Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Anybody hear the details last night?

So we're getting 30K more troops, awesome. And I suppose the specifics of all that are being elaborated this week in Congressional tesimony from Secretaries Gates and Clinton and Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. (As noted in the Politico link earlier today, even COMISAF isn't yet sure exactly what the composition of those additional forces will be. I don't think I'm alone in wondering how many of the additional brigades will be augmented for security force assistance versus operating as brigade combat teams.) But somewhere along the line, people got the idea that last night we might hear something about an actual strategy.

When President Obama outlines his new strategy for Afghanistan tonight, a pivotal element will focus on the country's south, where an influx of troops will try to secure the Taliban's spiritual center and seize a major center for bomb-making and drug-trafficking.

New forces will be concentrated most heavily in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, said officials familiar with the planning. Those provinces are part of Afghanistan's Pashtun heartland, where the roots of the Taliban movement are deepest.

O RLY? Must've missed that.

But elsewhere in the news, if not in the president's speech, there are signs of exactly that. Not 24 hours have passed since the escalation announcement, and we're already seeing hints that somebody understands that the "break the Taliban's momentum" part is more important and maybe even doable -- at least in the here and now, in the next 18 months -- than the "increase Afghanistan's capacity" bit.

A crack U.S. unit from the 82nd Airborne Division was placed under Canadian command at midnight Tuesday night in order to "create a ring of stability" around Kandahar City before "the fighting season" kicks off again next May.

The 2nd battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division is to be deployed in the Taliban-infested district of Arghandab by Christmas, Canadian Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard confirmed Wednesday.

(Huge hat tip to Tintin for this link.)

Ok, big deal, right? Well, dig a little deeper and it is a pretty big deal: 2-508 is a component part of the 4th BCT, 82d Airborne Division, which -- as you already know -- has been in Afghanistan since earlier this month serving as a "modular brigade augmented for security force assistance;" that is, as an advisory brigade.
The Americans, known as the Red Devils, headed to Arghandab are already on their second tour in Afghanistan, arriving three months ago from Fort Bragg, N.C. Before getting their new battle orders, they had been scattered across Afghanistan training police.
As I said before, I've been told that SFA brigades would retain the capability to perform full-spectrum operations. I guess we're about to find out whether Gian Gentile's claims are true or not -- whether purpose-trained, COIN (/advisory)-oriented infantrymen will forget how to fight.
This is interesting largely because it turns the theme of last night's speech -- that the next 18 months will be about helping the Afghans to stand up, so that we can stand down (Obama h/t George Bush) -- entirely on its head. Here's a concrete example of a purpose-trained advisory unit, a brigade that's designed to be chopped up into advisory teams, reconstituting itself as an infantry battalion to engage in offensive combat operations in an insurgent-controlled area. (And under Canadian OPCON, at that!) Here's Tintin's commentary on that (posted from email with his permission):
It makes sense why they need to do this, in the short term: Arghandab is out of control. Before August, small Canadian elements ventured in there once in a while. In mid-August, a U.S. Stryker battalion, 1-17 Infantry, took charge, and since then it has taken insanely high casualties to IEDs (like, as bad as the worst-hit battalions in Iraq 06-07) -- 21 KIA so far, including a company commander. (The rest of the brigade has lost 6 KIA). It has some people wondering whether Strykers or their tactics are appropriate for the area, although there's not even close to enough information out there to speculate about that, and it makes it obvious that Arghandab is too lightly held.
This is decidedly not about helping to train Afghans better and faster. So again, it's going to be interesting to see which additional units end up in Afghanistan in 2010 and how many of them end up tapped for the SFA mission. As far as I can tell, the Army is only equipped to prep one brigade at a time for SFA functions down at Ft. Polk, though I could be wrong about this, so that means at best we're talking about getting maybe three brigades -- 10K or so -- into the advisory role by the end of 2010 (including 1/4 ID, which takes over for 4/82 some time around next summer). Of course, plans could change, training could be sped up, and the entire SFA brigade concept could be abandoned, I suppose, if it doesn't jibe with operational requirements. I suppose we'll wait and see.

Whatever ends up happening down the line, this is a really interesting development in the here and now. I haven't even touched the other interesting revelation (or so it seems) that springs from this bit of news and which the story cited at the beginning of this post speculates about: that new forces and operations will be concentrated in insurgent-controlled areas in the South, rather than being used to consolidate ISAF and government control in so-called "light green" areas. There's enough there for a whole series of posts...


  1. Just to respond to one thought, I don't normally expect details in policy speeches. One, it gives people something to actually criticize, and politicians hate that.

