01 October 2012
Camp Bastion Sanger circa 2011. Camp Bastion is a major foothold in Afghanistan.
If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. - Sun Tzu, the Art of War
Despite the past eleven years in Afghanistan, U.S. ground troops are less prepared than ever for "small wars." We have become so dependent on gadgets and contractors that we would not know what to do without them. Contractors provide much of the security at major bases in Afghanistan, and even on many smaller bases.
We like to use contractors because they are cheaper and politically expedient. When they are killed by car bombs at the gates, they are not added to the only body count that Americans care about. Leaders do not have to deal with photographs of grieving families.
When TCN (Third Country National) contractors are maimed, we can send them home to Africa or Nepal, and wash our hands while avoiding burdensome veterans' issues. Contractors have no political or moral clout. They are our mercenaries. Using mercenaries makes business and political sense.
Many of our security contractors are Afghans. Does this make military sense?
A source mentioned that guard towers (known as "sangers") were frequently empty at BLS. BLS refers to the Bastion, Leatherneck, Shorbak complex.
I witnessed a similar incident last year in Zhari. Zhari was, and remains, one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan.
One night in Zhari, the contracted Afghan guards left their post, which was just ten seconds away from the tents where 4-4 Cav Soldiers lived, and a few tents down from my own. The sanger appeared to be empty. I looked inside. They were gone. For obvious security reasons, I did not publish this.
Screen grab from Taliban video, allegedly made before the Bastion attack.
On 14 September 2012, a small band of Taliban breached the defenses of one of the most heavily guarded bases in the world, and effectively destroyed a Marine Corps Harrier squadron. They did this in the open desert.
Planning the Bastion attack.
Plainly, the enemy knew more about our BLS defenses vs. threat than did our commanders in Kabul, or for that matter, the ones at BLS. To plan, rehearse, and execute this attack, the enemy first had to identify a persistent weakness.
Many questions regarding the Bastion attack remain: Who was tasked to be in those sangers? Were all of the sangers manned? If so, were they fully manned? If the guards were there, were they awake? Were they under the influence of narcotics? (A persistent problem in Afghanistan.)
How did fifteen attackers get near the perimeter without being spotted and shot?
BLS defenses circa 2011.
An unguarded obstacle is just a speed bump. The greatest value of these obstructions is to slow and canalize the enemy. If defenders are not ready, the attackers are coming in.
Maxim: a wall is only as strong as the people defending it. This is as true today as it was when the Great Wall was built.
Maxim: a wall is no stronger than its weakest part. This is typically at the gates, but not always.
Knowing that a sanger is unguarded, you can quickly think of many ways to breach the fence: car bomb, motorbike bomb, suicide vest, satchel charge, ladder, shovel, pole-vault, or just crash it with a truck, sensors be dammed. On this moonless night, the audacious seized the initiative until the defenders could get their boots and body armor on, and figure out what had happened
If they were thinking a little bigger, the enemy might swarm in with a hundred motorbike bombs and engage force on force. Afghans are known for swarming, but their weakness has been to assemble too long in one area, and then our guys kill them efficiently.
And so the enemy switched to smaller units, which we touted as evidence of looming victory. It was just a change in tactics. Luckily, the Taliban have not mastered a technique of quickly massing from many directions, and launching multi-pronged attacks from the march. They are good at small-unit tactics in their home environments, but have difficulty with broad coordination.
They come like mosquitoes in the jungle. There is (apparently) no mosquito king who sounds a trumpet to arms, but where you go, the local mosquitoes rise up for blood. You whack some of them, they get some blood and give you malaria, and everyone claims victory.
Screengrab from enemy video: The barrels in the drawing are the hangars
Some may cry "OPSEC" over these images, but the enemy already has good photos, intel and target sketches. The attack and the video prove that.
(Admin note: despite accusations by members of Soldiers Angels, and stay-at-home milbloggers, I have never been accused of OPSEC violations by any military authority. The only complaints come from couch generals and basement milbloggers.)
In this screen grab, the enemy is practicing fence cutting. Notice the shoes. Villagers in southern Afghanistan do not wear athletic shoes. Normally they wear sandals, or old shoes that are too small or too large. A group of young men wearing sports shoes in southern Afghanistan is a WARNING. Though these guys are wearing American uniforms, those shoes are enemy uniform.
Despite that hardcore Taliban are known to wear sports shoes or sandals suitable for running, most American Soldiers lack training in combat tracking which could exploit this years-long reality. The U.S. Army is stone blind on combat tracking. U.S. Marines conduct combat hunter training, which will improve their force protection and lethality. British, Dutch, Norwegians, and other allies also take tracking more seriously than our Army.
