Michael's Dispatches

The Bridge

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Need Bullets?  The shortest distance between South Carolina and Kandahar is about 7,500 miles.  (As the rocket flies.)

Shah Wali Kot, Afghanistan
11 March 2009

The military axiom that “amateurs talk strategy while professionals talk logistics” has special meaning in Afghanistan. During the Soviet war, though the Bear comprised Afghanistan’s entire northern border, the Afghan resistance was frequently able to block Soviet logistical operations, which were dependent on scant roads, tunnels and corridors. Captured Soviet logistics convoys often supplied the Mujahidin.

Logistics in landlocked Afghanistan are exceptionally tough because the country is a transportation nightmare of impassable mountains, barren deserts, and rugged landscape with only capillary roads and airports.

When we lose a bridge, we can’t just detour twenty miles to the next one, as we might on the plains of Europe.  In Afghanistan, there might not be another route for hundreds of miles. Conversely, Afghan fighters, who have used guerilla warfare tactics for decades—centuries even—lack our tanks, vehicles and massive supply lines, leaving them less dependent on infrastructure.  Most of the guerrillas we face are from the immediate area. Their corn comes from their own stalks; ours comes from other continents.

Cargo lands at Karachi and is trucked into Afghanistan through Spin Boldak and Torkham.

Supplies shipped by sea to the port of Karachi flow through two major arteries into Afghanistan. In the north is Torkham, near the famous Khyber Pass. In the south is Spin Boldak, a border town located between Quetta in Pakistan, and Kandahar in Afghanistan.  Kandahar, with its critical airfield, will be a major locus for the upcoming offensive, making route security crucial to US/NATO plans.

Stryker Brigade Combat Team 5/2 (SBCT) is responsible for security at the Spin Boldak point of entry and has deployed the 8-1 Cavalry squadron to live in and patrol the area.  Just north of Spin Boldak, in the wilds along the border, are known enemy safe havens that were used during the Soviet war.

The Stryker Brigade is also tasked with a Freedom of Movement (FOM) mission that extends from Spin Boldak along Highway 4 past Kandahar Airfield (KAF), which is literally one of the busiest airports in the world.  According to AFCENT, during FY09 there were 184,095 tower movements at KAF, which explains why it’s so loud there.  Highway 4 passes the eastern end of KAF’s single runway. About three miles beyond the runway, Highway 4 crosses over the Tarnak River Bridge, one of a number of crucial chokepoints, on the road north to Kandahar.

Normally, such a bridge would be irrelevant to larger logistics considerations. Yet this sorry little bridge is important to the United States and NATO, both for the sake of logistics, and, these days, strategy.  If the Tarnak River Bridge were to be destroyed before or during the upcoming offensive, that inconvenience would become a genuine impediment to movement of troops and supplies.

Some people think the enemy would not attack the crucial bridges because they need them as much as we do. And, in the ongoing battle for the support of the population, the insurgents know that local villagers need the bridges to move any possible produce to market. Yet, as the war progresses, many people understand that we need the bridges more than the enemy does.

From Highway 4, Stryker FOM missions continue along several areas, mostly along Highway 1 out to Helmand Province.  The task is to the keep the roads open.  Throughout most of Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, slightly away from the main roads, the enemy has almost complete freedom of movement.  Basically, we “own” the highways while they are mostly free to operate in the countryside.  The struggle continues for influence over the inhabitants of the villages, towns and cities.

The KAF runway and Highway 4 are main arteries for the unfolding offensive.  Many of the missions and supplies launch from KAF, north along Highway 4, over Tarnak River Bridge.

Who’s In Charge?

The overall commander of ISAF forces in Afghanistan is often called “COMISAF,” or “M4.”  The man behind the letters is General Stanley McChrystal.  General McChrystal’s boss is General David Petraeus at CENTCOM.

Within Afghanistan there are five Regional Commands: RC-West (lead nation Italy); RC-North (Germany); RC-Capital (France); RC-East (United States); and RC-South (UK currently).

