Some questions about the ambush.

It may seem insensitive to ask questions about the ambush that killed two and wounded six NZDF troops in Bamiyan, but I do not trust the government or NZDF brass to come clean on what really happened. They have spent too much time lying about the real security situation in Bamiyan and the real nature of what NZDF troops are doing there and elsewhere, such as during the SAS deployment.

The official story is that Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) personnel were ambushed in a village when they went to arrest a suspect, suffered losses, and called for reinforcement from the NZDF. The village is located in a narrow high mountain valley. Four NZDF patrols were in the area and at least two responded, although it took 2 hours for the convoy to slowly climb up to the village. The original story was that after laying down suppressing fire, an NZDF armored vehicle was hit by an “anti-tank rocket,” resulting in one NZDF death, and when the troops dismounted to secure the area another was killed and the others were wounded by  a separate group of insurgents hiding in the surrounding terrain (it is unclear if some of the wounded were injured in the missile attack on the armored vehicle). A subsequent official version states that both soldiers were killed by rifle fire from a distance of 50-100 meters after they dismounted from the armored vehicle. A number of insurgents are claimed to have been killed, and 17 were seen withdrawing from the area carrying their dead and wounded. No enemy bodies were recovered although two insurgents were captured.

My questions are these:

Knowing that the valley was narrow with much high ground cover above the village in question, and given the time it took to reach the scene, why did the reinforcements not dismount, spread out and walk into the fire zone rather than drive all the way in? I say this because a standard guerrilla tactic, which has many variations, is the “sucker ploy” whereby a small ambush is staged on local forces so that the call for reinforcements is made. A second, larger ambush is staged using better cover and heavier weapons on the reinforcements, which in Afghanistan are inevitably foreign. The real target is the reinforcing forces, and faulty intelligence feeds are often used to lure the initial responders to the scene. The idea is to hit the reinforcements hard and disengage as rapidly as possible.

One way of preventing losses to such a sucker ploy is to have infantry dismount away from the point of contact and walk in from a range of 300-500 meters in a spread formation so as to minimize the risk of mass casualties and to provide better coverage of the tactical battle space. This is especially true for theaters in which the enemy uses remotely triggered IEDs as a tactical weapon against armored columns. Such a counter-move is taught as a basic defensive measure in most infantry courses.

One alternative that conventional armies rely on is to have an armored column carrying infantry move in tight on the enemy position, although this is usually an urban rather than rural tactic given tight space constraints and the limited lines of sight involved. It also assumes that the armor in question can withstand small arms fire, to include RPGs, at relatively close range. My question is therefore two-fold: why did the NZDF troops move in so close before dismounting, and what was the “armored” vehicle that was hit (and in fact, was any vehicle hit by “rocket” fire)? If one of the convoy vehicles was hit, what was it? An armored Humvee? An up-armoured Hilux? A LAV? If it was the latter (and I have seen video of NZDF LAVs being used in Bamiyan), what was the nature of the “anti-tank” munition used against it? Or was it hit by an RPG? I say this because one of the biggest flaws of the LAV, should it not be up-armored, is a relatively thin skin which is vulnerable to both RPGs and 50 caliber rounds. That flaw was the focus of much criticism during the debates about the LAV purchase, but the government and NZDF have consistently discounted the apparent vulnerabilities of the platform. Both the Humvee and Hilux, even if armored, are vulnerable to RPGs and large caliber rounds, to say nothing of IEDs.

>>Update: The NZDF have now reported that LAVs were involved and that one soldier was shot while sitting in the roof well position. The other was shot on the ground. There is no updated reports on whether the LAV took incoming small arms or RPG fire. Sanctuary and I discuss the issue of LAV vulnerability to such fire in the first two comments below.<<

Another question is about the report that 17 insurgents were seen leaving the scene, moving towards an area “not under the control of coalition forces” carrying their dead and wounded. First of all, the Taliban do not carry their dead, as that would be suicidal given that it would slow them down and make them vulnerable to pursuing forces or air strikes. Although they do at times carry their wounded, that also slows them down and makes them vulnerable to hot pursuit, particularly if they are climbing away from the battle zone. So why the claim that Taliban dead and wounded were being carried away and why no pursuit?  What does “area not under control of coalition forces” mean? Given that the fire fight was supposedly over in 2-3 minutes according to the NZDF, how were the enemy forces able to escape in full sight of the patrol? Were they fired upon while retreating?

