Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The US, Afstan and Kandahar (and Canada): Who's really in charge

A Wall St. Journal story on new US and ISAF commander Gen. McChrystal's thinking (note Update about US Army ground forces at Kandahar):
Taliban Now Winning [but note "McChrystal: Taliban AREN'T winning"]
U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Warns of Rising Casualties

[U.S. soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade take position next to Sari Ghundi village as they patrol near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan.]
Associated Press

U.S. soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade take position next to Sari Ghundi village as they patrol near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have gained the upper hand in Afghanistan, the top American commander there said, forcing the U.S. to change its strategy in the eight-year-old conflict by increasing the number of troops in heavily populated areas like the volatile southern city of Kandahar, the insurgency's spiritual home.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal warned that means U.S. casualties, already running at record levels, will remain high for months to come.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the commander offered a preview of the strategic assessment he is to deliver to Washington later this month, saying the troop shifts are designed to better protect Afghan civilians from rising levels of Taliban violence and intimidation. The coming redeployments are the clearest manifestation to date of Gen. McChrystal's strategy for Afghanistan, which puts a premium on safeguarding the Afghan population rather than hunting down militants...

In an effort to regain the upper hand, Gen. McChrystal said he will redeploy some troops currently in sparsely populated areas to areas with larger concentrations of Afghan civilians, while some of the 4,000 American troops still to arrive will be deployed to Kandahar [emphasis added--that's 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, now arriving, more below]...

Gen. McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, had a request outstanding for 10,000 more troops. Gen. McChrystal said he hadn't decided whether to request additional U.S. forces. "We're still working it," he said.

Several officials who have taken part in Gen. McChrystal's 60-day review of the war effort said they expect him to ultimately request as many as 10,000 more troops -- a request many observers say will be a tough sell at the White House, where several senior administration officials have said publicly that they want to hold off on sending more troops until the impact of the initial influx of 21,000 reinforcements can be gauged...

Gen. McChrystal also said he would direct a "very significant" expansion of the Afghan army and national police -- which would double in size under the plans being finalized by senior U.S. military officers here -- and import a tactic first used in Iraq by moving U.S. troops onto small outposts in individual Afghan neighborhoods and villages.

One person briefed on the assessment said it will call for boosting the Afghan army to 240,000 from 135,000 and the Afghan police to 160,000 from 82,000.

One official noted the emerging plans to double the size of the Afghan army and police will require thousands of additional U.S. trainers. The U.S. will also need more troops if security conditions in north and west Afghanistan continue to deteriorate, the official said. "At the end of the day, it's all about the math," he said. "The demand and the supply don't line up, even with the new troops that are coming in."..

Regardless of how he resolves the internal debate on troop numbers, Gen. McChrystal's coming report won't include any specific requests for more U.S. troops. Those numbers would instead be detailed in a follow-on document that is set to be delivered to Washington a few weeks after the assessment.

The timing of Gen. McChrystal's primary assessment remains in flux. It was initially due in mid-August, but the commander was summoned to a secret meeting in Belgium last week with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and told to take more time. Military officials say the assessment will now be released sometime after the Aug. 20 vote.

The shift came amid signs of growing U.S. unease about the direction of the war effort. Initial assessments delivered to Gen. McChrystal last month warned that the Taliban were strengthening their control over Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan [emphasis added].

American forces have been waging a major offensive in the neighboring southern province of Helmand, the center of Afghanistan's drug trade. Some U.S. military officials believe the Taliban have taken advantage of the American preoccupation with Helmand to infiltrate Kandahar and set up shadow local governments and courts throughout the city.

"Helmand is a sideshow," said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. "Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that's why they want it."

Gen. McChrystal said in the interview that he planned to shift more U.S. troops to Kandahar to bolster the Canadian forces that currently have primary security responsibility for the region. Hundreds of American troops equipped with mobile armored vehicles known as Strykers are already in the province [emphasis added].

"It's important and so we're going to do whatever we got to do to ensure that Kandahar is secure," he said. "With the arrival of the new U.S. forces we'll have the ability to put some more combat power in the area."

Despite the mounting concern about the Taliban's infiltration of Kandahar, there are clear limits to how soon additional U.S. forces can be sent to the city.

