Taliban step up operations in the north, ISAF buries head in sand

Panetta-LWJ.jpg

Last September, President Barack Obama claimed that the US-led military effort had “broken the Taliban’s momentum in Afghanistan, and begun the transition to an Afghan lead.” That same month, then US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta maintained that 2012’s frequent insider attacks, the “green-on-blue,” were evidence of the “last gasp” of the al Qaeda-allied group.

We here at The Long War Journal/Threat Matrix have disagreed with that position on Afghanistan as put forth by the Obama administration and the Department of Defense, and have stated that the situation in the country has not improved despite some tactical successes in the south [see LWJ report, Analysis: The Taliban’s ‘momentum’ has not been broken]. We still maintain this view. Oddly enough, ISAF’s own statistics supported our case [see also LWJ report, ISAF analysis shows Afghan violence remains worse than before surge].

And in February of this year, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force had to admit that its data, which didn’t support its case for an improving security situation, was fatally flawed to begin with. Shortly after this error was reported, ISAF stopped its monthly statistics updates, claiming that the Afghan data used to create the reports were unreliable. You can be sure if the Afghan statistics reported were good news, ISAF would have continued with the monthly reports.

Today the UN reported that civilian casualties in Afghanistan were up by 23 percent in the first six months of 2013 when compared to the same time period in 2012. While a rise in violence may be expected with the drawdown in Coalition forces and reduction in key combat enablers such as air strikes, the fact that the Taliban can significantly increase the violence should dispel the notion that the Taliban are the spent force portrayed by the Obama administration and ISAF.

In addition, this grim report at Der Spiegel yesterday on the security situation in the Afghan north shows that Germany, like the US, continues to bury its head in the sand as bad news rolls in:

Meanwhile, the security situation in the country is continuing to deteriorate. Instead of the stabilization it had hoped for, ISAF’s Kabul headquarters now receives almost daily reports of dead and wounded soldiers. The casualty numbers declined in 2012 but have risen sharply since the beginning of this year.

“The security situation in some of the known problematic regions in the north has worsened appreciably since the beginning of the spring offensive,” reads a July 11 internal diplomatic cable from the German consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. Last Monday it emerged that the Taliban has killed 2,748 police officers just in the past four months.

Note that Taliban attacks are intensifying in areas where ISAF forces are no longer present. And also note that the special operations raids are rarely occurring in these areas, according to a German diplomatic cable mentioned in the Der Spiegel article:

The Taliban’s attacks target the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which for six weeks now have been officially responsible for protecting the people here. “Against the background of the transition process agreement, the number of attacks on ANSF forces and civilians has seen a sharp increase,” the diplomatic cable from Mazar-e-Sharif reads. The Taliban feels “freer” in the provinces where the international troops have withdrawn, the cable continues, particularly as nighttime raids are rarely carried out there anymore.

Like the US and ISAF, the Bundeswehr is suppressing bad information in order to project a positive image of the mission. By ignoring Afghan statistics, the Bundeswehr is doing exactly what ISAF did in March when it decided to end its reporting on the security situation: claim that the Afghan statistics are imprecise. The Der Spiegel report continues [emphasis added below]:

This has serious consequences for development projects, the diplomats warn. They fear even the legitimation of the Afghanistan mission itself is at stake and that it will no longer be possible to credibly convey the mission’s “core message” — that Germany will remain involved in long-term civilian development aid “regardless of the conclusion of ISAF.”

Germany’s Defense Ministry, too, is starting to sense that the Afghanistan mission, already unpopular among Germans, is in danger of becoming a PR disaster with its constant stream of bad news.

In response, the Defense Ministry’s strategists have adopted a new communications strategy — ignore all bad news and banish any data that show an increasing number of attacks to the realm of statistical imprecision. The logic here is that, now that the Bundeswehr itself only rarely carries out missions, it is dependent on statistics from its Afghan partners, which aren’t necessarily reliable. The new policy is to redefine the security situation in ways that no longer rely exclusively on the available statistics. Anything that doesn’t fit is made to fit.

