Afghanistan: A Soldier's View and Recommendations to win

Posted in Afghanistan | 06-Aug-09 | Author: Dieter Farwick

"Helicopters can support the combat units with their high flexibility and the capability of surprise attacks from various directions"
"Helicopters can support the combat units with their high flexibility and the capability of surprise attacks from various directions"
The growing number of soldiers killed and wounded in action in Afghanistan has intensified the public debate in the 40 troop-sending countries of the "coalition of the willing". More and more people ask whether these sacrifices are justified regarding the aims and objectives of this expensive political and military commitment.

This discussion comes as no surprise. Many governments of the countries sending troops have failed to convince their citizens that the commitment in Afghanistan is in their own national vital interest.

Afghanistan under the Taliban was a breeding ground and springboard for terrorist groups, such as al-Qaeda - leading to mass murder on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, D.C. Without cracking the Taliban regime and destroying al-Qaeda's safe haven, the world would have been faced with many more of these attacks. Pakistan would have become the next victim. A nuclear weapons state or non-state under al-Qaeda's regime - a nightmare. In addition, the terrorists would have targeted the Achilles' heel of the Western developed countries: Energy supply. More than 75% of the world's oil and gas reserves lie between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. What a worst-case scenario it would be regarding the oil and gas taps if a terrorist group such as al-Qaeda were to get its hands on nuclear weapons.

Without the commitment in Afghanistan and the binding of many terrorists there the war in Iraq would have been over for years - with the insurgents as winners. On the other hand, the war in Iraq became priority Nr.1 - neglecting Afghanistan after the quick military victory in 2001 and 2002.

At present, the troop reductions in Iraq free resources, troops and equipment for Afghanistan. A defeat in Afghanistan would humiliate the US and its partners - with bitter consequences for the world order and the people in Afghanistan. Therefore, the commitment is justified and was not a war of choice, but rather one of necessity. But a lot went wrong over the past eight years. Another subject of the current debate - especially in Great Britain´- is the issue of adequate force protection, armament and equipment -e.g. helicopters. It goes without saying that the war cannot be won by the military alone. There must be orchestrated strategic and operational planning between the military and the non-military.

I am aware that the war in Afghanistan is closely linked to developments in Pakistan - and vice versa. I am also aware of the difficult political situation in Afghanistan - without any experience of a central nation state and Western-style democracy and the widespread corruption combined with the drug trafficking. However - as a former force commander and a former Chief of Operations at NATO-HQ level, I would like to focus primarily on the military aspects. But the primacy of politics forces me to start with the political level.

Political decisions and planning

The process normally starts with a decision at the highest political level to counter a regional conflict and crisis with a military operation - at UNSC level. The next step would be to make a request to an organization that has the capacity to act adequately - be it NATO or the African Union.

The starting document is the political mandate, which should ideally comprise: Desired end state, criteria for success and an exit strategy - not a deadline but with the evaluation "Mission accomplished" or "Mission impossible." A complete UN mandate is desirable but in the real political world obviously not achievable. I cannot remember any operation of this kind that was started with a clear and complete mandate. The military organization has to start the planning and the executing of the operation without a clear mandate and under time pressure. A mistake? Yes, but there is no real choice. The mandate has to be steadily adjusted during the operation. This was the case in Afghanistan, too. The operation began with a "Kabul-centric solution." Later, the mandate was extended to all regions of Afghanistan - in combination with the US Operation Enduring Freedom.

In the case of NATO, there were two additional deficits prior to the commitment in Afghanistan. NATO HQs started the planning process without integrating the already known troop-sending nations sufficiently into the planning and decision-making process. Some of the numerous national caveats - national red cards - might have been avoided. Most NATO governments missed the chance to win the hearts and minds of their own people for the commitment in Afghanistan. In this preparatory phase there was enough time to start a public debate and convince people that the military involvement was inevitable - as well as casualties in war. The political "public diplomacy" and the military "operations information" have to start very early - at home and in the country - to win the support of the people. A quick and positive narrative is key.

Here lies another weakness of ISAF and US troops. The insurgents in Afghanistan are very clever and quick to use the Internet to deliver their narrative to the world. A positive public attitude to military involvement would have had a positive effect for the motivation of the soldiers. If soldiers learn that the majority of their people at home are against their commitment, then a lack of motivation and growing frustration are inevitable.