The soil in this image, and in southern Afghanistan in general, is ideal for tracking. Before the assault, trackers might have easily detected that the base was under reconnaissance, or that local villages were suddenly filled with sports-shoe tracks.
Data-basing footwear and prints around Bastion and other key facilities is a no-brainer, though the chances that this is actually happening are close to zero.
Unobtrusively photographing locals and their footwear is simple. But for a more direct approach, in some places, locals are asked to sit down with the soles of their feet facing the camera, and a photograph is taken with the face and the shoe pattern in the same photo. This can make for easy matching, and it facilitates tracking of specific people. Most Afghans have only one pair of shoes, and they are not sports shoes, which are expensive, and not suitable for farm work.
After the attack on Bastion, trackers could have backtracked quickly to the enemy lay-up position, or to the line of departure, but I have never seen our Soldiers track farther than to the end of a command wire after an IED detonation.
Interestingly, in hot-foot pursuits, normally the pursued will go to ground after just a few hundred meters. Sometimes they jump onto motorbikes or into vehicles, but often they are very close and hiding. Some U.S. infantry units will not pursue, while others look at gunfights as an invitation to a running battle where they will hunt down the enemy. Those are the most deadly units. Combat tracking is essential for good hunting in Afghanistan.
After the attack on Bastion, there is a good chance that a quick backtrack before daybreak could have generated a firefight with enemies who remained at the support area. There is probably at least one person back there with a video camera and cell phones, who will dispose of the assaulters clothing that they wore before switching into American uniforms. If is safe to say that the attackers did not drive across Afghanistan while wearing American uniforms in the hours before the attack. They will have launched from somewhere close.
Afghanistan base defenses circa 2011
The strongest defense at this point is that sanger at the end. This fence is nothing.
Checking the soil, there is no realistic way to hide tracks. The enemy is not going to waste time trying to disguise their tracks, which would not work anyway. After they leave the safe area and commit, they need to get to the target before being spotted. The clock is running.
Backtracking in this area is like following snail trails on a sidewalk in the morning sun.
Battle damage from the attack
Bastion and other Afghanistan bases will be key in any near term fight with Iran. The Israelis realize that this is the perfect time, before our numbers in Afghanistan dwindle. The Israelis will want to suck us into any fight with Iran, and the Iranians will want to suck us into any fight with Israel. Not that we need to get sucked in.
Days ago, Benjamin Netanyahu tantamount marked a red line on the calendar for next spring. A betting man would place his money on action unfolding around any of the new moons in the next half year, and given our penchant for using sorry tactics and worse strategies, we could be in as much trouble as the next guy.
If a fight with Iran kicks off, we no doubt will make enemies out of friendly Iranians, and the Iranians no doubt can put up a fierce fight outside their borders. Iranians are not simple farmers, but sophisticated, global players.
Guarding strategic bases like Bastion must be approached as a defense-in-depth. If we go to war with Iran, or if they go to war with us, nothing will stop Iran from flooding the Taliban with surface-to-air missiles to knock down our helicopters and other aircraft in Afghanistan. Prince Harry could find an Iranian missile locked onto his Apache.
On the small front, internal security and guarding weak fences will never be enough. At the time of the attack on Bastion two weeks ago, security had become introverted.
Given the importance of BLS, our people should be on a first-name basis with every key villager for miles around. Previously, the Marines' security strategy included COIN. They pushed out to the local communities and maintained an intelligence tripwire that could alert them to local intimidation, night letters, and the arrival of out-of-town visitors.
Needless to say, it would be good to know if visitors, or if a shoulder-fired SAM was seen in the village. Several years ago, information came to me that the Taliban were trying to persuade Iran to provide such missiles. An attack by Israel might be the pretext that they need.
On a tactical level at BLS, the last line of defense on the night of the attack literally came down to pilots and mechanics defending our jets in their hangars. Our intelligence and our physical security failed together.
Interestingly, the reassignment of the top commander in Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, was announced in the wake of this attack.
Demolished Marine Corps Harrier inside demolished hangar.
We put impossible tasks on the shoulders of too few, too late, while our top civilian and military leadership are proving inadequate to wage war.
At home, too many Americans expect too many others to behave rationally, based on world outlooks that are fundamentally at variance. One man's rationality is another man's insanity.
And do not forget Pakistan.Link to enemy video