Afghanistan Conflict – August 2019 Update

ANDSF

The Afghan conflict continues to rage across Afghanistan. The ANDSF remains on the defensive in static checkpoints throughout the country – with the exception of the Afghan special operations forces. The U.S. seems to be closing the deal with the Taliban that will allow it to start the withdrawal process. The Afghan government is struggling to run its long-delayed presidential election. The Taliban has control of at least 50% of the countryside even as it absorbs painful punishment from U.S. air strikes. Found below are some curated news, analysis, and commentary about the Afghan war from the month of August 2019.

“I think it’s premature, I’m not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now. We’re going to make sure our, that Afghanistan’s not a sanctuary.”

General Joe Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a DoD press conference on August 28, 2019.

Resolute Support

Combat Deaths. The recent deaths of two U.S. Army Green Berets in Afghanistan raise this year’s number of Americans killed in combat to 14 – the highest annual total since 2014. In addition, two other American service members died in non-combat related incidents. And there are the Coalition nations that have lost troops as well – including the recent death of a Croatian soldier.

Af-Pak Hands Program – No More. The Af-Pak Hands program has ended. A brilliant concept that was imperfectly executed has been nixed. Jack McCain – a naval aviator and son of the late Senator John McCain – was interviewed about the program that he participated in. (The Washington Post, August 23, 2019).

2 Para Afghan Deployment. The UK’s 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment is preparing for another Afghanistan deployment. The unit has deployed to Afghanistan three times before – once to Kabul and twice to Helmand province. Read “2 Para prepare for deployment to Afghanistan”, The Military Times (UK), August 14, 2019.

More Details On Death of Army Ranger. An investigation on the death of Sergeant Leandro Jasso has determined that he was killed by ‘friendly fire’. He was mortally wounded by a soldier with the Ktah Khas – an elite Afghan partner force that accompanies Rangers on direct action raids. The incident took place in Kash Rod district, Nimruz province. For a detailed account of the raid see “Ranger was killed by Afghan friendly fire during night raid on al-Qaida, investigation shows”, Army Times, August 27, 2019.

SFABs and Unit Deployments. The 2nd Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) is in the midst of their Afghan deployment. Meanwhile the 3rd SFAB based at Fort Hood, Texas is preparing to launch to Afghanistan in the winter of 2019. In addition, the 10th Mountain Division Combat Aviation Brigade stationed at Fort Drum, New York will be deployed to Afghanistan. The DoD has not been issued any new guidance on future troop deployments in light of the ongoing peace negotiations. But certainly the planners at Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul are putting in long hours developing contingency plans for downsizing the force structure in Afghanistan. Some news reports indicate that certain staff sections are being relocated to bases in the Mideast to reduce the troop levels in Afghanistan.

ANDSF

AAF and U.S. Congress. The Afghan UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter program is having some difficulties. Challenges include a shortage of qualified pilots, mismanagement of training programs, and absence of an adequate maintenance training program, and more. The U.S. Congress is the source of the problems with the Afghan Air Force UH-60 program. Read “Congress Will Get the Afghan Air Force It Asked For”, Real Clear Defense, August 23, 2019.

New Helicopter Contract. MD Helicopters, Inc. was awarded a $50M contract to provide logistics support to the Afghan Air Force (AAF) MD-530F helicopter fleet. The light-duty aircraft performs a variety of aerial missions.

Ghost Soldiers. The total numbers of personnel for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces has decreased over the past few months. This is mostly a result of how the troops are counted and an effort to reduce the number of ‘ghost soldiers’. Members of the ANDSF are now reported based on biometrics rather than by the number reported on-hand by unit commanders. (Reuters, August 1, 2019).

Peace in the ‘Valley of Death’. It is not all bad news coming out of Afghanistan. The Pech River Valley in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan – a very active spot for U.S. (and Russian) troops – has been relatively quiet the past several years. U.S. forces referred to the Korengal Valley, part of the Pech River Valley region, as the ‘Valley of Death’. Read “Peace Returns to Afghanistan’s ‘Valley of Death'”, Gandhara Blog, August 22, 2019.

Taliban, Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda, and ISIS

Taliban. With the possible peace agreement being signed – possibly as early as September 2019 – the Talaban appear to be on the verge of consolidating their political power. The insurgent group would then enter into negotiations with the Afghan government resulting in a power-sharing agreement or an interim government.

