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AfPak : Muddled Strategies and Expectations

Lt Gen Harinder Singh, Retd, is Former DGMI and Commandant IMA. He has tenanted several important command and staff assignments in the Indian Army. The author can be contacted at harinder41[at]
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  • December 11, 2009

    President Barack Obama announced his much awaited strategy on Afghanistan in a speech at West Point on December 1, 2009. The new strategy calls for denying Al-Qaeda the safe havens, reversing the insurgent momentum in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan, strengthening the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and creating favourable conditions for transfer of governmental responsibilities to the Afghans. To achieve these objectives, the US administration intends to deploy an additional 30,000 troops in Afghanistan starting from mid-2010, thereby increasing its commitment to 100,000 troops. An accretion in civilian capacities is also envisaged. Reports of a few NATO countries collectively committing an extra 5,000 to 8,000 troops would increase their total presence to about 50,000 troops. And then there is the Afghan National Army, whose strength is set to go up from 94,000 to 134,000 troops by the end of 2010. The plan also outlines a phased withdrawal of troops commencing with effect from July 2011 giving US military commanders on the ground roughly eighteen months to achieve the stated political objectives.

    Obama has certainly made a bold statement. It now remains to be seen if the proposed intent, accretion and timelines end up securing his objectives. The troop surge may look good as media headlines, but then it could make little difference in the mountains of Afghanistan. In many ways, the new approach seems no different from the AfPak strategy of March 27, 2009. Denying safe havens is perhaps as vague an objective as “disrupting, dismantling or destroying” the Al-Qaeda. Reversing the insurgent momentum is no less confusing a mission either. Strengthening the ANSF and enabling good governance capacities seem to be the only reasonable objectives at the moment, though many analysts have serious doubts on this score as well. In addition, the tight timelines to seize the “initiative” and concurrently build Afghan capacity to enable de-induction of US and NATO troops seems to be a tough proposition. The debate surrounding timelines seems unending now. Surely, timelines cannot be cast in stone and flexibility would always be retained. Much would also depend on the commitment shown by the new Karzai government, which needs to win the trust of its people. While the vast majority of Afghans may not want the Taliban, but the challenge is so great that few are prepared to fight the insurgents. Should the US administration be successful in turning around the security situation, there could well be a strong case to continue with the military presence for assisting the nation building process in Afghanistan.

    The new AfPak strategy raises several important questions: How achievable are the new campaign objectives? Can the proposed surge soothe the troubled provinces of Afghanistan? Would the surge be deployed in North or utilized to reinforce Southern and Eastern Afghanistan? Is there sufficient time available to equip, deploy, orient and conclusively fight the Taliban? What does it mean for US military commanders on the ground? Would the new strategy entail a sharp re-allocation of resources within the regional commands? How would the Pakistan military respond to this surge across the Durand line? There could be an unending set of questions and the US military high command would surely be addressing them. This commentary essentially explores the feasibility of defining some of the campaign objectives in the operational context.

    Obama’s prime directive of denying safe havens to Al-Qaeda looks highly unattainable. Denying safe havens is easier said than done. Some basic issues from a military view point immediately come to mind –Where are the safe havens? How does one find them? How strong is the Al-Qaeda? What are its inter-linkages with other insurgent groups? And, how to fight them? In the late 1990s, the Al-Qaeda presumably comprised some 3,000 to 4,000 cadres and today its ranks are down to 400 to 500. Some credible reports even indicate that about a 100 operatives are active in Afghanistan and the remainder are in neighbouring Pakistan. The crucial issue here is that while the Al-Qaeda’s rank and file may have depleted these cadres continue to maintain strong links with the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban has quadrupled from 7,000 to 25,000 in recent times, besides gaining sizeable support among the Pashtun population. These figures, however inflated they might be, just cannot be ignored. Obviously, a few hundred Al-Qaeda operatives may not drive the raging insurgency in Afghanistan, but then their mere presence and operational ingenuity can give a harrowing time to foreign military presence and the Afghans.

    Physical displacement of safe havens would demand sustained military deployment. Lack of communication infrastructure in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan complicates military accessibility, and in turn, the planning and conduct of ‘denial’ operations. Pakistan’s obduracy along the 1640 mile long Durand Line marked by 300 unofficial crossings adds to the military’s nightmare. In these circumstances, aerial strikes alone could be of some help, but then these cannot obliterate the Al-Qaeda safe havens. Excessive aerial targeting can also complicate issues, as insurgent groups tend to become increasingly mobile and innovative and such operations often end up in mere displacement and not the destruction of the safe havens. No wonder new “Tora Boras” consistently pop up on either side of the Durand Line – Waziristan and North Balochistan being recent examples. The alternative troop intensive option is to deploy an operational grid, and dominate ungoverned spaces with mobile reserves placed in between. Some difficult areas may even necessitate protracted ‘terrain sweeps’ to clear insurgent strongholds. Technically speaking, the envisaged US force levels are far from adequate to achieve the desired results in Afghanistan. Some counterinsurgency indicators for past operations are placed in the accompanying table.

    Notable Counterinsurgency Efforts


    US in Vietnam

    Soviets in Afghanistan

    US in Iraq


    16 Million

    15 Million

    27 Million


    173,000 Sq km

    652,230 Sq km

    438,000 Sq km

    Total Force Levels








    Troop to Population Ratio

    85-90: 1000



    Troop to Space Ratio

    8 Sq Km

    .31 Sq Km

    1.39 Sq Km

    Troop to Insurgent Ratio


    2:1 To 1:1

    4:1 To 15:1

    Length of Engagement

    10 Years

    8 Years

    6 Years

    Source: Sanjeev Lalwani, Pakistani Capabilities for Counterinsurgency Campaign: A Net Assessment (Washington DC, New American Foundation, September 2009), p. 30.

