The overall commander on the ground in Afghanistan is saying one thing on the lack of overall progress of the war, while the commander-in-chief and Pentagon officials trumpet a “more optimistic message”. But the tactical and operational commanders on the ground are telling the blunt truth on the situation. Grunts don’t like mixed messages, which is what they are getting. Grunts especially don’t like when senior commanders hedge when they say, “no commander ever is going to come out and say, I’m confident that we can do this…I don’t think there are any sure things in this kind of endeavor”, which is what General Petraeus told ABC News this week. What grunts do appreciate is when tactical and operational commanders are forthright, like Major General John Campbell who realizes the futility of their “endeavors”. He is candid when he states that while his troops were making progress, “a lot of the reason we get attacked is because we’re up here.” “People don’t want us up there, but they don’t want the Taliban either,” he said. “They want to be left alone.” He added that the region was vast and that his forces could not be everywhere. “We can’t be in every single valley; I mean there’s thousands of them out there, we just can’t do it,” he said.
In the din and bustle of the daily news stream that flows out of Afghanistan, we cannot forget that there is an American missing in action, and hopefully this recent and new video of Specialist Bowe Bergdahl is proof that he remains a Taliban captive.
Afghanistan war: why IEDs are taking a mounting toll
Why are we are losing the IED fight in Afghanistan? Basically, very little to no local population support. When you read the Christian Science Monitor report, keep in mind that in a July USA Today interview Lieutenant General Oates, Director of JIEDDO informed that the public that by the end of this year there will be a drop in IED’s.
A drop. That’s right, a drop by the end of December 2010. Well actually, there has been a categorical increase. Oates blames an Taliban surge. Simply clueless. Period. And regardless of the rudimentary technology and methods employed, IED’s remain the number one killer on the battlefield. I wonder if IED data will be used as a metric to gauge the progress of the war during the ongoing Afghanistan war strategy review.
Troops Re-doubling Advise, Assist Efforts in Iraq
Lest we forget the grind continues in Iraq for our 50,000 troops still deployed. Here is an update on the ongoing plan to “assist and advise” while troops transition to an Iraqi and State Department lead. Oh, and morale remains “high”.
The narrative is set for the Administrations pending Afghanistan Policy Review slated for this December – who to believe whether sufficient progress is currently being made, the lack of viable options to address the ongoing threat that emanates from Pakistan’s tribal regions, and how soon will Karzai’s government be capable of providing security on its own? The following news reports provide background on this Gordian Knot.
- The recent reports circulating in Washington’s national security establishment about the Afghan battleground of Marja show glimmerings of progress: bazaars are open, some 1,000 children are in school, and a new (and only) restaurant even serves goat curry and kebabs. In Kandahar, NATO officials say that American and Afghan forces continue to rout the Taliban. In new statistics offered by American commanders in Kabul, Special Operations units have killed 339 midlevel Taliban commanders and 949 of the group’s foot soldiers in the past three months alone. At the Pentagon, the draft of a war assessment to be submitted to Congress this month cites a shift in momentum in some areas of the country away from the insurgency.
- But as a new White House review of President Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan gets under way, the rosy signs have opened an intense debate at the Defense Department, the White House, the State Department and the intelligence agencies over what they really mean. Are they indications of future success, are they fleeting and not replicable, or are they evidence that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top United States and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is simply more masterful than his predecessor at shaping opinion?
- The debate centers on the resiliency of the Taliban and the extent to which the group can rebuild from the hammering it is taking. Most involved say that there are positive trends for the Americans, but that the real answer will not be clear until a new fighting season begins as the weather warms next year. “The fundamental question is how deep is their bench,” said Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. official and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who led last year’s extended White House review of Afghan strategy that resulted in Mr. Obama’s ordering 30,000 additional United States forces to the country. “By next summer we should have a pretty good idea. If they’re having trouble replacing people that we’re killing on the battlefield, then we’re on the right track. But if by next summer they’re producing new cadres that are on the same order of quality, then we’re in deep trouble.”
- A former C.I.A. official with longtime experience in Afghanistan said that the recent statements about American progress in Afghanistan reminded him of what was sometimes written about the Russians before they began withdrawing from Afghanistan in defeat in 1988, when they had been at war there for nearly 10 years. “I don’t find many people I talk to who really believe any of this,” he said. The military’s more positive view is hardly monolithic; doubts also exist within its ranks. The Defense Department’s coming war assessment says that violence once again increased in Afghanistan in the past year, in large part because of the aggressive American military operations in the south, while Pentagon officials readily acknowledge that security has deteriorated in previously quiet areas of the north.
- “It is certainly true that Petraeus is attempting to shape public opinion ahead of the December review,” said an administration official who is supportive of the general. “He is the most skilled public relations official in the business, and he’s trying to narrow the president’s options.” But national security officials across Washington are already saying that the December review will only tweak the policy, not change the strategy, and that the real assessment will come in July 2011, the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal of American troops. “The bidding is still out,” the White House official said.
- If the data in December proves that the most effective means of reducing the threat has been through targeted Counter-terrorism (CT) operations versus Counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, then “a shift of strategy” to recalibrate CT with more resources and effort should be considered – ultimately reducing the threat through increased CT will provide more “security” to the populace which COIN strives for.
- COIN will naturally continue but the focus should be on those areas where gains can be marginally made and be “tweaked” so that the Administration can “off-ramp” forces as scheduled in July 2011. The “tweaking” in December 2010 should be made to support CT, not vice versa, which reports indicate is the objective.
- Waiting until July 2011 to determine whether COIN is the proper strategy and then make a decision then may be too late to create the conditions for Afghan Security Forces to take the lead.
U.S. concerns grow as militants move bases along Pakistan border
- The U.S. has been trying to stamp out the Haqqani network, which attacks coalition forces in Afghanistan from its base in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region. Now its fighters, fleeing drone strikes, are setting up in the highlands of Kurram. The militant network that is a major Western adversary in Afghanistan is expanding its reach into tribal badlands outside its longtime sanctuary in Pakistan, a move that could complicate U.S. efforts to eradicate the group.
- Pakistani tribal elders in the Kurram region along the Afghan border say large numbers of fighters from the Haqqani network, an ally of Al Qaeda, have been stationing themselves in the highlands of their rugged district and are demanding the freedom to move in and out of Afghanistan at will to carry out attacks in the neighboring country.
- American military commanders regard the group as a major roadblock to concluding the nine-year war in Afghanistan. Though the U.S. has endorsed Karzai’s push for peace talks with insurgent leaders, many in Washington see the Haqqani network as inextricably linked with Al Qaeda and therefore irreconcilable. Haqqani militants have long maintained bonds with Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has allowed the insurgents to use the North Waziristan region as their nerve center. A dramatic increase in U.S. drone missile attacks on the network’s compounds and training centers there this fall has helped trigger the movement of the militants during the last two months, experts and Kurram tribal leaders say. Tribal elders in Kurram, who are sectarian rivals of the Haqqani network, say they believe the Islamic militant group views the snowcapped region as an ideal vantage point from which to launch forays into Afghanistan. Haqqani movement into Kurram could force the United States to expand its missile strike campaign there, a move that might further inflame anti-American sentiment among Pakistanis who see the drone strikes as a gross violation of their country’s sovereignty. Right now, Islamabad tacitly allows the strikes against Al Qaeda, Taliban and Haqqani network targets in North and South Waziristan, and at times even facilitates those strikes with intelligence.
- Meanwhile, the appearance of Haqqani network fighters has exacerbated simmering sectarian frictions within Kurram. Large swaths of the region are populated by a Shiite Muslim tribe, the Turi, which has been fending off attacks from local Taliban for years. Like the Haqqanis, the Taliban is Sunni Muslim. The influx of Haqqani fighters has sparked fierce clashes with Turi tribesmen, said Musarrat Hussain Muntazir, a tribal elder. After the fighting, Turi tribal elders began negotiations with a Haqqani contingent in hopes of ending a four-year, Taliban-imposed blockade of the only road that connects Turi lands in upper Kurram with the city of Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan’s major hub. The blockade has forced Turi villagers to take a circuitous, 230-mile trek into Afghanistan’s eastern provinces and then back into Pakistan in order to buy supplies or get to a hospital.
