The Afghan War at the End of 2009

  • Why the War Is at a Crisis Stage
    Jan 4, 2010

    Far too many of the debates over President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan have been conceptual, and have failed to focus on practical plans, schedules for action, needs for resources, and metrics for success. These problems have been further complicated by the fact that the debate over the new strategy took place at a time when NATO/ISAF and the US virtually ceased to provide any meaningful metrics on the course of the war.

    NATO/ISAF and the US were still reporting something approaching “success” in the reports they issued in May 2009, and were still focusing on tactical clashes at a time when UN and ICOS reporting showed that the Afghan government and NATO/ISAF had lost control of 30-80% of the country. This reporting was fundamentally misleading, and made it difficult for many to understand why General McChrystal talked about the war in terms of a crisis, and stressed the need for major increases in troops and resources.

    The Burke Chair has issued a new report that provide more up to date metrics on the war furnished by USCENTCOM and showing the course of the fighting through the end of 2009. This report is entitled “The Afghan War at the End of 2009: Why the War is At a Crisis Stage” and it is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/publication/afghan-war-end-2009

    This report focuses only on the fighting, and not on the full range of issues that must be addressed to win the war. It is essential to win victories at the tactical level, but there are six additional -- and equally critical -- elements of a successful campaign that still need to be addressed in a meaningful enough public form to provide any confidence that the President’s strategy is being effectively implemented:

    • How to restructure and strengthen the national military and PRT elements of ISAF to produce far better unity of effort in a population-oriented campaign. This is only a matter of force and resource levels to a limited degree. It is fart more a question of how to deal with short tours and constant rotations, differing national policies and patterns of action, differing national caveats and priorities, and a lack of allied civil-military coordination at the national level in many allied zones of responsibility.
    • How to restructure the UN, national, and NGO aid effort to shape a mix of “hold, build, and transfer” efforts that can win the war coupled to realistic and achievable efforts at mid and long-term development.  This effort must have goals and objectives  that Afghans actually want rather than those that meet donor goals, that are reasonably well coordinated, that are transparent and resists corruption, and that have  meaningful measures of effectiveness.
    • How to create truly effective, integrated civil-military efforts – at least within the US country effort, and hopefully with key allies as well.
    • How to build Afghan civil capacity to govern, provide prompt justice and an effective rule of law, and provide essential government services at every level with acceptable levels of waste and corruption as seen by the Afghan population.
    • How to build up an effective mix of Afghan security forces that produce regular military, paramilitary, and police forces that provide reasonable levels of effectiveness in the field on a sustained basis and provide the capability to begin transfer of responsibility to the Afghan forces in mid-2011. This effort must be tied to success in building Afghan capacity to govern down to the district and local levels and link a civil and criminal justice system to the development of the Afghan police.
    • How to link these efforts in Afghanistan to a very different – but directly related – campaign in Pakistan that is driven by the perceptions and actions of a deeply divided Pakistan that is an “ally” only to the extent that its elite perceives given sets of actions to be to its own advantage. This requires strategy, planning, and action to at least coordinate the NATO/ISAF effort in Afghanistan, and the US/allied effort in Pakistan, and progress in the war to be measured in net assessment terms.

    Nevertheless, the current analysis shows that the Afghan War had truly reached a crisis stage by the time President Obama gave his first speech on Afghan strategy in the spring of 2009. The NATO/ISAF and US may have continued to “win” virtually every tactical clash, but in ways that lost much of the country. They also fought in ways that inflicted serious civilian casualties and collateral damage, and in ways that provided any lasting security for the Afghan population.

    A broader set of metrics now being developed as part of a more comprehensive report on the conflict shows that this is only part of the story. The US failed to focus on the needs and security of the Afghan people. It also failed to properly resource the war and to provide effective leadership. More broadly, the Afghan government, and outside aid efforts, failed to meet the basic needs of the Afghan people, or even establish a meaningful presence in many areas. Far too few resources were provided to create effective Afghan security forces, and they were treated more as adjuncts to NATO/ISAF than true partners.

    The end result was that the US and its allies won largely meaningless tactical clashes while steadily losing the country and the people. In contrast, the Taliban and other insurgents were winning the war they fought to dominate the population and defeat the US and its allies through a war of political attrition.

