As U.S. reinforcements flow into Afghanistan this summer, they are being pushed out to small combat outposts that will dot the countryside as part of the “ink blot” population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. Keeping those widely separated ink blots supplied means the war in Afghanistan is likely to enter a more costly phase for U.S. troops as the Taliban turn to IED attacks against the increased number of targets.
Iraq was a motorized infantryman’s war; most soldiers there patrolled city streets and alleyways via Humvees and MRAPs. The lack of any real road network in Afghanistan has meant it’s a light infantryman’s war, foot patrols are the more common method of establishing a presence in isolated villages.
During the 1980s, Soviet troops liberally seeded the country with hundreds of thousands of anti-personnel mines; Afghanistan remains one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. There are 8,000 de-miners in Afghanistan working under UN auspices trying to remove those nasty weapons. Taliban insurgents have also been collecting anti-personnel mines, introducing a horrifying new aspect to the war there: aggressively patrolling Marines suffering double amputations as they trod on land mines.
The Taliban have also stepped up roadside bomb attacks. According to DOD records, there were a record number 735 IED incidents in Afghanistan, compared to 308 in June of last year. IED attacks cause the cast majority of U.S. and NATO casualties. Expect those attacks to climb, at least in the near term. Keeping troops in beans and bullets requires a lot of ground convoys. Helicopters shoulder some of the burden, but moving construction materials, fuel and water (vast quantities of water) to Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand, various combat outposts, and PRTs in other parts of southern Afghanistan will demand ground convoys. Ground convoys mean more targets for insurgent bomber cells.
The well telegraphed arrival of 4,000 heavily armed Marines in the Helmand River Valley, backed by an aerial armada of attack helicopters and jet bombers, provoked a predictable response on the part of Taliban insurgents. They up and left. Speaking to Pentagon reporters by teleconference last week, Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commanding the offensive, said the Taliban have “in large part” fled the Helmand area. Where did they go? Nicholson said he wasn’t entirely sure, guessing some percentage melted into the local population.
The number of insurgents “hiding” among the locals, as a percentage of total fighters operating in Helmand, could be fairly large. In describing the Taliban’s organizational structure, counterinsurgency adviser David Kilcullen divided it into, “a main force of full-time guerrillas who travel from valley to valley, and part time network of villagers who cooperate with the main force when it is in their area.” That description is strikingly similar to that of the Viet Cong, which was made up of a small body of well trained, highly mobile fighting groups and a larger base of part time guerrillas in the villages and hamlets.
The danger in Afghanistan at the moment is the part time fighters. The Taliban have learned that massing their forces anywhere on the battlefield invites prompt and devastating attacks from U.S. bombers. While Taliban leaders receive a steady flow of fanatical graduates from madrassas over the border in Pakistan that they will readily throw away as cannon fodder, the Taliban leadership will typically avoid confrontations that are not stacked in their favor.
Keep in mind the Taliban strategy. It is not to go toe-to-toe with U.S. firepower. The Taliban are pursuing a protracted strategy of exhaustion. They aim to cause a steady stream of politically unpalatable casualties that will weaken U.S. and NATO resolve over time. For that strategy, IEDs are the weapon of choice.
For part time fighters, most of whom are motivated by payment for services rendered, placing a roadside bomb is a low risk way to carry out an attack. As was learned in Iraq, a handful of skilled bomb makers can turn out a lot of homemade bombs. They carry out their work in well-hidden work shops. In the IED network, only bomb emplacers emerge from the shadows, and even then only very briefly.
The mere threat of IEDs can slow operations to a crawl. I accompanied an Army battalion from the 10th Mountain on an earlier “offensive” into the Helmand Valley in spring 2006. It took the ground column most of a day to move a few miles along the main road from Kandahar towards the Helmand as EOD vehicles swept the roadway. While locally contracted trucks will carry the bulk of supplies, keeping the roads connecting remote combat outposts to the main base at Kandahar cleared of IEDs will be a full time operation. As they fled the Marine offensive, the Taliban left a large number of IEDS in their wake, Nicholson said.
As the influential think tank CNAS wrote in a report released last month: “The level of violence will rise whether the coalition is winning or losing, simply because there are more troops fighting and more units on the ground reporting SIGACTS.” CNAS said an important metric to track is the number of IEDs that are found and cleared versus those that are detonated in attacks on coalition troops. A rise in the number of IEDs found and defused implies that the locals, who typically watch bombers emplacing the bombs or hear of IED locations by word of mouth, are tipping off troops to their location, and thus the metric measures the all important Afghan people’s cooperation.