Moving forces from neighboring Helmand is nearly impossible, because those troops have already set up forward bases and recruited help from local tribal leaders, who have been promised American backing. As a result, the additional American troop deployments to Kandahar have only begun in recent days, with the arrival of new reinforcements that will continue into the fall...
In fact there is no "shift" planned of US troops to Kandahar. The Stryker Brigade Combat Team has always been designated for Kandahar province (as well as Zabul province) and its arrival is on schedule and has nothing to do with Helmand--so the "only begun" above is meaningless. From an April post:
... The US Army's 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team (more on 5th SBCT here, overall page for these brigades here) that is deploying to Kandahar, likely in August, will have five battalions. One will be deployed alongside the Romanian battalion in Zabul province, the rest at Kandahar

Of those, one will be based at KAF and three will be deployed in an arc from north of Kandahar southeast down to and along the Pak border [see photo above]--one essentially at the border itself, around the key crossing point to Quetta in Pakistan, Spin Boldak...
As for Kandahar City, from a Globe and Mail story:
Canadian military officials on the ground in Kandahar have said for months that they do not have enough manpower in their forces to flush encroaching insurgents out of the largest city in southern Afghanistan [I don't recall much emphasis on problems in the city itself, indeed a rather different spin] – the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban – for which Canadians bear primary security responsibility. Earlier this year, officials welcomed news that 17,000 U.S. troops would flood the province. Now, Gen. McChrystal said, up to 4,000 more troops already scheduled to deploy to the country could join them...
Poor Globe reporter. 17,000 new US troops have never been planned for Kandahar--the (very large) 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade was for Helmand province. And, as pointed out above, this sentence is dead wrong: "Now, Gen. McChrystal said, up to 4,000 more troops already scheduled to deploy to the country could join them."

More on the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Kandahar province:
Canada handoff of Afghan battle zones marks ‘new era’

Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Canadian contingent commander in Afghanistan, leaving a shura with local elders after introducing them to U.S. Col. Harry Tunnell.

Matthew Fisher/Canwest News Service

Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Canadian contingent commander in Afghanistan, leaving a shura with local elders after introducing them to U.S. Col. Harry Tunnell.

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan -- Canada transferred responsibility for the northern approaches to Kandahar City to the United States on Sunday in a move designed to allow the Canadian battle group to concentrate on fighting the Taliban in the provincial capital [emphasis added--I wonder, with the McChrystal story in mind, how many US troops will end up helping us in the city] and three notoriously turbulent, heavily populated outlying districts.

As Kandahar's governor, the province's top Afghan general and several dozen wizened Pashtun elders listened intently, Brig-Gen. Jon Vance of Task Force Kandahar introduced Col. Harry Tunnell IV, commander of the U.S. army's 5th Stryker Brigade...

Canada, is effectively handing over half of its battle space in Kandahar to incoming U.S. forces this month in the east, north and far west of the province [that's a lot more than half the area of the province].

It has only had 2,000 thinly stretched combat troops to cover an area nearly the size of New Brunswick since the former Liberal government moved them south from Kabul in early 2006...

"Where we have had forces deployed in very small numbers, conducting very important operations, we can bring them back into our main effort," Vance said in a recent interview with Canwest News Service.

"Where we normally had a company-sized element, they will put in a battalion-sized element and enablers [emphasis added]. It is an order of magnitude of difference in capability in those areas, and we get to concentrate our force."

The Stryker brigade, which Vance described Sunday as perhaps "the most advanced in the world" is part of a huge influx of U.S. forces that was ordered to the south of the country by U.S. President Barack Obama earlier this year...

The arrival of Tunnell and his Fort Lewis, Wash., brigade's fast and manoeuverable Stryker armoured vehicles will suddenly triple the number of combat forces in Kandahar to about 6,000...

Tunnell was quick to point out that Canada will continue to have the lead in construction and development in the province, however military responsibilities would now be split between the two countries...

The commander of the Stryker battalion assigned to the fertile Arghandab River Valley and neighbouring Shawali Kot...
Until now there has been one Canadian "manoeuvre unit", a battalion, at Kandahar, along with a US Army battalion under Canadian command. So with four more US Army battalions in the province total combat strength will indeed have tripled--but only one-sixth of it will be Canadian. As for districts near Kandahar City, if the US now has Arghandab, it looks like the Canadian Army will actually mainly be operating in just two districts outside the city, Zhari and Panjwayi, with the US battalion of the CF's Task Force Kandahar covering mainly Maywand (more here and here, see the map of districts near bottom right of page).

Then there's also the US Army's 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, in place at KAF since this spring.

By the way, Foreign Policy magazine's new "Afpak Channel" has a piece about Kandahar City's problems that does not mention the Canadians once. Hmmm.

Finally, the headline you didn't see in the Canadian media:
Western airstrikes kill fewer Afghan civilians
Instead this appears in the second half of a Globe story:
While Taliban attacks are up, fewer civilians were killed by air strikes in Afghanistan last month, even as U.S. and NATO forces pushed deep into Taliban territory, driving clashes and Western casualties higher.

Western and Afghan officials say the drop appears to be an early indication of success for restrictions on air power imposed in July by General Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of coalition forces, in an attempt to limit civilian casualties. The U.S. and NATO saw Afghan anger over the deaths as a major impediment to a new counterinsurgency strategy that makes winning over the population a higher priority than killing insurgents.

Six civilians died in air strikes last month compared to 89 in July, 2008, according to an Associated Press count of reports on civilian deaths by witnesses and Afghan officials. None of the reports was the subject of significant dispute by the U.S. and NATO.

A single mishap could send civilian deaths up again this month, dashing Western hopes of any real downward trend. But Afghan civilians and officials say the lower death toll for July mirrors a broader reduction in the accidental bombing of nonmilitary targets...
Update: Kiwis going into combat:
NZ to deploy SAS to Afghanistan

New Zealand is to send a contingent of elite troops to Afghanistan, Prime Minister John Key has announced.

About 70 members of the Special Air Service (SAS) will be deployed in three rotations covering 18 months, he said...

New Zealand's SAS has already had three tours in Afghanistan, the last in 2006, and the US had requested their return. Mr Key did not say where the SAS troops would be serving.

"New Zealand has a direct and vital interest in supporting international efforts to eradicate terrorism," Mr Key said in a statement.

That last sentence is rather different from our government's usual spin.

Our special forces are active too, though the government does not like drawing, er, attention to them:
Canadian special forces ops in Afstan (and CSIS)
And here's the prime minister in an inteview with ABC News:
Since 2005, Canada has had a command – has had to leave (inaudible) [actually "has had the lead" I imagine] in Kandahar [one would think Mr Harper would know that we actually took command in 2006] which is the most dangerous province in the entire country. We have suffered, as you know, enormous [please!] causalities in relative to the size of our forces – I think just quite a bit larger than anybody else [what about the Danes?]. So Canada is not afraid to contribute but, obviously, we have to – we have to have the support of parliament and the Canadian people and that support has been given until 2011.

After that, we will be supportive in ways that we can be supportive. I am committed to operating within our parliamentary resolution.

Tapper: Should Canadian troops be there?

Harper: I think, frankly, it’s too early, in my judgment, to talk about the longer term. I have said that we are not committing Canadian troops beyond 2011. That’s the resolution. We passed through parliament – I think what we have to ask ourselves, what is the long-term strategy in Afghanistan? I don’t think that Canada, or the United Sates for that matter, can become permanently responsible for the government and security of Afghanistan. I think our objective has to be – and our objective in Kandahar is – to train the Afghan forces so they can become increasingly responsible for their own security. I believe ultimately that’s what the United States government is working on as well.
But it's clear the Afghan forces will not be ready to take over in 2011; but no matter Canada gets out anyway (and no mention of the possibility of a continuing, largely non-combat mission). Where's the logic or principle in that? An earlier post:
Canada and Afstan: I cringe for my country
Update: It has been drawn to my attention by someone knowledgeable that the 2-2 Ramrods, the US Army battalion at Maywand that is part of the CF's Task Force Kandahar, will finish its 15-month deployment in the next couple of months. It has also been pointed out that the unit is to be replaced by a battalion of the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team (will it too be under Task Force Kandahar?). Moreover the BCT will have four combat battalions, and one support unit that will be based at KAF. With one battalion stationed in Zabul province that will leave three US manoeuvre battalions for Kandahar province along with one Canadian (so we will be 1/4 of the strength). Thus ISAF ground combat strength is actually doubling, from two to four battalions, not tripling as suggested above.


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