Since 2006, the Taliban have made a dramatic comeback in Afghanistan after being driven from the country in 2002. As security has deteriorated, they have steadily taken control of more and more territory. In response, a new strategic plan for Afghanistan has been formulated by General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of ISAF and US Forces – Afghanistan. On Dec. 3, 2009, this plan was approved by the Obama administration. While there are several important aspects of the strategy, such as political development, economic development, counter narcotics, and the police and justice system, this article will focus on the military aspect.
The strategic environment
The US military has identified three major Taliban groups as representing the primary threat to Afghan security: the Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and the Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. According to the US military and General McChrystal, These groups often operate together, coordinating activities loosely, but they do not share a single formal command and control structure. Nor do they have a single overarching strategy or campaign plan. Each group has it own methods of developing and executing plans and each has adapted over time.
The Taliban groups have made significant inroads in Afghanistan, especially in the southern and eastern portions of the country. Violent attacks constitute the most visible part of this insurgency; targets are the ISAF forces, Afghan security forces, and the civilian population. These violent attacks are designed to further recruiting and financing efforts, to provoke reactions from ISAF that further alienate the population, and to weaken the government by demonstrating its inability to provide security.
In addition, the Taliban wage a silent war of intimidation and persuasion to gain control of the population. These efforts make possible the existence of Taliban shadow governments in virtually every province that actively seek to control the population and displace the national and local governments and traditional power structures.
The Taliban currently have the initiative in Afghanistan. As a result, the ordinary Afghan civilian’s confidence in the Afghan government has been declining.
In spite of these gains, however, the Taliban have a significant weakness. They are not supported by a large portion of Afghans. The core elements of the insurgency have previously held power in Afghanistan, and popular enthusiasm for them was and is limited.
Traditionally, the main strength of an insurgency comes from its support among the local population. Without it, insurgents are vulnerable to being identified and attacked by larger and more capable regular forces. This fact is of central importance to the new plan.
The overall military strategy
The McChrystal military plan covers the short term, the next 12-18 months. The plan’s main goal is to halt the progress of the Taliban, to reverse it in key areas, and to regain the initiative.
The first part of the strategy de-emphasizes the counterterrorism strategy and institutes a counterinsurgency strategy. This means reducing efforts on going after Taliban combatants and increasing efforts to provide security to the population. While the insurgency can afford to lose fighters and leaders, it cannot afford to lose control of the population.
For the short term, the US does not consider it necessary to control the entire country but rather to secure a few key areas and population centers. The goal is for the people of Afghanistan to first see an opportunity for a normal, better future, and then to start to experience it.
The key areas that General McChrystal has identified are:
• Helmand province, particularly the Helmand River valley
• Kandahar City and the areas surrounding the city
• The provinces of Paktika, Paktia, and Khost
The second part of the strategy is to develop the Afghan National Security Force into a force that is capable of providing security for the country. Although ANSF development will not be completed in 18 months, it needs to demonstrate both substantial progress and that the long term goal of the ANSF providing for security for the entire country is achievable. A major review will be held in December 2010 to assess progress.
ISAF and OEF forces
Since its basis rests on providing security for a population, counterinsurgency is a labor-intensive strategy. A substantial increase in troop strength has been deemed necessary. On Dec. 3, 2009, President Obama announced that 30,000 US troops would be added to the Afghanistan war effort during the course of 2010. This is in fact a continuation of a buildup that started in January 2009, when 21,000 US troops began deploying to Afghanistan under the order of President Bush. An additional 16,000 non-US forces have also been committed to the force increase by NATO and allied countries. The total number of ISAF and OEF troops will increase from 80,000 in early 2009 to 150,000 in summer 2010.
The military strategy details
Some details concerning the implementation of the plan have already been announced. The plan focuses on three strategic regions: the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the traditional strongholds of the Quetta Shura Taliban, and the eastern provinces of Paktika, Paktia, and Khost, the bastion of the Haqqani Network.
The Helmand River Valley
The Helmand River Valley is the province’s most significant feature and its strategic center.
• It is a fertile agricultural area where the majority of the population of the province resides. It contains the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah and the province’s eco¬nomic center of Gereshk.
• It is the center of the Taliban’s drug operations. Sixty percent of the opium production in Afghanistan comes from this area. This provides substantial financial resources for the Taliban.
• Helmand contains important lines of communication. For the Taliban, it is a route for the movement of foreign fighters and weapons from Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan. The Taliban have also refined and stored narcotics within Helmand and moved them through the province’s southern border to Pakistan. Helmand also facilitates the refining, storage, and eventual movement of narcot¬ics, again, mainly through the province’s southern border with Pakistan.
• There is a hydroelectric dam at Kajak at the northern end of the river valley. If it can be put into operation, it could be a major resource for development for the region.
The main threat in the area is the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), as described by Jeffrey Dressler in a report released in early January 2010 at the Institute for the Study of War:
QST is the “intellectual and ideologi¬cal underpinning of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The enemy is determined, well-organized, and entrenched in the province. In recent years, the enemy has shown its ability to adapt to the evolving conflict by developing and executing coherent campaign plans.
QST sought to target Afghan and coalition units, mobile convoys, and supply routes, and widened the campaign against diplomatic centers, high-ranking government officials, members of parliament, defense officials, and members of the interior and national security ministries. Furthermore, the Taliban sought to tighten their encirclement of key coalition centers, particu¬larly Lashkar Gah.
From 2006 to 2009, British forces controlled the main cities of Lashkar Gah and Geresk and several villages in the northern Helmand River valley. But these were unconnected islands of security; the British had too few troops to control all of the province’s population centers or the areas between them.
The plan is to provide security over the entire length of the Helmand River valley.
