Analysis: US military strategy in Afghanistan shifts as forces draw down
On June 23, President Obama announced that 33,000 US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months. This withdrawal has significant implications for the military strategy in Afghanistan.
The military plan for Afghanistan announced by President Obama in December 2009 that formed the basis for the surge of 33,000 troops is no longer in effect, and is being replaced by a new plan. The acceleration of the drawdown has necessitated strategic changes from the original 2009 plan, particularly with respect to troop deployment in the Afghan East. In addition, the originally planned shift from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency in the East will not take place.
The 2009 plan
The December 2009 plan called for a surge of over 30,000 troops, to be deployed primarily in populated areas around Kandahar City as well as in the provinces of Helmand, Paktika, Paktia, and Khost. It also relied on a rapid expansion and development of Afghan forces. [For a detailed description, see LWJ report, The military strategy in Afghanistan.]
In summary, the plan targeted two main areas of Afghanistan:
1. South. The main focus would be on Helmand and Kandahar provinces. This area is the stronghold of the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST).
2. East. Khost, Paktia, and Paktika. This area is the stronghold of the Haqqani Network, a Taliban group that is part of the Quetta Shura.
Initially, Coalition commander General Stanley McChrystal had proposed a plan that addressed the Afghan South and East simultaneously. A counterinsurgency strategy was to be implemented in both areas. This would have required adding more than 40,000 US troops to the 70,000 already in Afghanistan. This plan was not adopted, however.
Instead, President Obama approved only an additional 30,000 troops. Because fewer troops meant that a counterinsurgency strategy could not be implemented in both the South and the East simultaneously, the original 2009 plan was modified into a two-phase plan. In Phase 1, the South would be addressed, and in Phase 2 the Coalition would shift its efforts to the East.
Phase 1: 2010 - 2011
1. South. Most of the 30,000 additional troops would be sent to the South. This would constitute the main effort, and a counterinsurgency strategy would be implemented. The goal would be to protect the population from the QST insurgents. Coalition forces would first clear QST from key population areas. Then ANSF forces would be used to hold the cleared areas and prevent QST insurgents from returning.
2. East. A smaller number of troops would be sent to the East. For the time being, this would be a secondary effort. With insufficient troops for a counterinsurgency strategy in the area, a counterterrorism strategy would be implemented instead. Coalition forces would not try to clear population areas. Rather, they would attack the Haqqani Network directly. The goal would be to wear down Haqqani Network fighters, leaders, and infrastructure, rendering them less capable of operations. This would halt their momentum and prevent them from spreading into adjacent provinces and, most importantly, to the national capital of Kabul. Essentially, this would be a holding action.
3. Development of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The growth of the ANSF would be accelerated. By the end of this phase, ANSF would have increased its capability so that it could take responsibility for holding the cleared areas in the South.
Phase 2: 2012- 2013
1. South. With the insurgency driven out of key population areas and ANSF taking over the hold mission, Coalition troops would be freed up, allowing most of them to be transferred to the East. A much smaller Coalition force would be left behind to advise and assist the ANSF.
2. East. With the extra troops transferred from the South, the East would become the main effort. With sufficient troops, the Coalition efforts in the East would transition from a counterterrorism strategy to a counterinsurgency strategy. As in the South during Phase 1, Coalition forces would clear insurgents from key population areas and the ANSF would then be used to hold the cleared areas.
3. Development of ANSF. The growth of the ANSF would continue until it was sufficiently capable of holding both the South and the East. With the successful completion of Phases 1 and 2, the ANSF would have taken over security responsibility in most of Afghanistan by the end of 2013, allowing a large number of Coalition troops to withdraw during 2014.
This was the plan approved by President Obama in December 2009.
As of mid-2011, most of Phase 1 of the 2009 plan has been executed.
1. South. With the deployment of a large number of additional troops, most of the South has been cleared. The transition to ANSF lead has begun. A drawdown is possible especially in southern and central Helmand province, although there are still several contested areas in northern Helmand and in Kandahar.
2. East. As expected, with the deployment of fewer troops, the East is still heavily contested by the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network has infiltrated into Ghazni province, as well as Zabul, Logar, and Wardak, but except for the intermittent spectacular attack, not significantly into Kabul.
3. ANSF development. The Afghan National Army is making significant progress toward its developmental goals. ANSF has grown by from 190,000 troops to 300,000. A new ANA corps, the 215th , has been deployed to Helmand province, and the 205th Corps in Kandahar province has been expanded. The transfer of security responsibility has begun.