With the Taliban and their allies showing no sign of letting up on military operations, the pipe dream of negotiations with the Taliban dead on arrival, and Pakistan’s continuing state sponsorship of the Taliban, the situation is not likely to improve as Coalition forces draw down. Meanwhile, the US and the West are whistling past the graveyard. We’d all better get used to this.

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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20 Comments

  • JRP says:

    It has always amazed me that for the purpose of protecting Western Europe or South Korea, we have no problems with 50+ year commitments, but for the purpose of protecting ourselves, in this case from Taliban/AQ intent on procuring nuclear weapons by Gift, Purchase, or Theft, we balk at the notion of presence in perpetuity. The concept of eternal vigilance has to go beyond pricing justice & freedom. It must extend to defense for so long as we decide to not pursue our enemy to the point of unconditional surrender.

  • Dave says:

    Mr. Obama:
    You need to respond to this article.
    Is your administration’s policy of withdrawal from Afghanistan, in the face of mounting evidence that the Afghan government is incapable of defending itself against the Taliban, a threat to U.S. interests abroad? Our national security at home?
    Dave
    Why has your administration stopped How does your policy

  • Nic says:

    I would have believed Panetta if he had said: We could have done more in Afghanistan if we had not committed the blunder of invading Iraq. That said, we have done as much as can possibly be done with our limited resources in a God forsaken, backward Hell hole like Afghanistan. Our experience in Afghanistan will be useful when we attempt to defeat the gangs in Chicago.

  • blert says:

    While whistling past this particular graveyard — we’re going to need a bigger, louder, whistle.
    This trajectory was set when the President dissed Karzai — years ago — whatever the reason.
    Ever since, our man in Kabul has not been our man in Kabul.
    The projects so dear to the hearts of NATO allies have been, and will ever be, complete wastes.
    If you can’t defend an asset — it gets taken over by the opfor.
    As for educating women and girls, it has been entirely counter-productive — in a land where the men and boys CAN’T READ.
    The effort put the cart before the horse. It is ONLY after the men can read and write that it’s appropriate to educate women — and it must be at a tempo that their men can live with. Such is the way of the world.
    No society, elsewhere, has educated the women before the men.
    Such follies also blew up in Iraq. Western monies are just squandered/ blown up/ stolen.
    The locals don’t even believe in themselves. The entire area relives the script of High Noon — but without Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.

  • Michael Green says:

    Barack Obama never intended for any type of real military success in Afghanistan.
    In 2009 when General Stanley Mcchrystal requested 60,000 ground troops, Obama reluctantly agreed to half that number. Obama then set a time table for the withdrawal of these troops.
    In addition, Obama’s ROE, (Rules of Engagement), all part of this insane COIN doctrine, have seriously impaired our military personal from doing their job, which is to KILL the enemy. In fact these abominable ROE has brought about scores of American troops to be KIA and badly wounded.

  • Eric says:

