Best Defense

The battalion commander debates the blogger (III): I acted after a great deal of deliberate planning, explains LTC Flynn

By Lt. Col. David Flynn, U.S. Army Best Defense guest columnist Thanks, Tom, for allowing me to contribute. For those who think I don’t have the time nor should I be involved in the business of blogging, I feel privileged to exercise my First Amendment rights in the name of the Constitution I have sworn ...

U.S. Army
U.S. Army

By Lt. Col. David Flynn, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Thanks, Tom, for allowing me to contribute. For those who think I don’t have the time nor should I be involved in the business of blogging, I feel privileged to exercise my First Amendment rights in the name of the Constitution I have sworn to support and defend.

I’m glad that Mr. Foust has gained a certain degree of civility in the debate, and I respect his positions. Before I dive into the Tarok Kalache discussion I want to reiterate a couple points made in my initial post that apparently were not clear. No weapons have been issued to the Charqolba ALP, and the vetting process, not yet complete, IS thru the MOI and other government officials.

We’re not arming "militias," and we monitor the program in concert with the local police by living in the village with the prospective members. We all recognize the risks moving forward, but have entered this venture wholly with the Afghan government and citizenry at their request in our district. To fully describe the ALP program would require more space than this blog can hold, so allow me now to step into the eye of the hurricane in this Taliban sanctuary elimination discussion.

We arrived in June of 2010, fully vested in the population-centric COIN principles promulgated by the former COMISAF, Gen. McChrystal, FM 3-24, and nearly a year’s worth of preparation to fight in Afghanistan. We didn’t walk into our initial fight and seek air support at the first sound of gunfire because we were very much in tune with the potential adverse effects on the population we are trying to separate from the insurgent.

Our intelligence suggested the enemy was meeting the surge in Arghandab with hundreds of IEDs and mines, turning a relatively small area into a veritable minefield. During the relief in place as explained by some other readers we saw firsthand the density of mines and IEDs laced throughout the battlefield. In the first one hundred days of fighting we saw more than 200 IEDs in a 2 by 6 kilometer area roughly equivalent to an IED exposure every 60 meters patrolled on foot by our soldiers. The enemy had the advantage of knowing the terrain, excellent cover and concealment to conduct their attacks, and knowledge of where the IEDs had been inserted.

As we made our plan to clear the villages of the district we made an assumption that the villages were inhabited. We discovered soon after the initial raids that many of the villages were occupied by the Taliban, defended heavily with IEDs, and devoid of any civilian presence. We asked for and received all the enablers required to fight in a minefield. We fought for nearly 100 days prior to the assault on the Taliban sanctuary of Tarok Kalache. During those 100 days we endured multiple killed and wounded in action mostly from the IEDs/mines dotting the landscape. Never did these devices deter our soldiers from continuing forward and pushing the fight to the enemy.

During those 100 days, I became friends with the malik of Tarok Kalache. He explained to me on more than one occasion that there were no civilians living in his former village. They had all sought refuge in homes throughout the province, and all that remained in the village were Taliban fighters. We fought this enemy, 600 meters to the south of COP STOUT that we seized on July 30th. To those who think it’s easy to simply move 600 meters through a densely vegetated minefield under fire, I will tell you I had other objectives to accomplish and devised a plan to take the village later in the fighting season as we did. It was part of the plan.

All summer long, in spite of our casualties, the local population was hit worse by the Taliban’s indiscriminate maiming of civilians by their IEDs. Children maimed while playing in the fields; fathers killed in front of their children while working in the orchards. The people of the displaced villages told me that they could not return to their homes due to the threat. I have witnessed more Afghans expressing a desire for retribution against the Taliban than coalition forces in my area.

We conducted weeks of pattern-of-life analysis on Tarok Kalache prior to conducting the assault of Oct. 6-7. We confirmed there were no people and continued to receive updates from the malik stating the same.

Earlier in the summer, we had soldiers killed and wounded while attempting to clear other villages laden with IEDs unseen to the naked eye, and villages with no population and no realistic opportunity for the people to return. We had plenty of assets and the most proficient experts to deal with the threat, but there is no perfect solution to protect soldiers from getting hurt or killed under these circumstances.   

