Michael's Dispatches

Operation Flintlock: Some Notes


2011-07-29-193145-1000Planning Operation Flintlock at FOB Pasab, formerly FOB Wilson.

09 August 2011
Zhari District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan

The ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaches.  For us, the Iraq war has essentially come and gone between 2003 and 2008, though we continue to lose troops there.  Here in Afghanistan, the war marches on.

In Afghanistan, if destroying our enemies and replacing the vacuum with a creaky government was the goal, we waited until 2009 or 2010 to get serious.  The positive pivot in the Afghanistan war occurred in 2010 after General Petraeus took command.  Today, progress can be seen, though the tide will likely begin to recede with our troops in 2012.

Task Force Spartan, the largest Brigade in Afghanistan, has been tasked to penetrate the heart of the original Taliban country where Mullah Omar, the long-recognized leader of the Taliban, was born and raised.  Amazingly, the Zhari District and surrounds, such as Panjwai, have not been tamed after all these years.  One could understand this situation if it were deep in the hidden parts of the rugged Hindu Kush, where even helicopters and UAVs pant in the thin air, but from where I write these words, in Zhari District, no mountains can be seen.  The altitude is low, there are no jungles to hide in, no sea of humanity in which to blend and swim in the sparse farming villages.  The few rugged hills on the periphery, where practically nobody lives, provide advantage for us, not the enemy.

To be sure, the Canadians fought hard and earned much respect here.  But, as with the British, US and other forces in Afghanistan, the Canadians were painfully under resourced.  No participating government will leave this war with its reputation enhanced.

I write these words from FOB Pasab, previously FOB Wilson, named after the 40th Canadian service member to die in Afghanistan:   IED attack kills Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. That this war has endured long enough to see bases renamed, says a mouthful.

This battleground, flourishing with poppy, marijuana, and other crops, is a few minutes’ flight from the massive Kandahar Air Field and a short drive from Kandahar City.  The totality of the area of operations can be reached by motor scooter, bicycle, or just by walking.  If destruction of the population were the goal, we could do this simply and probably without US casualties.  In a force on force encounter, the Afghans would be at our feet, just as killing elephants is mechanical and simply achieved if we ignore larger implications such as morality.  If we wanted to steal Afghanistan and its resources, we could have accomplished this at a handsome profit, but that is not our lofty goal.

Some people say we should take a lesson from the Soviets on conquering Afghanistan, but that’s like saying Bill Gates should take business advice from someone who needs a micro-grant.  Firstly, we are not trying to conquer Afghanistan, though the Soviets gave it a try.  The Soviets used just about everything short of nuclear weapons yet utterly failed here in and around the Arghandab River Valley.  They huffed and puffed and were blown away.  The Soviets were militarily defeated and abandoned Afghanistan.  That defeat radiated and the Soviet Union proved to be fissile; the USSR decayed and the rest is history still unfolding.  More recently, the Canadians fought hard here, and were defeated.  To say otherwise is born of ignorance, denial, or likely both.  Bottom line in Afghanistan: If the Canadians had succeeded in their small piece of Afghan pie, I would likely be in RC-East for the Haqqani fight, but then the United States inherited the Canadian battlespace.

2011-07-29-113233-10004-4CAV would conduct the air assault along with Afghan counterparts.

After the Canadians and a succession of under-resourced American efforts here, we’ve finally gotten serious with sufficient troops (for now) and a new campaign plan for this area.  If the campaign plan for Task Force Spartan could be compared to an American football game, Operation Flintlock would be a single play wherein the most that could happen would be a touchdown, and the worst would be a fumble resulting in an enemy touchdown, after which the war would continue.  (After this dispatch was drafted, a helicopter of the same sort we would use to insert apparently was shot down up north, killing 38 people, including 30 Americans of which more than 20 were Navy SEALs.)

Operation Flintlock was to be a perilous Air Assault.  Our people and Afghan forces would infiltrate by helicopter during the dark hours of a moonless morning.  The troops would make their way through potentially bomb-infested fields to more than a half-dozen “strong points” to conduct disruption operations for 48 hours.  There would be more to Flintlock than merely picking a fight to kill Taliban, though picking a fight was part of the plan.

