Turning the tables on the Taliban

Here’s a feel-good story for a Saturday morning about our fighting men in Afghanistan — and it’s from the New York Times.  C.J. Chivers tells the story of how one American unit turned the tables on the Taliban by ambushing one of their patrols before they could set up their own ambush of NATO forces, and wiped out the entire contingent:

Only the lead insurgents were disciplined as they walked along the ridge. They moved carefully, with weapons ready and at least five yards between each man, the soldiers who surprised them said.

Behind them, a knot of Taliban fighters walked in a denser group, some with rifles slung on their shoulders — “pretty much exactly the way we tell soldiers not to do it,” said Specialist Robert Soto, the radio operator for the American patrol.

If these insurgents came close enough, the soldiers knew, the patrol could kill them in a batch.

Fight by fight, the infantryman’s war in Afghanistan is often waged on the Taliban’s terms. Insurgents ambush convoys and patrols from high ridges or long ranges and slip away as the Americans, weighed down by equipment, return fire and call for air and artillery support. Last week a patrol from the First Infantry Division reversed the routine.

An American platoon surprised an armed Taliban column on a forested ridgeline at night, and killed at least 13 insurgents, and perhaps many more, with rifles, machine guns, Claymore mines, hand grenades and a knife.

Which is followed by the stanard NYT disclaimer in the very next paragraph:

The one-sided fight, fought on the slopes of the same mountain where a Navy Seal patrol was surrounded in 2005 and a helicopter with reinforcements was shot down, does not change the war. It was one of hundreds of firefights that have occurred in the Korangal Valley, an isolated region where local insurgents and the Americans have been locked in a bitter stalemate for more than three years.

It doesn’t change the war, except to the extent that these particular fighters will not return to kill any more Americans or other NATO fighters.  It doesn’t change the war, except that the Taliban not only lost some foot soldiers, they lost the leaders who knew more about what they were doing than their followers on this mission.  It doesn’t change the war any more than a few soldiers dying on one side ever does, which is to say that it always changes the war — just a bit.

That’s the only off-key note in an excellent, lengthy, step-by-step report by Chivers on the counter-ambush.  It reminds us that the Taliban, for all their fervor and danger, have no chance against a well-trained military.  They made several mistakes that indicate a lack of training, which Chivers recounts: switching on flashlights, walking openly even in the dark with rifles slung, talking, and so on.

Veterans objected to a few scenes of Saving Private Ryan where the detail is walking across the French countryside in the open, rifles slung, and chatting amongst themselves in broad daylight while pushing through still-contested territory.  They noted that such actions would be suicidal in wartime.  This engagement proves the point.

Good training beats religious fervor in the long run.  We proved that in Iraq, too, and we’ll prove it in Afghanistan more times than this.