After months of agonizing, the decades most long awaited decision has finally been made. It is a military surge of 30,000 additional troops to chart out a dignified exit for the United States, which will commence with effect from July 2011 onwards. So, basically, it is a surge to draw down, a surge to exit. The surge commencing with immediate effect is to be completed in the next six months. The total number of US troops will now be over one lakh.
The future strategy chalked out by President Obama includes: arrest the newly found Taliban momentum with the increase in Taliban controlled and High Risk areas, strengthen the capacity of Afghan Government to effectively govern the country (Afghanistan for and by the Afghans), increase the number of US trainers to get more numbers of Afghans by way of its military and police to fight for their ‘country’, increase a civilian surge in population centres such that the United States is able to transfer power to a stable Afghanistan by the middle of 2011. It is political, economic, and military compulsions that are factors for this future strategy.
For one, increasingly the cost of war in Afghanistan has become unbearable for the American people; the cost of fighting the war (trillion dollars) is economically unsustainable. Militarily, the United States no longer has the stomach to pursue an open ended conflict, a slow deterioration which prolongs the war, with implications for the political health of the democrat party. No problem that a spelt out time table may allow the Taliban to lie low and wait out the time. No problem that the population, more so than ever before, will not have the inclination to offend the Taliban. There is good logic, that setting a time table it will push the Afghan Government and its military to now stand up and be counted.The seriousness of the situation may be gauged by the fact that President Obama has said that he is not averse to talks with like-minded Taliban who relinquish violence. Already, there is a UK led peace initiative named ‘Front for Compromise and Development (FFCD)’ to get the Taliban into the mainstream. Karzai has already proposed a ‘Jirga’ of Afghan and Pakistan elders and fighters – this initiative is likely to be headed by Abdullah Abdullah, the losing Presidential candidate.
But the catalyst for the new surge is undoubtedly the recent military set-backs. Leading into the three months or so that it took Obama to announce the future strategy were statements by General Stanley Mc Chrystal the force commander, “Failure to provide adequate reinforcements risks a longer conflict, greater casualty, higher overall costs and ultimately a critical loss of political support”. “Success is achievable, but will require, “a revised implementation strategy.” And that there was a need for additional troops within the next year or lose the conflict. How did this situation of facing failure come about?
In the space of just over one year, the US forces have suffered the equivalent of Mogadishu like reverses inside Afghanistan, not once but twice.
In the space of just over one year, the US forces have suffered the equivalent of Mogadishu like reverses inside Afghanistan, not once but twice. More disconcertingly, both these setbacks have been encountered in the vicinity of less then twenty miles of each other. The first one occurred in the battle of Wanat in the Kunar province in July 2008 where 48 US and 24 Afghan soldiers held off thrice the number of attackers in a four hour firefight that left nine Americans dead and twenty seven wounded in one of the bloodiest days of the eight year war. The debacle became a case study for troops being inducted into the Afghan theatre, of poor intelligence; disconnect with the local population, under prepared defences, lack of surveillance cover, and poor logistics.
The troops showed great fighting qualities in staving off fierce attacks, firing non stop till their weapons jammed, mortally wounded troops continued to hand bullet belts to those in a condition to fire. The fighting became hand to hand with one or two insurgents breaching the perimeter fence and managing to kill the platoon Commander, Lt Jonathon P. Brostrom and three other soldiers at close range, making it a fight, “as remarkable as any small unit action in American military history.”
