Monday, August 27, 2018

Get a Sense of Urgency and Work the Problem in Afghanistan

I've said it is tough to get a feel for the war in Afghanistan. But I think recent events provide enough data to conclude we are not winning and could lose if the problems aren't solved.

The enemy in Afghanistan has plenty of its own problems that we don't see--probably a lot more than our allied Afghan forces have. But that doesn't deny our side has problems:

The SFAB has arrived at a time of increasing pressure on the Afghan National Army (ANA) from Taliban fighters who overran a series of outposts and stormed the strategic city of Ghazni this week.

The problems they have found are the same ones that existed a decade ago when the NATO-led coalition began to reshape Afghan forces into an army on U.S. lines - poor logistics and organization as well as a reliance on static checkpoints that are vulnerable to attack.

Like other advisers, Fontana, who served in a combat unit in the southern Afghan provinces of Zabul and Kandahar in 2011-12 as well as in Iraq, speaks admiringly of the fighting spirit of Afghan soldiers.

But he said the army is dogged by persistent problems with supplies, maintaining equipment and making sure units get proper support, issues which for years have been an obstacle to creating Afghan forces capable of standing on their own.

Afghan forces backed by American and coalition forces have defeated the Ghazni assault, but the assault should not have happened at all:

After five days of fighting, Ghazni, a strategically vital centre two hours from Kabul on the main highway between the capital and southern Afghanistan was a city of burned-out buildings and vehicles with bodies lying in the streets.

Local officials had been warning for months that the Taliban’s growing control over surrounding districts had left Ghazni vulnerable to attack and President Ashraf Ghani faced bitter accusations over the failure to protect the city.

And there was another battle that the Taliban won:

While the security forces appeared to reassert control over Ghazni, the Taliban attacked and seized large parts of an army base in the northern province of Faryab, killing at least 10 soldiers and capturing dozens over two days of clashes, officials said.

And a district headquarters was captured after a week-long siege and attack:

The Taliban overran the district of Bilchiragh in the northern province of Faryab after besieging it for more than a week. More than 100 Afghan security personnel are reportedly missing. This latest fall of another northern district is part of a disturbing pattern of Afghan forces being surrounded by the Taliban and then either overwhelmed or forced to surrender.

No friendly help arrived.

Strategypage has more, noting that the Ghazni assault was the result of Pakistan sending a message via dead Afghan civilians:

In the last week the Taliban lost over 300 men in Ghazni province during a futile attempt to seize the provincial capital. Security forces, armed locals and American air support disrupted and defeated the large scale effort against the city and several rural areas nearby. Ghazni is near the Pakistani border and contains some major heroin smuggling routes into Pakistan. These routes are kept open by the Taliban. The recent attacks, which included using civilians as human shields inside the city and destroying nearly a thousand small businesses, was basically an intimidation attack. It was very costly as it exposed many of the attackers to airstrikes and that’s how most of the Taliban gunmen were lost. There were financial costs as the Taliban usually pay next of kin when one of their members is killed in action. Without that payment recruiting would be a lot more difficult. Major losses in a single operation don’t help either, because they include some mid-level combat leaders who are career Taliban and difficult to replace. Not surprisingly many foreigners (Pakistani, Central Asian and Chechen) were found among the Taliban dead. Since the 1990s the Pakistani ISI (military intel) has sent reinforcements recruited in Pakistan to the Afghan Taliban. Ghazni has long been fought over, because of the heroin smuggling routes.

They also mention the Taliban victory where there are drug smuggling routes:

In the north (Faryab province) hundreds of Taliban attacked a small army base and the hundred or so troops there. When repulsed (after killing or wounding over half the soldiers) they besieged the base and after two days the 57 surviving troops surrendered because had received no resupply, air support or any assurances that help was on the way.

Strategypage also notes an Iran angle:

Captured Taliban in eastern and northern Afghanistan report a special Taliban force being trained in Iran, where they also receive new equipment and weapons with the understanding that they will return to Afghanistan and concentrate their attacks on Americans and ISIL. Iran is desperate to strike back at the Americans for renewing economic sanctions and thwarting Iranian efforts to take control of Syria and then launch attacks on Israel. These Iran backed Taliban have apparently been going after ISIL groups in western Afghanistan but not the Americans, at least not as far as anyone can tell. By August it was apparent that this Taliban strategy had worked in Jawzjan, where in a few weeks of fighting a 500 strong ISIL force was reduced to less than 200 and forced to surrender to the government to avoid annihilation.

