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The Bridge

Need Bullets? The shortest distance between South Carolina and Kandahar is about 7,500 miles. (As the rocket flies.)

When we lose a bridge, we can’t just detour twenty miles to the next one, as we might on the plains of Europe.  In Afghanistan, there might not be another route for hundreds of miles. Conversely, Afghan fighters, who have used guerilla warfare tactics for decades—centuries even—lack our tanks, vehicles and massive supply lines, leaving them less dependent on infrastructure.  Most of the guerrillas we face are from the immediate area. Their corn comes from their own stalks; ours comes from other continents.

Cargo lands at Karachi and is trucked into Afghanistan through Spin Boldak and Torkham.

Supplies shipped by sea to the port of Karachi flow through two major arteries into Afghanistan. In the north is Torkham, near the famous Khyber Pass. In the south is Spin Boldak, a border town located between Quetta in Pakistan, and Kandahar in Afghanistan.  Kandahar, with its critical airfield, will be a major locus for the upcoming offensive, making route security crucial to US/NATO plans.

Stryker Brigade Combat Team 5/2 (SBCT) is responsible for security at the Spin Boldak point of entry and has deployed the 8-1 Cavalry squadron to live in and patrol the area.  Just north of Spin Boldak, in the wilds along the border, are known enemy safe havens that were used during the Soviet war.

The Stryker Brigade is also tasked with a Freedom of Movement (FOM) mission that extends from Spin Boldak along Highway 4 past Kandahar Airfield (KAF), which is literally one of the busiest airports in the world.  According to AFCENT, during FY09 there were 184,095 tower movements at KAF, which explains why it’s so loud there.  Highway 4 passes the eastern end of KAF’s single runway. About three miles beyond the runway, Highway 4 crosses over the Tarnak River Bridge, one of a number of crucial chokepoints, on the road north to Kandahar.

Normally, such a bridge would be irrelevant to larger logistics considerations. Yet this sorry little bridge is important to the United States and NATO, both for the sake of logistics, and, these days, strategy.  If the Tarnak River Bridge were to be destroyed before or during the upcoming offensive, that inconvenience would become a genuine impediment to movement of troops and supplies.

Some people think the enemy would not attack the crucial bridges because they need them as much as we do. And, in the ongoing battle for the support of the population, the insurgents know that local villagers need the bridges to move any possible produce to market. Yet, as the war progresses, many people understand that we need the bridges more than the enemy does.

From Highway 4, Stryker FOM missions continue along several areas, mostly along Highway 1 out to Helmand Province.  The task is to the keep the roads open.  Throughout most of Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, slightly away from the main roads, the enemy has almost complete freedom of movement.  Basically, we “own” the highways while they are mostly free to operate in the countryside.  The struggle continues for influence over the inhabitants of the villages, towns and cities.

The KAF runway and Highway 4 are main arteries for the unfolding offensive.  Many of the missions and supplies launch from KAF, north along Highway 4, over Tarnak River Bridge.

Who’s In Charge?

The overall commander of ISAF forces in Afghanistan is often called “COMISAF,” or “M4.”  The man behind the letters is General Stanley McChrystal.  General McChrystal’s boss is General David Petraeus at CENTCOM.

Within Afghanistan there are five Regional Commands: RC-West (lead nation Italy); RC-North (Germany); RC-Capital (France); RC-East (United States); and RC-South (UK currently).

In theory, the RCs report directly to Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, an experienced and highly respected commander.  In practice they are a herd of cats, lacking unity of effort.  The reality is that each command reports back to its own leadership—in Rome, Paris, Berlin or wherever.

Down here in RC-South, the current lead nation is the UK.  The British Commander is Major General Nick Carter. Americans, Canadians and others fall under RC-South, which is further broken down into Task Force Helmand (TF-H); TF-Kandahar (TF-K); TF-Uruzgan; TF-Zabul; TF-Fury and TF-Stryker.

The Dutch are lead nation in TF-U. Canadians are lead nation in TF-K. The Tarnak River Bridge falls in the general area of TF-K.

Please stay with me. This matters.

And so it goes like this:

Major General Nick Carter (UK) commands RC-South.

Brigadier General Daniel Menard (Canada) commands Task Force Kandahar.

Under BG Menard’s command are three U.S. Battalions and just over 2,800 Canadian forces.  (U.S. battalions: 1-12 Infantry Reg.; 2-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment; 97th Military Police Battalion). American combat forces comprise a substantial portion of Menard’s force structure, leaving his command and Canadian civilian leadership open to fair scrutiny, just as American leadership is open to Canadian inquiry.  Moreover, while Canada increasingly shies from combat, American units under Canadian command will spill blood under Canadian military leadership that answers to Ottawa.

Kandahar Province is apportioned into battle spaces.  As mentioned, TF-Stryker has responsibilities that include Spin Boldak and FOM on Highway 4 that crosses the Tarnak River Bridge.  TF-Stryker, however, is not responsible for the bridge itself.

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) is responsible for something called the GDA.  The GDA is the Ground Defense Area, and is responsible for security immediately around KAF.  By all accounts, the RAF is doing a fine job.  The GDA includes the area around the Tarnak River Bridge.

TF-K is responsible for Kandahar, but the specific area of the bridge belongs to the RAF.  However, the bridge itself is guarded not by RAF but by ANP (Afghan National Police) mentored by the American 97th MPs.  The 97th is under Canadian command through TF-K.  And so, at the time of the attack, TF-K was responsible for the physical security on the bridge itself, while GDA had responsibility for the land around the bridge.

Which Coalition partner has final responsibility for this strategic bridge?  Is it the RAF who “own” the ground, or TF-K who mentor the ANP guarding the bridge?  If an officer were to say this vital bridge is solely the responsibility of the ANP, his judgment would be deemed unsound.

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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