How the American Military Sees Its Campaign in Afghanistan Progressing

The Department of Defense just released its Afghanistan security assessment for the past six months (April-September). It was not released with much fan-fare, but provides an important insight into how the American military sees its campaign in Afghanistan progressing.

What do they find? Below is a summary of some of the key points. The bullet points are exact quotes, with slight edits in some parts for brevity and style. You can read the entire report here (PDF).

The security transition

-Transition remains on track with no demonstrated effort by the insurgency to target the process.

-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and its Afghan partners have made important security gains, reversing violence trends in much of the country (except along the border with Pakistan).

-Overall, year-to-date enemy attacks nationwide were five percent lower than the same period in 2010, and attacks continue to decline.

What you need to know: The DoD is echoing a controversial claim by ISAF that is negated by a UN report claiming violence actually increased this year — by 39%. What constitutes a violent incident and how they are reported seems to be the source of the discrepancy, although there is growing concern among ordinary Afghans about security and the overall direction of Afghanistan.

Afghan security forces: training and development

– The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) continued to make substantial progress during the reporting period, increasing in quantity, quality, and operational effectiveness.

– Both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) remain on track to achieve their respective growth goals for October 2012.

-During this reporting period, both the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior* made significant progress in being able to train, and thereby generate, their own forces.

– The ANSF continues to require enabling support – including air (both transport and close air support), logistics, ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance), and medical – to perform at the level necessary to produce the security effects required for transition.

What you need to know: The last bullet point highlights important but oft-ignored challenges in the development of a competent army. Further, attrition is perhaps the single biggest challenge in growing the army’s ranks: The army and police lose 32% and 23% of its recruits to attrition every year.

Success of COIN

– ANSF-ISAF success in consolidating security gains in previously-cleared areas confirms that the civil-military counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy has significantly degraded the insurgency’s capability, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar.

– ANSF-ISAF operations have widened the gap between the insurgents and the population in several key population centers, limiting insurgent freedom of movement, disrupting safe havens in Afghanistan, and degrading insurgent leadership.

What you need to know: Security in Kandahar and Helmand — once the hotbeds of insurgency in Afghanistan — does seem to have improved, although by many accounts the gains remain tenuous and insurgents are still able to launch high-profile attacks inside the heavily guarded Kandahar city.

Partnered military operations: success and challenges

– Increasingly effective partnered military operations reduced violence and enemy attacks and began the process of expanding ANSF-led security into contested areas.

– The drawdown of U.S. and international forces increases the risk of a shortfall of operational partnering resources, which could reduce ANSF-ISAF operational partnerships and may impede ANSF development.

Insurgent capabilities and challenges

– The disruption of safe havens within Afghanistan, the significant loss of low- and mid-level insurgents, and the disruption of command and control structures have largely stunted the Taliban’s spring and summer campaign, preventing it from achieving a significant strategic effect on security conditions throughout the country.

– The effective interdiction of supplies and the reluctance of some Pakistan-based commanders to return to Afghanistan contributed to the insurgents’ failure to mount the level of operations that they had planned and that ISAF had expected.

– However, the Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and resilient with a significant regenerative capacity.

– As insurgent capacity to contest ANSF-ISAF gains erodes, insurgents have turned to asymmetric efforts, including the increased use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), high-profile attacks, and assassinations of Afghan Government officials.

What you need to know: Taliban have shown a remarkable ability to infiltrate Afghan security forces and even the political establishment to conduct assassinations of high-level security and government officials. And IEDs continue to be the most lethal weapon for the insurgents.

Insurgent safe havens in Pakistan

– The assassinations and attacks directed from the safe havens in Pakistan – especially the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of North Waziristan and the settled area of Chaman – while reflecting the weakness of the Taliban in Afghanistan, have the potential to have a significant political effect in Afghanistan as well as coalition countries.

– With the continued disruption of key insurgent safe havens in Afghanistan, safe havens in Pakistan have become the most important external factor sustaining the insurgency, and continue to present the most significant risk to ISAF’s campaign.

What you need to know: Insurgent safe havens in Pakistan is a hot-button issue with multiple dimensions to it. The US has claimed that Pakistan is actively supporting insurgent groups on its soil that carry attacks in Afghanistan, including assaults on US installations such as its embassy. The Pakistan-based Afghan militant group Haqqani Network has particularly been notorious for their cross-border attacks. For their part, the Pakistanis now acknowledge some contact with these insurgents but mostly deny active support and have resisted US pressure to launch a crackdown on them, citing costs, an over-stretched military and internal political blow-back for taking dictation from the US. Pakistani politicians claim that about 35,000 Pakistanis — including security personnel and ordinary citizens — have lost their lives in military operations and insurgent violence in the past 10 years.

Security in various regions (see map below)

– Insurgent momentum was reversed in Regional Commands North and West, where the insurgency had conducted supporting operations during 2009 and 2010 in an effort to divert ISAF resources and attention away from operations in the south.

– Regional Command Southwest produced the most dramatic security progress during the reporting period.

– The security situation in Regional Command East, however, remains tenuous.  Cross-border incidents have risen.

– In Regional Command South, Afghan and coalition operations consolidated gains from Operation HAMKARI, with a particular focus on the Highway 1 corridor.

– In Regional Command Capital, the ANSF has established a layered defense system in and around Kabul, which has resulted in improved security, and the ANSF continues to respond effectively to threats and attacks.  Nevertheless, Kabul continues to face persistent threats, particularly in the form of high-profile attacks and assassinations.

What you need to know: Afghanistan has been divided into six regional commands, each led by one ISAF member nation, although other member nations can contribute troops, participate in operations and run Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Weak governance and security gains

– Setbacks in governance and development continue to slow the reinforcement of security gains and threaten the legitimacy and long-term viability of the Afghan Government.

The “government in a box” in Helmand province seems to be a good example.

Map of ISAF regional commands in Afghanistan
Map of ISAF regional commands in Afghanistan

* The Ministry of Interior oversees the ANP.

In all, the DoD sees security gains through reversal of insurgent momentum and finds improvements in the capacity of Afghan National Security Forces, but warns about the potentially adverse impact of weak governance and insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan.