According to the U.S. military, the current battle for the town of Marjah is intended to showcase the new Western way of counterinsurgency warfare. Rather than focusing on destroying the enemy, this operation is intended to separate the civilian population from the Taliban and do so in ways that encourages them to side with the Coalition and the Afghan government. This is the reason for the new rules of engagement (ROEs) that restrict the use of air strikes and artillery fire, require positive identification of enemy combatants and limit the treatment of prisoners.
The Marjah operation is the most current example of how much the U.S. military has learned in more than eight years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The forces engaged in this battle are supported by an array of new weapons systems whose very existence reflects the lessons learned in previous battles. These include the MRAP, ATVs, Stryker wheeled combat vehicles, IED jammers, Predator, Shadow and Raven UASs and uparmored trucks – – all of which are intended to counter the enemy’s evolving tactics and techniques.
In addition to developing new weapons systems and tactics, there has been the creative application of weapons systems designed for an entirely different vision of war. An example of this is the use of airborne electronic warfare platforms such as the P-3 and EA-6B to counter roadside IEDs. Another example is the use of precision weapons originally intended to defeat Soviet armor, such as, the Multiple-Launch Rocket System and the Excalibur guided artillery projectile to reduce collateral damage.
The war in Afghanistan is not simply that of a modern, expeditionary, high-tech military against a poorly-armed, tribally-based insurgent force in which the former has all the advantages. It is also a battle between two learning organizations, each trying to understand and evaluate the behaviors of the other and to adapt more rapidly. The same was true in Iraq where U.S. and insurgent forces constantly changed the ways they operated and the weapons they used. The continuing struggle against IEDs is really a fight about which organization can learn and adapt more quickly. One of the most important moments in this struggle was when the Joint IED Defeat Organization or JIEDDO learned that it was just as important to attack the network that was building, deploying and detonating the IED as it was to jam or destroy the device itself. In the battle for knowledge, both sides start off equally well.
In Marjah we can see both sides trying out new tactics and techniques, testing the other side and learning what works and what doesn’t. Because the Coalition telegraphed their punch and also announced ahead of time the new rules of engagement, the Taliban had the opportunity to think about their response. Reports from the battlefield note how the Taliban has been using civilians as shields as a means of exploiting their adversary’s new ROEs. The Taliban is also experimenting with different kinds of IEDs and their triggering mechanisms, looking for ways to defeat Coalition countermeasures. These reports also identify ways that the Coalition is adapting, such as, through the more extensive use of UASs to provide real-time tactical intelligence and the deployment of highly-trained sniper teams to engage Taliban fighters individually. It is not clear yet which organization will win this battle.
The global fight against Al Qaeda is also a battle for knowledge, a process in which our defenses are being repeatedly tested as we develop new response measures. Since 9/11, Al Qaeda has experimented with different ways of deploying explosives on commercial aircraft from shoes to liquids in water bottles to underwear. The U.S. has responded by changing its defensive tactics and adding new surveillance technologies. Unfortunately, it is not clear that we are winning this battle. The fact that in the case of the underwear bomber the Intelligence Community was unable to “connect the dots” suggests that we do not even know how to learn, much less what information we should be studying.
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