TSG IntelBrief: Conflict Zone Series: NATO Counterterrorism Program in Afghanistan Faces Uphill Battle
April 19, 2012

Conflict Zone Series: NATO Counterterrorism Program in Afghanistan Faces Uphill Battle

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• The current and post-2014 counterterrorism strategy devised by NATO and the International Security Assistance Force hinges on the success of embedding Western military trainers with Afghan National Army units, a proposition that is becoming increasingly impractical — and dangerous — in the fractious country.

• The longstanding and endemic lack of trust in a centralized Afghan military will continue to frustrate NATO counterterrorism efforts leading up to 2014.

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As of mid-April 2012, NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) face several intractable realities that have the potential to effectively subvert the implementation of their long-stated policy of continuing “effective counterterrorism” efforts in Afghanistan after the post-2014 withdrawal. For the effort to work as envisioned, a strong, centrally governed military is required to provide critical support and protection. At this point, Afghanistan simply does not possess such a military force, nor is it likely that one could be built in the time available before the planned troop withdrawal. Unfortunately, the challenges do not end there.

Until now, every variant of the counterterrorism (CT) effort in Afghanistan leading up to and beyond the planned 2014 withdrawal has rested upon the concept of “embed,” in which small numbers of Special Forces members (accompanied, on occasion, by CIA officers) live with the Afghan unit they are training. In theory — and in practice elsewhere — this strategy has worked very effectively. However, such a CT model rests upon two critical pillars that are conspicuously absent from the Afghanistan theater. The first pillar involves trust, security, and a shared vision between the local forces and the foreign trainers. The second is the legacy of a strong, highly disciplined, centralized army that has earned the deference of a national population that relies on its military for protection from both external aggression and internal anarchy.

Despite the enduring efforts of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to help develop a capable, self-sustaining Afghan military force and the ongoing program of embedding trainers with tactical units, the viability of these two key pieces of the overarching CT program remains in question. The operational picture is further undermined by the fact that the erosion of one pillar inevitably erodes the other, leaving both in a seriously weakened state just as NATO and ISAF forces will depend on them most in the run-up to 2014.

Much has been written about how the uniquely fragmented nature of Afghanistan’s political and social structures have long frustrated NATO efforts to bring stability to the nation, yet little attention seems to have been paid to how this will invariably undermine the two aforementioned pillars and, in turn, the efficacy of the very CT strategy NATO publicly maintains must continue after the withdrawal.

The systemic lack of trust and security necessary to effectively embed trainers throughout the tactical line is evidenced by a number of high profile events in recent months. The widely publicized killing of two American trainers inside the fortified Afghan Interior Ministry, which led to a temporary cessation of both the embed and joint-training programs, is symptomatic of a rapidly spreading disease. Since 2009, 79 NATO members have been deliberately killed by Afghan soldiers or members of the Afghan National Police, whereas only two similar deaths occurred in the years prior to 2008. In just the first four months of 2012, 16 NATO members have been killed in what the military terms “Green on Blue” attacks.

Factors behind the increasing number of attacks also explain why these events have received such extensive publicity in contrast to reporting on causalities resulting from actual combat: all sides recognize the damage such attacks can have on the short- and long-term goals for both NATO and the central government in Kabul. It is therefore most unlikely that efforts by the Taliban to infiltrate the Afghan security forces are purely coincidental, nor are their campaigns to exploit the increasing anti-NATO sentiment that unfolds across the country with every NATO offense. Rather, Taliban leaders are acutely aware of the fact that both the central Afghan government and NATO have staked the outcome of the CT program on the success of the embed piece. As a result, the Taliban see that embed program as a key center of gravity in the NATO CT effort. This leads to a relatively simple strategic calculus: undermining the embed scheme will effectively disable the CT program.

The depth of the concern in Kabul was reflected in an April 18 announcement by the Afghan Minister of Defense, Abdul Rahim Wardak, that detailed three policy changes to be enacted immediately: the military will require two guarantors of the applicant’s credibility; the use of cell phones — a ubiquitous sight among Afghan troops — will be severely restricted; and a significantly more drug testing will be implemented. Each of these changes can be easily understood when viewed from the prism of how they might reduce the number of attacks by Afghan troops on NATO servicemen.

The fact that the incidence of these attacks is the highest since the start of the war over a decade ago may be directly linked to challenges surrounding the second pillar. Even in modern times, Afghanistan has essentially operated as a country without a strong national military force. As a result, many areas of the country have been largely ruled by provincial tribal leaders or warlords who maintain a reasonable level of security while maintaining only minimal cooperation with the central government. While the capabilities of both the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are improving, it has not been enough to earn acceptance by — much less the deference of — the population at large, or even from its own members.

The abiding influence of the tribal culture has made it necessary for ANA troops from a particular province or belonging to a specific ethnic tribe to be assigned far from their homes to prevent what are essentially dual allegiances. However, the deliberate assignment, for example, of troops from the north into southern provinces has led to continued outcries by local populations that so-called “foreign troops” (referring not to ISAF forces, but to members of the Afghan National Army) lack an understanding of provincial realities and have frequently abused local populations. This, in turn, has driven additional reshuffling of the forces and a further weakening of the ANA’s ability to connect with — and earn the respect of — outlying communities.

Without the embedding of NATO and ISAF troops into ANA units, there is little chance that a truly national military force will continue to evolve after 2014. At the same time, without a sound, capable military force that is recognized — and respected — nationwide, those Western troops face the prospect of being embedded into a decidedly complex and perilous landscape. In the end, without a viable synergy between these two crucial elements, NATO’s strategic CT campaign faces potentially insurmountable barriers to success.

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Forecast:

Near-Term:

• Green on Blue attacks will increase with the expanding number of embeds required to implement the long-term CT strategy. The Taliban — cognizant of this requirement — will also step up targeted attacks in an effort to undermine the effort.

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Long-Term:

• With the lack of capable Afghan military forces, NATO will work to increase the number of elite special operations units based out of Kabul and elsewhere to conduct short-term missions throughout the country.

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