The military strategy in Afghanistan

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.

ANSF Development

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.

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  • Mark S. says:

    A few rhetorical questions/points:
    1. The U.S. and NATO have been operating in Afghanistan now for years, but have not defeated the insurgency. Therefore, why should we expect the ANSF to be able to exert effective control, particularly given the Taliban’s use of Pakistani territory? No matter how much training and equipping of the ANSF is done by the U.S. and NATO, will the ANSF ever be able to effectively counter this insurgency on their own?
    2. Assuming that we are successful in Afghanistan (ANSF exerts effective control, the Taliban are defeated, Kabul governs well), what is in it for us, the United States? What do we get out of it? Where is our benefit?
    Note that there were no Afghans on the hijacked aircraft of 9/11. The Taliban gave AQ sanctuary, and for that we have and continue to punish them, but AQ could have prepared for and conducted the 9/11 attacks without such sanctuary.
    Note that the underwear bomber did not rely on Taliban control of Afghanistan. Note that the 2006 airliner bombing plot was also attempted without Taliban control of Afghanistan, as were the 7/7 attacks.
    Terrorism does not require overt state sponsorship. Terrorism does not even require failed states, though failed states are helpful. Even if failed states or ungoverned territories were necessary, the U.S. and NATO do not have the resources or the domestic political support to fix all of the world’s backwards places. It cannot be done. The enemy will simply adapt, and there are few enemies quite as adaptive as a terrorist.

  • Mark says:

    We have just witnessed an ISAF offensive with 15,000 troops achieve all its objectives including the capture of a town called Marjah which had been held be some 300 to 1,000 Taliban who were allowed to escape before the offensive was launched. Apparently there is a new strategy to win hears and minds which involves not fighting the Taliban if possible. Very little is what it seems in Afghanistan. Not for the first time I think we are being played for suckers. If NATO had been interested in protecting the civil population from the Taliban, why had they not wiped out such a puny Taliban presence in Marjah before now? Why wait till we out numbered them by anything from 15 to 50 to one before attacking and even then we made sure that the Taliban left before we attacked?
    The answer, I fear, is that we are now trying to avoid fighting the Taliban where ever possible. Instead we are now trying to groom them for our departure. If only the Taliban could be induced to leave Al Qaeda and the narcotics business, we would let them take over tomorrow and quit for good.

  • Michael says:

    To Mark.
    1. What’s the benefit for US?
    -> Leave now and you WILL have a whole country
    really angry at US for deserting them and Taliban may have a whole country for martyrdom.
    -> Matter of credibility. You don’t just start a war and leave and let people get massacred. In the short term, you may think US saved some cost, but in the long-run probaby rest of the world will start sticking up at fingers at Americans like you.
    2 And for why are they allowing insugents to escape?
    -> Cockroachs die out when there is nothing to eat in the house. As long as the cockroaches have access to food supply, in this case the general population, you may kill thousands and have ten thousands spring right back up.
    -> And Russians had the exact thinking that you have right now. Kill them all approach. Yeah they did kill everyone alright probably killed 3-4 times more insurgents than US did, but look where that got them 🙂

  • Alex says:

    This article has been linked to in Frontier Outlook: //

  • Mark S. says:

    To Michael:
    First of all, there are two Marks posting here. I am Mark S. I don’t know the other one.
    I did not say “leave Afghanistan.” I asked what the benefit of counterinsurgency is in Afghanistan. I am in favor of conducting counterterrorism in Afghanistan.
    I don’t place any value on the benefits you have suggested and I dispute their relevance and likelihood of occurrence.
    I don’t care whether or not Afghans like the U.S.
    I don’t particularly like the Taliban, but if the do not cross paths with the U.S. again, then I do not care if they wield power in Afghanistan. Furthermore, I do not see the Taliban as a monolithic organization, nor do I see it as the only enemy currently being fought in Afghanistan. I am in favor of the U.S. waging war against any entity, whether a nation-state or a non-state actor, which attacks the U.S. or threatens to do so. Fixing Afghanistan is not a requirement.
    You did not address how it is that the ANSF will maintain security upon withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. In the end, if Kabul cannot enforce the will of the state across all of the territory of Afghanistan, then all of the work done to attack the Taliban and other insurgents will have been for nothing. I expect that will turn out to be the final outcome.
    I have never suggested that brute force be used against noncombatants. Also, not all insurgencies seek widespread popular support. AQ does not need it. Some terror groups continue to operate for decades on end with only a fairly small core cadre. For example, take a look at the 17 November organization in Greece, or the Sendero Luminoso organization in Peru. The first has always been small, but continues operations. The second suffered a massive blow to its senior leadership and disaffection among the brutalized indigenous peoples of Ayacucho, but is now experiencing a resurgence. On this, I assume you are responding to the second Mark.
    Finally, the reason that Tier I and II Taliban have been allowed to escape from Marja is that the offensive in Marja is a clear-hold-build effort. This is an attempt to deny the Taliban influence in a geographical location. It makes sense from a counterinsurgency perspective, but, as I’ve made pretty clear, is irrelevant in my view since I don’t think we should be doing counterinsurgency there.
    I think we should have two big efforts going on in that part of the world:
    1. Personality targeting against AQ and any other group that seeks to attack American interests globally.
    2. Seeking nuclear disarmament of Pakistan.

  • Mark says:

    For the Obama Administration, the exit strategy is everything. They have given up trying to defeat the Taliban. They have given up even trying to fight them. If only the Taliban can be separated from Al Qaeda and narcotics that will be the time when we leave. The Taliban will be invited to share power in Kabul.

  • Zeissa says:

    You’re rather heavy on rethoric and low on actual questions there Mark S., and you’re supposed to start a website called ‘Defense Related’?
    First of all it is possible to fix some failed states. It is also possible to fix all failed states, but there is no political will for it.
    Furthermore, and most importantly, your solution to failed states is obviously to let them fester and spread out, infecting more and more areas.
    Lastly, you vastly underestimate the West and overestimate terrorists.

  • Zeissa says:

    Mark, your conspiracy theory is silly. The line of operation in Helmand is clearly to primarily secure population and areas with newly arrived units that were not there before (however your addled mind has not gathered this fact) and demoralize the enemy. Furthermore Marjah was made a symbol in the hope of making select elements fight while others would be routed to smaller areas or intercepted on the way.
    However I doubt you are capable of listening to reason if you think Helmand is being taken away as some sort of kindergarden teacher seperating the favorite toy of two bullies so that they’ll play less together.

  • Zeissa says:

    Micheal, you are wrong… if the Russians had not been stopped by western weapons or had gone through with their scorched earth plan then they would have succeeded. And killing insurgents is a good thing, it does not produce a magical tenfold number, and if done right supports the morale of the population rather than leaving it unaffected or deteriorating it.
    There is a finite number of terrorists. So far it has roughly matched and then exceeded the capability of killing them under the current RoE.
    Personally I am skeptical of this strategy, but I am very willing to see where it takes us. I will be looking at the neighboring provinces to see if attacks go up and if it does whether IAF has the forces to continue to bottle them up. If not there better be a significant to huge diplomatic benefit from giving them advance warning.

  • Zeissa says:

    Actually, after reading about once again about stricter RoE, I’m beginning to think they don’t want to fight the insurgents because it’s difficult to do so effectively in a population centre while adhering to the RoE.
    I’m quite possible mostly wrong though. And there have been a significant number of insurgent casualties already, but not as many as I’d like… just about 30 so far. Doesn’t look like it will go over 750, even with captives.

  • Gulrez Khan says:

    It seems a good plan on paper. I have three comments:
    1. The ANSF is a rag-tag group of illetrate, poorly motivated and poorly trained bunch, calling them soldiers is perhaps stretching the truth. Any expectation that ANSF will undertake the role cut out for them in this campaign, or in the forseeable future, is a pipe dream.
    2. There is an under estimation of the Taliban influence that cuts through the fabric of much of rural South Western Afghanistan. It will take a very long, determined campaign to change that mind set. The notion of winning ‘hearts and minds’ needs a lot more than lip service.
    3. Lastly, it is difficult to imagine a significant positive outcome without eliminating the cross-border havens, purportedly in Waziristan and Quetta.

  • C Radin says:

    Gulrez Khan:
    1. As many problems as the ANA (although not the ANP) has, they seem to win every firefight they get into with the Taliban. The Taliban also seem to be “a rag tag group of illiterate. poorly motivated and poorly trained bunch, calling them soldier perhaps streches the truth……”.
    2. Every poll I have seen shows the population has much higher regard for the ANA (although not the ANP) than the Taliban, including the southern region,
    3. Very true. By the way, the Taliban has the same problem with ISAF support for the ANSF.
    None of this is meant to minimize the problem with the ANSF. My point is that in order to make a proper assesment, one has to take into account that the Taliban have very big problems also.

  • I was recently in Afghanistan in January 2010.I travelled to Camp Bastion near Nad i Ali,I travelled to Camp Leatherneck near Khanishin,I travelled to Camp Dwyer near Garmser.All in connection with a diesel and logistics sub sub contract.My observations are as following :—
    1-The US Forces do not seem to be burning with fire to destroy the enemy.What they are doing cannot be called decisive warfare.
    2-The Taliban are moving freely east to west and north to south all along from Pakistani border in Quetta Chaghai and Dalbandin Districts and in between Kandahar and Nimroz.
    3-The US Forces have made no attempt to inderdict these talibs carrying both drugs and logistics.
    While all drone attacks are taking place on some 5 % of talibs in FATA some 95 % of Talibs in Afghanistan are at virtual peace with US Forces and Pakistani military calls them good Taliban.
    Incidentally security was so bad that we had to travel with men who call themselves talbs and pay taxes to talibs for carrying US supplies to all the four camps mentioned.
    We travelled back straight by GPS from Khanishin to Nushki in Pakistani Balochistan.
    Finally I am glad that my assessment of the Taliban Hoax has been published for the layman readers by Edwin Mellen Press New York titled as Development of Taliban Factions in Afghanistan.

  • Zeissa says:

    There is a lot of disturbing truths in your thoughts presented here Agha, however I find your website and a preliminary google search offered no further information other than a 40 dollar pay for view file, which is a bit more than I like to spend for day to day verification.
    I also hesitate to take your assessment fully seriously… I believe outside of the larger bases the US effort is more concerted and that furthermore the effort is turning from counter terrorism to COIN. And lastly of all I cannot be sure whether you’re describing a legit phenomenon or referring to conspiracy theoriess when you use such descriptions as ‘the Taliban Hoax’ for a proper assessment title such as ‘the Development of Taliban Factions in Afghanistan’.
    Like I said I would like to read more closely, however your document is pay for view. Perhaps if you would summarize the gist of ‘the Hoax’ we would have urgent incentive to buy your book to extra-integrate this information for ourselves.

  • Mr Zeiss
    First of all my site is a blog and does not have a 40 USD Fee.It has more than 1000 articles dealing with Taliban.The scribd site has my plus 150 page book which can be read free of cost titled Taliban War in Afghanistan.
    The book in question is a property of Edwin Mellen Press and they are responsible for providing incentives to read the book or not to read it.

    Our differences of opinion aside , long war journal is a brilliant intellectual venture.
    My point , the gist of my idea is that the Pakistani Army as well as the USA are actually fighting with a very small portion of taliban.Pakistan regards most taliban specially those south of Waziristan as good taliban.The USA is droning only the FATA Taliban.
    The whole Pakistani idea that there are good taliban and bad taliban is fallacious.Once th USA withdraws, which may happen in next three years ,both the good and the bad taliban will combine and possibly become a threat for the pakistabi state as it exists in its present form.
    note that there are no pakistani troops on some 70 % of Afghanistans border with Pakistan and none at all below the line South Waziristan right till Iranian border where the major Taliban fighting against US is taking place in Kandahar Zabul and Helmand.

  • Zanna says:

    Its quite ironic that we choose to believe what we like or what flows with our logic and not the hard realities on ground; ask an america soldier in Afganistan if he thinks the taliban can be defeatd militarily&read imperial hubris and you might catch a glimse of the reality.we may sit on the comfort of our armchairs and theorize,but that would not hurt the enemy or change the fact that this war is doom to fail!

  • Pedro Abadia says:

    Maybe we should step back for a second.
    1) What are the Western expectations for Afghanistan when they leave? My assumption would be:
    – AQ-free country.
    – No taliban official government (that could eventually back terrorist activity abroad or be a safe haven for intnal terrorism)
    – No drug business in the hands of taliban or terrorist.
    2) Why US entered in Afghanistan? If it was to eliminate AQ bases and support in this country… probably that was done in the 1st invasion, when Special Ops effectively quicked out the talibans from power.
    Taliban and terrorists are NOT the same. You can fight one without having to fight the others. The problem is that Taliban will always be a potential enemy if they decide to get organised… because they have support of the population and good tactics (that


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