Tread Carefully: How IEDs nullify much of the western technological advantage in Afghanistan

Tread Carefully: How IEDs nullify much of the western technological advantage in Afghanistan, by Major Danny Sjursen.

We walked in a single file. Not because it was tactically sound. It wasn’t—at least according to standard infantry doctrine. Patrolling southern Afghanistan in column formation limited maneuverability, made it difficult to mass fire, and exposed us to enfilading machine-gun bursts. Still, in 2011, in the Pashmul District of Kandahar Province, single file was our best bet.

The reason was simple enough: improvised bombs not just along roads but seemingly everywhere. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Who knew?

Our “news” never shows any of this

That’s right, the local “Taliban”—a term so nebulous it’s basically lost all meaning—had managed to drastically alter U.S. Army tactics with crude, homemade explosives stored in plastic jugs. And believe me, this was a huge problem. Cheap, ubiquitous, and easy to bury, those anti-personnel Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, soon littered the “roads,” footpaths, and farmland surrounding our isolated outpost. To a greater extent than a number of commanders willingly admitted, the enemy had managed to nullify our many technological advantages for a few pennies on the dollar (or maybe, since we’re talking about the Pentagon, it was pennies on the millions of dollars).

Truth be told, it was never really about our high-tech gear. Instead, American units came to rely on superior training and discipline, as well as initiative and maneuverability, to best their opponents. And yet those deadly IEDs often seemed to even the score, being both difficult to detect and brutally effective.

So there we were, after too many bloody lessons, meandering along in carnival-like, Pied Piper-style columns. Bomb-sniffing dogs often led the way, followed by a couple of soldiers carrying mine detectors, followed by a few explosives experts. Only then came the first foot soldiers, rifles at the ready. Anything else was, if not suicide, then at least grotesquely ill-advised.

And mind you, our improvised approach didn’t always work either. To those of us out there, each patrol felt like an ad hoc round of Russian roulette. In that way, those IEDs completely changed how we operated, slowing movement, discouraging extra patrols, and distancing us from what was then considered the ultimate “prize”: the local villagers, or what was left of them anyway. In a counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign, which is what the U.S. military was running in Afghanistan in those years, that was the definition of defeat.

Western military power is good for killing people, not for suppressing an insurgency where insurgent fighters hide among a population who must not be harmed.

Countries and borders are great things. We can live in our countries, and others can live in theirs, without interfering with each other. The problems when incompatible cultures interfere with each other are immense…

The West should get out of Afghanistan immediately. The locals there are fighting the foreign invaders, and will of course do so indefinitely. The Vietnamese didn’t appreciate an arrogant bunch of armed foreigners lording it over them in their country either — ideology had almost nothing to do with it. The original point of invading Afghanistan was to teach them not to blow up buildings in New York, and I think that point was adequately made by 2002.

hat-tip Stephen Neil