Friday, March 28, 2014

What Did the Bear Face When He Went Over the Mountain?

In my last post I posted quotes of interest from The Bear Went Over the Mountain by Lester Grau. As I stated in that blog, Bear was a series of vignettes and stories about Soviet tactics in Afghanistan. But what about the mujahedeen and their tactics? Lucky for us, Grau got the other side of the story and wrote The Other Side Of the Mountain. Here are the quotes I found of interest, with my comments:

"The Mujahideen use the Mamur Hotel ambush site over and over again, yet apparently the Soviets or DRA seldom dismounted troops to search the area to spoil the ambush or to try to set a counter-ambush."

Warfare is about adapting. If you don't adapt, your enemy certainly will. And you will die.

"The RPG-7 was probably the most effective weapon of the Mujahideen."

The RPG is a simple weapon but is extremely inaccurate. However, when used effectively it can be a game changer.

"...we had time to set up during the daylight before the column arrived, since the convoys always left Kabul in the morning well after dawn."

Don't set patterns. Just don't.

"If the terrain at the ambush site is very constricted, the guerrilla may want to attack the head of the convoy and block the route with a combination of a roadblock and burning vehicles. If the convoy has armored vehicles and engineer vehicles concentrated to the front of the convoy, the guerrilla may want to attack the middle or tail of the convoy with the hope that the convoy commander will not divert a great deal of combat power back to deal with his attack. If the guerrilla is after supplies, the middle of the convoy is best if he can isolate a piece of the middle, since most convoys have a rear guard."

The Soviets used large logistics convoys with lots of vehicles. These made for tempting targets since there were only so many armored and armed vehicles to go around. There are 2 ways to combat an ambush by insurgents in my experience: either look unimportant, or look too alert and scary to want to attack.

"The cover provided by the orchards and vegetation that flanked both sides of the Kabul-Charikar highway helped the Mujahideen lay successful ambushes. Later in the war, the Soviets destroyed the roadside orchards and villages to prevent the Mujahideen from using them in their ambushes."

Destroying the orchards and villages may have prevented ambushes along that route, but by doing so the Soviets most likely angered the local population and created way more enemies than they had before.

"Security elements should be the last elements to pull out of an ambush – not the first."

If you have a tank and the enemy doesn't, don't run away.

"However, in order to prevent future ambushes in the area, the Soviet forces bulldozed Deh-Khwaja homes along the main road out to a distance of 300 meters from the highway."

Keep destroying those villages, I'm sure that will work out for you.

"In a guerilla war, the loss of initiative becomes decisive in the outcome of tactical combat."

A tactical fight is like a sports game. If you lose the initiative you have to claw and fight to get it back. You have to hope your enemy makes a mistake, and hope is not a course of action you want to rely on.

"We gave him first aid and released him. He was a conscript soldier from the Panjsher Valley who had recently been press-ganged into the military."

The mujahedeen most likely made a friend and ally by letting this Afghan soldier go instead of keeping him captured. Forced conscription makes for bad soldiers.

"...the most important Mujahideen weapon in the conflict was the RPG-7 anti-tank grenade launcher."

So important that I highlighted it twice!

"On the morning of the raid, the Mujahideen raiders moved to the target within a herd of sheep. Some Mujahideen posed as shepherds, while others crawled along in the middle of the grazing sheep."

Didn't I read about this in The Odyssey? Brilliant move.

"Less than 15% of the Mujahideen commanders had previous military experience, yet the impact of the military who joined the Mujahideen was significant. They provided a continuity, an understanding of military planning and issues, a modicum of uniform training and an ability to deal with outside agencies providing aid to the Mujahideen."

Find that one person who is useful and exploit the hell out of them.

"Tactically, the Mujahideen realized that movement along streets is suicidal in urban combat."

That's what we call a linear danger area. Even ROTC cadets know that.

"Even during the fighting, the women from the villages would bring bread and milk forward to our positions. The whole area was actively supporting us."

The population is key for both the insurgent and the counter-insurgent.

"The Mujahideen lack of a structured, viable supply system hampered their tactical capabilities significantly."

Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics. Lack of both supplies and a stable supply base will doom an insurgency...sometimes.

"The combination of overwhelming firepower and ground maneuver unhinged the Mujahideen defense and the decisive action taken by the Soviet infantry forced the poorly-supplied Mujahideen to break contact"

Two key words: overwhelming and maneuver. Bring everything to bear and then don't sit still.