It appears, however, that lessons from that battle had still not sunk in because Afghan militants, once again stormed two American base camps in Kamdesh district of Nuristan province, less than twenty miles from Wanat, on 04 Oct ’09. Pounding the US troops with guns and RPG’s, the provincial chief Mohammad Jangulbagh, estimated that about 300 militants took part in the attack. The Americans fought back with helicopters, heavy guns and air strikes, but the militants kept up the battle till late in the afternoon, killing eight US and seven Afghan soldiers. The Taliban claimed to have even captured 30 Afghan soldiers including the Kamdesh police Chief, Shamshullah, and that it had overrun both these posts. The ISAF denied the rout, maintaining that it had regained control. The ferocity of the attack forced the Kamdesh post force commander, Col Randy George to describe the militant raid as, “a complex attack in a difficult area.” Elsewhere, there are reports of coalition troops pulling out of combat isolated outposts in Paktika and Khost provinces, and the strategic and dangerous Taliban – infested Sato Kandao pass in Paktia.
Weeks after the Kamdesh attack, it is now confirmed that US troops had exited Kamdesh. The Taliban displayed arms left by the Americans, including ammunition belts for grenade launchers and claymore mines. “We have defeated the US forces, with the help of God,” a Taliban video released to the al-Jazeera TV network showed a leader shouting out gleefully. The US says that it always intended to leave Kamdesh. But this obviously sends wrong signals to the local population which will feel betrayed, besides giving a fillip to the psychological battle of minds, showing the Taliban winning at least in some parts.
Barely a fortnight prior to the Kamdesh attack, Mullah Omar stated, “we would like to point out that we fought against the British invaders for 80 years from 1839 to 1919 and ultimately got independence by defeating Britain….. Today we have strong determination, military training and effective weapons ….. Still more, we have preparedness for a long war, and the regional situation is in our favour. Therefore, we will continue to wage jihad until we gain independence and force the invaders to pull out”.
“We have defeated the US forces, with the help of God,” a Taliban video released to the al-Jazeera TV network showed a leader shouting out gleefully.
The timing of this audacious attack was not lost on any one. Gen Stanley Mc Chrystal had submitted his paper on the future military strategy in Afghanistan, bidding for 40,000 additional troops, adding to the 68,000 US troops already deployed in Afghanistan. One of the military strategies outlined by Gen Chrystal was to do away with isolated posts, and use the additional numbers so available to protect population centres from Taliban attacks. As if to reinforce this point, the Taliban had done just that – hit the US outposts in Kamdesh, giving a message, thereby, that the US military thinking is on the right lines!
Incidentally, the situation had a striking similarity to the Soviet predicament in the 1980’s, when it was forced to withdraw its isolated posts to prevent further damage. When this policy was implemented, the Afghan countryside gradually fell into Mujahideen hands, the highway and roads linking cities became unsafe and the communist government of President Babrak Karmal and his successor President Dr Najibullah started weakening. This scenario is now being replicated with ISAF forces pulling back to urban/populated centres to better defend themselves and the “population”. Co-incidentally, it was in Nuristan and Kunar that the Soviet Army suffered its first defeats, forcing them to withdraw to Jalalabad.
The Afghans have an eye to history, having fought invasion after invasion. The two military set-backs in Wanat and Kamdesh could well just be the ‘symbol’ of the turning of the tide in Afghanistan and is probably what the Taliban was suggesting to the world, by timing its attack at Kamdesh in Nuristan province, when the US and its allies were grappling with the situation, working out the right military strategy and how to resource the fight, more crucially, whether to ramp up the forces by another 40,000 troops, ironically bringing it at par with the total number of troops the Soviets had, when its downslide commenced!Another similarity related to President Obama, who like Nixon, has inherited a “thankless war”. Nixon elected to pull out and won the second term. Lyndon Johnson before Nixon did not and was not elected a second time. That the US has reached this dilemma on the eighth anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan is owed to the well crafted strategy of the Taliban resistance in the intervening period.
The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly in the last three years with the UN estimating that some 2100 civilians were killed in 2008, up 40 percent on the year before. For the year 2009, up to the period 01 Aug 09 the UN estimates of civilian casualties is 1500 killed. A total of 1700 ISAF troops have laid down their lives, which includes 900 US soldiers. About 80 US soldiers were killed in the month of October alone, the highest ever. Afghanistan’s precarious situation can be traced back to strategic errors made after the 2001 invasion. Very few troops, about 4,500 initially were deployed against a requirement of 25,000. This has led to the current stalemate when the US is, “losing in Afghanistan because it is not winning…. the Taliban are winning…. because they are not losing.”
“¦ the Pashtun stronghold of south, central and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban is slowly but surely coalescing into a Pan Afghan outfit”¦
This situation of ‘winning because it is not losing’, is a win – win situation for the Taliban, as is the case with all insurgencies, which has time on its side. Whereas, for the Americans, the longer they remain embroiled, more the number of casualties, more unpopular the counter insurgency becomes, and more the pressure from the people on a democratic government. There cannot be a more telling comment or appraisal of the current Afghan résistance than the fact that for the first time in eight years, the Afghan Taliban are now a force to reckon with even in northern Afghanistan.
Strong as it was in the Pashtun stronghold of south, central and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban is slowly but surely coalescing into a Pan Afghan outfit, always learning from its past mistakes, keeping the civilians on its side, tiding over ethnic, ideological, tribal feuds and loyalties, selling the idea of nationalism as a unifying force against “ foreign invaders and oppressors.” Initiating a slick propaganda war the Taliban talks about ‘occupation’, pointing out that foreign troops are killing Afghans, and highlights the civilian casualties in American air strikes, violation of local tradition, including house and personal searches, bad governance, corruption, and fraudulent elections.
The Taliban carries out its psy war through audio and video recordings, handouts, ‘night letters’ newspapers, journals, magazines and books. Mobile phones are used to send text messages. Taliban national anthems are played on mobile phone ring tones. Websites are updated with Taliban battlefield achievements, highlighting civilian atrocities perpetrated by “foreign rulers”. Sobriquets like “Infidels”, “invaders”, ”traitor”, “collaborators”, “corrupters”, “puppet regime”, “traitor government”, appeal to the national sentiment of the proud and freedom loving Afghans. While this propaganda campaign wins them local support, frequently changing military tactics, manages to keep the ISAF troops guessing, defensive, frustrated, tempting them to use air power which causes more civilian casualties and makes their counter insurgency effort more unpopular.
Rise of Taliban
The current state of military dynamics is such that in much of the rugged, rural and sparsely populated country, a sustained presence by the US-NATO troops has became tenuous, one of the key reasons for the exit policy announced by Obama. Even the Taliban is not in control of any one single area – but a guerilla force that it has now morphed into, it is not its endeavour to do so. Having learnt from its initial mistakes, it rarely gives pitched battles. In fact in the face of the recent ISAF operations, Operation Panther Claw and Operation Khanjar the Taliban just melted in the face of heavy artillery, air power and lived to fight another day. In fact, in response to these operations, on 06 July 09, the Taliban announced launch of a guerrilla operation code named ‘Foladi Jal’, meaning ‘Iron Net’. Holding territory for the ISAF forces even with force accretion will be an impossible task. A village may be “pro ISAF” one day and “pro Taliban” the next.
The frequent debates, on whether to stay or pull out; reduce troops or make it only a counter-terrorist effort, more dependent on fire power than human power; does not help. Even the tribal leaders are sitting on the fence, helping both the forces. Post 2001, the Taliban regrouped and operated in small sections and platoons even as late as 2007. Concentrating on IED attacks, roadside bombs, stand off attacks on posts, the Taliban kept the ISAF troops engaged. The lurking threat of the presence of Taliban within the striking distance has been all too pervasive. For example, there are reports of US troops operating out of Vardak having been attacked 83 times in the past year. This phenomenon, though worrisome and nerve wracking, was still not potentially damaging for the ISAF.
Taliban continues to enjoy patronage from within the Pakistan Army and intelligence apparatus, as well as from wealthy patrons in the Persian Gulf states.