    TLWJ has faithfully reported the truth on the strength and activities of the enemy in Afghanistan, I believe correctly identifying the flaws and misleading statements by our own leadership, for some years. By now it is fairly obvious that our leadership is deliberately misleading the public to support their decision to withdraw.
    Here’s the thing, though. It is a choice between staying and continuing a war of attrition with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, supported by Pakistan, or leaving and letting the Afghans fight that war out with them. I have never been 100 percent sure of my choice, but my choice has been to withdraw and continue to fund and support the Afghan government and the ANSF, while the Pakis fund and support the Taliban.
    The Afghans will adopt more savage ROE after we are gone, perhaps savage enough to harm the Taliban as much as the Taliban harm the ANSF. They will carry the fight at a far lower operating cost than our forces, and far fewer westerners will become casualties. In question is whether they can carry the fight without being defeated by the Taliban.
    ISAF was always required to fight a ‘clean war’, one with very restrictive ROE. Together with the corruption, porous borders, and weak institutions, the ISAF was not fighting a war in a manner conducive to conquest, but rather was just dragging things on year into year, at enormous expense, and continuing US and NATO casualties. Westerners are just too nice a bunch of folks to be fighting these fly-bitten Taliban savages by the kind of ROE that are called for in that god-forsaken land. We played whack-a-mole, instead of playing scorched-earth-nowhere-to-hide annihilation.
    If we are going to leave, then the politicians (generals included) are going to create a narrative that re-inforces our point that we are doing the right thing, and doing it the right way. They are going to lie, if needs be, to accomplish our disengagement.
    We need to support the ANSF, and hope they have better luck. They will fight dirty and apologize for none of it. But they will be bled nearly dry of funds by Karzai’s kleptocracy. So who knows? By now, we should have already called the Paki leaders out into the street over their support of the Taliban, and threatened economic sanctions. It would not take much in the way of sanctions to sink the Pakistani state, and lord knows they deserve it for their duplicity. But we apparently lack the sense of the moment at the government’s higher levels and so we are leaving the field with the enemy in good shape.
    Like it was with Iraq, Afghanistan will quickly undo its own government and just as quickly destroy their future, in the power grab of the 2014 election season, and then undergo the impoverished transition from a foreign aid kleptocracy to a new order of islamo-fascist. or perhaps for the Afghans, a narco-terrorist statehood. But what did we think? Really, what alternative was there, and when was that window of opportunity even open?
    Let the Obama administration conduct its face-saving climb-down and get our troops out, then we will see how long it will be before we must invade Pakistan. We do not have the political will to fight this thing in a manner that will bring victory. And that is all there is to it, really.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    To “leo” who claims we are “too afraid” to publish his comments.
    You have violated the comment policy multiple times in every one of your comments, (using a fake email address, cursing, insulting, etc.), so your comments won’t be published. Try reading the policy and acting on it, and maybe your comment will get published.
    My name & email address is in the public. So what are you afraid of, leo?

  • sundoesntrise says:

    I like how even though there are a lot of pro-mil commentators here who don’t take kindly to criticism of the military, Bill Roggio who himself has a history in the armed forces is calling them out on their errors.
    Keep it up Bill.

  • mike merlo says:

    Good article. I for one though do not see Afghanistan as ‘Squaring The Circle.’ As long as the US & its non Afghan ISAF partners maintain more than just a token force come 2015 & keep Afghanistan well supplied with necessary war fighting material & ‘field support’ the Afghans will fare quite well.

  • Bungo says:

    Great comments by all above and especially Eric. I called this about three years ago. This “war” was never really “winnable” in the classic sense. There were just too many problems, many of them enumerated above. It really was Viet Nam 2.0
    The Af/Pak/US dynamic is the most complex international relationship in American history. The only chance we ever had for a classic “win” would entail invading Pakistan. I think most thinking men in this forum would, at the very least, have to really ponder the wisdom of such an action. We would literally “own” Pakistan and all of the inherant problems and all of the insane Islamic fundamentalists within that failed state. Because of the obvious political and financial impossibilities of such an action that was never really on the table unless it was the absolute last option for our own survival and safety.
    What I still don’t understand is how some of the forum readers and posters still hold out the possibility that Afghanistan can somehow hold out , survive or even fend off the Taliban. To me, that is an extremely optimistic if not outright ludicrous proposition. There is nothing that I have learned while studying this conflict (since the Soviet invasion) that remotely suggests that this could happen.
    Consider the following: The Karzai regime and the whole Afghan government has little support, loyalty, confidence or respect outside of Kabul. The Afghan military is, for the most part, ineffective, incompetent, disloyal and poorly motivated. Afghanistan has virtually no economy and cannot afford anything resembling a modern fighting force. At least half of the populace are pro-Taliban and the other half don’t care one way or the other. At least half the populace actually trust the Talibs more than their own government… and on and on and on.
    Once ISAF troops are gone and once the Western money that funds the Afghan military is gone the Taliban will take Kabul in no longer than six months. It might actually be as fast as six weeks.
    Prediction : Karzai will be sitting on his veranda overlooking the French Rivera drinking martinis while managing his billion dollar bank account from his Ipad when the Taliban are driving their motorcycles, pickups and SUVs into Kabul in a big convoy.
    Like I said at least three years ago, I, personally, don’t care if the Taliban chops off every head in Afghanistan. That’s not my fight. I do care about Al Qaeda however and I do want Zawahiri’s head on a stake. And I do think we should, and probably will, kill with extreme prejudice every Al Qaeda sociopath whenever and wherever we find them. I just don’t think ISAF forces camping out in the landmass of Afghanistan is a necessity in that counter-terrorism effort.
    The good news is we have much better intel networks/sources than ever before and have developed incredible unmanned drone and surveillance capabilities in the process. We have also let the world know that we will go wherever we need to go and we will do whatever we need to do when we are provoked and that we have capabilities that no opposing force can withstand or defend against. It was a great war while it lasted, the kill ratios were off the chart and Al Qaeda is a dying movement.

