Afghan Commandoes

As Prepared: I want to share my assessment with you, informed by insights that came from a field trip to Kabul last month.

The center piece of the trip was watching President Karzai and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen announce ‘Milestone 13’, the beginning of the final stage of Afghan transition. The event was entirely stage managed by the Afghan authorities. It was held in the centre of the Kaia military complex, where an impressive amount of construction is taking place to house the new Afghan officer’s academy, a British mentored officer leadership school. The Afghan Army threw an outer cordon around the site and multiple layers of close security were provided by the Presidential security forces. But this was blind-sided by the way the Taliban opened their office in Qatar as a full-fledged embassy. This not only disrupted the peace process, but also deeply unsettled many Afghans

Today, I’ll explore the continuing transition of security from NATO to Afghan leadership by December 31 2014. The Afghan endgame will be increasingly influenced by the political transition which will result from the 2014 Afghan presidential election. I will also cover the military factors that affect the chances of the Afghan government and the Taliban concluding a peace deal and the key factors affecting Afghan security from 2015 onwards.

NATO and the Afghan government’s shared military strategic objectives are for Afghans to assume lead for security and NATO to withdraw from combat operation by the end of 2014. This transition strategy does not require the insurgency to be eliminated, simply reduced to such a level that it no longer poses an existential threat to the state and can be contained by Afghan forces. So they have to improve security; grow the Afghan forces, develop the capacity of the Afghan state, reduce corruption and persuade ‘reconcilable’ insurgents to lay down their arms, all in time to meet the objective of the Afghan authorities assuming the lead for security across the country by the end of 2014.

The Afghan insurgent groups have shared strategic objectives: expulsion of ISAF forces; the overthrow of the current Afghan government; and, for some groups, restoration of a Salafist Islamic regime. They want to dominate the Afghan people by controlling populated areas to use as bases and sources of recruits and income. Assassination and intimidation neutralize government institutions and traditional tribal and religious leadership, allowing imposition of insurgent governance. And mounting spectacular attacks in Kabul seeks to shift the narrative in their favor.

In 2012 the Taliban declared a counter-offensive to push back ISAF and Afghan forces. This failed and the UN reported a 30% decrease in security incidents over the year. Insurgent attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) fell by 20%. The majority of insurgent attacks were on the edges of territory under Afghan government control, some 80% of attacks occurring in 20% of Afghan districts. As a direct result of the ANSF taking the lead in many areas, ANA casualties doubled in 2012 to 1,056. Whilst 42% of the 315 NATO fatalities were from IEDs, over 80% of ANA fatalities were caused in this way, stark demonstration of their lower level of counter-IED capability.

Kabul was the location of only 1% of security incidents in the country in 2012. Concerted efforts by the Haqqani Network, to launch spectacular attacks on the capital were successfully prevented by Afghan forces layered defences between April and December 2012. But occasional spectacular suicide attacks on government buildings and security bases in Kabul and elsewhere in 2013 demonstrate the insurgents' continuing ability to launch well-planned attacks. These attacks were quickly contained the Afghan police and counter-attacked by Afghan commandos, causing little disruption, but eroding the US and NATO strategic narratives.

NATO displayed ever increasing confidence in the Afghan National Directorate of Security, the country’s intelligence service, as well as army and police special forces.

I was impressed by what I saw of the Afghan Army’s special operations division and the police special forces. Although the do not appear to have taken over the leadership of the intelligence led attack of insurgent networks that is executed by Afghan and NATO special forces. This still appears also to make considerable use of US and NATO intelligence and various types of air power.

The additional 33,000 US ‘surge’ troops deployed in 2010 withdrew by October 2012, leaving 68,000 US troops alongside 32,000 troops from other nations. The Afghan Army took an increasing lead for security with 21 of 26 Afghan brigades operating independently of ISAF, or with ISAF support limited to advisors. In many areas there have been significant reductions in NATO footprint, for example British bases in Helmand province reducing from 80 in April 2012 to 12 in April 2013 and their current force of 8,000 will drop to 5,000 by the end of the year.

