President Barack Obama announced a swift drawdown of US forces from Afghanistan in a nationally televised speech from the East Wing last night. The announcement reflects an abandonment of a counterinsurgency-heavy strategy advocated by US military commanders and a shift to less manpower-intensive counterterrorism operations advocated by members of the Obama administration.
President Obama’s drawdown plan calls for a reduction by 10,000 of the more than 100,000 US troops currently in country by the end of this year. Roughly a brigade of troops, estimated at 5,000, will be withdrawn beginning next month. A second brigade of 5,000 troops will be pulled out of Afghanistan by the beginning of 2012.
An additional 23,000 US soldiers will be withdrawn by the end of the summer of 2012. This will lower the number of troops in Afghanistan to 67,000, which is the same quantity present before the “surge” was deployed in accord with President Obama’s announcement of a new strategy in a December 2009 speech. A steady reduction of US forces will continue though 2013 and 2014, until only a small residual force is left by the end of 2014.
A high-risk strategy
President Obama’s plan indicates that the US and NATO transfer of control to Afghan security forces will be accelerated, forcing them to divert energy from building and training forces to actively assuming security responsibilities. This high-risk plan relies on the nascent Afghan security apparatus to battle the Taliban in areas outside of government control while negotiating a political settlement with the top levels of the Taliban movement. President Obama also indicated that he will continue to attempt to work with Pakistan to deal with terrorist sanctuaries there.
The US will likely remove the first batch of troops from the southern region, where the bulk of the 33,000 surge forces were deployed. Security in the south has improved since the surge began, and the US believes there are sufficient Afghan forces available to start taking over. The remaining US forces, while smaller in number, will be required to complete the remaining combat operations while transitioning a portion of their numbers to mentoring the Afghan security forces.
The quick drawdown means that the US and NATO will not have enough forces to address the problems that still exist in the east and the north, where the situation has either remained the same or, in some cases, worsened. President Obama’s announcement means that troops freed from the south will not be redeployed to the east. They are being withdrawn altogether, while the remaining troops in the south will be kept busy completing the mission there before the final pullout in 2013-2014.
This means that the burden of securing the east and the north will fall on the Afghan security forces, without the support of surge forces. The Afghans will have a fight on their hands, one at least as tough as the conflict in the south. In order to prevail, Afghan security forces will have to improve quickly and significantly, which is a capacity that has not been demonstrated thus far.
Under these conditions, it is not reasonable to expect Afghan security forces to be able to beat back the insurgency, specifically in the east, where the enemy is effective and the terrain is difficult. The east will continue to be a violent, unstable place for some time to come and the insurgency, with access to sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, will continue to threaten the stability of Afghanistan as a whole. This was alluded to by a senior US military official in a statement made to The Washington Post.
“It’s the last place we will be fighting,” a senior US military official told The Washington Post last week. “And the Afghans will be fighting there in perpetuity. It’s a bad neighborhood.”
The effects of the surge
President Obama’s call for a rapid drawdown in forces marks the end of the surge and the beginning of the US exit from Afghanistan.
The decision to send more forces to Afghanistan came after months of pressure from US commanders, who warned that the Coalition was in danger of losing in Afghanistan after the Taliban controlled large areas of the country. In December 2009, after more than six months of deliberations, Obama announced his plan to turn around the rapidly deteriorating security situation. Militarily, the US and NATO countries would surge their forces into Afghanistan. The US would provide an estimated 30,000 soldiers while NATO would send an additional 10,000. In addition, the International Security Assistance Force significantly bolstered the organization that trains the Afghan security forces.
The first priority was to focus on improving the situation in the south, while the east and the north would be considered holding actions.
The goal was to blunt the Taliban’s momentum and turn around the security situation in the lawless southern provinces, where the Taliban had ruled largely unchecked. The plan called for showing enough progress so that the Afghan Army could start taking over security and US/NATO forces could start being withdrawn by July 2011.
The surge of forces began arriving in Afghanistan in January 2010, with the majority, about 30,000, sent to the southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. These newly arrived forces set about retaking these southern strongholds of the Taliban, battling insurgents for control of areas that have been outside of government control for years.
The rest of the surge forces, about 10,000 troops, were deployed to eastern Afghanistan, while a small contingent was deployed to the north. This group arrived by September 2010.
At the same time, the growth of the Afghan Army was accelerated from an estimated 2,500 recruits per month to about 5,000 per month. Like the Coalition forces, these newly formed Afghan security forces were mostly sent to the south.
The result of the surge has been mixed. While progress on the military front is evident in the south, the east and the north have remained a stalemate.
Kandahar and Helmand provinces are the center of gravity for Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his Quetta Shura, the top council which is based in the Pakistani city of the same name. Kandahar City and the surrounding districts such as Arghandab, Panwai, and Maiwand have been largely cleared of the Taliban, but the group is still able to carry out high-profile attacks, including suicide assaults, assassinations, and even a massive prison break.
In Helmand, the Taliban were driven out of their traditional strongholds where they had been able to raise millions of dollars through the drug trade and other illegal activities. In Helmand the charge was led by US Marines, who employed an aggressive counterinsurgency strategy and recruited large numbers of local militias, known as arbaki, to provide for local security. The Taliban have been cleared out of most of the center and south of the province, but some northern districts, such as Kajaki, Sangin, and Baghran, are still contested.
The security situation in eastern and northern Afghanistan remains tenuous due to the limited attention paid to these areas during the surge.
The southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika remain battlegrounds as the Haqqani Network, the al Qaeda-linked Taliban subgroup, and other Taliban groups continue to attack Coalition and Afghan forces, often from their nearby bases across the border in Pakistan. This area is of strategic importance because control of this area gives the Taliban an access route from their safe areas in Pakistan to the Afghan capital of Kabul. The Haqqani Network is considered one of the most dangerous and effective Taliban groups and has access to vast resources due to its connections with both Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate as well as al Qaeda.
In Nangarhar and Laghman provinces, attacks are on the rise, and the Taliban have launched strikes on bases in Jalalabad, a city that was considered secure just several years ago.
In Kunar and Nuristan, the US abandoned several outposts in these rugged, mountainous provinces after the Taliban and al Qaeda staged several large-scale assaults. The Taliban then took advantage of the security vacuum and reestablished bases and training camps, and overran district centers.
In northern Afghanistan, the situation is far worse today that it was just several years ago. The Taliban, in conjunction with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, have taken control of large areas in Kunduz, Baghlan, Takhar, Sar-i-Pul, Samangan, Balkh, and Badghis. ISAF has identified the locations of suicide training camps in Samangan and Sar-i-Pul. The Taliban and the IMU have carried out a successful suicide campaign that has resulted in the deaths of the top police commander in the north, and several provincial governors and police chiefs.
The shift from a counterinsurgency strategy to a counterterrorism strategy means that in the future, the US will rely on special operations raids and airstrikes in areas outside of the control of the government. Such missions in the past have created problems for the Coalition, as claims of civilian casualties ultimately surface after such actions. And while effective at removing leaders from the Taliban ranks, the strikes and raids do not address the issue of safe havens. The US has been conducting intensive operations in the north and east, and although there is evidence the leadership of the terror groups has been impacted, the organizations are still able to carry out attacks on ISAF and Afghan forces and civilians alike.
The drawdown of forces will also be seized upon by the Taliban, who will characterize the rapid removal of US forces as a victory. Part of the Taliban’s information campaign has focused on the perceived lack of commitment of US forces. Just as the withdrawals of US combat forces in Kunar and Nuristan were used to characterize the US as a spent force, so will a massive withdrawal of US forces come the summer of 2012.