I have added a discussion of the proper troop level for Afghanistan at the bottom half of this article.

On 10/3/09, Combat Outpost Keating in the Kamdesh district of Nuristan Province on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was almost overrun by the Taliban. Eight American soldiers were killed and 24 were wounded. I posted this aricle before that battle. The battle, and others, prove what my point that U.S. forces are spread too thin in Afghanistan.

I am a Vietnam veteran. The Afghanistan war now feels to me very much like Vietnam only much harder. Here are a few facts to give readers perspective.

Category Afghanistan South Vietnam
size of country
250,000 square miles
67,108 square miles
population of country
number of U.S. troops in country
enemy receiving support and sanctuary from neighboring countries?
altitude of country (helicopters have trouble operating at high altitudes)
average 4,000 feet; max 20,000; central plateau 6,000
generally sea level
ocean ports (allow rapid resupply)
none, landlocked
about half the country borders the ocean
U.S. troops per square mile
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I have recently attended a number of speeches given by recent U.S. veterans from Afghanistan military service. I have also been following the war in the media and through books. At present, I am reading The Unforgiving Minute by Craig Mullaney, whom I heard speak at the Marines Memorial Club in San Francisco. Mullaney is West Point class of 2000. I am West Point class of 1968. Mullaney is also a Rhodes Scholar and was an infantry platoon leader in Afghanistan. I was never in any danger of a Rhodes Scholarship but I was a communications platoon leader of a mixed heavy artillery battalion in Vietnam. I also read In a Time of War which is about the West Point Class of 2002 including Afghanistan service by some members of that class.

Outnumbered and far from help

As I read and listened to accounts of U.S. military service in Afghanistan, I was stunned at how exposed and unprotected our troops were. Small groups of troops were stationed in tiny bases. One base mentioned by MSNBC reporter Richard Engel only had four U.S. troops. He refused to say where it was because the four are toast if the enemy finds out. But civilians in the area will figure it out soon enough without Engel’s help.

U.S. military in Afghanistan also spent a lot of time wandering around in humvees or walking in the middle of nowhere. If they needed help, it was far away and a long time coming if at all.

Time and again, Afghanistan veterans described harrowing situations, being attacked, and being unable to get immediate help from artillery or air support.

We had 8.24 ÷ .27 = 30.5 times as many troops per square mile in Vietnam as in Afghanistan—and 58,000 of our troops were killed in ten years.

Help almost always nearby

It would be an exaggeration to say that help was always nearby in Vietnam. But I flew over the country lots of times in helicopters because of my specialty, which was radio communications. In radio communications in a war zone, you have groups of three guys everywhere. I spent a lot of time in helicopters visiting the various bases where I had troops. My general impression was that every American military base or patrol was within range of U.S. regular or heavy artillery. There were also a zillion armed jet planes and helicopter gunships and a zillion medevac choppers everywhere. You did not always get immediate help in the form of artillery or air support, but almost.

My artillery battalion commander in Vietnam once spoke of turning some of our artillery lieutenants into “salesmen” to visit infantry and armor units in our area of operations to sell them on calling us for artillery support. We were grossly underutilized and bored and the battalion commander was afraid our not being used was going to adversely affect his career. My impression of the war in Afghanistan is the exact opposite—U.S. forces spread extremely thin. Afghanistan is almost four times the geographic area of South Vietnam. Because of its generally high altitude, normal helicopters have trouble getting to some of the higher altitude areas.

Afghanistan has about 50% more people than South Vietnam but we had 8 times as many troops in South Vietnam as we have in Afghanistan.

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It is a wonder to me that we have not had a hundred Battles of the Little Big Horn in Afghanistan. I expect we soon will. Our troops are grossly outnumbered in Afghanistan. Their fire support is spread very thin. In Vietnam, I think our guys were almost within the maximum range circle drawn around each 105mm firebase and/or the bigger maximum range circles around heavy 155mm and 8-inch and 175mm howitzer bases that could fire much farther. I do not know what the fixed-wing and chopper populations are in Afghanistan and were in South Vietnam, but my impression is that we had far more aircraft of all types in Vietnam: Puff the Magic Dragon, Hueys, Chinooks, Cobra gunships, propeller ground support fighter bombers, B-52s, Phantom fighters. You can see a complete list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weapons_of_the_Vietnam_War.