  • BobbyD says:

    What I still don’t understand is how some of the forum readers and posters still hold out the possibility that Afghanistan can somehow hold out , survive or even fend off the Taliban.
    Because they have done it all fighting season with the Taliban directly targeting them.
    The Afghan military is, for the most part, ineffective, incompetent, disloyal and poorly motivated
    This is simply a false statement.
    At least half of the populace are pro-Taliban and the other half don’t care one way or the other. At least half the populace actually trust the Talibs more than their own government… and on and on and on
    Another false statement.
    Please provide any data to support your argument.

  • Bungo says:

    BobbyD said: “Please provide any data to support your argument.”
    I apologize for my lack of “data”. All I have is ten years of news reports and countless accounts and opinions of the enlisted men who have served on the ground and interacted with the people of Afghanistan. Every first hand account I can recall backs up my opinion.
    The problem here is the staff officers/generals. For some reason they cannot give their honest opinion that their ascribed goals are not realistically attainable. You will never hear a commanding general tell a senate committee, “Well, you know, this whole thing is probably not going to end up the way you want it to….you know, these Afghans are not really the most reliable allies in this thing..” You’re just never going to hear that. I blame the culture of our officer warrior class. They are bred with a incredible sense of optimism and a “can do” spirit that impels them to accept any challenge put on their plate. Though that is admirable for the most part it leads us to where we are today in this conflict. The facts are that congress gives the military certain orders and the military brass carry them out. They don’t debate the wisdom or realism of the orders. At most the generals will request more troops and more time, that’s it. Let’s agree for a moment that the primary order is to create an Afghan military force that can defend the country. You’re never going to hear the commander say, ” Yea, ya know what?….That’s not really going to happen…but we’ll give it our best shot”. The top brass are all career soldiers. They’re never going to elicit any negativity about the mission. That’s just their culture. We, as students of military history, have to look at all of the accounts and evidence and data we can and come to our own conclusions and predictions. Don’t get me wrong, I may be proven to be completely wrong and you may be proven to be completely correct. we just don’t know yet as it may still be a few years till this all plays out. But, for now, I’ll still stick to my predictions.

  • mike merlo says:

    @BobbyD
    I couldn’t agree with you more

  • blert says:

