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.