Analysis: Is the insurgency gaining momentum in Afghanistan?
July 20, 2008
The question is: How could it happen?
Just a few weeks before returning home from their 15-month deployment, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan set out on a final mission, to build a frontier outpost from which other troops would work and, perhaps, fight.
But after just a few days there, an unseen enemy attacked before dawn using rifle fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, killing nine soldiers and wounding 15 others.
Multiple U.S. troops had died before in Afghanistan, such as in helicopter crashes, but never had so many perished in a ground battle. So what was it? Battle fatigue? Failed planning or intelligence?
Maybe it was something simpler.
"Occasionally, it’s helpful to blame the enemy," said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a military think tank. "It gets lost that we aren’t going to win each and every time. That’s why it is called ‘war.’ "
Military hindsight would look at the obvious, Pike said: How well scouted and prepared was the location? Where was it in relation to the nearby village? Were there clear sight lines, or was the enemy able to come close undetected?
"If it was just stood up, I understand how it could not be very well fortified," Pike said.
Some say the well-coordinated attack near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border might be a bellwether as the Afghan war slogs through its seventh year.
"More worrying to me is that the insurgents may have been able to respond within that short of time frame," just days after the soldiers arrived, said Paul Smyth, head of operational studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.
"In less than a week, were the insurgents able to respond by putting a plan together for an assault and gathering the forces necessary to establish an attack? That is what’s more worrying for me."
The insurgency’s momentum has been building.
On June 13, insurgents attacked a prison in the southern city of Kandahar and freed 400 Taliban fighters. On July 7, a bomb exploded outside the highly protected Indian embassy in Kabul, the Afghan capital, killing 41. Afghan officials suspected compliance from across the Pakistan border in both attacks.
In May and June, combat deaths of coalition forces in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq.
As in Iraq, the tactics of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as well as their enemies, have been changing over time.
"You’ve got Mr. (Osama) bin Laden (al-Qaida), you have Mullah Omar and Taliban remnants, and then you’ve got Pashtun tribal leaders (on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border)," Pike said. "There are times I am a little hazy on exactly who we are fighting."
The creation of combat outposts like the one attacked last Sunday serves to move troops away from sprawling, well-guarded bases and into the neighborhoods and villages, closer to both friend and foe.
"Look at Iraq and how bad things got in 2006," said Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, referring to when combat outposts began popping up in Iraq. "Once you take a more aggressive strategy like this, you increase the risk."
During a June 24 press conference, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, commander of NATO troops in Regional Command East — the area where the attack occurred — issued a prophetic warning.
"As we push out into Afghanistan, into areas that we hadn’t been before … we are bound to run into, you know, insurgents, terrorists in areas that we didn’t know they were going to be there," Schloesser said.
During the attack, a quick-reaction force and aircraft came to the aid of the set-upon soldiers, who were from the Vicenza, Italy-based 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment. They were able to strafe and beat back the insurgents. Enemy losses were heavy, according to NATO, but the damage had been done.
As in Iraq, Korb supposed that the fighters who attacked the combat outpost had help from local knowledge and sympathizers. The insurgency, he said, is adapting to new U.S. pressure.
"Here we are, the greatest conventional military power in history, and even in Iraq you’re into the sixth year of war against insurgency and you’ve had 150,000 or 160,000 troops there at a time," Korb said.
Korb noted that Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, and the two presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, have all called for a new surge of sorts.
"A great paradox," Korb said, "is that you might six months from now have more troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq."