The South Asia Channel

How Afghanistan Survives the 2016 Fighting Season

Off to a grim and tragic start, Afghanistan must heed lessons from the 2015 fighting season and get creative in their strategies if this year's is to be any better.

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Afghan security personnel prepare for a operation against Taliban militants in Kunduz province on April 19, 2016. Afghan security forces drove Taliban fighters back from Kunduz city, officials said, as the insurgents began the 2016 fighting season by targeting the northeastern provincial capital they briefly captured last year. / AFP / NASIR WAQIF (Photo credit should read NASIR WAQIF/AFP/Getty Images)

Spring has finally arrived, and with it, the beginning of another bloody season of fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan central government. On April 12, the Taliban announced the start of its annual spring offensive — this year, dubbed “Operation Omari,” in homage to the deceased former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar — in what could be a decisive year for both the Kabul-based government and the Taliban. A relative period of calm had permeated the battlefields, from the Helmand Valley to northern Kunduz province. An eerie stillness lingered in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest fighting seasons since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban in 2001. That stillness was shattered on the morning of April 19, when the Taliban carried out its worst attack on Kabul, the capital, since 2011, killing over two dozen people and wounding more than 300 others.

Kabul need merely survive — as stated by Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative and head of the U.N. assistance mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) — and maintain the status quo on the battlefield. Last year’s fighting saw the temporary collapse of Kunduz, a feat NATO and U.S. commanders had claimed was impossible, and major land grabs in Helmand and northern Afghanistan, which are key areas of poppy production and financing operations for the Taliban. Indeed, recent reports have the Taliban now in control of five of Helmand’s 14 districts. The Taliban has slowly regained an almost-equal footing in any negotiations, eliminating much of the coalition’s previous gains in the region, thereby removing much of the incentive to negotiate with Kabul. The government will need to limit any further gains by the Taliban in order to convince its leadership that entering negotiations is in its best interests.

President Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government will need to focus on several key points if it wishes to survive the 2016 fighting season and convince the Taliban to negotiate.

As its first priority, the government should be selective in choosing its battles over territory. The fighting in 2015 witnessed headline-grabbing gains by the Taliban. On an almost daily basis, news of collapsing districts and checkpoints called into question the readiness of Afghan forces and the feasibility of U.S. withdrawal timelines. A major tactical problem for Afghan forces during the 2015 fighting season was their inability to prioritize which territories to protect, and their overmanning of too many useless checkpoints. As of September 2015, roughly 30 percent of the Army’s entire force was deployed to fixed sites and checkpoints, while half of the Afghan National Police were as well. The use of fixed-site defensive points limits the Afghan Army’s potential to conduct offensive operations and function as an effective, cohesive unit. Static sites allow the Taliban to dictate the terms of the battlefield while outmaneuvering Afghan forces, and to launch prolonged attacks that diminish the Afghan forces’ morale.

The government has begun to address this issue through tactical withdrawals from areas such as Nawzad and Musa Qalah in Helmand province. Though these districts appear strategic in nature and witnessed much bloodshed on the part of British and coalition forces, the withdrawal allows the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) to re-concentrate its efforts and protect Highway 1, a vital corridor that links to Helmand’s provincial capital of Laskar Gah and to Kajaki Dam, a critical power source for the country’s south.

The second priority should be the revitalization of the Afghan Air Force and new air platforms. The Afghan Air Force struggled in 2015, suffering multiple crashes and maintenance issues in its old fleet of Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters, which are nearing retirement. Afghanistan’s hodgepodge of an air force was exhausted in the last fighting season, flying 20,000 missions, which was double the previous year’s total. The long training period for pilots and mechanics has further complicated air efforts. U.S. endeavors to rebuild the Afghan Air Force didn’t start until 2007, and for pilots, English language training eats up the first year.

Despite setbacks, the air force has shown resiliency and an ability to adapt to a demanding climate. The Afghan government has sought to replace aging Mi-35 helicopters with new Mi-35 and Mi-25 gunships procured from Russia and India. The U.S. government has signed contracts with Ghani’s administration to increase its fleet of MD-530 Cayuse Warrior Scout attack helicopters.