In Germany there is special bone of contention, namely the question as to whether or not Germany is at war in Afghanistan. The German government avoids the term "war" for certain reasons. It's a political and academic red herring dispute.

For the fighting soldiers on the battleground who are ambushed, it does not matter if they fight in a high or low intensity environment, in a war or in a peace-enforcing operation. They risk their lives in all combat operations.

The military part

The responsible military HQ has to translate the incomplete mandate into a workable military strategy and concept. The military concept for Afghanistan must take into account that the situation in Afghanistan differs from the North to the South, from urban terrain to rural areas. The tactical commanders must be very flexible to act and react rapidly to any change in their area. Periods of time with low military activity might change overnight into a combat of high intensity and vice versa.

There is one lesson learned from the war in Iraq: Patrolling an area for hours or even days - including smaller combats with the Taliban - is not enough. The Taliban will stay in the area and kill those people who might have or are supposed to have collaborated with ISAF and US forces.

All units have to follow the concept: "Clear, hold, inform, develop and transfer." They must win the trust and confidence of the local people. They must inform the people about their intentions and they have to learn the basic needs of the locals. As soon as the area is safe enough, the development by civilian organizations must start. The UN and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) should use the protection of the soldiers to start their basic work: Water, electricity and healthcare. The so - called "asymmetric warfare" offers advantages for ISAF and US forces executing Operation Enduring Freedom: Air supremacy, network centric warfare, modern weaponry, air reconnaissance with jets and drones as well as Command and Control, Computer and Communication, intelligence and the capacity for search and rescue (C4ISR). The mountainous terrain limits the mobility and flexibility of ground forces. Therefore, transport helicopters and attack helicopters - not anti-tank helicopters - are in urgent need - a weakness of ISAF.

Each conflict and crisis has its own characteristics. One cannot take a previous operation as a blueprint 1:1. The planners have to find out the constraints and restraints, the centers of gravity, the climate conditions, the terrain, the religious and ethnic conditions, etc.

"Drones can fly reconnaissance in the front and in the flanks of the combat units"
"Drones can fly reconnaissance in the front and in the flanks of the combat units"
Cultural awareness is a key factor for the planners and - later - the troops on the ground. Based upon the strategic and the operational planning progress, the "force generation process" has to be started. This is a kind of military horse-trading. Countries are very eager to get flag officers' positions. The name of the game: Flag to posts. Nations want to safeguard their influence by filling the top ranks. On the other hand, they are quite reluctant to send specialized troops and expensive equipment - e.g. helicopters.

NATO HQ developed a system of correlation between high-ranking posts and troop strength. The more troops, the higher the ranks. At the end of the day, the double-hated SACEUR has to reach in its US pocket to fill most of the crucial gaps.

In spite of all promises and verbal commitments, the commanders on the ground never got the troops and the equipment agreed upon. The available time to train the operational HQs and the troops was sometimes not sufficient for a solid preparation. With the NATO training facility in Starvanger, Norway, progress has been achieved. In the meantime, many officers have collected a lot of experience on the ground.

There is one crucial deficit that leads to severe problems on the ground: The commanders of ISAF and the US forces do not have a competent civilian counterpart working on behalf of the UN. The UN representative is a one-man-show - without a competent staff and sufficient authority. He is not capable of orchestrating nation building or the reconstruction of the infrastructure. State and NGOs are very reluctant to be coordinated.

In my view, the UN High Representative should sit next door to the ISAF commander. The UN should train those people with their staffs to meet the requirements on the ground. As long as this capacity is missing, the military is forced to step in and take over missions from the civilian side. The UN High Representative and the ISAF commander should meet regularly to orchestrate the military and the civilian efforts - top-down to the company level. Here is another weakness of the UN: It lacks experienced politicians to lead the operation, it does not have trained HQ and no civilian or peace corps to be present and efficient at all political and administrative levels in Afghanistan.

Therefore, soldiers have to take over tasks and missions with the risk of "mission creep." The Provincial Reconstruction Teams do a good job of filling this gap. One vital issue is the command structure in Afghanistan. ISAF and US forces run their operations separated in almost the same area. This is a serious mistake. The military principle of "Unity of Command" demands one military HQ in Afghanistan.

