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Wednesday, December 15

The rundown: The Afghan War as it is today

Last night I posted a December 14 New York Times report that summarized how the strategic review of the Afghan War has been shaking out. Now for an overview of how the war is actually going on the ground with a look at AFPAK Strategy, ISAF kinetic operations, al Qaeda's shifting strategy, and Admiral Mike Mullen's 12th Hour attempt to save the AFPAK strategy.

Collapse of AFPAK Strategy

December 13, 2010, CNN:
... A year ago, when President Barack Obama announced his new strategy in Afghanistan, he hammered home a key foreign policy principle: that success in Afghanistan is "inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan."

Early in his administration, the president had outlined an extensive plan for Pakistan that included bolstering Afghan-Pakistani cooperation, helping the security forces fight militants, increasing economic assistance, and improving Pakistan's governmental capacity and performance.

The United States has tried to prod the Pakistani military into taking more aggressive steps in the save havens, but the army has been reluctant to pursue al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban who fled to Pakistan after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. ...
December 15, 2010, The New York Times:
... US commanders and Pentagon officials say they do not yet know if the war can be won without more cooperation from Pakistan. But after billions spent trying to win the support of the Pakistanis, they are now proceeding on the assumption that there will be limited help from them. ...
ISAF Kinetic Operations

December 15, 2010, AFP:
(WASHINGTON) — The US military has dramatically stepped up air strikes and manhunts in Afghanistan in a bid to weaken the Taliban, reflecting a return to "counter-terrorism" tactics.

Dropping more bombs and carrying out more raids by special operations forces underscores a sense of urgency in the war effort, as the White House prepares to release a strategy review and commanders try to change the dynamic of a conflict mired in stalemate.

In announcing a surge of 30,000 troops a year ago, President Barack Obama embraced the idea of a "counter-insurgency" strategy that focused less on firefights with the Taliban and more on securing key towns, training Afghan forces and bolstering local government.

But the need to cut off the insurgency's supply routes to sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan has led to a renewed emphasis on more conventional "targeting" operations, said General James Cartwright, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"When we started, we probably were more aligned with counterinsurgency (strategy). The emphasis is shifting," Cartwright said last week. "We need to reduce those lines of communication and reduce that flow to the best of our abilities" ...

The balance of the US force was "starting to shift to have an element of counter-terrorism larger than we thought we were going to need when we started," he said.

The expansion of counter-terrorism raids also appears to fit in with the need to drive the Taliban to the negotiating table, as US military leaders have long stated that the insurgents must sense they are losing ground on the battlefield before they engage in genuine peace talks.

The previous commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, scaled back air strikes and artillery to try to reduce civilian casualties, but his successor, General David Petraeus, has taken a more aggressive approach.

US aircraft flew 850 combat sorties in November, three times the number for the same month last year, according to the US Air Force.

From January to the end of November, warplanes carried out 30,000 close air support missions for troops on the ground, a 13 percent increase compared with the whole of 2009, it said.

In the past six months, coalition forces have carried out more than 7,000 special operations missions, killing or capturing more than 600 militant leaders and inflicting heavy losses on insurgent fighters, with 2,000 rank and file soldiers killed, the NATO-led force told The Long War Journal.

More firepower will be on display soon in southern Afghanistan, where Marines will have M1A1 tanks in their arsenal -- the first use of American tanks in the war.

The intensifying pace of lethal operations has been accompanied by record casualties among US and NATO-led forces, in the most deadly year yet in the nine-year-old war with 693 soldiers killed, according to the independent website icasualties.org.

Pentagon officials say the increase in manhunts is a natural result of the troop buildup, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the approach in the war remained "a mix" of both nation-building and counter-terrorism.

He described the effort in eastern Afghanistan as a "disruption activity" with US troops trying to stop insurgents from coming across the Pakistani border.

In the south, US-led troops were pushing the Taliban out of towns and then holding the populated areas, he said.

"You need to understand the strategy in one part of the country will be different in another part," Gates told reporters last week on his way back to Washington.

A crucial part of the US strategy includes an expanded covert bombing campaign against Al-Qaeda and insurgent leaders in the northwest tribal belt in Pakistan.

The CIA strikes have been steadily growing, with 108 attacks by drones in 2010, compared to 53 last year, mainly in North Waziristan, where the Pakistan army has so far failed to extend an offensive against militants there, according to the New America Foundation.

The drone raids have killed 809 militants this year, compared to 405 the year before.
Shifting Al Qaeda Strategy

December 16, 2010, Asia Times Online:
... [T]he North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) claims success against the Taliban in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, but what has happened is that al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have stepped into the vacuum and they will continue the battle.

Similarly, Pakistan claims success in its tribal areas, but a more defiant and more ideologically motivated group has emerged to take ownership of the war.

