The declining security situation in Afghanistan has leveled off in many areas in the past three months, according to a Pentagon progress report to Congress. At the same time, overall violence in Afghanistan is sharply up, with an 87 percent ncrease over the seasonal average of the same period last year.
The report attributes increased violence to the stepped-up ISAF operations in recent months as more U.S. troops have arrived. The 152 page April 2010 report, titled “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” covers the period from October 2009 through March 2010.
Insurgent attacks increased during 2009 and then peaked in August, just before the presidential elections. Most attacks are in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan.
“The insurgents perceive 2009 as their most successful year.” Higher levels of violence, poor turnout during the Afghan presidential elections and reports of Afghan government fraud contribute to a sense of success among the Taliban. While ISAF has seen some success in certain parts of Helmand, putting in place the Afghan government and security forces, the “hold and build” part of the COIN strategy, has been slow. The Taliban have re-infiltrated areas cleared by the Marines and are again intimidating the population.
“Some individual islands of security exist in the sea of instability and insecurity,” it says. These are primarily in the northern parts of the country.
The government of Afghan president Hamid Karzai remains incapable of providing “tangible benefits” to the populace, a weakness that is readily exploited by the Taliban. “The inability of the government to provide essential services, and exploitative behavior of some government officials and ANSF are contributing to the success of the insurgents’ campaign.”
“Over the first quarter of 2010, the insurgents’ strategy has proven effective in slowing the spread of governance and development; however, the insurgency has also been under unprecedented pressure. Reporting indicates increased and often strained efforts to resource the fight, which has led to tension and sporadic dips in morale. From the insurgents’ perspective, this strain has been compounded by the recent high-profile arrests of several Pakistan-based insurgent leaders by Pakistani authorities and removal of many Afghanistan-based commanders, predominantly by international partner special operations forces (SOF).”
The insurgency has a “robust” means of sustaining operations; small arms and IED material are readily available. “External funding is top-down, while internal funding is bottom-up, providing the Taliban consistent streams of money to sufficiently fund operations.” External money comes primarily from Islamic states and is delivered via couriers. A steady stream of recruits is drawn from a disaffected Afghan populace. The insurgency is made up of three main groups: the Quetta Shura Taliban, Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HIG), and the Haqqani Network (HQN).
The “speed and decisiveness” of Taliban information operations and its media campaign is its most significant strength. The influence of the Taliban “shadow government” established in local areas is increasing. IED attacks are increasing in number, up 236 %, as is their complexity; Taliban tactics and their “complex attacks” are increasing in sophistication and strategic impact.
The Taliban's weaknesses include: persistent fissures among the top leadership; many locally based tribal networks and multiple layers of command that can complicate operations; it is overly reliant on external support; and it is dependent on the marginalized segments of the Pashtun population.
Following President Obama’s decision to boost U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan, Taliban commanders ordered their fighters to avoid direct confrontations with ISAF troops and step up the use of IEDs and use more “stand off” tactics.
The Afghan strategy is intended to disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan by: “a military effort to create the conditions for a transition, a civilian surge that reinforces positive action, and an effective partnership with Pakistan.”
The next phase in McChrystal’s COIN campaign, “Moshtarak Phase 3,” will focus on Kandahar. “The operation will commence incrementally, once the political conditions are set,” it says.
U.S. force levels are expected to reach 98,000 by August 2010. NATO countries have made force increase “offers” totaling 9,000 troops in recent months; so far, 40 % of those offered have arrived in Afghanistan. NATO allies are “cautiously optimistic” about success in Afghanistan, though popular support for the war is eroding. NATO allies have still not fully staffed critical missions such as training and support for the Afghan forces, requiring U.S. troops to fill in the gaps, it says. Since January 2009, the State Department has more than tripled the number of civilians on the ground.
Operational control of all U.S. forces, “less some notional elements,” has been transferred to McChrystal; virtually all U.S. forces have been put under NATO operational command. The report notes that half of all NATO countries continue to operate under national “caveats” that “may limit McChrystal’s ability to utilize his forces.”
“Currently, 22 of 43 troop contributing nations are “caveat free,” an improvement from 18 during the previous reporting period. [McChrystal] has stated that Allied forces in Afghanistan need to loosen or remove operational caveats in order to be effective in partnering with Afghan forces.”
A key element of the strategy is the rapid buildup of the Afghan security forces. As of March 31, there are 113,000 Afghan Army (ANA) and 102,000 Afghan police (ANP) fielded.
In terms of operational success of the Gen. McChrystal’s population-centric COIN campaign, ISAF identified 80 districts in Afghanistan as “key terrain,” but noted it only has sufficient force numbers to conduct COIN operations in 45 of those districts. McChrystal’s highest priority is to protect the Afghan population, and in this regard, “the population is telling us the trends are positive.” ISAF assessment shows the population supports the Afghan government in 24 % of areas identified as key terrain.
The report says the number of civilian deaths caused by ISAF has “fallen in relation to the size of the force and despite an increase in operational tempo.”
As four anti-corruption efforts: “While Afghanistan has achieved some progress on anti-corruption, in particular with regard to legal and institutional reforms, real change remains elusive and political will, in particular, remains doubtful.” The report emphasizes the importance of putting in place basic rules of law capacity including an accountable judicial system.
“Without the necessary supporting rule of law structures, the ANP will become ineffective over time. No matter how many police we train or how well we partner with them, without sufficient rule of law and governance, transition will fail.”