In theory, the RCs report directly to Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, an experienced and highly respected commander.  In practice they are a herd of cats, lacking unity of effort.  The reality is that each command reports back to its own leadership—in Rome, Paris, Berlin or wherever.

Down here in RC-South, the current lead nation is the UK.  The British Commander is Major General Nick Carter. Americans, Canadians and others fall under RC-South, which is further broken down into Task Force Helmand (TF-H); TF-Kandahar (TF-K); TF-Uruzgan; TF-Zabul; TF-Fury and TF-Stryker.

The Dutch are lead nation in TF-U. Canadians are lead nation in TF-K. The Tarnak River Bridge falls in the general area of TF-K.

Please stay with me. This matters.

And so it goes like this:

Major General Nick Carter (UK) commands RC-South.

Brigadier General Daniel Menard (Canada) commands Task Force Kandahar.

Under BG Menard’s command are three U.S. Battalions and just over 2,800 Canadian forces.  (U.S. battalions: 1-12 Infantry Reg.; 2-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment; 97th Military Police Battalion). American combat forces comprise a substantial portion of Menard’s force structure, leaving his command and Canadian civilian leadership open to fair scrutiny, just as American leadership is open to Canadian inquiry.  Moreover, while Canada increasingly shies from combat, American units under Canadian command will spill blood under Canadian military leadership that answers to Ottawa.

Kandahar Province is apportioned into battle spaces.  As mentioned, TF-Stryker has responsibilities that include Spin Boldak and FOM on Highway 4 that crosses the Tarnak River Bridge.  TF-Stryker, however, is not responsible for the bridge itself.

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) is responsible for something called the GDA.  The GDA is the Ground Defense Area, and is responsible for security immediately around KAF.  By all accounts, the RAF is doing a fine job.  The GDA includes the area around the Tarnak River Bridge.

TF-K is responsible for Kandahar, but the specific area of the bridge belongs to the RAF.  However, the bridge itself is guarded not by RAF but by ANP (Afghan National Police) mentored by the American 97th MPs.  The 97th is under Canadian command through TF-K.  And so, at the time of the attack, TF-K was responsible for the physical security on the bridge itself, while GDA had responsibility for the land around the bridge.

Which Coalition partner has final responsibility for this strategic bridge?  Is it the RAF who “own” the ground, or TF-K who mentor the ANP guarding the bridge?  If an officer were to say this vital bridge is solely the responsibility of the ANP, his judgment would be deemed unsound.


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    CaptainMike · 9 years ago
    It is rather obvious that "Kit" and "CQMS" are nothing more than some oddball species of internet troll, It's best to just ignore them.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack · 9 years ago
    Jack E. Hammond wrote, "Unlike the US, Canada has a small army. It just does not have the depth like the US military and other worlds military's ground forces which can rotate battalion or brigades in and out of Afghanistan. For the number of soldiers and the size of their ground forces, Canada has taken a pretty big hit in Afghanistan. It is other NATO nations (German being the main one) that let us down in Afghanistan. Not CANADA."

    Partially true ... Canada's military is very small, but I believe it is much smaller than it should be and can be. Canada neither spends enough to defend itself nor contributes its fair share to its collective defense commitment as a member NATO. Canada spends about 1.1% of GDP on defense, just above half of the 2.0% NATO treaty "mandated" minimum, and less than a quarter of the percentage of GDP the U.S. spends. In essence, Canada, and most other NATO nations freeload on American defense spending, and have for sixty years.

    I'm not saying that the U.S. hasn't gained from this arrangement, only that such altruism is not sustainable. Current U.S. budget woes demonstrate that America cannot fund both the level of defense spending needed to meet its military commitments around the world and it's current welfare entitlements … let alone the kind of comprehensive cradle-to-grave welfare regimen, including universal health care, provided by most EU and NATO nations.