Strategic, operational and tactical reconnaissance

As early as possible, the HQs and nations in charge should intensify their efforts to learn as much as possible about the situation on the ground. In the case of NATO, reconnaissance remains a national responsibility since NATO has no capacity of its own. Nations decide which information they give to NATO and their partners prior to and during the operation. All parts of the intelligence world have to dig deeper with all elements of the secret services, such as with HUMINT (Human Intelligence), SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) and OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) as well as imagery - to name a few. There is special issue regarding the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan: the language. Most soldiers lack the necessary language skills and there is a shortage of interpreters to read and understand the deluge of information in time. Nations gain a different picture based upon different information. This is a deficit - a system imminent in NATO, but the NATO HQs do the best they can to keep all partners sufficiently informed.

The collection of information is no longer the problem. To select the relevant information out of an ocean of information is the first difficult task. The second is the translation of information into knowledge. The third task is the dissemination of "finished intelligence" to the formation that needs it. It makes no sense to deliver all available information - regardless of the real need. It makes no sense to swamp tactical commanders with information they do not need.

There is another deficit. The UN - still the "owner" of the operation - has only limited options to enhance the strategic reconnaissance. Strategic, operational and tactical reconnaissance are the prerequisite of any military operation. Deficits in reconnaissance demand a high price - casualties.

An almost real-time reconnaissance plays a major role regarding force protection.

Force protection versus combat effectiveness

Force protection has a high priority. It is the military culture of ISAF and US forces to keep casualties at the lowest possible level. Commanders are in charge to bring their soldiers home -healthy. Nevertheless, in combat casualties are inevitable, but they can be limited. This starts with the training at home prior to the operation - and is continued during the operation. A "lessons - learned cycle" must ensure that all soldiers are informed as soon as possible about new equipment and new tactics of the enemy.

Armament and equipment play a vital role. I remember the lesson learned: "Go in heavy, get out light." In this context, political constraints and restraints play a vital role. In general, politicians prefer light armament to underline the peaceful character of the operation. This leads to the situation we currently face in Afghanistan. Even after eight years of intensifying war-like fighting, the soldiers do not have the best possible armament and equipment. A total of more than 1200 soldiers killed and many more wounded ("The Economist" July 18th, 2009) should lead to reconsider the armament and equipment for those areas and times where heavy troops are needed.

A combat tank provides excellent protection, fire power and night-vision capability and works as a deterrent against the insurgents. Because of the mine threat the troops should have improved protection but in Afghanistan, the infrastructure of roads and streets limits the movement of tanks.

An Armored Fighting Vehicle (AFV) of mechanized infantry often faces the same problems as tanks. It is too heavy for many roads and streets. But an AFV - like the German "Marder" - can support light infantry with impressive firepower in carefully selected operations. The third partner of light infantry units is the attack helicopter, which can support the combat vehicle with its high flexibility and the capability of surprise attack from various directions. Drones can fly reconnaissance in front and in the flanks of the combat unit.

Indirect fire support comes from artillery howitzer and mortars. Heavy artillery faces similar problems as combat tanks and AFVs. They are too heavy. But they can be located in the camps to counter missile attacks. With precision-guided munition, the collateral damages can be drastically reduced. This fight of combined arms has one very important effect: It can decrease the collateral damages significantly in comparison with air strikes. These collateral damages fuel distrust and hatred against the "foreigners." Less collateral damage would improve the human relations between the indigenous people and the ISAF and US forces. My plea for those combat packages may sound to some to be the comeback of Cold War thinking, but it is far from that. Regarding military combat, there are eternal rules.

About 1200 soldiers killed in action are far too many. To keep the soldiers in their camps to reduce the casualties is not the solution. Soldiers and their loved ones have the right to expect that for combat operations they will have the best-possible mixture of reconnaissance, fighting and supporting units.

Governments and politicians as well as military leaders should free resources to improve the force protection and the combat effectiveness.

Troop strength is another issue. The more soldiers there are in a region, the harder it is for the Taliban to infiltrate. More soldiers improve the capacity to stay in villages that have been cleared.

There is no need to "conquer" Afghanistan. It's sufficient to clear and hold important roads and villages. To clear a village or a crossroad includes pro-active and pre-emptive strikes. There is no need to sit and wait for the next attack by the terrorists. Based upon almost real-time reconnaissance, those "combat packages" should take the initiative and exploit tactical surprise to attack. Governments should give the commanders in the field the freedom of operation regarding pre-emptive strikes.

