Analysis: US military strategy in Afghanistan shifts as forces draw down


On June 23, President Obama announced that 33,000 US troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the next 18 months. This withdrawal has significant implications for the military strategy in Afghanistan.

The military plan for Afghanistan announced by President Obama in December 2009 that formed the basis for the surge of 33,000 troops is no longer in effect, and is being replaced by a new plan. The acceleration of the drawdown has necessitated strategic changes from the original 2009 plan, particularly with respect to troop deployment in the Afghan East. In addition, the originally planned shift from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency in the East will not take place.

The 2009 plan

The December 2009 plan called for a surge of over 30,000 troops, to be deployed primarily in populated areas around Kandahar City as well as in the provinces of Helmand, Paktika, Paktia, and Khost. It also relied on a rapid expansion and development of Afghan forces. [For a detailed description, see LWJ report, The military strategy in Afghanistan.]

In summary, the plan targeted two main areas of Afghanistan:

1. South. The main focus would be on Helmand and Kandahar provinces. This area is the stronghold of the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST).

2. East. Khost, Paktia, and Paktika. This area is the stronghold of the Haqqani Network, a Taliban group that is part of the Quetta Shura.

Initially, Coalition commander General Stanley McChrystal had proposed a plan that addressed the Afghan South and East simultaneously. A counterinsurgency strategy was to be implemented in both areas. This would have required adding more than 40,000 US troops to the 70,000 already in Afghanistan. This plan was not adopted, however.

Instead, President Obama approved only an additional 30,000 troops. Because fewer troops meant that a counterinsurgency strategy could not be implemented in both the South and the East simultaneously, the original 2009 plan was modified into a two-phase plan. In Phase 1, the South would be addressed, and in Phase 2 the Coalition would shift its efforts to the East.

Phase 1: 2010 – 2011

1. South. Most of the 30,000 additional troops would be sent to the South. This would constitute the main effort, and a counterinsurgency strategy would be implemented. The goal would be to protect the population from the QST insurgents. Coalition forces would first clear QST from key population areas. Then ANSF forces would be used to hold the cleared areas and prevent QST insurgents from returning.

2. East. A smaller number of troops would be sent to the East. For the time being, this would be a secondary effort. With insufficient troops for a counterinsurgency strategy in the area, a counterterrorism strategy would be implemented instead. Coalition forces would not try to clear population areas. Rather, they would attack the Haqqani Network directly. The goal would be to wear down Haqqani Network fighters, leaders, and infrastructure, rendering them less capable of operations. This would halt their momentum and prevent them from spreading into adjacent provinces and, most importantly, to the national capital of Kabul. Essentially, this would be a holding action.

3. Development of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The growth of the ANSF would be accelerated. By the end of this phase, ANSF would have increased its capability so that it could take responsibility for holding the cleared areas in the South.

Phase 2: 2012- 2013

1. South. With the insurgency driven out of key population areas and ANSF taking over the hold mission, Coalition troops would be freed up, allowing most of them to be transferred to the East. A much smaller Coalition force would be left behind to advise and assist the ANSF.

2. East. With the extra troops transferred from the South, the East would become the main effort. With sufficient troops, the Coalition efforts in the East would transition from a counterterrorism strategy to a counterinsurgency strategy. As in the South during Phase 1, Coalition forces would clear insurgents from key population areas and the ANSF would then be used to hold the cleared areas.

3. Development of ANSF. The growth of the ANSF would continue until it was sufficiently capable of holding both the South and the East. With the successful completion of Phases 1 and 2, the ANSF would have taken over security responsibility in most of Afghanistan by the end of 2013, allowing a large number of Coalition troops to withdraw during 2014.

This was the plan approved by President Obama in December 2009.

Current status

As of mid-2011, most of Phase 1 of the 2009 plan has been executed.

1. South. With the deployment of a large number of additional troops, most of the South has been cleared. The transition to ANSF lead has begun. A drawdown is possible especially in southern and central Helmand province, although there are still several contested areas in northern Helmand and in Kandahar.

2. East. As expected, with the deployment of fewer troops, the East is still heavily contested by the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network has infiltrated into Ghazni province, as well as Zabul, Logar, and Wardak, but except for the intermittent spectacular attack, not significantly into Kabul.

3. ANSF development. The Afghan National Army is making significant progress toward its developmental goals. ANSF has grown by from 190,000 troops to 300,000. A new ANA corps, the 215th , has been deployed to Helmand province, and the 205th Corps in Kandahar province has been expanded. The transfer of security responsibility has begun.

The development of the Afghan National Police is progressing much more slowly, however, and the ANP remains a force with many problems. It is not expected to be fully capable even by 2014.