    The question is, what happens to NATO (and South Korea, Japan, Israel, etc.) when the U.S. inevitably slashes real defense spending? The EU possesses a GDP larger than the U.S., yet spends so little cumulatively on defense that it has proven itself unable even to address issues in their own back yard (e.g., the Balkans mess), until the Americans participate.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kit · 9 years ago
    Interviewee:
    William Drozdiak, President, the American Council on Germany

    Interviewer:
    Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
    Council on Foreign Relations

    March 2, 2010

    In criticizing Europe for not paying its share of NATO's costs, Gates said NATO troops don't have enough helicopters, tanks, and other equipment. Is this because of the budget crisis through the world?

    It's because in Europe there is no security threat on the horizon, while there was one during the Cold War days, so it's harder to get voters to accept that they need to spend more on defense. Europeans now spend about 1.7 percent on average of their gross domestic product on defense, with the United States spending 4 or 5 percent. But the real problem has been the concern within Europe that continuing the war against the Taliban is not going to bring about a long-term peaceful solution and that European politicians have a hard time convincing their public that fighting on behalf of the regime of President Hamid Karzai--which is widely viewed as corrupt--is a worthy cause.

    December 10, 2009
    OTTAWA—A new report shows that Canada’s rising National Defence spending is $21.185 billion in 2009-2010, making Canada’s rank 13th highest in the world, and 6th highest among NATO’s 28 members, dollar for dollar. (The 15 countries with the highest spending in the world account for over 81% of the total)
    -"Canadian Military Spending 2009" is published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Bill Robinson is a defence analyst and senior adviser of the Rideau Institute.

    BTW, for Canada and Nato, it's currently 1.3% of GDP. Still, size wise, the military is small. We only have a population of 33.3 million and so far doesn't look likely we'll be a military nation like North Korea, or Israel, etc.

    Still, not that shabby - all things considered for a country that not many country's have a beef with. Canada, is not a permanent member of the UN security council, ie, U.S. France, Uk, Russia and China. Those 5 permanent members have a mandate to be a "Great Power" that can project their military muscle around the globe. The United Nations Security Council is the most powerful body of the United Nations. The Security Council can authorize the deployment of troops from United Nations member countries, mandate cease-fire during conflict, and can impose economic penalties on countries.

    So what good is Canada?

    The Global Peace Index is an attempt to quantify the difficult-to-define value of peace and rank countries based on over 20 indicators using both quantitative data and qualitative scores from a range of sources. The top ranking nations on the global peace index were, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Austria, Sweden, Japan, Canada, Finland, and Slovenia.

    Or, there are potentially other strengths:

    From Embassy, Canada's Foreign Policy Newspaper By Carl Mayer, March 10th, 2010:

    Less than 48 hours after an earthquake devastated Haiti, Canadian soldiers were en route to help provide security, humanitarian aid and other assistance.

    The speed of the response—a sharp contrast to previous Canadian military endeavours—did not pass without notice. Their speed and effectiveness in deployment were and are unsurpassed in the world."

    In an overview of required capabilities for force projection, Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden, the head of the Canadian Navy, as well as the other chiefs of staff, pointed to rapid deployment as one of their preferred policies during a presentation at the Conference of Defence Associations. Vice-Admiral McFadden, who talked optimistically about the idea, said it such deployments are a clear example of "what we do."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Matt · 9 years ago
    We're all frustrated over the way the war is progressing, regarless of whether or not you agree with its cause. But (as an American), I don't like this idea of blaming Canada, or any other ally, for one reason in particular: we need to be supporting the troops. I think it's been clearly demonstrated here that Canadian soldiers are exceptional fighters, dedicated to help cleaning up the mess in the middle east. When we start putting targets on each other's backs, however, even if someone in charge is responsible for a tragety that could have been prevented, I can't help but think that it trickles down to the troops under that leadership and affects their morale. So if nothing else, when diagnosing a problem on this scale, care must be taken so that it doesn't seem we are at all degrading the brave men and women who are dying alongside us.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack · 9 years ago
    Good post by Kit. A key sentence is "It's because in Europe there is no security threat on the horizon, while there was one during the Cold War days, so it's harder to get voters to accept that they need to spend more on defense." If that is the attitude of European populations and governments, NATO should be saluted for its accomplishments, and shut down.

