the most recent spate of Afghan related NIE’s are “dated” because they do not take into account the full effects of the surge these past six weeks because the NIE’s assessment period only covers the time frame up through September.  Additionally, they also argue that the drafters of the report are too far removed from Afghanistan to fully appreciate the success being made.  In fact, the NIE’s contend that large swaths of Afghanistan remain at risk of falling to the Taliban and that Pakistan remains a constant thorn in the side of any future progress – and these are just a few of the salient points made.  As to the assertion that these reports are being written by analysts from fog-induced cubicles within the beltway without connection to events on the ground, that is simply “preposterous.”  And it’s pure bunk that analysts and intelligence officers are not working “hand-in-hand” with the military when creating these assessments.  There is no vacuum!

One thing to consider is that Secretary of Defense Gates once served at the helm of the CIA, so he is not likely to discount the intelligence community.  However, after his recent Afghanistan tour he “is convinced” that the strategy is turning around the Afghanistan war and great progress is being made.  So who do we believe?  The intelligence community, commanders on the ground, or the former number one spook who serves as Secretary of Defense?  That’s a tough call.  What is known is that it never bodes well when operators “cherry pick” intelligence, because once someone starts down that road, all bets are off because the integrity of the process becomes compromised. 

US treading in bloody footsteps

Pulling no punches, The Australian provides a brutal account of a Marine rifle platoon as it fights to hold on to security in Sangin District, while contrasting a separate set of tactics used by British units that until this past September operated in the same area of operations.  You can read the account yourself and judge whether occupying static positions and conducting limited patrolling (Brits) or constant-active patrolling (US) offers the best solution for “securing” the populace in Sangin District. 

Highlights:

  • “I knew when I saw it there was nothing we could do for him. Half his face was missing,” Buckholz says. “When we got back to base it was like someone had stolen the life out of everyone. All you could see were pale faces and blank looks.”
  • “The British shed a lot of blood here,” says captain Matthew Peterson, commanding officer of Lima Company. “They sacrificed a lot of men holding on to Sangin. Let’s not forget that the British started what we are doing . . . We are building on [that].”
  • “It all just happened so fast,” Buckholz says. “We knew Sangin would be tough but we didn’t realise how fast it would happen. As soon as we got here it was, like, bam. There was no time to ease into it. People started dying immediately.”
  • “It’s strange to know that being able to shoot back at the people who did this acted as a kind of relief. It helped purge some of the grief,” Buckholz says.
  • “Out here it’s the small victories that count,” Owen said. “I got to this place and into cover and I didn’t get blown up. I am good. I didn’t get blown up or shot. It comes down to that.”
  • “We were all pretty pissed off when we heard,” says a British veteran. “To say that we had no success is both ignorant and short-sighted. We were there for four years and we’d already tried what they are now trying, which is obviously not working judging by the casualties.”
  • “We increased the number of patrol bases in Sangin and as a result the insurgents’ movement became more limited, as did their ability to lay IEDs freely,” says one.
  • “They have an amazing ability to watch what we do and to adapt their tactics to ours,” Owen says.
  • “There’s no panacea,” captain Mathew Peterson said. “It’s about situational awareness. The only ground that’s safe is the ground you are standing on. We must use cover wisely. We have to make ourselves harder to kill.”
  • “The first couple of times it f . . ks with you: you can’t believe that your friend was with you a few minutes before and now he’s dead,” Buckholz says. “But after a bit, it’s so sad, you become desensitised. That’s when you start to wonder whether that’s even more f . . ked up. There’s the thought that you’re not dealing with it right now, but that you’re going to have to eventually. I don’t want to be a different person when I get home.”

The Wounded of the Afghan War

The news for the next few days and weeks is certain to be dominated by the war in Afghanistan and the administrations review of its strategy and whether progress is being made.  This CBS news video story and the Icasualties.org   fatalities list should keep things in perspective during this debate.

