By Rod Nordland, Thom Shanker and Matthew Rosenberg
New York Times
October 16, 2013
KABUL, Afghanistan — When the Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive, they saw few limits to their ambitions: to kill top Afghan officials across every major ministry, to plot even more infiltration attacks against Americans and to bloody, break and drive off the Afghan security forces who were newly in charge across the country.
Now, Afghan and American officials are cautiously celebrating a deflation of the Taliban’s propaganda bubble, the militants’ goals largely unmet.
With this year’s fighting season nearly over, the officials say the good news is that the Afghan forces mostly held their own, responding to attacks well and cutting down on assassinations. But at the same time, the Afghans were unable to make significant gains and, worse, suffered such heavy casualties that some officials called the rate unsustainable.
That assessment, detailed in interviews with commanders, officials and local leaders, is an important factor in urgent efforts by the Americans and Afghans to hash out a long-term deal to support the Afghan security forces, with national elections and the Western military withdrawal looming over the coming months.
Though the Afghan forces endured, they did little to answer some persistent questions about their ability and image, including whether they can handle their own planning and logistics as American forces continue to pull back. And in the rural southern Taliban heartland, the insurgents’ continued appearance as the more credible military force away from cities added weight to theories that the Taliban could control those areas after 2014.
“What we saw this year was an insurgency unable to make a decisive blow against the A.N.S.F.,” one Pentagon official said, referring to the Afghan National Security Forces. But the official added: “The Afghans still have a lot of learning to do. They had some tough brawls, and they took substantial casualties.”
Some American and Afghan commanders characterized a kind of moral victory for the Afghan forces: they mostly survived, and they did not completely give back gains from past Western offensives.
“The Taliban’s operational directive at the start of the fighting season was to press the Afghan security forces and try to break their will,” said Col. David Lapan, a spokesman for the American military commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. “It’s so far been our assessment they have not succeeded in any of their stated goals.”
While the Taliban’s assassination campaign did take a toll on police officials and mostly low-level district officials, an insurgent success came late in the season — on Tuesday, when the well-regarded governor of Logar Province was killed while preparing to speak in a mosque, though the Taliban denied responsibility.
The Taliban were quick to take responsibility for many of the so-called insider attacks last year, when Afghans in uniform killed 60 members of the international military force, and vowed to intensify them this year. But with new security measures in place, there have been just 14 such killings this year.
Even the insurgents’ strategy of waging high-profile attacks against Western targets in the capital, Kabul, mostly fizzled or ended up misdirected, as in a bombing that the Taliban said had been aimed at a C.I.A. safe house but instead killed four at the International Organization for Migration.
“We knew going into this that the insurgency understood this would be the last fighting season before the elections of April 2014,” said one Defense Department official, who along with some other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Afghan forces’ progress. “They knew it was time to get creative, that if ever there was a time to make a spectacular impact or strike a decisive blow, this would be it.”
Though there was no such decisive blow, the cuts were deep.
In some areas of the south and east, most notably in the Sangin district of Helmand Province, the Taliban were able to restrict movement of Afghan forces and inflict heavy casualties.
Just how much those casualties have increased, however, is a matter of dispute. American officials defer requests for statistics to the Afghan authorities, saying it is now their responsibility.
Sediq Seddiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the increase was only slight for the police forces, who suffered the greatest share of the casualties. But he refused to give any recent statistics. The Afghan military has similarly resisted giving figures for this year.
Last year, the Afghan government said 2,970 police officers and soldiers had been killed in 2012.
The toll this year is at least double that, and probably much more, said Hamayoun Hamayoun, the chairman of the defense committee in the Afghan Parliament. He said figures given in confidence to his committee by government ministries showed that 6,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers had been killed since March.
“You know the government hides the correct numbers,” he said.
Mr. Hamayoun cited a major fight in northern Badakhshan Province in August. Government spokesmen said 20 policemen had been killed, but when committee investigators went to the area, they found the total was 80, he said.
In addition, Mr. Hamayoun expressed concern about the continued high attrition rate for the Afghan National Army from desertions, casualties and resignations. In recent years, the military had to replace roughly a third of its force annually, and that has continued, he said.
“If this keeps on for a long time, the military will collapse,” Mr. Hamayoun said.
American military officials say they are not nearly so alarmed. They expected the Afghans to take some punishment once they were really on their own, and they say that so far the Afghans have not had a hard time finding replacement recruits in a country with high unemployment and widespread poverty.
Trying to blunt the effect of increased Afghan casualties, American commanders say, they flew more helicopter medevac missions for Afghan forces — despite an effort to persuade the Afghans to use ground transportation and regional military hospitals in preparation for the decreasing American support presence.
“This is their first fighting season in the lead, so we’re doing more medevacs than previous years because they’re doing more than previous years,” said Colonel Lapan, the American military spokesman.
The performance of their allies was not as poor as many American military officials had feared. One senior military officer said he would give the Afghan security forces a C-plus grade — not a ringing endorsement, but better than the C he said he would give the insurgency.
But if the Afghans’ performance has allayed short-term fears, it has answered few questions about what the long-term balance against the Taliban will look like.
One critical point will be security for the national election, scheduled for the first week in April and characterized as crucial to the government’s credibility. Some Afghan officials insist that date is too early — snow is still likely to be blocking mountain passes, potentially reducing turnout. But American officials are quietly urging the Afghans to stay on course anyway, because a later date would make it easier for the Taliban to disrupt the vote.
“It is not lost on us that the timing of the election is April, which is generally before the major fighting season starts,” one Pentagon official said. “We are encouraging our counterparts to continue moving toward that goal. If it is delayed into the summer fighting season, the A.N.S.F. will be challenged.”
There are longer-term questions as well, particularly in remote districts of eastern Afghanistan and stretches of farmland in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest.
One American official involved with the Human Terrain System, a program that uses social science techniques to help the military understand Afghan society, said that in those areas, the perception among most people was that the Taliban remained the dominant force in their villages.
That, in particular, does not bode well for the hope that the central government will be able to exert its authority in those southern and ethnic Pashtun areas after the official end of the American combat mission next year.
“You’re looking at these people, you listen to them and you hear them out and you talk, and you realize that these are the Taliban,” said an American Army officer who served in rural areas thick with insurgents outside Kandahar, the main city in southern Afghanistan.
“It’s not that each one of them is an active insurgent — these are old men, a lot of them. It’s that they are the reason the Taliban exists. It came from where they live,” the officer said. “I think, when we take the long view here, we should be cognizant of the context. Maybe the best outcome would be Taliban in the villages and the government in the district centers.”