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2008 - Afghanistan's Lost Year

In 2008, Afghanistan went from the “forgotten war,” to a war the U.S. and NATO could very well lose. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair gave the intel community’s global threat assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and their read on developments in Afghanistan was gloomy to say the least.

The past year has witnessed a dramatic jump in both the frequency and geographic scope of attacks by the Taliban-led insurgency as it has spread to previously peaceful areas around Kabul and in west Afghanistan. Insurgents are showing greater battlefield skill and more “aggressiveness.”

Insurgent gains have come “despite” U.S. and NATO military strikes “targeting insurgent command and control networks,” says the report provided by Blair. The country is slipping into chaos and there is little government control outside Kabul and even NGOs are often unable to provide help to the Afghan people for fear of being knocked off by the Taliban. The government’s glaring ineffectiveness in the face of an intractable insurgency cause tribal and other local leaders to either sit on the fence, instead of supporting the central government or, worse, cast their lot with the insurgents. The Afghan people’s confidence in their own government is hampered by “endemic corruption” and the burgeoning drug trade. Efforts to build the Afghan security forces are struggling.

“Continued progress has been made in expanding and fielding the Afghan National Army, but the shortage of international trainers in the field, high operational tempo, attrition, and absenteeism hamper efforts to make units capable of independent action. The Afghan National Police remains a largely untrained force with high rates of corruption and absenteeism. Limitations to training, mentoring, and equipping combined with an ineffective Ministry of Interior and large parts of the country that have not been effectively “cleared” hinder the progress and effectiveness of the policy.”

A GAO report out this week says the number of insurgent attacks on Afghan security forces rose from 97 in October 2007 to 289 in October 2008. At least 3,400 Afghan police have been killed or wounded since January 2007.

To better understand why the Taliban are proving such a difficult enemy read this excellent tactical and operational assessment of the enemy by retired Australian army officer David Kilcullen, former counterinsurgency advisor to Gen. David Petraeus, in National Review. As he explains, the Taliban “are the most tactically competent enemy we currently face in any theater.” Most Taliban groups combine a local clandestine network with a main force of guerrilla fighters, along with large numbers of fanatical young men from the madrassas across the border in Pakistan to serve as cannon fodder.

The insurgent’s small unit skills in ambushing, use of IEDs, sniping and field defense are very good. Insurgent equipment has improved substantially and is now better than that of the Afghan army and police, he writes. Taliban snipers are very good: they “have graduated from the category of Marksmen to become true sniper pairs in the professional military sense. This bespeaks at least some training by professionally qualified military snipers.”

Local warlords and the Taliban wield vast power in the absence of any government authority. The drug trade fuels the insurgency, providing insurgent commanders the funds to buy fighters, weapons and bribe any government officials who remain on the job. UN estimates put the total value to producers of Afghan opium in 2008 at $730 million.

The intel community report said the Predator bomber offensive against Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) has been relatively successful over the past year and that the group has lost “significant parts” of its command structure. They assessed the strikes against Al Qaeda lieutenants to be as “damaging to the group as any since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.”

As long as the Afghan insurgency has a sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, defeating the various groups that hop back and forth across the border is impossible, the report says. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, told the BBC this week, there are large areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, “where we are not winning."

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