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Jul 27, 2010 | 20:00 GMT

7 mins read

A Week in the War: Afghanistan, July 21-27, 2010

Afghanistan at the Crossroads: Insights on the Conflict Center for Strategic and International Studies Report(STRATFOR is not responsible for the content of other websites.)


On July 25, the website WikiLeaks — in coordination with The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel — released tens of thousands of classified documents chronicling the Afghan war effort over five years to the end of 2009. Nothing released so far has been classified above "secret." WikiLeaks has claimed that it is in the process of reviewing thousands of additional documents and redacting information that may endanger individuals working with the United States in Afghanistan, though the White House and political commentators have voiced concerns that information already revealed could pose a similar threat (though it is not clear that this is actually the case). The authenticity of the reports has not been officially disputed, but the completeness of the portrait they paint is ultimately unknowable. Though they do not provide a complete picture of the conflict, the reports — many of which are tactical battlefield reports — do shed more light on specific tactics and incidents. But the reports really only confirm what was widely accepted: The Taliban are a tough and tenacious fighting force, progress is proving elusive, and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) has continued to provide clandestine support to the Taliban despite Islamabad's increasing cooperation with Washington. Ultimately, even the ongoing cooperation between the ISI and the Taliban comes as no surprise. Afghanistan is of fundamental strategic interest to Pakistan, and Islamabad expects the Taliban to remain a powerful force in Afghanistan after the United States and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) begin to withdraw. It would therefore be irrational for the Pakistanis to completely sever their ties with the Afghan Taliban, not only because they intend to be at the center of any negotiated settlement but because the relationship serves as a hedge against a more substantial deterioration in the security situation. The real issue raised by WikiLeaks is that the information released reinforces arguments regarding the intractability of the conflict in Afghanistan — especially on the timetable the Americans have set for themselves. And because it questions the Pakistani commitment to the U.S.-led efforts, it creates tensions between Washington and Islamabad and between Islamabad and Kabul. Kabul will be busy managing those within and outside the regime that are opposed to cooperation with the Pakistanis and negotiations with the Taliban, who have been emboldened by the support the leaks give their position. Having recently been faced with a Pakistani-American rapprochement, India is attempting to exploit the situation to regain some ground in the region. Indian Home Secretary G.K. Pillai on July 14 accused the ISI of playing a much larger role in the planning and execution of the 2008 Mumbai attacks than previously thought, and these leaks will be used to bolster his case. Washington will be forced to soothe Afghan and Indian concerns while endeavoring to maintain its functional relationship with Pakistan. (click here to enlarge image)

Man-Portable Air Defense Systems

Some reports following the WikiLeaks release focused specifically on the threat of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) — shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (such as the FIM-92 Stinger the United States provided to Afghan Islamist insurgents during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan). The WikiLeaks reports provided some additional perspective on the nature of the MANPADS threat in Afghanistan. But the media coverage focused on a 2007 crash of a CH-47 Chinook in Helmand province where five Americans, a Canadian and a Briton were killed. The incident report suggested MANPADS, but the official story about that crash had been more evasively worded. Nevertheless, in 2009 the U.S. military formally acknowledged the occasional use of infrared guided MANPADS like the SA-7. The SA-7 design dates back to the 1960s and was the first widely fielded Soviet MANPADS. It was built under license in much of the Warsaw Pact and was widely proliferated. But it is also an early first-generation MANPADS, and in 2009, U.S. Air Force then-Lt. Gen. Gary North expressed confidence in the United States' ability to manage that threat. In the course of a nine-year war in a crossroads of the world's black arms market, and due to the Taliban's almost certainly desperate and extensive attempts to acquire such weapons, it would be odd not to see isolated uses of MANPADS. Indeed, given the hot and high conditions that push helicopters to the edge of their operational abilities and terrain that makes even heavy machine guns, recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles potentially effective anti-aircraft weapons, the current rates of helicopter losses seem remarkable not for how many are brought down by hostile fire but for how few are lost (even allowing for occasional inaccuracies in official reports). MANPADS pose a real threat to ISAF forces, but the threat has not materialized in a militarily significant way. STRATFOR will examine this issue more closely in a forthcoming analysis.

Improvised Explosive Devices

Meanwhile, in another (more conventional) release of information, the Center for Strategic and International Studies has published data released by the U.S. Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) covering from 2004 to the first few months of 2010 — roughly the same period as the WikiLeaks data released thus far. This report also does not provide any fundamentally shocking information, but like the WikiLeaks releases, it does provide some additional granular perspective. (click here to enlarge image) It is abundantly clear that the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) has been on the rise, though the report shows 2010 levels rising to 2009 peaks before the summer fighting even really reached its full force (a lull can be seen each winter in the data). The rise in ineffective IED incidents appears to outstrip effective incidents, which may be in part the result of the surge of new mine-resistant, ambush protected all-terrain vehicles to the country. However, the number of IEDs "turned in" by locals — letting ISAF forces know where an IED has been emplaced — appeared to be on the decline at the beginning of the year, and this could have affected the number of IEDs found and cleared. The number of coalition soldiers killed and wounded in action by IEDs at the beginning of 2009 also outstripped the figures from the previous year. Ultimately, this is to be expected as more and more troops are deployed to the country and operational tempo is increased. Similarly, these figures reveal little about the effects of a variety of measures to reduce IEDs' effectiveness that have been implemented recently in the country and are only now beginning to make an impact. Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, commander of JIEDDO, said in an interview published July 12 that he expects the tide of IED attacks in Afghanistan to turn by the end of the year. Whether or not that occurs remains to be seen, but this is not something a senior officer says lightly.

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