Analysis: The Taliban's 'momentum' has not been broken
"We've broken the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan, and begun the transition to an Afghan lead," President Obama said during his weekly address on Sept. 1. "Next month," the president continued, "the last of the troops I ordered as part of the surge against the Taliban will come home, and by 2014, the transition to Afghan lead will be complete."
This is not the first time the president has talked about Afghanistan in this manner. And Obama administration officials have repeatedly made the same argument: the Taliban's "momentum" was broken by a surge of forces into Afghanistan beginning in 2010. Consequently, the president and his advisers contend, it is safe to bring American forces home in large numbers.
It is undeniable that the Afghan surge made significant progress in the southern part of the country. Prior to the surge, the Taliban and its allies made startling gains, showing an ability to control territory in Helmand and Kandahar that they had previously lost. The surge reversed those gains. But the insurgency is not confined to those southern provinces. The insurgency operates throughout the country, and is especially strong in the east. While one can reasonably argue that the surge was successful in the south, a similar counterinsurgency plan was not carried out in full elsewhere.
As a result, the Taliban's "momentum" has not been truly broken.
To gauge the overall impact of the surge and the war effort in general, The Long War Journal consulted several sources: monthly data compiled by NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), annual reports produced by the United Nations, annual data compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), and data on the number of Coalition fatalities each year.
These data measure, in various ways, the ability of the Taliban-led insurgency to carry out violence throughout all of Afghanistan. These sources are not all consistent with one another in the specifics, as they each have their own criteria for measuring violence. Importantly, these sources do not measure the insurgents' ability to hold territory, which is difficult to quantify but is nonetheless important. For instance, the Taliban was much stronger overall prior to late 2001, when the group controlled Afghanistan and did not have to function as an insurgency. Therefore, the various statistics used to measure the insurgency's efficacy offer only a part of the overall picture.
Other items that are not measured in this analysis, as reliable data are not available, are the cohesiveness of the Taliban's command structure and its ability to regenerate leaders and fighters. Despite years of repeated night raids and other operations against the Taliban's senior, mid, and lower-level leadership cadre, the group does seem to possess a remarkable capacity to regenerate its command structure in Afghanistan and continue to mount attacks. In addition, the top leadership cadre of the Quetta Shura and the leaders of the four regional military commands, most of whom are based in Pakistan, remain virtually untouched in these raids. And while there have been reports of tensions between the Afghan-based Taliban leaders and the Pakistan-based leadership cadre over losses, the Taliban has been able to replace the leaders who have been killed or captured.
Additionally, the fate of thousands of Taliban fighters who are captured, and even some of the commanders, is unclear. The Coalition typically transfers prisoners to Afghan custody, and many are subsequently released after months in custody.
Overall, one thing is clear: the Taliban-led insurgency remains capable of maintaining an extraordinary level of violence throughout Afghanistan, far worse than prior to the surge. This demonstrates that the jihadist hydra is anything but a spent force and could easily recapture more territory as Coalition forces withdraw from the country.
Below is a summary of The Long War Journal's findings, followed by a detailed analysis of each of the data sources consulted.
Summary of findings
The overall level of violence in Afghanistan remains much worse than it was prior to the surge. This is true even if we measure violence using the same statistics cited by the Defense Department and ISAF as signs of progress.
In recent months, the Taliban-led insurgency has demonstrated the capacity to reverse the positive trends the Defense Department and ISAF have cited as evidence of progress. The DoD and ISAF have cited a decrease in the number of monthly "enemy-initiated attacks," as compared to the same month in the previous year, as evidence that the violence is trending downward. However, the insurgency reversed this trend in three months this year, from April to June, executing more attacks than the same months in 2011. Moreover, the year-over-year comparison used by military officials is misleading, as the overall number of attacks still remains much greater than prior to the surge.
The number of IED attacks grew substantially in 2011, and there are more IED attacks in Afghanistan today than before the surge. ISAF says that IEDs are the "principal means" the insurgents use "to execute their campaign" and cause more total civilian casualties than any other type of attack. Yet, ISAF's own data shows that the number of IED attacks increased substantially throughout much of the surge, and remains greater than prior to the surge.
