Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Stand Our Ground and Grind Them Down

I always feel a bit better about Afghanistan when I read Strategypage.

While we haven't won the war in Afghanistan and we need to fight to win, we should not panic over the status of the campaign.

So far this year the government has lost control of nine of the 407 districts (each of the 34 provinces is composed of districts) in the country. Four are in Helmand, two in the northeast (Badakhshan province to secure a key smuggling route), two are in Ghazni province near the Pakistan border and one in nearby Zabul province. Most of the fighting in 2016 has been concentrated in seven provinces. These include Helmand in the south, Nangarhar in the east, Ghazni in the southeast and Kunduz in the north. These nine lost districts contain about six percent of the Afghan population. In another fifty districts there is enough violence and civil disorder, often because of the Taliban and drug gangs, to limit government control. ...

Since foreign combat troops left continued fighting in Afghanistan has left over 30,000 dead in the last 18 months. Most (about two-thirds) of the dead have been Taliban and other outlaws. About 17 percent of the dead have been civilians with the rest (about 17 percent) being security forces and pro-government tribal militias. ...

While ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gets most of the terrorist related media attention worldwide ISIL has largely been a failure in Afghanistan. In addition to regular American air attacks (usually via UAVs) ISIL has suffered most from hostile rivals and the security forces. ...

There are dozens of drug gangs (many tribe or clan based) that tend to remain at peace with each other for business reasons and will hire the best mercenaries they can. Another disturbing, but not unexpected, trend is the growing number of Taliban factions that are largely dispensing with any pretense of religious fanaticism and acting more like the traditional Afghan bandit gangs.
Do read it all.

Taliban control or even influence is actually fairly limited; Taliban and other enemy casualties have dominated the score card; and the jihadis are losing significance in favor of general (and traditional) lawlessness of banditry and the modern illegal drug business.

That's not a losing hand at all. In many ways it is all I hoped for when the first Obama surges were just notions:

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.

I was less hopeful of generating national forces and more hopeful about the timeline of handing off major combat duties. But still, we did not learn the lesson of walking away from Afghanistan after defeating the Soviets.

We did re-learn our lesson after walking away from Iraq in 2011 with a very good hand only to find we had to return for Iraq War 2.0 in 2024, didn't we?

But that's why I only feel a bit better after reading Strategypage.

UPDATE: According to President Obama, who spoke this morning, we will keep 8,400 troops in Afghanistan through the end of his administration rather than pulling out several thousand. These will continue to train and support Afghan forces, including helping against the Taliban local jihadis who focus on fighting the Afghan government (and producing drugs), as well as conducting direct counter-terror missions against jihadis who seek to hit us at home.

I guess we learned enough not to prize "responsibly ending" a war on a political timetable. So that's good.

UPDATE: Our CENTCOM general says that a reduction to 8,400 won't hurt the mission:

Obama on Wednesday shelved his plans to cut the U.S. force nearly in half by year's end, from 9,800 to 5,500. He opted instead for a more limited withdrawal to roughly 8,400 troops, noting that Afghan forces still needed U.S. support battling the Taliban insurgency after nearly 15 years of war.

In his first comments since Obama's announcement, General Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. military's Central Command, played down any impact of the looming troop withdrawal even as he acknowledged Afghan forces were suffering heavy casualties.

Of course, I've long wanted to keep enough troops in Afghanistan to support an air campaign and logistics capabilities in support of Afghan troops, special forces direct action, and a combat brigade of infantry as a fire brigade. Which would require a lot more than even 9,800.