Monday 27 April 2009

Peace in our time

In response to Booker's piece on Afghanistan yesterday, a number of commentators disagreed with his "take" on the situation. One, who called himself "Praetorian" even went so far as to argue that the situation in Helmand was largely under control.

According to this anonymous source, the US did not retake Now Zad. It was handed over peacefully by the Estonians to the US so that the Estonians could be redeployed to the Nad-e Ali district (this actually happened in Nov 08). Thus, does he claim that, while the situation that Christopher Booker describes was true two years ago:

Currently we have secured the five major population centres in Helmand and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have exploited this security to deliver tangible, effective and sustainable reconstruction and development. During our tour you could count the number of security incidents in these areas on the fingers of your hands. During Dec 08 we mounted a major operation (Op Sond Chara) that secured 270 km square of fertile land and 100,000 people. We established patrol bases and have delivered sufficient security to enable Voter Registration, Focused District Development for the Afghan National Police and Governor-led Poppy Eradication, all without major incident. In short, the columnist is out-of-date and ill-informed.
Going back to look as those two years of peace so admirably described, there are just one or two incidents which might cast a little doubt on the glowing picture painted. Actually, there are slightly more than one or two.

Focusing exclusively on Now Zad, on 14 March 2007 RAF GR-7 Harriers were dropping Enhanced Paveway II laser-guided bombs on an enemy firing position and a building used as an additional firing position near Now Zad.

The next day, on 15 March 2007, one of two separate F-15Es of the US Air Force dropped a GBU-12 on enemies on a hilltop near Now Zad. The enemies were using the hilltop to direct mortar fire at coalition forces. One of the F-15Es then dropped a GBU-12 on the hilltop mortar position.

Then, on 16 March 2007, the F-15E Eagles were back, assigned to support coalition forces taking fire from and returning artillery fire to an enemy location near Now Zad. The F-15s made three passes over the target area, expending multiple GBU-12s, GBU-38s and 20 mm cannon rounds on enemy firing positions.

Only days later, on 19 March 2007, F/A-18s conducted aerial reconnaissance for a suspected mortar position near Now Zad. The F/A-18 pilots reported spotting multiple individuals on a ridge.

On 27 March 2007, it was the RAF's turn, as Harriers dropped Advance Paveway II munitions on a building and compound where insurgents were firing upon coalition forces near Now Zad.

The following month, on 12 April 2007, F-15Es provided overwatch of a village being used as a meeting location for local elders. And, at the coalition ground force commander's direction, the pilots also provided overwatch for a coalition convoy vehicle disabled by a mine in the same area.

The next day, on 13 April 2007, US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles received notice that coalition forces were taking mortar and small arms fire while trying to make their way to the district center of Now Zad. A Joint Terminal Attack Controller passed coordinates for a building used as an enemy fighting position and the F-15Es dropped a GBU-38 on the target. The JTAC confirmed the building was destroyed. Another GBU-38 was dropped successfully on a second target at the request of the coalition ground commander.

The F-15Es were then assigned to make strafing passes into a wooded area that was a known enemy firing position and where enemy forces were attempting to manoeuvre around coalition forces. After the jets strafed the wooded area, anti-aircraft artillery was heard. By then, coalition forces had made their way safely to the district centre.

On 4 May 2007, US Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs provided reconnaissance of enemy firing positions and suspicious activity near Now Zad. A week later, on 13 May 2007, US Navy F-18F Super Hornets dropped multiple GBU-12s on enemies in the area including a sniper and an insurgent cave. The JTAC confirmed the bombs hit their targets. F-18s also dropped a GBU-12 on insurgents moving toward a disabled vehicle. Then, a US Air Force MQ-1 Predator fired a Hellfire missile at enemy targets fleeing from the attack by the F-18.

Things seem to have quietened down a little for it was not until 6 July 2007 that A-10s were in action, performing shows of force with flares over Now Zad. Then, on 15 July 2007, RAF Harrier GR-7s searched compounds and monitored suspicious vehicles.