The vineyards, canals, and many natural choke points in this area, are ripe for small-arms ambush and IED attacks.  In a country where bombs are made as easily as butter, IEDs no doubt have removed thousands of arms and legs from service members in Afghanistan, and many of those appendages came to rest here.  The enemy also is making use of the devastating 82mm recoilless rifle that destroys our vehicles.  Even today, as the draft is put down, a TF Spartan Soldier was killed by an 82mm.  Despite all that, this worthy enemy is on defense and being beaten.

To execute a successful operation where bombs are suspected to be planted, not to mention RPGs and machine guns that can take us out of the air, is complex.  After nearly a decade, the enemy understands how we operate, and we understand them.

Five years ago tonight, Canadians were fighting intensely here.   After significant combat in August and September 2006, the BBC reported on 17 September:

Nato hails Afghan mission success

Afghan and Nato forces say a
two-week operation has
driven Taleban militants out
of a stronghold in the southern province of

[Panjwai is not a province, but a district in Kandahar province just near Kandahar city.]

“The British commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan, Lt Gen David Richards, said Operations Medusa had been a significant success”.

[While reading old news stories about success in Afghanistan, the voice of Willard rings out “…the bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it”.]

Articles and Canadian literature trump the battles as successes, but even as I write these words at midnight, five years later in same area, our cannons are firing in the darkness as the concussion pops the tent walls.  The Canadians are gone.  The Taliban are still here.

2011-07-28-152910-2-1000A mission briefing before Operation Flintlock.

Task Force Spartan is working furiously to establish installations in a spoke and wheel array in Zhari.  If it’s not done now while we have sufficient troops, it certainly will not be done next year after the drawdown from this area, and the Taliban will have won, having outlasted not only the Canadians, but forty other nations simultaneously, including us.

Normally, when hitting a target on air assault, the Commander knows the target and selects the landing zones with only military tactics in mind.  In this war, landing zones are approved or declined a million miles away by the IJC in Kabul.  And so, units don’t get to pick their LZs, but they suggest them.  Instead of “back planning” from the target(s), the local commanders often must go with less-than-ideal LZs for the targets because they must pick LZs which fit pre-ordained criteria.  This is not to imply that the criteria are without merit; no doubt they are based on Afghanistan experience.  Though LZ selection can be cumbersome, it is designed to safeguard Afghan civilians and our troops.

There were numerous briefings, rehearsals, gear checks, gear checks and more gear checks.  If there were to be failure, let it be by the hand of Murphy, or the enemy, but not self-inflicted.

2011-08-03-203204-1000Sand table rehearsal.

OPSEC, or Operational Security, is crucial.  Afghan troops would be with us on all helicopters and would be leading the way during much of the fighting.  Shona ba Shona, they call it, Shoulder by Shoulder.  OPSEC weaknesses are apparent.  The Afghans must have enough information to prepare for the mission, but we don’t want every Afghan private to know when and where we are going because CH-47s are flying buses that are easy to shoot down.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona, 4-4CAV Squadron Commander, on his fifth combat tour, would be the overall ground commander.  On nearly the eve of the mission, an Afghan commander said to LTC Katona that he was not going on the mission.  The Afghan commander was manifested to be on the same aircraft with us, the first aircraft to touch down.  LTC Katona was vigorous—very vigorous—in his insistence that the Afghan commander definitely was going on this mission.  After that heated insistence and we parted ways with the Afghan commander, I said to LTC Katona that I was very uncomfortable going on that helicopter unless the Afghan commander was on the mission.  This would be the first mission that I ever backed away from.  LTC Katona said the mission would be cancelled if he refuses.  Some gunboat diplomacy later, and the Afghan commander agreed to go.  The mission was still on.

A few hours before infiltration, after midnight on 30 July, there was a final staff briefing with everything from the weather to intelligence to medical to many other aspects, and everyone made their own “Cherry/Ice Call.”  Cherry means RED.  Abort.  Ice means cool: Go.  After the briefing, the staff is queried for a go/no-go call, which sounds roughly like, “Intel,” “Intel Go.” “Fires,” “Fires Go.”  “Medical,” “Medical is Go.” Etc.  The Air Force would use a B1 to bomb the LZ just before we landed to detonate IEDs.  For years, the enemy has known we do this, and so those bombs from our jets also can be like an invitation to fight.  Just before the helicopters would hit the LZ, there would be a final Cherry/Ice call.

2011-07-29-214209-10004-4CAV leadership: LTC Mike Katona and CSM Charles Cook head to the helicopter zone.

And so that was it.  At about 0200, everything was still ice and we walked five minutes to the helicopter pad at FOB Pasab.


Forty-five minutes later, we would be on the battlefield.  Over the next two days, there would be at least 27 firefights.

(Please stand by for Part II: Infiltration)

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Craig · 8 years ago
    Mike, The afteraction for Mogadishu in 1993 it was hypothesized that Iran or China had developed a proximity fuse for the RPG, making them more deadly to low & slow flying targets. (Open source Black Hawk Down page 88). IF these have been exported to the Taliban, this could force a change in strategy. Something like not more CH47's
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Craig · 8 years ago
    [quote name="Craig"]Mike, The afteraction for Mogadishu in 1993 it was hypothesized that Iran or China had developed a proximity fuse for the RPG, making them more deadly to low & slow flying targets. (Open source Black Hawk Down page 88). IF these have been exported to the Taliban, this could force a change in strategy. Something like no more CH47's in direct insertions[/quote]
    I think the pulling of the CH47 also happed in Vietnam as too risky and the possibility of catrosophic loss too high.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Radio Jihad Network · 8 years ago
    You made a comment in your story that was telling, you said, "if destroying our enemies and replacing the vacuum with a creaky government was the goal"

    Begs the question, What is the goal? Afghanistan is an Islamic State. To my knowledge there is no overwhelming support on the ground from the indigenous population to have or even experiment with any other government structure than an Islamic one.

    Why is that even after all these years of "Winning the Hearts and Minds of the Afghan people" with our western lifestyle of freedom and liberty for the individual.

    The answer is because the Afghani Muslims believe an Islamic government is divinely inspired by Allah himself. What we believe as non-Muslims is irrelevant.

    Mike I respectfully ask you, What do you believe is our mission and what is the objective we are trying to achieve that defines success?

    Thank you

    God Bless America and God Bless our Troops
    America Akbar
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Richard · 8 years ago
    "I was very uncomfortable going on that helicopter unless the Afghan commander was on the mission."
    "Uncomfortable" doesn't begin to describe it, I bet.

    Not only have the commander in the lead chopper, but put him in hobbles and on point during the assault.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John Schofield · 8 years ago
    As a British citizen who has visited Afghanistan (up the Khyber Pass and thence to Kabul on an ancient piston-engined plane which stayed airborne by my white-knuckled pressure on the seat - I swear it !) I have the highest possible respect and praise for all the military involved in this uniquely deadly war, in which they have pitted against them the force of history in that region from the time of Alexander the Great, the unforgiving terrain and extreme temperatures, at least a million IED's and innumerable potential ambush points. That's not to mention the sheer weight of equipment. As with Vietnam (though possibly applying in the UK more than Stateside), cynical attitudes are expressed by certain elements in our populace. I have grave reservations concerning the reliability of Afghans, who can be exceedingly crafty. We Brits undervalued the loyalty of the Ghurkas, We are now exposing interpreters and their families to great danger. I trust that is not so with your people.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John-Capt in ANG · 8 years ago
    ISAF is an "assistance force" (the A and F in ISAF) to assist the GIRoA, Government of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. At the IJC, which Mike says is a million miles away (or 60 minutes via C-130), there are metrics used to gauge progress that are centered around the people and GIRoA. For example, is there leadership in place? (eg province governor). Are local projects moving forward to help the locals (eg do they have electricity) and then at the other end, do normal Afghans have freedom of movement and what is their general outlook on their government. Even if all pieces are in play but the local population sees the local Taliban as "less corrupt," than there's still work to be done.

    Obviously there is more to it but these are just some of the things briefed every morning at the IJC (3-star HQ, tactical HQ).
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Roch Thornton · 8 years ago
    We had a chance to achieve something resembling victory in Afghanistan ... in 2002-03. In those days the Taliban were scattered and running. The ISI was cautiously evaluating its next move in light of post 9/11 realities. Despite early fumbles, our people were quickly learning how to fight effectively in a strange culture and unforgiving terrain. The future was clear ... by 2011 we could safely leave the country to self-rule with an effective army, police force and government.

