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Initial United States Forces - Afghanistan (USFOR-A) Assessment

Initial Assessment

II. Nature of the Conflict

While not a war in the conventional sense, the conflict in Afghanistan demands a similar focus and an equal level of effort, and the consequences of failure are just as grave. The fight also demands an improved and evolved level of understanding.

The conflict in Afghanistan is often described as a war of ideas and perceptions; this is true and demands important consideration. However, perceptions are generally derived from actions and real conditions, for example by the provision or a lack of security, governance, and economic opportunity. Thus the key to changing perceptions is to change the fundamental underlying truths. To be effective, the counterinsurgent cannot risk credibility by substituting the situation they desire for reality. Redefining the Fight

Redefining the Fight

The conflict in Afghanistan can be viewed as a set of related insurgencies, each of which is a complex system with multiple actors and a vast set of interconnecting relationships among those actors. The most important implication of this view is that no element of the conflict can be viewed in isolation - a change anywhere will affect everything else. This view implies that the system must be understood holistically, and while such understanding is not predictive, it will help to recognize general causal relationships.

The new strategy redefines the nature of the fight. It is not a cyclical, kinetic campaign based on a set "fighting season." Rather it is a continuous, year-long effort to help GIRoA win the support of the people and counter insurgent coercion and intimidation. There are five principal actors in this conflict: the Afghan population, GIRoA, ISAF, the insurgency, and the external 'players'. It is important to begin with an understanding of each of these actors, starting with the most important: the people.

The people of Afghanistan represent many things in this conflict -- an audience, an actor, and a source of leverage - but above all, they are the objective. The population can also be a source of strength and intelligence and provide resistance to the insurgency. Alternatively, they can often change sides and provide tacit or real support to the insurgents. Communities make deliberate choices to resist, support, or allow insurgent influence. The reasons for these choices must be better understood.

GIRoA and ISAF have both failed to focus on this objective. The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government. These problems have alienated large segments of the Afghan population. They do not trust GIRoA to provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services. This crisis of confidence, coupled with a distinct lack of economic and educational opportunity, has created fertile ground for the insurgency.

ISAF's center of gravity is the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population "by, with, and through" the Afghan government. A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution. This is their war and, in the end, ISAF's competency will prove less decisive than GIRoA's; eventual success requires capable Afghan governance capabilities and security forces. While these institutions are still developing, ISAF and the international community must provide substantial assistance to Afghanistan until the Afghan people make the decision to support their government and are capable of providing for their own security.

An isolating geography and a natural aversion to foreign intervention further works against ISAF. Historical grievances reinforce connections to tribal or ethnic identity and can diminish the appeal of a centralized state. All ethnicities, particularly the Pashtuns, have traditionally sought a degree of independence from the central government, particularly when it is not seen as acting in the best interests of the population. These and other factors result in elements of the population tolerating the insurgency and calling to push out foreigners.

Nonetheless, the Afghan people also expect appropriate governance, the delivery of basic services, and the provision of justice. The popular myth that Afghans do not want governance is overplayed -while Afghan society is rooted in tribal structures and ethnic identities, Afghans do have a sense of national identity.

However, these generalizations risk oversimplifying this uniquely complicated environment. The complex social landscape of Afghanistan is in many ways much more difficult to understand than Afghanistan's enemies. Insurgent groups have been the focus of U.S. and allied intelligence for many years; however, ISAF has not sufficiently studied Afghanistan's peoples whose needs, identities and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley. This complex environment is challenging to understand, particularly for foreigners. For this strategy to succeed, ISAF leaders must redouble efforts to understand the social and political dynamics of areas all regions of the country and take action that meets the needs of the people, and insist that GIRoA officials do the same.

Finally, either side can succeed in this conflict: GIRoA by securing the support of the people and the insurgents by controlling them. While this multi-faceted model of the fight is centered on the people, it is not symmetrical: the insurgents can also succeed more simply by preventing GIRoA from achieving their goals before the international community becomes exhausted.

Two Main Threats: Insurgency and Crisis in Confidence

The ISAF mission faces two principal threats and is also subject to the influence of external actors.

The first threat is the existence of organized and determined insurgent groups working to expel international forces, separate the Afghan people from GIRoA, and gain control of the population.

