Small Wars

This Week at War: Why Don't Stryker Brigades Work in Afghanistan?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

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.

U.S. troop morale may be slipping in Afghanistan

Is the morale of U.S. combat units in Afghanistan beginning to slip? Are U.S. troops in the field, restrained by risk-averse bosses in Kabul and Washington, increasingly just going through the motions, hoping to finish up their tours in one piece? A new report from Bing West hints at this disturbing conclusion.

West was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer in Vietnam, severd as an assistant secretary of defense, and has written three books on the current war in Iraq. His latest report for Small Wars Journal is based on three trips he made to Afghanistan this year.

West describes U.S. conventional combat units as risk averse, passive, and not respected by the Taliban:

Our SOF [special operating forces] has high morale due to a focused kinetic mission and the warrior's satisfaction in kinetics well applied. A war in which SOF, aviation and Taliban-initiated actions result in most of the enemy losses is of concern. Although his leaders are routinely eliminated by SOF, the enemy does not perceive that he confronts a superior, implacable adversary when he encounters our conventional units. We should change that.

Our SOF is enemy-focused, while our conventional forces are population-focused. Many coalition battalions have red areas [Taliban-controlled zones] where they rarely venture.... In sum, a balance must be maintained between population-centric COIN and blows aimed against Taliban cohesiveness. This is beginning to slip in our conventional units.... Well-founded doubt about Afghan national cohesiveness and self-reliance pervades all ranks in our military. Gone is the post-9/11 zeal. There is no widely-shared view of victory or definition of what winning means. To the troops, framework ops [routine patrols and meetings with locals] are a job to be done, while getting home in one piece.

The result, West explains, is that Afghan civilians are cooperating with the Taliban rather than the coalition:

It is not self-evident how winning the hearts of village elders or linking villages to Kabul wins the war. Our Soldiers believe that Afghans accept what we give them without reciprocating by turning against the Taliban. The elders don't raise militias or recruits for the army, or drive out the Taliban.... The theory of counterinsurgency is that villagers, once given security and services, will inform on the insurgents. In reality, the Pashtun Taliban aren't oppressing the villagers, and the coalition doesn't have the troops to provide security in many areas. So villagers hedge their bets -- accepting projects from the coalition while keeping their mouths shut as the Taliban move about in small gangs.

West concludes, "An acceptably governed Afghan state can emerge, provided we continue the fight for years." But he also observes that U.S. troops in the field respond to the cues they get from their top-level leaders. If these leaders don't commit to a decisive result, don't trust the judgment of their subordinates, and cut off the troops' access to air and artillery support, the troops will respond with passivity and cynicism. These are attitudes the military cannot afford in Afghanistan.


Small Wars

This Week at War: You Can't Always Pick Your Afghan Friends

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal

Why would ‘American officials' expose their own intelligence source?

On Oct. 27, the New York Times reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai and a major power broker in Kandahar, was a paid intelligence asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. The Times's sources for this allegation included "current and former American officials" including a former CIA officer and perhaps a senior U.S. military officer in Kabul. Karzai acknowledged aiding U.S. efforts but denied receiving any payments from the CIA.

The piece asserted that Karzai's alleged connections to Afghanistan's drug trade created deep frustrations with senior political and military officials in both the Obama and Bush administrations.

Did frustration and moral outrage with Karzai's illicit activities lead U.S. officials to expose him as a paid CIA asset? It would certainly be understandable, for these officials may have a low opinion of him and perhaps by association his brother the president. But this collective outburst is folly and will make a nearly impossible task for the United States in Afghanistan only that much harder.

The U.S. officials who exposed Karzai are likely hoping that with his status now public, he will no longer be useful to the CIA. Perhaps they are hoping that the CIA will be too embarrassed to continue paying him. As the Times piece discusses, some officials believe that if the U.S. really wants better governance in Afghanistan, it must begin by getting rid of types like him. They have concluded that for a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy to succeed, clean Afghan governance needs to occur concurrently, not later. By continuing to work with the president's brother, the CIA was not cooperating with this view. Those objecting to the CIA's alleged connection with Karzai appear to have used the New York Times in an attempt to resolve this interagency dispute.

Regardless of which strategy President Obama chooses for Afghanistan, executing that strategy will require extensive cooperation with all levels of Afghan society. U.S. officials have to deal with Afghanistan society as it is, not as they wish it might be. With no history of a successful strong central government, and not much prospect of establishing it anytime soon, U.S. officials have to deal with local strongmen. If, perhaps like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the local strongman is both very powerful and equally unsavory, U.S. military, State Department, and CIA field officers will have to weigh the feasible alternatives, if any can be found. If there are no alternatives, U.S. officials will have to quietly decide whether the mission is worth the moral consequences.

By contrast, the very public exposure of Ahmed Wali Karzai revealed some U.S. officials to be petulant and self-destructive. As a result of his exposure, Karzai may now provide less help to the Americans and more help for the Taliban and the drug barons. The CIA had hoped to recruit other local strongmen or Taliban leaders into its employ. The prospects for that, in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, must now be considerably lower. In fact, any measure of American reliability, so crucial for the success of a counterinsurgency campaign, has been damaged. And if some hoped that embarrassing the Karzai family would boost Abdullah Abdullah into the presidency, such an outcome would only boost the ferocity of Pashtun resistance.

A subtext of the New York Times story was the moral complexity of Afghan culture. But it is also a story of America's culture, which simply may not be suited for military-social engineering campaigns such as that envisioned for Afghanistan.

U.S.-India military cooperation: some rare good news in Asia

Oct. 27 was the final day of Exercise Yudh Abyhas 2009, where a mechanized infantry battalion of the Indian Army hosted a similar unit from the U.S. Army for two weeks of combined training. The exercise concluded with a complex live-fire assault involving tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and helicopter-borne infantry. According to Lt. Gen. A.S. Sekhon of the Indian Army, this training exercise was the largest the Indian Army has ever done with a foreign army.

This was the fifth annual iteration of Exercise Yudh Abyhas. In previous years Indian soldiers have trained in Alaska and Hawaii while U.S. soldiers have trained at India's counterinsurgency and jungle warfare school.

It is not only the U.S. Army that is developing a relationship with India. The U.S. and Indian air forces recently completed their fourth annual installment of Exercise Cope India. Malabar 2009, an annual U.S.-India naval training exercise, occurred in April, and added Japanese naval forces to the event. Previous Malabar exercises have involved U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups and U.S. Marine Corps amphibious assault forces.

Although hardly trouble-free, the rapid expansion in the defense relationship between the United States and India contrasts sharply with the troubled security relationships the U.S. has with China and Pakistan. After much pleading, this week the Chinese government finally sent Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It was the first meeting at this level the U.S. has had with China since 2006. Admiral Timothy Keating, the recently departed commander of U.S. Pacific Command, fared no better engaging with his Chinese counterparts. In an interview with the Financial Times, Keating remarked, "I don't have their [senior Chinese military officials'] phone number. I can't pick up the phone and wish them happy birthday. I don't mean to be glib about it . . . [But] we don't enjoy the sort of communication that I have with almost every other military leader in Asia.

The U.S. security relationship with Pakistan has its own troubles. According to the Pew Research Center, only 16 percent of Pakistanis surveyed have a favorable view of the United States and 13 percent have confidence in President Barack Obama. On Oct. 28 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan and received an angry reception over perceived U.S. infringements of Pakistan's sovereignty and blame for the Taliban's bombing campaign in Pakistan's cities.

With little seeming to go right with Afghanistan, Pakistan, or China, U.S. policymakers should be pleased with warming U.S.-India defense ties. It is U.S. policy to support China's peaceful and harmonious arrival as a major power. The U.S. is also trying to find a happy ending to its troubles in Afghanistan. But good intentions have little to do with good results. When pondering Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China, the U.S.-India defense relationship is something both countries will take comfort in - and may someday need.

STR/AFP/Getty Images