Handbook targets small unit operations in Afghanistan 


"Small Unit Operations in Afghanistan" is the Army’s latest handbook designed to increase the readiness of platoons and companies about to deploy there.

Compiled by the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., the 123-page guide will be supplemented by a DVD drawing on operations in Regional Command South, the area where the Taliban insurgency has its greatest strength, Lt. Col. Robert Forrester, director of the center, said.

It drew on six months of field interviews with United States soldiers and marines, Canadian and British forces; observations’ and collaboration with the Infantry School and the Maneuver Center of Excellence.

The need for such a handbook was shown after a firefight at a vehicle patrol outpost near Wanat in July 2008. In the fight in southeastern Afghanistan was a unit from the 173rd Airborne.

With Afghan police aiding the insurgents and the attackers coming from the village and surrounding farmlands, the Americans’ mortars, machineguns and shoulder-fired missiles were destroyed.

There were no paved roads nearby and the position was flanked by steep mountains and the weather was severe enough to bar the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and limit the use of manned aircraft.

As the fighting continued, two-hundred or so Taliban were "close enough to throw rocks into the fighting holes," one account of the firefight reported.

Artillery and close air support was called in despite the intermingling of the Taliban and the American platoon of 45 soldiers to prevent the position from being completely overrun. In the end, nine Americans were killed and 27 wounded.

Forrester said the center has 11 forward observers conducting the field interviews. Six of them are in Afghanistan. "We’re non-attributional, so folks won’t feel big brother is looking over his shoulder. We’re trying to capture best practices" for a host of operations from setting up a command post to force protection to understanding cultural differences.

"There is a chapter devoted to fitness" with specific exercises and drills to prepare soldiers for the rugged terrain and high altitudes of Afghanistan.

"It is designed to prepare them for the physical challenges they will face," Forrester said.

The principal author, Lt. Col. Brice Johnson, USA, Ret., added, "Physically fit soldiers don’t become complacent."

Johnson said one of the largest and continuing challenges of operating in Afghanistan is the terrain’s impact on communications. "FM radio may be sketchy, satellite communications may be intermittent, so that small-unit commander has to plan for primary, alternate, contingency and emergency communications for each operation they go out on."

Adding, without good communications, commanders couldn’t call for indirect fires, additional forces or medical evacuation.

Redundancy doesn’t only apply to communications, he said. It also means that each soldier in each squad must know how to operate all the weapons in the squad.

"IEDs continue to be the biggest killer of soldiers" in Afghanistan as they were earlier in Iraq, Forrester said.

Understanding Afghan culture and its history, especially over the 30 years since the Soviets invaded in 1979, is of critical importance to a unit’s success, Johnson said.

"Each small-unit leader has to examine the area he is in, interpret the ethnicities, the tribal loyalties and previous history of the area, so he can form lasting relationships with the leaders in that area and have a successful operation," he added.

The handbook was published electronically first and was posted to the CALL Web site in June.