January 26, 2010

Arghandab update: Worst. Briefing. Ever?

The current rumour among American military sources is that the sudden firing of the CO and battalion sergeant-major of 2/508 Infantry, a U.S. battalion currently operating under Canadian Task Force command in Kandahar Province, actually could relate partly or even wholly to some non-PC slides in a PowerPoint deck observed on that Jan. 7 visit that I mentioned by Gen. McChrystal and Senators McCain and Lieberman to the Arghandab*. Again, that's only the most common rumour going around, in the absence of other info. But... woah. Talk about Death by PowerPoint if any of that turns out to be even remotely true.

*Any suggestions the offending slide was a risque Photoshop involving the senators and Sarah Palin are, I'm sure, utterly without foundation.

UPDATE: Gulliver at Ink Spots has an in-depth analysis of the American effort in the Arghandab to date. Among other things, he points out a Facebook post where the recently fired U.S. CO, LTC Jenio, said his battalion, the 2-508 Para Infantry, was being "a helluva lot more aggressive" than it's predecessor (previous error corrected; see update #2 below). I hope those two CO's never run into each other at a mess dinner... as far as the first half of Gulliver's piece, I've previously mentioned here how 1-17's reported penchant for large sweep operations was related to the limitations they were operating under, but still somewhat alarming:

There's a lot of debate about whether large wheeled APCs like the US LAVs and their Canadian equivalents are good vehicles for the Arghandab terrain, which is very similar to the Zhari terrain, that frustrated Canadians for three full years (possibly even more restrictive, in fact). You've got to go dismounted. A lot. Going with tracked instead of wheeled APCs wouldn't help much, either: the real problem is that moving large vehicles past heavily irrigated orchards and fields (two words: foot bridges) on very narrow high walled roads means inevitably either destroying the irrigation, the fields, or the walls to some degree every time you do it, even if you weren't worried about the IED threat. In the Arghandab, as mentioned below, the main FOB (Frontenac) is farther away from the key terrain areas, on a canalized line of march, giving ample early warning and interdiction abilities, as well.

Combine that with trying to keep on side a population that until recently was strongly pro-government and you have a devil of a pickle. The article mentions some American officers were focussed on creating smaller platoon bases, presumably so they could get troops down into the valley at night; I know we had a devil of a time with that ourselves. If you wish to avoid expropriation, competing land claims (there is no Afghan land registry, so you tend to end up paying everyone and adding months of delay each time you try to buy something to put up a new base), and general unwillingness to have a FOB as a neighbour (you'd be a NIMBY too if there was the possibility of direct fire attacks every night) often leads to ISAF forces taking over the local school or district centre or some other public property location. Which is obviously not a great way to advance your development aims.

Note Naylor's article doesn't mention an ANSF contribution to the Arghandab fight at all: I suspect they were as limited in terms of support in this regard as the forces in Helmand, where a shortage of ANSF has often been remarked upon, were. I also found interesting the US focus on clearance operations (Canadian forces, in part to avoid alienating the government's last friends in the area, always insisted on Afghan troops for any sweeps in the Arghandab), and the belief of 1/17 going in that direct fire attacks would be a greater threat in Kandahar Province than IEDs. I honestly don't know how you could believe that, knowing anything about what we were dealing with a year ago.

UPDATE #2: Gulliver clarifies that LTC Jenio's "helluva lot more aggressive" quote (found here) refers to the unit he and 2-508 previously relieved in Helmand in August 2009 (probably from the same Illinois National Guard brigade, 33rd BCT, that had the PMT duty when I was there), not 1-17 in Arghandab. Still seems an unusual thing for any CO to say publicly about the guys he's relieving though.

UPDATE #3: In other news, friends or proxies of the spouses of the fired LTC and of the Colonel who fired him are duelling it out in Ricks' comments now. Seems there was some history there, although it's hard to see that as a reason for a battalion sergeant-major getting sacked, too. This is getting positively sordid.

Posted by BruceR at 06:48 PM