Stalemate in Afghanistan

Recent Features

Features | Security | Central Asia

Stalemate in Afghanistan

In the first of a series of dispatches from Afghanistan, David Axe reports on how superior US air power isn’t bringing victory any closer.

LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan—The bomb was buried beneath a foot or more of hard-packed earth on the road through Padkhabi-Shana, 50 miles south of Kabul. How long it had been there, only its creators knew for sure. But even with their sophisticated sensory equipment, a team of US engineers passed over the bomb’s location at least once without detecting it.

Sometime on the afternoon of March 19, an insurgent fighter riding a red motorcycle rode up to where the bomb was located and activated it before abandoning his bike and fleeing for safety. He was no doubt in a hurry because a force of US, Jordanian and Afghan soldiers from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force had just entered Padkhabi-Shana, and would be passing over the bomb very soon.

That same afternoon, the ISAF convoy rolled past the abandoned bike and over the bomb. What happened next—the twisted metal, the serious injuries—was an uncomfortable reminder of the reality that coalition forces in Afghanistan face on a daily basis nearly a decade after the US-led invasion swiftly toppled the Taliban regime.

Extremists and ISAF troops operating in Afghanistan both possess unique battlefield advantages over the other. ‘Asymmetric’ is how Western analysts describe the conflict. But neither side’s advantage is decisive.

The extremists’ ability to improvise vehicle-demolishing explosive devices allows them to limit ISAF’s movements and therefore its ability to influence Afghanistan’s development. But ISAF’s quick-reacting aircraft prevent the insurgents from capitalizing on the chaos sown by their increasingly powerful bombs.

‘Air power is one of the asymmetric advantages we have in Afghanistan,’ says Lt. Col. Brad Lyons, commander of the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, deployed to Afghanistan last year.

The result is a stalemate at the lowest level of the Afghanistan conflict.

Wars are waged on three levels of increasing breadth: tactical, operational, and strategic. But at every level, the ISAF coalition faces major challenges that cast doubt over the alliance’s strategy for bringing the conflict to an acceptable resolution. Time is running out as voters, elected officials and even senior generals grow impatient. The United States, ISAF’s senior member, will begin withdrawing some of its about 100,000 troops this summer; number two member Britain has vowed to quit Afghanistan before 2015.

One way or another, the war is ending. But if it’s going to end on terms favourable to ISAF members and the Afghan government in Kabul, something must change—and fast.  

Air Dominance

The trigger for the Padkhabi-Shana bomb might well have been pressure-activated, because it exploded underneath the front tires of the first ISAF vehicle to pass. The blast sheered the engine and axels off the US Army Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected truck and heaved its armoured crew compartment 20 feet forward.

Of the seven people inside the so-called MRAP vehicle, five were injured—two of them seriously. The convoy came to a rapid halt as the shock and noise of the blast faded. American, Jordanian and Afghan soldiers climbed out of their trucks and raced to help their wounded comrades; others radioed back to their headquarters at Forward Operating Base Shank, requesting air support.

The reaction was swift and effective. Medics from the convoy had just finished extricating the injured from the MRAP’s wreckage when two US Army UH-60 Blackhawk medical helicopters arrived overhead. The Blackhawks landed in a field alongside the destroyed truck and quickly snatched up the bomb victims. The choppers sped away toward FOB Shank, their departure covered by a pair of AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships.

The Apaches remained overhead of the patrol after the Blackhawks had disappeared over the horizon. Under the watchful eyes of the Apache crews and their powerful infrared and daylight sensors, no one attempted a follow-on attack on the patrol.

That’s a common theme of Afghanistan operations. When ISAF troops are alone on the ground, they’re vulnerable to attack. As soon as air power enters the equation, the advantage shifts.

Back in October 2009, a Taliban squad ambushed a US Army patrol in the vicinity of Baraki Barak district south of Kabul. An IED wrecked one MRAP; Taliban foot soldiers opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The Americans and an attached squad of Afghan soldiers fired back. Tracers stitched the landscape.

For 10 minutes the fight was even. Then the Apaches showed up overhead, and laced the Taliban position with 30-millimeter cannon fire. A US team sent to investigate the ambush found trails of blood, indicating the surviving Taliban had dragged away several bodies.     