The second threat, of a very different kind, is the crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of GIRoA institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement, and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity. ISAF errors have further compounded the problem. These factors generate recruits for the insurgent groups, elevate local conflicts and power-broker disputes to a national level, degrade the people's security and quality-of-life, and undermine international will.

Addressing the external actors will enable success; however, insufficiently addressing either principle threat will result in failure.

Insurgent Groups

Most insurgent fighters are Afghans. They are directed by a small number of Afghan senior leaders based in Pakistan that work through an alternative political infrastructure in Afghanistan. They are aided by foreign fighters, elements of some intelligence agencies, and international funding, resources, and training. Foreign fighters provide materiel, expertise, and ideological commitment.

The insurgents wage a "silent war" of fear, intimidation, and persuasion throughout the year-not just during the warmer weather "fighting season"-to gain control over the population. These efforts make possible, in many places, a Taliban "shadow government" that actively seeks to control the population and displace the national government and traditional power structures. Insurgent military operations attract more attention than this silent war but are only a supporting effort. Violent attacks are designed to weaken the government by demonstrating its inability to provide security, to fuel recruiting and financing efforts, to provoke reactions from ISAF that further alienate the population, and also to undermine public and political support for the ISAF mission in coalition capitals.

The major insurgent groups in order of their threat to the mission are: the Quetta Shura Taliban (QST), the Haqqani Network (HQN), and the Hezb-e Islami Gulbuddin (HiG). These groups coordinate activities loosely, often achieving significant unity of purpose and even some unity of effort, but they do not share a formal command-and-control structure. They also do not have a single overarching strategy or campaign plan. Each individual group, however, has a specific strategy, develops annual plans, and allocates resources accordingly. Each group has its own methods of developing and executing these plans and each has adapted over time. Despite the best efforts of GIRoA and ISAF, the insurgents currently have the initiative.

Insurgent Strategy and Campaign Design

The insurgents have two primary objectives: controlling the Afghan people and breaking the coalition's will. Their aim is to expel international forces and influences and to supplant GIRoA. At the operational level, the Quetta Shura conducts a formal campaign review each winter, after which Mullah Omar announces his guidance and intent for the coming year... . REDACTION.

The key geographical objectives of the major insurgent groups are Kandahar City and Khowst Province. The QST has been working to control Kandahar and its approaches for several years and there are indications that their influence over the city and neighboring districts is significant and growing. HQN aims to regain eventually full control of its traditional base in Khowst, Paktia, and Paktika. HQN controls some of the key terrain around Khowst and can influence the population in the region. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's HiG maintains militant bases in Nangarhar, Nuristan, and Kunar, as well as Pakistan, but he also sustains political connections through HiG networks and aims to negotiate a major role in a future Taliban government. He does not currently have geographical objectives as is the case with the other groups.

All three insurgent groups require resources - mainly money and manpower. The QST derives funding from the narcotics trade and external donors. HQN similarly draws resources principally from Pakistan, Gulf Arab networks, and from its close association with al Qaeda and other Pakistan-based insurgent groups. HiG seeks control of mineral wealth and smuggling routes in the east.

Insurgent Lines of Operation

The QST's main efforts focus on the governance line of operations. Security and information operations support these efforts. ISAF's tendency to measure the enemy predominantly by kinetic events masks the true extent of insurgent activity and prevents an accurate assessment of the insurgents' intentions, progress, and level of control of the population.

Governance. The QST has a governing structure in Afghanistan under the rubric of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They appoint shadow governors for most provinces, review their performance, and replace them periodically. They established a body to receive complaints against their own "officials" and to act on them. They install "shari'a" courts to deliver swift and enforced justice in contested and controlled areas. They levy taxes and conscript fighters and laborers. They claim to provide security against a corrupt government, ISAF forces, criminality, and local power brokers. They also claim to protect Afghan and Muslim identity against foreign encroachment. In short, the QST provides major elements of governance and a national and religious narrative. HQN and HiG co-exist with, but do not necessarily accept, the QST governing framework and have yet to develop competing governing structures.

Information. Major insurgent groups outperform GIRoA and ISAF at information operations. Information operations drive many insurgent operations as they work to shape the cultural and religious narrative. They have carefully analyzed their audience and target products accordingly. They use their Pashtun identity, physical proximity to the population, and violent intimidation to deliver immediate and enduring messages with which ISAF and GIRoA have been unable to compete. They leverage this advantage by projecting the inevitability of their victory, a key source of their strength.

