Sunday, September 09, 2007

Hindsight on Medusa

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak with BGen David Fraser, former Commander of Regional Command South in Afghanistan, and currently Commandant of the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, this past Friday afternoon. I received a call from his PAffO subsequent to this post, and set up the interview.

Before speaking with the general, I talked and corresponded with people who had served under him in Afghanistan. I heard two main things from them: that Fraser took each casualty on his watch very personally, so the idea that he would risk troops lives recklessly would be laughable if it wasn't such a serious matter; and that he has big shoulders, so he won't be pointing any fingers at anyone else. On the first point, I'll have to take their word. On the second, he proved true to their assessment.

We spoke for over an hour about the circumstances leading up to Operation Medusa, about the operation itself, about the consequences of Medusa, and about some widely held misconceptions about the mission and its effectiveness. Unfortunately, there's no way to tie all of those points into one post, so I'll deal specifically with the accusatory aspects of the Legion piece by Adam Day.

There are two main aspects to the argument that Fraser's decision to have Charles Company cross the Arghandab River on September 3rd rather than a couple of days later was unwise. The first is that the enemy was trapped, and so there was no rush to attack. The second is that a delay in the assault would have achieved a better result, possibly avoiding the casualties incurred. Neither point is as clear cut as the current journalistic narrative would suggest.

I asked BGen Fraser to explain in general terms his decision to push the assault date up:

BGen David Fraser (DF): A plane loads up 'X' number of pounds to fly east to west. If you've got a great tail wind and you arrive there early and you've got extra gas in your plane, do you wait and arrive at the appropriate time or burn off all the extra fuel, or do you take the opportunity and just deal with it? I mean, the plan is predicated on your best information you knew at the time when you made the plan.

I asked the general if there was a rush. He demurred, refusing to say that he had been rushed:

Damian Brooks (DB): Did any of that have anything to do with pressure from CEFCOM, from NDHQ or from ISAF HQ?

DF: No.

DB: So you weren't ordered to go?

DF: No.

DB: Was it strongly suggested that you might find it worthwhile to go?

DF: No. I will tell you that certain people - not from the Canadian side - there were certain organizations that would have wanted me to go a lot sooner than I what I did go. But quite frankly, I told them the plan: I will run the timetable based upon what I see in the field. And it was going to take some time.

But just because he wasn't being rushed by superiors doesn't mean he wasn't being rushed by militarily significant circumstances on the ground:

DF: Everything I had learned up until that point in time, which would be 7 months of operations, the enemy always presents himself for a very small window, an opportunity only presents itself for a small window. Once that window goes, there's no guarantee that those conditions will...or you will be ready to do it again.

DB: Were you worried about them slipping away? Were you worried about them exfiltrating?

DF: First of all, I didn't believe that I could maintain 100% of them in the hole. And if some of them slipped away...again, a lot of them out there didn't have their hearts in it. I wanted them to put their weapons down...

Although I was aware that I might bump into OPSEC concerns, I asked another way for more detail supporting his decision to go on September 3rd:

DB: There are people who were under your command who still to this day don't understand why things were pushed up. So if there's anything you can give me in the way of details on what it was you were seeing that made you make alterations to that plan, it would probably actually make them feel better as well.

DF: Well, the Taliban command and control that was going on in there was giving us indicators that they were under tremendous pressure from the shaping operations that we had.

DB: Can you tell me what sort of indications?

DF: I can't get into the specifics, but I can just say that the indicators I was getting, not from the soldiers on the ground, because that information was coming from other sources. The Taliban leadership were under enough pressure that I needed to push them over the edge. And if I had waited, I could have given them a breath of air. I could have given them more time to bring more soldiers in. More time to corral the troops. I was putting pressure on the enemy command and control structure. I was getting them to light up everywhere, and the more they were lighting up the more pressure they were demonstrating. I said OK now's the time to push them over the edge.

"Other sources." I'm speculating on my own here, but that sounds to me a lot like special forces with eyes on the Taliban leadership in the area, and Afghan operatives close enough to the Taliban to offer an assessment. But really, not many people could confirm that, and none of them would if you asked.

Here's the crux of the matter, though: even though he knows exactly why he chose to go earlier than originally planned, he can't tell us. And remember, in this instance that includes his subordinates. So for anyone looking to second-guess that decision, I'd suggest that they'll have to wait until the information he was looking at at the time, the information upon which he made his call, becomes publicly available. And that will be done by historians decades from now, not by any of us today.

