An Update on America’s Forgotten War in Afghanistan

With August over, and Ramadan complete, we are now most of the way through the so-called fighting season in Afghanistan. Although it will continue another couple months, and although violence won’t stop come winter, it is still a good moment to ask how things are going in the war. The overall assessment that we reach here gives grounds for guarded optimism, though of course we are a long ways from the finish line.

Our focus here on combat does not imply that the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan is only a military struggle. But there has been much talk about politics and diplomacy of late, understandably so, and less attention to what is happening as the Afghan army and police take the lead — for the first time — in the actual conflict on the ground against the Taliban.

This year is the first time that Afghan forces have been leading the way on the battlefield. NATO troops have been downsizing and are now about one-third smaller than at their peak strength some 18 to 24 months ago. The United States now has 60,000 troops in country, down from 100,000 when previous commanders, Gen. David Petraeus and then Gen, John Allen, had the full resources of the Afghan surge at their disposal. Other foreign forces have also scaled back, from their peak level of about 42,000 in all to something like 27,000 today.

But overall coalition troop strength has hardly declined, because as Americans have stood down, Afghans have stood up. The combined strength of the Afghan army and police is now 335,000, almost the goal set more than three years ago by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his Afghan counterparts. Moreover, this is a force that has now been trained and equipped — and advised in the field — over a period of years. The quality of its leadership, of its planning cells, of its logistics systems, and of course its fighting units has improved greatly over that time.

Even more significant is the fact that Afghan forces are now in charge of the fight. According to the Pentagon, they are now leading 99 percent of all operations. Of course, U.S. and other ISAF forces may still be leading the toughest operations in certain specific cases, and Afghan forces may require backstopping by foreign troops in a large number of operations that they lead, but the progress here is extraordinary.

Indeed, when the enemy attacks, it now recognizes that Afghan forces are its main enemy, and hits at them 65 percent of the time, striking NATO units only 35 percent of the time, according to the Pentagon. Just two years ago, the enemy attacked NATO/ISAF troops 90 percent of the time when it initiated violence.

Naturally, these trends show up in the casualty figures. Afghan forces have suffered substantial casualties throughout this war, especially over the last few years, but the relative proportion is even more lopsided now. Two years ago, foreign troops suffered on average about 50 fatalities a month and Afghan forces overall between 100 and 200 depending on the season. In 2013, foreign losses are down to an average of roughly 15 a month while Afghan army and police fatalities often exceed 250 to 300.

Citing these statistics reveals the less happy side of the war effort, of course. While willingness to tolerate high losses is a sign of strength at one level, the increased casualties also reveal a resilient enemy that is carrying out just as many attacks in 2013 as it did in 2012. They also signal, in some cases, an Afghan security force not yet well enough able to protect its own forces or treat them medically when they are injured.

Another consequence of these heavy losses is high AWOL rates for the Afghan army — roughly 2.5 to 4 percent a month, meaning that more than a third of all soldiers turn over every year. This reduces the army’s ability to develop experience and skill in military operations. On the other hand, it is only fair to note that most militaries around the world have turnover rates that are not much lower than these; it is partly in the nature of how armed forces fill their ranks with young and temporary recruits. And thankfully, police AWOL rates are closer to 1 or 1.5 percent a month, a more tolerable figure.

Stepping away from the statistics, it is also notable that Afghan units are continuing the offensive operations NATO-led forces had undertaken in past years. There are still parts of Kandahar province, Helmand province, and much of the east where the enemy is entrenched and where clearing operations, with all their difficulties and dangers, are needed. More information is needed on what the Afghan military and police have been able to do this year in these areas, and ISAF should release more data, but anecdotal reporting suggests a moderately effective fighting season to date in these regards. Afghan forces also designed the campaign plan for this year with only limited ISAF help.

By most accounts, security is holding steady in the populated areas of the country, after having improved substantially in the last one to two years. Major cities and roads still experience spectacular attacks designed to create media spectacles, but the average city is safer than most urban areas in Latin America, for example, at least statistically speaking, and the majority of the country’s major roads are usable. Still, ISAF could do better here too, releasing periodic surveys of the population on its confidence in being able to use major transportation arteries. What we are reporting today is an interim finding, and trends will have to be watched in the future.

Afghanistan’s war is far from over. The enemy is tenacious. Losses in the Afghan army and police remain very high (even if they are much lower for the Afghan population and, thankfully, now for NATO troops too), and the future is very unclear as NATO prepares to downsize its forces much further after this fighting season and then yet again in the course of next year. But while war is always a horrible business, make no mistake about it, this year’s campaign in Afghanistan is reasonably encouraging so far.