Op Moshtarak: Post Surge Operations in Afghanistan

Courtesy the Iraq diversion, the critical Counter- Terrorist campaign in Afghanistan had been deliberately underfunded and under-resourced for nearly a decade. The situation began to deteriorate steadily from 2005 onwards and the Taliban steadily increased its area of influence. The first five months of 2009 were characterised by a major spurt in Taliban activities:

  • In 2009, there were 7228 IED attacks in Afghanistan, a 120 % increase over 2008
  • There were 519 foreign soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 2009. Of these, 316 were US troops.
  • 280 of the total soldiers killed in 2009 were due to IED attacks.

The Initial Surge The first American troop surge took place in May 2009 when the Americans inducted some 17,000 additional troops and some 4,000 trainers. This raised the Coalition force levels to some 68,000 US combat troops and 32,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.

    The formations inducted were

  • 82 Combat Aviation Brigade This deployed some 100 helicopters in the Kandahar Air Base and another 30 at Uruzgan and fielded some 4000 troops.
  • 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force This fielded some 8000 Marines.
  • 5th Stryker Brigade Fielded 4000 troops in their ubiquitous eight wheeled vehicles. The newly arrived American and British troops launched a series of operations in the Helmand Valley (the prime opium growing area in Afghanistan and the key resource base of the Taliban). In Operation Panther Claw alone the British lost 27 soldiers killed and 57 wounded. The US Marines launched Op Strike and OP Sword and suffered 14 killed. This inordinately high level of casualties caused political tremors in Washington. As stated earlier, 519 coalition troops were killed in 2009. A third of all US Casualties in Afghanistan have occurred after the Surge in May 2009.Of the total 1000 US casualties in Afghanistan so far, 155 occurred in 2008 and 316 in 2009.

The Second Surge

Lt Gen Stanley Mc Chrystal (of the US Special Forces Command) was sent in to replace Lt Gen Mckiernan (an Armor officer) as Commanding General in Afghanistan in 2009. He was given 60 days to submit a Review of the situation. Mc Chrystal asked for an additional surge of some 40,000 troops and a doubling of the size of the Afghan National Army (from the proposed 134,000 troops by 2011 to 240,000 troops and of the Afghan Police from 82,000 to some 160,000). In his assessment Gen Mc Chrystal felt that the campaign in Afghanistan had been historically under resourced and the ISAF was operating in a culture of poverty. It was pre occupied with force protection in a manner that distanced it both physically and psychologically from the population it seeks to protect. He stressed the need to change the basic approach, end the excessive reliance on air power and launch COIN operations on the “Clear, Hold, Build Model”. His aim was to regain the initiative and refocus operations. He also wanted to develop effective assessment architecture to measure the effects of the new strategy, assess progress and make necessary adjustments. The Insurgency in Afghanistan he felt requires an Afghan solution. Of the 40,000 additional troops sought, Gen Mc Chrystal planned to deploy some 10,000 in Kandahar (where the main focus of fighting was expected) 5000 in Helmand (to join the 4000 Marines already operating there) and 5000 in the Paktia, Paktika and Khost provinces. He wanted to use 10,000 troops to speed up training of the ANA.

President Obama ultimately sanctioned a second surge of some 30,000 troops (this brings the overall force levels to approximately 98,000 US and 42,000 NATO troops) This implies no change in the tactical allocation for ground offensives but the number of additional trainers will now be reduced to just 5000. This means a slowing down of the training of the ANA and a reduction in its size (which has now been re- fixed at 171,600). Considering that the optimal size of the ANA is represented by the Soviet era Afghan Army of 550,000 this is again a dangerous under resourcing for the most critical element for operational success.

The Second Surge is supposed to be completed by May 2010. Maj Gen Richard Barnes assessed The strength of the Taliban at 36,000. This gives a security forces to insurgent ratio of 1:10(which includes some 200,000 ANA and Afghan Police).This is far less than optimal by Indian standards(20:1 ratio for containment and 30:1 for a breakthrough). However Indian force usage norms are for light infantry forces only and do not factor in the use of air-power and major weapon systems like tanks and artillery

OP Moshtarak

Operation Moshtarak which was launched on 13 Feb 10, has been billed as the biggest US/Coalition offensive since end of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. 92.33% of the entire world’s Opium is produced in Afghanistan and the bulk of it is from Province of Helmand. Marjah is the hub of this opium production and trade centre with a monthly drug income of $200,000. It is located in very defensible terrain, criss-crossed with multiple canals and dominated by mud-brick houses. Some 15,000 troops were involved in the massive coordinated assault on Marjah, Lashkar Gah, Nad Ali and Shoval. The troops employed were :-

  • Five Brigades ex the ANA, along with elements of the Afghan Police and Afghan Border Police.
  • 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (US) with four Marine Battalions and one Stryker Battalion along-with a Combat Engineer Battalion and a Light Armoured Recce Battalion.
  • 11th Light Brigade (UK) with Three Battalion Groups.
    • Air Component

    • 451 Air Expeditionary Wing (US)
    • 904 Expeditionary Air Wing (UK)
    • Canadian Helicopter Force.

The operation was preceded by a series of preparatory raids or shaping operations by SAS (British Commandoes) and US Navy SEALs (4 man teams) to find, fix and strike at Taliban concentrations and senior leaders with Predator engagements/ air strikes.

Main Assault The US/NATO forces, wary after taking heavy casualties in 2009, took a leaf from the Pakistani Army model of loudly advertising their operations before launch to scare away as much of the Taliban and civilian population as possible. The ostensible purpose was to reduce collateral damage/civilian casualties. At 0400hrs on 13 Feb 10 the US Marines launched a major heliborne assault on Marjah with some 90 Chenook and Cobra helicopters flying in troops to seize canal crossings (using Aluminum ladders to avoid heavily mined existing bridges). Assault Breaching Vehicles and charge lane mine clearance were used to breach safe lanes through heavily mined fields.