    Bobby D….
    I’m not quite sure to whom your comments are properly directed….
    But some history is in order.
    During the American Independence Campaign neither the Rebels nor the Loyalist/ Tory faction ever attained a majority — except in pockets. Massachusetts (Boston) was always deemed a Rebel stronghold; Virginia on south was deemed Loyalist. Most of the planet deemed the Rebel enterprise a fart in the wind. The odds against Washington & Co were astounding.
    Yet, look what happened. Saratoga led Paris to back the Rebels — first diplomatically, then financially, then with the national fleet — and ultimately with an expeditionary army — and Yorktown.
    Of note, London was defeated in the SOUTH — its colonial bastion — where (until late in the war) fighting had been rare.
    ==========
    This time around, Washington DC has replaced Paris; and EVERY party has employed terrible strategy. Not surprisingly, it’s a tar baby all the way around. Don’t forget that. The opfor is not happy with their situation — not at all.
    For starters, the opfor is NOT a unified entity, not by a long shot. It’s a towering challenge to prevail at war when factionalism is rampant — and endemic. It’s so bad that the ISI has been on the receiving end of some blow-back, itself.
    ==========
    The ISAF build-up was a strategic mistake. Rising troop levels were entirely negated by dependencies upon Islamabad — the crux of everything.
    It was a stunning wake-up call for Pakistan to see that the ISAF could and did soldier on AFTER Islamabad played its ACE CARD: the southern blockade. The rapid unwind of the surge is directly due to the financial punishment caused by the transport tariffs imposed by the northern routes. While no doubt the players are taking advantage of the ISAF — fat margins and all — their own outlays really are hefty. It’s just an expensive way to roll. (Get a load of the congestion at the Salang tunnel. It’s maddening.)
    [ Rather than let Pakistan raid the exfiltration logistics — stores are being blown up/ scrapped out inside Afghanistan. Islamabad was actually banking on tapping in. ]
    A tapped out Pakistan is NOT going to be in a position to go large in Afghanistan.
    That’s what’s new. At all times prior, America had been picking up the tab for BOTH sides of the war — with Islamabad collecting a hefty ‘commission’ for mediating the transfer of funds to AQ and its kin.
    WHAT a protection racket.
    =========
    All of which is a long way of saying that the issue is entirely undecided.
    All of the knives are still up in the air.
    Taliban tactics are entirely dialed in for harassing the ISAF.
    At some point soon, the Afghans will shift over to tit-for-tat.
    The ISI is NOT ready for that, not at all.

  • blert says:

    Not unrelated to the times…
    //www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-08-02/pakistan-bans-gold-imports-30-days
    This snippet has wrong analysis. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar is hitting the panic button because his own countrymen are tapping into this new surge in cross-border gold flows.
    At all times prior, India had no import tariff on bullion. Consequently, the amount of gold flowing through Pakistan to reach India was nil.
    Suddenly, monster (Indian) money shows up to establish entirely NEW commercial links to bypass the Indian tariff. These new buyers bring with them their overseas sources of bullion — going all the way back to London.
    Previously, the Pakistanis did not have a ‘London connection’ — save for their own government. Under that scheme, Islamabad could easily throttle the amount of their fiat currency being converted to gold.
    Under the present circumstances, now every citizen in sight can dump Pakistani money to acquire gold.
    It’s THIS drain that has triggered a complete panic in Islamabad. Such a re-pricing towards gold must trigger re-pricings against every import — every export — and debts outstanding to the international bankers. (!)
    It must be kept in mind that Pakistan is walking the razor’s edge of national insolvency. She can’t borrow on her own credit — and yet she must keep borrowing — just to kick the can down the road.
    The upshot: the Taliban’s number one backer is fundamentally broke — and has only ever been held upright by America.
    The strategic implications for Islamabad are bleak.

  • mike merlo says:

    @Bungo
    “Don’t get me wrong, I may be proven to be completely wrong and you may be proven to be completely correct. we just don’t know yet as it may still be a few years till this all plays out. But, for now, I’ll still stick to my predictions.”
    Well said & I’ll stick to mine.
    @blert
    “It must be kept in mind that Pakistan is walking the razor’s edge of national insolvency.”
    When has Pakistan not been “walking the razor’s edge of national insolvency?”
    “The upshot: the Taliban’s number one backer is fundamentally broke — and has only ever been held upright by America.”
    Fret not the GCC & the Islamic Private Donor Network will keep ‘the spigot open.’
    “The strategic implications for Islamabad are bleak.”
    Too funny. When have ‘Islamabads’ fortunes ever ‘implicated'(indicated) otherwise? No matter Communist China will continue to ‘spoon feed’ those parts of the Pakistani Economy that satisfy its own strategic interests & the GCC will do much of the same focusing on Pakistan’s religious/political apparatus, as opposed to Communist China’s focus, allowing Pakistan to ‘crutch’ their way along.
    As the US continues to distance itself from Pakistan, as practiced in the mid/late 70’s & 90’s, Pakistan will once again garner headlines as a major player in the Heroin Business, a Black Marketeer in Nuclear Weapons related proliferation, maybe Missile related activity, & a resurrecting of Terrorist activity targeting the Indian Subcontinent, Bangladesh & Southeast Asia