- Pakistan, which regards the Haqqani group as a valuable hedge against Indian influence in a post-U.S. Afghanistan, has so far resisted repeated urgings from Washington to launch a major offensive against Haqqani network hide-outs in North Waziristan. A U.S. offer to Pakistan of $2 billion in military aid is seen by many as an incentive for Pakistan to mount an attack on the Haqqani network. Pakistan has told the U.S. it will eventually carry out that offensive, but only when it believes the time is right. “I think they’ll start the operation,” said Hussain, the think tank analyst, “once every single fighter has moved out of North Waziristan and into Kurram.”
- Too often the numerous threats to Afghan stability are labeled as “Taliban”, which can distort the “purpose” of the mission while failing to properly address the scope of the conflict – the Haqqani network is an example.
- If it is true tha the Haqqani network is decamping from current safe-havens to the Kurram Agency, then critical intelligence and targeting resources that are currently fighting under economy-of-force constraints, may have to shift from the South to the East to counter the network while delicately balancing Af-Pak-US relations.
Pentagon chiefs: Afghans can manage by 2014
- Afghanistan should be ready to handle its own security by the year 2014, the top U.S. defense chiefs said Monday. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen said NATO should endorse the 2014 timeline proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai when the alliance holds its annual summit later this month. “As a target at this point that makes sense, so I am comfortable with it,” Mullen said. The 2014 date would give a symbolic deadline for ending the war and bringing most combat forces home. The war is already in its 10th year and unpopular in the U.S. and Europe.
- U.S. responsibility will extend for years, Gates said Monday. President Barack Obama and other NATO allies will consider plans for transition of security control at the November 19-20 summit in Lisbon, Portugal. Although Gates had once said he hoped a few districts could be transferred this year, NATO is now looking at beginning the process in the spring. U.S. officials say the war is beginning to turn around after two years of stalemate. Although eager to underscore that claim of progress by handing over some security control, military officials are worried about backsliding. The first districts to move under Afghan police and Army control will probably be in safer areas far from front line fighting in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
- Gates also said that although he welcomes preliminary talks between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government, the insurgency isn’t likely to cut a deal unless it is weakened further. “The Taliban need to clearly see that the prospects for success have diminished dramatically, and in fact that they may well lose,” before senior leaders would be ready to negotiate a lasting political settlement, Gates said. That tipping point would be difficult to foresee at least until next spring, Gates added. The Taliban deny they are being beaten down.
- The fight in Afghanistan has metastasized to an all encompassing Afghanistan wide provincial 360 degree – north, south, east, and west. Every province and every district.
- The start of transferring a few districts to Afghan control was supposed to begin in 2010, but will not begin until spring 2011. If NATO/ISAF cannot hand off a “few” districts anywhere in Afghanistan until spring, then clearly this is another indicator that the “progress” being made is at odds with the reality on the ground. Not a single district!
- A “symbolic” deadline for ending the war and bringing most combat forces home by 2014 does not make sense nor should we feel “comfortable” about it. A sooner date would force Karzai and the Afghan Security Forces to prepare for and accept responsibility for security. 2014 appears to be a Karzai proposal –when will the US and NATO stop coddling him and tell him “no” for a change?
In an article published by the Washington Post on November 2, it would appear that the Afghan government falls short in Kandahar. A “learning” experience for the US military.