SAS Commander Resigns

“The Sun”, a British tabloid (famous for Page 3) is reporting that a senior British SAS Colonel resigned because of “the general erosion of living standards” in the British military.  Makes you wonder why American Colonels don’t follow his example …

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Military News Highlights: December 14, 2010

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Richard Holbrooke Dead: Diplomat Dies At 69

Reportedly, Richard Holbrooke’s last words before sedation to his Pakistani surgeon:

“You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan.”

Rest in peace Mr. Holbrooke.

 No Decisive Victory One Year Into Afghan Surge

Actually there have been no decisive victories 9 years into the war in Afghanistan.  Routing the Taliban from October 7 to mid-December 2001 was not decisive.  Failing to kill Bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2002 was not decisive.  Fragmented US/NATO operations from 2002-2009 led to no decisive victories.  And since the Afghan “surge” in 2010 no decisive victories.  To be sure there have been tactical successes and limited operational gains, but these margins gained have not sealed the deal.  To say that the US/NATO will be able to claim “victory” by 2014 is a fools errand.

But don’t take my word on it, here is what 30 academics, aid workers, and others in Afghanistan wrote to the Commander-in-Chief, “The situation on the ground is much worse than a year ago because the Taliban insurgency has made progress across the country.”

The Engines of Every Mission

The backbone of the Army is the Non Commissioned Officer, and the point man for every platoon is the Platoon Sergeant, the “engines of every mission.”

“The platoon sergeant is platoon daddy. These are my kids.”

Army company listens to suicide bombing unfold over the radio

A gripping account of a rifle company monitoring this past Sunday’s suicide-VBIED attack that destroyed a sister company’s platoon combat outpost and killed 6 US soldiers and wounded many more. 

The grind continues.

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Military News Highlights: December 13, 2010

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6 Americans Killed by Bomb at a New U.S.-Afghan Outpost

Six American soldiers were killed and more than a dozen American and Afghan troops were wounded on Sunday morning when a van packed with explosives was detonated at a new jointly operated outpost in southern Afghanistan.

The soldiers were inside a small mud-walled building near the village of Sangsar, north of the Arghandab River, when the bomber drove up to one of the walls and exploded his charge around 9 a.m.

The blast could be heard eight miles away, and it sent a dusty cloud towering over the surrounding farmland.

The explosion blasted a hole in the thick wall, causing the roof to collapse on the soldiers inside. Others quickly arrived and clawed and pulled at the waist-deep rubble to free the buried troops.

The building had been occupied by the Americans and Afghans for only a few days, an American official said, and was beside a narrow road. It was not immediately clear how the van managed to get so close without being challenged or stopped.

Gen. Abdul Hameed, a commander in the Afghan National Army, said in a telephone interview that his soldiers had tried to stop the van, but that its driver ignored them and rammed the vehicle into the building.

After the van exploded, the field beside the ruined building became a busy landing zone, with four medical evacuation helicopters arriving to shuttle the victims to two military hospitals in nearby Kandahar.

The Taliban swiftly claimed responsibility for the bombing. “We have killed numbers of Americans and Afghan soldiers and wrecked and ruined their security checkpost,” a Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, said by telephone. “We will carry out similar attacks in the future.”

In addition to the six Americans who were killed, four American soldiers were wounded, but their injuries were not considered life-threatening, according to officials familiar with their conditions. The names of the victims were being withheld pending the notification of their families.

American fatalities in Afghanistan have risen steadily for five years, with 479 American soldiers killed so far in 2010, according to icasualties.org, an independent Web site that compiles battlefield data. That is more than three times the 155 American casualties in 2008.

Despite the Taliban’s claim, it appeared that no Afghan soldiers had been killed in the attack. There were conflicting official reports of the number of Afghans wounded. Some reports said 11 Afghan soldiers had been wounded; others put the number as high as 14. At least one Afghan soldier, who was seen by two journalists aboard a medical evacuation helicopter, had a head injury and appeared to be gravely wounded.

Most of the other Afghans who were injured were walking on their own and appeared to have suffered cuts and shrapnel wounds. A medical official said they were all expected to survive.

