COIN operations in barg-e metal: operation mountain fire and community-based security.
I didn't join the fight in Barg-e Matal until 16 July 2009. four days after the initial air assault. Attack Company of TF Chosin had seized the remote village of Barg-e Matal and was fending off counterattacks as the insurgents attempted to reoccupy the village. Early on, it had become clear that securing the village and transitioning security operations to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) within the planned 96-hour window would be impossible, largely because the ANSF categorically refused to remain and fight if the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) left. Hence, U.S. forces were embroiled in a daily, highly kinetic fight while still trying to generate options to be able to eventually hand off local security of the village of Barg-e Matal to the local national forces. In this way. Operation Mountain Fire was a small-scale parallel to the situation we face now in Afghanistan on all levels--from an individual village, to district, province, region, and nation. Specifically, Barg-e Matal made clear that the most significant link to establishing effective, locally led security lies at the district level, where effective governance needs to meet vested interest and involvement from the local populace.
The province of Nuristan, renamed from Kafiristan in the 1890s. has perhaps the most fascinating and diverse history of any Afghan province. The name itself is interesting. Kafiristan is literally "the land of infidels,'1 as the populace of Nuristan has been polylheist for the majority of their millennia-long history. Alexander the Great sowed his army's seed when he crossed the Hindu Kush into Nuristan in 327 B.C. Korrengalis in the neighboring Konar Province claim that Alexander the Great was defeated there and diverted to what was then India. Nuristanis dispute this claim--the myth is that five of Alexander's soldiers stayed behind in Nuristan and sired the distinctly different-looking "Red Kafirs." The typical Nuristani looks more European than Asian. Many have fair or red hair and a different build from a typical Afghan, who's darker-skinned with Asiatic features. This polytheistic progeny of Alexander's army continued to populate the isolated province up until the 1890s, when then-Emir of Afghanistan, Abdur Amir Abdurrahham, and his army invaded and forcibly converted the populace to Islam. Kafiristan, the "land of infidels," hence became known as Nuristan, or "land of light/* after the Muslim enlightenment. Becoming the most devout Muslims. Nuristanis were the first to rise against the newly-installed Communist government in May 1978. The same dynamic continued during Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). Nuristan is the only province where the Tali ban rules openly, virtually unopposed, and with the legitimate support from the populace. The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) officials installed there are essentially figureheads. It was these fleeing officials who abandoned their posts when the anti-Afghan forces (AAF) took over the village of Barg-e Matal and who prompted the government in Kabul to petition ISAF for help, generating the Mountain Fire concept of operation (CONOP).
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Nuristan isn't only historically significant it has some strategic importance as well despite being the most remote and rugged Afghan province. Nuristan is one of the most impassable regions of Afghanistan, with only 1 percent of its 10,000 square kilometers classified as flat. A road network is nearly nonexistent--there's only one road leading in and out of Nuristan, and it's barely passable by pickup truck. It is also one of the main smuggling routes used by the AAF to transit men, weapons, and equipment into Afghanistan. Controlling this route is vital for the insurgents to retain the ability to sustain a fighting force, and the village of Barg-e Matal is a key point along it, both in terms of population and geography.
Operation Mountain Fire
The initial Mountain Fire CONOP taskorganized Attack Company(+) under the command of CPT Mike Harrison, along with a battalion tactical command post (TAG) element, which took care of fire support de-confliction, landing zone and preparation zone (LZ/PZ) operations, and administrative reporting requirements. I relieved our chemical officer. ILT Randy Bielski, as the battle captain for the Barg-e Matal TAC on day four of Operation Mountain Fire. At this point, we were still in daily direct contact with the enemy, often for two to three hours at a time, as AAF maneuvered to retake the village of Barg-e Matal. As a task force, we were still focused on retaining Barg-e Matal proper and neutralizing the AAF and had not yet taken steps to set the conditions for our exfiltration. Maintaining full-on combat operations in Nuristan and in our own area of operations (AO) in Konar Province--two distinct AOs separated by almost 90 kilometers--for an extended period of time was already becoming very taxing, and we couldn't sustain it for much longer.
During the rare lulls in fire, COL Mark O'Donnell. TF commander, attended shuras with the village and provincial leaders to hammer out a solution that would allow the local populace, along with ANSF. to retain control of Barg-e Matal; appease the skittish ANSF commanders; and allow TF Chosin to resume combat operations in our own AO in Konar Province. The lynchpin to this solution would be to train what would later be called community-based security (CBS). This would become the TF'S primary focus--a daunting task, considering that we had to turn local volunteers into a semblance of a fighting unit under less than pleasant conditions. There were no weapons to be had. no communication equipment, no uniforms, and no way to pay the force, which was nearly impossible to rcsupply in an air-only AO. Finally, all training would have to take place on a two-way range inside a typical Afghan "fishbowl" (commanding high ground on all sides, with narrow exits to the north and south). Along with CPT Charles Schaefer. another TF assistant operations officer, I would plan, attempt to resource, and implement this plan, with guidance from COL O' Donneif and MAJ Scott Horrigan, TF S3.
