Marshall: Similarities and differences in tactics in Afghanistan

Fourth in a series

U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall was embedded with a Special Forces A Team the weekend of July 20. This is his log of the experiences.

Monday, July 23, 2007: The A team spent most of the day preparing for a night mission. The plan was to convoy about 30 kilometers in up-armored humvees, sleep for the balance of the night and then spend the next day providing medical services to the residents of a particular village. They will return to Chamkani after dark the following night.I mentioned that most Americans in Vietnam hunkered down at night. One of the team members responded "We rule the night," which reminded me of melody and words from Billy Joel's song, Goodnight Saigon: "We held the day in the palm of our hand. They ruled the night and the night seemed to last" forever.

Night vision binoculars have come a long way since the clunky, Vietnam-era Starlight scope. The ones used by the team are quite remarkable. Each member has his own pair. I tried them out last night. Both the binoculars and rifle scope converted pitch black to a surreal daylight with people and objects sharply defined. You literally could see why someone would say, "We rule the night."

I didn't have even the rudimentary Starlight scope for my Recon platoon in Vietnam. Both sides were blind or semi-blind during my night missions and ambushes. Now, only the enemy is sightless.

Whether it is day or night, combat engagements in Iraq or Afghanistan typically are very lopsided affairs, assuming the enemy attacks us heads up or we have a clear target. All Americans know that. But too few fully grasp how critical it is to maintain and grow our tactical advantages.

Special Forces A team members are at the tip of the spear. For every frontline troop, there are dozens of military and civilian personnel that make their job easier, even possible. I think of the men and women I know so well at Robins Air Force Base daily doing different tasks that, combined with the work of so many others, gives us remarkable military superiority.

If the A team ever needs additional combat power, we can quickly give it overwhelming, highly accurate force. Just three weeks before my visit, the team made contact with a Taliban unit it was pursuing based upon local tips. The enemy was high on a mountainside, far from any civilians. So the team employed air power after an exchange of small arms fire. Dozens upon dozens (the estimates range into the hundreds) of Taliban were killed or wounded. There were no friendly casualties.

No country in the history of the world has given its warfighters such a leg up over the competition. The challenge for us is finding the right targets and using our force discreetly, minimizing collateral damage that can be so harmful to our effort.

The A team's medical mission builds goodwill and relationships that can lead to actionable intelligence. The village of Chamkani's new school, a very simple structure built courtesy of America, has the same effect.

American infantry units in Vietnam typically would move in a company size formation (about 120 men) "poking around" to make enemy contact. Usually that contact came in the form of a booby trap or unseen snipers. The A team does little or no "poking around." It will sometimes move to an area just to show an American presence. But most of its missions have specific objectives, either military or humanitarian. Once the target is identified by reliable intelligence, team members carefully plan an engagement. These kinetic missions are always executed in tandem with Afghan National Police, typically at night and often without a single shot fired.

Everything the team does is driven by intelligence. Good relationships with the indigenous population are critical to this effort. Special Forces teams typically rotate tour-after-tour to the same area, avoiding the learning curve posed by a new area of operations, and most important, maintaining and renewing relationships with their friends in the local population. I've argued for a force-wide use of this model whenever and wherever we face an insurgency.

We spend time on the shooting range zeroing in and testing different weapons, sniper rifles, M-4s, a 50-caliber that tends to jam. Gun Doctor, an Afghan Security Guard commander, shows up with some of his men. He fires an 82 mm recoilless rife (a Russian anti-tank bazooka) with great accuracy.

I shoot an AK-47 with open sights and am surprised I can hit metal silhouette targets at two, three and 400 hundred yards. Those shots are easy with the scoped, 7.62 caliber M-24 sniper rifle.

Word has come that we will not get out again today. The team decides to delay its mission until tomorrow. It isn't time sensitive, and they do not want to leave us alone on the fire base. I ask one team member if he's relieved. He says "No. Missions don't bother me. We don't take chances."

Jim Marshall represents the 8th Congressional District in Georgia.