This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 26, 2010. Partner content is not updated.
Battle Tactics in Afghanistan
"This is the edge of the moon," Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie told me as we dismounted from our armoured vehicles at the foot of the Soviet-built mountain fortress of Sperwan Ghar. He pointed westward. "If you go 100 m that way, you will die."
For now, this little outpost, only 30 km from Kandahar City in the rolling farmland of the Panjwayi district, marks the outer edge of the territory Canadian troops control and patrol. It's impenetrable: a steep man-made hill with heavy guns, a moat, and a tethered balloon whose cameras allow the 200-odd Canadian Forces soldiers there to monitor and sometimes target insurgent activity in every direction.
But to the west, Canadians have left the area to insurgent fighters. There are perhaps only a few hundred of them in a local population of 3,000, Maj. Wade Rutland told Leslie. But the bad guys have "complete freedom of manoeuvre" in and around three villages, Zangabad, Mushan and Talukan, that Rutland called the area's "insurgent Axis of Evil."
Leslie stared out at green vineyards punctuated by the telltale pink of opium poppies. "Well," he said, "this summer a few thousand of our closest friends are going to be paying them a visit."
Andrew Leslie is the chief of the land staff of the Canadian Forces. Every few months over the last four years, he has come back to AFGHANISTAN to better understand the progress of Canada's war effort. These are not royal visits: as quickly as he can, Leslie gets out of conference rooms and onto the road, travelling by light armoured vehicle to visit soldiers at the forward operating bases and combat outposts on the leading edge of battle. For this latest visit, his last before he is replaced as chief of the land staff in June, Leslie invited Maclean's along for the ride.
This was my third trip to Kandahar, after short visits in late 2007 and late 2008. In those earlier visits I heard about the frustrating business-as-usual all Canadians have come to recognize in the news from Afghanistan. Hardy and valiant Canadian Forces troops were more than able to beat back periodic Taliban offensives against Kandahar City. But they were desperately insufficient in number for the task of holding the vast territory beyond. The Canadians put a brave face on, but at best, for year after brutal year, they were buying time. Until what? It was never clear.
This year is radically different. The old status quo is gone, wiped away by thousands of newly arrived U.S. troops, with more to come soon. That buildup began, here in the Afghan south, only last autumn. It has been breathtakingly rapid. Block after city block of newly built U.S. barracks line the boulevards of the sprawling International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) base at Kandahar Air Field. In the forward bases Leslie was as likely to be briefed by a U.S. Army colonel or major as by a Canadian. In an unheralded departure from the tradition that U.S. soldiers take no orders from a foreigner, all of these forces, Canadian and American, are under the direction of a Canadian: Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard, who arrived last November to serve as the commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan.
It is hard to overstate the difference all of this new muscle makes to the strategic picture in Kandahar. A U.S. civilian official I met, viewing the landscape with the fresh eyes of a recent arrival, did perhaps the best job of summing up the new situation.
"The Canadians were out here for five years with a kind of augmented battalion. They call it a battle group but I think it only had about 1,200 guys in it," said the U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So the insurgents would come back every summer running the same play. If they were a football team, you would say they had one play in their playbook. The play is to lay up in the crescent around Kandahar City - from Arghandab to Zahri to Panjwayi to Dand, running north, west, south in that agricultural crescent," he said, naming districts that are roughly equivalent in size to rural Canadian counties.
"They lay up in there and when they feel that the city is vulnerable enough and they are strong enough, they make a run on the city. They did this in 1994 and that's when they took the city. And by 1996 they had taken the country. So they scored on that play, once. So they came back at the Canadians in '06, '07 and '08. And the Canadian battle group was able to deny them the city - but they were never able to vanquish them from this area of operations because they didn't have the resources.
"Well, the resource picture now is quite different. You have a battalion of American paratroopers in the Arghandab. You have a battalion of American infantry out in Zahri. You have the Canadian battle group in Panjwayi. You have a squadron of American cavalry, that's 500 guys, coming into Dand. You have the Strykers doing the road mobility mission on Ring Road 1 and Route 4 down to Pakistan, so they keep that road clear. And then you have the Second Brigade of the 101st Airborne, which is going to be 5,000 or 6,000 guys, coming in this summer.
"That's a lot of people. I mean, that's just a completely different set-up than anything the insurgency has ever faced down here."
All this new muscle is preparing for a two-month operation that will begin sometime in June. It will aim at last to extend coalition control, and then the civil authority of the government of Afghanistan, into every pocket of Kandahar province.
