There were a series of news stories which aroused more than a little interest amongst the circle of professional infantrymen I correspond with. One of those stories concerned young lieutenant leading a nighttime ambush patrol with his platoon from the 1st battalion of the 26th infantry. And what a story it is they patrol onto the bad guys side of the mountain, set up a classic linear ambush with all the fixings claymores, hand grenades and machineguns, along a known trail and within hours bag a squad plus of Taliban. There are few things in life more gratifying than going to the enemy’s side of the mountain, kicking his ass like he’s a punk, and with the help of Rotary CAS (gunships) hunting down and killing all the leakers just so everyone in the area understands who the apex predators are. Classic infantry tactics executed by proficient, aggressive infantrymen; I’d donate a kidney for the opportunity to do a mission like that as would several thousand of my good friends. As you’ll note in the story all involved say this bold move has sent shock waves through the Korangal Valley because the Taliban are not used to having the Americans snooping around their neck of the woods at night annihilating all the bad guys unlucky enough to cross their path.
Then there was this story about an American army convoy getting ambushed repeatedly as they exited the small hamlet called Doab in Nuristan Province. There was nothing unusual about this tale. The Army went in with a large convoy for an overnight stay in a remote Nuristan valley and on the way out had to run a gauntlet of ambushes. They suspect the local village elders were complicit in the attacks and they are without question correct. Nuristan is a province where the people are linguistically and ethnically distinct from other Afghans. They have a long history of feuding with their neighbors, all of them mind you, and their women are highly prized as wives among other Afghan tribes because they have a reputation for delivering many children and enjoying sex. I doubt that is 100% true but who knows? What is a fact is that there is no way armed opposition groups made their way into this remote valley without the permission and support of the local village leaders. These are a remote clannish people who have spent the last 2,000 years defending their wives and daughters from raiding parties by horny teenagers from the rest of the country. I have no idea why we would venture into Nuristan in the first place those people want to be left alone and I’m all for that. If we are there because our National Intelligence Assets think that Al Qaeda will infiltrate through Chitral and destabilize the government than I say those assets should actually get off the FOB’s and try to infiltrate into Kabul through Nuristan. There are no less than 1,473 routes into Kabul from Pakistan that are easier and do not involve tangling with Nuristani’s.
Upon reflection I take that back – it is probably easier to move through Nuristan now that we have built all those roads in there. My point is that we don’t need to be in every remote valley or hamlet to do what needs to be done in this country. If the remote villagers don’t want our help concentrate on the vast majority of the country who does. The only enemies operating in Nuristan pay through the nose to operate there and the only reason they do that is to get at Americans who they mistakenly think are isolated and vulnerable. That was what the fight in Wanat was about last year and it cost us 9 KIA. The villagers and their paymaster guests from Pakistan got a chance to experience consequences of trying to overrun and American position but putting an ass whooping on them was small consolation given the cost.
I am straying way off the story line again anyway there was nothing unusual about this ambush except that Chim Chim was along for the ride and he told me something fascinating. He said the fight from beginning to end was controlled by the BCT (Brigade Combat Team) headquarters in Jalalabad via drone feeds. That surprised me, there is no way a Marine regimental commander would reach around a battalion commander to control a fight. Ever it is just not done and this news seemed to validate the grave concern my peers and I had in the 80’s and 90’s as technology evolved allowing commanders from on high to micromanage units under contact. After thinking it through I have come up with an interesting angle. I know a few guys from that BCT and they are first rate. They have a solid commanding officer and the brigade chief of staff is well known, well liked and much respected by the local politicians and leaders in Nangarhar Province and no doubt Kunar Province too. It takes a ton of time, patience, and ability to accomplish as much as that Lieutenant Colonel has during his short time here. The current BCT has done as much as they can possibly be done give the constraints they must deal with to engage and support the government which is critical in counterinsurgency operations.
These two enemy contacts explain a lot about what kind of forces we have in country, what kind we need in country, and why the move made by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Conway, to take over operations in Afghanistan was brilliant (although DOA due to inter-service rivalry.) To help illustrate my point for those of you who are not military professionals I am going to introduce a topic most have never heard of or thought about. It is time to talk about Killology.
Former Army Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman coined the term Killology back in the early 90’s when he published a book of the same name and subtitled The Price and Process of Killing in Battle. One of the topics he covers is the misconception most people have of the fight or flight response. The fight or flight model applies only to extra-species confrontations; for all inter-species conflicts there is a four option model; fight, flight, posture, or submission. When confronted by a rattlesnake you can kill the snake or leave the immediate area; you cannot plead with it, or threaten it, or scare it because it’s just a snake. With humans it is obviously different; the typical confrontation is a rapid escalation of name calling followed by a half ass shoving match and few ineffective roundhouses. Is that fighting? It may be under the eyes of our law but in the law of the jungle that is posturing. Posturing and submission are how animals solve disputes with each other; snakes don’t bite other snakes (of the same species) they wrestle each other. Bucks do not gore other bucks to death they lock horns and push each other around. Inter-species animal fights are a series of posturing moves followed by submission from the loser. In humans it is a small percentage of the population which responds to provocation by immediately fighting really fighting when provoked. Check this out did you know 2% of the fighter pilots in WW II were responsible for downing over 40% of verified enemy kills? Know what trait they had in common? They all had a propensity for and history of fighting when provoked. This is interesting stuff and you should visit the Killology website and read through some of the articles. Better yet buy the Killology book it is the work of a very bright, very talented guy who has created a dedicated following in the international law enforcement community.
