Shifting goalposts: Philip Hammond on Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s momentum

Everything is going so swimmingly well in Afghanistan, suggests British defense secretary Philip Hammond, that British troops might start coming home early:

[H]e said British military thinking was evolving because commanders had been “surprised by the extent to which they have been able to draw back and leave the Afghans to take the lion’s share of the combat role … we have clearly built the basics of a future that will deny the space of Afghanistan to those who would seek to harm us” … The UK has closed 52 of its military bases and checkpoints in Helmand province over the last six months, leaving 34 still operating, he revealed.

Hammond says many sensible things about the need for accommodation with parts of the insurgency, and the limited nature of British objectives. Yet, though Hammond was clearly very careful not to articulate it, the impression given is that ISAF is basically winning. Is that right?

Consider last week’s analysis in the Long War Journal on whether the Taliban’s “momentum” has, as claimed, been broken. It concludes that “the Taliban-led insurgency remains capable of maintaining an extraordinary level of violence throughout Afghanistan, far worse than prior to the surge”. On balance, “the surge in Afghanistan did not achieve the same reduction in violence as was experienced in Iraq following the surge there”.

On the insurgency’s leadership:

Despite years of repeated night raids and other operations against the Taliban’s senior, mid, and lower-level leadership cadre, the group does seem to possess a remarkable capacity to regenerate its command structure in Afghanistan and continue to mount attacks. In addition, the top leadership cadre of the Quetta Shura and the leaders of the four regional military commands, most of whom are based in Pakistan, remain virtually untouched in these raids.

Terrorist attacks are up:

The number of terrorist-caused deaths in 2011 increased by nearly 5 percent when compared to 2010, and by almost 21 percent when compared to 2009. And while the total number of terrorist attacks decreased in 2011 as compared to 2010, there were still far more terrorist attacks in 2011 than in 2009 or earlier years.

On the insurgency’s changing geography:

Despite gains in the south, the overall level of violence is worse than in the years prior to the surge because of what the UN calls a “geographic shift” in the conflict. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where surge forces were primarily deployed, have seen a decrease in violence, but still remain the most violent areas overall. The decrease in violence in the south has been offset, to a large extent, by an increase in violence in the eastern provinces and elsewhere.

This shift to the east also relates to another of Hammond’s claims, that “now that al-Qaida had been ‘eliminated’ from the country, it was not right to ask troops to put their lives at risk for nation-building”. The Long War Journal argues, by contrast, that “Al Qaeda remains particularly strong in eastern Afghanistan, despite President Obama’s pledge to make sure that al Qaeda will not use the country as a safe haven once again”.

Elsewhere, in relation to Hammond’s central point about the viability of the ANSF, see Kenneth Katzman’s Congressional testimony here:

Corruption, patronage, nepotism, and factionalism are cause for serious concern about the cohesiveness and performance of the ANSF after the completion of the security transition in 2014. It is ethnic and political factionalism that probably poses the greatest threat to the post-2014 prospects for the ANSF, particularly if the Taliban-led insurgency remains active and puts pressure on the ANSF militarily. It is possible that many Pashtuns in the ANSF could defect from the force, and that the northern and western minorities might leave the force and rejoin the militias and irregular forces formerly fielded by the political leaders of those minorities.

And, finally, see the assessment of Tim Foxley, who has worked for the British and Swedish governments on Afghanistan:

Although the example of the Najibullah regime is in danger of becoming the default benchmark for measuring prospects of the current government, it may not be entirely helpful. However, international military and development support will remain crucial to the survivability of the Afghan regime well beyond 2014. Neither international-backed government nor insurgent groups look likely to achieve decisive momentum. Over this five year timeframe, a messy, unresolved stalemate – government controlling cities and most communications routes with insurgents and militias dominating less accessible regions – looks to be the most likely outcome.

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