21 February 2011

BUB: Life in the Arghandab

The Arghandab Valley in Afghanistan is currently the closest thing to a front line out there. The stories are varied, and compelling, and at times make you really wonder how informed some of the strategic decisions are.

The story of demolishing villages to "save them" sounds remarkably Vietnam-esque...

On October 6, 2010, Lieutenant Colonel David Flynn, charged with clearing a tiny village in the Arghandab district of southeast Afghanistan, called in 49,200 pounds of rockets and aerial bombs, leveling it completely. According to Paula Broadwell, a former adviser to General David Petraeus, Flynn believed that the village of Tarok Kolache was empty of civilians and full of explosive traps. The Taliban, Broadwell recounted for ForeignPolicy.com, had "conducted an intimidation campaign" to chase away the villagers and promptly set up shop inside the village. In earlier attempts to clear it, Flynn's unit had taken heavy losses, including multiple amputations from homemade explosives and several dead. He decided the only reasonable way to "clear" the mine-riddled village was to bomb it to the ground. When Tarok Kolache's residents tried to return to the homes their families had maintained for generations, they found nothing but dust. Flynn offered them money for reconstruction and reimbursement, but getting it required jumping a long series of bureaucratic hoops, some of them controlled by notoriously corrupt local politicians. Flynn, and later Broadwell, who is also writing a biography of Petraeus, declared it a success.

As soldiers arrive on the battlefields of Afghanistan, they face enormous expectations to show "progress." It is an impossible situation: the military's counterinsurgency strategy requires, by all accounts, years to implement and even longer to succeed. Yet officers are pressured, both by political considerations in Washington and command expectations in Kabul, to accomplish big objectives on very short time frames. Because it's rare for a tour of duty to last more than 12 months, commanders are severely constrained in what choices they can make. It's difficult to be slow and deliberate when one must show progress, right now, in time for a Congressional hearing or a strategic review. Those pressures constraint incentives and shape day-to-day decision-making. Officers, perhaps understandably, look for ways to demonstrate short-term gain, sometimes at the cost of long-term success. Today, Tarok Kolache is "cleared." Three years from now, when the Obama administration says it will begin reducing troop numbers, how stable, safe, and anti-Taliban will its remaining villagers really be?

Tarok Kolache is the kind of horror story that always accompanies war. "This is not the first time this has happened," a platoon leader who served in Kandahar recounted to me. There, the destruction of mined villages is common. Last November, the New York Times reported that demolishing unoccupied homes and towns had become routine in several districts in Kandahar. Because the war has displaced an estimated 297,000 Afghans, many of whom will flee during extended violence and later return, homes are often empty. In October, the Daily Mail quoted this same Lt. Col. Flynn as threatening villagers with their town's destruction if they did not report Taliban activity to his soldiers (the village in that story, Khosrow Sofia, was later burned to the ground much like Tarok Kolache). In neighboring Helmand province--even more violent than Kandahar--Marines have explicitly threatened villages with destruction if local civilians didn't volunteer the locations of near IEDs.

But as explained in several outlets, the tactical reasons were absolutely sound, even if the strategic ones were a little fuzzier.

To clarify something from Broadwell’s post, Flynn sent his men into the villages to attempt to clear them out — but there were just too many bombs. A July raid on Khosrow Sofla was repulsed by the density of the explosive charges. A Special Forces sergeant told Flynn it was the “most sophisticated IED network he had ever seen.”

A different clearing operation had to be turned back after his men discovered there were more bombs than they had material with which to safely detonate them.

That led Flynn to seek out alternatives. “It was comforting to know” that the civilians had fled, because “we [could] employ the full suite of our weapons systems” — everything from grenades to .50-cal machine guns to attack helicopters and close air support — “without worrying about killing civilians.”

The alternatives before him were stark: He could take out the buildings. Or he could keep moving in on foot, with more of his men getting maimed or killed. And if he cleared the villages without taking out the buildings, he couldn’t know that Afghans would be safe moving back into them, since the Taliban had rigged them to detonate.

So by late September, Flynn called together Tarok Kolache’s malek and the other area residents to let them know that he was planning, essentially, large-scale demolitions. “We didn’t show them a plan and say, ‘We’re going to destroy everything in the village, is everyone OK with that?’” he says.

“But they were made aware there would be significant collateral damage in the village. People didn’t say, ‘Yeah, blow up the village,’ but they kind of understood — they’d been at war for 30 years. This was the biggest fight that had gone on in the district.”

What's life like for those foot patrols out there? The Atlantic has one of the most engaging and tense stories about a platoon on the ground that you will find.