By 14 Feb lead troops entered Marjah but were thereafter slowed down to a crawl. Some 400 Taliban fighters were holed up in the town. The bulk of them did not flee – they stood up and fought (apparently on ISI advice) to try and inflict heavy casualties on attacking US forces. The road intersections and buildings were heavily mined and booby trapped and it took the Marines till 25th Feb to clear the bulk of the town. The Taliban were increasing the explosive content of IEDs to target armoured vehicles. Mine consciousness slowed operations to a crawl and like with Indian troops in Sri Lanka, US troops preferred to walk rather than ride into battle. US forces claimed some 120 Taliban were killed and another 100 or so have fled. Others seemed to have melted away into the local population. About 60% of the follow on attack forces were Afghan troops.

Lashkar Gah, Nad Ali and Shoval The British and Canadian troops attacked Lashkar Gah, Nad Ali and Shoval in one of the biggest heli-borne operations. Some 33 helicopters flew in 11 waves to launch 1100 troops for the assault. Large number of IEDs and sniper fire was encountered. The British finally seized the town of Shoval by 15 Feb (a major opium centre and IED factory site). Some 17 Tons of black opium tar, heroin and huge IED stocks were recovered. Afghan troops followed up in the ground mode to mop up in the wake of the initial assault.

Clear, Hold, Build Model Unlike the temporary offensive sweeps of the past, this time the strategy is to clear the Taliban, hold the area and reintroduce Afghan civilian governance. The local Afghan governor (Haji Abdul Zahir) along with Afghan Police and civilian officials are in position and some 2000 locals have taken up jobs with the new administration.

Collateral Damage Despite the well advertised precautions; some 27 Afghan civilians were killed in a rocket strike. Use of air power was curtailed by new rules of engagement leading to complaints in the US media that this was increasing Coalition casualties.


  • The pattern of fighting in the built up areas of Marjah is reminiscent of Indian Army Operations in built up area of Jaffna in Sri Lanka.
  • This attack was well advertised to ensure that the bulk of Taliban exit before hand and local population fled the area. The Taliban, however, forced a large number of locals to stay on and more or less act as human shields. As per UN claims some 25,000 civilians still managed to flee the battle zone. Coalition sources however claim this was no more than 500 families. The Taliban put up a fairly stiff resistance thereby considerably slowing down US operations in Marjah. Americans took over two weeks to clear Marjah. The markedly slow pace of operations was possibly dictated by the need to minimize casualties due to IEDs.
  • Some innovative features of this operation were Heli-borne assaults by night (early morning 0400h) using Night Vision Devices for night flying and use of IR flares dropped by US Marine KC-130 aircraft. Over 1000 strong heli-borne forces led both the American and British assaults.
  • ANA was put to the test and has done reasonably well as per initial inputs. Marjah and areas secured will now be physically held. It will need minimum two battalions to hold the township of Marjah itself. A large proportion of the troops, however, may have to be withdrawn for the main battles in the Kandahar area
  • Gen David Petraeus, stated that Marjah was just the initial salvo in the 18 month campaign to retake Kandahar. The Coalition forces have already suffered 118 casualties till 03 March 2010.
  • Much harder fighting is now expected in the Kandahar Area in summer once additional US forces (4th Brigade ex 19 Mountain Division, 1st Brigade ex 4th Infantry Division and 2nd Brigade ex 34th Infantry Division) come in fully.
  • An analysis of the Coalition casualties in Afghanistan is given in appendix

    1.“Marjah Biggest Campaign Since 2001”, US News, 15 Feb 10.
    2.OP Moshtarak. Wikipedia attp://en.wikipedia.org wiki operation Moshtarak.
    3.“Helicopter Armada Heralds Afghanistan Surge” Telegraph 13 Feb 10.
    4.BBC News broadcasts 13,14 and 15 Feb 10.
    5.“NATO Commanders Advertise planned Offensive in South Afghanistan”. The Washington Post.06 Feb 2010.
    6.Karman Bokhari, Peter Zeehan and Nathan Hughes. http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20100216 near-Marjah.
    7.Joshua Foust. Op Ed. New York Times 02 Mar 2010
    8.Kathy Gamon. Huffpost.Social News.04 Mar 2010.
    9.Daniel Markey “Securing Pakistan’s Tribal Belt”. Council of Foreign Relations Report No 36. Aug 08.
    10.Seth.G.Jones “Counter Insurgency in Afghanistan”, Rand Corporation. National Defence Research Institute.
    11.Thomas Ruttig “The Other Side: Dimensions of Afghanistan’s Insurgency”. Afghanistan Analysis Network. Jul. 09.
    12.Joshua Faust, “The Next Battle for Marjah”Registan.net3 Mar 10
    13.Jerome Starky The Times, Kabul,03 Mar10


Coalition Military Fatalities By Year

Year US UK Other Total
2001 12 0 0 12
2002 49 3 17 69
2003 48 0 9 57
2004 52 1 7 60
2005 99 1 31 131
2006 98 39 54 191
2007 117 42 73 232
2008 155 51 89 295
2009 316 108 95 519
2010 69 26 23 118
Total 1015 271 398 1684

Period IED Total Pct
2001 0 4 0.00
2002 4 25 16.00
2003 3 26 11.54
2004 12 27 44.44
2005 20 73 27.40
2006 41 130 31.54
2007 78 184 42.39
2008 152 263 57.79
2009 275 449 61.25
2010 65 109 59.63

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