Marine General Joseph Dunford arrived in Afghanistan and assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and United States Forces – Afghanistan on 10 February 2013. After a prolonged thirteen years of American involvement in Afghanistan, General Dunford will oversee the withdrawal of US combat forces from Afghanistan scheduled for the end of 2014 in adherence to President Obama’s withdrawal order.
General Dunford described the current Afghan situation in his Commander ISAF Afghanistan Update, summer 2013 report. He remarked on the 13 year culmination of ISAF efforts that led to the momentous milestone achieved as the Afghanistan National Security Force (ANSF) assumed responsibility for the security posture of all Afghanistan. Dunford’s ISAF command transitioned to the role of support to the ANSF. He stated, “As of this quarter, the only unilateral operations that ISAF conducts are for our own security, route clearance to maintain freedom of movement and redeployment.”
In 2006, this writer served as an embedded Senior Advisor and Commander to the 201st Regional Corps Advisory Group that mentored the 201st Afghan National Army (ANA) Corps, one of five ANA Corps in Afghanistan. The power projection capability of the 28,000 manning strength of the Afghan Army was limited in a nation slightly smaller than the State of Texas. Anticipated force level requirements of an ANSF capable of providing nationwide security were estimated to be between 180,000 to 200,000 soldiers.
Afghanistan is predominately rural and undeveloped. Afghanistan is home to the grand Hindu Kush Mountains where arduous terrain is often inaccessible to modern vehicular transportation. Rural roads are predominately, dirt, sparse and restrictive, offering one way entry and exit points that enable insurgents to position IEDs after a coalition convoy travels the narrow roads. ISAF route clearance packages are routinely employed to defeat IED traps.
In October 2006, the 201st ANA Corps achieved the first milestone when our ANA Corps planned and executed their own autonomous combat operation named ALHASN while ISAF participated in a supportive role. Almost seven years later, the transition, from ISAF conducting operations to ANSF partnering with ISAF units, to ANSF in the lead, is now complete.
In 2013, General Dunford reported that “On 18 June, at the Milestone 2013 ceremony, the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) assumed lead responsibility for security nationwide. ISAF continues to provide combat support and combat service support where there are remaining ANSF capability gaps.” From a 28,000 ANA manning level in 2006, the current ANSF force structure in 2013 is comprised of 183,000 ANA forces and 151,000 Afghan National Police (ANP) forces. America’s impatience with the long duration of the Afghan campaign was not cognizant of the reality of time required to train, arm, and equip a new Afghan Army capable of assuming their Afghan security posture.
The 2014 redeployment date of U.S. forces from Afghanistan creates uncertainty among the Afghan population. Questions of American commitment to Afghanistan remains center as the Afghan elections will select a new Afghan President. NATO will continue to have a presence in Afghanistan past 2014, perhaps without U.S. involvement.
As U.S. forces prepare for redeployment, the Taliban’s strategy to create a psychological security panic among the population has had limited success but tribal loyalties could shift based on the Afghan public perception of ANSF capability to provide nationwide security. General Dunford recognizes the psychological and political challenges but he states, “ISAF’s current focus is to enable the ANSF to emerge from this fighting season confident and credible in the eyes of the Afghan people; this will create the perception of security that will support the political process and lead to successful elections in 2014.” Dunford continued, “I am confident that the military Campaign is on track to meet our objectives. The Taliban announced the start of operation Khalid bin Walid. This operation has five stated objectives: to increase violence; weaken the ANSF; limit ISAF’s ability to move freely; conduct attacks aimed to garner media coverage; and to promote insecurity through propaganda and influence.” The proficiency of ISAF and ANSF has disrupted Taliban’s failed efforts to meet their stated objectives.
The surge of ISAF forces, partnered by increased manned ANSF units enabled combat operations into previously Taliban safe havens. As a result of additional engagements with the enemy in various districts, higher casualty rates were sustained which also undermined American support at home. In 2006, my Afghan Corps was overextended and on occasion, we were unable to pursue the enemy in remote areas where the Taliban controlled in strength. In 2013, the numerically superior Afghan force levels enabled the ANSF to concentrate kinetic power in districts and areas before considered havens.
General Dunford indicates that ISAF forces have been able to obviate most Taliban attacks, but even the few Taliban successes enabled the media to generate false narratives of a declining Afghan security posture. World-wide media coverage selectively paints a hopeless imagery of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan reminiscent of the Vietnam War. Americans have soiled on Afghanistan and see no reason to shed another serviceman’s drop of blood for a war that Obama, as Commander-In-Chief, never intended to win. Dunford’s progress assessment of ISAF and ANSF forces portrays a different landscape where ANSF progress is steady and NATO is unwavering. In reality, a majority of Taliban attacks occur outside populated areas, thwarting the Taliban objective of weakening ANSF and from creating an overall Afghan perception that the war is being lost by the Afghan government.
General Dunford expressed, “The insurgents have been unable to hold ground from the ANSF, despite repeated attempts to do so. Nor have insurgents weakened the morale of the ANSF. Despite a significant increase in casualties, the will and combat effectiveness of the ANSF remains strong.” Taliban forces failed to disrupt ISAF freedom of movement and ISAF’s current mission remains on course and unabated. A clear sign the Taliban are not achieving their desired goals is that reenlistments and manning levels remain steady. The Senior Officer Core of the Afghan Army is battle tested, capable, and loyal to the Afghan government.
The competency and effectiveness of the ANSF on the ground and air has significantly improved since 2006. Challenges exist for the ANSF in some areas but each day of each week enhances their confidence and effectiveness. General Dunford states, “The ANSF have been leading tactical actions across the battlefield for some time, but the announcement of Milestone 2013 places them in the lead at the operational and national levels- and importantly, they are seen to be in the lead by the Afghan people.” General Dunford’s command is now in the supportive role to the Afghan forces. His command will continue to train, mentor, and support (combat service) the ANSF when and where required.
As American servicemen redeploy from Afghanistan, the success or failure of our efforts to build a capable ANSF will become transparent over the next few years. The Afghan soldier, led by experienced professionals, is a formidable warrior. The security for Afghanistan now rests in their able hands.