ISAF Rethinks Afghan Districts

With US troops set to start leaving in the summer, ISAF is deciding which are the ‘key’ districts in Afghanistan.

With the International Security Assistance Force scheduled to begin losing troops this summer as the first Americans withdraw, the command is rethinking the distribution of its forces. ISAF has designated around 100 of Afghanistan’s 400 districts as ‘key terrain districts.’ ISAF’s increasingly scarce resources will likely be focused on these areas.

The criteria for the ‘key’ designation apparently varies according to the particular strategy in place in the region containing the district. In ISAF’s eastern regional command, where the focus is still on counter-insurgency – as opposed to the more violent counter-terrorism strategy that’s dominant in the south – criteria include: ease of access, infrastructure and population density. In short, in the east ISAF has identified the districts in which it can most easily reach a meaningful proportion of the Afghan population.

Key districts could become veritable fortresses in the coming months. If Afghan forces prove incapable of taking up the slack from a withdrawing ISAF, and if the Americans choose to withdraw a significant number of troops rather than undertaking a token force cut, ISAF could be forced to abandon all but the most important districts.

Michael O’Hanlon, writing in The Wilson Quarterly, labelled this contingency the ‘Plan A-Minus’ for Afghanistan – as opposed to the preferred ‘Plan A,’ which sees an imminent and orderly transition from ISAF to Afghan troops in all districts. The flipside of fortifying one area is that it leaves other areas unpatrolled. In Afghanistan, this could mean allowing the Taliban to consolidate its control over non-key districts and potentially boost its fighting strength. ‘This plan is hardly a prescription for a rapid departure or an easy road ahead for US and other foreign forces,’ O’Hanlon wrote.

David Axe is reporting from Afghanistan.