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Nov 29, 2017 | 08:12 GMT

8 mins read

The Battle for Advantage in Afghanistan

U.S. marines talk to Ugandan contractors at a guard station in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
(ANDREW RENNEISEN/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Both the U.S.-backed Afghan National Security Forces and the Taliban will ramp up their operations in the years ahead to break the stalemate in Afghanistan.
  • The Taliban will seek to elevate its rural insurgency by seizing critical urban terrain, while Afghan security forces will transition to major offensive operations to regain key territory in the countryside.
  • Both sides, however, will face substantial obstacles, impeding their efforts toward breaking the stalemate.

The war in Afghanistan, which has embroiled U.S. and NATO forces in battle with Taliban insurgents for the better part of two decades, remains locked in a stalemate that both sides are trying to figure out how to break. Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the U.S. forces in the country, acknowledged the impasse in a Nov. 23 interview, but added that he thinks a coming surge of U.S. troops into the country will help the Afghan National Security Forces conduct major offensives over the next two years that will turn the tide of the war in their favor. Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, the Taliban have been busy shoring up their positions and looking for ways to intensify their insurgency. For both sides, however, breaking the stalemate is much easier said than done, especially given the complexities inherent to the Afghan battlefield.

Handing Advantage to the Taliban

One key factor can largely account for the more recent successes that the Taliban have enjoyed: They have gained significant control over the Afghan countryside, particularly in strategically important provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar. Over the past few years, as NATO began to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, Kabul's forces gradually ceded control over large swaths of the countryside. That process was deliberately accelerated in early 2016 when, with NATO's encouragement, the Afghans abandoned checkpoints across the country en masse. The strategy was to remove Afghan troops from vulnerable and isolated positions, thus freeing them for concerted offensive action. However, given the Afghan forces' shortcomings in logistics, training and leadership, a significant and effective offensive campaign never materialized.

Taliban control over the countryside has allowed the insurgents to capitalize on a number of advantages. With more territory under their effective control, the Taliban have had more access to potential recruits, growing their ranks. A reduced footprint by Afghan forces has allowed the Taliban to more easily dispatch reinforcements to key sectors, including the transfer of forces to northern Afghanistan. The Taliban have also been able to focus more of their efforts on disrupting key transport nodes and highways, a process that has accelerated since 2016 with increased Taliban attacks on Highway 1, known as the "Ring Road."

Above all, control over the countryside has greatly improved the Taliban's treasury. More territory means an expanded tax base, as the Taliban have gained control over more villages and hamlets. More importantly, however, the Taliban's growing presence in the Afghan countryside has enabled them to increase their access to and better secure their primary source of income: opium. According to U.S. military estimates, as much as 60 percent of the Taliban's funding comes from the drug trade. Expanded Taliban control of the countryside has also crippled eradication efforts by the Afghan government, allowing more opium poppies to be grown. Over the past two years, the Taliban have successfully asserted control over 10 of the 14 districts in Helmand, a province responsible for about 40 percent of Afghanistan's opium production. It is little surprise, then, that Afghanistan's opium yield continues to skyrocket. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, production of opium almost doubled from 4,800 metric tons in 2016 to 9,000 metric tons this year.

Moreover, the Taliban are still looking to make more money. In the past, for the most part, the insurgents did not necessarily grow opium poppies themselves, but instead taxed the farmers who did and the drug traffickers who bought their crops. Recent reports from the country however, including by The New York Times, have detailed the Taliban's increasing efforts to move up the drug production supply chain, thus reaping greater profits. Instead of merely taxing the harvest and traffickers, the Taliban have begun to process opium syrup into heroin themselves, setting up some 500 makeshift labs across the Afghan countryside for that purpose.