As we studied Tarok Kalache, I reflected why I should have more of my soldiers killed or wounded clearing an abandoned village now used as Taliban sanctuary for a nonexistent population that by all accounts could not return to their homes. They now had displaced to other homes but expressed a desire to return someday. My goal was to eliminate Taliban sanctuary and get the people back into their village. A key task I gave to my soldiers prior to the deployment was to establish genuine relationships with the people down to the squad level, and over the first 100 days we did that very well to the point we were in open dialogue with the displaced citizenry.

On Oct. 6, U.S. soldiers conducted a raid on Tarok Kalache to seize enemy fighters. They were a shaping operation to enable my task force to breach our way 800 meters to the south, clear, and then hold the Taliban sanctuary. When Ms. Broadwell described "momentum" it was about our breaching operation that occurred after the airstrikes on the village. We still had to breach the minefields to get to our blocking positions to set conditions for an adjacent force, Col. Razik’s Afghan Border Police, to clear other villages at first light the next day. Though Razik’s forces were from outside the district, so were the ANA and many of the Afghan police that had been sent to the district as part of the surge. This clearing operation was planned, rehearsed, and executed as a combined operation with Afghan forces of all flavors.

The report we received from soldiers on the ground during the night raid on Oct. 6 was that the village was laden with mines, homemade explosives, detonation cord in every structure. This was similar to patterns we had seen in other abandoned villages. I approved airstrikes based upon multiple intelligence cues, no evidence of civilians reported by soldiers on the ground, my sources in the local area, and overhead drones. There were no civilians killed in the strike. We observed with aerial platforms and later consulted the local leaders in the area to learn if anyone had been injured. The plan to conduct strikes was vetted through the district governor.

Did I want to destroy the entire Taliban sanctuary and leave no structures for the people to return to? No. The choice, based upon my previous experience, was to lose or maim more of my soldiers or raze the structures and rebuild later. I had the greater context of the population in mind and felt with the relationships we had already made in the past three months, already solidified by the previous unit, that we could successfully resettle the population to this area.

To clarify other points where I may have led Ms. Broadwell askew, allow me to address the "theatrics" description. In a meeting in the district center one of the elders was upset with the decision to raze the village. He was a businessman from Kandahar City who lost homes for his tenant farmers. We had never met him until after the airstrikes. His penchant for exaggerated hand gestures and my knowledge that the Taliban routinely send spoilers into the shuras — I was uncertain as to his motives. I described him as theatrical not in a derogatory manner but as more of a clinical observation of his behavior. Dramatic would have been a better description.

You may see this man on ABC News in the near future showing a blueprint for his new homes. We are well on schedule to rebuild the village, though the Taliban clearly do not want to see it happen. I did actually think more than one day past the airstrikes and, with my ANA battalion commander, established a combat outpost in Tarok Kalache to prevent Taliban intimidation and demonstrate our commitment to the rebuild. The Taliban is demonstrably opposed to our rebuild efforts.

How has the local population responded? Recently the malik expressed that destruction was inevitable due to the presence of Taliban evicting him from his village and the fight he envisioned with the massive influx of U.S. and ANA forces. This is certainly not an easy predicament to fight in, though we have maintained consistent dialogue with the villagers of Tarok Kalache. 30 percent of our cache and IED finds in the area surrounding the village are from local national tips. Farmers are moving to their fields by the hundreds since the clearing operation, as opposed to handfuls when Tarok Kalache was a Taliban sanctuary. Our cash-for-work employment of the locals is in the hundreds, up from zero. Village-level shura attendance is on the rise. We’ve not noticed any wide- scale overt retribution from the people, though there is still low-level activity in the district. Nothing compared to the pre-clearance days.

When Ms. Broadwell walked through the area, it was indeed drastically safer than it had been in months. We patrol with rifles and protective gear because we are professional soldiers. Prior to the October clearance we could not have walked that area without the threat of an IED or enemy ambush.

If we didn’t care about the local population, I would have thrown money at them and bid them farewell. We are committed to their future, and as far as I can tell they are walking side by side with us.

It is clear to me that no matter my open window into the war here, many are so deeply engrained in their opinions that nothing will satisfy. I stand by my decisions and am confident I have the support of my soldiers’ families and the vast majority of the American public, Mr. Foust and friends notwithstanding.

We continue on a daily basis to remove IEDs and munitions caches, battle intimidation, and capture insurgents while at the same time reconstruct the villages. It’s a process that will continue well into the tour of the next unit. The upcoming spring and beyond will define success of our endeavors.  

Army Lt. Col. David Flynn commands CTF 1-320 in southern Afghanistan.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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