- Despite months of American prodding, the Afghan government has failed to fill dozens of key positions in Kandahar, leaving an ineffectual local administration that U.S. officials fear will cripple the battlefield progress the military says it is making in the Taliban stronghold. Just a month before President Obama will review the state of the Afghan war, top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and other military officers are making their case that the influx of American troops has pushed the Taliban out of key parts of Kandahar. But the Afghan government that U.S. officials hoped could step in to provide basic services remains a skeleton staff of unskilled bureaucrats that is incapable of functioning on its own, according to U.S. officials. For the past year, the United States and its NATO allies have tried to build a Kandahar administration that can address residents’ grievances and sway them from the Taliban. The U.S. has also embarked on a massive spending spree in order to prop up Kandahar authorities and provide basic services. But with power monopolized by the central government in Kabul, the provincial and municipal offices in southern Afghanistan’s largest city are hamstrung and undermanned. “The security picture is improving so fast and so dramatically that it puts the shortfall in civilian capacity in alarming relief,” said one U.S. official in Kandahar. “The potential single failure point is the Afghan government.”
- With little help coming from Kabul, American money is pouring in for Afghans to build roads, dig wells, pick-up trash, repair culverts and refurbish mosques with solar-powered public-address systems. For $2.8 million in U.S. military funds, Kandahar residents will receive a nursing and midwifery clinic, and $4.7 million more will bring a secure housing complex for judges afraid to work in Taliban territory. Hundreds of millions more are being pumped through United States Agency for International Development contracts to supply electricity, water, and new office buildings for Afghan officials who, in many cases, do not exist. “Right now, the government capacity is so anemic we have to do it,” said the U.S. official who, like others, was not authorized to speak for the record. “We are acting as donor and government. That’s not sustainable.”
- “Good Governance” is a line of operation that supports a COIN campaign plan and is nested with the other standard “Security, Economy, and the Rule of Law” lines of operation. The Power Point gods are very familiar with these terms as they frame daily commander’s updates and highlight necessary metrics to gauge progress. Given that reality, that commanders are fully aware of success and progress, the lack of effective “Good Governance” in Kandahar should not be a surprise to commanders on the ground, but it appears that it is. The point is that the Kandahar campaign was delayed this past year in order to set the appropriate conditions (i.e. local power broker buy-in; limit Karzai’s brothers influence; check corruption, etc), but now in October 2010 we are beginning to acknowledge that NATO security is operating in a local-government vacuum. It’s not like this realization of the “Afghan government falling short in Kandahar” happened overnight?
- More surprising is the fact that the US military institution is a “learning” organization and conducts numerous after-action reviews and applies lessons learned to ensure future success. Why is than that after nine-years of slogging through nation-building in Afghanistan, we continue to “clear” but can’t seem to “build”? Where is the “lesson” in all of this? Maybe this will become the pillar of rationale to extend the clock past July 2011 – that NATO cannot begin to reduce its presence and effort because the “Afghans aren’t ready” – and that will then be the ultimate lesson learned that we will never admit, that being that we can “clear” but can’t “build”. In other words we should limit our objectives and simply focus on the kinetic target.
In yet another article from Foreign Policy, it appears that there are some divergent views on the status of the Afghan War as articulated in an article entitled Petraeus Versus Obama.
- Today there are two wars taking place in Afghanistan. The first is the war confidently described by the U.S. military: a conflict that according to leading military commanders and even the secretary of defense is “headed in the right direction” and has a “good chance at success.” But virtually every day there are press reports that speak of another war. It is one defined by rising civilian and military death tolls in a growing number of once-safe regions — particularly in the north of the country — now marred by violence and insecurity; government corruption and incompetence that remains as bad as ever; and an increasing sense of fatalism among the Afghan people. The problem is that the latter conflict actually seems to be taking place — while the former seems to be a figment of the military leadership’s imagination.
- This growing divide is increasingly bringing into question the very credibility of U.S. military statements about military progress in Afghanistan. And the Obama administration faces the possibility that its planned July 2011 deadline for the commencement of troop withdrawals may be undermined by the very individuals that are tasked with carrying out the war effort.
- From a security standpoint the situation in Afghanistan is worse than at any point in the past nine years. Already 406 U.S. troops have been killed this year — if the trend continues, the highest annual death toll since the conflict began. A recent report by the Afghan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), paints a very different picture than the one described by U.S. officials. The authors conclude that the insurgency is in its ascendancy and describe it as “increasingly mature, complex and effective.” The White House got into the pessimism game with an assessment that said “progress across the country was uneven,” Afghan governance remained “unsatisfactory,” and “district-by-district data show that only minor positive change had occurred with respect to security.” What seems most backwards about the military’s congenital optimism is that even by the key metrics of their own counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy there has been almost no change for the better in Afghanistan.