The 17 July 2007 saw F-15Es provide successful shows of force to deter enemy activity and the 23 July 2007 had a RAF Harrier GR-9A also provide a show of force in what was termed "the Now Zad battle".

The big stuff came in on 24 July 2007, when a B-1 Lancer (pictured above) dropped GBU-38s on an enemy mortar team in Now Zad. Two days later, on 26 July 2007, another RAF Harrier GR-7 conducted a successful show of force with flares.

Three days later, on 29 July 2007, F-15Es were back in action dropping GBU-38s on a mortar firing position in Now Zad. The weapons hit their intended target. The aircrews also provided a show of force to deter any more enemy activity in the area.

Two days later, on 31 July 2007, the big stuff was back in town when a US Air Force B-1B Lancer destroyed a mortar position and hit enemies on along a ridgeline with GBU-31s in Now Zad. An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle also provided a show of force with flares over an enemy mortar position for friendly forces in the area.

It was A10s which delivered the goods on 5 August 2007 when thet destroyed an enemy mortar position with a general purpose 500-pound bomb. Four days later, on 9 August 2007, F-15E Strike Eagles were in the sky, dropping GBU-38s on a compound and a tree line.

The 11 August 2007 had an F-15E providing a show of force with flares to deter a potential second attack by the enemy while the 23 August 2007 saw a B-1 provide shows of presence and air effects over coalition routes near Now Zad.

On 25 August 2007, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs destroyed a mortar firing position and a building in Now Zad with a general-purpose 500 pound bomb and a GBU-12. The pilots also fired cannon rounds at the mortar position.

All we got on 6 September 2007 though were F-15Es performing a successful show of force with flares over Now Zad, a display that was repeated on 9 September 2007 when another F-15E performed a show of force with flares, this time to deter mortar fire on ground forces. An Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs also performed shows of force over vehicles to deter movement toward friendly forces.

An elapse of two days brought us to 11 September 2007 when defending coalition forces under enemy fire near Now Zad had the assistance of a US Air Force B-1B Lancer, which destroyed an enemy mortar position, a compound and caves with GBU-31s. The aircrew also successfully targeted another enemy position with a GBU-38.

On 14 September 2007, all it took was a show of force from F-15E Strike Eagles to deter anti-coalition activity but, 18 September 2007, slightly more aggressive action be A-10s was required, when they targeted enemies with cannon rounds. The JTAC confirmed the weapons hit the target. One of the pilots also conducted a show of force with flares to deter further enemy activity.

The A10s were back on 21 September 2007 when they performed a show of force to deter enemy activity but, 29 September 2007 an RAF Harrier GR-7 did the honours with its own show of force.

On 8 November 2007, Navy F/A-18C Hornets were in action, strafing enemy positions with cannon rounds and adding GBU-12s to the mayhem. During the same mission, F/A-18Cs aided in the engagement by dropping GBU-12s and firing cannon rounds against enemy combatants who were engaging coalition convoys moving through Now Zad.

An RAF Harrier showed up the next day, on 9 November 2007 and engaged an enemy position with Enhanced. Paveway II munitions. Coalition forces were taking fire from the enemy held position. During the same mission, GR-7 performed shows of force to deter enemy activities in the vicinity of Now Zad.

Five days passed when, on 14 November 2007, a show of force with flares was performed by an F/A-18C to deter enemy actions. The following week, on 22 November 2007 had a B-1B performing a show of force. That must have been impressive to watch. At an air show, you pay for that sort of thing and the Taleban were getting it free.

The 5 December 2007 saw a major intervention in support of the action in Musa Qala, when Afghan and coalition soldiers pushed back Taliban insurgents from Now Zad.

The combined force was conducting a reconnaissance patrol in Now Zad when Taliban insurgents attempted to ambush the patrol from established fighting positions. The enemy fired on the Afghan forces using small arms, rockets and mortars. The forces immediately returned small-arms and machine-gun fire, putting the enemy on the defensive.