"We engaged the paratroopers with all our air defense machine guns and whatever other air defense weapons we had. As the paratroopers drifted closer, we realized that we had been duped. The 'paratroopers' were dummies and the reconnaissance aircraft had photographed our response and pinpointed our positions."

I highlighted this in my previous post. Using dummy paratroopers was a genius move by the Soviets.

"During the first week of November, representatives of fruit dealers appealed to the Mujahideen to open the highway, but to no avail. In a guerrilla war, support of the local population is too valuable to be risked by actions that hurt local economy."

Mujahideen groups made mistakes on occasion. This was one of those occasions.

"The Mujahideen who had the most difficulty with cordon and search operations were usually separate groups who had little or no ties to a central Mujahideen planning authority, had worked out no contingency plans and had taken no steps to fortify the area."

Best to make friends in the next valley over just in case you need to make a hasty withdrawal.

"Mujahideen insistence on holding base camps cost them dearly. At this point in the war, base camps were not essential to Mujahideen logistics and Abdullah’s base camp was not the only one which the Soviets overran."

A few of these quotes are going to appear contradictory. However, in the beginning stages of an insurgency, the insurgent should not try to hold ground. Holding ground just allows the counter-insurgent a place to attack you and win, which decreases the insurgent's morale and ability to recruit.

"When the Mujahideen held real estate, it allowed the Soviets to concentrate their superior firepower on the Mujahideen."

The insurgent is most effective when he's fighting uncoventionally and not holding territory that can be taken from him. Insurgents learn quickly not to hold ground until the enemy they are fighting is too weak or incapable of re-taking that territory.

"The enemy was very stylized and never did anything different. We knew from where they would come, how they would act and how long they could stay."

Adapt, adapt, adapt, adapt...and don't set patterns!

"Instead of defending in positions being pounded by fighter-bombers and close-air support aircraft, the Mujahideen went on the offensive and attacked the landing zones."

The best defense is a good offense. To expand on that thought, an assault force is at its most vulnerable when it is first getting off the helicopters and getting organized. By attacking the landing zones you seize the initiative, disrupt your enemy's attack, and can likely prevent any follow on forces or reinforcements from arriving.

"The Soviet advance on Chaghni was slow, but the Soviets were finally learning to dominate the high ground before they moved their ground force."

In Afghanistan it's absolutely crucial to control the high ground as you manuever a force through any of the valleys. Otherwise you're just asking for machine gun fire or mortars to come raining down on you.

"A dictum of guerrilla warfare is that the guerrilla should not hold ground. Mujahideen logistics forced the Mujahideen to hold ground."

Look at this dead horse, I'm going to keep beating it.

"Soviet soldiers were the main source of our gasoline. We would buy it from them."

This is what happens when your soldiers are underpaid and unsupervised.

"Bombing is a necessary part of being an urban guerrilla. The object is to create fear and take out selected individuals."

The war against the Soviets, much like the current conflict in Afghanistan, was a rural fight. However, insurgents did operate in the urban areas. Roadside bombs and carbombs strike fear in the populace and delegitimize the government. Also, as the quote states, they are good for assassinations as well.

"The urban guerrilla attacks the credibility of the government by chipping away at morale, attacking notable government targets and disrupting the daily life of the populace."

What I've found interesting is my multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan is that when bombs go off and the population of a city is living in daily fear, there isn't a lot of anger directed towards those conducting the attacks. Anger is directed towards the government and the occupation forces for not preventing those attacks; or in the case of the occupation forces, anger that they are even there because the very presence of foreign troops invites attacks.

The Other Side Of the Mountain was written in the same style as The Bear Went Over the Mountain and while slightly tedious to read and often repetitive it was interesting to gain the perspective of the mujahideen. I really hope that someone takes the time to write a book from the perspective of some of the Iraqi insurgents as well as those insurgents currently fighting in Afghanistan. It would likely provide for some real lessons as well as provoke some thinking on the tactics the US applied to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Bear, A Mountain, And A Whole Lot Of Pissed Off Afghans

In December I wrote a brief summary of the books about Afghanistan that I read prior to, or during, my latest deployment. I've already covered Caravans so the next book on the list is The Bear Went Over the Mountain by Lester Grau. As I wrote in my previous post, Bear is essentially a collection of after action reviews critiquing Soviet tactics and operations in Afghanistan. Below are some quotes that stuck out at me with my own comments:

"The citizens of the Soviet Union did not understand why their sons were being conscripted for battle in a strange land and failed to see how their sacrifices contributed to the security of the fatherland. Those with connections sought to avoid the draft. Unlike their fathers who fought the Nazi invaders, the returning soldiers were not welcomed as heroes or treated with respect. They were shunned and often scorned by their fellow citizens. A gap opened between the Armed Forces and the citizenry and many veterans found they could not fit back into the lifestyle of the complacent and self-centered citizenry."

