Monday, 11 June 2012

The draw-down of ISAF troops from Afghanistan

A Taliban suicide bomber disguised in a burqa killed four French troops June 9 in an attack on a market in the main market area of Kapisa province's Nijrab district. The troops were responding to a report of a bomb planted under a bridge when the bomber approached them and detonated his device, a spokesman for the provincial government said. France’s Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited the province on Sunday in response to the deaths.

The French Defense Ministry said the troops were on an operation supporting the Afghan army and confirmed the soldiers' nationality, adding that five other French soldiers were wounded in the attack. Four Afghan civilians were also wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility in an email. Soon after the attack French President Francois Hollande restated that all French combat troops would complete the drawback from Afghanistan by year-end.

France joins many other NATO countries by confirming their intentions to end their commitments to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the coming years. France has not hastened the schedule for withdrawal of French troops from the fighting due to the recent bombing, Hollande reassured ISAF leadership, and will see out its commitments to the operation.  France currently supplies around 2,000 combat troops in Afghanistan including French Special Forces and soldiers dedicated to training and logistics. 83 French troops have died in the conflict, the fourth highest casualty rate by country behind Canada, Britain and the US.

While ISAF will see out the extended Afghanistan conflict and likely remain in the country in advisory roles after its combat operations have ceased, signs are appearing that the decade-long war is straining the patience of the NATO and allied countries. There are some fears that other ISAF contributors will bring forward their withdrawal dates as the violence begins to increase during the warmer Afghan spring weather.

The United States is the strongest military force inside Afghanistan with 23,000 troops remaining after the surge. The US military conducts much of the combat operations and incurs most of the casualties. But ISAF plays an important role in peacekeeping and training that the US desperately needs to continue. ISAF military and police enforcement in some of the calmest regions in Afghanistan is building a safe and secure country, and US forces are too thin to control Afghanistan without ISAF.

ISAF troops command many of Afghanistan’s pacified regions where the vicious seasonal fighting experienced in places such as Kabul and Helmand Province are an echo. The lack of sufficient equipment has kept the majority of ISAF troops from front-line deployment, however the steadily draining domestic political will of their home governments is relegating them to training Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). ISAF troops have largely been responsible for shifting the balance of control over to the ANSF and ensuring the majority of Afghanistan is protected. ISAF is looking to leave behind a strong Afghan security service by the time it wraps up in this theatre in the next few years.

Increasingly a more competent force, the ANSF now conducts a good portion of security in the milder regions. Elements from this force managed to contain a strong coordinated militant attack in Kabul on April 15 largely by themselves. ISAF has moved from a counterinsurgency role, leading from the front, to a more advisory role with the view to hand over all security responsibilities by 2014. ISAF and the Afghan national forces will be maintaining security of the delivery of goods into Afghanistan during the spring fighting season. These routes also bring in militants from neighbouring countries, leading to attacks on ISAF forces and the inevitable deaths. This border control mission represents the next step in the evolution of the ANSF force preparing for a post-ISAF/US Afghanistan.

Some governments of ISAF troops have already largely pulled out under pressure from their homelands. While others such as France will be expected to hand over complete control of physical security to the ANSF by the end of 2013, the consequences of not following this deadline will be veritable political suicide for those governments. ISAF is not planning to extend the stay of its troops after the proposed withdrawal deadlines, but there are hints that a residual force of joint ISAF-US Special Operations troops will remain in theatre in a few permanent bases well into the future.

France is only the most recent example of an ISAF member reacting strongly as attacks on their troops in Afghanistan occur. Any deaths of soldiers serving as part of a peacekeeping force will be treated differently than those suffered in combat operations. Afghanistan is a very unpopular war in many ISAF countries and is a common thread permeating recent political debates. While it hasn’t become the focal point of most elections, the constituencies of many governments are less likely to see the war as justified the longer it drags on. Placing a termination date on the conflict has assuaged reasoned fears of another “quagmire” in Central Asia, yet as attacks continue to kill troops those fears are being reinforced in the public mind. The pull-out date of December 2013 is far in the distance however and much could happen in the intervening period.

There is only two true spring/summer fighting seasons remaining for ISAF. Foreign troops in Afghanistan need the 2012 spring fighting season to be decisive. The remaining Taliban militants are certainly struggling to retain power throughout Afghanistan, even where ANSF forces are leading control. There is even encouraging signs that the political process in Kabul may finally be reaching respectable levels of constitutional legitimacy. However the Taliban are an amorphous group that decline combat in the face of overwhelming force in true guerrilla technique, melting into the landscape to fight another day. ISAF are by no means sure their efforts have stamped out Taliban influence in their calmer regions or whether the militants are simply biding their time until the foreign troops pull out. The tempo of attacks in Afghanistan has not reached the carnage of 2010-2011 fighting seasons yet, but clashes are still frequent.

ISAF will leave behind an Afghan security force it hopes will be competent, experienced and willing enough to carry on protecting their country without them. The great unknown is just how the ANSF will react when they can no longer expect ISAF or US helicopters to circle above their operations. Or how they will conduct themselves in law enforcement or combating insurgencies when ISAF instructors cannot step in to provide a force-multiplier or correct a mistake.

The Taliban attack on the French troops sends a clear message to the ANSF. The deaths of the four soldiers remind the Afghan security services they will not be any safer once ISAF departs, they may even be less safe. The Taliban may not be the formidable and omnipresent force of yesteryear, but they demonstrate a sustained ability to strike at foreign troops almost at will. Morale is a huge part of warfare, the most important tool according to Clausewitz, and continued vulnerability of the much stronger foreign troops must be apprehending ANSF commanders as drawdown dates edge closer.

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