The Taliban have begun to hit back in Helmand province, making their presence felt again in Marjah despite the 4,000-strong International Security Assistance Force and Afghan security forces presence there, and recent reports indicate the militant group has forced Afghan security forces from the neighborhood of Shah Karez in Musa Qala.
U.S. Army School of Advanced Studies: Increasing Small Arms Lethality in AfghanistanSTRATFOR is not responsible for the content of other Web sites. In the past week, it has become clear that the Taliban are indeed prepared to contest recent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) gains in Helmand province. Some 4,000 ISAF troops, Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police forces remain in and around the farming community of Marjah, the objective of the Operation Moshtarak assault in February. But three to four improvised explosive devices (IEDs) explode every day (though the U.S. military claims that more are successfully disabled than explode), demonstrating that Taliban fighters still have considerable freedom of action to manufacture and emplace them. Similarly, reports of intimidation and subversion in Marjah have begun to emerge, with none other than the new governor put in place by Kabul admitting that Taliban loyalists roam the streets at night, holding secret meetings in local houses, asking residents to identify those supporting ISAF and Afghan government efforts and posting "night letters" warning against such assistance. One man reportedly has been beheaded. In short, the real counterinsurgency battle has just begun in Marjah, and it is not yet clear whether the population can be sufficiently protected by the available forces to the point where perceptions and political realities can be shifted in a meaningful way — especially on the short timetable outlined by the Americans. Progress there will warrant close scrutiny as the tactics of Operation Moshtarak are replicated elsewhere. U.S. and NATO forces are planning a slower, methodical clearing of the city of Kandahar, and more Marjah-like operations in the north beginning in Kunduz province. (click here to enlarge image) Meanwhile, reports also emerged of Afghan security forces withdrawing from the Shah Karez neighborhood of the village of Musa Qala farther north in Helmand province. Currently run by a former local Taliban commander now working for the Kabul government, fierce fighting has been reported in the area recently. The Musa Qala area is relatively undefended compared to an area like Marjah. This is a dynamic of fundamental importance. As we discussed last week, the ISAF has the raw capability to mass its forces and control any area it so chooses. But as Marjah has clearly demonstrated, the difficulty lies not with clearing out the insurgents but with keeping them out and disrupting their social network as well (no easy task for a foreign power facing an inherently local phenomenon). And at the same time, with only limited forces available to be deployed, massing them in one place — like Marjah — requires removing them from others. This week saw a series of developments that clearly demonstrate that the Taliban has not been defeated in Marjah and that, as per classic guerrilla strategy, the Taliban will also attack where forces are not so massed (as compared to Marjah), as they have in Shah Karez. A U.S. Army soldier firing an M14 Enhanced Battle Rifle A report March 22 also formally announced that U.S. Army squads are now deploying to Afghanistan with two designated marksmen (rather than one), each equipped with a modified 7.62 mm M14 known as an Enhanced Battle Rifle. Most members in a squad are equipped with 5.56 mm M4s and M249 Squad Automatic Weapons, which have an effective range well below that of the 7.62 round. (This was criticized in a recent study published by the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies.) According to that report, half of all U.S. engagements in Afghanistan are conducted beyond 300 meters — and the standard Army squad is neither trained nor equipped to decisively win tactical engagements much beyond that distance. The additional designated marksmen should certainly help, but the issues the report addresses run much deeper than that. In Vietnam, the United States won tactical engagements decisively and consistently. This is not to say that the United States is not also doing so today, but the longer range at which engagements are often conducted has always been a challenge in Afghanistan. The Soviets were known to carry 65-pound AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers (the weight includes the tripod) as well as ammunition on foot patrols in order to be able to establish fire superiority at range if engaged. American patrols can be reinforced with 7.62 mm M240 machine guns and 60 mm mortars. As winter ends and foliage begins to fill out in Afghanistan, insurgents will have more opportunities for concealment of IEDs and staging ambushes. Fighting in Afghanistan's more rural terrain will warrant ongoing scrutiny as both the American surge and the year's fighting season both kick into high gear.