I have now seen two National Geographic Explorer Specials on the Afghanistan war. I was impressed by the reporting done in each. The name National Geographic probably keeps a lot of people from looking at that channel for Afghanistan war documentaries. That’s a shame. They do a good job.
I was interviewed once by National Geographic magazine for an article on real estate investment. I learned that in spite of they’re being famous for photographs, they are equally good about their writing. They simply stand for a high degree of excellence in everything they do. I fear they only get credit for the photos. If that is your image of National Geographic, take another look.
The most recent one I saw was called Inside the Green Berets. It was about a small group of green berets stationed at a remote outpost in South Central Afghanistan.
I have been very favorably impressed with the green berets ever since I became aware of them when I was a cadet at West Point. I volunteered for them five times including when I was in Vietnam. I was on orders to the Fifth Special Forces (green berets) Group in Vietnam once, but the orders were rescinded for reasons unknown to me.
My impression of the green berets is that they are older, more mature above and beyond their ages, more common sense, less bureaucratic, and more professional in the true sense of that word than the vast majority of U.S. military units, including those that call themselves “elite.”
This video supported all of that. For example, I do not recall ever seeing any of the green berets wearing a beret in the whole documentary.
The prior National Geographic video I saw was about marines in Afghanistan. They were younger and more into their Hollywood image. I mentioned that in two articles: IEDs and overemphasis on physical fitness.
Spread too thin
As a result of these documentaries and others and live speeches I have heard given by Afghanistan veterans and books and media articles I have read about Afghanistan, I came to the conclusion that our military forces are spread way too thin in Afghanistan. That was true both before Obama’s surge, and it will be true after the surge is complete.
Inside the Green Berets gives more of the same evidence.
If I have drawn a mistaken impression, and you are knowledgeable about this situation in Afghanistan, please tell me the evidence I am wrong and I will look into it and modify this article as needed. I wrote a web article giving the numbers that show how thin we are spread in Afghanistan.
Away from home overnight
In both NatGeo specials, the unit had to visit an Afghan village to “win their hearts and minds.” But they could not get back to their base before night fall.
So what do they do after dark? In both videos, they spend the night on top of a nearby hill.
This is a pattern. At U.S. Army Ranger School, we were told never exhibit a pattern or habit. Never travel the same route more than once. If you do not behave predictably, it is almost impossible to ambush you. Ambushes, including those involving IEDs, are set up in advance on a route the enemy knows you will travel on by foot or by vehicle or where your aircraft will land or fly slowly close to the ground.
In both Afghanistan war videos, the U.S> forces moved to the top of a nearby hill after their daytime visit to the village. In both cases, the enemy attacked them successfully with IEDs killing Americans and Afghan allies in the process.
In both cases, the American looked for IEDs on the road up the hill and on top of the hill. And they FOUND IEDs, and they destroyed them by exploding them.
The enemy watched all of this from a short distance away.
And in each case, after the American blew up a bunch of the IEDs they found, and proceeded up the hill to their night encampment, the enemy used one that they did not find to blow up one of their humvees and kill guys.
Vietnam after-dark move
We had a similar situation in Vietnam. There, U.S. units in battalion or bigger strength would move through the jungle. The enemy would accompany them staying just out of sight but walking along with the American units off to the side or behind them.
At dusk, the U.S. units would camp for the night. Helicopters would bring in hot meals often steaks. The units would dig in and build foxhole type defenses for the night.
The enemy would then place booby traps around the camped unit during the night, especially in the same direction that the unit was heading when it stopped for the night. They also would mortar the camp all night and sometimes fire rifle bullets at the U.S. positions they saw being built before night fall.
But the U.S. had an occasional non-idiot battalion or company commander. Those guys would seem to set up camp as usual, then, after nightfall, they would move as quietly as possible to a totally new position several hundred yards away and not in the direction they had been heading before the fake encampment. They would set up in the usual circle, but not dig foxholes. They relied on the darkness for protection.
As far as I know, this was quite effective. I was with the infantry in Fort Bragg, NC, but I was with the artillery in Vietnam. We did not do such moves in the artillery in Vietnam. It would not have worked with artillery because our cannons were self-propelled 8-inch and 175 mm howitzers—essentially huge tanks that made very loud noise when they moved. Also, the enemy seemed not to attack artillery batteries much in Vietnam. The artillery had a trick in which they would depress the barrels of the cannons so they were shooting along the ground like machine guns, then they would shoot canister or flechette rounds into the jungle. You do not want to be in the jungle around a U.S. artillery unit when it is pissed off about bad guys in the woods and firing canister rounds at you. For one thing, such firing generally removes the jungle.
Mortars would be effective against U.S. artillery units, unless they had counter-battery radar. Those can identify the location whence the enemy mortar rounds were fired by identifying two points on the incoming trajectory and reconstructing the trajectory parabola including its starting point. With counter-battery radar, the American can, I believe, fire accurately back at the enemy mortar emplacement before they get their third or fourth round off. Generally, indirect-fire weapons like mortars have to shoot a half dozen or so rounds, getting instructions in between each shot, so the forward observer can tell the gun how to adjust to walk in on the enemy target, that is, the U.S. artillery battery.
If you have not spent much time camping out, you probably are not fully aware of the effect the moon has on visibility at night. You probably are also not aware that the moon rises and sets at different times each night. It does not appear at dusk and go away at dawn like street lights. Rather if often rises or sets in broad daylight. On a given night, the moon might be there at dusk but set at 9:38 PM or rise at 4:53 AM and still be there—uselessly—at dawn. Moon rise and set times are in your daily newspaper every day. Rangers are briefed on them before each patrol.
