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Commander ISAF’s Afghanistan Update: Summer 2013

Commander ISAF’s Afghanistan Update

This quarter, we marked a significant inflection point in the Campaign. On 18 June, at the Milestone 2013 ceremony, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) assumed lead responsibility for security nationwide. ISAF is now in support of the ANSF. A clear physical and cognitive shift has taken place as we have completed a transition that started with our forces in the lead, to our forces partnered with Afghan forces, to the current Security Force Assistance (SFA) construct. 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. As the ANSF have assumed the lead in their first fighting season, they have proven capable of effectively securing the Afghan people. The vast majority of the violence takes place away from populated areas. ISAF continues to provide combat support and combat service support where there are remaining ANSF capability gaps. At the end of this quarter, it’s clear that the ANSF have tactical overmatch vis-à-vis the Taliban. The Taliban have largely failed to accomplish their objectives outlined in their seasonal operations plan.

ANSF capabilities are not yet sustainable, but they have made significant and very real progress. Much work remains to be done on the systems, processes and institutions necessary to make our progress enduring, and we are providing support at the ministerial level, as well as the corps level and below. In the fielded force, the Afghan Air Force (AAF), logistics and intelligence are particular focus areas for improvement.

While the ANSF are making real progress in security, the challenges faced by Afghans and the international community are primarily psychological and political. There is still widespread uncertainty amongst the Afghan people and in the region concerning the post-2014 environment. This uncertainty causes unhelpful hedging behavior. The overall perception of security is affected by the Taliban’s high profile attacks (HPAs), which is nothing more than a campaign of fear, murder and intimidation. 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.

We must demonstrate the will and endurance to achieve our objectives. I believe that the signing of the U.S. Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) combined with more clarity on NATO’s Resolute Support mission, will significantly enhance the confidence of our friends and erode the will of our enemies.

I am confident that the military Campaign is on track to meet our objectives. The ANSF are capable of securing the population this summer and they are capable of securing the upcoming elections. They are also on track to effect full security transition in December 2014, and we will continue to address the issues of sustainability and the remaining capability gaps in the coming months and into the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

The Threat

At the beginning of the quarter, 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.

Insurgents have made only very limited progress in achieving their stated objectives. Attack numbers indicate that the levels of violence remain broadly unchanged for this period, when compared with the same period in previous years. However, these crude statistics tell only part of the story. The ANSF are the target of approximately 70 percent of total insurgent attacks, compared with just 32 percent of attacks in the same period last year. Attacks have risen in some districts because the ANSF is taking the fight to the insurgents in places where previously there have been no security forces. Enemy-initiated attacks have risen in Regional Command – East (RC-E), RC – North (RC-N) and RC – West (RCW), but have fallen significantly (by 20 percent compared with 2012 levels) in RC – South (RC-S) and RC – Southwest (RC-SW). Most significantly, the violence is increasingly taking place away from the Afghan people. For example, the top ten most violent districts account for approximately 35 percent of enemy-initiated attacks, but contain only 3 percent of the Afghan population.

The insurgents have been unable to take and hold ground from the ANSF, despite their 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. While we are working to reduce the relatively high number of personnel who fail to complete their first enlistment, recruiting has kept pace with requirements and the ANSF is meeting manning goals.

The Taliban’s efforts to disrupt ISAF’s freedom of movement have not impeded our mission. The Taliban’s attacks have garnered short term media attention and this does create a perception of insecurity to both an Afghan and external audience. While the ANSF have been successful in interdicting a large number of planned attacks, the few attacks that occur dominate the headlines.

The Taliban continue to exert limited influence in some districts of northern Helmand, Uruzgan, Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktika and Paktiya provinces. They also continue to portray the Coalition as occupiers, although that message is losing traction with the ANSF in the lead. Only 17 percent of Afghans believe Taliban messages are trustworthy.

We have continued to neutralize Al Qaeda (AQ) by maintaining pressure on the network and support structure. AQ continues to maintain support zones in the border districts. The Haqqani Network (HQN) remains active and seeks to support Taliban objectives by conducting HPAs in Kabul. Overall, AQ and HQN maintain only limited capacity to train, plan and project influence beyond their safe havens in the East.

Security Transition

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. It also marks the transition of ISAF to a supporting relationship. We have now transitioned to a train, advise and assist (TAA) role, providing combat support and combat service support as required to enable Afghan success at the operational level.
During this quarter we have seen some improvement in ANSF layered security operations. These operations are designed to decrease vulnerabilities and increase effectiveness by integrating all ANSF capabilities and the National Directorate for Security (NDS). The ANSF have frustrated insurgents’ attempts to capture key terrain and influence key population areas. Transition is best understood through the eyes of the Afghan people. ISAF polling this quarter showed that 90 percent of Afghans felt that the security situation in their community was fair to good, while 80 percent of Afghans said they felt safe traveling outside their community during the day.

Significant progress has been made in Afghan capability development and we have seen the results during this quarter. For example, the ANSF conducted operations in the eastern part of Afghanistan. ISAF had indications of a significant insurgent presence in a specific district. The Provincial Governor, in conjunction with the Afghan National Army (ANA) corps commander approved the mission. ANSF leaders planned an operation to target these insurgents, which was carried out by Afghan Special Operations Forces (SOF) with support from the Afghan National Police (ANP). These Afghan forces detained 90 possible insurgents. Following the operation, local leaders conducted a shura and complimented the Afghan forces on their performance. With the exception of aviation support, ISAF forces played a purely advisory role throughout the operation.

The insider threat has been mitigated in part by ANSF initiatives to vet recruits and screen personnel after leave, together with ISAF mitigation measures. Three insider attacks against ISAF during the quarter resulted in 4 ISAF killed in action, one troop contributing nation civilian killed in action and 8 wounded in action. During this quarter, we refined our focus for delivering SFA across the ANSF. This will provide a coherent means of prioritizing and allocating resources in support of this mission. More importantly, our efforts are designed to make our progress to date sustainable. At the ministerial level, we are focused on functions, including planning, programming, budgeting, acquisition and personnel management. At the corps level and below, there are five areas of focus: command and control (C2); combined arms integration; sustainment; collective training; and accountable, effective leadership. We intend to assess our progress against these standards by the end of the next quarter. Developing sustainable Afghan security institutions and fielded forces are the critical tasks for security transition.

Looking Forward

I expect the conclusion of the fighting season to demonstrate ANSF success in leading the fight against the insurgents. The ANSF have emerged from this summer both confident and credible in the eyes of the population. This confidence will be critical to its ability to secure the elections next year. At the NATO Summit in Chicago in 2012, the Afghan government reaffirmed that NATO has a crucial part to play with partners and alongside other actors, in training, advising and assisting the Afghan security forces and invited NATO to continue its support. Additionally, NATO’s continued presence beyond 2014 will be dependent on GIRoA’s request for assistance and formal agreements for the presence of troops. It is anticipated that a Loya Jirga will be convened in the fall to gain public assent to the U.S. BSA and NATO SOFA. These agreements are critical preconditions for the Resolute Support mission, which will ensure that the progress we have made to date is sustainable.

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