CRUNCH TIME IN AFGHANISTAN

THERE IS A FEELING THAT THE WAR AGAINST THE TALIBAN AND AL-QAEDA IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN’S LAWLESS BORDER COUNTRY IS REACHING A CRUCIAL POINT AS 2008 COMES TO A CLOSE. SENIOR NAVAL OFFICERS IN THE USA ARE WARNING THE BATTLE IS TOUGH AND THE WEST COULD STILL FAIL. MEANWHILE, BOTH THE UK AND USA ARE THROWING MORE OF THEIR TROOPS INTO THE FIGHT.

‘Sea Soldiers’ Lead the Fight

DESPITE  being landlocked, Afghanistan is currently host to the sea soldiers of both the USA and United Kingdom, in the shape of US Marine Corps combat formations and 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. Add to them a wide variety of support units and the balance of front line combat units battling the Taliban in Helmand Province is tipped decisively towards naval forces. Meanwhile, out at sea an American aircraft carrier is flying strike missions to support NATO troops during the counter-insurgency missions against a formidable foe. British naval aviation is present in-country, with the Harrier strike jets of the Naval Strike Wing based at Kandahar and also Sea King helicopters from 845 and 846 Naval Air Squadrons and the Lynxes of 847 NAS. To prepare for the deployment to Afghanistan, 3 Commando Brigade held a huge exercise on Salisbury Plain’s battle training areas, involving 5,800 troops, around 2,000 vehicles and two dozen fast jets and helicopters. At the time the Commanding Officer of 3 Cdo Bde, Brigadier Buster Howes RM, explained the mission that lies ahead over the next six months: “The mission for the Brigade will be to defeat the insurgents through the employment of both military and non-military means. The successful completion of the Mission Rehearsal Exercise is essential if the brigade is to meet the challenge of this deployment and be fully prepared to face the changing nature of operations in Helmand Province.” With hundreds of blue uniformed naval personnel, ranging from aircrew and aircraft maintainers to doctors and nurses as well as volunteer lorry drivers, also in the mix, the commitments to Afghanistan by the hard-pressed Royal Navy is considerable. Commander-in-Chief Fleet, Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope observed: “I am proud that the Royal Navy supports operations around the world, and this deployment represents the largest Royal Naval Services contribution to land operations for many years.” Among the units incorporated into 3 Cdo Bde for the Afghan deployment is the 1st Battalion The Rifles (1RIFLES), which was recently added to its order of battle. Coming under RN Fleet command, the Army formation provides the Commando Brigade with a fourth infantry combat unit. This is necessary to enable the brigade to deploy in full strength. One of the manoeuvre units is usually held back to perform the ready amphibious combat unit role, this time being 40 Commando Royal Marines, which fulfilled a deployment to Afghanistan at the end of 2007/beginning of 2008.

BEATING GLOBAL TERRORISM NEEDS MORE THAN JUST ‘HAMMERS’

The War on Terror is putting the United States and its allies to the test as they strive to balance the application of both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ power, according to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Delivering the US Institute of Peace’s first Dean Acheson lecture in Washington D.C. last month (Oct) he observed: “Afghanistan is the test, on the grandest scale, of what we are trying to achieve when it comes to integrating the military and the civilian, the public and private, the national and international.” The lecture series honours a former US Secretary of State who, said Gates, had a clear understanding of the importance of applying power to confront Cold War threats that dominated the late 20th Century.

Acheson recognised Soviet ‘ideological zeal and fighting power’ and the importance of US power and energy in stopping its expansion. Gates drew parallels between the Soviet threat of yesterday and the violent extremism that he said menaces peace-loving people around the world today.

Gates explained: “It is an adversary without the resources of a great power, but with unlimited ideological zeal and no shortage of fighting power.” 

