Thursday, October 21, 2010

Grim news from Afghanistan

An inexperienced US 101st Airborne unit replaces a more seasoned group, 2 Charlie.  This Atlantic article,
"The Last Patrol,"
shows hard fighting and the strain on morale in the Kandahar region:

Two days later, on July 8, a dozen soldiers, the platoon’s noncommissioned officers, crowded into the outpost’s tactical-operations center, a 12-by-six-foot room jammed with computers, radios, and maps, to talk about the situation they faced. They passed an empty water bottle, their version of Ralph’s conch shell in Lord of the Flies, so each man could speak without interruption. Earlier in the deployment, this scene would have been unthinkable. Infantrymen volunteer to enter dangerous environments, a task many of them enjoy. And they know a hard truth of war: that they or some of their men must sometimes die to accomplish objectives. But with so much loss, and with the end of their time at Combat Outpost Tynes so near, the worth of a single patrol had been thrown into question. If the men of 2 Charlie walked south, some of them would likely not come back. But if they didn’t go, then their replacements would likely suffer for it.

“I don’t want my guys going,” Sgt. Andrew Bragg said. “I’ll go for them.” He passed the bottle to Knollinger, one of 2 Charlie’s most aggressive soldiers. “I want revenge,” he said, in a plain, deep-throated speaking style that reminded me of Rocky Balboa. “It’s not worth another casualty, but I personally want to go.” Knollinger passed the bottle to Lachance, who seemed to thrive on the battlefield, exposing himself to enemy fire to call in airstrikes with a surprising calm. “I don’t want to see people get blown up, because that sucks,” Lachance said. “I don’t think that this entire war is worth losing people for, so that sums it up for me.”

The bottle traveled, hand to hand, deeper into the debate: could they explain a soldier’s death to his family, days away from his leaving the Arghandab? But could they live with unprepared 101st soldiers dying, if they could have helped prevent their deaths? And if they stopped pushing into Taliban-held areas, the Taliban would gladly, and quickly, come to them. That morning, an IED had blown up on a foot patrol 200 meters from the combat outpost. Somehow, no one had been injured.

Staff Sgt. Rosa, 2 Charlie’s senior squad leader, took the bottle and looked around the room. Soft-spoken but regarded as the toughest soldier in the platoon, he’d won an 82nd Airborne boxing title. “This is a tough one for me. This is my third deployment with this platoon, and this is the first time we’ve gone through all this bullshit with casualties,” he said. “My guys have been going out every day. We’ve lost a lot. But at the same time, we can’t lose ground. Especially with the unit coming in. They need a good handoff. They could get slaughtered out there.”
His voice betrayed both pride and resignation. “If I gotta go out, and I’m going out with this group here, that’s fine with me.” He held the water bottle in both hands, elbows propped on knees, his massive shoulders hunched. “When we cross that second canal,” he said, “I think there’s going to be so much shit set in there, we’re going to have a catastrophic IED that’s going to take out a bunch of people.”

The day after the joint patrol, the 101st leadership met with Gerhart, Knollinger, Farnsworth, and Lachance for an after-action review, to discuss what had gone right and wrong during the mission. Gerhart flipped through index cards on which he’d prepared notes. His suggestions were sound—better hydration, classes on patrolling techniques and using radios, pre-patrol inspections of soldiers’ equipment—but his delivery was abrasive and accusatory. Why, he asked, had it taken the reinforcements from Combat Outpost Tynes six hours to show up after the first casualties were reported?
 The IED threat was extreme, Tom Banister, the new unit’s first sergeant, said, and he hadn’t wanted to risk more heat casualties while trying to reach the compound on foot. So they ended up waiting for helicopters.
“I guess I’m just used to being out there with hard-charging guys,” Gerhart said.
Since arriving at Tynes, Banister had found himself in the bizarre situation of deferring to men who weren’t yet born when he’d joined the Army, 24 years earlier. He accepted that his and his soldiers’ learning curve was steep. But he couldn’t tolerate Gerhart’s near-constant impertinence, and the general condescension from the 82nd paratroopers toward their replacements. “We appreciate all you guys have done, we really do,” he said. “What I don’t appreciate, what gives me the ass, is your holier-than-thou attitude that we’re incompetent and unprepared for this mission. Roger. I got that. We’re a field artillery unit tasked with an infantry job. Are we going to take casualties? Hell yeah, we are. We know that.” His vocal cords tightened with emotion. He paused. “Don’t count us out,” he said. “We’re a fighting force. We’re not going to leave you hanging. We evacuated our guys, but we brought you 20 more.”
The room fell quiet, and emotions settled. The soldiers seemed to have tired of both blame and anger. Any unit has trouble adjusting to a new area, especially one as dangerous as the Arghandab. In a few weeks, the 101st soldiers would be unrecognizable as the men who had walked into the valley days earlier. They would learn how to lead patrols, where to walk, and how to fight. And with an influx of additional men and aggressive clearing operations, they would push into areas that had become de facto no-go zones for 2 Charlie, killing dozens of Taliban fighters and even establishing an outpost south of the second canal and taking the town of Babur, near where Moon was hit. They would pay for these lessons and victories with gunshot wounds and amputations and soldiers so mangled they couldn’t be saved. And they would learn on their own, because 2 Charlie was leaving.

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