  • kimball says:

    Blert is right on, there are to many “players” that could
    pull the plug and sink Pakistan.
    If USA could get into it’s head to make a civilised peace with Iran and opium production could be rolled
    back to pre taliban times, history will take a new tack.
    But it won’t happen of course and to stay depressed
    regarding the subject, it pay’s to read DESCENT into
    CHAOS by Ahmed Rashid.
    P. 321 f.ex when in the 60’s hrds of American families lived in Lashkargah working for the now defunct USAID.
    That is the heart of Helmand province! No real surprise
    though, pre fundamentalism and pre heroin times were
    pretty good but basic times in Afghanistan.

  • BobbyD says:

    Bungo,
    Ok, I will make this simpler for you. Name one town that has the Taliban flag flying over top of it.
    Remember, the Taliban said themselves that this was a”monumental” fighting season, yet they are still left laying defensive IEDs and harassing direct fire.
    They have been trying desperately to get some sort of I/O victory to show all the brave muj that all their work is not in vain. They are left to overrunning rural CPs manned by 6 or 7 ALP members. Then they are quickly pushed off when ANSF forces send QRF.
    The US has closed or transferred at least 75 bases, COPs, etc this year. Where are all the media pictures of the Taliban propping their feet up on the desk that was abandoned by ANSF? It hasnt happened.
    So something must be going right with ANSF, correct?

  • Tunde says:

    Karzai is not running for another term. He will leave office on a date that roughly coincides with the end of NATOs mandate in his country and Obama’s stated intention to withdraw. Karzai clearly holds the US and its “leadership” in amused contempt (vide his erraticness re negotiations with Talibs, the Talib office opening @ Qatar, Afghan govt trying to charge customs on military materiale, the issue of CIA run militias etc. Karzai is trying to feather his bed for the time when the US and coalition eventually leave).
    Afghans don’t want foreign soldiers in their country. There are continuing incidents involving attacks by people in Afghan uniforms on foreign soldiers. There are continuing accusations by Afghans of “atrocities” committed by foreign soldiers, aircraft, etc. There are demands for foreign soldiers to be tried under Afghan law.
    In fact, American policy has been based on the idiocy of armed nation building (COIN) as a fantasy of the foreign policy establishment.
    Why would anyone think that the Afghans are going to give us legal extra-territoriality for indefinite time when they can get rid of us by not agreeing to a SOFA?
    You think that they will want the flow of materiel and offshore training to continue and that will require them to give us a SOFA? I don’t think so. The Iraqis refused to give us a SOFA. We have 200 plus military people stationed in the embassy in Baghdad who are documented as diplomats under the Vienna Convention. That gives them immunity from Iraqi law. They are there for the express purpose of managing the continuing flow of materiel into Iraq and arranging offshore training.
    Perhaps this is the Damon’s exit strategy.
    (These musings are not mine, but from a very perspicacious follower of the MENA/ near east region ).

  • Moose says:

    @Eric
    I totally agree with you. This war will get much more vicious once we leave. I always felt from the beginning that we should have filled the ANSF with Tajiks and Hazaras, armed them to the teeth, and placed them right on the borders of the Pashtun heartland. In places like Pakistan and Afghanistan it is extremely important to play the ethnic and tribal game. We had a huge learning curve in this war.
    On the Pakistan issue, I think the next time they conduct another international attack (like Mumbai or Times Square), we should label them a state sponsor of terrorism. If it gets to the point where we need to invade them, I would do the next best thing and impose a naval blockade. They enjoyed screwing Afghanistan as a landlocked country for almost 70 years and used it against our forces there, let’s see how they like it.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis