Today the commander of all U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, will testify in front of lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee. Allen will address a string of high-profile incidents, including the accidental burning of Qurans by U.S. forces and the alleged killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. Army soldier, both of which are tragic but temporary setbacks.
He will face lawmakers who have opinions about changing troops’ missions away from combat to advising, the process of transition to Afghan control and the ultimate drawdown of troops. However, the general also must convey the necessity of continuing the campaign against the insurgency, a strategic-level message that often gets lost amid tactical events that dominate media coverage.
But the reality in Afghanistan is different: The military campaign is not finished. Without successfully dismantling the Haqqani-led eastern insurgency, the United States is unlikely to achieve the national security objective of preventing the return of al-Qaida and its affiliates to Afghanistan, the mission that President Barack Obama has enunciated.
Over the past several years, the United States has concentrated much of its combat power in the south — with considerable success. Since the summer of 2009, when American surge forces began arriving in southern Afghanistan, the insurgency has been on its heels. Despite substantive progress, this was only the first part of a two-part plan. When coalition planners formed the surge strategy for Afghanistan, they expected that after combat power achieved the necessary gains in the south, the priority effort at the time, surge forces would be reinvested in the eastern provinces. This has not happened.
Because surge forces were sent into the south, a massive campaign by U.S. Marines and Afghan forces in the Taliban stronghold of the Helmand Province has reduced the insurgency to a shell of its former self. Similarly, in neighboring Kandahar, U.S. and coalition forces have destroyed the Taliban’s sanctuary and local bases of support around Kandahar City. Although challenges remain in the realm of governance, in many cases, U.S. and coalition forces removed the Taliban.
The eastern insurgency, including the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, presents a danger to the success of the mission. The paucity of troops in the east has allowed the Haqqani network, elements of al-Qaida and their affiliates to expand beyond their historical area of operations into provinces surrounding Kabul and beyond.
From these critical areas, the expanded Haqqani presence has executed some of the most spectacular attacks on the Afghan capital in recent memory, including the September 2011 attack on the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force. Dozens of plots to assassinate senior Afghan political figures, including President Hamid Karzai, were disrupted before they were set in motion. Others, including the Haqqani plot to assassinate the former president of Afghanistan, were carried out. Increasingly, the Haqqanis and their insurgent allies are positioning themselves for a sustained campaign of attacks that could unravel the Afghan government.
The Haqqanis and their affiliates have safe havens in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although U.S. and Afghan combat operations have affected the Haqqanis’ operations in and around Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, they maintain a capacity to regenerate that is hard to suppress without sustained, adequately resourced combat operations.
The Haqqanis are Pakistan’s most reliable proxy for ensuring influence in a post-ISAF Afghanistan. Facilitation into new sanctuaries in Pakistan and the provision of operational and materiel support indicate that the level of Pakistani state support for the Haqqanis has increased.
The Haqqanis also harbor al-Qaida and its affiliates in their North Waziristan sanctuary and allow them to train, shelter and participate in operations in Afghanistan.
From a U.S. perspective, the concern that the Haqqani network would allow for a reconstituted and revitalized al-Qaida is not only real, but contradictory to Obama’s objective of preventing al-Qaida’s return to Afghanistan. It is impossible to prevent al-Qaida and its affiliates’ return to Afghanistan without disrupting, dismantling and defeating the Afghan networks on which they operate.
Defeating the Haqqani network would be difficult under any circumstances, especially under the withdrawal timelines the president has outlined. At the very least, dealing with the Haqqani threat in Afghanistan necessitates several sufficiently resourced fighting seasons by U.S. combat personnel that is necessary, but likely not sufficient, to dismantle the network.
Complicating matters further, the network’s sanctuary in Pakistan makes it difficult, but not impossible, to target and remove the Haqqani network leadership. But we know targeting senior leaders is insufficient to defeat insurgent and terrorist groups because they have redundant command structures, control ground inside Afghanistan and intimidate local populations to maintain their operations.
In Afghanistan, not much is certain — except perhaps that the failure to deal with the Haqqanis will present catastrophic challenges to the security of the Afghan state. The Afghan National Security Forces will not be capable of dealing with the Haqqani network, which is likely to grow without serious and sufficient attention. Such a campaign requires high-end intelligence, sophisticated operations integrating infantry and air lift, and excellent tactical skills that American forces alone have. The campaign requires a reallocation of American forces and time to succeed.
If Obama remains committed to the original objectives that he set out for mission success in Afghanistan, he will, at the very least, need to support the continuation of the combat mission and retain force levels at the planned 68,000 American troops until the end of the fighting season in 2013.
Jeffrey Dressler is a senior analyst focusing on security in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Institute for the Study of War.