The development of the Afghan National Police is progressing much more slowly, however, and the ANP remains a force with many problems. It is not expected to be fully capable even by 2014.
4. Northeast and the North. The situation in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan has deteriorated since Coalition forces began withdrawing troops from the region. Although a relatively small area and home to only a tiny portion of the Afghan population (<2%), it has been infiltrated by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied groups, and is now largely controlled by them. They have set up bases and have staged attacks into adjacent areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coalition and ANSF forces have largely withdrawn from the area, limiting their activity to staging disruption attacks.
In the Northern provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar, the Taliban and the allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have expanded their influence and established safe havens. ISAF has even identified the presence of suicide training camps in Samangan and Sar-i-Pul.
The 2011 plan
On June 23, 2011, President Obama announced that the withdrawal of US troops would begin sooner than the December 2009 plan had envisioned. Originally planned to start in 2014, the drawdown is beginning now, and the entire 30,000+ surge force will be withdrawn by September 2012.
Other Coalition nations are following suit and have announced they will begin pulling significant numbers of troops from Afghanistan.
This revised drawdown timeline has major implications for the 2009 plan. Although Phase 1 has largely been accomplished, the early troop withdrawal renders Phase 2 no longer viable. The forces that would have been transferred from the South to the East are instead being withdrawn. Therefore, there will not be enough troops to both hold the South and to transition to a counterinsurgency strategy in the East. Accordingly, a new plan for Phase 2 is needed, the essence of which has trickled out over the last month.
1. South. US forces will start withdrawing now, with a total of 10,000 to be withdrawn by the end of 2011. This means that clearing operations will come to an end sooner, by the end of this summer, instead of by the end of this year. And the holding mission will be transferred from Coalition forces to ANSF about four months earlier than originally planned.
2. East. Of the remaining troops in the South, fewer units will transfer to the East. In addition, they will consist mainly of support units, not combat troops. Since there will not be enough combat troops transferred to allow for the execution of a counterinsurgency strategy, the current counterterrorism strategy will be continued. More significantly, the ANSF will be expected take over the lead and the brunt of fighting, starting this winter. The Coalition forces' role will be to provide advice, assistance, and support to the ANSF.
Given the focus on a counterterrorism strategy, ANSF will not engage in clearing operations. There is no plan to clear the East in any predetermined timeframe. Instead, it is expected that the battle in the East will become a long-term war of attrition between the Haqqani Network and ANSF, which will last significantly longer than the Phase 1 operations in the South.
3. ANA development. A much heavier burden will be placed on the ANSF than previously planned. ANSF will continue to grow from the current 300,000 troops to 352,000 by October 2012. The Afghan Local Police program will expand from 7,000 officers to 30,000.
At the same time, many quality issues will need to be addressed, including troop retention, professionalism, literacy, drug use, corruption, and the establishment of support organizations.
4. Northeast and the North. Coalition forces will continue to stage disruption attacks. No permanent solution is currently planned, however. It will be left to the Afghans to come up with their own solution.
Clearly, the 2011 plan is much riskier than the 2009 plan. Will it succeed? Some key indicators to watch are listed below. With the drawdown of Coalition forces, the ANSF will assume more importance than Coalition forces. The performance of the ANSF will become the central issue.
1. Can the ANSF hold the South? Watch the performance of the ANA's 205th and 215th Corps. Success would mean keeping the Quetta Shura Taliban out of the cleared areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Failure would be infiltration of QST back into the cleared areas.
2. Can the ANSF take the lead in high-intensity counterterrorism operations in the East? This will be a harder task. Watch the performance of the ANA's 203rd Corps. Success would involve the slow attrition of the Haqqani Network over the course of many years. Failure would consist of a stalemate or the pulling back of ANSF, with the Haqqani Hetwork setting up additional bases farther and farther into Afghanistan, including neighboring Logar, Wardak, and Ghazni provinces, and an increasing number of attacks into Kabul originating from these areas.
3. Will ANSF develop as needed? Success calls for an increasingly capable ANSF in terms of quality and performance. A size of about 350,000 troops will need to be achieved and maintained. Failure will result from a significant decrease in troop retention leading to a long-term decline in the size and performance of the ANSF.
4. Can Afghanistan find a solution for the Northeast and North? Since there is no existing plan to deal with these two regions, there can be no measure for success. If Afghanistan cannot itself achieve control over these regions, however, they will become an increasingly secure base for Taliban operations. Attacks will continue to be launched from there into neighboring Nangarhar, Kapisa, Laghman, and Kabul provinces, further destabilizing those areas. The Northeast will also continue to be used for launching attacks into Pakistan.