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The Road to Charikar – Where we are in Afghanistan

August 17, 2010

by JD Johannes

Bamiyan, Afghanistan

‘The Soviets wouldn’t come up here with less than a battalion,” says Tim Lynch, a retired Marine Corps officer driving us down the two-lane blacktop that crosses the Shomali Plain, one of the largest and most fertile agricultural regions in Afghanistan. Alexander the Great founded the ancient city of Bagram on this plain, which opens up just north of Kabul, widens through Parwan Province, and finally dead-ends at the Salang and Panjshir rivers. Centuries later, Afghanistan’s Communist government would choose the same locale for a major air base, which today hosts the U.S.-led Coalition’s logistics-and-transshipment hub, Bagram Airfield. The Macedonians, the Soviets, and now the Americans: All have found their way to the Shomali Plain.

“This area is primarily Tajik,” Lynch says. “The Tajiks fought the Soviets harder than the Pashtuns, but don’t seem to mind Americans that much.” There are pockets of Pashtuns, but the Tajik predominance makes the drive up the highway, through the plain, and over the ragged road through the mountains to Bamiyan relatively safe for three Americans and a Hazara interpreter/fixer. If a group of Soviet travelers had ventured up here in their day, the mujahedeen would have killed them within an hour. Once in the Hazarajat area, Westerners can mostly roam around freely. The greatest risk in Afghanistan, according to Lynch, is disease or illness. “The second-highest risk is car wreck,” he says, a fact you might pick up from watching him drive in the traditional Afghan style: like a maniac. “Way down on the list is the Taliban,” he says.

There are attacks on U.S. forces on the Shomali Plain and in the surrounding valleys, but they pale in contrast to the Soviet experience. During the Soviet war in Afghanistan, there were nine separate major expeditions into the Panjshir Valley. On the seventh campaign, 15,000 Soviet troops and 5,000 Communist Afghan troops moved over the Shomali Plain in an attempt to take the valley, and at one point an entire Soviet division and Afghan corps were dedicated to clearing out mujahedeen here. They failed. By way of comparison, the U.S.-led Operation Anaconda, launched in March 2002 in Paktia Province, involved 1,700 helicopter-borne troops, 1,000 Afghan militiamen, and several smaller special-operations units. The recent Operation Moshtarak in Helmand Province included a mix of about 4,000 Coalition ground-combat troops and 4,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops, and is the only Coalition operation comparable in size to the various Soviet Panjshir expeditions.

For the Soviets and the mujahedeen, the Shomali Plain and the Panjshir Valley were what Sun Tzu termed “desperate ground” — terrain that must be defended or captured. It is certainly storied ground: “Panjshir” in the Dari language means “five lions,” a reference to the legend of five devout brothers who protected the valley from intruders.

In the war against the Soviets, a new lion emerged — Ahmed Shah Massoud. An ethnic Tajik and a sophisticated mujahedeen commander, Massoud was educated at Afghanistan’s national military academy and studied engineering at Kabul Polytechnic. He trained his fighters in the use of advanced weapons and developed a logistics pipeline from China. At the peak of his power, he may have led as many as 50,000 fighters, and his well-honed publicity machine ensured that he became known as the “Lion of the Panjshir.” After the Soviets were forced out, Massoud’s party dominated the short-lived mujahedeen government of Afghanistan. In 1994, Massoud and his army returned to their home field in the Shomali and Panjshir, fighting the Taliban to a draw until Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda shortly before 9/11.

There is no current equivalent to Massoud in the Shomali and Panjshir now. The Tajiks, with the exception of a few rent-a-fighters and day-labor Taliban, have no quarrel with the Coalition. Many of Massoud’s lieutenants have taken up positions in the current Afghan National Army, working side by side with U.S. forces.

One of them is Col. Zalmat Nbard, commander of the 1st Battalion, 111th Division, southwest of Kabul. Nbard was an effective enough fighter of Soviets that he was commissioned as a colonel by the interim mujahedeen government. He commanded Tajik fighters during the civil war and fought the Taliban until the U.S. invasion in 2001. He was trained in Massoud’s academies and rose through the ranks to become a commander. There is little doubt that he has more combat experience than all his NATO and U.S. advisers combined, and all agree that he is a seasoned leader of Afghans. That Nbard is on the side of the Coalition at all, rather than stirring up trouble in the neighborhood, is telling. The major fights in Afghanistan are in the south and east, the Pashtun areas, not in the northern Tajik ones.