The CBS concept isn't new--it's been practiced in the Pashtun Belt (predominantly Pashtun areas in eastern Afghanistan) for centuries. Most Pashtun communities are situated in mountainous, remote areas and are governed by the local village and tribal ciders. Hence. CBS forces, or Arbakai as they're traditionally known in Afghanistan, are stood up by each individual hamlet and aren't sponsored by the central government. The first known centrally-sponsored Arbakai was stood up in Konar Province by the provincial governor, Fazfuilah Wahrdi. Traditional decentralized Arbakai and the government-sponsored organizations operate on the same basic precepts: they're charged with implementing the jirga's (a decision-making body) decisions; maintaining law and order; and protecting the borders of the tribe or community. COL O' Donnell used the Anbar tribal engagement strategy model as a base system of precepts for Barg-e Matal CBS to provide a lasting solution to the security problem. Though many precedents exist for this type of strategy, it was really the only viable option that was available and was generated as a result of COL O'Donne 11, CSM Jimmy Carabello, MAJ Horrigan, CPT Schaefer, and me simply sitting down in the courtyard of the girl's school in Barg-e Matal and discussing the matter.
The immediate challenge to standing up any kind of fighting force was the lack of security. Despite the fact that the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division--our operational control (OPCON) brigade headquarters--was somehow able to secure funding, weapons and uniforms, actually putting these resources to some sort of training schedule was a challenge.
CPT Schaefer and I formalized the training in a memorandum of instruction, accompanied by a sketch of the training sites and ranges, a resource list, and a rough timeline. COL O'Donnell and MAJ Horrigan reviewed and approved the document and called a shura where the local elders and ANSF commanders inducted the new volunteers into the force and issued uniforms. After the induction ceremony, CPT Schaefer began training the CBS force, while I rotated back to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Joyce in Konar Province to continue operations there.
CPT Schaefer, along with two squads of 4-41s MP platoon, began with simple drill and ceremony training to instill discipline in the brand-new force. With help from the local elders, CPT Schaefer chose platoon and squad leaders. The new recruits did not have issued weapons yet, but a few brought their own AKs to the induction. The next hurdle was to issue weapons and ammo to the force and establish a tracking system for personnel management, to include pay. The Nuristan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) assisted us with payroll issues by handling all of the required paperwork to procure cash for payday.
At this point, 1 rotated from FOB Joyce back to Barg-e Matal, and after a relief-in-place (RIP) with CPT Schaefer, picked up where he left off. I began by entering the individual recruits into the biometric automated toolset/handheld interagency identity Detection Equipment (BAT/ HIDE) and issued them ID cards. The CBS force then transitioned to flat range instruction, establishing the baseline for their AK-47 marksmanship. The first series of flat ranges went without incident and were uncomplicated by contact with AAF. As the CBS activity became more apparent though, AAF countered our training regimen by placing a sniper team on the high ground surrounding Barg-e Matal. Any movement through the village would draw contact from the AAF positions on the surrounding high ground, inevitably turning our training into a livefire exercise and making it difficult to get a good grasp on the basics. Our solution was to do our crawl and walk phase, as well as any dryfire training and instruction, in an alley and courtyard that was mostly covered and concealed from likely AAF positions. Transitioning from the basics to crew-served weapon operations and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) ranges, the CBS force gained proficiency with more casualty-producing weapons but would also draw more AAF fire. The AAF fighters were especially determined to prevent RPG training, engaging individual CBS members from more than 800 meters away before they even had a chance to move from their houses to the training site.
Continued pressure from AAF in the form of multiple coordinated attacks daily drove home the urgency of standing up an effective, trained CBS force. The intensity of these attacks varied, as AAF needed two to three days to resupply after each major attack. The AAF realized that they needed to step up the intensity of their attacks to levels equal or exceeding those of the first 96 hours of Operation Mountain Fire to dislodge ANSF and ISAF and seize Barg-e Matal.
On 26 August 2009, AAF dressed in burkas were able to infiltrate the town of Barg-e Matal during daytime hours and occupy fighting positions in buildings within the town. Additional AAF massed on the high ground. All told, more than 100 AAF fighters participated in this attack.
In the early morning hours of 27 August 2009, AAF initiated direct fires on the A Company command post (CP), the district center, and the TF tactical operations center (TOC). As ANSF, with one A Company platoon, led by CPT Micah Chapman, began a deliberate clearance of the western side of the river, close air support (CAS) and close combat attack (CCA) sorties destroyed AAF concentrations on the high ground around Barg-e Matal and placed precision fires into buildings in town. The ANSF and A Company became decisively engaged after clearing the high school on the west side of the river and were fixed in their current positions. The CAS had already broken station, and CCA was about to come off. It was painfully clear that one company, split in two by a river running through the middle of Barg-e Matal, had a hard fight to retain Barg-e Matal proper. The Afghan troops partnered with A Company had become ineffective in the first moments of the fight, leaving the single A Company platoon to continue the house-to-house fight. The CBS force that we were still training could have been that additional combat power that we needed. Unfortunately, the CBS was not yet ready to muster for this fight. To allow A Company to continue its clearance, and unable to set the conditions with external enablers, we engaged AAF positions in two buildings with an AT-4, a shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon-disposable (SMAW-D). and a thermobaric light antitank weapon (LAW). The effective destruction of the building allowed A Company, without ANSF at this point, to continue to move forward and clear the remaining buildings on the west side of the river, removing AAF resistance from Barg-e Matal proper. The fighting continued into the afternoon, lasting more than eight hours. We engaged the remnants of AAF positions on the high ground with additional CAS sorties and were able to remove that day's sniper threat. Several buildings in the village were destroyed, with no known civilian casualties.
Fights like the one on 27 August 2009 continued, on a somewhat smaller scale, as AAF didn't have the resolve or the manpower to infiltrate Barg-e Matal again and resorted mostly to occupying positions on the high ground and placing precision fires on ISAF and ANSF forces within Barg-e Matal. In overcoming the kinetic fight, TF Chosin had to look forward to our endstate and how to achieve it. As set forth on the initial infil, our endstate was to hand over local security to ANSF and return to steady-state operations in our own AO. However, this became more of a challenge than expected for multiple reasons.
First, conditions had to be set and approved by our higher headquarters, from brigade all the way to the joint task force, with ISAF oversight. TF Chosin maintained good lines of communication with our brigade headquarters, but that was a double-edged sword. While it was easy to request assets and communicate our needs and effects of our operations to higher headquarters, the abundance of information produced a set of unrealistic requirements that we needed to fill to be able to hand off responsibility to CBS and ANSF and execute our exfil. TF Chosin sent daily updates to higher headquarters, with increasing fidelity as increased communications capabilities were fielded in Barg-e Matal and became available. Whether we painted too sunny a picture, maybe downplaying the negative aspects of our situation, or if our updates were seen in a different light on the other end at higher headquarters, the net result was that we needed to accomplish ever greater feats to meet our endstate. A prime example would be the last requirement imposed on TF Chosin a day prior to our exfil--train Afghan joint tactical air controllers (JTACs) so that CBS had the ability to request and employ CAS to help them project combat power and retain Barg-e Matal after coalition forces' departure. The average training cycle for American JTACs is five years, from enlistment to being operational. The Afghans we were to train couldn't read a book, a map, or a compass and didn't know how to work a radio any more complex than a walkie-talkie but were supposed to be able to send a CAS 9-line after a day's training. Nonetheless, we were able to get a couple of senior Afghan leaders in Barg-e Matal to send a target reference point tied to a point on the ground over their high-frequency radio to an Afghan TOC in Naray, so they. in turn, could pass that to an ISAF TOC and the JTAC there.
By 18 September, TF Chosin had finally met all external requirements for exfil from Barg-e Matah and on the morning of 19 September, the remainder of the coalition forces moved back to FOB Bostick and then on to FOB Joyce. One question remained, though: would the CBS force be able to secure and retain Barg-e Matal with almost no ANSF support?
The CBS force was formed as a force that would have a vested interest in securing Barg-e Matal--they would be securing their own families. We can't blame the ANSF for not wanting to stick around Barg-e Matal. Some of them hadn't been paid in more than seven months, and they weren't local to the area, violating any Afghan's chain of allegiance--family, village, clan. What we've learned in Barg-e Matal is that a properly resourced and motivated indigenous, in the full sense of the word, force would be able to provide security in their village. However, after ISAF's exit from Barg-e Matal, the ISAFs interest in maintaining the difficult supply and communication chain to Barg-e Matal waned, as other areas of Regional Command East became the focus for the brigade and division. Barg-e Matal didn't really fit into ISAF and ANSF joint strategy, mostly because we didn't really have one beyond a general "go forth and engage and secure the population" mandate. As noted earlier, ISAF involvement with retaining Barg-e Matal was triggered by several influential elders who used their direct connections to the Kabul administration. Thus, TF Chosin's presence in Barg-e Matal wasn't tied to any tangible ISAF objective. A lack of a definable strategy in Barg-e Matal negated any success at the tactical level.
The concept of establishing a CBS-type force has evolved and currently exists as the "Village Stability Platform" concept in use by Special Operations Forces (SOF) in Afghanistan. The Village Stability Platform is a concept legislated and legitimized by the Karzai administration, akin to the Tribal Engagement Teams proposed by MAJ Jim Gant in his paper "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan." The key to a successful strategic victory in Afghanistan is connecting the Afghan government influence from the national level down to district leveJ and mating the current Afghan government structure to the traditional Afghan way of life at family, village, and tribal levels by ensuring effective district governors who empower village elders. The village stability platforms will incorporate security provided by local forces, legitimized by the accepted traditional Afghan power structure, and will be effective in eventually wholly transitioning security, development, and governance for an effective ISAF exit.
CPT Serge Glushenko is currently a student at the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was commissioned as an Infantry officer from University of California, Berkeley ROTC in 2005 and has served in a variety of light and mechanized Infantry assignments. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2011|
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