04 January 2010

Afghanistan: State of the Insurgency

Wanted to share some slides from a briefing I attended in Dec at the Intelligence Warfighting Summit (IWS) in Tucson. COL Andrea Thompson (ISAF J2 OPS) gave an excellent overview of the state of the insurgency in Afghanistan. Although the brief is UNCLASS and thus lacking a high level of detail, it still provides some great insight into the strategy of the Taliban (and affiliated groups) as we head into 2010.

Afghan Insurgency (COL Thompson) - 10 DEC 09

A few things that stuck out to me:

-Growing influence of the Haqqani Network (HQN). The complicated relationship between Siraj Haqqani, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), and AQ proper is still unclear and seems to be changing. We here at al Sahwa agree with Bill Roggio from the LWJ, who asserts that Haqqani is running a large portion of the Taliban network in Eastern Afghanistan. With the unwillingness of the Pakistani Army to target the HQN, it leaves him free to run rampant on both sides of the Af-Pak border. Some analysts also believe his network was responsible for last week's attack on the CIA station in Khowst.

-Statement that the insurgency can "sustain itself indefinitely." This assessment thus lends itself to the need for a population-centric COIN campaign aimed to improve confidence in the Afghan government and bolster ANSF.

-Increased attempt to influence urban centers. The surge strategy is taking some risk and focusing additional troops to secure key urban areas, despite a historic focus on rural areas by the Taliban. Not sure I agree with this part of the ISAF assessment. Hopefully it is correct or else our gamble to secure Kandahar and Kabul might end up back-firing.

-Taliban Code of Conduct. We've seen a good deal of discussion about this already, but worth noting that Mullah Omar's top priority is, "to keep people and their property safe." He must have been reading FM 3-24. Also important to note the continued emphasis on increasing the frequency and lethality of IED attacks across the country.

-Dramatic increase in IED activity. In line with the stated strategy of the Taliban, the charts in the brief show three disturbing trends in terms of IED activity: 1) Increased frequency; 2) Increased size/lethality; 3) Switch to use of home-made explosives (HME) vs. military-grade munitions. These trends are similar to what occurred in Iraq from 2004-08. This makes it critical to develop a comprehensive plan within each BN area of operations to target the IED networks using a holistic, network-analysis methodology. We must take the lessons learned from success in Iraq and apply them to the problem in Afghanistan. Route clearance and "LOC security" are not a long-term solution and often end up making the problem worse.

-Chart showing all of the negative influences on the Afghan central government. Highlights the extreme level of corruption, which propagates a cycle of bribes in return for "Permission, Protection, Punishment." The end take-away is that very little money that's intended to improve the daily life of the Afghan populace is actually having an impact. COL Thompson discussed her role as the head of the newly formed Anti-Corruption Task Force (ACTF), whose primary role is to enforce legitimacy and try to root out corrupt officials at the national/provincial/district level...definitely a huge challenge.

Just some initial thoughts...would love to hear what others think. Do you agree/disagree with the ISAF assessment? How can we leverage some of the vulnerabilities that COL Thompson highlighted?


  1. I myself am rather concerned with focusing on the cities. To be sure you can't really say that you hold Afghanistan if you don't hold Kabul, Kandahar, and several of the other cities, but that doesn't mean that you can take your eyes off of the rural areas. This isn't Iraq and the insurgents here aren't the same ones who targeted Baghdad there.
    On money I find the mention of hawalas interesting, I hadn't expected soldiers to think much of it.
    Lastly for vulnerabilities I remember a tactic the French used in Algeria of leaving papers on dead men to suggest that there were many traitors among the FLN which caused the movement to nearly rip itself apart. Of course this could put real informants in serious danger but might be a way of exploiting local differences.

  2. "Hadn't expected soldiers to think much of it"? Maybe in 2003, amateur night ended a long time ago in this war.

    Snarking aside, I find the conflict intensity map interesting - high intensity combat seems to be down substantially since 2007, suggesting that the insurgency has not so much grown as been flattened and spread by Coalition pressure. As the Taliban have a lot of "reach" but not a lot of "depth" the emphasis should be more on building governance than clearing and holding enemy strongholds - probably why we haven't heard a whole lot out of the Army in the east while the Marines have been having a good ol' kinetic time in Helmand all year.

    Our strategy in Afghanistan is not an "urban" strategy, it is a population-centric strategy which requires deploying soldiers to where the people are. People live along the Helmand river in Helmand, so the focus is on the agricultural communities in the green zone there. Most of the population of Kandahar province lives in Kandahar city, so logically our main effort in Kandahar should be to secure Kandahar city - which the Taliban have been fighting a campaign over several years to bring under their sway.

    The Taliban only remain an existential threat to Afghanistan when they have influence over population and economic centers. Once they are cut off from support and funding and driven into the barren countryside they will become irrelevant and we can hunt down the remaining die-hards at leisure.

  3. Time to come up with our own IED strategy. Fight fire with fire. They are more dependent on road traffic access than we are by a long shot. Maximize the use of GPS tracking technology and devices would be a big help too. Use their own IED's against them if possible. They have a high rate of "accidental" and premature detonation. Let's help that along. Again, the "keys" are the detonators.

  4. It's strange to read the Western-systemic view of the deepening insurgency; I recall a conversation I had with a Hizbi-Islami Afghan friend in 2005, who set out the pattern now described in an anecdotal fashion: "The Taliban led by the Quetta Shura", he said, "will attempt to hold ground in the South and form a shadow government, while the Taliban forces in the East, led by Haqqani, will conduct a hit and run insurgency against U.S forces." This was all laid out in meetings, he claimed, between Taliban, Hizbi and AQ representatives, in April 2005. With his information, I set out to make a documentary, broadcast in the UK in 2007. (Meeting the Taliban.)