Today’s challenge demands “the full strength of America and its people.” According to Gates, the USA must be prepared to change old ways of doing business and create new institutions at home nationally, and internationally to deal with these threats. He said: “Our own national security toolbox must be well-equipped with more than just hammers.” Gates called Afghanistan “the laboratory” for US efforts to apply and fully integrate the full range of its national power and international cooperation. He told the audience that 42 nations, hundreds of non-governmental organisations, universities, development banks, the United Nations, the European Union and NATO are all working together to help Afghanistan rise above the challenges it faces, ranging from crushing poverty to a bumper opium crop to a ruthless and resilient insurgency plus the threat of Al-Qaeda and other violent extremists. Coalition warfare is nothing new, with positive examples set during WW2, in the Korean War and the wars in the Gulf, he said.

Yet despite decades of NATO preparation, the alliance’s operations in Afghanistan are hamstrung by national caveats that limited how different countries’ militaries can go and what they can do. Gates said some allies had “stepped forward courageously - showing a willingness to take physical risks on the battlefield and political risks at home.” He continued: “But many have defence budgets that are so low and coalition governments so precarious that they cannot provide the quantity or type of forces needed for this kind of fight.” Whether or not America and its allies win in Afghanistan depends on efforts to rapidly train, equip and advise its army and police force. Gates noted that until recently, few Western governments and militaries had this capability outside their Special Forces. Ultimately, said the US Secretary of State, finding the formula for success extends beyond military strength - to encompass economic development, reconstruction, improved governance, the development of modern institutions and counter-narcotics strategy. “To be successful, the entirety of the NATO alliance, the European Union, NGOs and other groups - the full panoply of military and civilian elements - must better integrate and coordinate with one another and also with the Afghan government. These efforts today, however, well-intentioned and even heroic, add up to less than the sum of the parts.”
Gates expressed hope that the recent NATO defence ministerial conference in Budapest would result in concrete steps to reverse that equation. “Whether we make progress remains to be seen,” he said.
Report based on material provided by AFPS.

AIR POWER PROVIDES THE WINNING EDGE TO PREVENT ‘TALIBAN COMEBACK’

The United States faces difficult decisions over troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the US Marines heavily involved in both theatres. Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James Conway has outlined the balancing act he faces to keep the Taliban on the back foot in Afghanistan while at the same time ensuring that Iraqi forces continue to take more responsibility for security in that country. General Conway has unequalled experience of Coalition operations in Iraq, having led US Marines on the ground during the 2003 war before directing Marine efforts in Al Anbar during the subsequent counter-insurgency war. He told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that real progress is being made in both countries. “Some of those serving in Iraq still say there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight,” he said. “Driving conspicuously through the once mean streets of Fallujah and Ramadi, our vehicles seemed to go largely unnoticed, as there was much construction and rebuilding taking place. The change in the Al Anbar province is real and perceptible. Anbar remains a dangerous place, but the ever-growing ability of Iraqi security forces continues to move us closer to seeing Iraqi control of the province, which, by the way, was once projected to be the last to turn for the better. Now we believe the province could turn over to Iraqi control in just a few days. There is also change underway in Afghanistan. The Taliban are growing bolder in their tactics and clearly doing their best to exploit security gaps where they exist. American marines there have taken the fight to an enemy that believes he can wait us out and exact revenge on members of communities who have cooperated with coalition forces. Non-combatants will pay the price in Taliban retribution in any security vacuum in Afghanistan. The coalition will pay the price in lost gains and lost trust of the people there if that should happen.”

Troop levels have always been the conundrum facing America since the toppling of Saddam Hussein and Conway recognised that it remains a primary driver of policy. He said: “Everyone seems to agree that additional forces are the ideal course of action for preventing a Taliban comeback, but just where they’re going to come from is still up for discussion. Should our leadership determine that more US forces are needed in the fight in Afghanistan it’s no secret that the Marine Corps would be proud to be part of that undertaking. However, in order to do more in Afghanistan, our marines have got to see relief elsewhere.”
While the situation appears to be stabilising in Iraq, combat operations in Afghanistan remain intense and the USMC chief was quizzed on the subject of increasing use of air power and subsequent collateral damage. He responded: “If the reports of the Afghan civilian casualties are accurate - and sometimes that is a big ‘if’ because I think we all understand the Taliban capabilities with regard to information operations - that will be truly an unfortunate incident. And we need to avoid that at every cost. But I don’t necessarily tie the two together. You know, air power is the premiere asymmetric advantage that we hold over both the Taliban and, for that matter, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. When we find that we’re up against hardened people in a hardened type of compound, before we throw our marines or soldiers against that, we’re going to take advantage of our asymmetric advantage. That is the ability to strike from the air. Sometimes we think there’s been overt efforts on the part of the Taliban, in particular, to surround themselves with civilians so as to reap an advantage if civilians are killed. But I think it is a tactic that has proven valuable to us in the past, in terms of saving lives, to reduce a compound through air strike if there’s simply no other way. We’ll continue to drop bombs.”

