From Tet during the Vietnam war to the present day, our enemies have intuitively grasped that the key to defeating the US lies not so much in success on the battlefield, but in eroding popular domestic support of US campaigns. In virtually every battle the US has fought in the last 50 years, the US has been able to seize terrain virtually at will, and inflict casualties on its enemies at ratios from 10-1 to 100-1. In a strictly military sense, we’re unbeatable.
But unless and until the US is willing to reduce the lands of its enemies to utter wastelands, the enemy has only to remain a viable threat, and wait until the US forces inevitably return home. They then resume their campaign to overthrow any existing regime, and establish themselves as the ruling power, and in the process, crow about their victory of the the evil forces of America.
For a couple of reasons, such as media bias, as well as access to information, US victories over the forces of darkness receive far less coverage than US defeats. Accordingly, our enemies strive to defeat US forces in any venue, regardless of any tactical or operational military significance those operations may have.
In any counter-insurgency campaign, the first and most important objective of our forces is to secure the local population. That means US forces have to be co-located with them. Given the small numbers of troops we can commit at any one time and place, this necessarily means only small units can be positioned in most towns and villages, at most a company, but more commonly a reinforced platoon. These forces are positioned in what are, in Army jargon, “Combat Outposts,” or COPs. Ideally, COPs are located close enough to be mutually supporting, either by fires or maneuver. Sadly, geography often means that isn’t possible.
Further, the small numbers of troops available to any COP means the commander is faced with the challenge of sustaining a viable defense of the COP, while also needed to get outside the wire. There are two reasons he needs to go out. First, the force MUST engage the local population. US forces must provide, and be SEEN to provide, physical security against insurgent forces, support host nation civic institutions and security forces, promote infrastructure development and generally “show the flag.” Further, US forces have to patrol within their areas of influence to deny enemy forces safe havens, and provide early warning of any impending attacks on their COP. In Iraq, during the surge, the COP was part of an “ink blot” strategy in which a COP would first provide security for itself, then the immediate surrounding area, then through the use of offensive patrolling and attacks on insurgent hide positions, expand its region of security and influence. Obviously, the more terrain you secure, the more troops you need.
Hunkering down in FOBs and COPs just isn’t an option. Before the surge, US forces often didn’t have the manpower to get out among the population to the degree needed to establish control over any area greater than their compound. But these compounds still needed to be supplied with fuel, food, ammunition, spare parts, and personnel. This lead to supply convoys having to travel through areas that US forces could not secure. Logistical units, those least suited for combat operations, became the focus of insurgent attacks, both from IEDs and from ambushes. When your entire fight comes down to securing your supply lines solely to support bases which exist only to protect themselves, you’re fighting a losing battle. The initial impulse is to consolidate your forces in order to shorten your lines of supply and reduce the vulnerability of your supply lines. But granting an insurgent force a safe haven is a losing proposition.
Eventually, the Surge allowed US commanders enough manpower to both establish an interlocking network of COPs, and the forces to operate outside the wire to provide security to neighborhoods, villages, towns and entire cities.
Similar, though not identical, circumstances are in effect today in Afghanistan. There are combat outposts scattered throughout areas occupied by US forces. While the Taliban forces have little chance of defeating US troop units on a large scale, that doesn’t mean that they cannot conceivable mass sufficient forces to defeat a platoon COP. Militarily, the destruction of one US platoon doesn’t mean much. The Taliban would not be able to retain the position. They’d be exposed to destruction by US forces. But that isn’t their objective, is it? The blow to domestic American political support for operations there would be worth almost any price the Taliban paid. The secondary effect of showing the local population that the US was unable to guarantee their security would be an added bonus.
Via War News Updates, we find this article from Wired that discusses insurgent attempts to overrun one US COP.
Twice in the span of a month, the Taliban has unleashed human waves on one of the U.S. Army’s most isolated Afghan outposts. Twice, the American soldiers guarding the tiny fort have beat back the attackers, killing scores of extremists while suffering no losses of their own.
The U.S. troops’ skill, and luck, have been remarkable. They’re going to need both, as more large-scale attacks seem likely.
The Oct. 7 and Nov. 8 assaults on Combat Outpost Margah, in remote Paktika Province on the border with Pakistan, came almost exactly a year after one of the biggest pitched battles of the decade-long war. An October 2010 attack on COP Margah by hundreds of Taliban foot soldiers wielding rockets and AK-47s resulted in a lopsided tactical victory for the Americans. More than 90 Taliban died in a counter-barrage of gunfire, helicopter-fired missiles and satellite-guided bombs. As in the recent assaults, no Americans died — though the fighting left deep psychological scars.
If Army forces can keep the Taliban at bay for as little as 30 minutes, they can call upon massive amounts of firepower to support them, and break the back of the enemy’s assault. But relying on luck isn’t what we are paying our military leaders for.
ADP 3.0, the Army’s capstone doctrine publication, foresees a future battlefield where combat will take place across a spectrum from low-level civil disturbances, to small scale insurgency, to mid-intensity conflict*, all simultaneously in a single theater. As such, it is almost inevitable that any future theater the US deploys to will see distributed operations that include numbers of small troop formations establishing COPs.
Back in 2008, at what came to be known as the Battle of Wanat, the enemy was able to seize the initiative and inflict significant casualties on a US platoon as it was establishing a COP. A combination of geography, lack of troops, bad weather, and lack of early warning lead to the loss of 9 US soldiers lives, with many more wounded. The Rand Corporation, a think tank with a long history of providing analytical support to the US defense industry, has provided a “hot wash” review of the situation at Wanat, and offers a look at potential solutions that the leadership on the ground faced there. The document is a 36 page .pdf, but the meat of the document is only about 15 pages. I’d encourage you to download it and read it for yourself.
While most of the proposed solutions to the tactical problems described are technical, the fact is, the answer is, as always, in leadership and training. Small unit leaders such as platoon leaders, must be trained and capable of applying METT-TC analysis and implementing troop leadership procedures to prepare for operations in remote locations in which supporting ISR assets, fire support, and reinforcement from other units may not be close at hand. Leaders at company, battalion, and brigade level have to be aware of the difficulties they are imposing on these small detachments. They have to have a plan in place to support them. In fact, they’d better have a strong plan in place to determine whether establishing a COP at a given location at a given time is a wise use of their limited resources, or whether operations elsewhere should be used first to facilitate follow-on operations with a greater chance of success.
*Mid-intensity conflict being what we think of as traditional war, force on force, organized army against organized army. High-intensity war being reserved to describe nuclear war.