The attack occurred in an area where the Americans and Afghans have maintained a heavy military presence this fall, when NATO and Afghan forces flowed into Taliban-controlled territory of Kandahar Province in an effort to clear it of insurgents and bring the area under the control of the government in Kabul.

The Arghandab River Valley, a belt of irrigated fields and small villages, is now dotted with a network of American and Afghan outposts. Patrols crisscross the region each day, and new positions — like the outpost that was attacked on Sunday — are being built.

Fighting has subsided in recent weeks as the weather has cooled and the leaves have fallen, making it more difficult for insurgents to hide.

But the Taliban has continued to plant bombs and send suicide bombers, and American and Afghan soldiers are wounded or killed in the province almost every day.

Taliban small-arms attacks nearly double

 Commentators opine that Taliban small-arms attacks in 2010 have doubled from 2009 as a result of increased US/NATO/ANA operations in “contested” areas.  And that may be true.  But, more importantly, and left out of this USA report is the logistics and support required to field a well-armed insurgency and whether the personal protective equipment issued to troops is effective.  18,000 attacks in one year equals almost 50 daily violent “troops in contact” engagements.  While IED’s remain the number one killer on the battlefield (57%), death by bullet(s) accounts for almost 37% this past year.  

Two facts to consider.  The first, in terms of resiliency, the Taliban appears to have a sophisticated logistics and supply/re-supply system in place for ammunition, parts, and maintenance.  This requires a careful assessment as to how effective COIN operations have been in the “clearing” stage, because there will not be any “holding” or “building” if the local populace remains armed to the teeth (which, by the way is an Afghan’s nature).  And second, it appears that improving body armor is required to increase battlefield survivability.  While there are numerous reported instances when body armor works as advertised, a 37% small-arms fatality rate begs the question as to whether we are doing enough to outfit our troops with the best available gear.  Probably not if you simply read the data for what it is.

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Military News Highlights: December 10, 2010

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Report: Growing mental health problems in military

Never knew that the Department of Defense publishes a Medical Surveillance report , but even without the findings everyone knows that mental health problems are the number one health issue facing our troops.  That’s a no-brainer. The November report highlighted in this story by CNN points out the fact that mental health issues send male troops to the hospital than any other cause, and are the second highest for hospitalization amongst women troopers. “The Army was relatively most affected (based on lost duty time) by mental disorder-related hospitalizations overall; and in 2009, the loss of manpower to the Army was more than twice that to the Marine Corps and more than three times that to the other Services,” the report says. “The Army has had many more deployers to Afghanistan and Iraq and many more combat-specific casualties; it is not surprising, therefore, that the Army has endured more mental disorder-related casualties and larger manpower losses than the other services.”

 With some patience you can navigate to the MS Report site and review a decades worth of reports – rather startling data.  Consider that there is data that tracks the numbers of deaths (and by cause) within two years after

 Insecurity and Violence Spreads to Northern Afghanistan

Whack-a-mole.  Surge in the south, leave open the north.  Whack-a-mole. Reposition in the north, enemy withdraws south.  Whack-a-mole. NATO has called this “an extreme escalation” of militant activity.  Actually, it’s a simple supply and demand problem and an economy of force issue.  What was once a gunfight that only involved the Afghan provinces in the east to the south in Afghanistan is now a 360 degree fight, where all areas  require more US/NATO forces are evident to the threat and being exploited.  Coupled with criminality and a lackluster Afghan government, the northern (and western) provinces in Afghanistan have become a vacuum for the enemy to operate in with impunity.  Limiting their operations outside of major urban centers the Taliban and their confederates have been able to provide an alternative to the local populace for services, justice, and security, which “allows the instability to spread.”

 Sad to say that the only real option without any operational or strategic effect is to “whack-a-mole”.  In other words hit the enemy wherever and whenever they emerge – problem is, it’s apparent that there are insufficient US/NATO troops to cover and respond to the threat, and Afghan National Security Forces lack the capability to respond in kind as well.

 Following Up: When A Crew Chief Fights With His Rifle

 Warms your heart when you get to read about courage amidst the carnage, especially when these humble acts are by combat medic crew chiefs.

The award recommendation is below:

SGT Grayson Colby, United States Army, distinguished himself by extraordinary courage and dedication to the MEDEVAC mission on 01 June 2010, in support of Regional Combat Team 7 in Regional Command Southwest during Operation Enduring Freedom 10.

While performing MEDEVAC duty at Camp Dwyer, the crew of DUSTOFF 56 (Pilot in Command CW2 Deric Sempsrott, Pilot CPT Matthew Stewart, Crew Chief SGT Colby, and Flight Medic SGT Ian Bugh) conducted MEDEVAC mission 06-01R in central Marjeh. A dismounted patrol of Marines had come under fire, and one Marine was shot in the upper thigh. Within minutes DO56 launched from Camp Dwyer, knowing they were headed for a high threat area. No escort was available due to the multiple troops-in-contact ongoing across Helmand. The Marine would surely die if not evacuated quickly, so the crews acknowledged the risk and were authorized to launch.

As DO56 approached the point of injury, a firefight erupted on three sides of the aircraft. With no aircraft providing cover, the crew continued to the ground without hesitation, determined not to abandon the wounded. Seeing the location from which the friendly forces were engaging the enemy, SGT Bugh and SGT Colby exited the aircraft from the right door where the largest contingent of the Marine patrol was engaging the enemy.

As the two crewmembers egressed from the aircraft, a Marine came out of the tree line in front of them and signaled for them to stay low. SGT Bugh and SGT Colby sprinted 50 meters across the open field toward the Marine’s position where the patrol was locked in an engagement with the enemy. Reaching the raised road where the Marines were taking cover, SGT Bugh found that the unit had no means to transport the injured Marine and returned to the aircraft for a litter. SGT Colby immediately took a defensive position alongside the Marines and began to engage the enemy. With rounds cracking above his head and hitting the dirt around him, SGT Colby returned fire to the muzzle flashes that were approximately 200 to 300 feet in front of him.

When SGT Bugh returned to where SGT Colby was providing covering fire, they bounded as a team down the raised road with the firefight continuing around them. Reaching the wounded Marine, SGT Colby took his place in the line of Marines, replacing one who had left his position to aid his buddy. Again, SGT Colby returned fire with enemy rounds hitting around him. SGT Bugh and three other Marines carried the litter while SGT Colby remained in his position until they were clear of the road. He than followed them down the road providing rear security until reaching the aircraft. With the patient loaded and SGT Bugh and SGT Colby secure, DO56 departed towards Camp Dwyer. Once airborne, SGT Colby assisted SGT Bugh by starting oxygen on the wounded Marine as the aircraft raced back to the Dwyer Role II Hospital. The Marine went through intensive surgery at the hospital prior to being transferred to a higher level of care.

SGT Colby’s disregard for his own safety as he left the security of the aircraft to provide cover for SGT Bugh embodies the Warrior Ethos. His bravery resulted in a Marine’s life being saved. SGT Colby’s actions reflect great credit on himself, TF Shadow, TF Destiny, and the United States Army.

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Military News Highlights: December 9, 2010

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Gates declares Afghan war strategy is working

 Now it’s all good in Afghanistan.  The strategy is working.  The  goal to hand over the keys to the Afghans in 2014 can be met.  The security climate is improving while Regional Command-East, South, and South-west remain in a constant kinetic posture.  And you can eat chicken in Marja!

Taliban Bombs Hit New High; 1500 in November Alone

Good data provided by the Danger Room on IED’s.  Sadly, a new record was set this past month of November in Afghanistan when more than 1,500 new IED’s were constructed and emplaced.  However, somehow there is good news in all of this because the majority of IED strikes were less lethal and produced lower casualties.  I thought the idea behind COIN was to win the support of the populace by securing them.  If the numbers of IED strikes are a metric to gauge the intensity of an insurgency, and this number continues to increase over time (and set new monthly total records), then where is the good news in the fact that November’s IED totals set a new record?  Obviously we will always take comfort in the efforts to improve survivability and detection, as well as having less casualties, but really, this fact is not good news nor does it shed a good light on how effective or successful US/NATO COIN operations are.