4. Northeast and the North. The situation in the northeastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan has deteriorated since Coalition forces began withdrawing troops from the region. Although a relatively small area and home to only a tiny portion of the Afghan population (<2%), it has been infiltrated by the Taliban, al Qaeda, and allied groups, and is now largely controlled by them. They have set up bases and have staged attacks into adjacent areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Coalition and ANSF forces have largely withdrawn from the area, limiting their activity to staging disruption attacks.

In the Northern provinces of Kunduz, Baghlan, and Takhar, the Taliban and the allied Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have expanded their influence and established safe havens. ISAF has even identified the presence of suicide training camps in Samangan and Sar-i-Pul.

The 2011 plan

On June 23, 2011, President Obama announced that the withdrawal of US troops would begin sooner than the December 2009 plan had envisioned. Originally planned to start in 2014, the drawdown is beginning now, and the entire 30,000+ surge force will be withdrawn by September 2012.

Other Coalition nations are following suit and have announced they will begin pulling significant numbers of troops from Afghanistan.

This revised drawdown timeline has major implications for the 2009 plan. Although Phase 1 has largely been accomplished, the early troop withdrawal renders Phase 2 no longer viable. The forces that would have been transferred from the South to the East are instead being withdrawn. Therefore, there will not be enough troops to both hold the South and to transition to a counterinsurgency strategy in the East. Accordingly, a new plan for Phase 2 is needed, the essence of which has trickled out over the last month.

1. South. US forces will start withdrawing now, with a total of 10,000 to be withdrawn by the end of 2011. This means that clearing operations will come to an end sooner, by the end of this summer, instead of by the end of this year. And the holding mission will be transferred from Coalition forces to ANSF about four months earlier than originally planned.

2. East. Of the remaining troops in the South, fewer units will transfer to the East. In addition, they will consist mainly of support units, not combat troops. Since there will not be enough combat troops transferred to allow for the execution of a counterinsurgency strategy, the current counterterrorism strategy will be continued. More significantly, the ANSF will be expected take over the lead and the brunt of fighting, starting this winter. The Coalition forces’ role will be to provide advice, assistance, and support to the ANSF.

Given the focus on a counterterrorism strategy, ANSF will not engage in clearing operations. There is no plan to clear the East in any predetermined timeframe. Instead, it is expected that the battle in the East will become a long-term war of attrition between the Haqqani Network and ANSF, which will last significantly longer than the Phase 1 operations in the South.

3. ANA development. A much heavier burden will be placed on the ANSF than previously planned. ANSF will continue to grow from the current 300,000 troops to 352,000 by October 2012. The Afghan Local Police program will expand from 7,000 officers to 30,000.

At the same time, many quality issues will need to be addressed, including troop retention, professionalism, literacy, drug use, corruption, and the establishment of support organizations.

4. Northeast and the North. Coalition forces will continue to stage disruption attacks. No permanent solution is currently planned, however. It will be left to the Afghans to come up with their own solution.

The future

Clearly, the 2011 plan is much riskier than the 2009 plan. Will it succeed? Some key indicators to watch are listed below. With the drawdown of Coalition forces, the ANSF will assume more importance than Coalition forces. The performance of the ANSF will become the central issue.

1. Can the ANSF hold the South? Watch the performance of the ANA’s 205th and 215th Corps. Success would mean keeping the Quetta Shura Taliban out of the cleared areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Failure would be infiltration of QST back into the cleared areas.

2. Can the ANSF take the lead in high-intensity counterterrorism operations in the East? This will be a harder task. Watch the performance of the ANA’s 203rd Corps. Success would involve the slow attrition of the Haqqani Network over the course of many years. Failure would consist of a stalemate or the pulling back of ANSF, with the Haqqani Hetwork setting up additional bases farther and farther into Afghanistan, including neighboring Logar, Wardak, and Ghazni provinces, and an increasing number of attacks into Kabul originating from these areas.

3. Will ANSF develop as needed? Success calls for an increasingly capable ANSF in terms of quality and performance. A size of about 350,000 troops will need to be achieved and maintained. Failure will result from a significant decrease in troop retention leading to a long-term decline in the size and performance of the ANSF.

4. Can Afghanistan find a solution for the Northeast and North? Since there is no existing plan to deal with these two regions, there can be no measure for success. If Afghanistan cannot itself achieve control over these regions, however, they will become an increasingly secure base for Taliban operations. Attacks will continue to be launched from there into neighboring Nangarhar, Kapisa, Laghman, and Kabul provinces, further destabilizing those areas. The Northeast will also continue to be used for launching attacks into Pakistan.

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  • KaneKaizer says:

    This isn’t going to work… even if Obama manages to get reelected, this plan will only turn Afghanistan into his Iraq.

