Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Heart Sank

When I opened my web browser the first things I saw were the words "Canadian soldier" and the picture of a fine-looking young man in his beret and camo gear with a Canadian flag in the background. My heart sank because I knew the story could only be an announcement of this fellow's death. It was his funerary photo just like all the others.

Nathan Hornburg at 24-years old has been killed in Afghanistan. It seems he was struck by mortar shrapnel while exposed in trying to fix a thrown tread from a Leopard tank. The tank broke down, the insurgents watched and waited, Hornburg got out to repair the tread, the bad guys fired, he died.

According to the commander, General Guy Laroche, "The terrain was very rough and (tank treads falling off) is something that we see on a regular basis." They sure do because tanks aren't suited to running patrols across rough terrain. They're fighting machines, not patrol vehicles.

What were they doing when this happened? According to Laroche, it was a one-day sweep to improve security in Panjwai province. A sweep. It's what you do when you don't have enough soldiers or equipment to fight an insurgency effectively. You sweep through. The bad guys keep the initiative and their control of the territory. They decide when to fight and when to simply lay low until you're gone. If they see a vulnerability - a tank with a thrown track, for example - they take advantage of it.

Why are we squandering the lives of young men like Hornburg on this farce of a mission? Read Petraeus' counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24. You can get the whole thing in PDF format on the web, free. It prescribes a ratio of 20-25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 of the civilian population. We would need anywhere between 15-25,000 combat troops on the ground to meet that ratio in Kandahar province. Instead we're handing the job to a 1,000-strong battle group.

Supporting the troops isn't setting them up to lose by saddling them with a fight they have neither the numbers nor the equipment to win. If you support "the mission", try supporting the troops. Demand that the government get off its sanctimonious, jingoistic arse; recruit, train and properly equip the small army that's needed for this job and then get on with it - or - support the troops and leave.


Sean Cummings said...

Tanks are an significant component of Combat Team Operations. Tanks are also suited to a variety of terrains including rocky arid ground like you might find in Afghanistan. That Hornburg was killed by mortar fire should come as no surprise... indirect fire allows someone to fire on their enemy using map coordinates and from a concealed position.

Like it or not, equipping and training an Afghan army is going to take time and resources... a lot more time than our January 2009 deadline.

I agree the mission is ill-defined, and as a former infantry soldier, I think the mission as laid out right now makes sense from a small participant perspective (Canada is a small participant doing a disproportionate amount of fighting). What's needed is a wholesale commitment on the part of NATO to work in partnership with the existing Afghan government as well as the UN to define the mission and get the resources necessary. Until this happens, Canadian soldiers are going to be in a combat war, a very necessary combat war just to stave off the Taliban while something resembling a game plan emerges from the powers that be.

If we leave now or in January 2009 and there has been no game plan or there is no replacement for our combat troops, Afghanistan will fall back into the hands of the Taliban and you can expect Al Qaeda to use the country as its base of operations.

Important to remember, our role in this war isn't the fault of Harper. He inherited this mission (though I suspect he would happily have signed on were the opportunity to present itself) and the mission itself is UN sanctioned. It is not an illegal war of occupation by the standards of diplomacy since this is a UN sanctioned action. If we are wrong for being there, then the UN is wrong too.

Mike said...


With all due respect, how did having all those tanks work out for the Russians? How about having a couple of hundred thousand troops on the ground?

If you wish for our troops to stay there in an un-winnable war, die in disproportionate numbers, you are condemning them to the meat grinder. There is no game plan now.

I won't even mention the "help" from out "ally" Pakistan - cutting deals with the tribal areas, allowing them to turn their attention to Afghanistan. And our troops. Thanks.

Sorry, we have no plan, no strategy and no way to know when we are done. To keep our troops there fighting is suicide. Asking them to fight and die in this situation isn't noble, its stupid.

