Saturday, August 6, 2011

The RPGs of August

I'll get to a few thoughts on the US Army War College's 6th Strategy Implementation Strategy in just a bit.  Today we awoke to news of a singularly deadly event in our ten year war in Afghanistan.  The great upticks in personnel and operations by Special Operations Forces (SOFs) in Afghanistan over the past couple of years increased the probability of higher casualties among SOFs, but to lose around 20 -- nearly 10% of the SEAL Team Six (DevGru) total members -- in one event is a great blow.  One of many summary articles based on knowledge as of this writing can be found here and for a recent overview of Special Operations Forces, see this 21 page report of the Congressional Research Service.

As stated in the Washington Post article posted above, this tragic event will not precipitate change in the counter-insurgency strategy that is highly dependent on SOFs.  This is not to say that the strategy isn't undergoing change, but it's the looming withdrawals of U.S. and international forces over the next couple of years that will indicate such change.

It is interesting that the weapon of choice -- or, more likely, of necessity -- was an RPG launcher rather than more traditional anti-aircraft weaponry.  Indeed, U.S. officials have downplayed the amount of information known so far about the attack, citing ongoing investigative work. It will be interesting to watch this play out, keeping in mind the controversy over a downing of a U.S. Chinook nicknamed Flipper over Helmand in 2007.  According to reporting in the Guardian's War Logs, U.S. officials reported an RPG as the culprit, while a NATO spokesperson was stating that "It's not possible for small-arms fire to bring down a helicopter."  Rather, a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft rocket launcher was the more likely successful weapon, allegedly sourced from Algeria through Iran into Afghanistan (according to anonymous, unconfirmed information culled from Wikileaks).  I encourage you to read this and other Guardian War Logs and decide for yourself on the utility of the information therein; after all, even for the enormity of the Wikileaks info-dumps, they still provide snapshots of their given subjects, numerous and larger shapshots, but with definite boundaries.  One point should be made here regarding the NATO spokesperson's quote above about small-arms fire:  Apaches, Blackhawks, and (most vulnerable) Chinooks have all been taken down by RPGs, though of course most helicopter crashes are from mechanical or human error as well as weather.  I did a bit of research today, just a quick muck in data provided through DoD Press Releases.  The data clearly show the challenges presented by the proliferation of Rocket Propelled Grenades:

Data: RPGs and related captured by U.S. and coalition forces.
Source: DoD News Releases; any errors are mine.
To July 2011:    Not comprehensive. Focused on Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) almost exclusively; many other weapons and types of ammo were also recovered, as well as narcotics.

An April 8 report on captures since the beginning of 2011 summarized the following: 32,000 lbs ammonium nitrate, 40 lbs magnesium, 5550 ft detonation cord/wire, 400 mortar rounds, 150 landmines, 400 hand grenades, 60 RPG launchers, 260 RPG rounds, 200 pressure plates (for use on RPGs).

Some details on RPGs:
Jan 8    S/E Af                                                         9 RPGs
Feb 9    Panjwa'i District, Kandahar Province        26 RPG motors
Feb 9    Arghandab District, Kandahar Province     7 RPG warheads
Feb 11                                                                118 RPG warheads, 31 RPGs
Mar 8    S Af                                                          5 RPG boosters, 1 RPG launcher
Mar 9    Tagab District, Kapisa Province                 1 RPG
Mar 9    Sangia District, Helman Province                1 RPG, 1 anti-tank weapon,
Mar 9    Mehtar Lam District, Laghman Prov         33 RPGs, 9 anti-personnel mines
Mar 10  Sabari District, Khost Province Capture Haqqani bomb facilitator -- financial, media,  
logistical support, including transport of mines, RPGs, etc.

Apr 8    Andar District, Ghazni Province                   3 RPG rounds, 3 RPG launchers
Apr 8    Helmand & Uruzgan Provinces                    2 RPG launchers
Apr 9    Arghandab District, Kandahar Prov             9 RPGs
Apr 9    Zurmat District, Paktiya Province                1 RPG
Apr 10    Paghman District, Kabul Province           22 RPG rounds
Apr 11    Qarghahi District, Laghman Province   RPG fire on U.S. forces
Apr 11    Ghazni Province                                     16 RPGs
Apr 12    Uruzgan, Kandahar & Helmand Prov       4 RPG rounds
May 6    Logar Province                                       20 RPGs, 2 RPG launchers (also ANA                                 and U.S. Army uniforms)
May 7    Barfak District, Baghram Province            1 RPG, multiple rounds ammo
May 7    Several areas summed                          132 artillery projectiles, 10 RPG launchers;                                                                                                    2 mortars, 1 RPG round                                                                          550 lbs marijuana
                                                                           80 lbs black tar heroin &
                                                                           30 lbs crushed cold medicine

May 11    Ahmadabad District, Paktiya Prov       15 RPGs, 3 RPG boosters
June 6    Baghran District, Helmand Prov             70 anti-personnel mines, 3 RPG                                                                                                                         launchers, 15 RPGs, 22 lbs opium
June 7    Washer District, Helmand Province        10 RPGs
July 8    Muhammad Aghah District, Logar Prov    2 RPGs, 600 heavy machine gun rounds


The first question that came to mind regarded the origins of the Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) fire that reportedly brought down the Chinook.  The hand of Iran is certainly a possible avenue to explore, and should Iranian culpability be established, we can expect a continued refocusing of our regional strategy toward Iran as Afghanistan fades from view.  Put another way, containing violence in post-OEF Afghanistan will require containing Iran's persistent efforts to exploit regional instabilities.  Earlier this year Iran released from house arrest senior al Qaeda leaders and members of Osama bin Laden's family.  The release was reportedly negotiated by Sirajuddin Haqqani of the highly influential Haqqani network in Afghanistan. Reflect on this news reported in the Kuwait publication Al-Watan, then consider this possibly very prescient analysis in the May 7, 2011 issue of The Military Balance, a highly respected publication: "Iran has for some time been supplying training, weapons and money to the Afghan Taliban as a relatively low risk way of sustaining pressure on the United States. The release of senior and experienced al-Qaeda leaders suggest that Iran may have decided to up the ante" (emphasis mine; The Military Balance 111 1:1, p. 12).

Another possible foreign hand behind the attack, or at least behind part of it such as supply, logistics and especially intelligence is the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).  Perhaps it's just low-hanging fruit, but it is difficult to overlook who was attacked -- as has been reported over and again, Seal Team Six, the unit responsible for killing OBL to the humiliation of the ISI.  Of course, this is but one layer of many among the 
ties between the ISI and the Afghan insurgency.

At this point, investigations and reprisals that we may never know about must go on before we can further analyze the situation.  The number of SOFs on the copter and the very use of the Chinook for this operation have been questioned, but at this point speculation is the best anyone can do.

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