Friday, January 13, 2012

Afghanistan Battle Shows War Rarely Fought to Plan

Another article by our imbedded AP reporter Chris Torchia in Helmand.

CPT Kovalsky and me in Helmand 2010
A Co 1-17th INF from left CPT Michael Kovalsky (CO), 1SG Gene Hicks and LT Brian Zangenberger  (XO)

Afghanistan Battle Shows War Rarely Fought to Plan

NATO, Afghan troops plot their assaults each night but day brings the messy reality of war


The Associated Press

BADULA QULP, Afghanistan

The intelligence said a Taliban commander planned to dispatch a suicide bomber against an American patrol base. But where? Would more than one attacker strike? What day and time? On foot, or in a vehicle that would pack more explosives?

The attack didn't happen as predicted last week in a farming area where Army units are supporting a U.S. Marine offensive against insurgents in Marjah in southern Afghanistan.

Could it happen later? Uncertainty is a certainty of war. As generals over the centuries have noted, no matter how much soldiers plan and try to impose order on the battlefield, reality rarely matches.

Over the past week, men belonging to the 5th Stryker Brigade and Afghan forces have swept through villages and compounds once held by Taliban fighters, advancing with painstaking caution to avoid casualties from booby traps and harassing fire.

In the military's innocuous-sounding jargon, the soldiers have cleared "objectives" and had "contact," which really means vicious firefights. They "engaged the enemy" and "possibly destroyed" snipers. The Taliban rarely leave their dead, if they are, in fact, dead.

At night, U.S. and Afghan commanders, with Canadian advisers, pore over maps based on satellite imagery as they plot the next day's assault. The mission has a start time and an estimated end. There are questions, comments. It has the feel of a classroom exercise, removed from the shouting, the diving and hugging of cover, the cacophony of battlefield bullets and machinery.

It's intellectual, with nothing of the fear, fury and exhilaration of men firing and taking fire.

A detachment from Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment got another taste of these contradictory currents when they moved through fields, irrigation ditches and mud-walled homes on Friday.

An Afghan villager told them the Taliban appeared the previous night with picks and shovels, possibly to hide homemade bombs and other booby traps. A soldier with a metal detector checked a wall where dirt had been freshly dug. Unfazed, the platoon bypassed it, following the point man like a trail of ants to avoid untested terrain.

All quiet, except for a barking dog.

"What's up dog? Want to fight?" a soldier said. Another joked about the suicide bomber report — the attacker could be anywhere, he said, maybe on the Pakistani border.

Up ahead, an American Stryker infantry carrier crossed a cord or string, a classic device used by insurgents for bombs known as Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs. A vehicle or person yanks the line unsuspectingly, and the hidden bomb detonates. In this case, nothing happened. Soldiers pulled the cord to see where it led. And pulled and pulled. Hundreds of meters of it, leading nowhere.

Sometimes, said 1st Sgt. Gene Hicks of Tacoma, Wash., insurgents put down line as a decoy to lure the Americans into another trap, or just to gauge the soldiers' patterns of behavior.

"Don't get blown up, PLEEAASE!!" Capt. Michael Kovalsky of Fords, N.J. said in a text message to Hicks, who was coordinating the operation from a communications truck in the front line.

"I won't," Hicks wrote. A 20-year military veteran, he's sparing with words.

The next set of compounds looked like trouble. Civilians, including two women in powder-blue, all-enveloping burqas, hurried from the looming shootout. Another intelligence report: Insurgents had concealed an anti-aircraft gun in one of the buildings, and would either use it on the "dismounts" — soldiers on foot — or on the vehicles as they rolled closer.

Troops on the ground tried to get a reconnaissance aircraft to take a look, but they couldn't immediately get through to the controllers. In the end, a false alarm.

Afghan soldiers approached, with half a dozen Strykers providing cover on their flank. Coordination between the two militaries slowed movement.

"There's not a job in the world that could be so exciting at one moment, so boring the next," drawled Hicks' fair-haired gunner, Staff Sgt. Van Forbes of Decatur, Ala. He ate sunflower seeds from a bag. Hicks chewed tobacco, spat into a plastic bottle.

Inevitably, gunfire began. Bullets bounced off at least one Stryker. Forbes fired bursts on his 50-caliber machine gun at a wall where two men in black were spotted. He wore safety glasses and cursed because his gun wasn't working properly. It was difficult to pinpoint the shooters.

"I can't see where it's coming from," Forbes said. The Afghan soldiers fired more freely, but the Americans couldn't identify their target. Then the Afghans, their Canadian mentors not far behind, moved into the Americans' line of fire.

"Want to make sure I'm not lighting up the Canucks," Forbes said.

"Frustrating," Hicks said.

More waiting. But sure enough, gunfire started up as scheduled.

The military vehicles rolled forward in a field, staying off trails in case IEDs were planted there. Hicks saw what looked like moist earth, a favored place for hiding bombs because it's easy to dig up the earth. Insurgents also pour water to break up the soil.

"See those two soft areas directly in front of us? Let's not run into those," Hicks said to his driver, Staff Sgt. Jorge Banuelos of Mission, Texas.

Surveillance from the air and ground, the high-tech and human kinds, yielded more circumstantial evidence of Taliban movements. A motorcycle moving in the area. Two vans heading away. A dark spot on the thermal imaging camera of a Stryker. Was it a person kneeling? Or maybe a flag blowing in the wind? In the bright sun, Hicks saw something: Is that an insurgent or a tree branch?

"Now look across the pasture here at those buildings. ... OK, now we're taking fire. ... Stand by to suppress those buildings," he said, headphones wrapped around his helmet, a microphone millimeters from his lips.

A plan and a schedule was made. At 1309 and 30 seconds, the Strykers would fire intensively to kill or force the insurgents to pull back. At 1310, Afghan troops would advance. The guns thudded, and Kovalsky gave the go-ahead to fire a light anti-tank missile at a building. The soldiers were delighted, as though getting to play with a new toy.

The missile made a loud noise, but didn't score a direct impact. Later, soldiers found a blood trail that suggested an insurgent sniper had been injured or killed. Was he even a sniper? He had a lot of targets, but didn't hit anyone.

"It could be just a guy who didn't have a Kalashnikov. It could have been an Enfield," Forbes said. "It could be a guy with a scoped rifle who doesn't know how to zero it."

Still, objective cleared.

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