We name Forward Operating Bases after KIAs. Since our politicians are forcing our troops to employ the Little Big Horn strategy in Afghanistan (splitting us up into tiny units and spreading them over a wide geographic area in the face of more numerous enemies), we should name the firebases after people and places involved in those approaches to warfare in the past. Here is a list of suggested base names for Afghanistan “going forward” as the politicians like to say:

Forward Operating Base Custer
Forward Operating Base Reno
Forward Operating Base Benteen
Forward Operating Base Alamo
Forward Operating Base Mogadishu
Forward Operating Base Wake Island
Forward Operating Base Corregidor
Forward Operating Base Dutch Harbor
Forward Operating Base Beirut

If we want to honor our British NATO ally’s use of the Custer strategy, we could have

Forward Operating Base Gallipoli
Forward Operating Base Dunkirk
Forward Operating Base Balaclava

Newer technology

True, today’s troops have some technology we did not have like GPS, drones, more accurate fire-support weapons, better night vision equipment, better communications equipment, computers. But the war is basically mechanized infantry shooting assault rifles, mortars, and handheld rockets. That’s World War II stuff. And with World War II stuff, you need to have enough troops in the vicinity of an ambush or ground attack to reinforce outnumbered American units and/or to deliver artillery and/or aerial fire on concentrations of enemy fighters or assets.

In other words, today’s better technology is largely irrelevant due to the nature of the war or the nature of the way we are fighting it. I actually think we are idiots to let the enemy force us to fight in ways that do not let us use our strong suits—technology and fire power. But accepting our stupidity in that regard for the moment as a given, you cannot spread 68,000 troops all over a quarter of a million square mile rugged country and expect the casualty rate to stay as low as the Vietnam casualty rate where we had 8 times as many troops in a country with one quarter the area. (The Vietnam casualty rate was no slouch—about ten times the daily casualty rate in Iraq and Afghanistan—58,000 dead total.)

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It is a wonder our Afghanistan casualties have been as low as they have thus far and no surprise that they are climbing rapidly. Our troops there are outnumbered and scattered like Custer’s 7th Cavalry (broken into several units of 200 to 300 each) facing Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. That needs to be fixed one way or the other immediately. Maybe our commander in chief should spend a few nights in a forward operating base in Afghanistan—or go on a patrol out of one of them. No fanfare or entourage. Just issue him a GI uniform and a gun and don’t give the visit and patrol any publicity until afterwards. I predict he would experience an attitude adjustment to his current mode of treating the danger to the U.S. troops there as a back-burner issue.

McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops

In the fall of 2009, Afghanistan commander Stanley McChrystal made headlines by requesting an additional 40,000 U.S. troops. That would bring the total there to 108,000. This is controversial because Obama’s base is simply against all wars and against anything George W. Bush ever did, like leaving troops in Afghanistan or the surge in Iraq.

Some pundits said Obama resisted the addition of 40,000 because of “sticker shock.” Yes, he said Afghanistan was the right war during the campaign and since inauguration, but he never really meant it. It was just a way to avoid looking “soft on terror” and losing those votes. He might send 10,000 or 20,000 troops, to keep up appearances, but not 40,000.

What’s the right number?

Probably at least 2 million.

“What!?” you say. “That’s preposterous!”

Actually, it’s arithmetic. During Vietnam, we had 8.24 troops per square mile. Applying that same ratio to Afghanistan, we get 8.24 x 250,000 = 2,060,000. There are already 68,000 U.S. troops there. So we need 2 million more.

Why do I say “probably?” Because we LOST the Vietnam war. Apparently 8.24 troops per square mile was not enough. Actually, it was more than enough, but U.S. strategy in Vietnam was too timid. We should have invaded North Vietnam and their sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia. We did invade the sanctuaries—while I was there actually—but it was too little too late and only temporary.

Soviet troop strength

During their occupation of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union had around 100,000 troops. They LOST.

Shinseki estimate of number of troops needed to occupy Iraq

Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was asked by Congress how many troops it would take to occupy Iraq. He said “several hundred thousand.” That was the end of him because the Bush Administration and the American people did not want to hear such a high number.

Iraq has 168,753 square miles. 300,000 ÷ 168,753 = 1.8 troops per square mile. And remember that the Kurdish region of Iraq was not hostile to U.S. troops. Applying the Shinseki ratio to Afghanistan gives 1.8 x 250,000 = 450,000 troops.

Army Field Manual says 675,000

I was watching Fox News at 3:07 PM on Monday, 10/12/09 when a man said the Army Field Manual on counterinsurgency said the proper number of troops for a country like Afghanistan is 675,000. General Petraeus was co-author of that field manual. That figure approximately matches up with the Shinseki figure if you remove the Kurdish area of Iraq from the number of square miles his “several hundred thousand” troops would have controlled.

Like I said.

Where did McChrystal get the 40,000 figure?

I suspect that McChrystal’s 40,000 figure is pure politics and unrelated to military considerations. If so, his vaunted counterterrorism expertise is irrelevant. I think what his military expertise tells him is what I just said above: he needs 450,000 to 2,000,000 additional troops, if not more.

40,000 is simply the highest number he thinks he can get out of Obama. McChrystal says we will lose if he does not get them. It appears to me that we will lose even if he does get them—not only the war, but also a lot more lives of the troops in question. That is immoral! Hell, just the financial cost is immoral in light of the nation’s current financial situation!

McChrystal appears to be placing his personal career ahead of the accomplishment of his mission and the welfare of his troops. He and I are West Point graduates. The motto of West Point is “Duty, Honor, Country.”

Duty requires him to say he needs not only 2,000,000 additional troops but also less restrictive rules of engagement.

Honor requires him to say the same thing.

So does Country.

Only career, keeping his current dream job of being commander of our main current war for as long as possible, explains his requesting enough troops to match the failed Soviet level.

The president and Congress are not the only ones who will decide whether to give McChrystal what he wants. The other decision-making body that has to approve this is our current and prospective all-volunteer military. They, too, will reject the Soviet level because it will cause more of them to return again and again to Afghanistan with already-seen devastating effects on their lives and families.

A nation of draft dodgers

We have become a nation of draft dodgers. See my article on the need for a draft. A nation of draft dodgers cannot maintain a troop level of 100,000 in a deadly place like Afghanistan even if its leaders want to. The total number of active duty U.S. Army troops in the whole world is 539,675. I do not know how many of those are infantry, the main type needed in Afghanistan. I would guess less than 100,000. There are also 203,000 Marines with about 40,000 infantry.

Ending the draft put our most insecure-about-their-manhood or unable-to-find-a-civilian-job teenage boys ultimately in charge of when and where America fights and for how long.

None of this is viable. We have to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan because the American people do not want to be there either as a matter of policy or in terms of enough young men and women volunteering to go there.

Tip of the Spear documentary

On 10/11/09, MSNBC ran an excellent documentary about a remote Army outpost (Korengal Valley, Firebase Restrepo) in Afghanistan. If the above numbers don’t convince you, watch that documentary. It shows vividly what it means to be a small unit isolated far from your fellow Americans and surrounded by the enemy.

That unit managed to come home with relatively few killed, but I don’t know how. The documentary shows them wandering around in steep, rocky terrain in groups as small as 12 guys. The base only has 20 guys total. The area in question is controlled by the Taliban. They were able to get air support and medevac choppers, but it seems like it would be relatively easy for the Taliban to grossly outnumber the small base staff—especially when some are away from the base on patrol.

The unit had its own mortars, which they somehow used to blow up the one house in the village that had their own men in it while shooting at a mountain some distance away from the village. They killed one of their own sergeants and wounded others of their own men. They appeared to have no artillery support which was rare in Vietnam as far as I knew when I was there. On the other hand, the terrain in Afghanistan is so steep and rocky that I suspect artillery would be less useful there than it was in Vietnam. Steep terrain requires higher trajectories and therefore reduces the range of the artillery. Indeed, I saw some video footage on MSNBC where the U.S. artillery was firing at a very steep, mortar-like trajectory.

They looked like they needed more snipers and armed drones. They tried to mount offensive operations, which is generally correct doctrine, but had virtually no success, which makes sense when you are in an inhabited area controlled by the enemy. Whenever the Americans move, the enemy immediately knows it because of hundreds of snitches living all around. The time and place of all fights are determined totally by the Taliban. That’s no way to fight a war.

The American presence and their patrolling seemed utterly pointless. Showing the flag and talking to local villagers to try to win them over. But the villages seemed all but totally uninterested in ever cooperating with the Americans—because they do not trust them to stay. I agree with the villagers. The U.S. government betrayed the South Vietnamese who helped us there and it got them killed or jailed when we lost that war. The patrols are also having no effect whatsoever on the Taliban. They either hide their weapons as the Americans walk by and pretend to be innocent civilians or they ambush the Americans as they wish.

It looks to me like men are dying in Afghanistan not for any reason that makes sense in Afghanistan, but solely to prevent Obama from looking “soft on terror” back in the U.S. If truth-in-advertising laws were applied to tombstones of KIAs, they would say something like, “U.S. Army Sergeant Died 10-8-09 Afghanistan for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.” And the American people would promptly end the war.

Fire hoses

I was surprised by the way the U.S. soldiers used their machines guts—like fire hoses. I had heard that you could tell which side was firing in Afghanistan by the number of shots per burst. Taliban used machine gus like fire hoses. Disciplined U.S. troops knew better and only fired six-shot bursts as we were trained. Shooting more generally wastes ammunition plus it causes the gun to overheat and jam.

Machine guns have a rapid rate of fire, which is the number of shots per minute if you keep the trigger depressed, and a sustained rate of fire, which is the maximum total number of bullets you can fire in a minute—interspersing pauses of no firing—before the gun overheats and jams. The U.S. soldiers appeared to me to be exceeding their sustained rate of fire in the documentary. Maybe they were showing off for the cameras. Indeed, their guns were jamming in the documentary. Given the tactical situation, those Army guys need that burst-of-six discipline more than U.S. units normally have in the past because they are surrounded and extremely difficult to reinforce or resupply.

They seemed to indicate mechanical problems caused the jamming. Perhaps. If so, heads need to roll in the Pentagon. The last thing U.S. troops who are surrounded in some Little Big Horn base in the middle of nowhere need is machine guns that do not work.

The Taliban has unlimited ammunition because they control the whole region. They can also just hide their guns and walk away saying “nobody here but us innocent civilians.” The Taliban cannot be overrun, essentially. The U.S. troops can be. In October, 2009, a U.S. post was overrun in Afghanistan and eight U.S. troops were killed. The U.S. only has the ammo they fly in and the helicopters can be shot down or kept out by weather.

82nd Airborne experience in Khost 2007 to 3/08

An Op-Ed article by David Adams and Ann Marlowe in the 10/28/09 Wall Street Journal says 250 82nd Airborne troops were able to secure the Khost, Afghanistan area in 2007 and the first three months of 2008 by working closely with local tribes, Afghan National Security Forces, and local government. Navy Commander Adams commanded the Khost Provincial Reconstruction Team from 3/07 to 3/08. Marlowe is a journalist who was embedded with U.S. military units in the Khost area during that period.

Britain had the biggest empire ever in the 1800s and first half of the 20th century. But they are a small country with a small population. How’d they manage that? By working with local people. One of their military units to this day is made up of Gurkhas. They are natives of Nepal and Northern India who originally worked with Britain in those areas but have since been deployed wherever.

Our Special Forces (Green Berets) operate like the British. Indeed, we won victory in Afghanistan in weeks in 2001 by Special Forces teaming up with and assisting the Northern Alliance. Similarly, our “Surge” in Iraq was more working with Iraqis than adding more troops. If we intend to win in Afghanistan, the 82nd Airborne/Green Berets approach seems infinitely more likely to work than just brute American force.

I was a communications platoon leader in an infantry battalion in the 82nd in the summer of 1969. Generally, the troops in the 82nd seemed to be dumber than those in non-airborne units. But the unit was a plum assignment for higher ranking officers and may have attracted a better class of colonels and generals than non-airborne units as a result.

John T. Reed