The U.S. Military's Campaign in Afghanistan

Part IV - The Ground

Note: These nodes were in preparation several days before the U.S.-led air campaign began on October 6th. As a result, several of my assumptions and conclusions are fairly dramatically out of whack with reality. I offer them in their original form, however, as an example of a ‘back of the envelope’ study of a warfighting problem.

-The Custodian

Much has been made of the special conditions that exist in Afghanistan, and how they might affect the success or survival of any foreign forces operating there. Briefly, then, here is a (incomplete) list of some of the most relevant ones; I will refer to the complete picture of the theater as the‘terrain, acknowledging that I am stretching the word to include factors not normally included in its use.

There's no there, there

Afghanistan is a forbidding area of the planet. A ridgeline of extremely large mountains runs across the middle of the country; where there isn't desert, there are valleys and canyons containing caves and tunnels which local forces may know well. The population of Afghanistan is already teetering on the brink of starvation and maintains no better than subsistence agriculture anywhere in the country; that subsistence is usually achievable only through constant migration for grazing resources. Large-scale war will disrupt that. Water is scarce. The weather can range from murderously hot in the deserts to blinding sandstorms and on to fog and snow in the highlands.

What does all this mean? It means (for purposes of this discussion) that the U.S. will need to fight ‘come as you are.’ In order to maintain a fighting force based in Afghanistan, the U.S. military would need to ship in all the personnel, forces, equipment and the steady stream of consumable supplies required to function. No resources can be had locally, even if locals were willing to sell them; they simply don't exist.

Location, location, location!

Afghanistan is a difficult place for the U.S. to fight in not only because of what it is like, but because of where it is. Modern warfare, practiced as the U.S. military does (and make no mistake, they’re not about to change their playbook on the eve of the game) requires an enormous amount of supply and service support. Logisticians refer to this as the ‘teeth to tail’ ratio: a value of 10 means that it will take approximately ten persons working non-combatant jobs to allow each soldier to fight at the front. Given the amount of supply and specialized industry employed by the U.S. armed forces, that number (once stockpiles of spares and ammunition get low) can grow exponentially, albeit not in-theater.

In addition to the people, U.S. forces require a staggering amount of materiel to fight at all, and an even larger amount to maintain continuous operations. The exigencies of modern transport being what they are, this means that for all practical purposes, the U.S. needs secure seaport access in the combat area in order to keep these extremely ‘fat’ pipelines running. Afghanistan, however, is land-locked; this does not help us at all.

Some of their neighbors have waterfront property, but that doesn’t look to help all that much. Iran? Not likely. Pakistan is our only real choice, but it appears that the Musharraf government is already coping with popular unrest over its support for the U.S.; supply convoys of American gear and troops flowing through Pakistan would exacerbate the situation.

While the bordering FSSRs would likely cooperate, they themselves do not have port access, and their transportation infrastructure is questionable at best. Some of that infrastructure built to support the Soviet operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s might be usable (airfields, rail) but much will have degraded.

Some examples to illustrate the scale of the problem: during the relief operations for Rwandan refugees, when the only demand was U.S. airlift for relief supplies, the U.S. Air Force took exactly 36 hours to suck every last drop of available jet fuel] from the center of Africa, buying it for use in C-141 Starlifters. A tanker aircraft was permanently stationed in the air above the destination airfield.

A U.S. armor division undertaking combat operations can use up to and beyond a thousand tons of supply per day. During the Gulf War, the air campaign was consuming 200,000 tons of supply just for the Air Force component. While Air ops tend to take more fuel and munitions than ground operations, this is offset by the much, much larger number of individual soldiers and their requirements in a ground operation. As a rough data point, the U.S. shipped 2.6 million tons of materiel to the Gulf TOE over the course of Desert Shield/Desert Storm. The maximum carrying capacity of the newest aircraft in the U.S. transport inventory, the C-17 Globemaster III, is just 170,900 lbs. This sounds like a lot, until you compare it (at ~ 85.5 tons) to the 200,000 tons per day required by the Air Force!

