Why 2011 is too early for drawdown in Afghanistan

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This article from The New York Times on the Andar district in the southeastern Afghan province of Ghazni highlights some of the challenges that Coalition and Afghan forces face in tackling areas of the country that have been ungoverned for years.

“And how long has it been since you’ve seen the governor?” the commander, Capt. Aaron T. Schwengler, asked the villagers as they crowded around him.

“Ten years,” one man said through an interpreter.

But the villagers do see the Taliban, and on a nightly basis. Insurgent leaders here and in many of the other small farming villages that dot much of the Andar District in Ghazni, one of Afghanistan’s more troubled provinces, have filled the void left by the government. They settle land and water disputes and dictate school curriculums. They issue curfews and order local residents, by way of “night letters,” not to talk to foreign forces.

Read the whole thing.

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The Andar district in Ghazni is just one of the 121 districts in Afghanistan assessed as “key terrain” (80) and “area of interest” (41) which are to be given attention during the Afghan ‘surge,’ which began in early 2009 and is slated to end in July 2011. In all of Afghanistan, there are almost 400 districts (the interior ministry recognized 398 in July 2005), and many of them have not yet been assessed by ISAF.

The overall assessment map for Afghanistan and the assessment for Andar are from April 2010, so they are somewhat dated; click the maps to view in full. Note that as of April 2010, none of the assessed districts have been found to be supportive of the government and security forces. While the assessments are dated and ISAF has shown improvement in some districts, particularly in Kandahar and Helmand since April, the problems described in the individual assessments of these districts (see the example of Andar) have been years or decades in the making, and won’t be fixed in one year, or likely by 2014.

There are plenty of districts like Andar in Afghanistan, and far too few security forces, both Afghan and ISAF, to fill the void. Over the next year, the bulk of ISAF and Afghan security forces are going to be focused on holding gains in the key terrain districts in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, and pushing into some of the peripheries in those provinces.

In order to make real gains in Taliban-held areas in the Afghan east and north, more troops will be needed. Yet the US and ISAF continue to send mixed messages about drawing down their forces, which makes our allies uneasy, and gives our enemies hope.

If you listen to the US generals, the drawdown in 2011 will be minimal. But if you listen to Vice President Joe Biden, “We are starting it in July 2011 and we are going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014.”

Other ISAF countries are heading for the exits. The Dutch withdrew their 2,000 troops last August. Canada will withdraw its 3,000-plus combat troops from Kandahar in mid-2011 and replace them with 950 trainers and support personnel in Kabul. Germany will begin drawing down its 4,600 troops in 2012, and plans on leaving by 2014. The Brits are talking about starting their drawdown by Christmas 2011.

No matter how you look at this, the pool of troops available to move into other Taliban-controlled and ungoverned districts such as Andar will begin drying up.

ISAF planners are relying on Afghan forces – police and army – as well as local militias to fill the void as ISAF troops draw down or are redeployed to deal with other problem areas. Yet the Afghan security forces, by all accounts, will not be ready to shoulder the burden by 2014.

To be clear, this quick analysis merely scratches the surface of the problems that exist in Afghanistan. Admittedly we’ve focused on the security element here; we haven’t even discussed the endemic problems with Afghan governance and corruption, for instance. And Pakistan’s (and to a lesser degree Iran’s) role in supporting the Taliban and other terror groups is also omitted.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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11 Comments

  • Render says:

    This is the second time in as many weeks that the NYTimes has pushed this story, targeting the Polish ISAF contingent.
    In neither case has the Times mentioned that Ghazni is not a border province.
    Seeing as the Taliban does not have Star Trek transporter technology, in order for the Haqqanni’s to arrive in Ghazni Province they first have to travel through at least one, possibly two other provinces, Paktika, or Khost (which is strangely left unnamed in the map the Times helpfully provides), both (all) of which are held by US contingents.
    There are hundreds, if not thousands, of videos freely available on the web, showing the Polish troops patrolling in Ghazni over the last two years.



    So why is the NYTimes targeting our Polish allies at this time?
    SEEING
    PATTERNS,
    R

  • JN says:

    I just don’t see how any of this is going to work. How can there be an Afghanistan when there will never be enough troops to exert government influence? We could stay fighting over there for another 10 years and gains wouldn’t be consolidated due to lack of troops.
    We are expanding the Afghan forces, but can the afghan government even afford to have such a large number? Where will all the revenue come from to keep salaries paid?
    I think ISAF needs to re-examine what is and isn’t feasible. There either needs to be a diplomatic solution, or Afghanistan needs to be divided up into states.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Render,
    For a long time the Haqqani Network and the Taliban both have had a strong presence in Ghazni, which also borders Zabul, another Taliban haven. And I’d say its a stretch to say any of those provinces are “held” by US or Afghan forces. Much of that terrain is Indian country.The Taliban’s ability to mass assaults on multiple combat outposts over the summer and fall tells you about about who controls the areas just outside the COPs. Yes, each massed assault was a failure, but only after each assault (except for one I believe) was planned, organized, and launched.
    I’m not sure the the article was harsh on the Polish troops; it repeated what the Afghans in Andar district told the reporter. It is questionable whether that is true or not, but what isn’t in dispute is that Andar is also Taliban-held.
    My $.02 and worth neither penny.

  • David says:

    @Bill,
    Your comment to Render begs another question —
    If the Afghan government could never get enough
    revenue to pay the taxes to field enough troops
    to control the country, how can the Taliban afford to do
    that very same thing? Very likely it is not from their
    revenue base in Afghanistan, whether it is obtained
    by taxation, extortion, or drug sales.
    I wonder if it is possible to take the estimates of their
    troop strength in Afghanistan, and turn that into an
    estimate of their budget. It has to come out much higher than what the Afghan government can afford, if
    what you said above is true (which I am not doubting).
    This suggests there is ISI monetary support for the Taliban that dwarfs other sources, and suggests that the MAIN battlefield against the Talibs is monetary. By which I mean that, if we can get the Talibs down to something like equal footing with the
    Afghan government in funding, the Talibs will be at a small fraction of their current troop strength, and
    much easier to defeat.

  • villiger says:

    Some thoughts on Biden. Extracts from wiki (not leaks):
    “Biden was a strong supporter of the 2001 war in Afghanistan, saying “Whatever it takes, we should do it.”
    And now we’re hearing whatever it takes we should out by 2014!

    “Also in 2008, Biden shared with fellow Senator Richard Lugar the Hilal-i-Pakistan award from the Government of Pakistan, “in recognition of their consistent support for Pakistan.”
    Consistent support for a Pakistan that has shown consistent support for OBL, AQ and the Taliban.
    Still, why doesn’t he get out of his Ivory Tower and engage the Pakistani’s who have so loved and decorated him. He claims to have a well practiced Indian accent (see below); its not so different from a Pakistani accent, and now he could put it to good use. That is, if he has anything useful to contribute.
    —-
    “I’ve had a great relationship. In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian-Americans moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
    Or even better, he can practice his Indian accent with the Indians themselves where he could be visiting to better educate himself on the region. If he can see beyond the end of his nose, he might realize that one day he might need of the Indians little more than a donut.

    Thereafter, he should stand in front of the mirror every day and repeat the names of all the victims of 9/11. Then one day he might be able to answer the question of whether 9/11 was hell or high-water.
    (Hint on what i am saying: “Biden suffered from stuttering through much of his childhood and into his twenties; he overcame it via long hours spent reciting poetry in front of a mirror.”)
    Ok if that’s asking for too much he could at least read the ISAF reports that land on his table. If thats too much too, Joe Robinette come to where the flavor is, come to LWJ.

  • Charu says:

    Of course it is too early! The Taliban are slowly getting beaten into submission and we are finally making inroads into their safe havens inside Pakistan. What remains is to make it intolerable for Pakistan to keep supporting the Taliban, and this will require several years to incrementally turn up the heat on them.
    At the moment the Pakistanis think that they can just sit and wait us out. However, by continuing attacks on the Taliban inside Pakistan, and by ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistan (I would like to see ISI’s “assets” like LeT and JeM targeted by “accident”, for example), it would underscore our resolve to make Pakistan pay dearly for their duplicitous behavior.
    And if the Pashtuns and the Punjabis do not get with the program, then we will see to it that they lose their mini-“empires” in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, respectively. The Hazara, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Balooch and Sindhis may be the eventual winners in Af-Pak if the Pashtuns and Punjabis don’t change their ways.

  • Caratacus10ad says:

    Afghanistan needs to be realistically split into manageable zones and unmanageable zones…
    Kabul effectively needs relocating away from the Taliban and Kandahar.
    My understanding is that the total NATO/ ISAF forces are roughly less than half of what is judged the ideal, in terms of numbers required to successfully quell the insurgency within the areas which they are attempting to secure.
    I think its highly advisable to consider the reality that achieving a lasting success within a portion of Afghanistan is preferable to that of a fleeting illusionary success in the whole thats not going to hold or be held once the NATO ground troops are withdrawn by their political masters…
    Civil Wars going to hit Afghanistan sooner or later and for the Afghan Army to succeed in that future conflict, they need to be able to fight an equal fight where they are not pressed in every area and province.
    Perhaps a North Afghanistan and South Afghanistan is the most viable prospect for Afghanistan’s future?

  • James1 says:

    Villiger, interesting points you’ve made there. I believe I’ve replied to you before. I go by James1 now since there is another James that has commented on the board.
    What’s really nerve-wracking about JB is that this guy is just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. Then, on top of that, Obama plans to make a trip to (of all places) Pakistan early next year ! ! !
    I agree with his vision that we need to restore our image among other nations, but for a short list of countries we DON’T need to do so Pakistan would lead the list.
    What is critical now is intelligence. If India and US could combine our intelligence assets it could make all the difference in the world. This can be done at least initially behind the scenes and not necessarily out in the open.
    When the going gets tough, the tough get going (they don’t “cut & run,” like the pusillanimous [look that word up] bunch like JB would have US do).
    A good question for them would be, even pretending arguendo that there were [only] “50 to 100 Al Queda guys” in Afghanistan, how did it come about? Yet, the pusillanimous “cut & run” bunch [like JB] drone on.
    Just imagine the nightmare that might happen if the ISI thugs were to “hand off” a nuclear warhead (or more) to either AQ and/or Iran.
    I say do what needs to be done even if it has to be a “Truman solution” that finally brought a close to WWII. The ultimate “cave-buster” and “weapon of shock and awe” has been around for over half a century now.
    It looks to me like until we can get a “regime change” next election cycle [in DC] we’re going to have to make due with what we’ve got over there.
    Again, I think intelligence could be the game-changer now and if we could work in unison and equanimity with India’s intelligence services it might prove to be a life-saver for both India and US.
    Take care and I wish both you and Bill a happy New Year.

  • Villiger says:

    James1, thank you and good wishes to you, Bill and all here, especially ISAF personnel, for 2011. And i echo your sentiments.
    If i may elaborate:
    India is as pro-US a country as the people (at a minimum) of Pakistan are anti-US. India is as well a practiced democracy (not perfect), as Pakistan’s “democracy” is a sham (hope you’re reading Gen Kayani). India is as responsible and understated about its nukes, even as Pakistan is highly suspect. India is as straight-forward in its international relations, as Pakistan is double-dealing. India is as economically prosperous, viable and independent, as Pakistan is a failure and parasite (even before the floods, my Pak friends). India is as self-respecting, as Pakistan is shameless (evidenced by its constant begging on the world stage).
    So where does that leave Pakistan?
    AND
    Where does that leave the US in this dysfunctional alliance?
    Isn’t America the country that showed the world what to do with dysfunctional relationships? Divorce! Finish it! Whats dead is dead, see the reality! And move on. Is it the supply line corridor that is allowing the US to be held to ransom?
    There is a war going on there. Its serious business and boy is it costly! So fight it as a war. What is all this namby-pamby ‘security assistance’/overseas contingency stuff. Hack a bloody safe corridor out there. Take Gwadar, cock a snook at China.
    My point is this: I admire America’s patience, extraordinary. So yes i might say America is highly emotionally intelligent. But since when did that win wars? And it certainly doesn’t mean that the US is being equally strategically-intelligent. I also recognize the internal US domestic political constraints. One thing is clear this war must spill over into the next Presidential term whoever’ that is and maybe thats where the game will need to be changed.
    As for the Pak Establishment, they are corrupt to their false gold teeth. Institutionally, they are moth- termite- and goodness knows what else eaten from the inside. A handful of strategic air-raids and they will fall like a house of cards.
    Populous country Pakistan but otherwise doesn’t add up to much.
    Yes its nukes too, which contribute to Pak’s engorged ego need to be dealt with asap and wit relentless pressure at the UN given the incredible international implications.
    Obama going down there to Islamabad amidst all this? Makes no sense! I would get Joe Robinette to fly down there and explain what kind of Special, Very Special Operations he has in mind for this cancer-riddled patient. Maybe also what sort of possibilities of cooperating with the Indians exists from intelligence to logistics to x-border probing and prodding to giving the Pakistanis a close shave in Baluchistan to a hair-cut in ISI’s HQ and some aerial executions.
    If it came to it, a Truman solution as you call it too. Great! But only if it can be controlled to deflect retaliation (towards the 150,000 ISAF troops, Afghans (who basically abhor the Pak-Punjabi mafia) and India. I wonder how feasible that is with current state of technology and intelligence.
    Apologies if i’ve been too verbose and thanks for sharing.

  • ArneFufkin says:

    Here’s a very recent press briefing (Tuesday) conducted by the commander of the Rakkasan Brigade whose AOR is Ghazni:
    Colonel Luong of 3BCT/101st Air Assault Division

  • Zeissa says:

    JN, splitting Afghanistan into many small countries isn’t a bad idea (take part of Pakistan for a Pushtunistan too), but there’s plenty of minerals in the country to pay for troops if security becomes properly established and infrastructure is set down.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis