Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Is the tide turning in southern Afghanistan ?
The American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War has a new report out that says rather unequivocally that the United States is starting to turn the war around in southern Afghanistan following the surge. Since the deployment of U.S. Marines to Helmand in 2009 and the launch of an offensive there followed by operations in Kandahar, the Taliban has effectively lost all its main safe havens in the region, authors Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan argue.
The Taliban assassination squad in Kandahar has ben dismantled, the insurgents’ ability to acquire, transport and use IED materials and other weapons has been disrupted, and narcotics facilitators and financiers who link the drug market to the insurgency have been aggressively targeted. Above all, NATO and Afghan forces continue to hold all the areas they have cleared in the two provinces, arguably the heart of the insurgency, which is a significant departure from the past.
The war is far from over, large parts of the country remain under insurgent control, and there is limited, if not negligent political progress in the areas re-taken from the Taliban. But the momentum of the insurgency in the south has unquestionably been arrested and probably reversed, the authors say.
Is the ground really shifting, and if so, what’s behind this breakthrough ? Part of the reason is the arrival of 30,000 U.S. troops under the surge which military commanders said was necessary to make a dent in an insurgency at its deadliest since 2001. Another 1,400 Marines have just been ordered , all part of efforts to crush the Taliban so America can make an honourable ext from its longest war yet. But it is not just more troops that General David Petraeus has thrown at the resilient Taliban.
By all accounts, the war has turned ultra-violent as Danger Room blog called it a few months ago, with Petraeus bringing in the full weight of the U.S.. military to bear on the insurgents. U.S. Special Forces stepped up raids, taking out hundreds of militants, surface-to surface missiles were fired to clear the Taliban in Kandahar, and tanks deployed in Helmand to crush them.
Air strikes, the weapon of last choice under previous General Stanley McChrystal’s winning the hearts and minds strategy, rose to their highest level since the invasion in 2011, with 1,000 attacks in one month alone. U.S. generals are again talking of ”shock and awe” to destroy the Taliban, a far cry from the population -centric-strategy pursued earlier with its stress on avoiding civilian casualties. The level of civil casualties in the past few months, though, doesn’t seem to have risen in proportion to the intensity of the war effort, which means operations are much more accurate probably because of better intelligence, more involvement of the ANA, and perhaps foreign forces have just gotten better over a period of time.
But re-establishing control over the south isn’t enough, given this is an insurgency that has spread across the country. Frederick and Kimberly Kagan define five major areas in Afghanistan that the government must hold and the insurgents must contest: Kabul and its immediate environs; the densely-settled areas of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan; Herat; Loya Paktia, along with Ghazni and southern Logar and Wardak; and the inhabited areas east of Kabul around the Jalalabad Bowl and up the Konar River Valley.
ISAF and the ANSF have established reasonably solid security in Herat and Kabul, the authors say. They are maintaining more tenuous security in the Jalalabad Bowl and fighting to push stability up the Konar River Valley. Regaining control of Helmand, Kandahar, southern Uruzgan, and parts of Zabul has been ISAF’s main effort for the past 18 months and has seen much progress. The situation in Loya Paktia, Ghazni, and parts of Logar and Wardak has not yet received adequate attention.
Insurgents retain the ability to move through and attack in Wardak, Logar, Parwan, and Kapisa Provinces, although their ability to stage from those provinces into
Kabul itself has been significantly degraded. South of Kabul, direct-action teams have taken a toll on the Haqqani Network and its affiliates in Greater Paktia, Logar, and southern Wardak Provinces. An American battalion pushed into the Andar District of Ghazni Province (directly south of Ghazni City and a significant insurgent stronghold) to support the Polish Task Force that has responsibility for that province. But Ghazni remains heavily under the insurgency’s influence, as evidenced by the almost total failure to persuade the province’s large Pashtun population to vote in the parliamentary elections in September.
The authors said reports about the hitherto peaceful north slipping into Taliban control were somewhat overblown. The insurgents do not have the momentum and the major inhabited areas in the north and the west —Balkh Province (where Mazar-e Sharif is located), Herat City and Province, the famed Panjshir Valley, Bamian Province, northern Ghazni
and northern Day Kundi Provinces (which, together with Bamian, form the Hazarajat, the area inhabited by the Hazaras)—remain generally stable and do not face an increasing Taliban threat.
From a military standpoint, then, the counter-insurgency is going reasonably well, insofar as it is possible to judge over the winter. Challenges remain in the areas
that have been or are being cleared, and the requirements for the next series of operations are becoming apparent. The theater remains, in our view, inadequately
resourced. The shortfalls, however, are considerably more likely to protract an otherwise successful campaign than they are to make it fail. early U.S. withdrawal
But the gains made so far will be lost if the U.S. were to withdraw prematurely, the report said. Any attempt to seek reconciliation with the Pashtun Taliban runs the risk of igniting an ethnic conflict with Afghanistan’s northern minorities—the Tajiks, Uzbeks,and Hazaras – the kind which destroyed the country in the 1990s before the Taliban take over. The authors say these minority groups are already considering their options in the event of a U.S. withdrawal and are possibly beginning to re-arm themselves in preparation for renewed inter-ethnic conflict.
Worse, other regional powers will likely flex muscles. Afghanistan’s neighbours India, China, Iran, and Russia all have historical links to the northern groups and powerful incentives to support them against a reviving Taliban regime. The authors write :
Ironically, premature or foolish attempts to “reconcile” with senior Taliban leaders could trigger this conflict by persuading the former Northern Alliance and its international partners that the Taliban is, indeed, on its way back to power.
For an analysis on the potential role of the regional powers in any post-war settlement click here.
Frederick and Kimberly Kagan paint a grim scenario for not just Afghanistan but also the whole region, should inter-ethnic conflict of the variety seen in the 1990s resume. Afghans will once again flee the conflict in the hundreds of thousands or millions (some 5 million fled in the 1980s and 1990s). Afghan migrants will destabilize neighboring states once more, badly undermining Pakistani efforts to get their own tribal regions under control and generating a renewed source of tension and conflict with Iran. The fragile Central Asian states will struggle to survive an an influx of refugees.
And above all, a war-torn Afghanistan will once again offer a chance to international terrorist groups to regain their footing there either by moving into lawless areas or by promising threatened Afghans protection.