Final note, why do General Officers who fail in their missions (i.e. defeat IED’s) get promoted and assume additional responsibilities?  Where is the accountability?

Handover to Afghan troops will start in few months

A lot happens when the Secretary of Defense visits the battlefield.  Miraculous progress is suddenly noted.  Karzai is suddenly a good guy because he stood stoic during the recent Wiki-imbroglio.  IED strike totals are up, but it doesn’t matter because no one is getting hurt.  And so on and so on…  Now we hear that Nawa district in Helmand Province is “our most advanced district” and will be the first point of security transition from U.S. to Afghan troops “in a few months.”  Well like the First Sergeant used to say “the checks in the mail; there will be trucks on the drop zone; we will be serving Hot-A’s after this mission” and so on and so on…anything to motivate the troops and keep the press happy. 

U.S. soldier dies of wounds in Wassit

Lest we forget that there are 50,000 troops deployed to Iraq still under fire.  This week a soldier assigned to a Provincial Reconstruction Team, north of Kut was gunned down by a sniper and died of his wounds.  The grind continues.

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Military News Highlights: December 8, 2010

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Petraeus’ negative tone at odds with Obama’s optimism

The overall commander on the ground in Afghanistan is saying one thing on the lack of overall progress of the war, while the commander-in-chief and Pentagon officials trumpet a “more optimistic message”.  But the tactical and operational commanders on the ground are telling the blunt truth on the situation.  Grunts don’t like mixed messages, which is what they are getting.  Grunts especially don’t like when senior commanders hedge when they say, “no commander ever is going to come out and say, I’m confident that we can do this…I don’t think there are any sure things in this kind of endeavor”, which is what General Petraeus told ABC News this week.  What grunts do appreciate is when tactical and operational commanders are forthright, like Major General John Campbell who realizes the futility of their “endeavors”.   He is candid when he states that while his troops were making progress, “a lot of the reason we get attacked is because we’re up here.” “People don’t want us up there, but they don’t want the Taliban either,” he said. “They want to be left alone.”  He added that the region was vast and that his forces could not be everywhere. “We can’t be in every single valley; I mean there’s thousands of them out there, we just can’t do it,” he said.

Video thought to show American held in Afghanistan

In the din and bustle of the daily news stream that flows out of Afghanistan, we cannot forget that there is an American missing in action, and hopefully this recent and new video of Specialist Bowe Bergdahl is proof that he remains a Taliban captive.

Afghanistan war: why IEDs are taking a mounting toll

Why are we are losing the IED fight in Afghanistan?  Basically, very little to no local population support.  When you read the Christian Science Monitor report, keep in mind that in a July USA Today interview Lieutenant General Oates, Director of JIEDDO informed that the public that by the end of this year there will be a drop in IED’s.

General sees IED drop by year’s end

A drop.  That’s right, a drop by the end of December 2010.  Well actually, there has been a categorical increase.  Oates blames an Taliban surge.  Simply clueless.  Period. And regardless of the rudimentary technology and methods employed, IED’s remain the number one killer on the battlefield.  I wonder if IED data will be used as a metric to gauge the progress of the war during the ongoing Afghanistan war strategy review.

Troops Re-doubling Advise, Assist Efforts in Iraq

Lest we forget the grind continues in Iraq for our 50,000 troops still deployed.  Here is an update on the ongoing plan to “assist and advise” while troops transition to an Iraqi and State Department lead.   Oh, and morale remains “high”.