- Governance in Afghanistan remains as hopeless as ever. September’s parliamentary elections now appear to have been so fraud-ridden that the entire vote is in question. U.S. efforts to curb incessant government corruption have not led to any real crackdown on graft; instead it has heightened tensions with the Karzai government, and reports that Afghan government officials receive bags of cash from the Iranian government have been met with official shrugs in Kabul.
- While the Pentagon talks optimistically of progress being made in training the Afghan Army, the force is still years away from being able to operate effectively on its own. Attrition rates remain high, drug use is rampant, and soldiers lack competence in basic military skills. During recent offensives in the town of Marjah in Helmand province and ongoing efforts in Kandahar, the Pentagon claimed that the efforts were Afghan-led. So long as Taliban insurgents can melt over the border into Pakistan and so long as the Afghan government is incapable of taking control of areas that have been cleared — either administratively or militarily — these gains are likely to be ephemeral.
- If the military’s public performance is any indication, it seems likely that Obama’s generals will regale him with signs of halting progress divorced from Afghanistan’s bleak reality. The simple fact is that ever since the president announced a July 2011 deadline for commencing withdrawals the military has chafed against what its views as an arbitrary deadline for pulling the plug on the operation. Rather than following Obama’s admonition to not send troops into areas that could not be realistically handed over to the Afghan security forces by 2011, NATO and U.S. forces have engaged in a “clear, hold, and build strategy” in places where there is limited chance of turnover any time soon. It’s hard to square that approach with a White House that seems desperate to embrace political reality and find the Afghan exit ramp. But by spinning an optimistic tale of progress — and pushing stories to journalists that suggest success is just around the corner — the military could see only a nominal decrease of troops in July 2011. At the very least, it will put more public pressure on the White House to stay the course and fudge the troop withdrawal deadline. To be fair, military leaders appear to believe they are doing what it is necessary for the United States to “win” in Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean anyone — least of all the White House or the American people — should confuse the military’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan with the truth.
This cogent portrayal of the situation in Afghanistan confirms SFTT’s recent reporting that ISAF/NATO commander’s strategic communications efforts revolve around spinning success out of continued failure. At some point the debate will fracture around this premise that there is in fact a behind-the-scenes sophisticated campaign to sustain the current operational footprint in Afghanistan beyond that ordered by the President in December 2009. Given the likelihood that Congressional majorities may change in tomorrow’s election, the political price will only grow that much steeper. At the other end of the debate are the thousands of deployed troopers that have no choice but to remain tactically engaged in a no-win situation. However, now it has become increasingly obvious that these troopers are not only under-resourced and ill-equipped, but are also being mislead.
- He’s done laundry twice, mailed five letters and received two. He’s spent 378 hours on post and 256 hours on patrol. He’s crossed 140 miles (230 kilometers) of thorny bomb-laced farmland and waist-high trenches of water on foot. Along the way, he’s ripped eight pairs of pants, ruined two pairs of boots, and downed 1,350 half-liter bottles of water. His platoon has killed at least eight militants in battle and nine farm animals in crossfire. The rugged outposts he’s lived in have been shot at 46 times.
- At many bases, Marines sleep outside on cots inside hot-dog shaped mosquito nets. There are no toilets — just “wag” bags, no showers — just pouches you can fill up with water warmed by the afternoon sun. Fleas are such a problem, many Marines have taken to wearing flea collars made for cats or dogs around their wrists and belts. “It’s definitely a culture shock,” Lance Cpl. Benjamin Long, 21, of Trussville, Ala. said of life for incoming troops. “Some people come here and they think we’re living like cavemen.”