Security. Major insurgent groups use violence, coercion and intimidation against civilians to control the population. They seek to inflict casualties on ISAF forces to break the will of individual ISAF countries and the coalition as a whole. They also use military activities to shape ISAF actions by denying freedom of movement, denying access to the population, and defending important terrain. The insurgents use the psychological effects of IEDs and the coalition force's preoccupation with force protection to reinforce the garrison posture and mentality. The major insurgent groups target GIRoA and ANSF to dissuade cooperation with the government and to show that GIRoA is ineffective. The insurgents control or contest a significant portion of the country, although it is difficult to assess precisely how much due to a lack of ISAF presence. .. . REDACTION.

Social/Economic. The QST and other insurgent groups have deliberate social strategies that exacerbate the breakdown in Afghan social cohesion. They empower radical mullahs to replace local leaders, undermine or eliminate local elders and mullahs who do not support them, and consistently support weaker, disenfranchised, or threatened tribes or groups. They erode traditional social structures and capitalize on vast unemployment by empowering the young and disenfranchised through cash payments, weapons, and prestige.

Insurgent Enablers and Vulnerabilities

Criminal networks. Criminality creates a pool of manpower, resources, and capabilities for insurgents and contributes to a pervasive sense of insecurity among the people. Extensive smuggling diverts major revenue from GIRoA. Criminality exacerbates the fragmentation of Afghan society and increases its susceptibility to insurgent penetration. A number of Afghan Government officials, at all levels, are reported to be complicit in these activities, further undermining GIRoA credibility.

Narcotics and Financing. The most significant aspect of the production and sale of opium and other narcotics is the corrosive and destabilizing impact on corruption within GIRoA. Narcotics activity also funds insurgent groups, however the importance of this funding must be understood within the overall context of insurgent financing, some of which comes from other sources. Insurgent groups also receive substantial income from foreign donors as well as from other criminal activities within Afghanistan such as smuggling and kidnapping for ransom. Some insurgent groups 'tax' the local population through check points, demanding protection money, and other methods. Eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits -- even if possible, and while disruptive -- would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact.

Insurgent Vulnerabilities. The insurgents have important and exploitable shortcomings; they are not invulnerable. Command and control frictions and divergent goals hamper insurgent planning and restrict coordination of operations. .. . REDACTION... Insurgent excesses can alienate the people. Moreover, the core elements of the insurgency have previously held power in Afghanistan and failed. Popular enthusiasm for them appears limited, as does their ability to spread viably beyond Pashtun areas. GIRoA and ISAF have an opportunity to exploit the insurgent's inability to mobilize public support.

In summary, ISAF confronts a loose federation of insurgent groups that are sophisticated, organized, adaptive, determined, and nuanced across all lines of operations, with many enablers, but not without vulnerability. These groups are dangerous and, if not effectively countered, could exhaust the coalition and prevent GIRoA from being able to govern the state of Afghanistan.

Crisis of Confidence in GIRoA and ISAF Actions

The Afghan government has made progress, yet serious problems remain. The people's lack of trust in their government results from two key factors. First, some GIRoA officials have given preferential treatment to certain individuals, tribes, and groups or worse, abused their power at the expense of the people. Second, the Afghan government has been unable to provide sufficient security, justice, and basic services to the people. Although the capacity and integrity of some Afghan institutions have improved and the number of competent officials has grown, this progress has been insufficient to counter the issues that undermine legitimacy. These problems contribute to the Afghan Government's inability to gain the support of the Afghan population. ISAF errors also compound the problem.

GIRoA State Weakness. There is little connection between the central government and the local populations, particularly in rural areas. The top-down approach to developing government capacity has failed to provide services that reach local communities. GIRoA has not developed the means to collect revenue and distribute resources. Sub-national officials vary in competency and capability and most provincial and district governments are seriously undermanned and under-resourced.

The Afghan Government has not integrated or supported traditional community governance structures -- historically an important component of Afghan civil society -- leaving communities vulnerable to being undermined by insurgent groups and power- brokers. The breakdown of social cohesion at the community level has increased instability, made Afghans feel unsafe, and fueled the insurgency.

