Friday, November 04, 2016

Counter-insurgency at the Molecular Level

We have failed to keep our jihadi enemies in Afghanistan atomized, which is the beginning of bad trends that can only end very badly.

Our top Army officer in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, is worried about Afghanistan security force casualties:

"This is a failure of leadership," he said firmly.

Nicholson said that both corruption and leaders failing to lead their troops on the ground in a dangerous situation are resulting in Afghan Security Force casualties.

"Casualties are a problem," spokesperson for Operation Resolute Support Brigadier General Charlie Cleveland echoed.

Cleveland explained that many of the Afghan casualties have occurred at the thousands of Afghan checkpoints around the country, which are usually undermanned.

We are, as Brigadier General Charlie Cleveland explained, trying to get Afghan forces off of these exposed checkpoints in the south in order to build up mobile forces capable of seizing the initiative rather than passively being hit again and again:

And so what we've seen are these series of raids by the Taliban against checkpoints. We've seen them engage district centers and then we've also seen them put some pressure on Lashkar Gah. But again, the ANDSF has successfully secured Lashkar Gah and they've now brought in additional reinforcements. And they have also put in a new commander, and that new corps commander has recognized that the security forces were frankly spread too thin over the province of Helmand, so he has made a decision to withdraw some of those forces, bring them back into Lashkar Gah to defend the city and then be prepared to move on the offense. And so we are seeing that right now.

If--and it is a big if--Afghan forces truly are contracting their area of control in order to move on the offensive, this is good.

Otherwise, the Afghan security forces are simply abandoning the countryside and allowing the Taliban to eventually put the urban areas under siege, perhaps reliant on aerial resupply or heavily guarded ground convoys to sustain their resistance. If that happens and Afghan security forces collapse even for a moment under constant Taliban attacks as the security forces hunker down and just take attack after attack with no end in sight, there will be no place to withdraw to and we will have a massacre of Afghan security forces and a Taliban victory that might shake the foundation of the Afghan security forces in general.

This is an opportunity to explain the virtuous cycle of atomizing an enemy and how it goes wrong when you fail to do that, as we've managed in Afghanistan, which this casualty concern reflects.

Let me start with defining an atomized enemy and describing a fight against an atomized enemy.

I considered an enemy insurgency atomized when they generally operate in squads (10 or fewer) but can only mass at the platoon level (say 30-40 men) to attack. Occasionally they might manage a company (100).

If the counter-insurgency forces have decent air and firepower plus mobile reserves with good communications, the government can spread out police and troops into platoon and company-sized outposts with platoon-sized patrols to separate the insurgents from the people.

This separation can either be protecting friendly people from insurgent intimidation or to make hostile people too afraid to fully supply insurgents with supplies, recruits, and intelligence.

This persuasion by government troop presence is helped if the troops do not routinely abuse the people, which can push neutrals to enemy supporters or even push supporters into neutrality.

When the enemy does attack outposts or patrols, the enemy can't mass enough force to quickly overwhelm the government force.

With government ground troop reaction forces and available air and artillery firepower, the insurgents know that they have limited time to achieve victory before they have to break contact, retreat, and scatter if the insurgents wish to avoid destruction.

With this kind of environment, the government can continue to pacify areas, eliminate insurgents, swing people from neutral to hostile and from hostile to neutral; and with fewer troops and police needed to secure pacified areas, extend the outpost and patrol net further into enemy dominated territory.

It is a good cycle that leads to defeat of the insurgency. Whether it is a full or temporary victory depends on whether the government addresses the causes for the insurgency or not.

When you don't have the mobile troops, firepower, and surveillance to go after the enemy insurgents to keep them atomized, the enemy can begin to mass routinely in company strength and even in battalion strength (say, 300-600).

When the enemy can do that, outposts and patrols are subject to attack on a regular basis and the enemy can quickly overrun these units.

Government casualties and morale hits will compel the government to pull in outposts to man bigger cities and defended bases, and patrols can only be carried out in large numbers, reducing their frequency, scope, and ability to separate the people from insurgents.

The people begin to trend toward the insurgents from fear of insurgents or from loss of hope that the government can win. Neutrals become pro-insurgent, and friendly people become neutral or even pro-insurgent.

If government forces are pinned in large bases or cities with only occasional forays into hostile territory on pointless sweeps, perhaps treating the surrounding area as a free-fire zone that alienates more people, the enemy insurgents can go up the escalation ladder to operate in larger formations with heavier weapons because they don't need to fear being chased and caught by the government forces.

Under siege, the government forces have nowhere to run and if morale cracks for just a moment in one section of the defenses (or if defenders are bribed or bullied into walking away from their bunkers), insurgents can pour into the base and collapse resistance with a nice slaughter to inspire fear in other government bases and undermine faith in the government to win.

At that point, the insurgents are on the way to becoming the new government.

And we are put in the position of trying to hold a base to evacuate our nationals and whoever else we can airlift out.

Are the Afghan forces in the south consolidating their forces by pulling in outposts in order to seize the initiative and atomize insurgent Taliban forces to pave the way to put those outposts and patrols back out there, with reserves and firepower to hold them and minimize losses, while inflicting losses in the enemy by holding their ground and chasing retreating insurgents?

Or are the Afghan forces on the way to allowing their bases to be put under siege by Taliban forces, paving the way for the Taliban to seize control of the south and shake the legitimacy of the Afghan government?

UPDATE: Just how much influence do the Taliban have, anyway? Is the official assessment way too hopeful?

It is hard to get a firm grasp of trends from reading the news, but I'm getting uneasy from what I'm reading. As the subject of this post would indicate, I suppose.

UPDATE: Yeah, this isn't good:

Afghan Governor pleads for Australian help as soldiers defect to Taliban

The defection was by about 40 troops manning an isolated outpost in Uruzgan province.

UPDATE: Yeah, the next administration will need to address Afghanistan.

I'm so old I remember when Afghanistan was the "good" war of "necessity" that Iraq distracted us from fighting properly.