The June 2013 ‘Milestone 13 announcement’ saw all Afghan provinces and districts in security transition and military leadership of the campaign move from the NATO Joint Command in its vast complex at Kabul airport to the General Karimi, the Afghan Chief of the General Staff, who clearly relishes the challenge. ISAF is reducing its number of mentoring teams, reflecting greater confidence in Afghan capabilities. For example, the NATO mentors to the Afghan Army special operations division have reduced their contact time with the divisional staff from eight hours a day to one or two hours a day. The Afghan forces are now leading counter-insurgency and policing operations in the great majority of the country. This includes holding those areas that were cleared of insurgents during the surge by providing the barriers between government controlled areas and the Taliban.

The Taliban have announced another offensive this year. Although ISAF has ceased to report statistics, other than their own fatalities, the UN assesses that there has been a 10% increase in security incidents since the same quarter last year, a 25% increase in civilian casualties in the same period, including an 88% increase in assassinations of government officials and supporters. But UN figures suggest that only 4% of attacks are on ISAF as opposed to Afghan targets.

There have been determined efforts to wrest back control of outlying areas by assembling large numbers of fighters to attack outlying ANSF posts, some of which have been overrun. So far these have been successfully counter-attacked by the ANSF, usually operating with little or no NATO ground troops. But this has seen heavy fighting and correspondingly heavy ANSF casualties. For example around Sangin in Helmand. The Taliban has become more active in western and northern areas.

There are credible reports that ANSF deaths have at times reached 100 a week and that up to a thousand members of the ANSF were killed in the first half of the year. For example, the middle week in June whilst thirteen NATO troops were killed, 93 Afghan soldiers and police died in action. This is double the level weekly fatalities suffered by the Afghan forces at the peak of last year’s fighting season. These losses reflect in part a lower level of counter IED capability and skill in the Afghan forces.

Figures vary, but the ANSF remains something about 5% short of a planned strength of 350,000. This is due to attrition within the army, border police and civil order police exceeding targets. The ANSF still relies on NATO for artillery and air strikes, airborne intelligence gathering, and for help in getting logistic and administrative systems working properly. So, as planned, NATO’s training mission is concentrating on building logistic and support capabilities including medical, counter-IED, fire support and intelligence. All of this is hampered by illiteracy and innumeracy within their ranks resulting in a lack of skilled technicians and administrators, as well as corruption.

ISAF is focusing its capability development on the ANSF’s logistics, artillery and counter IED capabilities. As well as its support to key areas of the Ministries of Defence and the Interior. Its counter-corruption efforts have been refocused from whole Afghan public sector to just the ANSF.

‘Insider’ or ‘green-on-blue’ attacks carried out by Afghan troops and police greatly increased in autumn 2012. Although attacks were invariably claimed by the Taliban, analysis by the Pentagon suggested that only 11% were the result of Taliban infiltration, with the rest caused by grievances. NATO and the Afghan authorities announced a series of initiatives aimed at improving security against Taliban infiltration, including improved vetting and counter-intelligence. This included NATO ‘guardian angels’ troops providing armed guards for trainers and mentors. The level of insider attacks has greatly reduced in 2013, but will probably not cease until all NATO withdraws. And any perception that the US or NATO were not prepared to provide in extremis support to Afghan forces would greatly increase the chances of insider attacks.

So half way through the 2013 fighting season, the ANSF seem to be ‘holding the ring’ against the insurgents, and doing so with far less NATO support on the ground than in previous years. If they can continue to do so for the rest of 2013, they will grow in capability and confidence. An important ‘known unknown’ will be the extent to which the Taliban’s narrative that they are fighting to expel infidels from Afghanistan will retain its credibility as US and NATO troops increasingly withdraw from combat operations and tactical mentoring.

I assess that the Afghan Army are probably strong enough to continue to hold the main cities and the key rural areas that were largely cleared of insurgents during the surge. And NATO’s efforts to continue to build supporting and technical capability can be expected to continue to improve these areas over the next year.

But ISAF commander General Joseph Dunford assessed that NATO is ‘lagging some years in developing the police’. And complementary improvements in the whole machinery of justice, including courts, lawyers and prisons lags further behind. So I question whether there will be sufficient improvement in Afghan governance and a reduction in corruption to neutralise root causes of the insurgency. According to the UN: ‘little has changed in the underlying dynamics to mitigate a deep-seated cycle of conflict. Furthermore, a diminished international presence will have a significant financial impact in many areas that, at least in the short term, may even exacerbate predatory behaviour, with a reduced flow of money encouraging criminality.'