Nbard, who grew up fighting first the Soviets and then the Taliban, is frustrated by the type of war he is being told to fight now. U.S. advisers try to get him to follow ANA doctrine, which is based on U.S. Army doctrine from the 1990s. His superiors at the ministry of defense often are officers from the former Communist regime, and they still fall back on Soviet tactics. His primary counterparts on the battlefield are Turks, whose government has issued rules of engagement that make them incredibly risk-averse.

His frustration shows through during a planning session for a routine patrol with two U.S. officers. They are in turn frustrated that Nbard had not made any plans following the prescribed five-paragraph order of the ANA, as well as by the fact that he does not know how to read a map. Nbard is upset with the mission his superiors have given him.

“It is a useless mission . . . it is a stupid mission . . . it is only good for getting soldiers killed,” Nbard says. The mission is a “presence patrol,” a drive through the Musahee district in the southwest of Kabul Province. A presence patrol is often described by calloused veterans as “driving around waiting to get blown up.” Nbard knows firsthand the uselessness of these types of operations; he spent years ambushing similar Soviet patrols in the 1980s.

In other words, the Coalition is using some of the same tactics that so dismally failed the Soviets, while the Taliban employs those that worked so well for the mujahedeen.

The former mujahedeen often chafe at the bureaucracy and lethargy of the Afghan National Army and the Coalition. “Just give me guns, trucks, ammo, and fuel, and I will defeat the Taliban!” Maj. Shane Gries, a member of the Validation Transition Team, cries in a pitch-perfect parody of Afghan bravado. “But it is not that simple when you start putting NATO elements in the mix.” And so Col. Zalmat Nbard, once a commander of mujahedeen and a loyal deputy to the Lion of the Panjshir, today dutifully follows orders and drives around waiting to get blown up.

But we’re not using all of the old Soviet tactics. For instance, the destroy-and-search mission is out. That practice was exactly what it sounds like: Aircraft would drop bombs on a village, then helicopter gunships would strafe it. Afterward, Soviet soldiers would search what was left of the smoldering village. Those free-gunning operations brought proportional retribution: In one case, an entire battalion of the Soviet 201st Motor Rifle Division was destroyed on the road between Gardez and Khost.

In nine years, about 15,000 Soviet soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. In roughly the same time, the Coalition has lost 1,993.

The failed tactics of the Soviets are on full display in Lester Grau’s book The Bear Went Over the Mountain. Grau culled reports on Soviet actions from the Frunze, a Soviet general-staff college. The reports read like a chronicle of events that could have happened in 2008 rather than 1988 — the loop of Afghan history repeating itself with better firepower. The companion book to The Bear Went Over the Mountain, one told from the mujahedeen side, is Grau’s Afghan Guerrilla Warfare: In the Words of the Mujahedeen Fighters, written with Ali Ahmad Jalali.

In both books, the Shomali Plain and the road between Kabul and Charikar come up again and again. To take one example, the attack on Mumtaz in 1988, detailed from the mujahedeen side, is notable for the firepower they brought to bear on a brigade-size garrison of government troops. “Mujahideen armaments included one Saqar, one BM12, one 122mm howitzer, six 82mm mortars, eight 82mm recoilless rifles and approximately 40 RPG-7s,” according to the mujahedeen who spoke to the authors. “We also had some ZSU-23-2 anti-aircraft guns and some Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.”

The Sarqar and BM 12 are multiple-rocket launchers with a range of 8,000 meters. The howitzer and ZSU are so heavy that they are usually towed behind a truck.

The plan at Mumtaz was to block the Charikar–Kabul road from the north and south, then bombard the garrison with rockets and artillery for seven days before a 400-man ground assault force would move on it. The Communist government’s troops held out for only a few hours before making a breakout for Kabul, to the south.

