Monday, November 12, 2007

Battle Front Afghanistan: General Overview

Cross Posted At the Castle

As Iraq cools down, Afghanistan heats up. Al Qaeda and it's Islamic terrorist affiliates are being pushed back on many fronts including the destruction of Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, MILF and Abu Sayaf in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines among the many places. It has sought to expand into the contested territories in the Caucuses including places like Ingushetia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and the like.

Al Qaeda has begun to concentrate foreign fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan as this represents their last, best hopes for establishing a long term and protected base from where they can launch attacks and, hopefully, from where they can establish and expand the planned for caliphate. Their current plan is focusing on controlling the area referred to as "Pashtunistan": the traditional tribal lands of the ethnic Pashtun that spans both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The foreign fighters account for the increase in suicide bombers and IED attacks against civilian and security forces alike. Their offensive is best seen as their "Tet" which everyone was expecting would happen in Iraq, but the situation for Al Qaeda had become untenable.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, has a number of ongoing issues that allows the Taliban and Al Qaeda to continue to use it for a base, not the least of which is the protected base it has established in Waziristan, Pakistan. From there, the highest echelon of the Taliban and Al Qaida issue orders, train forces, obtain money and arms. They easily transit the area through the Paktika and Paktia provinces on the Afghan/Pakistan border.

Afghanistan, like Iraq, has both rural and urban populations. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan's populations, though still close to urban areas, are more rural in situation and tradition. Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i-sharif do not hold a quarter or more of the population of the nation as Baghdad, Fallujah, Basrah, Mosul, Tall Afar, Najaf and other notable cities do in Iraq. This means that the problem areas and reconstruction efforts are spread out into the countryside, making security for the population difficult to manage. It also means that reconstruction efforts, such as new hydro-electric dams or irrigation canals, will have a more localized and limited effect, are difficult to manage and secure over the long distances between the capitol and main security forces.

In Iraq, US forces using the new established COIN strategy, identified tribal shiehks and power structures outside of urban or suburban political power structures to develop alliances, manage projects and generally route the insurgents or turn the indigent insurgents against the foreign. The area and conditions in Iraq are different than in Afghanistan. Iraq is largely flat and already had established roads and other infrastructure that connected far flung members of tribes from rural to suburban and urban areas. This gave the tribal sheiks a greater power to relate to and manage their distant tribal connections, even if some of the tribe lived in the cities.

It also provided them with the ability to easily contact and work with associated tribes on areas of interest. Those areas more closely overlapped and had shared impact. Even the simplest aspects of security are shared since unrest and subjugation of one tribe in Iraq could and would bleed over to other tribes in the area. The more open terrain also meant that infrastructure projects like roads, electricity and water could be more easily connected and would also share impact across tribal areas. Finally, the open terrain allowed a much quicker response to attacks on the varied populations, rural to town to city.

In Afghanistan, the tribes are much more isolated from each other by geography and equally isolated by lack of infrastructure and shared interests with other tribes. It is much more ethnically diverse. While Iraq had two main ethnicities, Kurds and Arabs, though complicated by religious and political affiliation, language is not a barrier. Afghanistan has at least eleven ethnicities with diverging ethno-politico-religious affiliations, separated by language, customs, and economic interests.

These ethno-politico-religious affiliations do not simply or easily breakdown into "Sunni/Shia" or "Fundamentalist/Moderate" or even "Democrats/Royalists/Kalahfistas". The needs and beliefs of these tribes are more likely to be insular and limited. It is one reason that the centralized government in Kabul does not easily translate into projected power or control in these areas. Additionally, it is one of the reasons that the centralized government is hard pressed to respond to the needs of the people in these areas, leaving them exposed to the mercies of either the resurgent Taliban or the established warlords.

As far as the tribes are concerned, even though many of the leaders and elders were invited into the central government, Karzai's government is the government of Kabul and Kandahar. That government has little capacity to shape politics or provide necessities within these regions, much less project military or other authoritative power. While many coalition forces praise the fearlessness and drive of the ANA, they are far from capable of managing the security situation. Most significant economic improvement has occurred within the two main cities where aid and security are easily accessible. This does not translate to economic or security success within other provinces.

One of the projects that have long been underway is the creation of a national road system. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has little infrastructure from which to build. The road system will connect parts of the country, north, south, east and west. It will allow the government to be more connected to the tribal regions, respond to security threats, deliver services and increase economic possibilities.

Without a road, goods and foods cannot be delivered to national markets or even international markets. Without a road, resources cannot be delivered to manufacturing centers that create textiles and other products. Without a road, security forces cannot provide the cover necessary to secure the population. However, roads also make it easier for enemy forces to travel to areas of concentration as well as warlords to extend their control over their areas. Proliferation of opium and its export can also be tied to the new roads.

Even the coalition, with limited forces, are unable to manage the security situation necessary to institute the rule of law [video] over the entire land. It is concentrated in urban areas while the rural, tribal areas are still subject to warlord type feudal subjugation. Some warlords in the north have attempted to go "legitimate" by becoming part of the government, whether in Kabul or in the provinces. However, this is largely in name only as most of these warlords are only interested in protecting their interests, redeveloping their criminal enterprises and influencing the central government from acting against their own. They are also concerned that their disarmament and reliance on government security leaves them vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban.

