Afghan and Coalition forces prepare for 2018 offensive against the Taliban

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.

Realistic outlook

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Alexandra Gutowski is a military affairs analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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6 Comments

  • anan says:

    The ANSF appears to have regained a slight about the territory over the past six months, especially in Kunduz and Helmand.

    The ANSF need the following;
    1) Sharply increasing the number of officer/NCO training seats to 80,000 with the international community contributing many additional trainers to advise and assist
    2) Increasing the length of basic recruits (S1 noncommissioned) to 20 weeeks. To train 8,000 a month for 20 weeks would require 40,000 training seats.
    3) 1000-2000 used D-30s donated by China, Russia and India. And a commitment by these countries to take over the entire D-30 training, maintenance, repair and upgrade mission; much of which would be outside Afghanistan. [some additional officer/NCO training seats would be used for this]
    4) Over 60 used Mi17 and Mi35 donated by China, Russia and India. And a commitment by these countries to take over the entire Mi-17, Mi35 training, maintenance, repair and upgrade mission; much of which would be outside Afghanistan [some additional officer/NCO training seats would be used for this]
    5) The US donating many more C-130s, and beginning a robust program the transition all flight, operations, maintenance, repair and upgrade for C-130s to the AAF. [This hasn’t begun yet] [some additional officer/NCO training seats would be used for this]
    6) The US increasing the number of A-29 attack aircraft in the AAF to over 60, and beginning a robust program the transition all flight, operations, maintenance, repair and upgrade for C-130s to the AAF. [Only recently begun] [some additional officer/NCO training seats would be used for this]
    7) Beginning a robust program the transition all flight, operations, maintenance, repair and upgrade for Sikorsky UH-60 and MD500 Defender to the AAF [only recently begun] [some additional officer/NCO training seats would be used for this]
    8) Provide over 300 combat embedded advisory teams to the ANA, ANASOF, ANCOP, ABP and ANP.

    Collectively these actions would make the long term victory of the ANSF inevitable, causing the Taliban and Pakistan to negotiate in good faith to obtain the best possible deal from their perspective in negotiations.

  • James says:

    I say it again and again. Go after the opium trade, CIA. Just follow the opium trail. I believe that everything you’d ever need to know about the the Taliban and then some will be contained therein.

    If done properly, I believe it will yield an intelligence bonanza. In fact, I predict it would also yield major intel on the inner-workings of AQ main. So, they want to launch a counter-offensive? Why not go after the major opium production points in the country? This would at the very least put the Taliban on the defensive.

  • mast says:

    I agree with the assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, except that the word Taliban be replaced, throughout the document, with Pakistan.

  • Richard Loewe says:

    “Strategy in Afghanistan is moving in the right direction”, can you explain what the direction is? Direction is normally towards a target. Is the target that Afghanistan will be free of Taliban realistic? Is the target that Afghanistan will be a democratic country anytime in the next hundred years realistic? My answer to all these questions is no. I can see a strategy for Afghans and for the US: for Afghans it is to muddle through without a target. For the US I have a very clear desirable target: leave overnight and spend not one more penny and one more life on creating the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

    As much as I admire your great analyses I am not sure about your moral clarity. Anyone who argues for bleeding for islam in Afghanistan is responsible for the misery of US citizens. Only Afghans are responsible for Afghans’ misery. And no: I don’t expect you to publish this. I just think you are good guys and you are led astray morally by your desire to influence the government.

  • irebukeu says:

    This nation building and military intervention thingy isn’t working out at all, I’d say. Working out great for the Afghans! Look at all the construction in Kabul since 2004.
    Any American corporations investing money in the future of Afghanistan? No. What company would risk their money there? What fool would buy stock in that? We seem perfectly willing to squander our soldiers, our own children lives, rather than accept the truth and leave.
    The price is our veracity, Truthiness is just how things are going to be. We had better get used to bull sheets and lies from the comedy team at Resolute support.
    Put an asterisk by everything we say we will do.
    Even the name Resolute Support* sounds like total hyperbole.

  • Dennis says:

    My,..my..my! Such disalutionist attitudes! To win a war of any type requires the country who wants “victory”.to actually go after it. America and its patrons are a breed of people who dont falter due to an enemy who relentlessly attacks innocent civilians! Just the fact that they have to slaughter innocents (children, children, old people, anyone who would not raise a rifle in response due to infirmity) shows they have no moral decency nor do they possess the ability to fight! Obviously they cannot stand toe to toe with they re supposed enemy. How can they claim any victory when they blow up schoolgirls on their way to class? God forbid they give women any say, becouse they would tell how small the bastards dicks are!
    In conclusion, it’s not how long we’re fighting….it’s who else we MUST FIGHT…to conclude this situation. We all know who THAT is. PAKISTANO. FOR LACK OF A BETTER WORD. May our brother’s in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and anyone who helps, bring this to a much unfortunate but timely end. AQAP….your days are not just numbered,..but the outcome will be surprisingly familiar to you…die in hell! Where is that califate now? Finding a good place to rest your “head”?…like on your chest? Or maybe the last thing you see? Oh how lofty your ideological feelings were? When you told us to bring the best we could,…we did…..you lost miserably! Did you honestly believe you could even make our stock market bounce?? We crush better people than you on a daily basis in this country,..for no reason than to prove to scumbags like you that WE CAN. Try laughing that off!

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