    NAAAAAAW! We got something better to do a few countries west of there. Let's leave token resources in place and call it a day!

    The United States created the Afghanistan of today ... first by helping drive out the Soviets then turning our back on the place when it desperately needed reconstruction. The Taliban filled the vacuum we created. Then after 9/11 we gave the TB YEARS to recruit and re-arm. Every American killed or maimed in A'stan can thank a U.S. politician.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Arnie Goldman · 8 years ago
    It is interesting to note in one of the photographs: the framed portraits on the wall of the politically-chosen civilian commanders over the merit-chosen military commanders. Soldiers do their duty regardless, which earns them that much more of our respect. It can't be easy.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill Dunn · 8 years ago
    8) Ask the staff of the White House as to why the CH47. They seemed to be quick on press release of the Seal Team that took out Bin Laden and probably gave coordinates to the Taliban. Naaaah. I watch too much TV and read too many Liberal books.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Terri Bell · 8 years ago
    Thank you for your posts and pictures. My son is a Kiowa pilot currently in Jalalabad, and I read your posts with great interest and concern. Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    David Parsons · 8 years ago
    Doesn't matter. Pakistan is still there and hasn't changed. Afghans know the Americans are leaving, but the Paks aren't. Whatever the Afghan "mission" is, it's futile.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bill Willis · 8 years ago
    Chinooks should NEVER be used to insert troops into a hot LZ. We didn't do that in Vietnam for the very reason we have just experienced. The risk is just too great. Just as in June 05, a taliban with an RPG was just waiting. The loss is too horrific.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 8 years ago

    Out of curiosity, what AVN unit is it that supported Spartan on this OP?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas K · 8 years ago
    I stumbled on one of your stories several months back. Then I heard you on Glenn Beck. I found your blog bookmarked it and have read all of your posts. Little did I know I would soon be reading about my Daughter's husband (my second son) who is a Platoon Sergeant with the 4-4CAV Task Force Spartan C Company. When I pulled up your site tonight I was pleasantly surprised to see him in one of your photos. I live in Florida and did not get to see him before he was deployed but I will see him when he gets back.
    Thank you Michael for your fortitude to keep us informed on what our brave men and women have to endure in Iraq and Afghanistan. I will gladly send you a contribution so you can continue your work. Thank you again.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joel · 8 years ago
    [quote name="Craig"][quote name="Craig"]Mike, The afteraction for Mogadishu in 1993 it was hypothesized that Iran or China had developed a proximity fuse for the RPG, making them more deadly to low & slow flying targets. (Open source Black Hawk Down page 88). IF these have been exported to the Taliban, this could force a change in strategy. Something like no more CH47's in direct insertions[/quote]
    I think the pulling of the CH47 also happed in Vietnam as too risky and the possibility of catrosophic loss too high.[/quote]

    Don't think it'd be wise to pull the Chinooks away. From what I gather it'd leave a shortage of choppers, and the Chinooks are faster (not always good, the Chinook that got shot down from the QRF during Redwing had flown ahead of it's escorting Apaches to get there faster) than many other helicopters (I think) and they can climb to higher altitudes than most other helicopters.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 8 years ago
    It is good to see that Michael is writing again. I have been concerned about vocal support of Michael's efforts over the last couple of years, as it seems he has traveled much, but written little of substance (facebook posts don't count). Please keep it up.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Roch Thornton · 8 years ago
    Our medevacs were flown by the brave men and Hueys of the Army's 436th Medical Detachment out of Danang. The one time a Marine CH-46 was assigned to fly our medevac ... they would not land until the LZ had been cold for an hour. Ice cold. I was infuriated at the time ... with a wounded man on my hands ... but in retrospect those twin rotor birds are a bad choice for small LZs under enemy fire. They're too big and too slow when landing or taking off. Their main benefit ... they carry a crapload of men and gear.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Canadian · 8 years ago
    As a Canadian Infantryman you would think I have bias, but really I don't. Our senior leadership have made some piss poor mistakes.