    Reversing the momentum is yet another difficult proposition. Counterinsurgency operations often comprise a set of complex and sometimes contradictory operations. And these actions mostly result in passive or visible effects at the tactical level. In other words, while some effects can be seen, others cannot be seen. Those that cannot be seen need to be inferred through close contact with the local populace. But then, above all, is the need to clearly distinguish between the population and the insurgent. Since this often cannot be clearly ascertained, then how does one reverse the insurgent momentum? Military technology does provide the eyes and ears to operate in the field, but certainly cannot replace intangible human qualities. Reversing the momentum would mean action at three broad levels. One is the ability to locate and recognize the insurgents. Second, be able to assess their influence and strength. And third, the application of precise military force with minimum collateral damage.

    This calls for sustained deployment and operations. In tactical terms, it would imply discreet targeting of the insurgent leadership, denial of weaponry and material, disaggregating the insurgents and connecting with the local population. In the military context, reversing the momentum could be troop intensive, time consuming and fraught with setbacks. The Taliban’s ‘permanent presence’, according to International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) data, amounts to around 80 per cent of the total area.1 This data could be debatable but then eighty per cent of the country implies 521,784 square kilometres. Deployment of 150,000 foreign troops along with 134,000 Afghan troops would result in a troop to space ratio of 1:1.8. A comparison between counterinsurgency commitments in Jammu and Kashmir as well as the others tabulated above would give some quick answers. The security situation in Afghanistan is surely much worse than what obtained in Jammu and Kashmir in the early- and mid-1990s.

    One might argue that allied operations may have to be re-cast keeping in mind the time and resource constraint. NATO (excluding the hard fighting British) will surely have to shoulder greater responsibility in the future. Military components may have to undertake more of ‘watch’ operations rather than waging ‘shock and awe’ counterinsurgency campaigns. This would involve securing important population centres and lines of communication. If all cities and towns cannot be held, then only the politically sensitive ones and those falling astride major communication arteries may have to be secured. The Afghan hinterland may have to be substantially ignored, until trained ANA units are available to extend operational reach. And for a change, the ANA may have to be in the forefront. Though debatable, it needs to be remembered that some of these units are battle hardened and equipped to operate independently under Afghan leadership. The issue of one in four desertions may have to be taken as a fait accompli. The ANSF needs to deploy upfront to train on the job and build adequate confidence levels – after all the fight is with ill-trained irregulars and not well trained military forces.

    Ideally speaking, the ISAF and NATO should secure the urban population centres along with the ANA. The ANA should also deploy outside the towns and cities to dominate the hinterland and crack down on Taliban controlled areas. US Special Forces and drones would be available to support ANA units. Besides assisting in inoculating the ANSF for a post-2011 operating environment, the multi-national force could concentrate on core security sector reforms and development. The strategy should be two pronged – foreign troops deploy along with ANA for COIN operations in urban and semi-urban areas, and ANA duly augmented with US Special Forces for domination of the hinterland. Everyone gains in this format – the Americans operate from a position of strength to concentrate on building ‘islands of development’ in urban areas and the Afghans operate in the hinterland to connect with the ‘disaffected populace’ and gain operational confidence through job training.

    By redefining the scope of war in terms of troop surge and time lines, Obama has clearly undertaken a huge political gamble. Success would surely assure him a second term in office but failure could badly tarnish his image. To stabilize the situation, allied troops have to fragment the Taliban network to a point where they are no longer able to project power. For instance, the Al-Qaeda today has no recognizable centre of gravity and in numerical terms badly stands fragmented. But it can substantially shape the behaviour of the Afghan Taliban. Given the resource and time constraints, it may be prudent to undertake a restrained military posture vis-à-vis the Taliban rather than undertake sustained troop intensive operations. Securing population centres and lines of communication is the best that can be achieved. The other important issue is withdrawal timeframes - imposing a timeline vindicates the apprehensions of the local populace. The Taliban could easily ‘wait out’ the US exit, reorganize and repeat what they accomplished in 1996. India may have to rethink its options in Afghanistan And it too has only 18 months to act. Of the several options, it may make sense to build bridges with the Taliban. Continued reluctance to engage the Taliban could sweep away all the goodwill Iindia appears to have gained in Afghanistan.

    David Miliband has lauded the new US strategy and stated that “the resources that come on steam in 2010 offer a genuine opportunity to break the back of insurgency … but to turn the short term military momentum into long term success, we need to unite behind a clear political strategy … the US commitment and determination is clear … we need to convince ordinary Afghans that we – the international community – will stay until the legitimate afghan authorities can provide security, justice and development.” Can the United States and its allies deliver on the war aims is the big question? Only time can tell whether Obama’s agenda succeeds or results in a rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many even comfort themselves by saying that victory could mean a successful exit. In that case, if history condemns George W. Bush for his ‘pre-emptive’ war against Iraq, Obama could well be criticized for intensifying the war effort in Afghanistan.

    • 1. Data detailing the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan is based on the daily insurgent activity reported between January and September 2009. ICOS believes that the level of incidents recorded by this methodology is conservative, as it is based on public third-party reports, and not all incidents are made public.
      • Permanent presence: defined by provinces that average one (or more) insurgent attack (lethal and non-lethal) per week.
      • Substantial presence: an average one or more insurgent attacks per month and include residents who believe Taliban are active locally (based on frequency of Taliban sightings).
      • Light presence: defined by less than one insurgent attack per month and local residents don't believe Taliban is active locally (based on frequency of Taliban sightings).

      To calculate percentages, the total area of Afghanistan is divided by total area hosting a permanent / substantial / light Taliban presence.