The situation is a problem and we should not deny it. Although calling the battle at Ghazni a "siege" is silly, as is the comparison of the several attacks to the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, it is undeniable that the Taliban were able to mass a thousand fighters to attack Ghazni.

Note too, that the Taliban had lots of RPGs. No doubt thanks to the Pakistanis sending a message.

But this battle for Ghazni, while a victory, was not "a misfire from a fading enemy" as we claimed. If the Taliban were fading they'd be relying on mines and IEDs. That's the bottom rung of the escalation ladder. The mere fact that the Taliban are using direct fire assaults on Afghan security positions tells you that the Taliban have a level of strength that is dangerous.

And if left unchecked, the Taliban will learn to organize bigger and bigger assaults until even a city or major base garrison can be attacked, taken, and held.

I will note that in 2015 the Taliban did seize and briefly hold a provincial capital city. So the Taliban have been knocked down from that level of capability. But the potential of the Taliban to regain that ability is still there and that has to be ended.

We need to seize the initiative from the enemy and by relentless pursuit on the ground and with air and fire support make the Taliban think more about what we will do them than about what they will do to us.

Do that and we atomize the enemy--that is, force them into smaller and smaller combat formations out of the need to survive--and deprive them of the ability to even freely attack--let alone defeat--even small friendly outposts.

Once the enemy is atomized, small platoon-sized friendly outposts and patrols are safer and can extend a net to deprive the enemy of the ability to use the people and resources of areas now untouched by friendly government forces. This will extend a zone of defense around cities and big bases that deny the enemy the ability to approach unseen and attack in force.

Friendly forces must also have reaction forces all over the place (mobile by ground and air assets) along with responsive fire power, resupply, and medical evacuation. This will allow the government to react to enemy attacks quickly to hold those outposts that come under attack.

Atomizing the enemy makes friendly security forces in small outposts more likely to fight. They will know that the enemy can't mass much and can't mass for long because friendly forces will be on their way. Right now, Afghan forces manning those outposts have real reason to think they are on their own and that surrender or retreat are better options than fighting off an attack.

And yes, with such a low level of skills, Afghans need outside help to maintain weapons and equipment and to advise them on how to use the equipment. The government troops' jobs are far harder than what the Taliban do, who rely on simple techniques of killing and inspiring fear.

We can talk about statistics of control and opinion polls to divine whether we are in a stalemate, but the simple fact is that the enemy's clear ability to mass troops to attack cities and overrun smaller outposts indicates we are not winning this war.

It may be that the increase in Afghan special forces that are the mobile force Afghanistan needs to support their static outposts and garrisons (those forces must never be given the mission of holding outposts, replacing conventional infantry and police), and to seize the initiative, are part of the solution to these problems. And if growing Afghan air power backed by coalition air power, logistics, intelligence, and advisors can support those mobile and static forces, we will solve the problem that the news reveals.

But the situation does need to be turned around. And unless we want Afghanistan to again be a sanctuary for jihadis who will strike us at home, we must continue to work the problem.

UPDATE: Despite the ability of the Taliban backed by Pakistan to mount major attacks, Strategypage writes that many Taliban actually are tiring of the war:

Although a growing number of Afghan Taliban leaders want peace and an end to being manipulated by the Pakistanis the senior Afghan Taliban leader and the Pakistani generals are not inclined to consider peace talks because of all that money from the drug gangs as well as the ability to “control” (or at least disrupt) Afghanistan.

As I started out, this highlights that the enemy has problems, too. If we pull out because of our side's problems, the enemy's problems that could yet break them apart go away by winning.

UPDATE: Abandoning smaller outposts is better than having them wiped out, but at some point we have to help the Afghans hold those bases with adequately trained, equipped, supplied, and supported troops and police.

We can't win the war with only air power and Afghan special forces which is what we have been focused on building up.

UPDATE: I had thoughts nearly two years ago about the outpost issue where I go more into the atomization issue.