Why was no air cover called in before or after the initial ambush? Since the dead and wounded were evacuated by chopper in a relatively short period of time once the call for help went out, that means that air assets were in the vicinity (there is an airfield at the Bamiyan PRT). Were they otherwise occupied?

From what I gather in the press, this looks like a classic sucker ploy double ambush in which the NZDF was specifically targeted. That no enemy bodies or wounded were recovered, and that no pursuit of the fleeing insurgents was undertaken, suggests that this was a significant tactical victory for the “bad guys” (I presume that no pursuit was launched because the priority was to stabilize the wounded and secure a landing zone for the rescue choppers). It also suggests that there may be some issues with the patrol and response tactics used by the NZDF, particularly if these had been used before and established a pattern of behavior that the Taliban/insurgents could observe and learn from. The patrol in question was in its third month of deployment (the 19th PRT rotation), so questions of experience and local familiarity on the part of the troops involved are fair to raise.

I do not mean to question the actions or valor of the NZDF troops, nor do I claim any superior military expertise. I certainly do not have all of the facts on the ground. I can only speculate on what has been reported by the mainstream press so far. However, I do know a little about irregular warfare and about the tactical nature of that warfare in the Afghan theater. It is for that reason that I ask these questions, which I hope someone in the mainstream press will be courageous enough to ask of the government and NZDF. After all, there is still at least another year to go before the NZDF withdraws from Bamiyan, and whoever conducted this attack is clearly signaling what is in store in the months ahead.

Postscript: In his latest press conference held today Gen. Rhys-Jones stated that the NZDF troops were not specifically targeted, but were fired upon by insurgents protecting a valuable bomb-maker who was the object of the initial NSD search. He claimed that both soldiers killed as well as those that were wounded were dismounted when struck by small arms fire, and that the insurgents engaged in a fighting retreat before air strikes were called in. He asserted that the insurgents “took a battering” even though no bodies are found. This raises more questions even as it answers some of those outlined above. I shall leave it for readers to decide whether to take the General at his good word.

12 thoughts on “Some questions about the ambush.

  1. Apparently the NZ Army has five LAV’s in Bamiyan, and plans to leave them behind when they withdraw. Vulnerability to shoulder launched light anti-tank weapons is not “a flaw” of the LAV design. If it was, it would be a flaw shared by practically every APC in the world including the Warrior and Bradley series of MICVs. We don’t know enough of the nature of the attack to form any view on the nature of the performance of the vehicle hit. If the vehicle hit was a LAV, then was it hit by a standard RPG-7 HEAT round or a more modern, tandem head HEAT weapon? Not even tanks are fully resistant to modern tandem head LAW – Abrams and Challenger tanks have been penetrated in their frontal arc by the RPG-29. If it were an older RPG-7 hit on a LAV then the vehicle may have performed well – a RPG-7 HEAT round hit on a M113 would have killed everyone inside. However, it would be interesting to know if we have added additional wire armour to our LAV’s to trigger a stand-off detonation of older HEAT rounds. However, as you say we don’t even know if the LAV was involved in this action.

    The idea that enemy suffered “heavy but unspecified” losses (to use World War One parlance) is complete flannel from our Wellington based Chateau generals who must be thanking their lucky stars our media has regressed to the uncritical levels last seen in the reporting of the charnel-house offensives of the Great War. We were ambushed and suffered heavy casualties without being able to effectively reply. This attack should demand an immediate and violent retaliation, followed by a rapid early withdrawal. But John Key’s blithe assertion we are staying put – presumably without beefing up our training, numbers, or weaponry or re-deploying our SAS to operate with our regular forces – simply means the Taliban know a bunch a mugs when they see them, and we can only pray we avoid an even bigger military disaster.

    I would agree from the few facts currently available that we walked into an ambush 101. I would suggest the NZDF is not psychologically prepared for nor properly trained and equipped for routine hard infantry fighting against (to use Vietnam parlance) “main force” Taliban units. The public has been sold on this mission as a sort of armed foreign aid scheme, and I suspect our soldiers might half believe that as well. Certainly, up to now Baniyam has been seen as a safe place for our relatively lightly armed troops to make a symbolic contribution. Outside the SAS, the New Zealand regular military is now more or less seen by most of the public (and is used by many of the people in it) as primarily a good way to learn a trade, not as fully combat ready organisation capable of carrying out high-intensity combat operations. Given our run-down armies now proven inability to take on the full strength Taliban, we should get now – we’ve been warned.

  2. Thanks Sanctuary, for the mini tutorial on anti-armor munitions. My understanding from the earlier debates and US Army debriefs is that the LAV was originally designed to follow Abrams tanks into battle and were therefore built for speed and carrying capacity (hence the wheels and thin skins). They were not designed for slow moving close quarter combat because that is not how the US planners envisioned their deployment. Iraq and Afghanistan taught them otherwise and the Strykers have been ex post up- armored at some length, although they continue to be used mostly in urban theaters.

    I wonder if the NZDF followed the US lead or kept their original configuration. The most recent reports are that LAVs were involved in this engagement and that one of the soldiers was shot while sitting in the roof well position. That would indicate that no RPG fire was involved. At least one thing is clear: Tim O’Donnell’s death in an ambush in the same region two years ago signaled to the brass that Humvees (which he was riding in) and Hiluxes were simply too vulnerable to ambush. If the LAVs were able to repel RPG and other small arms fire, that is a step up.

    As for the rest of the scenario, it remains to be seen if the NZDF will provide and honest after-action report to the public. One thing is certain whether that report is released or not: the NZDF learning curve better be steep.

  3. The spin on this from the army is Gilbert and Sullivan stuff, and the media coverage is equally ridiculous. The brass are clearly frantic to divert any media scrutiny over what occured. The idea that the second attack was a reminder that the Taliban were still about despite the hiding we had given them is simply not credible, yet the media has unswervingly swallowed the bullshit as carved in stone and handed down from Mt. Sinai. Are we really not mature enough to admit we may have got our arses kicked? More likely our military managers and their political masters are petrified that if it was revealed as a defeat of an NZ patrol hard questions might be asked about the level of danger we face and therefore why we are even still in Afghanistan. The level of media culpability in all this is astonishing. The whole thing has quickly been turned into an maudlin exercise in unthinking flag wrapping. The media has become little more than the unpaid PR arm of the NZDF, regurgitating gushingly childish patriotism in lieu of asking questions. This, I suppose, is the impact of having journalists who know nothing about military affairs and the orchestrated mawkish sentimentalism, unreasoned patriotism and latent militarism that the media ensured events like ANZAC day has become.

    Anyway, according to the Herald, this is how it went down:

    “…Their (sic) PRT had been called to assist Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) officers who had been ambushed at Baghak village while trying to arrest a rebel bomb-maker. Two Afghani police had been killed in the ambush, and 11 injured. Three New Zealand patrols in a Humvee vehicle and two light-armoured vehicles (LAVs) helped to evacuate the NDS members, but came under attack from retreating insurgents when trying to secure the hills around the area.

