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We Heart Targeting! or: Why the Army’s Offensive Operations Offend Me

Last Wednesday, I used an analogy about “swords and shields” to describe the the two types of violence in a counter-insurgency. A lot of “war-is-war”iors want us to use the sword more in Afghanistan. They don’t realize that we already use the sword plenty.

We just aren’t very good at it.

Counter-force operations are primarily the domain of special operations troops, mainly Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Delta Force/CAG, Army Rangers and other units who fall under the Joint Special Operations Command. Conventional troops try to get in on the counter-force missions too. Whoever is doing it, we aren’t killing nearly enough Taliban/insurgents to win the war outright.

Here are a few problems with our counter-force/offensive operations in Afghanistan.

1. Lack of intelligence. Our “special” troops don’t have access to the same level of intelligence as our maneuver forces. A special forces team usually works in the same size area as a conventional battalion. That battalion has over thirteen platoons--with attachments--constantly patrolling and collecting human intelligence. Yet special operations troops don’t mix well with conventional troops, particularly when they come from outside a province to conduct an operation. Conventional forces usually don’t share information with the special operations folks. This means bad intelligence. Bad intelligence means dead civilians.

Look back through all the allegations of atrocities or major civilian casualties in the last few years. They almost always involve special operations troops. Conventional units live and patrol where they conduct operations; they almost always know where the civilians live or don’t live.

Even conventional troops suffer from bad intelligence. Our dearth of trained and experienced human intelligence collectors--especially non-contractors willing to leave the wire--hampers operations on a daily basis. Further, none of our human intelligence folks speak Dari or Pashtun (or so small a minority as to be insignificant).

2. We’re too heavy. Think heavy as in mechanized. Whenever the “special” guys go anywhere, they go with helicopters, AC-130 gun ships, and often a hundred Afghan special operators (who aren’t that bad really). U.S. conventional forces do the same thing, usually without an AC-130, and with regular Afghanistan National Army folks.

While the exact details are classified, ISAF sets minimum patrol sizes--either number of vehicles or number of men who have to go on the patrol. While the actual details are subject to operational security, understand that this drastically hampers the ability of U.S. forces to surprise the enemy. Helicopters make noise. Vehicles make noise. Any number of ground troops over six makes a bunch of noise. Heavy equipment, like body armor, makes noise.

Noise does not equal surprise.

3. It is tough terrain to kill the enemy. The terrain in Afghanistan provides the enemy with excellent stand off. They can see us from a long way off, and respond accordingly, especially if we are rolling heavy. If the Afghan insurgents used Russian built tanks, no problem. As irregular fighters, it is devastating.

In Konar province, the enemy hid out on mountaintops. We knew this. Trying to get there was the hard part. Even for special operations, getting to these areas with hundreds of people usually yields no bad guys. The helicopters flying in give everything away.

I have a solution to these dilemmas on Wednesday. It’s risky. It’s not terribly original. It would violate ISAF minimum patrol requirements, but it would work.

thirteen comments

I’m no expert, but this post sort of ends the George Will and assorted other conservatives argument that we need to pull out conventional troops and only use the special forces.

If we do that, we’ll just be mistargeting a lot of people.

Very good post, but I will caution again that it is not a zero-sum argument. There is a huge difference between SOF and SF. Actually, they’re apples and oranges.

Instead of CF occupying or SOF conducting CT/CF, we can conduct FID in A’stan to advise and assist the Afghan government in fighting their own fight. It’s a completely different mindset.

See also Philippines, Colombia, etc….

This COA is an SF, Green Beret, mission.

I generally agree- though MikeF is right about FID.

In my opinion, SOF were overly focused on the CT/CF mission in the past and a lot of institutional knowledge was lost (or de-emphasized compared to trigger-pulling). I feel that things are now swinging back the other way – so far that you not only have SF, but the rest of the SOF community conducting FID.

This article (a bit dated) briefly explains some of this – http://www.armytimes.com/news/2010/07/ar..

Yeah I am right in the middle of the SOF/SF debate, so I know the differences. I think the example of an SF team is illustrative, about one team for a battalion-sized AO is what I have seen. For the other SOF people, their opportunities to gather intel on the ground is even more limited than SF teams.

I have more comments about SF conducting FID (basically they should have been the ones doing the ETT/MTT mission from day 1) but those will have to wait until I ETS from the Army.

With regard to #3, I see large similarities here as in Vietnam, the VC and NVA could disappear into the jungle played the exact same role as a barrier. In cities, like in Iraq or Somalia, the enemy uses the population to blend and hide. I understand that the mountains pose a dilemma in Afghanistan, but terrain is always a problem in military operations, especially when you enemy knows it better than you do.

Can’t wait – I love new ideas that include violating arbitrarily-imposed requirements.

“when the enemy knows it better than you” could be a book title Matty P

Awsome post. I’ll adress my comments to each of your individual points.

1. My sense is that the biggest issue SOF have dealt with in the last 9 years is overconfidence in technology and dismissal of the human element in intelligence gathering and sharing. I’m surprised there wouldn’t be more emphasis on liason with conventional forces in an operational area and involving a battalion’s intelligence officers in operational planning directly.

2. It would seem to me that the biggest reason most operations in Afghanistan go in so heavy is safety. I don’t know the stats, but I’m guessing heavy operations/patrols typically take lighter casualties, if only because everybody clears out first or chooses not to fight on such terms. No ISAF commander wants to risk heavier casualties going light, so everything goes as heavy as possible. Which would be why the regulations are written the way they are. More casualties, more public pressure, can’t risk that. I’m sure this is all pretty obvious to everyone, but it’s a hard calculus to make, and it looks like no one wants to take the risk.

3. As far as I know the 10th Mountain Division doesn’t really do much mountain warfare training, does it? And the US military doesn’t maintain a level of mountain warfare knowledge/equipment anywhere close to that of the Indians or Pakistanis, do we? Which seems shocking to me, given that we’ve been involved in a war in a country of which a good portion is ruggedly mountainous and involves a good deal of combat in these areas for nine years…

@Mike F – Nice point, though I think SF has dealt with a lot of the same issues as the rest of the SOF community since the initial invasion (most of my understanding of which I’m taking from Horse Soldiers so if there are details I’m missing, please fill me in). One of the biggest problems that comes to mind is the language issue, with 5th SFG sharing deployments with all of the others and their focuses on other languages. To boot, as far as I know, even 5th didn’t have that much of a focus on Dari/Pashto, so everyone has been playing catchup, limiting what is conceptually supposed to be a strong suit in relations to local forces.

@ Michael C – Isn’t this the idea behind the SF ODA structure? Although a lot of forward deployed ODAs seem to be working mostly on their own and less with Afghan battalions and militias as would seem to make sense.

WEll put together.
Great write on Ajhazeera which is appropriate.


@Nick-Yeah I have some comments about SOF and SF, but am waiting until I get out of the Army to publish those. But some SF teams work with their conventional brothers, many do not. The issue is separate chains of command and planning.

Completely fascinating stuff, from a civilian pov. I get lost in the acronyms in the comments (also fascinating, but what the heck is FID?) I’m appalled to learn abt the lack of communication between conventional & special forces. Turf wars? Two more questions: how big is a SF Team? What is the difference between SF & SOF? Thanks.


Lack of communication = failure

There is a necessity that is ultimately disregarded by the Chain of Command.

Always listen to the “boots on the ground”… Officers making calls hundreds and thousands of miles away (JSOC) have no idea what the “boots on the ground” are emersed in (most of the time).

Another problem I didn’t get into, but a good point.