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Military News Highlights: December 7, 2010

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War’s Progress Measured By Commanders In Afghanistan

Two points of interest in this interview with Major General John Campbell, Commander of the 101st Airborne Division and Regional Command East – Afghanistan:

[The interview is timed at 7 minutes, 48 seconds; the points of interest are at 5:38 and 6:15 respectively]

5:35 of 7:48  “Cricket?” “Roger that Sir…and we suck sir…” (A young captain’s remark to General Campbell on his units attempt to bridge the cultural Afghan gap and play cricket with the locals) and;

6:15 of 7:48 General Campbell’s view on the likely adjustments and troop dispositions (i.e. refocusing where the 101st can protect the populace) and the withdrawal of forces from the Pech River Valley [vicinity of Korengal Valley].

Infantry automatic rifle is Afghan-bound

Designated Marine Corps units will be issued the new M27 infantry automatic rifle which fires a 5.56mm round from a 30 round magazine.  The M249 SAW may see its final days if the M27 performs as advertised.  Problem is, it’s tough to go “automatic” at the cyclic rate when you have to change magazines every 30 rounds.  Kind of defeats the purpose of establishing fire superiority, and if the plan goes forward there will be less light machine guns in a rifle company limiting tactical options.  Go figure.

For Invaders, A Well-Worn Path Out Of Afghanistan

National Public Radio has posted a handy online report of Afghanistan for reference.

Key highlights:

  • Many observers remain pessimistic about the administration strategy. History does not offer encouragement. What do the armies of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States all have in common? They all shed blood and tears in the indomitable mountains of Afghanistan.
  • Afghanistan became a “bleeding wound” for the Soviets, as President Mikhail Gorbachev said in 1986. He decided to pull his country’s troops out, a process that took another three years. “All foreign forces invading must learn it’s easy to enter Afghanistan,” Seraj says. “It’s very difficult to leave Afghanistan.”
  • Population: 28.4 million; Religion: 80% Sunni Muslim, 19% Shiite Muslim, 1% other; Literacy: 43% male, 12% female; GDP per capita: $800; Population 14 and under: 44%; Population 65 and older: 2.4%; Life expectancy: 44.7 years
  • Karzai has proven to be a problematic ally for the U.S., with his administration widely accused of corruption and mismanagement. Karzai, in turn, has criticized U.S. strategy and methods with increasing frequency in recent months. Diplomats who have encountered him and others who know him say Karzai has a conspiratorial streak, can be emotional and lashes out when he feels he is being criticized.
  • A year ago, President Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, committing 30,000 additional troops to the effort. Those were on top of a 21,000-troop increase he’d announced shortly after taking office, bringing total U.S. force levels above 100,000.Obama’s strategy calls for the beginning of troop withdrawals in July 2011. In recent weeks, the administration said it will maintain a major military presence in Afghanistan until 2014 — more than a dozen years after the initial invasion.
  • Obama and his generals are arguing that the more engaged and aggressive strategy put in place a year ago needs more time to succeed. In recent weeks, the administration has laid out a new timetable, which calls for a continuing Western military presence in Afghanistan until 2014. In an interview with ABC on Monday (12/6/10), Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Afghanistan, refused to say that he is “confident” that the Afghan army will be prepared to take over control by 2014.
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Talking to Troops in Airport Terminals during the Holidays

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Try this one on for size if you find yourself in an airport terminal during this holiday season – introduce yourself to a servicemember in uniform, thank them their service, and ask if there is anything you can do for them.  Most will be surprised, nod humbly, and refuse.  And off they’ll go on the way to or from a flight.  But if you want to know what it’s like in Iraq and Afghanistan, be persistent and engage them in discussion – you’d be surprised what you might find out.

Here is what I learned at the airport:

A 20-year old Private First Class serving in the Army had just completed his mid-tour two-week leave and is already seven months into a twelve-month Afghanistan deployment and his next stop was Atlanta, then Manas Airbase, and finally Bagram; he looked miserable.  The leave period ended too early and he never really had a chance to wind down or relax. Hailing from no-where Missouri he joined as a sense of duty, to “see the world”, and get out of the rut and cycle of unemployment, “… it was a dead-end street.”   “I’m a cherry rifleman and my squad’s mission is to patrol for IED’s while the platoon leadership works with the locals trying to convince them not to emplace IED’s.  We normally find three to four on every patrol.  We lost two squad members since we deployed.  The MRAP’s we have can’t operate in the sector we are assigned.  So we ride them as far as we can on the trails after they’ve been cleared of mines and then we dismount and walk.  And walk like forever.  The kit we wear is way too heavy, so we scrap half of it before we leave the wire.  I spent almost two hundred bucks before we deployed for M-4 magazines, because the one’s we have issued to us, jam.  The springs in the standard issue magazines suck.  But chow ain’t too bad, we get one hot meal a day in the COP, no real complaints there.  But, we all stink though because we only get to shower about once a week, but hey that’s the Infantry.”