The enemy moved to secondary positions in an attempt to flank friendly forces as the battle escalated. Afghan forces identified the new enemy fighting positions and engaged with small arms, machine guns and precision air strikes. The insurgents attempted to hide among the civilian population by moving into homes.

The Afghan civilians prevented the enemy fighters from using the compounds and their inhabitants as human shields. The enemy fighters retreated and the Afghan forces continued to clear the village to ensure no insurgents remained.

Air power was back in action on 31 December 2007 when an Air Force B-1B Lancer targeted an enemy bunker with a GBU-31 and GBU-38s. And, to celebrate the New Year, on 1 January 2008, a French Mirage-2000 engaged an enemy target with a GBU-12. The next day, 2 January 2008, had a show of force performed by a another Mirage-2000 and the 9 January 2008 had US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles engaged enemy personnel by dropping a GBU-38 in Now Zad. The F-15s also fired cannon rounds against the targets.

All we got from a Harrier GR-7 on 21 January 2008 was a show of force but on 30 January 2008 a US Air Force B-1B Lancer made up for it by dropping a GBU-38 in order to destroy an enemy mortar position in Now Zad. Just over a week later, on 8 February 2008, a B-1B Lancer was back, dropping GBU-38s and GBU-31s in order to eliminate multiple enemy combatants.

Ten days later, on 18 February 2008, a French Mirage-2000 performed a show of force and 27 February 2008 another Mirage 2000 conducted a show of force.

To ring the changes, on 3 March 2008 a US Air Force B-1B Lancer and an A-10 Thunderbolt IIs dropped GBU-12s, 31s, and 38s in order to destroy enemy combatants and enemy firing positions. Two days later, on 5 March 2008 a Lancer then dropped a GBU-38s in order to destroy enemy combatants in a bunker.

The 19 March 2008 had another Lancer in action, this time dropping a GBU-31 in order to destroy enemy combatants in a compound engaging friendly forces with mortar fire. That held the line until 5 April 2008 when shows of force were needed from French Air Force Mirage-2000s over enemy positions.

The French were back on 13 April 2008 with their Mirage-2000s again performing shows of force. But, on 16 April 2008, F-15s dropped GBU-38s in order to destroy an enemy structure housing enemy combatants and a sniper engaging friendly forces.

On 18 April 2008, a French Mirage-2000 gave another free air show, repeated on 21 April 2008 for those that missed it. To pick up the latecomers, the Mirage was back on 22 April 2008 and the 23 April 2008, again with shows of force.

To give the Taleban a change of scene, on 27 April 2008 F-15Es conducted the shows of force but, on 12 May 2008, the Mirage was back yet again, followed on 29 May 2008 by RAF GR-7 Harriers. No one could say that the Taleban were not getting value for money.

The 6 June 2008 saw F-15Es dropping GBU-12s to destroy enemy combatants and 7 June 2008 had an Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle drop a GB-38 onto enemy combatants. Then, on 15 June 2008 a B-1B Lancer dropped a GBU-31 to destroy an enemy compound.

An Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle did the honours on 17 June 2008, dropping a GBU-12 onto enemy combatants, leaving A–10s to follow up on 28 June 2008 with shows of force.

The 3 July 2008 brought a bit of novelty when a US Air Force MQ-9A Reaper dropped a GBU-12 onto a building containing enemy combatants. The US Navy then joined in on 8 July 2008 with its F/A18E Super Hornet and F/A18C Hornets, dropping GBU-38s onto enemy combatants and an enemy compound.

They were only the warm-up act. The next day, 9 July 2008, a Navy F/A18C Hornet fired cannon rounds onto enemy combatants. The 14 July 2008 saw the return of a B-1B which dropped GBU-31 and 38s onto an enemy compound and enemy forces. This was followed on 21 July 2008 by a Predator MQ-1B which fired a Hellfire missile and dropped GBU-12s onto an enemy compound. Additionally, a US Air Force B-1B Lancer dropped GBU-38s and 31s onto an enemy compound and enemy combatants.