Get them out. Now.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sean, I think Mike's right (much as it pains me to admit that). It would be one thing if we were part of a cohesive force as the one we joined in Korea instead of the "you're stuck with it" attitude of most of our NATO partners. Of course it's not an illegal intervention but no one is contesting that. YOU DO NOT PATROL WITH 35-YEAR OLD TANKS. "Combat Team Operations" for a European ground war have no bearing on an Afghan counterinsurgency and you ought to know that. There's nothing interchangeable. Tanks are designed to fight tanks. Most modern armies deliver their tanks to the point of battle on transporters. Like an aircraft tanks are a compromise of weight, horsepower, firepower, armour, range and maneuverability. Thney're not a multirole weapon. Because of that, they're not built for patrolling through rocky terrain. That's something else that should go without saying.

We've had six years of collective screwing around and the only side that's improved its position is our adversary. SIX YEARS. Don't give me any jingoistic nonsense about "the mission".

That kid who died gave his life for a bloody poor cause.

Anonymous said...

First, it's misleading to use the example of the treads coming off as an example that our troops are using the wrong equipment for the terrain. It's a well-known fact that treads have a tendency to come off on a fairly regular basis, that's the reason why we switched from the M113 armoured personnel carrier to the LAVIII's, and the reason we were going to replace the Leopard tank with the Stryker Mobile Gun System, until the MGS became such an abominal failure. But there are pro's to treads, they can go over soft ground better or over ditches common in Afghanistan, which is why we use Leopard 2's there, which is why we've even brought over some old M113's to supplement the LAVIII. So treads ARE appropriate there, and losing treads is an unavoidable but common occurence, you'll notice the Americans with their M2's or the British with their Warriors have the same issues.

Second, the Russian analogy is oft-used but also misleading, unlike the Russians, we're there at the invitation of the government, unlike the Russians, according to multiple independent polls and anectodal evidence (reference today's article by Matthew Fisher in the Ottawa Citizen), we are welcome by the majority of Afghans. Far from "forcing" democracy on Afghans, their voter turn-out is better than ours, and they celebrated in the streets, which is something even the Conservatives didn't do when Harper won (though, they are conservative).

Which leads me to the final point, and the true frustration in Afghanistan. I believe we do have the forces in theatre to win, IF our allies were willing to pull their weight. I believe given the foundation of support for our mission there from the locals, we have the basis for a successful strategy. Bizarrely, it's what Harper et al (and Martin before him) have been saying was the long-term strategy, use our forces to maintain security, move ahead with development projects to strengthen the support and confidence of the locals for our mission and their own government, and build indigenous security forces to gradually take over from us.

I think the problem is not a lack of vision, or strategy, but rather not enough focus and resources on reconstruction and recruiting, training and equipping Afghan security forces. I have no problem with our current military side of the mission (with some fine-tuning, such as the rapid delivery of medium-lift helicopters so that we can avoid suicidal ground supply runs, greater efforts to reduce collateral damage, with some acknowledgment that when the Taliban use human shields some will be inevitable), but we need a massive, colossal increase in effort, focus and resources on the "soft" side of the mission.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, having trouble with posting a comment, I didn't mean to sign in as anonymous, I've always believed that if you have something to say, you should be willing to stand by it, and this is a solid discussion, so I'm the guy that just listed the last message.

The Mound of Sound said...

Markmm - sorry, but the Russians were "invited in." That they took up the offer is another story. Tanks are useless in counterinsurgency. Read FM 3-24. The less firepower the better. Besides, when the locals see you troll all that heavy armour through their fields and then move on without touching a hair on the insurgents' heads it makes them think (believe) we're pretty hapless. The French actually did rather well in Algeria because they had the numbers. We don't and we don't have the essential support of our "partners" and are propping up a pathetic excuse for a government that cannot purge its own corruption and collaborators. This is a mug's game, plain and simple. Every life we pour into this nonsense is sad, really sad.

Sean Cummings said...

The age of our tanks has nothing to do with their effectiveness in an operational theater. Believe it or not, tank tracks often need repair whether the terrain is nice smooth pavement in downtown anywhere or along the crumbly desert of Afghanistan. (You do realize, of course, that tanks were used in North Africa during the Second World War. They were used in Italy, a very rocky place BTW, hell, they were used in every land battle throughout Europe, the Balkans, Greece... I could go on.) That our tanks are 35 years old is largely moot. What makes a tank effective is the its ability to protect the occupants from enemy fire, the size of its gun (in our case 105 mm... standard in NATO BTW. Combat team operations are not designed exclusively for a European ground war... not sure where you're getting that from. Ground is ground.. cover is cover... could be the snowy plains of the Ukraine or the jungles of southeast asia. Combat team operations are THE way infantry and armour work in close partnership enroute to their objective. You even do combat team operations in built up areas where tank or any mechanized mobility is serverely limited. Moreover, better to use combat team tactics then, say, blow the shit out of a place with artillery or ordering air strikes, both of which offer brutal civilian casualties.

The reality, dear contributors to this commentary, is that while it's really groovy to think that our troops can do the Kumbaya thing and build schools/hospitals/water treament plants, there ain't a lot of point in building the damned things if the day after you build it, the Taliban blow the damned thing up.

The area has to be secure... end of story. Yep, Afghan troops should be doing it, but it will take years to get them up to speed and equip them properly. Yep, NATO members need to step up to the plate... absolutely. This is not our fight exclusively, we are indeed carrying a disproportionate load.

I don't understand the logic of those in the "our troops out now" camp. If we go, then the Taliban will be back and whatever meager improvements in the quality of life that Afghani's have experienced, will be thrown by the wayside. Moreover, the 71 Canadians killed in that god forsaken country will have died in vain.

Lest we forget.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, Sean, tanks were used in conjunction with infantry in each and every one of the conventional wars you cite, emphasis on "conventional." Afghanistan does not present much conventional warfare. It is, in fact, an insurgency/civil war. The best current thinking on this sort of conflict is embodied in FM 3-24 which, Sean, you need to read. If you do it will become plain why tanks are ill-suited, often counter-productive to counter-insurgency. The battles you reference in Europe and North Africa were conventional warfare, Sean, you know that. Ground is ground, cover is cover but one enemy and his type of warfare can be radically different from another. The Taliban aren't the Wehrmacht nor the Red Army. The history of Afghanistan has shown how ineffectual conventional armies (British and Soviet) have been against tribal fighters. I guess, Sean, we can just go ahead and ignore all that. What do they say about people who keep doing the same thing and yet expect different results?

The Mound of Sound said...

I forgot your other point, Sean. You're right, "the area has to be secure - end of story." You're also right that the Afghan security forces are years away from being able to handle that. Fair enough. To secure an area against an insurgency you have to hold that area, not patrol it. FM 3-24 prescribes 20-25 counter-insurgents (rifles not just boots on the ground) for every 1,000 of the populace. We would therefore need a 15-20,000 strong Canadian combat group (not including support personnel) to "secure" Kandahar. What have we got, Sean? We've got 1,000 which leaves us unable to do much more to secure the place than to run patrols and hope the other side will attack. Just how stupid is that?

Sean Cummings said...

It depends on your definition of "secure" and I for one, don't believe it can ever be 100% secure 100% of the time. They used to call insurgents "partisans" in the old days... not sure why they don't any longer. Yep, you can't defeat partisans en masse, however you can create a measure of security and take steps to reduce the prevalence of partisan activities. Yep, there are always going to be bombings. Yep, there are going to be occasional mortar attacks and suicide bombers... such is the kind of tactics we are currently encountering. One of the reasons you increase patrols is to give the locals at least the sense that they are safer now than they would be under the Taliban. You also increase patrols to gather information about what your enemy is doing... building relationships with locals is key in that process. Back to tank... the reason we have tanks there, if you'll recall, is because of roadside bombs and lack of protection offered in soft skinned vehicles. I suspect that "Infantry Section and Platoon in Battle" is being rewritten as a result of the Afghanistan experience and at the end of the day, if we pull out, you know what's going to happen. This is as much a test of NATO's ability to function as an alliance as it is a test of figuring out how to defeat the Taliban, if that's possible at all... which I doubt. Frankly, I'd be all for Canada withdrawing from NATO if we can't get increased combat support from our NATO partners.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sean, I'm reposting three items that date back to last fall. Two relate to T.E. Lawrence. The other is a report on FM 3-24, the new US counterinsurgency field manual. The American manual digests the lessons learned by Lawrence and others. That manual is freely available on the internet in PDF format. Ironically Petraeus has inherited circumstances in Iraq that fly in the face of his own manual but he's biting his tongue and no one is asking any inconvenient questions. I hope these articles are of some interest.