The insurgents can be expected to attempt to continue to challenge Afghan forces as the latter reach full strength and improve their capabilities. The Afghan Forces, particularly the Army and the NDS will continue to improve in capability and the diminishing presence of foreign troops will probably undermine the narrative behind the insurgency and reduce opportunities for insider attacks. My assessment that between now and 2015 the ANSF will have the ability to continue to hold those areas cleared and held during the surge still holds, a situation much like today – a security patchwork with the ANSF suppressing much insurgent activity in many areas, principally the main cities and the key population areas that were cleared during the surge. Elsewhere – for example in border areas of eastern Afghanistan – the insurgency is likely to have a residual presence.

It is likely that the ANSF, of itself will not rapidly split apart, unless centrifugal forces are such that the country would come apart anyway.

Despite efforts to promote security co-operation, there is considerable friction between Kabul and Islamabad, not least over cross border shelling and check point locations. There have been small armed clashes with resulting casualties.

Karzai has been stoking anti-Pakistan feeling at every opportunity and many Afghans buy into the narrative. Many old Kabul hands whose judgment I value assessed this was at an all-time high. I worry that blaming the insurgency on Islamabad and ISI provides an excuse for Afghan officials and politicians to ignore the many roots the insurgency has in Afghan soil and putting less effort into tackling them.

Amongst ISAF and international officials, the feeling was that the election had to be seen as a significant improvement on 2009. An election that was botched or overtly stolen, would seriously damage the international community’s confidence and willingness to commit money or military personnel after 2014. But not all were confident that enough Afghan politicians understood this. Most were confident that Karzai would stand down, although a significant minority acknowledged that the current conspiracy theory that Karzai had an option to engineer a border crisis with Pakistan and allow the Taliban to take over some districts, all to provide a pretext for a ‘state of emergency’ and suspending the election, was a plausible scenario.

Election planning and preparations are under way, but the rules of the game and leveling of the playing field have yet to be agreed, with delays to passage of a necessary election law. Afghan democracy activists see potential opportunities for ballot stuffing, particularly in less secure districts. As important is the lack of declared credible candidates.

There is also the ever present specter of a return of warlords’ militias. In November 2012, the energy minister, Ismail Khan, a former mujahedeen commander and power broker in Herat, called on the Afghan people to ‘step forward, take arms and defend the country’ in places where the security forces could not guarantee security. And more recently thugs working for General Dostum attacked the residence of provincial governor in the north, although without removing him. This threat won’t go away, but w its manifestation will depend on the degree to which both the country and the ANA hold together.

For the last couple of years both the US and President Karzai have indicated a willingness to talk to the Taliban. The US and the Afghan governments insisting that the Taliban forsake any links with Al Qaida, forswear violence and respect the Afghan constitution, whilst the Taliban’s public position was of refusal to acknowledge President Karzai’s legitimacy, as well as demanding all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.

There was extensive private diplomacy to enable Taliban would open an office in Qatar, which would provide a point of contact for negotiations with the US and Afghan governments. President Karzai and the Afghan high Peace Council had accepted this. Indeed at last month’s press conference Karzai stated that members of the Taliban who were Afghan citizens would be welcome to vote in next year’s election. Both Karzai and the Afghan High peace council insisted that any substantial peace talks had to take place in Afghanistan. And discrete diplomatic choreography had reassured them that this would not be a Taliban embassy, merely an ‘office’.

So when the ‘office’ was opened with the raising of the Taliban’s flag and a proclamation that it was an embassy, the Afghan media and all the Afghan citizens we met quickly stepped behind President Karzai’s voluble protests. This was driven by a sense that the reassurances that the US had offered the Afghan government had been valueless, and by apprehension that the Taliban’s next step would be to grab some Afghan territory, which if they could not be evicted by the ANSF, would then be used as a bargaining chip. And people argued that having driven the insurgents away from most of Afghanistan’s population, the Afghan government should not be negotiating with the Taliban as equals.

In the short term it is difficult to see common ground between Karzai and insurgent negotiators. And in Kabul I got a feeling US and NATO countries entreaties to the Afghan government are coming close to be seen by many Afghan’s as hectoring born of political desperation for a clean end to the war.