While their tribal affiliations and association with the Northern Alliance made the warlords of the north and west natural allies of the coalition, the warlords had been finally routed by the Taliban in 1996. The Taliban was able to do so because it had brought some form of rule of law, all be it fairly repressive and nearly as arbitrary as any under the warlords. It was largely unified, though not codified, applied with equal brutality. Warlord's were territorial, isolated and routinely committed fairly atrocious crimes against people with very little, if any, appearance of justice.

Six years after the invasion by the coalition, similar problems are most likely allowing the Taliban to re-infiltrate these areas. With the increase of opium production, crime is rampant and the warlords and their criminal gangs are likely abetting and committing it. The coalition has been slowly working at creating a judicial system and police force to mitigate this crime. However, the judicial system is dominated by judges who owe their allegiances to warlords or are in fear of their lives. As in Iraq, the police are corrupt or intimidated by militias and insurgents.

While the rule of law and economic improvements are necessary, as in Iraq, the lack of security capable of managing security for a greater portion of the population and against encroachment of insurgents is a problem. The call by US commanders from the area and many politicians to increase troop deployments to Afghanistan is not completely out of line. Particularly, as the new offensive by the Taliban and Al Qaeda is underway.

Some reports indicate that the Taliban and Al Qaida are planning one of their first "winter" campaigns. They expect that the winter months will keep US and coalition forces from using their larger air mobilization and attack assets. This would leave ground forces vulnerable to over run. Others have questioned whether the Taliban could sustain such a winter offensive since their original "Summer Offensive" did go as it had planned. However, reports of suicide attacks and IEDs, now their favored weapons, into November (the start of the winter months) may be indicating the "winter offensive" is underway.

In six years, some progress as been made, but geography, tribal independence and a desire to allow as much autonomy as possible hinders progress in the security, political and economic arenas. Other issues, including NATO and other nation commitments leave a majority of the heavy lifting to US, Canadian, British and Netherland forces. South Korea has announced that it will withdraw a large portion of its troops from Afghanistan per an agreement with the Taliban after the release of their Korean national hostages held earlier this year. Although, ostensibly as part of this agreement, the issue of Korean troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has been a political minefield in South Korea.

Norway has indicated it will boost its troops temporarily to over 700 with an additional 150 special forces, but that number will decrease in early 2008 as it withdraws over 200 rapid response troops. The additional special forces will be placed around Kandahar where the Taliban and Al Qaeda backed forces attempted to retake a town within miles of the provincial capital.

Germany is maintaining its 3,000 strong forces in the north, resisting placing them in close contact to Taliban infiltrated areas and actual combat. However, Germany continues to pledge continued financial aid to the nation. France has stepped up with additional close air support missions after the US Air Force grounded its F-15 fleet following a crash in Missouri. Dutch forces continue to assist with combat operations in the south, coming into regular contact with Taliban forces and have suffered a number of casualties.

Other commanders are noting that their commitment to train and improve Afghan National Army forces is difficult because they lack at least "50%" of the trainers they need to make it happen. Some commanders insist that this is "quality" over quantity slow approach to building an army. Afghan officers are being sent to training facilities in the United States, Germany and other nations for formal training. Yet, the impending security situation would seem to call for an increase of troops to assist in all areas including security, training, reconstruction and reconciliation operations.

Logistics is still a major problem six years in. Many of the coalition forces do not have enough or any of the necessary equipment to contribute to this need. Helicopters are the main source of transportation for people and goods, particularly due to the lack of other infrastructure. Many coalition partners have to use US helicopters to transport or take action to the enemy. There are not enough in Afghanistan and fatigue to Coalitions, particularly US, equipment and people are causing serious strains on this capability.

In this report on the British Ghurkas
efforts to take the fight to the Taliban, the reporter notes that the British have to cancel an operation due to the lack of helicopters and some nations' policies. Due to the type of equipment and danger the terrain presents, the Dutch do not fly their helicopters at night and the British helicopters were over taxed. They had to go on foot if they wanted to do the mission at all. Reports have indicated that many coalition forces do not have the type of equipment necessary to fly "high and hot".

In the meantime, the Czech Republic is boosting its assistance and the ANA's own rotor capability by donating fifteen transport and combat helicopters to Afghanistan military. This is unlikely to make a significant difference to the current logistical problems due to the amount of training and support that will be required to make a rotor wing capable and self sustaining. Due to the lack of infrastructure and security, most supplies, arms and men are transported via helicopter for both the Coalition and Afghan forces.

Kyrgyzstan has recently recommitted itself to providing a resupply and transit base to US forces for security in Afghanistan. Despite US problems with Iran and accusations that it is supplying arms to Afghan insurgents, Iran and Afghanistan are going ahead on a border post plan that has been discussed for the last two years. It's effectiveness will be dependent on Iran's cooperation and commitment since its well known that the IRGC is controlling the smuggling rings to Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the meantime, Marine Commandant Conway has suggested removing a bulk of his forces from Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan to quell the increasing violence. While there are no indications that this plan is seriously being considered by the DoD, it does make sense in the long run to improve security forces to the now "hot" front. Marines also have the added benefit of having worked with largely tribal organizations in Anbar that would give them a leg up on many deploying forces. Conway is likely eager to see if his forces can pull off the same program. US forces in the south are seeing a distinct uptick in operation tempo.

