Afghanistan – now what?

The “surge” is officially over in Afghanistan:

The last of the 33,000 ‘surge’ troops ordered into Afghanistan by President Barack Obama more than three years ago have withdrawn from the country, returning the US presence to pre-surge levels.

President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009 announced the shift in strategy, along with its goal to “to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.” The President also described the worsening scenario that the policy would attempt to correct:

But while we have achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. After escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, al-Qaeda’s leadership established a safe haven there. Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it’s been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces.

Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to control additional swaths of territory in Afghanistan, while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism against the Pakistani people.

Yet, as the surge ends, aside from significant — though not decisive — setbacks for al Qaeda and the Taliban, what about the above rationale has changed?

The Obama administration’s Afghan push employed well-executed counterinsurgency doctrine in the provinces of Nimroz, Helmand, and eventually Kandahar, with stopgap measures everywhere else. The military’s implied second act, after selling the initial surge and checking the Taliban’s power in the south, was to shift forces to shore up the troublesome east. But this never happened. And as a result, counterinsurgency doctrine was never truly attempted in these key areas, although US military leadership indicated otherwise.

In an interview with LWJ last year, Regional Command East Commander Major General Daniel Allyn asserted that COIN was still being employed in the East, despite a drawdown of troops that prevented the resource shift. His assessment may have been politically necessary for a flag officer, and it was true to some degree; certain counterinsurgency components were present, and even a few others were robust. But overall, the fight in RC East was vastly underresourced to achieve the type of political and security momentum required to break the insurgency, and it was not accompanied by successful political pressure to address the insurgent redoubts in Pakistan. It is important to note, however, that given the region’s dispersed population and geographic heterogeneity, a well-executed COIN strategy in the east would have been a herculean task even with proper resources, and possibly unlikely to succeed, at least within a time frame feasible for a Western democracy fatigued by a decade of war.

But the fact remains that the Obama administration never made the attempt, which calls into question the point of wasting lives, limbs, and resources by surging into Helmand and Kandahar. Either policymakers were ignorant and unrealistic about the amount of time and effort required to turn around a country like Afghanistan, and they believed that “reversing Taliban momentum” was sufficient to achieve enduring progress, or the COIN doctrine and accompanying surge were cynically employed for domestic political considerations. None of these scenarios reflect well on the decision.

The stopgap plan for the East was to employ punishing night raids and conventional clearing operations against insurgents (‘mowing the grass’) while training up the Afghan security forces, in a strategy reminiscent of pre-surge Iraq. Allyn described this effort in last year’s interview, and noted how it was contingent on partnered operations and minimum US troop levels in the East [emphasis mine]:

[T]he key for us to be able to do this is to accelerate Afghan security force capacity. That is the task that can be put at risk if there is an increased pace of withdrawal. Because I’m outnumbered two to one by Afghan security forces already. In other words, I have to prioritize who I’m partnered with based on where they are in their development, what mission we’re going after in the region they’re operating in … so if the number [of American troops] comes down significantly greater, then partnership becomes a challenge. As long as we can keep those ratios right as we get the Afghan security forces developed; frankly, we are already making significant headway against the insurgency.

The plan for this accelerated development of the ANSF — hinging on widespread partnered operations between both US and Afghan conventional and special forces — has obviously been thrown into disarray by the alarming increase in insider attacks by Afghan security personnel on their Western partners within the past two years. And its failure was arguably officially acknowledged this week by the US military’s resulting suspension of combat patrols with Afghan forces.

Throw in the Taliban’s relentless, somewhat successful focus on high profile attacks, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s destructive political maneuvers, exemplified by his firing of the competent and pro-Western-alliance governor of Helmand province, and it’s hard to describe US strategy with words other than “rapidly deteriorating,” and perhaps “dire.”

After 11 years of war, the status of the American effort in Afghanistan is not encouraging: an abortive attempt at counterinsurgency; a surge of troops announced in conjunction with an intended withdrawal date; the partnership with a particularly self-destructive and corrupt Karzai regime; NATO’s ineffective management of Pakistan’s double game and support of insurgent redoubts across their border; a rash of insider attacks that have severely impeded the partnership required for rapid development of indigenous security forces; and some recent successful high-profile Taliban attacks. Contrary to the Obama administration assertions, and concurrent with a recent Long War Journal analysis, the Taliban’s “momentum” has not been “broken.”

Commentary on Afghanistan by contributors here at The Long War Journal has been negative for some time, but the accumulating snowball of bad news has reached a new level. It is hard to fathom what an attractive course of action looks like for US policy now. The best-case scenario: America maintains the tepid alliance with an Afghan government that permits help maintaining its existence during the protracted civil war likely to follow the US military’s 2014 departure, while keeping a small force in country to conduct counterterrorism operations. And as unattractive as this best-bad-case-scenario option may seem for America, it’s certainly bleaker for the people of Afghanistan.