    I mention this anecdote, only because it strikes me as indicative of the problems that I now read a western analyst's description of an anecdote I heard four years ago. In other words, the West is now playing catch-up on a strategy that is now well-developed and widespread.

    The only other comment I would make is that on reading the analysis, and various comments, reminds me of a talk I once attended at RUSI in London. UK military/intelligence experts stood up and gave incredibly detailed accounts of the insurgency in Afghanistan, listing numbers,facts and figures. But they all ended their talks with "we still don't understand the Taliban."

    It seems the same is true with the analysis posted here, and the various comments. Despite all the lovely graphics and detailed "systems-analysis", it still appears that we "don't get them". I think that could be because they don't fit into our systemic prism. To us, they seem disorganised, disparate, fractured and riven by rival factions. And yet, with barely a computer between them, they have somehow formed a sophisticated strategy that threatens to overwhelm and defeat ISAF/NATO.

    The Taliban might not fit into our systemic view of the world, but they have their own way of doing things, that is clear once you're prepared to sit down with them over a cup of tea. Just because we can't see the connections and links, doesn't mean they're not there. I'm not sure they're grouped so distinctly as it's made out; most groups have informal connections with eachother, and their leaders know eachother personally. Siraj Haqqani was personal friends with B. Meshud, and their forces co-operated on an ad-hoc basis. They also co-operated with the Quetta Sura when and if they needed, and many of the same people are involved with different factions, often meeting up for chats in Peshawar and elsewhere. This fluid connection might not be visible, or identifiable by our systemic breakdown of the world, but it's both effective and, like mercury, can both scatter and come together.

    Finally, I would like to comment that standing back from minutae of numbers of IED's found etc, is the lack of comments on how, perhaps, the best way to defeat the Taliban lies in Pakistan. I know that is now well-understood by "Western" experts...after almost six years of ignoring the central role Pakistan plays. But the equivalent of the "Sunni Awakening" of Iraq, would be, I believe, the "ISI awakening" in Pakistan. If they can be convinced/cajoled into changing sides, then groups like Siraj Haqanni's would be dealt a deadly blow. ...that's where the real battle lies. But then I guess everyone knows that.

    p.s, as someone who was kidnapped by Siraj Haqqani's forces, I'm not sure I believe Mullah Omar's orders "not to kidnap" people.
    Happy New Year.

  5. The Taliban code of conduct was the most interesting comment. Wow.

  6. In re. to the third commenter, that actually could be a rather, difficult, dangerous, and potentially illegal method depending on what you mean.
    If you mean putting mines and bombs down across areas where civilians are known to travel that is probably a violation of the laws of war that the U.S is a signatory to, and in any case Afghanistan is a member of the nations that ban land mines. Lastly, given that the Taliban probably doesn't rely on roads as much as the Afghan army and Coalition forces are I don't think it would have any point.

  7. Experiences in Iraq are not relevant. Despite the brave fight put up by the Iraqis, it was easy to support the Shia majority to oust the Sunnis. Then the resentful Sunnis were given a deal to keep pressure on Baghdad. Kurds also fitted in to the strategy. The result is, generally, fewer casualties for the US forces while a low-level 'civil war' rages on betwen Shia/Sunnis. Suits US for the time being but can haunt it later.
    Afghanistan is a mountaineous country which is called a 'graveyard of empires'; ask Gorbachev!
    Here the US is up against Pashtuns who are the majority and they have a history of fighting 'outsiders'. When the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001,for 9/11 which remains a mystry and a rallying-point agianst the US, very few tears were shed by the Afghans. The Bonn conference of 2002 promised the Heavens for the Afghans yet failure of most initiatives allowed the taliban to reemrge. Now US presence is seen as 'occupation.'Obama seems to be paying for the sins of George W who appears to have hoodwinked his own people a la 9/11. Indiscriminate killings, through casual use of air-power, of many Afghan civilians over the last 8 years has been a regular feature. Afghan tradition sanctifies taking revenge for such murders. Even karzai had been protesting on many occasions but who cares. Now the number of people joining Taliban to avenge the bombing-deaths of their relatives is anybody' guess. In addition, the 'occupation' slogan is also helping the taliban. McChrystal is talking sense but he is 8 years too late!

  8. Anonymous 3 (who was captured by Haqqani): You stated, "...I now read a western analyst's description of an anecdote I heard four years ago. In other words, the West is now playing catch-up on a strategy that is now well-developed and widespread. "

    Boogle: You stated, "McChrystal is talking sense but he is 8 years too late!"

    Experiences in and throughout the region are relevant to the COIN campaign, just as past experiences that were not COIN are as well. It is a political argument to say that the US and its military personnel are too late; it implies we should have been there from "x" amount of years ago. America did not have the political will to be there.

    McChrystal is on the right path, and it is good to know that analysts are doing there job by either confirming trends and/or objectives. Author Ryan shared his analysis before in his 12/3/2009 post "Visualizing the Enemy in Afghanistan."

    The way in which this strategy is bound to be successful is because it focuses on local, political-cultural differences of tribes as US and allies did in Iraq; however, the approach is different because it is a different beast.

    As Ryan tells us in his 12/2/2009 post "Enemy Situation: Afghanistan," forces must begin by "targeting/intimidating local government officials, tribal leaders, and others who are openly anti-Taliban..." to "establish an intelligence network."

    COIN is a human calculation; the hardest part is learning the functions of our scientific calculator who are the people. Be steady, be patient, be strong.

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