The Taliban's Heroin Boom

The income boost has allowed the Taliban to spend more on their insurgency. The group has been able not only to improve salaries for its fighters but also to recruit increasing numbers of destitute farmers to its cause. And with more money, it can buy significantly better weaponry for those fighters. The Taliban "Red Unit," which has been equipped with relatively sophisticated gear such as optical sights and night-vision goggles purchased on the black market, and supplemented with equipment captured from the Afghan forces, offers a case in point. The equipment has helped the elite unit wreak havoc over the past year by staging night attacks on Afghan positions, leaving scores of soldiers and police officers dead. Better financing has also meant that Taliban units are now often much better equipped than the Afghan forces they fight, particularly the underequipped police units.

Notwithstanding its gains over the past two years and the occasional spectacular attack in Kabul, the Taliban remain a distinctly rural insurgency. Having solidified their base in the countryside, the Taliban now aspires to elevate its insurgency by seizing and holding a major urban center. To that end, the Taliban have made numerous assaults on key provincial centers, most prominently in northern Afghanistan, with repeated attacks on Kunduz. Recognizing the heavy blow that the capture of a population center would deal to the morale of both the Afghan national forces and the government in Kabul, the Taliban will continue to focus on that goal in the near future.

Seeking a Way to Shift the Tide

For the Afghan National Security Forces and its NATO backers, holding the line and preventing the Taliban from capturing a provincial center is but the first step in regaining the momentum against the insurgents. As Nicholson has made clear, the United States and the Afghan forces remain determined to recapture the initiative, break the stalemate and begin winning the war.

Beyond diplomatic efforts to regionalize the conflict and enlist more cooperation from Pakistan, the United States will focus its efforts on finding ways to push the Taliban back on the battlefield. A key aspect of this effort will be to improve the overall capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. To that end, the United States has been working to improve the Afghan forces' logistical capabilities. Washington has been distributing more advisors to the Afghans, from the corps level all the way to the battalion level, and is supplying the Afghan air force with training and more aircraft in an effort to double its inventory and capabilities in the years ahead.

With these renewed efforts, the United States aims to eventually join the Afghan forces for a major offensive in 2018 that would push the Taliban out of some of the key rural terrain they currently hold and to decisively regain the initiative in the conflict. Besides the territorial losses, ousting the Taliban from the countryside would also curtail their access to recruits and disrupt their financing. In the meantime, the United States has dramatically escalated its available air power assets over the country and loosened restrictions on their use. This strategy has already become manifest in the use of U.S. airpower to strike Taliban opium processing laboratories. A Nov. 19 air operation targeted eight such facilities in Helmand province as part of Operation Jagged Knife. Unlike the damage that a U.S. air campaign inflicted on the Islamic State's oil production facilities in Iraq and Syria, however, the Taliban's makeshift heroin processing plants are often easily replaced, sometimes in as little as a day.

Breaking the Stalemate

The struggle between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan forces to gain the initiative on the Afghan battlefield will intensify in the months ahead. While seeking to maintain their momentum in the countryside, the Taliban will strive to seize key urban terrain. To counter the insurgents, U.S. and Afghan forces want to drive back the Taliban out of their key rural terrain, disrupting their financing and inflicting heavy losses, thereby convincing the Taliban to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict that leaves the Kabul government largely in place. The United States itself recognizes that even in the best case, ending the war will mean negotiating a power-sharing agreement that necessarily includes the Taliban.

Neither side will find breaking the stalemate easy. As NATO adds reinforcements and firepower, including a significant increase in airpower and its use, the Taliban will find it even harder to seize and hold key urban terrain. For U.S. and Afghan forces, on the other hand, marshaling the number of ground troops needed to resume major offensive action against the Taliban will prove difficult, especially given the competing demands on Afghan forces, which are involved in various missions around the country. What's more, as casualties have mounted and the Taliban have threatened to retaliate against families whose sons are members of the Afghan National Security Forces, Afghan officials are finding that fewer recruits are opting to join. Corruption among Afghan officials also remains a pervasive concern that eats away at the Afghan forces' capabilities and erodes their morale and governance.

Both the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan national forces are girding for more heavy fighting ahead. But even as both sides seem determined to gain the upper hand in a war with no end in sight, constraints on both sides make it more likely that the Afghan battlefield will remain mired in stalemate for years to come.

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