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  • Luca says:

    The time is now ripe for the commencement of the second phase of the Afghan Civil War – Civil War 2.0, if you like – after the West interrupted the natural conclusion of the first installment of the war in the weeks that followed 9/11. To a certain extent this was inevitable: old scores have been left unsettled and new one have been created. Let’s be honest: the country only exists on maps, it is and has always been so intricately divided along ethno-sectarian and tribal lines that civil war is pretty much the status quo – or at least it has been the case for the past few decades. When the Civil War will begin anew it will make the first part of it (1989-2001) look like an afternoon in the park with the boy scouts: the ANSF will probably revert to their erstwhile status of ethno-tribal militias and the billion dollar warlords are now richer and better armed than they ever were before. If the taliban think getting back in power is going to be a cakewalk they’ve got another thing coming. Also because Pakistan will not be able to offer them the same kind of massive, almost overt support it did in the past. In hindsight we should have probably refrained from wasting billions on nation-building and just arm the northern alliance to the teeth (as we have in a way done directly and indirectly) and watch the two sides slaughter each other while throwing in a few SOF raids to keep AQ in check. Economy of Force.

  • James says:

    If the taliban think getting back in power is going to be a cakewalk they’ve got another thing coming.
    Read more:
    To Luca,
    You are absolutely correct on that assessment.
    Let’s dare ol’ one-eyed cyclops (mullah omar) to show his face in Afghanistan.
    We’ve also got to factor in that this is a presidential election year. There is no hope at all of any rational-decision making process coming out of DC until at least the election is over.
    Whoever is in the White House next year, our hands will be full trying to get it through to that person that Afghanistan IS worth fighting for.

  • Charles says:

    What you see happening in the afpak theatre and elsewhere in the moslem world is the outworking Ayman al-Zawahiri’s belief that jihad should take place in the arab world–not in the west which bin laden wanted.

    All of the riots around the moslem world are not aimed at the US but rather at any moslem elites that support the USA.

    With the Afghan war winding down–the next big target will be Pakistan.

    Consider this post from the Long War Journal.

    The post shows the heads of Pakistani soldiers. They are on display like the heads of trophy deer.

    Then read the comments on the same page linked to above and listen to the intelligent pride of the arab minder who brags about the “lions in the caves” of Western Pakistan. He reasons that if the lions of Islam can defeat the USA–then they can defeat India.

    What he doesn’t mention is that Pakistan would be a juicier and more logical prize for the jihads–and more in keeping
    with Ayman al-Zawahiri’s goals now that Bin Laden is dead.

    Just to be certain everyone understands what’s at play — Ayman al-Zawahiri’s brother has already put forward the peace plan.

    In it you can clearly see that an organization like the ISI and a country organized like Pakistan would not be what the jihadists would want for that part of the world. Never mind the nukes. But of course jihadists would like to have the nukes to point at Saudi Arabia–which is the ultimate goal for Ayman al-Zawahiri’s jihadis — now that bin laden is gone.

  • mike merlo says:

    The situation in Afghanistan isn’t any where near as depressing as the articles author has framed it. Following 2014 as long as the US continues to provide Afghanistan’s security & military infrastructure with requisite war fighting material & other essentials Afghanistan will fare quite well. One other area of focus, unlike Iraq, should be a well thought out strategy for monitoring & containing Iran. It is highly unlikely that Pakistan will enjoy the freedom of movement & related activity it experienced during the Taliban’s heyday.

  • Charu says:

    Agree fully with Luca’s pithy analysis. The surge was doomed and it failed because the Taliban had a state-sponsored sanctuary next door. Sticking around for another 10 years would change nothing and would needlessly waste more of our brave soldier’s lives. Removing NATO from the picture will restart the civil war in Afghan terms. When the Taliban (and Pakistan) eventually learn that they are unable to overcome the Northern Alliance or even get rule over their prized Pashtun territory, they will negotiate a truce to our liking. But this will require our will to intervene decisively in the civil war to come, and not to wash our hands off the bloody mess as we did in the 90’s. And this will to continue the fight by other means is not a given, in spite of the blood that we have already sacrificed. Let’s hope that 9-11 and its AfPak roots never get forgotten, or history will most certainly repeat itself.

  • Mark L says:

    I think very little analysis of Afghanistan is needed past Lusa’s comments as they are very cogent. ISAF had ample opportunity to apply full CION strategy, but do to the homeland’s lack of political will (and intelligence) that opportunity has passed and we will not be able to determine if it could have ever truly been successful in Afghanistan. I, for one, was doubtful but the playout of that strategy in that environment would have given future military leaders a good roadmap for future conflicts of this type.
    Unfortunately, just as in Vietnam, we are headed to complete strategic failure where we had complete tactical success. It is a damn tear-stained shame!

  • Brian Scott says:

    Folks here sound pretty smart. I can’t understand why you make such basic mistakes in analyzing the situation.