New for the 2016 fighting season will be Afghanistan’s only fixed-wing ground attack platform, the A-29 Super Tucano, described as a game changer by the former Resolute Support commander, Gen. John Campbell, before a House panel last October. The A-29 will greatly increase Afghanistan’s much-needed close air support capability — one that had been greatly hindered by the withdrawal of Coalition forces and the implementation of more restrictive rules of engagement for the remaining assets. So far, a total of eight A-29s have been delivered to the Afghan Air Force.

The Afghan Army is slated to fly its first surveillance drone in the coming weeks. As part of a U.S. procurement plan, the ANSF will receive 65 Scan Eagle surveillance drones that will allow Afghan forces to surveil Taliban troop movements, thereby reducing the need to man static positions and assist in targeting missions.

In reality, the Afghan Air Force is nowhere near full strength, though the new acquisitions and lessons learned after 2015 should assist forces on the battlefield this year. As stated by Gen. Campbell in March, the Afghan Air Force will not be at full strength until 2020.

The third priority should be understanding and coming to terms with major spoilers. Fractured movements can upend peace negotiations, and  be unstable and incredibly violent. The revelation of the death of Mullah Omar, the former supreme leader of the Taliban, ended breakthrough negotiations last June. The aftermath has been violence and internal disputes between various Taliban factions, such as the one led by Mullah Rasul, who opposes Omar’s supposed successor, Mullah Mansour. The internal Taliban rifts have made it increasingly difficult to bring either faction to the negotiating table.

Kabul’s ability to understand the major factions will be key to restarting peace negotiations and bringing some semblance of peace to the embattled region. Ghani’s administration has already begun to balance these factions. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami — the second-largest insurgent group, and a rival to the Taliban — has agreed to peace negotiations with Kabul, the first round of which ended in March. As the central government begins to coerce defectors to negotiate or support the state, the Taliban is likely to follow suit or risk being sidelined, with reduced political leverage in any talks.

The fourth priority should be to address the country’s endemic corruption. In a speech at the University of Pittsburgh, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, highlighted how low levels of oversight and massive cash injections into the Afghan economy have helped feed corruption in society, a problem that threatens to undo all the progress made over the last 15 years.

Corruption eats at the fabric of society, poisons the legitimacy of the central government, and bolsters insurgent groups and their causes. It destroys the rule of law, and thus threatens democratic institutions.

Eliminating corruption will be a long-term goal, a central tenet of Ghani’s administration, and one that cannot be solved overnight or in 2016. However, some short-term solutions can be adopted quickly to bolster Afghan forces.

Desertions by Afghan force personnel were near record highs in 2015, in part because of the bloody fighting season, but also as a result of unpaid salaries. Payments to ANSF are handled mainly through “trusted agents,” and local commanders sometimes pocket their troops’ money. As units begin to deplete through desertions, commanders keep the rosters intact by failing to report the desertions, then pocket the salaries. This has resulted in the problem of “ghost soldiers,” with many units becoming undermanned or unfit for combat.

Ghani’s administration can address this issue by mandating that all defense security personnel be paid through mobile money or electronic funds transfers. A pilot program for local police has shown signs of success; the hurdle in implementing such a program country-wide will be balancing the interests of parties that still benefit from the old system. Cash payments increase the likelihood of corrupt officials skimming the salaries of their subordinates. Removing this incentive would likely irk corrupt, high-level commanders with political connections in Kabul. Properly balancing the patronage system that exists in Afghanistan will be key to implementing the program.

Other obstacles remain in implementing a mobile money program. Though great strides have been made in pushing mobile technology in Afghanistan from roughly 2,000 users in 2002 to 17 million in 2013, many rural sectors are still not connected to the country’s cellular networks. Areas under Taliban control also witness diminished cell activity, as Taliban fighters frequently disable cell towers. Other issues include an often unreliable supply of electricity to the grid and irregular banking hours that hinder payment services.

Kabul has much to ponder and address as the 2016 fighting season begins. However, not all is lost, and Afghanistan already appears to be addressing lessons learned.

NASIR WAQIF/AFP/Getty Images

Shawn Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy specializing in Central and Southwest Asia. He served 10 years as a Signals Intelligence Analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan with Marine Special Operations Command.

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