Knollinger called for a medevac, and soldiers lifted Moon onto a stretcher and carried him into a plowed field, away from the crater and any secondary bombs. Back at the combat outpost, a dozen soldiers piled into four armored trucks and sped down Route Red Dog to provide added firepower against follow-on attacks. Moon lay in the sun. The bleeding had stopped. A half-dozen soldiers stood or knelt around him. “Where are the medevac birds?” Moon asked. He faded toward unconsciousness. “Wake up, Moon!” a soldier yelled. “Stay with me!” Gerhart, blood smeared across his uniform, stepped away from Moon and toward me, his voice low and quivering. “He’s gonna fucking die, man.” The trucks arrived, and soon after, the helicopter could be heard on the horizon, beating toward us. “Water,” Moon said, his voice a low moan. “Water, please.”

Shooting at medevac helicopters had become standard procedure for insurgents, so as the bird approached, low over the fields, soldiers in the gun trucks and on the ground opened up. In a rising racket of machine-gun and rifle fire, bullets shredded trees and kicked up dust in the grape furrows. The helicopter settled into the field and soldiers shielded Moon as dirt swirled over them from the rotor wash. They loaded Moon onto the bird, and his partner, Rush, climbed in beside him. The helicopter lifted and the gunfire ebbed. Knollinger crossed himself. For the next two hours, soldiers scoured the pomegranate orchard, the canal, and a marijuana field for pieces of Moon’s equipment, weapon, and legs, all of which had been scattered across a 100-foot radius. They found some of each, and walked home.

This had become a near-daily occurrence for Charlie Company. “The enemy knows if he punches you in the nose, and you sit down, he’s won,” Charlie’s commander, Captain Ryan Christmas, had told me two days earlier, on the Fourth of July. “But if you come back with a strangle move, you’ve won.” As I stood with Christmas in Charlie’s command post, more grim news crackled from the radio. A bomb had ripped through a foot patrol, wounding two soldiers and killing one, Specialist Clayton McGarrah, who had been in Afghanistan eight days. He had set down his backpack on a hidden mine’s pressure plate. “Another tough day,” Christmas said, and pressed his fingers to his temples. “I can’t even see his face. That sounds terrible, but he just wasn’t here that long.” Christmas had done three other Afghanistan deployments and one to Iraq, but this had been the most trying. Every day since he had taken command of Charlie a month earlier, his men had been sniped at, ambushed, or blown up. “All our family and friends are home right now eating hamburgers and shooting fireworks,” he told me. “And that’s good. I’m happy for them. But they need to understand the price of that freedom.”

And as the war progresses, the enemy is getting younger and younger, and is going to force the US into some interesting quandaries about whether or not to return fire.

U.S. Staff Sergeant Aaron Best made no apologies as his soldiers escorted 14-year-old Ahmad, blindfolded and handcuffed, onto their outpost in southern Afghanistan for questioning.

"Don't be fooled," said Best, "I have detained so many teenagers. These fighters are getting younger and younger."

Ahmad, whose real name has been concealed to protect his identity, was picked up by a U.S. patrol along with a 15-year-old boy in Arghandab, in southern Kandahar province, one of Afghanistan's most volatile regions, because they were behaving suspiciously.

Ahmad and his friend were hiding in vegetation, observing the soldiers, when they were spotted. The boys scurried away and when Best's men finally caught up to them they tried to resist arrest, making the soldiers even more suspicious.

Both boys, along with several older detainees picked up on the patrol, tested positive for traces of ammonium nitrate on their hands, a chemical found in gunpowder and explosives. Ammonium nitrate is also found in certain fertilizers and, although they are banned in Afghanistan because they can be used to make homemade bombs, they are still used by some farmers. The detainees could simply have been farm laborers.

Ahmad and the others were kept overnight for questioning by Afghan police and released the next day to village elders who said they would vouch for them.

Whether or not Ahmad and his 15-year-old friend had been laying homemade bombs or had even fired weapons at U.S. troops before, Best's men will probably never find out, but the arrests illustrate a worrying trend reported from soldiers on the ground: that they are encountering an increasingly younger fighter.

"Over the last eight to nine years there has been a dynamic change in the age of fighters. Most fighters now are between 14 and 18 years-old," said Lieutenant Colonel Guy Jones, commander of 2-508th Parachute Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, based in Arghandab.

"In 2002, fighters were 22 to 30-years-old and commanders were between 32 and 40," said Jones who is on his fourth tour in Afghanistan.

By: Brant:

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