With personnel from 24th MEU and 2/7 Marines due to return home this month (Nov) General Conway warned of the dangers of the Taliban filling any vacuum left by departing American forces. He said: “What we discovered in Iraq when I was the commander there is that if you move forces into an area and they start to create a level of security, generate a level of confidence and achieve a level of intelligence coming from the people, that’s a very good and harmonious relationship. Those are basic tactics in a counter-insurgency environment. If you move that battalion away and the bad guys of whatever ilk - Al-Qaeda or Taliban - come in, that’s exactly what they will not broker. And those people will be made examples of. We’ve seen families slaughtered. We’ve seen policemen rounded up and executed with shots to the back of the head in the soccer stadium, just to make the point. And so that’s what we risk if we don’t somehow take advantage of those gains and maintain the momentum in that area. And then when you come back and you say, ‘Well, we’re back,’ the silence is resounding, because the people, again, have lost the level of confidence that the same thing can’t be repeated over and over. So we just have to figure out a way to maintain the gains that we’ve achieved.”

Commenting further on operations against the Taliban, Conway said: “They just don’t want to tangle with the marines. I won’t quote you casualty counts, but they’re hugely disproportionate and the Taliban really took a good bloodying at the hands of 24th MEU. But it’s only one sector. The Green Zone in Iraq means one thing. The Green Zone in Afghanistan means something exactly the opposite, because that’s where the bad guys are. And these ‘green zones’ are around river valleys where populations occur, crops are grown, drugs are produced and that type of thing, and that’s where you find the bad guys.”

General Conway continued: “More Marines, more coalition forces will allow us to go to those places and force the bad guys into the mountains. If you look at how Algeria defeated its insurgency, that was their method; that was their tactic, to drive these guys into the mountains. And you know what? Sooner or later, they get hungry. They start to starve to death. And they’re much more willing to listen to terms.” He also reminded reporters that marines are primarily combat soldiers and were therefore more valuable man for man in Afghanistan than Iraq. He stated: “A battalion of marines in Afghanistan counts for more than a battalion of Marines in Iraq, if you will, just in terms of the impact that they can have.”

Turning to Pakistan and the need for counter-insurgency operations in the border regions, Conway said: “I think the Pakistanis believe that there are people there that represent a danger to Pakistan and to coalition forces in Afghanistan. That’s long been an ungoverned area. I think we’re all concerned that if it’s not managed you could see attacks against other parts of Pakistan and certainly attacks into Afghanistan - training and staging and recruiting all taking place up in there. All those things are dangerous really to both nations, not to mention the fact that there could be planning taking place up there for strikes elsewhere, in western Europe or even the United States. So I think it is a real threat, one that the president or prime ministers of both nations realise and one now that happily Pakistan is taking some steps to remove. It’s going to require involvement on the part of the Pakistanis to settle the problem that’s taking place on their sovereign soil.”

Despite their losses, Gen Conway said the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were far from beaten. He reported: “The threat is growing. There was a time when we thought that it was diminishing and weren’t ready to put a bow on it but it was looking pretty good in Afghanistan. Well, that’s changed over time and since about 2004 if you simply plot the attacks the threat is increasing, the numbers of attacks are increasing, the casualties are obviously increasing for the coalition forces associated with that.” Conway vowed: “We will provide the marines necessary to win this fight, hopefully sooner than later. We would want to see those marines employed as an Air-Ground Task Force, given their own sector of ground and able to execute the counter-insurgency methods and tactics that we found successful in Iraq.”

Addressing the topic of opium production in Afghanistan, Conway said the problem required an Afghan solution. He stated: “To have Western or coalition forces coming in has the potential to create enemies and that’s certainly not what we want to do. A government program that takes advantage of alternative crops and causes its people to understand that there’s a law that must be followed - those types of things I think are much better coming out of the Karzai government. There is constant pressure on the part of the military to make the government aware of the fact that these are monies that are coming out that are helping to resource the Taliban and the bad guys and it needs to be halted.”

The United States faces difficult decisions over troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the US Marines heavily involved in both theatres. Commandant of the US Marine Corps, General James Conway has outlined the balancing act he faces to keep the Taliban on the back foot in Afghanistan while at the same time ensuring that Iraqi forces continue to take more responsibility for security in that country. General Conway has unequalled experience of Coalition operations in Iraq, having led US Marines on the ground during the 2003 war before directing Marine efforts in Al Anbar during the subsequent counter-insurgency war. He told reporters at a Pentagon briefing that real progress is being made in both countries. “Some of those serving in Iraq still say there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight,” he said. “Driving conspicuously through the once mean streets of Falluja and Ramadi, our vehicles seemed to go largely unnoticed, as there was much construction and rebuilding taking place. The change in the Al Anbar province is real and perceptible. Anbar remains a dangerous place, but the ever-growing ability of Iraqi security forces continues to move us closer to seeing Iraqi control of the province, which, by the way, was once projected to be the last to turn for the better. Now we believe the province could turn over to Iraqi control in just a few days. There is also change underway in Afghanistan. The Taliban are growing bolder in their tactics and clearly doing their best to exploit security gaps where they exist. American marines there have taken the fight to an enemy that believes he can wait us out and exact revenge on members of communities who have cooperated with coalition forces. Non-combatants will pay the price in Taliban retribution in any security vacuum in Afghanistan. The coalition will pay the price in lost gains and lost trust of the people there if that should happen.”

Troop levels have always been the conundrum facing America since the toppling of Saddam Hussein and Conway recognised that it remains a primary driver of policy. He said: “Everyone seems to agree that additional forces are the ideal course of action for preventing a Taliban comeback, but just where they’re going to come from is still up for discussion. Should our leadership determine that more US forces are needed in the fight in Afghanistan it’s no secret that the Marine Corps would be proud to be part of that undertaking. However, in order to do more in Afghanistan, our marines have got to see relief elsewhere.”

While the situation appears to be stabilising in Iraq, combat operations in Afghanistan remain intense and the USMC chief was quizzed on the subject of increasing use of air power and subsequent collateral damage. He responded: “If the reports of the Afghan civilian casualties are accurate - and sometimes that is a big ‘if’ because I think we all understand the Taliban capabilities with regard to information operations - that will be truly an unfortunate incident. And we need to avoid that at every cost. But I don’t necessarily tie the two together. You know, air power is the premiere asymmetric advantage that we hold over both the Taliban and, for that matter, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. When we find that we’re up against hardened people in a hardened type of compound, before we throw our marines or soldiers against that, we’re going to take advantage of our asymmetric advantage. That is the ability to strike from the air. Sometimes we think there’s been overt efforts on the part of the Taliban, in particular, to surround themselves with civilians so as to reap an advantage if civilians are killed. But I think it is a tactic that has proven valuable to us in the past, in terms of saving lives, to reduce a compound through air strike if there’s simply no other way. We’ll continue to drop bombs.”

With personnel from 24th MEU and 2/7 Marines due to return home next month (Nov) General Conway warned of the dangers of the Taliban filling any vacuum left by departing American forces. He said: “What we discovered in Iraq when I was the commander there is that if you move forces into an area and they start to create a level of security, generate a level of confidence and achieve a level of intelligence coming from the people, that’s a very good and harmonious relationship. Those are basic tactics in a counter-insurgency environment. If you move that battalion away and the bad guys of whatever ilk - Al-Qaeda or Taliban - come in, that’s exactly what they will not broker. And those people will be made examples of. We’ve seen families slaughtered. We’ve seen policemen rounded up and executed with shots to the back of the head in the soccer stadium, just to make the point. And so that’s what we risk if we don’t somehow take advantage of those gains and maintain the momentum in that area. And then when you come back and you say, ‘Well, we’re back,’ the silence is resounding, because the people, again, have lost the level of confidence that the same thing can’t be repeated over and over. So we just have to figure out a way to maintain the gains that we’ve achieved.”