Well doesn't this seems familiar...

"However, unlike in the United States Army (in Vietnam), the Afghanistan war was not an all-encompassing experience for the officer corps. Barely 10 percent of the Soviet motorized rifle, armor, aviation and artillery officers served in Afghanistan."

This is how you burn out an army. Send only a small portion of it to a conflict over and over and over again. This policy also keeps combat experience to a small minority when modern combat experience is crucial for the effectiveness of an army. I realize the Soviets were more concerned with NATO and Europe at the time but this policy just appears short sighted to me.

"As in Vietnam, tactics needed a major overhaul to meet the changed circumstances. Units which adapted enjoyed relative success while units which did not paid a price in blood."

It's easy to stick with the status quo. Forcing adaptation in any large organization takes a leader (often several) willing to try different approaches to a problem.

"Excellent results were achieved by suddenly blocking-off those regions which had been the site of military activity several days prior."

My experience in Iraq showed that when we cleared a neighborhood or small town the insurgents typically stayed away for a few weeks to a couple of months before they returned. In Afghanistan they were often back the next day. Change things up a bit and go back into an area you just cleared seems counterproductive and a waste of time but the results may surprise you.

"Although inspections are good ideas, these massive formal inspections were almost always conducted before a planned action. Any mujahideen in the vicinity were tipped off that an action was pending and could sound the warning."

Ahh, communists and their constant need for inspections. I'd fault them for this but to be perfectly honest, insurgents are going to find out about any major action hours if not days or weeks before you conduct it. Two men can keep a secret if one of them is dead and all that.

"The Soviet force did a weak job of reconnaissance. Their failure to seize the dominant terrain allowed the enemy to suppress practically the entire company area with fire."

Recon will likely tip off the enemy that your coming but if done right will keep you from being slaughtered. Modern militaries have the luxury of UAVs and satellite imagery but even a couple of light armored vehicles looking unimportant and checking out several different areas can be useful. That part of failing to seize dominant terrain? That's just begging for trouble when your in a valley in Afghanistan.

"Soviet artillery was hard pressed to “hip shoot” without their own FO on the ground. Soviet normative firing methodology was unsuited for combating mobile guerrilla forces who refused to stay put for massed artillery fires."

Damn insurgents not doing what we want them to do!

"The mujahideen did not react to the helicopter flight since we used Mi-6 helicopters – a cargo helicopter not usually used for air assaults. This deception effort against the enemy paid off."

If you can lull your enemy into a sense of complacency so that he doesn't react to your first few chess moves you've gone a long way to defeating anyway.

"...misleading the enemy as to the actual region in which the combat actions were planned (through information supplied to the Afghan division..."

You have to work with local security forces when fighting an insurgency, but those "allies" often accidentally, or in many cases purposely, leak information to the insurgents. This tactic of giving false location data of an assault may work a few times, but it will create resentment within your partnered forces and a lack of trust.

"Tactical surprise gained from air landings and air assaults dissipates rapidly."

Insurgents are always more tactically maneuverable than you are...always.

"As a rule, they would lure us into predetermined areas and then open fire on us at a distance of no more than 50 to 100 meters."

If there is a possibility, hell, a high likelihood, of getting blown up by your own artillery or close air support then you are less inclined to call it in.

"The sweep would seize supply caches and draft young men on the spot into the Afghan army."

What's an excellent way to keep an insurgency going and make your job even harder? Instead of protecting the population, force them into a job they don't want to do. No wonder the communist Afghan Army faced high desertion rates.

"However, using standard or SOP displays of panels or pyrotechnics to mark friendly positions or communicate with pilots is risky. The enemy is quick to learn these codes and to use them against the force which needs air support."

Hell, even with all our technology, the US Air Force still sometimes drops bombs on friendly soldiers. Pilots are dumb. (Oh shit, shots fired!)

"The Soviets apparently showed little concern for the civilian population and started each sweep with an artillery bombardment."

What's a surefire way of keeping an insurgency going other than forced conscription? Blowing up everything in site. It may have been effective for the Mongols, but it won't be effective for you.

