Sunday, October 4, 2009

Afghanistan Casualties in the New Defence Paradigm: Strategic Epistemology

The challenges facing coalition forces in Afghanistan are myriad. The US Government, under Barack Obama is facing the prospect this week of accepting or rejecting a request from General Stanley McChrystal for 40000 new troops. Recent developments and a sharp escalation in casualties will no doubt compound the issues surrounding these deliberations. A press release by White House National Security Advisor James Jones today, spoke promisingly about the progress of the war.

"The good news that Americans should feel at least good about in Afghanistan is that the al Qaeda presence is very diminished… The next step in this is the sanctuaries across the border [Pakistan]…But I don't foresee the return of the Taliban and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling." (1)

While the White House insists that ‘Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling’, it also cannot say for certain that Coalition forces are in imminent proximity to winning the war on terror and human insecurity in the tiny landlocked nation. The longer the administration waits in their deliberative process, to come to a realization of coherent overarching international strategy and to draft a plan for its implementation, the more damage that can be done to their capacity for success by the Taliban and other tribal militias who are wasting no time in exploiting international media attention.

An American Soldier holds a defensive position while engaging insurgents in Afghanistan.

A well coordinated attack in the province of Nuristan on October 4 claimed the lives of eight American soldiers and up to seven of their Afghan police colleagues. The attack came early in the morning, with what is estimated to be about 300-700 insurgent fighters storming an Afghan police outpost, located at the foot of a hill and then pushing up the slope to attack a US Army outpost from two directions. (2)

The attackers were supported with a hail of rocket-propelled grenade, small arms and mortar fire directed toward the American position. The defenders managed to kill an estimated 40 of the insurgents and the rest withdrew, taking prisoner up to 30 Afghan police, including the police chief of the Kamdesh district. The American forces holding their outpost position responded with a hail of small-arms fire in return and called in artillery strikes and close-air-support from both helicopter and fixed-wing assets.

This is the second time the American forces have incurred significant losses in a single engagement in the Nuristan region. (3) It is considered one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces, because of its proximity to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and its use by insurgents to smuggle men and matériel through the mountains. These recent events and significant casualties mirror an incident that took place in 2008 where 9 American Soldiers lost their lives in a Taliban assault on an outpost also located within Nuristan.

Elsewhere in the nation, two American soldiers were killed when their Afghan police colleague opened fire unexpectedly. (4) The assailant fled immediately and has not yet been found by coalition forces. It is unclear as to whether he simply lost his head or was working as an agent of the Taliban. These challenges to American (and by relation Coalition) authority, which imply on the surface that little progress has been made, are timed to coincide with the upper-level policy deliberations by the Obama administration and other NATO leaders.

In his essay "The Epistemology of Strategy"(5), published in the defence studies publication SITREP, Richard Maltz, a retired US Army Officer discusses the necessity for a dramatic shift in thought about war. He states that we need to move from focusing on victory in the practical engagement to the deeper epistemological analysis of events and their effects on national and international polities.

"We are moving increasingly away from predominantly mechanistic, kinetic and pyrotechnic solutions to those that require us to take account of the complexities of the environment, its inhabitants, our adversaries and most important, ourselves."(6)

The current strategy for the Afghan war actually sees the US soldiers leaving Nuristan in short order and ceding control of its security to the ANA and ANP forces there. The Department of Defense has said in no uncertain terms that this incident will not alter their plans to withdraw from the region.(7) The withdrawal was planned as part of an ongoing effort to consolidate around urban centers and civilian populations to provide security in the hopes of transitioning the mission from one of outright war to peace support and counter-terrorism.

That the Taliban have stepped up their own operations is a doubtful coincidence given the weight and tone of international discussions surrounding the fate of the nation. Despite their demonstrated ability to inflict casualties in decisive and well-organized 'raids' on military targets, the Taliban have not demonstrated any coherent ability to 'win battles'. Currently this 'resistance by body count', reminiscent certainly of American experiences in Indochina, is having an effect on policy and public opinion within the NATO structure.

"The war was fought on many fronts. At that time the most important one was American public opinion. Military power is not the decisive factor in war. Human beings! Human beings are the decisive factor."

--General Vo Nguyen Giap

Former NVA CINC, on the Tet Offensive(8)

Reports of rising casualties will have an effect, quite possibly a detrimental one on the ability of ISAF Leadership Personnel to prosecute the war and fulfill their mandate. Senior US General Stanley McChrystal formally requested an increase of troop levels in the nation by 40000, in the hopes of using another major surge to destabilize the Taliban insurgency. This approach proves problematic for an administration that must find a coherent balance between public opinion shifting against the war and bureaucrats directing experienced military personnel in the prosecution of a war. (9)

Maltz's paper on the theory of knowledge and its application in the field of Strategy and Policy, identifies the need to operate within what he terms the 'Cognitive Domain'. Specifically, this is the incorporation of Psychological and Sociological factors into the determination of strategy.

"These exist on multiple levels at the same time, extending from the individual (the Psychological), through various layers of group identity, consciousness and affiliation, from the family thru the highest level of overarching identity -nationality, ethnicity, religion (the Sociological.)"(10)

The challenge now for the policy makers is how to deal with what will most certainly be a whelming tide of public opinion against the war, in light of the incident in Nuristan. A potentially beneficial approach might be to turn the battle that took place into one of deep national significance. The loss of service personnel in any NATO army is treated as a sobering and momentous occurrence. The Taliban seem to have adopted an effective strategy of using the power of media institutions to deliver crippling blows not only in the physical battlespace but also in the Cognitive Domain. Some possible counteractions to this strategy (specifically as pertains to Nuristan) could be an official proclamation lionizing the American and ANA unit(s) involved, awarding medals and merited distinguishments to the surviving personnel and an official rhetoric aimed at generating indignation over the losses and spinning them so as to galvanize public opinion in support of war against a barbaric foe.

A decidedly ‘spun’ broadcast from the less-than-objective ‘Russian Television’ News Service discussing upcoming Anti-War protests scheduled for October 7, 2009 across the United States.


1. Reuters – “Taliban Return to Power Unlikely”

2. New York Times – “Eight U.S. Soldiers Dead in Bold Attack in Afghanistan

3. CBC – “8 U.S. Soldiers, 7 Afghans Killed in Attack” – “Afghan wearing police uniform kills 2 U.S. soldiers.”

5. Maltz, Richard “The Epistemology of Strategy”. (2009, April 17). SITREP, Vol. 69, Number 3, p 7-12. (also at RCMI Archive)

6. Richard Maltz, A. “The Epistemology of Strategy”. (2009, April 17). SITREP, Vol. 69, Number 3, p.7

7. –“Eight US Soldiers Killed as Taliban Storm Outpost”

8. Maltz, Richard “The Epistemology of Strategy”. (2009, April 17). SITREP, Vol. 69, Number 3, p.9

9. New York Times – “Letter from Washington – A Voice Worth Heeding on Afghanistan

10. Maltz, Richard “The Epistemology of Strategy”. (2009, April 17). SITREP, Vol. 69, Number 3, p.10

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