Afghanistan: US strategy changes to match drawdown of forces
Back in December 2009, President Obama announced that the US would follow a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan. Since COIN is a manpower-intensive strategy, a surge of US troops would also be sent. US forces would be increased by 33,000 troops, from 67,000 to 100,000. In June 2011, President Obama announced a drawdown of US forces. The additional 33,000 troops sent to Afghanistan would be withdrawn, reducing the troop level back to 67,000. This drawdown meant a US-led COIN strategy would no longer be viable. But no new strategy to accommodate the smaller US force was announced.
Recent reports indicate that this issue is finally being addressed. In November 2011, Lieutenant General David Barno (ret.) presented a set of recommendations to the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. In December, General John R. Allen, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, discussed the implementation of a strategy similar to General Barno's recommendations. While not explicitly stated in any official release, this new strategy appears to have been accepted and is now being implemented. According to Stars and Strips, "The White House hasn't officially announced the policy change -- analysts expect President Barack Obama to do so at the NATO summit in Chicago in May."
The change in strategy consists of two parts: the US will quickly transition from a COIN strategy, in which the US is the leading fighting force, to an "Advise and Assist" strategy, in which the US will primarily support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF); and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will transition from being the backup force to the leading force executing a COIN strategy with the support of the US.
The previous US strategy: US-led counterinsurgency
December 2009 to September 2012
Since December 2009, the US has been executing a COIN strategy. The US has been leading COIN operations. Primarily, this involves US forces clearing insurgent-controlled areas while degrading insurgent forces. The ANSF's role has been to back up US forces. After an area is cleared, the ANSF is brought in to hold the cleared areas, preventing the re-infiltration of insurgents and allowing US forces to move on to clearing other areas.
ANSF development has been primarily focused on expanding its size. The ANSF has grown from 175,000 troops in late 2009 to 300,000 today, and will grow to 352,000 by September 2012. The training priority has been building and fielding new ANSF units. This consisted of training new Afghan recruits at basic training schools. Once a new ANSF unit was deployed to the field, however, there were fewer US advisers available to support them.
The future US strategy: Advise and Assist
September 2012 to December 2014
The strategy calls for the ANSF to transition to the lead in COIN operations, taking over from US forces. This will be a phased process. As individual ANSF units become capable of leading operations, they are assigned an area of responsibility. From a development point of view, the ANSF will stop growing by September 2012. Priority will then be given to improving the capability of units already in the field.
The US will transition from the leading role in COIN operations to a backup role with an "Advise and Assist" mission. US forces will focus on training, advising, and enabling the ANSF, not on combat operations. This change in mission will drive the US to reorganize. US brigades will be reorganized to operate in 12- to 16-man teams, living with ANSF units. These teams will serve two functions. They will advise ANSF units in the field by helping Afghans plan and execute operations and coordinate with US enablers; and they will assist by providing ANSF units with capabilities (enablers) they do not already have, including logistics, intelligence, maintenance, indirect fire, and air support.
In theory, this will accelerate ANSF's ability to take the lead and will allow the transition to happen sooner rather than later. According to General Barno, "One (or more) additional fighting seasons with US forces in the lead is unlikely to change that equation substantively - especially given the external sanctuary enjoyed by the Taliban, and their demonstrated resilience and adaptability. Also, this will allow for a "test drive" of ANSF capabilities while we retain sufficient forces to backstop and adjust to identified shortfalls."
This strategy also requires fewer troops than the COIN strategy and thus aligns with the US drawdown of forces. It is possible US forces will be reduced to as few as 15,000 troops by the end of 2014.
Executing the transition
The transition to the new Advise and Assist strategy has already begun. ANSF began taking over lead responsibility this year. In July 2011, two provinces and five cities/towns were transferred to the ANSF. In November 2011, it was announced that an additional six provinces, seven cities/towns, and 40 districts would be transferred in the near future.
The transition has started for US forces as well. One US brigade, the 170th in Northern Afghanistan, has already shifted to the Advise and Assist mission. Following this, brigades deploying to Afghanistan will be trained and organized for the Advise and Assist mission. The US has announced that four US brigades will deploy with Security Force Assistance Teams, replacing existing brigades, this spring and summer. More such brigades will follow in the fall. At the same time, the US force level will decline from 100,000 to 67,000 by September 2012, further drawing down brigades not assigned the Advise and Assist mission. All this will result in a large portion of US forces having changed over to the new strategy by late 2012.
2014 and Beyond: US Policy Towards Afghanistan and Pakistan, CNAS report
US Shift May Push Afghans Into Lead Role, The New York Times
Army units preparing to lead new Afghan training-and-advisory mission, Stars & Stripes
Soldiers just back from Iraq get new orders: Afghanistan, CNN
A long goodbye to Afghanistan, The Los Angeles Times
170th Brigade shifts to security force assistance teams, ISAF press release