A 31-year old Sergeant First Class serving in the Army was on the way home from Iraq due to an emergency leave situation.  This being his fourth tour, third in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, he seemed non-pulsed when I offered him my thanks for his service.  Getting him to say much more than what he did reveal is understandable given the circumstances and the anxieties he faced. “Since we got to Iraq, we’ve been sitting around on our hands.  The Iraqi’s we are partnered with never call on us, even when there has been an up-tick in bombings and attacks against the public and security forces.  It’s crazy. We can help. There are still bad guys outside the wire that are doing harm, but we just monitor the situation.  So why are we there?  Don’t know. Send us home or let us join some of our division units deployed to Afghanistan and get into the fight.  My guys are getting in trouble on the FOB, and now getting fat and out of shape.  Everyone has cell phones they buy from local vendors and try to keep in touch with loved ones back home – but that “tether” makes it worse.  Everyone is on at least their third deployment and their home situation, if they have one, is awful.  After I get back from this leave, back to Iraq and only nine months to go.  I’m going to try to keep my guys focused so that no one does anything too stupid.  Gotta go, thanks for the Starbucks.”

A 23-year Marine Lieutenant (out of uniform, but his high-and-tight haircut gave him away, and I asked him if he served) recently redeployed from Afghanistan and heading home for some “turkey and fixings”.   I had two questions for him, one “did your unit make a difference during its seven-month tour in southern Afghanistan?”  And two, “what would have improved your unit’s performance?”  “On your first question, definitely yes.  It was tough to get the Afghan Security Forces to lead, but slowly, and with pressure, they did and are becoming better.  But, it was, and still is a very tough slog.  I was part of the second set of Marines that cycled in and out of the area we were assigned to.  It was rougher for the first battalion on the ground.  They set us up for success and I think we did the same thing for the Marines that followed us.  Time will tell, but I think we are running out of time.  On your second question, probably maintenance, especially servicing the MRAP’s.  We can’t turn wrenches fast enough to keep them in the fight outside of the wire.  We have a huge graveyard of destroyed and inoperable vehicles and MRAP’s in Camp Leatherneck that we use as a junkyard looking for parts.  Bet you didn’t know that for every MRAP deployed in theater you need three contractors to service and maintain an MRAP.  And if you have to recover an MRAP outside of the wire, which happens all of the time, forget about getting a contractor out of the wire to recover the damn thing (it’s not in their contract), so we have to call the Army.  But at the end of the day, if we don’t have enough MRAP’s for the mission, which is often the case, well then, I tell my Marines to march, and so we do.”

Well what did I learn?  For starters, not much has changed for a grunt – too much heavy equipment to hump, out-of-pocket expenses to purchase reliable equipment, food is marginal, and showers are non-existent.  Second, senior NCO’s have deployed to the point of being numb, and want their troops to be either gainfully employed, re-missioned to the fight in Afghanistan, or redeployed home because FOB life in Iraq is sapping morale and increasing the odds of indiscipline. Third, while Marines are making a marginal difference in a small slice of Afghanistan, Afghans are still hesitant to lead.  And finally, the MRAP actually requires a sustained maintenance and logistics tail, an effort which is currently under-resourced (i.e. lack of parts, recovery assets, contractor umbilical cord) and as a result negatively impacts the mission.

Still curious about what, if anything, you can do during your holiday travels when you see someone in uniform, and you don’t have time to engage them and thank them for their service? Stand there and clap they at least deserve your applause.

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