British engage in heavy fighting in Afghanistan

Something interesting is happening in Afghanistan. According to the British papers, a few hours ago, British troops engaged in a huge offensive against a major Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan. British casualties, thank goodness, are limited, but it doesn’t sound as if things are going well for those Talibanis:

British troops have been involved in a major offensive in southern Afghanistan to recapture the Taliban’s most heavily defended and strategically important stronghold.

The operation on Saturday night, using thousands of soldiers and described as the biggest ever undertaken by British troops in Afghanistan, has so far left two Britons dead and several wounded.

Attack helicopters and combat jets have spent the past few days pummelling Taliban defensive positions surrounding Musa Qala in preparation for the final assault on the last remaining major town held by enemy insurgents in Helmand.

Early on Saturday, coalition forces, which include the British Army’s 52 Brigade, the Afghan National Army and America’s Task Force Fury, successfully surrounded the Taliban stronghold, where insurgent commanders claim up to 2,000 of their fighters are based.

The Taliban responded with a series of small-scale but bitter exchanges with the coalition forces which resulted in a number of British and Afghan army casualties. A member of the 2nd Bn Yorkshire Regiment died, said the Ministry of Defence, declining to name the soldier.

The latest phase of the operation began at dusk on Friday when hundreds of airborne troops from Task Force Fury launched an assault by helicopter on an area north of the town, a complex of high-walled compounds and narrow, dusty alleyways which armoured vehicles find difficult to penetrate.

Taliban commanders said that many of their 2,000 fighters – a figure the British dispute – were prepared to fight to the death while others would launch suicide bombing attacks against advancing coalition troops.

It is understood that the Taliban have spent months laying anti-personnel and anti-tank minefields, preparing bunkers and digging trenches in preparation for the attack.

The town has been under Taliban control since February after its commanders reneged on a peace deal whereby British and insurgent forces withdrew at the behest of local people in October 2006.

Hundreds of insurgents stormed the town in February, destroying the government building and ejecting the ruling council.

The battle for Musa Qala, which Nato forces have codenamed Operation Mar Kardad – meaning snake pit – began secretly on November 2, when British forces pushed north from the town of Sangin in an attempt to test Taliban defences in the area.

In the past week, the British have conducted probing attacks against the Taliban positions to gather intelligence on the opposing insurgent forces and the types of weapons with which they are equipped.

More British troops are being thrown into this action than any previous assault in Afghanistan: up to 3,000 of the total force of 7,000 in the country, The Sunday Telegraph understands, although commanders refused to be specific.

I mentioned at the top of this post that the Brit’s success is a problem, at least in the short term, for the Taliban, but I didn’t mention why. One word: drugs. It turns out that Musa Qala is one of the Taliban’s money and training centers:

In the next 28 to 48 hours, the last major town held by the Taliban in the province is likely to fall to coalition forces once again. Its loss will be a severe blow for the publicity-conscious Taliban commanders.

Musa Qala has become the hub of all Taliban activity in Helmand – where recruits are trained and equipped, and the centre of Helmand’s vast narcotics trade.

See this Guardian story, too, which has good coverage of both the battle and the region’s importance to the Taliban.

6 Responses

  1. BW,
    Just a sneaking suspiscion I have – from long service and not inside information – could make this a linchpin battle. The Brits (and US/NATO) left the city alone for three seasons. Therefore it draws Taliban supporters, economic, and logistic “centers of gravity”. Then, after the target becomes a key (the words linchpin and hub are also commonly used), allied forces neutralize the target. Note that “neutralize” can mean anything from simply surrounding and isolation (called a cordon action) up to and including a biblical “no two stones piled upon each other.” Fighting most of the terrorists is like punching jello; hitting it can be very satisfying and appears to have an effect, but it just generally scatters the mess all over. Using linchpin tactics is like putting the jello in the freezer – it becomes harder, more solid, and it is possile to break. Note that it is, however, harder on the striking hand, too. As one of the “fingers” on that hand I like the latter strategy over the former; I’d rather do something productive that may be painful in the short run than whack jello for eternity wondering when it is going to crack.
    Wow; I really need to get more sleep – I wonder if the Taliban guys will be angry that I’m calling them jello, since it was originally made from beef and (importantly to them) pork gelatin?
    Back to work; have a good 2nd Sunday of Advent for all you Catholics out there. For the others, be well in this season for families of all faiths.

    SGT Dave
    “You really don’t want to know where THAT inspiration came from…”

  2. […] [Discuss this article with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article Afghanistan, Sunday Telegraph, Taliban, Musa Qala    Sphere: Related Content Trackback URL […]

  3. That’s an interesting point, Dave. Are you saying that it’s possible that the British didn’t cave months ago when they vacated the area? Instead, they created a honey pot, so that they could destroy a whole bunch of bad guys and their operations in one fell swoop? It makes sense, since I know that it’s very difficult for conventional forces to do a clean sweep of loosely affiliated terrorists.

  4. Are you saying that it’s possible that the British didn’t cave months ago when they vacated the area?

    it is actually possible that they did cave and this is simply people making the best out of a good situation. Even in a military hierarchy, the left hand sometimes don’t know what the right hand is doing.