The 28 July 2008 had an RAF GR-7 Harrier doing some serious stuff, dropping EPII munitions onto enemy forces engaging friendly forces in the vicinity of Now Zad, followed by US Air Force B-1B Lancers on 4 August 2008, which dropped a GBU-31 and 38s onto the enemy.

Three days were allowed to elapse before, on 7 August 2008, a Royal Air Force GR-7 Harrier dropped Enhance Paveway II munitions onto enemy forces preparing to ambush coalition forces. That seemed to have kept the Taleban at bay for a while for it was not until 18 September 2008 in this peaceful environment that a coalition aircraft dropped Enhanced Paveway II munitions and a 540-pound free falling bomb onto anti-Afghan forces engaging friendly forces.

The 25 September 2008 then had an F-16A dropping GBU-12s onto insurgents in a compound using rocket propelled grenade and small arms fire. A Navy F/A 18C Hornet backed up, dropping a GBU-31 onto insurgents outside the compound trying to place an improvised explosive device in the same are. The next day, on 26 September 2008, only needed coalition aircraft performing a show of force to deter enemy activities.

It was only three days later, however, on 29 September 2008, that F/A-18Cs were needed to drop a GBU-12 and GBU-38 onto improvised explosive device emplacers in the vicinity of Now Zad. This seems to have given a month's respite for it was not until 26 October 2008 that a US Air Force B-1B Lancer was called to drop GBU-31s and GBU-38s onto a building where enemy fighters were firing RPGs against coalition force.

The next day though, on 27 October 2008, coalition aircraft had to drop GBU-12s onto a tree line where enemy fighters were firing mortars and rockets against coalition forces.

About this time, British and Estonian forces were preparing to leave the base at Now Zad, allowing the US Marines to occupy this peaceful area. Thus, on 1 November 2008, to entertain the about-to-depart troops, a Hornet conducted a show of force to deter enemy activities and provide armed aerial overwatch for a coalition convoy.

Another air show was provided on 11 November 2008, when coalition aircraft conducted shows of force to deter enemy activities and yet another on 20 November 2008 when a Navy F/A-18A performed shows of force and provided armed aerial overwatch for a coalition convoy conducting counter-improvised explosive device operations.

With the Brits and the Estionian forces "redeployed", on 3 December 2008 the 8th US Marine Regiment and the ground combat element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force could get down to some serious gardening and other useful activities, entertained that day by a Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet conducting a spirited show of force to deter the enemy from walking on the newly-sown grass.

So peaceful had the "handover" been, however, that the Brits had left all their kit behind – as one does. But so balmy and soothing was the desert air that the US forces, with nothing else to do with their time, decided to greet the British convoy which came out to reclaim the luggage.

Clearly, so enjoyable was the experience that the Marines and sailors with I Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, the ground combat element of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force decided to make the affair a grand event, turning out in force between 7-12 December 2007, even in grand military style giving their excursions the name "Operation Backstop".

With the British and Estonian combined forces having "retrograded from the Now Zad area in order to redistribute forces in a realignment of battle spaces", kindly allowing the Marines of 3/8 the honour of to "filling the battle space in Now Zad", the British despatched a convoy of more than 30 large vehicles to collect their kit. The US Marine security Company I allowed the British free, uninterrupted passage, supporting the British with "force protection through its lethal firepower and manoeuverability".

Along the route from Camp Barber to Now Zad lie a number of choke points and well-known enemy positions. The Marines' objective was aggressively to confront insurgents along the route before the British convoy passed through. Fully equipped with sniper teams, explosive ordnance disposal teams and engineers, the Marines pushed their way through.

"In order to let the [British] convoy pass through safely, we [Marines] decided to take a route where we would most likely meet enemy activity and neutralize it," said Capt. Mike Hoffman, the commanding officer of Co. I. It is hard to believe this was at all necessary in the context of such a peaceful handover having taken place earlier.