    On a more practical level, though, it is impractical. The average person doesn't care about specifics, and would get bored if he did hear about them.

    I guess both of those reasons are pessimistic and negative, but I think they are reality.

  2. "21 KIA so far, including a company commander"

    That's not insanely high.



  3. Eric -- Didn't this one go ok with the public, though? It wasn't short on details, at least compared with last night.

    The most urgent priority for success in Iraq is security, especially in Baghdad. Eighty percent of Iraq's sectarian violence occurs within 30 miles of the capital. This violence is splitting Baghdad into sectarian enclaves, and shaking the confidence of all Iraqis. Only the Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people. And their government has put forward an aggressive plan to do it.

    Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have. Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes. They report that it does. They also report that this plan can work.

    Now, let me explain the main elements of this effort. The Iraqi government will appoint a military commander and two deputy commanders for their capital. The Iraqi government will deploy Iraqi army and national police brigades across Baghdad's nine districts. When these forces are fully deployed, there will be 18 Iraqi army and national police brigades committed to this effort, along with local police. These Iraqi forces will operate from local police stations; conducting patrols and setting up checkpoints and going door-to-door to gain the trust of Baghdad residents.

    This is a strong commitment. But for it to succeed, our commanders say the Iraqis will need our help. So America will change our strategy to help the Iraqis carry out their campaign to put down sectarian violence and bring security to the people of Baghdad. This will require increasing American force levels. So I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.

    The vast majority of them -- five brigades -- will be deployed to Baghdad. These troops will work alongside Iraqi units and be embedded in their formations. Our troops will have a well-defined mission: to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure that the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs.

  4. That's not insanely high.

    No? Not for one battalion over the course of three and a half months (even recognizing that many of those were in single incidents)? Maybe "insanely" is an exaggeration, but I think "high" is pretty fair.

  5. Relative to Afghanistan, it's high. To Anbar or Mosul in 2005-06 it would be par for the course.

    My two units then suffered more than 50 percent casualties, albeit not all KIA, and mostly from IEDs.

    If you were talking to someone in Vietnam, Korea or WWII, he would scoff at the low death rate.


  6. SNLII's right, they are nothing compared to Vietnam. But for three and a half months in Afghanistan, 21 KIA is very unusual, and I'm pretty sure that if a battalion had taken that many killed in that period of time in Iraq, it would have been one of the very hardest-hit units in the country (and I don't doubt that SNLII was in some of the hardest-hit units).

    The last two battalions to complete yearlong deployments to Kunar and the notorious Korengal valley, 1-26 and 2-503 Infantry, lost 13 and 25 soldiers respectively, for comparison.

    I don't know what battalion suffered the highest casualties in Iraq, but here are a few battalions that I know have reputations for having taken very high fatality rates over their yearlong or half-year deployments:

    -2-2 Infantry, Diyala and Falluja 2004: 10 KIA
    -1-24 Infantry, Mosul 2004-5: 13 KIA
    -1/3 Marines, Falluja and Rutba 2004-5: 43 dead (including 26 in a CH-53 crash)
    -3/25 Marines, Haditha-Hit 2005: 32 KIA
    -1-12 Cav, Diyala 2006-7: 20 KIA
    -1-26 Mech, Baghdad 2006-7: 29 KIA

    These are a handful of battalions that happen to stick out in my mind because I've heard about them - I'm sure I left out others with similar or higher casualties.

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  8. "... I've been told that SFA brigades would retain the capability to perform full-spectrum operations. I guess we're about to find out whether Gian Gentile's claims are true or not -- whether purpose-trained, COIN (/advisory)-oriented infantrymen will forget how to fight."

    Unless I overlooked part of the article, I think that is an unfair characterization of his argument. He does suggest that a long-term focus on COIN to the exclusion of "synchronizing fire, maneuver, and intelligence at all levels of command" could result in an atrophy of those capabilities. That seems almost too obvious to even state. Don't practice something and your skills dull.

    The lack of training that he warns of does not appear to have materialized, so I don't see how A'Stan can be said to be a test to see if the resultant atrophy of skills will occur. As you noted, the force is purpose-trained. If that is the case, then doesn't it follow that their training included full-spectrum fighting, given that they are to "retain the capability to perform full-spectrum operations"?

    It sounds like the force was trained for full spectrum ops, to include COIN and it expects to participate in a COIN operation. How would this set the conditions for a test to reject or fail to reject Gentile's argument?

  9. A Stryker battalion taking very high casualties from IEDs? I've heard very mixed views regarding the Stryker. Can anyone with real experience in them tell me if they can hold their own? On one hand, I've heard they are a death trap for soldiers due to IEDs, and then I've heard other soldiers rave about them.