  • Mr. Nobody says:

    All that sacrifice gone to waste by politicians seeking re-election. What will be the fall out for our National security and interests in the region when Afghanistan returns to civil war and a sanctuary for Islamic extremists and terrorists?

  • Bungo says:

    “Can the ANSF hold the South? sic Success would mean keeping the Quetta Shura Taliban out of the cleared areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Failure would be infiltration of QST back into the cleared areas.”
    I don’t get it? We’re not keeping them “completely” out now. How are they going to “completely” keep them out in the future? Define “keeping them out”. What are the metrics? They’re always going to be able to slip in some terrorists and suiciders. They’re doing it on a fairly regular basis now! The only metrics that matter to me is how fast the ANSAF peel off their uniforms once the Americans and their money go away. South Viet Nam did real well until we pulled the financial and armament plug. I’d take all of these plans with a huge boulder of salt. The bottom line is, we’re handing the keys back and the Afghans can drive the car off the cliff as far as anyone cares. As long as we can maintain a Special Ops and CIA presence and keep zapping AQs with drones I’m a happy warrior.

  • Observer says:

    “Define “keeping them out”. What are the metrics?”
    1 Who is the dominant military force.
    2 Who is taxing the population.
    3 Who is taxing the opium producers.
    4 Who is controlling the major roads.
    5 Who is providing essential services.

  • James says:

    Unfortunately, the only way I see US and the ‘good’ Afghans possibly coming out ahead in this is if we can somehow eliminate the top core leadership of the Taliban.
    We’d then have to hope for that who ever would serve to replace them would be willing to negogiate for peace.
    The only other option is if after we’ve left we become the major drivers of an anti-Taliban resistance or insurgency movement spear-headed by the Afghans themselves against taliban rule.
    As I’ve mentioned here before, this effort on our part must evolve. Indeed in war “only the fittest survive.”

  • This isn’t going to work…

  • David says:

    I think none of these plans, even if we had carried them
    fully forward, would have a chance of working in a fixed time
    frame as long as the Taliban is state-supported. We could
    defeat the Taliban entirely, kill everyone in the Taliban,
    and as soon as we leave, Pakistan will simply re-constitute
    it, and they’re back in business, and very likely much stronger
    than whatever Afghan regime is left behind.
    Given what we’ve learned about Pakistani state *support*, not just tolerance, of jihadist groups aimed India, AND Afghanistan, AND us, it seems foolish to try to fight this as if it is a local insurgency, and let our supply lines for this fight run through their territory (or the territory of other somewhat hostile nations, like Russia). The battle is to change the attitude of the Pakistani military itself.
    Unfortunately, I have no idea how to do this. Does anyone?
    Maybe sanctions would work, and cutting off of aid, but it doesn’t look like it, although it would at least save us some money. India is a good ally, and appreciates our help, but they are not interested in invading, and we don’t have enough
    political will to invade ourselves, and what would we do after we’ve won? As soon as we’d leave, they’d rebuild the same Islamist government, only more radical.

  • A colaition government between Karzai and QST is being worked out.

  • Nic says:

    ” the early troop withdrawal renders Phase 2 no longer viable.” We are now looking at Vietnam Dos. Losing a war haunts a country for generations. Losing the WoT, a conflict of the greatest national importance since WWII, will greatly encourage the type of evil that lead to 9/11. In WWII we pursued evil until the evil was eradicated and thus were able to live without the fear of militarism and gas chambers. Now, we on longer have that strength of will and, in the future, will suffer accordingly.

  • T2 says:

    Bill, you left out one major point. Education. Since most ANA troops have less than 3rd grade education, there has been a push by marines to educate these troops to read and write, during the surge this education has continued. For the future state this will have major impact as education continues for the troops and the youth. The safe eduction of one generation is a game changer.

  • BraddS says:

    Why hasn’t the MSM started calling this the Beginning of the Afghanastanization of the War? Guess no one is left who remembers 1968, much less who Walter Kronkite was…

  • Honza Prchal says:

    When running, the current President blamed the prior one for shortchanging Afghanistan and devoting insufficient resources to the job. I worry that our pessimistic commenters are correct and that the next President may be able to repeat the same charges verbatim a few years hence.

  • James says:

    Villiger, thanks for the link. I read the article.
    After what they’ve put US through, my advice to India concerning Pakistan would be not to trust them for anything.
    You watch. India will be at least as regretful if not moreso than we are now if it goes that far (hopefully it won’t for both US and India).

  • Matt says:

    So what the CIA said he could pull 10,000 out, it was ill-advisable but not problematic to the mission.

