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Operation Flintlock: Some Notes


To be sure, the Canadians fought hard and earned much respect here.  But, as with the British, US and other forces in Afghanistan, the Canadians were painfully under resourced.  No participating government will leave this war with its reputation enhanced.

I write these words from FOB Pasab, previously FOB Wilson, named after the 40th Canadian service member to die in Afghanistan:   IED attack kills Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. That this war has endured long enough to see bases renamed, says a mouthful.

This battleground, flourishing with poppy, marijuana, and other crops, is a few minutes’ flight from the massive Kandahar Air Field and a short drive from Kandahar City.  The totality of the area of operations can be reached by motor scooter, bicycle, or just by walking.  If destruction of the population were the goal, we could do this simply and probably without US casualties.  In a force on force encounter, the Afghans would be at our feet, just as killing elephants is mechanical and simply achieved if we ignore larger implications such as morality.  If we wanted to steal Afghanistan and its resources, we could have accomplished this at a handsome profit, but that is not our lofty goal.

Some people say we should take a lesson from the Soviets on conquering Afghanistan, but that’s like saying Bill Gates should take business advice from someone who needs a micro-grant.  Firstly, we are not trying to conquer Afghanistan, though the Soviets gave it a try.  The Soviets used just about everything short of nuclear weapons yet utterly failed here in and around the Arghandab River Valley.  They huffed and puffed and were blown away.  The Soviets were militarily defeated and abandoned Afghanistan.  That defeat radiated and the Soviet Union proved to be fissile; the USSR decayed and the rest is history still unfolding.  More recently, the Canadians fought hard here, and were defeated.  To say otherwise is born of ignorance, denial, or likely both.  Bottom line in Afghanistan: If the Canadians had succeeded in their small piece of Afghan pie, I would likely be in RC-East for the Haqqani fight, but then the United States inherited the Canadian battlespace.

2011-07-29-113233-10004-4CAV would conduct the air assault along with Afghan counterparts.

After the Canadians and a succession of under-resourced American efforts here, we’ve finally gotten serious with sufficient troops (for now) and a new campaign plan for this area.  If the campaign plan for Task Force Spartan could be compared to an American football game, Operation Flintlock would be a single play wherein the most that could happen would be a touchdown, and the worst would be a fumble resulting in an enemy touchdown, after which the war would continue.  (After this dispatch was drafted, a helicopter of the same sort we would use to insert apparently was shot down up north, killing 38 people, including 30 Americans of which more than 20 were Navy SEALs.)

Operation Flintlock was to be a perilous Air Assault.  Our people and Afghan forces would infiltrate by helicopter during the dark hours of a moonless morning.  The troops would make their way through potentially bomb-infested fields to more than a half-dozen “strong points” to conduct disruption operations for 48 hours.  There would be more to Flintlock than merely picking a fight to kill Taliban, though picking a fight was part of the plan.

The vineyards, canals, and many natural choke points in this area, are ripe for small-arms ambush and IED attacks.  In a country where bombs are made as easily as butter, IEDs no doubt have removed thousands of arms and legs from service members in Afghanistan, and many of those appendages came to rest here.  The enemy also is making use of the devastating 82mm recoilless rifle that destroys our vehicles.  Even today, as the draft is put down, a TF Spartan Soldier was killed by an 82mm.  Despite all that, this worthy enemy is on defense and being beaten.

To execute a successful operation where bombs are suspected to be planted, not to mention RPGs and machine guns that can take us out of the air, is complex.  After nearly a decade, the enemy understands how we operate, and we understand them.

Five years ago tonight, Canadians were fighting intensely here.   After significant combat in August and September 2006, the BBC reported on 17 September:

Nato hails Afghan mission success

Afghan and Nato forces say a
two-week operation has
driven Taleban militants out
of a stronghold in the southern province of

[Panjwai is not a province, but a district in Kandahar province just near Kandahar city.]

“The British commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan, Lt Gen David Richards, said Operations Medusa had been a significant success”.

[While reading old news stories about success in Afghanistan, the voice of Willard rings out “…the bullshit piled up so fast in Vietnam, you needed wings to stay above it”.]

Articles and Canadian literature trump the battles as successes, but even as I write these words at midnight, five years later in same area, our cannons are firing in the darkness as the concussion pops the tent walls.  The Canadians are gone.  The Taliban are still here.

2011-07-28-152910-2-1000A mission briefing before Operation Flintlock.

Task Force Spartan is working furiously to establish installations in a spoke and wheel array in Zhari.  If it’s not done now while we have sufficient troops, it certainly will not be done next year after the drawdown from this area, and the Taliban will have won, having outlasted not only the Canadians, but forty other nations simultaneously, including us.

Normally, when hitting a target on air assault, the Commander knows the target and selects the landing zones with only military tactics in mind.  In this war, landing zones are approved or declined a million miles away by the IJC in Kabul.  And so, units don’t get to pick their LZs, but they suggest them.  Instead of “back planning” from the target(s), the local commanders often must go with less-than-ideal LZs for the targets because they must pick LZs which fit pre-ordained criteria.  This is not to imply that the criteria are without merit; no doubt they are based on Afghanistan experience.  Though LZ selection can be cumbersome, it is designed to safeguard Afghan civilians and our troops.

There were numerous briefings, rehearsals, gear checks, gear checks and more gear checks.  If there were to be failure, let it be by the hand of Murphy, or the enemy, but not self-inflicted.

2011-08-03-203204-1000Sand table rehearsal.

OPSEC, or Operational Security, is crucial.  Afghan troops would be with us on all helicopters and would be leading the way during much of the fighting.  Shona ba Shona, they call it, Shoulder by Shoulder.  OPSEC weaknesses are apparent.  The Afghans must have enough information to prepare for the mission, but we don’t want every Afghan private to know when and where we are going because CH-47s are flying buses that are easy to shoot down.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona, 4-4CAV Squadron Commander, on his fifth combat tour, would be the overall ground commander.  On nearly the eve of the mission, an Afghan commander said to LTC Katona that he was not going on the mission.  The Afghan commander was manifested to be on the same aircraft with us, the first aircraft to touch down.  LTC Katona was vigorous—very vigorous—in his insistence that the Afghan commander definitely was going on this mission.  After that heated insistence and we parted ways with the Afghan commander, I said to LTC Katona that I was very uncomfortable going on that helicopter unless the Afghan commander was on the mission.  This would be the first mission that I ever backed away from.  LTC Katona said the mission would be cancelled if he refuses.  Some gunboat diplomacy later, and the Afghan commander agreed to go.  The mission was still on.

A few hours before infiltration, after midnight on 30 July, there was a final staff briefing with everything from the weather to intelligence to medical to many other aspects, and everyone made their own “Cherry/Ice Call.”  Cherry means RED.  Abort.  Ice means cool: Go.  After the briefing, the staff is queried for a go/no-go call, which sounds roughly like, “Intel,” “Intel Go.” “Fires,” “Fires Go.”  “Medical,” “Medical is Go.” Etc.  The Air Force would use a B1 to bomb the LZ just before we landed to detonate IEDs.  For years, the enemy has known we do this, and so those bombs from our jets also can be like an invitation to fight.  Just before the helicopters would hit the LZ, there would be a final Cherry/Ice call.

2011-07-29-214209-10004-4CAV leadership: LTC Mike Katona and CSM Charles Cook head to the helicopter zone.

And so that was it.  At about 0200, everything was still ice and we walked five minutes to the helicopter pad at FOB Pasab.


Forty-five minutes later, we would be on the battlefield.  Over the next two days, there would be at least 27 firefights.

(Please stand by for Part II: Infiltration)

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Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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