The bottom line is that he says the 3rd was the right time to attack. He might well have been wrong. He just might have screwed up the timings, and pushed when he should have paused. But here's the thing: until we get to find out just what information he was relying upon to make that decision, I don't think any of us is in a position to say positively if it was right or wrong.

So, if we don't know whether September 3rd was too early to attack, can we at least nail down whether or not a delay would have yielded a better result? Personally, I don't see how that can be decided either.

Those arguing for further time in Day's article state that more time was needed for recce - including manoeuvre to better ascertain the enemy's positions - and for bombardment.

An eye on the timeline is useful here to provide some context. The previous Battle Group, led by LCol Ian Hope, conducted their last attack on August 3rd, which was when it was noted that Taliban fighters had changed tactics. Instead of operating in small groups that had to be swatted like flies, they were massing in and around Objective Rugby, about five hundred of them. They had decided to make a stand on a piece of land that had favoured defenders for as long as anyone could remember. That was, in fact, the reason Operation Medusa was conceived: as a response to the Taliban's decision to fight conventionally.

So Medusa was being planned even before the RCR Battle Group arrived to take over from their PPCLI cousins. I'm told it was no secret that the river would have to be forded and that that Objective Rugby would have to be taken at some point. Hope's soldiers had already moved through the area more than once, presumably taking notes as they went.

DB: You've got - I'm not sure if they're named or unnamed sources - saying 'Time spent in recce is never wasted, and we never got a chance to do a proper recce.'

DF: This was not a complete surprise. 3rd of August, we got started on the 3rd of August. RCR took command on the 19th of August.

Another tidbit from this conversation that seems relevant:

DB: Did competition for assets have anything to do with...[the decision to go earlier than planned]?

DF: No.

DB: Did you ever suffer from a lack of air cover?

DF: No.

DB: Any sort of indirect fire issues?

DF: No.

DB: You had all the assets you needed?

DF: Omer Lavoie had all the indirect fire, he always owned the indirect fire assets.

DB: Oh, OK.

DF: He owned the guns. Y'know I divested myself of the guns, and he owned them. Sperwer: he owned them. The Predator, I owned that, and I had to bid for that. Um, the Harriers, we had 6 Harriers at Kandahar, and they were 12 minutes away, anytime you had to be into contact to actually get an airplane.

Does any of that information make you think a pause wouldn't have given those responsible for prosecuting the attack more comfort in doing so? No. But what it should make you realize is that the idea that they didn't have enough time or resources to do proper reconnaissance and bombardment is less of an established truth than the Legion article makes it out to be.

And given the fact that the enemy conducted a relief in place during the operation not once, but twice, it's an open question whether a delay would have hindered the eventual success of the attack more than it helped. As the general himself said:

"We've got Canadians up here in the north. Put some Canadians down here on the southern side of the Arghandab. I get a Dutch company up along Highway 1. I put the Danes along the west. I put an American organization in the south. And I put a bunch of other organizations...six organizations in total are now covering this area. It is not a noose that is impermeable. This is a big area. And when men are walking in and out of there, they don't walk with weapons and they don't walk with a sign that's stamped on their heads saying 'Taliban.' Who do you have? You just have men walking."

Makes you wonder what use the enemy would have made with those extra couple of days that some people say the Battle Group should have waited.

As you can see, both the idea that Fraser rushed when he didn't need to, and the idea that more time would have been better for the attackers aren't quite as certain as the Legion article supposes.

The sad thing is that this sort of premature, and by necessity, only partially-informed criticism can quickly turn into an ugly internecine battle.

One of the soldiers I spoke with before the interview - and I'm not talking about some REMF who's never served in the Combat Arms - asked me somewhat snarkily how much time Lavoie would have needed before he was ready - referring to the two weeks between when his Battle Group took over from the PPCLI and when the order to take Objective Rugby was given, knowing right from the beginning that it was going to have to be taken at some point.

To his credit, not only did Fraser not say that to me, he never even implied it. Here's what he did say about the soldiers who took part in Medusa:

DF: Every man and woman who participated in this battle should be friggin' proud of what he or she did...I'm proud of everybody out there who did it, because, guess what? Fourteen-hundred-plus men and women - there's a lot more than that when you look at the air and everything else out there - they did something that was never done in history before on that piece of ground: they beat the defender. I didn't say that, General Bishmula Khan, the head of the Afghan army said that. 'Cause he was one of the muhajadeen who fought [the Soviets] there. He sat there with a map like this and he was bouncing up and down on my couch, and giddy, and he said 'How did you do it? You've done something that we've never done before - the defender lost here.'

He also said this:

DF: Now, I will say one thing: I think the RCR did an outstanding job. In fact, the report card I would write on the RCR is better than the one they're writing on themselves, OK? Charles Company went through two days of hell. Charles Company crossed and attacked into the position. The got inside the Taliban's house. They got inside. We were going to cross that river at one stage in the game, and that was going to be a hard step, no matter if we did it on the 3rd or we did it on the 5th or we did it on the 7th, or...that was going to be a hard day. And they got in, and they got inside the Taliban's house. The Taliban got lucky that day, though, when they found and killed a casualty collecting point. That luck that they got that...but guess what? The RCR beat them that day...You know what Charles Company did? Without their chain of command, they were on Rugby when they finished it off. They got there. I went and saw them the day that they finally secured Rugby. They just were bone-tired. And I walked up to them and I said 'You did it. You were here the first day, and you're here the last day, and you guys did it. And you should be proud of what you did. You did it.'...

DB: The question is whether you were able to maximize losses to the enemy and minimize losses to yourself at the same time, and that's the question that's really being asked.

DF: A thousand to five...but quite frankly one is too many...

I think that the strongest emotional impression I came away with from the interview was pride and disappointment from Fraser. Genuine pride in his troops. But also genuine disappointment - not that they were questioning his decision that fateful day, but rather that they weren't directing their attention more towards what a historic and heroic victory they won.

He doesn't think they're giving themselves enough credit:

DF: What was the result of the operation?...The Taliban have never attacked us like this since...After the 17th...for the first time, I saw in [Afghan commanders' eyes] confidence. A swagger. That they could actually go out there and take the fight to the enemy and beat the enemy.

Fraser talked about how Afghans have moved back into the area, about how they're more confident that their government's side is the winning one than they were before Op Medusa.

Second-guessing is actually quite important to the military - it's how they learn their lessons and improve. Everyone who has ever served knows just how tough the assessments after even a simple training exercise can be, let alone the after-action process when real bullets were flying. But as the stakes increase, it's increasingly difficult to remove one's emotions from the equation, especially when significant unknowns remain.

There's no doubt that the battle for Objective Rugby was critical to the success of Medusa, and that Medusa was critical to what success the ISAF forces have had in Kandahar. Whether our forces could have achieved that victory at less of a cost is a question that I can't answer. Quite frankly, it's a question I've come to believe no-one can answer with the information currently available. And even once Fraser's diaries come out of the archives with all the intelligence he was privy to, and the historians can take a realistic snapshot of the operational situation he had to consider, any proposed 'better courses of action' will remain nothing but speculation - nobody will ever get the chance to replay what happened there on the Arghandab river another way, except in war games. And so, while our understanding of Fraser's decisions, and those of his subordinates, will become more clear with the passing of time, the potential end results of the what-ifs will never be equally transparent to us.

The one thing we do know for certain is that that the Battle Group won in the end.

Of course, I wasn't the one who lost friends and comrades that day in September, and I'm not the one who will probably spend a lifetime wondering if there was any way to have avoided that end - either by my own decisions or by someone else's. So I guess it's easier for me to say that than it might be for others who were there.

"If" hell of a word, that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

well done.

Balanced, fair, objective.

10:17 p.m., September 09, 2007  
Blogger fm said...

Yes, well done.

11:28 p.m., September 09, 2007  
Blogger Rick said...

NO plan survives intact after first contact with the enemy.

Unfortunately casualties are a fact of life in any combat engagement.

(My sincerest sympathies to the families and friends of those who were lost in this action and to those who sustained injuries)

BGen Fraser's plan got the job done. Compared to the losses inflicted on the Taliban we did incredibly well.

In fact, a lucky shot here or there by the Taliban or a less comprehensive battle plan could have caused many more casualties than we wound up taking.

In other days this would have been considered a great victory. It seems that today the second guessing has gotten out of hand.

Well done to all the troops who participated in this action. Well done to BGen Fraser.

My compliments on your article. Very fair and balanced.


11:47 a.m., September 10, 2007  
Blogger David M said...

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 09/10/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

12:56 p.m., September 10, 2007  

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