During part of the month, you only have a partial moon. During other parts, you have no moon at all. Sometimes, there is a moon out, but cloud cover renders it invisible, especially when it’s raining or snowing.
Night parachute jumps like to go on moonlit nights—so the troops can see the ground before they land. I would expect the opposite of U.S. military units in Afghanistan. That is, I would expect they would prefer not to be outside on moonlit nights because the moon will enable the enemy to see the Americans in that barren terrain. In Vietnam jungles, the moon only affected visibility in clearings. I do not know what the moon light, if any, was in the NatGeo special. But for troops on the ground, it would be a factor. U.S. forces have night-vision equipment, but that is not as good as you might expect if you have not tried to use it. It’s limited.
Nowhere to move
As far as I could tell from the documentaries, moving to another camp location after dark was not a possibility because they were in humvees, which are noisy. Noise travels farther and is easier to hear at night. Also, the U.S. forces in Afghanistan are under observation continuously by the enemy. So no matter where they camp or whether they move to a new location after dark, the enemy will know either by watching in the moonlight or by hearing the humvee motors.
Can’t stay off the roads and trails
If you are on foot, you can stay off the trails and roads. That means it’s very hard for the enemy to mount an effective ambush of either the IED or bunch of machine guns type. They cannot predict where you will walk and you do not have to group together as you do in humvees.
With off-road vehicles, you can also avoid trails and roads—if terrain permits. To use off-road vehicles off road, you basically need generally flat or gently sloped terrain—no boulders or trees or deep water or steep terrain or cliffs or loose rocks on slopes and so on.
Is that the terrain in Afghanistan? Hell, no!
U.S. units in Afghanistan often drive in streams. Cute trick. Seen it a thousand times in cowboy movies as a way to prevent trackers from following you. But the Americans do it so much in Afghanistan that the enemy plants IEDs in the streams and have killed Americans with them.
Also, the terrain in Afghanistan is so rugged that even the tough humvees cannot handle it. They have to stay on the dirt roads and trails. In some cases, like Pat Tillman’s unit the day he was killed, they were moving through canyons so narrow that the humvees could barely fit.
Fundamentally, it appears that U.S. units in Afghanistan are spread so thin that they can only visit the villages in their AO (area of operations) if they camp out overnight before returning to their base. Furthermore, they cannot camp out overnight without violating the basic infantry principles of staying off roads and trails and refraining from exhibiting habits or patterns. Their vehicles and the Afghan terrain force them to violate the off-road principle. What vehicle would work?
Horses. Mules. Donkeys. Maybe camels. Is that a joke? Ask the loved ones of the KIAs. Our special forces guys used horses along with the Afghans of the Northern Alliance at the outset of the Afghan war. Those horse-propelled operations were extremely successful and ran the Taliban out of Afghanistan in a matter of weeks or months. Horses can truly go off road even in bad terrain like Afghanistan. Humvees talk a better game than they play off-road in Afghanistan.
Observed night encampments must be on high ground to avoid having RPGs and machine gun fire rained down upon them from higher ground all night. Apparently, in a given village area, there are only one or two suitable, overnight, hilltop encampments for a U.S. unit with trucks. The Taliban can and do easily fill them with IEDs. Units on foot, could hide in all sorts of places like the enemy, but how would they get so far from the base camp, or get back?
We have a pretty good weapon for clearing mines. It’s called a mine-clearing line charge or Mick Lick for short. The MICKLICK shoots line of explosives into the air above the path to be cleared. As the line starts to settle toward the ground, it explodes detonating or destroying the enemy mines beneath it. IEDs are mines. True, the weapon is for contact mines, not command-detonated mines like IEDs. But the U.S. weapon that clears a path through mine fields could probably be used to clear the mines off of the hilltops and roads up to them.
So these missions are suicide operations for the Americans. Are suicide missions always wrong? No. Omaha Beach on D-Day was a worthwhile suicide mission. Easy for me to say. I had not been born yet. The key question is whether the gains were greater than the losses
The total number of enemy killed during the IED night that cost several American their lives appeared to be zero. I do not think the Americans had any idea where to shoot their weapons before or after the IED went off. So it appears to me to have been a suicide mission with no benefit to the U.S.
The government will spin it into contortions and convolutions about how it helped the overall effort and the benefit comes from the overall presence and all that.
U.S. military apparently cannot use humvees in Afghanistan because the routes they must take are too predictable which violates a bedrock infantry best practice. Only foot patrols have any chance of success, and those can only cover limited amounts of terrain around their base camp. Either the U.S. needs to put orders of magnitude more troops into Afghanistan so they can man more bases, or they need to patrol with drones or on horseback without overnight encampments. Night vision drones operated by the patrols themselves could also be very helpful if they have the artillery and/or air-support needed to kill the enemy they spot.
Bottom line: Humvee patrols in most parts of Afghanistan appear to me to be meaningless suicide missions, especially when they are forced to camp overnight.
If I am wrong, would a veteran of Afghanistan who did these patrols please straighten me out. If no one can do that, I suggest the U.S. military in Afghanistan read my article on The Morality of Obeying Stupid Orders. If U.S. troops and their military leaders keep doing these suicide missions for no good reason, they are immoral moral wimps. They need to raise hell about these stupid patrols and get more suitable missions and more suitable equipment.