By way of contrast, attacks by the Taliban on small U.S. outposts, like Combat Outpost Keating and Wanat in the eastern mountains near the Pakistan border, were fought with only mortars and RPGs. The fighting at Keating and Wanat was fierce, but the Taliban does not have nearly the firepower the mujahedeen employed. On the Shomali Plain, the only comparable attack on U.S. forces was in May 2010, when the Taliban mustered 30 fighters with rifles, RPGs, and suicide vests to make a charge at Bagram Airfield.

What is most striking in Bear and the scholarly Soviet-military writings about Afghanistan is what is missing: There is absolutely no evidence the Soviets seriously attempted population-centric counterinsurgency to win the passive support of the population, which is a key to understanding where the United States stands in Afghanistan. The WikiLeaks documents show that the vast majority of Coalition missions in Parwan are for meetings with Afghan-government officials and assessments for development projects. These discussions and assessments are textbook counterinsurgency.

In other words, the Coalition is using some of the same tactics that so dismally failed the Soviets, while the Taliban employs those that worked so well for the mujahedeen.

Soviet counterinsurgency did have economic, social, and political lines of effort — brutal ones: The Soviets succeeded in destroying the rural agricultural economy by razing crops, clear-cutting orchards in the Shomali Plain, and destroying irrigation systems. Their political line of effort was to exploit tribal and party rivalries among the mujahedeen. The social one was to create hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to Pakistan while sending select urban youths to be educated and indoctrinated in the Soviet Union. There was a kind of logic to this version of counterinsurgency: If the greatest advantage of the insurgent is to hide in plain sight among the civilian population, then get rid of the civilians.

The Soviets put minimal effort into distinguishing civilians from combatants, and the Taliban was just as brutal, if not more so. Its campaign in the Shomali Plain was as medieval as its imposition of sharia, and at times amounted to no more than a bloody ethnic/sectarian cleansing, the murder of Uzbeks and Hazaras by the thousands. By contrast, Gen. Stanley McChrystal introduced highly restrictive rules of engagement in 2009 to minimize civilian casualties. The changes were controversial, accompanied by many anecdotal accounts of how tying the hands of U.S. forces was causing more of our troops to be killed or wounded in action.

Empirical evidence shows the restrictive ROE can protect Coalition troops. A recent analysis by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that “counterinsurgent-generated civilian casualties from a typical incident are responsible for six additional violent incidents in an average-sized district in the following six weeks.” The tribal code of honor requires badal — blood revenge — for the killing of a family or tribe member. If fewer Afghans are accidentally harmed, then there are fewer instances of the blood revenge being sought against Coalition troops.

The Soviet force that arrived in Afghanistan was an artillery army, with some tanks and mechanized infantry. Over the course of the 1980s, the Soviet 40th Army morphed into an air-assault and mechanized-maneuver force. The U.S. military of the late 1990s was heavy and maneuver-based. It has since grown into its counterinsurgency mission, but it still clings to too many conventional habits. The American way of counterinsurgency, as articulated in Field Manual 3-24, written in part by Gen. David Petraeus, is the exact opposite of the Soviet approach. We don’t destroy-and-search, we sit-and-talk, mostly with local tribal leaders. We have different ideas, and a different kind of army.

The Soviets in the 1980s to some degree had a less complicated fight than the one U.S. forces face now. During the Soviet occupation, the mujahedeen would actually come out and fight in the open, at times, in an attempt to hold land and lines. It had standing military units; the Taliban, on the other hand, operates in cells. And, as the study from the NBER shows, a significant portion of the attacks on Coalition forces are driven by revenge rather than by offensive strategy, meaning that the factors in play are more cultural than strictly military.

Perhaps nothing sums up the difference better than what I saw as I drove through the city of Charikar. It passed from Soviet to mujahedeen hands in the 1980s, and the battle between the Taliban and Massoud in the 1990s left it practically a ghost town, pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel. Today, Charikar hums with commerce, especially the downtown jewelry market, where gold chains gleam through the clean plate-glass windows. Four civilians in an old Land Cruiser, packing only pistols, could stop for diesel fuel on the outskirts of town without much worry. Which means Charikar is safer than Tijuana or Juarez — that’s not saying much, but it’s something.

— Mr. Johannes is a documentary filmmaker and former Marine. He has traveled through Iraq and Afghanistan, on his own and as an embedded reporter, since 2005.

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