Haqqani Network. One of Afghanistan’s most resilient insurgent groups that has survived attempts of the U.S. to dismantle it is the Haqqani Network. Its leader is believed to be the number two in the Taliban movement. Melissa Skorka, a researcher with some time in Afghanistan, has two recent articles on the Haqqani Network. Read :

“Afghanistan Endgame, Part One: Is Sirajuddin Haqqani Ready for Peace?”, Council on Foreign Relations, August 14, 2019.

“Afghanistan Endgame, Part Two: How Does This War End?”, Council on Foreign Relations, August 16, 2019.

Al-Qaeda. The al-Qaeda terrorist group will lose the support of the Taliban – or so the peace agreement stipulates. But it remains to be seen if the Taliban will actually force al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan.

ISKP. Despite continuous U.S. airstrikes and raids by Afghan special operations forces the Islamic State of Khorasan Province remains entrenched in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Read more in “Afghanistan: Islamic State Snowballing Danger – Analysis”, Eurasia Review, August 27, 2019.

Commentary

ANDSF and ‘Checkpoint Mentality’. Major Mike Kelvington, a U.S. Army infantry officer with multiple deployments to Afghanistan, provides his thoughts on the prevalence and negative results of the over 4,000 checkpoints that the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces maintain throughout Afghanistan. Read “Playing Capture The Flag: Advising Our Way to More Enduring Effects in Afghanistan”, Small Wars Journal, August 28, 2019.

Lessons from the Soviet Withdrawal in Afghanistan. Colonel (Ret) Ketti Davison, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer with some time in Afghanistan, compares the Soviet Union withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 to the future withdrawal by the U.S. Read “Afghanistan: A Tale of Two Withdrawals”, Institute for the Study of War, August 20, 2019.

Afghanistan and Terrorist Safe Havens. Hal Brands, an opinion columnist, provides the rationale for keeping a small CT force in Afghanistan to ensure terrorists cannot use ‘safe havens’ to plan, prepare, and coordinate terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies. He says that critics who want to pull all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan are ignoring 20 years of experience. Read “The Real Risks of Allowing Terrorist Safe Havens”, Bloomberg Opinion, August 27, 2019.

Vickers on Afghanistan. Michael Vickers – former Green Beret, CIA operative, and senior DoD official – is interviewed by Michael Morell (another CIA guy) about the ANDSF, ISIS-K, and al-Qaeda. Read “Transcript: Michael Vickeers on “Intelligence Matters”, CBS News, August 28, 2019.

Petraeus on Afghanistan. The former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) provides his perspective on the current situation in Afghanistan. He explains the importance of keeping troops on the ground, discusses his time spent in the country (and region), and informs us on the lessons that we should have learned over the past 18 years of war. “WTH is going on in Afghanistan? Gen. Petraeus explains the US-Taliban deal”, AEI, August 28, 2019.

Controlling the Countryside – or Not. Major Danny Sjursen, USA (Retired), says it is highly unlikely that the US military could come away with a ‘win’ in Afghanistan. He says one simply has to look at the number of districts controlled or contested by the Taliban, ANDSF casualty rate, record opium bumper crop, and other metrics to see that there will be an impending Taliban victory or a perpetual stalemate. He provides details of his 2011-2012 deployment to southern Afghanistan – where his unit controlled the ground they stood on . . . and little else. He has some interesting comments about the SOF Village Stability Operations (VSO) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) programs implemented in his area. Read “Stop Pretending: Washington and Kabul Never (Really) Controlled Rural Afghanistan”, AntiWar.com, August 26, 2019.

Peace Negotiations

It is becoming more likely that a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban may happen. Details of the results of the negotiations are slowly emerging. There is apparently a ‘timeline’ for the withdrawal of ‘some’ U.S. forces – 14 to 24 months. One concession that the United States has made is referring to the Taliban as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – something that will improve the status of the Taliban. (NBC News, Aug 28, 2019).

Part of the agreement is for the Taliban to promise not to harbor terrorist groups, cutting ties with al-Qaeda, and entering into reconciliation talks with the Afghan government. Many observers say that while the Taliban have an adversarial relationship with ISIS-K, they are not so adverse to an al-Qaeda presence.

‘Flirting with Disaster’. The U.S. is reportedly contemplating the withdrawal of 8,000 troops immediately after a peace agreement with the Taliban is reached and possibly down to zero by October 2020. Ioannis Koskina, CEO of the Hoplite Group, tells us why the peace agreement is with the Taliban is the fast track to failure. Read “Don’t Sign a Death Warrant for Afghan Democracy”, War on the Rocks, August 26, 2019.