    First big mistake:
    convincing yourselves that we actually employed a counterinsurgency doctrine anywhere in Afghanistan, particularly Helmand and Marjah.
    Second fundamental mistake:
    Believing that the Pushtuns suspended the civil war when the US invaded.

    On such a faulty foundation, it isn’t possible to comprehend events or causes, let alone develop solutions.

    Marjah was a Potemkin village. The US took over a market, emptied and surrounded it, putting it within the confines of a de facto US military installation. We hired role players from the local population to act as merchants. We bought local and regional goods for them to sell. Then, Senators McCain, Lieberman and Graham came in and bought $1,200 Persian rugs for $60.
    As they and General Petraeus walked through the market without body armor, they were photographed with about 40 role players, with 400 US military personnel just out of frame.
    We saturated an area with a population of less than 50,000 indigenous with over 20,000 US and allied military personnel. Over 25% of the population of Marjah (the rural area; there really isn’t such a town,) was US military.
    In order to saturate all 400+ Districts in Afghanistan at the same ratio, we would have needed about 7 million soldiers in country.
    I’m an old soldier. At Camp Mackall I learned a mission called IDAD, before most of you were born. Look it up. That’s what real counterinsurgency looks like. What we did at Marjah was a dog-and-pony show.

    I know I don’t have to tell you folks who the ANSF are: they’re rebranded from the old Northern Alliance. So that side of the civil war is still taking the fight to the enemy. Or more accurately, kinda helping their American chumps take the fight to their enemy, the Pushtuns. Don’t let the fact that the Popalzai Pushtuns and their favorite son switched sides, and are now partnered with the Northern Alliance, fool ya.
    So, did the Pushtuns quit fighting ? Ever heard of the Taliban ?

    These posits of mine, pretty far-fetched, huh ? But if you will suspend disbelief for an hour and consider the ramifications if I’m right, it gives a whole nuther perspective. It also makes the way forward pretty darn clear.

    God bless.

  • wallbangr says:

    @ Brian Scott: So if all we have done is enable the Northern Alliance to continue their civil war against the Pashtuns and have only nominally engaged in COIN, what is this clear way forward? Let the NA take up the fight while we pull out and hope we’ve tipped the scales? While that may be the best way forward, the ramifications of it are rather unsettling.
    IDAD was never politically feasible based on the numbers alone. And FID right now is likely as good as it’s ever going to get, thanks to the green on blue attacks. So about all I can guess is that we’ve been hedging for the past 4 years hoping to get ANSF up to speed long enough to get the hell out of Dodge. The thing is, that’s gotta’ feel particularly cheap to the men and women who were tasked with executing the surge. The re-branding of a plan that was simply a compromise between what the brass wanted and what the Administration wanted as COIN is particularly troubling to me. Shame on both for being disingenuous. General Allen has since said that the purpose of the surge was not to defeat the Taliban so much as to allow ANSF to grow. That’s got to be cold comfort to anyone who lost a loved one in the surge. Sorry for your loss in Operation Domestic Political Gain while we tried to stall the enemy out. How many of the guys actually doing the fighting ever got the memo that the point was not to win? That’s asinine.
    None of this criticism is for Brian Scott, BTW, it’s really mostly rhetorical. But our war fighters deserve better than this. Who fights a war that’s purpose is not to defeat the enemy? I guess we do.

  • mike merlo says:

    @Brian Scott
    I fail to see how the dredging up of some failed French Man’s program is the reason for US efforts not going completely as planned.
    Have you ever heard of the Taliban? As presently composed their numbers are are over 50% non Afghan & in many ‘scenario’s’ that % is much higher. In some 80 to 90%.
    The only faulty ‘foundation’ here is you seeking to ‘impress’ your imprimatur upon what is otherwise more often sound & ‘studied’ introspections.
    Limited Warfare encompasses a wide & varied spectrum. There is nothing ‘far fetched’ of your posted posit nor is it deserving of suspended disbelief. Enjoy your retirement.

  • Kent Gatewood says:

    Has the ethnic composition of green on blue been determined?
    Is it overwhelmingly Pushtuns?

  • Bill Ardolino says:

    I do not know specific ethnic composition for attackers, though the info may exist somewhere. It might seem intuitive to infer it from the location of attacks (below – indeed, Helmand and Kandahar lead, and the correlation may hold), but note that many non-Pahstun Afghan soldiers are serving in predominantly Pashtun areas, in addition to predominantly local police.
    Total number of attacks per province:
    Badghis – 3
    Baghlan – 1
    Balkh – 2
    Farah – 1
    Faryab – 2
    Helmand – 16
    Herat – 1
    Kabul – 2
    Kandahar – 9
    Kapisa – 2
    Kunar – 1
    Laghman – 3
    Nangarhar – 3
    Paktia – 2
    Paktika – 3
    Uruzgan – 3
    Wardak – 3
    Zabul – 2
    Read more:


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