President Obama in his State of the Union address announced what to many looks like an accelerated drawdown of US troops with half out of Afghanistan by this time next year. ‘We can say with confidence,’ Obama said, ‘that America will complete its mission in Afghanistan and achieve our objective of defeating the core of al Qaeda… by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.’ Strange things are happening to language as the US mission draws to its end. General John Allen, handing over command to General Joseph Dunford on 11 February, spoke of victory, not in its traditional sense of having defeated the enemy, but in terms of US withdrawal and a continuing war fought by others. Given that ISAF and the bulk of US forces will be leaving come hell or high water, choosing to embrace such ‘strategic optimism’ may be Obama and the generals’ only option. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, has been assessing the state of the war and whether the new ‘victory’ narrative from the US is in any way reasonable or just plain Orwellian (with additional information by Thomas Ruttig).
Before handing over command, General Allen said he gave this advice to his successor, General Dunford:
… our victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared. This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today, who are taking the field in full force this spring. Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.
Allen’s use of the term ‘victory’ was widely noted: a ‘tricky word in this nebulous conflict’said Heath Druzin, reporter for Stars and Stripes (a US military newspaper which is definitely not controlled by the Department of DefenceÄs Public Affairs). ‘The tightly choreographed [handover] ceremony had the feel of a pep rally for a war effort the majority of Americans have lost faith in,’ he said. ‘What victory might look like is something two presidents and countless military leaders have struggled to define for more than 11 years.’
Obama did indeed struggle to define victory in his state of the union address (read the text here). The US mission, he said, would achieve its mission by defeating ‘the core al-Qaeda’ by the end of 2014, but surely this was something that was achieved by 2002? The sense of déjà vu only continued as Obama went on to say, ‘We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.’ The ‘remnants’ term will be familiar to anyone here in the early years after the 2001 intervention to describe what US forces were doing in Afghanistan. Post-2014, it seems, they will be pursuing remnants again. (And what exactly are ‘their affiliates’: the Taleban, and if so, which ones? The Afghan Taleban or parts of them, like the Haqqani network? The Pakistani Taleban, Lashkar-e Tayba, Lashkar-e Jhangvi and so on?) Once more, it hardly sounds like victory or indeed mission accomplished.
Yet for Allen, inteqal – transition of responsibility for security from international to Afghan troops – is itself an ‘historic… an epic achievement’:
The soldiers of the Coalition have conducted a battle handover from a main force unit from 50 nations to Afghanistan’s forces that were still being built during the drawdown of 33,000 troops, all the while pivoting to a strategy of security force assistance and closing nearly 600 bases — all of this in contact with the enemy, an enemy that would stop at nothing to break the enduring bonds that our Coalition and our Afghan counterparts share. I don’t think any of our nations have ever done this in history… This remarkable success will be looked upon as a defining moment in the Campaign and likely in Afghanistan’s modern history.
The former United Nations and European Union ambassador, Francesc Vendrell,(1) rightly predicted in 2009 when he counselled against having a military surge without addressing governance issues like corruption in the Afghan state, that NATO and its allies would eventually leave, he said, after they had ‘redefined success’.(2) Hearing Obama and Allen’s speeches, I also found myself thinking of a writer discussing the debasement of the English language in the aftermath of World War II. ‘The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,’ said George Orwell. When there is a ‘ gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims’,(3) writing becomes incoherent and meaningless – as when words are redefined to mean their opposites.(4) The foreign powers are leaving whatever the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan, but they have to dress up the exit as based on a successful job done well.
For the generals, and for the politicians mandating them, it is important to push this narrative of success. Certainly, the nature of the war has certainly changed during Allen’s command: the 33,000 surge troops have fought and left, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have grown by more than 10 per cent (see Brookings Institute collation of statistics here) and are now taking responsibility for security in most of the country, conducting operations themselves or leading joint operations (although beware of the re-defining of what ‘Afghan-led’ can actually mean – see for example here; the spike in ‘green on blue’ attacks also forced restrictions on international forces patrolling).
