Afghanistan. Too Much Ground, Too Few Troops


“Throughout history, the role of the infantry has been to occupy terrain. Whether an army is attacking or defending, the infantryman is the key figure. All other combat arms and service support elements exist basically to assist him in accomplishing his mission. His demise has been predicted many times by so-called ‘experts’ whose knowledge of military affairs has been somewhat lacking. Modern warfare has shown that even in an age of electronic technology, the infantryman remains the central figure on the battlefield. He cannot be supplanted by armor, artillery or battlefield electronics. Indeed, when carried to the final analysis, all modern military technology exists so that the infantryman can take and/or hold ground.”

~ Jane’s Infantry Weapons 1998—99

“The army’s infantry is its most essential component. Even today, no army can take and hold any ground without the use of infantry.”

~ George Nafzger

Air, artillery, armor, and electronics can multiply and extend the projection of force on behalf of the modern-day infantryman. They assist in killing enemy troops and interdicting his movement and supply lines. But they have one serious limitation: They cannot take and hold ground. Only the common foot soldier can "winkle out," as the British would say, the enemy from their foxholes and strongholds, and hold it. Examples abound in the island-hopping campaign in Pacific theater during WW2. My father, a Marine veteran of Peleliu, personally witnessed the pre-invasion naval bombardment by five battleships and aerial bombing were "519 rounds of 16-inch shells, 1,845 rounds of 14-inch shells, 1,793 500-pound bombs, and 73,412 .50 caliber bullets onto the tiny island, only six square miles in size."

Impressive as it was, the bombardment had little effect on the defenders who were dug-in deep in coral caves. The Marines were obliged to root out each Japanese soldier the hard way, one at time, using small arms, grenades, flamethrowers and satchel charges. It took 30 days of bloody fighting and 10,000 US casualties to finally secure Peleliu island. An island, remember, that only measured six square miles.

Fast forward to Vietnam. During the course of the conflict, over 2.5 million US servicemen and women served and fought in a country that occupied 127,000 square miles. US aircraft dropped over seven million tons of bombs — three and a half times more than dropped by the US in WWII. The CIA employed some of the first electronic warfare sensors to detect the movement of VC troops and supplies. Agent Orange and similar chemicals were used to defoliate the thick jungle canopy that hid enemy movement. Clandestine US patrols were sent into neutral Laos and Cambodia to interdict VC movement. The US Army, via helicopters, took the role of a fire brigade responding to enemy incursions. Yet for all the effort, blood and treasure spent, the movement and supply of VC guerillas in South Vietnam was never successfully stopped. There was simply too much real estate, and not enough boots on the ground to secure it. As a result, the battle for the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese was lost. They knew that when nightfall came, the American soldiers went back to their bases, and then the VC would come. The Marines took a different approach; implementing the Combined Action Program (CAPS) with a squad of 11 Marines and a corpsman taking up residence in a village to provide local security. This method showed promise, as it gained the confidence of the local villagers. But due of the lack of troops available — notwithstanding over a quarter of a million US servicemen stationed in Vietnam, and the draft being in force — it was found to be too little and too late. As Marine CAP veteran Jack Cunningham stated:

"Although CAP was nicknamed “A Peace Corps with Rifles”…CAP was considered a suicide squad! The reason Marines were being assigned to CAP units was there weren’t enough volunteers. Too many CAP units were getting wiped out. Eleven Marines and one Navy Corpsman living in a village of thousands can get a little hairy at times."

With these historical precedents in mind, the recent announcement by Defense Secretary Gates to send 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan sounds, well, rather lame. These troops will increase the current US forces strength to a total of 58,000. In military terms, this represents numerically a single Army Corps. These troops, combined with a smattering of NATO/ISAF allies of around 30,000, bring a combined total of 88,000 soldiers that are responsible for securing a quarter of a million square miles (about the size of Texas, and twice the size of Vietnam) of mountainous terrain in the north and desert in the south. Doing the math, I come up with about 2.84 square miles per soldier. Since standard military doctrine requires a least a battalion of 600 solders to cover a one-mile wide front, this is a tall order indeed. And that is assuming that every soldier in Afghanistan is a front-line combat infantryman, and not assigned to a staff, medical, or supporting role.