Wali Mohammad, the brother of slain Taliban commander Nek Mohammad (see The legacy of Nek Mohammed, Asia Times Online, July 2004), has taken over command of militants in South Waziristan.

Last week, army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani, accompanied by other top brass and members of the media, traveled to South Waziristan to showcase the military's "victory" against militants. They were greeted by four missiles. No one was injured in the attack, but the message is clear: the militants are back.

Before last year's operation in South Waziristan, the army struck a peace deal with the Wazir tribe and singled out the Mehsud tribe led by Hakeemullah Mehsud, the chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP - Pakistani Taliban). This isolated the Mehsuds, forcing them to flee to North Waziristan. The military then took control of Mehsud areas such as Ladha and Makeen.

However, in a twist that illustrates the changing ideologies in the tribal regions, Wali Mohammad, a Wazir from South Waziristan who is supposed to be a rival of the Mehsuds, assumed the role of hostility against the army -- a move that stunned many observers.

Wali Mohammad is now the commander of the TTP in South Waziristan and head of its suicide-bombing wing. ...

[O]ne major development is missing [from Gen. David Petraeus's current assessment of the ISAF war effort]:

This month, there was an unsuccessful suicide attack on Nawab Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of southwestern Balochistan province. It was claimed by the LJ - the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (International) - a sectarian, anti-Shi'ite organization that is split into several groups. The international wing is strongly affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Pakistan's southwest and southwestern Afghanistan are home to the Kandahari clan, which is mostly loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Despite the Taliban's strong presence in Helmand and Kandahar in Afghanistan and the Pakistani Chaman and Quetta regions, al-Qaeda has never been able to find significant traction among the local Pashtuns. It has sheltered in southeastern Afghanistan or the northwestern Pakistani tribal areas.

Balochistan had no history of sectarian violence until after 2003, for which a few ethnic Baloch members of the LJ were accused. The Taliban distanced themselves from the LJ. For the past several years, Pakistan's southwestern regions and southwestern Afghanistan were assessed as Taliban territory.

However, an increasing number of militant attacks in Balochistan on NATO's Afghanistan-bound supplies is a hallmark of al-Qaeda. Most of the attacks have been carried out in ethnically Baloch areas, where the Pakistani security forces now believe anti-Pakistan Baloch insurgents and members of the LJ are collaborating.

The ultra-radical and ruthless LJ already cooperates with the Iranian Jundallah in Iranian Balochistan and it is now expected to spread its operations to Kandahar and Helmand to take over the Taliban's fight. ...
Last-Ditch Attempt to Save AFPAK Strategy

Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made an unannounced visit to Pakistan yesterday -- his 21st trip to the country since becoming Chairman -- with a gaggle of American press correspondents in tow and met with Pakistan's military brass.

Mullen told reporters that he had spoken during the meetings of "strategic impatience" on his part and the part of "others" with the reluctance of Pakistan's military to attack terrorist groups in Pakistan that were targeting NATO troops.

Mullen also sounded a sympathetic note, saying, “The extremist organizations that are killing Pakistani nationals are a huge challenge" to Pakistan's military; however, during an extensive interview he gave today to U.S. reporters and Pakistani newspaper editors, he did not rule out overt U.S. military incursions into Pakistan.

Here are excerpts from the interview as it was reported by the Pak Tribune:
When pressed to categorically state whether there was absolutely no possibility ever of any direct army action by the US or Nato troops inside Pakistan, he ... stopped short of stating the same and said, “I don’t get to decide who does what but I’m very cognizant of the sensitivity of the sovereignty of the country and the same is recognised by the military and political leadership in United States”. ...

Admiral Mullen repeatedly referred to al-Qaeda and Taliban, including Haqqani group, “living peacefully in Pakistan”, and lamented that their actions against America and its allied Nato troops “needed to be ceased”. He said that terrorist groups like LeT, TTP, etc, were coming closer and their local perspective was changing to a regional outlook and said that, “the goal here is to dismantle, al-Qaeda and such groups living peacefully in Pakistan”.

At this point, when asked whether the Pakistan-being-the-terrorist-haven mantra was actually a deliberate ploy to create a justification for an ultimate direct military action inside Pakistan, the top US commander said that the sensitivity of Pakistan’s sovereignty was not lost on anyone. ...

Replying to another question, he stressed the presence of a strongly growing relationship between the two countries but ceded that Pakistan-US relationship continued to be mired in deep mistrust and would take a long time to rebuild.

“Between 1990 to 2002, we had no relationship and it will take a long time to rebuild the present immense trust deficit. It will take a lot longer than even a decade or so,” he said, adding that the US was now looking at building a, "long term stable strategic relationship and not one based purely on military links”. ...
Mullen seems to have left unsaid that the United States and other NATO countries do not have a decade or so to wait for Pakistan to clean up its act, but his visit and the general tone of his statements conveyed the same message.


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