Threat remains for U.S. troops in Afghanistan

While U.S. and Afghan forces agree that local forces should take charge of the country's security situation, a dangerous side-effect of the advisory role of NATO forces is reduced battlefield intelligence capability.
By Nolan Peterson  |  Dec. 13, 2013 at 11:08 PM
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FOB SHANK, Afghanistan, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Martin was standing outside his tent drinking a Monster energy drink when the Taliban rocket attack came.

Martin's eyes went wide at the sound of the base air raid alarm; he reflexively spun, took three, maybe four steps and then dove into the bunker, which luckily was only a few feet behind him. Just seconds later there was the distinctive sound of projectiles flying by at supersonic speed, and the rattle of shrapnel peppering the outside of the bunker's reinforced concrete and sand-bag walls.

Inside the bunker minutes later, Martin was sitting on a wooden bench, waiting for the all-clear signal. He leaned forward, propped his elbows on his knees and stared blankly at some random thing. "That was close," said the veteran of six combat deployments, including Desert Storm and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as he shook his head. "It's all fun and games until you have your right testicle coming out your left nostril and there's a rocket up your ass."

"So how does it feel to almost get your head blown off?"

It was a close call. Computer analysis later indicated that the Taliban rocket launched at FOB Shank would have detonated its white phosphorous warhead just meters away from Martin's location had the rocket not been shot out of the sky at the final second by the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System defending the base.

The Phalanx system, which detects indirect fire (IDF) projectiles with radar and then shoots them down, was originally designed to defend Navy ships from long-range missile attacks. It has become a staple at U.S. military installations in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing a last line of defense against IDF attacks.

Sgt. Martin's close call highlights the fact that, despite the recent pullback of U.S. military forces from combat patrols in Afghanistan, deployed U.S. troops are still in constant danger, and Afghanistan is still a war-zone.

U.S. and NATO coalition forces recently transitioned to an "advise and assist" operation, ending combat patrols and handing over battlefield responsibilities to the budding Afghan military. U.S. military commanders are increasingly on edge, however, concerned that the reduced presence of coalition forces on the battlefield has left them without the resources and "boots on the ground" perspective to accurately gauge the threat level in Afghanistan.

"The fog of war has spread, and the battlefield has darkened," said Sgt. 1st Class Bryant Wu, intelligence integration advisor for SFAAT hybrid team four, which is currently deployed to FOB Shank. "American commanders are now dealing with a lack of situational awareness on the battlefield that they've never had to deal with."

"We're definitely more concerned about force protection now," added 1st Lt. Todd Burris, an Army intelligence officer stationed at FOB Shank. "The Taliban want to target our bases to prove that U.S. and Afghan forces can't defend themselves."

The primary concerns, according to military personnel, are IDF attacks and the threat of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs.

Bagram Air Base, the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan, has seen an uptick in IDF attacks this year, military officials report. On Oct. 14 alone the Taliban hit the U.S. air base with 12 rockets.

NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan have also been on heightened alert for VBIEDs following a foiled Taliban truck bomb attack against a U.S. base in October that could have killed as many as 1,000 personnel and changed the entire dynamic of the 12-year-old war, NATO sources report. On Oct. 14, the same day as the Bagram rocket attack, a dump truck loaded with 61,500 lbs of explosives was found outside Forward Operating Base Goode; the driver failed to properly explode the device. For comparison, the U.S. military’s most powerful non-nuclear device, the GBU 43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), has an explosive yield of 22,000 lbs of TNT -- about one-third the yield of the device used in the unsuccessful Taliban attack.

Since the FOB Goode VBIED was discovered, NATO coalition forces have been on edge, monitoring every large truck within proximity of coalition bases and escalating the pace of airborne surveillance and reconnaissance missions by manned and unmanned aircraft. Afghan National Army (ANA) units on the ground have established additional checkpoints along major transportation routes.

Such an attack would likely cast doubts about NATO claims that the country’s security situation is improving, potentially altering the course of the war by affecting the ongoing, delicate debate over the future role of coalition troops in Afghanistan in the run-up to the 2014 coalition drawdown and Afghan presidential election.

"At the tactical level, we're more concerned about the casualties from a bomb of that size," Wu said. "But the political backlash of what a VBIED of that size could do has people on edge. If a VBIED of that size was used against the Afghans or in a place like Kabul, it could be perceived that the Afghans, who are now doing their own security, can't defend themselves."

U.S. military officials say the ANA has proven itself a capable fighting force, but doesn't have the intelligence or surveillance assets to monitor enemy movements to the satisfaction of coalition commanders. The Afghan take-over of the battlespace has allowed the Taliban greater freedom of movement in the country, military officials said, resulting in more attacks at coalition bases.

"They (ANA) don't have the sophisticated tools that we do; they are dependent on human intelligence," Wu said. "In terms of imagery and signals intelligence, they just don't have those capabilities. They don't have the level of development to do that type of work."

Coalition military officials are in a tricky spot -- they have to balance their new mission of handing over the battlespace to the nascent Afghan Army while simultaneously maintaining a strong-enough defense posture to defend coalition troops from Taliban attacks.

"There's the twin priorities of wanting the ANA to be independent and keeping Americans safe," Burris said. "There is alwas a concern about what happens if the ANA isn't good enough, and one of these things gets through."

Military officials are also concerned that the reduction in the number of coalition bases has increased the IDF and VBIED threat.

"The reduction in the number of bases has reduced our ability to interfere with the enemy's freedom of movement," Wu added. "The battlefield is more porous. It's easier for the Taliban to move stuff around, so it becomes easier for them to shoot stuff."

The day after his narrow escape from the Taliban rocket attack, Martin added another mark to the running tally of IDF attacks from this deployment that he keeps on a dry-erase board in his office. "That makes 37," he said with a sigh.

"You gotta have some kind of good luck to see as much as combat as I have and come out of it all without a scratch."

Nolan Peterson is a U.S. Air Force veteran currently reporting for UPI from Afghanistan.

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