There is one problem of leadership at the lowest tactical level: Tactical leaders and even individual soldiers - the so-called "strategic soldier" - might give a tactical action a strategic dimension. Wrong doing at this level might lead to strategic repercussions.

"There is no security without development and no development with security." A war of attrition with high own casualties over years is not acceptable for any Western democracy. I follow the conclusion from "The Economist" in the commentary "Hold your nerve" (July 18, 2009): "...British soldiers will continue to die until the day, that is, when the British public has had enough and demands that the troops come home. A retreat without securing some sort of success would be the cruelest blow for the men on the ground." I fear that Great Britain will not be the first country to get out of Afghanistan. NATO, the US and their partners must be aware that a defeat in Afghanistan would lead to the worst-case scenario: "The cost of leaving is harder to measure but is probably larger: the return of the Taliban to power; an Afghan civil war; the utter destabilization of nuclear arms; the restoration of al Qaeda's Afghan haven; the emboldening of every jihadist in the world; and the weakening of the Western friends"("The Economist" July 18, 2009).


"In my view, the UN High Representantitive should sit next door to the ISAF commander"
"In my view, the UN High Representantitive should sit next door to the ISAF commander"
The nations involved in Afghanistan should realize that the war cannot be fought on the cheap and that former separation between internal and external security has become obsolete regarding the terrorists' threat from outside and inside. The nations involved cannot win in Afghanistan with the mindset most show in their capitals - far away from Afghanistan and disregarding the real needs of the soldiers.

The politico-military operation is very complex without a unified picture of the situation in Afghanistan from the North to the South, from the small Kabul area to the rural areas. The media too often concentrate on the daily bombings. The reason that the situation after eight years is not satisfactory is in my view the almost missing civilian command and control capacity in Afghanistan. There is no "civilian surge" in sight.

The UN is too weak to build up a competent UN HQ in Afghanistan with a competent staff and a well-trained civilian staff or "peace corps"- that cooperates with the military and the Afghan administration at all levels.

Military commanders suffer under too many national caveats limiting their operational freedom. The soldiers of many nations do not have the political and public backup at home. They too often do not have the adequate armament and equipment to do their job efficiently in a frequently hostile environment. Too many soldiers do not leave their camps for weeks and months. Too often they are not allowed to execute pre-emptive strikes. Too often they are not strong enough to hold a cleared position over a longer period of time. That is the main lesson from Iraq: Having cleared a village or a small town, soldiers have to stay there and protect the civilian reconstruction as long as they are needed.

The new US concept of counterinsurgency is based upon this lesson. More nations should be ready for a military and civilian surge. A war of attrition over many more years to come is not sustainable in democracies. An exit in shame would be the consequence. NATO and its partners as well as the US would lose their reputation and credibility as global players. Nations would become very reluctant to start another operation of this kind - disregarding their own vital interests.

Afghanistan has become the litmus test for the Western world. There are countries that would love to see the Western world involved in Afghanistan for many years. Many resources are blocked and are missing in the great and global game.


  1. NATO nations and its partners should give the operation in Afghanistan the highest political and military priority. They should decide rapidly on a significant civilian and military surge. They should realize that they have no choice but success within the next two years to come.
  2. These nations should decide to make the year 2010 the year of a military decision. With a temporary military surge they should achieve a safe and secure environment for civilian aid in politically and strategically decisive areas.
  3. These nations should give their soldiers adequate armament and equipment enabling tactical pre-emptive attacks and reducing own casualties
  4. These nations and the UN should invite China, India, Russia and Japan to share the common effort. Given that these nations are dependent on energy supply or export and they have security interests in the region, too, they should support the UN and the nations involved.
  5. Nations should enable the UN to build a competent HQ in Afghanistan to execute the often-cited "comprehensive approach."
  6. All countries involved should reconsider their public diplomacy and their operation information to win the hearts and respecting the minds in Afghanistan, and this is equally important at home. Part of it is to explain to the people why the war in Afghanistan is justified and fought in our own national interests.
  7. All countries involved should give their soldiers legal protection and the soldiers' families quick and sufficient financial support if soldiers are killed or wounded in action.