Commenting further on operations against the Taliban, Conway said: “They just don’t want to tangle with the marines. I won’t quote you casualty counts, but they’re hugely disproportionate and the Taliban really took a good bloodying at the hands of 24th MEU. But it’s only one sector. The Green Zone in Iraq means one thing. The Green Zone in Afghanistan means something exactly the opposite, because that’s where the bad guys are. And these ‘green zones’ are around river valleys where populations occur, crops are grown, drugs are produced and that type of thing, and that’s where you find the bad guys.”

General Conway continued: “More Marines, more coalition forces will allow us to go to those places and force the bad guys into the mountains. If you look at how Algeria defeated its insurgency, that was their method; that was their tactic, to drive these guys into the mountains. And you know what? Sooner or later, they get hungry. They start to starve to death. And they’re much more willing to listen to terms.” He also reminded reporters that marines are primarily combat soldiers and were therefore more valuable man for man in Afghanistan than Iraq. He stated: “A battalion of marines in Afghanistan counts for more than a battalion of Marines in Iraq, if you will, just in terms of the impact that they can have.”

Turning to Pakistan and the need for counter-insurgency operations in the border regions, Conway said: “I think the Pakistanis believe that there are people there that represent a danger to Pakistan and to coalition forces in Afghanistan. That’s long been an ungoverned area. I think we’re all concerned that if it’s not managed you could see attacks against other parts of Pakistan and certainly attacks into Afghanistan - training and staging and recruiting all taking place up in there. All those things are dangerous really to both nations, not to mention the fact that there could be planning taking place up there for strikes elsewhere, in western Europe or even the United States. So I think it is a real threat, one that the president or prime ministers of both nations realise and one now that happily Pakistan is taking some steps to remove. It’s going to require involvement on the part of the Pakistanis to settle the problem that’s taking place on their sovereign soil.”

Despite their losses, Gen Conway said the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were far from beaten. He reported: “The threat is growing. There was a time when we thought that it was diminishing and weren’t ready to put a bow on it but it was looking pretty good in Afghanistan. Well, that’s changed over time and since about 2004 if you simply plot the attacks the threat is increasing, the numbers of attacks are increasing, the casualties are obviously increasing for the coalition forces associated with that.” Conway vowed: “We will provide the marines necessary to win this fight, hopefully sooner than later. We would want to see those marines employed as an Air-Ground Task Force, given their own sector of ground and able to execute the counter-insurgency methods and tactics that we found successful in Iraq.”

Addressing the topic of opium production in Afghanistan, Conway said the problem required an Afghan solution. He stated: “To have Western or coalition forces coming in has the potential to create enemies and that’s certainly not what we want to do. A government program that takes advantage of alternative crops and causes its people to understand that there’s a law that must be followed - those types of things I think are much better coming out of the Karzai government. There is constant pressure on the part of the military to make the government aware of the fact that these are monies that are coming out that are helping to resource the Taliban and the bad guys and it needs to be halted.”

• Report based on material provided by US DoD.

‘WE CAN’T KILL OUR WAY TO VICTORY’