    General Jones said Lance Corporal Malone tried to help an injured company commander but was shot by rifle fire and killed instantly. Lance Corporal Durrer, a crew commander, was walking alongside one of the LAVs to observe the site when he was shot…”

    Retreating insurgents? Really? My guess is a first ambush of the NDS troops to draw in the NZ patrol then a feigned retreat to lure them over into killing ground, and trying to read between those brief lines it looks to me like we were taken completely by surprise as we were just beginning to deploy. A classic ambush scenario familiar to anyone who is a student of military tactics. Once ambushed, a fierce barrage of small arms and RPG fire then a rapid withdrawal from the area before air support can arrive. So the, an ambush of no little sophistication by hardened Taliban fighters from out of the province. By the sounds of the harsh criticism of the Hungarians by John Key (I would be surprised if his “Hungarians only go out at night in Budapest” comment isn’t widely reported in that country), we were probably not even aware such an dangerous enemy force were anywhere nearby.

  4. Sanctuary:

    The official story has changed four times in 72 hours so I believe that you may be on to something. I agree that the coverage has been appalling

    Key’s remarks about the Hungarians can be considered to be his Dubya moment–make a joke about a bad situation in order to deflect attention from it.

    That the Hungarians will not patrol at night and the NZDF would not pursue into adjoining ISAF territory speaks volumes.

  5. Sanctuary:

    I am sure that you will be delighted to know that, according to the NZDF as channeled by the Herald, the force suffers more injuries at home that it does abroad. Dental issues and topical infections are apparently a major concern. I do wonder how many of those domestic injuries involve hot metal passing through flesh?

    As for Keegan, sad to see him go. I was required to read him at Georgetown and Chicago as part of the bibliographies for strategy courses. It is worth noting that he never was in the military or even close to any armed conflict, but could capture the essence of war so compellingly.

  6. “First of all, the Taliban do not carry their dead”

    I’m sure there are a lot of insurgents in Afghanistan who aren’t formally affiliated to the Taliban, at least not to the extent of following every aspect of Taliban battle doctrine.

  7. Hugh:

    This is where your arguing just for the sake of arguing makes you look like a fool. What part of suicidal do you not understand? Do you understand the concept of living to fight another day?

    There are no–as in zero–insurgent groups in Afghanistan who attempt to carry out their dead in steep mountainous terrain in the immediate aftermath of firefights and in the face of inevitable air strikes and/or hot pursuits. They only do so when their comrades have been killed by stand-off weapons used in areas where no foreign ground forces are in the vicinity. What insurgents will do is strip their dead comrades of their weapons and sometimes booby-trap them. The bodies are either recovered later or are retrieved by ISAF forces and eventually returned to local authorities for return to their families.

    In this case the NZDF claims that the insurgents engaged in a fighting retreat while carrying dead and wounded. Do I really need to spell out to you how difficult it is, to say nothing of improbable, for the insurgents to lay down effective covering fire while carrying adult bodies uphill over rocks and between boulders on narrow goat tracks, particularly knowing that air cover is inevitably called in by besieged ISAF forces? Geez.

    You really need to curb the habit of talking s**t just to get a rise out of people. Now please go away.

  8. I didn’t know what to make of that Herald story. Perhaps they are thinking of some sort of Philip Zec cartoon of a dead NZ soldier captioned “The price of dental care worse than Afghanistan – Official”

  9. Pablo, while I’m happy to discuss the issues, I’d appreciate you not calling me a fool. Thanks.

  10. Very good comments, I can safely put my hand on my heart and say our kiwi soldiers are not combat ready, they are professional peace keepers, they are not used to that sort of fighting, yes they train for it back in NZ, but I can tell you, no kiwi soldiers over the past 20 years have been on full combat operations, only the SAS. I bet your bottom dollar our SAS will be sent back over. The brass in wellington I feel have been telling fibs.

  11. Brent:

    Besides being a bit of NZDF spin, the PR statement by the wounded CO of the unit that got ambushed, an ex-SAS major, leads me to believe that perhaps it was not so much a lack of combat experience as it was a failure of real-time intelligence and superior enemy preparations that dictated the outcome. We will never see the full after-action report but it will be interesting to see what is publicly acknowledged in that regard.

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