The war in Afghanistan, nearly fourteen years in the making, is by the far the longest U.S. military engagement in the nation’s history. The campaign against the Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and the Haqqani Network will outlast two U.S. presidential administrations and is very likely to continue even after the U.S. and the NATO coalition withdraw the remainder of their troops, due by the end of 2016. And yet, despite hundreds of billions of dollars in wartime spending, several emergency supplemental bills passed by the U.S. Congress, 2,364 U.S. troops killed in action and tens of thousands of additional troops having sustained serious wartime injuries, Afghanistan is still very much a country at war.
This reality was made very much clear last week when the Taliban took Kunduz, a key city in northern Afghanistan. Afghan government forces have since taken back control of most of the city, but the fact that it fell to the Taliban was a shock.
It should not have been: The Taliban – a movement that takes advantage of the Afghan government’s weaknesses by appealing to a small segment of the Afghan population –remains dynamic and adaptive in its recruitment and its tactics on the battlefield. Vast segments of the Afghan countryside, far away from the population centers that are safeguarded by the Afghan national security forces, are either in de-facto control of Taliban elements or susceptible to Taliban influence. Those same remote areas of the Afghan countryside also happen to primary recruiting and training grounds for other militant groups who are seeking to overthrow the government of President Ashraf Ghani — including a publicized camp administered by a contingent of the Islamic State in Logar province.
To expect the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police to patrol and sustain a large presence in every corner of Afghanistan is an unrealistic demand. Afghanistan, after all, is a sizable country with some of the roughest terrain on the planet – a landscape that even the world’s most powerful military, the United States, struggled to pacify when it had more than 100,000 troops engaged in combat operations. Yet the very fact that swathes of eastern, southern, and northeastern Afghanistan remain contested by an long list of Islamist insurgent groups is a bad omen for a government in Kabul that will largely be on its own in 2017 if U.S. and coalition troops continue on their present withdrawal schedule.
Indeed, even with nearly 10,000 U.S. troops providing training, advising, and air power in certain cases, the Afghan Army and National Police (not to mention the local police units that are responsible for guarding remote and isolated areas of the country) are experiencing the toughest period in their young history. The Taliban may no longer be as strong in numbers or geographical reach at it was before the U.S. troop surge in 2010-2011, but the insurgency is still doing significant damage to the Afghan security forces, so much so that U.S. military and defense officials are beginning to reassess whether downsizing to an Embassy-size presence in Kabul by the end of 2016 is the right decision. Taking the Iraqi security forces’ sudden collapse at the hands of the Islamic State to heart, Washington is now concerned that a fourteen-year investment in Afghanistan could be placed in significant jeopardy as soon as the Afghan government is left to its own devices.
The top-line numbers would appear to buttress those concerns:
- According to a May 2015 U.S. military assessment, the Afghan Army and police are sustaining the highest rate of casualties that they have ever had to experience since the conflict began. 4,950 Afghan troops and police officers were either killed or wounded in the first fifteen weeks of 2015, a 70 percent increase from the same period last year. While the numbers appear to be much higher compared to other assessments, the upward trend corresponds with other estimates made by the U.S. government. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, for instance, commented that the Afghan Army “continues to suffer serious combat losses” during is operations against the insurgency. The U.S. head of the ISAF Joint Command had a similar take in November 2014 when he reported to journalists that the ANSF simply could not sustain those types of casualties over a long period of time.
- The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan released its latest report in July 2015.* And, like previous reports throughout the past five years, the numbers were not encouraging: Although the Afghan Army grew by over 2,600 personnel during the second quarter of 2015, that increase is essentially counterbalanced by an attrition rate within the Army and National Police that continues to place added stress on the force. The goal of a 1.4 percent monthly attrition rate for the Afghan Army is still far below the actual monthly rate of 2.3 percent. As casualties continue to grow throughout the year, it’s a safe assumption that attrition could very well increase beyond that figure, as young men who join the Army simply to receive a paycheck desert for fear of being killed, seriously injured, or demoralized.
- The same Special Inspector General report reveals that only a third of the Afghan force is judged by the ISAF coalition as above the average benchmark of “sustainable.” Based on a coalition assessment of 21 ANSF Afghan units across 175 categories, only 4 percent (or 7 categories in total) were deemed “sustaining.” In other words, after tens of billions of dollars expended by the ISAF coalition, the Afghan national security forces are still very much a work in progress.
- Now that the ANSF are largely fighting on their own against Taliban units on the ground, Afghan civilians are often caught in the crossfire. Over the first six months of 2015, the United Nations counted 4,921 civilian casualties – a slight increase from the same time frame last year. Perhaps more revealing, however, is how high the Afghan civilian casualty rate has become since the U.S. troop surge officially concluded in 2012. During the last year of the surge in 2012, the U.N. recorded 3,138 civilians either killed or injured as a result of the conflict; the very next year, that number jumped to 3,921. The correlation is relatively simple: As foreign troops withdraw and Afghan troops take the lead, civilians appear to be more at risk of death or injury from the Taliban. Whether this correlation will continue into the remainder of this year is yet to be determined, but if past precedent is any guide, 2017 could be an even bloodier time for Afghan troops and civilians alike.
Admittedly, all of these numbers don’t capture the full picture of the Afghanistan conflict, the ability of the Taliban insurgency to regenerate itself, or the ANSF’s capacity to maintain the territorial gains that have been made over the past six years. For a fuller picture to emerge, one needs to go beyond the numbers and observe how the Taliban is conducting operations against Afghan Army positions and whether or not the Afghan government in Kabul is prepared to respond quickly and efficiently when a setback on the battlefield emerges. The Taliban’s capture of the northern city of Kunduz – the first successful Taliban offensive on an urban area since 2001 – is instructive in this regard, because it demonstrates that the movement is still effective enough to plan and conduct a multi-pronged attack involving hundreds of foot soldiers at multiple points of e entry. While Afghan troops stationed in the city have been counterattacking Taliban maneuvers around the city since this spring, the full-fledged offensive into Kunduz was relatively surprising because of how quickly it succeeded. The whole operation lasted at most 24 hours before Afghan government units withdrew to the airport. Afghan reinforcements dispatched from surrounding provinces were able to retake some ground over the next two to three days, but the damage may have already been done: Once again, the Taliban has exposed Afghanistan’s fragile state fourteen years after the movement was driven from power.
If 2009 was considered an inflection point for the United States, NATO, and the Afghan government about the need to redouble their commitment to save the entire state from collapsing, 2015 is shaping up to be a year when Afghanistan is tested with maintaining the improvements of the past six years and making sure that they endure beyond the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Daniel R. DePetris is a Middle East analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geopolitical consulting firm specializing in foreign policy and national security trends for clients worldwide. He is also a contributor to the Atlantic Council, a leading national security think tank located in Washington, D.C.
*A previous version of this story erroneously reported that SIGAR’s mandate had expired. The Diplomat regrets the error.