So long as the Taliban did not do a “Dien Bien Phieu” on them where the Viet Minh in Vietnam in 1954, massed multiple divisions and brought artillery to bear against a French military position considered impregnable, killing 2000 French soldiers, and capturing 16,000. The US can always project the situation as a victory, and exit on honorable terms. But the Taliban are increasingly coalescing into a company or even a battalion size force, when they choose to attack or overwhelm vulnerable, small, isolated posts.
The fear of such attacks by company sized forces will impact the number of posts that the ISAF can hold in the countryside, thereby loosening their control of territory. This recent phenomenon as demonstrated in Wanat and Kamdesh, has sent alarm bells ringing in the strategic circles inside USA. They are skeptical of what the US has achieved at the end of eight years, when Taliban is still capable of causing such heavy casualties to them in a single attack.
To top it all, the Taliban continues to enjoy patronage from within the Pakistan Army and intelligence apparatus, as well as from wealthy patrons in the Persian Gulf states. The Taliban is able to obtain accurate and actionable intelligence, and if it continues to keep the population on its side, it will spell disaster for the US and its allies. The US public opinion can not live with many reverses, and this is precisely what worries General Stanley Mc Chrystal, the reason why he wants to pull his troops back into “populated centres”, as larger numbers he feels can better protect themselves and the population.
Troops from the surge of 30,000 will be used to reinforce Kandahar, P2K (Paktika, Paktia and Khost), Kabul, Heart, Jalalabad and Helmand. Some troops, at least 5000 will be used as trainers. The surge has been preceded by a troop pull out from heavily infested Taliban areas. General Stanley Mc Chrystal explained the latter action by saying, “these areas were not going to be brought under Government control anytime soon.” 7000 additional Afghan troops have been deployed in Taliban resurgent northern areas of Balkh, Kunduz, Baghlan.
To many, the decades longest awaited decision has re-affirmed the status of Afghanistan as a ‘graveyard of empires’, but it is critical for the US to bust this myth, no matter what it takes and how long it takes.
In order to succeed the ISAF must arrest the Taliban momentum in the first phase, launch search and destroy missions in the second phase — concurrent with the accretion of forces. It should simultaneously develop the capability of the Afghan National Forces and ensure Afghan government’s accountability towards its people.
The process of resurrecting and stabilizing Afghanistan will be a slow process, therefore ISAF must exercise patience. There will undoubtedly be time and cost overruns. There will be causalities. But that is the price America will have to pay if it desires to retain its superpower status.
At the end of the 80s, following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the US, basking in its victory in the long and frustrating Cold War, abandoned the Afghan theatre, without dismantling the jihadi weapon it had created. It left Afghanistan to the mercy and machinations of Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment. Result! It had to revisit the region only after a decade. This time if the US was to do the same, it may just have revisit within some months, because it would have to contend with a much more confident, vicious and globalized Taliban.
An exit-timetable in a way sows doubts in a soldiers mind regarding the very purpose and legitimacy of operations.
For an enduring solution Afghanistan has to be therefore re-engineered in every way. Jihadi terrorism cannot be rooted out without rolling back Islamic fundamentalism from its epicenter i.e. Pakistan-Afghanistan region. The task is tall, but the consequences of failure will be pernicious. After all, there is a price and limit to America’s Homeland Security. For Americans, much of the answer to their homeland security problems lies in that region.
American leadership must desist from declaring and pursuing an exit-time table as that sends counter-productive signals, not only to the people of Afghanistan but also the forces on ground. In this regard the Vietnam lesson is illustrative. Periodic statements emanating from American leadership giving deadlines for withdrawal from the Vietnam theatre made many a soldier feel that why he should be the last person to die on the Vietnamese soil. An exit-timetable in a way sows doubts in a soldier’s mind regarding the very purpose and legitimacy of operations.
Going by the impressions of some analysts who had chance to interact with Pakistani opinion-makers recently, the military-intelligence establishment is convinced that the US will abandon Afghanistan sooner than is generally believed, leaving the field open to its manipulations. The US will prove them right at its own peril.