Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict
In January, one of every six improvised explosive devices (IEDs) planted in Afghanistan resulted in the wounding or killing of a U.S. serviceman or servicewoman, compared with one in four in August 2010, according to the U.S. Defense Department's Joint IED Defeat Organization. This reduction in effectiveness (though not the number of overall IEDs employed) has been attributed to proactive measures to counter the IED threat — more resources dedicated to route clearance, route surveillance and aerial surveillance, as well as more tips from locals. Though winter is an operational challenge in much of the country, the United States and its International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) allies have attempted to maintain a higher operational tempo throughout the winter months, and the application of additional resources to the counter-IED effort may have had a significant impact. However, the emplacement of IEDs has not slackened since August 2010, with 1,200 to 1,500 planted per month, including through the early winter months. Additionally, dismounted casualties on foot patrols, often due to directional fragmentation charges, have continued to rise — and it is these dismounted patrols that are at the core of the ongoing counterinsurgency-focused campaign, including operations in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. So while route clearance and the full deployment of M-ATVs may be significantly reducing roadside IEDs, front-line troops remain as vulnerable as ever, and IEDs continue to be the insurgents' single most effective weapon. While there have been some optimistic assessments on progress in recent months, the struggle with the insurgents is almost certain to heat up in the spring. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen has predicted that violence will rise above 2010 levels, which were the most violent of the war thus far.
Tribal elders have claimed that some 64 civilians were killed in four days of ISAF operations in an isolated district of Kunar province in northeast Afghanistan along the Pakistani border. Both rotary and fixed-wing assets were reportedly involved. ISAF initially claimed that 35 to 40 insurgents had been killed along steep, rugged terrain, but an investigation with both ISAF and Afghan representatives is now under way at the scene. (click here to enlarge image) Though the use of fire and close air support has become more controlled with stricter rules of engagement as part of the counterinsurgency-focused strategy under Gen. David Petraeus, commander of ISAF and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, the number of airstrikes in the country has increased rapidly to unprecedented rates in the war. New restrictions designed to prevent civilian casualties remain in place, but the more aggressive operational tempo across many parts of the country has led to an increased usage of air power, which carries inherent risks of collateral damage and civilian casualties that can be counterproductive to a counterinsurgency strategy. Unfortunately, whatever the truth of this particular incident, many Afghans will believe the claims of civilian casualties are true. This is a longstanding challenge for the ISAF effort in information operations, a domain in which the Taliban, as a guerrilla force, are naturally more poised to dominate.
On a related note, the Taliban rejected U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement that they cannot defeat the ISAF and that they should reject violence and al Qaeda. The Taliban response emphasized their own ideology — their freedom, independence and common beliefs — in an attempt to reshape broader Afghan perceptions of Clinton's speech. Ultimately, Afghan locals have to make their own choices. Their unease about the durability of the ISAF commitment to the country, as well as the Afghan government's longer-term ability to provide for their safety and security, is a critical factor the Taliban work to emphasize. But the Taliban must also be concerned about what may be increased assistance provided to ISAF forces by locals who have decided to reject the Taliban and support the Afghan government, imperfect though it may be. The question, then, is how the Taliban can reshape perceptions in the year ahead, not simply through creative rhetoric but through their actual efforts and operations.