• Push the Taliban out of the population centers and agricultural areas, significantly reducing Taliban influence over the population.
• Reduce opium cultivation and thereby reduce the Taliban’s financial income.
• Currently, the Helmand River Valley contains only isolated pockets of security.. In addition to being secure in their homes, it is necessary for the Afghans to be able to move to places that are important to them, such as to sell farm produce. So an additional goal is to expand the secure areas and improve the civilian population’s freedom of movement.
• Develop the hydroelectric dam in Kajak to produce electricity, and begin to distribute it throughout the province.
Prior to 2009, ISAF forces numbered about 7,000 troops and consisted of:
• one British brigade
• one Danish battalion
By spring 2010, this force will be reinforced to about 24,000 troops and consist of:
• two British brigades (equivalent)
• two US Marine regiments
• one Danish battalion
• one Georgian battalion
The current ANA force in the province is the 3rd Brigade of the 205th Corps, about 3,000 troops. This force is to be expanded to a corps of 3 brigades, about 12,000 troops.
Kandahar City and surrounding area
Kandahar City is the strategic center of Kandahar province. It is also important to the Taliban as their spiritual center. Kandahar City also sits astride the main logistics route from Kabul to Helmand province and western Afghanistan. It is the only place [I still have question whether the words “in Afghanistan” should be inserted here] where the main ring road passes though a major urban area.
In the eyes of the Pashtun, the situation in Kandahar City will define their perception of security and their future.
As in Helmand, the main threat in the area is the QST. They have been steadily increasing their hold on the province, most significantly by expanding control in the areas surrounding Kandahar City. Their goal is to set up staging areas there from which to project attacks into the city itself.
Securing Kandahar City requires securing the approaches to the city: Arghandab in the north, Zari-Panjwayi in the west, and Dand in the south. These districts are where the insurgents have their safe havens that allow them to project power within Kandahar City itself.
In addition to opening up roads that run from Helmand through Kandahar City and to the town of Spin Boldak on the border with Pakistan, the Coalition will also work on securing the major highway that links Kandahar City with Kabul.
Before 2009, the ISAF forces in Kandahar constituted 3,000 troops total, consisting of:
• two Canadian battalions
• one US battalion
By the spring of 2010, this force will be reinforced to about 7,500 troops, consisting of:
• two Canadian battalions
• one US Stryker brigade
• one US light brigade
The current ANA force in the province is the 1st Brigade of the 205th Corps, or about 3,000 troops. This brigade will be reinforced to about 4,000 troops, but even the expanded force will still be too small to secure the area. However, with Helmand province being the higher priority, further reinforcements may not be available until late 2010.
Paktika, Paktia, and Khost provinces
The eastern provinces of Paktika, Paktia, and Khost are adjacent to the Taliban-controlled tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan in Pakistan. The Waziristans are the base from which the Haqqani Network, the best led and most violent of the Taliban groups, operates in Afghanistan. North and South Waziristan also are home to three large Taliban groups that are also active in aiding the Afghan insurgency and that host al Qaeda and allied foreign fighters.
The Haqqani Network is seeking to regain control of its traditional base in Afghanistan’s Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. They currently control some of the key terrain around the city of Khost as well as Gardez in Paktia. The Haqqanis exert significant influence on the population in the region.
The McChrystal plan is to secure the region is to protect the cities, the communication centers, the transportation hubs, and the surrounding areas essential to the city markets and local farmers selling their crops.
Prior to 2009, the ISAF forces in eastern Afghanistan numbered 3,500 troops and consisted of one US light brigade. By the spring 2010, the force will be reinforced to about 7,000 troops, or two US light brigades.
The current ANA forces in the area consist of the three brigades of the 203rd corps, or about 9,800 troops. The 203rd Corps is one the best corps in the ANA. By October 2010, the size of the 203rd Corps will be increased to about 12,000 troops.
From a long term point of view, developing the ANSF is the most important strategic goal. If this cannot be accomplished, everything else is of little use, since the ANSF force must be adequately strengthened in order for the ISAF to be able to leave. In the short term, the ISAF needs to provide sufficient security to give the ANSF time to develop. At the same time, the development of the ANSF has to make enough progress so that, by July 2011, the ISAF can begin the process of turning over security responsibility to the ANSF.
Currently the ANSF consists of about 200,000 ANA and ANP troops. The plan is to accelerate growth so that 240,000 troops could be fielded by October 2010, rising to 305,000 by October 2011. This is a very rapid increase in troop size in an extremely short time. To achieve this goal, significant changes to the original ANSF development plan have been made.
• Force generation will now concentrate on fielding the maximum number of light infantry companies and combat service support units. These units are the most critical to counterinsurgency. They are also the most straightforward to build.
• Forces that require more extensive training and equipment will be delayed. This includes artillery, engineers, and motorized quick-reaction units. The shortage of these units will be made up for by increasing support from ISAF units.
• Training time for troops and officers will be reduced by about 20-25%. The resulting reduction in expertise will be compensated for by increasing the number of ISAF mentoring teams.
• Equipment provided will be the minimum combat-essential equipment. Heavy equipment will be delayed, while light weapons that are “good enough” for counterinsurgency will get priority. Retirement of older equipment will be delayed. Facilities will be minimal. Acquisition of tactical transport helicopters will be accelerated.
This article describes the ISAF strategy for the next 12-18 months; the longer term strategy is not covered here. Nor does the foregoing discussion address the entire plan for the next 12-18 months. There are major aspects that have not been discussed in this article, including development of the Afghan National Police, counter narcotics, civilian resources for development, and governance and information operations.
This plan entails significant risks. Some aspects will work, some will not. The enemy will adapt, and the plan will have to be adapted accordingly.