Gen. David Petraeus is in Washington again trying to manage expectations about the ongoing campaign in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a recent Taliban attack in Kandahar, along with the way Kabul is handling matters, serves as a reminder that counterinsurgency warfare is a painstaking and frustrating business.
Gen. David Petraeus, commanding general of the sprawling U.S. Central Command that stretches from the Levant to Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 16 that progress in Afghanistan would be “incremental and difficult” in the coming year. He detailed “critical shortages” of key specialties like intelligence, counterintelligence and document exploitation and admitted that “significant work” remains in building up indigenous Afghan security forces. This sort of expectation management has been a hallmark of statements about the U.S. strategy from senior officials and officers — and something in which Petraeus is well schooled from his days building up support for and executing the 2007 surge in Iraq. But it is also reflects the mountain of challenges that are compounded by ambitious goals and an aggressive timetable set for the U.S./NATO mission in Afghanistan. Indeed, in the past week there was a counterpoint to the recent offensive in the farming community of Marjah in Helmand province known as Operation Mushtarak, which was an important proof of concept for the current U.S. strategy. On March 13, the Taliban carried out a major attack in Kandahar, rocking the city with a series of coordinated suicide bombings that killed dozens of people. The focal point of the attack appears to have been the city’s main prison in what may have been an attempt to replicate a 2008 prison break at the same facility that freed hundreds of inmates. Though it was not the first attack in Kandahar since Marjah, it appears to have been the largest and most sophisticated. (click here to enlarge image) The Kandahar attack was simply the most prominent in what has been a much broader rise in Taliban activity in recent weeks mainly in the south and east and to a lesser extent in key population centers along the Ring Road like Kabul. Currently the improvised explosive device (IED), which remains a key tool of the Taliban, is the single deadliest weapon used against coalition forces in Afghanistan. Though more crude than the IEDs used by Iraqi insurgents, the Taliban’s devices are much easier to conceal in Afghanistan’s plentiful dirt roads and often contain primitive triggers and scarcely any metal, which make them harder to detect and jam. Another growing problem, which was very evident in Marjah, is the more accurate use of direct-fire weapons, including machine guns and rifles. Taliban activity always rises this time of the year, with the spring thaw, and it can be expected to continue to increase into the summer. The real question at this point is the extent to which their operational capabilities and tempo can be affected by the efforts of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the growing ranks of Afghan security personnel. Within days of the Kandahar attack, Afghan President Hamid Karzai promised some 1,000 additional police officers to reinforce security forces in the city. U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of the ISAF, had already made it clear that the city of Kandahar and its environs will be a major focus of operations this summer. These two moves — the massing of forces and the prior public announcement of military plans — have significant implications on the overall campaign. First, there are many reasons why Karzai would want to reinforce police in Kandahar, the most important one being the political imperative. His government must be seen taking decisive action in the wake of a terrorist attack. But with a looming surge to route Taliban influence from the area (though their influence in Kandahar is significant, the Taliban do not “control” the city as they once did Marjah), there are also practical security considerations in preparing for the offensive, including getting more security personnel in place. Nevertheless, this also comes at a cost. The United States is attempting to establish and maintain security broadly in key population centers and critical territory such as approaches to these cities — and for development projects that correspond roughly with the Ring Road. This requires an economy-of-force effort in which units are dispersed judiciously to hold key ground while governance and civil authority can be strengthened and development projects and commerce can improve conditions for the civilian population. Kandahar, as the ideological homeland of the Taliban and one of Afghanistan’s largest cities, is of central importance in this effort. But Afghanistan’s indigenous security forces are not yet up to strength, so dedicating additional forces to Kandahar comes at the expense of leaving another area more vulnerable to Taliban attack and intimidation. In any event, the true value of police in a counterinsurgency is their greater connection to and interaction with the local population, something that shuffling police units around the country will not accomplish. In other words, if by using tactics seen in Kandahar in 2008 and on March 13 the Taliban can provoke its foes into playing “whack-a-mole” — chasing the Taliban from place to place without ever effectively engaging them or defending against their assaults — the Taliban can gain a key advantage. By rushing around trying to deal with crises after they happen, ISAF and Afghan security forces will effectively secure nothing for more than a short period — which is exactly the sort of security environment that has allowed the Taliban to resurge and thrive in recent years. As for publically announcing major military efforts, this was done prior to the Marjah operation and is being done in the run-up to the pending Kandahar effort. A significant cost comes with this move as well. Both cities have been Taliban strongholds and were logical targets for the U.S. surge into Afghanistan. But announcing the assaults before hand, while mitigating civilian casualties, surrenders not only strategic surprise but also tactical surprise. Though an aerial assault and special operations raids in the opening round in Marjah did reportedly achieve some success in surprising the Taliban defenders, the build-up to and timing of the assault was readily apparent to anyone in the city, friend and foe alike. The benefits of this approach are that the Taliban can be given time to withdrawal to the countryside and decline combat, as they are wont to do, which reduces the level of violence and the number of civilian casualties, a central theme of Gen. McChrystal’s tenure. It also provides the opportunity to get tribal and village elders to buy into the operation and to coordinate the ISAF security operation with follow-on development efforts. And Kandahar, a major Afghan city, will not be dealt with in the same way the smaller farming community of Marjah was. Security efforts will be more deliberate and advance at a more measured pace. But the underlying focus on the population, as it did in Marjah, will inhibit the effort to destroy the enemy through the application of military force, and it will give the Taliban considerable freedom of action. Fighting in such a way is a matter of maintaining a delicate balance — and one reason counterinsurgency is such a frustrating form of warfare. This growing emphasis on winning hearts and minds was also evident this past week in Gen. McChrystal’s announcement that nearly all special operations forces in Afghanistan will be brought under his direct command. Previously, although wearing the dual hats of ISAF commander and head of all U.S. forces Afghanistan, McChrystal still did not control certain special operations units that remained under the operational command of their parent organizations (a not uncommon chain of command in the special operations community). However, in conducting their missions independently at night in secretive, volatile and uncertain circumstances, special operatives garnered a reputation for inflicting more than their share of civilian casualties. Though a select few units have retained their independence, McChrystal (himself the former commander of the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command) is now directly involved to some extent in all special operations in Afghanistan. This should result in a more coordinated military effort throughout the country, but it could come at the cost of speed and independence, which are often seen as central to the success of hunting high-value targets. While not antagonizing the population one hopes to win over is an important part of any counterinsurgency, it remains to be seen whether the cost of not decisively engaging and destroying the Taliban can be compensated for through more constructive methods. And it is not yet clear exactly what that cost will be.