The two drawbacks are that most of Afghanis do not speak Arabic, which the Marines would now be fluent in and, while some tribal customs are similar, they would need to come up to speed very quickly to make an immediate difference. However, like in Iraq, building networks and relations are often about overcoming suspicion and having enough time. Time may not be available if suicide and other attacks along ethnic lines, as seen in Iraq, causes the warlords in the north to completely re-arm and restart a civil war.

According to this report from NEFA, the divisions between ethnicities is much deeper than in Iraq due to the distance, history and geography. Like in Iraq, the majority Pashtun population (68%) expect a greater share of the say in government and in resources. For several years, Karzai has been attempting to balance the demands and show that the government is for everyone. But, slow progress in Helmand and other Pashtun dominated areas have lent to the general distrust and disillusionment with the central government.

This report from 2007, while generally lamenting the unorganized, slow process of developing a project and funding it, also notes the general issue underlying the entire endeavor and proved correct in Iraq: security trumps reconstruction and, without reconstruction their can be no security.

The problems in Pakistan are severely complicating matters for Afghanistan. Pakistan's inability (or lack of desire) to rein in Taliban in the Waziristan tribal areas as well as political unrest has given the Taliban and Al Qaeda breathing room to advance control of the area. Musharraf has recently pledged to re-instate elections in February 2008, thirty days after its original schedule, possibly in response to President Bush' direct call for democracy to continue. It's unclear what impact that will have in Islamabad, but it certainly has done nothing for the military issue in the tribal areas where the military is increasingly routed.

Some caution putting too much emphasis on democracy efforts in Pakistan since many of the so-called "democracy protesters" are part of known terrorist supporting Islamist groups. Musharraf's moves may have given these groups and their political wings new found legitimacy. US military commanders are understandably concerned about the security of Pakistani nukes. But, there are no calls at this time for military intervention. Further, discussions regarding withholding US aid to Pakistan were hampered since the government is seriously concerned about damaging Pakistan's assistance on the border.

What may give Pakistan some breathing room is to send additional forces to Afghanistan, stepping up combat operations that might draw in fighters away from Pakistan. Thus, giving Musharraf breathing room to get his security forces set back up off their heels and capable of dealing with the expanding threat from the tribal lands.

Economically, Afghanistan is a train wreck that will take many years to improve. It needs an influx of forces to reduce Taliban re-appearance in key areas, beef up over all security, assist with developing better and more representative governance at the local level and improve the economic connectivity and future of Afghanistan. Until Afghanis feel they have an ability to seek and obtain redress for corruption and crimes, Warlords will continue their behavior which is contrary to the US mission. Afghanis will continue to fluctuate between supporting the Taliban, thus al Qaida, as some sort of force against crime. Poppy money will still fuel the insurgency and keep all other legitimate business from making any significant difference or leading people away from criminal, Taliban or Al Qaida related enterprises.

Finally, Afghanistan will remain a battle front long after Iraq is completely pacified and becomes a once a week or less blip in the media. Sadly, what may be the only way that Afghanistan completely turns on its head is if a civil war does break out and the war models Iraq more completely including horrific, mass attacks against civilians that will serve as a reminder of why the Taliban and its Al Qaida cohorts were rejected in the first place. Let's hope that we do not repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan as we did in Iraq when we failed to place "security" at the top of the list for nation building.


David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 11/15/2007 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

Tom the Redhunter said...

Excellent summary of the situation in Afghanistan, Kat. One thing I liked is that you stress the importance of logistics. There's a saying; "amatuers discuss strategy, pros talk logistics". It's a bit overstated, but makes a good point. Anyone who doesn't understand the importance of logistics and infrastructure to Afghanistan need only take a look at a map

BrianFH said...

Reading all that it's kind of hard to imagine how Afghanistan can be regarded as a single country, or even a country at all. In any case, the fight in A'stan is likely to justify the rubric "Long War" in a way that Iraq now looks like it will not warrant.

Tom the Redhunter said...

Merry Christmas, Kat!

worldpeace said...

Great summary here. Hope the fight will ending soon

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Good summary. But when it comes to the end, the best thing to do is, stop the war, stop the war, and again stop the war. Why don't once at least, we sit together in a peace world. Muslim, Christian, Jews, Buddhist, Confucious, and so on and so forth, unite as one and unite as the world. There are reasons why the mother nature makes us difference and that is for us to know each other.



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nick said...

When they can stop the war. Hope the war will be stop for future.

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Wentworth Dennett said...

"Let's hope that we do not repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan as we did in Iraq"

Through 2007 and 2008 we certainly did. Buy it's nice to see someone finally start to admit mistakes.

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Thank you for this post!! I've learned a lot about the war in Afghanistan!! Keep writing on your Blog!! please!!

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