Tolerance of Corruption and Abuse of Power. Widespread corruption and abuse of power exacerbate the popular crisis of confidence in the government and reinforce a culture of impunity. Local Afghan communities are unable to hold local officials accountable through either direct elections or judicial processes, especially when those individuals are protected by senior government officials. Further, the public perceives that ISAF is complicit in these matters, and that there is no appetite or capacity - either among the internationals or within GIRoA - to correct the situation. The resulting public anger and alienation undermine ISAF's ability to accomplish its mission. The QST's establishment of ombudsmen to investigate abuse of power in its own cadres and remove those found guilty capitalizes on this GIRoA weakness and attracts popular support for their shadow government.

Afghan power brokers and factional leaders. Some local and regional power brokers were allies early in the conflict and now help control their own areas. Many are current or former members of GIRoA whose financial independence and loyal armed followers give them autonomy from GIRoA, further hindering efforts to build a coherent Afghan state. In most cases. their interests are not aligned with either the interests of the Afghan people or GIRoA, leading to conflicts that offer opportunities for insurgent groups to exploit. Finally, some of these power brokers hold positions in the ANSF, particularly the ANP, and have been major agents of corruption and illicit trafficking. ISAF's relationship with these individuals can be problematic. Some are forces of stability in certain areas, but many others are polarizing and predatory.

There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networks (including the narcotics networks), and corrupt GIRoA officials. Malign actors within GIRoA support insurgent groups directly, support criminal networks that are linked to insurgents, and support corruption that helps feed the insurgency.

ISAF Shortcomings. Afghan social, political, economic, and cultural affairs are complex and poorly understood. ISAF does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population. A focus by ISAF intelligence on kinetic targeting and a failure to bring together what is known about the political and social realm have hindered ISAF's comprehension of the critical aspects of Afghan society.

ISAF's attitudes and actions have reinforced the Afghan people's frustrations with the shortcomings of their government. Civilian casualties and collateral damage to homes and property resulting from an over-reliance on firepower and force protection have severely damaged ISAF's legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people. Further, poor unity of effort among ISAF, UNAMA, and the rest of the international community undermines their collective effectiveness, while failure to deliver on promises further alienates the people. Problematic contracting processes and insufficient oversight also reinforce the perception of corruption within ISAF and the international community.

In summary, the absence of personal and economic security, along with the erosion of public confidence in the government, and a perceived lack of respect for Afghan culture pose as great a challenge to ISAF's success as the insurgent threat. Protecting the population is more than preventing insurgent violence and intimidation. It also means that ISAF can no longer ignore or tacitly accept abuse of power, corruption, or marginalization.

External Influences

Pakistan. Afghanistan's insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan, are linked with al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups, and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan's ISI. Al Qaeda and associated movements (AQAM) based in Pakistan channel foreign fighters, suicide bombers, and technical assistance into Afghanistan, and offer ideological motivation, training, and financial support. Al Qaeda's links with HQN have grown, suggesting that expanded HQN control could create a favorable environment for AQAM to re-establish safe-havens in Afghanistan. Additionally, the ISAF mission in Afghanistan is reliant on ground supply routes through Pakistan that remain vulnerable to these threats.

Stability in Pakistan is essential, not only in its own right, but also to enable progress in Afghanistan. While the existence of safe havens in Pakistan does not guarantee ISAF failure, Afghanistan does require Pakistani cooperation and action against violent militancy, particularly against those groups active in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the insurgency in Afghanistan is predominantly Afghan. By defending the population, improving sub-national governance, and giving disenfranchised rural communities a voice in their government, GIRoA - with support from ISAF - can strengthen Afghanistan against both domestic and foreign insurgent penetration. Reintegrating communities and individuals into the political system can help reduce the insurgency's virulence to a point where it is no longer an existential threat to GIRoA.

India. Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.

Iran. Iran plays an ambiguous role in Afghanistan, providing developmental assistance and political support to GIRoA while the Iranian Clods Force is reportedly training fighters for certain Taliban groups and providing other forms of military assistance to insurgents. Iran's current policies and actions do not pose a short-term threat to the mission, but Iran has the capability to threaten the mission in the future. Pakistan may see Iranian economic and political initiatives as threats to their strategic interests, and may continue to address these issues in ways that are counterproductive to the ISAF effort.

Russia/Central Asia. Afghanistan's northern neighbors have enduring interests in, and influence over, particular segments of Afghanistan. They pursue objectives that are not necessarily congruent to ISAF's mission. ISAF's Northern Distribution Network and logistical hubs are dependent upon support from Russian and Central Asian States, giving them the potential to act as either spoilers or positive influences.

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