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This report looks at the current dynamics in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, southern Afghanistan, in the context of the United States’ announced plan to begin drawing down military forces in Afghanistan in five months. The surge of 30,000 additional US forces has changed the security dynamics on the ground significantly, with the additional troops making major gains in clearing districts previously held by the Taliban.
The total troops on the ground in Afghanistan have gone from approximately 89,000 NATO- ISAF troops and 215,000 Afghan security forces in March 2010, to a current total of 131,000 NATO-ISAF troops and 266,000 Afghan police and army, an overall increase of 93,000. The Afghan security forces are also more visible and arguably more professional and better equipped than before.
This progress at the military level will hopefully create an enabling environment for analogous improvement in the fields of aid, development, governance and counter-narcotics which still require significant work. Without that, the military gains will be undermined and unsustainable. The urgent needs of people displaced by the fighting, the chronic grinding poverty and unemployment, and the grassroots political dynamics are not being addressed in southern Afghanistan. It is not at all clear what strategies will be used to tackle these vital issues.
Dramatic rises in the farm-gate opium price (in some areas reported at $475kg, with last year’s rate at around $180kg) may also have serious consequences: the insurgency may stand to gain greater profits from the opium economy and more farmers could be drawn into poppy farming. As a response to the pressures of the surge, the Taliban are adapting their tactics by using assassinations and roadside bombs. The road networks of the south are still compromised, which both impedes commercial activity in the region and affects the overall security dynamics. There are often-voiced fears that in the face of the usual spring/summer Taliban offensives, the Afghan police and army will be unable to hold the districts which have been cleared. This is especially worrying given widespread fears about Afghan security forces’ complicity with the insurgents, particularly with regard to the police and those Afghan units in exposed positions on the roads or away from the urban centers of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah.
The current political withdrawal calendar puts pressure on NATO-ISAF and the international community at large to produce quick results for the training of Afghan security forces, and increases the risks of choosing quantity over quality. It also does not allow sufficient time to build the political loyalty of these forces, or provide assurances that these troops will be able and willing to stand up to Taliban attacks or intimidation.
The White House acknowledges that the gains that have been made are “fragile and reversible”. The directive to begin drawing down US forces in July 2011, as stated by President Obama at West Point in December 2009, is based on domestic politics and pressure for a withdrawal rather than on the realities of on-the-ground dynamics in southern Afghanistan. In addition, there is an inconsistency in discussions concerning the timing of the drawdown. The surge was not fully underway until August 2010. From this date, President Obama’s eighteen-month deadline would end in February 2012, but the July 2011 deadline is being publicly referenced.
Given the fragility of the current situation, maintaining a July 2011 deadline runs the risk of jeopardising the progress made so far. Maintaining current force levels until July 2012 is essential in order to preserve the hard-won gains of the surge and assure an orderly transition process.