But, there is a chance that after the 2014 elections the prospects for peace will improve. A new president may be able to open a dialogue. There will have been a significant reduction in US and NATO combat troops, potentially eroding part of the Taliban’s legitimacy. If the ANSF continue to hold against the insurgents, these factors may create new opportunities for negotiation

Assuming that there is no grand reconciliation or peace deal, what are the plans and factors that affect Afghan security from 2015 and beyond?

After last year’s agreement that Afghans would assume the lead for special operations and would take over the US prison and detainees at Bagram, a US/Afghan strategic partnership was signed and the US designated Afghanistan a major non-NATO ally. And international pledges of military, development and financial assistance after 2015 are designed to reassure Afghans that the country would continue to receive international support after 2014.

President Obama has explained that the US wishes to conduct ‘two long-term tasks, which will be very specific and very narrow -- first, training and assisting Afghan forces and, second, targeting counterterrorism missions -- targeted counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda and its affiliates’. US media reports have suggested that whilst the US military favors up to 20,000 US and NATO troops remaining, the White House envisages a smaller footprint. NATO intends that ISAF will be replaced by a new non-combat mission, Operation Resolute Support, focused on training advising and assisting the Afghans. Germany and Italy have declared significant commitments to this.

A complicating military factor is that the Afghan Air Force is unlikely to achieve full capability before 2018. The problems are a shortage of sufficient educated and literate personnel to fill the necessary technical and engineering posts, as well as corruption. The official ISAF line is that the Afghan ground forces will have to adapt by ‘learning to fight differently’. Efforts to beef up the Afghan Army’s firepower have been accelerated. But many of the senior ISAF and Afghan officers that I spoke to confessed to great anxiety that without in extremis close air support after 2015, isolated Afghan units might sooner or later get overwhelmed by the Taliban. Afghan commanders I spoke to unequivocal that external air strikes would be needed until 2018 when the Afghan Air Force is fully operational.

Washington and Kabul are negotiating an Afghan/US bilateral security agreement to apply after January 2015. A similar agreement is needed for any NATO presence. So the Afghan government has a veto – a potential refusal to grant legal immunity to US and NATO military personnel. Some remarks by President Karzai have struck a conciliatory tone on this. He has suggested that granting immunity might have to be approved by a Loya Jirga. This would confer legitimacy.

But Karzai’s recent suspension of negotiations with the US and reporting in yesterday’s New York Times that Obama is considering a ‘zero option’ shows that either side could walk away, although this would threaten reversal of the last decade’s gains and re-emergence of significant ungoverned space, thus deconstructing President Obama’s narrative to have ended the war ‘responsibly’, something that might play to his party’s disadvantage in the 2016 US election cycle. And even if a US/Afghan agreement is agreed by Karzai, his successor will have to endorse the pact.

Of course the next 21 months still offer plenty of opportunities for ISAF and the Afghans to unintentionally antagonise each other – including through Afghan insider attacks, ISAF accidentally inflicting civilian casualties and friction between governments

General Dunford, the ISAF commander says that the Centre of Gravity is confidence. I agree. I see four key factors that are all interdependent:

  • The International Community’s confidence that money donated to Afghanistan is not wasted. This can only be achieved if the 2014 election is seen to be more legitimate than in 2009 and if progress is made on the transparency and accountability that was demanded at Tokyo.
  • The ANSF’s confidence in their own capabilities and that NATO will come to their aid in extremis. This is likely to continue to apply after December 2014 until the Afghan Air Force achieves full capability in 2018.
  • And the ANSF, Afghan Government’s and Afghan people’s confidence that Afghanistan will not be abandoned by the outside world after 2014.
  • And if peace is to have a chance, both the Afghan government and Taliban will need the confidence that they can negotiate privately and that the gap between their positions has narrowed sufficiently that they have some common ground on which to do deals. The chance of this happening could increase after the 2014 Afghan election. 

Listen to the discussion: 

Brigadier (Retd) Ben Barry is a former British Army officer. The author of A Cold War; British Operations in Bosnia, his previous appointment was to analyse the lessons of British Army operations in Iraq.

This meeting was chaired by Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the IISS. It took  place in the Council Room at Arundel House, 13–15 Arundel Street, Temple Place, London WC2R 3DX.

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Event details

Discussion Meeting
Brigadier (Retd) Ben Barry,
Senior Fellow Land Warfare, IISS
Arundel House, London
Thursday 11 July 2013