Afghan forces plan to be on the offensive in the coming year, according to a Resolute Support press release. The NATO mission said it intends to leverage the winter months to disrupt Taliban sources of revenue and enhance air power in preparation for the insurgents’ spring offensive with help from the Afghan forces.
However, significant challenges await Resolute Support, the Afghan government and auxiliary security forces. That’s because Resolute Support mischaracterized 2017 as a success for Afghan forces and is overly optimistic about the Afghan military’s ability to take the fight to the Taliban.
Labeling 2017 ‘a success’
In the release, Resolute Support General Nicholson highlighted “a number of successes” from 2017. He assessed that Afghan forces “[denied] the Taliban any of their stated battlefield objectives … In 2017 the Taliban failed to take any provincial capitals.”
However, Nicholson appeared to be defining the Taliban’s “stated battlefield objectives” for the group instead of reviewing the Taliban’s own publicly stated objectives, which it outlined in its announcement of “Operation Omari” in April 2017. In that statement, the Taliban never said its goal was to overrun provincial capitals. The Taliban said it hoped to achieve the following on the battlefield in 2017:
- “clearing the remaining areas from enemy control and presence”
- “employ large scale attacks on enemy positions across the country”
- “martyrdom-seeking and tactical attacks against enemy strongholds”
- “assassination of enemy commanders in urban centers”
- “employ all means at our disposal to bog the enemy down in a war of attrition that lowers the morale of the foreign invaders and their internal armed militias”
By nearly every measurable, the Taliban was very successful in reaching its battlefield objectives. The Taliban endured as a resilient insurgency in 2017. The Taliban now controls or contests 45 percent of Afghan districts, more than at any point since the first successful American offensives, according to an assessment by FDD’s Long War Journal. Using US military data, SIGAR estimates Taliban contested and controlled districts at 40 percent. The SIGAR assessment was released six months ago and may underrepresent the Taliban’s current strength.
Although Afghan forces have denied Taliban insurgents control of provincial capitals, the Taliban remains in control of or contests many districts outside of the provincial capitals of Kunduz, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Farah. The Taliban remains potent in rural areas, and leverages its control of rural areas to attack urban centers. In these areas, the Taliban is able to fundraise, resupply, recruit, and train fighters.
Resolute Support has focused its strategy on controlling urban areas, yet the capital of Kabul remains under siege. US forces are ferried from the airport to their fortified base by helicopter, unwilling to risk even a few miles on Kabul’s roads. In an interview with 60 Minutes’ Lara Logan, General Nicholson described it as “a capital that is under attack by a determined enemy.”
Across the country, the Taliban is conducting increasingly complex and fatal attacks. In April 2017, the Taliban conducted its deadliest attack since the start of the war, killing more than 250 Afghan soldiers during an assault on an Afghan army corps headquarters. The group regularly parades its vehicles and fighters in broad daylight, seemingly undeterred by air strikes, and broadcasts its success in increasingly professionalized social media.
Winter operations and the “fighting season”
Resolute Support characterized the the winter months as a traditional lull period and said it planned to go on the offensive against the Taliban before the onset of the spring fighting season.
The notion of a lull of fighting during the winter months is outmoded and unhelpful. SIGAR described last year’s winter casualties as “shockingly high,” with 807 ANDSF casualties in the first six weeks of 2017.
Coalition and Afghan forces have undoubtedly been active this winter. For the first time, Afghan forces are orchestrating January offensives in all six corps zones. In December, US and Afghan forces conducted 455 strikes, compared to 65 the year prior, according to the Washington Post.
American commanders have also disputed the idea of an offensive season. While commander in Afghanistan in 2010, Stanley McChrystal explained that the war “is not a cyclical kinetic campaign based on a set ‘fighting season’; rather it is a continuous yearlong effort.”
And the Taliban have not adhered to a traditional fighting season schedule for nearly a decade. The group has launched attacks on district centers and military bases throughout the country during the winter months for some time now. Its propaganda website, Voice of Jihad, reports on attacks daily; these reports are often substantiated by Afghan news reports.
Disrupting Taliban revenue streams
The US Air Force supports Afghan forces in targeting Taliban material and sources of revenue. Under new rules of engagement, which have been relaxed under the Trump administration, US forces can “strike Taliban targets at will,” not only when Afghan forces are under attack.
In November, the Coalition embraced a new air interdiction approach aimed at disrupting Taliban drug processing facilities in the southwest of the country. Opium production remains a critical revenue stream and the strikes have reportedly denied the Taliban $20 million in direct revenue. “It will be a very long winter for the Taliban,” according to Air Force Brigadier General Lance Bunch.
The United States is also rotating new equipment and personnel to Afghanistan. As anti-Islamic State operations conclude in Iraq and Syria, the US military will be reallocating a range of military hardware including drones, helicopters, ground vehicles, and artillery. Refueling aircraft are already enabling longer and more effective sorties.
Afghan Air Force development
Native air strike capabilities, long nascent in the Afghan force, are finally providing critical close air support to soldiers on the ground. In the past, SIGAR has criticized Afghan force development for its dependence on coalition combat enablers. But Nicholson believes “a tidal wave of Afghan airpower is on the horizon.”
A recent report from the Department of Defense Inspector General praised the progress of Afghan A-29 Super Tucano pilots. In recent operations in Nangarhar province, the Afghan National Army enhanced its ability to synchronize close air support with ground maneuver. Targeting has also improved, thanks to teams of drone operators who identify targets from forward locations.
Although the Afghan air force is improving, American attempts to modernize it may undermine its progress. The United States is sending Afghanistan 119 Blackhawks, which will gradually replace the Russian Mil Mi-17, also known by its NATO reporting name “Hip.”
While Blackhawks are technically superior to Afghanistan’s current Russian helicopters, they may be inappropriate for this context and can undermine Afghan security development. Comprehending the technical manuals for advanced US systems typically requires at least a ninth grade reading level, a nearly impossible target in a country with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. The Russian systems are also well suited to Afghanistan’s terrain. In addition, introducing duplicate capabilities dramatically increases the training, interoperability, and spares/repairs burden on the Afghan force.
Despite improvements, Afghan forces will be challenged to provide a level of close air support comparable to the coalition. The requirement to retrain on new systems will detract from developing core competencies.
Strategy in Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, but will be hard pressed to defeat a resilient Taliban threat. Even with success in Afghanistan, Pakistan remains a spoiler. Afghan forces cannot defeat the Taliban while they retain entrenched support zones across the border and continue to receive the benefits of state sponsorship.