To make things worse, landlocked Afghanistan is surrounded by no less than six countries. From left to right, we have Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. If the state of Texas struggles with stemming the flow of illegal immigrants just south of it’s border with Mexico, how well do you think this small US/NATO force can guard the borders of Afghanistan from incoming recruits and supplies from all points on the compass? I didn’t think so, either.

Sending 20,000 troops is akin to trying to pay off a loan shark with pocket change found in the family couch. It’s nothing more that a token force that will change little in the security in Afghanistan. General Kiernan, the US commander in Afghanistan, and Secretary Gates both admit as much:

"Let’s put it in historical perspective — this country has been at war for the last 30 years,” McKiernan said at the town hall-style meeting, referring to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as the starting point. “Thirty years. That’s not going to stop overnight. So if your question is might it get worse before it gets better, the answer is yes, it might.”

When Gates was asked if the conflict would last 10 or 15 years, he made a comparison with the decades-long Cold War.

“I think that we are in many respects in an ideological conflict with violent extremists,” he said. “The last ideological conflict we were in lasted about 45 years.”

Sounds like they are channeling McCain’s "100 years in Iraq" slogan, doesn’t it?

This troop reinforcement reminds me of the disastrous decision by the Great Britain in September of 1941 to defend her crown colony of Hong Kong. They knew the island was well-nigh indefensible, yet to save face with Chinese leader Kai-Shek, they sent two Canadian regiments, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, and The Royal Rifles of Canada, as sacrificial lambs to maintain Britain’s honor. Following the Japanese invasion, the combined British, Indian, and Canadian forces were overwhelmed by superior numbers and defeated in two weeks. The surviving troops spent the war as POWs — And some of those failed to survive by the war’s end. But hey! they fought for King and Country, and for the Honor of the Regiment, didn’t they? So it was a small price to pay to fight in a battle that your government knew ahead of time you couldn’t win, eh? Even now, Canada has 1000 troops serving in Afghanistan as a symbol of their support for the "war on terrorism." Notwithstanding the sterling qualities of the Canadian soldiers, this tiny force merely represents a political sop by Canada, as well as from the other contributing NATO countries. So why are the US and NATO pussy-footin’ around with such small quantities of troops? Jon Stewart of the Daily Show, gives an insightful answer during an interview with Bill Moyers concerning the then proposed 2007 "Troop Surge" for Iraq.

JON STEWART: You know, one of the things that I do think government counts on is that people are busy. And it’s very difficult to mobilize a busy and relatively affluent country, unless it’s over really crucial — you know, foundational issues. That come sort of sort of a tipping point.


JON STEWART: But war that hasn’t affected us here, in the way that you would imagine a five-year war would affect a country. I think that’s why they’re so really — here’s the disconnect. It’s sort of this odd and I’ve always had this problem with the rationality of it. That the President says, “We are in the fight for a way of life. This is the greatest battle of our generation, and of the generations to come. “And, so what I’m going to do is you know, Iraq has to be won, or our way of life ends, and our children and our children’s children all suffer. So, what I’m gonna do is send 10,000 more troops to Baghdad.”

So, there’s a disconnect there between — you’re telling me this is fight of our generation, and you’re going to increase troops by 10 percent. And that’s gonna do it. I’m sure what he would like to do is send 400,000 more troops there, but he can’t, because he doesn’t have them. And the way to get that would be to institute a draft. And the minute you do that, suddenly the country’s not so damn busy anymore. And then they really fight back, and then the whole thing falls apart. So, they have a really delicate balance to walk between keeping us relatively fearful, but not so fearful that we stop what we’re doing and really examine how it is that they’ve been waging this.

Short of putting the entire US on a wartime footing with massive conscription, economic rationing, and increased taxation, there is no way to win either militarily or politically in Afghanistan. Warfare has an enormous appetite, and cannot be sated by mere brigades and battalions sent as political hors d’u0153uvres. The other alternative, the only viable and sane alternative, is to withdraw. The British and the Soviet Union during the course of their expansionist periods, wisely cut their losses, and pulled out of Afghanistan. To think we can succeed in Afghanistan, where they failed, is nothing more than practicing that kind of historical (or hysterical, take your pick) insanity where you keep doing the same thing over and over, and expect different results.