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Surging Tit for Tat in Afghanistan

President Obama’s ballyhooed surge of US forces in Afghanistan added 17,000 troops in early 2009 plus an additional 30,000 by 2010, in effect doubling the number of troops in Afghanistan (not to mention the concomitant surge in the camp-follower contractor force). The Taliban may not have doubled its troop strength, but as Tom Vanden Brook reports in the 10 January issue of USA Today, the insurgents have doubled the the total number of casualties inflicted by mines in just the last two years of the nine year war. [See graphic]

Of course, as any veteran of Vietnam (or Algeria) will tell you, mines and booby traps are favorite weapons of guerrilla fighters.

Mine warfare is extremely cost-effective for the guerrilla. It is dirt cheap, yet it creates a powerful hidden menace that slows down the adversary’s battlefield decision cycle. That is because the real or imagined presence of mines increases uncertainty and fear, which turn the focus of a soldier’s attention inward on self-protection, as opposed to maintaining a mental state focused outward on neutralizing the enemy. Defeating the mine becomes the objective, but the presence of mines and booby traps fix soldiers’ attention and make them more vulnerable to the blind-side effects of enemy initiatives, like sudden hit and run attacks or ambushes. That combined-arms effect is why force protection has become such a obsession in Afghanistan.

Ask any soldier what it is like to be been stuck in a minefield in any war, and he will tell you the dominant psychological effect is a sense of paralyzing fear and vulnerability.

Put abstractly, the uncertainty and menace posed by the real or imagined presence of mines creates an intense psychological pressure that builds up a reactive emotional mindset that strains the body, saps initiative, and slows down decisions and action. In a relative sense, this effect on one side of a conflict increases the freedom of action for the other, in this case, the guerrilla.

Despite the land mine’s long indisputable history of high effectiveness, the US military was caught flat footed by the sudden appearance of this threat after the U.S. militarized its response to 9-11 with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, the Pentagon coined a revealing new mechanistic term of art to describe the mine threat: “improvised explosive device (IED).” The very wording of the term implies the battlefield booby traps in Iraq and Afghanistan were something new and unexpected to the planners in the Pentagon and strategists in the field. Despite the subsequent expenditure of billions of dollars to neutralize this threat, much of it wasted on high tech boondoggles and bizarre robotic gimmicks that benefitted program managers in the Pentagon, defense contractors, and the Congressmen whose districts benefited from the torrent of dollars, the combat effectiveness of the mine threat in Afghanistan has surged in parallel with President Obama’s troop surge, according to the Pentagon’s own casualty data.

Now look at some of the rationalizations used to explain the increase in casualties as given to Vanden Brook by his sources:

A relatively mild winter enabled freer Taliban movements (presumably enabling Taliban guerrillas to deploy more mines in more places).

Increased mine-inflicted casualties are the result of added US troops forcing the Taliban to fight back.

Al Qaeda is directing the Taliban to return to areas they were pushed out of and to fight back.

Despite increased casualties caused by mines, the military says progress is being made against the mine threat.

Wounded troops are less likely to die because of improvements in battlefield medicine.

Rationalization #1 may be true. So what?

Rationalization #4 is vapid Pentagon-speak for justifying its continued expenditure of billions of dollars on hi-tech gizmos to defeat a primitive mine threat it failed to foresee, while it indulged itself by continuing to waste money on cold-war inspired turkeys after the cold war ended (Star Wars, F-22, SSN-21, Future Combat System, etc).

Rationalization #5 has nothing to do with the total number of casualties from mines, i.e., killed plus wounded. Indeed, from the guerrilla’s perspective, it is often better to wound an adversary than to kill him, because wounding triggers rescue operations that shift decision-making focus inward toward self protection and ties up more manpower and material resources in high-cost extraction/medical operations. Paradoxically, the increase in the wounded to killed ratio, while welcome to our side in the sense that it reduces US deaths, may even suggest that the relative effectiveness of mine warfare for the guerrilla is growing, because it is increasing its strain of our ever more costly efforts to wage an increasingly expensive and frustrating war is a distant land (we have now spent as much in Afghanistan, measured in inflation adjusted dollars, as we spent in much larger, albeit shorter wars in Korea and WWI and almost half as much as was spent in Vietnam).

Rationalization #s 2 & 3 at least relate to the question of the effectiveness in coping with the mine threat, but they reflect a somewhat bizarre mindset when viewed in terms of our counterinsurgency doctrine. The idea of measuring success by forcing the Taliban to stand and fight suggests we have reverted to a Vietnam-style attrition strategy (which implies greater firepower, focus on bodycounts, and more unintended death and destruction to civilians), as opposed to the counter-guerrilla oil-spot strategy of winning hearts and minds of locals that the surge was originally premised upon. This weird aspect was reinforced by John Nagl, an oft-quoted “expert” on guerrilla warfare and president the Center for New American Security (a pro-interventionist thinktank), when he said “We’ll know a lot more about how effectively we’ve been able to put pressure on the enemy based on who comes out to fight in the spring.”

By implication, Nagl is saying if that the Taliban don’t come out to fight next spring, it is a sign that we are winning. Nagl is forgetting that the Taleban have disappeared before. In the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, a triumphal President Bush and Pentagon mistook a strategic dispersal into the Hindu Kush for a rout and declared victory. Now, nine years later we are still fighting the Taleban, which in fact have expanded their areas of control. Yet Nagl would have us believe another disappearance, by itself, would be a sign of success.

T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), would have different take on Nagl’s disappearing hypothesis, arguing instead that guerrillas may not choose to cooperate by standing and fighting, because the art of guerrilla war is “tip and run, not pushes but strokes”, with “use of the smallest force in the quickest time at the farthest place” and “never being on the defense except by accident or error.” Lawrence is saying the name of the game for the guerrilla is to wear the adversary down by stretching out the war. Mine warfare fits this game like a hand in a glove.

Lawrence is certainly not alone in this kind of thinking. Nagl and his fellow counter-guerrilla travellers in the Pentagon would do well to study William E. Polk’s profoundly important book, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq (Harper Perennial, 2008), because Polk explains quite clearly why the only combatants to benefit strategically from protracted war of insurrection are the guerrillas who are trying to expel foreign invaders ? and mine warfare is good for protracted war.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

 

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Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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