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15 septembre 2011 4 15 /09 /septembre /2011 12:10


British Marines fire 51mm light mortars after receiving

incoming fire from Taliban. (Photo: UK MoD)


September 15, 2011 By Anthony H. Cordesman / Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – defpro.com


There is a growing tendency to cover the war in Afghanistan by chasing the headlines from event to event. The kind of coverage turns a tragic helicopter crash into a crisis, and does the same for a largely symbolic attack on the ISAF and Embassy compound in Kabul. At the same time, it is fueled by a lack of honest ISAF and US official reporting, and the almost inevitable media reaction to spin and good reporting from the US government that increasingly is taking on the character of the daily press follies in Vietnam. Official briefings that merit nothing but distrust earn distrust.


Unfortunately, there has been a steady decline in the quality and transparency of the reporting in the war, and this makes it hard to bring the war into perspective. Some things do, however, seem clear:




ISAF, the US and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are making important military gains in Southern Afghanistan and in attacking the leadership and key cadres of the insurgents:


• The surge in US forces, and buildup of the Afghan Army has led to far more intense fighting. This produces more US, ISAF, ANSF and insurgent casualties, makes it harder to limit civilian casualties, and collateral damage, and raises the number of security incidents caused by ISAF. It also, however, is scoring major tactical gains in the south.


• ISAF is able to hold help the Afghan government and forces build up the ability to secure many areas in the south formally dominated by the Taliban. In the areas, the Afghan government is more popular, ISAF military action has more popular acceptance, and there are better prospects for transition to meaningful Afghan control and the hold and build phase that secure the civilian populace.


• The number of Taliban, Haqqani, Hekmatyer, and other insurgent initiated attacks is down. Large numbers of insurgent arms caches have been seized, many as the result of tip from the local Afghan populace.


• Afghan security forces continue to grow significantly in numbers, have better training and equipment, have better pay with less corruption in the payment process, and have better trained leadership cadres.


• A combination of US special forces, CIA, military, and UCAV attacks has hit hard at the leadership and key cadres of Al Qaida, the Taliban, Haqqani, Hekmatyer, and other insurgent groups. They may reach the point of fragmenting the leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, making AQAP. AQIM, and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb the key centers of Al Qaeda activity.


• No combination of intelligence and security forces can ever prevent a limited number of attacks from occurring in a city or in rural areas where normal freedom of movement occurs. As long as there is an organized insurgent or terrorist presence in the country or area – and sanctuaries in Pakistan -- they will always find ways to carry out bombings, attacks from a distance, infiltrate some attackers, carry out assassinations, and intimidate and coerce local populations.


Taking every major burst of casualties, and new attack of any kind, out of this broader context may grab headlines or airtime, but it fails to put the war in perspective. It can also lead to an almost constant stream of such stories over the next 12-18 months even if the war is successful. The current campaign plan calls for intense fighting through at least the end of 2012, and where ISAF and the ANSF still have to show they can fully secure Kandahar and move forces into the East and defeat the insurgents there.




In fairness to the media, however, every action by a public affairs officer follows the laws of Newtonian physic: It produces an equal and opposition reaction. ISAF, the US Embassy, the Departments of State and Defense, and the White House are spinning far too much of the war and providing far too little data and balanced perspective. The level of realism that took place in official reporting during the initial period when the new strategy was adopted has been replaced by Vietnam era business as usual.

• No combination of intelligence and security forces can ever prevent a limited number of attacks from occurring in a city or in rural areas where normal freedom of movement occurs. As long as there is an organized insurgent or terrorist presence in the country or area – and sanctuaries in Pakistan -- they will always find ways to carry out bombings, attacks from a distance, infiltrate some attackers, carry out assassinations, and intimidate and coerce local populations.


• It is unclear that ISAF and the ANSFR can scale up their current victories in the South or hold on to those victories and move east. The surge in US forces, and buildup of the Afghan Army, does not offer a clear capability to exercise the campaign plan issued early this year. US and allied troop cuts will now take place at a rate this sharply increases the risks in establishing the planned levels of security in the East and the rest of Afghanistan by 2014.


• ISAF and the US have deliberately ignored this risk and have not provided any public set of goals for establishing security and going from the clear and hold to the hold and build phases. They have failed to show that the current level of tactical successes can credibly be scaled up and sustained on the basis required secure and transfer even the 81 critical districts, and 41 other districts, that are the focus of the campaign plan. It is all too clear from the past, however, that any local power vacuum --or corrupt, ineffective local government – opens up areas in which the Taliban and other insurgents can exert influence or control.


• The Taliban and other insurgents are adapting. They are moving to other areas, making more use of sanctuaries in Pakistan. They are avoiding conflict with ISAF and the ANSF, and focusing on assassinations and intimidation to prevent or undermined Afghan government control. They are focusing on high profile attacks designed to show ISAF countries the war is not won or winnable, undermine support for the Afghan government, and possibly push the Afghan government and ISAF into the kind of political settlement and accommodation that will split the country or give the Taliban the ability to gradually take control of the government.


