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 Â 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? Â 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.