- Troops routinely patrol weighed down with 80 or 90 pounds of gear — armored jackets, rifles — traversing a harsh terrain of water-filled trenches. The canal system was built by American aid money half a century ago; today both insurgents and coalition forces use them as cover to avoid or stage attacks. “All the guys out here have lost weight,” Martin said, speaking of the pace doing three patrols a day, then back-to-back six-hour post shifts the next. It “really beats you up.”
Analysis – SFTT has consistently highlighted the fact that when our frontline troops are deployed that there “is no downtime…it’s a constant gruel,” as well as highlighting the austere conditions they operate from and the burdensome nature of the gear the troops are directed to wear. Bottomline, while combat is, at the end of the day “war by numbers,” shame on us all if we lose the perspective that organizing violence in a desperate land is a human endeavor where outside and distant observers oftentimes lose sight of the mundane nature of sacrifice made on their behalf.
- A growing number of soldiers like Milton are being treated for non-life-threatening wounds and sent back to combat without ever leaving Afghanistan. Army doctors and commanders say the practice speeds recovery and gets injured soldiers back to their units more quickly than sending them to Germany or the United States for treatment. Caring for the wounded in Afghanistan helps their morale, they say, by keeping them more connected to their buddies.
- Milton was injured during a supply mission in July. He was traveling in one of the Army’s heavily armored mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles when a bomb detonated beneath it and blasted the front end skyward. Then the vehicle slammed to the ground, and “all I remember is grabbing the gunner” in the rooftop turret to keep from being thrown out, Milton said. He suffered a compressed spine. Army medics gave him painkillers so he could remain with his squad, because his dwindling unit needed every available man. That suited Milton, who couldn’t stand the thought of leaving. “I didn’t want to be evacuated,” he said. “I had to be there for my soldiers.” But the drugs only masked his injuries, and his back gave out three weeks later as he was carrying a soldier who had collapsed from the heat. Doctors prescribed more painkillers, but he stopped taking them, convinced that they exacerbated his injuries. “They had me so doped up before that I didn’t know I was injured,” he said.
- The policy of treating non-life threatening wounds in theater is flawed – while the trooper recovers there is no battlefield replacement and the unit that suffers the temporary loss must fill the position internally or redistribute the tasks that the wounded trooper was responsible for.
- Keeping the non-life threatening wounded in theater to recover, while meant to provide morale, by “keeping them more connected to their buddies,” at the end of the day has a deleterious effect on the organization’s medical capabilities because resources that are required to treat them (i.e. prescriptions, monitoring, access to medical care, etc) are diverted from core-mission medical tasks and requirements (i.e. combat medic support, building medical capacity of the local populace).
- Military officials and Afghan leaders have reported increasing stability in large swaths of the area that had been firmly in the grip of insurgents a few weeks ago, although they acknowledge that they remain contested by pockets of Taliban holdouts.
- Petraeus emphasized that kill-and-capture operations are part of his counterinsurgency strategy. He said the ramp-up in Special Operations forces activity has been matched with increasing effort in all parts of the overall mission, from training Afghan security forces to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. “W e have increased, and we are increasing, every component of a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign,” he said.
- Petraeus did not provide new details about the embryonic reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and some Taliban leaders. He also shied from talking about an ongoing dispute between the government and foreign diplomats over the use of private security guards to protect development workers. President Hamid Karzai has issued a decree banning private guards from protecting aid workers starting Dec. 17, a decision that has led several development firms to begin shutting down their programs. U.S. officials estimate that up to $2.5 billion in foreign assistance projects could be shuttered, and as many as 40,000 Afghan jobs lost, if the ban is not rescinded. The development projects – from roads to schools to local government reform – are central to the military’s counterinsurgency strategy, a way to win Afghan support after soldiers clear out insurgents. In a bid to preserve these programs, American and foreign diplomats are lobbying Karzai intensely to exempt development firms from the ban on private security.
Analysis – SFTT continues to monitor a proverbial back-and-forth on the progress (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. While it appears it is too early to conclude that there has been a shift in strategy that focuses exclusively on counter-terrorism versus counter-insurgency – SFTT and other observers will be hard pressed to accept Petreaus’ comments as anything more than wanting to fight an endless round of COIN in perpetuity.