There will certainly be violence. "I'm going there in a big way," Menard told me, sweeping his hands westward across a map of the province. "Like, in a big way. And I'll be right at the end of all of this with troops. Right to the end. I will be. That I promise. Right? So are they going to resist or not?"
But here is where the business ahead starts to look different from what you might expect. This summer, as in earlier battles this spring in neighbouring Helmand province, the ISAF commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has made a point of substantially abandoning the element of surprise. In radio broadcasts and widespread pamphlet dumps, the coalition is warning the insurgents a fight is coming. That gives them all the opportunity in the world to run away.
"If they decide to fight, they're gonna die," Menard said. But if they flee the province ahead of advancing troops, "I'll be the happiest guy on the planet because we'll have achieved the aim without interrupting the normal life of all those folks here that are the important ones" - the ordinary Afghans whose towns and villages have been a battleground for years. "I don't care about the insurgents. I really don't. All I want to do is marginalize them."
That's the other big change, harder to see than four U.S. infantry battalions but perhaps as important in what lies ahead. It's an evolution in the attitude of the ISAF forces, under the leadership of McChrystal and his boss, the commander of U.S. Central Command, David Petraeus. It's a new commitment to the doctrine of counter-insurgency - a belief that the real target isn't the insurgents, it's the attitude of the broader population.
If ordinary Afghans believe their government can enforce minimal standards of comfort and decency, they won't put up with Taliban fighters who, after all, first showed up among them less than 20 years ago in a country that had been war-wrecked to anarchy. And if they don't believe it, then the other strangers in their midst - the Canadian, U.S. and allied armies - can kill all the insurgents they like, it won't change the fundamental equation.
It was always easy enough to find a general or two in Kabul or Kandahar willing to pay lip service to this doctrine. What I found this time, in spartan fortified camps in territory the Taliban still held as recently as last November, was majors and captains in their thirties who truly believe the goodwill of the population is their real target and who plan and work according to that assumption. Guys like Jeremiah Ellis.
Capt. Ellis commands the Dog Company of the 1st Battalion of the U.S. Army's 12th Infantry Regiment. He greeted Leslie, Menard, and the other top Canadian officer in our four-vehicle convoy, Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, at an outpost in Senjaray. Ushering his VIP guests into a briefing room built of plywood and sparsely decorated with folding chairs and wall maps, Ellis gave only the briefest account of the military situation - basically, his guys have it under control - before pleading for help to reopen the local school.
"This place is ready to tip," from a population that supports the Taliban to one that will reject them, he told Leslie. "These people want to tip." But the haunted school in the middle of town is the biggest reason they don't.
Canadian money built and opened that school, but Canadian troops were not around to defend it when the Taliban booby-trapped it in 2006 and left letters saying anyone who tried to take it back would be murdered. If Dog Company takes the school back, sooner or later the insurgents will do the same. What's needed is a commitment from the Afghan government to keep it open, backed by Afghan National Army troops who will be vigilant long after Jeremiah Ellis goes home.
He's pleaded for help, he told Leslie. The Afghan police, poorly equipped and often corrupt, have been no help. "They'd show up, kick a dog, steal an apple, not do much." It's the Afghan army, rapidly growing and professionalizing, that's needed. "Until then, that school sits as a monument," Ellis said. "It sits there as a monument to the fact that their government won't do anything for them."
This conviction that the first job of soldiers is to vouchsafe the essentials of a civil society was clear everywhere we travelled. Near the village of Nakhonay we visited Combat Outpost Shkarre, built around a single-storey building of dried mud and grass the Taliban were using, only months ago, as an outpost to trigger roadside bombs to destroy passing traffic.
The soldiers of Delta Company's 11 Platoon have only lately installed working hot showers in the yard. Our convoy stayed overnight, sleeping on cots under the stars. For Capt. James O'Neill, 11 Platoon's commander, the main goal is to keep local "FAMs" - fighting-age males in their late teens and twenties - busy with construction and irrigation projects so life in the area would improve and the FAMs would be harder to lure into the insurgency.
"I remember when I was in work-up training, thinking, 'What is this COIN shit?,' " O'Neill said, using military slang for counterinsurgency. "I'd say, 'We're Canadian Forces, let's just kill the enemy.' " But these days the overwhelming majority of IEDs Delta Company disposes in the area are those turned in by local residents. That only happens because the Canadian soldiers and the villagers have worked together and grown to trust one another. It makes everybody safer.
Menard's enthusiasm for the strategy of keeping on the population's good side is endless. He's poured huge resources into basic irrigation and road building. "You've seen water like probably you've never seen in the past," he said, referring to the reappearance after many years' absence of verdant farmlands in Arghandab, just north of Kandahar. "I'm still digging and clearing canals so that farmers can have some water so they can farm. It's as simple as this. I'm trying to give the obvious a big place. I'm not suggesting this is very brilliant. But that's what I'm doing and it's working. We are in a position now to reinforce what they want. They're not after, you know, solar-powered lights or whatever. They want water."
The focus on the population is also driving the ISAF forces to push their presence from the big camps into smaller outposts closer to the people. That's the first point Menard always emphasizes: "Live among the population and protect them day and night." This carries some risk. Instead of arming to the teeth every time they go out, soldiers are more often leaving helmets and body armour aside as they participate in shuras with local district leaders and elders. But that builds trust and, sometimes, genuine co-operation.
Menard ran down a list of the other elements of his command philosophy. "Persistent, partnered presence." No more of the "whack-a-mole" Canadian forces participated in for so long, where they would show up just long enough to beat down a sudden outcropping of insurgent violence, only to leave for another crisis zone and allow the Taliban to rebuild where they'd just been flushed out.
Instead, Menard has established two main geographic zones extending around Kandahar City. Closest to the hub is a "ring of stability," in which ISAF forces and the Afghan government work together to ensure something like an ordinary life for a majority of the province's population. "Creating an environment where people can be employed, sell their products, do their farming, have an alternative to what they know right now," Menard said. Further out is a "ring of security," in more sparsely populated terrain, where the coalition has been fighting the Taliban to a draw and where the bulk of the action this summer will take place.
The scale of the Canadians' and Americans' pure military advantage is breathtaking. In southern Panjwayi our convoy veered off-road and travelled through a patch of desert to meet 11 Canadian Leopard tanks encamped in a circle. Nothing the insurgents have can put more than a dent in any of those awesome machines. But not even hardware this impressive will provide the "enduring results" and the "persistent, partnered presence" that are on Menard's checklist of proper counter-insurgency concepts.
What's needed are two things that are harder to conjure. Without them, even a bulked-up, population-focused ISAF mission stands every chance of failing. The first is time. The population has lived in a near-constant state of civil, regional and global war for decades. In that kind of environment, hope is ephemeral and never to be trusted. Success lies in assuring the population that a better standard of living, free of harassment from insurgents, might be permanent.
Of course this requirement slams up against the Canadian Parliament's decision to end the military involvement in Kandahar in 2011. Nobody I talked to would say a word against this decision for the record. "I would never want the Canadian army to stay somewhere that the Canadian people didn't want us to be," Leslie said. "Ever. We go where the government sends us, we fight the good fight or whatever else the role requires us to do, we come home when Parliament sends us home."
Privately, others involved in the military effort express a lot of frustration with the 2011 deadline. But whatever Canada does, or even the Americans, all this COIN stuff will come to little without the second needed ingredient: a legitimate, competent, compassionate Afghan government capable of responding to the population's wishes and ensuring some level of comfort and security for them.
Which is why Hamid Karzai's reliably erratic behaviour causes so much consternation. The Afghan president is plainly in over his head, unable to stem rampant corruption if he is not actively benefiting from it. It got worse during my trip, with Karzai even threatening to join the Taliban if he didn't get proper respect from the West. (This caused great amusement even among Afghans I spoke to. "I'm sure if he tried it," one interpreter told me, "the Taliban would cut him into 12 pieces.")
Remarks like Karzai's "are killing us," one Western diplomat told Leslie in Kabul. Soldiers and Western civilian authorities can do a lot, but they cannot hold this country's hand forever.
But the 2011 deadline and the fitness of the Karzai government are problems for another day. Neither will matter if the massively expanded ISAF force in Kandahar cannot change the dynamic in the province quickly. "Is this just another summer? Oh no," Menard said. "This is the summer. And I'll tell you why. We will be in a position to break them. I truly believe this. The reason is resources, force ratio, and the establishment of the ring of stability so the population is supporting us. It's not us fighting the Taliban. It's the population saying, 'You know what? We've had enough of the Taliban.' "
All a visitor could do was to wish him and his forces luck. I found more reason for optimism on this visit to Afghanistan than on either of my other two visits. But soon enough the guesswork will be out of it. By the first days of autumn we will know whether anything has really changed in Kandahar. From there it will be easier to decide, at last, whether there would be any point in staying further.
Maclean's April 26, 2010