September 22, 2009

About Deh-e Bagh

The Star, today:

He may not have mentioned it, but McChrystal appears to have had Canada in mind when he spelled out his winning conditions. Just a few months into his job and in deep contemplation about the state of the war, McChrystal travelled in July to Deh-e-Bagh, a tiny village south of Kandahar city that the Canadian military has made the centre of its counter-insurgency effort.

There McChrystal saw a mini-surge of security forces, economic development, medical care and education. Foreign troops were supporting the local population and the locals were supporting the Afghan government.

"That is more powerful than any round we can shoot," McChrystal declared.

Look, if COMISAF's beliefs were reinforced by spending time with the Canadians, good on us. This kind of write-up does tend to put the cart before the horse on the whole Canadian "model village" approach, though.

I'm a fan of the concept, to be sure. It's ink-spotting in the Afghan context, and it's learning from a lot of our and other's past mistakes, true. But it is also only possible now because of the massive influx of American troops that began in the early part of this year, which has formed an outer ring of steel around Kandahar City, one that was never there before, ensconcing the Canadians and Afghan security forces within it.

Brig. Gen. Jon Vance and his staff's "model village" approach was a forward-leaning answer to the question, "okay, with all these new troops pouring in, what is the best way we can respond to this influx? With the Americans taking over much of the 'clear/hold' task in the outer districts, how could we best refocus the Canadian battle group and PRT specifically on the 'hold/build' closer to the city?" It is to Canadian planners' credit that they were thinking that far ahead, with the first model village in place even as the Americans were really starting to pour in, and not coping on the fly with changing circumstances after the fact.

We do need to be clear, though, that the model village approach would almost certainly never have worked with the troop densities in place at the start of this year in Kandahar Province. Canadian forces, even with the addition of an American battlegroup in late 2008, would never have had the spare capacity to implement it on their own in the long-term. It was only Pres. Obama's ratification of the 20,000 U.S. soldier increase that Gen. McChrystal's predecessor requested that has allowed it to go as well as it has.

Without that outer cordon, and the transfer of initiative in Kandahar Province that all those extra American forces probing their sanctuaries daily has produced, disrupting the model village approach would have an easy task for insurgents. As the Star article correctly states farther down, it is an approach whose assumptions include a high troop density, and the renewed ability of Canadians to focus resources to the task that that has created.

Everyone agrees Western troops in Afghanistan have been misallocated, true. But it's not as simple as "get off the FOBs", either. See also this article from the Washpost:

In early July, Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked senior U.S. officials to dispatch a company of about 100 U.S. soldiers to Barge Matal, a village in the northern half of the province that is home to fewer than 500 people. Taliban insurgents had overrun the community and Karzai was insistent that that U.S. and Afghan forces wrest it back from the enemy. "I don't think anyone in the U.S. military wanted to be up there," said a senior military official who oversees troops fighting in the village.

Senior military officials had hoped to be out of Barge Matal in about a week, but the deployment has stretched on for more than two months as U.S. and Afghan forces have battled Taliban insurgents. Some insurgents seemed to be moving into the area from neighboring Pakistan solely to fight the U.S. troops there, said military officials. At least one U.S. soldier has been killed and several have been wounded.

Although the U.S. finally pulled its troops out of the village this week, the extended deployment to the area has had ripple effects throughout eastern Afghanistan, forcing frustrated U.S. military officials to postpone plans made months earlier to abandon other remote bases...

U.S. and Afghan forces at Combat Outpost Keating, also in Nurestan, are even more constrained. The base is about one mile from the Taliban-controlled village of Kamdesh, but more than 100 U.S. and Afghan troops there haven't set foot in the village in more than three months. On rare occasions, the elders from the local shura, or council, will come and discuss reconstruction projects with troops at the outpost.

Those troops in COP Keating are combat-ineffective.* At best, they're the equivalent of goats tied to stakes by tiger-hunters. The fact that they're not on a FOB isn't helping anyone. The same could have been said, more or less accurately, about some of the outposts in Zhari-Panjwaii the Canadians have pulled out of, or even still occupy.

Look, a battalion-sized FOB in the middle of a well-populated, relatively secure area IS a waste. No question. Those troops should be getting out, like the Canadians are in Panjwaii, into small platoon houses, and fighting the insurgents for the control of the night. That is the best "hold/build" template anyone's come up with so far.

In the surrounding less-populated, or less-secure, or openly contested areas, the ideal template is probably a company-sized FOB, (less than 300 men total, Afghan and Western), with some surrounding smaller, more temporary outposts, similar to what Canadians had in Zhari district when I was there. In that environment, being able to assemble a sizable strike force on call is a requirement, and using all your force in defending too many small outposts means force protection replaces force projection, as the ANA experience around Kandahar and the American experience described above both prove.

In completely unpopulated or insecure (or unimportant) areas, you don't want anyone at all, if you can help it. Stories of plunking down combat power into unsustainable surroundings because the Afghan president supposedly demanded it are pervasive in every Afghan region and coalition contingent (ask any Canadian planner about Ghorak District, and watch them shudder visibly). Yes, war is politics by other means, but just because the Afghan military high command is unable or unwilling to inject some sanity into their own planning processes doesn't mean we need to fritter away either combat power and lives anyway.

All that to say protecting the population is the agreed goal here, but it will take different forms on different terrain, often in the form of concentric areas out from a major population centre. And saying simply we should "just get off the FOB" doesn't encompass some of the other adjustments to a still-fluid military situation that are also going to be required if the McChrystal plan is to succeed.

*UPDATE: A little over two weeks after this post, COP Keating was attacked, with heavy Coalition casualties, and subsequently abandoned.

Posted by BruceR at 12:47 PM