Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sautalu Sar: A CT Success Story In Korengal

Here's a story which rings bells straight out of Vietnam. Last week an ambush patrol executed by a platoon from 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry had great results. They absolutely kicked ass on a group of Taliban diddy-bopping along a trail on a mountain called Sautalu Sar in the Korengal Valley. Classic Infantry stuff. I felt a visceral Infantry reaction and a heartfelt, "Good job!" in my Infantry heart.

It was a night ambush, which we should probably be doing more of. This is a rare story of how Americans actually took back part of the night on the ground in Afghanistan, where we largely cede the night to the predations of the Taliban. That's how night letters get delivered as we sleep peacefully in our FOBs.

More, plus comments, after the jump

Now, the Korengal is not like the rest of Afghanistan. The Korengal is an anomaly, and a poor example of Afghanistan. It is a cauldron of botched engagement, fueled by years-old mistakes that alienated the locals more than any Taliban or Wahhabist influence even could. That's a longer story, one that has been told elsewhere. The Korengal is a guerrilla war in a hostile valley that the Afghan government has no sway over and may never. It is a superhighway of infiltration and the only home of Wahhabism in Afghanistan. It is the most dangerous place in Afghanistan to be an American, and our Soldiers there have taken it on the chin day after day for years in what is a holding action against the spread of the disease. It is also a magnet for bloodthirsty journalists who want the juicy combat story, the story of peril and loss and dark victories on a mountainside where small groups of men contend for momentary control of a mountain trail with their all.

The story of the Korengal is not the story of Afghanistan, just like the story of Over the Rhine is not the story of Cincinnati. The real story of Afghanistan is less and less likely to be told. CNN, who only just reestablished an office in Kabul, has apparently informed NATO that they have no interest in reporting on the soft power influence in Afghanistan, only on "direct-action" kinetic operations, telling NATO that it's what their "viewers demand."

Demand? Excuse me?

CNN, whose dedicated viewers are the least likely to be supportive of military "success" in any realm, much less Afghanistan, wants to portray only one small slice of the war in Afghanistan, and they caveat their coverage? Hey, I've got an idea; get the %&(# out of the country!

The real story of any success in Afghanistan isn't going to be an ambush on a mountainside in the Korengal, or a firefight along the highway in Logar or Wardak. The real story of any success in Afghanistan is going to be with the embedded trainers working in an ill-furnished office on an Afghan military camp, gently influencing their charge to abandon corruption. The real story is going to be civilian mentors helping to influence a economic development in a district with villages made of straw and mud. The real story is going to be Afghan National Police who start patrolling their villages at night, their presence keeping a night letter from being delivered and weakening the hold of terror on a few families.

The ambush on Sautalu Sar was great. It was excellent counter-terrorist work, and a brilliant small unit Infantry action. It is excellent work done by young men in the high-altitude night halfway around the world from home. It was well-planned, well-executed, highly professional work; and it was incredibly brave. This is wonderful news, and I hope that it will inspire line units around the country to begin to lie quietly in the dark and ambush the Taliban who roam around at night. I fear that it will also distract them from being the shield that the people need from the Taliban 24 hours a day. It is the Infantry love of our (perceived) greatest influence; firepower and sudden, unrelenting violence that often calls us away from the quiet work of counterinsurgency to actively hunt when we should be passively protecting.

The story of Sautalu Sar is a double-edged sword in that way. It is something that we should do, but it is not all that we should do. As I have commented over at Abu Muquwama, a huge part of our problem, the basis of our failures in my opinion, has been our failure to actually perform the gritty, unglamorous work of counterinsurgency, preferring to be the hunter instead of the hunted as is so often required of the counterinsurgent who is doing what he must. This is, in my opinion, the root of the mistake we make with our firepower. Our priority is all too often to kill instead of to protect.

When the chips are down, your priorities come through. When the priority is to kill the bad guy instead of merely separating him from the people, then the application of massive force, the sledgehammer to kill the fly, becomes a natural extension of that priority. If the priority had been to protect the populace and everything possible had been done to prevent the loss of innocent lives, that would be evident. Make no mistake; this is a war, and in war people die. No doubt. There will be civilian casualties as the result of coalition actions, but they must be as rare as possible and then must be admitted to instantly and without any purpose of evasion. When our true priority becomes protecting the populace, separating the insurgent from his ability to influence the villager, then the insurgent will be forced to exert more and more force to demonstrate that the coalition cannot protect that civilian. Then nearly all, not just most, civilian deaths will be the result of Taliban actions, and that's when public opinion will begin to swing strongly in the direction of the Afghan Government, NATO, and the United States.

That being said, a JDAM on a confirmed Taliban patrol on a mountainside, with weapons confirmed by American eyes on the ground, is a wonderful thing. Bombing a wedding party on the word of an "informant" without any eyes-on observation is not an example of this. The Taliban will lie and try to portray their losses as innocent civilians, but it will be a lot harder to prove when they cannot come up with fragments of civilians to present as evidence.

Sautalu Sar is a great kinetic story, all too rare in Afghanistan. I just hope that we don't take from it the wrong message.


  1. Good post. Thank you.

    Any suggestions for having more coordination between the different pieces of the puzzle that are needed? How can there be more coordination and utilization of experiences and interaction between forces and locals for replacement deploying units?

    And maybe more overlapping of units to continue and build, not reinvent with every deployment?

    My words are about as easy to follow as wrapping your mind around the situations in Afghanistan. Let it suffice to say there is no easy answer; and the successes from Iraq bring only suggestions, not a playbook for Afghanistan; because Afghanistan is not Iraq.

  2. Hi --

    I stumbled across your blog when my "Korengal" google news tracker picked it up.

    A dearly beloved former student of mine -- someone I have mentored for years -- took part in this action. He is from the Bronx, and we talked recently about the fact that he sees how little the people of the Korengal have, or have to lose. Good dentistry would win over hearts and minds faster than anything else.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.

  3. Great comment, Wahine. Smarter than what is brought up by many senior officers, actually.

    Yes, there's a suggestion that has been brought up by many who have experience in The Lumpy Suck. Give specific units responsibility for specific areas, and have them overlap more during transitions, with those units in a rotation... but always returning to the same area. Some people need to be on longer tours, based on their responsibilities, and some could be on shorter tours with more rapid rotations. The point is to provide continuity in each area, and a feeling of responsibility in each specific area. As it is, if you can wait out the problem, you can divest yourself of it at the end of your tour, declare success, and leave.

  4. While there was some of the pride and whatever it is you call seeing the names you know in print being successful and safe at what they do . . .

    The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.

    PFC Richard A. Dewater, 21, of Topeka, Kan., died April 15, of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device, while on a dismounted patrol near Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas.

    RIP Rick

    All our gratitude and prayers with Bob (we know as ricksdad) and the rest of Rick's family and friends, especially the rest of our heroes still in the Korangal, and mourning their friend/comrade/buddy.

  5. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/20/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  6. HI a success history in this place this is not a picnic is war to archive and hard to maintained.

  7. hello a trip to Afghan is not a walk on the park the so many tramps that you need to see bullet flying mines and snipers is a crazy place .


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