‘Flawed Agreement’. James B. Cunningham has penned an article expressing concern about the specifics of the deal that US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad is negotiating with the Taliban. He worries that the U.S. is negotiating against a deadline while the Taliban are not. Read more in “Is There Art in the Afghan Deal?”, The Atlantic Council, August 23, 2019.

“A flawed agreement risks the collapse of Afghanistan into chaos, the return of the oppressive Taliban Emirate, and the growth of the Islamist terrorist threat to Western security and values.”

‘Take the Deal’. A former senior official with the State Department with significant Afghanistan experience says we need to come to an agreement with the Taliban. He says the U.S. has spent years slowly losing the war in Afghanistan. Read “We need to take the best deal we can get in Afghanistan”, The Washington Post, August 26, 2019.

Election and Politics

Regional Aspects of the Upcoming Presidential Election. Scott Worden examines recent voter registration and voting patterns from the last parliamentary election held in October 2018 and finds that some areas of Afghanistan may have a much greater potential influence on the outcome of the presidential election. Read more in “Past as Prologue? What the parliamentary election results tell us about the September presidential election“, Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN), August 23, 2019.

Biometrics. For years the Afghan government has attempted to implement registration and voting via biometric processes – and these attempts thus far have been very problematic. Now a news article says that biometrics may reduce female voter participation in an upcoming election. Some Afghan women in more conservative areas of Afghanistan are very reluctant to have their photographs taken. Read “Biometrics to end Fraud in Afghan Election May Discourage Some Women from Voting”, Gandhara Blog, August 27, 2019.

Massoud’s Son Enters Politics. The son of Ahmad Shah Massoud is entering Afghan politics. When he was age twelve his father was assassinated – two days prior to the attack on 9/11. Now, at age 30, he worries about the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban and Afghanistan’s future. Read more in “Son of famed Afghan commander Massaoud steps into spotlight”, MSN News, August 28, 2019.

Corruption

Ex-CEO of Kabul Bank Released. A presidential decree has authorized the release from detention of Khalilullah Frozi. He had almost one year left to the completion of his jail term. He was found guilty in the $900 million Kabul Bank embezzlement scandal in 2014. The Kabul Bank ran a pyramid scheme that laundered money for corrupt Afghan officials, warlords, and others. Read “Ghani Orders Release of Ex-CEO of Kabul Bank”, Tolo News, August 14, 2019.

A Little Bit of Graft? Some news reports say that Ghani’s presidential campaign fund received a donation of $30 million in exchange for an early release from prison for Khalilullah Ferozi – the convicted Bank of Kabul CEO. See “U.S. Envoy ‘Disturbed’ by Afghan Government’s Stance on Graft”, Gandhara Blog, August 16, 2019.

Books and Reports

SIGAR Report to Congress. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has sent its July 30, 2019 Quarterly Report to Congress. The 270-page pub is available here.

DOD IG Report on TTA of Air Drop Operations. The Department of Defense Inspector General has published a report that evaluates the U.S. and Coalition efforts to train, advise, assist, and equip Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators, Air Liaison Officers, and Afghan Air Targeting Officers. The report is 36 pages long and was published on August 8, 2018. It seems that the training efforts fell short in developing Afghan Tactical Air Coordinators in the ability to coordinate air drops that would provide supplies to the ANDSF. In addition, TAAC-Air did not have enough training for the Afghan Air Liaison Officers to conduct targeting for airstrikes.

Book – First to Fire. Andy Schouten deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 as a member of an Embedded Training Team (ETT) that worked under Task Force Phoenix. He wrote a book about his tour of duty in Afghanistan entitled First to Fire: An Embedded Training Team Member Experience in Afghanistan 2006. Read more about his book in “Wisconsin National Guard Soldier writes book on Afghanistan deployment”, Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs, July 3, 2019.

Videos

Video – Afghan Independence – 100 Years. A 3 minute long video explains the Third Anglo-Afghan War and how it reestablished full Afghan independence after decades of British control over Afghan foreign policy. Watch “How Afghans Took on the British and Achieved Full Independence”, Gandhara Blog, August 19, 2019.

Video- Preparation for Jihad. The Taliban released a video that features the training of its fighters. It was released on August 10, 2019 on its official website Voice of Jihad. The video was produced by Manba’ Al-Jihad Media, the main propaganda outlet for the Haqqani Network. Read more in “Taliban promotes its ‘Preparation for Jihad'”, The Long War Journal, August 14, 2019.

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Photo: A member of the ANDSF. Photo by Afghan Ministry of Interior Twitter, April 2017.


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