Was it a mistake to send a Stryker brigade to Afghanistan?
On July 5, the U.S. Army's 5th Stryker Brigade arrived in Kandahar province for a year-long tour of duty. The brigade was equipped with 350 Stryker combat vehicles, an eight-wheeled armored infantry carrier that has proven successful in Iraq and is popular with soldiers. It was the first time the Army had deployed Strykers to Afghanistan, but the country has proven unforgiving to the brigade. Thus far they have lost 21 of their Strykers to improvised explosive devices (IEDs), at a cost of two dozen killed and more than 70 wounded. On Oct. 27, seven soldiers died during the bombing of a single Stryker vehicle.
Why are Strykers seemingly more vulnerable to improvised explosive attack in Afghanistan than they were in Iraq? Iraq has a much more developed road network than Afghanistan. A denser road network provided U.S. mission planners with more routes to choose from, complicating the enemy's roadside bombing effort. In Afghanistan by contrast, U.S. forces may be lucky to have one usable road to get from an assembly area to an objective. The standard counter-IED strategy is to constantly observe such roads for insurgent bomb-planting activity. Fewer roads would mean less for the Americans to observe, in theory making it easier to find the insurgent bomb-planters. But the level of surveillance assets in the 5th Brigade's area might not be at the same density that U.S. units have enjoyed lately in Iraq. In fact, Col. Harry D. Tunnell IV, the brigade commander, has called for more surveillance help.
The best solution to the problem of IEDs is to infiltrate, attack, and destroy the insurgent organizations that plant them. While that effort progresses, coalition forces can reduce the IED threat by 1) staying off the roads and 2) dispersing by putting fewer troops in a greater number of vehicles. Obvious solutions, but often impractical to implement.
Given Afghanistan's vast distances and low population density, movement by vehicles is essential. Helicopters bypass the roads but are expensive, few in number, and have their own risks. Off-road movement by heavy vehicles laden with troops and supplies in impractical. A new all-terrain mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (M-ATV) may be promising for Afghanistan. An M-ATV carries five soldiers compared with the Stryker's 13 and may have better off-road capability. Compared to the Stryker, M-ATV would disperse soldiers in more vehicles and avoid some of the risks of being on Afghanistan's roads.
Watching for bomb-planters, avoiding unwatched roads, using helicopters, dispersing into more vehicles, and taking alternate routes across the country will all help with the IED problem. But the real solution lies with offensive action against the IED networks. This will require aggressive patrolling, raiding, and the interrogation of captured suspects, actions that hopefully are not yet out of fashion.