America’s two most senior military chiefs issued a stark warning in Washington D.C. that despite progress on several fronts, Afghanistan remains one of the most formidable problems facing the USA and NATO. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen said the Coalition faced a classic insurgency “fuelled by ideology, poppy, poverty, crime and corruption,” complicated by political upheaval in Pakistan.
“The persistent and increasing violence resulting from an organised insurgency is, of course, our greatest concern,” Gates said. “The president has decided to send more troops to Afghanistan in response to resurgent extremism and violence reflecting greater ambition, sophistication and coordination.” Gates made his statement shortly after President Bush announced that a US Marine battalion would deploy to Afghanistan next month (Nov) to help train Afghan security forces. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (24th MEU) has found its time in-country extended until the USMC unit enters the theatre. An Army brigade combat team will begin deploying in January to the country. Gates said that around 31,000 US personnel were serving in Afghanistan but that the number and sophistication of Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks had increased since the spring. Attacks against a US border outpost, a French-Afghan patrol and a prison in the south showed the Taliban still are potent enemies. Gates added: “In some cases, this is a result of safe havens in Pakistan and reduced military pressure on that side of the border. In others it is the result of more international and Afghan troops on the battlefield; troops that are increasingly in contact with the enemy.” NATO allies and other associated countries had promised more troops but the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) still faced shortfalls and coordination problems, the Defense Secretary said. Liaison among military units, civilian agencies and non-governmental agencies, especially the provincial reconstruction teams remains difficult.

Pointing out that military force represents only part of the operation, Gates said: “Security is just one aspect of the campaign, alongside development and governance. We must maintain momentum, keep the international community engaged and develop the capacity of the Afghan government. I am still not satisfied with the level of coordination and collaboration among the numerous partners and many moving parts associated with civil reconstruction and development and building the capacity of the Afghan government.”
Gates told the House panel that Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces continued to use the tribal areas on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan as a safe haven. He said. “We are working with Pakistan in a number of areas, and I do believe that Islamabad appreciates the magnitude of the threat from the tribal areas, particularly considering the uptick in suicide bombings directed at Pakistani targets. During this time of political turmoil in Pakistan, it is especially crucial that we maintain a strong and positive relationship with the government, since any deterioration would be a setback for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The war on terror started in this region. It must end there.”

Admiral Mullen warned the world that time is running out when it comes to helping Afghanistan. He suggested that the solution lies beyond the country’s borders anyway:
“We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan but until we work more closely with the Pakistani government, to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming. We can build roads and schools and courts, and our provincial reconstruction teams are doing just that, but until we have represented in those teams more experts from the fields of commerce, agriculture, jurisprudence and education, those facilities will remain but empty shells.”
The military is just part of the answer, the admiral said. He explained that it can provide security, but that Afghanistan needs more than soldiers. It needs more commerce, more learning, and more justice. He pointed out that Afghanistan needs foreign investment, sound governance, alternative crops to poppy and the rule of law. “These are the keys to success in Afghanistan,” he said. “We can’t kill our way to victory and no armed force anywhere, no matter how good can deliver these keys alone. It requires teamwork and cooperation.”
Explaining why he recommended President Bush send a US Marine battalion to the country in November and an Army brigade combat team by January, Mullen said: “I am not convinced we are winning in Afghanistan, but I am convinced we can. That is why I intend to commission a new, more comprehensive strategy for the region, one that covers both sides of the border.”
While commanders in Afghanistan ultimately want three more US brigades, the forces going are a good and important start, Mullen said. “Frankly, I judge the risk of not sending them too great a risk to ignore. My expectation is that they will need to perform both the training mission and combat and combat support missions simultaneously until such time that we can provide additional troops. I cannot at this point say when that might be.”
• Report based on material provided by AFPS.

42 Cdo marines partolling in the danger zone.

Royal Marines from 42 Cdo are inserted by Chinook into an enemy area. Above: 42 Cdo marines patrolling in the danger zone.
Photo: LA (Phot) Gaz Faulkner/Royal Navy.

A US Marine fires a Javelin missile at an enemy fighter during a raid in Now Zad.

Above: A US Marine fires a Javelin missile at an enemy fighter during a raid in Now Zad.
Photo: USMC.

An Afghan National Police recruit being trained by the US Marines.

An Afghan National Police recruit being trained by the US Marines.
Photo: USMC.

A hornet jet returns from a strike mission over Afghanistan.

A Hornet jet returns from a strike mission over Afghanistan to the carrier USS Ronald Reagan, as she sails in the Gulf of Oman.
Photo: US Navy.

Commandant of the US Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway.

Commandant of the US Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway.
Photo: US Navy.

US Navy Hornet strike jets take on fuel high above Afghanistan.

US Navy Hornet strike jets take on fuel high above Afghanistan.
Photo: US Navy.