    Trouble is, if a security threat arises, it is likely to happen more quickly than an adaquate responding military build-up can be executed, given the long lead times to develop and produce modern weapon systems. This is especially true because governments and populations will stay in denial as long as possible due to constraints on their spending.

    The U.S. will face this too once it inevitably cuts its spending sharply. Given Europe's experience, a U.S. spending 2.0% or so of GDP on defense is likely to find itself hard-pressed to defend just it's continental heartland against an aggressor. American defense platforms are rapidly becoming obsolescent, and are not being replaced adaquately by next generation systems. This trend will only become worse as dollars dry up.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Deidre · 9 years ago
    Well, boys, it's days late and I've never been deployed, in service, or married to it, but all this back and forth between Kit and others is incredibly tiresome. Kit seems to like insulting Americans. I like Americans. I am an American. I am an American by birth. I love the American military. I do not take kindly to those who think it charming to accuse Americans of drinking the koolaid (a reference, unfortunately, a crazy American leftist/communist/dictator named Jim Jones). So, Kit, as my dear ole Daddy used to say, "Blow it out your barracks bag."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kit · 9 years ago
    A subtle influence on a highly self-regarding and insular discussion group that deludes them into agreeing to dubious assumptions and plans on the basis that everyone else seemed to think it was a good idea... or at least no one wanted to be the one to speak up in dissent.

    It mentally shortcuts past the process of examining risks and alternatives, assuming that of course the others have taken them into due consideration.

    - The short and easy definition of Groupthink - longer ones are easy to find.

    To blindly follow and support a cause, sports team, religion, protest, political figure, etc. without first looking into it or researching it

    -definition of the phrase 'Drinking the kool-aid'

    Related to - groupthink.

    I think you fall into one of the major symptoms: Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.

    Btw, what's all the love, and 'I am''s got to do with it? and, I didn't coin that phase, nor am I the only one to see Americans drinking the 'kool-aid' (retired US Army officer, W. Patrick Lang, comes to mind - that was the name of the article!) there are literally hundreds, mainly within your own country. Although, I may be the only one to point it out regarding this specific topic to which I specifically was referring the phrase to, that being the topic of 'The Bridge' and the facebook comments.

    But thanks for reinforcing my observation.... Pick a flavor.

    Read the comments on Army to Army, it's not just here:

    >>It also scares me how most, not everyone, but most seem to trust the words of Michael Jon blindly, with any critical consideration. I have seen very few posts here that actually seem to critizise or atleast have a somewhat open view on the matter. Makes me think slightly about a totalitarian state where no other views are accepted.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jack E. Hammond · 9 years ago
    Folks,

    This message is sort of late and I have a feeling I might be the only one to read it even, but I thought someone should post what has happened after that bridge was damaged so bad it could not be used. Below is a link to some photos of the Canadian combat engineers making a temp repair to that bridge. I had to use tinyurl.com to shrink the web address as it is on Militaryphotos.net very long.

    Jack E. Hammond

    http://tinyurl.com/yjrkomq

    .
  • This commment is unpublished.
    DFraser · 9 years ago
    Very silly debate. My Yon was no doubt a very good soldier but his understanding of command relationships in a coalition warfare is limited. Most of the gray area here was created by Mr Yon through a creative use of word smithing which makes him an interesting blogger. Unfortunately, his inability to be detached from his blogging make him a poor source of news reporting. Indeed, his attempt to drive a wedge between coalition partners make him more useful to the Taliban and Bin Laden than to the NATO, Canada or the USA.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Richard in Toronto · 9 years ago
    I'm a civilian, never been in the military, but it seems to me that having so many nations with no straightforward command structure is a recipe for this sort of mess. It happened, let's try to learn from it and instead of taking potshots at each other let's support our troops, from whichever country and get on with the war. My view on this is that our soldiers are great, but they are bogged down by bureaucratic infighting. I wish all the best to all of our soldiers in Afghanistan!
  • This commment is unpublished.
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