With little fanfare, and even less Western media coverage, another April to October fighting season is now grinding to a bloody close in Afghanistan. This year’s campaign offers an unusually revealing glimpse of the Government of Afghanistan’s exposed position as the tides of foreign military assistance and aid recede. Marked by electoral paralysis, the continued retrograde of foreign forces, and a virtual moratorium on new aid programs, the 2014 fighting season posed the stiffest test yet for Kabul and its allies.
Five lessons/trends stand out.
First, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) recorded their highest loss rates of the war during summer 2014. According to official estimates, the Afghan National Army (ANA) lost over 800 soldiers between April and September. The Afghan National Police (ANP), which has borne the brunt of fighting against the Taliban, lost over 1,523 soldiers during this same period. Taken together, these totals surpass America’s combined fatalities in Afghanistan since 2001. These losses are compounded by equipment and pay shortages, endemic corruption, and a lack of close air support, all of which conspire to reduce ANSF military effectiveness, not to mention morale.
While the ANSF appears capable of beating back most, though not all, Taliban offensives, there are cracks in the facade that bear watching. Desertion remains a running sore, with approximately 2 percent of its force going AWOL (and not returning) each month. Whispers that ANA units are striking “live and let live” deals with the Taliban to avoid casualties also exacerbates ANA-ANP tensions while further contributing to the erosion of Kabul’s remit outside major cities.
Second, unlike previous campaigns, this year’s fighting season witnessed the appearance of large Taliban units on the battlefield. No longer fearing dwindling U.S. airpower, Taliban forces have been operating far more brazenly, and in much larger numbers, than previously seen in the war. The map below outlines the location of Taliban offensives that involved at least 100 insurgents attacking ANSF positions or district capitals. (Click here for the interactive version).
In total, 41 different districts—about 10 percent of the total districts in Afghanistan—witnessed at least one major Taliban offensive. These data were collected by Yale’s Political Violence FieldLab from Afghan media sources such as Pajhwok and Tolonews. In some cases, estimates of up to 1,000 insurgents were recorded, numbers not seen since the Taliban’s original push to capture Kabul during 1992-96 civil war.
Yes, estimates of insurgent strength often warrant skepticism. Gen. John Campbell, the new Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has publicly accused Afghan politicians of inflating their assessments of Taliban strength in a last ditch effort to gin up more military assistance and aid dollars.
Even acknowledging these issues, however, the map reveals a third trend: far from contained, the Taliban has the ability to launch offensives across the country, including far from its “home” fields of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan. Perhaps most worrisome is the fact that nearly every major city—including Kabul but also extending to Jalalabad, Kandahar City, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Sangin—had offensives occur right on its doorstep. Kunduz City, in Afghanistan’s far north, remains nearly completely encircled by Taliban forces. Worse, these data only capture districts where the Taliban sought to challenge state authorities openly; it does not include areas (notably, in Wardak, Ghanzi, and Logar) where Taliban dominance has already been established.
Fourth, Pakistan may be repositioning itself to shape future events in Afghanistan by increasing its support of the Taliban to include, if Afghan officials are to be believed, regular Pakistani soldiers fighting alongside the Taliban. This summer, Afghan officials stepped up their (mostly) rhetorical war against increased Pakistan involvement; in a series of high-profile speeches, senior officials openly castigated Islamabad’s interference, suggesting that the Taliban’s gathering strength was due to an influx of Pakistan funds, soldiers, and technical expertise. More indirectly, Pakistan’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb (June-August 2014) in North Waziristan forced militants, including those from the Haqqani network, to seek refuge in Afghanistan, deepening the Taliban’s recruit pool.
Finally, the unexpected intensity of the fighting season forced ISAF to rethink its reluctance to use airpower to support the ANSF. While strike sorties were initially down considerably from 2013 totals, airpower was employed to beat back serious Taliban advances in Helmand and Nangarhar provinces. Drone strikes targeting senior Taliban leadership also continued unabated. By October 2014, airstrikes had reached a two-year high.
While pundits continue to debate the merits of using airpower against insurgent forces, the 2014 Afghan fighting season offers an instructive case of what happens when airpower is withdrawn. Indeed, Afghanistan illustrates the paradox of airpower in counterinsurgency settings: airpower may hinder insurgent movement and coordination, creating enough space for local forces to meet armed challenges without suffering morale-crushing losses; but over the long-term, reliance on airpower may do little to degrade insurgent organizations while breeding a dependency on its continued use that undercut the development of local combat capabilities.
That said, it’s far too early to conclude that contemporary Iraq is Afghanistan’s future. Most of these offensives were driven back, often with heavy Taliban casualties, and the continued presence of at least 10,000 U.S. soldiers after 2014 makes for a sharply different strategic environment than post-2011 Iraq. Kabul remains a ringed fortress, and barring a complete ANSF collapse, appears likely to withstand a Taliban that currently lacks the wherewithal to take the capital. What is clear, however, is that new President Ashraf Ghani, along with the ANSF and its Western partners, will face an unprecedented security challenge when the 2015 fighting season opens a short six months from now. The clock is ticking.