"The dummy airborne drop was a masterful use of deception to discover enemy firing positions."

Simple, I love it.

"The force failed to clear the roads ahead of time and was three hours late. This appears to be a failure to conduct proper reconnaissance."

Never interrupt your enemy when he's making a mistake. The muj must have been having a field day with this one.

"The Soviet military would have liked to employ far more helicopters in Afghanistan, however, the lack of maintenance facilities, the increased logistics demand and the lack of secure operating bases prevented this."

This is just a long sentence of excuses and bullshit.

"On the day before the attempt, they did a reconnaissance of our obstacles by driving a large flock of sheep into our mine field."

I love this so much. Plus sheep are stupid.

"The mujahideen learned to take out command vehicles early in the battle."

When the US first invaded and occupied Afghanistan there were reports of platoon leaders being targeted quite often by the insurgents. The reason was that the Afghans had found out that Soviet troops could not operate effectively, or at all, without officer leadership. What does a US platoon do when they lose their officer? Carry on this mission, the lieutenant was probably a jackass anyway.

"The Soviet Army seldom left a clean bivouac area or fighting position."

First rule of camping and hunting insurgents...leave no trace. You are both the hunter and the hunted when it comes to counter insurgency.

"The lack of a professional NCO corps and the lack of trust in junior officers kept the battalion leadership doing jobs other armies would entrust to lieutenants and sergeants."

There are times when I think the US military is a mess and that the Soviets would have wiped the floor with us. Then I read sentences like this and it makes me smile.

"And in the end, the soldier and officer returned to a changing Soviet Union. Many were unable to fit back into this staid, bland society. Many of the officers asked to go back to Afghanistan."

This certainly hits close to home...

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Following the Worst Day

The details of the days and weeks following the death of SSG Tirador are mostly forgotten by me. What I do remember was that there was a lot going on at the there always seems to be for a cavalry squadron out on the edge of the world. To say Amy's death was a distraction seems extraordinarily harsh and cruel, but it was a distraction. A distraction that, looking back, I needed. I had been so focused on PowerPoint products, targeting meetings, and daily briefings that I was neglecting the health of my section.

Within a few days of Tirador's death I got on a Black Hawk helicopter and flew from COP COBRA down to FOB CALDWELL where the other half of my section resided. Before I left I requested permission to go from the S3. I assumed it was courtesy request and that the S3 would give me carte blache to be wherever I felt like I needed to be. When I went into his office and stated that I would like to go to Caldwell this was his response:

"Why? We have a lot of work here to do."

To say I was at a loss for words is an understatement. Why? Why? What kind of unfeeling, knuckle dragging, incompetent leader was I dealing with here? Oh yeah, our operations officer who was universally despised by every officer on the staff.

"Sir, I need to check on my guys. Make sure they're doing alright. I'll have no problem getting done what needs to be done from Caldwell."

Obviously, since I mentioned it above, I got on the bird to Caldwell. As I got off the helicopter the supply officer a couple of others were carrying several footlockers and placing them on the Black Hawk which was stopping at the brigade HQ at FOB WARHORSE. After all the footlockers were on the helicopter it dawned on me that they were SSG Tirador's personal effects. The situation became real again.

After a couple of days at Caldwell I jumped on the Squadron Commander's convoy to Warhorse for SSG Tirador's memorial ceremony. It was decided that the ceremony would be done there instead of Caldwell because Amy was officially assigned to the brigade's military intelligence company and this way more people, especially her friends, could be at the ceremony. I had been asked if I wanted to speak during the memorial but I politely declined. It didn't feel right to me as I was still blaming myself for her death. Sitting through the memorial trying not to break down was emotionally one of the most difficult things I've ever done. All military memorials are emotionally difficult. A memorial for one of your soldiers...a memorial where you have an assigned seat with your name on it...I don't have the vocabulary to describe it.

After the ceremony I walked outside and stood by alone with my thoughts for some time. The squadron XO eventually found me and talked with me for awhile. He said quite a bit but what has stuck with me was, "Mike, this wasn't your fault. Don't you dare blame yourself for this. You didn't cause her to do this to herself. You were not overly hard on her, you never yelled at her. This wasn't your fault. Remember that."

The XO had a saying he continually brought up in our training leading up to the deployment and our first few months in country:

"We have yet to see our worst day in Iraq."

As the XO turned to leave I said, "Sir, I think we've just had our worst day."

He looked back at me and said, "We'll see."