Nevertheless, once the British had reclaimed their kit, it was back to the free air shows, with a US Navy F/A-18A Hornet on 20 December 2008 performing shows of force to deter enemy activities. With a break for Christmas, on 27 December 2008, coalition aircraft entertained bored troops with shows of force to deter anti-Afghan activities and to provide armed aerial overwatch for coalition convoys traveling along a known enemy route.

We were reminded that this was not only a Navy and Air Force show, as US Marine Cobra attack helicopters were also in daily action. In late November, after eight intense months of daily combat operations, 2/7 was replaced by 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (Reinforced).

Still, though, US Air Force B-1B Lancers were helping with the gardening, one on 3 February 2009 destroying an anti-Afghan bunker near Now Zad with a GBU-31. Enemy personnel in the bunker, rather unsportingly, were firing on coalition ground forces.

Another Lancer was reported doing an encore on 22 February 2009, although the similarity of the narrative suggests double-reporting. You simply cannot get the staff these days. But, on 27 February 2009, coalition aircraft carried out shows of force "to provide an additional level of presence to enhance security for coalition operations".

Enhancing security even more, on 4 March 2009, F/A-18Cs hit anti-Afghan forces hiding behind the walls of a residential compound with several 20mm cannon strafing passes. Enemy personnel had been using the compound to fire mortars, RPGs and automatic weapons at coalition troops until the jets engaged, neutralizing the enemy firing positions.

On 6 March 2009, after completing an important logistics mission, a group of Marines braved insurgent attacks while transiting through what was described as "one of the most challenging regions of southern Afghanistan".

The second platoon of Motor Transportation Company, Combat Logistics Battalion 3, overcame insurgent attacks while returning to Camp Barber from FOB Now Zad. While returning from a three-day combat logistics patrol, the platoon received multiple rounds of insurgent mortar fire and located two improvised explosive devices.

Having arrived in November 2008, Combat Logistics Battalion 3 were celebrating their work in Now Zad forward operating base, They had been carrying out work, ranging from constructing buildings to building bunkers, at a pace described as "fast and furious." The biggest thanks they received, though, was after installing shower units and providing the Marines there with the opportunity to take a hot shower.

By 13 March 2009, Air Force and coalition aircraft were thus reduced to flying overwatch performed shows of force during several convoy operations, only breaking the monotony of perpetual hot showers by launching a precision air strike on 16 March 2009 to take out the sought-after insurgent, Jamaluddin Hanifi, together with Maulawi Mohammed Saddiq and two associates.

On 19 March 2009, it was back to boring old shows of force, with Navy Super Hornets doing the honours, which seem to have succeeded in deterring enemy forces from taking action "while coalition ground troops achieved their objectives".

However, on 22 March 2009, a Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet provided slightly more entertaining fare, striking a compound with a makeshift enemy bunker inside, knocking in the roof of the bunker and destroying the fighting position. Enemy personnel in the bunker had been pouring automatic fire towards coalition soldiers from that location. They obviously had not been told how peaceful it had become.

Then came 3 April 2009 when the Marines did not re-take Now Zad. Thus, using a US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber to destroy an anti-Afghan forces staging area and several enemy positions in the area around Now Zad using GBU-31s and 38s must have been a complete waste of time. And, despite reports to the contrary, enemy forces clearly had not targeted coalition units using heavy machine guns and automatic weapons prior to the bomber's arrival.

Nor can it have been the case that the US Marines enjoyed US Navy F/A-18C Hornet fighter-attack aircraft, an Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber, Marine AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters, the Army's tactical missile system and the Marines' high mobility artillery rocket system setting conditions for the operation by employing precision munitions on key insurgent targets.

Despite these non-events, however, we note that to finish off two years of "tangible, effective and sustainable reconstruction and development", on 8 April 2009 a US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber used GBU-31s to destroy several buildings near Now Zad which were being used as enemy fighting positions, with enemy gunmen firing from inside the structures at coalition soldiers.

It is such a comfort to know that this was completed "without major incident".