    The yo yo effect of abandoning cities and areas is that the people start learning not to trust you simply in order to survive once you are gone. Like all tactics, it is only useful up to a point of reptition, then the law of diminishing returns occur. As a technique, it is very hard on the civilians and local potential allies in the abandoned regions, and thus is not a tactic you want to be using to sustain your overall strategy.

    The general principle behind why such tactics, as Dave described, is effective is because decisive battles decide wars. Indecisive battles do not decide wars because people on both sides still have most of their war assets. Only extreme circumstances would motivate any one side to surrender when they still have something left to fight with. A decisive battle pits the entirety of each side’s resources into one fight, with the loser losing most or all of his assets. This forces defeat immediately or at least very soon.

    Tet was decisively concluded in favor of the Americans and the South Vietnamese. The war was won by the NOrth Vietnamese, however, because Tet was seen as a decisive defeat for the US. Even if your tactics are effective for a particular decisive battle, like Hannibal’s was, you must still subordinate tactics to strategy and strategy to logistics.

    Are you saying that it’s possible that the British didn’t cave months ago when they vacated the area?

    Fallujah 1 is the propto-typical example of politicians caving and putting the mess on the military to solve. Which the military did solve in Fallujah 2.

    It makes sense, since I know that it’s very difficult for conventional forces to do a clean sweep of loosely affiliated terrorists.

    Generally, it is a good idea to expect that the high command of the various military hierarchies around don’t know what they are doing. The farther away the leadership is from the site of conflict, the less realistic their picture of the conflict will be. In some instances, this kind of perspective is necessary for the “big picture”, but that doesn’t constitute the majority of such cases.

    In point of fact, it would actually be very hard to create a Fallujah on purpose because then it would be leaked if the entire chain of command was on the same page. Somebody would leak it since the chances of any secret getting out doubles with each new person that knows of it.

    Fallujah 2 was the way it was because it was “unintentional”. Thus the terrorists put most of their eggs in one basket because they knew the US was in doubt about how to deal with Fallujah. Faking this kind of weakness would be an information operation that the US is notoriously not very good at in the 21st century.

    You would almost have to keep such things separate from the people at Washington DC, and hence the reporters in DC.

    As an intentional action that leaves a weakness so that the enemy exploits it and you therefore ambush them in turn, you would also need to inform the locals about your operations so that they can prepare. Again, more chances for leakage. If you don’t inform the locals, then they will be just as surpirsed by the terrorists as the terrorists will be surprised when you finally attack them.

    Terrorists are always plentiful. It is the local auxiliaries that are valuable. Any operation that requires sacrificing some of the locals becomes inevitably bad strategy.

    Such cold blooded decisions are made by combat commanders all the time, concerning which troops will be the ones doing the dying in any particular situation. However, an operation large enough to group together a large portion of the enemy’s assets goes far beyond the tactical decisions made by on site commanders.

    Disinformation operations are always a more cost effective means of deceiving the enemy than offering the enemy up actual allied assets as a gambit. I doubt both that the British and American high commands have the fortitude to make such cold blooded analysis in addition to being unable to purposefully construct deception ops on a regional theater scale.

    The operation being discussed in the post, seems to be one that was limited by logistics and intelligence. You want to have all your forces ready to attack and the targets already assessed before you move. That, however, takes time. Time the enemy may take to fortify themselves. Which would result in a decisive battle if you push the assault through as the attacker.

    There are a lot of ways to make use of the principle of seeking decisive battles. Most of them are simply unintentional occurences that competent people then take advantage of. Instead of trying to control chaos by planning everything out, you just take advantage of new things.

    That is why I don’t tend to favor any intentional strategic move to create a weakness through pulling military presences out in order to create a vacuum. You are likely to outsmart yourself with such.

    I do like decisive battles and deceiving the enemy, though. Which is why I prefered the SF method used in Afghanistan to the armored column push used in OIF 2003.

    Try to look weak, certainly. Then the enemy will attack and you can destroy them. Terrorists won’t attack a force they know to be strong and well supplied, for example. That is why they prefer children and civilians.

    Q-ships used for anti-piracy also used the same principle of appearing weak in order to close decisvely with the enemy. None of such things actually created a real weakness on purpose.

    That’d be like Bush letting 9/11 occur in order to get the support against Al Qaeda. Or Churchill not preparing a city’s defenders because the Enigma code showed an attack against Coventry.

    It is not just ethically questionable, but it is also bad strategy. There are always better ways to win, if people are good enough.

  5. BW,
    Ymarsakar has it about right; I believe the initial abandonment was politically driven and unplanned. The move is too coldly practical and rather inhumane to do on purpose. The part that likely was planned was the delay until winter. Politicians tend to understand inertia. Plus, re-taking an empty site is not as effective as taking an active logistics stronghold(Though the cost is much higher).
    I’ve met and worked with a number of British and UK soldiers and officers; they do marvelous things with what is available – remember the lieutenant leading a charge across a particular bridge too far (waving his umbrella!)?
    My point was that the Brits did a very good thing, in the long run, by being patient about fixing something that went horribly wrong so that the very best would result.

    SGT Dave
    “If you shoot too soon, it’s a meeting engagement; be patient and it becomes an ambush.” – Wise old SGM

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