“A Bridge Too Far: Ramifications of the “Quiet Surge” For Afghanistan”

It seems the past couple of months have played witness to a fundamental shift towards addressing the much belated needs of U.S.-NATO and Afghan Coalition Forces in Afghanistan. Although I am not one for advocating more war or the expanding of conflict, I am one for taking care of our commitments and finishing what we start on a victorious note. I’d rather support a complete pull-out from these cursed deployment areas but the reality of this particular situation is that we haven’t gone far enough to finish the job.

The title caption reference (for those possibly unfamiliar with the words) to “A Bridge Too Far” is a slight homage of mine paid to the journalist/historian Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 non-fiction book (later a 1977 movie adaptation by the same name) recounting the harrowing actions surrounding the WWII Allied Forces Airborne assault into Holland called Operation: Market-Garden. The words were first uttered and immortalized by British Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Browning, then deputy commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, when speaking to British Army Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery prior to the aforementioned operation. His complete sentence was “I think we may be going a bridge too far”. The bridge analogy was one of literal meaning too as the crux of the allied plan was to attempt the securing of actual bridges or bridging points across the several rivers of Holland (or the Netherlands) and eventually north western Germany, namely the Rhine, leading into the industrial heartland of the Third Reich.

The simplest breakdown of Operation Market-Garden (Market = Allied Airborne force and Garden = Allied Ground maneuver forces) is this: a) Allied Airborne forces conducted the world’s (and history’s) largest airborne/glider borne paratrooper assault deep behind enemy front lines, b) said airborne/glider borne forces were only meant to hold secured drop zones and bridges for a short while (owing to the fact that these were light infantry troops not designed to stand up to heavier enemy ground elements, e.g. German tanks, dropped deep behind enemy lines and not easily replenished with soldiers, equipment, or supplies), c) a promised advancement by the British XXX Corps to the hamlet of Arnhem, Holland within 48 hours to link up and relieve the British 1st Airborne Division (relief of the American 101st Airborne Division at Eindhoven and the 82nd Airborne Division at Nijmegen would be accomplished along the way to Arnhem). The age old adage is “no plan survives contact with the enemy” came through in spades for the Allied forces and five hard fought days later the first advance elements of XXX Corps reach the bitterly embattled British paratroopers. Of course, dropping in unannounced on top of two German SS Panzer Divisions resting and refitting in the same area as your drop zones are located did contribute a wee bit to the overall complexity of the situation. Needless to say, the British First Airborne bubbas were decimated and the bridge not secured until later.

My analogy isn’t meant to go as deep as to draw exact or lengthy parallels between that operation and our current actions in Afghanistan (although having both the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions major participants in both conflicts is eerie), merely to illustrate similar ones, namely the one for anticipated reinforcement and re-supply, and refit.

The super basic analogy resides with:
– The U.S.-NATO forces deployed to Afghanistan current represent the light infantry forces deployed deep within enemy territory. Their mission is to vanquish the foe within and then maintain a hold on the territorial integrity and continuity that is Afghanistan (Eindhoven, nijmegen, and Arnhem drop zones).
– Their relief or reinforcement is an anticipated troop surge priority (albeit the decision of this needing to be a priority is very late in coming) (XXX Corps commitment).
– And, finally, their anticipated reinforcements are the much held up by bureaucratic red tape and politics “surge” troops (XXX Corps hold up and the hard fighting left for the embattled airborne forces).

President George W. Bush, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, and Commander, U.S. Central Command (formerly MNF-I Commander in Iraq) General David Petraeus have all now put forth press releases touting the need for a “Surge” for Afghanistan. If I wanted to be cynical right at this moment I would berate the fact that at least with Iraq it only took three years to correct an insufficiency of “boots-on-the-ground”, Afghanistan has apparently taken nearly seven years!!!

The acknowledgment that the fight in Afghanistan is distinctly different than in Iraq is crucial and I feel it will prove key to any strategy implemented. I also feel it is imperative that this difference, this distinction in fighting tactics, techniques, and procedures between Iraq and Afghanistan needs be pressed home in the minds of the U.S. Congress and the American people in order for the proper grasping of what is “going on” over there. I really felt a terrible job was accomplished in explaining the “surge” in Iraq to the American people (being cynical again I could also expect that Congress was ill informed too). This likely contributed to the lukewarm reception it has had among the national audience since said introduction.

I have mentioned before, the “fight” in Afghanistan has been, and at times still is, a much more “conventional” one shrouded amidst the usual confines of an insurgency. Yes, the asymmetric warfare elements abound and the arena of the unconventional is still the major playing field. But, it is not entirely a straight-forward unconventional fight. Afghan militants, whether Taliban, Mujahideen, narco-terrorists, or foreign fighter contingents, have been engaging from the beginning in some very “stand-up” fight kind of tactics over the years.

In addition to addressing the need for a troop surge alone in Afghanistan, addressing of the cross-border activities into Afghanistan from Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere, along with so called “sanctuary” areas or safe haven locales, primarily located within the little monitored Pakistani Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) is of the utmost importance.

Over the past several weeks we have seen a tremendous upsurge in the U.S.-Afghan Coalition forces cross border land unit and air asset infractions into Pakistan, namely the Waziristan Agency area. At the risk of putting the Pakistan allies in a trigger happy defensive posture attempting to maintain national and international political face while upholding domestic sovereignty, this cross over into this tribal areas in particular has been much needed for many years. Strange to have to say it again but here it is seven years later and the U.S. is just now handling the situation heavy-handed enough to begin making headway eliminating persistent enemy elements! It’s great that U.S.- Afghan Coalition forces are having such success eliminating key targets there but it comes with a high, stiff price. The U.S. risks escalating our entire relationship with Pakistan into a confrontation with them as a nation state instead of securing mutual cooperation in conducting joint operations to destroy mutual enemy forces.

The “inconvenient truth” of the war IN Afghanistan is that it may actually be best fought OUTSIDE of Afghanistan. The U.S. national military strategy path is now leading possibly towards taking the fight to the sanctuary zones in Pakistan, and may later expand to consider interference from other border fronts of Iran, Uzbekistan, etc. This isn’t a satisfying prospect in the least. Strange how times change circumstances and bedfellows, eh? The U.S. fights the Soviets in Afghanistan from safe haven positions in Pakistan only to turn-around 20 years later to fight Afghanistan Taliban elements in Pakistan from “safe haven” positions in Afghanistan!