The UN found that there was a "record loss of lives" in 2011 as compared to previous years. More civilians were killed and wounded in 2011, when the surge forces began coming home, than in prior years.
According to the UN, the insurgency is responsible for the overwhelming majority (more than 75%) of civilian casualties. Even as the Coalition and Afghan forces have successfully decreased the number of civilian casualties attributable to their actions, the insurgency has become more lethal.
According to the UN, the number of casualties caused by suicide bombings increased dramatically in 2011, by 80% when compared to 2010. This increase occurred despite the fact that the number of suicide attacks did not increase. Suicide bombings continue to have a disproportionate impact, causing significantly more casualties in some months than all other types of attacks, which are much more numerous, combined.
Despite gains in the south, the overall level of violence is worse than in the years prior to the surge because of what the UN calls a "geographic shift" in the conflict. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where surge forces were primarily deployed, have seen a decrease in violence, but still remain the most violent areas overall. The decrease in violence in the south has been offset, to a large extent, by an increase in violence in the eastern provinces and elsewhere.
A full surge of forces was never carried out in the eastern provinces, meaning that the insurgency's "momentum" there was not truly confronted. The east is home to what former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has rightly called a "syndicate" of jihadist groups that includes the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other affiliated organizations. Al Qaeda remains particularly strong in eastern Afghanistan, despite President Obama's pledge to make sure that al Qaeda will not use the country as a safe haven once again. The surge also did not, of course, address the insurgency's headquarters across the border in Pakistan. Each of the main insurgency groups is led from Pakistan.
According to the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), more people were killed in terrorist attacks inside Afghanistan in 2011 than in each of the previous years. While the total number of terrorist attacks decreased from 2010 to 2011, the number of terrorist attacks remained much greater than in 2009, the year prior to the surge, as well as previous years.
More than two-thirds (66.9%) of Coalition fatalities have occurred since Jan. 2009, which was President Obama's first month in office. This increase in the number of fatalities is due, in part, to the increase in Coalition forces in the country and the resulting uptick in fighting. However, the Taliban-led insurgency has proven that is still capable of inflicting substantial losses on the Coalition. There is no indication that the insurgency's capacity for killing has been substantially reduced by the surge.
Finally, the surge in Afghanistan did not achieve the same reduction in violence as was experienced in Iraq following the surge there. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison as the overall level of violence in Iraq was much greater pre-surge than in Afghanistan. Still, by any reasonable measure, the level of violence in Iraq decreased substantially as a result of a surge in American-led forces and the Iraqi "awakening." The same is not true for Afghanistan, where the overall level of violence has gotten much worse.
A detailed summary of the data sources analyzed by The Long War Journal is provided below.
ISAF reporting on enemy-initiated attacks
A key metric used by ISAF and the Defense Department to measure the Taliban's momentum is the number of enemy-initiated attacks (EIAs). ISAF defines EIAs as "enemy action (enemy-initiated direct fire, indirect fire, surface-to-air fire) and explosive hazard events, to include executed attacks only (improvised explosive device (IED) explosions/mine strikes)." The last part of this definition means that IEDs that are not detonated are excluded from ISAF's count of EIAs.
ISAF includes a bar chart of EIAs in its monthly reporting on the violence in Afghanistan. Although the underlying data used to make the graphs is classified, it is possible, based on ISAF's reporting, to estimate the number of EIAs each month. An example chosen from ISAF's most recent monthly report in August is shown here.
Click image to view the graph of enemy-initiated attacks, by month, from January 2008 to July 2012. Image from ISAF's Month Trends report for August 2012.
Using these data, the Obama administration has claimed that the Taliban's momentum has been broken because the number of EIAs in 2011 was less than in 2010.
In April of this year, the Defense Department released a report titled, "United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces." The report highlighted "important security gains" and said there had been a "reversal of violence trends in much of the country" in 2011.
"The year 2011 saw the first year-over-year decline in nationwide enemy-initiated attacks in five years," the report reads. "These trends have continued in 2012."
The month before that report was released, in March 2012, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta pointed to this same type of year-over-year comparison during a town hall meeting at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand. "Thanks to your efforts, our strategy is working," Panetta said. "And I believe last year was a very important turning point here in Afghanistan. In 2011 violence levels were down throughout the country." Panetta continued: "In 2012 attacks are down 24 percent compared to this time last year."
A closer look at the EIA data reveals several problems, however, with these comparisons.
Overall level of violence worse than prior to surge
First, year-over-year comparisons say nothing about the overall level of violence in Afghanistan, which has increased dramatically since 2008. While it is true that 2011 was less violent than 2010 in terms of the total number of EIAs, 2011 was still far more violent than 2009 or 2008.
Look again at the chart reproduced above from ISAF's most recent presentation.
In 2008, the number of EIAs exceeded or approximated 1,000 in just four months, and in no month did that figure reach 1,500. In 2009, the number of EIAs exceeded 1,000 in eight months out of the year, exceeded 1,500 in five months, and topped 2,500 in one month (August 2009).
By 2010, when the surge plan was first implemented, the number of EIAs exceeded 1,000 in every month. Indeed, according to the EIA data, Afghanistan experienced an unprecedented level of violence in 2010. In 10 of 12 months, the number of EIAs exceeded 1,500. (Recall that in 2008 the number of EIAs did not reach 1,500 in any single month.) And the number of EIAs was greater than 2,500 in six months out of the year. (Recall, too, that the number of EIAs exceeded 2,500 in only one month in 2009.)
Thus, comparing 2011 and 2012 to 2010 is somewhat misleading, as the number of EIAs that year was extraordinarily high. Even so, 2011 and 2012 are far closer to 2010 in terms of the total level of violence than 2009 or 2008 -- that is, before the surge in Afghanistan had even begun.
When compared to monthly totals from 2009, the total number of EIAs in 2011 and 2012 has been far greater each and every month. While the total number of EIAs exceeded 2,500 in only one month in 2009, it topped this same mark on five occasions in 2011, and has already done so in three months in 2012.
Based on the EIA data, the simple fact of the matter is that the overall level of violence in Afghanistan is far worse today than it was prior to the surge.
Taliban-led insurgency reversed trends in recent months
Click image to view the graph of the change in enemy initiated attacks, by month, from January 2008 to July 2012. Image from ISAF's Month Trends report for August 2012.
Second, there are ominous indications that the Taliban and its allies remain capable of reversing the trend highlighted by the Obama administration's year-over-year comparisons. A second chart from ISAF's most recent analysis in August is included here.
The data show that the number of EIAs actually increased in April, May, and June of 2012 when compared to the same months in 2011. This reversal came after 11 consecutive months in which the number of EIAs decreased as compared to the previous year. The number of EIAs then declined slightly in July 2012, as compared to July 2011, once again.
More IED attacks than prior to surge
Third, there is a curious oddity in the EIA data. While the total number of EIAs in 2011 dropped as compared to the peak year of 2010, the same is not true for the number of executed IED attacks. The graph showing executed IED attacks from ISAF's most recent report is included here.
Click image to view the graph of IED attacks executed by the Taliban and allied groups, by month, from January 2008 to July 2012. Image from ISAF's Month Trends report for August 2012.
ISAF's bar graph for IED attacks shows that while the number of executed IED attacks has decreased thus far in 2012, when compared to 2011, the same was not true when the figures for 2011 were compared to 2010. A previous ISAF presentation noted that IED attacks actually increased by 6 percent from 2010 to 2011. In fact, a year-over-year comparison of monthly data shows that in eight months during 2011 the number of executed IED attacks exceeded the same month in 2010.
This is particularly troubling because ISAF has found that "[m]ore than 60% of civilian casualties by insurgents result from IED explosions." And IEDs are the insurgents' "principal means to execute their campaign." While officials could point to a positive trend in the total number of EIAs in 2011 (which, again, does not reflect changes in the overall level of violence as compared to previous years), they could not point to the same trend for executed IED attacks.
ISAF points out that the total number of executed IED attacks has decreased by 13% from January to July of 2012 when compared to the same period in 2011. But this is hardly a significant decrease as insurgents executed more IED attacks in 2011 than in previous years. The number of IED attacks in 2012 is still far greater than in 2009, the year before the surge began.
UN reporting on civilian casualties
Counting the raw number of EIAs and IED attacks each month does not tell us anything about the efficacy of those attacks. Suicide bombings, in particular, have always had a disproportionate impact in the post-9/11 war zones. Many EIAs result in a low number of casualties, whereas one suicide bomber can kill and wound hundreds.
For instance, ISAF reported that 274 of the 458 "insurgent-caused civilian casualties" (killed and wounded) in December 2011 resulted from just two suicide bombings -- one in Kabul and the other in Mazar-e-Sharif. There were more than 1,500 EIAs that same month. This means that two suicide bomb attacks caused more civilian casualties than the other 1,500+ EIAs combined, many of which surely targeted, sometimes indiscriminately, civilians.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) produces an annual report on Afghanistan ("Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict") each year. The report for 2011 included some disturbing findings.
"The civilian death toll from suicide attacks in Afghanistan rose dramatically in 2011," the report reads. "In total, 431 civilians were killed in suicide attacks, an increase of 80 percent over 2010." The lethality of the insurgents' suicide attacks increased even though the total number of such strikes did not.
This is one trend that the Defense Department did not note in its April 2012 report ("United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces"), which trumpeted a "reversal of violence trends in much of the country." That 142-page report mentions suicide attacks only once in passing.
Contrary to the Defense Department's claims about improving security, the UN found that "the armed conflict incurred a greater human cost in 2011 than in previous years." In fact, the number of civilian deaths rose for the fourth straight year.
The UN found that there were a total 3,021 civilian deaths in 2011, an increase of 8 percent over 2010 and 25 percent over 2009 (the year before the surge). The UN attributed 77 percent, or 2,332, of these "conflict-related civilian deaths in 2011" to Anti-Government Elements (AGEs). That is, the Taliban and its allies caused more than 3 out of every 4 civilian deaths in Afghanistan in 2011.
Click image to view the bar chart of civilian casualties in Afghanistan caused by anti-government elements. The chart is created from UN data.
The UN's data on civilian casualties (wounded and fatalities) caused by the Taliban-led insurgency from 2009 to 2011 are set forth in a chart here. The data show that the insurgents' capacity for killing civilians has increased since 2009. The death toll of civilians killed by insurgents rose by 50% during this time.
What is particularly striking about the UN's findings is that Pro-Government Elements (PGEs), including Coalition forces, actually reduced the number of civilian casualties due to PGE operations in 2011. This was during the surge, when these same PGEs were taking the fight to the enemy in areas that had previously been Taliban strongholds. Yet the Taliban and allied groups became more lethal, not less, during this period.
Comparing the violence in Afghanistan to that in Iraq is not an apples-to-apples calculation. The overall level of violence in Iraq post-2003 has been much greater than in Afghanistan. But significantly, the 2007 surge in Iraq dramatically curtailed the ability of insurgents to kill civilians. Data compiled by Iraq Body Count show that while there were more than 25,000 civilian deaths in Iraq in 2007, the civilian death toll fell to a little more than 9,500 in 2008. In the following year, 2009, civilian deaths were less than 5,000, and the number has continued to fall since. (Civilian deaths may increase in 2012, however, as al Qaeda in Iraq has expanded the scope of its terrorist activities once again.)
The surge in Afghanistan did not produce comparable results.
Again, the overall level of violence in the two countries makes this an imperfect comparison. Still, the number of civilian casualties in Iraq decreased significantly after a surge of American forces there, while the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has increased significantly.
The UN found a "record loss of lives" in 2011 in Afghanistan, and its report contains a number of observations that help explain why this is the case, despite claims that the Taliban's momentum has been broken.
First, as the UN report notes, there has been a "geographic shift" in the conflict to areas "outside those southern provinces where fighting has historically been concentrated and worsened in several provinces in the southeastern and eastern regions."
The Afghan surge made significant progress in Kandahar and Helmand, which are traditionally Taliban strongholds. These two provinces still had the "highest number of civilian deaths" in 2011, but civilian casualties declined there by almost 40 percent. This is undoubtedly due to the surge of Coalition forces in the south.
However, a full surge in the east, which the military recommended, never took place, as President Obama quickly drew down American forces. Far fewer resources were devoted to the southeastern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Consequently, the UN has documented a spike in civilian casualties of 34 percent in those provinces, which include: Khost, Paktika, Ghazni, Kunar, and Nangarhar.
While one can reasonably argue that the Taliban's momentum was disrupted in the southern part of the country, the same cannot be said for other areas. Judging by the number of civilian casualties alone (and this tells only part of the story), the loss of life outside of the southern provinces more than offset the improving security conditions in Kandahar and Helmand.
The UN's report contains several other observations that are noteworthy. Like ISAF, the UN found that the number of IED attacks increased in 2011 as compared to 2010. The UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) "recorded an average of 23 IEDs detonated or discovered every day in 2011, twice the daily average in 2010." The UN's count of IEDs includes those that are discovered before they are detonated, whereas ISAF's count includes only "executed" IED attacks.
The UNDSS also found that the total number of "security incidents" increased dramatically between 2009 and 2011, finding that there were 11,524 in 2009, 19,403 in 2010, and 22,903 in 2011. Therefore, the number of security incidents nearly doubled between 2009 (the year before the surge) and 2011 (when the withdrawal of surge forces began).
Needless to say, these data do not support the idea that the Taliban's momentum has been broken.
NCTC reporting on terrorist attacks
Yet another source for metrics on the Afghan War is provided by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) in its annual report on terrorism. The NCTC's count of terrorist attacks, and resulting casualties, differs substantially from ISAF's methodology for counting EIAs. The NCTC's count of terrorist-caused deaths is generally consistent with the UN's data, but does differ in its specifics. For example, the total number of deaths counted by the NCTC is more or less than the UN's count in any given year. A full explanation of the differences between the NCTC's data and other sources is beyond the scope of this article.
Click image to view the bar chart of terrorist attacks and related deaths. The chart is created from NCTC data.
However, the NCTC's data confirm that more people were killed due to violence in 2011 in Afghanistan than in previous years. The number of terrorist-caused deaths in 2011 increased by nearly 5 percent when compared to 2010, and by almost 21 percent when compared to 2009. And while the total number of terrorist attacks decreased in 2011 as compared to 2010, there were still far more terrorist attacks in 2011 than in 2009 or earlier years. A chart of the NCTC's data is presented here.
This trend is, again, dissimilar to the experience in Iraq. While the overall level of terrorist-caused violence in Iraq has been far greater than in Afghanistan, the number of terrorist attacks and terrorist-caused deaths decreased dramatically after the surge there. For example, according to the NCTC, the number of terrorist-related deaths in Iraq exceeded 13,600 in 2007, but fell to just over 5,000 in 2008, and to less than 4,000 in subsequent years.
The surge in Afghanistan did not produce the same type of results.
Reporting on Coalition casualties
Finally, a look at the casualties suffered by the Coalition does not show that the Taliban's momentum has been irreversibly broken. According to icasualties.org, Coalition forces suffered a record number of casualties in 2010 (711), the first year in which surge forces were deployed to Afghanistan. And while that figure decreased in 2011 (566), the number of casualties was still greater than the figure for 2009 (521). The figure for 2012 may be even lower than in 2011. This trend can be explained, in part, by the heavy fighting incurred once the surge was under way, with the Taliban and its allies having more Coalition forces to target, and then the subsequent withdrawal of forces creating fewer targets for the insurgents. However, the Coalition began sustaining much heavier losses in 2009, prior to the surge, than in 2007 or 2008, when fatalities were much lower. Overall, 2,122 of the Coalition's 3,171 fatalities (more than two-thirds) have occurred since January 2009.
The Taliban-led insurgency still remains capable of killing more Coalition members than were killed in the year prior to President Obama's first in office. Consider that whereas in all of 2008 there were 295 Coalition fatalities, there have already been 324 fatalities in the first eight months of 2012.
An additional cause of Coalition fatalities has emerged in Afghanistan: green-on-blue attacks. Some of these fatalities are due to the Taliban's infiltration of security forces, while others are caused by disgruntled Afghans.
Turning again to our imperfect comparison to the experience in Iraq, we find that the number of Coalition fatalities there dropped precipitously from 2007 (961) to 2008 (322), and the numbers fell even more after that. While this was partly due to the withdrawal of American forces, the Iraqi surge evidently made it far more difficult for insurgents to kill Coalition forces in Iraq.
It remains to be seen if the situation in Afghanistan similarly improves, but Coalition casualties there remain closer to their historic highs than lows.