Attacks in Khost Highlight Need for New Strategy

by Joshua Foust on 5/12/2009 · 1 comment

Some sort of coordinated suicide attack on government buildings in Khost City today took between 10 and 20 lives, depending on the source. The remaining fighters then holed up inside the governor’s office and municipal office until being eventually killed by hours of shooting. The BBC has some loud video.

Khost is a dangerous place. When I was there in March, a co-worker related what it was like to drive around in MRAPs, knowing at any moment they could be flipped upside down and grievously wounded by an IED. He wasn’t a fan. (One of our colleagues died a year ago when his Humvee got crushed by an IED.) Another friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous, just had his own encounter with an IED. Again—it frightened him.

These sorts of incidents, and the seeming randomness with which they happen, underscore the severe restrictions on movement. Civilians cannot travel outside of MRAPs, and often the cultural advisers and interpreters cannot meaningfully interact with villagers because of the many rules on force protection (I explored this in a piece for Reuters).

One of the force protection rules under which people travel in Afghanistan relate to the “300-meter rule,” which stipulates that normal traffic should be excluded from a 300-meter radius around whatever vehicle you’re traveling in. As people like Tim Lynch have noted, this is batty, and actually increases the chance of being struck by a VBIED (it’s also totally infeasible on their excuse for roads).

My friend in Khost related that, recently they were traveling via MRAP at night, under total blackout, to avoid all the troubles that come from being seen along those roads. Since it’s night and they have no lights on, he noted, no one can realistically obey that 300-meter rule. “Our gunner,” he said, “kept firing warning shots at approaching vehicles with the .50 caliber machine gun.” It worked, even if it sounds like a flagrant violation of the Rules of Escalation governing road behavior.

“As our convoy navigated a rough track,” he said, “my electronic earmuffs went blank.” An IED. It had disabled one of their MRAPs, and since there were no tow trucks nearby they had to strip it and find a camp site a few miles away. They slept in their body armor—the full kit, neck to groin coverage in case something happened.

That evening, after they had scrapped the mission and returned to base, they saw through drone surveillance a mass of cars crossing the border from Pakistan. “By 7:20 [the MRAP] was on fire, although the snipers had fired at whoever had set it alight.” So they suited up and drove back out to the wrecked MRAP and camped nearby, watching the fire slowly burn out.

Days later, a wrecker was able to tow the MRAP back to their base. And almost immediately, there were IED planters on that exact same stretch of road, digging furiously into the dirt. This time, they wired their explosive incorrectly, and several died in the resulting explosion. Reportedly, inside the base everyone cheered.

I asked my friend what he thought of that incident. “CF have to be willing to takemore hits, but do it smart. For example, get out of these ridiculous FOBs and COPs and push into where people actually live.” He expanded, “If ODA [Operational Detachment-Alpha, a special forces group also called an A-Team] or even a platoon had been living at the governor’s compund, rather than just visiting it, I doubt all that chaos today would have happened.”

He said they were able to spin the IED to their advantage when talking to reticent locals. “We got blown up on the way out here and still came just to talk. And the money that we’ll need to spend for a new vehicle is going to come out of funds that might otherwise have built you a clinic.” Regardless, his job, and the jobs of everyone in Task Force Yukon, is incredibly difficult. They are left with one of the most hostile provinces in the country, barely any resources, and a decrepit infrastructure.

It’s the same old story you’ve heard everywhere else along the border areas with Pakistan. Which is unfortunate, because seeing those problems up close makes them take on a very different patina. I highly doubt the administration officials or think tankers spend much time out in the COPs in places like Khost, where things can get desperate very easily and help—real help, not just orbiting A-10s—can be a very long time coming.

In fact, the situation in places like Khost highlight just how badly off the soldiers are. They are totally under-resourced for the job their leaders are demanding of them. And there is no neat solution—Khost is very agrarian, very spread out in farming communities. How do you secure that? You can’t just hold the city—well, now we know that literally—so what do you do? It’s a job that is going to take many years to accomplish—something everyone is happy and willing to say but few are willing to understand.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

David M May 13, 2009 at 9:21 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 05/13/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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