As Grossman points out there is a distinct difference, on several levels, between losing a dozen men to an airstrike from an unseen drone and losing them in a point blank ambush by infantrymen who want, more than anything else in life, the chance to close with a destroy and armed enemy. It is the same difference seen in people who have survived critical injuries sustain in an auto accident as opposed to people who sustained similar serious injury at the hands of a violent criminal predator. The auto accident victim will not have to deal with the possibility of post traumatic stress; the assault victim stands a near 100% chance of suffering severe psychological problems during their recovery. This is basic psychology hard wired into all of us bipeds and it is also why having a crew of highly competent American infantrymen tooling around the AO (area of operations) destroying entire units in short, decisive, bloody, contacts has more impact on our enemies than a thousand armed drones. Drone missiles strike out of the blue with no warning and although deadly they just do not have the same psychological impact as a band of infantry who lurking about with only one mission in life which is to hunt you down and kill you. This is why the classic air power theorist Giulio Dohet was proved wrong in World War II. One of the objectives behind the massive bombings of civilian cities in Germany and Japan was to inflict PTSD type symptoms upon them thus rendering the population incapable of supporting war related industry. The law of unintended consequences dictated otherwise it turned out pummeling civilians with air delivered ordinance increased their resolve. The German civilian population didn’t start to fold until the Red Army was on their door step. Bombs don’t terrify humans humans terrify humans.
Here is the connection – sending large armored convoys into remote mountainous hamlets who respond to an ambush by breaking contact is posturing; not fighting. Sending ambush patrols deep into contested territory is fighting; not posturing. A brigade commander who is fighting as part of a larger formation against a uniformed enemy army that is a legitimate threat to world peace and our way of life will routinely probe enemy terrain and positions with ambush patrols knowing full well he will lose some of them. If it costs the lives of 10 or 20 men in the course of an evening so be it if in return you are able to get a good fix on the enemy strength and disposition. That is the grim calculus of war, military commanders deal in the commodity of blood their men’s blood – and although losing men you have trained, personally know, in most cases respect and always care for is never easy but it is the job.
So we have two incidents last week; the one in Nuristan fit the typical profile a large armored column travels into a remote valley, they get ambushed repeatedly and expend all their time, energy and resources evacuating wounded and breaking contact while being controlled from on high. In the other we have a platoon allowed to go out into the unknown at night to ambush any and all enemy formations stumbling into their kill zones. Both of these missions were controlled by the same BCT command team who is approaching the end of their tour and very aware of what happened to their predecessors last year in Wanat as they were finishing up their time in the Stan. Ambush patrols are high risk evolutions where a whole host of things can go wrong resulting in a hefty butcher’s bill. So what is going on? A unit with the talent, confidence and ability to launch nighttime ambush patrols should also be able to react with the same intensity and aggressiveness to an ambush. Good infantry does not break contact in an ambush they attack the flanks attempt to fix the enemy and then destroy him with fire and maneuver.
What is going on is that we do not have the right forces on the ground. The difference in the two fights was that one was conducted by professional infantrymen and one was fought with a temporary lash-up of red legs (artillerymen) and National Guard with a bunch of strap hangers from various other organizations. Those were Stability Operations troops in Nuristan not a combat maneuver unit and they are not designed to or capable of operating as a combat maneuver element.
In October of 2007 the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway created one hell of a dust up when he proposed the Marines take over responsibility for Afghanistan and the Army take on sole responsibility for Iraq. Gen Conway was hammered by the other services who pointed out (correctly) that the Marines would still need their help to support them. General Conway is not a foolish man, he was my commanding officer in the early 90’s at The Basic School and is one of the most seasoned and impressive Commandants the Marines have ever had. He did his homework before floating that trial balloon and he must have had an impressive list of facts supporting his incredibly bold move.
He was right because what last week’s action illustrated perfectly is the need for infantry. The Marines are a small (by American standards) service but they have a lot of infantry. They also have a lot of combat arms and support units who, due to the unique training system, can function as infantry with very little notice or additional training. The Marines field good infantry as does our army and those of many of our allies. We need to bring security to vast swaths of the Afghan countryside and when challenged we need to respond with decisiveness. That takes infantry who know how to close with and destroy their adversaries. Too many Taliban, rent a Taliban, and all the other types of armed opposition groups are taking on ISAF units and escaping unscathed. We can’t have that experience will teach these knuckleheads how to stay on the front sight and hit what they shoot at. If the armed opposition starts to actually master the demanding art of warfighting we are going to have serious problems. Just imagine if the troops in Nuristan had been ambushed by a platoon as proficient as the men from the 26th Infantry? They would have never been able to winch out wounded men, or attempt to recover a downed truck, in fact they probably would not have survived the beating a platoon like that can deliver to a road bound convoy.
The ambush by the 26th Infantry indicates that the army, like their Marine comrades down south, have developed the confidence and situational awareness to send small units deep seeking contact. That is great news. Tactics like that allow you to start working on the enemies’ morale and confidence. Gaining that kind of moral ascendancy over your adversaries is worth the risks incurred. But once ground is gained it must be held and that can be done here by small agile teams of reconstruction experts most of them Afghan headed by internationals who know the area, know the people, and are capable of defending themselves. That is exactly what I am doing now as part of a new US AID project. More on that soon.