    What has been the informal conclusion within the Army?

  10. I have read and heard many unpleasant things about Strykers, and there was a Washington Times article recently that quoted 5/2 SBCT soldiers in Kandahar as calling them "Kevlar coffins" (not sure where the Kevlar comes in).

    That said, in my own limited interactions with Stryker soldiers who served in Iraq, I've heard nothing but positive reviews, including on two brief embeds with Stryker units in Baghdad that had been serving as clearing forces for over a year. Lots of rave reviews from NCOs who had fought in East Rashid and Diwaniya in Strykers. From the NCOs and officers I've met here in the U.S. who were in Stryker units in Mosul, Baghdad, and Baquba, I've heard similarly positive reviews. In fact, the major I had lunch with today described the Stryker company he commanded in Baghdad as the best unit at this sort of fighting that he'd seen, particularly stressing the number of dismounts it brings to each patrol - this from a guy who led a Ranger platoon in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan 2004. That surprised me.

    I don't know whether soldiers who served in Stryker units in rural areas like the Diyala valley and Taji area in 2007-9 would offer reviews that positive - there may be a rural-vs-urban thing at play here, with the Stryker presumably better in the urban setting (although it sure is big for some Iraqi streets, a complaint I've heard about MRAPs many times too). There was a blog post recently that speculated that Strykers in Kandahar are suffering from the small number of usable routes, making them more predictable than in cities, and the fact that the roads are all dirt so you deal with bigger IEDs; these are complaints you hear about Strykers in rural Diyala and Taji, too (and about MRAPs), but for whatever reason those Stryker units never suffered casualties like this. (And for that matter, the other three battalions of 5/2 SBCT haven't taken anything like the casualties 1-17 has, which suggests it has at least as much to do with the enemy situation in Arghandab-Shah Wali Kot as it does with Strykers or their tactics. It will be instructive to see whether the MRAP-equipped 2-508 does in the same area when it moves in.)

    It's worth noting that the Ranger battalions and associated units have embraced the Stryker wholeheartedly, at least for urban operations in Iraq - in fact, in 2005 they decided they wanted them so badly that a departing Stryker infantry battalion turned over its whole complement of vehicles to the Rangers and their friends. At least two full Ranger battalion have deployed to Afghanistan with Strykers, too, but I don't know how heavily they used them or how well they worked out.

  11. Unless I overlooked part of the article, I think that is an unfair characterization of his argument.

    Sure, it's probably a little unfair. But I also think it's roughly consistent with the point that Gentile's been making in every single blog comment and article he's written over the last two years: that the "new American way of war" is COIN, that our troops are too focused on COIN both in training and operations, and that this focus is eroding their capability in the good, manly, and necessary skill of "fighting."

    If the Army is currently dominated -- as Gentile suggests it is -- by soft-headed COIN-centrism, then shouldn't that manifest itself not only in the erosion of artillerymen's basic gunnery skills but also in the standard trade of the infantryman? Especially when a portion of that infantryman's pre-deployment training is focused on precisely the sort of thing about which Gentile is so eager to complain, namely non-fighting competencies like advisor skills and cultural instruction?

    It sounds like the force was trained for full spectrum ops, to include COIN and it expects to participate in a COIN operation. How would this set the conditions for a test to reject or fail to reject Gentile's argument?

    To put it really simply, Gentile's argument is that 1) the Army is too focused on COIN at present, and 2) an excessive focus on COIN is destructive because it makes armies forget how to fight (which is still their fundamental requirement). So it should follow that the Army that we currently have isn't very good at fighting because it's too focused on COIN.

    He's not only making a complaint about where the Army is headed, but about where it is now.

  12. No, because Gentile understands intimately that for the vast majority of infantrymen the notion of COIN is still pretty much basic skillsets that have been practices since Og knocked Glog up the side of the head and cleared the cave in order to hold it and build from it.

    I think this is a facile reading of Gentile's work, but I also believe Gulliver is just being provocative.


  13. practiceD...


  14. I make it a habit never to be provocative or insightful.

  15. Can anyone tell me more specifics about the units that serve in the Korengal Valley, I know some of the 4th Id replaced the 173rd there, but do other units operate there in smaller numbers?
    The bigger question is is there any guess or knowledge of what unit or units might replace the 4th Id units there this spring or summer? I'm looking to re enlist to active duty in a month or so and have always had an interest in serving there. If it's just a guess or something cpomment or info that can be posted here I'd appreciate it, or for concerns of opsec anyone could contact me on the facebook or I could provide my ako email.
    Steve S. Va national guard