    Telling Half Truths About A Critical Rise in the Intensity of the Fighting

    The metrics in this report show that NATO/ISAF continued to report as many positive indicators as negative indicators in its summary maps through April 2009. It reported that there was a 64% increase in insurgent attacks between January and May 2009, but that 80% of these occurred in only 13% (47) of Afghanistan’s 364 districts. It also reported that civilian deaths (evidently only counting direct major Taliban attacks) were down 44% and kidnappings down 17%, and that 35% of Afghans felt security was better than six months ago versus 28% when polled six months earlier. Other NATO/ISAF data showed significant Taliban/insurgent activity in only three provinces – Helmand, Kandahar, and Khost. (p. 6)

    The NATO/ISAF data on attack trends were mixed through May 2009, although significant rises were reported in a number of areas. They also still reflected a focus on kinetics and tactical events, rather than control of the population and territory, with most attacks occurring in the south and the east, and little threat in the capital, north and west. (Pp. 7-9)

    Losing the Afghan People

    The result was a pattern of fighting that inflicted serious civilian casualties and collateral damage, and steadily lost the support of the Afghan people because NATO/ISAF, Afghan forces, and the US steadily lost control over more and more of afghan territory and more and more of the Afghan people. NATO/ISAF data on civilian casualties issued in the spring showed a sharp difference between NATO/ISAF and much higher UN estimates (p. 12). These also showed that NATO/ISAF estimated that it was inflicting 20-25% of all casualties while providing steadily less security for the Afghans. (p. 13).

    Polling data showed that Afghans saw a major rise in the Taliban presence, and still saw it as by far the most serious threat (p. 14). At the same time, the way the US and NATO/ISAF fought exposed them to so much violence without lasting security, that felt they experienced as much violence from NATO/ISAF as from the Taliban (p. 15). This reinforced a steady downward trend in the still great support for NATO (p. 16) and the US (p. 17), as well as an increase in unfavorable attitudes towards the Afghan police and government. These trends were only offset by public support for the Afghan Army (p. 18).

    The War’s Metrics at End 2009: Obama, McChrystal, Eikenberry and the New Realism

    The period since President Obama first speech and the end of 2009 has reflected a far more realistic approach to both the growth scale of the war, and the importance of influence and control over the population versus tactical battles and “kinetics.” NATO/ISAF and USCENTCOM have issued far more realistic estimates of the areas where fighting took place in 2007, 2008, and 2009. (pp. 24-25).
    While USCENTCOM is still reporting that 71% of all attacks took place in 10% of Afghanistan’s districts, its maps now show the fully range of Taliban activity and just how much of the country the Taliban and insurgents operate in. Senior officers, like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, have stated that the Taliban and insurgents have a major influence or control over one third of the districts in the country – a conclusion supported by the USCENTCOM map on pages 26-27.

    Senior US officers like Major General Flynn have acknowledged that Taliban now have what "a full-fledged insurgency" and shadow governors in 33 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, including those in the north, and that the Taliban now has a significant presence in northern provinces like  Baghlan, Kunduz and Taqhar. This compares with 11 provinces in 2005, 20 in 2006, 28 in 2007, and 31 in 2008.

    The seriousness of the fighting is shown in Data on the patterns in ANSF and US/ISAF casualties in page 29), and USCENTCOM and NATO/ISAF provide far better data are provided on the rise in weekly security incidents (pp. 30) and IED attacks (pp. 31-24) during. Data on high profile explosions are now provided in detail (p. 35), along with better data on the sharp variations in indirect fire attacks (p. 36), and a major rise in small arms attacks (p. 37). Information is also now available on the number of caches found and cleared – a trend that is positive but does not match the rise in relevant attacks. (p. 38)

    Far more detail has been made available on the patterns in attack by regional command (pp. 39-43). These latter data now reflect timeframes that clearly show the steady rise in the intensity in the fighting in each area during 2009. Along with the maps described earlier, they show why the current fighting is being assessed as one where the Taliban and insurgents have pushed the war to the crisis stage.

