Best Defense

8 lessons from Afghanistan: a report from the front

I’ve been reading a monograph compiled by the 4th Brigade of the 101st Airborne (AKA 506th Infantry) in which its company commanders were surveyed about what they learned during their deployment to southeastern Afghanistan from March 2008 to March of this year. They also were asked for their advice on how to prepare for deploying. ...

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I’ve been reading a monograph compiled by the 4th Brigade of the 101st Airborne (AKA 506th Infantry) in which its company commanders were surveyed about what they learned during their deployment to southeastern Afghanistan from March 2008 to March of this year. They also were asked for their advice on how to prepare for deploying.

Get fit

A repeated lesson is that Afghanistan is physically tougher than Iraq. This surprised me because I hate the climate in Iraq, but I enjoy Kabul’s, with its lovely falls and springs. (Think New Mexico but with big mountains.) I even like the south, at least in the winter. Again and again the company commanders emphasized that carrying big loads in the high mountains of the east challenged even the fittest soldier, especially during the heat of the summer. “Afghanistan is the most unforgiving terrain I have ever fought in,” commented Joe Black. They also advise training more for stamina than for strength.

A little understanding goes a long way

Another theme is that the commanders, at least in the infantry, really came to believe in the need for cultural understanding — and for keeping an eye on soldiers who aren’t down with that. “Those who did not see the Afghans as humans were generally a hindrance,” said Mike Eliassen. James Bithorn added that it was especially important to monitor the soldiers after the wounding or death of a soldier: “I personally had a difficulty with subordinate leadership maintaining a positive relationship with Afghans, particularly after a casualty.”  

If you want stability, work on continuity

Dave Lamborn emphasized that we can’t help give the Afghans stability unless we have better continuity between American units deployed there:

We have been in Afghanistan for 8 years now, but … information is not being captured and passed along for each locality. In many cases each commander has to start from scratch, which is not only inefficient, but is also downright counterproductive. The locals get sick of having a new guy researching his backyard every year, he gets sick of having to adapt to a brand new personality, and he gets sick of seeing the new rookie commander kill innocent civilians or make other rookie mistakes. So it is natural that so many Afghans are currently ripe for the political plucking of the Taliban or Mujahadeeb. 

Don’t assume you own the Afghan night

“We own the night in Iraq, we sometimes are able to borrow the night in Afghanistan,” reports Danny Pederson.

Don’t underestimate the enemy

You say the road seems unusually clear lately, so maybe you’ve got the enemy on the run? Better tighten your helmet and body armor. “Several times, the enemy would allow our forces to get deep into an AO [area of operations] and then back-seed the roads with IEDs.”

Your weapons usage may surprise you

“The MK-19 is your most valuable weapon in Afghanistan and every patrol should have at least two,” observes Bruce Roett. (Think on this, little grasshoppers: The MK-19 automatic grenade launcher fires as many as 350 40mm grenades a minute out to a distance of up to 2 kilometers.) 

Find time for training between fights

You’ll get new sorts of equipment while deployed, warns Brendan McEvoy. “The troops in the fight need the best stuff available, but they also need their leadership to take the time out to ensure that it is being employed correctly and safely.”

Employ the locals

T. Sean Troyer, a cavalry troop commander who probably never thought he would know so much about Third World contracting issues, recommends that projects that require labor need to state that all workers will come from the local area. 

Three additional little things that struck me in the lessons. First, one of the captains used the phrase “tactical patience,” which I was glad to see. This is a military virtue under appreciated by American forces. On the other hand, one of these guys still uses the awful phrase “Anti-Afghan Forces.” Who are we to decide that? And what happens when we cut a deal with them, do they become the IFKAAF? (That is, “the insurgents formerly known as AAF?”) Finally, on the grounds that everyone should learn one new military abbreviation a day, I liked that another mentioned a  new Army acronym: MRK, for “mosque repair kit.”

Those with Army AKO accounts can read the whole thing here. The rest of you mugs are probably stuck with this summary.

Photo via Flickr user startled rabbit III

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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