A piece by Michael Hirsh in National Journal details “the Coming Upheaval in US Afghanistan Strategy,” asserting that “some US officials have begun talk about speeding up” withdrawal after the uptick in fraggings of Western personnel by their Afghan partners. For the purposes of this post, my thoughts on accelerated withdrawal are complicated enough to be tabled. But Hirsh includes some incredible lines from unnamed “Obama administration officials” justifying the change in policy [emphasis mine]:
Some Obama administration officials are also convinced that the Obama “surge” of 30,000 additional troops, scheduled to be wound down by September, has left just enough stability on the ground, or what Petraeus has called “Afghan good enough” in the crucial part of the country called “regional command east.” As National Journal senior correspondent James Kitfield wrote in a perceptive assessment from Afghanistan in December: “Although they remain dependent on coalition ‘enablers’ such as airpower and logistics, Afghan security forces have increasingly shouldered the burden in RC East and kept the insurgents on the defensive.” But it is a fragile standoff: the 14 provinces of the east constitute more than half of Afghanistan’s total population of 30 million.
To assert that some degree of stabilization in Afghanistan has occurred due to the Obama administration’s “surge” is arguable. But to posit that the boost in troops has had an especially game-changing impact on RC East (vs. RC South and RC SW, which were the beneficiary of most of the expanded troop presence) beggars belief. It is true that incessant raids by Special Operations Forces have put a great deal of pressure on groups like the Haqqani Network and the Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin. And yes, some Afghan units (notably tribal forces and commandos training with Special Operations Forces) receive good marks from American military officers. But to argue that the Afghan Security Forces overall are capable and have the insurgents on the defensive in RC East, and to further imply that the situation will stay that way after US withdrawal, is optimistic, to put it gently.
Beyond the insurgent safe havens in Pakistan mentioned in the article, there are several other grim indicators specifically plaguing the east: continuing infiltrations of the Kabul Attack Network through RC East (even with enthusiastic US engagement); the tacit or direct support of some insurgent groups like the Haqqani Network by elements of the Pakistani military; the concern that insurgent groups are merely waiting to fully reassert themselves after American withdrawal; and the widely-held belief that some Afghan security units and local government officials, and many more tribal elders, have secret agreements with portions of the insurgency.
If anything, the Obama administration’s surge has had much more of an impact on RCs South and Southwest, degrading the Taliban’s traditional authority on their home turf in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. RC East, from what I’ve read and witnessed, has remained something of an underresourced muddle; despite the addition of troops, forces still lacked the manpower to project into villages and make sustainable headway against the insurgency. My more detailed November assessment published in Small Wars Journal can be found here. Also recommended is Jeffrey Dressler’s take (also in November) on the ascendant threat from the Haqqani Network, which is of course based in both Pakistan’s tribal agency of North Waziristan and in eastern Afghanistan:
Since the summer of 2009, NATO’s battle against the Quetta Shura in the south of Afghanistan has reduced the Taliban to a shell of its former self, a fact that alters Jones’ estimation of the group’s relative strength. The Haqqani network, by contrast, is on the rise, perhaps at its most capable and lethal level since its reconstitution in 2002. Although the Haqqanis are nominally part of the Quetta Shura, they are poised, with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services, to become the most significant long-term strategic threat to stability in Afghanistan.
Hirsh’s National Journal article swings back around to a reasonable conclusion [emphasis mine] …
The harsh fact is that with a corrupt and weak civilian government in Kabul, meager Western forces, and a resurgent Taliban, the prospects are not much better than they were back in 2006, when I quoted a U.S. general saying, in an article called “The Rise of Jihadistan” that documented the resurgence of the Taliban, that the standoff between Afghan forces and the Taliban “could go on for 40 or 50 years …. this is going to be like the triborder region of South America, or like Kashmir, a long, drawn-out stalemate where everyone carves out spheres of influence.”
… but the inclusion of assertions by officials that RC East is “good enough,” and that the situation there was dramatically improved by a “surge” centered on the South, is spin by the unnamed officials.
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