• While the leadership and key cadres of Al Qaida, the Taliban, Haqqani, Hekmatyer, and other insurgent groups have suffered, it is far from clear that even Al Qaeda will really be defeated on a lasting basis, and the Afghan groups may well be able to outwait the US and ISAF in Pakistan. Reporting that some cadres are “tired” does not mean that the Taliban perceives itself as being defeated on a political and strategic level.


• Afghan security forces are getting larger and are improving, but it is far from clear that the Army is creating sustainable and affordable forces, or forces of the quality, that that will permit transition. There are serious problems with ethnic factions, attrition, and ties to powerbrokers in creating the new capabilities necessary for a force that must operate independently and sustain itself. The key training command – NTM-A is being rushed into far quicker force development plans as a result of the new speed of transition that must take place by 2014, and is being pressed hard to make massive cuts in projected aid funding. Negative data on the operational capabilities of actual units in the field is largely unreported.


• The police continue to present massive problems in quality, corruption, leadership, divided loyalties, attrition, and ties to power brokers and narcotrafficers that are not addressed in official reporting or readiness issues. Their inability to function properly in the many areas where the Afghan government does not provide services or a meaningful presence, where the formal justice system does not really operate, and where jails and detention centers either do not exist or are centers of human rights abuses are not meaningfully addressed in official reporting.


• The slow progress in creating anything like the originally planned levels of Afghan governance and government services in the field seems to have led to deleting many of these details from official reporting. Similarly, 10 years into the war, there still is no credible reporting on the effectiveness of aid activity as distinguished from spending data and broad – often unverifiable or statistically incredible –claims of success. The uncertain ability to scale tactical success in the “clear and hold” phase is compounded by a much broader uncertainty about the ability to carry out “hold and build” and transition areas and district to meaningful Afghan government control.


• No one seems to want to address the lack of capability in many aspects of the Afghan civil government, the lack of a functioning relationship between the President and the Legislature, and the complications holding yet another Presidential election in 2014 – the year of military transition and a probably deep financial crisis.


• There is no accepted transition plan for funding and advising the ANF, and where will not be one, until the US and its allies can reach critical budget and manpower decisions that will probably be deferred in the US until Congress acts on the current budget crisis and the plans that are finally funded in the FY2013 budget – which could easily be late 2012.


• This applies to civil aid and the governance and economic phases of transition as well. ISAF, US, and Allied officials can use the word transition, and talk about transition plans, but they lack the basis for planning and managing this key aspect of the war. And, ultimate acceptance, decision-making and implementation of any transition effort must come from the Afghan government.


• The US, allies, and groups like the World Bank are only beginning to address the economic impact of the massive cuts in military and aid spending that will occur in 2012-2014, and beyond. There is no public reporting on the estimates of just how serious cutting outside spending will be a country where it currently is well over 25 times the government’s total internal revenues, and where the poverty and un and underemployment levels probably already exceed 30%. So far, such studies do not address the massive impact of narcotic trafficker, and related criminal networks, on the Afghan economy.


• Discussion about the formal transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government border on the ludicrous. Exactly the same pattern was followed in Iraq as an exercise in political symbolism and at a time the government lacked to capability and forces to really carry out the mission. Such transfers were tried in Basra, for example, but leadership there was so weak and poorly tied to the central government that the Iraqi government forces – with massive US support – had to effectively invade the province several months later. Meaningful transfer will take years of continued aid, US and ISAF back up, and major further improvements in Afghan forces and governance.


• As Iraq illustrates all too clearly, even more real world transfer of responsibility can be unstable and involve a serious level of continuing violence. Effective host country control of the security efforts does not mean there will not be continuing bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations indefinitely into the future. Similarly, Iraq shows that ethnic and sectarian conflicts and tensions remain a risk after such transfer. In the Afghan case, no one seems to want to address the risk of a split between Pashtuns and other ethnic groups.


• No one ties transition and progress in Afghanistan to the lack of progress in Pakistan, and the slow growth of instability in that country. The future of a major nuclear and military power, which is the scene of key sanctuaries in the Afghan War and intelligence ties to key Afghan insurgent groups, is only analyzed in public at a token level.




This list of risks and challenges does not mean the US, ISAF, or Afghan government will lose the war. It does, however, illustrate the need for far more convincing reporting on the war, on transition, and on the risks that even sustained tactical success could lead to strategic failure if the Taliban and other insurgent groups simply outwait the coming cuts in US and allied forces and spending.


It is also all too clear that this prospect will become a reality if the US government cannot do a far better job of winning back American public support for the war, carrying out realistic transition planning as distinguish from finding a cover for an exit, and get Congressional support for the continued funding and manpower necessary to make transition work. Even success in these areas also cannot address the problem of Pakistan, which is strategically far more important than Afghanistan.


These are the areas that the Administration, the Congress, the public and the media should concentrate on, and not symbolic attacks in Kabul or a single tragic downing of a helicopter.



* Anthony H. Cordesman is the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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