So airlifting supply is not a good option, at least, not for heavy forces. A lighter force, while better off, is still not out of the woods. The method that U.S. forces use to increase the survivability of a ‘light’ force (and remember that even these light forces likely include some tanks and armored personnel carriers, excepting the ‘light’ brigades of the light divisions) involve mobility and overwhelming firepower, both of which require fuel, ammunition, lubricants, parts, etc. in large quantitites.

Moving on to the actual land in Afghanistan, there isn’t much to help. The frequency of broken ground means a surfeit of ambush spots and hiding places for al-Qaeda. In the mountains, American vehicular firepower will be less useful. As a result, the likely means of force protection for U.S. troops will be the massive application of fire support, both air and artillery. Learning lessons from the debacle in Mogadishu, American special forces have a strong affinity for the availability (if not the use) of heavy backup.

While artillery is useful for suppression in this terrain, the number of hiding spots may make it almost impossible to do more with it without resorting to unconventional weapons, something the U.S. is extremely unlikely to do (at least, first). In addition, artillery is a voracious consumer of logistical resources; ammunition is heavy, and must travel all the way to within howitzer range of the front. There have been improvements in self-propelled artillery of late, such as the Paladin, but these units will themselves need security elements as they are vulnerable to infantry or guerrilla attack.

In any case, the constant thread here is “this won’t be easy.” It is certainly possible (‘it’ being the conduct of military ops inside Afghanistan). The key factor is the degree of commitment and availability of scarce resources, like transportation.

Lighter forces will have an easier time, being able to survive at longer distances from supply and basing points. I would expect at least one heavy unit to be available for reinforcement (because the Taliban are supposed to have a fair number of tanks, even if we’re not certain they run); however, that unit will probably be drawn from armor and mechanized infantry organic to the lighter divisions that will be used. The simple truth is that it would simply be extremely difficult (I hesitate to use the word ‘impossible,’ but it’s not so far off) to deploy and support a large armored force in that theater. Even in the gulf war, with much larger U.S. forces available, heavy forces coming by rail partway from Europe, and several high-capacity, active ports (not to mention a dramatically reduced transportation requirement for POL supplies!) it took the Coalition over a month before the forces deployed were reasonably capable of stopping a determined assault. It took three months (at least) to field a force able to carry out offensive operations with reasonable chances of success.

To be sure, there will be little for heavy forces to do in this situation other than hulk around as the ‘big stick.’ In the Gulf War, the Coalition faced a large and (we thought) comparatively well-organized, armed and trained mechanized and armored force. Here, on the other hand, there is little mechanization and less armor; the enemy will likely rely on evasion, ambush and guerrilla tactics, against which (as the Soviets learned the hard way in these very hills) massive local heavy presence is not terrifically effective. Hopefully, the U.S. and its partners will realize this and utilize massive fire support to protect lighter, more nimble forces as they seek to root out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

It is also important that the United States clearly set down its goals ahead of time! Perhaps the largest disadvantage the Soviet forces faced was the same one that faced Americans in Vietnam; rather than a known, fixed achievable goal, they were attempting to preserve a government that had fundamentally lost the control and support of its polity. Once a government reaches that point, no amount of external firepower can preserve it indefinitely if the opposition is determined.

In this case, our goal is quite different from the Soviets’; we seek to capture a small group of people and knock down a (relatively) small-scale infrastructure. Note that both these goals are positive goals; that is, we seek to carry out or achieve a pre-known event or condition. Once that goal is reached, our interest terminates, and our forces can withdraw. In Vietnam (and in Afghanistan, in the Soviets’ case) there was no such exit strategy. Armed force was being used to prop up a system; however, as the system crumbled away, the demands on that force increased simply to ensure its own survival, and eventually the equation overbalanced (I love E2; I can just assert stuff like that).

At this point, it’s time to move on to my recommended course of action, as opposed to my predictions.

Back to Part III | Ahead to Part V

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