The Afghan Surge: Where are we now?

Left Foot Forward’s Patrick Bury, a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who served in Sangin, Afghanistan, reports on the latest news out of Afghanistan.

With all eyes on Libya and the Middle East at the moment, the war in Afghanistan has slipped down the agenda; Left Foot Forward’s Patrick Bury, a former Captain in the Royal Irish Regiment who served in Sangin, Afghanistan, reports on the latest news out of Afghanistan

It is now over a year since President Obama’s decision to send an extra 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. Accompanied by another 8,000 or so International Security Assistance Force soldiers (ISAF), these “surge” forces began deploying in January 2010, and all forces had arrived in theatre by last November.

As such it is premature to judge the full impact of the surge, but there are some interesting indicators from 2010 that allow us to gain understanding of the effect of the surge so far.

The first influx of US troops to arrive in Afghanistan were immediately deployed on combat operations in central Helmand province, where they initially faced stiff resistance during February’s Operation Moshtarak, in and around the town of Marjah. Despite harder than expected fighting, by the summer the Taliban had been forced out to the peripheries of the security bubble and Marjah had become relatively secure.

Further north, having transferred Sangin to US Marines, the British effort switched to the less lethal Nad E Ali district. Here again, as operations to clear new areas from Taliban control were launched, there was heavy fighting. And again, ISAF troops drove insurgents away from the population centres and established a security bubble around them, proving that tactically and operationally the insurgency cannot defeat ISAF in battle.

Moreover, another success story for ISAF has been the rapid expansion and continued increase in capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, in particular the Afghan army (ANA). Clearing, holding and building in the above areas of central Helmand were General McChrystal’s, and later General Petreaus’s, main effort for 2010. Militarily, the forces deployed to clear these areas have succeeded. The latest polling shows vast increases in Afghan public perceptions of security in central Helmand and declining Taliban activity.

Yet with security now established and the relatively benign winter season further decreasing short term violence trends, military commanders are looking around and asking “what’s next?”

Herein lies the problem with the COIN strategy in Afghanistan: it still relies on Afghans to fill the governance void inside the security bubbles created by ISAF and Afghan forces. Yet this is not going to happen in any meaningful way anytime soon and may never occur.

The September 2010 elections highlighted the electoral fraud that still plagues Afghanistan, and the endemic corruption that is associated with President Karzai’s administration. The practical collapse of the Kabul bank, the lost millions of dollars of US development aid and the continuing controversy over Karzai’s brother’s rule in Kandahar show the ‘civilian surge’ has a long way to go in its fight against corruption and in developing governance.

The announcement of the July 2010 withdrawal date did not help things in this regard, emboldening insurgents and forcing a wary Afghan population to sit on the fence and bide their time. Meanwhile there is continued and sustained criticism from many credible quarters about the feasibility of a strategy that requires top-down nation building in a country that has little history or cultural acceptance of the Western ideals that underpin such a COIN strategy.

While the military, once resourced correctly, dutifully clears and holds the areas allotted to it, it is the lack of follow on credible Kabul governance that seriously undermines the current strategy. And as the military campaigns in Helmand and Kandahar have shown, even to create piecemeal operational security bubbles requires considerable resources, determination and patience. Linking these across Afghanistan to achieve strategic results may yet prove beyond ISAF member states’ political endurance.

In the rest of Afghanistan the picture is even less rosy. Violence is at an all time high, and public perception of ISAF control is at an all time low. The military say this correlates with surging operations into new territories and that the Taliban command structure has been severely degraded by the fighting.

Strong anecdotal evidence and the fact that the insurgency is changing to high-profile assassinations and terrorism, does support these claims and also provides an indicator of how the campaign may evolve in 2011. However, the litmus test of continued insurgent capability will be seen in their ability to conduct operations in summer 2011.

Only then will we have a good picture of the military headway ISAF is making, and only then will Afghans have a feeling of who to side with in this decade-long conflict.

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