When Apaches are insufficient or unavailable, US Air Force sergeants attached to most ISAF battalions—known as Joint Terminal Air Controllers—can call in a jet fighter or, less commonly, a long-range US bomber flying in from a Middle East base.  

‘An IED went off where I was watching,’ recalls 1st Lt. Michael Pacini, an F-16 pilot with the 388th Fighter Wing, deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. ‘A whole platoon was hit. I went down and did what’s called a “show of force”—let the bad guy know we’re here, say now stop what you’re doing or we’re going kill you. Our presence made them leave.’

But while the coalition’s fearsome air power represents its most lethal capability, it won’t be enough to win the war outright. ‘You could kill the enemy from now for a hundred years and you wouldn’t be one step close to winning this war,’ says Air Force Brig. Gen. Steve Kwast.

Desperation on the Ground

So how exactly can the coalition ‘win’ in Afghanistan? Victory means ‘connecting the people…to their government,’ says US Army 1st Lt. Heiko Deriese, a development coordinator with an ISAF task force in Logar Province.

And this, according to US Army Capt. Paul Rothlisberger, requires security on the ground. ‘Security enables everything else,’ he says.  

But ISAF’s efforts to provide such security are constantly stymied by a rising tide of lethal bombs. After a decade of proliferation, NATO now identifies around 1,300 IEDs every month. These explosive devices have accounted for 90 percent of the roughly 1,100 Americans killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

US Army Capt. Brandon Drobenak and his soldiers from the 541st Engineer Company are on the front line of the IED war. Every day, the engineers ride out in sophisticated armoured vehicles fitted with scanners capable of detecting a wide assortment of bomb types. They call their mission ‘route clearance.’

‘What we have here for route clearance is leaps and bounds over what we had two years ago,’ says 541st Sgt. Leslie Pittman.

But the state of the art technology barely allows the Americans to keep up with insurgent bombers. For every Taliban measure, there’s a US counter-measure, and a Taliban counter-counter-measure. In the early years, most IEDs were old artillery shells triggered by a Taliban observer connected to the bomb using a copper wire.

As ISAF introduced new technologies to detect bombs, the extremists added new varieties. Today there are metal-, wood- and plastic-encased IEDs, filled with either explosive fertilizer or a military-grade charge and triggered by a pressure plate, a copper command wire or radio.

Earlier this year, the tail chasing of bomber and counter-bomber saw Drobenak and Pittman resort to the oldest of bomb-detecting tactics. These ‘slow and methodical’ methods, as Drobenak describes them, were on display during a March 18 patrol outside Logar’s capital of Pul-e-Alam.

While the scanner vehicles worked the periphery of the area with their sensors, Drobenak, Pittman and three other soldiers inched along a dirt road, sweeping side to side with World War II-style metal detectors. When the detectors whined, indicating buried metal, Pittman and another soldier knelt, unsheathed a bayonet and gently probed the earth, hoping to identify the object.

Most of the time, the metal was garbage or old piping. On March 18, Drobenak’s people patrolled for several hours and found no IEDs. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t there. The next day, a patrol would be bombed outside Padkhabi-Shana, just a few miles away.

Drobenak admits that always simply looking for buried bombs is a losing battle. Instead, ISAF must move ‘left of the boom’—that is, find and attack the people who design and place the bombs, before their handiwork can threaten ISAF troops.

That means collecting evidence from bomb sites, following up on tips from local informants, and building legal cases against suspected bombers. ‘We’re going after the guys and resources, so we’re not finding the same IEDs every day,’ Drobenak says.

But is this new approach just another counter-measure against the Taliban’s highly adaptive explosives operations? There are, after all, counter-counter-measures to left-of-the-boom efforts, too. Like any veteran criminal, an experienced bomb maker learns to cover his tracks.

Several years ago, when the US military began attacking the financial networks tied to al-Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups, the financiers reacted by limiting their communications and abandoning electronic transactions in favour of cash transported by couriers. Afghan bomb cells could adopt similar discipline to limit their exposure to ISAF monitoring.

The reality is that as the bombers continue to adapt, the stalemate is likely to continue, with NATO controlling the air and the Taliban and other extremists holding the initiative on the ground. With the battlefield in gridlock, the coalition can’t count on winning the war through military means. Time is running out to find another strategy.