    • The data on the patterns in security incidents in the Kabul regional command reflect relative low levels of activity, but also show the continuing ability of insurgents to conduct major attacks when this offers significant political advantages.
    • Similar data on RC East show the rising intensity of the conflict between 2007 and 2009 – with a roughly 33% rise between 2008 and 2009, as well as a similar ability to suddenly raise the patterns of attack in the summer of 2009.

    Along with the maps described earlier, they show why the current fighting is being assessed as one where the Afghan government and NATO/ISAF have lost control over much of the country, and the Taliban and insurgents have pushed the war to the crisis stage.

    • The data on the patterns in security incidents in the Kabul regional command reflect relative low levels of activity, but also show the continuing ability of insurgents to conduct major attacks when this offers significant political advantages.
    • Similar data on RC East show the rising intensity of the conflict between 2007 and 2009 – with a roughly 33% rise between 2008 and 2009, as well as a similar ability to suddenly raise the patterns of attack in the summer of 2009.
    • The data on RC South also show the rising intensity of the conflict between 2007 and 2009 – with nearly 100% rise between 2008 and 2009 – driven in part by the ISAF offensive in Helmand and other parts of the south. Again, the insurgents show the ability to suddenly raise the patterns of attack in the summer of 2009.
    • The data on RC West still show low levels of incidents relative to RC East and RC South, but again show a major rise in 2009 (around 70%), and the ability to suddenly raise the patterns of attack in the summer of 2009.
    • The data on RC North are similar to those on RC West. They show low levels of incidents relative to RC East and RC South, but again show a major rise in 2009 (around 70%), and the ability to suddenly raise the patterns of attack in the summer of 2009.

    This same realism applies to improved assessments of the insurgent threat. NATO/ISAF has issued far more realistic assessments of the links between the fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how the growing strength and sophistication of the Taliban and other insurgent threats cuts across the border areas. Pages 48 and 47 show how the threat has grown in size and complexity between 2007 and the end of 2009, where it is based in Pakistan, and how its operating areas and areas of influence have expanded.

    US experts have summarize the differences between insurgent groups (p. 49.) The Director of Intelligence for ISAF has issued an unclassified briefing that describes both the steady rise in the intensity of insurgent activity and the expansion of insurgent networks and influence. This briefing show insurgents plan to further expand their influence and areas of operations in spite of the rise in NATO/ISAF forces, that the Taliban are adapting to try to win more popular support, and that expelling NATO/ISAF forces remains a major overarching objective. (pp. 49-50).

    It notes that the Taliban has adopted new organizational structures to achieve its objectives (p. 51-52), and that the insurgency can sustain itself indefinitely unless defeated. (p. 53).  It also notes that detainees and insurgent fighters perceive themselves as successful, and expect to again become the government with time – as well as see the current government as corrupt and ineffective, aid efforts as a failure, the ANP as corrupt, and the US as a nation that seek a permanent presence in Afghanistan. (p. 54).

    The briefing makes it clear that the Taliban is sophisticated enough to think and act in strategic terms and not simply on the basis of ideological conviction or tactical opportunism. (p. 55-56). This does not mean that the insurgency does not have critical weaknesses as well as important strengths (p. 56), but Pakistan provides another source of challenges (p. 58-61) and US experts estimate that the insurgents are currently confident and feel they winning a war of political attrition. The war is still winnable, but only if the US fully executes major changes in strategy. (p. 62)

    This is a key point. The grim story told in the graphics in this analysis does not reflect the impact of any solid strength or popularity on the part of the Taliban or other insurgents. A future analysis will show that is the product of some eight years of failing to provide the proper military resources, of failing to deal with Afghan power brokers and corruption, and of focusing aid efforts focused far more on donor goals and mid to long term development than the realities of a steadily intensifying war. The Taliban have reached their present level of success largely through strategic neglect that created a virtual power vacuum in much of the country.

    Accordingly, none of these data indicate that the war is lost. The strategy President Obama has set forth in broad terms can still win if the Afghan government and Afghan forces become more effective, if NATO/ISAF national contingents provide more unity of effort, if aid donors focus on the fact that development cannot succeed unless the Afghan people see real progress where they live in the near future, and if the United States shows strategic patience and finally provides the resources necessary to win.