  • Distrust and verify says:

    As much as I have read and observed regarding the entire region – Iran to Uzbekistan to Pakistan and Afghanistan, there appears to be a paralell version of truth and trust. It looks like a place with what we would (at best) refer to as “moral flexibility” and more likely to think of as a nest of totally distrustful liars. These people have long been this way and we have yet to trust the history of the region and look at the ability of these poulations to wait out their opportunities and revert to the true nature of their political and warlord-dominated cultures.
    It sickens me to think of how our political leadership has failed the American people, military and young men who have lost their lives and limbs in the effort. The truth is that all manner of punitive actions, military conquests and occupations of this region are short-lived. Any amount of brutatality – including long-ago tried genocide and population replacement and annihalation – have all failed. How will our more civilized war tactics make a new dent in this kind of hardened population? History can save lives and teach those willing to take the time to learn from others experiences.
    Karzai and Co. are just the flavor of the day here and unfotunately not strong enough to hold the country and will not be able to anyway, as long as Pakistan and Iran are around with their own agendas for the country of Afghanistan.
    We should be going after all terrorists, including those governments that harbor terrorist groups. But we should not be expecting positive results from staying there and trying to develop governments and changing governments in a region full of liars and snakes.

  • JRP says:

    Al Qaeda/Taliban is not North Vietnam. Vietnam was a War we could afford to lose; AQ/AFPAK is not. Instead of pulling out just when our esteemed leaders are telling us that we’ve got them on the run (and the enemy probably is back on its heels post-Bin Laden), we ought to be re-surging with 30K more men going in, not coming out.
    Seal the Deal. ABC: “Always Be Closing”. I think Alec Baldwin (or at least his character in Glengarry Glen Ross) would make an excellent President.
    By the way . . . Anybody heard from Zawahiri lately?

  • blert says:

    Incredibly, the pResident made the right decision.
    Rebuilding Afghanistan is pure mission creep.
    Worse, it creates assets for the opfor. We supply hydroelectric power — and the Taliban collect money by tapping power lines we’ve paid for.
    Further, the crazy stuff our Allies are doing, inre nation building , don’t get much press — but they tend to be silly.
    We need to get our logistical tail trimmed so that we don’t utterly depend on Pakistan.

  • Goatweed says:

    Afghanistan might be a trial area for using ethanol for fuel with a positive impact on a supply needs. A “poppies for alcohol” program could be used to run our trucks.
    This is the fourth war out of five were our enemy has been able to attack us from areas that are largely off-limits.

  • James says:

    I’m the kind of person that says “never say never.”
    For an example of inspiration consider Charles de Gaulle who even after his superiors had surrendered France to the Nazis continued to lead France’s resistance to Nazi rule.
    This is not a conventional war. It’s what I’d like to call for now a hybrid war. We will not succeed by relying solely (or even primarily) on a conventional war structure or even strategy.
    Let the mission that eliminated bin laden serve as (hopefully) a role model.
    Why can’t we just eliminate the bad guys and then leave? Or, at the very least, work with a primary emphasis toward that goal.
    I say come up with a top-down instead of an outside- in strategy. We have to do more with less.
    Afghanistan is a mostly mountainous country, and it just might be that whoever prevails must be he that seizes and holds the high ground.
    We put our guys in the peaks or high mountain range areas and work down from there.
    We use a highly mobile special ops hit and run attack force that can respond effectively and in a timely manner to actionable intel sources (whether local or CIA) from down below.
    We put this war effort (with respect to A-stan) in ‘low-intensity’ or afterburner mode.
    Just my own two cents on the matter.

  • irebukeu says:

    As of today 8-5-2011 it seems to me from the flurry of news reports from every quarter that somalia is the next theatre where mission creep will be taking place. All the prep work -media story wise, is being done now. Women being abused, children starving and al-shabeeb. Last time it was women being abused, children starving and the warlords. 5000 Americans by Christmas is my guess. MY guess is the “night stalkers” will be back, flying over Mogadishu very soon.
    Why?? well, Obama could use a quick victory, liberals will want children fed and no one likes to see women abused. Secretly though, I think the army would love to revisit blackhawk down and show them what we have leaned in the twenty years since
    The reason given, of cours, will have to do with al queada and al shabeeb.That will bring the republicans on board for war…

  • Charu says:

    RIP Seal team 6. Your bravery and dedication will not be forgotten. The grateful nation salutes you.
    I am disturbed by how the Taliban seem to be downing helicopters more frequently now. Has the PakMil been training them on how to, and/or supplying them with SAMs? Something stinks!

  • sanman says:

    Ah, the “Vietnamization” phase, where ARVN collapses

  • Dartphuong says:

    i don’t think so


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