Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:
1) Was it a mistake to send a Stryker brigade to Afghanistan?
2) U.S. troop morale may be slipping in Afghanistan.
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 over 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 useable 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 is impractical. A new all-terrain mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle (M-ATV) may be promising for Afghanistan. M-ATV carries 5 soldiers compared to 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 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, 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.