    That doesn't however translate into how OP MEDUSA was a success. It met it's objectives as an operation. People seem to forget that before the start of MEDUSA, the police and ANA positions were attacked IN FORCE by insurgents which almost wiped them out. We rolled up onto prepared positions- actual trench lines- and swept through massive enemy defensive setups. INT told us there would be 1500 enemy- we said "BS"- later we confirmed that number by UAV and Fixed wing thermal overflight. The enemy has not ever massed in those numbers again.

    The problem was after, my unit rotated out- so did much of the senior RC South command. We said there weren't enough pers on the ground, nobody listened.That's when Canada and RC South as a whole dropped the ball. NATO allows commanders to rotate too often and strategy is never consistent.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Violette · 8 years ago
    This means you got all 1500 tugs ????
    If yes WOOOWWW ! Canadians
    Sad for this "lazy" NATO commanders...

    TODAY I gave a hug to the mailman handing me THE BOOK ! 3487 Thanks [that's my#]to Michael's devoted team to make it possible, and Mike: your signature is just class ,silver on black.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 8 years ago
    That's been the problem with this war up until late '09. We're pretty good at clearing, but holding and transferring is out of the question when we had all our focus on Iraq - where we didn't invest enough troops until late on either.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Canadian · 8 years ago
    You'll never get everyone, but yeah our count of insurgent dead was quite high- and not "I think I got him"- actual counting. Most of it was through air strikes and artillery, but there was some very serious ground combat as well. When they tried to retreat there was a single convoy of enemy that were all killed by coordinated air strikes totaling several hundred- as counted by actual boots on the ground. The problem was that those numbers were never really reported because Afghanistan was supposed to be all but over by 2006. Obviously we knew that wasn't correct, but governments of all coalition countries like to say "don't worry we won" well before it's true.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Buck Bamboo · 8 years ago
    More prep fire is needed on the LZ before coming in with a big bird like that. You gotta keep their heads down.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kurt.Olney · 8 years ago
    1970-71 9 Army Lockheed YO-3As deployed to Vietnam. These were low altitude silent airplanes that operated at night with night vision, infrared illuminator and laser target designator. In 14 months of operation, no YO-3A ever took a round or was shot down by the VC. Predators are nice, but they make a lot of noise at low altitude. NASA still has an operational YO-3A. The YO-3A proved to be a very successful hunter killer team with INFANT helicopters. It is a shame this airplane is not used in Afghanistan.
    See www.YO-3A.com

  • This commment is unpublished.
    ROBERT QUEEN · 8 years ago
    As the FSC for 1st MARINES IN NAM 1969 WE SUCCESSFULLY LANDED CH-46'S IN NORMALLY HOT LZs by firing "False Preps" on LZ's 1 km from the real LZ. Worked all three times it was tried. VC were caught watching the LZ prep sitting in the open. Might work in AFG. Worth a try anyway, I believe. RAQ
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Canadian · 8 years ago
    The problem is that we don't "prep" in Afghanistan. Unless there are obvious targets to engage we don't have anything to shoot at, both ROE wise and practically. I'm sure exceptions can be made, but generally the LZs aren't hot, and anyone hitting a Helo isn't planning to- they just have an opportunity because they get lucky. Although better deception is obviously needed. The other issue is that with the open terrain, the whole point of Helo landings is generally to achieve surprise so that the enemy can't just jump on a motorcycle or in a truck and drive away across the desert, if you start shooting too early and they'll just bolt.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    LV Toth · 8 years ago
    The assertion that the US is superior to the Soviets because of its moral imperative in Afgh is an example of the Petraeus-enforced "good news" narrative ISAF has been spewing and the GOs and O-6s have been regurgitating. The Soviets went to Afgh to bolster a floundering [communist] government and protect the sovereign interests of the citizens against Islamic fundamentalists and their Saudi and Pakistani patrons. The Soviets squandered lives and resources while deceiving their own population and leadership about "progress." Their metrics were wonky, their victories dubious and their national security priorities went undefined for nearly a decade. Sounding familiar yet?

    The steely focused troops of this war - "the working man" - deserves better leadership than PR puppets and politicians in green.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Canadian · 8 years ago

    A Long War Journal link, quoting 510 in the first week of Medusa.

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