Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Are We Losing in Afghanistan?

I think it is premature to even think about halting air and fire support to Afghan security forces and handing that task off to Afghans. But that doesn't mean I'm pessimistic about winning this war.

Is Afghanistan's government going to fail in the face of a resurgent Taliban?

That's what this article says:

Like a weak two-pair in Texas hold’em poker, the United States’ hand in Afghanistan is unlikely to improve with time as government opposition strengthens its grasp. As Afghanistan’s allies gathered in London recently to assess the capacity of the troubled nation’s newly formed government, the news of recent Taliban gains in southern and northern Afghanistan must surely have been on the minds of conference participants. Three announcements in the past six weeks – the US decision to extend Afghan combat operations for a full year; Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s resumption of night combat operations; and the U.S.-NATO Joint Command decision to classify assessments of the Afghan Government security forces for operational reasons – can all be taken as indications that Afghanistan may be closer to a collapse than many would publicly acknowledge.

Well, extending "combat operations" is just for our small amount of force left and allows us to provide air support another year. I think we should have an open-ended commitment for that kind of support.

And resuming "night combat missions" I imagine means resuming special forces night raids that proved very effective (with low deaths of innocents) and which former president Karzai complained about at the urging of the Taliban. We actually halted those under that pressure.

As for the classification of data, that may simply indicate that without American forces there, the margin of error if the enemy can mine that data for advantages has narrowed, meaning there is more likelihood of a major defeat for the Afghan government forces.

I don't see these as indications that Afghanistan may be closer to collapse.

Indeed, Strategypage doesn't have this level of doom at all:

While most Americans and the mass media worldwide have declared the 13 year U.S./NATO effort in Afghanistan a failure, most Afghans disagree. Although over 100,000 died during those 13 years (2,400 of them Americans and another thousand foreign troops). Nearly half the deaths in the 13 year war were Taliban, other Islamic terrorists and their drug gang allies. Another 30 percent of the dead were civilians, usually the targets of Taliban or gang intimidation. The Afghan security forces (mostly the police, plus the army) suffered 18 percent of the deaths. A little over three percent of the deaths were foreign troops, who gave the government forces an edge in firepower, support, intel and tactical leadership. ...

Opinion polls show 60 percent of Afghans believe the country is going in the right direction and 90 percent respect the army (and 70 percent the police). Only ten percent respect the Taliban, despite foreign media predicting that the Taliban will soon regain control of the country. Afghans scoff at that, if only because most would rather die fighting rather than submit to Taliban rule again. Foreigners tend to forget that angle, but the Afghans don’t.

If the Taliban were winning, I'd expect to see polling data indicating people hedging their bets.

Strategypage also addresses the fighting angle:

With most of the foreign troops gone the Taliban and other outlaws can now engage in terror attacks with less risk of retaliation. Two decades of Taliban activity in Afghanistan have taught most tribes that the best way to deal with this is to arm and defend yourself. The tribes don’t like to do this because it is expensive (more ammo and weapons are needed) and disruptive to the lives of tribal members. The Taliban see this self-defense trend as a major threat. Recruiting and movements are greatly restricted the more self-defense militias there are. The Taliban already know this from experience in parts of the country (mainly the north) where they have very little popular support and lots of armed and hostile tribesmen. The Taliban has been spending more and more effort fighting the tribal militias. ...

The Taliban (or local drug gangs assuming the name) only have a lot of control in four of 373 districts (each province is composed of districts). The Taliban are very active in over ten percent of districts, mainly in the south (Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the heroin is produced) and the east (where many ISI supported Islamic terrorist groups operate).

That post also has more polling data that argues against a coming "flop" for our side:

Meanwhile a recent nationwide opinion poll found 77 percent of Afghans support the presence of American troops in Afghanistan and 46 percent (mainly in areas with a heavy Taliban presence) want more American military (29 percent want fewer).

The rise of self-defense militias is important. I actually don't have a lot of confidence in the capacity of the nominal national government. I don't want to put all our eggs in that basket.

Since before our surges I've wanted locals to have more of a say in their own defense:

The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.

And we stick around this time, unlike after the Soviets left Afghanistan when we ignored the place, for a generation or two to see if we can move Afghanistan into the 19th century (hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves).

Hopefully our military surge recedes by the end of 2011 and we can get down to a single combat brigade plus air power that function as a fire brigade and a hammer for the central government should a local difficulty exceed Afghan military capabilities.

There's one more thing I expected:

Oh, and of course the anti-war side will stop seeing Afghanistan as the "good war." The Left will start advocating defeat there, too.

I will say that the author has a point that measuring enemy-initiated attacks can be misleading as a metric of success if the number goes down. Yes, it can be because our side has defeated the enemy. But it can also happen if the enemy is winning and has no need to attack.

I'd stay engaged just in case. We now have the example of Iraq since 2011 as a warning of what can happen when we disengage prematurely, don't we?