Indeed, all data points to the war having become less intense – whether one dates the peak month of Taleban and other insurgent groups’ activities to 2011, as the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), or 2010, as ISAF and the Pentagon does (see the Brookings report cited earlier). ISAF, ANSO and the UN count casualties and attacks differently which partly helps explain the discrepancies – see AAN analysis of their statistics here and here. Also, the dating has been contentious because, for the foreign military it was important for shaping the narrative of the war to demonstrate a ‘weakening’ Taleban, the success of the kill-or-capture strategy, the combat operations of the surge troops or an ANSF growing in confidence and skill (for an earlier example of this, as General David Petraeus was handing over to General Allen, in July 2011 (see this earlier AAN blog).
There could be various reasons for the war losing some of its intensity. The Taleban could have been weakened – which is ISAF’s contention. It could be, as the Afghan government appears to believe, that the withdrawal of foreign troops leads to less fighting because the Taleban are mainly stirred up to fight by the presence of foreigners. Look, for example, at President Karzai’s reaction to Obama’s announcement on US troops leaving and Afghan forces taking the lead from spring 2013: ‘This is something Afghanistan has wanted for so long now. The withdrawal in spring of foreign forces from Afghan villages will definitely help in ensuring peace and full security in Afghanistan.’ It could be that in some transitioned areas, the ANSF are reaching agreements with local Taleban not to target each other. If this leaves ANSF in control, the government’s conclusions may be reasonable, but if it means Taleban taking control of districts, it would not. It could also be that the ANSF are doing well in keeping the Taleban at bay in other areas.
One pattern which would seem to back up neither Karzai’s or Allen’s claims is how the Taleban are fighting. ANSO notes that although ‘incidents’ by ‘Afghan Opposition Groups’ (AOG) are certainly down – by 25 per cent in 2012 compared to 2011, the Taleban and other insurgents are still initiating more attacks than they were in 2009, ie before the surge. Moreover, the international military is ‘authoring’ even fewer incidents – down by 57 per cent and, asserts ANSO, the ANSF is not yet filling the gap. Despite transition and a growth in the ANSF, it ‘authored’ only 2 per cent more ‘incidents’ in the last year. As such, ANSO believes there is no evidence of a weakening Taleban, but of them making a mutual and matched de-escalation with the international military:
After six years of sustained growth, the conflict entered a de-escalation phase with the annual incident volume falling by 24 per cent this year on that of 2011. This reduction has been driven by diminishing rates of AOG and IMF activity. We assess that the on-going IMF disengagement has been the primary cause of the change… the activity input was evenly shared between the opposition (49 per cent) and the security forces (33 per cent ANSF, 11 per cent IMF). This proves that the structure of the conflict has not changed and that the current reduction is a controlled process rather than an imposition on either side. We conclude that the reduction of armed opposition groups is a deliberate and reversible response to the international military forces’ withdrawal.(5)
ANSO also points out that the Taleban have changed their tactics from targeting the international military to focussing on the ANSF and Afghan government officials. In what ANSO has called a ‘significant shift in targeting patterns’, it calculates that 72 per cent of attacks by the Taleban and other insurgent groups are now targeting ANSF, compared with 53 per cent in 2011; 14 per cent of their attacks are targeting international forces, compared with 35 per cent in 2011. As for Afghan government-affiliated civilians, they formed 14 per cent of Taleban targets in 2012, a little up from 12 per cent in 2011. And the Taleban seem to be relocating to some more peripheral (and not so peripheral) areas for the time being – see the latest increase of assassinations and other attacks in Farah or alarm calls of Afghan provincial officials from Nuristan, Parwan, Kapisa, Logar and Wardak.
The changes in Taleban targeting and foreign and Afghan deployment are all reflected in the casualty figures. Fatalities among the foreign troops fell by about 30 per cent in 2012 compared with 2011 (see here). January was the least costly month for US forces in four years (see reporting here).(6) At the same time, casualties have risen sharply, by more than 70 per cent, among the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) – according to Brookings. (In real figures, 1950 security personnel were killed in 2011; in 2012, 3400 people lost their lives.) This trend has been picked up in the press, for example, here.
If all these numbers are correct, they suggest the ANSF military activity is taking a relatively larger hit – in terms of casualties – for the military activity they are engaged in. Moreover, the decline in civilian casualties over the 2011-2012 period, says ANSO, of 14 per cent is ‘tragically’ less than the decline in military activity; Taleban IEDs continue to be the main cause of civilian death.
Some scepticism over Allen and others’ praise for the startling progress they see the ANSF making is justified, given how misleading earlier assessments were. Pentagon matrices of how ‘independent’ the various units of the Afghan army and police are was questioned in great detail by AAN guest blogger, Gary Owen, last summer who found the Pentagon changing the bar as the ANSF were found not to be making sufficient progress. (Owen is currently scrutinising the latest round of figures and will file his latest analysis at AAN soon, but says they are not looking pretty.)
It may also be that, in some places, the ANSF are overstretched and under-supported. AAN reported on conditions in Faryab in November, 2012, two months after the Norwegian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) left, and found that:
The number of armed clashes with Afghan security forces has gone up, as well as the harassment of non-government organizations (NGOs), while continuing assassinations and [a] recent massacre caused by a suicide attack in a mosque on a religious holiday dramatically spread fear even in Maimana, the provincial centre.
The Taleban had been growing in strength in parts of Faryab for some time; however, the departure of the last ISAF troops (the Norwegian PRT) meant the withdrawal of NATO air support for Faryab. The ANSF in Faryab no longer have the helicopters which used to be stationed there, but neither also do they have the specialists needed on the ground to make sure, for example, munitions are not dropped on civilian targets. The knock on effect of the lack of air power, locals told AAN, is that the ANSF are conducting fewer combat operations, especially night raids and this has meant the Taleban, feeling less harried, have returned to many rural areas and are even threatening the district and provincial centres.
Faryab is one pattern of what transition may mean.(7) It shows the critical need for what the military calls ‘enablers’: air support, MEDEVACing, logistics, intelligence and so on. These specialised services enable modern armies to function, but are the most difficult units to establish and the ANSF is still very dependent on foreign support in these areas. Allen, however, appeared sanguine about these gaps in an interview with AP:
‘The building of their capabilities will take time,’ Allen said, adding that he was ‘comfortable that our plan to do both these things is on track over time.’ The Afghan military will have to make do without requested weapons such as heavy tanks and F-16 fighter jets, but Allen said the equipment that they will receive should give them considerable firepower. They include converting MI-17 transport helicopters to gunships and providing Afghan combat units at all levels with mortars. He said the Afghans had to get used to the idea that they will not have the same air support in the future as they have today. Currently the coalition can provide air support to troops on the ground anywhere in Afghanistan within 12 minutes of a request. ‘They have to get used to their own resources being the firepower necessary,’ he said.
The head of operations for the US-led coalition, Marine Maj. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, had earlier used much more blatant words, quoted in the Washington Post on 12 December last year: NATO troops have begun doing the bare minimum to support Afghan troops and ‘un-partnering’ from them in what he called a new strategy of ‘tough love’: ‘We are pushing them to failure. We want them to see failure, we want them to smell it, we want them to taste it. We just don’t want them to achieve it.’
What this means in real life, the Los Angeles Times had reported a few days earlier when it described an incident in Kandahar that had happened three months before:
… a police commander on the west side [of Kandahar], was driving along Highway 1, the main paved road through the city, when two remote-controlled bombs exploded under his pickup. The blast peppered Mirwaz [sic, probably Mirwais] [the commander] with shrapnel and left him bleeding from the neck by the side of the road.
At a small U.S. outpost nearby, Capt. Terron Wharton heard the boom before receiving an urgent call from Mirwaz. He and several men jumped in their armored vehicles to help. But when they radioed [their superior] to say they were leaving the base, he told them to halt.
The Afghans need to learn how to handle these attacks on their own, [he] said.
After an hour of pleading, Wharton was finally permitted to go. By then, Afghan police had taken Mirwaz to a hospital. His injuries were too severe for him to return to duty.
“It felt like we left our partners out there,” Wharton said. “I gave a man my word I would come to his aid, and I couldn’t keep it. That was one of hardest things I’ve had to do.”
From the Afghan government have come, not only the mainly failed requests for greater firepower, but also the suggestion that, once the foreign forces have left, the ANSF can manage with more ‘traditional’ weaponry. After his January visit to Washington, Karzai said that, although the government would purchase fighter jets if it wanted to and did not need US donations, such planes were not necessarily required:
Regarding the Taleban and war, if the Taleban come in planes or Pakistan’s F-16s, we will definitely need F-16 fighter jets. The Taleban come on foot and we too should go on foot and protect our land. As far as the internal situation is concerned, we do not need an air force. We need it for the defence of our soil against foreigners.
[source: BBC Monitoring of National TV Afghanistan 14 January 2013]
One other part of the changing US storyline has also become clearer this week. We used to hear a ‘counter-insurgency’ narrative of foreign forces clearing out the Taleban and holding territory, so that the government could step in, development take off and Afghan forces get ready to take over – thereby persuading ordinary Afghans to side with their state. The strategy, of course, relies on Afghans wanting foreign soldiers clearing out their villages and having a state which they want to side with and US military and civilian leaders used to regularly hector, threaten and cajole with President Karzai to clean up his government. Talk of corruption is still present. Allen, for example, told the Washington Post, lingering problems mean the Taleban could still return or criminal networks corrode gains:
‘Now what they face is an absence of governance and a desire for law enforcement and legal stability,’ Allen said of civilians in parts of the country that have seen strategic gains. He has been pressing Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, to deliver governance in places where military gains are visible. But in many cases, patronage networks have prevailed or corrupt leaders have remained in power as public confidence diminished.
However, there is no sense of urgency any more on corruption. As AAN pointed out in an earlier blog, when Obama and Karzai met in Washington, Afghan sovereignty had replaced corruption as the more commonly used word in their statements. Washington mainly wants to get out now. It aims to leave a few thousand troops behind to support Afghan forces and fight al-Qaeda, but, whether or not Afghan forces are ready to fight the Taleban or the government becomes cleaner or the elections next year are conducted fairly or not is immaterial. Expect the narrative of withdrawal to continue to be cheerfully optimistic.
(1) He was the head of UNSMA, the UN’s pre-2001 ‘political’ mission to Afghanistan and also currently is the chair of AAN’s advisory board.
(2) It is worth quoting the report in The Age, 23 June 2010 more fully:
But Vendrell, for one, is less hopeful about how the military campaign will unfold. Having supported the push to increase the number of countries contributing troops to Afghanistan after the initial US invasion, he now fears there is little point.
”I now have a horrible feeling that some Western governments continue to accept casualties among the ranks of their national forces, in the full knowledge that most of the areas they are fighting to clear of the insurgency are unlikely to ever be held by the Afghan government,” he says.
Vendrell says the West has agreed to a military surge without establishing an Afghan government that would seriously fight corruption. ”In other words a government that the Afghans would be willing to fight for.
”Having failed dismally to make the Afghan people our allies, we will inevitably abandon them to a combination of Taliban in the south and the warlords in the north and – having somehow redefined success – we will go home convinced that it is the Afghan people who have failed us.”
(3) From Orwell’s essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946).
(4) The next stage on from this is, of course, doublethink – the ‘the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them’:
To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.
From the novel, 1984 (1949)
(5) ANSO notes:
While some claim it as evidence of AOG capacity degradation, ANSO believes it reflects the deliberate application of proportionality of effort to ensure that the response is relevant to the threat level imposed by the IMF. In our understanding, the resource levels remain to ramp up to previous levels of violence remain available but have simply been stood down, redeployed to other priorities or engaged in second stage governance/political assignments. Furthermore we have discerned a widening gap between the quick pace of IMF withdrawal and the slow growth of ANSF activity volumes while AOG have wasted no time in refocusing the bulk of their attacks on local Government and security forces.
(6) The Brookings Institute also reports July 2011 as the worst for US troops being wounded in action and the third worst month for fatalities among Coalition forces generally; however, it reports Coalition fatalities peaking in 2010 and sees them as in general decline by 2011 (figures are originally from US Department of Defence).
(7) ANSO, which has done preliminary research on transitioned districts in the south and east, says the patterns are very variable and depend, in particular, on the strength of the Taleban before transition, how much residual international military presence there is locally. See its latest report, cited earlier.
Photo: police post in Nimruz province, by Thomas Ruttig (2006)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020